Interviewed by Dr. Sheila Tombe
This interview with Charlton Ogburn first appeared in Apostrophe (Spring/Summer 1996); it is reprinted with permission.
APOSTROPHE: Does it matter [who wrote the plays]?
OGBURN: If it doesn’t matter who wrote the plays of Shakespeare then it doesn’t matter who wrote anything. All literary biography then is a waste of time. Furthermore, I think one can’t read the plays of Shakespeare without a sense of tremendous indebtedness to the author. You want to see credit given where credit is due, and the plays take on a more intimate meaning and deeper meaning when you see what lay behind them, your eyes are opened and you see things in them that you never saw before; and, I think they gain in richness and in the hold they have on us. I think the question of who Shakespeare was has presented us with the greatest mystery story in the arts, and who is immune to a mystery story?
APOSTROPHE: Exactly…and what I’ve found most interesting is your description of Edward— Oxford—in this pamphlet [The Man Who Was Shakespeare]. What an exciting, interesting man he must have been. What an incredible, adventurous, romantic swashbuckling life he must have had—
OGBURN: —He combined all sort of qualities. . . His was a compelling personality and the further you get into it the greater the hold he has on you.
APOSTROPHE: Now, there is a period of time at the end of his life when no-one seems to know what he was doing?
OGBURN: No, we don’t. I’m afraid the major part of the trouble is that just about the most powerful men in England at the time were William Cecil Lord Burghley and his son, Lord Robert Cecil. They had control of the records and they simply did not want this story to be known. It is amazing that we have been able to find out as much as we have. Of course, all of us hope that once opinion in academia has settled in favor of the Earl of Oxford all kinds of funds for research will be opened up and there will be all kinds of interest in going though the records of Elizabethan England: I think there are any number that haven’t been explored by those who are looking out for what we would be looking out for, and I think a good deal more is going to be found out about him.
APOSTROPHE: A good part of the question is knowing what to look for…?
OGBURN: What to look for. Exactly.
APOSTROPHE: You said that the Cecils deliberately were trying to keep this quiet—
OGBURN: —I’m sure the Cecils were keeping the record quiet.
APOSTROPHE: How do you know this ?
OGBURN: We don’t know it, but if we try to piece together the most logical story we can we find (to our satisfaction) that Edward De Vere was writing plays we know as Shakespeare’s from the late 70’s on. These were produced anonymously, no author named in connection with them until 14 had appeared by 1598. That was the year in which William Cecil Lord Burghley died. I think that he and the powers that be, especially Queen Elizabeth—this is the only thing that makes sense to me—got together and decided that it must not be known who the author of these plays was. Burghley above all did not wish it to be known because his daughter had married De Vere and had four children by him, and he didn’t want his grandchildren to be tainted by the déclassé undertakings of his prodigal son-in-law Edward. He did not want a son-in-law of his to be known as a man of theater, one who consorted with actors and so forth. He surely did not want to be recognized as Polonious; but, despite all his efforts, everyone recognizes him as Polonious. Queen Elizabeth did not want to be known as Queen Gertrude; she didn’t want the Earl of Leicester to be known as Claudius and, since writers write about what they know, there were others around them who had suggested characters in the plays and surely did not wish to be recognized in them. So I think the decision was made at that time that these plays were going to have to be ascribed to this mysterious William Shakespeare who had signed the dedication to Venus Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. And why Edward De Vere picked that name I’m not sure—nobody’s sure—we think the fact that Pallas Athena, the patron goddess of the city of Athens, the birthplace of the theater, was known as hasti vibrans, the “spear-shaker” had something to do with it. In any case they were going to ascribe the plays to William Shakespeare and from then on the plays came out as his, for the first time.
But who was William Shakespeare? There had to be someone to fill the role. William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon was as little likely to have written the plays as anybody else, but he had some advantages. Besides the similarity of names, he was illiterate, so he couldn’t write anything that would be altogether out of keeping with quality of the plays, and he could be bribed and hustled back to Stratford. I think that Nicholas Rowe, the first biographer of Shakespeare, was right when he said in 1709 that the Earl of Southampton paid William Shakespeare 1000 pounds to make a purchase he’d a mind to—thus accounting for Shakspere’s sudden wealth. So that was the way the authorship was framed. I don’t see any other explanation. Why was an author never named until 1598? Why thereafter did the plays come out as by William Shakespeare? Why is it that for the next 25 years the only way we know that Shakspere of Stratford was identified as the poet-dramatist is because a few persons wrote scorning him as such? Why is it that he was not established as the author until he seemed to be identified as such by the ambiguities of the inscription on the monument in the church in Stratford and of the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio of 1623?
APOSTROPHE: What about the fact that Francis Meres, at the time, had openly referred to the Earl of Oxford as a playwright in the same sentence [he had mentioned] Shakespeare?
OGBURN: Yes, he did. Oxford was too well known to have written plays to be left out. In a section on those best for comedy, which included Shakespeare, Meres listed Oxford first, as his rank required. What is striking is that in Meres’s ranking of the playwrights, in 1598, Shakespeare was named as a playwright for the first time that we know of, and was called by Meres the best of the English for both comedy and tragedy, with six plays in each category listed to his credit.
APOSTROPHE: So Oxford was well known as a dramatist?
OGBURN: Yes, he was. But his name had never been connected with Shakespeare’s plays. But it was obviously bruited about that he wrote those plays.
APOSTROPHE: It is a fact that a lot of your research is based on speculation—
OGBURN: —Unavoidable if you are going to try to address yourself to authorship at all. If you are going to have William Shakspere of Stratford as the author, it has to be based on even less solid information. It has to be based on the ambiguities of the First Folio, the ambiguities of the Stratford monument. To me, it is inconceivable that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have devised the inscription they did for the monument if the man being honored by it were the greatest author that England had produced. Nowhere in the English inscription did it say that he was a playwright or poet at all—only that he had writ with wit. The only indication that he was a poet was the reference in the Latin inscription to “Arte Maronem”, which a lot of Stratfordians would have never known— most Americans today wouldn’t have the faintest idea—what “Arte Maronem” means. I among them, if I hadn’t been told. (Editor’s note: “A Virgil in Respect of Art.” Ovid would seem to be more appropriate.)
APOSTROPHE: In 1987, you attended a debate at the American University in Washington….
OGBURN: … [before] three Justices of the Supreme Court. The lawyer that represented the Stratford man was an outright liar, I called him one in writing to the President of American University, where he was a teacher. The man who represented Oxford was a Stratfordian, basically. Chief Justice was Justice Brennan. He surprised his two colleagues by saying at the beginning the burden of the proof was on the Oxfordians. Since it was impossible to make our case in the time available, it didn’t go very well for us, although both Blackmun and Stevens made observations that were quite comforting to us and discomforting to the Stratfordians. Since then both have come around to our side, which is very nice. Justice Blackmun has come out and stated that he does not believe that the Stratford man was the author and that he believes that Oxford was. Justice Stevens gave a brilliant talk [on the authorship] which was subsequently published in the Pennsylvania Law Review and it was clear from what he wrote that he thinks very little of the case for the Stratfordian and finds the case for Oxford very strong. So we are well content with the way that came out.
APOSTROPHE: But you must have been disappointed at the time.
OGBURN: Yes, we were.
APOSTROPHE: Do you think the tide of opinion is turning?
OGBURN: Oh certainly, oh definitely. At the same time there was an article in the New Yorker that came out largely in our favor….
APOSTROPHE:…although it does say that there is actually no evidence possible available to back the argument….
OGBURN: We are convinced the evidence is very effectively on our side. James Lardner wrote the article in the New Yorker.
APOSTROPHE: It seems to me (and I think I know what your answer is going to be already), but it seems to me that the plays were written by someone who lived and worked in the theater–whose life was in the theater?
OGBURN: I wouldn’t say his life was in the theatre–he obviously had a great deal of life outside the theatre where most of the material comes from. But it was someone who certainly knew the theatre. Oxford had two troupes of actors; he was a playwright himself. I think he was an habitué of the theatre, which was so held against him by his father-in-law William Cecil. But the Stratford man never had any connection with the theatre, I’m sure of that. They say he was an actor. Baloney. He wasn’t an actor; he couldn’t have read the parts and memorized them—
APOSTROPHE: —It’s easy to learn things by ear–many musicians learn by ear….
OGBURN: …You try learning some of these speeches by ear–it’s hard enough learning when you have the text in front of you.
APOSTROPHE: And yet [Shakespeare is] listed as being on cast lists at the time—listed as being an actor—
OGBURN: Yes, Shakespeare is there, there is no doubt, but not the Stratford man. There is no evidence that he ever had any connection with the theatre. There is no question that the man we know as Shakespeare went on the stage. The only evidence we have, the one piece of evidence we have that shows Shakespeare on the stage, that shows what kind of an actor he was is in a poem of 1610 addressed to “Will Shake-speare” by John Davies, in which the poet said:
Hadst thou not played some kingly parts in sport
Thou hadst been a companion for a king
And been a king among the meaner sort.
That’s all we know about a Shakespeare on the stage, absolutely everything. And what does it tell us? It tells us that it could not possibly have been the Stratford man, who never could have been a companion for a king in any circumstances. And nobody has ever maintained that he could play kingly parts and these in sport. If you listen to his admirers, they tell you that he was a professional actor.
APOSTROPHE: So who is the William Shakespeare listed?
APOSTROPHE: Here in the list of Globe players… John Underwood, Augustine Phillips, Richard Burbage, Thomas….
OGBURN: That’s right. There were two lists of actors drawn up when King James came to the throne. William Shakespeare was in both. But there is not the slightest indication of who he was. I think William Shakespeare was too well known an actor to leave him out, but I don’t think for moment that he was the Stratford man. I see no reason to believe that he could have been. The Stratford man had nothing of the stage about him. He was commercially minded; as James Joyce said, he was a “maltster and money lender.” Nothing of the record in Stratford has the slightest indication that he had any connection with the stage—that he was that kind of man—you know what actors tend to be, he was not that way at all. Nobody ever saw him on the stage. Shakespeare was listed as an actor in 1592 or 1594 by the Countess of Southampton together with Burbage and Kemp, as having received payments for performances at Court. She was trying to make up a deficiency in the accounts of her late husband, the Treasurer of the Chamber, in response to an angry demand by the Queen.
As I say, I have no doubt that Oxford did appear on stage under his pseudonym. He couldn’t resist it. He took kingly parts in sport and he lost caste by doing it. When Ben Jonson brought out his collected plays in 1616 he listed William Shakespeare in the cast of two of them— not saying what parts he played. But Ben Johnson was playing a devious game, at the behest, I have no doubt, of the powers that be, and he was doing so in the most skillful manner. While seeming to cast the mantle of authorship onto the Stratford man, he took back with his left hand what he gave with his right. He’s been fooling a lot of people–until today. I think he would have been amazed that he got away with this.
APOSTROPHE: Now the conspiracy perhaps, the cover up–it has been cited as a conspiracy theory and there is some controversy—
OGBURN: —this is not a conspiracy theory—this is not a conspiracy theory when you have a centralized, authoritarian government, as you had in Elizabethan England, you don’t need a conspiracy; you have an imperative from on high and everybody is obedient to it. Take Stalin’s Russia: it wasn’t a conspiracy that carried out Stalin’s will, it was Stalin’s ukase: you’re going to do this or if you don’t, you’re going to suffer. That’s the way it was under Elizabeth. To have concealed the Stratford man’s authorship would indeed have taken a conspiracy. I mean, there was no question about the other playwrights at the time.
APOSTROPHE: Well, Ben Jonson for example, there are questions about his education; I mean we know he finished grammar school—
OGBURN: —He was very well educated—
APOSTROPHE: —And then worked as a bricklayer—
OGBURN: —Briefly, at his step-father’s trade. But he attended Westminster and studied under William Camden. He was a Latin scholar; Shakspere of Stratford clearly had no education at all, couldn’t write his name. He couldn’t have possibly gone through the career ascribed to him as England’s greatest writer and left nothing in his writing but six execrable signatures—all in the last six years of his life, three of them on his will. It’s inconceivable. If he’d been the author—the circumstances were extremely propitious for the saving of his manuscripts. Beginning in 1597, he had the second finest house in Stratford, that remained in his family through his grand-daughter’s time. Certainly the house would have contained things he wrote: but nothing. Not a thing. W.W. Gregg, compiling the holographs of writers of Shakespeare’s century, had 35 dramatists’ holographs, and those of 42 poets: but nothing of Shakespeare’s. This just doesn’t make sense if the Stratford man was who we have been told he was. It is just inconceivable.
APOSTROPHE: So are there, extant, manuscripts of Ben Jonson, or Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd?
OGBURN: Sure, holographs of those, yes. They’re all in W. W. Gregg.
APOSTROPHE: What about any speculation that the plays were originally crafted by Oxford and then put to work in the theatre by the theatre company themselves? [I.e. by Shakespeare?]
OGBURN: I don’t think that anybody would have had the nerve to dicker with a play of Oxford’s; what has happened unfortunately, the major tragedy of English literature, is that our texts are not taken from the author’s manuscripts but from parts that were written for the actors and copied by pirates, published by pirates. We haven’t got the authentic texts of any of the plays, oh, I don’t know, maybe a few. But most of them were taken from pirating companies and we don’t know exactly what Shakespeare wrote. The editors of the First Folio said the plays were published according to the true original copies. We know today this is nonsense. I have a facsimile of the First Folio brought out by Yale University Press, prepared by Charles Tyler Prouty, who points out that some of the texts in the First Folio are not as authentic as some of the quarto’s that preceded them. Of course, I nurse the theory that the manuscripts are still to be found. I cannot believe that these manuscripts have disappeared to the last page and nothing the Stratfordian professors have to say will show that they were. They have no reason to show that all of these manuscripts have disappeared. The conventional explanation is that they disappeared in the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1613, or something like that. This is nonsense. Particularly since we know from the preface to the first printing of Troilus and Cressida of 1609 that the manuscripts were held by the grand possessors. These are obviously members of the nobility. So what happened to the manuscripts and why did they all disappear to the last page? Shakespeare’s and Shakespeare’s alone, except for Robert Greene’s? Why? Back in the early 1960’s an explanation suddenly dawned on me. You compare that with the inscription on the Stratford monument. What are they driving at?
Stay passenger….Why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst whom envious death had plast
With in this monument Shakespeare.
Now we now that Shakspere’s body is not in this monument. It is entombed under the floor at some remove. No body is in the monument—it wouldn’t hold a body. Why are they talking about a body? What do they mean “Read if thou canst?” What’s to prevent the passer-by from reading? Unless he’s illiterate, in which case he couldn’t read what the inscription is telling him. Bear in mind that the manuscripts weren’t available to the editor of the First Folio in 1623. And recall that the monument had already been erected, as we know from its being referred to in the Folio The manuscripts were a hot property, giving away Shakespeare’s identity, but were much too valuable to destroy. Is it not imaginable that the inscription on the monument is saying, “You know Shakespeare’s body cannot be in the monument, but how about the body of his works? Can’t you read?” There are two things I chiefly hold very strongly against the orthodox Shakespearean scholars: One is that they will not concede that there is one single weakness in their theory; they will not concede that we have a single authentic point to make. This is outrageous and they will be held up to scorn in times to come for this dishonest obscurantism. The other is that they will not comment on the theory that I put forward in an article in Harpers in June 1972 that The London Daily Telegraph thought well enough to run a page on six months later exploring the practicalities of looking into the monument. Not one orthodox academician will come out and say, “I don’t think there is anything in this, but it does make some kind of sense.” If there is one chance in twenty that Shakespeare’s manuscripts are to be found there, surely, it is worth a few hundred pounds—and that is what a mason in Stratford said it would cost—surely, it is worth a few hundred pounds to open up the monument and look in there and see. Not one of them will concede that there is enough irregularity in the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to make this worthwhile. I think that they are absolute intellectual criminals that they will not do this. I can’t say that the manuscripts are in there, but I do say that there is one chance in twenty that they are there. There is no reason not to look. But oh-no! oh-no! That would concede to something fishy.
APOSTROPHE: So what makes you angriest about the academicians is their definite stand against your—
OGBURN: —They would rather risk having the manuscripts—the priceless manuscripts—rot than concede that there is anything doubtful about their theories. I think this is absolutely inexcusable. I myself think that if I had to stake my life on whether the manuscripts are there, I would probably say no, I don’t think that they are. That would just be too good to be true. But I do think that they were at one time put there. And I know that this is no excuse whatsoever for not looking. After this theory [and a similar one by John Louther] was made public, Levi Fox, head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, reported to the press that burglars had broken into the church, had forced open the monument and found nothing there. I know that this was fabrication. If that monument had been opened by burglars, it would have been one of the biggest stories in England: the press would have been called in, photographs would have been taken. None of that had been done. None. The whole thing is just appalling.
APOSTROPHE: It seems to me that what is most appalling about it is the complete lack of evidence on either side….
OGBURN: There’s not complete lack of evidence on either side. There is plenty of evidence on our side.
APOSTROPHE: There’s plenty of wonderful speculation….
OGBURN: —There is plenty of evidence, too—
APOSTROPHE: I would love to think something as romantic as the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote these plays, and relish your idea that this story would make a good movie with Mel Gibson in the lead; Oxford was such a well-rounded adventurer who, as Boyle said in the moot-court debate in 1987, “denies the paternity of his own son, openly lives with his mistress, is put in the Tower for fathering a child by her, is reputed to be in the company of lewd persons, sells off most of his estates, has running battles in the streets”(The New Yorker, 11 April 1988, p.102); not forgetting his putting on a robbery in jest, or traveling on the continent: where did he find the time to write the plays?
OGBURN: Well, that is a good question. He was a man of leisure which the Stratford man was not. He spent the latter part of his life as a withdrawn man and that is when he found the time to write the plays.
APOSTROPHE: As did Shakespeare? [Withdraw at the end of his life]
OGBURN: Yes, you mean as did the Stratford man? The Stratford man was busy as a business man, in Stratford. The plays had come out long before he went back to Stratford. According to the holy text he went there back in 1611 or 12 and didn’t write another word. Here you have the greatest writer that ever was and he goes back to his native town and never writes another word. I never heard of anything so preposterous.[Mrs. Ogburn: Charlton is almost 85, and he’s still writing...]
APOSTROPHE:…Let me ask you, sir: how would you want people to know you–as the scholar who puts forward this theory of the Stratford man–the Earl of Oxford—or as the author in his own right, the author of The Mauraders?
OGBURN: As an author in his own right who was very interested– very deeply interested, in a number of fields, this being one of them.
APOSTROPHE: Does it make you angry that people want to focus attention this issue, rather than on your other work ?
OGBURN: No, my other work gets considerable attention and it’s had very comforting praise. I am quite content with that.
APOSTROPHE: You are extremely well read and a literate, intelligent man, and yet you have your theories categorized by Schoenbaum as 1) rubbish and 2) lunatic rubbish. How do you react?
OGBURN: I react violently. I just think that someday the Stratfordians are going to look like utter dupes and I am content with that. I think that the human race, at least our society, has a lot to learn from this story: the way the story of the authorship has been handled is extremely revealing of human nature and I hope the lesson will be pondered in years to come. I think it tells us so much about the power of dogma and the power of the accepted view. I mean what goes in academia is what is academically correct and that is all that counts. That is what you hear and that’s what you are taught. I think it is a terrible shame.[Mrs. Ogburn: When Charlton’s book came out in 1984, I told him to expect a lot of hostile reaction. Since then—over 10 years—either by mail or by telephone, he has been hearing from readers all around the United States and even abroad. He has not had any flack yet. Everyone who writes says that before they read the book they were convinced of the Stratford man, but after reading his book, they have been converted. It is very gratifying to know that those who have read this book carefully, with an open mind, think that he’s got something here.]
APOSTROPHE: Four hundred years from now, what will people think?
OGBURN: I’d say ten years from now–twenty at the most—the Oxford case will be accepted. It’s mainly a case of getting rid of the senior generation of scholars, who are not going to give an inch. They would destroy their reputations. They would look like fools to have sworn by the fantasy of the Bard of Avon.