Are British scholars erasing two heroic earls from Jacobean history to protect the Shakespeare industry?

A case study in how history is written

by Peter W. Dickson (© 1999, all rights reserved)

This article was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Although most Oxfordians have been slow to recognize the implications of the Oxford-Southampton imprisonments in 1621-22 for the First Folio project and the Shakespeare authorship debate, British historians seem well aware and quite nervous about those facts which they ironically brought to light not long before Charlton Ogburn’s work, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984).

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the revival of the Oxfordian challenge in the 1980s has caused these British historians to make a deliberate effort in the 1990s to obscure these basic facts, and even to sanitize their more recent works to avoid any collateral damage to the Shakespeare industry. (See the Appendix: So many biographies, so few Henries for a complete list of biographies on James I published since 1988 and how they treat the early 1620s and the Spanish Marriage Crisis.)

The two British historians most suspect in this regard are S.J. Houston and Roger Lockyer, who made major contributions in rediscovering the vendetta between the Oxford-Southampton-led Patriot coalition against the proposed Spanish marriage policy (i.e. a marriage between England’s Prince Charles and a sister of the Spanish King) and the policy’s chief promoters: King James, his homosexual lover (Buckingham) and the notorious Spanish Ambassador Count Gondomar.

Houston and Lockyer are major figures within Revisionist School of historiography which since the 1970s has sought to reevaluate the reign of King James with the benefit of more in depth archival research. Prior to Houston’s biography of James (1973) and Lockyer’s on Buckingham (1981), one had to look much harder to find data about the pivotal roles which the two Earls played in the Spanish Marriage crisis.

Although James and the Stuarts were never popular with the so-called Whig school of British history which focused intensely on the rise of parliament, this mainstream tradition never made much effort to unearth the rich history surrounding the Patriot Coalition’s struggle to resist the King’s plan for a dynastic union with Spain. The Whig historians probably saw little need to tell this story in detail because the marriage negotiations collapsed in 1623; and because Oxford and Southampton died soon thereafter on the battlefield in the Lowlands.

So Henry de Vere and Southampton slipped through the cracks and it was not until about 1970 when under the leadership of Conrad Russell, British historians began to reconstruct in more detail the court politics, especially the struggle of the Herbert-de Vere-Southampton faction against the King and Buckingham.


“The Two Most Noble Henries”

Two Henries
(From Catalogue raisonné
(London : Philip Allan & Co, 1927)

This rarely-seen engraving by Thomas Jenner (left) was part of a set of three engravings depicting six heroes of the Protestant Cause in the 1620s. It helps to bring into sharper focus the significant roles the 3rd Earl of Southampton (right) and the 18th Earl of Oxford (left) played in English history during the 1620′s.

Arthur Wilson, on pages 161-162 of his history book entitled The History of Great Britain being the Life and Reign of James the First (London, 1653), lists the leaders of the Patriot Coalition following the successful impeachment of Sir Francis Bacon in May 1621. Wilson lists the six principal aristocratic leaders in the following order: Oxford, Southampton, Essex, Warwick, Lord Say, and Lord Spencer. Then Wilson makes the following memorable observation:

There were many other noble Patriots concerned to entrigue with these, which like Jewels should he preserved and kept in the Cabinet of everyman’s memorie, being ornaments for Posterity to put on; but their characters would make the line too long, and the Bracelet too big to adorne this story.

The caption in the upper left (partly cut off) reads: “Right honourable Lords / two most noble Henries / revived the Earles of / Oxford and Southampton.” The key word in this caption is, of course, “revived,” a reference which most likely refers to the fact that both earls were dead by 1625.


To appreciate the post-Ogburn sanitization in the 1990s, we should consider the following. In the 1973 edition of his James biography, Houston devotes two passages to the initial round of imprisonments of the Patriot leaders in the spring of 1621. They are as follows:

The effect of these attempts to meet the wishes of parliament was spoilt when the Earl of Southampton and Sir Edwin Sandys were arrested for meeting secretly to discuss parliamentary business. Lord Oxford was detained for criticizing the King’s plan for a Spanish marriage. These men were soon released, but at a time when the government wanted a generous supply, the arrests made the Commons very sensitive about its privileges. (page 81)

This and the arrest of Southampton and Oxford during the summer recess underscored the seriousness of the King’s statement. (page 85)

Houston makes no mention of the second, more ominous imprisonment of Oxford in the Tower from April 1622 to December 1623 or the reconciliation between Southampton and Buckingham which led to his release. In the early 1970s, more archival research was necessary to illuminate this end-game in the vendetta just before the First Folio hit the London bookstores.

Yet, once Houston had the benefit of such research as reflected in the American Professor Thomas Cogswell’s work, The Blessed Revolution (1989), this British historian chose to remove any previous references to the 18th Earl of Oxford (Henry de Vere) from his second edition of his James biography in 1995. In the revised passage, Oxford simply disappears:

The good effect of these efforts to meet the wishes of parliament was spoilt when the Earl of Southampton was arrested for being party to a practice to hinder the King’s ends at the next meeting. He had promoted an attack on Buckingham, working closely with the Commons in the proceedings against monopolists and the Lord Chancellor (Bacon). Both the Earl and Sir Edwin Sandys, who was also arrested, favored a more anti-Spanish foreign policy and were rumored to have been “active to cross the general proceedings and to asperse and infame the present government.” Both men were soon released, but the arrests cast a shadow across the second session and made the Commons sensitive about their privileges. (pages 80-81)

Nevertheless, a few pages later Houston betrays his new knowledge of Cogswell’s research with the following one sentence insertion:

The Earls of Southampton and Oxford, who had been so militantly anti-Spanish in the previous parliament, were restored to favor, as was William Fiennes, Lord of Say and Sele, who had offended James by resisting the benevolence in 1622. (page 90)

However, Houston in his 1995 edition never gives the reader any sense that Oxford had been imprisoned twice, the second time for twenty months in the Tower.

Lockyer’s sanitization of both Oxford and Southampton is harder to detect because it is so total. In his landmark biography, Buckingham (1981), he devotes many passages to describing in rich detail the Buckingham versus Oxford-Southampton rivalry and devotes one long passage to describing how King James regarded Oxford as a grave threat to the Crown:

When the Earl of Oxford was imprisoned in the spring of 1622–allegedly for saying, in a drunken moment that he wished the King were dead–it was widely believed that his real offense was crossing the favorite. It was in his house that Elizabeth Norris [Ed. note: Oxford's niece] had taken refuge after escaping the attention of Kit Villiers [Ed. note: Buckingham's brother!], and Oxford refused to hand her over. Worse than this, he was also reported to have told Buckingham that he “hoped there would come a time when justice should be free and would not pass through his hands only.” The imprisonment of Oxford suggested that the King regarded opposition to his favorite as opposition to himself. (page 121)

Yet, when Longman’s commissioned Lockyer to prepare a biography for its series called Profiles in Power in 1998, Lockyer never once mentions either Oxford or Southampton. The book’s index shows only one citation under Southampton, and that’s for the Port of Southampton! That’s it.

Lockyer (an Emeritus Reader at the University of London) might respond that his James biography was only permitted a little more than 200 pages, and therefore he had to be selective. But this lacks credibility given his exhaustive, detailed discussion of how the King and Buckingham regarded the two Earls as their primary enemies during the Spanish Marriage crisis in his earlier work from 1981.

Furthermore, any awareness of the revival of the Shakespeare authorship dispute in the late 1980s would have made Lockyer quite sensitive to the close timing between the imprisonment of the two Earls and the First Folio project. Certainly, unlike many political historians, Lockyer has shown an interest in literature because he collaborated in 1989 to produce an anthology of original source material entitled Shake-speare’s World, Background Readings in the English Renaissance.

Lockyer and Houston are not alone in their sudden aversion to any extensive discussion of these two Earls, especially Oxford, and their challenge to King James. Nine other biographies of James have appeared since 1988 (see the table below), and while all mention the Spanish marriage crisis, none make any mention whatsoever of the roles of Oxford-Southampton in this powerful political drama.

It seems reasonable to conclude that following the revival of the Oxfordian claim in the Shakespeare dispute in late 1984, British historians became quite sensitive to any discussion of the imprisonments of these two Earls in the same time frame when the First Folio project got underway. The sudden shift in attitude concerning the two Earls gives strong reason to believe that there is in effect a de facto policy of self-censorship to make it more difficult for others to sense the possible negative implications for the Stratfordian position in the ongoing Shakespeare authorship dispute.


Back to top

Appendix: So many biographies, so few Henries


There have been eleven biographies of King James I since 1988 (with all but Dwyer’s published in England), ten of which come after Thomas Cogswell’s The Blessed Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1989). The table below lists these 11 biographies and notes how they have covered the Marriage Crisis years of the early 1620s and whether they mention the roles of the 3rd Earl of Southampton and/or the 18th Earl of Oxford in their discussion of the 1620s.

Author Year Mention Spanish Marriage Crisis? Mention the Two Earls?
Frank Dwyer 1988 Yes Nothing
Maurice Lee 1990 Not Much Nothing
Chris. Darston 1993 Draws on Cogswell Nothing
Antonia Fraser 1994 More than 1st Edition Nothing
S.J. Houston 1995 Draws on Cogswell Sanitized
Stephen Coston 1996 Yes Nothing
W.B. Patterson 1997 Yes (Great detail) Nothing
Curtis Perry 1997 Yes Nothing
Lori Ferrell 1998 Barely mentions Nothing
Irene Carrier 1998 Yes Nothing
Roger Lockyer 1998 Yes Nothing

Previous to 1988, there has been no other period in which so many biographies or histories have been published concerning King James since the first appeared in the 1650s during Cromwell’s rule. The landmark work in this century appeared in 1956 when David Willson published a biography which did not have the advantage of the surge in archival research that came only in the 1970s. His book is quite dated and his brief treatment of the Spanish marriage crisis is rambling and unfocused, and ignores Oxford and Southampton.

The same was true of the next eight works until Houston’s James I(1973) gave rich detail on the early 1620s, including the first imprisonment of Oxford and Southampton in June 1621. Between Houston’s work and Dwyer’s in 1988, there were only a few noteworthy books: Otto Scott’s biography in 1976, which mentions the imprisonment of Southampton but not those of Oxford, Roger Lockyer’s great biography Buckingham (1981) which gives rich detail on just about everything, and G.V.P Akrigg’s compilation of the letters of King James where one can find one crucial letter relating to the long second imprisonment of Oxford.

The two-fold bottom line in all this appears to be:

1. Despite a flood of King James biographies beginning in 1988, British historians have selectively ignored Thomas Cogswell’s highly-regarded The Blessed Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1989), a history of the Patriot Coalition’s struggle against King James during the dramatic finale to his reign in the early 1620s.

2. This shunning of Cogswell’s work–an in-depth study giving valuable details on the two Earls (Oxford and Southampton) as beleaguered leaders of the Patriot Coalition against King James in the early 1620s–can only be a deliberate action.

Houston, in the process of sanitizing his second edition (1995), betrays his close reading of Cogswell’s landmark work in other respects, as do Carrier, Patterson and others. Despite his own close attention to the two Earls in his 1981 work, Lockyer totally ignores them in 1998.

These sudden oversights can not all be accidents or coincidences. Some must be deliberate, and probably influenced by the post-1984 revival of the Oxfordian claim in the Shakespeare authorship debate.


Oxford as “The Knight of the Tree of the Sunne”

Shaking the Spear at Court

by Dr. Daniel L. Wright

This article was first published in the Summer 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


When the Renaissance gave birth to dramatic art in Europe, its nativity was at the court. Royal patronage of the theatrical arts enabled the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre by nurturing the dramatic genius of such court playwrights as Alarcn, Caldern, Rojas Zorilla, and August? Moreto. The royal house of Portugal financed the productions of such showmen as Gil Vicente, and the French court of the Valois king, Charles IX, was host to the work of court poet Pierre de Ronsard, as well as those court writers dedicated to the reformation and refinement of French language and literature who collectively were known as the Pl?de, and among whom were such figures as Etienne Jodelle and Jean de la Taille. Ludovico Ariosto orchestrated the Italian Renaissance in the theatrical arts from the court of Ferrara, and in England, a succession of Tudor monarchs encouraged, supported, and financed the writing of plays and the production of court entertainments long before the emergence of public theatres.

In England, we have vast evidence of the prominence and activity of various court impresarios during the era of the Tudor regime. Thomas Heywood–poet, playwright, balladeer and patron of players–was especially influential in developing the dramatic arts at court during the reign of Henry VIII. Scholars regard him as instrumental in effecting the dramatic bridge between the comic interlude and mature English comedy. We have court records of Heywood being paid for performing these interludes by Henry VIII, and George Puttenham testifies that Heywood continued to prosper in his services as a maker of plays and other court entertainments during the reign of Edward VI, stating that Heywood “was well benefited by the king” and was much acclaimed for “the myrth and quicknesse of his conceits.” Heywood’s fortunes grew even greater during the reign of Mary I; his intimacy with the Queen was such, indeed, that according to legend, he entertained and cheered her even on her deathbed. Mary also patronized the talents of Nicholas Udall and Thomas Sackville–Udall as the principal in charge of court entertainments during Mary’s brief reign, Sackville as Master of Ceremonies at important court functions.

On her accession to the Throne in 1558, Elizabeth I appointed William Hunnis a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, in which capacity he succeeded Heywood as one of the leading impresari of the court; according to all accounts, many of his entertainments, if not extraordinary in their artfulness, yet were capable of manifesting sufficient excellence to be celebrated by his contemporaries; indeed, George Gascoigne includes several examples of Hunnis’s work in his 1577 publication of the Princely Pleasures at Kenilworth.

Richard Edwards, another court impresario of the Tudors, was appointed a gentleman of the Chapel Royal by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565. Unhappily, his tenure as a playmaker for the Queen did not last long (he died but two years later in 1567), and yet– brief as Edwards’ time of service to Her Majesty was, we know of glowing praise accorded his dramaturgical work for the court and even possess a transcript of some of the conversation that passed between him and the Queen after he much affected her with a brilliant staging of the play Palamon and Arcite in Oxford, at Christ Church Hall, a performance which we may be sure the teenage Edward de Vere attended.

Indeed, throughout her reign, but especially during her early years as Queen, we have abundant evidence of Elizabeth’s reliance on many men of the theatre for her court drama, among them Richard Ferrant, Sebastian Westcott, Richard Mulcaster, Thomas Giles, and Richard Bower. None of these men, however, produced a great quantity of dramatic work, especially work that proved to be impressive or memorable; many of them, indeed, were noted at least as much for their musical talents as their dramaturgy. Their influence, in short, was inconsiderable. Indeed, as Allardyce Nicoll attests, “the first twenty-five years of the Queen’s reign did not provide much of peculiar excellence. The surge of poetry . . . which we associate with her was not truly prophesied until the eighties ….”

Who, therefore, we must ask, was the English court impresario or were the team of court impresari in the 1580s and 1590s who so staggered those noblemen of Europe who came to entreat the Queen or pay Elizabeth homage? Visitors and ambassadors to the court of Elizabeth wrote voluminously of their astonishment at the vigor of English court life, its high culture and abundant, refined entertainments. Indeed, as Felix Schelling attests, during the heyday of Elizabeth’s reign, plays were all the fashion “and it was the court that set the example.” In fact, as Schelling reminds us,

[t]he number of recorded performances at court [in the late sixteenth century] is upwards of two hundred, and it is probable that no week in any year elapsed without at least one afternoon or evening devoted to this form of amusement. Indeed, no meeting of princes, reception of ambassadors, entertainment, or ceremonial was complete without a play ….”

Well, who was writing and directing these plays that made the Elizabethan court the talk of Europe? Heywood was gone, Edwards was dead, Gascoigne had died in 1577. Lyly–Lord Oxford’s secretary–was surely part of the mix, but how much of this floribundant art of the Elizabethan court was his creation? Who else was there? George Peele (for a while), Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, Lord Strange. This was the coterie of dramatic talent that shook the foundations of dramatic art in Renaissance Europe at the court of Elizabeth? I don’t think so.

Where, moreover, we must ask, in the midst of this artistic revolution at the English court, was Shakespeare? At the height of the English Renaissance, at the zenith of Britain’s most glorious achievements in art, that mystical and unfathomable Genius of Geniuses, the Playwright of Playwrights, the poor butcher’s apprentice-made-good, that incomparable master of classical literature, rhetoric, and unrivalled artist of the English language, acclaimed by the late A.L. Rowse the “best known, the most popular dramatist” of his day, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, is nowhere to be seen at Elizabeth’s court. He is never so much as even introduced to the Queen. But then, why would he have been? As orthodox Stratfordian Alfred Harbage concedes,

There is not a shred of proof that Shakespeare was ever intimate or socially familiar with anyone except members of his own class …. There is not a shred of proof that he ever received so much as a shilling from a lord . . . or even a free dinner in a lordly household. Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare never received a lucrative commission for an entertainment or masque at a noble or royal household. The legend that he received the preposterously large sum of 1000 [when Southampton was bankrupt!] first appeared in print a hundred years after his death.

Heywood sang to a dying Mary; Edwards chatted with Elizabeth, but Shakespeare, to the Queen and–even more notably–to all of his fellow dramatists of the day, was an unknown, an invisible man.

And yet, at this same time, these same dramatists and writers fill their cups fairly brim to overflowing in praise and adulation of Edward de Vere as a dramatist–a man for whom we haven’t a single play under his own name! Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe, and Angel Day hail him a master scholar, dramatist, and poet. Edmund Spenser, Henry Peacham, and Francis Meres salute his genius, acclaim him foremost among the artists of Elizabeth’s court, and laud his artistic achievements in the theatre. George Puttenham effuses, “I know very many gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman to seem learned . . . of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.” Peacham, in his work, The Compleat Gentleman, chronicles all of the Elizabethan age’s notable playwrights, and he is so comprehensive in his catalogue of these dramatists as to include, among the greats, such minor talents as Paget and Buckhurst. He headlines this list, moreover, with Edward de Vere–a list, we must note, however, that never mentions Shakespeare.

Indeed, by the time of the monarchy’s overthrow in the mid-seventeenth century, no playwright gathers more literary dedications by men of letters than Edward de Vere– Ben Jonson excepted; Oxford wins more notice among his fellow writers than even Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Philip Sidney. No one, not incidentally, at the same time, ever dedicates a thing to any writer named William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, of course, is never mentioned by these writers, dramatists, and commentators who were his contemporaries because they knew him to be Edward de Vere, a pseudonymous author. We needn’t rely simply on their declarations of Oxford’s inimitable talent and achievements, however; attestation of Lord Oxford’s work as a courtier poet and dramatist are confirmed by a vivid account of Oxford’s participation in something so simple as an otherwise seemingly-inauspicious tournament at Whitehall in 1581, an account in Oxford’s biography that often is overlooked by most commentators for what it says about Oxford as a manager of theatre in favor of noting something of his considerable martial prowess.

Oxford was a potent adversary to confront in such tournaments. Oxford, however, was far more than a knightly gallant and a fearsome competitor within the lists. He was imbued with the spirit of Thespis as well as Mars, and his sensibilities as a poet, playwright, patron of players and creator of theatre were perhaps never so rapturously indulged, apart from the playhouse, as they were when he was amidst such regal company and on these occasions. This enthusiasm for studied exhibition by Oxford is attested, for example, in Alan Young’s Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments, wherein the author recounts, in abundant detail, the circumstances of Oxford’s participation in one of his last tournaments (prior to his imprisonment in the Tower), at Whitehall, on 22 January 1581. The circumstance of this contest, some Oxfordians may recall, was, of course, the Earl of Arundel’s “friendly” challenge to knightly gallants as one Callophisus, a Lover of Beauty, to which challenge responded, among others, Lord Windsor, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir William Drury, and Lord Oxford. What is particularly notable for our purposes here, however, is not that Oxford answered the challenge (when, after all, was he ever inclined to forego such an invitation?), but the manner in which he answered Arundel’s challenge.

Young tells us, for example, that all of the respondents to Arundel’s challenge at Whitehall styled themselves, rather unpretentiously (save one! [guess who?]), by such unimaginative nomenclature as the Red Knight, the White Knight, and the Blue Knight– but, according to Young, “the Earl of Oxford appeared in the Whitehall tiltyard as the Knight of the Tree of the Sun . . . and it appears that he concealed himself in his pavilion [a 'statlie Tent of Orenge tawny Taffata, curiously imbroydered with Siluer, & pendents on the Pinacles'] before any of the other participants arrived.” Moreover, in recounting the events that followed from records of the day, Young reports that, as the ceremonies commenced,

From forth this Tent came the noble Earle of Oxenford in rich gilt Armour, and sate down vnder a great high Bay-tree, the whole stocke, branches and leaues whereof, were all gilded ouer, that nothing but Gold could be discerned. [ . . . ] After a solemne sound of most sweet Musique, he mounted on his Courser, verie richly caparasoned, whe[n] his page ascending the staires where her Highnesse stood in the window, deliuered to her by speech [his] Oration ….

The speech (notably, the only one recorded for the day!) discloses Oxford’s purpose in appearing before the Queen in such lavish ostentation. Young’s report from the records of the day reveals to us that Oxford told Her Majesty and the august assembly before the Queen that he, a wandering knight, had met “an aged ‘Pilgrime or Hermit’ who showed him ‘a Tree so beautiful, that his eyes were daseled.”‘ Young continues:

As the speech unfolds, it becomes clear that this “Tree of the Sunne” represents Elizabeth. It is unique like the Phoenix, and it eclipses all other trees. In an allusion to Elizabeth’s virginity, we are told that “Vestas bird sitteth in the midst, whereat Cupid is euer drawing, but dares not shoot, being amazed at that princely and perfect Maiestie.” In the shade of the tree, the knight has found “such content, as nothing coulde bee more comfortable,” and has “made a sollemne vowe, to incorporate hys harte into that Tree, and ingraft hys thoughts vppon those vertues. Swearing, that as there is but one Sunne to shine ouer it, one roote to glue life vnto it, one toppe to maintaine Maiestie: so there should be but one Knight, eyther to lyue or die for the defence thereof. Where-vppon, tree swore himselfe onely to be the Knight of the Tree of the Sunne, whose life should end before his loyaltie.”

Young concludes his recital of the record of Oxford’s speech to the Queen by pointing out that ” [l]ack of any detailed account of the other defendants’ tiltyard speeches and pageants makes it impossible for us to know whether the fictions of the responses by [the others] were also developed with such imaginative fervour ….” However, given the relatively uninspired and indifferent appellations selected by Oxford’s counterparts in the lists for this festive entertainment, compounded by the failure of the chronicler of the event to note, even in summary, anything offered by the other participants in tribute to or in praise of the Queen, we might well be safe in assuming that they were not comparably distinguished.

Oxford’s stately pavilion, spirited oratory, and imaginative nomenclature were lustrous and rare contributions to the dignity of such an occasion, and their evocation of imaginative worlds of colour, fantasy, and high drama expresses the temperament of one intimately companioned to, fond of, and perhaps even practiced in the arts of the stage; indeed, of Oxford’s particular love of ostentatious show and high theatricality–singular qualities among his peers–Young attests,

It was rare for an individual to invest so much in a pavilion at Tudor and Stuart tournaments… [and while i]t is just possible that pavilions such as Oxford’s were a fairly common sight at Tudor and Jacobean tournaments, . . this idea is not supported either by the evidence of surviving descriptions or by the household accounts of even such lavish spenders as the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Rutland.

Here, at Whitehall, therefore, in addition to Oxford the “knight,” we see Oxford in the role of just that kind of person whom we would expect to find at court in charge of the Queen’s entertainments. Here is our missing impresario, the elusive courtier, conjuring one of those dramatic spectacles that made the Elizabethan court the talk of Europe. Here is the wordsmith, the allegorist, the allusive classicist, the maker of theatrical magic. Here is the spendthrift dramatist, ever ready to produce the most opulent of courtly feasts for eyes and ears that ever Elizabeth and her court were graced to see and hear. Here–here–we find our missing Shakespeare. Here we find Edward de Vere.

The Art of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Mark K. Anderson

This article was first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


A few years ago, I interviewed a feminist scholar who always kept extra soft-soled shoes at hand when she watched TV. That way, she said, she always had retaliatory options within reach whenever something or someone particularly annoying or offensive appeared on her set.

Undoubtedly, throwing footwear at one’s television may not be the ideal means to achieve positive social change. But there is one advantage to her system for those of us who haven’t yet embraced television’s interactive future. Namely, she at least has the opportunity to vent, while the rest of us are merely left to stew.

In the time since our interview, I can’t say that I’ve adopted the cultural studies professor’s unusual video viewing policy. But I do sometimes think of her when the image of, say, Sen. Jesse Helms or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appears on the evening news. (A few times I’ve been tempted to shout, “Duck!” to the unsuspecting newscaster in the line of fire.)

There is at least one subject, though, where one’s natural desire to search for the truth–whatever it may be–combined with the shamelessness and chicanery of the field’s many expertise-dispensing professionals occasionally has me reaching for the nearest unused sneaker or bedroom slipper.

Indeed, witnessing the recent critical fawning over Prof. Helen Vendler (whom The New York Times has called the “enemy of seeking moral messages or biographical allusions in poetry”) and her 1997 tome c?bre The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets can be summarized for me in four words: My countenance shakes shoes.

The problem is, for those who haven’t yet bothered to explore Vendler’s tangled web, pursuing her many critical pronouncements and pontifications can be downright exhausting. (And for the present essay, I’ll only be considering her introductory remarks and not her equally audacious commentary on the individual sonnets.) I ran out of footwear in the section “Conventions of Reference.” That’s before the Introduction, even. When the pages are still counted in roman numerals.

As Hotspur might say: ‘Zounds!

Vendler begins her critical journey into the author’s poetic memoirs with an observation:

“Though many of the Sonnets play (often in blasphemous or subversive ways) with ideas central to their culture, I assume that a poem is not an essay, and that its paraphrasable propositional content is merely the jumping-off place for its real work. As I say in my Introduction, I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.” (xiii)

Thus, in two sentences, she has effectively shut off any discussion of thematic meaning, let alone authorial self-revelation. To suggest that the latter can be found anywhere in the Sonnets is, to Vendler’s estimation, preposterous. Or at least it’s beneath those who appreciate Art with a capital “A.”

“Any treatment of the Sonnets that focuses chiefly on their themes loses almost all of their aesthetic richness,” she alleges. (7)

The unspoken caveat, of course, is that the above is only true so long as one stands by the dewy banks of the Avon river, pondering the ripples and eddies as the poet surely must have done four centuries ago. However, once one steps away from Stratford and trusts the works rather than The Birthplace, the “aesthetic richness” that Prof. Vendler so doggedly pursues through 650 pages of charts, graphs, word games and play-by-play analyses appears almost as a by-product. The art is there and in abundance. No weather maps or macroeconomic diagrams are needed. Just a real, live author.

Curiously, as with another Lear-like Shaxperotician, Harold Bloom, Vendler is acutely aware of her own conundrum. And sometimes she’s too damned astute for her own good.

One of the reasons she is recognized as such a penetrating and perceptive commentator on poetry is her remarkable ability to dissect a poem like a medical student with a cadaver. She finds the liver, kidneys and intestines with great skill and dexterity. She can probe the brain’s functions, at least to the extent that one can learn about animate matter from the inanimate. But no matter how vast her knowledge of anatomy and no matter how swift she is with a scalpel, she still can’t bring that corpus to life.

She admits as much, too, although I’m sure she’d never admit that she admits it. “A psychological view of the Sonnets (whether psychoanalytically oriented or not) stresses motivation, will and other characterological [sic] features, and above all needs a story on which to hang motivation,” she writes in her Introduction. “The ‘story’ of the Sonnets continues to fascinate readers, but lyric is both more and less than story. And, in any case, the story of the Sonnets will always exhibit those ‘gaps’ and that ‘indeterminacy’ … intrinsic to the sonnet sequence as a genre. A coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate.” (3)

Not only does she have to state that her reading cannot bring a coherent narrative to the poems–an enterprise that generations of Shaxperoticians have only undertaken with marginal, if any, success–but she then hypothesizes without any justification that the author created his poetic series in part for the perverse purpose of confounding his readers! The motive of the author is unknowable, she says, because one of the author’s overriding motives was to obfuscate his motive.

“[I]t does no good to act as if these lyrics were either a novel or a documentary of a lived life,” she asserts, again without reason or probable cause. (2)

As she does when she writes, “[C]ontent by itself (as it is usually defined) cannot possibly be the guide at work in determining the author’s choice of words and syntactic features.” (xiv)

Or when she states, “Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of ‘meaning’ at all, in our ordinary sense of the word.” (13)

New York humorist Fran Lebowitz once described a certain well-heeled set of her friends from Southern California with the priceless four-word description, “Their tan is audible.”

Well, if suntans can be carried across telephone wires, it’s a small stretch to suppose the 12-point Garamond typeface that carries Vendler’s pronouncements must have been blessed with a holy oil of critical incantations.

To mangle a phrase first uttered by Vendler’s Shakespearean counterpart: Reason not the need; need not the reason.

The Invisible Man

Concessions come in fancy packages in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Vendler knows there’s a storyline to be found uniting the sonnets and making them a single text, not 154 separate poetic exercises and quill-waggings. Here’s the closest she comes to admitting as much, however:

“Still, there is a factual minimum account of Shakespeare’s compositional acts in any given poem on which all readers of a text must agree.” (14)

Untie the ribbon and unwrap the shiny paper, and you might have something to ponder. It’s a sad commentary on the state of Shaxperotics today, however, that Vendler not only has to bury her admission, but she then goes nowhere with the observation.

Just as quickly as she reminds the reader that, yes, the author of the Sonnets may have actually been trying to convey something more than a series of disjointed musings, she returns to whittling the knotty dogwood of Stratford town. The reader is told again and again about the “fictive speaker” of the Sonnets as if it were a fact of history, not the artful dodge that it has always been.

The extent that Vendler relies on the fictionality of the Sonnets’ narrator, in fact, is in itself an admission: Try as she may to swat the pesky author away from his writings, he continues to leave his fingerprints everywhere. So, in the one work in the Shakespeare canon where there are no fictional characters or mythological topoi to hide behind, she has to invent a fiction.

What’s most frustrating of all is that she is so clearly adept at wielding her scalpel. Not for convenient evasions or unbecoming denials is she known today as perhaps the nation’s most revered and even feared poetry critic. Yet convenient evasions and unbecoming denials would be my briefest paraphrase of the propositional content of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ Introduction.

Like her eloquent admonitions against seeking out storyline in the Sonnets, the fiction of the fictive speaker first appears before the reader fully vested–and, of course, without any introduction–in the book’s Conventions of Reference section.

“When I refer to ‘Shakespeare,’ I mean the author who invented the text spoken by the fictive speaker, and who structured and ornamented that text for his own aesthetic ends,” she writes. “‘Shakespeare’ stands always in an ironic relation to the fictive speaker, since the written poem exists on a plane other than the temporal ‘now’ of the imagined speaker’s moment.” (xii-xiii)

That there’s irony to be found in abundance is clear. But I’m not so sure it’s the author of the Sonnets who’s standing in ironic relation to the supposed fictive speaker. The author of The Art may be a more proximate source.

To Vendler’s credit, she also quotes one of the most fluent critics of critics in literary history. A selection from Alexander Pope’s letter to Joseph Addison, warning about the “underlying auxiliars to the difficulty of work,” begins her Introduction to The Art.

In his famous “Essay on Criticism,” Pope deftly calls out for the ideal literary critick — as his age spelled it. The qualities he seeks highlight perfectly what is so lacking in the world of the Stratford paradigm today:

But where’s the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas’d to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiass’d, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d, well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe?
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe?
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin’d;
A Knowledge both of Books and Human kind;
Gen’rous Converse; a Soul exempt from Pride;
And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side?

Where is she indeed?

“As I see it,” Vendler writes, “the poet’s duty is to create aesthetically convincing representations of feelings felt and thoughts thought.” (16)

In Prof. Vendler’s aesthetics, it appears to be the duty of the critick to deny those feelings and thoughts to the last syllable of recorded time.

Shake-speare’s Sonnets – Book Reviews

by Richard F. Whalen

These reviews were first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. (Arden Shakespeare series, Thomson Pub. Co., 1997).

The Sonnets. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. (The New Cambridge Shakespeare series, Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Helen Vendler. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997).


Three new editions of Shake-speares Sonnets, each with elaborate commentary, compete for a reader’s attention this year. All of them continue the long academic tradition of raising (but mostly not answering) the many questions posed by the Sonnets and their publication in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe.

The 154 sonnets, of course, are first and last the Sonnets, certainly the most accomplished, extended work of personal poetry ever written. They are to be read, re-read, pondered and memorized, as much for the extraordinary music of the language as for the impassioned yet controlled expression of intimate emotional experience. In the marketplace, they reportedly are Shakespeare’s best seller.

Scholars, of course, have wrestled endlessly with the questions of textual analysis, autobiographical content and circumstances of publication: Are the sonnets autobiographical? Do they suggest the poet was bisexual? Who are the young man, the Dark Lady and the rival poet?

When were the sonnets written? Are they in the correct order? Were they published with Shakespeare’s (i.e. the Stratford man’s) knowledge? Were they pirated and then suppressed? What is the meaning of Thomas Thorpe’s “dedication,” and who was “Mr. W.H.”?

The Arden Edition

The new Arden edition, edited by Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones of Oxford, is perhaps the most useful and provocative of the three for Oxfordians. In her long introduction she indulges in highly speculative ruminations about the author of the sonnets, their dating and their publication. She suggests that most of the sonnets were written between 1599 and 1604 (which happens to be the year of Oxford’s death) and that Shakespeare revised them right up to their publication in 1609. She calls them “Jacobean sonnets.” She is sure that the poet authorized their publication and that they are not so badly printed as many believe. The title, she says, strongly suggests that the sonnets are about Shakespeare as well as by him, but she offers no ideas about what they say about the man she conceives to be the author.

She builds a strong case for William Herbert, the third earl of Pembroke, as the “Mr. W.H.” of the so-called dedication; “Mr.” was appropriate because when the sonnets were first “begotten” he was not yet an earl, married or of age. She finds this role for Pembroke “overwhelmingly attractive” even as she believes that conclusive evidence for his friendship with Shakespeare is lacking. Of course, she is thinking of Will Shakspere of Stratford, whereas Pembroke did have close ties to the seventeenth earl of Oxford.

At times Duncan-Jones seems to be reaching too hard to come up with new and challenging interpretations of the evidence about the sonnets. She speculates unabashedly and piles conjecture upon conjecture. On a single page she uses phrases such as: there is a remote possibility … if this were the case … might serve … at least a possibility … may or may not … could have been … if the sonnets … it is possible, etc. After several more pages of this, any factual information or considered judgments tends to be swamped by the waves of speculation and back-pedaling.

The layout of the 485-page Arden edition is generous. The Sonnets are printed in modern type one to a page, with line-by-line commentary on the facing page. Unfortunately, the edition lacks an index of first lines. The edition also includes A Lover’s Complaint, which was published with the Sonnets. Although Duncan-Jones recognizes questions about its authenticity, she sees the poem as a “carefully balanced thematic counterpart” to the sonnets.

The New Cambridge Edition

The New Cambridge edition manages to be firmly evasive on the issue of autobiography. In the introduction Professor Anthony Hecht of Georgetown University quotes W.H. Auden on how “thought, emotion, event” dictate the form of a poem, and he argues that “the question of the documentary nature of the Sonnets is largely irrelevant.” His reasoning is not clear, especially since he goes on to conclude that “we cannot fail to hear in them a voice of passion and intelligence.” He hears this powerful voice expressing thoughts, emotions and events but nevertheless considers them irrelevant to an appreciation of the poetry. Also seemingly ambivalent about autobiography in the Sonnets is the edition’s editor, Professor E. Blakemore Evans of Harvard, who is also co-editor of the Riverside collected works of Shakespeare. First he declares that such questions and speculations are “irrelevant and intrusive.” Then he says students of Shakespeare must examine these questions and make it possible for readers to arrive at their own conclusions. Finally, he declares that “to some extent, of course, all significant art is autobiographical.” In four paragraphs Evans manages to be immensely erudite and totally equivocal. He then addresses a series of questions about the Sonnets by saying: “If the Sonnets are to be read autobiographically…” Evans mentions Oxfordians in this regard and perhaps betrays his anxiety about the authorship issue by getting tangled in a semi-triple-negative sentence. As a result the sentence probably says the opposite of what he really meant it to say. He writes:

No critic with a conscience (unlike Baconians, Oxfordians, etc.) would now deny that such a Shakespeare signature is writ large in the Sonnets, as it is, of course in the plays and other poems.

With the negatives untangled, he’s saying that critics with a conscience–unlike the Oxfordians, who have none–affirm that Shakespeare’s signature is writ large in the Sonnets, plays and other poems. But Oxfordians of course are famous for finding the poet/dramatist’s signature, i.e. Oxford’s, in his works. Unwittingly, Evans has aligned his esteemed critics with the Oxfordians.

Evans prints the Sonnets in modern type, two to a page. The commentary and line-by-line notes follow after the last sonnet. The reader who is interested in the notes for a sonnet must flip pages to find them. Each note begins by giving the gist of the sonnet’s meaning, sometimes in a rather blunt and cursory way. An index of first lines is provided at the end of the 297-page edition.

Vendler on the Sonnets

Diagrams, matrices, and flow charts of key words are at the core of Helen Vendler’s intricate analyses in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The Harvard professor, “arguably the most powerful poetry critic in America” according to The New York Times, takes to the ultimate extreme the proverbial “close reading” of poetry, a reading that excludes anything autobiographical about the poet. In a multi-page essay for each sonnet, she provides an abstract analysis of it as a “verbal contraption.” She borrows the term from the poet W.H. Auden. Auden, however, raises a second and equally important question in the same passage–the “moral” question: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” Vendler simply dismisses his question as one of very little interest.

Her analyses, almost mathematical in their cold precision, seem to belabor the obvious and obsess about the linguistic details. The essays go on and on about grammar, syntax, rhyme schemes, orthographic variations, word repetition, word contrast, word echoes, even syllable echoes. Diagrams and charts illustrate relationships. She has invented a new term in critical analysis, the DEFECTIVE KEY WORD, which she capitalizes. This is a word that is significant because it is not in the poem; it is missing where one would expect to find it.

Certainly Shakespeare’s genius with language deserves the reader’s appreciation, and Vendler does offer some interesting observations here and there. In the end, however, the reader may be overwhelmed by the excessive emphasis on the “verbal contraptions” to the exclusion of any other reason to read poetry. For example, to find out what kind of guy wrote them, in what historical context he wrote them, and what he was trying to communicate.

Vendler’s handsome tome comes complete with a compact disc on which she reads the sonnets. She says she has memorized all of them. She thinks other recordings by actors are deficient because the actors don’t understand the words and syntax. Each sonnet is printed twice on a page; at the top is the original from the 1609 quarto and below is her modern-type version. She provides a long list of works consulted and an index of first lines. Her book received generally admiring reviews in major publications, although one reviewer, Professor Margaret Boerner of Villanova University, called it “astoundingly bad … in making the obvious arcane, elevating the banal, printing up lecture notes, and rabbitting on for nearly seven hundred pages.”

Each editor of these three competing volumes carefully acknowledges debts to the others, or sometimes demurs, but ever so gently, on one or more points of scholarship. Harvard professors Evans and Vendler each read the other’s manuscript. Evans notes that she took time out from her own manuscript book to offer corrections to his, and Vendler calls his review of her manuscript “an act of extraordinary generosity.” On the other hand, Evans demurs on evidence cited by Duncan-Jones describing Thorpe’s actions as a publisher. He says it “remains necessarily speculative.”

All three acknowledge debts, although sometimes qualified, to Professor Stephen Booth’s ground-breaking edition of twenty years ago. Booth provides a lengthy line-by-line gloss for each sonnet in order, he says, to resurrect “a Renaissance reader’s experience of the 1609 Quarto.” He also wants to show “how the sonnets work.” Like Vendler, he reproduces the sonnets from the Quarto and in modern type on facing pages; but he also reproduces full pages from the Quarto, which means some sonnets are broken and run from one page to the next. Although it was published two decades ago by the Yale University Press, Booth’s edition is still in print. It’s a good alternative to the Arden edition. And to lighten the load of solemn linguistic analysis, Booth occasionally shows a wry sense of self-deprecating humor.

Shake-speare’s Sonnets and the Court of Navarre

by David Honneyman
A book review by Ramon Jimenez

This book review was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Oxfordians will be intrigued by the title of David Honneyman’s book because any demonstrable connection between the Sonnets and the Court of Navarre suggests an even greater distance between Shaksper of Stratford and the Shakespearean canon. But even with the title as a tip-off, the reader is likely to be startled by this sentence in Honneyman’s Preface: “The Sonnet people are not to be found in England . . .”

Otherwise an orthodox Stratfordian, Honneyman acknowledges that the experiences, personality, attitude, and style of the writer of the Sonnets were totally at odds with anything we know of Shaksper of Stratford. Although plainly autobiographical, the Sonnets reflect someone other than the down-to-earth and hardworking playmaker envisioned by orthodox scholars. How can this be? Honneyman’s answer is that Shakespeare did not write them, he translated or “recomposed” them.

By a series of leaps of faith, and several “must haves” and “most likelys,” Honneyman connects the writer and the three “characters” in the Sonnets (Fair Friend, Dark Lady, and Rival Poet) to four actual people in French royal circles and to a series of historical events that took place at Nerac–the site of the Court of Navarre, an independent state dominated by France.

Honneyman’s Navarre Hypothesis is that the sonnets we know as Shakespeare’s were originally written in French during the 1570s by the scholar/soldier/poet, Agrippa d’Aubign?who had a close relationship with Henry de Bourbon, Prince and then King of Navarre, who is himself identified as the Fair Friend. The Dark Lady and the Rival Poet are Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Valois, and Guillaume Du Bartas, the leading poet at the Court. Never mind that d’Aubign? the supposed sonneteer, was only two years older than Henry, and that he is supposed to have written nearly all the sonnets while in his twenties. Never mind that the only evidence for his supposed relationship with Dark Lady Margaret (Fair Friend Henry’s wife) is his affair with her cousin, Diane Salviati. (According to Honneyman they were “very similar in appearance.”)

The rest of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. The frequent characterizations of the Fair Friend as “crowned” (Sonnets 37 and 114), “sovereign” (57), “king” (63, 87), etc. reveal that he is of royal blood. The “sun” and “lilies” metaphors point to Henry of Navarre because the sun was the main feature of his mother’s coat of arms and the lily was the emblem of the Bourbons, his father’s family. The Fair Friend’s “errors” in Sonnet 96 refer to Henry’s reputation as a womanizer.

Margaret of Valois was known for dark and seductive eyes, loose morals, unreliability, and “intransigent Catholicism,” and thus meets Honneyman’s requirements for the Dark Lady. On the basis of other references in French poetry of the time, she is also identified with the “pearl” of Sonnet 34 and the “mortal moon” of 107.

Nailing down the Rival Poet is a little harder, but since Guillaume du Bartas was an “official Court poet” at Nerac, and was older and more renowned than d’Aubign?Honneyman identifies him with the “worthier pen” and “better spirit,” of Sonnets 79 and 80. Du Bartas was of such value to the crown that he was given a pension of 440 livres a year in 1580.

On top of this shaky structure Honneyman places his final supposition–that Shakespeare somehow gained access to a manuscript copy of d’Aubign? “Ur-Sonnets,” and recomposed them as a literary exercise. This manuscript is unfortunately now lost, and Honneyman admits was most likely never published. The last two Sonnets, 153 and 154, which have been shown to be direct adaptations of a Greek epigram, are explained by the fact that d’Aubign?as “a considerable Greek scholar” and as a student resided in Geneva, where an edition of the Greek Anthology was published. As for the “Will” Sonnets, 134 and 136, these must have been original with Shakespeare, or “much adapted.”

Along the way, Honneyman provides us with a new solution to the “W.H.” initials in the dedication. By a tortuous process involving a diagonal misreading of a calligraphic doodle, the initials “N.H.” (Henry of Navarre) somehow became “W.H.”

According to Honneyman, it was his investigation of Love’s Labour’s Lost and its stylistic associations with the Sonnets that led him to develop his Navarre Hypothesis for the “Sonnet people.” The same reasoning that conjured up the “Ur -Sonnets” imagined a French predecessor to LLL that featured the same Henry and Margaret, and a cast of characters from the French court. This play is also lost. The Hypothesis extends to “A Lover’s Complaint” and “The Phoenix and Turtle,” which Honneyman also explains as translations of poems by d’Aubign?bout Henry and Margaret.

Although Honneyman’s Navarre Hypothesis is woefully short on evidence, Oxfordians might find it provocative because it trades on the obvious familiarity with French royal circles and the Court of Navarre displayed by the writer of the Shakespeare plays. While Honneyman dismisses the Oxford argument (in an earlier book, Closer to Shakespeare, 1990), one wonders if his research into the Navarre connection led him to the facts that Edward de Vere was well acquainted with the leading figures of contemporary France, and had even visited the Court of Navarre.

Shake-speare’s Sonnets and the Court of Navarre is another example of the tunnel vision of orthodox scholars who try to account for the hidden meaning of the Sonnets and their total remoteness from the man they think wrote the plays. If the two cannot be reconciled, what better way to account for the Sonnets’ obvious autobiographical content than to acknowledge it, and then attribute it to someone else? But in strange way the Navarre Hypothesis tends to support the Oxford argument. Edward de Vere’s interest in and debt to French poetry is well known. And if, in a fantasy world, Shake-speare’s Sonnets were, indeed, written in French about figures in a French court, who but Edward de Vere would have been most likely to have had access to them, have known the principals, and have translated or “recomposed” them for an English reader?

Shake-speare’s Sonnets are Stratfordians’ Achilles’ Heel

by Joseph Sobran

This article was first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


The Sonnets are the only work by “Shakespeare” that give the immediate impression of being directly autobiographical. The plays may contain some autobiographical elements, but their form is predominantly fictional.

Only in the Sonnets does the poet speak in the first person. His complaints about his “fortune” sound real; so do many details, such as his passing references to his “lameness.”

Moreover, the Sonnets lack the form and style of Shakespearean fiction: they have no exposition, development, or characterization. The first 126 are addressed to a young man who is expected to understand the poet’s complaints and allusions, which the context doesn’t explain and which are consequently opaque to other readers.

There is only one reason to think the Sonnets are “fictional”: if we take them as autobiography, they don’t match what we know of their supposed author’s life.

The poet says he is “old,” “lame,” and “in disgrace.” He is a public figure of sorts, the subject of “vulgar scandal.” His life and fortune are on the wane; he hopes that his “name” will be “buried” with his body. His fondness for legal terms and metaphors also suggests that he has been trained in the law.

None of this can be shown to square with the records of “William Shakespeare of Stratford” and much of it contradicts those records. Most of the Sonnets were evidently written before 1603, the likely date of Sonnet 107, and two were published in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599. One of these two describes the poet as “old,” his days “past the best,” though in 1599 William was only 35 (and the sonnet was probably written several years earlier).

Moreover, William was never a figure of “vulgar scandal.” During the 1590s he was prospering, both in London and in Stratford. He would have had no reason to wish his name “buried”: if he were the author of the popular and highly praised poems bearing his name, such a wish would be inexplicable, especially when he expects his “verse” to be “immortal.”

Who was the young man to whom the first 126 sonnets speak? He closely resembles Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, a young, handsome, highly eligible bachelor. The first seventeen sonnets urge the young man to beget an heir in the same peculiar terms as Venus urges Adonis to procreate in Venus and Adonis, the first published work by “William Shakespeare,” dedicated to Southampton in 1593.

At the time, Southampton was being pressured by Lord Burghley to marry Elizabeth Vere, Burghley’s granddaughter and the daughter of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Only if Oxford was the poet can we make sense of such lines as this one in 10: “Make thee another self, for love of me.” No common poet could have taken such liberties with a nobleman.

The simplest explanation is that Southampton was the young man. If so, the case for Oxford’s authorship is greatly strengthened.

Oxford, past 40 when the Southampton match was being pressed, was aging and in disgrace. His letters mention several ailments, and in one he wrote to Burghley in 1595 he speaks of himself as “a lame man.” He had also been trained in law at the Inns of Court.

Read without prejudice — that is, without prior assumptions about their authorship — the Sonnets confirm that Southampton was the young man, as even many of William’s partisans have agreed. This, along with the poet’s self-description, supports the belief that Oxford wrote them.

Such, in brief, is the case I made for Oxford in my book Alias Shakespeare and in subsequent exchanges and debates with Stratfordian reviewers and scholars. This was the most original and distinctive part of my book; I devoted two chapters to it. (I also argued a thesis many of Oxford’s partisans reject: that after the proposed marriage fell through, Oxford and Southampton had a long homosexual amour.)

I was surprised by the Stratfordian response. Not one of the hostile reviews even tried to argue that the Sonnets support William’s claim to authorship.

The chief arguments were old ones, addressed not only in my book itself but long since answered by earlier Oxfordians: Oxford died too soon to have written the later plays, too many people would have to have been fooled, and Stratford had one hell of a grammar school. But nobody wanted to tangle on the Sonnets.

A couple of reviewers accused me of “assuming” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical. I not only didn’t assume this; I dealt with the old dispute at some length. But these reviewers preferred to create a false impression rather than confront the problems the Sonnets raise for William of Stratford. Others dismissed my argument with a word or two (“over the top,” “questionable”) without further explanation, then changed the subject back to anti-Stratfordian “conspiracy theories.” Others made no mention of the Sonnets at all!

As I debated the authorship question in print and in person, I found every single opponent unable to explain either how the Sonnets support William’s claim or why, if William wrote them, they seem powerfully to support Oxford’s. Even if they are “fictional,” they present a remarkable fact: that their hero should so closely resemble a real man who has been suspected of being “Shakespeare” on other grounds.

This took no great debating skill on my part; the most learned scholars, when challenged to face the evidence of the Sonnets, were simply at a loss. Even their habitual mockery of anti-Stratfordianism became a little subdued.

My experience has taught me one great lesson: the Sonnets are the Achilles’ heel of the Stratfordian view, an insuperable problem for the myth of “Shakespeare of Stratford.” The strongest line William’s partisans can take is that the Sonnets, despite all appearances, tell us nothing about their author–a truly desperate defense of a bankrupt position.

Hollywood’s the thing…

New films pique public interest in Elizabethan era

by Gerit Quealy

This article was first published in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Hooray for Hollywood. Or, more accurately, independent filmmakers. And who better to support, albeit unwittingly, independent thinkers such as Oxfordians, than independent movers and shakers operating outside the conventional system. To wit, we have been treated in recent months to two films in wide release that cover our favorite topic and time period, namely Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.

On the surface, an Oxfordian, being informed of two largely Stratfordian offerings of this topic, may be his usual disgruntled self. Why should we bother with or even endorse stories that further the Stratfordian myth? But I aver that this situation requires a closer and more perspicacious look.

In Love with Shakespeare

Of the two films, it is Shakespeare in Love that has reached the widest audience and level of popular appeal. Scripted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the latter a leading contemporary playwright and master of double and triple entendres himself, a wonderfully romantic and adventurous yarn regales us with how Shakespeare came to write Romeo & Juliet. Imagine! Positing a story where Shakespeare was inspired to write his plays based on events in his life! Complete with historic backdrop, practiced signatures, Marlovian contribution and yet another Elizabeth, this time older, wiser and in the person of the inimitable Judi Dench, the film introduces many of the players and theories of the Oxfordian argument in an entertaining and non-threatening forum (see the appendix for some examples of “authorship” talking points).

With Shakespeare in Love we are afforded numerous opportunities for Oxfordian exposition. Supposedly Stratfordian screenwriter Tom Stoppard denies being compelled by the authorship debate, although he does admit to having perused No Bed for Bacon, and earlier days when he pondered the alternative theories of Bacon and Marlowe, before dismissing it as groundless. Presumably this was around the time he wrote the witty Rosencrantz and Gilden-stern are Dead. But one wonders how thoroughly these theories were dismissed when considering his more recent and brilliant play, Arcadia (instrumental in this writer becoming an Oxfordian). One of the themes this muliti-faceted play covers is truth over time and, in that ever-widening gulf, the mistakes and misinterpretations that are its pitfalls. If this is a prevailing concern, can the impact of authorship questions lurk somewhere in the recesses of his cantilevered mind?

One critic called Mr. Stoppard an autodidact and, on the surface, his lack of formal education could lead one to believe he’d champion the conventional Stratfordian story. But his is not a conventional mind and knowing, as he must, the amount of time and effort expended to amass his wealth of knowledge, it is difficult to imagine him supporting such an incomprehensible tale. Certainly one aspect of Arcadia is giving credit where credit is due. Could this have led Mr. Stoppard, in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, to thank ” the onlie begetter, Mr. W. H.”? Like Shakespeare, Mr. Stoppard seems to choose his words very carefully and deliberately, so why did he say THAT? It’s a mystery.

In fact, that line, “It’s a mystery” is sprinkled liberally throughout the film when questions of “how” and “why” arise. Perhaps pointing up the fact that a mystery does exist?

What is a bit of a mystery is the genesis of the film. The original story, reports screenwriter Marc Norman, was suggested to him by his son. One can only sympathize with the boy’s frustration at the traditional story given in school that apparently led him to ask his father to fill in the gaps. Obviously any story is better than no story at all.

And this is certainly resoundingly echoed in the applause Shakespeare in Love has garnered from audiences. Fully 400 years later, the public is still hungry for an explanation of how all this came about–how these plays came to be written.

The Virgin Queen?

While Shakespeare in Love uses fiction to fill in the most famous blank spot in literary history–Shakespeare’s life–Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth uses historical drama to look beneath the surface of an existing life story.

Elizabeth tells the story of Elizabeth I’s early reign, from the events that immediately led up to her ascension to the throne to the initial turmoil and political intrigue she faced in trying to establish a respected and stable monarchy. It is based upon historical fact, but as the medium of film is wont to do, timelines are compressed, personalities are altered, events are fiddled with or fabricated altogether for dramatic impact and clarity as the story is folded into two hours traffic on the screen. Although strict historians–especially Oxfordians–may take umbrage with such liberties, we have more cause for celebration than derision.

Of special note is how Elizabeth spares us the accusation of tearing down yet another cultural icon when the filmmakers depict her making love with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Thus, the myth of the Virgin Queen as an actual physical description is ignored altogether. In addition to this, we have Lord Burghley demanding to see her sheets each morning, right out of Troilus & Cressida! He even intimates that there are rumors afoot that she is with child (giving rise to the theory of a child with Sir Robert, Arthur Dudley, touted by the Spanish in 1587-88 as a putative replacement monarch after deposing Elizabeth).

For Oxfordians of the Prince Tudor persuasion, this is propitious outside corroboration. To further augment this theory, the filmmakers present a striking visual image of the genesis of the Virgin Queen as a deliberate political act by Elizabeth to create a parallel iconography to the Virgin Mary.

In fact, the film’s story line of the Catholic issue and Catholic plotting against Elizabeth are fairly accurate history lessons that play well for Oxfordian revisionists. The film opens with scenes between the Catholic Mary and Elizabeth–who Mary says is not her sister as she begs her to keep England Catholic–and later we see the Pope demanding the heretic Elizabeth’s death.

This dramatically underscores the political and religious hotbed that was the prevailing undercurrent of her reign. It also supports speculation that she would do anything, including undercutting an insider court playwright–or at least his name–to preserve the careful cultivation of her public persona and the stability of her throne.

The Debate

Many–probably most–of us have had occasion to butt heads with Stratfordians over the evidence in the authorship debate and the quality of each side’s scholarship (i.e., Oxfordian “amateurs” vs. Stratfordian “professionals”). With these two films focused on the era, new opportunities are at hand to get the public asking questions about these times and then thinking about whose answers “ring true.”

Taken together, these films provide many cogent reference points to engage the public on such questions as “Who was Shakespeare?” or “Who was Elizabeth?” With numerous Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for both films–and already Golden Globe wins for Shakespeare in Love, its original screenplay and lead actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Elizabeth‘s Cate Blanchett–they have made an indelible impression on the public consciousness. So much so that many more films are being added to Hollywood’s Shakespeare canon. Look for further departure points of discussion with the opening of the forthcoming Midsummer’s Night Dream with Michelle Pfeifer, Kevin Kline, and Calista Flockhart, as well as Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, with Bill Murray as Polonius. On offer also is Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, “10 Things I Hate About You” (Taming of the Shrew), “O” (Othello), and “Near in Blood” (MacBeth). Kenneth Branagh has formed the Shakespeare Film Company which plans on three films per year, beginning with a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, followed by MacBeth and As You Like It.

So, the challenge ahead for us is to present our rival poet as more adventurous and romantic than the current popularization. We certainly have the material. But will the public, so intrigued by the topic at the moment, prefer the fictionalized version as they have for the past 400 years?

Historical odds are not in our favor, but if indeed public curiosity is piqued enough to look further, they may just have to look to Edward de Vere. And then they truly can be in love–with the real Shakespeare.


Appendix – Some authorship talking points
found in Shakespeare in Love

Back to text

Basing his writing on events in his life: Not only is the basic love story of Romeo & Juliet, according to the film, based on Shakespeare’s experiences, but many of the lines that end up in the play (and others later) are absorbed from events and speech in his daily life. With no suggestion that this denigrated his genius. Since so much of what we know of Oxford’s life was woven into the tapestry of the plays, this film adroitly points up the fact that true genius absorbs all the material at hand and transmutes it into Art.

The play Romeo & Juliet: One acquaintance asked me if R & J was in fact written at this time. Of course I had to reply that that depended solely upon who you assumed to be the author. But it is an opportunity to make note of the family feud that erupted between the de Veres and the Vavasours as a result of Edward de Vere impregnating Anne Vavasour (and to extrapolate further, if given the opportunity, to refer to plot points in other plays where this fact is relevant, such as Measure for Measure, where Claudio is imprisoned for impregnating Juliet, as was de Vere, in the Tower).

Sonnet XVIII: In the film, Shakespeare writes a sonnet to Viola de Lessups. Again, the subject arises of personal relationship to the writing. The Sonnets are the most personal account we have of Shakespeare’s writing. To whom were they written, and why? It’s a mystery, certainly, but Oxfordians have a plethora of theories, none of which resort to “it was a writing exercise.”

Moth: Here he’s Shakespeare’s analyst, but it further underscores the possibility of people that Shakespeare knew showing up as characters in his plays. Moth is a character in Love’s Labor’s Lost as well as Midsummer Night’s Dream. We certainly have many examples of people Oxford knew showing up in the Shakespeare canon.

Queen Elizabeth: We first see her here having Two Gentlemen of Verona being performed for her at Court. This brings into question the dating of the plays and records of court performances. And she, in effect, commissions Twelfth Night, inviting Shakespeare to write a play about the story we’ve just watched him live. This can lead to a discussion of her involvement with the writing of the plays, either as a character herself, or for entertainment purposes or even political propaganda. And did she pay Shakespeare? Well, she paid Oxford–1,000 a year, beginning in 1586. For what?

Marlowe: A ripe example for authorship discussion. The film has an amusing scene with Marlowe contributing ideas to Shakespeare’s play. This alludes to those who believe Marlowe wrote some of Shakespeare’s works. The character even acknowledges Marlowe’s influence on Titus Andronicus and Henry VI.

The signature: An early scene in the film has Shakespeare practicing his signature. This is a multi-level joke on, 1) writers write what they know– well, he knows his name, 2) there was no standardized spelling yet — hence, they were all spelled differently, and 3) actors constantly practicing their autograph. But it also points up the fact that the ONLY extant sample of his handwriting are the six signatures.

Poet Playwright: At one point, when Shakespeare is visiting Viola’s house, he identifies himself as poet and playwright (not actor!) in the same breath, illustrating the Oxfordian thesis on the name William (pastoral traditional name for poet at that time) and Shake-speare (alluding to the spear-shaker goddess Pallas Athena, patron of the arts in Athens, home of the theatre). A perfect nom de plume if EVer there was one.

Philip Henslowe: This is perhaps one of the most strategic coups for Oxfordians. To the layman Shakespeare enthusiast, Henslowe is largely an unknown figure. Thanks to the film, Henslowe, played by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (also nominated for this performance) becomes a memorable and significant figure in the story. This opens the door to discussions of Henslowe’s diaries–records of payments to actors and playwrights, but NOWHERE any mention of Shakespeare. How can this be?

Shakespeare In Love

A good movie, and an authorship Valentine

by Joe Eldredge

Joe Eldredge is a long-time Oxfordian, architect, critic and poet. He is on the Board of the Oxenford Press.


Now that all of the Oscars have been given out and the celebrities have gone home, someone has to do the cleaning up. With the accolades ringing in our ears we can now set to work and find out just how it’s producers were able to do such a splendid job. For those who have remained faithful to the Stratfordian myth, and for all who look to a brave new (oops!) Oxfordian world, there are some surprises.

It will be a long time before any of us forget the clever credits in the playbill-within-the-play. Then there were those smart “anons” to the good nurse being used in a parallel world; the obligatory ghost scene; and heartbreaking lines from some of the sonnets.

Bowdler and the Lambs to the contrary, the Bard knew where the funnybones were inter-connected. Love has its own brand of joy, underplayed to an audience that has only recently milked the Oval Office for every double-jointed entendre. The “plucking” of Viola (Violet?) is appropriately unsubtle. It speaks quite properly to Her Royal Highness’ well-known understanding of and concern for her Ladies; and what they (probably) were in-waiting for. But a “plantation” in “Virginia”: please! Perhaps the most Shakespearean is “nothing better than a play,” which purient key word gets 30 lines in Eric Partridge’s compendium Shakespeare’s Bawdy.

My admiration and wonder peak at the splendid way in which the play is interwoven with the the action of the film. While I can not speak for someone who does not know Romeo and Juliet (and who does not?) it is actually possible to understand this version of the play while living through it. The sense of love and love of love created by the film was stronger than ever I can recall being generated by the play itself. This smorgasbrod approach has been tried with other Shakespeare, but never so effectively; and may I say, “theatrically,” in the best sense of that soggy word? Had Tinker Belle or ET urged us to clap or cheer at critical points I would have shed some sixty-five years to be first. The only way to de-suspend my disbelief is to bring this remarkable production kicking and screaming back into the real world.

Before putting on my rubber gauntlets I would like to say that the cast was seamless; the spirit of the Bard was with them. Rarely does one see in the cinema, even in films about plays, the kind of centripetal spirit that one likes to think once infected the best of those sixteenth century revels. Had I the time and space and skill, I would write (for the entire cast) the beauty of their art. As for that other gang, those clever producers, writers, and directors, it is only the garters and whips of history that prevent me from falling as readily at their feet.

The original version of Romeo and Juliet goes way back; there have been others along the way. Thanks to wizards like Leonard Bernstein there will be more. But the version worked over between 1581 and 1594 by someone who called himself William Shake-speare (note the hyphen) is the only one that has the facts right about the topography of Verona. This play was written by someone who had been there (circa 1575-1576). Now there was a real person living in Stratford-on-Avon at the time Romeo & Juliet was begun –but he was only eleven years old. It was, of course, the dashing twenty-five year old Earl of Oxford who had just returned from the Continent loaded down with enough of the Renaissance to last him (and us) eight or more lifetimes. Having learned rather more about love (and women) he re-worked a boyhood poem called Romeus and Juliet into the vehicle so appropriate to the skills of both Ms. Paltrow and Judi Dench.

The significance of the above is that Time has been out of joint for nearly four hundred years. In order to make history support the viability of an uneducated genius from up Warwickshire way, it was necessary to stir up a second batch of production and publication dates. Since William Shagsper was not born until 1564, the plays end up being dated (according to Harold Bloom) an average of ten years after dates established by both biographical and topical evidence. This dis-chronology is the mainspring of the Stratfordian theme park.

I have tried to imagine the problems facing Love’s producers in reconciling the conflicting claims of authorship of what is usually considered the most important body of literature in the English-speaking world. Other than a “text consultant” the Credits seem not to have included anyone claiming to be an authority on either side of the issue. Perhaps in their wisdom they decided to kill all the experts. Some say the first version of Romeo and Juliet was a legend; but I’ll bet there were two real lovers back there somewhere who are technically more real than Hollywood’s unhappy pair. I say “technically” because in order to entertain us, the producers have systematically disregarded facts that are not even in dispute. Here are a few examples:

  • The film is set in 1595. At that time the Stratford man was thirty-one years old. There is no record of his presence or doings either in London or Stratford from 1592 until 1596, when he showed up at his son’s funeral.
  • Elizabeth was 62 (nice job Judi) and still going strong. Oxford, her sometime paramour (and more) was 45 and had written some thirty plays already. He was in semi-retirement, married for the third time, and living in Hackney to be near the theater groups for which he was responsible.
  • Marlowe, a central character in the film, had been dead for two years. Fourteen years younger than Shake-speare (i.e. Oxford) he started out working for the Bard and may have finished off at least one of his plays (Edward II). The lines used in the auditions about the topless towers of Illium were from his Dr. Faustus which may have been produced as early as 1592, but was not published until 1604. Shake-speare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well first performed at Court in 1580 had the following lines spoken by the Clown (often Oxford’s “voice”):

    “Was this fair face the cause, quoth she, why the Grecian’s sacked Troy?” More of this anon.

  • Sonnet Seventeen, “If I could write the beauty of your eyes,” was written by Oxford to his son, the Earl of Southampton, along with sixteen other sonnets, to get him to marry. For reasons which we do not have time to go into here, the right choice would have had a profound effect on the lad’s career options. Screenwriters take note: the Tudor heir story will provide ample provender for the digital age and beyond. And, Oh yes, these particular Sonnets had been written by 1590.
  • That tobacco plantation in Virginia comes near the mark, but –pardon the expression– “no cigar,” being off by fifteen to twenty years. Oxford did invest in two voyages looking for the northwest passage, and his son funded the Gosnold expedition that invented Martha’s Vineyard. But Gosnold, who was a kissing cousin of Oxford and Southampton’s college roommate, died in Virginia in 1607 (his second trip) well before there were any real plantations.
  • That splendid urchin, who was to become John Webster, gets five points (out of a possible ten) for accuracy. Webster went on to write some scary stuff, mostly in the 1600s. In 1595 he was all of seventeen years old. The film chareacter is so good, it is possible to overlook the age discrepancy but not the fact that he was actually the son of a wealthy coach maker in West Smithfield.
  • And finally, at the end Her Royal Highness asks our hero for something lighter the next time, something for Twelfth Night. It’s a good thing she did, for that particular play had been on hand since 1580, where it was played at Court for –you guessed it– Twelfth Night.

Perhaps you can begin to see how miraculous it was that there was a film there at all. In the script it was always a “mystery.” But was it? While seeming to grovel before the production team, there is someone else that should get most of the credit. There isn’t a play, film, sit-com, soap, or even opera today that doesn’t owe something to the Shakespeare Canon. Throw away lines like “follow that boat” and “a rose by any other name” used for the theater (The Rose) rather than for social taxonomics, blend Bard-like genius with Saturday-Night (Live) irreverence.

Appropriately the film’s two theaters were actually in use in 1595, one run by Burbage, the other by Henslowe. Of the two impressari, Burbage (as well as his wife, mother, and father before him) was the more disagreeable. He was also acting at that time in the Lord Chamberlain’s company (being run sub-rosa, in the opinion of some, by Edward de Vere –our friend Oxford). Between Tilney (Master of the Revels) and the plague these houses had a rough time of it. This part of the film becomes almost “cinema Vere-itay.”

But back here in the Pit, snatching up orange peels and trampled handbills, we are still trying to figure out what really happened. “All men at court have no poetry” hangs in the air but does not further the plot. The Shake-speare Canon is replete with clues left for a future generation with sufficient intelligence to decipher (and accept) them. While there are several possible reasons for his anonymity, one had to do with nobles (i.e. courtiers) not being caught writing for a living.

The pre-eminent skill of the Stratfordian “scholars” who have locked arms around their “dumb man” is in “in-effing” the ineffable, “un-knowing” the unknowable, and lubricating their shaky hegemony with gratuitous insults for anyone who prefers history to mythology. Did one of these Marlovian Merlins advise the producers to use the court-poetry line to buy time for their heresy? Or does Hollywood really know whodunit and is just teasing us?

Want another? Ms. Paltrow reads and identifies with Sylvia, the object of a poem from Two Gentlemen of Verona. This choice, if the film’s advisors know their Shake-speare, is sheer genius. This same Sylvia, we’ll warrant, is Good Queen Bess herself, and these two gentlemen (Valentine and Proteus) are in love with her. Often treated as a light piece because of the incomprehensible tolerance of these rivals for each other; but with the right playwright it becomes a hologram of Oxford’s love for his Queen. How clever to have two women this time, Gwyneth and Judi, as two embodiments of the love of one man, here represented (long before Godot) by two actors “presenting” the playwright’s two sides. After all, both of them were of “Vere-ona”; get it?

Valentine (heart) and Proteus (look it up, I had to) along with Sylvia could be the film’s closet hedge to the future. There is little question that the next Elizabethan blockbuster will be the full Oxfordian monte. Was there a mole on the set already writing the trailers? Or an apostate Stratfordian desperately flashing comprehension to more intelligent forms of literary life on the outside, counting the hours to O-day?

And finally there is Shaxper-his-signatures —lots of them! If in the (today smokeless) conference room among the styrofoam cups and stale bagels the production team worked over this tidbit, was the decision made to include it as a dig at Oxfordians who see in these six indecipherable happenings proof of congenital illiteracy (Stratford never even owned a book). Good fun we admit, but whatever the intent, the film really does not lie.

A final note to Hollywood: keep up the good work. You have made a start by de-mystifying the Bard with a handsome, young, occasionally articulate, and appropriately amorous young man who could pass for the Earl; certainly not for the standard android. Only you can tell us whether the film was conceived as a tribute to Shake-speare’s real genius: the ability to draw the curtain across his true identity, while chain-sawing the air with screaming clues.

If you run out of ideas, or want to make some real money, punch in at

Joe Eldredge (March 1999)
PO Box 1833
Vineyard Haven MA 02568