A recent issue of Harper’s Magazine* was devoted to a debate
on the Shakespeare authorship question. Interest in the topic is high,
and the exchange brought an avalanche of mail.
Spreading belief in the Earl of Oxford’s authorship of the Bard’s
works has now driven Sylvan Barnet, editor of the Signet paperback
editions of the Shakespeare plays, to add several pages to his introduction
in order to rebut the Oxfordian view. But Professor Barnet succeeds
only in showing how weak the case for Stratford’s son really
Like most adherents of the traditional Stratfordian view, Mr. Barnet
caricatures his opponents’ views. He says that “all” — not
many, not some, but all — anti-Stratfordian arguments are motivated
by “snobbery,” a charge for which he offers no evidence
and whose relevance he fails to explain. Then he proceeds to attack
a few minor points advanced by some of the heretics (mostly the cipher-hunting
advocates of Sir Francis Bacon).
Mr. Barnet doesn’t address the stronger points the heretics
have always raised. He is typical of the Stratfordians in that he doesn’t
know how to debate. He doesn’t know that a good debater states
his opponent’s case in terms the opponent would agree with; he
doesn’t know that you have to address that case at its strongest,
facing all the evidence. He thinks you win an argument by saying snotty
things about your opponent.
Oxford’s partisans argue from the Shakespeare works. They contend
that the plays (especially Hamlet) and poems (especially the Sonnets)
reflect Oxford’s life in great detail and have nothing to do
with the life of William of Stratford. Prince Hamlet, for instance,
is captured by pirates in the English Channel, as Oxford himself once
was. Polonius and his children are clearly based on Oxford’s
in-laws, the great Cecil family. The play also contains echoes of Oxford’s
letters. Nothing in the play links it to William, its supposed author.
What’s more, Stratfordians like Mr. Barnet don’t even
try to link the works to William. You might think the best way to prove
a man’s authorship of works attributed to him would be to show
how his personal life shaped and inspired those works. But the Stratfordians
prefer to treat the works of the Bard as inadmissible evidence that
might damage their client’s claim.
Think of it! If someone questioned John Milton’s authorship
of his poems, it would be easy to show that Milton’s early poems,
his sonnets, and his late masterpieces reflect his public and private
life as a passionate Puritan. Milton’s life leaves no room for
doubt that he wrote the works bearing his name. Why isn’t this
true of Shakespeare?
The task of literary biography is to show an author’s life and
works as a unity. This can be done with almost every great author of
whose life we have records — but not with Shakespeare. William’s
many biographers are stuck with dull facts that can’t be integrated
with the works, and their biographies are devoid of literary illumination.
In short, there is no such thing as a literary biography of William
But if Oxford is the Bard, a genuine literary biography is possible.
The plays and poems reflect his education, his legal training, his
experience at the court of Elizabeth I, his travels in Italy and France,
his marital troubles, his feuds, his confinement in the Tower of London,
his waste of his huge fortune, and his fall into disgrace.
Oxford’s partisans constantly appeal to the texts of the works
to make the case for Oxford. William’s professional champions
avoid those texts, which don’t support the case for William.
If William were the Bard, the works would speak for him, just as Milton’s
poems speak for Milton. But his defenders treat the Shakespeare works
as irrelevant to the question of Shakespeare’s identity — a
virtual admission that those works have no discernible relation to
William, except that his name is on them. Their “argument” is
chiefly the baseless accusation that Oxford’s partisans are all
In any debate, it’s important to notice not only what your opponents
say, but what they don’t say. The Stratfordians never say: “Only
William could have written these works. Look at all their obvious links
with his life!” The only man with such links is the Earl of Oxford.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on July 8, 1999.
*"The Ghost of Shakespeare," Harper's
Magazine 298 (April
1999), pages 35-62.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
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