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A Brief History of the Shakespeare Question

Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first biographer

Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare’s first biographer


The publication of the first biography of “Shakespeare” as the Stratford man by Nicholas Rowe. The Restoration-era, modern biographical tradition takes root.


Publication of Captain Goulding’s Essay Against Too Much Reading: Shakespeare probably had to keep “one of those chuckle-pated Historians for his particular Associate…or he might have starvd upon his History.” Goulding tells us that he had this from “one of his (Shakespeare’s) intimate Acquaintance.”


David Garrick establishes the annual festival at Stratford. He apotheosizes the Stratford Shakspere as “the god of our idolatry.”

In the same year, coincidentally, The Life and Adventures of Common Sense, an anonymous allegory, parodies the tradition then taking root at Stratford. It describes a profligate Shakespeare who stole the implements of his trade, including a “mask of curious workmanship [which] had the power of making every sentence that came out of the mouth of the wearer, appear extemely pleasant and entertaining.” The bard also cast “his Eye upon a common place Book, in which was contained, an Infinite Variety of Modes and Forms, to express all the different Sentiments of the human Mind, together with Rules for their Combinations and Connections upon every Subject or Occasion that might Occur in Dramatic Writing…” The theft was known to everyone except for the narrator, “Common Sense,” and his mother “Wisdom,” until the mask itself revealed the theft to them: “but we agreed, tho’ much against my Mother’s inclination, to take not notice of the robbery, for we conceived that my Father his friends would easily recover their loss, and were likewise apprehensive that we could not distress this Man without depriving his Country of its greatest Ornament.”


Rev. James Wilmot D.D., after some years researching local records and archives in Stratford-upon-Avon (he seems to have been the first to do so) declares his “apostasy” to the official theory of Shakespeare and attributes authorship to Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam.


The Story of the Learned Pig , an anonymous allegory by an “Officer of the Royal Navy.” The Pig describes himself as having variously been a greyhound, deer, bear and a human being who worked as horseholder at a playhouse where he met the “Immortal Shakespeare.” The pig reports that Shakespeare didn’t “run his country for deer-stealing” and didn’t father the various plays, HamletOthello, As You Like ItThe Tempest , and Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Instead, the Pig himself confesses to be author.


The anonymous novel, De Vere, or the Man of Independence, by Robert Plumer Ward, proposes in fictional form that Edward de Vere was the real mind behind the mask of Shakespeare. The hint is not picked up — except, perhaps, by novelists such as Hermann Melville, who may have used Ward’s novel as a source for the choice of the name “Captain Edward Vere” in his Billy Budd (1889).


A character in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel, Venetia, offers the sardonic observation on contemporary bardolatry that “a regular Shakespearean falls into ecstasies with trash which deserves a niche in the Dunciad.”


In a June 13 letter to William Sandys, Charles Dickens expresses his trepidation over the Shakespeare question: “it is a Great Comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out. If he had had a Boswell, society wouldn’t have respected his grave, but would calmly have had his skull in the phrenological shop-windows.”


In The Romance of Yachting by Joseph C. Hart, a former American consul at Santa Cruz, voices the strong anti-Stratfordian opinion of the century. The book had a huge influence, originally entirely negative, on the formulation of Hermann Melville’s theory of Shakespearean authorship, as expressed in Melville’s anonymous 1850 review, “Hawthorne and His Mosses” and which ultimately appears to have culminated in his naming “Edward Vere” the captain of the Indomitable in Billy Budd (1889).


Herman Melville publishes “Hawthorne and His Mosses” in Literary World (7), a reflection on Hawthorne, Shakespeare, authorship and anonymity, and ultimately the Shakespeare authorship question. Melville suggests that the names of all authors may be mythical:

“Would that all excellent books were foundlings, without father or mother, that so it might be we could glorify them, without including their ostensible authors,” he writes. “…I know not what would be the right name to put on the title-page of an excellent book, but this I feel, that the names of all fine authors are fictitious ones, far more so than that of Junius – simply standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiquitously possess men of genius.”


The August issue of Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal contains an anonymous article, “Who Wrote Shakespeare” The author suggests that Shakespeare “kept a poet.”


Putnam’s Monthly (January) publishes “Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them” by Delia Bacon, an American bearing no family relationship to Francis Bacon.


Publication of Delia Bacon’s magnum opus, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, in which she considers the possibility of several authors. Nathanial Hawthorne helped Delia Bacon publish this book, to which he contributed a preface.


Nathaniel Holmes publishes The Authorship of Shakespeare.


E. O. Vaile publishes a (relatively) thoughtful and measured argument, against the Baconian theory, in Scribners (9). He cites contemporary Elizabethan witnesses such as Sir John Davies and Richard Barnefeild, who wrote in praise of “Shakespeare,” and urges that “more might be given, but these must suffice. What explanation can be made of these allusions? Were these men and their fellows all so completely deceived by the cunning of a Lord Chancellor and the Prince of Philosophers? Or are we supposed to believe that they were combined in an effort to make posterity believe a lie? What an absurdity!”


Walt Whitman publishes an extensive essay on the Shakespeare question in North American Review (132), discussing among other topics the tension between the social ideology of Shakespeare and other British literary figures like Tennyson and Sir Walter, and the democratic principles of the American Republic.


Whitman continues to share his thoughts on Shakespeare with the American reading public, this time making the anti-Stratfordian sentiment which was latent in his previous essay, quite explicit. His article “What Lurks Behind Shakspere’s historical plays” in The Critic (Sept. 27) includes these oft-quoted and prophetic lines:

“Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism–personifying in unparallel’d ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering sprit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation)–only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselve, or some born knower and descendent, would seem to be the true author of these amazing works.”


Hermann Melville, very near death, writes Billy Budd.


James Greenstreet, a British archivist, in a series of essays in The Genealogist, proposes that William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby and son-in-law to Edward de Vere, was author of the Shakespeare plays– a theory later seconded in 1919 by the formidable French literary historian Abel Lefranc.


It Was Marlowe: A Story of the Secret of Three Centuries, a novel by Wilbur Ziegler, proposes that Marlowe, Raleigh, and the Earl of Rutland were authors of the Shakespearean canon.


Henry James in a letter to Miss Violet Hunt says “I am ‘a sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”


Sir George Greenwood, scholar and Member of Parliament, exposes the major arguments and scholarship against the Stratford man as author of the Shakespearean canon in his book, The Shakespeare Problem Restated, the first in a series of volumes that Sir George devoted to the subject.


Bacon Is Shakespeare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (New York, John McBride Co.) cites the following distinguished men who perceived “the truth respecting the real authorship of the Plays:”

–Lord Palmerston, British statesman, 1784-1865.
–Lord Houghton, British statesman, 1809-1885 (better known as Richard Monckton Milnes).
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British critic and poet, 1772-1834
–John Bright, British statesman, 1811-1889 (“Any man that believes that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Hamlet or Lear is a fool.”)
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher and poet, 1803-1882
–John Greenlief Whittier, American poet, 1807-1892 (“Whether Bacon wrote the wonderful plays or not, I am quite sure the man Shakspere neither did nor could.”)
–Dr. W. H. Furness, eminent American scholar and father of the editor of the Variorum, 1802-1891 (“I am one of the many who have never been able to bring the life of William Shakepeare and the plays of Shakespeare within planetary space of each other.”)
–Mark Twain, American author and humorist, 1835-1910
–Prince Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898


Abel Lefranc, one of the greatest of French literary scholars, supports the Derbyite theory in his Sous le Masque de “William Shakespeare”: William Stanley, VI Comte de Derby.


J. Thomas Looney, British schoolmaster and scholar, evolved the theory of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as author in his book, “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.


In response to Looney’s book, The Shakespeare Fellowship, an organization devoted to research on the Shakespearean authorship, is formed. Sir George Greenwood is the first President, and officers include J. T. Looney, Colonel B. R. Ward (father of the biographer of Edward de Vere) and Abel Lefranc.


Henry Clay Folger purchases the 1569 Geneva Bible of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, after becoming interested in Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified.


Sigmund Freud adopts J. Thomas Looney’s theory on the 17th Earl of Oxford. (One of Freud’s teachers, Theodor Meynert, had believed in Bacon as the true author.) Freud later confirmed this advocacy in 1935 with the revision of his Autobiographical Study.


B. M. Ward publishes his orthodox biography of the Earl of Oxford, which mentions Oxford’s 1586 1000 pound annuity (which Ward’s archival research had discovered) for the first time.

Ward also discovers the court of wards account book mentioning Oxford’s purchase of a 1569 Geneva Bible and identified Oxford for the first time as the “little fellow” with the rapier wit in Tom Nashe’s Strange News.


Henry Clay Foler negotiates to purchase the manuscript of Shakesperian Fantasias: Adventures in the Fourth Dimension, an Oxfordian novel (1929, The Plimpton Press, Norwood MA.) by the well-known writer Esther Singleton. The library subsequently acquired in the manuscript.


Canon Gerald Rendall, Gladstone professor of Greek at Liverpool’s University College, publishes Shakespeare Sonnets and Edward de Vere –another book that influenced Sigmund Freud.

Eva Turner Clark publishes a book, Shakespeare’s Plays in the Order of Their Writing, which proposes that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the plays and at a much earlier date than supposed.


Charles Wisner Barrell publishes an article in Scientific American claiming that the Folger Library’s Ashbourne “Shakespeare” painting is actually the lost Cornelius Ketel portrait of the Earl of Oxford mentioned by Karl Van Mander in 1604 and George Vertue c. 1721.


Alden Brooks advocates Sir Edward Dyer as author in his book, Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand.


Charles Wisner Barrell sues Giles Dawson for slander, after Dawson made disparaging and untrue public statements about Barrell and about the Ashbourne. Dawson makes a public apology to Barrell, but the x-rays made for the Folger remain under lock and key.


Dr. A. W. Titherley, onetime dean of the faculty of science at the University of Liverpool wrote Shakespeare’s Identity in which he tried to establish the Derbyite theory through a series of scientific formulas.


Calvin Hoffman in his book, The Murder of the Man Who Was “Shakespeare”, reawakened interest in the theory that Christopher Marlowe was author of Shakespeare’s plays.


Incorporation of the Shakespeare Oxford Society. From its inception (originally as the Shakespeare Fellowship in the 1930s) a stream of publications in the form of books, newsletters, and journals advanced the evidence for Edward de Vere’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Noted writers: Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn, Charlton Ogburn, Jr., Charles Wisner Barrell, Louis Benezet, Gelett Burgess, Ruth Loyd Miller, Dr. A. Bronson Feldman.


Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in Realites ( Nov. 1962) says, “One-hundredth part of the labor (expended on Shakespeare’s curriculum vitae) applied to one of his insignificant contemporaries would be sufficient to produce a substantial biography.”


Justice Wilberforce in a court case in England brought by the heirs of the deceased Evelyn May Hopkins, challenging the validity of her gift to the Francis Bacon Society, Inc., gave an opinion in favor of Miss Hopkins’ intentions, indicating that “the evidence in favour of Shake-speare’s authorship is quantitatively slight. It rests positively, in the main, on the explicit statements in the First Folio of 1623 and on continuous tradition; negatively on the lack of any challenge to this ascription at the time.” He goes on to say that the noted English historian, Professor Trevor-Roper also considers that the case for William Shakespeare rests on a narrow balance of evidence and that new material could upset it”


Reprint publication of Looney’s Shakespeare Identified (edited by Ruth Loyd Miller) from Minos Publishing.


Publication of Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare results in a burst of new interest in the authorship that continues today.


Richmond Crinkely reviews Ogburn’s book in The Shakespeare Quarterly (36):

“Doubts about Shakespeare came early and grew rapidly. They have a simple and direct plausibility. The plausibility has been reinforced by the tone and methods by which traditional scholarship has responded to the doubts….as one who found himself a contented agonistic Stratfordian at the Folger, I was enormously surprised at what can only be described as the viciousness toward anti-Stratfordian sentiments expressed by so many otherwise rational and courteous scholars. In its extreme forms the hatred of unorthodoxy was like some bizarre mutant racism. The anti-Stratfordians were ‘lesser breeds without the law.’

“This baffled me. One did not, after all, have to agree with heterodoxy to accord it intellectual courtesy, or, for that matter, to represent it accurately. Charlton Ogburn chronicles a sorry record of abuse from the orthodox, much of it directed at assertions never made, positions never held, opinions never expressed. He accounts for it as the dfense of a vested interest: can orthodox scholars, Ogburn asks, really risk having their livelihoods endangered if their scholarship is found wanting?

“Surely this assumption is too facile. The better explanation is that the zeal and intensity by which believers possess a presumed intellectual truth owes more to underlying quasi-religious impulses than to economic self-intrest. Stratford-Upon-Avon is, of course, a commercial enterprise, but it also has something of the eerily hagiographic about it. To be an authority on Shakespeare has long conferred a special intellectual standing that has set many defenders of the citadel apart from their opponents and invested them with a special status. Is there any more fanatic zealot than the priest-like defender of a challenged creed? Orthodox scholarship defends its inherited wisdom from the exalted position of a clerisy somehow attuned to special knowlege” (36: 518).


Publication of William Plumer Fowler’s magisterial opus on the de Vere leters, Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters.


The Moot Court Debate in Washington DC presided over by three sitting Justices of the US Supreme Court. Two of the three justices (Blackmun and Stevens), while voting for Shaksper of Stratford on narrow legal grounds, express their great interest in the issue and later express opinions that Edward de Vere may very well be the true Shakespeare. Despite this, the event is recorded in many minds as a victory for the orthodox view.


Ecole de Hautes International Professor Louis J. Helle writes to Charlton Ogburn to reassure him about the result of the 1987 moot court, “The triumph of the cause can only come by way of such successive defeats… the thesis will continue to rise, stronger than ever, after every killing.” Helle goes on to commiserate with Ogburn regarding the difficulty, as an outsider, of being heard by members of an academic sub-community (Shakespeare studies) whose objective is to create insiders: “I have known students who, in their Ph.D. theses, would say what they knew to be factually false because the saying of it would identify them with the community in which they intended to make their careers. Such behavior, in my experience, is more the rule than the exception.”


Broadcast of PBS Frontline of The Shakespeare Mystery further increases awareness and interest in the authorship debate.

In May, New Yorker runs a major story by James Lardner on the 1987 moot court trial. The article treats the Oxfordian case with thoughtful respect.


Charles Burford begins lecturing in the United States on the authorship question.

Atlantic magazine runs debate pieces by Irv Matus — a freelance orthodox scholar — and American Spectator editor Tom Bethell, writing for the Oxfordians.


Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens publishes his “Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction” in Pennsylvannia Law Review.


In an article in the Valley Advocate of Hampshire Valley Massachusetts, Mark K. Anderson refers to the de Vere Geneva Bible as a “Rosetta Stone” in the Shakespeare authorship question. In response, Terry Ross and David Kathman establish the Shakespeare Authorship page.


The new technology of the Internet provides electronic forums and electronic publishing. The Shakespeare Oxford Society to reach increasing numbers of people, especially students, around the world.

Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? published by Greenwood Press.

Berkeley’s Alan Nelson begins intensive archival research on the Earl of Oxford, aimed at debunking the Oxford theory.


A Shakespeare Oxford Society Home Page and a new electronic magazine (The Ever Reader) are started on the World Wide Web, bringing the authorship resources and news of the debate to a global audience. Teachers at both the high school and college level increasingly have class assignments on the authorship debate and use the Internet as a primary resource for up-to-date information.


The Edward de Vere Studies Conference is founded by Dr. Daniel L. Wright (Head, Department of English) at Concordia University (Portland, Oregon).

1604 Productions Film archive project captures 11 hours of footage of Charlton Ogburn on film before his decease in 1998.

Jonnie Lee Dunn writes a masters thesis on Oxford as literary patron.


Lewis Lapham encourages the debate at Harpers magazine with five short essays on each side of the controversy. For the first time in the history of the controversy, major orthodox scholars are forced into public debate: Gail Kern Paster, editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly, Harold Bloom of Yale University, Johnathan Bate of Liverpool, and join Irv Matus in defending the orthodox position. Richard Whalen, Mark Anderson, Dr. Daniel Wright, write for the Oxfordians. “Can’t the orthodox scholars do any better than this?” wondered editor Lapham.

Peter Dickson’s astounding work on Henry de Vere’s imprisonment in the tower c. 1622 for his opposition to the marriage crisis, published in the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter but ignored by the Folger Library, suggests a powerful new explanatory rubric for the timing of the publication of the 1623 first folio. Dickson points out that the nobles who patronized the folio, de Vere’s son-in-law the Earl of Montgomery and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, were at the time, with Henry de Vere, the leading Prostestant nobles who opposed the growing influence of the Spanish ambassador Gondomar in the Stuart court.


In April Roger Stritmatter successfully defends a University of Massachusetts PhD dissertation on the earl of Oxford’s Geneva Bible, despite substantial behind-the-scenes pressure to prevent his committee from approving the disssertation.

In August, the British magazine History Today runs an outstanding story on the authorship question by Welsh Historian William Rubinstein.


The new Shakespeare Fellowship is founded and begins publishing Shakespeare Matters.

Barbara Burris’ study of the Ashbourne portrait, published in the second issue of Shakespeare Matters, is cited by the New York Times in a major November 10 story in the Arts and Leisure section.


“Shakespeare” by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man who was Shakespeare by Mark Anderson published. A triumph of literary detective work: the first popular biography of the adventurous Elizabethan earl whose life and letters indicate that he was the true author of the works of Shakespeare.


Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare is published by the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which is dedicated to legitimizing the Shakespeare Authorship issue by increasing awareness of reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare.


Wall Street Journal reports “Justice Stevens Renders an Opinion on Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays” It Wasn’t the Bard of Avon, He Says; ‘Evidence Is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’


Political thriller Anonymous released, directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I of England, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.


Documentary film Last Will. & Testament released. This companion piece to Anonymous featured Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Bate, and Stanley Wells.


Book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? published in response to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

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