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DID LORD OXFORD WRITE AS SHAKESPEARE?

Updated: May 5, 2021


I have written about why I think that the author of the works of William Shakespeare was, almost certainly, not the man from Stratford-upon-Avon; also why – and when – the idea got going that he was. The next question is obviously: who then did write them?


Ever since the publication in 1920 of a book called “Shakespeare Identified” by an English schoolmaster, the front-runner of the various candidates has become, at least recently, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Many subsequent books and articles – and, recently, YouTube presentations – have set out the reasons. I want to do a summary, partly to clear my own mind.


The first thing that needs to be said is that we are in relatively uncertain territory. The reason is obvious. Whoever was the author – if it wasn’t the man from Stratford – didn’t want it widely known, or he wouldn’t have used a pseudonym. It follows that we have to penetrate a mystery; and we may never get a certain answer.


Who was the Earl of Oxford? The earldom was the second oldest in England. His father, the

16th Earl, died when his son was 12 years old, causing him, Edward de Vere, to be made a ward of court and educated under the auspices of Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, the main adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. He was a courtier and, at least initially, a favourite of the Queen. His father ran theatrical groups, as he himself did later on. He was known as a poet and a writer.


There is no doubt that, because of his background and education, he could have been the author. But that’s no proof. What are the reasons for thinking he was?



Oxford and Hamlet


I want to start by looking at the parallels between him and Hamlet. They are seemingly endless – and I’m going to number them. It caused Orson Welles to say that if you don’t think Oxford was the author, “there are some awful funny coincidences to explain away”. Exploring them is also a way of giving a bit more background to the life and troubles of the Earl of Oxford.


Here they are:

(1) Sir William Cecil: Polonius, in the view of many literary scholars, whatever their view about authorship, was modeled on Cecil.

(2) Cecil had a son Thomas who went to France: as did Polonius’s son Laertes.

(3) Cecil had a daughter Anne, who married Oxford: Polonius had a daughter Ophelia, in love with Hamlet.

(4) Oxford’s marriage to Anne was troubled: Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia was also troubled.

(5) Cecil wrote some “precepts” for his son Thomas: Polonius gave very similar precepts to Laertes. (Cecil’s precepts were published in 1618 - after the Stratford man’s death.)

(6) Cecil spied on Thomas in France: Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes.

(7) Oxford quarreled with Sir Philip Sidney on a tennis court: Polonius talks of “falling out at tennis” when talking about Hamlet to Reynaldo.

(8) Oxford and Hamlet were both courtiers and scholars, likened by many to the character in Castiglione’s The Courtier: Oxford wrote a Latin preface to the book.

(9) Oxford also wrote a preface to Cardanus’s Comfort, a philosophical book with passages often compared to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.

(10) Oxford ran playacting groups, as had his father: Hamlet famously directs a group of players.

(11) Oxford killed a servant of Cecil while fencing: Hamlet killed Polonius with a rapier through the arras.

(12) Oxford was captured by pirates on his way back to England: Hamlet was captured by pirates on his way to England.

(13) Oxford’s father was a much admired man who died when Oxford was 12 causing him to be removed from home and sent to court: Hamlet mourned his greatly esteemed murdered father.

(14) Oxford’s mother remarried soon after her husband’s death: so did Hamlet’s mother.


Enough already! That is just Hamlet. Many of the plays have themes that reflect events, situations and traumas in Oxford’s troubled and, in some ways, disreputable life. I will try to list some, recognizing that they are not proof of authorship, but they do give some sort of indication: wrongful accusations of marital infidelity (Winter’s Tale, Othello, Much Ado, All’s Well), - Oxford made such accusations against his wife Anne Cecil; social ostracism (King Lear, As You Like It, Tempest) – Oxford was excluded from the royal court towards the end of his life; the obligations of royalty and nobility (Hamlet, Measure for Measure). I won’t try to go into the “bed trick” (All’s Well, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline) – too complicated and inappropriate for a family readership!


Italy


All the plays exhibit a vast range of knowledge in different fields – again not proof of authorship, but a necessary requirement. One of the ones that links most closely to Oxford’s special area of knowledge is Italy.


Oxford travelled to France and Italy in 1575-6, spending most of the time in Italy. Many of the plays demonstrate a detailed knowledge of Italy, its customs and, in particular, its geography that couldn’t conceivably have been acquired otherwise than by travelling in the country. This has been best recorded in a book by an American lawyer, Richard Paul Roe, called The Shakespeare Guide to Italy. He was able to find the exact location of numerous scenes in ten of the plays. The most telling were in Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.


In Romeo and Juliet he was able to locate which of the four churches in Verona called San Pietro was the one in the play. Even more telling, Benvolio says that he saw Romeo “underneath the grove of sycamore” to the west of the city. Amazingly, there is still a grove of sycamore trees just outside the old west gate. Obviously, that piece of entirely trivial information could only be picked up by visiting the place.


Similarly in The Merchant of Venice Richard Roe could locate where the house of Shylock was; and work out that Portia’s house, Belmont, was the Villa Foscari ten miles from Venice, by following the curiously precise directions given in the play.


In the past, critics have typically had great fun pointing out where Shakespeare got his Italian geography wrong: for example by his suggesting in The Two Gentlemen of Verona that you could travel from Verona to Milan by boat. It does sound odd to us as both cities are inland, but back in the 16th century that is exactly what you might have done, using the inland waterways that were then the safest means of transport.



Knowledge


So, Shakespeare knew Italy, as did Oxford - who had travelled there and spoke fluent Italian, and Latin – unlike others, even among the educated classes in Elizabethan England.


What other areas of knowledge are exhibited in the plays that connect with the Earl of Oxford? The list is long: law, medicine, astronomy, heraldry, falconry – all areas only available to someone of high education and/or an aristocratic way of life.


Law


The most impressive is probably the law. Oxford, having acquired degrees from first Cambridge and then Oxford, studied law at Gray’s Inn when he was 17 years old. The plays are replete with legal references and include many trial scenes.


The most obviously legalistic is Measure for Measure where the plot indicates the difference between Law and Equity – a difference well known to lawyers, but not so well understood by others. There are of course trial scenes, often indicating a good knowledge of legal systems other than English, in The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, King Lear (a mock trial) and Henry VIII.


In the mid-nineteenth century, John Campbell, Lord Chief Justice of England, wrote:


“I am amazed, not only by their number, but by the accuracy and propriety with which they are uniformly introduced. There is nothing so dangerous as for one not of the craft to tamper with our free-masonry . . . While novelists and dramatists are constantly making mistakes as to the law of marriage, of wills, and of inheritance, - to Shakespeare’s law, lavishly as he propounds it, there can neither be [objection], nor bill of exceptions, nor writ of error.”


Another judge, Lord Penzance, noted in 1902 that Shakespeare “seems almost to have thought in legal phrases”. This is indicated perhaps most strongly in Sonnet 46 which is a metaphor of a legal argument between the heart and the eye as to which can best claim the object of their affection.


Medicine


As with the law, there is no doubt about the extent and depth of medical knowledge in the plays. Physicians over the years have identified many hundreds of medical references, covering a wide range of topics, including neurology and psychology. Perhaps the most meaningful of the comments is that of a Scottish physician, Dr R R Simpson in 1959:


The accuracy of his observation, his apt use of words, and the clinical picture he leaves in the mind of his audience, or his reader, are not only unsurpassed, they are not even approached in clinical value in any medical writings, however erudite”.

The 16th century was a time when medicine was beginning to move away from the ancient principles of the Greek physician Galen, with his focus on the four so-called “humours”. The new approach was identified with the theories of the Swiss botanist and physician, known as Paracelsus. Are there any connections to the Earl of Oxford? He was certainly not a doctor, but there are indeed connections.


The main influence seems to have been a physician called George Baker. He was an advocate of the new Paracelsian approach. He was also house physician to the de Vere family. He dedicated his book The Newe Jewell of Health to Anne, Oxford’s wife. A later edition of the book was dedicated to Oxford himself.


Another Paracelsian was an apothecary John Hester who translated an Italian treatise and dedicated it to Oxford: it has Oxford’s coat of arms on the title page. And one of the first to employ Paracelsian treatments in England was Sir Thomas Smith, who was Edward de Vere’s tutor before he became a ward of court.


Oxford was plainly interested in the then new medical science and had unparalleled access to the most up-to-date information about it.




Proof of authorship?


So far we have no proof that the Earl of Oxford was writing as Shakespeare. We have instead a multiplicity of clues and connections. Maybe there can be no more, faced as we obviously are with a cover-up. But there are various indications that are hard to explain away – and then some cryptic clues that are even more difficult to dismiss.


In 1622, nearly 20 years after Oxford’s death and the year before the First Folio was published with the first complete collection of the plays, the scholar Henry Peacham, in his book The Complete Gentleman, named the seven greatest deceased writers of his era – those “who honoured Poesie with their Pennes and practice”. Top of the list was the Earl of Oxford – with no mention of Shakespeare at all. How come? The most obvious explanation is that Peacham knew that Shakespeare was the pseudonym of Lord Oxford.


He had given another clue ten years before, in typically cryptic Elizabethan style. It’s an anagram on the title-page of a book he produced in 1612 called Minerva Britannia. There is an image of a hand appearing from behind a curtain. The hand is in the process of writing a sentence in Latin: mente videboris (In the mind thou shalt be seen), except that the “s” hasn’t yet been written. Very convenient, because without the “s” the letters are an anagram for Nom tibi De Vere (Your name is De Vere). This may seem too subtle by half, but we have to recognize that the Elizabethans were immensely keen on cryptology of all kinds. And no one has found another explanation of what is behind this curiosity.


Another curiosity – less cryptic - relates to the printing of the plays. Many of the plays had been printed in quarto editions between 1594 and 1604. Nineteen plays were published in this way, in a fairly steady stream. This stopped abruptly in 1604, the year when Oxford died. What a coincidence! There were only three more published in this way over the next 20 years, and none of these were new plays.



The tempest off Bermuda


Before getting on to the other – even more intricate - cryptic clues, I ought to dispose of a curious problem that has been advanced as proof that the plays, specifically the Tempest, couldn’t have been written by Oxford. The argument is that the tempest in the play was based on a 1609 shipwreck near Bermuda – several years after Oxford’s death. The argument rests on the theory that the inspiration for the play was an account of the shipwreck in a letter by a William Strachey.


There are two problems with the theory, dealt with in some considerable detail by Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky in their On the Date, Sources and Design of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The first is that Strachey’s letter wasn’t published until 1625, so the theory relies on imaginative reconstruction of ways in which the letter, or perhaps a draft of it, found its way into the hands of Shakespeare.


But the second problem is more crucial. There was a far more likely source for Shakespeare’s inspiration published in 1555: this was Richard Eden’s translation of various accounts of voyages of exploration, which contain many more possible links with the play than Strachey’s letter. The crucial point is that the orthodox theory relies on the notion that the Strachey letter is the only possible source. It is certainly not that; it isn’t even the most likely. So Stritmatter and Kositsky have effectively demolished the theory. (Stritmatter is Professor of Humanities at Coppin State University in Baltimore.)


Cryptic clues


This needs an introduction. It is an exploration of cryptic clues or riddles concealed in various places that, if they have been deciphered correctly, prove beyond much doubt that the Earl of Oxford was indeed the author Shakespeare. The research has been done by various scholars, but recently has been continued and elaborated by Alexander Waugh. He has explained it all in presentations on YouTube and has said that, in due course, he plans to put it in book form.


It does of course beg the question: why the riddles? Why all the secrecy? And it relates to the whole issue of why “William Shakespeare” was adopted as a pseudonym. Part of the answer must be that in Elizabethan England there was no such thing as freedom of speech. As a result, people were accustomed to secret signs and to finding out things by way of metaphors - and by riddles, the more elaborate the better.


I can’t begin to summarise the explanations that Alexander Waugh gives in his YouTube presentations, but I can give an idea of what the results are.


The first relates to the bizarre epitaph under the monument to Shakespeare in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. There are two lines in Latin and six lines in almost unintelligible English. The Latin makes no reference to Shakespeare at all; the English, in so far as it makes any sense, does refer to Shakespeare but certainly doesn’t suggest that he’s buried there, nor does it amount to the kind of eulogy that one would expect. So, the idea that it is a “riddle wrapped in an enigma” (to misquote Winston Churchill) has a certain appeal.


The answer to the riddle, according to Waugh, is that it contains the message – very hidden – that “Vere lives in Shakspear (sic) whose name he is”. Apart from this highly cryptic message, it also manages to indicate – with a little juggling of the words, bearing in mind that the words without the juggling make no sense at all – that the Latin lines tell you where Shakespeare actually is buried. The Latin lines, by contrast, are reasonably clear. They translate as “the earth covers Pylius, Socrates and Maro [known to us as Virgil]”. Those three classical figures were apparently code – to your educated Elizabethan – for Francis Beaumont, Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spencer. And where are they buried? In Westminster Abbey, in that order, in what we now call Poets’ Corner. So, it’s telling us that Shakespeare is buried in Westminster Abbey; this happens to be consistent with a brief note left by a relative of Oxford, Percival Golding, saying that Oxford was buried there.


There are also riddles hidden in the dedication to the Sonnets. The sonnets were published in 1609 in a curious book entitled “Shake-Speares Sonnets”. The book has no explicit indication of who they were written by, and contains a mysterious dedication to a “Mr W.H.”. The dedication is printed in a bizarre set of triangles and refers to the author as “ever-living” – a phrase always used to denote someone deceased (thus, incidentally, excluding the man from Stratford, who was still alive). Again, all this mystery makes it wholly credible that there are cryptic messages involved.


According to the research, the messages – even more cryptic, but much more detailed, than those on the epitaph - are that the sonnets were written by “E Ver”(sic) and, as with the other messages, that de Vere is buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner.


As indicated, this is by no means a summary of Alexander Waugh’s presentations. To understand it all, you need to go to YouTube.


Heresy


All this is regarded as heresy by the literary establishment in England (less so, I believe, in the United States). I’m glad I’m not applying for a post in a department of English Literature in one of our ancient universities. But it would be good to hear reasoned responses – other than suggesting that Shakespeare would have been incapable of writing about a shipwreck without the help of a news report.




Tony Herbert

22 February 2021

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