His father was illiterate, as well as his daughters. By all indications, even he was barely able to write his own name more than a few times in his entire life, though awkwardly at that.
His name is William Shakespeare, the most famous and respected in all of literature, perhaps in all time. Six purported signatures of his are known. The oldest is dated no earlier than four years prior to his death, well past the period in which the last of his supposed literary achievements were written. Had he not been virtually illiterate, he could very well have been unknown today. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “I know of no admissible evidence that he ever left England or was educated…”
The attribution of supreme literary genius to this otherwise obscure gentleman of Stratford-on-Avon has not escaped doubt in certain quarters from his own time up to the present. Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley (Earl of Derby), Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), and even Queen Elizabeth I have each been earnestly offered at one time or other as the author of the plays and poems known today as the works of William Shakespeare.
The Elusive Shakespeare
What is actually known about the life of William Shaksper of Stratford would scarcely fill a page. He was baptized “William Shaksper” on April 26, 1564. Eighteen years later, on November 27, “Willelmum Shaxpere” was licensed to marry Anne Whately of Temple Grafton. The following day, the marriage of a “William Shagspere” to Anne Hathwey of Stratford was recorded. Within 15 years, in May of 1597, a “Willielmum Shakespeare” purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford. That year in Stratford a “Wm Shackspere” was listed among offenders who had hoarded grain during a famine.In London, a tax delinquent, “William Shakespeare,” was listed in St. Helen’s parish during the same month in which the town of Stratford bought “a load of stone” from a “Mr. Shaxpere.” Five years later, in 1602, the princely sum of 320 pounds was paid for a deed of land near Stratford by “William Shakespeare”; three months later “Shackspere” purchased a cottage in Stratford. In London, the following year, “Willm Shakespeare” was named as a player with the King’s Men. Within another year, “Willielmus Shexpere” was to sue an apothecary in Stratford for an unpaid loan.
During the summer of 1605, an exorbitant 440 pounds worth of tithes in Stratford parish were bought by “William Shakespeare.” Three years later, a debt collection was brought against a Stratfordian, later pursued for the default of his guarantee, by “Shackspeare.” In 1612, “Willn Shakp” of London brought action against his former landlord. In March of the following year, a mortgage to a house in Blackfriars near the theater was purchased and sold back to the owner by “William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon, gentleman,” the documents signed, respectively, “William Shaksp” and “Wm Shakspe.” Two years later, he was reimbursed by the town of Stratford for two quarts of wine apparently offered in hospitality to a traveling preacher. “Wmj Schackspeare” signed a will on the 25th of March, 1616. A month later, the burial of “Will. Shakspere, gent” was registered at Trinity Church in Stratford.
Other than the births, deaths, and marriages of his children, and references to his ten percent shareholdings in the Globe and Blackfriars theaters, nothing else whatsoever of his life is known from contemporary sources. Particularly, no records exist of his education, travels, or acquaintance with anyone at the royal court other than as spectators of his occasional performances as a player with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and, later, with the King’s Men after the succession of James I.
In 1593 and the year after, William Shake-speare himself published two narrative poems. Throughout the next four years, pirated texts of Henry VI (Parts One and Two), Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II were published in London with no indication whatsoever of their authorship. Between 1608 and 1609, 18 of his plays were published, all with badly flawed texts. Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets were also published in 1609 along with the printer’s florid dedication which seems to suggest that the author was no longer living. Fourteen years later, in 1623, John Heminge and Henry Condell, retired players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, published a folio of three dozen plays, half of them for the first time, under the title of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.
His life was first chronicled about 1681, some 65 years after his death, in a paragraph by John Aubrey that made references to his speechmaking and “pleasant smooth wit.” This was followed in 1709 with a lengthier attempt by Nicholas Rowe, a playwright. Rowe added to the accumulating legend the anecdote of the young Stratfordian’s theft of a deer belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, for which he was prosecuted and “in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him,” resulting in the loss of his business and family in Warwickshire and his seeking shelter in London.
As far back as 1903, the biographer Sir Sidney Lee attested to some 34 17th- century towns and villages of Warwickshire that were home to families of the surname Shakespeare, and prevalent among them was the Christian name of William. In light of this, the historians’ biography of the poet appears to be nothing more than a composite of recorded events in the mundane lives of several individuals who shared the same name. It was, in fact, so common that before the close of the 15th century, a Shakespeare of Merton College, Oxford, is on record as having changed his name to Sawnders.
Who Wrote Shakespeare?
The heretical but inevitable question, “Who wrote Shakspeare?” was first posed in print by an anonymous Edinburgh journalist in 1852. “Take Ben Jonson, or Kit Marlowe, or Geoffrey Chaucer, and each…of them have external marks by which we could assign the authorship, even if…published anonymously. Try Shakespeare’s plays by the same test, and suppose Hamlet, Macbeth, etc., had been successively published [under an obvious pseudonym], and what critic of any age would have ascribed them to William Shakespeare?”
This daring 19th-century writer was not alone. Walt Whitman said, “I am firm against Shaksper—I mean the Avon man, the actor.” Henry James wrote that he was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” Even Mark Twain was to write, “Isn’t it odd, when you think of it, that you may list all the celebrated Englishmen…five hundred names, shall we say?…and you can go to the histories, biographies and cyclopedias and learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them. Every one of them except one—the most famous, the most renowned—by far the most illustrious of them all—Shakespeare! About him you can find nothing…Nothing that even remotely indicates that he was ever anything more than a distinctly commonplace person.” As for who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems, he was “quite composedly and contentedly sure that Shakespeare didn’t.”
The spread of these convictions during the 20th century is emphatically reflected in the positions of such diverse luminaries as Vladimir Nabokov, Daphne du Maurier, Max Perkins, Charles Chaplin, Leslie Howard, and Orson Welles. The British statesman and Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, John Bright, actually went so far as to declare, “Any man who believes that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Hamlet or Lear is a fool.”
Shakespeare At Last?
It would be another 68 years before an answer to the question would begin to surface. The unfortunately named John Thomas Looney (pronounced “Loney’), a Durham County schoolmaster, published a book in 1920 entitled ‘Shakespeare’ Identified as Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Sigmund Freud, a friend of the author, proclaimed on reading it, “The man of Stratford… seems to have nothing at all to justify his claims, whereas Oxford has almost everything.”
“The common sense method,” Looney wrote, “is simply to examine closely the work itself, to draw from the examination as definite a conception as possible of the man who did it, to form some idea of where he would be likely to be found, and then to go and look for a man who answers to the supposed description.” The requirement of a man of a keen familiarity with law, medicine, noblemen’s sports, horticulture, history, politics, soldiering, travel, seafaring, the Bible, and classical literature, with an intimate knowledge of royalty (possessing, incidentally, an active vocabulary consisting of over 17,000 words), ultimately led to an astonishingly appropriate candidate—one, in fact, who was documented to have hunted and been a soldier, to have traveled and owned ships, to have studied the scriptures and written verse, to have maintained his own troupe of players and, finally, as a nobleman, to have fulfilled the terrible duty of presiding as a judge over the tragic trials of the Duke of Norfolk, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Earl of Essex.
Thirty years later, The New Yorker published a review by Hamilton Basso of several Stratfordian biographies in which he observed, “The one thing they have in common, besides their preoccupation with the same subject, is the making of bricks without much straw…As a brickmaker, [Hesketh] Pearson seems to come out ahead of anybody else…At this point I think we had better let Mr. Looney take the stand…his contention…in nearly 500 sober, modest, heavily documented pages is…that Shakespeare was not the Shakespeare that Mr. Bliss, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Pearson, and Miss Chute take for granted…Mr. Looney is no crank. He… has spent years trying to solve the world’s most baffling literary mystery…If the case were brought to court, it is hard to see how Mr. Looney could lose…The various mysteries that surround Shakespeare…are mysteries no longer if the man we know as Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere.” Indeed, de Vere’s ancient and unbroken hereditary earldom was, in his time, among the premier aristocracy of the realm.
Beginning with a publication in 1952, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, Sr., began the difficult task of assembling the Oxford puzzle into a respectable, scholarly proposition. This effort was later furthered by their son, the distinguished author, naturalist, and former intelligence expert Charlton Ogburn, Jr., whose decades of labor appear to have been obstructed at every step by resistance from the well-ensconced, though perhaps mistaken, faction of prominent, traditional Stratfordian scholars. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote of Ogburn’s definitive study, “The evidence mounted for the Earl of Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems can no longer be ignored by reputable scholars.”
Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “If I had to rule on the evidence presented, it would be in favor of the Oxfordians.” Consider the Earl of Oxford’s story: the hasty remarriage of his mother following the death of his father; his tormented conscience for his accusations of his own wife’s infidelity; his trying vexation of his father-in-law, the powerful and meddling Lord Burghley; his youthful travels abroad to Italy, his status as “the queen’s favourite” and later exile from her royal court; his duels, and his painful, forbidden romance with the younger Earl of Southampton (to whom many of the Sonnets are personally directed); his office of Lord Great Chamberlain (overseeing, among other things, the licensing of all theatrical performances including the queen’s entertainment), and his wide reputation as an incomparable poet, all point to a personality that could easily have found expression as the author of Hamlet, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well That Ends Well, and the King Henry plays.
The trail of evidence is endless and none too subtle, one of the more irresistible examples being a letter of precepts “On Behaviour” written by William Cecil, Lord Burghley to his son Thomas, advising him to “let thy hospitality be moderate…Beware thou spendest not more than three or four parts of thy revenue, and not above a third part of that in thy house. Beware of being surety for thy best friends; for he that payeth another man’s debts seekst his own decay. Be sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not with trifles; compliment him often with many, yet small gifts…Towards thy superiors be humble, yet generous; with thine equals familiar, yet respectful; toward thine inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity, as to bow the body, stretch forth the hand, and to uncover the head. Trust not any man with thy life, credit, or estate, for it is mere folly for a man to enthrall himself to his friend…”
Quoted word for word in a “piece” by the young Edward de Vere, it was presented as a parody of Burghley at the court of Queen Elizabeth I before William Shakespeare was old enough to walk. To anyone familiar with the first act of Hamlet, it is, of course, more than merely reminiscent of Polonius’ unforgettable farewell speech to his son Laertes. A more subtle clue linking de Vere with Shakespeare’s plays, though no less astonishing, is to be found in a letter sent by Oxford to Burghley from Padua, in which the earl wrote “…by reason of my robust charges of travel, five hundred crowns have I borrow’d thus far. Repay this amount full to Signor Baptista, and pray that the sale of my land will come in…” Padua is, of course, the setting for The Taming of the Shrew, and Signor Baptista, the long-suffering father of the feisty Katharina.
Long held as an unmistakable reference to the gentleman from Stratford (where a thriving industry still profits from the pilgrims who would see the birthplace of the world’s greatest poet), Ben Jonson’s famous, though conspicuously singular, elegy to the “sweet swan of Avon” could just as easily have referred to one of the earl’s estates at Rugby on Avon.
The suggestion that the dashing young Earl of Southampton may have been the son of Oxford and the Virgin Queen derives, in part, from a disturbing paradox inherent in the Sonnets, in which the poet inexplicably alternates between addressing the “fair youth” as a beloved son, as an adored lover, and as a worshiped royal prince. The only possibility of resolving the paradox, unthinkable as it may seem, would involve the youth’s having been all three.
Curiously, when one turns to the young lord’s birth records, no notation of his baptism or godparentage was preserved. Although he was traditionally said to be “the second son,” Southampton inherited the family earldom and no account exists of his ever having an older brother. Described by Thomas Nashe as “fairest bud that red rose ever bore,” he would seem to be a Tudor.
A formidable discovery was made in 1992 when the 17th Earl of Oxford’s Geneva Bible was displayed at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Gilt-edged, bound in maroon velvet, and bearing the earl’s silver coat of arms, its marginalia, written in Oxford’s own hand, revealed over a thousand marked passages and annotations cataloging ideas and phrases, many of which are otherwise peculiar to Shakespeare. Among the profusion of underscored passages, the distinctive phrase “full of bread” from Ezekiel 16:49 is also found in Act III of Hamlet. Likewise, in Act V of The Merry Wives of Windsor the allusion to “Goliath with a weaver’s beam” can also be found in 2 Samuel 21:19 of Oxford’s Bible, underscored in red.
As telling as any details to be found in the plays are those which would appear to have been omitted. Although the tyrannical reign of King Richard II was much indebted to the Ninth Earl of Oxford, there is not so much as an allusion to him in Shakespeare’s dramatization, whereas the politically sympathetic 13th Earl is a character much acclaimed for his loyalty in Henry the Sixth, Part Three. Godfather to Henry VIII, the 13th Earl was instrumental in the placement of Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather on the throne, for which the ungrateful Henry VII rewarded him with ruin by grossly fining his estate for exceeding the legal limit to his imposing retinue. It is certainly noteworthy that this monarch alone was snubbed by the poet, who excluded him utterly from his immortal history of the crown spanning the reigns of Richard II through the father of his own Queen Elizabeth. The cruel ingratitude of Henry VII, however, may well live on in King Lear, whose immense retinue (“my hundred knights”) is, of course, the cause of his tragic undoing with his richly favored daughters.
“What does it matter who wrote Shakespeare?” Dora Jane Hamblin asked in Life magazine. “It matters a lot. Whoever wrote the finest words in the English language should be revered in the pantheon of humanity.” The noted biographer Ivory Brown seems to have concurred that “the man who wrote the greatest poetry in the English language and the plays which many think the finest in the history of the world’s theater deserves more than a shoulder-shrugging indifference about his name.”
A disguised self-portrait has been waiting for an opportunity to spring to liberation from its hiding in scattered fragments throughout the vastness of Shakespeare’s writings, affording a glimpse of the well from which his unsurpassable poetry originated: a life anguished by the burden of a tragic secret so well kept that it has eluded almost everyone in the world for the past four centuries.