Shakespeare of Stratford Wins the Debate!

  • Share on Tumblr

Last night, in association with Sony Pictues, I took part in a debate at The English-Speaking Union in London: ‘This House Believes that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems attributed to him.’ Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson joined me in proposing the motion. Speaking against were the Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, whose forthcoming film Anonymous will put over the view that Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare, Charles Beauclerk president of the De Vere Society, and William Leahy of Brunel University. We were allowed to speak for up to five minutes each.

I thought you might like to read what I said….

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening we have been entertained by a post-modern cocktail of historical fact, and historical fiction.

First, the historical facts. From Stanley Wells we have heard about the positive evidence which in any court of law would be enough to prove that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a writer, a share-holder in a theatre company, who was much written about by his contemporaries during his lifetime and just after his death. And from Michael Dobson we have begun to understand some of what has motivated people from 1856 onwards to turn those facts on their heads and into melodramatic fiction.

Roland Emmerich’s exciting new film is the latest expression of such fiction. Charles Beauclerc wants the greatest body of literary achievement the world has thus far known to be attributed to his ancestor, Edward De Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Alas, none of De Vere’s plays actually survive, though some poems, not without merit, do. And you’ve just heard William Leahy evoke moral arguments about Shakespeare’s private life. If the works are only to be read autobiographically, as the anti-Stratfordians would have us believe, then let us remember that in Sonnets 134, 135, 136 and 143, Shakespeare puns on his first name (Sonnet 136 even ends with ‘my name is Will’).

It’s an embarrassing fact, isn’t it, that the work of the (to date) 77 alternative candidates sounds different. Any actor will tell you that Christopher Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ is that of a different writer. Francis Bacon’s work – much of it in Latin – shows genius, but not that of a playwright. The suggestion that De Vere was able to release fourteen plays after his death in 1604 (including one co-authored with Thomas Middleton, another co-authored with George Wilkins, and three co-authored with John Fletcher) beggars belief. Perhaps there’s material here for a Hollywood sequel showing that Shakespeare’s collaborators were also the front men for aristocratic geniuses: Anonymous Too. All proponents of alternative candidates have to ignore authorship tests, because they can’t countenance the possibility of co-authorship. Allow one brick to be removed from the edifice of conspiratorial fundamentalism, and the entire wall collapses.

So, why create fictions about Shakespeare’s authorship? Actually, I do think an implicit snobbery is an important factor. Nearly all of the alternative candidates are aristocratic, university educated, or both. Their proponents look down on William Shakespeare as an uneducated commoner, a theory which ignores the high quality of Elizabethan grammar school education. With the snobbery comes iconoclasm, the desire to topple a reputation which far exceeds anyone else’s. The earliest reference to Shakespeare is a veiled and bitchy remark by Robert Greene which looks down on his presumption to be a writer and calls him a Jack of all trades. Some people are just jealous, and the spirit of Greene lives on. Roland Emmerich’s film depicts Shakespeare as an inarticulate actor, and De Vere as an isolated genius.

Shakespeare had an aristocratic patron, the Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of his two hugely successful narrative poems, printed by Shakespeare’s Stratford neighbour, Richard Field. The companies with which Shakespeare worked performed regularly at court for Elizabeth I and James I. But even this kind of social status – along with the coat of arms Shakespeare secured for his father in 1596, and later inherited – is not aristocratic enough for most of the anti-Shakespearians.

Shakespeare’s works reek of the theatre. There were thirty-seven separate Shakespeare play editions published in his life-time; twenty-seven of these bear his name on the title-page, those that don’t give the name of the companies of which Shakespeare was a shareholder and for which he wrote. These books are very revealing about a theatrical mind at work in the process of writing. Sometimes the names of the actors with whom Shakespeare worked appear in stage-directions and speech prefixes. This is the work of a man whose deep knowledge of the theatrical craft was acquired only by practical experience.

This work is not anonymous, still less is it by the Earl of Oxford, or Derby, or Rutland, or Daniel Defoe, or Mary Sidney, or Henry Neville, or even Queen Elizbeth I. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. His authorship was not even questioned until 1856. If he didn’t then we have to believe that thousands of people during his life-time – readers, publishers, printers, booksellers, actors, audience members, courtiers, and Stratford-upon-Avon residents who put a church monument to Shakespeare comparing him to Virgil and Socrates – were in on a terrible conspiracy. I think not.’

Stanley Wells’s speech will be posted here on Thursday.

Last night our team who spoke up for Shakespeare won the debate by acclamation. Let’s hope some of our arguments do some good.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • William Ray

    No way to judge from the record, because there isn’t any. Judging from Merry Wives of Windsor, the Act Four colloquy between Sir Hugh Evans and student William, which is a satire on “William’s” education, he had some exposure to Latin, but not enough to be competent. The instructor’s questions are telling: what is Fair, a homonym of Vere; and what is lapis, stone, a reference to a stoned ox, the one used by Nashe as an affectionate nickname for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Apis Lapis. The book they use, the Lyly Latin grammar has a telling first sentence, “Edward is my proper name.” Reading between the lines, the playwright is establishing that “William” didn’t know zip about Latin, in case it ever came up as a significant matter. The only way to ignore this little tableau is to deny it exists, and it does. But the Stratfordian persuasion has not taken the cue. There is no record of further education, no patron, no sponsor, no benefactor, no nobleman, no rich personage recognizing a phenom of lyrical and rhetorical brilliance from out of nowhere. No college record, no tutor documentation like Jonson’s from Camden, in a word, nothing. And there is no doubt Shakspere could count. He got rich, any way he could, including mendaciously, which is the point of satirizing Sogliardo (i.e. fool) in EMOOHH. He never evinced interest in education, as shown by his own life, his daughters’ illiteracy, and his refusal to support the local grammar school as did all other contemporary Stratfordian residents of note in their wills, a matter of custom.

  • Lys

    What would you say about William Shakespeare’s education, especially his elementary education? How strong do you think it was?

  • Laurence Aldridge

    If he’s not Cecil, then who in heaven’s name is he?

    Possibly a fictional character – perhaps based on some tedious old bore at Bill’s local?  Even if the character is meant to be Burghley (who is that by the way?) knowing a famous person’s family motto is not beyond the bounds of possibility?

    Shakespeare even knew who John Oldcastle was…Also ‘resorted to low brow humour’ – possibly ‘chose in this instance’ ?I do not make an academic argument here.  I am a professional actor with some little experience of working with the texts and would suggest that Shakespeare had a more than full appreciation of earthy, base (base, base) and frequently coarse play with words.  Having just thought of Sir John, the name cange to Falstaff? Hamlet’s question of country matters?  Even his great noble heroes use simple language (simple words that is, the creation of the speeches is sickeningly good), think of Henry V’s tennis balls speech.  Simple, clear but devastatingly powerful.

    Working with the texts, one finds very quickly that they smack not of an upper class effete but of someone with an appreciation of the zest life and language can hold up and down the social scale in England.  

    Having read up on this Oxfordian idea – how badly educated was he?  You would have thought his schooloing might have been more accurate than the Linguae Romanae et Britannicae that was available at Grammar Schools.  

    Having read a few more of your comments and those of other people supporting the conspiracy idea I would honestly like the answer to a question – Why does it seem so unlikely that someone with a good, basic education and a flare for a neat turn of phrase could not have picked up enough other information to blag his way through?  After all, researching a text in the way of rehearsals hardly gives you the impression that Shakespeare was unusually knowledgeable (and certainly not unusually accurate) about much of history.  He took stories from well known and popular texts and wrote plays based on them – a basic facility for reading your source material would appear to be all the education required (and the smug bastard’s way of turning out a line halfway through a speech that makes you turn on a sixpence and if you get it right move everyone in the building and if not make you look an utter arse!).


    I am new to this debate and always interested in learning about people’s idea so do please let me know.  Also, didn’t the linguistical studies bugger all these theories?



  • Spacethefinalfrontier101

    Wow. Clear as day. Shagsper won it hands down. Obviously the victim because how could he be so dumb and isolated when he took total credit for something totally unknown to him!!! Nobles just excelled at taking credit for noth’n. Spending all their years making sure they were connected only to Her Barren Royalness. Even the friends of royals had the wonderful habit of cutting the head off any gentleman with credit. Why Shagsper – if he were alive today – he’d be giving Nicholas Rowe a pat or two for revising it all so staging was more important than content. Wasn’t it Shagsper who said, All we commoners cared about was how the message got delivered – more important – how badly the messenger was beat up!!!! – Now that’s deepe knowledge. 🙂

  • Ankaaz

    “It depends on what sort of genius you’re talking about.”


    I think you know exactly what “sort of genius” I’m talking about.  Please
    don’t force me to repeat myself and I won’t ask you to provide a list of names
    of geniuses in the same category as Shakespeare.  Lovers of the Bard have
    been proclaiming his unique genius for centuries, but when cornered with a
    simple question such as mine, never fail to pull out names such as Einstein or
    Leonardo or (of all people) Tom Stoppard in a futile attempt at correlation. 
    You’ll have to do better than that.


    (Ta-ta for now…)

  • Ankaaz

    Are you serious?  Oh my…  

  • Ankaaz

    If he’s not Cecil, then who in heaven’s name is he?  

  • William Ray

    Far from ignoring “the surviving historical evidence [that] points to Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon”, the Oxford contention challenges you, of the comfortable salaried status quo set, to get off your figurative behind and inquire whether this Shakespeare authorship were a hoax at the beginning for political reasons, but which generation after generation has been accepted at face value and made into myth, right down to your too clever and shamefully petty remarks.  The subject must be approached entirely, not argued on the basis of tricks and put-downs. For a managable example in this forum, you refer to Sonnet 136, which explicitly and repeatedly uses the name ‘Will’.  Are you under the impression that the author of the Sonnets was so shallow as to play with his name when addressing someone who appeared to be his monarch?  Are you cognizant that the term ‘will’ in Italian relates to the infinitive ‘avere’, to wish, to desire, to will and that there is major identity information in the pun, namely to Edward de Vere?  This places the language into a punning allegorical context that must be extremely uncomfortable for the Stratford worshipper.  Are you cognizant that Oxford and Queen Elizabeth were fluent Italian speakers?  This is only the smallest part of your ignorance of the subject matter, an ignorance that so far successfully protects you from dealing with the pursuit of the truth.  Are you cogizant that Sonnet 136 is a “blank” in the pyramid formed of the remaining 153 Sonnets, which the author repeatedly called a pyramid or monument?  Alastair Fowler was, and he is a far far better scholar than your panel, doubled.  But to your mind Sonnet 136 refers to Will Shakspere the money-lender from Stratford, whose greatest joy was collecting on small debts in court.

    William Ray

  • William Ray

    To begin with Mr. Edmondson’s first sentence, that any court of law would accept the historical evidence presented by Stanley Wells as positive proof that Shakspere of Stratford wrote Shakespeare: it is precisely because there is no connection between the plays and praise for their author, and the Stratford figure, that no court of law would convict that figure of writing the plays.  The similarity of names does not constitute evidence of authorship.  The fact that Shakspere was a stock-holder in the Globe does not constitute evidence of authorship.  The fact that it is said Shakspere had an occasional role does not constitute evidence of authorship.  And finally, the charge that thousands would have to keep Oxford’s secret authorship ingores one outstanding fact.  Anonymity and pseudonymity were a fact of life in the Elizabethan theater.  In that era, over 500 plays were staged anonymously.  The Shakespeare plays in particular switched on a dime from anonymous to pseudonymous in 1598 with Meres’s almanac.  It is relevant that the revelation of “Shakespeare” as a significant playwright was embedded in a puzzle, containing seventeen (hint?) modern and sixteen ancient authors.  Why one more?  Oxford is listed first.  Shakespeare is ninth.  Added together, we have the numeral 10, which resembles IO in Italian, pronounced EO, one of Oxford’s most well known pseudonyms.  To sum up, Edmondson knows nothing of historical evidence.  He got by with petty sarcasm and too too clever language.  His side has one elemental presumption: Shakespeare=Shakspere of Stratford.  Sorry, that presumption has never and can never be established. But Edmondson, Wells, and company take it on faith and sneer for the camera.  This is why the paradigm will change.  They have no interest in the primary responsibility of intellectuals, seek the truth.  The crowd of uninformed viewers will shift when the wind changes.

    William Ray

  • Richard-Nathan

    Okay, in answer to your post:  You said, “Can the genius exist and thrive wholly separate from acquired
    knowledge? ”   ANSWER:   It depends on what sort of genius you’re talking about.  I certainly believe people can be genetically gifted. Some fields require more eductation than others.  I assume you know Tom Stoppard never graduated from a University, yet I would call “Arcadia” a work of genius.

    You then wrote, “Can it exist on its own with no basis in education, either
    formal or that gleaned from experience?”  In the legal world, we call that assuming facts not in evidence.  There is no evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford had an education.  We also have no records from Ben Jonson’s lifetime of his having any education.  Do you think some nobleman wrote his plays?

    You then wrote, “When will Stratfordians divest
    themselves of the tired old notion of genius springing full-formed from
    a backwater town when attempting to explain Shakespeare’s vast
    knowledge of law, music, Italy, astronomy, arcane geography, ancient and
    modern languages, English history not taught in grammar schools, court
    intrigues and inside jokes, falconry, jousting……….?”  Agsin this assumes facts not in evidence.   Anti-Strats constantly overstate the degree of knowledge shown in Shakespeare’s plays.  It certainly doesn’t exceed the classical knowledge shown in Ben Jonson’s plays.  The degree of knowledge about court intreigues and inside jokes is also something that has not been proven.  Oxfordians are constantly finding supposed parallels that are probably just coincidence to the extent they exist at all.

  • Richard-Nathan

    Please don’t accuse me of name-calling after you call Stratford a “backwater town.”  True, you may not be insulting anyone alive today, but it is still name-calling.

  • Richard-Nathan

    There are some Stratfordians who believe Polonius is Burghley and many who do not.  You can’t assume all Stratfordians are saddled with this belief because of what some believed 150 years ago. 

  • Linda Theil

    Charles Beauclerk is not the president of the De Vere Society, nor has he been for quite some time. Christopher Dams is current president of the society.

  • Ankaaz

    You fail to address my question concerning the essence of genius.  I assume that you prefer to resort to ad hominems rather than respond to a legitimate concern for Oxfordians.

  • Ankaaz

    You resort to name-calling.  Be nice.

  • Ankaaz

    Polonius was identified as Burghley by Stratfordians in the 1860s, so the nexus is not an Oxfordian concoction.  As for the cabbage, you would prefer that the Soul of the Age resorted to lowbrow humor rather than a cerebral play on Latin words, much more apropos.  I see.

  • Richard-Nathan

    In my opinion, the greatest argument against the authorship of anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford is that it would have had to involve a huge conspiracy.  And if Shakespeare of Stratford was the illiterate yokel that most anti-Strats pretend he was, the notion that he would have been able to convince people he wrote “Hamlet” is absurd on its face.  I am anxous to see how Emmerich explains that someone who was utterly incapable of writing “Hamlet” was able to convince a huge number of people that the wrote “Hamlet.”

  • Richard-Nathan

    Why are all anti-Strats such class bigots?   These references to Stratford as a “backwater town” is just another example of their bias.  Richard Field, the publisher, came from Stratford.  How do you explain his education?  

  • Richard-Nathan

    If Polonius was actully supposed to be Burghley, it is extremely doubtful that “Hamlet” would have made it past the censors.  Furthermore, there are other interpretations of the name “Corambus.”  I’ve heard it means “cabbage.”  Polonius is, at times, a true cabbage-head.  

  • Paul Edmondson

    .Thanks, everyone for your comments, and (in the main) for your encouragement. I think the Oxfordians need to do better than only insist that the plays be read biographically. All the surviving historical evidence points to Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon which any proponent of an alternative candidate has conveniently to ignore..

  • Ankaaz

    Question #1:  How many here have studied the evolution of the Polonius character’s name?
    Question #2:  How could the Warwickshire lad have come to know
    that William Cecil Lord Burghley’s motto was “COR UNUM VIA UNA”?  How
    could a glover’s son from Stratford have dared to skewer this all-powerful man
    in the play Hamlet by giving him the name Corambis
    (double-hearted, i.e., deceitful), which was then changed to Polonius?

  • Ankaaz

    To any and all here on this forum, what is your definition of “genius”?  Can the genius exist and thrive wholly separate from acquired knowledge?  Can it exist on its own with no basis in education, either formal or that gleaned from experience?   When will Stratfordians divest themselves of the tired old notion of genius springing full-formed from a backwater town when attempting to explain Shakespeare’s vast knowledge of law, music, Italy, astronomy, arcane geography, ancient and modern languages, English history not taught in grammar schools, court intrigues and inside jokes, falconry, jousting……….?

  • Ed Boswell

    There is much material on De Vere online. I would also read up on what Walt Whitman said about Shakespeare. Very astute. He theorized it was “one of the wolfish earls so plentious in the plays themselves”.  Keep an open mind, and educate yourself, just for fun. The 17th Earl of Oxford is worth studying up on, for sure. Also, read a 23 y.o. Earl’s letter to Sir Thomas Bedingfield. It is so Shakesperean in style and theme. It is about the translated book used by Hamlet entitled Cardenus Comforte. The dedication is to Oxford. The book contains musings on suicide, etc., that are included in Hamlet. Polonius asks Hamlet about the book, and he responds by referring to passages in the book on aging.

  • Ed Boswell

     How humble of you to declare your own victory.  If you really knew the subject deeply, you’d know that Spenser’s Fairy Queen had poetic passages that refer to both Philip Sydney and Oxford/de Vere. The character who is identified as Oxford is named Will.  Speaking of the sonnets, any idea why they came out after de Vere’s death, and before the Stratford Shaksper’s, yet have no dedication page by the author, who is referred to as “the ever-living poet”. I defy anyone to come up with another single example of a living person being called “the ever-living” so and so. The Sonnets clearly refer to a disgraced person on high rank, so high in fact, that he “held the canopy for the Queen”. He’s over 40, is keenly interested in a handsome young man having children, and knows his name will die with him, but his works will become immortal. Only de Vere was over 40 at the time of the sonnets, and only de Vere had an interest in the Earl of Southampton marrying and procreating, as he was tentatively engaged to one of de Vere’s 3 daughters.  And what a coincidence that both dedicatees of the 1st folio were the inlaws of de Vere.  The fact that de Vere studied law, and participated in royal sports like falconry, and visitied Italy, and employed numerous acting troupes, and had both John Lyly and Anthony Munday as personal secretaries is noteworthy as well.  It’s a fascinating subject, and is diminished by the smugness and inflated self-worth of people such as this.  Stratfordians are snobs, when they take such a superior stance with so little legitimate proof of their fantastic supposition, that Will simply had genius, and made it all up by talking to returning tourists at the Mermaid tavern.

  • ajleon

    Great post, Paul! It was a fantastic event, thank you for putting it together. 🙂

  • Annie Martirosyan

    Fantastic! People who have read all of Shakespeare’s works and are versed in Elizabethan England, habits and manners of the time simply can’t doubt his authorship – only ignorance and snobbery breed doubts!

  • Ty Unglebower

    Excellent work.

  • Pamela Berkman

    I’d love to see the opposing side’s arguments just for fun. And I don’t suppose there’s video?

  • SusannaM

    Here here! I think it’s the fact that pretty much everyone else in the theatre world at the time would have to have been involved in the conspiracy that cinches the fact. I mean, really, come now, people!

  • pete langman

    Are people still banging on about this? Good lord.

    I agree, but perhaps for different reasons:

    Marlowe – renowned for his comedies, and perfectly alive when all the plays appeared, honest..

    Bacon – actually wrote a lot in the vernacular, but would have been pushed for time, even if we ignore the stylistic differences and his mild dislike of the theatre (though he thought it was useful for teaching young men to speak effectively).

    De Vere – oh dear, pull the other one, chaps!

    The reason some refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his stuff is because as good little post-romantics, anyone who happens to be something like the greatest writer who has ever lived must have been a tortured soul. It doesn’t fit with the image for him to be a hack writer who happened to be streets ahead of any other writer before or since.

    Marlowe fits the bill, and Shakespeare as homosexual/catholic/alien does so, too.

    Just not the Shakespeare it seems he was.

    Now, what does one do when history is inconveniently dull? Well, you follow Shakespeare, and re-write it.

    The next theory will be that Shakespeare pretended to be someone else pretending to be Shakespeare.

    Actually …

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now