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The Master of Shakespeare

Fulke Greville’s alleged remark: ‘I am the master of Shakespeare’, first appeared in print in David Lloyd’s biography of him in The Statesmen and Favourites of England since the Reformation (1670).


Lloyds most likely source for the remark is Greville’s page, William Davenant, who is famous for his claim to have been Shakespeare’s son. The one time prompter of Drury Lane (founded by Davenant), William Chetwood, wrote that Greville’s page ‘was, by many, supposed the natural son of Shakespear’.


If the Stratford Recorder did make such a remark to his young page, was he telling the truth? Greville had the reputation among his contemporaries of being a gentle, honourable and honest man. As John Buxton observed, he ‘was not at all the man to make such a claim if it had no meaning’.


The Shakespearean scholar, Professor Geoffrey Bullough, whose 8 volume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare is generally agreed to the ‘definitive account’ (Drabble), wrote of Greville, and by implication of his ‘claim’: ‘as I see it, the astonishing realism of his thought’ is ‘the result of his unflinching truthfulness’.


If one accepts that Greville’s claim was true, what exactly did he mean by it? Did he mean that he had been William Shakspere’s employer at some period or did he mean that he had been the ‘master’ of Shakespeare’s ‘works’, using the word in the Elizabethan sense of ‘master’ of a painter’s studio or a ‘school’ of painting?  


Greville’s biographers have proved remarkably shy of investigating his ‘tantalising’ claim. Professor Rebholz, in his Life of Fulke Greville, makes no mention of it at all, which seems very strange.


Professor Rees in her Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (42, 218), says only that his claim ‘whets the curiosity’, particularly as Lloyd may have had the story from Sir William Davenant, Fulke Greville’s famous page.


Some Stratfordian biographers such as Ralegh (1907), Brown (1951), Alexander (1964), Holden (1999) and Greenblatt (2005), make no mention of Greville or his claim in their books but, on the whole, Stratfordian scholars have been very willing to incorporate Greville into their theory and give him a staring role in the life of his fellow townsman.


E. K. Chambers held that Shakspere had been first employed by Greville’s father, the old Stratford Recorder, who ‘maintained domestic players at Beauchamps Court’. Katherine Duncan-Jones also believed that ‘Shakspere’s earliest patron’ was Fulke Greville senior.


In a chapter entitled ‘Sir Fulke Greville’s Man?’ she conjectured that perhaps it was as a performer in a Christmas or Whitsuntide play that Shakspere was first ‘spotted by Greville’. According to her theory, Shakspere served him in some capacity, probably as a player, possibly also as a clerk or secretary.’


Ackroyd in his Shakespeare – The Biography (477), was certain that as a ‘poet and dramatist’, as well as a fellow townsman, Greville ‘knew Shakespeare very well indeed’. Dame Francis Yates believed that the young William Shakspere ‘had access to Greville’s house and circle’ and Rosemary Sisson suggested that he had once been ‘Fulke Greville’s page’.


The great Shakespearean scholar Charles Lamb was deeply interested in Greville’s claim to have been Shakespeare’s ‘master’ and the author of Antony and Cleopatra. When he was asked at a dinner party which personages from history he would most like to meet face to face, he astonished his friends, including Hazlett (Essays, 1821-2, ‘Of persons One Would Wish to have Seen’), by choosing, not Shakespeare, but Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, as one of the ‘ghosts’ he would most like to question.


Lamb described Greville as ‘a truly formidable and inviting personage; his style apocalyptical, cabalistical, a knot worthy of such an apparition to untie; and for the unravelling of a passage or two, I would stand the brunt of an encounter with so portentous a commentator.’ Obviously referring to Greville’s ‘mysterious’ claim, Lamb said ‘I should like to ask him ‘the meaning of what no mortal I should suppose, can fathom.’


The Master of Shakespeare, Volume I, by A. W. L. Saunders (2007), describes the results of 354 state of the art Image Profile Tests which provide a powerful answer to the question that Charles Lamb clearly wished to ask of the ghost of Shakespeare’s ‘master’, Fulke Greville:


‘Fulke. Were you the real Shakespeare?’

Nothing has ever been made of the statement by David Lloyd that Greville wanted to be known to posterity as the master of Shakespeare.


The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time. 1590-1641, Gerald Eades Bentley (1971), p. 20.



Rosemary Sisson’s study of Shakespeare’s early life has suggested that he was a page at Greville’s estate in Beauchamp Court, near Stratford.


G.E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, 5 vols, 1941-56, p. 274.



Sir Fulke Greville's Man? John Heminge and William Shakespeare ... My conjecture is that the earliest patron of both men may have been the affable and generous Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamps court ... the elder Greville was deeply involved in local affairs. From 1591 until his death in 1606, he was the Recorder of Stratford-upon-Avon … Shakespeare ... perhaps came to the notice of Sir Fulke Greville of Beauchamps Court and for a couple of years served him in some capacity, probably as a player, possible also as a clerk or secretary


Ungentle Shakespeare, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Arden Shakespeare (2001), pp. 35-6



Among the scraps of evidence about Shakespeare, there is one which connects him with Fulke Greville … It is not known when, or in what way Greville may have been Shakespeare’s master. But it is likely that Shakespeare may have known Greville for they both came from Warwickshire; Greville’s family seat was near Stratford-upon-Avon. When the young man from Stratford came to London it is therefore possible that he might have had access to Greville’s house and circle.


The Art of Memory, Francis Yates, 

Penguin (1966) p. 309.

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