Shakespeare’s Mentor: the Earl of Oxford?
[OK, I hate the Shakespeare Authorship debate. I firmly believe that William Shakespeare, from Stratford, the actor and son of a glove maker wrote the plays. I find most people who engage in either side of this argument, especially those that suggest that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays, to be bores, elitists and zealots. Arguing with them is a waste of breath. And, don’t even get me going on how wretchedly inaccurate the movie Anonymous was.
And yet, there is an area around the authorship question that seems a little fuzzy and warrants consideration. How did Shakespeare become the writer capable of writing these plays? Who wrote the plays that Shakespeare later adapted into his masterpieces? Below is my thought experiment on the authorship question. It is not based on true research or scholarship, it is a conjecture based on some unanswered questions. Please treat it with lightness it is intended. This idea can be wrong.]
Some people are convinced that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. I have often dismissed this claim as elitism since the argument against William Shakespeare, son of a Glove maker from Stratford, often begins with “there’s no way a commoner could be the world’s greatest poet . . .” Oxford has been their chief alternative candidate for author of the plays since the 1920’s, even though he died before many of the plays were written.
While I think these folks are deluded, they might have a point that influences the authorship question. Here is an alternative theory that explains why there is an authorship question and why people point to Oxford:
The Earl of Oxford was a published poet and known playwright. This was cited in William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetry stating that:
I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and gentlemen in her Majesty's court which in the rare devices of poetry have been and yet are most excellent skilful, among whom the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.
And in The Arte of Poesie, often attributed to George Puttenham:
And in her Majesties time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly makers Noblemen and Gentlemen of her Majesties own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford . . .
The writer of The Arte of Poesie also considered Oxford among the best comic playwrights of his day.
While we have poems written by a young Oxford, none of his mature works or the plays attributed to him has survived with his name attached.
He became a patron of his own company of players in 1580 and was patron of a Boy’s company. When the Queen formed her own company, the Queen’s Men, she took the best players from the other companies. This was in part to put a stop to the rivalry between Leicester and Oxford, whose companies competed for playing at court.
Oxford was rumored to have a greater hand in the productions of his company of players than most patrons. This possibly extended to offering his plays to be played under a pseudonym. He was known as a patron of several writers and playwrights during the 1580s, including John Lyly, Robert Greene and Author Golding. It is strongly suspected that Oxford had a hand in the development of the Queen’s Men.
The Queen’s Men was the foremost company of players from 1583 until it dissolved into the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the early 1590s. The company set the stage for the work of Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Johnson. They developed historical drama, in part because their charge was to educate (or propagandize) the citizenry on what it was to be English.
Many of the Queen’s Men hit plays were later adapted by Shakespeare:
The Famous Victories of Henry V
The Troublesome Reign of King John
The True Tragedy of Richard III
King Leir – The most famous Chronicle history of Leir King of England and his Three Daughters
The lost Ur-Hamlet
The Taming of a Shrew
These plays were written between 1585 and 1592.[i] The author of these plays is unknown.
What if they were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford? It would fit. This would be why the plays remain unclaimed. [ii]
It was rumored that William Shakespeare got his start in theater with the Queen’s Men. The company toured extensively. The suggestion is that he hooked up with them in Stratford and continued with the company as a bit player to London.
It is possible that Edward de Vere took an interest in this country bumpkin with some talent for writing. Could he have become Shakespeare’s mentor? Could he have taught him not only playwriting, but about the court, battle, law and travelling? The very information that the Oxfordians, the name for those who believe that Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, say Shakespeare lacked could have been learned from Oxford. The facts Shakespeare gets wrong, especially geographical facts, are the very things that Oxford couldn’t teach him. It can only be learned only from first-hand experience.[iii] Oxford mentored him, though could not teach him what it was to be on a ship at war, to walk from Pisa to Verona or that Bohemia was land locked.
We also know that Shakespeare was a better adapter than originator of stories. He adapted Thomas North extensively for his English Histories and Roman Dramas (Plutarch by the way of North’s translations). He adapted other’s plays and popular books, such as Plautus and Thomas Lodge. Only two of the plays by Shakespeare are considered original and not coming from previous source material: Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Even these could have originated with lost source material.
When Shakespeare’s players, Heminges and Condell, wrote in the First Folio:
His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.
I’ve always believed that they protest too much. Shakespeare was a chronic re-writer. It is hard to believe that any of the plays that have come down to us were written at one time. When plays were revived, it was practice to spruce them up.
Here’s what I imagine: Shakespeare joined the Queen’s Men in Stratford around 1588. He traveled to London and met Oxford. Over the next few years, Oxford mentored Shakespeare. They wrote together. Shakespeare added text to the Queen’s Men plays written primarily by Oxford. In turn, Oxford added text to parts one and two of Shakespeare’s Henry VI play and possible Titus Andronicus.
There was a split between the two men around 1592 or 1593. The protégé surpassed the mentor. Shakespeare no longer needed Oxford’s instruction. He became known and famous by his own right. Shakespeare proved this by rewriting the plays by Oxford and having more success with them. His Richard III was Shakespeare’s first blockbuster. With this success, he was able to buy a share into the newly forming Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Oxford, who was broke and in trouble with the Queen, went another way.
Edward de Vere did have a large hand in the plays written by Shakespeare. Oxford mentored Shakespeare and helped create the best playwright in the English Language.
[i] These plays are not very good compared with Shakespeare’s re-tellings. They do hold really interesting clues to Shakespeare’s mind, intent and process. It is fascinating what he kept and what he changed. I recommend anyone doing one of the plays to review this source material.
[ii] People often ask how a secret like this can be concealed. I was working at Actors Theatre of Louisville when Jane Martin wrote many hit plays. Jane Martin was described as a Kentucky playwright who wanted to remain anonymous. While there were many rumors as to who was Jane Martin, it was never conclusively proven, even within the company. As an insider, I can make an educated guess and have seen some “proof”, though I don’t know for sure.
[iii] Oxford is known to have traveled extensively through Europe and to have fought in the army and navy. Shakespeare supposedly did not. This shows up in the details that Shakespeare gets wrong. Oxfordians use his experience as an argument for his authorship of the plays and against Shakespeare. However, they fail to see how much the writer got wrong. The writer gets things wrong no one with first-hand experience would.