Sunday, September 23, 2007



This is a biography of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, but the focus of this book is not so much to document the Earl's life as to demonstrate that the Earl was the author of the plays and poems we ascribe to William Shakespeare.

The known facts of Shakespeare's own life are few and seemingly unpromising to have produced the language's greatest poet. Many scholars and critics over the centuries have speculated that others were responsible for the plays and poems.

In de Vere, Anderson does have a fairly strong candidate. The author does show many connections between events in the life of Edward de Vere and facts and references in Shakespeare's work.

I think Anderson's strongest argument is the idea that a man like the real William Shakespeare, actor and theater producer, a man without any access to high levels of government, a man who so far as we know never traveled to any extent, and a man who would not have had access to any great library, simply would not be familiar with all the sophisticated matters touched on in the plays.

To bolster this general argument, Anderson identifies many circumstances from the plays that may be explained in terms of de Vere's experience, but they all remain suggestive, and in many cases Anderson does go through a rather tortured effort to make what he regards as a strong point.

Anderson offers many other supporting suggestive bits such as anagrams and drawings seeming to reveal another as the actual playwright and passages annotated by de Vere in contemporary books. The whole of this is suggestive, at times powerfully so, but it is somewhat less than convincing.

Although I enjoyed this book, nevertheless, in the end, I remain unconvinced. As Anderson says himself, there is no "smoking gun" - and, God, how I wish a scholar writing about our greatest writer would avoid such clich├ęd American expressions.

The most important doubt for me is found in de Vere's own known writing. While his letters show a man of learning and eloquence, I just do not hear Shakespeare in his words. There are times when Anderson says a reference in a letter is the same matter as a reference in a play or poem, but the magic of the language just isn't there to my mind.

Several interesting thoughts come to mind with the de Vere thesis. First, de Vere - wastrel and swashbuckler, was not a particularly pleasant or even ethical man, quite different to the figure most of us imagine Shakespeare's being.

Second, de Vere was not just a failure as a businessman, he was a total failure at being even the keeper of his inheritance. He had no commercial sense at all.

In the American national battery of tests for teachers some years ago, I noticed an odd question about Shakespeare in which the "correct" answer was about his being a good businessman - running a successful theater company, etc - rather than the romantic ideal of the artist. I thought the question heavily biased by America's focus on making money. If de Vere was Shakespeare, the question is not only odd, the desired answer was altogether wrong.

Despite my reservations, this is a book that should be read by all admirers of Shakespeare and by all who are fascinated by the Elizabethan period.