William Shakeshafte and the 1581 Will of Alexander Hoghton
An enduring challenge for the many creative and imaginatively inspired biographers of William of Stratford is to account for the yawning gaps in his life and times, often referred to as “The Lost Years”. One of the most conspicuous of these gaps occurs between the years 1577 and 1582 after it is conjectured he would have left the Stratford Grammar School and before he married Anne Hathaway. Modern scholars have suggested that a clue to William’s whereabouts during this time can be found in the 1581 will of Catholic nobleman Sir Alexander Hoghton. The will names two trustees, eleven annuitants headed by the two names of William Shakeshafte and Fulke Gyllom, in addition to the names of nineteen other servants. Critics have conjectured that William Shakeshafte may be none other than William Shakespeare himself, due to a long-standing story that he was once a schoolmaster in the country and proven links between the Hoghton and Shakespeare families. It was common practice in Elizabethan times for the same surname to be spelt in a number of ways, Shakespeare variants from the times including Shakspere, Shaxherd, Shakstaff and Shakesmore. (Honigmann p. 84)
Legal experts, adopting standard interpretations of wills of the time, agree that the first two named annuitants, Shakeshafte and Gyllom were most likely the oldest, perhaps aged in their thirties or forties, or the longest-serving annuitants. If this was the case it is unlikely that William of Stratford at age seventeen years can be identified as the Shakeshafte mentioned in the will. Alexander Hoghton also bequeathed his musical instruments and “all manner of play clothes” to his brother Thomas on the proviso that:
Scholars such as Hildegard Hammelschmidt-Hummel and Carol Curt Enos have written about the recusant practice of describing Catholic priests and their vestments as players/actors and their play clothes, and musical instruments as possibly referring to the accoutrements used during Mass and other church rituals. In the Shakespeare Encyclopedia Enos notes that “the will appears to be a way of framing the activities and livelihood of priests who were of course in constant danger of being apprehended and put to death” (p.201). The Jesuits of the 1580-81 mission quite often used aliases, each choosing a number of similar sounding surnames belonging to relatives and/or Catholic friends and actors, the Gillom and Gyllom of the will being a possible example of this practice.
If we accept the theories that the eleven annuitants were Catholic missionary priests and that the two senior legatees were of mature age, the logical deduction is that Shakeshafte and Gyllom would have been the aliases of the two senior priests of the Catholic mission, i.e. Edmund Campion and Robert Persons. Therefore, William Shakeshafte could quite possibly have been an alias used by Campion and the variant Shakespeare chosen as his nom de plume.
It could be argued that the dating of the will in August a month after Campion’s capture refutes this interpretation. However Elizabethan wills were often drawn up earlier and postdated and it is possible that Hoghton had not given up hope that Campion might escape or be acquitted and be in need of financial or other material assistance.
Ben Jonson ’s “Smalle Latin and Lesse Greek”
Ben Jonson ’s eulogy to Shakespeare in the First Folio has long puzzled critics with its ambiguous and contradictory praise of the great author. Two lines which seem particularly cryptic throw doubt on the assumption that Shakespeare must have had considerable classical knowledge.
If we assume William of Stratford’s education was limited to the Grammar School curriculum it is understandable that his grasp of the classics was somewhat limited. Most commentators, however, argue that Shakespeare must have been a very accomplished classical scholar to be able to read various source books of his plays only available in the original languages, and adapt these sources for his own specific literary requirements.
If Edmund Campion was Shakespeare, Jonson’s lines may be read as an ironic commentary on the ridiculous charges made by the crown after the conferences in the Tower. Apparently certain of the crown’s prosecutors, men by the surnames of Nowell, Humphrey and Day, all stated that Campion could not read Greek, when all who knew him at Oxford, or were aware of his reputation as a scholar, would have realized such a statement was ludicrous. (Kilroy p. 116)
Shakespeare’s Irish References
Although there is no evidence that William of Stratford ever travelled to Ireland he seems to allude with some familiarity to that country in lines in a number of his plays. Peter Milward (1976, p.44) notes that traces of Campion’s literary influence are to be found in Henry VIII and Hamlet and attributes this phenomenon to Shakespeare’s knowledge of Campion’s History of Ireland as it was incorporated into Holinshed’s Chronicles.
This could quite well be the case but there is one line in Shakespeare’s work (As You Like It 5.2.120) which is so intimate that it seems it could only be written by someone personally acquainted with the Emerald Isle i.e.
Edmund Campion lived and travelled in Ireland for a period of approximately two years. His hopes of helping to establish Trinity College were thwarted but he did manage to write his History of Ireland in a period of six weeks at the end of his stay.
The 1566 Oxford Play: Palamon and Arcite or The Two Noble Kinsmen?
The Two Noble Kinsmen (TNK) which is not included in the First Folio is one of the more controversial and puzzling of the plays which have been attributed to Shakespeare. In fact it is widely agreed that only the first and fifth acts were penned by Shakespeare, and the subplot and majority of the play was composed by John Fletcher. This would explain the omission of the play from the Folio and the placement of Fletcher’s name above Shakespeare’s on the title page of a 1634 edition of the play. Scholars suspect the play must have been Shakespeare’s final dramatic effort because a morris dance in the Fletcher section was copied directly from a masque by Francis Beaumont acted before King James in 1613. The inferior quality of TNK when compared to what are considered Shakespeare’s masterpieces and earlier works still puzzles many critics, including Harold Bloom who sees in this final play an abandonment by Shakespeare of his art. The puzzle is solved, however, if it can be proved that The Two Noble Kinsmen is one of the great playwrights earliest attempts at drama and not a collaborative effort at all.
In her article titled Palamon and Arcite, Katherine Chiljan outlines an intriguing solution to the puzzle. She lists three plays which were produced during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (p.1). These were the play described above attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher- The Two Noble Kinsmen- printed
in1634, a play by the name Palamon and Arcite performed four times at the Rose Theatre in 1594, and an earlier play by the name of Palamon and Arcite which was performed at Oxford University in 1566 during the famous visit by Queen Elizabeth. Chiljan suggests that all three plays were in fact one and the same. If this is indeed the case it would exclude William of Stratford, born in 1564, from the authorship. Chiljan cites a line in the Shakespeare/Fletcher play by Palamon as evidence of the connection between the 1566 play and The Two Noble Kinsmen (5.4.44)
Strangely if one studies the rest of the play there are no lines which could be construed as Palamon accusing the Goddess of falsity but there is contemporary evidence that he did in the 1566 version. A spectator at the Oxford revels describes how Palamon, “having failed of every hope...casts reproaches upon Venus, saying that he had served her from infancy and that now she had neither desire nor power to help him.” (ibid. p.2) The absence of this detail in the later play and subsequent lack of continuity suggests that perhaps Fletcher’s section replaced a middle section originally written by Shakespeare which had been lost or censored. Chiljan has found echoes of another speech by Palamon in a 1606 publication by Barnaby Barnes, which therefore dates TNK prior to the generally accepted date circa 1613, and posits whether it was the one performed at the Rose in 1594.
Another interesting link between the 1566 play and TNK can be identified in the following lines from the latter’s prologue: