In response to:
The Second-Best Bed from the November 7, 1991 issue
To the Editors:
Professor E.A.J. Honigmann begins his astute article, “The Second-Best Bed” [NYR, November 7, 1991] with the quotation “In the name of God amen I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon….” In fact, the testator wrote, “I William Shackspeare.” And “Shackspeare” is how the name is rendered at the head of the will, and “Shackspere” in the body of the document. John Combe did not leave five pounds “to Master William Shakespeare” as Professor Honigmann quotes him as having written but “to Master William Shackspere.” While Professor Honigmann refers glibly throughout to “Shakespeare” the name nowhere appears in connection with the will. The man buried as “Will Shakspere, gent.” signed the three pages of the will “William Shakspeare,” “Willm Shakspere” and “William Shakspeare.” If his name was “Shakespeare” with a long “a” in the first syllable he nowhere to our knowledge gave any sign of knowing it.
Professor Honigmann might have told us that no fellow villager known to us attributed any distinction to Stratford’s subsequently famous son for generations to come and that those who knew him deemed him not even worth having his name on his tomb. The outsiders who erected the monument to “Shakspeare” in Trinity Church, clearly as part of the scheme to deflect to the Stratfordian the interest certain to arise in the identity of the mysterious poet-dramatist “William Shakespeare,” said nothing in the inscription of the subject’s having been a dramatist or actor or a poet except in the obscure “arte Maronem.” They were not going to, when those who knew “Will Shakspere, gent.” must have know him as a near-illiterate who never claimed to have written anything, who mentioned no books in his will and left not a line of manuscript to turn up in the house that remained in the family for two more generations, while three collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays were published hailing their author as his nation’s triumph.
Beaufort, South Carolina
E.A.J Honigmann replies:
Mr. Ogburn believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays usually attributed to William Shakespeare (see my review of his book in The New York Review, January 17, 1985, page 23). In “The Second-Best Bed” I stated that “I have modernized the quotations from wills” (page 30, footnote 7)—not to bend the evidence against Oxford, as Mr. Ogburn seems to believe, but simply as a matter of convenience. Stratford, by the way, was not just a village in Shakespeare’s time, though it suits the “Oxfordians” to present Shakespeare as an ignorant village yokel: “By the King’s letters patent in the seventh year of Edward VI’s reign, it became an independent town-ship; a corporation possessed of a common seal and consisting of a bailiff and a council of fourteen burgesses and fourteen aldermen.” (S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, Oxford University Press, 1975, page 5.)
Two short questions for Mr. Ogburn. (1) Is there any evidence that “outsiders erected the monument”? (2) Did the author of the epitaph for Susanna (Shakespeare) Hall not attribute distinction to her father?—“Witty above her sexe, but that’s not all,/ Wise to salvation was good Mistris Hall, / Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this / Wholy of him with whom she’s now in blisse…”
'The Second-Best Bed' June 25, 1992