Sunday, October 9, 2011

Who Was the Earl of Oxford?

A detail from a portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, by Marcus Gheeraerts. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Some of you may be wondering what all the fuss is about, with the upcoming controversial movie Anonymous, opening Oct. 28th worldwide.

In the literary world there has long been controversy over the true authorship of the most important pieces of drama in the Western world. Was William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon the actual author of the collected works of Shakespeare, or was it perhaps a more believable candidate using a pen name or a decoy, such as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford?
This brief article is intended to give a brief introduction to the “Authorship Question” of Shakespeare’s works, and provide you with a brief overview of the facts supporting Oxfords candidacy. I hope this article will clarify much of the confusion that will be caused by the upcoming film Anonymous (see my previous post on the films problems/inaccuracies HERE) and I also hope that it will galvanize you to learn more on the Earl of Oxford and why he is the most likely candidate for Shakespeare, in my opinion. Once you discover the facts, of which there are too many to include here in a mini-article, it will be hard for you to believe that William Shakespeare was anything more that a front man for the works, employed by De Vere.
Many people ask me if I believe in any Tudor or Elizabethan conspiracy theories. Let me be clear: I do not subscribe to any of them. The "authorship controversy" would be the only thing that could come remotely close to being categorized by others as a conspiracy theory; however, to me it is more a historical misunderstanding than anything else, not some great, epic cover up in order to protect the crowns secrets, as the new film Anonymous suggests!
I am in good company; The De Vere Society, among other societies of literary, legal, and 16th century academics are dedicated to proving the Earl of Oxfords authorship. And early 20th century game changers like Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain, though by no means the first to be suspicious about lowly William Shakespeare being the true author of the plays, did bring great attention to the idea that the Earl of Oxford is a more likely candidate.
The traditionally accepted Shakespeare, or Shaksper, as it is spelled in some written records, (and how I will refer to him hear, for clarity) was born in 1564, attended grammar school, traveled to London in 1580, and died in 1616. Church records detail his marriage and his children’s baptisms, and financial records show him to be a significantly wealthy moneylender. Legal documents from 1612 recorded a deposition in court from Shaksper. However, no evidence exists anywhere of a higher education and no letters to or from this supposed great literary figure have ever been found. If you had received a letter from the great Shaksper, wouldn’t you save his signature? Even more surprisingly, no books or manuscripts were listed in his will. No contemporary referred to him as a writer of any sort, and no one dedicated any works to him, which was a common homage of respect and admiration in 16th century literary circles. His physician son-in-law referred in his notes to knowing another author of the time, but never once mentioned his own father-in-law as a literary genius!
In 1550, Edward de Vere, later the Earl of Oxford, was being educated by private tutors and subsequently graduated from the two premiere institutions in England, Cambridge and Oxford Universities, all by the tender age of 16! He was a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisor, William Cecil. In 1571 he was married to Cecil’s daughter, Anne, although they did not like one another and Anne would later be under suspicion of infidelity, and the paternity of one of her children questioned. Oxford had an affair with the 'interesting in her own right' Anne Vavasour, and an illegitimate son. 

The joint tomb of Edward de Vere's wife, Anne Cecil, and her mother, Mildred Cooke-Cecil in Westminster Abbey. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

 Like so many of Shakespeare’s characters, Oxford had credentials as a favorite in the queen’s court (although this in no way insinuates a romantic relationship, as the new movie suggests!) and he was known to possess the most celebrated talents a nobleman could have: being an accomplished dancer, champion jouster, a participator in court masques, and an unusually sharp dresser! 

The Earl of Oxford was the Lord Great Chamberlain of England; he is depicted here bearing the Sword of State in front of Queen Elizabeth I. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

He was a known writer of poetry that pleased the queen and her court, and it was once said that he was a man who “shaketh like a spear”. The atmosphere in which Oxford resided made him knowledgeable in tournaments, armor, and court customs, and he helped to facilitate the planning of court entertainment for the queen. These are things Shakper of Avon could only have guessed at, especially with no library of his own to speak of!

A detail of a portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1575 Oxford traveled to the European continent, visiting many places mentioned in Shakespeare’s stories, such as Venice and Verona. William Shaksper, on the other hand, never left England.  There are written records of Oxford receiving a 1000 pound grant each year from the queen beginning in 1586, which was an unusually large sum for any courtier. Interestingly, James Stuart, Elizabeth’s successor, continued Oxfords annuity, again with no explanation. Oxford would die a year after his queen, in 1604, with no will and according to my research, his resting place is still unknown. (However, if anyone has knowledge of where he has been buried, I would be interested to know!)

A portrait of Anne Vavasour, Edward de Vere's mistress and the mother of his only son. She was also the longtime live-in love of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth's tournament champion and commissioner of the Ditchley portrait. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain. 

Proponents of the "Earl of Oxford as Shakespeare" theory, also known as Oxfordians, are able to point out many extraordinarily intimate, specific details of his life residing within the volumes of Shakespearean works. While it is true that many of Shakespeare’s plots are “lifted” from earlier stories or legends, and also histories (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear) the details are purely the authors creation. In the plays, there are characters and events that replicate the situations surrounding the Earls engagement and wedding, his involvement in the re-enactment of the Gads Hill Robbery, his mother’s hasty remarriage, his cousin Horace, his encounter with pirates, and unusual character names such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In yet one more coincidence, the book that Hamlet reads, which many scholars believe to be the epic Beowulf, only existed in printed form in one library in England at the time: William Cecil’s, Oxford’s father in-law. 

A portrait of William Cecil, Lord Bughley, in his robes for the Order of the Garter. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

It would have been political suicide for Oxford not to have used a pen name; most of the Shakespearean plays include direct commentaries, and often criticism, of political figures and policies of the time. A nobleman who was too free with his social views, especially Oxford, who already had attracted controversy for various other reasons, risked being reprimanded, banished from court, or worse. While it was not acceptable for a courtier to write anything for the playhouses, affluent men, Oxford included, could run or support theatre companies. Oxford could easily have crossed paths with Shaksper in his London residency, and paid him to be the front, or the face of his work.  The nature of their proposed relationship and much more on the Earl of Oxford and the authorship controversy is worth looking into. I hope I have sparked your interest to go and learn more!
Thoughts, dear readers?

To learn more, we recommend the following books...

Shakespeare by Another Name: A biography of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford
by Mark Andersen
First published 2005

One of the best and most popular studies on the Earl of Oxford. Andersen makes his case for Oxford as the true author of the Shakespeare canon.

De Vere as Shakespeare: An Oxfordian Reading of the Canon
By William Farina
First published 2005

Each of the Shakespearean plays and sonnets are analyzed through an Oxfordian lens, finding ties to the Earl of Oxford through references, writing style and syntax. A good read for people as interested in the literature as in the history