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
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.
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.
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
'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 Thursday, 20 June 2019)