The Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, I don't mind telling you, seems like rather a good candidate. He was a courtier, a soldier and a favourite of the Queen - in fact one of the highest ranking noblemen in the Realm. He spoke several languages and was educated beyond belief. He loved books and spent fortunes on them. He had tight literary connections: Edmund Spenser, Anthony Munday, John Lyly and Arthur Golding dedicated works to him. Lyly, one of the first English playwrights, worked as his secretary and Golding, who translated Ovid's Metamorphoses, was his uncle. He travelled in the right places in Italy and Europe, had three daughters just like Lear, was captured by pirates just like Hamlet. His father-in-law was exactly like Polonius and his wife like Ofelia.

He was an accomplished poet and much involved with theatre. Maybe he even wrote plays.

But was he Shakespeare?

The theory was first proposed by the English school teacher J.T. Looney in his 1920 book Shakespeare Identified. Even before that there had been candidates galore: Marlowe, Bacon, Queen Elizabeth - or maybe all of then in cahoots?

There seems to be, among some parties, a great urge to explain away Shakespeare's authorship. I do wonder why? Because he wasn't of noble birth? But he was as his mother was an Arden. The Ardens were one of only three noble families that could trace their lineage, with documents, to before the Norman conquest. (It's also worth noting that Shakespere's father John was the mayor of Stratford, so William wasn't exactly your typical country yokel.) Because he was ill educated or even uneducated? But the grammar school in Stratford was excellent and taught both Greek and Latin. Because he probaby never travelled abroad, nor fought in a war, nor studied law, nor practised falconry, nor sailed the seven seas? Writing isn't really a question of what the author has done but what he can imagine and then put on paper.

Now de Vere is in many ways an excellent candidate if one wants someone other than Shakespeare to have authored Shakespeare's works. There really is a plethora of facts or factoids that makes one wonder. Could it be? Could it?

But, whatever the circumstantial evidence, two solid arguments against his being Shakespeare remain: 1) de Vere died in 1604, far too early considering such plays as Henry VIII and The Tempest, and 2) no written document links de Vere to the plays. Nothing.

The first argument is iffier, simply because very rarely do we know when the plays were written. Hardly ever, in fact. In some cases we know when they were performed, though not necessarily first performed. All dates for when Shakespeare's plays were written are pretty much estimates, educated guesses or pure conjecture. Henry VIII was performed in 1613. This is well known. In one performance a spark from a canon used in the play ignited the thatch roof of of the theatre and The Globe burned down. At the time, according to one source, the play was new and had been performed only a few times.

Not the strongest evidence. It wasn't uncommon for Elizabethan and Jacobean play-goers to think of a play as new if it was being performed after a longish hiatus. And nobody knows when Henry VIII was written, even if it premiered in 1613. Could have been written years before. There seems to be evidence of two authors, Shakespeare and another - maybe Fletcher, maybe Massinger. Maybe the other fellow simply patched it up years after it had been written or even abandoned by Shakespeare? Macbeth was tampered with after Shakespeare's death. It needn't have been the only case of suchlike villainy.

What about The Tempest? A great deal seems to hang on what sources were used when writing the play. Scholars seem to disagree violently. Some scholars even claim it was never written by Shakespeare at all. These scholars, however, seem a bit biased of course. If it was written after 1604, they claim, then someone else wrote it. Couldn't have been Shakespeare. Why not? Because at that time de Vere was quite dead and not writing anything. Hardly a persuading argument.

No, it's all extremely hazy and blurry, this dating of the plays.

The more serious argument is the lack of any textual evidence linking de Vere and the works of Shakespeare. Without any documents it's all conjecture. However persuasive it may be.

This, in fact, is where a great deal of the charm of the Oxfordian theory lies. It's all a cover-up, it's all a massive conspiracy. And we do love our conspiracy, don't we. What makes the conspiracy theory even more delectable, not to say downright irresistible, is the fact that de Vere's father-in-law was none other than Lord Burghley.

Burghley, William Cecil, was Elizabeth's prime minister and just about the only man in England who could pull off such a cover-up operation successfully. There was no archive to which Burghley didn't have access, no document he couldn't tamper with or make disappear. No doors were closed to him. Disobey him and your life was worth not a farthing. Burghley was the man Walsingham obeyed. Burghley was England's most influential man. If it was his wish that every trace that de Vere was Shakespeare would vanish, then they would vanish. Plain and simple.

The Oxfordians have another theory, an even more outrageous one. de Vere was in fact Elizabeth's son. Or she had an affair with the Queen who bore him a son. No evidence, of course, but it's a good story.

This is apparently what the Emmerich de Vere movie is going to be about. A conspiracy to conceal information lethally dangerous to the crown. This is what the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Shapiro (author of 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare) writes about the Emmerich project called Anonymous in the Los Angeles Times: "When Emmerich says his movie will be about incest and bastards, he means that the story line follows a popular spinoff of Looney's undocumented theory, in which the Earl of Oxford was not only the secret son of the not-so-virginal Queen Elizabeth, but also, when he came of age, her lover. There's more fantasy: the Earl of Southampton was their illegitimate child and likely heir to the throne of England, until he was imprisoned for his role in the Essex Rebellion. And the explanation as to why Shakespeare would have gotten credit for plays and poems the Earl of Oxford wrote? The "real facts" had to be hushed up because a Tudor prince could never be seen to stoop to the lowly business of playwriting. "

Now that's what I call a reason to hush it all up.

But back to the facts. We know hardly anything about Shakespeare's past. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare's life. We don't know much at all when the plays were written or first performed.

That's not a good story.

A conspiracy is a good story. That's why most people will always prefer the cover-ups and the conspiracies to the next to perfect vacuum that is Will's story. As long as we know next to nothing about him or his story, as long as Shakespeare is an anonymous nonentity without a life, people will look for and find a substitute - someone who does have a good story, with the added bonus of a ripping conspiracy.

Because we all do love a good story. Especially one that could be true, well almost anyway.


Anonymous said...

Both the urge to “explain away” William as author and the reason why there have been so many candidates over such a long period of time, derive from the same source, a simple desire to know who actually wrote the plays, his story and why he thought it necessary to hide his identity. This “urge” arises when one discovers the true nature of William of Stratford, and the lack of any smidgeon of evidence of an ability to write or any real (third party) connection to London or the Stage. These two things explain the “urge,” as you call it, to know the truth.

For more response to this, see www.politicworm.com

PS said...

Right ho, thanks for the link. I shall plunge ahead in my continuing effort to get to know the true nature of "William of Stratford", as you so charmingly call him.