The Case of Shakespeare v. Shakspere

What do Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Henry James, Kenneth Branagh,Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlie Chaplin, Michael York and Sir John Gielgud, Derek Jacoby, Mortimer Adler and Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Powell and Stevens have in common?  They all believed that William Shakespeare was a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, not for Will Shakspere the actor (whose only other known work is a barely literate will) to whom the authorship of the plays by William Shakespeare has been generally attributed for the last 400 years.

Arguing from evidence in the plays and poems, author Joseph Sobran demonstrates that the authorship debate can and ought to be relevant to the enjoyment and understanding of the plays.  That is our position as well – that knowing the authorship of the great plays written by “William Shakespeare” can be an enormous help in understanding them and appreciating their nuances and full historical significance. For that reason we invite our students to dip their toes into this great literary debate by reading Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time.  It will greatly enrich their experience reading the Shakespeare plays, regardless of their conclusions regarding the authorship of the plays.

The following all apply to only one man of the time the plays by William Shakespeare were written: only one man of his day wrote as William Shakespeare wrote; personally experienced many of the significant events in his great plays as they appear in his plays; visited many of the somewhat remote places that appear in his plays; held the high offices about which he so often wrote; lived in the rarefied atmosphere of royalty and wealth so often depicted with unerring accuracy in his plays; intimately knew the expressions, thoughts and mannerisms of courtly life to a level of detail virtually impossible for one who had not long experienced them to guess at or fake; wrote poems containing hundreds of resemblances to the plays; used images, themes, turns of phrase, rhetorical figures and general diction as one finds in the plays; used words only used one other place in the English language – in the plays by William Shakespeare.  That man was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. It was not the actor William Shakspere.

Following are two reviews of Mr. Sobran’s book, Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time

Joseph Sobran has written an elegant and persuasive condensation of the case for Edward de Vere’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon, updating the previous efforts of passionate and intelligent students of the Shakespeare question such as Charlton Ogburn Junior, Bernard M. Ward and John Thomas Looney. The book cogently and persuasively presents a much-maligned theory which counts among its recent adherents such intellectual lights as Derek Jacoby, Michael York, John Gilgud, Mortimer Adler and Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Powell and Stevens. As other reviewers have noted, it does not matter so much whether Sobran’s arguments are correct — this reader finds many of them persuasive — as that the subject itself warrants serious and sustained attention. At present champions of the orthodox Shakespeare retain their intellectual monopoly within higher education primarily by means of excluding non-specialists such as Sobran from the debate over the Shakespeare question and vociferously denying, against a host of contrary evidence, that the subject even exists. On the contrary, anyone who cares for the future of literary studies should acquaint themselves with the arguments made in this book. Not all of them are, in my opinion, equally valid. But that is no cause to ignore or belittle Mr. Sobran for tackling an important question which (sorry) ain’t going to disappear just because a few powerful Shakespeare industry insiders insist on feeling threatened by it rather than seeing it as one of the greatest boons which could befall a shrinking intellectual discipline. “Shakespeare” has never been more interesting or more real than he is in this book. For readers in search of a compact, intelligent, entertaining introduction to the authorship question — a question which is only now, after many years of suppression and neglect, beginning to come into its prime as one of the great questions of our day — this book is a great place to begin. – Roger Stritmatter

Most people accept the tradition that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon were indeed written by him, and they assume that doubters of the Stratford man’s authorship (anti-Stratfordians) must be irrational elitists. They might also assume that anti-Strats have nothing to offer those who simply wish to understand and enjoy the plays. But all of these assumptions are either debatable or wrong. In any case, though both sides of the authorship debate have been known to engage in circular arguments based on questionable evidence and to hurl childish ad hominems at one another, this is not true of Joseph Sobran who is reasonable in his arguments and civil toward his opponents. Rather than ask whether anti-Stratfordians are elitists, Sobran suggests that we ought to be asking if Shakespeare was one. For example, Shakespeare often makes cruel, unfair fun of social-climbing commoners exactly like Will Shaksper (a common variation of his name in contemporary legal documents). Arguing from evidence in the plays and poems, Sobran also demonstrates that the authorship debate can and ought to be relevant to the enjoyment and understanding of the Works. While I am not wholly on the side of the underdog anti-Strats, I believe that Stratfordian scholars (which too often means mainstream scholars) have done such a disservice to the general public’s enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare that I must take them to task. Some are so fanatical in their defense of the Stratford man’s claim to authorship that they seem to believe that if there were no tradition that he wrote the Works, they could conclusively prove from scratch that he did; but they could not for the same reason that anti-Stratfordians can never prove beyond a shadow that he didn’t or that one of their alternative candidates did: The trail is old, and the case is cold. If ever there was a smoking gun it has long since turned entirely to rust. The strongest and best evidence that the man from Stratford wrote the Works is the tradition that he did, which, while not being conclusive, is simply difficult to dismiss.

But this tradition is not much. Anxious to uncover any details to fill out his biography, overzealous Stratfordians have accepted and taught many dubious legends and read a fanciful biography of the Stratford man into the plays and poems. The anti-Stratfordians see through this mess because they have no desire to add more to the Stratford man’s biography than the documentary record will bear or to connect the biography to the Works where such a connection is based on pure guesswork. (Of course, they have motive to see other things that are not there, but here I speak only of how the anti-Strats are right.) For example, it was an anti-Stratfordian who realized that the famous “upstart crow” quotation has nothing whatever to do with Shakespeare, but instead clearly refers to an actor who did not write plays but was merely guilty of adlibbing. (More often, each side is equally at fault. I know of at least one instance where both sides used the exact same piece of evidence to prove their opposite conclusions. Upon further examination, it turned out that the evidence in question proved nothing whatsoever regarding authorship, yet each side had found in it proof of what it wanted to believe.) Meanwhile the Stratfordians reject the clear evidence from the plays that Shakespeare had far more learning than could have been provided by any formal education available to the Stratford man. In and of itself, this might not rule out the possibility that he was self-taught-except that the mainstream scholars HAVE ruled this out. They long ago boxed themselves into a corner by declaring that Shakespeare could not have had a vast education and any evidence that he did, no matter how compelling, cannot be admitted. (Once they assume that the Bard had little formal education, many orthodox Shakespeare scholars underestimate Shakepeare’s learning and assume that a degree in literature somehow makes them Shakespeare’s betters in matters such as, of all things, sixteenth-century Italian geography where it actually turns out that Shakespeare is the master.) Students are misleadingly told that they should readily understand Shakespeare because he wrote in ordinary language, aside from archaic words and grammatical constructions (as if these were not formidable enough). This is belied by the demonstrable fact that Shakespeare employed abstruse legalistic metaphors, used idiomatic Italian phrases (that he only partially translated) and demonstrated arcane knowledge of such subjects as heraldry. This and much more is explained in Sobran’s book. My only criticism of Sobran is that he gets so caught up in his persuasive case for the candidacy of the Earl of Oxford (which understandably persuades him) that he leans too far toward assuming Oxford’s authorship to be a proven fact. In this, Sobran is like other participants in the authorship controversy. The authorship debate is a good example of my maxim that wherever there are only two sides to an argument both are usually wrong. Just because there is reason to doubt that Will Shaksper authored the plays and poems does not prove that he did not, and just because a case can be made that someone else might have written them does not prove that he or she did. The anti-Stratfordians are correct to point out that the biography of the traditional candidate does not fit the apparent biography of the author of the Works, and the Stratfordians are right to point out that the anti-Stratfordians cannot prove that one of their alternative candidates is the true author. Part of the argument of each side is correct, but neither side is free of error. That being said, Sobran’s contribution to the anti-Stratfordian cause is extremely readable and thought-provoking. He sums up the best evidence as it stands. If the average reader ought to read only one book by an anti-Strat, this is the one. Miles N. Fowler Charlottesville, VA USA