How “Secret” was the Earl of Oxford’s Authorship of “Hamlet” and other Shakespearean Works?

In the comments for Reason No. 19 (“The Families of Oxford and Hamlet as Mirror Reflections”) comes a question from blogger Lys Avra:

Why would Edward de Vere make his life and the characters of Hamlet so similar? He wanted to keep his identity secret, correct? Why didn’t the aristocrats notice the similarities?”

Here are three insightful responses from colleagues on the Shakespeare authorship front:

Richard Smiley:  “My guess is that the aristocrats DID know Hamlet was Oxford in the same way they knew Polonius was William Cecil. When Oxford’s court plays were revised and performed in public venues, that’s when hiding the real author’s name became necessary.”

[Richard Smiley is a leading member of the Shakespeare Oxford Society.]

      Edward de Vere Nothing truer than Truth

Edward de Vere
Nothing truer than Truth

William Ray:  “I would say he wanted to be able to write and he wanted to gain credit, for posterity if not for the present under his own name.  He knew he had Elizabeth’s protection to do that, as long as he gave lip-serivce to the fiction of anonymity/pseudonymity, the rule of the time.  So it was not a matter of remaining secret 100%. ‘Shake-speare’ obviously refers to someone who could shake a spear (at Ignorance? at a knight coming toward him on a thousand-pound beast?). But that was decorously secret enough to pass with the Queen’s imprimatur. Once she was incapable, then Robert Cecil took over. No more plays after Oxford died. They were not protected. By the time the Herberts were in control of the revels, they set up for a permanent monument to them. Not the Sonnets beyond one printing.

“The Elizabethan courtiers probably had no idea this set of works would become a permanent record of their time. It only offended certain of them if the connection were too obvious, like Oldcastle and Corambis.  These were changed accordingly. Of course the lower orders would not and could not object that they were the laughingstock of the plays.

“Hamlet appears to have been written over a lifetime and the final written play is far longer than the going stage play length of that time, no more than three hours. A lot could be left out.  As Polonius complained to the Queen, “Your Highness hath protected him from much heat.”  (There was a real Polonius, a First Secretary in Denmark, providing diverting deniability for one crucial roast, Burghley, who died in 1598.)

[William J. Ray of Willits California, in the coastal mountain range, is a poet, scholar and man of many interests and talents, as his website ‘The Poetry and Thought of WJ Ray’ makes abundantly clear.  He is keynote speaker at the upcoming Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.]

 Castle Hedingham    The Vere Seat

Castle Hedingham
The Vere Seat

James Norwood:  “The author of Shakespeare’s works was using literature to write about his own life experience.  For this reason, one critic has credited Shakespeare with “the invention of the human,” due to the depth psychology and lifelike quality of his characters.  Because he was writing Hamlet and other works with autobiographical inferences, the author was compelled to conceal his identity.  These works, especially Hamlet and the Sonnets, were exposing the deepest, darkest secrets of the author’s personal life.  As is the case for so much of modern literature, this author may have been using the medium of poetry/drama as a kind of creative, personal therapy.

“But this author was not merely keeping ‘secret’ his own identity, but the identities of the people who were the basis for many of his dramatic characters and those of his poems.  To understand the unique conditions of playwriting in the Elizabethan age, it is important to keep in mind the different circumstances of plays presented privately at the court versus performances in the public theatres of London.

“For example, we know a greal deal about a presentation of Twelfth Night at Whitehall Palace on January 6, 1601.  The play was part of the entertainment for a visiting dignitary from Italy.  Queen Elizabeth was in attendance for the play, and the name of the Italian dignitary was Don Virginio Orsino.  The relationship of the characters Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night (a lovesick Italian courtier pining for an inaccessible and standoffish single woman) would have been a source of gentle satire for the Whitehall audience:  it would have been clear to the audience that Olivia and Orsino were allegorical representaitons of the Queen and the Italian dignitary.   But it would not have been appropriate for an audience in the public theatre to know the author’s intent of satire and allegory of the members of the court, especially the Queen.  The theatre presentations at court were a closed, ‘hothouse’ environment and one of the rare instances that Queen Elizabeth welcomed advice and criticism.  While the Whitehall audience clearly knew the identity of the author (the names of Oxford’s wife and daughter appear at the head of the guest list for the invited audience at Whitehall), the London audience would know the play only through the author’s pseudonym, William Shakespeare.

sonnet-header.jpg“When Twelfth Night was performed in the public sphere on February 2, 1602, the deception had obviously worked.  The diarist John Manningham wrote about the farcical antics of the twins (Sebastian and Viola) and the goofy character Malvolio, never recognizing the court satire of Orsino and the Queen.  The small courtly audience (a maximum of 50 or 60 people?) knew the identity of the author of Twelfth Night and Hamlet.  But the key for maintaining the deception was in keeping the true name of the author from being known to the public.

“As an exercise, I recommend researching the histories behind five pseudonyms of famous writers.  Look for a pattern to emerge of a coterie audience, who knows the identity of the author while the general public is kept in the dark.  A good place to start might be Jane Austen.  While her identity was known to her publisher and a small number of friends and family members, the author of Sense and Sensibility was initially known to the public only as “a lady.”   In every author’s pseudonym (including our own user names on the internet!), there is a unique personal story.  The singular story of the pseudonym Shakespeare is that this was a penname for an author who turned out to be the greatest writer in the English language.  Because the academics have invested so much in the story of the Stratford man and because the academy is resistant to change, it will take more work and more time for the true story of Oxford to be widely accepted.  But the evidence is there right now for you to discover the truth on your own.”

[Dr. James Norwood of St. Paul, Minnesota taught humanities at the University of Minnesota for more than 25 years, and is known for his cycle of six courses on the art, literature, history, and ideas of the Western tradition, including a semester course about the Shakespeare authorship question.  Hear him on a podcast.]

%d bloggers like this: