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Shakespeare Authorship: Both Sides (6000 words)

November 4, 2011

With the movie Anonymous out now, the Shakespeare authorship controversy seemed like perfect fodder for hardthinking’s first post. In case you didn’t know, the movie assumes that Shakespeare was a front-man for the real author.

The Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare people have, over the years, sullied their cause with mountains of nonsense starting with “Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays” and going as far as “the entire canon is a giant coded message showing how to build a nuclear bomb.” Okay, that last one I made up, but six months from now, the bomb theory will undoubtedly have its own website.

So I’ve always dismissed the idea as crackpot nonsense. But Mark Twain, various past and present U.S. Supreme Court Justices and other smart people including a favorite author of mine, Michael Hart, view the authorship controversy with something less than the utter contempt heaped upon it by academia. Hart’s book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, tells 100 important stories including one about the “real Shakespeare” in slot #31. In what follows I endeavor to provide sufficient information to allow you to choose between an improbable hoax and an unlikely Shakespeare.

Three Pillars

There are three major reasons some people, not all of them nutcases, think Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. There’s the “guy walks on the beach but doesn’t leave footprints” issue, the “commoner who knows all about the nobility” problem, and the “poet writes personal sonnets that seem disconnected from his life” question. I’ll rate each of the three Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare pillars on a scale of zero to 10 with zero meaning  “so what” and 10 meaning “well that about wraps it up for Shakespeare.” If we get a total score of 10, we start looking for another author.

Mainstream academics, by the way, give each pillar a score of zero meaning there is nothing to talk about as far as they are concerned. Some partisans of alternative theories would give each pillar a 10. But let’s take a more balanced view, shall we?


Twain seems to have been most concerned about the lack of footprints. He figures if Shakespeare were the real author there would be something to connect him to the plays other than his name. Footprints to quell Mr. Twain’s doubts would be found amongst the millions of Elizabethan documents that have survived the ravages of time: letters, diaries, manuscripts, books with inscriptions etc., etc. Ordinary documents like baptismal certificates and marriage announcements would not move MT; he needs documents that specifically refer to Shakespeare the man as a writer.

There isn’t much to comfort our doubter-in-chief, but there is a cryptic inscription on a monument where Shakespeare was buried that defies interpretation but seems to imply he was some kind of genius/writer/scholar. Also, a few years after he died, someone suddenly came up with 18 previously unpublished manuscripts (including Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew) and put together a total of 36 plays in the monumental First Folio. This undertaking, the first complete set of Shakespeare plays, included a preface that referred to “the sweet swan of Avon” and “thy Stratford moniment” thus implying that it was indeed the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare who wrote the plays.

For Mark Twain, the mismatch between the documents chronicling Shakespeare’s life on the one hand and the plays and poems themselves on the other hand cannot be fixed by the posthumous monument and preface. He is not merely bemused like so many scholars by what seems an odd disconnect between the life and the plays – he’s flat out not buying it.

However, there is one (indirect) connection between the actual life of Mr. Shakespeare and the plays. Shakespeare was an actor. He was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Although there is no specific reference to Shakespeare acting in one of “his” plays, he was on the playlists for a couple of Ben Jonson plays. There is no reason to think he would not also have acted in Shakespeare plays.  He was an investor in the Globe Theater which was owned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which put on Shakespeare plays.  Shakespeare’s will, although it mentions no books or manuscripts, provides some money to three of his fellow actor/shareholders two of whom were editors of the First Folio.

That’s the reason most people think William Shakespeare of Stratford was the Shakespeare the author: there’s the inscription on the monument, the preface to the First Folio, the editors of the First Folio, and the membership and investment in the acting/theater company.

Actually, although there are no handwritten Shakespeare documents, there are six Shakespeare signatures on legal documents which are often compared with the signatures of his fellow writers and used to make the argument that “he could barely write his name.” They do look kind of shaky, especially when compared to the signature of say, Ben Jonson. Two of the Shakester’s signatures appear to be written by two people – a scribe who wrote the first name nicely followed by a badly written last name.  I’m literate with terrible handwriting so I don’t hang my hat on this particular argument. On the other hand, looking at Shakespeare’s signatures along with those of his contemporaries certainly gives one pause. See for yourself in my other Shakespeare post.

Getting back to the documentary evidence, from a purely statistical standpoint, Twain is right. There are roughly 50 surviving documents that either belonged to Shakespeare or refer to him. The list starts with his baptismal certificate and ends with his last will and testament. None mention books or writing or refer to him as a writer. For Shakespeare’s contemporaries, we find (with some help from Diana Price) that approximately half of the documents they left behind did specifically identify them as writers. This isn’t surprising. After all, these were full time writers and they were known as such by everyone around them. What is surprising is that the 50% rule crashes and burns so spectacularly when it comes to Shakespeare.

Just for fun, let’s assign a probability of 1/2 that a randomly chosen surviving document left by a professional Elizabethan writer will be literary in nature. The probability of finding a total of 50 documents, none of which are literary, is . . . just a moment while I fire up the calculator . . . almost got it . . . yes the answer is . . .  zero. Imagine flipping a coin and getting tails 50 times in row – ain’t gonna happen. Okay, it would happen eventually, in 30 million years or so, if you flip your coin once per second with no bathroom breaks. And if you wait somewhat longer, those monkeys will have Shakespeare typed up perfectly!

Diana Price, as part of her examination of the whole authorship issue, compares in some detail the typical paper trail left by an Elizabethan writer to Shakespeare’s virtually nonexistent one. This has led to a lot of pointless bickering about whether or not the posthumous preface and monument “count” as part of the paper trail: count them or don’t – Shakespeare’s presence in late 16th century London as a famous author is rather ghostlike.

But the truth is, the statistical argument cannot be definitively applied to a human being. Shakespeare wasn’t an electron. Still, it is strange that we can’t even prove the guy was literate outside of “his” byline. I don’t believe in ghosts and you’d think a guy who wrote a million words would have a distinctive signature. The footprints pillar gets 2 points.


A somewhat stronger argument is made by the plays themselves which do seem to be written by and from the point of view of an aristocrat with inside knowledge of Queen Elizabeth’s court. The author went so far as to take insider pot shots at Lord Burghley himself! Burghley was the most powerful man in England at the time; he was expertly and mercilessly lampooned as Polonius in Hamlet. And Burghley wasn’t the only victim. The plays are full of knowledgeable caricatures of powerful people. Another example is Malvolio, a clodish character in Twelfth Night, clearly designed to make his inspiration, Sir Christopher Hatton, squirm.

It seems unlikely that a commoner could have gotten away with blatant ridicule of Lord Burghley. Some orthodox scholars have gone so far as to claim therefore that the character Polonius was not meant to be Lord Burghley at all! This is absurd and smells of desperation. A more reasonable approach is simply to say that someone high up may have been protecting Shakespeare, perhaps even the Queen herself. She was known to enjoy the plays and was perfectly capable of granting a “license to wound” to anyone, even a commoner like Shakespeare.

In addition to insider potshots, Shakespeare’s work is loaded with allusions to what was apparently the author’s favorite sport – the noble art of falconry. Love, death, longing, hope, anguish, you name it, it’s all about those marvelous birds. For Shakespeare, falconry was the quintessential metaphor for all of life. Shakespeare obviously loved his raptors, but it is not at all clear given his life story and his station how he managed to become a falconry aficionado. Some traditional theorists will say the usual, “he read about it in books.” But again, this argument makes them look desperate and defensive. It’s much better to simply say he may have had a friend in a position to introduce him to falconry.

Shakespeare’s two epic poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps it was Southampton who supported Shakespeare’s art with money and with inside information and with falconry lessons. Perhaps between Southampton’s support and the Queen’s evident enjoyment of the plays, he felt sufficiently well protected to have his witty way with powerful courtiers. Southampton could also have arranged for Shakespeare to travel to Italy – the country that provided the richly detailed settings for a third of the plays.

Despite the “Southampton as best friend” possibility, I regard the contents argument as extremely powerful: even a well-connected source would not, in my view, be sufficient to allow an outsider to take on the literary mantle of a nobleman. I was stunned the first time I heard Shakespeare was a commoner. Tell me Darwin thought evolution was just one possible theory. Tell me Einstein was a religious fundamentalist or that Edgar Allen Poe was a happy-go-lucky guy who was always smiling. If you say to me with a straight face, “Did you know Mark Twain owned slaves?”, I might fall for it for a second. But Shakespeare, a commoner? If I didn’t know about the monument in Stratford and the preface to the First Folio, I would just laugh at you.

There seems to be an inexplicable chasm between the documented life of William Shakespeare, gent., and the fearless, well-connected, Italy-loving, Burghley-hating falconry maven who wrote the plays. I give this pillar 4 points.

Intermission: Conspiracy Theories

If the true author really was a member of the nobility, it means he effectively bought Shakespeare’s name, using the lucky, barely-literate commoner as a front-man. Thus, he could write anonymously and put all kinds of incendiary inside juice into the plays. This theory explains why Shakespeare’s personal literary paper trail is non-existent. However, it suffers from a documents issue of its own: the front-man scam could not possibly have been a well-kept secret. Hundreds of people would have known about it or suspected it. So why hasn’t a single scrap of paper turned up – a personal letter or diary entry – in which the plot is made plain? On the other hand, there was reference to Shakespeare during his lifetime as “Our English Terence” which is a little bit suspicious because Terence was thought by some Elizabethan scholars to be a literary front man for Roman aristocrats. But this is hardly the smoking gun we need because Terence was also known to Elizabethans simply as a great writer.

Diana Price claims there are allusions to the “open secret” of the Shakespeare scam in the literature of the time and she provides a well-researched argument in which some of this literature is interpreted as making fun of a buffoon named William Shakespeare trying to take credit for plays he couldn’t possibly have written. Her analysis is interesting but inconclusive. The bottom line is unchanged: If true, the Shakespeare hoax is one of the greatest, most successful conspiracies of all time.

At this point in the discussion, I’m still on the fence. Conspiracy theories are inherently unlikely and if you think Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare you are clearly claiming conspiracy; there’s no avoiding it. Someone had to purposely make it look like Shakespeare was the author by building and/or altering the monument at his grave site and by seeing to it that the authors of the preface to the First Folio dropped the appropriate hints and then kept quiet.

We’re not done yet. There’s one more thing to discuss that actually does, in my view, nail shut the coffin of William Shakespeare, gent., the man whose long, detailed will doesn’t mention a single book, the man whose two daughters never learned to read, the man whose access to Queen Elizabeth’s court was questionable if not wildly improbable. The final nails are provided by the sonnets.


Shakespeare actually did leave behind an extraordinary trove of personal writings – they were published as “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” many years after they were written. The story begins in the 1590’s, when Shakespeare’s poems and plays were being published in multiple editions and selling out. Late in the decade, his sonnets were known to exist but had NOT been published. Indeed, only the author’s “private friends” saw them. The sonnets are addressed to one person, a much younger unnamed man, most likely the Earl of Southampton to whom Shakespeare’s two epic poems were overtly dedicated. The sonnets make it clear that the author, whoever he was, was very close to the Earl – he loved him, in fact.

Private though they were – they read like a series of personal letters – the sonnets were clearly meant for posterity. The author repeatedly expresses his conviction that his work will be famous, his subject (Southampton) immortalized. Sonnet 55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes/shall outlive this powerful rhyme/but you shall shine more bright in these contents/than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.” Sonnet 107: “And thou in this shalt find thy monument.” Sonnet 81: “Your name from hence immortal life shall have.” Etcetera.

All goes according to plan and the sonnets are finally published in 1609. In a brief dedication on the first page, the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, expresses his wish that the “begetter” of the sonnets be granted “that eternity promised by our ever-living poet.” He’s quoting Shakespeare here – in Henry VI Part 1 there is a lovely eulogy to Henry the Fifth: “. . . our scarce-cold conqueror/That ever-living man of memory/Henry the Fifth.” Obviously, Shakespeare has died, the sonnets could now be published, and Thorpe declares the great poet to be “ever-living” with a nod to one of his plays. Appropriate. Perfect. Beautiful. There’s just one problem: William Shakespeare of Stratford again has the right name but the wrong life. In 1609, he was years away from being an “ever-living man of memory” or an “ever-living poet” or anything else appropriately eulogized.

The dedication on the first page of the sonnets is a big problem for the orthodox authorship attribution. For me, this is where it really begins to unravel. But even the apparently posthumous dedication in 1609 can be explained away: it’s possible the publisher just meant that now that the sonnets were finally published, the still-living author would be ever-living. The dedication, like many a piece of writing, may be variously interpreted. In fact, it is not even clear who the “begetter” of the sonnets is. According to the dedication it is “Mr. W. H.” but the Earl of Southampton was Henry Wriothesley so the initials are reversed for one thing and an earl is not properly addressed as “Mr.” for another thing. So the dedication as a whole defies easy interpretation; it has effectively been ignored as a consequence.

Were the sonnets really personal writings? Were they published after the author’s death? Did Thomas Thorpe mean to eulogize Shakespeare? I think the answer to all three questions is probably yes. But you remain unconvinced. Good. Read on. I’m going to quote you some sonnet material. I will assume in what follows that the sonnets were indeed written to the Earl of Southampton.

The author’s first goal with the sonnets was to convince Southampton to get married. Sonnet 1 begins, “From fairest creatures we desire increase” meaning it’s time to get married and make babies. The author continues his exhortations along these lines for 17 sonnets, making his point with amazing force as only the greatest writer in the world could.  He is unrelenting right through the final two lines of sonnet 17: “But were some child of yours alive at that time/You would live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” The young Earl of Southampton did indeed face heavy external pressure to marry in the early 1590’s.

In the second sonnet, the poet provides some perspective for the youth: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” warns the poet, you’ll want to have a “fair child” of your own to recall “the treasure of thy lusty days.” In the next sonnet, he tells the boy, “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime” meaning Southampton resembles his mother and that to look at the young Earl is to see his mother at her most beautiful. At the end of sonnet 3 he warns, “Die single and thine image dies with thee.”

The next 14 sonnets treat the reader to a brilliant and touching book of persuasion filled with equal parts nostalgia, flattery, and gravity. The poet counsels his young friend to beware of the inexorable march of time, the inevitable changing of life’s seasons, and the finality of death. Sonnet 5: “For never-resting time leads summer on/To hideous winter and confounds him there.” Sonnet 6: “Be not self-willed for thou art much too fair/To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.” And what better way to tell Southampton to find a virgin, have sex with her, and get her pregnant than sonnet 16: “And many maiden gardens, yet unset/With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers.”

Despite the poet’s persistence, we know the young Earl ultimately did not bow to the pressure to marry and was heavily fined by his legal guardian for this transgression. In the famous 18th sonnet whose first line is, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” the poet has given up on the marriage and children idea and satisfies himself that at least his favorite person will live forever in his poetry, concluding, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

The “get married” sequence has ended but the poet continues to express his love for Southampton. Sonnet 22 shows us just how intensely the author identifies with his subject: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old/So long as youth and thou are of one date.” Despite his subject’s youth, the author’s aging was not to be denied: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (sonnet 73). (I happen to be about the same age as the real Shakespeare likely was when he wrote these lines. Methinks I need a drink.)

Reading the sonnets as personal letters to the Earl of Southampton disqualifies William Shakespeare, gent. If one reads the sonnets as written and considers their history, it seems clear that the author was a man a generation removed from Southampton with 40 winters under his belt in the early 1590’s and facing the late autumn of his life some years later. The author, whoever he was, had fond memories of Southampton’s mother “in the lovely April of her prime.” He desperately wanted his young friend to marry and strongly identified with him. He was powerfully bonded to his “lovely boy” (from sonnet 126: “O thou, my lovely boy . . . “) in a way that was deeply personal and that evidently required limiting access to the sonnets to the “private friends” mentioned in the first known reference in 1598. Unless you are a verbal contortionist, the phrase “our ever-living poet” in the dedication of 1609 is the first known eulogy to Shakespeare. None of this fits William of Stratford. At all.

It is possible of course that the commoner William Shakespeare who turned 26 in 1590 wrote the sonnets. The sonnets do read as personal writings but maybe they weren’t. Maybe Shakespeare had been commissioned by one of Southampton’s relatives to write the “why don’t you get married” sequence from the point of view of a paternal parent. When he wrote sonnets 2 and 73, perhaps he was engaging in what scholars call a “poetical exercise” with aging as the subject. Maybe he had seen a portrait of Southampton’s mother painted in her youth and hadn’t actually physically seen her “in the lovely April of her prime.” Maybe Thomas Thorpe was an idiot. Pick a maybe any maybe.

Here’s sonnet 2 for convenience and as a reminder to not get old.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

A little later in the sonnet sequence (sonnet 27) things turn dark. The sonnets’ context also now becomes rather murky, especially compared with the clarity and repetitiveness of the marriage sonnets. But we can use history to guide us here. We know that in 1601 (the idiot) Southampton was part of the famous Essex rebellion. He was quickly caught and locked up. A reasonable guess is that the author’s despair and disgrace and endless thoughts of his subject while he lies awake all night as grimly told in sonnets 27, 28, and 29 were horrors precipitated by the Earl’s imprisonment. We can likewise ascribe the line in sonnet 35 “No more be grieved by that which thou hast done” to Southampton’s little escapade in which he and his buddies decided they were going to control the royal succession as the Queen prepared to meet her maker.

Southampton languished in the Tower of London for more than two years while his friends, including the Earl of Essex, were executed one by one. A number of the conspirators were hung, cut down while alive, had their guts ripped out (while still alive), and were then pulled limb from limb by horses. The Earl of Essex himself was treated more delicately: he simply had his head chopped off as befits a man of his rank. Southampton was also sentenced to death but this was mysteriously commuted by the Queen to life imprisonment. In 1603, the Queen died, James the First peacefully ascended the throne, and the Earl of Southampton was actually set free! These events are chronicled in history and also rather clearly in the ebullient, celebratory sonnet 107 reproduced below.

The “true love” in this sonnet who was “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” is of course the Earl of Southampton, the “mortal moon” is the Queen, and “death to me subscribes” means the author will defeat death. Note that “true love” doesn’t necessarily imply sex as it would today: heterosexual men 400 years ago weren’t uptight about expressing their love for each other.

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The reason the Earl of Southampton was not executed along with his comrades was not recorded – perhaps the answer is hidden in the sonnets, we don’t know. Perhaps Mr. Shakespeare, gent., was on hand after Southampton was released to embrace him and say “my love looks fresh.” There is no way of knowing that either, unfortunately.

Of all the sonnets, this one has the clearest connection to a historical event; it leaves little doubt that the subject of the first 126 sonnets is indeed Southampton. The probability that the dedication of both of Shakespeare’s epic poems to Southampton and the fact that Southampton was being pressured to marry when the sonnets were written and the fact that Southampton was released from prison when the Queen died are all just some gigantic coincidence and the sonnets are actually about someone other than Southampton is so low as to be ignorable in my opinion.

Another interesting moment in the sonnet sequence comes in sonnet 125 when the author talks about a royal procession in which he participated.

Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control.

This heartfelt sonnet basically says to Southampton, “Even though I play my part in royal processions, my true loyalty is to you more than to anyone else.” A beautiful sentiment to be sure but a bit of a problem for the official story: the bearer of the canopy is always nobility.

The sonnets are the deeply personal writings of a mature poet who was dead by 1609 and who cared deeply about Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. It is difficult to imagine the 20-something commoner William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon (d. 1616) writing them. I give the sonnets pillar 8 points.

Edward de Vere vs William Shakespeare

Anonymous the movie has Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare and Oxford is the leading alternative candidate. As the highest ranking earl in England, de Vere’s honored place in royal processions was of course routine. Edward de Vere turned 40 in 1590. It was his daughter Elizabeth whom Southampton wouldn’t marry. In 1601, Oxford was impaneled as one of the 25 judges in Southampton’s treason trial voting guilty along with the rest per the Queen’s instructions. No one knows what went on behind the scenes before Southampton’s death sentence was commuted, but there is a line in sonnet 35 – “Thy adverse party is thy advocate” – which perhaps tells a story.

Oxford died a year after the events depicted in sonnet 107. Almost twenty years later, in 1623, the First Folio appeared dedicated to a pair of brothers, Earls both – Montgomery and Pembroke. Montgomery had married de Vere’s other daughter, Lady Susan Vere, now Countess of Montgomery. Pembroke was also close to the de Vere family. Mainstream scholars have to contend with the fact that de Vere’s family undoubtedly bankrolled the First Folio and may have had something to do with the amazing doubling of the Shakespeare canon that took place when the First Folio was published. Indeed, someone held the manuscripts of 18 unpublished Shakespeare plays for many years – for more than two decades in some cases. Did William Shakespeare’s illiterate family members in Stratford find manuscripts after he died? Did Shakespeare’s actor friends and business partners at the Globe theater put the manuscripts in storage? Or did Lady Susan inherit them? No one knows; you get to decide which is most likely.

The evidence for de Vere is obviously circumstantial. But unlike Shakespeare, he knew Southampton, he had a personal reason to be pushing the boy’s marriage, and he knew Burghley too – young Edward de Vere grew up in Burghley’s house under his thumb and married the great man’s daughter (an unhappy marriage that had been arranged by the difficult-to-cross Lord Burghley). We know that de Vere was brilliant, loved Italy, and wrote poetry as a young man, stopped publishing at a young age, but strangely continued to be referred to as “best for comedy” and as a great poet for many years. Hamlet and a number of other plays contain details, including references to real people and places with names unchanged or only changed slightly, that, one could argue, make de Vere the only possible author. See my other Shakespeare post for more about the connection between the plays and de Vere’s real life.

All the stuff about de Vere working for Southampton behind the scenes and Lady Susan inheriting manuscripts is speculation. Officially, William Shakespeare spent his life writing the greatest literature in the English language, hoarding grain (he was cited), and suing his neighbors for six pounds (that document survived) while his two lovely daughters died without reading a single word from his works. A sad story, but he was probably too busy to turn his daughters into his famously brilliant and witty heroines. They were just rural commoner girls after all. Besides, being one of the most well-read men in England without owning any books would have kept him running all over town hunting for reading material so how much time could he have had to read to his daughters or write letters to his friends? None, apparently. It’s a good thing his gravestone (not the monument in the church) contains the following inscription or some silly people might doubt that he was a world-class poet:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

A beautiful piece of writing. It’s an ode to Shakespeare’s humility really. No doubt he arranged to be warmed for eternity by four lines of doggerel to make the point that even though he knew Lord Burghley well enough to dislike him, was an expert falconer, and had visited Italy, he hadn’t forgotten his roots. Westminster Abbey was for other great writers, like Spenser and Jonson; none of that for a man of the people like William Shakespeare. What a guy!

I know what you’re thinking: nice sarcasm and interesting speculation regarding de Vere but it doesn’t prove anything.

I love you. You’re a ruthless skeptic just like me. The world has enough gullible people in it and I’m happy you’re not one of them. So here’s your proof: The author of the sonnets states clearly and unequivocally that he is using a pseudonym. How do you like that? No interpretation or guesswork or gap-filling or suspect calculator-work is needed.

Here is sonnet 81 with the crucial lines in bold.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

At the time this sonnet was written, the name Shakespeare was wildly famous; he was already considered to be among the greatest writers who ever lived. The bragging we see here (“such virtue hath my pen”) is all over the sonnets. The author was absolutely certain his work would endure forever. And he knew it would be published under the name Shakespeare. But he himself was going to die to all the world and have nothing but a common grave. These are the author’s own words delivered in the most passionate way imaginable.

You can’t get clearer than this. Unless you are prepared to say that the sonnets had nothing to do with the author’s actual life you have to accept the crazy-sounding truth: Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare and there was a high-level conspiracy to conceal the true author’s identity and pin the tail on the barely-literate William Shakespeare of Stratford. Not getting the man’s kids educated was an oversight of course; if the conspirators were serious about their work, both girls would have received an education and their own copy of the First Folio. Instead, there is every reason to believe neither of Shakespeare’s children ever so much as touched a book in their whole lives.

Conclusion: Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare

I hope I’ve given you enough of a view of both sides for you to score this yourself. I get 2 + 4 + 8 = 14 points which is more than enough to convince me that there was, probably, a fantastically successful conspiracy/hoax. If you wish, you can add points for the various de Vere “coincidences” and subtract points because it requires a conspiracy. I think reasonable people would come up with a range of 5 – 15 points.

Well, that’s that. Mark Twain and Roland Emmerich (the director of Anonymous) and the other doubters are probably right: Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. The mainstream quacks are clearly wrong to ignore the question and relegate it to non-professionals like Twain, Emmerich, Stevens, Scalia, and Klamet. It’s continental drift all over again. As I’m sure you know, mainstream scientists ridiculed continental drift as kid stuff (“hey mommy, Africa fits into South America”) from initial proposal to the first rush of evidence up through and including the development and presentation of definitive proof. Similarly, many mainstream historians will take their folly re Shakespeare to their graves.

Too bad, really because realizing that de Vere was probably Shakespeare is just the beginning. There are still so many unanswered questions and all these highly-educated but narrow-minded mainstream types waste all their time trying to interpret the sonnets in a total vacuum. It’s one thing to be skeptical; it’s quite another to eschew all creativity and open-mindedness as if it were Ebola. Edward de Vere would have called it an all-eating shame.


  1. Interesting approach. One that you do not address, which you might consider, is the “Look who fits the Shakespeare works like a glove” approach. You can see an outline of this in the 25 Connections on the Shakespeare Fellowship website at

    • Thanks Mark, great synopsis. I love all those quotes from Stratfordians (people who think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare) that help prove de Vere’s case.

      It is indeed very impressive that Shakespeare’s source materials (Cardan’s Comforte, Catiglione’s The Courtier, and Golding’s Metamorphosis) lead so compellingly back to de Vere (dedicated to de Vere, de Vere wrote the preface, Golding was de Vere’s uncle).

      This and the similarities between Hamlet’s life and de Vere’s along with the connection to Southampton and the connection between Susan Vere and the First Folio are enough to convince me that de Vere was the author because, as you point out, there are just too many of these connections for all of them to be just a coincidence.

      I have a question for you. If one listed all of the major source texts for Shakespeare, how many would lead us directly to de Vere? After all, a skeptic is going to argue that Shakespeare used many source texts and that if you pick and choose you could have them lead you anywhere.

  2. Mike Stratford permalink

    You note all these coincidences tying de Vere to the works of Shakespeare. But ignore the fact that de Vere died before all the plays were written.

    It seems that your strongest evidence pro de Vere is your personal interpretation of the sonnets. That is weak evidence.

    You say things such as “for some unexplained reason” … the reasons are explained if you trouble to educate yourself on arguments pro Stratford, and more broadly, Elizabethan times, which if you intellectually honest about this case, you will do.

    Your case is essentially circular reasoning. Assume that the Stratford man didn’t do it, then go looking for reasons why the Straford man didn’t do it, and lo and behold, you find “evidence” that the Stratford man didn’t do it.

    Your “evidence” is weak. It relies too much on personal interpretation and coincidences.

    You have been too heavily influenced by Price.

    • Mike, thanks for the comments.

      I assume you are talking about The Tempest which uses language some say is so similar to an account of a shipwreck from 1609 that it had to have been written after this date. If true, this would disqualify de Vere.

      The Oxfordians (people who think de Vere was the author) say there are other, earlier shipwreck accounts that use Tempest-like language. The Oxfordians also employ their own “similar language” analyses to argue that de Vere’s early poetry was a prelude to the mature Shakespeare’s poetry.

      Speaking of language similarities, I especially like the one from Mark Alexander (see the link above): “… for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true” and “Nay it is ten times true, for truth is truth to the end of reckoning.” One of these quotes is from a personal letter written by de Vere, the other is Shakespeare. It doesn’t really matter which is which and it doesn’t prove anything. Let’s just say these lines capture the imagination.

      Good point about the illiterate daughters. I assume any professional writer of any era would see to it that his daughters could read, but without actual data (e.g., a list of professional writers and the literacy status of their daughters) my argument is really no more than a strongly held belief. My belief is strengthened in part by the witty, brilliant women in Shakespeare’s plays but the “rural girls were often not taught to read” argument (among others) is (are) perfectly valid. I edited the post slightly to at least acknowledge the existence of this argument.

      It’s also true that the sonnets must be regarded as rather mysterious. Still, the more I read lines like “art made tongue-tied by authority” in the sonnets, the more I think there’s (probably) something rotten in the state of Denmark . . .

      • psi2 permalink

        The Tempest is historically the play most often placed last or next-to-last in the chronology of the plays. In our 2013 book, Lynne Kositsky and I show that by a large preponderance of the evidence this play was known to the London theatre at least by 1603. If it is the last play written by Shakespeare, then this evidence goes far to prove that all the plays were written by 1604 when de Vere died.

  3. Edward de Vere certainly didn’t die “before all the plays were written”. Some were first published after his death but eight were first published after the Stratford man’s death. Somehow this has become a kind of Internet urban legend simplified to “Oxford couldn’t have written any plays because he was dead” – and it’s totally false.

    The plays that are too early to be Shaksper’s (so must have been written by someone else) fit quite nicely into Oxford’s lifetime.

    The standard dating is based on some very weak evidence.

    • Thanks for the comments Lu Ann,

      Maybe Mike is talking about The Tempest (see my reply above).

      And yes, on the other end of the time issue, there is Hamlet (perhaps you know of others) and the 1589 comment about “whole Hamlets . . . of tragical speeches” leading to some concern about the standard timeline because Shakespeare was only 25 in 1589 and Hamlet is regarded as a mature play. Of course, it’s possible Shakespeare wrote an early version in 1589 and fixed it up later as he matured as an author.

      Since de Vere was 39 in 1589, some claim the date of Hamlet fits his age better.

    • Mike Stratford permalink

      I didn’t say de Vere died before *any* of the plays were written.

      There is a difference. And not a subtle one.

      You and many other anti-Strats need to tighten up your thinking.

      • psi2 permalink

        How do you know when the plays were written? You need to lighten up your dogma.

  4. psi2 permalink

    “This theory explains why Shakespeare’s personal literary paper trail is non-existent. However, it suffers from a documents issue of its own: the front-man scam could not possibly have been a well-kept secret. Hundreds of people would have known about it or suspected it. So why hasn’t a single scrap of paper turned up – a personal letter or diary entry – in which the plot is made plain? On the other hand, there was reference to Shakespeare during his lifetime as “Our English Terence” which is a little bit suspicious because Terence was thought by some Elizabethan scholars to be a literary front man for Roman aristocrats. But this is hardly the smoking gun we need because Terence was also known to Elizabethans simply as a great writer.”

    The question of what early modern poets said about Shakespeare and the Shakespeare authorship question is still an open one, since no one has thoroughly contextualized the many early references to “Shakespeare” such as those contained in the Shakspere Allusion Books published 1874-1932 — collections that purported to validate the orthodox account. Alexander Waugh and I are currently finishing up a modern New Shakespeare Allusion book that will show by overwhelming evidence that many early commentators on the Shakespeare phenomenon knew perfectly well the name was a pseudonym, and found many clever and revealing ways of letting us know what they thought. “Hundreds,” might be an overstatement, but many early modern writers and readers understood that the name was a pseudonym, or even knew that de Vere was the author, but also knew that saying so explicitly was taboo.

    • Wow, can’t wait to read New Shakespeare Allusions. Sounds like the nail in the coffin of the traditional myth, but I’m probably not giving enough credit to the power of what I call Kuhnian beauty (aka stubbonness).

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