1. Skepticism

When I stumbled upon this node, I was suddenly reminded of the college professor (the one who taught me Shakespeare) laughing at the arguments of skeptics regarding Shakespeare's authorship of Shakespeare's plays. He used words like "ludicrous," which I assumed he did not use lightly. Aah, but Oxford (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) seems to have gained more of a following than I had realized.

All those people can't be wrong, I thought to myself, they even have a website. And not one of those free angelfire jobs, either; they actually registered a domain name.1

Yes, certainly these people are not to be taken lightly. So, for hours and hours I scoured their statement to the world, absorbing their invented vocabulary (words such as stratfordian, antistratfordian, Shakspere (that's the name by which they refer to the man who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon commonly understood as William Shakespeare, seriously), trying to find a cogent argument to support either (1) that the human being William Shakespeare (who was born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in April of 1564, who records show to have been baptized on April 23 of that year) was not the William Shakespeare that wrote Hamlet, King Lear, et al, or (2) that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, in fact was. I'm not a picky person, I'd accept either. What I found, in the Shakespeare Oxford Society's webpage (I've somehow forgotten to mention that they are, and should be accorded all the respect that such a position deserves, "the second oldest continuously operating organization . . . involved in the two-centuries old Shakespeare authorship debate"), was this blunt and to-the-point two-point attack on the authorship of Shakespeare's works by Shakespeare:

In the following pages, the Shakespeare Oxford Society argues two related propositions:

  • It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare's works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.
  • The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.2

Now, like many an academic, I was not completely prepared for the rigors of a proof relying on not only the unlikelihood, but the high unlikelihood of an accepted convention, not to mention the ability of such a man as Oxford to adequately realize the necessary qualifications of such a position as being William Shakespeare. I strongly considered dropping the argument completely against this onslaught of logic and rhetoric. Then I stumbled upon even more evidence that Shakespeare was in fact not Shakespeare:

Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world's greatest author. Of course, if it could readily be proved that he had written the plays and poems that would be an end of the matter. But it can't; and this is what is so extraordinary; there is very little evidence - and what little there is casts even more doubt on his authorship.3
Yes, yes, I thought, certainly writers and poets are known to be, unquestionably wonderful people, brilliant businessmen, always tactful and respectful of the extablished order, and without question educated in the university system.

And if all this was not evidence enough, a number of other claims are made:

  • Shakespeare's plays are identified as written by "William Shakespeare," rather than "William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon." Neither do they bear his birthdate, astrological sign, hair color, nor the length of his penis.
  • As evidenced by his plays, the Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare would have necessarily been versed in "law, music, foreign languages, the classics, and aristocratic manners and sports." There is no record of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon taking any classes, community-ed or otherwise, nor any correspondence course diplomas bearing the words "the classics," "aristocratic manners," or "sports" available as evidence in the matter.
  • There is no evidence, save "posthumous traditions" that Shakespeare was an actor in Shakespeare's company (this one will be taken up later, as it seems people who call themselves "historians" rather than "antistratfordians" have a minor quibble with this issue).

And if this evidence were not damning enough, there's more. Evidence for Oxford's authorship of Shakespeare consists of a number of points:

  • "Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was a recognized poet and playwright of great talent, and although no play under Oxford's name has come down to us, his acknowledged early verse and his surviving letters contain forms, words, and phrases resembling those of Shakespeare."
  • "Studies of Oxford's and Shakespeare's word parallels have been conducted by Craig Huston in The Shakespeare Authorship Question, Evidence for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and others." (I feel obligated to point out that, yes, I did not cut that quotation off: The entire statement amounts to Studies of word parallels (between Shakespeare and Oxford) have been conducted. Oddly, the results of these studies are not mentioned.)
  • "Oxford's coat of arms bears a lion shaking a spear."
  • "Polonius in Hamlet refers to 'young men falling out at tennis,' which most likely refers to the infamous Oxford-Sidney tennis-court quarrel."
  • Many famous people believe that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare (see Scientology for a similar argument).

And so on, for quite some length, proving without a doubt that (1) Shakespeare and Oxford both lived at roughly the same time and both wrote, (2) Oxford can be tenuously associated with the term "spear" without any great deal of lying, deceit, or trickery, and (3) that a number of Shakespeare's plays (widely considered "universal" or, as Ben Johnson put it, "He was not of an age, but for all time") share themes in common with Oxford's life. As an aside, Johnson knew Shakespeare, wrote disparagingly of his lack of Education, and like a great number of late-16th-century Englishmen would most likely have been aware of the great conspiracy surrounding Shakespeare and Oxford had Oxford penned Shakespeare's plays.

Oh, and before I forget, the most damning piece of evidence against Shakespeare authoring the works of Shakespeare: The name Shakespeare was often spelled on documents as "Shakespere," "Shakespear," "Shakspeare," "Shackspeare, "Shakspere, "Shackespeare, "Shackspere," "Shackespere," "Shaxspere," etc. I say "spelled" as opposed to "misspelled," as in this period of time, spelling was not particularly fixed, and in fact, often, pronounciation was not always fixed. Names were often spelled two or three different ways on the same document. Shakespeare's name was also spelled "Shake-speare," which seems a very important point to the Oxford crowd, as this denotes evidence that it was a pseudonym. Is there evidence that a hyphenated name denotes a pseudonym? None that I could find. None that the antistratfordians choose to produce. Is there evidence that hyphenated names are just alternate spellings? Well, in Shakespeare's time, names such as "Broad-sword" and "Fitz-geffrey," which could easily be separated into two parts, were often hyphenated at the penman's whim.

Okay, back to "Shakspere": the antistratfordian ("Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare") movement does not call William Shakespeare "William Shakespeare." He's simply referred to as "Shakspere." Why? Well, as Shakespeare's name was written in many different forms (some listed above), these people suggest that "Shakespeare" was Oxford's pseudonym, while a man named Shakspere was the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. Is there evidence to support this claim? I'm still looking for it. There is, however, a statistical analysis of the different spellings of Shakespeare's name4 which appears to refute it.

2. History

All-right, I'm going to try to shed the irony. I apologize for it. There is a type of argument that must be dealt with in this way (that is, when a party is being deliberately obtuse). I didn't intend to approach this question from such an adversarial tack. I started my reading open to the possibility that "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" could have been written by someone who was not born in Stratford-upon-Avon. But all the meat of evidence in this argument was on one side, all the fluff on the other. Here, for example, are the points that must be refuted to show that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare:

  • William Shakespeare was in fact born, lived, and died. I have read no contentions that deny this.
  • If this statement cannot be disproved, one must then explain why a man wishing to conceal his identity would chose a pseudonym that corresponded with an actual living person. This is unprecedented, as it defeats the purpose of the pseudonym (quite simply, that person could easily say "it's not me," and the gig would be up, so to speak).
  • Shakespeare was an actor in Shakespeare's company. This is established by direct evidence5. It means that Shakespeare was not just lending his name to the company, that he was involved in the productions, and (if he were not the playwright) that he was in danger, moment-to-moment, of showing his ignorance of plays he had supposedly written.
  • Shakespeare's fellow actors, his fellow playwrights, his Queen, his friends, anyone close to him, would have been aware of his deceit, completely defeating the purpose of the real playwright's intent (that is, to pretend that Shakespeare wrote the plays, not he).
  • All those involved in this massive conspiracy succeeded in hiding, for around three hundred years, any knowledge or evidence concerning that conspiracy (that is, before anyone questioned whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare).

And if that is not enough evidence, consider this: Oxford died before one third of Shakespeare's plays were written (according to the currently accepted timeline). And Oxford's case is considered the best of the sixty-plus people (besides Shakespeare) who have been proposed, at one time or another, to have written Shakespeare's plays.

3. The Ugly Truth

Why? Why? Why?

(That's what you're asking, right?)

Why do people try endlessly to prove that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare? Well, if I were the master himself, I'd find solace in reading things like this. People believe this stuff, I guess because it makes them feel important. They get to found societies. They get to be scientists, they get to be Sherlock Holmes, without all that tedious book-learning or the need for analytical prowess. And with Shakespeare there's a little bonus. I'll quote one final time from the Oxfords:

What difference would it make to my appreciation of the plays?

First, it transforms the way we read, understand and perform the works of Shakespeare. Acknowledging Oxford's authorship restores the political dimensions of his works which the Stratford story so conveniently obscures.

Simply stated, some people have a difficulty dealing with the idea that the (arguably) greatest writer in the English language was not a college-educated man. Not an "Oxford" man. They conveniently forget that the type of education we associate with college did not exist at the time, that those higher-learning institutions were mainly seminaries, and that such "grammar schools" as Shakespeare almost certainly attended were sophisticated enough to teach Latin and Greek. The argument nested under all the unfounded points on which they rely is simply this: "He couldn't have." The truth is that he could have, while they could not, and he most certainly did, while they circulate quarterly newsletters, an annual journal, an online magazine, and "carry articles, conference papers and news imparting a wide range of corroborating information and commentary." Sounds like fun; I wonder if they'll let me join.

4. Further reading

The two websites from which, mainly, I have gathered my information are both strong sources for their opposing viewpoints (though I believe if you read them extensively, you will find, as I did, that one strongly invalidates the other). These are http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com and http://shakespeareauthorship.com. Other resources include a (PBS) Frontline story, and follow-up, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/ which includes testimony and judgments of mock-trials regarding the Shakespeare authorship question, and http://www.google.com/search?q=who+wrote+shakespeare, my personal favorite.


1: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com
2: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/guide.htm
3: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/faqfina3.htm
4: http://shakespeareauthorship.com/name1.html
5: http://shakespeareauthorship.com/howdowe.html

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