de Vere, Edward
British courtier Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), was an accomplished sixteenth–century English poet and literary patron as well as an official and member of the court of Elizabeth I. "Oxford," wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Dennis Kay, "was the first Elizabethan courtier to make a name as a published writer." Some critics believe that he was also the pseudonymous author of plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
De Vere, these critics have argued, makes a much more believable author of the famous series of plays because of his birth, breeding, and familiarity with foreign literature and events. Shakespeare, the son of an illiterate glove–maker in the small village of Stratford–upon–Avon, the critics have stated, did not have the education or the experience to compose the plays that are usually attributed to him. De Vere, on the other hand, had both the education and the experience, and he was sponsor for a time of a dramatic troupe. He also encouraged the careers of other writers, most notably John Lyly, who served as his personal secretary for some years.
Edward de Vere, unlike Shakespeare, was a child of privilege and a member of the traditional English aristocracy. He was born on April 2, 1550, at Castle Hedingham, in Essex county, England, into a family of distinguished lineage. His ancestors had accompanied William the Conqueror in the invasion of England in 1066, and one of them held a command at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. De Vere was given the title Lord Bulbeck at birth, and he inherited the family earldom of Oxford upon his father's death in 1562. He was well–educated (he received degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge and studied law at Gray's Inn), and he was widely traveled, having spent time in Europe in both Italy and the Netherlands. He was also associated with many prominent sixteenth–century figures, most notably Elizabeth I's principal secretary and Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
By the time de Vere died on June 24, 1604, at his home in Newington, Middlesex, he had served as Lord Great Chamberlain (a largely ceremonial office) to Elizabeth I and to James I, and he had fathered a single son and heir. He also left behind a reputation as one of the most celebrated early Elizabethan courtier poets—a reputation that, in the 1920s, would lead the schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney to decide that de Vere must have written the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Since then, supporters of the Looney thesis (known as "Oxfordians") have clashed with Shakespeare supporters (known as "Stratfordians") over the question of authorship.
Elizabethan Courtier and Renaissance Man
The seventeenth Earl of Oxford first entered the historical record as a royal ward assigned to the household of William Cecil. Because John de Vere, the sixteenth Earl of Oxford, had died when his son Edward was still a minor, Elizabeth I assumed responsibility for the care and raising of the seventeenth Earl. She assigned him to the household of her favorite William Cecil, who saw to it that the young man received a thorough Renaissance education, designed to perfect both his mind and his body. In fact, one of the earliest records in which de Vere appears dates to 1567 and deals with the accidental death of his manservant during sword practice at Cecil's house.
De Vere soon became one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites and remained part of the royal court (although he slipped in and out of favor) for almost twenty years. In December of 1571 he married Cecil's daughter Anne, an event solemnized in front of the Queen herself. The following year, however, he distanced himself from the queen over her treatment of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. In 1569 Norfolk had announced his intention to marry Elizabeth's Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had fled her native country two years earlier. Elizabeth, alarmed at the idea of one of her subjects becoming king of a neighboring country, withheld her permission for the marriage to take place and ordered Norfolk to return to court. Although the Duke obeyed the order, the north of England rose in a rebellion that was suppressed only after some 800 people were executed. In 1572 Norfolk was again caught up in a Catholic plot, and he was executed. De Vere's response to Norfolk's death—to leave England for the Continent—suggests that he himself may have had Catholic sympathies.
Despite de Vere's extended stay in the Netherlands in 1572, there is evidence that he sought a reconciliation with the queen. In 1574 records indicate that he was living at court, where he was fed and housed at Elizabeth's expense. Although he left the country again in 1575, traveling to Italy, Elizabeth served as godmother to his daughter, born during his absence. Following his return he became associated with the reorganization of theatrical companies and served as patron of the group of players known as "Oxford's Men." De Vere himself is listed as a player in a Lenten pageant performed at court in the spring of 1578, along with Philip Howard, Thomas Howard, and Lord Windsor. He may also (the evidence is not clear) have written plays that were performed at court.
Character Flaws Led to Fall
The Earl's status with the queen began to slip again in the late 1570s. In August of 1579 he started a quarrel with Sir Philip Sidney over the use of a tennis court. The incident provoked a challenge to a duel from the insulted Sidney, and the queen herself had to intervene to prevent her two favorites from killing one another. In the winter of 1580 de Vere had a falling–out with some of his friends and associates who supported the proposed marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the French Duke of Anjou, and he accused them of various treasonous conspiracies, leading to their arrests. The incidents demonstrate the great flaws in de Vere's character: his inability to control either his behavior or his temper. The most serious break with the queen, however, occurred in 1581, when it was discovered that de Vere had been having an affair with one of Elizabeth's maids–in–waiting, Anne Vavasour. Vavasour bore de Vere a child in March of 1581, and the birth led first to de Vere's imprisonment and then to a series of vendetta–like murders involving de Vere's supporters on one side and those of Vavasour's uncle, Thomas Knyvett, on the other. The vendetta eventually culminated in another challenge to a duel issued by Knyvett, but there is no evidence that Oxford responded to the challenge.
De Vere's erratic temperament, his Catholic sympathies, and his lack of political understanding contributed to his fall from grace just as much as his sexual impropriety did. He was reconciled with his wife Anne in 1583, and the Queen rewarded him with a pension in 1586. He also served in the campaign against the Spanish Armada in 1588. By that time, however, his extravagant spending had exhausted the lands and fortune he had inherited. Although de Vere continued to serve on various commissions by virtue of his rank and office as Lord Great Chamberlain, he never recovered the status he had held at court during the 1570s. By the 1590s his star had waned, and he lost whatever influence he had had with the queen. When he died, probably from plague, in 1604, he was succeeded by his son Henry, born from his second marriage to Elizabeth Trentham. He left behind him a scattered handful of poems and a reputation among contemporaries as one of the foremost poets of the Elizabethan era.
Author of Shakespearean Plays
Although contemporaries celebrated de Vere's literary abilities—a list of great Elizabethan writers published sixteen years after his death placed him first among all the English writers of the age—the seventeenth Earl of Oxford remained a little–known Renaissance poet for nearly three hundred years. The man who resuscitated de Vere and enhanced his reputation was an English schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney. After years of teaching Shakespearean works to his students, Looney became convinced that the son of an illiterate glover from Stratford, who had received at best a grammar–school education, could never have the breadth of knowledge of the world demonstrated in plays like The Merchant of Venice. Only a person who was widely traveled and who had extensive acquaintances at court could have composed plays and poems of the quality of those attributed to Shakespeare. Such a person would have been celebrated as a major talent by his contemporaries and the man from Stratford, Looney believed, was not such a person.
Looney approached the problem of identifying the author of the Shakespearean plays methodically. Based on elements contained within the plays themselves, the schoolmaster created a list of characteristics that he believed the author must have had. In addition to a classical education, familiarity with Elizabeth's court, and extensive travel, Looney believed that the author of the plays must have been a member of the aristocracy, have had a strong enthusiasm for theater, have been financially improvident, and that he must have been ambivalent about both women and Catholicism. Looney then trolled through the Dictionary of National Biography, an encyclopedia of short biographies in British history, and came up with the name of Edward de Vere. De Vere fit all the criteria Looney had identified, but for such a prominent writer his body of work was astoundingly small. "At first it seemed that he had written only a few youthful poems, then stopped writing," declared a "Frontline" contributor. "And yet literary critics of the period called de Vere one of the greatest Elizabethan poets and 'the best for comedy.' If he did write comedies and great poems, what happened to them?" The answer, Looney decided, was that de Vere was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.
There were several other coincidences that linked de Vere to Shakespeare's plays in Looney's mind. The Earl of Oxford maintained a group of actors known as "Oxford's Men," for whom he wrote plays and even acted in them. He was also a stockholder in Blackfriar's Theatre, a rival to Shakespeare's Globe. In addition, Shakespeare's long poem Venus and Adonis was written in a peculiar stanza form, and the only other contemporary poet known to have used that form was de Vere himself. Finally, the name "Shakespeare" was associated with de Vere on several occasions. He was saluted at court on at least one occasion with the toast, "Thy countenance shakes a spear." This may have been in recognition of his prowess on the jousting field, but it may also have been a pun on Oxford's coat of arms, which featured a lion brandishing a spear.
Looney's theory has attracted many believers in the decades since he published his findings in "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford in 1920. Most Shakespearean scholars and historians of Elizabethan England, however, do not accept his theory. They point out that de Vere died in 1604, before almost a third of the Shakespearean plays were written. In addition, although Looney and his followers suggested that de Vere had to use the pseudonym Shakespeare to avoid the stigma associated with the Elizabethan theater, recent scholarship has discovered that prohibitions against aristocrats and courtiers publishing their works were weakly enforced, and that they lapsed entirely during the period in which de Vere was actively writing and publishing. Finally, the Shakespeare Clinic, a computerized analysis of Shakespeare's works and language conducted between 1987 and 1994, discovered few semantic similarities between Shakespeare's works and those of the Earl of Oxford. The question of de Vere's supposed authorship of the plays remains unresolved.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 172: Sixteenth–Century British Nondramatic Writers, Gale, 1996.
Looney, J. Thomas, "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Stokes, 1920.
Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, 2nd edition, EPM Publications, 1992.
Taylor, Gary, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, Hogarth Press, 1989.
Ward, B. M., The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, John Murray, 1928.
"Frontline: The Shakespeare Mystery," PBS Online,http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/tapes/shakespearescript.html (December 17, 2004).
"The Case for Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford," Absolute Shakespeare, http://absoluteshakespeare.com/trivia/authorship/authorship–de–vere.htm (December 17, 2004).