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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
By Kevin Gilvary
© DVS 2004
6 Attacking the Oxfordians
Some of the most rancorous attacks have been reserved for Oxfordians. Alan Nelson published his detailed
biography Monstrous Adversary as part of the [University of] Liverpool English Studies and Texts, a series
edited by another ardent Stratfordian, Jonathan Bate. On the cover, Nelson states his intention in writing
the book: ‘Since 1920, Oxford has been touted by amateur historians and conspiracy theorists as the true
author of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare.’ He continues: ‘it is become a matter of some urgency
to measure the real Oxford against the myth created by his apologists.’ Interestingly, Nelson’s line is to
provide a rich account of the Earl’s life and to give it the worst possible interpretation. He does not however
address the ‘authorship debate’ (his inverted commas) and his devil’s advocacy leaves the Oxfordian Case
intact. It was perfectly possible for an earl to have lived a life often scandalous and still have been the author
of the plays and poems of Shakespeare. Other writers have attempted a more direct rebuttal of the
Oxfordian Case. Schoenbaum devotes 16 pages and Matus 45 pages in answering the claims and it is pleasing
to see that the case is taken thus seriously.
‘The unfortunately named Looney.’
Schoenbaum (Lives 430) notes that Looney refused to adopt a nom de plume to forestall the ‘hilarity of
reviewers’. Dobson (Companion 335) says that the Oxfordian case ‘was first put forward by the unfortunately
named Thomas J. Looney in Shakespeare identified (1920)’. Anti-Oxfordians continue to make this laboured
joke, which is irrelevant to the arguments and infra dignitatem of serious writers.
Oxford died in 1604.
Many of the plays were said to have been written after this date. Of all the arguments against Oxford, this
is the most serious. The De Vere Society is currently preparing a comprehensive survey of all the evidence
used to date the works. Clearly, if any play of Shakespeare can be dated to after Oxford’s death on 24 June,
1604, either by reference to an event such as the Gunpowder Plot or to a source only available after this
date, then the number of adherents to the Oxfordian Cause would be greatly reduced. Incidentally, this
same argument could be turned against William of Stratford, who died in 1616, seven years before the first
mention of Coriolanus, All’s Well and Timon of Athens.
Strangely enough, while the plays have been conventionally dated to a period between c 1590 and c 1610,
there is actually no evidence of composition for any play. Plays are usually dated as being written shortly
before their first recorded performance, shortly before their registration in the Stationers Register prior to
publication or shortly before an allusion to a performance. All the dates are assumed to be ‘shortly before’
their first mention but this is clearly not the case for Coriolanus, All’s Well and Timon of Athens. Another point
is that while Meres mentions 12 plays by Shakespeare in 1598, he does not mention various history plays or
Taming of the Shrew or Merry Wives of Windsor. The entire dating of the plays is conjectural.
Contemporary allusions are also noticeably absent from the plays. The only one which is taken as sure
is a reference to the return of ‘the General of our Gracious Empress’ from Ireland (Henry V Act V,
prologue). This is generally taken to be Essex’s return from his expedition in 1599. But it could refer to a
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
By Kevin Gilvary
© DVS 2004
previous commander, such as Mountjoy in 1601. Some see references to The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 but
there is nothing specific; the Porter’s famous speech can just as easily relate to various trials of Jesuits in the
1590s (or earlier).
The dating of The Tempest has caused most anxiety to Oxfordians as it is taken to be a late play –
Prospero’s abjuration of magic has frequently been interpreted as the dramatist’s retirement speech. Looney
attempted to argue that the play was not by Shakespeare. Indeed with it being so short (about 2,000 lines)
and with 500 lines in one scene, mainly consisting of a lengthy exposition by Prospero to Miranda, one
wonders whether it really is a late play. It is first mentioned in performance on 1 November 1611 and
following the usual assumption it must have been ‘composed shortly before’ commentators have assumed
that a major source is Strachey’s letter to the Virginia Company, describing a tempest in the Bermudas in
The main point is: was it essential for the author to know Strachey’s letter in order to have written The
Tempest? Dave Kathman (on the Shakespeare Authorship web-site) believes so and has fiercely argued that
many details in this letter were used by Shakespeare. The editor of the aptly named Oxford Shakespeare in
1987, Stephen Orgel, did not believe so and did not claim any specific link – only general similarity. The
editors of the Arden3 edition (1999), Virginia and Alden Vaughan, did not find any striking connection
between The Tempest and Starchey’s letter; they only mention three possibilities, none of which is unique: the
name Bermuda (Ariel mentions Bermoothes); another is St Elmo’s fire and the third is the use of the word
‘glut’. None of these three usages suggest that the author MUST have used Strachey’s letter. We should
remember that The Edward Bonaventure, in which De Vere had an interest, was shipwrecked in the New
World in 1593 and accounts about her loss were circulating in London. There are some references in The
Tempest to customs and peoples in the New World, but many of these had already been described in accounts
of Drake’ circumnavigation of the Globe (published in 1587) and Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana (1596).
While most commentators link The Tempest to the New World, Shakespeare locates it most definitely in
the Old World, specifically the Mediterranean with many references to Naples and Tunis. There is a long
literary tradition of shipwrecks: Odysseus suffers two; Aeneas is washed up on the coast of Africa (as
mentioned in The Tempest); St Paul is shipwrecked on the Island of Malta in the Acts of the Apostles.
Furthermore we should ask about the source for the play (after all, the storm merely brings the characters
together). The plot is often said to have been the Bard’s own creation. Yet in the Commedia dell’ Arte there
are many similar scenarios in Scala (published at Venice, 1611). There is even an exact scenario for the story,
called Arcadia Incantata, The Enchanted Arcadia, found in a manuscript in Naples and published by Fernando
Neri in 1913. It is accepted as a source by Gray in 1920, Kathleen Lea in Italian Popular Comedy in 1934, and
Allardyce Nicholl in 1963. So far from disqualifying Oxford, The Tempest can only have been written by
someone who had travelled in Italy and witnessed performances of these scenarios. This person we believe
to have been Edward de Vere.
Reservations about the De Vere’s character.
Schoenbaum lists some of Oxford’s personal qualities which Looney had omitted including ‘cruelty,
perversity and profligacy’, as well as ‘flatulence’. Without stating the relevance, Schoenbaum is clearly keen
to portray Oxford in an unpleasant light and thereby discredit him. Dobson (335) notes that Oxford was ‘a
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
By Kevin Gilvary
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
© DVS 2004
notorious figure at Elizabeth’s court, violent and irresponsible’. For notorious, we should read ‘prominent’;
he was hated by some, most especially when he was high in the Queen’s favour, but greatly respected by
others. At least we should note that he was at court for much of the period 1570-1590, unlike a man from
Stratford. Nelson’s detailed biography Monstrous Adversary (2003) is clearly an attempt at character
assassination. The title alone could have been ‘Honourable Endowments’ as written by one contemporary,
his relation Percivall Golding or ‘Veruily and Truly Noble’ as written by another contemporary, Sir George
Buc. Among the many negatives, Nelson writes (47) that Oxford ‘received the dedication of one book and
the gift of two university degrees without effort on his part.’ This is in direct contradiction to what he
himself has just written.
Oxford could be violent.
Oxford stabbed someone, and his many subsequent quarrels included a brawl with the family of a lady-inwaiting he had impregnated and a conspiracy against Sidney. Strangely enough, this is mirrored in the plays
by the actions of Hamlet, Romeo, Leontes and other hot-tempered characters.
‘The Earl can scarcely restrain himself from putting in
appearances everywhere in the canon.’
So wrote Schoenbaum (Lives, 443), apparently mocking Looney for seeing too much of Oxford in the plays.
Bate concurs (Genius, 90): ‘The Oxfordian attempt to find the life and character of their Earl hidden in the
works of Shakespeare is no different in kind from the Ireland attempt to flesh out the life and character of
Shakespeare by fabricating letters from him.’ A comparison between Nelson’s biography of the Earl and a
knowledge of the events of the plays shows that there is in fact considerable overlap. There is no need to
go looking or to forge anything – the correspondences are clear and unequivocal. So far from discrediting
Looney, both Schoenbaum and Bate are acknowledging the strength of the Oxfordian case.
Oxford had no experience of the theatre.
This has been cited in conversation, e.g. by guides at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. This is quite simply
wrong. Oxford ran various groups of actors and was known for his writing of plays for entertainment at
Meres knew Shakespeare and Oxford to be different people.
It is argued that Francis Meres mentions both Shakespeare and Oxford. (Palladis Tamia 1598) Therefore he
knew that that the names referred to different people. Few people have read Palladis Tamia in which Meres
surveys English poets from Chaucer to his own day, comparing 125 Englishmen to Latin, Greek or Italian
writers. Of all the contemporary writers, is it possible that Meres knew each of them personally? Since three
plays had been published in 1598 under the name of Shakespeare, Oxfordians have argued that Meres did
not know Shakespeare the man but was only referring to Shakespeare the works. Meres only lived in London
for a few years (c1598-1602) before returning to the East Midlands. It is not established that Meres knew
Shakespeare and Oxford to be different people, merely that he thought them to be different, a view that
was being carefully promulgated from 1598 onwards.
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
By Kevin Gilvary
© DVS 2004
Oxford was not a concealed poet.
It has been noted that some of Oxford’s poems were published under his name. He was also known to
Puttenham and Meres as a court playwright. Therefore he couldn’t, so it is argued, have been a concealed
poet or playwright or used a pseudonym to conceal his own authorship. Perhaps I am missing something,
but while Oxford was known for writing plays, it was not known, or at least not widely known, which plays
he wrote. In Elizabethan Stage vol iii (1923) Chambers is unable to suggest more than one title to a play by
Oxford. Surely this is the very point at issue. Oxfordians argue that his plays were produced at aristocratic
houses and sometimes at court anonymously until 1598, when the pseudonym Shakespeare was needed to
mask the identity of the writer.
Oxford’s poems are mediocre.
Dobson argues (335): Looney offered no explanation as to why or how de Vere should have published
mediocre work under his own name and masterpieces under Shakespeare’s. Against this is must be said that
the poetry of Shakespeare is not uniformly good. Secondly, the poetry associated with Oxford’s name are
from his youth and not polished or prepared for publication. Clearly, any description of an author’s poems
as mediocre contains a measure of subjective assessment, wholly, one hopes, divorced from partisan claims
about the authorship. The following poem by Oxford is similar in content and style to Shakespeare’s
If women could be fair and yet not fond,
Or that their love were firm, not fickle still,
I would not marvel that they make men bond,
By service long to purchase their good will;
But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far.
The poetry of Oxford and Shakespeare has been shown as hard to distinguish by Professor Louis Benezet,
who in 1937 put together seventy-one lines from Shakespeare’s writings and from Oxford’s early poetry.
No passage is longer than eight lines, none shorter than four. The following sample covers the writings over
both names.
For, if I should despair, I should go mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wrestling world has grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
Love is a discord and a strange divorce
Betwixt our sense and rest; by whose power,
As mad with reason we admit that force
Which wit or labour never may endower.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
As random from the truth vainly express’d;
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
By Kevin Gilvary
© DVS 2004
Nelson (387) has noted that ‘passions generated by the “authorship debate” have resulted both in unjustified
praise and unwarranted denigration of Oxford’s verse.’ Nelson himself (158-9) attempts to dismiss Oxford’s
poetry in a number of ways e.g. in claiming unnatural rhythms in the line:
For my best luck leads me to such sinister state
where the pronoun ‘me’ receives (according to Nelson) unnatural stress instead of the expected emphasis
on ‘leads’. Surely this is the point of a poem, in which the writer sees himself as a victim. As for unnatural
stress, compare the opening line of sonnet 127:
In thé old áge black wás not counted fair
where the function words ‘the’ and ‘was’ receive an unusual stress.
Nelson makes other points against Oxford’s poetry, e.g. that he wrote lines in ‘fourteeners’, which were
apparently passé in Oxford’s youth. Curiously fourteeners were used by his uncle Arthur Golding
throughout his monumental translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the most quoted work in the works of
Mis-stating or mis-understating the Oxfordian Case
Gibson (77-8) mis-reports one argument in the Oxfordian case thus: ‘’Much of this evidence’ [i.e. references
in the plays which have been considered reminiscences of incidents in Oxford’s life] ‘consists of nothing
more than identifying some character in one of the plays with a relative of Oxford’s on no other grounds
than that their names possess some similarity.’ He continues by quoting the similarity between the names
Francisco and Sir Francis de Vere. Bate (90) makes much the same point: ‘Typically, the argument runs:
Polonius is a satirical ‘portrait’ of Lord Burghley; the Earl of Oxford had personal reasons to dislike Lord
.Burghley; therefore the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet.’
Against this, it must be said that no Oxfordian has advanced such a simplified argument as ‘proof’ that
Oxford wrote the plays. In a developed form, however, many similarities between the situation of Hamlet
and the youth of Hamlet can be seen – enough to have convinced Sigmund Freud that Oxford was the
author of Shakespeare. On the similarity between Burghley and Polonius. many historians and many filmmakers have taken Polonius as a satire of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Secondly, the resemblances between
Hamlet and Oxford’s situation as a ward at Cecil House is astonishing: Oxford as Hamlet, the tormented
son who has lost a father; Hamlet/Oxford’s ambivalent attitude to the minister’s daughter (Ophelia/ Anne
Cecil); his rivalry with the minister’s son, Laertes/Robert Cecil, who studied in Paris, and was spied upon at
the command of his father Polonius/Burghley; Burghley/Polonius’ advice to his son on leaving to study
abroad; Hamlet/Oxford’s capture by pirates in the English Channel. Hamlet/Oxford’s Renaissance
Education; Hamlet/Oxford’s interest in the travelling players. Hamlet’s friends share Italian forms of names
with oxford’s cousins: Horatio/Horace Vere and Francisco/Francis Vere. For Oxfordians, Hamlet is one
play (albeit the best example) where Oxford’s life experiences are closely paralleled and scrutinised. All these
reminiscences, following on from doubts about the man from Stratford constitute just one strand in a
powerful case for Oxfordian Authorship, not the single simplified parallel which Gibson and Bate admit.
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
By Kevin Gilvary
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
© DVS 2004
Elizabethan plays were not vehicles for self-portraiture.
This argument has been asserted by Bate. Clearly, he is unaware that Richard II was presented the night
before the Essex Rebellion for the purpose of spreading sedition. Elizabeth herself knew as much when she
exclaimed: ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that. . . This tragedy was played 40 times in open streets and
houses. ’ Bate has also has missed Hamlet’s explanation that plays are ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of
the times.’ And that ‘the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ The whole idea in
Hamlet of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ and ‘The Mousetrap’ is to present a view of recent events by using an
historical parallel. Gibson similarly dismisses any link between A Merchant of Venice and the third Frobishier
Expedition in 1578; for him it is just coincidence that Oxford felt defrauded of £3,000 by a man called Lock
and Shakespeare has his merchant lose the same number of ducats borrowed from a man called Shylock.
Gibson spends three pages (82-5) talking down further references.
Bate (90) explains: ‘Polonius cannot be a satirical portrait of Lord Burghley for the simple reason that if
he were, the author of the portrait would have found himself in prison before he could turn round.’ This
would indeed be true of a commoner. Other playwrights were imprisoned and tortured for portraying
current events. But since Polonius is so obviously Burghley, the real question is: how did the playwright get
away with it? This is the same question when Richard II was performed. The Chamberlain’s Men had to
explain to the Privy Council why they had performed that play at that time. How could a commoner such
as William of Stratford avoid arrest and torture?
One answer is that the playwright in both cases was a powerful nobleman with considerable influence.
The satire of Burghley supports Oxfordian Authorship of Hamlet, perhaps intended originally for a select
aristocratic audience. Stratfordians believe that Hamlet was written c 1601 despite the many references to a
play of that name in the 1590’s. They have to posit a lost play which they call Ur-Hamlet. There is no need
for such an assumption if one accepts Oxfordian Authorship, then the play was written about 1589,
published in a pirate copy in 1601 (the so-called bad quarto) after Burghley had died, when the character of
the King’s minister is called Corambis which refers to Burghley. Given that the satire is clear and biting, an
aristocrat such as Oxford could defend himself.
Oxford could not have reproduced the language of the common
Bate (93): ‘What is much harder to imagine is an aristocrat like Oxford reproducing the slang of the common
tavern and the intonations of the low-born which are as characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays as any polished
mimicking of courtly language.’ Bate seems to have missed the fact that many heroes in Shakespeare, nobly
born, temporarily adopt peasant costume: three examples from many are the Duke in Measure for Measure,
Imogen in Cymbeline; Prince Henry in Henry IV. Clearly it was easier for a noble to dress down and mix with
the common people than for a provincial to dress up and mix with the nobility. Bate also seems to ignore
that many base characters speak very poetically e.g. a murderer in the Scottish play: The west yet glimmers with
some streaks of day. / Now spurs the lated traveller apace, / To gain the timely inn; and near approaches / The subject of
our watch.
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The Empire “Strikes” Back?
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims
By Kevin Gilvary
© DVS 2004
“Doubting that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is an empty
Taylor (211) claims that ‘the theory that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’ has ‘no meaning’ because
they cannot ‘under any circumstances be disproved’. Without mentioning the philosopher Karl Popper, he
is referring to Popper’s falsifiability test. Quite simply, the anti-Stratfordian argument can easily be disproved
and doubts allayed by the presentation of evidence to the contrary. Such evidence has been discussed by
Diana Price (2001), who has cited the absence of any contemporary evidence linking William of Stratford
to the works of Shakespeare.
Non-Stratfordians would be persuaded to accept the traditional case if more evidence could be found in the
following ways:
Evidence of Education: There is no evidence of Shaksperee’s education. In contrast, there is
documentary evidence to support the educational training of Nashe, Spenser, Kyd, Marlowe, and
Middleton, among others.
Record of correspondence, especially concerning literary matters. Quiney’s letter to Shaksperee was
never apparently delivered and does not constitute correspondence about literary matters.
Evidence of a direct relationship with a patron. There is no evidence that Shaksperee ever met, much
less established a direct or personal relationship with Southampton.
Extant original manuscript. The three pages of Hand D in The Book of Sir Thomas More is not
established beyond doubt as Shakespeare and is anyway not part of the canon..
Handwritten inscriptions, receipts, letters, etc., touching on literary matters.
Commendatory verses, epistles, or epigrams contributed or received. The evidence of the First Folio
was published seven years after his death.
Records referring to him personally as a writer. For Meres see above. There is no contemporary
reference to him as a writer.
Evidence of books owned, written in, borrowed, or given: Not one book has been authenticated as
having been owned by Shaksperee, none is mentioned in the will.
Notice at death as a writer. When Sidney died there were over 200 poems.
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