Whoever Shakespeare was, he seemed to be in no hurry to have a pseudonym attached to his plays. For example, the following plays, now generally attributed to Shakespeare, were apparently first published anonymously in the years shown:




Titus Andronicus


Henry 6th part 2


Henry 6th part 3


Romeo and Juliet


Richard 2nd


Richard 3rd


Henry 4th part 1


Henry 5th

That's almost a quarter of the total number of plays attributed to Shakespeare. But starting in 1598 other plays generally attributed to Shakespeare were published with a pseudonym attached:





Richard 2nd

William Shake-speare


Richard 3rd

William Shake-speare


Love's Labour's Lost

W. Shakespeare


Henry 4th part 1

W. Shake-speare


A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare


The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare


Henry 4th part 2

William Shakespeare


Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare

It seems the poet/dramatist began by publishing anonymously, then gradually either he, or his publishers, began using the pen name William Shake-speare, and later just William Shakespeare. The pseudonym was obvious when it was hyphenated, but it seems that when the owner of the pseudonym found it had become well established the hyphenation was dropped, perhaps because of general usage as a name without it.

Why, we may ask, did Henry 5th remain anonymous while others from the anonymous list soon had the name William Shake-speare as author attached to them? I have no answer at present. Perhaps when we come to look at the individual plays we may find an answer, but I'm not optimistic about this.

The argument is sometimes used that the pseudonym was a cloak to hide nobility because it was inappropriate for a nobleman to write plays or poems. This seems to me a false argument. Several members of the nobility could and did write plays and poems and were known in their own time to be doing so. The Oxford book of 16th century (English) verse lists 36 poets. The list includes a Queen, a Countess, 5 Earls, 3 Lords (Note 1) and 8 Knights.

Another argument often used is that it's ludicrous to think there was a nobleman writing the plays attributed to Shakespeare and that this nobleman used 'Shakespeare' as a pseudonym but it was an 'open secret' he did this, so that no one ever mentioned his having written the plays, although everyone knew that he did.

Let's consider four similar 'open secrets' in the 19th century.

1. Lewis Carroll. He wrote Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1872). He's famous for both, to this day. But we also know that Lewis Carroll never existed. He was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, unmarried, (1832-1898), an English mathematician, and university tutor at Christ Church College, Oxford, who had a nasty habit of photographing little girls in the nude. The wife of the Dean of the College forbade her daughter Alice Liddell to see him any more, even if he was a teller of remarkable fantasy. C. L. Dodgson also wrote treatises on mathematics and logic using his own name. We know all this, but we never say Dodgson wrote the Alice stories, we say Lewis Carroll did.

2. George Sand. That's the pen name of Armandine Lucile Amore Dupin Dudevant (1804-1876). She was a French novelist, author of Indiana, Lélia, Consuelo, and so on, a woman masquerading as a man. But we don't say Alfred de Musset and Frederic Chopin were friends with Armandine Lucile Amore Dupin Dudevant, we say they were friends with George Sand (who didn't exist).

3. George Eliot. The pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross, née Evans, (1819-1880). English novelist, author of Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and so on. But we never say Mary Ann Cross wrote The Mill on the Floss, we say George Eliot was the author.

4. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 - 1910). He wrote Tom Sawyer (1876), Huckleberry Finn (1884), A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (1889). Who is he? Mark Twain, of course. But we never say S.L. Clemens wrote Tom Sawyer, we say Mark Twain did. He made up his pseudonym using the call of the leadsman taking soundings in the Mississippi river, where Mr. Clemens was a river pilot. Twain was the older form of two and was the 2nd mark on the lead line.

So now we have four examples, two famous women, two famous men, all writers, two English, one American and one French, which I think is reasonable enough evidence that pseudonyms can be used by successful internationally known writers and that the pseudonyms have dwarfed the real persons and their lives into non-entities, even though we know who they were.

In Elizabethan times the playhouse industry replaced in popularity the old mediaeval morality plays. In the 20th century, radio, movies and TV replaced in popularity the old vaudeville and theater plays. In the world of the arts there is nothing unusual about pseudonyms. The 20th century rock stars and movie stars are frequently generally known only by their 'stage names.' There are so many, just one example: Marilyn Monroe.

I conclude that whoever Shakespeare was we may find him as a university tutor, or a river pilot, or in some other walk of life, and not necessarily among the 'professional' playwrights who wrote under their own names. We have only just narrowed the field of candidates by needing to look for a probable syphilitic, and now we've had to widen it again.

What we don't have with these other examples is the complication of a man with the name Lewis Carroll who worked in the publishing house used by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and this other Lewis Carroll saying to his fellow workers "how do you like my children's stories?" and going to Mr C. L. Dodgson and saying "You're using my name, I want part of the royalties."

But there seems to be some evidence, as we showed in chapter 4, that this is probably what Shaxper did to the unfortunate Shakespeare, and got £1000 as a result.

The answer to our question 'Why a Pseudonym?' seems to be that it's quite normal for a writer to keep his or her literary life separate from their everyday life by using a pen name.

If we go further and ask why choose the particular pseudonym used by a specific writer, of our four examples for three we don't seem to know. For Mark Twain we know how he chose his pen name, but we don't know why he chose that particular one. But we do know it derives from his everyday life as a pilot. He probably heard many times 'mark.... twain' called by a leadsman (that's pronounced 'led' as in the metal) although that's dangerously shallow, with water only 12 feet deep.

So we may not be able to know why the poet/dramatist 'Shakespeare' called himself William Shake-speare. If we use Mark Twain as a guide, we might expect it to reflect some aspect of 'Shake-speare's' everyday life. As the real identity of this writer is not known to us we can't relate it to a real life. But we can at least test it against our first candidate, de Vere.

It so happens that we came across interesting evidence (Chapter 7) in de Vere's early manhood relating to Gabriel Harvey's reference to him and Athene (the spear shaker) as well as saying of de Vere 'thy eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear.' This ties in with his ability as a tournament contestant involving spears, or lances, and the inherited insignia of a lion and broken lance which was his as Lord Bolebec. I believe this is good evidence for de Vere using Shake-speare, just as good as S.L.Clemens using Mark Twain, but it tells us nothing about the use of 'William.' To consider that I believe we have to look at one of Shakespeare's sonnets. These were so personal that they were not published until 1609, which happens to be five years after de Vere's death.

There were 154 sonnets, and we don't know whether they are in order of composition. Internal evidence suggests they are not, either unintentionally or deliberately. There is a 'Will" sonnet, number 135. It is, I suggest, quite 'early.' During World War 2 navy personnel on ships were not allowed to mention where they were, had been, or were going. To be sure of this their correspondence had to be left unsealed and was read by unknown (to them) censors. Most of these correspondents were young males with girl friends or young wives on shore and those with delicate sensibilities, not wanting censors to be titillated by reading their erotic correspondence, used pet names for various erogenous parts of the male and female anatomy. These were sometimes quite ingenious. They could occasionally be deciphered by censors, but not always.

I suggest that sonnet 135 by Shakespeare is of this genre, although crude rather than subtle. If this is de Vere, it was written to and for Ann Vavasour; the witty, vivacious, sexually precocious teenager who had a devilish effect on de Vere's life. If my interpretation of sonnet 135 is right, and if de Vere is our man, she would have received the poem and promptly started calling him 'Will" in public, laughing at the same time at their private word play. The nickname must have stuck, as it's said he was often called Will by his friends, but no one seems to know why. Here's sonnet 135 in full, with the italics and capitalization as in the printed poem, and you can judge for yourself:

WHOEVER hath her wish, thou hast thy Will

And Will to boot and Will in over-plus;

More than enough am I that vex thee still,

To thy sweet will making addition thus.

Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,

Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?

Shall will in others seem right gracious,

And in my will no fair acceptance shine?

The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,

And in abundance addeth to his store;

So thou, being rich in Will add to thy Will

One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.

Let no unkind 'No' fair beseechers kill;

Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

I have not yet been able to find one other Elizabethan for whom we would have a rational explanation as to why the pseudonym 'William' would be applicable, and certainly not 'William Shake-speare.' So de Vere is still a prime candidate, but there is much more evidence to consider yet. And because later we may have to discuss repetition, we should note that the word 'will' appears 13 times in the 14 line poem.

I think we have to look at what Shakespeare wrote as his initial published work using the pseudonym William Shakespeare, which may tell us why it was first used there. It's the poem Venus and Adonis.


One of the poems in the 16th century anthology was by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who in his earlier days had been a professor of Greek at Cambridge University. The poem was written in 1568, when Burghley was about 48 and his daughter Anne was about 12 years old. He was now Wardmaster and young de Vere had been a ward of his for about 4 years. His primary occupation was governing England under Queen Elizabeth's direction.

To Mistress Anne Cecil, upon Making her

a New Year's Gift

As years do grow, so cares increase;

And time will move to look to thrift;

Though years in me work nothing less,

Yet, for your years, and New Year's gift,

This housewife's toy is now my shift!

To set you on work, some thrift to feel,

I send you now a spinning wheel.

But one thing first, I wish and pray,

Lest thirst of thrift might soon you tire,

Only to spin one pound a day,

And play the rest, as time require;

Sweat not! (Oh fie!) fling rock in fire!

God send, who send'th all thrift and wealth,

You, long years; and your father, health!

Editor's note: rock} distaff.

The words Burghley uses are interesting: 'thrift' four times, 'years' four times, 'work' twice, and 'wealth', 'cares', 'pray' and 'God.' It seems most men in his day lived not past their mid fifties. Burghley lived to age 78, 40 of which he spent in faithful governance of England and gradually amassing a private fortune. This poem is, I suggest, a good example of how poets reveal their psyches in what they write. After reviewing it I believe we can safely conclude that whoever was using William Shakespeare as a pseudonym, it was not William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

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