Mark, Frank, and Tom

banner - 3 old books Twain Looney Harris Shakespeare

2 September 2022
· Three men search for Shakespeare in the early 1900s ·

In the 1934 short feature Shake, Mr. Shakespeare, a book called THE MAN SHAKES PEARE is the tucket that announces the man. The camera pans from the title to a tiny Bard, and the tucket’s job is done.

Cease! Desist! FORBEAR! And
all other words meaning Stop.

Now there’s a line well fitted to Willy’s creative gifts. We know he was fond of forbear(e), he took it with him to his graveDoggerel. See my previous post for more about this strange movie dream.

That two-second tucket sparked an idea. Off to the shelves to retrieve my non-cinematic copy of Frank Harris’s book, along with two others.

Set the dial for 1909.Twain spine horiz - 1909 1st ed - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareMARK TWAIN

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), known by his riverine pseudonym, was an acclaimed American writer, world traveller, and lecturer. He possessed the clear eye of the reporter he had once been, and a nose sensitive to the odour of bushwa. His pen and his jokes poked at stuffed shirts and bad apples, but he had an empathic understanding of human nature. He became an international celebrity, and Huckleberry Finn became the Great American Novel.

In the spring of 1909, in the last year of his life, Twain published Is Shakespeare Dead?. Subtitled From My Autobiography, it combined anecdotes from his past with observation and opinion in a hundred and fifty small, wide-margined pages. If someone takes longer than two hours to finish reading it, the overage is due to laughing.

Twain ISD 48-49 - doggerel, brontosaur - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareThe wit is as quick as the read, but Twain had a point to make. The dust-jacket copy explained:

This new volume is a serious book full of humor— one that in the guise of fun carries a message of real importance. It is a valuable contribution to the literature of the subject— and it is done with all the merriment and keen analysis of Mark Twain at his best.

Twain looked at shop talk, fetishes (not that kind), and favourite sons. He took note of the short list of Shakespeare facts, and the long gaps between them. He called out the conjectures and conjecturers rife in Stratfordian orthodoxy. His argument boiled down to the lawyer’s case: the author’s pervasive legal mindset, his unerring facility with legal terms and concepts, and the impossibility of acquiring that facility without leaving behind any evidenceEOSomething like this, for instance. of the acquisition. There was no Magic Pub.

Turning to talent, Twain was so diverted by Willy’s grave poem that he quoted the thing four times. He chewed on that doggerel like a hound with a bone, it’s the book’s running gag. The second of the four is shown above. Click on the image to enlarge the pages.

Did Twain have another Shakespeare in mind? Sort of, not really. The only alternative with any traction in Twain’s day was Francis Bacon. (Nobody knew about me yet.) Bacon was three years older than William Shakspere, was highly educated, and served James I as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor until a bribery scandal brought him down in 1621. He was more qualified to be Shakespeare than Willy ever was, but Twain’s conclusion was stated early in the book– I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t. One gets the feeling that he couldn’t quite talk himself onto the Baconian bandwagon, and that he’d have been happy to learn of a better option.

Toward the end of that same year, a different writer followed a different path in his search for the Shakespeare behind the words.Harris spine horiz - 1909 1st ed - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareFRANK HARRIS

Queen Victoria is not amused - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareJames Thomas (Frank) Harris (1856–1931) was an Irish-born American writer and periodical editor. A voluble, splenetic man, he is best remembered now for My Life and Loves, his ego-inflated, sexually explicit autobiography in five volumes. Between 1882 and 1914 he was based in London, where his circle included many of the era’s leading lights and literati. He wrote a whole stack of books, including, in October 1909, The Man Shakespeare and His Tragic Life-Story.

Mark Twain was a humourist; Frank Harris, not so much. George Bernard Shaw put it this way:

Frank Harris is everything except a humourist, not, apparently, from stupidity, but because scorn overcomes humour in him.

In the same preface he also said this, deliciously:

In critical literature [in the literary world of London] there is one prize that is always open to competition, one blue ribbon that always carries the highest critical rank with it. To win, you must write the best book of your generation on Shakespear. It is felt on all sides that to do this a certain fastidious refinement, a delicacy of taste, a correctness of manner and tone, and high academic distinction in addition to the indispensable scholarship and literary reputation, are needed; and men who pretend to these qualifications are constantly looked to with a gentle expectation that presently they will achieve the great feat. Now if there is a man on earth who is the utter contrary of everything that this description implies; whose very existence is an insult to the ideal it realises; whose eye disparages, whose resonant voice denounces, whose cold shoulder jostles every decency, every delicacy, every amenity, every dignity, every sweet usage of that quiet life of mutual admiration in which perfect Shakespearian appreciation is expected to arise, that man is Frank Harris.

On the whole, not the sort of person you’d expect to produce a perceptive exploration of the personality and worldview of a poetic playwright three centuries dead. Or to peg his subject almost to a tittle when all the while he thought he was writing about somebody else. It’s as if he suffered from a rare literary variant of split-brain syndrome. Half his mind didn’t know what the other half was doing.

I’ll be capitalising Work as the proper noun meaning the plays and poems of the author known as Shakespeare. Small-w work is someone else’s or the verb, Shakspere is Willy, and I’ve tried to keep myself out of the discussion until the end, though it’s odd to go on about a nonspecific ipse when I am he.

Frank Harris had no doubt that Shakspere was the author. His goal from the outset was to show that man as revealed in the Work, then use the revelations to reverse-engineer a biography, or at least a character study. Harris saw the Work as a map that would lead him straight to Stratford.

Typus Angliae by Jodocus Hondius, 1590 - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareOnly one problem: Stratford isn’t on that map. No surprise that Harris got lost, navigating by Willy’s overlaid waypoints. Here is one example (one will do), Harris on the character of Richard of Gloucester:

The truth seems to be that in the “Third Part of Henry VI” Shakespeare had been working with [Christopher] Marlowe, or, at least, revising Marlowe’s work; in either case he was so steeped in Marlowe’s spirit that he took the most splendid piece of Richard’s self-revealing directly from the older poet. – Chapter VI

Stratford’s stylomancers still get Henry VI wrong and the relationship between Marlowe and the author backwards, for the same reason Harris did– their Acwilly’s heel, the implacable too-late timeline. Per Harris, Marlowe wrote the anonymous play The True Tragedie of Richard the third, which was followed by the collaborative 3 Henry VI, then Willy’s own Richard III. This last bore faults native to Marlowe’s protagonist-driven dramas, reflecting the older poet’s influence on the younger. Thus Frank: his initial attribution, incorrect, setting off a chain reaction of other errors. (Welcome to Orthodoxy.) How he placed these events in time is unknown– the chapter contains no dates, and I’m not doing his work for him. Marlowe was killed in early 1593 at the age of twenty-nine. He was Willy’s elder by two months.

Biotite-hornblende gneiss - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareLike a prospector with a claim to a lode he’s sworn has treasure in it, Harris had to extract a tragic event from the ore of Willy’s life that would justify his book’s tabloidyFrank had edited scandal sheets, he knew what sold title and explain the shift in the plays from optimism to despair. He polished up a borrowed tale of passion and betrayal involving Willy, a royal maid of honour named Mary Fitton, and William Herbert the future Earl of Pembroke, but all that glistered was fool’s gold. (Even Stanley and Paulie weren’t fooled, which is saying something.) The tragedy was Harris’s attempt to find one, mining the barren seam.On its own terms The Man Shakespeare failed, yet the failure was not total. What succeeded would not be understood until later, by others, but the part of Harris’s mind unshackled to Shakspere did a remarkable job. When the Work was the only given, his subconscious eye discerned the author’s temperament, his manner of expression, how he looked at the world, what in it mattered most to him or not at all– all the things that didn’t require shoehorning into the wrong boots to fit a false narrative. It’s an ironic validation of the premise that the artist is always revealed in the art. Harris accurately described the author he knew absolutely nothing about.

Every one who has read his works with any care must admit that Shakespeare was a snob of the purest English water. Aristocratic tastes were natural to him; inherent, indeed, in the delicate sensitiveness of his beauty-loving temperament, […] In all his writings he praises lords and gentlemen, and runs down the citizens and common people, […] Shakespeare, one fancies, was a gentleman by nature, and a good deal more. – Chapter XIV

In Hamlet, if one may dare to say so, Shakespeare has discovered too much of himself: Hamlet is at one and the same time philosopher and poet, critic and courtier, lover and cynic —the extremes that Shakespeare’s intellect could cover— and he fills every part so easily that he might almost be a bookish Admirable CrichtonA multi-talented individual, good at everything he does., a type of perfection rather than an individual man, were it not for his feminine gentleness and forgivingness of nature, and particularly for the brooding melancholy and disbelief which darkened Shakespeare’s outlook at the time. – Chapter VIII

[W]hen youth passed from him and disillusionment put an end to dreaming, his melancholy deepened, his sadness became despairing; we can see the shadows thickening round him into night. Brutus takes an everlasting farewell of his friend, and goes willingly to his rest. Hamlet dreads the undiscover’d country; but unsentient death is to him a consummation devoutly to be wished. Vincentio’s mood is half-contemptuous, but the melancholy persists; death is no more than sleep, he says, and life a series of deceptions. […] A little later and Macbeth’s soul cries to us from the outer darkness: there’s nothing serious in mortality; life’s a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. […] Even when the calmer mood of age came upon Shakespeare and took away the bitterness, he never recanted; Posthumus speaks of life and death in almost the words used by Vincentio, and Prospero has nothing to add save that our little life is rounded with a sleep. – Chapter II

So far, then, from finding that Shakespeare never revealed himself in his dramas, I have shown that he pictured himself as the hero of six plays written at widely different times; in fact that, like Rembrandt, he painted his own portrait in all the critical periods of life: as a sensuous youth given over to love and poetry in Romeo; a few years later as a melancholy onlooker at life’s pageant in Jaques; in middle age as the passionate, melancholy, aesthete-philosopher of kindliest nature in Hamlet and Macbeth; as the fitful Duke incapable of severity in Measure for Measure, and finally, when standing within the shadow, as PosthumusHe was righter than he knew about Cymbeline’s Posthumus, though again he got the chronology wrong., an idealized yet feebler replica of Hamlet. – Chapter III

It took another eleven years for a third searcher to journey to the terra auctoris ignoti beyond the flat edge of the Stratfordian world, where Shakespeare was yet to be (re)discovered.coronet-spacerLooney spine horiz - 1920 1st ed - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareJ THOMAS LOONEY

John Thomas Looney (1870–1944) shared his father’s name, and spent most of his life in the Tyne and Wear region of England’s northeast, near the city of Newcastle. He was not a novelist, a journalist, nor a globetrotter. He was a provincial educator who taught Shakespeare to schoolchildren. He revered the Work as the greatest literary treasures of England, ranked by universal consent amongst the highest literary achievements of mankind.

In the new century’s first decade Looney grew dissatisfied with the disconnect between what was known of Shakspere and what the Work said to him about its author. As the second decade began, on his own time and his own dime (shilling doesn’t rhyme) he embarked on a personal search for an answer that made sense, for the author who fit.

As with Harris, Looney’s starting point was the Work: bringing to light the personal revelations, listing the traits, attitudes, and priorities that he felt represented the author as an individual. But where Harris was misdirected by his presumptive result, Looney travelled without baggage, letting the map reveal the mapmaker. When he had assembled his profile the real trek got under way, the hunt for the man who matched it.

In 1920, after years of effort amid the calamity of the Great War, Looney’s research brought him to his destination. The map led not to a runaway from a riverside village in Warwickshire, but to a Norman castle in northern Essex and the inheritor of one of the oldest peerages in England.

Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareHello at last.

Did Looney read Harris? Yes indeed. SI refers half a dozen times to The Man Shakespeare and its author’s inadvertent insights. Looney could see Harris’s success as well as his failure, and he was willing to take the step into the unknown that Harris wasn’t.

Did Harris read Looney? If he did he never wrote about it. He had returned to the US in 1914, then moved to the French Riviera where he forsook the Bard in favour of all those lubricious autobiographies. Perhaps he obtained a copy of SI (Frank loved to see himself in print) and realised that he’d kicked an own goal in the Shakspere game. A small conjecture.

Did Twain read Harris? Who knows. The Man Shakespeare came out in October, Twain died the following April. Safe to say he didn’t read Looney, which is too bad. What an advocate he could have been.

If eight-word blog posts were the way to attract and retain viewers, I wouldn’t have had any trouble with this one:

[twcard] Twain Harris Looney - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareRead them in order. Mark, Frank, and Tom.


If you’re wondering –because I’m sure you are– Where’s George Greenwood in this post?, here’s why he was relegated to a followup note:

  • • Stipulated: Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated merits inclusion by priority (1908) and influence. It catalysed Twain to write his book, so much so that he lifted (with permission) sixteen near-verbatim pages from Greenwood’s chapter on Shakespeare as a Lawyer. In SI’s preface Looney likewise acknowledged his debt to Greenwood, though he chose to avoid quoting him to forestall SI being seen as an echo of its predecessor.
  • • In this post I wanted Twain to open the batting. Putting Greenwood atop the order would have required me to change my strategy. (George was a cricketer.) For my purposes, his debunking of Shakspere without offering a replacement covered no ground that Twain didn’t, and Twain was funnier.
  • • No matter where it batted, a 500-page fourth book would have further lengthened a long post that I didn’t want to split into parts. It’s lovely that web pages are vertically infinite, but there have to be limits.
  • • Aesthetic continuity: I have no old copy of Greenwood to photograph.

If you finish with Mark, Frank, and Tom and you’re up for more, by all means read George. If you’re OCPD, read him first. It will take longer than two hours, and the laughter will be minimal.

Shake, Mr. Shakespeare may be the silliest Shakespeare-related film ever made, but I have it to thank for my previous post as well as this one. Jellyfish Hamlet, posted 12 August 2022.

● Several years ago, ahead of the 2020 centenary of Shakespeare Identified, I wrote a limerick to commemorate the book and its courageous author. It was the first ink-and-paper published work of my postlife poetic career. I wasn’t paid but my name’s on it, or at least my Twitter ID. Limerick 3: Back In Black & White, posted 18 May 2017.

● Another old book not in this post is Bernard M Ward’s 1928 biography of me, a chronicle of my life that –against its author’s wishes– sidesteps the Shakespeare issue entirely. I explain why, with more about Looney’s book too, in Oh Put Me In Thy Bookes, posted 5 July 2016.


  • Is Shakespeare Dead? []
  • · by Mark Twain
  • · Harper & Brothers, 1909
  • · free to read or download at the link
  • Shakespeare Revolutionized The first hundred years of J Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified [Google Books]
  • · by James A Warren
  • · Veritas Publications, 2021, 763 pages
  • Frank Harris []
  • · short biography by John Simkin
  • · September 1997, updated February 2022

Harris wrote twice more about Shakespeare following The Man Shakespeare. In the four-act play Shakespeare and his Love (1910) he dramatised his contrived story of Willy’s ardour for Mary Fitton. In The Women of Shakespeare (1911) he seems to have considered himself an authority on women due to having known so many. As a playwright he was no Shakespeare (it doesn’t look like the play was ever produced), and both efforts are no more than curiosities for non-orthodoxies.

  • My Life and Loves
  • · by Frank Harris
  • · four volumes published privately between 1922 and 1927, by Obelisk Press in 1931, with a fifth volume added after his death
  • · 1991 omnibus edition, Grove Atlantic Press
  • · cover illustration by Peter de Sève

Frank and friends - Twain Harris Looney ShakespeareCan you identify everyone?L to R: caricaturist Max Beerbohm, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Bernard Shaw, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, and an anonymous female friend made up by the artist (it was a trick question)

  • Typus Angliae (map)
  • · by Jodocus Hondius, 1590
  • · British Library shelfmark 1175.(21.)
  • Biotite gneiss interfingered with black hornblende (image)
  • · aka road paving in Dartford imported from Canada in 1578
  • · my expensive mineral simile is explained in Mad North North West, posted 26 April 2017