Joseph Sobran on Shakespeare’s Bible

Bible holds proof of Shakespeare’s identity

©1993 Joseph Sobran
Universal Press Columnist
July 1993


I keep trying to convince you heathen that the works of “William Shakespeare” were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. So far my success has been limited. Well if you won’t believe me maybe you’ll believe the Bible. The Earl of Oxford’s Bible that is.

A young scholar has recently made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Roger Stritmatter, a graduate Student of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has studied Oxford’s copy of the Bible and it strongly supports the view that Oxford was in fact the author we call “Shakespeare.”

Oxford owned the Geneva translation of the Bible, the version Shakespeare echoes more than any other. Moreover Oxford marked his copy heavily—and he marked hundreds of verses that scholars have already found echoed in the works of Shakespeare.

As far as we know the Stratford man usually thought to be Shakespeare didn’t even own a Bible. His will mentions no books or manuscripts at all. Ironically Oxford’s Bible has been in the great Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington since 1925. But Mr. Stritmatter is the first scholar to examine it closely.

It would be a near-miracle if two different readers had taken special note of so many of the same verses, mostly little-known verses, as Shakespeare and Oxford did. Space forbids a full summary here, so let me concentrate on one Shakespearean character: Sir John Falstaff.

Falstaff appears in three plays and is mentioned in a fourth. He also quotes the Bible constantly, to wonderfully comic effect. And he and his companions quote, echo or allude to at least nine of the verses marked by Oxford!

Even if you’ve read the Bible, do you remember Achitophel? Falstaff does. He calls one of his myriad creditors (children, cover your ears!) “a whoreson Achitophel.” Oxford has underlined the entire verse (11 Samuel 16:23) that identifies Achitophel as the counselor of David and Absalom.

Falstaff humorously likens his drunkard friend Bardolph’s brightnose to “an everlasting bonfire-light”, recalling the phrase “everlasting fire” in Matthew 25:41, a verse Oxford also marked. But for that nose says Falstaff Bardolph would be “the son of utter darkness,” a clear allusion to I Thessalonians 5:5: “You are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, neither of darkness.” Yet again Oxford has marked the verse referred to by Falstaff.

When his friend Prince Hal becomes king, Falstaff, mistakenly thinking his own ship has come in, exults: “Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe unto my lord chief justice!” This plainly echoes the beatitudes and admonitions of Jesus, and Oxford has marked one of the verses Falstaff’s cry suggests.

Of course the words of Jesus are so familiar that an allusion to them is unremarkable. But most of Falstaff’s biblical echoes are arcane. Consider one of the most striking of them, Falstaff’s boast: “I fear not Goliath with a weaver’s beam.” This can only refer to 11 Samuel 21:19, where Goliath’s spear is said to be like a weaver’ beam. Oxford has underlined those same words in his own Bible. This can hardly be accidental.

These are only a handful of many examples. Mr. Stritmatter’s discovery has reinforced the already powerful circumstantial case that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare, the man who gave us Falstaff. Neither Shakespeare nor Oxford has ever been thought of as very religious: yet both fasten on these same verses in the same translation of the Bible—because they were the same man.

Until now the Shakespeare authorship question has usually been considered a marginal issue, if not a crank idea. “What difference does it make who wrote the plays?” people ask. “The important thing is that we have the plays themselves.”

But the annotations in Oxford’s Bible are more than a solution to whodunit; they are a major addition to Shakespeare studies. They give us a truly priceless look into the creative process of our greatest poet. To read them is to witness the birth of Falstaff.

A Quintessence of Dust

An interim report on the marginalia of the Geneva Bible of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

©1992 by Roger Stritmatter


This article was first published in the spring 1993 (Vol. 29, no.2A) Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.


The following report summarizes the results of a nine-month study of the underlined verses and marginal notations of the Geneva Bible (1570) of Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.. The Bible, first examined by the author in January 1992, was included in the Folger’s Collection of Fine Bindings from February through September 1992. First purchased by Henry Clay Folger in 1925, five years after the publication of John Thomas Looney’s path breaking study “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the Bible has not been examined by any scholar prepared to evaluate the possible historical significance of the underlinings of more than one thousand verses by a sixteenth century annotator almost certain to have been the original owner, Edward de Vere.(1)

Note 1: This conclusion is offered on the basis of the following considerations: 1) The reliability of the Folger’s provenance information determining de Vere’s original ownership; 2) the principal investigator’s familiarity with de Vere’s holograph as attested in publications Amphlett (1955), Fowler (1986), and Miller (1988). Efforts to verify comparison of the holograph and ink composition through expert testimony, delayed due to the Fine Binding Exhibit, are currently being undertaken.)

Folger curators responsible for cataloging marginal notations of historic significance, unaware of the annotations until brought to their attention in January 1992, expressed surprise and great interest on learning of the nature of the annotations. (2)

(Note 2: Special collections curator Dr. Nati Krivatsky, who mounted the fine bindings exhibit and has subsequently retired from the Folger Staff, registered surprise and enthusiasm when shown several examples of the evidence included in the present report tying the annotations to Shakespeare. Dr. Laetitia Yeandle, curator of rare manuscripts, asked about the need to test the ink to pin down the date of the annotations, expressed her opinion that the inks used by the annotator were unlikely to be other than 16th century. Nevertheless, ink testing will undoubtedly be required.)

The present report draws on the more than two centuries of serious scholarly study of Shakespeare’s compositional technique—the means by which, as Greenwood puts it, “the great magician turns all that he touches into purest gold” (Greenwood, 1908, p.96)—and his Biblical knowledge. Particular emphasis is laid on the significance of Walter Whiter’s path breaking but rarely studied 1794 essay on Shakespeare’s mental associations as wells as on several more recent studies of Shakespeare’s biblical references: Richmond Noble’s classic, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (1935), which set the scholarly standard for organization, precision and classification; Peter Milward’s Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies (1987), a comprehensive study of Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet ; and two books by Naseeb Shaheen which, following Noble’s footsteps, carefully outline a large number—though, as we shall see, certainly not all—of the Biblical references in two genres of plays: Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1987) and Biblical References in Shakespeare’s History Plays (1989).

As this list makes apparent, much of the important work in studies of Shakespeare’s biblical references has taken place within the last five years and much remains to be discovered. Richmond Noble pessimistically described the status of research in 1935:

Mistakes in attribution have frequently occurred, sometimes with far-reaching results. Since Shakespeare is not available for examination we may ascribe to him allusions to books he had no intention of making, and also he may have utilized those selfsame books on occasions that have escaped our notice. Our inquiry in the nature of an Inquest of Documents, where the principal witness is not available for personal interrogation and where all the evidence is contained in existing documents to which it is impossible to add anything. (1935, p.24, italics added)

The study shows that of the one thousand verses marked and underlined in the Earl of Oxford’s Geneva Bible, as many as two-hundred, or one-fifth, demonstrate a definite, probable, or possible influence in the Shakespeare canon. Over eighty of these verses, as well as some sixteen psalms, are attributed as Shakespeare references to the Bible in the studies published by Noble, Milward and Shaheen. The remaining one-hundred and twenty verses, only a small portion of which (not more than 20x) fall into the category “possible”, are attributed to Shakespeare on the strength of the present study. This distribution of evidence is highly significant. The verses which are already evident in the literature anchor the present study in a tradition of scholarship which, proceeding on the assumptions of Noble, working in the absence of any documentary evidence, has succeeded in isolating and describing a large number of Shakespeare’s biblical references. The new verses added by the present study highlight the heuristic value of the Oxfordian thesis as well as providing an independent confirmation of the premise on which the study depends.


The principal investigator holds a masters degree with honors from the New School for Social Research (1988) and a PhD from the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation focused on the marginalia of the Edward de Vere bible owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. He currently an associate professor at Copin State University in MD.

Portions of the material included in this Report are featured in GTE’s 1992 Interactive Video Teleconference on Shakespearean authorship, Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update . The first public presentation of the material was made October 17, 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio, at the 16th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society of America. The author addressed the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable in Santa Monica, Ca. on January 16, 1993. Dr. Anne Pluto (PhD, English), Shakespeare professor at Leslie College in Boston, will co-author two articles based on the material supplied in the Report.

[A fuller presentation of these findings was also made at the 18th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society of America in Carmel, CA, on October 1, 1994.]

Response to Smithsonian Magazine regarding Shakespeare’s Bible

Smithsonian magazine trips over Stratfordian disinformation

MAGAZINE GETS THE FACTS WRONG: STRITMATTER AND ANDERSON REPLY

As most Oxfordians recognize, a few of the anti-Oxfordians are playing fast and loose with the facts as they try to knock down the evidence for the 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Smithsonian Magazine perpetuated two sins of factual inaccuracy in its April 1995 issue. The occasion was an update of its article in 1987 that had given a fairly well balanced account of the case for Oxford. But the magazine apparently has now been influenced by Stratfordian disinformationists. The short item in the current issue summarizes in two sentences how Charlton Ogburn “provocatively explores parallels between Oxford’s personal life and travels (Padua, Venice, Verona) with settings and specific incidents in the plays.”

Then follow the offending sentences:

Anti-Oxfordians wryly note that Oxford died in 1604—when at least 11 of Shakespeare’s plays had yet to be written. So the debate continues. In 1993 a scholar found that Oxford’s Bible had a number of marked passages that Shakespeare used in the plays—but it proved a false alarm. Oxford, it appeared, had acquired the Bible with the notations already in it.

To set the record straight on the facts, letters were sent to the editor of the Smithsonian making the following points:

First, there is no documentary evidence whatsoever that any of Shakespeare’s plays were written after the 17th Earl of Oxford died in 1604. Post-1604 dates are given to a dozen plays because first mention of them only appears after 1604. But posthumous publication or performances of literary works is not at all unusual. All the plays could have been written before 1604. And Oxfordians have demonstrated why pre-1604 dating is more rational.

Three of the plays, in fact, were never mentioned until their publication seven years after the Stratford man died, thus fatally disqualifying him, too, as the author. The reasoning, of course, is specious in both cases. Secondly, the marginal notes and underlinings in Oxford’s Bible were almost certainly made by Oxford. The magazine was undoubtedly misled into calling these markings “a false alarm” by an erroneous report in a booklet written for an exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger owns Oxford’s Bible. The authors of the booklet got the date wrong for the Bible, using 1596. This enabled them to denigrate the findings of the scholar, Roger Stritmatter then at UMass-Amherst.

In fact, the dates on the Bible itself are 1569 and 1570. Oxford’s records show that it was purchased for him in 1569/70. There was no time for anyone else to mark the Bible. And several of the markings are on verses that are echoed in Shakespeare’s plays.

Roger Stritmatter and Mark Anderson critically scrutinized the Smithsonian and wrote the following rebuttal to the editors:

April 9, 1995
Smithsonian
900 Jefferson Drive
Washington D.C. 20560

To the Editors:

Your characterization of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible (Smithsonian Updates, April 1995, p. 40) as a “false alarm” in the Shakespeare controversy constitutes an alarming suspension of critical judgment and journalistic ethics. Revisiting a 1987 Smithsonian article on the authorship controversy, you dispute the significance of the 250 recently-discovered concurrences between Shakespeare’s Biblical citations and the notations found in the 1569–70 de Vere Bible on the spurious grounds that de Vere “had acquired the Bible with the notations already in it.”

This hypothesis, presumably borrowed from the Folger Library exhibit Catalog, Roasting the Swan of Avon, does not withstand critical scrutiny. Catalog editors assert that “among the twenty-eight instances in which the annotator has written something in the outer margins, the binder’s knife has cut away part of the inscription eighteen times. That would suggest that the annotations were made sometime before the Bible was bound for the Earl of Oxford.

Nonsense. It suggests only that the Bible was first annotated and then, sometime in the past four hundred years, it was cropped. The specificity of the Folger claim is spurious. To substantiate it, the Catalog omits, and sometimes misrepresents, vital information which confirms de Vere as the annotator.

For starters, the Catalog fails to report that while the Bible retains its original binding embossed with de Vere’s crest as the 17th Earl of Oxford, the original spine of the book has been replaced. It is standard bookbinding practice, as Folger curators should know, to crop rare books when replacing the spine. Further weakening the Catalog’s hypothesis is the State record—also conveniently suppressed in the exhibit Catalog—documenting de Vere’s purchase of a Geneva Bible in 1570.

For “Smithsonian Updates” to be correct, the hypothetical previous owner would need to have acquired, annotated and resold the Bible in under a year, after which de Vere would have purchased it, removed the original binding and bound the annotated pages with his own silver-engraved crest. But there is one further problem with the Smithsonian’s overhasty conclusion: why hasn’t it been confirmed by comparing the annotator’s handwriting to de Vere’s? Paleography should prove easily enough that the annotator is not de Vere. But no. The near-perfect match between the two samples would scotch this absurd scenario…once and for all. That Shakespearean orthodoxy is driven to such desperate, ultimately self-defeating, expedients to thwart the reception of new evidence does not inspire confidence in the reasoning upon which conventional views depend. Indeed, concluded former Folger Program Director Richmond Crinkley in his review of Charlton Ogburn’s 1984 book, in the Folger’s own Shakespeare Quarterly:

If the intellectual standards of Shakespeare scholarship quoted in such embarrassing abundance by Ogburn are representative, then it is not just authorship about which we have to be worried”.

Few chapters in the recent history of the authorship controversy illustrate Crinkley’s warning more aptly than your uncritical endorsement of Folger disinformation about the de Vere Bible.

Roger Stritmatter
rstritmatter@gmail.

Mark K. Anderson
mark.anderson85@verizon.net

Book Review One: Shakespeare IN FACT

Matus’s Cannonade Against Oxford Misfires

A chapter-by-chapter review of Shakespeare, IN FACT, by Irvin Matus. (New York: Continuum, 1994. 331 pages.)

©1995 by Richard F. Whalen


In his book, Shakespeare, IN FACT, Irvin Matus promises (p. 23) to challenge the evidence for the 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author of the works of Shakespeare.

While demonstrating extensive research into primary sources, the book fails to address the principal evidence against the Stratford man and for Oxford as the author Shakespeare. It tries to appear to be doing so, but in fact it does not. The prose style is meandering and sometimes snide. It is far from crisp and definitive. Often, an argument against Oxford is announced, but then, pages later, it fails to materialize. No point has been made. The book dwells on a multitude of miscellaneous details, most of them irrelevant to the main anti-Stratfordian and Oxfordian arguments. He simply sidesteps the basic anti-Stratfordian and Oxfordian arguments while chopping the air with his sword and pretending to skewer the Oxfordians.

Paradoxically, the book does not even make a good case for the Stratford man. It often misrepresents Oxfordian positions. Straw men are set up to be knocked down. Points of sometimes obscure Oxfordian scholarship are discussed at length in a critical way, sometimes even with sarcasm, but without any conclusions being reached.

He also poses what he calls “the central question of the authorship controversy: How did Shakespeare, in fact, stand in relation to his contemporaries, both as a man and as a man of the theater?” In answering this question, however, he assumes that Shakespeare was the Stratford man, which begs the question. His answers, therefore, do not address any “central question” and are ineffectual.

Chapter 9 reveals Matus’ flawed technique

This dodging of key issues is most evident in Chapter 9 where Matus trips himself in a way that destroys his credibility and, some might say, his authorial integrity.

Matus opens this chapter by recognizing that “Oxfordians think they have their most powerful case for Oxford’s authorship in those plays where they discern biographical details of the earl’s life.” (p. 233) True enough. So what does Matus do about it? Does he devote at least a chapter of the whole book to this “most powerful case” for Oxford? Does he critique the wealth of correspondences to Oxford’s life that Oxfordians find in many of the poems and plays. Not at all.

He devotes a mere seven paragraphs (p. 233–236) to just two plays, and much of even this is extraneous. Apparently, Matus was unable to find anything wrong with the “most powerful case” for Oxford. So he ignored it. Oxfordians will recognize the usual Stratfordian tactics: Ignore the fundamental Oxfordian arguments. Downgrade Shakespeare’s genius to fit the life of “mundane inconsequence” (Schoenbaum’s words) of the man from Stratford. Snipe around the edges of Oxfordian research. Use the trappings of arcane research to try to imply solid, scholarly judgment.

Claims for Oxford not addressed

In devoting only this one chapter out of ten to the “claims for Oxford”, he still fails to counter the two principal claims for Oxford: first, the impressive, cumulative effect of the parallels between Oxford’s life and Shakespeare’s works; second, the extent and specificity of the direct references to Oxford’s life and concerns throughout the poems and plays. This second claim is crucial, yet Matus does not even mention the extensive Oxfordian literature on the subject. Only two plays out of all Shakespeare’s works are cited and much of the evidence in those two is simply ignored.

All’s Well That End’s Well gets three sentences, which focus mainly on Boccaccio’s influence. Ignored are the many direct references to Oxford’s life, e.g., wardship plus betrothal to commoner/counselor’s daughter, flight to the Continent, and, especially, the bed trick.

Hamlet gets only six paragraphs, much if it on the coat of arms on quartos. Again Matus ignores the many parallels with Oxford’s life that have been identified by Oxfordians, e.g. betrothal to commoner/counselor’s daughter, mother remarrying beneath her, pirate attack at sea, the insider references to Burghley/Polonius, his cousin Horatio, et al.

The many references to Oxford in other plays are not mentioned at all, e.g. the Gad’s Hill incident in Henry IV Part 1, street fighting in Romeo and Juliet, Shylock and Michael Lok in The Merchant of Venice, parallels with Anne Cecil, Burghley and Yorke in Hamlet and Othello etc. (Of course, nothing remotely comparable to these correspondences has ever even been suggested for Will Shakspere by Stratfordian scholars.)

In short, in this chapter on “The Claim for the Earl of Oxford,” Matus dwells on peripheral and often irrelevant details and fails completely even to address the principal claims and evidence supporting those claims for Oxford as the true author.

Nowhere does he dispute the basic historical account of Oxford’s life, i.e., that he was a courtier, poet, playwright and patron of acting companies, a man who traveled extensively in France and Italy, a man whose life seems to fit the works of Shakespeare. He then attempts to downgrade the importance of these characteristics—but without denying their existence.

He begins the chapter by noting that any records of patronage by anybody for any writers are few, but he nevertheless acknowledges Oxford’s patronage of literature, playwrights and acting companies. He uses more than a dozen paragraphs to describe Oxford as a courtier who was not always in favor with the queen, but he confirms that Oxford was an important member of the queen’s court. He uses no less than 18 paragraphs to review what he acknowledges as evidence that Oxford had some military experience, considers it slight and draws no particular conclusion. He argues that Oxford was not a “scholar” (Oxfordians don’t generally characterize him as a “scholar” in the usual sense). Yet he then acknowledges that Oxford was manifestly well-educated, well-read and well-traveled.

He argues that Oxford’s verse was not especially accomplished. Oxfordians agree, noting that it was from his youth but adding that it was remarkably Shakespearean. He uses 13 paragraphs to question whether Oxford was the author of Lyly’s plays, which is not a central issue. He does recognize that Oxford had a reputation as an excellent playwright. He critiques Bernard M. Ward’s biography of Oxford and asserts that the annual payment of one thousand pounds by the queen was simply to relieve Oxford’s ruined estate. He presents this as his own idea, but it’s not. Ward specifically considered and rejected that as the sole explanation, with his reasons given. Here also Matus contradicts himself. He fails to reconcile his recognition of the queen’s extraordinary generosity to Oxford with his insistence that Oxford had been “eliminat[ed] from her good graces for once and all.”

Finally, he again tries to downgrade Oxford’s talent as a poet, which he bases on the small number of youthful poems. He thus misses, or chooses to ignore, the Oxfordian point that after Oxford’s youthful poetry his writings then appeared as “by William Shakespeare”. This is a major Oxfordian observation. Nothing in the chapter contradicts the Oxfordian claim that Oxford’s life fits the works of Shakespeare remarkably well.

In fact, Matus confirms much of the basic evidence while pretending to critique it by dwelling on minor points of scholarship that are mostly irrelevant.

The rest of Shakespeare, IN FACT – Chapter by Chapter

Chapter One

The book opens with a critique of Oxfordian interpretations of two references to Shakespeare: Davies’s poem “To our English Terence…” and references to Shakespeare/Shakspere in the Parnassus plays. This opening salvo, which in fact fizzles, must puzzle even informed readers. Neither one figures conspicuously in the literature. Stratfordians rarely cite either one despite their seemingly direct comment on Shakespeare. Oxfordians suggest that the reason they are ignored is that both cast doubt on Will Shakspere as the author. Matus, of course, finds reasons to disagree. Both allusions require interpretation; both can be read as strong anti-Stratfordian evidence. Neither is essential to the overall case for Oxford.

Chapter Two

In chapter 2 Matus takes up anti-Stratfordian arguments. He discusses the inconsistency of spelling of names in Elizabethan England, but does not contradict the Oxfordians’ main point, i.e. that in Stratford and in most legal documents the Stratford man’s name was spelled Shakspere or a close variant, not Shakespeare. In fact, he concludes with the suggestion—and no proof at all—that Will Shakspere used the “Shakespeare” spelling for his pseudonym in London, thus accepting in part the anti-Stratfordian analysis of variant spellings.

He finds exceptions to hyphenated names as pseudonyms. Oxfordians have never argued total consistency, only general practice. He does not cite any other playwrights whose names were hyphenated. He argues that illiteracy was nothing unusual in Stratford and that Ben Jonson didn’t get much education, thus ignoring his close relation with Camden. He does not dispute that Will Shakspere’s father and daughters were illiterate or that there are no records that he went to school, although he might have been expected to, given his father’s position. He raises questions about the Ostler lawsuit, questions that may require re-examination of the original Latin manuscript for commas. It has little bearing on the overall case against the Stratford man. He acknowledges that Will Shakspere’s signatures are questioned, discusses Hand D in the Sir Thomas More manuscript and comes to no particular conclusion.

Finally he notes that literary manuscripts rarely survived. Oxfordians agree. Nowhere in this chapter has he scored against those who reject the Stratford man as the author.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 opens with a defense of Will Shakspere as an actor. Oxfordians grant that possibility, adding that the evidence is meager. Matus thinks it’s not so meager. He reviews Groatsworth but adds nothing new. Any support from it for Will Shakspere as playwright is remote at best; as an actor, maybe. Matus sets up a straw man argument when he says Oxfordians “reject utterly” the idea that Will Shakspere, if the author, could not have saved his manuscripts. That’s not the point. Oxfordians agree that play scripts belonged first to the acting companies, and that most have not survived. Nothing in chapter 3 supports Will Shakspere as author.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is a long chapter on the publication of Shakespeare’s plays. Matus discusses whether authors had any control over their works and suggests that Oxford could have controlled the publication of his plays if he’d wanted to. He adds that many plays were published without indications of permission yet their authors were not suspected of being noblemen. The logic is weak. A minor point in any case. Then follows a lengthy discussion of Sir George Buck’s role and whether Shakespeare’s (i.e. Oxford’s) plays were suppressed after 1604. Matus argues against that idea and also against the idea that Pembroke suppressed the Pavier quartos.

Thus, in his view it’s not true that Oxford’s survivors were controlling the publication of his plays. This is possibly so; more research on this matter is needed. The fact remains that the First Folio was dedicated to Oxford’s son-in-law and his son-in-law’s brother, not to anyone connected to Will Shakspere. Matus recognizes the false claims of Heminges and Condell in the First Folio but calls them common exaggerations. Then he contradicts himself by accepting as valid their claim that Shakespeare was their “fellow”.

In general in this chapter Matus argues that if Oxford were the author he and his family would have seen to it that the plays were published properly. The argument ignores the realities of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics. The plays commented on court affairs, satirizing Burghley and others. Oxford’s authorship was known, but probably could not be recognized with impunity. Besides, playwriting was déclassé. It’s possible that Oxford’s survivors were ambivalent about preserving the plays after his death. Or there may have been other, highly political reasons. Again, more research needs to be done.

Finally, Matus seems to think that Oxfordians believe that Will Shakspere, if the author, should have saved his manuscripts and had the plays printed correctly. He notes that only Ben Jonson did so. But Oxfordians agree that most playwrights seemed indifferent to publication or unable to secure proper publication. They only suggest that, unlike Jonson, Will Shakspere did not show any concern at all for Hamlet, Lear, etc., an incredible attitude for an ambitious businessman and retired landowner.

Chapter Five

Chapter 5 opens with 17 paragraphs on how Elizabethan dramatists wrote plays and whether the ur-Hamlet theory tells how Shakespeare worked. Matus comes to no particular conclusion, and switches to Leir/Lear. He then falls into circular reasoning that Will Shakspere, like others, plundered the plays of predecessors because he was Will Shakspere.

Next Matus disputes the Oxfordian idea that Shakespeare wrote literature, not just plays for pay. His reasoning: The plays were not excessively long for theater performances. This is a matter of opinion, but has little relevance to the authorship question. He disputes Oxfordian claims that many of the plays were written initially and primarily for performance at court and at the Inns of the Court, but with little evidence. And he discusses the publication of Troilus and Cressida, but without mention of its relevance to authorship. He takes pains to show that universities did not welcome acting companies; Oxfordians do not dispute that.

He concludes that the 16 quartos (1597–1622) place Shakespeare and the plays in the public theaters. Oxfordians only suggest that since the plays are all about royalty and nobility their performance for the court and nobility takes on special significance. Moreover, to the extent the plays are seen as not important in court and the Inns of the Court, Will Shakspere is deprived of the opportunity, relied on by Stratfordians, to learn about the law and the ways of kings, queens and nobility that he wrote about so well.

Chapter 5 offers no significant challenge to the case for Oxford.

Chapter Six

In chapter 6 Matus appears to come to grips with the dating issue, but his arguments do not refute the Oxfordian position. Matus simply accepts the traditional chronology of Stratfordian scholars without noting their own caveats: Evans (and Levin) says it is “beset with hazards and uncertainties”; Barnet calls it “highly uncertain” and “informed guesswork”. Matus ignores the unlikely phenomenon of no apprenticeship work and early retirement. He barely mentions a Stratfordian argument that Meres’s list forces too many plays into the six years before Oxford’s death. Perhaps he’s seen the error of that argument. He complains that Oxfordians have no chronology, completely ignoring the work of Eva Turner Clark and the Ogburns. Oxfordians today are generally judicious and perhaps overly cautious about the precise dating of the individual plays, while holding that Oxford’s lifespan fits the works of Shakespeare.

Matus begins with a long critique of Cairncross’s re-dating of five pre-1598 plays but never relates his analysis to the authorship question. Nothing prohibits the composition of the five plays well before Oxford died. Matus then examines three plays in particular:

    • He argues that The Winter’s Tale could not have been a re-write of a 1594 lost play with a similar name because plays were registered only once and this play was registered in 1623. But Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida were registered twice.

 

    • He argues that The Tempest must have been based on shipwreck accounts of 1609 but fails to recognize shipwreck and exploration accounts that pre-dated Oxford’s death and that are at least as similar to Shakespeare’s account. Muir studied the 1609 reports and judged the parallels to be exaggerated.

 

  • He argues that Henry VIII was called “new” in 1613 and dismisses theater references to a Henry VIII gown sometime in the 1590s. More research is needed in this area.

Whatever the dating, nothing precludes these plays or any others first heard of after 1604—from having been written before 1604. (Three plays were not heard of until the First Folio, years after Will Shakspere died.) He fails to wring any significant conclusions about authorship from the dating debate.

Chapter Seven

Chapter 7 examines Shakespeare’s reputation among his contemporaries, generally denigrating it. There is no discussion of authorship, except that Matus generally considers that Shakespeare/Shakspere was only one of several great dramatists of his time, surpassed in some cases by others; thus there’s no need to search for exceptional education, experience, or background.

Chapter Eight

Chapter 8 describes the beatification of Shakespeare in the 18th century and then shifts into an analysis of the Stratford bust. Matus makes the usual Stratfordian arguments: Dugdale made a mistake in showing a sack instead of a pillow and omitting the pen and paper, and no changes were made in the early 1700s. This argument rests on a denial that Dugdale sketched what he saw and approved of the engraving Hollar did for Dugdale’s own book.

Dugdale might get details wrong in his poor sketch. But he would not omit paper, pen and writing surface for the bust of “our poet Shakespeare” if pen and paper and writing surface had indeed been present in the bust he was looking at. Unaccountably, or perhaps tellingly, no illustration of the Dugdale/Hollar engraving is provided, although the Folger has it. Instead he features Vertue’s engraving (with pen and paper) of a century later and five other (all later) depictions of the bust. The Hollar engraving, damning to his thesis, is conspicuous by its absence.

Chapter 10 – Closing Arguments

In “Closing Arguments,” Matus takes up miscellaneous points not covered earlier. He finds other playwrights who had “lost years” and indulges in some speculation. Regarding the silence at Will Shakspere’s death, he finds that Fletcher, Massinger and King James did not have proper burials, but burial is not the point, silence is. He finds some educated men from Stratford, and he finds a commoner who knew what was going on at court. He says Shakespeare would have picked up falconry terms, etc. and legal lore by reading and listening to experts talk. Someone else may have written the French scenes in his plays. His knowledge of the classics is not all that great; he could have learned it in grammar school in Stratford. (Even logic and rhetoric?) His vocabulary (largest of any writer in English at any time) was not that impressive; he used words in different senses.

Most of his rebuttals here are simply conjectures or out-of-hand dismissals. The rebuttals can be challenged simply on the basis of common sense. His methodology, moreover, completely ignores the way the evidence accumulates to throw fatal doubts upon the belief in Will Shakspere as the author.

Next Matus accuses Oxfordians of calling Shakespeare’s genius for language “an isolated phenomenon”. This is an exaggerated accusation at best. His commentary on it is weak. Finally, Matus re-states his main thesis: Shakespeare was an actor who wrote plays for acting companies in the common playhouses; we should not raise him above his fellow dramatists. And someone like Oxford, he says, could not have acquired the requisite playwriting skills. But that ignores Oxford’s reputation, recognized at the time and by Matus, as an outstanding poet and playwright, and as patron of acting companies. Besides, most of the playwrights of genius down through history have not (except for Moliere and Noel Coward) been actors.

Irvin Matus, an independent researcher, says that he spent more than six years at the Folger Shakespeare Library researching the book, which does show evidence of extensive reading in primary and secondary sources. Not mentioned in footnotes or bibliography, however, are many standard Oxfordian works, including Clark, Ogburn and Ogburn, and Hope and Holston—serious omissions in a serious book that attacks the case for Oxford.

Book Review Two: Shakespeare, IN FACT


<style=”center”>Shakespeare, IN FACT

by Irvin Matus, 1994


Reviewed by Publius, a professor of Comparative Literature at an Ivy League University who prefers to remain incognito for reasons of professional safety.

This review first appeared in the spring/summer 1995 issue of The Elizabethan Review.


Whatever digressions the author makes in pursuit of his game, Irwin Matus has written Shakespeare, In Fact in response to two powerfully challenging and complex books “Shakespeare” Identified in the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (Looney, 1920) and The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality (Ogburn, 1984). Of course, Matus has trained his eyes on B.M. Ward’s 1928 biography of the Earl of Oxford, and perhaps he’s even acquainted himself with William Fowler’s 1986 study of Oxford’s correspondence. What’s disturbing about all Matus’s reading, however, is that what passes before the eye seems to register so dimly in the representation which comes forth from the pen. Matus does not disdain to actually argue with his intellectual opponents; he simply pauses over their strong points with a sneer before moving to another topic on which he finds it easy to make them appear ridiculous.

In so doing, Matus takes enormous liberties with the views of those he actually cites for the purposes of refutation. In fact, his compulsion to construct straw men seems beyond hope of clinical intervention. For instance, Matus makes it appear that Ward claimed that the Earl of Oxford had written plays attributed to John Lyly. As the most sophisticated Oxfordian scholar since J.T. Looney, Ward is someone Matus cannot afford to let escape unscathed from his tirade against Oxfordian scholarship. But in mauling Ward, Matus misreads, and misrepresents, him.

Ward conjectured not that Oxford had authored the Lyly plays, but that they resulted from a “collaborative” relationship (275) between Lyly and his employer during the period 1579-1590 –while Lyly was Oxford’s secretary. Ward offers this conjecture– and it is not, contrary to what Matus would have his readers believe, more than an aside from his major thesis– in pursuance of a more definite, important and ultimately decisive conclusion: there is an intimate association, documented in the researches of Albert Fueillerat, Warwick Bond and E.K. Chambers, between Oxford’s Men, John Lyly and the Queen’s Men during the 1580s. In 1593 the latter troupe was disbanded and reconfigured under the nominal patronage of Henry and then George Carey, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This conclusion has profound, and still relatively unexplored, implications for a stage history which does credit to the Earl of Oxford’s vital role as the Hamlet-like patron to Elizabethan theater companies from 1576 until his death in 1604.

Ward’s purpose was never the narrow one which Matus falsely attributes to him, of claiming the Lyly plays as part of the Oxford canon. Ward wanted to document the circumstances which would lead any reasonable person to conclude for the likelihood of a literary collaboration between Oxford and his “fiddlestick” (to quote Gabriel Harvey), Lyly. One would think Ward’s quodlibet would be music to the ears of a critic like Matus, who has been hired to explain away the more or less explicit references by William Webbe (1586), Francis Meres (1598) and the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589) to Oxford’s reputation as a pseudo-anonymous author of comic drama. If Matus were less obsessed with savaging Ward’s well-deserved reputation as one of the most thoughtful Elizabethan scholars in our century, this would have been just the place to position a strategic agreement. He might then have followed Ward in arguing that some of Oxford’s reputation as a comic writer resulted from the hypothesized collaboration between employer and secretary, which would seem to exonerate him from the accusation of having written Troilus and Cressida, among other works appearing in the Shakespeare quartos and folio.

But this would be a strategic concession which Matus cannot afford to make. To admit Ward’s sagacity would be a sin against the revisionist agenda which makes this book such a post-modern monument to Stratfordian babble. Instead of reading Ward through Matus’s near-sighted perspective, we might weigh his testimony, like that of others, in historical context. Thomas Nashe, for one, seems to have held a higher estimate of Oxford’s comic sensibility that Matus does: often regarded as the greatest satirist of the age, Nashe describes himself as one that “enjoy[s] but a mite of wit in comparison of his [Oxford's] talent” and hypothesizes that if Oxford was to take Harvey “in hand” again “there would more gentle readers dies of a merry mortality engendered in by his eternal jests he would maul thee with, then there have done of his last infection.” (Ward, 91)

Such contemporary testimony must be weighed against the revisionist claims of Matus that “it is impossible to imagine Lyly’s style owed anything to Oxford, whose style was old-fashioned to begin with…” The declaration fails to inspire confidence in Matus’s knowledge of the development of 16th century prose and also suggests a rather diminished lexicon of literary criticism; apparently, calling someone “old fashioned” becomes a convenient euphemism for a style most students would term euphuistic. Either Matus is completely ignorant of the subject on which he presumes to enlighten his readers, or he is too much of a shark for contemporary intellectual fashions to know the difference between what is impossible and what is merely probable.

In anatomizing such liberties with conscientious scholarship, we must not lose sight of the larger dynamics of Matus’s operating method: why would anyone devote almost three pages of a short chapter on the Earl of Oxford to “refuting” a non-existent and, in any case, irrelevant claim that he was the author of the Lyly corpus? A metaphor will serve. When a magician wants to pull a rabbit out of his hat, he distracts attention with linguistic patter. Good patter follows the structure of a periphrasis—the object is to spend so much time rhapsodizing that one is on the threshold of the promised land, that the audience never notices that they are still standing in the same dull room. Voila, a rabbit.

Of course, it would never do to mention that Ogburn and others have argued convincingly that the historical figure Matus pompously proclaims could not possibly have influenced John Lyly is the historical prototype for Euphues himself. Such a reality might have some bearing if one were to consider that Oxford exercised some influence over the historical style named after that “fictional” character. Matus’s purpose is to amuse and distract long enough to pluck the rabbit of his so-called refutation from the well-lined top hat of the Shakespeare Industry without getting any intelligent, troublesome methodological questions from his audience.

All in all, the fantasy of Stratfordian authorship is a little like the smile on the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland: first it has nine lives and then, after using all of them up in various blunders over the past two hundred years, we at last get to appreciate the company of a giant grin that just won’t disappear.

Why the Authorship of the Shakespeare Canon Matters

The Shakespeare Authorship Question: Why it matters

< ©1995 by Charles Vere


I want to start by asking a question: “Why is the authorship question coming to a resolution now as we approach the beginning of the 21st Century? The answer to the question is essentially a political one. Our society is now preoccupied with many of the central issues that concerned Elizabethan society at the end of the 16th Century, and since that was a society in which Shakespeare loomed large, it is vitally important for us to understand who he was and what it was he was trying to say.

The grand political and philosophical dynamic in Shakespeare’s plays is the conflict between feudalism and capitalism. And the question underpinning this dynamic is: “Should the main form of exchange between human beings be capital rather than spiritual?” Or to put it another way: “Should the spirit of opportunism override society’s commitment to spiritual growth?” This question is made manifest in King Lear through the contrasting mottoes of Edmund and Edgar, namely “Men are as the time is” [opportunism] versus “Ripeness is all” [spiritual growth]. As we have seen to our cost today, the philosophy of political opportunism, which is driven by an all-consuming sense of commercialism, leads to the exploitation both of human beings and the land. It was Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the real life Polonius, who exemplified this latter spirit.

For Oxford himself, on the other hand, it was through the spirit of feudalism that man could live a dignified and fulfilling life without exploiting others and without alienating himself from the land and from the natural hierarchies that underlie all human society. For it is Oxford who is speaking when Ulysses exclaims in Act I, scene iii, of Troilus & Cressida:

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick.

And later in the same speech:

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.
Each thing melts In mere oppugnancy
….

Oxford, then, is prophetic in his plays, because he understands that dog-eats-dog commercialism destroys the structure and cohesiveness of society, and leads to greed, envy, hatred, paranoia and an overwhelming sense of aimlessness.

Now, at the end of the 20th Century, when capitalism and commercialism rage unchecked at the expense of spiritual exchange, Shakespeare’s message is particularly important to us. We seem to be at a turning point; people are reassessing their fundamental political values. The flame of capitalism burns so brightly not because it has found more fuel, but because it sputters. We are turning towards a society which will, I believe, be neo-feudal in its outlook and spirit. It is a society which Shakespeare advocated at the end of the 16th Century; but he was not heeded. Men chose the mercenary route. Now once again we are confronted with the same choice, except this time the consequences of taking the wrong path will be irreparably catastrophic. This is why finally, after all these centuries, we must allow Shakespeare’s true message to be heard and understood. And in order to do that we must first recognize and come to terms with who this man was. For Shakespeare was not, as the academics maintain, all things to all men, a man in fact without opinions or beliefs, a mere cipher for his unimaginable talent. Rather he was one of the great spiritual teachers of mankind, and his individual voice is unmistakable in the plays. Understand the man, and you understand the message.

So the short answer to the question “Why is the authorship question being resolved now?” is: BECAUSE IT DESPERATELY NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED. Because of his universal appeal, Shakespeare can furnish mankind with the key to its future development. This sounds grandiose, but then Shakespeare’s work is grandiose, and, in the case of a play like King Lear, apocalyptic as well. Indeed Shakespeare is in no doubt of the magnitude of his work for mankind when he says through Hamlet:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.” [I. v. 196–7]

It’s almost as if the Stratford myth has had the effect of putting the plays in a time-capsule for 400 years, so that Shakespeare’s true message can be revealed to us today, alongside the author’s identity, with the force of a revelation. Perhaps Nostradamus was referring to Shakespeare in The Centuries when he wrote:

For five hundred years no account shall be made
Of him who was the ornament of his time.
Then of a sudden he shall give so great a light,
That for that age he shall make them to be most contented.

Although Shakespeare is emotionally steeped in the feudal age, he is not advocating a simple return to the mediaeval system, but rather looks forward to a new society inspired by the ideals of feudalism. One can, see the recrudescence of the feudal spirit in modern society in, for instance, the various holistic movements. People are registering their desire for a greater sense of wholeness and community as well as a closer kinship with the land. There is a desire for politics to be rooted more in local, tangible issues; and there is a growing mistrust of life in a society in which human beings are merely political statistics or economic units, the playthings in fact of giant centralized governments or, indeed, of multinational corporations. Politics today has become a machine that weaves abstractions, and that dwarfs the people who work among its wheels, and the market place has become our ultimate source of values. We have lost a sense of the sanctity and meaning of all things, and are not entitled to say with Hamlet: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” [V. ii. 215]

If we look at Shakespeare’s attitude towards the land, his political philosophy comes into clear focus. It is a curious and little noted fact that Hamlet himself and many of the other Hamlet-type characters in the plays (who are clearly based on the author himself) express their contempt for people who purchase land as a means of acquiring wealth, or who regard land as an economic entity alone. In the graveyard scene of Act V, scene i, Hamlet tells Horatio that those who believe they own the land because a legal document tells them they do are mere sheep, the ultimate implication being that you can’t own land, you can only act as its steward or guardian, and this guardianship is itself an act of sacred trust. For land, as Shakespeare reminds us, is as much mystical as economic. This idea is combined with that of the indiscriminate nature of political mercantilism in the following scene when Hamlet says of the social- climbing Osric: “He hath much land and fertile. Let a beast be lord of beasts and his crib shall stand at the king’s mess. ‘Tis a chuff, but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.” [V. ii. 86-9] For Shakespeare, politics should not neglect the sacred.

The Earl of Oxford, like Timon, was compelled to dispose of all his ancestral lands, while the Stratford man, William Shakspere, spent his adult life acquiring land (even if it meant enclosing the village commons in Stratford) and using it solely for financial gain. Further, Oxford mourned the growing alienation from the land of the feudal aristocracy, of which he was a member. The sense of rupture and loss that such alienation engendered was a constant elegy in the lives of the wolfish earls of old. Shakspere, on the other hand, hitched his cart securely to the star of the new capitalist state. This begs a question: would Shakespeare really have portrayed himself as Osric rather than Hamlet in the play that is widely regarded as his most autobiographical?

One other political phenomenon of our times that I should mention because Shakespeare was the first to portray it is none other than political doublespeak (a branch of political correctness). It is a devious form of speech which is utterly opportunistic, in that it continually guards itself from the truth, preferring instead to rely on ambivalence to convey what is eventually a meaningless message. With political doublespeak, the message is not important, but rather the atmosphere created by the words. As such it is an underminer of values and conscience because it robs people of any absolute standards in society, such as truth. Hamlet is a man who believes that his society has been robbed of any meaningful standards of truth. He is surrounded by men who exploit both land and language. (Language and the land are intimately connected, and poetry and farming were sisters in ancient times. A kinship with the land helps us retain the fundamental meaning of words and to appreciate their cultural force. We root ourselves in our culture through land and language. The abuse of land is ultimately the abuse of language.)

Perhaps the greatest exponent of doublespeak in Shakespeare is Polonius, an amoral and opportunistic figure if there ever was one, and one who gives credence to Edmund’s statement that “men are as the time is.” Polonius and his ilk create a political environment in which the only form of service is self-service, and the only philosophy materialism. (Gone is the feudal dictum “it is more noble to serve than be served.”) Polonius despises the land. In Act II scene ii of Hamlet, in staking his reputation on his theory of the cause of Hamlet’s madness, he lets the King and Queen know that the greatest humiliation he could possibly suffer would be to “keep a farm and carters.” And, as “the father of good news”, he is clearly not interested in the truth; he is a propagandist. His young nemesis Hamlet, on the other hand, possesses enormous sensitivity to language and is, like Troilus, “truth’s authentic author.” This battle of truth versus propaganda which Hamlet [Oxford] fights against Polonius [Burghley] is being fought again today by the Earl of Oxford’s supporters in their conflict with the academic establishment.

So, as long as the Edmunds and Poloniuses of this world hold sway, power remains a purely pragmatic rather than a sacred force, and both man’s relationship with language and his relationship with the land cease to be organic, as does his own societal life among his fellow men. Degree, the universal law by which man strives for spiritual evolution, is forgotten and the connectedness and purpose of things obscured. All this deeply affects his feeling life, and the very concept of human society is imperiled. Let’s hope that Albany in King Lear was wrong in his vision of humanity preying on itself, like monsters of the deep.

One of the surest ways to forestall the realization of Albany’s appalling vision is to read Shakespeare’s truth, and understand it.

Shakespeare’s Good Book


This article was first printed in the 10 March 1994 Valley Advocate in Western Massachusetts.

©1994 Mark Anderson


In 1927 Sigmund Freud wrote, “I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him. Since reading Shakespeare Identified by J. T. Looney, I am almost convinced that the assumed name conceals the personality of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.”

Almost 70 years later, Freud’s quote probably provokes more nervous laughter than it does curious inquiry. But a University of Massachusetts scholar has discovered astonishing new evidence that may allow Freud to have the last laugh after all.

Graduate student Roger Stritmatter has spent the last five years researching the Shakespeare authorship question, in the process discovering that Edward de Vere’s hand-annotated copy of the bible contains more than a hundred verses marked by de Vere that are also recognized by scholars today as primary biblical references in Shakespeare’s works. In addition, more than a hundred other verses de Vere annotated point towards Shakespearean biblical citations that scholars had previously overlooked.

In the summer of 1993, PBS Adult Learning Service broadcast the satellite uplink program “Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update,” which examined the accumulating evidence that “Shakespeare” was actually the pen-name of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and it presented some of Stritmatter’s de Vere/Shakespeare biblical resonances. Within the past year the German, Italian and British press as well have begun to examine Stritmatter’s work, and Universal Press Syndicate columnist Joseph Sobran deemed the study “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy.”

The broad scope of the Shakespeare authorship question—even the possibility that the author was not the man previous generations had thought he was—has caused friction between the orthodoxy and heretics for more than a century. To date, Oxfordians (so-called for their advocacy of de Vere, the Earl of Oxford) have been more successful in making discoveries and breakthroughs than in communicating them to the world at large. And they have faced more derision than acknowledgement from academics. “Anyone is a noodle who thinks De Vere wrote the plays traditionally attributed to Shakespeare,” argued Caltech Shakespeare Professor Jenijoy La Belle in the Los Angeles Times in April of 1994.

However, Stritmatter’s work has the potential to transport the entire debate to a larger public context, a context in which the larger questions can be asked and the other side of the story can start being told. After all, as Stritmatter says, “We now have Shakespeare’s Bible, and it has Edward de Vere’s coat of arms on the cover.”

Background on the authorship issue and Edward de Vere

So who was Edward de Vere? And how, 400 years after the name “Shakespeare” first appeared in print, can one even call into question our understanding about the life of the English language’s greatest writer?

A great deal is know about the life of William Shaksper—as he spelled it. Yet the records we do have from Shaksper’s life indicate that he was a businessman and actor who had financial ties to the theater. Nothing more. In a time when the plays and writings of Shakespeare were tremendously popular, and when authors and theater-goers left many references in their writings to the works themselves, not a single person in the age of Shakespeare directly addresses the actual identity of the author.

In an age of letters and letter-writing, nobody we know of ever corresponded with Shaksper, and in an age of books, no record—not even Shaksper’s will—ever points to his owning or using a single book. Nobody relates the gentleman from Stratford-on-Avon to the works of Shakespeare or even suggests he was a writer in any capacity. Literary history’s greatest manhunt, in fact, has netted only six examples of the man’s handwriting: all of them signatures on legal documents written by other people.

On the other hand, as a teenager, Edward de Vere was tutored by the Latin scholar whose English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the second most influential work for Shakespeare, next to the Bible. (The Latin scholar was also de Vere’s maternal uncle—or as the young boy in Titus Andronicus puts it, “‘Tis Ovid’s Metamorphoses. My mother gave it me.”)

By the age of twenty, de Vere had received two masters’ degrees and studied law for three years. In 1578 a prominent scholar gave a speech for Queen Elizabeth and her court, addressing de Vere in Latin with words that translate to, “Thine eyes flash fire, thy will shakes spears.” (Read those last three words again.) And a 1589 book of poetry and poets elliptically refers to certain men at court who have “suffered it to be published without their owne names to it” and goes on to mention Edward de Vere as the best of these courtier poets if only his “doings would be found out and made public with the rest.” (“Shakespeare” was indeed an ideal pen-name for a dramatist, since Pallas Athena, the classical goddess associated with the theater, was also known as hasti vibrans or the “spear-shaker.”)

Edward de Vere’s family connections to the Shakespeare canon add up to more than just coincidence as well. Another one of de Vere’s uncles introduced the poetic form we now know as the Shakespearean sonnet. During the period that one of Edward de Vere’s daughters was betrothed to marry the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s epic poems—Venus and Adonis and Lucrece—first appeared bearing almost familial dedications to the Earl of Southampton. According to many scholars, Midsummer Nights’ Dream first graced the stage at the wedding of another of de Vere’s daughters. And the famous 1623 Shakespeare First Folio was brought to fruition by two brothers, one of whom was Edward de Vere’s son-in-law.

The plots, references and characters in Shakespeare prove strikingly similar to people and events in Edward de Vere’s life. Consider Hamlet. What many regard as Shakespeare’s greatest work is essentially Edward de Vere’s autobiography.

As in Hamlet, Edward de Vere’s mother remarried in haste upon his father’s untimely death. Subsequently, like Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, de Vere became a ward of the court—in de Vere’s case under William Cecil, Lord Treasurer of England and the man most 20th Century scholars have agreed was the inspiration for the character Polonius. Once he could wield power over de Vere as a legal guardian, Cecil broke off a previous marriage contract and instead betrothed the young Earl of Oxford—a peer whose family had held one of England’s most prestigious Earldoms for centuries—to a Cecil daughter or political advancement of the Cecil clan. (“Virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it…” Hamlet rails at Polonius’ daughter Ophelia.)

Why would the author of Hamlet put the protagonist in Edward de Vere’s shoes and satirize de Vere’s guardian and father-in-law? This is simply not a valid question as far as the orthodoxy is concerned. However, considering that Elizabethan writers had about as must political free speech as, say, Iranian writers do today, slandering and then killing a caricature of one of the most powerful and ruthless men in England (“Dead for a ducat!” gloats Hamlet) was a dangerous dramatic ploy to write and “make public with the rest”—unless one could obscure Hamlet’s satirical edge or distance the author from his work.

The autobiographical elements and contemporaneous political satire run deep in the play, but Stritmatter finds the play within the play telling as well. “The master metaphor of Hamlet is the alienated prince who anonymously employs drama for political effect in the court. Not only are we made aware that the political topography of the play is identical with the biographical realities of Edward de Vere’s life, but the play in fact becomes an imaginative projection of exactly what de Vere would have done as the pseudonymous author of the Shakespeare corpus, which was to use his knowledge of the inner machinery of court life to try to expose its corruption.”

What the Bible shows

Within the context of Hamlet, Edward de Vere’s Bible presents some compelling evidence. For instance, in Act 3 Scene 3, as Hamlet happens upon a praying King Claudius, the prince notices that he can revenge his father’s murder. But Hamlet quickly realizes that Claudius’ soul will go to heaven if the king is killed at the altar. Hamlet contrasts this situation with that of his father’s murder: “He took my father grossly, full of bread.” The words “full of bread” have long been recognized by Shakespeare scholars of all persuasions as a reference to the Bible—specifically to Ezekiel chapter 16, verse 49. And over a span of more than 300 verses in the book of Ezekiel, Edward de Vere marks only one: Ezekiel 16:49.

The Shakespeare character Falstaff brings to light further curious examples of parallels between de Vere and his Bible. In King Henry IV, Part Two, Falstaff spits out the insult “whoreson Achitophel!”—a direct reference to II Samuel 16:23, which de Vere underlined. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff brags, “I fear not Golliath with a weaver’s beam.” Not only has de Vere underlined the scriptural source (II Samuel 21:19) for these words, but he even underlined “weaver’s beam” within the biblical verse itself.

Falstaff’s adventures parallel events from Edward de Vere’s life too. Most striking, Edward de Vere talked two friends and former employees into playing a prank robbery on his father-in-law’s associates at Gad’s Hill (located on the road between London and Canterbury). Likewise Prince Hal plays a prank robbery on Falstaff at Gad’s Hill in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part One. A similar robbery also takes place in Henry IV’s anonymous “source” play—which some scholars believe to be Shakespeare’s first draft. In fact, the “source” play’s robbery happens at both the same place and the same date as Edward de Vere’s prank.

An important dramatic centerpiece in The Merchant of Venice is a loan from the Jewish banker Shylock. Like any other character in Shakespeare, Shylock has no discernible real-life inspiration. Supposedly. Yet during his Italian travels, the young Edward de Vere came up short on money in Venice and had to borrow from a Jewish banker named Pasquino Spinola. De Vere wrote home to have his father-in-law sell off an estate to pay for his loan: “I understand the greatness of my debt and greediness of my creditors grows so dishonourable and troublesome…” Or in the words of the play’s debtor, “My creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low.” Later in Merchant Shylock finds the loan in default, and wants to exact his revenge. The Duke of Venice intervenes, and they debate each other by citing two contrasting biblical passages, both of which de Vere underlined in his Bible (and one of which Stritmatter was the first scholar to discover).

In Henry V one of the French noblemen asks of the Constable of France, “The armour that I see in your tent tonight, are those stars or suns upon it?” This Shakespearean non sequitur is actually a clever reference to another event fifty years after the time of Henry V. That is, a battle from the War of the Roses was lost in part because Lancastrian archers accidentally fired on an allied division under the command of the 13th Earl of Oxford—through the afternoon fog the star insignia borne by John de Vere’s troops was confused for the emblem of the enemy forces: a sun. (Whoever he was, Shakespeare certainly could toss off his share of de Vere family in-jokes.) Later in the play as the victorious King Henry V approaches, Exeter apostrophizes his monarch by referring to several apocryphal verses that de Vere underlined in his Bible.

Edward de Vere’s writings before he was “suffered to publishe without his owne name to it” also strike harmonies with the writings of Shakespeare. One study published last year finds that even obscure words from Shakespeare prove to be favorites of de Vere as well, and in general the vocabulary displayed in the letters and poems from Edward de Vere overlap with Shakespere by 98 percent. (Although he commanded the greatest vocabulary of any English writer, all the words Shakespeare ever used are still only six percent of the Oxford English Dictionary.) Finally, God’s words from the Burning Bush (“I am that I am”) have been found only twice in Elizabethan writings where the author had the audacity to speak of himself as if he were God—in a personal letter by Edward de Vere which upbraids his nosy father-in-law for spying and in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 which rails at “frailer spies” who have “adulterate eyes.”

Still, the above should not be taken seriously, because as Professor La Belle flatly states in her Los Angeles Times editorial, “There is not one shred of hard evidence against Shakespeare’s [i.e. Shaksper's] authorship.”

The examples here cited are only a few of the many curious links between Edward de Vere and the Shakespeare canon. Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare along with Shakespeare Identified by J.T. Looney spell out many of these arguments in depth.

The debate today, and future promise

A prevalent criticism leveled against the heretics is that their claims are born out of snobbery or out of a disbelief that anybody short of nobility could have written the works in question. However, as many Oxfordians are quick to caution, personal bias has no room in the equation. The issue at hand is about drawing conclusions from the historical record, not from beliefs, suppositions or for that matter scholarly traditions. As Stritmatter puts it, “The authorship question is not about asking who could have written Shakespeare. It’s about asking who did.”

The point most often raised against the Oxfordian theory is that Edward de Vere died in 1604 and therefore had shuffled off this mortal coil before many of the bard’s greatest works were written, according to the conventional chronology. Stritmatter, however, calls the conventional chronology into question. “What we have is circular reasoning. We have an assumption that the author died in 1616, a tradition of building the chronology of composition of plays around that assumption, and then we have a claim that because de Vere died in 1604 that makes it impossible that he could have written a play like Lear.”

He continues, “There is a substantial category of plays which everybody agrees were written before 1604 and yet were not published until 1623. So before we can have an intelligent conversation about whether or not the chronology defeats the thesis of de Vere’s authorship, we need to have some discussion about why it was that those plays were not published for twenty or thirty years after they were written. And there’s a very simple answer from the Oxfordian point of view. In one word: censorship.”

As Charles Dickens said, “It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known concerning the great poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.” Henry James found himself “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

Perhaps so. But Stritmatter prefers to see the changing times in terms of promise rather than trepidation. “We are standing on the threshold of the most exciting period in the history of Shakespeare scholarship. What I have studied is the first of what I think will be a flood of books from de Vere’s library. The opportunities for making great contributions to the field, for reinterpretation of the works themselves, for some of the most powerful Shakespeare productions yet staged are all out there. It’s tremendously exciting.”

The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction

The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction


Abridged from “The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction”
UNIVERSITY of PENNSYLVANIA LAW REVIEW (v.140: no. 4, April 1992)
by Justice John Paul Stevens


The Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III, begins his opening soliloquy with the famous line: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” The listener, who at first assumes that the word “now” refers to an unhappy winter, soon learns that war-torn England has been “made glorious by this son of York.” It is now summer not winter and “grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled” forehead. Words—even a simple word like *now*—may have a meaning that is not immediately apparent. Like the seasons, periods of war and peace come and go. As times change there is also a fluctuation in perceptions about the importance of studying humanistic values and their relation to rules of law. The plays and poems of William Shakespeare, sometimes collectively described as the “Shakespeare Canon,” are perhaps the most stimulating and exciting works in the English language. Canons of statutory construction, in contrast, are probably the dullest materials that law students study. For these reasons, this essay includes a mixture of comment on two apparently unrelated subjects: first, the unorthodox view that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is the true author of the Shakespeare Canon and, second, the utility of certain canons of statutory construction in the search for truth and justice.

Because Shakespeare’s plays are typically divided into five acts, I must, of course, discuss five canons of statutory construction.

ACT I

The first canon of statutory construction is obvious: “Read the statute.” The Supreme Court has reminded us over and over again that when federal judges are required to interpret acts of Congress, they must begin by reading the text of the statute. Although this proposition is universally accepted, debate often arises over the question of whether there is ambiguity in the text, and if so, how far behind that text the judge may go in the quest for the author’s intended meaning. The text of the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, unambiguously identifies him as the author of the Shakespeare Canon. Moreover, respected scholars are virtually unanimous in their conviction that the man from Stratford-on-Avon is the author of the masterpieces that are attributed to him. Nevertheless, questions that were raised by such skeptics as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Henry James, John Galsworthy, and Sigmund Freud still intrigue those mavericks who are persuaded that William Shakespeare is a pseudonym for an exceptionally well-educated person of noble birth who was close to the English throne.

Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was such a person. If we could find an original draft of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or an excerpt in his own handwriting, or even a signed statement identifying himself as the author, we would have the kind of unambiguous evidence of authorship that would put an end to the matter. But the evidence of Shakespeare’s handwriting that we do have is of an entirely different character. It consists of six signatures on legal documents, each suggesting that merely writing his name was a difficult task and, remarkably, that his name was Shaksper rather than Shakespeare. Indeed, the references to the man from Stratford in legal documents usually spell the first syllable of his name with only four letters: Shak- or sometimes Shag- or Shax- whereas the dramatist’s name is consistently rendered with a long “a.” For that reason, the protagonists of the Earl of Oxford’s cause make a point of distinguishing between Shakesper and Shakespeare. In this respect, they are, in effect, relying on the first canon of statutory construction. In response, the Stratfordians point out that signatures, like statutes, should be read in their contemporary context, that incorrect spelling was common in Elizabethan England, and that we should always be conscious of the possibility of a scrivener’s error. This response, like the Oxfordian response to the text of the First Folio, indicates that this is a case in which we must go beyond the first canon.

ACT II

The second canon of statutory construction is much like the first: “Read the entire statute.” Courts often tell us that the meaning of a particular statutory provision cannot be divined without reading the entire statute. Similarly, the more of Shakespeare’s writing that we read, the more we learn about him. At least, that is the position that the Oxfordians advocate. As evidence of the author’s probable noble birth, they point out that all but one of his plays—The Merry Wives of Windsor—are about members of the nobility. Even more striking is Shakespeare’s repeated reference to nobility as the highest standard of excellence. The question that a lonely Hamlet asked himself was “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” In the first act of Macbeth, when Duncan proclaimed his succession, he noted that “signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine on all deservers.” When Mark Antony wanted to explain to Julius Caesar why there was no reason to fear Cassius, it was enough merely to state: “He is a noble Roman, and well given.” And after the conspirators had been defeated, Anthony gave Brutus the highest possible praise by referring to him as “the noblest Roman of them all.”

Shakespeare’s account of the events that took place on the Ides of March may also shed light on his views about the common man. When Julius Caesar walked though the streets of Rome, the crowds greeted him with unmixed enthusiasm—obviously in favor of offering him the crown. But when he was brutally murdered in full view of countless witnesses, a few well-chosen words from Brutus, the leader of the murderous gang, were sufficient to satisfy the crowd and earn their unquestioning support. Then a few minutes later, Mark Antony’s marvelous address to his “Friends, Romans, [and] countrymen” had the mob, once again, convinced that Caesar was their hero. Admittedly, it was a great speech, but how much respect for the common man does this sort of flip-flop-flip reveal? Perhaps the answer is found in Casca’s description of the crowd’s reaction when Caesar refused the crownfor the third time:

“As he refus’d it, the rabblement howted, and clapp’d their chopp’d hands, and threw up their sweaty night-caps, and utter’d such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refus’d the crown, that it had, almost, chok’d Caesar, for he swounded, and fell down at; and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.”

Of course, the author of such a comment need not be of noble birth, but it seems appropriate to pause to take note of the fact that Edward de Vere was not an ordinary nobleman. In her biography of Queen Elizabeth, Carolly Erickson, after relating contemporary gossip about the Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Leicester, had this to say about de Vere:

“Elizabeth too, it was said, was seducing handsome young men and keeping them under surveillance by her well-paid spies when they were not in amorous attendance on her. Prominent among these favorites was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a boyish, hazel-eyed young courtier whose expression combined poetic languor and aristocratic superciliousness. He was athletic and acquitted himself brilliantly in the tiltyard, dashing fearlessly, lance lowered, against any and all comers and retiring the victor despite his youth and slight build. He was an agile and energetic dancer, the ideal partner for the Queen, and he had a refined ear for music and was a dexterous performer on the virginals. His poetry was unusually accomplished, and his education had given him a cultivated mind, at home with the antique authors Elizabeth knew so well.” Erickson, The First Elizabeth, (1983) p. 267.

When Edward de Vere was twelve years old, his father died and he became a royal ward in Sir William Cecil’s household. Cecil, also known as Lord Burghley, was the Queen’s principal adviser and a master of intrigue who controlled an elaborate network of spies. In Hamlet, the character Polonius is unquestionably a caricature of Burghley. His position as advisor to the King, his physical appearance, his crafty use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to try to ascertain the cause of Hamlet’s antic disposition, and his employment of Reynaldo to spy on his own son, Laertes, while away at school, are all characteristic of Burghley.*

NOTE *There is nothing original in pointing out that Polonius is clearly based on old Lord Burghley—merely in showing how close the resemblance is in detail. All the Essex faction detested the politic old man, who was irremovable until his death in 1598; after that it was safe to portray him as Polonius. Hamlet describes Polonius to his face: “old men have grey beards, their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum . . . together with most weak hams.” Those who are familiar with Burghley’s letters in his last years well know that they are full of his querulous complaints about his health, the weakness of his limbs, his gout, his running eyes. One clue to Burghley’s hold on power was his remarkable intelligence system. This is clearly rendered in Polonius’ interview with Reynaldo, setting him to spy on his son’s doings in Paris and report on them. Burghley’s elder son, Thomas, had had an unsatisfactory record in France and been similarly reported on.” A.L. Rowse, The Annotated Shakespeare (1988) 1725–26.

One who had lived in his house, as de Vere did, and therefore had first-hand knowledge of Burghley’s use of a spy to report on the activities of his oldest son, could well be responsible for the scene including Reynaldo, a scene that seems to have no purpose except to illuminate Polonius’s—or Burghley’s—character. The suspicion that there is an autobiographical element in Hamlet increases when one recognizes the parallel between Hamlet’s relationship with the fair Ophelia—the daughter of Polonius—and the fact that at the age of twenty-one de Vere married Anne Cecil, the daughter of Lord Burghley. These are, of course, only tiny fragments from the text of the Shakespeare Canon. They are sufficient, however, to lead us to the third canon of statutory construction.

ACT III

This canon is much like the first and second, but it adds the requirement that the text be read in its contemporary context. The third canon therefore tells us that we should direct our attention to the sixteenth century context that produced the genius who created the Shakespeare Canon. In those days relatively few people could read and write the English language, and those who were familiar with the leading works of Latin and Greek literature were even more scarce. Edward de Vere was such a person. In Lord Burghley’s home he received instruction from themost accomplished tutors in England and later received degrees at both Cambridge and Oxford and became a member of Gray’s Inn. On the other hand, we know little about the education of William Shaksper, the man from Stratford-on-Avon. His father and two daughters, one of whom was married to a physician, were apparently illiterate. William did not attend Oxford or Cambridge and, indeed, there is no record of his attendance at any school. Perhaps it was the assumption that Shaksper’s formal education was much too limited for him to have acquired the largest vocabulary of any author who ever lived that led other authors like Mark Twain and John Galsworthy to doubt his authorship of the Shakespeare Canon. Knowledge of the contemporary context provides these possible answers to this concern. The most telling contemporary argument, however, is found in Ben Jonson’s tribute to Shakespeare in the introduction to the First Folio. Because Jonson must have been well acquainted with his leading competitor as a successful dramatist, these works take on special significance:

“And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,

From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thundering Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles . . .
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a Stage…”

The emphasis is, of course, on the words “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” as evidence that the author of the Shakespeare Canon was a man of limited formal education. The Oxfordians, however, are not without a contemporary reply. They argue that the words “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” were ambiguous because the word “though” sometimes conveyed the meaning “even if.” Thus, the use of this ambiguous term may have been a conspiratorial ploy to preserve the anonymity of the true author of the Canon. If you find this rejoinder a little hard to swallow, perhaps you should reflect on the ambiguity in another quite famous line by Jonson—”Drink to me, only, with thine eyes.” Is this a plea for his lover’s abstinence: asking her not to drink to him with anything but here yes? Or, more probably, is it a subtle invitation to drink only to Jonson—to save her inviting glances for him alone? Does the word “only” modify the noun “eyes” or the pronoun “me”?

ACT IV

Since ambiguity persists, we must turn to the fourth canon of statutory construction. If you are desperate, or even if you just believe it may shed some light on the issue, consult the legislative history.

The study of legislative history is itself a debatable and complex subject, including subtopics such as the respective importance of committee reports, debates on the floor of Congress, and the fact that Congress failed to enact a proposed bill that would have unambiguously resolved the point at issue. It also requires an ability to discount comments manufactured by staff members to appease lobbyists who were unable to persuade legislators to conform the statutory text to their clients’ interests…. The Court is sometimes skeptical about the meaning of a statute that appears to make a major change in the law when the legislative history reveals a deafening silence about any such intent. This concern directs our attention to three items of legislative history that arguably constitute significant silence. First, where is Shakespeare’s library? He must have been a voracious reader and, at least after he achieved success could certainly have afforded to have his own library. Of course, he may have had a large library that disappeared centuries ago, but it is nevertheless of interest that there is no mention of any library, or of any books at all, in his will, and no evidence that his house in Stratford ever contained a library. Second, his son-in-law’s detailed medical journals describing his treatment of numerous patients can be examined today at one of the museums in Stratford-on-Avon. Those journals contain no mention of the doctor’s illustrious father-in-law. Finally—and this is the fact that is most puzzling to me—there is the seven-year period of silence that followed Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Until the First Folio was published in 1623, there seems to have been no public comment in any part of England on the passing of the greatest literary genius in the country’s history

ACT V

The Fifth canon of statutory construction requires judges to use a little common sense. This canon is expressed in various ways. For example: An interpretation that would produce an absurd result is to be avoided because it is unreasonable to believe that a legislature intended such a result. Both the Oxfordians and the Stratfordians believe this canon provides the answer to the authorship question. The traditional scholars consider it absurd to assume that William Shakespeare, who is known to have made a fortune as an investor in the Elizabethan theater, if not also as an actor and playwright, was just a front for a gifted author who, for reasons unknown, elected to conceal his true identity from posterity. They point out that at least one of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest, is generally considered to have been written several years after de Vere’s death in 1604, and that the explanations for his use of a pseudonym depend on highly improbable theories of conspiracy, for at least Ben Jonson and Lord Burghley would surely have known the true identity of the author of the Shakespeare Canon. Nothing short of a royal command could have induced the author to remain anonymous.

The Oxfordians respond to the argument that it is absurd to claim that de Vere authored a play that was first published several years after his death by pointing out that there is great uncertainty about the dates when the plays were actually written. They also suggest that the possibility of a royal command may not be so absurd after all because Queen Elizabeth made an extraordinary grant to de Vere. Using a formula that was characteristic of special payments to members of the Secret Service, on June 26, 1586, she signed a privy seal warrant granting de Vere an annuity of £1,000 per year for which no accounting was to be required. This was an unusually large amount at the time and the grant continued for the remaining eighteen years of de Vere’s life, it having been renewed by King James. The Queen, it appears, may have been a member of the imaginative conspiracy and for reasons of her own may have decided to patronize a gifted dramatist, who agreed to remain anonymous while he loyally rewrote much of the early history of Great Britain.

Whatever one may think of the fifth canon as a method of analyzing the authorship question, before I leave the subject I want to refer briefly to [two] cases that suggest that the fifth canon should tell us something about justice. In The Merchant of Venice, as security for a loan of three thousand ducats, Antonio promised that if he should default, Shylock could have “a pound of his fair flesh to be taken and cut off from whatever part of his body” might please Shylock. As might have been predicted, Antonio did default and Shylock demanded literal performance of the terms of the bargain. In the end, however, justice was served by Portia’s even more literal interpretation of the bond:

“Tarry a little, there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the State of Venice.”

Although Portia’s ruling may seem somewhat technical, she was actually making a just application of the fifth canon of statutory construction.

In Measure for Measure, Claudio was sentenced to death for the crime of fornication. Since Julietta was pregnant and there was therefore no question about Claudio’s guilt, and since the text of the law was perfectly clear, Angelo (who had been left in charge of law enforcement by the Duke) had no choice but to insist on literal application of the statute. Otherwise, he would:

“Make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to [frighten] the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror

Nothing, of course, could be more damaging to the fabric of society than allowing the law against fornication to deteriorate into a mere scarecrow. Accordingly, it was imperative that the death penalty be administered without delay.

Fortunately, for Claudio, however, three Acts later, the all-powerful Duke reappeared and pardoned him in the nick of time. Unlike Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who served justice by using one literal reading of the bond to trump another, the Duke in Measure for Measure simply enforced the fifth canon, barely pausing to explain why any other result would have been unjust and absurd