Professor Alan Nelson on Paper Trails

[For Price's reply and my reply to her reply see below.]

Diana Price knows how to put a sentence together, but she does not know how to put an argument together without engaging in special pleading: that is, taking evidence that has an apparent signification, and arguing with all her might that it does not fit the special case of William Shakepeare for this or that special - and wholly arbitrary - reason.

Take the fact that Ben Jonson writes a poem of dedication to the "memory of my beloved, the author, Mr. William Shakespeare"; or the fact that Jonson reported that he had offended "the Players" who thought he had insulted their "friend" Shakespeare. Jonson explains, "I loved the man, and do honor his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any."

Master William Shakespeare, whom Jonson also calls "Sweet Swan of Avon," associating him with Stratford upon Avon for any but the wilfully deaf, is thus the recipient of a greater expression of friendship than any contemporary author.

Price cannot of course accept this evidence, so she must find some way to discredit it: such evidence is necessarily ironic, or satiric, or deliberately misleading, or written after Shakespeare's death: note that there is always some reason why evidence does not count in the case of William Shakespeare. Of course, one could make up a set of special rules for any other author of the period: why could there not have been two Edmund Spensers, one real but stupid (since any evidence that he was a writer cannot be allowed to count), another the pseudonym for some aristocrat?

The argument which is most important to Price concerns the "literary trail" which she thinks must necessarily have been left by any author of the time ... why she thinks so is never fully explained. She attaches ten categories to the trail, and rates each of many authors "Yes" or blank ... never "Possibly" or "Probably." To nobody's surprise, Shakespeare receives a blank in every category ... but would you have expected otherwise?

Since I don't have the patience to go into every tired but discredited argument, every instance of special pleading, and every incorrect statement or overlooked document in her book, I will simply give my own answers to Price's list of "paper-trail" topics:

  1. Evidence of Education: Yes. Since his father was an alderman and burgess of Stratford, Shakespeare would certainly have attended the school at Stratford which was given active support by the aldermen and burgesses of Stratford for the education of their sons. On the other hand, we know for a dead certainty that Shakespeare did not attend the university (nor did Jonson): this is made clear by the Cambridge Parnassus play of about 1600.

  2. Record of correspondence, especially concerning literary matters: Yes, a letter was addressed to Shakespeare by Richard Quiney (1598). (The letter is not about literature, and therefore does not qualify for Price's "especially" clause, but it does indicate that Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was capable of reading a letter addressed to him and was thus literate).

  3. Evidence of having been paid to write: Yes. The fact that he dedicated a second book to the Earl of Southampton is evidence that he received a reward for having written the first; moreover, he was paid for an impresa in 1613, clearly as an author, since Burbage was a painter and would have done the artwork. (It must be said, however, that Shakespeare as a fellow of his company of actors would probably not have been paid directly for his plays, which instead brought him money through the commercial success which they guaranteed to his company.)

  4. Evidence of a direct relationship with a patron: Yes, the Earl of Southampton.

  5. Extant original manuscript: Yes, if Hand D in The Book of Sir Thomas More is his.

  6. Handwritten inscriptions, receipts, letters, etc., touching on literary matters. Yes. In a sense this category merely repeats "Record of correspondence" above. But a letter survives in the hand of Leonard Digges, who in 1613 compared the sonnets of Lope de Vega to those of "our Will Shakespeare" - notice the use of the familiar "Will" by a close neighbor of Shakespeare's in both Aldermarston and in London.

  7. Commendatory verses, epistles, or epigrams contributed or received: Yes, first and foremost in the First Folio, but also in numerous contemporary manuscripts and printed books.

  8. Miscellaneous records (e.g., referred to personally as a writer): Yes, many such records in print, including Meres (1598) who reports that Shakespeare's sonnets were circulating among his private friends (an astonishingly personalized revelation!), and Thomas Heywood's reference (1612) to Shakespeare's being upset over a book of poems published by Jaggard.

  9. Evidence of books owned, written in, borrowed, or given: Yes, possibly, in a book now at Stratford and in another at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (This category perhaps deserves a blank, but it does not merit a positive "No.")

  10. Notice at death as a writer: Yes, positively and abundantly, in a poem written by William Basse; the literary allusions (including to Virgil) in the Funeral Monument; and above all in the First Folio, which is the greatest tribute to a recently-deceased writer in all of English literature.

You will note, if you have read Price's book with care, how hard she has worked to discount all evidence which could possibly contribute to a "Yes" response for Shakespeare in any of her categories. In fact, the selective demolition of evidence is what her entire book is about. If Price had worked with equal diligence to discredit the evidence which applies to other writers of the period, she would have succeeded in reducing all historical evidence of any kind whatsoever to utter meaninglessness. Fortunately, all one has to do is to watch for Price's instances of special pleading, dismiss any associated arguments, and let the documentation which survives this exercise speak for itself.

Diana price has responded to my "review" at

[For a second round of replies see below.]

My Reply to Diana Price's Reply

Diana Price's reply to my "review" is just another instance of special pleading. To avoid an exponential inflation of argument I limit myself to one topic, from which the reader may extrapolate to others.

I will concentrate on Price's Topic 6, which she herself entitles: "Handwritten inscriptions, receipts, letters, etc., touching on literary matters."

In her reply, Price overlooks the point of her own argument, for in 1613, while Shakespeare was still alive, Leonard Digges composed a handwritten inscription directly concerning William Shakespeare and directly touching on literary matters. Regardless of anything else, Price's analysis of this particular topic should have led her to respond with an unequivocal YES. Thus this single topic demolishes her controlling thesis that William Shakespeare fails to qualify in a single one of her categories.

Price asserts that Digges did not write a letter in 1613, but merely an inscription. This is a quibble. Yes, Digges wrote on a flyleaf of a book, but what he wrote on that flyleaf is clearly a letter, addressed to "Will Baker" and signed "Leo: Digges".

With respect to an acquaintanceship, Price assserts:

Although Digges and Shakspere lived within proximity to one another, there is no evidence that the two men knew, or ever met each other.
In point of hisorical and documentary fact, there is an extraordinarily close family connection between the two: Leonard Digges was the step-son (from 1603) of Thomas Russell, a man who was not only a neighbor of Shakespeare's both in London and in Stratford, but whom Shakespeare remembered in his will, and indeed appointed one of the two overseers of his will.

In short: Leonard Digges was the step-son of Shakespeare's particularly close personal friend and overseer.

So close was Digges himself to Shakespeare that he called him not "Shakespeare," "William Shakespeare," or "Mr. Shakespeare," but - with singular affection and using his nick-name - "our Will Shakespeare".

With regard to the latter, Price states:
Notice that Digges uses the impersonal "our." Had Digges written "my good friend Will Shakespeare," Prof. Nelson would have had a point.
But to assert that "our" is impersonal while "my" is personal is both inaccurate and tendentious, for "our" is simply the plural of "my", entirely appropriate in a literary discussion among three close friends, Will Baker, James Mabbe, and Leonard Digges.

Note that Price goes so far as to specify the language she would consider acceptable; since the language she specifies does not occur here, she rules the phrase - and the document - out of court.

Granted that the phrase in question could mean "our (English) Will Shakespeare" as well as "our (common friend) Will Shakespeare," Price has no grounds beyond sheer personal bias for prefering the first of these two significations over the second. Perhaps more important as concerns her argument, even the first remains a "Handwritten inscription[], touching on literary matters."

Leonard Digges subsequently wrote two poems on Shakespeare: the first, published in the 1623 First Folio, refers openly to the playwright's Stratford monument; the second, published in 1640 (but written like the first about 1622), openly credits Shakespeare with the enduring success of his company, the King's Men.

My point is proved: for Price to deny the obvious significance of Leonard Digges's letter of 1613 is nothing but special pleading.

Diana price has responded to my second "reply" at

My Reply to Diana Price's Second Reply

Price states:

Shakespeare's will is good evidence that he and Thomas Russell were acquainted, but it does not tell us that Shakespeare knew Thomas Russell's family, including Russell's step-son, Leonard.

I answer:

Shakespeare's will is proof (not merely good evidence) that he and Thomas Russell were exceptionally close friends, and contributes markedly to the likelihood that Shakespeare knew Thomas Russell's family, including Russell's step-son, Leonard, and more importantly, that Russell's step-son, Leonard, knew Shakespeare.

Let's now recall the hurdle that has to be jumped to pass Diana Price's sixth test:

Handwritten inscriptions, receipts, letters, etc., touching on literary matters.

If ever there were an inscription touching on literary matters, the Leonard Digges note of 1613 clears this hurdle. It is handwritten; it is an inscription; it touches on literary matters.

Why does Diana Price disqualify it? She allows herself to imagine that Digges's inscription refers to a William Shakespeare other than the man from Stratford-upon-Avon who would soon appoint Digges's step-father Thomas Russell overseer of his will.

Nowhere does there exist the slightest scrap, shred, or morsel, or ort of evidence that an individual not named William Shakespeare wrote plays and poems under the name of William Shakespeare; nor does Price imagine of any other flesh-and-blood individual on her list of authors that his identity had been stolen by another, and therefore that the mention of his name in a literary inscription is subject to automatic disqualification. Thus for no good reason whatsoever, she sets her sixth hurdle infinitely higher for William Shakespeare than for any other candidate.

Anti-Stratfordians of an earlier generation could be forgiven for imagining that Leonard Digges may have been ignorant of the full details of Shakespeare's connection to Stratford. Thanks to discoveries by Leslie Hotson, however, we now know that Digges was the step-son of William Shakespeare's trusted friend and neighbor Thomas Russell; that Russell maintained a residence about 4 miles south-east of Stratford and had dealings with Stratford merchants; and that Russell lived within 200 yards of Shakespeare in London.

What has Price learned from this demonstration of a close connection between Shakespeare and Russell, and Russell and Digges? Exactly nothing. For her, Leonard Digges is no closer to being an acquaintance of William Shakespeare after Hotson's remarkable discoveries than he was before. Despite the fact that Digges called the author of the sonnets "our Will Shakespeare" - using not only the personal pronoun but the notably familiar "Will"; despite the fact that Digges credited William Shakespeare the playwright with a Stratford monument; despite the fact that Digges tells us more than any other contemporary about William Shakespeare the playwright's direct contribution to the success of the very playing company of which William Shakespeare of Stratford was a leading member (as Price concedes); despite all this evidence she simply refuses to believe that Leonard Digges was better informed concerning the real identity of his favorite poet and playwright, and his father's good friend, than Diana Price indulging in untrammelled speculation nearly 500 years after the event.

Price takes the same tack with respect to the poems composed by Ben Jonson, Leonard Digges, and James Mabbe for the First Folio, arguing that Edward Blount secured dedicatory poems from these three men not because they knew anything about William Shakespeare in real life, but simply because they were blindly loyal to Blount: this despite the fact that in his other publications Blount commissioned the same men to write dedicatory poems to one another, presumably because they knew one another in real life.

Price acknowledges that Leonard Digges addressed his friend William Baker as "Will," and that he referred to his friend Edward Blount as "Ned"; but she refuses to acknowledge that his reference to the English sonneteer as "Will" (rather than "William") Shakespeare, even in an inscription which refers to James Mabbe as "Mr" Mabbe, implies a personal familiarity.

While Price will not let you believe that William Shakespeare's close acquaintance with Thomas Russell may naturally have led to an acquaintance - even a distant acquaintance - with Russell's stepson, she will let you believe that Leonard Digges could harbor an admiration for a poet-playwright whom he named as "Will" Shakespeare for more than a decade (from 1613 to 1623) without ever twigging to the fact that his step-father had a very good friend with the very same, highly unusual name.

For note: if Digges ever had even the slightest inkling of the acquaintance between Russell and Shakespeare, then Price could not deny the fact of an acquaintance between Digges and Shakespeare. Further debate would be not about the fact of an acquaintance, but about its extent. Thus Price's argument is predicated on the assumption that Leonard Digges was necessarily ignorant of the identity and name of one of his step-father's closest friends.

In conclusion, Price will not let you believe the reasonable or the probable; but she will let you believe the preposterous.

Closing note: Fully acquainted with the fact that no anti-Stratfordian will ever let a traditional academic have the last word, and unable ever to convince an opponent who prefers the preposterous to the probable, I hereby declare that for this website, in respect to Diana Price's book, the rest is silence.

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