Notes on Samuel Schoenbaum

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams 




JS: John Shakespeare (father)
CDLA Compact Documentary Life, 1977
R&IRecords and Images, 1981

[Otherwise, references are to William ShakespeareA Documentary Life, 1975] 



1. JS 7 year apprenticeship as glover (14).

2. "        "               " (retracted in CDL 17).

3. S   ditto    (14).

4. It seems a reasonable enough supposition that William was apprenticed in his father's shop (60).

5. If his apprentice days were cluttered with the merchandise of his father's shop (60).

6. Stringent regulations forbade glovers to be butchers (14).

7. Glovers…were restrained from looking after their own slaughtering.

8. Interprets 'Johannes Factotum' as 'universal genius', instead of Jack of all trades, for no reason at all (116).

9. 'Shakespeare's playscripts were not his to dispose of – they belonged to the King's Men' (248).



1. JS unlikely to be a butcher (14).

2. Name of S's son Hamnet misread as Samuel (23).

3. S's friend Hamnet Sadler (86).

4. From 1585 to 1592 the documentary record presents a blank (77).

5, 6. The commissioner 'clearly stated on two occasions' that JS feared process for debt, but in fact what they said was 'we suspect that' and then 'it is said that' (39).

7. 'We need not doubt that S received a grammar school education' (50); but oh yes we need, because of what Rowe reports (60) and anyhow why assume it?

8. The early play 2 Henry VI (60)

9. Allocates 'O tiger's heart' to 3 Henry VI (116).

10. 'It shows that 3 Henry VI was then on the boards' (120).

11. 'In 1929 Peter Alexander demonstrated that the Contention and True Tragedie are in fact [sic] corrupt texts – bad quartos – of Shakespearean originals' (123).

12. Contention the debased text of 2 Henry VI (139).

13. Thinks that A Shrew may be corrupt redaction of The Shrew (139).

14. Thinks that The Shrew is an early play (141).

15. What is clear is that the hand that signed Shakespeare's testament is not the same as the one that set it down (R&I 98).

16. Archaionomia = a quarto compilation of old English ecclesiastical laws (R&I 104).

17. 'Agincourt' cannot be Henry V, which is separately listed (R&I 225).

18. 'Yorke & Lancaster' is that, not 2-3 Henry VI (R&I 225).

19, 20. same points (R&I 233).



1.Overlooks the undated [1588/9] court case in which WS is admittedly named (37).

2. Fails to notice 'blossome of my sins' (50).

3. Omits TTR3 from Queen's plays (125).

4. Omits Felix & Philomena (do. see also DCL 165).


Non sequiturs and other illogicalities

1. Ralph Cawdrey was the local butcher (14).

2. Perhaps agricola was a mistake (27).

3. Husbandry did not much appeal to John (27).

4. Why wool when JS worked in leather? (27).

5. There is a Stratford tradition, reported by Rowe, about wool-dealing. But this is evidence, not tradition (27). When it suits, Rowe later becomes an 'authority' (60), when it doesn't he's mythos.

6. Tradition…always to be regarded with scepticism, may yet conceal a kernel of truth (in the example given, the tradition was truth, so the rule proposed is that truth should be regarded with scepticism) (27). Not only wool but testament later shown to be right; nothing ever shown to be wrong.

7. To sum up [the arguments about JS's literacy] he may have mastered reading and writing; in fact not a particle of evidence points in any such direction (36).

8. Did JS in fact make a Catholic affirmation? (46). Yes, as already admitted (43).

9. As regards the Spiritual Testament, 'we must...settle…for a secular agnosticism' (46).

10. 'He died a papist' belongs to tradition, not the factual record (47).

11. An apparent slip (Shakespeare wrongly asserts that Judas said 'all hail' to Jesus; in fact those words are used only by Jesus himself) may on closer study merely illustrate S's complex way with sources; Judas says 'all hail' in a surviving mystery play. But closer study still would confirm that it was and is a mistake to confuse Judas with Jesus. It is not less a mistake because someone else once made it, least of all someone possibly unknown to S. (48).

12. S's father and also his daughter seem to have been Catholics; 'but of course' even if they definitely were 'we would still not possess a sure clue to the poet's own faith' (49). No clue is entirely sure, but it certainly is a clue.

13. 'A month's mind' (49) surely means the mass.

14. Around 1574 or 1575 S would have passed from the usher to the master and entered upon the advanced curriculum of the Upper School i.e. would have if he had been there in the first place; but this must not be merely assumed (56).

15. Aubrey's anecdote about the second butcher's son (i.e. we are told twice that S was one) belongs not to the biographical record proper but to the mythos (borrowed from Chambers (59) without acknowledgement).

16. He might have obtained [such experience] in Snitterfield, where his Uncle Henry farmed (60).

17. Ditto hare-hunting (130).

18.Does there lurk in [Aubrey's] account an obscurely disguised recollection of the boy Shakespeare taking part – with basin, carpet, horns and butcher's knife and apron – in the Christmas mumming play of killing the calf? [no] (60).

19. Deer story in four separate versions (83). But that means it's not negligible. And how does Schoenbaum know that all the various versions aren't independent?

20. If S had been employed in a lawyer's office, 'surely his signature would have appeared on deeds or wills he was called upon to witness; but no such signature has ever been discovered' (87).

21. The 'tradition of Shakespeare the rural pedagogue…should not be casually dismissed'. But this too comes from Aubrey, like the butcher-boy, who is casually dismissed on page after page (88).

22. These statements [e.g. that Shakespeare soon became a writer] affirm what we would anyway assume, that Shakespeare began his career as a hired man…[but they say nothing of the kind] (111).

23. The plays mentioned by Greene's country author 'belong to the pre-Shakespearean drama' (115) and thus we solve the question of whether he wrote them or not. How can he have, if they were earlier than he was? (115).

24. Data on Robert Davenant given on the authority of the despised gossip Aubrey (164).

25. S summoned his lawyer FC to execute his last will and testament (242).

26. FC set down the opening phrases automatically (246)

27. Archaionomia still seems an odd choice for S's library (R&I 109).

28. Thinks that Douglas Hamer displays 'remorseless logic' (CDL 115)


Blatant prejudices

1. '…Catholics or likely converts in England. Into their houses the missionaries insinuated themselves, and, once lodged, they donned the priests' vestments they always carried with them. They held secret conference…' (46).

2. 'a recent Jesuitical commentator ' (46).

3. 'We need not find too puzzling the claim that S died a Papist' (why should we find it in the least puzzling?)


4. 'The gossip Aubrey' (59).

5. 'Perhaps this extraordinary natural wit graced Adrian Tyler' (59).

6. 'Aubrey's anecdote' (59).

7. 'The mythos: that accretion of legend and lore which comes to surround the names of famous men' (59).

8. '…Aubrey had jotted in his notes' (60).

9. 'Genius will out, even from the mouths of butcher-boys' (60).

10. 'Aubrey's confusion here runs deep' (60).

11. '…the picture of a poetical prodigy moved to extempore effusions in the shambles is sufficiently ludicrous' (60).

12. 'The story of Shakespeare the Deerslayer appears full blown in Nicholas Rowe's preface to his 1709 edition. It is a picturesque relation deriving, one expects, from local Stratford lore passed on to Rowe's informant, the actor Betterton' (78).

13. Davies is one source; '…we do not know if he was in his cups…the jolly parson's memory is not functioning very well' (80).

14. '…he has confused Clodpate with Justice Shallow' [has he??] (80).

15. 'Luces and louses; it is a predictable English pun' (80).

16. 'The essential story of [deer-] poaching, capture, prosecution and flight has come down in four separate versions – all presumably deriving from Stratford gossip of the late seventeenth century' (83).

17. 'Late in the eighteenth century, custodians of the mythos, aware that Sir Thomas kept no park at Charlecote, shifted the scene across the river to Fulbrook, two miles north' (83).

18. 'One wonders if the legend might not have originated in Stratford long after The Merry Wives was written and its author dead' (86).

19. 'Maybe by devious association this later event [the Star Chamber action of T. Lucy 3] filtered into the tradition' (87).

20. 'Even if these legends embroider, however fancifully, a genuine escapade'

   [i.e. if it's true].

21. '…they describe sports and recreation, not the serious occupations of life' (87)

22. 'One late-blooming tradition' [what the parish clerk told Dowdall].

23. '…a mutation of Aubrey's butcher boy story'.

24. '…the ancient parish clerk and sexton'.

25. 'This story seems to have its origin…'.

26. '…in the familiar misconception about JS's occupation'.

27. '…and so has no more persuasive force than implausible gossip' (87).

28. '…a seventeenth century gossip's confused report' (96).

29. '…parish clerk's gossip about the butcher boy' (111).

30. 'William Davenant [i.e. S's own godson, accepted as such 164] the source of more than one dubious Shakespearean anecdote' (111).

31. 'Any story transmitted on the authority of Davenant [ S's own godson] must awaken suspicions in the wary' (133).

32. 'To achieve marmoreal apotheosis it [i.e. the groom information] required only the sonorities of the master. These Johnson in due course provided' (112).

33. 'The anecdote is clearly a pendant to the myth of the deer-poaching at Charlecote' (112).

34. 'It places Shakespeare inside the manured precincts' (112).

35. 'The horse-holding story' (112).

36. 'John Dennis [aesthetician and poet laureate] defends his own meddling pen'  (144).

37. 'The mythos ramifies after its own fashion. Once again Davenant is the ultimate source' (204).

38 'Lady Alice Hesketh succoured papists' (CDL 114).



Schoenbaum explains (1991, 502) that 'the modern biographer of Shakespeare is confronted by fierce methodological problems which call for professional expertise: he must sift fact from legend' and 'distinguish among possibility, probability and certainty'. But these are the skills of the logician and the historian; and the relevant expertise is that of the paleographer or the lawyer. In none of those fields does Professor Schoenbaum profess any particular competence; and his assumption of authority has distorted Shakespeare studies out of reasonable shape for the last thirty years.

   Again, S is regularly rebuked for the 'fact' that he 'took no pains' (Schoenbaum 1985, 34) to ensure the preservation of his plays, as though he too had a learned press at his disposal. In extenuation of this apparent indifference, it is explained that 'as a dramatist, he wrote not with readers in mind, only for the applause of audiences moved to laughter and tears in the playhouse' (ibid. 27-28). This is asserted of a writer whose published plays passed through at least fifty editions altogether in his own lifetime; who supplied manuscript copies of those texts and others, after careful revisions, to their editors-elect for posthumous publication in Folio form; and whose second or final versions were (as the length of Hamlet for example sufficiently shows) intended for reading rather than performance, and were prima facie prepared long after their author's own acting days were over.    


Late start

It makes sense for Greene's rancorous rivalry to be just as deep-rooted as it sounds. Shakespeare could not colourably be claimed to think himself in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country unless he was in fact a dominant figure on the London scene. And even for him, that must have taken some time. The dates as well as other facts fit (as Schoenbaum says, before abandoning that line of enquiry for no clear reason [check].


Memorial reconstruction: 1590

Modern scholarship (e.g. Schoenbaum 1975, 120; Wells, 1986, 103; Taylor, 1987, 112) proclaims with one voice that Greene thus ascribed 3 Henry VI to Shakespeare, with the corollary that this text, though not published until 1623…



In particular none of it deserves to be dismissed as 'mythos', in the top-lofty tones of Chambers (1930, ii, 238-302) still echoed by Schoenbaum (1975).  

a woolshop built into the birthplace premises (1975, 54). This later discovery 'holds a salutary lesson', as Schoenbaum says (1975, 27), which is however surely the opposite of the one he draws, namely that 'tradition, often discredited and always to be regarded with scepticism, may yet conceal a kernel of truth'. In fact 'tradition' (i.e. the unanimous testimony) turned out to be true; so scepticism was always prejudiced and irrational, in this context as in all others. The reason why 'early biographers persistently refer to John Shakespeare as a wool-stapler' (ibid.) was not their unreliability but the contrary; they stood closer to the facts than their successors.



The topic is discussed in detail by Samuel Schoenbaum (1975, 41-6, following McManaway 1967) who reproduces the surviving documentation in a chapter entitled 'John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament' which accepts its authenticity yet curiously concludes that 'we must…settle for a secular agnosticism' on the subject.

   All these vital data are still ignored, deprecated or distorted, often through manifest prejudice. We are assured that '...John Shakespeare was a tradesman, not an ideologue' (Schoenbaum 1975, 39), despite his admittedly authentic Testament, than which nothing more ideological could well be imagined. Its text is criticised (ibid. 46) for the supposedly curious feature that it solicited prayers from 'parents', since John Shakespeare's parents 'were both dead' at the time, i.e. after 1580. The simple explanation that the Italian parientes (relations) had been thus mistranslated is rejected in favour of the so-called 'simpler explanation' that 'John Shakespeare signed a standardised form rather than one adapted to particular circumstances', which is not an explanation but a restatement of the supposed problem.

   This censorious distancing persists. Even if Shakespeare's father and daughter were Catholic, 'we would still not possess a sure clue to the poet's own faith' (ibid. 49). Perhaps not; but why throw away a possible key to his art and thought? In the light of the evidence, it is surely sensible of 'theologically minded students' to 'have so industriously searched the plays for evidences of Catholic sympathies' (ibid.). Their discoveries get short shrift from the unsympathetic. Thus 'a month's mind' in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.ii.134) entails the Catholic sense (OED 1) of a memorial mass a month after death, whether literal or figurative. The notion that it might 'signify merely a longing, such as might take a pregnant woman' (Schoenbaum 1975, 50) signifies merely a fancy for some other explanation. Similar motivation inspires the description of Father Milward S.J. as a 'Jesuitical commentator' (loc. cit.), the dismissal of his conclusion that 'Shakespeare felt a positive nostalgia for England's Catholic past', and the open contempt for the 'efforts of sectarian apologists to put [Shakespeare] into a convenient theological pigeon-hole'. Of course there are factual reservations to be offered, such as the apparent anti-Catholicism of King John for example. But biography cannot be based on bias. It is irrational to doubt either the actuality of Shakespeare's Catholic upbringing or the fact that it was formative. No doubt 'the artist takes precedence over the votary'; but that is no reason for disenfranchising the votary. On the contrary; the evidence clamours for objective reexamination. A good starting-point must be the evidence of those experts in the relevant subject-matter. The books on Shakespeare's Catholicism (such as Bowden 1899, Chambrun 1957, Milward 1973, and Honigmann 1985) need to be given renewed dispassionate study in the light of the dated facts.



The attempt to suggest that perhaps he could perfectly well write his name but for some reason chose not to (Chambers, 1930, i. 16; Schoenbaum. 1975, 36) belongs to the mythos of the genteel Shakespeare. No one even suggests as much for his mother, or indeed for his daughter Judith (395) who also signed with a mark



There is no basis but neo-Baconian Bardolatry and general gentrification for the universal assumption of a complete grammar school education (e.g. Halliday 1961, 26; Schoenbaum 1975, 50), in deliberate defiance of all the extensive evidence.



The evidence hardly implies that 'husbandry did not, evidently, much appeal to' him (Schoenbaum 1975, 27). No such inference is drawn from the very similar fines imposed upon father Richard and brother Henry, who were nothing but farmers all their lives. The unprejudiced inference is rather that they all had too much to do.

   He has surely seen, and on his own home farm (not just his uncle Henry's, as Schoenbaum defensively suggests) how


'the butcher takes away the calf,

and binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,

bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house...



The modern pretence of knowing better, and explaining the facts away by the fantastic theory that the butcher story derived from a mimed performance called Killing the Calf (Schoenbaum 1975, Powell 1985), is motivated solely by subconscious snobbery. There is no evidence at all that Shakespeare ever took part in, or indeed had ever heard of, any such imaginary performance. Nor is it in the least likely that Aubrey's Stratford informants were village idiots who could not tell work from entertainment, killing from acting, or speech from mime (SamsTLS 1985, Encounter 1987). These notions are designed to keep the Shakespeares' hands clean, by the manufacture of gloves and theories. Nor does the process of invention stop there. Samuel Schoenbaum for example makes John Shakespeare serve a seven-year apprenticeship as a glover and then passes a law forbidding him to undertake his own slaughtering. Thus his gifted son is allowed to complete his grammar school education, and become an apprenticeship glover in his turn. But there is no trace of evidence for any such apprenticeship, or law, or education; it is all sheer myth-making passed off as fact or probability



These deer-hunting 'legends' do not merely 'describe sports and recreation, not the serious occupations of life', as announced from a great distance of time, space, and social status (Schoenbaum 1975, 87). They were, on the contrary, matters of life and death.



The modern genteel Shakespeare could not possibly have been an ostler. So this well-established tradition too is scornfully rejected by Samuel Schoenbaum as 'clearly a pendant to the myth of deer-poaching', with the further dismissive comment that 'early capitalist enterprise furnishes a heartening postlude to romantic pseudo-delinquency'. In the real world however, then as now, young men coming to the capital from the provinces have to earn their livings; and it is hard to see what job could have been more instantly suitable, congenial and available.



'Before leaving Stratford, had they enlisted Shakespeare, then aged twenty-three, as their latest recruit?' (Schoenbaum 1975). No, not unless all the evidence to the contrary is ignored, and he was content to be a farmer's boy for ten years or more. He is far more likely to have come to Stratford in 1587 as a Queen's Man than to have joined them there.

   A much more meaningful link between Shakespeare and the Queen's Men relates to their repertory of plays. Here the evidence, though clearly crucial, is commonly left unmentioned (as in Kay 1992) or incomplete and hence perhaps misinterpreted (as in Schoenbaum 1975, 125 and 1977, 165).



They all fare badly before the Schoenbaum tribunal, which has been in permanent session for the last twenty years. He mentions but ignores Fripp's comments (Schoenbaum 2/1991). He had already down-graded Malone's reasoning to mere 'conjecture', and approvingly quoted the Victorian counter-argument that 'surely [Shakespeare's] signature would have appeared on deeds or wills he was called upon to witness; but no such signature has ever come to light' (1975, 87). This is presented as a destructive hypothetical syllogism in modus tollens: if A is B, C is D; but C is not D; hence A is not B. But its major premise is jerry-built; there is no firm ground for the basic belief. What Elizabethan or Jacobean document among all those reproduced in Schoenbaum's own Documentary Biography for example is actually witnessed by the signature of a lawyer's clerk or copyist? The term in question is the contemptuous 'noverint', with overt overtones of snobbish scorn. Once again Shakespeare has been subconsciously promoted to a higher status. From that vantage-point, Chief Justice Lord Campbell not only has his considered judgement reversed but is treated in terms of 'fantasy' and 'idyll', falsely accused of 'tampering with the rules of evidence' and even flouted for his 'evident inclination to claim Shakespeare for his own fraternity' (Schoenbaum 2/1991, 333). Such beams in the eye block or distort the vision.

   Nicholas Knight's detailed and patient arguments about Shakespeare's involvement in the law are also summarily rejected, with similar errors. 'He tends to lose sight of the fact that the Chancery litigants in the nineties were John and Mary Shakespeare, not their son William' (Schoenbaum, 1981, 108). But the actual facts lost sight of are that the 1589 litigants (157) included William, by name. Thus the 1588 family lawsuit in Whitehall is wiped out by the mistaken claim that 'the documentary record presents a blank' between 1585 and 1592 (Schoenbaum 1975, 77, corrected in 1977, 95) while the 1597 bill of complaint (235) continued exactly the same case. The extent of Shakespeare's own involvement in all such contexts is clearly described and discussed by Knight (1973). It is no doubt true that Shakespeare's legal training…


They are not 'old English ecclesiastical laws' (Schoenbaum 1981, 104); they are the laws of Christian kings, which were sometimes still current in the Elizabethan era.


   Nor apparently was any attention paid to the actual handwriting. That topic was first discussed in detail by the Folger palaeographer in a frame of mind made manifest by his curious comment 'a strange volume indeed for [Shakespeare's] library' (Dawson 1942, 97). This is applauded as 'a scholar's caution' and duly echoed by a later biographer: 'the volume...still seems an odd choice for Shakespeare's library' (Schoenbaum 1981, 109). This observation too is offered in all seriousness, as if American commentators four centuries later were somehow much better judges than Shakespeare himself of a book's suitability for his shelves and his signature. Yet the same commentators in the same context actually conclude, however grudgingly, that the signature is probably genuine. How would they react if someone else, four centuries later still, found a text-book of elementary logic signed 'Dawson' or 'Schoenbaum' and labelled it an odd choice for either of their own libraries? Nor has anyone, however powerfully expert, ever thought of any valid reason for disputing the Archaionomia signature. On the contrary, its first analyst has now granted it a free pardon and released it for universal approval, after fifty years in the wilderness (Dawson 1992)


   The arms documents penned by Dethick!


   But one independent worker had already irrigated the field and rendered it fertile (Knight 1973). He was duly warned off for reviving 'the old and generally discredited theory that Shakespeare during the Lost Years occupied himself as a lawyer's scrivener' (Schoenbaum 1981, 108). Here the dust is blown back again, by bias, into the eyes of the scholarly community. The so-called theory has clear documentary backing (152); the a priori anti-legal attitude has none. So which is now discredited?

   And why was Knight attacked so personally? 'Knight exaggerates Shakespeare's knowledge of the law' (1981, 108); thus Schoenbaum exaggerates his own knowledge of Shakespeare's knowledge of the law. Knight 'tends to lose sight of the fact that the Chancery litigants in the nineties were John and Mary Shakespeare, not their son William' (loc. cit.); but Schoenbaum not only lost sight of the original 1589 case altogether ('From 1585...until 1592... the documentary record presents a blank': 1975, 77) but then lost sight of William's undeniable interest and involvement as eldest son and heir to the property in question. Again, Knight's 'well-publicised researches... seem not to have reached Lambarde's most recent biographer' (1981, 108); but Schoenbaum seems not to have reached the relevant page in that biography (Warnicke 1973, 146).


Adams (1942) is even accused of misleading his readers, and being 'led…unconsciously to distort the laboratory findings of his impartial expert' Vernon Tate. Those 1939 findings are unconsciously suppressed by Schoenbaum, though he must have studied them with some care; they are worth setting out in some detail.