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The End of Stratfordianism

By Joseph Sobran

This article was first published in the Spring 2000 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

My book Alias Shakespeare has come under attack from Stratfordian scholars and critics, as one might expect. Most recently it has been the target of a long, captious review by Alan H. Nelson of Berkeley in The Shakespeare Quarterly (Fall 1999), that bastion of Shakespearean orthodoxy (published, of course, by the Folger Shakespeare Library). But while enduring all this pummeling, I have made one important and rather astonishing discovery about the Stratfordians: namely, that they don’t exist! True, they persist in the annoying habit of pretending to exist; they tell themselves, and everyone else, that they exist; they continue to bluster and quibble and quarrel and heap scorn on the heretics; but let us not be fooled. They agree that the evidence points to Oxford.

Appearances perhaps to the contrary, Alias Shakespeare has been a tremendous success. Every Stratfordian scholar who has addressed it has admitted the truth of its basic thesis.

It was not to be hoped that the partisans of William of Stratford would surrender as gracefully and gallantly as, say, Lee at Appomattox. After all, they are important people with reputations to uphold. We could hardly pray for such a miracle of humility as an article in The Shakespeare Quarterly saying: “The game is up. We so-called ‘experts’ have been confounded, and a cult of rank amateurs has beaten us at our own game. It’s time we admitted that the Stratford man didn’t write these plays, and that the Earl of Oxford did.”

But in their own very indirect way the orthodox scholars have made their acknowledgments. If you think I exaggerate, dear reader, allow me to explain. We have won!

When Alias Shakespeare was published in 1997, I never dreamed that my scholarly opponents would, without exception, implicitly concede my basic argument. But they did, one and all. Not that they are fully conscious of doing so, but we can’t have everything, can we?

My central argument concerns the Sonnets. The poet speaking here doesn’t sound like the legendary William of Stratford, who in the 1590s was (we are told) a brilliant young poet-playwright, taking London by storm and becoming one of the wealthiest men in his home town. The poet sounds, instead, like an aging gentleman whose life is in decline, ruined by some unnamed “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

If the poet can be believed, he is “old,” “lame,” “poor,” and “despised,” among other things. He knows a lot about the law, using hundreds of legal terms metaphorically. He seems to be bisexual, which may have something to do with his damaged reputation. He hopes that his name will be “buried where my body is” and that he will be “forgotten.” As he faces the prospect of death, his only consolation is the love of the handsome young man–the “lovely boy”–to whom the first 126 Sonnets are addressed. The first seventeen Sonnets urge this youth to get married and beget a son “for love of me.”

Nothing of this sounds like the legendary William. William of Stratford was young and prosperous in the 1590s. He was never a public figure, let alone a topic of scandal. We have no evidence that he was lame, which would have been a handicap for an actor. He had no training in the law. If he was becoming famous as a poet, taking London by storm and confident that his verse would be immortal, why should he think his name could be “buried” or “forgotten”?

No, this poet is an aging man, at least middle-aged, with all the despair and regret common to men who feel they have wasted the golden promise of youth. It may seem amazing that the author of Hamlet, of all the men who ever lived, should feel this way, but there it is. He says so, over and over again: “disgrace,” “shame,” “guilt,” “blots,” “vulgar scandal,” and on and on. That is one of the recurrent themes of the Sonnets. No sensitive reader can take these for the poems of a young man. Yet the orthodox scholars have almost entirely missed this dominant note of the Sonnets.

But of course the poet’s profile closely matches what we know of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as of the 1590s. He was in his forties, in ill health. In his letters he once described himself as “lame.” He had lived a scandalous life (including various charges of sexual misconduct) and wasted his fortune. He was a lawyer (Gray’s Inn and all that) and frequent litigant. If he was writing poetry under a pen name, the poet’s wish for obscurity becomes intelligible.

Similarly, the handsome young man resembles Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, on several counts. Even many Stratfordians think the youth was Southampton, who in the 1590s, by an interesting coincidence, was being urged to marry Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth. (The case for Oxford, we are assured, rests entirely on “coincidences”–quite an amazing number of them, in fact: far more than William can boast.)

The first salvos against Alias Shakespeare came from Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia, writing in The Weekly Standard, and Jonathan Bate of the University of Liverpool, writing in The Wall Street Journal. Both Cantor and Bate accused me, in nearly identical terms, of making the “naive assumption” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical. Both pointed out that most Elizabethan sonnets and indeed most poems are not autobiographical. Yet neither went quite so far as to deny flatly that the Shakespeare Sonnets reflect their author’s actual life; they merely hinted that it was “naive” to think so.

In fact, I was not “naive” and I didn’t “assume” that the Sonnets are autobiographical. Both Cantor and Bate failed — unconscionably — to mention that I’d devoted several pages to the old question of whether the Sonnets tell us anything about the man who wrote them. This omission served, of course, to mislead their readers about what the book really said. Neither review would have held up with a reader who had already read the book itself.

On the question of the Sonnets, I’d actually quoted the unanswerable argument of A.C. Bradley:

No capable poet, much less a Shakespeare, intending to produce a merely ‘dramatic’ series of poems, would dream of inventing a story like that of these sonnets, or, even if he did, of treating it as they treat it. The story is very odd and unattractive. Such capacities as it has are but slightly developed. It is left obscure, and some of the poems are unintelligible to us because they contain allusions of which we can make nothing. Now all this is very natural if the story is substantially a real story of Shakespeare himself and of certain other persons; if the Sonnets were written from time to time as the relations of the persons changed, and sometimes in reference to particular incidents; and if they were written for one or more of these persons (far the greater number for only one), and perhaps in a few cases for other friends, – written, that is to say, for people who knew the details of which we are ignorant. But it is all unnatural, well-nigh incredibly unnatural, if, with the most sceptical critics, we regard the Sonnets as a free product of mere imagination.

I’d also quoted others. C.S. Lewis adds that the Sonnets tell “so odd a story that we find a difficulty in regarding it as fiction.” Paul Ramsey agrees: “The Sonnets have too much jagged specificity to ignore, too little development and completing of the events to be an invention.” Likewise Philip Edwards: “[T]hat there is a solid core of autobiography in the Sonnets, in the events referred to, the relationships described, the emotions expressed, seems to me beyond dispute. It may not be their most important or interesting feature, but it can hardly be argued away.”

The only reason some scholars dismiss the disclosures of the Sonnets as “fictional” is that the poet’s self-portrait can’t be reconciled with what we know of William of Stratford. If the poet is Oxford, there is no difficulty–especially if the youth is also his prospective son-in-law. The famous “riddle” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is really the riddle of Shakespeare’s authorship, and the solution to both is the same.

Neither Cantor nor Bate nor any of my other antagonists (Frank Brownlow, writing in Chronicles, Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth, writing in National Review, James Bowman of the Times Literary Supplement, writing in The Washington Times, and a few others) bothered explaining why William of Stratford should write “fictional” poems whose speaker just happens to resemble Oxford so closely, or why the youth should just happen to resemble Southampton just as closely. None denied the resemblance of the poet and the youth to Oxford and Southampton. Some of them made no mention of the Sonnets at all!

Bowman took a slightly different tack. “Mr. Sobran,” he wrote, “attempts to draw autobiographical inferences from literary works in a way that virtually the entire spectrum of professional critics has regarded as impermissible, at least since W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy (1946).”

But the “intentional fallacy” is the fallacy of inferring an intention of the poet that is irrelevant to the poem as a work of art. It doesn’t mean that poets never write autobiographically, as witness, for example, the sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth. No literary biographer would dream of ignoring such poems as Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.

Following the lead of Cantor and Bate, Bowman, abruptly changing course, further charged me with “two highly dubious assumptions–first that the Sonnets must be autobiographical and second that our lack of evidence relating to Shakespeare’s [that is, William's] life in London means that something like the experiences described in the sonnets did not happen to him.” Not a word about my actual argument; just the assertion of my “assumption” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical.

But here Bowman introduced a new note to the familiar Stratfordian defense. If it weren’t for our “lack of evidence,” the poet of the Sonnets might be seen to match William! So much for the “intentional fallacy”–perhaps the Sonnets are autobiographical after all!

Here Bowman tacitly concedes the point at issue: that the evidence we have, as opposed to the evidence we lack, would seem to favor Oxford. No more than the others does Bowman deny that the poet does seem to fit the known facts about Oxford; he merely pleads that if only we knew more about William, the poet might turn out to fit the facts about William just as well! Much virtue in “if.”

All these critics seem to have missed the whole point of Alias Shakespeare: that the existing evidence–especially the evidence of the Sonnets–reveals a poet who sounds mighty like the Earl of Oxford, and not at all like William of Stratford. That, in a nutshell, is what I was trying to get across.

As for evidence that has never turned up, I take no position, except that I am willing to agree that if evidence favoring William should ever turn up, it would no doubt strengthen the case for William. Which is to say that the case for William reduces to a purely hypothetical tautology. Granted, if we had proof of his authorship, it would prove he was the author. But unfortunately, we don’t and he wasn’t.

Having given away the game without realizing it, my critics, needless to say, resolutely maintained the usual authoritative tone of utter scorn that anyone should question William’s authorship.

Now comes Alan Nelson, who has actually done research on Oxford’s life. He charges me with about a dozen minor factual errors, few of which have even the slightest relevance to my argument (Elizabeth Vere’s age in 1590, for example). Unfortunately, he cites no sources so that we may judge whether my alleged errors are in fact errors; and Nelson’s inability to comprehend what he reads–he repeatedly misstates my argument, for example–doesn’t inspire confidence in his scholarship.

But let me pass over the factual quibbles and proceed to the crucial points in Nelson’s review. It’s amusing, by the way, that a review yielding the essential case for Oxford should have slipped under the radar of the august Shakespeare Quarterly.

Countering my argument that the Italian plays reflect Oxford’s youthful journey to Italy, Nelson replies that it is “not impossible that [William of Stratford] traveled to Italy — perhaps in a company of players” (my emphasis). But with “perhaps” and “not impossible,” just about any unsupported statement can be made trivially true. Of such qualifiers are Stratfordian biographies composed.

Here, Nelson, without realizing what he is saying, tacitly admits that the positive evidence favors Oxford, of whose Italian voyage there is no “perhaps” or “not impossible.” Besides travelling to the same cities Oxford visited in Italy, did William also meet the same two Italians Oxford mentions in his letters — Baptisto Nigrone and Benedic Spinola — whose names are fused in “Baptista Minola” in The Taming of the Shrew? And since Oxford met Spinola in Paris, not Italy, did William also visit France? Though it is “not impossible,” such reasoning forces us to posit too many coincidences, if not outright miracles.

Nelson avoids the specifics of the Sonnets showing that, as we have seen, the poet is, among other things, “lame.” This is really egregious dishonesty, since Nelson himself has published the very letter in which Oxford, writing to Burghley in March 1595, jokes about being “a lame man.” In the same way, Nelson fails to mention the charge of “buggering boys” made by Oxford’s enemies–an episode he is quite familiar with.

The overwhelming fact about the poet, missed by orthodox critics, is that he faces age and death with shame and guilt at the ruin he has made of his life; his only consolation being, as I say, his “lovely boy.” Again, this is not the outlook of a young, successful, prosperous writer from the provinces, taking the big city by storm.

How does Nelson handle the problem the Sonnets pose for William’s authorship? By resorting once again to the “not impossible” argument.

“The Sonnets,” he writes, “may bear a distinct relationship to what we do not know (which must be vastly more than what we know); nor are they by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about William]” (my emphasis).

Nelson fails to realize that he is conceding my whole case. We can only argue from “what we know,” not from “what we do not know.” Nelson is indirectly (and no doubt unconsciously) agreeing that “what we know” points to Oxford’s authorship, while speculating, with naive confidence, that “what we do not know” “may” favor William’s. Thus the case for William rests on non-existent evidence, while the case for Oxford rests on substantiated fact. Q.E.D.

That last sentence demands explanation: “[N]or are [the Sonnets] by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about William].” Really? How? Was William an aging nobleman and public figure, in disgrace, lame, bisexual, trained in the law, eager to see Southampton marry Elizabeth Vere? What conceivable evidence could turn up to support such an assertion? (Has Nelson ever read the Sonnets?)

Instead of showing how the poet of the Sonnets could possibly match William in so many respects, Nelson offers only the eccentric explanation that William might “feel old” by the age of thirty because he may have been “prematurely balding.”

“Prematurely balding”! As “scholarship,” which Nelson professes to uphold against “junk scholarship,” this is laughable. The poet describes himself as “old” (with “lines and wrinkles”), “lame,” “poor,” “despised,” “guilty,” “sinful,” “a motley to the view,” and many other unflattering things, but “bald” is not one of them.

This is where it gets good. After all, even Francis Bacon — a lawyer, a homosexual, a writer (and occasional poet), a nobleman who fell into disgrace — matches the poet’s profile better than William! If we enter another claimant, the scandalous homosexual Christopher Marlowe, William drops to a distant fourth place in the Authorship Sweepstakes. To such implications do Nelson’s concessions lead.

Most orthodox scholars insist that we know so much about William that the case for his authorship is conclusive. Nelson (as usual without realizing it) adopts the same new line as Bowman: that so “little” is known about William that his authorship is “not impossible.” The only thing Nelson does assume is impossible is that William is not the author, and, as a good fundamentalist of the orthodox persuasion, he is willing to accept any number of coincidences to sustain that assumption.

It may seem safer to stick with the standard line that the Sonnets are mere “fictions.” Like defense attorneys for a guilty client, most orthodox scholars want to declare this powerful evidence about the author inadmissible. But they fail to realize that to call the Sonnets fictions is to abandon them as evidence for William and to surrender them to the candidate who most closely matches the poet’s self-portrait: Oxford.

It bears repeating that if we regard the Sonnets as “fictions,” we must posit yet another coincidence to save William’s claim: that he would create an imaginary speaker with so many points of resemblance to the actual Earl of Oxford. We must further suppose that this imaginary being would lament his imaginary disgrace and urge an imaginary youth, coincidentally similar to the Earl of Southampton, to beget issue — themes without parallel in Elizabethan sonneteering.

As for the chapter in Alias Shakespeare which enumerates the many links between Oxford and Hamlet (along with other plays), Nelson merely says snidely that it is “mercifully short.” Dealing with the facts it presents (the many echoes of Oxford’s life and letters in Hamlet, for example) would no doubt have forced him to employ those giveaway qualifiers “perhaps” and “not impossible” with unseemly frequency.

He is likewise deaf to the dozens of echoes of the Sonnets in Oxford’s 1573 letter to Thomas Bedingfield. So many coincidences, one supposes–but why do they all point toward Oxford? Nelson scornfully quotes my suggestion that the Bedingfield letter constitutes one of the strongest pieces of evidence for Oxford, but he doesn’t explain to his readers why I think so.

Keeping readers in the dark about the contents of Alias Shakespeare seems to be a basic strategy of the Stratfordian critics. Nelson is the only one who even bothered with a glancing reference to the Bedingfield letter.

Nor does Nelson address the — extraordinary, one would think — fact that all three of the dedicatees of the Shakespeare works had been Oxford’s prospective sons-in-law; Southampton was matched with Elizabeth Vere; Pembroke with Bridget Vere; and Montgomery with Susan Vere (whom in fact he did marry). On the orthodox view, all these startling links with Oxford must be dismissed as more coincidences.

Most important, Nelson makes no attempt to show that either the plays or the Sonnets bear witness to William’s authorship. If William were the author, the total absence of links to him in his works would itself be a freakish coincidence. In the authorship debate, it is Oxford’s partisans who always appeal to the evidence of those works; the orthodox rely almost entirely on the name on the title pages and the Folio testimony, to which orthodoxy ascribes literal inerrancy.

Nelson makes it unanimous. None of the professed Stratfordians looks for support in either the plays or the Sonnets. I should add that I’ve also debated John Tobin, editor of Harvard’s prestigious Riverside Shakespeare, with the same results. He questioned my scholarship, my character, and everything but my virginity, but didn’t bother explaining how William could have written those Sonnets. Neither did several scholars I debated last year in a mock trial at the U.S. Supreme Court. (The jury was evenly divided–a moral triumph for the underdogs.)

I once asked David Kathman, a bright young Shakespeare scholar who claims to be Stratfordian: “Suppose the Shakespeare works had been ascribed to Oxford by the First Folio in 1623, and that his authorship had been accepted for four centuries. What in those works would have led you to break with the herd and challenge Oxford’s authorship? And what in those works would have led you to believe that the real author was William of Stratford?”

He had no answer. There is no answer. There are only indignant poses and quibbling diversions and blustering non-sequiturs by embarrassed scholars pretending to be convinced Stratfordians. I don’t rule out the possibility that some of them are deluded enough to think they really are Stratfordians.

But by now I know better.

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