An Oxfordian Journal: Wasn’t Shakespeare a “Conspiracy Theorist”?

I keep seeing blogs that accuse anyone questioning the traditional biography of Shakespeare as a “conspiracy theorist.”  I know what they mean.  I felt the same way back in 1987 when it was suggested to me that the guy from Stratford didn’t really write the great poems, plays and sonnets.  I didn’t much like that suggestion.

Conspirators arrive at the Senate House, having plotted to kill Caesar.

Probably the first thought that came to mind was that the whole concept was simply too staggering, too unbelievable, too overwhelming.  I had gone through four years of college (in English and Theater Arts) and had never heard the slightest hint of any problem with the Stratfordian authorship view.  This was probably the greatest writer who ever lived – how could it be possible that he had not been the man who everybody thinks he was?

I’m not sure if I used the word “conspiracy” at the time; but I probably did consider (loosely) that such a cover-up or hoax would have taken what my dictionary calls a “treacherous or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons.”   If there had been such a plan to disguise the true author of the “Shakespeare” works and attribute them to someone else, it would have involved the creation of the First Folio of Shakesepeare plays — published in 1623, long after Oxford and Shakspere had died respectively in 1604 and 1616.  (Prior to 1623 there is no discernible linkage between “Shakespeare” and Shakspere.) That publication would have indeed required at least several individuals engaged in a surreptitious plot.

When a previously arranged signal was given, the conspirators carried out the murder of Caesar

As I now ponder this subject, it occurs to me that regardless of his identity Shakespeare was a “conspiracy theorist” – both as a dramatist and as an Elizabethan.

It’s a given that many of his plays involve conspiracies, the most famous being the plot to kill Julius Caesar.  Then, of course, there’s the plot by Macbeth and his wife to murder King Duncan, not to mention Iago’s plot to entrap Cassio with Roderigo’s help.  Plots of one kind or another abound in the plays, even in the comedies.

And why not?  During the Elizabethan reign itself there were always conspiracies against the Queen’s life.  Three of the most famous ones revolved around Catholic attempts to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots – the Ridolfi Plot that surfaced in 1571, the Throgmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586.  The so-called Essex Rebellion of 1601 involved a plot to remove  the Queen’s closest advisors, notably Robert Cecil; and when James became king in 1603 there was the Bye Plot and then the Gunpowder Plot, for starters.

There was virtually never a time when there wasn’t some conspiracy afoot…

Actor Mark Rylance, left, has been a vocal public figure on the Shakespeare authorship question — here with actor Colin Hurley, holding the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt in Chichester on September 8, 2007

For court poets and dramatists of the time, the very act of writing was a kind of conspiracy.  The anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie (1589) wrote:  “I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.”  In other words, at times they used someone else’s name or some made-up pen name.

Who was that infamous author in 1588-89 calling himself Martin Marprelate?  Here was an obvious pen name, sometimes printed as Mar-prelate, indicating an author or authors intent upon “marring the prelates” of the Anglican Church; and no one has ever learned his identity for sure.  Whoever that writer was, it’s unlikely he could have acted entirely alone.

Are there political conspiracies even now?  Of course – just about every day.  And even as I write this, I’m getting an alert from the New York Times that “the most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children” victimized by Jerry Sandusky.  Wasn’t that some kind of conspiracy?

In upcoming blogs I’ll have comments about the Shakespearean authorship “conspiracy” in particular.

Shakespeare Authorship “Conspiracy” Theory – Not!

I don’t like being lumped into the category of “conspiracy theorist,” no sir, not at all!  There’s too much cheap name-calling these days, eh?

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was summoned as a judge to the 1601 trial of Essex and Southampton -- the same Southampton to whom "Shakespeare" had pledged his "love ... without end."

It’s true that for twenty-three years I’ve been studying the life of Edward de Vere 17th earl of Oxford (1550-1604) as the author of the “Shakespeare” works, but I never considered myself a “conspiracy nut” in any way.

First of all I notice that it’s an opinion apparently held by a lot of otherwise rational, fair individuals.  “Hey, you don’t think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?  You must be one of those conspiracy minded whackos!” I’ve seen this opinion expressed so often in so many books and blogs and it’s been repeated so often that it must be true, right?

No.  I speak here for myself – not in this case.  I’m usually turned off by statements about darkly held secrets and little men in closed rooms pulling the strings of events around the world – conspiracies to make the world think one thing while something else entirely is going on.  I’m not interested in that stuff.

But I can see why the Shakespeare authorship issue has been lumped into the category of a “conspiracy theory” – because, as I’ve heard over and over, it’s virtually impossible to believe that any such hoax could have been perpetrated by so many folks (who had to be involved) without anyone blowing the whistle or leaving behind at least some shred of evidence.  And that’s right, there is no “direct” evidence that Oxford wrote the poems, plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon.

Well, I agree that there must have been a whole bunch of folks in the England of Elizabeth and James who knew the truth of the matter.  Most of them would have been members of the Court.  But did it have to be a “conspiracy” among them all?  No.  The silence would have continued in the same way there was silence about FDR’s illness, about JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe, about John Edwards’ affair that resulted in a child, and so on.  How many people on the “outside” knew about the “other life” of Tiger Woods before the truth came out?

We tend to forget that England under Elizabeth was an absolute monarchy with the government having total power of censorship and suppression, imprisonment and torture, even death.  There were spies, or informers, everywhere.  Some were double and triple agents.  The Secret Service was expanding throughout the theatrical world as well as elsewhere.  It was impossible to know whom to trust.

But even more importantly, the question of authorship and authorial identity was simply not asked in those days.  Today, for example, we have some very well-known directors who write their own screenplays – auteurs, if you will.  Woody Allen would be one of them.  But otherwise, out of the last ten or twenty movies you’ve seen, how many of the screenwriters’ names do you know?  We remember the names of the stars, often the names of the directors – but the writers of the movies?  The point is, most of the time we just don’t even think about it, much less care.

But in the Shakespeare case, there’s another point that is seldom if ever mentioned.  The whole theory that Oxford wrote the plays is based on a unique chronology of events starting with the fact that he wrote the earliest versions in the two or three decades prior to the sudden emergence of “Shakespeare” (the printed name) in 1593.  During the 1560’s, 1570’s and 1580’s, the nobleman Edward de Vere was furiously writing poetry and plays while running two play companies, producing plays at Court and Blackfriars and sending troupes to the countryside – all while heading up a kind of “college of writers” that included the likes of Lyly and Nashe and Greene and Munday, and Peele and Lodge and Watson, all of whom dedicated their work to Oxford and all of whom are credited in history with having influenced “Shakespeare,” who supposedly borrowed their stuff and even stole it.

In his early twenties Oxford performed most of these tasks right out in the open, although he wrote plays anonymously (even though listed as “best for comedy” by 1586).  At age twenty-five he went over to France and Germany and Italy, spending a year with his home base in Venice, and upon his return he brought plays to Court with French and Italian settings.  He became known as “best for comedy” because his earliest writings were hilarious satires of current events played before the Queen and her Court and the ambassadors of the world.  He was a one-man band, in a way, producing the equivalent of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central and CNN combined.

And here’s the kicker – when Oxford adopted the pen name “Shakespeare” in 1593, he himself dropped from the Court and from public view.  So now there was a pen name but no actual “body” to go with it!  There was no one around (not even Shakspere of Stratford) trying to claim the works of Shakespeare.  It was a pen name, a printed name, on paper.  And who was this Shakespeare?  Could anyone say they really knew?

Whatever conspiracy existed, it was not the pervasive silence about the real identity of Shakespeare.  That just existed.  Even today the orthodox scholars will tell you that the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s played no less than six plays that “Shakespeare” would take and “rewrite” to turn them into his own!  (Of course the “real” Shakespeare was the one who wrote those earlier works; he would later borrow from himself!)  Back then, when the pen name emerged in the 1590’s, did members of the public know whether
“Shakespeare” had written those plays performed in the 1580’s?  Well, they didn’t know then and the scholars don’t know now – although common sense would tell you that Oxford had spent most of his forty-three years by 1593 having labored mightily to become the greatest writer of the English language.

There are, in fact, other aspects to the Shakespeare authorship issue, and they do involve the politics of the day.  But that’s for another blog.  The reason for this blog, at the moment, is more personal – to share a little of the experience of someone who came into the authorship adventure without ever having heard of any kind of “conspiracy” to cover up the truth.

I had acted in a production of Hamlet at the University of Notre Dame and had fallen in love, so to speak, with the prince.  Afterward I spent years reciting Hamlet’s soliloquies.  I loved his character — an endless reservoir of human emotions in there.

And then one day, reading about the Earl of Oxford, I was amazed to learn there had been a real-live Elizabethan, some fifteen years older than “Shakespeare” but living at the same time, who had a life very much like that of Hamlet!

Oxford had been stopped by pirates in the Channel and had talked his way out of a jam pretty much the same way Hamlet did; Oxford brought plays to Court the way Hamlet did; Oxford had married chief minister Burghley’s daughter, reflecting Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, daughter of chief minister Polonius; Horatio is Hamlet’s great friend; Horatio Vere was Oxford’s famous military cousin; Horatio and Francisco are on watch in the play; Horatio and his brother Francis were  “the fighting Veres” and Oxford’s  close cousins.

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

Oxford had been sent into wardship – like Bertram!  Oxford had studied astrology and white magic with Dr. John Dee – shades of Prospero! Oxford had fought duels in the street with one faction vs. another – shades of the street-fighting in Romeo and Juliet!  Oxford had accused his wife of infidelity – like Othello!

How is it, I wondered, that my teachers and professors had never mentioned this Hamlet-like nobleman who was connected in some way with virtually all the forerunners of the phenomenon of “Shakespeare”?  Even if it could be shown that Edward de Vere could not have written the Bard’s works, why would we fail to look at his life?

I think the reason for the academy’s failure to study Edward de Vere is that he threatened the cherished belief in the Stratford biography.  He had been hidden from the official record of history until 1920, when J. T. Looney pointed to him as “Shakespeare” – so his entrance onto the record came burdened with the baggage of the authorship issue.  To be interested in Edward Earl of Oxford was to be a kind of traitor.  It suggested that you just might be questioning the traditional image!

Otherwise I see no good explanation for shunning this real-life figure who, like Hamlet, put on “an antic disposition” at Court – in Oxford’s case, acting as the Italianate Englishman, among other roles.

In answer to the critics who shout “conspiracy theory” at us, I’d like to mention that, in the closed society of Elizabeth’s kingdom, writers left clues to the truth all over the place.  They slipped in all kinds of hints while giving themselves “deniability” – Hey, this is just a poem – this is just a play – it’s harmless! – and of course I didn’t intend to say anything off-limits.

For some reason, Oxford’s authorship was off-limits.  It appears, however, that he left behind a veritable self-portrait in Hamlet and other works of literature.

I say to hell with worrying about conspiracy theories.  Something happened more than four centuries ago that official history has covered up.  I say to the critics — Rather than sling such worthless slogans at well-meaning, intelligent folks who love to learn new things about both history and literature, either demonstrate your curiosity or just admit that you don’t give a damn about this fascinating subject matter!

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