Reason No. 92 to Conclude that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare — “The Record of a Wasted Genius”

The irony of this reason to believe Oxford was “Shakespeare” is that the contemporary negative view of him – shared by those who would have been unaware that he was secretly writing the works – has been a favorite argument against his authorship.


When J. Thomas Looney launched his “systematic search” for the true author, leading to his breakthrough work “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, he predicted this man could not have completely hid his talent; he would be “a recognized and recorded genius” – but, working behind a pen name, he would also be viewed as wasting his life.


On the one hand: “Although we are obliged, from the nature of our problem, to assume that the true author’s contemporaries generally were not aware of his producing the great works, it is hardly probable that one endowed with so commanding a genius should have been able to conceal the greatness of his powers wholly from those with whom he habitually associated; and therefore we may reasonably expect to find him a man of recognized and recorded genius.”

On the other hand: “Between what contemporary records represent him as being, and what he really was, we ought, indeed, to be prepared to find some striking discrepancies … For example, a man who has produced so large an amount of work of the highest quality, but was not seen doing it, must have passed a considerable part of his life in what would appear to others like doing nothing of any consequence. The record of a wasted genius is, therefore, what we might reasonably look for in any contemporary account of him.”
[My emphases above]

Such a man operating in anonymity would be marked as “something of an eccentric: his nature, or his circumstances, or probably both, were not normal.” The true genius would be “a man much more akin mentally to Byron or Shelley than to the placid Shakespeare suggested by the Stratford tradition.” Given his marvelous insight into human nature, allowing him to see the motives of others, “we may naturally expect to find him giving vent to himself in acts and words which must have seemed extraordinary and inexplicable to other men: for the man who sees most deeply into the inner workings of the human mind must often act upon knowledge of which he may not speak.”

anderson book

Scholar Gabriel Harvey’s conflicted attitude toward Oxford is an example:

* First he praised him as a writer, in effect calling him a recognized genuis: “Your British numbers have been widely sung, while your Epistle [to The Courtier, 1572, published at Oxford’s commandment] testifies how much you excel in letters, being more courtly than Castiglione himself, more polished. I have seen your many Latin verses, and more English verses are extant; thou hast drunk deep draughts not only of the Muses of France and Italy, but hast learned the manners of many men, and the arts and laws of foreign countries.”

* Then, however, he also called him “a passing singular odd man” and mocked his “little apish hat, couched fast to the pate, like an oyster; French cambric ruffs … delicate in speech; quaint in array; conceited in all points” – confirming Looney’s prediction that the real Shakespeare would be “more or less a man apart, whose very aloofness is provocative of hostility in smaller men” toward whom he would “assume a mask” to conceal the workings of his great mind and heart.

Contemporaries would have found him “not merely eccentric in his bearing, as they have frequently found the genius whom they could not understand, but even, on occasion, guilty of what seemed to them vagaries of a pronounced type.”

Edward de Vere12Email

In 1567 young Oxford inflicted a fatal wound on an under-cook at Cecil House. Gilbert Talbot referred in 1573 to the earl’s high favor with the Queen but marveled at his “fickle head.” In 1574 the earl abruptly bolted to the Continent without authorization. In 1576 he separated from his wife, refusing to accept paternity of her infant daughter. In 1579 he quarreled on the palace tennis court with Philip Sidney, in front of the French delegation, calling him a “puppy.” The following year he (accurately) accused his Catholic friends of treason; in turn, they charged him with a long list of “vagaries of a pronounced type,” as Looney predicted, with Charles Arundel calling him a “monstrous adversary”

When the true author’s mask is finally penetrated, Looney predicted, the revelation “may necessitate a complete reversal of former judgments – one of the most difficult things to accomplish once such judgment has passed beyond mere individual opinion, and has taken firm root in the social mind.”

(I’d call that an understatement!)

“We shall first have to dissociate from the writings the conception of such an author as the steady, complacent, business-like man-of-the-world, suggested by the Stratford Shakespeare. Then there will be the more arduous task of raising to a most exalted position the name and personality possibly of some obscure man hitherto regarded as quite unequal to the world with which he is at last to be credited.

“And this will further compel us to re-read our greatest national classics from a totally new personal standpoint. The work in question being the highest literary product of the age, it cannot be otherwise than that the author, whoever he may have been, when he is discovered must seem in some measure below the requirements of the situation; unequal, that is, to the production of such work. We shall therefore be called upon in his case radically to modify and correct a judgment of three hundred years’ standing.”

Make that more than four hundred years, and counting.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 publication of this book by Charlton Ogburn Jr., launching the new era of Oxfordian scholarship

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 publication of this book by Charlton Ogburn Jr., launching a new era of Oxfordian scholarship


After finishing the above blog post, it occurred to me that we seldom envision one of the major qualifications of the true author to be his very anonymity and its effects – in terms of both his own behavior and others’ views of him. We seldom if ever see his particular circumstance, living behind a mask, as one of those qualifications – but, in fact, that would be a necessary aspect of his life and character.

I reminded myself, however, that Oxford’s life behind the “Shakespeare” mask would have begun only in 1593, when he was forty-three, and that he then would have been revising most of his plays rather than writing them for the first time. In fact, he would have been living with this special circumstance – his anonymity – for two or three decades, from the time he was in his teens.

This “reason” involves Oxford’s unique life of which the “Shakespeare” phenomenon is only one part. The whole answer to the problem is much larger in biographical scope than we may hold in our minds. His hiding behind the “Shakespeare” identity would actually have been the culmination of a prior life lived behind many masks. In any debate between Oxfordians and others, therefore, isn’t this “life behind a veil” a fundamental but often forgotten issue?

Looney found Edward de Vere in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), in a life history written by Sidney Lee during 1885-1900, and found an even greater “record of a wasted genius” than he might have actually predicted. In fact it contained contemporary views of Oxford with facts that were often partially true or even false – exactly what to expect in the case of a genius who, from boyhood, was concealing his identity as the author of works being published anonymously or under the names of real or fictional persons (and then, just to confuse matters further, writing some verses under his own name):

“While manifesting a natural taste for music and literature, the youth [Oxford] developed a waywardness of temper which led him into every form of extravagance, and into violent quarrels with other members of his guardian’s household … his guardian [William Cecil] found his perverse humor a source of grave embarrassment … Oxford did not prove a complaisant son-in-law … He projected a hare-brained plot which came to nothing to rescue the duke [of Norfolk] from the Tower, and he was currently reported to have threatened to ruin his wife by way of avenging himself on his father-in-law [for helping to ruin Norfolk] …

“To him is assigned the credit of first introducing from Italy into this country embroidered gloves, sweet-bags, perfumed leather jerkins, and costly washes and perfumes. He ingratiated himself with the Queen by presenting her with a pair of perfumed gloves trimmed with tufts or roses of colored silk … He ‘was enticed,’ wrote Burghley in his diary, ‘by certain lewd persons to be a stranger to his wife’ … Oxford’s eccentricities and irregularities of temper grew with his years … Despite his violent and perverse temper, his eccentric taste in dress, and his reckless waste of his substance, evinced a genuine interest in music, and wrote verse [under his own name] of much lyric beauty …”

When the authorship question was debated at a Moot Court in front of three U.S. Supreme Court justices in the fall of 1987, the lawyer for the Stratford man recited a litany of such traits of which Oxford was guilty, to which Justice Stevens replied, to the delight of many in the audience:

“Sounds to me like a writer!”

2011 – The Big Year for Edward de Vere?

Happy New Year!  Many of my friends and colleagues (I include myself) in the “Oxfordian” world are starting to feel that this is going to be the “big year” for us — that is, for those of us who have concluded that Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) was the true author of the works printed under the name — the pen name, that is — of William Shakespeare.

Why has this ridiculously optimistic feeling come over us?  Well, let’s see…

First and foremost is that producer-director Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous is set to open in theaters this fall — on Friday, September 23, 2011.  Here’s the idea of Oxford as “Shakespeare” finally on the big screen — for the first time in the ninety-one years since the earl was “identified” in 1920 (by British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney) as the greatest writer of the English language.

Film director Roland Emmerich on the set of "Anonymous," due in theaters in September

Whatever any critic will say about this film, or however any individual viewer reacts to it, or to what extent it does or does not come close to the true history, is beside the point — which is simply that the Shakespeare Authorship Question itself will finally be brought out of hiding … out of the dark cave of censorship and suppression … into the daylight where everybody can see it and evaluate the subject for themselves.

You think this might be a bit of hyperbole?  A little over the top?  Well, when my friend Charles Boyle introduced me to the topic in 1987, I was stunned to hear about it.  Even though I’d gone through the University of Notre Dame in the Theater Department and the Great Books Program, no one had ever even mentioned that there might be a Shakespeare problem, much less that there had been a real-life eccentric, mysterious individual at the Court of Elizabeth the First who could have served as the model for Prince Hamlet.

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

How could not one of my professors or play directors have ever mentioned this to me?  Even if they thought the whole subject was nonsense, why wouldn’t they bring it up?  I ran to the public library (in Portland, Maine, where I lived at the time) and discovered to my shock that right there were at least a dozen books questioning the traditional attribution of Shakespearean authorship — and some fascinating books putting forth the theory that Edward de Vere was the true poet and playwright.

How could I not have known this before?  Over the ensuing years I would discover that many others had experienced the same wonderment — intelligent, educated, well-read men and women who had gone through more than half their lives without an inkling that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616) might not have been the writer known as William Shakespeare.

I recalled having played the part of Laertes in our production of Hamlet at Notre Dame, and how I’d stood in the wings watching and listening to the late great actor Richard Kavanaugh playing the lead role — and I remembered a specific moment when I heard these lines spoken by the Prince to his young girlfriend Ophelia:

“I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?”

Right then it struck me that this was very candid stuff, and very modern in terms of the protagonist of a play, the so-called hero, being so self-critical.  More than that, within those words or behind them seemed to be the voice of the author himself, this great dramatist about whose identity and life I had never given any thought whatsoever!

And a few minutes later, during a break in rehearsals, I walked onto the stage and asked co-director Fred Syberg, “What do we know about Shakespeare?”

“Well,” Fred replied, “he was a guy who went to London and became an actor and started writing plays.  That’s about it.”

Uh-hunh, I thought.  Okay.  Sureand then pushed that little kernel of curiosity back into its cave, back into that darkness where it continued to be hidden from most of the world….

I’ll be back here soon, to continue the subject of why many Oxfordians feel that 2011 is going to be “the big one” for the Shakespeare Authorship Question … a year different from all the other years.  As Bette Davis tells the folks as Margo Channing at the party in All About Eve:  “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

The Asbourne Portrait of "Shakespeare"

The so-called Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare (note the skull, as in the picture of Hamlet above) “was first brought to light by Clement Usill Kingston in 1847. The painting bore the date 1611 and purported to show William Shakespeare at the age of 47. Subsequently, it was widely reproduced during the 19th century, having entered the canon of Shakespeare portraits.  The identity of the artist is unknown.  It was subsequently altered to cater to
public demand for more pictures of the bard, and conform to 19th century ideas of Shakespeare.  In 1940, Charles Wisner Barrell made a searching investigation of the portrait using modern technologies and concluded the painting was a retouched portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Art historian William Pressly, who catalogued the Folger’s paintings, and directed the 1988 restoration of the work, states that the controversy surrounding the sitter’s identity was resolved in 1979, when restorative work on the painting revealed conclusively that it had been begun as a portrait of Sir Hugh Hamersley.  [Well, now … “conclusively”? – Hmmm– H.W.] The Folger Library dates the painting to 1612, and while stating that most researchers identify the painting’s subject as Sir Hugh Hamersley, notes that some Oxfordians contend it depicts Edward de Vere. It currently hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library.”  (From Wikipedia – emphases added)

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