This is another article from our archives. It was originally published in our newsletter in Fall 1983. Phillip Proulx ran a bookkeeping service in the Washington, DC area. He died at his residence in Arlington, Virginia on January 12, 2013. His obituary in the Washington Post identified him as an Oxfordian.
The day looms vivid in my memory in spite of the passing of more than eight years. I was a senior at The American University, majoring in literature and concentrating my efforts in poetry. In youthful bliss, I was striving to become a better poet. I considered myself then, as I do to this day, first and foremost a poet; no if’s, and’s or but’s.
In order to fulfill the requirements of an undergraduate degree, I found myself taking two Shakespeare courses during the fall semester of 1974. William Shakespeare, as I thought of him then, held out hope. Without the advantages of much formal education, coming from a less than privileged background, by the sheer magnitude of his talent, he had become the greatest of playwrights.
Heck, if Shakespeare could do that, then I could make it as a poet. Little did I realize then, however, that on Sunday, November 24, 1974, as I scanned The Washington Post, my perceptions with respect to William Shakespeare would be profoundly altered. As I turned to the Outlook section of the paper, there it was smack on the front page: an article by someone named Charlton Ogburn about the real identity of William Shakespeare. To say I found the article fascinating and powerfully perceptive is an understatement. But, as I read the article, I kept thinking, “Why haven’t I heard even one word about this theory? And who is this Edward Vere?”
Barely had our professor reached the front of the room that Monday, when the article was mentioned. As it turned out, the majority of students had read it. That class was one of the most electric and enthusiastic of the semester. For myself, and for most of my fellow students, the salient point of the article was that the greatest figure of the English language was inauspiciously sandwiched between two generations of illiterates. OK. His mother and father could not read or write. That is not fatal in itself. But that of his two daughters who reached maturity, the elder, Susanna, could not recognize her husband’s handwriting and the younger, Judith, could neither read nor write? That was too, too much to ask. In spite of their gender, surely, the father, to whom language and literature were of all-consuming importance, would see to it that his children would learn to read and write. The hour quickly went by and not another word was said about the article during the remainder of the semester.
My next watershed came when, armed with four years of studying literature, I found myself as a delivery man for a type setting firm. (I have never seen a classified ad for a poet.) There I was—out of college and I hadn’t read all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets! So between runs to downtown Washington, D.C., at less than sane speeds, I started from Sonnet Number 1 and went through the collection. My employer accepted this peculiar behavior, more out of respect for my driving ability than for love of literature. With Charlton’s argument rattling in my head, I came out of that experience convinced the man from Stratford did not pen the Sonnets.
Sorry, pedants, but knowing something about putting one’s emotions into verse, the experiences of the Sonnets are no mere literary exercise. The more moving, direct, and powerful a poem is, the more actual the circumstances behind the effort. As one knows from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman, indeed, had been on that ferry. When Shakespeare states in Sonnet 76,
“Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed,”
we know his name is not readily associated with his works and, as with any literary production, his personality cannot be fully hidden. The Sonnets are not a world of country but of court! The years have passed since those events, and I have augmented my study of the authorship question with many books and articles from both sides of the question. No matter what I digest in the future, however, I will always hold a special feeling for Charlton’s article—for it was my beginning of exposure to the question of authorship.
So to end, Dear Louis B. Wright, past Director of the Folger, I am not, “. . . so naive or ignorant as to doubt the reality of Shakespeare as the author . . .” nor do I “. . . betray an obvious snobbery,” but I know the name William Shakespeare is a pen name and that Edward de Vere is the personality behind that name. Also, I do not have to stretch logic to absurd degrees about Elizabethan spelling of surnames, opportunities of education, the illiteracy of parents and descendants, payments for plays, ability to use a quill pen, knowledge of foreign languages, knowledge of court intricacies, characterizations of living persons, absence of personal correspondences, familiarity with legal proceedings, total dissimilarity of known facts with expected personality, the absence of tributes upon death, etc., etc., etc.
– Phillip Proulx
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