A Will by Any Other Name

What is Shakespeare's name? It certainly doesn't seem to be "Shakespeare", or very rarely, at least if one goes by the contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean documentation. Bernard Shaw always spelt it without the last "e", "Shakespear", after the 18th century fashion.

The man himself ought to know, surely. However, as far as we know, William only ever signed his name upon six occasions. Three of the signatures are in his will. There he signs his name twice as "Shakspere" and once as "Shakspeare". His other signatures are "Shakspe" (with a wavy line on the "e", actually, but I don't seem to be able to reproduce it here, more's the pity), twice, and "Shaksp".

This seems to indicate that, however the name is spelt, the first part of it is pronounced with a short and rustic "a", with a similar "a" as that in shack or back, instead of the longer and more genteel "a" in shake or take. And it seems highly probable the last part was pronounced with a short, almost semi-glottal "e".

In the official documents there is a plethora of inventive spelling variations. F.E. Halliday's A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 gives the following list: 1564 (christening) Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere; 1582 (betrothal) Wm Shaxpere; a day later and another parrish the delightful and faintly ribald William Shagspere; 1582 (christening of daughter Susannah) William Shakespeare; 1585 (christening of Hamnet and Judith) William Shakspere; 1594 (paid for court performances) Willm Shakespeare; 1596 (burial of Hamnet) William Shakspere; again 1596 (the cryptic William Wayte writ) Willelmum Shakspere; 1597 (buying a house) Willielmus Shakespeare; same year (tax dodging) William Shackspere; 1598 (corn hoarding) Wm. Shackespere; again 1598 (Frances Meres writing in his diary) "mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare"; again 1598 (Stratford Chamber Account) Shakespeare and Shaxspere; 1599 (Globe ownership) William Shakespeare; 1599 again (defaulting on a debt) Willelmus Shakespeare; yet again 1599 (and the same debt) Willelmus Shakspeare.

On to the new century: 1600 (Stationer's register) "Wrytten by Master Shakespere"; same year (debt again) Willelmus Shakspeare; 1601 (will) "Anne Shaxspere, wyf unto Mr Wyllyam Shaxspere"; 1602 (purchasing land) William Shakespere; again 1602 (securing a warranty) Willielmus Shakespeare; 1603 (receiving Royal Licence) William Shakespeare; 1604 (supplying red cloth for royal coronation) William Shakespeare; again 1604 (court case) Willielmus Shexpere; same year (property survey) William Shakespere; 1605 (will) William Shakespeare; same year (transaction) William Shakespeare; 1606 (property survey) Willielmus Shakespere; 1607 (marriage of daughter) Shaxpere; 1608 (becoming a share-holder in the Blackfriar's theatre) Willelmus Shakespeare; 1609 (court case) Willielmus Shackspeare; same year (burial of mother) "Mayry Shaxspere wydow"; 1610 (property business) Willielmus Shakespere; 1611 (bill of complaint) "William Shackspere, gentleman"; again 1611 (contributing towards prosecuting a bill in parliament) William Shackspere; same year (lease of a barn) Mr Shaxper; 1613 (will) William Shackspere; same year (purchasing a house) William Shakespeare; also 1613 (receiving payment) Mr Shakspeare; 1615 (bill of complaint) Willyam Shakespere; 1616 (marriage of daughter) Shakspere; same year (burial) Will Shakspere, gent.

While there are some "Shakespeares" in the lot they really aren't that plentiful. Most of them appear in documents from London and the theatrical circles. The more official and pompous the occasion, the more likely that his name is spelt "Shakespeare". To his actor friends he is mostly "Shackspere" or "Shakspere". Back home the spelling is consistently erratic with such gems as "Shagspere", "Shaxper", "Shaxpere" and "Shaxspere". Not to forget the pearl "Shexpere"!

Then there is the published work. The first publications are poems: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. In the first volume there is no name on the title page but in the dedication the poet signs his name as William Shakespeare. (Or actually, the second "s" is a long and narrow Germanic "s" of the old-fashioned variety.) The same is true of the second volume.

In 1598 the first play Love's Labour's Lost is published with Shakespeare's name on the title page (there have been several anonymous quartos). The spelling is the regular one of today: "Shakespeare". The 1603 edition of Hamlet, however, the infamous Bad Quarto, has Shakespeare's name spelt on the title page as "Shake-speare" with an unnecessary and really quite inexplicable hyphen. Next it's more poetry. The sonnets come out in 1609. Again Shakespeare's name is spelt with a hyphen. The hyphen recurs in John Webster's 1612 Quarto The White Devil where Webster, in a preface, writes about "the copious industry of M. Shake-speare". (Though my Penguin English Library edition of The White Devil looses the hyphen. This is a particular problem with modern editions - they tinker with spelling blast them!)

Before the Folio of 1623 there are about thirty quartos published with the author's name on the title page. In about half of the volumes his name is spelt with the hyphen, "William Shake-speare". (The King Lear edition of 1608 has the name, curiously, as "Shak-speare".)

What is the significance of the hyphen? Why does it suddenly appear on the title pages, out of nowhere as it were? The Anti-Strafordians have a pat answer: the hyphen is there to signify that the name "William Shake-spear" is in fact no real name but rather a pseudonym. And meant to be understood as a pseudonym or nome de plume. Spelt like that it does indeed smack of one.

But if so, then why isn't it on every title page? And why isn't it there from the start: why, one wonders, were the earliest Shakesperean volumes as by "William Shakespeare" and not "William Shake-speare"? And why do both versions (including the slightly bizarre "Shakes-speare") peacefully coexist in the prefaratory material of the Folio?

It is well known that spelling was a very personal matter in the 16th and 17th centuries, most names were spelt by ear and were therefore at the mercy of the clerk in question. Most names, it seems, had no commonly accepted spellings. Not unless they were really noble and not always then. Quirky variations were no exception, a shaky grasp of the language never a rarity.

But it does seem to me that all the misspellings cannot be purely aleatory. There are so many of them and there would seem to be some method in the madness. In fact I believe that there are certain higly interesting patterns in the misspellings of Shakespeare's name. Patterns that might reveal quite fascinating things about the man and the author.

One thing is certain: the pronunciation of "Shakespeare" or "Shake-speare" is huguely different from that of "Shakspere" or "Shaxspere". Is that merely due to gentrification? Surely, if the name is spelt by ear, the forms are not interchangeable? Not even in those erratic days? Or is it all a matter of rustic northern spelling versus citified southern spelling?

At the moment the name is yet another unsolved mystery in the conundrum that is William Shakespeare. As if there weren't enough of those without it.

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