As a break from quarrels about consciousness, religion, and other weighty topics, here's a post that originally appeared on this site on January 29, 2006. I've updated some of the links and made a few minor changes in the wording. For my other posts on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, click here.
A fascinating article appears in the latest edition of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, a publication of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, which seeks to prove that Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, was the actual author of the works attributed to the man from Stratford. The essay, by Robert R. Prechter, Jr., is entitled "Might Edward de Vere Have Suffered from Alcoholism?" (The essay is online here.) Since Oxfordians believe that de Vere was Shakespeare, this question is tantamount to asking if the most famous author in English literature was an alcoholic.
On its surface, the idea might seem absurd. As Prechter points out, many people assume that no high-achieving individual could possibly suffer from an addiction to drink. But, as he goes on to say, this belief "is not just false, but backward.... One of the behavioral signs in early and middle-stage alcoholism is a drive for extreme achievement.... Not only can most alcoholics function, but many of them, in some ways, perform better than the rest of us."
Citing alcoholism researcher Doug Thorburn as his main source, Prechter lists a number of famous, high achieving people who were known for an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Beethoven, John Lennon, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, e.e. cummings, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker ... and the list goes on. At the end of this section, Prechter concludes, "One may certainly wish to argue against de Vere's having alcoholism, but his prodigious achievement in the arts is not good evidence to the contrary."
There is certainly reason to suspect that de Vere had trouble with liquor. His personal life was a mess. His first marriage devolved into a shambles; he became estranged from his wife for years after being convinced that the daughter she had borne him was illegitimate. He expended stupendous sums on travel and entertainment and prodigious feats of charity, depleting his once vast estate, and eventually had to depend on lavish government subsidies to maintain his lifestyle. His investments generally took the form of high stakes gambles that rarely paid off. And like many alcoholics, he was prone to angry fits of tempers and even violence. He once killed a man in a street brawl. On more than one occasion he alienated the Queen by disobeying her commands, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for several months.
If he was Shakespeare, then he could be almost unconscionably cruel; some of the Bard's buffoonish characters are clearly parodies of de Vere's rivals at court, depicted in the most humiliating possible terms. Prechter asks, "Who among us would want to be lampooned as was Malvolio in front of our eyes and those of everyone in town?... How many non-alcoholics craft such detailed humiliations of others? On the other hand, some alcoholics, such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson, were expert at doing so."
Indeed, the portrait of Malvolio in Twelfth Night may be one of the cruelest examples of literary revenge in history. Oxfordians believe that Malvolio was based on the courtier Christopher Hatton, a man of modest origins who had risen in Queen Elizabeth's favor. Malvolio, whose very name translates into something like "ill will," is depicted as a social-climbing oaf, an overreaching servant who imagines that he can woo his aristocratic mistress and who is utterly humiliated in the process.
If the play, or some early version of it, was performed at court for the entertainment of the Queen and her hangers-on, then Hatton would have had the excruciatingly uncomfortable experience of seeing himself ridiculed unmercifully in front of all his friends and colleagues, while de Vere presumably chortled with amusement. It is certainly possible that a non-alcoholic could come up with such punishment for an adversary, but a man "in his cups" might seem more likely to carry through on the project.
Prechter notes that Shakespeare's works often feature the tavern as their setting. One of Shakespeare's most distinctive characters is Falstaff, who is perpetually intoxicated. Prechter notes, "He even casts Prince Hal, the obvious de Vere figure in the Henry IV plays, as a smart, affable carouser who will rise heroically to the occasion when the time comes for him to reign."
Another possible indication of Shakespeare/de Vere's alcoholism is the sheer vividness and verve of his writing, the remarkably sustained explorations of intense emotional states, the almost giddy wordplay with its inexhaustible variety and inventiveness, the rash of metaphors and similes constantly spouting from his pen, sometimes in such quick succession that their meaning becomes difficult to follow even on the printed page, let alone in the theater. Much of Shakespeare's work gives the impression of having been written at white heat, in a kind of fit of creativity, a passionate state of rapture and self-absorption. At the very least, this type of writing is not inconsistent with the wildly overflowing output of the high-achieving alcoholic.
As Prechter says, "De Vere's writing is so noble, so insightful, so passionate, that he stirs us to the zenith of our emotions. But then again, that's what peak-performing alcoholics do best: they win people over and make us love them. Although their personal lives exasperate us, we excuse their behavior because we are infatuated. We love Marilyn. We love Sinatra. We love Lennon. We love Elvis. We love Shakespeare. Non-alcoholics do not generally inspire idolization, but alcoholics do, all the time."