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The Real "Shakespeare" Plus an Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the Wellbeck portrait

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the Wellbeck portrait

Who Is the Real "Shakespeare"?

The controversy surrounding the writer of the Shakespeare canon began in Elizabethan England, the time during which the Shakespeare writer lived and wrote.

Then over a century after the death of the Stratford man, the first biography of "William Shakespeare," which focuses on Gulielmus Shakspere, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, traditionally considered to be the Shakespeare writer, was penned in 1769.

That same year, Herbert Lawrence in his work titled, The Life and Adventures of Common Sense, posits the notion that "William Shakespeare" might be the pen name of someone other than the Stratford man.

In 1780, James Wilmot, a clergyman and scholar in Warwickshire, researched all records nearby to Stratford-upon-Avon, looking for information about William Shakespeare and the Shakespeare canon.

After Wilmot failed to find any evidence that the Stratford man had been the author of the Shakespeare works, he put forth the idea that Francis Bacon had been the writer with that "William Shakespeare" nom de plume.

Unfortunately for all who have continued to study this issue, Wilmot had requested that all of his research notes be burned after his death.

In 1857, American short story writer and Shakespeare afficionada, Delia Bacon, suggested that not one man but something of a committee including Sir Walter Ralegh, Edmund Spencer, Edward de Vere, with Francis Bacon as the committee chairman, had likely authored those works.

Since those first suggestions that someone other than the Stratford man was the real Shakespeare, the controversy has continued, and currently one contender, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is now considered the most likely candidate.

Thus, the controversy now rages between the Stratfordians and the Oxfordians.

The Oxfordians hold that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the author of those works, while the Stratfordians argue that the man, Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon, is the author.

Increasingly, literary critics and scholars, as well as readers and fans, are coming to accept the fact that the traditionally recognized author of the Shakespeare works, the man from Stratford, Gulielmus Shakspere, is an unlikely candidate for that rôle.

With that realization comes the fact that the man from Oxford, Edward de Vere, is the more likely candidate. Siding with the Oxfordians, who opine that the 17th Earl of Oxford is the true writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare," Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets offers the following suggestion:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

After perusing the research of Oxfordians such as the late Professor Daniel Wright, I have concluded that the true author of the Shakespeare works is, in fact, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Because I am convinced that the name "William Shakespeare" is the pen name (nom de plume) of the Earl of Oxford, I refer to the works attributed to "William Shakespeare" as the "Shakespeare works," that is, instead of referring to the sonnets as "Shakespeare’s sonnets," I mention them as "the Shakespeare sonnets."

Ownership, I suggest, should be reserved for a real person, not a nom de plume. The sonnets are, in fact, Edward de Vere’s sonnets, but because they are published and widely known as "Shakespeare" sonnets, I refer to then as such.

Why the Oxfordians Are Correct

Even through a brief glimpse into the recorded biographical information about the two men, Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, it becomes evident which man had the ability to produce the literary works attributed to "William Shakespeare."

Gulielmus Shakspere, whom I will refer to as "Stratford" in this study, it will be shown, was a semi-literate, likely uneducated beyond his 14th year, who did not do any writing until he supposedly began producing complex historical dramas and perfectly pitched sonnets during a period of time that scholars call "Shakespeare’s Lost Years."

This man, Gulielmus Shakspere, could never have written any of the works attributed to William Shakespeare, anymore than he could have invented the lightbulb.

On the other hand, Edward de Vere, whom I shall refer to as "Oxford" in this study, possessed a first class education, traveled widely, and actually had a reputation as writer of plays and poetry.

Life Sketch of Gulielmus Shakspere: Birth Date in Doubt

The biographical record of William Shakespeare is virtually a blank page, upon which scholars, critics, and fans have written a version of a life. For example, there is no record of the birth of William Shakespeare, even as Gulielmus Shakspere. Thus, various and sundry would-be biographers can postulate such as the following:

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in April 1564. The exact date of his birth is not recorded, but it is most often celebrated around the world on 23 April. . . . Shakespeare also died on 23 April; in 1616, when he was 52 years of age.

The following represents a further example that is typical of any attempt to state when William Shakespeare was born:

No birth records exist, but an old church record indicates that a William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as Shakespeare's birthday.

In both of the above entries, the name "William Shakespeare" has replaced the name of Stratford, which was Gulielmus Shakspere, the actual name appearing on the baptism record.

Thus, the very beginning of the life of this nebulous figure remains in doubt. And the coincidence of the man dying on his unknown birthdate merely adds to foggy trail of particulars.

Education of William Shakespeare

Similar to the uncertainly of exactly when William Shakespeare was born is the uncertainty regarding his education. No records exist that indicate the level of education to which the Stratford Shakspere might have advanced.

Only supposition and guesses assume that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon from the age of seven to fourteen, at which time his formal education ended. Therefore, such mythology as the following grows up around the issue:

Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there was free, the schoolmaster’s salary being paid by the borough. No lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did not send his son there.

The boy’s education would consist mostly of Latin studies—learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the Classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is unlikely that the scholarly round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then followed there would have interested him. (my emphasis on "no lists of the pupils")

While one might deem it absurd to suppose that the Shakespearean father would not have sent his son to that illustrious grammar school funded by the state steeping the students in Latin studies and the classics, such deeming does not place that boy’s name upon any record that he did, in fact, attend said illustrious grammar school.

And if the town bailiff’s son received such an upstanding education learning to read and write Latin "fairly well," one wonders why Gulielmus Shakspere was unable to write his own name and spell it consistently later in life.

Education Is Key

While no records exist that indicate the level of education the Stratford Shakspere experienced and only assumptions are made that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon, the educational record for Edward de Vere, however, remains extensive.

As a nobleman, he became a ward of the Crown and was educated by the Royal Court of Wards. He matriculated at Queen’s College, Cambridge and then completed training in the law at Gray’s Inn.

Early on, he was considered a prodigy, and his mentor and tutor Laurence Nowell declared in 1563, when de Vere was only 13 that his "work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required."

And the next year, at age 14, de Vere completed his Cambridge degree; then in 1566, at age 16, he was awarded a Master of Arts degree from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge University.

Stratfordians remain wedded to the idea that genius can overcome station in life, but such is true only to a point. The late Shakespeare scholar Daniel Wright explains,

A writer’s genius can elevate his or her poetry or prose beyond the mundane (indeed, in Shakespeare’s case, it endows his achievement with a magnificence that is almost transcendent in its resplendence), but it cannot of itself impart to any writer—not even to Shakespeare—a knowledge of particular facts.

Genius may animate the hand, but it does not do that which is not its office—it does not, for it cannot, supply the material with which the hand performs its work. Some things even a genius simply must be taught.

The issue of education alone offers the best evidence that Stratford could not have written the works of Shakespeare. As Professor Wright points out, "knowledge of particular facts" cannot be bestowed upon the mind even of a genius.

There is no evidence that Stratford ever traveled even to London much less that he might have traveled so much in Italy as to have been able to employ that knowledge of geography in the plays.

The Lost Years

"Lost years" in the lives of any biographical subject offers a marvelous opportunity to the biographer, who must fill in those lost years. Because "there is no documentary evidence of his life during this period of time," wild stories may be concocted that have no relationship to actual events.

Thus, the would-be biographer is life to opine such as the following:

'The Lost Years' refers to the period of Shakespeare's life between the baptism of his twins, Hamnet and Judith in 1585 and his apparent arrival on the London theatre scene in 1592. We do not know when or why William Shakespeare left Stratford-upon-Avon for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital.

There are various traditions and stories about the so-called ‘lost years’. There is no documentary evidence of his life during this period of time. A type of mythology has developed around these mysterious years, and many people have their favourite version of the story. (my emphasis added)

Not only do the Shakespearean biographers not know "when or why" Stratford left Stratford for London, they do no even know that he actually did leave. That he became "a professional actor and dramatist in the capital" is likely part of the tangle of confusion that has conflated aspects of the lives of Stratford and Oxford.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Further Evidence Oxford Is the Real "Shakespeare"

In addition to the issue of disparity in education between the Stratford man and the Oxford earl, the following issues further suggest that the Earl of Oxford remains the more likely candidate for the real "Shakepeare":

The Spelling of the Stratford Man’s Name

The issue of the variations in spelling of the name "Shakespeare" offers further evidence of authorship of the Shakespeare canon, as it reveals that the Stratford man had difficulty spelling and writing his own name.

The Stratford man’s signature varies, as he signed his name six different ways in four legal documents, including : (1) deposition of the lawsuit, Bellott v Mountjoy (1612); (2) deed for a house sold in Blackfriars, London (1613); (3) the mortgage document for a house acquired in Blackfriars (1613); and (4) a 3-page Last Will and Testament (1616), which he signed at the bottom of each page.

Thomas Regnier on ""Our Ever-Living Poet"

The Shakepeare scholar and eminent Oxfordian, Thomas Regnier has pointed out at the top "18 Reasons Why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Was “Shakespeare.” Reason 18 explains the use of the phrase, "Our ever-living poet," and how it refers to Oxford instead of Stratford:

Shakespeare’s Sonnets were first published in 1609. There are indications on the dedication page that the author was no longer living at that time. First, the dedication is signed by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, not by the author, suggesting that the author was not alive to write the dedication. More significantly, the dedication refers to the author as "ever-living."

This is a phrase that was used metaphorically to refer to a person who was no longer alive, but who would live on through his works in our minds and hearts. The Earl of Oxford was no longer living in 1609, while the man from Stratford, who is usually credited with writing the works of Shakespeare, would live on for another seven years.

Stratfordian scholars have never been able to explain why the phrase "ever-living" would have been applied to a living person.

The controversy surrounding the Stratford vs Oxford debate will likely continue because of the fog of the past, and that continuation might also depend on which side offers the debater the greater financial and prestigious rewards.

Are university grants more easily attained if the researcher is studying the traditional Stratford as the real "William Shakespeare"? Does Oxfordianism label one a royalist and an elitist while Stratfordianism offers the veneer of humbleness and dedication to the "little man"?

The Stigma of Oxfordianism

How strongly do the Stratfordians still attach a stigma to the Oxfordians? For example, J. Thomas Looney in 1920 identified Oxford as the true writer of the Shakespeare works and claimed that "William Shakespeare" was, in fact, a pseudonym (pen name or nom de plume.)

While Looney’s name is pronounced with a long ō, one can easily surmise the pronunciation parroted by the stigmatizing Stratfordians.

Also if one entertains any lingering doubt that the Stratfordians have an equal argument to wield against the Oxfordians, one might want to have a look at the comments offered on after Looney’s book, "Shakespeare" Identified, a centenary edition edited by James Warren.

Each scholar, critic, commentarian, or reader has to decided for himself which of the known facts are important and in which direction they point. For me, the facts point to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, until evidence can be offered that convincingly refutes the Oxfordian argument.

Edward de Vere Studies

Edward de Vere Studies

An Early de Vere Sonnet: "Whenas the heart at tennis plays (Love compared to a tennis-play)"

Readers will be able to detect the similarities between this sonnet, "Whenas the heart at tennis plays," published under de Vere's name and the sonnets published under his pen-name, "William Shakespeare."

Because the following poem was written early in de Vere's career, it will also be noticeable that it is not as polished as his later works, when he was publishing under his pseudonym.

Whenas the heart at tennis plays (Love compared to a tennis-play)

Whenas the heart at tennis plays, and men to gaming fall,
Love is the court, hope is the house, and favour serves the ball.
The ball itself is true desert; the line, which measure shows,
Is reason, whereon judgment looks how players win or lose.
The jetty is deceitful guile; the stopper, jealousy,
Which hath Sir Argus' hundred eyes wherewith to watch and pry.
The fault, wherewith fifteen is lost, is want of wit and sense,
And he that brings the racket in is double diligence.
And lo, the racket is freewill, which makes the ball rebound;
And noble beauty is the chase, of every game the ground.
But rashness strikes the ball awry, and where is oversight?
and quote; A bandy ho, and quote; the people cry, and so the ball takes flight.
Now, in the end, good-liking proves content the game and gain.
Thus, in a tennis, knit I love, a pleasure mixed with pain.


The speaker is dramatizing the comparison he has observed of two people falling in love and two people playing tennis.

First Quatrain: Two Hearts

Whenas the heart at tennis plays, and men to gaming fall,
Love is the court, hope is the house, and favour serves the ball.
The ball itself is true desert; the line, which measure shows,
Is reason, whereon judgment looks how players win or lose.

In the first quatrain, the speaker suggests that the two hearts involved in the romance of falling in love behave as two people playing tennis; love provides the court on which the game is played.

There term "court" also serves as pun; when two people are in love they are said to court each other. Hope of become united in marriage and making a home also informs the act, while the first inclinations of love resemble the ball that is batted back and forth.

The idea of winning and losing refers to the success of each lover in accomplishing the goals each takes in the love relationship.

The tennis ball might metaphorically compare to love-letters, conversations, or other exchanges of love between the two partners, while the "line, which measure shows" is the gauge for judgment of each partner or "reason."

Second Quatrain: Negative Activities

The jetty is deceitful guile; the stopper, jealousy,
Which hath Sir Argus' hundred eyes wherewith to watch and pry.
The fault, wherewith fifteen is lost, is want of wit and sense,
And he that brings the racket in is double diligence.

The second quatrain likens all of the negative activities that lovers might engage in while trying to secure their relationship. Because of jealousy especially, the over-zealous lover might seem to have a "hundred eyes" as he watches every move his beloved makes.

If he lacks "wit and sense," the jealous lover might discover that "The fault, wherewith fifteen is lost" while "he that brings the racket in is double diligence." The jealous lover then goes without his joy as he fantasizes hurts.

Thus he does not return the necessary volley of love messages, and because he loses patience, he fails to play, behaving as would a tennis player who through fits of anger breaks his tennis racket and storms off the tennis court.

Third Quatrain: Keeping the Ball in Play

And lo, the racket is freewill, which makes the ball rebound;
And noble beauty is the chase, of every game the ground.
But rashness strikes the ball awry, and where is oversight?
"A bandy ho," the people cry, and so the ball takes flight.

On the other hand, the tennis racket should compare to "freewill" because it keeps the ball in play, which has a "noble beauty" as the players chase the ball over the court.

But the kind of "rashness" that "the stopper" would engage would cause the "ball" to go "awry." And those who are watching the "game" would gladly cheer as the ball is properly volleyed.

The Couplet: Both Pleasure and Pain

Now, in the end, good-liking proves content the game and gain.
Thus, in a tennis, knit I love, a pleasure mixed with pain.

In the couplet, the speaker reports that a calm ever-increasing shared relationship is like a game that contains both "game and gain." However, for the entire game or relationship, the speaker has realized that it is a game mixed with pleasure and pain.


There has been affirmatively presented in the foregoing chapters positive and irrefutable proof that "William Shakespeare" was the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. It seems therefore superfluous to present either arguments or evidence of a negative character to show the impossibility of Gulielmus Shakspere’s being the famous dramatist . . ."

— This Star of England:

John Milnes Baker-The Case for Edward De Vere as the Real William Shakespeare

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Overview of the Shakespeare 154-Sonnet Sequence

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence offers an in-depth study of a poet’s mind. In the first 17 sonnets, his speaker is persuading a young man to marry and produce children. In the final 28, he laments a flawed romance. In the bulk of the sonnets—109—the speaker addresses issues relating to his art.

My Commentaries on the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence

My purpose in offering these commentaries is to assist beginning poetry readers and students in understanding and appreciating poems.

Because I side with Oxfordians regarding the identity of "William Shakespeare," my commentaries on the sonnets may often reflect that choice. However, consideration of a poet’s biography is only one factor in understanding and appreciating his art. The sonnets say what they say, regardless of who wrote them.

The "Shakespeare" identity is not the only issue with which I take exception from traditional Shakespeare studies. I depart from the traditional view that the bulk of the sonnets (18–126) focus on a "fair youth" and suggest instead that they take as their subject the poet’s relationship with his art.

The Sonnet Sequence

Elizabethan literary critics and scholars have traditionally sectioned the 154 Shakespeare sonnets into three thematic categories:

1. Marriage Sonnets: 1–17

2. Fair Youth Sonnets: 18–126

3. Dark Lady Sonnets: 127–154

Sonnets 1–17: The Marriage Sonnets

The "Marriage Sonnets" feature a speaker, who is striving to convince a young man to take a wife and thereby spring off beautiful children. Oxfordians, those who argue that the real Shakespeare writer was Edward de Vere, hold that the young man is quite likely Henry Wriothesley, who was the third Earl of Southhampton.

Thus, the Shakespeare speaker of the sonnets is attempting to persuade the young earl to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the eldest daughter of the speaker/poet, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Sonnets 18–126: The Fair Youth Sonnets

Traditionally, the "Faith Youth Sonnets" are interpreted as further pleadings to a young man; however, there is no young man in these sonnets—no persons at all appear in them. Although sonnets 108 and 126 do address a "sweet boy" or "lovely boy," they remain problematic and are likely miscategorized.

The Label, "Muse Sonnets," Replaces the Label, "Fair Youth Sonnets"

Instead of addressing a young man, as the "Marriage Sonnets" clearly do, the speaker in this category is exploring issues of writing; thus, in some sonnets, he addresses his muse, and in others, his talent, or the poem itself.

The speaker is examining his talent, his dedication to writing, and his own power of heart and soul. He even struggles with the issue of writer’s block and the ennui that writers experience from time to time.

My interpretation of this category of the sonnets differs greatly from traditionally received thought on this issue; therefore, I have retitled this category of sonnets, "Muse Sonnets."

Sonnets 127–154: The Dark Lady Sonnets

The "Dark Lady" sonnets explore an adulterous relationship with a woman of unsavory character. The term "dark" likely describes the woman’s shady character weaknesses, rather than—or perhaps, in addition to—the shade of her skin color.

Five Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99, 153, 154

Sonnet 108 and 126 offer a categorization problem. Most of the "Muse Sonnets" clearly address writing issues, with the speaker examining his talent and dedication to his art, with there being no other human being evident in those poems.

Sonnets 108 and 126, however, do address a young man as "sweet boy" and "lovely boy," plus, sonnet 126 is not technically a "sonnet," as it plays out in six couplets, not the traditional sonnet form of three quatrains and one couplet.

It remains a possibility that sonnets 108 and 126 caused the mislabeling of these sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets." Those poems would more logically reside with the "Marriage Sonnets," which do address a young man.

They also could be responsible for some scholars sectioning the sonnets into two categories instead of three, combining the "Marriage Sonnets" with the "Fair Youth Sonnets" and labeling them, "Young Man Sonnets."

The two category alternative is faulty, however, because the bulk of the "Fair Youth Sonnets" do no address a young man, nor do they address any person, except on occasion the speaker himself.

Sonnet 99 plays out in 15 lines, instead of the tradition sonnet form of 14 lines. The first quatrain expands to a cinquain; thus, its rime scheme converts from ABAB to ABABA. The remainder of the sonnet continues as a traditional sonnet following the rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional form.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 also remain to some extent problematic. Even though they are categorized thematically with the "Dark Lady Sonnets," their function differs somewhat from most of those poems.

Sonnet 154 o