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Shelly Maycock: How I Became an Oxfordian

Perhaps you are expecting a biographical profile that explains how I became a scholar of the mysteries of Shakespeare? Not exactly.

Shelly Maycock teaches Composition and Professional Writing at Virginia Tech.

I received a great education that was equally strong in Science, History and Literature. I entered Virginia Tech with a fantasy that I would become a veterinarian, realized I was better suited to literary study, writing, and teaching, and ended up with Masters degrees in Literature and Poetry Writing. Daunted by the potential poverty of further graduate study and a slower than usual humanities job market, I went to work as a bookseller, which led to a long apprenticeship in all things bookish, including being a traveling sales representative for several publishers at once.

How did I become a student of the authorship question, even a card-carrying Oxfordian? It was literature that made me do it.

My first realization was that there was not much information available and that there were contradictions about the traditional biography of Shakespeare, particularly with respect to matching his experience to his creations.

Most of us were brought up being told the facts about Will, without being told that those facts have also been questioned by many American literary minds, including Henry James and Mark Twain.

Biography matters. A certain amount of caution about authorial intention is reasonable, but the expression of what is learned from experience and observation of specific people, places, things, events and ideas is one of the things that makes literature interesting.

Take Romeo and Juliet. I was curious from the beginning about the author, particularly, his education, but found a shortage of details, and though I had not yet discovered the gaping hole of the dark years, I was beginning to understand what W.H. Furness, the father of the 19th century’s Variorum Shakespeare editor, saw as an ‘interplanetary distance’ between the life and the works.

In my search for the particulars of the bard’s education, I found a description of the hornbooks used in Elizabethan grammar schools, such as the one William Shakespeare may or may not have attended.  These were rectangular wooden paddles with one paper page of text laminated on with semi-transparent cow-horn. This reusable combination of text and potential disciplinary device was somewhat curious to me, since it was clearly a very limited classroom medium. Not just because it contained a really, really minimal text. Somehow the discipline-enforced rote memorization of book fragments or even of books chained to desks did not seem an adequate source of Shakespeare’s clearly engaged eclectic development. And if one was paying attention, one could not help but notice that we did not know much at all about William of Stratford’s literary apprenticeship, let alone whether he actually went to school at all.

As I encountered working writers in my studies, I kept wondering how William of Stratford, minus direct international experience, connected with the details of Venetian culture, high-level politics and foreign travel.

The craft of writing taught me that it requires ample measures of hard work, solitary time to do said work, more time for trial and error, imagination, lots of information and research from either expensive books or equally expensive temporary access to expensive books, but also a decent amount of observational experience and practice to make the use of those raw materials come out sounding, well, not fake.

I learned that a writer not only needed something to write about—but that one needed experience to be able to use one’s imagination.  The problem with imagination is that by itself it can make people into very bad liars. Robert Frost said you have to learn to play tennis with the net before you can play with an imaginary one.

I eventually realized that there was something else odd about Shakespeare’s biography when I studied Hamlet. I immediately sensed that the play was authentically biographical and became aware of the contradiction that entailed. Somewhere in my reading in search of the biographical details I blundered into a description of Queen Elizabeth’s education. My professor directed me to read Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture for background, and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier as a known authorial source. I did not then know a Latin translation that had been prefaced by Edward de Vere. There was never, ever, any mention of him.  I was fascinated to find that Hamlet was the epitome of the renaissance humanist Prince. Not the blood thirsty Machiavellian Prince, but one whose power is intellectual, an elegant part of the Elizabethan hierarchy rather than a brutish power.

I was learning that Shakespeare’s great play was very political, and not necessarily from the everyman perspective.  Denmark’s perpetual student of singularly royal privilege was well-travelled to boot.  Hamlet had just returned from his University, in Wittenberg, the hub of continental Renaissance humanist learning. Where Luther had nailed up his 99 Theses and where, during Shakepeare’s time, the astronomer/alchemist, Tycho Brahe, lived.  So the reference to this Germanic town in a story of medieval Danes was out of joint. How would someone who had never left England know this?

Clearly, just as I was beginning to understand how a classically educated, widely travelled, multi-lingual mind develops and works, a contemporary would have to have experienced at least something of the same courtier’s education, society and diverse travel with access to expensive books. But this was retrograde to the “facts” we twentieth century students had been taught. The author of Hamlet apparently knew an inordinate amount about courtiers and global politics. I had, without realizing it at the time, fallen down one of the rabbit holes in the Stratford upon Avon narrative.

Later in grad school, I experienced a few pivotal revelations. One was that practically everything courtly Elizabethans did was by indirect means, either elaborate allegory or other allusive rhetorical strategies. This was because of the censorship under an absolute monarchy.

This was clearly something you had to learn to do.  Thus their extensive education in appearing to do nothing, i.e., the Italian courtly concept seen in Wittenberg. I learned this concept at that graduate level by reading the entire epic romance, The Faerie Queen; according to scholar Charlton Ogburn, Oxford wrote one of the tributes to it under the assumed name Ignoto.

I also learned that sprezzatura was essential to being an English major, that you had to work like a dog while appearing to be a literary lounger –  there was much interest in what a scholar or an author did, but not much interest in the how or the why.

A professor revealed what I would later see as a pivotal idea. He gave rich, juicy accounts of the complexities of Elizabethan intrigues, and also explained that it was possible to adopt an alternate theory of Shakespeare authorship, in his example, to be a Marlovian, who believes that Christopher Marlowe, made his name as a playwright, somehow faked his death and wrote the Shakespeare plays while living in exile in Italy.

Once I decided to switch back to teaching, I taught Hamlet to community college students who just barely had the patience to sit through the Franco Zeffirelli film version. I found that if I used the theme of plots to kill the monarch, with appropriate scenes from Elizabeth, the Shekhar Kapur version with actress Cate Blanchett, I could get them interested in the court conspiracies long enough to consider some large chunks of the play.

While living in North Carolina, I had been developing ideas for a historical novel about the Lost Colony, and my interest in plots re: Hamlet led me to revisit a research question of whether Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony had been sabotaged by someone in Elizabeth’s government. I decided to write about the two years in which Raleigh’s men visited Roanoke Island, took two native men back to England with them and then returned them, surprisingly in good health, back to their home.  I was going to try to recreate Elizabethan London and court life from the perspective of the Native Americans, so I was doing lots of research. While I was looking for books on this topic, I unexpectedly ran into Mark Anderson’s biography of Edward de Vere, Shakespeare by Another Name.

And my world changed.

How had I not heard about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford?

This was in about 2008.  And the rest is history, literally and figuratively.

— Shelly Maycock

“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: info@shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”)

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