STATE OF THE DEBATE
The publication in 1984 of Charlton Ogburn’s 800-page The Mysterious William Shakespeare brought the question of Shakespeare’s authorship to widespread public attention. In it Ogburn subjected the Stratfordian position to rigorous critical analysis, then went on to make a convincing case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica has become “the leading candidate, next to William Shakespeare himself, for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.” (The subsequent debate between Ogburn and Professor Maurice Charney of Rutgers, moderated by William F. Buckley Jr., exposed the conventional view of authorship as perilously flimsy.) Ogburn’s work inspired Charles Beauclerk to set up the De Vere Society at Hertford College, Oxford, in order to stimulate debate at the university. Guest speakers included Enoch Powell and Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre). Then in 1989 PBS in America and Yorkshire TV in Britain collaborated in producing a highly influential Frontline documentary entitled The Shakespeare Mystery, which has been aired many times since.
From 1991 to 1997 Beauclerk lectured on the authorship in schools and colleges across North America. In the high schools and prep schools, where vested academic interests were weaker, the authorship question began to be incorporated into Shakespeare course work by enthusiastic teachers. As classroom texts they were able to use Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare, Who was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon (1994) and Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare (1997). Today there are a number of tenured professors who openly challenge the conventional view, while Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has established an annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference, which is attended by academics from all over the world. A Shakespeare Authorship Studies Centre is being built there and there are plans to endow a professorship, the first of its kind in this subject. The authorship question, already common knowledge in the States, is also making good headway in the U.K., where Doctor William Leahy of Brunel University is creating a Master's Programme in Shakespeare authorship studies. Despite continued attempts by the academic establishment to exclude the subject, the internet has ensured that interest and enquiry have spread dramatically over the past decade.
The Shakespeare Mystery was followed in 1994 by the BBC documentary Battle of Wills, and again in 1999 by The Shakespeare Conspiracy. Shakespeare in Love (1998), though not overtly about authorship, delivered an almost satirical portrait of William of Stratford, who is shown writing out his name over and over again in the opening scene, and who is asked by Kit Marlowe, “Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?” (not “Are you William Shakespeare?”). High-profile converts to the Oxfordian theory in recent years have included actors Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, Keanu Reeves, Michael York, Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, and US Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, and John Paul Stephens.
The traditional response from the establishment has been to ignore the dissenters or dismiss them as unscholarly, in the hope that academic authority will carry the day. Nevertheless, the pressure exerted by Oxfordians on the establishment view over the past 21 years has forced the academics out into the open. Professor Alan Nelson of Berkeley, despite his loathing for his subject, wrote a 527-page biography of the Earl of Oxford entitled Monstrous Adversary (Liverpool University Press, 2003). Although he avoided overt reference to the authorship question, the subtext of Nelson's character assassination was that Oxford was too nasty to have been Shakespeare! In 2004 Stephen Greenblatt in his much-heralded biography of Shakespeare Will in the World made a valiant attempt to “sex up” the Stratford man by forcing connections between the man and the works and presenting him as an angst-ridden crypto-Catholic. Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard, is angrily dismissive of the authorship question and thinks it should be banned from schools. In August 2005 he wrote a letter to the New York Times comparing anti-Stratfordians to holocaust-deniers. Greenblatt’s discomfort was in large part caused by the publication that same month of a biography of Edward de Vere as Shakespeare by journalist Mark Anderson entitled Shakespeare by Another Name (Gotham Books, Penguin USA). A scholarly and impeccably sourced work, Shakespeare by Another Name has sent shock waves through the academic world.
Greenblatt isn't the only one to feel uneasy about the lean pastures of conventional Shakespearean scholarship. Michael Wood (In Search of Shakespeare, 2003), Richard Wilson (Secret Shakespeare, 2004), Clare Asquith (Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, 2005) and Peter Milward (Shakespeare the Papist, 2005) are all eager to "bring water" by humanising Shakespeare or at least doing away with the bard's iconic, two-dimensional image. Although they can't compete with Oxford's élan vital, they do at least attempt to create a politically aware, anti-establishment Shakespeare whose works engaged at some level with the society in which he lived. This move toward greener pastures will eventually lead them to the Oxfordian camp.
The old guard, however, is still kicking. Scott McCrea, for instance, weighed in with a book entitled The Case for Shakespeare, which announced ex cathedra the end of the authorship question, as if academic fiat alone were sufficient to crush 400 years of dissent. 2005 also saw Peter Ackroyd throw his hat into the ring with a beautifully written account of the life surrounding Shakespeare, but as ever leaving the man himself in limbo. At least the hackneyed refrain of “it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was” has dissolved in the heat of battle. The annus mirabilis was completed by the appearance of The Truth Will Out (Pearson Longman, 2005) by Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein, which advanced a completely new candidate for the Shakespeare laurels: Sir Henry Neville. Proof if any were needed that the authorship question is alive and well.
There are many major projects in the pipeline, and breakthroughs in research are happening all the time. Work has already begun on an Oxfordian edition of the Works of Shakespeare under the general editorship of Dr. Daniel Wright, Professor of English at Concordia University.
Other publications challenging the traditional view of Shakespeare’s identity in recent years include:
The Lost Chronicle of Edward de Vere by Andrew Field [Viking, 1990]
The Shakespeare Controversy by Warren Hope and Kim Holston [McFarland, 1992]
Shakespeare's Ghost by James Sherwood [Opus Books, 2000]
Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible by Roger Stritmatter [Oxenford Press, 2001]
Shakespeare: Who Was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon
by Richard F. Whalen
Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography
by Diana Price [Greenwood Press, 2001]
The Dark Side of Shakespeare
by Ron Hess [Writer's Club Press, 2002]
by Sarah Smith [Atria, 2003]
Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford's Letters
by William Plumer Fowler [Peter E. Randall,1986]
Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I
by Paul Streitz [Oxford Institute Press, 2001]
Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose
by Elisabeth Sears [Meadow Geese Press, 2003]
Great Oxford: Essays on the Life and Work of Edward de Vere
General Editor Richard Malim [Parapress, 2004]
Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare
by Bertram Fields [Harper Collins, 2005]
by Hank Whittemore [Meadow Geese Press, 2005]
De Vere as Shakespeare
by William Farina [McFarland, 2005]
To be published in 2007/8:
Italy in Shakespeare: Secret of the Centuries by Richard Paul Roe
Shakespeare's Tutors: The Education of Edward de Vere by Stephanie Hughes
Shakespeare and the Concealed Poet by Robert Detobel
Shakespeare's Identity Crisis by Charles Beauclerk
For More Information E-mail: DeVereLectures@aol.com