Shakespeare’s Legal Mind is Reason No. 43 Why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was the Great Author

A book of 524 pages published in 1911 was entitled Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare: with Explanations of the Legal Terms used in the Plays, Poems and Sonnets; and discussions of the Criminal Types Presented, with its author, Edward J. White, declaring:

Notice of a conference in May 2009 at the University of Chicago Law School

“In Shakespeare’s multiple personalities, there is none in which he appears more naturally and to better advantage than in the role of the lawyer.  If true that all dramatic writing is but a form of autobiography, then the immortal Shakespeare must, at some time in his life, have studied law.”

There’s not a shred of evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon ever went beyond grammar school (if he attended at all), much less to law school.

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford served as highest-ranking nobleman on the tribunal at the February 19, 1601 treason trial of Essex and Southampton — as indicated by a contemporary notice of the event

On the other hand, Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford was seventeen in 1567 when he entered Gray’s Inn to study law.  Oxford was steeped in legal matters involving his earldom and the royal court; he sat on the juries at the treason trials of the Duke of Norfolk (1572) and Mary Queen of Scots (1586) as well as the treason trial of the earls of Essex and Southampton (1601).

A more recent book, Shakespeare’s Legal Language (2000) contains more than 497 pages of detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s legal terms and concepts.  The authors, B.J. Sokol and Mary Sokol, point out that twenty-five of thirty-seven Shakespeare plays refer to a trial and that thirty-five of his plays contain the words “judge” and “justice.”

“Nothing adorns a king more than justice,” Oxford wrote to Secretary Robert Cecil in May 1603, referring to the newly proclaimed King James.  “Nor in anything doth a king more resemble God than in justice.”

James Plaisted Wilde, the Lord Penzance (1816-1899), the noted British judge who believed that Francis Bacon was author of the Shakespeare works; but that was before J. Thomas Looney identified the Earl of Oxford in 1920

Scholars upholding the Stratfordian view of authorship keep trying to tell us that Shakespeare didn’t really have any exceptional knowledge of the law, but at the same time they keep attempting to explain how he could have become so “law-obsessed,” as Sokol & Sokol put it.

Back in 1869, for example, Lord Penzance spoke of Shakespeare’s “perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms, and maxims, but the technicalities of English law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault … At every turn and point at which the author required a metaphor, simile, or illustration, his mind ever turned first to the law.  He seems almost to have thought in legal phrases…”

“Any intelligent writer can acquire knowledge of a subject and serve it up as required,” Charlton Ogburn Jr. wrote in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984), adding that it is “something else to have been so immersed in a subject and to have assimilated it so thoroughly that it has become part of one’s nature, shaping one’s view of the world, coming forward spontaneously to prompt or complete a thought, supply and image or analogy.”

Oxford served on the jury at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle in October 1586 (drawing by Edouard Berveiller)

The literature on Shakespeare’s legal knowledge is extensive.  For suggested reading I recommend Mark Alexander’s study “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument,” and the Shakespeare Fellowship page on “Shakespeare and the Law.”

“Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s works,” Mark Twain wrote, referring to Shakspere of Stratford, “for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways—and if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely-divided star-dust that constituted this vast wealth, how did he get it, and where, and when? . . . [A] man can’t handle glibly and easily and comfortably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he has not personally served. He will make mistakes; he will not, and cannot, get the trade-phrasings precisely and exactly right; and the moment he departs, by even a shade, from a common trade-form, the reader who has served that trade will know the writer hasn’t.”

Here’s a patchwork of snippets from Oxford’s letters showing him to be involved in matters of law, with my emphases:

“But now the ground whereon I lay my suit being so just and reasonable … to conceive of the just desire I make of this suit … so byfold that justice could not dispense any farther … The matter after it had received many crosses, many inventions of delay, yet at length hath been heard before all the Judgesjudges I say both unlawful, and lawful … For counsel, I have such lawyers, and the best that I can get as are to be had in London, who have advised me for my best course …  [to Queen Elizabeth]: And because your Majesty upon a bare information could not be so well satisfied of every particular as by lawful testimony & examination of credible witnesses upon oath … So that now, having lawfully proved unto your Majesty … “

Oxford attended at the House of Lords on forty-four days during the nine sessions held from 1571 to 1601.  In the sessions from 1585 onward he was appointed one of the “receivers and triers of petitions from Gascony and other lands beyond the seas and from the islands.”  In November of 1586 he was part of a committee appointed to address Elizabeth on the sentencing of Mary Queen of Scots.

Let us close out this reason why Oxford was “Shakespeare” with Sonnet 46:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war

How to divide the conquest of thy sight;

Mine eye, my heart thy picture’s sight would bar

My heart, mine eye the freedom of that right;

My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie

(A closet never pierced with crystal eyes),

But the defendant doth that plea deny,

And says in him thy fair appearance lies.

To cide this title is impanelled

A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,

And by their verdict is determined

The clear eyes’ moiety, and thy dear heart’s part:

As thus, mine eyes’ due is thy outward part,

And my heart’sright, their inward love of heart.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Enjoyed the blog. I sure do take some ribbing for being an Oxfordian!

    • Thanks. I think it’s a matter of having or not having certain information. It’s certainly not a matter of intelligence. No one becomes an Oxfordian without at least taking a look at the life of Oxford within the context of his own times and in relation to the phenomenon of Shakespeare. What blew me away is finding out about the decades before “Shakespeare” suddenly appeared in print in 1593 and realizing that poetry and drama were connected to the royal court and to politics. The story of the 1570’s and 1580’s is the story of what led up to, and created, the otherwise miraculous Shakespeare works. And Oxford is smack in the middle of that story, its chief protagonist. So, even if Oxford was not the man who became Shakespeare, you would think the average Stratfordian scholar would be interested in him. Anyway, don’t mind that ribbing … you’re the one who’s having the real fun.

  2. Having read The Monument – convinced for life. Ironically, my son has just spent some days in Warwick and London. He went to the Globe to acquire for his father some Oxfordian reliqias. But what he found was a new book, about Yes_The_True_Author_Is_Shakespeare. I wonder if people are blind and deaf?

    • G.K. Chesterton said (exactly where I keep forgetting): “Men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it’s big enough.” Maybe it’s like Jim Carey in The Truman Show. Or maybe it’s like saying: “Mark Twain wrote the works of Mark Twain.” And if we didn’t know who he was, we could still argue: “How do we know? Because his name is on his works!” All is “inside the box” and there is no way to think “outside” it. It’s certainly not easy to step outside the framework of assumptions we’ve been given. Magellan’s expedition sailed around the globe but many great minds still believed the world was flat. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I agree entirely with Hank’s comment that one would believe Stratfordian scholars to be at least willing to look at the possibility of Oxford being the real Shakespeare. Scholarship is about being open to new findings, about welcoming fresh evidence and about being receptive to new facts coming to light in unusual ways. I believe that the authorship debate is interesting and exciting purely because of Edward de Vere being one of the main contenders. What better fit for the bard’s true identity could there be? Shakespeare’s extensive legal knowledge as displayed throughout the plays would certainly point the finger at de Vere. The only dichotomy (to my mind) lies with the fact that de Vere was already an admired court poet and had indeed published minor works during his lifetime. Many literary dedications were made to him, again during his lifetime. He was known for being a gifted poet. He was also closely connected to Elizabeth I who would have seen plays of his at court. I am wondering why he would have had to write the main body of this work under a pseudonym, i.e. Shake-speare (hyphenated), in order to hide his real identity. Sure, it was out of the question for a person of illustrious aristocratic lineage to be dabbling in writing for the theater or putting on plays. However, it is well known that de Vere had his own troupe of players: Oxford’s Men. It is of course also known that it was by no means uncommon in the 16th century for a man of noble birth to be writing under a pseudonym. However, we do know of some of de Vere’s pseudonyms that he used when writing poetry. Shake-speare is not one of them. This does of course not mean that he did not use it. Why is the real Shake-speare so hard to identify?

    • Thanks for the comment, Katrin, and very well expressed, too. I think two important factors in the Oxford-as-Shakespeare view are (1) that he was 43 when he adopted “William Shakespeare” as a pen name; and (2) that he used it on two dedications of narrative poems to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Oxford was writing and producing plays for Elizabeth and the royal court, which was the center of important communication — all the nobility of England, and the ambassadors of all the important countries. This was an electrified atmosphere, so he was highly motivated — and yes, patronizing play companies and actors, financing and inspiring writers, and building up the heart of the English renaissance of literature and drama and many other arts and sciences. All this in the three decades of the 1560’s, 1570’s, and 1580’s, helping England to develop its own language and sense of identity — the necessary unity and nationalistic fervor that brought young men to London to help fight against Spain’s attempt to obliterate England. That’s quite a dramatic story in itself, all taking place up to about 1590 when Oxford was 40 years old. You could have ended the story right there.

      Oxford wrote plays for the court using no name or pen name at all. He published works under other names, but no plays. At first in the late 1570’s he was bringing comedies, satires, and it was like Saturday Night Live, with characters resembling real people, etc., and then in the 1580’s he was directing the “university wits” or the circle of writers around him, and writing the first versions of history plays, under no author’s name but with titles very much like the future plays that would be published under the Shakespeare name. These were the first versions and they helped to rouse the national pride, warn against civil war, and talk about kingship. The Queen’s Men put on many of these plays with two companies around the countryside. Plays about King John, Richard III, Henry V, and so on. Oxford was serving his country and, too, developing his power as an artist; and by 1590 he had finished all the plays, the first versions, including Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Hamlet.

      Then we get to Part Two of the story, which is after the defeat of the Spaniard, so the country turned inward and the game was afoot to determine a successor. That is when Oxford chose to support Southampton, and by extension the Essex faction, which led in just seven years to the Feb 1601 performance of Richard II by the conspirators of the rebellion against Robert Cecil, who was holding the Queen as a kind of captive, and waiting for her to die so he could determine the succession. Oxford remained behind the scenes while “Shakespeare” raised the great issues expressed in Julius Caesar, etc. Oxford was revising his plays and letting them into the public playhouse. He himself remained underground in the 1590’s — when the Shakespeare name came into print, he withdrew from sight. By the end of the 1590’s he was nearly forgotten.

      The Oxford-Southampton-Essex faction lost to the Cecil family, and the Cecils wrote the history. “History is written by the winners,” Orwell wrote, and Oxford’s only way to counteract it was to compile his private sonnets into a monument for posterity, when the truth could be known. What a tale, eh?

  4. The argument for the oxfordians, is like saying, having known that the name Anold Shwachnezzar is popular in Hollywood as an actor, a theatre owner and possibly a playwright, someone else adopts that selfsame name for a psydonym in this era, and NO OTHER TIME AGAIN IN HISTORY. We know of quacks who, having not read law or been to lawschool, but, in keeping with their uncommon knack at subterfuges, guile and fraud, have, by whatever means available, acquainted themselves with the jargon and every other thing requisite of a barrister, and have, for many years, successfully stood as lawyers in courts and enjoyed the practice as any other trained and qualified in it. With merely a law dictionary and a tarsarus at his disposal, the genius, Shakespeare, whose every other page is borne on no other spirit than shere inventiveness, could, at leisure, call on legal language and technicalities to answer his needs. If quacks and such forgers could do it for many years and elude detection in our modern courts, I am of the opinion that, any man with rare spirit of IMPROVISATION could have furnished it too, if exposed to the atmosphere of the Elizabethan London stage and theaters, with a good tarsarus and law dictionary.


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