“Knowledge of Power” – Reason 93 of 100 to Conclude that Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare”

The title of this reason to believe the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of “Shakespeare” comes from Oxfordian colleague Mark Alexander’s power point presentation Shakespeare and Oxford: 25 Curious Connections. Despite the pull of traditional biography away from the royal court, one of the first things to notice is that this dramatist writes from the vantage point of an insider at the center of official policy, one who knows how and when to use the levers of power.

Oxford bears the Sword of State for Elizabeth I

Oxford bears the Sword of State for Elizabeth I

Edward de Vere lived at the center of Elizabethan political life from at least age twelve in 1562, when he became a royal ward of Elizabeth at the London home of her chief minister, William Cecil, the most powerful man in England. [Actually he had lived at the center from boyhood, as the son and heir of England’s highest-ranking earl, and then studying under his first tutor, Thomas Smith, a future Secretary of State.] In 1571 he entered the House of Lords and immediately became an intimate of the Queen, continuing in her highest favor for at least a decade.

In late 1580 he discovered that his erstwhile Catholic friends and/or associates were involved in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth and accused them (correctly) of conspiracy to commit treason. He knew these men of power – their thoughts and emotions, their fears, as they took him into their confidence and eventually tipped their hand. We might imagine him writing at night, his quill pen scratching the page in the candlelight as the words of Brutus come forth:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.


Edward de Vere had close-up knowledge of power and real-life political intrigues of the kind to be found not just in Julius Caesar but also in King John, Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and so many other Shakespearean plays. In 1586, amid heavy wartime spending, Elizabeth granted him a lifetime pension in the extraordinary amount of one thousand pounds. After the 1588 defeat of King Philip’s armada, Oxford left court life; and in less than five years, poems and plays began appearing by an invisible author named “Shakespeare,” who possessed a remarkably keen knowledge of the uses of power.

“Oxford had frequent access to Court, an insider’s experience with Elizabeth, the machinations of foreign heads of states and ambassadors, and fawning courtiers,” Mark Alexander writes in his presentation. “He saw power manifested in a variety of corruptions. Furthermore, being raised as a ward in Cecil’s household, and given his noble position, Oxford would have been exposed to the absolute center of England’s power.”

One of the books about Shakespeare & politics

One of the books about Shakespeare & politics

“Of all the major writers in the Western literary tradition, there is none who deals so consistently and so profoundly with political matters as Shakespeare,” Alvin B. Kernan states in Politics, Power, and Shakespeare (University of Texas, 1981). “He wrote almost exclusively of courts and aristocratic life; and matters of state, of law, of kingship, and of dynastic succession are always prominent parts of his dramatic matter. This is true even in his comedies … but it is even more obviously true in Shakespeare’s history plays and in his tragedies, where the political issues are the very substance of the plays, and where crucial matters of state are explored with remarkable precision and in great depth.”

“All ten of Shakespeare’s English history plays are named after politicians,” Tim Spierkerman writes in Shakespeare’s Political Realism (2001). “And they’re all about the same thing: who gets to rule … The plots are political plots (literally plots) … assassination, treason, civil war, foreign conquest … If ambition seems to be a universal aspect of political life, so too does the concept of ‘legitimacy,’ which is the most salient theme of the English history plays. At stake in these plays is the question not only of who will rule, but of who is supposed to rule … the proper acquisition and use of political power.”

Another example...

Another example…

“The dominant political question which produced the history plays … was the terms of obedience,” Irving Ribner comments in The English History Plays in the Age of Shakespeare, Princeton (1957). “Under what conditions, if ever, was rebellion against a lawful monarch justified?”

“Shakespeare was anything but a writer of commonplace entertainments or an indifferent recorder of history,” notes Professor Daniel Wright, Ph.D., creator of the annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference at Concordia University, Portland, OR, writing in A Poet’s Rage (2013), a collection of essays edited by William Boyle. “He was, instead, an informed commentator on the contemporary political scene, an expositor of political conviction and an advocate for policy that, often enough, contravened or challenged Government – which is to say ‘Cecilian’ – philosophy and practice.”

And another...

And another…

Mark Alexander quotes the Stratfordian historian A.L. Rowse in Eminent Elizabethans: “The 17th Earl of Oxford was, as the numbering shows, immensely aristocratic, and this was the clue to his career. In an Elizabethan society full of new and upcoming men, some of them at the very top, like the Bacons and Cecils – the Boleyns themselves, from whom the Queen descended, were a new family — the Oxford earldom stood out as the oldest in the land. He was the premier earl and, as hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain, took his place on the right hand of the Queen and bore the sword of state before her.”

And here’s part of another testimony in Alexander’s presentation, this one from Adolf A. Berle, former ambassador and assistant to the Secretary of State under President John F. Kennedy, writing in Power (1965): “One wonders what the personal reveries of a Plantagenet or Tudor dictator must have been. Shakespeare probably gives a better analysis than historians…”

So how did “Shakespeare” gain his intricate, deep knowledge of power and, too, his insights into the powerful? The answer is that, from the beginning, he was living in the midst of that world — as a participant — and recreated it with imagination based on personal experience.

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Another great post Hank! He also knew how to use ‘the language of power,’ the prescribed way of speaking in courtly terms–imagine expressing “love” for Robert Cecil and other powerful figures as he did and had to–it was chivalric, rhetorical protocol, the diplomatic and bureaucratic idiom and formal patterns as evidenced by his letters to Elizabeth and her Privy Councilors, primarily the Cecils. And of course the same language, in countless cases, the same phrases appear in the plays and poems. This was not jargon or a manner of writing or speaking one picked up on the streets of London or in taverns; it had to be learned from being within the court from an early age, and taught by the government officials themselves.

    • “the language of power” — great point! Thanks for sharing it here — I hadn’t ever defined it, or given it a name — but yes, a way of talking with each other, and I wonder, does that extend to Oxford’s letters to the Cecils?

  2. Very clever observation, perhaps even more so than you would think.

  3. It may take a contemporary power play to flush out the Shakespeare identity fiasco fully into the realm of honesty. A graduate student in literature who decides to shift into law sues for compensation for his time and tuition for being fraudulently taught. The suit perhaps based on some scrap of information that the student learns of showing that some professor systematically lies about or falsifies or covers up the matter or has admitted somewhere privately or secretly that de Vere is clearly the author. I don’t know the legal terrain in this, maybe there is no winnable case, but the mere filing of such a suit might itself be a camel breaking straw. Power overcomes power to out power.

  4. Maybe there’ll be no need to use such dubious methods. I hope so.

  5. Hank – What’s your reaction to the Shakespeare Beehive?

    • Hi Kristin — thanks for asking — I’d better deal with it in at least one blog — a great story, eh? One of many ironies is that the academic community has tried (at least in the past) to be so careful to tell us that the biography really doesn’t matter — “We have the plays, and that’s what counts,” etc., and yet of course they — and we — are DYING TO KNOW MORE about Shakespeare the particular human being. If we could know that he used this very specific dictionary and that these were his own annotations, why, of course, it would tell us something, perhaps a great deal, about how he learned and worked with words. So, yes, the life does matter, and the excitement over this dictionary proves it yet again.

      Too bad for Shakspere that the annotations are in Italic hand, not secretary…

      Of course Oxford would have been gathering up and creating his vocabulary from a much earlier time than 1580, when he was thirty years old with a great deal of writing already behind him. But even beyond that observation, the important point (temporarily) goes beyond the particular author-identity question to the concept of the artist and how he-she goes about making art. When Shakespeare uses words, from a wide variety of fields — ranging from botany to law, from music to medicine and so on — he does not pause, in the middle of a sentence, or in the heat of creating a line of poetry, to reach for his dictionary and look up the right word! The whole point is that his art is not about cobbling together sentences by rummaging through a dictionary and finding a good adjective, etc. The words are already within him and come out as part of the fire of creating something much larger and deeper than the words, which are merely tools in the toolbox. If he can’t find the right word, he makes one up!

      If the dictionary was printed in 1580, and at some point after that Mr. Shakspere began to go through it and annotate its pages, he faces a steep learning curve to be able to turn out Venus and Adonis & Lucrece by 1593-94. These works are highly sophisticated; they flow easily, and it’s hard to imagine too many trips to the beehive in the heat of creation; not to mention that he needs to have seen Titian’s painting in Venice (the one with Adonis wearing his bonnet), and so on. He has thirteen years tops, and needs also to be writing Henry VI, and Titus Andronicus, and so on — with just five more years to go, by 1598, when Meres will list twelve plays of his already written, including Richard II and Richard III, not to mention Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors. Love’s Labour’s Lost by itself would be a marvel, and by 1599 out comes the “newly corrected and augmented” version!

      Oxford would have completed Love’s Labour by 1579, the year his secretary and stage manager Lyly comes out with the first Euphues novel based on an Italianated Englishman, i.e., Edward de Vere, who had returned from Italy in 1576 with those perfumed gloves, and to whom Lyly would dedicate Euphues his England in 1580. The traditional scholar must overlook the actual contents of Love’s Labour, that is, the whole takeoff on real-life individuals of the French court (which Oxford had visited during Feb-March 1575) such as Henry of Navarre and Alencon and Marguerite of Valois. Point being that to create the world of that play alone required quite a bit more than a dictionary!

      Sure, the author of the Shakespeare works may well have annotated not only his Geneva bible but many more bibles as well, and perhaps many dictionaries — although the one we are talking about, with words collected by university students, may well be based on a vocabulary that the real Shakespeare has already been developing! Now, there’s an irony.

      Bottom line is that a single artifact is potentially the basis for more constructions of so-called biography, built around it, in the fashion described by Sam Clemens to such humorous effect. And the world will believe it knows more about the man in relation to his works. But it will not be true and, sadly, it will add to the false picture of great art being cobbled together from dictionaries or, perhaps, from quick trips to Google and Wikipedia.

      Otherwise I am just as excited over genuine discoveries as anyone:-) !

      • Great, detailed reply, Hank! Thanks…. although I can imagine a writer in creative flow also dabbling in a word book. Any chance that the hand-writing might be Oxford’s????

      • Kristin, I can imagine that, too. I didn’t meant to exclude it entirely:-)
        This a mine field. The book is selling like hotcakes on Kindle. There is a huge need and desire to have it be Shakespeare’s. One irony is the handwriting — it can’t compare with the six signatures, so they are comparing it with the handwriting of the section of the Thomas More play thought to have been contributed by Shakespeare. Now, given that they are already attributing that to Shakspere, imagine the excitement if the dictionary handwriting in the margins matches it! Circular reasoning. Some will proclaim it’s Shakespeare’s dictionary and in due time it will take its place among the givens.

        It could be Oxford’s hand — we certainly have samples from him for comparisons! Roger Stritmatter might know best how to look into it. But … I do wonder about the whole thing in general. For example, here is a very short “review” of it — very short — http://boingboing.net/2014/04/22/shakespeares-beehive-analys.html
        And in there it shows a picture of a word in the margin — for “sheath,” I believe, and the annotator has written the word “vagina”. Well, the article states that that word was not used anatomically until 1682, as far as they can tell, and I know for certain that Shakespeare never uses it. If the word “vagina” was in fact used by some earlier, classical writer in the anatomical sense, then the annotator of the dictionary was a wise man indeed. In this case he was ADDING to the dictionary.

        It could not have been Shakspere; it could have been Oxford. But he had already put many new words onto the printed page, so my bet is that, regardless of who annotated the margins of that dictionary, many of its words, collected by students, had originated with Oxford.

        Have they dated the ink? It’s a subject that’s going to be around for a (long) while…

      • Thanks…for your swift and fascinating reply….

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