“Why would anybody believe it?”
The teenaged girl’s eyes were wide, her head shaking. She’d come to the front of the school auditorium to speak to Charles Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford, whom I had brought to her Edmonton, Alberta high school as a part of his 1993 tour. Charles’ talk in support of Edward de Vere as the author of the plays and poems had totally destroyed the Stratford myth for this young woman, and her question has stayed with me ever since.
But along with it nagged a more personal and troubling question: Why had my own professors taught me something so unbelievable?
Before becoming a librarian, I had taken a four-year bachelor degree in theater, the third year of which was devoted entirely to performing Shakespeare: Acting, voice and movement classes and scenes for directing students gave me the exciting opportunity to play Iago, Edmund, Hamlet – and even Juliet!
But when our professors talked about “The Bard,” all we learned was deer poaching, Queen Elizabeth wanting to see Falstaff in love, and the upstart crow – all passed on to us without qualification of any kind.
Several years after graduation – and in a most well-intentioned, Stratfordian way – I searched the shelves of the library where I worked for a biography of William Shakespeare, having realized that, for all my studies I’d never read a biography of the playwright. Based on its heft and intriguing title I took home Charlton Ogburn Jr’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality.
After only a few minutes of reading, I was stunned. When I finished, I felt – well, not exactly angry – but really, really let down by my university professors, whom (Ogburn made plain), had taught us myth, not reality.
I got my hands on every book I could, I joined the Shakespeare Oxford Society and in 1993 convinced the Greater Edmonton Library Association to host Beauclerk for a paid event at the public library and free lectures at Edmonton schools. It was a wonderful and transformative experience for me, witnessing first-hand the excitement Oxford-as-Shakespeare generated for young people.
For the subsequent 15 years, I remained very interested in the Shakespeare Authorship Question, but graduate school, parenthood and career plans took precedence.
Over the past five years, however, I have returned to the SAQ in earnest, a commitment made much easier through a final career transition to being a tenured academic librarian. I have now published peer-reviewed papers in both Brief Chronicles and The Oxfordian (Vol. 17), and a book review essay in the former, as well as a feature for American Libraries Magazine about the First Folio tour in 2016.
More than twenty years later, that young girl’s question still drives me: What are the foundations supporting and sustaining belief in something so unbelievable, and how can we change them?
“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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