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Esther Singleton: How I Became an Oxfordian

Esther Singleton (1865-1930), was a prolific American author and journalist. Her dozens of books included topics such as furniture, European cities, and The Shakespeare Garden. Singleton‘s essay was written in 1921 and first published in the June/July 1940 (Vol. 1/4) issue of The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (The American Edition).

Was Edward de Vere Shakespeare?  I believe he was.  You who read this, I beg you not to condemn me and the theory but to read further on.

Esther Singleton’s “The Shakespeare Garden,” describes how to create a garden that includes all the plants named in Shakespeare’s works.

A week ago I still believed that William Shaksper of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of the great plays that have borne his name for three hundred years.  Heretofore, any suggestion calling this into question incurred my antagonism, and my enmity to the idea bristled up instantly, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine.”  In fact, so intolerant was I of the barest hint of any other than the Stratford belief that to relinquish such a fixed idea with all the time-honored atmosphere that has grown around the Warwickshire lore, was not easy.

However, a book fell into my hands. “Shakespeare” Identified, by J. Thomas Looney, published in 1920.  I opened it with prejudice and deep contempt and antagonism.  I had no intention to surrender the William Shaksper of Stratford for any theory.  Long ago I had rejected Bacon and every other new candidate brought forward.  But I read on and on, much impressed with the modesty of the discoverer of the new author, much enthralled by his careful and original process of discovery, the fine marshaling of facts and logical deductions, the painstaking examination of the evidence, and the skill, honesty, and charm of the presentation of the theory.

Amazed, fascinated, and with mind clarified, I rose from a study of the book.  I read it again, then I read it for the third time (a big book 458 pages, too).  And I now pronounce myself a believer in the theory that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the author of the great Shakespearean plays.

I wish I believed in everything with the same conviction.  Moreover, I feel I have been enriched by the acquaintance with this great personality with whom I have been living now for a week!  I cannot get him out of my mind.  He passes between everything I try to do.  I can turn to no duty until I record my belief and pay tribute, small and insignificant as it is, to this mighty genius.

I cannot explain the effect that this discovery has had upon me.  All the plays that I know so well, that I have read and reread since childhood until they have become bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, are now more wonderful.  Some things that have been obscure have become as clear as glass; more true in their philosophy; more brilliant in their wit; more sincere in their scholarship; more charming in their tenderness; more subtle in their delicacy; more penetrating in their wisdom; and truer to life when it is known that their author, instead of being of a middle class man of mean associations and little or no education, rather sordid in money matters, and with no connection with people of culture was a man of aristocratic lineage, a courtier himself, a man accomplished in all the arts, graces, sports, and pastimes of the age—a gifted genius with whom the “time is out of joint.”  The plays themselves become autobiographical.

And at last, thanks to Mr. Looney, we can find our Shakespeare, the dramatist, in such characters as Hamlet (biographical throughout), Biron in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Bertram in All’s Well (another biography).

I used to take refuge in “you can’t limit genius,” and felt that by some supernatural means the superior Shakespeare had existed, disregarding the lack of correspondence between the plays and the scanty records of their ostensible author’s life.  Like Mr. Podsnap [a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend], with a wave of the hand, I swept all this behind my back.  I read the plays as works apart, dissociating them from their author.  But now—it is all so clear, so plain, so reasonable, and so delightful.

I ask myself, how could a man like Shaksper of Stratford portray with such intimacy elegant men and women, particularly the Queen herself.  Take the Duke in Twelfth Night; Benedick in Much Ado; Bassanio, Antonio, Romeo, Mercutio, Paris.  The more you look at it the simpler it becomes—the life of the Elizabethan bloods, the high-spirited, hotheaded, witty-tongued guests, to parry and thrust with words as with swords—could the butcher boy of Stratford ever do that?

In the historical plays, the sympathy with the Lancastrian cause is most marked.  Shakespeare must have been of a family of Lancastrian leanings.

The large number of plays with Italian settings or derived from Italian sources.  Shakespeare must have known Italy—everything bespeaks an Italian enthusiast.  Also one highly educated in music.  His attitude towards money shows that he abhorred money as such.  It is the arch-villain, such as Iago, the time-serving politician, such as Polonius, the cruel Shylock, who are the moneylenders.  Antonio, who gives freely to his friend, and Bassanio, the sprendthrift, are of the dramatist’s chosen ilk.

But William Shaksper, the Stratford Shaksper, was a man who, after he had become prosperous, prosecuted others for petty sums!

Sir Sidney Lee, a believer in the Stratford theory, says: “His literary attainments and successes were chiefly valued as serving the prosaic end of providing permanently for himself and his daughters.”  Compare that statement with what the Bard himself says:

How quickly nature falls into revolt
When gold becomes her object!
For this the foolish over-careful fathers
Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their
Brains with care, Their bones with industry;
For this they have engrossed and pil’d up
The canker’d heaps of strange-achieved gold.

– 2 Henry IV, IV, 5, 66

A close inspection of Shakespeare’s work reveals a more intimate personal connection with aristocracy than would be furnished by mere family tradition.  Kings and queens, earls and countesses, knights and ladies move on and off his stage “as to the manner born.”  They are no mere tinseled models representing mechanically the class to which they belong, but living men and women.  It is rather his ordinary “citizens” that are the automata walking woodenly onto the stage to speak for their class.

The suggestion of an aristocratic author for the plays is, therefore, the simple common sense of the situation, and is no more in opposition to modern democratic tendencies than the belief that William Shaksper was indebted to aristocratic patrons and participated in the enclosure of common lands.  “We feel entitled, therefore” as Mr. Looney states, “to claim for Shakespeare high social rank and even a close proximity to Royalty itself.”

“How I Became an Oxfordian” is edited by Bob Meyers. You may submit your essay on this topic (500 words or less in an editable format such as MS Word), along with a digital photo of yourself, to: info@shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”)

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About Erik Eisenman

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