The Shakespeare Fellowship Responds to “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt”

Below is an initial response by the Shakespeare Fellowship, one of the two major Oxfordian organizations in the U.S., to the publication next month of a new book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  (The same link to this response is among other links on this blog site.)

But first, I’d like to say to the holders of the traditional Stratfordian fantasy: “BEYOND DOUBT?  ARE YOU KIDDING!!??” and then shout out the window to the wind, “&%$@**&#*@!&&!!!!!” and then, finally, and calmly, recall a famous quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed.  Second, it is  violently opposed.  Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

We have now arrived at the second stage … with just one more to go!

beyond doubt


The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently released its book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt in an attempt to prove that there is “no doubt” that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the works of “William Shakespeare.” But while over 70 documents exist about the Stratford man that were created during his life, not one of them identifies him as a writer of any kind. A businessman, yes, an occasional money lender, part owner of a theatre company who may have acted some small parts, yes, but not a writer. No manuscript of a poem or play in his hand survives, not even a letter! There is no evidence that William Shakspere, the man from Stratford, ever owned a book, was ever paid for writing, or was referred to as a writer by anyone during his life or immediately after his death. The First Folio, which was published seven years after his death, was the first document to attempt to connect “William Shakespeare” with Mr. Shakspere.

The monument as sketched in 1634

The monument as sketched in 1634

The monument to Shakespeare in the Trinity Church in Stratford now shows a writer with a quill pen in his hand; but it does not look the same as the one erected in the early 1600s. A sketch by a reputable artist in 1634 shows a man with a drooping moustache holding a wool or grain sack, but no pen, no paper, no writing surface. In short, the “authorship” of the man from Stratford has all the earmarks of a hoax designed to hide the real author’s identity.

But why would the real author have hidden his identity? Because it was dangerous to write under one’s own name in those days. One could be imprisoned or tortured, or worse, if his writings displeased the authorities. Pen names and anonymity were common. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt fails to produce any new evidence in favor of the Stratford man or to answer the many weaknesses in the Stratfordian theory. For more on the doubts about Shakspere, see the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt or read Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography or the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition’s rebuttal to the SBT: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial, due to be published May 31, 2013.

The grain sack is now a writing pillow and lo, he's a writer

The grain sack is now a writing pillow and lo, he’s a writer

The Shakespeare Fellowship believes that there is a large body of circumstantial evidence indicating that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays. Oxford used the “pen name” William Shakespeare because it was not considered appropriate for a nobleman to write plays for the public stage. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, in a chapter by Professor Alan Nelson, tries unsuccessfully to rebut the Oxfordian thesis. Nelson’s chapter is deviously one-sided. What he leaves out is as important as what he leaves in. Nelson tries to paint Oxford as an irascible, erratic character, but what does this have to do with whether he was the writer known as “Shakespeare”? Oxfordians claim that Oxford was a great writer—not a saint—and admit that he had an artist’s temperamental, mercurial personality.

Indeed, the character flaws that Nelson alleges are actually evidence of Oxford’s connections to the works of “Shakespeare.” Nelson comes dangerously close to admitting this: he claims at one point that Oxford was “apparently” homosexual (or bisexual) and later links this to the homoerotic overtones of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, many of which were written to a fair young man, thought to be the Earl of Southampton. Traditional scholars are stumped when trying to explain how William of Stratford, a commoner, could have had the gall to write such intimate poetry to a nobleman, but an older nobleman might have easily gotten away with it.

Nelson points out that Oxford, when he was a young man, killed a cook and escaped a murder charge on the finding that the cook “committed suicide” by deliberately running on the young earl’s sword. Oxford would eventually use this as self-parody in Hamlet, where one of the Gravediggers attempts to talk about a person committing suicide in self-defense. Brutus in Julius Caesar also commits suicide by running on a sword.

Nelson criticizes Oxford for his extravagant lifestyle, but Nelson doesn’t mention that this behavior is mirrored in the plot of Timon of Athens. Oxford was also, admittedly, estranged from his wife for some time, thinking she had been unfaithful to him. This became fodder for Hamlet’s estrangement from Ophelia and Othello’s distrust toward Desdemona.  Oxford’s wife was rumored to have gotten him back by using a “bed trick”—that is, making him think he was being led into the dark bedchamber of another woman, when actually it was his own wife’s room. Such “bed tricks” are used in two Shakespeare plays—Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.

Edward de Vere Motto Nothing truer than Truth

Edward de Vere Motto
Nothing truer than Truth

Nelson tells us that Meres and Bodenham listed Oxford and Shakespeare as separate people, but if Oxford was hiding his identity behind the pen name “Shakespeare,” why should we think that Meres and Bodenham would know that they were the same person? Nelson doesn’t mention that George Puttenham wrote in 1589 that “Noblemen . . . have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.”

Nelson asserts that the Queen gave Oxford an annuity of £1,000 “in exchange for his good behaviour,” but it is entirely speculation on Nelson’s part that this was the reason for the generous annuity. Could it have been a reward for his writing plays that supported the Tudor claim to the throne?

Nelson argues that Oxford couldn’t have written The Tempest because Oxford died in 1604 and the play refers to the 1609 wreck of the Sea-Venture off the coast of Bermuda. Some scholars believe, based on imagery and word choices in the The Tempest, that it was influenced by William Strachey’s account of that 1609 shipwreck. But shipwrecks near Bermuda, an island surrounded by reefs, were common. In fact, one occurred in 1595, when Oxford was still alive. Furthermore, scholars who have carefully studied the imagery in The Tempest have found much earlier sources than Strachey’s account that Shakespeare might have drawn on. See Dating the Tempest on this website. Thus, there is no reason to believe that the author of The Tempest had to have read Strachey’s account. In fact, Strachey’s account was not actually published until 1625, long after the Stratford man was dead, so Stratfordians are left to speculate, based on no supporting evidence, that Shakspere somehow had access to Strachey’s manuscript.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, 1575, at 25

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, 1575, at 25

Nelson claims that Oxfordians “fantasize” that Oxford left drafts of plays that were published after his death. But anyone who believes that William of Stratford was the real Shakespeare must also indulge in such “fantasies.” About half of Shakespeare’s plays were never published or performed until the First Folio appeared—seven years after the Stratford man died. If he indeed made his living as a playwright, why would he have withheld half of his output from publication or performance during his lifetime? Such a practice seems more consistent with a nobleman who wrote for his own purposes and couldn’t allow his name to be connected to his writings.

Both Stratfordians and Oxfordians have long noted that Polonius in Hamlet appears to be a satire on Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s power-behind-the-throne. Oxford knew Burghley well. Burghley became Oxford’s guardian when Oxford’s father died. Later, Oxford married Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil. Lord Burghley wrote out a set of rules for his household that includes maxims such as, “Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous; with thine equals familiar yet respective.” As Polonius says to Laertes, “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.” Burghley’s rules were not published until 1618, long after Hamlet was published. The scene in which Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes increases the similarity to Burghley, who maintained a network of spies. The name “Polonius” may have come from two of Burghley’s nicknames, “Polus” and “Pondus.” In the first edition of Hamlet, the character’s name was “Corambis”—perhaps a pun on Burghley’s Latin motto, “Cor unum, via una,” which means “One heart, one way.”

Just as Hamlet was captured by pirates and left naked on the shore of Denmark, Oxford was captured by pirates and left naked on the shore of England. In 1573, Oxford, who was a patron of the arts, wrote a preface to an English translation of Cardanus Comfort, a book of consoling advice that likely influenced Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Nelson, however, makes a tortured attempt to dissociate Hamlet from the facts of Oxford’s life: Oxford was twelve when his father died, whereas Hamlet was an adult when he lost his father; Oxford married Burghley’s daughter, whereas Hamlet rejected Ophelia and consigned her to a nunnery. One half-expects Nelson to add that Oxford didn’t stab Lord Burghley while he was hiding behind an arras. Nelson’s analysis insults the reader’s intelligence. While writers often use real-life people and situations as raw material for their creations, they always transform their materials into something new, mixing fiction with real life to create a higher reality. For example, while we know that Charles Dickens was writing somewhat autobiographically in David Copperfield, the novel does not follow Dickens’s life in all respects. Any college English major understands this. It is surprising that Nelson, an English professor, doesn’t.

Finally, Nelson insists that Oxford couldn’t have been Shakespeare because Oxford, as owner of his own theatre troupe, would never have let the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a “rival” theatre company, perform his plays. Nelson’s theory rests on the unfounded assumption that noblemen’s companies competed jealously against each other, like commercial companies, and never shared their works. Yet this assumption is refuted by the title page of the 1594 First Quarto edition of Titus Andronicus. (Like all “Shakespeare” plays published before 1598, it is anonymous, i.e., no author is named on the title page.) The title page states that the play is “as it was played” by the servants of the Earls of Derby, Pembroke, and Sussex. This shows that various noblemen might have worked together and shared plays rather than jealously guarding them. Incidentally, the Earl of Derby was Oxford’s son-in-law. The Earl of Pembroke was the brother of another of Oxford’s sons-in-law. And the Earl of Sussex’s family had close political ties to Oxford. If the Earl of Oxford was indeed the author of Titus Andronicus, why wouldn’t he have shared his play with other noblemen, especially his family and friends?

This short response to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt barely scratches the surface of the Oxford theory. For more, read The Case for Oxford Revisited; Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name; Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He?; or Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare

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