The “Shadowy Figure” of Shakespeare

Title page of Shakespeare’s First Folio, containing the playwright’s 36 plays and dating from 1623, is seen in an undated photo before going up for an auction where it is expected to fetch between 4 and 6 million dollars, in New York City.

Alongside the engraving of a portrait by the Dutch artist Martin Droueshut supposed by orthodox scholars and academics to be a true likeness of William Shakespeare is Ben Jonson’s poetic remarks which metaphorically cast some doubt on its authenticity:

To the Reader,
This figure, that thou here see’st put
It was for Gentle Shakespeare cut
Wherein the graver had a strife
With Nature to out-doo the life:
O, could he but have drawn his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath it
His face, the Print would then surpasse
All that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke.

BI (Ben Jonson)

I have previously explored the numerous portraits presumed to be of William Shakespeare in “The Many faces of Shakespeare”. However, Ben Jonson is clearly saying that we should not look at this artist’s facsimile of Shakespeare but instead to read his book for a “truer likeness” of the playwright and poet. And yet when we read his Folio of plays we are forced to see a natural literary genius and superlative polymath who could only have been an aristocrat or someone close to the Elizabethan court. Following on from the Essex Rebellion in February 7th 1601 whereby the Earl of Essex was later arrested, tried and found guilty of treason and sedition, and Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, being implicated in the Catholic plot, was imprisoned in the Tower awaiting a similar fate, no more of Shakespeare’s plays were published in England. For some unknown reason the Earl of Southampton was not executed like Essex but later pardoned and then released.

An artist’s portrayal of the Execution of the Earl of Essex

The entire volume of Shakespeare’s Sonnets were eventually published in 1609 and dedicated again to Henry Wriothesley, together with the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. To appreciate or understand what events and circumstances led to this sudden and abrupt end to his career and why he was not celebrated or eulogised later after his death in 1616 we need to examine what was happening earlier in dramatic and political circles. That is “The War of the Theatres” and the denunciation of the “Euphuist Movement” by Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Dekker in London. In a previous article entitled “Shakespeare’s Nemesis” I explained why the Blackfriar’s Theatre was shut down and in the Oxfordian Review, volume 21, Dr. Luke Prodromou, a Shakespeare scholar (University of Thessaloniki & Birmingham Institute) points out that there is little evidence of the whereabouts of William Shakespeare whenever something really important is happening in the literary and political arena in London. If we take the years 1588 (the year of the Spanish Armada) through to 1595, that year being the first time he is mentioned in the accounts compiled by Elizabeth Russell, the Dowager Countess of Southampton as receiving payment with Will Kempe for performances before the Queen.

An illustration from the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada

No other biographical mention of Shakespeare appears until the death of his son, Hamnet in 1596 although presumably he had to have been working on his two volumes of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece (published in May 1594) signed simply W.S. and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and in April 1593 he published Venus & Adonis again dedicated to the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. So what was “Shakespeare” doing when the poet and playwright, Sir Christopher Marlowe was assassinated in a tavern brawl by Ingram Frazier in March 1593? (See “Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?”). This has to be a grand “game-changer” for budding dramatists, poets and playwrights in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare did not comment directly on Marlowe’s death but presumably wrote “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Tempest” in response to Marlowe’s criticism of usury, magic and alchemy (The Jew of Malta & Dr. Faustus). Those changing the “rules” (redacting or censoring plays) were of course the Privy Council, the Master of the Revels, the Lord Chamberlain and the son of Lord Burghley, Robert Cecil who was involved in preparing a smooth path for the succession of the Crown, since Queen Elizabeth, now in her sixties was likely to pass away without actually naming a successor. This was often the subject of dramatic speculation within numerous plays in the London theatres and usually led to riots and disturbances. Why she failed to name a successor after 44 years as the Queen of England is a curious mystery and the subject of perhaps another, future article?

The controversial figures during the War of the Theatres and the Euphuist Movement

It seems prior to 1593 Shakespeare had been admonished by Robert Greene as the “Upstart Crow” since Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit” had been published in September 1592 by Henry Chettle and by the 8th of December in that year Henry Chettle registered his own “Kind Harts Dreame” as a form of apology to Shakespeare and presumably two other poet/playwrights assumed to be Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson since they were not actually named. However, according to biographers and academics throughout that ten year period he would also have been a busy man writing his tetralogy of history plays (excluding Richard IIIrd and King John), “A Comedy of Errors”, “Love’s Labours Lost”, “Romeo & Juliet”, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” after which time he is finally granted his coat of arms in 1601 (see “Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms”). Soon after this we discover that he is bound over to keep the peace having been sued by William Wayte for threatening his life along with two other accomplices in late 1596. As in the case of the unlawful killing of Christopher Marlowe no reason or cause has been given to explain this presumably violent exchange or altercation in London’s streets. Although numerous allusions are made in his plays to the complex social, political and diplomatic events that occur in England and abroad in his own personal life he appears distant, silent and indifferent to them. However, the following year he is definitely buoyed up financially since he places a mortgage bond of £60 with the intention of buying New Place, a substantial property asset in Stratford-upon-Avon, but neglects to pay his council taxes (5 shillings) in London having also in that year moved from Bishopsgate to Southwark. The last play to have been registered for publication was in fact “As You Like It” (1600), but it was not actually published until 1623 when the First Folio was collated and printed by Heminges and Condell. Also in the same year as the Essex Rebellion was the registration of “Henry Vth” in August 1600 (unsigned and presumed to compare Essex’s current status with Henry Vth), and “Much Ado About Nothing” (signed William Shakespeare). A year later in 1601 Robert Chester published an anthology of poetry entitled “Love’s Martyr; or Rosalind’s Complaint”, in which a poem by Chester appears to bear the same title as Shakespeare’s own poem which is described on the title page:

The title page of Love’s Martyr by Robert Chester

“To these are added some newe compositions, of several modern Writers whose names are subscribed to their several works, upon the first subject: viz; the Phoenix and Turtle.”

The Oxfordian academic and author Katherine Kiljan suggests that the poem is an allegory of Queen Elizabeth and her secret love child, Lord Hastings who would have succeeded her after her death as the new “King of England”. It was printed by Richard Field who also composited Venus & Adonis and Lucrece and it was dedicated to Sir John Salusbury, a Welsh knight. Love’s Martyr was an attempt by the obscure poet Robert Chester at Ovidian verse coupled with chorographic, narrative and encyclopaedic material, such as the numerous plants, trees and birds which were listed that inhabited the isle of Paphos where the Phoenix eventually retires. Kiljan picks out the lines:

From the sweet fire of perfumed wood,
Another princely Phoenix upright stood:
Whose feathers purified did yield more light,
Than her late burned mother out of sight,
Sprung from the bosom of the Turtle Dove.
Long may the new uprising bird increase.

Katherine Kiljan suggests that the Phoenix symbolised “Beauty”, the Turtle Dove “Truth” and a third person symbolised as “Rarity” (Lord Hastings?) as evidenced in the concluding Threnos:

The Title page of “Kind Harts Dreame” published by Henry Chettle

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d in cinders lie.

Death is now the phœnix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

Some critics have suggested that the Phoenix, a bird of resurrection, represents Queen Elizabeth Ist, and the Turtle-dove her principal secret lover and much later a traitorous agent of insurrection in the London riot of 1601, the 2nd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. It’s sad, somewhat resigned tone, almost to the point of bitter irony and melancholic despair may reflect Elizabeth’s feelings at having to sign the warrant for Essex’s execution or perhaps denying Lord Hastings the right of legitimate accession to the throne of England. It may be more than just mere coincidence that the date of publishing is the same soon after the insurrection in London. But Shakespeare’s title did not come into use until 1807, before which it was simply known as: “Let the Bird of Loudest Lay”. Again, this is an instance in which in Shakespeare’s poetry he appears to be at the social/cultural hub of London but in his personal life far away from the action.

An engraving depicting the execution of Mary Queen of Scots

For example, by May 1602 Will Shakespeare, gent is preoccupied with his property portfolio because he purchases a large plot of agricultural land for the sum of £320 but the deeds admit “it is sealed and delivered to Gilbert Shakespeare, his brother”. That is Shakespeare was not planning late in his dramatic career to return in his retirement to farming the land. Another property acquisition follows with the purchase of a small cottage across from New Place, presumably intended to rent to a relative. The next mention of his whereabouts is in London again in July, 1604 when he is now lodging on the corner of Monkswell and Silver Street near St. Olave’s Church with Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot who was a milliner, but the following year Shakespeare has also invested in tithes in Stratford-upon-Avon the enormous sum of £440. No one to my personal satisfaction has been able to explain how Shakespeare managed to acquire or earn such a large sum of money in such a short space of time. It was not from writing plays, the theatres paid in shillings; or for that matter from acting, since actors were paid in pence for their performance work. Nevertheless, despite these large investments Shakespeare is still keen to collect any outstanding debts, however small and insignificant from an apothecary in Stratford. Katherine Kiljan goes on to say that Thomas Dekker was criticising the author when he wrote “Satiro-Mastix, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet” in the same year and lampooning Ben Jonson’s own play “Poetaster, or the Arraignment” directed at contemporary writers where in a setting at the court of the Emperor Augustus, he parodied Marston as Crispinus, Thomas Dekker as Demetrius and Ben Jonson as Horace. William Shakespeare had assimilated and espoused the techniques of euphuism in his own play “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. However, the practice of Euphuism required the multi-layered use of alliteration, labyrinthine similes and metaphors, complex allusions, extraordinary syntax, and a dynamic form of rhetoric. In 1601, soon after Will Shakespeare is granted his coat of arms Ben Jonson satirises him in “Every Man Out of His Humour”. Ben Jonson lampooned his newly acquired status with a tract entitled Poet Ape and in a reference “Not Without Mustard”.

A mysterious portrait presumed to be of “William Shakespeare” in all his fashionable regalia as “A Gentleman”

Poor Poet Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the froppery of wit,
From Brokage has become so bold a thief
As we the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays, now grown
To a little wealth, and credit on the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose t’was first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! As if half-eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

An artist’s lithograph of Shakespeare’s Family Home

Like Greene, Ben Jonson is aggrieved that Shakespeare, by now an actor/writer and probably director/manager in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was buying the copyright of old plays and revising them, thereby accruing great wealth, status and distinction – which is certainly true of the actor from Stratford. Most likely this was the secret source of his mysterious wealth. One should bear in mind that the theatres in London were more akin to the popular tabloid press of our time, so quarrels and disagreements between playwrights or poets were literally played out with the use of innuendo, allusion and parody on the stage. Another quarrelsome critic of Shakespeare’s plays and the Euphuist fraternity was Gabriel Harvey, a close friend of Edmund Spenser, who styled himself as “the father of the English hexameter”. After obtaining a fellowship at Trinity Hall his private correspondence with Spenser (Four Letters, 1592) was published revealing his condemnation of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe. The controversial Harvey and Nashe were subsequently banned for life from their polemical trajectories by the Privy Council in 1601, and their existing literary works confiscated. Meanwhile, Ben Jonson was questioned by the Lord Chief Justice about his play “Poetaster” and the subsequent battles fought between Dekker, Chapman, and Webster in the “Westward Ho”, “Eastward Ho” and “Northward Ho” plays. As a direct result of the performance of Eastward Ho in September 1605 or their contribution in “Love’s Martyr”, Ben Jonson and George Chapman were arrested and jailed on a jumped-up charge of sedition because of disparaging remarks made against the Scots. They were eventually released but were threatened with mutilation if they ever dared put pen to paper again.

Title page of Robert Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit”

Shakespeare remarkably is not suspected or implicated in either the Essex Rebellion or the Gunpowder Plot even though his family had sheltered Robert Catesby, a near neighbour at Lapworth of Shakespeare’s while they were plotting the destruction of Parliament in 1605. Although his play Richard IInd had been commissioned for performance on the eve of the Essex Rebellion by Devereux’s supporters because it featured the deposition of a lawful monarch, the author Shakespeare was miraculously not questioned, suspected, arrested or implicated by the authorities. Then in 1608 Shakespeare acquires a percentage of the lease of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse although he is no longer domiciled in London and no longer managing, performing or writing plays. Again, during a time of great social and political change he slips away into his “shadowy existence” either at Stratford or in London unscathed by events and undetectable. The last plays that remained unregistered or unprinted were “King Lear” (registered 1607, printed 1608), followed by the registry of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” and “Anthony & Cleopatra” in 1608, and “Troillus & Cressida”. In 1609, the Sonnets were finally published and several plays continue to be performed such as “A Winter’s Tale” in 1610 and “Henry VIIIth” in 1612, then “Othello” is finally registered in 1621 and published the following year despite the fact that the Bard had died by 1616. His shares and royalties from plays in the Globe Theatre and his percentage lease of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse as transferable assets were not mentioned in his last will and testament so that none of his family actually inherited or benefitted financially from them. A year before his death in 1616 Shakespeare pays his last visit to London with his solicitor in order to remove Dr. John Hall, who married his daughter Susanna from his will because he was having an extra-marital affair with another woman. The day, month and year of his death coincides with a visit by Ben Jonson (who had just published his own Folio of Plays & Poetry) and a local worthy, the poet Michael Drayton who call upon Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate his 52nd birthday on the eve of St. George’s Day. The next morning he is found dead in his bed presumably on account of excess food and drink from the previous evening. His physical remains were buried at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon-Avon but a recent ground-penetrating radar investigation by an ex-CIA agent revealed nothing but dust and rubble in his tomb. It seems that even in death Will Shakespeare was still capable of doing his famous act of “magical disappearance” and escape without further scrutiny.

An artist’s engraving featuring the execution of those involved in the Gunpowder Plot, 1605
The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

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