Shakespeare in Doubt

It’s an enduring riddle: Were the English language’s greatest poems and plays really written by William Shakespeare, an unschooled butcher’s boy from Stratford-on-Avon? Such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sir John Gielgud have long wondered. Popular alternatives over the centuries have included Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe or, in more recent years, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Indeed, Sigmund Freud summed up many people’s view in 1927 when he wrote, “The man of Stratford seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything.”

Nobody, including Shakespeare (1564-1616), ever wrote anything in letters suggesting that he was a writer. No record, not even Shakespeare’s will, points to his owning or using a single book. De Vere (1550-1604), however, graduated Cambridge at 14 and studied law. In a speech, a scholar once said to de Vere: “thine eyes flash fire, thy will shakes spears (The Earl of Oxford’s coat-of-arms bears a lion shaking a spear).” The Earl had also traveled to Italy (the site of many of the plays), and knew court life intimately. Moreover, the details of Hamlet are strikingly similar to those of his own life.

Since 1992, defenders of “the Oxford school” have increased as the result of a study of de Vere’s Bible. Of the 1,000 verses underlined by the earl, 200 demonstrate probable or possible influence in the Shakespeare canon.

One important question is that of motive: If de Vere did actually write the plays and poetry, why did he conceal his identity? One answer might be that during the Renaissance, courtiers weren’t allowed to publish poetry. Furthermore, the Bard’s often unflattering portrayals of royalty could have put him in jeopardy.

The de Vere theory has its problems, though, among them the fact that de Vere died in 1604–too early, some say, to have written King Lear, The Tempest, and others. After four centuries, the identity of the man who wrote, “to thine own self be true” remains in doubt.



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