“It is Not I”: Sin, Authorship, and Will in Shakespeare and St. Paul

Posted By on April 11, 2011

O if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay.
Least the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
(Sonnet 71)

From one point of view, the Shakespeare authorship question is a debate — and a mystery — about a pronoun.

Who is the “I” who speaks to us with such direct, seemingly modern confidence, dispensing the instructions of Sonnet 71?  Who is this man who  warns us against “rehearsing” his “poor name,”  lest we be “mocked” by the “wise world” after his demise?

Is it the same “I” who, in Sonnet 110, has  gone “here and there” and made himself  “a motley to the view”?  Is it the “I”  who, in Sonnet 37, has been “made lame by fortune’s dearest spite”?  Is he the “I”  who, in Sonnet 76, writes “still all one, ever the same/And keep[s] invention in a noted weed,/That every word doth almost <t>ell” his “name” (italics supplied)?

Orthodox critics, naturally, are perplexed by these statements from the Sonnet author.  They do  not readily match the preferred biography. How had he made himself a “motley to the view”?  Where is the evidence for his being “lame” — literally or metaphorically?  Above all, why the reiterated emphasis on the mystery of his own name — a quality requiring concealment in Sonnet 71 but linguistically irrepressible in Sonnet 76?

In compensation, many Stratfordians make ready recourse to the idea that the Sonnets — the only surviving texts in which Shakespeare writes about himself in the first person — are constructed from the point of view of a literary persona. Just as the author has created Shylock, or Hamlet, or Olivia,  they suggest, he has constructed a persona — not to be identified with his own ego or experience — which has written the Sonnets from what is essentially an imaginary sense of context and set of relationships.

Proponents of this theory over the decades have included many distinguished scholars, among them Sir Sidney Lee, Samuel Schoenbaum, and James Shapiro, for whom “The effect of the Sonnets depends in part on the fiction of their confessional nature.”

The theory  is not only circular; it is suspiciously ad hoc, as if taken off the shelf of obsolete literary cliches and dusted off for an expedient book tour needed to distract the public from too much rethinking.

We might just as well argue that the Sonnets are  the accidental consequence of a billion monkeys all pounding away on keyboards in alternate universes until one of them hit the jackpot. Anything will do as long as we can be saved from the fate of having to think that the words themselves — not to mention the lived experiences behind them, which give them context, meaning, and humanity — are real.

In fact there is no evidence to support the persona theory.  But it does  supply a convenient pretext to explain why the primary datum of the literary experience deposited in the Sonnets does not correspond in any credible way — and in fact contradicts in many evident ways — the secondary datum of the assumed biography.

This mystery of  “I, Shakespeare,” is mirrored by the problem of ascertaining the identity of the annotator of  the de Vere Geneva Bible. Who was he? Some identify him with Homer’s Outis — Nobody.  We shall take up this question in some detail as our investigation proceeds.  But for now we may offer one definitive observation: whoever the annotator was, he read the volume with an exacting attention to detail.

There is no better illustration of this fact than the handwritten annotation found in Romans  7.20 (Figure One).   Please read the verse carefully.

Figure One: Romans 7.20 in de Vere 1570 Geneva Bible. Image Courtesy the Folger Shakespeare Library.

As you can see, the annotator supplies the “I” missing from the printed text of  Romans 7.20 in the STC 1427 copy of the de Vere Geneva Bible. Thought it is now four hundred and forty-one years since its publication, this misprint in the 1570 Geneva New Testament has  not been recorded by Bible historians or bibliographers.  But our annotator not only saw it — he corrected it.

This little “I,” a tiny speck of ink on a timeworn page, is the stuff of intellectual revolution.

In the post-Looney, post-Ogburn world, it assumes a potent force and an imaginative life of its own.  No mere proofreader’s correction,  the act of writing here becomes what linguists call a performative: the word does what it says (like the oath “I do” in the wedding ceremony).

In supplying it, the annotator inscribes himself in the volume,  quite literally becoming the Pauline “I.”  If unwilled, he did not do it —  instead the sin that dwelled in him did it — whatever it might have been. A  more elegant and potent merger of author, message, and reader is difficult to imagine.

You may be wondering how this concerns Shakespeare.

I did not know it when I first began my study of the de Vere Bible, but “sin” is among the most common nouns in the Shakespearean canon. It occurs  with variation well over two hundred times.  Since  the Greek word for “sin” — hamartia — is the same word Aristotle uses in the Poetics — the most influential work of literary criticism ever written — to describe a hero’s “tragic flaw” this may come as small surprise to those with even a little Greek.

For the bard,  “sin” is a  concept mediating between the religious and the literary. As such it becomes one of the great overarching themes of the Shakespearean oeuvre, especially in the  tragedies, and this theme is reflected in numerous Biblical allusions, from the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament, revealing the author’s close and sustained attention to theological principle and precept.

This is the point where Lt. Colombo stops, scratches his head, and looks dazed and confused: “Now sir, just one one more thing.  I’m sure this is an impertinent question, but, you see, I was wondering.” He takes the cigar butt out of his mouth and waves it absent-mindedly, as if trying to remember where he left his hat (which he is still wearing). “Of  all these many Shakespearean allusions to sin, I’m sure that none of them can  be traced back to Romans 7.20, right?”

Nope. The idea of Romans 7.20 — that sin is an agency foreign to the will —  is arguably the single most prominent of all Shakespearean ideas about sin.

Such commonplaces as the sins of Cain or Adam and Eve may be more readily apparent,  but the concept found in the corrected verse of the de Vere Bible  is ubiquitous, occurring as many as eleven times in the canon, including prominently in the Sonnets, and being among a handful of verses to which the bard alludes, definitely or probably, more than ten times.

Shakespeare’s affinity for this idea has been documented for well over a century, since Thomas Carter first drew attention to its importance in 1905, and confirmed  over the years by Richmond Noble (1935), Naseeb Shaheen (1987 etc.), Peter Milward (1984), Morris Westhoven  (1971), and Roy Battenhouse (Table One).

To the list of eight references to the verse recorded by these previous scholars, focused search has yielded two more, one to a very prominent and undeniable, Geneva-Bible only reference in the Sonnets (Stritmatter 1997).

According to Battenhouse, Angelo, the misguided Puritan in Measure for Measure, is a psychological type created from sustained meditation on the implications of the marked verse. He is  “a man self-divided by a law within his members” and  “at war with the law of the spirit” (174).

But who is the reader who supplied this correction to the de Vere copy of the 1570 Geneva Bible?

An entire industry of scholars, representing what Ron Rosenbaum has termed the “Shakespeare industrial complex”  and backed by such powerful insiders as Columbia Professor James Shapiro, would have us believe that the answer to this question is not only unknown but unknowable.

But whether this proposition is tenable or not, we can be sure of one thing: the passage corrected in the de Vere Geneva Bible left an indelible mark on Shakespeare’s imagination,  emerging over many years, as if by spontaneous recall, in many varied permutations throughout his work (Table One).

References to it appear in Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Othello, As You Like It, Alls Well that Ends WellTwelfth Night, and 2 Henry IV.

In my book you will be asked to consider a startling transformational proposition.

Action is often the custodian of memory. Shakespeare’s own intimate connection with the marked idea is not surprising in view of his documentary biography. As we can now see with our own eyes he himself supplied a defect to the printed copy of the verse, writing his “I” into the book of books.

He remembered what he had written.

Please revisit for the next installment when we consider Romans 7.20 in relation to Hamlet 4.2 and Sonnet 151.


Carter (1905):

Celia. Was’t you that did so oft contrive to kill him?

Oliver.Twas I, but ‘tis not I.  I do not shame /To tell you what I was, since my conversion/ So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am.
(As You Like It 4.2.136-9)

There’s something in me that reproves my fault,/ But such a headstrong potent fault it is/That it but mocks reproof.
(Twelfth Night 3.4.202)

Isabella.  There is a vice….
1st Lord.  Now, God delay our rebellion; as we are ourselves, how weake we are.
2nd Lord. Merely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons, we still see them reveal themselves, till they attain their abhorred ends: so he,  that in this action contrives against his own nobility in his proper stream o’erflows himself.
(All’s Well….4.3.18)[1]

Hamlet.  Give me your pardon sir, I have done you
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet! If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,/ And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,/ Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness.  If’t be so, Hamlet is of the faction which is wronged. His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
(Hamlet 4.2.226-39)

For which I would not plead, but that I must;/For which I must not plead, but that I am/ At war ‘twixt will and not will.          (Measure 2.2.29-93)

Doll. What says your Grace?
Falstaff. His Grace says that which his flesh rebels against. (2 Henry IV 2.4.357)[2]

Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1993) add:
When once our grace we have forgot,/ Nothing goes right – we would, and we would not.
(Measure for Measure 4.4.33-34)

Milward (1987 p.  12):

His will is not his own
(Hamlet 1.3.17)[3]

Your words and your performances are no kin together (Othello 4.2.184)

Westhoven (p.  33) also cites:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run,/ That our devices still are all overthrown,/Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own
(Hamlet 3.2.210-212)

Battenhouse finds Roman 7.20 the primary pretext for the character of Angelo in Measure for Measure; like the Pharisee Saul, Angelo is “a man self-divided by a law within his members at war with the law of the spirit” (p.  174).

Stritmatter (1997) demonstrates the dependence of Sonnet 151 on the conjunction of Romans 7.18-20 and the Genevan marginal note which accompanies it:

For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross bodies treason….

To which might be added:

Alas, our frailty is the cause,
Not we…. (Twelfth Night 2.2.31)


Table One: Shakespeare allusions to, or echoes of, Romans. 7.20.


[1] Carter (233) cites Romans 7.15.

[2] Carter also cites Galatians 5.17.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


13 Responses to ““It is Not I”: Sin, Authorship, and Will in Shakespeare and St. Paul”

  1. RicardoMena says:

    Our thoughts are ours,
    their ends none of our own – (Hamlet 3.2.210-212)

    Great quote full of aristotelian (platonic) teleology.

    I have no idea about De Vere’s particular conception on sin.
    Thank you!

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Ricardo,

    You are of course very welcome.

    It’s always great to learn that someone is reading and has appreciated something of value. Of course, there are many ideas about sin within the Shakespearean canon — the notion of sin as motivated by what in Freudian terminology we would call the “id” being only one very prominent one (and arguably the most prominent, which is intriguing in view of the de Vere annotation at that particular point).

    In future posts and in my book I’ll have a lot more to say about the concept of sin. For example, if we enlarge our concept and go beyond the direct use of the word or directly related concepts, we will discover that sin in Shakespeare is very often the result of prioritizing sight over insight. Shakespeare’s tragic characters live in a world of illusions of their own making, and fail to apprehend the invisible design that lies beneath the surface of the observable. They sin by “seeing” only what is obvious and hence deceptive, and the more confidence they place in “seeing,” the less real insight they possess (think, for example, the likable but tragically flawed Gloucester, who is punished by the loss of his eyes). This concept is marked in the de Vere Bible in three separate verses, all of them with significant echoes in the Shakespearean canon. And that’s not even getting into the fairly obvious implications of Shakespeare’s skeptical epistemology for the authorship question per se.

    Thanks again,


  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    PS, I failed to comment on the most interesting part of your response:

    Our thoughts are ours,
    their ends none of our own – (Hamlet 3.2.210-212)

    This is indeed a profound truth. More and more, Stratfordians insist on attempting to rigidly control the “ends.” They will not succeed. “The end crowns the work.” — to quote both Shakespeare and de Vere in one line. And after a man’s death his works will be discovered (Ecclesiasticus 14.13).

  4. RicardoMena says:

    Thank you.

    I have posted your essay on Venus and Adonis, A Law Case in Verse.

    In my humble oxfordian opinion, that essay is a paramount example of great scholarship, for, after all, it has been forgotten that the first work of the Poet contains a “purloined letter” written on the title page.

    If Beauclerk makes you say “Ooo” with his insightful intuitions on the Poet’s identity crisis, as professor Delayhode says in his review, that detail of yours has made a lot of spanish readers do the same. People (myself included) forget that it is in the details where beauty and truth lie (so Nabokov taught all the time).

    “The end crowns the work.” That’s a great quote which source my memory cannot trace now.

    I will buy your book on the Geneva Bible and share my doubts (and “Oos” and “Ahs”) with you for my forthcoming spanish book on De Vere. Spain is a virgen territory for oxfordians. So it is time to conquer them. Thank you again for your work.

  5. RicardoMena says:

    Nota Bene.- I have posted your A Law Case in Verse–in my blog. The sentence was cut short by my negligent memory.

  6. knitwitted says:


    Once again you are to be congratulated on your most extraordinary find of the missing “I’ in Romans 7.20 in this version of the Geneva bible. That no one else has ever noticed this printing error in itself is amazing but to find a copy which has been hand corrected… that really adds a wonderful insight into the mind of the annotator. Finds such as this always raise a lot of questions in my mind which your very well-written article is answering quite nicely. I’m looking forward to reading more of your articles regarding this copy of the Geneva bible.

    Kind regards,

  7. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thanks Knit!

  8. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Ricardo, you write : “In my humble Oxfordian opinion, that essay is a paramount example of great scholarship, for, after all, it has been forgotten that the first work of the Poet contains a “purloined letter” written on the title page.”

    Thanks. I am not always happy with the methods of reasoning that lie behind various “Tudor Heir” theories, but I am somewhat partial, as that article indicates, to some version of the original “PT1” heresy of Southampton as a royal heir. Certainly that premise allows one to understand both the poem itself and the character of its pre-texts (title page, dedication, etc.) in a more interesting and sophisticated manner than one could otherwise do, which I take in this instance to be one indicator of truth. Above all I am an advocate of open debate and discussion on these more “advanced” matters.

    “my forthcoming Spanish book on De Vere.”

    Fabulous! Please keep us posted. You can send me news clippings and I will pass them on to the new Shakespeare Fellowship newsletter editor Alex McNeil for publication in Shakespeare Matters. Also if you can send a copy I’ll make sure it gets reviewed.

  9. RicardoMena says:

    I sent you a message to your hotmail account explaining the book’s structure
    and hypothesis.

  10. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thanks. See my reply.

  11. bikefish says:

    Roger, this comment has nothing at all to do with your Shakespeare work (although it has been a treat to sample your scholarship here!) – I’m just using this forum as a way to say hello from a very old friend! I understand you can read and delete this as a private message.. I just got off the phone a bit ago with your brother David who caught me up on family news. We had been out of contact for a long time. Good to know that you are well and doing important work!
    Merlin Rainwater

  12. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Merlin, How lovely to hear from you after all these years. I hope life is treating you well in the pacific northwest, where I would dearly love to be….stay in touch!



  13. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Coasting the internet, I came upon this interesting quote from Thomas Merton that seems relevant to this discussion:

    “We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’and our ‘empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God… It is at best the venture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead…

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