By Noel Ullom
William Shakespeare’s plays, the works of a writer known to be one of the most talented in our history, continue to be a staple of literature and theatre today for their clever wording, embracement of the sonnet, and various other reasons. Although the author of these works has played such an influential role in the development of literary and theatrical arts, there is a significant chance that the personal history of Shakespeare has been inaccurately interpreted. The commonly taught history of this individual is that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, spending his life as an actor and producing these plays. However, many questions have been raised by scholars regarding the possibility of the actor being the true author, and multiple theories have thus been proposed against it. One of the most widely accepted of these is known as the Oxfordian theory. This proposition instead claims that the author of the 37 plays is in fact Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and it is supported by surprisingly substantial evidence.
Why it WAS NOT the Man from Stratford-upon-Avon
- The actor from Stratford never actually signed his name as Shakespeare while he was alive. In reality, during his lifetime, he signed his name as Willm Shackper, Wm Shakspea, William Shackspere, Wllm Shakspere, and many more.
- Even though the language was continuously evolving at the time, the true author of the plays was able to successfully write out all 37; Shakspere was unable to even consistently spell out his own name.
- Shakspere had a very modest education only through the 8th grade, making it very questionable where he gained the knowledge and experience to write such flowing and impactful pieces.
- He did not have access to any books that were referenced in the plays by the time they were published.
- He had no acquaintance with or connections to the court, also making it doubtful that he would have access to such inside knowledge on the livelihoods of individuals in court.
- The obituary of Shakspere did not mention once that he was a writer (they normally would).
- Writers would usually give ownership of pieces of writing to family members in their will for financial purposes, but he did not.
- In the first publication of the plays and half of the folios, they were named under the name Shakes-speares (if a name was hyphenated, it would usually signify a pseudonym) (pseudonyms were extremely popular amongst writers in the Elizabethan Era).
Why it WAS Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford)
- A man once said of the Earl of Oxford during a Latin oration in 1578, “thy countenance shakes spears.” This may have served as inspiration for the pseudonym.
- He was known throughout his life as a secret writer that did not allow his works to be published under his own name. Examples of this include when Francis Meres claimed in 1598 that the Earl of Oxford was one of the best writers of comedy, but we have not received any comedic works under his name.
- He had an acquaintance with the court and excellent education.
- He was a patron of the arts and loved poetry and theatre, sponsoring a men’s troupe and a boy’s troupe (leased the Blackfriars Theatre for his boy’s troupe in the 1580s).
- The Earl of Oxford wrote words / phrases in his own personal poems that Shakespeare was credited with creating before the plays were even published.
- Some of his personal bibles have been discovered, and most bible lines that were referenced in plays have been annotated in his own (the Earl of Oxford’s personal copy of the Geneva Bible can now be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library).
- Seven Shakespeare plays were performed to honor the Earl of Oxford’s death, and nine were performed in honor of his wife’s death.
- Some specific events that happened in Shakespeare’s plays occurred in the Earl of Oxford’s own life. For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet is captured by pirates on his way to England and left naked on the shore of Denmark. The Earl of Oxford too was captured by pirates and left stripped of his clothing on a shore, while he was returning to England. Another example is the obvious coordination between the character Polonius in Hamlet and Lord Burghley, the Earl of Oxford’s father-in-law. Even scholars who do not support the Oxfordian theory have accepted that this resemblance of caricature is true and purposeful. The author of Hamlet most likely not only knew Burghley, but was quite close to him. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is Polonius’s advice to his son, when he says, “This above all, to thy own self be true.” Polonius’s maxims are a parody of Burghley’s advice in a letter to his own son, but these letters were not printed for the public until years after he, the Earl of Oxford, and Shakspere died.
Why it WAS NOT Christopher Marlowe
Another popular theory is that the true Shakespeare was actually another famous writer from the same time period, Christopher Marlowe. However, there are multiple events referenced in some of Shakespeare’s plays that occurred after Marlowe’s death (for example, astronomical events and events at court, along with the publication of Venus and Adonis a week or two after his death) that prove this theory to be questionable.
For even more evidence, feel free to explore the sources I used:
Top 18 Reasons Why Edward de Vere (Oxford) Was Shakespeare
And so the search continues! Great job on compiling all these facts Noel, I learned so much cool stuff. I wonder how many other suspects are out there…
I never knew any of these facts about Shakespeare and I am very intrigued! Awesome job Noel, you have opened my eyes to many new theories about these Renaissance writers that I never knew existed.
Noel, what a beautifully reasoned and written article. Like most Shakespeare fans, I have long been interested in this debate, and you make a wonderful case for why the de Vere theory arose. Full disclosure: I am firmly in the camp that believes Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but I relish reading about the other theories.
I highly recommend the movie “Anonymous” as a delightful romp through the de Vere theory. It manages to be funny and profound and has come as close as any serious scholarly journals has to helping me see why some might fall into this camp.
There are many holes in the de Vere camp, but the one that I think is philosophically important is that those who originally made the case did so on the grounds of their openly stated class snobbery; they contended that no son of a glover could possibly have written so eruditely of kings, but that is precisely what I love about Shakespeare; he gave both fools and kings beautiful lines grounded in an emancipated view of what it means to be human. We also know that the London literary and theatrical world spoke of the “upstart” Shakespeare.
An interesting new development has come to light, too. Two book collectors bought on eBay a dictionary that shows every appearance of belonging to Shakespeare; there is a pronounced overlap in the copious marginalia with lines and words that appear with high frequency in Shakespeare’s plays. If it is his (and the jury is still out) the book is invaluable literally (worth a small fortune) and for this debate.
Thank you for giving us so much to think about on a gray day! I love revisiting this debate when it arises and will keep reading. What a balanced and informed platform you give us here.