Shakespeare and Skeptoid Redux

Brian Dunning has dedicated his most recent episode of Skeptoid to the manufactured Shakespeare “authorship controversy.” The last time he discussed Shakespeare, I applauded his conclusions but questioned some of his premises (see here). Again, I find myself in agreement with his conclusion (Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare), but feel the need to quibble with some of his statements.

To begin with, Dunning says that Shakespeare

overcame his ordinary middle-class station and relative lack of formal education to compete with the finest noble playwrights of the day, and trump them all.

Shakespeare denialists claim that Shakespeare had no formal education at all because the records from Stratford’s grammar school do not survive, but Shakespeare scholars point out that Shakespeare would have been eligible to attend the grammar school for free because of his father’s position. If he did indeed attend grammar school, his formal education would have been perfectly adequate. According to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro,

Scholars have exhaustively reconstructed the curriculum in Elizabethan grammar schools and have shown that what Shakespeare…would have learned there…was roughly equivalent to a university degree today, with a better facility in Latin than that of a typical classics major.” (Contested Will, p. 276)

Dunning’s statement makes it sound as if most of Shakespeare’s colleagues/competitors were noble and university educated. While some did have elevated connections (such as Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher), few if any writers for the public stage held noble titles (this fact is important to Shakespeare denialists). Christopher Marlowe, who was much more famous than Shakespeare during his life, was the son of a shoemaker (Shakespeare’s father was a glover), although Marlowe did receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who famously said that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” was the stepson of a bricklayer and, like Shakespeare, a grammar school boy who never attended university. In other words, Shakespeare’s grammar school education and middle-class origins were not that unusual among playwrights of his time.

In arguing that Shakespeare was not, as Shakespeare denialists claim, illiterate, Dunning says:

There are only seven surviving signatures of his, and oddly, some are spelled differently from one another, and all appear to be nearly illegible scrawls…. The style of writing common in Shakespeare’s time, known as secretary hand, often incorporated breviograms, shortened forms of words. Whether the various spellings of Shakespeare’s signatures are breviograms or the result of illiteracy or simple laziness, can’t be known. It does not prove that Shakespeare the man was different from Shakespeare the author.

Shakespeare did write in secretary hand which can be very difficult to read if one is not used to it. Some of Shakespeare’s signatures probably are intentionally shortened, but Dunning’s suggestion that the variation in spelling is a result of breviograms, illiteracy or laziness is a false dichotomy (trichotomy?). Spelling wasn’t standardized in Shakespeare’s day. He was not the only one who varied the spelling of his name. In Roland Emmerich’s video “proving” that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, he uses Shakespeare’s supposedly poor handwriting and spelling to suggest Shakespeare was nearly illiterate. He compares Shakespeare’s signatures to a single signature each of Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Bacon and Jonson were using italic hand, which is more familiar to us, so naturally they appear clearer. Marlowe did use secretary hand, and it’s really not that much clearer than Shakespeare’s. It should also be noted that in this, the only known signature of Marlowe, he spelled his name “Marley.”

Curiously, Dunning mentions seven Shakespeare signatures. Six signatures are generally accepted: one from a legal deposition, two related to the Blackfriars Theater and three from Shakespeare’s will (signed a month before his death). Presumably the seventh signature is the one which appears on a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. This signature is not universally accepted, but many scholars believe it is likely to be genuine. If it is genuine, it is important because it is in a book, which would mean that Shakespeare denialists could no longer claim that Shakespeare didn’t own any books.

Even more important is Hand D in the handwritten copy of the play Sir Thomas More. Hand D resembles Shakespeare’s signatures and the passage resembles Shakespeare’s style and contains spellings that are typical of him. Hand D is an authorial hand rather than a scribal hand–bits have been crossed out and other bits have been inserted. Again, not all scholars accept that Hand D is Shakespeare, but most agree that it is likely his work and his handwriting. If Hand D is Shakespeare’s handwriting, it destroys the denialists’ argument.

Dunning correctly notes that it is not unusual that no letters have survived in Shakespeare’s hand (though there is one letter to him, written by his future son-in-law, asking to borrow a rather large sum of money. It is not known whether the letter was ever actually sent). Dunning is, however, incorrect in saying that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare. We actually know a fair amount: it’s just not that interesting–most of it concerns business and legal matters. You know, the kind of documents that tend to survive because they are official.

Dunning also incorrectly compares what we know of Shakespeare to what we know of Marlowe:

Marlowe is well-documented largely because he was often in trouble with the law and was also murdered.

It is certainly true that Marlowe had a genius for getting into trouble. It is also true that he was killed. However, most of what we “know” about Marlowe actually raises more questions that it answers. Many things were said about him. How many of those things are true is a bit of a mystery. For instance, in the years after Marlowe’s death, several accounts were given of his death. Some were wrong. Gabriel Harvey suggested that he died of plague; Francis Meres said that he was “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewd love” (see here).

In discussing the claims for the Earl of Oxford as the real author, Dunning says,

It’s well known that de Vere’s family did participate in the publication of Shakespeare’s works after his death, called the First Folio.

I was shocked and embarrassed that I did not know this well-known fact. Actually, it appears to be Oxfordian propaganda. The argument is as follows: the First Folio was dedicated to William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Philip Herbert, first Earl of Montgomery (and later fourth Earl of Pembroke). Montgomery married one of Oxford’s daughters and Pembroke was briefly engaged to another. That’s it. That’s the de Vere family connection. The Herberts came from a very literary family–many members were writers and most were patrons of the arts. One Oxfordian site adds another supposed connection to Oxford:

The First Folio publication was a de Vere family affair with Oxford’s other son-in-law, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, being a highly literary man with his own company of players, quite possibly taking a hand in the preparation of the collected plays of his father-in-law.

That’s clearly just a made-up connection. The Herbert connection isn’t much better. And if Oxford’s sons-in-law (and almost-son-in-law) were behind the publication, why weren’t all the plays in the First Folio based on Oxford’s own handwritten copies instead of the mish-mash of sources the compilers actually used? Denialist propaganda should not be repeated as fact.

Dunning ends by suggesting that new techniques of computational analysis “prove” that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare:

But let us not speculate. It turns out that technology finally did evolve to the point where we’ve been able to conclusively exclude all of these nominees, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford included, as having written Shakespeare’s works. Computational stylistics is a branch of computer science in which a “literary fingerprint” can be determined for any author, based on computational analysis of his writing. As detailed in their 2009 book, Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, professors Arthur Kinney and Hugh Craig proved during their 2006 research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that Shakespeare was the author of his own works, and nobody else. These computational techniques also made it possible to determine which plays influenced which later authors, and many other subtleties that escape conventional study of the texts. Hollywood movies to the contrary, we now know for a fact that neither de Vere of Oxford nor anyone else deserves credit for William Shakespeare’s life’s work.

First of all, computer analysis is not as cut and dried as Dunning suggests. Scholars have already quibbled with arguments made in some of the articles in the collection edited by Kinney and Craig. Other authors who have used computer analysis to identify Shakespearean works have had to admit errors. Donald W. Foster had argued that Shakespeare wrote a funeral elegy for a man named William Peter (“A Funeral Elegy,” Norton Shakespeare, pp. 3303-3305). He has since admitted that his attribution was premature. The poem may have been written by John Ford. (In a comment on a previous post, I mentioned Foster’s attribution, but was not aware at the time that he had recanted).

More importantly, there is no way such analysis could prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It can very strongly suggest that Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon didn’t. But to prove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, one would have to compare Shakespeare’s disputed works (all of them, from the point of view of denialists) to his acknowledged works (none, again from the point of view of denialists). The argument that the Hand D passage matches the characteristics of the rest of the works attributed to Shakespeare is the strongest argument, but it is hardly conclusive. At least it’s hardly conclusive IF you don’t believe the mountain of documentary evidence that suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It also doesn’t really eliminate Oxford because many of the works attributed to Oxford are of questionable authorship, and I believe that all of them are considered juvenilia.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspect of the episode is that Dunning does not include James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will among his references.



Dawson, Giles E. “A Seventh Signature for Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 72-79.

Dunning, Brian. “Finding Shakespeare.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Oct 2011. Web. 18 Oct 2011. <;.

Evans, G. Blakemore, text. ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton, 1974.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 1997.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.


12 Responses to Shakespeare and Skeptoid Redux

  1. Pacal says:

    When will the Oxfordians, Baconians etc., give Shakespeare’s “bad” handwriting a rest. How often does it have to be shown that Shakespeare wrote in “secretary” hand that we moderns are not used to. How much longer will “they” keep putting forth this highly dubious arguement?? It is debunked but over and over again it is used.

    And has per usual there is the regular and oh so dulll mention of Shakespeare’s spelling. The Oxfordians etc., again and again “forgetting” that spelling was not standardized and of course neglecting how even their hero Edward de Vere, (At least among the Oxfordians), spelt at least some words differently at different times.

    I take it that none of the handwritings in the play Thomas More is similar to Edward de Vere otherwise we would have heard from the Oxfordians. Note we have here a play atrributed to Shakespeare apparantly not written by Edward de Vere.

  2. Eve says:

    I just Googled images of Edward de Vere’s signatures. There are three different ones on the top row. All have noticeable similarities, but there are differences as well. In one he spells Oxford “Oxeford;” in the others it’s “Oxenford.” He also uses slightly different scripts (again, not unusual at the time). None match Hand D.

    Oxfordians have claimed Sir Thomas More. One example: I haven’t actually read it.

    • Pacal says:

      Well I looked at it. THe arguements are specious. It appears that a direct comparison of Oxford’s known handwriting with the manuscript of Thomas More doesn’t show that one handwriting in it is Oxfords.

    • There is an old book comparing Hand D writing to that known to be of Francis Bacon. It looks impressive to me but then again I have no expertise in the area. For what it’s worth if anyone wants to take a look here it is:

  3. Lea Frost says:

    Alan Nelson (who wrote a scholarly biography of Oxford) has a fairly devastating account of Oxford’s spelling habits here, although the version in his book is more detailed:

    I have the impression that Oxfordians tend to claim anything that might possibly be vaguely Shakespearean.* I have definitely seen an Oxfordian claim for the anonymous play Thomas of Woodstock; their only grounds for it were that Robert de Vere, ninth earl of Oxford and favorite (possibly lover) of Richard II does not appear in the play and is referred to as being dead when historically he should be alive, which is *obviously* Edward de Vere leaving out the dodgier bits of the family history. Surprisingly, they did not quote the one actual bit of dialogue that references Robert: “My husband Ireland, that unloving lord, / (God pardon his amiss, he now is dead) / King Richard was the cause he left my bed” — which for various reasons is not the sort of thing one would expect Edward de Vere to write!

    *There are a couple of people who argue for Shakespeare’s authorship of Woodstock, but they are not convincing.

  4. Eve says:

    Claiming any bit of unattributed poetry for Shakespeare is a bit of a cottage industry. You get a lot more press attention if you say it’s Shakespeare than if you argue it’s, say, Thomas Nashe.

    Sundry Shakespeare denialists have ended up attributing all sorts of works for their pet claimant. I think there was an early Baconian who decided Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and Marlowe, and Kyd, and this and that and the other thing. I think he claimed that John Florio’s translation of Montaigne was Bacon, and that Montaigne’s essays themselves were a youthful Baconian experiment in French. Basically, some nut couldn’t tell one bit of Early Modern English from another. How he worked out the Montaigne thing, though, remains mysterious.

  5. Bob says:

    I think Oxford was actually Shakespeare. TWO CAN PLAY YOUR LITTLE GAME, OXFORDIANS!


    • Eve says:

      No, Bob, just NO. Have you read the poetry attributed to Oxford?

      • Lea says:

        Clearly what really happened was that Shakespeare wrote Oxford some crummy poetry because all the cool kids at court were doing it and he needed beer money. It’s not very good, but Shakespeare figured a half-assed job was good enough for an earl. There is no evidence, so it must be true!

  6. Eve says:

    Lea, hmmmm, that does have the ring of truth to it. I find your lack of evidence overwhelmingly compelling.

  7. Jay Walker says:

    I haven’t listened to this episode yet (it in iTunes), but after readint this I can’t wait to hear it. As a skeptic and someone who has a BFA in Theater Arts, I find this article fascinating and wonderful. Personally, I’ve never held any doubt about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s works. There were hundreds of people, if not more, living at that time who knew who Shakespeare was and that he wrote the plays attributed to him. He may not have been as famous as Marlowe at the time, but he was certainly well know. To think that all of the people associated with the Elizabethan theater were either clueless or in on the ruse is classic conspiracy theory 101.

  8. TheVirginian says:

    I don’t know enough about Shakespeare and the historical material surrounding him to make even the slightest intelligent comment here. But in reference to the non-standardized spelling of the era, I’ve read hundreds of pages of Thomas More’s works from a few decades earlier, in ye olde Englyshe, and I guarantee you, he was literally capable of spelling the same word 3 different ways on one page. I don’t remember which word or work, and I am not going to go through the ordeal of trying to hunt it down, but he did not use standardized spellings.

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