The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality
by Charlton Ogburn
Dodd, Mead, 892 pp., $25.00
Is it a waste of time to read a book dedicated to the crackpot proposition that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and poems commonly ascribed to William Shakespeare of Stratford? Mr. Ogburn bends the evidence and is sometimes inaccurate, but he has devoted several decades to the study of Shakespeare and Oxford, and he asks disconcerting questions that Stratfordians have tended to shrug off as unimportant. Even if he has not converted me to the “Oxford theory,” he has changed my image of the man from Stratford.
Mr. Ogburn’s aim seems to be twofold: to show that the “Stratford academicians” have been slanderous and unscrupulous in their suppression of all opposition, and yet again to raise the flag for the Earl of Oxford. Many interesting things are said in passing about Harvard professors and the Folger Shakespeare Library and “the current Laureate of American Stratfordians” (it is a relief to find, from a safe distance, that the Stratford academicians are almost all North Americans); indeed, since Mr. Ogburn goes in with fists flying, as it were, some readers will think his uninhibited treatment of the most revered names in the land more fascinating than his thesis. Therefore let us begin with the thesis.
Mr. Ogburn’s “postulate number one” is “that the plays and poems we know as Shakespeare’s were the work of a nobleman, hence necessarily one employing a pseudonym.” This postulate rests on the assertion that “in the whole history of Western literature no writer ever wrote more consistently from a nobleman’s point of view than Shakespeare.” The assertion may be true, although it could also be argued that many of the plays are highly critical of the nobility and its point of view (Henry VI, Richard II, King Lear); but even if it could be proved true, men have often adopted the point of view of a class they did not belong to by birth (in Britain, Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Benn spring to mind, or such writers as Orwell and Conrad). Not one of his contemporaries or predecessors equaled Shakespeare in presenting a woman’s point of view—does it then follow that he was a woman? If we remember that representatives of many different professions have contended that Shakespeare must have been a soldier, a lawyer, a doctor, a bird watcher or the like, simply because he seems to have acquired a professional know-how in all these fields, it is clear that, to be fair, we have to postulate, as the author of the plays, a soldier-lawyer-doctor who was also an ennobled hermaphrodite. The alternative is to accept that a chameleon poet may identify with a professional or class “point of view” for purely dramatic purposes; as Keats put it, “if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” Why should Shakespeare not have observed the nobility, and “taken part in its existence,” in exactly the same …