The case of Shakspere of Stratford
The plays and poetry of ‘Shakespeare’ reveal a person who received the best education available, yet there is no record of Shakspere attending Stratford Grammar School (the registers for the period are missing), nor either of the two Universities, nor one of the Inns of Court. Nor do we have any record of him being in the household of a great family where he could have received an education.
Shakspere never claimed to be a writer. None of his children, or grandchildren or their families ever claimed that he was an author. If Shakspere were a great writer would he not have wanted his children to be able to read and write? Yet his daughter Judith could sign her name only with a mark.
There are three signatures on the pages of his will and three on legal documents. They are all only partly legible, spelt in different ways and written in different styles but all spelt ‘Shaks …’, not ‘Shakes …’. Handwriting experts at the Public Record Office do not believe them all to be by the same hand.
His life from the records
The practicalities make it very unlikely that Shakspere was the author. If, as it appears, he left Stratford around 1587 at the age of 22 to go to London to become an actor, he would have had very little time for anything else while he was making his living as an actor and learning the trade of acting; yet at the same time he would have had to educate himself in the numerous areas of knowledge referred to in the ‘Shakespeare’ plays, as well as keeping an eye on his grain business in Stratford, a four-day journey away.
Shakspere’s Warwickshire accent and dialect would have been a considerable handicap to someone writing plays for a London audience, or even communicating verbally in London. A group of Warwickshire men recruited to fight against the Armada needed an interpreter when they arrived in London.
Although Shakspere was living in London for a number of years while conducting a business and maintaining a family in Stratford, no letters nor any correspondence, either personal or business, from or to Shakspere have been discovered, although other papers of those with whom he did business have survived. Does this lack of any personal correspondence indicate that Shakspere, like his father, was illiterate?
If he were the writer of some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, why has nothing ever been found which Shakspere wrote to or about his wife, from whom he was living apart in London for a large part of his married life?
A study of the records of 116 towns, including Stratford-upon-Avon, in which acting companies played at the time of ‘Shake-speare’ show that not one of these lists him in the cast of any play. No record has been found of payment made to any author for any of the ‘Shake-speare’ plays.
The most detailed theatrical records of the time, those of Phillip Henslowe the proprietor of several London theatres, make no reference to ‘Shake-speare’, even as an actor, although other actors are named, as well as playwrights.
We do not know exactly when or for how long Shakspere went to London. The best estimate is that he did not arrive before 1590-92. We do know that in 1597 he bought the second finest house in Stratford upon Avon and that he was known as ‘William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon’, not of London.
How Shakspere made his money so quickly is a very interesting question, particularly as we know his wife had to borrow money from her father-in-law’s shepherd, which, as the man’s will shows, had not been repaid at his death. In Stratford, Shakspere is frequently the plaintiff in legal suits, whereas in London he was wanted for evading court actions for non-payment of taxes.
Not only does he appear to be leading two very different lives, but also, from the evidence, his associates in each location were completely unaware of the other life. For example, we know from the records that tax collectors in London in 1600 went to some lengths to trace him to Sussex, whereas his permanent residence and assets were in Stratford upon Avon, where he was not sought by the authorities. Was it because those who knew him in London had no knowledge that he had any connection with Stratford-upon-Avon?
The record of his death in the Stratford register is simply ‘William Shakspere gent’. His son-in-law, John Hall, however, is recorded as ‘Johannes Hall, medicus peritissimus’ (most skilful physician). Michael Drayton the poet, a contemporary of Shakspere, who lived in Warwickshire, was a patient of Dr John Hall, but never in his writings refers to Shakspere as an author. Dr Hall himself never mentioned his father-in-law as a writer, though he recorded personal details of many others, including Drayton, whom he called ‘an excellent poet’.
The historian William Camden (1551-1623) in his book Britannia (1586, latest edition much enlarged 1607) includes an Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hugh Clopton who became Lord Mayor of London, but not ‘Shakespeare’, in the reference to famous citizens of Stratford upon Avon.
There is nothing in the surviving papers of his literary contemporaries which refers to Shakspere as a fellow writer; there are some references to him as a player.
Shakspere was assiduous in pursuing debts, yet he allowed his works to be pirated on a scale far greater than any other Elizabethan writer. Most literary piracy was perpetrated on works of dead writers or those of men of rank who would have considered payment, or even having their names associated with such works, unacceptable. The Sonnets were first published in 1609 in a pirated edition which Shakspere seems to have done nothing to prevent or suppress.
The 154 Sonnets themselves are recognised as the most intimately biographical works in the canon and they depict an older, lame aristocrat who is in some sort of disgrace. This is hardly a match for William Shakspere. Orthodox scholars implicitly acknowledge as much when they speculate that the Sonnets may be fictional; but they don’t treat them as fictional when they try to identify the Fair Youth, Dark Lady and Rival Poet. If these were fictional characters, there would have been no reason not to give them names, but none of them is named. Also, the title, ‘Shake-speares Sonnets’ (not Sonnets, by Shakespeare), and its dedication to ‘our ever-living poet’, suggest that the author had already died by 1609. Even most orthodox Shakespeare scholars think that whoever wrote the Sonnets was not involved in their publication. Their dedication was initiated by the publisher and not the author. The publication of such revealing, even scandalous, poems would have been a great embarrassment to any living author.
Perhaps most relevant are those sonnets in which the author says, ‘My name be buried where my body is,’ and ‘Your name from hence immortal life shall have, / Though I, once gone, to all the world must die: / The earth can yield me but a common grave, / When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie’ (72 and 81). In these sonnets, the author himself says that he neither wants, nor expects, his name to be remembered. Authorship doubters contend that this is, in fact, what has happened. The orthodox claim they are fictional. Doubters find this absurd. How is it even possible that the author’s name would not be remembered, unless it was not yet known?
According to the standard biographies, Shakspere, having made his name as an author in London, returned to Stratford upon Avon around 1610-12 while still in his prime, to spend the rest of his life there, apparently unrecognised, in a provincial community away from the centre of literary life in London. As a great dramatist surely he would have attracted some attention in a small town of some 1500 people, even one remote from the literary life of the Court and capital? Apparently not, if the monument to him in Stratford church is any guide.
We know William Shakspere was a shrewd and prosperous businessman, yet he makes no reference in his will to the publication or ownership of plays he had written, nor to those manuscripts and books which he could be expected to have possessed if he were a writer and which he would have recognised as valuable. Nor is there any reference to his shares in the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres (these also fail to turn up in the records of any of his heirs).
His death went entirely unnoticed by the literary world compared, for example, with that of Beaumont, who died the same year, or Spenser or Ben Jonson, all of whom were mourned with much ceremony.
The background knowledge exhibited by the playwright
The Stratford case relies on Shakspere being able to suppress all his own life experiences when writing the plays, to substitute those of a highly educated, well-connected person, closely in touch with affairs of State and permitted to lampoon with impunity some of the most powerful figures in the land.
It is widely accepted that whoever wrote the plays had a detailed and first-hand knowledge of the Court and contemporary courtiers, and of Italy. There is no record of Shakspere ever being present at the courts of Queen Elizabeth or of King James, or of his meeting or having a conversation with Southampton or Burghley. We have no record that Shakspere ever went abroad.
Even a genius has to acquire knowledge and skills, yet there is no evidence of any literary ‘apprenticeship’ – no early, immature works such as we find, for example, with Mozart. Even the early plays, supposedly written in the late 1580s, show a maturity which one would not expect to find in someone only in his middle twenties. Both Milton and Dante were in their late forties when they wrote their great works.
Stratfordian evidence – the monument in Stratford church
This is assumed to commemorate the playwright – after all, it shows a man holding a quill pen and is adorned with commemorative inscriptions in English and Latin.
The English dedication is ambiguous. It calls him just ‘Shakspeare’ (not ‘Shake-speare’ as the name of the playwright is invariably spelt in print). It does not mention that he was an author nor make any reference to the plays or poems. It appears to be deliberately ambiguous and misleading; with spelling modernised and punctuation unchanged it reads:
STAY PASSENGER, WHY GOEST THOU BY SO FAST?
READ IF THOU CANST, WHOM ENVIOUS DEATH HAS PLACED,
WITH IN THIS MONUMENT SHAKSPEARE: WITH WHOM
QUICK NATURE DIED: WHOSE NAME DOTH DECK THIS TOMB
FAR MORE THAN COST: SINCE ALL THAT HE HATH WRITT(EN)
LEAVES LIVING ART BUT PAGE, TO SERVE HIS WIT
Many attempts have been made to tease a meaning from this inscription, without any convincing result. One thing it clearly does not say is that it commemorates a playwright.
The Latin inscription compares him to three classical worthies: Socrates, who is not recorded as having written anything; Nestor, a mythical, Homeric figure, chiefly notable for his wisom and powers of survival; and Virgil, an epic poet who was widely believed at the time not to have written the works attributed to him. None of them was a playwright.
The earliest depiction of the monument is an engraving printed in Sir William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire of 1656. It shows that the original effigy was quite different to the one we see today; it is unmistakably a man holding a sack with the four corners tied. Wool was regularly kept in sacks such as this. There are certainly no signs in the sketch or the engraving of a quill and sheet of paper. Were these added when the monument was ‘restored’ in the 18th century?
Stratfordian evidence – the First Folio
The introductory material in the First Folio edition of the plays of 1623 contains statements which are untrue, misleading or ambiguous. Nowhere is Shakspere of Stratford directly credited with the plays and poems and no biographical information about him is provided.
The introduction to the First Folio
Facing the now iconic engraved portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout is a verse by Ben Jonson which begins: ‘The figure that thou here see’st put, It was for gentle Shakespeare cut’. The line contains three intriguing expressions: ‘figure’, not picture or portrait; ‘for’ (on behalf of, or in place of), not of; and ‘gentle’, which did not then bear its modern meaning of tender or quiet, but meant of noble birth. His meaning appears to be that this figure, or effigy, was engraved (cut) and put here in place of a nobly-born Shakespeare.
In his longer poem, ‘To the memory of my beloved, The Author …’, Jonson uses the phrase which seems to clinch the case in favour of Shakspere of Stratford: Sweet Swan of Avon! This must surely refer to the river on which Stratford stands? Very likely, but the distinguishing characteristic of the swan, apart from its lifelong fidelity, was its silence – hence the name ‘Mute Swan’ for the commonest variety of this bird. William of Stratford was a mute participant in all this, it seems.
In another poem, Leonard Digges refers to ‘thy Stratford moniment’ (spelt thus in the original). This also is taken as an unmistakable reference to William’s home town. The spelling is crucial. There are two closely similar words, both relevant, but with different meanings – ‘monument’ and ‘muniment’ which is a collection of papers or archives; the latter was often spelt ‘moniment’.
Digges could have been referring therefore to either the monument in Stratford-on-Avon church (but there is no record that it was there in 1623) or to an archive of Shakespearean materials somewhere in Stratford, of which all trace has since disappeared, leaving no record of its ever having existed.
Or he could have been referring to the Stratford in London, one of the theatre districts, and neighbour to the borough of Hackney where Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford lived from 1596 until his death in 1604.
The case for Edward de Vere
The plays demonstrate a highly educated mind, with a feudal, aristocratic view of society. They are full of detailed references to lordly pastimes and sports and also show a detailed knowledge of the law and of foreign languages. De Vere studied law at Gray’s Inn after completing his education at Cambridge. The records of his education, whilst living in the Burghley household, show him to have been equipped to be an outstanding scholar, highly proficient in the Classics and French.
If Shakspere of Stratford were the author, he would have been writing for a company of actors and thus providing plays not much in advance of their first performance. If they were written by de Vere, the plays would not have been written in such conditions, but rather for private performance at Court, and subsequently revised into their present, literary, form. Indeed, it has been established that two-thirds of all the documented performances of Shakespeare’s plays were not in the public theatres but either at Court, the Inns of Court, or at Oxford and Cambridge universities. When they were written would have no direct link with when they were first performed or published. Like John Lyly’s plays they could well have been written many years before they were actually published.
The quality of the works and the exquisite workmanship of the poetry as we now have it make it difficult to believe that they were produced under pressure, for immediate performance on a public stage, but rather that they were first drafted out, then refined and perfected over a period of years, probably away from the pressures of production or publication. There are shadowy references to Court plays (by de Vere?) put on in the 1570s which could be early versions of plays which subsequently appeared as Shakespeare’s.
While Edward de Vere was living at William Cecil’s house in London as a royal ward of Court, Arthur Golding, his maternal uncle, is also known to have lived in the Cecil household. Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the more influential books published at this time – and its vivacious style and exquisite turn of phrase stand in marked contrast to the rather dour style of his other published works. It is widely recognised that this translation of Ovid had a major influence on ‘Shakespeare’. Could this work have been a collaborative achievement by uncle and nephew?
Soon after the name ‘Shake-speare’ appeared in print for the first time, no new poems were published in the anthologies of the day either under de Vere’s own name or the more common EO (standing for Edward Oxenford, which was how he wrote his signature). These poems have some similarities in vocabulary, imagery and form to the Shakespeare poems but, as works written in his teens and early twenties, they are clearly works of juvenilia and lack the maturity of style of the Shakespeare poems. Yet this is perfectly natural – no one would criticise Beethoven’s early string quartets because they lacked the towering genius of, say, the Ninth Symphony. It is hardly conceivable that the earliest known poems of Shakespeare – The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis – were the first fruits of his pen. Yet where can Stratfordians point to Shakespeare’s juvenilia?
Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were published in 1593 and 1594 and were the first works to be published under the name ‘Shake-speare’. For the next five years the records show the name to have been associated exclusively with these two works. Printed plays under the name ‘Shake-speare’ did not appear until 1598, the year that Lord Burghley died. These two narrative poems were both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Based on the fact that the Earl of Southampton was, for a time, being considered as a suitor for the hand of Edward de Vere’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, a strong case can be made that the Earls of Southampton and Oxford were well acquainted. It is also well known that Edward de Vere’s son and heir, Henry de Vere, was a firm friend of Southampton’s – there is even a double portrait of the two men mounted on chargers.
The Sonnets, the only works by ‘Shake-speare’ written in the first person, indicate that the writer was a senior man both in rank and age, and that the young man of great beauty in the sonnets is himself a nobleman. The consensus now is that the young man is most likely to have been the Earl of Southampton.
Fourteen of the plays have Italian settings and demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the country beyond pure book knowledge. So detailed is the knowledge that ‘blunders’ about geography are now being shown to be correct. De Vere spent the best part of a year travelling in Italy in 1575. He was satirised as ‘The Italian Earl’ on his return to England.
All but one (The Merry Wives of Windsor) of the 37 plays are set in courtly or wealthy society. The noble characters are all natural, convincing and at ease. They speak the language of their class. Throughout the plays, every character through whom the author speaks on social or political issues is of noble birth or privileged position. The world ‘Shake-speare’ wrote about was the world de Vere and his court audience knew.
It is ‘Shake-speare’s’ lower-order characters which are unconvincing. Almost all of them are clods or clowns; even their names are undignified – Wart, Bottom, Dogberry, Snout. By contrast, Ben Jonson’s ‘ordinary’ characters are natural, while his nobles are caricatures with the similarly ridiculous names such as Sir Epicure Mammon, Sir Paul Eitherside, Sir Diaphonous Silkworm.
De Vere was excellent at the tilts and at jousting and numerous first-hand accounts exist which describe his successes in royal tournaments. His natural skill was such that the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey eulogised the young Earl in the presence of the whole court during one of Queen Elizabeth’s summer progresses, declaring ‘thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears’ and urging him to put his scholarly activities to one side and make a name for himself leading men into battle.
De Vere was closely involved with the theatre; he held a lease on the Blackfriars Theatre and had his own group of players, The Lord Oxford’s Men. He was acknowledged by his contemporaries as a poet and praised as a playwright. Although there are only a few poems published in Elizabethan anthologies under the name ‘EO’, modern scholarship ascribes around twelve known poems to his authorship. Around thirty books were also dedicated to him during his lifetime, there were none to ‘Shake-speare’. He was also the patron of many writers but again, not of ‘Shake-speare’.
The records show Lord Oxford’s Men performing in the Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap (referred to in Henry IV part 1). The records also show that two former servants of Lord Burghley were waylaid by de Vere’s men, at Gad’s Hill on the highway between Gravesend and Rochester, the very same stretch of road where Falstaff was ambushed by Prince Hal and his men in disguise.
Dating the creation of the plays
There are no documents which confirm the actual date of composition, or even first performance of any play. In any case, there is no proof that some of the early plays were not written before 1590, nor that any were written after 1604, the year of de Vere’s death.
The best approximation can be derived from the various documents recording when plays were registered for printing with the Stationers’ Company, from references to specific plays by contemporaries, and allusions in the plays to contemporary events. Both Oxfordians and Stratfordians have to date the plays to fit the life-spans of their respective candidates, which were 14 years apart, so using ‘topical’ allusions to date the plays is an inexact business.
From the conventional Stratfordian dating, we find the early plays coinciding with de Vere’s move to King’s Place at Hackney after his second marriage to Elizabeth Trentham in 1591 and finishing with Othello in 1604, the year of de Vere’s death. Later plays have often been considered by Stratfordians as only partly ‘Shake-spearean’ and partly by other hands. If Shakspere were the author this would mean that at the age of 40, at the height of his powers, he consented to collaborate with inferior writers. Continuing research by Oxfordians is showing that all the plays conventionally dated post-1604 could have been written before that year.
Parallels in the plays
The parallels between de Vere’s life and events in the plays are too numerous, consistent, complex and intimate to be mere coincidences. This is particularly true of All’s Well That Ends Well and, especially, Hamlet. Although dismissive of references which Oxfordians quote, Stratfordians constantly search the plays for personal biographical allusions to Will Shakspere – without success, as they themselves admit.
There are also parallels between characters and real Court personages recognisable at the time and still so today. The most frequently suggested are Burghley as Polonius, Sir Christopher Hatton as Malvolio, Sir Philip Sidney as Boyet and Aguecheek, Queen Elizabeth as Titania, Portia and Olivia. Only a senior nobleman closely associated with the Queen would surely have got away with caricaturing such powerful people.
Sigmund Freud, a strong supporter of the view that de Vere was ‘Shake-speare’, believed that no author can completely avoid giving insights into himself in his writings and that the character of Hamlet is his own self-portrait. This is supported by writers such as Virginia Woolf, Gustav Flaubert and Edward Albee, and is a matter of common observation. If it were not so, literary biography, in which the writer’s life is linked to his or her works would be a waste of time.
Stratfordians recognize Hamlet as ‘the most autobiographical character’; that is, the one in which the author seems to reveal himself most intimately, but they are baffled by the dissimilarity between Hamlet’s ‘life’ and that of the Stratford man. Perhaps that is because they are looking at the wrong man.
‘Shake-speare’ drew many biblical allusions in his plays from the Geneva translation of the Bible. Oxford’s copy of the Geneva Bible is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. In this copy, many phrases and verses that were used, or echoed, by ‘Shake-speare’, are marked in coloured inks or underlined, and linked with marginal notes.
As we have already seen, the dedicatee of the two narrative poems, the Earl of Southampton, was briefly a candidate for the hand of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth and is considered by Shakespearian scholars to be the ‘fair youth’ of the Sonnets.
The First Folio was dedicated to the Herbert brothers, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. The latter married Oxford’s daughter Lady Susan, and the former had been briefly betrothed to Oxford’s daughter Lady Bridget, before marriage negotiations were broken off. The First Folio publication was a de Vere family affair with Oxford’s other son-in-law, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, being a highly literary man with his own company of players, quite possibly taking a hand in the preparation of the collected plays of his father-in-law.
Great Oxford – Selection of Essays produced by the De Vere Society – Parapress (2005) (See DVS Publications page)
Shakespeare by Another Name, The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare – Mark Anderson (2005)
Shakespeare Identified – J. T. Looney. Kennicat Press USA } 2 volume
Poems of Edward de Vere – J. T. Looney. Kennicat Press USA} set
Who Wrote Shakespeare? – J. Michell. Thames & Hudson
The Mysterious William Shakespeare – Charlton Ogburn. EPM Publications USA
The de Veres of Castle Hedingham – Verily Anderson. Terence Dalton
Alias Shakespeare – J. Sobran. Simon & Schuster/Free Press (1997)
The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford – B. M. Ward. John Murray
Shakespeare who was he? – Richard Whalen. Praeger. USA
Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography – Diana Price. Greenwood Press (2001)
Monstrous Adversary – Alan Nelson. Liverpool University Press (2003)
Further suggested works, obtainable via DVS (see Contact page)
Discovering Shakespeare – R. Holmes
The Lame Story Teller – P. Moore
Dating Shakespeare’s Plays – K. Gilvary (ed.)
The Concealed Poet – R. Detobel
The Man Who Was Never Shakespeare – A. J. Pointon
A discount is offered to DVS members wishing to purchase Richard Malim’s The Earl of Oxford and the Making of “Shakespeare”: The Literary Life of Edward De Vere in Context (See DVS Publications page)