Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Who was Shakespeare?

This year England is celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist in the English language. I think that the celebration is twelve years too late. At the risk of losing what little credibility the Weekly Bystander might possess, I confess that I am a Shakespeare denier. I believe that the great plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare, the man of that name from Stratford on Avon, were not written by him, but by an aristocratic contemporary, Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one of the most prominent and notorious noblemen in Elizabethan England.
Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, 1575
In other words, I am an advocate of the theory that the true identity of the greatest writer in the English language has been hidden for more than 400 years. I am not alone. Great writers like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Henry James, as well as great Shakespearean actors like Orson Welles and Derek Jacobi believed that the plays and poems were written by someone other than the simple commoner from Stratford. Even Sigmund Freud agreed.

While many names have been put forward as the true author, I believe that the aristocratic background, unique education, and life experience of the Earl of Oxford makes him the prime candidate for the true author of the Shakesperean canon. When it comes to Shakespeare, I agree with those who are called by scholars, with a certain degree of contempt, “Oxfordians”. These would include the unfortunately named J. Thomas Looney an English high school teacher whose groundbreaking 1919 book, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, has never received the attention it deserves.

Oddly enough, it was on my first trip to Italy back in 1997 that I saw the light. My wife and I attended a little symposium on the Renaissance held that year in Gardone Riviera, a resort town on the coast of beautiful Lake Garda. We stayed in an old pensione up the hill from Gardone that had a spectacular view of the lake.

Before the trip I had happened to read a book by Joseph Sobran* that also questioned the authorship of the man from Stratford, and promoted the cause of the Earl of Oxford, but I found it hard to believe given the overwhelming scholarly tradition. Italy changed my mind. Many of the plays are set in Italy, and the playwright seems to have a first hand knowledge of the customs, language, and geography of the country.

The man from Stratford never traveled outside of England. Scholars are reduced to saying that he got his extensive knowledge of things Italian by listening to Italian seamen in London pubs. On the other hand, shortly after he turned 21 and took his seat in the House of Lords, the young Earl of Oxford left England to spend a year and a half traveling on a kind of grand tour, most of which was spent in Italy. Is it a coincidence that practically every town he visited in Italy is featured or at least mentioned in the plays? Venice, Verona, and Padua come immediately to mind. Places he did not visit, like Turin and Bologna, receive no mention in the plays.

Moreover, my own brief first visit to Italy convinced me that it would be impossible to describe the beautiful countryside, and the fabled cities without having actually seen them. Even today, after many subsequent visits, I find it almost impossible to describe the breathtaking scene of the Tuscan countryside, or a ride in a water taxi down Venice’s Grand Canal.

The young Edward de Vere spent a fortune on his Italian journey and had to borrow heavily to pay his enormous bills. He arrived back in England deeply in debt and even stark naked, having been stripped of his clothes by pirates in the English Channel, in the same manner as Prince Hamlet in the famous play. This incident is just one of many where the life of the Earl of Oxford is mirrored in the plays and poems of Shakespeare.**

Edward de Vere was born in 1550, fourteen years before the man from Avon.  The de Vere’s were one of England’s great aristocratic families, and could trace their lineage back over 400 years. After the death of his father, when Edward was only twelve, he was taken from his mother and made a ward of the Crown. His property and wealth were managed by Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Sir Robert Dudley, and his education and upbringing were put into the hands of Sir Robert Cecil the Queen’s chief minister, who even non-Oxfordians believe to be the prototype of Polonius in Hamlet. Edward de Vere grew up in the highest circles of English society, and studied under some of the greatest scholars of his time.

On the other hand, it would appear that the man from Stratford on Avon received no more than the barest elementary education. His father was a butcher and his family was illiterate. Scholars are hard pressed to find any evidence that he received even an elementary education. He left no books or manuscripts behind but only a handful of copies of his signature on legal documents that indicate that he could hardly write his own name.

Throughout his life Edward de Vere was associated with the theater. He sponsored and promoted plays and companies of players. However, at the time it was considered disgraceful for someone of his status to associate with plays and players. For this reason Oxfordians believe that he used the name of the man from Avon to cover his tracks. There is evidence that the young man from Avon was amply compensated. After all, what’s in a name?

The greatest objection to the authorship of de Vere is the fact that he died in 1604. Although it is difficult to date the plays, the traditional belief has been that some, like the Tempest, were written between 1604 and 1616, the date of the death of the man from Stratford. However, in recent years scholars have reduced the number of post-1604 plays to one or two and even their dates are questionable. One recent author has even argued that the whole “Shakespeare project” seems to shut down after 1604.

The other objection involves a kind of reverse snobbery. We live in the age of the underdog and people like to believe that the greatest author in the English language was a common man possessed with great natural genius. We do not like aristocrats and shows like Downton Abbey make us aware of their follies and weaknesses. Nevertheless, greatness in any field still requires education and life experience. Every author writes himself. The plays of Shakespeare are all about Kings, Queens, and other aristocrats. In those plays Edward de Vere wrote about a world of which he was intimately acquainted and in which he played a major role.

Written around 1604, Hamlet was one of the last plays. The dying words of Hamlet could well apply to Edward de Vere.

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

* Joseph Sobran, Alias Shakespeare, 1997.

**Mark Anderson, Shakespeare by Another Name, 2005, provides an exhaustive account of the similarities between the life of Edward de Vere and the characters in both the plays and poems of Shakespeare.   

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