For years the United States Supreme court has dealt with the works of Shakespeare as a sideline, sometimes debating in mock court the many trials in his plays and even sometimes debating whether or not he actually wrote the plays. Last weekend Justice John Paul Stevens raised some hackles by announcing that he had decided that the canon thought to be written by the otherwise nondescript sometime actor and theatre manager from Stratford had actually been written by someone else.
Twenty years ago I didn’t pay much attention to the controversy surrounding the authorship of the plays attributed to a certain William Shakespeare of England in the 16th century. I knew there had been plenty of people who believed the plays could not have been written by the humble glover’s son, but, like everybody else I knew, I accepted the romantic story of the country boy who went to London and gave the world the greatest dramatic literature it had ever known.
Then I saw the PBS Frontline special presenting the argument that the plays may have been written by a nobleman of whom I had never heard, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. It made me think twice about my assumption, and I read all I could find about de Vere and the many experts who believed him to be the uncredited author who used Shakespeare as a nom de plume. Further study of de Vere provided me with the following information about this contender for the title of the greatest dramatist the world has ever produced.
Edward de Vere lived a life worth reading about. An aristocrat in Elizabethan England, he was a child prodigy, a poet courtier, an adventurer, and an all-around son of a bitch who made a ton of mistakes in his life. He was profligate with money, a great drinker and storyteller, a juror in such trials as that of Mary Queen of Scots; Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex; and Philip Howard, who was found guilty of treason in plotting the victory of the Spanish Armada against England in 1589.
As a child, de Vere was the ward of William Cecil, principal advisor to Queen Elizabeth. He was tutored by the best educators in England of the day, having the following curriculum:
10-10:30 Writing and Drawing
4-4:30 Exercises with his Pen
A rather impressive course of study for a boy, isn’t it? What is “cosmography,” you might well ask. As a matter of fact it was geography, history, physical science, astronomy, sociology, English, comparative literature, linguistics, and more. Basically it was everything known in the Elizabethan world. And de Vere had the finest teachers in England as his private tutors. On holy days (holidays) he was expected to “read before dinner the Epistle and Gospel in his own tongue and the other tongue [Greek] after dinner. All the rest of the day to be spent in riding, shooting, dancing, walking, and other commendable exercises, saving the time for prayer."
His intense education included the reading of Beowulf and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and detailed study of the Bible, as noted. That he was surrounded by the greatest personal libraries in England was a boon to him all his life, as he was a voracious reader and could write beautiful prose and poetry. He studied the law and received a Master of Arts degree from St. John’s College at Cambridge.
De Vere grew up from a prodigy to be a brilliant if contentious and conflicted man. He was expert at squandering the funds and lands he’d inherited, and he was never entirely comfortable with William Cecil, his guardian. Cecil was an eminent Elizabethan favored as a trusted advisor to the Queen herself.
In one of the few missteps of his life, William Cecil arranged a marriage between his daughter Anne and de Vere in 1571. In 1575, de Vere took off for Italy for a year, claiming that his marriage had never been consummated. He spent some time in Venice, Florence, Sienna. On his journey he traveled to Greece, Croatia – then known as Illyria – and back to England to meet his first daughter and reconcile with his wife. Although he accepted the marriage he never really participated in it. He was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Elizabeth, and he fathered a child by his mistress Anne Vavasour. He got into many a scrap, including political ones. He was known as a poet and writer, a dandy, a great drinker and storyteller and a tempestuous poet possessed of a tormented soul.
There are many instances in life of Edward de Vere which could well have inspired great theatre. He was a swordsman, leader of a group which almost might be called a “gang”—men who clashed in the streets of London with Thomas Knyvet’s men, members of a rival political faction. De Vere received a serious wound in one of these battles—among many brushes with death in his reckless youth. His passionate nature and affairs of the heart would have well equipped him to dramatize a story of unfulfilled young love, the obvious example being Romeo and Juliet. Maybe he did, maybe someone else did, but it would seem he could have.
He had a younger sister who may have been cut of the same cloth, disposition-wise. When she set out to marry she would have none of the suitors William Cecil had chosen for her, preferring the hothead Peregrine Bertie. De Vere despised Peregrine Bertie and did what he could to block the marriage, but after it happened he accepted the couple and even became a good friend to his volatile brother in law. Mary de Vere Bertie and her mate provided a monumental display of temperament and the constant drama of power struggles as they settled into married life, which one might see as a possible model for The Taming of the Shrew. Everyone might not see it, but one might.
This is only a fraction of the story, but even in this brief, partial re-telling, one can see not only the makings of an extraordinary life in one of the most compelling times and places in the history of the world but also quite possibly the seeds of some of the greatest theatrical writing ever to have been produced. Where many have doubted the possibility that the isolated actor-turned-merchant of remote Stratford could have had the education and the grace to have written the towering works of Shakespeare, no one has come up with a better candidate for the real author than Edward de Vere.
Whether or not you think it is possible that the man whose name was always signed Shakspere (who is not known to have been educated in the classics, since there are no records from the school in Stratford) actually didn't write the plays, it is interesting to study the biography of the aristocrat whose life is related in Mark Anderson's book "Shakespeare" by Another Name. This tome reveals in a compelling way a great deal about the historical period, explaining that, for one thing, unlike today, playwrights weren't celebrities–their names were unknown to the public--and the theatre itself was as much a platform for veiled political statements about intrigues at court as it was a source of a night's diversion.
I can't say that I know for certain that de Vere was da Bard, as the question is put in today’s parlance, particularly in Hoboken and environs. Whether or not you buy the premise, I suggest you read da book. I also learned a great deal from the little book Shakespeare: Who Was He? By Richard F. Whalen, and from articles in the April 1999 issue of Harper’s, by Tom Bethell, Daniel Wright and Joseph Sobran.
I wish Frontline would run an update including information about De Vere’s heavily annotated copy of the St. James Bible, with his markings of passages which seem to coincide neatly with the biblical allusions in Shakespeare's works. It will be nice if this controversy is settled before I die, and the more we hear of it, the more chance there is of that.