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Stanford Report, January 9, 2002

Panel featuring Shakespeare scholars discusses whether the Bard was a beard


It was the deliciously named J. Thomas Looney, an English schoolmaster, who gave birth in 1920 to the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the sonnets and plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Ever since, conspiracy theorists, known collectively as the Oxfordians, have rallied around Looney's thesis, carrying it into the 21st century. They contend that Shakespeare was a semi-literate country bumpkin who, as an actor and shareholder of the Globe Theater, was a convenient front man for de Vere.

But Ron Rebholz, a professor emeritus of English who has taught Shakespeare at the Farm for 40 years, looks askance at such theories. During a panel discussion Monday at Pigott Theater, Rebholz said he is inclined to dismiss the issue wholesale.

"I don't think it's a very good question," he said.

The panel, held by Stanford Continuing Studies in connection with the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) production of drama lecturer Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon, also featured Larry Friedlander, a teaching professor of English; Marco Barricelli, an artistic associate at ACT who plays the Earl of Oxford in the production; Deborah Sussel, a core-faculty member of ACT's Master of Fine Arts program; and Freed.

Addressing the reason some people become so excited and vexed by doubts about Shakespeare's authorship, Rebholz said, "It has a lot to do with a kind of snobbery.

"Most people who take [the authorship question] seriously look down upon somebody who had nothing more than a grammar-school education in a small town in Warwickshire," he said. "I think the snobbery about the quality of that education is what has led to the ferment over the authorship question. I think it's unwarranted, it really distracts from the study of the texts, and it implies an extraordinary conspiracy."

Part of the reason Shakespeare doubters find de Vere such an attractive candidate is that he was well educated: He earned two master's degrees before age 17. He also composed poetry. But to continue writing in his adulthood, he would have needed a pseudonym because Elizabethan social code prohibited aristocrats from publishing under their own names, Oxfordians say.

They question how a man born to fairly low social standing -- Shakespeare's father was a glover and tenant farmer -- who never attended college could have known so much about the law, classics, court life and Italy.

In addition, some elements of the plays seem to parallel events in the life of de Vere, Oxfordians say. But what is most damning, they say, is that no concrete evidence connecting the man from Stratford-upon-Avon to the plays exists. There is no "smoking gun"; no original manuscripts survive, nor do any letters to or from Shakespeare. In addition, quarto editions of the early plays do not name an author -- an omission that Oxfordians use as evidence that the true playwright was trying to keep his name a secret.

The Stratfordians, who maintain the standard view that Shakespeare wrote the plays and sonnets, argue that Oxfordians are grasping at straws and using smoke and mirrors to reinforce what little "evidence" they manage to procure. Stratfordians point out that, according to the standard chronology, more than a third of the plays were written after de Vere died. They also argue that plenty of evidence can be found to support Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and sonnets -- as much evidence, if not more, than exists linking his contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe, to plays they are credited with writing.

The Stratfordians further contend that Shakespeare's knowledge of classics was not all that impressive. In any case, he easily could have picked it up in grammar school and by his acquaintance with an educated and cultured group of friends, they say. For example, there is a lot of evidence pointing to a friendship (and professional rivalry) between Shakespeare and the playwright Ben Jonson, who, in the first folio of Shakespeare plays, wrote a poem titled "To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare," in which he writes:

Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appeare,

And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James!

To learn more about the two viewpoints, visit (a Stratfordian base camp) and (for the Oxfordians' take on the subject).