So last night I finally got around to watching Richard II, the first play in the Hollow Crown season currently running on BBC One. It was, I thought, a very strong production of what is quite a difficult play – lacking as it does an easily sympathetic protagonist and realistically portraying politics as a complex, knotty and morally uncertain business – which fails to provide anything that resembles a satisfyingly neat plot arc. Still, I enjoyed it and if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it.

Then I made the mistake of watching the accompanying documentary in which Derek Jacobi discussed the play. For the most part this was an interesting show, though perhaps it skewed too often towards the perspective of actors rather than talking to people who knew anything about the history of the era of either Richard or Shakespeare, or any real insight into politics. However it was spoiled, for me, by the ten minute diversion into the realms of Shakespeare-denial. I hadn’t realised that Jacobi was an “Oxfordian” – someone who believes that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and attributes the works to John de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

For the most part I put Shakespeare-deniers in the same category as UFO nuts and conspiracy-theorists who believe that NASA faked the Moon landings or that the Illuminati killed JFK with a death-ray. They’re vaguely annoying but their arguments are so patently daft that they’re not worth engaging with.

However, being forced to sit through Jacobi’s burblings, in which he was joined by some toff descendent of de Vere, the thing that struck me most forcefully (and annoyed me most profoundly) was their casual certainty that a man from Shakespeare’s “modest” background couldn’t have written plays of such quality or complexity and could not have understood the workings of the court or possessed an insight into the mind of kings. Shakespeare was, simply, too much of an oik.

I’m sure there are plenty of stupid flaws in the Oxfordian argument but it is the class-based argument that annoys me most, consisting as it does of ugly snobbery and assumptions of privilege. I deeply dislike the idea that it is, somehow, self-evident that only a lord could produce great plays or poetry. It is both pernicious and demonstrably nonsense.

Shakespeare (b. 1564) was son of a successful businessman, his father was a glover. He comes from exactly the same sort of background as many contemporary Elizabethan playwrights and poets. For example:

Ben Johnson – (b. 1572) – stepson of a master brickmaker
Christopher Marlowe (b. 1564) – son of a shoemaker
Thomas Kyd (b. 1558) – son of a scrivener
Edmund Spenser (c. 1552)– probably the son of a journeyman clothmaker
Robert Greene (b. 1558) – son of a saddler or innkeeper
Thomas Nashe (b. 1567) and John Lyly (b. 1553) – sons of minor clergy
George Peele (b. 1556) – son of a clerk and bookkeeper
John Marston (b. 1576) – son of a lawyer

The main difference between Shakespeare and many of these writers was that they received a university education. Shakespeare attended a good grammar school which we know taught Latin using the classics but, where people like Marlowe and Greene then went on to university, Shakespeare, aged 18, married the older and (probably) already pregnant Anne Hathaway in 1585 and disappears from the historical record for several years. Sometime in this period he went to London and established himself as an actor, theatre impresario and, despite what the Oxfordians claim, playwright.

The first reference we have to Shakespeare as a playwright is Robert Greene’s attack on him – parodying his writing and calling him an “upstart” in 1592.  We might take this as an attack on Shakespeare’s lack of university education – Greene was one of the “university wits” with Marlowe and the rest. 1 It seems more likely, however, that it was Shakespeare’s status as a “Johannes Factotum” (Jack-of-all-trades – actor and theatre manager as well as playwright) that annoyed Greene most. In any case, his main concern seems not to be Shakespeare’s upbringing or class but his “bombast” and his belief that, he was “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country”. Anyway, Shakespeare was not the only major playwright of his time who didn’t attended university. Ben Johnson received a good schooling but was then, on his own account, apprenticed to a trade (possibly bricklaying) before serving as a soldier. The lack of a formal higher education does not seem to have held back Johnson’s career as a dramatist either. There appears to be nothing in the man from Stratford’s history that marks him out as being radically different from most of the other writers plying their trade in Elizabethan England.

Of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries few were high-born. John Fletcher (b. 1579), with whom Shakespeare may have collaborated on some of his later plays, was the son of a Bishop while Thomas Lodge (b. 1558) was the second son of a former Lord Mayor of London. And this raises another obvious question. The Oxfordians argue that only the copious gifts showered upon the English aristocracy in this period (education, good breeding, leisure time, the ability to visit foreign lands, wealth, access to court) could provide the unique foundations necessary to create the works of staggering genius (and occasional stumbling mediocrity) we attribute to Shakespeare. But if this is true, where are all the other aristocratic geniuses of drama, verse and prose? Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries are plainly of a class – the product of ambitious, professional men who valued the opportunities education offered their sons. Where is the similar cadre of successful playwrights and poets who were the sons of dukes and earls? Are we to believe that they were all secretly beavering away behind the names of middle-class oiks – that Ben Johnson’s plays were written by Derby, that Christopher Marlowe was the nom-de-plume of Queen Mary?

What really annoys me about the Oxfordian argument as put forward by Jacobi isn’t so much that they want to credit someone else with the authorship of this group of plays. In the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter who first put all those words on paper so much as it matters that we actually have those words. The real problem with this argument is that it is based on a toadying notion that the aristocracy are inherently superior – that it is obvious that the privileged contribute more to society than the rest of us. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it’s precisely the same attitude that reinforces the notion that chief executives and bankers deserve every penny of the cash that’s poured into their bank accounts because their contribution is naturally more valuable than ours and to suggest otherwise is the product of ignorance or base jealously. But, with art as with business, the supposedly vast contribution of the elite is a mirage.

The most casual glance through history shows that despite – or perhaps because of – their privilege and their opportunities, great art rarely emerges from the elite (though I conceded they have often funded its creation through their patronage). Despite the Oxfordian claim that Shakespeare’s background make his achievements incredible it would actually be much more unusual if work of the quality of King Lear or Hamlet had emerged from the pen of a man of de Vere’s background.


  1. A recurring criticism from writers of Shakespeare’s time suggests that even his friends thought his plays were lacking in erudition. Ben Johnson’s poem in memory of Shakespeare praises his work but notes Shakespeare’s scholarly shortcomings: “thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that these references are coded hints that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but what seems more likely is that Shakespeare did not appear impossibly learned to his contemporaries. For people who were immersed in classical literature and mythology, educated in Latin and Greek – as Shakespeare’s university educated contemporaries were – Will was a bit too populist for refined and gentlemanly tastes. His enemies were more blunt, some accusing him of plagiarism and there are few modern scholars that would deny that Shakespeare drew heavily on a pretty narrow range of sources, especially for his history plays. It’s worth remembering that for most of the first 200 years after his death, Shakespeare’s works weren’t as highly regarded as they are today – his legacy was as a good writer but just one amongst many. “Bardolatry” is a modern creation. All this rather undermines the argument that Shakespeare couldn’t have written his plays because they were too learned and would have required far more education than was available to someone from his background and that, therefore, only an aristocrat could have produced them.
This entry was posted in Blogging and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Adam Roberts says:

    Fascinating stuff, and spot-on. Back in the day, when I was still part of The Valve, I had a run-in with a real-life Oxfordian. It was frustrating, since the gentleman in question had a hermetically sealed mind that simply ignored evidence that falsified his extravagant theory; but of course that’s par for the Conspiracy Theory course:

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks Adam – though having made the schoolboy error of reading the comments thread on that piece I’m now slightly terrified about what I might have let myself in for…

  3. William Ray says:

    Thanks for the complete misrepresentation of the Oxfordian thesis, i.e., that Edward de Vere [not John as you thought, genius], 17th Ear of Oxford, was the pseudonymous author of the Shakespeare canon. By setting up your straw man that it is all aristocratic snobbism on the part of the Oxfordian thinkers, you have no trouble making them the scapegoat of your repetitive screed.

    Interesting fact: Oxford was an authentic champion lancer, twice. He was referred to, ironically, as shaking a spear and holding a shake-staffe. His pseudonym: Shake-Speare. Unless your Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford was the union of the Shaks and the Speres, no particular reason to think Shakspere was the creator of the pseudonym Shake-Speare.

    Interesting fact: Oxford was the inspiration and sponsor of the English Renaissance and used his several pseudonyms to create the impression that several not just one author were part of it. He housed the University wits; Lyly, Mundy, Kyd, Nashe, and Daniel were his secretaries; he was covertly praised as the author of Venus and Adonis; he ran several play companies that (gasp) all produced Shakespeare plays. Shakspere was a stock-holder in one, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

    Interesting fact: you don’t appear interested in facts. Genius.

  4. Martin says:

    Interesting fact: I might not know my Edwards from my Johns but if I was going to have a go at someone for an error like that, I’d make sure I spelled “Earl” right. Genius.

    Interesting fact: I didn’t set up the straw man – Derek Jacobi and some genetic overspill from the de Vere family were the snobs who claimed it was a class issue in the documentary I was discussing.

    Interesting fact: You’re right, I don’t care about your “facts”. Gasp. If you’d read what I’ve written, you’d see: (i) I don’t think it really matters who wrote the plays; (ii) I think the circumstantial ramblings and compulsive pseudo-cryptographical wittering that Oxfordians indulge in are more likely to reveal folk in need of help with their mental health than the identity of an Elizabethan playwright; and (iii) I don’t care (I know I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating).

    Interesting fact: Genius. Gasp.

  5. Adam Roberts says:

    If your mind weren’t closed and you weren’t such a straight, Martin, you’d know that ‘Oxford’ was the name of a mighty 17th-century beast with 666 ears; to be appointed ’17th Ear of Oxford’ is a sign of the great prominence of De Vere in his own day. He also founded the diamond company, and ran the advertising firm who came up with ‘we’re only de Vere for the beer’. Knocking off some plays would be easy peasy for him.

  6. Howard Schumann says:

    The traditional Stratfordian theory presents us with a major disconnect between the life of the presumed author and his creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to the author. The issue is about evidence, not snobbery.

    Several points should be considered.

    1) In twenty years of supposedly living in London, not a single letter exists from or to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him — it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

    Yes, documents from 400 years ago could be lost, yet we have letters from Thomas Nashe, Philip Massinger, Gabriel Harvey, Samuel Daniel, George Peele, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and William Drummond, Anthony Mundy, John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe and others, many of them lesser writers.

    2) There is no evidence that William of Stratford could have acquired the vast educational, linguistic or cultural background necessary to write the masterpieces of English literature ascribed to Shakespeare. His plays reveal knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

    3) He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

    4) He took no legal action against the pirating of the Shakespeare plays or the apparently unauthorized publication of Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609, even though he was known to frequently initiate lawsuits to recover petty sums of money owed to him.

    5) His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?

    6) He was so well known that at the height of Shakespeare’s alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.

    7) Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, paint a portrait of the artist as a much older man. The scholarly consensus today holds that most of the Sonnets were written in the 1590s, when Shakspere of Stratford was in his late 20s to late 30s, a relatively youthful age even in Elizabethan times. Yet, the author of the Sonnets at times is clearly much older and anticipating his own imminent death. Inexplicably, the publisher’s dedication in the 1609 volume of Sonnets refers to Shakespeare as our ever-living poet, a term that implies the poet is already dead, but Shakspere of Stratford was still very much alive until 1616.

    8) At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio. Why was no notice taken of Shakspere of Stratford’s death if he was such a literary luminary?

    9) The Sonnets also suggest strongly that Shakespeare was a pen name and that the author’s real identity was destined to remain unknown. In Sonnet 72 Shakespeare asks that “My name be buried where my body is”. Sonnet 81: “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die”. If Shakspere of Stratford truly was the famous author of the Sonnets, why would he think his name would be buried with his body? The name Shakespeare which appears on the title page of the Sonnets themselves — certainly wasn’t buried with the body of the poet, whoever he was.

    10) There is no evidence of a single payment to Shakspere of Stratford as an author. Nor is there any evidence of Shakspere of Stratford seeking out or establishing an ongoing literary patron as was a common practice for writers of the day.

    11. Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France.

    12. The plays reveal an intimate familiarity with court life and manners that Shakespeare, as a commoner, could not have obtained simply by conversations at the Mermaid Tavern.

    13. Shakespeare’s point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

    14) Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. For example:

    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    Shakespeare’s reliance on books in foreign languages puzzles the experts, so we can suppose all sorts of things rather than conclude the obvious. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to read in Italian, French, and Spanish. We know specifically that Edward de Vere was fluent in four foreign languages, Latin, Greek, Italian, and French.

    15) The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, certain prominent persons in Elizabeth’s court, and events connected with them. In the sonnets and the plays there are frequent references to events that are paralleled in the life of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

    The evidence for Oxford is strong and I would even call it compelling but it requires looking under the surface of many common myths that are circulating and to read books beyond the Stratfordian biased accounts.

  7. Martin says:


    Sigh… I’m not going to reply to all of these points in detail because, y’know, I’ve already said I don’t really care. But most of these points can by addressed by asking ourselves what modern writers do when they want to write a story set in a place or time they haven’t visited or featuring people they don’t really know… they do research, they talk to people who might know the answers or, and I want to break this to you gently, they just make stuff up. Hard to believe, I know, but in works of fiction (and frequently in works of non-fiction) sometimes the stuff on the page is the product of someone’s imagination. Shakespeare (or de Vere, or a time-travelling elf from Santa’s grotto) probably wasn’t a witch or a magician (and none of them were women) but he could still write convincingly about such exotic beasts in plays like Macbeth and The Tempest and King Lear.

    My only other point is to ask why, when his friends came to publish the first folio of his plays (twenty years after the death of the 17th Earl of Oxford and Elizabeth I, seven years after William Shakespeare died – so at a time when no possible damage could have been done to any living person’s reputaton) would they have continued this imagined, preposterous, cover up? And why continue with the “pretence” that the plays were specifically written by “Mr William Shakespeare” when the volume was reprinted in 1631 (when even Edward de Vere’s heir was dead) and 1663 (when the heir of his heir was dead)? And why would they put a monument over William Shakespeare of Stratford’s grave identifying him as a great writer? These people, who acted in the plays, who were there at their creation (who probably contributed to their creation as, if Elizabethan plays are anything like modern plays, such works are transformed by the process of taking them from page to stage) seem convinced that the man buried in Stratford wrote the plays. Frankly, that’s good enough for me. Though, to recap, I still don’t really care except insofar as the Oxfordian argument makes a huge number of class assumptions that are not sustainable and reveal a toadying attitude to aristocracy that I find repulsive.

    This is my final word on this issue, especially since none of the Oxfordians who’ve commented (and not all of the comments have been fit to approve – you angry, angry, potty mouths! – my blog, my rules) seem to have bothered to read what I have written and have, instead, simply indulged themselves by repeating “facts” (an array of wildy circumstantial burblings) that they hold as articles of faith. For example, Howard, I’ve already addressed the idea that Shakespeare was impossibly well informed (he clearly wasn’t – either in the view of his contemporaries or modern scholars) but you go ahead and repeat this “fact” without amendment. If you can’t do me the basic courtesy of reading what I’ve written then I see no reason why I should take your regurgitation of Oxfordian cant seriously.