Shakespeare-Oxford Society

Dedicated to Researching and Honoring the True Bard
SOS Library article

A Beginner’s Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem



1) Introduction to the Shakespeare authorship problem

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

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

4) Summary of the doubts surrounding the Stratfordian attribution.

5) Why not Bacon, Marlowe or Derby?

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

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


1) Introduction to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


4) A summary of the doubts surrounding the Stratfordian attribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5) Why not Bacon, Marlowe or Derby…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous considerations.

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

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


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

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

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

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

2) Of pronounced and known literary taste.

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

3) An enthusiast in the world of drama.

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

4) Of superior education.

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

5) Of probable Catholic leanings but touched with skepticism.

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

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

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

7) An enthusiast for Italy.

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

8) A follower of sport, including falconry.

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

9) Lover of music.

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

10) Improvident in money matters and contemptuous of thrift.

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

Created by Prairie Design