Sunday, August 3, 2014

Show me the data!

by Linda Theil

We Shakespeare lovers would be better served if supporters of the status quo would attempt to eliminate a distorting Stratfordian lens from their view of all things Shakespeare. Too often, information is presented as if the Stratfordian view were confirmed, when the truth is much more complex and much more interesting.

The Folger Shakespeare Library recently published on their webpage a promo of a talk on heraldry titled "Shakespeare's Coat of Arms . . . " by Kathryn Will. They said:
In 1596, Shakespeare secured a coat of arms for his father, thus earning himself the title "gentleman." But the herald who granted the coat faced attacks from his own colleagues for elevating a mere playwright to gentle status. How did Shakespeare, early modern heraldry officials, and their contemporaries view the relationship between heraldry and gentility? And have heraldry's meanings changed over the past few centuries? 
In this talk, scholar Kathryn Will explores the fascinating and volatile history of England's royal College of Arms, shedding light on quests for arms from the Bard through Kate Middleton. Read more about Kathryn's work at her website
The phrase “But the herald who granted the coat faced attacks from his own colleagues for elevating a mere playwright to gentle status.” caught my attention. To me, that statement indicates that the author of the statement has citations for documents showing that more than one of the herald’s colleagues made more than one attack on the herald for raising the “mere” playwright William Shakespeare to be a gentleman. Since I had never heard of these documents, I wrote to Folger public relations officer Garland Scott on July 18, 2014:
Since the grant [of arms] was made to John Shakespeare, I don’t know why any reference would have been made to being a playwright. If there is any contemporary documentation indicating the attacks were based on William Shakespeare being a “mere playwright” as you say, could you provide the quotes and sources?
Garland referred my query to Kathryn Will. When I didn’t hear from Will, I asked Scott if the statement had been fact-checked and if not, would the Folger be willing to repudiate the statement. Scott consulted further with Folger staff and replied in an email dated July 28, 2014:
. . . I followed up with Heather Wolfe and Nigel Ramsey, co-curators of our Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare’s England exhibition, with your questions about the short blurb for scholar Kathryn Will’s related lecture. The attack mentioned in the blurb happened after the death of John Shakespeare at which point the arms had passed to William Shakespeare as the eldest son. The attack was based not only on the fact that Brooke considered William to be a player, but also on the fact that John Shakespeare’s arms were too similar to other arms and he was not of a gentle enough background, so that it never should have been granted in the first place. Sources would be the Bodleian manuscript, the College of Arms manuscript with the colored arms, and the later version of the Brooke account at the Folger. Nigel Ramsay wrote a blog post on the topic:
There’s also information online at:
So there was one colleague named Brooke and one attack, not multiples of either as one would assume from reading the original blurb where the plural for both was used. But where are the quotes and citations? I turned to Ros Barber, PhD, author of The Marlowe Papers and Shakespeare: The Evidence for advice. Barber replied in July 28 and July 29, 2014 emails:
What they're referring to, no doubt, is the note 'Shakespear ye player' on the copy of a page of the complaint document. As it says in Shakespeare: The Evidence, this is not an original document but a copy made 100 years later and even then the phrase is written in a different ink and a hand to the rest of the page. . . . 
Elisabeth Leedham-Green,  a handwriting expert from Cambridge University confirmed that in her view the hand was 'modern'. Folger manuscript curator, Heather Wolfe [whom I consulted for my book] said it was at least questionable. Your point is well made. The grant of arms was to the father not the son. I think it likely that 'Shakespear ye player' was an antiquarian's note.
. . .
 I can see that Garland is trying to be helpful and is giving a fairly full general purpose account, rather than academic (citations, etc.) Friendly and considered. It’s certainly the way most Strats read this evidence. For me it misses the main problem regarding the evidence as I raise in Shakespeare: The Evidence. The ONLY basis for the ‘player’ idea is that single phrase on a copy made 100 years later which we cannot tell is a true copy -- and the phrase itself may have been added later. The rest of the points made are just general points raised by Brooke re ALL the arms grants he was complaining about. Read Price and Matus for different takes on it.
I followed up with Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography and Irvin Matus’ Shakespeare, In Fact and other sources and discovered that in 1602 one herald named Ralph Brooke accused the Garter King of Arms, Sir William Dethick of previously elevating 23 people to the gentry who should not have been elevated because their arms were too similar to existing coats of arms and/or because they were of low birth.

John Shakespeare, whose arms had been bestowed in 1596, was on Brooke’s list of 23 people. Brooke says nothing about William Shakespeare and nothing about playwrights. The sketched document that purportedly links William Shakespeare to the Brooke complaint never mentions playwrights, either.

This document, is described in Barber's Shakespeare: The Evidence, under the title "Shakespear ye player by garter (Appendix #A-030):
1602/c.1700 **Heraldic document**  Associated with Brooke’s complaint is a separate sheet entitled 'A Note of Some Coats & Crests’ which includes, on the top left corner, a drawing of the Shakspere arms, underneath which is written ‘Shakespear ye Player by Garter.’ It is *not* the original document, but is believed to have been copied from the original some hundred years later by Peter Le Neve, an officer of the College of Arms. (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS. V.a.350).
The document shows the Shakespeare arms sketched in the upper left corner of the paper with a notation underneath saying “Shakespear ye player” and on a second line “by Garter”. As Barber says in her email, “The ONLY basis for the ‘player’ idea is that single phrase on a copy made 100 years later which we cannot tell is a true copy -- and the phrase itself may have been added later.”

So, the Folger statement “But the herald who granted the coat faced attacks from his own colleagues for elevating a mere playwright to gentle status.” is inaccurate in the number of colleagues, the number of attacks and the reason for the attacks – which has nothing to do with writing plays. And the document linking "Shakespear ye player" to the Brooke complaint is questionable, based on testimony of the Folger's own expert.

Many published references to William Shakespeare are similarly misleading. Most readers assume that assertions about the Stratfordian attribution are backed by supporting documentation, documentation that often doesn’t exist. A recent playbill from a University of Michigan production confidently stated that Shakespeare attended grammar school in Stratford, a statement for which there is no documentation whatsoever.

Stratfordians should know that sloppy scholarship doesn't enhance the Stratfordian attribution of Shakespeare's work.