The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.
The Real "Shakespeare"
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.
Further Evidence for Oxford as 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 amazon.com 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, 17 Earl of Oxford, until evidence can be offered that convincingly refutes the Oxfordian argument.
- Walt Whitman. "What Lurks Behind Shakspere’s Historical Plays?" November Boughs. bartleby.com: Great Books Online. Accessed December 2020.
- Daniel L. Wright. "The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy: The Case Summarily Stated." Originally published at Shakespeare Authorship Research Center. Accessed December 2020.
- Editors. "When Was Shakespeare Born?" Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Accessed December 2020.
- Editors. "The Education of William Shakespeare." Literary Genius. Accessed December 2020.
- David Bevington. "William Shakespeare." Britannica. November 4, 2020.
- Editors. "Shakespeares’ Lost Years." Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Accessed December 2020.
- Curators. "Chronology of Edward de Vere." The de Vere Society. Accessed December 2020.
- Daniel L. Wright. "The Education of The 17th Earl of Oxford Mirrored in the Shakespeare Canon." Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. Accessed December 2020.
- Amanda Mabillard. "Playing Fast and Loose with Shakespeare’s Name." shakespeare online. July 20, 2011.
- Editors. "William Shakespeare Biography." Biography. Updated: Dec 10, 2020. Original: Apr 24, 2015.
- Thomas Regnier. "Could Shakespeare Think Like a Lawyer?" U of Miami Law Review. January 1, 2003.
- - - -. "Top 18 Reasons Why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Was “Shakespeare.” August 18, 2019.
Overview of the Sonnet Sequence
Elizabethan literary critics and scholars have sectioned the 154 Shakespeare sonnets into three thematic categories:
- The Marriage Sonnets: 1-17
- The Fair Youth Sonnets: 18-126
- The 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 Muse 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 mind, 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, “The 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 the shade of her skin.
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 begin 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.
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 offers a mere paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they reveal identical messages. Both final sonnets are dramatizing a similar theme, which is a complaint of unrequited love. Those two final sonnets then dress the complaint in the garb of mythological allusion. The speaker engages the power of the Roman god Cupid along with that of the goddess Diana. The speaker thereby retains a safe distance from his emotions. He likely hopes this distancing will free him from the tyranny of his lust in order to restore him to a blessed balance of heart and mind.
In the lion’s share of the Dark Lady Sonnets, the speaker has been monologuing directly to the woman, and he makes it abundantly obvious that he means for her to hear what he is expounding. Obversely, in both final sonnets, he is no longer addressing the woman. He mentions her; however, instead of speaking to her, he is speaking about her. He is using the structural tactic to demonstrate his withdrawal from the woman and her drama.
Most perceptive readers have likely begun to sense that the speaker has become sick and tired of his battle for this flawed woman’s affection and respect. He has finally determined to create a high-minded dramatic statement to bring about the end of this inauspicious relationship, fundamentally announcing, "I’m done."
© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes