Some ado about who was, or was not, Shakespeare

Copyright 1987 Smithsonian Institution

From Smithsonian, September, 1987

The discrepancy is one of those twists of fate that better belong in an O. Henry story. But the fact remains that, though William Shakespeare wrote more than 36 world-famous dramas richly portraying the range and depth of human nature, we know almost nothing about the man who created them. Despite the intense research by legions of historians, scholars and biographers over three centuries, what we know--and can prove for certain--about the greatest literary genius in history can pretty well be jotted down on a file card. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, the son of a glover, in April 1564. He married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and they had three children before he was 21. He acted in a number of plays and seems to have been liked by those who knew him. He eventually owned houses in Stratford and London as well as shares in two theaters, the Globe and the Blackfriars. Before his death in 1616 he'd returned, more or less permanently, to the home of his youth, where he became a comfortable burgher with extensive landholdings. There is not a single word of the plays or the poems that is definitely in Shakespeare's handwriting (only six of his signatures survive on legal documents).

The chasm between the fame and richness of the works, and the poverty of information about the author, has fueled a curious, and sometimes a perverse, controversy that has raged for more than a century. Since the mid-19th century, a hardy and vocal band of disbelievers has argued that someone other than the Stratford man created the poems and plays attributed to; or presented as, the works of William Shakespeare. To many people, and with some reason, the debaters are fair comic game. As the Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen puts it today, "Some people, intellectual snobs perhaps, like to think that the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote the plays. Then there are social snobs who like to think that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. And no doubt somewhere there's a keen viewer of Masterpiece Theatre who thinks that Alistair Cooke wrote the plays." Most lovers of the works, moreover, accept the incumbent candidate, or, failing that, agree with McKellen that the plays were written either by a man called Shakespeare or by a man calling himself Shakespeare.

Not so, says author and scholar Charlton Ogburn. For many years a passionate and tireless proponent of the Earl of Oxford theory, Ogburn is not about to be deterred by a wisecrack. Oh, no, think those who have been down this path before, here comes another theory. Fortunately for lovers of Shakespeare and history--and for anyone who likes a lively row (for Ogburn is a combative soul)--the former State Department official known for his books (among others a famous World War II narrative, The Marauders, and such nature works as The Winter Beach and The Adventure of Birds) is in full possession of his highly critical faculties and well worth listening to.

For one thing, Ogburn's 892-page book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (Dodd, Mead, 1984), provides a deft and merry paper chase through the best and brightest arguments of the anti-Stratfordians, as the doubters designate themselves. For another, whether you accept his thesis or not, Ogburn's tome is a marvelous transport to Shakespeare's world and what is--and isn't--known about his life, not to mention the range of his matchless characters and the precise extravagances of his vocabulary. Best of all, in arguing his case Ogburn brings to center stage a brilliant and flamboyant man most of us have never heard of, let alone thought about, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (above). An aristocrat of dwindling fortunes and a dandy, he sailed his own ship in the Spanish Armada, and was a notorious ladies' man who may have been one of Queen Elizabeth's lovers. Whether he wrote the plays or not, Oxford is a fascinating Elizabethan, at the least worthy of a robustious and revealing historical novel.

Class is at the core of Ogburn's heretical thesis. He argues, more effectively than the many who have argued it before him, that humble Will Shakespeare (above) from rustic Stratford was too parochial, too unlearned and far too common to have written most of the plays. The author of Richard III and Hamlet, notes Ogburn, had a vocabulary in excess of 20,000 words, not to mention a firsthand knowledge of falconry, customs of the Danish court and of French and Italian cities. He used more than 100 musical terms in the plays as well as the names of 200 plants. "We should have to conceive that a writer of the dramas," writes Ogburn, "would choose to lay them The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only exception in a world fore-closed to him--the world of the nobility --of which his knowledge would have been secondhand at best."

Assuming that Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays (an assumption most Shakespearean scholars are not willing to make) then, Ogburn believes the university-educated Oxford, a celebrated poet in his youth and for much of his life a favored courtier, exactly fits the bill as putative author. Oxford traveled to Padua, Venice and other foreign settings of the plays, while the Stratford man may never have left the southeast of England. Oxford's marriage, his affairs and his troubles with a powerful in-law contain highly specific resonances of Othello, Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost, among other works. The Earl's noble rank and closeness to the throne, says Ogburn did not allow him to be known as a writer for the public theater under his own name. His works would have been subject to more stringent censorship than they would had they been written by a common man. Additionally, if he created an unattractive character who resembled someone in the court, the playwright could have been in trouble. Therefore, says Ogburn, with help from high-born relatives Oxford found a willing stand-in: low-born William Shakespeare, a sometime actor who, for a handsome recompense, pretended he was the author.

Stratfordians have an arsenal of objections to Oxford--or any other candidate for that matter. For one thing, while most serious academics agree that Shakespeare's biography hinges on few documents and is fraught with difficulties, there are a number of references to Shakespeare as actor and author by those who would have known him. Even Ben Jonson, whose critical reputation in 1616 outstripped Shakespeare's and who intended to keep it that way, could not help praising Shakespeare in a famous eulogy published in the First Folio in 1623 (p. 160). The first collected volume of his works, it was signed by two of his fellow actors and entitled Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. There, Jonson refers to the author of the plays as the "Sweet Swan of Avon," and concludes "He was not of an age, but for all time." Orthodox scholars see no nefarious plot in the fact that so few mentions exist of Shakespeare during his lifetime. "He did not in his own day inspire the mysterious veneration that afterward came to surround his works," writes celebrated Shakespearean biographer Sam Schoenbaum in his seminal study, Shakespeare's Lives. "No playwright in that day did, and certainly no actor." Stratfordians argue that Oxford's death in 1604 (12 years before Shakespeare's) leaves a dozen plays unaccounted for. The academics also point out that a wide-ranging conspiracy of silence to conceal Oxford's authorship, involving, as it must have, all of both Elizabeth's and James' courts as well as actors and writers is implausible.

The most difficult hurdle to clear, in considering Ogburn's candidate at all, is the insistence that the author of the plays must have been a nobleman simply because the plays treat of kings and nobles and high life in general. Nearly all of Shakespeare's theatrical contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, a bricklayer's son, were middle-class men. And authors, even far lesser ones than Shakespeare--a man who may be the greatest creative genius of all time--can convincingly inhabit lives, scenes and experiences other than the ones they were born to. Precisely that is their stock-in-trade. The mark of Shakespeare is that he breathed such individual life into fools as well as princes, footmen as well as thanes.

Still, any reasonable lover of Shakespeare could profitably suspend his disbelief for an hour or two, to journey with Ogburn into the world of Oxford and Shakespeare. Ogburn raises questions about the authorship that perplex and tease. For him, the quest to establish the authorship is an unparalleled intellectual exercise. It is, says the former military intelligence officer, the "greatest manhunt in the world." Whether he was in fact Shakespeare or not, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, could have been a royal invention of the playwright. Born in 1550, Edward de Vere was a descendant of a family that had served at the right hand of the English monarchy beginning with the Norman Invasion in 1066. As such, Ogburn points out, Oxford would have attained special knowledge of historical incidents through family lore, and an empathy with the events and characters depicted in Shakespeare's historical plays.

Haunting parallels with Shakespeare's plots, characters and circumstances run through Oxford's life with an unsettling frequency. Some are less than compelling. Oxford was a brilliant youth who received a degree from St. John's College, Oxford, at age 14. One of his tutors was his maternal uncle, Arthur Golding, the Latin scholar whose translation into English of Ovid's Metamorphoses was used extensively by Shakespeare. Others are mildly interesting coincidences. Another of Oxford's uncles, the Earl of Surrey, introduced blank verse to the English language and, with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the English sonnet form, later known as Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet). At the age of 21, after studying law at Gray's Inn, Oxford wrote an accomplished Latin introduction to Castiglione's The Courtier, a book that combines romantic attitudes with lessons in Renaissance manners. Later, he "shone at the court of Elizabeth," wrote 19th-century scholar Thomas Babington Macaulay, "and had won for himself an honourable place among the early masters of English poetry." None of Oxford's poems in Latin survive, but a score in English (above) are still available. Written when he was very young, they show a decided and youthful gift; they do not, to most ears, match the great inventive harmonies of Shakespeare's sonnets.

In Elizabethan England, companies of players were patronized by noblemen, and Oxford inherited one such troupe from his father; he later had two companies of his own. Oxford also held the lease on the Blackfriars theater, in which Shakespeare later held a share. As well, the Earl was a munificent patron of writers, including Anthony Munday and John Lilly; a number of books were dedicated to him. Oxford's boyhood in some ways paralleled that of young Hamlet. His father died when the lad was 12, and his mother apparently remarried three months later. How he felt about it is not known, but he was then sent from home to become a royal ward in the house of Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, a trusted adviser to Elizabeth for 40 years, one of the most important men in England. There, he was close to the center of English political power. In addition, the prudish and materialistic Burghley, as scholars were noting long before Ogburn, is by general agreement the likeliest model for the sententious and boring Polonius of the Danish court.

To contemplate such literary themes as pride and ostentation, Oxford had only to gaze in the mirror. He was a wanton spender who frittered away money, successively selling off inherited properties. He loved a grand show, outfitting himself in a seemingly endless array of new silks and velvets. By the time he was 21, a court observer wrote, the "Queen's Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and his valiantness than any other." Despite rumors that Oxford was the Queen's lover, her most intense affair was purportedly with the Earl of Leicester, and Leicester could have been the model for the murderous King Claudius of Hamlet. At least there was persistent talk that he had plotted to poison his wife in order to take up with the Queen. Oxford would have disliked Leicester in any case, because he was, for a time, the court-appointed custodian of Oxford's inherited estates.

In 1575, Oxford won the Queen's permission to tour the Continent. He visited Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice and Padua, among other cities, which would have given him the eye for detail apparent in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Two of Oxford's Italian acquaintances were named Pasquino Spinola and Baptista Nigrone, names echoed in that of Baptista Minola, father of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.

Oxford's love life mirrors, to some extent, Shakespeare's preoccupation with jealous husbands, falsely-accused-and-then-forgiven wives. The Earl married Burghley's daughter Anne when she was 15, about Juliet's age. It was a troubled union, but the Earl rejoiced when he received news in Italy that his wife had borne a child. On returning to England, though, he became enraged when he was told that the daughter had been born some 12 months after he had last slept with Anne. The suspicion was reportedly planted in Oxford's mind by a hanger-on, Rowland Yorke. His name, pronounced E-ork, has a resonance of Iago, who poisoned Othello's mind against Desdemona.

The case, however, turned slightly farcical as well as tragic. Apparently Oxford was somehow later convinced he had slept with his wife, when drunk, under the false impression that she was another woman. The situation was arranged by Burghley, so the story goes, to produce a child and help heal the foundering marriage. This is reminiscent of the plot device that brings Bertram to bed with his wife, Helena, in All's Well that Ends Well. In real life, however, it was many years before Anne and Oxford were reconciled.

Estranged from his wife, Oxford took up with another Anne, this one Anne Vavasor, a woman who managed to have three husbands, two of them at once. When she had a son by Oxford, the outraged Queen had the lovers clapped in the Tower of London; whether because of the scandal or out of jealousy nobody could be sure. After his release, Oxford was severely wounded in a sword fight with one of Anne Vavasor's relatives in a London street. There were other set-tos between family retainers, a kind of serialized English version of the Capulets and Montagues.

Even one of Oxford's high-spirited pranks came close to a Shakespeare scene. In May 1573, two former employees of the Earl's household accused their ex-master of lying in wait for them in a "raging demeanor," by the highway from Gravesend to Rochester accompanied by three companions. The terrified men accused Oxford and his cohorts of firing "calivers charged with bullets" at them, "whereupon they mounted on horseback and fled towards London." Readers will recognize scenes from King Henry IV, Part I, in which Falstaff (p. 173) and other companions of Prince Hal from the Boar's Head Tavern rob some travelers on the highway near Gad's Hill--and Falstaff lies creatively about it. Gad's Hill is along the very same road on which Oxford frightened his former servants.

Ogburn strains harder, however, to make other evenths in Oxford's life correspond to the authorship. In 1586, when he was 36, Elizabeth awarded the spendthrift Earl a stipend of 1,000 pounds per year for life, at a time when a well-paid schoolmaster earned about 10 pounds a year. The usual explanation is that Elizabeth was merely taking care of an erratic, down-at-the-heel relation, a common enough practice of the times, though not for so large a sum. But Ogburn argues that the money was given to permit Oxford to pen plays and maintain acting companies. Why? Perhaps because Elizabeth needed propaganda--mainly, the historical plays--to rally public support for the continuing contest with Spain, and her gifted relation was the man for the job. So was William of Stratford involved in the plot? The choice would have been natural: Oxford's crest as Viscount Bulbeck bore a lion brandishing a broken spear. The Elizabethan writer Gabriel Harvey once praised Oxford at court with a speech that said in part, "Thine eyes flash fire. Thy countenance shakes spears." At any rate, one account, written long afterward, suggests that Shakespeare used to spend money "at the rate of 1,000 pounds a year." Where did this astonishing sum come from? Did Oxford transfer his stipend to the Stratford man? After Oxford died, his widow did bequeath regular payments to "my dombe man." That man, say Oxfordians, was the imposter and not the playwright.

Ogburn, now 76, served in World War II with Merrill's Marauders, an Army regiment operating behind Japanese lines in Burma. His 1959 account of that experience was made into a Hollywood film and launched a writing career. After the war, Ogburn joined the State Department. His father, Charlton sr., a New York attorney, and his mother, Dorothy, wrote a book on the Earl of Oxford, following the lead of a pro-Oxford English schoolmaster, unfortunately named J. Thomas Looney, who published Shakespeare Identified in 1920.

Stratfordians have had a good deal of fun with that name. Most of them, moreover, feel little compulsion to listen to alternatives. The works, after all, are what really matter. Besides, academic careers have been built on the premise that the Stratford man wrote the plays. There is a financial aspect, too, the thriving "Shakespeare industry." Thousands of tourists visit Stratford-upon-Avon each year, to gawk at William Shakespeare's tomb and troop through his house and peek into Anne Hathaway's cottage. They spend millions of dollars in the process.

Ogburn is the latest in a long line of Shakespearean gadflies who, since 1856, have proposed 17 substitute Shakespeares, including Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, Sir Walter Raleigh and even Queen Elizabeth I herself. In The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Ogburn presents--and dismisses --the cases for the leading contenders. Francis Bacon (p. 174), the brilliant rationalist, he concludes, was simply too busy as a statesman and essayist. Besides, his literary style does not match. Christopher Marlowe comes closest to having the talent and the literary power but was stabbed to death in 1593.

Encouraged by Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American woman named Delia Bacon wrote a passionate book arguing that among others Sir Francis Bacon (no relation) and Sir Walter Raleigh, whose poetry was much admired by Elizabethans, collaborated on the works. The unfortunate woman fueled the prejudices of Stratfordians by once spending the night beside Shakespeare's tomb in Holy Trinity Church armed with a shovel. She later was committed to an institution.

The question still stirs hot controversy. After Harvard Magazine, the university's alumni publication, ran an essay by Ogburn (class of 1932) advancing Oxford's authorship, followed by a pungent rebuttal by professors Gwynne Evans and Harry Levin, the magazine received letters for nearly a year from cheering doubters and outraged traditionalists. English professor Walter Kaiser wondered if future articles might not assert that the "earth is flat" or that "Queen Victoria was a Peruvian transvestite." To the great delight of the Oxfordians, a moot-court debate about the authorship of the plays is to be held on September 25 by American University in Washington, D.C. It is being arranged by David Lloyd Kreeger, president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The cases for Shakespeare and Oxford will be argued by two law professors before Supreme Court Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan jr. and John Paul Stevens.

Thanks mostly to Ogburn's zeal and brilliance, the war between the two camps proceeds, sometimes in arguments both spurious and petty-- ones that turn on interpretations of adverbs in hopelessly oblique Elizabethan texts and even on subjective views of Shakespeare portraits. The most famous likeness, an engraving by Flemish artist Martin Droeshout (p. 160) that adorns the First Folio, has to have been rendered from earlier sketches or from the memories of Shakespeare's contemporaries--for the artist was only 15 when Shakespeare died.

Much is made of a report printed in 1680, more than 60 years after Shakespeare's death, in which the English antiquarian John Aubrey, who visited Stratford, reported the outlines of the Shakespeare biography as we now know them. But, asks Ogburn, what kind of man was John Aubrey? According to his employer, the biographer Anthony Wood, the reporter was "a shiftless person, roving magotie-headed and sometimes little better than crazed"; he "thought little, believed much and confused everything." Perhaps so, say Stratfordians, but Aubrey has proved correct in other matters and Wood relied on him and printed his findings. In addition, they point out that Aubrey's father was an actor contemporary with Shakespeare.

In more major matters, Ogburn points out that the name William Shakespeare was not alluded to in print until 1598 when author Francis Meres stated that Shakespeare was the best for comedy and tragedy. Ogburn believes that after seven of the plays had already been printed with no name, Meres may have been in on the pseudonym trick and chosen to launch the idea that they were by Shakespeare, Oxford's pen name. Stratfordians respond with a number of examples of Shakespeare's recognition. He willed "memorial rings," tokens of affection in Elizabethan times, to "my fellowes," actors John Hemming, Henry Condell and Richard Burbage. Hemming and Condell signed the First Folio seven years later, writing in the dedicatory address that it was to keep alive the memory of "so worthy a friend." As for the fact that Shakespeare does not mention his works in his will, it was common for an acting company to own the dramas that it produced. Shakespeare, like other playwrights of the time, had no plays to leave to his heirs.

Stratfordians insist that the conspiracy of silence about the authorship, on which the Oxford case rests, would have been impossible to maintain, both at the time and especially during the scrutiny the records have received by researchers of the following centuries. Ogburn, in his rockiest defense, points to Ultra Top Secret (the term used for all the decoded messages from the top German and Japanese commands), which was the Allies' greatest secret in World War II. "Hundreds of people knew about Ultra," writes Ogburn, "but not a word about it was spoken in public for 30 years." One secret concerned an issue of victory or defeat in a global war; the other merely involved the identity of a playwright who became world famous only after his death. In their Harvard Magazine rebuttal of Ogburn, Professors Evans and Levin, as most people concerned with creative writing would, objected to the purely biographical and autobiographical analysis of imaginative literature. The anti-Stratfordian errs, they wrote, when he assumes "that Shakespeare's plays, most of them based on preexisting narratives and adapted to the conventions of the theatrical medium, can be treated as chapters of an autobiography."

Whatever its merit, or lack of it, with its centuries of debate, scholarship, sublimation and conjecture, the Shakespeare war is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future. Who was Shakespeare? There comes a point when one tends to answer, with Ian McKellen, Shakespeare or a man calling himself Shakespeare. Ogburn has given the Stratfordian ivory tower a mighty shake, but does not topple it. There is not convincing evidence that the Stratford man didn't write the plays, but if he didn't, Ogburn makes it clear, the likeliest other author was Oxford. And then there is that fellow named Puck who said, "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

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