CoverThe math is simple enough. 550 marked passages, 1000 marked verses, 31000 verses altogether and around 107 matches (or around 216 with the Stritmatter additions). Why not just take the biggest positive headline figure (216) and divide by the smallest (550). Why doesn't Roger Stritmatter claim that 39% of the marks are referenced, rather than claiming that 20% of the references are marked?

The answer lies in where the Professor was hoping to conduct the debate. Tying the 550 marks to references results in a crude sum which would focus attention on the nature of the references and the validity of the math. It would be too easy to come up with alternative sets of totally unmarked references which supported counter claims, as Stritmatter discovered when he made his own search for additional references to the marked subset.

What the thesis is really trying to do is position the author alongside Cornelius on Marlowe and Shaheen on Shakespeare. It is designed to build a creative hinterland of bible references which matches De Vere rather than Shakespeare. And the Folger Bible, unquestionably bought by the De Vere estate, arms Stritmatter with a tool denied to every other Oxfordian seeking to augment De Vere's claim. The marked Folger Bible is a Primary Source. An item of hard evidence. Real marks in a real bible owned by his own authorship candidate.

Despite working with bibles, lists of references and an actual marked copy, Stritmatter isn't really in the same discussion as Cornelius and Shaheen. The two scholars are exploring the biblical influence on two top playwrights whose work was crucial to the development of theatre in the English language.

Stritmatter is trying to perform a a conjuring trick by relating their work to an individual who isn't in the picture. On the strength of an artefact which has no relevance, Stritmatter is trying to load his argument with as much Oxfordian suggestiveness as can be manufactured out of percentages (and supply the data for one attempt at a probability calculation even he is unwilling to defend).

The Folger Bible isn't relevant to Shakespeare's work because it didn't belong to him. The annotations are not his annotations. It began life as De Vere's bible, then passed through an indefinite number of anonymous hands over the course of 350 years, then the Folger acquired it. Shakespeare was never near it.

It isn't relevant because although it bears De Vere's arms on the binding, there's no way of telling whether they are his annotations. What if he bought it as a present for his wife (or mistress)? Would that mean Ann Cecil or Ann Vavasour was the author of Shakespeare's plays? Now there's a new paradigm to explore.

It isn't relevant because, let's be honest, there was more than one annotator. We know we haven't proved that (any more than Stritmatter has proved the contrary) yet if you look at the three main groups of markings individually, none of them comes close to matching the playwright's interests individually. Even taken together, the sum of their interest is hardly relevant to Shakespeare's work, let alone probative of alternative authorship.

It isn't relevant because like so many other Oxfordian Quests, such as finding hats on paintings of Adonis or ditches that could have been canals, it is a False Grail. Even if found, it brings no reward. Proving the contention, even were it possible, provides no proof of authorship.

The Millivere

Stritmatter almost openly admits, in his first chapter, that his underlying purpose is nothing other than the time-dishonoured doubter's technique of declaring something to be a suggestive coincidence, then amassing a collection of similar items which build into a library of suggestive coincidences, like a part work teaching subscribers to build a nuclear reactor out of paper and string. Don't miss next week's “How to make a labyrinthine exhaust out of detergent bottles and used baking foil”.

He strains to arrive at an always-arbitrary threshold value of coincidence which equals "too many". Too many coincidences to be random. As if a given quantity of suggestive coincidences becomes equal to a single certainty. He even proves this (or claims to) in Appendix C, where he declares that 199 marked references equals too many to be coincidental. What he essentially means is that, compared to giving a monkey a pen and snatching the bible away when it has made 550 marks, the Folger's marks have significance. He doesn't trouble himself to calculate what would be "too few" for significance if rather than a random monkey, the marks were made by a random Elizabethan church-goer on the Stratford Omnibus. Without a careful definition of what is random, you cannot deduce what might be non random.

And just look at this:

A count of verses contained in the New and Old Testaments reveals a total of approximately 30,000 (31,240, actually) verses. While many verses are rich enough in their language and philosophical content to reasonably provide several reference opportunities turnover, many others are simple lists of names or otherwise essentially devoid of content that might reasonably be referenced in the literary work. For purposes of this analysis, we assume that approximately one of every three verses in the Old and New Testament might yield usable reference. Thus we estimated a population of approximately 10,000 such potential reference verses. Leading to our fourth assumption. There are approximately 10,000 potential reference verses in the combined Old and New Testaments.

This titanic mathematical solecism is immediately followed by a technical discourse on Hypergeometric Distribution. Blind 'em with science. Oxfordian Distribution, which is what we are actually seeing here, involves removing all the white keys from a piano keyboard before drawing conclusions. "100% of the keys on pianos are black" say Oxfordian mathematicians. Start spreading the news. And while you're at it, trying telling Pope Francis that 66% of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is unquotable rubbish.

This is from Page 4. Stritmatter is here laying down another long-worded smoke screen before starting to claim that biographical similarities to the life of Edward de Vere trump historical facts about Shakespeare.

The view of Shakespeare which emerges from present dissertation, as well as from works such as Shakespeare Identified or The Mysterious William Shakespeare, is consequently not only focused but in remarkable ways even intimate in character. Adherents of the Oxfordian school do not assume that genius, whatever it consists of, is essentially incomprehensible: on the contrary, They posit that the mind of the author can indeed be known through the close and careful comparative study of the primary documents which attest to his existence and beliefs: the works themselves.

A corollary to this methodological premise is that no exegesis of the text even approaches adequacy which does not bring to bear a thorough or at least systematic knowledge of the pre-existing characters–characters and exterior to, surrounding, and giving life to, the text itself–which have informed the author's imagination and been harnessed to his artistic intentions.

Fine words which leave all the parsnips unbuttered. What he appears to be saying, as Greenblatt also says, is that we need to get to know the man behind the work. We need biographical and historical context. We need to know Keats is dying of consumption before we can understand This Living Hand. What Greenblatt and the New Historicists were trying to do was turn a light onto the environment in which the plays were written. With F R Leavis and A C Bradley commencing the fast-spin cycle in their graves, Stritmatter is trying to turn that light off again so he can lead his audience through dark streets with tallow candles which fail to illuminate the road ahead. He wordily expands the uncontentious biblical epigram 'Ye shall know them by their fruits' (Matt 7:16, unmarked of course) before taking the idea further, hitting the turbo-verbosity button and wrenching it from its context to suggest that if Doll Tearsheet turns out to be more like De Vere's Auntie Mary than Shakespeare's, this can only be because De Vere wrote the plays. The idea that the search for 'pre-existing characters' will light up the understanding of the plays is just another conjuring trick. Burghley is Polonius so Oxford is Shakespeare. Forgeddaboutit.

The central claim of his thesis is no better. His arithromancy comes from the standard authorship doubter's toolkit—if we collect enough suggestive connections then at some point, the threshold of 'enough coincidence' will be crossed and 'Hey Presto!' we will have a new author. Instead of cushioning his readers further, he gets straight down to business in his next paragraph, with connections from Lear to the supposed classical education of Oxford. And the next 700 pages are there to amplify the theme and disguise the lack of support from his evidence.

The Big Picture

This project, this False Grail tying the Folger Bible to the canon, was benighted from the outset.

To the casual mathematically-trained observer (not us), it just doesn't look possible to prove this particular Bible belonged to the playwright with no other evidence than a series of underlinings and a small amount of handwritten marginalia. There simply aren't enough marked passages. What's worse, they're not in the correct places. Certainly not sufficiently correct to harness probability in the making of attribution statements. Nor can we derive the universe of references mathematically. The matches don't match nearly well enough.

There is no practical starting point for such a quest.

Shakespeare did not write or translate The Bible. Not the Folger's Geneva, not the KJV, not any version. The references from Shakespeare's plays are not quotes—most of them don't even contain identical vocabulary. They are strong echoes at best and fanciful wish-fulfilment at worst. They are on a spectrum that runs from 'Definite' through 'Probable' to 'Possible' and, in the case of Oxfordians, all the way down to 'obvious kite-flying'. This problem was self-evident to Cornelius1 who defined, and then worked within, just such a spectrum. 

It should have been obvious to Stritmatter but he doesn't seem to have tested many of his assumptions before wading in. In the main body of his dissertation (and latterly in its defence), rather than focus on the lack of overlaps or coincidences of usage, Stritmatter concentrates, again and again, on attempts to widen the implications of single connections, such as the unremarkable mention of a 'weaver's beam' in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.2 On this site, posting anonymously and referring to himself in the third person, he has even made the extraordinary claim that the entire enterprise was hermeneutic in nature, based on uncovering the disguised presence of a thwarted hidden author, forced into anonymity by malign circumstance. This is based on the revelations contained in just three verses. Well, that makes sense.

Here are a few calculations which wouldn't have taken 10 days, let alone the 10 years of research he claims went into his dissertation.

Big Picture

We have seen that when it comes to quantitative analysis of the location of the marks, things fall rapidly apart. This rather complicated chart bears a fairly straightforward message. Along the horizontal axis we see the books of the Bible in their published order and on the vertical axis, the number of references in the plays. The Folger marks are on the back row. It shows the four clear areas to which Shakespeare has made most of his references and they do not correspond with the most heavily marked sections of the Bible. A fifth section, starting with 1 Samuel does show some promising coincidence but we have an explanation as to why this is the case. In the middle of the chart there is an empty wasteland containing hardly any references at all. Yet six of the annotators' favourite ten books lie in that wasteland.

Looking at smaller groups of plays, we can see the marks more clearly.

Early Plays

This chart shows the earliest plays in the front rows and the Folger marks and Stritmatter's additions in the rearmost two rows.The largest concentration of references is spread over the gospels where there are only sporadic marks. Between Matthew and 2 Corinthians, six individual plays score higher than the annotators' highest number of marks in a single book, even after the Stritmatter additions.

In the New Testament, the gospels may be Shakespeare's favourite part of the Bible but the annotators seem hardly to have read any of them.

In the Old Testament, the playwright has large clusters around the early books, with individual plays again exceeding the highest annotators' single-book totals. The Merchant of Venice, the play with the highest number of references, just shades the annotators score in Psalms, the province of the artistic hand-drawer, but has three other high scores in Genesis, Matthew and Luke which are all ignored.

The Annotators' score most highly in the books between Isaiah and Ecclesiasticus, a large area which represents a bit of a desert as far as the playwright is concerned. In fact all of the quantitative charts tend to suggest that Shakespeare's bible, like many Protestant editions, may have been missing its Apocrypha.

Late Elizabethan Plays

The pattern is much the same in the middle section of Shakespeare's career. One consistency carried through is the blip of interest in the books dealing with Saul and David—1 Samuel to 1 Kings—which also contains three of the annotators' favourite chapters. These books are the province of the red underliner. At first this looks like a promising link but at the chapter and verse levels, the number of matches in these three books is not as high as the overlap at book level might suggest. The plays which score highly on references to these books tend to be history plays so perhaps it's not all that surprising that plays about kingship contain references to the part of the Bible which deals most closely with kingship and succession.  

Nor is it surprising, given the high percentage of history plays in Shakespeare's early output, that there are slightly fewer references to this group (and overall), at this later stage of his career. It's nice to see another development trend which confirms the chronology consensus, putting another new hole in the Oxfordian alternative.

Jacobean Plays

Macbeth and Lear dominate the reference totals in the Jacobean plays. There is an interesting spike in Revelations in Antony and Cleopatra. The ancients had different Gods so the Roman plays tend to score lowest but the catastrophic ending of Pharaonic Egypt and the fall of Antony seem to resonate for Shakespeare with the cataclysms in the Bible's final book. Numbers of references are down 32% overall in the Jacobean plays with the collaborative plays containing fewer between them than there are in Macbeth. Two Noble Kinsmen scores lower than the Sir Thomas More fragment.

Lear and, to a lesser extent, The Winter's Tale are two of three plays which spike the 1 Samuel Kingship group. The highest scoring play, by far, in this group is Henry VIII, a return to kingship and courtly behaviour. Cymbeline, despite its pre-Christian setting, is another high scorer.

To conclude, sitting with a charting tool and an attempt at an accurate dataset of Bible references, one can see that there is a large amount to be learnt from an analytical approach to the canon, offering trends to be isolated and observed—many not much addressed by current scholarship.

It is immediately obvious, however, that the distribution of the marks in the Folger Bible has nothing to say about the playwright, with only limited interaction with the main dataset, none actually shedding any light on the work itself.

 Plays in order of chronology consensusMarks Matches
Folger Bible MarksShaheen Bible ReferencesStritmatter Addional ReferencesStritmatter Direct DiagnosticsStritmatter Indirect DiagnosticsTotal Unmatched references and marksClose (Adjacent but not matching)Folger Matched MarkStritmatter Additional Matched MarkTotal
1TwoGentlemenOfVerona03520037 3302237
2TamingOfTheShrew01730020 1700320
3Henry-VI-20153200155 143192155
4Henry-VI-305840062 5413462
5Henry-VI-10124200126 121032126
6TitusAndronicus05410055 5301155
7Richard-III0152600158 143276158
9ComedyOfErrors07030073 7000373
10LovesLaboursLost0131100132 131001132
12Richard-II0167700174 158367174
13RomeoAndJuliet05410055 5013155
14MidsummerNightsDream05330056 4913356
15KingJohn07220074 6903274
16MerchantOfVenice0173400177 169134177
17Henry-IV-10113000113 108230113
18MerryWivesOfWindsor09100091 8704091
19Henry-IV-20122200124 114262124
20MuchAdoAboutNothing05820060 5800260
21Henry-V0107600113 103226113
22JuliusCaesar04900049 4900049
23AsYouLikeIt09020092 8712292
24Hamlet0152700159 148137159
25TwelfthNight07520077 7203277
26TroilusAndCressida07410075 7400175
27SirThomasMore-HandD01300013 1210013
28MeasureForMeasure0971100108 970011108
29Othello0127400131 124124131
30AllsWellThatEndsWell0125300128 124013128
31KingLear08870095 8602795
32TimonOfAthens04800048 4602048
33Macbeth0147500152 140255152
34AntonyAndCleopatra06800068 6602068
35Pericles04750052 4502552
36Coriolanus07220074 6912274
37WintersTale06410065 5716165
38Cymbeline0134500139 130135139
39TheTempest05010051 4712151
41Henry80161200163 154162163
42TwoNobleKinsmen01100011 1001011
 Marks550349610964243605 629450638
       4243 3996 31 107  1094243


One creatively formatted chart, hidden away here, is all we're allowed.

Where the marks and additions went


  1. Cornelius, R. M. Christopher Marlowe's Use of the Bible. New York : P. Lang, 1984.
  2. Tom Veal picks this nonsense apart in Querulous Notes in an article in which he attempts to do what we have not done here, follow Stritmatter's reasoning beyond what the numbers tell us. Here's what Stritmatter thinks he has proved “ It is difficult to believe that any open-minded reader can remain unimpressed by this extraordinary – almost comical [sic!] – coincidence between Shakespeare’s Bible references and the documentary record of the de Vere Geneva Bible. [p. 108 (published edition)/pp. 170-1 (UMI edition)]”. Tom points out that the famous passage in which Goliath's spear was compared to a weaver's beam (translated as such by Wycliff, contrary to some Oxfordian claims), describes the contest between David and Goliath. This is not actually marked. All Stritmatter's conclusions on Falstaff's roots are are based on 2 Samuel 21:19 which he has mistaken for 1 Samuel 17:7. So, the reference is not to David and Goliath but to a fight between two characters called Elhanan and Lahmi. He and his followers regard this identification as highly important to the Oxfordian cause. No wonder they're in such a mess. [Tom's work contains other examples of this kind of imaginative fictive support for Stritmatter's case. If you've reached this footnote, you'll certainly want to read Tom's pages. Click on this link.