The Man Who Invented Shakespeare - Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

(from Theater-Forschung)

By Ulrike Sümegi

The hottest topic of conversation in English literary circles is causing a stir in the German-speaking world as well. The culprit is Kurt Kreiler's most recent book, The Man Who Invented Shakespeare: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford - an homage to "the master of poetic introspection, the artist of love-rhetoric, soul-searching tragedies, and illusionists without illusions." Up to the present day, aside from most professors of English literature (a well-equipped if clumsy armada of Stratfordians), there are a sizeable crowd of skeptics. Along with the search for a new theory of the cosmos, "the authorship question" is one of the last great riddles of human history.

Who was "Shakespeare"? For more than 200 years this question has engaged philologists, mystery lovers, and conspiracy theorists. Ultimately, even the experts acknowledge the nearly unbridgeable chasm between the Stratford merchant William Shakspere (with no "e" in the middle, and no second "a") and the masterpieces attributed to him (King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, etc.). Who hides behind the most famous dramatist of all time, about whom it has been said: "No one, since God himself, has created more than William Shakespeare." Was an Elizabethan courtier the real author? From the experts one would naturally like to know: Which Elizabethan contemporary is the true Shakespeare? Nearly 60 people, from the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon, to the poet Christopher Marlowe, even Queen Elizabeth herself, have been considered as candidates. Anyone who is curious and open-minded can learn much from this book about the poet who, in the attempt to conceal his true identity, changes masks, speaks in ever more various artistic forms, and, adventurously enough, released inaccurate dates of his birth and death.

"Shakespeare" was the pseudonym used by an artist of the English aristocracy so as not to reveal himself to the commons - inexcusably - as a playwright. His name: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1560-1604). The meaning of the pseudonym: William the Conquerer - and Shakespeare, the spear-shaker. The Earl was one of the best jousters of his day and entrusted himself, as a learned poet, to the protection of the spear-shaking goddess Athena. The phantom-aristocrat didn't write his comedies and tragedies for the popular stage, but for the court of Queen Elizabeth. In style and content, de Vere's poetry displays the typical influences of its time: Chaucer's bawdy language, Boccaccio's complicated comedy, Ariosto's tournaments, and Petrarch's love sonnets.

Kurt Kreiler, whose résumé includes a doctorate in German literature, draws on dozens of contemporary allusions that have been missed by generations of exegetes, and shows which masks and names the poetic earl used to hide himself. Oxford's heirs would probably have revealed his name after his death, if there hadn't been an entrepreneurial mishap: the publication, by the opportunistic Thomas Thorpe, of Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609. The heirs and owners of the Shakespearean manuscripts saw themselves compromised by these 154 poems about a ménage-à-trois, and resolved to "secure" the pseudonym and let the authorship of the Earl of Oxford disappear behind it. The coup remained undiscovered for nearly 400 years.

Kreiler was put on the trail of the "other Shakespeare" by two of the Earl of Oxford's literary contemporaries-Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe. In fact, a bevy of further pieces of evidence makes a new conception of Shakespeare plausible. "As a projection-screen Shakespeare was marvelous," says Kreiler. "The bourgeoisie recognized itself in his works and offered up profound and impressive interpretations of his plays, but today we've come far enough to leave that behind us." An avowed democrat, Kreiler wanted to answer the question once and for all. With the intuition of a detective, he dove once more into the archives, studied Oxford's letters and poems, uncovered a novella and startling pieces of evidence in the correspondence of two literary contemporaries. The result of his investigation is a thesis as gripping as a detective story.

"They called him 'Master William,' 'Will Monox,' 'patron of writers,' 'general of acting companies,' and 'the first Orpheus,' Kreiler explains.

"The recognition of my work would be the recognition of Oxford," he says. "This man deserves to be recognized. He who was hailed as the best writer of comedies didn't write plays that have been lost to us; he wrote plays which, as those of Shakespeare, have rolled like golden apples for 200 years across our stages. Oxford is their tree."

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford - certainly one of the most fascinating figures of late-Renaissance Britain. The argument that precisely this eccentric nobleman is "Shakespeare" was first advanced in 1918 by the London schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney. He drew up a list of everything the "true" Shakespeare must have known and experienced (on the basis of his works, not the Stratford records), and came upon the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, a high nobleman with the best possible education and access to political power, and someone known to have been active in literary circles. The Oxfordian thesis, laid out in Looney's book Shakespeare Identified (1920), though quickly dismissed by orthodox scholars, was energetically and influentially revived towards the end of the 20th century by Walter Klier and Joseph Sobran. "If I had come up against a single piece of incontrovertible evidence against de Vere's authorship, I would have given up"-so says Kurt Kreiler, who initially approached this controversial Shakespeare-thesis with great skepticism. But a quote from Nietzsche encouraged him: "The irrationality of something is not an argument against its existence, but rather its own precondition."

Edward de Vere - a Poet?

As early as 20, the young earl greeted the public with a poem in the forward to an Italian work by Gerolamo Cardano. We have just over 20 poems of the young de Vere, identified by the signature E.O. - the Earl of Oxford. Then he steps back as an author and gives himself pseudonyms - Shakespeare isn't the only one. He called himself "My luck is loss," "Fortunatus in misfortune," "Phaeton," etc.

In 1542 a book by Cardano titled De Consolatione appeared in Venice. It was translated into English by Thomas Bedingfield and appeared as Cardanus's Comfort in 1573. In it one finds passages like the following:

Hunger, thirst, sorrow, labor, grief, fear and...
to dispense with the whole mountain of evils,
when the soul is divided from the body...
What is more like death than sleep...
Not only to sleep, but also to die...
which marks the end of life.
When a man dreams that he travels to distant
lands... and that he travels through unknown lands
with no hope of returning...
Death removes more evil than it brings
and that with greater certainty. Only a cowardly
and corrupt conscience is the cause of his (man's) misfortune...

The similarity of this train of thought to the famous monologue in Hamlet is striking.

The publisher of the English Cardanus's Comfort was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. He wrote the foreword and placed his poem "The Earl of Oxford to the Reader" at the beginning:

The labouring man that tills the fertile soil,
And reaps the harvest fruit, hath not indeed
The gain, but pain, but if for all his toil
He gets the straw, the lord will have the seed.

This, perhaps the most well-known poem by Edward de Vere, describes how it goes with other professions as it does for the farmhand, and ends with the poet's fate: He will get little for his book, to the reader goes the profit.

De Vere's poems - English Renaissance lyrics at the height of their form - were for a long time almost unknown, misunderstood, or simply didn't receive the respect they deserved. Jean Paris wrote of his "highly mediocre verse-making" and Harold Bloom judged his poetry to be "commonplace lyrics, not worth reading."

What's special about these poems? Kurt Kreiler, whose translations have been well-received and lack nothing, in their beauty and literary quality, compared to those of Gottlob Regis or Therese Robinson, describes it this way:

"The music of the words results from interior melodic arches. They have a light weightless feel. One could even say these poems have a Goethean quality. They're fragile and expressive, often radical in their subjectivity, daring in their richness of imagery and vocabulary, and impressive in their concision."

Those with access to the original language cannot deny the similarity to Shakespeare's poetry. As long ago as 1937 Louis P. Benezet, a professor at Dartmouth College, contrived a "fictitious poem" known as "The Benezet Test." The "poem" has 71 lines, made up of roughly equal portions of text from the early works of Shakespeare and Edward de Vere. The juxtaposition shows that it's impossible to decide, on the basis of internal linguistic qualities alone, which passages come from which author. Without offering any positive evidence on the authorship question, Benezet showed that the poetry of Edward de Vere is of the same quality as Shakespeare's and remarkably similar to it, as well. As Kurt Kreiler puts it: "It's the likeness of something to itself."

"Fortunatus in Misfortune"

The literary scholar and translator Kurt Kreiler has not only distinguished himself, in the course of his biographical research, as a translator of Oxford's lyric poetry: marshalling insightful arguments, he has claimed another work for the canon: a remarkably "Shakespearean" novella with a protagonist named Fortunatus Unfoelix, printed anonymously in 1573. Kreiler claims that The Adventures of Master F.I. which appeared as a book-within-a-book inside an anonymously published literary anthology beside texts by Ariosto, Ovid, and Petrarch, is the first novella in English literary history. In the refinement of their staging, in their controlled spontaneity and poetic density, the Adventures are incomparable. Virtuosic dialogues oscillate between intrigue and serious reflection, the coolness of court and the heat of passion. No question but that this text deserves the publicity: besides Thomas Nashe's picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller (a new German edition of which would be very welcome), it's the most interesting narrative experiment of Shakespeare's time. In a mix of metaphors, Kreiler calls it "a roadside bomb that got lost in the crevasses of philology" and, more accurately, a "courtly parlor drama."

Fortunatus Infoelix, the novella's "Fortunatus in Misfortune," "F.I." for short, a gallant knight of the 16th century, stays as a guest in a castle in northern England and falls in love with the step-daughter of his host. He resolves to win over the lady, and that by those means which, since the days of the troubadours, have always been the most promising: with lyrical flatteries, with poetry. In verses alla napoletana, accompanied by gentle Tinternell dance music, he confesses to the object of his desire: "I'm in a mood to love." He's allowed to get his hopes up - in the composition of love poems he's the equal of her knight - but the lady exasperates her wooer by withdrawing again and again.

On a walk, at an evening ball, during a nocturnal rendezvous: Lady Elynor gradually proves to be a spirited adversary who alternates, alluringly, between giving him the cold shoulder and accommodating him - as if by mistake. She too has the skill to express her feelings in well-ordered verses. When a second lady tries to win the "unfortunate happy" hero, the story takes on an experimental character. Is she acting in her own interest or that of his beloved? Is the hero really as clueless as he pretends to be? Nothing is what it appears to be, and nothing appears to be what it is. The challenge for an author of the romantic-realistic school - that the Lady heeds her admirer and commits adultery, while the latter is moved to rape his beloved - only serves to darken the courtly charm of this novella around the edges. The Lady is quite upset, but not much more than that. Naturally, the inevitable bawdy joke of early novels gets its due: "Husband lose his horn while hunting? No matter, it's just the moulting-season, it will grow back soon enough!"

Love is conceived of as a form of battle, playing itself out between approach and resistance, hope and betrayal, jealousy and renewed conquest. The topic here is the experiment of love - love that not only makes deception its theme, but lovers' desire to be deceived, as well.

That's the really modern aspect of this narrative from the 16th century, thoroughly reminiscent of works by Pierre de Marivaux, the "anatomist of the heart." In that case the lover's hearts are analyzed with a degree of subtlety one won't find here. By the same token, the English author adopts an unusual perspective that at times lends a comic note to his precarious narrative experimentation - as when he repeatedly interrupts the wooing speeches of Fortunatus to offer his own commentary, or lets emotional states such as "Hope" appear as characters on stage. One discovers in "Anonymous" a dramatist of transformations, interruptions, and reflections - a prose playwright who demonstrates theatrical sophistication and psychological perspicacity. The author makes no bones about learning his craft from Boccaccio and Petrarch, and is proud thereby to have enriched the English language. "An astonishing little jewel," Kreiler rightly observes [of this work].

In this historical-philological study, Kreiler develops a chain of evidence that points to the authorship of another great man. The author of the Adventures is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, praised by his contemporaries as "the best for comedy." Until now, philologists have taken a certain George Gascoigne (1539-1577) as the author, a rather coarse prankster-poet, and one to whom - as Kreiler plausibly suggests - one could never attribute a sophisticated work presupposing such close familiarity with noble manners. The author must have been a nobleman who didn't want to see his name compromised by something as scandalous as literature - especially since one can uncover all manner of allusions to high-placed figures, up to and including the Queen. Does the constellation sound familiar? With the patience of a criminalist, Kreiler follows the trail of clues to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. His name can supposedly be deciphered as a cryptogram in the book. In the end the reader must admit that a persuasive case has been made. If his findings are correct, the surviving body of this author's work will have been increased by four times. Oxford, this most haunting and fascinating of all the nobles at Queen Elizabeth's court, is the most promising candidate [as author] for Shakespeare's compete works.

Translation by John Tanke