Much Ado About Nothing? Examining the Shakespeare Authorship Debate
Eric Altschuler, a physicist and medical student, believes that Edward de Vere,
the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote all the plays and poems
attributed to William Shakespeare. Part of his reasoning? In Hamlet,
a character sees a “bright star” over the skies of Denmark on a
November evening. According to Altschuler, this refers to a supernova that
appeared in November 1572. The Shakespeare from Stratford was just eight
years old. Oxford was 22. So, unless Shakespeare remembered this childhood
event, which Altschuler thinks unlikely, it’s obvious that Oxford was
this seems a bit, well, trite – must an author witness a supernova to
write about a bright star? – such is the stuff of which the Shakespeare
authorship debate is made.
speaking, the debate is split between two camps: the Stratfordians and the
anti-Stratfordians. Stratfordians believe that the William Shakespeare
born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564 wrote all the plays and poems normally
attributed to William Shakespeare. Anti-Stratfordians believe that someone
else wrote the plays and used Shakespeare’s name as a pseudonym or
front. In 1785, Reverend James Wilmot, rector of Barton-on-the-Heath, was
the first to formally doubt the Stratford man’s authorship, and the
debate has raged ever since. Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens,
Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Malcolm X, Orson Welles,
Walt Whitman, former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and current
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are some of the more notable
total of fifty-seven candidates have been nominated for this envious role,
including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, 6th
Earl of Derby, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. The most popular
alternative now, though, appears to be Edward de Vere, the 17th
Earl of Oxford. His supporters, called Oxfordians, are a vocal and
persistent bunch; Thomas Looney first nominated Oxford in a 1920 book
called Shakespeare. For the sake
of simplicity and brevity, this paper will deal with the Oxfordian
The Shakespeare authorship debate
follows a fairly reliable pattern: Oxfordians make a claim and the
Stratfordians dispute it. Functionally speaking, it has to be this way,
since Oxfordians are challenging the dominant, established position (more
on this in the conclusion) held by the Stratfordians.
As the debate
continues, a recurring theme emerges. Oxfordians propose theories that
sound very reasonable and persuasive to modern ears. Stratfordians, in
response to these arguments, place them in the proper historical context
to determine their validity. This will becomes clear as the arguments are
make much of the fact that there is no evidence that Shakespeare attended
the Stratford Grammar School. Furthermore, it is an established fact that
Shakespeare never attended a university. How could an uneducated man, they
ask, produce such brilliant work? Not only that, but Shakespeare’s
father was illiterate, as were two of Shakespeare’s own daughters. Would
a genius of the English language come from a family of illiterates?
Finally, the six documented Shakespeare signatures are a scrawled, nearly
illegible mess. Add it all up, say the Oxfordians, and William Shakespeare
was an uneducated, illiterate boob.
arguments make sense, and are quite compelling, especially to people who
are unfamiliar with Elizabethan society. Stratfordians realize this and
frame their answers accordingly.
schooling. Stratfordians readily concede the lack of evidence for
Shakespeare’s attendance at the Stratford Grammar School. However, they
gleefully point out that there are no records of any student at the
Stratford school before 1700 – the records don’t exist. In fact, there
is no evidence of schooling for many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries,
including Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Decker, Michael Drayton (who
translated Homer), Cyril Tourneur, and so on (Stratfordians slyly point
out that Oxfordians do not question the education bona fides of these
individuals). It turns out that the lack of documented education is quite
then examine the education of those who grew up with Shakespeare in
Stratford. Many of them went on to university or became members of the
clergy. These childhood contemporaries came from similar social
surroundings as Shakespeare, yet obviously received a good education.
There is no reason to think that Shakespeare should be different. His
father, though he was indeed illiterate, was elected mayor of Stratford,
so he certainly was in a position to send his son to a fine school.
signatures. To modern eyes, and even modern forensic experts, they indeed
appear forced, or labored, indicating an uneducated hand. However, during
Shakespeare’s time, handwriting was shifting from the older style, or
Secretary, to the precursor of the modern style, Italic. Modern students
can easily read Italic, but not Secretary. Shakespeare wrote in the
Secretary style, which explains why it appears illegible. Besides, say
Stratfordians, do we assume that doctors are illiterate because we cannot
read their signatures on our prescriptions?
Stratfordians admit that Shakespeare’s daughters probably could not read
and write. Unfortunately, though, illiteracy among women was not uncommon
at the time.
charge that there is no evidence that the William Shakespeare from
Stratford physically penned the plays. They even refute that he was an
actor in the royal court. For example, Charlton Ogburn, a prominent
Oxfordian, cited the diary of Philip Henslowe, a theater manager and
builder of several playhouses. His diary lists several playwrights and
actors, but not Shakespeare.
case rests on especially shaky ground here. First of all, there is ample
evidence that Shakespeare performed in an acting company variously called
Lord Chamberlain’s Man, Lord Hundson’s Men, and the King’s Men:
receipt of payment from the Royal Treasury paid "William Kempe
William Shakespeare & Richard Burbage servants to the Lord
Chamberleyne" for court performances.
document licensing the King's Men lists Shakespeare as an actor.
Jonson's folio Works names Shakespeare as a performer in
Jonson's 1598 play Every Man in his Humor.
name appears in the cast list of another Jonson play, Sejanus,
which was performed in 1603.
Henslowe’s diary isn’t quite as
comprehensive a list of playwrights as Ogburn asserts. For example,
prominent actors Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, and John Heminge do not
appear. Nor do playwrights Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene
or George Peele. Indeed, as Irwin Matus writes in the Atlantic Monthly
(1991), “no player or playwright is named in the Diary before 1596,
which certainly explains the absence of Shakespeare: by then Shakespeare
was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company, which had no association
with Henslowe or his playhouse. No wonder we don’t find him in the
But did Shakespeare write the plays?
Just because he is listed as the author, say Oxfordians, doesn’t mean he
was the author.
In response, Stratfordians turn to
contemporary documents of the times, and even some poetry:
1598, Francis Meres published Palladis
Tamia: Wits Treasury, in which he identifies Shakespeare as the
author of twelve plays, including King
John, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV.
He describes Oxford as a writer of comedies in the same paragraph with
Shakespeare, which he would unlikely do if the two were one and the
a 1610 poem, John Davies calls Shakespeare “our English Terence.”
Terence was a Roman playwright “who came from humble origins, just
like Shakespeare.” Davies also refers to Shakespeare in the present
tense. Since Oxford died in 1604, Davis, presumably, would have used
the past tense if Oxford were really Shakespeare.
a list of “our moderne, and present excellent Poets” published in
John Stow’s Annales,
Edmund Howes lists “M. Willi. Shakespeare gentleman.” Shakespeare
had earned the title of gentleman when his father was granted a coat
of arms in 1596.
Basse argues that Shakespeare should have been buried in Westminster
Abbey in a poem called “On Mr. William Shakespeare, he died in April
1616.” Again, Oxford died in 1604.
a poem called “To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William
Shakespeare,” Ben Jonson writes:
Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James!
here connects Shakespeare with Stratford-on-Avon. Oxfordians claim that he
also could be referring to their man, since Oxford inherited an estate on
the Avon River. However, Oxford sold the estate in 1580, 43 years before
Jonson wrote his poem, and there’s no indication that he ever went
commit a serious error when they state there is no evidence that the
Stratford man wrote the plays, since it enables Stratfordians to unleash a
slew of documentary evidence showing the exact opposite. But what case do
Oxfordians make for their own candidate?
Case for Oxford
born into the nobility and enrolled at Cambridge University at the young
age of eight. Both his father and grandfather managed acting companies,
and one of his uncles, Henry Howard, was the first Englishman to write in
the Shakespearean sonnet form. Another uncle, Arthur Golding, was
Oxford’s tutor, and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which many have described as Shakespeare’s favorite
a royal ward of the court at age 12 when his father died. William Cecil,
Lord Burghley, became his guardian and later father-in-law, and Oxford
spent the rest of his life in the inner circle of the Queen’s court. He
traveled extensively, journeying to Italy, France, and Germany, and wrote
poetry and comedies. He studied law for three years.
are important to Oxfordians because they claim that Shakespeare lacked the
education necessary to write the plays, while Oxford had the education.
The plays describe the inner life of royal courts, geographical details of
Italy and Venice (in The Merchant of Venice) and intricacies of the law. The uneducated
Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have known this information. It wasn’t a
problem for Oxford.
But why pick
the name Shakespeare? Oxfordians don’t agree on the answer. Some claim
that Oxford and Shakespeare met in London after Shakespeare tried and
failed as an actor. Oxford offered to pay him to pose as the real author
of his plays, and the broke, desperate Stratford boob agreed. Others
contend that Pallas Athena, who was the patron goddess of Athens (which
happened to be the birthplace of the theater), was also known as
Hasti-Vibrans, or the spear-shaker, and this inspired Oxford to conjure up
the name Shakespeare. In this scenario, Oxford doesn’t even know a real
Shakespeare exists. Another theory: The Bulbeck crest of Edward de Vere,
17th Earl of Oxford, shows a lion shaking
a broken spear.
But this begs
the question: Why did Oxford feel the need to keep silent? What was the
At the time,
playwrights were considered middle class and writing plays was simply not
a proper pursuit for a prominent nobleman like Oxford. Furthermore, the
plays were such vicious satires of royalty that publishing them under his
own name could lead to charges of treason.
thrust of the Oxfordian case, though, is one of biography. Oxfordians
believe that the plays, particularly Hamlet, and the sonnets are an autobiography of Oxford, a mirror
image of his life and a vehicle to express his frustration at forced
anonymity. For example, it was proposed as far back as 1869 that Polonius,
the adviser to the king in Hamlet,
is based on Lord Burghley. In his 1991 Atlantic Monthly article, Tom
Bethell outlines additional similarities between Hamlet (the character)
and Oxford’s life:
felt that his wife was unfaithful to him while he was in Europe, and even
doubted that he was the father of their first child. Hamlet tells Polonius:
“Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive.”
and Hamlet were scholars, athletes, poets, and patrons of play-acting
sends out Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris, to catch him “drinking,
fencing, swearing, quarelling,” or “falling out at tennis.” Lord
Burghley once sent Thomas Cecil, his son, to Paris, and mysteriously
received information about Thomas’ gambling, raising suspicions of a
Burghley-employed spy. Additionally, Oxford had a “falling out at
tennis” with Sir Philip Sidney.
stabbed a servant of Burghley’s (possibly another of Burghley’s spies)
and “Polonius is stabbed by Hamlet while spying on him.”
is Hamlet’s “trusted” friend. Horace Vere, called “Horatio” in
some documents, was Oxford’s “most trusted relative.”
Oxfordians next turn to the sonnets, and
while space does not permit a full examination here, one line from Sonnet
76 serves as a representative example of the Oxfordian argument:
“That every word doth almost tell my
Showing their birth, and where they did
How do Stratfordians respond to all
this? Quite predictably, they note that it is all speculation and
conjecture, nothing more than a futile attempt to dredge up any
information about Oxford and manipulate it until it fits with Shakespeare.
In fact, the “case for Oxford demonstrates once again that in the
thousands of works on Shakespeare and his plays, something can be found to
support any notion.”
Stratfordians are amazed when Oxfordians
claim that Shakespeare didn’t have the knowledge to write about court
life, especially because he was an actor in the royal court. Besides,
surely he had sources of information, as all writers do.
Stratfordians concede that it wasn’t
proper for noblemen to write plays, but that doesn’t prove that Oxford
wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Great writers have used pseudonyms, but very
few, if any, have used the name of an actual, living person.
As for Hamlet,
Stratfordians reject the parallels with Oxford and instead cite Kyd’s Spanish
Tragedy as the likely source. Kyd’s work includes “a ghost, a
play-within-a-play used for an ulterior motive at court, a hero who
reproaches himself for delay and considers suicide, a woman whose love is
opposed by her father and brother, a woman who goes mad and kills herself,
and an avenger and his intended victim who have a public reconciliation
before an ultimately tragic end,” all critical elements of Hamlet.
counter Sonnet 76 (which requires an “Oxfordian decoder to find a secret
message”) with Sonnet 135:
“Whoever hath her
wish, thou has thy will,
to boot, and will in
And the last two
“Let no unkind no
fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and
me in that one will.”
the Shakespeare authorship debate, one thing becomes clear: Oxfordians
seemingly do not realize that they are up against 300 years of
established, entrenched opinion (or fact, as Stratfordians would claim).
Like the prosecution in a criminal trial, the burden of proof falls
squarely on them to overturn the widely held belief that Shakespeare
indeed wrote Shakespeare. They must do better than spear-shaking
That is not
to say that the Oxfordian case lacks merit. It is a legitimate challenge,
or Stratfordians wouldn’t expend so much energy refuting it. And
although the debate has its moments of silliness, it has produced a fair
amount of valuable scholarship. Oxfordian charges force Stratfordians to
respond (which they always seem to do) with well-reasoned, well-documented
arguments. This may turn out to be the greatest irony of all, since this
ultimately reinforces the Stratfordian position.
So, is the
Shakespeare authorship debate much ado about nothing? Not for now,
perhaps, but sometime in the future, the weight of history will prove too
heavy to bear, and will come to rest beside the “Sweet Swan of Avon.”