Edward de Vere and the Ur-Shakespeare

The young Edward de Vere

One thing which knowing about de Vere’s authorship of the plays reveals is the way ‘Shakespeare’ uses his own experiences to create art. Previously it was thought that the plays were entirely fictitious retellings of old stories, but now it has become clear that many of the dramatic events which happen in the lives of his characters were inspired by events in his own life.  

De Vere rejected his young wife and was estranged from her for more than five years. He seems to have believed that their first child was fathered by another man – an accusation that turned out to be false, and may well have resulted from poisonous rumours whispered in his ear by some Iago – we don’t know for sure. These five years saw him living in Venice, traveling in Italy and France, and returning to Court a changed man. This was the point in his life when he threw himself into disastrous affairs and feuds, as well as into creating the public theatre for which Elizabeth had given the go-ahead (much to the concern of the Church and the Reformation faction in politics (Polonius, representing William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the chief adviser to the Crown i.e. the most powerful man in England). De Vere eventually reconciled with his wife, with whom he had two more daughters (yes, making three) – but not before he had managed to get himself locked up in the Tower and then banished from Court.

Hamlet, you see, married Ophelia – who equates to Ann Cecil, the daughter of de Vere’s guardian (William Cecil). Probably through no fault of her own (look at Ophelia and Desdemona – neither character would ever hurt anyone) he seems to have wanted to do to her what Othello did to Desdemona. In reading Hamlet we can guess that at some point de Vere feared he had destroyed her without meaning to. 

It’s the identification of Polonius with Cecil which completely seals de Vere’s authorship, by the way. This idea that this is a satirical portrayal of William Cecil is widely agreed upon, and in fact proven by the discovery of Cecil’s ‘Precepts’, his own pretentious, sententious aphorisms about life, morality, money, etc, etc. Polonius’s advice to Laertes is lifted and versified straight from the Precepts – and this is long before Cecil had them published. Whoever wrote this play had access, in other words, to Cecil’s private papers and/or deathly-boring conversation, neither of which would apply to Gulielmus Shakspere (i.e., Jacques-Pierre) of Stratford. 

De Vere, on the other hand, was brought up in Cecil’s household as a Royal Ward of Court, after his father died when he was twelve. (There’s no indication, by the way, that de Vere’s own father was murdered. His mother did remarry fairly soon afterwards, but not indecently so – more like two years than two months.)

Growing up at Court, de Vere was a royal favourite to the degree that the Queen became like a mother-figure to him. There were also strong rumours, persisting today, that the young Earl had been her lover for a time (which may explain some of Hamlet’s sexual confusion in the play). From an early age, de Vere, like Hamlet, burned bright at Court – a puckish devisor of Court entertainments (i.e. masques and plays for the Winter, Spring and Summer Revels, mainly held at Hampton Court or ‘Avon’, the old name for the place where it was built), a wonderful dancer, a champion jouster, and of course a poet. He had everything. But from his late teens he is known to have become increasingly volatile and embattled, openly defying the Queen in ways which verged on treason. In his wildest period, his late twenties and early thirties, he would be locked up or placed under house arrest more than once, dragged back from France under severe penalty (by two ‘Gentlemen Pensioners’, challenged several times to fight duels, and, finally, banished indefinitely from Court, though he was accepted back after two years (in 1583) and given a huge salary, for what we don’t know. 

He had been in financial difficulties throughout his adult life, right from the moment he inherited more debt than wealth from his father. He was also over-generous and flamboyant with money, (unlike the litigious ‘Scrooge of Stratford’), borrowing recklessly in Italy and selling land hand-over-fist on his return. Once banished from Court, with other avenues closed off to him, he seems to have devoted himself seriously to writing and to establishing and defending the nascent English theatre, though he was still embroiled in the ripples of the scandals which had led to his banishment, and was seriously wounded in one of a series of street fights in and around Blackfriars, where he was trying to establish an indoor theatre. De Vere is a seriously fascinating figure by any account. Not so much William Shakespeare as Lord fucking Byron (but who lived long enough to really get his shit together on the writing side). 

The 1590s, and through to his death in 1604 – the period we have taken to be William Shakespeare in his twenties and thirties – is really de Vere in his maturity: his forties and early fifties, with more than twenty years of anonymous and pseudonymous theatrical writing behind him. These are not the outpourings of an implausible young genius – they are the work of a mature writer at the height of his powers, revising, perfecting and expanding his own earlier works, as well as writing new plays and poems, and publishing them under a defiant pseudonym. The sonnets are from later, after the failed Essex plot aimed at deposing the tyrant-in-all-but-name, Robert Cecil, son of William and inheritor of his offices and power. These years are also the years of de Vere’s great enmity with his brother-in-law Cecil, the Machiavelli who provides the twisted outline for a number of Shakespeare’s immortal villains, most notably Richard III. 

Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice – all of these great plays incorporate experiences, conflicts, atmospheres and settings from de Vere’s own life. Above all they immortalise his intense loves and hates. Hamlet may de Vere’s most personal play; it incorporates his most vulnerable self-portrait. His early work is histories and comedies – he was especially renowned for comedy in the eighties – and whatever its precise dating Hamlet must come in a middle period when he was experimenting with combining genres and moods in very original ways, for instance in Romeo and Juliet. I would put Hamlet at some point after his reconciliation with Ann in 1581, judging by the portrayal of Ophelia. At this point he was 31. Hamlet is 30. We know the play was famous by 1589, because there are contemporary references which make this clear. I think Hamlet is the result of de Vere’s accumulated experiences from his teenage years onwards, but especially of the years of turmoil that seem to have engulfed his late twenties after his return from Italy in 1576. In many ways it’s an outpouring of hate, especially for Claudius, or Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s lover during this period, with whom de Vere had a libellous feud which resulted in the legal restraint of the younger Earl – and for Elizabeth, and the entire Cecil family – but also for himself.

If you need any more convincing that de Vere is Hamlet, he also got kidnapped by pirates on his way back from Italy. Oh, and accidentally killed a man while fencing. If William Shakespeare of Stratford did write this play, he was somehow channelling everything that happened to de Vere. 

De Vere probably began writing Hamlet in the early or mid-eighties, but continued to revisit the play throughout his life, with the final expanded ‘literary’ version appearing in the year of his death, 1604.  From this we deduce that the play meant a lot to him – just as much as it has meant to its readers over the centuries. 

How could it be otherwise?

By the way, William Shakespeare of Stratford would have been twenty-five years old in 1589, and was not even in London yet. Nobody thinks he could have written Hamlet at this point in his life even if he was a writer – Hamlet is quite clearly not anyone’s early work – and so the conventional academics make up story about someone else writing a hit play of Hamlet, with a ghost in it, and then along comes William Shakespeare ten years later and plagiarizes it. They call this entirely hypothetical play ‘the Ur-Hamlet’.


The Ur-Hamlet… ‘Ur’: a prefix used by historians to denote a ridiculous ad hoc hypothesis used to justify an untenable orthodoxy.

Tell you what, I think William of Stratford was the Ur-Shakespeare.

Yes, I like that. I’ve been wondering how to distinguish him from the real Shakespeare and I think that’s the answer. 

He sure as hell didn’t write no Hamlet. 

On the one hand, you have Edward de Vere @#realShakespeare.

And on the other, William of Stratford, the Ur-Shakespeare. 

And who wrote Hamlet?

Hamlet did. 


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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