The debate on authenticity is over

Hand D belongs to one of six different individuals, five authors and one scribe, who contributed to the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, now in the British Library. Today, aside from anti-Stratfordians, few scholars do not accept Hand D as genuinely Shakespeare's. The different strands of proof, forensic, orthographic and documentary, when taken together, are conclusive. In this extended article we pull together these strands and review the reasons why residual doubt has evaporated.

And why the argument that we have nothing in Will's hand is DEAD.


The new paradigm—collaborative authorship

Every Oxfordian's most cherished fantasy is the arrival of a new paradigm for Shakespeare Studies. They each have a clear vision of it. Some have deluded themselves into believing it has already arrived and blather about 'Post-Stratfordian' analysis as if a great battle had been won. In the Oxfordian New Paradigm, Authorship Studies assume pre-eminence in the modern Shakespearean English Faculty. Orthodox scholars are deposed as the newly-enlightened Faculties are commandeered by Oxfordian heroes of the victorious resistance movement, triumphantly leading students into a brave new world of truth and enlightenment. All is finally right in the world. The 17th Earl of Oxford ascends to his true place on the Olympian throne while Will is cast back onto a Stratford dungheap.

There is indeed a new paradigm. It does indeed bring authorship studies closer to the forefront of scholarship activity.

Tragically, the justice of Olympian Gods and Goddesses is inexorable and merciless. In the new paradigm of Authorship Studies—the real one, not the comic book Oxfordian fantasy—computer-aided scrutiny, multiple authorship, collaborative production and detailed attribution of fragmentary contributions have now combined to reveal more extensive collaboration between Will and his colleagues than previously thought. Although authorship questions are now highlighted exactly as Oxfordians have always dreamed (well, maybe not exactly ), the new, more sophisticated methods of discrimination are a disaster for the tribe.

The Earl's hand is detectable nowhere. His poetic DNA is entirely missing from the new model of the Elizabethan dramatic genome. He just disappears from view—completely. Will's literary DNA, however, turns up in lots of new and surprising places, places Oxford could never have been.

The evidence of Will's handiwork in the unperformed Sir Thomas More excitingly includes a three page manuscript in his own handwriting. As so much of their argument is based on the fact that Will left nothing behind, this upsets the entire Oxfordian apple cart. If the six extant signatures belong to the man from Startford and the handwriting in the signatures matches Hand D, there is no escaping the conclusion that the man from Stratford wrote the the additions. This means that Oxfordians need to find not only another Shakespeare to write the plays, but another Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. And if the author of Hand D is the same man who wrote the canon, then it truly is game over.

Attempts to disqualify Will on his handwriting, which often culminate in the ludicrous idea that he was illiterate, can now be seen for what they are—the naked invention of irrational minds—the evidence hunting of an evidence-less malignity.

Can it be true?

Yes, indeed it can. And it is.

Will and Sir Thomas More

Highly political, much too topical for Elizabethans and therefore never performed, the play Sir Thomas More survives in manuscript in The British Library-MS. Harley 7368. Discovered in 1723, it was thought by many to be too good to be true or dismissed as one of many forgeries which appeared in the 18C. The first serious assessment, Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas, was prepared by A W Pollard in 1923, published as a group of essays by a variety of experts including Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, one of the greatest palaeographers of the 20C. It met with initial scepticism from L L Shucking and S A Tannebaum but more recent scholarship is now almost universally on the side of authentication which is where the pendulum has come to rest.

It is obvious from a mere glance at the manuscript that it is a theatre script, written for the professional stage and for trained actors. But the manuscript is more than just an unperformed play. It is written in the hands of five playwrights who make deletions and emendations plus one scribal hand attempting a fair copy. Finally, it includes a seventh hand, the annotations of The Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tilney. It illustrates how plays were worked and reworked for the stage in Shakespeare's time. It suggests a creative process similar to the modern process of TV or movie scriptwriting, with groups of writers improving, patching, and rewriting a script too raw for performance but too good to throw away (as W S Gilbert said, "Good ideas are not ten a penny"). If the manuscript of Sir Thomas More is typical, content creation for the theatre in the 1590's may have had more in common with play writing 400 years later than it did with play writing in the 1570's, just 20 years earlier.

Shakespeare's creativity is driven by market forces, not the exigencies of patronage, courtly display and political ambition. You could say, if you were being loose with scientific terminology, it was a real paradigm shift.

Liverpool playwright Willy Russell says 'a script is just an ambition", theatre is made in theatres, a process that involves presence in a physical location, requiring all the modern panoply of producers, investors and directors to organise and fund rehearsal, working with the actors, prop men and stage managers. Crucially, through this manuscript, the writing shows itself to be an iterative process involving other writers—and re-writers. This can only be described as fatal to Oxfordian argument, since the there is no chance an Earl, hidden to the historical record, could work remotely or hide pseudonymously behind a complex cover story in such a working environment.

The Sir Thomas More manuscript contains the work of a master playwright: Hand D writes quickly and smoothly in a beautifully integrated series of complex images, bending the language to its full expressive potential. It's Will Shakespeare. What else would you expect?

The evidence in more detail

The handwriting

Six signatures are all that remain. What can really be told from the signatures Will left behind? Since they are from the same hand, can they be tied to Hand D? Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, one of the 20th century's foremost palaeographers, while having no doubts himself, managed to communicate doubt to others and this scepticism has lingered long. Recent scholarship has overcome hesitation, however. It has now accepted the evidence of handwriting analysts and moved on.

"In my examination of the hands of many writers I found twelve who linked h and a with those faddish bulbous spurs, but I found no writer who even once produced that link with the sharp point closing the circle and forming an a with a long, flat bottom. I have seen such an h-a link only in Shakespeare's signature to the Belott-Mountjoy deposition (5 A) and in Hand D."

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The stylometric

Elliot and Valenza's Shakespeare Clinic fell short of attributing Hand D to Will. 'If it's Will,' they conclude, 'he didn't write it in 1593'. Does this rule Hand D out or could the chronology accommodate E&V's comments? Professor MacDonald P Jackson has been certain about Hand D since the early 60's and believes that Eliot & Valenza's doubts may be overcome and that the sources of some of discrepancies may lie in the difference between analysing manuscript and published work.

"Of course there are many texts that cannot be searched by means of “Literature Online,” but its coverage of early modern drama is virtually complete, and all five exceptional Hand D spellings appear in early printed texts of Shakespeare’s, whereas only one makes so much as a single appearance in all the rest of “Literature Online: English Drama."

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The internal

Will's style features a poetic verbal dexterity that is unequalled amongst his playwright peers. Are there any signs of it in the text of Hand D? Can scholars identify characteristics elements of Will's writing without resorting to computers and microscopes. Yes, we think they can.

"This is a play about human rights and even worse for the Oxfordian sect of Shakespeare Deniers, it's about who has them. Does everyone have them? Do the pitiful immigrants from religious wars abroad have them? 'Myne is made to serve me', is Oxford's creed, 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate'. On which side of the argument about penniless refugees would De Vere come down? There is certainly no evidence of any liberality in The Earl's actions. Collectors of biographical similarity are going to be stumped to find anything similar in his life or work."

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The documentary

Who are the other writers whose hand appears in the manuscript and who wrote what?

Examples of the hands of three other Elizabethan writers and why the pages of the manuscript were written by an author, rather than a scribe.

"Once it goes into production, unlike poetry or prose, there begins a whole process of adaption, division, disassembly and rebuilding all of which greatly reduces the chance of the original surviving even, until the first night. Scripts are an ambition, said Willy Russell.

Plays are productions. They have dialogue, actors, musicians, lighting experts, stage hands, costume designers, directors and prompters, all of whom not only need copies but are more than capable of making significant inputs of their own."

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Factors isolating Hand D as Will's work

There are dozens of idiosyncrasies tying Will to the three pages of Hand D, a cornucopia of convincing evidence beyond any Oxfordian dream or even claim. The items in this table are just the highlights. Each category of identifying evidence is conclusive enough for attribution purposes, but taken together they are no less than definitive proof.

Trademark Stagecraft and Imagery
Trademark Orthography
Trademark Handwriting Features
  • shark'd - strong (new) noun turned into transitive verb
  • wordplay punning on arms (weapons) and hands and knees (instruments of prayer)
  • a character facing down a large mob with reassuring speeches on the integrity and supremacy of the state
  • describing insurrection as striking or rising against God 
  • Five repeated negatives. No No No No No
  • scilens: unknown outside the canon and Hand D during Shakespeare's writing career, a distinctive spelling of words beginning 'si' where they are to be pronounced like 'sci-ence'
  • ergo argo argal: used when parodying legal speech
  • a 'levenpence: a spelling also unknown outside Shakespeare's work
  • elaments: very rare use of an 'a'
  • Iarman: extremely rare spelling of German
  • deule (devile) extremely rare reversal if 'le' and 'e'.
  • joined h a
  • spurred a
  • W
  • k flourish
  • w upstroke
  • u upstroke
  • also Thompson's needle-eyes and Down-stroke preliminary to an up-stroke in certain letters, primarily I, m, n, v, r, v, w, with those on m and w far exceeding the others.


Further reading on Will's contribution to Sir Thomas More


It's more than possible that Will drafted his own Will. That really would be one in the eye for all those claiming it to be faked, wouldn't it?
Yet the idea has substance. It wasn't drafted by his solicitor or his regular clerks and when you cut and paste lines from his will into the Hand D pages it is absurdly difficult to fish them out again purely on the basis of calligraphy. A S Haley has carried out this experiment and believes that Will's will will drive a final nail into the Oxfordian claim that he left nothing behind. Read Haley's argument here.

Given the high level of acceptance, it has proved easier for Oxfordians to wave their magic attribution wands and claim the play as Oxford's. Spectacularly unlikely as this is, given the playwright's sympathetic words on immigrants' rights, they gamely support it with the usual pseudo-scholarly essays in imitation scholarly journals. This paper chops off Munday's claims as well as Will's before embarking on a comical attempt to force-feed Oxfordian sub-text into every hole and corner. Ignoring all the scholarship except that which is malleable enough to be helpful, it advances daring connections to The Earl. "Oxford’s links to the play are manifold. Not only was the original copyist his employee, but “Surrey,” the play’s second most important character, was his uncle-by-marriage." Imagine that! Another senior Oxfordian, knowing the handwriting is welded to the dramatist, plans to prove Hand D is Oxford's. That will be worth waiting for.

There are lots of claimants in the Authorship Question and what's more, none of the others died in 1604 before a third of the work was written. Henry Neville is one and if you'd like to see how to stake a claim to Will's handwriting supported with plausible argument, the Nevillean claim is far superior to anything in the Oxfordian armoury. Viewed by the page, Neville's hand doesn't really look much like Hand D, but if you zoom in, you can at least point to some similarities. Before dismissing Neville, you might like to consider the fact that his page on Oxfraud is the third most visited. Nice try, Nevilleans. Your candidate may even be the coming man, once the last of the air escapes from the Oxfordian balloon. But Hand D is not Henry's.

Elizabethan handwriting samples can be found all over the Internet. A small collection has been assembled in the slideshow window to the right. Whilst detailed examination of signatures is a matter for microscopes and specialists, straightforward examination of whole pages of handwriting allow anyone to attempt the task of distinguishing one author from another. We can all recognise familiar handwriting when we see it on envelopes. Looking at authors, if confidence can be placed in the provenance of samples, it's not too hard to spot that one hand differs from another. Forensic examination, however, is science. Fortunately, Will's hand passes all its examinations.

Cambridge University has an extensive online resource covering English Handwriting 1500:1700 with a library of examples.

Shakespeare's Handwriting: A Study.

There are a number of articles which preceded Maunde Thompson's book but this is the first in-depth palaeographic study.

Sir Edward has his own Wikipedia page here.

Shakespeare's hand in the play of Sir Thomas More: A. W. Pollard and W. W. Greg and E. M. Thompson and J. D. Wilson and R. W. Chambers.


Shakespeare Survey, Volume 42, is edited by Stanley Wells, published by Cambridge University Press, has Giles E Dawson's article on Shakespeare's Handwriting and interesting article on Sir Thomas More by E A J Honigmann.

Elizabethan handwriting, 1500-1650: a manual G. E. Dawson and L. Yeandle

was a British literary scholar, author, and academic; throughout his career he was associated with University College London (UCL). He has a fighting claim to being the eminence grise behind Tolkien 's love of earth legend and Professor Jackson reckons that his 1939 article on Hand D contains all any reasonable person might require as proof.

Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies of English Writers, from Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker: Jonathan Cape 1939

Professor Jackson is an expert on Middleton, Webster and Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. His 2007 article on the Hand D manuscript has been reproduced here, with his kind permission, in its entirety, along with Ward Elliott's most recent reply.

Studies in attribution, Middleton and Shakespeare: M. P. Jackson

David, along with Terry Ross, is responsible for The Shakespeare Authorship site and, alongside Tom Reedy of this parish, the pair did most of the heavy lifting for the Stratfordian side in the Shakespeare Wars of the 1990's. His pages cover many of the same issues we have addressed on Oxfraud, often in much more detail (but with fewer endearing frilly bits).

Early Modern Literary Studies (ISSN 1201-2459) is a refereed journal serving as a formal arena for scholarly discussion and as an academic resource for researchers in the area. It's a great place for research and may cost you a whole morning on your first visit.

Sir Ian McKellen does a bit. The last half of the speech in which Sir Thomas More quells the crowd. And possibly the best evidence here. Off the page and in the mouth of a great actor, you know instictively that your listening not just to Will, but to Will at the top of his game. Link

The text of the play in a modern spelling edition with Hand D's contributions in red.