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 The Queer Bard? 

August 30, 2005 
I always feel a bit less alone in the universe whenever the New York Times addresses my concerns. On August 30, the Paper of Record noted the publication of several recent books about Shakespeare, including a new biography of the Today's column is "The Queer Bard?" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.man I’m convinced was the real author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550–1604). Oxford was known in his own time as a literary genius but a mighty eccentric man.

Since 1623, when the famous First Folio of the plays identified the wrong guy as the author, most would-be biographers have believed in the literal truth of the claim. I like to call this credulity “First Folio Fundamentalism.”

The Stratford man’s name was actually “Shakspere,” just close enough to Oxford’s pen name to allow him to be passed off as the Bard. Mr. Shakspere himself never even claimed to be a writer. But seven years after he died, Oxford’s friends, including his son-in-law the Earl of Montgomery, respecting his desire for secrecy, found Mr. Shakspere a useful front man. So he became, posthumously, the most famous Englishman who ever lived. It would have surprised him very much. He has achieved literary immortality through no fault of his own.

Mr. Shakspere died in 1616. Nobody in London seems to have noted his passing, which is inexplicable if he was the city’s greatest poet and most popular playwright. Why would they wait seven years before saluting him?

Mr. Shakspere’s own will, “signed” with almost illegible scrawls, shows that he hardly expected to be remembered at all. He mentions no plays, poems, manuscripts, or even books he may have owned. There isn’t the faintest indication of a writing career, let alone an expectation of posthumous glory. He leaves small tokens to three of his “fellows,” actors, but doesn’t mention (say) Ben Jonson, who later claimed to have been his friend, or any other literary figure. Nor does he mention any of his three supposed patrons, all of whom have been linked to Oxford’s three daughters.

The Folio-thumpers can’t explain how Mr. Shakspere could be the author of the Sonnets. In the first 126 of these, addressed lovingly to a “lovely boy,” we learn that the Bard was considerably older than Mr. Shakspere. Writing in the 1590s, when Mr. Shakspere was in his early thirties, he worries about being “old” and “in disgrace”: his life is on the skids, and his reputation is ruined. He is even “lame,” and evidently bisexual. All this perfectly matches everything we know about Oxford. He had plenty of reasons to conceal his identity behind a pen name.

[Breaker quote for The Queer Bard?: Mr. Shakspere wasn't "Shakespeare."]Creative writers always leave traces of themselves in their work; this is what makes literary biographies so fascinating. But we can’t find any traces of Mr. Shakspere in the works the First Folio attributes to him; this is what makes his countless biographies so uniformly boring.

It’s not that we know so little about him; on the contrary, we know too much about him. Over more than two centuries, diligent researchers have dug up dozens of records of his life. If he were the Bard, some detail, somewhere, would have turned up to confirm it. But nothing does.

By contrast, as Mark Anderson’s new biography of Edward de Vere shows, new details keep showing that the scandal-haunted Oxford was in all likelihood the Bard. When you know that Oxford was accused of such vices as “buggering boys,” you can appreciate why he might have to be, well, discreet.

Was the real “Shakespeare” a child molester? Heavens! I don’t like the idea myself, but it may be close to the heart of the mystery. When Oxford was first named as the Bard in 1920, the question could hardly be discussed in print.

Today, however, the strong hints of homosexuality in the Sonnets are getting the attention they deserve. Squeamishness on the subject is pretty much a thing of the past. All that remains is to connect the Sonnets to the troubled man who actually wrote them. He was an embarrassment even to those who loved and admired him. They agreed to keep his secret even after he was dead, and they saw that the innocuous Mr. Shakspere, when he too was dead, might serve their purpose.

We can sum up the case by adapting a slogan of our own time: He’s here, he’s queer, he’s Edward de Vere!

Joseph Sobran

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