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Shakespeare Authorship 101

A Summary of the Doubts

Shakespeare, alone of all the great writers in Western civilization, presents a unique enigma. Despite two hundred years of scholarly attempts to establish the Stratford man's credentials, doubts about the author's identity refuse to go away. As Henry James said, "The facts of Stratford do not 'square' with the plays of genius..."

  • Despite a massive manhunt going back more than two centuries, not a single letter written in his hand or book he owned has ever been found.
  • Conditions for the survival of books, manuscripts or other documents could not have been more ideal: New Place remained in the hands of Shakspere's descendents until the 1670s

    Shakspere's will, noteworthy for its detailed disposal of household items, contains no mention of books, manuscripts, desk, shelves, pens, paper, or anything suggesting literary interest.
  • The conditions for the survival of books, manuscripts or other documents definitively linking the Stratford man to the works of Shakespeare could not have been more ideal: New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon remained in the hands of Shakspere's descendents until the 1670s, less than forty years before Nicholas Rowe wrote the first Shakespeare biography.
  • The only specimens of William Shakspere's handwriting are six almost illegible signatures, each formed differently, and each from the latter period of his life (none earlier than 1612). Three of these signatures are on his will, one is on a deposition in someone else's lawsuit, and two are on property documents.
  • Shakspere of Stratford did not educate his children. His daughters were illiterate.
  • In an age of copious eulogies, none was forthcoming when Shakspere died in Stratford.
  • All of the literary references to William Shakespeare are impersonal and even ambiguous, and may just as easily refer to some unknown person writing under a popular and often-recognized "nom de plume"; conversely the many documents which do exist relating to the Stratford Shakspere fail to indicate that he was even literate! They depict the life of someone who was energetically engaged in business matters and moneylending, but make no reference to writing.

    Shakspere of Stratford did not educate his children. His daughters were illiterate.

  • William Shakspere's son-in-law John Hall kept an extensive journal, in which he wrote of the "excellent Poet" and Warwickshire native Michael Drayton, but he failed to mention his father-in-law's association with the theatre, drama, or literature.
  • The author of Shakespeare's works had to be familiar with a wide body of knowledge for his time -- law (he accurately employs as many as six hundred legal terms), music, foreign languages, the classics, and aristocratic manners and sports. There is no documentation that William Shakspere of Stratford had access to such information. Unlike other major playwrights of the period, he did not attend college or receive legal training.
  • The life documented in conventional biographies is inconsistent with the life revealed in the plays and poems. William Shaksper of Stratford was a successful businessman, a man of worldly wealth and upward mobility. The plays express a consistent pattern of contempt for the values and attitudes necessary for success in the social milieu in which the alleged author lived. Instead they reflect a distinctively aristocratic social view, as Walt Whitman recognized when he postulated that "one of the Wolfish earls" would seem to be the true author of the history plays.

The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was a recognized poet and playwright of great talent, a patron of literature, the theatre and music. He was at the center of English literary life, and a close acquaintance with all of the personalities whose brilliance infuses the Shakespearean canon with its own distinctive Elizabethan character.

Although a short summary will not do justice to the myriad reasons why the Folger Shakespeare Library has concluded that Oxford is the most plausible alternative candidate for Shakespeare's identity, and why so many informed and independent thinkers have concluded that he was, in fact, the true mind behind the mask of the the bard, following are a few of the many key points:

Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print Verses; 'tis well enough to make them to please himself, but to make them public, is foolish

  • In the Renaissance period in England a powerful stigma was attached to the publication of poetry and, especially, drama by courtiers--this was an unwritten honor code of the court. Sir Phillip Sidney's collected work, for example, only appeared in print after he died in 1586. Numerous published commentary from the Elizabethan period documents the existence of the taboo. Occasionally, the taboo was violated, but as late as the Caroline court (1625-1649), William Selden wrote: "'Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print Verses; 'tis well enough to make them to please himself, but to make them public, is foolish" (Selden's Table Talk, f.p. 1699, 116).
  • The use of pseudonyms and other forms of veiled publication was very common during the period in question, both because of the stigma associated with print, and because publication of controversial material constituted a political risk, according to Taylor and Mosher in their standard reference work, The Encyclopedia of Anonyms and Cryptonyms. Even the use of living "front men" was, apparently, a common strategy, if we may trust the reaction of Queen Elizabeth herself to the publication of the inflammatory 1599 tract, The first part of the life and raigne of king Henrie IIII, published under the name of the historian John Hayward. In a July 11 1599 interrogation of Hayward, the Queen "argued that Hayward was pretending to be the author in order to shield 'some more mischievous' person, and that he should be racked so that he might disclose the truth."  The fact that Queen Elizabeth so easily assumed that a living person, thought by all historians of the period to be the actual author of the work in question, was only serving as a scapegoat for a "more mischievous" concealed author seems to indicate her knowledge of a common practice.

    That Queen Elizabeth so easily assumed that a living person... was only serving as a scapegoat for a "more mischievous" concealed author seems to indicate her knowledge of a common practice.

  • Oxford was known in the Elizabethan court as a prominent patron of the theatre. He was also known as a closeted poet and playwright, "the best for comedy," as Francis Meres describes him in 1598. The Arte of English Poesie, the leading (and anonymous) work of literary criticism of the Elizabethan reign, lists Oxford first in a list of Noblemen "who have written commendably well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest" (Arber 75). No play bearing his name survives.
  • The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, prominent persons and events in Elizabeth's court, which de Vere had intimate knowledge of:
    • Venus and Adonis (1593), the first work to bear the name "William Shakespeare," is dedicated to the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Oxford's daughter Elizabeth was then engaged. Southampton is also thought by most scholars to be "fair youth" of the Sonnets.
    • Oxford's father-in-law and guardian, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, is satirized in Hamlet as Polonius. This point is bolstered by a huge range of comparative detail. The parody is perhaps the most daring use of the stage for satiric purposes during the Elizabethan period. It is one of the strange anomalies of the Stratfordian paradigm that the author of such "slander" against the most powerful man in England, whose son Robert inherited his power on his death in 1598, should apparently escape even a slap on the wrist when other playwrights such as Tom Nashe or Ben Jonson were called before the inquisition of the Privy Council or imprisoned for less daring uses of the stage.
    • Oxford's epistle dedicatory to Thomas Bedingfield's Cardanus Comfort (1573), a major source book for Hamlet, is strikingly Shakespearean in character, as Charles Wisner Barrell observed in a 1946 article.
    • Christopher Hatton, Vice-Chamberlain, is satirized as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Hatton was one of Oxford's most highly placed enemies and a competitor for the romantic attention of the Queen c. 1574. The poesie employed by Maria and Toby to entrap Malvolio into his fantasy that Olivia loves him, "The Fortunate Unhappy" (2.5.164), is a satiric inversion of Hatton's motto, "Foelix Infortunatus" ("happy, although unfortunate").
  • The sonnets and the plays contain frequent references to events that are paralleled in Oxford's life.
    • Oxford is the only "Shakespeare" who -- as part of his ceremonial prerogatives as the Great Lord Chamberlain -- actually "bore the canopy" (to which sonnet 125 alludes) over Queen Elizabeth.
    • Polonius in Hamlet speaks of "young men falling out at tennis," which most likely refers to the infamous Oxford-Sidney tennis court quarrel.

      Polonius in Hamlet speaks of "young men falling out at tennis," which most likely refers to the infamous Oxford-Sidney tennis court quarrel.

    • The Sonnet writer several times refers to his own lameness (37, 66, 89), as in "speak of my lameness and I straight will halt" (89: 3). A tradition that Shakespeare was lame originated very early, and is discussed extensively by George Russell French in his 1866 Shakespereana Genealogica (569-571). Because of injuries suffered in a duel c.1583 Oxford was "a lame man" -- which just might explain the lameness mentioned repeatedly by the author of the sonnets.
    • In 1573 Oxford as a young man, along with his companions, was reported as playing pranks and tricks on travellers along the same stretch of road "between Rochester and Gravesend" where Prince Hal and his pals played pranks on travellers in Henry IV, Part 1.
    • The details of Hamlet, one of "Shakespeare's" greatest achievements, are so similar to those of Oxford's life that students of Oxford's life regard the play as inherently autobiographical. Like Hamlet, Oxford was even abducted by pirates and "set naked" on the shore!  As Washington Post reporter Don Oldenburg wrote, Oxford's life reads like a "rough draft" of Hamlet.
  • Although no play published under Oxford's name has come down to us, his acknowledged early verse and his surviving letters contain forms, words, and phrases characteristic of Shakespeare.

    Oxford's life reads like a "rough draft" of Hamlet

  • For a controversial author-courtier such as Oxford, writing scandalous satiric drama for the public stage, a pseudonym would have been essential. Consider the name: "William Shake-speare," and how fitting it was as a nom de plume for Oxford:
    • Pallas Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, home of Greek theatre, and Renaissance goddess of the arts and literature, was associated in Renaissance Europe with the action of of "spear-shaking." As Henri Estienne explained the popular belief in his Thesaurus Linguae Graecas (Geneva, 1572): "dicitur enim pallas quasi Vibratrix dea. & quidem hastae vibratrix, utpote bellicosa" = for Pallas is said (to be) like a shaking goddess. and indeed a shaker of the spear, inasmuch (as she is) warlike" (III.29.D.1-2).
    • At court Oxford was known as "Spear-shaker" because of his skill at tournaments and his crest showing a lion brandishing a spear. In a 1578 address to Oxford in front of the court, Gabriel Harvey refers to him as one whose "vultus tela vibrat" -- his "will shakes speares."

      In a 1578 address to Oxford, Gabriel Harvey refers to him as one whose "vultus tela vibrat" -- his "will shakes speares."

  • The events of 1604-1623 and circumstances of the posthumous publication of the Shakespearean oeuvre in the 1623 folio lend strong support to the Oxfordian theory.
    • Following Oxford's death in June 1604, King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court, apparently as a final tribute to the deceased author. Moreover, David L. Roperhas recently observed a curious contradiction related to this episode:"In that same year, with de Vere having recently died, the King turned to Ben Jonson, and commissioned him to write masques for the Court's entertainment. In the years that followed, and by collaborating with Inigo Jones for scenery, Jonson went on to produce upwards of thirty more masques. The man from Stratford contributed nothing - nor was he asked to. Furthermore, despite the interest and enjoyment derived by James from Shakespeare's plays, the King never sought, nor even once singled-out the man from Stratford."The reason, we submit, for the failure of King James to patronize the bard should by now be readily apparent: unlike Ben Jonson, he was already dead.
    • When Oxford's widow died nine years later (1612) a group of Shakespeare plays (fourteen in this case) were produced, again apparently in tribute to the deceased author.

      Following Oxford's death in June 1604, King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court, apparently as a final tribute to the deceased author

    • When the Sonnets were published in 1609, they refer to the author as "ever-living" -- an epithet which is applied as an honorific to a deceased person.
    • All scholars agree that the Sonnets, although not published until five years after de Vere's death, were completed before 1604. They refer in very pointed ways to the imprisonment of the fair youth, the Earl of Southampton, in the tower of London following the aborted 1601 Essex Rebellion and to the death of Queen Elizabeth in spring 1603. No such references to events after 1604 can be found in the Sonnets.
    • In Sonnet 107, which alludes to the passing of the Queen, the author states that "death to me subscribes," indicating his awareness of his own imminent death. Oxford died June 26 1604, slightly more than a year later that Elizabeth.
    • The Shakespeare Folio was patronized by Oxford's son-in-law Phillip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, and his brother, Lord Chamberlain William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The folio was an expensive and risky publication, which was most likely subsidized by these two powerful and wealthy patrons.


Mark Twain's
Is Shakespeare Dead?

with Keir Cutler

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