Nevillean theory of Shakespeare authorship

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Henry Neville (1596)
Henry Neville (1596)

The Nevillean theory of Shakespeare authorship attributes the work of William Shakespeare to the English parliamentarian and diplomat Sir Henry Neville (1562 – 1615).[1] It was first proposed in 2005 by Brenda James and William Rubinstein in their book The Truth Will Out.[1] James had set the 144 letters of the dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) in a grid of 12 vertical columns of 12 letters and performed various manipulations to find the name "Henry Nevell", a name that was unknown to her. Further investigation led her to Neville, who as ambassador to France (1600–01) used codes extensively for state security.[1]

John Casson and William D. Rubinstein argue that the Neville library at Audley End House provides further evidence for Neville. Many of these books, which are known sources for Shakespeare, are annotated with notes relevant to the plays. In addition, Casson discovered a short autographed poem by Neville.[2]

With few exceptions, academic Shakespeare scholars consider the idea of alternative Shakespeare authorship to be a fringe belief and reject all arguments for any alternate author of the Shakespeare canon, including the Nevillean theory. James's code theory has been challenged as unsubstantiated and that this undermines the research in her first book.[3]


Many aspects of Neville's biography may be seen as relevant to his candidacy. Neville's dates (1562–1615) align closely with those of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The Nevilles have been identified as the most widely honoured of any family in English history.[4] Casson and Bradbeer observe that many of Sir Henry's ancestors feature prominently and favourably in the history plays.[5]

Neville himself was born in the building that later became Blackfriars Theatre. Later his father assisted with the lease of Blackfriars to the Children of the Chapel for this purpose.[6] Neville spent his childhood at Billingbear near Windsor where his father held the office of Forester.[7]

Education and Network[edit]

As a boy, Neville was educated within the household of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley.[7]

From 1578 as a student at Oxford, Neville toured Europe for three years acquiring books for the university with Sir Henry Savile. This tour included many locations depicted in the plays; Denmark, Poland, Austria, Paris, Prague, Vienna, Padua, Venice, and Rome.[1]

Virginio Orsini, second Duke of Bracciano (1572 – 1615)

On the 6th of January 1601, a comedy was performed at the court of Queen Elizabeth to honour Duke Virginio Orsino who had arrived in England in secret.[1] Many believe that the play was Twelfth Night, because it presents a charming Duke Orsino as the romantic lead, and because the 6th of January is the Twelfth Night of the Epiphany (there is no reference to any "Twelfth Night" in the play). As Ambassador to France (though in London at this time), letters show that Sir Henry Neville was the first person in England to know of this secret visit.[8] Indeed, Neville’s secretary in Paris had directed Orsino to Neville personally to facilitate his introduction to Queen Elizabeth.[1][9]

The calamitous change of fortune suggested in the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays[10] coincides with Neville's imprisonment for treason in 1601. Neville had participated in the Essex rebellion together with the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s notional patron. Although 10 years younger than Neville, Southampton and Neville had been intimate friends since Southampton became a child ward of Sir William Cecil. Although it is not widely accepted, it has been argued that William Shakespeare might have also seen the event as a calamity, and might have been suspected of participating in the rebellion.[10]

Many commentators have observed that the character of Polonius in Hamlet seems to be a parody of Cecil. Neville had been educated in his youth within Cecil’s household, and was later married to Cecil’s niece.[11]

Neville was kinsman to Leonard Digges[12] whose poems preface both Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and Benson’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1640). Digges's father was the famous astronomer Thomas Digges whose theory of "infinite space" endured until the 20th century and seems to be referred to in Hamlet (Act II Scene ii). Neville studied astronomy at Oxford.[1]

Ben Jonson whose personal references to Shakespeare are taken to be among the strongest evidence in favour of his authorship addressed Neville directly in his Epigram 109 which begins – "Who now calls on thee, Nevil, is a Muse…".

The theologian Thomas Vicars who was married to Neville’s daughter Anne, listed in Latin the leading English writers of recent history.[13] In this otherwise conventional list of names, Shakespeare is the single exception. Vicars refers to Shakespeare cryptically as ... a well-known poet who from shaking and spear has his name (celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet).[14]

Law and Politics[edit]

Brenda James noted that, alongside Neville’s 30-year parliamentary career, he presided in a variety of local government offices[7] which might provide exactly the right legal experience to explain the infusion of legal knowledge evidenced in the works of Shakespeare.[15]

For 11 years Neville strove to influence King James I to balance the needs of the King, the nobility and commons.[16] James notes that these efforts are consistent with the recurrent theme of “Kingship in Crisis” in Shakespeare.[1]

Code theory[edit]

The Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609)
The Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609)

In 1964, Leslie Hotson first suggested that the strange Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets may be a code.[17] In 1997 John Rollet discovered the word “Henry” in a 15-column setting of the Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609).[18] Rollet surmised that this might refer to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. In 2005, using the same setting, Brenda James assembled additional fragments which first led her to identify and to research the biography of Sir Henry Neville,[1] a name previously unknown to her. Following this investigation, she concluded that Neville was the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.[1] Matt Kubus evaluated James's code theory and commented that "It is difficult to relate James's argument without appearing derisive", and that it is "peppered with assumptions".[19]

In 2018, Leyland and Goding used the same setting but included the hyphens from the original text (not included by either Rollet or James), to reveal additional text. In addition, they argue that there are many instances where the grid co-ordinates of a key letter in the Dedication may be paired with the number of a sonnet, such that the sonnet illuminates the encrypted text. They also claim that the Dedication code is very similar to the distinctive diplomatic codes used by Neville himself – both rely on grids of paired letters and numbers.[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j James, B & Rubinstein, W (2005). The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
  2. ^ John Casson and William D. Rubinstein (2016). Sir Henry Neville was Shakespeare: The Evidence. Amberley.
  3. ^ Kubus, Matt (2013). "The Cryptogram and the Anagram: Sir Henry Neville (1561/2–1615) and William Hastings" in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 54–56.
  4. ^ Manning, J.A. (1850). The Lives of the Speakers of the House of Commons. Myers and Company.
  5. ^ Casson, J & Bradbeer, M (2015). Sir Henry Neville, Alias William Shakespeare: Authorship Evidence in the History Plays. North Carolina: McFarland.
  6. ^ "Theatre Database". Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  7. ^ a b c "History of Parliament Online". Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  8. ^ Sawyer, Edmund (1759). Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I. by Winwood, Ralph, Sir, 1563?-1617.
  9. ^ Leyland, J and Goding J (25 August 2018). "Twelfth Night, 6 January 1601 - Orsino & Sebastian". Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  10. ^ a b Halleck, Reuben Post (1913). Halleck's New English Literature. New York: American Book Co. Retrieved May 21, 2016.
  11. ^ "History of Parliament Online". Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  12. ^ James, Brenda (2008). Henry Neville and the Shakespeare Code. Bognor Regis: Music for Strings. pp. 174–75.
  13. ^ Keckermann, Bartlomew (1628). Manuduction to Theology. Thomas Vicars (trans).
  14. ^ The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. "Philological Museum". Retrieved 23 November 2018.
  15. ^ James, B & Rubinstein, W (2005). The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
  16. ^ Duncan, O.L. (1974). The Political Career of Sir Henry Neville: An Elizabethan Gentleman in the Court of James I. Ohio: PhD Thesis, Ohio State University. pp. 222–23.
  17. ^ Hotson, Leslie (1964). Mr WH. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.
  18. ^ Rollet, J. M. (1999). "Secrets of the Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets". The Oxfordian 5, no. 2: pp. 60–75.
  19. ^ Kubus, Matt (2013). The Unusual Suspects. In: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 56. ISBN 9781107354937.
  20. ^ Leyland, James; Goding, James (2018). Who Will Believe my Verse? The Code in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing. ISBN 192558867X.