Why Shakespeare?

The Usage of the Name

It is a requirement of some alternative Authorship theories to deny attribution of the name, “Shakespeare”, to the player from Stratford, born in 1564. The latter, these theories postulate, was really just “Shakspere”, who spelled his name thus (or in ways closely approximating it). It was only with the dedication of a publication in 1593, the long poem Venus & Adonis, that the nom de plume, “Shakespeare”, appeared and  became established. Some challengers of the orthodox argue that its evocation of the brandishing of a weapon (or perhaps a phallus) could not have been an accident: the pen name must have been concocted to signify other, subtle meanings.

As in certain other areas, the Sceptics make some interesting points. The baptismal record of the Stratfordian shows him as the son of John Shakspere. The records of bond and licence to marry (each dated 1582) have him as Shagspere and Shaxpere, respectively. Each of the baptismal records of his children (dated 1583 and 1585) name him Shakspere. It is only after the appearance of the Venus & Adonis pen name that the records of the time appear (in most instances) to render his name in the same way as the Shakespeare of authorship. Even then the Stratford man had a tendency to revert to the earliest version of his name: two of the three signatures on his will (executed in 1616) appear to be rendered by him as Shakspere.

Of course, there was then considerable variation in the spellings of most words and names – and this is the principal argument of orthodoxy. Those interested in the many versions of Shakspere (and the pronunciation of its syllables, subject then, as now, to strong regional variations in England) will find these listed and discussed at The Spelling and Pronunciation of Shakespeare's Name. Nevertheless, it remains intriguing that the witty author of Venus & Adonis should adapt the presentation of his handle to be (or, more likely, to remain) so redolent of pun when expressed in the vernacular of his principal, London-influenced audience.

The puns perceptible in “Shakespeare” are interpreted and emphasized by those classes of Authorship Sceptic which find advantage in so doing. Some deprecate orthodoxy for not recognizing what looks like an invention of purpose. Yet, as will become apparent below, William Shakspere of Stratford had, on the occasion of his first appearance in print, several reasonable incentives to stress (in the vernacular of his principal readership) the echoes in his birth-name of the shaker of a tool of penetration.

For those who prefer familiar context, we have only to look at aspirations of the Shakspere clan, inferred from historical records. William's father, John, had initiated the quest for a prestigious family coat of arms - some twenty years before the appearance in print of “Shakespeare”. The application was revived in 1596  and the grant of the coat of arms was confirmed within a few years (all through the efforts, most historians believe, of William). The device shows a falcon brandishing a spear. Punning of this ilk, both visual and aural, must have been in the shared thoughts of the Shaksperes from the inception of their dreams of a coat of arms (and probably from time immemorial when it came to verbal wordplay). Consequently, William would long have had the shaking-spear association strongly in mind when opportunities came to promote his name. The practice of his play on its presentation (in the vernacular of London) is well corroborated by the now famous "Shake-scene" reference of Robert Greene in 1592 (described in all of the many modern biographies of Shakespeare). Greene castigates a competing author, depicted as an upstart player (neither an aristo, nor even a university man) who is evidently identified with a "shake" of some sort (not a "shack"). Greene also associates this author with a play, subsequently credited in print to Shakespeare, and with the conceit (held by the upstart Shaker) that he can deliver blank verse as well as the best of the university scholars of Greene's address.

With less widely known evidence come further considerations. They are triggered by the very address which gave birth to “Shakespeare” in print .... for the dedication of Venus & Adonis is riddled with puns! Even the Latin script preceding the address is suspect for secondary meaning. The number, context and cohesion of the puns show them to be, in all probability, deliberate. Their secondary theme reveals an angry and needy author, once championed by his dedicatee, now second to a rival in the affections of the latter – so much so that he foresees little return for major investment of efforts on behalf of the patron. Those interested in the evidence will find it described in Double Dealing.  The phenomenon (of the presence in the dedication of the two ostensibly conflicting themes) is consistent with both the status of William Shakspere and - remarkably - highly unusual content of Shake-speare's Sonnets. However, it belies the notion that "Shakespeare" was the pen name of a nobleman. It also belies the notion that Shakspere, the player from Stratford, was acting as front-man for an anonymous author.

Against this background, the persistence of punning in the dedication and the aggrieved nature of its secondary theme may have been continued into the representation of Shakspere's name. Perhaps the shake-version had previously been used in personal jest between him and an aristocratic patron who was Southern English, mainly London-based, and who was also an effeminate young man amenable to the author's spear-like “thing” (as alluded to in Shake-speare's Sonnet 20). If so, the representation (in the vernacular of the dedicatee) would have served in the dedication tacitly to reproach the fickle patron with the reminder (and implied obligations) of an older friendship. However, in the context of the hidden barbs of the dedication, it seems likely that Shakspere was also in his mind associating that retaliation with the defiance of a war weapon-wielder.

Whatever the combination of all the above influences, once Shakspere had opted to promote himself as “Shakespeare” in print, he was, in effect, saddled with his pun-name (at least in the domain of his artistry). He used it again the next year in his dedication of Lucrece to the same patron. Evidently the patronage (or hope of its resurrection) had survived another year – probably because he had outlasted his rival for its benefits. Even if his bitterness had by then diminished, it would have looked odd (not least to his dedicatee) if the poet had dropped the emphasis of name association, which, in any case, he probably wished to retain (for the other reasons outlined above). Thereafter, the representation tended to stick.