Shakespeares Social Life
April 17, 2003
Overlooked in the hubbub last week was the
birthday of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who was born on April 12,
1550. As you may know by now, Oxford wrote the plays and poems we read
under the name of William Shakespeare.
There was a man named William
Shakespeare, or Shakspere, of Stratford upon Avon. For most of my life I
accepted the traditional belief that he was the author. I eagerly read every
biography I could find, hoping for some insight into the connection
between the man and his works. I was disappointed every time, but that
didnt weaken my belief my blind faith, actually in
What about those who said the
real author was someone else? I didnt even want to hear their
arguments. I wrote them off as cranks and snobs, without knowing what
they had to say. But as soon as I finally listened to them, my lifelong
prejudice was smashed. I was overwhelmed by the case for Oxford. Soon,
with a converts zeal, I was writing my own book making the case
for Oxford. It was published in 1997 under the title Alias
Shakespeare, and has since been translated into German and
Oxfords life and personal
letters are echoed in the Shakespeare works in hundreds of ways.
Everything I sought in the conventional biographies is there: the specific
links between the man and the work.
Everything we know about
William of Stratford can be written on a single sheet of paper
mostly records of his mundane business dealings, which have nothing to do
with the plays and poems. Nothing in those records suggests a literary
man, let alone a man of genius.
fact, the oddest thing about his life (if you assume he was the author) is
his apparent social isolation. He spent some years in London, and yet
though the city was teeming with brilliant writers he
doesnt seem to have known any of them. Could the most brilliant
writer of the Elizabethan age have escaped all contact with his literary
The sole exception is Ben Jonson,
who claimed to have known and loved Shakespeare. But
Jonson made this claim many years later, long after William was dead, and
his testimony is suspicious on many counts.
By contrast, Oxford personally
knew many of the writers Shakespeare should have known.
He was also a patron of the arts and the theater. The novelist-playwright
John Lyly and the sonneteer Thomas Watson were in his employ; both
dedicated books to him, as did Robert Greene, the brilliant playwright and
pamphleteer. Thomas Nashe, another
playwright-poet-novelist-pamphleteer, was Oxfords pal. Edmund
Spenser, the most esteemed poet of the time, was Oxfords warm
friend and admirer; the admiration was mutual. Oxford was also a cousin
of Francis Bacon, the philosopher and essayist.
In short, Oxford was in the thick
of Elizabethan Londons vibrant literary life. Those who knew him
and his work had only the highest praise for his literary genius. Spenser
called him most dear to the Muses.
Two of Oxfords uncles,
Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey) and Arthur Golding, were poets and
translators who are known to have been among the chief literary
influences on Shakespeare. Golding dedicated two books to Oxford.
The first two works published
under the name of Shakespeare were dedicated to the third Earl of
Southampton, who nearly married Oxfords daughter Elizabeth. The
posthumous collected plays of Shakespeare were dedicated to the Herbert
brothers, earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. Pembroke nearly married
Oxfords daughter Bridget, and Montgomery did marry his daughter
Susan. So Oxford could easily have become the father-in-law of all three
of Shakespeares known dedicatees!
For good measure, the great Lord
Burghley, the queens powerful Lord Treasurer, is almost surely the
model for Polonius in Hamlet. Like Polonius, he sent a spy to
watch his playboy son in Paris. Only someone close to him, as Oxford was
(and William wasnt), would be likely to know such things about his
private life. He was Oxfords guardian and father-in-law; relations
between the two men were often strained, which may explain why
Polonius is drawn so unflatteringly.
Oxfords social life
doesnt in itself prove his authorship, but as Sherlock Holmes might
say, It is highly suggestive, Watson, is it not?