William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and the ‘Still-Vexed Bermoothes’


by Keith Hopkins (February 2014)

It is, no doubt, a truism that the subject of William Shakespeare is, nowadays at least, a matter of the authorship controversy. For the supporters of Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, the Young or the Old Pretender, there is a wrong to be righted. The Stratfordians, who hold to the Party line that the Stratford man was indeed the author of the plays that bear his name, remain unmoved though whether unmoveable, in the light of the fierce debate raging around them, is anyone’s guess. The war rages on a number of fronts, the textual being perhaps the most hotly contested. But what is looking increasingly clear is that the Stratfordians  – to whom I give my guarded assent – need to start raising their game pretty soon or the game may very well be up. They are in an unenviable position. Rather like the English in the Hundred Years War the Stratfordians can win all the battles and still lose. At the simplest and most brutal level, a multi-million dollar industry is at stake, to say nothing about the shock to the collective system if it turns out we all backed the wrong horse. The Oxfordians have, to my mind, already overcome what might be considered something of a handicap. The fact that is, that dead men don’t write plays. They have made a respectable case that a number of plays always attributed to Shakespeare and that appeared after Oxford’s death in 1604 were, in reality, written by their man. I consider three here: ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘King Lear.’ Hardly lesser works in the canon.

‘The Tempest’ was performed at court on 1 November 1611. Stratfordians maintain that the allusion to the ‘still-vexed Bermoothes’ in the play is a reference to the wreck of the ship ‘Sea Venture’ (sometimes called ‘Sea Adventure’) off Bermuda in 1609, after the date of Oxford’s death who therefore could not have written it. But there had been an earlier shipwreck in Bermuda in 1593 and Oxford, it is maintained, had been an investor in one the ships that had gone down. Shipwrecks were common in the area. In 1609, the shipwrecked sailors landed on an island and made a drink of crushed cedar berries. Caliban says that when Prospero came to the island, he ‘strok’st me, and made much of me, (and) wouldst give me water with berries in’t.’ The Stratfordians maintain that what Caliban drinks here is a reference to the 1609 shipwrecked sailors drink. But is it? The island did have fresh water on it and Caliban knew where the water and the berries were. It’s possible that what Caliban was offered was wine, because grapes were sometimes called berries in Elizabethan England.  But Stefano later gives Caliban wine and Caliban seems to treat is as something new that he has never had before. ‘Wouldst give me water with berries in’t’ does not mean Caliban actually drank it. The meaning of the subjunctive varied. It is perfectly possible that Prospero only offered Caliban the drink. It cannot be asserted that Caliban drank it, even less, that it was what the shipwrecked sailors drank in 1609.

‘Macbeth’ may have been first performed at court in either July or August 1606. Stratfordians maintain that it contains indisputable allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and the trial of the conspirators in early 1606. They say there is much play on the idea of equivocation because Father Garnet, the Jesuit who was implicated in the plot, defended its use by those accused to avoid self-incrimination. Again, Oxford was dead by this time so he couldn’t have written, or at least completed, the play. But the word ‘equivocation’ was used in an earlier play, Hamlet, and the notion is also found elsewhere. The suggestion that equivocation was some alien idea or word that sprung up, mirabile dictu, in ‘Macbeth’ and which can therefore tie the play into the Gunpowder Plot is absurd. The Elizabethan state had been waging an unrelenting ‘dirty’ war against Catholics for at least thirty years before the play appeared. The doctrine and practice of equivocation, as a weapon of the enemy, was well known to the authorities and to the literate culture at large. And then there is the inconvenient point that Shakespeare’s own catholic connections to a number of the conspirators were, in the words of Anthony Holden, “perilously close to returning to cause him trouble,” ‘William Shakespeare, His Life and Work’(1999). Would the Bard really have wanted to chance things by referring, even obliquely, to the Plot? 

There is an earlier play called ‘The Kinge of the Scottes’ that was performed at court in 1567. This could have been written by Oxford and may have been his earlier version of what we now know as ‘Macbeth.’ There was also another play on a similar theme in existence in 1602 called ‘Malcolm King of Scots.’ An interesting point is that ‘Macbeth’ is a good deal shorter than the other plays and may have been abruptly broken off (due perhaps to the death of the author?).

Given the textual and cultural background it simply cannot be said, on any reasonable basis, that ‘Macbeth’ contains definite reference to the Gunpowder Plot and thus could not have been written by Oxford.

The position with regard to ‘King Lear’ is, frankly, a mess. According to the eminent Shakespeare scholar, Professor Frank Kermode, ‘Shakespeare’s language’ (2000):

“… it is agreed on all sides that any of the versions of the play we are accustomed to reading in the standard editions cannot be very like any text performed in Shakespeare’s time, or indeed long after that.”

There are folio and quarto variants of the play with the forbidding initials; F, Q1, Q2, which nowadays tend to be printed either as one copy text or two parallel texts.

Another expert, Professor Chambers, says that the composition date of ‘Lear’ is “difficult to fix… with precision.”

Use of the word ‘Britain’ tends to suggest it was written after the accession of James 1 in 1603 but again it was reasonably suspected, certainly in court circles, in the 1590s that James would succeed on Elizabeth’s death (and who was by then already an elderly lady well past child bearing) and the alliance of Scotland and England a done deal. There were two earlier Lear plays:

‘ The True Chronicle History of Kinge Leir;’ (May 1594); and

‘ ‘King Leare’ (April 1594)

The first performance of ‘King Lear’ (our play) at court was on 26 December 1606 but may have been the work of Oxford who worked up the material from the two earlier plays.

Enough, perhaps, has been said to make a case to answer. Whether the Stratfordians now step up to the plate is, of course, another question. But what is surely indisputable it that uncritical appeals which are not backed by some heavyweight textual analysis cannot stem the tide now running firmly against the traditional movement. Is another Iron Curtain about to tumble?


Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of 'The History Plays.'

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