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Shakespeare Quarterly 53.1 (2002) 83-94

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"Was William Shakespeare William Shakeshafte?" Revisited

Robert Bearman


In a brief note, "Was William Shakespeare William Shakeshafte?," published in 1970, Douglas Hamer subjected to critical examination a theory then gaining momentum that William Shakespeare might have spent some of his youthful years in the household of Alexander Hoghton of Lea Hall, near Preston, in Lancashire. 1 This theory was based on a clause in Hoghton's will, dated 3 August 1581, in which arrangements were made for a William Shakeshafte, one of his servants, to pass into the service of Hoghton's brother-in-law, Thomas Hesketh. 2 In the preceding clause Hoghton had also left his "instrumentes belonginge to mewsyckes, & all maner of playe clothes" to Hesketh should his heir, his brother Thomas Hoghton, not wish to "keppe & manteyne playeres." This sequence suggests that this Shakeshafte was either a household musician or player or both. The text of Hoghton's will, published as long ago as 1860, had apparently escaped critical attention until 1923, when Edmund Chambers mused, in a footnote, whether this William Shakeshafte was indeed a player. 3 But it was Oliver Baker, gentleman antiquary and Stratford-upon-Avon antique dealer, who, in 1937, first committed to print the suggestion that William Shakeshafte might actually have been William Shakespeare, who, having entered Hesketh's service in accordance with his late master's wishes, found "a home with a band of players in Lancashire." 4 In a note published in 1944, Chambers took up this suggestion, adding that, from the evidence of the household books of Henry, earl of Derby, it was known that Thomas Hesketh often visited the earl at his home (or homes) in Lancashire, and that on one occasion, in 1587, on the basis of a somewhat enigmatic entry, he brought with him a band of players. 5 As [End Page 83] Derby himself had earlier maintained players, and his son, Lord Strange, currently did so, another possibility opened up: that Shakespeare, acting in Hesketh's company, would in this way have come into contact with Lord Strange's Men, with whom Shakespeare's name has been linked from the earliest evidence of his residence in London.

With the backing of a scholar of Chambers's eminence, the theory gained in stature and was cultivated by those who saw exciting ramifications in Shakespeare's possible links to Lancashire families with known Catholic sympathies. 6 In 1961, Mark Eccles expressed skepticism. 7 But it was continuing speculation that prompted Hamer, nine years later, to subject Chambers's apparent endorsement to proper scrutiny. Part of his note debates peripheral issues of whether Shakeshafte and a Fulk Gillom who is linked with him in the will were indeed players, and, if so, whether this meant they were actors or musicians. He also questioned the interpretation of the crucial entry in the Derby household-account book as establishing that Hesketh had his own players. But Hamer raised two formidable obstacles to the acceptance of the Shakespeare/Shakeshafte theory. First, he demonstrated what Eccles had already hinted at: that the name Shakeshafte was so common in late-sixteenth-century Lancashire that to assume the Shakeshafte of Hoghton's will was not simply a William Shakeshafte of Lancashire but William Shakespeare, recently arrived from Stratford, was, to say the least, straining the evidence. His second main argument concerned the probable age of Hoghton's William Shakeshafte, who, for reasons shortly to be explained, would have been far older than seventeen, Shakespeare's age in 1581. These arguments put a damper on further speculation, and S. Schoenbaum, in the first editions of his Shakespeare's Lives and William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, gave the theory short shrift. 8 In 1985, however, in a challenging new book, Ernst Honigmann enthusiastically revived the Lancastrian connection. 9 His interest had been aroused by his realization that John Cottam, schoolmaster at Stratford between 1579 and 1581 (who might, then, have been one of Shakespeare's teachers), had resigned his position after the arrest of his brother, Thomas, a Catholic priest...


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