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Unlocking Shakespeare's sonnets


April 19, 2009


Mail Tribune

What Hank Whittemore had in mind was an entertaining little play that would provide a new framework for understanding Shakespeare's sonnets. And his identity. In 90 minutes.

Meet "Shake-speare's Treason." It's a one-man show in which Whittemore, a New York actor and writer, dramatizes the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote not only the Bard's dramatic canon but the sonnets, those 154 little enigmas wrapped in riddles that give fits even to those who know and love the plays.

Whittemore will present "Shake-speare's Treason" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Carpenter Hall on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus in Ashland. Tickets are $10 at The Music Coop in Ashland (482-3115). It's a ripping tale of murder, treason, hangings, bastardy, love, betrayal and danger.

"In the library there's history, and there's literature and drama," Whittemore says in a phone interview from his home in New York. "When you go in literature there's men in tights at the Globe and all that and it's wonderful. Go to the history side and there's torture, a war with Spain, religious wars, spies and counter-spies and darkness and danger.

"The two worlds never got together. In the history department Shakespeare is a disembodied voice. It never says he had a cup of coffee with somebody. I'm hoping to reunite the history and drama departments."

WARNING. We interrupt this narrative for some background: The orthodox view of what's called "the authorship question" is that Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford-Upon-Avon went to London, fell in with actors, became one himself and produced what became known as the works of Shakespeare. Many have pointed out that there is surprisingly little evidence for this, from Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud to Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London. For nearly a century, the leading non-orthodox candidate for authorship has been Oxford, a nobleman who moved in the highest circles and whose life abounds in parallels with the Shakespeare plays.


As a young actor, Whittemore, 67, worked with Helen Hayes and Art Carney on Broadway. He worked in television, including soaps, married, worked as a reporter in New York, wrote 10 books, many TV documentaries and 100 covers for Parade magazine. About 20 years ago he came back to Shakespeare.

"I always thought he was an actor who wrote," he says. "I walked the river for years spouting Hamlet's soliloquies. I fell in love with a guy second to the crown, Prince Hamlet, who would rather be with the players than royalty."

When he was introduced to Oxford it was like discovering a new intellectual continent.

"The first thing I saw was that he got stopped by pirates in the English Channel — twice — just like Hamlet. I thought, 'Shakespeare must have heard of Oxford.' Then it went on, and Oxford's wife sounded like Desdemona, and it grew ..."

Whittemore became an Oxfordian, eventually spending a decade writing "The Monument," a 900-page book that argues that the sonnets are written in a "double image" with politically correct if cryptic sentiments on the surface and a dangerous record of the intrigue at their core (see or

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the sonnets by Thomas Thorpe under the title "Shake-speares Sonnets," a sequence of poems inspired by a fair youth and a mysterious dark lady. Their story, like so much about Shakspere, is disturbingly vague. Experts have long thought that Thorpe acquired the manuscript from someone other than Gulielmus Shakspere. Whittemore believes he's identified the youth and the lady.

The show had its world premiere in Portland last summer and has since been performed at the New Globe Theatre in England, at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge and in New York City.

Whitemore's eureka moment came in the fall of 1998 in San Francisco at a conference, not in a could-be-this, could-be-that sort of way but in a slap-your-forehead, now-it-all-fits kind of way.

"Nobody's gonna believe this," he thought.

He says the sonnets use a special language to tell the story of a young prince Oxford wanted to immortalize. But for political reasons he had to write on two levels, so he compressed his subject matter and built a vocabulary around it. Oxford even talks about this in Sonnet 76, in which he says "That every word doth almost tell my name," and, "So all my best is dressing old words new."

No spoilers here. Let's just say Whittemore's theory is one of those Big Thoughts that, if you embrace it, seems to clear up a lot of mystery. It also speaks to maybe the biggest weakness in the whole Oxfordian case: that Oxfordians don't have a story to put up against the powerful Stratfordian story of the poor boy from Stratford who goes to London and makes good.

Until now.

"Suddenly," he says, "it all opened up."

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