Shakespeare’s Signatures

From the early 15th to the late 16th centuries in England the handwriting style had been described as evolving from the early medieval period and imitated the rather staid Anglo-Saxon gothic style. However by the middle of the 16th century handwriting styles became influenced by the Italian humanist style termed “italic cursive” with a slight slant, with letters conjoined by neat upper and lower flourishes. This style was more frequently found among the aristocratic and well educated classes of Elizabethan England. Typical examples of this trend towards Italic Cursive was the handwriting style of Edward VIth, Queen Elizabeth Ist, Queen Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey and the famous schoolteacher across the reign of Henry VIIIth to Queen Elizabeth, Roger Ascham. The leading handwriting experts who favoured and practised the Italian style were John Baildon (A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands 1571), Peter Bales (The Writing Schoolemaster 1590), and the poet John Davies. In contradistinction William Shakespeare’s handwriting style has been described by academic experts as resembling the old style Anglo-Saxon gothic. However, the handwriting style of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere on the other hand is truly Italian cursive with elaborate loops and flourishes. Despite the natural and quite reasonable assumption that William Shakespeare would have spent the majority of his time reading books and writing on paper there are very few examples of his actual signature. It seems expedient to point out that it was not uncommon for a person to sign a “X” as evidence of willing agreement or confirmation in legal contracts or written agreements. Usually this was done adjacent to the person’s name and often witnessed again in the same manner by others. So, generally speaking we would have the names of the people (often printed for legibility) with a “X” alongside it, in other cases a person might sign just with an “X” and that would suffice. One might easily be excused for imagining that Shakespeare’s signature would be elaborate and probably contain the occasional flourish. Sadly however, this is not the case. The six signatures purporting to be that of William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon are all very different from each other, they are somewhat crude in execution, inconsistent in style, and are almost illegible. This seems strange when he wrote:

A sample of Edward de Vere’s handwriting style

You still shall live-such virtue hath my Pen-
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men. (Sonnet 81)

A commentator on Shakespeare said that he wrote as he spoke and spoke as he wrote and yet we have no examples of his handwriting from play manuscripts to examine today. We have numerous examples of the handwritten manuscripts of Ben Jonson (Masque of Queenes) and George Peele (Henry VIth) but none presumably written by William Shakespeare. The few examples we have are formed in an English school-hand which was employed by commoners while an educated aristocrat may have employed a style known as “Italian” or italic imported from Italy. Neither do we have for comparison any letters or correspondence between Shakespeare and anyone else. The only evidence of someone writing to Shakespeare is Richard Quiney’s request for a loan of £30 although this letter was never sent and could easily have been concocted to occupy the alarming vacuum of letters to the literary genius. In direct contrast we have original 15th and 16th century play manuscripts, letters and legal documents pertaining to other playwrights of the time such as say Ben Jonson.

The original manuscript of “Shakespeare’s Last Will & Testament

One signature purported to be Shakespeare’s appears on a deposition to the Court of Requests (19th June 1612), another two samples, one on a vendor’s copy of the purchase deed of Blackfriar’s Gatehouse (10th March 1613) and one on the mortgage of New Place (16th March 1613), and another three on his will (25th March 1616). It was quite common at the time for signatures to be written by legal clerks where the signatory was either absent, infirm or illiterate. Clearly, in the case of Shakespeare we must presume he was either absent from proceedings, extremely ill or simply unable to sign his own name. The reasons for this anomaly are to a certain extent unclear. There are no signatures associated with the original playwright’s manuscripts which is problematic to say the least. Despite all this ill-judged speculation, the international handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, who stands firmly on the Stratfordian case, has stated that Shakespeare was probably too ill or infirm to sign his own name on these occasions and that the signatures are still undoubtedly by William Shakespeare. Hamilton also states that there are other examples of Shakespeare’s signatures, for example; the Welcombe Enclosure Agreement (28th Oct 1614) drawn up to settle the dispute over land enclosure by his lawyer, Thomas Lucas and signed by three other witnesses. Then there are the three applications made to the College of Heralds for the grant of a coat of arms to William Dethwick by Shakespeare’s father John and the defaced cover page of the Northumberland Manuscript thought to belong to Sir Francis Bacon. Alongside these are also the manuscript for the play Sir Thomas More (circa: 1593 or later), on which a great deal more has been presumed regarding the signature of the greatest living poet and playwright of the Elizabethan era. Subsequently several attempts at forgery have been discovered for example on the title page of John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s “Essayes” (1603 & 1613), which is in the Bodleian Library someone attempted to make it appear as if Shakespeare once owned this book with a shortened signature Wm. Sh. A similar attempt was discovered on the title page of Aldines “Metamorphoses” (1502) again in the Bodleian Library, possibly in the same hand drawn from memory of the signature on the Blackfriar’s lease.

The nearest of the six sample signatures attributed to William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s signatures were written using a quill or metal pen on paper of various types and durability. Clearly, the examples were executed with a very shaky handwriting style and in my view by three different people or separate renditions, the first (Bellot/Mountjoy) looks like Shaksby, the second (Blackfiar’s Deed) looks like Shakspye, the third and fourth Shackspere (Shakespeare’s Will), and the fifth and sixth Shagspere. They were executed in the last four years of Shakspere’s life. Even to the layman these six signatures seem to vary in both spelling and style over the entire period when they became available to researchers and academics.

A copy of the Northumberland manuscript whereby an unknown scribe has attempted to forge William Shakespeare’s signature

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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