William Shakespeare: Syrian Refugee Advocate?

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago in Stratford-on-Avon.  This month, in commemoration of the anniversary of his death on April 23, 1616, scholars, theater companies, playgoers, and readers are paying tribute with all manner of special events and publications.  Yet there is still a question as to whose death the world is commemorating.

Last month, there was a flurry of articles published about the immigration crisis in Europe, and no less an authority than William Shakespeare was invoked to plead for tolerance of refugees.  The "Shakespearean" lines quoted in all these article are from the play Sir Thomas More.  Most people probably have never heard of it before.  The play is collaborative, it survives in manuscript, and Shakespeare allegedly contributed three pages of revisions referred to by scholars as "Hand D" (to distinguish the handwriting from other contributors).

Most readers will be well aware of the European refugee crisis, but some readers were perhaps surprised to learn that there is, apparently, a surviving manuscript in Shakespeare's handwriting.  None of the stories qualified the authenticity of the Hand D manuscript with words such as "allegedly" or "supposedly" or even "probably."  Yet some in the academic community have pointed out paleographic and other problems with the case for Shakespeare's handwritten script, and one might suggest that the identification of the handwriting as Shakespeare's has been fueled, in part, by wishful thinking.  But in light of last month's media attention to the Sir Thomas More manuscript, a trusting reader might assume that the identification of Hand D as Shakespeare's is "settled science." 

These articles (titled, e.g., "Shakespeare's handwriting to be digitised by British Library for first time – and his words defend refugees") appeared in media such as Newsweek, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, the Washington Post, Politico, NPR's website, and Slate, to name a few.  All of the stories were based on a press release, accompanied by artwork, and the evident source was the British Library

All of the articles announced the British Library's digitization project, they all ran the same photograph of the manuscript, they all made reference to that manuscript as the only surviving dramatic composition in Shakespeare's handwriting, and they all hinged the story on the refugee crisis in Europe.  The British Library is a respected institution, and the result of the widespread press coverage is that Shakespeare's handwriting in the Sir Thomas More manuscript is well on its way to being fixed in the public perception.

I wrote a book about Shakespeare's documented life (first published in 2001 in a peer-reviewed series by Greenwood Press and released in paperback in 2013), and in it, I made the case that Shakespeare is the only alleged writer from the time period who left behind no evidence of his literary activities.  It is a unique deficiency.  To look at the anomaly another way, Shakespeare is the only alleged writer from the time period for whom one must rely on posthumous evidence to support one simple statement: he was a writer. 

A few years ago, Professor Stanley Wells read my book and posted his criticism on Blogging Shakespeare, the official blog of the Stratford Birthplace Trust in England.  Professor Wells was highly critical of my work, but he conceded that my claim about the absence of what I call "literary paper trails" for Shakespeare is true.  He went on to dismiss the claim as irrelevant, since he would give posthumous evidence the same weight and value as evidence left behind during Shakespeare's life.

However, since Prof. Wells agreed that Shakespeare left behind no evidence of his literary activities during his lifetime, what might he have to say about the Hand D pages of Sir Thomas More?  The academic consensus on Hand D as Shakespeare's is not unanimous, and Prof. Wells's would not be the only voice of dissent. 

And here is where the Hand D portions of Sir Thomas More impact the traditional Shakespearean biography.  If Hand D is Shakespeare's, it's the first piece of contemporaneous evidence (i.e., a personal literary paper trail) ever discovered that documents Shakespeare's career as a playwright.  Yet if true, that discovery would be, or should be, headline news on its own, not piggy-backed onto the digitization project.  Is Hand D really Shakespeare's? 

There are two insurmountable problems with the claim for Hand D.  First, there is no reliable control sample of Shakespeare's handwriting with which to make a valid comparison.  Second, there are features in the Hand D pages that are consistent with scribal transcription.  In other words, with respect to the second point, there can be no certainty that D's handwriting is that of an author in the act of composition; the handwriting could be that of an unidentified theatrical scribe.  The claim that Hand D is a dramatic composition in Shakespeare's handwriting therefore remains unproven.   

Without Hand D's manuscript, Shakespeare's life as a writer is unsupported by any evidence he left behind during his lifetime.  If Shakespeare of Stratford was not the writer we all thought he was, then whose death are we commemorating, anyway?

Diana Price is the author of Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography.  Her article on Hand D was published last month in the Journal of Early Modern Studies.

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