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To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare

While skeptics continue to question the authorship of his plays, a new exhibition raises doubts about the authenticity of his portraits.

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The search for an authentic image of Shakespeare, like the search for revelations about his life, is guided in part by what we hope to find: we hope he flirted with Queen Elizabeth, but he probably didn't. We hope he didn't hoard grain, but he probably did. This may explain the popularity of two of the eight highlighted portraits in the exhibition. Both the Grafton portrait (1588) and the Sanders portrait (1603) depict sensuous young men, neither of whom has any substantial claim to being Shakespeare. For the frontispiece of The Essential Shakespeare, J. Dover Wilson chose the Grafton, confessing that he couldn't help but wish that "the unknown youth of the wonderful eyes and the oval Shelley-like face" was in fact the young poet. And literary critic Harold Bloom announced in Vanity Fair in 2001 that he preferred the "livelier" Sanders to traditional portraits.

But "Searching for Shakespeare" includes one portrait about which there is no doubt whatsoever: it is of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. That he appears a more dashing and self-assured figure than any of the Shakespeares on display is not, of course, why Oxfordians find him the more plausible candidate—though it probably doesn't hurt. Fourteen years Shakespeare's senior, Oxford was an urbane, multilingual dandy, well educated, well traveled and well connected. At 12, when his father died, he was taken in by William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, who for more than 40 years was Queen Elizabeth's most trusted adviser. He became Oxford's father-in-law when Oxford, at 21, married Burghley's daughter, Anne Cecil. At court, he won attention as a jousting champion, clotheshorse and ladies' man. "The Queen's Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and his valiantness than any other," another young aristocrat, the future Earl of Shrewsbury, wrote of the 21-year-old earl.

Oxford's many enemies, however, described him variously as a whoring, hot-tempered bully, a dissolute spendthrift and a flatulent pederast. At 17, he used his sword to kill an under-cook in Burghley's household (supposedly in self-defense). And at 24, he abandoned his wife for the Continent for more than a year. As for his poetry, Oxford biographer Alan H. Nelson, emeritus professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and a Stratfordian, ranks it "from absolutely dreadful to middling."

In his own time, at least, Oxford's poetry won praise. So did his skill as a playwright, though none of his dramas survive. Some modern-day advocates claim that it would have been unseemly for a high-ranking nobleman to write plays openly for the hugely popular, sometimes rowdy Elizabethan public theater. And, they say, playwrights who satirized the powerful too obviously could find themselves jailed or worse.

Richard Whalen, author of Shakespeare—Who Was He? (which answers its title's question as, unquestionably, the Earl of Oxford), allows that the earl's identity as the real Shakespeare had to have been known to a number of theater-world insiders, among them an accommodating Will. Nonetheless, Whalen argues, one needn't posit the existence of a grand conspiracy that concealed Oxford's role. "His authorship was probably an open secret," says Whalen, who, like his fellow Oxfordian Mark Anderson, is unaffiliated with a university. The powers that be could pretend they didn't know a nobleman was stooping to farce and, worse, critiquing his peers. As for the general public, he says, "They weren't all that interested in who wrote the plays they went to."

Links between Oxford and Shakespeare are not hard to find. The oldest of Oxford's three daughters was once offered in marriage to the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his two long narrative poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece." (He declined.) Another daughter was married to one of the two earls to whom the First Folio was dedicated.

Oxford supporters find other evidence in the plays themselves. In Hamlet and King Lear, for example, they hear the voice of an aristocrat, not a commoner. "The plays demonstrate a keen, intimate knowledge of how people in a royal court or a government bureaucracy think and operate," says Whalen. "Yes, great writing is always a creative process, but a writer's best works are products of their own experiences. Think of Tolstoy, who wrote about what he knew best: his family, Russia, war. I would argue the Earl of Oxford's life fits the profile of someone you would expect to have written the works of Shakespeare."

Oxfordian Mark Anderson finds other clues in Shakespeare's settings, plots and characters. He discerns in Hamlet, for instance, elements drawn from Oxford’s life. "Polonius is a caricature of Oxford's father-in-law, Lord Burghley, who was known to be rather prolix and tedious," he says. "Burghley, like Polonius, once sent spies to check up on his own son." Ophelia is Burghley's daughter, whom Oxford/Hamlet woos, and so on.

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