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Rhoda Messner: How I Became an Oxfordian

With this reprint from our archives, the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship begins the occasional publication of classic “How I Became an Oxfordian” articles. Same title, different decades. This first one comes from the SOF files and was published in our newsletter in Spring 1983. Next week, we will resume publication of stories of contemporary Oxfordians, but occasionally we will feature classics from our archives, such as this. 

SaturdayRev-1937may01

Saturday Review, May 1, 1937

The article recalls an incident in 1937 when the author, Rhoda Messner, was working at the Cleveland Public Library and saw an article in the Saturday Review. The article described the findings of the Oxfordian, Charles Wisner Barrell. Wanting to draw attention to her cause and the issue, in 1975 she wrote a novel and published it herself called “Absent Thee From Felicity: The Story of Edward De Vere Seventeenth Earl of Oxford” (Corinthian Press, Shaker Heights, Ohio). 

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I confess that I love mysteries, including everything from “What really happened to John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin?” to “Are flying saucers real?” And, of course, I enjoy mystery action, although for me it must be well written, well plotted, and filled with believable characters.

However, none of these intriguing mysteries captured and held me through the years like the Shakespeare-Oxford Authorship Mystery. I found it—or it found me— about forty-five years ago: it was a quiet hour in the Cleveland Public Library Reference Division; I was stationed at the Main Desk, leafing through some numbers of the Saturday Review of Literature, to find books and subjects for a woman’s club program, one of our chores in those days.

“ELIZABETHAN MYSTERY MAN”, the black headline read; and, below, the Editor explained, “The theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays usually attributed to William Shakespeare has for many years had an increasing vogue. The Saturday Review believes that the movement has gained enough momentum to interest its subscribers and publishes Mr. Barrell’s summary of the theory for the literary record.” (Saturday Review of Literature, May 1, 1937).

I was hooked! The reading and re-reading (and re-reading) of J. Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified led me from the road of fascination up to the final peak of conviction.

Meanwhile, I was reading everything old and new that advanced the anti-Stratfordian and the Oxfordian theories: Greenwood, Ward, Rendall, Eva Turner Clark, the Ogburns, the American Bar Association’s Shakespeare Cross-Examination (which I understand has lured so many into the Shakespeare problem) and the Millers’ great new editions which encompass much that has been published in bulletins and periodicals.

Inevitably, I was talking, talking, to polite but uninterested people about this exciting new discovery of mine, writing letters and articles about Oxford versus Shakspere of Stratford, that were never published, giving talks to women’s groups and school classes, which seemed to stimulate interest and questions but somehow stopped dead there.

I read the Plays again and again, in the light thrown on them by Mr. Looney’s book. Some of them, like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, believe it or not, at first filled me with aversion; then, they too became part of the picture of Edward de Vere’s life story.

Unable to make a dent on the minds of the general public, I decided to write a novel based on Oxford’s life. At least, I thought, they should know something about this man whose life and personality had been buried and maligned in the Cecil-dominated records of the period. Absent From Felicity, self-published, was well-reviewed and even cherished by a few, but was too “esoteric” apparently to reach the public I wanted. It hadn’t really tried to propagandize for the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, just suggest it between the lines. Perhaps this was cowardly but the basic idea, mistaken or not, was to reach a wider public.

Actually, there is no mystery now about the Shakespeare authorship. The only mystery left is why the whole world does not abandon the Stratford man, illiterate and commonplace as he was, and accept for all time the tragic, brilliant Renaissance man, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

However, when you think of the “vested interests” involved in Stratford-on-Avon and in the academic world, and when you consider mankind’s angry reluctance to give up its “hallowed myths” (like the perpetual controversy over Creation and Evolution)—then perhaps the answer is obvious.

In conclusion, I have some questions to submit: What happened to the Saturday Review’s “increasing vogue” and “momentum” of interest in Oxford back in April, 1937? And why haven’t our lawyers and legislators been introducing acts requiring that alternative theories of Shakespeare authorship be taught in our public schools? The old improbable “Stratford Will” stories have been around too long. What do you think?

— Rhoda Messner

Charles Wisner Barrell’s “Elizabethan Mystery Man” is available at the Saturday Review website.

“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.”). 

You can join the SOF or renew your membership for 2016 at our membership page.

About Erik Eisenman