Justice Stevens Renders an Opinion on Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays

It Wasn't the Bard of Avon, He Says; 'Evidence Is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt'

From The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2009


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.

This puts much of the court squarely outside mainstream academic opinion, which equates denial of Shakespeare's authorship with the Flat Earth Society.

"Oh my," said Coppelia Kahn, president of the Shakespeare Association of America and professor of English at Brown University, when informed of Justice Stevens's cause. "Nobody gives any credence to these arguments," she says.

Nonetheless, since the 19th century, some have argued that only a nobleman could have produced writings so replete with intimate depictions of courtly life and exotic settings far beyond England. Dabbling in entertainments was considered undignified, the theory goes, so the author laundered his works through Shakespeare, a member of the Globe Theater's acting troupe.

Over the years, various candidates have attracted prominent supporters. Mark Twain is said to have favored Sir Francis Bacon. Malcolm X preferred King James I. De Vere first was advanced in 1918 by an English schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney. More recently, thanks in part to aggressive lobbying by a contemporary descendant, Charles Vere, Oxford has emerged as a leading alternate author.

The bow-tied, 88-year-old Justice Stevens, who often leads the court's liberal wing, says he became especially interested in Shakespeare when he attended the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, where a replica Globe Theater presented many of the plays. Justice Stevens's father ran the restaurant concession nearby.

Justice Stevens didn't start thinking about the authorship question, though, until 1987, when he joined Justices William Brennan and Harry Blackmun in a mock trial on authorship.

The panel found insufficient evidence to prove de Vere's claim. Justice Brennan vigorously rejected many Oxfordian premises, finding that "the historical William Shakespeare was not such an ignorant butcher's boy as he has been made out." It was a closer call for the other two justices.

"Right after the argument, both Harry and I got more interested in it," Justice Stevens says. 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?"

Shakespeare's Court

The Supreme Court on the likely author of Shakespeare's plays:
Active Justices
Roberts, Chief Justice
No comment.
"No idea."
No comment.
"No informed views."*
No comment.
*Justice Ginsburg suggests research into alternate candidate, Florio.
Retired Justices
Not Stratford

Not all members of the court are persuaded. "To the extent I've dipped in, I'm not impressed with the Oxfordian theory," says Justice Anthony Kennedy. The spread of Oxfordianism on the court "shows Justice Stevens's power and influence," Justice Kennedy says. Of the nine active justices, only Stephen Breyer joins Justice Kennedy in sticking up for Will. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito declined to comment.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired in 2006, cast the court's deciding vote many times. On Shakespeare, she says, "I'm not going to jump into this and be decisive."

According to Justice Stevens, "Sandra is persuaded that it definitely was not Shakespeare" and "it's more likely de Vere than any other candidate." Pressed, Justice O'Connor says, "It might well have been someone other than our Stratford man."

Justice Stevens admits there's a "fringe" element of anti-Shakespearians who spin elaborate but unlikely theories. "I think that's one of the things that hurts the cause -- and the fact that the guy who first came up with de Vere was named Looney," he says.

On the other hand, "a lot of people like to think its Shakespeare because...they like to think that a commoner can be such a brilliant writer," he says. "Even though there is no Santa Claus, it's still a wonderful myth."

On this issue, Justice Stevens sees eye to eye with his frequent conservative antagonist, Antonin Scalia, who says that as a child he received a monograph propounding de Vere's cause from a family friend.

"My wife, who is a much better expert in literature than I am, has berated me," says Justice Scalia. "She thinks we Oxfordians are motivated by the fact that we can't believe that a commoner could have done something like this, you know, it's an aristocratic tendency."

Stevens on Shakespeare

In a law review article in 1992, Justice Stevens mused on the "Shakespeare canon of statutory construction." (Reproduced with permission.)
In 2002, he addressed "section 43(A)" of the Shakespeare canon.

Where It Began

Watch Justices Stevens, Brennan and Blackmun's 1987 Shakespeare trial, as recorded by C-SPAN.

Justice Scalia prefers to turn the tables.
"It is probably more likely that the pro-Shakespearean people are affected by a democratic bias than the Oxfordians are affected by an aristocratic bias," he says.

Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg say they're not sure who wrote the plays. Justice Ginsburg, however, provided a March email from her daughter Jane, a law professor currently in Rome. Jane Ginsburg wrote she recently saw an Italian television program postulating that "Shakespeare was Sicilian and Jewish, sort of."

Justice Stevens can indulge his love of the Bard at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a block from the Supreme Court. He says he had a particular brainstorm after learning the library held a Bible that once belonged to de Vere.

"In two of the plays Shakespeare has an incident using the bed trick, in which the man is not aware of the identity of the woman he's sleeping with," Justice Stevens says, referring to "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Measure for Measure." "And there's an incident in the Old Testament where the same event allegedly occurred."

Justice Stevens says he reasoned that if de Vere had borrowed the escapade from his Bible, "he would have underlined those portions of it. So I went over once to ask them to dig out the Bible."

Unfortunately, the passage involving the substitution of Leah for Rachel in Jacob's bed, Genesis 29:23, was not marked. "I really thought I might have stumbled onto something that would be a very strong coincidence," Justice Stevens says. "But it did not develop at all."

Justice Stevens's clerks sometimes find themselves drawn into the debate. Deborah Pearlstein, now a human-rights scholar at Princeton, says the justice was intrigued by her undergraduate study of French-language Shakespeare productions, and asked her to help edit an essay on the authorship dispute.

"It was just great fun," says Ms. Pearlstein. To her, however, the authorship evidence is inconclusive. Besides, "coming off a college education in postmodern literary theory, I was mildly troubled by the 'who-shot-John?' interest in who the real Shakespeare was," she says. "My view is that the work stands on own."

Justice Stevens doesn't disagree. Even if he were proved wrong, he says, "I've had much more serious disappointments in this job than that one."