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 Shakespeare’s 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 didn’t weaken my belief — my blind faith, actually — in his authorship.

What about those who said the real author was someone else? I didn’t 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 convert’s 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 Japanese.

Oxford’s 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.

[Breaker quote: Highly suggestive evidence]In 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 doesn’t seem to have known any of them. Could the most brilliant writer of the Elizabethan age have escaped all contact with his literary contemporaries?

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 Oxford’s pal. Edmund Spenser, the most esteemed poet of the time, was Oxford’s 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 London’s 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 Oxford’s 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 Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth. The posthumous collected plays of Shakespeare were dedicated to the Herbert brothers, earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. Pembroke nearly married Oxford’s daughter Bridget, and Montgomery did marry his daughter Susan. So Oxford could easily have become the father-in-law of all three of Shakespeare’s known dedicatees!

For good measure, the great Lord Burghley, the queen’s 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 wasn’t), would be likely to know such things about his private life. He was Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law; relations between the two men were often strained, which may explain why Polonius is drawn so unflatteringly.

Oxford’s social life doesn’t in itself prove his authorship, but as Sherlock Holmes might say, “It is highly suggestive, Watson, is it not?”

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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