Shakespeare’s True Identity Helped Me Understand Myself

Discovering the real person behind the “Shakespeare” alias brings joy & peace.

Posted Nov 28, 2018

Loretta Breuning
Source: Loretta Breuning

I never cared much for Shakespeare so I had no reason to care about his true identity.

I knew that people questioned it, but I presumed this was a kooky conspiracy theory. Then a chance comment opened my mind to new information. Suddenly, I saw Shakespeare as a real person with real frustrations. It was a thrill to discover that person through historical clues, so I read more and more

The accident that got me started
I was trying to buy a book on evolutionary biology and the author had the same name as a leading critic of Shakespeare authorship studies: James Shapiro. The Shakespeare book had a funny title (Contested Will) so I bought it, too. The book sneers at people who think “Shakespeare” is an alias, and I was soon sneering along with it.

I decided to buy another James Shapiro audiobook to brighten my drive time. To choose which one, I read the online comments. One comment stopped me in my tracks: an assertion that 100% of academics accept the Stratford merchant as the author and refuse to examine conflicting evidence. This got my attention because I had been an academic all my life.

I knew firsthand the pressure to conform to the prevailing paradigm in one’s academic discipline. I knew the use of ridicule to enforce conformity. I knew the temptation to submit to the reward structure. Was “Shakespeare” another product of academic groupthink? (To be more precise, 99.9% of academics in English or Literature departments shun the authorship question, but it is accepted at two universities and in most academic theater departments.)

I did not want to be a person who reflexively sneers at the out-group’s evidence. I did not want to be someone who insists that their own thoughts are facts rather than opinions. I did not want to accuse others of filtering their facts because I know that every brain filters facts. So I decided to read something with the other viewpoint.

I chose Shakespeare by Another Name, and it changed my world. I felt more accepting of the endless rivalry among primates after knowing how Shakespeare lived it half a millennium ago. He makes fun of his antagonists just like Saturday Night Live. His tales of ambition and conflict are more interesting when you know how they spring from real life.

So who was Shakespeare?

I have concluded that Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the Shakespeare canon. It’s obvious once you know his story because it eerily parallels the content of the plays and poems. Oxford could not publicly attach his name to the work because he was a top nobleman at a time when noble heads were chopped off for political incorrectness. The drama you see in the plays was all too similar to the drama of DeVere’s daily life.

Why should you care?

Knowing the Earl of Oxford’s story helps you accept the frustrations of your own life. I was never interested in Shakespeare, truth be told. My interest is in the human brain and the brain chemistry we’ve inherited from earlier mammals. Our happy chemicals are wired from early experience. The more we know about other people’s experience, the easier it is to notice the patterns in our own ups and downs. (The way experience creates our neural pathways is explained in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain.) I am not saying that everyone should study Shakespeare. I am saying that everyone should study worlds that are different from their own to recognize the universal patterns of conflict among mammals. You can take your frustrations less seriously when you know how universal they are.

You can build a new lens on life with a tiny investment of time and money. For no money and five minutes, you can learn about the Oxfordian case here, here and here—and one of my favorites, here.

Or find your own favorite resource from the abundant offerings of the US and UK societies of DeVere fans (which I have joined). The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship in the US and the Devere Society in the UK have websites full of research and media created by their active members.

So you think I’ve joined the kooks?

My life in academia taught me not to trust people who claim to care only about facts but are obviously quite opinionated. I do not trust people who invoke “the data” while denying their obvious emotion. I distrust people who rely on ridicule and derision to boost their arguments. I will decide the facts for myself rather than rely on such “experts.”

Every brain filters information in order to interpret the sensory overload. Other people’s filters are easy to notice but it’s hard to see our own. We think we are just seeing the truth. But we can learn to try on different lenses, and it makes life more fun.

SOF / with permission
Source: SOF / with permission

Being Oxfordian

People who recognize Oxford’s authorship call themselves “Oxfordians.” They enjoy piecing together the puzzle and learning from each other. Oxfordians come in all sizes and shapes, and disagree with each other on various issues. But we all agree that the truth is its own reward, even if you’re sneered at. And so we love the DeVere family motto, Vero nihil verius, which means “nothing is truer than the truth.” A new documentary called Vero Nihil Verius brings Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name vividly to life. (Trailer and review)

How I Became an Oxfordian

A personal story of How I Became an Oxfordian is published every month by the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. My story appears this month, but the collection as a whole makes great reading. It will help you understand the slings and arrows that our flesh is heir to, and you may even find yourself becoming Oxfordian.

So who is this DeVere guy?

Like all of us, Edward DeVere was born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. He built connections from his unique individual life experience, just like you and me. Conscious memory of these experiences is not necessary because emotions pave neural pathways that channel the brain’s electricity without need for conscious thought. So let’s look at some widely documented events in DeVere’s life.

SOF / with permission
Source: SOF / with permission

Young Edward appears to be one of the most educated people who ever lived. His parents and guardians hired the most famous scholars in England to tutor him. The Protestant Reformation was flowering in England, and DeVere was personally taught by great thinkers in science, law, classics, fine arts, and physical arts.

This is not to say that his life was happy. When he was a young teen, his father died under suspicious circumstances and his mother quickly remarried. He became a “ward of court” which means the Crown controlled his life and property. There were advantages, to be sure: He was sent to live in the home of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s top advisor and possessor of England’s largest library. But disadvantages were stark: His inheritance was stolen, he was forced to marry Cecil’s daughter, and he had no choice about anything in his life. (The details of his origins are a subject of debate among Oxfordians. The controversial view is eloquently documented in Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth.)

What made Edward happy was theater. At his time in history, theater was mostly performed at court for the entertainment of the sovereign. Queen Elizabeth spent time in Edward’s parents’ home just before his father died, and Edward witnessed the performances they staged for her. It made a strong impression on him and as soon as he was old enough to be a courtier, he devoted himself to creating these entertainments. They were a little too revealing for the taste of many, but they made the Queen laugh and she wanted more.

Public theater was a new concept in England at the time, though it had been around for a while in Italy. DeVere went to Italy to study it for a year, and his aristocratic background gave him access to the court productions that were still the core of Italian theater. DeVere spent the rest of his life organizing actors and theater companies. Putting his name on theatrical plays was not the goal because theater was not really a thing yet. His goal was to create a theatrical tradition for his country, and he did. The Puritans killed it after he died, and by the time it came back, DeVere was forgotten. He’d been on the losing side of too many power plays and was lucky to have kept his head long enough to spend time at his desk.

In truth, the Earl of Oxford was not especially good at winning friends. He was heir to England’s most prestigious earldom and a close pal of Queen Elizabeth (for a while), so he was not inclined to kowtow to other courtiers. He wanted to do his own thing, so it’s not surprising that he eventually got into trouble. Oxfordians differ over the inside story (the more controversial version is well told in The Shakespeare Fraud: The politics behind the pen). But they agree that he spent more and more time polishing up the old plays that he had put on in court years before. Imagine an aging Saturday Night Live writer trying to start a Youtube channel after a public fall from grace. DeVere strove to build his legacy within the constraints of dangerous political intrigue.

When DeVere died, his plays hadn’t been formally published. Half of the “Shakespeare plays” had never been heard of until they were published under that name two decades later. The other half had been approved for performance by the official censor and/or printed informally from working scripts, usually without a named author. When they all appeared together in the “First Folio,” a dedication to the husband of DeVere's daughter was on the front page. It is easy to imagine how the manuscripts got to the publisher. DeVere’s son was in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason (and beheading) when the First Folio appeared. It’s easy to imagine the family’s desperate quest for strategies to save him.

No scrap of manuscript has ever been found. No surviving document mentions anyone claiming to be a playwright named “Shakespeare.” No surviving letter says, “I just drank a pint with my friend Shakespeare.”

But reading about DeVere helps me understand the boy who lost his parents and found solace in books. I understand the young man whose wit got him into trouble. I grieve with the old man who had a real cousin Horatio and wrote the words “Horatio, if you ever loved me, stop partying for a while and draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.” I don’t believe in the Shakespeare of academic theory who is only explained with the word “genius.” We all benefit by understanding the power of old neural pathways rather than simplistically crediting DNA.