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    Shakespeare, Oxford, and the 1%

    Last weekend, Hollywood released Anonymous, a costume drama whose promotional materials ask "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" They're not really asking the question; the movie clearly promotes the argument that it was "really" Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays. The studio has also sent out course materials to schools, so that teachers can teach students to think critically about embrace the idea that Oxford wrote Shakespeare.

    If you followed media coverage of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the "authorship controversy" is a lively and interesting debate. If you looked at the documentary record from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you'd find that actually it's pretty boring. We have a large stack of historical documents that explicitly name William Shakespeare, the actor from Warwickshire, as the author of those plays and poems. No one from the time shows any doubt about this. We have lots of witnesses who identify Shakespeare, by name, as the writer. We have no witnesses who name Oxford, or Bacon, or anybody else. The math isn't hard.

    Now, some Oxfordians will tell you that when a historical document from the sixteenth century says "William Shakespeare" that actually means "Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford," because "William Shakespeare" was his pseudonym. (I'm not making that up. That is a standard Oxfordian claim.) Why do they believe this? Because they really, really want to.

    (I'm not going to go further into this issue, but if you wish to hear fuller arguments you might go here, here, here, or here; the comment thread in the last link features screenwriter John Orloff's angry and not-thoroughly-competent attempts to argue back. And the best book on this subject is James Shapiro's superb Contested Will.)

    Why does this matter? Because ultimately, this conspiracy theory is about the desire to claim  that Shakespeare was in the 1%. Only an aristocrat, the conspiracy theorists say, someone in a tiny elite on top of the social and economic pyramid, could have created such art. The stakes here are to make William Shakespeare's works the property of the inherited elite.

    The Oxfordian argument is, in short, a crasser and crazier version of a process that is going on all the time, in which the small elite of the super-wealthy are given credit for the achievements of the rest of society. Not only are they allowed to hog the fruits of everyone else's industry and ingenuity, but they demand to be given credit for that intelligence and labor as well. (See, for example, the "job creators" meme, which imagines wealth creation in a capitalist marketplace as the gracious gift of Lord Bountiful.) The claim, ultimately, is that we NEED to coddle the 1%, because that 1% creates everything good, such as the works of Shakespeare. All those middle-class actors, poets, and audience members were just obstacles to aristocratic genius.

    And the Oxfordians' campaign displays a lot of the standard features that we see in pro-elitist propaganda campaigns:

    There's the fake populism, that poses as an attack on the smug "elite" of university professors, although the actual point of the whole enterprise is to take credit away from William Shakespeare and give it to someone more elite. (And for the record, I'm not asking you to take my word for any of this because I have a Ph.D. I'm simply pointing out that there's a whole pile of evidence that you could check out yourself.) Part of the point, as always, is that middle-class professionals are to be attacked when they don't serve the super-elite agenda, like those greedy, lying climate scientists.

    There's the false-equivalence press coverage, with the "on-the-one-hand" lead-in, which makes each "side" of any controversy sound equally plausible even when one of those sides has, basically, nothing.

    There's the paranoid shifting of the burden of proof, so that questioners demand proof that there is not a conspiracy instead of offering any proof that there might be. Can you prove that when people said "William Shakespeare" they didn't mean someone else? Can you prove that George Soros isn't behind this?

    And, of course, there's the character assassination. The historical William Shakespeare can't just be presented as a middle-class man of middling education. He has to be a completely illiterate and unprincipled buffoon. (It always blows my mind that these conspiracy theories portray Elizabethan actors, who typically performed six different plays a week and tended to have two or three dozen roles in their head at a time, as unable to read. How the hell would they learn their parts?) Anyone who's not in the 1% must be lazy, stupid, and so forth. Because meritocracy, of course, is for the lazy.

    Because of that, the historical inaccuracy that most enraged me about Anonymous had nothing to do with Shakespeare. It had to do with the Essex Rebellion, an actual (documented) historical event that took place in 1601. The glamorous Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, and a bunch of other aristos decided to have a coup against Elizabeth. They paid Shakespeare's acting company to put on his Richard II, which is about deposing an English monarch, before the balloon went up. (Emmerich's movie gets the play wrong, but never mind.) The idea was that the people of London would rally to Essex's cause.

    And in Emmerich's movie, that's what happens. The common people get so moved by watching a Shakespeare play that they charge across London Bridge as a mob, hoping to put the Earl of Essex on the English throne. (In Emmerich's movie Essex is secretly Elizabeth's son, as are Southampton, Oxford, and heaven knows who else. Can you prove they weren't?) And then Elizabeth's soldiers massacre them with cannon, on London Bridge.

    That is a lie. No one rallied to Essex. No force was used against the citizens who rallied to his side, because none of them did. Angry crowds had formed in London before, and they would again, but no one ran into the streets to fight for the right of an over-entitled aristocrat to get even more of his way. Essex was in fact counting on the public to rally behind him. They did not. His revolt was over before the afternoon was.

    So whatever else you choose to believe, let's amend that historical lie. Essex, the entitled aristocrat, was not the hero, and the people of London did not view his botched revolution as heroic.

    Some of the wealthy and privileged have done great things with their wealth. Others have not. But there's no need to rewrite history to suit the fantasies of the uppermost class.


    It's about time. I was seriously thinking of doing a blog post asking where this blog post had gone missing. wink

    You are correct, Essex was not the hero... no he was not.

    I think I would recommend that anyone interested should read, William Shakespeare; The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. Bryson effectively describes the era in which Shakespeare lived.  And it is interesting to note, no person ever questioned Shakespeare's authorship in his lifetime. We know two of his close friends and colleagues prepared the First Folio seven years after his death, placing his name and image on the title page. For the next two centuries no one raised a hint of doubt. I think that might be all the evidence we need.

    That was a pleasure to read. Thanks for sharing it with us all.

    Bryson's little biography is readable, informative, even funny. It takes him just 15 pages to dispose of the "controversy."

    I have no instinctive objection to conspiracy theories. Conspiracies do exist. But they need to be based on evidence, or at least some internal contradiction in the official story that needs resolution. There is none here.

    In fact it is precisely Shakespeare's relatively humble origins that make him more plausible as the author of his works. A rural upbringing in an upwardly mobile family, a solid education, an ambitious streak that quickly takes him to the big city, a profession that brings him into contact with the rich and noble -- above all, a keen eye for the people and events he meets and experiences along the way. It's all reflected in the writing, and it's something Oxford couldn't match.

    Solid post, doc.

    Thanks for this, Doc. You're someone I trust, and I otherwise wouldn't have the knowledge and/or inclination to separate the fact from fiction. I mean, I knew that it wasn't settled that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare (sorry for that double negative), but I thought it was more unsettled than evidently it is.

    I read about this movie and I certainly will appreciate it when it ends up on cable or Hula or whatever.

    It is terrible to say, but I hope it does terrible and gets 64% Rotten Tomatoes. haahahaha

    I recall reading studies about Shakespeare.

    First of all, no one knew how to spell his name correctly. hahahahaha

    That was because, no one really knew how to spell in the 16th century since no tyrants controlled the lexicon as they do now.

    Second, the best argument against this kind of anti-historical bullshite is that Will was not of noble blood.

    Shakespeare in Love is a wonderful flick.

    The reason I love that film so much is that I cared not for the romantic side of the plot.

    I was enthralled by the speed.

    That is, the Bard would be forced to direct the players, edit the dialogue, fight with the moneyed folks, change the plot.....all on a moments notice.

    And as i have discussed in previous blogs, the Bard would take histories already provided and put them down; line for line with nuances for each line. Nuances that demonstrated genius!

    It was the times, it was the new language, it was the new theatre, it was destiny.

    Fuck nobility.

    Shakespeare was God!

    I wrote this blog too. Not bad, eh?

    - The Earl of Q-Oxford


    P.S. I mean, when has anything GOOD ever come out of Cleveland? Be serious.

    Ooh! You got me!

    You even wrote this reply to you! It's genius!

    That made my week!  Nice.  

    I can't believe they sent "educational materials" crazy.

    Do you think the GOPer's running for the pilot seat of their Party might use their debate platform to set the record straight this Earl dude was the real writer and Shakespeare was nothing more than his miserly scribe looking to make a few bucks off his benefactors efforts?

    Very nice essay, Doc! My only question is whether the filmakers' motives were elitist in nature (credit the 1%) or just an attempt to gen up some manufactured controversy in order to sell movie tickets.


    Oh, Decider! You of all people know that these two seemingly different motives are actually the same motive expressed in two different ways!

    (Remember all those fun "incompetent or evil?" debates we had about you? Those were the days, eh?")

    Its it's "gin"-------not "gen"------, you idiat.

    Great essay and welcome diversion.

    Justice Stevens is an ardent Oxfordian, staged a mock trial, tried to goad other justices into positions. In this case, Scalia agreed with him. In response to the question of elite bias on the part of Oxfordians, Scalia said,

    "It is probably more likely that the pro-Shakespearean people (that phrase in itself is almost enough) are affected by a democratic bias than the Oxfordians are affected by an aristocratic bias".

    That statement might be said to also reflect Scalia's world view.


    As a second read I thought the statement might be tongue in cheek--"more likely" being a statistical play. But I don't think so.


    Never mind Ginni, do we ignore Lady Scalia at our peril... who knew?

    And we are the victims of what at the core is a dysfunctional marriage---the need to be top dog. Damn, everything is getting muddy again. 

    Yes, this pretty much sums him up for me. And it shows the degree to which he's simply committed to winning debating points, rather than thinking.

    That's a great way of putting it.

    This whole Earl of Oxford premise is based on the notion that Shakespeare was uneducated and only a member of the aristocracy could have known all the royal court stuff included in the plays have the knowledge of the world to write the plays.  It also insists that royals found the theatre a lowly profession and had to hide their connection to it.  Bollocks.  First off, Willie (that's what we all called him back in the day), purloined most of his plots. This doesn't take lots of  education, it takes an ability to read and appreciate a good story when you hear or read one.  It also takes an imagination that can see how to take a basic story idea and re-work it into something greater than the sum of its plot points. Admit it, imagination has never been particularly well-represented in the English upper class.  Earl of Oxford, pfft.  No proof?  No acceptance as author.  You can't claim ownership of the Shakespearean canon simply on assumption and innuendo.  Sorry, but I won't pay money to see this movie or support its premise as anything more than a far-fetched and unproven theory.   

    I remember coming across a first edition of the book "Shakespeare was Bacon" when I was in the Nantucket library some 30+ years ago.  It was all based on this elaborate, convoluted code, which you had to accept in order to believe the premise of the book. For example, if you substitute the first letter of the second word of each paragraph that starts with the fourth letter of Shakespeare's name and replace it with the corresponding letter from one of the sonnets, it spells "Francis Bacon is my name, don't wear it out ... or tell anyone, but I wrote all of these plays. Ha ha... psyche!"   The author of that book had waaay too much time on his hands.

    The movie Shakespeare in Love comes a lot closer, I think to what it was like in those times.  (Thanks to playwright Tom Stoppard's contributions to the script.)  I'm still hoping historians find a copy of Shakespeare's lost play; Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter... but never mind that.


    MrSmith! I am shocked, shocked I tell you!!! Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter was written by my great-great-great-great-great-great...etc and so on,  grandfather Donal "Robin Hood"Mac Carthaigh, son to Cormac. 


    And no we Irish are not beholden to our myths.


    I'm sorry, but your family's heritage was stolen by the Earl of Oxford pretending to be me ...  that b*st*rd wants to take credit for EVERYTHING.

    Thanks for your appealing take on the film and the controversy. To turn the tables a bit, you might also wonder how the Oxfordians can explain how someone of the nobility could possibly have written so knowledgeably those frequent low and bawdy scenes in Shakespeare, often set in taverns they wouldn't have deigned to patronize. For me, the sheer personal emotion that shines through Ben Jonson's eloquent prefatory praise of his close friend, colleague, and drinking buddy in the First Folio, could alone stand as rebuttal to all of this Oxfordian nonsense. They explain this and the other two prefaces as necessary lies because of some fear, which of course in turn must involve an elaborate conspiracy. But some people are so enthralled by conspiracies that they are convinced that the lack of concrete evidence simply proves how careful and clever the conspirators were.

    You know, of course that Prince Charles actually wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He was inspired by one of Camilla's freckles.

    D'oh! Blabbermouth! Now we're going to have to hide you from MI-5.

    I agree with you about the historical inaccuracy in Anonymous - this was one aspect of the film that disappointed me as the acting was great. You might like to see the first part of my amateur documentary, The Real Edward de Vere, which is about the life of the real Earl of Oxford. It has just been uploaded to youtube at

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