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 way?

As unconvincing as the claim that the plays must have been the work of a nobleman (why not, by the by, of a king?) is Mr. Ogburn’s view that Stratford was a provincial backwater, and so could not have produced the myriadminded and cosmopolitan dramatist. William “Shakspere” (as the Stratfordian is called in this book, to distinguish him from Shakespeare, i.e., Oxford, the writer of the plays) was “an obscurely born, untutored provincial,” a “provincial villager,” “of limited literacy at best,” and Stratford itself, we are assured, was a “literary desert.” Surprisingly—for Mr. Ogburn is not unacquainted with more recent research—Dr. Johnson’s words are used to describe the backwardness of Shakespeare’s England. The nation “was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity…. Literature was yet confined to professed scholars or to men and women of high rank. The public was gross and dark.” Had Johnson been right there would have been some excuse for supposing that Shakspere could not have written the plays. But he was wrong: Stratford had produced an archbishop of Canterbury, a lord mayor of London, and, in Shakspere’s lifetime, a far from illiterate middle class—as one might expect from an important market town that had its own free grammar school.

“The fact is that nothing whatever is known about the quality of instruction at the Stratford school,” Mr. Ogburn claims, though he concedes that successive masters held university degrees. We do, however, know a good deal about the intellectual attainments of Stratfordians who did not go to a university, that is, who represent the grammar school’s educational standards. Richard Field, for example, the son of a Stratford tanner, was apprenticed, aged eighteen, to a London printer (1579); he later printed Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594) and, more significantly for our purposes, De gloria libri V, by J. Osorio da Fonseca (1589); Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Latin (1589); G. Buchanan’s Paraphrasis of the Psalms (1592); P. Ubaldini’s Delle breui dimostrationi et precetti (1592); S. Verepaeus, De epistolis Latine conscribendis (1592), etc., etc.,—surely not an untutored provincial.


The letters that have come down to us from Shakespeare’s friends and associates make it absolutely clear that Stratford’s grammar school did not neglect its duties. Here is one by Abraham Sturley to Richard Quiney, dated 1598, which refers to the dramatist.

This is one special remembrance from your father’s motion. It seemeth by him that our countryman, Mr. Shaksper, is willing to disburse some money upon some odd yard-land or other at Shottery or near about us…It obtained would advance him indeed, and would do us much good. Hoc movere, et quantum in te est permovere, ne necligas, hoc enim et sibi et nobis maximi erit momenti. Hic labor, hoc opus esset eximiae et gloriae et laudis sibi… Stretfordia, Januarii 24. Abrah. Strl.

Sturley had moved to Stratford around 1580, and had not been brought up there; but he assumed that Quiney, a Stratfordian (and, incidentally, later the father-in-law of Shakespeare’s daughter Judith), would have no difficulty in reading Latin. Again, the one surviving letter addressed to Shakespeare, by the same Richard Quiney, cannot be described as the work of an “untutored provincial.” Written in haste, because Quiney had to raise a large sum of money almost immediately (perhaps the equivalent of $15,000), it has a revealing style. It is a business letter, but only a “gentleman” could have dashed it off. It goes straight to the point, but the most striking thing about it is its perfect breeding, its courtesy—informal, uncontrived, the natural voice of Richard Quiney:

Loving countryman, I am bold of you as of a friend, craving your help with £30 upon Mr. Bushell’s and my security, or Mr. Mitton’s with me. Mr. Rosswell is not come to London as yet and I have especial cause. You shall friend me much in helping me out of all the debts I owe in London, I thank God, and much quiet my mind which would not be indebted. I am now towards the Court in hope of answer for the despatch of my business…I fear I shall not be back this night from the Court. Haste. The Lord be with you and with us all, amen… Yours in all kindness,

Ryc. Quyney.

This letter, I believe, brings us closer to the social tone of the Stratfordian “Shakspere” than any other surviving document. Faced with Mr. Ogburn’s thesis that benighted Stratford could not have produced a man of the world like “Shakespeare,” I find Quiney’s letter particularly reassuring.

While Mr. Ogburn builds his case on assumptions that will be rejected by the orthodox, it must be admitted that there are also weaknesses—or at any rate gaps—in the Stratfordian account of Shakespeare. The six surviving signatures are a problem, and Mr. Ogburn makes the most of it. Each of the six is spelled differently, and some are written in a decidedly shaky hand. We are told that (1) the writer must have been “a near illiterate”; (2) John Aubrey’s famous note proves that, when asked to show that he could write, “Shakspere” refused: “The more to be admired q[uia] [because] he was not a company keeper lived in Shoreditch, wouldn’t be debauched, & if invited to writ: he was in paine.”

Mr. Ogburn explains that Stratfordians usually slip in a comma between “to” and “writ,” whereas Aubrey’s note as penned “appears actually to say that when invited to write, ‘Shakespeare’ claimed to be in pain as a reason for begging off.” The reply that seventeenth-century punctuation is sometimes idiosyncratic will not satisfy Mr. Ogburn; and the orthodox view that the signatures are peculiar because the writer suffered from impaired physical powers really only pits one guess against another. As a Principal Assistant Keeper from the Public Record Office wrote in The Times of London (October 11, 1984): “The marked discrepancies between the signatures lend credence to the views of most extreme anti-Stratfordians. Could the man write his own name, let alone anything else?”

If the Stratfordians cannot explain everything, it is the fatal weakness of Mr. Ogburn’s book that he explains too much. The Earl of Oxford died in 1604, whereas it is generally held that Shakespeare went on writing plays until 1611, or later. A difficulty? No, for the sixth Earl of Derby, Oxford’s son-in-law, “lived long enough to have been responsible for the revisions in the plays made after Shakespere’s [sic] death.” It was reported in 1599 that Derby was “busy in penning comedies for the common players,” so that helps; “and it is quite possible that de Vere left some plays only partially written, with hiatuses sketched in, and that another or others completed them.”


“The play on which Stratfordians bank absolutely to refute the case for Oxford is The Tempest” (because the dramatist had access to an unpublished report to the Virginia Company’s council on a wreck in the Bermudas in 1609, and the play seems to have been written in 1611). “Not a scintilla of evidence exists,” Mr. Ogburn retorts, “that Shakspere was in London between 1604 and his visit in 1612…or any reason to believe he would have seen a manuscript report to the council if he had been.” Leslie Hotson, however, has brilliantly demonstrated that one of the overseers of Shakespeare’s will, presumably a close friend, was the stepfather of Sir Dudley Digges, a leading member of the Virginia Company; “Shakspere” of Stratford, therefore, could have been shown the report by Digges.*

The dates of Shakespeare’s plays, and particularly of The Tempest, are an embarrassment for Mr. Ogburn. Equally awkward is the fact that he has to explain why contemporaries kept Oxford’s secret, and failed to denounce “Shakspere” as an illiterate fraud. He argues that the Cecils, and later the Earl of Pembroke, made it their business to hush up the scandalous story—a time bomb that ticked away unsuspected until the twentieth century. “On no account would the Cecils have wished to have de Vere seen as the author of Shakespeare’s plays—ever.” The Earl of Pembroke’s brother Philip (later the Earl of Montgomery, and joint dedicatee of the First Folio) married Oxford’s daughter Susan in 1605, and the brother earls, we are told, went systematically to work to get Oxford’s plays published, and to protect his secret. Pembroke got himself appointed Lord Chamberlain, and made his kinsman, Sir Henry Herbert, responsible for everything to do with plays, as Master of the Revels. “The public theatre was now hedged about with three Herberts…. As we have had occasion to notice, the books of the office [of Revels] disappeared. Sir Herbert [sic] said they had been burnt. It would not be surprising to learn that the books would have told how the First Folio came into being and perhaps other things as well.” Mr. Ogburn seems to imply that the Herberts destroyed Sir Henry’s office book as a “cover-up”; it was, however, used by Malone and Chalmers in the late eighteenth century.

The “cover-up” hypothesis leads to many complications. Ben Jonson vouched for Shakespeare, the “Sweet Swan of Avon,” in the First Folio—how do we get around that? “Obviously Jonson was permitting the reader to take his statement as the Stratfordians have done, and do,” for “he was playing both sides of the street…. He did all that a brave man could have been expected to do in the circumstances to sabotage his own endeavor and tip posterity off to the sham.” “Swan of Avon” was a master-stroke, since “the Avon passes through Rugby, where Edward de Vere had a home—Bilton.”

The “cover-up,” so far, involves Oxford, Derby, the Cecils, the Herberts, Jonson, and “Shakspere.” But that is not the end of it. “The suspicion voices itself that the papers on which Shakspere had set his hand in Stratford were made to disappear because they showed the great writer signing with a mark—just as the records of the Stratford Grammar School of his early years would have disappeared because they showed he did not attend it.” More sensationally, Oxford was for a time Queen Elizabeth’s favorite; and to Mr. Ogburn, “given the Queen’s ardent nature and the carte blanche that goes with the crown, that means he was her lover.” The “emotional apogee…probably was reached sometime in 1572 or 1573. During this period a boy was conceived who would be given the name Henry Wriothesley and later the title of 3rd Earl of Southampton.” Mr. Ogburn is tempted, but sees the need for caution. Although “there are few absolute impossibilities in human affairs,” the theory that “Shakspere” sired the queen’s bastard, and later wrote tender sonnets for this young man, seems a bit farfetched, so “I take no position on it. On its face it is so unlikely that perhaps fairness requires pointing out a few points in its favor….”

Mr. Ogburn is aware that his account of Shakespeare may be attacked because it assumes a “conspiracy” on a gigantic scale, one that stretches from Queen Elizabeth to an illiterate “Shakspere” of Stratford who, apparently, was paid £1,000 to keep his mouth shut. Undismayed, he replies that the case for Oxford “does not ‘assume a conspiracy.” It takes cognizance of a fact. The fact is that every contemporary document that might have related authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems to an identifiable human being subsequently disappeared. Every last scrap of paper…simply vanished.” Twenty pages later, however, he concedes in passing that “some readers may still find themselves unable to believe that so wide-ranging a suppression of information as I have ascribed to the Cecils could have been carried out” (my italics).

Indeed, Mr. Ogburn asks us to swallow a second conspiracy, on a similar scale, in our own time. “I know of no instance between 1937 and 1974 when a dissenter from orthodoxy was permitted to expound his case in a general-interest American periodical—magazine or newspaper.” In 1974 “came the break I had been hoping for.” The Harvard Magazine (“willing and eager to touch the untouchable”) agreed to publish Mr. Ogburn’s “The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not.” He was elated, and also “in terrible suspense, for I knew that when the Harvard English faculty got wind of the planned enormity, the professors would stop at nothing to get the article killed.” The professors were kept in the dark, the article appeared; when they finally heard of it, the professors did their duty—they arose in wrath and hammered Mr. Ogburn. He proposed a trial—“each side to have a chance to present a full brief for its case,” and P.S. Weld suggested that “if no one at Harvard wishes to argue the case for the Stratfordian, perhaps you could engage someone from the Yale English department.” Nothing happened.

Mr. Ogburn complains that “the orthodox establishment we are putting on trial has long maintained a monopoly in its field that Standard Oil in its heyday could have saluted.” There is an “extremely potent combination ready and able to smother any dissent from Shakespearean conventionalism,” and of course the Folger Library ranks as the “foremost guardian of the Stratford interest in this country.” The account of Mr. Ogburn’s battles with the late J.G. McManaway, and with a former director and well-known trustee, is full of human interest, even though I remember Dr. McManaway differently, as one of the kindest, most courteous of men; on the other hand, the remarks attributed to the former director (“From time to time I have had to rise up and smite a bore, because these people are tiresome beyond belief”) and to the trustee (who called Mr. Ogburn’s work a “stew”) sound absolutely authentic. All this notwithstanding, Mr. Ogburn became a Friend of the Folger, and was allowed to hatch his monstrous egg within the very ark of the covenant: “I have seldom been happier while so cold as in the stacks of the Folger, awaiting resuscitation from hypothermia by tea…with cookies served upstairs between 3:00 and 3:30.” Whatever Mr. Ogburn’s original intention, the Folger emerges from its trial with credit.

How, then, having rejected Mr. Ogburn’s methods and conclusions, can we profit from his book? He asks questions that, I think, can no longer be brushed aside with the traditional answers. Is it not really surprising, as he claims, that so many of the Shakespeare documents have vanished? According to J.G. McManaway, “for a playwright of the time, Shakespeare’s life is well documented.” “Much more is on the record about Shakespeare,” said Louis B. Wright, “than about many other Elizabethan men of letters.”

But Shakespeare was not just any Elizabethan man of letters, a playwright of the time. Long before his death he was recognized by his contemporaries as a unique figure, “our Shakespeare,” a classic. “The sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare,” wrote Francis Meres in 1598; and, “as Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” A year or so later the author of a Cambridge play expected his audience to recognize lines stolen from “sweet Mr. Shakespeare,” clearly because he was a general favorite. An epistle printed with Troilus and Cressida (1609) observed, prophetically, that this play deserves a commentary “as well as the best comedy in Terence or Plautus.” John Davies addressed a poem in 1610 “to our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.” Contemporaries agreed that Shakespeare was at least the equal of the best writers of the past; and once he had died his chief rival, Ben Jonson, confessed,

how far thou didst our Lyly out-shine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.

Shakespeare, in short, did not strike those who knew him as “a playwright of the time” but as preeminent, a nonpareil, and therefore the disappearance of all of his letters, to take one example, is cause for wonder. Were there not avid collectors in his day, such as John Weever and Augustine Vincent, who are also known to have been admirers of the dramatist? We have the originals or copies of letters by Spenser, Jonson, Donne, but nothing at all from Shakespeare—is that not astonishing?

Even if the letters written to Anne Hathaway were not treasured as works of genius, or were destroyed after her death, what of all the other letters written by her husband to, one would think, scores of different correspondents? The Earl of Southampton must have been Shakespeare’s patron for a couple of years, at the very least; Pembroke and Montgomery, the dedicatees of the Folio, “prosecuted” or followed Shakespeare and his plays with “much favor” and liked the plays so well “when they were acted, as, before they were published, the volume asked to be yours”—which suggests a keen interest in their protégé over several years. The three earls between them, however, cannot boast of a single letter from the man who was already recognized as an illustrious poet.

Unless we resort to a “conspiracy theory” (e.g., all the letters were destroyed by Oxford’s friends), only one inference is possible—that the master dramatist did not trouble to write many letters. Or rather, that he did not compose the formal letters that other authors sent to their patrons or friends. Shorter, informal notes he must have written often, as we may deduce from repunctuated Aubrey: “not a company keeper…wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ he was in pain.” The picture we are here given of an author who was sought after but kept his distance is confirmed by other evidence—for instance, he neither offered nor asked for complimentary verses; he belonged to no literary clique, and praised very few contemporary writers, though many praised him; unlike other dramatists he would not collaborate, as Leonard Digges noted:

Nor begs he from each witty friend a scene
To piece his acts with; all that he doth write
Is pure his own, plot, language exquisite…

We have not given proper attention to the possibility that Shakespeare was an essentially reserved and private man—perhaps because so many stories circulated about his drinking habits and wit combats, which suggest a convivial temperament. These stories, however, were mostly written down or printed long after Shakespeare’s death, in the mid-seventeenth century or later, and need not always imply boon companionship. “Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson,” said Thomas Fuller in his Worthies (1662), “which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war….”

Born in 1608, Fuller could scarcely have witnessed such encounters (Shakespeare lived in Stratford in his last years); one tends to think of the combats as friendly, probably taking place in a tavern, but Fuller did not say so—they could just as well have been the sharp exchanges of professional rivals. The only early allusion suggests an unfriendly wit combat: “Why, here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay, and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit.” Jonson gave the poets a pill to make one of them vomit, in Poetaster; Shakespeare retaliated by giving Jonson a purge that made him, in modern parlance, shit himself: Oxford English Dictionary, beray, 1. “To disfigure, dirty, defile, befoul (with dirt, filth, ordure).”

The stories about Shakespeare’s merry meetings in taverns need not be discounted altogether. Even Milton, after all, permitted himself some gaudy days. I suggest, though, that Aubrey’s note (Shakespeare was “not a company keeper” and “wouldn’t be debauched”) counts for more than late rumors about his drinking exploits. He was more Hamlet than Falstaff. This image of the dramatist is corroborated by the sonnets, where we find, again, a reserved and private man, one who regretted that he had made himself “a motley to the view” and resented that Fortune forced upon him a life of “public means which public manners breeds.” So it was not out of character that he bought himself, at the age of thirty-three, a house in Stratford to retire to, that he abandoned his theatrical career in his forties, and that he wrote few if any graceful letters to patrons. Mr. Ogburn’s insistence that we know very little about “Shakspere” of Stratford persuades me, at any rate, to distrust the popular image of a “boon companion” dramatist. He could have been easy and unconstrained with his friends (“of an open and free nature,” as Ben Jonson put it), and at the same time much less accessible to the world at large. The face of the Folio’s Droeshout engraving suggests, I think, the very opposite of the tavern-haunting, overflowing poet of popular mythology: thoughtfulness, distance, reserve.

Perhaps, then, we have all been wrong together, Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians, about the elusive, unknowable dramatist. And surely we have even more in common than that: Mr. Ogburn is an enthusiastic admirer of Shakespeare’s plays, and fights for his convictions—exactly as his opponents do. Mr. Ogburn, however—unlike most Stratfordians—has also written a book that will entertain and fascinate readers for years to come.

This Issue

January 17, 1985