|by L. James Hammond|
|© L. James Hammond 2020|
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The conventional view is that Shakespeare was a man from the small, country town of Stratford. Many people, however, reject the conventional view, and argue that Shakespeare was the pen name of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and that the Earl of Oxford had to conceal his authorship for social and political reasons.
A few facts are known about the man from Stratford, but nothing that one would expect to hear of a great poet. In 1598, during a time of scarcity, he was listed as a grain hoarder. His name appeared several times on lists of tax delinquents. In 1604, he sued a Stratford apothecary for failing to pay him for some malt. The poetry on his tombstone is of inferior quality — not the sort of poetry that one would expect to find on the tombstone of a great poet. When he died in 1616, his death went unremarked; by contrast, when the poet Spenser died in 1599, his death was the subject of numerous elegies by contemporary poets.
There’s no evidence that the Stratford man ever owned a book, though it isn’t difficult to find books once owned by other Elizabethan writers, such as Ben Jonson. In his will, the Stratford man mentions many articles of property, but he makes no mention of books or manuscripts. There’s no evidence that he ever wrote a letter, or was ever written about in a letter. In short, there’s no evidence that he was literate. Nothing written by the Stratford man has survived, with the exception of six signatures, three of which are incomplete, and three of which are written with great difficulty. Most of the people around him were illiterate: his parents, for example, were illiterate, and so too was his wife. The two men who attended at his wedding, being unable to write their names, made marks on the official documents. In Stratford, only six of the nineteen town officials could write their names.
The biography of the Stratford man is difficult to reconcile with the works of Shakespeare; nothing in the biography reminds us of the works. As Whitman said, “Of the person of Shakespeare, the record is almost a blank — it has no substance whatever.”1 Those who believe that the Stratford man wrote Shakespeare’s works find it difficult to write a biography of the great poet. Their attempts at biography contain little but conjecture. They argue, for example, that the school in Stratford must have been a good school, though there’s no evidence to suggest that it was. One of the leading advocates of the Stratford theory, A. L. Rowse, described Shakespeare as “this busy, prudent, discreet man... with his good nature and good business sense.”2 Isn’t this exactly what genius is not? What Shakespeare was not? What the works of Shakespeare make it plain he was not?
Shakespeare’s works contain a vast amount of knowledge, knowledge that the Stratford man could scarcely have acquired. Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of legal matters — not just an intuitive understanding of the law, but a knowledge of legal details and specifics. Shakespeare understood naval and military matters. He had an intimate knowledge of plants and animals. He was thoroughly versed in the pastimes of the nobility, such as falconry; he often uses images borrowed from falconry. He had a firm grasp of politics; Bismarck, the German statesman, noticed Shakespeare’s grasp of politics, and said that Shakespeare must have been “in touch with the great affairs of state [and] behind the scenes of political life.”3 (Bismarck was convinced that the Stratford man couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s works.)
How could the Stratford man have acquired such knowledge? Those who adhere to the Stratford theory have difficulty explaining Shakespeare’s vast knowledge; they try to minimize his knowledge and magnify his errors. On the other hand, those who adhere to the Oxford theory describe the poet as one of the best educated people of his time, or of any time.
|The Stratford man who is said to have written the plays and poems was baptized as Shakspere in 1564 and buried as Shakspere in 1616, and never used the name “Shake-speare” or “Shakespeare” in his life.... He had three children who were named Susanna, Judith and Hamnet — all Shakspere. Similarly, the Elizabethan writer called “Shakespeare” never used Shakspere. Shakspere’s family through four generations were illiterate, except that his daughter Susanna learnt to write her first name — very poorly.4|
The Shakespeare monument in Stratford contains a number of suspicious features. In the original monument (different from the current monument) the Stratford man is depicted holding a sack, as befits one who deals in grain, malt, etc. In the current monument, the Stratford man is depicted with a pen and a sheet of paper, and the sack of grain has become a cushion. The great poet is using a cushion as a writing table! Those who built the original monument were evidently trying to set up the Stratford man as the poet Shakespeare, and conceal Oxford’s authorship, but they had to depict the Stratford man as a grain dealer since he was known as such in Stratford. Those who built the current monument were bolder, and emphasized literature rather than grain, though they didn’t dare to erase all traces of the previous monument. So the sack of grain became a cushion, and the cushion became a writing table.
The First Folio, in which Shakespeare’s plays were collected and published in 1623, also contains a number of suspicious features. As James Boswell said in 1821, “there is something fishy”5 about the First Folio. The engraving of Shakespeare at the front of the First Folio — now the standard depiction of the poet — contains flaws that must have been intentional. Schoenbaum, a defender of the Stratford theory, described the engraving thus: “The huge head on the plate of ruff surmounts a disproportionately small tunic. One eye is lower and larger than the other, the hair does not balance at the sides, light comes from several directions.”6 Others have pointed out that the engraving depicts Shakespeare with two right eyes. Those responsible for the First Folio were evidently mocking the Stratford theory, while at the same time they had to conceal Oxford’s authorship.
The Stratford theory has long been viewed with suspicion. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Nietzsche, Freud, and many others rejected the Stratford theory. But it was not until 1920, not until the publication of J. T. Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified, that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, emerged as the real author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Since 1920, Looney’s work has been supplemented by additional evidence. In 1984, Charlton Ogburn presented much of the evidence in support of Oxford’s claim in The Mysterious William Shakespeare.
Who was Oxford? What is known of the life and character of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford?
Oxford was born in 1550, the only son of the 16th Earl of Oxford. In the hierarchy of the English nobility, his place was near the top. His father was an avid sportsman, and instilled in his son a taste for riding, hunting, falconry, etc. Like his ancestors before him, his father had his own troupe of actors; thus the young earl was exposed to drama from an early age. It was a cultured family: two of Oxford’s uncles, Surrey and Sheffield, were prominent poets, and another uncle, Arthur Golding, was a scholar and translator.
The Oxford family seat was Castle Hedingham, which is in Essex, about 50 miles northeast of London. Wikipedia calls Castle Hedingham “arguably the best preserved Norman keep in England.” It’s open to the public today. The land around the castle was given to Oxford’s ancestor by William the Conqueror around 1080, the castle was built around 1120.
When Oxford was 12, his father died.7 Like Gertrude in Hamlet, Oxford’s mother re-married soon after her husband’s death. After his father died, Oxford became a royal ward, and was put under the care of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s most powerful minister. While living in Burghley’s house, Oxford’s education was supervised by tutors, dancing instructors, etc.
When Oxford was 13, a poem was published called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, by one Arthur Brooke. Nothing is known of Arthur Brooke. Ogburn believes that Arthur Brooke is a pseudonym, and that the real author was Oxford: “If the narrator of Romeus and Juliet seems childish, he does so, I submit, for the best possible reason: he was little more than a child.”8 But the child enjoyed reading and writing, and like other writers — young and old — he wanted to see himself in print. The costs of publishing Romeus and Juliet must have been borne by Oxford himself — a common practice at that time.
Stratfordians argue that Shakespeare used existing works as the basis of many of his plays; they argue, for example, that Romeo and Juliet is based on Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, Hamlet is based on an existing play, the UrHamlet, Henry IV and Henry V are based on a play called Famous Victories of Henry the Fift, etc. Stratfordians also argue that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights; according to Stratfordians, this collaboration explains why certain of Shakespeare’s plays contain passages of inferior quality. And finally, Stratfordians argue that the playwrights Marlowe and Lyly influenced Shakespeare.
Oxfordians, on the other hand, argue that Shakespeare himself (that is, Oxford) wrote the earlier works — Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, etc. — and later revised and improved them. Oxfordians account for passages of inferior quality by saying that they were written when the poet was still young. Furthermore, Oxfordians argue that Shakespeare was the patron and teacher of Marlowe and Lyly, not the student of Marlowe and Lyly; they point out that Lyly was Oxford’s secretary. They argue that Oxford was the guiding spirit behind the novels ascribed to Lyly, and was thus the father of the English novel. Thus, the Oxford theory enlarges the place of Shakespeare in English literature, and rejects the Stratfordian contention that Shakespeare was a borrower of earlier works, a collaborator with inferior playwrights, a student of Marlowe, etc.
When Oxford was 14, his uncle, Arthur Golding, dedicated a book to him, and noted his interest in literature and his “pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding.”9 Golding’s dedication was dated from Cecil House, that is, the house of Lord Burghley, where Oxford lived as a royal ward; Golding was probably one of Oxford’s tutors.
When Oxford was 17, a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published. The translation purported to be by Golding. Ogburn is convinced, however, that the real translator was Oxford himself. Ogburn points out that Golding was a Puritan who translated many of Calvin’s sermons. Ovid’s Metamorphoses isn’t the sort of book that interested Golding. But it did interest Shakespeare; Shakespeare had an intimate knowledge of Ovid, and alluded to Ovid four times more often than he alluded to Vergil. Furthermore, the style of the translation is more reminiscent of Shakespeare than of Golding; the style is so rich and lively that Ezra Pound called it, “the most beautiful book in the language.” Thus, by the age of seventeen, Oxford has shown a strong interest in literature, has shown considerable literary talent, and has polished his talent by practice and labor. Such a beginning is what one would expect of a writer of Shakespeare’s ability.
When Oxford was 17, he slew a cook with his sword, but was exonerated on the grounds that the cook brought it on himself. Ogburn thinks the cook may have been a spy of Burghley’s, a spy whom Oxford discovered and slew in a fit of anger; if so, the slaying probably inspired Hamlet’s slaying of Polonius. Burghley had numerous spies on his payroll, and sometimes used them to learn about Oxford; likewise, Polonius uses a spy to learn about his son, Laertes.
When Oxford was 19, he acquired “editions of Chaucer, Plutarch in French, two books in Italian, and folio editions of Cicero and Plato, probably in Latin.”10 In the same year, a writer named Underdowne dedicated a book to Oxford, and warned him against being “too much addicted”11 to learning.
Oxford was hungry for experience and adventure of all kinds. When he was 19, the Northern Rebellion broke out, and Oxford was eager for action. He wrote Burghley,
|you have given me your good word to have me see the wars and services in strange and foreign places... now you will do me so much honor as that... I may be called to the service of my prince and country, as at this present troublous time a number are.|
In the same year, the French ambassador to England reported to his king that “Oxford was also seeking service in the French wars of religion.”12 Oxford was as eager to fight as he was to study and travel. Apparently Oxford got his wish, and served in the northern campaign under Lord Sussex.
At the time of the Spanish Armada (1588), Oxford wanted to be in the thick of the action, and he outfitted a ship at his own expense. Leicester reported that Oxford was “most willing to hazard his life in this quarrel.” When Oxford was offered command of the port of Harwich, he declined, saying it was a “place of no service nor credit.”
When Oxford was twenty-one, he participated in a tournament:
|The first, second and third of May 1571 was holden at Westminster before the Queen’s Majesty a solemn joust at the tilt, tourney and barriers. The challengers were Edward, Earl of Oxford, Charles Howard, Sir Henry Lee, and Christopher Hatton, esquire, who all did very valiantly, but the chief honor was given to the Earl of Oxford.|
One of the participants in the tournament said,
|Lord Oxford has performed his challenge at tilt, turn and barriers far above the expectation of the world.... There is no man of life and agility in every respect in the Court but the Earl of Oxford.|
When Oxford was 21, he wrote a Latin preface for a translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier. He also married Anne Cecil, daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. A recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays is a young woman’s love for a high-born man, a man ‘out of her star’. Examples are Ophelia and Hamlet, Anne Page and Fenton (in The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Helena and Bertram (in All’s Well That Ends Well). Like other recurring themes in Shakespeare’s plays, this theme has a parallel in Oxford’s life: Anne Cecil’s love for Oxford. (Though Burghley was a powerful minister, his origins were middle-class.)
When Oxford was 22, a book called A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres was published. Ogburn believes that Oxford wrote much of this book, which includes a prose narrative called The Adventures of Master F. I., as well as poetry. This prose narrative has been called the first English novel. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres is, in part, a satire of a courtier named Christopher Hatton, whom Shakespeare later satirized in Twelfth Night as Malvolio. In both Flowres and Twelfth Night, Hatton is portrayed as the author of a love letter addressed to a woman of high rank. Hatton is known to have been in love with Queen Elizabeth.
When Oxford was twenty-three, it was reported
|My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other.13|
Was the Queen in love with Oxford?
In the same year, Oxford wrote a prefatory letter and poem for a book called Cardanus Comfort. Scholars have long believed that this is the book in Hamlet’s hands when Polonius asks him what he’s reading. Cardanus Comfort contains criticisms of old men similar to those voiced by Hamlet; it also contains remarks on death, sleep and travel that bring to mind Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.
In the same year, a party of travelers complained to Burghley that Oxford and some of his cronies had assaulted them on the highway. A similar assault, on the same highway, takes place in Henry IV, Part One. Like Prince Hal, Oxford staged the assault for his own amusement. This incident, like the slaying of the cook five years earlier, shows that, in addition to being fond of literature, Oxford had a proclivity for rambunctious, even violent behavior. This proclivity is evident in Shakespeare’s plays, which depict violent actions with graphic realism; Ogburn says that Shakespeare “must have had in his make-up the potentiality of the violence he evoked with such gusto and realism.”14
Oxford was very different from the Shakespeare of Stratfordian biography, very different from the Shakespeare whom Rowse described as “this busy, prudent, discreet man...with his good nature and good business sense.” But Oxford wasn’t very different from other great writers; he wasn’t very different from Dostoyevsky, for example, who had the same proclivity for violence that we find in Oxford. Freud said that we should “reckon Dostoyevsky among the criminals [because of] his choice of material, which singles out from all others violent, murderous and egoistic characters, thus pointing to the existence of similar tendencies in his own soul.”15 Genius has a strong will and strong passions; it contains diverse and contradictory traits.
When Oxford was 24, he finally received permission to travel on the Continent from the reluctant Elizabeth. From Sicily, Oxford challenged all knights on the continent to joust with him for the honor of their prince. None accepted the challenge. Oxford’s proclivity for athletics, for jousting, for war and violence, may have contributed to his choice of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym.
Shakespeare’s plays display such an intimate knowledge of the Continent that some Stratfordians have thought that the Stratford man must have traveled on the Continent. The Merchant of Venice, for example, displays an intimate knowledge of the topography of Venice; scholars wondered how the Stratford man could have acquired such an intimate knowledge without going to Venice. There’s no evidence that the Stratford man went to Venice, or anywhere else on the Continent. Oxford, on the other hand, spent more than a year on the Continent, and lived in Venice for a time.
While Oxford was on the Continent, his wife had a baby. Suspecting that another man was the father of this baby, Oxford separated from his wife for five years. Later, however, he came to believe that Anne had been falsely accused. Several of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Othello, deal with women who are falsely accused of infidelity. By writing such plays, Ogburn thinks that Oxford was “expiating his condemnation of Anne.”16
Oxford spent money freely, and was often in debt. He was a generous patron of literary men; this is one reason why so many books were dedicated to him. Oxford’s free-spending ways remind us of James Joyce. The extravagance of Oxford and Joyce indicates that they were what Freud would call oral characters. Oral characters are sometimes preoccupied by words and language, as Oxford and Joyce were. Oxford and Joyce also shared a love of bawdy humor.
During his travels on the Continent, Oxford ran short of money, and wrote to Burghley in England, asking him to sell some of his (Oxford’s) estates. (In As You Like It, Rosalind says to Jaques, “I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men.’s”) Oxford told Burghley that he would use the proceeds from the sale of his estates to satisfy his creditors and to meet his own needs, “preferring my own necessity before theirs.”17 Oxford returned to this theme of “me first” in a later letter to Burghley: “always I have, and I will still, prefer mine own content before others.”18 Such selfishness is typical of genius, which gives itself to its work, but not to other people. As Shaw said, “the man of genius [is] a sublime altruist in his disregard of himself, an atrocious egoist in his disregard of others.”19
Ogburn doesn’t gloss over Oxford’s faults; he describes Oxford as “arrogant, unstable and erratic, self-centered, given to wild schemes for making money, a poor father and worse husband, high-handed and reckless in antagonizing those deserving of respectful treatment.”20 Some of the protagonists in Shakespeare’s plays possess these same faults; Bertram, the protagonist of All’s Well That Ends Well, treats his wife even worse than Oxford treated his. Shakespeare knew himself, knew his own faults, and depicted characters who had those faults. But he also knew his own virtues. As a character in All’s Well says during a conversation about Bertram, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.”21 Shakespeare’s self-knowledge enabled him to understand human nature in general.
While traveling on the Continent, Oxford may have encountered the poet George Chapman. In one of his plays, Chapman has a character say that he encountered Oxford in Germany, and that he found him to be
...the most goodly fashion’d man
I ever saw: from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute...
He was beside of spirit passing great
Valiant and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals.22
Percival Golding said of Oxford, “I will speak only what all men’s voices confirm: He was a man in mind and body absolutely accomplished with honorable endowments.”
When Oxford was crossing the English Channel on his way back to England, he was captured and then released by pirates. Likewise, Hamlet is captured and then released by pirates on his way back to England.
Oxford wasn’t pious; in fact, he was sometimes criticized for irreligion. Burghley once said that Oxford had “forgotten his duty to God.”23 Like Montaigne, Leonardo, and other Renaissance figures, Oxford had more respect for pagan antiquity than for Christianity. Renaissance Italy must have been a congenial place to Oxford. Oxford didn’t have that medieval longing for redemption that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had.
When Oxford was 26, eight of his poems were published (under his own name) in a volume called The Paradise of Dainty Devises. A Stratfordian critic, Steven May, wrote in 1991 that Oxford’s poems “create a dramatic break with everything known to have been written at the Elizabethan court up to that time.” An Elizabethan critic, William Webbe, wrote in 1586 about court poets who
|in the rare devices of poetry have been and yet are most excellent skilfull, among whom the right honorable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.|
When Oxford was 27, he invested in Martin Frobisher’s second voyage to the New World. Frobisher hoped to find the Northwest Passage, and to find gold (as Hamlet says, “I am but mad north-north-west”). Oxford was fascinated by the New World. When Oxford was 28, he borrowed money to invest in Frobisher’s third voyage. Oxford was the biggest investor in the voyage, “in bond” for 3,000 pounds/ducats, the same sum that Antonio is in bond for in The Merchant of Venice. Oxford was in bond to a man named Michael Lok; Antonio was in bond to Shylock. The expedition was a failure, and Oxford lost his investment.
When Oxford was 28, Gabriel Harvey made a speech before the Queen and her court. Part of this speech was addressed to Oxford: “For a long time past Phoebus Apollo has cultivated thy mind in the arts. English poetical measures have been sung by thee long enough....Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears.”24 Ogburn thinks that this speech may have inspired Oxford to use the pseudonym Shakespeare. In a later poem, Harvey called Oxford, “a passing singular odd man”; Oxford must have had the sort of eccentricities that often accompany genius.
When Oxford was 29, he quarreled with the poet Philip Sidney. The quarrel started at the tennis court of Whitehall Palace (in Hamlet, Polonius speaks of young men “falling out at tennis”). Sidney was the nephew of Oxford’s old enemy, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. (When Oxford’s father died, Dudley apparently swindled Oxford out of part of his inheritance.) It appeared that the Oxford-Sidney quarrel might lead to a duel. The Queen tried to prevent a duel by putting Oxford under house arrest for 3-4 months. Eventually the quarrel blew over.
In the same year, Oxford began a long and passionate affair with Anne Vavasour, by whom he had a son. Ogburn believes that Anne is the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, and that Anne was the model for Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and for Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Oxford apparently foresaw that Anne, who was only about twenty when he met her, would live to an advanced age. A character in Love’s Labour’s Lost tells Rosaline,
Had she been light like you,
Of such a merry, nimble, stirring spirit,
She might ha’ been a grandam ere she died.
And so may you; for a light heart lives long.25
Anne lived to be more than ninety.
Oxford’s affair with Anne Vavasour angered Elizabeth, who imprisoned Oxford and Anne in the Tower of London. It also angered Anne’s relatives, and sparked a series of sword duels between Oxford and Anne’s uncle, Thomas Knyvet. Oxford was wounded in the duels, and at least one of his servants was killed. Ogburn sees a parallel between the Capulet-Montague brawls, in Romeo and Juliet, and the Oxford-Knyvet brawls: “Oxford’s dangerous wound from Knyvet’s weapon”, Ogburn writes, “I take to be Mercutio’s from Tybalt’s.”26 Ogburn thinks that this wound may explain why the poet speaks, in the sonnets, of his lameness.
Oxford had a rich life — study, sport, war, travel, family, love, etc. His life and personality seem ideally suited for literary creativity. Oxford reminds one of Goethe, Byron, and other great writers, while the Stratford man doesn’t remind one of any writers. The Oxfordian Percy Allen wrote in 1932 that there were close parallels between Oxford and Byron with respect to “birth, circumstance, character, genius, and career.”
Like Oxford, Byron was surrounded by scandal and mired in debt. What Byron’s girlfriend said of him could be said of Oxford also: he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” What a contrast with the Stratford man — “this busy, prudent, discreet man... with his good nature and good business sense”! Oxford was a man of large soul, just the sort of person we would expect from the plays and poems.
When Oxford was 30, he was employing at least one company of actors — a clear indication that he had a strong interest in drama.
|On 9 June 1580 Lord Burghley wrote to John Hatcher, Vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, requesting that Oxford’s Men be allowed to “repair to that university and there to make show of such plays and interludes as have been heretofore played by them publicly, as well before the Queen’s Majesty as in the city of London”.... Oxford’s Men also had success touring the provinces, as indicated by records of performances from the years 1580 through 1587, and in 1587 the company was one of four principal companies performing in London.|
One Puritan wrote,
|The daily abuse of stage plays is such an offence to the godly and so great a hindrance to the Gospel as the papists do exceedingly rejoice at the blemish thereof, and not without cause, for every day in the week the players’ bills are set up in sundry places of the city, some in the name of her Majesty’s men, some the Earl of Leicester’s, some the Earl of Oxford’s, the lord Admiral’s, & divers others... whereat the wicked faction of Rome laugheth for joy while the godly weep for sorrow.|
Oxford also kept a company of musicians, “as evidenced by payments in 1584-5 by the cities of Oxford and Barnstaple to ‘the Earl of Oxford’s musicians’.” Oxford was a patron of the composer John Farmer. The Stratfordian Steven May calls Oxford
|a nobleman with extraordinary intellectual interests and commitments [and with a] lifelong devotion to learning.... The range of Oxford’s patronage is as remarkable as its substance.... Among the thirty-three works dedicated to the Earl, six deal with religion and philosophy, two with music, and three with medicine; but the focus of his patronage was literary.27|
In 1586, when Oxford was 36, Elizabeth granted him an annuity of £1,000; he continued receiving this annuity during the last eighteen years of his life. £1,000 was a very large sum at that time. Ogburn believes that the annuity was granted in 1586 because war with Spain was looming, and Elizabeth wanted to promote a spirit of patriotism and national unity. Such a spirit is found in many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Henry V and the other plays dealing with English history. Before the age of movies and television, drama was an important force in society, a force that any monarch would want to utilize.
In the same year in which he received this annuity, Oxford served on the tribunal that was sitting in judgment on Mary Queen of Scots. Portia’s speech on mercy in The Merchant of Venice seems to have been designed to dissuade Elizabeth from executing Mary. Portia says that mercy is
....mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown....
Earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.28
Ogburn asks, “Could the speech be any more explicitly an admonishment to a monarch?”29
When Oxford was 38, his wife, Anne Cecil, died of a fever. She was just 31. Oxford and Anne had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Their three surviving children were Elizabeth, Bridget, and Susan.30 Three years after Anne’s death, Oxford married Elizabeth Trentham, a Maid of Honor to the Queen. Oxford and Elizabeth had one child, Henry de Vere, who became the 18th Earl of Oxford.
When Oxford was 39, a writer named George Puttenham said, “I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.”31 Puttenham goes on to say that there are noblemen around the Queen “who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.”
Little is heard of Oxford during the last fifteen years of his life. He withdrew from the public eye, and from London. This long period of seclusion was an ideal opportunity for literary labor, an opportunity for Oxford to polish his existing works, and create new ones.
When Oxford was 48, Francis Meres published a book called Palladis Tamia (Athena’s Treasury), in which he listed Oxford as one of “the best for Comedy amongst us.”
When Oxford was 49, an English composer, John Farmer, dedicated a book of songs to him. “Without flattery be it spoke,” wrote Farmer in his dedication, “those that know your Lordship know this, that using this science as a recreation, your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession.”32 Ogburn mentions two musical pieces that may have been composed by Oxford. Oxford’s fondness for music is evident in Shakespeare’s plays.
When Oxford was 50, he wrote his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, and asked him to use his influence to help Oxford obtain the Governorship of the Isle of Jersey. Like other letters written by Oxford, this letter uses language reminiscent of Shakespeare’s: “Although my bad success in former suits to Her Majesty have given me cause to bury my hopes in the deep abyss and bottom of despair, rather than now to attempt, after so many trials made in vain and so many opportunities escaped, the effect of fair words or fruits of golden promises....”33
The phrase “deep abyss and bottom of despair” resembles a phrase from The Tempest: “dark backward and abysm of time.” Likewise, a phrase from another Oxford letter resembles a phrase from Measure for Measure:
Letter: “for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”34
Measure for Measure: “for truth is truth to the end of reckoning.”
As I mentioned earlier, Oxford wrote some early poems under his own name. Like his prose, Oxford’s poetry is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s. In fact, when lines of Oxford’s poetry are interspersed with lines of Shakespeare’s poetry, scholars can’t distinguish Oxford’s from Shakespeare’s. Oxfordians admit, however, that the poetry Oxford wrote under his own name isn’t as good, on the whole, as the poetry he wrote under his pseudonym. This is to be expected, since Oxford only wrote under his own name when he was young, and when his literary ability hadn’t fully matured.
Before Looney equated Oxford with Shakespeare, scholars appreciated the merits of Oxford’s early poetry. Macaulay, for example, said that Oxford had “won for himself an honorable place among the early masters of English poetry.”35 Speaking of poets in the first half of Elizabeth’s reign, E. K. Chambers, a leading Stratfordian, said, “the most hopeful of them was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford [who] became mute in late life.”36 But promising young writers rarely become “mute in late life.”
According to the Stratford theory, not only did Oxford become mute in late life, but so too did Shakespeare himself. Stratfordians believe that Shakespeare ceased writing while still in his forties, and wrote nothing during the last years of his life. But mature poets are even less likely to become mute than young poets. Henry James, according to his biographer, “could under no circumstances swallow the legend that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest and then gave up writing. This was not the way of a genius with so much abundance in him.”37 James said, “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
In 1603, when Oxford was 53, Elizabeth died, and was succeeded by James. Sonnet 107 refers to these events, and also includes the phrase “Death to me subscribes.” Oxford died the following year. In earlier sonnets, the poet frequently speaks of aging, though the Stratford man was only in his thirties at the time of composition.
Most scholars agree that the young man addressed in many sonnets was the Earl of Southampton. Oxford had close ties to the Earl of Southampton. A marriage between Southampton and Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth, was proposed. Marriage negotiations dragged on from 1590 until 1594, when Southampton decided against the match, and paid £5,000 as compensation.38
The sonnets provide evidence that “Shakespeare” was a nobleman. He says, “Thy love is better than high birth to me” (sonnet 91), and “Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy” (sonnet 125). As Lord Great Chamberlain, Oxford bore a canopy over Elizabeth. Furthermore, the author of the sonnets dares to criticize Southampton, a nobleman.
Some of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays remind us of Oxford himself. Two examples are Bertram, the protagonist of All’s Well That Ends Well, and Posthumus, the protagonist of Cymbeline. Like Oxford, Bertram and Posthumus were of noble birth, and became royal wards after their fathers died. Like Oxford, Posthumus married his guardian’s daughter, and later was taken in by false reports of his wife’s infidelity. Like Oxford, Bertram and Posthumus treated their wives harshly, and behaved selfishly. Like Oxford, Bertram and Posthumus were hungry for military glory. Like Oxford, Bertram complains bitterly about being kept at court, and not permitted to travel; like Oxford, Bertram is so eager for foreign adventure that he leaves the court secretly, without his monarch’s permission.
King Lear also reminds us of Oxford. Like Lear, Oxford was a widower with three daughters, and like Lear, Oxford divided his property (Castle Hedingham) among his daughters.
But the character in which Oxford expressed himself most fully is Hamlet. Hamlet is lifelike and credible because he’s based on the person the author knew best — himself. Critics have often described Hamlet as a genius; Mark Van Doren called Hamlet, “that unique thing in literature, a credible genius.”39 Needless to say, Hamlet’s creator was also a genius. Frank Harris argued that Hamlet’s traits can be found in many other Shakespearean characters; “if we combine”, writes Harris, “the characters of Romeo, the poet-lover, and of Jaques, the pensive-sad philosopher [in As You Like It], we have almost the complete Hamlet.”40 Harris argues that the recurrence of Hamlet’s traits in other characters indicates that Hamlet represents the author himself. Another critic, Louis Halle, pointed out that Hamlet’s philosophical attitude is also found in the sonnets, “which might have been written by Hamlet as he grew older.”41
It’s widely accepted that Polonius is a satire of Lord Burghley, Oxford’s father-in-law. Oxford married Burghley’s daughter, while Hamlet has a relationship with Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia. Burghley wrote maxims for his son that are similar to those that Polonius gives the departing Laertes. Stratfordians are unable to explain how the Stratford man could have become acquainted with the maxims that Burghley wrote for his son, and they’re also unable to explain how the Stratford man dared to satirize Elizabeth’s most powerful minister.
|Sigmund Freud was among those to recognise that the situation and character of Hamlet closely correspond to Oxford’s life at the age of 21. Both Hamlet and Edward de Vere were brought up at court, with a distaste for the Queen’s lover. Both lack respect for the counsellor; both are involved romantically with the counsellor’s daughter; both have a rivalry with the counsellor’s son. Both enjoy the company of players and understand their influence over public opinion. Both are good at fencing and both kill a man with a rapier.... Polonius (named Corambis in Q1) is clearly a caricature of Lord Burghley [whose motto was Cor unum via una]. Contemporary allusions to a play about Hamlet in 1589, 1594 and 1596... are probably to an early play by Oxford (the Q1 text), which he later revised and enlarged into the Q2 version.42|
Ogburn discusses several passages from Shakespeare’s plays in which the author seems to be ridiculing the idea that his works had been written by the Stratford man. In As You Like It, the ex-courtier Touchstone seems to represent Oxford, while William, the character who has “a pretty wit” but is “not learned”, seems to represent the Stratford man. Touchstone tells William that “drink, being pour’d out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse [himself] is he. Now, you are not ipse, for I am he.”43 This remark has no relation to the rest of the play.
In 1605, one year after Oxford’s death, an anonymous book about the Russian political situation mentioned the passing of “the late English... Ovid.” We noted earlier that Shakespeare was much influenced by Ovid, and may have translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses when he was 17.
In 1609, the Sonnets were published, with a dedication that speaks of, “our ever-living poet,” a phrase that’s better suited to a deceased poet like Oxford than a living man like Mr. Stratford. If the author were alive in 1609, we would expect that the author would write the dedication, but this dedication is written by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe. Wikipedia says, “The initials ‘T.T.’ are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead.” Mr. Stratford was neither out of the country nor dead, but Oxford had been dead for five years.
Bruce Smith, a Stratfordian scholar, writes, “By every indication, Shakespeare had nothing to do with publishing the volume of ‘Shakespeares Sonnets’ that the printer Thomas Thorpe put on the market in 1609.” The 1609 volume was “full of errors,” while Shakespeare’s narrative poems had been “very carefully proof-read.”44 And it isn’t likely that Thorpe pirated the book; Stratfordians admit that Thorpe was a “reputable publisher.” The author of the Sonnets had “nothing to do” with their publication because he was dead.
Here’s the original title page of the Sonnets:
The hypen in “Shake-speares” suggests a pseudonym; when “Shakespeare” was a real person’s name, it was never hyphenated. The two horizontal lines, where the author’s name usually appears, have a blank between them, suggesting a mystery about the author’s identity. Here’s the title page of Marlowe’s Rich Jew of Malta, with the author’s name between the lines:
The blank lines, like the hyphenated “Shake-speare,” suggest some sort of mystery about the author. I challenge Stratfordians to point out another title page with blank lines, and a case where a real person used the hyphenated “Shake-speare.”45
In 1622, Henry Peacham published The Compleat Gentleman, in which he listed those who, during Elizabeth’s reign, “honored poesie with their pens and practice...Edward Earl of Oxford, the Lord Buckhurst, Henry Lord Paget, our phoenix, the noble Sir Philip Sidney, M. Edward Dyer, M. Edmund Spenser, Master Samuel Daniel, with sundry others whom (together with those admirable wits yet living and so well known) not out of envy, but to avoid tediousness, I overpass.” Why was Shakespeare not mentioned? The Stratford man, having died in 1616, wasn’t one of those poets “yet living.” “It can only be”, says Ogburn, “that his name was subsumed in another’s.”46
In 1624, Thomas Vicars published a book listing four outstanding English poets, but not mentioning Shakespeare. In the 1628 edition of this book, Vicars mentioned “that famous poet who takes a name from ‘shaking’ and ‘spear’ [celebrem illum poeta qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet].” This clearly suggests that the “famous poet” was writing under a pseudonym.47
Though the concealment of Oxford’s authorship is one of the strangest facts in the history of literature, it isn’t entirely without precedent. The works ascribed to the Roman playwright Terence were thought by many to have been written by someone else — by a nobleman who didn’t want his name associated with plays.48 In the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott published several novels anonymously to avoid disgracing the family name.
Music and visual art, like literature, were long considered unworthy of a nobleman. The ancient Greeks viewed even the greatest sculptors as mere laborers. In medieval times, the social position of painters was similar to that of carpenters and other craftsmen. Two centuries ago, musicians were little better than servants; Haydn wore a servant’s livery, and Mozart sometimes ate at the servants’ table. Not until the Romantic period, not until the early nineteenth century, did writers and artists begin to attain the high status that they enjoy today. Even Stratfordians admit that writing plays was unsuitable for a person in Oxford’s position; a nobleman was expected to confine himself to otium and bellum, leisure and war.
Once the Stratford theory became an established tradition, it acquired a weight of its own, notwithstanding the flimsy evidence on which it rested. People grew up believing in the Stratford theory; they imbibed it with their mother’s milk. We can see a similar process at work with the Bible. In ancient times, the first five books of the Old Testament were attributed to Moses. Though there was little evidence to support this attribution, it gradually became an established tradition. For twenty-one centuries, Jews and Christians alike accepted this tradition. Then, in the seventeenth century, scholars began to question this tradition, and soon became convinced that Moses wasn’t the real author. Though later research confirmed this conclusion, many people continued to believe the old tradition.
Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified converted many, including Freud, to the Oxford theory. The academic establishment, however, has clung tenaciously to the Stratford theory. Ogburn’s book discusses how the establishment has suppressed the Oxford theory, instead of responding to it openly and fairly. The suppression of the Oxford theory, Ogburn argues, is similar to the suppression of the theory of continental drift (that is, the theory that the continents had at one time been joined together, and later drifted apart). Wegener set forth the theory of continental drift in 1912, but the establishment clung to the old way of thinking, and more than fifty years passed before Wegener’s theory was accepted in academia.
Ogburn notes that Wegener wasn’t a specialist in geology; Ogburn quotes Nigel Calder, who describes Wegener as, “a generalist, one of those rare men who do not fear to learn and use branches of knowledge in which they are not formally trained, in order to arrive at a greater synthesis: conversely, over-specialization among Wegener’s opponents blinkered their imagination.”49 The leading advocates of the Oxford theory, Looney and Ogburn, weren’t specialists or English professors. Shakespeare specialists may be the last people to see the truth about Shakespeare.
A brief essay can’t do justice to the case for Oxford; it can only present a small fraction of the evidence for Oxford. Only a massive work like Ogburn’s can do justice to the case for Oxford. But few laymen want to read a massive work on the Shakespeare controversy, so the Shakespeare controversy remains the domain of specialists, specialists who are committed to the Stratford theory, who have staked their reputations and their careers on the Stratford theory, and who can’t look at the Oxford theory with an open mind. Therefore, we can expect the Stratford theory to endure for a few more decades, before passing into history.
|1.||The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, 1984, Dodd, Mead & Co., ch. 3. back
|2.||ibid, ch. 6 back
|3.||ibid, ch. 14 back
|4.||“The Case against William of Stratford,” by Tony Pointon, De Vere Society Newsletter, Oct. 2015 back
|5.||Ogburn, ch. 13 back
|6.||ibid, ch. 13 back
|7.||What was the cause of death? Before his death, Oxford 16 seemed to be in good health, and he was only 45 years old. The chief beneficiary of John de Vere’s death was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Dudley gained control of the vast Oxford estates. Was Oxford’s father murdered by Dudley? “Throughout his lifetime Leicester was repeatedly accused of being responsible for the deaths of persons whose continued existence hampered his ambitions and interests.” (oxford-shakespeare.com)
If Dudley murdered Oxford’s father, was Oxford aware of it? Is that one reason why Oxford later quarreled with Dudley? back
|8.||Ogburn, ch. 21 back
|9.||ibid, ch. 21 back
|10.||Nina Green, short biography of Oxford at oxford-shakespeare.com back
|11.||Ogburn, ch. 22 back
|13.||Nina Green writes, “A decade later, in 1584, Mary, Queen of Scots, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth filled with allegations of sexual misconduct against the Queen... wrote that ‘even the Earl of Oxford dared not reconcile himself with his wife for fear of losing the favor which he hoped to receive by making love to you.’” back
|14.||Ogburn, ch. 13 back
|15.||“Dostoyevsky and Parricide”, 1928 back
|16.||Ogburn, ch. 28 back
|17.||ibid, ch. 27 back
|18.||ibid, ch. 28 back
|19.||Man and Superman, preface back
|20.||Ogburn, ch. 19 back
|21.||IV, iii, 74 back
|22.||Ogburn, ch. 19 back
|23.||ibid, ch. 32 back
|24.||ibid, ch. 29 back
|25.||V, ii, 16 back
|26.||Ogburn, ch. 32. As if he didn’t have enough trouble with Knyvet, Oxford received a written challenge from Thomas Vavasour, Anne’s brother. Apparently Oxford ignored this challenge. back
|27.||May, The Poems of Edward de Vere, p. 9, quoted in Green’s biography of Oxford back
|28.||IV, i, 293, 201 back
|29.||Ogburn, ch. 34 back
|30.||Susan married Philip Herbert. The First Folio was dedicated to Philip and his brother William, who probably financed its printing. The Herbert brothers were “close political allies of both Henrys” (Henry Wriothesley and Henry de Vere). The Henrys would naturally want to conceal their illegitimate birth, but they would also want Oxford’s literary works to be preserved. Oxford’s manuscripts were probably in the hands of his heir, Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford. The Herberts and the Henrys published the First Folio with Ben Jonson’s help; they tried to both conceal and reveal Oxford’s authorship. They published only plays in the First Folio, not publishing, or even mentioning, Oxford’s more personal works, the Sonnets and the narrative poems (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece). back
|31.||Ogburn, ch. 34 back
|32.||ibid, ch. 37 back
|33.||ibid, ch. 37. Letter written July 1600, see oxford-shakespeare.com back
|34.||Letter to Robert Cecil, May 7, 1603, see oxford-shakespeare.com back
|35.||Ogburn, ch. 19 back
|36.||ibid, ch. 12 back
|37.||ibid, ch. 14 back
|38.||Nina Green, short biography of Oxford at oxford-shakespeare.com back
|39.||ibid, ch. 18 back
|40.||ibid, ch. 18 back
|41.||ibid, ch. 18
|42.||De Vere Society Newsletter, Oct. 2015 back
|43.||V, i, 40 back
Hamill points out that the title suggests a deceased author: “By its heading alone: ‘Shake-speares Sonnets, Never before Imprinted,’ the book not only communicates a sense of privacy breached, but that these are all the sonnets that ‘Shake-speare’ ever wrote, or ever will write. The title itself carries a sense of finality.” back
|45.||Richard Kennedy discussed the blank lines in a witty little pamphlet called Between the Lines.
|46.||Ogburn, ch. 37 back
|47.||Vicars’ book was written in Latin, and was entitled Manuductio ad artem rhetoricam (Manual of the Art of Rhetoric). The first edition was published in 1621, the second in 1624, and the third in 1628. back
|48.||In his Life of Terence, Suetonius says, “Santra thinks that if Terence had really needed help in his writing, he would not have been so likely to resort to Scipio and Laelius, who were then mere youths, as to Gaius Sulpicius Gallus... or to Quintus Fabius Labeo and Marcus Popillius.” back
|49.||Ogburn, ch. 10 back|