George Stronach.

Mr. Sidney Lee and the Baconians : a critic criticised online

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a Critic Criticised




A " REAL CONVERSATION " between Mr. Sidney Lee and
Mr. William Archer appeared in the Pall Mall Magazine
of November, 1903. To this article I contributed a
reply, to which I still await an answer from Mr. Lee.
As he declines to offer any refutation of my criticism
of his Life of Shakespeare, I have no hesitation, after
some delay, in allowing Messrs. Gay & Bird, by the
courtesy of the Editor of the Pall Mall Magazine, to
issue a revised version of my letter.

George Stronach.

7, Warrender Park Crescent, Edinburgh, May, 1904.


jVyfR. SID



[M). Sidney Lee's denunciations of the Baconians have been
unmeasured, and as this method of controversy is clearly open to
retort, we have no hesitation in publishing the following letter
although not holding ourselves responsible eithct wr its arguments oi
its deductions.— Kd. P.MJI.]

ACCORDING to Mr. Sidney Lee, all who believe
in the Baconian theory are '"■ cranks." Some
time ago he described them as *' monomaniacs "
whose " madhouse chatter threatens to develop into an
epidemic disease." In fact, "the whole farrago ot
printed verbiage which fosters the Baconian bacillus is
unworthy of serious attention from any but professed
students of intellectual aberration." " The Baconian
theory," according to Mr. Lee, "has no rational right
to a hearing." And soon. Mr. Gladstone, as big a
man as Mr. Lee, once wrote : — "I have always regarded
the discussion as one perfectly serious, and to be

Argument, and not invective, is what the Baconians
ask, but as no argument can be drawn from Mr.
Lee the inquirer's only recourse is to consult his
Life of William Shakespeare. According to the


reviewers, " this masterly work is an honour to
Enghsh scholarship, an almost perfect model of its
kind, and it is matter for great national rejoicing that
the standard life of Shakespeare has at last been ' made
in England.' Rarely have we seen a book so wholly
satisfying, so admirably planned, so skilfully executed.
, . . It is an absolutely indispensable handbook for every
intelligent reader of the plays." [Blackwood's Magazine,
February, 1899.]

In his preface Mr. Lee states that " Shakespearean
literature, so far as it is known to me, still lacks a book
that shall [? will] supply within a brief compass an ex-
haustive and well-arranged statement of the facts of
Shakespeare's career, achievement and reputation ; that
shall [? will] reduce conjecture to the smallest dimen-
sions consistent with coherence, and shall [? will] give
verifiable references to all the original sources of
information." Mr. Lee is quite correct — such a book is
badly wanted ; but he does not supply that want.
Halliwell-Phillipps was born and lived many years
before Mr. Lee made his literary debut, yet his Outlines
contain more reliable information than Mr. Lee's
" complete and trustworthy guide-book."

The best Life of Shakespeare ever written was that by
George Steevens, the great Shakespearean commentator.
It consists of the following sentence: "All that is
known with any degree of certainty concerning Shake-
speare is, that he was born at Stratford-on-Avon,
married and had children there — went to London, where
he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays —
returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was

This is genuine biography — but of what sort is Mr.
Lee's ? He promised, remember, to " reduce con-
jecture to the smallest dimensions." I give an idea of
the " dimensions " of his ' conjecture " : —


(i) " There is every probability that his ancestors."

(2) " Probably his birthplace."

(3) " Some doubt is justifiable as to the ordinarily accepted
scene of his birth."

(4) " His summons to act at Court was possibly due."

(5) " One of them doubtless the alleged birthplace."

(6) " There is no inherent improbability in the tale."

(7) " William probably entered tlie school."

(8) "There seems good ground for regarding."

(9) "Probably in 1577 he was enlisted by his father."

(10) " // is possible that John's ill-luck."

(11) "Shakespeare's friends 7«a)' have called the attention of
the strolling players to the homeless lad."

(12) "The wedding /)/-o6a6/>' took place."

(13) "The circumstances made it highly improbable."

(14) " Renders it improbable."

(15) " If, as is possible, it be by Shakespeare."

(16) " It seems /)05's/6/^."

(17) " Probably his ignorance of affairs."

(18) " From such incidents doubtless sprang."

(19) " He was doubtless another."

(20) " His intellectual capacity and the amiability . . . were
probably soon recognised."

(21) " It is hardly possible to doubt."

(22) " But there seems no doubt,"

(23) " All the evidence points to the conclusion."

(24) " But in all probability he drew."

(25) "Justice Shallow is beyond doubt a reminiscence" [of
Sir Thomas Lucy. According to Mrs. Slopes, he certainly is not].

(26) "The Rose was doubtless the earliest scene."

(27) " It was doubtless performing."

(28) "He doubtless owed all [liis realistic portrayal of Italian
life and sentiment] to the verbal reports of travelled friends, or
to books."

(29) " Shakespeare may be credited with. . . "

(30) "The whole of Shakespeare's dramatic work was probably

(31) " It was, doubtless, to Shakespeare's personal relations. . . ."

(32) " Shakespeare doubtless gained. . ."

(33) " It is just possible."

(34) " The tirade was probably inspired."


(35) "The many references to travel in the Sonnets were^
(ioubilt'ss, reminiscences."

(36) "Tliat Shakespeare visited any part of the Continent is
even less probable." [That Bacon did is certain].

(37) "That Shakespeare joined any of these e.xpeditions i^
hi.i^hly improbable."

(38) " Renders it almost impossible that he could have gathered
his knowledge of Northern Italy from personal observation."

(39) "There is no ground for assuming,'' ") <»^

(40) "There is every indication that." [?'~.

(41) " There is a likelihood that."' 3 ^ ='

(42) " There is little doubt that Shakespeare."

(43) "It was /To/^a^/v about 1571 that William."

(44) " It was probably in 1596 that Shakespeare."

(45) " But in all probability he drew."

(46) "In all probability it was."

(47) " It was doubtless under Shakespeare's guidance."

(48) " Shakespeare was doubtless withdrawn."

(49) " Doubtless, William . . ."

(50) " Shakespeare, doubtless, travelled."

Does Mr. Lee call this a Life.' I have given 50
" guesses " — I could give 150 — in this Life of Shake-
speare boasting a reduction in " conjecture " that was
never previously attempted. It is a mere tissue of
conjecture and assumption. The whole story he
relates is not that Shakespeare of Stratford was the
author, but that the dramas were allowed without chal-
lenge — and without any claim on the part of the reputed
author — to pass as his.

Mr. Lee alludes to his work as "a plain and practical
narrative of the great dramatist's personal history," and
says that he has "avoided merely aesthetic criticism."
His volume is, however, mainly composed of " aesthetic
criticism " of the plays, in the form of chapters on
'* Early Dramatic Work," "The Sonnets and their
Literary History," "The Borrowed Conceits of the
Sonnets," "The Supposed Story of Intrigue in the
Sonnets," "The Development of Dramatic Power,""


''The Highest Themes of Tragedy," etc. — hundreds of
pages directed to anything but the "personal history"
of the reputed author of the plays. All that Mr. Lee
has to give in the shape of "personal history" of the
man of Stratford could be compressed into a few lines:
viz. — (i) He was born 22nd or 23rd April, 1564 (p. 8).
[Probably, although the birth was not registered.] (2)
He was baptised 26th April (p. 8). [Doubtlessly, as the
baptism is recorded.] (3) He seduced and was forced to
marry Anne Hathaway, who had a child to him within
six months after marriage* (p. 22). (4) He had to leave
Stratford for poaching (p. 27). (5) He sued Philip
Rogers for 2/- lent, among other debts in the same
account (p. 206). t (6) He cheated his fellow-townsmen
over the enclosure of public land (p. 270). (7) He
endeavoured to obtain by means of false statements a
coat-of-arms (p 188). (8) He "barred his wife's dower,"
and cut her off with his "second-best bed" (pp. 273-4.):!:

* " With Shakespeare marriage is a divine institution ; with
Bacon it is a business matter. Shakespeare married young and
for love." — Rolfc. [Even the marriage is doubtful, as " no record
of the solemnisation of Shakespeare's marriage survives " (p. 191)
although Mrs. Stopes maintains : — " But they were married
somehow, and William probably brought home his fatherless bride
to his father's house."] Bacon's marriage was, at any rate,
respectable, and as to the " business " part of it, his wife brought
him ;^220 per annum, to whicli Bacon added ;^5oo a year, which
is more than the " love-mated " but wife-deserting and money-
grabbing Sliakspere did. [See (8) and (9) /«/ra.] "Bacon's fall
taught the usual lesson that intellectual genius, however com-
manding, never justified breaciies of any moral law." — S. Lee,
Oct. 4th, 1903. [Shakspere's " intellectual genius" probably does,
at least Mr. Lee suggests its possibility.]

f " A sharp man of business this poet of ours. . . . He is by no
means the ideal artist of the vulgar." — Fkay. " Neither a
borrower nor a lender be." — Hamlet.

J " The eccentric bequest to his wife of his second-best bed
must have been explicable by some circumstance unknown to us.


(9) He left unpaid a debt contracted by his wife to her
father's shepherd, who in 1601 "directed his executors
to recover the sum from the poet and distribute it among
the poor of Stratford " (p. 187). (10) He neglected his
daughter Judith's education so that she had to sign her
name by a mark or " sign manual," as Mr. Lee euphemis-
tically styles it (p. 226). (11) He is credited with "many
sportive adventures," among them the unsavoury story
in which he figured with Burbage, "the sole anecdote
of Shakespeare that is positively known to have been
recorded in his lifetime"* (p. 265). (12) He entertained
his two friends Drayton and Jonson, and they " drank
too hard, for Shakespeare died of a feavour then con-
tracted " (p. 272). (13) The Davenant incident, of which
Mr. Lee writes : "The antiquity and persistence of the
scandal belie the assumption [whose ?] that Shake-
speare was known to his contemporaries as a man of
scrupulous virtue " (p. 266). This led Emerson to say,
" Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of
keeping with their thought, but this man in wide con-
trast," characterising his life as " obscure and profane."
Mr. Lee can see no inconsistency, however, in asso-
ciating the author of Hamlet with immorality, money-
lending, and meanness, without even the tradition of a
noble or loveable action.

On page 4 of the Life Mr. Lee says : " The son Henry
remained all his life at Snitterfield, where he engaged in
farming, with gradually diminishing success ; he died
in embarrassed circumstances in December, 1596. John,

Could it have been Mrs. Shakespeare's marriage-bed ? "
\_Probably .'] — Dr. Garnett.

• " To be told that he played a trick on his brother player in a
licentious amour, or that he died of a drunken frolic . . . does
not exactly inform us of the man who wrote Lear." — Hallam.
" Bohemian ideals and modes of life had no genuine attraction
for Shakespeare."— S. Lee (p. 278). [See note p. 22.]


the son who administered Richard's estate, was in all
likelihood the poet's father." In his article on Shake-
speare in the Dictionary of National Biography Mr. Lee
says : "The son Henry remained at Snitterfield all his
life, and died a prosperous farmer in December, 1596.
John, the younger son of Richard, was the poet's father."
How a man could die "in embarrassed circumstances,'*
and at the same time "a prosperous farmer," is left
for Mr. Lee to explain.

Piratical publishers stole the plays and poems, and
Mr. Lee says the author had no redress, although we
are informed that " Shakespeare brought to practical
affairs a singularly sane and sober temperament," and
that he "stood rigorously by his rights in all his business
relations." Does it not seem odd that such a gentle-
man as this, who could sue a friend for " 2s. lent,"
should allow every one of the sixteen plays pub-
lished in his lifetime to be printed without his
sanction (although he had recourse agamst the pirates
at "common law," as I shall presently show), and
"that he made no audible protest when seven con-
temptible dramas in which he had no hand " were given
to the world as his composition ? How does Mr. Lee
explain the fact that this man, so versed in "the
practical affairs of life," showed such utter indifference
to all questions touching the publication of his plays
(p. 396) that, after their production, they were looked
upon by him as no more than waste paper ?

Then it would be interesting to know how Mr. Lee
reconciles these twostatements : — "The playhouse authori-
ties deprecated the publishing of plays in the belief that
their dissemination in print was injurious to the receipts
of the theatre" (p. 48), ("and injurious to their
rights," p. 208) ; and " Burbage created the title part in
Shakespeare's tragedy [Hamlet] and its success on the
stage led to its publication immediately afterwards "
(p. 222).


If such publication •* was injurious to the receipts of
the theatre," why did not the theatrical owners of Hamlet
take steps to prevent rather than aid it ? Then again
Mr. Lee says : — " In the absence of any law of copy-
right, publishers defied the wishes of the owner of manu-
scripts " (p. 48), while on page 207 we read that A^
You Like It was entered on the Stationers' Registers
lor publication, and that " a prohibition was set on the
publication " of that play and Every Man in his Humour
by the Lord Chamberlain's men in 1600, and on page
245 that Antony and Cleopatra was also entered and
licensed, but that "the company hindered the publication,"
and neither play appeared in print till the First Folio
was issued ! If there was no copyright or no remedy
at common law, how were these stoppages possible ?
" Mr, Lee's ideas of the contemporary copyright laws
are as unsound as his notions of ecclesiastical law affect-
ing marriage. There was no difficulty in the law. The
common law protected literary work just as did the
copyright act, which was merely declaratory of it "
(Yeatman). "There is plenty of evidence," says Greg,
"to show that the author or proprietor of a literary
work could, in some cases at least, prevent unauthorised
publication." How does Mr. Lee explain Shakspere's
failure to take advantage of this right ?

On page 264 Mr. Lee says: — "But until 1614 he
(Shakspere) paid frequent visits to London, where
friends in sympathy with his work were alone to be
found," and on page 258, "There seems little doubt that
he left with the manager of his company unfinished
•drafts of more than one play." In support of these
statements there is not a particle of evidence. The only
plays possible after i5ii were The Two Noble Kinsmen
and Henry VHI., in which even Mr. Lee can trace only
a few scenes that might have been Shakespeare's. And
these he magnifies into " drafts," describing two plays
as "more than one play."


Mr. Lee in his "plain and practical" Lijc fails to
give a copy of Shakspere's will. Has he read it ? He
tells us that the testator devised the tenement in Chapel
Lane — which is never mentioned in the will — to his
daughter Judith, and all the lands except this tenement
to his other daughter, whereas he left no tenement to
Judith. What he did was to leave ^^'50 to Judith on
condition that she abandoned to her sister Susanna her
right to a "tenemente" in "the mannour of Rowington."
Then Mr. Lee asserts that he left the Henley Street
house to his sister Joan. He did nothing of the kind.
He left the two Henley Street houses to Susanna ; and
all he left Joan was a "tenemente," place not mentioned,
for her life only at I2d. rent.

Mr. Lee makes the following bold statement :
" When attesting documents he [Shakspere's father]
occasionally made his mark, but there is evidence in
ike Stratford archives that he could write with facility."
This can be flatly contradicted, as there is no such evi-
dence. Halliwell-Phillipps, who went minutely through
the Stratford records, and who, after Malone, according
to Mr. Lee, " has made the most important additions to
our knowledge of Shakespeare's biography," says: —
"There is no reasonable pretence for assuming that, in
the time of John Shakespeare, whatever may have been
the case at earlier periods, it was the practice for marks
to be used by those who were capable of signing their
names. No instance of the kind has been discovered
amongst the numerous records of his era that are pre-
served at Stratford-on-Avon, while even a few rare
examples in other districts, if such are to be found,
would be insufficient to countenance a theory that he
was able to write. All the known evidences point in
the opposite direction, and it should be observed that,
in common with many other of his illiterate contem-
poraries, he did not always adhere to the same kind of


symbol." Where, therefore, I would ask Mr. Lee, in
"the Stratford archives" did he come upon "evidence
that John Shakespeare could write with facility" ? In
his article on Shakespeare in the Dictionary of National
Biography, Mr. Lee himself says : — "But however well
she [Shakspere's mother] was provided for, she was
only able, like her husband, to make her mark in lieu of
signing her name." In the same article we read: —
"When attesting documents he made his mark, and
there is no evidence that he could write." According,
therefore, to Mr. Lee, with regard to the elder
Shakspere (i) " There is evidence that he could write
with facility," and (2) "There is no evidence that he
could write."

Bacon is never mentioned in the body of the work ;
but Mr. Lee dismisses the Baconian theory in a
contemptible and equally contemptuous "Appendix."
In regard to the " Parallelisms," Mr. Lee declares that
"most of them that are commonly quoted are phrases
in ordinary use by all writers of the day" — a statement
far removed from the truth. I can give him dozens of
(i) Identical Expressions, (2) Identical Metaphors, (3)
Identical Opinions, (4) Identical Quotations, (5)
Identical Studies, (6) Identical Errors, (7) Identical
use of unusual words, (8) Identities of Character,
and (g) Indentities of Style, that were 7iot "in
ordinary use by all writers of the day," or by any one
writer. "One parallelism has no significance; five
attract attention ; ten suggest inquiry ; twenty raise a
presumption ; fifty establish a probability ; a hundred
dissolve every doubt " ; but a thousand will not affect
Mr. Lee's pre-conceived idea a single jot, although Oliver
Wendell Holmes declared : "The wonderful parallelisms
[in Shakespeare and Bacon] imist and will be wrought
out and followed out to such fair conclusions as they
shall be found to force honest minds to adopt. . . .


Our Shakespeare scholars hereabouts are very impatient
whenever the question of the authorship of the Plays
and Poems is even alluded to. It must be spoken of,
whether they like it or not."

But, according to Mr. Lee, this is all pure nonsense.
" Why," he asks, " should the Baconian theorists have
any following outside lunatic asylums? . . . Those
who adopt the Baconian theory in any of its phases
should be classed with the believers in the Cock Lane
ghost, or in Arthur Orton's identity with Roger
Tichborne. Ignorance, vanity, inability to test evidence,
lack of scholarly habits of mind, are in each of these
instances found to be the main causes predisposing half-
educated members of the public [like Palmerston,
Bright, Holmes, Bismarck] to the acceptance of the
delusion ; and when any of the genuinely deluded victims
have been narrowly examined, they have invariabl)'
exhibited a tendency to monomania."* I have no
doubt the name?, dates, medical authorities, and other
particulars of these examinations, can be supplied
by Mr. Lee. The Baconians are not quite so cock-
sure, however, of anything as Mr. Lee is of every-
thing. All they ask is that the Shakspereans will
study the whole question, freeing themselves from
pre-conceived ideas, and then meet the arguments
seriatim. This is just what Mr. Sidney Lee will
not or cannot do. Magna est Veritas, and it is truth

• Cf. Mr. Churton Collins : — *' In all seriousness, this Baconian
craze is a subject in which the student of morbid psychology is far
more intimately concerned than the literary critic [cii., Mr.
Collins]. Ignorance and vanity czn account for much; the Idols
of the Cave and of the Market-place for more, but none of
these, singly or collectively, can account for all . . . and so this
ridiculous epidemic [" Epidemic disease." — Lee"] spreads till it
has now assumed the proportions, and many characteristics,
of the dancing mania of the Middle Ages." Wonderful agreement
— if not argument — in two great minds !


only that the Baconians seek. Other men of "habits
of mind " as scholarly as Mr. Lee's have been engaged
in the Shakespeare "mystery" all their lives, and have
found difficulties in reconciling the life of the actor with
the works of the dramatist ; but Mr. Lee extricates
himself from all his difficulties with the aid of
" possibly," "probably," "doubtless," and other qualify-
ing adverbs. Guesses and fictions he substitutes for
what he calls "facts." One of his most extraordinary
"facts" is that Mr. Donnelly "pretended to have
discovered among Bacon's papers a numerical cypher
which enabled him to pick out letters appearing at
certain intervals in the pages of Shakespeare's First
Folio, and the selected letters formed words and
sentences categorically stating that Bacon was author
of the plays." This precious criticism contains only
three mis-statements ! Mr. Lee can nevor have seen
The Great Cryptogram, and I challenge him to prove
his dicta in the passage I have quoted.

I am afraid my letter is already too long ; but there
are other details in this authoritative " personal history "
that I would like to inquire about from its author. Mr.
Lee says, " Shakespeare had no title to rank as a
classical scholar, and he did not disdain a liberal
use of translations." Mr. Churton Collins has shown
in his recently published Studies in Shakespeare that
"so far from Shakespeare having no pretension to
classical scholarship ... of the Greek classics in
the Latin versions he had a remarkably extensive know-
ledge," and that he borrowed right and left from
Sophocles and Euripides, of whose plays there were no
English translations at the time; while in the Nineteenth
Century the Rev. R. S. Laffan has shown that the
author of the plays was intimately acquainted with
^schylus. Yet Mr. Collins abuses Baconians for
believing that "the man of Stratford" did not


possess that knowledge. That the author of the plays
knew Latin, French and Itahan is proved by the fact
that the plots and characters of several of his plays
are drawn from works in these langua,s:es of which
also no English translations were then available.
But possibly Mr. Lee agrees with the Shakespearean
critic Dennis, who wrote, " He who allows Shake-
speare had learning, and a learning with the ancients,
ought to be looked upon as a detractor from the glory
of Great Britain." I am silly enough to believe that


Online LibraryGeorge StronachMr. Sidney Lee and the Baconians : a critic criticised → online text (page 1 of 2)