In his 34 years on the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens has evolved from idiosyncratic dissenter to influential elder, able to assemble majorities on issues such as war powers and property rights. Now, the court’s senior justice could be gaining ground on a case that dates back 400 years: the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.
Justice Stevens, who dropped out of graduate study in English to join the Navy in 1941, is an Oxfordian — that is, he believes the works ascribed to William Shakespeare actually were written by the 17th earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Several justices across the court’s ideological spectrum say he may be right.
In a visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, Justice Stevens observed that the purported playwright left no books, nor letters or other records of a literary presence.
“Where are the books? You can’t be a scholar of that depth and not have any books in your home,” Justice Stevens says. “He never had any correspondence with his contemporaries, he never was shown to be present at any major event — the coronation of James or any of that stuff. I think the evidence that he was not the author is beyond a reasonable doubt.”
All signs pointed to de Vere. Justice Stevens mentions that Lord Burghley, guardian of the young de Vere, is generally accepted as the model for the courtier Polonius in “Hamlet.” “Burghley was the No. 1 adviser to the queen,” says the justice. “De Vere married [Burghley's] daughter, which fits in with Hamlet marrying Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia.”
Shakespeare dedicated two narrative poems to the earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, “who also was a ward of Lord Burghley and grew up in the same household,” Justice Stevens says. “The coincidence…is really quite remarkable.” He asks, “Why in the world would William Shakespeare, the guy from Stratford, be dedicating these works to this nobleman?
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- for the record, George Will is one of the biggest pricks working in media today, and recently wrote a jeremiad against the practice of wearing denim. According to Mr. Will, only working class folk should wear jeans, middle class folk and higher society should dress as if they were in an Edith Wharton production [↩]