Anniversary Post: the Real Shakespeare

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of OxfordI am, as usual, far behind on work. But that’s not why I’m rerunning this article about Edward de Vere. It is just that this is the kind of information that you need. I get so tired of these conspiracy theories about Shakespeare. They are all, at base, trying to justify how one man could write such amazing plays. The problem is, the plays aren’t that amazing. Just because we’ve had them forced on us our entire lives doesn’t mean they are great.

On this day in 1550, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was born. He was an awful person. He wouldn’t accept that the first child of his marriage was his. He was pretty much the definition of a libertine. But he was a poet and playwright of some repute. You know, at that time, the rich didn’t have much to do with their time. Of course Edward spent through all of his fortune by the end of his life. And that is with the Queen giving me a thousand pounds per year in addition (an enormous amount of money). I could not possibly care less about this idiot, except for one thing.

A lot of people think he wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. In one way, who cares? I mean, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare anyway. So what does it matter? But it really bugs me that one of the main reasons that people think Edward wrote the plays is because Shakespeare’s plays supposedly show so much knowledge of the way that the aristocracy lived. But this is so ridiculous. I’m poor, but I have a damned good idea of how the rich live. And it isn’t just because of television. In Shakespeare’s time, the poor knew how the rich lived because they saw it — and their servants saw it up close and personal.

What’s more, this desire to find someone — Anyone! — but Shakespeare to have written the plays is based on the idea that the plays are so amazingly great that they couldn’t have just been written an ex-school teacher from the country. Well, I have news for you all. Although Shakespeare’s plays were well regarded during his life, they weren’t seen as any better than the plays of Marlowe or Jonson. And they were seen as inferior to the plays of people who came after. I’m a fan of Shakespeare, but he just wasn’t that great.

So people: get over it. If you want to think that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, at least go with Marlowe. At least in that case you have royal spying and murder and faked deaths. It’s a lot more fun. The Edward de Vere narrative is just boring. But really, I think people get into the whole “who wrote Shakespeare” question because it relieves them of having to read the plays, which are by and large not all that great. So sure, I’d rather read “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford than The Two Noble Kinsmen. But that doesn’t prove anything.

So happy birthday you great pretender, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford!

Afterword: Who Thinks Edward de Vere Was Shakespeare?

Who believes such nonsense? This guy:

17 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: the Real Shakespeare

    • That’s really good. He does a good job of blasting most of the common claims. But I disagree with a mostly unstated premise. He asked, “Can’t we just enjoy the work?” No. Because Shakespeare is something much different from the work. The reason we all quote Shakespeare is that his plays were used as part of the cultural imperialism of the British Empire. Note that Shakespeare has made almost no inroads in the Spanish speaking world. The problem is that too many people think Shakespeare is uniquely great. But he isn’t. He was certainly one of the three most successful playwrights at that time and place. But I commonly find people saying not only that he was the best Elizabethan playwright (a highly questionable claim) or even the best playwright ever (a ridiculous claim), but that he was the best writer ever. It’s just silly. Have these people never read his plays? And the answer is that mostly they have not. But among those who have, there is such a force to find brilliance everywhere that it doesn’t matter.

      I have long been struck by how Shakespeare’s work is defined as the greatest. Read Marlowe and you can actually hear the poetry. It’s actually quite beautiful. But the trend in the theater was toward more naturalistic dialog. It’s much harder to hear the poetry in Shakespeare. And later writers harder still. So the Shakespeare worshippers use a Goldilocks criteria: Shakespeare is just right — by definition.

      But this is all part of why we continue to perform Shakespeare’s comedies over and over, and mostly ignore Jonson’s comedies, which are generally better. It’s not about the plays. It is about the symbolism of “Shakespeare.” And I think this is why there is this interest in finding someone else to have written the plays. It isn’t surprising that having been used for imperialistic purposes, “Shakespeare” should be turned into royalty himself. This may be why the far more interesting conspiracy theory of Marlowe faking his own death doesn’t get as much play. Shakespeare came from a middle class background, but Marlowe was a poor boy saved by his brilliance. Can’t have “the greatest plays every written” be the result of a man as disreputable as Marlowe.

  1. Meh-I would have gone with the polio vaccine being credited as safe and effective while doing an anti-anti-vaxxer rant.

    But that would be impolite and get you hate clicks so this is as good as anything.

    Or you know, for political stuff, this is the day that Boss Tweed keeled over.

      • The Emmerich movie is kind of fun/bad. But then most of his movies are. You don’t remember much about them when they’re over, except that they’re a hoot to watch with friends who like ripping on bad movies.

        • I love his pyramid film! He took one of the most loony theories ever and made a good film. Also, the politics of it are good. Collective action defeats the super-advanced technology — twice! Lowbrow entertainment that doesn’t make me retch. On the other hand, most of the other stuff I’ve seen has been terrible.

          • Both “Stargate” and “10,000 BC” feature pyramids, and both are fun (although I couldn’t tell you one plot point about either.) And I have a warm space in my heart for “Day After Tomorrow” because of Ian Holm and the loony science. But if good movies appeal to different people, bad movies really do.

            I just remember watching “Anoymous” with a friend and we were riffing on what else de Vere secretly did. We got very silly. At one point his wife wears a shirt with white/black stripes, so my friend said, “and that’s when de Vere invented football referees.” That sort of thing.

            • It was Stargate — fun movie. But then I never saw it as, “This must be how Chariots of the Gods actually happened!”

              I think a movie about someone else writing Shakespeare’s plays could be really fun. As I’ve mentioned, the “Marlowe fakes his death” could be a blast. The problem is thinking it is anything but silly fun. The fact that Derek Jacobi stars in it is just too much. I love him as an actor, but he very much believes that theory. But really, let’s think about my movie. Shakespeare is a bumbling actor, about to be fired. Marlowe is about to go on trial for buggering boys. He wants to go into hiding, but he doesn’t have the money. So he gets idiot Shakespeare to be his front, thus saving both their careers. It could be hilarious.

              • That would be fun. You could have de Vere and Bacon as side characters . . . Hell, even the earl of Blackadder!

                • Hmm. If you made it explicitly mocking the Shakespeare conspiracy theories, you might be able to get such a thing produced as a play. I think that audience would get it in a way that a film audience wouldn’t. I really need to work more on my fiction and theater, just for the good of my soul. That doesn’t mean I will.

                  • Oh, if we’re worried about things we should do for the good of our souls (much less bodies, associates, and bank accounts) then I’m really in trouble. I understand God and Satan are collaborating on a spiritual particle accelerator to find what remains of my soul, it’s shrunken so badly.

                    • Did they get NSF funding for that?

                      I remember in Bullets Over Broadway where he yells out the window, “I’m a whore!” Of course, there’s a big difference between someone who has to be a whore and someone who chooses to be one. The rich almost all choose to be whores. I really wish I could do something to bring back hatred of the rich. They deserve it more now than ever.

  2. To quote my favorite professor, who taught all the Greek and Roman stuff, “If Homer didn’t write Homer, then some other guy named Homer wrote it.”

    • Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Although in Homer’s case especially, he was clearly putting together a number of stories and characters. In the series In Search of the Trojan War, one academic notes that Hector’s large shield probably indicates that the character was taken from a much earlier story. The truth is that none of us are the authors of anything we do — we are all collaborators. But in the case of Shakespeare, it’s just silly. People aren’t talking about how Shakespeare depended on Holinshed; they are saying he was a front.

    • Actually, the name like everything else about him has been helped by others. It was generally Shakespear for at least a hundred years after his death. Like everything at that time, there was no standardization. I remember that Marlowe spelled his name a different way pretty much every time. Once it was something like Marley.” But I think the added “e” at the end of Shakespeare does make it a cool name.

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