argument top image

Who was Shakespeare? Show more Show less
Back to question

"What's in a name?" one of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers asked. When it comes to the identity of the greatest writer in the English language, a great deal. That mantle has long been bestowed on a glover's son from Stratford-Upon-Avon. But since the 19th century, there have been doubts over William Shakespeare's identity as the writer of the works attributed to the playwright. Was the Bard from Stratford a front for another writer? Was he just one participant in a collective group of writers? Or was he a she?

The Post-Stratfordian position Show more Show less

William Shakespeare did not write the works that bear his name.
< (2 of 5) Next position >

The case for Edward de Vere

Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's collected works.

Context

Perhaps the most popular contender for authorship of Shakespeare’s works, the case for the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, gained significant traction in the 1920s. The theory received more popular attention the release of the 2011 fictional film, Anonymous, which dramatizes the idea that de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

The Argument

Edward de Vere (1550-1604) composed, and may have directed and acted in plays during his life. He managed a troupe called the ‘Oxford Boys’ and was embedded in the theatre community. He would also have had access to court and the necessary education to write at length on the subjects present in Shakespeare’s plays. His status as a nobleman in Elizabethan England would have meant that he could not be seen putting his name to written works. It was not deemed appropriate for aristocrats to write, especially plays, as it was their role to serve the crown and not seek their own fame. Fame was for the monarch. They could manage troupes and finance performances, but writing plays was not considered a worthy pursuit of the nation’s noble stock. His writing style closely resembles Shakespeare’s. The pair are the only two Elizabethan poets to use a six-line pentameter stanza. [1] De Vere’s nickname was also “Spear Shaker”. It stemmed from his athletic prowess in tournaments and his coat of arms, which featured a lion brandishing a spear. He also lived near Shakespeare on the banks of the River Avon in Bilton Hall. Therefore, he would have been familiar with the Warwickshire area and the local landmarks that litter Shakespeare’s plays. Taming of the Shrew makes fun of a commoner in Warwickshire who finds himself drunk and dressed up like a nobleman. The chronology also lines up. De Vere published several extant poems under his own name. Soon afterwards, Shakespeare began publishing work under his name. The evidence is circumstantial, but when considered alongside everything else, it begins to paint a picture of the real author.[2] Hamlet is Autobiographical: The story and narrative arc of Shakespeare’s masterpiece align with events and relationships in Oxford’s own life. Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, who Vere lived with as his ward after age twelve is strikingly similar to Polonius. His children, Robert and Anne, bear resemblance to the characters of Laertes and Ophelia. Oxford was unhappily married to Anne and believed she had a liason behind his back (so much so that he doubted his paternity of their daughter). He, therefore, becomes Hamlet. Hamlet and Oxford are both athletic and poetic. Both loved the theatre, both were captured by pirates, both had fought in sea battles and both had a trusted friend named Horacio (Horace Vere was Oxford’s closest cousin and Ben Jonson was also associated with and translated Horace). In one scene, Hamlet tells Polonius, "Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive”, a clear nod to his paternity suspicions.[3] Given that Hamlet was such a clear expose of Elizabethan court, the fact that Shakespeare wasn't executed for treason indicates that many in the upper-echelons of Elizabethan society likely knew that he wasn't the play's author.[4]

Counter arguments

Edward de Vere died in 1604, the year King Lear was written and before the Tempest, Macbeth, Coriolanus and a Winter’s Tale were penned or staged.[5] The dating of the plays would have to be false for de Vere to have been the author of all of Shakespeare’s plays. "You can’t write a hip-hop masterpiece before hip-hop has been invented. And you can’t write A Midsummer Night's Dream until English secular comedy has come into existence."[6] This would be highly unlikely, if not impossible. The storm which many believe inspired Shakespeare to write the Tempest didn’t take place until 1609.[3] There are also lines in Shakespeare’s plays that would have been utterly inconceivable for an Earl like de Vere to write. Think of the scene in the histories where Shakespeare refers to the pestilence of fleas that gather in the corner of taverns where patrons relieved themselves between drinks. There is no way an Earl would have been exposed to that aspect of Elizabethan society and those that inhabit it.[5] To say that their writing styles are similar also does not address the fact that, like Bacon, de Vere’s poetry is not on the same level as Shakespeare’s sonnets. While de Vere is undoubtedly a better poet than Bacon, he is still some way off the Bard’s word craft.

Proponents

Framing

The chronology attributed to Will Shakespeare is a loose construction with little basis in fact. It was sandwiched into the years missing from the biography to create a fudged sequence, based on the idea that Will could have written two plays per year. Play quartos stopped being published with the author's changes in 1604. The dating of the plays in the standard chronology is based on topical references that all have stronger, more viable alternatives at earlier times. Performance dates cannot be used as sole evidence for composition dates. The many anonymous versions of the plays such as Henry V and Lear were written earlier, most likely by de Vere. They were far too early for Will Shaksper to have been old enough to write them.

Premises

[P1] De Vere was better educated and had more access to court giving him the necessary experience and skillset to write the plays. [P2] Hamlet was also likely autobiographical and its narrative aligns with de Vere's own life. [P3] Therefore, de Vere could have been Shakespeare.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] But the timeline does not add up. De Vere died before many plays were written. [Rejecting P2] There is nothing to indicate Hamlet was biographical. [Rejecting P3] De Vere did not write the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare.

References

  1. https://absoluteshakespeare.com/trivia/authorship/authorship_de_vere.htm
  2. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-edward-de-vere-2984933
  3. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1991/10/the-case-for-oxford/306478/
  4. http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2011/10/did-shakespeare-really-write-his-plays-a-few-theories-examined/4
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/mar/14/who-wrote-shakespeare-james-shapiro
  6. https://www.vox.com/2016/4/22/11480192/shakepeare-400-anti-stratfordian-authorship-controversy
This page was last edited on Saturday, 20 Jun 2020 at 18:12 UTC

Explore related arguments