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Who was the real William Shakespeare?

The guy from Stratford or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford?

First Folio of William Shakespeare's plays
Published in 1623, the 'First Folio' a collection of 36 plays by William Shakespeare, is considered one of the most influential books ever published in the English language.

Yes, there is an authorship debate about who wrote the Shakespeare canon and has been apparently for centuries. I first heard about it on PBS Frontline: 'The Shakespeare Mystery' in 1989.

In 1990, I visited William’s hometown Stratford-upon-Avon. We visited a period home similar to the one he might have lived in, visited a pub where he might have drank a beer, passed an old church he might have attended. All speculation about the great playwright and poet. What gives?

All truth goes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. -Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

English Professors mostly (except for those at Concordia University in Portland Oregon) still believe the grammar-school educated William Skakspere was the greatest writer and contributor to the English language. Dozens of literary skeptics such as Mark Twain, Henry James, Ralph Emerson Waldo, Orson Welles and working-man poet Walt Whitman did not share such a belief.

Writing in the mid-1840s, Ralph Emerson Waldo admitted that he could not "marry" Shakspere's life to Shakespeare's work: "Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man is in wide contrast."

Who was William Shakspere of Stratford?

I was amazed to learn that the supposed author William left behind no books, no letters, no notes, nothing in his own handwriting - except six signatures in legal documents with three different spellings! At his death in 1616, the famous Will Shakspere mentions leaving his 2nd-best bed to his wife. But no mention of 20 plays written, but still to be published in the Folio of 1622.

All we have of William’s biography is a collection of legal documents... deeds, summons, the original funeral monument picture etc. that paint a portrait of a small town grain-merchant, maybe a friend of actors? In contrast, all of William's literary contemporaries left behind much evidence of their writing ability.

None of William's prominent neighbours knew he was playwright or poet. No mention was made of poor William's funeral in 1616. Why was he not buried in Westminster Abbey ?

Scholars have determined William’s grandparents and parents were illiterate! His daughters as well. Imagine four generations: illiterate, illiterate, greatest writer in English history (8000 words contributed to the English language), followed by another generation of illiteracy. Unbelievable!

Three biographers of the noble 3rd Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's reputed mentor, and “fair youth” of the Sonnets) have not found a trace of William Shakspere in Southampton’s generous biography. Nor does William appear in the letters or biography of ANY writer or player of his period.

Shakespeare’s greatest biographer Schoenbaum finishes his definitive review of dozens of Shakespeare’s biographies with a lament that William’s biography does not match his literary works

The Short Case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere was born 17th Earl of Oxford, a descendant of Kings (Shakespeare's favorite topic). He was a child prodigy tutored by scholars at Cecil House.

Portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The great poet Walt Whitman wrote about Shakespeare: "Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism, personifying in unparallel'd ways the medieval aristocracy, its

towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) one of the wolfish earls so plenteous in the plays themselves... might seem to be the true author of those amazing works. I am firm against Shaksper.”

Frank Harris, (The Man Shakespeare) wrote that Shakespeare "was an aristocrat born."

Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare's Imagery) finds Shakespeare a "competent rider who loved horses." She identifies his first interest as falconry, and the games he is most knowledgeable about "bowls, football and tennis.”

Consider Shakespeare's England, described by Charlton Ogburn as "a two volume symposium that some 40 contributors required 11 years to prepare, devotes 150 pages to 'Sports and Pastimes' in Elizabethan times. Hunting, falconry, coursing with greyhounds, archery, fencing and dueling, horsemanship, dancing, and games are treated in detail and illuminated with quotations from Shakespeare that show his precise and comprehensive knowledge of the subject.”

Concluding the section on hunting, the Honourable J.W. Fortescue comments that probably "in all ages good sportsmen, like good men, are rarer than bad; but good there must have been at all times, and among the best of the 16th c. we must certainly rank William Shakespeare.”

Edward de Vere enjoyed all of Shakespeare's noble sports listed above. He was the Queen’s Champion two years running at the annual jousting tournaments. He obtained a Law degree from Oxford College at sixteen. Pundits think Shakepeare hated lawyers taking “lets kill all the lawyers” out-of-context. It was uttered by the rebel Dick the Butcher - an evil killer himself who is soon dispatched.

The Earl of Oxford was a ward For many years of Queen Elizabeth’s powerful and wealthy First Minister Lord Burgley (famous for his Rules as in Hamlet’s Polonius “neither a borrower nor a lender be”).

Oxford wrote poetry and plays, conveniently all lost except for his earliest teenage poems. And like Hamlet (the most autobiographical of Shakespeare's works) he was a patron of a play-acting company, and the arts.

The 'Stratford man' never left England

Many scholars like to claim the 'Stratford man,' must have learned about nobility and noble sports from the “fair youth” of the Sonnets: supposedly the 3rd Earl of Southhampton, but it was Oxford who knew Southhampton best. Southampton was briefly engaged to Oxford's daughter – perhaps a reason the Sonnets urged him to marry? Southampton also later became close friends with Oxford's son - the 18th Earl.

A 1597 map of France and Italy, foreign lands that Shakespeare wrote about the most.

Edward de Vere traveled for at least a year to ALL of Shakespeare’s eleven Italian cities (where fifteen plays are set) based on his letters written to Lord Burghley at the time. Italian scholars including Grillo and Elze insist the writer of Shakespeare's work must have visited Italy based on local details in the plays. Poor William never left the London-Stratford area.

Oxford spoke Shakespeare’s five languages, he had easy access to ALL of Shakespeare’s 800 known source works at Cecil House, at a time when books were precious and rare, and even at Oxford College chained to students desks.

After his death, Oxford left behind an annotated Geneva Bible (Shakespeare's favorite of five he used according to scholars). Today that 450-year-old Bible is in the possession of Washington DCs Folger Shakespeare Library.

Edward de Vere married Lord Burgley's daughter Ann, (think Ophelia) and led the life of Hamlet and was even captured and released by pirates.

Getting to the truth Here are some final thoughts on the nature of truth from the men (or man) at centre of the debate.

For truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true. - Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

For truth is truth, to the end of reckoning. - William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Further reading and reference

Full list of skeptics:

The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Charleton Ogburn 1992

Alias Shakespeare, Joseph Sobran 1997

Shakepeare’s Unorthodox Biography; D. Price 2001


Peter Wilson is a busy grandfather, devoted husband and Christian, hiker, gym-rat, Monarchist, and history buff. He is fond of traveling, old small countries, space, nature, all God's creatures. He gets a kick out of most foods and even politics and economics.


Chris Davies
Chris Davies
Sep 30, 2020

It is interesting that, in the two quotes you give, the first by De Vere is 18 words long, whereas the second, by as you acknowledge, William Shakespeare, is only 7 words, and is much more succinct and eloquent.


Steve Moretti
Steve Moretti
Sep 29, 2018

Fascinating story Peter. Thanks for sharing it with us. I wonder how many English teachers you have upset with the facts of this mystery? Quite a few I imagine!

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