“Shake-speare’s” Own Secret Drama
Discovery of Hidden Facts in the Private Life
of Edward de Vere, Proves Him Author of the
Bard’s Sonnets (Part 1)
Copyright 1941 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, December 1941.
While the plays and poems published under the name of “William Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I represent the most important body of creative art in the English language, it is a notable fact that more than a thousand volumes and many times that number of pamphlets and special studies have been written during the past two centuries in an effort to decide the true authorship of these immortal works.
During the same period, large numbers of people throughout the world have expressed their dissatisfaction with the so-called “orthodox” point of view which holds that the plays and poems were created by a man with no recorded educational or artistic background whatever, one William Shagspere, Shaxper, or Shakspere—as the name appears in the records of his native village of Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, where he was born in April 1564, and where he also died in April. 1616.
One reason why this attitude of skepticism regarding the identity of the creative personality behind the Shakespearean works has taken such firm hold upon so large and varied a body of public opinion is because there is no documentation whatever which can be shown to have been written or published during the lifetime of the shadowy William of Stratford, clearly and unequivocally stating that this particular citizen as either a playwright or a poet
There are, of course, many references to “William Shakespeare” the writer, during the 1564-1616 period. But in no instance is he characterized or identified with the locale of Stratford-on-Avon. Not even at the time of William Shakspere’s death in April, 1616, was so much as one direct statement published to show that he had anything whatever to do with the creation of the works which had revolutionized the theatrical and literary worlds for all time. In fact, every reference to William of Stratford as a literary genius is posthumous. None of his contemporary relatives and associates at Stratford can be shown to have referred to him as a writer. All of the man’s personal fame was thrust upon him after his death.
In view of the direct personal allusions made to every other widely approved literary light of the period and the encomiums that were heaped in realistic abundance upon the graves of Edmund Spenser, Francis Beaumont, and Ben Jonson—not to mention the public mourning that marked the passing of stage figures such as Richard Tarleton, Richard Burbage, and Edward Alleyne—the foregoing facts have led many students of the problem to one inevitable conclusion:
The personality of “Mr. William Shakespeare,” the author, was delicately clouded in mystery.
Moreover, as no one ever pointed out William Shakspere of Stratford as the mysterious creator either during his lifetime or upon the occasion of his death, analytical skeptics have excellent reasons for believing that a confusion between the identities of the real poet and the Stratford citizen with the somewhat similar patronymic was brought about by certain interested parties after both the actual author and the Stratford business man had passed away.
When we further find that the grave of the alleged genius in Trinity Church, Stratford, bears no name, initials, or dates, nothing but a conventional warning to body-snatchers in provincial doggerel, while the so called “monument” to the poet, which is in reality a London-made mural memorial fastened to the wall of the church chancel—not directly over the unmarked grave—conviction grows that all is not clear as crystal on the banks of the sluggish Avon.
It seems, for example, a most glaring inconsistency to find the poet memorialized on the wall as “a Virgil for poetic art, a Socrates and a Nestor for philosophical genius and wisdom,” while the spirit of the man below the unmarked stone in the floor of the church breathes forth naught but a peasant’s crude curse against anticipated disturbers of his anonymity. 1
These are some of the reasons why exhaustive and determined efforts have been made during the past century and a quarter, in particular, to penetrate the apparent camouflage of inconsistencies and evasions and bring to light the real personality of the “Mr. William Shakespeare” who wrote Hamlet, the Sonnets, and the other masterpieces that have played so vital a part in the development of modern culture.
Born of illiterate parents, as the Stratford records amply prove, forced into marriage at the age of eighteen, and the father of three children before his twenty-first year was out, William of Stratford was working as a butcher’s apprentice, according to the testimony of John Aubrey and John Dowdall, two 17th century commentators on his career, at the time he “ran from his master” to seek his fortune in London. His name does not appear upon the rolls of any school, either elementary or collegiate in Stratford or elsewhere, and no companion ever came forward to claim him as a schoolmate or a fellow student of any of the fine arts or specialized branches of knowledge such as Court etiquette, medicine, military tactics, music, and both civil and ecclesiastical law—with which Shakespeare the dramatist evinces easy familiarity. Neither did the Stratford Shaksperes or their associates possess quantities of books or other known media for intellectual development.
There is no testimony, either direct or traditional, to show that Will ever made any of the efforts to educate himself that are recorded of such homespun geniuses as Robert Burns of rural Scotland, James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, or Abraham Lincoln in the primitive West. Yet, right in Shakspere’s own period, such sons of the working class as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson all rose to high rank in the creative arts, and we have today thoroughly adequate and satisfying records of the means whereby they acquired intellectual polish.
We also have excellent character sketches of each of them, drawn to the life by admiring and critical associates. In the cases of Marlowe and Jonson we even know their favorite foods and beverages from contemporary memoranda, the books they read, and their personal habits and idiosyncrasies. We know the friends who encouraged and assisted them, who stood at their backs when reputation and life itself hung in the balance, who participated in their defeats and triumphs, and who felt free to speak of them openly as understandable human beings in a world of men—not as enigmatic shadows or mere symbols of achievement lacking identifiable roots in the intellectual life of their times.
In other words, our first-hand, contemporary knowledge of the foremost Elizabethan and Jacobean writers is voluminous, with a single inexplicable exception. The one peerless genius of the group, responsible for the largest and most varied output, is virtually a soul without a body, or as Guizot, the French analyst puts it:
“Shakespeare is like a beacon shining in the night with no visible foundation to hold it aloft.”
William of Stratford with his background of illiteracy and negative intellectual reactions, his traditional connection with the trades of butchering, wool-stapling and malt-selling, his recorded activities as a money-lender and land-speculator and as a persistent litigant, suing his neighbors and fellow-traders in the local courts for the collection of various small debts and loans, his itch’ for bourgeois “standing” in his home town and his purchase—under questionable circumstances—of a coat-of-arms, while at the same time allowing his daughter Judith to grow to full maturity so abysmally ignorant of “Shakespeare’s” English that she could not write her own name. This William of Stratford, it must be abundantly apparent, was not the great-souled cosmopolitan behind the masterpieces of the First Folio,
In each of which he seems to shake a Lance
As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance. 2
Is it any wonder that hundreds of students of these incongruous circumstances long ago came to the conclusion that the Shakespearean works have everything except the one human essential—an understandable personality to account for their creation? In the truest sense of the word, these masterpieces have been anonymous gifts of an Unknown God—books without an author.
While the efforts to locate and identify this missing author have been carried on almost continuously for more than a hundred and thirty years—ever since James Corton Cowell first enunciated before the Philosophical Society of Ipswich, England, on February 7, 1805, the theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the Bard of Avon—it was not until 1920 when J. Thomas Looney of Gateshead-on-Tyne published his epoch-making volume of documentation and deduction entitled “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, that a really logical explanation of the age-old mystery was forthcoming.
Stimulating research along previously neglected lines and offering a widened outlook upon the whole Shakespearean period, Mr. Looney’s work was followed by The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, a comprehensive life of this remarkable poet-peer by Bernard M. Ward, based upon five years study of original documents in the Public Record Office and elsewhere, the examination of much correspondence and many unprinted manuscript collections of the 16th century. Captain Ward’s work supplements and corroborates the Looney discoveries at every turn, showing Lord Oxford’s lifelong preoccupation with literary matters, his association with the same group of writers, musicians, dramatists, and poets that are known to have influenced “Mr. William Shakespeare” artistically, and his close connection as a patron of players, a lessee of the Blackfriars’ Theatre, etc., with the development of the Elizabethan stage as a force for public amusment and enlightenment.
For reasons of his own, Captain Ward failed to make a forthright endorsement of the claims advanced in “Shakespeare” Identified that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, must have been the long sought creative force behind the First Folio. But Ward’s documentation fully substantiates Mr. Looney’s original conclusions regarding Lord Oxford’s contemporary fame as the foremost poet at the Court of Elizabeth—and one who carried on his literary activities under a cloak of anonymity. Almost every open-minded person who reads these two works must feel the conviction that at last we have the long-sought personality that possessed the innate genius, wide and humane knowledge, cosmopolitan point of view, and carefully developed skill requisite to accomplish the high artistic tasks for which William Shakspere, the narrow-visioned businessman of Stratford, was so patently unfitted. In one outstanding particular Lord Oxford fits the role of the missing Bard better than any one else.
His reputation as the best of all the poets at the Court of Elizabeth is specifically referred to five or six times by the leading literary critics of the era, such as William Webbe, author of A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586); the anonymous author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589); and Henry Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman (1622). Incidentally, none of these writers mention the name of “William Shakespeare”. Their praise of Oxford for his outstanding skill “in the rare devices of poetry” is echoed by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia (1598), who places the Earl first when listing the playwrights “best for comedy among us.”
Meres has the name “Shakespeare” in his list, also, and this has led many professional Stratfordians to declare that Lord Oxford could, therefore, not have been the author of Hamlet. However, there are many publishers’ lists of the present day which mention Willard Huntington Wright and S. S. Van Dine, and Ray Stannard Baker and David Grayson, as separate entities, though “Van Dine” was a penname assumed by Wright, and “Grayson” a bucolic mask under which Baker dispenses fictionized philosophy. In the 1890’s William Sharp, who also wrote under the name of “Fiona Macleod,” even went so far as to publish separate and distinct biographies of himself and “Fiona Macleod” in various editions of Who’s Who. So there is no reason at all why Meres could not have listed the Earl of Oxford first as the best writer of comedy for the Elizabethan Court, and later, even unknowingly, have referred to the same man under the stage name of “Shakespeare”.
Angel Day, in his English Secretarie (1586) refers to Oxford’s “learned view and (the) insight of your Lordship, whose infancy from the beginning was ever sacred to the Muses.”
Gabriel Harvey, in an oration of 1578, chided the Earl for devoting himself to “bloodless books and writings that serve no useful purpose” and urged him to give up the pen for military implements with the significant remark: “Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear.” In 1580 Harvey described him as…
A fellow peerless in England.
Not the like discourser for Tongue
and head to be found out.
Edmund Spenser, himself a Court poet, also referred to the literary peer’s affinity to the Muses in a sonnet addressed to Oxford in the opening pages of The Faerie Queene:
And also for the love which thou doest bear
To th’ Heliconian imps, and they to thee;
They unto thee, and thou to them, most dear.
Arthur Golding, Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Churchyard, and Anthony Munday—all writers that Shakespearean editors declare “William Shakespeare” studied carefully—were closely associated with Lord Oxford and dedicated books to him. Golding was his uncle and tutor. “Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid was one of Shakespeare’s best-loved books in youth,” says Sir Sidney Lee in his Life of Shakespeare. John Lyly was Oxford’s private secretary and the stage manager of his theatrical troupe. “Shakespeare’s early comedies owe much to Lyly’s works,” say all orthodox writers on the subject. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is reminiscent in parts of the writing of Churchyard, declare many editors of the play. Thomas Churchyard lived in Oxford’s household for several years. “Shakespeare’s” Sonnets have time and again been compared with Thomas Watson’s Passionate Century of Love, a collection of sonnets which Watson dedicated to Oxford in 1582. A story by Robert Greene gave “Shakespeare” the idea for his play A Winter’s Tale, according to orthodox accounts, and Sir Sidney Lee declares that Greene had a hand in the writing of Henry VI and Titus Andronicus. In 1584 Robert Greene dedicated his Card of Fancy to Lord Oxford in words that show he was one of the poet-Earl’s retainers:
“Wheresoever Maecenas lodgeth, thither no doubt will scholars flock,” is one of the statements here that bear witness to Oxford’s predilection for the same writers that make up the “Shakespearean” circle.
Anthony Munday, traveler, translator, and playwright, also lived under Oxford’s roof and personal patronage for many years. One of the Earl’s theatrical companies was managed by Munday during the 1580’s. Sir Sidney Lee is of the opinion that “Shakespeare” must have read Munday’s play Fidele and Fortunio before writing his Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In 1596 Munday translated a book from the French called The Orator. One of the medieval tales that it contains is entitled: “Of a Jew who would for his debt have a pound of the flesh of a Christian.” It seems needless to point out that this fable was put to good use by the mysterious author of The Merchant of Venice.
Munday dedicated several of his translations to Lord Oxford. A sentence in the dedication of The Mirror of Mutability (1579) to the Earl shows that Munday considered Oxford his “master” in the true professional sense of the word, for after speaking of “having not so fully comprised such pithiness of style as one of a more riper invention could cunningly have carved, I rest, Right Honourable, on your clemency, to amend my errors committed so unskilfully.”
It is a significant fact, in this connection, that all modern experts who have studied the interesting manuscript play of Sir Thomas More, of which Anthony Munday was the principal author, and which was held up for revision by the Elizabethan censor, are agreed that “William Shakespeare” had been called in by Anthony Munday or one of the other troubled playwrights concerned in the work, to re-write the crucial riot scene in the drama which had not been “carved . . . cunninely” enough by Munday and his original collaborators to meet the approval of officialdom.
So we see that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, appears in contemporary documentation as a man fully qualified to meet the one great test in which William of Stratford cuts so poor a figure. Oxford is categorically mentioned as the possessor of creative talents of a high order. At the same time. as the author of The Arte of English Poesie states, his true talents as the head of the Court poets would appear only “if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest.” In the same volume the author also speaks of ‘notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.” Robert Greene, in his Farewell to Folly (1591), corroborates this when he tells of “others—if they come to write or publish anything in print—which for their calling and gravity being loth to have any profane pamphlets pass under their hand, get some other to set his name to their verses. Thus is the ass made proud by his underhand brokery.”
These statements undoubtedly provide the best contemporary explanation of a further significant circumstance in connection with Lord Oxford’s fitness for the role of the real “William Shakespeare.” For while it is undeniable that the literary peer was looked upon by many as the leading Elizabethan poet and dramatist, no volume of verse and not so much as a single line of dramatic writing bearing his name, title or initials has ever been discovered. A few juvenile Lyrics and snatches of more mature poetry from his pen have been found in long-forgotten manuscript collections and out-of-print anthologies. But that is all—certainly nothing of sufficient weight or amplitude to justify the high reputation as poet and dramatist which he enjoyed in the age when poetry and the drama were at their all time apogee. The best answer seems to be that suggested by Robert Greene and the author of The Arte of English Poesie.
If Oxford’s serious literary work survives, it does so under a name other than his own.
Here we have the man of great reputed talent without adequate examples of achievement to back up the claims of his contemporaries.
On the other hand, we have the truly magnificent achievement of the plays and poems of “Mr. William Shakespeare” with the pitifully inadequate personality of the Stratford native to account for their amazing art and almost plumbless depths of scholarship and world-wisdom.
Recalling Gabriel Harvey’s comments on Lord Oxford at this point: “Thy countenance shakes a spear” and
“A fellow peerless in England.
Not the like discourser for Tongue
and head to be found out,”
let us bring the Earl with the reputation for outstanding skill “in the rare devices of poetry” into juxtaposition with the works that lack a convincing author and see what happens.
Charles Wisner Barrell
1. The Latin inscription on the wall memorial to the poet reads: “Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem”.
On the unnamed and undated slab covering the actual grave in the floor of the church appear these words:
Good frend for lesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones.
And curst be he yt moves my bones.”
2. Ben Jonson’s prologue to the First Folio.