THE question of who was the real Shakespeare has arisen with embarrassing frequency for those who adhere to the Stratford man. In fact, three Supreme Court justices, busy as they are, took time off their schedules to pass informal judgment on the question. They didn't quite decide for the Earl of Oxford, but they did not leave the Stratford man quite clear. In effect, they said, ``There's something fishy here, but if someone else did write the plays and poems, the Earl of Oxford seems to be the best candidate.''
The Stratford myth will prevail for a long time to come, for two reasons. You just can't demolish the touristic importance of Stratford. Next to London, it must be the second-largest source of foreign exchange for England.
The other reason is that all of the English departments of the major universities are committed to the Stratford man. His name wasn't Shakespeare. It was Shaksper, Shagsper, or Shaxper, whichever signature you prefer.
That's all we have of his writing: six signatures that seem like the scrawls of an illiterate man. Nothing else; not a single letter, not a single clue that he might have been a writer.
His parents were illiterate, his daughters, too. In his will he enumerates every single object he owns down to pots and pans, but not a single book, not a single manuscript, not a single claim of ownership in the theater. No evidence he ever went to school. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that there was even a school in the backwater village of Stratford.
If Oxford was the real Shakespeare, why didn't he put his name to his plays? He couldn't. As a lord and a leading member of the court, he was forbidden to append his name. As a youth, he did add his initials E.O. to some poems. For this he had his ears pinned back and was banished from the court for a certain period.
There's another reason, too. His plays are filled with allusions to the Queen, to court intrigues, to political events.
This was the period of greatest censorship in the history of England, all strictly controlled by Oxford's father-in-law, Lord Burghley, who incidentally was lampooned as Polonius in ``Hamlet.'' Only two presses were allowed - in London - plus a press in each of the two universities. All presses were tightly controlled. For state reasons but also for personal reasons, Burghley wanted to bury Oxford's writings.
How did the Stratford Shaksper get into the act? Purely by chance at first; later by design. Remember, Oxford had been expunged from all records. In 1680 a John Aubrey, a shiftless, worthless person, wrote that Mr. William Shakespeare had been born in Stratford. And so began the myth that Henry James called ``the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.''
In the next century, in 1769, there was a three-day jubilee to whoop it up for Stratford.
The celebrated actor David Garrick, who led things off, implied that the Stratford Shaksper was a great writer. The Stratford attribution had begun. It didn't make sense. There were no tangible facts to support it. But somehow it got started.
Almost from the very beginning many people of integrity questioned the Stratford myth: Emerson, Whitman, Whittier, Henry James, Mark Twain in our country; elsewhere, Freud, Bismarck, Lord Palmerston, deGaulle, to name a few.
How did the name Shakespeare arise? At first, Oxford wrote anonymously. But his plays were so pirated and mangled that in 1593, he began to use the pseudonym Shakespeare in some cases; Shake-speare in others. One of his family titles was Lord Bulbeck, and thus his coat of arms shows a spear. Besides, he was one of England's outstanding jousters. ``Shakespeare'' was a natural nom de plume.
Later on, to make the subterfuge more plausible - since there was a Shaksper in London (our Stratford man had left Stratford to find work there) and in order to take the politically dangerous authorship from Oxford, arrangements were apparently made to make believe Shaksper had written the plays.
Since it would have been patently impossible for Shaksper to have written anything, he was paid off to go back to his backwater village. That's how in 1597 he got the money to buy the large house shown to tourists, New Place. There is not a scintilla of evidence that he wrote anything in Stratford or in London. When he died, his son-in-law merely wrote in his diary, ``My father-in-law passed away today.''
Did anyone know Oxford was the real writer? Oh, the court people knew. But there was a deep chasm between the elite and the common people. Fellow writers knew and probably some actors, but these did not dare to go against the court's edict. When Oxford died, though, James I had seven of his plays presented at court as acknowledgment of his authorship.
What about Ben Jonson's phrase ``Sweet Bard of Avon''? Jonson had his tongue in his cheek. He lent himself to the cover-up. He knew Oxford had a place on the Avon. Technically he was correct.
The Stratford hoax is the greatest one in history. It becomes a matter of moral justice to make sure the real author is given the credit. But more so, when one reads Shakespeare, with Oxford in mind as the author, one can appreciate him better and understand the hundreds of allusions. And one gets a vivid picture of history as it was being made in England, in France, in the Netherlands, in Italy, and even in Raleigh's colony in America.
Let's really understand and enjoy Shakespeare, the true one: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
The author is chancellor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J.