There has been only one Shakespeare. There couldn’t be two; certainly there couldn’t be two at the same time. It takes ages to bring forth a Shakespeare, and some more ages to match him. This one was not matched before his time; nor during his time; and hasn’t been matched since. The prospect of matching him in our time is not bright.
Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909)
ONLY ONE MAN in Elizabethan England was capable of writing Shakespeare’s works. I believe that man was Thomas Sackville. His authorship of the canon makes far better sense of the complete set of direct and circumstantial evidence available than the traditional belief that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the Author, or than any other alternative authorship scenario. No other authorship candidate so precisely matches the authorial glass slipper.
Traditional Shakespeare scholars have not previously considered the possibility that Thomas Sackville wrote Shakespeare's works for three main reasons. First, they are already convinced that William Shakespeare was the Bard, so they have had no reason to construct an authorial profile derived from his writings, similar to the glass slipper of sixty attributes constructed in these pages. Next, Thomas Sackville has not been previously proposed as an authorship candidate, so Shakespeare scholars have been unaware of the strong arguments that can be made on his behalf. Finally, it is common among modern Shakespeare scholars to deny that we can gain important insights into the Bard’s personal experiences from his writings. In other words, the whole idea of constructing an authorial glass slipper from the Bard’s works is at odds with the now dominant approach to Shakespearean biography. Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, a standard-bearer for this circumscribed approach, admonishes people who would hunt for the life in the works in his 2010 Contested Will. “Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don’t doubt that he did, I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when he does so,” he confidently declares. “It’s wiser to accept that these experiences can no longer be recovered…In the end, attempts to identify personal experiences will only result in acts of projection.”
Shakespeare professors also tell us that Shakespeare’s genius and imagination supplied everything necessary to write all his works. In Contested Will, Shapiro writes, “What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.” Quoting the Elizabethan poet Giles Fletcher, Shapiro reminds readers that “A man may write of love, and not be in love, as well of husbandry, and not go to plough, or of witches, and be none.” He adds, “It’s as apt a description of the author of Shake-Speare’s Sonnets, As You Like It, and Macbeth as any I know.”
The fundamental flaw in the traditional authorship belief is that no matter how great a man’s imagination may be, his specialized knowledge demands explanation. A man may write of gravediggers, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet, and be none. But when the gravediggers’ conversation became an extended lampoon of the 1561 legal case Hales v. Petit, held in London some four decades previously and documented only in Norman French, a technical language used exclusively by lawyers, Shakespeare is revealing that he has specialized knowledge of an ancient law case, not that he had a good imagination. Throughout Contested Will, Shapiro never once informs readers of the mystery posed by Hales v. Petit.
As another example, Shapiro misinforms his readers when he blithely claims that “A curious Shakespeare could have learned everything he needed to know about the Italian settings of his plays from a few choice conversations.” Shapiro comes nowhere close to conveying the full sweep of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italian geography and customs, literature, and the drama. Nor does he inform readers that at least eight of Shakespeare’s dramatic plots rely on Italian sources that had yet to be translated into English. Could a curious Shakespeare have picked up enough Italian during “a few choice conversations” to read original works of Italian literature? Certainly not. The Bard’s evident fluency in Italian (very surprising if he were William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon) demands explanation.
Because Shapiro similarly neglects to inform readers of Contested Will about Shakespeare’s particular knowledge of the 1575 Kenilworth festivities, English law, England’s defunct Mystery Play tradition, untranslated Greek works, aristocratic sports, and many other topics discussed in Chapters 3 through 42 of this work, they finish Shapiro’s book with no meaningful understanding of the core problem motivating the authorship controversy: the very real difficulty, if not impossibility, in marrying William’s life to Shakespeare’s works.
I understand why Professor Shapiro finds it “disheartening” when authorship skeptics claim that William Shakespeare lacked the life experiences to have been capable of writing the Bard’s works, and to some extent I sympathize. The story of the Stratford lad with only a grammar school education who went on to become the greatest writer in the English language is a compelling one. However, I, too, am disheartened by the current state of the Shakespeare authorship debate. What discourages me most is the scholarly taboo surrounding the Shakespeare authorship question. Because traditional scholars are largely unwilling to read any books written by skeptics, they haven’t discovered the wheat among the chaff in the authorship literature. They remain largely unaware of how much can be learned about the Bard’s likely background and experiences from his writings.
Although modern Shakespeare scholars reject the possibility that important clues to Shakespeare’s biography, personality, and identity can be found in his works, it is not unheard of for an author who wishes to remain anonymous to eventually be detected through clues derived from his works. A remarkable act of literary sleuthing of this sort was carried out in the early nineteenth century by John Leycester Adolphus, a young Fellow at St. John’s College, Oxford. By 1821 a dozen of the so-called ‘Waverley’ novels had been published, including Waverley (1814), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819). Although the Waverley novels were popular best-sellers, their author always chose to publish anonymously. As a result, his identity became the subject of intense public speculation. For thirteen years, the true author, Sir Walter Scott, denied having written the books when anyone asked him. Scott guarded his secret so jealously that a full five years after the first publication of Waverley, the only member of his family who knew the secret was his wife. His own daughter Anne once quipped over breakfast that she believed the true author was James Ballantyne. In 1627 when Scott finally admitted to being the author (he had just suffered a severe financial crisis and hoped to augment his income from the Waverley books), he declared that up until that time, only twenty or so people knew his secret, and not one had ever broken “the confidence required from them.”
Fascinated by the puzzle of the Waverley author’s identity, Adolphus conducted a close examination of the novels and concluded that Scott was their most likely author. He anonymously published his theory in a small volume titled Letters to Richard Heber, Esq.: containing critical remarks on the series of novels beginning with “Waverley” and an attempt to ascertain their author (1821). In a nod to Scott’s obvious desire to remain anonymous, Adolphus did not actually name him in the book. Instead he gallantly identified the Waverley novelist as the “Author of Marmion,” a popular poem which had already been printed under Scott’s name.
Over the course of eight letters to Richard Heber, an Oxford University luminary and friend of Scott’s, Adolphus used a wide array of arguments to show that Scott was the most likely author of the Waverley works. He argued in Letter I that the author possessed “in a high degree, the qualifications of a poet,” rising above “the professional cant of a vulgar novel-maker.” In Letter II, he showed that Scott’s “tastes, studies, and habits of life” were mirrored by those held by the Waverley novelist:
Both Scotchmen. Habitual residents in Edinburgh. Poets. Antiquaries. German and Spanish scholars. Equal in classical attainments. Deeply read in British history. Lawyers. Fond of field sports. Of Dogs. Acquainted with most manly Exercises. Lovers of military subjects. The novelist apparently not a soldier.
One of Adolphus’s most amusing and perceptive insights concerns Scott’s love of dogs. “In short, throughout these works, whenever it is possible for a dog to contribute in any way to the effect of a scene, we find there the very dog that was required, in his proper place and attitude.”
Adolphus provides additional arguments based on character and background in Letter III. In Letter IV he begins to explore literary similarities between the works themselves, including “Manner of telling a short story,” “Negligence,” “Scoticisms,” and “sometimes unusual sweetness,” to name a few. Letter V discusses similarities of dialogue; Letter VI addresses similarities in poetic imagery, narrative effects, character portrayal, use of similes, and other literary qualities; Letter VII provides additional comparisons of the authors’ story-telling habits; and Letter VIII concludes with a comparison of parallel passages, thoughts, borrowings, and other similarities of expression. Taken as a group, Adolphus’s argument is compelling, and his identification of Scott as the Waverley novelist was validated by Scott’s own confession six years later.
I first learned about Adolphus’s fascinating exercise in literary detection from John Mullan's excellent book Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (2007). I’ve had Adolphus on my mind throughout the writing of this book, because his use of a minutely close reading of the Waverley novels to demonstrate that Scott was their only plausible author is an excellent model for what I hope to have accomplished in Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper.
My own minutely close reading of Shakespeare’s works and the authorship literature convinces me that Thomas Sackville is a uniquely qualified Shakespeare authorship candidate. He definitely or plausibly had not only the specialized knowledge, unusual interests, habits of mind, personal traits, stylistic traits, and lifespan to be Shakespeare, but also the very high poetic ability. Furthermore, the theory that Sackville wrote the Shakespeare canon has genuine explanatory power. Many previously confusing or obscure aspects of the Author’s writings can be interpreted in a new, clarifying light if Sackville was the true author, and the overall arc of his development as a poet shows a lifelong interest in a core set of themes and ideas.
Sackville was a man of exceptional character and poetic ability whose life informs and illuminates much of significance in the writings attributed to Shakespeare. Imagine casting a line across four centuries, seeking the elusive author of Shakespeare’s works. At last it brings Thomas Sackville out of the shadows, a man who holds Shakespeare’s memories, radiates Shakespeare’s spirit, and speaks with Shakespeare’s voice.