Before Looney, did anyone know Oxford was Shakespeare? A Novel, a Song and a Portrait suggest so.
by Richard Whalen
This article was presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society in 1995, and was published in the Autumn 1995 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.
Why has no mention of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the man behind the pseudonym Shakespeare been found in the centuries after his death and up to 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified? Was Oxford completely forgotten? Or did knowledge of him as the true author go underground? In the half-century after Oxford’s death in 1604, everybody who was anybody undoubtedly knew that Oxford was Shakespeare, but also knew that it was not to be broadcast, if anyone even cared. It was an open secret. By 1630 Oxford’s children were all dead, and his cousin Horatio de Vere died in 1635. So by the 1640s, memories of him were mostly second hand; and, of course, in 1641 the theaters were closed by the Puritans. Interest in dramatists went dormant. By 1660 when the theaters finally re-opened, it’s possible that memory of Oxford as Shakespeare had faded and disappeared. Or had it? Perhaps some knowledge of Oxford’s authorship was passed on during the 250 years from the 1660s to 1920. Records and publications as yet unexamined may show that to be true. Also, it must be noted that the myth of the man from Stratford took hold in the early 1700s, and anti-Stratfordian heresy was not tolerated. The Rev. James Wilmot, who could find nothing supporting Will Shakspere as the author, had his papers burned for fear his Stratford neighbors would bitterly resent his doubts about their mythical hometown hero. Three items have turned up recently that suggest-only suggest-that during those two and half centuries certain people may have connected Oxford to the author Shakespeare. Two are from the 18th century and one is from the 19th century. A fourth, wherein the Stratford monument and the Welbeck portrait of Oxford converge, may prove to fit the pattern.
A Novel Whose Hero is a De Vere
The 19th century item is a novel published in 1827 and having the title, De Vere, or the Man of Independence.  The novel was recently brought to light by Sam Cherubim of Northampton, Massachusetts, who came across it in a library, and passed the word to Roger Stritmatter (formerly) of UMass-Amherst. I am indebted to both of them for calling it to my attention. De Vere, or the Man of Independence, appropriately enough was published anonymously. The author soon became known; he was Robert Plumer Ward (no known relation to the Oxfordian scholars William Plumer Fowler or Bernard M. Ward.) Robert Plumer Ward was not your typical l9th century literary novelist. He was first of all a lawyer and successful career politician who held senior government positions. His novels were based on the contemporary political scene, which he knew well. They caused considerable sensation since his main characters were modeled on government leaders, including William Pitt, the prime minister.  Robert Plumer Ward thus was a political insider writing anonymously about government affairs disguised as fiction—just as Oxford was writing pseudonymously about court affairs as Shakespeare. Moreover, a descendant of Oxford is the hero of Ward’s novel. Nothing should be forced when looking for possible references to Oxford and Shakespeare in the works of other writers, but there are a number of striking correspondences in Ward’s novel. First of all, quotations from Shakespeare lead off the title page in 88 of the 93 chapters (5 are by Milton). And Shakespeare is quoted fairly often throughout the novel. Robert Plumer Ward knew his Shakespeare. At the start of the novel, the author narrator, who is named Beauclerk, meets Mortimer de Vere, the novel’s hero, and discovers that they are related. Mortimer de Vere is a direct descendant of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and at his country house there is a column on a pedestal with an inscription:
Trust in thy own good sword, Rather than Princes’ word. Trust e’en in fortune sinister, Rather than Princes’ minister. Of either, trust the guile, Rather than woman’s smile. But most of all eschew, To trust in Parvenu.
The only synonym for “parvenu” in Webster’s unabridged dictionary is “upstart”, as in “upstart crow”. Mortimer de Vere, the hero of the novel, then explains that the verse was supposed to have been taken from Oxford’s study at Castle Hedingham. He’s not sure who the parvenu is. But here is a novelist in 1827 creating (?) a verse from Oxford’s study that seemingly warns the reader to shun an upstart like the “shake-scene” in Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592), who seems to stand for the man from Stratford.  Mortimer mentions, too, Oxford’s quarrels with his father-in-law, Lord Burleigh, and other details of Oxford’s life. Writing in the early 19th century, Ward knows a lot about Oxford and Shakespeare. The novel is a long tale of political intrigue and romance, ending with a dispute over a will. The hero, Mortimer de Vere, is brilliant, impetuous and uncommonly proud and upright, a man of so much integrity he has trouble succeeding in the world of politics. The book ends with a dramatic trial over an inheritance. Several passages describing Mortimer de Vere sound like a description of Oxford:
His enthusiastic imagination, which often ran away with him, and falling upon a spirit hereditarily independent, influenced, as we shall see, the whole cast of his life. (p. 42)
Mortimer read deeply in law and history and he found that “Edward, earl of Oxford, in the days of Elizabeth, united in his single person, the character of her greatest noble, knight and poet.” (p. 61) At one point Mortimer and the woman he eventually marries, known as the “queen” of her household and the “lady of the castle”, plan a theatrical performance, a masque. (p. 184) Mortimer de Vere says: “And what can I do for you my cousine?” She answers: “O! a great deal,—for while I am the manager of my theater, you must be the poet.” “I never wrote a verse in my life,” replies de Vere, despairingly, yet half laughing at the proposal. The masque raises many questions among the audience: “What was the exact meaning of the masques? Who was the compiler? Quickly, however, the word spreads that Mortimer de Vere wrote the masque and the allusions are to the “queen” of the household, the “lady of the castle”. Later, she says, “the bard wants to send me to London to reign over I know not what sort of people.” In the audience is a parvenu, an upstart. He is the son of a manufacturer who converts his name from lower-class Bartholomew to upper-class Bertie and is notorious for insinuating himself into nobility. He buys himself a knighthood just as Will Shakspere, also a parvenu, bought himself a coat of arms. These references and allusions linking Mortimer de Vere, a descendant of Oxford, to playwriting for the queen of the household, constitute a small part of a long novel. But they are striking, given the evidence that the author of the novel was well versed in his Shakespeare and well acquainted with the historical personage Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Did he know the truth? More research and analysis may turn up stronger connections and permit more telling interpretations.
Dibdin’s Song for the Shakespeare Jubilee
The second item of interest is a song by Charles Dibdin, a prolific composer and lyricist. He wrote the words and music for the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769, produced and directed by its star, David Garrick. The songs were collected and published by Dibdin. A page from one of Dibdin’s songbooks was on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1994. On the page was a ballad called “Sweet Willy. O.”  The name “Willy” recalls Edmund Spenser’s “our pleasant Willy” in “The Teares of the Muses”, wherein Spenser is thought by many to refer to Shakespeare.  Willy combined with O followed by a period (Oxford’s initial, so to speak) may be seen as suggesting Shakespeare Oxford. In addition, the multiple uses of “ever” and its variations in the verses echoes E. Vere. In the first verse “e_ver” is split as shown. (Emphasis added).
The pride of all nature was sweet Willy. O. The first of all swains, He gladdened the plains, None e ver was like to the sweet Willy O. He sung it so rarely did sweet Willy O; He melted each Maid, So skillfull he play’d, No Shepherd eter pip’d like the sweet Willy O. All Nature obey’d him, the sweet Willy O; Wherever he came, What e’er had a name, Whenever he sung follow’d sweet Willy O. He would be a Soldier the sweet Willy O; When arm’d in the field, With sword and with shield, The Laurel was won by the sweet Willy O. He charmed them when living the sweet Willy O; And when Willy dy’d, ‘Twas Nature that sighed To part with her All in her sweet Willy O.
In twenty short lines, “ever” appears five times, that is, in twenty-five percent of the lines. Dibdin was immensely prolific and published a five-volume opus entitled, The Professional Life of Mr. Dibdin, Written by Himself (1803). A scan of five hundred lines of similar ballads produced only three “never”s and two “whenever”s—no “ever”s or other word forms with “ever”. That’s one percent of the lines. So, in his first ballad for the Shakespeare Jubilee called “Sweet Willy. O.” Dibdin used “ever” in some form twenty-five times more often than he did in his other lyrics. As it happens, the last words of the Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford, words written by David Garrick, were: “Bravo Jubilee! Shakespeare for Ever!”  Did Charles Dibdin and David Garrick know the truth? Garrick did schedule a single play by Shakespeare to be performed at his Jubilee in poet, dramatist’s supposed hometown, Stratford-on-Avon. More research may reveal what they knew.
Was Oxford’s Portrait Shakespeare’s?
About a decade after the Shakespeare Jubilee occurred a third indication that someone may have believed that Oxford was Shakespeare. This clue was in a portrait inventory that seemed to imply that a portrait of Oxford was thought to be that of Shakespeare. Derran Charlton, an archival researcher of South Yorkshire, England, made the discovery at Wentworth Woodhouse and published his finding in the De Vere Society Newsletter last May 1995. The inventory of portraits, dated 1782, lists all the heirloom portraits mentioned in the 1696 will of William, Earl of Wentworth—except one. Missing from the inventory list is a portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. Where did that portrait go? Scanning the inventory, Derran Charlton also noted that a portrait of the same dimensions was described simply as “Shakespeare”. No portrait of Shakespeare was mentioned in the will, nor has any been found, nor has the inventory reference been linked to any of the other purported portraits of Shakespeare the Stratford man. Furthermore, the listing of the Shakespeare portrait was alongside listings of portraits of Oxford’s cousin, Lord Horace Vere, and his grandson, James Stanley. Since Oxford’s portrait is omitted from the list and one called “Shakespeare” turns up among Oxford’s relatives, it seems quite possible that whoever drew up the inventory called the Oxford portrait “Shakespeare”. Otherwise the disappearance of the one and emergence of the other, as described by Derran Charlton, is quite unaccountable. Finally, a convergence of pictures of “Shakspeare” and of Oxford in the 18th century may someday fit the pattern. At the point of convergence is Edward Harley, whose library became the Harleian Collection. In 1737 Harley took the engraver George Vertue with him to see Stratford and the monument in Trinity Church. Vertue sketched the monument but declined to show the face of the monument’s “Shakspeare” in his sketch. Instead, he substituted a likeness based on the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare.  He also put Harley into his sketch, as a lone spectator of this bust with a substitute face. As it happens, Harley was the 2nd earl of Oxford (second creation), while his wife had connections to the 17th earl of Oxford (first creation). She was the great-great-granddaughter of Oxford’s favorite cousin, the famous Horace de Vere. Also, she had inherited the so-called Welbeck portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, now at the National Portrait Gallery. Harley and Vertue are the subject of a paper by Andrew Hannas of Purdue University that he presented at the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable last June. In it he raises intriguing questions about what Harley knew about “Shakspeare’s” likeness and identity and why Vertue shows Harley gazing at the Chandos head stuck like a mask on the face of “Shakspeare” in the Stratford monument. A song from the Shakespeare Jubilee, an obscure portrait inventory and a 19th century novel all seem to suggest that the true identity of Shakespeare was suspected or known in the centuries between the deaths of Oxford’s immediate descendants and the publication of Looney’s landmark book. Only in recent years did these three clues turn up. There may be more in 17th, 18th and l9th century literature and records that would indicate that people knew that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
- De Vere; or the Man of Independence, by Robert Plumer Ward. Philadelphia: Carey, 1827. [back]
- The Dictionary of National Biography. See also Memoirs of the Political and Literary Life of Robert Plumer Ward, Esq., by Edmund Phipps. London: Murray, 1850. On page 106 Ward is called “a spectator of the game of politics.” On page 165 is a letter from Benjamin Disraeli to Ward praising his book. Ward himself energetically disclaims that real people are represented in the book. (xi) [back]
- Ward, p. 25. The hero, Mortimer, guesses that “parvenu” may refer to Burghley or an “insinuating, designing flatterer of a secretary”, but in the end cannot decide. [back]
- The Overture, Songs, Airs and Chorusses in the Jubilee of_Shakespeare’s Garland as Performed at Stratford upon Avon, and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to Which is Added a Cantata Called Queen Mab or Fairies Jubilee. Composed by Charles Dibdin. London: Johnston, ca. 1775. The Folger s copy is unbound. Earlier editions of Dibdin’s Jubilee works were published in 1769. [back]
- The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, 719–720.[back]
- David Garrick: A Biography, by Alan Kendall. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985 (142). [back]
- The sketch is in William ShakesPeare: Records and Images, by S. Schoenbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981 (163). See also his ShakesDeare’s Lives, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991 (124–5, 202–6), wherein Schoenbaum mentions Vertue’s sketch of Will Shakspere’s house from someone else’s memory, but not his eyewitness sketch of the Shakspeare monument with Harley in the foreground, which is the more historically significant of the two. Vertue’s sketch is also found in “New Place” by Frank Simpson in Shakespeare Survey No. 5 from Cambridge University Press in 1952. [back]