Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship
Abstract: Whoever the author of the Shakespeare canon was, he had to be a man of the theatre. American actor Hank Whittemore argues that one of the leading candidates for the honor was himself someone with significant theatrical connections and experiences—Edward de Vere.
Keywords: Shakespeare, Authorship, Authorship Question, Biography, Edward de Vere
Ed. Note: American actor, writer and scholar Hank Whittemore always believed that whoever William Shakespeare was, the evidence clearly showed that he had to be an experienced man of the theatre. The core reason why Whittemore now believes that the man who wrote the plays was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the fact that de Vere really was a man of the theatre. The following is Whittemore’s Introduction and opening section from his book, 100 Reasons Shake-speare Was the Earl of Oxford (Forever Press: 2016). It is printed here with permission of the author.
The idea that the works of Shakespeare weren’t written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is often met with disbelief and ridicule from the so-called experts in the field. Those who believe that “William Shakespeare” was a pen name for a high-ranking, multi-talented, somewhat eccentric member of the aristocracy of Elizabethan England are derided as conspiracy theorists, elitists, or as emotionally and mentally unbalanced.
Such persons, the thinking goes, cannot accept that the great poet-dramatist could have come from a lowly background and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. They cannot accept that Shakespeare was simply a “genius” capable of using his imagination to create his masterpieces. They ignore the “facts” that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon was a working actor and an active member of London’s theatrical world.
Why must the author of As You Like It and King Lear have been some aristocrat? How could an Earl, a member of the House of Lords, have written masterworks that appealed to all segments of the public, including the groundlings who crowded onto the dirt-covered floor in front of the stage at the Globe?
That the world could be deceived about Shakespeare’s identity—for more than four centuries, no less—must seem, at first, to be impossible. How could anyone have gotten away with such a deception? How could Ben Jonson write his great eulogy for Shakespeare without having known the man? How could he write such a passionate, thrilling tribute to him, in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays, in 1623, without believing wholeheartedly in every word he was setting down for all time?
I, too, scoffed at the idea, when it was first brought to my attention in the summer of 1987. The bearer of this heretical notion was Charles Boyle, an actor-writer in Boston performing the lead role in a one-act play I had written during a workshop at the Playwrights Platform.
At the time, I was living in Portland, Maine, and Charles asked me what I’d been reading. I told him I had just plowed through five biographies of William Shakespeare, which I had bought cheaply at some local used bookstores. When Charles asked why, I told him I had gone looking for the Bard’s “creative process,” seeking clues to the secrets of his greatness.
How did he work? Specifically, how could he transport himself out of his own background and into the great halls of power—the palaces, the royal courts, the battlefields, the foreign lands—and write dialogue for his characters with such power and authenticity, such confidence and boldness?
Charles nodded and asked what I had found out. I shook my head and told him: “Absolutely nothing.” Reading those biographies had been a numbing experience. It seems that Mr. Shakespeare was not at all a man like his most autobiographical-seeming protagonist, Hamlet, but, instead, had been a steady, well-balanced businessman who, near the end of his life, actually set down his pen, returned to his hometown and busied himself with gardening and putting his financial affairs in order.
As I had read this basic story line, which varied little from book to book, I had begun to realize that the only answer to my questions was that the man was a genius. It was pure magic; it was a life and career of miracles, which, by definition, could not be explained.
In addition, while reading through the biographies, I realized that the authors were setting down all kinds of interesting information—about London, the playhouses, and so on—without providing a picture of the man himself. He seemed to be invisible. No letters from him; in relation to theatrical activity or writing, no believable anecdotes about him; no information about his looks, his voice, how he worked, where he stored his manuscripts, how he had access to all the books he needed, where he bought the pens and inks and paper, how he could write so much and yet still be an actor, rehearsing when not performing, memorizing lines.
No, I had learned virtually nothing about the flesh-and-blood man who, by all accounts, was a towering figure in that relatively small town, where Venus and Adonis was going through ten editions and crowds were packing the public theaters to attend his plays!
I wasn’t doubting anything at this point, though I was feeling disappointed by the emptiness at the core of those books. In college, I had acted in both Hamlet and Othello, and, even then, I had wondered about Shakespeare and his life. That there was no information was a letdown, but it was more than that.
The real disappointment was realizing that Shakespeare was virtually alone among writers in leaving us with a life that cannot be related to his works. I had been an avid reader of works about the lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others; here, in the case of the one who was probably the greatest of all, there was no correspondence between the man’s known life and what he wrote. For me, this was not (yet) an authorship question; it was just disappointment.
In the mail, a few days later, a large envelope from Boyle arrived with copies of pages from The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, Jr., published three years earlier. This book put forward the theory (first proposed by J. Thomas Looney in “Shakespeare” Identified, 1920) that the true author was a high-ranking nobleman, a well educated, well-traveled, sophisticated courtier named Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who wrote poetry and plays while patronizing troupes of players and musicians—a great lord whose standing at the court of Queen Elizabeth of England was virtually the same as that of Prince Hamlet at the court of King Claudius of Denmark.
Oxford, like Hamlet, was both an insider and a man apart; he was eccentric, witty, secretive, misunderstood, a passionate student, generous and proud—yet entirely human and flawed, “with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in,” as Hamlet tells his bewildered young fiancée, the daughter of the king’s chief minister and the mirror image of Oxford’s real-life young fiancée, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister.
It was amazing to learn that, in sixteenth-century England, there had been a real-life figure very much like Hamlet, a man who had been deeply involved as a patron and guide for writers whose works comprised the contemporary sources upon which “Shakespeare” would draw. Those works were created in the decades immediately preceding the 1590s, when the Bard’s poems and plays began to be printed; as Oxford was still very much alive in that decade, it would seem at the least that he and “Shakespeare” must have known each other—unless, of course, they were one and the same man.
I was shocked to realize that this extraordinary nobleman had been so neglected by historians, literary scholars and Shakespeare biographers. One reason for the neglect was that de Vere had been largely expunged from the official record of his own time, and, too, had suffered from vicious criticisms of his character and actions based on what had been deliberately left on that record.
It also became clear to me that other theories of the authorship (mainly involving Francis Bacon and, to a lesser degree, Christopher Marlowe) had been passionately explored and expounded only to be proved woefully inadequate and downright wrong. The Bacon authorship theory, mostly taken up by well-meaning folks who seriously doubted the Stratford man’s authorship, had become a “red herring” that prevented any genuine look at Oxford as a serious candidate.
“Oh, no,” came the cry, “here we go again! What’s the matter with these conspiracy theorists? With these snobs? Won’t they ever quit?”
Of course, another reason for the neglect of Oxford was—and continues to be—not only the iconic stature of “Shakespeare” as a British national hero, but also the powerful image of the Stratford man as a Horatio Alger figure who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” to become the greatest writer of the English language. His magnificent achievement is seen as the result of an extraordinary imagination combined with outsized genius; there is no need to explain exactly how he actually acquired the knowledge and wisdom exhibited in his works—“genius” explains everything.
But no one is born with knowledge about astronomy or anatomy or the supposedly non-existent waterways of inland Italy (which did, in fact, exist). Logic requires that the extensive knowledge exhibited by “Shakespeare” could not have come by way of sheer fantasy. The great works had to come from an imaginative mixing together of elements gained as a result of the author’s own observations and experience.
We owe a large debt to the Oxfordian pioneers during the past century—J.T. Looney, Percy Allen, Eva Turner Clark, Ruth Loyd Miller, Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn, their son Charlton Ogburn Jr., William Plummer Fowler, and many others, not to mention more recent Oxfordian scholars and authors. Now it’s time for new generations to take a much deeper and more complete look at the character and life of de Vere in relation to the English literary and dramatic renaissance of the sixteenth century, and for a more detailed reconstruction of the path that led to the phenomenon known as Shakespeare.
Why are high schools, colleges and universities choosing to phase out or drop their Shakespeare courses? One reason is that there has been no way to inspire students by linking the creation of those works with the personal experience and intentions of their creator; without that dynamic connection to an author’s lived life, it is difficult for those students to see how the poems and plays relate to their own lives. The entranceway to fully comprehending and appreciating Shakespeare has been blocked.
My book presents a hundred reasons for concluding that “William Shakespeare” was the pen name of Edward de Vere. Each focuses on one aspect of the circumstantial evidence. My intention is to set forth information in a way that makes it easy and even entertaining to read. I invite you to take the journey on your own terms, using your own judgment, and to come to your own conclusions.
The project began in early 2011, when I made an offhand remark on my blogsite that there “must be at least a hundred reasons to conclude that Oxford was Shakespeare.” Having made such a claim, I started to compile a list of whatever came to mind. Then, I began to think seriously about fulfilling this prediction.
My initial idea was to write a paragraph for each “reason” and no more. I figured the whole project might take three or four months at most. Once I began, however, each new item drew me to look through mounds of old printed material and notes I had collected over a quarter-century, and, soon, it became obvious that the subject matter demanded fuller treatment.
The first reason was posted on 23 February 2011: “Oxford, like Hamlet, was involved with Plays and Play Companies at the Royal Court.” Running about 430 words, it turned out to be the shortest entry of them all. Each time I thought of a new reason, the process of researching and writing became that of producing an original essay.
I kept notes on new ideas, but deliberately avoided compiling anything like an entire list. The thought of knowing every reason beforehand was stultifying; searching for the next one, and getting to work on it, was much more exciting—and rewarding, since it often led to “new” information and original ways of seeing how pieces of evidence fit together. As a result, the blog project itself took more than three and a half years, until the late summer of 2014. Then, it took a while to think about shaping the material into book form.
The Patron-Playwright: A Man of the Theater
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, began his theatrical life as a child. His father, John de Vere, the sixteenth earl, sponsored an acting company known as Oxford’s Men. Edward spent much of his boyhood, in the 1550s, at the home of his tutor, the great Cambridge scholar Thomas Smith, but his family residence was Castle Hedingham, in Essex. Oxford’s Men came there to put on plays during the Christmas season and at other times. Young Oxford would have mingled with the players, watching them rehearse and learning their craft.
Queen Elizabeth and her court visited Hedingham for five days, in August 1561, when Edward was eleven, and Oxford’s Men contributed to the royal entertainment. The boy had a close-up view of her responses and witnessed the power of the stage to gain her attention, stir her emotions and even affect her policies. Court members also watched her reactions, to see how to please the queen and avoid offending her.
These early experiences set young Edward on the very course he took; eventually, he brought his own players and plays to perform for the queen.
When John de Vere died in 1562, under feudal law Edward became a ward of the Crown. He went to London in the custody of the queen’s chief minister, William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. The year before, Elizabeth had appointed Richard Edwards as Master of the Chapel Royal. The privilege of entertaining Her Majesty with plays was mostly that of the Choir Boys of the Chapel Royal, but it also belonged to the separate child acting companies of Paul’s, Westminster and Windsor.
Much later, The Arte of English Poesie of 1589 would record Oxford and Edwards as fellow playwrights, citing “the Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel” as deserving of “the highest praise” for “Comedy and Enterlude.”
De Vere joined Elizabeth on her 1564 progress to Cambridge, where she attended performances of Aulularia by Plautus, Dido by Edward Haliwell and Ezechia by Nicholas Udall. That fall, Damon and Pythias, credited to Edwards, was performed at court. At Oxford, in 1566, the Queen attended Palaemon and Arcyte, a “lost” play also credited to Edwards and thought to be a source for The Two Noble Kinsmen, attributed to Shakespeare. Most likely, young Oxford co-wrote both plays with Edwards, who died in the fall of 1566, or he wrote them himself. In any case, theatrical events were part of his world and the productions were usually connected to the Queen, who clearly loved plays and had an insatiable demand for them. To communicate with Her Majesty, there was no better means than the stage.
In 1567, Oxford was admitted to Gray’s Inn, where George Gascoigne was studying for the bar and writing plays acted by the Gentlemen of the Inn. One of these works was The Supposes, translated from the Italian of Ariosto and said to be the first “prose play” in English (and a source for The Taming of the Shrew); another was Jocasta, from Euripides, the first adaptation of a Greek play to the English stage. Stephanie Caruana and Elisabeth Sears argue that it was Oxford who wrote The Supposes, which contained seeds of his own Euphuist movement of the 1580s, while anticipating aspects of The Comedy of Errors as performed in the 1590s.
In Italy, during 1575-6, Oxford became familiar with the Commedia dell’arte, a theatrical form begun in that century and responsible for the advent of improvised performances with masked “types” based on sketches or scenarios. The Commedia troupes, which included female actors, would greatly influence the Shakespearean plays.
Meanwhile, the first successful public playhouse in England, the Theatre, opened soon after Oxford’s return in 1576. Among the new plays listed as performed for the queen in January 1577 was The historie of Error, possibly an early version of The Comedy of Errors. In February, at Whitehall, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed The historie of the Solitaire knight, possibly an early version of Timon of Athens.
The Lord Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household, responsible for court lodgings and dining as well as entertainment for the queen, was Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, who was a generation older than Oxford and his chief supporter among the nobility. Oxford had served under him in the 1570 military campaign against the rebellion of Catholic Earls; also, they were allied in their strong antipathy toward Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had been Elizabeth’s lover in the 1560s.
By 1579, Oxford was employing John Lyly, Anthony Munday and many others (some were members of the writing group later called the University Wits, who are also identified as influencing Shakespeare). The Earl of Warwick’s actors moved to Oxford’s service, with Lyly as manager, and the amalgamated company performed at court in January 1580. In April, two of Oxford’s actors were temporarily jailed for “frays committed upon certain Gentlemen of the Inns of Court” at the Theatre. In June that year, a plague outbreak forced Cambridge and Oxford to cancel highly anticipated productions by Oxford’s Men.
Oxford was now financing an adult acting company, a boy’s acting company and a troupe of musicians. In 1583, he saved the private Blackfriars playhouse by purchasing the sublease and transferring it to Lyly, so the choirboys could continue rehearsing there before performing at court. Sir William More recovered possession of the property in 1584, however, shutting down Blackfriars as a playhouse.
Oxford had sold forty-seven pieces of land between 1576 and 1584, thirteen of them in 1580; by 1583, his household had been reduced to four servants.
Sussex died in June 1583. A new company, the Queen’s Men, was quickly formed by Francis Walsingham, head of England’s growing network of paid spies and informants, who made up England’s first full-fledged secret service. Actors were valuable informants and plays served as powerful vehicles for propaganda, as war with Spain was looming. The Queen’s Company was formed with twelve of the best actors from all companies, including Oxford’s; the evidence points to Lyly, whom Oxford still employed, serving as its stage manager and acting coach.
Several of the comedies performed at court are credited to Lyly, but it is far more likely that Oxford actually wrote them. No ordinary playwright would have dared to present Sapho and Phao, a thinly-veiled allegory representing the love affair of Elizabeth and the French duke of Alençon; given Oxford’s well-known love of music and personal association with contemporary composers, such as William Byrd and John Farmer, logic dictates that the song lyrics in these plays were also his.
All the quartos were published anonymously and the lyrics were never printed during Lyly’s lifetime, further indicating he could not claim them as his own. The play Endymion, credited to Lyly, is acknowledged by orthodox scholars, such as David Bevington, as focusing allegorically on Oxford and Elizabeth.
A number of anonymous plays performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580s would be revised in the 1590s, under similar titles, as by “Shakespeare.” These include The Famous Victories of Henry V, The Troublesome Reign of King John, The True Tragedy of Richard III and The True Chronicle History of King Leir. It is more logical to assume that in all these cases “Shakespeare” is revising his own works, rather than reworking plays written by others.
Some of the plays helped to rouse national unity, contributing to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588. After that, the Queen’s Company became less important and de Vere went underground, so to speak, becoming a reclusive figure who stayed away from court and out of the public eye for the rest of his life.
With the publication of the 1,200 line poem Venus and Adonis, “Shakespeare” arrived in 1593, instantly becoming England’s most popular poet; in 1598, when his name began appearing on play quartos, he became known as the top playwright of the new Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which had been formed in 1594.
Beneath the surface of these facts is an enormous, largely unseen theatrical life. An “aerial view” of Oxford’s connections to the stage reveals one major thoroughfare running through the landscape—an unbroken line connecting the life spans of the three major acting companies, linked one to another in three successive stages of development:
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1573-83)
From the 1570s until 1583, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, under the Earl of Sussex, brought play after play to the royal court, as indicated by the keepers of the records. Many of these are identified by Eva Turner Clark as early versions of dramatic works destined to be revised and issued, under new titles, as works of “Shakespeare” in the 1590s.
Clark believes that early versions of all the Shakespeare plays may have been penned before 1589. Her list includes: The historye of Titus and Gisippus (possibly an early Titus Andronicus, performed by the Paul’s Boys in February 1577 at Whitehall); An history of the crueltie of A Stepmother (possibly an early Cymbeline, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in December 1578 at Richmond); A Morrall of the marryage of Mynde and Measure (possibly an early version of Taming of the Shrew, performed by Paul’s Boys in January 1579 at Richmond); The historie of the Rape of the Second Helene (possibly an early All’s Well That Ends Well, performed in January 1579 at Richmond). She also notes possible early versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1579.
Clark supports her identifications with extraordinary scholarship, linking events of contemporary history to characters and scenes in the Shakespeare plays. She often notices the different stages of revision within a given play, just as archaeologists can “read history” from fossils or rings within a tree trunk. Given de Vere’s intense involvement with writers and play companies, along with his great friendship with Sussex, I believe that Clark was largely correct: many of the earliest versions of future “Shakespeare” plays were performed for Elizabeth at the royal court by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Sussex.
The Queen’s Men (1583-93)
The Queen’s Men, often with two separate troupes, traveled around the countryside, usually performing plays of royal history, geared to rousing patriotic fervor as England prepared for invasion by Philip of Spain and his Armada. Now that scholars are becoming more aware that early versions of Shakespearean history plays were performed by this company in the 1580s, with titles that would remain quite similar, the next logical inference is that de Vere, while remaining involved in companies under his own name, was writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and, then, for the Queen’s Men. Oxford’s extraordinary annual grant of £1,000, begun in June 1586, was drawn from the government treasury with the same formula used for the secret service, bringing him into close alignment with the Queen’s Men from that angle as well.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-1603)
The new Lord Chamberlain’s company gave its first performances at court during the Christmas season of 1594. It would become known to us as “Shakespeare’s Company,” because it became the exclusive stage producer of the Shakespearean plays. In government records for March 1595, actors Richard Burbage and Will Kemp along with “William Shakespeare” are listed as payees of the newly formed Chamberlain’s Men, collecting payment for the previous December’s court performances.
The inclusion of “Shakespeare” in that record is highly suspicious, however, since the name had just been introduced as a poet in the dedications of Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594) to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and because the name would never again be listed a payee for the Chamberlain’s Men. (After the succession of King James of Scotland in 1603 and the creation of the King’s Men, with Principal Secretary Robert Cecil retaining and even increasing his power behind the throne, the government made a feeble attempt to indicate “Shakespeare” as an actor with the company.)
The Lord Chamberlain in 1594 was Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was followed by his son George Carey, the next Lord Hunsdon. But they were nominal figures when it came to the running of the company. The logical conclusion is that Oxford himself was the guiding hand of “Shakespeare’s Company”—not because of his similar title—Lord Great Chamberlain—but, rather, because this new group was an extension of the previous companies which Oxford had used as the primary vehicles for presenting his plays on public stages.
This perspective on the history requires taking an aerial view to see the larger picture of de Vere as the major force behind the three great acting companies of the Elizabethan reign. All three are linked in history to produce the renaissance of English literature and drama in the 1570s and 1580s, followed by the Shakespeare works in the 1590s.
Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, put on some of the most dangerously political plays of the reign, yet it never got in trouble with officialdom. Obviously, it was receiving protection from on high. In the 1590s, the government was moving rapidly to take control of the theater, limiting the playing companies in London to two, restricting the number of playhouses used for drama to two and exercising increasingly heavy censorship that led, for example, to the Bishops’ Bonfire of books in 1599.
It was Shakespeare’s company, also, that performed Richard II at the Globe on 7 February 1601, at the behest of the conspirators of the Essex Rebellion, which erupted the following morning; yet, the actors were let go after cursory questioning and the author of the play was never summoned.
Meanwhile, Oxford had withdrawn entirely from court life after 1590. Remarrying in 1591, he and his new countess (Elizabeth Trentham) moved to the village of Stoke Newington, just north of Shoreditch—the center of the London theater scene, where the Curtain playhouse would become the premier venue of Shakespeare’s Company prior to the 1599 construction of the Globe.
“Thus we see him moving quite close to the ‘Shakespeare’ work, but never in it,” J. Thomas Looney writes, describing a man who had become virtually invisible—and yet who, in my view, was singularly responsible for the outpouring of Shakespearean plays in public performance, igniting the explosion of theatrical activity that remains perhaps the grandest chapter in the history of the stage.
De Vere emerged briefly from his retirement to serve as highest ranking earl on the tribunal at the one-day trial of Essex and Southampton, on 19 February 1601, for their leading roles in the so-called Essex Rebellion. He had no choice but to join the other twenty-four peers in finding both earls guilty of high treason and condemning them to death.
Essex was beheaded six days later; but, Southampton, the “fair youth” of the Shakespeare sonnets, unofficially had his sentence reduced to life in prison. Two years later, in April 1603, King James granted him his freedom with a royal pardon. Meanwhile, the adult acting troupe under Oxford’s own name, which was mainly a touring group, had merged with Worcester’s Company in 1602. Even the aging Queen Elizabeth became involved in this new, expanded company, ordering the Lord Mayor of London to allow them to play at their favorite Boar’s Head tavern.
“In August of that year the united company was acting at the Rose under Henslowe,” B.M. Ward writes, “and among the actors we find the names of William Kemp and Thomas Haywood, the playwright.”
Will Kemp! This was the same man listed back in 1595 as a payee of the new Lord Chamberlain’s Men, along with Richard Burbage and “William Shakespeare.” Now, as the Elizabethan reign draws to its close, Kemp is acting in the company patronized by the earls of Worcester and Oxford. All along, just beneath the surface or standing in the wings, we find the figure of Edward de Vere, a man of the theater throughout his life.
*Hank Whittemore is a New York-based former professional actor who became a journalist, columnist and award-winning television writer. He is the author of 14 books including The Super Cops, a bestseller; CNN: The Inside Story; and a novel, Feeling It. Actively involved in the authorship question since 1987, his books about Edward de Vere include The Monument (2005), exploring in detail the Sonnets from an Oxfordian perspective, and Twelve Years in the Life of Shakespeare (2012). He also performs a one-man show on the authorship question called Shake-speare’s Treason, co-written with director Ted Story. His Shakespeare blog can be found at hankwhittemore.com.
“Shake-speare” Was a Man of the Theatre