He is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the English language. However, despite his all-pervasive works that traverse countries and time, there has been much debate about the person behind legendary playwright “William Shakespeare.” Until now.
Dr Elizabeth Wolfe is a manuscript scholar and paleographer who specialises in Elizabethan England. Working in the Folger Library in Washington DC, Folger believes that she has established the authenticity and identity of the elusive playwright.
As initially outlined in The Guardian, four centuries after the playwright’s death, there is not a single manuscript that can be attributed to his name, save for his infamous will where he leaves his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway. All scholars could be certain about was that there was a man called Shakespeare, Shaxberd or Shaxpere, who was born in Stratford in 1564, and died in 1616. In terms of his work in the theatre, the only confirmation was his role as an actor, as his name was printed in the collected edition of his work in 1623.
In the absence of any certainty, rumours and legends surrounding the playwright’s “true” identity have abounded. The list of contenders includes the more accomplished writer Edward de Vere, Sir Francis Bacon, and even Elizabeth I, presumably hiding her thespian exploits under a pen name.
As exciting and fanciful these theories may be, Dr Wolfe has discredited them through the examination of manuscripts from the late 16th century. In particular, Wolfe decided to trace the story of the family coat of arms as was granted to Shakespeare’s father in 1596. After his father’s death, young William Shakespeare returned to the college of arms to renew the family’s application for the crest; a move which would ensure the family gentlemanly status.
In tracing this story, Wolfe discovered that the Shakespeare coat of arms was the subject of a dispute in the College of Heralds in 1602, which documented a series of families whose applications were under question. Critically, Shakespeare is named on this list.
Accordingly, Dr Wolfe concludes that “Shakespeare, the Player” who appears on this list is the same man as “Shakespeare the Gentlemen from Stratford”; meaning that the historical man and the playwright are one in the same. Wolfe says that now his identity is confirmed, there is a lot more we can learn about Shakespeare the man. “There is such a wealth of evidence out there that he’s the playwright,” says Wolfe.” I’m sure there’s more untapped material waiting to be uncovered.”