Response: Shakespeare coat of arms

“…A rarity for a man from the theater…” Indeed.

Latest Shakespeare “find” more smoke & mirrors than ‘smoking gun’


IN this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, the discoveries are coming fast and furious.* The latest is delineated in a 29 June piece in the New York Times that seems to be little more than a recycled press release (it should be noted that no press release concurrent with the discoveries was announced; the story sprang fully formed in the pages of the NYT). The documents in question, found at the College of Arms by Heather Wolfe, manuscript curator at Washington, DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library, relate to Shakespeare’s coat of arms, noting that they offer more insight into the man himself, particularly as a social climber. But this should come as no particular surprise given that the coat of arms information has been extant for centuries. The article itself references contemporary playwright Ben Jonson’s parody of the Stratford man as Sogliardo, with his motto ‘Not without right’ becoming ‘Not without mustard’, suggesting that even at the time his presumptions were regarded as ridiculous. Subsequently everyone from Edmund Malone to Robert Browning discussed his aspirations to rise in society. But despite numerous proofs as regards his aspirations to wealth, he never seemed collect on or admit to his family, his town, or anyone that he was the greatest poet/playwright of the age.

Puzzles the will…

This “discovery” seems to be a somewhat earlier illustration of the coat of arms, c. 1600, labelled ‘Shakespeare ye Player by Garter’. It is true that the illustration widely relied upon was a copy from 1700, which gave rise to some doubt and suspicion. But given that we already knew of the 1602 complaint by Ralph Brooke against William Dethick , Garter Principal King of Arms (hence the ‘by Garter’), the identification as ‘the player’ is hardly new news. Although it must be noted that those who doubted Shakespeare’s employment even as an actor could be justified in that any reference to him in that occupation comes posthumously, or post-dated… again by Ben Jonson.

Curiouser and curiouser

armsWhat is most puzzling, however, is Columbia University professor James Shapiro’s assertion that this is a “smoking gun.” How so? Of what? In 1600, when this document is purportedly dated (although both the NYT illustration and the Shakespeare Documented website are opaque as to the origins of this document; one version looks to be in a scrapbook of some kind—whose? and when?) Shakespeare was already a famous playwright. Mr. Shapiro’s own book, scant as it is on actual fact, relies heavily on the man’s prolificity as a playwright by 1599. Wouldn’t ‘Shakespeare ye playwright’ be a smokier gun? Or smokiest?  If anything, identifying the Stratford man as a player in 1600 reinforces the case stated by Doubters. In fact, citing ‘smoking gun’ evidence underscores the fact that the Stratford Shakspear (a spelling adopted by 19th scholars who noted how he spelt his name; Doubters simply agree) is by no means the prima facie candidate for the renowned playwright.

One reaction, from actor and co-founder of New York City’s UP Theatre, Rik Walter, directly addresses this point: “Here’s the really sly, underhanded part of the article. … He purposefully uses this phrase to imply a false syllogism: Stratford = Player. Player = Author. Therefore: Stratford = Author. This is par for the course for Shapiro: plant associations so closely together and so ambiguously (but don’t actually say it) as to leave the reader thinking it is actual fact. He is famous for this tactic. I guarantee that people come away from this article thinking, “Oh wow, smoking gun proof that clearly refutes the authorship question”.

This obfuscatory tactic has been running rampant in contemporary society, arguably responsible for situations such as Brexit, George W. Bush and current American presidential candidate Donald Trump. Television presenter Adam Savage has recently clamoured for increased critical thinking across the board but when teachers at leading institutions are committed to antifactual rhetoric, the hopes for a less-easily manipulated populace stand at less than zero.

The set-up

It’s hard to know whether reporter Jennifer Schuessler who seems to cover this particular beat is a patsy or partner-in-crime. Witness her article on Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy where she fails to identify the mysterious manuscript (the unfinished playscript of Sir Thomas More) or that there is no way to identify Hand D (also not properly cited as such) as Shakespeare’s because there is no quantifiable control sample—this puts even specious journalistic integrity to shame. Here, she quotes “scholar C.W. Scott-Giles” as lamenting the “intolerable deal of supposition” that makes up Shakespeare scholarship, but does nothing to mitigate that intolerability. One might surmise Schuessler sourced the press release for that quote. Otherwise she might have mined the more identifiable Mark Twain and his colorfully quotable “nine bones, and [] the rest [] plaster of Paris.” But of course that might lead readers to discover Twain’s entertaining and incisive pamphlet “Is Shakespeare Dead?”, conveniently omitted from the 100th anniversary compendium of his works.

Rare, medium, well done

Finally we address the phrase in the NYTimes piece that furnishes the title of this article: Was social climbing really “a rarity for a man from the theater”? The just-closed Henslowe Paper’s exhibition at London’s Globe Theatre affirms the opposite. Edward Alleyn, an actor on par with Richard Burbage, whose career trajectory included partnering with father-in-law Philip Henslowe in businesses such as the Rose Playhouse, went on to found the College of God’s Gift, later Dulwich College and Dulwich Chapel. Though he may never have applied for a coat-of-arms, this ‘player’ did achieve prominence in respectable society, stemming from substance over style.


Footnotes worthy of followup:

  • William Camden: He, with William Dethick, approved a change to the coat of arms of John scrapbookShakspere, Will’s father, in 1599. In his Remains of a Greater Work Concerning Britain (completed 1603; pub.1605), Shakespeare’s name appears in his list of 11 modern English poets. Just two years later comes Camden’s great work: Britannia, covering England’s counties, towns & their NOTABLE residents–his section on Stratford-upon-Avon omits mention of it as Shakespeare’s hometown. Camden also does not mention the Stratford man’s death in his Annals of 1616. Nor is his death noted in Camden’s personal diary, though the deaths of Richard Burbage & Samuel Daniel are recorded, both d. 1619.
  • * Previous “discoveries” this year.
  • The Coat v. the Crest – The Lion shaking a spear was the oft-used logo crestfor the De Vere Soceity until the late Dr. John Rollett deemed it unsuitable since he claimed the Bulbec crest, one of de Vere’s hereditary titles, was not used in the earl’s lifetime (although there are dedications to the earl that include the title). But there is a marked similarity between the broken spear of the crest and the spear on the Shakespeare coat of arms. In addition, there may be an implied alchemical progression in the black bend (bar) that provides the ground for the gold & silver spear, black thought to be the color of lead in the 16th c.