Al immediately rattle off at least three different plays that were required readings in English, not to mention a few blockbuster movies bearing his name. Many revere the works of Shakespeare as paramount in the world of literature, dedicating entire books, classes and festivals to the study and celebration of his work. Although the ancient language is a common stumbling block for even the most seasoned readers, his varied tales of love, hate, fear, betrayal, laughter, defeat and victory are just as fitting today as they were four hundred years ago. He is amazingly timeless. Yet, while we might know what Shakespeare is, will we ever really know who Shakespeare was? Ah, there’s the rub!
Much about the Bard is a mystery to even the most scholarly enthusiasts. The hard facts that are actually known about him could fill one neatly handwritten page, but what is speculated and complete legend could fill volumes of books. So, what is fact and what is fiction? According to the little documentation that chronicles his life, Shakespeare was not even a true Shakespeare’ at all; he was born in April 1596 and entered in the baptismal record as “Gulielmus filius Johannis Shakspere.” Even his actual date of birth is somewhat of a mystery. While we do know that he was baptized on April 26th, 1564, there is no existing record of his birth date. We can assume that he was born on April 23rd judging by the customary three-day period that most families waited before baptizing their children, but this is only speculation.
Since the records of the Stratford grammar school have not survived, we cannot prove that Shakespeare attended school. In all actuality, we have no evidence that he was even literate. His father had no educational training, so it is quite possible that he also lacked in schooling, but that’s only guesswork. The next piece of hard information that we come across in our search is a register entry showing a Wm. Shaxpere being granted a license to marry Anne Whateley on November 27, 1582. The very next day this same register records a marriage bond issued to William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey. Six months later Anne gave birth to their first child, daughter Susanna Shakspere, and then in February 1585 she gave birth to twins, Hamnet and Judith.
It is presumed that Shakespeare made it to London around 1595 to begin his career in the theatre, but the exact date is not known for sure. Just as mysterious is his reason why he left his wife and children alone in Stratford. Sadly, Hamnet died in August of 1596, and from that point forward we have no more information regarding his family until 1616, the year of his death. There are enough legal documents and theatre records, though, to know that Shakespeare goes on to possess a generous amount of real estate, hold shares in an acting company that built the Globe Theatre, and become a principal player in the acting group The Kings Men (A Midsummer Night’s Dream xxx-xxxi). There are many theories and stories floating around that seem to fill in the gaping holes in his timeline, but since this information doesn’t appear in a register or on a playbill, we don’t know what is fact or fiction.
On January 25th, 1616, Shakespeare signs his will in three places leaving the majority of his estate to his eldest daughter, Susanna, and his “second-best” bed to his wife (All Shakespeare). He died three months later on April 23rd, and was buried in Stratford, yet his name does not appear on the stone over his grave. According the the web site All Shakespeare, his supposed tombstone reads:
Good friend for Iesus Sake forbeare
To dig the dust encloased heare:
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones
And curst be he yet moves my bones.
It doesn’t sound very Shakespearian, does it?
Seven years after his death his collected plays were published as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (the work now known as the First Folio) (Midsummer Night’s Dream xxxii). Everything beyond this is myth and legend, which most certainly adds to the attraction of his works. His brilliant writing can only be enhanced by the mystery surrounding his life.
The question is, was it really his brilliant writing? Many theories exist regarding who the author really is, with over eighty Elizabethans put forward since the middle of the eighteenth century as the “true Shakespeare,” including Queen Elizabeth herself. Only four have merited serious consideration, though: Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley (Sixth Earl of Derby), and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Shakespeare-Oxford). For the sake of space, (and personal preference), this paper will focus on the possibility of de Vere’s authorship, as well as the limitations on Shakespeare’s true authorship of the works.
Contrasting the life of William Shakespeare, much is known about the life of Edward de Vere. He was born on April 12th, 1550 in Essex at Castle Hedingham as the 17th Earl of Oxford. As in Hamlet, his mother remarried in haste upon his father’s untimely death, making him ward of the court, and subsequently placed into the care of William Cecil (Lord Burghley), Lord Treasurer of England. As a teenager a Latin scholar (whose English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the second most influential work for Shakespeare, next to the bible), tutored him. By the age of twenty, de Vere had received two masters’ degrees from Queen’s College in Cambridge, and studied law for three years at Gray’s Inn. Once Cecil could wield power over the young Earl of Oxford, he broke off a previous marriage contract and instead betrothed him to his daughter Anne for the political advancement of the Cecil clan. Although the marriage produced three surviving daughters, it was not a happy one; Anne died in 1588 (Shakespeare-Oxford).
De Vere is listed as the first among the poets of the Elizabethan period, and was also an active dramatist at the time. He maintained a band of tumblers as well as two theatre companies, Oxford’s Boys and Oxford’s Men, throughout the 1580’s. He held an ardent interest in learning, and had 33 works of literature dedicated to him. He had a passion for travel, was a patron to the arts, and generally was a favorite in the court. In short, he was well educated and traveled, and had a strong knowledge of the inner workings of the court. So far, he seems to be at least qualified to have written the works of Shakespeare.
In the early 1590’s de Vere met and married Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen’s maids of honour. In 1592 she bore their only child, Henry, who was heir to the earldom, but by this time he was deeply in debt and had lost all of his inherited estates. He died in June of 1604, and is presumably buried in buried in St. Augustine’s church, although there is also testimony that he lies buried in Westminster.
So you ask, “Why not the Shakespeare of Stratford? Why not just accept his authorship?” It’s not so much what he we know about him that is troublesome, but it’s what we don’t know about him that makes it difficult to believe he could be the author of some of the greatest works in the history of mankind. In the time when the plays and writings of Shakespeare were tremendously popular, not a single person in the Elizabethan age directly addresses the identity of Shakespeare. In an age of letters and letter writing, nobody we know of ever corresponded with Shakespeare, and in an age of books, no record, not even Shakespeare’s will, ever points to his owning or using a single book (Van Duyn). His will, noted for it’s detailed disposition of his worldly possessions, there is no mention of manuscripts or anything of literary interest. History’s greatest manhunt has only netted six examples of the man’s handwriting: all of the signatures on legal documents writing by other people, and all spelled in different ways. Incidently, the first syllable in all of these signatures is spelled “Shak”, whereas the published plays and poems consistently spell the name “Shake” (Shakespeare-Oxford).
In 1920 Thomas Looney published a book titled Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, which was the first to identify the Earl of Oxford as the author of the works by William Shakespeare. From this book sparked a wildfire of debate surrounding the issue of authorship, creating passionate supporters on either side of the issue. “The Oxfordians,” as de Vere’s many supporters are known, have long ago established their own society and remain dedicate to the cause of proving his authorship. In 1975, the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition) commented that, “Edward de Vere became in the 20th century the strongest candidate proposed for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays” (Shakespeare-Oxford). This guy seems to be a contender.
The evidence supporting the Earl of Oxford is arguably strong. Whomever wrote the varied works of Shakespeare had to be familiar with a enormous body of knowledge for his time, including such subjects as law, music, foreign languages, the classics, sports and aristocratic manners. There is no documentation of Shakespeare of Stratford having access to such information (Shakespeare-Oxford). Also, when de Vere was a young man, he spent much time traveling, particularly in Italy, which could explain the great detail used in the Shakespearean plays of Venice, as well as other European locations outside of England. There are no records of the Queen ever granting passage to Shakespeare, or Shakspere, for travels abroad.
Extremely strong evidence in favor of the Oxfordian theory is the acutely accurate knowledge of the inner court circles, as well as the political dealings within the monarchy. Throughout plays depicting royal families, such as King Richard and Hamlet, many inside conspiracies, jokes, and hidden knowledge of family disputes are riddled throughout the dialogues. These things were not common knowledge at the time, and only someone inside of the court could have been able to include it in the plays in such subtle ways.
The true author must also have had intimate knowledge of some rare great works of literature. Works such as Venus and Adonis indicate not only knowledge of Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but of the original as well, since Venus and Adonis translates many of Ovid’s lines omitted by Golding. Here’s the tie-in to de Vere: Arthur Golding was the Earl of Oxford’s uncle and lived in the Cecil household during the time that de Vere was a ward of Cecil’s. Golding also dedicated two of his other translations to the 17th Earl of Oxford (Shakespeare-Oxford).
During the period that one of Edward de Vere’s daughters was betrothed to marry the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s epic poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, first appeared bearing a dedication to the Earl of Southampton. According to many scholars, Midsummer Night’s Dream first graced the stage at another of de Vere’s daughter’s weddings (Van Duyn).
In a 1589 book of poetry and poets, there is a mysterious reference to men of the court who have “suffered it to be published without their own names to it” and goes on to mention Edward de Vere as the best of these courtier poets if only his “doings would be found out and made public with the rest.” When Oxford passed away in 1604, King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court as a final tribute. When his widow died nine years later, fourteen Shakespeare plays were produced in tribute. Then in 1623, when two brothers put Shakespeare’s First Folio together, one of the men happened to be de Vere’s son-in-law.
There are also many similarities between the works of Shakespeare and the life of de Vere. For example, in 1573 de Vere and several of his friends would play pranks and tricks on travelers along the same road between Rochester and Gravesend where prince Hal’s companions from the Boar’s Head Tavern did likewise in Henry IV, Part 1. (As a side note, it’s interesting that the Vere family crest featured a boar’s head on it.) Another more obvious example is the striking similarities between Hamlet and the actual life of the Earl of Oxford. It’s practically an autobiography. Scholars have agreed that William Cecil inspired the character of Polonius, and the death of the King quickly followed by the Queens marriage reflects de Vere’s own parental circumstances.
The similarities also exist in the Shakespearean Sonnets as well. In Sonnet 37 and 66 he speaks of a frustrating lameness, not once, but several times. William Shakespeare might have been many things, but nowhere has it been documented that he was injured in a way that would have rendered him lame. On the other hand, de Vere was involved in a knife fight with a man named Knyvet who was seeking revenge on an illegitimately borne child by his cousin Ann Vavasour. The fight did produce a gaping wound on de Vere’s leg, and the illegitimate child created a temporary fall from the Queen’s grace and time served in the Tower of London.
The most recent and compelling evidence that has been found supporting the Earl of Oxford lies in the studies of a graduate student Roger Stritmatter. He has spent the last five years researching the Shakespeare authorship question, and in the process discovered de Vere’s hand-annotated copy of the bible. It contains more than a hundred verses marked by de Vere that are also recognized by scholars today as primary biblical references in Shakespeare’s work. For instance, In Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3,hamlet states that “He took my father grossly, full of bread.” The words “full of bread” have long been recognized by scholars as a reference to Ezekiel chapter 16, verse 49. Over a span of over 300 verses in the book of Ezekiel, he marks only one: Ezekiel 16:49. Another example is in King Henry IV, Part Two, the character Falstaff delivers the insult “whoreson Achitophel!” This is a direct reference to II Samuel 16:23, which de Vere underlined. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff brags, “I fear not Goliath with a weavers beam.” Not only is has de Vere marked the scriptural source; he also underlined the words “weaver’s beam” within the biblical verse (Van Duyn). Granted, quoting Jesus from the scriptures is not exactly remarkable, but these are not common scriptures- they are ones that are arcane. It’s beyond coincidence. Ironically, his bible was found in the great Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and has been there since 1925.
While it might be easy for many to accept Edward de Vere’s authorship of the Shakespearean works, the more difficult question to answer is why he wouldn’t sign his own name to the works. Many theories exist regarding this, one of which is that the subject matter in his works (killing a king and queen, for example) made it necessary to distance the writer from the work. Another is that it was unacceptable for courtiers to produce written works, so he paid Shakespeare to allow him to use his name on de Vere’s manuscripts. Alas, this is a small but important fact that we will probably never know. But there again lies the beauty of the Shakespeare mystery.
Although the subject of the true authorship of Shakespeare’s literature will probably never be laid to rest, it will always contribute to the enjoyment of studying his work. Students of the subject are compelled to read and re-read the plays and sonnets in an attempt to gain a better understanding of who was holding the pen. Debates involving fact and fiction keep the name Shakespeare in constant movement, reminding us that we have not outgrown him, not even after four hundred years. The writing of Shakespeare, whomever Shakespeare is, is a gift for us to continue unwrapping, and pass down to our children to appreciate as well. One must hope that the mystery will never be solved, so that it may never lose it’s magic.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 1999.
Mowat, Barbara A. and Werstine, Paul, ed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream The New
Folger Library. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Shakespeare Oxford Society. 27 Jun. 2001. <http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com>
Van Duyn, Barbara. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. 5 Aug. 2000.
All Shakespeare. Allstudyguides.com. <http://www.allshakespeare.com/index.php>