The idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare is so completely unsupported by any evidence that you have to wonder why anyone still takes it seriously. It might make a good movie (or not–haven’t seen Anonymous, but there are some terrific actors in it, so maybe it would be a hoot) but as a theory, it’s ludicrous.

For example, three major plOnly known painting of WS, possibly by John Taylor. National Portrait Gallery, London. Public domain.ays of Shakespeare were produced after Oxford died (1604): King Lear (c. 1606), The Tempest, (c. 1611), and Macbeth (c. 1603, when Oxford was alive but dying of plague). Could they have sat in a cupboard after their author’s death? Well, The Tempest and King Lear make reference to real-life recent events that happened well after Oxford had shuffled off this mortal coil, as he himself did not write. Lear talks about “these late eclipses,” referring to solar and lunar eclipses that happened in quick succession in 1605, causing great consternation. The Tempest draws heavily on a 1610 report of a major shipwreck in Bermuda, as is clear from the parallels between the play’s text and the report.  It’s harder to prove that Macbeth was written in 1603 or later, but scholars have long thought it was timed to respond to the Scottish King James VI’s ascension to the English throne that year, so that someone who spent the year dying of plague was probably not its author.

While a theory may be sound even if it has been proposed for unsound reasons, it’s worth looking at why and when the “Oxford was ‘Shakespeare'” myth got started. It began in the 19th century, when theories that “eminence” correlated to intelligence were popularized and given supposedly scientific backing by such psychologists as J. M. Cattell. Shakespeare gave the lie to such theories. How could a tradesman’s son (his father was a glover) be so brilliant? Surely the greatest  poetry and drama in the English language must have been written by someone with wealth, advanced formal education, and status–someone (hm!) like the scientists themselves.

This idea, which of course was applied not just to Shakespeare but to all of us, got a new boost in the 20th century, when Catherine Cox, working with her mentor Lewis Terman (developer of the IQ test), engineered a neat piece of circular reasoning by using social class, the education level of one’s parents, one’s own amount of formal schooling, etc. as part of the formula for intelligence. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in The Mismeasure of Man, “In one case, however, Cox couldn’t bear to record the unpleasant result that her methods dictated. Shakespeare, of humble origin and unknown childhood, would have scored below 100 [i.e., subnormal]. So Cox simply left him out, even though she included others with equally inadequate childhood records.” (217) So much for a scientific approach.

The same arguments about intelligence and class were rewarmed and served up again in 1994, with a similar disdain for scientific rigor, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, a book that got far too much serious attention. The belief that the achievement gap between rich and poor (where it exists) has to do with inherent differences rather than the socially constructed inequities of opportunity and privilege is alive and well. We are looking for talent at Harvard, where the biggest affirmative action program is legacy admissions (that is, you get into Harvard because your dad went to Harvard), when it is just as likely to be found in places the aristocrats don’t hang out. As Gould wrote elsewhere, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” If we don’t shake the myth that people who share Shakespeare’s background are inherently unlikely (that is, even more unlikely than wealthier others) to share his genius, that’s where they’ll stay.