by Mark Anderson
This article was first printed in the 10 March 1994 Valley Advocate in Western Massachusetts.
In 1927 Sigmund Freud wrote, “I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him. Since reading Shakespeare Identified by J. T. Looney, I am almost convinced that the assumed name conceals the personality of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.”
Almost 70 years later, Freud’s quote probably provokes more nervous laughter than it does curious inquiry. But a University of Massachusetts scholar has discovered astonishing new evidence that may allow Freud to have the last laugh after all.
Graduate student Roger Stritmatter has spent the last five years researching the Shakespeare authorship question, in the process discovering that Edward de Vere’s hand-annotated copy of the bible contains more than a hundred verses marked by de Vere that are also recognized by scholars today as primary biblical references in Shakespeare’s works. In addition, more than a hundred other verses de Vere annotated point towards Shakespearean biblical citations that scholars had previously overlooked.
In the summer of 1993, PBS Adult Learning Service broadcast the satellite uplink program “Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update,” which examined the accumulating evidence that “Shakespeare” was actually the pen-name of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and it presented some of Stritmatter’s de Vere/Shakespeare biblical resonances. Within the past year the German, Italian and British press as well have begun to examine Stritmatter’s work, and Universal Press Syndicate columnist Joseph Sobran deemed the study “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy.”
The broad scope of the Shakespeare authorship question—even the possibility that the author was not the man previous generations had thought he was—has caused friction between the orthodoxy and heretics for more than a century. To date, Oxfordians (so-called for their advocacy of de Vere, the Earl of Oxford) have been more successful in making discoveries and breakthroughs than in communicating them to the world at large. And they have faced more derision than acknowledgement from academics. “Anyone is a noodle who thinks De Vere wrote the plays traditionally attributed to Shakespeare,” argued Caltech Shakespeare Professor Jenijoy La Belle in the Los Angeles Times in April of 1994.
However, Stritmatter’s work has the potential to transport the entire debate to a larger public context, a context in which the larger questions can be asked and the other side of the story can start being told. After all, as Stritmatter says, “We now have Shakespeare’s Bible, and it has Edward de Vere’s coat of arms on the cover.”
Background on the authorship issue and Edward de Vere
So who was Edward de Vere? And how, 400 years after the name “Shakespeare” first appeared in print, can one even call into question our understanding about the life of the English language’s greatest writer?
A great deal is know about the life of William Shaksper—as he spelled it. Yet the records we do have from Shaksper’s life indicate that he was a businessman and actor who had financial ties to the theater. Nothing more. In a time when the plays and writings of Shakespeare were tremendously popular, and when authors and theater-goers left many references in their writings to the works themselves, not a single person in the age of Shakespeare directly addresses the actual identity of the author.
In an age of letters and letter-writing, nobody we know of ever corresponded with Shaksper, and in an age of books, no record—not even Shaksper’s will—ever points to his owning or using a single book. Nobody relates the gentleman from Stratford-on-Avon to the works of Shakespeare or even suggests he was a writer in any capacity. Literary history’s greatest manhunt, in fact, has netted only six examples of the man’s handwriting: all of them signatures on legal documents written by other people.
On the other hand, as a teenager, Edward de Vere was tutored by the Latin scholar whose English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the second most influential work for Shakespeare, next to the Bible. (The Latin scholar was also de Vere’s maternal uncle—or as the young boy in Titus Andronicus puts it, “‘Tis Ovid’s Metamorphoses. My mother gave it me.”)
By the age of twenty, de Vere had received two masters’ degrees and studied law for three years. In 1578 a prominent scholar gave a speech for Queen Elizabeth and her court, addressing de Vere in Latin with words that translate to, “Thine eyes flash fire, thy will shakes spears.” (Read those last three words again.) And a 1589 book of poetry and poets elliptically refers to certain men at court who have “suffered it to be published without their owne names to it” and goes on to mention Edward de Vere as the best of these courtier poets if only his “doings would be found out and made public with the rest.” (“Shakespeare” was indeed an ideal pen-name for a dramatist, since Pallas Athena, the classical goddess associated with the theater, was also known as hasti vibrans or the “spear-shaker.”)
Edward de Vere’s family connections to the Shakespeare canon add up to more than just coincidence as well. Another one of de Vere’s uncles introduced the poetic form we now know as the Shakespearean sonnet. During the period that one of Edward de Vere’s daughters was betrothed to marry the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s epic poems—Venus and Adonis and Lucrece—first appeared bearing almost familial dedications to the Earl of Southampton. According to many scholars, Midsummer Nights’ Dream first graced the stage at the wedding of another of de Vere’s daughters. And the famous 1623 Shakespeare First Folio was brought to fruition by two brothers, one of whom was Edward de Vere’s son-in-law.
The plots, references and characters in Shakespeare prove strikingly similar to people and events in Edward de Vere’s life. Consider Hamlet. What many regard as Shakespeare’s greatest work is essentially Edward de Vere’s autobiography.
As in Hamlet, Edward de Vere’s mother remarried in haste upon his father’s untimely death. Subsequently, like Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, de Vere became a ward of the court—in de Vere’s case under William Cecil, Lord Treasurer of England and the man most 20th Century scholars have agreed was the inspiration for the character Polonius. Once he could wield power over de Vere as a legal guardian, Cecil broke off a previous marriage contract and instead betrothed the young Earl of Oxford—a peer whose family had held one of England’s most prestigious Earldoms for centuries—to a Cecil daughter or political advancement of the Cecil clan. (“Virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it…” Hamlet rails at Polonius’ daughter Ophelia.)
Why would the author of Hamlet put the protagonist in Edward de Vere’s shoes and satirize de Vere’s guardian and father-in-law? This is simply not a valid question as far as the orthodoxy is concerned. However, considering that Elizabethan writers had about as must political free speech as, say, Iranian writers do today, slandering and then killing a caricature of one of the most powerful and ruthless men in England (“Dead for a ducat!” gloats Hamlet) was a dangerous dramatic ploy to write and “make public with the rest”—unless one could obscure Hamlet’s satirical edge or distance the author from his work.
The autobiographical elements and contemporaneous political satire run deep in the play, but Stritmatter finds the play within the play telling as well. “The master metaphor of Hamlet is the alienated prince who anonymously employs drama for political effect in the court. Not only are we made aware that the political topography of the play is identical with the biographical realities of Edward de Vere’s life, but the play in fact becomes an imaginative projection of exactly what de Vere would have done as the pseudonymous author of the Shakespeare corpus, which was to use his knowledge of the inner machinery of court life to try to expose its corruption.”
What the Bible shows
Within the context of Hamlet, Edward de Vere’s Bible presents some compelling evidence. For instance, in Act 3 Scene 3, as Hamlet happens upon a praying King Claudius, the prince notices that he can revenge his father’s murder. But Hamlet quickly realizes that Claudius’ soul will go to heaven if the king is killed at the altar. Hamlet contrasts this situation with that of his father’s murder: “He took my father grossly, full of bread.” The words “full of bread” have long been recognized by Shakespeare scholars of all persuasions as a reference to the Bible—specifically to Ezekiel chapter 16, verse 49. And over a span of more than 300 verses in the book of Ezekiel, Edward de Vere marks only one: Ezekiel 16:49.
The Shakespeare character Falstaff brings to light further curious examples of parallels between de Vere and his Bible. In King Henry IV, Part Two, Falstaff spits out the insult “whoreson Achitophel!”—a direct reference to II Samuel 16:23, which de Vere underlined. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff brags, “I fear not Golliath with a weaver’s beam.” Not only has de Vere underlined the scriptural source (II Samuel 21:19) for these words, but he even underlined “weaver’s beam” within the biblical verse itself.
Falstaff’s adventures parallel events from Edward de Vere’s life too. Most striking, Edward de Vere talked two friends and former employees into playing a prank robbery on his father-in-law’s associates at Gad’s Hill (located on the road between London and Canterbury). Likewise Prince Hal plays a prank robbery on Falstaff at Gad’s Hill in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part One. A similar robbery also takes place in Henry IV’s anonymous “source” play—which some scholars believe to be Shakespeare’s first draft. In fact, the “source” play’s robbery happens at both the same place and the same date as Edward de Vere’s prank.
An important dramatic centerpiece in The Merchant of Venice is a loan from the Jewish banker Shylock. Like any other character in Shakespeare, Shylock has no discernible real-life inspiration. Supposedly. Yet during his Italian travels, the young Edward de Vere came up short on money in Venice and had to borrow from a Jewish banker named Pasquino Spinola. De Vere wrote home to have his father-in-law sell off an estate to pay for his loan: “I understand the greatness of my debt and greediness of my creditors grows so dishonourable and troublesome…” Or in the words of the play’s debtor, “My creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low.” Later in Merchant Shylock finds the loan in default, and wants to exact his revenge. The Duke of Venice intervenes, and they debate each other by citing two contrasting biblical passages, both of which de Vere underlined in his Bible (and one of which Stritmatter was the first scholar to discover).
In Henry V one of the French noblemen asks of the Constable of France, “The armour that I see in your tent tonight, are those stars or suns upon it?” This Shakespearean non sequitur is actually a clever reference to another event fifty years after the time of Henry V. That is, a battle from the War of the Roses was lost in part because Lancastrian archers accidentally fired on an allied division under the command of the 13th Earl of Oxford—through the afternoon fog the star insignia borne by John de Vere’s troops was confused for the emblem of the enemy forces: a sun. (Whoever he was, Shakespeare certainly could toss off his share of de Vere family in-jokes.) Later in the play as the victorious King Henry V approaches, Exeter apostrophizes his monarch by referring to several apocryphal verses that de Vere underlined in his Bible.
Edward de Vere’s writings before he was “suffered to publishe without his owne name to it” also strike harmonies with the writings of Shakespeare. One study published last year finds that even obscure words from Shakespeare prove to be favorites of de Vere as well, and in general the vocabulary displayed in the letters and poems from Edward de Vere overlap with Shakespere by 98 percent. (Although he commanded the greatest vocabulary of any English writer, all the words Shakespeare ever used are still only six percent of the Oxford English Dictionary.) Finally, God’s words from the Burning Bush (“I am that I am”) have been found only twice in Elizabethan writings where the author had the audacity to speak of himself as if he were God—in a personal letter by Edward de Vere which upbraids his nosy father-in-law for spying and in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 which rails at “frailer spies” who have “adulterate eyes.”
Still, the above should not be taken seriously, because as Professor La Belle flatly states in her Los Angeles Times editorial, “There is not one shred of hard evidence against Shakespeare’s [i.e. Shaksper’s] authorship.”
The examples here cited are only a few of the many curious links between Edward de Vere and the Shakespeare canon. Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare along with Shakespeare Identified by J.T. Looney spell out many of these arguments in depth.
The debate today, and future promise
A prevalent criticism leveled against the heretics is that their claims are born out of snobbery or out of a disbelief that anybody short of nobility could have written the works in question. However, as many Oxfordians are quick to caution, personal bias has no room in the equation. The issue at hand is about drawing conclusions from the historical record, not from beliefs, suppositions or for that matter scholarly traditions. As Stritmatter puts it, “The authorship question is not about asking who could have written Shakespeare. It’s about asking who did.”
The point most often raised against the Oxfordian theory is that Edward de Vere died in 1604 and therefore had shuffled off this mortal coil before many of the bard’s greatest works were written, according to the conventional chronology. Stritmatter, however, calls the conventional chronology into question. “What we have is circular reasoning. We have an assumption that the author died in 1616, a tradition of building the chronology of composition of plays around that assumption, and then we have a claim that because de Vere died in 1604 that makes it impossible that he could have written a play like Lear.”
He continues, “There is a substantial category of plays which everybody agrees were written before 1604 and yet were not published until 1623. So before we can have an intelligent conversation about whether or not the chronology defeats the thesis of de Vere’s authorship, we need to have some discussion about why it was that those plays were not published for twenty or thirty years after they were written. And there’s a very simple answer from the Oxfordian point of view. In one word: censorship.”
As Charles Dickens said, “It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known concerning the great poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.” Henry James found himself “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
Perhaps so. But Stritmatter prefers to see the changing times in terms of promise rather than trepidation. “We are standing on the threshold of the most exciting period in the history of Shakespeare scholarship. What I have studied is the first of what I think will be a flood of books from de Vere’s library. The opportunities for making great contributions to the field, for reinterpretation of the works themselves, for some of the most powerful Shakespeare productions yet staged are all out there. It’s tremendously exciting.”