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Ch. 8: The Silence of Philip Henslowe

When Shakespeare is mentioned as an author by contemporary writers, the Baconian stratagem, we have seen, is to cry, "Ah, but you cannot prove the author mentioned to be the actor." We have seen that Meres (1598) speaks of Shakespeare as the leading tragic and comic poet ("Poor poet-ape that would be thought our chief," quoth Jonson), as author of Venus and Adonis, and as a sonneteer. "All this does nothing whatever to support the idea that the Stratford player was the author of the plays and poems alluded to," says Mr. Greenwood, playing that card again. {155a}

The allusions, I repeat, DO prove that Shak(&c.), the actor, was believed to be the author, till any other noted William Shak(&c.) is found to have been conspicuously before the town. "There is nothing at all to prove that Meres, native of Lincolnshire, had any personal knowledge of Shakespeare." There is nothing at all to prove that Meres, native of Lincolnshire, had any personal knowledge of nine-tenths of the English authors, famous or forgotten, whom he mentions. "On the question--who was Shakespeare?--he throws no light." He "throws no light on the question" "who was?" any of the poets mentioned by him, except one, quite forgotten, whose College he names . . . To myself this "sad repeated air,"--"critics who praise Shakespeare do not say WHO SHAKESPEARE was,"--would appear to be, not an argument, but a subterfuge: though Mr. Greenwood honestly believes it to be an argument,--otherwise he would not use it: much less would he repeat it with frequent iteration. The more a man was notorious, as was Will Shakspere the actor, the less the need for any critic to tell his public "who Shakespeare was."

As Mr. Greenwood tries to disable the evidence when Shakespeare is alluded to as an author, so he tries to better his case when, in the account-book of Philip Henslowe, an owner of theatres, money-lender, pawn-broker, purchaser of plays from authors, and so forth, Shakespeare is NOT mentioned at all. Here is a mystery which, properly handled, may advance the great cause. Henslowe has notes of loans of money to several actors, some of them of Shakespeare's company, "The Lord Chamberlain's." There is no such note of a loan to Shakespeare. Does this prove that he was not an actor? If so, Burbage was not an actor; Henslowe never names him.

There are notes of payments of money to Henslowe after each performance of any play in one of his theatres. In these notes THE NAME OF SHAKESPEARE IS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED AS THE AUTHOR OF ANY PLAY. How weird! But in THESE notes the names of the authors of the plays acted are never mentioned. Does this suggest that Bacon wrote all these plays?

On the other hand, there are frequent mentions of advances of money to authors who were working at plays for Henslowe, singly, or in pairs, threes, fours, or fives. We find Drayton, Dekker, Chapman, and nine authors now forgotten by all but antiquarians. We have also Ben Jonson (1597), Marston, Munday, Middleton, Webster, and others, authors in Henslowe's pay. BUT THE SAME OF SHAKESPEARE NEVER APPEARS. Mysterious! The other men's names, writes Dr. Furness, occur "because they were all writers for Henslowe's theatre, but we must wait at all events for the discovery of some other similar record, before we can produce corresponding memoranda regarding Shaksper" (sic) "and his productions." {157a}

The natural mind of the ordinary man explains all by saying, "Henslowe records no loans of money to Shakspere the actor, because he lent him no money. He records no payments for plays to Shakespeare the author-actor, because to Henslowe the actor sold no plays." That is the whole explanation of the Silence of Philip Henslowe. If Shakspere did sell a play to Henslowe, why should that financier omit the fact from his accounts? Suppose that the actor was illiterate as Baconians fervently believe, and sold Bacon's plays, what prevented him from selling a play of Bacon's (under his own name, as usual) to Henslowe? To obtain a Baconian reply you must wander into conjecture, and imagine that Bacon forbade the transaction. Then WHY did he forbid it? Because he could get a better price from Shakspere's company? The same cause would produce the same effect on Shakspere himself; whether he were the author, or were Bacon's, or any man's go-between. On any score but that of money, why was Henslowe good enough for Ben Jonson, Dekker, Heywood, Middleton, and Webster, and not good enough for Bacon, who did not appear in the matter at all, but was represented in it by the actor, Will? As a gentleman and a man of the Court, Bacon would be as much discredited if he were known to sell (for 6 pounds on an average) his noble works to the Lord Chamberlain's Company, as if he sold them to Henslowe.

I know not whether the great lawyer, courtier, scholar, and philosopher is supposed by Baconians to have given Will Shakspere a commission on his sales of plays; or to have let him keep the whole sum in each case. I know not whether the players paid Shakspere a sum down for his (or Bacon's) plays, or whether Will received a double share, or other, or any share of the profits on them, as Henslowe did when he let a house to the players. Nobody knows any of these things.

"If Shakspere the player had been a dramatist, surely Henslowe would have employed him also, like the others, in that behalf." {159a} Henslowe would, if he could have got the "copy" cheap enough. Was any one of "the others," the playwrights, a player, holding a share in his company? If not, the fact makes an essential difference, for Shakspere WAS a shareholder. Collier, in his preface to Henslowe's so-called "Diary," mentions a playwright who was bound to scribble for Henslowe only (Henry Porter), and another, Chettle, who was bound to write only for the company protected by the Earl of Nottingham. {159b} Modern publishers and managers sometimes make the same terms with novelists and playwrights.

It appears to me that Shakspere's company would be likely, as his plays were very popular, to make the same sort of agreement with him, and to give him such terms as he would be glad to accept,--whether the wares were his own--or Bacon's. He was a keen man of business. In such a case, he would not write for Henslowe's pittance. He had a better market. The plays, whether written by himself, or Bacon, or the Man in the Moon, were at his disposal, and he did not dispose of them to Henslowe, wherefore Henslowe cannot mention him in his accounts. That is all.

Quoting an American Judge (Dr. Stotsenburg, apparently), Mr. Greenwood cites the circumstance that, in two volumes of Alleyn's papers "there is not one mention of such a poet as William Shaksper in his list of actors, poets, and theatrical comrades." {160a} If this means that Shakspere is not mentioned by Alleyn among actors, are we to infer that William was not an actor? Even Baconians insist that he was an actor. "How strange, how more than strange," cries Mr. Greenwood, "that Henslowe should make no mention in all this long diary, embracing all the time from 1591 to 1609, of the actor-author . . . No matter. Credo quia impossibile!" {160b} Credo what? and what is IMPOSSIBLE? Henslowe's volume is no Diary; he does not tell a single anecdote of any description; he merely enters loans, gains, payments. Does Henslowe mention, say, Ben Jonson, WHEN HE IS NOT DOING BUSINESS WITH BEN? Does he mention any actor or author except in connection with money matters? Then, if he did no business with Shakspere the actor, in borrowing or lending, and did no business with Shakespeare the author, in borrowing, lending, buying or selling, "How strange, how more than strange" it would be if Henslowe DID mention Shakespeare! He was not keeping a journal of literary and dramatic jottings. He was keeping an account of his expenses and receipts. He never names Richard Burbage any more than he mentions Shakespeare.

Mr. Greenwood again expresses his views about this dark suspicious mystery, the absence of Shakespeare or Shakspere (or Shak, as you like it), from Henslowe's accounts, if Shak(&c.) wrote plays. But the mystery, if mystery there be, is just as obscure if the actor were the channel through which Bacon's plays reached the stage, for the pretended author of these masterpieces. Shak--was not the man to do all the troking, bargaining, lying, going here and there, and making himself a motley to the view for 0 pounds, 0s, 0d. If he were a sham, a figure-head, a liar, a fetcher-and-carrier of manuscripts, HE WOULD BE PAID FOR IT. But he did not deal with Henslowe in his bargainings, and THAT is why Henslowe does not mention him. Mr. Greenwood, in one place, {161a} agrees, so far, with me. "Why did Henslowe not mention Shakespeare as the writer of other plays" (than Titus Andronicus and Henry VI)? "I think the answer is simple enough." (So do I.) "Neither Shakspere nor 'Shakespeare' ever wrote for Henslowe!" The obvious is perceived at last; and the reason given is "that he was above Henslowe's 'skyline,'" "he" being the Author. We only differ as to WHY the author was above Henslowe's "sky-line." I say, because good Will had a better market, that of his Company. I understand Mr. Greenwood to think,--because the Great Unknown was too great a man to deal with Henslowe. If to write for the stage were discreditable, to deal (unknown) with Henslowe was no more disgraceful than to deal with "a cry of players"; and as (unknown) Will did the bargaining, the Great Unknown was as safe with Will in one case as in the other. If Will did not receive anything for the plays from his own company (who firmly believed in his authorship), they must have said, "Will! dost thou serve the Muses and thy obliged fellows for naught? Dost thou give us two popular plays yearly,--gratis?"

Do you not see that, in the interests of the Great Secret itself, Will HAD to take the pay for the plays (pretended his) from somebody. Will Shakspere making his dear fellows and friends a present of two masterpieces yearly was too incredible. So I suppose he did have royalties on the receipts, or otherwise got his money; and, as he certainly did not get them from Henslowe, Henslowe had no conceivable reason for entering Will's name in his accounts.

Such are the reflections of a plain man, but to an imaginative soul there seems to be a brooding mist, with a heart of fire, which half conceals and half reveals the darkened chamber wherein abides "The Silence of Philip Henslowe." "The Silence of Philip Henslowe," Mr. Greenwood writes, "is a very remarkable phenomenon . . . " It is a phenomenon precisely as remarkable as the absence of Mr. Greenwood's name from the accounts of a boot-maker with whom he has never had any dealings.

"If, however, there was a man in high position, 'a concealed poet,'" who "took the works of others and rewrote and transformed them, besides bringing out original plays of his own . . . then it is natural enough that his name should not appear among those [of the] for the most part impecunious dramatists to whom Henslowe paid money for playwriting." {163a} Nothing can be more natural, and, in fact, the name of Bacon, or Southampton, or James VI, or Sir John Ramsay, or Sir Walter Raleigh, or Sir Fulke Greville, or any other "man in high position," does NOT appear in Henslowe's accounts. Nor does the name of William Shak(&c.). But why should it not appear if Will sold either his own plays, or those of the noble friend to whom he lent his name and personality--to Henslowe? Why not?

Then consider the figure, to my mind impossible, of the great "concealed poet" "of high position," who can "bring out original plays of his own," and yet "takes the works of others," say of "sporting Kyd," or of Dekker and Chettle, and such poor devils,--TAKES them as a Yankee pirate-publisher takes my rhymes,--and "rewrites and transforms them."

Bacon (or Bungay) CANNOT "take" them without permission of their legal owners,--Shakspere's or any other company;--of any one, in short, who, as Ben Jonson says, "buys up reversions of old plays." How is he to manage these shabby dealings? Apparently he employs Will Shakspere, spells his own "nom de plume" "Shakespeare," and has his rewritings and transformations of the destitute author's work acted by Will's company. What a situation for Bacon, or Sir Fulke Greville, or James VI, or any "man in high position" whom fancy can suggest! The plays by the original authors, whoever they were, could only be obtained by the "concealed poet" and "man in high position" from the legal owners, Shakspere's company, usually. The concealed poet had to negotiate with the owners, and Bacon (or whoever he was) employed that scamp Will Shakspere, first, I think, to extract the plays from the owners, and then to pretend that he himself, even Will, had "rewritten and transformed them."

What an associate was our Will for the concealed poet; how certain it was that Will would blackmail the "man in high position"! "Doubtless" he did: we find Bacon arrested for debt, more than once, while Will buys New Place, in Stratford, with the money extorted from the concealed poet of high position. {164a} Bacon did associate with that serpent Phillips, a reptile of Walsingham, who forged a postscript to Mary Stuart's letter to Babington. But now, if not Bacon, then some other concealed poet of high position, with a mysterious passion for rewriting and transforming plays by sad, needy authors, is in close contact with Will Shakspere, the Warwickshire poacher and ignorant butcher's boy, country schoolmaster, draper's apprentice, enfin, tout le tremblement.

"How strange, how more than strange!"

The sum of the matter seems to me to be that from as early as March 3, 1591, we find Henslowe receiving small sums of money for the performances of many plays. He was paid as owner or lessee of the House used by this or that company. On March 3, 1591, the play acted by "Lord Strange's (Derby's) men" was Henry VI. Several other plays with names familiar in Shakespeare's Works, such as Titus Andronicus, all the three parts of Henry VI, King Leare (April 6, 1593), Henry V (May 14, 1592), The Taming of a Shrew (June 11, 1594), and Hamlet, paid toll to Henslowe. He "received" so much, on each occasion, when they were acted in a theatre of his. But he never records his purchase of these plays; and it is not generally believed that Shakespeare was the author of all these plays, in the form which they bore in 1591-4: though there is much difference of opinion.

There is one rather interesting case. On August 25, 1594, Henslowe enters "ne" (that is, "a new play") "Received at the Venesyon Comodey, eighteen pence." That was his share of the receipts. The Lord Chamberlain's Company, that of Shakespeare, was playing in Henslowe's theatre at Newington Butts. If the "Venesyon Comodey" (Venetian Comedy) were The Merchant of Venice, this is the first mention of it. But nobody knows what Henslowe meant by "the Venesyon Comodey." He does not mention the author's name, because, in this part of his accounts he never does mention the author or authors. He only names them when he buys from, or lends to, or has other money dealings with the authors. He had none with Shakespeare, hence the Silence of Philip Henslowe.

Andrew Lang