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anonymousAlmost four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains one of the most important figures in human history. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Homer and Dante, he is part of the triumvirate of literary giants who straddle the centuries as permanent witnesses of the permanent things. It is gratifying, therefore, that modern scholarship is showing that this great genius was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times. In this light, Anonymous, the recent Hollywood film purporting to depict Shakespeare and his times, is not only a travesty of history, but also an act of defamation against the Bard himself.

Anonymous is based upon the discredited “Oxfordian” hypothesis that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

The Oxfordians have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that Edward de Vere wrote the plays. It is, however, difficult to take their claims seriously. Edward de Vere died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their “Shakespeare’s” death.

Ultimately, however, all the rival theories can be disproved through the application of solid historical evidence combined with common sense. Take, for example, the central premise of the Oxfordian case that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of writing literature of such sublime quality. Against such an elitist presumption, we should remind ourselves that great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, came from poor families. Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson had humble origins, and Charles Dickens experienced grinding poverty as a child. G.K. Chesterton, the “Dr Johnson of his age,” was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. Perhaps the most applicable parallel to Shakespeare’s situation is, however, the appropriately named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education because, as with Shakespeare, his parents were Catholic. Pope’s “humble origins” and forbidden faith helped him become, perhaps, the finest poet of the eighteenth century.

The Oxfordians also claim that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early plays. He was in his mid-twenties when the earliest of the plays was written, and in his late-twenties when he wrote the sonnets. The Oxfordians question whether such a young man would be able to write such great literature. Yet, Christopher Marlowe wrote the first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three. Since Marlowe was murdered when he was still in his late-twenties, the whole of his considerable literary legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders. Ben Jonson’s first play was performed in 1598, when he was only twenty-six years old. Thomas Dekker published the first of his comedies in 1600, when he is thought to have been around thirty years old. John Webster published his first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, and John Marston wrote all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was performed, making him a veritable geriatric by comparison.

And what about the sonnets? Was Shakespeare too young to write with such eloquence and panache? Again, let’s look at his contemporaries. Michael Drayton published his first volume of poetry when he was twenty-eight years old, exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets. John Donne’s finest sonnets were written when the poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.

Moving forward in time, we have the collective youth of the Romantic sonneteers. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have written his own sonnets.

William Shakespeare

Let’s conclude with an exposé of the few remaining remnants of the Oxfordian arguments against the real Shakespeare. The fact that Shakespeare’s signature is described as being shaky or untidy is used as evidence of his “illiteracy.” Yet there is absolutely no connection between literature and calligraphy. Beautiful writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many great writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many great calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. Any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between legibility and literacy.

In similar vein, Oxfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of literary flourish in Shakespeare’s will or the questionable literary merit of the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why should he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn’t he get his lawyer to write it? And why would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing verse for his own gravestone? Isn’t it far more likely that someone else wrote the lines? At any rate, these pieces of “evidence” hardly warrant any serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.

In spite of the dubious “scholarship” of Oxfordians or the febrile fantasies of Hollywood, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that someone else wrote them. After the dust has settled on the fallen edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? We are left with the reliable, if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare. We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G.K. Chesterton that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Crisis Magazine (November 2011) and is republished here with gracious permission. 

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27 replies to this post
  1. Sorry Mr. Pearce, your article was not convincing. Facts and arguments presented that the Earl of Oxford was the author have not been refuted as you imply. Oxford has a tremendously large following based on what is known and the research documented in various books. You might want to do a little more research yourself.

    • There are books and then there are real books with real scholarship. That Shakespeare didn’t write his plays is clearly a very small minority opinion. The claim never came up during Shakespeare’s lifetime and actually not until well over 300 years after his death.

    • I’ve read scholarship about how Shakespeare’s use of Ovid had to have come to him through the original Latin text.

      So my question is, did Will Shakespeare the actor know his Ovid in the original?

      Clearly, the Earl of Oxford knew his Ovid.

      Similarly, I remember a few years ago plodding through the Riverside, and I can’t recall the play (Timon of Athens maybe?), but the footnote that the play on words at work were clearly taken directly from Aristotle, Aristotle’s Politics, I think.

      Which raises the same question.

      Was Will Shakespeare really that well-read?

      Did he have a good public library to go to?

      I don’t find the notion that the Earl is the real Shakespeare at all off-putting, or even particularly controversial. I do find the condescending tone of this article somewhat off-putting, however…..but maybe that’s just me.

      • William Caxton published the first complete English translation of METAMORPHOSES in 1480. One or another partial translation was probably an influence Chaucer some centuries before Shakespeare. Another complete translation of the Ovid work by Arthur Golding was published in 1580, and it has the reputation of being influential on both Spenser and Shakespeare. There was no need to have any knowledge of Latin at all to make use of details from Ovid’s great poem. That sort of piracy was normal. I believe it was Ben Jonson, an admiring contemporary fellow-dramatist, who said Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek” and Jonson himself must be ranked as a great poet and dramatist who in our modern terms must be considered a Stratfordian. BTW, just compare Shakespeare’s depiction of Cleopatra’s barge with North’s translation of Plutarch’s LIVES (Antony) and the details are palpably North’s words versified by a very great poet who was decently educated but not GREATLY LEARNED. He took what he needed, and had to be a truly great quick-study master.

    • Here is the write up from Amazon of a book about this topic (I did read this book, and thought it was thought-provoking…I didn’t see the movie referenced above).

      Shakespeare by Another Name by Mark Anderson

      The debate over the true author of the Shakespeare canon has raged for centuries. Astonishingly little evidence supports the traditional belief that Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford-upon-Avon, was the author. Legendary figures such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Sigmund Freud have all expressed grave doubts that an uneducated man who apparently owned no books and never left England wrote plays and poems that consistently reflect a learned and well-traveled insider’s perspective on royal courts and the ancient feudal nobility. Recent scholarship has turned to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford—an Elizabethan court playwright known to have written in secret and who had ample means, motive and opportunity to in fact have assumed the “Shakespeare” disguise.

      “Shakespeare” by Another Name is the literary biography of Edward de Vere as “Shakespeare.” This groundbreaking book tells the story of de Vere’s action-packed life—as Renaissance man, spendthrift, courtier, wit, student, scoundrel, patron, military adventurer, and, above all, prolific ghostwriter—finding in it the background material for all of The Bard’s works. Biographer Mark Anderson incorporates a wealth of new evidence, including de Vere’s personal copy of the Bible (in which de Vere underlines scores of passages that are also prominent Shakespearean biblical references).

  2. And before de Vere it was Francis Bacon. Someone’s always writing a book or making a reputation, or today making a movie; there’s filthy lucre to be made.

  3. They have a movie on that nonsense? Goodness gracious. I hadn’t seen that yet. Absolutely nonsense and really perpetuates a lie. It will only continue the misinformation.

    By the way, I loved your book, The Quest for Shakespeare. I probably mention it every time the subject of Shakespeare’s private life comes up. It was perception altering for me. I can’t praise it enough.

  4. “The claim never came up during Shakespeare’s lifetime and actually not until well over 300 years after his death”.

    Not even close. You are aware, are you not, that there was this chap called Oliver Cromwell who came after Shakespeare and brought democracy to England, including – ultimately – free speech.

    Elizabethan England was an autocracy in which the printing presses were monitored by the government and writings considered controversial were met with imprisonment, torture and death.

    Nevertheless, there are many references and allusions to Shakespeare being a pseudonym from the 1590s onwards: Weever, Brome, Marston and many more.

    Check out Chiljan’s “Shakespeare Suppressed” for more details.

    • Actually, he is correct (although his math is off, it’s more like 232 years), and you are basing your statement on a book that uses conjecture and fanciful thinking to find “clues” in texts. Best to stick to the facts:

      “Shakespeare’s authorship was first openly questioned in the pages of Joseph C. Hart’s The Romance of Yachting (1848). Hart argued that the plays contained evidence that many different authors had worked on them. Four years later Dr. Robert W. Jameson published “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” anonymously in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, expressing similar views. In 1856 Delia Bacon’s unsigned article “William Shakspeare and His Plays; An Enquiry Concerning Them” appeared in Putnam’s Magazine.”

  5. In the Sonnet Quarto 1609 there are exactly three sonnets the number of which are clearly marked a dot. I wonder if you have a stratfordian interpretation of this strange marking. The sonnets in question are:

    9, 18 and 122.

    At the different links below you can check this marking:–Shake-speares-sonnets–Ne?sort=Call_Number%2CAuthor%2CCD_Title%2CImprint&qvq=w4s:/when/1609.;q:sonnets;sort:Call_Number%2CAuthor%2CCD_Title%2CImprint;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6&mi=54&trs=110

    Some months ago I called the attention of the SBTto this thought-provoking thing, in their reply they acknowledged the fact. Yet, there came no stratfordian reply to my oxfordian explanation. Maybe you could help them out.

    Thank you in advance.

  6. “There’s filthy lucre to be made” indeed, Kevin Mack! I had a drunk anti-Stratfordian tell me two things that brought it all into perspective for me: 1) she bemoaned to me that she “couldn’t make any money” with her book, and, 2) that she was going to be buried on her property, so that people could “come and pay their respects” when her theories were “proven right”! Money and ego (needing to be right), that’s what the anti-Stratfordian movement is about. Any scholar that is interested in arriving at the truth has to conclude that, given facts as we know them (and without a time machine), we will never know every detail of how Shakespeare crafted his works, but the evidence (I’m not talking conjecture, wishful thinking, false biographical parallels, etc.) points to the Stratford man as the main author of the works that carry his name.

    I will add this, however: those of you arguing against Shakespeare being Shakespeare, please stop the unfounded, ad hominem attacks on the Stratford man. Denigrating him shows that you have no other recourse than personal attacks, He was obviously literate (as were 2 of his 3 younger brothers), he obviously did not abandon his family (men buying their family the second -best house is Stratford aren’t abandoning their family: they are working far away in another town to PROVIDE for their family).

    The Shakespeare authorship question is very much like a religious debate: some people tend to adhere to what they were raised to believe, some people study it very hard, some are easily swayed by a pretty book. In the end, we all end up separated by needing to be right.

  7. Mr. Pearce,
    thanks for the article, and I understand your exasperated tone. I get short-tempered when I correct people over and over again on common anti-Stratfordian myths (he was illiterate, his daughters were illiterate, he wasn’t and actor, etc.). I’ve taken to creating one-page documents: “So you think Susanna Shakespeare Hall was illiterate.” etc. I try to use humor, but after a long day I admit I get cranky! Thanks for your humor!

      • Why call it a myth that William Shakspere (his preferred spelling) was probably illiterate. We have no documents that he wrote, no letters, nothing written except 6 signatures. We have confused the Stratford businessman with the great author just because he had a similar name, but they were two different people. Consider that “William Shakespeare” was a pen name, like “Mark Twain.” Knowing something about Samuel Clemens helps us to understand “Huckleberry Finn” because the author had personal experiences that made the characters believable. Knowing that the Earl of Oxford had a love affair with Elizabeth Tudor helps us to understand the sonnets and the reason he needed to use a pen name to protect her persona as the “virgin queen.” Now THERE is a lovely myth!

        • Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright, wrote a poem in praise of William Shakespeare. Look it up. He didn’t make up Shakespeare.

          • What if someone wrote an essay in honor of Mark Twain? Would that prove that the essay author denied that Mark Twain was actually Samuel Clemens?

  8. The BBC series “The Tudors” is chalk-full of historical error but viewers understand it was written as historical fiction. It was not viewed as akin to blasphemy or defamation but as televised entertainment. The film “Anonymous” was not produced as a factual documentary but as a cinematic entertainment and should be reviewed as such. PBS produced a 15 minute documentary on the authorship question “Last Will & Testament,” which offers an introduction to the evidence for the Earl of Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon and can be purchased online and at the bookstore run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

    Oxfordians don’t claim that the writer had to have been an aristocrat of that he had to have had a university education. We do claim he had to have intimate knowledge of aristocratic ways because all Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines are aristocrats! And we claim he had to have received a superior education regardless of who were his teachers, because the canon displays advanced education–knowledge of law and the changes of law practice during the end of the 16th century; English history including gossip about many of its lesser known players with the Earls of Oxford painted in better light than recorded history reveals; knowledge of seamanship that predated any books on the subject; the arcane vocabulary of aristocratic pastimes such as hawking and bowling (pastimes engaged in only by the aristocracy because of English sumptuary laws); and above all a detailed knowledge of Italy. (Every town in every Shakespearean play set in Italy is a place the Earl of Oxford spent time.)

    And a final suggestion: rather than parsing author’s relationship with God from his creative writing alone, as a religious writer yourself you might find great interest in the extant documentation of a very real crisis of faith the 17th Earl of Oxford lived and struggled through trying to thread the needle between the Catholicism of his ancestors and intimate friends and the Protestantism of his Queen.

  9. Oxfordians make all these claims because they don’t have a sound understanding of

    a. literature
    b. history
    c. genius
    d. imagination
    e. creativity
    f. the early English Professional Theatre
    g. their own limitations

    If this sounds harsh, always bear in mind that outside the Looking Glass Tent they all live in, the rest of the world believes, on the basis of sound evidence surviving records, that Shakespeare’s career ran from the late 1580’s to around 1614, ten years after Oxford died.

    They have no satisfactory explanation (apart from crazily unsupported claims that all the plays were written before 1604) of how the Earl of Oxford came to write plays when he was dead. When Shakespeare’s Globe went up in smoke in 1613, Henry VIII, then on stage, was described as a ‘new play’.*

    Yet they are all willing to swear that every Shakespeare scholar who ever lived is either mad or mistaken when it comes to the historical record or the development of language, blank verse, stagecraft, and the professional theatre.

    They expect you to accept that only they have the wit and understanding to see through the veil.

    Beleive that, as they say, and you really will believe anything.

    *They were late in the game. By the time their founders chose a candidate in the Authorship Stakes (1920) all the good candidates were already taken by other groups.

  10. Alfa, I just wonder, which of your points of a, b, c, d, e, f, g will explain that dotting.

    I’m not “oxfordian”, but perhaps “originalian”. I examine nothing, but the original Sonnet Quarto and First Folio. If someone had something to hide, then it must be hidden in these copies. And I dare say, I’ve found very interesting things, which even a leading stratfordian scholar found intriguing. That’s why my question.

  11. William, maybe compositors, of course. However, it’s s very strange compositor, underlining the oxfordian, even the Prince Tudor theory – just in a nutshell:

    – if Henry Wriothesley was the son of the Queen, then -as the Queen was the daughter of Henry VIII- he would have been King Henry IX (supposed mother line – number 9)

    – if Henry Wriothesley was the son of the 17th Earl of Oxenford, then he would have been the 18th Earl of Oxenford (supposed father line – number 18)

    – the first “connection” of the Henry name with the Oxenford / de Vere family tree dates back to 1222:

    This year was constructed by passing number 122 (the third marked sonnet number) and a certain number 2: this latter need a bit more explanation, which now I would omit – of course finding serious replies I could explain it as well.

    So I find this very strange, given the tens of millions of alternatives, our compositor could have chosen from the 154 numbers.

  12. Just to be precise: as sonnet 1 has no number written, so our compositor could choose from 153 numbers to mark. If he wanted to mark three sonnets, the number of alternatives is about 585 thousand. If he wanted to mark four sonnets (why not,?) then the number of alternatives is almost 22 million. And the numbers rise steeply.

  13. Alas, I see no stratfordian explanation of this strange marking of three (sonnet) numbers. Which, of course, doesn’t mean there’s no one.

  14. Maybe the next strange thing will bring a reply sooner. There are two sonnets in the original Sonnet Quarto of 1609, which begin with an italic letter: sonnet 79 and sonnet 138. Of course there are lots of whole words in italic, but quite uniquely in these two cases only the initials (letter Ws) of the very first words of these sonnets are written in italic. As if -just like in the case of dotting- marking these two sonnets. Surely stratfordians have an explanation – I do have an oxfordian one.

  15. Neither Shakespeare nor Oxford was responsible for compositors’ errors, Both were dead. Simple, clean explanation from a man who was young and worked in a printing plant when there were still actual fonts and actual font case-boxes which could get mildly or seriously muddled. Pied type. Poor proofreading. Not sexy, but most historical research isn’t.

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