Readers new to the Authorship Question will quickly see that the Shakespeare story as I tell it is considerably different from the one told in school and from the one told (or, more precisely, clumsily and obscenely aimed at) by the movie Anonymous. So perhaps this is a good place to restate why I believe in the scenario I outline here.
First, I agree with the majority of those who can see from the utter impossibility of the Stratford biography that the best candidate for what came to be called the Shakespeare canon is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. While the rest may have a credential or two, he has them all. But after 20 years of studying the matter I can no longer think of myself as just an Oxfordian––I’m an authorship scholar, by which I mean that I now question the authorship of (almost) every single work of the imagination published during the Elizabethan era! To stop with Shakespeare gives the impression that he was an anomaly at a time when everything else was normal (according to today’s view of the world). That’s simply not the case. By today’s world of theater, writing and publishing, everything then was an anomaly. He was only part of it.
Second, when you read Shakespeare here, understand that I mean the poet, not the man who sold him the use of his name. Because it was de Vere, not William of Stratford, who made the name famous, de Vere’s the one who deserves it. If I sell you my house, even if I rent you my house, if you make it famous as the place where something of great human significance occured, historically it becomes your house, not mine.
The third thing I began to realize as I dug more deeply was how little evidence there was, not just for Shakespeare, but for anything relating to the origins of the English Literary Renaissance. There’s no argument about this; all scholars of the period are aware of the holes in their story, even if they don’t see how deeply or widely the lack of evidence extends beyond their particular focus. So if I was going to figure anything out, I was going to have to cast a much wider net than those who concentrate just on Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Marlowe, or the history of the London stage. Sooner or later I thought, I’ll find out what happened to all that evidence. And I have. I can’t prove it, not in the way it would take to overturn the Stratford monolith, not all by myself, but perhaps someday somebody will.
Of course the answer was there all the time, the Baconians were the first to see it, parts of it, but finding out exactly how and when it happened has proven to be the final, central, determining piece in the scenario. As forensic scientists know, everything that happens leaves a network of clues that extend around it in time and space, so however much hard evidence is missing, there will be clues in the mainstream history, in biographies of those involved and of similar phenomena from other times and cultures. Current studies like that of the psychology of creativity have added important insights.
And there are always the dates, that is confirmed dates, that function as linch pins for the sequences of events that create the network of clues that must take the place of the missing evidence. Dates of events seen as “coincidental”––events within a particular circle that occur at the same time or close to it but are otherwise unrelated––are just about impossible in the small world that was the 16th-century London stage, periodical press, and Royal Court. That such events are unrelated is so unlikely as to be impossible.
Fourth, I came to realize how very different life was then from what it is today. While the subliminal backdrop to our view of literature and entertainment today is of hundreds of writers publishing hundreds of thousands of books by thousands of publishers and thousands of films made by hundreds of filmmakers written by hundreds of screenwriters, whose names change on a weekly basis as tens to dozens join the ranks or fall by the wayside, most of whose names mean nothing to anyone but their close associates (think of the long roll of credits that follows every film)––we must force our imaginations to provide a scenario where where there were two or three playwrights, six or seven professional-level actors, and seven or eight printers and publishers, all of whom knew each other or were at least very aware of each other’s existence over many years.
In other words, the illusion that Philip Sidney existed apart from Christopher Marlowe, Bacon apart from Nashe, Mary Sidney apart from Bacon, or any of these apart from the man considered by one of orthodoxy’s favorite supports, Francis Meres, to be “best for comedy” during the 1590s is just that, an illusion created by a lack of evidence. If I live two blocks from a bakery, do we need an affadavit to prove where I buy my bread? These people knew each other, had relationships with each other, relationships that drove the story of the blaze of literary splendor that was the English Literary Renaissance. What was that story? And why is it so obviously missing from the record?
The one and only Shakespeare
As an historian, I can’t go beyond the constraints imposed by these limits. There were very few individuals during the early years of the English Reformation who could write engagingly in the 1560s and 70s, even fewer could or even wanted to get their own work produced or published, and as for those who could put on a risque and satirical play for the public and get away with it, the list narrows to one, however difficult it may have been all these centuries to identify him. As for style, themes, and subject matter, biographies of other geniuses require that there be one Shakespeare and only one. Just as no two people could have painted the Mona Lisa and no two people could have conquered Asia in the 3rd century BC, no two writers could have written (or co-authored) Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar. There was, there had to be, only one da Vinci, only one Alexander, and only one Shakespeare.
Since all the other world-creating geniuses were leaders who left their arenas of endeavor permanently altered, causing those who came after them to imitate them, so the author of the Shakespeare canon must have been a man of great respect and high standing in the small literary circles of his time, and he had to have been born early enough that lesser writers who dealt with similar themes and subjects and whose styles show similarities to his, were his followers, and not he theirs. That Shakespeare could possibly have imitated the lesser writers of his day, that he rewrote their works, is a cart-before-the-horse fantasy created by left-brainers who simply do not understand the nature of the thing they write about.
Yet it’s also true that great peaks in artistic endeavor are almost always driven by groups. To develop, artists must have an audience on a level equal, or almost equal, to their own, colleagues who appreciate them, rivals who challenge them, enemies who drive them to retaliate. Think of the French Impressionists, the Scribblerus Club, Bebop, Motown. The films Ocean’s Eleven and The Seven Samurai have plots based on a group of talented individuals that come together to accomplish some goal. But there’s always, there has to be, one or sometimes two, central figures. The problem for the Elizabethan era is that the central figure is missing. Some have tried to make it Sidney; others have tried to make it Bacon, or Marlowe, or even Mary Sidney, but in every case, while a few things may click, too many do not. Those clicks are important, but it’s the collegial relationship with Shakespeare that they represent, not the poet himself.
With Oxford at the center, they all fall into place: Philip Sidney, a great writer, four years his junior, his first and most challenging rival, who refused (or was simply unable, largely for political reasons) to follow him into the theatrical arena, and whose own achievements pushed him more than once to go beyond himself; his cousin Francis Bacon, his partner in many ways and the second most important figure in the story, who eagerly followed him until he (Bacon) got the Court job he’d been striving for from the beginning, defended him during his hard times, and helped to edit his collected works after death; Stephen Gosson, an early neophyte who, like Marlowe later, betrayed him early on, selling out to the Bishops who were trying to shut him down; Lord Strange who, egged on by Leicester, was trying to replace him as the Prospero of the London stage; Mary Sidney, who in his life loved and hated him, and after his death, helped save his work for posterity; and Christopher Marlowe who studied with him, adopted his style, rebelled against him, and foolishly refused to listen to his warning.
With Oxford as author the lives of the others involved at that early stage in the English Literary Renaissance also fall into place: the actor Edward Alleyn, whom he trained to play his youthful protagonists, and who deserted him to work with Marlowe; the secretaries whose names got attached to his early works: Anthony Munday, John Lyly, and Thomas Kyd; his friends from college days: the Catholic apologist Richard Rowlands, aka Richard Verstegen, and George Pettie, whose name he borrowed for two of his early works; the Bassanos, the Court musicians whose talents graced his early productions; their sister, the poet Emilia Bassano Lanier whom the world knows as the first feminist in English Literature and sees as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (and most certainly Cleopatra); the patrons whose protection allowed him to continue to write under increasingly difficult circumstances: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the Earl of Southampton, the Earls of Pembroke, and (to some extent) both monarchs.
Also clear are the enemies who appear in several plays as villains: his cousin Henry Howard, later Earl of Northampton, who trashed his reputation, and his brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, who used the power bequeathed him by his father, Lord Burghley, to destroy the evidence of his leading role in the great literary revolution that the Cecils were so determined to quash. With Oxford as author, no falsification of evidence, no forced rearrangement of dates, no ignoring of documents, no overblown imagined scenarios, are required for all of these to fall easily into place around him.
The biographies of other great literary lights lead to the conclusion that despite what they may pick up here and there from their reading, all great writers, particularly poets, draw primarily from their own experiences for their major works. Writers, great writers, write as a means of emotional catharsis, to explore an issue that affects them deeply, a philosophical dilemma that demands resolution, a situation that demands the truth. Theirs are the pearls of literature, surrounded by the art of a creature irritated into self-protection. The themes that they explore, particularly those they explore repeatedly, will always connect to something in their biographies. The fact that so much of what Shakespeare wrote about fits the life of the Earl of Oxford requires either that he was someone very close to Edward de Vere, or, pace Bishop Ockham, that he was Edward de Vere! Further, the fact that nothing in any of his works suggests the scenario crudely attempted by the film Anonymous demands that the real story, involving all these writers, a story far closer in nature to a spy thriller than this absurdly ahistoric soap opera, get its day in the court of public opinion.