De Vere Ball Remarks
Good evening! My name is Phoebe Nir, and it’s my great pleasure to welcome you to the Edward De Vere Winter Ball: A toast to the true William Shakespeare! I’m sure to many of you, the idea that “William Shakespeare” could have been a pseudonym is the bailiwick of the tinfoil hat crowd. But if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I will attempt to provide a different perspective.
Obviously, pseudonymity in the arts is hardly unusual, and boasts a proud tradition dating back to Homer and the Tao te Ching. Samuel Clemens, a passionate Shakespeare authorship truther who wrote an entire book on the subject, is far better known by his penname Mark Twain.
The strongest evidence Stratfordians have for attributing the works to a man named William Shakespeare is that, quite simply, his name’s on the books. Admittedly, this is a point in their favor.
However, consider the case of Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, a celebrated Stratfordian scholar who made it her life’s mission to debunk Will’s skeptics. She spent eight diligent years searching for evidence connecting Will of Stratford to the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare’s first publications are dedicated in extravagant, adoring language. After years of ransacking public records, she was able to produce zero evidence connecting the two men, and died feeling her life had been a failure.
On the other hand, the Earl of Southampton had been engaged to Edward De Vere’s eldest daughter. And the only other two people to whom Shakespeare dedicates his works, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, were engaged to Edward de Vere’s other two daughters. Three daughters, engaged to the three dedicatees.
Edward De Vere’s authorship in fact solves many Occam’s razer conundrums that have tied up Stratfordians for centuries. The truth is, the Stratford man has always been an awkward fit for the body of work attributed to him, leading biographers to construct what Mark Twain called “an Eiffel Tower of artificialities”, and what Henry James called “the greatest fraud ever practiced on a patient world”. Why is there not a single contemporary reference to anyone ever meeting a playwright named William Shakespeare? If Will never left England, then how can Shakespeare describe in detail the artwork inside royal palaces in Italy where Edward De Vere stayed, such as the 200 lines in Lucrece describing the mural in the guest room of the Ducal Palace of Mantua, where Edward De Vere stayed? How did a man from an illiterate working-class household learn to speak Greek, Latin, Italian, Hebrew, and French? And why would such an amazing autodidact not have ensured his children could at least write in English? When Stratfordians are asked these questions, they contort themselves into pretzels arguing that the world’s greatest literary genius was hopeless at foreign languages and clueless about European geography. Detailed Oxfordian scholarship has proved them wrong every time; Shakespeare was there, and he knows what he’s talking about.
Let’s discuss Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece. Scholars and theater lovers of all stripes have long suspected that the tale of the moody Danish prince has a whiff of the autobiographical. Stratfordians are delighted to point out that the name “Hamlet” is nearly interchangeable with “Hamnet”, the name of Will of Stratford’s son, who died young of the plague. A recent popular novel by Maggie O’Farrell imagines how a heartbroken Will channeled his grief over losing his son “Hamnet” into writing the play “Hamlet”. Very nice.
Now let’s see if Edward De Vere’s biography has any similarities with Hamlet.
· Hamlet draws from Beowulf, the only existing copy of which was possessed by Edward De Vere’s tutor Laurence Nowell, who kept it in Cecil House, where De Vere grew up.
· Hamlet’s book from Act II, scene two is Cardanus’ Comfort by Giralomo Cardano, which Edward de Vere personally commissioned to be translated into English when he was 23.
· It’s accepted that Polonius, the interfering father of Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia, is a satire of Edward De Vere’s father-in-law William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and one of the most feared men in England. His famous “to thine own self be true” speech, delivered to his son Laertes upon his departure for France, is a spoof of Cecil’s letter of advice delivered to his son Robert before Robert’s departure for France.
· Edward De Vere’s brother-in-law was an ambassador to Denmark in the castle Elsinore in the 1580s, where he met one official named Rosenkrantz and two named Guildenstern.
· Hamlet is reported to have been captured by pirates, stripped naked, and left ashore. In 1576, returning from a tour of his beloved Italy, De Vere was captured by pirates, stripped naked, and left ashore.
· Polonius alludes to young men “falling out at tennis”, referencing a 1579 scandal in which De Vere and his literary rival Phillip Sidney had nearly come to blows on the Greenwich Palace tennis court, requiring the intervention of Queen Elizabeth.
I have spared you the exhaustive list of Oxfordian references in Hamlet, and the Oxfordian references in Shakespeare’s larger canon fill shelves of books (for starters, I particularly recommend Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare by another Name”).
An Oxfordian reading of Shakespeare is not about being classist or contrarian. It’s about the delight of drawing closer to the beating heart of these works, and overcoming the “reference unknown” that popped up so irksomely throughout the Folgers editions I read as a kid in school. Consider that half of Shakespeare’s plays are almost never produced, denigrated by puzzled Stratfordians as “problem plays”. These “problem plays” tend to be those hewn most closely to Edward De Vere’s personal experiences and the political events of the late 1500; the “problem” is the faulty lens of Stratfordianism, and Oxfordianism provides the solution.
Oxfordian scholarship today isn’t actually that concerned with proving that Shakespeare was Edward De Vere’s pseudonym, as that argument was laid out quite thoroughly a hundred years ago in J. T. Looney’s “Shakespeare Identified”. It is instead focused on understanding the role of Shakespeare’s works in the tumultuous and fascinating Elizabethan world.
Despite how it’s been preserved in the popular imagination, Elizabethan England was one of the most repressive police states in history. It was illegal to write satire or history, and treasonous to even discuss who might become King after the death of heirless Queen Elizabeth. More than carefree diversions, audience members flocked to the theaters seeking commentary and gossip on the political affairs of the day, which had to be cleverly disguised beneath layers of allegory lest its writers risk arrest, torture, or execution.
Edward De Vere had spent many years serving as Queen Elizabeth’s courtly poet and propagandist, a service for which he was paid a hefty thousand pound annuity from the revels and entertainment budget. However, as Queen Elizabeth grew increasingly senile, and the issue of her royal succession remained unresolved, De Vere was forced to present his case to the public. 1601 marked the Essex rebellion, a desperate attempt by De Vere’s coalition of nobles to limit the control of Elizabeth’s advisor Robert Cecil, who was scheming to place James of Scotland as the next English monarch against their wishes. The rebellion was kicked off by a special presentation of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe Theater, for which the actors had to be bribed; they feared for their lives due to the play’s depiction of a monarch being deposed, the ultimate taboo in Tudor England. The fact that Richard II represented Queen Elizabeth was lost on no one, least of all Queen Elizabeth, who famously said to her royal archivist William Lambarde, “I am Richard, know ye not that?” Sure enough, this production started a riot leading to an armed revolt against Elizabeth’s government, brutally quelled by Robert Cecil (Incidentally, hunchbacked Robert was the model for Shakespeare’s most iconic villain, the hunchbacked Machiavellian Richard III.)
De Vere died about a year into James’ reign of ambiguous causes, and it’s no surprise that after his death, it was a priority for the new regime to discredit the man who’d formerly been its most outspoken opponent. Dekker and Webster’s 1604 play ‘Westward Ho” was a hatchet job on the recently deceased Earl’s reputation, likely funded by Robert Cecil. Within months, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston teamed up for a rebuttal play called “Eastward Ho”, which portrayed De Vere positively, until it was shut down by the authorities. Imagine today if Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, and the Coen brothers had suddenly collaborated on a film defending Woody Allen—and were subsequently arrested, and threatened with having their nose and ears cut off.
History is written by the winners, but Edward De Vere, the man of infinite jest, spun a brilliantly tangled web to preserve his legacy. The mythical “William Shake-speare” was not just a pun, a pseudonym, and a dick joke, but also the allonym for a living person. Elizabeth Trentham, who outlived her husband De Vere, left instructions in her will for the continuation of a yearly allowance to an unknown person referred to as a “dumb man.” Though it is strange for us to conceive of an aristocrat hiring a front man for his creative work, there are historical precedents dating back to ancient Rome.
There is so much more to say, but this is supposed to be a party, so I’ll wrap up.
I’m anticipating a wave of hot takes about the supposed connection between Oxfordianism and whatever moment the media is currently struggling to define. It has been my project to propel Oxfordianism into the zeitgeist, and it does feel like a new wave of interest in Shakespeare’s authorship may have begun to form. I stand proudly in friendship with my guests tonight. But I want to be clear - the Oxfordian movement is about more than politics. It is about the truth. Thank you.