Süddeutsche Zeitung, 5./6.1.2010

Who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare?

News from the opposition to the man from Stratford: Kurt Kreiler's biography of the Elizabethan aristocrat Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

The straightforward title which announces a book about "Edward de Vere"-someone who's largely unknown in this country-encapsulates the conclusion-still provocative for the public at large-that William Shakespeare, renowned as the greatest of the great poets and playwrights, is an "invention" which conceals another author: the 17th Earl of Oxford. The Stratfordian camp, now 350 years old, supported by a cult of millions, has always reacted bitterly to these and other suspicions which have been voiced for 150 years: this just can't-and mustn't be allowed-to be true.

The author of this remarkable biography, on the other hand, is out in the open: Kurt Kreiler, "essayist, publisher, author of radio plays, translator, and holder of a Ph.D. in German, residing in Cologne," has for years been working for the recognition of de Vere as the creator of Shakespeare's works and has now presented the totality of his research on the life of this unusual English nobleman. The book's focus, so as to be clear at the outset, is on Edward de Vere (1550-1604), and on Shakespeare's work only secondarily, or as the counterpoint to a turbulent life in Elizabethan England. There is practically nothing in it about the man from Stratford.

Who was educated, and how?

No one doubts that there was this William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon (whose name was variously spelled): birth and death records (1564-1616), business transactions concerning his home and property, his presence in the milieu of London's theaters, his marriage to a somewhat older woman in Stratford, with two surviving children-all of that is clearly documented. But that the son of a provincial glover with a modest education that lasted until he was twelve became a London poet and dramatist whose plays were frequently performed and then printed in his lifetime, without the numerous literary and social circles of the time being alerted to his very existence, of whom [in this capacity] there is not a single authentic written record, whose daughters were illiterate, who bequeathed a bed to his wife as the only item of worth in his will, without expending a word on the subject of the rights to his published works or the books in his library, whose death, in contrast to that of his numerous literary peers, wasn't even honored with a single obituary-as if he had never existed-that and much more (and not much more is known about this William Shakespeare) makes highly problematic the ascription to him of at least 37 plays, the Sonnets, and narrative poems.

As computer-assisted research has shown, Shakespeare had approximately 18,000 words at his disposal-the largest vocabulary of any poet or writer in history, and five times as many as the average educated person today; he bequeathed around 1500 new words and phrases to the English language; and more than 200 classical and post-classical authors are either cited or paraphrased in his works. Whatever linguistic superlatives one can think of can justly be applied to him.

No surprise, then, that at a certain point doubts began to arise about the authorship of the man from Stratford. This point came at the end of the 19th century and was most prominently ushered in by Mark Twain, who asked the Shakespeare experts if such an extraordinary literary achievement could have been managed by the graduate of a provincial grammar school, who must have traveled in northern Italy and France, enjoyed an extraordinary historical, political, philosophical, and literary education, and been thoroughly familiar with the English nobility and court.

How can it be explained that a few decades after Shakespeare's death the first curious biographer systematically explored Stratford and its environs in the pursuit of literary traces and oral testimonies without the slightest success? Couldn't, indeed mustn't, someone else have written Shakespeare's works? Over the ensuing decades at least a dozen candidates were uncovered, every one of whom could have been him, but lacked at least one necessary biographical element.

There was a certain Earl of Rutford (Rutland!), for example. One of many Stratford critics had discovered him and was tracking him in Italy, where he discovered that the Earl had enrolled at the University of Padua in 1596, along with two Danish schoolmates named Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern! The poet of Hamlet had been found at last. But the astounding discovery had a catch: this Rutland/Shakespeare must have begun to compose and publish Shakespeare's works at the tender age of 15.

Soon Edward de Vere came into the crosshairs of the biographical detectives. A study from 1923 was instrumental, to the great dismay of the Stratfordians, in convincing Sigmund Freud, an avid reader of Shakespeare, to declare himself an "Oxfordian" shortly before his death. From this point onward it was no longer completely illegitimate to pose the authorship question. But even though Edward de Vere remained the strongest candidate, he only defeated a few of his rivals, and the search continued unabated.

Just a few years ago the latest "unmasking" of the true Shakespeare was presented, in what seemed a scrupulous investigation (Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein: The Truth Will Out. Unmasking the real Shakespeare. Harlow, U.K., 2005), by no less than the artistic director of the reconstructed Globe Theater, Mark Rylance. Rylance identified "Shakespeare" as one Sir Henry Neville, who had theretofore not even figured in a footnote to the controversy. Although the new claimant to the throne was immediately and devastatingly criticized by the advocates of all other candidates, he was nonetheless able to maintain his claim.

Amongst Imposters and Fools

For our German de Vere partisan, however, he's not even worth a footnote: for Kreiler, the affair has long since been decided. Above all, he sees the purpose of his work as giving de Vere the man a literary-historical face, and to figure out what moved his protagonist to make use of an inconspicuous but nonetheless legitimate man of the theater named Shakespeare to present his dramatic masterpieces (which he himself had possibly never considered as such) and later to have them printed. Kreiler has impressively succeeded at the task he set himself, and in a way that is literarily quite ambitious-not least because he doesn't even address the topic, as fascinating as it is frustrating, of the authorship question. De Vere is, for him, the author: the "Shakespeare" behind Shakespeare. So just who was this 17th Earl of Oxford?

In the attempt to answer this question, not philology but history and genealogy are enlisted. This book overflows with the names and titles of figures from the second half of the sixteenth century, their marriages and familial associations, passionate enmities, and struggles for influence at court. After reading certain passages, the reader's attention begins to flag, his or her head begins to spin, and one loses sight of the larger argument. The picture becomes clearer when Kreiler the historian snatches the genealogist's notebook from his hands and seeks to untangle the political and dynastic relationships and conflicts.

Kreiler's reading of Hamlet, in whom de Vere represents himself as the title-figure, is thoroughly enthralling as a key to understanding the role of the theater in Elizabeth's court. De Vere couldn't, and wouldn't, reveal his identity: A man in such a high, and thus vulnerable, position couldn't, as an author, align himself with such imposters, clowns, and actors, however gladly the court made use of them for their entertainment and amusement.

To the troupe of the "King's Men," it was a matter of no consequence where their impresario William Shakespeare obtained his texts: the main thing was that they could be performed successfully and garner acclaim. Literary contemporaries respected the wish of the eccentric nobleman for anonymity, and the court was content if the troupe was entertaining in such an exalted social setting. Only later, though still in Shakespeare's lifetime, did some of the more popular plays make it into print under his name.

Kreiler must explain why almost half of Shakespeare's plays appeared in print long after de Vere's death (and his answer sounds plausible), but also why no de Vere manuscript was preserved from the otherwise so well archived nobility. His explanation is a castle fire that destroyed the de Vere library in 1654-the Puritan prohibition on theater productions in the same decade, which Shakespeare anticipated in the figure of Malvolio from What You Will (sic.) effectively sealed this oblivion.

Kurt Kreiler enters the stage without claiming to unmask Shakespeare and reveal his true identity. And why should he? The distinction of our lasting fascination with this unique poet lies in the fact that he withdraws himself from every attempt to decipher him. Mark Rylance has put this self-withdrawal into focus: all the great Shakespearean figures-Imogen, Rosalind, Celia, Julia, Portia, Hamlet, Kent in defense of Lear-"conceal themselves, for their own and others' protection, or to get to know people more deeply... Shakespeare is a master of concealing and revealing."

The productive riddle of Shakespeare will therefore live on, and every revelation of the "true" Shakespeare, even if it should provide the final proof for de Vere or Sir Neville, will also, in its own way, survive.

By Ekkehart Krippendorff

Translation Ⓒ 2010 by John Tanke, Ph.D, Berkeley, CA.
Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan from 1993-1999
Visiting Assisting Professor of English at Union College from 1999-2002