The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy and Conspiracy Theories

“There is a tendency for us to view Shakespeare as this unquestionable monolithic genius. But there is also in us all that iconoclast that wants to tear him off his pillar or plinth.”

Dr. Katrina Marchant

There are few things that will drive a Shaespeaeran scholar more skull-shatteringly livid than when someone asks them if Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. There are dozens of YouTube rants, bile-dripping academic papers, tinfoil-hat Tweets, and of course, centuries of anti-academic book bashing and counter-bashing research on the subject. So I won’t try to settle this debate, but I think the debate itself is worth looking at.

The authorship controversy is essentially a conspiracy theory- Was some unknown writer sending scripts to Shakespeare’s company and using the actor from Stratford as a patsy, or a pen name? Is there a massive cover-up to disguise the author of the most celebrated works in the English language? If so, why? How? and what else are they hiding?

The Malleus Malefecarum, “The Witch’s Hammer,” a 15th century book that posits that there is a vast conspiracy of witches living among us.

Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years is that it’s extremely rare to change anyone’s mind about any kind of conspiracy theory, and there are hundreds! Ancient Aliens, Bill Gates, Covid vaccine microchips, Elvis isn’t dead, The Illuminati, Kennedy Assassination, Pizzagate, Q-Anon, Trump’s Russia connections, the list goes on. Several recent studies show that the majority of Americans have heard at least one conspiracy theory, and many of us believe these theories to varying degrees. Sadly, the internet, which was designed to share information, is extremely good at sending misinformation as well.

So as an en educator and a father, I want to focus on the Shakespeare conspiracy not just because it gets my dander up, but also because, compared to these other theories, it is actually one of the least harmful. Conspiracies like the Plandemic hoax are extremely dangerous because they dissuade people from getting a life-saving treatment, and allow this pandemic to continue. By contrast, ultimately it doesn’t really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, so I think this kind of exercise is useful for educators to challenge students to think critically about this low-stakes theory, and then applying the same skill to others to become better-informed thinkers.

How to break down the Shakespeare conspiracy theory

First, let’s summarize the most compelling points of the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. This is a video by director Roland Emmerich, which he made to help promote his film “Anonymous.” Emmerich dramatizes the controversy by portraying the Earl of Oxford writing the plays of Shakespeare anonymously, and sending them to Shakespeare’s company, giving the man from Stratford credit for writing them.

There’s an old saying in science that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” and, aside from the fact that the Earl of Oxford wrote poems, there is no evidence that Oxford ever even spoke to Shakespeare’s company. In fact, almost none of this video is supported by any historical evidence. Now it would be a lot of work to refute each argument of this video point by point right? And surely I have better things to do than do a point-by-point refutation, but…

A Point-by Point refutation of the Roland Emmerich video:

– Shakespeare did leave evidence of his handwriting, just not evidence of his dramatic writing. The fact that his correspondence didn’t survive doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. The kind of cheap parchment that writers of the period used dissolved very easily, especially when they used ink with high iron content. The examples we have of Shakespeare’s writing are mainly legal records and books that were designed to last. In short, there’s no conspiracy to hide Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they simply didn’t survive.

The dedication page of the 1623 First Folio.

We don’t know for sure that his parents were illiterate, or that his daughters were. That is based on an urban legend, not actual proof. Also, plays were not written to be read, that’s why TV viewers are viewers and the grounding are called an audience.

A. Shakespeare wrote about aristocratic people because they were paying his rent. His company was literally named “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” One reason why Shakespeare was more successful than Ben Johnson was that he was deferential and obsequious to the English aristocracy; he had to sing their praises to stay in business.

Dedication page of Venus and Adonis, which Shakespeare wrote to the Earl Of Southampton.

B. Every character that Emmerich mentions is not an aristocrat- Bottom is a lower-class weaver, Mistress Overdon is an inn-keeper. The only aristocrats Shakespeare ever insults are Polonius (who isn’t real), and Sir John Oldcastle in the early draft of King Henry IV, which he immediately changed to Sir John Falstaff once Oldcastle’s family members complained about it to Shakespeare’s company. Emmerich is flat-out lying when he says Shakespeare mocks the English upper class like an equal.

C. There’s a very simple explanation of how Shakespeare was able to write about the manners and lives of the English aristocratic class: he didn’t. All of Shakespeare’s comedies (except for Merry Wives which has the aforementioned Falstaff as a character), and tragedies take place in other countries like Italy, France, Sicily, or Greece. His History plays are set in England, but they dramatize events that happened 100-200 years before Shakespeare was born, meaning that he didn’t need to know too much about contemporary court politics. Furthermore, the majority of the plots he used were recycled from history books, poems, and prose romances.

It’s useful to think of Shakespeare not as a novelist like Dickens or Tolstoy and more like a TV or film screenwriter like George Lucas or Aaron Sorkin. He didn’t write based on real-life experiences or conjure new ideas out of thin air. He was a popular dramatist who adapted existing works of literature to be dramatized onstage. This is why I created my YouTube comedy series “If Shakespeare worked for Disney.” Emmerich, like many Anti-Stratfordians, is assuming that Shakespeare couldn’t have written plays about the nobility without being one himself, but that’s not what Elizabethan dramatists did- they adapted pre-existing work to fit on the public stage, which means anyone with a good education and knowledge of the theater could have written them, regardless of his or her upbringing.

If you are wondering how I could possibly know Shakespeare’s writing process,, the answer is simple: All of Shakespeare’s sources have survived, which means that I can prove that his plays are adaptations. This is a common problem with most conspiracy theories- they never take the straightforward way to explain something. Instead, they take a theory and twist facts to suit that theory. In this case, they twisted the facts about the Earl of Oxford’s life to make him look like Hamlet and based on that, they made him look like the true author of Shakespeare.

D. Honestly the handwriting is the weakest point- yes Shakespeare spelled his name differently in documents but this was before standard English spelling. The first English dictionary was at least 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. This point is clearly designed to discredit Shakespeare and make him seem uneducated. But again, this point is irrelevant when you consider that Shakespeare wrote for theater, where standard spelling is completely unnecessary.

By the way, Ben Johnson spelled his name differently in his manuscripts.

The Debate- Feelings vs. Facts. Modern vs. early modern

When I was in high school, taking my first class on Shakespeare, I watched this documentary which almost convinced me that Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare. The researcher they interviewed seemed so passionate and I wanted to believe what he said was true. But that was before I started reading about Shakespeare’s life for myself, and looked at the evidence myself.

How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory

https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/conspiracy-theory-handbook/

The common traits of Conspiracy Theories from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook

If you look at many different conspiracy theories, they often exist in a form outside of normal reality, to the point where the believers have no interest in any kind of contrary evidence, logic, or any person who even questions it. Essentially the conspiracy becomes their identity, and they will virulently defend this conspiracy from anyone and anything that opposes it. Below is an explanation of the basic parts of a Conspiracy theory, with some points on how they all apply to the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

Contradictory Beliefs:

Believers in conspiracies are motivated by feelings, not facts, and they don’t care how inconsistent those theories are. For example, the same people who believe Joe Biden lost the presidential election, also believe that the president (Joe Biden) is also being played by an actor. This might explain why many people believe that people like Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare, despite the fact that he died 9 years before Shakespeare started writing.

Overriding suspicion:

Again, since the believer is motivated by feelings, they are naturally suspicious of any contrary evidence and just assume anyone who contradicts them is in on the conspiracy. This is called self-sealing the conspiracy.

Nefarious intent:

One question that inevitably comes up with the Shakespeare Authorship debate is: “Who cares?” Usually, this means “Does it really matter who wrote the plays?” However, I want to use this question in this context: “Why go through the trouble to conceal who wrote these plays?” As I mentioned earlier, though Shakespeare is very famous and culturally important now, he certainly wasn’t back in his lifetime. Playwriting was not a venerated profession, and socioeconomically, Shakespeare was little better than a tailor. Why would it be worth it to conceal who wrote a few, fairly popular plays in 1616?

It would take an enormous amount of effort to conceal who wrote these plays for 400 years- you’d have to pay off publishers, fake court records (like the one I showed you above), keep an entire court quiet, and make sure nobody ever wrote down the truth for 400 years. Why would it be worth it? This kind of logic is why the Moon Landing and the Flat Earth conspiracies don’t hold up to rational thought- there’s simply no reason to go through the effort of concealing the alleged truth. The truth itself is just easier to defend.

Something Must be wrong:

As the name implies, Anti-Stratfordians don’t so much believe in Bacon, Pembroke, Oxford, etc, so much as they actively choose not to believe in William Shakespeare of Stratford. This means they will use every bit of their energy trying to prove that theory, and won’t stop until they find something, no matter how nonsensical, to prove their Shakespeare is the real Shakespeare.

Persecuted victim:

Let me be blunt- a conspiracy is very simmilar to a delusion, and any attempt to shatter that delusion is a form of persecution for the conspiracist. The most infamous example of how conspiracy theorists can feel persecuted and empowered at the same time is the way it permeated Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi units. Hitler came to power by spreading the theory that the Jews were secretly controlling the world and Germany was persecuted, while at the same time, Germany was destined to control the world in the eyes of the Nazis. I mention this not because I think Anti-Stratfordians are Nazis (how could I watch I Claudius otherwise?), but that conspiracy theories are potentially very dangerous because they foster a self-serving victim mentality where people are constantly looking for someone to blame for their problems and they will sometimes become violent against anyone who challenges them.

Immune to Evidence

One of the most important concepts in law is the notion that someone is ixznnocent until proven guilty. Along those lines, the prima facie, the accepted truth is accepted as truth, until new evidence contradicts it. If you look at the Supreme Court mock trial for the Authorship question back in 1987, that was the conclusion they came to in the end. Though little historical evidence for Shakespeare has survived, there is NO PHYSICAL evidence that contradicts it, so in the interest of prima facie evidence, they ruled for Shakespeare.

Now real conspiracy believers never believe in the merits of contrary evidence. They will just assume it is manufactured or faulty; part of the attempts of those nefarious truth concealers to pull the wool over their eyes.

Re-Interpreting Randomness

I’ve seen many people claim that the evidence for conspiracies is not found in documents or in scientific explanation, it’s in some kind of code or cipher or series of clues that only the believers understand. As you’ll see below, some of the most famous Anti-Stratfordians claimed to find hidden codes and ciphers in Shakespeare’s plays that prove that he was concealing his true identity. They will also cite coincidental details like the fact that the crest of Edward DeVere was an eagle shaking a spear, and claim this proves his identity as the true author of the plays. When you see a theory like like this, remember, correlation is not causation. Just because a few bad things happened when a few people said “Macbeth,” does not mean Macbeth is cursed. Some things actually are coincidences and not everything has a dramatic or sinister cause. This brings me to my next point:

The real enemy of conspiracies: Disappointing facts (Spoilers ahead for the movie “Coco”)

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Let’s imagine that you were Miguel from Disney’s Coco, and you discovered that your hero Ernesto Dela Cruz murdered your grandfather Hector, but (unlike in the movie), he actually DID write the songs he said he did. How would you feel about Hector? Would you hope and pray that Ernesto lied and your virtuous grandfather was the real author? Might you even concoct a conspiracy theory to rewrite Ernesto’s history and get Hector celebrated as the real author of “Remember Me?”

I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare is guilty of murder, or any other crime (apart from usury, hoarding grain, and a few minor tax violations). What I’m trying to do is to draw parallels between two men who are icons that are beloved by their hometowns, who created work that resonates with a lot of people.

We all have a tendency to take people we admire and put them on pedestals, (like the quote at the beginning mentions), and many people try to identify with their heroes. This is really easy with Shakespeare because most of the personal details of his life have vanished, so we can imbue him with our own sensibilities. Case in point- when Mya Angelou read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a little girl, she initially thought that he was a black girl. Likewise, Eugene O’Neill and other Irish and Irish American writers have thought he might be been Irish.

Some of the most outrageous anti-Stratfordians clearly have an axe to grind because they have a family connection (real or imagined) to the man they believe to be Shakespeare. In the 19th century, Delia Bacon wanted to prove that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was the 17th-century poet, philosopher, and essayist, SIR FRANCIS BACON. Ms. Bacon hated Shakespeare because she thought he was an illiterate sheep-poaching commoner. She, therefore, used her theory to hoist Shakespeare off his literary pedestal, and therefore elevate herself because she believed she was descended from Sir Francis (though in reality, she wasn’t).

Rather than using any kind of historical evidence to prove her theory, Ms. Bacon claimed there was an elaborate code hidden in the iambic pentameter. Subsequent literary pseudo-scholars have attempted to hack the code and prove that they can prove that Sir Francis was the real author of the plays. In the late 1800s, American politician and author Ignatius Donnelly appropriated Ms. Bacon’s theory and claimed he had found the code, which rested on the pagination of the First Folio.

Donnelly had a knack for spreading conspiracy theories; as the title page of his book shows, he also authored a book where he claimed he correctly identified the location of the lost city of Atlantis. He also hated Shakespeare because Donnelly believed he was nothing more than a businessman, exploiting the talent of others, so like Bacon, he cooked up these ‘facts’ to suit his theory in order to take Shakespeare down.

Like many conspiracy theories, Anti-Stratfordians don’t have any factual basis for the ideas they hold, they are responding to an emotional need or desire. Donnelly and Bacon wanted fame, recognition, and revenge against a man they hated. J. Thomas Looney, who proposed that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare, wanted a ‘fairy prince’ that is, a semi-mythical Bard who would lead England into a golden age. All these people were dissatisfied with the man from Stratford, so they created a Shakespeare of their own, and tried to justify his existence.

Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays.
Title page of the 1623 Folio, the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

To briefly sum up why the Bacon/ Donnelly theory is false, it hinges on the page numbers of the Folio, but Shakespeare didn’t print the first Folio. If you look at the title page, it was assembled by two actors from Shakespeare’s company- Henry Condell and John Hemmings, and it was printed by Isaac Jaggard, the same man who printed Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. Writers had no say in how their work was printed and in fact Jaggard actually printed the sonnets without Shakespeare’s permission! The notion that Jaggard had any interest in properly printing a secret code in the pages of his posthumous book seems to me, incredibly unlikely at best.

Lesson plan

I’ve adapted a lesson plan about conspiracy theories to include a discussion of the Shakespeare authorship question. I’ll also include a worksheet that you can use in your classroom to distribute among your students if you choose to use it as well. I think it’s a good way to foster critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and historical curiosity, and if it prevents more people from joining Q-Anon, so much the better!

This lesson plan makes use of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, and it has great, easy to read activities about how to spot a conspiracy theory, how to talk to a conspiracy theorist, and how to avoid being taken in by a conspiracy.

Sources:

https://www.americanprogress.org/press/release/2020/10/13/491521/release-new-survey-shows-conspiracy-theories-thriving-u-s-election-nears/:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2020/06/29/how-many-americans-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/?sh=62b9725d5e94

https://www.c-span.org/video/?618-1/shakespeare-author-pseudonym#

Shakespeare Week Is Coming at Outschool.com

Outschool.com will be honoring the contributions of Shakespeare during the very first Shakespeare Week on March 21-27th.

I’m honored to take part in this celebration, and I’m offering several aclasses which relate to Shakespeare in an engaging way. Here’s the schedule below:

If you want to sign up for one of my classes, please visit my Outschool page:

https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student

https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student

Hope to see you during Shakespeare Week!

Denzel Washington talks Shakespeare. Mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier

If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.

Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.

Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.

Special Discounts on my Outschool Classes!

I'm teaching two great classes today. Spaces are available!

From now to January 13th, I’m offering a $5 discount for any class that is $10 or more! You can take my Shakespeare classes for as little as $4! Go to my Outschool.com class and enter the coupon code: HTHESNIF6B5 at checkout!

https://outschool.com/teachers/c9bc565b-71e9-44c9-894a-921c472f4a37#usMaRDyJ13

If you’re new to Outschool, use the referral code below when you sign up. You’ll automatically get $20 USD off  as a thank you to use on future classes! My referral code is: MaRDyJ13

Hope to see you on my Outschool page!

How Accurate Is Hamnet?

“She’s got…it, hasn’t she? The pestilence?” (O’Farrell, 105).
As this quote, (and the subtitle) suggests, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet: A Novel About the Plague, focuses on the terror surrounding the plague and its devastating consequences on families. I really respect this book for its historical authenticity, it’s clever prose, and O’Farrell’s command of style, but I should warn you that this novel is definitely not for breezy summer reading.

If you are looking for a novel about William Shakespeare, this isn’t it; the Bard only appears in flashbacks. The action mainly concerns his wife and children. While Will was living and working in London for most of the year, his family lived in Stratford Upon Avon, along with the playwright’s mother and father. The novel has follows the characters across two times: 1582, when Shakespeare and his wife first met, courted and married, and around 1595, during an outbreak of plague that would (Spoiler Alert) eventually claim the life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.

Drawing of Shakespeare and his family. Hamlet and Judith are on his right, his other daughter Susanna and his wife Anne are on his left.

The novel has a very dour tone, but that is by design. The author herself writes that the premise of the book was to create a realistic (albeit fictional) account of the Shakespeare family as their only son fell sick and died.

Burial records for the town of Stratford Upon Avon for 1596. On August 11, it records the death of Hamnet Shakespeare, William’s only son

The premise is intriguing from a historical point of view. We have no diaries or correspondence that express how the Shakespeares dealt with this catastrophic loss, but many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was a direct homage to his son, since in Elizabethan England the names Hamlet and Hamnet were used interchangeably. Still, it must have effected Will in other ways, and it had to have had an effect on Hamnet’s mother and sisters, and that was O’Farrell’s focus when adapting this story as a novel.

I would describe the novel’s tone as ‘haunting,’ which is appropriate since it’s based around how a child’s death effected his family. It reminds me of a passage Shakespeare himself wrote about the death of a young boy in his play King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! King John Act III, Scene iv.



Like Constance in the quote above,, All the characters in Hamnet are haunted.
[Hamnet is pursued by plague. Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are haunted by their abusive parents. Will’s father John by the loss of his business and social standing, and of course, everyone is haunted by Hamnet’s death.

https://youtu.be/kj240pJPpB8

Artist’s restored version of a Elizabethan woman, believed to be Anne Hathaway.
Lucentio and Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2007)

Although the novel is mainly about Hamnet’s decline and death, my favorite parts of the book are flashbacks to the courtship and marriage of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about their real courtship, so O’Farrell borrows the plot from Shakespeare’s Taming Of the Shrew. Like Lucentio in Shrew,
The 18 year old William Shakespeare is a Latin tutor, (having not yet become a writer), who woos a misunderstood woman whom the town calls a shrew. In the book, Anne Hathaway is known as Agnes and (like many unmarried women of the period), is looked on as odd and somewhat wild. Many single women of this period would likely face discrimination, and sometimes. In this video, you can see how cunning women like Anne had an uneasy relationship with the local community; some saw them as an asset to the community, but others believed their abilities came from The Devil. For more information on Anne’s life, click here.

The History Guy- Witch Trials in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Anne is further isolated because of her strange abilities- in the book she owns a falcon, not a ladylike hobby for 1580s England. She is also skilled with medicinal plants and knows how to read palms. In essence, though the town ostracizes Anne, Shakespeare admires her cleverness, and the book implies that Shakespeare would later use her skills in characters like Kate from Shrew, Friar Lawrence (the skilled potion master), and maybe even the witches from Macbeth.

The reusing of Shakespeare’s plots doesn’t stop there- Before Anne and Will get married they are handfasted- that is they make a mutual promise to get married in front of witnesses. Anne knows that her family will not consent to their marriage given Shakespeare’s low economic prospects, so she convinces Will to get her pregnant. This mirrors Claudio and Juliet in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, who are publicly shamed and arrested for fornication, even though their only crime was not waiting until they had given a dowry to the groom’s parents before consumating the marriage.


One final master stroke of O’Farrel’s historical fictive tapestry is how she engineers the father son conflict between Will Shakespeare and his father John. Shakespeare loves to explore the power dynamic between boys on the cusp of manhood, and their already powerful fathers. In the case of John Shakespeare, O’ Farrell depicts him as a man who has worked, schemed, scammed, and clawed his way to the highest wealth his birth can allow him, but is now falling from grace, who has nothing but contempt for his son who seems like a worthless dreamer, incapable of hard work. This most closely echoes Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and King Henry, a son who must prove his fitness to be king to his father and to his nation. Watch this exchange from “The Hollow Crown” where the sick and aging John of Gaunt (Patrick Stuart), chastises his weak, effeminate nephew, King Richard II:

Historical Notes:

Infant mortality in Elizabethan England:

Even before Hamnet is born, his mother and mother in law are painfully aware that he might die young. Sadly this is very historically accurate. Infant mortality rates were high in Elizabethan England. According to Ian Mortimer in his book The Time Traveler’s Guide To Elizabethan England, mothers had to keep their children at arms length and not get too attached. Being a mother in this time meant dealing with the constant knowledge that your child might not survive:

In Stratford in the 1560s, there are on average, sixty-three children baptized every year- and forty-three children buried.

Mortimer, 27.

John Shakespeare’s fall John Shakespeare was more than a glover- he held a position in the Stratford Guild Hall- basically a city council position. He was in charge of hiring constables, keeping the peace, overseeing the brewing of ale, and approving theatrical entertainments for civic events. Probably John got his son interested in theater by letting him tag along to the sort of private performances he would have watched to determine whether a play or troupe was good enough for, for instance, the visit of a peer. However, by the 1580s, John was losing his business and selling off his land assets. Scholars suspect that either John was a closet Catholic, forced to pay fines every time he failed to attend protestant church, or he was avoiding church and his alderman council meetings because he knew his creditors would be there. In any case, O Farell takes this historical tidbit and turns John Shakespeare into a bitter, broken, abusive man whom Shakespeare can’t wait to get away from. Shakespeare and his wife bond over their abusive parents and dream of succeeding financially so they can get away from their parent’s influence.
Malt and wool The novel hints at John Shakespeare’s secret side business selling wool and malt, but never explicitly states that this practice was illegal. All wool was controlled by the Elizabethan government so it was illegal to sell it without special permission, and in 1570, John Shakespeare was caught selling wool illegally. He was also found guilty of money-lending, hoarding grain, and selling malt. This is why he tells his son to forget the wool he saw in the attic.

An Alderman in his official robe, the same kind John Shakespeare would have worn.

Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet

  1. 1556 Anne Hathaway born. She’s referred to as Agnes in other court documents. Her father Richard owned a sheep farm in Hewland. At some point, her mother died and her father Richard married a woman named Joan, whom the novel portays as a bitter, controlling witch.

1564– Will Shakespeare born, third of 8 children. His father started out as a local glover, who quickly rose through the ranks of local government to become the mayor of the town. They owned a house in Henley street, which also doubled as the glove workshop. For more informaition on this fascinating building, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

The Shakespeare’s house on Henley Street in Stratford Upon Avon, where Will, his wife, children, and parents lived until 1597.
Recreation of the Shakespeare’s dinner table.


1581– Anne’s father Richard dies,  bequeathing her “£6 13s 4d ‘atte the day of her maryage’.” Richard Hathaway owned a farmhouse in Shottery that still stands today! For more info, please visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. June 2014.
Interior and exterior images of Ann Hathaways cottage, Shottery, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire.


1582– On November 27th, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway. He was 18, she was 26. It must have been a hasty and stressful situation. Shakespeare had no job, and based on the timeline, Anne was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. For more information on marriage in the period, please visit my website on Elizabethan society:

The Shakespeares were granted a marriage licence by the Bishop of Worcester. They were married at Temple Grafton, a village approximately five miles (8 km) from Stratford.

Notes On Shakespeare’s Wedding Day:

  • We know that Anne’s family paid a dowry to Shakespeare’s family, which annoys Shakespeare in the book. He feels furious that his father uses the marriage to help his business interests.
  • According to Michael Wood, the priest left out the reading of the banns, and suspected the marriage was intentionally catholic. The book also makes it clear that this was a catholic ceremony, deep into the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
Robert Bearman, “The Shakespeare marriage bond,” Shakespeare Documented, https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/resource/document/shakespeare-marriage-bond

May 26, 1583– Susanna Shakespeare is baptized, which means she was probably born three days earlier.

February 2nd, 1585– Hamnet and Judith are baptized.The twins were named after two very close friends of William and Anne, the baker Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith. The Sadlers became the godparents of the twins and, in 1589, they in turn named their own son William.

1586– John Shakespeare is booted off the Stratford board of Aldermen for not attending meetings. Michael Wood suggests that John might have been avoiding the meetings because he was in debt, and the creditors knew where to find him. The novel seems to agree with this theory- the first time that we meet John Shakespeare, he is on the verge of beating his own grandson for sneaking up on him. If he was hiding from his creditors, he’d have a reason to be jumpy.
1592 – Shakespeare makes it in London?
1593 Outbreak of Bubonic Plague- 15,000 people died in London alone. O Farrell does a great job of portraying the visceral terror people must have felt during an outbreak, the same terrified panic that gripped our world in 2020. As I’ve written before, not only did the disease itself instill fear, but also the Draconian measures of quarantines, and the grotesque and ineffective methods for treating the plague. To see how you might be treated for plague in the 1590s, take my quiz: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/1xzNm37sGbHsQJgsnx4irZHJVp9YscVVJ/edit?authuser=2

Because of the contagious nature of the disease, the theatres were closed, which forced Shakespeare to write poems instead of plays. Around this time he also probably wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis

1596 Hamnet dies

C. 1599– William Shakespeare writes Hamlet, his longest play, widely regarded as the greatest play ever written in the English language.

I hope this post helped increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book, and Elizabethan History in general.

For a fascinating look at the life of an Elizabethan woman, check out this documentary about Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, created by scholar Michael Wood:

Resources for Teachers and Students: A Visit To Elizabethan London

I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.

So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.

For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.

My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.

Remember, Remember GUY FAWKES DAY!

Hi Everyone!

For most of us Shakespeare geeks, November the Fifth isn’t just the day where we celebrate the move/comic book V For Vendetta, it’s also a celebration of one of the most infamous plots in English History, the GUNPOWDER PLOT, where 13 Catholics including Guy Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament and kill King James of Scotland. To this day, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on November 5, and little children chant:

The Fifth of November

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

The plot went down in 1605, the same year Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth! A lot of scholars believe that a plot to assassinate the rightful king of Scotland gave Shakespeare the inspiration to craft his most paranoid, frightening, and topical play, similar to the way he chose to write Romeo and Juliet right after the plague closed the playhouses of London and wanted to write about the ancient plague of family vendettas.

Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.
Engraving of 8 of the 13 conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

Other scholars suggest that Shakespeare chose to write “Macbeth” to show support of James’ right as king. Shakespeare definitely needed to do this, after all, James was his royal patron and he needed to make sure that he was on the king’s good side. More importantly, Shakespeare’s family was on thin ice when it came to their loyalty to the crown. Remember, Shakespeare’s father and mother were both lifelong Catholics, just like the conspirators who tried to blow up the king! Not only that, but Shakespeare’s father was friends with Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the whole plot! Even worse, Shakespeare’s favorite bar the Mermaid Tavern, was a meeting place for Catesby and his gang! So Shakespeare might have written “Macbeth” as a way of proclaiming the king’s legitimacy, and his allegiance to the crown.

So let’s be thankful that the king never suspected Shakespeare, because I for one wouldn’t want to live in a world without Macbeth.

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Enjoy this quiz on the history of Guy Fawkes Day: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/how-well-do-you-know-what-happened-during-the-gunpowder-plot-a6721096.html

If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my “Macbeth” Outschool class, which is being offered at a $5 discount in honor of November 5th. Register now at Outschool.com: