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Whose Testimony?

April 17, 2001

This is April, the month “Shakespeare” was born. The generally accepted author, William Shakspere (as the family name was usually spelled), was born around April 23, 1564. The real author, Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, was born on April 12, 1550.

Shakespeare lovers still debate about which of these men, William or Oxford, was the real author. My own book about the authorship question, Alias Shakespeare, is about to be published across the Atlantic in a German translation. It’s about time I got some international acclaim.

My contention has always been that the solution to the mystery lies in the Shakespeare Sonnets, published in 1609. There the poet tells a lot about himself: he’s a public figure of high birth, but is over the hill, out of money, lame, and in disgrace. All this matches Oxford, one of the most scandalous figures of his day. It doesn’t describe William, who was young, obscure, prosperous, and never notorious for anything.

Moreover, the poet tells a young man, almost surely the third earl of Southampton, that it’s time for the youth to get married and beget an heir. Why William would care whether Southampton got married is anyone’s guess, but Oxford had an excellent reason: Southampton was under pressure to marry Oxford’s daughter!

Yet William was identified as the author “Shakespeare” by several acquaintances in the 1623 Folio edition of the plays, and for the last three centuries all Shakespeare biographers have taken the Folio testimony as dogma. Unquestionable. Beyond doubt. Documentary proof. Solid fact.

But what if the Folio testimony was meant to mislead the public? Not a chance, say the professional scholars. It’s dogma, you see.

But what if the Folio testimony conflicts with the poet’s own testimony about himself in the Sonnets? Never mind, say the scholars. The Sonnets may be fictional.

[Breaker quote: How 
Shakespeare scholars ignore the star witness]Well, they certainly don’t sound “fictional” at all. The great critic A.C. Bradley, quoted in my book, settled that question long ago. Not only are the Sonnets palpably sincere; if they tell a fictional story, they tell it with a clumsy incompetence that is totally out of character for the author of Romeo and Juliet and Othello. They have the jaggedness of fact.

Here we have a curious situation. In the minds of the scholars, the Folio testimony continues to trump the poet’s testimony. It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? You’d think what the great poet said about himself to his intimates, in his own matchless eloquence, would take priority over what others said about him for public consumption years after his death.

The great majority of the Sonnets are addressed to the “lovely boy”; only a few are written to the more famous dark mistress. The ones to the youth allude to painful facts in the poet’s life which the youth would have known already; there is little chance of deception. Unlike the Folio testimony for William, these poems couldn’t have been designed to fool the public — and they seem not to have been intended for publication.

In fact the poet says he hopes “my name [will] be buried where my body is.” How could he mean that, if “William Shakespeare,” already appearing on popular and celebrated works, was his real name? The Folio testimony doesn’t explain the Sonnets (which were omitted from the Folio); but the Sonnets may explain why the Folio testimony was necessary — to keep Oxford’s identity “buried.”

In short, the scholars never even consider the possibility that the Folio testimony, rather than the Sonnets, may be “fictional.” They base their conviction that William of Stratford was “Shakespeare” not on what the poet says about himself, but on what was said about him by others in implicit contradiction of his own heartfelt words.

By taking the Folio testimony instead of the Sonnets as their crucial document, the scholars have made their naive faith in the Folio witnesses a methodological postulate, which requires them to discount any conflicting evidence. Common sense would seem to dictate that the poet’s biography begin, at least, with his autobiographical poems — and if what these poems tell us conflicts with the Folio testimony, so much the worse for that testimony.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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