Why I reject the Shakespearean ‘heresies’

by Robert Englert

In the May 4th edition of the Concourse, the editor invited me to weigh in on the issue of the disputed authorship of William Shakespeare, specifically the claim that the real author of the plays and sonnets is Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Before I do so, however, I want to congratulate both staff and contributors for the outstanding publication the Concourse has been and continues to be. I look forward to every issue and am consistently rewarded with the high quality maintained throughout the journal. Not the least of the Concourse’s virtues is the spirit of good naturedness its articles preserve even in the midst of spirited debate over contested issues. The journal is a significant contribution to the overall intellectual atmosphere of the University, and I am happy to take this opportunity to acknowledge it as such.

As to the issue of authenticity, I must confess that I am far from being an authority on Shakespeare’s (not to mention de Vere’s) biography, or on the disciplines associated with attribution. However, thanks to the editor’s earlier enthusiastic recommendation of Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare, I enjoyed several hours of browsing among various responses to his books and articles on this subject as well as several responses from the orthodox academics against the claims of other Oxfordians. It will probably not surprise anyone at FUS to find that I am thoroughly convinced by the establishment view that the real author of the plays and sonnets is William Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. In fact, this sojourn into questions of authenticity simply strengthened my conviction that the various “heresies,” as they are called, have no validity and lack the basic discipline of scholarly inquiry.

In a review of Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn’s This Star of England, Giles Dawson provides an instructive description of the scholarly attitude:

Scholarship implies an attitude toward truth and a method of working toward the establishment of truth—whether of historical events or of the meaning and significance of a literary work or of the nature of the world about us. The scholar has no axes to grind. He is not eager to prove his own hypotheses correct, but rather to find out whether they are correct or not. He is ever ready to reevaluate and reinterpret his evidence and to discard one hypothesis in favor of a better. When he uncovers a fact which does not square with his hypothesis he neither shuts his eyes to it nor tries to explain it away nor trims it to fit his own preconceptions, but rather adjusts the hypothesis to fit the facts. The ability to evaluate and reevaluate evidence in any field comes with training and experience in that field. In the field of literary history, as in others, the scholar attempts to construct the whole picture. Familiarity with many points of view enables him to determine which of his predecessors and fellow workers can in general be relied upon for sound scholarship, though even in such reliance he will   always test and question. He is humble in attempting to solve problems that have baffled many before him and slow to announce discoveries that will upset well established beliefs. He will familiarize himself with all tools and methods in his field and know which are sound and applicable to the work of the moment. In presenting the results of his research he will distinguish carefully between demonstrable fact and tentative conjecture, never building on the latter, and by full and sound documentation will furnish the reader with the means of testing both conjecture and stated fact. And finally in publishing he will scrupulously check all quotations and references.1 [italics added]

Dawson goes on to show the Ogburns deficient in nearly every one of the qualities he describes in his sketch of the scholarly mind. Similar deficiencies can be cited against Mr. Sobran, as Jeffrey Gantz does in his review of Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time, the full title of Mr. Sobran’s book.2

The subtitle of Mr. Sobran’s book alone seems more than a little presumptuous, but a quick look at some of his writings will show his disdain for the quality of humility. I cite the following from the January, 1998 issue of Sobran’s: The Real News of the Month, a newsletter available by subscription: “Nearly a year ago, as I was finishing Alias Shakespeare, I happened on what may turn out to be one of the most important finds in the history of English literature” (p. 5).

Mr. Sobran is referring to an anonymous sonnet cycle titled Emaricdulfe, which he sets out to prove to be written by the same hand that wrote the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. He employs a methodology of noting verbal parallels between the poems in Emaricdulfe and the entire canon of Shakespearean drama and poetry. This method of attribution must be treated with great caution, since so many of the writers of the age were consciously influenced by their contemporaries, and even where such influence was not conscious, the use of standard sources (such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses) almost guarantees verbal parallels of the kind cited by Sobran as evidence of a single hand. Sobran asserts, “Whoever wrote the Shakespeare plays wrote these sonnets. And it could hardly have been the man from Stratford.”   In a disingenuous claim meant to be taken for scholarly caution, he states, “I found Emaricdulfe nearly a year ago; until now I’ve kept it to myself to make sure I’d considered every angle.” But without telling the reader what those angles were and how he had considered them, he launches into an attack on the academic establishment almost staggering in its hubris:

Chiefly, of course, I wondered how all the scholars could have missed these poems, which have existed for more than four centuries and were published in 1595. I’ve learned not to put too much faith in the experts in any field, but I thought Elizabethan literature had been pretty thoroughly covered. Surely some doctoral candidate had pored over this work and noticed the abundance of Shakespearean touches and verbal parallels! Apparently not. . . .Most scholars nowadays are like bureaucrats; they stay within the system, and they hardly notice anything outside it. (p. 3)

Sobran notes what he regards as “evidence:” the same or similar words, phrases and sometimes tropes occurring in sonnet 24 of Emaricdulfe and in various places in the Shakespearean canon, including such commonplaces as “honey-tonged” in line 1 with “honey-tongued Boyet” from Love’s Labor’s Lost and “from their nectar lips,” line 3 and “such nectar from his lips” Venus and Adonis. He also finds significance in the “parallel” between line 7, “And every sentence of a greater force” and Henry V: “sweet and honeyed sentences,” where the only thing they have in common is the perfectly ordinary word, “sentence.” So too with “modest Diana” and “modest Dian,” “my yielding heart” and “my unyielding heart,” and “true types” and “true type.” Using this methodology, Dave Kathman demonstrates that Sir Edward Dyer, one of Oxford’s contemporaries at court, is actually closer than Oxford to Shakespeare. Kathman claims that “. . . a similar list [i.e. to Sobran’s] could be compiled for any Elizabethan poet with a canon the size of Oxford’s.”3

Mr. Sobran concludes his breathless discovery (“I was amazed, ecstatic”) with more anti-intellectual sneering:

The evidence could hardly be more conclusive. Yet no scholar has even noticed these parallels, which have been lying in plain sight for four centuries. It’s one of the most astounding oversights in the history of literary scholarship.

How could it happen? Simple. Most of the scholars have never taken the Shakespeare authorship question seriously. And by the same token, they’ve never questioned other Elizabethan authorship attributions.

What follows is almost too embarrassing to cite, but in the name of completeness I am forced to do it.

And so this incredible treasure was left to me, courtesy of those countless academic scholars who, rejecting as absurd the possibility that Oxford was “Shakespeare,” therefore never paused to wonder whether other works from the same golden quill, under other guises, were waiting to be noticed.

To appreciate the distance Mr. Sobran has gone from the scholarly ideal, I invite a re-reading of the description of scholarship from Giles Dawson of the Folger Shakespeare Library in the third paragraph of this piece.4

Of course, Mr. Sobran is not the only Oxfordian involved in what is admittedly a thriving community of anti-Stratfordians. Indeed, the Oxford contingent has all but obliterated the astonishing list of other claimants: Bacon (the first), Marlowe, the Earl of Rutland, Thomas Heywood, Queen Elizabeth I, to name a few. I have focused on Mr. Sobran because of the recommendation given to him in your “Editor’s Post Script” and in your earlier response to having read Alias Shakespeare. He does, however, share with most of the more zealous anti-Stratfordians what has been described as a “somewhat paranoid claim that the universities have denied them a hearing.”5 This claim seems to have gained some credence, since not only Mr. Sobran but Charlton Ogburn, author of The Mysterious William Shakespeare (the Oxfordians’ bible) and many other anti-Stratfordians sound the same note. Let me cite Thomas A. Pendleton in The Shakespeare Newsletter, Summer 1994, for some of the reasons for this apparent disrespect:

The authorship controversy—which nowadays is tantamount to saying the Oxfordian hypothesis—is not often seriously investigated by Shakespearean scholars. . . . Almost all Shakespeareans, I expect, are aware that claims for any rival author are based on assertions and inferences . . . that are untenable and have been shown to be untenable. Most libraries can supply the Shakespearean with some older, but very useful, treatments of the subject. For most Shakespeareans most of the time, Schoenbaum sufficeth. [I.e., S. Schoenbaum, author of Shakespeare’s Lives, 1970.] A number of other considerations militate against the Shakespearean’s engaging the topic. Public debates and moot courts, favorite venues for proponents of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, are far more compatible to categorical pronouncements than to the laborious establishment of detail, context, and interpretation required to counter them, not to mention doing so with enough panache to win the approval of a non-specialist audience. . . . Shakespeareans sometimes take the position that even to engage the Oxfordian hypothesis is to give it countenance it does not warrant. And, of course, any Shakespearean who reads a hundred pages on the authorship question inevitably realizes that nothing he can say or write will prevail with those persuaded to be persuaded otherwise. Perhaps the most daunting consideration for the scholar who intends to seriously examine this claim is the volume and nature of the research that will be demanded. To begin with, he must become completely familiar with the nearly 900 pages of Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, the authorized version of Oxfordianism, and then proceed to test at least a wide sampling of random claims of other adherents. He will continually be faced with the prospect of dealing with gratuitous assertions as if they were serious scholarly conclusions, and the necessity of demonstrating such assertions to be incoherent in the appropriate context, or based on incomplete or selective evidence, or logically faulty, or some combination thereof. The research required will be extremely demanding, much of it in quite recondite areas where very few have boldly gone before. He probably ought also to curb his natural temptation to say snide things when refuting especially preposterous claims. As remarkable as it sounds, Irvin Leigh Matus, in his Shakespeare, IN FACT (New York: Continuum 1994), has managed to perform all of these tasks, even the last.

To any reader sympathetic to the usually constrained resources available to scholars, these reasons should excuse the failure of most scholars from entering the fray. For those who wish to pursue the subject, I can recommend H. N. Gibson’s The Shakespeare Claimants, 1962 as an eminently readable response to the anti-Stratfordians. If you haven’t the time or inclination to read Matus’s book, an excellent review by Thomas Pendleton (cited above) not only gives a cogent summary of most of Matus’s arguments, but also provides his own argument based on the implausibility of a conspiracy of this magnitude ever having being carried on. “If this remarkable conspiracy had occurred, it would have been so extensive that it becomes a serious problem to identify those from whom the secret was being kept.” He goes on to show the implausibility of such a conspiracy enduring, concluding with the following: “No one associated Oxford with the Shakespeare plays, not during Oxford’s life, nor Shakespeare’s, nor the rest of the 17th Century, nor, for that matter, the 18th, 19th, and the first couple of decades of the 20th. If this was a conspiracy, it was far and away the most successful in human history.”

Another informative essay is by Gwynne Evans and Harry Levin, two self-described “orthodox professors” who answer Charles Ogburn in Harvard Magazine, February, 1975.6

Two other reviews I can recommend as useful are Jeffrey Gantz’s review of Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare, cited above, and Dave Kathman’s review of Sobran’s “‘Shakespeare’ Revealed in Oxford’s Poetry,” also cited above. I believe anyone who opens the “Shakespeare Authorship Page” on the web can spend a pleasant hour or more browsing the numerous entries on that website alone.{ftnt(17)}

A final thought relating to my limited expertise in this controversy. I used to give a lecture on authenticity in my Shakespeare classes. Over the years I discerned that most students were indifferent to the question, wanting to know whether or not I felt the anti-Stratfordian claims had any validity and being perfectly content to hear that I did not. I have more recently introduced the topic as an entree to other questions of disputed authorship such as the Joan of Arc scenes in Henry VI, Part I and claims of multiple authorship in The Taming of the Shrew and Pericles. But I still have been giving the anti-Stratfordian claims an off-the-cuff dismissal. I am inclined, however, to dust off the lecture, update it to account for the growing number of adherents to de Vere’s claim, and include it as a part of the introductory material to my courses. I am grateful for the impetus you have provided to rekindle my interest in the issue of authenticity. I look forward to hearing from Concourse readers on this matter.

Mr. Englert is a Professor of English at FUS.

  1. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1952) appearing in Shakespeare Quarterly, 1953, pp. 165-70 ↑
  2. The Boston Phoenix, November 6-13, 1997. The article may be found at website  ↑
  3. "Shakespeare">http://bostonphoenix.com/archive/books/97/11/06/ALIAS-SHAKESPEARE.html{/fn2}{fn3}“Shakespeare, Oxford, and Verbal Parallels” readable on “The Shakespeare Authorship Page” http://www.bcpl.lib.md.us/~tross/ws/will.html a review of Mr. Sobran’s article, “‘Shakespeare’ Revealed in Oxford’s Poetry”. ↑
  4. My citations from Mr. Sobran’s essay are from two internet entries, one a reprint from January, 1998 and the other “A Note from the Editor” (modified from Sobran’s, January 1998, p. 3.) One may readily find the quotations at Mr. Sobran’s address:  ↑
  5. Gwynne">http://www.sobran.com/emar.shtml{/fn4}{fn5}Gwynne Evans and Harry Levin in Harvard Magazine, February 1975. ↑
  6. www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/debates/harvardmag.html ↑
  7. www.bcpl.lib.md.us/~tross/ws/will.html ↑