The Devil Will Shake

R. P. Lister is a free-lance writer tiring in London. He is widely known for his light verse. For another scholarly dissertation on the transcendental will, readers are referred to page 62.

The plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare, but by another person of the same name.

I claim no originality for this hypothesis, which has long been current in literary circles. It is only surprising that it is not more widely accepted. Perhaps the difficulty has been in the lack of supporting evidence; but the evidence is there, if we care to look for it.

As Shakespeare says himself: Our shows are more than Will (Twelfth Night, II, iv).

As early as the third play he is found railing against the supposed author: The devil Will Shake (Comedy of Errors, IV, iii).

This note is found over and over again in the early plays: A Wiltl a wicked Will! {King John, II, i); What’s your Will? Nothing good {Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV, i).

It is in this last quoted play that we encounter the first clue to the identity of the true author: I will overbear your Will {Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV, i). At first sight this looks like merely another typical piece of anti-Shakespearean bad feeling. Suppose, though, we look at it more closely. Surely the writer’s meaning is: I, Will, overbear your Will,

Clearly the person writing is called Will; nobody called Francis could have written this.

The Baconian hypothesis must have been current even in the author’s time. He pauses now and then to take a swipe at it: Bacon-fed knaves/ (Henry IV, Part I, II, ii); Hang hog is Latin for Bacon (Merry Wives of Windsor, IV, i).

The true struggle, though, is against the pretensions of the claimant Shakespeare, what the author calls the War twixt Will and Will (Measure for Measure, II, ii).

Who was the true Shakespeare, though, and why did he allow his namesake to have all the honor and glory? It may be that he preferred not to expose himself to the jealousy of rivals, the ill will that beset the supposed author: Thou madest thine enemies, Shake (Coriolanus, I, iv).

As for who he was, the author gives a hint of this in Macbeth: Our Will became the servant (II, i).

He reveals himself with complete unambiguity toward the end of his career. It is surprising that this passage has escaped attention, since it removes all doubt: As I am son and servant to your Will {Pericles, I, i).

Here we have the answer; it clears up the puzzling point that the true author bears the same name as the false one. Will Shakespeare was the son of Will Shakespeare, most probably an illegitimate one, brought up among the company of players, performing menial tasks and scorned by all. We see hints in the early plays of his tribulations: Will, thou shall have my hammer (Henry VI, Part II, H, iii).

We can readily imagine the scene to which this refers. His father has demanded a hammer, probably his son’s only possession. The son, hesitating for a moment whether to hit him with it, hands it to him and goes off sadly to his stool in the drafty flies, to finish the second part of Henry VI. Yet for some reason — a strong sense of filial duty, or terror of his father — he has already decided on his lifelong course of action, as he makes clear two plays later: Oppose not myself against their Will (Richard II, III, iii).

‘I, Will,” as he calls himself in the passage quoted earlier, never did “overbear your Will.” It was probably a wise decision. As he says, it would derive me ill, Will to speak of (All’s Well That Ends Well, V, iii).

What became of the true William Shakespeare after the retirement of his father we can hardly hope to discover. For some reason he stopped writing. It may be that the plays had become so firmly associated with his father’s name in the public mind that he feared, at this late date, to disclose himself. There is a mysterious passage, though, in one of the last plays that suggests new problems: Will is most malignant (Henry VIII, I, ii).

But the play Henry VIII was completed, presumably by his son, only after the elder William Shakespeare’s retirement. Why at this late date should the malignancy of his father have been of any further concern to him?

It is just possible that the writer of this passage was referring not to the first Will but to the second. Could there have been yet a third Will in the background, slipping the plays surreptitiously to his front man, the boy on his stool in the flies, and inserting this last despairing cry at the shabby treatment he received?

We approach the possibility of a further hypothesis, which I like to call the Theory of the Treble Bill: The plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare, but by a third person of the same name, not in any way related to the other two.