It began, for me, while acting in college productions of Othello and Hamlet. I fell in love with the characters, words, scenes and how the playwright developed the dynamics of his stories for the stage. I loved the character of the prince, learned his speeches and wondered how he seemed so contemporary. When I asked during rehearsal what we knew of Shakespeare, the director replied, “He was an actor who became a writer.” That took care of that.
Much later, in 1987, thinking about writing a play, I thought it would help to learn about Shakespeare’s creative process. I was taken by the vision of him writing speeches for his kings and nobles with supreme confidence in his imagination, letting it lead the way, so the dialogue rolled onto the page with clarity and authority and – Well, I thought, why not find a biography of the man to maybe learn some of his secrets?
My play was going to be set in the White House, but I was living up in Maine and felt too disconnected. How was the best way to imagine scenes and dialogue in the great halls of political power, so far from the nation’s capital? How had Shakespeare done it?
In five successive biographies, starting with A Life by Sidney Lee in 1898, there was nothing to be found. Eventually I set my play in a casting office in New York, a setting familiar to me; and playing the lead in a Boston production was Charles Boyle, an Oxfordian, who led me to The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr., published three years earlier.
It astounded me that I had never heard of any “authorship” question – not even at Notre Dame, where I had majored in Theater and the Great Books Program. Not a word about it, during four years at such a prestigious university!
I was equally amazed to know that at the Elizabethan royal court there had been an eccentric nobleman whose character and life had so many Hamlet-like aspects. Had Shakespeare interviewed Edward de Vere about his brush with pirates, so he could write a similar scene in Hamlet? Might the great dramatist have found a letter from Anne Cecil that helped him write Desdemona’s similar pleading speeches to Othello?
Shakespeare could have learned about de Vere, as research … or … or he was de Vere! … but wait, how could an imposter roam London and get away with it? Then I realized “Shakespeare” would have been just a pen name, without a body attached – and, too, I learned that right before the name appeared in 1593 the earl had left public life to become virtually invisible … so this monstrous hoax was … possible.
And if it happened to be true, I thought, then Oxford held the answer to Shakespeare’s creative process. It would mean his exercise of imagination had not been some miraculous act of fantasy disconnected from his life, but, rather, the creative use of his own experience. He had known those great halls of political power firsthand. He had known the prince’s suffering.
This revelation was life-changing. The authorship problem went back a century and a half or more, and I had just learned about it. Why had the world so neglected Edward de Vere? One morning I walked over to the Portland public library, found some books on the topic and sat down on the floor to devour them then and there. I have never looked back.
— Hank Whittemore
“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: email@example.com. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”)
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