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How Old Was Oxford’s Daughter, and When Did William Lose His Hair?
A reply to Alan Nelson

by Joseph Sobran

Alan H. Nelson’s review of my book Alias Shakespeare, in the Fall 1999 issue of The Shakespeare Quarterly, actually reviews two books: the one I wrote, and the one I didn’t write.

The one I wrote argues that the Shakespeare works were actually written by Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, not the legendary William of Stratford; and that the strongest evidence of Oxford’s authorship lies in the Shakespeare works themselves, particularly the Sonnets. Any refutation of the book I actually wrote must therefore concentrate on my reading of the Sonnets.

Oxford’s supporters may be pleased to learn that Professor Nelson, without realizing it, makes fatal concessions to my thesis in the very act of trying to refute it. Gail Kern Paster, editor of The Shakespeare Quarterly and extremely scornful of the “authorship question,” surely didn’t realize what Nelson was giving to the enemy either, or she would never have agreed to publish his review. More on this later.

But let me deal with the unwritten book first. Nelson notes that I (1) am “not a scholar,” (2) don’t claim to be, (3) have done “little or no original research,” and (4) make about ten factual errors in my book. Yet he immediately forgets that the book is a polemic and judges it harshly as what it is not: a work of research. Most of the inaccuracies he notes occur in a single chapter, a biographical sketch of Oxford; they are incidental to my argument. In the end Nelson sneers that I’m a “would-be literary historian,” thus dismissing another claim I don’t make.

True, I don’t pretend to be a scholar; I have no credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree and an English major. But in my view the balance of nature requires that some of us nonscholars be able to detect fraudulent scholarship. That is what Alias Shakespeare is meant to do.

Bogus scholarship is especially rife in academic Shakespeare studies, which are based on the dubious dogma that William of Stratford was, beyond doubt, the poet-dramatist we call “Shakespeare.” The scholars, their reputations at stake, can’t afford to admit that there is any question whatsoever about this. Alias Shakespeare tries to show how badly they have erred in their own field, by belittling and ignoring ample evidence that William didn’t write the Shakespeare works — and that Oxford did. They literally don’t know the first thing about their subject: who he was.

With Stalinist discipline, the academic party line requires William’s partisans to deny that there is any room for reasonable doubt of William’s claim (or rather, the claim made for him, which he may never have made himself), and to insist that those who do doubt his claim have never, in more than a century of controversy, raised a single valid point. Contrary evidence must be belittled or ignored, at whatever cost in logic. Nothing may be conceded to the enemy, whose slightest blunder must be magnified into proof of his total incompetence. Nelson’s review of Alias Shakespeare satisfies all these requirements, charging me with “amateurism” and “junk scholarship,” among other things.

Nelson, himself a scholar who has done valuable research on Oxford, faults me, with heavy sarcasm, on such factual matters as Oxford’s eldest daughter’s age, the time of his mother’s remarriage, his military service, and the cause of his death. It may be that Nelson is correct on all these things — I’m perfectly willing to defer to his specialized knowledge — but none of them are more than marginally relevant to the Shakespeare authorship question. He specializes in pedantic nit-picking, or what might be called “Gotcha!” scholarship — as if a mistake about Oxford’s hat size would defeat any case for Oxford’s authorship.

As Nelson says, Alias Shakespeare relies “on the published or unpublished efforts of others (including myself) — [which are] minimally acknowledged.” He sounds miffed that I didn’t give him more credit. Actually, I wrote in my acknowledgments: “Alan Nelson of Berkeley has shared his precious discoveries with equal generosity.” Did he expect to be credited with co-authorship?

I was indebted to Nelson chiefly for copies of a few letters of Oxford, one of which is quoted in Alias Shakespeare. My gratitude to him was (and is) sincere. But this was not, in truth, a great debt, though he may prefer to think otherwise.

More specifically, I had deep reservations about Nelson’s judgment concerning his own discoveries. I’ve known him for some years. Time and again he’d unearth a fascinating document, only to make outlandish inferences from it. He was quick to embrace the idea that Oxford was bisexual, but he seemed to regard this as something to discredit Oxford with, rather than a detail to be disinterestedly assimilated to a fuller picture. In a debate with me in Seattle a few years ago, he proffered an eccentric theory that (as I understood him) Oxford didn’t hear very well and consequently had no ear for poetry. He seemed driven not to explain Oxford, but to explain him away. Alan always struck me as a pleasant fellow, but a little confused. A certain amount of research is indispensable, but like the rest of us the scholar must also possess literacy, logic, comprehension, presence of mind,
fair-mindedness, and simple common sense.

For the purposes of Alias Shakespeare, I generally relied on B. M. Ward’s 1928 biography of Oxford — still the only one available — for the facts from which I argued. Another biography, correcting Ward’s mistakes and incorporating recent discoveries, is long overdue; Nelson himself is writing a new one, and it may improve on Ward, unless, as I apprehend, it’s warped by Nelson’s uncontrollable hostility to Oxford.

But Alias Shakespeare isn’t a biography. It is, obviously, an entirely different sort of book, a frankly argumentative book, using what were (apparently) undisputed facts as my starting point. If Ward erred here and there, Nelson’s snide remarks should have been directed at Ward, not me. Even so, Ward is generally solid. If he committed only ten small errors in his whole book, he did well, as biographers go; as we shall see, there is little reason for confidence that Nelson will do better. At any rate, I fail to see how I can be blamed for trusting Ward on the essential facts, where he seldom goes wrong, even on Nelson’s hypercritical showing.

Capitalizing on Ward’s scattered errors (while disingenuously ascribing them to me), Nelson adopts a supercilious pose of near-omniscience about Oxford. Yet he makes no attempt to show that these errors vitiate my argument. It doesn’t depend on them; I’d have made exactly the same argument from the facts as Nelson would have them. What difference does Oxford’s daughter’s age (whether she was fourteen or fifteen in 1590) make to the question of whether Oxford wrote the Sonnets? Nelson offers no explanation. He can’t see that such details aren’t germane to the authorship debate, as I tried — apparently without success — to explain to him in Seattle.

By shuttling between my argument and his own rather catty factual quibbles, Nelson makes his review of Alias Shakespeare an extended non sequitur. Like most academic scholars confronting anti-Stratfordian arguments, he avoids a genuine debate by framing the dispute as one between competent professional scholars (such as himself) and hopelessly incompetent amateurs. The reader is invited to assume that it’s inconceivable that the experts could be wrong and the amateurs right.

Perhaps understandably, Nelson wants to evaluate Alias Shakespeare in terms of his own specialty rather than the book’s avowed purpose. As a researcher, he’s inclined to insist that original research is essential even when it clearly isn’t. But his harping on minutiae may signify no more than a normal human desire to see one’s own occupation as indispensable; and scholars are notoriously self-important. What is less innocuous is Nelson’s evident feeling that his special knowledge of Oxford’s life from primary sources makes him Oxford’s most authoritative (and severest) judge. He seems to regard the differing judgments of others, less informed than he is, as somewhat impudent, and any praise of Oxford annoys him.

Nelson’s eagerness to disparage his subject doesn’t suggest the ideal temperament for a biographer. He says cynically that Oxford’s high literary reputation in his own time “rested more on rank than on talent.” He doesn’t tell us how he knows the copious contemporary praise of Oxford was insincere, but his assertion implies that the many men who generously praised Oxford, including Edmund Spenser, were all toadies. Nelson also says that Oxford’s high reputation was “nowhere memorialized until 1622” — though in fact it had been affirmed in print many times by 1598.

Nelson is determined not to give Oxford credit for anything, let alone for being Shakespeare. His scholarship is further flawed by his inability to distinguish between a criticism and an insult. Thus he dismisses Oxford’s elegant 1573 letter to Thomas Bedingfield as “a dense thicket of literary banality,” as if his personal opinion (which I find tin-eared) constituted objective evidence of Oxford’s lack of talent.

Uninhibited by intellectual rigor, Nelson insinuates that to detect factual flaws in Alias Shakespeare, however minor, is to disprove Oxford’s authorship. A logician he is not. He even has trouble stating my argument accurately, reducing it to his own coarse paraphrases. He says I charge that Ben Jonson “lied through his teeth” in the First Folio and, even more preposterously, that I accuse Jonson of being “bribed” to do so. What I actually wrote is very different.

Of course I think Jonson must have been a knowing party to the Folio’s concealment of Oxford’s authorship; but I never charge him with a culpable lie on that account. I merely think he, and Oxford’s other friends, were respecting Oxford’s own wishes for posthumous privacy. As I wrote: “Pembroke gave Ben Jonson generous patronage and no doubt did a good deal to arrange his appointment as poet laureate; he of all men was in a position to secure Jonson’s cooperation in the fiction that William Shakspere was William Shakespeare.” To extrapolate from this benign conspiracy a charge that Jonson “lied through his teeth” and was “bribed” is a cynical reduction. But such nuances are lost on Nelson.

Nelson says the “major premise” of Alias Shakespeare is that “[a] clear relationship must necessarily exist between the works and the life of an author.” Since no such “clear relationship” (whatever that means) exists between the Shakespeare works and William of Stratford, it follows (according to Nelson’s account of my reasoning) that William wasn’t the author.

Nelson quips that whoever the author was, he couldn’t have had “first-hand experience” of ancient Rome or the Trojan War; as if I’d made the absurd contention that everything in the Shakespeare works, including ghosts and witches, “must necessarily” correspond to something in the real author’s life.

But of course I don’t hold the simple-minded “major premise” Nelson attributes to me. I have no idea what he thinks he’s paraphrasing when he represents this sloppy syllogism as my view. I must say it’s tedious to have to keep saying what I actually wrote, as opposed to what Nelson says I wrote. A competent book reviewer (not to mention a scholar) should be able to summarize a book’s contents with dispassionate accuracy.

Nevertheless (and we now come to the book I did write), I assume that authors often do disclose something of themselves in their fictions. Literary biographies of writers, from Dante to Hemingway, have sought to show how their works were inspired, shaped, and colored by their personal lives.

Can this be done for Shakespeare? I think so, and I think we have enough evidence in the works themselves to make a powerful case that Oxford was the author, not because those works “must necessarily” (as a universal a priori truth) disclose their authorship, but because, as it happens in this particular instance, they actually do so.

None of the countless biographers of William have ever shown from the internal evidence of the works that there is any reason, apart from external testimony, to believe William wrote them. They merely insist that the external testimony is conclusive, though many distinguished writers and actors — Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy, Sigmund Freud, Clifton Fadiman, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi — have found it incredible.

My real major “premise” is that if the Shakespeare works seem to reflect Oxford’s life, letters, experience, and personality, while totally lacking similar resemblances to William of Stratford, we may fairly suspect that Oxford was the real author. The disparity in probability between Oxford and William is overwhelming: the case for Oxford’s authorship can be found in the Shakespeare works, especially the Sonnets, whereas the case for William’s authorship rests entirely on testimony. After all, testimony (such as that of the Folio) may be purposely false or misleading. The author’s self-disclosures, especially if they are as oblique as those of the Sonnets (which have no need to identify the author directly, since they address a reader who already knows him intimately), are likely to be more trustworthy.

Oxford’s champions always appeal to the Shakespeare works; William’s champions rarely do. I once asked an academic scholar how, if those works had been published anonymously, he would prove William’s authorship; he had no answer. How could he? If the Shakespeare works hadn’t been ascribed to William in the first place, nothing within them would ever have led anyone to suspect that William had written them. If, on the other hand, they had been ascribed to Oxford by the 1623 Folio, nobody would ever have doubted Oxford’s authorship. The works fit his profile as closely as Paradise Lost fits Milton’s.

Setting aside the Sonnets for a moment, a good case for Oxford’s authorship can be made from Hamlet alone. The play reflects several events and persons in Oxford’s life, chiefly in Polonius and his children, who strongly resemble Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Burghley, Burghley’s daughter (Oxford’s pathetic wife), and Burghley’s two sons. The author knew a good deal about Burghley’s family life, as Oxford did and William couldn’t. The play also echoes Oxford’s letters in ways Nelson has failed to notice: one of those letters complains of “the delay of the law,” and another refers to the “proverb” about the silly horse that starves while waiting for the grass to grow. The verdict of Se defendendo in an inquest into Oxford’s killing of a servant is echoed in the gravedigger’s blundering “Se offendendo.” Hamlet, like Oxford, is captured by pirates in the English Channel. Oxford probably wrote the play in late 1588, after his wife’s early death; it was first mentioned by Oxford’s friend Thomas Nashe in 1589, which orthodox scholars, inventing facts to preserve their dating system and, thereby, William’s authorship, have mistaken for an allusion to a supposed “ur-Hamlet” whose existence has never been proved, only inferred. This “ur-Hamlet” is the supreme example of the nonexistent document on which the case for William depends.

No one of these details, by itself, proves Oxford’s authorship; but collectively they gain force, especially in conjunction with other facts about Oxford. They form what John Henry Newman called “converging probabilities,” and the more of such provocative details we find, the more improbable it becomes that they are all coincidences, especially if they have explanatory power. Oxford’s long visit to Europe, for example, helps explain several Shakespeare plays set in Italy and showing intimate knowledge of the country. The names of two of Oxford’s Italian friends, Baptista Nigrone and Pasquino Spinola, appear conflated in the name of Kate the Shrew’s father, Baptista Minola.

Nelson doesn’t deny that Oxford spent a year in Italy, but he lamely counters that it is “not impossible” that William of Stratford traveled there too, “perhaps in a company of players.” With “not impossible” and “perhaps,” you can prove just about anything, however improbable, for which there is no positive evidence. We know that Oxford visited at least several of the cities in which Shakespeare plays are set; it’s extremely unlikely that William, who apparently never left England, could have seen all the same cities (let alone met Nigrone and Spinola). These and many other details that Nelson doesn’t deny point to Oxford.

There is no “must necessarily” about it. The relation between an author and his work is more indirect and subtle than that, which is why it might be hard to show from internal evidence that, say, Agatha Christie wrote the Hercule Poirot novels, and why we usually settle for the name on the title page. Aristotle cautions us against seeking more certitude than the nature of the subject admits of.

At key points Nelson falls back on the argument that if we knew more about William, his authorship would — or might — appear less improbable. He says that “perhaps” William’s life was less humdrum than it appears, and that the Sonnets “may bear a distinct relationship to what we do not know (which must be vastly more than what we know)” [my emphasis].

This is perilously close to an open admission that the known facts do favor Oxford. In other words, Nelson implies that the real case for William depends on facts that aren’t available to us. This is the substance of his argument, and it’s mighty peculiar scholarship — hardly grounds for ridiculing doubt of William’s authorship!

Why, after all, should we assume that some nonexistent documents would prove William’s claim? If his life had been more fully recorded, or if new documents were to turn up, his claim might well be rendered totally untenable. Here Nelson posits a bare possibility as a virtual fact. But “virtual” facts don’t count. In the real world, only real facts count; and Nelson should have the candor to admit that the real facts, as we have them, point to Oxford, since he implies as much when he equates the positive evidence for Oxford with purely hypothetical evidence for William. Yet he seems not to realize he has committed a fatal faux pas. Nor does Gail Kern Paster.

Nelson displays peculiarly naive “scholarship” when he asserts flatly that William was “prematurely balding” by 1594, when the earliest Sonnets were probably written. His baldness could explain why the poet “should feel old in comparison to a scarce-bearded youth of twenty- one graced with flowing locks.” There is no evidence at all for the Premature Baldness Theory, a piece of tortured speculation which must be counted as Nelson’s indubitably original contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. The poet speaks of his “lameness” and his “storm-beaten face” (“beated and chopped with tanned antiquity”), but not of losing his hair. (Oxford never went bald; but then, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la.)

As far as I know, none of William’s many biographers has ever suggested that William (who is bald in the two surviving images of him) had lost his hair by 1594. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have thought it strengthened the case that he wrote the Sonnets, or anything else. Perhaps only Nelson would rest the weight of his argument on such a suppositious item, in the face of so many facts of contrary import.

Nelson adds, just as flatly, that the Sonnets are “[not] by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known” about William. Really? Did William exaggerate his age, go broke, become a pariah, and, for good measure, affect a limp? He would have to do all these things in order to match the poet of the Sonnets. As far as we know, he did none of them.

Since my thesis about the Sonnets is the very heart of Alias Shakespeare, Nelson’s denial that the Sonnets are “impossible to reconcile” with what is known of William stands as the crucial assertion of his review. Yet he offers nothing to support it, beyond his bizarre suggestion that William’s hypothetical premature baldness might help explain the poems.

Even here, however, Nelson is only playing for a tie. He doesn’t deny that the poet’s self- portrait in the Sonnets matches Oxford; he merely says it may somehow match William just as well. We are left to wonder how. If only we had those nonexistent documents!

If William were the author, we’d expect his advocates to argue something like this: “The Sonnets match William’s known life so closely as to leave no serious doubt of his authorship. They not only don’t match what we know of Oxford’s life, they positively contradict it.” But William’s advocates never say this, for the simplest of reasons: it’s patently untrue. The Sonnets contradict William’s known life, not Oxford’s. Wherefore William’s advocates edge away from the first-person Sonnets, which you might expect them to cite eagerly as the best evidence for his claim.

As Bernard Shaw remarks somewhere, a man’s real beliefs are best inferred not from the creed he professes, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts. Though William’s academic partisans profess absolute confidence in his authorship, they habitually act on the assumption that the Sonnets are dangerous ground for their case, like an attorney who seeks to suppress evidence damaging to his client. After all, the Sonnets are real documents, as opposed to nonexistent ones.

Doggedly misstating my argument, Nelson accuses me of self-contradiction for saying both that Elizabethan and Jacobean readers “weren’t curious about authors” and that it’s significant that “in an age of effusive eulogies, nobody bothered to salute” William when he died in 1616. But eulogies to dead poets rarely supplied much information about them; they were merely occasions of praise, not biography. The point is that when William died, the poets of London didn’t behave as if “Shakespeare” had died.

For good measure, Nelson adds a hopelessly muddled paraphrase of my closing chapter, proving only that he hasn’t read Venus and Adonis — which he somehow thinks I “assume” would proclaim to the reading public its author’s homosexual leanings. The point of the alias, I suggest, was to conceal those leanings, by disguising Oxford’s love of Southampton as the devotion of a common poet — some unknown novice named “William Shakespeare” — to his patron. Reasoning with his usual rigor, Nelson thinks I “assume” that Venus would have told the public that William “was (or could have been) homosexual.” Nonsense. I assume exactly the opposite — that the reading public would suspect nothing untoward about an author whose name was obscure. I merely think Oxford wanted to avoid exposing his own association with Southampton, for fear of scandal and gossip.

Nelson doesn’t grasp that you can’t refute an opponent’s argument unless you can first state it in his own words, or words he would accept. Nor does he grasp that not all facts are equally pertinent to the argument, or that piling on irrelevant facts is precisely what distinguishes pedantry from scholarship. Even an academic scholar should appreciate the importance of simply sticking to the point.

But let us turn to what the Sonnets tell us.

The poet who speaks in the Sonnets describes himself as “old” (Oxford was in his forties, fourteen years older than William), “lame” (Oxford often described himself as “lame” and “a lame man”), “poor” (Oxford had wasted his huge fortune), and “despised” (Oxford had lived a scandalous life — the one thing Nelson is willing to give him credit for). The poet uses more than 200 legal terms, 50 of which also appear in Oxford’s letters. (He was trained in the law.)

The theme of the poet’s disgrace has been neglected by academic commentators on the Sonnets, but it’s all-important. The poet is “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”; over and over he speaks of his “shame,” his “bewailed guilt,” his “outcast state,” his “blots” and “stains,” his being “despised” and “vile esteemed,” the “vulgar scandal” he has incurred, his “name” having “received a brand,” his “infection,” “harmful deeds,” “errors,” and “abuses.” (About the only thing he never accuses himself of is baldness.) He urges his young lover to forget him after his death, and even to avoid being observed mourning him, lest the poet’s infamy harm the younger man’s reputation too. He thinks his disgrace is not only terminal, but contagious.

Apparently the poet is a public figure whose reputation has suffered some serious wound; he is obsessed with his disgrace, referring to it more than a dozen times from Sonnet 25 to Sonnet 121. After a life of scandal, Oxford was taunted about his “decayed reputation.” One amour with a young lady at court, which produced his bastard son, had landed him in the Tower of London, at the queen’s order; at about the same time, he was accused of pederasty; soon afterward he and his servitors got into violent altercations with his former mistress’s kinsmen, in one of which he was seriously wounded.

Oxford’s disgrace proved a social and pecuniary handicap, denying him respect among his peers as well as opportunities for lucrative employment, which he was reduced to begging for after his reckless depletion of his family fortune. His deep humiliation goes far toward explaining why he might conceal his authorship of any works he might publish, and why he might write poems lamenting his decline. The poet of the Sonnets looks forward to his death in the tone of a ruined man whose prospects are all bleak; he has no trace of the optimism of a young writer enjoying early success and fame, such as William, according to the orthodox account, is supposed to have been.

The poet’s despair about his reputation may be “not impossible” to reconcile with the documented life of William, but it’s up to Nelson the scholar to explain how; yet he offers not a syllable of explanation. He assumes that the reader will accept his flat “scholarly” declaration as sufficient.

Nelson does hint at a possible alternative reading of the Sonnets when he accuses me of interpreting their implied story with “supreme literalness” and failing to perceive their “hyperbole.” Here Nelson means to suggest that the poet can’t always be taken literally and that whenever he sounds like Oxford, he must be speaking figuratively. Once more, Nelson, according to his habit, gives no specific examples of my confusing the literal with the figurative; he merely hopes to plant the suspicion that all the poet’s reiterated references to his age, disgrace, lameness, poverty, et cetera, are mere rhetorical tropes. (If, on the other hand, the poet had alluded to his baldness, that would clinch the case for William!)

The poet seems to be bisexual, as he falls in love with a “lovely boy” but also has a mistress. Oxford had at least one mistress, and he was accused of “buggering boys” — a taste he was supposed to have picked up in Italy, where pederasty was rife during the Renaissance. If William was bisexual, it would of course be unlikely for any evidence of it to survive in the documents of his life; but at any rate, none has.

If, as seems certain, the youth of the Sonnets was Southampton, other things fall into place. The first seventeen Sonnets urge the beautiful youth to marry; in the early 1590s the handsome Southampton was pressured by Burghley to marry Elizabeth Vere, Oxford’s daughter. Why would William care whether Southampton married Oxford’s daughter? Like Oxford, moreover, Southampton would later be accused of homosexual behavior. The poet implies that he is old enough to be the youth’s father; Oxford was twenty-three years older than Southampton. (William was a mere nine years older.) Only a man of Oxford’s rank might speak freely to the Earl of Southampton in the loving (and sometimes scolding) tones of the Sonnets; the poet’s plea for a grandchild — “Make thee another self for love of me” (Sonnet 10) — would be inexplicable coming from William.

There are other hints of the poet’s rank: he says he prefers the youth’s love to “high birth” (Sonnet 91), and he has “bor[n]e the canopy” (Sonnet 125), perhaps the sort of ceremonial function Oxford, as hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain, performed at court. Unlike William, the poet is sufficiently well known to have incurred “vulgar scandal” (Sonnet 112); there is a suggestion that the scandal was sexual (Sonnet 121).

Furthermore, the poet is confident that his verse will be “immortal,” outlasting marble and the gilded monument of princes. At the same time, he hopes that “my name [will] be buried where my body is” (Sonnet 72) and that he will be “forgotten” after his death (Sonnet 81). If he is William of Stratford, publishing acclaimed poems under his real name, what could he possibly mean by these tortured words? But if the poet was Oxford, they not only make obvious sense, but describe precisely what has happened.

The leitmotif of disgrace (unique in Elizabethan sonnetry) recurs throughout the Sonnets and helps define the poet’s relation to the youth, yet Nelson refuses to confront it at all. He prefers to stick to his own specialty, irrelevant factual nit-picking. Like most tax-subsidized academics (he teaches at Berkeley), he is too timid to break from the pack. To deal with the Sonnets in toto would require him to violate the Great Taboo of academic scholarship by admitting that, yes, a plausible case for Oxford can be made from the Sonnets — and that it deserves an honest answer on its own grounds. No Shakespeare scholar who values his career — salary, tenure, grants, sabbaticals, and other perks — would grant the enemy such a point. Nelson dutifully avoids dealing with the many facts that are inconvenient to the “scholarly” position.

True, it is “not impossible” to reconcile all this with William’s known life; but it puts quite a strain on logic and common sense. As of the early 1590s, William, whatever the condition of his hairline, would not appear to have been a notorious public figure, distinguished by lameness, knowledge of the law, and a bleak sense of his future, who would, despite his intimations of mortality, take a keen interest in a young nobleman’s marital prospects. Anyway, why should Southampton value or solicit William’s advice on his personal life?

Like many academic Shakespeare scholars, Nelson has only a superficial familiarity with the Sonnets. But he cites with pedantic pride the utterly irrelevant information that their scheduled publication was “recorded in the Stationer’s Register on 20 May 1609, while Edward Alleyn subsequently purchased a copy for 5d.... [Five] copies survive from an issue sold by William Aspley, eight from an issue sold by John Wright.” Thanks, Professor!

Here Nelson is seeking to refute another point I didn’t make. He misses the mark again. Come to think of it, the fact that the earliest edition of the Sonnets seems to have sold well merely underlines the mystery of why no second edition appeared for more than thirty years.

Nelson reveals his ignorance of the Sonnets’ history when he writes that “Shakespeare’s Sonnets were publicly reported eleven years earlier to have been circulating among his private friends.” This of course refers to Francis Meres, who wrote in 1598 of Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends.” But were those “sugared” sonnets the Sonnets published in 1609? To me it seems doubtful, partly because “sugared” hardly seems the word for poems so full of agony, regret, and intimate sexual matters. But one should at least be aware of the long dispute on this question. Nelson is not. He actually thinks the poet “may not have been ... mortified” by the unauthorized publication of his homosexual love poems!

Being ill acquainted with the Sonnets themselves — the most crucial evidence for purposes of identifying Shakespeare — Nelson ducks all their apparent links to Oxford, with his offhand (and unsupported) claim that they are “not impossible” to connect to William. Instead of presenting and evaluating the evidence fully, he adopts the time-honored tactic (I’d hardly call it “scholarly”) of pretending it isn’t there. The contents of the Sonnets don’t interest him much, but he tries to bluff the reader with impressive “scholarly” arcana about their publication.

Even so, Nelson actually makes a subtle tacit admission when he asserts that the Sonnets are “not impossible” to reconcile with William’s known life. This implicitly concedes that they can be more easily reconciled with Oxford’s known life than with William’s. Nor does Nelson deny, in any way, that they seem fully compatible with what we know about Oxford. But of course he won’t say this directly. The same is true of the other academic critics of Alias Shakespeare: none of them has challenged my thesis that the Sonnets seem to fit everything we know about Oxford and virtually nothing we know about William. In the authorship debate, it’s important to notice not only what William’s advocates say, but what they go out of their way not to say. At all costs, they must refuse to admit difficulties for their position — which they like to call “scholarly consensus.”

Seizing on the bisexual theme, Nelson asks, with triumphant glee, how on earth Oxford could have an amour with his daughter’s intended husband: “Did Oxford intend to share Southampton’s embraces with his own daughter? Were they to take turns? Draw straws? Sobran doesn’t say.” But an attentive reading of Alias Shakespeare makes it clear that the poet begins to woo the youth for himself in Sonnet 20, by which time the theme of marriage (which dominates the first 17 Sonnets) has been dropped; and even then he intimates, at first, that his love isn’t sexual. As I read the Sonnets, Oxford and Southampton became lovers only when there was no longer the prospect of a marriage between Southampton and Elizabeth Vere. Nelson might have figured this out by studying the Sonnets themselves.

Finally, Alias Shakespeare shows that the Sonnets bear dozens of striking resemblances, in vocabulary, imagery, theme, and argument, to Oxford’s 1573 letter to Bedingfield. But here again Nelson refuses to engage the details and explain so many parallels; he doesn’t even mention the ample evidence cited in my book — another omission that does no credit to his scholarly honesty. He merely sneers that the letter is “a dense thicket of literary banality,” as if belittling Oxford somehow counts as an argument against his authorship.

Nelson’s argument amounts to this silly enthymeme: “I say Oxford was a lousy writer; ergo he couldn’t have been Shakespeare.” This is a rank fallacy, with zero probative value. One might as well argue: “The Shakespeare works are so bad that Oxford couldn’t have written them.” But of course such subjective judgments have no weight, and nothing follows from them.

In the poet’s self-revelations, the Sonnets give us a recognizable profile of Oxford; they yield no such profile of William. This is why so many scholars, despairing of connecting them to William, have asserted that they are “fictions,” though they show none of Shakespeare’s gifts for narrative, characterization, and exposition. If we recognize the Sonnets as Oxford’s, we have no need to resort to the idea that they are “fictions.” Besides, even if they were fictions written by William, why would he create a fictional first-person speaker who just happens to resemble, among all his contemporaries, the Earl of Oxford?

The key point is that none of William’s champions have found a way to use the Sonnets to make a positive case for his authorship. The Sonnets support the case for Oxford and nobody else. I repeat: the orthodox scholars treat these poems in much the way a defense attorney treats an incriminating document; they try to declare them inadmissible evidence. If they really believed in William’s authorship, they would cite parallels to William’s life in the Sonnets, while citing details that are hard to reconcile with Oxford’s life. But they can’t. An attorney tries to exclude evidence when he senses that it would tend to hurt his client.

Finally, one more pregnant fact merits our attention.

The first two published Shakespeare works, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), were dedicated to Southampton at about the time Burghley was pushing him to marry Oxford’s daughter (and Burghley’s granddaughter) Elizabeth. The 1623 Folio was dedicated to the Herbert brothers, William and Philip, earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, who also had connections to Oxford. William had once been considered as a possible husband for Oxford’s daughter Bridget; Philip had actually married Oxford’s daughter Susan.

So all three of the men to whom the Shakespeare works were dedicated by name had been candidates for the hands of Oxford’s three daughters!

It is “not impossible,” as Nelson might say, that this is sheer coincidence, and that the hundreds of other Oxford-Shakespeare links are also purely coincidental. But how extraordinary (1) that William should write plays such as Hamlet and the Italian plays, suggesting the privileged education, special knowledge, and idiosyncratic personal experience Oxford would have acquired more naturally; (2) that William should write Sonnets whose main character bears so many resemblances to Oxford’s tormented life; and (3) that William’s works should be dedicated to three of Oxford’s prospective sons-in-law.

Well, anything is possible — or at least “not impossible.”

December 1999

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