Shakespeare and Literacy

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Were Actors Literate?

In the debate conducted between Charles Vere and myself at the University of California at Berkeley, 24 April 1997, Mr. Vere accepted the fact that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon spent much of his adult life as an actor in London, but he went on to declare that the fact that Shakespeare was an actor showed that he was illiterate.

When I replied that actors were necessarily literate, and therefore the fact that Shakespeare was an actor proved that he was literate, Mr. Vere responded that as a class actors were illiterate; only the leaders of the companies were literate.

Mr. Vere's argument has no foundation in fact or in any historical evidence or even in any tentative hypothesis known to me or to my academic colleagues. In fact, common sense must dictate that actors needed to have been literate in order to learn their parts; otherwise each company would have had to have a team of literate coaches to instruct their illiterate actors!

A Midsummer Night's Dream provides textual evidence that even lower-class actors were expected to be literate. Snug the joiner asks Peter Quince:

Have you the lion's part written? pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study.
Quince reassures Snug that he may do his part "extempore, for it is nothing but roaring." Quince then hands out side-parts to the other "rude mechanicals," admonishing them,
But, masters, here are your parts: and I am to entreat you, request you and desire you, to con them by tomorrow night ...
Subsequently Quince chastises Flute the bellows-mender for speaking the part of Thisbe "cues and all": such "cues" were an essential ingredient of written side-parts.

Hamlet contains a famous scene in which the hero offers to write substitute speeches for the players in order to turn their play into The Mousetrap.

But what external and documentary evidence is there on which to base a discussion of literacy among real actors? Well, the usual test for literacy is whether a person could sign his name or instead had to make a mark.

Evidence from signatures is not 100% valid, since an illiterate could learn to sign by rote, and some literates are known to have used a mark on occasion. With such mild reservations, signatures are widely accepted as an index of literacy.

Playhouse Wills 1558-1642, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann and Susan Brock (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993), is a rich source of signatures and marks made by actors and non-actors. I have gleaned the following results, which clearly demonstrate that actors as a class were literate. I invite others to add positive or negative examples to this list by e-mailing me signatures or marks taken from other sources.

I append further thoughts to the end of the lists.

Page numbers refer to Honigmann and Brock; asterisks indicate that the document is a copy rather than an original.

The following actors signed their own names:

  1. Alleyn, Edward: p. 103; 153
  2. Armin, Robert: p. 97
  3. Axon, Robert: p. 179
  4. Beeston alias Hutchinson, Christopher: p. 91, 193
  5. Benfield, Robert: p. 110, 191
  6. Browne, William: p. 181
  7. Bugge, John: p. 110
  8. Burbage, Richard: no evidence, but his brother Cuthbert signed: p. 114
  9. Clarke, John: p. 133
  10. Condell, Henry: p. 144; 160
  11. Cooke, Alexander: p. 95
  12. Downton, Thomas: p. 147
  13. Edmonds, John: p. 71
  14. Fowler, Richard: p. 201*
  15. Garland, John: p. 142
  16. Goffe, Robert: p. 74
  17. Greene, Thomas: p. 91
  18. Heminges, John: p. 112
  19. Honeyman, John: p. 191
  20. Kingman, Philip: p. 110
  21. Laneham, John: p. 56
  22. Lee (Leigh), Robert: p. 163
  23. Nore, Roger: p. 201*
  24. Phillips, Augustine: p. 74
  25. Pope, Thomas: p. 71
  26. Pullam, George: p. 84
  27. Robinson, John: p. 116 (identification doubtful)
  28. Robinson, Richard: p. 114*
  29. Rowley, Samuel: p. 139
  30. Shakespeare, William:p. 108
  31. Shank, John: p. 112, 140, 189
  32. Shepherd, ____ : p. 74
  33. Tarlton, Richard: p. 58*
  34. Tooley, Nicholas: p. 114*; 127-8
  35. Towne, Thomas: p. 89
  36. Underwood, John: p. 144

The following, two of whom may or may not have been actors, signed with marks:

  1. Hugh Davis; "the marcke X of hew Davesse"; however, Davis is "not ... known to have been an actor himself": p. 77
  2. Jones, Jaques: "the marke of the X said Iaques Iones": uncertain identification: p. 162
  3. Sly, William: "The marke of William Slye": p. 80

It seems a preposterous exercise to undertake to discover whether actors were literate when logic so clearly dictates that they must have been so. Anti-Stratfordians are so desperate to prove that William Shakespeare was illiterate that they will smear the entire acting profession (with the exception of a few leading men in each company) with the charge of illiteracy in order to make Shakespeare illiterate.

Even Mr. Vere's qualifying remark that William Shakespeare was a minor actor in his company (rather than one of the leading figures) is invalid, since from 1595 onward Shakespeare was certainly one of the principal members, being singled out for mention along with Richard Burbage and Will Kempe.

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