The Case for Oxford

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

"Circumstances were uniquely favorable to the retention of any products of his pen had there been any," Charlton Ogburn wrote.

"His last years were spent in affluent leisure in a fine house he had owned for two decades, and this house remained in the possession of his daughter and then granddaughter while three collected editions of Shakespeare's plays were published in which their author was hailed as his nation's triumph. Are we really to imagine that nothing in the form of a letter, a note, a bit of manuscript, would have remained of Shakspere's had he been the greatest of writers?"

As far as I know, at no point in Shakspere's lifetime was the claim made that he had written anything, nor do we have any evidence that he was ever paid for writing. Shakspere himself makes no authorial claim in the anecdotes that have come down to us. In his fugitive appearances he is businesslike rather than literary. In the words of Joseph Sobran, the columnist and National Review critic at large, he remains throughout "a singularly taciturn fountain of eloquence."


As a young man, de Vere "dazzled the queen and absorbed the attention of her leisure moments," according to one historian. An uncle of his, Henry Howard, introduced the sonnet form in English; another uncle, Arthur Golding, who was probably also De Vere's tutor, translated Ovid's Metamorphoses, an important Shakespeare source. When Oxford was nineteen, a copy of the Amyot (French) translation of Plutarch's Lives was bought for him; a letter written by him in French at the age of thirteen survives. He "won for himself an honorable place among the early masters of English poetry," Thomas Macaulay wrote. Of all the courtier poets, Chambers wrote, "the most hopeful" was De Vere, but he "became mute in late life."

In deference to the taboo against noblemen's using their own names, only one published poem disclosed Oxford's authorship. (Others used the initials "E.O.," and may have been published without his permission.) Steven W. May, of Georgetown College, Kentucky, an expert on Oxford's poetry has reduced to sixteen the canon of his certain poems. "His latest extant poem was composed no later than 1593," according to May. This happens to be the year of Shakespeare's first poem (Venus and Adonis). What has survived of Oxford's poetry does not rival Shakespeare's, but most of his known poems were written when Oxford was young, probably in his early twenties. According to Ward Elliott, of Claremont McKenna College, in California, who has researched the authorship question with statistical techniques, some of Oxford's known poems may have been composed when the earl was sixteen or younger.

Oxford's oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, was in the early 1590s engaged to marry Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, to whom Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were dedicated. Burghley and Oxford tried to persuade the rich youth to marry the girl (Oxford had sold off an uncomfortably large portion of his inheritance by this time), but Southampton declined (and was apparently fined by Burghley for doing so). Shakespeare's sonnets, or most of them, are believed to have been written in the early to mid-1590s, and Southampton's three biographers believe that he was the sonnets' "onlie begetter." The poet, in any event, is feeling his age, speaking of the "wrackful siege of battering days," weeping for "precious friends hid in death's dateless night" and "all those friends which I thought buried," and missing his "lovers gone." In the mid-1590s the Stratford man wasn't thirty years old, yet in Sonnet 73 we read:

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang."

Soon after undertaking his quest for the true author of Shakespeare's works, Looney turned to the Dictionary of National Biography, where he read:

"Oxford, despite his violent and perverse temper, his eccentric taste in dress, and his reckless waste of his substance, evinced a genuine interest in music, and wrote verses of much lyric beauty. Puttenham and Meres reckon him among 'the best for comedy' in his day; but, although he was a patron of players, no specimens of his dramatic productions survive."

In 1567 Oxford was admitted to Gray's Inn, where he studied law and probably became acquainted with the dramatists and literary figures who frequented the Inns of Court at the time. He took over the Earl of Warwick's acting company in 1580, and in 1583 leased Blackfriars Theatre for his own boys' company of players; he transferred the lease to John Lyly, an early Elizabethan dramatist who was also Oxford's private secretary. "In comedy," R. Warwick Bond wrote in an introduction to Lyly's Complete Works, "Lyly is Shakespeare's only model." (But if Oxfordianism triumphs, the relationship between Lyly and Shakespeare will have to be reversed.) "There is little doubt that the Earl himself collaborated in the writing and production of Lyly's Court Comedies," wrote Oxford's biographer, B. M. Ward. In 1593 Gabriel Harvey ambiguously referred to Lyly as "the fiddlestick of Oxford." Oxford was four years older than Lyly.

According to The Cambridge History of English Literature, "the earl of Oxford's company of players acted in London between 1584 and 1587." At that time the public theater was considered to be a low-rent and low-life enterprise. Lords and ladies didn't exactly go to opening nights at the Globe. It's suggestive that in 1587 Burghley complained in a letter to Sir Francis Walsingham that Oxford's "lewd friends...still rule him by flatteries." Sidney Lee wrote that Oxford Squandered some part of his fortune upon men of letters whose bohemian mode of life attracted him." Sir George Buc, a poet and Deputy Master of the Revels, deplored Oxford's "waste" of his earldom but thought him a "magnificent and a very learned and religious man." In 1573 three of Oxford's rude companions staged a mock robbery (or possibly it was intended as a real one) of two men formerly employed by the boisterous young earl, "by the highway from Gravesend to Rochester," according to a letter of complaint that the victims promptly wrote to Burghley. In Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff and three of Prince Hal's companions hold up some travelers on the highway near Gadshill—which is on the highway between Gravesend and Rochester.

Did Oxford write plays? In 1589 the author of the Arte of English Poesie (thought to be George Puttenham) praised Oxford "for Comedy and Enterlude," and in Palladis Tamia (1598) Francis Meres wrote that "the best for Comedy among us be Edward Earl of Oxford." Admittedly, in the same famous passage Meres also praises "Shakespeare" and lists twelve of his plays. It can be argued, however, that Meres either knew Oxford's secret and kept it or innocently believed that Oxford and Shakespeare had separate identities. If he knew the secret, he was presumably discouraged from revealing it by the same social system that prevailed upon Oxford to hide his identity.

In Oxford's case peer pressure to hide his name would have been strong. "Among the nobility or gentry as may be very well seen in many laudable sciences and especially in making poesie," Puttenham wrote in 1589,

"it is so come to pass that they have no courage to write and if they have are loath to be known of their skill. So as I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman, to seem learned."

He went on to describe "Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty's own servants, who 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." In Shakespeare and His Betters, R. C. Churchill was so confident that Oxford's death in 1604 ruled him out as the Bard that he boldly asserted:

"I believe it is as well for the officials of the [Oxfordian] Shakespeare Fellowship that the Earl of Oxford is safely dead, for they would be in some danger of being run through if they insulted the Earl in person by suggesting he had written Shakespeare's plays. For a courtier brought up on Castiglione, a greater insult could hardly be imagined."

Which helps explain the use of a pseudonym.

Two characteristics of the Shakespeare canon suggest powerfully that its author was not a small-town burgher but rather a well-traveled nobleman. One is the very attitude. The author displays little sympathy for the class of upwardly mobile strivers of which Shakspere was a preeminent member. Shakespeare celebrates the faithful servant, but regards commoners as either humorous when seen individually or alarming in mobs. Either way he is remote from them. The concerns of the burgher are not his—hardly what one would expect from the pen of a thrifty countryman new in the big city and rising fast. Shakespeare's frequent disgust with court life sounds like the revulsion of a man who knew it too well. His contempt for a climber like Malvolio in Twelfth Night suggests a writer who is by birth above social climbing and finds it laughable in his inferiors. (Oxfordians, incidentally, make a strong case that the character of Malvolio is based on Sir Christopher Hatron.) Louis Benezet, a professor at Dartmouth (and an Oxfordian), noted in 1940 that Shakespeare's noblemen "are natural, at ease, convincing."

"They talk the language of their class, both in matter and manner. They are aristocrats to the core. On the other hand in portraying the lower classes Shakespeare is unconvincing. He makes them clods or dolts or clowns, and has them amuse us by their gaucheries. He gives them undignified names: Wart, Bullcalf, Mouldy, Bottom, Dogberry, Snout...."

Walt Whitman noted the same thing. "The comedies," he wrote, "have the unmistakable hue of plays, portraits, made for the divertissement only of the elite of the castle, and from its point of view. The comedies are altogether non-acceptable to America and Democracy."

Whitman was an agnostic anti-Stratfordian; his comments (1888) on the historical plays are remarkable. The histories suggest, he wrote, "explanations that one dare not put into plain statement." But then he added:

"Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism—personifying in unparallel'd ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation)—only one of the 'wolfish earls' so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works...."

We find in Sonnet 91 (and is this the voice of our litigious grain-hoarder from Stratford?):

"Thy love is better than high birth to me,...

Of more delight than hawks or horses be.

In Sonnet 125 the poet wrote, "Were't aught to me I bore the canopy." We know that Oxford was one of those entitled to bear the canopy over the monarch, and according to Oxford's biographer, a contemporary ballad tells us that in a thanksgiving procession after the defeat of the Armada, "the noble Earl of Oxford then High Chamberlain of England / Rode right before Her Majesty his bonnet in his hand."

The second characteristic of the canon which points away from Shakspere—and toward Oxford—is the author's apparent knowledge of foreign lands. Shakespeare's "knowledge of Italy was extraordinary," the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote. "An English scholar who lived in Venice has found his visual topographic exactitude in The Merchant of Venice incredible in one who had never been there." Edmund Chambers allowed that the playwright "seems to have been remarkably successful in giving a local colouring and atmosphere" to the plays set in Italy. He even "shows familiarity with some minute points of local topography." Karl Elze, the nineteenth-century German scholar pointed out that in his description of Venice, Shakespeare "does not confound the Isola de Rialto with the Ponte di Rialto." As a result, Chambers said, "much research has been devoted to a conjecture that he spent some time in Italy. But it is implausible that the Stratford man ever went abroad. Travel to the Continent was both dangerous and expensive. When Edward de Vere set off for France in January of 1575, he was accompanied by "two gentlemen, two grooms, one payend, a harbinger, a housekeeper, and a trencherman," Lord Burghley noted for his records.

Oxford and party stayed six weeks or more in Paris and were introduced to the French King, Henry III. It is possible that at this time Oxford met Henry of Navarre (King of France 1589-1610), whose brother-in-law, the Duke of Alencon, was then being considered as a husband for Queen Elizabeth. Henry of Navarre and Oxford were about the same age, and in many respects Henry seems to have been a man after Oxford's own heart. We know, in any event, that Oxford later kept in touch with the French ambassador in London; and we know that Shakespeare was familiar with some details of the Navarre court in 1578 (described in Love's Labours Lost).

Oxford went to Strasbourg, and thence to Italy, arriving in Padua in May. "For fear of the Inquisition I dare not pass by Milan, the Bishop whereof exerciseth such tyranny," he wrote to Burghley. From Padua he traveled to Genoa, later returning to Padua. In September he was in Venice. Here he borrowed 500 crowns from one Baptista Nigrone; then in December he received a further remittance through a Pasquino Spinola. In The Taming of the Shrew the rich gentleman of Padua whose shrewish daughter Petruchio will tame is called Baptista Minola, and his "crowns" are repeatedly mentioned.

Oxford then traveled to Florence and Siena. He was also reported to have been in Sicily, "a famous man of chivalry," who challenged all comers to a contest with "all manner of weapons." In a book published in Naples in 1699 he was described as participating in a mock tournament staged by the Commedia dell' Arte; the account implied that he was a familiar figure at these performances. In 1936 George Lyman Kittredge, of Harvard, pointed out that "the influence of the Italian commedia dell' arte is visible throughout" Love's Labour's Lost. "Several of the figures correspond to standard figures of the Italian convention...."

By March of 1576 Oxford was back in Paris, having stopped en route at Lyons. A striking echo of Oxford's life and travels is found in All's Well That Ends Well. Here is Looney's description of the principal character, Bertram. Almost everything that follows also applied to Oxford:

"A young lord of ancient lineage, of which he is himself proud, having lost a father for whom he entertained a strong affection, is brought to court by his mother and left there as a royal ward, to be brought up under royal supervision. As he grows up he asks for military service and to be allowed to travel, but is repeatedly refused or put off. At last he goes away without permission. Before leaving he had been married to a young woman with whom he had been brought up, and who had herself been most active in bringing about the marriage. Matrimonial troubles, of which the outstanding feature is a refusal of cohabitation, are associated with both his stay abroad and his return home."

There's one final point about All's Well. Bertram is brought to Helena's bed in the mistaken belief that he is visiting his mistress. (Shakespeare employed the same ruse in Measure for Measure.) In an 1836 account, The Histories of Essex, it was said of the Earl of Oxford: "He forsook his lady's bed, [but] the father of Lady Anne [Lord Burghley] by stratagem, contrived that her husband should unknowingly sleep with her, believing her to be another woman, and she bore a son to him in consequence of this meeting."

It's hard to believe that this really did happen to Oxford (or to anyone else). But it's suggestive that the story was told of him in particular.

Oxford's wife died in 1588. Three years later he married Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen's maids of honor. In 1596 they moved into a large house (which she bought) in Hackney, three or four miles from London's center. About the last decade of his life we have little information. "It is almost impossible to penetrate the obscurity surrounding his life at Hackney," B.M. Ward wrote (1928). "There can be little doubt that literature, his main interest in life, occupied the greater part of his time."

Almost alone among Elizabethan poets, Shakespeare wrote no eulogy on the death of the Queen, in 1603. Oxford himself died at Hackney in June of 1604, it is thought of the plague. In 1622, the year before the publication of the Folio, Henry Peacham published a book with a chapter on poetry. Elizabeth's reign had been a "golden age," he wrote therein, listing (in order of rank) those who had "honoured poesie with their pens and practice." First was "Edward Earl of Oxford." Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney made the list. There was no mention of Shakespeare.

The post-1604 period, potentially so perilous for Oxford, turns out to contain surprises—for Stratfordians. The Bard appears to have continued writing, but with a collaborator. Sidney Lee, a pillar of Stratfordian orthodoxy, believed that Shakespeare "reverted [in 1607] to his earlier habit of collaboration, and with another's aid composed two dramas—Timon of Athens and Pericles." How about the possibility that he had died, leaving unfinished work that was completed by another hand? The first two acts of Pericles, it is generally agreed, are not by Shakespeare at all.

From 1594 to 1604 plays by Shakespeare had been published regularly in London in quarto editions. But then publication stopped for some reason until 1608, and the appearance of Lear. In 1609 the sonnets were published, with a preface referring to "our ever-living poet." The phrase strongly suggests that the poet was dead. The title, Shake-speares Sonnets (rather than Sonnets by Shakespeare), also implies that additions are not to be expected. "The numerous misprints indicate that the poet who took such pains with Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece had no part in supervising the printing of his most important body of non-dramatic verse," Schoenbaum wrote.

In 1607 a poet named William Barksted said of Shakespeare, "His was worthy merit." Shakspere had nine years to live.

In 1605 The London Prodigal was published in quarto as "By William Shakespeare," and in 1608 A Yorkshire Tragedy was likewise published and attributed. The King's Men also performed these plays, now known as apocryphal and their authors having been lost to history. The Stratford man was alive, supposedly still turning out plays himself, and certainly suing for malt debts in Stratford. Why did he not object to the attachment of his good name to plays that he did not write? It seems likely that the company, knowing that the real playwright was dead, decided to go on using his name as a drawing card. There had been other apocryphal plays, some appearing in quarto and attributed to "W.S.," but all the evidence we have suggests it was only after Oxford's death that the company openly used the name Shakespeare to advertise plays not by the real author.

In 1609 Troilus and Cressida was published in quarto, with the last few scenes possibly "by another hand," according to the New Cambridge editors. The first edition included a strange preface—dropped from a second edition published later that year—with the headline (ignored by Stratfordians) "A never writer to an ever reader. News." Oxfordians note that "ever" is an anagram of "Vere."

And I can't resist citing a similar play on words in these lines, fondly regarded by Oxfordians, from Sonnet 76:

"That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed."

Presented by

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In