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Displacing Will Shakespeare

February 21, 1993|Charles Champlin

What possible score card could find Muhammad in first place, pursued by Sir Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Confucius--in that order, with 95 more runners-up plus 10 honorable mentions, including St. Thomas Aquinas and Marie Curie?

The answer is "The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History." The list was first devised in 1978 by Michael Hart, a space scientist with degrees in law, physics and astronomy. His book drew enthusiastic reviews and sold an influential 60,000 copies. Now Hart has published an updated and revised edition (Citadel Press: $25; 556 pp.). Muhammad still tops the list, but there have been changes. Henry Ford is on, Pablo Picasso is off. Karl Marx has moved down, Thomas Jefferson up.

But the real shocker comes at position 31, which is now "Edward de Vere (better known as 'William Shakespeare') 1550-1604." In 1978, Shakespeare as Shakespeare went unquestioned. Now Hart finds the circumstantial evidence overwhelming that De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays and poems.

Actually, doubts about the man from Stratford first arose nearly two centuries ago, and Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud (among other worthies) found it impossible to believe that the historical Shakespeare, in his last years a litiginous grain dealer, was capable of the playwright's glorious language.

His name was spelled Shaxpere or a variation of it, and didn't even sound like Shakespeare, Hart writes in his essay. His parents and children were illiterate, his will made no mention of books or literary properties, his village contemporaries never referred to him as a writer, and there is no evidence that Shaxpere himself ever claimed to be the author. In an era when even minor poets were fulsomely eulogized, Shaxpere's death in 1616 went unremarked in print by anyone.

De Vere, an adventurous and spendthrift nobleman, was known and praised as both a poet and playwright. He supported two acting companies, traveled extensively in Europe and was one of Elizabeth's favored courtiers. Echoes of his life experiences and his education have been identified throughout the plays.

"To me," Hart concludes, "it is virtually certain that he is the author . . . nobody else even comes close."

One potentially significant new piece of evidence, reported too late for Hart's book, is scholar Roger Stritmatter's investigation of De Vere's 1570 Geneva Bible, which has been in the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection of fine bindings since 1925. Its innumerable underlinings and marginal notes, in De Vere's own hand, are said to correspond closely to passages in the plays.

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