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March 19, 2008:

The pseudonymous author of Shakespeare’s works

By Richard M. Waugaman ’70

During my psychoanalytic training some 30 years ago, I was chagrined to learn that Freud supported the flaky theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Freud’s misogynist theory of female sexuality was embarrassing enough, but now this! I didn’t give it much further thought until 1999, when I was surprised to read in The New York Times that de Vere was gaining credibility as the author who used both the pen name and front man of William Shakespeare of Stratford. This article intrigued me. My psychoanalytic publications often stem from my exploration of blind spots – not only in individuals, but in groups such as my fellow psychoanalysts. For example, I have spent many years specializing in the treatment of post-traumatic dissociative disorders, and I was impressed by the way many of my psychoanalytic colleagues used to dismiss the existence of multiple personality disorder.

I began reading some of the many excellent books outlining de Vere’s claim as Shakespeare. The more I read, the more convincing the evidence looked. In 2004, I re-read the Times article, and I was excited to realize that de Vere’s 1570 Geneva Bible was owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. This library, the most extensive collection of Shakespeariana in the world, is two blocks from the U.S. Capitol and not far from my home. I became credentialed as a “reader,” or scholar permitted access to their collection. I did this because I had learned that de Vere’s Bible has hundreds of annotations in it that fit closely with the thousands of Biblical allusions and echoes in Shakespeare. If there’s a “smoking gun” that helps document de Vere’s claim to be Shakespeare, this is it. I also found that the Folger is an unsurpassed scholarly resource, with hundreds of thousands of rare books and manuscripts.

My research at the Folger helped ignite a burning passion that has since led me into many byways of research on de Vere. In the process, I have had the good fortune to develop a friendship and collaboration with Roger Stritmatter, who earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature with a dissertation on de Vere’s Bible. He made history by earning the first Ph.D. in literature in the United States based on a dissertation asserting that de Vere was Shakespeare. He employed a handwriting expert who verified with high confidence that the notes the margins of the Folger’s 1570 Bible were in fact written by de Vere. Most startlingly, Stritmatter accumulated a massive amount of data that enabled me to highlight the close correlation that his findings showed between Shakespeare’s interest in certain Biblical passages, and de Vere’s interest in that same group of passages.

Let me explain. If Shakespeare alluded to the same Biblical verse two, three, or even more times, would you agree that this reflected his growing level of interest in that verse? Now, if de Vere annotated a given Biblical verse, would you also agree this reflected his interest in that verse? De Vere used several methods to mark Biblical passages – he might underline the entire verse, or underline the verse number, or write a key word in the margin, or draw a fleur-de-lys in the margin (a medieval form of annotation that he still used). It turns out that the more times Shakespeare alluded to a given verse, the more likely it is that de Vere marked that same verse in some fashion. There are 450 Biblical verses that Shakespeare cited only once; only 13 percent of these verses are marked in de Vere’s Bible. But among the 160 verses Shakespeare cited four times, de Vere marked 27 percent of these. There are even eight verses that Shakespeare cited six times – de Vere marked 88 percent of these.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, “So what?” I have been fascinated by the range of reactions to the now-overwhelming evidence from many additional sources that de Vere was probably the pseudonymous author of Shakespeare’s works. What’s going on? I believe there are many sources of the skepticism, apathy, and even hostility I have encountered on my authorship quest. We trust experts, and we should – usually. But literary studies lack a reliable methodology to evaluate such authorship claims. We assume that it’s difference in science. But recall that Wegener had accumulated overwhelming evidence for his theory of continental drift by 1915. He was a mere geographer, though, not a geologist. Geologists – the specialists in that field – argued that there was no known conceivable explanation of how continental drift could have occurred, so they ridiculed Wegener’s theory. But, by the mid-1960s, new information about plate tectonics provided the missing pieces of explanatory theory, and geologists now fully accept Wegener’s 1915 proposal.

The situation is analogous when it comes to de Vere as Shakespeare. We have abundant evidence that he was regarded by his contemporaries as the best of the Elizabethan courtier poets; that a few of his contemporaries knew he wrote anonymously; that he sponsored theatrical companies most of his life; and that he was regarded as one of the best Elizabethan authors of comedies. There are hundreds of connections between the content of the plays and poems of Shakespeare and the documented facts of de Vere’s life. The first 17 sonnets entreat a young man to marry. In 1590, when they were probably written, de Vere’s father-in-law William Cecil was ordering his 17-year-old ward the Earl of Southampton to marry his granddaughter – de Vere’s daughter Elizabeth. This was the same earl to whom the long poems of Shakespeare were dedicated in 1593 and 1594 – the first publications to use the pen name “William Shake-speare.”

But, we still do not know with certainty why he wrote under a pseudonym. This crucial but missing piece of evidence is a major reason de Vere isn’t yet more widely accepted as Shakespeare. In all likelihood, there were multiple internal and external reasons for his using a pseudonym. Elizabethan nobility did not publish poetry under their names during their lifetimes. The world of the theater was held in some disrepute, and playwrights such as Ben Jonson were frequently punished for offending those in power. De Vere/Shakespeare’s history plays put the Tudor monarchs in the best possible light; their propaganda value may have been enhanced by attributing them to a commoner. In addition, my study of the psychology of pseudonymity offers many examples of writers whose creativity seemed to flourish when their authorship was concealed. If de Vere used one pseudonym, he probably disguised other writings as well. For example, I have recently published articles attributing two anonymous 1585 poems to de Vere/Shakespeare. There is a whole new world of research beckoning to us, which will deepen our appreciation for the greatest writer in the English language.

Many people have asked me with visible exasperation, “What difference would it make who wrote the works of Shakespeare?” I was initially puzzled by this question, especially when it was posed by talented psychoanalysts. If we were discussing any other great writer, they invariably would look for connections between the life experiences and psychology of the author, and unconscious themes and conflicts in his or her literary creations. Why are reactions so different when it comes to Shakespeare? Freud thought it was because we have a unique reverence for Shakespeare. He said we idealize not only his plays and poems, but the man himself. We want to believe he was every bit as perfect as his works. What we know about the man from Stratford is so limited that we can imagine almost anything we want about him, and people such as Steven Greenblatt have done just that. De Vere, on the other hand, was a complicated person, whose life offers in abundance the very complexity we should expect of the man who wrote Shakespeare’s works. END

Richard M. Waugaman ’70, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus, Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. His 65 scholarly publications began with an article stemming from his senior thesis on Nietzsche and Freud, supervised by Walter Kaufmann. He is married to Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman *71, the author-illustrator of the children’s book, Follow Your Dreams: The Life of Alberto Santos Dumont.