The manuscript shown at the left was recently acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in a stunning three-day sale of renaissance and Tudor manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London.
The collection of rare books and manuscripts being auctioned was the life’s work of legendary collector Peter S. Roberts, who rivalled institutions such as the Folger in both his knowledge and his capacity to expand his acquisitions.
The most exciting piece in the entire collection is a working draft of the play Hamlet exhibiting two different hands. One of these hands has been tentatively identified as belonging to William Shakespeare. The other appears to be that of Sir Francis Bacon.
This discovery confirms the long-standing theory that Bacon must have been at least in part responsible for the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. The theory rests primarily on the observation that the legal knowledge displayed in many of these plays could only have been acquired through years of study of the English common law. This legal knowledge must, in short, have been supplied by a barrister of considerable learning.
Scholars have long noted the legal expertise exhibited in plays like the Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, or in the opening scene of Henry V where the author debates one of the burning questions of his day: whether women were legally allowed to rule England. One of the most prominent examples is the scene in Hamlet in which the gravediggers make jokes about the famous case in English jurisprudence known as Hales vs. Petit.
The two gravediggers are debating whether it’s proper for Ophelia to be given a Christian burial.
First Clown How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?
Second Clown Why, ’tis found so.
First Clown It must be ‘se offendendo;’ it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself
wittingly, it argues an act: and an act hath three branches: it is, to act, to do, to
perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
Second Clown Nay, but hear you, goodman delver,–
First Clown Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to
this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the
water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not
guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Shakespeare the man is known to have had only a primary school education. He could not have written that scene himself. And now the Roberts manuscript proves that he did not; in fact, he wrote very little of the play we know as Hamlet. The circled portion shows clearly that the same hand wrote that text as wrote this signature, from a letter certainly written by Francis Bacon.
OK, I know, you never believed it. But what can I do when blog day falls on April 1st?
The manuscript shown is a page from a working draft of a play about Sir Thomas More that exhibits handwriting from 5 different persons. One of them is believed to be William Shakespeare. This is taken as proof that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on plays, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has any inkling about how plays are produced. I’m sure there was lots of collaboration going on at all stages.
Much of the Shakespeare authorship “controversy” revolves around Shakepeare’s inadequate formal education. Only a lawyer would know about Hales vs. Petit; therefore, a lawyer must have written Hamlet. But the play also includes knowledge of herbs, fishing, religion, and philosophy. Perhaps experts in those domains collaborated on the play as well.
Other plays demonstrate deep and accurate knowledge of horses, soldiers, midwifery, kingship, seamanship, carpentry, and bookbinding. We may have to draft the better of London to get these plays written!
Or, wait! There’s this thing called ‘research’ that writers do, where they go around and ask people questions and also read books on a range of topics. Maybe Shakespeare did that?
The gentlemen of the Inns of Court loved the theater; in fact, going to the theater sometimes seems to have been part of their curriculum. Their fathers had sent them to the Inns to acquire the polish and sophistication of the capital, after all. And Shakespeare was renowned and admired in his day. It seems far more likely to me that some of these legal men bought drinks for their favorite playwright after a play, and that Shakespeare took the opportunity to ask questions. He might have invited one of the barristers around to his rooms to help him draft that gravedigger scene.
“What’s a funny legal puzzle?” he might ask. “Something curious; something clever.” Or, “Are there any striking legal cases involving suicide?”
My character Thomas Clarady would have fallen over himself in his eagerness to help William Shakespeare punch up a script. Francis wouldn’t have gone out of way, but he was known to be a good-natured man. The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn in 1594. Hamlet wasn’t written for at least another five years, but another play might have been performed at Gray’s in which Shakespeare participated. He had ample opportunities to ask even Francis Bacon about legal bits and pieces.
And one last observation on this theme: My audio book of the moment is Blandings Castle, by P.G. Wodehouse. As some of you may know, this is the residence of the Earl of Emworth, a man devoted to the raising of prize pigs and flowers. In the chapter I listened to last night, his lordship delivers a spurt of commentary on the proper manuring of roses. Being a gardener myself, I recognized the advice as excellent. Are we to assume that Plum Himself donned the muck-caked Wellingtons and wielded the three-tined fork to pitch that mulch himself? Did he have a hitherto unknown early life in agriculture?
He did not. He wrote and wrote, and then wrote some more. Plum was productive, but not in the earthy, physical sense. And here’s a fun, if irrelevant, fact, to take away with you: “as of 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 1,750 quotations from Wodehouse, illustrating terms from crispish to zippiness.” (From the Wikipedia article about P.G. Wodehouse.)