The Apocryphal Shakespeare

We don’t often discuss the authorship question here (at least, until there’s a major motion picture on the subject :)).  But author Sabrina Feldman contacted me directly and sent me preview copies of her new work, so I felt it polite to at least provide some info and links.  I have not been through the argument, nor do I consider myself informed enough to have a strong opinion.

From the website:

his lifetime and for many years afterwards, William Shakespeare was
credited with writing not only the Bard’s canonical works, but also a
series of ‘apocryphal’ Shakespeare plays. Sty­listic threads linking
these lesser works suggest they shared a common author or co-author who
wrote in a coarse, breezy style, and created very funny clown scenes. He
was also prone to pilfering lines from other dramatists, consistent
with Robert Greene’s 1592 attack on William Shakespeare as an “upstart
crow.” The anomalous existence of two bodies of work exhibiting distinct
poetic voices printed under one man’s name suggests a fascinating
possibility. Could William Shakespeare have written the apocryphal plays
while serving as a front man for the ‘poet
in purple robes,’ a hidden court poet who was much admired by a
literary coterie in the 1590s? And could the ‘poet in purple robes’ have
been the great poet and statesman Thomas Sackville (1536—1608), a
previously overlooked authorship candidate who is an excellent fit to
the Shakespearean glass slipper? Both of these scenarios are well
supported by literary and historical records, many of which have not
been previously considered in the context of the Shakespeare authorship

For more information, please visit

I believe that Sabrina is following the blog, by the way, so if you have comments or questions about her work please feel free to post them, she might respond!

12 thoughts on “The Apocryphal Shakespeare

  1. Part One:
    There are many people that question Shakespeare’s claim to the works of Shakespeare, and there are a number of candidates that they believe may have truly written the many sonnets and plays attributed to Shakespeare. A popular candidate is playwright Christopher Marlowe. Supporters of Marlowe point to a similar upbringing and education that Marlowe and Shakespeare shared. Also, it is a known fact that Shakespeare was greatly inspired by the Marlowe’s plays. The issue is that Marlowe died in 1593, months before anything attributed to Shakespeare surfaced. His candidacy hinges on the theory that he faked his death and went into exile continuing to write plays, but releasing them under the nom de plume of Shakespeare. The problem is that even though the details of his murder are sketchy, there is no solid proof that he was not killed, making his claim null that he authored Shakespeare’s works.

    It is widely believed that William Shakespeare could not have been the sole author of his literary masterpieces due to his lack of education, and lack of exposure to the experiences presented in his work. Oxfordians assume that because Shakespeare did not have a prestigious education or the right social connections, the scenarios about the royal court life that are depicted in his works, are too sophisticated for him to have written them. Shakespeare’s plays however, did not present an accurate depiction of the royal court life, but he wrote on what he did know and dramatized them from his knowledge. Due to his inaccuracy in depicting royal court life, the claim that his lack of education and social connections restricted him from creating such scenarios, is invalid. Furthermore, Oxfordians believe that the stories created by Shakespeare involve so much about Italy, that they could only have been created by an author who had personally explored the country. However, during the Elizabethan era there were many literary sources that dug deep into the Italian culture of that time. Any intelligent Elizabethan interested in learning a vast array of information on Italian literature and culture during that time, had countless resources available. Therefore, while William Shakespeare did not personally explore Italy, he was able to use literature on the country to learn the information needed to write his work. Although William Shakespeare’s lack of prestigious education and lack of social connections made it difficult to write on the topics depicted in his work, the resources available made it possible for him to be educated on those topics.

  2. Part Two:
    Oxfordian claims aside, when it comes down to it, Shakespeare is still known as the author of impressive works such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. He is, in fact, the man often credited with transforming the English language and literature as a whole. With an “innocent until proven guilty” outlook, it seems unjust to discredit Shakespeare without solid evidence in favor of another author. Centuries have passed, papers have been lost, and Nazis have destroyed historical pieces of English literature in the time since Shakespeare’s death; therefore, it seems without basis that the Shakespeare name is blamed for stealing another’s work. With so much lost in translation, there is no need to harm the integrity of Shakespeare’s work by claiming he is not the true author. It may be fun to ponder this controversy, but at the same time, the most important idea here is that society should appreciate the works of Shakespeare and try to interpret his purpose. It is not about debating on online forums over the rightful author of Macbeth. Shakespearean works remain an important part of literature today because they offer meaningful depictions of society, romance, and the individual that will always be relevant: this is the focus. In the following paragraphs, evidence supporting Shakespeare as the legitimate author and evidence disproving other popular candidates will be presented.

    William Shakespeare is most believably the author of these works due to evidence pertaining to his name. Every literary piece written by ‘Shakespeare’ contains his signature on it, William Shakespeare, making it difficult and unrealistic to conclude that several different people contributed to the publishing of these plays. As evidenced by Terry Ross’s work, a professor at the University of Baltimore, several different words in the pieces that many claim to represent Francis Bacon’s “secret” signature are too obscure to be of any significance. Coinciding with his research, Bacon’s signature can be spelled too many different ways for one to be sure that they are actually his. Since the spelling of Bacon’s “signature” has many alternate versions, it is unclear as to whether the words contain connotations referring to Bacon himself, simply stand for their common denotations, or just coincidentally precede one another and seem to be in a suspicious order. Due to the evidence regarding Shakespeare’s actual signature and Francis Bacon’s obscure penmanship, it is clear that William Shakespeare wrote his own works.

    Furthermore, others’ specific criticisms and compliments aimed towards Shakespeare during his lifetime indicate that he was, in fact, the author. Robert Greene first publically expressed his anger towards him in 1952, specifically mentioning the name Shakespeare, when he exclaimed how disgusted he was competing with the Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance piece. Franis Meres later criticized the sweet, ‘almost fake’ tone Shakespeare used in his 1598 poem, Palladis Tamia, noting that he came off as being too “mellifluous”. Referring to him by name, Ben Johnson also faulted yet highly praised Shakespeare for his 1641 play, Discoveries. Johnson mentioned that although they were not perfect, Shakespeare’s works were destined to become famous. These documented instances show that more than one person acknowledged his existence and career as a playwright, convincingly leading to the conclusion that Shakespeare did write his pieces. Although the debate may seem overwhelming at first, the evidence regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works clearly proves that no one is deserving of any credit but William Shakespeare himself for writing these literary masterpieces.

  3. Part 1 ME
    William Shakespeare, this name represents one of the greatest writers of all time, one whose true identity has been questioned for years. This name also is very helpful in proving that William Shakespeare really did write everything that is said to be written by William Shakespeare. To start off with, his name appears on many of his works. If he did not write them why would his name be on them? It would not. Along with that, even in his time, his name was well known. Shakespeare was known as an actor and a writer. He was praised by many and was also given credit for his work in numerous books “In 1601, the volume Loves Martyr by Robert Chester contained short poems by several well-known theatrical poets. One of these poems (untitled in the volume, but now known as "The Phoenix and the Turtle") is signed ‘William Shakespeare’“(Reedy and Kathman 1). If Shakespeare had not written these plays and poems that are accredited to him, his name would not be signed in other books. This example is one of many where William Shakespeare is given credit by other authors for his work. Many think that William Shakespeare wrote brilliant plays and poems. The language featured in his writings is eloquent and knowledgeable. This type of writing suggests that Shakespeare attended university schooling; this makes questions his authorship because Shakespeare did not move on to higher level school. The only education he received was a t a free grammar school in his town. Mark Twain stated, “Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s works, for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and the law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways- and if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely-divided star-dust that constituted this vast wealth, how did he get it, and where, and when.” Although Shakespeare never attended a university for legal training, the facts he wrote about the law could have been easily learned from other sources. For example, Shakespeare could have done research and obtained the information from a lawyer to use as basis and information for his plays. Additionally, many question how Shakespeare knew about glove making and other traits, but it was found that Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and his town was home to many individuals with ranging occupations and trades.

  4. Part 2 ME
    Mr. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. stated, “I have never thought that the man of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the plays of Shakespeare. I know of no admissible evidence that he ever left England or was educated in the normal sense of the term. One must wonder, for example, how he could have written The Merchant of Venice.” If Shakespeare was only equipped with a primary education and supposedly never left England, how would he be able to write in foreign languages, or even simply speak about cultures and events that took place outside of his homeland? Compared to Marlowe and De Vere, Shakespeare makes a weak argument for the source of his linguistic knowledge. Although Shakespeare may have never left England, he did study at the Stratford Free School, where education was greatly influenced by Greek and Latin culture, in addition to other foreign languages. In many of his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare incorporated information he learned from his schooling days that revolved around foreign cultures and influences. For example, in “The Taming of the Shrew” there is a reference to one of Shakespeare’s Latin grammar textbooks he used at Stratford. Additionally, Shakespeare’s school was well-renown and nationalized under Queen Elizabeth the First, who ensured that all education contained more than just Latin and Greek influences. Even though Shakespeare never left England, that alone is not enough evidence to state they he was incapable of writing in more tongues than just his own. In addition to Shakespeare’s education and early life, another major factor to the authorship problem would be the fact that De Vere died in 1604, meanwhile Shakespeare was still pursuing his career as an author of The Tempest to which readers are almost positive it was based upon a shipwreck near Bermuda in 1609. As late at 1613, Shakespeare was still writing plays, which makes it hard for a man who died in 1604 to be Shakespeare. Like De Vere, Marlow died too early to be able to write some of Shakespeare’s last plays. Arguing that Sir Francis Bacon was Shakespeare can be refuted with the knowledge that Bacon’s poetry isn’t like Shakespeare’s; it was abrupt and almost forced. All these facts can lead one to believe that Shakespeare was indeed himself when he wrote all of the literary works with his name on them, and that no one used Shakespeare as a pen name in order to stay out of trouble with the law.

  5. The Great Author Debate
    The authorship debate over who wrote the works of Shakespeare has been going on for over 200 years. Of all the potential candidates, the five that stuck out to me are William Shakespere, Christopher Marlowe, Roger Manners, Edward De Vere, and William Stanley.
    The least likely of these candidates that could have written William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets is William Stanley. Stanley was the 6th Earl of Derby and had some commonalities with some of the sonnets and plays that paralleled the life and the stories in his works. He was also very well connected with actors and the theatres, and was married to Edward De Vere’s daughter, Elizabeth. One of the other main reasons that historians and experts speculate that Stanley could be the true author is that both William Shakespeare and William Stanley share the initials W.S. The only problem to this was that Stanley had no poems or writings under his own name that proved his literacy and poetic abilities.
    The next, more likely candidate is Roger Manners, a man born in the correct time period that the author is assumed to be from, although a little young, needing to be a literary genius at 16 to produce many of the works. Manners also was found to have had a library of old books that could have been used for research in his plays and poems, although people still doubt that Manners was intelligent enough to be able to write at such a high level. Additionally, Roger manners was a teacher at a school in England and coincidentally taught two children by the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern two characters that appear in Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet.
    Christopher Marlowe is the next most likely candidate on the list, although there is very sketchy evidence and foggy details about his life and career. Marlowe is an alleged spy for the British Government, and it appears that his death may have been a large hoax dreamt up by the British Government, making it possible for Marlowe to write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare after he had “died.” Marlowe was a very skilled writer and under his own name wrote plays that were captivating and full fire and brimstone, even though he was an atheist. The writing styles between Marlowe and Shakespeare’s works are very similar and could potentially make Marlowe the true author of Shakespeare.
    Another possible candidate is Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. There are countless similarities between the life of De Vere and the writings of Shakespeare, along with alleged direct references to the life of De Vere. For example, Oxford’s Geneva Bible had hundreds of verses marked off and highlighted, 29 of which were alluded to throughout Shakespeare’s stories. De Vere also traveled all across Europe to see the plays, which lead us to believe that the 17th Earl of Oxford could have been attending plays that he wrote to see for himself how they turned out. The only problem is that De Vere died 16 years before Shakespeare is thought to have died which would make it impossible for him to have written the later works of Shakespeare, also, De Vere’s own works did not show nearly the amount of genius and intuition that Shakespeare’s works showed.
    The most likely of candidates in my opinion to have written the works of William Shakespeare is the man who is credited with writing them: William Shakespere, the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s grammar school at a young age sparked the genius in his writing and laid the foundation for his lyrical intuition. Shakesper became Shakespeare through the adoption of a new and noble accent to help William gain entrance into the noble crowd to gain credentials and support. Out of all of the candidates that have been argued in favor of over decades, the best candidate and most likely one to have written the works of Shakespeare was without a doubt William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon.

  6. Thanks so much for posting this link to my book, Duane — it should be available on Amazon in a week or two. I'm not sure what to make of the comments, either. The main point of my book is not that William Shakespeare couldn't have written the Bard's works because he didn't have the right background. Instead, I'm interested in why there's so much evidence (including direct title page evidence) that WS wrote "apocryphal" plays and the bad quartos. In my opinion, traditional Shakespeare scholars and even authorship doubters (who tend to argue that WS was not a competent writer) have been ignoring this elephant in their midst.

  7. …I'm not sure what to do with those comments. They came in some fast that I have to assume it was some sort of a bot that did it. But there's no links or other obvious spammy content, so I'm going to leave them. It would have been nice if there was some sort of author name attached in case anybody wanted to actually discuss the subject. Without that, I have to assume that it's just some sort of bot that copied this content directly from Wikipedia. (Although a quick google of key phrases tells me that this is not the case).

  8. There is a simple reason for title page attribution of apocryphal works to Shakespeare–he was a best-selling author. Thomas Heywood made a bit of a stink when William Jaggard published the third edition of "The Passionate Pilgrim" in 1612, which included nine lenghthy poems lifted straight out of Heywood's 1609 "Troia Brittanica." Jaggard's title page read: "THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM. OR Certaine Amorous Sonnets, betweene Venus and Adonis, newly corrected and augmented. By W. Shakespere. The third Edition. Where-unto is newly added two Love-Epistles, the first from Paris to Hellen, and Hellens answere backe againe to Paris. Printed by W. Jaggard." Heywood understood who the culprit was and, according to Hyder Edward Rollins, "declared that he knew Shakespeare to be 'much offended' because an unscrupulous printer had 'presumed to make so bold with his name.'"
    ("The Passionate Pilgrim" by William Shakespeare, 3rd ed, 1612, intro. by H. E. Rollins [Scribner & Sons, New York and London] 1940, p. xvi.)

  9. "The main point of my book is not that William Shakespeare couldn't have written the Bard's works because he didn't have the right background."

    –But it is a fairly large point isn't it, even though it may not be your *main* point?
    You argue that the Bad Quartos, as anyone who is familiar with them can discern, are obviously inferior to the 1623 Folio copies, and were all William
    Shakespeare was capable of, given his background. Then you offer Sackville, a nobleman, as a logical author of the 'good stuff'. In considering what you declare as your "main interest", it seems the "elephant in their midst" is just more fodder for authorship doubters. Aren't you simply splitting hairs while still being unwilling to attribute the Canon to Shakespeare of Stratford because he wasn't refined enough to have accomplished it?
    Shakespeare of Stratford wrote this:
    "To be or not to be, I there's the point,
    To die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.
    No, to sleepe, to dreame, I marry, there it goes
    (Hamlet seems to love the word 'marry' in this version.)

    But was incapable of writing the play with which we are all familiar.
    I can understand viewing the bad quartos as possible draft copies, sketched out theatrical, or pirated versions. But to view them as Shakespeare's final attempts? How is that not denigrating his abilities, which is the starting point for all other doubters? And, in the above case, as in some others, what about conflating the Q2 version of Hamlet with that of F1–which is mostly what's done? Or. as in the case of Romeo and Juliet Q1 and Q2, both of which are inferior in some respects, but then so is F1 because it's thought to be based on both.

    But I'm getting ahead of my main query which is, given your statements here, aren't you ultimately saying, like all of the others, that Will Shakespeare was a hack and could not have written what we know as "Shakespeare"?

  10. Hi Carl,
    With the sole exception of the Jaggard's 1612 edition of The Passionate Pilgrim, padded with some of Heywood's verses, there isn't any hard evidence that fraudulent publishers deliberately misled the English reading public by putting WS's name on more than a dozen works that he didn't really write — a situation that occurred with no other English writer. The concern I have about the Stratfordian theory is that while it’s obviously good at explaining the big picture (Stratford Monument, First Folio, etc.), it does a poor job of accommodating dozens of smaller puzzle pieces that must somehow be fit into the margins. It doesn’t provide a satisfying explanation for why Robert Greene attacked William Shakespeare from his deathbed as an incompetent playwright and wholesale plagiarist, for instance. It ignores the existence of mediocre plays containing wholesale plagiarism from the works of Christopher Marlowe, Greene, and others that were attributed to William Shakespeare, either directly or indirectly. (If you haven't studied them, you wouldn't believe how many blatant stolen feathers appear in the apocryphal plays and early bad quartos.) It discounts the substantial evidence including direct title page testimony that William Shakespeare wrote many works now assigned to the Shakespeare Apocrypha. It overlooks stylistic similarities among the apocryphal works which suggest they shared a common author or co-author, and fails to explain why the Stratford actor was satirized by some of his contemporaries as an ignorant or incompetent writer. It ignores the existence of a major hidden poet at court who was revered by members of the Elizabethan literati. (This hidden poet was not invented by snobs or conspiracy theorists, he really existed.) Finally, for me at least, it fails to meaningfully connect William Shakespeare’s life with the Bard’s writings.

  11. …which gets back to JM's point.

    Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a sole piece of documentary evidence from 400 years ago is a very strong piece of evidence. We ascribe great importance to Shakespeare today, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, plays and poems were not considered nearly as worthy as religious works (which were generally much more carefully edited). The fact that any evidence exits is remarkable.

    It is also quite natural that works of Marlowe and Greene would be attributed to Shakespeare. If one would want to pass something off as Shakespeare's, one had better find something as close as possible, and fairly good stuff, too. Hence, Shakespeare's contemporaries, who wrote some pretty good verse, at times. Why does this suggest anything other than a printer preying on the works of others and a top-selling author's name?

    Please quote for me a contemporary who called Shakespeare ignorant or incompetent. He was called an "upstart crow" who could bang out blank verse like any other and criticized for his "small Latin and less Greek", but that hardly makes him either ignorant nor incompetent. The latter quote, in fact, was from Ben Jonson, who took pains to state that he admired Shakespeare "this side of idolatry." Shakespeare was envied by his contemporaries, some of whom did not understand that university training does not always produce a knowledge of humanity and dramatic art, which somehow an astute glover's son could come by on his own.

    What evidence is there of a "major hidden poet at court revered by Elizabethan literati." Even if there were such a person, why would he (or she) publish works under Shakespeare's name. It was common practice to do what most people do now in the blogosphere when they wish to be noticed but remain unknown–publish Anonymously.

    And, how can we connect Shakespeare's work with his life, when we know virtually nothing of his life? Furthermore, why should we connect his work with his life? He wrote in the 16th and 17th century, not the 20th and 21st. Writers were not self-absorbed then, as they are now.


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