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Oxfordian Response to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt

Cambridge University Press recently released Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, which attempts to prove that there is “no doubt” that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the works of “William Shakespeare.” But while over 70 documents exist about the Stratford man that were created during his life, not one of them identifies him as a writer of any kind. A businessman, yes, an occasional money lender, investor in a theatre company who may have acted some small parts, yes, but not a writer. No manuscript of a poem or play in his hand survives, not even a letter! There is no evidence that William Shakspere, the man from Stratford, ever owned a book, was ever paid for writing, or was referred to as a writer by anyone during his life or immediately after his death. The First Folio, which was published seven years after his death, was the first document to attempt to connect “William Shakespeare” with Mr. Shakspere.

The monument to Shakespeare in the Trinity Church in Stratford now shows a writer with a quill pen in his hand; but it does not look the same as the one erected in the early 1600s. A sketch by a reputable artist in 1634 shows a man with a drooping moustache holding a wool or grain sack, but no pen, no paper, no writing surface. In short, the “authorship” of the man from Stratford has all the earmarks of a hoax designed to hide the real author’s identity.

But why would the real author have hidden his identity? Because it was dangerous to write under one’s own name in those days. One could be imprisoned or tortured, or worse, if his writings displeased the authorities. Pen names and anonymity were common. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt fails to produce any new evidence in favor of the Stratford man or to answer the many weaknesses in the Stratfordian theory. For more on the doubts about Shakspere, see the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt or read Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography or the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition’s rebuttal to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial.

The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship believes that there is a large body of circumstantial evidence indicating that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays. Oxford used the “pen name” William Shakespeare because it was not considered appropriate for a nobleman to write plays for the public stage. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, in a chapter by Professor Alan Nelson, tries unsuccessfully to rebut the Oxfordian thesis. Nelson’s chapter is deviously one-sided. What he leaves out is as important as what he leaves in. Nelson argues that Oxford couldn’t be Shakespeare because he killed a cook, was a spendthrift, was mean to his wife, and lived for a while with an Italian choirboy.

But Oxfordians have never claimed that Oxford was a saint. They see him as a temperamental, mercurial personality, and the character flaws that Nelson enumerates are actually evidence of Oxford’s connections to the works of “Shakespeare.” Nelson comes dangerously close to admitting this: he claims at one point that Oxford was “apparently” homosexual (or bisexual) and later links this to the homoerotic overtones of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, many of which were written to a fair young man, thought to be the Earl of Southampton. Traditional scholars are stumped when trying to explain how William of Stratford, a commoner, could have had the gall to write such intimate poetry to a nobleman, but an older nobleman might have more easily gotten away with it.

Nelson points out that Oxford, when he was a young man, killed a cook and escaped a murder charge on the questionable finding that the cook “committed suicide” by deliberately running on the young earl’s sword. Oxford would eventually use this as self-parody in Act Five of Hamlet, where one of the Gravediggers supposes that a person might be blameless for committing suicide, and thus eligible for Christian burial, if the act were done in self-defense.

Nelson criticizes Oxford for his extravagant lifestyle, but Nelson doesn’t mention that this behavior is mirrored in the plot of Timon of Athens, in which the hero gives away his fortune. Oxford was also, admittedly, estranged from his wife for some time, thinking she had been unfaithful to him. This became fodder for Hamlet’s estrangement from Ophelia and Othello’s distrust toward Desdemona, not to mention Leontes’ jealousy in The Winter’s Tale. Oxford’s wife was rumored to have gotten him back by using a “bed trick”—that is, making him think he was being led into the dark bedchamber of another woman, when actually it was his own wife’s room. Such “bed tricks” are used in two Shakespeare plays—Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.

Nelson devotes only passing remarks to “Shakespeare” By Another Name, Mark Anderson’s thoroughly researched, copiously documented biography of Oxford, which receives only one other mention in all of SBD. Nelson has nothing to counter Anderson’s meticulous research but a shallow quip: “For Anderson, scarcely an incident in Oxford’s life remains unconnected to the Shakespeare canon; and scarcely a detail of the Shakespeare canon remains unconnected to Oxford’s life.” Actually, that’s a fairly accurate description of Anderson’s work, which demonstrates an astounding number of parallels between Oxford’s life and Shakespeare’s works. Nelson doesn’t bother, however, to specify any points on which Anderson’s book might be wrong.

Nelson tells us that Francis Meres listed Oxford and Shakespeare as two different people in Palladis Tamia (1598), as if this were proof that they were not the same person. But Don C. Allen, the editor of the modern edition of Meres’ book, called Meres’ chapter on poetry, “pseudoerudition and bluff.” Meres derived his information on poetry from numerous, conflicting sources.  Besides, if Oxford was hiding his identity behind the pen name “Shakespeare,” why should we think that Meres would be privy to the secret? Nelson notes that Oxford is mentioned in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) but neglects to tell the reader that that book also reveals that “Noblemen . . . have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.”

Nelson argues that Oxford couldn’t have written The Tempest because he died in 1604 and the play refers to a 1609 shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda. Some scholars believe, based on imagery and word choices in the The Tempest, that it was influenced by William Strachey’s account of the wreck of the Sea-Venture, which happened in 1609. But shipwrecks near Bermuda, an island surrounded by reefs, were common. In fact, one occurred in 1595, when Oxford was still alive. Furthermore, Stritmatter and Kositsky’s book, On the Date, Sources and Design of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, demonstrates that much of the language of Strachey’s narrative about the Sea-Venture was borrowed from earlier works, such as Richard Eden’s The Decades of the New World (1555). Thus, there is no reason to believe that the author of The Tempest had to have read Strachey’s account. In fact, Strachey’s account was not actually published until 1625, long after the Stratford man was dead, so Stratfordians are left to speculate, based on no external evidence, that their man somehow had access to Strachey’s manuscript.

Nelson claims that Oxfordians “fantasize” that Oxford left drafts of plays that were released after his death. But anyone who believes that William of Stratford was the real Shakespeare must also indulge in such “fantasies.” About half of Shakespeare’s plays were never published until the First Folio appeared—seven years after the Stratford man died. If he indeed made his living as a playwright, why would he have withheld half his output from publication during his lifetime, especially after he retired to Stratford? Such a practice seems more consistent with a nobleman who wrote privately and couldn’t allow his name to be connected to his writings.

Both Stratfordians and Oxfordians have long noted that Polonius in Hamlet appears to be a satire on Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s power-behind-the-throne. Oxford had a long, and often strained, relationship with Burghley. Burghley became Oxford’s guardian when Oxford’s father died. Later, Oxford married Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil. Lord Burghley wrote out a set of rules for his household that includes maxims such as, “Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous; with thine equals familiar yet respective.” As Polonius says to Laertes, “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.” Burghley’s rules were not published until 1618, long after Hamlet was published. The scene in which Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes strengthens the similarity to Burghley, who maintained a network of spies. In the first edition of Hamlet, Polonius’ name was “Corambis”—perhaps a pun on Burghley’s Latin motto, “Cor unum, via una,” which means “One heart, one way.” “Corambis” could be translated as “double-hearted,” i.e., two-faced. Just as Hamlet was captured by pirates and left naked on the shore of Denmark, Oxford was captured by pirates and left naked on the shore of England. In 1573, Oxford, who was a patron of the arts, wrote a preface to an English translation of Cardanus Comfort, a book of consoling advice that likely influenced Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Nelson, however, makes a tortured attempt to dissociate Hamlet from the facts of Oxford’s life: Oxford was twelve when his father died, whereas Hamlet was an adult when he lost his father; Oxford married Burghley’s daughter, whereas Hamlet rejected Ophelia and consigned her to a nunnery. One half-expects Nelson to add that Oxford didn’t stab Lord Burghley while he was hiding behind an arras. Nelson’s analysis insults the reader’s intelligence. While artists often use real-life people and situations as raw material for their creations, they transform their materials into something new, mixing fiction with real life to create a higher reality. For example, while we know that Charles Dickens was writing somewhat autobiographically in David Copperfield, the novel does not follow Dickens’s life in all respects. Any literate reader of fiction understands this. It is surprising that Nelson, an English professor, doesn’t understand it, or pretends not to. Although Oxford didn’t stab Burghley in real life, the murder of Polonius may well have been Oxford’s revenge fantasy.

Finally, Nelson insists that Oxford couldn’t have been Shakespeare because Oxford, as owner of his own theatre troupe, would never have let the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a “rival” theatre company, perform his plays. Nelson’s theory rests on the assumption that noblemen’s companies competed jealously against each other and never shared their works. Yet this assumption is brought into doubt by the title page of the 1594 First Quarto edition of Titus Andronicus. (Like all “Shakespeare” plays published before 1598, it is anonymous, i.e., no author is named on the title page.) The title page states that the play is “as it was played” by the servants of the Earls of Derby, Pembroke, and Sussex. This shows that various noblemen might have passed plays around from one to another rather than jealously guarding them. Historically, Oxford had strong ties to these other noble families—two of his daughters would later marry into the Derby and Pembroke families, and the Earl of Sussex was something of a mentor to Oxford. If the Earl of Oxford was indeed the author of Titus Andronicus, why wouldn’t he have shared his play with other noblemen?

This short response to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt barely scratches the surface of the Oxfordian theory. For more, read Ramon Jiménez’s The Case for Oxford Revisited; Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name; Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He?; or Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare.

— Tom Regnier

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