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Melissa Miller English 398 Summer ‘04 The Shakespeare Oxford Society: A Web Site Analysis I have never been a huge fan of Shakespeare – I’ll admit it – but as an English major, I have learned to appreciate the brilliance that is the Shakespeare canon. I have noticed, however, that the more Shakespeare I read, and the more educated I become on the culture surrounding the Shakespearian works, the more I become interested in the topic as a whole. Regardless of how many times I have had to read Hamlet, or to discuss homosexual tendencies in the plays, I always seem to learn something new. This semester, although I have to admit embarrassingly so, was the first I have heard of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Amazing, isn’t it? This class was the last I had to take to complete my degree in English and it was the first I have heard of the authorship controversy. While watching the PBS video on the subject in class, I immediately became interested in the subject. Hence, I have chosen to accept the paper topic in which I could do a little more research on the topic of the authorship controversy; I have chosen to analyze a legitimate Web site concerning the debate. After researching the Shakespearian authorship controversy through many Web sites on the Internet, I noticed that although Francis Bacon used to be most widely recognized as the author and chief attributer to the works of William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere now is most widely believed to have been the true writer behind the brilliant works of Shakespeare. So, I have chosen accordingly to review a Web site that declares Edward de Vere as the true author of the Shakespearian canon.
Miller 2 After many hours of comparison, the Web site I decided to use for the sake of this paper is that of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, out of Silver Spring, Maryland. The Shakespeare Oxford Society deems themselves the second oldest society dedicated to the Shakespeare authorship controversy (next to the Bacon society dating back to 1886), with an organization establishment date of 1957. The purpose of the Society, according to the Web site, “is to document and establish Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), as the universally recognized author of the works of William Shakespeare” (www.shakespeare-oxford.com). The Shakespeare Oxford Society has included the following pages to create their Web site:
A Beginner’s Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem o Intro to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem o Honor Roll of Skeptics o History of the Doubts surrounding the Stratfordian attribution o Why not Bacon, Marlowe, or Derby? o The Case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare” o A Comparison of Edward de Vere with “William Shakespeare”
Frequently Asked Questions o Why are there doubts about the authorship? o Haven’t previous generations been quite happy with the Stratford Man? o Does it really matter who the author is? o Can’t everything be explained by “genius?”
Miller 3 o Aren’t anti-Stratfordians and Oxfordians just “social snobs?” o What is the role of personal experience in writing? o How could Oxford be the author since some of the plays were written after 1604, the year he died? o Why haven’t the academic authorities accepted Oxford as the author? o What difference would it make to my appreciation of the plays?
About the Society
Authorship Information Directory
Authorship Petition to the SAA (Shakespeare Association of America)
2004 SOS (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Conference
In order to thoroughly analyze the site, I will work through the site pages to discuss how the society attempts to persuade their audience that Edward de Vere is in fact William Shakespeare. The analysis begins, naturally, at the home page. Rhetorically, the text displayed on the home page does not seem to be carefully chosen to appeal to a wide-ranging audience. The first line of the second paragraph reads, “We hope that even if you have never heard much about the authorship issue before, or, more likely, have heard only negative comments from academe, you will stay a few moments and look into what is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest mystery stories” (par 2). Interesting. The rhetoric of this line certainly does not give much credit to
Miller 4 discussion of the authorship controversy within the academic culture. The society discredits academic discussion on the topic not only through the blatant labeling of academic comments as “negative,” but also in the way the opening statement is set up. The way the sentence is read sounds as though knowledge of the topic through academe leaves a person just as inexpert as one that has no knowledge of the topic at all. Although the society continues to insult the intelligence of the audience later in the same paragraph, they do it in a way that creates urgency and necessity to understand the topic at hand. The society tells us that the Anglo-American life that many of us live in was derived from the Elizabethan era, and, according to Charles Burford, Society President 1995-1997, “"If you get Shakespeare wrong, you get the whole Elizabethan era wrong" (par 2). In other words, if we don’t believe Edward de Vere is the real William Shakespeare, we get our lives (derived from the Elizabethan era) wrong. To understand Edward de Vere as Shakespeare is to understand our own lives. Nice comparison. The home page offers a link within the text to the only page of the site that is not included in the conventional navigation – the Beginner’s Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem. This page, in my opinion, offers the most salient information pertaining to the authorship controversy found on the site, it’s a shame it is not more easily accessed. The page first attempts to introduce the reader to the dilemma. However, instead of actually discussing the facts of the controversy, this section is used more as a restatement of the purpose of the Web site and the society as a whole. The Society discusses “propositions” of the chosen view as opposed to explaining both sides, or the many sides, of the authorship controversy as a whole. Then, after the Society has again stated their beliefs on the topic, the following chunk of text explains the reason for the doubts, and hence the explanation to the past few hundred years of the authorship
Miller 5 controversy. Again, I give credit to the society for the rhetoric used to introduce the dilemma. The audience does not even learn of why the society does not believe the Stratford man is William Shakespeare before hearing, one more time, that Edward de Vere is the real Shakespeare. Instead of telling the audience of the controversy, and allowing them to make a decision themselves, the society first tells them what to believe, and then gives them a reason to believe it. I don’t think the order of explanation is accidental; it is an effectively used rhetorical tool. The last few sections of the page include a discussion on why Bacon, Marlowe, and/or Derby, other historical figures commonly named the chief attributer to the Shakespearian works, do not fit the bill, the case for why Edward de Vere is the chief attributer, and a comparison between the man known as William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere. Naturally, the opinionated rhetoric, intelligently intermingled with facts that reinforce the underlying message, make it difficult for any reader to believe that any man other than Edward de Vere could have possibly written the Shakespeare canon. This page, the Beginner’s Guide, offers the meat of the Society’s view of the authorship controversy. Convenient that it’s the Beginner’s Guide the controversy as a whole, isn’t it? The Beginner’s Guide page offers links to both a list of historical prominent figures that also did not believe the Stratford man was the real Shakespeare, as well as a timeline of the historical doubts surrounding the authorship. The list of names is, in my opinion, a brilliant rhetorical device used by the Society to sway their audience to, at the very least, consider their belief of the Shakespeare authorship. Some names on the list include come complete with quotes from the prominent figures including (but not limited to) Samuel Clemens, Charles Dickens,
Miller 6 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Sigmund Freud. Freud, for example, is quoted as saying, I no longer believe that... the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him. Since reading Shakespeare Identified by J. Thomas Looney, I am almost convinced that the assumed name conceals the personality of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford... The man of Stratford seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything. http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/skeptic.htm The Society also includes a short list of other notable historical names whom, although have not left a notable quote on the subject, are known as non-believers of the Stratford attribution as well. The names on the list include novelists, editors, historians, professors, drama critics, theater historians, famed scholars, syndicated columnists, publishers and doctors. So, again I applaud the Shakespeare Oxford Society for it’s intelligent use of rhetoric; if all of the historically notable people on the Skeptics List doubt the Stratford attribution, it certainly makes it easier for the reader doubt it as well. The timeline of doubts surrounding the authorship provides the history of the controversy anyone interested in the topic would want to browse through. The timeline provides proof of the length of the dilemma, motivating the audience to hop on the bandwagon of what is sure to continue to be a hot topic through their literary lives. Providing the timeline also, in my opinion, credits the ethos of the
Miller 7 society, showing they know the facts of the authorship dilemma – they are a legitimate gathering of people well versed on the topic. The next most salient page on the site is the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page. This page is loaded with information geared towards convincing the audience to believe in Edward de Vere as Shakespeare. For example, one FAQ reads, “How could Oxford be the author since some of the plays were written after 1604, the year he died?” Hmm. Not a bad question. The Society answers the question by explaining that there are many discrepancies in the actual dates of many of Shakespearian works, “there is considerable variety of opinion within the ranks of orthodox scholars regarding the actual dates of composition of many plays.” The society then illustrates an example of a few dated discrepancies to validate the claim. Other pages in the site include a bookstore/gift shop, which provide access to Shakespearian related items through both Amazon.com and the Blue Boar Shop, a bookstore owned and operated by the Shakespeare Oxford Society, a calendar of events, including seminars and conferences put together for the sole purpose to discuss the authorship controversy, a very thorough library of online articles and recommended readings, and a page full of links to related sites on the Web. The Society certainly does a nice job offering the audience access to more literature and information on the topic. Another question on this page is, “Why haven't the academic authorities accepted Oxford as the author?” Answer, “It would be too great a revolution in everything they believe. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect such a change from any group of scholars no matter how
Miller 8 honest and capable.” Not only interesting, but also convincing for those of us who understand the bullheadness of those with passionate beliefs. A small group of pages offer a wealth of information on the society itself. Users can learn more about the society by browsing through the about page, and can get a feel for how the society works by reading through their publications, the Ever Reader, the Oxfordian, and the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter online. After reading through the ethos builders that are the online publications, users can become members themselves through the online membership application form found on the membership link. If users still need information about the Society, they can locate additional ways to contact the society through the contact us page. The last few online offerings from the Shakespeare Oxford Society include an Authorship Information Directory, complete with names and addresses of other organizations and individuals involved in pertinent research, an online form for a petition from the Society to the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) “to engage actively in a comprehensive, objective and sustained investigation of the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon, particularly as it relates to the claim of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford,” and a page detailing information regarding the 2004 Shakespeare Oxford Society annual conference. I learned a lot about the Shakespeare authorship controversy while conducting research for this paper. Considering I have never heard of the dilemma prior to class this summer, I now consider myself fairly well versed on the topic. Although there have been, and continue to be many different men some attribute to the Shakespearian works, Edward de Vere is the current front-runner of many
Miller 9 non-believers. I’ll be honest, of the many pro Edward de Vere Web sites online, I chose the Shakespeare Oxford Society site because, at first glance (after deeming it a legitimate source), the site did not seem to be put together as well as the others. The design of the site, as well as the fact that the user has to search for the most salient page, the Beginner’s Guide, pushed it down the totem pole for me at the start of the project. However, after a thorough analysis of the site, including rhetorical methods and information provided, I conclude the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s Web site to be an educational, persuasive media outlet – it just needs a little design upgrade.
Miller 10 Works Cited Shakespeare Oxford Society. 22 May 2004. 20 July 2004. http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/index.htm