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He was a scholar and a ripe and good one: The Education of The 17th Earl of Oxford Mirrored in the Shakespeare Canon

by Daniel L. Wright, Ph.D.


I believe that more can be learned of the life of Shakespeare from his plays than from documents showing that he sued people for small debts.

Albert Mordell in The Erotic Motive in Literature

Mark Twain, in his famous essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?”, tells us the story of the spirited, ongoing debates that he pursued with his talented and able pilot-master, Mr. George Ealers, during Twain’s tenure as a riverboat pilot-apprentice. Ealers, however, was not only a senior Mississippi riverboat pilot whom Twain revered for his nautical expertise and from whom he learned to navigate the treacherous Mississippi River; he was also, like Twain, a devotee of Shakespeare who greatly enjoyed entertaining his apprentice with readings from the plays as he trained him to steer through the snags and shoals of the great river. Ealers, however, failed to share Twain’s ardent conviction that “Gulielmus Shakspere,” (1) the Stratford man, could not possibly have been the author of those inimitable works that have come to us bearing the name William Shakespeare.

In “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain tells us that his own reading of Shakespeare’s plays and poems long had persuaded him that only a writer of experience and temperament utterly alien to that of the Stratford man could have composed those incomparable works. The Shakespeare plays and poems, Twain realized, could only be the issue of a person steeped in learning, experiences and accomplishments of which the Stratford glovemaker’s son, who maintained his own family in a state of utter and otherwise unaccountable illiteracy, could never have had any knowledge or familiarity. Genius, after all, can go only so far in accounting for the particular character of a writer’s work. It can shape a writer’s art by bestowing upon it an aesthetic quality that distinguishes it in merit from less artful efforts, but it cannot generate any work’s individual character, its unique substance; this alone—the content of the work to which exceptional writers apply their genius—is the consequence of lived experience and is informed by immersion in a particular cultural milieu. Genius may be a remarkable lathe on which a woodworker or sculptor shapes the contours of his or her creation, but it does not supply the substance with which the artist works. A writer’s genius can elevate his or her poetry or prose beyond the mundane (indeed, in Shakespeare’s case, it endows his achievement with a magnificence that is almost transcendent in its resplendence), but it cannot of itself impart to any writer—not even to Shakespeare—a knowledge of particular facts. Genius may animate the hand, but it does not do that which is not its office—it does not, for it cannot, supply the material with which the hand performs its work. Some things even a genius simply must be taught.

Armed with the recognition of this fundamental and unvarying rule that he knew to condition and, indeed, govern the creative process of all writers, Twain sought to challenge the smug certainty with which his pilot-master dismissed all claims that disputed the Shakespeare works’ composition by anyone other than the conventionally supposed man from Stratford-upon-Avon, the aspiring butcher’s apprentice-made-good. Twain, for example, recalls a colorful exchange with Ealers regarding the authorship question in recounting, by way of preface to his argument, that when he was at the wheel of his ship, the captain would often read to him from the Shakespeare plays, all the while punctuating his reading with barks and commands at his young associate, whose naiveté and lack of riverboating skill sometimes infuriated the elder man. This bellowing from the seasoned old master invariably was rendered in the language of the river. Thus, Twain tells us, if he were to stray and steer the ship awry, Ealers, while in the midst of a passage from Macbeth, might momentarily halt his recitation and cry out an order in the jargon of the river, only to resume his reading, and then, a moment later, shout at his apprentice, “There she goes! meet her, meet her! didn’t you know she’d smell the reef if you crowded her like that?” Soon thereafter, he might interrupt his reading by another series of commands: “Stop the starboard! come ahead strong on the larboard! back the starboard!” He would grieve the ineptitude of his cub-pilot and curse, “Damnation! can’t you keep her away from that greasy water! pull her down! snatch her! snatch her bald-headed!” Ealers ordered Twain to “lay in the leads”; he recorded the time in “bells” (6). He was accustomed, Twain recognized, to a life and language that no one, apart from another man inured to riverboat life, could have understood, commanded or communicated convincingly and with ease.

On one occasion, as a justification for repudiating the Stratford man’s authorship of the Shakespeare plays, Twain attempted to show to Ealers how the plays illuminated their author’s singularity of personal temperament and professional milieu by directing his master’s attention to the rhetoric and iconography particular to those situations in the plays that could only be reflective of worlds, conditions, persons, writings and attitudes which would be utterly remote and alien to the Stratford man or, indeed, to anyone outside the realm of the real Shakespeare’s life.

Ealers, however, was dismissive of his arguments—especially those which proposed that Shakespeare had to have had a thorough grounding in the law. Ealers contended that Shakespeare could very well have decided to make a concentrated study of the language and practice of the legal profession in order to craft some impressive metaphors and embellish the lustrous rhetorical texture of his plays with the arcana of jurisprudence.

To rebut Ealers and to illustrate his point that some rhetorical and iconographic patterns betray superficial authorial posturing while others confirm deep immersion in and suffusion by a culture, Twain confronted his captain with a transcript of the master pilot’s own interlarded reading of Shakespeare. He pointed out to him that Ealers’s own saucy, jargon-laden rhetoric proceeded from a unique sensibility, one richly informed by experiences that were shaped by a life on the river to which others outside his vocation could have but scant acquaintance and which they could liberally use, intelligently and unostentatiously, with even less confidence.

His master was silent for a week. When Twain finally dared to broach the subject of Shakespearean authorship again, he records that Ealers simply informed his young apprentice-pilot that he thought him an “ass” and suggested he “better shut up” (13–17). With that rebuke, which in one sweeping dismissal forever determined the course of the conversation about Shakespeare that would be permitted in the domain where his captain reigned, all discussion about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon on board the ship came to an end.

Twain decided, however, that if he couldn’t speak of his doubts about the authorship, he would write of them. For example, Twain, in his essay, declares that he, like many others, had been particularly impressed by the poet-playwright’s abundant use of juridical terminology, his facility with the arcane rhetoric of the legal profession, his familiarity with the lives and habits of members of the Inns of Court, and the details of domestic and foreign jurisprudence that would so much define the life and speech of one who is intimately familiar with the practice of law (79) . Shakespeare, therefore, could not have been someone, Twain concluded, who merely elected to make a trifling and superficial study of the law in order to develop some colorful, uncommon metaphors, poetic conceits and courtroom scenarios with which to decorate his plays and poems. Shakespeare, he argued, composed with deftness in the realm of his professional domain—just as Ealers, in the midst of his recitations of another’s works, was able to generate a rhetorical universe of his own that was densely laden with the idiom of the river-world because it was the world he knew; his language was not an alien thing; it was the vernacular of his trade, the rhetoric of a life he had lived (14–16, 93–94).

Of course, we know that what Mark Twain recognized was the same thing that has long been acknowledged by a host of scholars and, accordingly, bewildered and distressed not a few of them. When, where, and how the Stratford man could have acquired the education and broad legal training to support his extensive knowledge of English case law and Continental civil law that the plays illustrate so artfully and abundantly are still beyond the Stratford man’s partisans’ explanation.

One of those Stratfordians—Eric Sams. editor of a number of works including the recently released Edward III,—in his latest work, The Real Shakespeare, confesses to his fellow Stratfordians that they no longer have any choice but to abandon this front and with it their beliefs about Shakespeare’s lack of legal training.

Sams concedes that Shakespeare “surely studied law,” for “[n]ot only the plays but the Sonnets . . . are crammed with legal references and allusions, far more so than any comparable oeuvre in any period or language” (43; emphasis mine). Among his many examples of Shakespeare’s intimate familiarity with the law, Sams points to the so-called gravedigger scene in Hamlet (V.i.) in which the playwright incontrovertibly exhibits the most “detailed technical knowledge of the arguments recorded in the case of Hales v. Pettit…” (42–3).

Indeed, as Mark Twain asserts, Shakespeare was intimately knowledgeable of and familiar with “laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways” (15), but this, we know, was not because he was Francis Bacon, (2) as was maintained by many persons at the turn of the last century who, like Twain, were persuaded that Shakspere didn’t write Shakespeare. As so many lawyers and other readers have realized, the writer of Shakespeare—whoever he was—was a student of the law, one who not only used its parlance and concepts in everything he wrote because he had an extensive understanding of the law as a field of study, but because he was experienced in its practice as well (Sams 39, 43). (3)

Therefore, what Twain and Sams have recognized in a particular way, so do we, perhaps, in a more general way; for irrespective of our capacity for achievement, we can accomplish little that is remarkable or distinctive in any endeavor absent education in and familiar acquaintance with the professional domain wherein we toil. Excellence is never achieved, even by those of us with extraordinary natural talent, bereft of opportunities to immerse ourselves in our craft through a prodigious investment of dedication, effort, trial, and the continually renewed application of our labors.

As University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi attests, to be a writer of refinement, “you have to read, read, and read some more, and know what the critics’ criteria for good writing are, before you can write creatively yourself” (47). Whoever Shakespeare was, therefore, he did not simply pick up pen and paper and begin to write as he did and of what he did, in cultural and critical isolation, without benefit of an extensive and varied education, leaving off at inconvenient times to pursue his apparent “real” passion: small-town business affairs. Neither the preparatory requisites for the nurture and enablement of literary creativity nor the intellectual milieu necessary for professional encouragement, development and critical reflection obtains in his case, (4) and nothing in the public record, moreover, suggests that the occupations and temperament of the Stratford Shakspere were anything other than those which would typify a sixteenth-century provincial tradesman.

The intellectual environment that supplied the substance and nurtured the literary creativity of Shakespeare is itself copiously reflected by the erudition of his works—plays and poems that, among other attestations of an advanced education, demonstrate the author’s familiarity with choice Continental texts that confer on his works much of their dignity as literary masterpieces and mark them as accomplishments reflective of a deliberate intent to incorporate into English literary practice a broad established tradition of Renaissance art and example. Accordingly, Shakespeare’s temperament, as demonstrated by his works, is as far removed from that of a provincial English merchant or butcher’s apprentice as it is possible for one of such disposition as his to be, for despite a generally sympathetic nature, he shows little sympathy or understanding for members of the laboring or trading classes.

This writer’s motive for art, his reflections on “man’s estate,” is clearly shaped by the sensibility of a Renaissance aristocrat—one, moreover, steeped in years of reading and passionate study and demonstrably familiar with all the occupations and recreations of a class to which a sixteenth-century Cotswolds provincial would have as little access as he would to the life and mind of an Algonquian warrior. (5)

The path to ultimate achievement, as described in Longfellow’s verse, could not have been otherwise for Shakespeare, irrespective of his natural gifts, for through his poems and plays, we know him to have been, apart from his other achievements, a well-traveled and observant “man of the world,” a writer of vast legal training, a diligent scholar of letters, a student and master of music, a man of martial spirit and experience, one well-versed in navigation, several foreign languages, the cavalier’s code and the fine points of aristocratic sport—amongst a host of other privileged areas of study, activity, conviction and experience. Indeed, as Harold Bloom attests, “an aristocratic sense of culture” suffuses the whole of Shakespeare’s art; his achievements are “at the pinnacle of the long Aristocratic Age . . . . ” (43)—conspicuous in large part for their distinction, as Bloom declares, because their creator “perceived more than any other writer, thought more profoundly and originally than any other, and had an almost effortless mastery of language, far surpassing everyone, including Dante . . . . ” (53). And in concert with centuries of acclaim, Bloom echoes that which every reader acknowledges after his or her encounter with Shakespeare: his “resources of language . . . are so floribundant . . . that we feel [in him] many of the limits of language have been reached, once and for all . . . . Rhetorically, he has no equal” (45, 50). Such unparalleled achievements and their reflection of the author’s avid love of language and literature illustrate that Shakespeare was a refined artist and an accomplished scholar—the beneficiary of an extensive, classical education. (6) Whatever else he may have been, therefore, in addition to his possession of a keen legal mind and other lofty attributes, Shakespeare was someone profoundly intimate with the great writers of antiquity. Joseph Sobran reminds us of just one token of this erudition by pointing out that the classical literary tradition is at the center of Shakespeare’s literary sensibility, for “nearly four hundred classical names” alone appear in Shakespeare’s works (39). If, then, for no other reason than his scholarship alone, it behooves us to consider that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an accomplished classicist and student of the law, is a far more plausible candidate for the authorship of the works of Shakespeare than the unlettered businessman from Stratford.

Oxford, apart from his immersion in the law and his general intellectual precocity, was an immensely well-read scholar and poet-dramatist. As the late A.L. Rowse has attested, he was afforded the best of educations (77) ; singular among his peers, he attained two graduate degrees from England’s best universities. He received a master’s degree from St. John’s College at Cambridge University on August 10, 1564, and on September 6, 1566, Oxford University awarded him a second master’s degree, at which time he matriculated at Gray’s Inn to study law.

The high merit of Oxford’s scholarship brought praise from such men of achievement as John Brooke and Arthur Golding (Ward 22–24). (7) Supplementing Golding’s testimony, we know from the records of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that the teenaged Oxford was no idle student (Hurstfield 255–6). Finally, beyond such attestations from his elders, his own youthful verse clearly demonstrates how thoroughly, even in his early years, he was comfortable in the exercise of the poetic conventions of his time, signalling him as an obvious forerunner of the late sixteenth-century English literary Renaissance. (8)

Curiously, however, despite the self-evident high promise of Oxford’s youth and praise of his early accomplishments by such notables as Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe, and Angel Day (Ward 139, 146 and 157–58), after 1576 no poem or play is ever again attributed to him by name. According to A. L. Rowse, this sudden cessation of literary production is explained by Oxford’s descent into riotous living, dissipation, and vanity (93–105). Thus, in the alleged reckless waste of his substance and spirit, we are to believe that he neither could nor did produce anything of consequence in his later years.

This assumption, however—that Oxford never wrote a thing of note after his early twenties—is patently untenable, for despite the blanks in the records after 1576, we know that he continued writing after 1576, and writing in such manner as to evoke high praise from such notables as Edmund Spenser, Henry Peacham, and Francis Meres, (9) all of whom attest to the Earl’s mature talent. Moreover, in 1589, George Puttenham confirms that Oxford has continued to write for the Court, for in The Arte of English Poesie Puttenham reveals, “I know very many 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: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman to seem learned . . . of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford” (qtd. in Michell 173; emphasis added).

Thus, while it is true that we have nothing in Oxford’s name or hand that connects him to any specific literary achievements after 1576, we do have the testimony of his tutors, his literary peers, and various Court commentators to his capacity for, and actual production of, polished, sophisticated work; a body of unrivaled work, moreover, that anticipates, in form as well as content, the richest body of verse and drama ever to appear in England after Oxford suddenly “stops” writing; a body of verse and drama that, when an author’s name finally is appended for the first time to any of it in 1593, will be that of a theretofore-unheard-of (and almost transparently pseudonymous) writer called “William Shakespeare.” (10)

As a ward of the Queen under the guardianship of her chief minister, Lord Burghley, Oxford not only studied literature with the most prestigious tutors of his day; he also became a talented classicist who spoke, read and wrote in French, Latin, and Italian with ease and fluency. His familiarity with Latin and Latin authors (as well as his competence in Italian and familiarity with Italy and Italian culture) can also be conclusively demonstrated even to the untutored eye by mere passing reference to the verses and prose that he composed under his own name, for his proficiency in Latin and knowledge of Latin literature are mirrored throughout his youthful works and letters, and his indebtedness to a literary tradition shaped by the Italian Renaissance is everywhere evident in his writing.

As we recognize Oxford to have been intimately acquainted with the tongues of the ancients and the writers of classical antiquity, so too, we discover, was Shakespeare. Indeed, a recent essay by Ruth Nevo is but one of several substantive modern studies that confirm Shakespeare’s familiarity with and indebtedness to Latin dramaturgical art, for Shakespeare, she argues, referred routinely to the works of the Roman dramatic tradition to provide himself with some of the most basic elements of his plays, and she contends especially for evidence of that reliance in her examination of the narrative structure of Shakespearean drama, arguing, for example, that the works of Attic-Roman New Comedy supplied Shakespeare with material for his plots “ from The Comedy of Errors to The Tempest” (4). (11)

Nevo’s point, that Shakespeare relied on ancient sources and knew how to exploit the dynamism of a Continental—specifically Mediterranean—tradition, has been seconded by such scholars as John W. Draper, Mario Praz, A.C. Partridge, G.H. McWilliams, Murray Levith and Louise Clubb. Clubb, Emeritus Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, in her own exhaustive review of Italian dramaturgical conventions in English Renaissance drama, asserts, for example, among other theses demonstrative of Shakespeare’s fluency in the theatrical tradition of Italy, that “Shakespeare’s [own] work from the beginning to the end of his career betrays acquaintance and skill with Italian theatregrams” (279).

Professor Clubb’s inability or disinclination to account for the means by which the Stratford wool merchant and butcher could have acquired such an intimate knowledge of Italian dramatic conventions—knowledge more particular in detail and superior in its application than that of all his fellow English peers—becomes even more frustrating to the reader of Shakespeare who concurs, moreover, with Professor Clubb’s recognition that Shakespeare’s especial achievements in comedy exceed in their sophistication not only those of his fellow writers in England but those of the Italians themselves. Speaking, for example, just of Shakespeare’s appropriation and application of Christian metaphysics to his stagework, Clubb declares that “Shakespeare’s annexing of a ritual religious dimension to his secular drama surpasses in integrity any Italian representation in comedy of spiritual reality, and in doing so realizes the potential and transforms the theatregrams of an Italian genre” (84).

Shakespeare’s broad familiarity with Italian narrative and dramatic tradition is immediately obvious to almost any reader or spectator of Shakespeare’s plays, as his acquaintance with Italian art, narrative, and dramaturgy is everywhere evident in such plays as The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Coriolanus, and even sections of The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Moreover, Shakespeare’s reliance on Italian or Italianate settings, conventions, and characters is still a relative novelty at that time, and they are never to be found with similar density in the dramatic works of his contemporaries, and never in the variety or the artful execution typical of him even when they are.

If we are to presume that these plays proceed from the pen of a Stratford provincial for whom we have no testaments to education or literary activity, (12) then the constant presence within these plays of Italianate practices, places, and persons, and their rendering with such skill, is simply inexplicable. In this connection, also, it is of no small consequence to recognize, as Murray Levith points out, that “[i]n almost all the [Shakespearean] dramas set in Italy, learning and education are major themes” (10)—prominent and unaccountable subjects for a writer who, according to the records, never set foot inside the door of a school.

In a work like The Merchant of Venice, for example, we see that the playwright has not only consulted a number of Italian sources but has borrowed extensively from them in composing the play. Even Stratfordians concede Shakespeare’s reliance in The Merchant of Venice on Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone and Massucio’s Il Novellino—works that had not been translated into English at the time of the composition of The Merchant of Venice. Similarly, one of Shakespeare’s prominent and everywhere-acknowledged sources for his comedy, Twelfth Night, was the anonymous Italian work Gl’Igannati, for which, to Shakespeare, like the earlier mentioned sources, no translation was available in English until after the play was written—and indeed, not until long after both Oxford and the Stratford man were dead. Twelfth Night is also likely indebted to two theatre pieces of Niccoló Secchi—L’interesse and La cameriera—works, again, for which there were no English translations available at the time that Shakespeare wrote his play.

Still, it is not just an ability to read Italian and a commitment to revolutionize English drama by liberally borrowing from an unbroken centuries-old Latin theater tradition that suggest that Oxford rather than Shakspere authored the plays; it is Shakespeare’s otherwise virtually unaccountable ability (if he were the Warwickshire tradesman) to furnish us with details of many of the lesser-known and more slightly-regarded genres of Italian drama for which Herrick’s summary of Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the Italian theatre provides an informative review (223–25). It also is a matter of no small consequence for us to recall that, unlike Shakspere of Stratford, who apparently never traveled farther from his hometown than London, Oxford sojourned extensively in Italy in the years immediately before the creation of the Shakespeare plays; moreover, as Charles Van Doren reminds us, he travelled to “every one of the Italian cities that would later be the settings for Shakespeare’s Italian plays” (7). (13)

As for the history plays—works that (as I have argued elsewhere) certainly appear to have been commissioned for, or at least written in, the service of Royal propaganda on behalf of the Tudor Crown and the Reformation Church (14) —these, too, impart the perspective and sensibilities of one who was born to high position and was familiar with the courts of power, one who was knowledgeable about statecraft and the nature of the people who occupy high office. As Walt Whitman pointed out, the author of these plays almost indisputably would have to have been, himself, one of those “wolfish earls” of whom Shakespeare wrote with such perception and understanding, for everywhere in his works he profusely demonstrates that he is himself a resident of the world of which he writes, fluent in its idiom, learned and conversant in its interests, its attitudes and its politics. Indeed, the history plays of Shakespeare reflect the most sophisticated, artful, and dramatically unrivalled understanding of civil conflict, theological controversy, ecclesiastical machinations, and secular intrigue that the English stage had yet seen or was to see.

As surely, therefore, as the plays of Oscar Wilde evoke the world of the gentleman of indolent leisure in late-Victorian England, and as the poems of Maya Angelou in every nuance demonstrate a life shaped by the experiences peculiar to an African-American woman in a predominantly white, racist, patriarchal culture, so the Shakespeare plays unerringly reveal themselves to be the work of one who was an intimate observer of aristocratic life, a privileged spectator to the political turmoil and the turbulent passions of the men and women who inhabited the cloistered world of the Court.

These plays, accordingly, stand before us yet today as monuments, not to a playwright’s superficial acquaintance with the outward shows and spectacle of aristocratic life, but as definitive expositions of a time from a figure at the center of public life, the statements of one whom Ben Jonson would acclaim the “Soule of the age.” The histories derive their compelling and telling exposition of dynastic feuds, political intrigue, and theological controversy, not from indirection, rumor or hearsay, but from experience. These plays, therefore, certainly are not the contrivances of a Warwickshire wool merchant’s imagination—the dramatic consequence of one who has busied himself with eavesdropping at the Court (15)—but are rooted, in addition to their investment in seasoned experience (and notably, too, in de Vere family history), in massive history texts such as Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548), Holinshed’s Chronicles (2nd ed., 1587), Stow’s Chronicles (1580), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (date unknown), the anonymous Mirror for Magistrates (1559), and Samuel Daniel’s Civil Wars (1595) .

Henry VI, Part 1, for example, includes material from Sir Thomas Coningsby’s Journal of the Siege of Rouen (date unknown), while its sequel, Henry VI, Part 2, incorporates elements of Foxe’s 1570 edition of the Acts and Monuments, as well as Grafton’s Chronicles at Large (1569). Richard II draws on Froissart’s Chronicles (1523–25) and the anonymous Woodstock (c. 1592). (16) Henry IV, Part 2 reveals material borrowed from Elyot’s Governor (1531), as does Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Henry V reveals the playwright’s extraction of source material from the text of the anonymous Battle of Agincourt (1530) , as well as information from Books I and II of the Annals of Tacitus.

Shakespeare’s early comedies are constructed with attention to a host of Latin works, often showing attention to the Latin original, as well as to more recent English, French and Italian translations. The Comedy of Errors (first known performance, Gray’s Inn, 1594), for example, borrows, as most students of Shakespeare know, from Warner’s translation of Plautus’s Menaechmi (1595), but The Comedy also borrows from Plautus’s untranslated Amphitreo. The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates authorial reliance on Heuterus’s De Rebus Burgundicis (and perhaps a now-lost translation of the work edited by Richard Edwards in 1570). A Midsummer Night’s Dream adapts material from Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1567). North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (1579) and Adlington’s translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (1566) supply Shakespeare with more material for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Measure for Measure incorporates material from the original versions of Cinthio’s Epitia (1583) and Hecatommithi (1565). Among its non-Latin sources, The Comedy of Errors reveals the playwright’s use of George Gascoigne’s Supposes, itself a translation of Ariosto’s I Suppositi (1566), and Book Eight of Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1554). The Taming of the Shrew is also indebted to Gascoigne’s Supposes, and Love’s Labor’s Lost revealingly mirrors performances of the Christmas revels celebrated at Gray’s Inn. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is supplemented with material from the anonymous Huon of Burdeux (translated by Lord Berners, c. 1533–42), Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and the anonymous Handful of Pleasant Delights edited by Robinson (1584). The Two Gentlemen of Verona shows evidence of the playwright’s borrowing from Edwards’s Damon and Pithias (1565), as well as from Montemayer’s Diana Enamorada (edition unknown). Moreover, All’s Well That Ends Well not only reveals an awareness of uncommon source material but also testifies to the imposition of a dexterous, informed hand in the transformation of that source to new purpose. Indeed, as Louise Clubb has observed,

Shakespeare’s strong reliance on Boccaccio’s tale of Giletta of Narbonne [from Book III of The Decameron] makes the action of All’s Well that Ends Well more like commedia erudita than like any other form of dramatized novella, more like late commedia grave than any other species of commedia erudita, and more like the whole genre rather than any particular specimen of it. (81)

Other original English or translated sources supply Shakespeare’s comedies: All’s Well That Ends Well appears to be indebted, in part, to Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566–67). Measure for Measure draws on Whetstone’s play, Promos and Cassandra (1578), Girolamo Bargagli’s Pellegrina (date unknown) and various plays by Battista Guarini (for which there may have been English translations available to Shakespeare, although none is known to have existed in his day). The Merchant of Venice may be indebted to the author’s use of some unattributed English popular drama as well as to the principal Italian sources by Fiorentino and Massucio; Merchant also makes liberal use of Zelauto (1580), a proto-novel by Anthony Munday, secretary to the Earl of Oxford.

Shakespeare’s early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, as well as his early tragedies, also show Shakespeare’s pronounced use of a host of supplemental works: Books III, IV and X of Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses provide material for Venus and Adonis; the poet also integrates passages from Ovid’s Fasti into The Rape of Lucrece, as well as excerpts from Titus Livy’s Historia and several lines from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. Titus Andronicus goes directly to Book VI of the untranslated Ovidian Metamorphoses for some of its material, as well as to Heywood’s translation of Thyestes (1560) and North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Julius Caesar relies on the Annals of Tacitus, Appian’s Civil Wars (translation unknown), and Pescetti’s Il Cesare (1594).

Hamlet draws conspicuously for much of its dramatic color on a variety of contributory works such as Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholy (1586), a 1572 translation of Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Night, and at least one of the stories from the fifth volume of Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (1570). Troilus and Cressida, apart from its obvious reliance on Homer, demonstrates Shakespeare’s employment of Caxton’s Ancient History of the Destruction of Troy (1596), Lydgate’s translation of delle Colonne’s 1555 edition of The Ancient History and Only True Chronicle of the Wars [of Troy], Books XII and XIII of Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

The other great tragedies—Othello, King Lear and Macbeth—demonstrate Shakespeare’s extensive familiarity with and utilization of such works as Holland’s translation of Pliny’s History of the World (1601), the Lewkenor translation of Contareni’s Commonwealth and Government of Venice (1599), mid-sixteenth century translations by Studley of Seneca’s Hercules Furens and Agamemmnon (1565), and Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582), among a host of other sources.

Apart from the conventional sources such as Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans and Livy’s Roman History, which Shakespeare consulted for his lesser tragedies of Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus , the texts also reveal that he borrowed from Averell’s A Marvellous Combat of Contrarieties (1588). In composing Timon, he appears to have eschewed Erasmus’s Latin edition of Lucian’s Timon, or the Misanthrope in favor of either Bretin’s French or Lonigo’s Italian translation of Lucian’s work (though he may have consulted both). In any case, he could not have used any English translation of Timon since one had yet to appear; indeed, no version of Lucian’s Timon had been produced in English even by the time of the Stratford man’s death, some dozen years after Oxford died.

One can continue at great length in this matter. To survey something more, therefore, of the dimensions of Shakespeare’s personal scholarship than that which I have but lightly touched upon in this abbreviated review, one should consult Geoffrey Bullough’s imposing multivolume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, a valuable compendium of Shakespearean source material and evidence of the broad extent of his learning. (17)

Accordingly, it is both astounding and amusing to find Bullough, in his concluding remarks, unable to resist the irrational compulsions of the Stratford myth. For despite his recognition that the Stratford man lacked a university education, Bullough is forced to account for Shakespeare’s obvious familiarity with hundreds of texts by attributing to him a prodigious memory rather than a prodigious erudition. Despite his thousands of pages of evidence to the contrary, Bullough finds himself unable to declare Shakespeare “learned”: “[Although] Shakespeare was not academically learned . . . [h]e seems to have forgotten nothing that he read or heard, [and] his powers of associative memory were such that if he required a parallel or contrast for plot and incident or a poetic image, something relevant and vivid floated up from his unconscious” (346–47). “Well-informed” is as far as he will go in his desperate attempt to maintain the gossamer threads that tie the poet Shakespeare to the merchant of Stratford.

One can only stand agog with stupefaction in the face of such assumptions that, while implausible enough in themselves, introduce a whole new set of impossible-to-answer queries. Where, for example, if Shakspere did not read, did he hear these works read that he might later “remember” them? If he could read, where did he discover and study these massive works (at least the works in English, to say nothing of those as-yet-untranslated tomes that he could only have read in Latin, French or Italian)? It seems highly unlikely that he had a library himself in what has been accounted by Walter Hart Blumenthal the “wholly bookless” town of Stratford-Upon-Avon (91). His will makes no mention of any books, and a substantial inventory of books in Stratford and its environs during the late eighteenth century found nothing to connect Shakspere to books of any kind (Nicoll, “The First Baconian”), nor, indeed, has any search conducted since that time, though global in reach these searches have been. No acquaintance or descendent of Shakspere makes any reference to Shakspere’s, or to any great poet-dramatist’s from Stratford-Upon-Avon, possession of a library. (18)

Indeed, the absence of any mention of books in his will seems curious, inasmuch as he places otherwise considerable importance on cataloguing even the most mundane and inconsequential of possessions—kitchenware, a sword, and a bed, for example. That oft-regarded alter ego of Shakespeare, Prospero (Knight, Myth and Miracle 26; Ogburn 761–63), declares in The Tempest that he prizes his books above his dukedom (I.ii.168), yet the last will and testament of his supposed creator disposes of mere chattel—items such as plate, furniture, and the like—and nary a book, manuscript, letter or, indeed, literature of any kind is inventoried.

Had Shakspere enjoyed access to the great libraries of the nobility—perhaps pre-eminently to that of the Earl of Southampton in Hampshire—we might expect some mention of his name to have been made by Southampton or one of the other lords who were in a position to bestow this noteworthy privilege on England’s premier poet-playwright. Yet no reliable record exists to suggest that any nobleman in England, let alone Southampton, nor any friend, secretary, or functionary of any member of the nobility, ever acknowledged even meeting the man, let alone giving him access to their books. And, indeed, why should there be such a record? As orthodox Stratfordian Alfred Harbage has conceded, “[t]here is not a shred of proof that Shakespeare [i.e., Shakspere] was ever intimate or socially familiar with anyone except members of his own class” (14).

However, if, somehow, the Stratford wool merchant did obtain possession of or gain access to the rare, valuable, and foreign texts so copiously cited in his works, we might well ask ourselves under whose tutelage he studied them. Who told him what to read? Who but a scholar or scholars of the finest quality would have known the paths to learning and been able to guide and critique the development of this, humanity’s most promising literary prodigy? With whom did he correspond and discuss these works and thereby refine his understanding of them? Where and when and with whom, in short, did this massive, completely unaccounted-for education and subsequent literary career ensue, and how, in the midst of a life that was consumed even in its teenage years by the preoccupation of harsh domestic concerns, was he able to study and digest scores of rarefied French, Italian, and Latin books? What, too, was his motive for creating the kind of works that he did from them?

Further, where are the compositions in verse or drama that led to that body of work that we know as the Shakespeare canon? Where are his juvenilia—the apprentice work of his youth? Are we seriously to believe, as orthodox Stratfordians instruct us, that this Warwickshire provincial never wrote anything until he was almost thirty years old—that he did not labor as a journeyman writer or study under anyone’s helpful or interested attentions—that no one instructed, guided, or nurtured this provincial prodigy, and that with no tutelage in the arts of poetry and drama, he abandoned his family and departed for London, where he blossomed overnight into the world’s greatest playwright, only some fifteen years later to lay down his pen and return to Stratford, never to write again? Are we to accept that during this time when he came up from Warwickshire to bring the Renaissance to England not one person saw fit to acknowledge this man’s inimitable accomplishment?

Indeed, who, during the height of the Stratford man’s supposed celebrity, even claims association with him—this man who George Lyman Kittredge informs us was “one of the best-known figures in England . . . both as a man and a poet” (24)? Who writes of him, saves his letters to them, memorializes him, or, in the manner of the day, dedicates their literary works to him? Absolutely no one! (19)

Where are the answers to these questions by Establishment Shakespeareans? Where, indeed, is there even acknowledgement that these questions merit response? That the Academy at large refuses to acknowledge the challenges to intellectual integrity forced on them by the Stratford authorship scenario is certainly scandal enough, but ultimately the most important consequence of their refusal to address the bankrupt propositions of Stratfordian orthodoxy is the erosion of our effectiveness as teachers to encourage our students in their efforts to achieve understanding and control of the language, for clearly the Academy fails to appreciate how subversive to their role as educators is the the myth of the Stratford miracle man. How is it they do not see that it is pointless to counsel students not to be discouraged at their early failures in the face of the Stratford fiction and its proclamation that great writers like Shakespeare are born, not made? Why bother to urge students that years of study, apprenticeship, and trial are the necessary prerequisites to success as accomplished and versatile writers? Such counsel is automatically nullified by their claim that the greatest writer who ever lived owned no books, wrote no letters, and never went to school! (20)

Indeed, the propositions of Stratfordian orthodoxy would seem to suggest that to become a writer of achievment, one hardly need study language at all. The man from Stratford, after all, couldn’t spell his own name the same way twice, yet despite this apparent obstacle, he developed a vocabulary of almost eighteen thousand words (twice that of John Milton and four-and-a-half times that of more ordinary, highly-educated mortals); he could parody Petrarchan verse forms, was able to create a yet-unmatched standard of excellence for English poetic and dramatic composition, and he could garnish his narratives with the jargon and conceits of aristocratic sport, music, soldiery, navigation, medicine, botany, and a host of other disciplines—in addition to the classics and several codes of domestic and international law. So accomplished, in fact, was his facility within these fields that one who wasn’t aware that familiarity with and competence within these subjects were unnecessary for one to be able to write informatively about them might actually think the Stratford man had applied himself to their study!

We do well, therefore, to recognize how much the assumptions of the Stratfordians, in their dogged naiveté, do violence to ordinary reason and common sense; but we also need to recognize how much the claims of Stratfordian orthodoxy compromise our understanding of everything we know about the creative process.

(21) Ellen Pall is only one of the more recent contributors to our better understanding of the process of literary creativity to have observed that “all fiction is fed by underground springs of personal fact” (64). Thus, all who share an interest in determining the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works should ask themselves, in addition to all the foregoing queries, “What underground springs of fact fed the Stratford man?” Where—as opposed to the Earl of Oxford—is he to be found, anywhere, in the works of Shakespeare? Where, in these incomparable works, in these rarified realms of sublimity and courtly splendor, can we find any sign of the Warwickshire tradesman whom blind tradition has uncritically acclaimed the author of the works of “Shakespeare”?

Nowhere. We can’t. Because he couldn’t have written them. And he didn’t.

End Notes

1) To maintain the distinction between the poet-dramatist Shakespeare and the illiterate butcher boy cum-wealthy wool merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon who was christened Gulielmus Shakspere, throughout this essay I will use the name “Shakespeare” to refer to the poet-dramatist, as that particular spelling is the spelling of the author’s name that most commonly appears on the Shakespeare play texts. “To maintain the distinction between the poet-dramatist Shakespeare and the illiterate butcher boy-cum-wealthy wool merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon who was christened Shakspere,” moreover, rather than “Shakespeare,” is better sanctioned as the preferred designator of the man from Stratford, not only because the latter spelling reflects that which typically was employed by the publishers of Shakespeare’s works to identify the author of the poems and plays, but also because the Stratford man never once utilized the name of “Shakespeare” to identify himself. Back

2) Oxfordians, of course, agree with orthodox scholars that Francis Bacon could not be the author of the Shakespeare canon. However, it is supremely ironic that Establishment critics who jeer at the Baconians can, with perfect maintenance of their own reputations as creditable scholars, propose even more implausible scenarios without apparent challenge from peers. Witness Stratfordian Charles Hamilton’s recent study, for example, in which he rejects the suggestion that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare by proposing, instead, the incredible thesis that Shakespeare ghost-wrote many of the works of Bacon (191–92)! Back

3) Sir James Plaisted Wilde, Q.C. (later Lord Penzance), anticipated Twain in attesting to Shakespeare’s perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms, and maxims, but the technicalities of English law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault . . . . As manifested in the plays, this legal knowledge and learning had . . . a special character which places it on a wholly different footing from the rest of the multifarious knowledge which is exhibited in page after page of the plays. At every turn and point at which the author required a metaphor, simile, or illustration, he mind ever turned first to the law. He seems almost to have thought in legal phrases, the commonest of legal expressions were ever at the end of his pen in description or illustration. That he should have descanted in lawyer language when he had a forensic subject at hand, such as Shylock’s bond, was to be expected, but the knowledge of law in Shakespeare was exhibited in a far different manner: it protruded itself on all occasions . . . and mingled itself with strains of thought widely divergent from forensic subjects. (qtd. in Twain 86–87) Back

4) Csikszentmihaly’s study demonstrates why it is impossible to imagine an unknown and undistinguished Warwickshire provincial becoming, without the necessary means of intellectual and professional support, the consummate poet-playwright in humanity’s history; as Csikszentmihaly reminds us, “A person cannot be creative in a domain to which he or she is not exposed . . . . You cannot transform a domain unless you first thoroughly understand how it works . . . . One cannot be creative without learning what others know….” (29, 90) Absent, therefore, a milieu in which a person with a particular creative disposition or talent can find opportunities for sustained and enthusiastic nurture and be inspired, instructed, shaped, tested, and otherwise critiqued against precedent according to that talent, there is little chance that one will be able even to enter into—let alone survive (or thrive in!) an arena where such necessary nurture is lacking. Moreover, as Csikszentmihaly explains, apart from being disadvantaged by a lack of essential resources, capability itself is no substitute for lack of experience in the field where one would exercise one’s abilities, for, as he affirms, “[s]omeone who is not known and appreciated by the relevant people [in his or her discipline] has a very difficult time accomplishing something that will be seen as creative” (54). Given, therefore, that neither the Stratford man nor anyone in the Stratford man’s lifetime attests to his interaction (or even association) with the literary or legal worlds, we should find, if he were the writer we know as Shakespeare, that not only would he be the world’s ultimate literary architect—but be one (altogether unlike other Elizabethan playwrights of commoner stock, such as Marlowe and Jonson) who achieved that status in utter isolation from the world, leaving, as he does, no record of a poet-dramatist’s life in his own words or others.’ Back

5) T. W. Baldwin invites us not to be surprised, however, at the Stratford man’s ability to compose what he allegedly did, despite his concession that “[w]e have no direct evidence that he ever attended any grammar school a single day” (662); the grandeur of his achievements, he argues, are simply attributable to “the world-old miracle of genius” (663). Moreover, Professor Baldwin continues, although “[w]e have no absolutely conclusive external proof . . . that he ever owned a book of any kind,” we need not conclude from such a circumstance that someone other than Shakspere may have written the works of Shakespeare, for his knowledge of the Latin classics need not have been acquired by reading; their contents might well have been acquired “by absorption from the air” (666, 673).
Professor Baldwin also allows that we might wish to know how, after “absorbing from the air” the substance of the classical literary tradition, this Stratford genius then learned the method of dramatic composition. No mystery there either, however, Baldwin tells us: like his knowledge of the classics, “[h]e would have got it from the very air [although attempting to determine w]here he got it,” he chides us, “is relatively unimportant” (680). That such ludicrous evasions and blithe dismissals in response to legitimate questions challenging Shakspere’s authorship can pass muster as the worthy conclusions of respectable, mainstream scholarship should come as little surprise to us, however, for they are conclusions judged to be sound by professors who, building on Baldwin’s premises themselves, similarly maintain that study and practice simply were not necessary requirements for the Stratford wundermensch.
As Allardyce Nicoll argues, for example, “in the wonder of his genius, he [Shakspere] was able to grasp in lightning speed what could be attained only after years of dull work by ordinary minds” (Shakespeare 68), and Professor W. F. Osbourne of Wesley College, who, though he concedes that nothing can account for the maintenance of the proposition that Shakespeare became literate enough by accountable means to have composed the Shakespeare canon (11), urges us, nonetheless, to stop searching for answers that would reconcile the contradiction between Shakspere’s lack of education and the unprecedented erudition of the plays. As he writes, in abjectly surrendering to the untenable paradox of an illiterate man composing the works of humanity’s greatest literary achievement, “It is impossible to account for Shakespeare’s accomplishment. We must simply bow in the face of the ultimate fact of genius” (10). Back

6) Indeed, the vastness of Shakespeare’s education, as revealed by the plays, is incomparable among Englishmen of letters; as Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven attests, Shakespeare’s contributions to English vocabulary and phraseology alone stagger the imagination (1380). Indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare, through his published work, added over 3200 words to English vocabulary (almost as many in addition as ordinary educated persons possess in sum), and Ernest Weekley avows that Shakespeare’s “contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any writer to any language in the history of the world” (55). In addition, however, to the plays’ demonstration of an unrivalled linguistic dexterity in the author, the density of classical allusion and the extensive reliance on classical literary material in Shakespeare are likewise without dramatic parallel among Shakespeare’s contemporaries. As Charles Smith has demonstrated, Shakespeare’s plays reveal a writer who was a studious reader of Cato, Cicero, Horace, Ovid, Plautus, Seneca, Terence, and Vergil, among many other classical writers (4)—many of whose works remained untranslated into English at the time of the Shakespeare plays’ composition.
Therefore, given the evidence of his texts alone, “Shakespeare” almost certainly had to be one of those rare, multi-lingual, well-tutored and highly educated aristocrats of the Tudor era who, in the words of historian Lawrence Stone, “[l]ike the Earl of Surrey under Henry VIII to the Earl of Oxford under Elizabeth, [were] noblemen [who] had a greater share in the production of English imaginative literature than at any time before or since” (704). The only alternative is to accept the implausible propositions of critics such as Charles and Michelle Martindale who argue for Shakespeare’s attainment of his singular achievement in language and the classics despite his lack of education, declaring that although “Shakespeare [was] not a learned man . . . so narrow an education [nevertheless] provoked one of the . . . richest flowerings in the history of Western literature” (vii)—a view of the poet’s intellectual infirmity not far removed from that advanced by Professor Tucker Brooke of Yale University, who similarly has proposed that because “Shakespeare did not bring with him from Stratford a very plastic, or, as we should say, a trained mind . . . [he had to] scrutiniz[e] day by day the thinking minds of men and women about him. And thereby he gained a wisdom that concealed his plentiful lack of knowledge” (29, 31). Back

7) Golding, English translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is profuse in his praise of Oxford’s aptitudes, scholarly interests, and accomplishments. As he attests, for example, in a letter to the young Earl following Oxford’s matriculation at Cambridge University, “I have had the experience . . . myself, to [discover] how earnest your honour hath naturally graffed in you to read, peruse, and communicate with others . . . the histories of ancient times, and things long ago, and also of the present estate of things in our days . . . [with] pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding” (qtd. in Ward 23–24). Back

8) Those, for example, who contend that Shakespeare perfected the sonnet form often (erroneously) attributed to (and commonly named for) him should look to Oxford’s early work for confirmation of the uniqueness of the Shakespearean sonnet form, as among the first practitioners whom we know to have composed in this style prior to the publication of Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609 are Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (Oxford’s uncle!)—who invented the form as well as the convention of blank verse, and Oxford himself. See, for example, Oxford’s sonnet, “Love Thy Choice” (Miller vol 1 562; May 25–37.) Given that the Earl of Surrey died in 1547, if Shakspere, the Stratford man, were the author of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, he therefore almost certainly would have required access to a post-mortem publication of the poetical works of the Earl of Surrey or would have had to learn the Shakespearean sonnet form from Edward de Vere himself. Back

9) Francis Meres and Edmund Spenser commend Oxford’s dignity and achievements with much adulation (Ward 264, 300–01). It is Henry Peacham’s commentary, however, that may be most interesting in this regard, for it was Peacham’s insertion of a cryptic illustration of a hand emerging from behind a curtain and penning an anagrammatic Latin phrase on the cover of Minerva Britanna (1612) that perhaps first confirmed George Puttenham’s revelation that Oxford was a hidden dramatist in the court of Elizabeth I (see illustration, page 79). Perhaps even more enlightening than the title-page emblem on Minerva Britanna, though, is a list compiled and published by Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman (1622), wherein he catalogues those who have contributed most to the advancement of the literary arts in England. The list, which includes such writers of distinction as Sidney, Dyer, and Spenser (as well as more modest talents such as Paget, Buckhurst, and Samuel Daniel) begins with the Earl of Oxford (108)! Nowhere, however, does Peacham mention Shakespeare. Back

10) Oxford, like many other playwrights of his time, may well have had particular reason to seek protective cover beneath the cloak of the patron goddess [of Athens, home of the theatre], Pallas Athena, the Spear-shaker, for he lived in an age when fears of seditious speech obsessed the Privy Council, and poets, playwrights and essayists who wrote openly and “displeasingly” in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries were routinely imprisoned (such as were Marston, Chapman, and Hayward), racked and tortured (as was Thomas Kyd), disfigured (as were Stubbs, Leighton, and Prynne), branded (as was Jonson), or even murdered (as Christopher Marlowe may have been). Indeed, so widespread was the practice of writers disguising their identities that modern scholars who have sought to achieve proper attribution of all the anonymous and pseudonymous works that survived confiscation and destruction by State censors during the Tudor and Stuart reigns find themselves confronted with a grim and awesome—perhaps even insoluble—challenge.
Gerald Eades Bentley, for example, is but one among many scholars who attest to the likelihood of a long-continuing state of irresolution of these questions in his reminder to us that “the large majority of all English plays before the reign of Elizabeth are anonymous, and even from 1558 to 1590 the authors of most plays are unknown” (198; emphasis added). It should be apparent to us, therefore, that absent the evident intent of that “incomparable pair of brethren,” the two dedicatees of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works—Oxford’s son-in-law, the 4rd Earl of Montgomery, and the man whom Oxford sought to make his son-in-law, the 3th Earl of Pembroke,—-to preserve and publish the works of Shakespeare through the agency of Heminge and Condell, the bulk of the Shakespeare literary corpus almost surely would have been lost to posterity as well. Back

11) Observations such as those of Ruth Nevo are of great value to students who are persuaded (or at least inclined to suspect) that Shakespeare had a rich classical education. Studies such as Nevo’s provide cogent analysis and detailed illustrations of technical, learned features intrinsic to Shakespearean drama that confirm, focus and contextualize a general perception of Shakespeare’s erudition that many readers who are less familiar with some of the particular attributes of Shakepeare’s ancient sources long have recognized but could not demonstrate by appeal to specific example. Back

12) Far from being the throwaway work of a part-time village butcher and wool merchant, Shakespeare’s plays, as S. S. Hussey attests, reflect the facile work of a professional Elizabethan dramatist whose literary accomplishments achieved nothing less than the transformation of the English language itself (22–23) and whose sonnets, long improperly regarded, according to Oxford University Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones, as “youthful foll[ies],” demand overdue recognition as “the mature and considered work of a successful professional writer” (xiii), the unrivaled achievements of a poet who has attained the fullness of his art. In this connection, readers interested in surveying the documentary record associated with the Stratford man who may think there is any foundation to the oft-asserted but insupportable Stratfordian claim that Shakspere was “one of the most prominent writers of the time” (Cunningham 10) should consult David Thomas’s Shakespeare in the Public Records (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1985), esp. pp. 36–38, to be disabused of this fiction. Back

13) George Lambin’s Voyages de Shakespeare en France en Italie is perhaps the most thorough study of Shakespeare’s familiarity with the Continent, although Lambin (notably lacking the evidence of Oxford’s journeys in France and Italy in 1575–76) edges toward the conclusion that the most likely candidate for Shakespeare was William Stanley, the Sixth Earl of Derby (another Oxford son-in-law!). Back

14) For more on this issue, see my recent book, The Anglican Shakespeare: Elizabethan Orthodoxy in the Great Histories (Vancouver: Pacific-Columbia, 1993). Interested readers would also do well to consult Elizabeth Appleton’s thoughtful article, “Proving Shakespeare’s Identity,” wherein she likewise argues that in the histories and elsewhere, Oxford, through his pseudonym as “Shakespeare,” conceals himself from accusation by hostile Puritan forces in order to write without risk “as the Champion of the Church, the Crown, poetry, and the freedom of the stage” (23). Back

15) Alfred Harbage is one of the few scholars among the orthodoxists to censure his fellow Stratfordians on this point by emphatically reminding them that it is a romantic fiction to assume Shakspere even received so much as a meal in the home of any person of distinction. Moreover, he continues, we know that “Shakespeare never received a lucrative commission for an entertainment or masque at a noble or royal household” (14). For more on the Stratford man’s unaccountable invisibility at court during the height of the English Renaissance, see my essay, “Shaking the Spear at Court: ‘Oxford as Knight of the Tree of the Sunne,’” in the most recent edition of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 34 [Summer 1998]. Back

16) Woodstock may be an early play by Oxford, likely written as a sequel to Edward the Third (see my review of Eric Sams’ recent edition of Edward III in The Elizabethan Review 5, Spring 1997, 54–57). The reader will recognize, however, irrespective of his or her convictions regarding the authorship of Woodstock, that Oxford’s composition of Woodstock around the time he composed his other early history plays may well explain why we witness the breach in narrative integrity between the early Shakespearean histories of Edward III and Richard II that we do—an interruption in narrative continuity that is underscored by a seemingly most peculiar choice of opening for Richard II (Whitaker 382) in which the action commences with—of all unlikely things!—Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s assembly before the King to trade charges of treason. If, however, this seemingly queer choice of scene were not arbitrarily chosen as a point of narrative departure but, instead, was prefaced and contextualized by action that concludes an anterior work, its selection by the author to open Richard II might seem more intelligible—which, indeed, upon examination, one discovers to be the case, as the reader of Woodstock and Richard II will immediately detect that “Shakespeare [in opening Richard II] takes up the subject practically where his predecessor [in Woodstock had] dropped it . . . . ” (Berenton 22).
If Shakespeare / Oxford did not write Woodstock he at least was aware of the play and elected to use it to contextualize the narrative pattern of histories that he had begun with Edward III and was continuing with Richard II. For more on the likelihood of Oxford’s authorship of Woodstock, see Elisabeth Sears’s article, “Oxford’s Hand in Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II” in The Spear-Shaker Review 2, Spring 1987/8, 24–27. Back

17) Bullough’s study is an eight-volume compendium of the sources consulted and used by Shakespeare in the composition of his plays and poems. It remains, to this day, the authoritative text of its kind, and despite its compiler’s faulty authorial assumptions, most of its judgments are sound; a somewhat abridged but similarly helpful survey of some of Shakespeare’s source material can also be found in Kenneth Muir’s The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978). Back

18) Dr. John Hall, Shakspere’s son-in-law—and apparently the only literate member of the Shakspere family—makes not one mention in his diaries of his supposedly famous father-in-law, “the most popular dramatist of his day” (Halliday 1), “a favourite of the people and of the Court” (Knight, “A History of Opinion” 332), and “one of the best-known figures in England . . . held in high esteem both as a man and a poet” (Kittredge 24)—yet he records that the Warwickshire poet-playwright, Michael Drayton, is an acquaintance of his, acclaiming him an “an excellent poet.”
Drayton, for his own part, never indicates that he knows Shakespeare (Whalen 15–16), a curious thing, if the Stratford man were Shakespeare, for both Michael Drayton and Gulielmus Shakspere lived many years of their lives in the same small county of Warwickshire, and one of the many legends of Shakespeare’s death even asserts that Shakespeare died in Drayton’s company after a bout of hard drinking with his fellow Warwickshire poet (Schoenbaum 78). Back

19) No fewer than 29 works, including Clerke’s translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier, Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte, and John Lyly’s Euphues are dedicated to Oxford; a sonnet in Spenser’s Fairie Queene is dedicated to him, and in Chapman’s Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois, he is acclaimed a “spirit passing great, / Valiant and learn’d . . . /[one who] Spoke and writ sweetly, . . . of learned subjects.” Indeed, it is worth noting that until the Interregnum, no other literary writer of the Elizabethan / Jacobean age, apart from Ben Jonson, ever received as many dedications as were bestowed upon the Earl of Oxford. Even literary lights like Philip Sidney and Walter Raleigh received fewer dedications than Oxford. No one, however, ever dedicated a book to William Shakespeare. Back

20) In addition to these incredible claims, it is often asserted that a writer of stature need never revise his or her own work. In Timber: or Discoveries, Ben Jonson, for example, declared that he had heard it said of Shakespeare “that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted a line.” The statement has led many persons to assume that Shakespeare, accordingly, never needed to revise anything he wrote, as he supposedly wrote flawlessly whenever he put pen to paper. Back

21) See, once again, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s study in which he points out that “creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systematic rather than an individual phenomenon” (23). And, in continuing to refute the premise that genius alone can account for the creation of new knowledge or generate facts that can be only externally rather than intuitively known, he reminds us that “[k]nowledge . . . is extrasomatic; it is not transmitted through the chemical codes inscribed in our chromosomes but must be intentionally passed on and learned” (37). Back

This essay was first published in 1998 in the premier issue of The Oxfordian. Dr. Daniel L. Wright is the Director of the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Concordia University (Portland, Oregon) and Director of the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference, held each April on the Concordia Campus.

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