No, Jim, You Can’t Take Away Those Pirates! – Reason No. 5 of 100 Why I Believe Oxford was “Shakespeare”

When James Shapiro came to the Epilogue of his book Contested Will, written to try to block the inevitable tide of doubt about the traditional identification of “Shakespeare,” he described his experience at a performance I gave of my one-man show Shake-speare’s Treason (based on my book The Monument) at the Globe playhouse  in London.  “It was a spellbinding performance,” he wrote, adding that he “found it all both impressive and demoralizing” — because, of course, he wants you to think that any account of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shake-speare’s Sonnets must be pure fiction.  And he went on:

“I left the Globe wondering what mainstream biographers might say in response to Oxfordians who insist that Edward de Vere had a stronger claim to have written Hamlet and King Lear, since — unlike the glover’s son from Stratford — he had been captured by pirates and had three daughters.”

Okay, wait a minute, hold on, Jim!  What exactly are you trying to say here?

A Warship of the 16th Century

A Warship of the 16th Century

No, no, you can’t take away those pirates, just as you can’t erase the fact that the earl, like King Lear, had three daughters!

Let me put it this way.  If the glover’s son from Stratford had been stopped by pirates in real life, by now we’d have whole shelves filled with books with titles such as:

Trauma on the High Seas: How The Bard’s Capture by Pirates Affected His Writing Life & His Play about Hamlet …

Shakespeare’s Fateful Encounter With the Pirates: A Profound Turning Point in His Psyche and Work …

Shakespeare’s Pirate Complex: The Cause of His Tragic Phase?

Shakespeare & The Pirates: A Love-Hate Relationship?

Edward de Vere as Lord Great Chamberlain, carrying the Sword of State before Queen Elizabeth I of England

Although this was just one event among many in Edward de Vere’s life that correspond in some way with what we find in the “Shakespeare” plays, Oxfordians have done little more than mention, in passing, its similarity to Hamlet’s experience.  It’s just one more example of something in Oxford’s life resembling what can be found in the plays.

Does Shapiro think Oxford’s capture and release by Dutch pirates in the English Channel should be a liability, in terms of evidence that he wrote Hamlet?  Does the professor want to twist it all around, turning a positive into a negative?

The episode in Hamlet comes from “Shakespeare” himself, as a writer, not from any of the play’s recognized sources, Mark Anderson reports in his terrific Oxford biography “Shakespeare” By Another Name.  The pirates intercepted and boarded Oxford’s ship in 1576, as he was returning to England from his sixteen-month tour of France, Germany and (primarily) Italy.  They stripped the ship clean.

“De Vere’s luggage was ransacked, and the pirates even took the clothes from the earl’s back,” Anderson writes.  The French ambassador reported that Oxford was “left naked, stripped to his shirt, treated miserably” and he might have lost his life “if he hadn’t been recognized by a Scotsman.”

Model of an Elizabethan Galleon

A member of Oxford’s entourage, Nathaniel Baxter, recalled the pirate episode in a poem published in 1606, writing:

Naked we landed out of Italy/ Enthralled by pirates, men of no regard/ Horror and death assailed nobility” — and Hamlet writes to King Claudius about the encounter: “High and Mighty, you shall know I am set naked on your kingdom.”  (My emphases)

I suppose that same use of naked is just “coincidental”…

There’s an interesting debate over whether Hamlet had previously arranged his own brush with the pirates, so he could escape being murdered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as per the king’s orders.  In any case, the prince writes to Horatio:

“Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase.  Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valor, and in the grapple I boarded them.  On the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner.  They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them.”


The prince, like Oxford, had been bound for England; now he turns back to Denmark while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “hold their course for England,” where, because Hamlet has craftily switched the written orders, they will be killed instead of him.

Professor Shapiro argues against any attempt to turn the Shakespeare plays into works of autobiography, but that’s a straw man he’s setting up in order to knock it down.  Of course Hamlet is not strict autobiography; no one ever claimed such a thing.  The real point, which Shapiro wants his readers to miss, is that the best novelists and dramatists tend to draw upon their personal experiences and then to transmute them, through imagination and skill, into fictional art forms.  It’s not a matter of having to choose between reality and invention; all great art is a blend of both.

Shapiro concedes that “we know almost nothing about [Shakspere’s] personal experiences” and, therefore, “those moments in his work which build upon what he may have felt remain invisible to us.”  And given this vacuum within the documented Stratfordian biography, he boldly [and recklessly] declares that all attempts to link the life of “Shakespeare” with his works should hereby cease!  He means not only such attempts by Oxfordians but also by Stratfordians — especially the latter, since these efforts have always failed and will fail even more glaringly in the future, as the authorship question is brought increasingly into the open.

Oh – I almost forgot: Oxford was targeted by pirates in the Channel not once but twice, i.e., not only in 1576 but also in 1585, when he returned from Holland and his brief command [with Colonel John Norris] of 4,000 foot soldiers and 400 horse.  But after receiving a letter from Burghley that he’d been placed in command of the Horse, he was summoned back home [to be replaced by Philip Sidney, who would die on the battlefield a year later]; and according to one report a ship carrying Oxford’s “money, apparel, wine and venison” was “captured off Dunkirk by the Spaniards.”

Among Oxford’s belongings captured by the Spaniards, according to the report, was the letter from Burghley telling him of the Horse command; and as Anderson notes, “Hamlet contains not only an encounter with pirates but also an analogous plot twist involving suborned letters at sea.”

So, professor, the pirates are here to stay.  They certainly aren’t proof that Oxford wrote the play, but I put them here as my No. 5 of 100 reasons why I believe the earl was “Shakespeare” — and as just another piece of evidence that “authorship” really does matter.

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice one, Hank! I’m really enjoying your countdown, which has me recalling my own early days of testing the authorship thesis. One by one, you’re bringing up each of the “dots” in Shakespeare and Oxford’s shared world that “connected” for me, little “Aha!” moments that together convinced me Looney was right. These pinpoints of light make up the constellation that Jonson saw as belonging to “thou starre of poets”.

    You wrote:

    “Of course Hamlet is not strict autobiography; no one ever claimed such a thing.”

    Is that true, that no one’s ever claimed that? I guess it all depends on the word “strict”, which probably has no place when discussing a literary work of art anyway, much as James Shapiro would like to hold someone’s feet to the fire.

    As risky as it is to claim such a thing, it still seems to me that our author had little concern for his audience or for a pedestrian-style logic to his narratives, and a huge investment in telling his own tale, in Hamlet as well as the other plays and poems. If parts of Hamlet seem impossible to match with reality, it may be because we simply haven’t figured out “Shakespeare’s Alphabet”.

    The dramatic techniques that Oxford used in “Titus Andronicus” to mask his subversive portrayal of the Howard family would probably work on any other play. Whenever I came on a passage that didn’t seem to fit anyone in the current historical context of the Howard family under Henry VIII, I learned to go back to the history books, and dig some more. Sure enough, eventually I’d find some little tale in the Howard family annals that fit precisely with the details in the questionable lines.

    To the point, then: when Hamlet says…

    “They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I AM TO DO A GOOD TURN FOR THEM.”

    …I have little doubt that Oxford had in mind a real-life “good turn” done by whoever it is that he meant for “Hamlet” to represent in this scene. Who were these thieves of mercy, and what good turn did they receive, I wonder???

    Looking forward to your Reason #6 for believing that Edward de Vere is Shakespeare!

    All best,


    • Great comment on this, Marie, much appreciated. I agree with you that Oxford was telling his own story throughout and enough digging will yield the connections. We should probably define what we mean by autobiographical. I believe Shapiro is using it as a straw man — that’s what I meant in my blog. The autobiography is presented through a mask, through allegory. Your question is a good one about the “good turn” Hamlet (Oxford) was to do for the thieves of mercy; I wonder if we’ll ever find what it was. Anyway, thanks for the encouragement! Hank

  2. Hank,

    Just a suggestion about navigation (something I teach in my course on internet journalism course at Coppin); make a way for your readers to navigate directly through the series of the one hundred reasons. Check out, for example, the way Libby did her (riotously comic) series of “Old Letters,” here, so that the reader can navigate backwards and forwards through the series. Also this is nice:

    You’re building a circumstantial case that is more than the sum of its tiny parts, so you want the reader to be able to access the parts easily.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Nice job taking on Shapiro in this post.

    I’ve got an idea about those “thieves of mercy” but will hold my tongue since it is pure speculation. But an interesting wrinkle in the whole episode that I gleaned from reading between the lines of MKA’s bio.

    • Thanks again, Roger. Great suggestion, and I’ll try to get it done. Will look forward to your idea about “thieves of mercy” at some point. (Doing some research for the blog, I learned for the first time about the debate over whether Hamlet’s encounter with the pirates was accidental or prearranged. His boarding of their ship, before it got separated from his own, was either an extremely impulsive act or something he and they had planned beforehand. Given that the matter is never explained any further in the play, and that the “good turn” Hamlet was to do for the pirates is never brought up, one might wonder how much more came from Oxford’s personal experience…) Again, very helpful recommendation and thanks.

  3. My pleasure, Hank.

    I always like to see Oxfordians improve their use of current technology to get the word out. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to continue learning about internet media through my teaching responsibilities — one of the best things about being a teacher. I wouldn’t have known how to create or improve my own blog with having had that experience.

    And though we may respectfully disagree about some other things, this “100 Reasons” is a bang up idea,and you’re the guy to do it. Moreover, unlike your previous articles, “A Year in the Life,” its not easy for the Stratfordians to appropriate this particular idea.

    Ha! Just doesn’t work, let us count the ways:

    1) He named his son “Hamnet,” which sounds like Hamlet;

    2) He became very wealthy, and since we don’t have any other explanation, he must have done it by writing plays;

    3) Droeshout drew a lovely pic of him in the first folio and we’re supposed to look at it all the time instead of reading the plays;

    4) He spelled his own name in many creative ways, a sure sign of his versatile imagination;

    5) When asked to write, he was in so much pain that he it explains the genesis of Hamlet and some scenes from Titus Andronicus;

    6) He was an actor, and the author was an actor;

    7)He probably studied Law during the lost years;

    8) Stratford grammar school was *amazing.* They learned more Latin in a year there than modern students learn in four years of graduate studies in Classics. Well, almost.

    9) He says right in the Sonnets, “whoever hath her wish, thou has thy ‘Will”i am Shakespeare. WTF is wrong with you Oxfordians?

    10)No one questioned his authorship at all during his own lifetime (out, out, damned spot!…Labeo, Cuddie, Francis Meres and you other loudmouths, get thee a nunnery post hoc).

    11) His copious use of Warwickshire dialect has never been questioned ( He uses words like “crink” (Apple), all doubtless never spoken outside of the Midlands except in His plays.

    12) He said so in public to the Earl of Southampton, and there is no evidence that Southampton blushed.

    13) Only a genius like him would dare to ridicule the Lord Treasurer by offing him with a line like “dead for a ducat.”

    14) The Earl of Oxford was a nasty no-good piece of work (Nelson, 2003).

    15) I give up. That was way too much work….

    • Ha! What a daunting list! Very good job of putting it all together, Roger. What’s daunting about blogging with that list is precisely the prospect of winding up like No. 15. In any case, readers here will get some good laughs. And the fact we can find such humor in it may be further evidence that we’re doing better than we ever dared to dream. Again thanks and we’ll see you over at, where, I see, you’ve gotten all the way to seventeen! Any significance to the number?

  4. None whatsoever. However, to complete my project will require two more lists of seventeen. It will take a lot of research but I am dedicated to the task.

  5. The Oxfordian case, which is built upon a “muck-heap” of circumstantial evidence, dumped on William of Stratford’s front lawn, will always be separated and attacked one point at a time, as though a single piece of evidence is the sole reason for the Oxfordian position. It is a primary rule when attacking a large body of circumstantial evidence, along with attacking the messengers when the message withstands attack. If the Oxfordians are nothing more than Anti-Stratfordians, the orthodox believers in the Stratford myth are surel ANTI-INTELLECTUALS, as they insist on closing the debate. They insist that the genius of Shakespeare is off-limits for the musings and inquiries of the living. They insist that we are incapable of understanding Will’s genius. HOW STIFLING CAN IT GET?

    • Wow, that captures the truth of it exactly. I hope as many readers as possible will see it. Much appreciated – Hank

  6. […] Whittemore has embarked on the ambitious quest of listing 100 Top Reasons why he thinks Oxford wrote the Shakespearean […]

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