Who or what do we mean by Shakespeare?
Every Oxfordian has heard the scoffing retort, “I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” So the first question must be: When we say Shakespeare, do we mean: 1) William of Stratford; do we mean: 2) the author of the plays; or do we mean: 3) the plays themselves––as when we say we’ve read “all of Shakespeare”?
For 400 years, most academics and readers at large have taken numbers 1 and 2 to be identical. But read enough material on the subject and it soon becomes apparent that 1 and 2 must be separate entities: #1 providing the name, while #2 provides the writing skills, the erudition, and a biography and personality that dovetails with the plots, themes, and characters of the plays.
All Oxfordians agree on one thing (and many on only one thing), that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the Shakespeare canon; too much remains unclear for all of us to agree on everything. To expand upon this basic agreement, I should make it clear that the following is my own view, if shared with some Oxfordians, certainly not with all:
William of Stratford (#1) was a provincial family man in need of cash who sold his punnable name to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men so that their playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (#2) would have the necessary privacy to write the plays that, when published, bore the name Shakespeare (#3).
As for the name itself, William having sold it, by rights it should belong to the one who made it famous. Without it the plays might never have been written or published, while the name itself would have remained nothing more than that of an obscure Warwickshire family and a few curiously spelled squiggles in the dusty records of far-off Stratford-upon-Avon, of interest to absolutely no one but a later descendant or two.
For these reasons, when I say Shakespeare here, I mean either the playwright (#2), or his body of work (#3). For the sake of clarity, I’ll call #1, the man who sold his name, William of Stratford, a perfectly good name for an English yeoman, even one of French descent.
An argument from silence
Admittedly, much of what we offer here is what’s known as an “argument from silence,” but as in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Silver Blaze, where we would expect to hear a particular sound (the barking of a dog) and instead hear nothing, silence can tell us something that the records can’t. As Ramon Jiménez shows in his brilliant bit of literary forensics, no trace has ever been found in either London or Stratford that the handful of contemporaries who either had, or should have had, direct contact with William ever connected him with theater activities of any sort, whether acting, writing plays, or even holding horses.
Despite the volumes of claims, there is simply no evidence that #1 ever attended any institution of learning, lived in any household with a library or tutor, or had any opportunity whatsoever to acquire the erudition displayed by #2. As for writing, we find no letters from him to anyone on any subject much less literature, in fact, we have nothing at all in his hand but six shaky signatures (no pun intended), not all spelled alike, on legal documents where, as the dealer in land and other commodities that was the real William, the law required a signature.
During the First World War, a clever British schoolteacher who had been teaching #3 to the sixth form for decades went searching for the missing voice, made a brilliant guess where it was most likely to be found, and Eureka! found it right away in the standard Oxford Book of English Verse. It’s still to be found––surrounded by poems by Shakespeare––in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as number XLI “Renunciation.” With the poem came a name, one not widely known to modern readers though famous in his own time, “E. Vere, Earl of Oxford.” This, along with a biography that supplies all that any open-minded researcher could ask for in the way of evidence of his authorship, set the schoolteacher on the path we follow today.
Here’s the argument:
Since #1(William of Stratford)’s biography is so out of sync in every possible way with what we would expect from #2 (the writer Shakespeare), and since there would be no reason whatsoever for an entrepreneur like #1, struggling to provide for a large needy family, to hide his connection to the most popular and lucrative entertainment of his time, it must be, ipso facto, that the actual authorship of #3 was hidden for a reason. More, those who worked with him during his life and those who came after him, performing his works and seeing to their publication, must also have had reasons for continuing the coverup. All this becomes perfectly clear to anyone who manages to get past the confusion of the name.
So that’s where we must look, for the reasons for the silence, the reasons for the coverup, and the reasons for its continuance long after both #1 and #2 were dead.
Oxford’s life in the plays
Let’s begin with something concrete on both sides of the question, one that all agree connects literature with Oxford’s own story. Even the most Stratford-oriented scholars usually agree that the character of Polonius in Hamlet was modeled after Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This suggests that Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, was modeled after Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil, Oxford’s wife. Anne’s death has largely been blamed (both by contemporaries and by historians) on Oxford’s coldness towards her and his rudeness towards her father, much as Ophelia’s madness and suicide were blamed on Hamlet’s cold treatment and his murder of her father.
Oxford didn’t murder Burghley, though there must have been occasions when he yearned to do just that. Instead, he transferred the urge into the onstage killing of Polonius where a proxy for that “wretched, rash, intruding fool” who thought “beauteous” a “vile word,” could be stabbed to death (with a collapsing sword) through the arras, over and over, night after night, for decades––a much more satisfying revenge, as Burghley no doubt was uncomfortably aware. And so on and so forth, throughout the entire play, every incident recalling one from Oxford’s life. In fact, something from his own life can be found in almost every play we know as Shakespeare’s.
Those who pursue the many connections between Hamlet and Oxford’s biography are forced to conclude that the author, whoever he was, based the play on Oxford’s life, so that either someone very close to Oxford wrote it, or Oxford wrote it himself. Oxford had several secretaries whose names were used to publish his works, but it’s unlikely that anyone but the earl himself would have had the nerve to display such personal issues before either the Court or the public (certainly not someone of William’s lowly status).
Since it was stated forthrightly in a book published in 1598 by by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries that Oxford was known as “best for comedy,” (comedy then simply meaning drama) the most likely assumption is that it was Oxford himself who wrote Hamlet and all the other plays that reflect his life story, and that, despite the name on the title page, it was he who wrote all the plays published in the 1623 collection known as the First Folio.
Consider that the great and powerful Burghley-Polonius and the daughters of Oxford-Hamlet, and the great and powerful noblemen to whom, by then, his daughters were married, most of them with close connections to the Stage and the publishing industry, were all very much alive when the plays first began to be produced and then published and were all still alive, the daughters and husbands anyway, when the First Folio was published.
Consider how you would feel had your father or your son-in-law portrayed you or your family in the way that Oxford portrayed the Cecils in Hamlet, Coriolanus, or Richard III, or his daughters and their husbands in King Lear? Would you want the truth to come out? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to stop the publication unless you were satisfied that any connection to you or your family was eliminated from the text? Sure you would.
Safe within the cocoon of anonymity that his social power enabled him to create, he used his own life and the lives of those he knew, the greats and wannabe greats of his nation, as grist for his story mill, the London Stage. Nothing of the sort can be said about William of Stratford, whose six shaky signatures tell us how difficult it was for him to write even so much as his own name.
Were it not for the nature of that name, which spelled a particular way forced a pronunciation that meant it could be heard as a pun, William would never have been involved in any way in Oxford’s life or with the London Stage. In fact, were it not necessary for the writer, and the acting company he made so successful, that the plays be published, which meant that an author’s name had to appear on the title page, the cover-up would never have taken place simply because it would not have been necessary.
That’s it in a nutshell.
Basically this is the argument in its shortest form, and so far––apart from shouts of “nonsense” and “preposterous”––no one so far as I can see has come up with something better.