A Psychiatric View of Shakespeare's Sonnets 

Anais Portugueses de Psiquiatria, XXI, 18, p 545-572, 12/1969

                                 Dedicated to H. de Barahona Fernandes


Uncertainly of authorship

The authorship of the Sonnets, as well as the other poems and the plays, is generally attributed to a man who was born in Stratford‑on‑Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. This man signed his name, in the six signatures on legal documents which are known to be his, as «WILLIAM SHAKSPERE» (or abrevitions); and it was in the name of «Shakspere» that a coat of arms was issued to his father JOHN SHAKSPERE by the College of  Heralds, on application by father and son. In order to avoid any confusion in the argument that follows, this man will be referred to as WILLIAM OF STRATFORD.

    The names and initials WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, W. SHAKESPEARE, W. SHAKESPERE, W. SH., W. S., seem to have been used to cover the authorship of a number of writers over the years that concern us, i. e. from the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 to the publication of the First Folio in 1623. The Sonnets appeared in 1609, without initial; as «Shake‑speares Sonnets Neuer before Imprinted”. Eighteen of the plays with one of the above pen‑names on the title page, which had been published before 1623, appeared again in the First Folio, often with a much altered text, together with as many more new plays which had not previously seen the light of day. Modern experts accept most of the Folio plays as being the work of one man, SHAKSPEARE, though they are all agreed that parts, possibly even the whole of certain plays are the work of others, e. g Titus Andronicus, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida, Henry VIII. On the other hand six of the sevens plays previously published as SHAKESPEARE'S but not included in the Folio are also rejected by modern scholars, but one of them, Pericles, is accepted as his in part or whole. The authority of the Folio is, in fact, incomplete, and fails both in a positive and a negative direction. It has to be supported and amended by judgments which have large elements of subjectivity and which differ from scholar to scholar and from epoch to epoch. What is assuredly the work of SHAKESPEARE is surrounded by a large twilight zone of work that may or may not be his, which is constantly being fought over anew. What is true of the plays is also true of the poems, both the songs and lyrics which appear in the plays and the poems which received autonomous publication.

    The identification of SHAKESPEARE with WILLIAM OF STRATFORD is very generally accepted by SHAKESPEARE scholars, particularly in England. This stance has become so rigid that it is positively unrespectable (in acade­mic circles) to express any doubt. Dissent has come from a rather small group of serious scholars, who have unfortunately not been able to make their voices heard in the halls of Academe. The most important among them are, GREENWOOD (4), LOONEY (8) and RENDAL (10, 11). There are also many doubters and critics outside the world of literary scholarship, especially among lawyers and among creative writers and poets. The lawyers (see the lengthy discussion in GREENWOOD) discovered too much knowledge of the law, and too easy a familiarity with legal ways of thinking, to be happy with the orthodox theory. The creative writers (e. g. DICKENS, EMERSON, HAWTHORNE, O. W. HOLMES, HENRY JAMES, MARK TWAIN, WHITMAN, WHITTIER) were unable to rcconcile their feelings about SHAKESPEARE as a poet with what they were told about WILLIAM OF STRATFORD. Specialists from other fields (e. g. JOHN BRIGHT, PRINCE BISMARCK) had doubts for reasons lying within their own specialty. One of these, particularly significant from the psychiatrist's point of view, was SIGMUND FREUD. He must have studied the authorship problem in some depth, from the number of books on the subject which he had in his library; and he not only concluded that WILLIAM was not the author, but also that EDWARD de VERE most probably was.

    It is a pity that these dissentient voices should have caused scholars of the orthodox school to stop their ears and refuse to discuss the many fascinating problems connected with the authorship in an open‑minded way. For there are strong reasons for doubt, and what is wanted is unbiased enquiry. Before proceeding any further in this essay, it seems wise to show good cause for regarding the authorship as an open question, since I propose to use the Sonnets to draw conclusions about the persona­lity of the writer, unhampered by any preconceived theory.

Reasons for doubt

The names on the title‑pages of SHAKESPEARE quartos are obviously non‑evidential in identifying the author with WILLIAM OF STRATFORD. This identification rests almost entirely on the prefatory matter in the First Folio, the DROESHOUT engraving, the lines by BEN JONSON, and the editorial statement by the two actors, HEMINGE and CONDELL. However, this identifi­cation is sufficiently unambiguous to throw on the anti‑Stratfordian the onus of undermining it, if he is to propose an alternative.

    The hypothesis which is advanced with that end in view usually runs along the following lines. The true author of the works of SHAKESPEARE could have been seriously damaged if he had been recognised as the author, which indeed would have been the case if he had been an Elizabethan aristocrat or a personage of contemporary political significance. The anonymity that was necessary for him throughout his working life still had to be maintained (by him, or by his friends if he were by that time dead) even up to the publication of the Folio in 1623. This was done throughout by having a plausible cover‑name, i. e. “SHAKE‑SPEARE” and variants; and it was this name which for greater security was definitively identified with WILLIAM OF SRATFORD on the publication of the First Folio. This publi­cation accordingly involved a conspiracy; certain people would need to be in the secret, and one of them would be BEN JONSON.

    This theory is obviously far‑fetched; but it is not impossible, and it is still to be seen whether it offers greater improbabilities than the orthodox Stratfordian view. It does seem likely that, with the publication in 1623, there was some deliberate misleading of the public. The orthodox SHAKES­PEARE scholar, EDWARD MALONE, showed that the preface “To the great variety of readers”, supposedly by HEMINGE and CONDELL, was almost certainly written by JONSON. This piece of literary analysis has never been countered. It seems likely that the DROESHOUT engraving represents no man who ever lived, and indeed one can assert that it makes no such pretensions but shows a dummy. Experts on Elizabethan clothing have stated that the doublet shows two left arms, the front on one side and the back on the other. The eminent British neurologist, LORD BRAIN, gave his view that both the eyes are left eyes. Round the back of the jaw there runs a hard line which suggests that the face itself is only a mask. BEN JONSON, in his lines beneath this representation (which is one of offensive fatuity) praises it in hyperbolic language so extreme as to suggest that he is mocking it. Despite all this, the authority of the First Folio must stand until it can be shown that the message of identification it carries is a lie. This cannot be done directly, but it can be shown that the theory of Stratfordian authorship runs up against formidable difficulties and improbabilities.

     WILLIAM OF STRATFORD never made any clam to the authorship of the plays and poems. Industrious research over many decades has failed to turn up a single fact other than the First Folio itself which unambiguously identifies him with the authorship. References to SHAKESPEARE in contem­porary literature 1592‑1616 have been collated; according to JOHNSON (5) they consist of 120 references to the works, 7 to the man. None of the references to the works implicate WILLIAM OF STRATFORD [1] none of the references to WILLIAM imply that he is an author. The references to SHA­KESPEARE are those that belong to a writer whose name is known but whose personality is not.

    There is no evidence that WILLIAM OF STRATFORD was personally known to any man of letters or to any public figure of his day. “No auto­graph letter has been preserved, no mention of any letter, no trace of a single phrase or word reported as having been addressed to anyone during all those years from the most facile pen in England” (8). He is not mentioned in the diary of PHILLIP HENSLOWE, the greatest theatrical agent of his day, who kept a record of the sums he paid out at one time or another to practicaly all the dramatic writers of his time, though a number of Shakespearean titles are mentioned. WILLIAM OF STRATFORD finds no men­tion in the memoirs of his eminent contemporary, the actor and theatrical proprietor EDWARD ALLEYN, who lists all the other notable actors and dra­matists. There are several references by BEN JONSON [2] but so cryptic, sometimes seeming to speak of one man and sometimes of two different men, that neither the orthodox nor the anti‑Stratfordian can draw much comfort from them. No evidence was found in an intensive search of family papers by Mrs. STOPES, that he was ever known to the Earl of Southampton, to whom the poems Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece were dedicated and to whom, as most scholars believe, the Sonnets were mainly addressed.

    Difficulties come when we consider the will made by WILLIAM OF STRATFORD. It is exceptionally detailed, mentioning a number of minor chattels, but makes no mention either of books or manuscripts. SHAKESPEARE must have had a number of much used books, PLUTARCH, MONTAIGNE, BELLEFOREST, etc., as well as copies of his own published works ‑ indeed, one would have expected him to have had quite a library and books were valuable in those days. The manuscripts which one would expect to have been in SHAKESPEARE'S possession at the time of his death, if he died in 1616, would have included those of his sixteen then unpublished plays (Tempest, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.). These too would have been valuable property, and WILLIAM OF STRATFORD showed a very keen and realistic sense of propesty values. If these books and MSS were in the possession of WILLIAM OF STRATFORD when he died, they would have gone to his residuary legatee, his daughter SUSANNA. When JAMES COOKE, an army surgeon, called on SUSANNA HALL in 1642, he asked to be shown any manuscripts or books belonging to her father or her husband. She told him she had not got any books or manuscripts of her father's nor anything in her father's handwriting, though she could show him Dr. HALL'S books.

    Last of the documentary problems is offered by the epitaph which WILLIAM OF STRATFORD caused to be erected above his place of burial. In four lines of abysmal doggerel, under the pain of a dying man's curse, conjures the reader to leave his bones undisturbed [3] It is very uncomfor­table to suppose that these lines were written in the face of death by England's greatest and most profound poet. They, and the thoughts on death embo­died in the Sonnets, come from two different worlds of the spirit.

    It is indeed the psychological difficulties raised by the Stratfordian theory, rather than the documentary and factual ones, which seem to me the most insuperable. The most important of them can be sketched as follows.

    SHAKESPEARE was a man of great culture and wide reading. WILLIAM OF STRATFORD came from an illiterate family and left an illiterate family behind him. Like the majority of better class STRATFORD citizens, WILLIAM'S father made his mark on legal documents and never signed his name [4]. Of WILLIAM'S two surviving children, SUSANNA learned to sign her name, but JUDITH did not. There is no evidence that WILLIAM himself could do more than sign his name, since all of his writing that survives is six signatures. There is no evidence that WILLIAM had any schooling at all, or received any formal education.

    After a period in SHAKESPEARE studies in which SHAKESPEAR'S attain­ments have been played down (presumably because of the basic premise of identification with WILLIAM OF STRATFORD), mothrn scholars have begun to rate his learning much higher. The modern view is that he had an acquaintance with the classics not less than would have been enjoyed by most Elizabethan noblemen of his day; that he was as good a latinist as MARLOWE; that he knew SENECA, PLUTARCH and CICERO as well as OVID; and that while he used GOULDING'S translation of OVID, he was capable of improving, on it. If WILLIAM OF STRATFORD was to achieve such familiarity with classic writers, he must have attended the STRATFORD free school (as is certainly possible), but also after he left school (not later than the age of thirteen), he must have continued his studies by intensive self‑education, and have done so while he was earning his living in what would most probably have been a menial way of life.

    WILLIAM OF STRATFORD must have spoken the local Warwickshire dialect or patois. Yet Venus and Adonis, the (first heir) of SHAKESPEARE'S “invention”, is written in faultlessly cultured language, very highly polished and with every mark of technical mastery, without a single provincialism. There are in fact no provincialisms in any of the works (and when a rustic dialect is made use of, it is not Warwickshire) [5].

    Modern scholars emphasise the breadth and depth of SHAKESPEARE'S reading and preliminary work before engaging on dramatic composition. He must have made “extended exploration of source material” (ALLAR‑DYCE NICOLL, 1952); there was “a diligent student of the chronicles at the back of SHAKESPEARE'S history plays” (DOVER WILSON); “how thoroughly he was schooled in rhetoric and how consciously he handled its devices”, and the sister arts of grammar and logic (7). At the Stratford free school there was education in Latin only, none in English, French, Greek, His­tory, etc. SHAKESPEARE'S French must have been competent. DOVER WIL­SON, commenting on the text of Henry V, writes: “It is doubtful whether there was originally very much wrong with SHAKESPEARE'S French, except the genders.”

    There are other attainments for which it is difficult to find room in the life of WILLIAM OF STRATFORD, such as skills in the terminology of the profession of arms, of music, and the aristocratic interests of heraldry, falconry, hunting and the chase. SHAKESPEARE had such familiarity with the law (at least certain branches of the law, such as the law of property) that lawyers say he thought like a lawyer. According to Chambers (1, p. 23), “his writings abound in legal terminology, closely woven into the structure of his metaphor.” He had a remarkable acquaintance with Northern Italy [6] (which has been explained by Stratfordians as within the compass of ascertainment by listening to travellers' tales!).

    There are a number of features of SHAKESPEARE'S writings which orthodox scholars find curious and surprising. DOVER WILSON (17) notes the contrast that while «SHAKESPEARE» [i.e. WILLIAM OF STRATFORD] “was, at any rate in intention, a country gentleman”, nothing he [i. e. SHAKES‑PEARE] writes about citizens in general shows much sympathy or understanding of them. One might, I think, go further and say that SHAKESPEARE'S attitude to the social order was an aristocratic one in a traditional feudal way. DOVER WILSON (14, 15) also notes SHAKESPEARE'S enormous political wisdom, “astonishing from a man under thirty”. The quality that CHAM­BERS (1, p. 24) finds most puzzling of all is “the courtesy of Shakespeare; his easy movement in the give and take of social intercourse among persons of good breeding”; and he goes on to say that it is impossible to see how he could have got this at Stratford.

    If WILLIAM OF STRATFORD was SHAKESPEARE, the story of the deve­lopment of his personality is one without precedent. Psychologists, psychia­trists and biographers know but few geniuses whose beginnings have shown no promise at all of things to come. Other than WILLIAM, if he it was, there is not in history a genius, a fully matured poet and dramatist, who after soaring to the heights then sank himself without trace in the person of an energetic man of affairs. Yet we are called on to suppose that this is what happened; that WILLIAM OF STRATFORD sprang from an unlettered family, living a commercial life in a cultureless environment; that be went to Lon­don where he became an actor and shareholder in theatrical enterprises, and where he wrote the plays and poems which are the wonders of his age; that he then returned to his provincial home to a life spent in buying and selling, in endeavouring to enclose common land, in petty actions at law. We have to supose that not only did the caterpillar turn into a moth, but the moth turned back to caterpillar again.

    The biographies of SHAKESPEARE, which are innumerable, have had to be written from two sides, on the one side the life of WILLIAM OF STRATFORD with its many dry‑as‑dust facts and dates, and on the other side, the bibliographic history of the plays and poems, the history of the Eliza­bethan thatre and of the companies of players, against the backdrop of English life at the turn of the sixteenth century. Connections between these two ranges of historical facts have to be sketched in entirely on the basis of conjecture, without documentary support. The two personalities, of the poet and of the business man, refuse to merge. More than that, they face one another in mutual contradiction. WILLIAM was a keen man of affairs, who borrowed and lent, bought and sold, and made a fortune for himself; SHAKESPEARE, who seems to have approved a lordly extravagance, scorned the arts of the money‑maker and above all despised the usurer. SHAKE­SPEARE had an attitude of self‑torturing ambivalence to sexuality and shows himself fulll of fear, guilt and condemnation; the only contemporary anecdote we have of WILLIAM (in his career as an actor) shows him quipping with gusto while engaged in the pleasures of casual adultery. In the one man we see a brooding, often melancholy, even despairing, spirit, who plunges, by the onlooker's keenest insights and by the most sensitive introspection, into the profoundest motivations of the human mind. In the other man, clear to see, is the eupeptic extravert, a man of the world who accepts worldly values without an after‑thought. In the story of WILLIAM there is nothing to suggest he ever spent a sleepless night; in the works of SHAKESPEARE the scholar sees indications of suffering to the point of mental illness. [7]

    It is always possible that further search through ancient archives will yet show a connection between WILLIAM and SHAKESPEARE, will even yet disclose something of the suffering soul of the burgher of STRATFORD: and that we shall in the end be able to build a unified and harmonious portrait in which apparent irreconcilables are transcended. As things are, the task is an impossible one. The student of character cannot make one human being out of these two halves, one half an intellectual and spiritual giant, the other half an intellectual mediocrity and a spiritual dwarf. The attempts to do this, in the many biographies, do not give us a picture of a recognisable person, even a believable human being. What we see is a shape three parts in shadow, a tragic countenance that looms from behind the blank mask of the DROESHOUT dummy. Those who have taken the official reconstruction on trust, the poets, writers and artists, unlearned in the lore, quite fail to feel their way to an intuitive understanding, and, bewildered and nonplussed, speak of SHAKESPEARE'S inscrutability: “Others abide our question, thou art free”. There are of course Shakespeare scholars who, having looked once or twice at this enigmatic countenance, have turned away. Tacitly avoiding any concern with WILLIAM OF STRAI­FORD, they go where their love leads them, to the poet and his works. But even then they are still enmeshed in the intractable problems of adulterated and heterogenous authorship and disputable dating. It seems unlikely that these questions will ever reach agreed solutions until they can be examined without the preconceptions imposed by a (possibly) erroneous theory.

    One of the more painful consequences of the Stratfordian theory is that it stands in the way of a full appreciation of SHAKESPEARE'S scho­larship and his personal involvement. [8] For instance, in his Introduction to Love's Labour's Lost, DOVER WILSON notes indications of SHAKE­SPEARE'S learning, his familiarity with the philosophical works of CICERO and with the ideas of the Stoics. But this learning and this familiarity seem to him so improbable that he has to retract: “But was SHAKESPEARE scholar enough to know all about this? Very likely not ‑ and, if we choose, almost cer­tainly not.” But the underestimation of SHAKESPEARE'S scholariship is as nothing to many other slurs, such as his careless, unfeeling attitude to his works, the incredulity with which his personal revelations are received, and the aspersions of insincerity. It has to be supposed that WILLIAM OF STRATFORD (=SHAKESPEARE) cared nothing for his spiritual children, aban­doned them to third parties, and made no effort, though free to do so, to see them into print; that when he came to die he left no instructions, no requests to safeguard the future of his many plays already written but not yet published. It has to be supposed that a number of his sonnets were written to order, and expressed no spontaneous feeling of his own, that in others he was making a bogus exhibition of age and decrepitude, that his complaint of his disgrace and his outcast state was a mere pose, and that in general he indulged himself in neurotic self‑pity [9] Perhaps we should listen to what SHAKESPEARE is trying to tell us, without being dis­tracted by these doubts; perhaps SHAKESPEARE can tell us the truth, and it is DROESHOUT who is telling a lie.

 *  *  *

     In what has been written above no attempt is made to weigh the balance of probabilities with judicial impartiality. The Stratfordian case has gone largely by default, just because it is so generally adhered to. It has not been my purpose to prove that WILLIAM OF STRATFORD did not write the works of SHAKESPEARE, but merely to show that it is possible that he did not; that there are rational grounds for doubt; and, above all, that in view of the arguments that can be raised on both sides, the only becoming attitude is an open‑minded one. If we wish, as we should, to make a scientific aproach to the range of problems with which SHAKESPEARE and his works confront us, we must not assume a certainty of the authorship as our basic premise. This is a question that has to be solved by research, not first answered by an act of faith, and then used as an axiom to guide or to misguide.

    In scientific work, hypotheses are valued according to their heuristic potentialities. The Stratfordian hypothesis has been very fully exploited; it has led to solutions of some questions of a varying degree of satisfacto­riness, and it has proved incapable of providing any acceptable solution of some other questions. In contrast, the hypothesis that SHAKESPEARE was not WILLIAM OF STRATFORD but an unknown to be identified, has received hardly any atention. The proponents of non‑Stratfordian hypotheses practi­cally always start with another identification as a basic premise, and then see how well the fact can be fitted, though it is true that LOONEY began his work on the basis of an unknown anonymous author, and then proceeded by literary detective work to identify the unknown with EDWARD BE VERE. In the discussion that now follows I wish to make no identification at all ‑ not even to exclude WILLIAM OF STRATFORD ‑ but to see where we are led if we approach the Sonnets without any preconceptions at all.


[1] The nearest to doing so is by John Davies, 1610, who writes lines to “our English Terence, Mr. Will Shake‑speare”, and, addresing him as “Good Will”, says that “according to some if he had not played some kingly parts in sport” he might have been “a companion for a king” and “been a king among the meaner sort”. As is nearly always the case with these few relevant references, interpre­tation is difficult and ambiguous. The allusion to Shakespeare in The Return from Parnassus, a Cambridge University play of abount 1602, is another difficult one for anti‑Stratfordians.

[2] In his Discoveries (1637) Ben Jonhson gives a list of all the great men he had known. Shakespeare is not mentioned. When William of Stratford died in 1616 Jonhson never referred to his death, never mentioning him till the Folio in 1623.

[3] Good Frend for Jesus SAKE forbeare
     To digg YE Dust Encloased HERE
     Bleste be YE Man YT spares YES Stones
     And curst be He YT moves my Bones.

[4] It is possible that the may have been able to write, but preferred to use his mark instead of a signature.

[5] E. K. Chambers wrote: “Whatever imprint Shakespeare's Warwickshire contemporaries left upon his imagination inevitably eludes us”. (1, p. 26).

[6] “It is certainly true that when the plague was over he began a series of plays with Italian settings, which were something of a new departure in English drama; that to a modern imagination, itself steeped in Italian sentiment, he seems to have been remarkably successful in giving a local colouring and atmosphere to these; and even that he shows familiarity with some minute points of local topo­graphy. But the evidence is inconclusive, in view of what he may have learnt through books and the visits of others, or through converse with some of the many Italians resident in London.” (Chambers 1, p. 61).

[7] Chambers (2), for instanse, regards it as “established” that within a year or two after Henry V “a singular change had come about in Shakespeares's disposi­tion”. An elder school tried to relate it to the record in the Sonnets, but conside­rations of dating make this impossible, since “whatever the experience they [the Sonnets] reveal or refuse to reveal, it was long ago buried with Shakespeare's youth.” Chambers (1, pp. 85‑6) offers the “conjecture” that an attempt at Timon of Athens early in 1608 was followed by a serious illness, “which may have been a nervous breakdown, and on the other hand may have been only the plague”.

[8] The primary assumption that Shakespeare was a naive and untutored genius has, of course, greatly influenced Shakespeare studies. Without that pre­mise, different conclusions might have been drawn, e. g. about his sources.

[9] Such views are taken by all orthodox commentators on the Sonnets, such as Knight (6), Rowse (12), Tucker (13), Wilson (19), and also by Shakes­peare's principal biographer, E. K. Chambers (1).