From the 7/24/00 issue of USN&WR

Hunting for good Will
Will the real Shakespeare please stand up?


LONDON–Among the crowds enjoying the summer productions of Hamlet and The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, few are likely to question who wrote the 38 plays, two long poems, and 154 sonnets that make up the West's greatest canon of literary genius. Conventional wisdom points to the Stratford merchant and supposed Globe actor, born to an illiterate glove maker in 1564 and baptized Gulielmus Shakspere. But there is growing circumstantial evidence that the Bard may be an Elizabethan courtier and author, the Earl of Oxford.

The authorship question has been pondered since the 1780s, when the Rev. James Wilmot spent four fruitless years trying to link the Stratford man to the works attributed to him. Today, those who believe that Shakspere was the author have no definitive proof but instead point to Hamlet's declaration: "The play's the thing." Disbelievers, borrowing from The Rape of Lucrece, are eager "to unmask falsehood and bring truth to light." Charles Francis Topham de Vere Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford and direct descendant of Edward de Vere (1550-1604), the 17th Earl of Oxford, believes his ancestor wrote the plays under the hyphenated pseudonym "William Shake-speare." Declares his lordship, curator of the de Vere library and a leading Oxford proponent: "Academics have an enormous vested interest in Shakespeare: For them, the issue is not literary or historical, but political. Their man is a flimsy cardboard cutout."

The debate hums on both sides of the Atlantic, and over the years many have expressed doubt in Shakespeare's authorship. Skeptics range from Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, and John Gielgud to current entertainment luminaries such as Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe, and leading Shakespearean actors Michael York, Kenneth Branagh, and Derek Jacobi. Even Keanu Reeves has gotten into the act. The Matrix star, who appeared in Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, is described by the de Vere camp as a dedicated Oxford supporter. Several Elizabethan writers, including Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe, are proffered as possible authors, but the weight of evidence anoints de Vere as the leading candidate.

Despite more than two centuries of research beginning with Wilmot, there isn't a scrap of documentation that Shakspere, the Warwickshire merchant, ever wrote anything in his life. There are no manuscripts, poems, letters, diaries, or records in his own hand. His will, dictated to a lawyer, makes no mention of a literary legacy and who should inherit it.

Shakspere at best had only a grammar school education, and he is not known to have traveled beyond Stratford and London. He probably left the capital in his early to middle 40s, when his writing career presumably would have been at its zenith, and returned to the humdrum life of a provincial grain and property dealer. How, say skeptics, could he have accumulated the vast knowledge of royalty, court life, politics, and foreign lands–particularly of Italy, where several plays are set–woven through such a sophisticated body of work? Whoever wrote the plays and sonnets had a rare breadth of knowledge in numerous disciplines, including physical sciences, medicine, the law, astronomy, and the Bible.

Grain man. Shakspere died in obscurity and was buried anonymously. Six years after his death in 1616, the first edition of Henry Peacham's The Compleat Gentleman was published, listing the Elizabethan era's greatest poets. Heading the list: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. In this and three succeeding editions, there is no mention of Shakespeare by any spelling. Eighteen years after Shakspere's death, an engraved monument in a Stratford church shows him holding what appears to be a sack of grain. A century later, the sack became pen and paper.

Stratfordians cherish their orthodoxy but have scant evidence to bolster their case. In 1623, the so-called First Folio of the complete works of "William Shake-speare" was published, and the dedications include the phrases "thy Stratford moniment" and "sweet swan of Avon," apparent references to the author's home. And presuming young Will attended grammar school, he most likely would have received a first-class education. Gail Kern Paster, editor of The Shakespeare Quarterly, calls the attack on the Bard a snobbish doctrine that rejects the idea of brilliance flowering in humble circumstances and that underestimates Elizabethan classical schooling. "The only proof necessary is that Shakespeare could have written the plays and sonnets, not that he did,'' she says.

But did de Vere? The 17th Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before a third of the plays were published, but his supporters argue that they could have been written and kept under wraps or that the publication dates are inaccurate. He earned two master's degrees, studied law for three years, traveled extensively throughout Italy, and had an intimate view of court life and politics. A playwright and author of sonnets, he ceased publishing under his own name in 1593–the same year that the name William Shake-speare appeared on a manuscript. It's probably a pseudonym, because hyphenation was rarely used then. And the name points to de Vere. His family crest contains a lion shaking a spear, and, at court, says Lord Burford, he was known as "spear shaker." (Although some believe that he knew the real Will Shakespeare and simply borrowed his name.)

What's in a name? The pen name was almost certainly for protection. Many of the plays deal with court intrigue and political corruption and contain thinly veiled satires and parodies of politicians and courtiers. During the Elizabethan era, writers were imprisoned and mutilated for committing literary excesses or violating political correctness, and many wrote anonymously. Playwrights were also held in low esteem because public theaters like the Globe were the rowdy province of commoners, the audiences laced with prostitutes, cutpurses, drunkards, and scoundrels of every stripe.

There may be an even more urgent reason. The 1623 First Folio of collected works is dedicated to the young Earl of Southampton, de Vere's son-in-law, with whom he is reputed to have had a homosexual affair. Scholars also see strong homoerotic threads in many of the sonnets–a dangerous business at a time when such affairs were a high crime.

Mounting evidence appears to strengthen de Vere's candidacy. None is more persuasive than an eight-year study, completed in 1999, of the heavily marked and annotated Geneva Bible, owned by de Vere. More than one fourth of the 1,066 highlighted passages appear in Shakespeare's writings–phrases like "weaver's beam" and "I am that I am" and unusual names like "Achitophel." In addition, 29 of the playwright's 66 most prominent biblical allusions are also marked.

Prof. Daniel Wright directs the annual Edward de Vere Studies Conference at Oregon's Concordia University and harbors no doubts that Oxford is the anonymous author. Says Wright: "These works are the mature achievements of a worldly and urbane littérateur who could not tell the world his name." And there's the rub, as Hamlet says–at least for the Shakespearean traditionalists.