The Mysterious William Shakespeare


Once upon a time there was a writer called Shake-spear, or Shakespeare. Tradition says he was a middle-class man born in Stratford-on-Avon, but there have been doubts about that since the early 19th century. Charlton Ogburn, in The Mysterious William Shakespeare, tackles the question exhaustively.
First he shows that the William Shakspere (the usual spelling of the man’s name, with some variants) probably had little opportunity to learn the things Shakespeare obviously knew, and quite possibly little interest in those things. Shakespeare knew law, languages, and parts of France and Italy. According to what records remain, Shakspere probably never traveled, except between Stratford and London.
Ogburn also includes the six surviving signatures of Shakspere, and only one is more than barely legible. Could this be the signature of possibly the most fluent writer in history? It looks more like the signature of a barely literate man.
Ogburn also notes that there are few references to Shakespeare in contemporary records. Wouldn’t people have mentioned things about his life, and about meeting him? But the only two pieces published under his name during his lifetime were two narrative poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plays were published without an author’s name until the First Folio, published in 1623, long after Shakspere was dead.
In the early 20th century a man named J. Thomas Looney (pronounced Loney), after much research, published his nominee for the writer of Shakespeare’s plays and other works: the Earl of Oxford, someone few people not deeply interested in the Elizabethan era would have heard of.
I first was introduced to the controversy in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, when, in order to get next to a girl, he indicates an interest in Francis Bacon as Shakespeare to the girl’s mother, who is fanatical about the subject. Then I heard about it from a high school teacher, who thought the writer was Christopher Marlowe. Ogburn dispoes of both summarily.
Bacon would seem to have been too active to have been Shakespeare. Marlowe’s candidacy rests on a hypothesis: that Marlowe wasn’t actually murdered at age 24, but fled to the Continent, continued writing, and had his plays smuggled into England to be performed. Ogburn says there are several problems with this.
One is that we have no positive evidence it ever happened. Two, Marlowe was in trouble with the authorities for being an atheist and homosexual. Anyone having to do with his plays would have been taking a great risk. Three, Marlowe used about half the vocabulary that Shakespeare did. Shakespeare had an unusually wide range, not only knowing many words, but coining new ones from Latin.
On reading Looney’s book Ogburn’s parents found they agreed with his argument, did their own research, and wrote their own books. Their son incorporated their research with his own, and tried to make the case for Oxford unassailable. His book was published about thirty years ago, and apparently it hasn’t made any impression on the public. As far as most people know, Shakespeare was born in Stratford.
I read the book the first time several years ago, and found it fascinating. Soon after reading it, I chatted with an English woman who denounced the whole idea when I broached it to her. Ogburn suggests in his book that the idea of Shakespeare being a nobleman may irritate people in this democratic age, but he says that Shakespeare’s point of view was always that of a nobleman, and that a commoner (even one aspiring to the middle class) like Shakspere would be unlikely to be able to obtain such an education. One would have to be a member of the highest class for that.
So if Shakespeare belonged to the nobility, why didn’t he write under his own name? One reason was that, though the nobility enjoyed plays, they thought it was degrading to be involved in the writing or staging of them. Many nobles at that time wrote poetry, but none published it, except posthumously.
There’s a more compelling reason than that, though. Ogburn shows how many of the plays had characters based on people on the highest social levels, whom Oxford knew. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines, especially in the early plays, were based on Queen Elizabeth, whom Oxford knew intimately. Other characters, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, were based on other personages around the court. Malvolio Ogburn says was based on Christopher Hatton, who was in charge of the Queen’s bodyguard, whom Oxford didn’t like. Polonius, in Hamlet, was based on Lord Burghley, the Queen’s most important advisor, and Oxford’s stepfather. Claudius, the man who murders Hamlet’s father and marries his mother, is characterized in the play as being “…a treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain…” Ogburn points out that the character in the play never does anything (beyond murdering Hamlet’s father) to deserve this kind of description. The Earl of Leiscester, however did. His wife had died rather suddenly when Leiscester thought he had a chance with the Queen, and gossip had it that the cause had been poison. Apparently the Earl was also quite sexually active.
Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, was born in 1550, some 14 years earlier than William Shakspere of Avon. His family was an ancient one, having arrived with the Normans some 500 years before, and quite wealthy. His ancestors had played pretty significant roles in English history since the invasion, too.
When DeVere was 11, Queen Elizabeth came to visit at the family manor, and he seems to have gotten to know her then. He found her fascinating, not just because she was the Queen, but because they had tastes in common. Elizabeth, like her father, Henry VIII, was both intelligent and attractive. She wrote poetry, she played an instrument and sang, she knew other languages, etc. If she and Edward were thrown together frequently, how could he not have found her amazing?
That was the beginning of a great change in his life. A year later his father died, his mother quickly remarried, and DeVere became a ward to Lord Burghley, the counsellor who had largely engineered Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, and was one of her main advisors almost to the end of her reign.
Note the parallel to DeVere’s life with Hamlet. There will be more parallels with the plays.
As Lord Burghley’s ward, DeVere went to live in London. where he was tutored. He seems already to have begun writing, and Ogburn points out that his tutor, Arthur Golding, published a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the Latin. That Golding should have translated Ovid is surprising, because he was a Puritan. He had never been involved in such a project before, and never was again. When we consider that, according to Ogburn, Ovid was by far Shakespeare’s favorite poet, it may become clear where the translation actually came from. Oxford was 17 when it was published, giving some idea of the extent of his ability not only as a translator, but writer.
Oxford seems to have been gifted in numerous ways. He was handsome, he played an instrument and sang, loved to dance, and was athletic. He participated, in later years, in several tournaments in the fashion attributed to King Arthur’s court, and won all that we have records of.
One thing he wasn’t good at, though, was handling his finances. Ogburn thinks that Lord Burghley may have contributed to the money flowing from Oxford’s estate, being known as an avaricious man. This may also have had something to do with Oxford marrying Burghley’s daughter at age 21.
We don’t know why Oxford would have done this. Burghley’s daughter Anne is portrayed as having been a nice person, and may well have been hopelessly in love with Oxford, but she was neither as beautiful or intelligent as many young women around the court whom Oxford could easily have married. Motivation for the marriage isn’t difficult to understand from Burgley’s perspective: he wanted his family to be allied to the nobility, and he wanted to keep Oxford under his control, probably for financial reasons. Why Oxford consented to this is hard to understand. He had had a brother-sister relationship with Anne, and may well have been fond of her, but that wasn’t the basis for a good marriage.
At about this time he seems to have had a very close friendship with the Queen, which Ogburn suspects may have resulted in a child. Because Elizabeth never married, it was a conceit that she was a virgin queen, but it’s hard to imagine a daughter of Henry VIII, especially one with the gifts Elizabeth had, being content to be a virgin. This involvement would have caused Anne a good deal of pain.
Oxford also wanted to go abroad. He was always thirsty for knowledge, and that was the best place to obtain it. He had to wait for permission from the queen, but finally got it. He traveled through France to Italy, after a side-trip to Alsace to visit a local scholar. Ogburn points out how many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy, and show an intimate knowledge of the cities portrayed. Oxford was intent on gathering knowledge, and Italy was perhaps the most cultured area of Europe, since Greece would probably have been unavailable to him, since it was dominated by the Turks.
It was on his way back to England, when he was in Paris, that one of his traumatic experiences happened. He received word in September that his daughter had been born in early July, and at first was quite happy about it. But two of his companions asked why it had taken so long for the message to get to him. Had the baby been born in September, he realized that it must have been someone else’s child.
His reaction to this seems to have been mixed: he probably felt jealous rage, but also that this was a chance to get out from under the thumb of Burghley. Obburn believes that the two companions who informed him of his wife’s possible infidelity may have been the basis for the character of Iago. He finds Oxford’s treatment of his wife paralleled in Shakespeare’s plays too, probably most famously in Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia. Oxford treated his wife badly, but seems also to have excoriated himself about it in the plays. He spent the next five years living apart from his wife.
At this point, by the early to mid-1570s, when Shakspere was still young, Oxford seems to have pretty definitely committed himself to literature. Ogburn dates his earliest plays to the early 1570s, The Merry Wives of Windsor being one of the first. Ogburn thinks this makes better sense than the much younger Shakspere suddenly writing masterworks before he’s had a chance to experience and write apprenticeship plays. Oxford, being 14 years older, had time to develop his craft and his genius.
During the 1570s and early 80s he arranged, through Burghley, to sell many of his properties, because he was spending too much money, and had debts to pay. Burghley didn’t like Oxford’s associates: actors and writers whom he both inspired and helped support. Much of his money must have gone for this.
But as the decade of the 1580s continued, Oxford wrote historical plays that stimulated Engtlish patriotism, and led to the Queen granting him a yearly stipend of one thousand pounds, a huge amount for that time. The stipend came with strings attached, though: Oxford wanted to make a contribution as a soldier, and was allowed to do little of that. But Ogburn thinks Philip II of Spain was infuriated by the play Othello, because he thought he was the model for Iago. It seems the English at the time frequently referred to the Spanish as Moors, since the Muslims had been expelled from Spain less than a century previously. That may have had something to do with Phiip’s determination to send the Armada when he did, which turned out to be a disaster for Spain. The war between the two countries continued, but the failure of the Armada gave the English an advantage. Much of Queen Elizabeth’s foreign policy had been designed to keep the Catholic powers of Europe from uniting against England. That danger was beginning to be over.
It was probably in the 1590s that he finished some of his greatest plays: Macbeth,
King Lear and Hamlet. By this time he seems not only to have been maintaining a company of actors, The Lord Chamberlain’s men (Oxford was one of two Lord Chamberlains), and if Ogburn is right, also maintaining several writers and inspiring them, including Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. But we hear little of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after the early 90s, Oxford remarries, and mostly retires from the court. We don’t know much about his life then, but Ogburn hopes that his second wife was more suited to him than his first, and his retirement would have given him more time to work on his plays.
Hamlet, says Ogburn, seems to have been begun when he was a young man, but finished when he was much older. He considers this (and isn’t alone) the most autobiographical of Shakespeare’s plays–the most complete portrait we have of the man. It’s a very long play. Uncut, says Ogburn, it would run about five hours. And it has the previously noted parallels between both Oxford’s early life and his life at court.
Ogburn points out Hamlet’s desire to find out if the new king, Claudius, really had murdered his father, as the ghost had accused him. His way of doing so was to present a play that shows the situation. Ogburn also points out that the directions Hamlet gives the actors are not necessary to the play, but seem to be a glimpse of the dramatist’s real life. There seem to be a number of these scenes among the plays.
He also quotes Frank Harris, the late 19th and early 20th century writer, whom he says seems to have had sound intuitions about Shakespeare, though he believed in the Stratford man as the playwright. Harris also thought Hamlet was a selfportrait, but sees this self-portrait in other plays too: Romeo is a younger Hamlet, Macbeth is a Hamlet who makes a disastrous mistake. Lear may be the poet dispossessed of his masterpieces, which have been attributed to another man.
Oxford seems to have known about Shakspere, to have written about him in The Tempest (as Caliban, with the author as Prospero), and may even have been distantly related to him. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play.
Lord Burghley had died about 1600, Queen Elizabeth in 1603. King James had come south from Scotland to inherit the throne, and people were generally pleased about that. He also treated Oxford well, renewing his annual stipend, and otherwise honoring him. But Oxford didn’t survive Elizabeth for long. He died in 1604.
An edition of his sonnets came out in 1609, and the First Folio in 1623. A memorial was made to Shakespeare in Avon in that year (William Shakspere had died in 1616), and the people in charge of the memorial couldn’t seem to find anyone in the area who remembered Shakspere as having written anything. He had been modestly successful financially, perhaps in part because he was given a large amount of money for being named as the playwright. But no one remembered much else about him.
I’m not familiar enough with Shakespeare or the Elizabethan era to know the truth about the authorship, but Ogburn seems to me to make a strong case for Oxford. He seems to make sense as the playwright, both in his education and general knowledge, and in the parallels of the plays to his life. No matter how great a genius, no one can invent valid knowledge, and it certainly seems that Oxford had access to that knowledge, while Shakspere did not. Whoever really was Shakespeare made use of broad and deep knowledge. Oxford had experienced trauma, if not outright tragedy, at least some of which must have been the genesis for some of the most memorable characters in literature. Many people still know the characters, whether they’ve seen or read the plays, or not.
England was growing as a culture at the time, and Shakespeare may have been the main person to make it so distinguished an era. There were many poets, and several playwrights at the time, but none gave him real competition. He was far and away the best, and has remained so, despite some great modern playwrights. His life may not have been entirely happy, but it wasn’t so very unhappy either, considering his accomplishments (though the wrong man still seems to be credited with them), and that his later life seems to have been more tranquil than his early life.
The Mysterious William Shakespeare tries to set the record straight, while celebrating the author’s greatness. It’s a very high-level mystery, and not least the mystery of such deep and far-reaching creativity.


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