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Who Done Shakespeare?

March 18, 1999

The surprise movie hit of the season is Shakespeare in Love. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise. This decade has already seen more Shakespeare films than any decade in memory.

The perennial debate over who Shakespeare really was is also getting renewed attention. Time magazine recently devoted two full pages to the question, leaning toward the view that the Bard was actually Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Now an issue of Harper’s magazine has addressed the issue with a long special section. Ten scholars join battle; five argue for William of Stratford, five (including me) for Oxford. There are also excerpts from prominent doubters of the past (Emerson, Whitman, Mark Twain, Freud, Charlie Chaplin), with an eloquent introductory essay by the editor, Lewis Lapham.

The orthodox scholars, who dominate the universities, wish the whole authorship question would go away. William’s defenders in this debate insist that there’s really nothing to debate. William’s authorship is an absolute; anyone who doubts it, in their minds, is twisted and evil.

Gail Kern Paster, of George Washington University, calls such doubts “bardolatry for paranoids.” She condemns “the ugly social denial at the heart of the Oxfordian pursuit.” She describes Oxford’s partisans as “ferociously snobbish.”

Let’s see. Oxford’s partisans must be snobs and paranoids, as is proved by the fact that they believe Oxford is the author; therefore Oxford can’t be the author, since his partisans are snobs and paranoids. Only in an English department would this sort of thing pass for an argument.

Jonathan Bate of the University of Liverpool denounces “the Oxfordians’ cloak-and-dagger mentality,” but he proceeds to get some basic facts wrong. He says William “anglicized” the name of Amleth, prince of Denmark, to Hamlet — “a distinctive Warwickshire name” — and also “named his own son after his old friend Hamlet Sadler.”

All very learned, but all wrong. Sadler’s name — and William’s son’s name — was “Hamnet,” not Hamlet. And the name Amleth had been “anglicized” (by a French writer!) long before William could have written the play. The play has nothing to do with William’s son.

Harold Bloom of Yale, author of the best-selling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says flatly that “Oxfordians are the sub-literary equivalent of the sub-religious Scientologists. You don’t want to argue with them, as they are dogmatic and abusive.” After this touching plea for tolerance and civility, he proceeds to speak of “the Oxford lunacy.”

Professor Bloom is quite a character; he’s the only celebrity among the Harper’s contributors. True to form, he takes every reference to Shakespeare as an invitation to discuss his favorite subject, which may be gleaned from the fact that he uses the words I, me, and my more than the other nine contributors combined. If he were to meet Shakespeare, Shakespeare wouldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bloom can’t bring himself to tackle the specific question at hand: whether the Shakespeare Sonnets tell us anything about their real author. In fact, they tell us plenty — the poet is aging (“my days are past the best”), “lame,” of “high birth,” trained in law; he’s also a public figure who has fallen into “poverty” and “disgrace,” and hopes his name will be “buried” and “forgotten” after his death. He may also be bisexual.

All this fits Oxford to a T. Hardly any of it can be stretched to fit William of Stratford. And it fits Oxford even better when you realize that the first 17 sonnets were probably written to urge the young, handsome Earl of Southampton to marry: the girl he was being pushed to marry was Elizabeth Vere, Oxford’s daughter.

What it comes to is that a good many “experts” simply don’t know what they’re talking about. They literally don’t know who Shakespeare was, they don’t want to know, and they resent it when the question is even asked.

Can this debate ever be resolved? I think so. If a lost work by “Shakespeare” turned up, it might bear evidence of Oxford’s hand. And I believe I’ve found at least one such orphaned work, lying in plain sight but overlooked by the “experts” for 400 years.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 1999 by the Universal Press Syndicate