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Hamlet's creator, William Shakespeare?

Shaksper with an 'a'

It is astonishing but it is a fact that we know nothing for certain about the life of the man who wrote Hamlet. All the evidence which directly connects the plays to the Stratford business man, William Shaksper, has been shown to have been forged. All the stories about the playwright's life have been invented by his various biographers, wilfully confusing the little we know of the life of the Stratford man with the career of the playwright and embellishing the result with their own inventions.

The surname was not uncommon in Elizabethan England, the first written record of it tells of a William Saksper being hanged for robbery in 1248. After the christening on 26 April 1564 of 'Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere', the Stratford man next appears as 'Willelmus Shaxpere' and 'William Shagspere' on two documents relating to his marriage in 1582. Clearly this man's name was pronounced with a hard 'a'.

Shakespeare's signature

The only authenticated examples of his hand-writing are the six scratchy signatures on legal documents, each spelt differently. (Charlton Ogburn comments in The Mystery of William Shakespeare: "How could anybody have thought that a man who could barely sign his name was the greatest writer in the English language?") During the Stratford man's lifetime the name Shakespeare only appeared on two long poems in 1593, some unofficial editions of individual plays, and The Sonnets. None of these is spelt the same way as any of the Stratford man's signatures.

The one and only time that the writer used the name himself was in signing the dedication of the poem Venus and Adonis, where he also describes the work as 'the first heir of my invention'. Hastivibrans, or 'the Spearshaker', was the soubriquet of Pallas Athena, patron goddess of the home of the theatre, so it would be a natural choice as a pseudonym for an educated poet-playwright but an amazing coincidence if one were actually born with the name. That the name 'Shakespeare' was known at the time to be an invention is supported by the frequency with which it appeared hyphenated, as it did on the title page to the First Quarto of Hamlet in 1603. Before the collected First Folio of 1623, thirty-two editions of single plays were published with the writer's name on the title page. It was hyphenated fifteen times. Not once was the Stratford man's name hyphenated.

Shakespeare's death

When The Sonnets were published in 1609 the dedication referred to 'our ever-living poet' suggesting that the real author was already physically dead. When the Stratford Shaksper died in 1616 there was no public mourning, no poetic tributes, no-one seemed to have noticed or cared. His will, which leaves his wife his second best bed, contains no reference to his supposed play-writing career, nor his most valuable possessions; the manuscripts to his unpublished plays and his shares in The Globe and The Blackfriars theatres. References to his supposed theatrical business partners, Burbage and Condell, have been proved to be later additions in another hand.

Not only the writer's identity, but also the very existence of many of Shakespeare's works was kept secret during his life-ime. Of the thirty-six plays collected in the 1623 First Folio, twenty were previously unpublished and three Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and All's Well That Ends Well had never been heard of before.

Shakespeare's image

The familiar portrait of Shakespeare, Droeshout's engraved image in the First Folio, on which all other portraits are based, raises more questions. How, at the age of twenty-two, could an artist produce the portrait of a man who retired to a small market town when the artist was seven, died when he was fifteen and whom he had almost certainly never met? Why does the portrait have two right eyes? Why is the right hand side of the front of his tunic actually the back of the left hand side? And what is that hard line running from below his left ear to his chin? Ogburn suggests it is a picture of a man in a mask.

The man who wrote Hamlet

Sigmund Freud, who studied Hamlet when formulating his concept of the Oedipus complex, commented in his speech accepting the Goethe prize in 1930:

'It is undeniably painful to all of us that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare; whether it was in fact the untutored son of the provincial citizen of Stratford, who attained a modest position as an actor in London, or whether it was, rather, the nobly-born and highly cultivated, passionately wayward, to some extent declasse aristocrat Edward de Vere....'

Hamlet has often been called Shakespeare's most autobiographical play. While the Prince's story bears no relevance to the life of William Shaksper of Stratford, there are a number of striking and illuminating similarities to the adventures of Edward de Vere. The 17th Earl of Oxford was born in 1550 and died of the plague on 24th June 1604. His father taught him hunting, riding and falconry. When he was eleven he watched as Queen Elizabeth was entertained by his father's group of players in the great hall of their stately home. A year later his father died, his mother remarried a man named Tyrrell (the name given to the murderer of the babes in the tower in Richard III) and Edward was adopted by Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's chief minister and the most powerful man in England. Burleigh's diary shows the young de Vere to have had a passionate temperament, as well as a keen intelligence. At the age of 17 he killed a cook in self-defence and later, after he graduated from both Oxford and Cambridge, he married Burleigh's daughter and became a favourite of the Queen. After travelling in Europe and particularly in Italy, he returned to find his wife unfaithful but when he himself had an illicit affair he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Oxfordians believe that Burleigh and Elizabeth, to conceal the family's shame, made it a condition of de Vere's release from prison that he should hide his authorship of the plays behind the pseudonym he had used five years earlier, William Shake-speare.

It is widely accepted that the model for Polonius's 'few precepts' of advice to his son was Burleigh's Precepts for his son Robert Cecil. Hamlet's rejection of Ophelia parallels de Vere's cruelty to his wife, Anne, and as for Hamlet's parents, Freud's An Outline of Psychoanalysis explains: 'Edward de Vere... lost a beloved and admired father while he was still a boy and completely repudiated his mother who contracted a new marriage very soon after her husband's death.'

If the author of Hamlet was indeed the aristocrat, Edward de Vere, then having hidden his true identity, Hamlet's dying words with their fear that the truth would never be known are agonisingly appropriate:

'0, God, Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, I leave behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.'

This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:

Interpretation of Hamlet
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet's Stage History
Hamlet - Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts

© George Dillon, 1995

George Dillon's Tour Dates

(as of Tuesday, 07 April 2020)

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Hamlet - Programme - Hamlet's creator, William Shakespeare?
[Updated - 19 March 2006]
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