The Boston Phoenix
November 6 - 13, 1997

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Much ado about nothing

Why Shakespeare was not, is not, and never will be the Earl of Oxford

by Jeffrey Gantz

ALIAS SHAKESPEARE: SOLVING THE GREATEST LITERARY MYSTERY OF ALL TIME, By Joseph Sobran. The Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 311 pages, $25.

[Alias Shakespeare] Ready for your bedtime story? A long time ago, in a land across the sea, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, decided he was going be known to posterity as William Shakespeare. He was already known to his contemporaries as a courtly poet and playwright -- but he wanted to go down in history as the people's poet and playwright. So in 1590 or thereabouts he gathered a number of dramatic works he'd written and started sending them off to the public playhouses. He couldn't put his own name on them, of course, for it wasn't the fashion for Queen Elizabeth's nobles to write for the rabble. If he'd been exposed as the author, who knows what dreadful fate would have awaited him -- drawing and quartering at the very least.

Now it must be admitted that Edward's standing in court was pretty much drawn and quartered already, owing to some unfortunate misunderstandings. He had married Anne Cecil, daughter of the powerful Lord Burghley (Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer); and while Anne was broadening with their first child, he was broadening his education with Venetian courtesans. What did he learn? Why, that women are promiscuous. Naturally, upon his return to England he disavowed the child. Was it Edward's fault if Lord Burghley couldn't see his daughter for the slut she obviously was?

In his next adventure, Edward made a pact with some friends to advance the cause of Catholicism in England -- fortunately he realized his mistake in time to betray his co-conspirators to the authorities. Romance then beckoned, and he got one of Queen Elizabeth's maids-of-honor, Anne Vavasour, pregnant. Who can doubt that he loved Anne Vavasour very much and would have married her if he hadn't already been married to Anne Cecil?

It's true that when Anne Cecil died, Edward married not Anne Vavasour but Elizabeth Trentham, yet another maid-of-honor. And, yes, Edward was absent from Anne Cecil's funeral -- but that's understandable, since the Spanish Armada was about to descend on England, and he was preoccupied with the important commission (his own ship, to be sure -- perhaps a fleet) he was to receive from the Queen. Or should have received. Instead, thanks to his political enemies, he was made governor of the garrison at Harwich. A mere garrison for the 17th Earl of Oxford? Edward had no choice but to desert his command, saying that "he thought the place of no service nor credit." (The Earl of Leicester, undoubtedly jealous, whined, "I know her Majesty will also make him know, that it was of good grace to appoint that place to him, having no more experience than he hath.")

Long before this time, Edward had run through his huge inheritance (but what inheritance could be huge enough for a man of his talents?). Now he was reduced to an annual royal stipend of £1000 -- paid out quarterly, a niggardly arrangement that cramped his style and his capacity for creative overspending. It wasn't enough, of course (there was no Smith, Barney back then), so he decided to mend his fortunes by selling his dramatic output at £6 a pop.

All this might not seem entirely to Oxford's credit: but you have to weigh the testimony -- deeds, not words -- of those who knew him. Once his plays began to appear, the entire city of London -- man, woman, and child -- rose as one to protect their favorite from the Queen's wrath. Just consider the facts. He was delivering his scripts to the playhouses (and receiving that all-important £6), sitting there every night making the modifications and updatings that the public demanded, even (if the historical record and the new evidence of computer technology is to be believed) acting in all of the performances. The whole of London had to know who "Shakespeare" was: Oxford's friends, his servants, the theater companies, the players, the musicians, the stagehands, the bookkeepers, the ticket takers, his fellow playwrights, their fellow writers, the publishers, the printers, the booksellers, the audiences -- in particular the theater regulars from the Inns of Court, who knew everything. Yet not a single person let his identity slip.

As for the Queen, well, she'd seen some of these plays in earlier versions, when they'd been presented at court, so she wasn't fooled, and neither were her nobles. Nonetheless, despite his misfortunes, they all must have loved Edward, because they pretended not to know. Even after the death of Elizabeth (in 1603) and that of Oxford (in 1604), England preserved the Earl's shameful secret: his friends and enemies joined forces to ensure that no breath of scandal should ever attaint his good name. And to this day people still believe that Oxford's plays were written by Shakespeare . . .

[Shakespeare Sonnets] I like a good fairy tale as much as anybody, but this one is wearing thin. The latest effort to persuade us that Edward de Vere was the real Bard is Joseph Sobran's paperweight Alias Shakespeare, which in 300 pages of gauzy argument presumes to overturn centuries of serious scholarship. Meanwhile, the Shakespeare Oxford Society has established its American library and study center in Cambridge -- last month, according to the society's Web page, though the actual location of the library is not revealed. Perhaps one has to take the oath of allegiance to Oxford-as-Shakespeare before being allowed in.

The Oxford movement has had a positive influence on Shakespeare scholarship: it's induced Stratfordians (those who believe the plays were written by Shakespeare) to forsake the usual academic platitudes and clichés for the messy real world of Elizabethan thought and drama. It's also provided some hilarious scenarios (as we'll see in the next paragraph). But in the end, it has as much substance as the emperor's new clothes. If you'll bear with me, I'll try to explain why.

Early on in Alias Shakespeare, Sobran promises to abjure "the excesses and fantasies of some heretics." So unlike his predecessors, he doesn't try to convince us that Oxford was sleeping with her Majesty (i.e., that the Virgin Queen was really the Strumpet Queen) and that the Earl of Southampton was their son. Or that Anne Cecil was sleeping with her father -- who was thus both father and grandfather to Oxford's child. We don't even hear that Romeo and Juliet is the story of how Oxford (Romeo) abandoned the Queen (Rosaline) in favor of Anne Cecil (Juliet), or maybe Anne Vavasour, or Elizabeth Trentham. (Hamlet, however, is still posited as the story of Oxford's life -- even though Stratfordians have shown that the play's plot serves equally well for the Earl of Essex or James I.)

In other words, all the good gutter gossip is gone. What's left exposes the poverty of the Oxfordian position: if we exclude the appendices (largely given over to a misguided attempt at "proving" Oxford's poetry is just like Shakespeare's), Alias Shakespeare runs a mere 223 pages. In the course of which Sobran dredges up the same tired arguments. Once again we hear that this boorish, uneducated wanna-be actor named William Shakespeare is not worthy to be the author of the plays -- that only the Earl of Oxford has the aristocratic lineage, the gentleman's education, the noble bearing necessary to have written . . . Titus Andronicus.

Sobran is a smart guy and he writes with respect (unlike many of his Oxfordian peers); it's almost distressing to see how little he has to offer. Back in 1994, Continuum brought out Irving Leigh Matus's Shakespeare, IN FACT, a badly edited but scathing deconstruction of the Oxford movement. Matus acknowledged the "real friendship [of] Joe Sobran, whom I owe thanks for many a kindness." Yet Sobran ignores Matus's evidence completely. Shakespeare, IN FACT is all particulars; Alias Shakespeare is all hypothesis.

[Shakespeare] Let's consider the vexed question of dating. William Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, Edward de Vere from 1550 to 1604. The stagings of the plays correspond with the Shakespeare years rather than the de Vere dates (i.e., the likes of King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest appear to have been written after de Vere died), so the burden of proof falls on the Oxfordians. What does Sobran offer? Have a look:

These earlier dates for five very diverse plays mean that all the plays could have been written by 1604, the year of Oxford's death. We have indications that The Comedy of Errors existed by 1577, Titus Andronicus by 1584, Hamlet by 1589, As You Like It by 1594, and Macbeth before -- perhaps some years before -- 1605.

You were expecting a chronology of when Oxford wrote each play? Forget it. This is the extent of Sobran's argument, and it's all based on speculation. For example, something called The Historie of Error was presented at court in 1577, so that must be The Comedy of Errors. A Hamlet was in existence by 1589, so it must be Shakespeare's. As You Like It refers to the 1593 death of Christopher Marlowe, so it must have been written in 1594.

Oxfordians complain that Stratfordians don't take them seriously. Stratfordians are too busy being polite and trying not to laugh. The Shakespeare industry has put every jot and tittle of this author's life and work under the microscope. It's rebuilt the Globe on that theater's original Southwark location. It's produced statistical studies and lexical databases. And it's using computer technology to discover things about the Bard we never dreamed we'd know (see the SHAXICON section of this essay). Meanwhile, the Oxford movement remains obsessed with an adolescent fantasy figure whose "biography" has all the detail of a Reader's Digest profile and all the verisimilitude ("I see a noble, introverted outsider whose true worth the world has never appreciated") of a Psychic Friends Network reading.

How did this nonsense get started? It's true that William Shakespeare as author of the plays and sonnets is a frustrating, sometimes unsatisfying proposition. We don't know exactly when he was born. We think he attended Stratford Grammar School, but we have no proof; we know for sure that he didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge. To have learned so much about the world -- in particular the European continent and the English court -- he must have read a great many books; yet there's little evidence he owned any. There isn't even much evidence to suggest he could write. There are no letters to tell us of his literary or artistic interests; nothing in his financial transactions or his dealings with his wife suggests a great mind at work. Unlike such fellow dramatists as Robert Greene and Ben Jonson, our author was not a self-promoter. What we do know is that his contemporaries identified William Shakespeare as an actor (despite the desperate attempts of Oxfordians to deny the copious evidence) and as the author of the plays we credit to him.

The lacunae in Shakespeare's life are a nuisance but in no way disqualifying. In his lifetime almost nothing was said about Christopher Marlowe as a playwright. There are no manuscripts or letters; there's no sure remnant of his handwriting, and it's not even certain that he attended Cambridge. We don't know the names of Ben Jonson's parents, or when he was born; only a chance remark made in 1617 argues that he attended Westminster School. John Webster, who wrote The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, is a complete mystery: when he was born, when he died, whether he went to school -- everything. John Fletcher (of the famous Jacobean team of Beaumont & Fletcher) "disappears" for 10 years of his life; we don't even know whether he was married. Thomas Dekker's schooling is another puzzle.

In his own time, Shakespeare was admired but not adored -- and not deemed different from his fellow playwrights. None of the great dramatists of this period was an aristocrat. Marlowe was a shoemaker's son. Jonson's stepfather was a bricklayer, as was Thomas Middleton's father. Webster's father was a coachmaker; John Ford's background is a mystery. Shakespeare's father was a glover, so he fits right in. Oxfordians would have you believe that "Shakespeare" is in a class (i.e., the nobility) by himself, but other dramatists turned out comparable work. Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Webster's The White Devil are worthy of the Bard, in their own more contemporary way. And you could make a case that the greatest tragedy of the 17th century is neither Hamlet nor King Lear but a collaboration by Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling, which delves into the perverseness of sexual desire in way that would raise Madonna's eyebrows.

Education is a red herring -- how much formal schooling did Jane Austen have? Or the Brontë sisters? Check out act one of The Taming of the Shrew, where Lucentio tells us that "since for the great desire I had/To see fair Padua, nursery of arts,/I am arrived for fruitful Lombardy." Padua is not now and never was part of Lombardy; it has always belonged to Venetia, but contemporary English maps showed Lombardy as covering all of northern Italy. Shakespeare would have been taken in; Oxford, who visited Padua in 1575, could have labored under no such illusion.

Oxford's complex character has been thoroughly explored by Matus: he was a nobleman of considerable talents who squandered his financial resources, cheated on his wife, made himself unwelcome at court, and had a high opinion of himself that his contemporaries didn't always share. And the scenario advanced by Oxfordians makes no sense. The Arte of English Poesie, written in 1589 (probably by George Puttenham), acknowledges Oxford as a leading poet and playwright in Queen Elizabeth's court. Puttenham tells us that some of Elizabeth's courtiers thought it wasn't quite manly to write poetry or masques, but he doesn't mention Oxford in that context. Nowhere (despite Frontline's disgraceful attempt to suggest otherwise last year) does Puttenham, or anyone else, state that it was anathema for a nobleman to be recognized as a playwright; nowhere does he suggest that any nobleman wrote under an assumed name. Being identified as a public playwright would doubtless have jeopardized Oxford's standing at court. Yet by 1590 he had hardly any standing left to lose. Nonetheless, we're expected to believe that, even after his death, all of London (most of which had to know) kept the secret. We're talking about a massive, mind-boggling conspiracy that beggars Roswell, JFK, or Martin Luther King. And for no reason. It doesn't figure.

But nothing about Oxford-as-Shakespeare figures. If he really needed to withhold his identity, why not just have the plays delivered anonymously? (The theater owners wouldn't care: their audiences craved plays, not playwrights.) Or else adopt a pseudonym? Having the actor William Shakespeare pose as the author would just arouse curiosity (since if Will wasn't the playwright, the theater world would soon know). Indeed, Shakespeare was well enough known to have been an object of the satirical anonymous play (circa 1590) Arden of Faversham, whose characters include a pair of miscreants named Black Will and Shakebag. Besides, we're supposed to believe that Oxford had been writing these plays over some 20 years, and presenting early versions of them at court. So if, starting in 1590, they turned up in the public playhouses, who would be deceived? Certainly not Queen Elizabeth. And who else mattered?

The time element alone disqualifies Oxford-as-Shakespeare. Oxford was a generation earlier. Fourteen years might not seem like much, but Elizabethan drama as we know it was scarcely possible before 1587 or so, when Thomas Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe stunned audiences with Tamburlaine. Even Shakespeare couldn't have penned his plays in the 1570s and early '80s: the playhouses weren't there, the performers weren't there, the audiences weren't there. The sensibility wasn't there. If Oxford did write a court masque or play (and there is testimony he did, though nothing survives), his work likely would have conjured the euphuistic rhetoric of John Lyly, who under Oxford's patronage wrote for the boy companies of Blackfriars and Paul's. If Oxford wrote for the playhouses (and there is no testimony for that), he must have done so in the last 15 years of his life.

But we know what he was doing after 1590: trying to repair his ruined finances. Which meant not wasting time with playwrighting: all 36 plays at £6 apiece meant £216 total -- a drop in the bucket for an earl who couldn't manage on £1000 a year. Most of Edward de Vere's letters from the 1590s survive (Oxfordians claim that the crucial ones were all destroyed by his enemies -- we're talking conspiracy mentality here), and half of them are consumed with his persistent attempts to acquire control of the Queen's tin-mining monopolies (which the Queen wasn't about to hand over to someone with Oxford's financial track record). There's no mention of playwrighting, or poetry. As for the word "tin," it doesn't appear in any of the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

In truth, almost any Shakespeare play could be used to dismantle the Oxford movement. Let's look at one that doesn't get much attention from Oxfordians or Stratfordians.

Henry VI, part one is ignored by Oxfordians, and it's not hard to see why -- all by itself it makes rubbish of their case. It also helps to explain one of the earliest references to Shakespeare, the ill-tempered outburst in Robert Greene's 1592 pamphlet Greenes Groats-worthe of witte, bought with a million of Repentance. Contemporary evidence from the diary of Rose Theatre owner Philip Henslowe and the pamphlet Pierce Penilesse by Thomas Nashe has established that all three Henry VI plays must have been on stage by 1592. But they could scarcely have been written more than a few years earlier. They coincide with the rise of the outdoor amphitheaters in the late '80s, when both the necessary venue and the necessary large cast would have been available. Henry VI and the other history plays of this time all turn up after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, an event that fostered an outbreak of English patriotism. The Henry VI author appears to have made use of the second edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which came out in 1587.

All this squares with a young playwright finding his way in 1589 or 1590, at the age of 25 or 26, as Shakespeare was then. Oxford, on the other hand, was 39 or 40. The Henry VI plays cannot be his: he would have had no occasion to write them in his youth, and they are not the work of a mature writer. Indeed, it's not certain that they're the work of the same writer: Parts Two and Three show dramatic improvement over Part One. Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells are only the latest in a long line of scholars who believe that Shakespeare did not write all of Part One. The quality of the verse is dizzyingly uneven; scenes five and six in act four are different versions of the same event, and the Bishop of Winchester becomes a cardinal in act one and again in act five. Clearly some cobbling has taken place.

Given that the Lord Talbot scenes reflect the exploits of the Earl of Essex against the Spaniards in the Low Countries during the winter of 1591-'92, and that Talbot's stripping of the garter from cowardly Sir John Fastolfe in act four must allude to the conferral, in April of 1592, by Queen Elizabeth of the Order of the Garter on his descendant Gilbert Talbot, it's not unreasonable to surmise that a pre-existing play about Henry VI was updated in 1592. (Plays were regularly updated to keep audiences coming back.) Who wrote the original? Taylor and Wells believe that Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe may have been involved. Who did the revisions? Well, the 1623 Folio credits Henry VI, Part One to Shakespeare, so it's logical to suppose he had some hand in it. By 1592, Greene was persona non grata with the theater companies for having tried to sell his Orlando Furioso to more than one of them. No surprise, then, that an aspiring young actor/dramatist might volunteer to do the updating.

What we know for sure is that "harey the vj" was a huge success for Philip Henslowe in the spring of 1592, whereas Greene's The Honourable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, A Looking Glasse for London and England, and Orlando Furioso -- also performed by Lord Strange's Men at the Rose -- all flopped. That could well explain what Greene, who died in September of 1592, put out as a Parthian shot in his Groats-worthe of witte. He's advising three fellow dramatists (Marlowe, Nashe, and George Peele, in all probability) to beware of actors:

Base minded men al three of you, if by my miserie ye be not warned; for unto none of you, like me, sought those burres to cleave; those puppits, I meane, that speake from our mouths, those anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange that I, to whom they al have beene beholding, is it not like that you to whome they all have beene beholding, shall, were ye in that case that I am now, be both at once of them forsaken? Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum [jack of all trades], is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.

What's going on here? Greene is reproaching an actor who, it would appear, is passing himself off as a playwright. The line he cites is a parody of what Richard Duke of York calls Queen Margaret in Henry VI, Part Three: "Oh Tygres Heart, wrapt in a Womans Hide." He can be referring only to the author of the play, or to the actor who took the part of York. One Oxfordian hypothesis is that the famous tragedian Edward Alleyne played York, and that Greene is merely complaining about bombastic actors who steal the limelight from the playwright. But this won't do: York dies at the end of act one, and the available roles in which Alleyne could have doubled are mere bit parts. Alleyne would surely have preferred any of the four bigger (twice as many lines minimum) and better roles that Henry VI, Part Three offers: Henry VI, Richard Duke of Gloucester, Edward IV, or the Earl of Warwick. Besides, if Greene were going to rail at Alleyne for overacting, why not cite one of his own dramas? Say, Orlando Furioso, where Alleyne indeed played the hero.

No, Greene must be speaking of the author of Henry VI, Part Three, and the allusion to "Shake-scene" leaves little room for doubt. Our mystery figure is a jack-of-all-trades actor who wants to be a playwright, and who, revising what Greene originally had a hand in, gets the credit that Greene feels he deserved. Our author also has Yorkist sympathies (the Earls of Oxford were Lancastrians). The name Shakespeare leaps to mind.

Want more evidence? There's enough to fill an encyclopedia (try the Shakespeare Authorship Web site. Including one new piece that's lethal to the Oxford movement . . .

Shaxicon (you can read about it here.) is a lexical database created by Don Foster of Vassar College. Through examining the distribution of rare words (those that occur 12 times or fewer) in Shakespeare's work, Foster has demonstrated that each play has one role (or more, if parts are doubled) whose rare-word vocabulary disproportionately affects that of some of the other plays -- namely those that were written subsequently. Because it's a closed system, Foster's database is free of Stratfordian assumptions. And it doesn't announce that Shakespeare wrote the plays. It simply tells us that the playwright -- whoever he was -- acted in his dramas (or at least memorized specific roles), while establishing the likely order of their composition.

There are some surprises for traditional chronology, and some acting revelations -- we even find out what role Shakespeare took in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour. But the consistency here is unassailable: Shakespeare tends to take king parts, or parts that come on early (so he could count the house?). Suffolk in Henry VI, Clarence in Richard III, the Ghost in Hamlet, Albany in Lear, Duncan and Banquo in Macbeth -- it all makes sense. For Oxfordians, SHAXICON is a disaster. We'd have to posit that de Vere not only wrote the plays but acted in them, and what odds he had the ability to do that -- never mind the opportunity to do it without being found out. Everything about SHAXICON tells us that the plays were written by an actor who was part of the everyday theatrical world of Elizabethan England. Someone like Will Shakespeare.


Nothing in this essay will persuade committed Oxfordians, whose conspiracy mentality (the Powers That Be will always conceal the Truth from the People, but we, the Elect, have discovered that Truth, and its name is Oxford) is proof against any and all evidence (consider that the puns in the Sonnets show that the author's Christian name is Will, not Edward). The rest of you should be assured that there's no reason to doubt who wrote the plays. The 17th Earl of Oxford makes for an amusing bedtime story, such stuff as dreams are made on. But the stuff of real life is William Shakespeare.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at

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