Demonography 101:
Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary

by Peter R. Moore

This article was first published in the Winter 2004 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Professor Alan H. Nelson of the University of California at Berkeley has produced Monstrous Adversary, The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Liverpool University Press, paperback, 527 pp., $32.00). Nelson’s biography of Oxford offers a mass of new documentary information on his subject, with additional material available on his website. Nelson deserves thanks and praise for this research, as well as for his openness in sharing his archival discoveries.

In six of his chapters (29, 45, 46, and 75-7), Nelson analyzes Oxford’s poetry, literary patronage, and sponsorship of acting companies. The contents of these chapters should remind readers that Nelson hails from the English Department of one of America’s leading universities. When analyzing metrical conventions, the niceties of dedications, or the history of theatrical troupes, he shows the sure touch of an expert in his field. I do not imply that readers must accede to Nelson’s every judgment on these matters, though I find little to disagree with, but readers should recognize an obvious professional. Unfortunately, Nelson cannot do history.

Monstrous Adversary is a documentary biography composed of extensive quotations from contemporary letters, memoranda, legal records, and the like, stitched together with Nelson’s comments. Nelson asks in his “Introduction” that we let “the documentary evidence speak for itself” (p. 5). His request fails for two reasons. First, documentary evidence rarely makes sense without the appropriate context, which includes not only historical background information on the religious, legal, social, or cultural practices of a long ago era,1 but also personal information, such as establishing who struck the first blow in a fight, or whether a witness was truthful in other matters.2 As I will show, Nelson totally botches the context of event after event. Secondly, Nelson, who with some justice refers to Oxford’s first biographer, B. M. Ward, as a hagiographer (250), pushes much further in the opposite direction, so much so that his study of Oxford may well be dubbed demonography.

The 17th Earl of Oxford was anything but a model nobleman of his time. He threw away his family fortune, he failed to develop the career expected of an earl by shouldering his share of local and national responsibilities, and he fathered a child out of wedlock. Quite possibly he also drank too much as a young man. On the other hand, he excelled in his generosity, he earned praise for his writings, and he retained the favor of his famously headstrong and moralistic Queen. But these facts have long been known. What does Nelson add to them? Quite a lot of detail and color: Nelson’s persistence and skill as a document sleuth flesh out both major and minor events of Oxford’s story. Unfortunately, Nelson the analyst relates to Nelson the researcher as Hyde relates to Jekyll, moreover, Nelson’s obsessive denigration of Oxford carries him from error into fantasy.

I. A Nelson Sampler

In support of my criticism, I will begin by discussing Nelson’s treatment of five episodes of Oxford’s life. I will then examine Oxford’s biggest scandal, the accusations between him and his sometime friends, Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, before proceeding to the peculiarities of Nelson’s writing style. Finally, I will consider some of the positive aspects of Oxford’s story that can be extracted from Nelson’s work.

My first example offers a very simple case of Nelson’s historiographic ineptitude. His Chapter 13, “Necromancy,” begins with quotations from Oxford’s friends-turned-accusers in 1580-1, Howard and Arundel, to the effect that Oxford copulated with a female spirit, saw the ghosts of his mother and stepfather, and often conjured up Satan for conversations. Nelson then explains in detail where, when, and, above all, how Oxford carried out these ungodly deeds. Unfortunately Nelson neglects to inform his readers that Howard and Arundel listed these items among the outrageous lies regularly told by Oxford. In other words, although neither Howard nor Arundel expected their contemporaries to believe that Oxford actually committed such acts, they failed to anticipate the stunning gullibility of Nelson. We can find out why Oxford told these horrendous falsehoods by turning to some of the documentary evidence found on Nelson’s website, though omitted from the biography.3 After relating yet another of Oxford’s tall tales about peacefully ending a civil war in Genoa Charles Arundel continued: “this lie is very rife with him and in it he glories greatly; diversely hath he told it, and when he enters into it, he can hardly out, which hath made such sport as often have I been driven to rise from his table laughing, so hath my Lord Charles Howard [the admiral who defeated the Spanish Armada] and the rest”. Not only does this remarkable testimony reveal a side of Oxford’s character that Nelson studiously ignores, it also indicates the unbalanced nature of Oxford’s foes, who thought they could damn him as a liar by describing his brilliance as a raconteur.4

After concealing the unbalanced nature of Oxford’s enemies, Nelson attributes insanity to one of Oxford’s friends. Nathaniel Baxter accompanied Oxford on his trip to Italy in 1575-6, which Baxter described in a 1606 poem to Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Montgomery (138-9). Baxter’s poem includes this seemingly cryptic stanza: “Never omitting what might pastime bring, / Italian sports, and Syren’s Melodie: / Hopping Helena with her warbling sting, / Infested th’Albanian dignitie, / Like as they poysoned all Italie.” Without the slightest hint that another interpretation might exist, Nelson informs us that “Albania” means England, while “Hopping Helena” indicates a prostitute whose “warbling sting” is venereal disease. And so, according to Nelson, Baxter publicly “reveals” that the Countess of Montgomery’s father caught syphilis in Venice.

But another interpretation emerges by assuming that “Albania” means the nation of that name, and that Baxter’s “poysoned” means poisoned. Such an interpretation agrees with Venetian lore on four noble Albanian brothers who poisoned each other in Venice, especially given that John Florio’s Italian dictionary defines “eleno,” the Italian masculine form of the name “Helena,” as deadly nightshade or belladonna, while Florio elsewhere translates the Italian “bella donna” as “Helen.” But I lack the space to work through two rival interpretations, particularly when a far greater threat hangs over Nelson’s reading. Baxter’s verse was published in his popular work, Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Ourania,’ along with commendatory poems to other aristocrats. The next stanza in Baxter’s poem informs the Countess that her father promptly hurried home to England in order to beget her upon her “everlasting faire” mother (actually the Countess was conceived ten years later). If we accept Nelson’s interpretation, then we must conclude that Baxter and his publisher had literally taken leave of their senses by publicly proclaiming that the recently deceased Earl of Oxford carried a disgraceful and loathsome disease, which he presumably passed on to his first and second wives and their three children: the Countess of Montgomery, the future Lady Norris, and the eighteenth Earl of Oxford. The Dictionary of National Biography notes that Baxter’s commendatory poems in Ourania were “evidently written with a view to some pecuniary reward.” On the contrary, according to Nelson those poems were evidently written with a view to ostracism if not specifically intended to provoke savage reprisals.5

Oxford’s departure from the Netherlands campaign for unknown reasons in October 1585 provides the next example of Nelson’s slipshod methods (296-8).6 English support for the Dutch rebels fighting for independence from Spain became urgent as the Spanish gained ground that summer, and several thousand troops were raised and dispatched pell-mell in August, with the size and organization of the army still undetermined. This advance force was led by Sir John Norris (misidentified by Nelson as his brother Henry Norris), with Oxford apparently commanding the cavalry contingent. Meanwhile fierce political maneuvering over the top command positions continued at Court, with the Earl of Leicester being selected, unselected, then reselected as commander-in-chief in September and October. Leicester naturally wanted his own choices, such as his nephew Sir Philip Sidney, for subordinate commands, but he yielded one position to pressure from Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Treasurer Burghley, on behalf of his son Sir Thomas Cecil. On October 21 Oxford returned to England. Leicester’s commission as commander was signed on October 22, and he arrived in December with his twenty year old stepson the Earl of Essex, who received command of the cavalry. Although no one knows exactly why Oxford returned, we find something of an explanation in a letter printed by Nelson: Oxford had “letters of my Lord Treasurer’s to him wherein he wrote of her Majesty’s grant of the commanding of horsemen” (298). Nelson mistakenly refers to these letters as Oxford’s “commission from Burghley” (299), but the Lord Treasurer had no authority to award military commissions. These were granted by the Queen in letters patent stamped with the privy seal, and no such commission exists for Oxford. Apparently the Queen sent Oxford without a commission, and then he lost out in the jockeying for position at Court. He may have returned because he had been superceded or simply to lobby on his own behalf no one knows. But Nelson pretends otherwise: “As of mid-October, Oxford’s loyalties were put to the test. Would he cooperate with Leicester and Sidney to advance the Queen’s interests in the Low Countries? He would not.” As far as Nelson is concerned, Oxford simply “quit his post in a fit of pique.” Thus evidentiary complexity and uncertainty dissolve before Nelson’s inability to distinguish between private letters and the Queen’s commission.

My fourth example of Nelson’s strange ways with evidence deals with the Spanish Armada, which reached England on July 19, 1588, fought its way to Calais only to be expelled by fire-ships in the night of July 28-9, followed by a day of battle, and finally turned north for its homeward voyage on July 30.7 Oxford played a small part in these great events. He was with the Earl of Leicester’s army at Tilbury near the mouth of the Thames, then sailed out to the fleet, returning to Tilbury on July 27. On August 1, Leicester, still expecting to give battle at Tilbury, wrote that Oxford disliked the Queen’s proposal that he take command of the north Essex port of Harwich, a potential Spanish landing place, and so he went to Court to protest. According to Leicester, Oxford objected to being ordered away from the anticipated combat. And that is the last we know until Oxford took a conspicuous role, suitable to his rank, alongside the Queen at the November victory celebration. Nelson records these details (316-8), concluding that Oxford should have been severely punished for disobeying Leicester’s order. This judgment fails on several grounds. First, Leicester says nothing about giving Oxford an order, rather than informing him of the Queen’s intention; Leicester certainly says nothing about Oxford disobeying an order. Next, Nelson has no business assuming that Oxford did not end up at Harwich anyway, as the Queen may have overruled his protest. In the course of his researches in England, which included the Essex Record Office (xvii-xviii), Nelson could easily have tried to discover who did command at Harwich in early August, but he did not bother. Finally, Oxford’s place beside the Queen at the victory celebration seems to dispel any imputation of disgrace, particularly given Elizabeth’s notoriously strong opinions and sharp tongue.

My fifth example concerns reports that Oxford plotted against the succession of King James while Queen Elizabeth lay dying in March 1603 (409-18). A few days before the Queen’s death the Earl of Lincoln informed Sir John Peyton, commander of the Tower of London, that Oxford proposed that they support Lincoln’s nephew, Lord Hastings, as heir to the throne rather than James of Scotland; both Lincoln and Peyton subsequently reported this information to the authorities. Nelson supplies the following essential information to help us sort out this issue. Lincoln was an “erratic and violent” man; it was his close kinsman, not Oxford’s, who was being pushed for the crown; and Lincoln, not Oxford, had discussed the matter with the French Embassy, which opposed James. Peyton wrote of Lincoln that, “his fashion is to condemn the world if thereby he might excuse himself.” After the proclamation of James as King of England, and the arrival in London of his advance man, Lord Kinloss, Peyton told Lincoln to inform Kinloss. Peyton later explained that he did not tell Kinloss himself, out of fear that Lincoln would deny his conversations with Peyton. Nelson urges Oxford as the instigator of this sedition, but the foregoing details, as well as others that I have omitted, allow sensible readers to identify Lincoln as the probable culprit. My principal objection to Nelson’s treatment of this episode lies in these words: “Lincoln and Peyton agreed on one point: the most active opponent of James among English noblemen at the time of the Queen’s death had been Oxford” (411). Peyton agreed to no such thing; he simply reported what Lincoln told him while making clear his mistrust of Lincoln. Readers unfamiliar with this affair have no real way of spotting Nelson’s dereliction. Otherwise I will note three more objections. First, Nelson insinuates, as he says nothing at all about any other nobles opposing James, much less that Oxford or Lincoln was “the most active.” Next, Nelson displays hopeless naivety in using denigration of Oxford as his main criterion for source reliability. Finally, Nelson seems incapable of fitting together pieces of historical evidence into a coherent whole, preferring simply to snatch up any item that he can twist against Oxford.

The foregoing examples display Nelson’s methods and limitations.

II. The Howard-Arundel Affair

We now come to the biggest scandal of Oxford’s life, the mutual accusations between him and his former friends, Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell. After his return from Italy in 1576, Oxford became a Catholic, until Christmas 1580, when he denounced his three co-religionists for subversion. Howard and Arundel but not Southwell replied by accusing Oxford of a nonstop crime spree. Nelson utterly ignores the historical context of this affair, which may be summarized as follows. During the 1560s, Queen Elizabeth temporized with the Papacy and other Catholic powers, while generally turning a blind eye to the practice of Catholicism in England. That policy ended with the 1570 papal decree that Elizabeth had no right to the throne and that her subjects owed her no allegiance, followed by the infiltration into England of hundreds of English priests fresh from continental seminaries. The Queen and her Councilors watched with alarm as Catholicism grew in the later 1570s, and then the dreaded Jesuit order arrived in England in June 1580.8 The government’s ultimate fear, which actually went back to the late 1530s, was invasion by a French, Spanish, or Imperial army, supported by a rebellion of English Catholics. The periodic Catholic-Protestant warfare in Europe and around the world of the early and mid-sixteenth century turned continual in 1567 (and stayed that way until 1648).

These facts, of which Nelson seems unaware, would have occupied the mental foreground of the Queen and her ministers as they evaluated Oxford’s charges of subversive or treasonous activities against Howard and Arundel, as well as their countercharges of criminal conduct and personal misbehavior against Oxford. The simplest way to evaluate the government’s reaction to the various accusations is to note that Howard, Arundel, and Southwell were placed in confinement, while Oxford remained at liberty until he was locked up from late March through June 1581 for fathering a child by one of the Queen’s maids of honor. Subsequently, as discussed above, Oxford was twice chosen for military commands against Spain, while Henry Howard spent most of the remainder of Elizabeth’s reign in obscurity.9 Charles Arundel fled England for France in fall 1583 in the wake of the Throckmorton plot, which sought to combine a French invasion of England with a domestic Catholic rebellion. Once in France, Arundel helped author the book later called Leicester’s Commonwealth, a massive slander aimed at the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester, which Elizabeth Jenkins summarizes as follows.

This pungent, racy piece of journalism gives a sensational picture of Leicester as a master criminal, with his tribe of poisoners, bawds and abortionists, his Italian ointments and aphrodisiacs, the bottle at his bed’s head worth 10 the pint, “his good fortune in seeing them dead who, for any cause, he would not have to live,” the list of his victims beginning with his wife and ending with the Earl of Sussex.10

That one of Oxford’s two accusers turned into a professional slanderer does not seem relevant to Nelson, who buries his sole mention of Leicester’s Commonwealth in a footnote, which gives no explanation of this notorious libel beyond mislabeling it a “satire.”11

I turn now to the charges made by Charles Arundel against Oxford, specifically: seven counts of atheism; sixteen counts of lying; thirteen counts of setting one person to kill another or setting two men against each other; approximately eight counts of attempted murder; several counts of sodomy and bestiality; continual drunkenness; six counts of bearing grudges against Arundel, Howard, and Southwell; and sixteen counts of undutifulness to the Queen. Henry Howard’s charges bear enough similarity in organization and wording to Arundel’s for Nelson to recognize that the two men were obviously collaborating (259). It is hardly possible now to determine whether Oxford actually did say “that the cobblers’ wives of Milan are more richly dressed every working day than the Queen on Christmas Day,” or whether he did “break into my Lord of Worcester’s house with an intent to murther him and all his men,” as Arundel affirmed. We may, however, look at how several contemporaries responded.12

Francis Southwell’s hand appears only once in the numerous documents of accusation, but that one instance is highly significant. Howard smuggled an abbreviated set of his charges against Oxford to Southwell, with these instructions: “Add to this what particulars soever you have declared of him and they shall be justified. Here is nothing in this paper but may be avowed without danger as hath been determined.” Southwell replied with several annotations and an addendum. Howard’s document lists four items under the heading “Atheism,” thirteen under “Dangerous practices,” and four under “Buggery.” Southwell wrote the Latin word “Audivi,” that is, “I heard [it],” next to two of the blasphemy items, then added two more remarks by Oxford: that Solomon was blessed with 300 concubines, and that the Bible was written to keep men in obedience. In the dangerous practices category, Southwell ignored five charges of attempted murder, while placing his “Audivi” against three instances of Oxford’s railing about the Queen, English Catholics, and the late Duke of Norfolk. Southwell added in the margin that Oxford “promised to sack London, and give me [Alderman] Day['s] house.” Under buggery, Southwell passed over two specific charges, while posting a denial against a third, along with his “Audivi” regarding hearsay of Oxford’s tendencies.

Thus far Southwell indicates that Oxford talked big, but nothing else. Now, however, we come to the addendum, in which Southwell makes clear his enmity toward Oxford.13 He discussed at some length charges related to prophecies, presumably subversive. Then he took up dangerous matters:

I cannot particularly charge my Lord [Oxford] with pedication [pederasty], but with open lewdness of his own speeches, neither with Tom Cooke, nor Powers, nor any else.

I pray, my good Lord [Howard], in any matter of treason he [Oxford] may justly be charged withal let us have care of misprision [concealment]. By my intelligence I hear the Queen’s Majesty hath clearly forgiven him, and therefore let us wisely and safely disable him.

I hear by you [that] Mr. Charles [Arundel] is my dear friend. In faith, my Lord, it is not best, for if the Earl could get one man to aver anything, we were utterly overthrown.

And so in his secret communication with Henry Howard, Southwell specifically stated that he could not accuse Oxford of homosexual acts, but only with having a foul mouth. Further, he warned that he and Howard will be implicated in any accusations of treason they might make against Oxford; I should add that the extent to which Catholic activities in the 1570s might be held treasonous in 1581 would have depended heavily on their context and implications, as well as on the authorities’ attitude toward the accused. Finally Southwell clearly indicated that Arundel faced the greatest danger of prosecution, probably for treason, of any of the four.

However Southwell also said, in the middle quotation above, that he and Howard should “disable” Oxford, for an explanation of which we must turn to the heading of Arundel’s principal document of charges against Oxford.

The strength of this monster’s evidence against my Lord Henry [Howard], Mr. Southwell, and myself weakened and taken down by the sufficient proof of the man’s insufficiency to bear witness against any man of reputation. For these respects [the accusations that follow] no less warranted by laws of honor and of arms than by the civil laws and the laws of our own country. [my emphases]

Although no lawyer, Arundel advanced a legal argument based on three current statutes that required two witnesses for proof of treason, with one statute calling specifically for “two lawful and sufficient witnesses.”14 The first two groups of charges after Arundel’s heading are atheism and lying. Thus, rather than defending against Oxford’s focused charges of sedition or treason, Arundel countercharged with the aim of preventing Oxford from bearing witness. Arundel’s delusion about eliminating Oxford’s testimony crops up later in three letters, which contrast his own seven to eight months of confinement to the freedom of Oxford, “a person convicted of great beastliness.”15 Arundel failed to grasp that Oxford had been convicted of nothing; to put it another way, Arundel, like Nelson, confuses accusation with proof. Meanwhile Southwell also aware of the two witness rule warned Howard that Oxford plus one further witness would destroy them. Southwell apparently used “disable” in the sense of OED definition 2, “to incapacitate legally . . . to hinder or restrain (any person . . .) from performing acts . . . which would otherwise be open to them,” such as bearing witness. One wishes for more testimony from Francis Southwell.

One witness remains on the topic of Oxford’s alleged homosexuality, Orazio Coquo, a Venetian singing boy who came with him from Italy, remained for eleven months in Oxford’s house, and then went home. Henry Howard wrote that “touching buggery” Coquo “complained how horribly my Lord [Oxford] had abused him,” while Arundel added that Coquo “made it [buggery] the quarrel of his departure” (140-1).16 Thanks to Nelson’s impressive research we are able to read the interview of Coquo by the Venetian Inquisition that followed his extended trip to heretic England (155-7). That Coquo said nothing about homosexuality proves little, as he might have preferred to avoid that topic, while the Inquisition’s interest centered on threats to his religion. But, as it happens, Coquo himself brought up his reason for leaving England, which was that a Milanese merchant in London advised him that his Catholicism would be endangered if he remained longer. Otherwise Coquo associated freely with other Italian musicians in London, performed before and spoke to the Queen (who tried to convert him), attended mass at the French and Portuguese Embassies, and reported Oxford as offering religious freedom to those in his household. In short, where Howard and Arundel can be checked against Coquo, their testimony turns out to be false.

But how did the Queen react to Howard and Arundel’s accusations that Oxford tried to murder her favorite, the Earl of Leicester; her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham; her Vice Chamberlain and favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton; Lord Worcester and all his household; Lord Windsor and all his household; as well as a string of other prominent courtiers, including Sir Walter Ralegh and Philip Sidney; not to mention the accusations of buggery, atheism, sedition, disrespect to her own person, etc, etc? Although, as noted above, the Queen swiftly and sharply punished Oxford’s fornication with a maid of honor in the spring of 1581, she refused to take action on the basis of Howard and Arundel’s charges. Her predecessors and successors were certainly capable of punishing crimes committed by peers against lesser folk. Her father hanged Lord Dacre for felony murder and beheaded Lord Hungerford for sodomy and soothsaying, while her sister hanged Lord Stourton for murder. James I hanged Lord Sanquhar for murder, and allowed his favorites, the Earl and Countess of Somerset, to be convicted of murder by poisoning, although he punished them with lengthy imprisonment rather than death, while Charles I beheaded the Earl of Castlehaven for sodomy.

Elizabeth did not ignore Oxford’s misdeeds, although the surviving records fail to clarify the extent to which her disfavor was caused by his dalliance with the maid of honor and his subsequent feud with her kinsmen, or by the accusations of Howard and Arundel. Oxford was forbidden from the Queen’s presence until May 1583, then restored to favor.17 His rehabilitation was presumably enhanced by Throckmorton’s arrest that October, along with Arundel’s flight to France, the expulsion of the Spanish ambassador, and the reincarceration for a year and a half of the ambassador’s hired informant, Lord Henry Howard. Oxford’s fall and rise may also be seen in his standing with the Knights of the Garter and in his military record. Although Oxford received numerous votes in the annual elections for membership in the Order of the Garter from 1571 to 1580, he got no votes in the elections of 1581-4. Clearly the combination of the Howard-Arundel affair, the illegitimate child and subsequent feuding, and the Queen’s disfavor caused a heavy drop in his prestige. But just as clearly his respectable showings in the next three elections, 1585, 1587, and 1588, mark his rehabilitation.18 Apparently the six peers who voted for Oxford in these elections placed little trust in the Howard-Arundel smear. Meanwhile Oxford received offers of military commands in 1585 and 1588, while Howard’s 1587 request to serve against Spain was rejected.19

I have tried in the preceding paragraphs to present the principal evidence on the credibility of the accusations against Oxford in 1580-1. To say that Nelson offers nothing equivalent actually understates the case. Nelson obliterates the whole issue of credibility by spreading most of the accusations across his earlier chapters, with titles like “Necromancy,” “Atheist,” “Sodomite,” and “Prophet.”20 Nelson’s Chapter 48, “Tables Turned,” discusses the charges as a whole in barely one page, including: “We have already considered both the form and substance of most of these charges” (259).21 This statement is perfectly true, as long as we realize that Nelson’s “substance” simply means “content.” The question of credibility never arises in Nelson’s text. The critical testimony of Francis Southwell does not appear, even in a footnote.22 The disagreement between Orazio Coquo’s statement to the Inquisition and what Howard and Arundel said about him goes unnoticed.23 Arundel’s connection to the Throckmorton plot is ignored, while his later profession as a manufacturer of defamation against Leicester is hidden in an uninformative footnote. Henry Howard’s life of machinations, especially his role as a paid agent of Spain in the early 1580s, and as accomplice to his great niece, the murderous Countess of Somerset, go unmentioned. Although Howard died the year before the Countess’s sensational trial, the obscenity of his letters, which were read in court, stunned contemporary observers,24 a point of particular relevance to our evaluation of the obscenities Howard charged against Oxford. And Queen Elizabeth, in Nelson’s telling, comes across as a spineless ninny, quite at variance with the portrait painted by her many biographers.

Nelson maintains his evasiveness in his recitation of the charges made by Oxford and Thomas Norton against Howard and Arundel (254-8), which have nothing to do with bizarre personal behavior, but everything to do with Catholic invasion and rebellion.25 Nelson’s verdict is that Oxford was guilty of betrayal, hypocrisy, petty-mindedness, and a lack of mental control (258). Only readers sensitized to Nelson’s ways will notice his failure to say that Oxford’s charges were false and herein lies a mystery. It could be that even Nelson recognizes the fatuity of denying that Henry Howard and Charles Arundel were Catholic conspiratorsor it could simply be an oversight. The latter possibility, that is, lack of authorial control, draws support from the final sentence of Chapter 47, which accuses Oxford of “cramming his paper with . . . hatred and resentment of the whole Howard clan” (258). Oxford’s two page paper makes no mention of the Howard family, but only names Henry Howard, along with one neutral reference to his brother. Despite Nelson’s frenzy concerning Oxford’s alleged hatred of his Howard cousins (249 and 251), Charles, Lord Admiral Howard of Effingham, voted for Oxford in the Garter elections from 1585 to 1588.

No responsible historian would ignore the political and religious context of Oxford’s quarrel with Howard and Arundel. No real historian would fail to compare Howard and Arundel’s accusations against Oxford to their subsequent conduct: Howard’s record as a paid agent of Spain, and Arundel’s series of lies in Leicester’s Commonwealth. And no historian would both suppress and misrepresent the critical evidence of Francis Southwell. Nelson falls short on all counts.

III. Nelson’s Style

I now turn from specific events to Nelson’s style, in particular his penchant for suppression of evidence, insinuation, and outright cheap shot. Before offering examples, I will expand the quotation from his “Introduction” that I placed at the start of this article: “I beg the open-minded reader to join me in holding the mature Oxford responsible for his own life, letting the documentary evidence speak for itself” (5). As we shall see, Nelson is unwilling to let the evidence speak freely to the reader, presumably because he will not get the outcome he desires. The examples that follow could easily be multiplied tenfold. Incidentally, identifying the quirks of Nelson’s style offers a peculiar charm to readers who succeed in overcoming the notion that Monstrous Adversary should be regarded as a genuine work of biography or history.

Thomas Fowle, the Cambridge M.A. who had been Oxford’s tutor in 1558, was among a group of Puritan clergymen that committed a disorderly protest in Norwich Cathedral in 1570, and Fowle later participated in the lawful suppression of Catholicism and promotion of Puritanism. Nelson informs us that this background “suggests that [Oxford] was tutored during his formative years by a religious fanatic of violent temper” (25). The sight of a professor from Berkeley, of all places, growing hysterical over a protest demonstration is truly amusing. But, of course, Nelson’s target is not Fowle, but Oxford, as Nelson adumbrates his ominous future. I would also like to single out Nelson’s weaselly verb, “suggests,” apparently designed to deflect criticism, as in: “I only suggested . . .”

In June 1563, the scholar Lawrence Nowell wrote that his instruction of Oxford, then age thirteen, “cannot be much longer required.” Nelson comments: “Perhaps Oxford had surpassed Nowell’s capacity to instruct him. More likely since nothing indicates that Oxford was an enthusiastic student, and much indicates that he was not, Nowell found the youth intractable” (39). Here Nelson at least allows for both good and bad possibilities, although he provides no support for the opinion he places inside the hyphens. But later in the book Nelson returns to this episode: “Lawrence Nowell . . . declare[d] the 17th Earl incapable of further instruction” (437). So much for the pretence of objectivity.

Oxford experienced illness for a few months in 1569-70, then headed north to join the Earl of Sussex’s punitive expedition into Scotland. From Oxford’s medical expenses, plus the fact that a few of his later book dedications came from apothecaries, Nelson opines that, “we may infer that Oxford was chronically sickly, hypochondriacal, or both” (51). Once again Nelson qualifies his childish logic with a weaselly verb, “may infer” after all, he may infer whatever he likes but the plural subject, “we,” means that Nelson refuses even to accept responsibility for the inference.

The concluding paragraph of Nelson’s chapter on Oxford’s marriage in December 1571 opens thus: “It is difficult to believe that the happiness of the couple was complete” (77). The supporting evidence is the fact that Oxford’s bride was a virgin, along with Nelson’s opinion that Oxford was a “buck,” although Nelson offers no evidence that the buck was not also a virgin. Note that Nelson’s requirement for happiness is both unmeasurable and absolute, not merely that the couple’s happiness might have been very great or almost complete. Note also the passive voice, which prevents us from knowing who finds it difficult to believe that this unmeasurable absolute requirement was met. In short, Nelson’s verdict is meaningless.

In 1572 Oxford gained possession of his inheritance, drawing Nelson to remark: “On May 30 the license Oxford had anticipated for most of his conscious life was finally issued” (83). No weasel verb here! Nelson forthrightly presents opinion as fact, but, alas, we are not informed whether the alleged fact is based on tangible evidence or on mind reading.

Nelson’s Chapter 21 consists of miscellaneous items from January to June 1573. He concludes with the observation that Oxford’s wife, age seventeen and a half years, had yet to become pregnant after two and a half years of marriage. Nelson insinuates: “To the extent that Oxford had been sexually active since December 1571, it was evidently with partners other than his young, pretty, and lawful wife” (107). Again the passive voice, along with an insinuation of adultery without a scrap of supporting evidence.

Speaking of the “sodomitical multiple sins . . . laid against Oxford,” Nelson avers that we have “active witnesses in the figures of Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell (before he got cold feet)” (214). Nelson’s words clearly imply that Southwell said something implicating Oxford in sodomy, but then got scared. In fact, Southwell’s only comment was, as given in the previous section: “I cannot particularly charge my Lord [Oxford] with pedication,” etc. In this instance, Nelson not only suppresses evidence, he misrepresents the suppressed denial as an affirmation.

Oxford’s first wife died of a fever on June 5, 1588 and was buried at Westminster Abbey on June 25. Nelson quotes an account of her funeral which lists two groups of participants in the ritual: mourners and carriers of banners. Nelson then cites the observation of Lord Burghley’s biographer, Conyers Read: “It is not recorded that her husband was among those present” (309). And so Nelson would have us conclude that Oxford deserted his wife in death. The trouble with this conclusion, which probably explains why Nelson hides behind Read’s authority, is that neither Lord Burghley nor his two sons are recorded among those present, and so it seems that the Countess of Oxford was also deserted by her father and brothers.26 Actually all of them may have been there, but not in the two recorded categories of mourners or banner carriers. Their absence, on the other hand, might be explained by the fact that the Spanish Armada sailed from Lisbon for England in May, although, unknown to the English, it was regrouping in Corunna on the date of the funeral.

In September 1595 Oxford received a letter of thanks from Henry IV of France for assisting in some unknown business with Queen Elizabeth. Nelson’s conclusion on this episode: “Similar letters sent on the same day to Burghley and the Lord Admiral [Howard of Effingham], and an even longer letter to [the Earl of] Essex, suggest that Oxford’s letter had no personal significance” (349). A minimally competent historian would have noted that Oxford’s association in the eyes of the King of France with the three most powerful and prestigious noblemen in England indicates that Oxford remained a figure of some consequence.

IV. Reading Nelson Against the Grain

Despite Nelson’s efforts to portray Oxford’s life as a half century of unbroken shame and disgrace, some positive aspects may be gleaned by readers who know where to look and who possess the requisite background knowledge. To begin with, save for the period 1581-3, Oxford remained in favor with his hard-to-please sovereign Queen Elizabeth until her death. Moreover, her perception of his ability and loyalty caused her to choose him for military commands against Spain in 1585 and 1588.

Nelson meticulously records the fairly impressive vote totals that Oxford received for the prestigious Order of the Garter during 1569-80 and 1585-8.27 Nelson predictably invents an unpleasant explanation for Oxford’s failure to gain any votes thereafter until 1604.28 Regarding his presumption that Oxford refused the Harwich command in 1588, Nelson imagines that: “the Queen did not forget the truth: while she lived, Oxford never received another vote for the Order of the Garter” (319). Aside from the lack of any evidence supporting this assertion, Nelson supposes Elizabeth as a moral coward who was unable to forbid Oxford from taking a prominent place in her victory celebration, but who chose instead to secretly blackball him with regard to the Knights of the Garter. Rather out of character for Elizabeth Tudor, especially as Nelson knows that she regularly ignored the vote totals and picked whomever she preferred for the Garter, while her deep disfavor for the Earl of Southampton did not prevent him from garnering a goodly number of Garter votes in 1599 and 1600. But more can be profitably said on this topic.

Perhaps Oxford did not go to Harwich in 1588. Military history is full of soldiers, including some famous ones like George Patton, who used any hook or crook to get to the battle zone and avoid the rear echelon. The superiors of such men may well have regarded them as infernal nuisances, but no one calls them shirkers except Nelson. But Nelson’s contextual ignorance spills over into areas of his supposed competence. In 1589, the year after Oxford’s supposed disgrace, Edmund Spenser wrote dedicatory sonnets to fourteen men, one of whom was Oxford, for the first edition of Faerie Queene. Nelson prints the sonnet to Oxford (383) but misses the context. The other thirteen men were Hatton, Burghley, Northumberland, Cumberland, Essex, Ormond, Howard of Effingham, Hunsdon, Grey of Wilton, Buckhurst, Walsingham, Sir John Norris, and Ralegh. Aside from Grey and Norris, to whom Spenser had personal connections, the other eleven were the top movers and shakers at Elizabeth’s Court.29 Like the supposedly deluded Henry IV of France, Spenser somehow managed to insert Oxford into this roll call of the mighty.

Oxford maintained relations, both friendly and unfriendly, with Sir Walter Ralegh over a period of twenty-five years, but Nelson bungles their last known connection. After Essex’s rebellion and execution in February 1601, Ralegh rose to the peak of his power and influence with the Queen, thereby eliciting from Oxford a witticism about upstarts, which was recorded by Francis Bacon and Sir Robert Naunton. Nelson reports these facts, but somehow twists them into a tale of Oxford gloating over Ralegh’s downfall (397), which actually took place in 1603, and about which Oxford is not known to have expressed any opinion. Ralegh’s destruction, incidentally, was engineered by the viperous Lord Henry Howard, who poisoned the mind of King James against Ralegh, naming him, among other things, “the greatest Lucifer that hath lived in our age,” in a series of letters from 1601-03.30

I will end this section by mentioning several of Oxford’s friends. During his separation from his first wife, 1576-81, Oxford formed a double connection to Catherine Bertie, dowager Duchess of Suffolk, whom Nelson mistakenly calls a Countess (172-3, 176-7). In summer 1577 Oxford’s sister and the Duchess’s son decided to marry, but Oxford objected to the match, reportedly threatening death to his sister’s fiancee while the Duchess objected to Oxford’s religion, unbridled tongue, and general demeanor. Nelson misses the obvious problem, which is that Oxford had become, or was soon to become, a Catholic, while the Duchess was a staunch Puritan who had fled England during Queen Mary’s reign. But by December the Duchess said to Oxford’s sister that, “now I wish to your brother as much good as to my own son.” Meanwhile the Duchess tried to arrange a seemingly accidental meeting between Oxford and his infant daughter as a prelude to repairing his marriage. Otherwise, the wedding of Oxford’s sister to the Duchess’s son proceeded, and Oxford became the friend of his new brother-in-law.31

The poems in Nathaniel Baxter’s 1606 Ourania include three eulogistic stanzas on Oxford (430-1), which merit examination as an acquaintance’s reflection on Oxford’s life. Baxter’s first stanza essentially hails Oxford’s prowess in tournaments which occurred in the 1570s and 80s. The first three lines of the second stanza allow that Oxford wasted his fortune, while lauding him as learned, just, affable, and plain (presumably meaning honest or candid; OED, adjective, iv). The next four lines refer to the Howard-Arundel affair, denying that Oxford plotted against the Queen, but only that he put his trust in men who proved unjust. The third stanza returns to Oxford’s learning, which displayed his honor as fruits prove the goodness of a tree. Baxter earns credit for his candor and courage, first by admitting that Oxford was a wastrel, secondly by defending him in the Howard-Arundel matter, as Henry Howard had by then become Earl of Northampton, a privy councilor, and a confidant of King James. Otherwise Baxter gives us four positive adjectives, perhaps appropriate tokens of a life that fell short of its promise.

Nelson spends a considerable number of words trying to portray Oxford as a sex fiend, although, prior to the appearance of Nelson’s book, Oxford was known to have strayed only once in his life: his affair with the maid of honor in 1580-1. But Nelson doubles the count: a lighthearted letter from an English knight in Venice in 1587 reveals an old liaison between Oxford and the knight’s neighbor, one Virginia Padoana, whom Nelson identified as a courtesan or high class prostitute (138-9). Score for Nelson! I also award him credit for printing the courtesan’s reaction, as recorded by the knight, to a man she knew eleven years earlier: “Virginia Padoana . . . honoreth all our nation for my Lord of Oxford’s sake.” Not a bad compliment.

V. Conclusion

There is a maddening disparity between Nelson the diligent research assistant and Nelson the puerile demonizer. An objective scholar could have transformed Nelson’s materials on Oxford’s turbulent and messy life into an illuminating study of Elizabeth’s Court. Instead readers of Monstrous Adversary end up asking who went further off the rails: Oxford or Nelson? And yet Nelson’s approach to his belief that historical texts can be made to say whatever he wants them to say did not arise from a void.

I noted at the start of this essay that Nelson cannot do history but, after all, he is a literature professor, not a historian. Nelson’s treatment of historical texts is, in a surreal sense, a product of his academic discipline. Frederick Crews, one of Nelson’s colleagues at the Berkeley English Department, lampooned the wackier tendencies in modern literary criticism in his two bestsellers, The Pooh Perplex (1963) and Postmodern Pooh (2001). Each book describes an imaginary conference where a group of academic critics analyzes the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, with each critic following his or her own specialty: Freudianism, Marxism, new historicism, post-colonialism, and so on. The critics regard Pooh as belonging to them individually, to be supplied with authorial intention, context, and meaning to suit each critic’s tastes. In other words, the critic owns the text. One of Crews’s characters, a cyberporn expert, concludes his interpretation with this advice: “If you want to make something else out of it, be my guest just so you don’t call your idea the point of the poem. The same rule applies to Winnie-the-Pooh, which is so easy to jam your own thoughts into that you can do it on autopilot after a while . . . The sky’s the limit if you cheat a little by leaving out whatever doesn’t fit your theory.”32

There, in a nutshell, is Monstrous Adversary: the application to historical documents of such fashionable lit-crit inanities as “the author is dead” and “all reading is misreading.” Nelson wrenches his documents from their backgrounds, which he then replaces with his own commentary to support his thesis that Oxford was a monster. Nelson no more acknowledges an obligation to the normal rules of historical scholarship than a deconstructionist recognizes rules of literary scholarship. And just as the poststructuralist believes that texts are infinitely malleable, so Nelson feels entitled to recreate the past to suit his fancies.



  1. As a distinguished historian recently explained: “Common sense is prone to assert that ‘the facts speak for themselves’. Historians know that this is just what they don’t do. Facts . . . have to be scrutinized against a background, a setting, in a context.” Richard Fletcher, Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2003), 6.
  2. Nelson’s introductory remark on his documents adds that he, “felt duty-bound to point out their significance for an accurate estimation of Oxford’s character.” As it turns out, this does not mean establishing the documents’ contexts, but only asserting their implications.
  3. See documents 3.1[3] and 4.2[2] on Nelson’s website.
  4. This passage is in Nelson’s document 4.3[1.2], which he mentions on p. 206 as “(LIB-1/2).” I have modernized this and subsequent quotations.
  5. See my “Response to Alan Nelson’s ‘Oxford in Venice: New Light on an Old Question,’” Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter , v. 31, n. 2B (Spring 1995), 7-11.
  6. Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (New York, 1960), 322-4. See also Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester (New York, 1961), 303-6.
  7. Nelson and I both give the Old Style (O.S.) dates used in Elizabethan England, while the Spanish and most modern books use the New Style (N.S.) introduced in 1582, which adds ten days, e.g., July 19 O.S. is July 29 N.S.
  8. See Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I (New York, 1991), 385-94.
  9. Howard was readmitted to Elizabeth’s presence around 1597; see Linda Levy Peck, Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I (London, 1982), 15.
  10. Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (New York, 1958), 257.
  11. Reference to “satire,” p. 275. On p. 472, Chapter 51, note 3, Nelson attempts to overturn the judgment of the modern editor of Leicester’s Commonwealth, D. C. Peck, on Arundel’s authorial involvement, without offering the least justification for his bare opinion.
  12. See Nelson’s website documents 4.2 by Arundel and 3.1, 3.2, and 3.6 by Howard.
  13. Nelson’s documents 3.6.1 and 3.6.2.
  14. Statutes of the Realm, 1 Edward VI, c. 12, §22; 5&6 Edward VI, c. 11, §9; 1&2 Philip & Mary, c. 10, §11, my emphasis. See my “Hamlet and the Two Witness Rule,” Notes and Queries, 44 (Dec. 97), 498-503.
  15. Nelson’s documents 2.3.3, 5.7, and 5.8. On the treason statutes and witnesses, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford, 1765-9), 3.363-70; 4.350-2
  16. See also Nelson’s documents 3.6.1[3] by Howard and 4.2[6.4] by Arundel.
  17. Nelson understates the period of Oxford’s disfavor by having the Queen award him a tournament prize in November 1581 (177-8); the tournament was actually in 1584. See Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth (Berkeley, 1977), 134; and Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great, 258.
  18. See my article, “The Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter,” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, v. 32, n. 2 (Spring 1996), 1, 8-11; online here.
  19. Dictionary of National Biography, Howard, Henry, Earl of Northampton.
  20. Chaps. 13, 40-2. See also pp. 140-1, 166-7, Chaps. 31, 35, 37-9, and 44.
  21. Chap. 48 is slightly over two pages long, but half of it consists of quotations; the half written by Nelson is a little over one page.
  22. The suppression of Southwell’s evidence is on pp. 204, 214, and 259. Actually Nelson does cite Southwell’s refusal to charge Oxford with pederasty, but changes the verb from Southwell’s “can not” to “will not” (214).
  23. Compare pp. 140-1, 213, and 215 to pp. 155-7.
  24. See Peck, Northampton, 11 and 220, n. 17, on Howard as a Spanish spy; and 38-40 and 225, nn. 70-2, on his role in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. I should add that while Howard clearly arranged for the false imprisonment of Overbury, he may not have been involved in the actual murder.
  25. See also documents 2.1.1, 2.1.3, 2.1.4, and 2.2.1 on Nelson’s website.
  26. Sir Philip Sidney’s funeral procession is detailed in a book of 32 plates showing 320 men, while indicating an actual total of 484. Seven men, including Sidney’s two brothers, are designated as “mourners,” while nine men carry flags. Sidney’s widow and sister are omitted, probably because the women waited for the procession at the cathedral. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney, Courtier Poet (New Haven, 1991), 308-39.
  27. See Nelson’s Index under “Garter.”
  28. “The Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter,” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, v. 32, n. 2, 1, 8-11.
  29. Faerie Queene was printed in 1590, but was registered for publication in Dec. 1589. Spenser had been Grey’s secretary in Ireland, while Norris was governor of Munster, the province where Spenser lived. Of the thirteen men, all were or became Knights of the Garter, save Ralegh, Walsingham, and Norris. Fourteen of England’s eighteen earls (as of Dec. 1589; Leicester, incidentally, died in 1588) did not get dedicatory sonnets.
  30. Peck, Northampton, 19-21.
  31. See Nelson’s Index entries for Bertie, Peregrine, and Vere, Mary.
  32. Frederick Crews, Postmodern Pooh (New York, 2001), 137.

A Flawed Life of Oxford

By Joseph Sobran

This article was first published in the Fall 2003 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Since 1920, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, has emerged as the favorite candidate of most anti-Stratfordians for authorship of the Shakespeare works. He has by now eclipsed the chief previous challenger, Francis Bacon. Yet professional scholars have paid little attention to Oxford, except to ridicule claims of his authorship of the greatest plays in English literature.

Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Liverpool UP, 527 pp.), by Alan H. Nelson, is only the second biography of its subject, the first being Bernard M. Wards 1928 The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604. Both books are important contributions to the Shakespeare authorship debate. Ward was driven by the conviction that Oxford was “Shakespeare”; Nelson aims to refute, by implication, the Oxfordian thesis.

Nelson, who teaches English at Berkeley, goes far deeper into the documentary records than the amateur scholar Ward did. Even Oxford’s partisans must be grateful for his diligence. One thing is certain: the authorship debate will never be the same.

Oddly enough, Nelson refuses to admit that he is joining battle in the debate. He refers to it in derisive quotation marks as the “authorship controversy,” as if it werent really a controversy at all, even though he has been a vigorous participant in it for many years. I myself have debated him twice, in San Francisco and Washington, and he reviewed my pro-Oxford book Alias Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Quarterly. And it is obvious that the only reason Oxford merits a biography at all is that he has become the most plausible challenger for the claim to the Shakespeare works.

“My main purpose,” Nelson assures us in his introduction, “is to introduce documents from Oxford’s life, many of them written in Oxford’s own hand. Since documents alone do not make a biography, however, I have felt duty-bound to point out their significance for an accurate estimation of Oxford’s character. If I judge Oxford harshly from the outset, it is because I neither can nor wish to suppress what I have learned along the way. True believers will of course spin Oxford’s reprehensible acts into benevolent gestures, or will transfer blame from Oxford to Burghley, Leicester, Queen Elizabeth, or even to Oxford’s much-abused wife Anne. I beg the open-minded reader to join me in holding the mature Oxford responsible for his own life, letting the documentary evidence speak for itself.”

But already we sense a problem. If the documents speak for themselves, why is it necessary to “point out their significance”? Is it only “true believers” who “spin” the evidence?

Despite his pre-emptive charges against these “true believers” (who he assumes will not be “open-minded” about the facts), Nelson is generous to Oxfordians for their efforts to shed light on Oxford’s life and he names several to whom he is indebted. Oxfordians, for their part, now stand in Nelson’s debt for breaking much new ground in his research, even if it is unflattering to (and strongly biased against) their candidate.

Nelson calls Oxfordian scholars “partisan,” which is fair enough, but he is hardly impartial himself. His clear purpose is to discredit Oxford in almost every respect. He portrays him as an “egotist,” “thug,” “sodomite,” “atheist,” “vulture,” traitor, murderer, rapist, pederast, adulterer, libeler, fop, playboy, truant, tax evader, drunkard, snob, spendthrift, deadbeat, cheat, blackmailer, malcontent, hypocrite, conspirator, and ingrate. Some of this finds support in the records, as even Oxford’s admirers usually acknowledge, but it hardly proves what Nelson wants it to prove: that Oxford couldnt have written the Shakespeare works. After all, many great writers have been men of dubious character.

It is true enough that Oxford made plenty of enemies; but he also made plenty of loyal friends. Impartial, “open-minded” scholarship would hardly accept the charges of his enemies with total credulity, while ignoring or dismissing the word of his friends. Yet this is Nelson’s method.

Nelson seldom misses a chance to disparage Oxford. Apparently his years of research have failed to turn up a single fact to Oxford’s credit. The readers respect for his impressive scholarship soon gives way to weariness at his obsessive denigration, which shows him no less biased than those who adulate Oxford. He is always ready to believe Oxford’s most scurrilous foes. He takes the phrase “monstrous adversary” from one of them, who in the same sentence says luridly that Oxford “would drink my blood” but he largely omits the many contemporary tributes to Oxford’s genius (unless he can ascribe them to base motives). About the only thing Nelson is willing to credit Oxford with is elegant penmanship.

Though Nelson belittles Oxford as a poet, a scholar, and even a letter-writer, he has oddly little to say about his high literary reputation in his own day. Only about twenty short lyrics have survived under Oxford’s name, but they hardly suffice for an evaluation; he must have written much more than that to draw such generous and copious praise (little of which Nelson cites). And though none of Oxford’s highly lauded plays have survived under his name, Nelson is willing to assume that they were of no particular merit. He bases his attacks entirely on slight evidence, when he would have been wise to heed Richard Whately’s dictum: “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” It is certain that Oxford produced a substantial body of work, whether or not this included the Shakespeare plays and poems, and that this commanded great respect. Nelson makes his judgment of what is missing on a very fragmentary record and on his own antipathy to Oxford.

He even argues, from a few minor grammatical errors in casual letters, that Oxford’s Latin was poor, in spite of the testimony of a hostile witness (whom he does quote) that Oxford “spoke Latin and Italian well.” He also neglects to mention that Oxford wrote an elegant Latin preface to a translation of Castigliones The Courtier and that Oxford, during a two-week visit to the noted scholar Johann Sturmius, evidently conversed with Sturmius entirely in Latin. Since Nelson eagerly presents (and amplifies) every detail he can find that seems damaging to Oxford, it is suspicious that he suppresses so much that is favorable to him.

In short, Nelson argues that Oxford was a scoundrel, ergo he couldn’t have been “Shakespeare.” This non sequitur informs the whole book. The same argument was advanced by the late A.L. Rowse, who offered as conclusive proof the fact that Oxford was accused of being, as Rowse put it, a “homo.” Of course this fact may tell the other way: I think the Shakespeare Sonnets, or at least the first 126, are now widely recognized as being homosexual love poems (as I contended in my own book). Beyond that, a major theme of the Sonnets is the poets recurrent lament that he is “in disgrace,” something Oxford had reason to complain of, though William of Stratford apparently didn’t.

Because Nelson ostensibly excludes the “authorship controversy” from consideration, he doesn’t feel he must confront the seeming links between Oxford and “Shakespeare.” Thus, for example, he says hardly anything of the young Earl of Southampton, whom Lord Burghley, Oxford’s father-in-law, tried to marry off to Oxford’s daughter in the early 1590s, the same time, it appears, that “Shakespeare” was urging Southampton (or someone remarkably like him) to marry and beget a son.

In fact, the earls of Southampton, Pembroke, and Montgomery the three dedicatees of the Shakespeare works were all, at various times, candidates for the hands of Oxford’s three daughters. An interesting coincidence, at least, but Nelson’s biographical strategy allows him to avoid mentioning it. The same strategy allows him to deal only glancingly, if at all, with other interesting coincidences. Two of the chief literary influences on “Shakespeare,” Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey) and Arthur Golding (translator of Ovid), were Oxford’s uncles. Many details of Oxford’s 1575-6 Italian journey pop up in the Shakespeare works. Phrases from Oxford’s letters frequently appear in those works too. Burghley himself, as many orthodox Stratfordian scholars have discerned, is clearly the model for the snooping Polonius. Oxford, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates in the English Channel.

All this is missing from Nelson’s biography. He does mention that those “true believers” think Oxford was Shakespeare, but he leaves the impression that he has no idea why they think so, just as he has no idea why Edmund Spenser, George Puttenham, Francis Meres, and many other Elizabethan writers called Oxford a poet and playwright of great distinction — except that they somehow thought it worth their while to curry favor with the most impecunious patron in England. For Oxford received his most lavish praise after he had wasted his huge family fortune and was reduced to wheedling for money himself. From a cynics point of view, he was no longer worth flattering. He was truly “in disgrace with fortune and mens eyes.” Yet some men loved and admired him.

Agreeing with Oxford’s enemies, Nelson, in spite of his own intent, makes this “monstrous adversary” a man of dimension, an abundant personality, too energetic and colorful to be dismissed by moralistic censure. The book reads like a Puritan American parsons biography of Falstaff. All the author can see in his subject is pure vice. That is all he is equipped to perceive. But the subject escapes the biographers categories. Sinful as he no doubt is, he is alive. Everything you can say against him may be true, in a narrow and literal sense. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” But beware of being “right” about such a man.

Rarely has an author so nakedly loathed his subject. I have read more dispassionate biographies of Hitler and Stalin. Nelson’s disapproval of Oxford recalls Tolstoy’s detestation of Shakespeare.

Having relieved himself of the duty of facing evidence in favor of Oxford’s authorship, Nelson simply pretends it doesn’t exist. Yet in his review of my own book, he had no choice but to confront it, since I spent 30 pages on the Sonnets alone. Far from treating the argument as absurd, Nelson could only offer the weak rejoinder that the poets self-portrait might, if only we had more data, match William Shakspere as closely as it matches Oxford. “The Sonnets,” he wrote, “may bear a distinct relationship to what we do not know [about Shakspere] (which must be vastly more than what we know); nor are they by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about Shakspere].”

But Nelson failed to explain how any new information could possibly make Shakspere appear as an aging man of high social rank who had fallen into disrepute by the 1590s. The best he could offer was the risible suggestion that Shakspere might have “felt” older than he actually was because he was “prematurely balding”a desperate guess based solely on the Folio portrait, since we have no reason to assume that Shaksperes hairline had receded “prematurely” and the poet refers to his “lines and wrinkles,” but not his hair loss. And early baldness, however unwelcome, would hardly give its victim a sense of impending death.

The poet also twice speaks of himself as “lame” the very word Oxford used of himself in several letters he wrote in the 1590s. (We have no indication that Shakspere was lame.) He mysteriously hopes his “name” will be “buried” and “forgotten” after his death, which he would hardly do if he were putting his real name on his published works (which he expects to outlive him). He uses about two hundred legal terms, some fifty of which also appear in Oxford’s private letters; the Sonnets also use dozens of the same words, images, metaphors, and arguments we find in Oxford’s 1573 published letter to Thomas Bedingfield. In that review, as in his book, Nelson has nothing to say about all these coincidences. He merely adopts an air of assumed authority to evidence which many readers have found overwhelming.

The Sonnets offer perhaps the strongest evidence in favor of Oxford’s authorship. They have always made Stratfordian scholars uneasy, because what they tell us is so hard to square with even “the little that is known” about Stratford’s William. The very fact that they are often described as “fictional” tells us how feeble any biographical nexus with William is. If he had written them, surely they would be the strongest and most irrefutable proof of his authorship, and there would be no need to place them in the category of mere inventions or pure “literary exercises,” as so many orthodox scholars do.

We may state the point even more forcefully. If William had written the Sonnets, their contents would naturally be the starting point for all Shakespeare biography. After all, they would have the status of the poets unquestionable self-revelations, and all other biographical data would have to be organized around them. In that case, the Sonnets alone would have ruled out any doubt of their authors identity, and no “authorship controversy” would have been possible.

Instead, the biographers have had to organize their data around the dubious Folio testimony of William’s authorship, consigning the Sonnets to a marginal place in the sketchy story of William’s life. Only because we do know so little about his life is it barely possible to imagine the Sonnets as his own account of himself, and even at that they present baffling difficulties. But if we accept Oxford as their author, the puzzles evaporate and they make excellent sense. This is why Nelson could claim no more than that if we knew enough about William, they might make as much sense as they do if read as Oxford’s self-disclosures. In effect, he conceded that our present knowledge favors, and does nothing to disprove, Oxford’s authorship of the Sonnets.

The Shakespeare works also display their authors familiarity with contemporary Italy, as Ernesto Grillo showed in his book Shakespeare and Italy. In the same review, Nelson could only suggest that it was “not impossible” that Shakspere had visited Italy too, “perhaps” in a company of traveling actors (though again there is no evidence whatever for this improbable surmise). In his book he altogether fails to mention striking links between Oxford’s letters from Italy and Shakespeares Italian plays.

The only reason Nelson wrote this book and the only reason anyone will read it is the “authorship controversy” Nelson both deprecates and dodges. Though Monstrous Adversary is beyond question an important addition to that debate, readers can draw their own conclusions from the fact that Oxford’s detractors continue to find it necessary to deal with the evidence so disingenuously.


Syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran is author of Alias Shakespeare, among other books. His website is located at

A Beginner’s Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem





1) Introduction to the Shakespeare authorship problem

2) Honor Roll of Skeptics
The ever growing list of influential literary, cultural and political figures who doubt the Stratford story.
Maintained on a separate page.

3) History of the doubts surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Maintained on a separate page.

4) Summary of the doubts surrounding the Stratfordian attribution.

5) Why not Bacon, Marlowe or Derby?

6) The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare”

7) A comparison of Edward de Vere with “William Shakespeare”


1) Introduction to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem

In the following pages, the Shakespeare Oxford Society argues two related propositions:

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

Stratfordian scholars, in rebutting our first proposition, rely on three basic points:

1) the prefatory “testimony” of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623, seven years after the Stratford citizen’s death,

2) the sundry collections of “traditions” later published by several so-called “ancient witnesses” (none of them, however, boasting of personal acquaintance with the putative “author”)

3) the lack of any challenge to this attribution during the century following Shakspere’s death.

We believe, on the other hand, that these points constitute an insufficient barrier to the major piece of negative evidence: the inability, after 300 years of arduous search, to find a single document which connects the Stratford man to literary activity of any kind, much less to the composition of the world’s greatest drama and verse. All of the evidence in the Stratfordians’ arsenal is posthumous; it is, moreover, entirely consistent with the skeptics’ hypothesis that there was a concerted effort in Tudor and Jacobean times to keep the authorship hidden.

As to our second proposition –that Edward de Vere is most likely the true author– Stratfordians try to rule out his candidacy on two counts:

1) that his death in 1604 bars him from writing several plays they believe (but cannot prove) were written later, and

2) that the quality of de Vere’s published early poetry is inferior to that of Shakespeare.

We will let the respected Stratfordian scholar, Sir Edmund K. Chambers, rebut the first argument when he concedes that the entire dating process of Shakespearean composition is “conjectural.” And we suspect that the alleged “inferiority” of Oxford’s acknowledged verse is a value judgment rendered by those opposed to giving Oxford any credit. Readers can judge for themselves whether these “early poems” have a Shakespearean sound and tone to them by visiting the page The Poems of Edward de Vere.

In the sections that follow we provide a brief history of this issue, and an outline of the reasons that we believe that the direct and circumstantial evidence from Elizabethan days weighs against the Stratford attribution and for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.


2) Honor Roll of Skeptics Maintained on a separate page.


3) History of the doubts surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays Maintained on a separate page.


4) A summary of the doubts surrounding the Stratfordian attribution

Shakespeare, alone of all the great writers in Western civilization, is unique in the enigma he presents. Despite two hundred years of scholarly attempts to establish the Stratford man’s credentials, doubts of the author’s identity simply won’t go away. The very multitude of candidates proposed in substitution for William Shakspere (or Shaxper) of Stratford defines the difficulties a growing number of people find in accepting his authorship. The reason is that as Henry James said, “The facts of Stratford do not ‘square’ with the plays of genius…”:

-There is no reference during the lifetime of Shakepere of Stratford (1564-1616) which either speaks of the author of the Shakespearean works as having come from Stratford or speaks of the Stratford man as being an author. (The first indication that the author of Shakespeare’s plays came from Stratford appears, ambiguously, in the prefatory materials of the 1623 First Folio.)

-In an age of copious eulogies, none was forthcoming when William Shakspere died in Stratford. William Camden in his book Remaines had praised the author “Shakespeare”, but in his Annals for the year 1616 Camden omits mention of the Stratford man’s death. Also, in the list of Stratford Worthies of 1605 Camden omits the Stratford man’s name, even though Camden had previously passed on Shakspere’s application for a family coat of arms. (The inference is that it did not occur to Camden that the author, “Shakespeare”, and the Stratford man were the same person.) The first memorial verse to “Shakespeare” appears in the 1623 Folio.

- There is no mention in the documents of the time of a Shakespeare’s, or a Shakspere’s, intimate acquaintance with the inner court circles as has been implied by such contemporaries as Ben Jonson, later seventeenth-century commentators such as John Ward, the author’s dedications to the Earl of Southampton of two poems, and internal evidence from Shakespeare’s works.

- The author of Shakespeare’s works had to be familiar with a wide body of knowledge for his time — on such subjects as law, music, foreign languages, the classics, and aristocratic manners and sports. There is no documentation that William Shakspere of Stratford had access to such information.

- Despite evidence of Shakspere’s unspecified connection with the theater, documentation of any career as an actor is conspicuously absent. For example, there is no record of any part he may have played, and only two posthumous traditions to bit parts. Contrary to all this, the 1623 Folio lists ‘William Shakespeare” at the head of “…the Principall Actors in all these Playes.” Since the hint that the author came from Stratford is also made here for the first time, the dubiousness of the one claim should make us suspect the other as well.

- In the Stratford man’s will, noteworthy for its detailed disposition of household furniture, there is no mention of books, library, manuscripts, or of any literary interest. Indeed, the only theatrical connection there appears as an interlined bequest to three actors.

- The only specimens of William Shakspere’s handwriting to come down to us are six almost illegible signatures, each formed differently from the others, and each from the latter period of his life (none earlier than 1612). Three of these signatures are on his will, one is on a deposition in someone else’s breach of promise case, and two are on property documents. None of these has anything to do with literature. The first syllable, incidentally, in all these signatures is spelled “Shak”, whereas the published plays and poems consistently spell the name “Shake”.

- There is no evidence that William Shakepere had left Stratford for London before 1585 (with the birth of his twins). This 1585 date is providing a great difficulty as more commentators find earlier dates for the composition of certain plays and poems.


5) Why not Bacon, Marlowe or Derby…?

For many readers who begin looking into this issue there is an understandable question that arises even if one does begin to doubt the Stratford story: “Granted, there does seem to be a problem with the Stratford man as the author. But why are there so many candidates, and why should I choose the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s candidate over such illustrious figures as Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe? Haven’t these Elizabethan writers had as many, if not more, passionate adherents than the more obscure Earl of Oxford?”

The sheer number of candidates proposed for the august position of “William Shakespeare” is indeed noteworthy. The situation is singular in recent history, inasmuch as such doubts exist for no other great writer, at least since medieval times. Stratfordians would have us believe that, with so many different candidates having been put forward as the true Shakespeare, we should therefore subscribe to the absurd notion that, since it is obvious that all of the candidates substituting for William Shakspere of Stratford cannot be the author, therefore none of them can be.

Actually, of the more than eighty Elizabethans put forward since the middle of the eighteenth century as the “true Shakespeare,” only four have merited serious consideration: Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam), Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley (Sixth Earl of Derby), and Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford). Following is summary of the arguments against the first three. We naturally do not find any arguments against the Earl of Oxford, but readers are invited to judge for themselves.

Bacon: Though possessed of much learning, sophistication, and keen intellect, Francis Bacon expressed these qualities in a different manner from Shakespeare’s whose work is charged throughout with “imagination, passion and idealism” in the words of two commentators. Though both Bacon and Shakespeare had wide knowledge of the law, Shakespeare’s usages of legal terminology, unlike Bacon’s, are richly metaphorical. The known verse that has come down to us of Bacon’s Poetry, e.g., the metrical settings of the Psalms, is stilted and as unlike Shakespeare’s as is possible. It is difficult to imagine that Francis Bacon, with the full life he led and his other numerous literary and official preoccupations, could have also composed thirty-six plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems of the quality these works exhibit. Finally, since Bacon lived through the period of the “definitive” First Folio (1623), we wonder why he didn’t use the opportunity to correct the cornucopia of textual problems left unresolved in that publication.

Marlowe: This very talented dramatist from the Elizabethan era died in 1593 — at the age of 29 (the same age as the Stratford man in that year) and at the outset of the publication of Shakespeare’s works. To overcome this obstacle, Marlowe’s supporters point to irregularities in the coroner’s inquest, and they suppose that Marlowe did not really die in that year but lived on to write the works of “Shakespeare,” a subterfuge necessitated by the “official coverup” of his documented activities as a spy for the Crown. But the inquest irregularities do not prove that Marlowe didn’t die; they could quite conceivably have been fabricated to cover up the true cause of his death, but not the fact that he did die. The assumption that Marlowe survived for an unspecified number of years to write plays under a pseudonym seems a mighty fragile hook from which to hang an authorship theory. But there are other objections as well — stylistic discrepancies, certainly, not being the least of them, despite the numerous “borrowings” cited by supporters of Marlowe’s candidacy. Such enthusiasts also point to the year 1593 as the first publication of “Shake-speare,” but overlook the fact that no Shakespearean play appeared in print other than anonymously until 1598. The earliest of these Shakespearean quartos were of plays that must have been on the boards during Marlowe’s lifetime and could safely have been ascribed to him when they were published — especially since all the Marlowe plays were both attributed to him and published posthumously.

Derby: The case for William Stanley rests on two 1599 documents, one describing him as “busied only in penning comedies for the common players,” and the other, by his wife in a letter to Robert Cecil, as “taking delight in the players” The wife in this instance is Elizabeth Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford’s oldest daughter, and most of the other arguments put forth by Derbyites would better apply to Oxford. Oxfordians concede that Derby may have had a hand in the composition of the Shakespeare plays, and that such a supposition could account for the evidence of collaboration in some of the “late” dramas. But the facts of Derby’s life do not fit the autobiographical implications of the Sonnets and of many plays as do the facts of Oxford’s life. Finally, Derby lived well past the publication of the First Folio, and the objections we found for Francis Bacon above on that score would apply here as well.

Oxford: As we noted earlier, a serious objection to Oxford’s candidacy might appear to be the quality of his known verse. Though far superior to Francis Bacon’s, de Vere’s poems hardly ascend to the heights of, for example, the Sonnets. It would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise. But resemblances to Shakespeare’s verse abound, nonetheless, and Stratfordians’ denigration of Oxford’s poetry is contradicted by scores of commentators from Webbe in the sixteenth century to Sir Sidney Lee in the twentieth. Furthermore, Oxford’s reputation as a playwright is attested to by a number of his contemporaries, including Francis Mere’s, and it is noteworthy that among all the dramatists Meres praises, Oxford is the only playwright whose plays are unknown (at least under his own name), and for whom not even a title survives! Also as noted earlier, we believe the traditional Stratfordian chronology is not a barrier because (as many Stratfordian scholars also note) it is conjecture, not fact. There is no extant document from the Elizabethan era attesting to any given play having been written in any given year.

Thus we appear to have two halves of a riddle: a man (from Stratford) supposed to be a playwright with 36 plays credited to him, but with no documentation of any literary life, and on the other hand a known playwright (Oxford) whose literary life is documented, but with no plays credited to him.


6) The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare”

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was a recognized poet and playwright of great talent, and although no play under Oxford’s name has come down to us, his acknowledged early verse and his surviving letters contain forms, words, and phrases resembling those of Shakespeare.

- The six-line pentameter stanzas in Venus and Adonis described by “Shakespeare” as the “first heir of my invention,” occur commonly in extant early poetry of Edward de Vere but almost no where else in the English verse of the 16th century.”

- Studies of Oxford’s and Shakespeare’s word parallels have been conducted by Craig Huston in The Shakespeare Authorship Question, Evidence for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and others.

The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, certain prominent persons in Elizabeth’s court, and events connected with them.

- Venus and Adonis, for examples indicates not only a knowledge of Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses but of the original as well, since Venus and Adonis translates many of Ovid’s lines omitted by Golding. Arthur Golding was the Earl of Oxford’s uncle and lived in the Cecil household during the time that Oxford was a ward of Cecil’s. Golding also dedicated two of his other translations to the 17th Earl of Oxford.

- Oxford’s father-in-law and guardian, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was satirized knowingly in Hamlet as Polonius. Many scholars concede this point. Some details in Hamlet’s dialogue reveal knowledge of Burghley’s career. A commoner such as Shakspere of Stratford could not have represented a figure such as Burghley on the stage.

- Oxford wrote a poem and letter to introduce Thomas Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort, a major source book for Hamlet.

- Christopher Hatton, Vice-Chamberlain, is satirized as Malvolio (“ill Will”) in Twelfth Night. Hatton’s letter to Queen Elizabeth is even parodied in the play. (Hatton was one of Oxford’s most highly placed enemies.)

In the sonnets and the plays there are frequent references to events that are paralleled in Oxford’s life.

- Oxford was the only possible candidate for “Shakespeare” who actually “bore the canopy” (as he said in sonnet 125) over Queen Elizabeth during the victory celebration following the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

- Polonius in Hamlet refers to “young men falling out at tennis,” which most likely refers to the infamous Oxford-Sidney tennis-court quarrel.

- Because of injuries suffered in a duel Oxford attested to his own “infirmity” in later life, which could be the lameness mentioned by the author of the sonnets. (sonnets 37,66,89)

- In 1573 Oxford as a young man, along with his companions, was reported as playing pranks and tricks on travellers along the same stretch of road “between Rochester and Gravesend” where Prince Hal’s pals from the Boar’s Head Tavern did likewise in Henry IV, Part 1. (And it is also interesting to note here that the Vere family crest featured a blue boar.)

- Oxford’s poem “Anne Vavasor’s Echo”, written to his mistress Anne Vavasor, the most likely “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, bears a strong resemblance to the echo verses in Venus and Adonis and certain passages in Romeo and Juliet.

- The details of Hamlet, one of “Shakespeare’s” greatest achievements, are so similar to those of Oxford’s life that the play could be considered autobiographical.

In the Renaissance period in England no courtiers were allowed to publish poetry –this was an unwritten code of the court. The need for a pseudonym by an author-courtier such as Oxford would have been essential. If the name “William Shake-speare” is a pseudonym, Oxford would have had many reasons for adopting this particular nom de plume.

- Pallas Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, home of Greek theatre, was associated with the sobriquet Hasti-vibrans, or “spear-shaker”

- Thomas Nashe may have been referring to his patron Oxford when he addressed a “Gentle Master William” and a “Master Sacred ox” in 1592. In the same pamphlet, Nashe also mentions “his very friend Master Apis Lapis” (stoned bull or ox) and “Will Monox” –probable references to Oxford as well.

Miscellaneous considerations.

- The reference by Ben Jonson to Shakespeare as “Sweet Swan of Avon’ in the First Folio has been put forward to exclude any other candidate than William Shakspere of Stratford. It is interesting to note, however, that the Earl of Oxford had an estate, Bilton Hall, the grounds of which at the time of his occupancy were bounded by the Avon River on one side and by the Forest of Arden on another.

- Upon Oxford’s death in 1604 King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court. When Oxford’s widow died nine years later a group of Shakespeare plays (fourteen in this case) were produced.


7) A comparison of Edward de Vere with “William Shakespeare”

Some general and special characteristics of the author “Shake-speare” revealed in the poems and plays, as adduced by J. Thomas Looney in “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, with a comparison of these characteristics to the matching characteristics of Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford.

1) Mature man of recognized genius. A lyric poet of recognized talent.

Edward de Vere was praised by the author of the Arte of English Poesie (1589) “for Comedy and Enterlude”: by William Webbe, A Discourse of English Poetry (1586): “…the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest”; and by Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (1598): “The best for comedy among us be Edward Earl of Oxford,…(and others)”

2) Of pronounced and known literary taste.

Edward de Vere was the most prominent patron of writers in the 16th century. Among those literary figures who dedicated works to the Earl are Spenser, Robert Greene, Anthony Munday, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, Arthur Golding, and many others. Oxford arranged for the publication of books by Thomas Bedingfield and Bartholomew Clarke and contributed dedicatory prefaces to each.

3) An enthusiast in the world of drama.

Oxford is known to have written, produced and acted in plays and masques. He was lease-holder of the BlackfriarsTheatre. He operated his own theatrical company, Oxford’s Boys, as well. In 1580 the Earl of Warwick’s company transferred to Lord Oxford’s service. John Lyly, at that time Oxford’s private secretary, was probably also appointed manager of the company. About 1600 the Earl of Oxford’s servants performed two plays. In 1602 the Earls of Oxford and Worcester amalgamated their companies and were licensed to play at the Boar’s Head.

4) Of superior education.

Edward de Vere graduated from Cambridge University at age 14, and was created master of arts at Oxford University at the age of 16. The following year he was admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law. An early account book (1569/70) shows Edward de Vere to be the possessor of a Geneva Bible, North’s Plutarch, plus works of Plato, Chaucer, and Tully.

5) Of probable Catholic leanings but touched with skepticism.

Oxford’s sympathies with Catholicism are reflected in his early dealings with Henry Howard and Charles Arundell. When he discovered that his two friends were traitors, Oxford exposed them to Queen Elizabeth. Any further association with Catholicism is not documented.

6) A man with feudal connections, a member of the higher aristocracy, and connected with Lancastrian supporters.

Edward de Vere was an heir to one of the oldest earldoms in England’s history, originating in the Norman Conquest. The de Veres historically were supporters of the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses.

7) An enthusiast for Italy.

Oxford travelled to Italy in the mid-1570s and even tried to make the trip surreptitiously when Queen Elizabeth intially denied him permission. It has recently been documented that the Earl built a house in Italy during his travels.

8) A follower of sport, including falconry.

Edward de Vere was quite accomplished in jousting and participated in tournaments. Some of his early verse has images drawn from falconry. His quarrel with Sir Philip Sidney over the rights to the tennis court is notorious.

9) Lover of music.

Composer John Farmer in his dedication of The First Set of English Madrigals (1599), says “that using this science [music] as a recreation your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession.”

10) Improvident in money matters and contemptuous of thrift.

Oxford alienated many of his estates to his father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, for which he has been criticized by historians.


“Shakespeare” Revealed in Oxford’s Poetry

by Joseph Sobran
(This paper was first published in the January 1996 De Vere Society Newsletter)


In his neglected book Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters, the late William Plumer Fowler performed the heroic task of finding hundreds of verbal parallels between the works of Shakespeare and the letters of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. All Oxfordians are in Fowler’s debt, and nobody more than myself.

To my mind such parallels are the best possible evidence of Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare works. They are the literary equivalent of the fingerprints or DNA evidence that may connect a suspect with a crime beyond any reasonable doubt.

For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to find conclusive proof of Oxford’s authorship. I’ve always felt that if I looked closely at Oxford’s own acknowledged words, in verse or prose, the proof would eventually present itself. If he was the author of those great works, the proof must be there – particularly where Oxford neither intended to reveal himself nor was conscious of doing so. The trick is to discern it.

And I believe I have found it.

Curiously, few Oxfordians have thought to look for the evidence where we might expect it to await us: in Oxford’s Poems. Those who have looked there, from John Thomas Looney on, have noticed a few telling parallels between those poems and Shakespeare; I think particularly of the work of Ruth Loyd Miller, to which we are also deeply indebted. But many more parallels remain to be discovered. And I’ve made it my mission to discover them. I have not sought merely verbal parallels, but similarities of word and phrase expressing similar thoughts.

My search has been more fully rewarded than I imagined possible. I’ve found literally hundreds of similarities between Oxford’s phrases, images, and associations and Shakespeare’s. Allow me to share a few of them with you. (I’ll present a fuller account in my book-length treatment of the authorship question.)

I should say at the beginning that similarities between any two poets are inevitable. After all, one can find a few images shared by Shakespeare and Homer; so it stands to reason that there will be even more affinities between Shakespeare and any poet of his own age. No writer, however great, can entirely avoid the conventions and even cliches of his time. We have, by the reckoning of Professor Steven May of Georgetown College, about twenty poems that may be ascribed to Oxford. Professor May, though an authority on Oxford, is by no means an Oxfordian. So my use of his canon won’t prejudice the issue. If anything, it makes for a more rigorous test for Oxford.

Whether or not Oxford and Shakespeare are the same writer, they lived at the same time, and we may expect a certain number of parallels between their writings for that reason alone. How many? Considering that we have only a small body of Oxford’s acknowledged poetry, I think we might reasonably expect to find a dozen or so. And we may arbitrarily posit an upper limit of, say, three dozen. Much more than that would be beyond the possibility of coincidence.

Of course much depends on the nature of each parallel. Not all of them are of the same order. Some may be obvious, trivial, or trite; others may be highly distinctive and idiosyncratic. In some cases we may even disagree as to whether two phrases or images are really parallel. But I think in general we can agree. And I submit that hundreds of seeming parallels to Shakespeare in twenty short poems can’t reasonably be assigned to chance, convention, or imitation.

Let us start with Oxford’s poem beginning, “The labouring man who tills the fertile soil.” Consider the phrase “labouring man.” Shakespeare also uses the phrase “labouring men.” We can probably agree that this is a weak parallel, and is practically valueless for the purpose of proving that the two writers were one. Likewise the phrase “tills the fertile soil.” Shakespeare also has “fertile England’s soil” and “soil’s fertility.” Again, the parallel is weak, though not quite as weak, I think, as “labouring man.” Such phrases might occur to anyone. On the other hand, the way they are used might offer a clue.

But now consider another phrase: Oxford’s “reaps the harvest fruit.” It certainly wouldn’t take a genius to think of this one. yet we notice that Shakespeare is fond of it; he uses some version of “reaping a harvest” at least five times. “After the man That the main harvest reaps.” “And reap the harvest which that rascal sowed.” “We are to reap the harvest of his son.” “To reap the harvest of perpetual peace.” “My poor lips, which should that harvest reap.” And we may note that Oxford and Shakespeare both use the words “harvest” and “toil” in close proximity. This is not strong proof, but it is not exactly nothing.

In the same poem, Oxford writes: “He pulls the flowers, he plucks but weeds. “Shakespeare writes: “They bid thee crop a weed, thou pluck’st a flower.” And: “Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.” And: “He weeds the corn, and still lets grow the weeding.” Here we see similarities not only of were and image, but of syntax and rhythm. One such proves little. A few dozen would be another matter.

Now we come to what I regard as a very strong and suggestive parallel. Oxford writes of “The mason poor that builds the lordly halls,” and, soon afterward, adds that “The idle drone that labours not at all Sucks up the sweet of honey from the bee.” Shakespeare is especially given to moralizing about idle drones and to similes of sucking honey. “Not to eat honey like a drone from others’ labours.” “Drones suck not eagles’ blood, but rob beehives.” “Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath.” “That suck’d the honey of his music vows.” “And suck’d the honey which thy chaste bee kept.” These are definitely Shakespearean images. Which is not to rule out other poets’ using them too.

But note a more peculiar parallel here. In Henry V, the Archbishop makes an extended comparison between a kingdom and a beehive. “For so work the honey-bees … The singing mason building roofs of gold … The lazy yawning drone.” Now the touch I find most telling here is the association, in both Oxford and Shakespeare, between bees and “masons” who “build.” The images of working bees, lazy drones, and sucking honey might be called “natural” images. Being “natural,” they may be either universal or conventional. But the individualizing touches – the touches that argue common authorship of the two passages – are the words “mason” and “build.”

Here is a clue that Oxford and Shakespeare are one. It may be mere coincidence, but we would not be inclined to ascribe very many such parallels to accident. This one at least strongly suggests the identity in question.

Again, Oxford give us: “And from the sour the sweet by skill doth choose.” Though it is another “natural” contrast, Shakespeare is also fond of pitting “sour” and “sweet” against each other: “Speak sweetly, man, although thy looks be sour.” “How sour sweet music is When time is broke.” “Sweetest nut hath sourest rind.” “That thy sour leisure gave sweet leave.” “The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours.” “Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms.”

Oxford concludes: “For he that beats the bush the bird not gets, But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets.” Shakespeare too uses several images of birds, bushes,nets, and other traps. “Poor bird, thou’dst never fear the net nor lime.” “Look how a bird lies tangled in a net.” “Birds never lim’d no secret bushes fear.”

Another of Oxford’s poems begins with the couplet:

Ev’n as the wax both melt, or dew consume away
Before the sun, so I behold, through careful thoughts decay.

Shakespeare abounds in images of the morning sun melting the’.e dew, and also of melting wax. I won’t recite them here. But one passage in Lucrece commands our attention:

as soon decay’d and done
As is the morning’s silver melting dew
Against the golden splendor of the sun.

Here again Oxford and Shakespeare share not only the “natural” imagery, but the individualizing word: “decay.”

Oxford’s phrase “consume away,” in the same poem, is also used twice by Shakespeare. Oxford’s “that hath myself in hate” answers to several lines in Shakespeare: “My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself.” “He scowls and hates himself for his offense.” “Whose deed hath made herself herself detest.”

Oxford writes: “So I the pleasant grape have pulled from the vine.” In Shakespeare we read: “For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?” Oxford’s metaphor “I wove the web of woe” has its cousin in Venus: “Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought.” Oxford: “The more I would weed out my cares, the more they seem’d to grow.” Shakespeare: “To weed my vice and let his grow.”

Oxford and Shakespeare have many pet images in common: fertility and harvest, the lazy drone that robs the laboring bees of their honey, the sad scene that moves pity even in rocks, weeping lovers (whose tears, however, may be “feigned”), panting and sighing, wailing and moaning, drowning floods of tears, birds in bushes trapped with nets, the lark as herald of morning, the morning sun melting the dew, the game of tennis (with rackets, courts, and chases), pale and rosy cheeks, salve for sores,worms feeding on the dead, eyes “feeding” on beauty, desire borne by wings, echoing caves, women as haggard hawks, baths of blood, hounds and horns, the wounded deer, the fleeing hare. They use similar. classical emblems: the commanding Caesar, Hannibal and Pompey, the oracle of Apollo, the nine Muses, royal Juno, bashful Daphne, Priam as the archetypal father, the beds of goddesses, Cynthia’s silver light, Venus’ beauty, her coarse blacksmith husband, blind Cupid with his bow and brand, Argus with his hundred eyes.

If time permitted, I might dwell on the classical myths both Oxford and Shakespeare refer to in similar phrases. Oxford speaks of Daphne as “Apollo’s wishful prey.” Shakespeare uses the myth with ironic reversal: “Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase.”

Shakespeare refers often to Cupid; so does Oxford, and in the same terms. Both refer to him as “the blind boy” and describe him as “wanton.” Both speak of his “bow,” his “quiver,” his “toys,” his “brand.” Shakespeare speaks of “his love-kindling fire”; Oxford says Cupid’s dart “kindleth soft sweet fire.”

Oxford also writes that Cupid “sat all in blood, bebathed to the ears.” Shakespeare uses a similar image several times: “Bath’d in maiden blood.” “And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood.” “Or bathe my dying honor in the blood.” “The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit up to the ears in blood.”

A notable habit Oxford and Shakespeare share is the use of “contraries”: paradox, antithesis, contrast for effect. In these poems of Oxford we find Shakespeare-like juxtapositions of “sour” and “sweet,” “rich” and “poor,” “loss” and “gain,” “joy and “woe,” “ebb” and “flow,” “flowers” and “weeds,” “worldly” and “heavenly,” “heaven” and “hell,” “mirth” and “sad,” “love” and “foe,” “please” and “pain.”

Oxford’s “Bragging of heaven, yet feeling pains of hell” suggests these Shakespearean lines: “If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.” “To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” “If not in heaven, you’ll surely sup in hell.”

Oxford’s “Sith comfort ebbs, and cares do daily Row” has Shakespearean parallels too: “Thus ebbs and flows the current of her sorrow.” “Ebb and flow with tears.” “And sorrow ebbs, being blown with wind of tears.” “Packs and sects of great ones, That ebb and flow by th’ moon.”

Consider a few more examples. First Oxford: “The more I follow’d one, the more she fled away.” Shakespeare: “The more I hate, the more he follows me.” And: “I follow’d fast, but faster he did fly.”

Are we not hearing the same voice? Again, Oxford: “The more my plaints I do resound, the less she pities me; The more I sought, the less I found,” etc. Shakespeare often contrasts “more” and “less” in the same rhythm: “And so by hoping more they have but less.” “More than I seem, and less than I was born to.” “That moves in him more rage and lesser pity.” “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”

The epigrammatic opposition of “more” and “less,” “least” and “most,” is equally typical of both Oxford and Shakespeare. Oxford gives us: “Enjoying least when I do covet most.” Shakespeare: “With what I most enjoy contented least.” Could the resemblance be closer? Can you say which of the following lines is from which poet? “With least abode where best I feel content.” “Then least alone when most I seem to lurk.” “When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.” “Seeming to be most which we indeed least are.” “In least speak most.” (The first two of these are Oxford’s, the rest Shakespeare’s.) Oxford’s “Drown me with trickling tears” summons up at least ten examples of tears drowning people in Shakespearean hyperbole. “We drown our gains in tears.” “Tears shall drown the wind.” “Drown the stage with tears.” “But floods of tears will drown my oratory.” Etc.

Many of the most telling Oxford-Shakespeare parallels are too intricate for brief presentation. I regret having to pass over them here. For now I will stick to examples that are both brief and relatively strong –the more peculiar, the better.

Oxford: “To wail with me this loss of mine.” Shakespeare: “Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage.” “Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss.”

Oxford: “Help echo that in air doth flee, shrill voices to resound.” Shakespeare: “And fetch shrill echoes from the hollow earth.” “As is the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound.” “What shrill-voic’d suppliant makes this eager cry?”

Oxford: “I am not as I seem to be, Nor when I smile I am not glad.” Shakespeare: “I am not what I am.” “I am not merry; but I do beguile The thing I amby seeming otherwise.”

Oxford: “Most in mirth, most pensive sad.” Shakespeare: “I show more mirth than I am mistress of.” “With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.” “So mingled as if mirth did make him sad.” “Sad tales doth tell To pencill’d pensiveness.”

Oxford: “But I in vain do breathe my wind.” Shakespeare: “You breathe in vain.” “No wind of blame shall breathe.”

In one short poem, Oxford uses the words “mirth,” “sad,” “flood of tears,” “annoy” (as a noun), “grief,” and “tears suffice.” Shakespeare uses virtually all the same words, expressing a similar thought, in two stanzas:

For mirth doth search the bottom of annoy;
Sad souls are slain in merry company;
Grief best is pleas’d with grief’s society.
True sorrow then in feelingly suffic’d
When with like semblance it is sympathiz’d.

‘Dear lord, thy sorrow to my sorrow lendeth
Another power; no flood by raining slaketh.
My woe too sensible thy passion maketh,
More feeling-painful. Let it then suffice
To drown one woe, one pair of weeping eyes.’

Oxford: “If care or skill could conquer vain desire, or Reason’s reins my strong affection stay.” Shakespeare: “For now I give my sensual race the rein.” “What rein can hold licentious wickedness?” “Curb his heat, or rein his rash desire.”

Oxford: “Lurks in my breast.” Shakespeare: “Or tyrant folly lurk in gentle breasts.”

Oxford: “What worldly might can hope for heavenly hire?” Shakespeare: “My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love.” “A heavenly effect in an earthly actor.” “Between this heavenly and this earthly sun.” “Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthy faces.”

Oxford: “Roll the restless stone.” Shakespeare: “The rolling restless stone.”

Oxford: “What wonders love hath wrought.” Shakespeare: “Love wrought these miracles.”

Oxford: “The lively lark stretched forth her wing, The messenger of Morning bright” Shakespeare: “Lo here the gentle lark, weary of rest, From his moist cabinet mounts up on high, And wakes the morning.” “The morning lark.” “The lark, the herald of the morn.” “And then my state (Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” “Hark! Hark! The lark at heaven’s gate sings, And Phoebus ‘gins arise.”

Oxford’s poem beginning “If women could be fair and yet not fond,” and ending “To play with fools, O what a fool was I!” has so many subtle echoes in Othello that they are hard to enumerate. Iago’s bantering doggerel about women, early in the play, uses similar diction, contrast, and rhythm:

She never yet was foolish that was fair . . .

She that was ever fair and never proud,
Had tongue at will and yet was never loud . . .

To suckle fools and chronicle small beer

…and also uses the word “frail,” as Oxford does. Both Oxford and Othello liken women to “haggards,” wild hawks that may resist taming and be set loose to fly away.

Oxford writes:

Unsettled still like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man;
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist
And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list.

Othello, fearing Desdemona’s betrayal of him, resorts to the very same word and image:

If I do prone her haggard,
Though that her Messes were my dear heart-strings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune.

Oxford remarks:

But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far.

Compare Othello’s

O curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites.

“To mark the choice they make, and how they change” writes Oxford; Iago says cynically of Desdemona that “She must change for youth: when she is sated with [Othello's] body, she will find the error of her choice. She must have change, she must.” Even Oxford’s “disport” has its echoes in Othello’s “disports,” and in Iago’s leering word, “sport.” (Iago’s wife Emilia also speaks of “frailty” and “sport” – and, as if to remove doubt of her parentage, of “palates both for sweet and sour”!)

Oxford combines heterogeneous images in the lines

An anchor’s life to lead, with nails to scratch my grave,
Where earthly worms on me shall feed, is all the joys I crave.

Hamlet affords one obvious echo of this odd wish:

An anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope!

Though “worms” and “graves” is hardly a combination unique to Shakespeare, the juxtaposition of “worms” with ” joy” is surely a little unusual; the clown who smuggles the fatal asp to Cleopatra gives us the macabre line: “I wish you all joy of the worm. “The association of scratch, grave, worms, and feed, moreover, foreshadows Mercutio’s dying words: “A scratch, a scratch…. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man…. They have made worms’ meat of me.”

Oxford’s “Echo” poem, nominally by his mistress Ann Vavasor but clearly written by him around 1580, concerns a lovesick young woman who sings of her love near some caves, which echo her words (and even pun on Oxford’s surname, Vere). Her face is likened to “a damask rose hid under crystal glass,” another image Shakespeare is fond of: “As sweet as damask roses.” “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white.” “Who glaz’d with crystal gate the glowing roses.”

The young woman’s appeal “O hollow caves tell true!” brings to mind a pair of lines from Shakespeare: “Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies.” “And fetch shrill echoes from the hollow earth.”

The same poem uses the phrase “As true as Phoebus’ oracle” – recalling Apollo’s oracle (Shakespeare at different times refers to the god by both names) in The Winter’s Tale, Oxford’s “amber tears” summons Hamlet’s description of old men with “eyes purging thick amber”; Oxford’s “the echo answer’d her” points to “Echo replies” and “the choir of echoes answers” in Venus.

The line “[She] sigh’d so sore as might have mov’d some pity in the rocks” is eminently Shakespearean; the idea of people, and even fierce beasts and inanimate things like rocks and stones, being “mov’d to pity” occurs often in Shakespeare, and in many versions and permutations. It finds comic expression in Launce’s complaint of his dog Crab: “He is a stone, a very pebble stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog.” Titus Andronicus speaks of “the lion, mov’d with pity.” In Richard III we read: “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity”; Richard himself warns his hired murderers not to listen to his brother Clarence’s pleas, because, being “well-spoken,”he “may move your hearts to pity if you mark him.” Sonnet 94 praises those who “moving others are themselves as stone.” Antony tells the mob that if only he had Brutus’ eloquence, he should “move The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.” Hamlet says of his father’s ghost that:

His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable,

then begs the ghost to desist from its “piteous” appeal. Similarly, rocks and stones are Shakespeare’s favorite images of pitilessness: “thy rocky bosom”; “rocky heart”; “thy rocky and wrack-threatening heart”; “O pity, . . . flint- hearted boy”; “flint bosom”; “ are men of stones!”; “harden’d hearts, harder than stones”; “Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes”; “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things”; “a stony adversary”; “thy stony heart”; and of course we think of Othello:”No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand…. But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”

I might go on indefinitely. All in all, I have found about two hundred phrases and images in Oxford’s poems corresponding to about five hundred in Shakespeare.

In a poem likening love to a game of tennis, Oxford uses nearly every term Shakespeare uses in his ten scattered mentions of tennis: tennis, balls, courts, rackets,strike, bandy, chace. In addition, both poets use all these terms figuratively. Oxford’spoem also refers to “Sir Argus’ hundred eyes, wherewith to watch and pry.” Compare Shakespeare: “Watch me like Argus.” “Purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight.” Finally, consider Oxford’s shortest poem:

Were I a king I might command content;
Were I obscure unknown would be my cares,
And were I dead no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears;
A doubtful choice of these things which to crave,
A kingdom or a cottage or a grave.

These few lines have many Shakespearean echoes, particularly in the historyplays, where kings so often reflect on their discontent and “cares.” Many instances will occur to you without my citing them. Richard II: “The king shall be contented…. I’ll give …My gorgeous palace for a hermitage, … And my large kingdom for a little grave, A little little grave, an obscure grave.” Henry VI: “Was ever king that joy’d an earthly throne, And could command no more content than I?” The conceit of “command[ing] content” has a close relation in Henry V’s soliloquy on “greatness”:

Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knees
Command the health of it?

Think also of Macbeth, his mind “full of scorpions,” contrasting “the torture of the mind” with the peace Duncan enjoys “in his grave.”

Oxford: “Weigh my cause with equal weights.” Shakespeare: “You weigh equally” “I have in equal balance justly weigh’d.” “Commit my cause in balance to beweigh’d.” “Equalities are so weighed.” “In equal scale weighing delight and dole.” “Acquainted with a weighty cause.”

Oxford: “She is my salve, she is my wounded sore.” Shakespeare: “The humble salve which wounded bosoms fits.” “To see the salve doth make the wound ache more.” “Such a salve can speak That heals the wound.” “A salve for any sore that may betide.” “My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds.” “Your majesty may salve The long-grown wounds of my intemperance.”


And let her feel the power of all your might,
And let her have her most desire with speed,
And let her pine away both day anal night
And let her moan, and none lament her need;
And let all those that shall her see
Despise her state and pity me.

Compare Lucrece:

‘Let him have time to tear his curled hair,
Let him have time against himself to rave,
Let him have time of time’s help to despair,
Let him have time to live a loathed slave,
Let him have time a beggar’s orts to crave,
And time to see one that by alms doth live
Disdain to him disdained scraps to give.’

Oxford: “What feedeth most thy sight? To gaze on beauty still.” Shakespeare:”With gazing fed.” “I have fed mine eyes on thee.” “Her eye must be fed.” “But whenhis glutton eye so full hath fed.” “He fed them with his sight.” “That makes me see,and cannot feed mine eye?” “I feed Most hungerly on your sight.” “Fold in the objectthat did feed her sight.” “Starves the ears she feeds.”

Oxford: “Wing’d with desire, I seek to mount on high.” Shakespeare: “Whose haughty spirit, winged with desire.” “Borne by the trustless wings of false desire.”"The gentle lark, weary of rest, From his moist cabinet mounts up on high.” “That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.”

Oxford: “With patient mind each passion to endure.” Shakespeare: “Have patience and endure.” “Endure the toothache patiently.” “God of his mercy give You patience to endure.” “I must have patience to endure the load.” “I must have patienceto endure all this.” “I have the patience to endure it now.”

Oxford: “Lo, thus I triumph like a king, content with that my mind doth bring.” Shakespeare; “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough; But riches fineless isas poor as winter to him that ever fears he shall be poor.” “For ’tis the mind that makethe body rich.”

Oxford: “Some have too much yet still do crave, I little have and seek no more;They are but poor, though much they have, and I am rich with little store. They poor, Irich.” Shakespeare: “If thou art rich, thou’rt poor.” “Wise things seem foolish andrich things but poor.” “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor.” “Rich gifts wax poor.” “Poorly rich.” “My riches are these poor habiliments.” Compare this stanza from Lucrece 134-40:

Those that much covet are with gain so fond
That what they have not, that which thee possess,
They scatter and unloose it from their bond,
And so, by hoping more, they have but less;
Or, gaining more, this profit of excess
Is but to surfeit, and such griefs sustain
That they prove bankrupt in this poor-rich gain.

Oxford: “I laugh not at another’s loss, I grudge not at another’s gain.” Shakespeare: “Laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains.” “I earn that I eat, get that Iwear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm.”

Oxford: “No worldly waves my mind can toss.” Shakespeare: “By waves from coast to coast is toss’d.” “Your mind is tossing on the ocean.” Oxford: “And little boys with pipes of Corn sit keeping beasts in field.” Shakespeare: “And in the shape of Corin sat all day, Playing on pipes of corn.” “When shepherds pipe on oaten straws.”


These examples make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of Shakespearean parallels to be found in Oxford’s twenty known poems – only twenty short poems, it should be stressed. I could easily have given a longer list of totally different examples. And I’ve restricted myself to almost mechanical enumeration here; a more careful analysis would make the case even stronger.

Taken all in all, these parallels disclose the working of a single mind. They can be reasonably explained only as the work of the same poet at different periods of his development. We can rule out alternative explanations – coincidence, convention, or imitation – as untenable.

I challenge anyone to find so many close parallels of phrase, image, rhythm,and thought between any two poets in all literature.

Let me put it another way. I doubt that so many parallels could be found between The Iliad and The Odyssey, even counting stock phrases like “the wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn.” We have here far stronger proof that Oxford and Shakespeare were the same man than that “Homer” was a single poet.

Oxford’s poetry should be placed beside his letters, so thoroughly examined by Fowler, and his biblical annotations, brilliantly compiled by Roger Stritmatter, as crowning evidence of his authorship of the Shakespeare works. At least one more source of internal evidence remains to be studied: Oxford’s 1573 prefatory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comfort. This short letter bears amazing resemblances – in diction, image, theme, and argument – to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as I will show at length in my forthcoming book.

The objection may be still made that for all these parallels, Oxford’s poetry remains far inferior to Shakespeare’s. But even granting the point for the sake of argument, ascribing authorship on the basis of quality is an uncertain business. Early in this century some scholars sought to exclude such plays as Titus Andronicus and one or two parts of Henry VI on grounds that they were unworthy of Shakespeare. Today their place is secure. It is acknowledged that these plays, “unworthy” or not, bear too much evidence of Shakespeare’s style to be dismissed from the canon. The poet who wrote King Lear was at one time capable of writing Titus Andronicus.

In the same way, Oxford’s known poems seem to date from his youth. Professor May says that the latest possible date for any of them is 1593 (which happens to be the year “Shakespeare” made his debut in print with Venus and Adonis). One of them, “The Labouring Man,” was published in 1573; another, “Were I a King,” drew a reply from Sir Philip Sidney, who died in 1586, which fixes its latest possible date. The rest can’t be dated with precision, but were probably written in Oxford’s youth, long before he became “Shakespeare.”

It’s no great stretch to say that the author of these poems was capable of writing Titus. And if he could write Titus, he could eventually write Lear.

We may think of Oxford’s youthful poetry as an early “layer” of Shakespeare, with John Thomas Looney as the Schliemann of Shakespeare studies. If Oxford is our author, these poems, it should go without saying, constitute a truly priceless addition to our knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and his development.

And yet even Oxford’s partisans have generally failed to see either their value or their many similarities to Shakespeare’s work – a lamentable blind spot. Had these poems received the attention they deserve, Oxford’s authorship might have been established long ago.

The usual orthodox response to evidence for Oxford’s authorship is to belittle it indiscriminately. Oxford’s poems put that tactic to its severest test. If all these parallels can be explained away as coincidental, we are pretty much forced to conclude that internal evidence can never prove anything.

In short, I believe that the case for Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare works is now proved beyond any reasonable doubt.

Edward de Vere

Seventeenth Earl of Oxford
Elizabethan Courtier, Poet and Playwright
1550 – 1604

vere At the time that Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England in 1558, the Earldom of Oxford was the longest and most illustrious line of nobles in the country, its direct ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, having held land under Edward the Confessor, and later marrying into the family of William the Conqueror. The new Queen appointed John de Vere, the incumbent 16th Earl, her Lord Great Chamberlain, an office that had been held by the Oxford Earls for hundreds of years.

The Earl’s only son Edward de Vere had been born at Hedingham Castle, the Oxford family seat in the center of Essex, on April 12, 1550; a sister Mary was born four years later. Their mother Margaret was the sister of Arthur Golding, a scholar and translator who was close to the family, and was probably Edward’s earliest tutor. At the age of six Edward was placed in the nearby household of Sir Thomas Smith, a scholar and author who became his tutor for the next several years. In November, 1558 Edward matriculated at St. Johns College, Cambridge. From at least 1556, Edward’s father, the 16th Earl, sponsored his own company of actors who toured throughout the region, and also performed for the family and their guests at Hedingham Castle, including Queen Elizabeth when she made a personal visit in 1561.

In August, 1562, John de Vere, the 16th Earl, suddenly died, and the twelve-year-old Edward became the 17th Earl of Oxford. According to the law of the time, all noblemen under the age of 21 became wards of the Crown, and their education and upbringing became the responsibility of the Royal Court of Wards. Edward was required to enter the London household of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Master of the Court of Wards, a man whose influence and authority as guardian, mentor, financial trustee, father-in-law, and reproving critic overshadowed his life for the next four decades.

From his earliest years de Vere displayed the attributes of a prodigy. In 1563, five years after he entered university, his tutor, the antiquarian Laurence Nowell, declared that “my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required.” He was awarded a degree from Cambridge in 1564 and a Master of Arts degree from Oxford in 1566. As a Royal Ward, the teen-aged de Vere entered the life and activities of the Court, and in time, reputedly because of his good looks, dancing and musical ability, and courtly graces, became a favorite of the Queen. By this time he had already begun his life-long practice of sponsoring works of literature, and over the next four decades more than thirty volumes of poetry or prose, both originals and translations, were dedicated to him, some of which bore his own introductory essays or poems. In 1567 de Vere was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the three Elizabethan law schools.

In the Spring of 1570 de Vere served in the Queen’s military campaign in Scotland under the Earl of Sussex. When the he attained his majority in 1571, and took his seat in the House of Lords, a marriage was arranged between de Vere and Lord Burghley’s fifteen-year-old daughter Anne Cecil. During the early 1570s several of Oxford’s poems were published, notably in A Paradyse of Dainty Devices (1576), and in the next two decades about twenty separate poems that can be attributed to him appeared in print. Another dozen have been found in manuscript; about half of which did not bear his name. He also earned a reputation for his horsemanship and skill at jousting, competing in, and winning, three of Elizabeth’s tournaments in the 1570s and 1580s.

In early 1574 de Vere set out on an extended European tour that took him into France, Germany, Italy (including Sicily), and possibly Greece. During this tour of 15 months he is known to have visited Paris, Roussillon, Strasburg, Lyon, Padua, Venice, Genoa, Verona, Florence, Siena, Rome, and Palermo. While in Italy he received word that his wife had given birth to a daughter, later christened Elizabeth. On his trip home his ship was attacked in the Channel and he was captured by Dutch pirates, but released unharmed. On the basis of information that reached him while he was abroad, de Vere became convinced that the infant Elizabeth was not his child. He refused to return to Anne’s household, and for more than five years remained estranged from her and her family.

Throughout his life de Vere maintained friendships with literary men, and at one time or another employed such writers as Thomas Churchyard, John Lyly, and Anthony Munday. Lyly, the author of two of the earliest English novels, Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit (1578)and Euphues and his England (1579), dedicated the latter to de Vere and acted as his personal secretary. De Vere also sponsored companies of both adult and boy actors, employing Lyly as their manager, and in the early 1580s held a lease on the indoor Blackfriars Theater.

Although raised as a Protestant, de Vere was rumored to have Catholic sympathies, and in 1580 admitted to the Queen close associations with a group of prominent Catholics. He revealed a plot among them to overthrow her and form a government friendly to the Catholic King Philip of Spain. Although the Queen forgave de Vere this transgression, the resulting uproar led to the arrest of several of the aristocratic conspirators. Those charged then accused Oxford of similar crimes, adding accusations of lechery, drunkenness, and homosexuality. De Vere, though also briefly imprisoned, was not charged with any crime.

In March of 1581, a Gentlewoman of the Queen’s Bedchamber, Anne Vavasour, gave birth to a son fathered by Edward de Vere. A disapproving Queen jailed both parents briefly, and de Vere was absent from Court for the next two years. The child, Edward Vere, was allowed little or no contact with his father, but eventually distinguished himself as a soldier and scholar, and was knighted by James I. During 1582 several street fights took place between Vavasour’s relatives and de Vere’s men, in one of which de Vere himself was involved, sustaining a severe leg wound that apparently caused him to limp thereafter.

From his teen age, de Vere was known as an elegant dresser and a lavish spender. There is evidence that the Queen, through her agents, systematically mulcted him of much of his property, although his own expensive life style contributed as well to the loss of his considerable fortune, and his reduction to relative penury. In a strange reversal of behavior, the Queen, in 1586, made an unusual grant to him of £1000 per year for life, requiring no services or accounting from him of any kind.

There is evidence that at the time of the Spanish Armada de Vere outfitted what may have been his own ship, and may have commanded it during the battle. In 1588 de Vere’s wife Anne died, leaving him with three daughters who were then taken into the household of their grandfather William Cecil. In 1591 de Vere married the wealthy Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor. Two years later she gave birth to de Vere’s only legitimate son Henry, and the family moved to the suburb of Hackney.

In A Discourse of English Poetry (1586) the Earl of Oxford was praised as the “most excellent” of poets at Court, and the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589) asserted that he would be known as the best of the courtly poets “if their doings could be found out.” In 1598, in a collection of comments on literature – Palladis Tamia – Francis Meres included him in a list of the best comic playwrights. His life-long association with the theater, with players, and with playwrights is unquestionable. However, no play by de Vere has survived, nor is there any record of his name being associated with any play. In 1595 his daughter Elizabeth married William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby who at the time was said to be writing plays, and late in 1604, another daughter, Susan, married Philip Herbert, Lord Montgomery, one of the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

The 17th Earl of Oxford died in June, 1604 and was buried in the Church of St. Augustine, Hackney. His life and achievements remained obscure until 1920, when John Thomas Looney, an English schoolmaster, revealed his authorship of the Shakespeare canon in “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.


J. T. Looney: “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Cecil Palmer, 1920
B. M Ward: The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604, from Contemporary Documents, John Murray, 1928
Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn: This Star of England, Coward-McCann, 1952
Charlton Ogburn Jr.: The Mysterious William Shakespeare, EPM Publications, 1984; 2nd ed. 1992