Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mr Anonymous : Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604)

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
"Here's one I wrote earlier, guv".  [Edward de Vere]
So Hollywood has a new 'Shakespeare' movie coming out. Well, well, nearly 400 years dead and still good for business! The latest well-hyped offering is titled Anonymous and is based on the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (1550-1604), whom the film hails as the ‘true author’ of Shakespeare’s plays. This is the also the view of a handful of crackpot Shakespearean actors and academics, though it may have been thought that the fact that de Vere inconveniently died before many of the plays had been written (Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Coriolanus, The Tempest) might have deterred them just a little.

One of the arguments they put forward against Shakespeare's authorship is that he did not attend a university and so would not have had the classical education needed to write the plays, many of which are based on stories from the Roman writer Ovid. But Shakespeare almost certainly attended Stratford Grammar School (the school records no longer exist, but Shakespeare's father was a town councillor and it was a 'perk' of all councillors that their sons were educated at the grammar school). They were called grammar schools because what they taught was Latin grammar, and once the boys had mastered the language all the lessons were in Latin. Among the books they studied was the works of - you guessed! - Ovid, and it is estimated that when the boys left the grammar school they would have had the equivalent of a classics degree from a modern university.

Shakespeare also seemed to reminisce on his grammar school days in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which we see a boy, appropriately called William, being given an amusing Latin lesson by his Welsh school master, called in the play Evans. It is known that when Shakespeare was a boy there was indeed a Welsh master teaching at the grammar school.

Shakespeare's dedication in
The Rape of Lucrece to his
patron, the Earl of Southampton
De Vere was a minor poet and writer of song lyrics. Among his lyrics was Come hither, shepherd swain, which was published under his own name: Earle of Oxenforde. So if he published poems under his name, why not plays, too? It is contended by his supporters that the writing of plays was regarded as a lowly profession and certainly not one to which a man of noble birth could associate his name. But Shakespeare also wrote poems. Is it not strange that the earl should acknowledge his authorship of his own trivia, but not of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which are regarded as poetic masterpieces?

The fact is that no one in Shakespeare's lifetime ever doubted that he was the author of the plays. Not the Stationer's Office, which approved books for publication; not the Master of the Revels, the booking agent for court performances of plays; not  his friends and partners in his theatre company; not rival dramatists, such as Ben Jonson, a man famed at the time for his learning and erudition (though like Shakespeare he had no university education). The authorship fashion only arose in the Nineteenth Century, over 200 years after Shakespeare's death, when the Victorians, in search of a national hero, lauded him as a universal genius and a man of family values (yes, it's a good joke!), indeed as a demi-god. But if you put someone up on a plinth in that manner then sooner or later someone's going to want to knock you off. The more so if there's money to be made (conspiracy theorists, publishers, film makers, Mein Herr academics, etc., etc., etc., etc.)

The film also casts de Vere as the incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth, so it obviously has its tongue firmly in its cheek. But how many Oscars will it win, that is the question.


  1. I suggest you see the film before making pejorative comments about a multi-layered complex subject of which you seem to have only a superficial knowledge. The evidence for Edward de Vere is extensive and very convincing and there are many books describing this; however the search for the truth behind the myth requires an open mind, an inquiring mind that is open to looking beneath the shallow assumptions of the consensus view.

  2. Thanks for your comment, it’s good to get feedback. You seem to regard Shakespeare’s authorship as a ‘myth’ (has it really come to that?) and that most of the professors (‘the consensus view’) are dealing in ‘shallow assumptions’ without ‘open minds’, a charge which I am sure they would totally (and justifiably) reject. But have you considered the possibility, however remote it may be, that Shakespeare actually did write the plays? That his friends who said he ‘never blotted a line’ may have said so out of personal knowledge of the man? And if you want to look for textual evidence from the plays - which the de Veer and other anti-stratfordian types happily do - then how about the seventy or so references to glove making, the trade of Shakespeare’s father? I’m not totally convinced that an earl would know an awful lot about tanning leather to make gloves for ladies. But I welcome your comments and will probably enjoy the film when I see it.

  3. Don't protest too much partner. You may end up looking silly and ignorant. You presented a string of rationalizations I can knock down in a minute. But start with the initial facts and you may be on the way to learning and change. Look at the Shakspere signatures. An illegible scrawl by someone totally unfamiliar with a quill. No single letter formed the same or name spelled the same over the six signatures. And one of these was in 1612, well before his demise. The others, in January 1616, he wrote after testifying in print he was of sound mind and body. Add that no other mark of writing has ever been found connecting Shakspere to any form of communication in his entire life, and you will understand why some of us may be skeptical. As for the gloves, check the plays. He wasn't referring to tannery gloves but silken and crocheted, or perfumed, (which Lord Oxford brought back to Elizabeth from Italy and thence became a court favorite). And there were numerous references to "a letter" in the plots. But Shakspere couldn't form an alphabetical sign. There is more to the story. If you are curious, you will pursue, and gain enormously in the appreciation of the plays and thoughts of 'Shakespeare'. The pseudonym comes from Oxford's championship jousting--and his rebellious shaking of the spear of knowledge against ignorance, as Gilbert Harvey put it. Have fun, it is a great study.

  4. Good point about the gloves, complete twaddle about the pseudonym. It baffles comprehension that people can entertain such contrived gibberish. But it obviously means something to you conspiracy theorists, so I’ll leave you to it….