I never liked liking what others like, so I avoided Shakespeare as a student. As a literature teacher in colleges, though, I had to include a few plays in survey courses. The first time I taught an entire semester of Shakespeare was in 1999, when I was given a class during an emergency situation. I hadn’t read much Shakespeare, so I had students vote for what they wanted to read. They opted for All’s Well That Ends Well, because it would be the last work of the semester and sounded upbeat. I started to read and panicked: the play made absolutely no sense. I could not tell whose perspective I should be crediting, who I was to consider a nitwit, where was the comedy, what were the relationships between characters and their attitudes?
I was lost; what was I going to say to students?
After one awkward class period filled with BBC film clips, however, a class-and-community trip to Ashland, Oregon, for the Shakespeare Festival, intervened. Once there, I had a couple hours between my tour-guide duties and checked out the bookstore. A thick book on the authorship question looked interesting, but I couldn’t see shelling out that much cash for the Charlton Ogburn book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. Next to it was a much thinner book by Richard Whalen, Shakespeare: Who Was He? for only a fraction of the price. Most importantly, it contained a short section specifically on All’s Well. Bingo.
I bought it, went outside, sat down in the green, and as Prince Hal from the night before played Frisbee with Hotspur, I read. The book showed me that the play makes little sense unless understood as semi-autobiography. It’s like Hamlet in that regard (indeed like all the plays), but Hamlet and others were usually revised in ways that make the works universal, relevant to us all, whereas All’s Well doesn’t seem to have gotten that attention and resulting dimension. I read the whole book and immediately after returning home ordered the Ogburn book, read that cover to cover twice in a row, and subsequently hoarded everything I could get my hands on regarding the case for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays.
Now this stuff makes sense. It’s exhilarating knowing that this work emerged out of real experience, real pain, real struggles, anxieties, betrayals, elations, — out of someone’s real life — instead of out of the blue or off the top of a grain-merchant and money-lender’s head. From his own life, “Shake-speare” made art of this caliber! “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” (the drama teacher and actor Stella Adler).
I’d say I understand art and literature immeasurably better now; I am probably a better teacher. Everyone knows I am now an addict too, and, as I occasionally admit, my Oxfordian Shakespeare obsession has ruined my life, which is fine because I didn’t like that life anyway, and now I’m ever exhilarated.
— Michael Delahoyde
Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? is available on Amazon.
Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare may also be purchased on Amazon.
“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.”).
Next week’s essay is by Pamela Butler.
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