1996 de Vere Bible Research Update

A special seminar at the 1996 annual SOS Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul provided Conference attendees with a long-anticipated opportunity for a detailed update on work-in-progress on the hand-written annotations in the Edward de Vere Geneva Bible. Co-sponsored by the Plymouth Congregational Church and the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum, the seminar featured slides of the de Vere Bible and lectures by Mark Anderson and Roger Stritmatter.

The Bible, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., was first discovered in 1991 by SOS members Dr. Paul Nelson and Isabel Holden. It has been carefully studied by Roger Stritmatter, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for five years. The discovery has been featured in several news articles in the U.S., Germany and Italy, and Stritmatter was interviewed for the 1992 GTE authorship teleconference organized by Gary Goldstein and John Mucci. As one further step in bringing the light of twentieth-century technology to bear on the “fine mystery” (in the words of Charles Dickens) of the authorship controversy, Stritmatter and Anderson spoke for about two hours, to eighty listeners, illustrating their points with slides of the annotated Bible and other illustrations.

Drawn largely from material Stritmatter is preparing for his proposed PhD dissertation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the work will also be featured in Anderson and Stritmatter’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Prospero’s Bible: The Shakespeare Mystery Resolved. The book will consider for the first time, in detail, why the evidence contained in the de Vere Bible is the humanist equivalent of DNA evidence in a murder trial. “We are here to try Edward de Vere on the charge of having written Hamlet and the other works of Shakespeare” said Stritmatter. “As Joe Sobran recently wrote, de Vere is ‘guilty as sin.’ Today, we hope to show you the equivalent of the DNA evidence in the case against him.”

As many readers know, since 1925 the Folger Shakespeare Library has held in its vaults a hand-annotated 1570 Bible originally owned by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. The Bible is a copy of the second edition of the “Geneva” translation prepared from 1550-68 by Protestants in exile from Mary’s counter-reformationist government.

As reported previously in these pages (Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, Spring 1992), the marginalia (consisting of about 1000 underlined or marked verses and about forty brief marginal notes) exhibit a striking correspondence to the Bible verses and themes found in Shakespeare. The case for just how striking that correspondence is, however, has yet to have its day in court. Stritmatter and Anderson began their presentation by answering the current crop of de Vere Bible naysayers and detractors -most notably the Folger Library itself, the Smithsonian Magazine, and Iona College’s Shakespeare Newsletter, which have all claimed that the de Vere Bible annotations were made by someone other than de Vere!

As unlikely as such a proposal might seem, it was not only proposed in the Folger’s Roasting the Swan of Avon pamphlet (1993), edited by the former President of the Shakespeare Association of America Bruce Smith -but swiftly endorsed (as if by institutional osmosis) by the Smithsonian and The Shakespeare Newsletter (summer 1995). The Bible, declared the April 1995 Smithsonian with more than a touch of hubris, had “proved a false alarm.”

Before getting into some of the particulars of the connections between the de Vere Bible annotations and Shakespeare, Stritmatter and Anderson set the record straight concerning this phantom annotator. In 1570 the Court of Wards purchased for Edward de Vere a number of books recorded in extant accounts as follows:

“To William Seres, stationer, for a Geneva Bible gilt, a Chaucer, Plutarch’s works in French, and other books and papers..2L, 7S, 10 d” (Ward 1928, 33).

The Folger 1570 Geneva Bible fits the above description. Furthermore, the marroon velvet binding bears silver centerplates engraved with de Vere’s heraldic arms: the rampant boar on the front and the quartered sheild with the sinistral star on the obverse. These facts alone, before one begins to examine the handwriting in the book, are sufficient to establish de Vere’s original ownership of the Bible. As luck would have it, this is almost certainly the same book described in the Court of Wards record.

Enclosed within the sumptuous heraldic binding with the de Vere arms are actually three distinct books, originally published separately, and bound for the purchaser by a London stationer, perhaps the same William Seres (or an associate) named in the Court record: a 1570 Old Testament, a 1568 New Testament, and a 1569 edition of the psalms set to music -a copy of the so- called Sternhold & Hopkins Metrical Psalms- all of which contain annotations in the same fine 16th-century italic handwriting.

Many of these notes, written in the Bible’s margins, have been cropped by a binder’s knife. It was this circumstance which led Bruce Smith, in the Folger pamphlet, to the bizzare conclusion that the Bible had been annotated before Oxford acquired it. Presumably, Smith reasoned that since the Bible was bound with Oxford’s heraldic arms, and since it would have been cropped preparatory to the original binding process, the annotations must have been in the Bible before it was bound for Oxford.

Of course, as Stritmatter explained, Smith apparently never paused to consider the circumstances his scenario requires. Before examining what did happen, let’s take a glance at what Smith, the Folger Library, and the Smithsonian assume must have happened according to their theory: In the first weeks of 1570 our phantom annotator acquires the unbound (and uncut) broadsheets of the Bible and proceeds to mark them up with over one thousand underlinings and marginal notes distributed in fifty-eight books of the Bible. Within less than six months, he resells these used and marked sheets to the London Stationer and Bookbinder William Seres, who crops, binds and resells the book to the Earl of Oxford at the standard rate for a new Bible.

Seres’ notoriously literary and spendthrift customer doesn’t blink when handed a vandalized Bible. Instead, he shells out several pounds for an expensive, customized binding in royal crimson velvet, adorned with delicately engraved silver clasps, cornerplates, and centerplates bearing his coat of arms; he proceeds to cherish this book for the next thirty years of his life without making any of his own annotations in it.

Flashforward four hundred years..the apparent congruence between these annotations and Shakespeare’s biblical references is coincidental -or was the phantom annotator the five year old William Shaksper of Stratford?

Needless to say, this scenario is not only implausible but also, it turns out, superfluous. Smith suppressed unambiguous evidence of the Bible’s 18th-20th century spine replacement (called “rebacking”). As any antiquarian book lover can tell you, binders customarily trim the loose margins of a book when rebacking or otherwise rebinding it. Quite probably, given its age, the book has been repaired two or three times; that it has been rebacked at least once is all too obvious. And, finally, our phantom annotator just happens to have handwriting which is remarkably, if not indistinguishably, similar to Edward de Vere’s! In the Plymouth Church talk, Anderson demonstrated the annotator’s identity with Oxford by using slides showing details of the annotator’s hand compared both to Oxford’s and to those of his fellow writers who possessed similar stylistic traits. These slides are part of a study-in-progress which will prove that the annotator was indeed Oxford.

“Our explanation for the cropped annotations is simple,” declares Anderson. “Oxford bought the Bible in the same year it was printed, as the original purchase order shows; he had the Bible bound for him, and subsequently made notes in it -those we are studying today. Some of those notes were cropped when the Bible was rebound during the next three centuries. No reasonable person in possession of the facts of the case could conclude otherwise.”

“Some folks have asked,” continued Anderson, “why don’t you just go out and hire a handwriting expert?” Handwriting analysis, he explained, is a complicated field strewn with minefields, sometimes planted by Stratfordian pundits. Some so-called paleographers are dealers in manuscripts who trade on their “expertise” for personal prestige by reaching conclusions profitable to their clients. Some readers may be aware, for instance, of the 1985 book, In Search of Shakespeare, by the New York manuscript and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton, which reveals to the world that the same person responsible for the six well- known “Shaksper” signatures, also wrote the Shakespeare will. In a later book, Mr. Hamilton, having quite a bit of fun with the naive susceptibilities of his readers, announced that the recently rediscovered manuscript of the pseudo-Shakespearean play, Cardenio, was also in the Bard’s evanescent hand.

Under such circumstances, Stritmatter and Anderson have understandably approached possible “experts” with some circumspection.

“Before laying ourselves at the mercy of paleographers whose professional judgement might be contaminated by Stratfordian loyalties of one kind or another, we wanted to educate ourselves so that we understand the technical aspects of the field. We want to be informed collaborators, not just paying customers, in the paleographical investigation of the Bible,” explained Stritmatter. Handwriting samples Mark Anderson’s analysis of the annotator’s handwriting (top) with both Oxford’s (second row) and other samples from the period (third row is Lyly, fourth row is Peele) indicate the strong, unmistakable parallels between Oxford and the annotator. “In the process,” he continued, “we’ve pushed the state of the art in Elizabethan paleography.”

Anderson’s computer-assisted methodology is pioneering advancements in paleographical technique which should earn the respect and assent of the best professional paleographers and demonstrate unequivocally that the annotator of the Bible was Edward de Vere. “Although this work is still in progress,” he concluded, “all work to date confirms that the hand of the annotator shares numerous idiosyncratic characteristics with Oxford’s accepted handwriting.”

This conclusion -that de Vere was the annotator- is what Stritmatter and Anderson call the minor premise of the syllogism of the de Vere Bible. Despite claims to the contrary, this minor premise is all but unassailable, and remains so with every new development in the paleographical investigation. Undoubtedly, those troubled with the implications of the study will unearth new “refutations” in the months to come.

As things stand in 1996, however, the minor premise has generated the most heat. Accordingly it received more attention than might otherwise be expected in the Plymouth Church presentation.

As the researchers continue to buttress the minor premise through further study and professional consultation, they express hope that critics, supporters and -most important- the public at large will be drawn to the centerpiece of their argument, that the Earl of Oxford’s 1570 Geneva Bible not only confirms that Oxford wrote under the pen-name “Shake-Speare,” but also teaches us how to be better readers of his work.

Of the more than one thousand marked passages in the Bible, nearly a quarter turn up as direct references in Shakespeare, and many more have reverberating thematic resonance within the canon. About a hundred of these references can be found in the work of previous scholars of Shakespeare’s Biblical knowledge, such as Richmond Noble (1935) Peter Milward (1974, 1987) or Naseeb Shaheen (1987, 1989, 1993). A further hundred are new contributions to what is known about Shakespeare’s knowledge and use of the Bible.

“Much of what we have learned about the de Vere Bible in the last three years, and the reason for the length of time consumed by the research, is that this group of verses has steadily grown to the present number of around a hundred,” explained Stritmatter.

In Stritmatter’s spring 1992 letter to the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, the figure was quoted as “around a dozen”; by the time of the summer 1992 filming of the Bible for the GTE authorship teleconference, the number was “thirty or more.”

Further research continues to reveal more -now over a hundred. This means, said Stritmatter, that the de Vere Bible functions as an “answer key” to the quiz: which Bible verses did Shakespeare remember and use in his work?

Of course, if Oxford’s annotations could also be found in the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, critics such as the Folger or the Smithsonian might have something to complain about. Indeed, Shakespeare Authorship Page (SAP) editor David Kathman continues to claim publicly -though on what reasoning or authority remains unclear- that the relationship between the de Vere Bible annotations and Shakespeare is “random.”

Contrary to Kathman’s claims,  Stritmatter reports that a study of biblical references in Bacon, Marlowe, and Spenser’s Fairie Queene (the only authors and texts, unfortunately, for which comparable data is easily available) suggests that the correspondences between the de Vere Bible and Shakespeare are anything but random. While nearly half of Shakespeare’s top verses can be found marked in the Earl of Oxford’s Bible, the overlap between marked Bible verses and those favored by other authors approaches zero.

In a few critical cases, the answers supplied by the “quiz key” actually allow us to correct and fine-tune previous work done by other scholars. For example, since Carter (1905) it has been generally accepted that Portia’s stirring message in Merchant of Venice about the power of a tiny candle to cast a blazing light of moral truth in this dark and “naughty world” -”How far this little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (MV, V, ii, 61-2)- is a paraphrase of the New Testament proverb about not hiding your light under a bushel. Carter and Noble (1935) both associated the image, incorrectly it transpires, with Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.”

Matthew 5.16 is not marked in de Vere’s Bible. However, the preferred source of Portia’s moral (Philippians 2:15) is marked. We know this is the preferred source, because both Portia’s utterance and Philippians 2:15 include the peculiar collocation of the words, “naughty… world”, and in a footnote to the verse, “candle.”

One of the marked passages (Philippians 2:15) includes not only the words “naughtie” and “worlde,” but also, in a footnote the word “candle,” thus providing three key words in Portia’s Merchant of Venice speech, “How far this little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (5.2.61-2).

One of the marked passages (Philippians 2:15) includes not only the words “naughtie” and “worlde,” but also, in a footnote the word “candle,” thus providing three key words in Portia’s Merchant of Venice speech, “How far this little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (5.2.61-2).


“Now, who said you can’t learn by peeking at the answers?” quipped Anderson. And, as Stritmatter revealed in his lecture, Portia’s moral could not be more apt. For, as he explained, he had communicated this particular discovery to Professor Naseeb Shaheen, author of several important books on Shakespeare and the Bible, during the spring of 1993.

When Shaheen’s third book, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies, was published five months later, it claimed -correctly, but for the first time in print- that Portia’s “naughty world” was a reference to – lo and behold! – Philippians 2:15.

Just how Professor Shaheen “discovered” this correction, however, remains unpublished. Needless to say, Philippians 2:15 is only one of over two-hundred Bible verses -albeit a particularly significant one- to which Stritmatter’s study of the de Vere Bible devotes serious consideration. Nevertheless, Portia’s moral based on this verse seems all too pertinent to present circumstances.

Hamlet charges Horatio to “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” As all Oxfordians are aware, anyone who takes Horatio’s words seriously will sooner or later run afoul of court politics. Portia admonishes us not to despair. The little candle of which she speaks is, afterall, “this star of England” -the five-pointed heraldic star of the de Veres of Castle Hedingham in Essex. “How far that little candle throws his beam!” declares Shakespeare’s Judge. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

— Mark Kendall Anderson and Roger Stritmatter

Reprinted from the Fall 1996 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

nota bene: In 2000, as reported in Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation, Ms. Emily Will, a board certified forensic document analyst, verified that the de Vere Bible annotations are “almost certainly”  in Oxford’s hand.

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