The Oxfordian theory of authorship suggests that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Oxfordian scholars believe that the humble and relatively unschooled background of Shakespeare is unlikely to have permitted works of such historical and literary scope. They connect Edward De Vere to the work because of his extensive travels throughout Europe and some recorded evidence that De Vere may have secretly written poems and plays. Oxfordians are vehemently opposed by Stratfordians, who hold that the Shakespeare of Stratford was indeed the author of the plays under his name.
One key theory of the Oxfordians is that Shakespeare's writing changed dramatically after 1604, the year in which the Earl died. Until this time, Shakespeare of Stratford had produced at least two plays per year, but this stopped suddenly in 1604, according to historical records. This theory is often disputed by Stratfordian scholars, citing in particular The Tempest, which some believe to be based on reports of a shipwreck in 1609.
According the Oxfordian theory, Edward De Vere would have the large scope of knowledge required to write all of Shakespeare's plays. He spent several years in Italy, where many of the plays are set. The cities that De Vere supposedly visited are all used as settings for Shakespeare plays. No evidence suggests that Shakespeare of Stratford ever left England, but De Vere's travels may have given him significant insight into Italian life.
Although his work was favored by royalty, the historical Shakespeare was a commoner whose knowledge of court life may only have been peripheral. There is no proof that he ever had any direct interaction with royal figures. The plays regarding England do often incorporate intimate knowledge of the court life and often parallel political disputes contemporary with the author. De Vere, the Oxfordian proponents suggest, would have had daily exposure to the court of Elizabeth and been more qualified to write about it.
One popular theory suggests that Shakespeare of Stratford was used by De Vere as a cover for his work. Playwriting was not considered an acceptable activity for the nobility, and many court writers used pseudonyms to protect their identities. Oxfordians sometimes argue that De Vere used Shakespeare's acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, as a means of having his plays produced anonymously, allowing an actor named Shakespeare to claim credit for the work.
Much of Oxfordian theory is based on the idea that Shakespeare's education was unlikely to allow such a wide variety of knowledge. In the few records that exist, Shakespeare is said to have had very little learning, possibly only equivalent to elementary lessons in reading, writing and mathematics. De Vere, as nobility, would have had extensive tutoring supplemented by European travel. This theory is particularly disdained by Stratfordian scholars, who claim that most of Shakespeare's work was drawn from common legends and histories and was not out of the scope of a common man.
Many famous scholars, actors and literary critics have joined the Oxfordian cause since its inception in the 1920s. In the 1990s, popular British actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance agreed that there was reasonable doubt to suggest Shakespeare was not the true author of the plays attributed to him. Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain all expressed doubts of Shakespearean authorship, although none of them conclusively named De Vere as the likely true playwright.
The proponents of Oxfordian authorship have a bitter relationship with Stratfordian scholars. Nearly every argument for De Vere is contradicted point for point by opposing experts, and vice vera. Most likely, the question of authorship will never be definitively solved, but the battle continues to rage as interest continues in England's most famous playwright.