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Who Was Shakespeare? The Supreme Court’s (and my) De Vere Verdict

deVere.jpg
Edward de Vere, from an engraving by J. Brown after G.P. Harding, 1575

I know you’re all probably expecting a complete and abundantly illustrated report on my recent trip to Iowa.

Patience, art-lings! Right now my thoughts stray to Elizabethan England.

That’s because Saturday’s Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article devoted to one of my cherished notions—the theory that “Shakespeare” was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. De Vere was a widely traveled aristocrat of erudition and eclectic experience, whose claim to Shakespeare’s oeuvre is favored by the senior Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens (with some other Justices concurring).

Jess Bravin reports:

Since the 19th century, some have argued that only a nobleman could
have produced writings so replete with intimate depictions of courtly
life and exotic settings far beyond England. Dabbling in entertainments
was considered undignified, the theory goes, so the author laundered
his works through Shakespeare, a member of the Globe Theater’s acting
troupe.

Like Stevens, I find this theory compelling. I’ve been a de Vere-ian ever since watching a 1989 PBS FRONTLINE documentary, The Shakespeare Mystery, which laid out the case for Oxford over Stratford. But in reading about Justice Stevens’ deliberations, I was surprised that this legally astute former English major didn’t take note of the significant fact that legal imagery is to be found in much of Shakespeare’s work, particularly the sonnets. As we learn from de Vere’s biography, the Earl of Oxford, among his many accomplishments, studied law.

Distinguished Harvard scholar Helen Vendler, in her monumental The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, kept bumping up against poetic legalese:

Shakespeare’s language for human transactions here [in Sonnet 134], as elsewhere in the “Sonnets,” is ruthlessly legal.

So is the language of the plays—to wit, “the law’s delay,” incongruously inserted in the litany of hardships cited by Hamlet as reasons for considering suicide in his “To be, or not to be” speech.

Some commentators believe de Vere is hiding in plain sight in Sonnet 125, where (in the first line) the author reveals that he “bore the canopy.” De Vere had held the canopy over Queen Elizabeth when she celebrated her victory over the Spanish Armada.

To my mind, the author drops the broadest hints about his secret bard-ship in two of the 154 deeply personal, double entendre-filled sonnets—numbers 135 and 136. Both are littered with heavy-handed puns on “Will” (short for “William”). Vendler calls 135 “perplexing, even maddening” and asks about 136, “Is there anything serious about this sonnet?”

More than she realizes.

These seeming trifles have an important biographical, if not literary, role in the canon, because they deal not only with a love triangle (as Vendler recognizes), but also, more importantly, with a disguised identity—a recurring Shakespearean device that may also have defined de Vere’s life.

Here’s my hypothesis: De Vere’s fickle lover finds the Earl’s wit and eloquence to be less alluring than Shakespeare’s literary brilliance. To regain a lover tempted by the bard’s prodigious verbal charms, de Vere outs himself. In these sonnets, he plainly reveals that it is he, Edward, who is the real “Will.” Shakespeare is just his frontman.

This self-revelation begins in the two less maniacally pun-drunk poems that precede the two “Will” sonnets. In Sonnet 133, the poet bemoans his lady’s new attraction to his friend, whom he significantly calls “my next self.” In 134, he reveals that this friend is not only his alter ego, but also one who “learned but surety-like to write for me.”

The plot thickens in the next two sonnets, where the poet’s repetitive riffs on “Will” hammer away at the point that the lady’s two beloveds are really one. He begins 135 by humorously informing her that she has “Will to boot, and Will in over-plus” and then continues to cram the poem with a superfluity of “Wills.” Perhaps most revealingly (and erotically), he asks her “to hide my will in thine,” inviting her complicity in guarding his hidden identity. In the final line, he conclusively unites the dual personae: “Think all but one, and me in that one ‘Will.'”

As in the previous sonnet, he ends 136 by identifying himself as the singular Will, in a couplet that seems exasperatingly lame, unless its hidden significance is understood:

Make but my name thy love, and love that still,

And then thou lov’st me, for my name is Will.

Vendler derides this line as “naively triumphant (as though the mistress hadn’t known all along what his name is).” But it’s quite possible that de Vere’s paramour actually never did know about his wily Will-ness. After all, the poet who penned these intimate and sometimes transgressive sonnets may have prudently kept them locked away—yet another secret.

What we do know is that they were first published in 1609, when de Vere, who might have been embarrassed by such self-exposure, was five years dead. Shakespeare, his surrogate self, had seven years yet to live.

And now I have also outed myself—at heart and by training an English major, not an art history major.

If you happen to find yourself in England on Wednesday, the question of “Who Was Shakespeare?” will be explored at Brunel University in Uxbridge by two distinguished Shakespearean actors—Mark Rylance (sometimes found moonlighting in inconsequential farce) and Sir Derek Jacobi.

Do you think they might transfer this provocative production to New York?

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