Last month I put up a post summarizing the orthodox evidence in favor of William Shakespeare of Stratford (1564-1616) as having been the author of William Shakespeare's plays and poetry, based largely on the testimony of the First Folio, published in 1623, and the Stratford monument erected over his gravestone a few years before that. Based on the reactions in the comments left by the Oxfordians (those who urge that the real author of the plays and poems was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford [1550-1604]), one would think I had gone beyond the pale (to use one of the countless expressions coined by Shakespeare) of civility by suggesting that there was any evidence for authorship by the man of Stratford.
The current state of Shakespeare scholarship on the authorship controversy is singularly desultory, given that we are now 450 years past the man's birthdate. Each new candidate put forward as the likely "true" author of Shakespeare's corpus undermines the evidence for the ones before. Where there used to be a simple divide between the Stratfordians and the anti-Stratfordians, the latter group has splintered into countless smaller factions (the largest of which, by far, constitutes the Oxfordians -- who themselves are now divided into two camps: those who support the "Prince Tudor" theory, and those who do not).
In addition, a third main category has sprung forth: the "doubters". These people are content simply to express their disbelief that Shakespeare of Stratford could have written anything worthwhile at all, but are agnostic when it comes to deciding just who was the author of the canon.
In the face of all this opposition to the Stratford Shakespeare, orthodox scholars tend to circle the wagons, and more and more refuse to engage with their opponents. Certainly they have tradition and common sense on their side. (Anyone who proposes someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to invent a fantastic series of reasons, often amounting to a Great Conspiracy that went on for thirty-odd years and involved hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people, to explain away the dedication of the First Folio, Shakespeare's burial monument in the church at Stratford-on-Avon, and the numerous other pieces of contemporary testimony which I touched upon in my earlier post.)
Furthermore, the sheer volume of fantastic authorship theories now being advanced from all fronts has made orthodox scholars extremely reluctant to admit any new discoveries or evidence that could tend to shed some light on the matter. It is becoming increasingly accepted, for example, that Shakespeare the playwright collaborated with other playwrights throughout his career on a variety of plays, many of whose scripts have now unfortunately been lost to us. Yet the scholars have been very conservative in admitting new works (or fragments) to the canon.
One of the chief such works is represented by a manuscript in the British Library containing fragments of a lost play called Sir Thomas More. Since the 1870's, the handwriting on several folios of the manuscript, called "Hand D" to distinguish it from five others also evident, has been identified by paleographic scholars as the hand of Shakespeare -- matching the style of the six known and accepted signatures of the Stratford man. (Three are on his infamous will; two others are on a deed and mortgage relating to a gatehouse at Blackfriars; and the sixth is on a deposition he signed in a minor civil case.)
It is very difficult to establish the authenticity of handwriting with just six known exemplars, each containing no more than seventeen characters. But if the authenticity of Hand D is admitted, then the database expands considerably, and it becomes easier to look for further exemplars -- the first of which turns out to be Shakespeare's (holographic!) will.
Now, I realize that last claim will set off more firestorms, so let me provide visual proof of what I am talking about. One of the more distinguished experts of the 20th century in authenticating questioned documents was the American autograph dealer and paleographer Charles Hamilton (1914-1996). A subspecialty of his was the Elizabethan secretarial hand, in which Shakespeare's known signatures are written.
In the course of establishing thousands of both forgeries and authentic documents, Hamilton developed a useful technique for demonstrating how he could ascertain that handwriting on one document was the same as that on another (or on another part of the same document). He would capture individual letters from the questioned sample, and line them up character-by-character with the letters of the authentic original. When they matched, he had very strong forensic proof -- sufficient for a court of law -- that both hands had to have been the product of the same individual.
The unique shapes of the secretarial hand lend themselves especially well to this type of analysis, because Elizabethans had so many variants for writing each individual letter of the alphabet that writers can be identified by just the variants which they preferred to use, and which differed according to the informality or formality of the particular item they were writing.
Thus, one of Hamilton's first conclusions (in a book he published in 1985), after a painstaking examination of the writing, was that the writing of most of the body of Shakespeare's three-page will (and its numerous interlineations) was the same as that of the six known signatures. Here is a picture of his assemblage of individual characters taken from the body of the will, matched up against each of the six signatures (click to enlarge):
Many have claimed (without any evidence) that Shakespeare's will was drafted by his solicitor (who signs as a witness on the third page), Francis Collins. But Hamilton collected samples of Collins' handwriting, as well as that of his scribe used in his other clients' wills, and demonstrated conclusively that neither Collins nor his scribe could have penned Shakespeare's will (see pages 133-137 at this link for the comparisons of the writing). The writing instead, as shown above, is exactly duplicated by Shakespeare's own, in his known signatures.
But we are not done with the available evidence yet -- there is still Hand D, remember? And here, Hamilton's achievement is both stunning, and convincing. Consider the following example of writing in the secretarial hand (again, click to enlarge):
Are you able to say whether there is anything different about the lines? Is there just one hand, two, or multiple hands at work?
The evidence is pretty apparent that the slopes of the writing, the shapes of the characters, the spacing of the words, and numerous other idiosyncrasies allow but one conclusion: that all of these lines were written by the same hand. As a clincher, take a look at the same page of writing, but now reproduced upside down:
With the individual words now unreadable, all that one distinguishes are the uniform similarities in slope, spacing and style. These lines were truly penned by one and the same person.
Well, and just what are the lines in question? Go back to the right-side-up illustration:
This is a composite which Hamilton fashioned by alternating lines from Hand D with lines from Shakespeare's will. Lines 1-4 are from the holographic will; lines 5-8 from the Sir Thomas More fragment; lines 9-12 are from the will; lines 13-15 are from the Sir Thomas More fragment; lines 16-21 are from the will; and lines 22-26 from Sir Thomas More. It is difficult to imagine a more convincing proof that the two documents were written by the same hand.
The foregoing is the principal, but not by any means the only, evidence from which Hamilton concluded that the hand that wrote as Hand D of Sir Thomas More is the same hand that wrote the three pages of Shakespeare's will. And since other paleographers and Shakespeare scholars had previously tied Hand D to Shakespeare's six known signatures, Hamilton's evidence that ties the body of the will with those same six signatures completes the circle: Shakespeare wrote out his will in his own hand, just as he wrote the fragments preserved in the collaborative play known as Sir Thomas More.
One is now in a position, I hope, to perceive the enormity of this evidence -- I use the word "enormity" advisedly, because of the conclusion which it proves beyond any reasonable doubt:
William Shakespeare of Stratford was not only the author of his own will, but also drafted portions of a play which the anti-Stratfordians and doubters maintain he could not have written.
If Shakespeare of Stratford drafted his own will, then he had to have worked as a scrivener or legal clerk in a law office, because its form matches exactly that of the traditional wills of the time prepared by solicitors, such as Francis Collins. It has long been remarked that the author of Shakespeare's plays showed an uncanny knowledge of Elizabethan law and court procedures.
By comparing his now greatly expanded database of Shakespeare's handwriting to other documents connected with the author, Charles Hamilton was able to show that Shakespeare also drafted conveyances, mortgages, and even his father's successive applications for a coat-of-arms. All of these technical and legal documents are in the same flowing secretarial hand used for both the will and the fragments from Sir Thomas More.
Shakespeare of Stratford's intimate knowledge of law and civil procedure, therefore, came from firsthand experience in a solicitor's office, and provides again very convincing evidence for his authorship of his plays. Hamilton's 1985 book goes even farther, and shows graphological evidence that Shakespeare served in 1593-94 (when the plague had shut down London's playhouses) as a scribe for that eminent lawyer and jurist, Sir Francis Bacon.
The conspiracy theories of the anti-Stratfordians need thus to become even more elaborate to explain how and why nobles such as Oxford would have collaborated with a genuine and skilled playwright who wrote under his own name. What is more, they would now need to develop some reliable means of separating out how much of the total corpus their candidate may have written from that which the Stratford man unquestionably wrote, when the far simpler conclusion is that Stratford wrote it all -- just as the First Folio testifies.
The puzzling thing to this writer is the general reluctance of Shakespeare scholars to accept at face value the striking visual evidence which Charles Hamilton so painstakingly assembled. It is true that Hamilton (perhaps due to his career in proving many forgeries) tended to see cloak-and-dagger stories at the least suggestion (he once theorized, for example, that Shakespeare's death was due to arsenic poisoning, and not natural causes). But those wild speculations are easily separated from the solid body of his paleographic analyses.
The best proof of Shakespeare's authorship of his own works, therefore, lies (so to speak) readily at hand, in the manuscripts we have extant with his name upon them. It is a shame that none of the orthodox scholars has picked up the research that Hamilton began, or followed up on it. If the subject were developed properly, with a full paleographic analysis of the extant writings, the entire authorship controversy could easily be settled by the stroke of a pen.