A Flawed Life of Oxford

By Joseph Sobran

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

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

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

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

Oddly enough, Nelson refuses to admit that he is joining battle in the debate. He refers to it in derisive quotation marks as the “authorship controversy,” as if it weren’t really a controversy at all, even though he has been a vigorous participant in it for many years. I myself have debated him twice, in San Francisco and Washington, and he reviewed my pro-Oxford book Alias Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Quarterly. And it is obvious that the only reason Oxford merits a biography at all is that he has become the most plausible challenger for the claim to the Shakespeare works.

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

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

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

Nelson calls Oxfordian scholars “partisan,” which is fair enough, but he is hardly impartial himself. His clear purpose is to discredit Oxford in almost every respect. He portrays him as an “egotist,” “thug,” “sodomite,” “atheist,” “vulture,” traitor, murderer, rapist, pederast, adulterer, libeler, fop, playboy, truant, tax evader, drunkard, snob, spendthrift, deadbeat, cheat, blackmailer, malcontent, hypocrite, conspirator, and ingrate. Some of this finds support in the records, as even Oxford’s admirers usually acknowledge, but it hardly proves what Nelson wants it to prove: that Oxford couldn’t have written the Shakespeare works. After all, many great writers have been men of dubious character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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