Did any contemporary of Shakespeare suspect that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare?
The answer is yes.
Four well-known poets, all contemporaries of Shakespeare, either declared or suggested that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare. These poets were Robert Greene, one of the university wits of the 1580’s, Ben Jonson, the poet laureate who claimed the actor Shakespeare as a friend, the poet-satirist George Wither, and the poet and writing-master, John Davies of Hereford.
Robert Greene, in what is thought to be the very first mention of the actor Shakespeare (A Groats-worth of Wit, 1592), lambasts the actor for stealing the credit for Greene's and his fellow-playwrights’ dramatic compositions and pretending to be the only ‘Shake-scene’ in England. Thus, right from the start of this extraordinary Shakespeare story, the very first witness for Shakespeare accuses the actor of that name of not being a true playwright, and who, whilst bombastically speaking the words written for him and his fellow actors by the real poets, pretends that in fact he had written them. Greene states categorically that he and his fellow poets were the real authors. He refers to his fellow poets as ‘those Gentlemen...that spend their wits in making plays’. These gentlemen-poets were the university-educated poets, known today as the ‘University Wits’, who revolutionised the English stage in the 1580's.
Moreover the implication of Greene's outburst is that there was another ‘Shake-scene', and thus another ‘Shakespeare’, with whom the gentlemen-poets or university wits were involved. From Greene's remarks, this other ‘Shakespeare’ would have been the true author of the works passed off under the name of ‘William Shakespeare’ or ‘Shake-speare’.
Ben Jonson's tribute to ‘The author, Mr William Shakespeare’, in the 1623 Shakespeare Folio, is full of praise for the author, likening the author to Apollo and Mercury, and calling him the Soul of the Age and Star of Poets. Apollo, the god of light, is renowned for his inspiration and illumination. Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is renowned for his eloquence. However, what Jonson wrote about Shakespeare the actor is entirely different. In what is the only contemporary reference to the actor Shakespeare that could be called biographical (Timber: or Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter, 1641, printed in Jonson's Workes, pp 97-8), Jonson likens the actor Shakespeare to the Roman orator Haterius, a highly ineloquent and unenlightened person who had the unfortunate reputation of being so impetuous and carried away with his words that he would muddle them, burst into tears, speak ex tempore and so profusely that he usually had to be stopped. Jonson also suggests that the actor wrote nothing. The only reasonable conclusion is that Jonson is referring to two different people, the actor and the author, both of whom he seems to have known well.
George Wither is even more categoric about the actor Shakespeare not being the author Shakespeare. In 1645 he published (anonymously) a satirical poem entitled The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo and his Assessours, in which Shakespeare is declared to have been a mimic who pretended to be a poet. Wither was in a special position to know this, for he belonged, like Ben Jonson, to the group of poets that included the author Shakespeare, who were patronised by the very lords (the Earls of Southampton, Pembroke and Montgomery) to whom the Shakespeare works were dedicated.
John Davies of Hereford, in his Scourge of Folly (1610), refers to Shakespeare as ‘our English Terence’. Terence was a Roman slave, famous for being a mask for the writings of great men such as the Roman senators, Scipio the younger and Laelius.
Besides these four direct references to Shakespeare, there is also a similar allusion concerning the actor in the last of three anonymous satirical comedies entitled Return from Parnassus, that were acted during the Christmas revels of 1601-2 by the students of St John’s College, Cambridge. In the play there are several lines that appear to refer not only to actors in general but to Shakespeare in particular, identifying him by the property and title of esquire he had recently acquired, and describing him as a ‘mimick ape’ who mouths words that better wits have framed.
Peter Dawkins, 2006
(See the author's book, The Shakespeare Enigma)
The Francis Bacon Research Trust