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The Tragedy of Dershowitz

I just watched him talking about how Amanda Knox could, if she had been tried in this country, possibly have received the death penalty because of the “considerable” evidence against her.

This is very frightening to me. The fact that a man like Dershowitz, a brilliant Harvard professor, a legal expert, could throw all reason into the trash and say something so utterly preposterous is deeply, deeply terrifying. It means anything goes. Perhaps I should buy a gun. Without reason, there is no civilization; we might as well be chimpanzees.

It’s not simply a matter of a difference of opinion. Whether or not we should keep soldiers in Afghanistan is an opinion. The Knox case has nothing to do with opinion. Saying there is “considerable” evidence against her is like saying there is “considerable” evidence that the holocaust never happened. It’s such nonsense that even talking about it is costly because you are lending legitimacy to an absurd idea.

There are many people who, like Dershowitz, give up any intellectual credentials they may have and make comments that are so stupid they can only be described as obscene. It is difficult to provide a clear, sensible explanation for this behavior: it could stem from a desire for attention or perhaps it is an indication that we are fundamentally irrational as a species, destined to never go far beyond the techno-chimp stage or maybe we should think of it in religious terms as ever-present evil manifesting itself. I don’t know.

No matter how you look at it, if some supposedly serious person “reasons” as follows: “heads I win; tails you lose,” you immediately know person in question is intellectually a child, incapable of adult reasoning. That Dershowitz, who I have to believe knows better, pulls this off while keeping a straight face (mostly) is certainly a sight to see.

Dershowitz ticked off five pieces of “very, very considerable” evidence, each one more nonsensical than the last, but I have the stomach right now to discuss only the first piece of “evidence” he mentioned. Of course, no one who has given up reason is going to be convinced by my discussion, but the rest of us need to see Dershowitz and many others who hold positions of respect and trust for what they really are: mere prancing royalty. So here we go.

Four days after Meredith Kercher was murdered, Knox was at the police station for her second all-night session with police. Knox had spent many hours during the three days previous at the police station, including the entire first night after the murder. During the final all-night session, the police may have pressured her to some extent. This is not necessarily wrong as the police do have a job to do, as long as they don’t overdo. The interview or interrogation (call it whatever you want) was not recorded and no lawyer was present even though the interrogation of a suspect is inadmissible under Italian law unless a lawyer is present. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean all that much either. Police may have decided not to do an admissible interrogation for any number of reasons – they needed information so perhaps they decided it was worth cutting corners if they were able to find the killer. Police all over the world will sometimes push the envelope and bend the rules to get results.

You’ll notice I am being extremely charitable to the Italian police here, taking their side as much as possible without throwing away all logic. The paragraph above is one-sided, but not absurdly so. Thus, I can present the prosecution’s side, but I am not allowed, as a serious commentator, to spout absurdities. If I do, I have sunk, like Dershowitz, to the level of the tabloids.

Let’s get on with the story. After maintaining repeatedly that she was at her boyfriend’s the night of the murder, Knox broke down sometime after midnight on the fourth day. She signed two statements that said she was present at her house when her housemate was murdered and that her boss, with whom she had had a text exchange the evening of the murder, was also there and that it was he who killed her housemate. These statements can be called confessions, admissions, or just statements, whatever you prefer.

Now comes the part where Dershowitz throws away his reputation and his standing. How do we interpret Knox’s statements about her boss? What are we allowed to say whilst retaining our credibility? We know Knox’s boss, a bar owner, was nowhere near the house that night – he had a rock-solid alibi.  Thus, Knox’s confession did include supporting details that only a witness or perpetrator could recite accurately, but the details were nonsense. What police got from Knox was no more accurate than if they had interrogated a random person off the street and asked them to make up a scenario for what might have happened the night of the murder.

Now what? Heads I win, tails you lose? Yes, says Dershowitz, this is how we do things downtown.

Had Knox’s confession contained actual details about the crime that were not common knowledge, this would obviously strengthen it as evidence. Accurate details of this sort are called “corroborating statements” in the interrogation business. In fact, a recorded confession containing corroborating statements is extremely strong evidence and could, by itself, be enough evidence for a jury to convict a suspect. Heads I win.

However, Amanda Knox provided no corroborating statements; she tried to, but they were fabrications. Aha! says Mr. Dershowitz. These fabricated statements, like correct statements, ALSO point to Amanda Knox’s guilt. Tails you lose.

Clever, clever girl she is, providing false details about the crime in a vain effort to throw us off. But she can’t fool us; we know she’s guilty. I’m Alan Dershowitz, I’m a Harvard professor, I understand logic. Heads I win, tails you lose. If she were tried in the U. S., she might very well get the death penalty (smile)! Oh, yes.

Of course, if you are an idiot and you begin with the premise that she is guilty, you will naturally interpret her apparent lack of knowledge about the crime as an attempt to throw us off the trail or confuse us or deflect blame from herself by implicating an innocent man. Knox knew her boss was at his bar that night surrounded by patrons, but this is irrelevant. It is obviously all part of her fiendish plot. Everything points to the guilt we know is there.

Knox’s ridiculous fabrication is actually exculpatory: As Dershowitz and every cop and every judge and every lawyer in the world knows, when a suspect confesses with fabricated details, we immediately have strong reason to doubt the person was even a witness much less the perpetrator.

When you include the fact that the police overtly treated Knox as a suspect but didn’t treat the interrogation in accordance with Italian law, you have an open and shut case of a coerced confession (the law was passed specifically to prevent coerced confessions). Italy’s highest court declared Knox’s confession inadmissible; needless to say, this has no effect on Dershowitz’s dazzling display of intellectual power.

“We know she’s a liar,” Dershowitz said. In fact, we know nothing of the sort. We know someone fabricated details about the murder during Knox’s late-night interrogation. Knox’s claim that it was the police who fabricated those details and pressured her to repeat them is entirely plausible and, in the absence of a recording, cannot be convincingly refuted.

Maybe all of this seems terribly complex and subject to many opinions. It is not. Knox got the details about the crime wrong in her confession. Period. She got it wrong. Dershowitz has chosen to interpret correct details as damning evidence AND also to interpret incorrect details as damning evidence. I would say his reasoning powers are at the level of sixth-grader, but this would be an insult to sixth-graders.

When Dershowitz dies, someone should scratch “Heads I win, tails you lose” on his gravestone.

Junk Science Can KIll

I’ve been reading up on the DNA testing that put Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in prison for four years. They are free because the courts had the testing checked by an independent lab which concluded the original testing that convicted them was utter nonsense.

We’re not talking about a dispute among scientists here. We’re talking about the difference between science and believing that the moon is made of green cheese. Let me explain.

Genetic testing is pretty reliable but there is a new kind of testing called Low Copy Number (LCN) testing which is basically the same as the old testing but involves just a few cells and so is more delicate. LCN testing is controversial and many scientists say shouldn’t be used to put someone in prison.

There are some scientists who say LCN testing can be used if a series of precautions are taken. No scientist anywhere in the world (not a single one) says it’s okay to use LCN testing in court without these precautions.

Just so you know, here are the precautions that are mandatory when testing DNA from just a few cells. Suppose you are testing an alleged murder weapon for the victim’s DNA. First, the lab doing the test must never have had any of the victim’s DNA anywhere in it. Second, along with the murder weapon a control object must be collected from the same place and must be treated in exactly the same way and must test negative for the victim’s DNA (so if you take a knife from the alleged murderer’s house, you have to take a spoon as well and test that too). Third, the LCN test has to be done twice, once on half of your sample and then again to make sure your results are accurate. Fourth, the person doing the testing must not have access to the victim’s DNA profile so that it doesn’t influence the results (you can subconsciously try to make your profile match the one you know it is “supposed” to match) .

Let’s review: 1) separate lab; 2) control object; 3) double sample; 4) blind test.

Some scientists say if four out of four of these procedures are followed then LCN might be okay to use in a criminal trial. For the evidence that put two kids in jail who had no motive and no history of violence, ZERO out of four of the procedures were followed.

The Scientific Police in Italy conducted an LCN test of a knife in a lab and on machines that had tested items loaded with the victim’s DNA. For all we know, based on the records the lab has released, items with large amounts of the victim’s DNA could have been tested during the same hour as the knife. There was no control object – if there were, it would probably have tested positive. There was only one sample. Finally, the test was not done blind.

Not only that, the scientist who did the test was seen on video handling multiple pieces of evidence from the case without changing gloves each time as is required by strict international protocols.

So we have a demonstrably incompetent scientist doing a test that no geneticist on earth recognizes as valid producing evidence that was the sole cause of Amanda Knox’s conviction. The murder victim was covered with a veritable truckload of DNA from the real killer who is currently in jail. The idea of putting two additional people in jail under these circumstances is grotesque in its barbarism.

Even worse, with Knox out of jail and safe in Seattle, there was an appeal and the Italian bozos overturned the acquittal which had overturned the first conviction and produced a second conviction that is now being reviewed by Italy’s highest court which is presumably also staffed by bozos.

I’m not sure what the problem is here. It’s hard to understand how Italian officials can be so clueless. They aren’t stupid. The problem, I think, is the court doesn’t have an independent panel of experts with the power to exclude from any consideration what might be called “witch hunt science.”

A lot of smart people mix up science and magic. If one sorcerer says one thing and another sorcerer says the opposite, the response, even from a experienced judge, might be, “well, who can know the truth.” However for an expert panel of say five geneticists, many things that are controversial and confusing for a judge would be cut and dried for them.

Any five geneticists from anywhere in the world, would discount the knife DNA “evidence” in the Knox case. It would be an easy 5-0 decision. The only geneticist in the world who thinks the knife DNA is reasonable is the person who actually did the analysis. And actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman knows that what she did is utter nonsense. Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni’s boss was actually hired by the prosecution as a consultant – so her job became effectively to find a DNA trace if it was humanly possible to do so and she did succeed, by literally ignoring every precaution in the book.

The bottom line: courts, including U. S. courts, need independent scientific panels with the power to block junk science from being used in the courtroom.

Knox is out of jail, but Todd Willingham, also obviously innocent, is dead, also due to junk science.

When There Are No Good Guys

I’ve been studying the Amanda Knox case recently. According to the prosecution, she and two men attacked her housemate, raping and killing her. One of the men was a known burglar who carried a knife and had threatened burglary victims with it on at least one occasion. This man left traces of his DNA inside the victim’s body and on the victim’s body and in the victim’s room along with bloody handprints and footprints and fled to Germany after the murder where he was caught.

Amanda and her boyfriend, Raffaele, supposedly helped this man kill Amanda’s housemate but left no DNA or other physical evidence at the scene. They returned to the house the morning after the murder and called police who broke down the door to the victim’s bedroom and discovered the body and a grisly scene. The prosecution says all three participated in the rape and murder, but Amanda and Raffaele removed their DNA and other traces while leaving an avalanche of forensic evidence implicating the known burglar.

The prosecution did not explain exactly how Amanda and Raffaele accomplished the selective forensic sanitization, but they did leak to the press a photo of the bathroom in Amanda’s house which, in the course of the investigation, had been treated with a chemical that made all the walls pink. It looked like blood was everywhere. Everyone following the case knew that Amanda had returned home from her boyfriend’s house the morning after the murder and, with the the victim still lying undiscovered behind a locked door, had taken a shower. So the photo with the blood seemingly everywhere made it look like Amanda had psychotically showered in a blood-drenched bathroom that would terrify any normal person. She had not of course, but the photo played well for the tabloids.

Jurors in Italy aren’t sequestered.

The prosecution also hired as consultant the chief of the forensics lab that was analyzing the physical evidence for the case. Dr. Renato Biondi was in charge of the lab and it was one of his subordinates, Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni, doing the analysis. This is legal in Italy since it is assumed the analysis will be done objectively.

Police had removed a knife from Amanda’s boyfriend’s kitchen that they thought looked very clean and that looked about the right size to have been the murder weapon. Of course, this knife had Amanda’s DNA on it since she used these utensils. Using shockingly sloppy techniques not in accord with any known standard of practice, Stefanoni managed to get a positive result despite the fact that the amount of DNA initially on the knife was too low to be measured prior to the magnification step carried out by the lab in which even a few cells-worth of DNA can be turned into enough material to analyze using something called a “polymerase chain reaction.” A random knife from a random person’s apartment would probably also have yielded a positive result, but the lab did not perform this routine control procedure.

The court, in its wisdom, ordered the test repeated by an independent lab in Rome. The second test found no blood on the alleged murder weapon, no DNA from the victim, no traces whatsoever from the victim, but they did verify that Amanda had handled that particular knife. The second lab took the trouble to carefully list all the departures from internationally accepted forensic procedures taken by the first lab.

The knife is still part of the evidence in the case. The jurors have access to all of the scientific back-and-forth between the two labs.

Let’s move on to the rest of the prosecution’s case.

Before Amanda’s arrest, she was interrogated all night long by a half-dozen or more police who (she says) yelled and threatened and hit until she implicated both her boss and herself. Her confession was ruled inadmissible because police had not recorded the interrogation, but she was charged with and convicted of slander for implicating an innocent man. Police later explained that they did not record the interrogation and confession because they were initially questioning Amanda as a witness and witness interviews need not be recorded under Italian law.

Of course, all jurors know all about the improperly-obtained confession even though it is not part of the court proceeding.

Let us summarize the prosecution’s case: we have a theory of a clean up that may be termed surprisingly adept, we have leaked photographs that spiced things up for the tabloids, we have an unrepeatable positive lab test on a knife from Raffaele’s kitchen. The prosecution says the second lab found nothing on the knife only because there was so little of the victim’s DNA present that it was used up during the first testing procedure. They also say the internationally recognized testing procedures that were not followed are just technicalities, so, they say, the knife should be considered damning evidence.

The prosecution also says Amanda acted like a guilty person trying to shift the blame when she fingered her boss in the wee hours of the morning while being interviewed/interrogated. Since the conversation wasn’t recorded, we don’t know exactly how she came to implicate her boss and also confess to being present at the scene of the crime. Amanda claims police told her what they wanted her to say and she eventually said it, but this cannot be verified or refuted because the interrogation wasn’t recorded (this is why unrecorded interrogations of suspects are illegal in Italy).

Looking at the prosecution’s argument, there is (obviously) no need for a defense.

We have a trial in which the accused, the defense, the prosecution, and the judge all know there is no case. It’s just a question of how gullible and/or ill-informed and/or unscientific and/or susceptible to tabloid journalism the jurors are. In an Italian courtroom, you need only a majority and it’s important (obviously) to have the press on your side.

The really scary part is this is a story with no good guys. If you look at the courtroom in Italy, it’s just the bad guys and their victims. My guess is the successful prosecutors, the subordinate in the testing lab, the respected judges, the rapt tabloid journalists, and the hard-working police all sleep pretty well each night.

I’m not a fire and brimstone kind of guy, but I can’t help hoping and praying that there is, in fact, a Hell and a devil and the eternal fires and the whole damn thing.

In case you didn’t know, Amanda and Raffaele were convicted and served 4 years before the conviction was overturned. Recently, another court declared them guilty again. Amanda is relatively safe in Seattle. Raffaele is in Italy and may go back to jail.

Shakespeare Short Version

Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. The five current and former U.S. Supreme Court Justices (among others) who agree with this assessment are not crackpots.

Each of the five reasons listed below is sufficient, by itself, to warrant close examination of the authorship question. All are routinely ignored by mainstream academics. Taken together, these five pieces of evidence make a virtually airtight case against the traditional authorship attribution.

1.  The author of the sonnets said he was using a pseudonym. 

The only place Shakespeare speaks in the first person is in his sonnets. These poems/personal letters celebrate the life of the Earl of Southampton and remained private for many years after being written.

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

This leaves little room for interpretation.

You, Southampton, your name, your life, your beauty, your honor are being immortalized, now, by me, the greatest writer in the world. Though future generations must not know who I am, you will be celebrated for eternity. “Such virtue hath my pen.” He was right about both the virtue and about dying to all the world.

Indeed the name “Shakespeare” was a spectacular overnight success in the early 1590’s beginning with an epic poem lovingly dedicated to Southampton. Everything published after that under the Shakespeare byline might as well have been written in gold. By the time sonnet 81 was put on paper, the author’s immense immodesty about the power of his pen was more than justified.

The sonnets, however, could not be published just yet. Nevertheless, the “sugared sonnets” attracted attention despite being circulated only amongst the author’s “private friends.” This is according to a contemporary account.

Shakespeare knew the sonnets would not remain private forever: “Your monument shall be my gentle verse . . . And tongues to be your being shall rehearse.” The author (whoever he was) also knew he would not fare so well: “the earth can yield me but a common grave.”

Great poets in those days (whose existence was acknowledged!) were routinely honored with graves in Westminster Abbey. Shakespeare knew this was not for him. His work would be his only monument. 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 besmear’d with sluttish time.

Along these same lines, when Southampton was released from prison upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Shakespeare gleefully wrote Sonnet 107:

Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes [succumbs],
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 fame of a name? No. The honor of a tomb? No. He would live on, after a fashion, in his monumental poetry, but his name would be buried where his body was, as he said (again) in Sonnet 72.

Of course, less obvious readings of the sonnets are possible and, one could argue, are required if a cover-up of the true authorship perpetrated by Queen Elizabeth and continued by King James I seems too unlikely. Poems aren’t letters; they could mean anything. Or maybe the sonnets were commissioned.

Mainstream academics are typically 100% sure sonnet 81 and the others cannot be taken at face value. They could be right, they just don’t make a very good case for it by ignoring the whole question.

For ordinary, unbiased observers, “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die; the earth can yield me but a common grave” — written in a private poem to a close friend when the name Shakespeare was already spectacularly famous as the number one literary light in England — is a smoking gun.  

2. The author of the sonnets repeatedly referred to himself as middle aged.

The sonnets follow Southampton’s life from his refusal to marry the bride chosen for him to his release from prison, hence the assumption that “my lovely boy” is indeed the rash young earl. Identifying Southampton as the subject of the sonnets has never been controversial; he is by far the leading candidate.

Four sonnets in particular (2, 3, 22, and 73) disqualify the man from Stratford on the basis of age. William Shakespeare was 9 years older than Southampton.

Sonnet 2: A 26-year-old commoner from Stratford recalling the beauty of Southampton’s mother in “the lovely April of her prime” is, to say the least, suspicious. The man from Stratford had no opportunity whatsoever to know the Earl of Southampton’s mother in the lovely April of her prime or at any other time.

Sonnet 3: Did a 26 year-old commoner really write, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow . . . ” lecturing the teenaged earl about how he needs to make babies?  Yes, children do allay the psychological rigors of aging and yes, a young man can indeed write from the point of view of an aged man. Theoretically. Read the sonnet.

Sonnet 22: Orthodox scholars believe William Shakespeare of Stratford, a man probably still in his twenties, wrote, “My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date.” I suppose he could have regarded himself as deeply lined next to his teenaged earl friend.

Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou may’st 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 . . . ” Was this a “poetical exercise” or was it real. You get to decide.

The most straightforward reading of the sonnets says they were written to the Earl of Southampton by an middle aged (forties) fellow nobleman.

3. According to sonnet publisher Thomas Thorpe, the author was dead in 1609.  

The publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, eulogized the author. That’s probably because he was dead. Of course, the commoner named Shakespeare was very much alive in 1609; he couldn’t die just yet as he had neighbors to sue.

The publisher’s dedication of the sonnets to “Our ever-living poet” is obviously taken from Henry VI Part 1 in which we witness the funeral of the great deceased King. The line used by Thorpe reads in part, “. . .that ever-living man of memory, Henry the Fifth . . .”

To some historians, direct testimony from a contemporary in a position to know means something. This is not true in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question.

See if you can follow this logic: The man named William Shakespeare was alive in 1609, so the phrase “our ever-living poet” must not have been a reference to a deceased poet at all, furthermore, the similarity to a Shakespearean eulogy is a coincidence, and finally, the fact that the phrase “ever-living” has never, except for this one time, been used to refer to a living person is entirely irrelevant in this case.

Here’s the dedication in full. “To the onlie begettor of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H. All happiness and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet. Wisheth the well wishing adventurer in setting forth.” As with the sonnets themselves, it is possible to argue that the dedication need not be read in the most obvious way. Absent such an argument Shakespeare died before 1609.

The publisher’s dedication in the sonnets, if read in a straightforward manner, strongly implies that Thomas Thorpe believed the author was deceased at the time of publication. If so, Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. 

4. Some modern experts protest way too much. 

It’s been known and widely accepted for more than 150 years that Polonius is a funny, nasty, and fiendishly accurate caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in Elizabethan England.  It is hard to imagine a commoner getting away with such an obvious parody and the identification of Edward de Vere (who knew Burghley all too well) as the most likely alternative author makes the Polonius character and the viciousness of the parody far more understandable (and funnier).

All of this is a problem for the traditional Shakespeare story and is typically met with either silence or denial.

Sometimes the furious backpedaling of a modern scholars provides amusing entertainment. For example, professor Jonathan Bates made comments in Harper’s magazine that included this whopper: “Hamlet is approached via fantastically cryptic supposed parallels between Lord Burghley and the character of Polonius.”

What was once obvious is now “cryptic.” This kind of desperation coming from an expert in the field is almost as convincing to me as the hard evidence in the sonnets.

The Hamlet character Polonius lampooning the powerful Lord Burghley could only have been created by a nobleman — Edward de Vere is the most promising candidate. This has led to intense backpedaling among experts who evidently fear nothing more than de Vere himself.  

5. Shakespeare of Stratford was probably illiterate. 

No letters survive; Shakespeare’s long, detailed will did not mention books or manuscripts; both adult daughters were demonstrably unable to read and write.

Shakespeare could write his name, barely. Six scrawled signatures on legal documents look suspiciously like the struggles of a barely literate man to sign his name — the contrast with the fluid signatures commonly seen from real professional writers of the time is striking. This is a man who supposedly penned more than a million words with a quill.

A man who was known during his lifetime as the greatest writer in England, a man who wrote play after play featuring brilliant, educated, witty women, did not see to it that his two daughters learned to read? Really? Centuries of painstaking searching cannot turn up a single letter or manuscript or book, nothing to even indicate literacy. Really? The most famous writer in England?

If a man leaves behind an extensive paper trail of legal documents but no books, no letters, no manuscripts, and no literate relatives, one might be tempted to conclude that the man in question was not literate.


(1) The author stated in rather clear language in his private sonnets that he was using a pseudonym.  (2) In the sonnets, the author repeatedly presents himself as middle-aged. (3) The dedication written when the sonnets were finally published in 1609 is a Shakespearean eulogy; Shakespeare of Stratford wasn’t dead. (4) Mainstream academics put forward absurd arguments even though there are many perfectly cogent ways to support the traditional attribution. (5) A man who was literally the most literate man in England, a brilliant, multi-lingual, widely-read, broadly-educated genius with a knowledge base that touched on literature, history, science, warfare, botany, music, law, and even falconry and a vocabulary that dwarfed that of his most erudite contemporaries brought up two illiterate daughters.

As Justices Powell, Blackmun, O’Connor, Stevens, and Scalia and many others suspect, the too-young, barely-literate man from Stratford was, in all probability, put in place as a front-man for the true author. 

Why Smart People Question Shakespeare

Who Dares Doubt?

I always thought Who wrote Shakespeare? was run-of-the-mill nonsense. Queen Elizabeth wrote Shakespeare . . . Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare . . . it’s all a secret code . . . etc., ad nauseam. For years I paid no attention. At some point, I found out Mark Twain believed the Shakespeare byline to be a weakly-executed hoax that no one should have fallen for. I re-evaluated my position.

Three Supreme Court Justices — Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens — conducted a mock trial on September 25, 1987 in which one side argued for William Shakespeare and the other argued for Edward de Vere, the leading alternative candidate. Even though Blackmun and Stevens believe Shakespeare did not write the plays, all three Justices agreed that, legally speaking, the burden of proof lay with the de Vere advocates who had not proven their man’s authorship beyond a reasonable doubt. Shakespeare won the case.

Justices Powell, Blackmun, O’Connor, Scalia, and Stevens all doubt Shakespeare despite his strong legal claim. Charles Dickens, Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson also put their doubts in writing. So did Sigmund Freud. Throw in modern Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and Michael York, a growing number of college and university professors, and amateur bozos like me, and by golly you’ve got yourself an interesting little mystery.

Quotes from famous Shakespeare doubters may be found at the declaration of reasonable doubt.

The real reason some smart people doubt Shakespeare wrote the plays is commonly explained by mainstream scholars as follows: Shakespeare was a rural guy whose parents were illiterate, whose wife was illiterate, and whose children grew up illiterate and some people simply can’t believe a man of such humble origins would be as well-read as Shakespeare was and know as many languages as Shakespeare did. The authorship issue thus boils down to a kind of subtle snobbery that causes even some smart people to embrace the ridiculous proposition that Shakespeare might not be Shakespeare. That’s the official story: whole books have been written about the snobbery theory.

Going Down the Rabbit Hole

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure there is much of a question here. Shakespeare left us a series of 126 sonnets that are apparently personal letters written to the Earl of Southampton and they are rather revealing.

The sonnets follow the young earl’s life for a period spanning about thirteen years from age 17, when he obstinately rejected an arranged marriage, until age 30, when he was released from the Tower of London following the death of Queen Elizabeth. The 126 achingly beautiful works of art are a monument to a young nobleman, guiding, admonishing, forgiving, loving, and celebrating the 3rd Earl of Southampton’s tumultuous life as a young adult. The author, whoever he was, expresses a deep and powerful identification with his young friend whom he calls “my lovely boy.”

The sonnets are the only personal writings we have of Shakespeare’s.

If you are not a traditional Shakespeare scholar, you are free to assume the sonnets are what they appear to be — Shakespeare’s personal letters. Make this assumption and suddenly everything fits together so well that you quickly become stuck, lost down the rabbit hole. You can never go back. But look on the bright side, Mark Twain is down there and he’s pretty good company.

I offer you a guided trip into the rabbit hole. We will assume the sonnets are indeed the personal letters of William Shakespeare, written to his young friend, the “fair youth,” the “lovely boy,” the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, that rebellious teenager who refused the highly-placed bride chosen for him by his guardian, that foolhardy young man who was arrested for treason in 1601 and sentenced to death, the rash youth who watched his comrades executed one by one, whose death sentence was mysteriously commuted to life in prison, and who was miraculously released in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth died prompting the beautiful and ebullient sonnet 107.

Come with me, but I caution you, it is a one-way trip.


We know the sonnets were private writings. For at least a decade, Shakespeare’s “sugar’d sonnets” were known to be circulating only among the author’s “private friends” (Meres, 1598). Selected people were reading them, ordinary people knew of their existence, but they were not published. At the same time, Shakespeare’s two epic poems had been published with resounding success in multiple editions. But not the sonnets, not yet.

We know Shakespeare intended the sonnets to be published eventually:

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 . . . When all the breathers of this world are dead/You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen.

Shakespeare, supremely confident in the everlasting beauty of what he was creating, returns frequently to this “monument” theme:

And thou in this shalt find thy monument/When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Can words really outlast brass tombs? Apparently, yes. Is it bragging if you’re right?

I Wouldn’t Marry Her If She Were the Last Girl on Earth!

“From fairest creatures we desire increase . . .” It was 1590 and Southampton was under heavy pressure to marry a particular girl chosen for him by his guardian. We don’t know who the “we” in Shakespeare’s first sonnet is, but whoever they were, they wanted Southampton to marry and produce an heir. The young earl resisted.

In this first sonnet, Shakespeare, whoever he was, spoke sternly to the obstinate young earl: Don’t be your own enemy, don’t waste your beauty, don’t be churlish, the world deserves an heir from you, you have a responsibility to us, to the world, and to yourself; don’t let us down.

Note about the first sonnet: In the original, the word ‘rose’ was capitalized and italicized. No one knows why.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The tone is reproving and loving but not entirely respectful: the earl is a churl.

Right away, in the first sonnet, it seems obvious that the writer is a peer of Southampton, probably an older peer. Throughout the 126 sonnets, the case for the young commoner businessman from Stratford who has the right name but everything else wrong continues to unravel.

The second sonnet begins as follows: 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 . . . The author is warning his young friend about the ravages of aging and the inevitable fate that awaits the earl’s beauty.

Southampton’s self-appointed mentor continues, promising the boy that if only he would make a successor, the aging process would be far more bearable: . . . 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.

Here is the second sonnet in its entirety.

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.

Mr. Shakespeare of Stratford, having recently arrived in London (circa 1590), was in his late twenties when the sonnet above was written.

In the third sonnet, Shakespeare lets us in on an important personal detail: he knew Southampton’s mother. Indeed, the sight of the boy makes the poet nostalgic for old times: Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime/So thou through windows of thine age shalt see/Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

Here is the complete third sonnet.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity? 
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

This sonnet, taken at face value, is very bad news for the traditional Mr.  Shakespeare who was 9 years older than Southampton, first journeyed to London when Southampton was a teenager, and had little opportunity to know the boy’s mother in the lovely April of her prime or at any other time.

There is more of course and reading the rest of the sonnets is well worthwhile. However, at this point, I am pretty much convinced that Twain, Dickens, Freud, Powell, and others are right: Shakespeare was a nobleman who was quite close to Southampton, though a generation older.

The only other possibility is that the sonnets were commissioned and that Shakespeare spent 10 years or more writing a series of private masterpieces expressing someone else’s love for Southampton. The theory that the sonnets were commissioned is the best orthodox scholarship has to offer; I don’t buy it. However, I can’t prove it wrong.

Here are some “quickies” from the 14 other marriage sonnets.

When nature calls thee to be gone . . . thy unus’d beauty must be tombed with thee. A child is the only way to defeat death.

Never resting time leads summer on to hideous winter and confounds him there. . . You’ll age as surely as the seasons change.

Thou art much to fair to be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir. An evocative image to be sure.

So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon, unlooked on diest unless thou get a son. No one cares about an old man with no children.

Music to hear, why hearest thou music sadly. The idea of a harmonious family life (like a musical harmony) unaccountably holds no interest for you, why?

No love toward others in that bosom sits that on himself such murd’rous shame commits. Not having a child is like murdering yourself and is shamefully selfish.

Thou art so possessed of murderous hate. How dare you not have a child!

Make thee another self for love of me. I know you love me, and I love you and you must produce an heir.

If all were minded so, the times should cease and threescore year would make the world away. If everyone thought the way you did, the world would surely come to an end.

She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby thou shouldst print more, not let thy copy die. Nature gave you more than most with the expectation that your line would continue.

“And nothing ‘gainst time’s scythe can make defense, save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.” When death takes you, the only comfort you can have is if you have left part of yourself in a child.

Against this coming end you should prepare and your sweet semblance to some other give . . . Who lets so fair a house fall to decay . . . O none but unthrifts . . . You had a father: let your son say so. You are high-born; it is terribly wasteful to let your lineage come to an end.

Thy end is truth and beauty’s doom and date. The good of the world is in you and if you die without issue, the good will die too.

When I consider every thing that grows holds in perfection but a little moment . . . As he takes from you, I engraft you new. Youth is perfect, but oh-so-fleeting and though time will take away your life, here, in my poetry, you will be forever young.

Many maiden gardens yet unset with virtuous wish would bear you living flowers. Clear enough.

You true rights [will] be termed a poet’s rage . . . But were some child of yours alive at that time, you would live twice, in it and in my rhyme. My poetry will sing your praises forever, but if there’s no progeny, people won’t know how wonderful you truly were and won’t believe what they read.

Seventeen passionate sonnets did not convince the young earl to marry the girl who had been chosen for him. He refused his guardian who happened to be the powerful Lord Burghley and the young man suffered a huge fine of 5000 pounds levied against his estate. In the eighteenth sonnet, Shakespeare has given up and contents himself that the boy he loves will live forever in his poetry: Thy eternal summer shall not fade . . . So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Two other sonnets speak especially revealingly about Shakespeare’s close identification with the young earl and about their relative ages.

Sonnet 22: My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date.

Sonnet 73: That time of year thou may’st 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.

So who is Shakespeare? Is it the businessman commoner from Stratford who turned 26 in 1590 and who may never even have met Southampton? Or is it Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a generation removed from Southampton, an elder peer who turned 40 in 1590, who grew up in the same household as Southampton 23 years earlier also as a royal ward, and whose daughter just happened to be the person Southampton was supposed to marry?

Before you make your ruling, let’s look at a few more sonnets.

I Know! I’ll Try to Control the Royal Succession!

In 1601, Southampton and his buddy, the Earl of Essex, and a bunch of other morons, decided they would outfox the brilliant Lord Burghley (Elizabeth’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England) and try to control the royal succession. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Elizabeth would be dead within a couple of years and, since she never married, there was no heir. The Virgin Queen had had sex with Edward de Vere (there is hard evidence from a contemporary witness) and undoubtedly others as well and she may even have had unacknowledged children to boot. But none of these bastard children would have been eligible for the throne. The succession was up for grabs.

Southampton and company apparently felt they could help the Queen make the “right” decision. We don’t know who they thought they would place on the throne, but they planned to push Burghley aside by force and convince Elizabeth to see things their way. Their little plot failed comically. Burghley let them begin their ride toward the palace and then rounded them all up, put them on trial for treason, and began chopping people’s heads off (actually, if that’s all that happened to you, you could consider yourself lucky). The Earl of Essex himself was executed.

But not Southampton. He, with Essex, had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison, and, once the Queen died in 1603 and James I peacefully ascended the throne, the ridiculously lucky Southampton was set free. Southampton’s exploits are chronicled in the sonnets.

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired: 
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

This is sonnet 27. Shakespeare has apparently visited Southampton in prison but can’t sleep after returning home because he can’t forget the image of Southampton, languishing in the Tower of London and likely to be executed.

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed,
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee. 
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.

In sonnet 28 above, he still can’t sleep.

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be,
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

Sonnet 35 is quite interesting. The poet seems to be forgiving Southampton for what he has done and is apparently advocating for him behind the scenes. Edward de Vere, as the ranking earl in England, was one of the judges that condemned Southampton to death (per the Queen’s order; the trial had a predetermined outcome) but was also in a position to push privately for life in prison in lieu of death (thy adverse party is thy advocate). If these sonnets are being interpreted correctly here, then de Vere is probably the only person in England who could have written them.

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

Sonnet 87 is also quite interesting. The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing seems to imply there was something about Southampton that prevented his being killed. So thy great gift, on misprision growing/Comes home again, on better judgement making is straightforward to interpret: Misprision is a lesser form of treason in which the accused has not actually committed treason but has neglected to report the treason of others.

We don’t know if this was the “better judgement” that saved Southampton’s life nor do we know what the “charter of thy worth” was (Essex’s rank didn’t save him) but again, if we are interpreting these sonnets correctly, only someone very high up with an unusual amount of insider knowledge could have written them.

Although Sonnets 27, 28, 35, and 87 are not nearly as easy to interpret as the marriage sonnets, there is no doubt at all about the meaning of the celebratory sonnet 107.

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.

Queen Elizabeth (the mortal moon) had died, and Southampton, “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” has been miraculously released while the royal succession, so frightening in its uncertainty, has proceeded peacefully and James I is securely on the throne. Shakespeare the author is overflowing with joy at the release of his great love, Southampton, and exults in the knowledge that his poetry will allow him to give Death itself a run for its money.

Shakespeare of Stratford, the commoner businessman whose wife and children were illiterate (maybe he didn’t have time to teach his two daughters to read), that amazing man who died without ever having written a letter and without ever having received a letter (maybe they were simply lost), that man of two worlds whose long detailed will did not mention a single book (maybe his library was taken care of separately) CANNOT, no matter how many “maybes” one employs, have been in a position to visit Southampton in prison, to forgive him for committing treason, to lobby behind the scenes on his behalf, or to have any knowledge whatsoever of the secret judgment that saved his life.

Unfortunately, even today we don’t know what led to the commutation of Southampton’s death sentence. It could have been a new judgment of misprision of treason or simply an order from the Queen: “don’t kill him.” We’ll probably never know. Shakespeare’s sonnets are as close as we’ll ever get to the truth and we’re lucky to have them. After they were published in 1609, they disappeared only to resurface decades later. They were not included in the famous First Folio of 1623 in which 36 Shakespeare plays were compiled (including 18 that had never been published) and they could easily have been lost permanently.

What About Hard Evidence?

If Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, it means that James I would have had to order a hoax. Hints had to be dropped when the First Folio was published in 1623 and Shakespeare’s gravesite had to be altered to make it appear he was an author rather than the semi-literate, lawsuit-happy, grain hoarder we know from the paper trail that seems so at odds with the bylines on the plays and poems that began to be published in London in the early 1590’s.

I think the sonnets were written from a place of passion that could not possibly have been simulated by a writer who had been handed a bag of gold by some nobleman: “write me some sonnets for my kid.” Even a genius like Shakespeare couldn’t have done it. Great poetry comes from the heart — it always has and it always will. And I don’t buy the official, “Well, technically, we don’t know for sure that Southampton is the subject of the sonnets.” Of course he’s the subject: only a fool or someone with an axe to grind would think otherwise.

But these are just opinions. Even if you read the sonnets for yourself and ultimately agree with me, that makes two people who don’t have any hard evidence for their beliefs. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Fortunately, there is some. We have Thomas Thorpe. He was there, after all. He held the original sonnet manuscript in his trembling hands, that priceless sheaf of Shakespeare’s handwriting, now lost. Until then, only Shakespeare’s “private friends” had seen the sonnets. But now they would be published and Mr. Thorpe would be immortalized.

Thorpe wished “Mr. W. H.”  — could be Henry Wriothesley, I suppose — “all happiness and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet.” The “ever-living” comment is straight out of Shakespeare. It’s from the eulogy in Henry the VI: “. . . our scarce-cold conqueror/That ever-living man of memory/Henry the Fifth.”

So Thorpe quoted Shakespeare in the dedication and eulogized him as “our ever-living poet.” All the maybes and it’s possibles and we don’t really knows in the world can’t change a simple, hard fact: the author of the sonnets was dead when they were published in 1609. Thorpe said so and he was there.

If you were alive in 1609, you didn’t write the sonnets. Shakespeare had the right name but he had the wrong life and, more to the point, he had the wrong death. William Shakespeare, the businessman from Stratford, died in 1616, seven years too late to be considered as a possible author of the sonnets.

There’s one more piece of hard evidence: the 18 plays that lay unpublished for ten plus years until they were finally, suddenly published in 1623 when the First Folio was compiled. Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew and 16 other works of art were not published while the businessman named Shakespeare lived. Why weren’t they published for 10 years or more? Who had held the manuscripts for all those years?

Edward de Vere died in 1604, Mr. Shakespeare in 1616. Seven years later, 18 manuscripts miraculously turned up and were compiled with 18 other plays to form the famous First Folio. The First Folio just happened to be dedicated to de Vere’s son-in-law, the Earl of Montgomery and also to Montgomery’s brother, the “incomparable brethren” who had undoubtedly bankrolled the project.

Commoners in England in 1610 don’t hold onto original Shakespeare manuscripts for 10 years or more and elect not to have them published because they don’t need the money right now and maybe in 10 years it will be a good time to publish.  This theory, the official, orthodox theory, is absurd. Shakespeare plays were extremely famous and lucrative the moment they were performed. Only nobility would hold the manuscripts for a decade or more. The Countess of Montgomery, Edward de Vere’s daughter, Susan, apparently had inherited the manuscripts and eventually arranged for their publication to preserve her late father’s art.

From Beauty’s Rose to a Never-Ending Mystery

There is no single, definitive argument (although “our ever-living poet” comes close), but the totality of the evidence makes the hoax seem rather lame to my eyes. From the first two lines of the first sonnet, “From fairest creatures we desire increase/That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die” to the publication of the First Folio by de Vere’s relatives, we have clear indications that all of Shakespeare’s work, especially the sonnets, was too sensitive for the true author to allow his name to be bandied about publicly.

We know de Vere slept with the Queen, we know he was given by the Queen an unusually large stipend of 1000 pounds a year, we know his daughter was the chosen wife for Southampton, we know Southampton refused to marry Elizabeth Vere and later committed treason and was spared while his comrades were executed, we know “Shakespeare” tried to convince Southampton to marry and later exulted at his release from prison, and we know the Tudor Rose dynasty ended when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603.

Shakespeare’s “sugar’d sonnets” that circulated only among his “private friends” until 1609 may have simply been too hot to handle.

Even the plays are full of inside baseball. Hamlet famously makes fun of the powerful Lord Burghley who is mercilessly lampooned as Polonius. Characters in other plays such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night are also obvious caricatures of Court figures. Either Shakespeare was the most well-connected commoner in England AND the most brilliant father of illiterate children anyone could possibly imagine AND the only thirty-year-old in history to ever complain about “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” OR he wasn’t the real author.

Whoever Shakespeare was, he and Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, were about as close as it is possible for two people to be. We can only guess about the exact nature of their relationship: but it was very, very close. A commoner from Stratford nine years older than H. W.? Really?

You decide, your honor.

Quantum Mechanics – Introduction

Quantum mechanics is even crazier than relativity. It’s one thing to be faced with a universal speed limit – a crazy idea if there ever was one – but how about some physics that messes with reality itself?

In the old days, to understand weird quantum behavior, you had to do a lot of statistics. But the physicists have managed to boil it down very nicely. Of course it was pretty simple all along, but it it took the physicists decades to get it all straight anyway, probably because they like it complicated.

Okay, enough physicist bashing and kudos to guys like Mermin who have worked very hard seeking simplicity. With a little help from the good professor Mermin (no relation to Merlin), let’s learn quantum mechanics.

All in a Day’s Work

You and two of your friends find yourselves confronted by the Devil and his minions. He wants your souls and even though you have all led lives of honor and integrity, the Devil took out an option on you and your two friends anyway and you will have to complete a series of tasks in order to keep your souls. The tasks are all possible – even the Devil has to play by some rules – but they will get progressively more difficult.

A young devil-in-training shows up to give you your first task. He tries to breathe fire but ends up burning himself and then he says, with an attempt at sounding sinister, “I will ask one of you whether the other two will give the Same or Different answers to a question and if whoever I ask is wrong, you all lose your souls, HAHAHAHAHA.”

So he asks you if your two friends will give the Same answer or Different answers and you say, “Same!” nice and loudly so your friends can hear. Then he asks one friend, “Do you enjoy strolling through cemeteries late at night?” Your friend, very loudly and clearly, says “Yes!”

Then the little devil-in-training turns to your other friend and says, “And how about you, my soon-to-be-slave, do you enjoy strolling through cemeteries at night?” Your second friend has of course heard the two previous answers: you said Same and your first friend said Yes, so of course your second friend loudly and carefully says, “Yes!”

The little devil tries to roar his disappointment but just makes sort of a grating whimper. He presses on however asking you if your friends will give the Same or Different answers and he forces you to say, “Different!” just to try to confuse your friends. But they are standing right there and can hear everything, so, when one answers, “No!” the other says, “Yes!” The little, kind-of-stupid devil tries asking the cemetery questions first, but the third person always hears the first two and always gives the correct answer. Then he asks the cemetery question, then the same-or-different question, and then the final cemetery question, but there is still no problem as long as you are all paying attention and, given the circumstances, neither you nor your friends allow attention to waver for an instant.

The devil-in-training shakes his pitchfork in frustration, injures himself, and vanishes in a puff of smoke and a shrill whine of pain.

Now a somewhat more experienced, but still youngish devil shows up. He casually lights your hair on fire and laughs as you shriek and squirm. He says in a loud, booming voice, “Time for a little rule change!” and the sound reverberates menacingly before dying away. “Same three questions but this time you’ll be locked in soundproofed rooms,” he says. “You have 10 seconds, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

Moments later you find yourself in a soundproof room, alone and hoping your friends understood your hastily-delivered instructions. You don’t know who is going to get asked what but that doesn’t matter. Here is your plan.

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Same, Yes

Friend 2: Same, Yes

No matter how devil #2 asks the questions, he always gets Same-Yes-Yes and your souls are safe. Suddenly you are back with your friends and the second devil who says, “Very clever, but now the rule is if I decide to ask all three of you whether the other two will give the same or different answers, if you all say, ‘Same,’ you all lose your souls. HAHAHAHAHAHA! You have 5 seconds this time.” He smiles and you notice a tiny flame on each tooth and in each of his eyes.

Now you are in the soundproofed room again. Fortunately, you had anticipated this particular move and you were ready with your instructions for your friends. Here is your plan.

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, No

Four things can happen and your souls are safe each time. Here’s the first scenario.

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, No

And the second scenario . . .

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, No

And the third scenario . . .

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, No

Finally, the devil might check that you are not all saying, “Same,” but this will do him no good.

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, No

You have vanquished the second devil. Even though you had only five seconds to tell your friends what to do, your foresight saved you. The second devil screams bloody murder, erupts in a sheet of flame, and vanishes. You know there will be a third devil and you are not sure if you are up to the task of defeating this one as that last one nearly finished you. Your friends are grateful to you for saving them so far, but both are now rather pale, almost in tears. You aren’t doing all that well yourself.  You pray for calm but praying seems quite a hollow thing to do so close to the gates of Hell.

Uh Oh

The third Devil arrives. He is older, MUCH older. “Yes, I see you have out-thought my two young assistants,” he says quietly.  “But don’t worry,” he says reassuringly, almost soothingly, “I won’t pull any of that nonsense about giving you only 5 seconds to think,. You can have all the time you want.” He smiles. There are no flames, just a gleam in his eye. In all of your life, nothing has ever unnerved you so much as this smoothly pleasant Devil.

“You can talk with each other and take notes if you like,” says the Devil (and this is the Devil, capitalized). Some paper and pencils appear and a writing table and chairs.

“We will ask the same questions as before and any one of you must correctly predict whether the other two will give the same or different answers. You will be locked in separate rooms again.  BUT” – and here the Devil allows a brief flicker of universal hatred to cross his face – “if we ask all three of you whether the others will give the same or different answers, you may NOT all say ‘Same’ AND I’m terribly, terribly sorry to inform that you may NOT give us one ‘Same’ and two ‘Different’ answers either.”

“It’s very simple really. We’ll do it 10 times and you’ll be able to meet before each round,” the Devil says calmly. “Take your time . . . or I will.” And he vanishes without fanfare.

One of your friends is shaking uncontrollably. “We can’t do it!” he screams. “I thought he wasn’t allowed to give us an impossible task! We can’t all three of us say Different. It just won’t work! Three yes or no answers CAN’T MAKE THREE DIFFERENT PAIRS . . . one pair will always, always, always be the same.” And he starts to cry. You reflect that you have never seen this particular friend cry.

He looks at the two of you pleading, wanting it all to be a dream. He grabs you and starts shaking you. “Don’t you see,” he yells, “yes-no-no or yes-yes-no or no-yes-no or whatever you want, at least one pair is always the same. WE CAN’T ALL SAY DIFFERENT!”

You scribble down a quick note for yourself just to make absolutely sure you and your friends are truly in big trouble.

You: Different, Yes

Friend 1: Different, No

Friend 2: Different, Uh-oh

Friend 2 will be right when he says “Different” as long as you and Friend 1 plan on saying “Yes” and “No.” But if Friend 2 chooses his yes-or-no answer ahead of time, either you or Friend 1 will be wrong when you say “Different” – damned wrong you might say.

Your crying friend looks at your paper, nods his head, and collapses into a fetal position; his skin is cold and clammy even with all the fire licking around the walls. He begins to mutter incoherently. Your other friend, wiping the sweat away from his face and making a Herculean effort to stay calm, says, “B-B-But wait, M-M-Mr. Devil said we could have two of us say, ‘Same’ and one say ‘D-D-Different.’ What about that?”

From his fetal position, your other friend just moans, “Noooooo! If two pairs are the same, they ALL have to be the same.” And he goes back to his muttering.

For the first time since all this started, you are deeply and terribly afraid. Using the paper and pencil so helpfully provided by the Devil, you write down the second option. You don’t like what you see. You don’t like it at all.

You: Same, Yes

Friend 1: Same, No

Friend 2: Different, Uh oh

Again, Friend 2’s “Different” answer is fine but the same cannot be said for your “Same” answer or Friend 1’s “Same” answer. The “Uh-oh” can’t be both “No” and “Yes” at the same time!!! And yet it has to be or your souls are in jeopardy.

You look at the flames leaping exuberantly from the walls. You could swear they are forming into the letters, “U-h o-h i-s r-i-g-h-t.” You look away.

There is no plan that will always work. You can’t all say “Different” because three yes-or-no answers can’t all be different. And you can’t have two saying “Same” and one saying “Different” either because if one pair is different, there is automatically another different pair. You are absolutely and totally stuck. Your souls might be safe for a round or two of questioning if you get a little bit lucky, but there is absolutely no way to give the right answers every time.

Maybe the fetal position isn’t such a bad idea . . . The paper and pencil is useless. You can write things down all you want but writing down, “answer yes or no depending on what who got asked what even though you have no idea but please give the right answer every time anyway by magic” doesn’t sound very safe to you. Your souls are as good as gone . . . You feel the black cloak of despair settling over you, a heavy smothering weight, unending darkness everlasting . . . In a way it’s comforting to just give up completely . . . no hope . . . no striving . . . just plain old suffering . . . It won’t be so bad . . .

But wait! With the pathetic young devil, you and your friends could hear each other’s answers. It’s only the insistence that you have to plan it out beforehand that is keeping you from solving the problem. “If only we had radio equipment,” you mutter to  yourself. And suddenly three radios appear! They work perfectly and you and your still-standing friend try them out and you can talk to each other.

“We can bring these with us!” exclaims your friend. “He never said we couldn’t and soundproofing won’t stop a radio transmission.”

One of the radios crackles to life: “Hi honey, it’s me.”

You are rather surprised to hear your wife’s voice and you feel a surge of comfort and hope. But the voice, still soft and feminine, says, “I’m afraid you’ll be placed on 3 different planets in the Solar System and the three questions will be asked simultaneously and you’ll have 3 seconds to answer. Oh, and by the way sweetie, if we don’t nail you the first time, we’ll get you by the tenth try. It’s such a shame – isn’t it? – that radio waves only travel at the speed of light. Love you. Bye.”

Waves after wave of rage ripple through your body penetrating to your bone marrow, enveloping your psyche, briefly rendering you mindless as every thought, every memory, and every feeling you’ve ever had transform into highly purified anger. But you can’t kill a Devil.

A little spark of memory from something you once read or heard fights its way to the surface. As you calm down, you think, “quantum mechanics.” Aloud, you say, “if only we had a quantum physicist.” A rumpled old man appears looking bemused. “Vat is dis?” he says. “I vas just writing de wave function for teleportation and den here I am.”

Beside yourself with excitement, you blurt out, talking a mile a minute, “There’s something in quantum physics about particles being connected and wave functions instantly collapsing. I just need a quick lesson and then you can go back to your lab. Will you help me?”

The rumpled old man gets a familiar gleam in his eye and somehow doesn’t look so rumpled anymore. He says, “Vat’s all the fuss about? You act like you are about to lose your soul! I’d love to help you of course because I am the type who likes to help people in need but I’m afraid any personal help from the outside is strictly – what is the word? – VERBOTEN. Yes, that’s it. VERBOTEN.” He SPITS out the word and a little bit of saliva gets on your skin and it burns you. “I certainly vouldn’t vant to break any rules, now vould I?!”

Mission Impossible

The “physicist” disappears before you can get your hands around his throat. Recovering your composure more quickly this time, you say, “If only we had a high-speed internet connection.” A computer appears and you roll up your sleeves and get to work. Your friends, both on their feet now, stand behind you hoping you find what you are looking for. “I forget the guy’s name,” you say. “All I can think of is John Ringer for some reason, but I’m not finding anything.”

Your previously-fetal friend is still not entirely coherent and just starts mumbling, “Ringer, dinger, danger, donger. I ring, he rings, she rings the bell . . . ”

“BELL!!!” You are smiling now as you type into the computer. “Thank God for that course in modern physics I ended up in when there was that computer glitch with my schedule sophomore year!” you say out loud to yourself.  “It’s John Stewart Bell, the discoverer of the Bell Inequality. Here it is. Three guys have upgraded it to involve three particles rather than two . . . ”

Equipment begins appearing but your friends are still skeptical. “How can this work?” the relatively coherent one says. “We’re going to be on different planets and they are going to ask the questions simultaneously and demand immediate answers. We can’t agree beforehand on what our answers are going to be because we have to fulfill these contradictory conditions.”

“The particles can do it,” you calmly say. “No one knows how.”

“But it’s impossible,” your friend says. “Are you telling me the three particles can all say Different and at the same time all three answers of Different are correct?”

“That’s right,” you say.

“I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to do that,” protests your friend. “There is no combination of three yes-or-no answers where all three pairs are Different.”

“True enough,” you say, “but we don’t have to produce such a combination. All we have to do is make sure three answers are always ‘Different-No-Yes’ or ‘Different-Yes-No’ or ‘Different-Different-Different.’

Your friend is never going to believe it. He says, “Are you trying to tell me that when you measure a particle and it says Different, it forces the other two far-away particles to give different answers? Because it has to be doing that, you know. The particles couldn’t have decided on their Yes or No answers beforehand because there would always be a pair that was the Same.”

You figure there’s some hope that he’s starting to get it. “You’re right of course. That’s why we can’t try this by writing our answers on paper before we get split up. If we tried it that way, we’d burn.”

“What about the ‘Same-Same-Different’ possibility? I suppose you’re going to tell me the particles can do that too,” says your still-skeptical friend.

“Yes,” you say, “some sets of three particles will give ‘Same-Same-Different’ or, if he asks the questions the other way, they’ll give ‘Same-Yes-Yes’ or ‘Same-No-No” or ‘Different-No-Yes’ or ‘Different-Yes-No’.

“But Same-Same-Different doesn’t make an ounce of sense,” protests your friend. “It’s impossible. Don’t you see? You can’t have two Sames and a Different. If one pair is the Same, maybe it’s Yes-Yes, and you want a second pair to be the Same, you have to have Yes-Yes-Yes, there’s no other way. But then you won’t have a Different pair AND YOU’LL BURN IN HELL FOREVER!”

“That’s only true,” you say, “if the particles have to decide what they are going to be beforehand.”

“It’s not going to work,” says your friend, crossing his arms and gnashing his teeth. “We’re going to be on separate planets for God’s sake and we’re going to be asked simultaneously! The particles aren’t going to have time to make the ‘right’ decision any more than we would with our radios. It takes way longer than 3 seconds for any signal to travel between planets.”

“It will work,” you say. “They’ve tested it. No one knows how the particles do it, but they do do it.”

Now Mr. Fetal Position has more or less recovered and he’s got some questions. “Okay,” he says, “you’ve got three particles on separate planets and I can find out about the third particle by measuring the other two. For example, I might get a ‘Same’ answer from one particle and a ‘Yes’ answer from another particle which means I am guaranteed to get a ‘Yes’ from the third particle. Also, I can decide to measure Yes-or-No for two particles and if I get ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ then I know for certain that the third particle will say, ‘Different.’ So I can determine the answer to any question for any particle without ever coming anywhere near it.”

“That’s right,” you say.

“But at the same time, the particles cannot have decided beforehand what they are going to be because there is no previous decision that will give the Devil his due and save our souls which is why I’ve been in the fetal position for the last few hours. Right?”


“But when I measure two of the particles, the third particle that is on a different planet and that could not possibly have decided what it was beforehand now suddenly decides what it is going to be. Right?”


“So the particles can communicate with each other instantly! That’s what you’re saying. Sorry, but that’s impossible. No way, no how, absolutely not,” insists your friend, his eyes starting to glisten again, the blood running out of his face. “It’s really, really hot in here,” he says, stumbling a bit even though he wasn’t trying to walk. “Have you noticed that?”

“Well,” you say, gripping your friend’s shoulders and staring into his eyes, “I guess the particles do appear to be communicating instantly. The physicists even have a name for this phenomenon – they say quantum mechanics is ‘weakly non-local’ which I guess means the particles act as if they are talking to each other but they don’t talk loud enough for us to hear. Anyway, I’ll make the apparatus and we’ll see what happens. I can get anything I ask for and I had a good teacher in that crazy class I took way back when so I don’t think it will be a problem to build the equipment. We can test it thoroughly, so we’ll know it works before we try it.”

More and more stuff appears and soon, with the help of the internet and the supernatural procurement abilities of the Devil himself, you are ready to give your friends their instructions: “If you are asked whether the answers will be the Same or Different, set your meter to “X” and press the red button to get the measurement. If the result says ‘Spin Up’ then answer ‘Same’ and if the result says ‘Spin Down,’ answer ‘Different.’ If you are asked whether or not you like to stroll in the cemetery at night, set your meter to ‘Y’ and press the red button. ‘Spin Up’ means ‘Yes’ and ‘Spin Down’ means ‘No.’ That’s all there is to it. As long as we can meet before each round, we can set up the equipment and we’ll be fine.”

“What exactly are we doing?” one friend asks.

“We have three particles that were produced together in a particular quantum state. If you measure the x-component of spin of one particle by shooting it through a magnetic field, that will determine whether the y-components of the other two particles are the same or different. So if the x-component of any of the three particles reads as up, the y-components of the other two particles will be the same – either both up or both down. If the x-component of any particle reads as down, the y-components of the other two particles will be different – either up and down or down and up. The best part is if you measure the x-components of each of the three particles, you will always get either three downs or two ups and a down even though this should be impossible. You can always find out what one particle is by measuring the other two, but if you try to write down what the particles might decide to be before any measurements are made, your written list will never give the results of these experiments.”

“Amazing,” one friend says. “You’d think you couldn’t get three downs for the x-components because that implies all three pairs of y-components are different which is absurd. And if you get two ups and a down for the x-components, that implies the y-components have two pairs the same and one pair different at the same time which is also impossible. Incredible.”

“Not if these particles have some sort of special magic web of communication between them that works instantly,” says your other friend, his words laced with an odd mixture of  skepticism and foreboding. “Has this little trick of yours ever been tried with the three particles on three different planets?” he asks.

“Well, no,” you say, “but it works in the lab with the measurements happening almost exactly simultaneously, so it should continue to work for us even if we are placed in rooms millions of miles apart and asked simultaneously. Many physicists are truly puzzled by this behavior of the particles so they’ve checked it many times. I know this will work.”

At that moment, the whole place erupts in white-hot flames. Your friends, terrified and bewildered, run as far from the flames as possible as all your equipment begins to bubble and smoke and melt into lava. You calmly walk through the flames untouched and unharmed smiling at your cowering friends. You scoop up some melting plastic and metal and glass and form it into a ball without burning your hands. Your voice is strong and clear, your confidence returned, your fear a thing of the past: “C’,mon HONEY,” you say rather loudly, “don’t you want to come play catch with me? What’s the matter – sore loser? Poor devil! Ha-ha. Get it? I feel so bad for you! Better luck next time, you dirty little outcast, you filthy bottom-dwelling worm, you disgusting . . . ”

Suddenly you are in your kitchen standing next to your wife at the very instant you were taken. This time you know it’s really her. “What’s for dinner?” she says.

“Anything you want, baby.”

Relativity – Introduction

Physicists don’t say things like “Polonius wasn’t a caricature of Lord Burghley.” They are protected from the more egregious blunders by skeptical experimenters who test all the theories. Effectively, physicists get to “look in the back of the book,” or, if you like, they get to “ask God what the answer is.”

So it is probably actually true that if you put mom on a spaceship and send her off at just under the speed of light, when she gets back, she’ll have aged only a few years while decades will have passed on Earth. You might wind up older than your mom! This particular experiment hasn’t been tried (yet), but physicists have good reasons for saying they know what would happen. I wouldn’t bet against them. Where they go wrong is in claiming that we understand it. We don’t. Even Einstein didn’t understand it.

In 2000 words or less, you can catch right up with Einstein. Ready? Set. Go!

Throwing Things in a Speed-Limited Universe

Speeds add. Suppose you are standing in the back of a pickup truck going at 20 mph and you see a street sign 100 feet in front of the truck. If you can throw a rock at the modest speed of 15 mph and if you throw it forward while the truck is moving, the rock will be going at 35 mph.  It will make a satisfying clang when it hits the street sign. Or imagine you are traveling at 80 mph in the truck and you “gently” toss the rock out of the truck – if it hits a street sign, it will do a lot of damage because it still has the 80 mph from the truck.

So don’t be tossing objects out of speeding pickups, okay? Glad we could clear that up.

Let’s switch to an airplane. If you are flying in an airplane at 599 mph and walk briskly (say, at 4 mph) toward the front of the plane, you will be going at 603 mph. If you throw a baseball at 50 mph toward the front of the plane, it will be a blistering 649 mph fastball. If you shoot a B.B. forward at 599 mph, it’s actual speed will be 1198 mph.

We don’t need Einstein yet. Sure, people on the plane say the baseball goes 50 mph and people on the ground say it goes 649 mph, but this minor difference in perspective is not relativity. Everyone agrees on how much time it takes the baseball to hit the wall (a second or so) and that’s all that matters to physicists.

But what if there’s a universal speed limit? There’s no obvious reason for any limit on speed, so you may need to eat some hallucinogenic mushrooms before you can accept this idea. (Having a Ph.D. in physics doesn’t make the idea seem any less crazy to me – pass the ‘shrooms please.) Okay, imagine that nothing in the universe can ever go faster than 600 mph no matter what. Now if you fly on a plane going 599 mph, you can’t walk toward the front of the plane at 4 mph because that would break the speed limit. Obviously, this is going to cause some problems.

In this speed-limited universe, weird things happen. The B.B. is absolutely not allowed to go anywhere near 1198 mph. The best it can manage is a speed just under 600 mph. But even rounded up to 600 mph, the B.B. bizarrely creeps toward the front of the plane at 1 lousy little mph. That is, the speed of the B.B. relative to the plane is only 1 mph; even though it was shot out of a gun, it takes more than a minute to travel across a 100-foot airplane cabin.

All three of our speeds must fit into the narrow space between 599 and 600 mph. The baseball is now a very special kind of pitch we might call a superslowball; it reaches the front of the cabin more than seven minutes after being thrown. And the person trying to walk at 4 mph gives new meaning to the idea of a leisurely stroll: he doesn’t get to the forward lavatory for almost an hour and a half.

But – and now it gets even stranger – since everything on the plane slows down to obey the speed limit, including people’s thoughts, no one notices anything amiss. People on the plane say, “We shot a B.B. into the front wall and played catch and walked around and everything seemed fine.” But then they get a bit of a shock. Their transatlantic flight that was supposed to require 6 hours of cruising is mind-blowingly over in 20 minutes: “We’ll be landing now,” says the pilot. “What’s going on?” say the passengers. “We can’t be there yet!”

But they are. They’ve traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in 20 minutes (for them) and arrived in Europe 6 hours later right on schedule. One person wearing a heart monitor confirms that his heart only beat 1200 times during the flight. The speed limit was never broken by the plane or by any object moving on board the plane, BUT they somehow covered a distance of almost 3600 miles in 20 minutes (on their watches). A little girl who was on the plane says, “OMG, the ocean must’ve shrunk while we were on the plane and then expanded when we landed, WOW!”

(Years later, when the little girl gets a degree in physics, she learns that this phenomenon is called “length contraction” and that it goes hand in hand with “time dilation,” but the phrase, “expanded when we landed,” still trips off her tongue like a song when she is hired by the airline to help bring passengers “up to speed” on the experience of flying close to the universal limit.)

That’s Einstein’s theory of relativity. There’s nothing fancy, nothing difficult to understand: if there’s a universal speed limit, everything on a plane traveling close to the limit has to move slowly to avoid going “too fast.” That’s all there is to the theory from a conceptual standpoint. No one knows how there can be a speed limit to the universe. All we can say, and all Einstein said, is that there is apparently a speed limit whether we like it or not.

In the paper Einstein wrote while his boss at the patent office wasn’t looking, he figured out the mathematical details of how his hypothetical speed limit would have to work. Basically no matter what speed you add to 599 mph, you have to get a speed at or below 600 mph. So 599 + 4 equals 599 and a fraction; 599 + 50 equals 599 and a bigger fraction; 599 + 599 equals almost 600; and 599 + 600 equals exactly 600. Pretty crazy, but there is math that will do that and it’s no fancier than ninth grade algebra. If you are Einstein and if you don’t care about the entire physics establishment and if you have nothing to lose and if you are willing to assume there is a speed limit, then you figure out the math of this new universe, send your paper to the physics journal, and get back to work before the boss catches you.

Of course, Einstein used the speed of light as the speed limit rather than 600 mph. So on a ship traveling at the speed of light minus one mile per hour, a laser mounted on the tail of the ship may be fired forward, but the beam goes at the speed of light and no faster. Since the beam travels only 1 mph faster than the ship, it creeps toward the front of the ship at a decidedly unhurried pace. If the ship is a mile long, it takes an hour for the laser beam to reach the front of the ship. But a solid hour on the one hand is virtually instantaneous on the other hand. On the ship, the laser beam shoots to the front and out into space at the speed of light as all good laser beams should. No mere illusion, this apparent contradiction could exist, Einstein reasoned, only if he was willing to give up everything he thought he knew about space and time.

So he did. He was like that. Lasers and B.B.’s and baseballs, walking and heartbeats and even thoughts – and time itself if there is such a thing – must go slow or there can be no speed limit. The operation of any clock – whether it’s one that goes tick-tock or a clock based on radioactive decay or even a ball bouncing once per second – is affected in exactly the same way. By applying a mathematical correction to all measurements of time and to all motion, Einstein was able to “explain” what would happen on a spaceship. He did not tell us how time could slow down or even clear up what this thing called time was exactly beyond saying it is what a clock measures. He wasn’t keeping secrets; he simply didn’t know. Don’t be mad.

A Crazy Idea Turns 100

More than a century ago now some patent clerk no one had ever heard of had a mathematically consistent theory about a speed-limited universe. Big deal. The journal editor who published Einstein’s paper figured (quite reasonably) that his theory was almost certainly wrong. The editor let the paper through anyway because even a wrong but carefully-constructed theory is an interesting thing for physicists to kick around. Nowadays, interesting ideas take much longer to propagate in the physics community partly because journal editors are far, far more conservative. But this was 1905.

Seventeen years later, when Einstein received a Nobel Prize, the committee still couldn’t bring itself to mention relativity because there was a lingering thought that the theory might be as crazy as it sounded: publishing a paper that may be wrong is one thing, awarding a Nobel Prize quite another. The Nobel committee’s caution was neither surprising nor excessive. Once particle accelerators were invented however, relativity could be tested and even the most skeptical of the skeptics became convinced. Today, most physicists say we understand it all perfectly well; the implication is that there is no mystery. The scientists are kidding themselves, mistaking impressive experimental evidence for real understanding.

The most obvious way to test relativity is to try to make a B.B. go faster than the speed of light. B.B’s are kind of big so we have to settle for electrons. At first, electrons behave just like cars – the more gas you give them, the faster they go. But then . . .  you push the electron more and more and it looks at you and says, “that’ll be fine, thanks.” At 99.99% of the speed of light, you angrily triple the amount of energy you are putting in, dimming the lights of your entire city – and you get another 9 plus a lot of irate phone calls. You can (and we do) triple the energy input again and again and again – all you get are more 9’s, just about one more each time you triple the energy exactly as Einstein predicted.

But wait. If we go back to the plane example, we see that the passengers can shoot a B.B. into the front wall or throw a baseball hard into the front wall of the cabin thereby causing substantial damage to the wall. But the B.B. and baseball actually approach the wall very slowly which means they should not damage the wall. Aha! Einstein must be wrong because the  the damage is there and is undeniable. How are the physicists going to explain that one? Gotcha!

Believe it or not, they have an answer. At speeds close to the speed limit of the universe, objects get heavier. That’s right, they magically acquire more mass. The B.B. and the baseball did all that damage because they were extra heavy. Einstein’s equations say an electron traveling at 99.9999% of the speed of light has 700 times more mass than usual. According to Einstein, when you crash together two relativistic electrons, you should get a shower of hundreds of particles big, medium, and small.

Right. Sure. You collide two marbles and get showered by bowling balls. Total nonsense . . .

Of course, it happens just as Einstein predicted. The particle showers are indeed spectacular. In fact, all of the trillions of heavy and light, exotic and ordinary, stable and unstable, expected and unexpected particles created in collisions at accelerators every day just appear out of thin air – energy is magically turned into matter according to a prediction made before particle accelerators were even imagined.

Physicists next tried speeding up unstable (radioactive) particles to see if their internal “clocks” would go in slow motion. We don’t know how unstable particles decide when to decay into other particles but they do decay on a schedule and that schedule is slowed down exactly as Einstein predicts. Same goes for clocks on airplanes. Put a super-accurate clock on an airplane, fly it around the world, and it comes back behind by the number of nanoseconds predicted by relativity. Clocks on GPS satellites are thrown off by thousands of nanoseconds per day due to relativity. But even a 100 nanosecond error would be unacceptable (here, “unacceptable” means the following: your passenger jet coming in for a landing misses the runway). But don’t worry, the the GPS are routinely adjusted for relativistic effects.

Do You Believe in Psychics?

Imagine if someone who claimed to be psychic put a prediction in a sealed envelope and wrote “open at 2:15 pm tomorrow” on it and handed it to you. At 2 pm the next day, you have finished shopping at your regular grocery store, but on the way home realize you forgot to buy Pop-Tarts, so you stop at the Ultimart where you buy the all important pastries and, while counting your change, you bump into a tall, thin man which causes you to drop a 1958 penny, a 1963 nickel, and a 1967 quarter heads up on the floor. You happen to notice the three dates when you pick up your change. You then open the sealed envelope and it says, “At 2:10 pm tomorrow you will go to the Ultimart to buy Pop-Tarts where you will bump into a tall, thin man . . . blah, blah, blah, . . . and a 1967 quarter.” You are amazed but remain skeptical. Over the next few months, the psychic provides 10 more accurate, detailed predictions. Then he tells you, the person who doesn’t believe in psychics, to go buy a lottery ticket at the Ultimart. Guess what? Now you believe in psychics. He may be wrong about the lottery ticket, but his previous predictions have been so impressive that nothing is going to come between you and your destiny. You’re grabbing your car keys before the guy even finishes talking . . .

We haven’t tried it with a person yet so we don’t know for certain that you can actually effectively travel into the future (there’s no going back) by traveling at relativistic speeds, turning around, and coming home. Physicists believe it simply because all of the testable predictions have been both incredibly detailed and repeatedly confirmed. These same scientists are dying to find deviations from relativity – no one’s going to win a Nobel Prize just for confirming the theory – but so far no dice (the superluminal neutrinos recently seen turned out to be a loose wire).

Someday, someone will actually climb into a ship and travel at nearly the speed of light for 20 years of our time, reach a star about 20 light years from here, turn around, and come home, taking another 20 years for the return trip. If the physicists are correct, this person will, while on the ship, experience life as usual except that the star that seemed to be 20 light years away when she started the trip from Earth, will, as soon has the ship is up to speed, seem to be only a couple of light years away. The traveler will arrive at this “close” star in only 2 years or so of her time, slow down, stop, and see Earth 20 light years away. She will marvel at how she managed to travel 20 light years in only 2 years.

When she gets back into her ship and gets back up to high speed, the return-trip distance will again appear to be only 2 light years. The traveler will arrive on Earth having aged 4 years plus a bit more for the speeding up and slowing down parts of the trip; meanwhile, 40 years will have passed on Earth.

Would this really happen? You know everything you need to know to form an opinion. And your opinion is as good as anyone’s. Pay your money, take your choice, volunteer for the first relativistic trip – you’ll get to see the future. Maybe.

P.S. Note that I haven’t explained how it was that Einstein was able to guess that the speed of light was a universal limit. In a certain sense it doesn’t matter, since he was right. But it is an interesting question for a future post. TK

P.P.S. I also haven’t explained why people on the ship observe Earth clocks ticking faster (they have to since time on Earth passes faster than time on the ship). You can read my paper in the November 2006 issue of Foundations of Physics Letters but I recommend waiting for the relevant post. TK

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

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.

The Dark Side of Rags to Riches Stories

Gertrude Belle Elion is one of my heroes. Late 1930’s, she’s brilliant, promising, has a stellar college record in organic chemistry, but she’s a woman so no graduate fellowship for her. She couldn’t get any kind of a job in a lab either until a World War intervened. Finally actually working in a lab, she taught herself graduate level chemistry and managed to become a research chemist. She developed a new technique for creating drugs and ended up with a whole series of compounds that actually cured some forms leukemia, inhibited viruses, stopped rejection of transplants, and more. You or someone you know might be alive today because of her. Elion (aka Trudy) won a Nobel Prize, but never got a Ph.D. She died in the late 1990’s.

Hers is an inspiring story of overcoming obstacles, reaching one’s full potential, fulfilling one’s destiny. Shakespeare’s story is even more extraordinary. The son of illiterate or barely literate parents in a backwater town two day’s travel from London with no access to university-level education and no money for books becomes the greatest writer in history. The fact that he wrote about the nobility from his lowly station as a commoner makes it even better.

Even though the Shakespeare story is probably fake (the plays were most likely written by an aristocrat named Edward de Vere) we all love our rags to riches stories – a great talent manages against all odds to climb that metaphorical mountain and in so doing leaves his or her permanent mark on a world changed for the better. Wonderful.

But really you should be mad. What if Trudy hadn’t overcome the obstacles placed before her by our dominance hierarchy? Human society is still embarrassingly similar to chimpanzee society – read Chimpanzee Politics by Franz de Waal – and this is terribly costly. How many Trudys have we lost? Women are as creative as men but the female versions of Einstein, Newton, Euclid, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Picasso all lived and died anonymously, their talents never developed, their genius never flowering. And women are merely the most easily-identifiable left-out group. Most talented women and men of all races, including the poor saps unlucky enough to be born commoners in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 16th century, just get squashed.

Oh yes, one can be hopeful and say we are doing better at creating a meritocracy and allowing more people to reach their potential. There is reason for hope. But you should still be mad.

There are lots of people who don’t want you to be mad. There’s even a saying to keep you from being mad. I don’t know who invented this saying, but whoever it is deserves whatever evil befalls him. Talent will out. That’s the little saying. Maybe you even believe it. If you have the talent, it will take you places despite the obstacles.

Talent will out. Three words. Thirteen letters, two spaces, and a period. Never has a bigger mountain of utter bullshit been compressed into so small a space. We don’t so much believe it as we hope it is true. We pray it is true. We pray the Gertrude Belle Elions who can teach themselves virology (and biochemistry, pharmacology, and immunology) and discover life-saving drugs aren’t being lost to us on a daily basis. We pray if we ourselves have a talent, it will flower. But it’s more of a desperate hope than anything real. Sure, it might happen, sometimes, and you aren’t powerless when it comes to reaching your potential, but assuming that “talent will out” applies on any grand scale is just a lot of whistling in the dark. We might get there someday but we’re not there yet. Not even close.

Talent wills out about as much as I can jack up my car with my index finger.

Here’s one of my favorite stories. Daniel Golden is sitting in a room with a bunch of wealthy Harvard alums and the president of Harvard. The president talks about this accomplishment and that sports victory and whatnot and everyone claps and cheers their approval. Then he says he’s setting up a program that will allow more students who can’t pay for Harvard to get in and actually attend. Silence. A dead, embarrassing, terrible hush. No stirring. Nothing. It was an amazing moment and Golden was there for it.

The playing field is far from level. But you knew that. Did you also know the favorite saying of the haves? You do. I know you do. Talent will out. That’s what makes the status quo okay.

Golden’s book is called The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Our educational system is overtly set up to reward the haves and let everyone else fight for scraps. The book is pretty depressing. But hey, talent will out. There’s nothing to worry about. If Shakespeare can pull himself up by his bootstraps, everything’s fine. There’s certainly no need to restructure anything. No need for any changes. All’s Well That Ends Well. Talent will out.

We’ve got Shakespeare, Elion, and let’s not forget Srinivasa Ramanujan who made himself into a great mathematician despite being born in the depths of India with virtually no resources. These stories help us sleep at night; they’re especially good for putting Harvard professors to bed. Don’t tell them Shakespeare was a front-man for the real author. “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because we said so and Mark Twain is a fool. Good night.” Harvard professors need their rest.

Ironically, the ivy league Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare people often label the opposing viewpoint as snobbery. Read the essay Hollywood Dishonors the Bard by the eminent Columbia professor James Shapiro. He says, briefly and brilliantly, “You think a commoner couldn’t have written Shakespeare? Snob!” What he meant was, “I’ve been saying talent will out my whole life. You really think I’m going to stop now?”

If only talent will out were real. Wouldn’t it be great if Shakespeares were constantly crawling out of the woodwork from all sorts of unlikely places? Give me that world. Too bad it’s nothing but an ivy league professor’s pipe-dream.

I wish it hadn’t taken a World War to get Trudy into a lab. I wish hundreds of Ramanujans weren’t being crushed by poverty every day. I wish talent really did will out. I wish Shakespeare had magically risen from the dust of Stratford. Knowing that he did no such thing reminds us all (except for Dr. Shapiro) that we must continue looking for ways to provide opportunities for all the Shakespeares of the world who don’t have access to the ivy league and who don’t have Trudy’s luck.

Regarding Dr. Shapiro and his lifetime of wishful thinking, the following quote from a personal letter written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford – the real Shakespeare – is apropos: “Truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”

In Measure for Measure the bard put it thus: “Nay it is ten times true; for truth is truth to the end of reckoning.”

Sadly, every Gertrude Belle Elion miracle gives the talent will out people another arrow for their quill. But the truth is, every time you hear a heart-warming talent will out story, you should be mad.

Shakespeare Authorship: Both Sides (6000 words)

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.