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Introduction to the Shakespeare Authorship Question

By  Judge Christmas Humphreys


Christmas Humphreys QC (1901-83), High Court judge, poet, Shakespearean scholar, and founder of the Buddhist Society of Britain, was president of the Shakespearean Authorship Society and an eloquent and ardent proponent of the idea that the works commonly attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  Below is a slightly abridged version of his introduction to Hilda Amphlett's classic work "Who Was Shakespeare?" (William Heinemann, 1955).

WHO Wrote Shakespeare?  For many years I have put this question to my friends and acquaintances, and the answers are usually one of four.  1) Why not Shakespeare?  2) So you too are a Baconian?  3) Does it matter, when we have the plays?  4) Well, who did?

My answers to these counter-questions are as follows: 1) Because there is very little evidence indeed that 'Shakespeare' was Shakspere of Stratford, and silence where one would expect evidence.  Per contra, there is very strong evidence that others did write Shakespeare, and that William of Stratford did not.  2) I do not believe that Bacon wrote a line of the poems though he may, with others, have had a minor hand in the plays.  3) Yes, because it is offensive to scholarship, to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored.  Moreover, I have found the plays of far more interest when seen again as the work of a great nobleman and one very close to the fountain-head of Elizabethan England.  4) I am satisfied, with a number of scholars of far greater knowledge than I, that although the works attributed to Shakespeare may have come from several hands, the incomparable genius responsible for the greater part of them was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

My own approach to the problem is easily described.  Though I spend the greater part of my working day in 'detective stories' of real life I have ever an appetite for more, especially when there is a wrong to be righted and an historic mystery to be solved.  I find, for example, no reliable evidence that Richard III was responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower, and plenty to the effect that he did nothing of the kind.  If there is an answer to the late Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time, on the subject, I should like to hear it.

And who can seriously doubt that there is a Shakespeare mystery?  Nearly everything about that remarkable woman, Queen Elizabeth, is fraught with mystery, and remarkably little is known about the interrelations and motives of the brilliant group of men who graced her Court.  Why was the Earl of Oxford paid £1,000 a year from the Privy Purse while virtually exiled from the Court?  What was the truth of Bacon’s fall from grace, of Marlowe’s death, of Leicester’s relations with the Queen?  It is quite astonishing how little we know about this long and remarkable reign.  And the greatest mystery of all is the identity of William Shakespeare.

To my interest in this final mystery I bring alone the qualifications of thirty years’ experience of proof by evidence, whether as prosecuting or defending counsel, or as a magistrate.  In every case I am concerned with the weight and value of the evidence without reference to previous assumption or belief.  I have to consider what the evidence proves, not what someone would like it to prove.  When, therefore, I chanced on a copy of Thomas Looney’s Shakespeare Identified I sought, as a lawyer does, for the ‘answer’ to what seemed to me a closely-reasoned and well-documented case for a two-fold proposition, each part of which had to be given separate thought; that Shakspere of Stratford had no hand in the writing of Shakespeare, and that the highly sensitive and cultured genius responsible for most of this colossal output was that experienced poet and playwright, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  I still await that answer.

Questions of course poured into my mind.  What, for example, of the strength of the Stratford tradition?  But what fun, I thought, if  it turned out to be quite untrue!  For there is ample precedent for a totally false tradition carefully built up by interested parties.  One of the best is within living memory.

If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, ‘the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights.’  What was the truth?  It would seem that ‘the rougher section of the Rhondda valley crowds had got quite out of hand.  Shops were being looted and property destroyed.  The Chief Constable of Glamorgan sent a request to the Home Office for troops.’  The then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill

"I was so horrified at the possibility of the troops coming face to face with a crowd of rioters and having to fire on them , that he stopped the movement of the troops and sent instead a body of plain, solid Metropolitan Police, armed with nothing but their rolled-up mackintoshes…. That is the shooting-down by troops that Wales will never forget."


- The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey, p.110.

But if this tremendous lie has grown within fifty years, what of the Stratford myth which has had three hundred and fifty years in which to reach maturity?  The answer, of course, is vested interests, emotional or financial as the case may be.  And in the case of Shakespeare we know in detail the main source of the Stratford ‘tradition’, the organizing ability of David Garrick, as proved, inter alia in the Amazing Monument, by Ivor Brown and George Fearon.

What is the evidence for this twofold thesis, I demanded of my new found co-discoverers in the Shakespeare Fellowship?  They gave me books, an armful of books; many of them, I noticed, written by lawyers.  I read them all, and a dozen more, while keeping a lookout for the Stratfordian reply.  When I did meet Shakespearean ‘authority’, and innocently put my questions, I got the impression that the said authorities, who earned a living as the exponents of the current theory, were prepared to admit ‘off the record’ what they dare not concede in the class-room or in public print. 

The Shakespeare Fellowship provided me with chapter and verse for each of their assertions, and after a few months’ reading I was more than ready to accept the famous dictum of Henry James: ‘I am a sort of haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world.’

The hunt was up.  I never found it easy to believe that the world’s most glorious poetry poured like fireworks clothed in flaming gold from the painfully dull and money-minded Stratford esquire.  Here was evidence to reinforce my doubt.  I felt as I often feel when the defence produces evidence of an elaborate alibi, that the whole erection is false, and that it only needs a pin in the right place to pop the balloon.  Had history, on the largest scale yet known, put the wrong man on the pedestal?  The answer could not depend on a frivolous rejection of the doubt.  Here was a genuine problem, the solution of which must turn on tested evidence, of which the existence of a strong tradition was but an inconclusive part.

So I set to work to collect and test the existing evidence, and soon found that the most embarrassing feature of the enquiry was that one did not know where to stop.  It has more than once been observed that the whole of the known facts about William Shakspere of Stratford can be written on a postcard.  No line of his writing survives save six signatures, which competent experts have described as those of an illiterate or else very old, sick man.  There would seem to be no evidence that William Shakspere, as distinct from another or others using a different spelling of his name, wrote any of the works of William Shakespeare; there would seem to be, I was startled to discover, very little evidence that he could write…It was all rather embarrassing.

Insert the edge of the chisel of doubt in the plaster of this legend, and it is frightening to watch the wishful-thought assumption tumble to the ground.  True, difficulties rise from the dust of the destruction like a cloud of mosquito-fanged enquiries.  Why did the true Shakespeare use a pseudonym; to whom was Ben Jonson referring when he wrote that he loved him ‘this side idolatry’; why was the secret not revealed when all point of it had gone?  And so on and so on, but these can wait.  It is not nearly so difficult to solve them as it is to accept the thousand groundless assumptions inherent in the Stratford story.  For the evidence supporting William of Warwickshire is almost non-existent, and what a silence is there where the enquirer would expect such evidence to speak!

In brief, there are three periods in William Shakspere’s life.  In the first he is at Stratford, of illiterate stock, apparently of no attainment and with no thoughts above his humble standing.  In the middle period he comes to London and at once begins to produce with enormous speed  and apparently no pause for learning the world’s greatest literature.  Without the least sign of immaturity he writes two long poems, a hundred and fifty Sonnets and at least 37 plays, all on top of a day’s work earning his living.  Between them these works display an enormous range of knowledge and a vocabulary unused by any man before or since, but not a single manuscript line of this vast output survives.  He then retired (just after Oxford’s death, be it noted) to Stratford, and at once reverts to his previous status.  There is here no flicker of mental grandeur; no one comes to honour him in his retirement, nor does he take the slightest interest in the publication of his works in London, though it would seem that many of them were finished or worked over by other hands than his.  He ignores the Queen’s death, and his own is equally ignored, though all the poets of the day assembled in Westminster Abbey to do reverence to Ben Jonson as he was lowered to his grave.  In his will he left no book nor mention of manuscript, and the only monument erected to his memory was that attributable to a self-made local worthy, with the hands of the figure resting on what looks, from an old engraving, like a sack of malt.  (The present monument seems to date from the eighteenth century.)  All this being so, I entirely agree with Looney when he writes:

"It is difficult to believe that with such a beginning he could have attained to such heights as he is supposed to have done.  It is more difficult to believe that with such glorious achievements in his middle period he could have fallen to the level of his closing period; and in time it will be fully recognized that it is impossible to believe that the same man could have accomplished two such stupendous and mutually nullifying feats…The perfect unity of the two extremes justifies the conclusion that the middle period is an illusion."


Shakespeare Identified, J.T. Looney, p.53

What is the explanation?  Is it to be found in that much-abused escape from many problems, genius?  I agree that the deeps of the human mind are still unplumbed, but genius, whatever else, is a faculty of mind, and cannot of itself produce objective knowledge which has not yet entered the human brain.  True, Keats wrought, with his mother tongue and knowledge precociously acquired, immortal poetry; and Kipling could absorb the atmosphere and jargon of a strange employment and write as though he had spent his life in it.  But how can the ‘genius’ of a village yokel write, within a short time of his reaching London, poems and plays which display considerable knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, Italian; law and medicine; war, the sea, fencing, heraldry and hawking; travel, and foreign cities in great detail; diplomacy and the niceties of Court etiquette; the working of a mind o’erwrought with autocratic power; and the intimate lives of the great, even of the greatest, of the innermost thoughts of kings and queens?  Surely this needs years of training, preferably in a mind that was born to it – not scraps from borrowed books and key-hole listening.  Genius won’t do.  And why should it be assumed, in the lack of evidence, that Shakspere of Stratford had a spark of it?  I do not believe it, and my lack of belief is based on lack of evidence.

Who, then, was the author of the poems and plays?  Freed from the dead-weight of a carefully contrived tradition, to which the author contributed by the use of a pseudonym, and which he may have lived to regret, we are free to enquire.  It may be that the truth is great and will (in time) prevail, but we might as well give the lady a little assistance.  If we knew nothing of the author, and no tradition existed as to his identity, we should never look for him in Stratford nor expect to find him in the provincial tradesman who is worshipped today as the God of English literature.  There are far more likely candidates in the field for this great honour, most of them members of that travelled, cultured and highly accomplished group of brilliant minds that, linked by the ties of marriage, wealth and common interest, clustered planet-like about their enigmatic and most brilliant Queen.  Here, surely, one would look for the face of ‘Shake-speare’.  Or had he a single face to find?

Many modern pundits take the view that several writers had a hand in that vast array of works which today appear under the name of Shakespeare. But even if more than one hand contributed to the works, may not the Earl of Oxford, ‘the best for comedy’ of his day, a recognized poet withal, and one who had his own company of players, be reasonably included?  And if added at all, may not his true place be at the heart, as the mass of available evidence would lead one to suppose?  Per contra, where is the true place of William of Stratford, the indifferent actor from the provinces whom Ben Jonson alone, in equivocal words, describes as the author of the plays?  Whatever the answers to these questions, the fire and splendour of the Shakespeare works are the product of a widely cultured, sensitive and aristocratic mind.  And while many an accomplished courtier might have written or suggested material for a speech or even a scene, one mind shines dominant in a body of plays the like of which we have not seen from that day to our own.  This one man in a thousand years of English history is in truth incomparable.  How shall we find him?

I like Looney’s approach, and have used it myself in more than one big trial.  It is scientific, unbiased by theory, and depends on no assumptions.  Circumstantial evidence can be stronger than direct evidence, and when a dozen fingers point in the same direction, one may approach very near to that desirable ideal, proof.  Consider the corpus of the works, says Looney, and write down what may safely be said about the author, whoever he may be.  Then look for a man who satisfies those characteristics.  If you find one man who supplies them all, one final question remains and the search is ended.  Could there be two men living at the same time who embodied the attributes demanded, and about whom there is nothing to destroy the apparent identity?  If not, there is your man.  As applied to a murder trial this method is most convincing.  Is it less so when the search is for an author and not a murderer?  When in addition there are other factors of proof, and the most searching enquiry fails to discover a single factor to destroy the identity of evidence and man, does even a Shakespeare pundit want much more?  Looney gave eighteen characteristics, and elaborated each of them.  They are all examined independently, without assumptions, and it is for the reader to decide their validity.  Even if fifty per cent are rejected as far-fetched or in any way unproved there remains an abundance of uncommon attributes which must appear in the author, and although one or two or three prove very little the proof mounts rapidly, with geometric progression, as the number grows to twelve or more.

What then do the orthodox Stratfordians say, assuming, which is not to be too lightly admitted, that their minds are truly open to evidence, when it is found that of Looney’s eighteen points not one applies to the man from Stratford, and every single one applies to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford?

Another important crux is the chronology of the plays.  Hitherto all matters of dating began with the assumption that Shakspere of Stratford was the playwright, and that he could not have come to London before a certain date.  But what if the author be a man born not in 1564 but in 1550?  The field is again wide open, and several scholars have revised the whole chronology in the light of de Vere as author, and thereby resolved a hundred problems solely created by the assumptions of the orthodox.  For the first time a thousand – and I do not exaggerate – contemporary allusions, parallels of character and wording, and identical mannerisms of self-expression sweetly fall into place.  Some of the plays are found to be pure biography, and many a character reflects, in speech or incident, in vice or virtue, the friends and enemies of the man who was most truly Shakespeare.

I repeat, I write as a lawyer, accustomed to rejecting anything which is not verified fact or something near to it, and accustomed to eschew all argument that is not reasonably based on the evidence.  Moreover I am accustomed, whether I prosecute or defend in a particular case, or try it, to look, having heard the case for one side, at the case, if any, for the other.  I therefore find the silence of the orthodox fraternity of the greatest interest.  To regard the attack on Stratford as the vapouring of fools and cranks is now unworthy of the Shakespeare scholar.  Isn’t it finally time for him and his colleagues to examine afresh the available evidence, and look for new?

For there is plenty more evidence to be found, and fresh research is constantly adding to the proofs available.  If the most intensive effort has failed to produce a single line in the hand of William Shakspere, more and more evidence comes to light as to the real author of the Sonnets and the poems and plays.  The date is 1954.  De Vere died just three hundred and fifty years ago, and even his burial place is today unknown.  Is it not time to do him honour, even as they pull down Brooke House, Hackney, the house wherein he died?  Be patient, my masters, and at least give audience to fact and close-knit reasoning.  Hereafter we shall abide your judgment, so that it be, as a worthy juror’s verdict should be, ‘in accordance with the evidence’.