The Oxfordian Hamlet:
The Playwright's the Thing

by Irvin Matus

[Excerpt from "Why There Is a Shakespeare Authorship Question," a talk delivered at the Library of Congress, April 24, 1997, emended and augmented.]

In titling my book Shakespeare, In Fact, I meant just that. In point of fact, I originally intended to devote the book exclusively to the contemporary materials and allusions in dispute, and to put them in the context of others of Shakespeare's social status and profession as appropriate. I did not plan to take on the Oxfordian arguments for de Vere at all. But, as so many of the issues are bound up with the claim for Oxford's authorship, I began to investigate the strength of their scholarship in that respect. Let's say that it didn't fare too well and I ultimately gave the case for Oxford a chapter of its own. The Oxfordians, in turn, have said that I ignored the most important part of their claim, which is that the earl's life story is to be found scattered throughout the plays.

First of all, I did touch on their contentions in regard to several plays, though briefly. The reason I gave them such short shrift is that their arguments purported to show the allusions that connect the plays with Oxford and, as I made clear in my chapter on Oxford, I did not find that the Oxfordian life story and Oxford's life story were quite the same thing. Indeed, I detected a distinct tendency to put an Oxfordian twist on one part of Hamlet's advice to the actors: they suit the plays to Oxford and Oxford to the plays.

However, the Oxfordians believe any discrepancy is owed to the fact that he had many enemies in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who left behind an image of the earl as, put politely, "an eccentric of doubtful character and boorish manners." Through numerous permutations, his partisans have reinvented de Vere as a brilliant, somewhat bohemian nobleman. They do acknowledge he could be less than charming at times, such as the time he murdered a servant, or when he deserted his wife; or the time he had a child by one of Queen Elizabeth's servants and promptly abandoned her; or when he rejected a commission as beneath his merit and dashed off to the queen to complain, as though she had nothing better to do at a time when England feared imminent invasion by Spain. All of these events, according to the Oxfordians, are alluded to in one form or another in the plays. Thus may we see the earl, in their words, as "a real human being," leaving one to wonder if that is a status from which people of common birth, say Shakespeare of Stratford, are excluded.

Be this as it may, there is a another reason I gave little attention to the assertion that Oxford's life is depicted in the plays: an article that presented the views of Roger Stritmatter, who may be deemed the first professional Oxfordian scholar, had not yet been published.1

It touches on the most important question regarding the identity of the author of the plays: if, as Hamlet says, "The play's the thing," what difference does it make who wrote the plays? The Oxfordians reply that if the dramatist is given a history, we may "understand how his plays . . . both reflect and illuminate his life"; and presumably his life will return the favor by illuminating his plays.

The play Stritmatter chose for this purpose, which, he says, "essentially tells de Vere's life story," is Hamlet. Bear in mind that Hamlet was not, as it is made to sound, an original invention by the play's author. Not only does the play closely follow the Danish folk tale that was its source, but Shakespeare's tragedy is apparently indebted to a play written at least ten years earlier that was the butt of some ridicule. That play has not survived, so we can't know how much Shakespeare's play owes to it -- but we can tell how much the Oxfordians owe to Shakespeare's play.

For instance, we are told that when de Vere was 12, his father "died under mysterious circumstances." The real mystery here is what his source is for this claim. The only one I can think of is Hamlet -- the prince's father died of foul play, Hamlet is Oxford, ergo: Oxford's father must have died of foul play too. But John de Vere made a will on July 28, 1562, and died six days later, which suggests that the cause of death was illness, and I can find no contemporary evidence that suggests otherwise.

Which leads directly to the next assertion. It is a fact that, after his father's death, Oxford became a ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. What follows is not. We are told that Burghley is "the man most scholars today recognize as the inspiration for the character of Polonius." In fact, most Shakespearean scholars do not. They prefer instead the prolix author of The Counselor, a book of advice on affairs of state published in English translation in 1598. The author, known as Goslicius, was a bishop and statesman who happened to be Polish -- hence the character's name: Polonius.

Inasmuch as the purpose of this Oxfordian claim is that courtiers would have recognized Polonius as a lampoon of Burghley, we should consider the image of him in the words of William Camden, perhaps the most reliable commentator on the famous figures of his day. Writing years after Burghley's death, he said of him,

Coincidentally, just as Polonius had a daughter, so did Burghley; thus does Ann Cecil become Ophelia. Picking up the story according to Stritmatter, "Once he became de Vere's guardian, [Burghley] betrothed the young Earl of Oxford . . . to a Cecil daughter for the political advancement of the Cecil clan." But in the play the situation is just the opposite: Polonius expressly forbids his daughter to marry the prince because he is above her station. More to the point, precisely what political advantage did Oxford have to offer Burghley, who Elizabeth made her principal secretary days after her accession in 1558? From that day until his death 40 years later, he would be her most valued counselor, forming what has been characterized as "one of the most remarkable partnerships in English history."

In regard to Oxford's betrothal to Burghley's daughter, a letter by him at the time states that this marriage was the earl's wish. It would not be long before Burghley regretted granting it. Oxford was estranged from his wife for a good part of their marriage and it has been said of it on the whole that he made Ann's life "such a living hell that her early death came as a merciful relief." It is impossible to imagine Oxford as the grief-stricken Hamlet leaping into the grave of his beloved -- especially not when he didn't even bother to attend his wife's funeral.

Of greater consequence is the argument that in Hamlet we may in effect discover not only the real human being behind the plays, but his motivation in writing them. This, it is said, is revealed in the scene of the play within a play, which contains what Stritmatter terms the "master metaphor' of the author in the person of the "alienated prince,"

I will agree that there is a "master metaphor" in Hamlet, but I believe it is in the play within the play itself, where the prince, so intent upon catching the conscience of Denmark's king, does not hear the words which foretell the "Mousetrap" that he has set for Claudius will catch him as well. For, as the Player King says, Within moments, Hamlet will begin to learn that when thoughts are exposed to the world in words and action, control is lost over the outcome; that, as he at last accepts in the final scene of the play, we have not control over destiny: In my reading of the play, I believe that Hamlet had a darker purpose in staging the play within the play: nothing so general as the corruption of the court, but the very specific purpose of making the king expose his own corruption. This peculiar emetic power of drama -- which is what Hamlet means when he mutters, "Wormwood, wormwood," during "The Mousetrap"3 -- may have been especially topical to the playhouse cognoscenti at the time the play was first performed around 1600.

In 1612, Shakespeare's colleague Thomas Heywood wrote a defense of the stage entitled An Apology for Actors, in which he calls attention to performances of plays that, in his words, "have been the discoverers of many notorious murders, being concealed from the eyes of the world." From his collection of such incidents, he culled three examples for their "familiarness and lateness of memory." Two of these happen to have occurred twelve years earlier, or just about the time to which Shakespeare's authorship of Hamlet is ascribed. And indeed, doesn't Hamlet say,

I believe this leaves little doubt that the author of Hamlet uses his knowledge -- not "of the inner machinery of court life" and its corruption -- but of drama, and its ability to expose the corruption in the human soul. And this is, as one scholar has said, "the domain of art, not of the poet's life." Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

What is at issue is not the meaning of the play within the play, but what this Oxfordian "master metaphor" means to the play in its entirety. The Hamlet in my mind's eye recalls a definition I read of the metaphysical mood in which people are driven to "questions of profound importance about the meaning of life: about death and immortality, about moral freedom and natural necessity, about the existence of God." This mood, and the profound questions it gives rise to, are sustained and heightened throughout the play, and these questions are known to all of us. This may be heard in Samuel Coleridge's comment "I have a smack of Hamlet myself," though it is more the truth that there is a smack of each of us in Hamlet. This may be seen in the popular view of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, in which Hamlet's very personal musings resonate in our own lives and so we think how very like Hamlet we are. However, Hamlet actually is not speaking of himself alone at all -- nowhere in this soliloquy does he ever refer to himself in the first person. Rather, he ponders the question of why people endure "The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" -- the torment that is the lot of nearly everyone at one time or another. But Lord Oxford's partisans would have it that at the heart of the play is a trail of bread crumbs leading to its author and his personal peeves with the court of Elizabeth, where the play and its intended audience are alleged to have been originally confined.


1. Mark Kendal Anderson, "What's In a Name?" Hartford Advocate, April 1994.

2. Camden's Annals, quoted in Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960), p. 546.

3. Rarely glossed in editions of the play, wormwood is accepted as meaning only something bitter, from the taste of the plant of that name. However, the plant was also used to make a vermifuge: a syrup that expels intestinal worms. This may be the more appropriate meaning within the context of both the scene and the play, in which Hamlet seeks to expose the disease that is, so to speak, eating at Denmark--the king and the country alike.

For more discussion of Alleged Parallels between the Plays and Oxford's Life
To a review of Matus's book Shakespeare, IN FACT.
Back to the SHAKESPEARE AUTHORSHIP home page.