When retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died a few weeks ago at age 99, my principal memories of him were as someone who would go along with the pro-big-government orthodoxy and groupthink on pretty much any important issue. This was the man who had written opinions including Kelo v. City of New London (allowing use of a government’s eminent domain power to take property from one private owner only to turn it over to another), Arizona v. Cant (supporting an expansive view of police ability to search a vehicle after arresting the driver), and Massachusetts v. EPA (finding that EPA must determine under the Clean Air Act whether emissions of CO2 constitute a “danger” to human health and safety, and if so, must regulate those emissions). Was there anything actually interesting about this guy?
But then, on reading a few obituaries of Stevens, I learned that he was an “Oxfordian” — that is, someone who supported the position that the true author of the Shakespeare plays and other works was not the commoner from Stratford-on-Avon about whom we have all learned, but rather Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. And Stevens wasn’t just someone who had expressed at some point a vague sympathy with the Oxfordian thesis. Instead, he had conducted a moot court exercise on the authorship question, and then actually written a substantial article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in 1992 (well into his time as a Supreme Court justice) laying out the Oxfordian position in the form of presentation of evidence in a legal case. And in 2009 (shortly before his retirement from the Court) Stevens had been given an award called “Oxfordian of the Year” by something called the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, a group of supporters of the Oxfordian thesis.
Have you ever gotten interested in the question of the “authorship” of the Shakespeare works? This question provides a fascinating study in the kinds of evidence that people find persuasive about which facts to accept as true. This “authorship” question is one on which there is unlikely ever to be a completely definitive answer that everyone will accept. The sides have formed themselves into entrenched camps. The large majority of the “prestige” Shakespeare scholars have adopted the Stratfordian position. But the group of Oxfordians is substantial, and highly committed. They have an answer to every point that the Stratfordians put forward, and they rightly point out that the mainstream scholars have mostly staked their careers on the Stratfordian position being correct, such as having written biographies of Shakespeare that would be completely false if the Stratfordian position were disproved. There is also a large tourist industry in England that depends on the correctness of the Stratfordian thesis.
I first stumbled on this “authorship” question in the early 2000s when I read a book called “Alias Shakespeare” by Joseph Sobran. It turned out that Sobran was an Oxfordian, and he laid out what seemed a very convincing case that Oxford was the true author. I resolved that I would next have to learn the other side by reading a Shakespeare biography by some proponent of the standard Stratfordian thesis. A year or two later, a new biography of Shakespeare came out, titled “Will in the World,” written by famous Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Surely, with a few well-placed zingers, this guy would conclusively dispatch the Oxfordian heresy. But no. The book doesn’t even mention the authorship subject. It proceeds from beginning to end on the unquestioned assumption that the Stratfordian is the guy, and doesn’t devote so much as a page to the idea that the author may be somebody else writing under a pseudonym. From a review of “Will in the World” that appeared in Newsday:
A young man from the provinces―a man without wealth, connections, or university education―moves to London. In a remarkably short time he becomes the greatest playwright not just of his age but of all time.
You can see how the Oxfordian thesis is not going to fit very well in this book. But then, after fully accepting the Stratfordian position, the book almost seemed to undermine it, because rather than being a classic biography based on documentary sources, this book was almost entirely an imagination of what Shakespeare’s life must have been like, given the unproven assumption that he was a provincial man from Stratford.
So let me give you a small introduction to the authorship question. Some consider it one of the great mysteries of all time; others (generally orthodox Stratfordians) say it is a complete waste of time. There are numerous full-length books that go into great detail as to evidence. I can’t do any more in this short blog post than introduce you to some of the issues. But as I have written many times, a key to the decision making process in litigation is this: Which side has the best answers to the best points made by the other side?
Oxfordians generally begin by pointing out that there is literally nothing in the documentary record to tie William Shaksper (or Shakspere, or one of several other variant spellings, none of which is “Shakespeare”) of Stratford to the authorship of the plays or sonnets. About 70 or so authenticated documents of this Stratford man’s life exist — property records, a will, lawsuits. None of them mentions that he is a known poet or playwright. His parents were illiterate, as were his children! There is no evidence that he ever owned a book. (His will makes numerous specific bequests, none of which is a book or manuscript.) Of the few instances of his signature, all are different, seemingly indicating that others signed for him. A persistent question is, if Shakspere is the author, where did he get the detailed knowledge of things like law, feudal relationships among the English nobility, and many localities in Italy, that pervade the plays?
Meanwhile, Oxford was a nobleman, and not just any nobleman. He grew up as a ward in the household of William Cecil, who became Lord Burghley, and who in 1558 became Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, and later her Lord High Treasurer — effectively, the Queen’s right hand man. In 1571 Oxford married one of Burghley’s daughters, and became his son-in-law. Oxford studied law at Gray’s Inn in the late 1560s, and in the 1570s traveled extensively, including in Italy, where the places he visited bear a remarkable resemblance to places that end up accurately described in plays like The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and so forth. Extant documents contain numerous examples of people praising Oxford for his plays; however, no play specifically attributed to Oxford exists. During the 1570s through 90s, Oxford became embroiled in what Wikipedia calls a series of “quarrels, plots and scandals.”
Oxford died in 1604. Shakspere of Stratford died in 1616. The First Folio of plays published under the name “William Shakespeare” appeared in 1623. By this time, James I had been King for close to 20 years. Was the name “Shakespeare” used on the Folio meant to indicate that the author was Shakspere of Stratford (just another of many variant spellings); or was it a pseudonym used to disguise the close and often troubled relationship of the author to the royal family?
Basically, the Oxfordian position is that once you accept the possibility that “William Shakespeare” could well have been a pseudonym, Oxford is a much better candidate for being the author than Shakspere.
Let’s briefly consider some of the counter-arguments put forth by the Stratfordians:
Many proponents of the Stratfordian thesis try to frame the question in tautological form, such as “Did Shakespeare really write his own plays?” Here is an example of that at the site history.com. To me this is a very ineffective argument. Why couldn’t it be a pseudonym? Many authors write under pseudonyms, for many different reasons, including pseudonyms that could well be real names of other people. (Examples: Mark Twain, George Eliot. Mark Twain even wrote a book supporting the Oxfordian thesis! Obviously the idea that someone might use a pseudonym did not trouble him.)
An early and very thorough exposition of the Oxfordian thesis was written in 1920 by a guy named J. Thomas Looney. In a piece in the New Yorker following Justice Stevens’s death, James Shapiro of Columbia University disparaged Looney as “a member of the cultish Church of Humanity, [who] landed upon Oxford as an alternative candidate because the Earl’s life (inventively reimagined) dovetailed with Looney’s own nationalist and reactionary views. Looney’s interest in Shakespeare was more political than literary: he despised modernity and was profoundly anti-democratic. The plays of Shakespeare, understood as the works of an aristocrat, offered Looney a guide for a wished-for restoration of a repressive feudal regime, in which everyone knew his or her place.” Of course, this is classic ad hominem argument, and not very persuasive. The fact that Looney may have been a despicable guy doesn't make his thesis wrong.
Getting to arguments on the merits, the biggest one for the anti-Oxfordians seems to be that several of the Shakespeare plays had to have been written after Oxford’s death in 1604. Of twelve of the plays claimed to have been written after 1604, Exhibit A is The Tempest, said to have been based on a well-publicized shipwreck in Bermuda that took place in 1609. But is that the only shipwreck that could have been the basis for the play? Here is a play-by-play refutation as to each of the claimed twelve plays arguing why each could well have been written before 1604.
Some poetry specifically attributed to Oxford exists. Many critics say that it is not very good. Oxfordians respond that these examples were written when Oxford was a very young man, and his craft improved with practice and maturity.
If you are intrigued by this “authorship question,” here are a couple of websites with enough information to keep you busy for months: For the Stratfordians, shakespeareauthorship.com. For the Oxfordians, shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org. And of course, there are multiple other candidates for author. Probably the next most popular is Christopher Marlowe. The biggest problem for the Marlowe candidacy is that he died in 1593. The Marlowe thesis thus depends on the proposition that Marlowe’s death was faked, and that he lived on writing the Shakespeare canon. If you read about Marlowe’s death, the idea that it might have been faked turns out to be somewhat less implausible than you might think.
Among others said to be in the Oxfordian camp are Justice Antonin Scalia.
Anyway, I have no particular horse in this race, but I do find the back and forth to be a fascinating study in what is persuasive, and what people think might be persuasive.