Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford: the Most Amazing Court Jester: No. 76 of 100 Reasons Why He was “Shakespeare” and the Author of “Hamlet”

“Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

The Shakespeare plays are populated by many truth-tellers wearing the masks of Fools, most played in turn by Richard Tarleton, Will Kemp and Robert Armin, each actor becoming increasingly more sophisticated in his clowning as the author’s characters grew in their complex humanity.
lear's fool

Fools existed from ancient history all the way up to the contemporary jesters of European royal courts. In Shakespeare they appear in all sorts of masks, but what many of them have in common is their ability, within the dangerous setting of the court, to speak truth to power.

Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night are the best-known examples of court jesters or Fools given the authorization to speak freely. [King Lear’s nameless Fool is “all-licensed,” as Goneril puts it.] In our own time, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central may have the most similar function, that is, the job of running spears of truth through the guts of our politicians while making us howl with laughter – a function that even the most powerful officials apparently, if often grudgingly, must allow.


In the new book of essays A Poet’s Rage, edited by William Boyle, a paper with insight into the Shakespearean Fools, written twenty years ago by his brother Charles Boyle, remains just as important to the authorship debate as it was back then. In a discussion about Troilus and Hamlet as characters, Boyle emphasizes that Shakespeare’s world revolved around the royal court and that his audacious political satire was made possible only by the clever use of thinly disguised allegory.

Number 76 of 100 reasons to conclude that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” is that he himself, as Boyle writes, “enjoyed the protection of some great patron” [Queen Elizabeth] and was “the most amazing court jester who lived.” And perhaps, he also writes, there is no character called “The Fool” in the play of Hamlet, his most autobiographical character, because Hamlet himself is The Fool.

The Prince of Denmark is an expert at using allegory, the accepted Elizabethan literary device for commenting on the current political scene. He warns Polonius, chief counselor to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, that the players “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” – that is, the actors and their “harmless” plays are actually pointing to persons and issues of the day. As Hamlet tells Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, the players “cannot keep counsel” but will “tell all.”

hamlet at the play

“Have you heard the argument?” the wary king asks about the play as it proceeds. “Is there no offence in’t?”

“No, no,” Hamlet replies, “they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence I’th’world.”

Probably the most famous example of Queen Elizabeth’s recognition of a royal history representing contemporary matters occurred in 1601, when, several months after the enactment by Shakespeare’s company of the deposing of Richard II, which helped trigger the failed Essex Rebellion against Robert Cecil and other counselors the following day, she reportedly blurted out to her antiquary: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that!?”

Traditional scholars, believing the author to be the Stratford fellow named William Shaksper, have been forced to shy away from seeing Polonius as a satirical portrait of William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England until his death in 1598. The reason, of course, is that for William of Stratford upon Avon to satirize Burghley in such a bold, ruthless manner would have been suicidal. He would have lost more than his writing hand.

The notion that Shaksper was the author “has stymied all reasonable inquiry into Shakespeare’s relationship to the world he lived in and his favorite setting, the court,” Boyle writes – because clearly the author of the Shakespeare works did live in the world of the court and, not surprisingly, he did write about the intrigues of that contemporary world.

And clearly that same author was being protected by the monarch herself – as expressed by none other than Polonius, who urges Gertrude to severely reprove her son the prince: “Look you lay home to him. Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, and that your Grace hath screened and stood between much heat and him.”

Polonius is referring to the play by which Hamlet has been able to “catch the conscience of the King” by means of allegory – having presented one story that seemed harmless while, in fact, revealing the dangerous news that Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father the previous king. This play at court, for which the prince inserted the crucial lines, is but the latest of his “pranks” that have pushed the chief minister beyond his limits.

But Polonius is also angry, even angrier, at the queen. Unable to accuse her directly, he urges Gertrude to tell Hamlet that his antics will be no longer tolerated; more to the point, the Queen should confess to him that she herself is the reason he gets away with his madcap behavior. She has “screened” her son from the fury of others. She has “stood between” the prince and the wrath of the court against him.

Once Oxford is viewed as the author, it becomes clear that Hamlet is his most self-revealing character and that the Court of Denmark represents the English court. There can be no more doubt that Polonius is a caricature of Burghley, who was Oxford’s father-in-law, or any question that Gertrude represents Elizabeth. And from there it’s a very short step to the recognition that, in fact, the Queen of England had protected Edward de Vere in the same way, having “screened and stood between much heat and him” – primarily because of his satirical comedies and other truth-telling plays, performed at her court from the 1570s onward.

Elizabeth wanted – demanded – such entertainment. The female monarch who loved the cruel spectacle of bear-baiting was the same powerful woman, with absolute rule, who feasted upon Oxford’s stinging portraits of the members of her court – not to mention his various characters in which she could recognize herself as well, usually in the form of a flattering portrait. Her Majesty encouraged Oxford to function as her “allowed fool,” as Olivia calls Feste the clown in Twelfth Night. Telling Malvolio to shake off Feste’s barbs, she reminds him that the jester uses his biting wit because she allows him to do so: “There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail.” Olivia has given Feste permission to slander others; and because her command is law, it follows that Feste’s slander cannot be slanderous.


When Malvolio has gone, she turns to Feste and pretends to scold him: “Now you see, sir, how your fooling grows old, and people dislike it.” Eva Turner Clarke observed in the 1930s that “although Olivia likes his nonsense, she makes a mild protest for the sake of the victims who do not.” In Clark’s opinion Olivia’s term “allowed fool” is “an expression Elizabeth probably applied to Oxford, for he would never have dared to include the many personal allusions in his plays had not the Queen permitted, even encouraged, him to do it.”

Hamlet is a prankster, jester, clown; he is a Court Fool with permission to say what he likes, even to put on plays that tell the truth about royal crimes. Gertrude has given him the freedom to criticize or make fun of high-ranking persons, right up to the King himself, without suffering repercussions.

The prince – and by extension his creator, Oxford – is a political satirist who displays far more daring than that displayed by the comedy writers and performers of Saturday Night Live, given the harsh punishments of the Elizabethan age. Having easily led Polonius into revealing his hypocrisy, Hamlet exclaims in an aside: “They fool me to the top of my bent!” — translated by the Riverside Shakespeare editors translate as: “They make me play the fool to the limit of my ability!”

So the character who speaks with the playwright’s most authorial voice actually describes himself as the Court Fool – a role that Edward de Vere is on record as playing at the Elizabethan royal court, from his high-step dancing for the Queen to his early signed poetry to his reputation as “best for comedy” for the court stage, his playing of the lute and singing for Elizabeth, and so on, not to mention a number of escapades for which, otherwise, he would have been punished.

[A few examples: he got away with planning in 1571 to rescue the Duke of Norfolk from the Tower; the queen forgave him for racing off to the Continent in 1574 without authorization; he twice refused her command in 1579 to dance for the French delegates on hand to negotiate the Alencon match; and so on.]

Jacques speaks of himself as a Fool in As You Like It and seems to come mighty close to how Oxford would describe himself, in a speech I always find to be both somewhat frightening as well as thrilling:

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have…
Invest me in my motley, give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

The Wikipedia list of Shakespearean Fools does not include Prince Hamlet, undoubtedly because he is also the protagonist and of such importance that he can easily be overlooked; but the list does include the following Fools, each of whom, no doubt, represents yet another aspect of their creator, Edward de Vere, the Jester or Allowed Fool at the Court of Queen Elizabeth:

Touchstone in As You Like It
The Fool in King Lear
Trinculo in The Tempest,
Costard in Love’s Labours Lost
Feste in Twelfth Night
Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice
Lavache in All’s Well That Ends Well
A Fool in Timon of Athens
Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Thersites in Troilus and Cressida
Clown in Othello
Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Euphesus in The Comedy of Error
Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Gravediggers in Hamlet
Citizen in Julius Caesar
Pompey in Measure for Measure
Clown in The Winter’s Tale
Grumio and The Taming of the Shrew
The Porter in Macbeth
Peter in Romeo and Juliet
Cloten in Cymbeline
Falstaff in Henry IV.

Well … of course … Falstaff!

“Shakespeare’s Jester” was the Earl of Oxford’s Servant, Robert Armin — No. 75 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere Wrote the “Shakespeare” Works

In the fall of 1947, the pioneering Oxfordian researcher Abraham Bronson Feldman launched a bombshell discovery that the great stage clown Robert Armin, known as “Shakespeare’s Jester,” was an avowed servant of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford; and, moreover, that Armin was at Hackney soon after joining the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and beginning to play Shakespeare’s philosophical fools such as Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night.*
Armin - 2
Feldman discovered the connection between Oxford and Armin in a rare quarto entitled Quips Upon Questions, written by the famous clown and printed in 1600 without his name on it. In his mock-dedication of this work, Armin wrote that on Tuesday, 25 December 1599 (or Tuesday, January 1, 1600) he would “take my journey (to wait on the right Honourable good Lord my Master whom I serve) to Hackney.”

“There was only one literary nobleman dwelling in Hackney” when Armin was playing Shakespeare’s “licensed” or “allowed” fools at the Curtain and then the Globe, observed Feldman, adding that the “Honourable good Lord” at Hackney was definitely Edward de Vere, Lord Oxford.

Oxford had moved from Stoke Newington to King’s Place, Hackney in 1596 with his second wife, Elizabeth Trentham, and their three-year-old son Henry de Vere, the future eighteenth earl. After the victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, he had become a reclusive figure who, most Oxfordians agree, was revising and transforming his previous stage works [performed in the 1570s and 1580s at Blackfriars playhouse and at court] into the plays that began appearing in the 1598 under the Shakespeare name. One of those revised works was As You Like It, with Armin the first actor to play the updated (or newly created) character of Touchstone.

Robert Armin 1563-1615

Robert Armin

As Oxfordian biographer Mark Anderson puts it, the “reasonable inference” is that Armin was “work-shopping” the role of Touchstone at Hackney with the author himself, Edward de Vere – who, we hasten to add, must have been the unseen guiding hand of the Chamberlain’s Men, a.k.a. Shakespeare’s Company, in addition to being its chief playwright. And another reasonable inference is that Oxford was training Armin to create a new kind of clown, more intelligent than the ones previously created by Richard Tarleton and Will Kemp (the latter whom Armin had just replaced in 1599-1600), in the spirit of Hamlet’s advice to the players:

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

My opinion is that in the above lines spoken by the prince we are hearing the genuine voice of his creator, the Earl of Oxford, a.k.a. Shakespeare, speaking in the same manner and tone he used when speaking to Robert Armin, who was even then becoming Touchstone.

“Armin is generally credited with all the ‘licensed fools’ in the repertory of the Chamberlain’s and King’s Men,” according to his Wikipedia biography, which lists not only Touchstone and Feste but also the Fool in King Lear and Lavatch in All’s Well That Ends Well, with the added possibilities of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, the Porter in Macbeth, the Fool in Timon of Athens and Autolcus in The Winter’s Tale. In addition, Armin is thought to have originated the role of Iago, the villain in Othello – indicating the high quality of acting skill he must have acquired.

“Armin may have played a key role in the development of Shakespearian fools,” Wikipedia continues, adding that he “explored every aspect of the clown, from the natural idiot to the philosopher-fool, from serving man to retained jester. In study, writing and performance, Armin moved the fool from rustic zany to trained motley. His characters – those he wrote and those he acted – absurdly point out the absurdity of what is otherwise called normal. Instead of appealing to the identity of the English commoner by imitating them, he created a new fool, a high-comic jester for whom wisdom is wit and wit is wisdom.”

This is all fine, but the Wikipedia writers apparently believe it was Armin who inspired – and even taught – Shakespeare to create such “allowed fools” rather than the other way around. This notion undoubtedly comes from the traditional view of the bard as William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon, the country fellow who would have required such teaching. He certainly appears to be the model for the unsophisticated “William, a Country Fellow” in Act Five, Scene One of As You Like It, when Touchstone tells him (in the voice of the author himself) that “all your writers do consent that ipse is he,” adding, “Now, you are not ipse, for I am he!”

When Robert Armin called himself the “servant” of the nobleman at Hackney, he was talking about himself as one of the actor-servants of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; and we can imagine Oxford and Armin eventually discussing this scene between William the Country Fellow and Touchstone the Clown – a dramatization, to be sure, of the author confronting the man who would be credited with his works in the future, fairly shouting at him that “all your writers do consent that you are not ipse [i.e., he himself], for I am he” – you are not the playwright, because I am!**

“It stands to reason that de Vere was consulting with the players who were bringing [the Shakespeare works] to the world at large,” Anderson writes. “And the Armin example is, so far at least, the closest we have to a gold standard for de Vere’s relationship to the public staging of plays we today know as ‘Shakespeare’s.'”

And that’s also my Reason No. 75 of 100 why Oxford was Shakespeare.

* The paper appeared in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1947, and it is reprinted in My Name Be Buried, Volume Four of Building the Case for Edward de Vere As Shakespeare, edited by Paul Hemenway Altrocchi and Hank Whittemore.

[Feldman’s paper was curtly rejected by two of the best-known scholarly journals in the US and England. The American university publishers of one of these “prestigious” quarterlies devoted to “English literary history” returned it to Feldman “upon the advice of the drama editor.” It would seem that the evidence linking Oxford to Shakespeare’s leading jester was off-limits!]

** I believe Oxford added the Touchstone-William scene after the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601, when, to save the imprisoned Earl of Southampton from execution and gain the promise of his freedom, he made a deal with Robert Cecil that his “name be buried where my body is.” It is also my view that the scene was performed (by Armin as Touchstone, of course) after the 1603 succession of James, when As You Like It was produced at Wilton House in December that year.

“All your writers do consent that ‘ipse’ is he: now, you are not ‘ipse’,’ for I am he” — No. 58 of 100 Reasons Why Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford = “Ipse” = “Shakespeare”

One scene in the Shakespeare plays, viewed through the lens of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as the dramatist, is so starkly illuminating that it quickly shatters the myth that the author could have been William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon: Act 5, Scene 1 of As You Like It (reprinted below).

“As You Like It” appeared in print for the first time here, in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays, in 1623

Set in the Forest of Arden, it has no function in the plot and appears to be one of several late additions inserted into the play.  In this short scene the courtier-clown Touchstone confronts William, the country fellow (who appears in no other scene of the play) and orders him to stop claiming possession of Audrey, the country wench.

Orthodox scholars and teachers are constrained to treat the scene seriously, trying to make sense of it in the context of the rest of the play, and they often come up with interesting explanations – except for the most obvious one, that the scene represents the author speaking directly to his audience and trying to tell us the truth by means of allegorical fiction.

Touchstone the courtier-clown stands for the playwright, Oxford, the courtier who was called “best for comedy” at Queen Elizabeth’s royal court; Audrey the country wench stands for the body of Oxford’s plays, regarded by the Puritans as immoral; and William the country fellow is William of Stratford, who came to London  from the Warwickshire countryside.

In this short allegorical scene, Oxford accuses William Shakspere of trying to claim credit for the Shakespeare plays (or to gain profit by selling them), and tells him to abandon all pretensions as author:

“All your writers do consent that ipse is he (All the writers who have worked under my patronage and guidance know that he himself is the master writer); now, you are not ipse, for I am he (now, you, William, are not he himself, the great author, because I am)!”

Touchstone is one of Oxford’s clear self-portraits.  Just as Edward de Vere in the 1570’s and 1580’s had enjoyed the Queen’s license to write and produce plays satirizing members of her court, Touchstone is an “allowed fool” (as Olivia calls Feste in Twelfth Night) who can say what he wants and get away with it.  He’s brilliant, insightful, witty and argumentative.  He can laugh at the madness of the world and at himself.  Above all, he is a “touchstone” or identifier of truth and true value (or the lack of it) beneath appearances on the surface.

We are prepared in Act 3 Scene 3 to recognize Touchstone as the dramatist.  In the forest with Audrey (the plays), he tells her:

“I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.” 

Ovid, the ancient Roman poet and Shakespeare’s favorite source, was banished to the land of the Goths, just as Oxford was prevented from taking credit as author.

Then Touchstone sets up the truth as told best by “feigning” or being deceptive:

Touchstone – When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with [acknowledged by] the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.  Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.”

Audrey – I do not know what poetical is.  Is it honest in deed and word?  Is it a true thing?”

Touchstone – No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning …”

The best (or only) way for Oxford to tell the truth is by means of symbolism and allegory in his dramatic works, which are otherwise fictional…

But, he warns, if you fail to understand my “hidden” meanings you will be denying my existence; you might as well kill me in the little room of a torture chamber.   

William, Touchstone and Audrey

Here is Act 5, Scene 1 with some of my comments inserted:

The Forest of Arden [which, in real life, lay between Stratford upon Avon and Oxford’s estate on the Avon known as Bilton.]

TOUCHSTONE [Oxford] and AUDREY [the plays] are onstage … Enter WILLIAM [of Stratford]

WILLIAM – Good even, Audrey.

AUDREY – God ye good even, William.

WILLIAM – And good even to you, sir.

TOUCHSTONE – Good even, gentle friend. Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered. How old are you, friend?

WILLIAM – Five and twenty, sir.

[William Shakspere of Stratford was 25 in 1589, by which time Oxford would have completed the original versions of all the plays; but he would have written and inserted this scene no earlier than 1599, when the “Shakespeare” name had just begun to be printed on the plays, and possibly not until 1603.]

TOUCHSTONE – A ripe age. Is thy name William?

WILLIAM – William, sir. [If the playwright’s name was William, would he decide to give that name to this country bumpkin?]

TOUCHSTONE – A fair name. Wast born i’ the forest here?

WILLIAM – Ay, sir, I thank God.

TOUCHSTONE – ‘Thank God;’ a good answer.  Art rich?

WILLIAM – Faith, sir, so-so. [William Shakspere appears to have been a pretty good money-maker.]

TOUCHSTONE – ‘So-so’ is good, very good, very excellent good; and yet it is not; it is but so-so.  Art thou wise?

WILLIAM – Ay, sir, I have a pretty wit. [Maybe Will of Stratford was naturally witty.]

Touchstone in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1996-97

TOUCHSTONE – Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ The heathen philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape, would open his lips when he put it into his mouth; meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and lips to open. You do love this maid?

WILLIAM – I do, sir. [He wants to marry the plays, i.e., claim them for himself.]

TOUCHSTONE – Give me your hand. Art thou learned?

WILLIAM – No, sir. [Not educated ; perhaps illiterate.]

TOUCHSTONE – Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out  of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; [By filling Shakspere with credit for the plays, Oxford is being emptied of credit — Alex McNeil article, linked below] for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.

WILLIAM – Which he, sir?

TOUCHSTONE – He, sir, that must marry this woman. [He who deserves to be associated with the plays.] Therefore, you clown, abandon,–which is in the vulgar leave,–the society,–which in the boorish is company,–of this female,–which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado [beating with sticks], or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction [engage in controversy with you]; I will o’errun thee with policy [conquer you with cunning strategy]; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

AUDREY – Do, good William.

WILLIAM – God rest you merry, sir. (Exit)

My own guess (which comes from William Boyle, former editor of Shakespeare Matters) is that Oxford wrote this scene in 1603, after he had agreed to the complete obliteration of his identity as author of the “Shakespeare” works.  He may have inserted it into the play for a private performance at Wilton in December 1603 — and for those who knew the truth, it must have been wildly funny and yet profoundly sad.

So this is No. 58 of 100 reasons why Oxford must have been “Shakespeare.”

[I recommend a superb article by Alex McNeil – As You Like It: Is Touchstone vs. William the First Authorship Story?” – which appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Shakespeare Matters, the newsletter of the Shakespeare Fellowship, and reprinted online.]

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