Shakespeare Authorship “Conspiracy” Theory – Not!

I don’t like being lumped into the category of “conspiracy theorist,” no sir, not at all!  There’s too much cheap name-calling these days, eh?

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was summoned as a judge to the 1601 trial of Essex and Southampton -- the same Southampton to whom "Shakespeare" had pledged his "love ... without end."

It’s true that for twenty-three years I’ve been studying the life of Edward de Vere 17th earl of Oxford (1550-1604) as the author of the “Shakespeare” works, but I never considered myself a “conspiracy nut” in any way.

First of all I notice that it’s an opinion apparently held by a lot of otherwise rational, fair individuals.  “Hey, you don’t think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?  You must be one of those conspiracy minded whackos!” I’ve seen this opinion expressed so often in so many books and blogs and it’s been repeated so often that it must be true, right?

No.  I speak here for myself – not in this case.  I’m usually turned off by statements about darkly held secrets and little men in closed rooms pulling the strings of events around the world – conspiracies to make the world think one thing while something else entirely is going on.  I’m not interested in that stuff.

But I can see why the Shakespeare authorship issue has been lumped into the category of a “conspiracy theory” – because, as I’ve heard over and over, it’s virtually impossible to believe that any such hoax could have been perpetrated by so many folks (who had to be involved) without anyone blowing the whistle or leaving behind at least some shred of evidence.  And that’s right, there is no “direct” evidence that Oxford wrote the poems, plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon.

Well, I agree that there must have been a whole bunch of folks in the England of Elizabeth and James who knew the truth of the matter.  Most of them would have been members of the Court.  But did it have to be a “conspiracy” among them all?  No.  The silence would have continued in the same way there was silence about FDR’s illness, about JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe, about John Edwards’ affair that resulted in a child, and so on.  How many people on the “outside” knew about the “other life” of Tiger Woods before the truth came out?

We tend to forget that England under Elizabeth was an absolute monarchy with the government having total power of censorship and suppression, imprisonment and torture, even death.  There were spies, or informers, everywhere.  Some were double and triple agents.  The Secret Service was expanding throughout the theatrical world as well as elsewhere.  It was impossible to know whom to trust.

But even more importantly, the question of authorship and authorial identity was simply not asked in those days.  Today, for example, we have some very well-known directors who write their own screenplays – auteurs, if you will.  Woody Allen would be one of them.  But otherwise, out of the last ten or twenty movies you’ve seen, how many of the screenwriters’ names do you know?  We remember the names of the stars, often the names of the directors – but the writers of the movies?  The point is, most of the time we just don’t even think about it, much less care.

But in the Shakespeare case, there’s another point that is seldom if ever mentioned.  The whole theory that Oxford wrote the plays is based on a unique chronology of events starting with the fact that he wrote the earliest versions in the two or three decades prior to the sudden emergence of “Shakespeare” (the printed name) in 1593.  During the 1560’s, 1570’s and 1580’s, the nobleman Edward de Vere was furiously writing poetry and plays while running two play companies, producing plays at Court and Blackfriars and sending troupes to the countryside – all while heading up a kind of “college of writers” that included the likes of Lyly and Nashe and Greene and Munday, and Peele and Lodge and Watson, all of whom dedicated their work to Oxford and all of whom are credited in history with having influenced “Shakespeare,” who supposedly borrowed their stuff and even stole it.

In his early twenties Oxford performed most of these tasks right out in the open, although he wrote plays anonymously (even though listed as “best for comedy” by 1586).  At age twenty-five he went over to France and Germany and Italy, spending a year with his home base in Venice, and upon his return he brought plays to Court with French and Italian settings.  He became known as “best for comedy” because his earliest writings were hilarious satires of current events played before the Queen and her Court and the ambassadors of the world.  He was a one-man band, in a way, producing the equivalent of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central and CNN combined.

And here’s the kicker – when Oxford adopted the pen name “Shakespeare” in 1593, he himself dropped from the Court and from public view.  So now there was a pen name but no actual “body” to go with it!  There was no one around (not even Shakspere of Stratford) trying to claim the works of Shakespeare.  It was a pen name, a printed name, on paper.  And who was this Shakespeare?  Could anyone say they really knew?

Whatever conspiracy existed, it was not the pervasive silence about the real identity of Shakespeare.  That just existed.  Even today the orthodox scholars will tell you that the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s played no less than six plays that “Shakespeare” would take and “rewrite” to turn them into his own!  (Of course the “real” Shakespeare was the one who wrote those earlier works; he would later borrow from himself!)  Back then, when the pen name emerged in the 1590’s, did members of the public know whether
“Shakespeare” had written those plays performed in the 1580’s?  Well, they didn’t know then and the scholars don’t know now – although common sense would tell you that Oxford had spent most of his forty-three years by 1593 having labored mightily to become the greatest writer of the English language.

There are, in fact, other aspects to the Shakespeare authorship issue, and they do involve the politics of the day.  But that’s for another blog.  The reason for this blog, at the moment, is more personal – to share a little of the experience of someone who came into the authorship adventure without ever having heard of any kind of “conspiracy” to cover up the truth.

I had acted in a production of Hamlet at the University of Notre Dame and had fallen in love, so to speak, with the prince.  Afterward I spent years reciting Hamlet’s soliloquies.  I loved his character — an endless reservoir of human emotions in there.

And then one day, reading about the Earl of Oxford, I was amazed to learn there had been a real-live Elizabethan, some fifteen years older than “Shakespeare” but living at the same time, who had a life very much like that of Hamlet!

Oxford had been stopped by pirates in the Channel and had talked his way out of a jam pretty much the same way Hamlet did; Oxford brought plays to Court the way Hamlet did; Oxford had married chief minister Burghley’s daughter, reflecting Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, daughter of chief minister Polonius; Horatio is Hamlet’s great friend; Horatio Vere was Oxford’s famous military cousin; Horatio and Francisco are on watch in the play; Horatio and his brother Francis were  “the fighting Veres” and Oxford’s  close cousins.

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

Oxford had been sent into wardship – like Bertram!  Oxford had studied astrology and white magic with Dr. John Dee – shades of Prospero! Oxford had fought duels in the street with one faction vs. another – shades of the street-fighting in Romeo and Juliet!  Oxford had accused his wife of infidelity – like Othello!

How is it, I wondered, that my teachers and professors had never mentioned this Hamlet-like nobleman who was connected in some way with virtually all the forerunners of the phenomenon of “Shakespeare”?  Even if it could be shown that Edward de Vere could not have written the Bard’s works, why would we fail to look at his life?

I think the reason for the academy’s failure to study Edward de Vere is that he threatened the cherished belief in the Stratford biography.  He had been hidden from the official record of history until 1920, when J. T. Looney pointed to him as “Shakespeare” – so his entrance onto the record came burdened with the baggage of the authorship issue.  To be interested in Edward Earl of Oxford was to be a kind of traitor.  It suggested that you just might be questioning the traditional image!

Otherwise I see no good explanation for shunning this real-life figure who, like Hamlet, put on “an antic disposition” at Court – in Oxford’s case, acting as the Italianate Englishman, among other roles.

In answer to the critics who shout “conspiracy theory” at us, I’d like to mention that, in the closed society of Elizabeth’s kingdom, writers left clues to the truth all over the place.  They slipped in all kinds of hints while giving themselves “deniability” – Hey, this is just a poem – this is just a play – it’s harmless! – and of course I didn’t intend to say anything off-limits.

For some reason, Oxford’s authorship was off-limits.  It appears, however, that he left behind a veritable self-portrait in Hamlet and other works of literature.

I say to hell with worrying about conspiracy theories.  Something happened more than four centuries ago that official history has covered up.  I say to the critics — Rather than sling such worthless slogans at well-meaning, intelligent folks who love to learn new things about both history and literature, either demonstrate your curiosity or just admit that you don’t give a damn about this fascinating subject matter!

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The two most dangerous words in a democracy are “conspiracy theory.” Say one thing that goes against the narrative handed to people on TV and count to three. By the time you hit two you will hear the two words, “Conspiracy theory.” That’s why it’s called TV programing. The reaction is Pavlovian. Orwell argued in Shooting An Elephant that people will do anything to prevent being laughed at or mocked. They will even kill to prevent being laughed at. And as it turns out they will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, to avoid being called a conspiracy theorist. So the two words themselves are a bit of a conspiracy or sorts in that they are being used to make people conform to a imposed narrative so that they won’t be laughed at. And it works. It works really well.

    Shakespeare’s body of work is an argument that conspiracy is how power operates. Hell, why did they only charge a penny at the door of the Globe? Because Walsingham and Co. wanted to use the theater to distribute propaganda to an illiterate society. That in itself is a conspiracy. Power operates via conspiracy. Always has, always will. Shakespeare knew this and wrote about it his whole life. As Arron the Moor said:

    Twill vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak.
    For I must talk of murders, rapes, and massacres,
    Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
    Complots of mischief, treason, villainies
    Ruthful to hear, yet piteously performed.

    So sign me a conspiracy realist. Anybody who can use those the two words “conspiracy theory” without irony after eight years of Cheney/Bush is a child.

    • Lee, you’re absolutely right about this. You can turn my argument inside-out any time. I don’t want to be labeled as such, but in the end the shoe fits. The “conspiracy” was just was not as difficult or complicated as many folks would like to think it had to be. And for me and for most Oxfordians, the idea of “conspiracy” behind the Shakespeare authorship was never the factor that motivated and inspired this adventure into the literature and the history. Most of us were far too interested in the actual subject matter! Best, Hank

  2. I find it intriguing that
    in your Essex trial document above:

    Oxford is refer to as
    “Lord High Chamberlain” (i.e., “Lord Chamberlain”)
    rather than “Lord Great Chamberlain”

    Barrell writes about this sort of confusion
    and the strange Essex connections:

    Lord Oxford As Supervising Patron of
    Shakespeare’s Theatrical Company
    Copyright 1944 by Charles Wisner Barrell
    First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, July 1944.

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you, Art. Thanks — am printing out the Barrell pages. He was one of our great researchers and writers — and thinkers. Best, Hank

  3. I quote this humorous gem from you:

    He was a one-man band, in a way, producing the equivalent of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central and CNN combined.

    Neat and direct essay of de Vere.

    Having already bought “The Monument”, and knowing that it is a line-by-line study of the Sonnets, and, moreover, considering your neatness shown in this entry, as in the main ones, you must have poured your life in that already praised book.

    • Yes, indeed. Thanks for realizing that.

  4. I agree with a lot of your thoughts such as:

    England under Elizabeth was an absolute monarchy with the government having total power of censorship and suppression, imprisonment and torture, even death. There were spies, or informers, everywhere. ……

    etc, But I cannot really get into the Oxford was Shakespeare thing.

    Some fifteen years ago, I happened to call in to a little theatre in Bath, England, where a talk was in progress on the question of the Shakespeare authorship etc. I remember a little bearded guy by the name of Charles Beauclerk, who. it was claimed was related to the De Vere line. I remember distinctly the atmosphere felt like a meeting of many diverse religious cults – all arguing for their particular god-flavour.

    The trouble with all the various factions, is they hear each other but do not listen.

    Good blog this site. Cheers

    • Hi Tom – Good to hear from you. And I know what you mean — this issue brings out all sorts of people with different perspectives that they hold onto no matter what. I find that those whom I most value — in terms of intellect, experience, ability to use different parts of their brain, intuition, etc. — are also those with the most open minds. It’s a paradox — the less a person knows the more he or she will claim to be “right” — which means that others must be “wrong.” (Charles Beauclerk is a great leader of the Oxfordian movement and I have only the highest praise for him and his work — as in “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom.” Charles expresses ideas that are very controversial, but, at the same time, he actually listens to the disagreements of others.) So you are absolutely right about “all arguing for their particular god-flavour” — thanks for the apt description, and the laugh.

      Once the authorship issue is settled — and if it turns out that the “paradigm” shifts to Edward de Vere, look for many books to be written about the psychology of it all — how it could have been possible for the wrong man to be credited with the “Shakespeare” works for centuries. Stick around and enjoy the show… Best from Hank

  5. Hey Hankwhittemore,
    Thanks for your thoughts, the plays?

    I know some claim that there is no way someone of Shakespeare’s background could know so much about courtly etiquette etc.

    How viable is this conspiracy theory?
    Kindest Regards

    • The traditional belief that “Shakespeare” was a man from Stratford upon Avon is a powerful myth, which for many makes it difficult if not impossible to look at the facts clearly and without the tremendous pull of prior assumptions. A common attack on those who search for the truth is that they must be “snobs” who feel a commoner could not have written the great poems and plays; but the real snobs are those in academia who continue to ridicule and scoff as well as attack. If there is a conspiracy theory afoot, it’s the conspiracy of powerful entities such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the British tourism industry based on Stratford, along with the world of academia that includes educational institutions, academic credentials, peer-review publishing, teaching tools, textbook companies, the publishing and entertainment worlds — all working together to help each other continue making profits and staying in business. A lot is at stake. Follow the money.

      In the history itself, in my view, the only explanation for an attempt to deceive is that there existed a Prince Tudor — a possible heir by blood to the throne of England in succession to Elizabeth Tudor, the First Elizabeth and legendary Virgin Queen — who, if “Shakespeare” was telling the truth in the Sonnets, was the son of Elizabeth and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, raised as Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, to whom “Shakespeare” dedicated his work and for whom he created the Sonnets as a means of preserving the truth for posterity. It’s all right in front of us, just like so many other things in our lives are right there in plain sight but go unacknowledged. Like human-caused global climate change?

      • If its all the fault of vested interests, why not join forces rather than squabble over Bacon- DeVere- Marlowe etc etc etc?

        Of course that will never happen because of your own vested interests.

        You see what you see but believe what you think.

      • Most Oxfordians never bother to squabble with Baconians or Marlovians, etc. Virtually all Oxfordians, however, were once followers of the traditional biography, never giving it much thought. I, too, accepted the orthodox view — never even knowing there might be a problem with it. Blind followers and blind accepting, and I was one of them. We saw what we were told to see and did not think about it. Years after college I was writing a play and wondered how Shakespeare could have been so confident when writing dialogue for so many characters; so I read five of the best biographies of him, trying to learn about his creative process, but there was nothing — and by accident a friend pointed me to the life of Edward de Vere, who seemed very much like Hamlet in many ways — and why, I wondered, was this character of history, so closely tied to Shakespeare’s contemporary sources and world, never mentioned? It goes like that — you get interested, to try to learn more, you spend time and work piecing together information, and no matter what happens, right or wrong, you learn a lot and gain from the experience. Students have been deprived of this kind of investigation, of this kind of exploration, so it’s no wonder they’ve been bored by Shakespeare. He is a “genius” and that’s that, nothing more to think about — same as trying to ponder a miracle.

        What is it, aside from a name on the page, that gives you such certainty? Or do I misunderstand?

      • “— you get interested, to try to learn more, you spend time and work piecing together information, and no matter what happens, right or wrong, you learn a lot and gain from the experience. ”

        You got that one spot on my son! There goes someone who has been stung by the snake-speare.

        No misunderstanding. A name on the page? I take it you mean WS?
        If so I never did believe what history has left us. I have sensors to a brain. That’s all there really is.

  6. the plays?

    I know some claim that there is no way someone of Shakespeare’s background could know so much about courtly etiquette etc.

    How viable is this conspiracy theory?

    • There’s almost no way that anyone, of any background, could have the knowledge that Shakespeare reveals. The range and depth of it is astounding. No one can simply pluck information from the imagination, without having acquired that information in the first place; the imagination builds upon the experience, and that is the genius. As for the knowledge, to comprehend the traditional Shakespeare from Stratford it’s been necessary to “dumb down” the Shakespeare works — his French was not so good, his geography is bad, his knowledge in other areas is superficial, his Latin is lousy, etc. But such is not the case. When you put Edward de Vere in there as the author, you have a chance of comprehending his knowledge — he had the opportunity, the means, and even the motive — although we have not settled totally on the latter. Those holding onto the myth, the legend, must try mightily to trash the anti-Stratfordians as snobs, etc., but, you see, that is not the issue. The issue involves the need for courage to look at the facts as clearly as one can and to report the result as one sees it. The tactic of James Shapiro in “Contested Will” is to attack the messenger, while avoiding the message … to attack messengers such Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, etc. Well, the walls they are a crumbling….

  7. Hi again Hank

    I wonder what you think of this:

    Shakespeare was baptised on the 26th day of April 1564. Right?

    That’s the date given off the baptism records, right?

    So where, exactly in that document, is the word April? In fact where is there any month mentioned?

    Interesting eh?

    • Hi Tom. Well, I checked Schoenbaum’s “Documentary Life” and see that the month is listed, that is, “April 3” is listed and then the numbers below: April 3…6…22…26..

      Looking through the early documents involving Stratford, I see that it’s always spelled “Shak” rather than “Shake” as in Shakspere.

      Let me know if I’ve misunderstood…and thanks for commenting.

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