So “Shakespeare” Wrote for the Page as well as the Stage? Well, then, Who was “Shakespeare”?

     First Folio - 1623

First Folio – 1623

Wandering through the web the other day, I paused to read something in “ Shakespeare” under a heading about theater in Shakespeare’s time.  “It’s a sad fact that today we normally study Shakespeare’s plays out of a book,” the writer explained, “but it’s important to remember that the Bard wasn’t writing for today’s literary audience; he was writing for the masses, many of whom couldn’t read or write.”

Then, later, I came upon the Amazon site for the book Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist by Lukas Erne, now in a new edition after ten years; and the blurb explained that this “groundbreaking study argues that Shakespeare, apart from being a playwright who wrote theatrical texts for the stage, was also a literary dramatist who produced reading texts for the page.”

Hmmm … So which was it?

It seems to me that we have an example, here, of how the world of Shakespearean study is inevitably changing and almost imperceptibly moving toward recognizing Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford as the true author of the great works.  In that view, the seeming contradiction presented above is explained logically by realizing that Oxford — during the 1590s, and up to his death in 1604 — was a virtual recluse busily rewriting and revising his stage works.  Many of those plays were being performed, but at the same time he was transforming them into masterpieces of dramatic literature, for readers of his own time and in the future.

Otherwise, let’s face it – work being done by scholars such as Lukas Erne can only threaten the traditional conception of the busy dramatist turning out play after play with the only objective being to have it ready for actors to perform on the stage.  In the first place, that fellow of the orthodox view had no time to produce “reading texts for the page.”

“Examining the evidence from early published playbooks, Erne argues that Shakespeare wrote many of his plays with a readership in mind and that these ‘literary’ texts would have been abridged for the stage because they were too long for performance.”

Oh, come on, please!  That statement has it entirely backwards!  Sure, that may have been part of the way it worked if Oxford was the playwright; but the Stratford man would never have written a literary text that would have to be “abridged for the stage”!   Remember how he was said to be “indifferent” to the appearances of his plays in print?

But Lukas Erne is surely on the right track.  And works like Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, first published in 2003, will follow the track right to the Earl of Oxford.

I encourage readers of this blog to check out the various “reviews” on Amazon, many with clear recognition that our view of the author and his work must now change.  The scholars must now bend with the winds of that change.  Bend or break…

It would also be a good idea to get hold of the new edition, with an added 10,000-word preface that “reviews and intervenes in the controversy that the book has triggered.”

Yes indeed!

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  1. The great critic Goddard, among others, agrees. He said Shakespeare had to have written for the page. One example he gave: The puns in Macbeth came too fast for the audience to get.

    Desper’s brilliant essay on Allusions To Campion in Twelfth Night

    support this theory also. The quips and historical references come so fast it would take an extremely literate, historically savvy, and almost impossibly astute theater goer to pick up what was an amazingly seditious and act of genius of hidden criticism of the Crown.

    • Good points. My take is that the earliest works for the court were “interludes” or at least shorter works, some or many gradually expanded; but then in the final 15 years of his life he hunkered down to raise them to the level of literary masterpieces. Is that roughly your idea of it? What the orthodox folks have to do, it seems, is twist it around. The country villager had no time to revise later, given that so much was already published in the first years of his supposed career, right up to Hamlet in 1604. Of course we have the Love’s Labour’s Lost title page in 1599, I think, saying it was newly revised by Shakespeare. And same testimony for Hamlet. So in a sense the Stratfordians are now contradicting the hard evidence.

      On the other hand they are now pretty much agreed that the man wrote also to be read. And that is one miracle too many, I’d say…

      • I’m not sure of a timeline, but I think the Orthodox position has to change (and apparently is) because of the literary nature and clues. In 1599 Shapiro details changes in Hamlet that are very significant (The entire focus of the drama) from Q2 to Folio. This leaves out Q1 entirely and Sams makes a strong case for an independent version vs “actors reconstruction”.

        Years ago I agreed with Stritmatter and later Jimamez and others that potentially the key to much of this are the Queen’s Men plays and their relationship to Shakespeare. No one revisited or mined this group like Shakespeare. This seems to align to a degree with your general timeline. Most of the original productions were written for earlier Court or public performance. No one has ever figured out the author of this group of plays. Even Shapiro admits that later Hamlet was not likely a public stage focus (too long for the light), a sentiment echoed by Harvey and highlighted on the tittle page of Q1.

        So what was this artist doing writing primarily for other venues? And spending a considerable amount of time in revision?

        It certainly looks like many first works were early, then later expanded as the writer gained expertise in his craft.
        Stephanie Hughes has a great essay up on Richard III over at

        She seems very attuned to the politics of the time.
        “True Tragedy of Richard III, if earlier would fit her scenario. Shakespeare was aware of it as he quoted from it.

        Apparently many critics see Richard as less sophisticated than later tragedies, although it is an acting “tour de force”. This timeline, of growing sophistication, revision (with references to the Henry VI plays) would support an author hitting his stride as he reworked earlier material for an increasingly sophisticated medium and audiences.

        The fact that there is so little dramatic history for so many folio plays also supports your thesis that the author increasingly wrote for the page.

  2. Whittemore, I have one question: I own a second blog beyond mine of Shakespeare Authorship about the polemic theory of the marriage between Jesus and Magdalene. Don’t worry, I don’t wan’t to talk about it here 🙂 What I want to say is that as a “conspirator” of that theory, I know of a versicle in the Book of Lamentations which say that the linage of David is not acknowledge in the streets because it as turn into “black”. A methaphor, of course, due to the power that the House of Judah lost with the invasions of Babylon and Assyria between 600-500 B.C.

    My question is, and I don’t know if you already mention it: if Oxford owned a Bible for his lifetime, and even tried to translate some of the Psalms (I have read somewhere else) in the backs of this Bible, could the Black Beauty methaphor in the Sonnets be taken from this versicle and a second one from the Song of Songs where we can read “I am black, and yet fair” (I don’t know the English version of them)? I need to know this so that we can evidence Oxford’s knowledge of the Holy Bible, wasn’t it the second great source for Shake-Speare?

    • Francisco, you are right about this. We know Oxford purchased a Geneva bible at nineteen and of course you know Roger Stritmatter’s work on Oxford’s marked passages and words, etc., that relate also to the Shakespeare works. I believe there is some connection or relationship between the 150 Psalms and the 154 Sonnets; and perhaps Oxford contributed the Pslams as they appear translated in the King James Bible. And more than that, perhaps. So all of what you suggest is certainly possible. [In the Sonnets there are at least 50 biblical allusions or references.]

      • Great! Thanks Whittemore. Do you know if there is any kind of Oxford’s translation of the Psalms online, from the Genova Bible he tried to translated?

      • No, we have nothing like that, Francisco. Do you know Roger Stritmatter’s work on Oxford’s Geneva bible?

  3. No, Whittemore, I don’t. But I already heard of that. I’ll look now for it :D!

    • I have a copy of the dissertation. I don’t remember any commenting linking the annotations to that idea. However I would suggest writing Roger directly at his blog about it at

      • Thanks, Sandy. I will see it later. Lately, I have been envolved in my theories of Rutland as Oxford’s and Elizabeth’s younger bastard and Bacon’s authorship in Richard Barnfield’s and Edward Dyer’s works, and others subjects out of the Authorship Question. The next days, I will not be able to read it. I will make a resume and study more the evidences for my theories the next days for I will be out, but when I come back, I will read it.

  4. I’m just now coming to a study of the plays. (I’ve read several of the major plays, but without the effort to “dig in”.) The question of “read, or hear” has come up. I favor “hear” – and not just that, but “see” as well.

    I see the printed pages as like a musical score – they can be “read” by a competent musician, but I believe that even he would rather hear an orchestra play the piece. The actor gives the lines his interpretation. Branagh (among others) speaks more into them than I ever could.

    I’m neutral on the authorship controversy. The “words, words, words” stand on their own, no matter who put them to paper.

    I just now found Dr Gontar through the New English Review, and moved his essays to the top of my reading list. And through him, your site.

    • That’s great — I agree. I came to this topic only way after being in a college production of Hamlet and memorizing most of the prince’s lines, the better to speak them while “walking the river,” as they say. The sounds of the words, the lines, the rhythms, all the feelings, would come up in different ways — the point also being that Hamlet became, to me, akin to an old friend. When I met up with Oxford years later, my first question was how come he remained so hidden; why the lack of interest in this earl who seemed to be some version of a real-life Hamlet at the Court of Elizabeth. Shakespeare or not, he is of interest. He is connected to virtually all the contemporary sources of Shakespeare…

      Anyway, you are right (about Branagh, too — still his Henry V is about as good as it gets, eh?) — and please come back with any questions, any discussion. Best wishes.

    • See my entry above. Go to

      Read this remarkable essay. Hamlet also said the actors were the “abstracts and chronicles of the times”. Then see if you still think the plays were only to be heard and seen.

      Try to understand that the point the author was making here would be extremely hard for an audience to grasp, the references come too quickly and are hidden. But people of the times knew of “oblique references”

      See Patterson: Censorship and Interpretation. It was a cat and mouse game.

      • P.S. When I first read Desper’s piece, my jaw dropped. It changed my view of who Shakespeare (as an artist, not identity) was forever. This prompted more investigation on why Orthodoxy never discovered things like this. Or were in denial.

      • Yes, same here. Fascinating — in fact, the whole area of the psychology of it all, how it has affected scholars’ ideas and conclusions … the anatomy of a hoax, of a myth, etc. — I envision many books on the subject!

      • “Censorship and Interpretation” : in the DVD course I’m taking, the professor tells of a performance of “Richard III” with Queen Elizabeth in the audience (probably upstairs), and at one point she cries out “Know ye not that I am Richard?”

      • Well … It was Richard II … and it was in August 1601, in conversation with her antiquary, referring back to the Essex Rebellion of Feb 8, 1601, and she supposedly exclaimed, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?!” She never attended plays at the public playhouse, by the way, only at court, in the various palaces or wherever the court was. In any case, sounds like an interesting course!

      • I’m sorry your professor seems so misinformed. The Essex rebellion was 1601 and Richard III was famous around 1593. And Hank is right, she never attended pubic theater.
        For a fascinating take on the politics of Richard III go to

        and read Stephanie Hughes’ terrific essay.

  5. My memory failed me there. (Too many Richards – though not as many as Henrys). He did say Richard II, and true, he didn’t say she was at the Globe. (Memory can add details that aren’t there.)

    The prof is Marc C. Conner, Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He doesn’t go into the authorship question (not the focus of the course.)

  6. PS: I see now the difference between reading and watching the plays. Clearly, the author could put in ‘in-jokes” that would zip by the average play-goer, but a careful reading would peel off the outer layers of the onion. But even there, it would seem risky to go too far.

    • That’s why Shakespeare was so deft, yet baffling that the clear portrayal and powerful ripping of Burghley as Polonius would not put the author in jeopardy. The almost vicious satire is blatantly out in the open. Strats avoid this like the plague.

      • I was just reading how a written copy of a play was sometimes provided for the king or queen at the time of a performance. I believe it was Hank’s Twelve Years of Shakespeare (which was a great book and I will have to buy it so I can read the whole thing). That makes really good sense on the part of the monarch because it all goes by so fast you would even then miss half the allusions and jokes. I think Jonson did this for James from what Hank said but I was wondering if anyone knows if this was true in Elizabeth’s reign too?

        They must have edited the plays for performance before the monarch but what a nightmare if the King or Queen had a hardcopy at hand, not only to prepare that clean copy but also for the actors to remember what had been removed and stick to it.

        The smoking gun that Shakespeare was never what the world thought he was: the fact that he wasn’t arrested or even questioned over the Richard II performance before the Essex rebellion. Why would they question fellow actor Augustine Phillips and not the author, especially when the play so pointedly sneered at Robert Cecil who was a main target of the rebellion?

        Oh yeah, I forgot he was Shakespeare, a commoner so brilliant that he was the only man in the realm allowed to make fun of the most powerful nobles and even to threaten them by proxy of plays (the rebellion’s threat to Robert, the stabbing of the eavesdropping Polonius/William Cecil to name just two).

      • Probably there was a series of steps leading to the ability of the mythology to take hold. But I think it was all written after the fact. We need to construct or re-construct that history, you know?

      • I’m not so sure about missing the allusions and jokes, In today’s plays, we get them easily because they’re so much a part of our culture. In those days, just about every educated man would have known the Greek and Latin plays and histories, and would certainly have known about court intrigue.

        On the other hand, whoever wrote those plays had a good grasp of the politics of kingship

        But still, if Wm Shakespeare were an uneducated man, everyone would have known that – especially the actors. And how did he get to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and become the leading playwright for the King’s Men? If de Vere were the author, and put Shakespeare forward to “take the heat off” himself, it would have involved a fairly large conspiracy (in the true sense of the word), trusting more than a few people – all of whom would get royal largesse in reward for their information.

        I haven’t dug into the theory, but the obvious question is: why would somebody be willing to let some artless fellow take the credit?

      • Yes, well, try looking at it from the point of view that here was an insider — using all kinds of very obvious disguises to depict the real persons at court and later to put in more for posterity. The queen would have loved it. This is in the 1570s=1580s, but afterward there was a new chapter of the story.

      • You bring up many major points that can’t be answered in a short post. Speculations on authorship and Wiliam’s relation are central and would require a book.

        “I’m not so sure about missing the allusions and jokes, In today’s plays, we get them easily because they’re so much a part of our culture. In those days, just about every educated man would have known the Greek and Latin plays and histories, and would certainly have known about court intrigue.”

        I disagree. 90% of the population was illiterate. How many commoners knew, for example, the specific references to Hales vs Petit in the grave digger scene in Hamlet? The decision was written in archaic Law French and was decided in 1564. Hamlet supposedly was written in 1599. An illiterate audience 35 years removed from a case is supposed to get the references?

        The Allusions to Campion were about the trial and execution of a Catholic Priest in 1580. Twelfth Night supposedly was a new play in 1602. What are hidden references to an event 22 years before that ream the Crown doing in this timeline? See where I’m going? You have to start reading some alternative sources.

        Public audiences, for whom Orthodoxy INSISTS the author wrote for the public stage, would never have the qualities, education, or background you speak of. Would even educated people 25-25 years after the fact would get these oblique references? Orthodox scholars missed the Campion references for 400 years.

        If I made a movie in which there were inside jokes about Nixon’s Presidency without naming him, how many people would get them today?

        Your assumptions about a “wide conspiracy” are common. How true are they? How many knew of Kennedy’s sexual escapades until years later, in a far more open society?

        Its complicated but consider the term “open secret”. We know Shakespeare revised his work. Yet Jonson wrote he “never blotted a line” and this astonished the actors. Really? They knew so little of their playwright they actually believed he wrote without revision and hard work?

        So many questions. The tip of the iceberg.,Hmmm?

  7. It does seem it was all fun and games early on and then in the early 90s the game turned really dangerous. Just when the situation turns grim Shakespeare begins writing, and slipping in what are at times pointed and thinly veiled challenges to Elizabethan authorities like the Cecils…in well attended public venues…in his own name…

    Really, why wasn’t he stabbed in the eye by government spies like rival Marlowe? Or poisoned, as George Carey (who was our players’ noble sponsor) wrote that he suspected in the sudden death of Lord Strange (his brother-in-law, who was their previous noble sponsor and a cousin in the line of succession to the Queen). This was the dangerous atmosphere during Shakespeare’s early years in London. I’m not sure he was artless but he was brave, whether he wrote the plays or just allowed his name to be used.

    Oxford’s future son-in-law the 6th Earl of Derby (brother of the late Lord Strange) was ‘busy penning plays for the common players’ in 1599 and we only know this because a Jesuit spy mentioned it in a letter. So Derby was also believed to have written commercial plays but didn’t put his name to them.

    Kind of strange, don’t you think, for Shakespeare to be so preoccupied with the Cecils? Not so strange at all for their difficult in-law Oxford and his son-in-law Derby.This site and Politicworm (Stephanie Hughes) are both wonderful resources for exploring what was happening during those fascinating times.

    • Hughes essay on Richard III postulates it was a political bombshell in a war with authorities that saved the theater and was directly aimed at Robert Cecil. She is excellent at the political context of the times. Thus “politic worm” ( “A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”)

      Interesting reference to the Diet of Worms re Polonius/Burghgley -who has just been unceremoniously killed).

      • These comments and the discussion here are insightful and stimulating, so just thanking all for the contributions. I’d think it would be very tough to keep on the old course for any Stratfordian reading all your recent comments. Again, my appreciation and thanks. (And that includes Stephanie Hughes as well as all the others who keep contributing.)

      • Yes, the old archaic notion of Shakespeare out of the loop, just churning out “universal, non political-contemporary works” is dead. Even the “New Historicists” understand this but to a very limited degree,.

  8. I’ll have to say thanks to you, Hank, and to Stephanie, as well as your regular commenters like Ken and Francisco. Both of these blogs open up vistas that engage the imagination and allow the reader to flexibly explore the subject from a multitude of angles. If I was a Stratfordian I would still visit these sites because they really offer a window into that world.

    • OH, most Strats treat this stuff like the Devil. Way too out of the box. Against their religion.

  9. “… references to Hales vs Petit …”

    It’s also fascinating that he gives lines like this to the “Clownes” and fools.

    • There is a term we use, “allowed fool”. Clowns play an important role for the author. Feste is one such. It possibly is surmised that Oxford played that role as dramatist for the Queen. Thus no reprisal for certain things. You might look up Hughes essay on Richard III at

      “The Importance of Being Richard III”

      It is very rare to see traditional scholars contemplate these things within a political context.

      After all Shakespeare is supposed to be “apolitical”.

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