In this age of compulsive commemoration, you might expect the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death to attract some notice, but it has passed almost unobserved. That’s because his pen name has been mistaken for his real name, and all the honor due to him has gone to the wrong man.
“Shakespeare” — Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford — died exactly four centuries ago, on June 24, 1604, at age 54. In his own time he was known as a brilliant poet and playwright, though he preferred, as a gentleman, not to publish his work under his own name, deeming it beneath his dignity to write for money and popularity.
Not that he couldn’t have used the money. He was born very rich, became an earl at age 12 when his father died, and wasted his huge family fortune. He was a brilliant young man, a superb poet, scholar, and athlete as well as a generous patron of the arts; he became a star of the court and the favorite of Elizabeth I herself, who nicknamed him “my Turk.” He attended Cambridge University, studied law at the Inns of Court, and spoke fluent French and Latin.
But Oxford’s personal life was turbulent. He married the young daughter of his guardian, the great Lord Burghley, when he was 21, she 15, and left the poor girl five years later after he came home from a tour of Italy to meet rumors that the daughter, born during his absence, was not his.
This was almost certainly a slander, and Oxford himself apparently didn’t believe it, but he was hypersensitive about his good name — with the most ironic long-term result imaginable.
His fiery temper got him into scrape after scrape. At 17 he stabbed a servant, who bled to death. An inquest found that the servant had drunkenly started the fight and ruled that Oxford had acted in self-defense, but that was only the beginning.
While separated from his wife, he had a son by one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honor. The queen threw him into the Tower of London, and the price of his release was to beg for Burghley’s intercession and to reconcile with his wife. A violent feud with his mistress’s relatives also commenced, and Oxford was seriously wounded in a swordfight.
At about the same time, he launched another bitter feud by informing the queen that three of his old Catholic friends were acting as secret agents for Spain. They in reply accused him of outrageous crimes, including “buggering boys.” No charges were brought, but these furors did his good name a bit of no good, and his standing at court plunged. As his fortune melted away, he had to rely on the queen for a large pension to keep him afloat.
All along, he made a great literary reputation and supported his own troupes of actors. His writings inspired generous tributes from the leading literati of the day, among them Edmund Spenser, George Puttenham, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, and Robert Greene. The tributes continued long after his death. Yet only a few short poems have come down to us under his own name.
If he published works under the name “William Shakespeare,” of course, his towering contemporary reputation is easy to understand. Those works imply an author of his background: intimate with the law, with Italy, with court intrigue, manners, and gossip, and with sheer opulence. The Sonnets reflect his personal life, particularly his sexual scandals and his despair; Oxford had some reason to wish that “My name [will] be buried where my body is.” It was.
And therein lies the tremendous irony of Oxford’s life. While trying to shield his good name by writing under pseudonyms, he in effect gave away the greatest literary reputation of modern times, lending an unmerited glory to a minor actor from the little town of Stratford upon Avon who could barely sign his own name.
Anyone who studies the Sonnets and Hamlet in the light of Oxford’s life and letters should have no great difficulty deciding who the real author was. But a world that can honor mass murderers as national heroes may continue to honor a semiliterate actor as the greatest literary genius who ever lived.