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Shakespeare and the Snobs

April 9, 2002

April! That can mean only one thing — the Earl of Oxford’s birthday. On April 12 he will be 452 years old.

That would be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), the one who, as independent thinkers now generally agree, wrote under the name William Shakespeare. Of course if you are an accredited academic scholar, or aspire to be one, you’d better scoff at Oxford and those who believe in his authorship.

Belief in Oxford’s authorship is, as we now say, politically incorrect. It’s a sin against the prescribed faith in “democracy” and “equality.” If you argue that Oxford rather than William Shakspere of Stratford wrote all those plays, you’ll be accused of preferring to think that a “common man” couldn’t have written them — that only an aristocrat could. In other words, you must be a “snob.”

Actually, the real snobbery is on the other side: a stubborn academic snobbery that assumes that only university scholars are competent to decide such questions. But never mind that; even a snob may be right, just as even an ax-murderer may make a sound syllogism.

The case for Oxford’s authorship is based not on snobbery but on sociology, or simple realism. He had the background, in education and personal experience, to write these plays. Some of them reflect his life — at court, in Italy — in striking detail.

[Breaker quote: Did a 
snob write HAMLET?]You can even argue that in an equal-opportunity society, William of Stratford might have acquired the wide knowledge the plays display; but to say that is to recognize that Elizabethan England was certainly not such a society. You may rail against the social injustice that would equip an earl but not an ordinary man to write Hamlet; and you’d have a point. But the point is that Oxford could draw on his own life to write it, and William couldn’t.

Hamlet might still have been an inferior play, while reflecting Oxford’s life. It’s incidental to the argument that it’s a great classic. Aside from his background, the author happens to have been a genius. If William had been a genius, he might have written wonderful plays reflecting his own very different life; but they would have been very different from Hamlet, even if they were greater.

The author of the plays not only possessed aristocratic virtues and privileges, but also aristocratic prejudices and vices. He is said to display “universal sympathies”; but that isn’t quite true. He created hundreds of vivid characters, but they are mostly of the upper classes — ladies and gentlemen, in the old, strict sense of people who don’t have to labor for a living. They are subtly individualized. But his lower-class characters are generally buffoons with little individuality, and he constantly makes fun of their illiteracy, verbal blunders, and malapropisms.

Put otherwise, the author has an aristocratic perspective. He knows the upper classes from within, and he gives them dignity of speech; he knows the lower classes only from without, and they appear silly to him — or pitiful, at best — and he never stops finding their manners absurd, even when he portrays them affectionately. The only ones he treats with real esteem are faithful servants, who display loyalty to their masters. This would have been Oxford’s natural perspective, not William’s. You can even argue that Oxford was a snob — and that this fact supports his authorship claim!

To take a specific case, Polonius, father of Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, is clearly based on Lord Burghley, Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law. Like Hamlet and Polonius, the two men were often at odds, partly because Burghley was, like Polonius, an annoying snoop. Burghley even sent a spy to Paris to keep an eye on his playboy son, Thomas Cecil; Polonius sends a spy to Paris to keep an eye on his playboy son, Laertes.

The author of the play clearly had inside knowledge of Burghley, which Oxford surely had and William almost surely didn’t. This is not a matter of education or of social class as such, but of personal acquaintance. Many such details connect the plays to Oxford. Names of men he met in Europe turn up in The Taming of the Shrew.

If Oxford didn’t write the Shakespeare plays, then, as Orson Welles put it, “there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away.” And, we might add, an awful lot of them. Or are the laws of probability snobbish?

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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