Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown, by Andrew Lang

Chapter vii

Contemporary Recognition of Will as Author

It is absolutely impossible to prove that Will, or Bacon, or the Man in the Moon, was the author of the Shakespearean plays and poems. But it is easy to prove that Will was recognised as the author, by Ben Jonson, Heywood, and Heminge and Condell the actors, to take the best witnesses. Meanwhile we have received no hint that any man except Will was ever suspected of being the author till 1856, when the twin stars of Miss Delia Bacon and Mr. Smith arose. The evidence of Ben Jonson and the rest can only prove that professed playwrights and actors, who knew Will both on and off the stage, saw nothing in him not compatible with his work. Had he been the kind of letterless country fellow, or bookless fellow whom the Baconians and Mr. Greenwood describe, the contemporary witnesses cited must have detected Will in a day; and the story of the “Concealed Poet” who really, at first, did the additions and changes in the Company’s older manuscript plays, and of the inconceivably impudent pretences of Will of Stratford, would have kept the town merry for a month. Five or six threadbare scholars would have sat down at a long table in a tavern room, and, after their manner, dashed off a Comedy of Errors on the real and the false playwright.

Baconians never seem to think of the mechanical difficulties in their assumed literary hoax. If Will, like the old Hermit of Prague who never saw pen and ink, could not even write, the hoax was a physical impossibility. If he could write, but was a rough bookless man, his condition would be scarcely the more gracious, even if he were able to copy in his scrawl the fine Roman hand of the concealed poet. I am surprised that the Baconians have never made that point. Will’s “copy” was almost without blot or erasion, the other actors were wont to boast. Really the absence of erasions and corrections is too easily explained on the theory that Will was NOT the author. Will merely copied the fair copies handed to him by the concealed poet. The farce was played for some twenty years, and was either undetected or all concerned kept the dread secret — and all the other companies and rival authors were concerned in exposing the imposture.

The whole story is like the dream of a child. We therefore expect the Anti–Willians to endeavour to disable the evidence of Jonson, Heywood, Heminge, and Condell. Their attempts take the shape of the most extravagant and complex conjectures; with certain petty objections to Ben’s various estimates of the MERITS of the plays. He is constant in his witness to the authorship. To these efforts of despair we return later, when we hope to justify what is here deliberately advanced.

Meanwhile we study Mr. Greenwood’s attempts to destroy or weaken the testimony of contemporary literary allusions, in prose or verse, to the plays as the work of the actor. Mr. Greenwood rests on an argument which perhaps could only have occurred to legal minds, originally, perhaps to the mind of Judge Webb, not in the prime vigour of his faculties. Not very many literary allusions remain, made during Will’s life-time, to the plays of Shakespeare. The writers, usually, speak of “Shakespeare,” or “W. Shakespeare,” or “Will Shakespeare,” and leave it there. In the same way, when they speak of other contemporaries, they name them — and leave it there, without telling us “who” (Frank) Beaumont, or (Kit) Marlowe, or (Robin) Greene, or (Jack) Fletcher, or any of the others “were.” All interested readers knew who they were: and also knew who “Shakespeare” or “Will Shakespeare” was. No other Will Shak(&c.) was prominently before the literary and dramatic world, in 1592–1616, except the Warwickshire provincial who played with Burbage.

But though the mere names of the poets, Ben Jonson, Kit Marlowe, Frank Beaumont, Harry Chettle, and so forth, are accepted as indicating the well-known men whom they designate, this evidence to identity does not satisfy Mr. Greenwood, and the Baconians, where Will is concerned. “We should expect to find allusions to dramatic and poetical works published under the name of ‘Shakespeare’; we should expect to find Shakespeare spoken of as a poet and a dramatist; we should expect, further, to find some few allusions to Shakespeare or Shakspere the player. And these, of course, we do find; but these are not the objects of our quest. What we require is evidence to establish the identity of the player with the poet and dramatist; to prove that the player was the author of the PLAYS and POEMS. THAT is the proposition to be established, and THAT the allusions fail, as it appears to me, to prove,” says Mr. Greenwood. He adds, “At any rate they do not disprove the theory that the true authorship was hidden under a pseudonym” 96— which raises an entirely different question.

Makers of allusions to the plays must identify Shakespeare with the actor, explicitly; must tell us who this Shakespeare was, though they need not, and usually do not, tell us who the other authors mentioned were; and though the world of letters and the Stage knew but one William Shakspere or Shakespeare, who was far too familiar to them to require further identification. But even if the makers of allusions did all this, and said, “by W. Shakespeare the poet, we mean W. Shakespeare the actor”— THAT is not enough. For they may all be deceived, may all believe that a bookless, untutored man is the author. So we cannot get evidence correct enough for Mr. Greenwood.

Destitute as I am of legal training, I leave this notable way of disposing of the evidence to the judgement of the Bench and the Bar, a layman intermeddleth not with it. Still, I am, like other readers, on the Jury addressed — I do not accept the arguments. Miror magis, as Mr. Greenwood might quote Latin. We have already seen one example of this argument, when Heywood speaks of the author of poems by Shakespeare, published in The Passionate Pilgrim. Heywood does nothing to identify the actor Shakspere with the author Shakespeare, says Mr. Greenwood. I shall prove that, elsewhere, Heywood does identify them, and no man knew more of the world of playwrights and actors than Heywood. I add that in his remarks on The Passionate Pilgrim, Heywood had no need to say “by W. Shakespeare I mean the well-known actor in the King’s Company.” There was no other William Shakspere or Shakespeare known to his public.

It is to no purpose that Mr. Greenwood denies, as we have seen above, that the allusions “disprove the theory that the true authorship was hidden under a pseudonym.” That is an entirely different question. He is now starting quite another hare. Men of letters who alluded to the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, meant the actor; that is my position. That they may all have been mistaken: that “William Shakespeare” was Bacon’s, or any one’s pseudonym, is, I repeat, a wholly different question; and we must not allow the critic to glide away into it through an “at any rate”; as he does three or four times. So far, then, Mr. Greenwood’s theory that it was impossible for the actor Shakspere to have been the author of the plays, encounters the difficulty that no contemporary attributed them to any other hand: that none is known to have said, “This Warwickshire man cannot be the author.”

“Let us, however, examine some of these allusions to Shakspere, real or supposed,” says the critic. 97 He begins with the hackneyed words of the dying man of letters, Robert Greene, in A Groatsworth of Wit (1592). The pamphlet is addressed to Gentlemen of his acquaintance “that spend their wits in making plays”; he “wisheth them a better exercise,” and better fortunes than his own. (Marlowe is supposed to be one of the three Gentlemen playwrights, but such suppositions do not here concern us.) Greene’s is the ancient feud between the players and the authors, between capital and labour. The players are the capitalists, and buy the plays out and out — cheap. The author has no royalties; and no control over the future of his work, which a Shakspere or a Bacon, a Jonson or a Chettle, or any handyman of the company owning the play, may alter as he pleases. It is highly probable that the actors also acquired most of the popular renown, for, even now, playgoers have much to say about the players in a piece, while they seldom know the name of the playwright. Women fall in love with the actors, not with the authors; but with “those puppets,” as Greene says, “that speake from our mouths, these anticks, garnished in our colours.” Ben Jonson, we shall see, makes some of the same complaints — most natural in the circumstances: though he managed to retain the control of his dramas; how, I do not know. Greene adds that in his misfortunes, illness, and poverty, he is ungratefully “forsaken,” by the players, and warns his friends that such may be THEIR lot; advising them to seek “some better exercise.” He then writes — and his meaning cannot easily be misunderstood, I think, but misunderstood it has been —“Yes, trust them not” (trust not the players), “FOR there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his TYGER’S HEART WRAPT IN A PLAYER’S HIDE” (“Player’s” in place of “woman’s,” in an old play, The Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, &c.), “supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake~scene in a country.”

The meaning is pellucid. “Do not trust the players, my fellow playwrights, for the reasons already given, for they, in addition to their glory gained by mouthing OUR words, and their ingratitude, may now forsake you for one of themselves, a player, who thinks his blank verse as good as the best of yours” (including Marlowe’s, probably). “The man is ready at their call (“an absolute Johannes Factotum”). “In his own conceit” he is “the only Shake-scene in a country.” “Seek you better masters,” than these players, who have now an author among themselves, “the only Shake-scene,” where the pun on Shakespeare does not look like a fortuitous coincidence. But it may be, anything may happen.

The sense, I repeat, is pellucid. But Mr. Greenwood writes that if Shake-scene be an allusion to Shakespeare “it seems clear that it is as an actor rather than as an author he is attacked.” 98 As an ACTOR the person alluded to is merely assailed with the other actors, his “fellows.” But he is picked out as presenting another and a new reason why authors should distrust the players, “FOR there is” among themselves, “in a player’s hide,” “an upstart crow”— who thinks his blank verse as good as the best of theirs. He is, therefore, necessarily a playwright, and being a factotum, can readily be employed by the players to the prejudice of Greene’s three friends, who are professed playwrights.

Mr. Greenwood says that “we do not know why Greene should have been so particularly bitter against the players, and why he should have thought it necessary so seriously to warn his fellow playwrights against them.” 99 But we cannot help knowing; for Greene has told us. In addition to gaining renown solely through mouthing “OUR” words, wearing “OUR feathers,” they have been bitterly ungrateful to Greene in his poverty and sickness; they will, in the same circumstances, as cruelly forsake his friends; “yes, for they now have” an author, and to the playwrights a dangerous rival, in their own fellowship. Thus we know with absolute certainty why Greene wrote as he did. He says nothing about the superior financial gains of the players, which Mr. Greenwood suspects to have been the “only” cause of his bitterness. Greene gives its causes in the plainest possible terms, as did Ben Jonson later, in his verses “Poet–Ape” (Playwright–Actor). Moreover, Mr. Greenwood gives Greene’s obvious motives on the very page where he says that we do not know them.

Even Mr. Greenwood, 100 anxious as he is to prove Shake-scene to be attacked as an actor, admits that the words “supposes himself as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you,” “do seem to have that implication,” 101 namely, that “Shake-scene” is a dramatic author: what else can the words mean; why, if not for the Stage, should Shake-scene write blank verse?

Finally Mr. Greenwood, after saying “it is clear that it is as an actor rather than as an author that ‘Shake-scene’ is attacked,” 102 concedes 103 that it “certainly looks as if he” (Greene) “meant to suggest that this Shake-scene supposed himself able to compose, as well as to mouth verses.” Nothing else can possibly be meant. “The rest of you” were authors, not actors.

If not, why, in a whole company of actors, should “Shake-scene” alone be selected for a special victim? Shake-scene is chosen out because, as an author, a factotum always ready at need, he is more apt than the professed playwrights to be employed as author by his company: this is a new reason for not trusting the players.

I am not going to take the trouble to argue as to whether, in the circumstances of the case, “Shake-scene” is meant by Greene for a pun on “Shake-speare,” or not. If he had some other rising player~author, the Factotum of a cry of players, in his mind, Baconians may search for that personage in the records of the stage. That other player-author may have died young, or faded into obscurity. The term “the only Shake-scene” may be one of those curious coincidences which do occur. The presumption lies rather on the other side. I demur, when Mr. Greenwood courageously struggling for his case says that, even assuming the validity of the surmise that there is an allusion to Shakspere, 104 “the utmost that we should be entitled to say is that Greene here accuses Player Shakspere of putting forward, as his own, some work, or perhaps some parts of a work, for which he was really indebted to another” (the Great Unknown?). I do more than demur, I defy any man to exhibit that sense in Greene’s words.

“The utmost that we should be entitled to say,” is, in my opinion, what we have no shadow of a title to say. Look at the poor hackneyed, tortured words of Greene again. “Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his TYGER’S HEART WRAPPED IN A PLAYER’S HIDE, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake~scene in a country.”

How can mortal man squeeze from these words the charge that “Player Shakspere” is “putting forward, as his own, some work, or perhaps some parts of a work, for which he was really indebted to another”? It is as an actor, with other actors, that the player is “beautified with OUR feathers,”— not with the feathers of some one NOT ourselves, Bacon or Mr. Greenwood’s Unknown. Mr. Greenwood even says that Shake-scene is referred to “as beautified with the feathers WHICH HE HAS STOLEN from the dramatic writers” (“our feathers”).

Greene says absolutely nothing about feathers “WHICH HE HAS STOLEN.” The “feathers,” the words of the plays, were bought, not stolen, by the actors, “anticks garnished in our colours.”

Tedious it is to write many words about words so few and simple as those of Greene; meaning “do not trust the players, for one of them writes blank verse which he thinks as good as the best of yours, and fancies himself the only Shake-scene in a country.”

But “Greene here accuses Player Shakspere of putting forward, as his own, some work, or perhaps some parts of a work, for which he was really indebted to another,” this is “the utmost we should be entitled to say,” even if the allusion be to Shakspere. How does Mr. Greenwood get the Anti–Willian hypothesis out of Greene’s few and plain words?

It is much safer for him to say that “Shake-scene” is not meant for Shakespeare. Nobody can prove that it IS; the pun MAY be a strange coincidence — or any one may say that he thinks it nothing more; if he pleases.

Greene nowhere “refers to this Shake-scene as being an impostor, an upstart crow beautified with the feathers WHICH HE HAS STOLEN FROM THE DRAMATIC WRITERS (“our feathers”)” 105— that is, Greene makes no such reference to Shake-scene in his capacity of writer of blank verse. Like all players, who are all “anticks garnisht in our colours,” Shake-scene, AS PLAYER, is “beautified with our feathers.” It is Mr. Greenwood who adds “beautified with the feathers which he has STOLEN from the dramatic writers.” Greene does not even remotely hint at plagiarism on the part of Shake-scene: and the feathers, the plays of Greene and his friends, were not stolen but bought. We must take Greene’s evidence as we find it — it proves that by “Shake~scene” he means a “poet-ape,” a playwright-actor; for Greene, like Jonson, speaks of actors as “apes.” Both men saw in a certain actor and dramatist a suspected rival. Only one such successful practising actor-playwright is known to us at this date (1592–1601) — and he is Shakespeare. Unless another such existed, Greene, in 1592, alludes to William Shak(&c.) as a player and playwright. This proves that the actor from Stratford was accepted in Greene’s world as an author of plays in blank verse. He cannot, therefore, have seemed incapable of his poetry.

Let us now briefly consider other contemporary allusions to Shakespeare selected by Mr. Greenwood himself. No allusion can prove that Shakespeare was the author of the work attributed to him in the allusions. The plays and poems MAY have been by James VI and I, “a parcel-poet.” The allusions can prove no more than that, by his contemporaries, Shakespeare was believed to be the poet, which is impossible if he were a mere rustic ignoramus, as the Baconians aver. Omitting some remarks by Chettle on Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, 106 as, if grammar goes for all, they do not refer to Shakespeare, we have the Cambridge farce or comedy on contemporary literature, the Return from Parnassus (1602?). The University wits laugh at Shakespeare — not an university man, as the favourite poet, in his Venus and Adonis, of a silly braggart pretender to literature, Gullio.

They also introduce Kempe, the low comedy man of Shakespeare’s company, speaking to Burbage, the chief tragic actor, of Shakespeare as a member of their company, who, AS AN AUTHOR OF PLAYS, “puts down” the University wits “and Ben Jonson too.” The date is not earlier than that of Ben’s satiric play on the poets, The Poetaster (1601), to which reference is made. Since Kempe is to be represented as wholly ignorant, his opinion of Shakespeare’s pre-eminent merit only proves, as in the case of Gullio, that the University wits decried the excellences of Shakespeare. In him they saw no scholar.

The point is that Kempe recognises Shakespeare as both actor and author.

All this “is quite consistent with the theory that Shake-speare was a pseudonym,” 107 says Mr. Greenwood. Of course it is, but it is NOT consistent with the theory that Shakespeare was an uneducated, bookless rustic, for, in that case, his mask would have fallen off in a day, in an hour. Of course the Cambridge author only proves, if you will, that HE thought that KEMPE thought, that his fellow player was the author. But we have better evidence of what the actors thought than in the Cambridge play.

In 1598, as we saw, Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia credits Shakespeare with Venus and Adonis, with privately circulated sonnets, and with a number of the comedies and tragedies. How the allusions “negative the hypothesis that Shakespeare was a nom de plume is not apparent,” says Mr. Greenwood, always constant to his method. I repeat that he wanders from the point, which is, here, that the only William Shak(&c.) known to us at the time, in London, was credited with the plays and poems on all sides, which proves that no incompatibility between the man and the works was recognised.

Then Weaver (1599) alludes to him as author of Venus, Lucrece, Romeo, Richard, “more whose names I know not.” Davies (1610) calls him “our English Terence” (the famous comedian), and mentions him as having “played some Kingly parts in sport.” Freeman (1614) credits him with Venus and Lucrece. “Besides in plays thy wit winds like Meander.” I repeat Heywood’s evidence. Thomas Heywood, author of that remarkable domestic play, A Woman Killed with Kindness, was, from the old days of Henslowe, in the fifteen-nineties, a playwright and an actor; he survived into the reign of Charles I. Writing on the familiar names of the poets, “Jack Fletcher,” “Frank Beaumont,” “Kit Marlowe,” “Tom Nash,” he says,

“Mellifluous Shakespeare whose enchanting quill

Commanded mirth and passion, was but ‘Will.’”

Does Heywood not identify the actor with the author? No quibbles serve against the evidence.

We need not pursue the allusions later than Shakespeare’s death, or invoke, at present, Ben Jonson’s panegyric of 1623. As to Davies, his dull and obscure epigram is addressed “To our English Terence, Mr. Will Shake-speare.” He accosts Shakespeare as “Good Will.” He remarks that, “as some say,” if Will “had not played some Kingly parts in sport,” he had been “a companion for a KING,” and “been a King among the meaner sort.” Nobody, now, can see the allusion and the joke. Shakespeare’s company, in 1604, acted a play on the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600. King James suppressed the play after the second night, as, of course, he was brought on the stage throughout the action: and in very droll and dreadful situations. Did Will take the King’s part, and annoy gentle King Jamie, “as some say”? Nobody knows. But Mr. Greenwood, to disable Davies’s recognition of Mr. Will as a playwright, “Our English Terence,” quotes, from Florio’s Montaigne, a silly old piece of Roman literary gossip, Terence’s plays were written by Scipio and Laelius. In fact, Terence alludes in his prologue to the Adelphi, to a spiteful report that he was aided by great persons. The prologue may be the source of the fable~-that does not matter. Davies might get the fable in Montaigne, and, knowing that some Great One wrote Will’s plays, might therefore, in irony, address him as “Our English Terence.” This is a pretty free conjecture! In Roman comedy he had only two names known to him to choose from; he took Terence, not Plautus. But if Davies was in the great Secret, a world of others must have shared le Secret de Polichinelle. Yet none hints at it, and only a very weak cause could catch at so tiny a straw as the off-chance that Davies KNEW, and used “Terence” as a gibe. 108

The allusions, even the few selected, cannot prove that the actor wrote the plays, but do prove that he was believed to have done so, and therefore that he was not so ignorant and bookless as to demonstrate that he was incapable of the poetry and the knowledge displayed in his works. Mr. Greenwood himself observes that a Baconian critic goes too far when he makes Will incapable of writing. Such a Will could deceive no mortal. 109 But does Mr. Greenwood, who finds in the Author of the plays “much learning, and remarkable classical attainments,” or “a wide familiarity with the classics,” 110 suppose that his absolutely bookless Will could have persuaded his intimates that he was the author of plays exhibiting “a wide familiarity with the classics,” or “remarkable classical attainments.” The thing is wholly impossible.

I do not remember that a single contemporary allusion to Shakespeare speaks of him as “learned,” erudite, scholarly, and so forth. The epithets for him are “sweet,” “gentle,” “honeyed,” “sugared,” “honey~tongued”— this is the convention. The tradition followed by Milton, who was eight years of age when Shakespeare died, and who wrote L’Allegro just after leaving Cambridge, makes Shakespeare “sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,” with “native wood-notes wild”; and gives to Jonson “the LEARNED sock.” Fuller, like Milton, was born eight years before the death of Shakespeare, namely, in 1608. Like Milton he was a Cambridge man. The First Folio of Shakespeare’s works appeared when each of these two bookish men was aged fifteen. It would necessarily revive interest in Shakespeare, now first known as far as about half of his plays went: he would be discussed among lovers of literature at Cambridge. Mr. Greenwood quotes Fuller’s remark that Shakespeare’s “learning was very little,” that, if alive, he would confess himself “to be never any scholar.” 111 I cannot grant that Fuller is dividing the persons of actor and author. Men of Shakespeare’s generation, such as Jonson, did not think him learned; nor did men of the next generation. If Mr. Collins’s view be correct, the men of Shakespeare’s and of Milton’s generations were too ignorant to perceive that Shakespeare was deeply learned in the literature of Rome, and in the literature of Greece. Every one was too ignorant, till Mr. Collins came.

96 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 307.

97 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 308.

98 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 309.

99 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 310.

100 Ibid., pp. 310, 311.

101 Ibid., p. 311.

102 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 309.

103 Ibid., pp. 311, 312.

104 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 312, 313.

105 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 313.

106 See Appendix II, “Chettle’s supposed allusion to Will Shakspere.”

107 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 330.

108 The Vindicators of Shakespeare, pp. 115, 116, 211. See my Introduction, p. xxii.

109 The Vindicators of Shakespeare, p. 210.

110 Ibid., p. 136.

111 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 338.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03