Engaging The Word
  summerish, 2005
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MARK ANDERSON - Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare
Penguin Canada, August 2005



As anyone who has heard whisper of Romeo & Juliet knows, Shakespeare was a man who seemed divinely inspired. As with Srinivasa Ramanujan, the famous self-taught mathematical genius, we are led to believe that the raw power and imaginative scope of England's greatest writer was made manifest through the hand of a barely educated peasant. A man who had never stepped foot in Venice, yet knew the subtlest details of the working of the Doge's court. A man who probably stepped within a stone's throw of Gloriana at most most thrice in the entirety of his life. It just doesn't make

sense. It's a mystery. It seems completely, and entirely beyond our ken, but Mark Anderson doesn't seem to think so. In fact, if we sit down and look at the facts, and stare hard with a logical, imperical gaze, we will come to the same conclusion that he and others before him have. Shakepeare, it seems, wasn't Shakespeare at all. He was a man named Edward de Vere.

It would be interesting to know when that moment was, when a story, especially the story of a life, made that subtle shift where it started to solidify and change from fallible perspective to inviolate fact. The stories of the world's great religions often exhibit this, where the gates of itijihad are at some point closed, and no further debate is possible. That this happens with sacred works is understandable, considering the often intemperate nature of man. However, when works once considered secular are draped with a holy cloak, the same thing happens. In the English canon, there are very few writers or works of whom or which this can be said, but when it comes to William Shakespeare, inviolate is perhaps the best word to describe his history and biography.

Through the centuries since the Bard passed away, it has been something of a parlour game, an amusing distraction to wonder who it was who might have been the real Shakepeare. Perhaps is was Marlowe, or perhaps it was Sir Francis Bacon. All along the way it seemed as if the thought that the Shakespeare that we have come to know and love seemed a bit off, a bit off enough to continue to raise suspicions. There are undoubtedly countless examples of historical persons of whom a questions are raised regarding their legacy, but for most of those, the god honest truth isn't really a matter of importance. It might satisfy some sense of intellectual curiosity, but nothing would really change. For others, whose actions and legacies have had a lasting impact on history, such answers could potentially be earth shattering. What if someone were to come out with definitive proof that Jesus was nothing more than a first century pimp with a penchant for vainglory? To say the least there would be rumblings of protests from certain vested interests. This is an extreme example, but to a much lesser extent, knowledge that what is known of Shakspeare is naught but fiction would also shake up a number of vested interests.

If Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare, what, may I ask, then? How many dissertations, theses, and term papers would become no more than ink on scrap, full of proofs no more substantial than mist? What of men and women whose entire lives and careers were spent defending and promoting a version of history that they knew in their hearts to be absolutely true? It would hardly be easy for an academic to abandon a life's worth of research and publication just beacuse some guy with a Masters degree, in Astrophysics no less, comes along and says "Gosh, guys, but you've got it all wrong."

It seems ridiculous in the extreme, but then, there are corollaries for this. What do you think the reaction initiallly was when Einstein, this nobody patent clerk from no school of any name, came along and told the world that Newton had gotten it all wrong? "Sounds good?" "By jolly, chap, you've changed my mind?" Even before that, there was a time when Copernicous did the same to Aristotle. What would we know of Egypt or Greece, really, without a Rosetta stone to light the path to knowledge. There are always those who have a vested interest in the truth, because the truth is something that must always be defended, and it is a hard thing to accept that truth that is known is actually a lie. Even when this truth is unmasked, change still remains a hard thing. Sometimes the truth is assaulted slowly, and change proceeds apace. Sometimes there is a Fat Man and Little Boy to make the truth more quickly and apparently clear. I am not sure just what Andersons book represents for Shakkepeare scholars, but it certainly changed my own perspective.

Nobody likes the man who killed Santa Claus, or sent the Easter Bunny off to the meat packers, because that is the man who kills our most chrished myths, the myths that we know are myths, but choose to go on believing are true. But what if those myths were replaced with something even better, something fuller, richer, and more rewarding than what came before? If Anderson is right, and Edward de Vere was Shakespeare, we have far more to gain than to lose by this knowledge. Just reading about the intense romantic rivallry between Sir Phillip Sidney and De Vere completely changes the way we would interperet much of what Shakespeare wrote. How about learning that Shakespeare was really related to Georges Gascoigne, the infamous poet who was a scion of French literature, and the scourge of French law enforcement? It's like learning that Mark Twain was actually related to Al Capone. How about knowing that, for the first time in half a millenium, the Shakespeare canon will grow, and classics that have lain dormant and unrecognized for centuries are now set to appear and enrich all our lives? The Shakepeare of contemporary record was a man of whom the only factual thing known was that he left his wife his "second-best bed." A man whose penurios attitude far more resembled Ebeneezer Scrooge, than the dashing playright and actor who taught the English world what it was to love. The Shakespeare of contemporary record is not a man we could comfortably sit back and say "That man, there, was Shakespeare."

Reading Anderson's book was one thing. But sitting down and speaking with Anderson was the catalyst that more fully pushed my mind open to the possibility that Shakespeare was another man. Just sit down, and look at all the evidence about Shakespeare in a logical fashion, and cross reference it with everything that is known about De Vere, and it is impossible to explain away what is found as mere coincidence. In Shakespeare's time there was but one copy of the Beowulf manuscript in existence, a copy that was in the possession of the man who became De Vere's tutor. The parallels between Hamlet and Beowulf have long been documented, but it had previously been assumed that it was mere coincidence, for Beowulf would have been unknown to Shakespeare. Or so it was thought. The Geneva Bible that De Vere owned had, within it, numerous passages that were marked off, many of which can be found within Shakespeare's extant works. These are but two in a litany of examples that, excuse the pun, literally scream to be acknowledged. In the end there is no DNA test that will provide us with incontrovertable proof, but what there is, is the proof a remarkable life lived, the proof of literature, and the proof of common sense. As Orson Welles once said, "I think Oxford was Shakespeare. If you don't, there are some awful funny coincidences to explain away."

If it's all true, then I have to thank Anderson, because, for the first time, I have the opportunity to say "hello" to a man I once didn't, but now have a chance to know.