1769: Shakespear’s Robbery by Herbert Lawrence. MATERIAL FOR THE 2016 SHAKESPEARIAN JUBILEE

Lamberto Tassinari

I have recently read chapter nine of Book II of “The life and adventures of common sense: an historical allegory”, by Herbert Lawrence published in London in 1769. I knew that  Lawrence was one of the first to raise doubts on Shakespeare’s identity but the idea of reading his book never crossed my mind until I discovered his work on the internet. Shakespearian scholarship has ignored this book containing stunning evidence that in the eighteenth century England there were already widespread doubts about the official Shakespearian narrative. Since then, doubts have been silenced as the Stratfordian identity of Shakespeare must never be jeopardized. Specialists maintain that Lawrence’s sleazy portrait of Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be accusatory, rather a comic slander, a humorous compliment upon Shakespeare’s “thieving” of Genius and Humour , two of the figures of Lawrence’s allegory.

 In fact, chapter IX contains a very serious denunciation, albeit allegoric, of a cultural fraud perpetrated for nationalistic reasons. It is interesting to note that in the year Lawrence’s book was published, the first Shakespearian Jubilee was held in England. In September 1769 the actor David Garrick, the father of Bardolatry, staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a major focal point in the emerging movement that helped cement Shakespeare as England’s national poet. I’m convinced that Lawrence, a physician, apparently a friend of Garrick, found a subtle, allegorical way to criticize the rising star of a fake Shakespeare without risking censorship.

From then on, the very few critics who commented his book, unsurprisingly decided to ignore the affirmation that the actor-thief Shakespear [sic] appropriated from a genial foreigner an artistic treasure. Lawrence’s pages resonate with incredible echoes of the English adventure of the Florios, father and son.

My comments to this amazing piece of literature are in bold type. I underlined some passages in Lawrence’s text.

Portrait of the thief
Portrait of the thief

 Book II, Chapter IX.

A little before the expiration of my emprisonment, I received a letter from my Mother informing me that WISDOM and she were then in England, where they willed very much to see me; they had become favourites in that Court, and WISDOM was frequently consulted by the reigning Queen Elizabeth. I had no inducement to make my stay at Florence longer than needs must; and therefore, as soon as I was at liberty, I took my departure for England on board a Genoese vessel. In our passage, we passed by that very formidable fleet called the Spanish Armada, which was destined for the invasion of England. We arrived at Dover in 1588, from whence I set out directly for London. Here PRUDENCE and I had the happiness of meeting again with my Mother and WISDOM in a country and at a time the most suitable to our respective inclinations.

In portraying the historical evolution of Civilization, Lawrence depicts here the departure of the Italian Renaissance from Florence, the city where very probably Michel Angelo Florio was born. From here on, the Renaissance will reside in England, considered by the author “a country most suitable” for the flourishing of the arts and letters.

I had nothing to do at Court, though I often went there, but to amuse myself; they did not stand in need of my assistances. My chief employment, in my profession, was in visiting the fanatics and papists, of which the latter were, several times, mad enough to attempt the life of their lawful sovereign; this I was always so lucky as to prevent, though I could never thoroughly cure the disease. At the time of my emprisonment in Florence, it seems my father, GENIUS and HUMOUR made a trip to London, where, upon their arrival, they made an acquaintance with a person belonging to the Playhouse; this man was a profligate in his youth, and, as some say, had been a deer-stealer, others deny it. But be that as it will, he certainly was a thief from the time he was first capable of distinguishing anything; and therefore it is immaterial what articles he dealt in.

This foreigner, whose family was originally from Florence, well gifted with genius and humor, met in London a person working in a playhouse, seemingly in a lower position, William Shakspear, a man with a very dubious moral reputation: the front man of the true dramatist was born!

My Father and his friends made a sudden and violent intimacy with this man, who, feeling that they were a negligent careless people, took the first opportunity that presented itself to rob them of everything he could lay his hands on, and the better to conceal his theft, he told them, with an affected concern, that one misfortune never comes alone — that they had been actually informed against, as persons concerned in an assassination plot, now secretly carrying on by Mary Queen of Scots against the Queen of England; that he knew their innocence, but they must not depend upon that: nothing but quitting the country could save them. They took his word and marched off forthwith for Holland. As soon as he had got fairly rid of them, he began to examine the fruits of his ingenuity.

… “ a sudden and violent intimacy”: what does this curious expression possibly mean? Whatever its meaning, what counts here is that the genial foreigner has been neutralized on a false accusation and thence Shakespear is taking advantage of his theft: “the fruits of his ingenuity”. One thinks of Florio’s “First Fruits” and “Second Frutes”…

 Amongst my Father’s baggage, he presently cast his eye upon a commonplace book, in which was contained an infinite variety of modes and forms to express all the different sentiments of the human mind, together with rules for their combinations and connections upon every subject or occasion that might occur in dramatic writing. He found too, in a small cabinet, a glass possessed of very extraordinary properties, belonging to GENIUS and invented by him; by the help of this glass he could not only approximate the external surface of any object, but even penetrate into the deep recesses of the soul of man, and so discover all the passions and note their various operations in the human heart. In a hat-box, wherein all the goods and chattels of HUMOUR were deposited, he met with a mask of curious workmanship; it had the power of making every sentence that came out of the mouth of the wearer, appear extremely pleasant and entertaining — the jocose expression of the features was exceedingly natural, and it had nothing of that shining polish common to other masks, which is too apt to cast disagreeable reflections.

This is a very incisive summary of Shakespeare’s genius: words, a world of words, rhetoric and formal skills for writing drama.

In what manner he had obtained this ill-gotten treasure was unknown to everybody but my Mother, WISDOM, and myself; and we should not have found it out if the mask, which upon all other occasions is used as a disguise, had not made the discovery. The mask of HUMOUR was our old acquaintance, but we agreed, though much against my Mother’s inclination, to take no notice of the robbery, for we conceived that my Father and his friends would easily recover their loss, and were likewise apprehensive that we could not distress this man without depriving his country of its greatest ornament.
 With these materials, and with good parts of his own, he commenced playwriter [sic]; how he succeeded is needless to say when I tell the reader that his name was Shakespear [sic].

How Shakespear, a commoner and a businessman occupying a mediocre position in the world of theatre, was ultimately able to steal such a treasure from a foreigner? No one knows. Finally, this is the point all critics would ignore: it was decided, however against wisdom’s principles, not to publicly denounce Shakespear’s robbery for, attributing those great plays and poems to a foreigner, would have implied depriving England of Shakespeare, her greatest treasure.

Herbert Lawrence could not have been clearer!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *