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Shakespeare: The Case for Edward de Vere (4000 Words)

January 27, 2012

Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman and others thought Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Today, an enormous and growing number of very bright people including U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stevens, Scalia, and O’Connor are patiently waiting for academia to come to its senses.

William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon grew up in a small bookless home with two illiterate parents. He neither wrote nor received any letters during his well-documented life as a successful businessman, theater investor, and bit part actor. Shakespeare died in a large bookless home surrounded by his two illiterate children.

Shakespeare left a will directing the disbursement of a number of items including a sword to Thomas Combe, his “wearing Apparrell” to his sister Joan, a silver bowl to his daughter Judith, his second-best bed to his wife, and his “goodes, Chattel, Leases, plate, Jewels, and household stuffe” to his daughter Susanna. No books were mentioned.

The six scrawled Shakespeare signatures that constitute the entirety of Shakespeare’s surviving handwriting do nothing to allay the suspicions of Justice O’Connor and the other conspiracy-theorist kooks (which may include you by the time you finish reading this post!). Signatures of several well-known Elizabethan writers are provided for comparison.

Last Page of Shakespeare’s Will

Ben Jonson

Francis Bacon

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Christopher Marlowe

Edmund Spenser

Maybe Shakespeare just had bad handwriting. However, an unexplainable printed item appeared in 1609 when Thomas Thorpe published “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS.” On the first page, Thorpe refers to Shakespeare the author as “our ever-living poet.” At the same time, another Shakespeare, the ever-living semi-literate businessman, was merrily making money, evading taxes, and suing his neighbors, unconcerned about this early eulogy.

Traditional scholars have tried to explain away the signatures and the “ever-living poet” reference. They can’t, except to say these hints do not constitute proof. But there’s another problem for the hardened traditionalists: the plays are full of “inside baseball” from Queen Elizabeth’s court AND, while the courtly insider writing the plays may not have wanted his name bandied about, it isn’t hard to guess his identity.

Coming up with the “hidden Shakespeare” may seem a bit far-fetched to a properly skeptical person, but two of the characters in Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes, are obviously based on real people. If you believe Hamlet himself was also based on a real person, then it becomes a little less far-fetched to believe this person might be the actual author of the plays. Let’s dig into Hamlet a bit.

The officious Polonius whom Hamlet viciously kills in the play is an obvious caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England. Also in the play are Polonius’s daughter Ophelia, prospective son-in-law Hamlet, and son Laertes. The Laertes character closely mirrors Burghley’s son, Thomas. There can be no serious doubt that Polonius and Laertes are based on real people: these identifications are more than 100 years old and are fully established –  Michael Prescott’s blog has details if you are interested.

Burghley’s real-life son-in-law was a man named Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. De Vere had a troubled marriage with Burghley’s daughter, Anne, just as Hamlet had a troubled relationship with Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia. De Vere accused Anne of infidelity just as Hamlet famously told Ophelia to go to a whorehouse (“get thee to a nunnery”). Like Hamlet, de Vere lost his father early in life. Like Hamlet, de Vere was captured by pirates and left “naked” on shore. This detail “naked” appears in both the play and the historical record. And then there’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.

The famous pair of rubes from Hamlet, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, cross paths with de Vere through his brother-in-law who visited the Danish court at Elsinore in 1582 as an ambassador. Upon his return to England, the ambassador produced a handwritten report of his experiences that was not published. The report includes meeting the real Rosenkrantz and the real Guildenstern as well as other little details – like the Danish King’s penchant for firing canon before each round of drinks – that de Vere (apparently) used to create the setting for Hamlet.

Hamlet alone makes a decent case for de Vere especially if you read the play and absorb the context: whoever wrote it hated Burghley – it was a deep and personal loathing that makes perfect sense for de Vere who lived his whole life under the thumb of the powerful and doctrinaire Lord Treasurer who managed his estate after de Vere’s father died and who eventually ordered his young ward into an ill-fated marriage to his daughter, Anne Cecil. The sheer nastiness of the parody makes no sense at all for Shakespeare: beyond possibly picking up some court gossip, the businessman/actor knew little of Burghley and probably never met him.

(Faced with the Polonius-Hamlet-Burghley-de Vere connection, which is far from a smoking gun in any case, some traditional scholars have taken the remarkable step of denying that Polonius is meant to be Burghley! This is absurd. It’s as if a political cartoonist drew a picture of a skinny black guy with big ears saying, “Stimulus! Hope! Change!” and a bunch of academics pretended they didn’t know who it was.)

On the other hand, one cannot deny that Lord Burghley was in fact a public figure who could theoretically be parodied by any author sufficiently brave or sufficiently well-connected. Also, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were common Danish surnames, so Shakespeare could have seen or heard the names somewhere and could have read up on court life in Denmark and then could have put it all into “his” play – assuming (a) he was capable of writing a complete sentence and (b) Thorpe was mistaken when he referred to him as dead in 1609.

My guess is Shakespeare did know the names Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern – he would have heard them while in London attending a presentation of Hamlet.

The connections between the plays and de Vere’s life go on and on. One has to keep in mind (traditionalists will remind us) that events in plays like marriage and conflict and death and being captured by pirates and left naked on the beach tend to be universal, so any given play can be connected to almost anyone’s life in one way or another. Whether a particular connection is convincing is always a judgment call. Here are a couple more examples.

The street battles between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet have a real-life parallel – de Vere’s men and members of the family of his lover, Anne Vavasour, engaged in multiple and deadly sword fights on the streets of London in 1582.

Dogberry’s speech about lying knaves in Much Ado About Nothing reads like a parody of real-life libelous testimony produced by one of de Vere’s enemies, a man named Arundell. Prescott’s blog has both the real and fictional versions of the Arundell/Dogberry testimony.

Mark Anderson, in Shakespeare by Another Name, discusses all of the plays in the context of de Vere’s life and provides an avalanche of circumstantial evidence for de Vere as the author.

Even sans Anderson, de Vere seems to show up everywhere one looks. Consider: In 1623, the famous First Folio was published. That year, with both the real Shakespeare and the stand-in long dead, the number of printed Shakespeare plays suddenly doubled with 18 previously-unpublished plays including Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew appearing in the monumental 36-play compilation. Who was responsible for the historic First Folio project? Edward de Vere’s family of course. The First Folio was dedicated to de Vere’s son-in-law, the Earl of Montgomery, who undoubtedly bankrolled the project. Montgomery was married to de Vere’s youngest daughter, Susan.

So much for the plays. Going back to the sonnets, we have already found the traditional theory beginning to unravel with the “early eulogy” that appears on the first page. Reading a bit further, we find that nothing about the sonnets – neither the person they were written to nor the self-reflections provided by the author – fits with Shakespeare. But de Vere shows up once again.

The subject of the first 126 sonnets is most likely the Earl of Southampton. Like the Polonius/Burghley identification, this one is very old and not particularly controversial: it is still reasonable to think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare but anyone who claims the sonnets weren’t written to Southampton and/or Polonius wasn’t Burghley sounds to me desperate and defensive, terrified that de Vere may one day emerge as the true author.

Shakespeare’s two epic poems published in 1593 and 1594 were overtly and effusively dedicated to the young earl. The sonnets have no author’s dedication so we cannot say definitively that the “fair youth” of the sonnets is Southampton; however, sonnet 107 provides a rather clear (and also not particularly controversial) chronicle of Southampton’s release from prison upon the Queen’s death  and her succession by King James I in 1603. The first 17 sonnets, known as the marriage sonnets, are a series of urgent, passionate pleas to someone to marry and produce an heir.  Southampton was indeed under intense pressure from our friend Lord Burghley to marry a particular young woman in the early 1590’s.

These three pieces of evidence — the dedications in the epic poems, sonnet 107, and the marriage sonnets — have led most observers over the centuries to identify Southampton as the subject of the first 126 Shakespeare sonnets.

The story of Southampton and the marriage sonnets stars the illimitable Burghley as he was Southampton’s guardian with the power to order him to marry a young woman named Elizabeth who happened to be Burghley’s own grand-daughter. The ever-calculating Lord B knew well how to goose his family’s aristocratic credentials – he scored big when he married his daughter, Anne, to Edward de Vere, England’s highest-ranking earl. This time around, things didn’t go the great man’s way, however. The story ends with Southampton refusing Burghley’s choice and suffering a heavy fine levied against his estate.

No one has ever figured out what possible connection Shakespeare could have had to this famous Elizabethan family drama, but the spurned young woman’s full name was (perhaps you have already guessed) Elizabeth Vere – Edward de Vere and Anne Cecil’s eldest daughter.

Shakespeare was a rural commoner who probably never met Southampton or Burghley or anyone involved. Yes, anyone can be born with genius, but not anyone can tell the Earl of Southampton whom to marry. On the other hand, as royal wards, Southampton and de Vere had grown up in the same household – 23 years apart – under the watchful eye of Lord Burghley and, while we don’t know the exact relationship between de Vere and the young earl, the fact that Southampton was being pressured to marry Elizabeth Vere implies that Southampton had at least met his prospective father-in-law.

If de Vere really did write the sonnets, them he and Southampton had an extremely close, even intimate (but not necessarily sexual) relationship across the generation that separated them. The sonnets are some of the most heartfelt poetry ever written and are mysterious not so much because they were written by a commoner from Stratford whose life was bizarrely and impossibly divorced from their contents but because we don’t know anything about the relationship between de Vere and Southampton.

The age difference between the author and his subject is one of the major themes underlying the entire sequence of 126 “fair youth” sonnets and, for some observers, is sufficient, by itself, to disqualify Shakespeare as the author.  Reading the sonnets, one is struck by the author’s intense preoccupation with youth, age, and aging and his deep love of and identification with his young subject. Here’s a taste of what traditional scholars must studiously ignore.

Sonnet 2 – (Children give you comfort as you age.) When forty winters shall besiege thy brow . . . If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine/Shall sum my count . . . 

Sonnet 3 – (Fond memories of the boy’s mother as a young woman.) Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.

Sonnet 22 – (Strong identification with his young subject.) My glass shall not persuade me I am old/So long as youth and thou are of one date . . .

Sonnet 73 – (Lamenting his own aging.) 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 107 – (Confidence that he will defeat death through his poetry, “subscribes” = “succumbs”) . . . death to me subscribes/Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme.

Sonnet 126 – (Goodbye and one last warning to his “lovely boy” about Nature’s unbreakable rules.) O thou, my lovely boy . . . Her audit (though delayed) answered must be.

When Southampton was released from prison, a solidly middle-aged author – whoever he was – wrote sonnet 107 celebrating the death of Queen Elizabeth, the ascension of King James, and the restoration of Southampton’s earldom. Of all the sonnets, this one is most clearly related to specific historical events. When it was written, William Shakespeare, gent. had still not yet seen forty winters. Mr. Shakespeare, just 9 years older than “his” subject, turned 26 in 1590, as far as we know never met Southampton, most likely had not had occasion to admire the boy’s mother in the lovely April of her prime or at any other time, and arguably was not on hand upon Southampton’s miraculous deliverance from the Tower, to embrace the earl and say “My love looks fresh . . .

Perhaps he admired Southampton from a distance. Or perhaps the sonnets were commissioned by someone who was close to Southampton. These things are possible. However, if one reads the sonnets as autobiographical — and they read as deeply autobiographical — it is virtually impossible to imagine a 26 year-old commoner writing the marriage sonnets in 1590 or beginning sonnet 2 with “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow . . . ” Edward de Vere, on the other hand, turned 40 in 1590.

The only alternative theory I’ve ever heard that makes any sense is the “sonnets were commissioned” theory. But no orthodox theorist has ever shown any precedent for commissioned love poetry spanning a 14-year period addressed to one person. The most heartfelt poetry in the English language was commissioned? Really? Well, I can’t prove the negative so if you need Shakespeare to have written Shakespeare, by all means say the sonnets were commissioned. Maybe they were.

The history of the sonnets fits perfectly with their intimate contents: the poems are first mentioned in 1598 by Meres who notes their circulation amongst the author’s “private friends.” These poems – effectively personal letters written by the great author to his “lovely boy” – were finally published more than a decade later with what looks an awful lot like a eulogy. The sonnets read as personal, were in fact circulated privately, and were apparently so private they could not be published during the author’s lifetime.

Traditional Shakespeare experts must, in addition to claiming that the “ever-living poet” reference is not a eulogy, hold fast to the notion that the sonnets were not autobiographical, because if they were, Shakespeare couldn’t have written them. De Vere, who died a year after sonnet 107 was written, fits rather well even though we don’t know anything about the nature of the relationship between de Vere and Southampton beyond their common upbringing and de Vere’s connection to the Southampton marriage drama through his daughter. If de Vere wrote the sonnets, they are mysterious. If Shakespeare wrote them, they are bizarre, unprecedented, and impossible to fathom at all. One orthodox scholar famously washed his hands of the whole affair by calling the sonnets “poetical exercises.” Talk about desperate!

As if to slap the experts around a bit, the sonnets tell us directly and repeatedly that the author is using a pseudonym. Needless to say, the following lines have no effect whatsoever on the typical Shakespeare scholar.

Sonnet 76: . . . every word doth almost tell my name.

Sonnet 66: Tired with these for restful death I cry . . . art made tongue-tied by authority.

Sonnet 72: My name be buried where my body is/And live no more to shame nor me nor you.

Sonnet 81: Your name from hence immortal life shall have/Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

When sonnet 81 was written, the name “Shakespeare” had been famous for years. Mark Twain thought it was laughable that people who should know better thought Shakespeare was a writer. But he didn’t know about de Vere. I’m sure even Samuel Clemens would be surprised at the stubbornness of the typical English professor now that de Vere has emerged as the likely user of the pseudonym “Shakespeare.”

Let’s sum up.

1. Every Elizabethan author except for Shakespeare left behind things like personal letters, manuscripts, books, books with inscriptions, records of payment for writing etc. – indications of literacy beyond bylines.

2. Thorpe’s reference to the author as “our ever-living poet,” in the publisher’s dedication on the first page of the sonnets is a eulogy and not just any eulogy. It is a Shakespearean eulogy from Henry VI Part 1: ” . . . our scarce cold conqueror/That ever-living man of memory/Henry the Fifth.”

3. Lord Burghley was expertly and viciously parodied in Hamlet as the character Polonius. The fact that Hamlet was involved with the parody’s daughter in the play and that de Vere was married to the real Burghley’s daughter is certainly interesting if nothing else. The business about being captured by pirates and being left “naked” on shore is a pretty strong and pretty exact parallel. The fact that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern happen to appear so close to de Vere’s life is just the beginning of an extremely strong circumstantial case.

4. The two epic poems were dedicated to Southampton. The sonnets appear to be written to Southampton and the first 17 are an impassioned plea for him to marry. It was Edward de Vere’s daughter, Elizabeth, whom Southampton was supposed to marry in the early 1590’s.

5. The sonnets read like personal letters and were circulated privately for more than 15 years before being published. The author passionately and repeatedly emphasizes the age gap that separates him from his subject. If the sonnets are personal writings, it is contextually impossible for Shakespeare to have written them in his twenties and thirties. Dismissing them as “poetical exercises,” as some experts do, doesn’t stand up to simply reading the sonnets.

6. Shakespeare states clearly in the sonnets that he is using a pseudonym. He says outright, “I (once gone) to all the world must die” along with a number of similar statements sprinkled throughout the sonnets. This is exactly what happened. Edward de Vere published nothing in his own name as an adult, was nevertheless repeatedly praised as a great writer by his contemporaries, and was eventually forgotten (not having a byline will have that effect as de Vere clearly understood).

7. It was de Vere’s son-in-law who bankrolled the First Folio in which 18 unpublished Shakespeare plays suddenly appeared. The conventional assumption, that Shakespeare’s acting company stored the 18 manuscripts for a decade or more before finally publishing them in one grand volume, is plausible, but unlikely in my view.

8. The experts concede no points and do not provide a serious discussion even though they are the best equipped to do so. The experts act as if they know de Vere might well have been Shakespeare but for some reason feel duty bound to deny, deny, deny. Some experts go so far as to say Polonius wasn’t a parody of Burghley. This is a patently absurd claim.

After de Vere died and after the semi-literate Shakespeare had died, a monument was built in Stratford implying that Shakespeare, the businessman, theater investor, and bit part actor, was some kind of genius. Hemminge and Condell, two men who were part of Shakespeare’s acting company and who were mentioned in his will, were listed as the editors of the First Folio. In addition, in the preface to the Folio, a couple of hints were dropped implying the author was from Stratford.

Suddenly, the man who owned no books and whose entire immediate family was illiterate had hard evidence indicating that he was in fact the William Shakespeare whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were unmatched at the time. It worked perfectly. Four hundred years later, Shakespeare is assumed to have done the impossible by virtue of his great genius. He became well-versed in classical literature in half a dozen different languages and amassed knowledge of music, falconry, war, Italy, law, seamanship, botany, and astronomy along with a vocabulary that dwarfed that of his contemporaries even though he had limited access to books and no access to higher education. A charming story if there ever was one.

And so the scam became a full-fledged hoax. In a little pamphlet, Mark Twain expressed surprise that anyone would fall for it. In fact, everyone fell for it. Today, the fact that it worked so well is the primary reason it continues to work: few are willing to believe any hoax could be so stunningly successful. It is, after all, a conspiracy theory, so therefore it must be wrong. That’s the strongest argument for the illiterate Shakespeare being the actual author. But Justice Scalia and many other thoughtful people outside of academia don’t buy this argument. Maybe the academics are simply too embarrassed to admit they may have been duped.

It is certainly tempting to believe that “talent will out,” that genius can overcome great obstacles. The fact that this is not true, even today, doesn’t make the platitude any the less enticing. But platitudes cannot not save us from unpleasant reality and a comforting falsehood likely does more harm than good. In fact, whether we like it or not, the real Shakespeare almost certainly had tutors, access to the best library in England, and time.

It may be that Justice Stevens, Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi, and other de Vere partisans are wrong. After all, such a monumentally successful hoax must be regarded as inherently unlikely. On the other hand, the traditional Shakespeare story is itself inherently unlikely. Jacobi says reading the plays as a reflection of Edward de Vere’s turbulent life greatly adds to his understanding and appreciation of the work. Why isn’t academia willing to consider even the possibility that he may be right? Methinks they doth protest too much.

  1. Excellent summary of the case for de Vere. The Stratfordians of course have an answer for everything, even if they defy logic and common sense. You could have even included the following:

    Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. For example:

    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    Another example of the connection between Oxford and the plays:


    Oxford became a ward of court in Lord Burghley’s household at the age of twelve. Oxford left his widowed mother to become a royal ward.

    Bertram left his widowed mother to become a royal ward.

    Oxford’s guardian’s daughter fell in love with him and wanted to be married.

    Bertram’s foster-sister fell in love with him and wanted to be married.

    Oxford was of more noble birth than Anne and did not favor marriage.

    Bertram argued he was of too high birth for marriage.

    Following an ailment, marriage was agreed and the Queen consented to Oxford’s marriage.

    Following an illness, the King consented to the marriage.

    The wedding was at first postponed, no reason was given.

    Bertram attempted to change the King’s mind regarding his marriage.

    After the wedding, Oxford suddenly left the country.

    After the wedding, Bertram suddenly left the country.

    A reconciliation between Oxford and Anne is contrived by switching his bed companion for his wife. As a result, a son is born. Confirmation of this reconciliation appears in The Histories of Essex by Morant and Wright: 1836.

    A reconciliation between Bertram and Helena is contrived by switching his bed companion for his wife. As a result, a son is born.

    • Thanks for the additional information.

      Yes, the Stratfordians do indeed have an answer for everything and I like to keep up with their point of view. Sometimes they make good points.

      I haven’t found any decent counter-arguments for “our ever-living poet.” I’ve seen “Thorpe wasn’t referring to Shakespeare; he meant God.” which sounds absurd to me.

      I know Stratfordians say that his handwriting was actually perfectly fine which I don’t see either.

      They also seem very attached to arguing that Polonius wasn’t Burghley and that the sonnets weren’t written to Southampton. These arguments from Stratfordians do a lot to convince me that de Vere was the author because they sound desperate. (Methinks they protest too much.)

      A better Stratfordian line of reasoning would be to assume Shakespeare knew Southampton and got dirt on Burghley and other necessary information from him. I guess they’re afraid of where that road might lead.

      So it’s safest for Stratfordians to just say “we don’t know who the sonnets were written to or who Polonius was based on, if anyone, and the sonnet dedication is mysterious and it’s all just unknown.”

    • It’s a pleasure to find such ratiaonltiy in an answer. Welcome to the debate.

  2. Yes, and they say that the Sonnets were just a “literary exercise”. I’d sooner believe the Psalms of David were written as an exercise (which I don’t, of course) than Shakespeare’s passionate sonnets, full of pain and longing. How anyone could read these and not see that they come from the heart is beyond me.

    Also, when the absence of any letters or correspondence either to or from is mentioned, they have the convenient saying “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” which is absurd. It is definitely evidence of absence. That is why supposition and speculation are inadmissible in a court of law. They say the same thing about his travels to Italy, speculating that he might have gone to Italy during the “lost years.” Then again, he might have gone to China. There is not evidence for either.

    As far as the literary paper trail is concerned, they repeat the lie that we know more about WS than any other writer of the time. To say that we do not have much information about Shakespeare because it all happened so long ago is false and misleading. We have much documentation for lesser writers.

    Gabriel Harvey left over 150 books written in five languages.

    Thomas Nashe left behind a handwritten verse in Latin, a letter to William Cotton, and a 1593 letter to Sir George Carey to Cotton reports that Nashe had dedicated a book to him.

    Robert Greene’s death in 1592 was the talk of the town in literary circles and there is a complete record of Greene’s education at Cambridge.

    George Chapman contributed a commendatory poem to John Fletcher and received one from Michael Drayton.

    Drayton was treated by physician John Hall and was described in Hall’s casebook as an excellent poet. He has a handwritten inscription to “his honored friend” Sir Henry Willoughby on a copy fo his poem “The Battle of Agincourt”.

    Drayton, Chapman, Henry Chettle, and John Webster among others were paid by Henslowe to write plays. Thomas Dekker’s name appears in the Henslowe diary as a payee over fifty times.
    I could go on and on citing documentation from the period for John Marston, Francis Beaumont, William Drummond, Samuel Daniel, George Peele, John Lyly.

    Thomas Kyd wrote in a letter that he shared a room with Marlowe for writing and that Marlowe had been writing for his players. Peele paid tribute to Marolowe with in a month after his death. There are records of Marlowe’s education at Cambridge. Marlowe along with Eatson and Webster were three of the least documented writers yet for each of them, literary records survive such as personal tributes (while they were alive) or payments for writing.

    If the man from Stratford did write the plays, he would have left some trace as to HOW he did it. There is nothing to show that Shakespeare was a writer by vocation, and anyone who conspired to eradicate records could not possibly predict which records may have escaped detection and therefore might survive.

  3. Paul Bredderman Sr. permalink

    Nice addition to this effort to bring the Stratfordians into the daylight, for examination and evaluation.

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