After 250 years of the most intensive research by numerous scholars nothing has been discovered which unambiguously links William of Stratford-on-Avon with the plays that bear his name. All we know of him for certain are business or personal details such as baptism, marriage or death. No manuscripts or other documents of a literary nature by him or about him have emerged.

Q.   Apart from six signatures, what other examples of documents are there which demonstrate literate activity? He is thought to have lived in London for some years while conducting a business, and maintaining a family, in Stratford. Apart from one letter addressed to him but apparently never sent, what letters from or to him, or other personal papers, have been discovered?

A.  One business letter, apparently never sent.

O.  Over 50 manuscript letters, covering literary, personal, political and business subjects.

Q.  What references to him as the playwright appear in others' correspondence or diaries, or other contemporary documents?

A.  One - Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia 1598.

O. Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia 1598, Antony a Wood b 1632 in Athenae Oxoniensis 1691-2, Francis Peck in Desiderata Curiosa 1732-35

Q. The playwright was obviously a person of great education. What documentary evidence is there that Shakspere of Stratford had any education at any level?

A.  None.  The records from Stratford Grammar School for the period are lost.  He did not attend Oxford or Cambridge or the Inns of Court.

O.  We have details of Oxford's very comprehensive education in William Cecil's household.  He graduated from St John's College Cambridge.

Q. Many of the plays' sources were not published in English during his lifetime. Do we know that he was able to read them in the original languages?

A.  There is no evidence that he could.  

O.  He read and wrote French and Latin, was fluent in Italian and knew Greek and Spanish.

Q. Did he own copies of Ovid, North, Plutarch and the more than 100 other books recognized as sources for his plays?

A.  There are no records that he had a private library, nor that he had access to anyone else's.  He left no books in his will.

O.  Had an extensive private library, including a copy of the Geneva Bible, now in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, which contains over 1000 annotations and underlinings, about 250 of which have parallels in the plays.

Q.  If not, where did he see them? There were no public libraries, and books were very expensive and consequently precious. Even a genius has to acquire knowledge and skills.

A.  We do not know.  There are no records of his living in a wealthy household where books would have been available, or having a personal relationship with anybody who owned a library.

Q. Where did he get the intimate knowledge of, for example, Court life and behaviour, aristocratic sports and pastimes, or Italian geography and customs which are all exhibited in the plays? Is there any record that he was ever at Court, or travelled to Italy, for example?

A.  No.

O.  Was a leading figure at Court until 1592.  He travelled in France, Germany and Italy, where he rented a Palazzo in Venice for several months and became entangled with money-lenders.

Q. We usually expect to find parallels between an author's life in his or her works. Where are the personal biographical allusions to Will Shakspere in the plays? How intimate or convincing are they?

A.  There are very few which can be identified, despite diligent searches by Stratfordian scholars, and many of those could be coincidences.

O.  Too numerous to detail, Hamlet and All's Well are particularly rich in what appear to be pesonal allusions to Oxford's life. 

Q. Who paid him for writing the plays? 

A.  There are no records of anybody doing so but he is said to have retired a wealthy man, after his supposed career as a playwright.

O.  There are no records of Oxford being paid either, but in any case, as an aristocrat he could not have acepted payment openly.

Q.  Do the inscriptions on the Monument in Stratford church actually  name him as a playwright or poet?

A.  No.

Q. What convincing documentary evidence is there to support the dates commonly assigned to the composition of any of the plays, assuming him to have written them?

A.  None.  There are no records of the dates of composition, or even of first performance, of any of the plays.  The conventional dating is based on a number of assumptions, for example, that the plays were produced at the rate of 2 a year, without interruption.  It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no evidence that anybody wrote the plays, except that they exist.


No manuscript of a play or poem by "Shake-speare" has ever been discovered;  nor have any other documents  which identify any specific person as the author:

The circumstantial evidence, and the evidence of the First Folio and the Stratford Monument are insufficient to support the attribution to William Shakspere of Stratford:

The circumstantial evidence relating to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - his early poems and surviving letters, his literary reputation, his association with the theatre, his education and experiences - are sufficient to propose him as the author, using the pseudonym "William Shakespeare".


The plays and poetry of "Shake-speare" reveal a person who received the best education available, yet there is no record of Shakspere attending Stratford Grammar School (the registers for the period are missing) nor either University or the Inns of Court. Nor do we have any record of him being in the household of a great family where he could have received an education.

Shakspere never claimed to be a writer. None of his children, or grandchildren or their families ever claimed that he was an author.

If Shakspere were a great writer would he not have wanted his children to be able to read and write, yet his daughter Judith could only sign her name with a mark?

The only written works of Shakspere to come down to us are six signatures, three on the pages of his will and three on legal documents. They are all only partly legible, spelt in different ways and written in different styles but all spelt 'Shaks ...', not 'Shakes....'.Handwriting experts at the Public Record Office do not believe them all to be by the same hand.

His life from the records

The practicalities make it very unlikely that Shakspere was the author. If, as it appears, he left Stratford around 1587 at the age of 22 to go to London to become an actor, he would have had very little time for anything else while he was making his living as an actor and learning the trade of acting; yet at the same time he would have had to educate himself in the numerous areas of knowledge referred to in the "Shakespeare" plays as well as keeping an eye on his grain business in Stratford, a four-day journey away.

Shakspere's Warwickshire accent and dialect would have been a considerable handicap to someone writing plays for a London audience, or even communicating verbally in London.  A group of Warwickshire men recruited to fight against the Armada needed an interpreter when they arrived in London.

Although Shakspere was living in London for a number of years while conducting a business and maintaining a family in Stratford, no letters nor any correspondence, whether personal or business, from or to Shakspere have been discovered although other papers of those with whom he did business have survived. Does this lack of any personal correspondence indicate that Shakspere, like his father, was illiterate?

If he were the writer of some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, why has nothing ever been found which Shakspere wrote to or about his wife, from whom he was living apart in London for a large part of his married life?

A study of the records of 116 towns, including Stratford-upon-Avon, in which acting companies played at the time of "Shake-speare" show that not one of these lists him in the cast of any play.

No record has been found of payment made to any author for any of the "Shake-speare" plays.

The most detailed theatrical records of the time, those of Phillip Henslowe the proprietor of several London theatres, make no reference to "Shake-speare", even as an actor, although other actors are named as well as playwrights.

We do not know exactly when or for how long Shakspere went to London.  The best estimate is that he did not arrive before 1590-92. We do know that in 1597 he bought the second finest house in Stratford upon Avon and that he was known as 'William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon', not of London.  How Shakspere made his money so quickly is a very interesting question, particularly as we know his wife had to borrow money from her father-in-law's shepherd, which as the man's will shows, had not been repaid at his death.

In Stratford, Shakspere is frequently the plaintiff in legal suits, whereas in London he was wanted for evading court actions for non-payment of taxes. Not only does he appear to be leading two very different lives, but also, from the evidence, his associates in each location were completely unaware of the other life. For example, we know from the records that tax collectors in London in 1600 went to some lengths to trace him to Sussex, whereas his permanent residence and assets were in Stratford upon Avon, where he was not sought by the authorities. Was it because those who knew him in London had no knowledge that he had any connection with Stratford-upon-Avon?

The record of his death in the Stratford register is simply "William Shakspere gent." His son-in-law, John Hall, however is recorded as "Johannes Hall, medicus peritissimus" (most skilful physician).

Michael Drayton the poet, a contemporary of Shakspere, who lived in Warwickshire, was a patient of Dr John Hall, but never in his writings refers to Shakspere as an author. Dr Hall himself never mentioned his father-in-law as a writer though he recorded personal details of many others, including Drayton whom he called 'an excellent poet'.

The historian William Camden (1551-1623) in his book Britannia (1586, latest edition much enlarged 1607)  includes an Archbishop of Canterbury and Hugh Clopton who became Lord Mayor of London, but not "Shakespeare", in the reference to famous citizens of Stratford upon Avon. 

There is nothing in the surviving papers of his literary contemporaries which refer to Shakspere as a fellow writer;  there are some references to him as a player.

Shakspere was assiduous in pursuing debts, yet he allowed his works to be pirated on a scale far greater than any other Elizabethan writer. Most literary piracy was perpetrated on works of dead writers or those of men of rank who would have considered payment, or even having their names associated with such works, unacceptable.

The Sonnets were first published in 1609 in a pirated edition which Shakspere seems to have done nothing to prevent or suppress. The dedication refers to the author being "our ever-living poet" a phrase which was universally applied to the dead. Shakspere died in 1616.

According to the standard biographies, Shakspere, having made his name as an author in London, returned to Stratford upon Avon around 1598 while still in his prime, to spend the rest of his life there, apparently unrecognized, in a provincial community away from the centre of literary life in London.  As a great dramatist surely he would have attracted some attention in a small town of some 1500 people, even one remote from the literary life of the Court and capital.  Apparently not, if the monument to him in Stratford church is any guide.

We know William Shakspere was a shrewd and prosperous businessman, yet he makes no reference in his will to the publication or ownership of plays he had written, nor to any manuscripts and books which he could be expected to have possessed if he were a writer and which he would have recognised as valuable. Nor is there any reference to his shares in the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres (these also fail to turn up in the records of any of his heirs).

His death went entirely unnoticed by the literary world compared, for example, with that of Beaumont, who died the same year, or Spenser and Ben Jonson all of whom were mourned with much ceremony.

The Background knowledge exhibited by the playwright

The Stratford case relies on Shakspere being able to suppress all his own life experiences when writing the plays, to substitute those of a highly educated, well connected person, closely in touch with affairs of State, and permitted to lampoon with impunity some of the most powerful figures in the land.

Examples:                                                                                                                                                                       It is widely accepted that whoever wrote the plays had a detailed and first-hand knowledge the Court and contemporary courtiers and of Italy.  We have no record that Shakspere ever went abroad.

There is no record of Shakspere ever being present at the courts of Queen Elizabeth or of King James, or of his meeting or having a conversation with Southampton, or Burghley.  

Even a genius has to acquire knowledge and skills yet there is no evidence of any literary "apprenticeship" - no early, immature works such as we find for example with Mozart. Even the early plays, supposedly written in the late 1580s, show a maturity which one would not expect to find in someone only in his middle twenties. Both Milton and Dante were in their late 40s when they wrote their great works.


The Monument in Stratford Church

This is assumed to commemorate the playwright, after all it shows a man holding a quill pen and is adorned with commemorative inscriptions in English and Latin.  

The English dedication is ambiguous. It calls him just "Shakspere" (not "Shake-speare" as the name of the playwright is invariably spelt in print). It does not mention that he was an author nor make any reference to the plays or poems. It appears to be deliberately ambiguous and misleading;  with spelling modernised and punctuation unchanged it reads :







Many attempts have been made to tease a meaning from this inscription, without any convincing result.  One thing it clearly does not say is that it commemorates a playwright.  

The Latin inscription compares him to three classical worthies:  Socrates, who is not recorded as having written anything,  Nestor a mythical, Homeric figure, chiefly notable for his wisom and powers of survival, and  Virgil, an epic poet who was widely believed at the time not to have written the works attributed to him. None of them was a playwright.

The engraving of the monument by Sir William Dugdale in his book "Antiquities of Warwickshire" of 1656 is based on a sketch which he made in 1634.  It  shows the original effigy as different from the one we see to-day;  it is unmistakably a man holding a sack with the four corners tied. Wool was regularly kept in sacks such as this. There are certainly no signs in the sketch or the engraving of a quill and sheet of paper. Were these added when the monument was "restored" in the 18th century?

The second piece of Stratfordian evidence - the First Folio

Similarly, the introductory material in the First Folio Edition of the Plays of 1623 contains statements which are untrue, misleading or ambiguous. Nowhere is Shakspere of Stratford directly credited with the plays and poems and no biographical information about him is provided.

The "Portrait"

There is no evidence that anyone ever produced a portrait of "Shake-speare" from life.  The copper plate engraving by Martin Droeshout (who did not meet Shakspere) on the title-page of the 1623 First Folio, like much else, is ambiguous, even allowing for artistic incompetence.  The tunic or doublet is an extraordinary confection, the right side of the front is actually a representation of  the left side of the back, so the figure is represented as having two left-hand sides;  the subject looks to his left and the strangely-arranged buttons point to his left.   Left-handedness has long been associated with ambiguity and double-dealing.  An unanatomical curving line from the left ear to the chin gives the face the appearance of a mask.

The poems

Ben Jonson's accompanying verse begins:

      The figure that thou here see'st put, It was for gentle Shakespeare cut

contains three intriguing expressions:  figure, not picture or portrait, for (on behalf of, or in place of), not of,   and gentle, which did not then bear its modern  meaning of tender or quiet, but meant nobly born.  

His meaning appears to be that this figure, or effigy, was engraved (cut) and put here in place of a nobly-born Shakespeare.  

In his longer poem, To the memory of my beloved, The Author....., Jonson uses the phrase which seems to clinch the case in favour of Shakspere of Stratford: Sweet Swan of Avon!  This must surely refer to the river on which Stratford stands?  Very likely, but the distinguishing characteristic of the swan, apart from its lifelong fidelity, was its silence.  William of Stratford was a mute participant in all this, it seems.  (Quite coincidentally, Oxford owned a house at Bilton, on the River Avon near Rugby.)

In another poem, Leonard Digges refers to thy Stratford moniment (spelt thus in the original).  This also is taken as an unmistakable reference to William's home town.  The spelling is crucial.  There are two closely similar words, both relevant, but with different meanings - "monument" and "muniment" which is a collection of papers or archives; the latter was often spelt "moniment".  

Digges could have been referring therefore to either the monument in Stratford on Avon church, but there is no record that it was there in 1623; or to an archive of Shakespearean materials somewhere in Stratford, of which all trace has since disappeared, leaving no record of its ever having existed.  

Or he could have been referring to the Stratford in London, one of the theatre districts, and neighbour to the borough of Hackney where Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford died. 


The plays demonstrate a highly educated mind, with a feudal, aristocratic view of society. They are full of detailed references to lordly pastimes and sports and also show a detailed knowledge of the law and of foreign languages. De Vere studied law at Gray's Inn after completing his education at Cambridge. The records of his education, whilst living in the Burghley household, show him to have been equipped to be an outstanding scholar, highly proficient in the classics and French.

If Shakspere of Stratford were the author, he would have been writing for a company of actors and thus providing plays not much in advance of their first performance. If they were written by De Vere, the plays would not have been written in such conditions, but rather for private performance at Court, and subsequently revised into their present, literary, form. When they were written would have no direct link with when they were first performed or published. Like John Lyly's plays they could well have been written many years before they were actually published.

The quality of the works and the exquisite workmanship of the poetry as we now have them make it difficult to believe that they were produced under pressure, for immediate performance on a public stage, but rather that they were first drafted out, then refined and perfected over a period of years, probably away from the pressures of production or publication.  There are shadowy references to Court plays (by De Vere?) put on in the 1570's which could be early versions of plays which subsequently appeared as Shakespeare's.

One of De Vere's tutors was his uncle, Arthur Golding, who is credited with the translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. This is widely recognised as having a major influence on "Shakespeare". Could this work have been a collaborative achievement by uncle and nephew?

Soon after the name "Shake-speare" appeared in print for the first time, poems stopped appearing under De Vere's own name; the vocabulary, style and imagery are consistent between the two.

De Vere was well known to the Earl of Southampton, the person to whom "Shake-speare" dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in 1593/94 respectively. These were the first works to be published under the name "Shake-speare" and for the next five years the records show the name to have been associated exclusively with these two works. 

Printed plays under the name "Shake-speare" did not appear until 1598, the year that Lord Burghley died.

The Sonnets, the only works by "Shake-speare" written in the first person, indicate that the writer was a senior man both in rank and age, and that the young man of great beauty in the sonnets is himself a nobleman. The consensus now is that the young man is most likely to have been Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Fourteen of the plays have Italian settings and demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the country beyond pure book knowledge. So detailed is the knowledge that "blunders" about geography are now being shown to be correct.  De Vere spent the best part of a year travelling in Italy in 1575. He was satirized as 'The Italian Earl' on his return to England.

36 out of the 37 plays are set in Courtly or wealthy society. The noble characters are all natural, convincing and at ease. They speak the language of their class. Throughout the plays, every character through whom the author speaks on social or political issues is of noble birth or privileged position. The world "Shake-speare" wrote about was the world De Vere and his court audience knew.

It is "Shake-speare's" lower-order characters which are unconvincing. Almost all of them are clods or clowns; even their names are undignified - Wart, Bottom, Dogberry, Snout. By contrast, Ben Jonson's "ordinary" characters are natural while his nobles are caricatures with the similarly ridiculous names such as Sir Epicure Mammon, Sir Paul Eitherside, Sir Diaphonous Silkworm.

De Vere was excellent at the tilts and at jousting. He was known at Court as the "spear-shaker." This nickname recalls the Greek goddess Pallas Athena who was associated with poetry and the theatre; Athens was the original home of drama, and of the finest tragic dramatists prior to Shakespeare. Gabriel Harvey in paying tribute to De Vere as a poet wrote, "thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears".

De Vere was closely involved with the theatre; he held a lease on the Blackfriars Theatre and had his own acting company, The Lord Oxford Players. He was acknowledged by his contemporaries as a poet and praised as a playwright. About 25 poems survive under his own name. Around 30 books were also dedicated to him during his lifetime, none by "Shake-speare". He was also the patron of many writers but again, not of "Shake-speare".

The records show Lord Oxford's Players performing in the Boar's Head tavern in Eastcheap (referred to in Henry IV part 1). The records also show that two former servants of Lord Burghley were waylaid by De Vere's men, on the highway between Gravesend and Rochester, the very same stretch of road where Falstaff was ambushed by Prince Hal and his men in disguise.

Dating the creation of the plays

There are no documents which confirm the actual date of composition, or even first performance of any play. In any case, there is no proof that some of the early plays were not written before 1590, nor that any were written after 1604, the year of De Vere's death.

The best approximation can be derived from the various documents recording when plays were registered for printing with the Stationers' Company; from references to specific plays by contemporaries and allusions in the plays to contemporary events. Both Oxfordians and Stratfordians have to date the plays to fit the life-spans of their respective candidates, which were 14 years apart, so using "topical" allusions to date the plays is an inexact business. 

From the conventional, Stratfordian, dating, we find the early plays coinciding with De Vere's retirement to Hackney after his second marriage around 1592 and finishing with Othello in 1604, the year of De Vere's death. Later plays have often been considered by Stratfordians as only partly "Shake-spearean" and partly by other hands. If Shakspere were the author this would mean that at the age of 40, at the height of his powers, he consented to collaborate with inferior writers. Continuing research by Oxfordians is showing that all the plays conventionally dated post-1604, could have been written before that year.

Parallels in the plays

The parallels between de Vere's life and events in the plays are too numerous, consistent, complex and intimate to be mere coincidences. This is particularly true of All's Well That Ends Well and, especially, Hamlet. Although sneering at references which Oxfordians quote, Stratfordians constantly search the plays for personal biographical allusions to Will Shakspere - without success, as they themselves admit.

There are also parallels between characters and real court personages recognisable at the time and still so today. The most frequently cited are Burghley as Polonius,  Sir Christopher Hatton as Malvolio, Sir Philip  Sidney as Boyet and Aguecheek, Queen Elizabeth as Titania, Portia and Olivia. Only a senior nobleman closely associated with the Queen would surely have got away with  caricaturing such powerful people.

Sigmund Freud, a strong supporter of the view that De Vere was "Shake-speare" believed that no author can completely avoid giving insights into himself in his writings and that the character of Hamlet is his own self portrait. This is supported by writers such as Virginia Woolf, Gustav Flaubert and Edward Albee, and is a matter of common observation.  If it were not so, literary biography, in which the writer's life is linked to his or her works would be a waste of time.

Stratfordians recognize Hamlet as "the most autobiographical character", that is the one in which the author seems to reveal himself most intimately, but they are baffled by the dissimilarity between Hamlet's "life" and that of the Stratford man.  Perhaps that is because they are looking at the wrong man.

Literary Associations

"Shake-speare" drew many biblical allusions in his plays from the Geneva translation of the Bible. Oxford's copy of the Geneva Bible is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. In this copy,  hundreds of phrases and verses that were used, or echoed, by "Shake-speare", are marked in coloured inks or underlined, and linked with marginal notes.

The First Folio was dedicated to two noblemen, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery.  One was Oxford's son-in-law, and the other had been briefly betrothed to another of Oxford's daughters, before negotiations regarding the marriage were broken off.  The publication was a de Vere family affair.


  • Great Oxford - Selection of Essays produced by the De Vere Society - Parapress 2005
  • Shakespeare by Another Name, The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare - Mark Anderson 2005
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  • Monstrous Adversary - Alan Nelson. Liverpool University Press 2003