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The Gray Lady Flirts With the Earl of Oxford
That unorthodox theories concerning the authorship of Shakespeare's plays have a core of adherents is newsworthy, so one cannot blame the Sunday New York Times for devoting a column to the notion that real Bard was the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (William S. Niederkorn, "A Historic Whodunit: If Shakespeare Didn't, Who Did?", 2/10/02). Nor is it unreasonable for a journalist to present the Oxfordian case without adverse editorial comment. The Times would not be quite so non-judgmental if the subject were, say, creation "science", but neutrality is rarely a journalistic vice.
It is, on the other hand, a journalistic vice to adopt a pose of neutrality while systematically ignoring one side of the case. Mr. Niederkorn's outwardly dispassionate account makes the Oxfordians sound like clear-thinking iconoclasts even as it omits key elements of the orthodox case, most of them readily accessible in sources that the reporter mentions but perhaps did not consult with any care.
After an introductory section declaring that "the Oxford theory has never been stronger", glancing at the controversy over the date of The Tempest and opining that judges and lawyers are attracted to Oxfordianism because "Lawyers are influenced and convinced by evidence", the article tells us a little about Edward de Vere. It stresses points that lend him plausibility as a pretender to Shakespeare's laurels and leaves out others that undermine his candidacy.
"Oxford . . . was a poet, playwright and patron of a number of writers of the English Renaissance who dedicated works to him." As a perusal of the Shakespeare Authorship web site (whose URL is noted in the article) would have revealed, orthodox scholars have reasons for being unimpressed by these credentials (Terry Ross, "Oxford's Literary Reputation"). Oxford's verse received some mild contemporary praise, but he was rarely listed among the outstanding poets of the age. There are only two extant references to his having written plays. One credits him with interludes or masques for the court. The other is copied from the first and occurs in a passage in which Shakespeare is praised separately more than once (odd if Oxford and Shakespeare were the same author). The dedications to Oxford tell against any idea that he had a distinguished literary reputation. Though replete with flowery compliments, they are almost unanimously silent about any literary achievements.
"Starting in 1586, Queen Elizabeth paid [Oxford] £1,000 a year (roughly $400,000 today) for no apparent reason. The grant was renewed by King James and continued until Oxford's death. One of the earliest accounts of Shakespeare, by the Rev. Dr. John Ward in the 1660's, notes that Shakespeare wrote two plays a year 'and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1,000 a year.' The Oxfordian opinion is that it may be the same £1,000." Oxford's allowance was not granted "for no apparent reason". By 1586 the earl was bankrupt and needed royal financial assistance to keep up his station as the senior member of the English nobility. He secured help through the intercession of his father-in-law Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's most trusted minister. Attached to the grant were embarrassing conditions designed to prevent the beneficiary from borrrowing against his future income. There is no need to hypothesize that the Queen was paying for plays at a hundred times the going rate. (Free lance dramatists typically received £6 for their manuscripts.) For a short but detailed biography of Oxford, vide Alan H. Nelson, "Position Paper on Oxford".
"Oxford had a close relationship with Southampton; they lived under the same roof, as Southampton was also a ward of Cecil's." As the article takes care to remind us, the Earl of Southampton was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, as well as a possible model for the "fair youth" of the Sonnets. The "close relationship" between the two earls is, however, fictitious. They may have "lived under the same roof" but not at the same time. Oxford was 23 years old when Southampton was born (Mr. Niederkorn ought to have figured this out for himself; he gives the birth years of both men) and 31 when the lad became Lord Burghley's ward. In their numerous surviving letters, neither man mentions the other, nor are they linked by any contemporary references. (Lord Burghley may have tried to arrange a marriage between Oxford's daughter (Burghley's granddaughter) and Southampton, but nothing came of the project, and there is no evidence that Oxford himself took part in it.) The two earls must have met occasionally at court, but the only time that they are known to have been together was when Oxford served as a judge on the court that condemned Southampton to death for his part in the Earl of Essex's rebellion. (He was later reprieved and restored to favor by James I.)
Omitting all of these considerations, Mr. Niederkorn summarizes the case against Oxford's authorship as, "De Vere, they say, was a bad writer and a scoundrel." He notes only one substantive objection, that de Vere died in 1604, before the generally accepted dates of about ten of Shakespeare's plays. It would not have been difficult to uncover other arguments on the orthodox side:
The dating of plays like The Tempest is not the only evidence that Shakespeare the playwright, whoever he was, was alive after 1604. He is referred to as a living person in the preface to the quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida (1609), in an epigram by John Davies (published 1610) and in a preface by Thomas Heywood (1612). The earliest work that clearly refers to him as dead (though Oxfordians strain to find earlier references) is William Basse's eulogy, written c. 1620, which gives his date of death as "April 1616", the same month as Shakespeare of Stratford's and 12 years after Oxford's demise.
As already noted, Oxford had only a modest literary reputation in his own time. In addition, the poems that can definitely be attributed to him (about 20 in all) are in forms and meters that the Shakespearean works generally avoid. (Terry Ross, "The Verse Forms of Shakespeare and Oxford")
Seventy-seven letters written by Oxford survive, none of which displays any interest in poetry or drama. (Dave Kathman, "Oxford's Letters") That fact does not prove conclusively that he could not have been a great dramatist, but it is no help to the Oxfordian case. (Oxfordians have no hesitation about concluding that Shakespeare of Stratford could not have been a literary figure, because most of the surviving documents that mention him deal with business affairs rather than literature. They never apply the same logic to their own candidate.) There are also other incongruities in the Oxfordian corpus. He often uses speech forms from his native region, East Anglia, whereas all of the notable dialectical elements in Shakespeare's plays come from Warwickshire (in which Stratford-upon-Avon is located). His command of English grammar, usage and etymology is often quite shaky. And - a small but striking point - he consistently signs himself "Oxenford", in contrast to the Shakespearean corpus' equally consistent use of "Oxford". (Alan H. Nelson, "The Distinctive Orthography of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford"; Professor Nelson has posted on-line the full texts of Oxford's letters.)
The affirmative side of the Stratfordian case is briskly caricatured:
In the Stratford scheme of things, Shakespeare, depicted in the First Folio engraving by Martin Droeshout, was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He was educated in a grammar school at Stratford; he read books from others' libraries if not his own; and his daughters and his father, an alderman and bailiff, could read if not write. Stratfordians say that Shakespeare became an actor and that the name William Shakespeare on the title pages of the original editions of the plays, sonnets and long poems proves that their man is the author.
The name on the title pages is neither the only nor the strongest proof that the Stratfordians adduce. Contemporary references to the playwright Shakespeare state that he was an actor, came from Stratford-upon-Avon and died in 1616. (Tom Reedy & Dave Kathman, "How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts") The most direct testimony comes from men who could scarcely have been deceived about the authorship of the plays. The editors of the First Folio were managers of the company that produced them. Ben Jonson, according to his private commonplace book, talked about them with their author. This evidence is buttressed by half a dozen or so other witnesses. Since the Oxfordians regard de Vere's authorship of the plays as a well-known fact during his lifetime (an "open secret", as Mr. Niederkorn says), it is surprising that so many people went to so much trouble to keep it hidden.
The article admits that the feeble-seeming orthodox case is accepted by the overwhelming majority of those who study Shakespeare. An Oxfordian is quoted with an explanation: "the overwhelming majority of the research funds go to Stratfordians. Oxfordians don't have the funding to do the kind of research they would like to do." They would like to build a cyclotron, perhaps? Actually, little if any academic funding goes toward research involving any aspect of the authorship question, because no grant committee regards it as a serious topic. It would be just as easy to persuade an engineering department to spend money for work on a perpetual motion machine.
Undeterred by meager funding, "The Oxford side, however, continues to pile up evidence".
The newly piled up evidence that impresses Mr. Niederkorn is a recent Ph.D. dissertation that has the distinction of being the first ever written from an Oxfordian point of view. The evidentiary portion of this work is an appendix comparing verses marked in a Bible owned by Edward de Vere to those alluded to in Shakespeare's plays. Roger Stritmatter, the author of the dissertation, claims that the markings are the earl's own and that there is a significant overlap between the verses thus singled out and those used by Shakespeare. (Vide Querulous Notes for my analyses of some aspects of Dr. Stritmatter's production.)
As before, orthodox opinions get the silent treatment. David Kathman, one of the editors of the Shakespeare Authorship Web site, has examined Oxford's Bible independently and compared the marked verses to those that appear in lists of Shakespeare's allusions compiled by standard authorities. (David Kathman, "Oxford's Bible") He finds only about 80 overlapping verses, far from the two or three hundred alleged by Dr. Stritmatter. He notes, too, that the number of markings in individual books diverges widely from Shakespearean usage. Oxford, if he was the annotator, scarcely noticed the Gospels (fewer than a dozen verses marked), while Shakespeare alludes to them frequently. Contrariwise, the Bible annotator seems much more interested than Shakespeare in the Aprocrypha.
Mr. Niederkorn's interest in new evidence extends only to "the Oxford side". Stratfordians have in recent years come up with new items of their own, including a post-1604 poem that many experts attribute to Shakespeare (Dave Kathman, "Don Foster and the Funeral Elegy") [1] and computerized stylistic analyses that rule out common authorship of Oxford's acknowledged works and Shakespeare's (Ward Elliott & Robert Valenza, "Was the Earl of Oxford the True Shakespeare? A Computer-Aided Analysis"). Not everyone in the orthodox camp agrees that these proofs are cogent, but they are better supported than Dr. Stritmatter's Biblical numerology.
Overall, the case for Oxford is far weaker and that for the Stratford man vastly stronger than the Times would have its readers believe. Every now and then, beleaguered minorities holding heretical opinions turn out to be right, but more often they are simply eccentric. Mr. Niederkorn was under no obligation to judge between those alternatives, but he is distinctly at fault for failing in his duty to furnish the information that readers need to judge for themselves.
[1] Since this essay was posted, scholarly opinion has swung heavily against attributing the "Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Authorship site summarizes recent developments.
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