All The Views That Fit They Print

The New York Times Discovers Oxfordianism

over the past several years it has become a fashion among newspapers and periodicals to have a resident Oxfordian, usually a staff writer who announces his original discovery that the author of the plays of William Shakespeare was not that William Shakespeare, the product of a grammar school (if that) in a provincial English town, but Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Reluctant to shed its sober image, The New York Times labored along without a writer of its own to spread the gospel of the Lord (Oxford, that is) until the advent of William S. Niederkorn, an editor in the Culture department of the newspaper. Then it dove into the authorship controversy up to the horns, devoting nearly all of two pages in its February 10, 2002, Arts & Leisure section to articles about the authorship. The centerpiece was Niederkorn's "A Historic Whodunit: If Shakespeare Didn't, Who Did?"

His article, according to Arts & Leisure editor John Rockwell, conformed to a standard of "interesting and thoughtful articles that may take a provocative slant"; and since the Shakespearean "ground had been plowed" (by one in particular -- and, it does appear, by all) they chose to run "an article by a passionate believer on one side" only. But, Rockwell notes, "we also tried to get him to pay heed to the other side's arguments, as well." Evidently they didn't try very hard.

Niederkorn's article is rare among those in major publications for ignoring the other side--including the "formidable cadre of anti-Oxfordians," as he terms it -- not contacting one in this number for comment and almost as scrupulously avoiding contamination from the cadre's works, whether published in print or online. So may he, with a couple of exceptions, pour new sauce over really old meats, follow- ing the standard recipe: what is not sauce for the Shakespearean swan is a source for the Oxfordian propaganda. Free of the constraints of paying heed to Shakespeareans--and, evidently, of fact checking -- Niederkorn takes flight.

Talk of plowed ground, here again is "the academic world ... building altars in students' minds to the image the tragedian David Garrick promoted during the 1769 Shakespeare jubilee that created the Stratford tourism business: the man of humble origins who rose to the literary pantheon." Contrary to this rusty Oxfordian boiler plate, that image was planted by such contemporaries of Shakespeare's as Ben Jonson and John Milton, blossomed in the 18th century, and reached full flower among the Romantic and Victorian literati, the latter of which gave birth to the effort to translate Shakespeare -- in actuality a "stupid, ignorant, third-rate play-actor" in a "dirty, doggish group of players" -- into an aristocrat. Thus have both sides, based on common assumptions about Shakespeare's supremacy in his own time, built altars to the creator of the plays. Only one side calls the object of its worship Lord.

the original candidate and long-time favorite as the true author was Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe, too, had his day, along with 55 or so others. But, as Niederkorn notes, the proponents of these contenders "share one big problem -- their authors' works are quite different from Shakespeare's." Indeed, Bacon and Marlowe, as did others in the crowded elite of alternative Shakespeares, left a body of work sufficient to make this distinction. Oxford did not. His confirmed works amount to sixteen poems, with four more possibles. So distinctive are these that Oxfordians have accepted verses definit- ely known to have been written by John Lily, Robert Greene, Thomas Campion and Fulke Greville, as having the incomparable ring of the earl's versifying.

So we come to that Oxfordian pastime, the Dating Game. Up to 1604, the year of Oxford's death, the Shakespearean chronology includes only 25 of the 38 extant plays, 23 of which are confirmed by contemporaneous sources. Niederkorn quotes a standard response from Charlton Ogburn's Oxfordian textbook, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, about the dating of the rest: "Proof is wholly lacking that any of Shakespeare's plays were written after 1604." A good debating tactic, which diverts attention from the fact they offer no proof whatsoever that even one of these plays was written before 1604.

Here is Niederkorn's attempt to cast doubt on the post-1604 chronology: "In regard to 'Henry VIII,' Stratfordians point to a 1613 letter in which Sir Henry Wotton, a poet and diplomat, describes a performance of the play that resulted in the burning of the Globe theater. Wotton calls it a new play. Oxfordians say he was mistaken ..." So, too, must Henry Bluett, a London merchant, have been. His account of the fire, in a letter to his uncle dated "this 4th of July, 1613," states: "On Tuesday last there was acted at the Globe a new play called All is True, which had not been acted passing 2 or 3 times before." (Like Bluett, Wotton also called the play All is True, which was evidently its title before the compilers of the 1623 Shakespeare folio decided to rename it and the three plays on the reign of Henry VI after the kings depicted in them, as are all the history plays in the collection.)

It is time that the burden be placed on the Oxfordians to produce what they demand of Shakespeareans: "documentary proof" that any of these mature later plays existed at an earlier date. 

Niederkorn now sets out to connect Oxford with the plays, stuff of the kind which in Shakespearean writings draws hoots of derision, but in their own is what they call "circumstantial evidence." For starters, there is Arthur Golding, de Vere's "mother's brother -- whose translation of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' had an undisputed influence on Shakespeare." True. And so it did on many another writer in Shakespeare's day. For the influence of Ovid was, as his scholar L. P. Wilkinson wrote, "paramount throughout the Elizabethan age," and by 1590, "most poets were borrowing freely from Ovid, whether directly or indirectly" -- in the original and in translation, as did  Shakespeare on both counts. 

Oh, by the way, Ovid's Metamorphoses was in the curriculum of grammar schools. True to form, Oxfordians say that there is no proof he attended the one in Stratford. There are, however, no records of enrolment in the school from its founding in about 1295, until well into the 18th century (an Oxfordian suggestion is that they may have been destroyed to cover up the fact Shakespeare was never a pupil). The position of his father, John, in the government of the borough, plus the minimal standards for admission, leaves little room for doubt that Shakespeare was "qualified" to be educated in it -- and undoubtedly was. 

For another: "Starting in 1586, Queen Elizabeth paid [Oxford] £1,000 a year ... for no apparent reason" (italics mine). Now he skips to the 1660s and one Rev. John Ward, who "notes that Shakespeare wrote two plays a year 'and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1,000 a year.' The Oxfordian opinion is that it may be the same £1,000." Niederkorn fails to mention that Ward was the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, who was relating local knowledge about his famous townsman. Apparently none who knew this "babbling provincial" (as one Oxfordian put it) had reason to doubt his qualifications to have been the author of the plays of William Shakespeare. 

But it is that "paid" which is an especially interesting choice of words -- plus "for no apparent reason" -- suggesting the earl was on a retainer as Queen Elizabeth's resident playwright. As a matter of fact, we know the precise reason why Oxford was given this sum: he was broke! This is put delicately in the royal warrant, which states he was granted this annuity "until such time as he shall be by Us otherwise provided for to be in some manner relieved." King James put it more straightforwardly when a lord petitioned him for more than the £1,000 annuity he proffered: "Great Oxford when his estate was whole ruined got no more of the late Queen." It is put beyond doubt by another document, a letter written to the king's counselor Robert Cecil less than three months after Oxford's death: "Your Lordship may truly inform his highness that the pension of a thousand pounds was not given by the late Queen to my Lord for life, and then to determine, but to continue until she might raise his decay by some better provision." This was written by one who knew: Countess Elizabeth, Oxford's widow.

Here's still another: "Oxford had a close relationship with [the Earl of] Southampton; they lived under the same roof, as Southampton was also a ward of [William, Lord Burghley] Cecil's." Ah, lucky roof, to have sheltered two such illustrious figures. Alas, they missed each other by some dozen years or so. Oxford became a ward of Cecil's after his father's death in 1562, Southampton after his father's in 1581. Oxford was by then long gone, inasmuch as they were also separated by 23 years in age. 

Even by the most liberal application of the very liberal Oxfordian Rules of Circumstantial Evidence, the purported relationship of these two men is a stretch'to the breaking point. It is, they contend, under his pen name William Shakespeare, that Oxford wrote the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which were lovingly dedicated to Southampton, and sealed their bond by making him the subject of 126 loving sonnets. And so would the younger earl, a purported investor in an expedition to America in 1602, make de Vere privy to the information that would inspire him to write The Tempest -- not in 1611, as the Shakespearean chronology has it, but before Oxford's death in 1604. 

However, the only time when both men are known to have been in any proximity is when Oxford was on the jury of peers who sat in judgment on those who took part in the rebellion of the Earl of Essex in February 1601, Southampton prominent among them. De Vere must then have joined in the unanimous verdict that found both guilty of high treason and sentenced them to execution by the headsman's axe. (Moved by the appeal of Southampton's mother and his wife, and with the intercession of Robert Cecil, the young earl was spared and confined in the Tower of London.)  Apart from that tryst there is not in the correspondence of either man any mention of the other; nor in the accounts and casual gossip of the time is there a whisper of any social contact between them. 

"Call him Shakspere, call him Shaks." Thus does Niederkorn elegantly begin his discussion of the spelling and pronunciation of Shakespeare's name. He peeked into my book, Shakespeare, In Fact, for his only reference to a topic from a Shakespearean source, a paraphrase of my comment regarding the spelling of Shakespeare's name: "Mr. Matus argues that the playwright used 'Shakspere' in the country and 'Shakespeare' in the city." I'm flattered. But my observation was drawn from a relatively small sample. I defer to (and wonder why he didn't consult) the very thorough study of Dave Kathman (who, along with Terry Ross, is an editor of the Shakespeare Authorship Page, which is mentioned in his article). Kathman found that in non-literary references outside of London the first syllable was indeed spelled "Shake" less often, but even there it was actually in the majority, 59% of the time, compared to 87% in London. In literary references, according to Kathman, 88% of 161 times it was "Shake." I stand corrected. I suspect the Oxfordians will not. 

But then, Oxfordians have a problem of their own with the spelling and pronunciation of a name. Call him Looney, call him Loney ("rhymes with Sony"), it happens to be that the Founding Father of Oxfordianism is one J. Thomas Looney. Now we are asked to accept that "Loney" is the family pronunciation, the spelling be damned. Never let it be said that Oxfordians are ones to be troubled by those pesky hobgoblins of foolish consistency. 

At last, something new in Niederkorn's news: Roger Stritmatter's doctoral dissertation on a bible in the Folger Shakespeare Library that was owned by de Vere. A thoroughgoing analysis of this tome has not yet been done by a Shakespearean, but a personal experience of its scholarship, in the earlier stages at least, indicates it requires scrutiny. 

With the graciousness and bonhomie that bespeak his qualities as a gentleman and a scholar, Stritmatter took exception to a source I quoted in my contribution to the forum on the authorship, The Ghost of Shakespeare, in the April 1999 issue of Harper's Magazine. Oddly, he made no mention of what I said about an example he gave of a marked verse in Oxford's bible that is of greater consequence, which is "Hamlet's declaration that Claudius 'took my father grossly, full of bread,' the last phrase of which is an allusion to Ezekiel, chapter 16, verse 49"; 

We are told -- in an article by Mark Anderson in the Hartford Advocate [April 1994] about a study of Oxford's bible by Roger Stritmatter -- that "over a span  of more than 300 verses in the book of Ezekiel, Edward de Vere marks only one: Ezekiel 16:49." This is indeed remarkable, because there are as many as fifteen other allusions to Ezekiel in Shakespeare's plays. What happened to them?

Those allusions are not the only things uncounted at that time. In his own firsthand study of Oxford's bible, Kathman found that allegedly lonely marked verse had some company -- in fact, forty-one other verses in Ezekiel that were marked, underlined or otherwise noted in this book. What happened to them? 

Stritmatter has published his successful dissertation under the title The Marginalia of Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible. It should be noted that "marginalia" is not an accurate term to describe the verses set apart in Oxford's bible. Overwhelmingly, just the verse number or the verse itself is underlined; the relatively rare marginal notations are usually just a single word, sometimes just a cross. 

When I first got caught up in the authorship debate, in 1989, and for several years thereafter, every so often an article or column by an Oxfordian would appear complaining about the refusal of the media to give attention to their cause. This is definitely not the case any longer. The triumphant air of advancing Oxfordianism that hangs over Niederkorn's article is understandable. An extensive article in The New York Times is the biggest catch in their success in capturing media attention; better still when it is all but unblemished by attention to Shakespearean scholarship. 

John Rockwell's remark that the "ground had been plowed" can be applied to the media point of view toward Shakespearean scholarship generally. It buys into the Oxfordian contention that academia has indeed built "altars in students" minds" -- that in classrooms every- where the dogma of the immaculate conception of Shakespeare's genius is drummed into the heads of the gullible young. Everyone, therefore, knows all there is to know about Shakespeare of Stratford. Yet, despite this purported indoctrination into the orthodoxy, the questions I've been asked by countless people who have had just such an education indicate that it is a rare person who has anything more than sketchy knowledge of Shakespeare's life, less still of the culture and the society of his time. 

Another of the Oxfordians' primal whines persists, this over academic funding for research. In 1990, Joseph Sobran wrote that the Oxfordian "cause is without the patronage it desperately needs. But that would be only a misfortune, not an injustice, except that the conventional view is effectively subsidized by the state." This complaint is renewed in the Times article, where we hear from Daniel L. Wright, a professor at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, who states, "the overwhelming majority of research funds go to Stratfordians. Oxfordians don't have the kind of funding to do the research they would like to do."


He understandably doesn't mention Ward Elliott, a professor at Claremont College who got full funding for the first two years, partial funding for two more, plus material support, for the Shakespeare Clinic, a computer-based study that he trusted would reveal Edward de Vere was indeed the playwright. The results showed none of the 37 claimants tested came near the author of the plays -- Oxford somewhat farther out than most. Elliott is no longer an Oxfordian. No wonder Wright does not mention him. 

More to the point, three of the Formidable Four Shakespeareans named by Niederkorn -- Dave Kathman, Terry Ross and I -- are not academics. We have had no funding for the research we have done, nor to support us in the time it takes to put the results of our research into writing. True, the fourth, Alan H. Nelson, a professor at Berke- ley, did get a fellowship to do research -- for a biography on the Earl of Oxford. We four have done original research on the Shakespeare documents and other allusions to the man and the artist, providing a context for them that has often been absent in Shakespearean research. We have done the same to the record of de Vere as it has been spun out by Oxfordians, for if too little is known about the life of Shakespeare, too much is known about Oxford's. The Times reader heard nothing of this.

The Times's rationale for running something so unbalanced as "A Historic Whodunit" was to preclude the "almost comic" affect of one side accusing the other of "distorting the evidence, making up evidence, ignoring counterarguments, and the like." However, the authorship issues are being tried in the "Court of Public Opinion," and it seems an effort should have been made to meet the standard of evidence in the context of a trial, by definition "data presented in proof of the facts in issue." The Times got around the problem of unseemly arguments about evidence by printing stuff as devoid of data as it is of fact. Niederkorn's idea of evidence succeeded in being comic all on its own.



Dave Kathman on the Shakespeare Authorship Page:

"The Spelling and Pronunciation of Shakespeare's Name"

"Oxford's Bible"

"Annotations in Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible"

© Irvin Leigh Matus
Created Wednesday, October 24, 2002
Updated Sunday, April 20, 2003