Sobran Column -- Shakespeare Authorship
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Giving Away the Game

November 25, 1999

For some years now I’ve been involved in the bitterest, bloodiest protracted combat this side of the former Yugoslavia. I refer to the Shakespeare authorship controversy.

The poet we call “Shakespeare” was not the legendary William of Stratford, but the 17th Earl of Oxford; and two years ago, in my book Alias Shakespeare, I showed how Oxford’s eventful, troubled life is reflected in the Shakespeare works, especially the Sonnets. If William of Stratford were the author, we should expect these works to reflect William’s life rather than Oxford’s.

The current issue of The Shakespeare Quarterly contains a long attack on Alias Shakespeare by Professor Alan H. Nelson of Berkeley, who is writing a biography of Oxford. He denies that Oxford was Shakespeare. He also accuses my book of many small factual errors, though he fails to show that they are relevant to the authorship debate. Mistaking quibbling pedantry for superior scholarship, his review is an extended non sequitur.

What makes this review downright funny is that Nelson, without realizing what he is saying, actually concedes the authorship debate to Oxford!

In my book I cited hundreds of correspondences between the contents of the Shakespeare works and Oxford’s life. For example, Oxford spent a year in Italy around 1576; many of the plays — The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and others — are set in cities Oxford visited. These plays show a close knowledge of Italian laws, customs, idioms, events, and other things only a visitor to the country would be likely to know. Oxford had this specific background; William of Stratford apparently never left England.

Nelson retorts that it is “not impossible that [William] traveled to Italy — perhaps in a company of players.” Yes, it’s possible — or “not impossible.” With “not impossible” and “perhaps,” you can prove anything, however improbable, for which there is no positive evidence. The fact remains that we have no reason to believe William ever laid eyes on Italy, unless we assume his authorship to begin with — and even then, “perhaps” and “not impossible” are feeble arguments.

The Sonnets are Shakespeare’s only work written in the first person and apparently disclosing things about his personal life. We gather that he’s a man of some rank, a public figure who has fallen into “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”; he also seems to be trained in the law, aging, and “lame.” All this fits Oxford to a T. He studied law at Gray’s Inn, led a scandalous life, wasted his family fortune, and was in his forties (14 years older than William) when the Sonnets were probably written in the 1590s. In several letters Oxford described himself as “lame.”

One fact, by itself, almost clinches the case for Oxford. The first 17 Sonnets urge a young nobleman to marry; the young Earl of Southampton, to whom these Sonnets seem to be addressed, was then being urged to marry Oxford’s oldest daughter!

So the evidence of the poet’s own words points to Oxford; much of it clearly doesn’t fit what we know of William’s life.

How does Nelson answer all this? Again he resorts to the “not impossible” argument. “The Sonnets,” he writes, “may bear a distinct relationship to what we do not know (which must be vastly more than what we know); nor are they by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about William].”

Deaf to his own words, Nelson appeals to purely hypothetical documents as the proof of William’s authorship, tacitly conceding that the existing documents favor Oxford! In effect he is saying: “Despite appearances to the contrary, I believe we could connect William with the Sonnets, if only we had fuller records of his life. Oxford appears to be Shakespeare only because we know so little about William.”

In other words, Nelson admits that the case for William depends on evidence that doesn’t exist! He makes the dogmatic assumption that fuller records would (somehow) prove William’s authorship, thus begging the whole question.

For good measure, Nelson surmises (without evidence) that William was “prematurely balding” by 1594, and that this could help explain the Sonnets. It says something about the current state of Shakespeare studies that such eccentricity can pass for scholarship.

Joseph Sobran

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