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Eight Witnesses to Shakespeare (seven new)

Private book-lists, personal notes, and manuscript notations on the title-pages of early imprints, constitute important but overlooked evidence for the authorship and readership of plays and poems from the English Renaissance, including plays and poems by Shakespeare.


Witnesses (all but Harvey represent new evidence)

  1. Gabriel Harvey
  2. Sir George Buc
  3. Sir John Harington
  4. Edward Alleyn
  5. Humphrey Dyson
  6. William Drummond
  7. Robert Burton
  8. John Rous


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Private notes made by Gabriel Harvey and Edward Alleyn, title-page inscriptions made by George Buc, Humphrey Dyson, William Drummond, and Robert Burton (or a factor of the latter), and book-lists made by Harington, Drummond, and John Rous, all reveal that contemporaries of Shakespeare took pains to establish the authorship of poems and plays printed anonymously or with incomplete or false attributions. Buc and Drummond reveal that they not only collected play quartos, but read them. Evidence compiled in this investigation constitutes a direct challenge to those who would seek to transfer credit for the Shakespeare plays and poems to someone other than the historical William Shakespeare.

Note: In my talk to the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable I named eight witnesses, including the earl of Bridgewater, but excluding Edward Alleyn. I have since discovered that the earl of Bridgewater who inscribed two of his books with Shakespeare's name was the second earl (b. 1622) rather than the first (b. 1579), so I have withdrawn his name. I also discovered that Edward Alleyn made a notation of the kind that interests me.

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Gabriel Harvey (1550? - 1631), intellectual, controversialist, and pedant, owned and inscribed a considerable number of books. At the end of his copy of Speght's 1598 edition of Chaucer's Works, he penned a note which has been dated to a period after the 1598 publication of the volume, but prior to the execution of the earl of Essex in 1601:

The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort. ...
Subsequently Harvey mentions "Sir Edward Dier ... His Amaryllis, & Sir Walter Raleighs Cynthia," followed by Spenser, Constable, France, Watson, Daniel, Warner, Chapman, Silvester, "Shakespeare, & the rest of owr florishing metricians." (This evidence has long been known; that which follows is mostly new.)

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Sir George Buc (1560-1622). (For information about Buc and his books, click here and then return.)

The title-page of the anonymous first quarto of Henry V (1600) in the Huntington Library contains inscriptions by many hands; among these, one (and only one) is to be dated to the early seventeenth century and may be by Buc:

much ye same w{i}th y{a}t in Shakespeare.
If "in Shakespeare" means "in the First Folio," which was published in 1623, this could not be by Buc, who died in 1622. Nevertheless, the inscription looks like Buc's hand. Possibly it is indeed Buc's, and comparison is being made with Henry IV Part 2 (1600), which Henry V much resembles, particularly in its title-page, except that Henry IV Part 2 carries an attribution to William Shakespeare.

The inscription, whether by Buc or by another, is a genuine early title-page attribution note.

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Sir John Harington (?1561-1612), nephew and god-son of Queen Elizabeth and an author in his own right, is sufficiently well-known not to require an introduction here. Harington compiled two lists of play quartos from his personal collection about 1609. Among these was the brand-new quarto of King Lear, published in 1608 with the author listed on the title-page as "M. William Shak-speare." Harington lists this quarto twice:

K. Leir of Shakspear.
King Leyr. W. Sh.
Harington distinguished this play from the anonymous King Leire (1605), which he called "King Leire.: old."

Although for the most part Harington reproduces information from title-pages or letters of dedication, he always does so accurately. In one instance he supplies information from an outside source. The Cambridge play Lingua was printed in 1607 without the name of the author. Harington owned a copy of the first edition, and had it bound with eleven other quartos in the ninth volume of his collection. In a note on another leaf in the same manuscript he writes (f. 30):

The combat of Lingua made by Thom{as} Tomkis of Trinity colledge in Cambridge.
This is an extremely important attribution, constituting the only contemporary account of the authorship of this academic play, and revealing that Harington was unusually knowledgeable concerning authorship.

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Edward Alleyn (1566-1626), the famous actor, entrepreneur, and founder of The College of God's Gift in Dulwich, Shakespeare's junior by two years and five months, assembled a modest collection of books. Twenty-six are listed in the inventory made at the time of his death; 41 are recorded in a list in his own hand. None of books which survives from Alleyn's collection is a play, though several are related to poetry. Alleyn recorded the purchase of books in various lists and notes; one such purchase is recorded along with other items on the back of a recycled letter:

a book shaksper sonnetts 5d

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Humphrey Dyson (d. 1633), and before him his father Christopher (d. 1609), citizens of London, and wax chandlers and notaries public by profession, maintained close connections with theater professionals of their day, including Brian Ellam, carpenter, employed by James Burbage in the construction of the Theater and witness for the Burbages in their disputes with Margaret Brayne and Giles Allen; Richard Hudson, bricklayer and carpenter, similarly employed and a witness for the Burbages between 1592 and 1602; Thomas Savage, grantee of the Globe Theater; Mr. Francis Roberts, possibly related to James Roberts of the Barbican, printer of play quartos and of plays bills and placards; Robert Payne, possibly the patentee for the Children of the Queen's Revels in February 1604; Nicholas Tooley alias Wilkinson, actor with the King's Men beginning in or about 1605; Cuthbert Burbage and his wife Elizabeth; Richard Robinson, actor with the King's men from c. 1611; John Heminges and Henry Condell, actors with the King's men, shareholders in the Globe, legatees of William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon and compilers of the First Folio of 1623; Condell's wife Elizabeth; Joseph Taylor, actor with the King's men from 1619; John Underwood, actor with the King's men from 1608; William Eccleston, actor with the King's men in 1610-11 and again from 1613 onward; and Elizabeth Wheaton, a gatherer at the Blackfriars and the Globe.

Dyson married Elizabeth Speght, daughter of Thomas Speght, M.A. of Peterhouse, Cambridge, subsequently a schoolmaster, and editor of the 1598 Chaucer's Works and of the 1602 revised edition. He is remembered today for his systematic collections of Elizabethan royal proclamations published in 1618. Toward the end of his life he collaborated with Anthony Munday on the 1633 (fourth) edition of Stow's Survey of London, where he is also named among those whose books and manuscripts were consulted.

Dyson amassed a considerable collection of books, hundreds of which survive with his signature or name-stamp. His "Catalogue of all such Bookes touching aswell the State Ecclesiasticall as Temporall of the Realme of England w{hi}ch were published vpon seuerall occasions," in his own hand, survives in the Codrington Library of All Soul's College, Oxford - six notebooks bound into one volume (MS 117). Dyson collected play quartos, of which at least six survive:

Lyly, Endymion (1591)
Nash, Summer's Last Will and Testament (1600)
Contention Between Liberality and Prodigality (1602)
Philotus (Edinburgh, 1603)
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (1609)
Beaumont and Fletcher, Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613)
Dyson annotated the title-page of his Troilus and Cressida in his own hand (printed here in bold-face):
Written by William Shakespeare & printed amongest his workes.
This annotation, made between 1623 and Dyson's death in 1633, testifies to his belief that Troilus and Cressida and the First Folio were both written by William Shakespeare. A co-editor during the same period with Anthony Munday, sometime servant of the earl of Oxford who dedicated more works to his patron than any other author and was a playwright himself, Dyson was in a position to learn the truth from an inside source: notably, however, he did not attribute either Troilus and Cressida or the First Folio to Oxford.

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William Drummond, alias Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), sufficiently well known not to require an introduction here, was a reader and collector of poems and play quartos (among other books). Drummond first came to London from Scotland in 1606, in his twenty-first year. From then until 1614 he made a record of books he read each year. His recorded reading of Shakespeare is confined to 1606:

Romeo and Iulieta Tragedie
loues labors lost comedie
The passionat pilgrime
The rape of lucrece
A midsommers nights Dreame comedie
In 1611 Drummond compiled a list of the books in his library, attributing both "Venus & Adon." and "the rap of Lucrece" to "Schaksp." He made a major donation of books to the University of Edinburgh; a list of his bequests was printed in 1627. Books from Drummond's library which survive today in the Edinburgh University Library include two Shakespeare quartos:
Love's Labors Lost (1598)
Romeo and Juliet (1599)
No author is named on the title-page of this quarto of Romeo and Juliet, so Drummond supplied the name in his own hand:
Wil. Sha.

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Robert Burton (1577-1640) does not need an introduction here, except to note that he was an Oxford academic playwright himself, as well as the author - more famously - of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621 and numerous subsequent editions).

Burton was an assiduous collector of books: the number of volumes identified from his collection now stands at 1740, of which 1572 have been located. Of 68 plays and masques known to have been in his collection, 53 have been located. In addition, Burton owned nine or ten Continental plays, mostly in Latin (one is in an English translation). Burton's favorite English playwrights were (on a rough count) Beaumont and/or Fletcher (total of nine titles), Shirley (8), Chapman (6), Middleton (6), Jonson (5 including one title-fragment), and Webster (2). Not one of his play quartos was by Shakespeare, whom he may have judged old-fashioned (so much for the universally-recognized genius of the Bard!). Burton did own Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece (1600) and Venus and Adonis (1602). Again, however, Shakespeare was not Burton's favorite poet: that honor must go to John Taylor "the Water-Poet," of whose poems Burton owned fourteen separate imprints. Burton also owned mostly non-dramatic works by Dekker.

Following the terms of Burton's will to the letter, in 1640 John Rous, who had served as Bodley's chief librarian since 1620, took only those imprints not already held by the Bodleian, leaving the remainder for Christ Church. Thomas Bodley the founder had famously objected to plays as mere "baggage-books": prior to 1640, therefore, the library was devoid of plays. Thanks to Burton and Rous, the Bodleian vacuum was filled with books which Rous classed as "English books in 4o" (313); "maskes, Comedies, & Tragedies" (5); "Comedies & Tragedies" (61); and "Libri Anglici in 8o" (104). Even so, the Bodleian had to wait for some years before it permanently absorbed its first play by Shakespeare.

Among the books which Rous classed as "Libri Anglici in 8o" were the two Shakespeare poems. The title-page of his Rape of Lucrece (1600) is unfortunately missing. His Venus and Adonis (1602), however, carries all the marks of Burton's former ownership: his signature "R. Burton"; his "triple-r"; and a typical cypher in his hand. The title-page also carries an ascription in a contemporary hand: "by Wil. Shakespeare."

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John Rous (1574-1652) matriculated at Oxford in 1591, graduated B.A. from Balliol College in 1599, became a fellow of Oriel College in 1600, and received his M.A. in 1604. In 1620 he was appointed chief librarian of the Bodleian Library, a post he discharged with notable vigor and acumen until his death in 1652. "A Note of Mr. Robert Burton's books given to the Library by his Last Will and testament" in Rous's hand survives in Bodleian Library MS Selden supra 80. The list headed "Libri Anglici in 8o" begins on f. 189; f. 191v contains fifteen titles, including the following (second and the ninth):

Venus and Adonis by Wm Shakespear Lond. 1602
The rape of Lucrece by Wm Shakespear Imp{er}fet
The former entry matches the copy (discussed above) inscribed by Burton. The latter matches the copy with the missing title-page (the surviving text begins on sig. A2). Rous's entries testify to his acceptance of the received attribution of these separately-published poems.

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Anti-Stratfordians argue that the London press was so tightly controlled during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I that no publisher wouild have dared to print the "truth" concerning the authorship of plays and poems from the Shakespeare canon. Since the press was not controlled thoroughly, forcefully, or effectively, this argument is false.

Even if the argument were true, however, evidence presented here reveals that intelligent and knowledgeable bibliophiles contemporary with both the historical William Shakespeare and the historical 17th earl of Oxford (as well as the historical Christopher Marlowe and the historical Sir Francis Bacon), consistently attributed the canonical Shakespeare plays and poems to William Shakespeare, never to Oxford (or Marlowe or Bacon), even in the privacy of their personal libraries and notebooks.

At the very same time, Sir John Harington, in the privacy of his personal notebook (the Arundel-Harington manuscript), had no hesitation in naming Oxford as an author - but only of such poems as have been ascribed to him by Professor Steven May.

If the attribution of canonical plays and poems to the flesh-and-blood William Shakespeare was a hoax, it was a hoax that fooled men of the greatest possible intelligence, insight, and inside knowledge. The rational alternative to believing that a hoax was universally effective is to believe that there was no hoax at all: that the author of Shakespeare was none other than the historical William Shakespeare.

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