For centuries English play-goers and readers had been contented with the claim that someone named William Shakespeare was responsible for the plays performed and published under that name. Despite the fact that the name was, and still is, a pun that rather obviously describes what he did––give actors pretending to be soldiers reasons for shaking their prop spears––few scholars had openly questioned what the Bard’s own fellows must have understood immediately was simply a pen name.
By the mid-nineteenth century, when enough English were being educated to a level where they could sense the immensity of Shakespeare’s education, having also learned enough about their nation’s past to understand that a 16th-century individual with William of Stratford’s background could not possibly have acquired such an education without leaving some trace of it in the record––the time had come for those who care about such things to locate who back then could have acquired such learning.
As we show in What Shakespeare Knew, it takes a great deal more than the “small Latin and less Greek” referred to by Ben Jonson in his introduction to the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, to know all that he knew about the Law, medicine, pharmacology, horticulture (gardening), English and Roman history, Italian cities, the literatures of ancient Rome and Greece, the sciences of chemistry, astronomy, and astrology, and the complex schemes and figures of Greek and Latin grammar.
These he could only have learned from certain books that at that time were available only in Latin, or in foreign languages derived from Latin, all but a few that would not be translated into English until well after his time. As for the undeniable fact that he knew enough Greek to be familiar with several of the sources that can’t be traced to anything else, who at that time could have instructed him in that ancient language with its unfamiliar alphabet, only just recently retrieved from the dusty corners of old Italian monasteries, an arcane study beyond the needs or interests of all but scholars.
With the revelation in 1929 of Shakespeare’s identity as Queen Elizabeth’s notorious favorite, the 17th Earl of Oxford, it’s been assumed that Oxford learned everything he needed to know while living with Sir William Cecil, her first minister of State. But while Cecil’s library appears to have supplied many of the books in question, what he didn’t provide was a tutor of the sort needed to teach them. Books by themselves are not enough; a teacher is required, one of the sort described by Sir Thomas Elyot in his Book of the Gouvernor. The focus at Cecil House was on skills required for a successful Court career, dancing, fencing, the lute, French and Italian pronunciation, and the kind of horsemanship required for the tilts. The only evidence of a tutor of the sort needed to teach such arcane subjects was Lawrence Nowell, the translator of Beowulf from Old English to Latin, and he seems to have felt that after a year or two he was no longer needed.
The evidence is strong that by the time little Edward Oxenford came to Cecil House at age twelve he was already educated to a level surpassing most, perhaps all of those at Court. The discovery in the mid-1990s that, from age four to twelve, he had been raised and tutored by the primary mover and shaker of the Protestant Reformation, Sir Thomas Smith, revealed where and how Oxford got his Shakespearean education. The problem that remained was why both Oxford and his tutor have been so rudely and inexplicably eliminated from history by the leading Tudor historians of the twentieth century.
As Shakespeare would have put it, thereby hangs a tale.