April 6, 2000
Shakespeare or De Vere: That is the Authorship Question
The question regarding the authorship of Shakespeare's works has been called "history's biggest literary whodunit" (Whalen). The name Shakespeare has always been synonymous with literary genius and he is recognized the world over as being the greatest poet and dramatist of all time. His works include such timeless classics as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Caesar and MacBeth. In addition to being a widely recognized author, Shakespeare is also one of the most intensely studied literary figures in history. With the articles and books published concerning the authorship controversy numbering in the thousands, the question on everyone's mind seems to be, "Who is the true author?"
The question of authorship has been plaguing literary scholars and Shakespeare enthusiasts alike since the late 1700's. The first doubts surfaced when the Rev. James Wilmot denounced Shakespeare and instead attributed authorship to Sir Francis Bacon (History). However, these doubts were not brought to the public's attention until the latter part of the nineteenth century. By 1884, more than two hundred and fifty books and articles had been published claiming Shakespeare was a fraud (Whalen). Famous authors such as Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry James and Mark Twain openly dismissed the man from Stratford-upon-Avon as the author. Whittier wrote, "Whether Bacon wrote the wonderful plays or not, I am quite sure the man Shakespeare neither did nor could" (Whalen). Since then, nearly sixty candidates have been considered including Queen Elizabeth herself. In the beginning, Bacon was the leading candidate, followed by Christopher Marlow and the sixth earl of Derby among others. Not until 1920 and the publication of J. Thomas Looney's book, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, was the Earl of Oxford considered a prominent candidate (Whalen). Over the course of the twentieth century, the field of candidates has been narrowed down to only two, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon and Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford. Over the last one hundred years, overwhelming evidence has shown that Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon could not be the author of the famous plays and poems attributed to him. The author, then, must be Edward de Vere.
Edward was born into the de Veres and the title of the "Seventeenth Earl of Oxford" at Castle Hedingham in Essex on April 22, 1550 (Ogburn, Shakespeare's). Edward began attending St. John's Cambridge at the age of nine and graduated at the age of fourteen. He received a second degree as Master of Art from Oxford at the young age of sixteen. Edward proved to be a very brilliant student and even went on to earn a legal degree from Gray's Inn (Ogburn, Shakespeare's). It was rumored for a time that the Earl had an affair with Queen Elizabeth after an observer of the court wrote, "the Queen delighteth more in his personage and dancing and his valientness than any other" (Ogburn, Shakespeare's). The Earl, however, married Anne, the daughter of Lord Burghley when he was twenty-two and she only fifteen. It was an unhappy marriage, but produced a child several years later. Oxford sailed against the Spanish Armada shortly after his wife's death in 1588. He was also named "commander of the horse" during the 1584 English occupation of Spain. In 1586, eighteen years before his death, the Queen awarded de Vere the immense annual sum of 1,000 pounds (equivalent to nearly $70,000 today). It is at this time that Oxford was presumed to have begun writing the plays later attributed to Shakespeare (Ogburn, Shakespeare). Edward de Vere was known to have maintained several acting troupes, one of which was inherited from this father, during his lifetime. It is also in the records that Oxford owned the lease on a troupe known as the Blackfriars, of which William Shakespeare later was a shareholder. Oxford died in 1604 (Ogburn, Shakespeare).
Unlike the Earl of Oxford, very little is known about the man from Stratford. This lack of evidence is the primary cause for the doubts surrounding the authorship of his works. All that is known of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon are a few sparse, incomplete facts. They are as follows: The man christened Gulielmus Shaksper (Ogburn, The man) was born on April 23, 1564 (Twain 28). He was born the son of a glove maker in the "small back settlement, which in that day was shabby and unclean, and densely illiterate," Stratford-upon-Avon (Twain 28). Virtually nothing is known about his first eighteen years except the conjecture that he attended the grammar school in Stratford from the age of seven to thirteen. He appears in the records again with his marriage to Anne Hathaway on November 27, 1582. Six months later when their first child was born, Shakespeare was only eighteen. Twin girls followed shortly after. Four years follow in which nothing is known of the man from Stratford. Then, in 1587 he left for London (without his family) and again disappeared from the records, this time for more than five years. In 1593 he reappeared on the official list of players and the next year he performed for the Queen. Three busy years followed, which he spent acting in troupes. In 1597 he bought New Palace in his hometown of Stratford, England (Twain 30). The next fourteen years were spent buying real estate, chasing and arresting debtors, hoarding grain during time of famine and demanding recompense for the two quarts of wine he served a preacher (Ogburn, The man). According to Charlton Ogburn, "He is surely the most unattractive man ever assigned an important place in literature." In 1616, he again shows up in the records in the form of a three-page will. William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 (Whalen 57).
The amount of evidence collected for the case against the man from Stratford is astonishing. One of the points suggesting Shakespeare could not have been the author is the fact that despite his fame as the greatest author of all time, nearly nothing is known or recorded about his life. This is especially troubling because, although "armies of scholars" have searched and analyzed thousands of documents from Shakespeare's time, they have found no evidence suggesting William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote anything, let alone the greatest literary works the world has ever seen (Whalen 16). No notes, drafts, journals, or letters exist that would prove Shakespeare was even literate. The only surviving evidence that Shakespeare could in fact write are six quavering, barely ledgeable signatures, all on legal documents (Bethell 36). Each time, "Shakespeare" is spelled differently and one could easily imagine a bailiff standing over his shoulder coaxing him along, "Keep going, now an S. That's it" (Bethell 36). Handwriting experts are not even sure that all six signatures were even written by the same person, and it is evident that the ill-written, child-like signatures were not the work of a man who, during his lifetime, must have written over a million words (Whalen 17).
Another curious aspect of the case against Shakespeare is the lack of evidence concerning his library; critics wonder if he owned a book at all. There is absolutely no mention of any books, letters or other literary material of any kind in his will, while other men of his time mentioned books in their wills. None of his heirs ever noted any books they had inherited or were left behind by Shakespeare. It is also rather peculiar that the author of thirty-seven plays, one hundred and fifty four Sonnets and two long narrative poems (eighteen of which were not yet published at the time of his death) would leave no mention of them or any other literary works in his otherwise detailed will. He left his sword to a friend, his clothes to a sister and even his second-best bed to his wife but alluded nothing of his magnificent manuscripts and writings (Whalen 17).
Even more disturbing is the total lack of any references to a William Shakespeare of Stratford in any of the written communication by his friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues or even critics in either Stratford or London. "The record is silent" (Whalen 17). There is no mention of his name in the list of actors who produced the plays he supposedly wrote and his name is mysteriously missing from over half the works later attributed to him. There are no clues that he took any interest in the publishing of his plays while he was alive, unlike other playwrights such as Ben Jonson, who made certain their plays were both published and accredited to them during their lifetime (Whalen 17). Furthermore, there is no record of Shakespeare receiving any sort of payment for his plays, although playwriting and acting were supposed to be his primary sources of income, and others like him were paid for their works (Whalen 19).
Another ambiguity is the tremendous silence that followed the death of the most famous author in history. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, which was identified years later only because his wife and daughter's graves were alongside his (Sobran 57). There are no records of any eulogies read at his funeral nor any mention by other famous authors and playwrights of his death (Whalen 16). In fact, as Richard Whalen observes in his book Shakespeare Who Was He?, "The silence surrounding the death of Will Shakespeare appears to go beyond indifference and almost amount to a rejection of the idea that he was anyone of any literary consequence."
The silence marking his death is made even curious because of the enormous attention other famous playwrights and actors of the time such as Ben Jonson, Edmund Spencer and Richard Burbage received upon their deaths. Jonson and Spencer were honored with a burial at Westminster Abby and Burbage was accorded numerous eulogies at his funeral (Whalen 16). Shakespeare received none of the special honors one would expect a famous person of the time to receive.
Conventional biographers and avid Stratfordians (the name commonly given to those who believe Shakespeare was the author), when forced to explain the large amounts of missing evidence, often rely on the supposition that he seemed to have willfully kept a low profile and "shunned the literary spotlight" (Whalen 19). This does not, however, explain the fact that until his death, William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon did not claim a single piece of writing or leave behind even a single clue that he was responsible for penning the most famous plays and poems ever recorded. In the words of Mark Twain, "He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of paris."
Yet another problem facing the Startfordian case is the fact that William Shakespeare was not of noble blood nor did he ever achieve the status of nobility during his lifetime, yet every one of his plays suggests an intimate knowledge of the nobility during that time. According to Charlton Ogburn, author of The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not (and Who He Was), "In the whole history of literature, no writer ever wrote more consistently from the point of view of a nobleman than Shakespeare." How then would Shakespeare, the son of peasant-class parents, have acquired the knowledge of the manners and customs of the aristocrats? The Stratfordians are quick to argue that during his time spent in London he loitered around the royal courts and from there assimilated the knowledge of the aristocratic society found in his plays (Twain 44). This is simply a guess. There is no way to prove that Shakespeare had at any time taken an interest in royalty. The author Anatole France once said, "Every man's work whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else is always a portrait of himself" (Ogburn, The man). This, however, is not the case with Shakespeare.
The most inexplicable aspect in the case against Shakespeare is the complete lack of connection between his shortage of education and the apparent scholastic sophistication exhibited throughout his works. As far as anyone knows, Shakespeare never had a day of schooling in his life, yet his writings portray the work of a highly educated man. According to Ogburn, "He was widely read in Greek and Latin classics not yet translated when he was writing. He was so steeped in the law that it "slips from him unawares". He was able to use a hundred musical terms. He had at his command the names of almost two hundred plants, over sixty birds and over eighty-five other animals." According to an article in the Journal of the District of Columbia Medical Society, "Shakespeare had enough knowledge of medicine to justify hanging out his shingle as an Elizabethan M.D., and that in some aspects of human physiology he was years and centuries ahead of his time" (Ogburn, The man).
According to Charlton Ogburn, "In language skills, Shakespeare stands alone". After a careful analysis of his works Shakespeare's vocabulary is said to consist of more than 17,677 words while the average well-educated person is known to use only about 4,000. The number of words (primarily of Latin origin) he is said to have introduced into the English language is astounding; the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with more than 3,000 (Ogburn, The man). In a four hundred page study conducted by Sister Miriam Joesph, she says, " We are dealing, in short, with a master of the language and peerless enhancer of it, one whose contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any other writer to any language" (Ogburn, The man). How could a man, who was accused by Ben Jonson as having "small Latin and less Greek" (Bethell 37) have written works with the obvious knowledge and sophistication shown above?
Where, too, did Shakespeare get his extensive information on soldiers, battles, land warfare, as well as naval and nautical matters without ever leaving the southeast of England (Twain 46)? Stratfordians often use the excuse that Shakespeare was a genius to brush off the inconsistencies in his educational background and his plays. Genius, however, must have some form of knowledge to draw upon. According to Whalen, "Great and sustained writing is the result of genius working on life experience and acquired knowledge, neither of which can be part of the innate gift of genius." Shakespeare enthusiasts also cite the supposed fact that he obtained his vast knowledge of the "law and itís intricacies" by acting as a Stratfordian law clerk for a brief period (Twain 44). It is also assumed that while in London he "amused himself" by studying law books and loitering about the law courts (Twain 44-45). This is only surmised. There is no real evidence any of this ever occurred.
Just as there is overwhelming evidence to disprove the case for Shakespeare as author, there is a startling amount of testimony for the Earl of Oxford as author. One of the most convincing clues to prove Edward de Vere was in fact the true author, was his imperative need to hide his identity as the writer of the plays with a clever pseudonym. During the Elizabethan era, the public theater was regarded as a place for "derelicts and scoundrels" and was "mistrusted and often surpressed by authorities for it's alleged traffic on corrupt material" (Wright 42). It can be safely assumed then that to be associated with such a place was to be disassociated from high society and the respect of the general public.
Many times playwrights were brought before the Privy Council for questioning, imprisoned, savagely beaten and possibly assassinated (as was, perhaps, Christopher Marlow). Therefore, it was common for playwrights of that time to publish their works using a penname to protect themselves and their families from persecution (Wright 42). According to Daniel Wright's article in Harpers Magazine "Convention discouraged many noblemen from identifying themselves with any works they composed. Some disdained publishing their work at all (a nobleman's proper weapons, and his reputation, were to be won by sword and shield, not achieved by pen and ink)."
Hence, de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford could not socially have afforded to publish his works under his own name. He therefore chose the name William Shakespeare as a pseudonym much like Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain) and Mary Ann Evan (George Eliot) did. Oxford would also have encountered other problems as a writer for the public stage and an active member of the royal court. The "satirical commentary on the life, mores and personages of the court" which were so much a part of Shakespeare's plays would have too easily been uncovered and angered the royalty if Edward de Vere were the known author (Wright 42). By adopting the penname Shakespeare, Oxford would have been able to write as he pleased without fear of angering the nobles whom he was poking fun at.
Edward de Vere was everything Shakespeare was not: well traveled, well educated and, above all, well bred. Living in the household of Sir William Cecil, a trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth, "Edward would have grown up in an atmosphere of rigorous intellectuality" (Ogburn, Shakespeare). Among his tutors was his maternal uncle, Arthur Golding, a noted scholar who was responsible for translating Ovid's Metamorphoses (a strong influence in many of Shakespeare's works). At the young age of twenty-one, de Vere wrote an "extraordinarily finished piece of work for one who would be a college junior today" (Ogburn, Shakespeare). He also wrote a very noteworthy introduction to a translation of Cardanus Comfort (Ogburn, Shakespeare). Charlton Ogburn notes, "In both it would be easy to see a future Shakespeare."
Edward de Vere was also well traveled. At the age of twenty-four, he was granted permission by the Queen to tour the continent of Europe (Ogburn, Shakespeare). Over the course of his life he traveled to Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice and Padua. Several of these cities later became the settings for such plays as The Two Gentlemen from Verona, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo & Juliet (Reed 166).
Perhaps the most influential point presented for the Oxfordian case is the striking resemblance between his life and Shakespeare's plays. In the words of Orson Welles, "I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don't agree, there are some awful funny coincidences to explain away" (Anderson 46). One of the most important discoveries to support the Oxfordian view is the 1570 English Bible in the "Geneva translation", which was once owned by the Earl himself. An eight year study of the de Vere Bible, done by a University of Massachusetts doctoral student, found that more than a quarter of the marked passages and annotations in the bible are found in Shakespeare's works. This amounts to more than two hundred and sixty-five parallels ranging from thematic, "sharing a motif, idea or trope," to verbal, "using names, phrases or wordings that suggest a specific biblical passage" (Anderson 47). This is truly an astonishing coincidence.
Another coincidence is the "haunting parallels with Shakespeare's plots, characters and circumstances [that] run through Oxford's life with unsettling frequency" (Reed 167). One such "haunting parallels" occurs in the play for the play Alls Well That Ends Well. At the opening, the devious young character Bertram becomes a French count upon his father's death, just as Oxford took the title of Earl (the equivalent to a French Count) after his own father's death. The play also finds Bertram resisting marriage to Helena, much like Oxford's experience with an unwanted marriage to Lord Burghley's daughter Anne. In the play, Bertram says, "I will not bed her" and proceeds to run away to Italy (Whalen 104-105). Oxford did marry Burghley's daughter, but did not produce an heir for more than three years after the marriage. Oxford was also reported to have escaped to the wars on the Continent and later to have traveled Italy extensively before being summoned back by the Queen (Whalen 105).
Another crucial correlation between Oxford's life and the plays takes place in Romeo & Juliet. The intense feud between the Capulets and Montegues found in the play Romeo & Juliet very closely resembles the relationship between the Oxford family and Anne Vavasor's family (Whalen 106). The sword fight at the beginning of the play between the Capulets and Montegues is strongly reminiscent of Oxford's own duel with Thomas Knyvet's men. Thomas Knyvet was a member of a rival political faction as well as a cousin of Anne Vavasor, Oxford's mistress and the mother of his illegitimate son. Knyvet and Vavasor's relation is exactly that of Tibilt and Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. In the play, as in real life, men were killed in the street fight to protect their family's honor and a higher power intervened in an attempt to stop the public brawling. In the play, it was Price Escalus of Verona, but in Oxford's duel it was Queen Elizabeth's men (Whalen 106). Another stirring discovery is the strong resemblance between certain passages in Romeo & Juliet and the poem written by Oxford for his mistress Anne Vavasor entitled Anne Vavasor's Echo (Beginners).
Of the plays mentioned, no single one contains more parallels to the Earl's life than does the play Hamlet (Whalen 107). According to many scholars, Hamlet is the most convincing point presented in the case for Edward de Vere as author. It has even been described as autobiographical. Richard Whalen comments, "The play is Shakespeare's longest by far, suggesting that the author went beyond simply writing a revenge play for the theatergoers at the Globe. The play seems to be a profound reflection on the author's life and concerns. It is pervaded by the pressure of personal emotion." In the play, Hamlet's father dies when he is still a young child. His mother quickly remarries, to Hamlet's dismay, a "man much inferior to his father" (Whalen 107). These events are very similar to those of Oxford's childhood. His father passed away when he was only twelve years old and his mother, the countess of Oxford, remarried three months later (Reed 168) to a commoner far below her social rank (Whalen 107).
Oxford's guardian and father-in-law, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, has long been recognized in Hamlet as the character Polonius, who was Hamlet's guardian in the play (Whalen 10). Scholars of the nineteenth century discovered and accepted the caricature long before the authorship controversy came to light. One clue that points to Oxford as the author, is Polonius' long-winded advice to his son, Laertes, which is an obvious parody of Burghley's advice to his own son in a letter. The case for Oxford's authorship ofHamlet is further strengthened by the fact that the previously mentioned letter could not have been viewed by anyone outside Burghley's close association, since the letter was not published until well after the death of he, Oxford and Shakespeare (Whalen 108). Further evidence to support the theory that Lord Burghley was satirized as Polonius in Hamlet, rests on the names probable origin. Several notes have been discovered that refer to Burghley by the nicknames "Polus" and "Pondus". Both names could be easily traversed to the name Polonius used in the play (Whalen 109).
Other references to Oxford's life abound in Hamlet.. At one time during the play, Hamlet reports that his ship was captured by pirates on his voyage home to England; Oxford's ship was captured twice, both times on return voyages to England (Whalen 110). In the play, Hamlet's best friend is Horatio; this is the actual name of Oxford's favorite cousin, Horatio de Vere, whom Oxford reportedly wished to make the heir of his earldom (Whalen 111).
The Sonnets are another powerful example of the relationship between Oxford's life and Shakespeare's writings. During the course of the poems, "Shakespeare" constantly drops hints about his identity. In an article in Harpers Magazine, Joseph Sobran observes, "The poets self-description matches Oxford perfectly". By the year 1590, the date in which the Sonnets are thought to have been composed, Edward de Vere was in his late forties and had aged considerably (Sobran 54). In the Sonnets, the author suggests the fact that death is near by writing his hopes for his "powerful rhyme" to become immortal and "outlive marble and the guilded monument of princes" and that his name be "buried" and "forgotten" upon his death (Sobran 54). Oxford's life was also known to be full of scandal, which is alluded to in the Sonnets when he describes himself as "poor," "despised" and "in disgrace" (Sobran 54).
When the Sonnets were published in 1609, the cryptic dedication supplied by the printer described the author of the works as "ever-living", "a term never applied to a person before his death" (Ogbran, The man). This leads one to believe that the author was deceased at the time of publication. Curiously enough, the Sonnets were published five years after Oxford's death, but seven year before Shakespeare's (Sobran 55). The last, and perhaps most striking piece of evidence found in the Sonnets, is the line "Every word [of my poetry] doth almost tell my name," suggesting, without a doubt, that Oxford's name was being concealed (Sobran 55).
If the name William Shakespeare was the pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, as the preponderance of evidence would suggest, the question that is most often asked next is, "Why the name "Shakespeare"? The Greek goddess Pallas Athena, the "mythological patron of the theatrical arts" was known to wear a visor which, when drawn, made her invisible and to carry an enormous spear. She was called the "spear-shaker" (Wright 43). Therefore, for a writer to be referred to as a "spear-shaker", or possibly even "Shake-speare", meant they were an invisible writer of plays, which makes the use of the name "Shakespeare" as a pen name seem perfectly appropriate for any writer wishing to conceal his identity (Wright 43). It makes perfect sense then that Edward would have chosen the name Shakespeare as his pseudonym. It is also coincidental that the crest of the Earl of Oxford is that of a lion shaking a broken spear (Wright 43).
Stratfordians often challenge this point with the fact that there was a real man named William Shakespeare who lived in Stratford, England and therefore the name found on the manuscripts was not simply a made-up pen name, but the name of an actual person. It is only logical, however, that if the pseudonym of the famous author were to be protected, it would have been necessary to have a stand-in, someone who could be pointed to as "Shakespeare" (Ogburn, The man). The man from Stratford-upon-Avon was most likely chosen to act as the stand-in because of the similarity between the names and the fact that he was at one time associated with the theater (Ogburn, The man).
With the realization that Oxford is, in fact, the author of Shakespeare's works, comes the inevitable question, "Does it really matter?" After all, does the true identity of the author make the plays any more or less entertaining, extraordinary, or thought-provoking? "Yes," is the general consensus from the Oxfordian party. One such Oxfordian, Charles Vere, argues, "If you get Shakespeare wrong, you get the Elizabethan Age wrong" (Matus 14-15). There is also the preoccupation with the injustice to the "real" author of the plays and the general interest in knowing the identity and more about the man who wrote such magnificent works. Charlton Ogburn writes, "Knowing about an author's life, moreover, can be expected to bring out much we might have otherwise overlooked in his writings." On the contrary, Stratfordians tend to believe the words of Hamlet when he said, "The play's the thing," meaning the quality of the works is all that matters (Anderson 47). The aspect that makes the authorship question so interesting, as well as frustrating, is the lack of proof either way. We may never know the true identity of Shakespeare and that is what makes the authorship question truly a question for the ages.
"A Beginners Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem." Shakespeare Oxford Society. (1995) March 21, 2000. <http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/guide.htm>.
Anderson, Mark K. "Thy Countenance Shakes Spears." Harper's Magazine April, 1999: 46-49.
Bethell, Tom. "A Never Writer." Harper's Magazine April, 1999: 36-38.
"History of Doubts Surrounding the Authorship of Shakespeare's Works." Shakespeare Oxford Society. (1995): March 21, 2000. <http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/histdoub.htm>.
Matus, Irvin Leigh. Shakespeare, In Fact. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Ogburn, Charlton. "Shakespeare's Self-Portrait." The Elizabethan Review. March 21, 2000. <http://www.elizreview.com/ogburn.htm>.
Ogburn, Charlton. "The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not (and Who He Was)." Harvard Magazine Online. (November 1974): March 23, 2000. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/debates/ogburnarticle.html>.
Reed, J.D. "Some Ado About Who Was, or Was Not, Shakepeare." Smithsonian Magazine September, 1987: 155-176.
Sobran, Joseph. "Every Word Doth Almost Tell My Name." Harper's Magazine April, 1999: 54-57.
Twain, Mark. Is Shakespeare Dead? New York and London:Harper Brothers Publishers, 1909.
Whalen, Richard F. Shakepeare-Who Was He? Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1994.
Wright, Daniel. "The Lie with Circumstance." Harper's Magazine April, 1999: 41-43.