Doubts About Shakespeare's Authorship

─ Or About Oxfordian Scholarship?


1728  -  Publication of Captain Goulding’s Essay Against Too Much Reading   in which he comments on the background Shakespeare would require for his  historical plays and suggests that Shakespeare probably had to keep “one of those chuckle-pated Historians for his particular Associate … or he might have starvd [sic] upon his History.” Goulding tells us that he had this from “one of his (Shakespeare’s) intimate Acquaintance.”

— “History of Doubts surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s Works,”

from the Shakespeare-Oxford Society Home Page


After the earliest allusion to Shakespeare, in 1592, it took over 190 years before the first unequivocal doubt about his authorship of the renowned plays is heard (which wasn’t made public until 1932 – by Allardyce Nicoll, a Shakespearean scholar, it so happens). Another sixty years would pass before doubts got into the public realm, when one Joseph C. Hart expressed them in his book “The Romance of Yachting,” in 1848.


From the Shakespearean point of view, the doubts spring from the sea-change in the author’s reputation, from a brilliant, if crude, dramatist, into an omniscient genius, which began with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s edition of his works in 1765, and propelled still higher in 1769 when the greatest actor of his age, David Garrick, staged the “Shakespeare Jubilee” in Stratford-upon-Avon. This marked the apotheosis of the author – not one of the plays was performed. Bardolatry was born.

Oxfordians assert that generations of critics were led astray by the remarks of Ben Jonson and John Milton, persuading them into believing Shakespeare was “child of nature.” They have searched high and low in the years between 1592 and 1769, for clues that others perceived the truth: the son of a craftsman in a provincial town, with a grammar school education (if that), cannot possibly have written works in which they perceive the experience and knowledge available only to someone of good breeding – an aristocrat, a nobleman. The problem was finding someone from an early day who agreed with them.

And then – O frabjous day!

On that day, an Oxfordian visited the Houghton Library, the rare book repository at Harvard University. Perhaps he was the originator, or was he the lucky discoverer, of a note slipped into a small book entitled An Essay Against Too Much Reading, published in 1728. The note reads, “the earliest known publication of any questioning Shakespeare’s having written the works attributed to him. See pp. 12 and 13.”

An odd little book, the first part of it consisting of 36 pages, includes an essay, “The Whole Lives and Proceedings Of Sancho and Peepo,” and another about the “So Many Processions” in the town of Bath in the preceding year. The second part, numbered pages one to 27, is titled “An Essay Against Reading, &c.” It is here that the Shakespeare revelations are to be found. Hooray, for Captain Goulding! (Except it probably wasn’t him. This attribution is based on an item on the verso of the last page of the book, “A Speech to Royal Highness, the Princess Amelia on her Birth-day, by Captain Goulding, at his Procession.” There is nothing in this speech in common with the author of the essay. But let’s call him Goulding, for the sake of convenience.)

I discovered this remarkable news in a link to the “History of Doubts” on the Shakespeare Oxford Society site on the PBS Frontline web page for the mockumentary The Shakespeare Mystery, which it has twice broadcast. Two things immediately came to mind. First, find the book and see for myself. Second, isn’t there something not quite right, maybe even a little odd, about the information that the Oxfordians present? I can’t quite put my finger on it …

I’ll leave you to ponder this. In the meanwhile, I found the book in the Folger Shakespeare Library and, for your better consideration of the matter, I shall begin with some excerpts that will give you flavor of this authoritative tome to prepare you for what Oxfordians commend as credible, factual, authentic scholarship (perhaps because of its resemblance to their own). Then you will get, in full, the excerpts about Shakespeare. (I will most often use modernized spelling and punctuation. A vertical line in the text indicates page divisions. Shakespeare’s name is in bold face.)






[Pages 1-3]   I have spent a little time in considering the Reason why all our Poets are so low, and the Wit of our present Age is so much inferior to some Ages past. I can attribute it to nothing but the present indolent Course of Life. Reading, that unactive Course, is the forerunner of all distempers. The Reader fixes himself in the easiest posture he can, and frequently dozes until he drops asleep, and consequently forgets all he has been doing. Reason, and our Physicians, tell us that inactivity is the forerunner of all distempers; if so, for health’s sake, we ought to restrain ourselves as much as possible from it. But this is the most inconsiderable reason I shall give, ‘tis my business to set forth the disadvantages, to the improvement of human Reason in general. |

The Reader believes that his memory is able to retain all he can discover with his eyes; if he could, it would be an indifferent exchange, to lose his own thoughts to borrow another’s. Only consider, in reading one line, there’s a moment lost to yourself by giving it to the Author; you can never read and think at the same time, yourself shall be the judge: Suppose you had a pen in hand instead of a book, whether your moments might not afford as material thoughts as any Author? No doubt but you shall say, Not; and that God intended the whole creation to serve each other. Admit that, but not in sublime thought; there Nature dictates, and none but the lame and the lazy look out for assistance, and of course must always limp behind.

Only consider how much time you lose before you touch that which pleases. By constant Reading you discover a great deal bad as well as good, to which your own thoughts might have been superior. Admit it was all good, after eight or ten years perusal, then you are entitled to say, I ought to do something, after seeing every thing. When you sit to write, your head is so stuffed with so many Authors and fine things, you known not where to begin, nor how to serve yourself, without touching other men’s works: Your spirits are sunk with the difficulty, then away to the Coffee-House, repeating your old histories, which makes you pass for a clever Man; and at the same time ‘tis an imposition, and what any School-Boy might do, that has a memory. So you drone away your time till death, without serving your Country. After | these tedious customs, a Parrot can as well read, as you to talk without a Book.

 [Page 7]   As to my Historian, I traveled about three weeks with him, and he was the cleverest fellow I ever met with that way in my life; there’s scarce a Book from the beginning of writing to a sixpenny pamphlet, but he will give a handsome account of, and he had studied Physick [ as in physician] likewise; that with his old danby covered Books of a thousand years old, he had stuffed my body like a library, and with gally-pots [gallipot, a small glazed pot used by apothecaries] and Physick stuffed my head like an Apothecary’s Shop; and I have not been right well ever since. We went a courting, and when at the teatable, dinner, or supper, there was nothing but History and Physick, Physick and History; he knew nothing of courting, so faith, we came home like Fools as we went, left the girls in a surprise; and what is worse, he almost ruined me, for I could talk of nothing but History and Physick for two months after.

 [Page 10]   I have been acquainted with some persons at the University, and in several Colleges; and I have been in the hundreds, at several taverns, such as the Rose, Rummer, Fountain, and Horse-Shoe; and I have heard there is at the former more lewdness, debauchery, vile swearing, out-o’-the-way romancing, and being drunk every night; in short, more Variety of Wickedness than at the latter. There was nothing wanting but the females to make it a true picture of the other; so that one would think the V[ice] Ch[ancel]lor must have had a cloven foot, or there would have been a method taken to prevent such profligate wretches from their vile ways. Some were obliged to quit the College, for fear he would have appeared in some surprising shape. I have heard 500 say it is the Fountain of Virtue and Knowledge, and have heard a thousand say it is of Vice.



As we can see from the meticulous scholarship, the scientific methodology, this is what we would nowadays call a definitive study of the acquisition of knowledge and of the status of reading, history and universities in early 18th-century England. We are thus prepared to delve into the insights of this penetrating scholar “on the background Shakespeare would require for his historical plays,” and his unquestionable belief, based on first hand knowledge he got secondhand, that Stratford Will did not have any such grounding. Thus, without further ado, with every reference to Shakespeare in context, we offer:


Shakespeare in the Essay Against Reading, &c.

[Page 3]   These Books take all young fellows off from thinking; they are lying about in every house; custom has made it so natural, they run to it and there pause for some time. If they had any concise thoughts, which scarce any’s without, they are immediately drowned, and of course thrown away. Then consider the Ancients were but mortal as thou art, and why superior to thyself, not any ways inspired? Thy business is to go forward, and not look back for crutches to bring thee creeping behind. Study without Book, then you’ll be supplied with thoughts at the firsthand; don’t lie droning thy time away in a Library, gazing and not knowing where to fix; like as if thou wast staring at promiscuous gems, still at a loss, not knowing where to make choice. Thou may’st call over thy Virgil and Homer, Milton and Shakespear [sic], all fine Names. So thou may’st the Diamond, the Sapphire, the Emerald and Ruby, and still be at a loss, not knowing where there’s most beauty. Thou canst not command one hour, and after thou hast almost finished a seven years perusal, Death strikes thee, and all’s gone to the World: which if thou hadst writ thy Works, would have survived thy name.

 [Pages 12-15]   Those that have not a capacity, nor never will endeavor to write, they may read Novels, Plays, Poems, History, or whatever their inclinations lead them to; but I would not have Numps [a silly or stupid person] think it would give him a new capacity, or furnish him with any thoughts to make him capable of writing, without a great deal of plagiarism, which is soon found out. But men of very good understanding are frightened after reading so many beautiful things so well done. Shakespear has frightened three parts of the World from attempting to write; and he was no Scholar, no Grammarian, no Historian, and in all probability could not write English. Although his Plays were historical, as I have heard, the History part was given him in concise and short, by one of these Chuckles that could give him nothing else. Then Shake| spear, like the swift hawk that wings his way in pursuit of his game, takes his flight, and soars so much higher, that his vast lengths, with such variety, turns, and delightful changes, ravish all Spectators with admiration and amazing wonder. You may then observe their eyes lifted up, crying, Oh! immortal and inimitable Shakespear! whither art thou gone! Now thou hast taken too great a flight ever to return, unless thou hadst taken us with thee. Here we are left in a melancholy World, without a Spark of new Wit to revive our drooping spirits. These foolish reports give him such a supernatural character, that it sends everybody to read him; and, in short, they find such fine similes, sublime thoughts, and beautiful turns, it frightens a young Fellow from ever presuming to write, if he had it in his thoughts before. And the world is crying, there is nothing can ever come up to him, like blockheads.

Why may not another be better than him? There are ten thousand better Scholars, for he was none; and I am assured there are an hundred Shakespears in England at this time; but this way of talking frightens them. I don’t tell you they are at the University; their beautiful thoughts are being driven out by being stuf[fed] with History; besides, their Tutors teach them to think pretty near almost the same way. Some Universities, in our days, afford us nothing surprising, but a little Religion,  and now and then there comes out another spick and span-new Way to Heaven. The Lord grant that we may not be put into so many paths, and lose the right at last. Yes, sometimes a new Physician is sent | us, and the poor country souls put their lives in their hands, to give them the practical part; but I will never take any of their prescriptions ‘till they have been in the hands, and under the Directions of such celebrated and ingenious Men as Dr. Bave; and in all probability, Dr. Harrington must be a very safe Physician, the World allowing him to be a Man of  fine Sense, a regular Liver, and a graduate Physician: besides the vast advantages he has gained in being in so many consultations, and having perpetually his Father’s Directions and Rules of Practice for his Improvement.

I will give you a short Account of Mr. Shakespear’s Proceeding; and that I had from one of his intimate Acquaintance. His being imperfect in some things was owing to his not being a Scholar, which obliged him to have one of those chuckle-pated Historians for his particular Associate, that could scarce speak a word but upon that subject; and he maintained him or he might have starved upon his History. And when he wanted any thing in his [the historian’s] Way, as his Plays were all Historical, he sent to him, and took down the heads what was for his purpose in Characters, which were thirty times as quick as running to the Books to read for it. Then with his natural flowing Wit, he worked it into all shapes and forms, as his beautiful thoughts directed. The other put it into Grammar; and instead of Reading, he stuck close to writing and study without Book. How do you think Reading could have assisted him in such great thoughts? It would only have lost time. When he found his thoughts grow | on him so fast, he could have writ forever, had he lived so long.

Mr. Congreve writ his first Play before he was sixteen years of age. Do you think he was a Historian before he was done with his School-Books? No; the Dictates of Nature only refined his judgment, which was surprising in a Youth. But I am afraid he fell into the other way, being over-curious of seeing what Shakespear, and others, had done, which forewarned him of great difficulties; or was afraid he should not excel those that gave him the surprise: whereas, otherwise, it would have been almost as easy as writing a common letter.

 [Page 16]   I have a Play almost ready for the Stage. I keep but just within in the bounds of Religion and Law; to all other Passions I am boundless, and expect to be raved at for Romantick Bombast; but let them mend it, that shall not fright me; and if it’s damned, they may be d[amne]d for their pains, for what I care. I do assure you, I would not read any of Shakespear’s or Congreve’s Plays for fifty pounds, for fear it should puzzle or surprise me with wonder, that might dispirit me from going on. He that writes must think himself the best, or else he writes in fear, and consequently his Works will come to nothing: Courage is half the proceeding in any undertaking.


There You Have It

But wait, you say: what happened to “Captain Goulding’s” “comments on the background Shakespeare would require for his historical plays”? Where are they? It does appear that Oxfordians, who often miss what is there, have been compensated by a knack for finding what is not there.

One thing that is not missed, just missing, is what they assert the essay’s author was actually saying about Shakespeare keeping an historian. As Oxfordians’ fashion it in their “History of Doubts,” Goulding “suggests that Shakespeare probably had to keep ‘one of those chuckle-pated Historians for his particular Associate … or he might have starvd upon his History’.” In other words, Shakespeare, “not being a Scholar,” would have starved on his own knowledge of history.

However, as we see, the passage actually says that Shakespeare hired “one of those chuckle-pated Historians for his particular Associate, that could scarce speak a word but upon that subject; and he maintained him, or he might have starved upon his History.” The italicized portion is what the Oxfordians omitted. In context, I believe, the correct interpretation is that it was the “chuckle-pated historian,” not Shakespeare, who would have starved upon his historical knowledge had he not been employed by the playwright. For historians, according to Goulding, the only other means for sustenance is “to make his fortune by marriage.”

Agreed, that passage in full is ambiguous – it can be read either way. With the portion in italics omitted, as the Oxfordians did, it leads the reader to think that there is only one way it can be read – the way they want it to read, the way they want you to believe.

Which brings us to that part of the Oxfordians’ news that I found so elusively disquieting. As they put it:

Goulding tells us that he got this from “one of his (Shakespeare’s) intimate Acquaintance.”

Many a midnight dreary (the weather has been awful lately), I pondered this weak and weary (who isn’t at midnight?), wondering what it could be that doesn’t seem quite right about this. Could it be Oxfordians have once again been up to some sleight of mind? Let’s take a look at it again, as it appears in the essay in its entirety: “I will give you a short Account of Mr. Shakespear’s Proceeding; and that I had from one of his intimate Acquaintance.”


Shakespeare died in 1616. Goulding was writing in 1728 – 112 years later! That would make Goulding’s source something over 130 years old. Isn’t it extraordinary that the Oxfordians, who microscopically scrutinize every word in every allusion to Shakespeare, who find every flyspeck in the Shakespearean ointment, can have detected nothing amiss?

Still more remarkable is how anyone can have proffered An Essay Against Too Much Reading as a serious source for information about Shakespeare. As the excerpts I have quoted show, it is from start to finish a satirical polemic, written at a time when perhaps the greatest of satirists in the English language, Jonathan Swift, was at the height of his fame. Although it has neither the bite nor polish of Swift’s wit, its author’s style and exaggeration are frequently funny, at times hilarious. But then, when it comes to the authorship controversy, even the most congenial Oxfordians (and I have known many) may lack a sense of humor.

Like many another, I am amazed by how deeply, inexhaustibly, they delve to come up with obscure things; An Essay Against Too Much Reading is an outstanding example. Unlike the others in that many, I wonder at times if I may be the only who is no less amazed by what they do with these sources.

© Irvin Leigh Matus
Created Saturday, April 19, 2003
Updated Sunday, April 20, 2003