Contested Crow

William Shakespeare entered the written record on this day in 1592. This first reference to the twenty-eight-year-old actor-playwright appears in A Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a million of Repentance, a posthumously published pamphlet by the contemporary author Robert Greene. Greene was one of the most popular English writers of his day; he was also a notorious profligate. He had died three weeks earlier from a lifetime, he confessed, of “riot” and “incontinence,” though the immediate cause was apparently “a surfeit of pickle herring and rennish wine.” In his groat (i.e., a fourpenny coin) of wit was Greene’s advice to his fellow dramatists to watch out for Shakespeare, an actor and writer of dubious scruples:

…for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum [Jack-of-all-trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

This seems to be a charge of plagiarism; it certainly expresses one playwright’s jealousy of another’s rising star. But despite its clear reference to Shakespeare — not just in the “Shake-scene” joke but in Greene’s allusion to a line from Shakespeare’s recent Henry VI — the passage gives little help with the controversy over the writer’s very existence, the “Stratfordians” (who believe Shakespeare existed) and “Anti-Stratfordians” (who believe “Shakespeare” to be Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe,…) going at it for over 200 years now.

In Contested Will James Shapiro follows the tangled authorial web, not so much hoping to end the contestation — he does give his firm reasons for being a Stratfordian — but to clarify how and why it developed and endures. Shapiro begins by discovering that the first ever published argument disputing Shakespeare’s authorship, purportedly written in 1805, is a twentieth-century forgery; he goes on to “retrace a path strewn with a great deal more of the same: fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined.”

Greene wrote plays, romances, and a series of racy, semi-autobiographical tales of dissipation, intermixed with contrition and moralizing. Some have claimed that he too was, at times, “Shakespeare”; the firmly Stratfordian scholar Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) thinks Greene was, in part, inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.