Giving Away the
November 25, 1999
years now Ive been involved in the bitterest, bloodiest
protracted combat this side of the former Yugoslavia. I refer to the
Shakespeare authorship controversy.
The poet we call
Shakespeare was not the legendary William of Stratford,
but the 17th Earl of Oxford; and two years ago, in my book Alias Shakespeare, I showed how
Oxfords eventful, troubled life is reflected in the Shakespeare
works, especially the Sonnets. If William of Stratford were the author, we
should expect these works to reflect Williams life rather than
The current issue of The Shakespeare
Quarterly contains a long attack on Alias Shakespeare
by Professor Alan H. Nelson of Berkeley, who is writing a biography of
Oxford. He denies that Oxford was Shakespeare. He also accuses my book of
many small factual errors, though he fails to show that they are relevant
to the authorship debate. Mistaking quibbling pedantry for superior
scholarship, his review is an extended non sequitur.
What makes this review downright funny
is that Nelson, without realizing what he is saying, actually concedes the
authorship debate to Oxford!
In my book I cited hundreds of
correspondences between the contents of the Shakespeare works and
Oxfords life. For example, Oxford spent a year in Italy around 1576;
many of the plays The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of
Venice, Othello, and others are set in cities Oxford visited.
These plays show a close knowledge of Italian laws, customs, idioms,
events, and other things only a visitor to the country would be likely to
know. Oxford had this specific background; William of Stratford
apparently never left England.
Nelson retorts that it is not impossible
that [William] traveled to Italy perhaps in a company of
players. Yes, its possible or not
impossible. With not impossible and
perhaps, you can prove anything, however improbable, for
which there is no positive evidence. The fact remains that we have no
reason to believe William ever laid eyes on Italy, unless we assume his
authorship to begin with and even then, perhaps and
not impossible are feeble arguments.
The Sonnets are Shakespeares
only work written in the first person and apparently disclosing things
about his personal life. We gather that hes a man of some rank, a
public figure who has fallen into disgrace with fortune and
mens eyes; he also seems to be trained in the law, aging,
and lame. All this fits Oxford to a T. He studied law at
Grays Inn, led a scandalous life, wasted his family fortune, and
was in his forties (14 years older than William) when the Sonnets were
probably written in the 1590s. In several letters Oxford described himself
One fact, by itself, almost clinches the
case for Oxford. The first 17 Sonnets urge a young nobleman to marry; the
young Earl of Southampton, to whom these Sonnets seem to be addressed,
was then being urged to marry Oxfords oldest daughter!
So the evidence of the poets own
words points to Oxford; much of it clearly doesnt fit what we know
of Williams life.
How does Nelson answer all this? Again
he resorts to the not impossible argument. The
Sonnets, he writes, may bear a distinct relationship to
what we do not know (which must be vastly more than what we know); nor
are they by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is
known [about William].
Deaf to his own words, Nelson appeals to
purely hypothetical documents as the proof of Williams authorship,
tacitly conceding that the existing documents favor Oxford! In effect he is
saying: Despite appearances to the contrary, I believe we could
connect William with the Sonnets, if only we had fuller records of his life.
Oxford appears to be Shakespeare only because we know so little about
In other words, Nelson admits that the
case for William depends on evidence that doesnt exist! He makes
the dogmatic assumption that fuller records would (somehow) prove
Williams authorship, thus begging the whole question.
For good measure, Nelson surmises
(without evidence) that William was prematurely balding by
1594, and that this could help explain the Sonnets. It says something
about the current state of Shakespeare studies that such eccentricity can
pass for scholarship.
Archive Table of Contents
The Shakespeare Library