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Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford: The real Shakespeare?
By Dave Gilyeat
BBC Oxford

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford
Was the 17th Earl of Oxford the real author of Shakespeare's plays?

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was one of the leading patrons of the Elizabethan age, but was he also William Shakespeare?

Kurt Kreiler's new book, The Man Who Invented Shakespeare, is the latest work to subscribe to this theory.

The Earl gave himself the penname 'Spear-shaker' due to his ability at tournaments, the author points out.

He was part of one of the premier bloodlines in England, second only to the monarchy.

It is said that he had a prominent political career in court and was a well-regarded poet and sportsman.

He was also a sponsor of acting companies such as the Oxford's Boys and a flamboyant nobleman.

Mr Kreiler argues that it is Oxford's upper class upbringing, status and education as well as his reputation as a well-travelled man that makes him a more likely candidate as the author of Shakespeare's plays, which he composed under a pseudonym.

Shakespeare, by contrast, was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon to a family of unremarkable status and long stretches of his life remain undocumented.

William of Stratford could not have written the plays. He had difficulty enough writing his own name.
Kurt Kreiler

Mr Kreiler told BBC Oxford: "William 'Shakspere' or 'Shaxpere' was an unimportant actor.

"He owned 10% of the revenues of the Globe, lending money, hoarding up illegal malt in 'New Place', carrying on lawsuits against his neighbours and leaving his second-best bed to his wife.

"William of Stratford could not have written the plays.

"He was 15 years old when The Merchant of Venice was penned.

"He had difficulty enough writing his own name.

"It was William Beeston, son of the Chamberlain's actor Christopher Beeston who uttered during a conversation with John Aubrey: "If invited to writ: he was in paine"."

'Disturbing'

This school of thought is not a new one.

Proponents of the "Oxfordian" view over the years include heavyweights such as Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.

Even the likes of RSC alumni Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir John Gielgud have expressed interest in the theory and the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition boasts an impressive list of signatories in its Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.

Oxfordians support the idea of a conspiracy of silence over the authorship of The Bard's plays, whereas supporters of the mainstream view, or 'Stratfordians', often see this as little more than paranoia.

"One of the most disturbing aspects of the whole debate is the way the anti-Stratfordians are silenced," claimed Dr Michael Egan, editor of The Oxfordian.

"There isn't any real attempt to confront the arguments.

"There's just a general mocking and ridiculing strategy - what I call arguing by adjective… "ridiculous, absurd" and so on… whereas in fact there's some very suggestive and interesting pieces of information that need to be factored in there.

"It's a little like the Copernican theory of the universe.

"What seems obvious at first turns out to be not so when you try to reconcile the obvious with the anomalies and the anomalies are great."

Emma Smith, Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, said: "In some ways I think the Shakespeare authorship question is a really brilliant example of a conspiracy theory where there's an absolute intellectual pleasure for people who are conspiracy theorists in finding something that goes contrary to all the existing evidence.

"They want to believe that it has been made up or planted in order to hide something more interesting or that we're not supposed to know about.

"There is a conspiracy theory paranoia about it."

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I's Principal Secretary of State was de Vere's father-in-law

Queen's entourage

Edward de Vere was born on 12 April 1550 at Castle Hedingham, the seat of the Earls of Oxford.

He was made a royal ward and sent to study at Queen's College, Cambridge after the death of his father.

He then received legal training at Gray's Inn.

Later he was a part of Queen Elizabeth's entourage on a royal visit to Oxford in 1666 and was awarded a degree from the university.

He received one from Cambridge in similar circumstances.

"He didn't get either of his degrees by the normal academic process," claimed Professor Alan H. Nelson, author of Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

"Any visiting noblemen attending a commencement could just walk up and ask for a degree and he'd be given one."

In 1571 he married Anne Cecil, daughter of Lord Burghley, Principal Secretary of State to the Queen.

"He had a very prominent political career at court," Dr Egan said.

"He was one of the jurists who sat in judgement on the Earl of Essex at his treason trial."

The young Earl then spent 16 months on a tour of France, Germany and Italy in 1575 and Oxfordians believe the detail in some of the Shakespeare plays benefited from these travels abroad.

American journalist Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare By Another Name, made this case: "You look at the Italian cities and locations that Shakespeare refers to.

"They're basically the ports of call on de Vere's Italian itinerary in 1575 and '76.

"If you take a map of Italy and grab ten push pins and put them in ten cities - Venice, Padua, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Florence, Siena, Naples, Verona and Messina - that's essentially Shakespeare's Italy.

"That to me is quite a remarkable happenstance."

Dr Egan added his own thoughts to this: "There are details that obviously reflect first hand information, for example knowledge of the paintings of Giulio Romano, who is generally known as a sculptor but who was known as a painter in his day and Shakespeare shows knowledge of that.

"There is also information about the canal system in Northern Italy, no longer extant, but which would have required first hand knowledge to gain that information."

Globe Theatre - Richard Kalina
Whose plays were really performed at the Globe Theatre?

'Suggestive'

The Earl of Oxford ran two theatre companies and was a patron in the fields of religion, philosophy, music, medicine and literature.

"He was very interested in the theatre," said Dr Egan.

"He was often mentioned by contemporaries as being the finest writer of comedy in his day."

Some believe the similarities between the life of de Vere and the adventures in the Shakespeare canon bear further proof of their true author.

"There are aspects of Oxford's life which are reflected otherwise in the plays," Dr Egan continued.

"For example he was captured by pirates at one point, which is also a mysterious moment in Hamlet.

"There are lots of suggestive hints and details which should make a thoughtful person reflect a little bit on the question."

Lord Burghley's words and mannerisms are said to have inspired the character of Polonius.

Like the character in Hamlet, Burghley sent spies to France to keep watch on his son.

Similarly it has been suggested that the character of Gertrude was inspired by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself.

Mark Anderson also drew on this: "Hamlet is a work of immortal genius no matter who wrote it and no matter where it came from.

"But the autobiographical elements of Hamlet add these entirely new dimensions to it.

"The problem is that when you start investigating the life story and try to put the works with the life it just turns out that there's such a tremendous fit with de Vere and there's nothing with Shakespeare of Stratford.

"25% of the markings in de Vere's bible turn out to be Shakespeare biblical references.

"The entire Shakespeare canon is a highly autobiographical work of literature if only we can refocus the lens on de Vere."

Shipwreck

It was also a life that ended in major debt and illness.

Edward de Vere's death in 1604 seems the most difficult part of the Oxford theory to reconcile with received wisdom.

Plays such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest came after this date.

Nature and intellectual life abhor a vacuum.
Dr Michael Egan

"The chronology is ironically a solid piece of evidence for de Vere," insisted Mark Anderson.

"In fact the proponents of the evidence actually suggest that the Shakespeare factory shut down in 1604.

"There are no new Shakespeare plays that appear in print after 1604 with two exceptions.

"There's a brief period in 1608 and '09 when de Vere's widow sold the house where they lived and I think it stands to reason there was some house cleaning going on.

"An orthodox scholar would say there was a shipwreck in 1609 that The Tempest refers to.

"In fact there's some really good scholarship published that suggests that it was a different shipwreck that was referenced in a couple of 16th century books that were in de Vere's father-in-law's library."

"Nature and intellectual life abhor a vacuum," added Dr Egan.

"We don't know enough about Shakespeare's biography.

"There are huge gaps and because we know so little about him - despite his being one of the most researched lives in literary history - the situation calls for alternative explanations.

"The real key to the authorship debate is the mismatch between what we know of Shakespeare of Stratford and what we can infer about the author of the plays when we read them.

"When you look at the plays without preconceptions of the author we'd have to say this is a highly educated person, well travelled, with intricate knowledge of the courts and aristocratic life.

"So the question is where did an obscure provincial boy gain all this information and knowledge?"

Painting of Shakespeare
Shakespeare is the most celebrated playwright of all time

'Exceptional'

"If you believe great writers have to be blue blooded then you would think that somebody who was born in a market town outside London of ordinary parents isn't going to be a good writer," said Emma Smith.

"But most people don't believe that it's something to do with social status or wealth, it's to do with imaginative resources.

"Shakespeare clearly is an exceptional figure but he would be exceptional wherever he was born.

"I find the idea that he couldn't learn about people and places in the atmosphere of Stratford-upon-Avon a bit strange."

And she insisted the Bard is far from a mysterious figure. "We know a lot about Shakespeare.

"We know church records of his birth and marriage and death.

"We know from legal records about where he lived in London.

"We know from accounts by people at the time of his rising status as a poet and a dramatist.

"Ben Jonson writes a prefatory poem to the posthumous collected edition of Shakespeare's works.

"He obviously knows Shakespeare, talks about him as a 'Swan of Avon' - and so makes the link with Stratford - and gives his stamp to this collection being by Shakespeare."

De Vere's poems range from okay-middle-of-the-road standard for the time to downright execrable."
Professor Alan H. Nelson

Emma Smith also said there was little to commend the writings of de Vere that are credited to him: "I don't think it compares to Shakespeare at all.

"I think that the Earl of Oxford is a competent high status poet.

"Poetry was a high status thing for noblemen to be versed in.

"He does that well, he does that competently, but he doesn't seem to have any relevance to Shakespeare."

Professor Nelson was much more dismissive: "They range from okay-middle-of-the-road standard for the time to downright execrable."

"Comparison is odious and difficult," countered Dr Egan.

"What we have of the Earl of Oxford is clearly juvenilia and a lot of it is songs and not necessarily poetry so it's very hard to compare the apples and the oranges.

"A writer's early work doesn't necessarily bear a strong relationship to his later work - I cite Henry James as an example - and many other writers.

"It is credible that what we have of Oxford could be Shakespeare's juvenilia.

"One only has to compare early Mozart with late Mozart.

"One can look at the early works of Michelangelo."

But Professor Nelson said: "The very worst poem that he wrote is clearly dated to 1572 when he was 22 years old."

Greatness

There remains the question of why Edward de Vere did not take credit for the popular works of Shakespeare, but Mark Anderson felt the content of the works was simply too contentious.

"I think it's about sex and politics.

"There's too much involving too many powerful people in these works that really reveals them in some ways that are not entirely flattering.

"De Vere was in the inner circle of Queen Elizabeth's court and amongst her courtiers."

Kurt Kreiler quoted 17th century scholar John Selden in his book: "'Tis ridiculous for a Lord to print verses, 'tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them publick is foolish."

"It's interesting that there's no question that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare in Shakespeare's lifetime and immediately afterwards," stated Emma Smith.

"No-one's questioning that, it doesn't really begin until the nineteenth century.

"There seems to be absolutely no evidence that the Earl of Oxford was a literary genius and had the ability to write and that seems a much more important criterion for writing Shakespeare's works."

The Oxfordian vs Stratfordian debate will continue to rage and in the meantime we are left to consider... was de Vere born great? Did Shakespeare achieve greatness? Or did de Vere have greatness thrust upon him?

That is the question.




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