The reason for this little two-part essay into the works attributed to William Shakespeare has been brought about by a recent movie ‘ Anonymous’ putting the case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, being the true author. Shakespearians have naturally set up a campaign against the movie, Shakespeare being global and big business. The trustees in Stratford on Avon naturally will not tolerate any idea of Shakespeare not being Shakespeare. It would be like Haworth theorising that the Brontes didn’t really live in the parsonage and bang goes a lucrative tourist business. There is also the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to consider. Would it be renamed the de Vere?
De Vere’s champions are numerous. There is even a de Vere Society with its own newspaper and more than one book has been written putting forward his case. I can’t remember just why the de Vere faction believe their man to be the true author as it is sometime since I read a book on the subject. (The film might be new, the theory isn’t.) What I do remember is the use of two sonnets to bolster their case. The first is sonnet 29. ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state.’ Was de Vere at some time in his life an outcast in disgrace? Possibly, I don’t remember. Shakespeare certainly never was but the sonnet could be poetic licence of course. It could equally apply to Marlowe; disgraced, alone, and an outcast in Italy. The second sonnet and this has more to recommend it is number 125. ‘Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy, with my extern the outward honouring.’ According to the de Veres, if I remember rightly and, if not, no doubt someone will soon put me right, the canopy referred to is the one held over the queen when going walkabout and it was held up by four nobles of which Shakespeare definitely wasn’t one but de Vere was.
There have been innumerable books written on the “life” of William Shakespeare, there are half a dozen in my bookshelves, and they all have one thing in common when writing about his life between his leaving Stratford and becoming a member of the theatre company in London: they are full of phrases like – ‘We might assume’ and ‘It is believed that’ and ‘it could very well have been’ and words like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps.’ In other words nobody knows what he was up to in what is known as the missing years and these authors all have the most wonderful imagination when they make up for lack of knowledge by speculating – and they manage to accomplish it in a few hundred pages which is some feat!
We know virtually all we need to know about the contenders. We even know what Marlowe paid for his breakfasts in his college refectory whilst at Cambridge.
The Shakespeare story gets even stranger after he leaves London and the theatre and returns to Stratford a rich man and a landowner. He becomes a gentleman, gets his coat of arms and spends some of his time in litigation, issuing writs against various people but, as a man of such literary accomplishment, did he read? Did he write? In his will there is no mention of either writing or books to be read, no mention of his own works and, something that seems to have always baffled biographers, in his will he left his wife ‘his second best bed.’
Stranger still, the Shakespeare memorial bust in Stratford Parish church originally showed him leaning on a woolsack, indicating a merchant, but was later changed to an open book with him holding a pen. The rich merchant became a world-famous poet almost overnight.
Footnote: The World Shakespeare Festival is the "trump card" putting "art at the heart of the Olympics", the head of the Cultural Olympiad has said. See next time.