Comparing the Work of Edward de Vere and William Shakespeare

Get the facts on the Shakespeare authorship debate

The Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare, 16th century.Artist: Cornelius Ketel
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Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was a contemporary of Shakespeare and a patron of the arts. A poet and dramatist in his own right, Edward de Vere has since become the strongest candidate in the Shakespeare authorship debate.

Edward de Vere: A Biography

De Vere was born in 1550 (14 years before Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon) and inherited the title of 17th Earl of Oxford before his teenage years. Despite receiving a privileged education at Queen’s College and Saint John’s College, De Vere found himself in financial dire straights by the early 1580s – which led to Queen Elizabeth granting him an annuity of £1,000.

It is suggested that De Vere spent the later part of his life producing literary works but disguised his authorship to uphold his reputation in court. Many believe that these manuscripts have since become credited to William Shakespeare.

De Vere died in 1604 in Middlesex, 12 years before Shakespeare’s death in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Edward de Vere: The Real Shakespeare?

Could De Vere really be the author of Shakespeare’s plays? The theory was first proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920. Since then the theory has gained momentum and has received support from some high-profile figures including Orson Wells and Sigmund Freud.

Although all the evidence is circumstantial, it is none-the-less compelling. The key points in the case for De Vere are as follows:

  • “Thy countenance shakes spears” is how De Vere was once described in royal court. Could this have been a codified reference to De Vere’s literary activities? In print, Shakespeare’s name appeared as “Shake-speare.”
  • Many of the plays parallel events from De Vere’s life. In particular, supporters consider Hamlet to be a deeply biographical character.
  • De Vere had the right education and social standing to write in detail about the classics, law, foreign countries, and language. William Shakespeare, a country bumpkin from Stratford-upon-Avon, would simply have been unequipped to write about such things.
  • Some of De Vere’s early poetry appeared in print under his own name. However, this stopped soon after texts were printed under Shakespeare’s name. So, it's been suggested that De Vere took on his pseudonym when Shakespeare’s earliest works were first published: The Rape of Lucrece (1593) and Venus and Adonis (1594). Both poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was considering marrying De Vere’s daughter.
  • De Vere was well traveled and spent most of 1575 in Italy. 14 of Shakespeare’s plays have Italian settings.
  • Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. There is some evidence to suggest Golding lived in the same household as De Vere at this time.

Despite this compelling circumstantial evidence, there is no concrete proof that Edward de Vere was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, it is conventionally accepted that 14 of Shakespeare’s plays were written after 1604 – the year of De Vere’s death.

The debate goes on.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Comparing the Work of Edward de Vere and William Shakespeare." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). Comparing the Work of Edward de Vere and William Shakespeare. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Comparing the Work of Edward de Vere and William Shakespeare." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).