The Shakespeare Mystery

Review of E. A. J. Honigmann: Shakespeare: The "Lost Years"Manchester University Press

Sunday Times, 5 May 1985

   The ghost of William Shakeshafte the player, first glimpsed in 1923, made further sporadic appearances in print until 1977, when it was officially exorcised by Samuel Schoenbaum. But soft, behold, lo where it comes again; and in a questionable shape too, projected by the following facts. In 1581, Alexander Hoghton of Lea Hall, Lancashire, bequeathed  musical instruments and “play-clothes” to his brother “if he be minded to keep players”; otherwise to Sir Thomas Hesketh of nearby Rufford, who must then “be friendly unto Fulk Gillom [a known player] and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me”.

   Family names lacked fixed forms in Tudor limes; the Poet's grandfather was recorded as ”Shakeshafte”. On good testimony, Shakespeare (b. 1564) had been, in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the Country. His father seems to have remained a Catholic, despite the bitter persecutions. So, more certainly, had the Lancastrian John Cottom of Tarnacre, who was Schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon 1579-81; so had Cottom's close acquaintances the  Lancashire Hoghtons and the Heskeths. Each of those two families still preserves a tradition that Shakespeare was once in their service. Their connections included John Weever perhaps the first writer to allude to the Sonnets; Sir Thomas Stanley, whose tomb bears epitaphs ascribed to Shakespeare; Thomas Savage, who acted as the poet’s trustee; Lord Strange, whose company performed Titus Andronicus, and Sir John Salisbury, to whom the volume containing The Phoenix and the Turtle was dedicated.

     In Ernst Honigmann’s new book these interrelations are documented down to the fine detail of genealogical tables, extracts from wills, and putative links with the works. Two final chapters contain comments on Shakespeare’s religion, and a chronological summary. All this should prove valuable to archivists and stimulating to scholars. But it offers little enlightenment to the layman; and I fear that the back cover’s “startling conclusions” are just cover stories, quite unworthy of a university press.

     The author’s own claims are often overblown. Thus he believes that a possibility has now been converted into a probability by the discovery of Cottom’s links with the Hoghton family; but these have long been known. Shakespeare’s Catholic background, so far from being virgin territory, is thoroughly well-trodden. The “howls of anguish” predicted by Honigmann will greet his methods rather than his findings. For example, John Aubrey tells us that Shakespeare worked as a town butcher before becoming a country teacher. The latter is eagerly engaged for the benefit of this book, the former is dismissed with an unfavourable reference. Yet they both tender the same testimonials, namely second-hand hearsay. The marked preference is mere prejudice,. Besides, the tutor obviously offers no support at all for the actor; on the contrary. Why the job change? The missing link is soon forged by the suggestion that “on his arrival, the new schoolmaster, an admirer of Terence and Plautus, quickly teams up with Hoghton’s players”, just in time to justify the hypothesis. Even Cottom is a dangling thread, with no real connection. As p.132 belatedly concedes, he need never have set eyes on the young Shakespeare, who may well have been withdraw from school to help with the family business long before 1579.

     However, Honigrnann has surely dug deep enough to reopen the main Shakeshafte question, and to show that its premature closure was utterly unjustified. What Schoenbaum called “remorseless logic” is exposed as biased nonsense. Sadly, this trenchant start is not sustained. There are too many unnoticed self-contradictions; thus on p.115 the fact that “John Shakespeare ran into financial difficulties c.1577 cannot be denied”, except  on  p.118, where it has mysteriously become “implausible”. Far too much relevant evidence and argument, including some that supports the theory (e.g. Braadbent, Notes and Queries, April 1956) has been overlooked or bypassed in favour of baseless conjecture (e.g., that Shakespeare was serving in Strange’s company, or writing The Phoenix and the Turtle, as early as 1586). Worse still, young Shakeshafte has been spatchcocked into a wholly unrelated and mainly imaginary chronology of the plays, which can readily be falsified by ascertainable fact; thus the proposed 1588 for the Folio Taming of the Shrew is at least 15 years too early.

     More positively, Honigmann has maintained his deserved reputation for uncommon insight as well as diligence in detailed research. Almost alone among modern professionals, he has the wit to see, and the nerve to say, that Shakespeare must have been writing plays long before the orthodox starting-date of c.1590, including an early version of Hamlet. There is also considerable cogency in his contentions that Spenser’s “pleasant Willy” and “Aetion” refer to, and the Stanley epitaphs were written by Shakespeare. Despite occasional weaknesses, the Lancashire links are at least strongly suggestive. The whole chain of argument, furthermore, leads back unbroken to another long-laid ghost, namely the once-famous “Annotator”, whose marginalia on a copy of Hall’s Chronichle were held to be in the young. Shakespeare’s own hand. Those earlier explorations had already led, though by a very different route, to the same Lancashire background. The evident explanation, that they, too, were on the right track, cannot now be discounted, even though Honigmann himself (for unstated reasons) rejects it.

     What William Shakeshafte the player-schoolmaster now needs is a more rational timetable and some scientific graphological study, There are indeed new and vital lessons to be learned; and due attention must be paid to this book’s pioneering spirit, for all its extravagance and errors. As its author boldly claims, the records he has discovered and discussed “will affect future thinking about Shakespeare’s social and intellectual background”. What other professional scholar can say the same?