Where There’s a Will…

The Oxford or the Stratford Shakespeare?

Encounter, 1987; © the estate of eric sams 


By “The Oxford Shakespeare" I mean the subject of S. Schoenbaum's A Documentary Life (1975) and the Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (1986), published by that University Press. [1] By "the Stratford Shakespeare" I mean that play­wright (1564-1616) as docu­mented in historical sources. The Oxford Shakespeare was carefully educated for ten years and then became a schoolmaster and an actor: the Stratford Shakespeare was removed from school at about twelve to help his father in the family business, and thus became a butcher and a poacher. The former made his debut with the elegant and courtly Two Gentlemen of Verona c.1590; the latter began with obscure popular plays c. 1583. The most striking disparity is that the Stratford claimant offers a whole dossier of identification, while his Oxford rival has almost none.

    I wish to recommend a return to the traditional Shakespeare, the under-educated country boy, who grew only gradually from apprenticeship into mastery. I should declare an interest; I have sought in a recent edition to show that Edmund Ironside [2] is among the many apprentice works written in the same early style. Other examples are The Troublesome Reign of King JohnThe True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, and Edward III.[3] Such inferences are not novel; they are squarely based on Stratfordian grounds, which are far older and firmer than those of Oxford. Despite appearance, it is the Oxford Shakespeare that entails new fangled notions, and it is there that the burden of proof accordingly rests, un-budged. Was there really ever a mute Swan of Avon who suddenly burst out singing in his later twenties? What other great playwright spent years speaking someone else's lines before writing any of his own? The Stratford Shakespeare needs no such amazing metamorphosis, no such inexplicable time-lag, no such far-fetched literary hypotheses. He left school early, worked for his father and married a farmer’s daughter, all be­fore he was nineteen; then he came to London and worked for a theatre company, first on menial tasks and later as an actor but above all as a writer of popular plays.

    Those early plays, furthermore, have been clearly identified in editions, catalogues. and other documents for 400 years - thus qualifying for total exclusion from the Oxford Complete Works. The Oxford canon contains, conversely, the unheard-of poem "Shall I die?", accepted on the authority of one anonymous copyist c. 1640; and it excludes thousands of words duly certified as Shakespeare's by his close colleagues, who edited the 1623 First Folio collection from his posthumous papers. We are not informed from Oxford that all three Henry VI plays, and Titus Andronicus, may well be collaborations between Shakespeare and others. Act One of Henrv VI, Part 1, is formally handed over to Thomas Nashe, and much of Timon of Athens and Macbeth to Thomas Middleton. George Wilkins is named a co-author of Pericles and John Fletcher of Henry VIII, which is retitled All is true. Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, is restyled "Oldcastle". [4]

    Just as the Oxford Life knows, better than the first biographers, so the Oxford Works know better than the first editors. I shall be thought at least equally arrogant if I claim to know even better still. But all this Oxford expertise lies in literature, not in the interpretation of historical evidence; and that evidence utterly fails to fit the preconceived Oxford picture of the genteel Shakespeare. Thus, on the facts as recorded in manuscript documents, the poet's father John was variously a landowner, yeoman, farmer, glover, whittawer (i.e. dresser of hides and skins), dealer in wool, timber and barley, and butcher. [5] The Schoenbaum Life neglects the land; it seems to like leather and loathe butchery. This bias is buttressed by awarding John a "seven-year apprenticeship" as a glover, and then (A Documentary Life, p. 14) passing "stringent regulations" (which I have failed to trace) forbid­ding him to be a butcher; no evidence is cited for either claim. In extant county archives he is described aagricola (i.e. land-­tiller or farmer). But "perhaps this is a mistake": in other words, why are they calling my glover a farmer? His shop was always known as the Woolshop: but "why wool, when he worked in leather?". Further, "the early biographers persistently refer to him as a wool-stapler", as if that were somehow unreasonable of them; why, that is, are they calling my glover a wool-merchant? After all, his very extensive fleece-dealing must have been merely "subsidiary", because he was a glover. That is why his son's later allusions to that wholesome trade are so well-informed. So Shakespeare's harrowing obsession with butchery would have derived from observation “in Snitterfield, where his Uncle Henry farmed" rather than his own backyard in Stratford where his own father John farmed. [6]

    Such selectivity does not derive from reasoned discrimination among sources. On the contrary, it relies on personal preference within sources. Thus, on Schoenbaum's own showing, the archives may err in recording "agricola" but not "whittawer", which can be stretched to fit like a glove. Again, "we should not casually dismiss" John Aubrey's asser­tion, c. 1680, after consulting an acquaintance whose long­-dead father had acted with Shakespeare c. 1598, that the poet had been a country schoolmaster in his younger years. Yet the same Aubrey's earlier information, direct from the Stratford neighbours, that the young Shakespeare had helped his father as a butcher, and would kill a calf in a high style and make a speech, may safely be dismissed as "ludicrous", "legend", "anecdote", "mythos", "local lore", the "butcher-­boy story", "gossip" and "confusion". [7]

     In the Oxford Documentary Life, such attitudes are presented as scepticism; but they are surely just prejudice. No good judge jeers at the witnesses, or tries (p.60) to explain their testimony away, thus: "does there lurk in this account an obscurely disguised recollection of the boy Shakespeare taking part… in the Christmas mumming play of “Killing The Calf”?. Rational readers may rate this baseless conjecture as much more ludicrous than Aubrey, and anything but scepti­cal. Few English countrymen of any period would confuse killing with mumming, or speech with mime. Further, Aubrey has some independent confirmation. He also reports that Shakespeare came to London at about eighteen. In 1693 a visitor to Stratford was told by the parish clerk that "Shake­speare was formerly in this town bound apprentice to a butcher but that he ran from his master to London". In the Oxford Life, this too is duly disparaged as "a familiar miscon­ception", "implausible gossip" and "parish clerk's gossip".

    The same top-lofty tone is taken about the so-called "legend", found in four separate sources, that the young Shakespeare fell foul of local law and landowners by poaching deer and rabbits. Here too there is talk of his flight to London, where he is said to have earned money by tending play­goers' horses. "Shakespeare the Deerslayer" is first derided and then safely explained away as mere "sports and recreation", if anything. The ostler story is allowed even less au­thority, although its source (William Davenant) admittedly knew Shakespeare well in the Oxford of his own day. [8]


From the Statford standpoint, however, the butcher, poacher and ostler all look like the same local lad, who according to Aubrey was given the calves to kill "when he was a boy". This too is corroborated by Shakespeare's first detailed biographer Nicholas Rowe. On the basis of enquiries made in Stratford by the actor Thomas Betterton, Rowe reported that Shakespeare's father was forced by poverty to withdraw his son from school to help at home, so early that "he could give him no better education than his own employment". In the archives, John Shakespeare was sued for debt in 1573, after facing accusations of illegal wool-dealing. By 1576, as the Life itself tells us, he had "fallen on hard times". We may therefore reasonably infer that the Stratford William left school at about twelve if not earlier. The Oxford William, however, we need not doubt… received a grammar school education". In this whimsical methodology the presence of evidence compels scepticism while its absence inspires confidence. [9]


In reality, we need not doubt that a Tudor farmer would slaughter livestock for meat, leather and wool and then make and sell harnesses, gloves, shoes, clothing and the like. John Shakespeare was certainly a wool-dealer and glover; but such trades obviously depended on animals and were therefore uncertain. Further, he was a Catholic, and hence liable to discrimination and persecution from rivals or enemies. [10] Of course an eldest son would leave school to help his parents and siblings in adversity, and even turn poacher in need. Deer and rabbits were food and raw material. Life was very far from "sports and recreation" for the young Shakespeare, who already at eighteen had a wife and child of his own to support. The care of horses would be an apt first job for a country lad in London. No doubt he had also been a teacher; but his reading and writing skills could be far more lucratively employed. Stage plays were a new genre, in clamorous demand; such a talent could excel in any required style. "His plays took well", said Aubrey, after due enquiry Rowe said the same, of the same early period; the young Shakespeare was soon distinguished as "an excellent writer".

    A further related fact, well known to both those early biographers, as each of them independently states in exactly the same terms, was Shakespeare's "little Latin", which plainly implies a lack of formal education. Already in 1592 Robert Greene had called this same Stratfordian a "rude groom" and a "peasant". In Sonnet 78 the poet himself confesses to earlier "heavy ignorance" and "rude ignorance". In 1615, Francis Beaumont tells us that the Bard's best lines are not only free from "scholarship" or "learning" but "show how far sometimes a mortal man may go / By the dim light of Nature". In 1619, Ben Jonson confided that his admired friend "wanted art"; in 1623 he memorably mentioned the dead Swan of Avon's "small Latin and less Greek" as a deli­berate compliment in a loving eulogy, to show how genius could transcend such deprivations. For Milton the Stratford Shakespeare was "fancy's child”, whose "native woodnotes" contrasted with “slow­ endeavouring art"; for another eulogist, Leonard Digges, he was "without art" and had "nature only". “His learning was very little", wrote Bishop Fuller. John Ward, vicar of Stratford, noted: "I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natu­ral wit, without any art at all."[11] Aubrey uses the same phrase: "natural wit". As all these comments confirm, "art" meant tuition as distinct from intuition. Shakespeare himself, his contemporaries, and his commentators for generations, all declared that he was essentially self-taught.

    No wonder this handicapped genius began with undemanding popular plays; what else? So he cannot be the Complete Oxford Shakespeare, who would have been “more thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric and Roman (if not Greek) literature than most present-day holders of a University de­gree in classics". [12] This not only ignores all the evidence but mistranslates Jonson's "small Latin" as mere snobbish dispa­ragement. The wilful rejection of this vital key leaves the Stratford Shakespeare locked out of the Oxford Works as well as the Life.


But who wrote Hamlet, for example? By 1589, Thomas Nashe knew of a popular play on that theme. He derides it as derivative; he says that its author lacked Latin. A famous popular play called Hamlet was staged by Shakespeare's own company at Newington Butts in 1594 and again at their own Shoreditch theatre by 1596. Gabriel Harvey, in the margin of a book he acquired in 1598, commended Shakespeare's Hamlet. [13] An inferior 2,200-line Hamlet "by William Shakespeare, as it hath been diverse times acted in the Cittie of London", again by his own com­pany, was published in 1603 by Nicholas Ling. The great 3,800-line Hamlet "by William Shakespeare, newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was" appeared from the same publisher in 1604.

    From such facts, Stratfordians infer one single hand practising its craft over the years, shaping and reshaping. The Oxford editors (p.735) far prefer what they candidly call "our belief”, as follows. Shakespeare's Hamlet was first written c. 1600 and published in 1604. By then, he had revised it into a new version, first published in 1623. The 1603 edition represents a very imperfect report from the memories of actors who had performed minor roles in an abridged version of that revision. At first glance, which is all that most readers and reviewers can spare, that may seem sound and scholarly. In fact, however, the c. 1600 first Hamlet, its necessary pre-1603 "revision", the "abridged version” of that revision, the "performance" of that abridgement, the "actors" of that performance, the “report” of those actors, and the “roles” and “memories” behind that report, together with full supporting cast of ancillary assumptions, are all just imaginary, not to say hallucinatory. Not a sliver of objective evidence has ever existed for any single one of them.

    They are also totally incompatible with the known facts; thus the hypothetical actors are required to have remem­bered the name Polonius as "Corambis". Rational readers will surely therefore reject such theories in favour of the eco­nomical explanation that Shakespeare wrote all known Hamlets (including, c. 1589, the early popular version).

    But this is academic anathema, for one simple reason. The Stratford butcher-boy has been ousted by the Oxford scholarship-boy, who was far above the earliest extant Hamlet or any such inferior writing. This neo-Baconianism adds literary to social snobbery. Just as a poor man could come to write great plays, so a great man could have written poor plays. Even the Oxford Shakespeare (p.881) admits poor poems, accepted on the authority of a publisher or a copyist. But exactly these same criteria also authenticate the early popular plays on the themes of King Henry VI, King John, the Shrew, and Hamlet.


Such counterpart versions occur solely with Shakespeare. Common sense insists that they are all effects of the same cause, namely his hand at work. Yet the Oxford editors offer as many different complex explanations as there are pairs of plays, and indeed several incompatible explanations for the same pair. Thus the obscure Taming of A Shrew first published in 1594 and the famous Taming of The Shrew first published in 1623 are two entirely distinct treatments of the same theme. The latter's separate Oxford edition (1982) claimed it as the earlier of the two - despite the 30-year dating disparity - and A Shrew as “memorial reconstruction" of it made by its actors, who had inexplicably forgotten almost every line of it as well as its plot and location and the names of its characters. When this was shown to be absurd, the paperback reissue switched to "adaptation", though only on the back cover. In the Complete WorksA Shrew has changed again, this time into an anonymous "imitation" of a supposedly popular Shakespeare play which as far as any actual evidence goes was not published, performed, mentioned or indeed written until many years later. Yet no fewer than sixty lines from this alleged "imitation" are now included in the Complete Oxford Shakespeare, because a hypothetical plagiarist's hypothetical imitation may have derived from his hypothetical attendance at a hypothetical per­formance of a hypothetical lost variant version of a hypothetical pre-existing play. [14]

    These academic fantasies, like their Hamlet counterparts, are surely self-refuting. Everyone else who reads those lines from A Shrew printed in the new Complete Works will soon see the real reason for their inclusion, namely that (as even the Oxford editors concede) they are unmistakably Shakespearean in origin. The simple rational explanation is that he wrote them, and therefore also wrote The Taming of A Shrew, the actual extant early popular play of which they form an integral part. That would explain why that play was not only attributed to him by booksellers and publishers [15] but performed by his own company in 1594 together with the early popular version of Hamlet and also Titus Andronicus.

    Again on the Oxford editors' own showing, Shakespeare was an assiduous reviser, even of his mature masterpieces. So a fortiori he would rewrite his own apprentice plays, even more radically. By the Oxford editors' own criteria of accep­tability, these plays include A ShrewHamlet, and others in the same style from the so-called Lost Years (c. 1583-1592). But those are the very plays that these same editors tirelessly explain away as "memorial reconstruction", "reportage", "adaptation", "imitation", "derivation”, “piracy", "plagiarism", “collaboration", "source-material", and so forth, [16] all without any evidence and for no reason whatever except that their Shakespeare could never conceivably have written in any such style.


And of course they are right. They just happen to have the wrong Shakespeare, inherited from the Life and reprocessed in the Works. It is time for the real Shakespeare to stand up and testify in his turn that the highly sophisticated Two Gentlemen of Verona could hardly have been a very first work by one countryman of Stratford, even given the best will in the world. He needed his extra decade of development via early plays after an early start. Of course his apprentice style would be less familiar: of course his revisions would retain traces of it. But that is no reason for calling him such names as "George Wilkins" and "Thomas Nashe" in defiance of his earliest editors and common sense alike. The dating, genesis and text of the Oxford Complete Works are therefore in urgent need of radical reappraisal. So are their stylometric computer programmes, their a priori assumptions, and their general methodology.

    In short, the so-called Complete Oxford Shakespeare should itself be revised, into the really complete Stratford Shakespeare.



[1] William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. General editors, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford University Press.

[2] Edmund Ironside: Shakespeare’s Lost Play, ed. Eric Sams (Fourth Estate, 1985; reissued with revisions and a new preface, Wildwood House, 1986). The New York documents expert Charles Hamilton, author of In Search of Shakespeare: A Reconnaisance into the Poet’s Life and Handwriting (1985), has recently certified that the British Library Ironside MS is beyond doubt in Shakespeare’s own hand.

[3] These plays were announced as Shakespeare’s in 1611, 1619, and 1656 respectively. Edward III has recently shown to be Shakespearan by Eliot Slater (in a book to be published by Cambridge University Press), by Richard Proudfoot (in a British Academy Lecture, 1985), and by John Kerrigan (in his New Penguin Shakespeare edition of the Sonnets (1986), pp. 293-95.) [cf. also Shakespeare’s Edward III, ed. Eric Sams, Yale 1996]

[4] See the Complete Works, pp. xviii; 173; 997; 1099; 1167; 1343; 509-41.

[5] For John Shakespeare’s ownership of many acres, including crop and pasture, from 1556-68, the best account is by W. Nicholas Knight inShakespeare’s Hidden Life (1977), pp. 50-61. The Documentary Life account (pp. 37-38) is defective, e.g. in overlooking the 1589 record. In 1579, and again in 1597, John Shakespeare is recorded as a yeoman. See the documents described in Shakespeare’s Birthplace Catalogue (ed. Wellstood, 1944), pp. 25-28. For the various occupations as farmer, glover, whittawer, dealer in wool, timber, and barley, see the documents described or reproduced in A Documentary Life, pp. 14, 27, 58. On p. 29 Schoenbaum adds that John Shakespeare “probably dealt in other agricultural commodities as well”, and mentions that in 1572 a glover owed him the very substantial sum of £50.

[6] See A Documentary Life, pp. 27, 60.

[7] The Aubrey manuscript is conveniently reproduced in A Documentary Life, p. 58. See also pp. 59, 60, 87.

[8] A Documentary Life, pp. 72-87; 111; 166

[9] Nicholas Rowe, “Some Account of the Life etc of Mr. William Shakespeare”, in Shakespeare,Works, ed. Rowe (1709), vol. I, pp. ii-iii; Rowe’s words are not cited in A Documentary Life. The archival records are described by David Thomas in Shakespeare’s in the Public Records (1985), pp. 2-3.

[10] A Documentary Life, pp. 41-46; see also Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background (1973).

[11] Robert Greene. Groats-worth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentance (1592), sig. A3; the Documentary Life reproduction on pp. 115-6 omits the “peasant” reference. Francis Beaumont’s comments are cited in E. Chambers, A Short Life of Shakespeare (1933), p. 216. Ben Jonson, in his Conversations with William Drummond, of 1618-19; see also Jonson (ed. Donaldson, 1985), p. 596; these words are not cited in A Documentary Life. The eulogies of Shakespeare are conveniently reprinted in the Complete Works at pp. xliii (Jonson 1623), xlv (Milton “L’Allegro”, c. 1630, and “Am Epitaph…”, 1630), and xlvi (Digges, before 1638) respectively Bishop Fuller, in Worthies of England (1662); these words are not cited in A Documentary Life. John Ward, MS notes 1661-63, when Shakespeare’s daughter Judith was also living in Stratford.

[12] Complete Works, p. xiv.

[13] Thomas Nashe, Preface to Robert Greene’sMenaphon (1589), sig. A4. For the Newington Butts Hamlet, see Henslowe’s Diary, 1592-1603 (ed. Foakes and Rickert, 1961), p. 21. Hamlet “belonged to the Chamberlain’s Men” (see, e.g., G.B.Harrison, Elizabethan Plays and Players, 1956, p. 137); Shakespeare joined that company in that year (A Documentary Life, p. 136). For the Shoreditch Hamlet, see Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie (1596), sig. H4: he specifies a performance at The Theatre, the name of the Chamberlain’s playhouse. For the Gabriel Harvey comment, see F. S. Boas, Shakespeare and the Universities (1923), pp.256-60.

[14] The Taming of the Shrew, ed. H. J. Oliver (1982), p. 22, and the back cover of the 1984 paperback edition. See Complete Works, pp. xxx, 29, 60-61.

[15] See, for instance, the Rogers and Ley catalogue of 1656.

[16] Complete Works, passim.