“Private Letters”: Re-Posting No. 30 of 100 Reasons Why Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

Attorney William Plumer Fowler served as president of the solidly orthodox Shakespeare Club of Boston in 1960, but eventually came to doubt the traditional belief.  After assuming the presidency of the club for the second time in 1972, he spent an additional year of investigation before finally becoming “convinced beyond any doubt” that Edward de Vere had written the great works. “It came as a shock to me,” he wrote, “after over half a century spent in the mistaken traditional belief, to at last realize that the true author was not the Stratfordian William Shakespeare but someone else.”

Fowler completed his 900-page masterwork Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters in 1986. He had chosen thirty-seven of some fifty letters written by the earl between 1563 and 1603, to demonstrate how they contain “consistent correspondences (averaging over two to a line) in nearly every phrase to the thought and phraseology of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.”

Part of an autograph letter from Oxford to Robert Cecil (his “Brother” or former brother-in-law) in July 1600

“The letters “speak for themselves,” Fowler writes, adding that they “offer convincing documentary evidence of their being those of the true poet Shakespeare, as distinct from the Stratford William Shaksper of similar name.  They are far more than just Oxford’s letters,” he concluded. “They are Shakespeare’s.”

Among hundreds of examples is a statement from Oxford to William Cecil Lord Burghley in July 1581, shortly after the earl’s release from the Tower. He had accused his Catholic cousins Henry Howard and Charles Arundel of engaging in treasonable correspondence with Spain, and they had retaliated with vicious countercharges. It appears they also had revealed his affair with Anne Vavasour, a Queen’s Maid of Honor, who gave birth in March 1581 to his illegitimate son (Edward Vere).  She and the baby as well as Oxford were committed to the Tower for two months; now in July he wrote to Burghley: “But the world is so cunning, as of a shadow they can make a substance, and of a likelihood a truth.”

Plato’s Cave – where shadows, projected on a wall, are mistaken for substance and truth

“This shadow-substance antithesis harks back to Plato’s Socratic dialogue in the Seventh book of The Republic, about the shadows cast by a candle in a cave,” Fowler writes, “and is a favorite of Shakespeare’s. It is unfolded again and again, in the repeated portrayal of what Dr. Herbert R. Coursen Jr. terms ‘Shakespeare’s great theme – the discrepancy between appearance and reality’.”

In Richard II, for example, Bushy tries to calm the queen’s anxiety over Richard’s departure for Ireland: “Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows, which show like grief itself, but are not so … So your sweet Majesty, looking awry upon your lord’s departure, finds shapes of grief more than himself to wail, which, look’d on as it is, is naught but shadows of what it is not” (2.2.14-23). The metaphor is intensified after Richard surrenders his crown to Bolingbroke:

Bolingbroke: “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face.”
King Richard: “Say that again. The shadow of my sorrow! Ha! Let’s see. ‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within. And these external manners of laments are merely shadows to the unseen grief that swells with silence in the tortured soul. There lies the substance… (4.1).

“So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised/ Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give,” the poet Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 37, and he begins number 53: “What is your substance, whereof are you made,/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”

Oxford’s statement that “the world is so cunning as of a shadow they can make a substance and of a likelihood a truth” appears in reverse order in The Merchant of Venice when Bassanio talks about “the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest” (3.2.) — and in The Phoenix and Turtle: “Truth may seem, but cannot be.”

Oxford wrote to Robert Cecil on 7 May 1603, several weeks after the death of Elizabeth, echoing his motto Vero Nihil Verius (“Nothing Truer than Truth”) in this striking passage:  “But I hope truth is subject to no prescription, for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”

These ringing words “are mirrored many times by the dramatist Shakespeare,” Fowler writes, “most notably in Measure for Measure, where the entire thought is duplicated by Isabella: ‘For truth is truth to the end of reckoning'” (5.1); and, for example,  in Troilus and Cressida: “What truth can speak truest, not truer than Troilus” (3.2).

Oxford’s father-in-law William Cecil Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England, on his mule

De Vere was twenty-two in 1572 when news of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France shocked the Elizabethan Court as tens of thousands of Protestant Huguenots were slain.  In an emotional letter he told Burghley: “This estate hath depended on you a great while as all the world doth judge” – a statement, Fowler notes, anticipating with arresting closeness both Shakespeare’s words and thought in two scenes from Hamlet:

  • Laertes, warning his sister Ophelia against getting too involved with Prince Hamlet because of his high position, tells her: “He may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself, for on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.20).
  •  Claudius gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their commission to escort Hamlet to England, telling them, “The terms of our estate may not endure hazard so near us,” and Rosencrantz remarks: “The single and peculiar life is bound … to keep itself from noyance; but much more that spirit upon whose weal depends and rests and lives of many” (3.3).

The nearly fifty surviving letters from Oxford to William Cecil Lord and/or his son Robert are mostly about business matters, but in every line he spontaneously reveals himself as the most likely author of Shakespeare’s poems, plays and sonnets. Take, for example, the same letter of September 1572, after the Elizabethan court had received the shocking and frightening news of the massacre, in which the Prostetant hero Admiral Coligny had also been slain; Oxford, in a highly emotional state, wrote to Burghley:

The contemporary artist Francois Dubois (b. 1529) painted this Huguenot view of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572

“I would to God your Lordship would let me understand some of your news which here doth ring dolefully in the ears of every man, of the murder of the Admiral of France, and a great number of noble men and worthy gentlemen, and such as greatly in their lifetimes honoured the Queen’s majesty our mistress, on whose tragedies we have an number of French Aeneases in this city, that tell of their own overthrows with tears falling from their eyes, a piteous thing to hear but a cruel and far more grievous thing we must deem it them to see.  All rumours here are but confused, of those troops that are escaped from Paris, and Rouen, where Monsieur [the Ducke of Alencon] hath also been; and like a vesper Sicilianus, as they say, that cruelty spreads all over France …

Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard De Coligny (1519-1572), slain by an assassin

“And since the world is so full of treasons and vile instruments, daily to attempt new and unlooked-for things, good my Lord, I shall affectionately and heartily desire your Lordship to be careful both of yourself and of her Majesty…

“And think if the Admiral in France was a eyesore or beam in the eyes of the papists, that the Lord Treasurer of England is a block and a crossbar in their way, whose remove they will never stick to attempt, seeing they have prevailed so well in others.  This estate hath depended on you a great while as all the world doth judge, and now  all men’s eyes, not being occupied any more on those lost lords, are as it were on a sudden bent and fixed on you, as a singular hope and pillar whereto the religion hath to lean.”

The above passages, spilled from de Vere’s pen in the heat of the moment, are Shakespearean in dozens of ways.

Ken Kaplan, a colleague in the authorship field, points out Oxford’s use of hendiadys (expressing a single idea using two words connected by “and”) when he refers to the Lord Treasurer as the “hope and pillar” of the state; and how Shakespeare uses literally hundreds of hendiadys, such as when Hamlet, in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy, refers to the “whips and scorns” of time.

Painting focused on the killing of Admiral Coligny by Franz Hogenberg (c. 1540- c. 1590)

Dr. Roger Stritmatter notes that in Oxford’s account of the massacre there are many hendiadys such as “noble men and worthy gentlemen,” “a cruel and far more grievous thing,” … “treasons and vile instruments,” “new and unlooked-for things,” “a eyesore or a beam,” “a block or a crossbar,” “bent and fixed,” etc.

The earl’s emotionally charged letter “reads like a sketch for a Shakespeare history play,” Stritmatter writes:

“Envisioning the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre as a contemporary tragedy, shadowed by the allegorical precedent of Aeneas’ tragic exile from burning Troy, it paints a picture of the mise en scene in which the tragedy unfolds.  Appealing in alternating schema to senses of both sight and sound, it supplies a potent witness to Oxford’s powers of demonstratio, the literary figure by which ‘we apprehend [things] as though before our eyes.’  The iterated appeal to sight, and the organs of sight, could not be more ‘Shakespearean’: like the audience listening to Ophelia’s superlative portrait of the mad Hamlet (2.1.85-99), we are made to seeFrench Aeneases that tell of their overthrows with tears falling from their eyes.’  De Vere’s technique is precisely the same as that of ‘Shakespeare’…”

The earl “slips into his tragic Shakespearean metaphor” of French Aeneases with remarkable ease,” Fowler writes, adding that Aeneas, the hero of Vergil’s great epic, is mentioned twenty-eight times by Shakespeare. Oxford’s description of the cruelty that “like a vesper Sicilianus … spreads all over France refers to the murder of 8,000 French in Sicily three centuries earlier, a massacre that also started during a pageant.  “It is noteworthy that Shakespeare too shows the same familiarity as Oxford’s with the vesper Sicilianus and its pageant,” Fowler observes, citing Antony’s warning in Antony and Cleopatra that “Thou has seen these signs; they are black vesper’s pageants” (4.14), with “black” meaning ominous.

When Oxford laments that “the world is so full of treasons and vile instruments,” he appears to coin a phrase that “Shakespeare” will use in Cymbeline when Pisanio cries out, “Hence, vile instrument!” (3.4).

His characterization of Coligny as “an eyesore or beam in the eyes of the papists” will be echoed in The Taming of the Shrew when Baptista refers to “an eyesore to our solemn festival” (3.2) and when Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece says, “Yea, though I die, the scandal will survive, and be an eye-sore in my golden coat” (205).

Even this single early specimen of Oxford’s letters, Fowler writes, “serves to corroborate that the earl, rather than the man from Stratford, was the true ‘Shakespeare,’ and that these letters of Oxford are really ‘Shakespeare’s,’ the name by which the talented dramatist will always be known.  Coincidence in the use of common phrases of speech can explain some parallelisms, but not any such tidal wave of them.”


(This post is No. 26 – “Private Letters: – in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, edited by Alex McNeil with editorial help from Brian Bechtold.)

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hank, I’ve been troubled recently by the reluctance of our side to use computer-assisted analysis in showing connections between EdV and the works. The Fowler book is one example. I’m wondering what you think of that idea, and if you have any suggestions. Thanks, bob

    • It’s a good subject for Oxfordian discussion, Bob. I wish I knew more about “computer assisted analysis,” which must be similar to “stylometric” analysis if not the same. In any case, it becomes complex. On the one hand, Fowler is criticized or dismissed by Stratfordians, I believe, for not submitting Oxford’s letters to some equivalent body of “Shakespeare” writing along with writings of other contemporary writers — Lyly, Watson, etc., the irony being that they were all influenced by Oxford and would therefore all have matches with the Shakespeare works. There are other complexities. ON the other hand, Fowler does something that I wonder whether the computers can do: compare certain kinds of phrasing and, more importantly, compare similar themes or ideas (such as the shadow-substance theme). Fowler was not a machine — he was intensely human, and passionate, and caring, and fair. I had the honor of meeting him in the very last years of his life, in New Hampshire. He still wore the suit and bowtie that my own grandfather had worn. Yet he roamed his library and — in his 90s — excitedly pointed out books that had influenced or helped him. His book is a work of labor and discovery and joy. Now — can we get computers to do a more credible job? I hope so. But so far, we have not brought in experts for discussion. Wouldn’t that be valuable?

    • Bob, I think a committee of SOF members could be formed to explore the possibilities for computer assisted analysis. The committee could make a report after doing some exploring.

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