IGNOTO: unknown, hidden, coVEREd, unseen, cryptic, secret, incognito, mysterious

Ignoto #2Fig. 1

    Elizabethan writers often published under the name of someone else (a pseudonym), or by submitting a poem or critical work with no name given at all, and sometimes with the word “Anonymous”, “Anomos” or with the initals “A.W”, or “Ignoto” as the attribution.  It was customary for some printers to assign the name “Ignoto” to a work with no personal attribution given, either because the author requested the printer to keep her/his name concealed, or because the author was unknown to them.  

   There were good reasons to do so.  Elizabethan England was a highly successful dictatorship, and had near zero tolerance for sedition or treason.  Of course, as it is in any dicatatorship throughout history, treason and sedition are defined as whatever the government considers them to be.  Treasonous and seditious behavior were the most heinous of state offenses, and were  predictably treated as more serious offenses than murder (unless it was of a high ranking person).  Those accused and convicted of either were either hung, or sometimes had their internal organs ripped out and thrown to the ground, then burned while the victim was still living.  

   Nobility could look forward to decapitation.  Interestingly, but understandably, decapitation was considered a merciful execution as it was the quickest and therefore the least painful death, in most cases.  Hangings and decapitations were public spectacles.  Some accused and convicted of seditious and libelous speech had their hands cut off, or their tongue torn from their mouth.  All of which were persasive motivators for choosing anonymity when writing and publishing. 

   Other motivators for seeking anonymity were the avoidance of ridicule for being judged a poor writer.  If an anonymous work, however, was received favorably, a writer could then made a seamless transition to either a pen name or to the use of her/his own name.  As a general rule, it was considered vulgar for a noble to publish, especially if payment for the work was involved.  Not only were shame and disgrace possible consequences of such behavior, it was also a consequence for their families as well.  

   Printers convicted of sedition could expect their presses to be confiscated by Crown authorities and destroyed.  They sometimes had to pay an exhorbitant fine as well as being barred from printing altogether for a term of life.  In light of the above, it is remarkable some writers took the chance.  And then there were those who were protected by the Crown.  This was especially the case for Edward de Vere.  

   It is incredible that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, a commoner with with no historical evidence of being protected by any agent of Crown (not to speak of Queen Elizabeth could have gotten away with much of his writing, without having been killed right off the bat.  What is more likely is that, if there was any suspicion he was the poet and playwright under question, it would have been impossible that Crown agents would not have made the trip to Stratford.  And once there, failed to notice he had no performable or demonstrative proof he could write anything:  his name, bills of laden or a letter or two written by him.  Would they not have noticed his lack of books laying around or on shelves, either open or in stacks on a writing table?  And what about having no paper drafts of poems or plays lying about, as would be expected of a writer of his well-known and prolific literary output?  The historical record does not include any account of any opinion by anyone, one way or another that he was a writer at all.  

   What is the most probable scenario is that Crown agents (and Elizabeth as well) knew he was a sham, and that the name “Shakespeare” was one of the most successful “Ignotos” (unknown writers) within their knowledge.  One cannot arrest a ghost.  Of course, its highly probably none of this took place.  It is furthermore highly probable there were many in the know about this, and either knew or suspected a person or persons who were  “Shakespeare”, and were silenced (or were threatened with their life) to be silent.

     However, the above argument notwithstanding, why would the Stratford man, if he was “Shakespeare”, have any status or impunity whatsoever?  Because he was a great writer?  

   Although those brave enough to use tongue and pen to further the spread of points of view, verbal and written speech were dangerous both to the user as well as to the receiver.  Both sought and wielded great power.  As such, Authority has ubiquitousy sought control of individual and group expression through the use of terror (the threat of torture and/or mutilation), imprisonment, banishment and death.  State conquest of  indiviuals and nations has always sought control of the use (or the lack thereof) of weapons and knowledge.  All governments reserve the right (and the definition of this “right”) in the interests of “national security”.  This was as true in Elizabethan England, and it is now.  

     Then as now, the definition of a weapon goes beyond the firearm itself, and extends to speech, especially seditious speech, or for yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  Sedition can also be defined as the releasing of information over the internet concerning perceived government agency wrongs against its own citizens.  However, the government, depending upon the content of such revelations might consider such behavior traitorous, the consequences of which can involve capital punishment or imprisonment for life.  

   Writing what the State may define as a capital offense, then, was no different in Elizabethan England as it is now.  Therefore, whatever the government considers to be a threat to national security, whether you are Queen Elizabeth I or the United States government, trumps all moral arguments.  

   Pamphlets written by Thomas Nashe, or a play holding up to ridicule Queen Elizabeth I and her counselors (such as the play, The Isle of Dogs, allegedly co-written by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, for example) was enough to get them in a lot of hot water in a time when no one had a First Amendment or a Bill of Rights constitutional guarantee to the freedom of speech.  It turns out Nashe and Jonson skated on the charges of sedition, but could just as well have been killed, and with impunity.  Even with the protections provided by the Constitution of the United States, it is commonplace for newspapers and television reporting, to transmit to the world, government attacks on the First Amendment through efforts to limit its powers by finding or creating loopholes in current law.  

     Practicing the freedom of speech in Elizabethan England was tough to do, and is still tough now.   

     If I were a writer in Elizabethan England, and thought what I was saying or writing could cause me considerable difficulty, by government powers (or by any enemies I may have, enemies that would not hesitate to destroy my reputation, much less take my life), I would resort to the attribution of “Ignoto” in the blink of an eye.  

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