Forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the Australian National University’s Chifley library, I happened to notice a fascinating collection of old books on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. One in particular captured my imagination. (No, it wasn’t the Oxfordian bible, Shakespeare Identified, by J. Thomas Looney. Had it been, my journey towards Oxfordianism may have taken a less tortuous route.)
It was Ignatius Donnelly’s 1888 work with the wonderfully mysterious and provocative title, The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays.
Donnelly unquestionably had some pretty weird ideas and it didn’t take too long to realize that some of his ciphers were more than just a bit far-fetched. Nonetheless, the book introduced me to a whole area of fascinating speculation, which I found absolutely riveting. When I subsequently discovered Mark Twain’s hilarious 1909 essay, Is Shakespeare Dead?, I was exhilarated and delved deeply into the cryptographic mysteries. But no sooner had I started in earnest than a skeptical friend gave me a copy of the 1957 book, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, by cryptographers William and Elizebeth Friedman, which demolished the Baconian ciphers, and it completely took the wind out of my sails. (The book won the Friedmans the 1957 Folger Shakespeare Library literary prize.)
At that stage I reasoned that if the Baconian ciphers were hokum, then maybe the Shakespeare Authorship Question itself was crazy after all.
Nonetheless, the much-maligned Donnelly had implanted the seed of doubt. More and more I started to see that no one in the opposition was providing answers – only dogma and insult.
This doubt had me toying for some years with the romantically attractive notion that Christopher Marlowe had not met with that great reckoning in a small room in 1593 but had gone on to write the plays in Europe. But then Charles Nichols’ forensic analysis of Marlowe’s murder in his 1995 book, The Reckoning, killed off that theory too.
I had largely given up. Then in early 1999 I noticed a Harper’s magazine cover on a “debate” between several orthodox professors and challengers, most of whom were arguing the case for some guy called Edward De Vere. I thought, “What nonsense!… Who the crumb is Edward De Vere?”
I might have left it there but for Professor Harold Bloom, who declared in response to the very reasonable questions posed by these ‘Oxfordians’ that they were “lunatics . . . dogmatic and abusive” and “the sub-literary equivalent of the sub-religious Scientologists.” This Olympian arrogance convinced me I had to return with gusto to the authorship debate – clearly orthodoxy was an emperor in the nude.
Very soon after this a great friend fairly accosted me in the street waving a heavy book in his hand declaring wildly that I simply had to drop everything and read the weighty tome he was waving around! That book was Oxfordian Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare and the rest as they say is history!
— Greg Ellis
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