Oxfordian Myths:
Benson's "Question Marks"


Peter A. Moore is a rather thoughtful Oxfordian. In his 1996 paper Recent Developments in the case for Oxford as Shakespeare, he advised his fellow Oxfordians to
Emphasize the strong arguments, de-emphasize the weaker ones, and get rid of the arguments of zero value.... Here are some simple examples of strong, weak, and zero arguments: "EVER-LIVING POET" is a strong argument, "Shake-speare" is a weaker argument, "Shakspere" versus "Shakespeare" is a zero argument, the Droeshout engraving and the Stratford monument are weak arguments at best, while John Benson's question marks offer a very strong argument.
Not all Oxfordians share Moore's ability to discriminate among arguments, and thus the Shakespeare Authorship page offers refutations on issues that Moore considers weak but that have impressed many other Oxfordians, such as the spelling and hyphenation of Shakespeare's name, the Droeshout engraving, and the Stratford monument. Since so thoughtful and discriminating an Oxfordian as Moore believes that the question marks in Benson's 1640 edition of Shakespeare's poems "offer a very strong argument," it behooves us to respond, as with this "very strong argument" out of the way, the Oxfordian cause should be "very much" weaker.

Moore elaborates on this "very strong argument":

The question marks in the frontispiece in John Benson's 1640 edition of Shakespeare's poems make a very strong argument that Benson regarded the First Folio's identification of the author as a fraud. Incidentally, I once read in a Stratfordian source (the name of which I can't recall) that Benson's question marks mean nothing because question and exclamation marks were used interchangeably in those days. This argument is false, and so I may as well go over it here. They used the question mark in exactly one place where we would use an exclamation mark, namely a rhetorical statement put as a question. For example, if I say, "I worked hard under the hot sun all day; was I ever tired", I would close with an exclamation mark because I'm not really asking a question (for another example, see S. Schoenbaum's statement beginning "What would we not give ...!", below). But Shakespeare's contemporaries would probably have used a question mark, because, after all, the statement is put in the grammatical form of a question. John Benson's words are exactly the opposite case. You can verify this old use of question marks in Percy Simpson's Shakespearian Punctuation (Oxford, 1911), 85-6, or by simply looking at the question and exclamation marks in the 1609 edition of the Sonnets. Or, see Stephen Booth's edition of the Sonnets, notes to numbers 95.3, 97.2-4, and 148.1-2.
Here are images showing two lines from Ben Jonson's long poem on Shakespeare in the First Folio and the first two lines from the poem from Benson's frontispice:


Moore's thesis is a "very strong" one -- at least it is very strongly expressed: the mere fact that question marks appear on Benson's frontispiece whereas exclamation points appear in Jonson's First Folio poem strongly indicates to Moore "that Benson regarded the First Folio's identification of the author as a fraud." Question marks appear after "applause" and "delight" in Benson where the First Folio has exclamation points. There is also a question mark following "Shakespeare" in Benson but not after "age" or "Stage." Moore does not allude to any other "evidence," he does not quote Benson's words at all (we shall hear from Benson later); he merely infers from the punctuation what Benson must have thought. A crucial part of Moore's argument is missing. While he maintains that there was only one circumstance under which a Renaissance text would use question marks where modern punctuation would use exclamation points, he neglects to provide any examples of question marks used by themselves to express doubt.

In modern usage a parenthetical question mark is sometimes used as a sign of doubt. If someone's dates are listed as "(1452?-1500)", then we understand the author to be in some doubt whether the person was born in 1452 but to be certain that he died in 1500. I can't think of a place where this usage occurs as early as 1640, the date of Benson's work. If this usage were common in Benson's day, it is surprising that Moore has not given us any examples whatsoever.

In any event, the marks Benson uses are not in parentheses. I can't think of any text of that time where, in the absence of any explicit statement of doubt, "question marks" alone are used within or at the end of a sentence to indicate the sort of doubt we now indicate by parenthetical question marks. Moore concludes that "Benson regarded the First Folios's identification of the author as a fraud," yet Moore has given us no reason to think that the presence of question marks was in and of itself strong evidence of doubt. Without showing us that question marks were used that way in Renaissance texts, Moore has, at best, only half an argument.

Let us turn our attention to the half-argument that Moore does present. How were question marks used? More specifically, were question marks and exclamation points ever used interchangeably in Benson's time? Moore assures us that the claim that they were is "false," that whenever we see question marks in an English Renaissance text used where modern punctuation would call for an exclamation point, we must be in the presence of "a rhetorical statement put as a question." He tells us to verify this by looking at Percy Simpson's Shakespearian Punctuation and at the notes to Stephen Booth's edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Taking Moore up on his challenge, I looked at each.

Percy Simpson's book primarily concerns punctuation in the First Folio; he discusses "The use of '?' in exclamations" on pages 85-86. According to Simpson, "Side by side with the modern note of exclamation the original question-mark was retained in sentences purely exclamatory" (85). He cites a number of examples and then explains,

With words like "what" and "how" the "?" -- though superseded for obvious reasons of convenience by "!" -- ought to be accepted. Irregular survivals of the earlier usage, such as the following, are perhaps questionable after the use of "!" was established.
Mal. Ile be reueng'd on the whole packe of you?
                                         Twelfe Night, v.i.390
While most of the examples given by Simpson follow the pattern noticed by Moore of question marks following rhetorical statements used as exclamations, the example from Twelfth Night does not. Simpson descibes it as a "survival of the earlier usage," when question marks were more commonly used even after exclamations that were not structured like questions. Simpson thus contradicts Moore's point; Malvolio's line is an exclamation that is not structured like a question, and yet is followed by a question mark rather than an exclamation point. Nor, as we shall soon see, is this line the only such exception in the First Folio.

What of Stephen Booth, Moore's other source for Renaissance punctuation practices? In his note to line 3 of Sonnet 95, Stephen Booth says,

Q's question mark presumably occurs because the exclamatory sentence beginning How is structured like a question (see 97.2,4, note). Q is not consistent about using question marks for such sentences; Q puts exclamation points after lines 4 and 12, both of which conclude interrogative-like exclamations
Booth uses "Q" as a shorthand for the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets. In his note to lines 2,4 of Sonnet 97, Booth says,
Question marks and exclamation points ("admiration points") are easily mixed up in a printer's font, and many Renaissance texts interchange them. Here, however, the Q punctuation was dictated by the Renaissance practice of sometimes retaining interrogatory punctuation in sentences which, like these, are exclamations structured like questions; compare 43.8.12; 48.4; 59.4; and 96.12; see 95.3, note.
Booth, like Simpson, flatly contradicts what Moore has told us. While Booth does state that in the Sonnets the punctuation sometimes (but not consistently) follows the practice described by Moore of using question marks for exclamations that were "structured like questions," Booth also states that "many Renaissance texts interchange" question marks and exclamation points. Thus on the very issue which Moore has told us is a "false" argument, and for which Moore's counter is to have us look at Simpson and Booth, we find both Simpson and Booth saying the exact opposite of Moore's position.

Who is right, Moore or Simpson and Booth? If Simpson and Booth are correct, it should be possible to find Renaissance texts in which question marks are used where one would expect exclamation points even when the exclamation is not structured like a question, as in Malvolio's line from Twelfth Night. As it happens, such examples are very easy to find. Here is an example from Hamlet as it appears in the First Folio.

How weary, stale, flat, and vnprofitable
Seemes to me all the vses of this world?
Fie on't?
If Moore's "rule" is correct, both "question marks" in this passage must follow an exclamation structured like a question. That explanation might work for the first instance, but "Fie on't" is not structured like a question, and its punctuation violates the rule that Moore would have us believe applied to all texts in the period. Here are more instances, all taken from act 2, scene 2 of the First Folio Hamlet. In each case I follow the First Folio text with the text as it appears in the Riverside Shakespeare.
FF: Mine honour'd Lord?
RE: My honor'd lord! [line 222]
This line is not structured as a question. It is not "How now, mine honour'd Lord?" or "What the deuce was that, mine honour'd lord?" The next example is very similar.
FF: My most deare lord?
RE: My most dear lord! [223]
Once again, we have a question mark following an exclamation that is not "a rhetorical statement put as a question." The next example is one that might be considered to follow the rule, if we had not already seen so many exceptions:
FF: O Iephta Iudge of Israel, what a Treasure had'st thou?
RE: O Jephtha, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou! [403-04]
Only twenty lines later, we find "Moore's rule" violated once again:
FF: O old friend?
RE: O my old friend! [422]
Here are some more examples from the same scene in which question marks appear in the First Folio where exclamation points are used in the Riverside. We cannot, indeed, say whether any of the question marks are due to the presence of "a rhetorical statement put as a question," which Moore tells us is the only time such question marks are used; or whether they are used because the two marks are used interchangeably, as they are in several lines in this scene that we have already seen. Perhaps the fact that, as Booth says, the marks are "easily mixed up in a printer's font" comes into play. What we can say is that rhetorical question or not, question marks often are used where modern editors use exclamation points:
FF: What, my yong Lady and Mistris?
RE: What, my young lady and mistress! [424-25]

FF: Oh what a Rogue and Pesant slaue am I?
RE: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! [550]

FF: For Hecuba?
RE: For Hecuba! [558]

FF: Who? What an Asse am I?
RE: Why, what an ass am I! [582]

Then consider this First Folio passage from the same scene:
What a piece of worke is a man! How Noble in Reason? How infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angell? in apprehension, how like a God the beauty of the world, the Parragon of Animals;
One might be tempted to render all those "question marks" as exclamation points (and also add "!" after "God" and "Animals"), but modern editors favor lighter punctuation, and thus replace most of them with commas. In like manner, modern editors of Ben Jonson may replace many of the "exclamation points" in his apostrophe to Shakespeare (some of which in Benson become question marks) with commas. It doesn't mean that they doubt Jonson meant to praise Shakespeare.

Moore's thesis was that "The question marks in the frontispiece in John Benson's 1640 edition of Shakespeare's poems make a very strong argument that Benson regarded the First Folio's identification of the author as a fraud." As we have seen, Moore misunderstands the punctuation conventions of Renaissance texts. Moore also mischaracterizes both Simpson's and Booth's descriptions of the use of question marks for exclamation points in Renaissance texts. We have shown a number of examples taken just from one scene in one play from the First Folio that are counterexamples to Moore's "rule." Moore has never shown us any examples from Renaissance texts where the mere presence of a question mark, in the absence of any expression of doubt, had the same meaning that in modern punctuation is conveyed by a question mark in parentheses. It is clear, then, that the question marks in the frontispiece cannot be taken as a sign that Benson "regarded the First Folio's identification of the author as a fraud."

Is there any other evidence in Benson's volume concerning the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems? If Benson had doubts that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, he never expressed them. In his epistle he says is presenting "some excellent and sweetly composed Poems, of Master William Shakespeare"; he does not say "of someone else publishing under the name of Shakespeare." He does not even say, "of Master? William? Shakespeare?" Benson's edition of Shakespeare's Poems is essentially derived from the Sonnets and the Passionate Pilgrim. If Benson had any doubt that the author of the sonnets was the same William Shakespeare who wrote the plays he never expressed it. He says in his epistle that the poems "had not the fortune ... to have the due accommodation of proportionate glory, with the rest of his everliving Workes..." By "Workes" he seems to mean the folio publication of the plays; the word "everliving" is taken from the dedication to the Sonnets. Benson's frontispiece borrows Jonson's praise in the First Folio and uses a portrait based on the Droeshout engraving, so Benson identifies the playwright with the author of the poems. Moreover, Benson includes three elegies to Shakespeare whose titles pick him out as the playwright of that name: "An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, William Sheakespeare," "On the Death of William Shakespeare, who died in April, Anno Dom. 1616," and "An Elegie on the death of that famous Writer and Actor, M. William Shakspeare." Clearly Benson identified William Shakespeare the author of the poems in his volume with the William Shakespeare who had been an actor and writer, a "dramatic poet," and who had died in April 1616. The only person who fits that description is William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon, and Benson expresses no doubt that this person wrote the poems and plays of Shakespeare.

In considering Moore's "very strong argument," we have seen that he is wrong about Renaissance punctuation. We have seen that the expert sources he cites, Simpson and Booth, flatly contradict his position. We have seen that numerous counterexamples to Moore's "rule" for the use of question marks as exclamation points may be found in just one scene of one play in the First Folio. Benson himself, by his words and editorship, not only conveys no doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare but distinctly identifies the actor, playwright, and poet William Shakespeare with the man of that name who died in April 1616. The evidence compels us to reject Moore's "very strong argument."

Moore's argument belongs to a common variety of Oxfordian reasoning. While the record shows powerful and unmistakable references to Shakespeare's authorship of his own works (see How We Know that Shakespeare Was Shakespeare at this site), Oxfordians ask us to ignore all the clear evidence and instead to extract inferences from vague "clues" or "hints" that speak only to Oxfordians. In the absence of any reference to the name's being a pseudonym, we are asked by Moore to infer that Benson's "question marks" should be taken as a powerful expression of doubt, although their use is perfectly compatible with punctuation found in other texts of the period. When we look at the context of such "hints" or "clues," we find out that the Oxfordian claim must, as always, be rejected. With this "very strong argument" out of the way, Oxfordians who had found Moore persuasive should now consider the case for Oxford materially weakened.

Note on Sources: I have used the online facsimile of Benson's 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems that is located at http://www.library.upenn.edu/etext/furness/poems. Quotations from the epistle to the Benson's edition, which does not appear in this facsimile, are taken from E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of the Facts and Problems (1930; reprinted Oxford: Clarendon, 1966): 1.557. I have also cited Percy Simpson, Shakespearean Punctuation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911); and Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: 1977).

Back to Shakespeare Authorship page.