Four hundred years after the premiere of Hamlet, the authorship
question remains a mystery.
by Al Austin
'GBH April 1989
"Isn't it odd, when you think of it," Mark Twain wrote, "that you may list
all the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotchmen of modern times, clear
back to the first Tudors - a list containing 500 names, shall we say - and you
can go to the histories, biographies and cyclopedias and learn the particulars
about every one of them. Every one of them except one - the most famous, the
most renowned - by far the most illustrious of them all - Shakespeare!" Twain
went on to suggest that it was because Shakespeare "hadn't any history to
Biographies of William Shakespeare do exist - hundreds and hundreds
of them. But Twain complained that they are composed of guesswork.
Precious little is known for certain about Shakespeare. He was born in
Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, got married when he was 18, had three children,
left his family and went off to London. His name was listed among actors who
performed twice for the queen, and he is listed among the shareholders in the
Globe Theatre. He returned to Stratford in his 40s, bought a big house, dealt
in real estate and grain for a while and died in 1616. His will mentioned no
plays or poems or books. Only six examples of his handwriting are known to
exist: six signatures, each spelled differently. When he died, nobody seems to
How did this small-town boy with little or no education learn so much
about law and history and Italy and Latin and Greek and royalty and all the
other knowledge that filled Shakespeare's plays? Well, say the biographers and
historians, by keeping his eyes and ears open and being a genius. Samuel
Schoenbaum of Washington, DC, America's foremost Shakespeare biographer, says,
"There are certain things that defy rational explanation. There is something
incomprehensible about genius. Shakespeare was superhuman."
Answers like that didn't satisfy Twain - or Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman or Henry James. All found
something fishy about the man from Stratford.
And doubts continue. New doubters are born every day. This past
November, one of England's most famous politicians and classical scholars,
Enoch Powell, stood contemplating the Shakespeare monument in the Stratford
church. "Isn't it disgusting? It's a lie. I can't look at it."
Since the middle of the last century, non believers in the Stratford man
have been putting up other names as the "real" author, men (and a woman or two)
who might, for a variety of reasons, have used "William Shakespeare" as a pen
name: Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe. But most of these
challengers have fallen by the wayside, and with each failure, the snickering
from the Stratford stands has grown louder.
Then, early in this century, an English schoolmaster named J. Thomas
Looney went looking for Shakespeare the way a detective might - with a list of
characteristics the true author would need to have had, historical
fingerprints. After years of searching through old documents, Looney came up
with this man: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who lived from 1550 to
History had all but ignored de Vere. And yet, he was the highest-ranking
earl in the kingdom - and brilliant, earning two master's degrees before he
was seventeen years old. And he seems to have cut a wide swath through
England, France and Italy four centuries ago, was an intimate of Queen
Elizabeth I, sailed off in his own ship to help battle the Spanish Armada, got
himself captured by pirates, killed a man and engaged in a scandalous
Looney found several poems written by de Vere under his own name when he
was in his early 20s, poems Looney thought were similar to some of those
attributed to Shakespeare plays. For example, de Vere's guardian, Lord
Burghley, the most powerful man in England, seemed to be satirized as Polonious
De Vere seemed to quit writing when still a young man. But Looney was
sure the writing continued under the name "William Shakespeare."
Why wouldn't de Vere have put his own name to the plays? In Looney's
view, it was because play-writing was beneath the dignity of nobility.
Furthermore, de Vere would have been barred from using his own name because he
had inside knowledge of all the court intrigues. Powerful people, like Lord
Burghley, and even Queen Elizabeth, would have been embarrassed had the public
known de Vere was the author and the plays were satire. So, (according to the
scenario constructed by Looney and others who continued his work after he died)
de Vere chose a natural pen name. Gabriel Harvey, a poet and secretary to de
Vere, had, after all, saluted him in a speech before the queen as a man whose
"countenance shakes a spear." Then, when de Vere's friends and relatives
decided to publish his plays, long after de Vere's death, they chose as a
"front man" the obscure, semiliterate, country bumpkin, William Shakespeare of
Stratford, who, Powell noted, "had the added advantage of being dead."
"Preposterous!" retorted the historians and biographers and teachers of
Shakespeare. De Vere could not possibly be the author (the counter-attack
continued); he died before some of the plays - The Tempest, for one -
Although Looney announced his discoveries 70 years ago, and his disciples
have been digging up new evidence ever since, the general public has remained,
for the most part, blissfully unaware. To find out about it, one had to read
several books not found in most bookstores, or even in most libraries.
Then, in 1983, a successful author named Charlton Ogburn wrote an even
bigger book - about 900 pages - called The Mysterious William
Shakespeare, skillfully explaining hundreds of ways in which the life of de
Vere and the works of Shakespeare seem to meet. Ogburn and many of his readers
are confident that the evidence contained in this book amounts to proof that
Edward de Vere was William Shakespeare.
De Vere's champions have discovered that once into the fight there seems
to be no way out - it becomes an obsession, a lifelong passion. Ogburn and his
colleagues consider their man a heroic figure who was wronged in life and
slandered through his history as a libertine spendthrift. Tears fill Ogburn's
eyes as he quotes lines from Hamlet and Macbeth that he believes
came straight from the soul of the tormented Earl of Oxford.
There is a passion on the other side of the argument, too. Historian A.L.
Rowse's eyes also well up with tears as he stands beside the "bloody fools" who
doubt his hero. "These are people who aren't qualified to hold an opinion," he
seethes. The only thing wrong with the man from Stratford is that "he likes
the girls too much. He was too sexy."
Rowse and his colleagues insist the evidence in favor of the orthodox view
is insurmountable. The First Folio, the first collected edition of the plays,
seven years after the Stratford man's death, was edited by two of his fellow
actors, Herminge and Condell, men he named in his will. And "Honest Ben"
Jonson, in his poem prefacing the First Folio, called the author "sweet swan of
Avon." What's more, the Shakespeare monument in the Stratford church, erected
about the same time, clearly implies that the man it honors was a famous
writer. And throughout their lives, none of the people who took part in those
tributes ever let on that they were anything about what they seemed to
All part of the hoax, counter the anti-Stratfordians, all cooked up to
disguise the author. They contend the First Folio and the Stratford
inscription provide sure clues that the people behind those things were
The Stratford man's supporters note that Americans are prominent in the
challenge to their man. They suggest that it stems from a peculiar sort of
snobbery, that some Americans can't accept the thought of a common English
schoolboy being Shakespeare.
The contest - the mystery - comes down to this: Those who believe de Vere
was Shakespeare must accept an improbable hoax as part of it, a conspiracy of
silence involving, among others, Queen Elizabeth herself. Those who side with
the Stratford man must believe in miracles.