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Who Shakespeare was is still a mystery

Published: Saturday, April 27 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

This portrait of William Shakespeare, believed to be almost the only authentic image of the writer made from life, has belonged to one family for centuries but was not recognized as a portrait of Shakespeare until recently.

AP

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William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 24 sparked a series of Facebook accolades among my more literary-minded friends, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Utah is home to one of the most prestigious Shakespearean festivals in the world, and the Beehive State has no shortage of Shakespeare fans. Yet even the most diehard Bard-ophiles don’t bother to wade into the long and convoluted history of questions about Shakespeare’s authorship. Most dismiss such doubts as goofy conspiracy theories, if they pay any attention to the issue at all.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories. I don’t think Elvis faked his death; the moon landing took place on the moon and not in a television studio; and I’m pretty sure world governments are not controlled by several rich families in league with the late Col. Sanders. But I am an “Oxfordian,” which means I believe that the name “William Shakespeare” was a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

When people find out about my Oxfordian heresies and insist that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, I’m happy to agree. The question isn’t whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. He did. The real question is this: Who was Shakespeare in the first place?

The reason this is even an issue is that there’s a massive disconnect between the guy from Stratford-on-Avon who usually gets all the credit and the works that are attributed to him. This is especially true of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are clearly written from the perspective of an older nobleman to a younger one, probably Henry Wriothsley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom both of Shakespeare’s long-form poems were dedicated.

The sonneteer speaks of his advancing age and his “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” occasionally scolding Southampton for his misdeeds and warning him that he is growing “common.” All of that coincides with what we know about Oxford, but none of it makes any sense in the context of the life of the Stratford fellow, who was roughly the same age as Southampton, was never in disgrace, and would likely have been thrown in the stocks for berating a member of the royal family.

Indeed, orthodox Shakespeare scholars have been flummoxed by the sonnets for centuries. They are forced to dismiss them as mere “literary exercises” that tell us nothing about the man who wrote them. They turn, instead, to the official biographical record, which includes no manuscripts or letters, but, instead, just a handful of dry legal documents. Eight signatures constitute the entirety of the writings of the man from Stratford that we have in his own hand, and each of them is spelled differently — William Shaksper, or Shagsper, or Shaxper. Nothing connects Mr. Shag/Shak/Shaxper to Mr. Shakespeare until 1623, years after both Shaksper and de Vere were dead.

All this was the subject of a movie last year called “Anonymous,” which posited that Edward de Vere was both the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I and the father of the Earl of Southampton, and intrigue surrounding the succession to the throne drove a massive conspiracy to keep de Vere’s authorship silent.

I think that’s hooey. The simpler explanation is that de Vere lived in an era where it was inappropriate for royalty to write for the public theatre, so he used a pen name instead. The end.

For most people, none of this matters. We have the plays and the poems, they say, so who cares who wrote them? But that argument falls flat for me. If it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was, then it doesn’t matter who anyone was. Recognizing de Vere’s world and point of view breathes new life into the old plays and greatly enhances one’s appreciation for them.

That remains true, even though Elvis is still dead.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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