The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points To Earl

In the final part of Morning Edition's series about Shakespeare, co-host Renee Montagne examines the theory that the Earl of Oxford — not the man from Stratford — is actually the bard and author of the world's most famous plays.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Ari?

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Uh-huh?

MONTAGNE: Did that rotten apple really hurt?

SHAPIRO: No, no. Just a little bit messy is all.

MONTAGNE: Well, okay. So we survived the stale gingerbread and rotten apples that hurled our way as yesterday we questioned whether William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon could've written the works that bear his name. Seriously, a lot of scholars say it doesn't matter who the author is. But a major theme in Shakespeare's work is the question of identity and disguise.

Mr. MARK RYLANCE (Actor): So many of the plays hinge around someone believing that someone else is a friend when they're a foe or a foe when they're a friend.

MONTAGNE: Actor Mark Rylance has played virtually every major role in Shakespeare.

Mr. RYLANCE: Someone having an image of themselves which doesn't actually turn out to be who they are. Someone thinking that a young man is a young man and they're actually a young woman or vice versa in the Shakespeare plays. It's very attractive to think that the author would also weave that kind of magic around his or her identity.

MONTAGNE: Rylance is among those who think it likely the author did disguise his true identity behind the name William Shakespeare.

As the founding creative director of London's Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance collected and displayed material about other contenders. This morning we hear the case for one man who many think is the real author. We begin in the courtyard of the Globe.

Mr. CHARLES BEAUCLERK (Descendant of Edward de Vere): Edward de Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford and he was a great star at court in his early years.

MONTAGNE: Charles Beauclerk is a direct descendant of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He recounts the many reasons his ancestor de Vere could've written the plays. A Cambridge education, fluency in French, Italian, Latin and Greek, a broad knowledge of the law, jousting and other royal pastimes, an intimacy with the Queen's Court, a reputation as a poet, plus...

Mr. BEAUCLERK: He inherited an acting company from his father and throughout his life he always had at least one company, sometimes two. So theater was part of his life. He put on masques and plays at court.

MONTAGNE: Others during Queen Elizabeth's time had a similar resume. Oxford has been a favorite for more than 80 years because his own life intersects with the plays in a myriad of dramatic ways.

Mr. MARK ANDERSON (Author, "Shakespeare By Another Name"): Take a map of Italy and take out ten pushpins. And you put these pushpins in the following ten cities: Venice, Padua, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Florence, Sienna, Naples, Verona and Messina. That's essentially Shakespeare's Italy right there.

MONTAGNE: And Shakespeare's Italy, argues author Mark Anderson, is Edward de Vere's Italy. In his biography of Oxford, titled "Shakespeare By Another Name," Mark Anderson portrays a real life through which shines the many fictional lives in Shakespeare, starting with Italy.

From "Romeo and Juliet"'s Verona to "The Merchant of Venice," half of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies are set in Italy. It's a place William Shakespeare never went and where Edward de Vere traveled extensively.

Mr. ANDERSON: Venice in particular is portrayed in "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello" with such exquisite detail that it could only come from someone who knows that city from firsthand experience. I mean, it goes from everything from ritualistic cultural curios - there's a character in "Merchant of Venice" who presents this dish of baked doves. And you see a production of "Merchant of Venice" and people don't know what to do with it because it's just bizarre.

Well, it turns out that in Venice at that time a dish of baked doves was actually an honorific gift that you gave to someone as a token of your respect.

MONTAGNE: Another example can be found in "The Taming of the Shrew." Daniel Wright directs the Authorship Research Center at Oregon's Concordia University.

Mr. DANIEL WRIGHT (Concordia University): We know that when Edward de Vere was in Venice, he borrowed 500 crowns from a man named Baptista Negrone(ph). And when Oxford was in Padua, he borrowed more money from a man named Pasquino Spinola(ph). Now, in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," Kate's father is described as a man who is rich in crowns.

Where does this character in Shakespeare's play live? In Padua. And what is his name? Baptista Minola, a conflation of Baptista Negrone and Pasquino Spinola.

MONTAGNE: But for author Mark Anderson, the single most compelling play linking Oxford to Shakespeare's work contains this famous line...

Mr. KENNETH BRANAGH (Actor): The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

MONTAGNE: Here Kenneth Branagh plays Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. Turns out Edward de Vere's brother-in-law was an emissary to Denmark and he wrote de Vere private letters about his experiences.

Mr. ANDERSON: And he talks about these drinking rituals of downing a shot and then shooting off the cannons. And that, of course, is preserved in "Hamlet." De Vere's brother-in-law writes about this banquet that he attends with these courtiers named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And again, all this stuff is unpublished. It would be table talk with de Vere and his brother-in-law. It was essentially unavailable to anyone else.

MONTAGNE: There's also the matter of the character Polonius. He was the father of Ophelia, whom Hamlet spurned. And it was de Vere's own father-in-law, who many traditional scholars say, was the model for Polonius.

Mr. ANDERSON: Polonius is this kind of busybody meddlesome spymaster in the Danish court. This is exactly the central relationship of de Vere's life. De Vere was married to a young woman whose father was the Lord treasurer, spymaster, busybody supreme of Elizabethan England.

MONTAGNE: The evidence that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare is, of course, entirely circumstantial. But there are scores of such connections, and the case is intriguing enough that in 1987 three sitting Supreme Court justices agreed to hear what became a famous moot court debate: Earl of Oxford versus William Shakespeare.

In the following videotape, the attorney for Shakespeare expresses skepticism to Justice John Paul Stevens that a nobleman like Oxford would find it beneath him to sign his name to the plays.

Unidentified Man #1 (Attorney): The main Oxfordian argument, the one on which my learned friend relied, is that it was a matter of great shame to be revealed as the author of literary works.

Unidentified Man #2: It would mean to at least raise the question whether the queen who did a number of things that are difficult to explain. She's a person with certain idiosyncrasies and fond of secrecy and - perhaps if the monarch said, I don't want your authorship known, that would be the end of it as far what de Vere might do.

Unidentified Man #1: I would be the last to deny the idiosyncrasies of monarchy.

MONTAGNE: Back at the Globe Theatre, Charles Beauclerk says that had his ancestor de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, put his name on the plays, it would've been no laughing matter. The tragedies and comedies contained exposes of some of the court's most powerful, ruthless, and deadly people.

Mr. BEAUCLERK: He wouldn't have survived ten minutes because of the satirical and political content of the plays. He needed to mask that in some way. Whether through a pen name or through a pen name and a front man, which is clearly what he used.

MONTAGNE: Now back to that 1987 moot court. The justices did find for William Shakespeare, but later all three came to doubt their decision. A few years ago, Justice John Paul Stevens told the New York Times that if he had to choose today, quote, "I'd say it definitely was Oxford."

And Ari, since neither the Earl of Oxford nor the gentleman from Stratford left behind a handwritten or a signed copy of any of the works of Shakespeare, this debate could go on forever and a day. But you and I must now take our leave.

SHAPIRO: Yes, and ask our listeners: As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set us free.

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Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Debate Goes On

Doubts persist that William Shakespeare wrote the works that bear his name. i i

Doubts persist that William Shakespeare wrote the works that bear his name. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
Doubts persist that William Shakespeare wrote the works that bear his name.

Doubts persist that William Shakespeare wrote the works that bear his name.

Bettmann/Corbis

In the mid-1800s, Americans were so enthused about William Shakespeare that a rivalry between the two foremost Shakespearean actors led to a riot.

Well, there's something that makes modern-day scholars of Shakespeare want to riot: when anyone questions whether the man from Stratford-upon-Avon really wrote the works that bear his name.

It drives scholars mad. Still, a host of brilliant minds have done just that: Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and Orson Welles are among those who didn't believe that Shakespeare penned those famous plays.

Shakespeare skeptics need look no further than Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, England, where he was buried in 1616.

A Shakespearean Epitaph?

The epitaph carved on his gravestone reads:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forebear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man who spares these stones,
and cursed be he, who moves my bones."

Those who doubt that the man buried there is the great playwright point to this rough doggerel. How can it be from the man who wrote:

"And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow..." (Macbeth)

The epitaph is a small piece of what doubters say is a mountain of biographical material suggesting Shakespeare wasn't a writer.

"We have been able to discover, over many generations, about 70 documents that are related to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, but none of them are literary," says Daniel Wright, an English professor who directs the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Oregon's Concordia University.

"They all speak to the activity of a man who is principally a businessman; a man who is delinquent in paying his taxes; who was cited for hoarding grain during a famine," Wright adds. "We don't have anyone attesting to him as a playwright, as a poet. And he's the only presumed writer of his time for whom there is no contemporary evidence of a writing career. And many of us find that rather astonishing."

Records Raise Questions

There are playbills that show Shakespeare appearing as an actor in small parts and legal documents relating to his stake in the Globe Theater. He left a will distributing his precious possessions, including, famously, his second-best bed.

But there's no record that this Shakespeare owned any books, wrote any letters, and the half-dozen signatures attributed to him are on legal documents only.

"If there were a signature related to Hamlet, we wouldn't be having this debate," says Diana Price, who wrote the book that's become a bible for doubters, the meticulously researched Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography.

In it, she details all that Shakespeare would have had to know and be able to use effortlessly in metaphors and intricate puns: archery, astronomy, medicine, technical terms for falconry and royal tennis. The list is long.

To link any writer conclusively to the plays, Price argues, "we would certainly have to be able to support how he learned his languages, how he received his education, how he gained his exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, how he had access to the court. And I don't mean as a servant in the court, but someone who actually was in there when the power-playing was going on. We cannot support any of that for Shakespeare."

Mark Twain Wasn't Buying It

Mainstream academics mostly deride efforts of independent scholars like Price. It's a tad bit harder to shrug off challenges put — with great wit — by the likes of Mark Twain.

The American humorist never could reconcile what was known about the man from Stratford with the writer who penned "such stuff as dreams are made on."

Twain even wrote a pamphlet in 1909 poking fun at the Bard, called Is Shakespeare Dead? The following is an excerpt:

"It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the CLERK OF A STRATFORD COURT: just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Behring Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercisers of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a 'trot-line' Sundays."

For Bard Backer, Proof's In The Name

Stephen Greenblatt, a professor at Harvard and author of the best-selling biography of the Bard, Will in the World, is one of America's most esteemed Shakespeare scholars.

"Like most scholars, I think it's reasonably clear that the man from Stratford wrote the plays," he says. "But it's certainly a subject that doesn't go away. He does seem like he did drop in from another planet. The level of achievement is remarkable."

Remarkable, says Greenblatt, but possible, even for a village lad if he were a genius. Greenblatt has little use for those who question the authorship of Shakespeare's works and compares doubters to Holocaust deniers and those who don't believe in evolution.

He says the most powerful evidence of authorship is the simplest: that the name William Shakespeare appeared on some of the plays published during his lifetime.

"It's nothing that gives you the kind of certainty that can never be called into question," Greenblatt says. "Anything can be called into question. But you'd have to have a very strong reason to believe that there was skullduggery or an alternative account.

"It's true ... that there are no manuscripts and no letters, but we're talking about something a very long time ago."

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