By Robert Detobel
Fidelio: Here’s the pen, captain: your name to the sale.
Captain: ‘S foot, dost take me to be penman?
Fidelio: Take the seal off, captain.
Captain: It goes on hardly, and comes off easily.
(Thomas Middleton, The Phoenix, Act II, Scene ii)
In a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times, Prof. Stephen Greenblatt voiced the belief that “there is ample evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays.” In a documentary film on the authorship question Prof. Stanley Wells states that although one would like to have more evidence on Shakespeare than what has hitherto come to light, there is nevertheless no reason to believe he was not the author of the works usually attributed to him. And during the Smithsonian debate on the authorship issue Prof. Gail Kern Paster found that “this joke about authorship has gone on long enough” and declared that Americans had no difficulty at all conceiving that a man of humble origins had written the plays and poems. She could not see any “reason why a man like this could not have written these works.”
Such reasons, unseen as yet, will be made visible in what follows. Scientific criteria, if applied to any other historical person than William Shakespeare, would almost inevitably lead to the conclusion that he was at least semi-illiterate, that is: he could not write. And Americans, technique-minded as they are, might well have difficulty imagining a writer without the very basic capacity, that of writing, having written plays.
Signatures and Seals: The Curious Witness of the Blackfriars Deeds of 1613 and 1618
Only six signatures of William Shakespeare are known.
One is under a deposition of May 1612, three under his will of March 1616 and, finally, two under conveyance deeds in March 1613.
On March 10, 1613 bought from Henry Walker a gatehouse at Blackfriars for the amount of £140 and entrusted this property to the actor John Heminges and two other men, John Jackson and William Johnson, whom Leslie Hotson identifies as acquaintances of Heminges’s, Johnson being the owner of the famous Mermaid inn. Of the purchasing price he only paid £80 and mortgaged his property to Henry Walker for the remainder. This mortgage deed bears the date of the next day, March 11, 1613.
The particulars are accurately described in Benjamin R. Lewis’s, The Shakespeare Documents, Vol. II. Regarding the purchase deed Lewis writes: “There are four seal-tabs attached at the bottom, but only the two at the left are sealed. The seal has the letters “HL,” for Henry Lawrence, who was the servant of Robert Andrews, the scrivener who drew up the deed. The document is signed by William Shakespeare, William Johnson, and John Jackson, but not by John Heminges.” One can easily see the three names. They are on a tag or tab. The purpose of this tab was to append the seal.
A hole was cut out below on the deed; above the seal was a parchment tab; this parchment tab was passed through the hole; the tab of the seal was fixed to the deed with shellack or glue. On photographs it can be clearly perceived. The tabs form rectangles within the surface of the deed. Besides the vendor’s copy, also a vendee copy is extant, the copy of the deed in the possession of Shakespeare and authenticated by the vendor Henry Walker. Lewis comments: “The final clause reads: ‘In witness whereof the said parties to this indenture have sett their seales.’ No mention is made of ‘hands’. However, the deed was signed: the vendor signed his counterpart and gave it to Shakespeare, who was present at the transaction, and the vendees present signed theirs…”
We shall argue that there is the fatal flaw in Lewis’ evaluation of the legal status of the names on the tab. A deed was a very formal instrument. It always had a final authenticating clause, also designated by the technical legal term corroboratio. The purpose of this clause was to state how the deed was authenticated. We should pause a while and ask whether it would be conceivable that this clause would omit the fact that the deed was also authenticated by signing if it had been so. We should also ask why, then, there were deeds where the authenticating clause reads: “In witness whereof the said parties to this indenture have set their hands and seals” (emphasis added). And we will have to ask another question.
But let us first consider the mortgage deed of the next day on which Lewis comments: “Then the mortgage deed is sealed and delivered in the presence of witnesses. The endorsement does not say ‘signed’: ‘In witness whereof the said parties to theis Indentures Interchaungablie have sett their seales.’ Yet it is signed”, Lewis says, by William Shakespeare, William Johnson, and John Jackson, but not by John Heminges. It is also sealed by them. It seems probable that on the purchase deed the seal belonging to John Jackson has come off.
The name “Shakespeare” is written in a very unusual way. There is a cross-bar through the p, but this was a fairly common clerical abbreviation for the Latin preposition “per” taken over from Latin written deeds into English ones. Latin deeds are full of such clerical abbreviations and some of them survived in English (clerical) writing. But there is a sign over this crossed “p” on which there has been much guessing. We will return to it in due time. We should, however, note that all the names again appear on the tabs of the seals, contrary to those found on another deed relating to the same property.
On February 10, 1618 – Shakespeare had died nearly two years before – the trusteeship of the Blackfriars property was transferred from John Heminges, John Jackson, and William Johnson to John Greene and Matthew Morris, the owners now being Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna Hall. Lewis comments: “Then the vendors [Heminges, Jackson, and Johnson] sign [each one signed just just above the seal-tab, not on the seal-tab)] and seal in the presence of witnesses…” What Lewis fails to add is that the authenticating clause now reads: “In witnes whereof the parties aforesaid to theis p[re]sente Indentures have interchaungeably sett their handes and sealls” (emphasis supplied). A glance suffices to see that there is hardly any difference between the signatures of John Jackson and William Johnson as they appear on both documents. In 1613 Jackson’s signature on the tab exceeds the borders of the tab of the seal, in 1618 it partly encroaches a bit on the tab. But in 1613 most of it is on the tab, in 1618 it is clearly on the deed, only the first letter enters the space of the tab.
Deeds of Purchase and Lease
Let us consider two other deeds found in Lewis. The first is a deed of conveyance of Shakespeare’s purchase of land from John and William Combe. Lewis notes: “It is signed by ‘W. Combe’ and ‘Jo. Combe’… and is sealed by each of them, an act which made the document legal.”
We see that here the names are not on the seal-tab: William Combe signed just above the tab, John Combe beside it. Both signatures are on the deed proper. It was indeed sensible to sign on the deed for the reason Middleton gives in his play: the seal easily came off, and sometimes with it the seal-tab, too. Hence, from a technical point of view it did not make much sense to sign on the tab instead of on the deed itself; the authentication was much surer on the deed than on the tag. And we should note that the authenticating clause of this deed signed by John and William Combe – on the deed – reads: “IN WYTNESS WHEROF the parties to theis present[es] have interchangeably sette their hands and seales…” (emphasis added).
On July 24, 1605 Shakespeare leased from one Ralphe Huband the Stratford tithes, a kind of taxes on land property equal to a tenth of the value, from which the word etymologically derives. Lewis comments: “This document is sealed and signed by Ralph Huband; ‘raffe’ [ie Ralph] is written on the seal tab proper and ‘Huband’ is written on the main document itself.” Was it really signed? No. According to the authenticating clause, it was only sealed: “In witnes whereof the p[ar]tyes abovesaid to thees p[rese]ntes interchangeablie have sett their seales…” It might be that Ralph Huband wrote his name on the tab himself. But legally it was not considered a signature.
Summary of the Evidence
We have five cases.
In three cases the parties are said to have set their seals, not their hands (i.e., their signatures)to the deeds. In all these cases the names appear on the tab.
In two cases the parties are said to have set both their hands and their seals. In these two cases the names appear not on the tab but on the deed proper, above or beside the tab.
As mentioned, there were good reasons for not setting a signature on the tab but on the deed. Specialists of medieval deeds tell us that the space on the tab was often used by the scrivener to write the names of the sealers. Descriptions of deeds do not consider names on the tag as signatures, even if someone wrote his name himself, as William Johnson and John Jackson clearly did in 1613. But if they signed on the tab in 1613, why on the deed in 1618? Or rather: if on the deed, where the signature had authenticating power, in 1618, not on the deed but on the tab in 1613, where the signature was without authenticating power? Legally, it was useless for William Johnson and John Jackson to sign on the tab.
There is a counterpart to the deed of conveyance from the Combes in 1602, the one authenticated by William Shakespeare. It is extant. It has the same authenticating clause. So here we may expect to see Shakespeare’s signature, without doubt. However, again we are disappointed. Lewis writes: “This counterpart has a seal attached to it; but it is not signed by William Shakespeare. His signature to this counterpart would not have added to its legal value, since the original which he possessed was the important part of the document. It was duly engrossed and was ready for the poet’s signature; but he never signed it, perhaps because he was absent for so long a time…”
Lewis’ reasoning seems doubtful. How did John and William Combe’s signatures add to the legal value of the document in Shakespeare’s possession? The same as Shakespeare’s signature would have added in legal value to the document in the possession of the Combes: nothing. “The other ceremonies attending the execution of a deed in modern times are sealing, the delivery, and the attestation of witnesses. Signature, though usual, is not necessary for validity, unless required by statute.” But technically a signature was certainly advantageous. A signature on the deed made the parties identifiable at a later date, even if both seal and tag came off.
Shakespeare did not sign the deed of 1602. And we have every reason to believe that he did not sign either deed in 1613. First, why did John Johnson and William Johnson, along with John Heminges, sign on the deed in 1618 and not in 1613? It was futile to sign on the tab as it was not counted a signature in a legal sense. Their names, at least their surnames, are clearly examples of an individualized signature. Not so Shakespeare’s alleged signatures.
The Shakespeare “Signatures” are Not Signatures at All…
For over one century the Shakespeare “signatures” have been the subject of much speculation. A brief survey of the interpretative work done upon them may be useful. The signature, or rather name, on the conveyance deed is generally transcribed as: William Shakspe. It is written on two lines. The second name is written one one single line: Wm Shakspe.
The speculations all begin from the assumption that Shakespeare signed the deed and for some reason abbreviated his name. But as we have seen, there was no need for Shakespeare to sign his name on the seal-tab. A signature put there had no legal value at all and was not counted as a signature in the authenticating clause. If he signed his name on the tab, why not on the deed?
And the same question, of course, applies to William Johnson and John Jackson. Why did Johnson and Jackson sign ON the deed by which they and Heminges transferred the trusteeship in 1618, their signature then being recognized as such in the authenticating clause, but not on the two deeds of 1613?
Whether Shakespeare or a clerk wrote the name on the tab was legally irrelevant: legally it was not a signature in either case. As will soon be seen, the puzzle can be easily solved if we abandon the assumption that it was Shakespeare who wrote the name himself, but a professional scrivener noting the person who attached the seal.
As to the first signature, Edmund Malone thought that the last diffuse sign at the extreme right edge of the tab was the remainder of a “r”. And, probably to assure himself, found that it was a “very modern-looking left-shouldered r.” According to Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, Shakespeare decided not to write his full name but to put a sign indicating the abbreviation, once he had reached the end of the tab and seen that the space was used up:
The signature was thus in itself complete… but now, perhaps having a passing doubt whether the shortened name would suffice, instead of leaving the signature as he had thus finished it, he added the letter r, altering the form to Shaksper (the abbreviating flourish being left standing above the now penultimate letter, instead of being in the proper position above the final letter, and thus being without significance). That the r was an afterthought and an addition to the signature is proved by the paler color of the ink… At this point Shakespeare’s superstition for confining his signature to the limits of the label comes into play…
Shakespeare would have been unable to overcome his anxiety and “to satisfy his scruples, Shakespeare has managed to draw back the lower portion of the letter and ensconce it within the sacred boundary of the label.” This meandering explanation could not satisfy Dr. Samuel A. Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum weighs the possibility that Shakespeare could not have been present at the execution of the deed, wrote his name, which would have been partially trimmed away by the clerk so as to make the strip fit through the slit in the deed. However, the terms of the endorsement leave no doubts about Shakespeare being present: “Sealde and delivered by the said William Shakespeare, William Johnson, and John Jackson, in the presence of Will: Atkinson, etc…”
All this is rather amusing if one remains aware of the possibility, in the case of both the conveyance and the mortgage deed, that it was the clerk who wrote the abbreviated forms of the name in order to easily identify the sealer, as was usual for clerks so to do on the tab of the seal and that, at any rate, there is no reason to consider the names to be signatures.
The debate on the writing of the name on the mortgage deed is even more absurd. According to Edward M. Thompson, Shakespeare would have been suffering from his failure to confine his full name within the boundaries of the tab. He therefore chose to write it in one line (it should be added that Thompson was a respected paleographer). Of course, this was a wrong choice as it left still less space. Thompson also tries to account for the poor showing of the signature which was obviously written with some pain. Shakespeare would have been suffering from a nervous disease called writer’s cramp. The same diagnosis was adopted in 1919 by the neurologist Dr. Leftwich. In 1891 Dr. Nisbet had spotted nervous disorder as the real cause.
Tannenbaum, a psychiatrist as well as paleographer, saw a more palpable and visible cause for the bad quality of this signature: “To one who knows why this signature… presents such a mangled appearance it seems utterly incredible that of the hundreds of pesons (paleographers among them) who have studied it and thousands who have viewed it… in the original and facsimiles, there was only one whose knowledge and experience in penmanship gave him the explanation. That one was Malone. He saw… that the parchment label was so greasy… that it did not take the ink readily… And yet who that has had the experience of trying to write on paper not properly ‘sized’ or on glossy paper, does not know at once that this explanation is the only one that accounts for all the facts?”
The explanation certainly accounts for the “printed” aspect of the name and seems reasonable. But why was the parchment strip, the tab, greasy? The only explanation seems to be that the name was put on the tab after the wax had been drying up a while. This would have caused a rough surface not easy to write on. We may imagine the clerk seeing that there was no name on the tab writing the name, thereby using the typical clerical abberviations. But would Shakespeare have absented himself for enough time for the wax to dry up, and then sign the deed?
And the most important question is constantly being shunned by the “experts”: if one likes to take it as a signature, why was this signature not placed on the deed? Had it been placed on the deed, the authenticating clause would have added read “set their seals and hands.”
The only explanation accounting for all the problems is that the names were written by the clerk using the tab to note the name of the sealer and are therefore not “signatures” at all.
Legal Abbreviations in the Shakespeare “Signatures”
Something should be said on the system of abbreviation used by clerks until the Act of 1731, which “besides specifying the language and the style of handwriting to be used in the records it dealt with, provided that those records were to be written ‘in words at length and not abbreviated’. The system of abbreviation against which this provision was directed (and which was in consequence now brought formally to an end) had a very long history. By the date of the Norman Conquest of England the conventions which characterize medieval practice were already firmly established wherever Latin was written… Except in the circumstances specially noticed below, suspended and contracted words are always found in the company with one or another of the variously shaped strokes, or signs, for which our ancestors’ generic name was ‘tittles’ (Latin titulus, Spanish tilde).” When documents were written in Anglo-Norman only a few of these various abbreviations were carried over, and even fewer survived when English became the language of documents. Among the survivors ware the so-called “three p-compendia, for per– (par-), pro-, and pre-“.
“Per” was abbreviated as a single letter p crossed by a horizontal bar, such as can be seen in Shakespere’s name on the mortgage deed. It is probable that the clerk intended to cross the p on the conveyance deed, too, but either forgot it or the ink faded in the course of time, making the bar now invisible. Hence, the names should be read as “Shakespear(e)”, not as “Shakspe”, as “Shakespear(e)” and not as “Shakespar(e)”, without an a, because in both cases the a is present as superscript. Obviously, the clerks were so used to writing the letter sequence per as a single p crossed by a stroke that they did so even if they had to leave out one letter; the missing letter was then added as superscript. “It is worth remarking that by most scribes superscript a is given a distinctive form which is often much more like that of u than of any a appearing in the line of writing.”
If we look at the two names on the deeds of 1613 we can readily see this u serving as superscript for a. This superscript a, looking like a u, is what most commentators have mistaken for an r. That a clerk wrote a proper name in such abbreviated form was common. “Nearly all the Christian names in common English use between the Norman Conquest and the 18th century had Latin equivalents whose spelling scarcely varied throughout the period (the medieval Willelmus, for example, hold its ground, even in late documents, against the post-Renaissance Gulielmus) and whose contraction and suspension follows conventions settled at a very early date (such, for example, as that which recognised Ed’us as the compendium for Edmundus, while Edwardus was shortened to Ed’r’us). There is seldom room for doubt about the full form of any of these names represented by an abbreviation.”
What about surnames? Here, too, Hector gives us a satisfactory answer. “But some abbreviated place-names, even though they appear to be Latin, cannot safely be extended in transcript. Oxon‘ [Oxford], Ebor‘ [York], and Wigorn‘ [Winchester], for example, were early made to serve as abbreviations of the names of counties, peerage titles, etc., by scribes who were little concerned with what, in their new use, their suppressed terminations might be supposed to be… Non-latinised surnames are preponderantly made up at all times of those which derive from the bearers’ places of origin or abode and may therefore be regarded as place-names for the present purpose. The remainder comprise untranslated surnames in English and french… Such names are seldom abbreviated, but they do occasionally end in a mark of suspension, which is best rendered in transcription by an apostrophe.”
A deed’s authenticating clause did not provide for the case in which some parties signed and others only sealed. It either read “to which the parties interchangeably set their hands and seals” or “to which the parties interchangeably set their seals.” By custom if one of the involved parties did not sign and only set his seal, the others did not sign either.
From a legal viewpoint, William Johnson and John Jackson only set their seals to the Blackfriars deeds, but they wrote their names on the seal-tab in the form of their signatures.
The party who did not sign at all was William Shakespeare; he did not write his name himself on the tab either; the surname is written by a clerk with the typical, somewhat arcane clerical abbreviations.
Moreover, the bad quality of the name on the mortgage deed is readily explained by the inequalities of the surface due to the dried-up wax, which means that the seal must have been appended to the deed and Shakespeare’s name written afterwards. Had Shakespeare intended his clerically abbreviated name as a signature, it was senseless to put it on the tab where it was without any legal significance. William Johnson and John Jackson, however, wrote their signatures on the tab. They were compelled to it because Shakespeare did not sign, would not sign and could not sign. In 1618 Johnson and Jackson put their signatures on the deed; the authenticating clause now recognized them as signing. But in 1618 the third party was not William Shakespeare, it was John Heminges; he, too, put his signature on the deed.
John Aubrey’s rarely published notice regarding Shakespeare’s penmanship is independently corroborated by the history of the execution of the Blackfriars deeds: “& if invited to writ, he was in paine.” And it is again corroborated by the history of his will in 1616.
“It is a point rather frequently overlooked that the chief if not the only purpose of seals was originally to authenticate: they were the equivalent of the modern signature at a time when the principals in any business or administrative transaction could seldom read and still more seldom write… It is probable that by the 14th century the ownership of a seal was quite a common matter.” Illiterate people could use a seal instead of putting their mark. “The Durham husbandman John Taylor who suspected his half brother of trying to lay hands on his land by ‘bringinge certain writeings to me which I could not certainly tell what they were… all which I did refuse to seale’ knew the disadvantages of illiteracy.”
A criterion of illiteracy offered by official documents such as deeds and wills was the use of a mark instead of a signature. With the spread of seal ownership the mark was no longer the only criterion. This John Taylor was illiterate but there was no need for him to set a mark, he could use his seal. A person who sealed a deed without signing it could be illiterate though deeds are uncertain documents. Just because a person only put his seal to a deed it is not safe to infer his illiteracy. Sealing was not only sufficient to authenticate a deed, it was a necessary requirement for the validity whereas a signature could be dispensed with.
The situation is different for wills. The overwhelming majority, yes, almost all of the wills of literate men are always both signed and sealed. Wills of writers as John Marston, John Donne, John Davies of Heresford, etc. are, as a general rule, signed and sealed. So are wills of actors; the wills of Shakespeare’s fellows John Heminge and Henry Condell, of Augustin Phillips and Thomas Pope etc. are signed and sealed. And so are wills of literate men in general. Wills, therefore, offer a fairly sure criterion to decide whether a person could write or not.
There is one exception. A testator might have been too ill to be able to sign his name and only put his seal to it. This is generally expressly mentioned in the text of the will. Many wills, probably the majority, open with a clause about the testator’s illness or declining health. Almost all wills open with such a statement about the testator’s health. If a testator affirms to be in good health and, at the same time, does not sign his will but only seals it, we have a fairly good indicator for the testator’s illiteracy or at least semi-illiteracy, his inability to write. Current studies on illiteracy are using such wills as a measure for illiteracy.
William Shakespeare’s wills are exceptional. “Will-s”, because there exist two versions. Neither version has the usual authenticating clause “In witness whereof I have hereunto put my hand and seal.” The first version has “put my seal”, the other version “put my hand”.
Probably in January 1616 Shakespeare set up his will. It opens with the clause that he is “in perfect health & memorie god be praysed.” There is no hint of any intention to sign his will. A researcher on illiteracy would draw the conclusion that this William Shakespeare was almost certainly semi-illiterate. Indeed, it is difficult to see why William Shakespeare would not have “hereunto put my hand and seal” as other authors did, as other actors did, as his own son-in-law did as well as his granddaughter, as all literate people in sufficiently good health did.
This will of January was then changed and replaced by the will of March 1616. But the will of January is preserved in the will of March 1616. In March 1616 the will of – probably – January 1616 was reshaped. The first of the three pages was written anew but the last two pages were taken over from the will of January 1616, cancelling some passages and replacing them with interlineations, adding some other stipulations, also through interlineations. Edmund K. Chambers gives the following account: “The following hypothesis seems best to fit the facts. In or before a January, probably of 1616, Shakespeare gave instructions for a will. It was not then executed, but on 25 March 1616 Shakespeare sent for Collins [the town clerk]. The changes he desired in the opening provisions were so substantial that it was thought best to prepare a new sheet 1. The heading and initial formulas as to health and religious expectation were adapted by the clerk from the old draft… Then the opening provisions were dictated afresh with one or two corrections… and proved so much longer than those they replaced, as to crowd the writing and necessitate the carrying of two lines on to the old sheet 2, where they were inserted before a cancelled passage. The rest of this sheet and sheet 3 were allowed to stand, with some alterations, and in this form it was signed on each sheet by Shakespeare.”
The authenticating clause was changed in the new draft. In the clause “In witness whereof I have hereunto put my seal” of the first draft the word “seal” was crossed out and replaced by “hand”. In the corrected and final version we read “In witness whereof I have hereunto put my hand,” not as was usual for literate person “put my hand and seal.”
Had the clerk of the January draft made a mistake and omitted the word “hand”? It seems unlikely. There was no necessity to cross out “seal” in the March draft: it would have sufficed to add between the lines before “seal” the words “hand and.” Had this happened, wee would have a will in line with the wills of other literate people.
Now, Shakespeare’s will is likely to be one of the rarest specimens where a testator was in good health and did not sign his will, only put his seal to it, witnessing to his semi-illiteracy, but afterwards, being seriously ill, possibly after a bout of heavy drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, as reported by John Ward, vicar of Stratford, about 1660, and being seriously ill and weak did not change “put my hand and seal” into “put my seal” but changed “put my seal” into “put my hand.”As if somebody had been appalled at the great poet testifying to his illiteracy and instead of adding “hand and” between the lines struck out this awkward testimony.
If we do not want to assume that Shakespeare, when setting up his first will in January 1616 had been joking, it is the joke of his authorship which must come to an end.
 Lewis, Benjamin R, The Shakespeare Documents, Vol. II., Stanford: ….. 1940-41, p. 436.
 Ibid., p. 442.
 Ibid., p. 534
 Ibid., p. 333
 Ibid., p. 330
 Holdsworth, William S., A History of English Law, ….., Vol. II (?), p. 231.
 Durning-Lawrence, Sir Edwin, Bacon is Shakespeare, London: Gay and Hancock, 1910, p. 33.
 Thompson, Sir Edward Maunde, Shakespeare’s Handwriting, London, 1916, p. 6.
 Tannenbaum, Samuel A., Problems in Shakspere’s Penmanship. New York: …, 1966, p. ..
 Ibid., p. 50-51.
 Hector, L.C., The Handwriting of English Documents, London: …. , 1958, p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 33-4.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Jenkinson, Sir Hilary, Selected Writings, Gloucester: …., 1980, p. 150-1.
 Chambers, Edmund K., William Shakespeare – A Study of facts and Problems. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1930, Vol. II, p. 175.