Sir Sidney Lee


Edward D. Johnson

The present generation seems to know very little of Sir Sidney Lee, who in 1898 wrote A Life of William Shakespeare which for many years was considered to be the standard book on the subject in spite of his unscrupulous way of dealing with historical matters.
Lee was educated at the City of London School, and Balliol College, Oxford. His name was Solomon Lazarus Levi, but on the advice of Dr. Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol, he changed his name to Sidney Lee. In 1883, when he was 24, he became assistant Editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, and succeeded Mrs. Leslie Stephen as Editor in 1891. He wrote a Life of Queen Victoria in 1902 and in 1912 he wrote, as a supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography, an article on the life of King Edward VII, which caused considerable controversy. He was at that time known to the public as the author of A Life of William Shakespeare.
When Sidney Lee embarked upon the task of writing his Life of Shakespeare he had an unquestioning faith in the identity of the Stratford man with the author of the plays, but as he proceeded he was continually coming across facts which showed that there was nothing to show that Will Shakespeare possessed the knowledge or ability required for the writing of the Plays. He therefore had to twist the ascertained facts to agree with his faith.

The only established and undisputed facts concerning Will Shaksper's history could easily be written on a half-sheet of notepaper. This placed Lee in a dilemma, and he had to use his imagination. This he did so effectively that he was able to produce a book of 445 pages and a second edition published in 1916 running into 720 pages. A large part of the book consists of valuable literary and textual criticism, but when dealing with the known facts relating to Shakspere's life Lee was in some difficulty. This accounts for the fact that there are a great number of imaginative statements linked together by vague and declamatory phrases. One does not have to read far to find the following :

"There is a probability," "It is conjectured" "It is probable," "One can well imagine," "It may have been," "In all likelihood," "doubtless," "It is alleged," "it is possible," "beyond doubt," "it may be questioned," "it may well be, "might have," "there is little doubt," "it is reasonable to assume," "it is possible," "there is no external evidence," "a bare possibility," "it may be inferred," "it may be doubted," "there is some ground for assuming,'' "a bare likelihood," "no sustained evidence," "in all probability," "there is reason to believe," "it is commonly assumed;" "we can hardly doubt," "it may have been," "we have some reason to believe," "there is some ground for thinking," "whether or no," "possibly," "it seems probable," "one can well imagine."

In the first edition of Lee's book the adverb "doubtless" is found sixty-one times, and is used by him to raise conjecture to the level of probability. Now although this is very plausible, it is not evidence that would be accepted in a Court of Law.
The most scandalous statement in the whole of Lee's Life of Shakepeare is the following :

"Some misgivings arose in literary circles soon after Shakespeare's death, as to whether he had received appropriate sepulture. The news of Shakespeare's death reached London after the dramatist had been laid to rest amid his own people in Stratford. But men of letters raised a cry of regret that his ashes had not joined those of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont, in Westminster Abbey."

A biography of any man should contain facts. What does the ordinary reader gather from Lee's statement? Clearly that "men of letters" in "literary circles" in London were disturbed and shocked by the news that "the great dramatist had actually been buried at Stratford and not in Westminster Abbey as of course he ought to have been. This statement is a deliberate and calculated deception and was inserted by Lee to trick his readers and give them the impression that Will Shakespeare was recognised by his contemporaries as the author of the Shakespeare Plays. What are the real facts about this alleged "cry of regret? raised by "men of letters" in literary circles? The deadly facts are that the news of Will Shakespeare's death was received in absolute silence. Not one of the literary fraternity in London expressed any grief because the English poet and dramatist had passed away. No literary person was in any way interested in the death of Will Shakspere, the retired actor and tradesman of Stratford -on-Avon.
But Sir Sidney Lee must have had some grounds for making such an outrageous statement, and they appear to be as follows :

Six years after Shakspere died, one William Basse published in 1622 some lines which were afterwards prefixed to an Edition of Shakespeare's poems published in 1640, in which he bids "Renouned Spenser lie a thought more nigh to learned Chauncer, and rare Beaumont to a little nearer Spenser, to make room for Shakespeare in your three-fold, four-fold tomb" as though he was under the impression that Shakspere should have been buried in Westminster Abbey.
Here we have, six years after Shakspere died, one obscure person expressing the desire that Shakspere should have been, or should be buried in Westminster Abbey. Thus we find that William Basse has become "literary circles", and "Six years after," has become "soon after," and the plea of an obscure individual has become a "cry of regret from men of letters."
Sir Sidney Lee was a self-appointed authority on Shakespeare-so his readers have the right to assume that all his statements are correct and in accordance with the facts. His misrepresentation of the facts in the above statement was a fabrication, and absolutely unwarranted, but it was typical of Lee's methods of twisting facts for the purpose of glorifying Shakspere, and upholding the orthodox faith.
In a letter which Lee wrote was published in The Times on 20th December 1901, he speaks of the Baconian theory as a " foolish craze," "morbid psychology," and "madhouse chatter." He said inter alia, that Baconians suffer from "epidemic disease," and are "unworthy of serious attention from any but professed students of intellectual aberration." He also said that Baconians were "all ignorant, vain, and unable to test evidence," "that they lack scholarly habits of mind," and "when narrowly examined have invariably exhibited a tendency to monomania."
Now this is very strong language when one considers that a great number of eminent and intellectual men such as Sir Edward Arnold, Mr. G.C. Bompass, Q. C. , John Bright, S.T. Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dr. W. H. Furness, Lord Hamilton, O.W. Holmes, J. R. Lowell, Lord Palmerston, Lord Penzance, Judge Webb, J. G. Whittier, Mark Twain, and many others, all expressed the opinion that William Shakspere could hardly have been the author of the plays. All these men, according to these men, all of great ability and intelligence, can be accepted in preference to that of a man like Lee, who did not sruple to manipulate historical facts, and whose own vituperations laid him open to the charge of "monomania."
If the Baconian theory is a myth and not worthy of serious attention why did Lee get so excited about it? Why such a bitter tone and such unecessary vehemence? It is clear evidence of a petulant spirit which cannot examine any argument with calmness, or discuss it in moderate language. Speaking of Baconians the late W. E. Gladstone said,

"I have always regarded this discussion as one perfectly serious and to be respected in view of what Bacon was."

The theory is a reasonable one and Baconians are entitled to some measure of courtesy.