Edward deVere as Shakespeare

by Alexander Waugh

Oxford spoke French, Latin and Italian fluently. He owned Italian and French books. In Italy he based himself in Venice (where two of Shakespeare’s plays are set), armed with letters of introduction from Queen Elizabeth to the ducal heads of Italian city states. He is known to have visited Florence, Milan, Padua, Genoa, Siena and Sicily and assumed to have entered several cities in between, notably Mantua and Verona. Shakespeare, who derives plots from untranslated Italian sources by Fiorentino, da Porto, Bandello, Cinthio and others, set 106 dramatic scenes in Italy, making specific references to many of the places that lay on Oxford’s trail, including fifty-two detailed references to Venice, twenty-five to Milan, twenty-three to Florence and twenty-two to Padua. The Shakespearean canon also references Mantua (en route from Venice to Milan), Genoa (headquarters of Oxford’s bankers Baptista Nigrone and Baptista Spinola),Verona (which lies between Padua and Milan), and Sicily where Edward Webbe (1590) recalled Oxford excelling in a chivalric tournament at Palermo. Richard Roe, in a comprehensive study of Shakespearean allusions to Italy, leaves little doubt that Shakespeare’s precise details of Italian places, names, paintings, buildings, routes, rivers, manners, customs, habits and language demonstrate that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of Italy.

Hamlet, in a scene that cannot be attributed to any known source of the story, was ‘set naked’ upon the shore having been attacked and stripped of his clothes by pirates in the English Channel; so Oxford was attacked, robbed and stripped naked by pirates in the English Channel on his return journey from Italy to England. As one of his companions, Nathaniel Baxter, recalled that event: ‘Naked we landed out of Italy, enthralled by pirates, men of no regard; horror and death assailed nobility.’

A false friend informed Oxford while he was abroad that a baby daughter, born to his wife in his absence, was not his. In rage he spurned the countess upon his return, only to regret his behaviour when he learned of her innocence. Is it mere coincidence that Shakespeare chose to write Othello about a foreigner in Venice who destroyed his wife when informed by a false friend of her infidelity, only to regret his actions on discovering her innocence? Is it mere coincidence that Shakespeare also set for the stage the story of Cymbeline about a young nobleman, who (like Oxford) is married to the daughter of the most powerful man in Britain, who (like Oxford) leaves England for a tour of Italy where he hears of his wife’s infidelities, who returns (like Oxford) in unforgiving mood to repudiate her and his father-in-law, only to seek their forgiveness later on? And is it mere coincidence that Shakespeare wrote in The Winter’s Tale (II. iii.) of a scheme to bring the queen’s newborn daughter before the furious king (who denied his paternity) in the hope that the king might ‘soften at the sight o’ the child’, just as the Duchess of Suffolk (in a letter to Lord Burghley concerning the baby whose paternity Oxford denied) schemed to ‘bring in the child as though it were some other child of my friend’s, and we shall see how nature will work in him to like it, and tell him it is his own after’?

On his return from Italy Oxford was noted for his enthusiastic, if somewhat effeminate, espousal of all things French and Italian. As Shakespeare displays intimate knowledge of the French and Italian peoples, their manners, customs, literature, language, their art and their laws, so Gabriel Harvey (1578) wrote of Oxford that ‘of French and Italian muses, the manners of many peoples, their arts and laws [he has] drunk deeply’. Despite the acclaimed quality of Oxford’s prodigious poetic output, little is known of it because he, like all the courtier-poets of his generation, concealed authorship of literary works. Poetry was considered a ‘trifle’ to be enjoyed only in one’s ‘idle hours’. A courtier’s duty was to arms and to the Crown; social custom prohibited him from publishing poetry or works of fiction under his name. Even in MS, the literary courtier signed his verse with quaint pseudonyms known as ‘posies’.

In 1598 Oxford was placed first, by Francis Meres, on a list of seventeen living English playwrights who were the ‘best for Comedy’. Nine years earlier the author of Arte of English Poesie (1589) had declared ‘for such doings as I have seen’ Oxford’s ‘Comedies and Enterludes … deserve the highest prize’ continuing:

And in her Majesties time that now is are sprung up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesties owne servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford […]

Oxford’s position as the pre-eminent poet of the English court was publicly acknowledged as early as 1586 by William Webbe in his Discourse on English Poetry:

I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and Gentlemen in Her Majesty's Court, which in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most skilful; among whom the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of most excellent among the rest.

In a 1622 list of poets drawn up by Henry Peacham (a fan of Titus Andronicus) Oxford is, once again, listed first among those ‘refined wits and excellent spirits’ who ‘in the time of our late Queene Elizabeth, which was truly a golden Age’ had ‘honoured Poesie with their pennes and practice’. The name ‘William Shakespeare’ is noticeable by its absence from this list.

The Arte of English of Poesie (1589) bemoans the courtier-poets who suffer their work ‘to be publisht without their owne names to it’ implying that their poetry was sometimes published under other people’s names. In Oxford’s case this is confirmed by John Bodenham, who printed a raft of unattributed verses by different poets in Bel-védere (1600). In his introduction Bodenham explains that he has selected verses by Oxford and other named courtiers ‘from divers essayes of their Poetrie; some extant among other Honourable personages writings’. The word ‘extant’ here means ‘published’ or ‘existing so as to be publicly seen’ (OED). In other words, Bodenham has drawn verses by Oxford from books published under other men’s names. This dangerously candid admission was withdrawn from subsequent editions. Crawford (1910) attributed over 200 lines by ‘Shakespeare’ in Bodenham’s book.

Oxford maintained a shadowy position at the centre of a group of scholars and writers who published learned works and propaganda pamphlets for the Crown. ‘I serve her Majesty and I am that I am’ he wrote in answer to abuse from Lord Burghley, using a phrase strikingly similar to Shake-speare’s Sonnet 121: ‘I am that I am and they that level at my abuses reckon up their own’.

It cannot be by chance alone that so many of Oxford’s servants (including Mundy, Lyly, Greene and Nashe) who were employed to defend the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Whitgift) and the established church (of which the Queen was ‘Supreme Governor’) against the ‘Disciplinarians’, also happened to be playwrights cited over and over by orthodox scholars as seminal influences on William Shakespeare.

In 1592 one of this group, Thomas Nashe, described a ‘policy of plays’ as one of the ‘secrets of government’ explaining that adaptations for the stage of wholesome English chronicles were ‘very necessary’ to the moral improvement of a target audience of people considered influential opinion formers – these he listed as courtiers, lawyers, captains and soldiers. Nashe did not mention university scholars, but they too were targets of the Privy Council’s ‘policy of plays’ agenda. The first allusion to the play Hamlet, dated to the summer of 1589, is contained in a lecture on plays addressed by Nashe ‘To the Gentleman Students of Both Universities’. In 1580 Oxford’s theatrical company was recommended to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge by no fewer than three key members of the Privy Council – the Lord Chamberlain (Sussex), the Lord Chancellor (Bromley) and the Lord Treasurer (Burghley). Three years later, another core member of the Privy Council, Francis Walsingham, requested that several of Oxford’s best players be transferred to the newly formed Queen’s Majesties Men under the management of John Lyly, who was, and remained, Oxford’s secretary and director of his theatre companies, as well as manager of his public theatre at the Blackfriars, while he was running the court theatre.

According to Harvey (1593) the reputation of Oxford’s and Lyly’s satirical plays was such that people who valued their reputations must beware: ‘All of you that tender the preservation of your good names were best to please [Lyly] and see [Oxford] betimes, for fear lest he [Oxford] be moved, or some of his apes hired to make a play of you, and then is your credit quite undone for ever and ever, such is the reputation of their plays.’ In the same work Harvey explained why ‘so many singular learned men laboured [Oxford’s] commendation’ for he was ‘the godfather of writers, the superintendent of the presse, the muster-maister of innumerable bands, the General of the feilde’. Thus it would appear that Oxford, the author of poems and plays, was exerting a considerable influence on Court and public theatre, while simultaneously maintaining covert command of a government sponsored program of learned, historical, moral and didactic publications. Thus is his Apollonian position among English playwrights and printers explained while his closeness to his in-laws, the Cecils, also provides some explanation as to why the most important early public theatres (including The Theatre, The Blackfriars and ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’) were set up and managed by the Burbages, servants of the Cecils’ right-hand man and gentleman usher, Sir Walter Cope. Cope later became the protector and benefactor of Oxford’s daughter, Bridget.

In 1586, when Oxford’s finances were in a parlous state, the Queen granted him an annuity of £1,000 a year. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s ‘spymaster’ (Oxford’s ‘constante and appouid frend’), arranged for the money to be paid to him in quarterly instalments from the revenues of the vacant See of Ely by a deed of grant which stipulated that Oxford was to leave no evidentiary paper-trail for his expenditure, in wording almost identical to the formula applied to Walsingham’s own secret service budget. Thomas Wilson (1601) supposed Elizabeth’s unprecedented generosity to have been ‘for his nobility’s sake’, but the naturally parsimonious queen, who set a high value on Oxford’s ‘innate learning’ and ‘outstanding intellect’, did not give fortunes away for nothing. Oxford declared ‘I serve her Majesty’ and yet in the sixteen years of her reign, during which she paid him the extraordinary sum of £16,000, Oxford cannot be shown to have held any important public position for the Crown, let alone one that would merit a salary of £1,000 per annum. The government’s ‘policy of plays’ and its programme for national improvement through theatre, literature, poetry and learning, appears to have been conducted beneath the radar. Perhaps it was to Oxford’s £1,000 stipend that George Chapman alluded in Tragedy of Chabot when he wrote that ‘the corruption of a captain may beget a gentleman-usher, and a gentleman usher may beget a lord, whose wit may beget a poet, and a poet may get a thousand pound a year’, and to this, by now half-understood Chinese whisper, that John Ward alluded to when in 1662 he wrote that William Shakespeare ‘supplied ye stage with 2 plays every year, and for yt had an allowance so large, yt hee spent att ye rate of a 1000l. a year, as I have heard.’

To those dramatists already noted more can be added. Thomas Watson and George Peele (both claimed by scholars to have influenced Shakespeare’s work) are connected to Oxford’s service, patronage and influence as is the comic actor Richard Tarleton (said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Yorick and contributed verses to A Winter’s Tale). Robert Armin, clown to the Chamberlain’s Men, is also cited as a servant of Oxford’s.

Two of Oxford’s secretaries, Nashe and Greene, collaborated on plays together. Nashe also collaborated with Marlowe. Marlowe was arrested with Oxford’s acolyte, Thomas Watson, for killing William Bradley in a dispute over £14 owed to a tavern, the Pye Inn, Bishopsgate ‘lying next the house of the Earl of Oxford’. This tavern was owned by the famous actor, Edward Alleyn, and his brother, John. The Alleyns were represented by Watson’s brother-in-law and one who had been a guest at Oxford’s table, the lawyer Hugh Swift. Freeman (1967) locates Kyd among a circle of playwrights strongly associated with Oxford (Lyly, Watson, Peele and Achelley) while surviving letters from Kyd to Sir John Puckering reveal him to have collaborated with Marlowe on plays for ‘my Lord … whom I have servd almost these six years, in credit until now’. It is not possible to identify this lord with certainty, but (like Oxford) he maintained an acting troupe and hired playwrights at least from 1587; like Oxford, he was noted for his piety, and, like Oxford, he was not a member of the Privy Council and held no powerful position in government. On this basis Oxford provides the most likely patron to Kyd and Marlowe. If Marlowe was indeed one of the many playwrights writing under Oxford’s patronage for the government’s ‘secret policy of plays’ evidence of his hand in the Henry VI plays finds a natural explanation; as does the extraordinary support given to him in 1587 by Whitgift, Burghley, Hundson and other members of the Privy Council against defamers ‘ignorant of the affairs he went about’ concerning his employment ‘in matters touching the benefit of this country’.

Shakespeare’s supposed ‘indebtedness’ to Marlowe, Kyd, Watson, Lyly, Greene, Nashe and all the playwrights known to be in Oxford’s service is richly documented. In places whole phrases are said by orthodox scholars to have been lifted by Shakespeare from their works and yet the orthodox Bard of Stratford was not known to a single one of them. In 1592 Nashe alluded to Henry VI, part I as an example of the necessity for the government’s secret ‘policy of plays’. This play (ascribed to Shakespeare in the First Folio of 1623) is one in which scholars, over many years, have detected the pens of Kyd, Nashe, Greene and Peele and Marlowe. A new scholarly edition of the Henry VI plays assigns them to ‘Shakespeare and Marlowe’ while the same scholars set out to show that ‘Shakespeare’ contributed the painter’s scene in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Was Shakespeare really in thrall to all these playwrights as the orthodox suppose, or did they, in reality, work under Oxford (as assistants to a master painter) on the original drafts of plays later said to be Shakespeare’s?

There can be no doubt that an official secrecy surrounded the identity of the author publishing under the name ‘William Shakespeare’. While modern Stratfordian scholars freely admit that 16th and early 17th century allusions to the playwright are almost all ‘cryptic’ (i.e. hidden or secret) they remain at a loss to explain what it was about Shakespeare that was prohibited from overt expression by his contemporaries, and consequently regard contemporary allusions to Shakespeare as worthless, at least from a biographical point of view. By contrast, Oxfordian scholars are able to show how contemporary allusions to Shakespeare are cryptic precisely because they contain, just beneath their surface meaning, a rich source of forbidden information pertaining to Shakespeare’s true identity. Multiple video presentations linked to this website demonstrate how early witnesses such as Ben Jonson, John Warren, Henry Peacham, William Covell, John Weever, Thomas Porter, Thomas Edwards, William Basse, John Davenant, Richard Brome, John Cooke, Francis Meres, John Dee, Thomas Bancroft, William Marshall, John Gerarde, Abraham Holland, Sir John Suckling, Anthony Van Dyck and many others, all used ingenious and elaborate literary tricks to preserve the truth of Oxford’s authorship in their statements about William Shakespeare.

Edward de Vere Ashbourne portrait

The ‘Ashbourne’ portrait of Edward de Vere in later life (undated, post-1592). Recent infrared technology shows the hairline was overpainted to give a ‘bald’ appearance. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

In the six years from 1597-1604 no fewer than thirteen new Shakespearean titles were published or registered for publication. After Oxford’s death the Shakespearean production line fell silent. No new Shakespeare play was published for four years except for a King’s Men comedy called The London Prodigal, falsely ascribed ‘By W Shakespeare’ in 1605. As J. T. Looney noted, there was ‘nothing more published with any appearance of proper authorization for nearly 20 years’. Oxford died bankrupt and intestate on 24th June 1604, possibly by his own hand, having transferred his few remaining assets to members of his family in the weeks before his death. ‘Shakespeare’, who drew upon hundreds of published literary and scholarly sources to enrich his plays, cannot be shown, with any degree of certainty, to have derived anything from any printed source published after 1604.

In the year following Oxford’s death an anonymous fan of Shakespeare’s described recent murders at the Russian court of Boris Godunov as ‘a first but no second to any Hamlet’, naming playwrights who might have adapted this real Russian tragedy well for the stage – Sidney, Jonson, Fulke Greville and du Bartas. Shakespeare is not mentioned by name but the writer continues ‘I am with the late English quick-spirited, cleare-sighted Ovid : It is to be feared Dreaming’. Although the ‘late English Ovid’ is not named, the author appears to be referring to the late English poet and playwright, Oxford, whom Harvey had publicly described as ‘this English Poet’ who was ‘winged like to Mercury’ (i.e. ‘quick-spirited’), ‘eyed like to Argus’ (i.e. ‘clear-sighted’) and ‘nos’d like to Naso’ (i.e. resembling ‘Ovid’). Oxford was reported by historian Thomas Coxeter (1689-1747), to have translated Ovid, and (as already stated) he was nephew and patron to Shakespeare’s favourite translator of Ovid, Arthur Golding. Stratford-Shakspere did not die until 1616 and could not have qualified as ‘late’ in 1605 yet Francis Meres (1598) describes him as possessed of the ‘sweete wittie soule of Ovid’. When the Hamlet fan explained that the ‘late English Ovid’ had written ‘it is to be feared dreaming’ he was surely alluding to Hamlet’s famous ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ speech:

To die, to sleep -
To sleep - perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Moments before delivering this great monologue Hamlet is seen ‘poring uppon a booke’ (Q1), which scholars since 1839 have identified as Cardanus Comforte, whose English editions of 1573 and 1576 were not only dedicated to Oxford but expressly ‘published by commaundement of the right honourable the Earle of Oxenford’ who knew the work in Italian and had ‘long desired’ it to be published in English to ‘comfort the afflicted, confirme the doubtful, encourage the cowarde, and lift up the base minded man’. Cardanus Comforte was pre-eminently Oxford’s book as Stratfordian scholar Hardin Craig (1934) wrote: ‘without exaggeration that Cardanus Comforte is pre-eminently “Hamlet’s book”, since the philosophy of Hamlet agrees to a remarkable degree with that of Cardan’.

The provenance of the sole surviving Elizabethan MS (c.1585-95) of an acknowledged ‘Shakespearean’ work can be traced to the ownership of a cousin of Oxford’s, Anne Cornwallis, whose father acquired his mansion, Fisher’s Folly, in the early 1590s.

Map Fishers Folly
Map showing location of Fisher’s Folly, the Earl of Oxford’s home in the 1580s and his writers’ workshop

This MS, bound as Poems of Vere Earl of Oxford & Co, survives in the Folger Library, Washington DC. The sale of Oxford’s last home, King’s Place, Hackney in 1608 by his down-scaling widow, is cited by Oxfordians as a possible reason why several Shakespearean works, existing only in manuscript, suddenly appear for the first time in print four years after Oxford’s death. King Lear, for instance, was published in a quarto edition as ‘by William Shak-speare’ in this year. Based on ancient chronicles the play tells of a widower who ostracises himself by alienating his ancient patrimony to his three daughters; precisely Oxford’s alienation of the five-hundred-year-old seat of the Vere family (Castle Hedingham) to his three daughters after the death of his first wife in 1588. Scholars accept that this poor quarto was not overseen by the author. Recent attempts by James Shapiro to assign the composition of Lear to 1606 are comprehensively rebutted by Oxfordian scholars in Contested Year: Errors, Omissions and Unsupported Statements in James Shapiro’s ‘1606 Year of Lear’ (2016).