Meet the New Bard

For all the heated accusations he faced, you'd think he was a slash-and-burn corporate raider on the rampage or a revolutionary scheming the overthrow of some third-world despot. In reality, all Daniel Wright did was plan an academic conference. This past January, the professor got the green light to organize the First Edward de Vere Studies Conference at Concordia University in Portland, Or., where he is chairman of the English department. Wright sent an announcement to the moderator of the Internet's worldwide Shakespeare discussion group -- and was promptly told to take his call for papers elsewhere. That was the first sign of trouble. "I fail to see the value of such a service if topics as central to the discussion of Shakespeare as the authorship of the works is forbidden by executive fiat," Wright replied to the discussion group's moderator. "What are you afraid of learning -- or allowing others to learn? Please unsubscribe me. I have no place among such closed minds as yours."By the time the conference began on April 4, English professors from around the country were sending Wright vitriolic messages that consisted of "spitefulness mingled with astonishment," as Wright now recalls. Since 1920, an eccentric congregation of researchers, writers, scholars, theater professionals and wealthy speculators around the world have dedicated their lives and passions to studying Elizabethan court poet and playwright Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). The reason for their interest? They suspect that Oxford -- once praised as a youth with the remark "thy will shakes spears" -- is the pen behind the canon almost universally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon. The argument that the name "William Shake-speare" was a pseudonym for the real author and that the Shakespeare canon has been incorrectly attributed to the actor and burgher from Stratford-on-Avon is not a new one. (The name was often hyphenated in the original publications, and it is especially appropriate for a pen-name since the classical goddess associated with the theater was known as the "spear-shaker.") The authorship question vexed Mark Twain, who published his last work, Is Shakespeare Dead?, on the subject in 1909. It troubled Walt Whitman, who asserted that the works suggest the author was more likely "one of the wolfish earls or some born descendent and knower." While both remained adamant to the end that the Shakespeare canon was written under a pen-name, neither was convinced they could point to a real person behind the mask. Francis Bacon (whom Twain favored), Christopher Marlowe and a host of others had been suggested as possible authors, but neither Twain nor Whitman found any of the alternative candidacies entirely convincing. Sigmund Freud took the argument one step further, aligning himself with the Oxfordian theory -- i.e. that the Earl of Oxford was the author of the Shakespeare canon. Indeed, Freud revised his works that mentioned Shakespeare to indicate his newfound convictions, although since then editors have frequently expunged Freud's Oxfordian footnotes. (Say all you want to about the Greeks and Romans, but keep your grubby mitts off our Bard!) The authorship debate has also provided a source of seemingly endless amusement for the true believers in Shakespeare of Stratford -- Stratfordians, as they are called -- who ridicule the dissidents as cranks, amateurs, snobs or loonies. The accusation of snobbery is popular among those who presume Oxfordians have no case and only want the evidence to point to their man. The final epithet is especially favored since the researcher who, in 1920, first advanced the case for the Earl of Oxford was named J. Thomas Looney."Most of the trauma about Shakespeare's identity is the sovereign creation of unfortunates who do not know how art or talent operates," wrote one anti-Oxfordian critic in The New York Press last month. "It's imaginative writers who understand imaginative writing best and are most fit to write about it. Otherwise you've got giftless cranks and hooligans betting their hats that hawks are handsaws."Yet the sound and fury appears only to have attracted the attention of more curious onlookers, who wonder what the ruckus is about. The mainstream media are certainly catching on. New books on the authorship question are now on the stands and new high-profile advocates for the Earl of Oxford have been coming out of the closet seemingly every month. Noted Shakespearean actor John Gielgud has come out as "very sympathetic to the Oxfordian cause," according to the London Daily Mail. Mark Rylance, artistic director of the new Globe Theater in London, made his Oxfordian leanings public within the past year. Stage and screen actors Michael York and Derek Jacobi have also begun advocating the case for Oxford. And in an interview with Attitude magazine in 1995, film actor Keanu Reeves said the project he'd most want to work on now is a life-story of Edward de Vere as Shakespeare. It seems the currency of the Oxford movement is making for some strange bedfellows in the entertainment world. The only question is which will come first: the lush Merchant-Ivory period piece or Bill and Ed's Excellent Adventure?At the center of the authorship debate, and central to the focus of much recent Oxfordian work, are those enigmatic poems of 12-14 lines each. The Sonnets -- so famous that no author's name is needed -- have not only been admired for their beauty and eloquence but also for their mystery. No text in English literature seems to have inspired as much sleuthing and shoe-leather scholarship as have the 154 numbered poems that first appeared in 1609 under the title "SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS." Bloodhounds start your engines. One of the most puzzling aspects of the book is the cryptic page-one dedication: "To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W.H. all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. T.T." Complicating the interpretation, every word in the dedication has a period after it. So any punctuation other than the periods after the initials is a guess. "T.T." is usually assumed to be the publisher Thomas Thorpe. However, the identity of a plausible "Mr. W.H." has eluded Sonnet detectives for centuries. Some argue it's William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Oscar Wilde thought they were the initials of a young actor with whom Wilde supposed Shakespeare had an affair. Yet, as John Michell writes in his recent book Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Thames & Hudson), the Oxfordian solution to the "Mr. W.H." puzzle shows the power of examining Shakespearean enigmas with the Earl of Oxford in mind. "The strongest link in the Oxfordian chain is that Edward de Vere was the author of the Sonnets," Michell writes. "In contrast, their conventional attribution to William Shakspere [i.e. Shakespeare of Stratford] is weak, largely derived from the title under which they were published." As Michell points out, just the words "ever-living" in the dedication allude to an author other than Shakespeare of Stratford. That is, Elizabethan writers almost universally used "ever-living" to apply to the deceased. (Oxford had died five years before the publication of the Sonnets; Shakespeare of Stratford lived for another seven years afterward.) Michell goes on to finger his Mr. W.H. -- the manuscript buyer William Hall, who was based in the London borough of Hackney. And unlike other W.H. candidates, William Hall as the "only begetter" fits the profile given in the dedication. It explains how the manuscript got to Thomas Thorpe. It even explains why the Sonnets came out in 1609. Hall lived and worked, often in collaboration with Thorpe, in the region of London where Oxford spent his final years. (He had the means.) At one point, Hall even acquired manuscripts from Oxford's next-door neighbor and sold the papers to the same printer who eventually published the Sonnets. (He had a motive.) Soon after Hall was married in 1608, Oxford's widow sold the house where she and her late husband had lived during the height of productivity of Shakespeare -- whoever he was. (He had the opportunity.) "They are not the sort of poems by which a widow would care to remember her husband, so Hall was allowed to take them," Michell speculates. "Perhaps they were thrown out, no one thinking that they might fall into the hands of an opportunist publisher... In wishing him 'all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet,' the publisher was congratulating the begetter on his recent marriage and wishing him the benefit of offspring." In fact, the publication history of the entire Shakespeare canon jibes with this scenario. That is, new Shakespeare works come out from the early 1590s until 1603 -- the year before Oxford died. After that point, nothing new appears in print until years after even Shakespeare of Stratford had died -- with one exception. There's a burst of new publications during the time that Oxford's widow was in the process of relocating (1608-09), when the Sonnets and three plays appear for the first time. Is this an ace in the hole for Oxfordians? Or just more opportunity for derision?DROP/ Ask Joseph Sobran. He's seen both sides. In 1985, when he was a staffer for the National Review, he was assigned Charlton Ogburn's definitive Oxfordian work The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality to review. "I thought I'd take this book apart," he now recalls. Sobran grew up immersed in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and had originally planned to dedicate his life to Shakespeare scholarship. "I went into college knowing more about the text of Shakespeare than did some of my professors. They even got into the habit of calling on me in class to verify quotes and facts," Sobran says. "I was really gung-ho. But I never got into authorship. I was told all along that that was just the stuff of nutty [Francis] Bacon-lovers." Sobran's plans to dismiss Ogburn's work offhand were scuttled by a minor difficulty. Ogburn made too convincing a case to be ignored. As Sobran read more, he began to realize that, as he puts it, "I couldn't just dismiss it. I got into the second half of the book, and by then I was saying to myself, 'My God, this is the guy I've been reading all my life.'" Sobran's review ended up being nothing like he'd planned. "Now it all made sense," he says. "The works had a new significance to them. I still wasn't 100 percent convinced, but I wasn't resisting the idea either. I had lingering doubts because I had to rearrange so much mental furniture."After more than a decade of reading, researching and writing on the authorship controversy, Sobran has come out with his own summary of the case for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare. This month sees the publication of Sobran's Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time (Free Press). The book provides the best introductory overview to date of the Oxfordian case. He reprints part of Mark Twain's classic Shakespearean authorship diatribe and goes on to give a brief sketch of the life of the Earl of Oxford. His best stuff, though, comes when he talks about the Sonnets. Sobran begins with the argument that the Sonnets are the closest we have to Shakespeare's autobiography. By itself, that argument is nothing new. For generations, leading Stratfordian critics such as E.K. Chambers, John Dover Wilson, C.S. Lewis, A.L. Rowse and Robert Giroux have argued for the inherently autobiographical nature of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Sobran, however, goes on to assert that the Sonnets don't fit anything we know about Shakespeare of Stratford -- whose entire collection of original papers, manuscripts and letters consists of six signatures on legal documents written by other people. But the Sonnets do fit Oxford's life with remarkable detail. The first 126 poems weave a single narrative addressed to a young man generally agreed to be Henry Wriothsley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The remainder, as covered by Ogburn, address a mysterious figure often referred to as the "dark lady." "The two chief Stratfordian schools of thought on the Sonnets have had to argue negatively," Sobran says. "They're either saying it's fiction because it doesn't work as autobiography, or they're saying it's autobiography because it doesn't work as fiction. They have to argue out of the defects of the other. The way out of the dilemma is to ask who's autobiography are they?"The first 17 sonnets urge Southampton to beget a child "for love of me." Around the same time -- and at the time two other Shakespeare poems are published bearing dedications to Southampton -- the young Southampton was betrothed to marry the Earl of Oxford's eldest daughter. Indeed, as Sobran writes, "The poet contrasts his age with the youth's, likening himself to a 'decrepit father' delighting in his child." Two arcane metaphors that conventional critics have strained to explain turn out to be ceremonial duties of the 17th Earl of Oxford. He was a canopy bearer for the queen (125: "Were't ought to me I bore the canopy...") and anointed the sovereign in the coronation ceremony (109: "So that myself bring water for my stain ..."). The author also speaks of his lameness -- "I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite ..." (37) "So then I am not lame, poor nor despised ..." (37) "Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt ..." (89) While no one argues that the lines should be interpreted purely literally, Oxfordians have found a real-life inspiration for the author's woes. When Oxford was 45 he wrote to his father-in-law that "I will attend yowre Lordship as well as a lame man may at yowre house." Many Sonnets give voice to the author's feelings of disgrace and shame. Some even suggest that the author bemoans his own anonymity: "My name be buried where my body is/ And live no more to shame nor me nor you" (72) and Sonnet 81:Or I shall live your epitaph to make,Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;From hence your memory death cannot take,Although in me each part will be forgotten.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.Your monument shall be my gentle verse,Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read;And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,When all the breathers of this world are dead;You still shall live -- such virtue hath my pen --Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.Sonnet 81 contains two themes so distinctive that together they form a stylistic fingerprint of Shakespeare. The poem poses the paradoxical scenario that the author knows his poetry is immortal, and yet he also says his identity will be lost to the world. The poet's fixation both on poetry as defier of time and on loss of name is highly idiosyncratic. Yet, as Sobran points out, the few works Oxford published as a young adult under his own name show a fascination with both themes. He wrote a youthful poem titled "Loss of Good Name." And not only does it thematically tie in with the Sonnets ("My sprites, my heart, my wit and force, in deep distress are drown'd; The only loss of my good name is of these griefs the ground"), its excessive alliteration and unstoppable rhythm both read like a young bard playing with the tools he would later master so completely. At age 23, Oxford also wrote a preface to an English translation of writings by the Italian philosopher, mathematician and poet Girolamo Cardano. Sobran points out many similarities between Oxford's prefatory letter to Cardanus Comfort and the Sonnets. "Just as the Sonnets argue that the youth has no right to withhold his beauty from the world, Oxford argues that Bedingfield [the translator of Cardanus Comfort] has no right to withhold his book from his countrymen," Sobran writes in Alias Shakespeare. "Just as the Sonnets promise that they will be the youth's eternal 'monument,' Oxford assures Bedingfield that his book will be a 'monument' after Bedingfield himself is 'dead and gone.' Just as Sonnet 31 tells the young man, 'Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,' Oxford affectionately scolds Bedingfield for seeming determined to 'bury and insevil your work in the grave of oblivion.' The Bedingfield letter uses images of roses, jewelry and ornaments; medicine, fever and salve; murder, imprisonment and military spoils; so do the Sonnets.""The self-portrait that emerges from the Sonnets and Bedingfield letter," Sobran says, "shifts the burden of proof to those who would deny it." Of course, it is often argued that no matter who put pen to paper, the only thing that matters is that we have the works themselves. And other than changing the name on the title page, authorship doesn't matter a whit. To that argument, Concordia University's Daniel Wright offers this rebuttal: "That's like saying you admire a child, but it's of no consequence who their parents are. To say that authorship is of no consequence is to evade the responsibility that is solemnly embraced with respect to every other canon. ... You would never say that about Charles Dickens. The anguish of his personal life is important to examining the artistry of his works. "The meaning of the plays and poems is vastly enhanced when you know the true author." Related to this is the problem of motive for assuming the pseudonym in the first place. Oxfordians often point out that writing plays and poems was considered beneath the station of nobility, so the publication of courtier poets' works was almost always posthumous, if it was done at all. And that's fine, perhaps, for a decade or two. But that doesn't buy 400 years. Instead, two schools of thought have emerged. One has it that Oxford -- an on-again-off-again favorite of Queen Elizabeth's -- skewered the power brokers of the Elizabethan state and revealed the true colors of "Good Queen Bess" all too boldly. The contemporary events, personalities and situations that he satirized were too scandalous and politically compromising to be credited to an acknowledged insider. The other school of thought holds the personal rather than political was the reason for concealment. Namely, this line of argument posits that the author was concealing homosexual relations with another member of the court. Sobran favors the personal. The original title of Sobran's book was Outing Shakespeare. As the title implies, Sobran argues that Oxford was homosexual or bisexual. (Probably the latter, if anything, since Oxford had six children by two marriages and at least one extramarital affair -- with a raven-haired lady-in-waiting of Queen Elizabeth, suspected of being Oxford's "dark lady.") The shame spoken of in the Sonnets, Sobran claims, is in part due to the stigma attached to what he argues was a love affair with the Earl of Southampton. "Several years ago, I ran across a copy of Joseph Pequigney's book Such is My Love, which argues that the Sonnets are homosexual love poems," Sobran recalls. "I had a hard enough time seeing that Shakespeare was a nobleman. But I read the book, and it was the Ogburn thing all over again. Here's why he talks so much about disgrace. Here's why Oxford, apart from being a nobleman, would hide his authorship."Whether personal, political or a mixture of both, the Shakespeare canon with Oxford as author becomes history's greatest example of "art made tongue-tied by authority." (66) Or as Sonnett 111 states: "Thence comes it that my name receives a brand." For more on this subject visit Academy Fight SongThe authority Shakespeare writes so much about may have been political, but the authority controlling his works today emanates from ivy-covered halls, where debate over the authorship question often gets heated."William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the plays, and that's a matter of historical record," University of California at Berkeley English professor Alan H. Nelson Nelson said in a recent interview. "The only way to dispute that statement is to dismiss the historical record." Nelson has been studying the authorship controversy and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford since 1993, uncovering new letters and facts about Oxford's life. Nelson is "quite certain" that Oxford was not the pen behind Shakespeare, despite efforts to prove he was."The evidence is that there is no relation between [Oxford's] life and the publication history of the plays. His letters show a lack of a full command of English and his poems are mediocre to middling," Nelson argued. Indeed, a visit to Nelson's web site (at shows that though Oxford may not have been guilty of the crime of writing Shakespeare, he was guilty of many lesser shortcomings that Nelson has extensively cataloged. "Oxford dedicated his 10 months in Italy primarily to sexual adventure," "Oxford abdicated responsibility at the time of the Spanish Armada" and "Oxford was considered by the wags of his time a 'deadbeat dad'" are a few of the proclamations to be found on Nelson's page, reading as if it were ripped directly from the front pages of an Elizabethan edition of the New York Post. "Oxford's clear pedophilia does make a better case for his authorship of the Sonnets," Nelson conceded. Perhaps Nelson's most prominent anti-Oxfordian argument -- he's certainly gained notoriety in Oxfordian circles for this claim -- is that Oxford's spelling habits disqualify him as a potential author of the Shakespeare canon. "Some of Oxford's spelling variants are so egregious that it puts him out of the ballpark," Nelson stated. "Here are two examples. He spells 'ought' as 'ofte,' and he spells 'Wivenhoe' as 'Wiuenghole'... He just didn't hear English phonemically the way well-educated people did."Nelson's interest in Oxford aside, most Stratfordian scholars don't even bother with the dissident movement. However, some members of the orthodoxy do fuel the anti-orthodox cause -- whether they know it or not.British Shakespeare professor Eric Sams, for instance, maintains the Stratford party line but also claims things Oxfordians have been saying for decades. In his 1995 book The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 (Yale University Press), Sams argues that the author knows so much about jurisprudence that he clearly had legal training. But there's no evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford had any formal education at all. (The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, attended law school at age 17 after receiving degrees from Oxford and Cambridge.) Sams also points to a productive writing career in the 1580s, with the author turning out early versions of Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew and King John. The problem for Sams is there's no evidence of Shakespeare of Stratford's presence in London -- where these plays were published and performed -- until the early 1590s. Yet Oxfordians have long been contending that the canon as a whole is dated too late. No source material for the plays can be definitively pinpointed to anything after 1603, but many of the publications, events and characters date the origins of some plays back to the 1570s and '80s, when Oxford was a leading light in Elizabethan court and cultural life. Other professors take an agnostic approach to the authorship question. Professor Richardson has taught a class on the authorship controversy at Cleveland State University for the past seven semesters. "Like everyone else, I grew up Stratfordian," Richardson said. "And without looking at the data I was confident I could say it was just a lunatic fringe movement." However, after a colleague lent him Charlton Ogburn's Oxfordian work The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, he read it and, as he put it, "I couldn't put it down. It was a great detective story." Richardson has inspired mostly ire from his colleagues, but with few exceptions the students love the challenge. "We go from a topic of no interest to most of them," he said, "to one of meaning and great passion." A few even fly their Oxfordian colors proudly. Professor Jack Shuttleworth has taught a Shakespeare survey course at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for 22 years. Since reading Ogburn 12 years ago, he's been integrating Oxfordian materials into the class. "Usually the reaction I get is, 'Why didn't somebody tell me this before? This makes so much sense,'" Shuttleworth said. "It certainly illuminates the plays more than the vacuous, non-existent author." Since so much of Shakespeare of Stratford's life -- education, experience, knowledge, reading, even writing ability -- has to be assumed, Shuttleworth likens the Stratford story to the martini lover who asks the bartender just to wave the vermouth bottle over his glass. "The dry martini school of education permeates the Stratford myth," he said. "Shakespeare didn't have to have learning, instruction, exposure to French or Italian. Just wave the books at him. Miraculously he absorbs it all." -- Mark K. Anderson

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