Friday, October 24, 2014

Back to Shakespeare

In the late 1980s I watched a PBS Frontline program called The Shakespeare Mystery. For centuries it has been debated whether a bland tradesman and sometime poacher of game could actually have written the oeuvre of the greatest poet in the English language. On the face of it, it just isn't logical.

The PBS piece convinced me of what most Shakespeare fans surely suspect. Whoever wrote those plays and poems had to be classically educated, well traveled, at home in court, and an extraordinary, larger than life man who had had numerous adventures--and was friendly with the riff-raff as well as the mighty. This does not seem possible for the little small-time businessman living in the isolated town of Stratford, days away from London. Try as the Stratfordians might to link their man Shakspere [sic] to the works of this Mr. Shakespeare of London, nobody in his lifetime ever commented on the Stratford man's writing talent.

I did some research on this when an article appeared in Harper's Magazine in the 1990s, and presented my talk at my hometown library. It was my aim to lay to rest the old myth that the writer of the plays was Shakspere of Stratford. I all but stated my belief as fact, based on what I had read, that the man known as Shakespeare was actually Edward De Vere, the earl of Oxford. I’ll tell you why.

De Vere’s named was uncovered by a clergyman, J. Thomas Looney, in the 1920s, who was convinced only that the plays had to have been written by someone other than the man Shakspere who was known to be contemporary to the dates when most of the plays were written. Not finding any evidence that the Stratford citizen was known to be a writer, and finding considerable evidence that he could not have known the vast amounts of classical literature, language, geography, philosophy, and even human nature the writer of the plays and poetry knew, he made a list of qualities the writer would have and set out to find better candidates for the actual writer. To his surprise, a nobleman emerged who not only met all the criteria he had but also had life experiences that paralleled many if not most of the plots in the Shakespeare plays.

Edward De Vere lived a life worth reading about. An aristocrat in Elizabethan England, he was a child prodigy, a poet courtier, an adventurer, and an all-around son of a bitch who made a ton of mistakes in his life. He was profligate with money, a great drinker and storyteller, a juror in such trials as that of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex; and Philip Howard, who was found guilty of treason in plotting the victory of the Spanish Armada against England in 1589.

As a child, De Vere was the ward of William Cecil, principal adviser to Queen Elizabeth. He was tutored by the best educators in England of that day, having the following curriculum:

7-7:30 Dancing
7:30-8 Breakfast
8-9:00 French
9-10 Latin
10-10:30 Writing and Drawing
1-2:00 Cosmography
2-3:00 Latin
3-4:00 French
4-4:30 Exercises with his Pen

A rather impressive course of study for a boy, isn’t it? What is “cosmography,” you might well ask. As a matter of fact it was geography, history, physical science, astronomy, sociology, English, comparative literature, linguistics, and more. Basically it was everything known in the Elizabethan world. And de Vere had the finest teachers in England as his private tutors. On holy days (holidays) he was expected to “read before dinner the Epistle and Gospel in his own tongue and the other tongue [Greek] after dinner. All the rest of the day to be spent in riding, shooting, dancing, walking, and other commendable exercises, saving the time for prayer."

His intense education included the reading of Beowulf and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and detailed study of the Bible, as noted. That he was surrounded by the greatest personal libraries in England was a boon to him all his life, as he was a voracious reader and could write beautiful prose and poetry. He read the law and received a Master of Arts degree from St. John’s College at Cambridge.

De Vere grew up from a prodigy to be a brilliant if contentious and conflicted man. He was expert at squandering the funds and lands he’d inherited, and he was never entirely comfortable with William Cecil, his guardian. Cecil was an eminent Elizabethan favored as a trusted advisor to the Queen herself.

In one of the few missteps of his life, William Cecil arranged a marriage between his daughter Anne and De Vere in 1571. In 1575, De Vere took off for Italy for a year, claiming that his marriage had never been consummated. He spent some time in Venice, Florence, Sienna. On his journey he traveled to Greece, Croatia – then known as Illyria – and back to England to meet his first daughter and reconcile with his wife. Although he accepted the marriage he never really participated in it. He was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Elizabeth, and he fathered a child by his mistress Anna Vavasour. He got into many a scrap, including political ones. He was known as a poet and writer, a dandy, a great drinker and storyteller and a tempestuous poet possessed of a tormented soul.

He had a sister who may have been cut of the same cloth. When she set out to marry she would have none of the suitors William Cecil had chosen for her, preferring the hothead Peregrine Bertie. De Vere despised Peregrine Bertie and did what he could to block the marriage, but after it happened he accepted the couple and even became a good friend to his volatile brother in law. The couple provided quite a display of temperament and the constant drama of power struggles as they settled into married life. I am not the only one to note that their drama may have been the inspiration for The Taming of the Shrew.

This is only a fraction of the story, but even in this brief, partial re-telling, one can see not only the makings of an extraordinary life in one of the most compelling times and places in the history of the world but also quite possibly the seeds of some of the greatest theatrical writing ever to have been produced.

The man from Stratford, however, had at best a grammar school education and a rather ordinary life from what we can tell. Supporters, and particularly the Stratford Trust, say that his genius simply surpassed our comprehension, and some suggest it is snobbish to believe that a common man could have written so well. This is a side issue. The meat of literature is its stories—and Shakespeare’s work is rife with classical allusions, biblical references, the geography of the Elizabethan world--and life itself, none of which would have been known to a provincial shopkeeper. Mr. Shakspere of Stratford, as far as is known, did not own any books.

Quite an industry has grown up around the little city of Stratford. It is a beautifully preserved replica of Elizabethan England, and no doubt that is all because a man named Shakspere once lived there. It is a pleasure to visit and to see the magnificent productions at its huge theater. England is justly proud of its national treasure, and has invested a fortune in keeping Shakespeare’s name alive over the centuries, even if the research on Mr. Shakspere may be dubious. The big question seems to be, if De Vere wrote the plays, why did he not sign his name to them? Those who believe he did cite the reality that people of the theatre were not respected (to say the least) and it would not have befit a man of De Vere's standing to reveal his connection to them, no matter how far above the rabble he stood.

The controversy still rages in spite of the Trust’s considerable efforts to quell it. A group exists called The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which purports to debate, investigate, and ultimately find the answer. The group does not endorse De Vere or any other of the Shakespeare contenders. It asks only to investigate. The Trust has a great deal at stake and seeks to disqualify this group in order to keep the Stratford flame glowing. 

All the Authorship Coalition wants to do is consider other possibilities, and I’m squarely in their camp. Years ago I signed the group’s Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, which simply states that there are possibly other writers who might have written the works of Shakespeare. To read the document, and sign if you choose, click on the link and you'll receive occasional emails (one a year, I believe) about the latest signers. I received one last week which led me to buy an amusing and engrossing book--Shakespeare in Court, by Alexander Waugh.

The question remains. The traditionalist stick to the old story, denying that there is any question at all. According to William S. Niederkorn in the New York Times in 2002: "Most of the academic world has ignored the authorship question for generations, or belittled it as the obsession of idiosyncratic amateur scholars, while building altars in students' minds to the image the tragedian David Garrick promoted during the 1769 Shakespeare jubilee that created the Stratford tourism business: the man of humble origins who rose to the literary pantheon. The vast majority of academics still subscribe to that belief."

Where many have doubted the possibility that the isolated actor-turned-merchant of remote Stratford could have had the education and the grace to have written the monumental works of Shakespeare, no one has come up with a better candidate for the real author than Edward De Vere. I hope I have piqued your interest!


  1. Great topic. I think a point often overlooked is that the writings (whoever wrote them) were the equivalent of today's soap operas or TV sitcoms, somewhat crass and earthy commoner offerings. Just because (as I told my students) they may sound lofty or abstruse to us today, that was not the case in their time.

  2. There is a movie about one of the theories that he didn't write any of it, he was just paid to act like he did and use his name. In the film he couldn't even write though, he was an actor who could read his lines but he never learned to write and couldn't even identify which letters of the alphabet were which. Its called Anonymous and its a good movie. It also weaves in parts of history and different political figures and their intrigues, and some sordid theories about Queen Elizabeth and her family...this is a fascinating topic!

  3. I've seen ANONYMOUS, Missy, and found it disappointing. De Vere was made to be so obnoxious the audience left hoping he was NOT the author of the plays. I think it set the movement to reveal his identity back a century or so. Ah well.

  4. Well done, ML. I am not versed on this topic, but is there anything that de Vere wrote that can be compare with Will's work? Is there even any proof that two even knew each other? Until there is a smoking gun, I'll stick with Will.

  5. De Vere was praised by the best of his day as a writer, many books and articles. He was said to be a superb poet and playwright. It is said that his plays were lost--but were they? Don't you think they could have stayed alive under another name?

  6. I have been intrigued for years by Della Bacon's revolutionary theory was that it was Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon, as part of a secret Elizabethan society (whose members also included Sir Philip Sidney, Lord Buckhurst, the Earl of Oxford, and Lord Paget).

  7. Even among the scholars there's a lot of difference of opinion. I'm not a Shakespeare scholar by a long shot, but the professor of my undergraduate Shakespeare concentration was. He was a sardonic Brit from Oxford who very strongly supported the notion of the collaborative and stolen material theory. I still don't have a strong opinion one way or the other and I tend to view the topic from the sociological angle more than the literary. As an English Literature student and teacher it was never one of my most compelling interests, but comparing viewpoints is always provocative.