This is a dissertation chapter on Shakespeare:
What comprises genius is usually recognizable, if not always quantifiable. With Shakespeare, it is both recognizable and quantifiable. This paper will outline his known talent, but attempt to give a different picture of the man than is taught or widely known. While the Shakespeare that is traditionally taught is one dimensional, the lesser-known person was multi-faceted and once knowing his story, all of Shakespeare’s works take on a richer hue.
The Genius of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare, the greatest English poet, dramatist, storyteller extraordinaire of all time has transcended the moment in which he lived, and continues to touch art, literature, and our lives today. John Dryden, the celebrated English poet said that Shakespeare was “the man who of all modern and perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” (Ogburn, 1984) Flannery (1998) observes that others have said that his “genius plumbs the deepest depths and scales the loftiest heights of human nature and encompasses the broadest reaches of the human condition – love, revenge, beauty, ambition, virtue, vice, justice, free will, providence, chance, fate, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, the interplay among passions, reason, and will, truth and illusion, men and women, mortality and immortality, the vast variety of human characters and societies . . .“ He is even invoked when trying to explain greatness in others as with Aristotle scholar Henry Jackson when he wrote about Aristotle’s Politics, “It is an amazing book. It seems to me to show a Shakespearian understanding of human beings and their ways . . .” (Flannery, 1998) Merriam-Webster’s dictionary (2002) defines genius as “extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity,” and Shakespeare qualifies for this encomium.
Since the beginning of English literature and for four hundred years after Shakespeare lived and wrote these works, no writer has matched the combination of dramatic genius and popular appeal that is found in the works of Shakespeare (Bryant, 1997) and was considered the foremost dramatist even in his day. (Poetry Exhibits, 2000) His works have spawned thousands of performances, adaptations, and films. All over the world, Shakespeare’s plays are performed more frequently than the works of any other playwright and editions of his work continue to be printed 350 years after their first publication. Since the 1930s there have been 300 adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. (Absolute Shakespeare, 2002) As testament to his universality, “Macbeth” is a success in Bantu languages. (Grolier, 2002) The keywords that apply to Shakespeare seem to be: universal and immortal.
Think of how many sayings or phrases Shakespeare coined that are still with us today: a tower of strength; sick at heart; that it should come to this; sweets to the sweet; all our yesterdays. The sheer volume of his vocabulary is astounding and has had a profound influence on everyday English. Shakespeare may have introduced as many as 1500 new words into English, including addiction, obscene, and undress, (Unverse, 2001) along with phrases such as “that’s the rub” or “in one fell swoop.” (Grolier, 2002)
This should be the point where I transition into Shakespeare’s biography – being born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, married Anne Hathaway at 18, had three children, went off to London to write plays, and so on, but this will not happen, because “the Stratford man” in the opinion of many since the 17th century and countless and mounting others since is not the English Bard, but is simply a semi-literate wool merchant from Stratford.
Let’s compare the two men in question. Willi Shak, William Shakspe, Wm Shakspi, William Sh, Willim Shakp, or Shaksp, as he has signed his name on six surviving documents, was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon to John and Mary Shakespeare, both illiterate. Stratford had a grammar school, but its records have been lost, and some scholars assume that the Stratford man attended it, even though illiteracy was the norm and most children did not go to school, and there is no record of him attending a university or increasing his knowledge by experiencing travel abroad. If he did attend grammar school, it would not be unusual for him to be taken out of grammar school to help the family business and follow in his father’s footsteps. As Ogburn (1984) notes, neither of the Stratford man’s children were literate or attended school and what is best documented of him is buying real estate, having a bailiff arrest a debtor, asking recompense of the town for two quarts of wine he served a preacher, hoarding grain during a famine when hoarders were hanged at their doors, and joining with some others to enclose part of the village common land, and becoming a wool merchant. While he may have been a stockholder at the Globe, his purported acting at the Globe has been proved incorrect by a thorough search of all acting records of the time in London and all rural acting companies of England, and that the Globe receipt was his widow reimbursing a shortage in the accounts after his death. When he died, he left a signed will giving away his worldly possessions – none of which were any books or a library. After his death a monument to his memory was erected in Stratford.
There have been speculations about the Stratford man being a lawyer, because of Shakespeare’s impressive command of law; a schoolmaster, because of his knowledge of languages, ancient and contemporary, history, and a keen intellect; a military man, because of his command of military minutia; visiting Italy, because of his command of things Italian; a linguist, because of his command of Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and French; a member of Elizabeth I’s court, because of his intimate knowledge of the machinations of her inner circle. Upon first sight, or even second, or third, is this a portrait of the moderately successful realtor and wool merchant from Stratford? If this is not the Stratford man, in whom are all of these elements vested?
Edward de Vere, Viscount Bolebec, 17th Earl of Oxford was born in 1550 at his family’s ancestral home in Essex. His father was John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford, who was a patron of the arts and of an acting company. His mother was Margery Golding, the Countess of Oxford, who was also well connected in the literary world. Her brother, Arthur Golding, was the famous scholar and translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who is acknowledged as having a strong influence on Shakespeare. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was one of the originators of the sonnet form, which has come to be recognized as “English” or “Shakespearean,” and was Oxford’s paternal uncle. When Oxford’s father died in 1562, he went to live with William Cecil, the Queen’s Private Secretary and later Lord Treasurer of England. Oxford studied with the best scholars and minds of the Renaissance. Oxford would have had free access to Cecil’s library, which was one of the most remarkable and extensive in England. (de Vere Studies, 2002)
In his studies, Oxford became fluent in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and French. Something of a child prodigy, at the age of nine, he completed his undergraduate studies and in 1564 and 1566, at the ages of 14 and 16, received master’s degrees from Cambridge and Oxford Universities, respectively. In 1567, Cecil sent him to study law at Gray’s Inn, a celebrated Inns of Court, which served as a distinguished college of law. Even the Stratford-supporting scholar, Eric Sams, concedes that whoever Shakespeare was, “he surely studied law.” Shakespeare’s knowledge of statecraft, politics, and law has always bewildered scholars, but is not surprising for one raised in Cecil’s home, one of the most political in England. (Ogburn, 1984)
Oxford owned the lease to the famous Blackfriars’ Theatre, was according to The Art of English Poesie known as a poet and playwright that did not reveal his authorship of what he wrote, (de Vere Studies, 2002) a patron to actors, produce plays, and provide dramatic entertainment for Elizabeth I. Also, according to The Art of English Poesie, Oxford was one England’s most excellent writers, acclaimed so even in his youth, but that many writers of that time were concealing their identities, which was the customer, and that Oxford, in particular, among those Elizabethan courtiers, was masking his identity as a writer.
The Geneva Bible is acknowledged by scholars as Shakespeare’s Bible, because of so many passages and image clusters which are contained in Shakespeare’s works. Oxford’s personal copy of this Bible is heavily underlined and notated in the margins and correspond to Shakespeare’s works. (de Vere Studies, 2002) Research has also revealed that words credited by the Oxford English Dictionary as having their first usage with Shakespeare show up earlier in Oxford’s personal letters. This brings up a significant point, while Oxford and writers of any age are known for their letters to others, not one letter is in existence, spoken of, or known of by the Stratford man. (Ogburn, 1984)
Shakespeare’s knowledge of the minutiae of France and northern Italy is confusing to scholars, as the Stratford man never left England. Oxford traveled extensively and spent a great deal of time in both countries at most and perhaps all the locations in Shakespeare’s plays. His travels included such famous surroundings as Henri III’s Court in Navarre and obscure places such as Rousillon in France, which are the locations of Love’s Labour’s Lost and All’s Well That Ends Well. On his return to England, his ship was attacked by pirates, which may have been used in Hamlet. (de Vere Studies, 2002)
Oxford served his country and was involved in three military campaigns and was involved in their planning and strategy. (Ader, 2002) An affair with a noblewoman, Anne Vavasour, may have served as the basis for Romeo and Juliet. Vavasour’s uncle was so angry that he injured Oxford in a swordfight, which followed a series of street brawls between Oxford’s men and the uncle’s men that resemble the clashes and violent scuffles Shakespeare depicted in Romeo and Juliet. (Ogburn, 1984)
Traditional, Stratford-supporting scholars, acknowledge that the character Polonius in Hamlet is based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Ophelia is based on his daughter, Anne. Cecil was Oxford’s guardian after his father’s death and later when Oxford married Cecil’s daughter, Anne, became his father-in-law. (Ader, 2002)
The 17th Earl of Oxford died in 1604 and was buried in or near the parish church at Hackney, near the London suburb of Stratford. Later, his cousin, Percival Golding, later wrote that his body eventually was removed and interred in Westminster Abbey. If Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the nobleman poet-playwright who called himself William Shakespeare, it is fitting that the greatest writer who ever lived should be laid to eternal rest in the hallowed ground of Westminster Abbey among the immortals of English letters.
Whoever was the English Bard, he justly is crowned as a genius. The first admonition to writers is to write what they know, so what do you think – is Shakespeare the wool merchant from Stratford or Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford?
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