“Vera nihil verius”
—Legend on the coat-of-arms
of Edward de Vere
It’s not the same as saying that God is dead, or the world is flat, or the check is in the mail. Yet one would think that Charlton Ogburn had committed that kind of atrocity, judging by the reaction of most orthodox Shakespearian scholars to Ogburn’s amazingly entertaining book arguing that the works of “Shakespeare” were written not by the man from Stratford but by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Most people of average literacy will groan at another new theory—but most people of average literacy haven’t studied the old theories, or the life of Shakespeare (short “a”—the spelling counts) of Stratford, or the plays, for that matter. Ogburn shows, once and for all, that the man from Stratford is not credible as the great playwright or poet, and that not a single piece of evidence helps him. Ogburn also shows, in point after patient point (about 500 pages’ worth), that Edward de Vere is more plausible than any other candidate put forth in the last 350 years.
Ogburn has used strict investigative methods, reasoning from the facts, to a list of suspects, to the one man at whom all clues seem to point, and only then working backward from Oxford to Shakespeare. The first half of the tome demonstrates what we don’t know about Shakspere of Stratford, which would fill an encyclopedia, and the little we do know, which, as one Shakespeare biographer admits, can be written on a half sheet of notepaper (although that has not kept him and others from inventing elaborate, voluminous biographies of the Bard). The second half of the book’ shows that hundreds of details of Oxford’s intimate life and circumstances are mirrored, too frequently and exactly for coincidence, in the plays and sonnets.
Shakspere left only six signatures (all bordering on illiteracy), no letters or anything else rumored to be in his own hand, and no school records. London royalty, who adored him, and famous contemporary actors and writers, who would have been manifestly affected by his presence in their midst, never mention him. Oh, they talk about the plays, and in a handful of instances mention “Shakespeare” or “Shakespeare,” but that character has no character, no personality, no flesh, in the records, especially when compared with what we know about his contemporaries. Never do we read, “Rode to the Globe with Will Shakespeare tonight,” or “Shakespeare told the funniest story about his childhood as a glover’s son.” Never is the name “Shakespeare” mentioned in such a context as to imply that he was the man from Stratford—who died, incidentally, without notice by his adoring public. It is almost as if the chroniclers of the day were keeping silent about one of its most amazing phenomena—and that would be as out-of-character for those London gossips as it would for modern journalists. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, is praised for his wit and writing by nearly every contemporary, even those who hated him.
“Aha, but what about Ben Jonson?” fans of the Stratford Bard will ask. “He talks about Shakespeare; they were drinking buddies, weren’t the}?” That Shakespeare—whoever he was—and Jonson occasionally lifted a cup together is most probable, although they were rivals. But that Shakespeare was Shakespeare is never hinted at—quite the contrary, according to Ogburn’s reading—in the perplexingly few Jonsonian references to the greatest dramatist of his time and ours.
The most widely used example of Jonson’s “knowing Shakespeare” is his introduction to the Shakespeare First Folio, which even the staunchest Stratfordians admit is not what it halfheartedly claims to be. Ogburn’s argument is much too detailed to more than hint at here, but it will help to remember the wild enthusiasm for jokes and puns in Elizabethan drama and poetry. The first problem—the first joke, says Ogburn—the alert reader encounters in the First Folio is the strange, all-wrong-but-skillfully-executed engraving of the face of “Shakespeare,” the one all schoolchildren know, for which Ogburn’s explanation is as plausible as any other put forth to date. The biggest puzzle, though, is Jonson’s poem of 40 couplets in unparalleled praise of Shakespeare, in which Honest Ben appears to be trying to keep the dead Stratfordian’s bones out of Westminster Abbey. Ogburn conjectures that Jonson was trying to cover up Shakespeare’s true identity, because he knows that Shakespeare’s bones aren’t Shakespeare’s and would ruin the toney neighborhood in the Abbey.
Two lines from Jonson’s poem, above all others, are used religiously to “prove” that the Stratford man authored the plays. Jonson says, “And though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek for names.” Orthodox scholars use this line to prove that Shakespeare was ignorant of Latin and Greek. But (apart from the question of whether a man ignorant of Latin and Greek could have written the plays and sonnets) Ogburn points out that “though” can mean not only “in spite of the fact that” but also “even supposing that.” Then there is “Sweet Swan of Avon!” from Jonson’s poem. This surely proves the Stratford theory, say the Stratfordians. Ogburn sighs and reminds us that de were had a home at Rugby on the same river Avon as Stratford. (There are three rivers Avon in England; the town of Oxford is on a second.)
Examples of other writers praising “Shakespeare” in ways which preclude Shakespeare abound. Edmund Spenser published his Faerie Queene in 1590. It includes sonnets written by Spenser to leading Court figures. There is an adulatory sonnet to Oxford, describing him as the favorite of the Muses—but nothing to Shakespeare. Published in the same year, Spenser’s Teares of the Muses mourns the sad state of the arts in Elizabethan England(!). Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, says, “Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late; / With whom all joy and jolly merriment / Is also deaded, and in dolour rent.” She adds, “But that same gentle spirit, from whose pen / Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow, / Scorning the boldness of such base-born men, / Which dare their follies forth to rashly throw; / Doth rather choose to sit in idle cell, / Than so himself to mockerv to sell. Orthodox scholars generally agree that “Willy” could be no one but Shakespeare—but no record shows Shakespeare in London until 1596, and at that point the orthodox calendar has him just beginning his career, not ending it—whereas in 1589 Oxford dropped out of the public eye for a time (“Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late”), after which Shakespeare’s plays as we know them began to surface. In his Palladis Tamia (1598), Francis Meres called de were—not Shakespeare—”the best for comedy among us.” And Ogburn wonders how Shakespeare, as “base-born” a man as one could find, would dare to scorn publicly his betters. Hands and heads were removed for less.
So what is Charlton Ogburn’s theory? Briefly (and brevity does not do the theory justice): Edward de Vere, because of his rank and position as premier Earl of the land, one of Queen Elizabeth’s long-time favorites at Court, and possibly her lover, was prohibited from acknowledging authorship of his works of drama and verse. Not only was it considered an embarrassing downward leap from his social status to spend his time in such creations, the works also cut too close to the royal bone in many cases. Because Elizabeth was Elizabeth, though, she valued his work for its literary merit and patriotic influence and allowed him to produce it anonymously or under a pseudonym, “Shakespeare, or “Shake-spear.” (Oxford’s crest as Viscount Bulbeck was a lion holding a broken spear. And, as Ogburn writes, “Hasti-vibrans, the Spear-shaker, was the sobriquet of Pallas Athena, who was said to have sprung from the brow of Zeus fully armed and brandishing a spear. Pallas Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, home of the theatre, while in Rome the guild of poets and dramatists met in the Temple of Pallas.”) Many members of royalty and the most favored dramatists and actors knew “Shakespeare’s” identity but kept silent, lest they be incriminated by the plays—or “shortened by a head” by the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, the second most powerful person in the kingdom, William Cecil Lord Burghley, Edward de Vere’s guardian and father-in-law.
Following a series of events Ogburn admits he can only guess at, William Shakespeare of Stratford was paid off to be de V’ere’s “front man.” Possibly Shakespeare heard rumors about “Shakespeare” and came to London to try to cash in on the name (some documents show that this would be characteristic of Shakespeare). Such a move would have seemed expedient to those protecting de Vere’s—and the Queen’s and Court’s—reputation. Finally, the records of both men were wiped clean of any incriminating evidence. (If important defense secrets could be safeguarded from World War II until their recent declassification, surely an absolute autocrat could manage this much deception.) According to Ogburn, this is the only presently available logical explanation for all the facts we know and the conspicuous gaps in both men’s records.
The Oxford theory is not original with Ogburn. John Thomas Looney (pronounced “Loney”) first put it forth in 1920, in his heavily documented “Shakespeare” Identified, to great derision and greater academic silence. Looney was a real pioneer, although Ogburn is much more the stylist and puts real flesh on his man. Looney followed the strict investigative techniques which Ogburn would carry on—studied closely the plays and sonnets as if they were a crime with no suspects—and determined that Shakespeare would have had to be a recognized genius, an unconventional loner, of pronounced and known literary tastes, enthusiastic about the drama, a lyric poet of recognized talent, of superior education, and an associate of educated men. In addition, he would have had feudal connections, membership in the higher aristocracy, connection with Lancastrian supporters, enthusiasm for Italy and for sports, including falconry, a love of music, bad judgment in money matters, a doubtful and rather conflicting attitude toward women, and Catholic leanings tinged with skepticism. Many of these traits are selfevident to even a first-time reader of Shakespeare. Looney took this evidence and found himself a suspect who fit the crime like a hand fits in a tailor-made glove—Oxford—and only then reversed the process to illustrate how Oxford must be Shakespeare.
Since Looney, the Oxford/ Shakespeare connection has captured the interest of many. Looney’s book was republished in 1975 by Kennikat Press, with much additional material. One of the most intriguing chapters in the two-book set is “Lord Oxford and the ‘Shakespeare’ Portraits,” by the book’s editor, Ruth Loyd Miller. One striking example of a mystery answered by neither the Stratfordian nor the Oxfordian theory is the X-ray and infrared findings of Charles Wisner Barrell concerning portraits of “Shakespeare.” Several are demonstrably painted over, rubbed out, modified, and changed from the originals—which resemble genuine, known paintings of de V’ere. If Shakespeare wrote the plays, why would his portraits be laid over de V’ere’s in the mid-1600’s? If de Vere wrote the plays, why cover up his portraits with Shakespeare’s (and all the “Shakespeares” look different)? What Barrell found defies explanation at this point, but some relationship existed.
Orthodox scholars can hardly be bothered to show where Looney and his converts are wrong. When they don’t ignore his theory (their safest course), they call it “snobbery.” Looney (an unfortunately vulnerable name) and Ogburn and their ilk are undemocratic, elitist, out to do in the anomalous Shakespeare simply because he was a commoner, the greatest leveler of rank in Western history.
What is it that has kept Charlton Ogburn hot on de V’ere’s trail for nearly 48 years, ever since as a 26year-old he read an article in 1937 about Looney’s work? Simply this: What the 17th Earl of Oxford has over all the other possibilities is that, with him, everything suddenly makes sense, down to the smallest detail, whereas with Shakespeare nothing makes sense. No longer must we try to believe, without a scrap of evidence or a single corroborating record, that Shakespeare—son, husband, and father of illiterates—was given a classical education (but “small Latin, and less Greek”?) in that wide spot in the road called Stratford, to rival that of any modern Ph.D. (Ironically, it is today’s Ph.D.’s who ask us to accept this.) No longer must we try to believe that Shakespeare, on the strength of his overwhelming genius, traveled so widely and in such royal company (although that royal company never talks about him) that he simply soaked up his boundless knowledge of falconry, field sports, horsemanship, music, astrology, horticulture, law, mathematics, and all the sciences, foreign countries and languages, classical literature, and his still-unsurpassed ability to hammer new language out of old. No longer must we try to believe the thousand substanceless and contradictory “details” of Shakespeare’s undocumented life.
This is not to say that there is proof that what we’ve been taught about Shakespeare is false, just that there is no proof that it is true and an enormous body of otherwise-inexplicable evidence that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare. No human behavior is perfectly consistent, but why should we strain so hard to believe in Shakespeare when there is another so infinitely suited for the role that he deserves at least open-minded scholarship?
Aye, but there’s the rub. There is no telling how a new understanding would change the way we see the world. Even the sacrosanct Oxford English Dictionary may need revision. For instance, the 1981 O.E.D. credits Shakespeare with the first use of “glutton” or “gluttoning” as an intransitive verb in 1600 (Sonnet 75), but Oxford’s first wife, Anne, used it in 1584 in a sad, ungainly little poem mourning the death of her only son. The first use of “base” meaning “low in the moral sense” is given as Henry VI, 1593; Oxford uses it in his introductory letter to the publication of his friend Thomas Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort in 1573.
I am myself one of the multitude who never seriously questioned that the man from Stratford Wrote the plays. I made my pilgrimage to gaze on his tomb and the wall memorial in charming Trinity Church. Charlton Ogburn, bless the man, makes me feel like a fool. But I have nothing to lose from admitting this, and if future discoveries make me a double fool for accepting the de Vere theory, I will not have staked my career on it. An academic is a different sort of animal, and tenure is a precious commodity. I have a great deal of sympathy for those with much to lose by this book, who ignore Ogburn, or put words in his mouth he never said, to make him look ridiculous because they cannot show where he is wrong.
On the other hand, there is the pursuit of truth.
[The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & The Reality, by Charlton Ogburn (Dodd, Mead & Co.; New York) $25.00]