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Joella Werlin: How I Became an Oxfordian

A few years back, I was a guest at a duo-piano recital in the elegant Portland home of a prominent arts patron, Mary Tooze. Her name, now her memory, is significant because—then unbeknownst to me—Mary was an early, generous supporter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society. She observed my puzzled look as I scanned a brochure announcing an “authorship” conference at Concordia University and tried to encourage my interest. I didn’t say so, but I couldn’t imagine why I should care. While I appreciated Shakespeare, engaging in an authorship debate seemed a schoolyard pastime for quibblesome academics or others daftly disengaged from real world concerns.

Joella Werlin now lives in Seattle and is mostly retired from her business as a “personal historian” (Business name: Familore), helping individual and professional clients record their memoirs.

Joella Werlin now lives in Seattle and is mostly retired from her business as a “personal historian” (Business name: Familore), helping individual and professional clients record their memoirs.

Weeks later, browsing audiobook shelves in my branch library ahead of a five-hour drive to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one title caught my attention: “Shakespeare by Another Name—The Life of Edward De Vere,” (abridged) by Mark Anderson. It flashed at me that de Vere was the guy Mary spoke about. One CD into the audiobook, I was spellbound! A totally different Shakespeare emerged from behind the masked image and nom-de-plume—an outcast nobleman who satirized and savaged with the power of his pen, and was punished by losing not his mortal head but the immortality of his name and identity. The real Elizabethan stage of that troublesome genius lit up with High Renaissance erudition. This was not the path from Stratford’s tipsy timbered cottages to London’s noisy taverns and raucous theatres.

Without question, Anderson’s compelling narrative threw the Oxford hook at me, but it was baited with the pitch-perfect voice of British recording artist Simon Prebble. I have since listened to the audiobook countless times. It is like a great opera, featuring Edward de Vere, a more tragic protagonist than any librettist but himself could imagine. Returning from Ashland, I made a beeline to Powell’s for Anderson’s published book (scrupulously researched!), plus orthodox Shakespeare biographies. But I was a convert; there was no return. Soon after, Mary invited me to meet her friend Earl Showerman. The charms of “Earl of Ashland,” as Oxfordians know, are irresistible. He fueled my enthusiasm with more Oxfordian insights and resources. I was a ready acolyte.

The common theme that Shakespeare weaves through every drama is “deception.” We may never fully know what drove those in power at the turn of the 17th century to, figuratively speaking, behead Edward de Vere, and to dress dismembered parts in an impostor’s costume. But 400 years later, the Folger and the “Stratford academy” practice deception with dishonor. Given historic British class snobbery and stratification, it is absurd to perpetuate the pretense that an unlettered commoner was mankind’s greatest literary genius.

Doubtless, in my mind, Ben Jonson and the “Noble Brethren”—the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, brother-in-law and husband of Susan Vere, youngest of Oxford’s three daughters—chortled at the authorial deception they contrived in the introductory pages of the First Folio, thereby saving their own necks from political retribution while rescuing works destined to be repressed forever.

–Joella Werlin

“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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