Janet Suzman Skewers the Oxfordians


I have just finished an interesting book by Janet Suzman, a fine Shakespearean actress. She played one of the best Cleopatras I’ve seen in 1974 and produced and directed a brilliant Othello in Johannesburg in 1987. The book, Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama, deals primarily with women and acting, a topic I will return to later. But here I’ll just reference her first chapter, A Rogue Prologue: A heartfelt plea for a bit of common sense. The chapter deals with those who believe the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays and although Suzman is very reluctant to address the topic, she writes:

Obfuscations shot through with cant, piffle and deception seems to me a poor subject for deep analysis. Furthermore to waste good millions on a lousy film to defend the indefensible seems both profligate and time-wasting. Even spending my time on this counter-blast is irritating. But I find myself wanting to defend the man from Stratford here; the one person in the universe who doesn’t need my defence. But there you go, he’s got it.

She says that the fact that Oxford lived almost concurrently with Shakespeare, had travelled, had some connections and ‘wrote a few poems of uneven quality’ seems to have ‘addled the brains’ of the Oxfordians.

For your Oxfordian, it’s impossible for a writer to conjure up another world in the imagination, he has to have been there, which for a start puts the entire range of science fiction into the rubbish bin. The notion that you can’t write about anything until you have-been-there-done-that is just silly.

Later she writes:

Because you have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine the Earl of Oxford secretly wrote thirty seven plays performed and printed over a quarter of a century without being found out. And you have to be a snob if you hate it that the greatest poet the world has ever produced was born into the humble alder-manic classes of a provincial town.

Janet Suzman admits she is no academic. All the better for that. She has just spent a lifetime among actors, theatre companies and the works of Shakespeare. And guess what? Actors, directors – the whole crew – talk to each other.

Has it never occurred to this bunch of dreamers how such a daft plot might work in a busy theatre company? No whispers and sniggers about such a plonking modus operandi, a deception stretching over twenty-five years? Did this doltish William of theirs never crow in his cups about his secret benefactor and his growing wealth? Did the company never notice how illiterate Will had suddenly turned scribe, brandishing inky cue-sheets under their noses, scribbly fingers freshly stained? Did no one ever mark how rewrites – for rewrites there surely were – happened only after William had returned from a loo-break?

I was pleased that she mentioned the most obvious reason the Earl of Oxford did not write the plays: the fact that he died in 1604.

Not to mention that the earl dies in 1604 and Shakespeare lasts until 1616, but hey, no worries, the late plays secretly mature in the company cellar like bottles of vintage claret, to be broached one by one with a flourish when a new play is required. In the silly film a pile of the late plays are tremblingly handed by the dying earl to Ben Jonson for safekeeping. Ben then manages to hide them in a tin trunk beneath the stage. For nine years those plays lie safe, undiscovered by prying prop hands. Then the terrible Globe fire of 1613 happens, and lo! – they are rescued by a panic-stricken Ben.

One can almost hear Suzman chuckling as she writes, fed up with (yet again) having to rescue Shakespeare from the idiot Oxfordians, but nevertheless quite enjoying destroying their case with accuracy and humour. I only have space for a few of her arguments here, but she picks off the Oxfordian arguments one by one in her (highly recommended) book. The many people who knew Shakespeare?

For heaven’s sake – we have at least a dozen known contemporaries of his who knew him well and who mention him both as an author and an actor, a continuous series of traces left from him from 1592 until his death in 1616.

She supplies several (much deserved) digs at the ‘infuriating circumstantial wooliness of the Oxfordians.’

Not only a dreadful snobbery pervades their view, but a limiting literalness that is hard to fathom, especially as some of the more famous adherents have perfectly respectable imaginations of their own. Remember that not a single trace is discernible in the Oxfordian paper-chase. It’s all smoke and snobbery.

smokeShe has little sympathy or feeling for Oxford, although she refrains from mentioning that he lived beyond his means, owed everybody money and cruelly murdered one of his servants.

The poor Earl of Oxford’s life, such as we know it, is way too complicated, not to mention too short, to have fitted into the sneaky diurnal disguise devised for him. Writing, directing and acting in a slew of your own plays, in a company of performers who knew you well, in a town abuzz with gossip and rivalry, for a quarter of a century is really more than enough for any one man to have accomplished. To have somehow feigned all this, God knows how, without being rumbled, simply beggars belief.

She signs off with

Oxford did not write the plays. William Shakespeare of Stratford is the man who knows the quiet industry of creation and the hurly-burly of staging it. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise we are truly away with leprechauns.

Leprechauns maybe. I would be less polite. To the Tower with all of them.

Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama


A very brief summary of the Oxfordians…

wsmontage-001It is hard to decide when the Oxfordians came to prominence. Before the Oxfordian renaissance there had also been claims for Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the fifth Earl of Rutland, among many others. It is not entirely clear when Edward de Vere emerged from the pack; it was possibly when John Thomas Looney wrote “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford certainly became a popular candidate around that time.

The originator of Oxford’s claims (and author of the best book on the subject), John Thomas Looney, claimed great artists do not write for money and that Shakespeare ‘had an ‘acquisitive disposition’ and indulged in ‘habitual petty money transactions.’ But if this disqualified Shakespeare, does it somehow qualify Oxford who, according to the Dictionary of National Biography written by Alan Nelson, was

’notorious in his own time for his irregular life, and for squandering virtually his entire patrimony on personal extravagance.’

He was also

‘Eternally short of funds, he did not scruple to burden lesser men with his debts.’

Oxford stabbed a servant to death, but was exonerated when the authorities decided that the servant had deliberately impaled himself on Oxford’s knife, thereby committing suicide. Do Shakespeare’s plays give the impression that they were written by a very nasty piece of work – a cold blooded murderer?

It is also interesting that Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Henry VIII were all written after Oxford’s death. Looney believed that the plays were written before Oxford died and posthumously released or left incomplete and finished by other writers, which would also explain references to events that occurred after Oxford had died. This is rather clever because it naturally discounts any claim against it. If it is true. It isn’t, of course.

In 1921 Looney said that ‘circumstantial evidence cannot be accumulated for ever without at some point issuing in proof.’ Yet proof there has never been. There must also be a good reason why the murderer de Vere, the greatest poet of all time, would suppress his identity. The answer was that Oxford was the secret lover of Queen Elizabeth I, their affair producing a son: the Earl of Southampton. This theory was later modified. According to Oxfordians, de Vere was not only Elizabeth’s lover but her son as well: the lie that Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen led indirectly to the lie that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays. A continuous series of cover ups on the part of authority, the Tudor Court and hundreds of academics remained committed to protecting Oxford’s identity and denying him his rightful place. So desperate were the Oxfordians for proof that Percy Allen, President of the Shakespeare Fellowship, decided he would gain the necessary proof by conversing with the dead. He published Talks with Elizabethans, an account of his conversations with Oxford, Bacon and Shakespeare. Shakespeare later thanked him for his efforts.

For many years after Allen’s revelations the Oxfordians seemed dead on their feet. In 1968 their newsletter reported that

‘the missionary or evangelical spirit of most of our members seems to be at a low ebb, dormant or non-existent.’

A biographer of Shakespeare, Samuel Schoenbaum, fed up with having to plod through so many questioning accounts said in 1974 that their

‘voluminousness was only matched by their intrinsic worthlessness. It was lunatic rubbish. The produce of mania.’

By the mid-1980s it had become the habit of the media to give both sides in any controversy an equal hearing. Any point of view, no matter how mad, demanded equal time with its opposite view. Oxfordians took their chance. Now, many years later, we have Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy Irons as supporters of the cause; children’s bookshops stock Oxfordian titles; magazines feature the Oxfordian cause; the New York Times runs sympathetic articles; Supreme Court justices declare themselves Oxfordians; supporters around the world are able to join discussion groups and Oxfordians have their own peer reviewed journals. The Oxfordians have come a long way. The Oxfordian case has the advantage of appealing to the sort of people who doubt the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain – Elvis still alive on the moon anyone?

Oxfordians needed to tone down their wilder conspiracy theories now that they were being taken seriously. Talk was shelved of sexual dalliance with Queen Elizabeth and the Tudor Prince. Peter Moore told fellow Oxfordians in 1996 to

‘Face reality on the Prince Tudor business, and submit it to proper historical scrutiny. If you can’t make or listen to the strongest arguments that can be made against your own theories, then you’d better keep them to yourself.’

Fairly intelligent use of Google and Wikipedia has gained the Oxfordians many more followers. So many people are keen to join any controversy and they now have the means: the Internet. A very silly film has been made. The Oxfordians have become a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

This has happened without one single piece of evidence to support Oxfordian claims.

This of course is a very brief summary of the Oxfordians. Their history is so bizarre and convoluted that any full and detailed account of their beliefs is impossible. There are many, many ways to counter Oxfordian claims; I will slowly go through them over the coming months. Here’s just one for now.


The number of Shakespeare’s works that filled Elizabethan bookshops is relevant. Publishers usually restricted printings to 1500 copies. Fifty thousand copies of seventy different publications bearing Shakespeare’s name were circulating in his lifetime. He was an actor, sharer and playwright for the most popular company in the country and also very well known about town and in court. If, during the twenty five years that Shakespeare was acting and writing in London, he turned out to be an imposter, and not the writer whose plays the people had watched and purchased, I think somebody would have spotted it. Someone would have mentioned it.

Nobody did.


The Shakespeare Controversy

01v/11/arve/G2582/016Perhaps many of you will have heard that there is a sort of controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. I shouldn’t really describe it as a controversy because it isn’t, or it shouldn’t be; a controversy exists when there is some doubt about one side of an argument, when there are two sides to an argument and no matter how tenuous one side is, there is some substance to it. Over eighty alternative authors have been put forward for alternative authorship; they have one thing in common: there is not a scrap of evidence for any of them.

This is a subject that, since I became aware of it, has made me quite angry. I have tried to ignore it, but it always creeps back; you see even the ‘Does it matter’ arguments are annoying. Of course it matters. I shall try, briefly, to explain.

Apparently, doubt as to the authorship of his works began in the mid-nineteenth century, well over 200 years after his death. Friends and colleagues of his time had no doubt about his identity; they worked and socialised with him; Ben Johnson said of him that he

‘never blotted a line, would that he had blotted a thousand’.

It seems to have taken rather a long time for people to question his identity. A paucity of evidence from his life has helped, giving doubters ammunition to invent and speculate, but despite the paucity there is ample evidence that he was the author of the works. It takes a rather strange mind to doubt it. Unfortunately, especially now, there are plenty of strange minds around. And, I repeat (it can’t be repeated too often), there is not a scrap of evidence for anyone else having written his works. None whatsoever.

This poses the question as to why there are doubters. If we discount those always keen on any conspiracy theories and those with a vested interests (often lawyers), we are left with a relatively small bunch who simply refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This is important; it is not that they truly believe any alternative, although they profess to do so, it is that they merely refuse to believe the truth. There is a reason for this: it is called snobbery.

The most popular fantasy today is that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, supposedly because only an aristocrat could have known so much about court behaviour, Italian history and poetry. As Bill Bryson has observed, this does make it rather difficult for him to have written Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and many others, on account of being dead. But his champions merely point out that there was a conspiracy and evidence was falsified to protect Oxford’s identity. Why it needed to be protected or why it has taken nearly 400 years to discover this, does not seem to concern them. The Oxfordians have some quite well-known followers, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance among them.

The fact that there is any controversy at all is extremely irritating, indeed US writer James Shapiro felt the need to write a recent book, Contested Will, to try and end the argument once and for all. It would have been much better had he used his time more productively – he is a marvellous writer on Shakespeare generally – but felt compelled to write on this topic when an 8 year old in his class expressed doubts as to the authorship (the debate, of course, is quite popular in America). I’m afraid that, having reached America and the lawyers and the film makers, even Shapiro’s excellent book will not make the doubters disappear. Although very much a minority, they are vociferous and probably growing. A film with Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi has already been made. Thankfully, it was awful.

But back to snobbery. Shakespeare has been described as looking like a ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’; he liked money; he hoarded grain; he lent money; he bought a coat of arms and a new house (called New Place) in Stratford. He was far from both the aristocracy and the poor, grammar school educated (a classical education) and with a father on the wrong side of the law. All this is too much for those who need him to be a bit more refined, a bit more superior, a bit more above everybody else. Pork butcher? Money lending? Hoarding grain? A criminal father? No, we can’t have that.

This is where the snobbery comes in. The likes of Irons, Jacobi and Redgrave need to have the author of such wonderful works as somebody a little better than them. Having never struggled to pay a bill, never struggled with anything really, they can’t accept that an ordinary boy from Stratford could be so much smarter than they are, be so wiser than they are – be so utterly brilliant. So they have to believe that it was really an aristocrat who wrote the plays; lacking any evidence for anybody, other than an aristocrat who happened to be dead when many of the plays were written, they cling desperately to an illusion. What awful, silly people they must be.

masks-001Shakespeare was so brilliant, so good, partly because he wasn’t a member of the aristocracy, wasn’t tainted by privilege and received ideas.  He hadn’t been brainwashed by a university education. He was real and he knew people. He lived among them in London, he visited pubs and brothels; he knew and understood life. He is one of us, one of the people – he is ours. That is what the likes of Jacobi cannot abide. They have to try and raise Shakespeare above us. They simply cannot stand the fact that he was an ordinary person and, more importantly, that ordinary people are capable of being Shakespeare – that there may be another Shakespeare out there among the masses. They would have to admit that it was possible, that there is more possibility among the masses than their privileged upbringing and lack of brainpower allows.

That is also why the question of authorship matters, that the greatest writer of all time was ordinary is very important. It should give inspiration to everybody. Allow these idiots to give the credit to an aristocrat and you rob the whole world of the possibility of great achievement. It matters.

I don’t have much space to go into the question of proof for Shakespeare’s authorship, I shouldn’t need to, but feel it necessary to mention a couple of things. The forest is a recurring theme in his plays. I quote from Peter Ackroyd’s biography:

“To the north of Stratford lay the Forest of Arden. When Touchstone enters the woods in As You Like It, he declares ‘I, now I am in Arden, the more foole I’. Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden.  Anne Hathaway lived on the outskirts of the forest.  His consciousness of the area was close and intense. The evidence of Shakespeare’s work provides evidence that he was neither born nor raised in the city. He doesn’t have the harshness of John Milton, born in Bread Street, nor the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.”

On the question of snobbery I quote from an interview with Bill Bryson about his excellent short biography of Shakespeare:

Interviewer: Is it snobbery? He was a relatively ordinary man from a relatively ordinary background and they want him to be an aristocrat or somebody sort of special.

Bryson: That is really quite insulting to ordinary people. The idea that you could come from a modest background and that somehow that would disqualify you from being William Shakespeare is really a very demeaning thought. There’s no evidence for it. There never has been any evidence for it.

Oxfordians cannot explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of the country and its people. His knowledge of the cities came from living with them, his knowledge of Roman history from Plutarch. He was mainly an adaptor, he took other works and improved them. He wrote what are still some of the best parts for women, 400 years before feminism. He understood both men and women. He was modest; I’m sure he would be baffled by all the fuss about him today, although I’m sure he would take advantage of it.

Academics are generally very polite. In all the works stating (again) that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, they are very kind to the likes of Irons, Redgrave and Jacobi. They shouldn’t be; these people are a menace. They are snobs and idiots, too stupid to realise the damage they are causing. I suppose the best thing now would be to ignore them. I try to, but unfortunately they keep cropping up on television. It’s hard to see a solution.

To the Tower with them?