(Jacobi’s and Anderson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/13; Photo/ illustrations: Relentless in his self-satire … Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Photograph: Alamy.)

Derek Jacobi and Margo Anderson on how local lore and biographical specificity found in the comedy point to the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, as its writer

Michael Billington says Shakespeare’s romantic comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor offers clues to the Bard’s identity (Need proof who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? See The Merry Wives of Windsor, 20 May). “It could only have been written by someone who understood the intricacies of a close-knit, provincial community,” Billington writes.

We wholeheartedly agree. The action in Merry Wives centres on an inn in Windsor, the only town in England with a whole Shakespeare play devoted to it. Local geography and lore are faithfully reported, including accurate references to the nearby village of Frogmore, the laundry place at Datchet Mead and Windsor Castle’s Great Park.

This, we suggest, is for good reason. The author of The Merry Wives of Windsor is drawing from personal experience of having once lived in Windsor.

When he was a young adult in 1570, the downwardly mobile Elizabethan court poet and playwright Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, recuperated from an illness at an inn in Windsor. Around the same time, he was wooing Anne Cecil, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser William Cecil. Around that time an overachieving young go-getter in Cecil’s orbit, Philip Sidney, was also seeking kindly Anne’s hand. But De Vere ultimately got the girl. And his 1571 marriage to Anne soon spiralled into fiery disarray, brought about in part by the outraged De Vere jealously accusing her of infidelity.

And it’s all right there in The Merry Wives. The author of this play, relentless in his own self-satire, had a more modern artistic consciousness than critics traditionally allow. It’s as if he split portions of his life story into three and set these triplet strands of memory and clashing personality traits chaotically into motion.

The author’s three protagonist avatars – Fenton, Ford and Falstaff – represent the wooer, the jealous husband, and the wild gadabout. In Merry Wives, Fenton’s chief rival for the hand of “sweet Anne Page” is a milksop called Slender, whose pointed correspondences to the historical Philip Sidney zing with specificity. Sidney, like Slender, had a power broker of a kinsman who pressed Anne’s family for the marriage; Sidney, like Slender, could lay claim to a £300 annuity; Anne in Merry Wives as well as the historical Anne Cecil both had £700 inheritances awaiting them.

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