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Shakespeare and DNA

March 8, 2001

As I keep saying, the Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespeare works. Let’s approach the question from a new angle.

The Shakespeare authorship debate can be distilled to one central point. The champions of William of Stratford rely on testimony that he was the author. The champions of Oxford rely on circumstantial evidence: the internal evidence of the plays and poems, suggesting a man who fits Oxford’s unique profile — a courtier, trained in the law, who had visited Italy, was lame and probably bisexual, among other things. The Sonnets tell us that the poet was a public figure who had fallen into disgrace, as Oxford had.

William’s champions argue that all the testimony favors William and that this is conclusive. It isn’t. Testimony can be false; circumstantial evidence is very hard to fake.

The author himself gave his name as “William Shakespeare” in his 1593 dedication to Venus and Adonis. Later this name appeared on the published plays. Contemporary praise of “Shakespeare” never specified just who he was or where he came from. In 1623, when the plays were collected into one volume, “Shakespeare” was positively identified, for the first and only time, with the man from Stratford. So the testimony is far from overwhelming. If “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym, the witnesses could have been misleading the public to protect the author’s real identity.

[Breaker quote: A new 
approach to the authorship question]It was centuries before readers began examining the works for circumstantial evidence, clues no Elizabethan author would have planted deliberately. To appreciate the force of this evidence, we should think of fingerprints and DNA. Detection discovered fingerprints only in the nineteenth century, and DNA evidence was discovered only in our own time. These two forms of evidence are powerful because a suspect may not even be aware that he is leaving them. They are involuntary self-revelations, so individualizing that coincidence is virtually impossible.

Involuntary evidence trumps testimony. When a witness makes a statement, all you really know is that he wants you to believe it; you don’t know that it’s true. And witnesses may contradict each other. But fingerprints and DNA can’t be contradicted. Nobody can forge another man’s fingerprints and DNA code.

In other words, William has the witnesses (though not many), but the literary DNA evidence, so to speak, favors Oxford. Oxford, then, was the author.

Turn the case around. Suppose the plays and poems had borne Oxford’s name and witnesses attested his authorship, and that nobody had questioned this for centuries. Then suppose that the author’s unconscious self-revelations in those works — the literary DNA — matched what we knew of William’s life, but not Oxford’s. In that case we’d have to conclude that William, not Oxford, was the author.

In other words, if William hadn’t been identified as the author in the first place — if the works had been published anonymously, or under another name — nothing in the literary DNA would ever have led anyone to think he wrote the works. The case for his authorship rests completely on testimony, which by its nature can never be conclusive.

But why would Oxford conceal his authorship? Why didn’t those who knew the truth expose it earlier? How could so many people be fooled?

These are all important questions, but they are secondary. The DNA matches Oxford. However we explain it, that is the fact. We may never have a full explanation, but that remains the fact. A fact may be baffling, but it’s still a fact.

There is no literary DNA to support William’s claim. Despite the enormous research devoted to his life by countless biographers, his champions can’t point to anything beyond a few feeble coincidences (his son’s name was Hamnet — that’s the best they can do) to link him to his supposed works.

Meanwhile, the number of links to Oxford keeps mounting as more is learned about him. A scholar named Roger Stritmatter has recently found in Oxford’s copy of the Bible that hundreds of verses cited in the plays have also been marked by Oxford. Sheer coincidence?

Oxford’s authorship also has explanatory power. Unlike the old and fruitless assumption of William’s authorship, it helps us to understand what motivated the plays and poems. It should be a source of joy to anyone who loves Hamlet.

Joseph Sobran

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