I was 33 years old at the time and had just arrived at the office. Before starting work, I scanned the front page of The New York Times for September 25, 1987 to take in the three-column headline: “You-Know-Who Wrote the Plays, Judges Say.” Then I read the first two paragraphs.
“A three-member panel of United States Supreme Court Justices ruled today that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, or at least that it would have to be presumed that he did until a better claimant came along.
“The Justices — William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens — issued their ruling in a mock court after hearing cases made for the popular champion, the Bard of Avon, and his thoroughly dislikable challenger, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.”
I didn’t read further because I simply didn’t care about the outcome — and had never heard of the authorship controversy. OK, not entirely — I heard my 8th grade English teacher rant for ten minutes about it, ascribing snobbery to the doubters of the traditional author’s candidacy. The class response was surprise and “whatever.”
At school I could not get into the texts because of all the Elizabethan dialect that required me to repeatedly stop reading and get a modern translation. I did love the plays in production, though — from As You Like It and Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, to Henry VIII on an open-air stage in Central Park, to Broadway performances, such as A.J. Antoon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, a production so inspiring that President Richard Nixon took time to see it at the Winter Garden Theater in 1972.
That production was unique because the director successfully transferred the setting from 16th Century Italy to 19th Century America — using a combination of ragtime music and seersucker suits as well as Victorian houses and Keystone cops (for Dogberry). In other words, the director had found a series of physical analogues for the dress, music and architecture of Renaissance Italy that updated the story, dialogue and behavior in an American way.
Despite my love of Shakespeare on stage, the notion that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the canon did not interest me until the next year, when in the spring of 1988 the New Yorker magazine published a cover story about the American University moot court referenced above. I ignored the author’s condescension because I wanted to find out why three Supreme Court Justices had bothered to sit in judgment on such a superficial question.
In reading the cover story, I was shocked to discover that intellectuals and artists such as John Galsworthy, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles had found the circumstantial case for the Earl of Oxford persuasive. What really mesmerized me, though, was realizing I had not heard anything about the issue in all the years I had lived in New York City — the intellectual capital of the United States. Not at City University of New York, not in any of the numerous publications published there, not at any cultural gatherings that fill the landscape of that city.
At the same time, I realized that New York City was also the business capital of the country — the place that sold ideas, both superficial and substantive, for profit. And the authorship controversy had the double benefit of combining the world’s greatest artist with creative work that still resonated with great swaths of the American public. In short, the Shakespeare authorship controversy offered a perfect recipe for both scholarship and profit-making activities. Yet neither its commercial institutions nor its intellectual centers had embraced the subject. Why?
This became the mystery that spurred me to conduct research on the issue at New York University, where I had just started upon my master’s degree at night. I even tried to use it as the topic of my thesis, but was rejected by the department professors without explanation.
Despite this rejection, I still managed to conduct research on Oxford at NYU, the Morgan Library, which has a first edition of The Paradise of Dainty Devices, and the NY Public Library, which has a superb Rare Book Collection. That research was transformed into four articles published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter and a presentation at the 1990 annual conference in Pasadena, California.
Once smitten by the intellectual delights of the authorship question, I have not been able to let go of it for more than a short period of time. I have attended six annual conferences since then, served as editor of the Newsletter and the journal, Brief Chronicles, was co-producer of a television program on the issue moderated by William F. Buckley, and even founded a peer-reviewed history journal entitled The Elizabethan Review, which I published from 1993 to 1999 in print and from 1997 to 2001 online.
After 28 years, my essays and book reviews finally found their way into book form in 2016 [Reflections on the True Shakespeare, available on Amazon] through the German publisher, Verlag Laugwitz, an achievement that I hope will help the movement continue its advancement.
— Gary Goldstein
“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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”)
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