Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare has left us with little documentary evidence about his life and works, but that hasn’t stopped his followers from making something of very little, or indeed, nothing at all. 


One of the problems faced by researchers into William Shakespeare is the paucity of documentary evidence about him, his work and his personal life. In their zeal to make their case both Stratfordians (those who believe Shakespeare wrote the canon) and Anti-Stratfordians (those who believe anyone but Shakespeare wrote the canon) have been known to try to make something out of very little or, indeed, nothing at all.


William Shakeshafte and the play clothes


etching of Elizabethan musicians
Elizabethan Musicians

One of the issues raised by the Anti-Stratfordians is that the, at best, grammar school educated boy from Stratford could not possibly have had the knowledge or experience demonstrated in the Shakespearean canon (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? ) The Stratfordians counter by suggesting that during his ‘Lost Years’ (the time between the birth of his twins and his first recorded appearance in London some eight years later) Shakespeare did a variety of jobs that would equip him for the authorship of the plays. However, as all of those jobs cannot easily be accommodated in the timeframe, they have eagerly taken up the cause of one William Shakeshafte to push one of those jobs back to the period before his hasty marriage at eighteen.

Perhaps one of the most enduring Shakespearean legends has it that he was once a country schoolmaster. This snippet of information is believed to have come directly from the horse’s mouth as it can be traced back to the son of Kit Beeston who was one of Shakespeare’s colleagues in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Apart from a comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor parodying a Welsh schoolmaster, there was no evidence for such a claim until the publication in 1860 of the will of Alexander Hoghton, a Lancashire landowner and a Catholic.

Made out in August 1581, the will mentions a servant called William Shakeshafte as well as musical instruments and ‘play clothes’. While there is no evidence that Shakeshafte was anything other than a locally born family retainer and household musician, Shakespearean biographers have leapt on this morsel and have eagerly identified this Shakeshafte as the young William Shakespeare.

These biographers tend to adopt what I call the ‘must-be’ historiographic methodology in which any vague reference to a name containing ‘shake’ is seized upon as something that ‘must be’ a reference to William Shakespeare, however tenuous the connection might be, and this is certainly the most tenuous. (See also The Upstart Crow in Borrowed Feathers)

Making much of Shakespeare’s supposedly intimate knowledge of the Lancashire landscape, biographers such as Park Honan, Michael Wood and Stephen Greenblatt among many others, have pounced on William Shakeshafte.

This ‘must be’ the seventeen-year-old Shakespeare, sent north to get him out of the way of religious persecution at home. Here, they claim, as tutor to the family’s sons, is where he worked as a ‘country schoolmaster’. Here in their library, says Michael Wood, he acquired the breadth of knowledge displayed in his plays and began dabbling in the theatre. Here, says Park Honan, he made the aristocratic connections that would get him into a playing company. Here, says Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare pledged himself to the Catholic cause.

While a tenuous connection can be drawn between Shakespeare and the Hoghtons through Stratford’s schoolmaster and although the Hoghtons have long harboured a family legend that Shakespeare spent two years in their household, to put the young Shakespeare in their schoolroom at this time is drawing a very long bow indeed.

As Michael Wood himself points out, both William and Shakeshafte are common names in Lancashire, so that the existence of a William Shakeshafte with artistic leanings is not such a miraculous coincidence. Meanwhile both Wood and Greenblatt also acknowledge that while William Shakespeare most likely attended grammar school, he was probably taken out at the age of twelve when his father fell on hard times. Not even Park Honan believes he stayed in school beyond his fifteenth birthday. Yet they still think it likely that a rich family like the Hoghtons would employ as tutor a half-educated boy when they could afford an Oxbridge scholar, especially a Catholic one who might have had few other options; or that a Warwickshire glover would have the connections or inclination to put his son into the household of country gentry in far off Lancashire.

Park Honan makes much of the Hoghtons’ connections with the local aristocracy through whose influence Shakespeare might have entered a playing company. Here he is assuming that the aristocratic patrons took personal responsibility for the companies bearing their names when in fact the players hardly ever saw their patrons and had to fend for themselves for most of the year. It is most unlikely the patrons took any interest in the membership of their companies, or that the companies would recruit from other than the theatrical fraternity. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies)

Meanwhile, Stephen Greenblatt indulges in an elaborate fantasy of Shakespeare as a cadre in a Catholic vanguard. He paints a moving portrait of a fervently Catholic acolyte, inspired by the Jesuit martyr Edmond Campion at whose feet he is making his confession. Yet he is also forced to admit that he cannot find any evidence of ardent Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plays.

However, when we look at the facts, we can see that only a year after Hoghton’s will was written, Shakespeare was in Stratford bedding and wedding Anne Hathaway. If there is any truth in any of these fantasies — of Shakespeare as a dedicated scholar, devout Catholic or besotted actor — it seems his teenage hormones clearly won the day. (See Will and Anne: love story or shotgun wedding? )


Harry of Cornwall draws a long bow


 Henry V of England. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)
Henry V

It is not only Stratfordians that apply such fuzzy logic. The Anti-Stratfordians can be as guilty, if not more so, in applying the ‘must-be’ argument to their cause. I came across one such instance when researching my novel, Not Wisely but Too Well.

Hoping to flesh out a sequence involving Lord Strange’s Men I thought I might look into some of the lesser-known plays in their repertoire as listed in Henslowe’s Diary, one of which is Harry of Cornwall. As the Lost Plays Database could tell me nothing about this play that I didn’t already know, I Googled further and came across an essay written in 1946 by the American Oxfordian, Charles Wisner Barrell, which identifies Harry of Cornwall as Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Barrell begins by claiming that, as there was no historic personage known as Henry of Cornwall, there could not be a play of that name. He then goes on to contend that the title as listed in Henslowe’s Diary is not the correct title but a nickname for the play based on its main character. (This occurs with other plays in Henslowe’s list eg ‘Jeronimo’ for The Spanish Tragedy. SeeThomas Kyd and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’) This is all very well, but he identifies that main character as Henry V himself based on one line in the play.

In Act IV of Henry V, on the eve of battle, the King goes amongst his men in disguise and in a comic confrontation is challenged by a sentry. The King gives his name as Harry, whereupon the sentry asks if he is Cornish. The King replies that he is Welsh, and then the scene continues. Barrell argues from this one line that ‘Harry of Cornwall’ ‘must be’ King Henry V. Harry of Cornwell is listed in Henslowe’s Diary in 1592 while the usual dating of Henry V is around 1599. Having thus established an earlier date for its composition, Barrell can now assert that Henry V was written by the Earl of Oxford. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders.)

This questionable reasoning is based on the Bardolater’s version of Shakespeare which sees him as working in a complete vacuum, with no antecedents or even contemporaries. It never occurs to Barrell that there might well be a relationship between Harry of Cornwall and Henry V, but in order to recognise it he would have to acknowledge that there were other plays and playwrights around at the time, and that some of those other plays not only preceded Shakespeare’s but may even have been more popular.

The case may simply be that Harry of Cornwall was a popular rustic comedy and that, in suggesting that King Henry V may have been Cornish and therefore mistaken for ‘Harry of Cornwall’, Shakespeare was referring to the earlier play and drawing on the contrast between a popular rustic clown and the sophisticated king for comic effect. In other words, Shakespeare was only doing something that is still done today, throwing into his own work a reference to popular culture in order to get a laugh.


James Wilmot, the First Baconian


Etching purporting to be of Reverend James Wilmot
Reverend James Wilmot (purported)

It has been accepted orthodoxy among Anti-Stratfordians for almost a hundred years that the first Baconian was a Warwickshire clergyman, James Wilmot. Even the most authoritative books about the Shakespearean Authorship Debate, such as Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell recount his story as historical fact. However, it seems that this story is actually based on a forgery.

According to the story, Reverend James Wilmot, Rector of Barton-on-the-Heath near Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of the eighteenth century, was the first scholar to suspect that Shakespeare may not have been the author of the canon. Wilmot undertook to write a ‘Life of Shakespeare’ and began his research by seeking out stories, documents and books belonging to Shakespeare in his local area. He was surprised to find that no one knew anything about William Shakespeare, that there were no letters to, from or about him, and although Wilmot scoured the libraries of all the great houses in the district, he could find not one book that had belonged to him. Furthermore, he could find no references to Warwickshire’s colourful folklore in Shakespeare’s plays.

Wilmot’s other literary enthusiasm was Francis Bacon and over time he came to the conclusion that Bacon’s writings and Shakespeare’s plays were so similar that they must have been written by the same hand. Wilmot allegedly kept his conclusions to himself and only confessed them late in life to a friend, James Corton Cowell, who expounded Wilmot’s discoveries in a series of lectures to the Ipswich Philosophical Society in 1805. They caused such a stir that the subject was dropped.

In 1932 the manuscript of the lectures was discovered by British scholar Allardyce Nicoll among papers bequeathed to London University by the widow of the Baconian collector, Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence. Nicoll published his findings in an essay entitled ‘The First Baconian’ in the Times Literary Supplement.

In researching his own examination of the Authorship Debate, Contested Will, distinguished Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro gained access to the manuscript of Cowell’s lectures. However, on close reading he discovered that the lectures referred to discoveries that were made long after 1805 and concluded that the manuscript was a forgery dating to the early twentieth century. Moreover, not only could he find no trace of either James Corton Cowell or the Ipswich Philosophical Society, but it is debateable whether James Wilmot himself ever existed.

Nicoll relied for corroboration of the manuscript on a biography of Wilmot written in 1813 by Olivia Wilmot Serres. However, while the biography described Wilmot’s associations with contemporary writers and politicians, his interest in Francis Bacon and the poets Alexander Pope and John Dryden, it did not mention William Shakespeare. Olivia Wilmot Serres claimed to be Wilmot’s niece and that she based her biography on secret papers written in code which she later destroyed. A few years later she proved to be a fantasist who claimed to be of royal descent and that she should be addressed as Princess Olivia.

Shapiro was never able to identify the forger or his motives. However, while Francis Bacon had been the favoured candidate since the 1850s, from the 1920s onwards, The Earl of Oxford had overtaken him as the ‘mainstream’ candidate. Shapiro suggests the forgery may have been carried out in the 1920s by a Baconian to shore up his candidate’s cause against the Oxfordians. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders.)




These examples only go to show the care with which one must approach not only Shakespeare’s biographies, but the claims and counterclaims of the Stratfordians and the Anti-Stratfordians.


© Pauline Montagna 2021



Barrell, Charles Wisner, Shakespeare’s Henry V can be identified as “Harry of Cornwall” in Henslowe’s Diary. The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, October 1946.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World, W.W. Norton & Co (2004)

Honan, Park, Shakespeare: a Life, Oxford University Press (1999)

Michell, John, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames & Hudson (1996)

Shapiro, James, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Simon & Schuster (2010)

Wood, Michael, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide (2003) (DVD and accompanying book)


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