Shakespeare's Will

Part 10 of "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims"

Shakespeare's will has been read minutely over the last two hundred years, and reams have been written on the issues raised by it. Two issues commonly recur in Oxfordian and Baconian writings, and are worth looking at in some detail: the lack of any mention of books or manuscripts in the will, and the fact that the names of Shakespeare's fellow actors Burbage, Heminges, and Condell are contained in an interlineation.

First, the books. Like Baconians before them, Oxfordians find it incredible that nowhere in his rather detailed will does Shakespeare mention any books or manuscripts, the implication being that if he had owned any books he surely would have mentioned them. Like so many other Oxfordian implications which might seem plausible to the casual reader, this one does not hold up when looked at in context. Many prominent and learned Elizabethans made no mention of books in their wills; while libraries were occasionally mentioned in wills of the time, most often they were not, even when we happen to know from other sources that the testator owned many books. As an illustration, consider the following contemporaries of Shakespeare who did not mention books in their wills:

Consider, too, Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights. In Playhouse Wills, 1558-1642, E. A. J. Honigmann and Susan Brock collected all known surviving wills of people connected with the Elizabethan theater. Fourteen of these people (not including Shakespeare) were playwrights -- and of these fourteen, only three (William Bird, Samuel Rowley, and Arthur Wilson) mentioned books in their will. Among those whose wills said nothing about books were such prominent literary figures as Samuel Daniel, Thomas Campion, John Marston, and James Shirley -- none of whom can be proved to have owned a book, according to Oxfordian standards. Lack of books in an Elizabethan will says nothing at all about whether the person had a library, and in fact it would have been unusual if Shakespeare's will had mentioned books.

Oxfordians also find it highly suspicious that Shakespeare's will mentions no manuscripts or rights to plays. But there is nothing suspicious about this at all: not a single one of the playwrights' wills reproduced by Honigmann and Brock makes any mention of such things, so why should we expect them in Shakespeare's? As many people have pointed out, plays belonged to the company that produced them and not to the playwright, so Shakespeare would have had no rights to any plays to bequeath, and very possibly no manuscripts of these plays at all. There is, in fact, abundant contemporary evidence that playwrights had a hard time getting manuscripts of their own plays from the acting companies. When Thomas Middleton had a scribal copy of his ten-year-old play The Witch made for Thomas Holmes in 1624, he said in his dedication to Holmes that the play was "recovered into my hands -- (though not without much difficulty)" and that the actors had "made her lie so long in an imprisoned obscurity." Thomas Heywood, in his address to the readers of The English Traveller (1633), says that his plays had not been collected "to bear the title of works" because some of them "are still retained in the hands of some actors, who think it against their peculiar profit to have them come into print."

Finally, a few words about Shakespeare's bequest to his "fellows" Burbage, Heminges, and Condell of 26 shillings 8 pence apiece "to buy them rings." Since this is a clear connection between William Shakespeare of Stratford and the King's Men, including the two editors of the First Folio, it has been attacked by Oxfordians who insist that "Shaksper" must have been an illiterate grain merchant rather than an actor. In the Frontline special, Enoch Powell echoes many Baconians and Oxfordians before him when he suspiciously notes that this bequest is an interlineation; "isn't that convenient," Powell intones. Powell gives the unsuspecting viewer the clear impression that the bequest to the actors is the only such interlineation in the will. In fact, it is one of many, all in the same handwriting and the same ink; these include many corrections, clarifications, and additions, including the infamous bequest of his second-best bed to his wife. All these interlineations are written out in full in the register copy of Shakespeare's will, proving that they were there by the time Susanna and John Hall proved the will on June 22, 1616. If unnamed conspirators inserted the Burbage/Heminges/Condell bequest, why did they also insert all these other things, including a bequest (the second-best bed) that makes Shakespeare look bad in many people's eyes? If they were trying to make an illiterate bumpkin look like a theater man and playwright, why did they not also insert references to books and manuscripts, whose absence Oxfordians find so suspicious? And most importantly, why did they bother to perform all this skullduggery on a will, which would be filed away in a probate office and forgotten (as Shakespeare's was for 121 years), rather than in some public document? What good could this have possibly done for the conspiracy?

Another conceivable conspiracy scenario is that the interlineation was made after the will was discovered in the eighteenth century, but such a proposal runs into many more problems in addition to those just noted. The forger would have had to be impossibly skillful in order to fool all the scholars of the last 250 years; yet the Shakespearean forgeries of William Henry Ireland some 60 years later are incredibly crude by modern standards, and even the much more accomplished forgeries of John Payne Collier in the nineteenth century are relatively easy to spot for a modern scholar with knowledge of Elizabethan paleography. The forger would also have had to know that Burbage, Heminges, and Condell were the only three members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men who were still alive in 1616, and in addition he would have to know that money to buy memorial rings was a common bequest in Jacobean wills, even though virtually all the other wills containing such bequests were still buried in record offices. All in all, the notion that conspirators inserted the bequest to the King's Men actors makes no sense on any level.

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