Who was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford? Why is he important in Shakespeare studies?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It has been proposed that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is the true author of William Shakespeare's plays, at least according to the Oxford theory of authorship. But, while major critics have rejected such theories of authorship, there is yet interest in this Oxford theory.

J. Thomas Looney's Shakespeare Identified (1920) holds the most contemporary arguments. Among Looney's arguments are these:

  • Facts of Shakespeare's earlier life such as his lack of education, his unworldliness, and poor handwriting, and the "dirt and ignorance" of Stratford, are not compatible with what is evinced in the plays.
  • According to analyses of Shakespeare's life, he had a "petty, acquisitive disposition" much in contrast to the free-spending heroes of the plays.
  • The heroes are typically aristocratic as was the Earl, but not Shakespeare.
  • According to experts in law, the plays reveal considerable evidence of a knowledge of law, which the Earl of Oxford possessed, unlike Shakespeare.
  • The author was evidently widely knowledgeable of Latin literature, as well as French and Italian. Shakespeare did not possess such knowledge.
  • Early plays demonstrate a maturity that a young Shakespeare would not possess.
  • Characters from the plays fit the personalities of people and relatives of the Earl of Oxford. Some personages were very similar to persons known to Oxford.
  • Events in the plays matched episodes those of the life of the Earl, such as his travels to France and Italy, which are often depicted in the plays.
  • The idiosyncrasies of the latter plays were attributive to other writers having finished them, rather than the Earl.
  • The allusion to the "ever-living poet" in the 1609 dedication suggests that the author was dead at the time of publication.

While Looney's contentions have been overlapped by others, and his theories have lost popularity, in 1976 Charlton Ogburne revived the Oxfordian movement. Nevertheless, the authorship question has been debated for years.