Big surprise! Just when Shakespeare’s popularity began to peak in the mid-19th century, well over two hundred years after his death, somebody thought to claim that Shakespeare himself might not have been the brains behind the revered literary works bearing his name. At the center of these disparaging claims, apparently, is Shakespeare’s tame family heritage. To some, the poetic fluency and the literary genius of his works could hardly be the product of such a plebeian upbringing. From then on, theories disputing Shakespeare’s authorship went on to take lives of their own. And believe it or not, the list of the claimed potential originators of the works ascribed to him has grown to include about 80 people!
However, the Oxford Theory of Shakespeare Authorship towers above the rest of these controversial arguments. According to this theory, the 17 Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, is the author behind the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. But what makes this theory special is the fact that it has managed to linger in public consciousness since it came up nearly 100 years ago. Oh, it is also the commonest of all theories disputing Shakespeare’s reputation as an author.
The Oxfordian theory was proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920. The theory’s most compelling claims include the fact that in many Shakespearean plays, spendthrift individuals were often rewarded as heroes, an attribute that is hard to reconcile with Shakespeare’s reputation as a shrewd businessman. The fact that lower social classes are generally portrayed negatively in Shakespeare’s works, according to this theory, is a telltale sign that an author of aristocratic upbringing, such as Edward de Vere, could have penned the plays and the poems, and not a commoner of Shakespeare’s sort.
But then again, a competing claim does argue that Shakespeare wrote his plays for the upper classes, who could afford to pay to watch them performed. This made him inclined to portray upper classes a little more favorably than the truth might have required of him. Even then, once in a while, he found a way to raise the lowly, socially or otherwise, to the heights of heroism in his works, which is also why his works were also palatable to the commoners of the day despite trying to speak favorably of his rich aristocratic patrons.
Granted, the Oxfordian theory has been evolving over time. Furthermore, the work of a German Shakespeare scholar, Kurt Kreiler, might have given the argument that Edward de Vere was the original author in Shakespeare’s works the greatest credibility it has ever had in its existence. In 2009, Kurt Kreiler released “The Man Who Invented Shakespeare”, a 22-chapter book that cements some of the base claims of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship. In the book, he reveals that this aristocrat’s nickname in the court was “Spear-shaker”, and he had the technical legal knowledge to pen classics such as the Merchant of Venice, something Shakespeare lacked the educational capacity to pull off.
As far as debates in favor of Shakespeare’s questionable authorship go, the Oxford theory has a respectable place at the table. But when it comes to mainstream debate on the authorship of Shakespearean works, the theory is far from gaining mass appeal. Mainstream opinion holds that William Shakespeare wrote his works. Besides, there are obvious holes in the Oxfordian theory. For instance, the fact that some of the plays were written well past Edward de Vere’s death. The earl of Oxford would have needed to have psychic powers to write about events that would happen years after his passing in 1604.
Those who believe in giving credit where it is due, even after becoming devoted fans of this English literary genius, will agree that some authorship questions are worth asking as far as Shakespeare’s works are concerned. For instance, some of the sonnets were written past 1620, 4 years after Shakespeare’s passing.
Some scholars have even pointed to some inconsistencies in the way his late plays were written, which would point to the fact that someone other than Shakespeare might have been involved in the creation of these works. But, if anything, this goes to show that Shakespeare duly deserves all the credit he gets for his work, and it also speaks to his timeless genius if indeed his passing would cause the works published in his name to experience a notable decline in quality.
Other written works by Edward de Vere have also aided his undoing as a possible authorship candidate for Shakespeare’s works. In a computer analysis trying to determine how close various claimed potential authors are to Shakespearean style of writing have dealt quite a blow to this group of theorists. An examination of Shakespeare’s works using a computer revealed strong patterns in word use, or non-use among the works. Comparison of Oxford’s word use to these works indicated that Edward de Vere was not even close to being the author of Shakespeare’s works. Oxford’s skill was also found to be four grades below Shakespeare’s writing grade, and other scholars have pointed out the inferiority of Oxford’s works in comparison to Shakespeare’s masterpieces.
Whether or not Shakespeare wrote the world-famous “Shakespearean” works is a question that is going to boggle the minds of many scholarly theorists for a long time to come. Given the winding course this argument has taken over its several decades of existence, we can reasonably expect that with every theoretical “evidence” that comes up to dispute Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him, an equally plausible counter-claim will also come up in opposition. At the moment, those who dispute Shakespeare’s literary genius and subscribe to any of the existing fringe theories in support of the view that he built his reputation based on the works of others will have to agree that this is a hydra-headed scholarly puzzle that might very well never get resolved.