The Case for Oxford

Were the works of Shakespeare really written by the Earl of Oxford?

Hamlet is derived from a story in Francois de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1576), not yet translated into English when Shakespeare adapted it. Shakespeare introduced new characters and greatly enlarged the roles assigned to various characters by Belleforest. One of these magnified characters is Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain to the King of Denmark, who is not even named in the original story. As long ago as 1869 the scholar George Russell French noted the similarities between Queen Elizabeth's principal minister, Lord Burghley, and Polonius in Hamlet French added that Burghley's son and daughter Robert and Anne Cecil seemed to correspond to Laertes and Ophelia.

Taking this scenario one step further, Hamlet himself becomes Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Ophelia was unhappily involved with Hamlet; De Vere, who grew up as a royal ward in the household of Lord Burghley, was unhappily married to Anne Cecil. Oxford believed that his wife had been unfaithful to him while he was away on a European tour and (for a time, at least) seems to have doubted that he was the father of her first child. Hamlet says to Polonius, "Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive."

Hamlet has often been thought to be autobiographical. Was Edward de Vere, then, Shakespeare? Confining ourselves just to Hamlet, we find more than a few additional parallels:

* Lord Burghley wrote out a set of precepts ("Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous; with thine equals familiar yet respective") strongly reminiscent of the advice Polonius gives to Laertes ("Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar...."). Burghley's precepts, intended for the use of his son Robert, were published in 1618. Hamlet first appeared in quarto in 1603. Edmund K. Chambers, one of the leading Shakespeare scholars of the twentieth century, offered the following explanation: "Conceivably Shakespeare knew a pocket manuscript."

* In Act II Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris, possibly catching him "drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling," or "falling out at tennis." In real life Burghley's older son, Thomas Cecil, did go to Paris, whence the well-informed Burghley somehow received information, through a secret channel, of Thomas's "inordinate love of...dice and cards." Oxford, incidentally, did have a real "falling out at tennis"—not a widely practiced sport in those days—with Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester's nephew.

* Oxford and Hamlet are similar figures, courtiers and Renaissance men of varied accomplishments; both were scholars, athletes, and poets. Many critics have noted Hamlet's resemblance to Castiglione's beau ideal in The Courtier. At the age of twenty-one, Oxford wrote a Latin introduction to a translation of this book. Both Oxford and Hamlet were patrons of play-acting companies.

* In 1573 Oxford contributed a preface to an English translation of Cardanas Comfort, a book of consoling advice which the orthodox scholar Hardin Craig called Hamlet's book." The book includes passages from which Hamlet's soliloquy was surely taken ("What should we account of death to be resembled to anything better than sleep....We are assured not only to sleep, but also to die....").

* Oxford stabbed a servant of Burghley's (possibly another of Burghley's spies). Polonius is stabbed by Hamlet while spying on him.

* Hamlet's trusted friend is Horatio. Oxford's most trusted relative seems to have been Horace Vere, called Horatio in some documents (and so named by the Dictionary of National Biography).

* Oxford, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates en route to England; both participated in sea battles.

The parallels between Hamlet and Oxford, ignored by conventional scholarship, were first discovered by J. Thomas Looney (pronounced "LOE-ny," but the harm's been done), an English schoolmaster whose book "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere was published in 1920. If it is ever vindicated—as is still possible—it will far surpass Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy in the annals of amateur scholarship. Among Looney's converts were Sigmund Freud and John Galsworthy, who said that Looney's book was "the best detective story I have ever read." Looney (who refused his publisher's understandable suggestion that he consider using a pseudonym) died in 1944, his theory widely ignored. After the prolonged controversy over the proposition that Francis Bacon was the real author of the Shakespeare canon, the proposal of yet another candidate seemed to be mere desperation. But Looney had found a candidate far more interesting, and plausible, than the Baconians or anyone else ever had.

Oxford's life posed an obvious challenge for Looney and his followers (known as Oxfordians), however. The earl's death preceded the Stratford man's by twelve years. Plays dated after 1604, or references in the plays to topical events in the years 1604-1616 (should any be found), would expose Oxford to anachronism. Conventional dating holds that there are ten such plays (I'm not counting Two Noble Kinsmen). And orthodox scholars claim that there is one such topical reference—to the "still-vex'd Bermoothes," in Act I of The Tempest. This is believed to refer to a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, not heard of in England until 1610.

Leaving The Tempest aside for a moment, the nine remaining post-1604 plays are amenable to earlier dating without contradicting any known facts. The date of their composition is quite uncertain, many having appeared for the first time in the posthumous First Folio (1623). Some are dated late simply to fit the period when the Stratford man (1564-1616) is thought to have been in London. He couldn't have been there much before 1587, and there are already numerous signs of uncomfortably early authorship—a published reference to Hamlet in 1589, for example, when the Stratford man was twenty-five years old.

The conventional dating of many of the supposedly post-1604 plays is more a matter of giving breathing space to Stratfordian chronology than of letting the facts speak for themselves. In addition, one or two conventional scholars date King Lear before 1604; Pericles and Henry Vole were certainly worked on by another hand; and there is nothing in the remainder—Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale—that requires a post-1604 date. I believe that the latest source material undeniably used by Shakespeare is John Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's essay "Of the Cannibals," which reappears in much the same words in Act II of The Tempest. Stratfordians have always insisted that this is a late play, and Oxfordians are happy to agree with them.

Orthodox research into Shakespeare's sources barely conflicts with this analysis. The entire eight volumes of Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare contain only one source that is dated after 1604 and deemed a certain, rather than possible or probable, source. This is William Strachey's account of the 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda. In fact, however, there is nothing in Strachey that is certainly in The Tempest, although his description of St. Elmo's fire in the rigging does suggest Ariel's magical powers ("On the topmast, the yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly"). Furthermore, there is nothing in The Tempest that was not known to Elizabethans. If "Bermoothes" is taken as a reference to Bermuda, Oxfordians point out, not only does Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1598-1600) contain an account of a 1593 shipwreck in Bermuda, but a decade earlier the Earl of Oxford himself had invested in—possibly even owned—the Edward Bonaventure, one of the ships involved in that wreck.

Looney, however, did not know this. Uncharacteristically deferring to the authority of Chambers and other conventional scholars on this point, he accepted the conventional date for The Tempest (1611). In his final chapter, therefore, Looney argued that the play did not belong in the Shakespeare canon. As it is thought to include some of Shakespeare's best verse, this greatly weakened Looney's case. By the time Hakluyt's references to Bermuda were pointed out, Looney had come to seem discredited. In Shakespeare and His Betters (1958), an attack on the anti-Stratfordian heresy, R. C. Churchill claimed that the date of Oxford's death was "decisive" against his candidacy for authorship. In Shakespeare's Lives (1970), S. Schoenbaum more cautiously argued that "The Tempest presents Looney with his greatest challenge, for topical references and other internal considerations lead him to accept the late date to which the commentators assign it."

In recent years, however, the earl's fortunes have revived somewhat. Charlton Ogburn's huge book The Mysterious William Shakespeare was published in 1984, attracting many converts to the cause. In the fall of 1987 David Lloyd Kreeger, a Washington philanthropist who died last year, organized a moot-court debate on the authorship question at The American University, presided over by three Supreme Court Justices (William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens). They awarded the verdict to the Stratford man, but Oxford benefited mightily from the exposure.

At the end of his opinion Justice Stevens noted that "the Oxfordian case suffers from not having a single, coherent theory of the case." True, but most Oxfordians (not all, alas) would subscribe to something like the following:

There did exist a man named William Shakspere, of Stratford, but the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain and senior earl of England, early a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and usually on good terms with her. (Henceforward I will use "Shakspere" to denote the man from Stratford and "Shakespeare" to denote the author of the plays, whoever he was.) There is abundant evidence, discomforting to Stratfordians, that many of the existing plays are rewritten versions of earlier plays or, more simply date from a time that would require prodigious effort on the part of the Stratford man. Perhaps as many as a dozen plays were written before the Stratford man reached his thirty-first birthday. Oxfordians believe that Oxford wrote the earlier plays for court performance in the 1580s—when Oxford was in his thirties—and that they were later revised for the public theater. Not until 1598 was the name Shakespeare appended to plays. Before then, all published quartos of plays subsequently attributed to Shakespeare had no name on the title page. In associating himself with and writing for the public theater, Oxford was both slumming and enjoying himself—and taking the opportunity to write figuratively about events and people surrounding the court. As it was not acceptable for noblemen to be associated with public (as opposed to court) theater, Oxford agreed to keep his family's name out of it. He wrote "not for attribution," as we now say. Perhaps, as Justice Stevens suggested, the Queen herself so ordered him. Possibly he was content to write pseudonymously without urging.

The Earl of Oxford may have met the Stratford man in London at some point and enlisted him as his "blind," or front man: Oxfordians disagree among themselves about this key point. A variant of this theory holds that Oxford was already using the name Shakespeare when the Stratford man showed up in London. This is less plausible, but it accommodates a contemporary document in which it is reported that Gabriel Harvey, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, praised the Earl of Oxford in 1578 (in Latin) with the words "Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear." I shall simply assume that Shakspere was in town seeking his fortune and that he and Oxford somehow established a collaborative relationship. Oxford thereupon set Shakspere up as a shareholder in the Chamberlain's Men, the theater company where Shakspere presumably worked as a factotum and manager.


Writing in the mid-1840s Emerson admitted that he could not "marry" Shakspere's life to Shakespeare's work: "Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast." That is the anti-Stratfordian case in a nutshell. There is a great gulf between the life and the work. Ivor Brown inadvertently drew attention to it in his 1949 biography of Shakespeare. "During 1598," he wrote, the Bard was "managing, acting...and turning out plays (two or three a year was his pace at this time) and yet keeping an eye on malt and [Stratford] matters." In 1604 Shakspere sued the Stratford apothecary for the balance of an account for malt, and for a debt of two shillings. But "it may have been Mrs. Anne Shakespeare who forced this into court," Brown continued. "Shakespeare himself was then at the top of his performance in [the] tragedy period...." Hmmmmm.

No amount of research has been able to narrow this gulf. In some respects research has widened it. At the time of the Restoration, forty-four years after the Stratford man's death, knowledge of Shakespeare was so poor that the plays bound together for the library of Charles II and labeled "Shakespeare. Vol. I." were Mucedorus, Fair Em, and The Merry Devil of Edmonton, which are not accepted today as Shakespeare's. Textual scholarship only later clarified the canon, and tremendous archival digging in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries turned up quite a bit of information about Shakspere's life. But (if we exclude posthumous testimony) none of it establishes Shakspere as a playwright. With the rise of critical scholarship, poetic images of the Stratford man, told as fables at second and third hand in the eighteenth century, have mostly been overthrown as unreliable.

S. Schoenbaum, who more than most biographers has eschewed the "perhaps" that links Shakspere to so much of Elizabethan life, was reduced by his own scrupulosity in his Documentary Life (1975) to presenting scraps of paper that show little more than routine transactions—Stratford tithes, Southwark tax records, and documents involving "petty disputes over money matters." Echoes of the plays are few, faint, and unconvincing.

The Stratfordians have a point when they tell us we know quite a lot about Shakspere—more than we do about Christopher Marlowe, for example. It's WHAT we know that causes difficulties, not how little. His father, the constable and glover, could not write; he signed documents with a cross or made his mark. Judith, Shakspere's younger daughter, "evidently took after her mother [Anne Hathaway]—she couldn't write," A. L. Rowse reported. As for the older daughter, Susanna, Joseph Quincy Adams, a former director of the Folger Library, reproduced her wobbly signature in his Life of William Shakespeare, but it does not encourage confidence that she was literate. Married to Dr. John Hall, she lived on into the time of the English Civil War. After Hall's death a surgeon visited her at Stratford because he wanted to see her husband's manuscripts (not her father's). At that time she was unable to recognize her own husband's handwriting. "Odd," Schoenbaum wrote. "Did she have learning sufficient only to enable her to sign her name?"

Which brings us to Shakspere's six uncontested signatures. They are painfully executed in an uncertain hand, a historical embarrassment. Joseph M. English, Jr., a documents examiner with the forensic-science laboratory at Georgetown University, offered the provisional opinion (he had access only to reproductions) that the signatures were those of a man not familiar with writing his own name, particularly the latter part of it. The surviving record does not contradict the possibility that Shakspere's level of literacy was no greater than his daughter's. His signatures are appended to legal documents only. There are no known manuscripts or letters by Shakspere. We have one letter that was sent to him (but he is thought not to have received it). It asks for a loan of [[sterling]]30.

Shakspere is not known to have attended Stratford grammar school (the school records have not survived), and no one who did attend it ever claimed to have been his classmate. If he was a pupil, he probably was not one for long, as orthodoxy concedes, because his father ran into financial difficulties. Shakspere married at the age of eighteen and had three children (including twins) before his twenty-first birthday, in 1585. Joseph Quincy Adams guessed that Shakspere spent some time as a schoolmaster. The alternative he described as follows:

"If we are forced to think of him as early snatched from school, working all day in a butcher's shop, growing up in a home devoid of books and of a literary atmosphere, and finally driven from his native town through a wild escapade with village lads, we find it hard to understand how he suddenly blossomed out as one of England's greatest men of letters with every mark of literary culture."

Several orthodox scholars, including Alfred Harbage, date the composition of Love's Labour's Lost to the late 1580s. "What Shakespeare was doing at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five we do not know," Harbage added. The play contains allusions to the 1578 visit of Marguerite de Valois and Catherine de Medici to the Court of Henry of Navarre at Nerac, the names of French courtiers remaining unchanged in the play. Somehow the Stratford man found out about all this, embodying it in a parody of court manners and literary fashions. "Unless there was a source-play," Edmund Chambers wrote, "some English or French traveller must have been an intermediary."

The play was "a battle in a private war between court factions," according to the Arden edition of Love's Labours Lost, with many indications that it had been written first "for private performance in court circles," and then was rewritten and published in quarto in 1598. It's hard to believe that Shakspere started out as a court insider. "To credit that amazing piece of virtuosity to a butcher boy who left school at 13 or even to one whose education was nothing more than what a grammar school and residence in a little provincial borough could provide is to invite one either to believe in miracles or to disbelieve in the man of Stratford," wrote J. Dover Wilson, the editor of The New Cambridge Shakespeare.

In his prefatory poem in the first folio (1623), Ben Jonson misleadingly told readers that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek." Jonson also spread the idea that Shakespeare was nature's child, who "wanted art." This falsely implied that Shakespeare's poetry was the spontaneous, untutored babbling of a provincial. John Milton picked up the refrain, writing in 1632 that the poet "warble[d] his native wood-notes wild." The well-educated Milton probably didn't realize that Shakespeare's vocabulary was twice his own. Shakespeare's learning, worn so unostentatiously, didn't become apparent until much later. The eighteenth-century editor George Steevens said of a portion of Titus Andronicus: "This passage alone would sufficiently convince me that the play before us was the work of one who was conversant with the Greek tragedies in their original language. We have here a plain allusion to the Ajax of Sophocles, of which no translation was extant in the time of Shakespeare." Gilbert Highet, of Columbia University, said that "we can be sure" that Shakespeare "had not read Aeschylus." (He meant that Shakspere had not.) "Yet what can we say when we find some of Aeschylus' thoughts appearing in Shakespeare's plays?"

The Comedy of Errors was taken from a play by Plautus before it had been published in English translation. The Rape of Lucrece is derived from the Fasti of Ovid, of which there appears to have been no English version, according to John Churton Collins, the author of Studies in Shakespeare (1904). Collins also found in the plays "portions of Caesar, Sallust, Cicero and Livy." As for modern languages, Charles T. Prouty, a professor at the University of Missouri, concluded that Shakespeare "read both Italian and French and was familiar with both Bandello and Bellefont." The dialogue in some scenes of Henry V is in French, "grammatically accurate if not idiomatic," according to Sir Sidney Lee, the influential Shakespeare scholar and the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. As noted above, Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, which contains the Hamlet story, had not been translated from the French by the time Hamlet was written. Othello is based on a story in G. Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, not translated from the Italian by the time of the play's first performance. Andrew S. Cairncross, who in the 1930s espoused an early-authorship theory of the plays, concluded that Shakespeare's "knowledge and use" of Italian is "established." (Oxford wrote in French and Latin and, having spent almost a year in Italy almost certainly knew Italian.)

Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of Shakspere in London: In March of 1595, along with William Kempe and Richard Burbage, he was recorded as a payee of the Chamberlain's Men, for performances before Her Majesty the previous December at Greenwich. In 1596 William Wayte "craves sureties of the peace against Shakspere" and others "for fear of death." In 1597 and 1598 the Stratford man was listed as a tax defaulter in Bishopsgate ward. In Stratford he was among the "wicked people" named as stockpiling grain at a time of famine in 1598. A year earlier he bought New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford, for [[sterling]]60, but he "did not live there permanently until his retirement, c. 1610," wrote F. E. Halliday in A Shakespeare Companion, a standard reference work. In London there was no recorded reaction to his death, in 1616—an extraordinary oversight, considering that the city went into mourning when the actor Richard Burbage died, three years later.

The playwright "spent some years before his death at his native Stratford," according to his first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, "in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends." Schoenbaum granted him a "final non-literary phase." How many writers retire in their forties? (Francis Beaumont, who died a month before Shakspere, was said by Marchette Chute to have "retired" from playwriting in his late twenties, but a recent study argued that he had suffered a stroke.) It seems unlikely that Shakspere really did retire, however, for in 1613 we find him again back in London—buying property in Blackfriars and mortgaging it the next day. Shakspere's will, first prepared in January of 1616, itemizing such minutiae as a silver-gilt bowl, his own clothes, his plate, and his second-best bed (this last to his wife), mentions no books or manuscripts. This was the will of someone concerned about and attentive to details—but these did not include the disposition of his literary remains. At this point just over half the plays had not been published anywhere.

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