Shakespeare in the Limelight

Edward de Vere

Shakespeare in the Limelight: The Case for Edward de Vere

April 16, 2009
by Gerit Quealy
Those convinced that the actor William Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have penned the plays and poetry laid to his name have proposed a variety of potential candidates for authorship. This installment in findingDulcinea’s Shakespeare series spotlights the leading contender in the Authorship Question: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

The Leading Contender

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has emerged as the leading contender for Shakespeare authorship simply because of the weight of circumstantial evidence. Proponents of the theory were so persuasive, members of the Supreme Court were prompted to do a mock trial of the case of Oxford vs Shakespeare.


The theory emerged in the early 20th century when J. Thomas Looney conducted a methodical investigation to see who fit the criteria for authorship suggested by the material in the plays themselves: a mature man of recognized genius, unconventional, of pronounced and known literary tastes, a poet of recognized talent, superior education, knowledge of courtly sports such as falconry, a lover of Italy and so forth. He found just such a man in Edward de Vere.

Unfortunately, detractors focused on Looney’s name (actually pronounced Low-nee) and dismissed the case out of hand, without a fuller investigation of his evidence.

De Vere's Biography

De Vere’s plays were cited by contemporaries as “the best for Comedy,” although none has ever come to light. He was an acknowledged poet and a devout patron of the arts, with his own acting company. Dozens of dedications were written to him and by him. But it is de Vere’s biography that makes a compelling case.
De Vere traveled extensively in Italy and became known as the "Italian earl"; almost half of the Shakespeare plays are set in Italy. A peculiar plot twist in Hamlet where he’s captured by pirates actually happened to de Vere, twice, as did the “bed trick,” which is a plot device in both “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure.” The plays are peppered with characters modeled on people in de Vere’s life: For instance, his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, is the prototype for Polonius in “Hamlet.” His uncle and tutor, Arthur Golding, was the first to translate Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” into English, the work acknowledged as Shakespeare’s favorite book, layered throughout the plays and poems. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Objections (or Sticks & Stones)

The growing popularity of this theory has prompted a vehement cry from supporters of the incumbent, primarily in the form of name-calling. Stratfordians like to reduce the issue to one of snobbery, sidestepping the fact that the kind of knowledge exhibited in Shakespeare’s work was not readily accessible at the time and that genius does not explain everything: Intelligence is not knowledge. They also dismiss the accumulation of new evidence that sheds fresh light on the people, plays and players involved both on and off the stage, bringing a deeper appreciation and understanding of the plays themselves. But the argument has done wonders for the publishing industry.

New Kids on the Block

The story is far from over. Several new candidates have been added to the roster in recent years: the statesman Sir Henry Neville; Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, to whose sons the First Folio is dedicated and most recently, Amelia Lanier, a Jewish Venetian musician and mistress in the Elizabethan court. She’s surely not the last.

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