Authorship Theory For a host of persuasive but commonly disregarded reasons, the Earl of Oxford has quietly become by far the most compelling man to be found behind the mask of Shake-speare. As Orson Welles put it in 1954, I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don’t agree, there are some awful funny coincidences incidences to explain away.
Some of these coincidences are obscure, others are hard to overlook. A 1578 Latin encomium to Oxford, for example, contains some highly suggestive praise: Pallas lies concealed in thy right hand, it says. Thine eyes flash fire; Thy countenance shakes spears. Elizabethans knew that Pallas Athena was known by the sobriquet the spear-shaker.
The hyphen in Shake-speare’s name also was a tip-off: other Elizabethan pseudonyms include Cutbert Curry-knave, Simon Smell-knave, and Adam Fouleweather (student in asse-tronomy).(FN*). The case for Oxford’s authorship hardly rests on hidden clues and allusions, however. One of the most important new pieces of Oxfordian evidence centers around a 1570 English Bible, in the Geneva translation, once owned and annotated by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. In an eight-year study of the de Vere Bible, a University of Massachusetts doctoral student named Roger Stritmatter has found that the 430-year-old book is essentially, as he puts it, Shake-speare’s Bible with the Earl of Oxford’s coat of arms on the cover. Stritmatter discovered that more than a quarter of the 1,066 annotations and marked passages in the de Vere Bible appear in Shake-speare. The parallels range from the thematic–sharing a motif, idea, or trope–to the verbal–using names, phrases, or wordings that suggest a specific biblical passage.
In his research, Stritmatter pioneered a stylistic-fingerprinting technique that involves isolating an author’s most prominent biblical allusions–those that appear four or more times in the author’s canon. After compiling a list of such diagnostic verses for the writings of Shake-speare and three of his most celebrated literary contemporaries–Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser–Stritmatter undertook a comparative study to discern how meaningful the de Vere Bible evidence was. He found that each author’s favorite biblical allusions composed a unique and idiosyncratic set and could thus be marshaled to distinguish one author from another. Stritmatter then compared each set of diagnostics to the marked passages in the de Vere Bible. The results were, from any perspective but the most dogmatically orthodox, a stunning confirmation of the Oxfordian theory. Stritmatter found that very few of the marked verses in the de Vere Bible appeared in Spenser’s, Marlowe’s, or Bacon’s diagnostic verses.
On the other hand, the Shake-speare canon brims with de Vere Bible verses. Twenty-nine of Shake-speare’s top sixty-six biblical allusions are marked in the de Vere Bible. Furthermore, three of Shake-speare’s diagnostic verses show up in Oxford’s extant letters. All in all, the correlation between Shake-speare’s favorite biblical verses and Edward de Vere’s Bible is very high: .439 compared with .054, .068, and .020 for Spenser, Marlowe, and Bacon. Was Shake-speare the pen name for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or must we formulate ever more elaborate hypotheses that preserve the old byline but ignore the appeal of common sense and new evidence? One favorite rejoinder to the Oxfordian argument is that the author’s identity doesn’t really matter; only the works do. The play’s the thing has become the shibboleth of indifference-claiming doubters.
These four words, however, typify Shake-speare’s attitude toward the theater about as well as the first six words of A Tale of Two Cities express Charles Dickens’s opinion of the French Revolution: It was the best of times. In both cases, the fragment suggests an authorial perspective very different from the original context. The play’s the thing, Hamlet says, referring to his masque The Mouse-trap, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. Hardly a prcis for advocating the death of the author, Hamlet’s observation reports that drama’s function comes closer to espionage than to mere entertainment. Hamlet’s full quote is, in fact, a fair summary of the Oxfordian reading of the entire cannon.
If pressed, Shake-speare, like Hamlet, would probably deny a play’s topical relevance. But, as an ambitious courtier, he would have valued his dramaturgical ability to comment on, lampoon, vilify, and praise people and events at Queen Elizabeth’s court. It is hard to deny that Hamlet is the closest Shake-speare comes to a picture of the dramatist at work. Nowadays, assertions that one can recover the author’s perspective from his own dramatic self-portraits are often ridiculed as naive or simplistic. Yet the converse–that Shake-speare somehow evaded the realities and particulars of his own life in creating his most enduring, profound, and nuanced characters–is absurd on its face.
Of course, the infinite recesses of the imagination make an appealing refuge to the savvy debater. Shake-speare was a creative genius (a claim no one would dare dispute); ergo, he could and did make it all up. Following the same reasoning, though, Hamlet’s own masque holds no political purpose either. Rather than seeing it as a ploy to catch the conscience of the king, a strictly Stratfordian reading of The Mouse-trap would be compelled to see it as little more than a fanciful Italian fable divorced of its obvious allegory to the foul deeds committed at the court of Elsinore. The fact that, just like Hamlet, The Mouse-trap stages a king’s poisoning and a queen’s hasty remarriage becomes just another awful funny coincidence. In the history of the Shake-speare authorship controversy, every claimant to the laurels has queued up offering the promise of mouth-watering connections to the canon.
Justifiably, skeptics have countered that if you squint your eyes hard enough, any scrap or biographical datum can be made to resemble something from Shake-speare. With Oxford, however, everything seems to have found its way into Shake-speare. Gone are the days when heretics would storm the ramparts whenever some thread was discovered between the character Rosencrantz and Francis Bacon’s grandpa. Today it’s more alarming when a Shake-speare play or poem does not overflow with Oxfordian connotations and connections. The problem for any Oxfordian is the perhaps enviable task of selecting which handful of gems should be brought out from the treasure chest. In what follows, then, I will touch on five Shake-spearean characters–Hamlet, Helena, Falstaff, King Lear, and Prospero–and will briefly point out a few parallels with Oxford.
Hamlet. More than a mere authorial specter, the Prince enacts entire portions of Oxford’s life story. Oxford’s two military cousins, Horace and Francis Vere, appear as Hamlet’s comrade-at-arms Horatio and the soldier Francisco. Oxford satirizes his guardian and father-in-law, the officious, bu …