Edward de Vere as Shakespeare

by Alexander Waugh
[A much longer version of this essay, complete with citations, will be appearing in the forthcoming volume Great Oxford II, edited by Eddi Jolly for The de Vere Society, 2021]
The ‘Welbeck’ portrait of Edward de Vere (1575). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In the late Spring or early Summer of 1593 the name ‘William Shakespeare’ was associated for the first time with literature appearing beneath a dedicatory epistle to the prominent courtier, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was reluctantly engaged, at that time, to Oxford’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth. The work was Venus and Adonis, a polished narrative poem, rooted both in the Latin of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in its translation by Oxford’s uncle, Arthur Golding. In courtly language Shakespeare’s dedication promised Southampton he would compose some a greater work ‘in my idle hours’. The ‘greater work’ is assumed to be Lucrece (1594), also dedicated to Southampton, derived from the Latin Fasti of Ovid, that was not translated into English until 1640. From these facts alone, the literary sleuth of 1594 would have guessed that the new poet on the block, ‘William Shakespeare’, was an able Latinist, who was known within court and literary circles. On these facts alone, he would have discounted Stratford-Shakspere as their author. Indeed, in a comic play performed by the students of Cambridge University (c.1600), a Shakespeare fanatic commissions a young scholar to write a poem in the style of Shakespeare to give to his mistress. When the parody of Venus and Adonis is read to him, the delighted client exclaims: ‘Noe more! I am one that can judge according to the proverb, bovem ex unguibus.’ He has altered the well-known saying ‘leonem ex unguibus aestimare’ (‘to know a lion by its claws’) to ‘bovem ex unguibus’ (‘to know an ox by its hoof’), a joke that would have been even easier to understand among those who knew that Oxford was referred to as the ‘Ox’. The client recognised the hand of Oxford in Venus and Adonis.

The precocious, scandal-ridden and brilliantly learned poet-dramatist Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), was born into a play-loving family — one of the first in England to keep its own company of actors. His father, the 16th Earl, who took special delight in stage plays, was berated by the Bishop of Winchester as a ‘lewd fellow’ for mounting a play in Southwark instead of attending a solemn service for the soul of Henry VIII. His grandfather was also a noted patron of theatre for whom the eminent dramatist, John Bale, wrote at least fourteen plays, including King Johan, identified as the major source of Shakespeare’s King John. Among Oxford’s uncles were Arthur Golding, the translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a major source for many passages in Shakespeare); Henry, Earl of Surrey, a pioneer of the so-called ‘Shakespearean sonnet’; and Edmund Sheffield, a sonneteer after the Italian fashion and a skilled musician.

Edward in actor’s costume and make-up (undated)

In 1562, when the 16th Earl died, his twelve-year-old heir was made a ward of the Queen and placed under the guardianship of the Master of Wards, Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), England’s Lord Treasurer, who, in 1571, would become his father-in-law. Among Cecil’s many private peculiarities was his habit of returning home after a long day’s work and laying down his official robe, saying to it: ‘Lie there, Lord Treasurer’. In Shakespeare’s Tempest the magician, Prospero, ‘lays down his mantle’ and commands it to ‘Lie there, my Art!’ (I. ii). In 1869, George Russell French identified Shakespeare’s Ophelia as a portrait of Oxford’s first wife, Anne Cecil, and Polonius (her father) as a caricature of Lord Burghley and these associations have been repeated and amplified by many scholars since. In the first quarto of Hamlet Polonius is called Corambis (meaning ‘double-hearted’), teasing Burghley’s armorial motto cor unum, via una (‘One heart, one way’). Like Burghley, Polonius is cast as senior advisor to the Queen and like Burghley who sent servants to spy on his son, Thomas, Polonius sends servants to spy on his son, Laertes. Like Burghley, who printed ten moral ‘Precepts’ for Thomas to memorize, Polonius requires his son to memorize ten moral precepts which, in tone and substance, closely mirror those of Burghley. Hamlet calls Polonius a ‘fishmonger’ (in mockery of Burghley who zealously promoted a bill to make fish-eating compulsory) and ‘Jephthah’ (in mockery of Burghley’s active campaigning for the ‘Assassins’ Charter’ in the mid-1580s); Polonius’s avoidance of argument by agreement (e.g. ‘very like a whale’) echoes Burghley’s technique of diplomacy, etc.

Acknowledging these associations E. K. Chambers (1930) asked: ‘Can Polonius have resembled some nickname for Burghley?’ This name when attached to a name, means a Pole (i.e. native of Poland) and Oxford was present at New College, Oxford on 2 September 1566 when the poet George Coryat gave an oration in which Burghley and Lord Leicester were repeatedly referred to as ‘poles’ (meaning axis poles). Coryat’s poem ended: ‘Long may you live long in joy and health, O Poles!’

Oxford was tutored by Thomas Smith, Regius Professor of Civil Law and by Lawrence Nowell, the celebrated legal historian. Lawyers lived with his family from his earliest years and he continued his father’s habit of hospitality to lawyers throughout most of his adult life. At sixteen he entered Gray’s Inn to study the law. Since the 18th century it has been noted how Shakespeare naturally, frequently and accurately placed legal metaphors into his poems and play. Lord Penzance, Baron of the Exchequer, believed Shakespeare ‘to have thought in legal phrases’ while the Shakespearean scholar Richard Grant White observed how ‘legal phrases flow from his pen as part of his vocabulary and parcel of his thought’.

Stratfordians are unable to explain the dramatist’s skill in modern languages, which were not taught at the grammar schools. A surviving letter, composed in fluent French, was penned by Oxford at the age of thirteen. Lawrence Nowell wrote to Cecil: ‘I clearly see that my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required’, a comment that prompted Oxford’s first biographer, B. M. Ward (1928), to remark: ‘That a scholar of Lawrence Nowell’s attainments should speak thus of his pupil, aged 13½, argues a precocity quite out of the ordinary.’ Oxford’s precocity was noted by many of his contemporaries. Arthur Golding alludes to it, in addressing him the following year:

I have had experience therof myself, howe earnest a desire your honor hath naturally graffed in you, to read, peruse, and communicate with others, as well the Histories of auncient tyme, and thynges done long ago, as also of the present estate of thinges in oure dayes, and that not withoute a certayn pregnancie of witte and rypenesse of vnderstandyng.

Neither Golding nor Nowell would have been surprised at Oxford’s becoming the youngest man of his generation to receive honours from both‬‬ universities. John Brooke, distinguished scholar and one of the first nominated fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, remarked on the ‘commendation and praise’ that the University had showered on Oxford:

[…] the University of Cambridge hath acknowledged in granting and giving unto you such commendation and praise as verily by right was due to your excellent virtue and rare learning wherein verily, Cambridge the mother of learning and learned men hath openly confessed, and in this her confessing made known unto all men, that Your Honor, being learned and able to judge as a safe harbour and defence of learning, therefore one most fit to whose honourable patronage I might safely commit these my poor and simple labors.

So intense was Oxford’s love of learning that one scholar, Thomas Underdowne, had to warn the bookish nineteen-year-old against his temptation to be ‘too much addicted that way’. Underdowne’s translation of Heliodorus’ Aethiopian Historie, dedicated to Oxford in 1569, is cited as an important source for Shakespeare by Crewe (2009) who found: ‘traces of the Aethiopika persisting in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1623) and Cymbeline (1623), and in The Winter’s Tale (1623)’. Scholar and actor Thomas Twynne who, with his brother Lawrence, provided source material respectively for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Pericles, noted the ‘singular delight’ with which Oxford read ‘books of geography, histories and other good learning’; Robert Greene (cited by scholars as a major influence on Shakespeare’s work and, by others, as a contributor to his plays) extolled Oxford as ‘a worthie favorer and fosterer of learning’ to whom ‘scholars flock’. To poet, clergyman and author Nathaniel Baxter (1606), Oxford was ‘learned’, ‘just’ and ‘affable’. Playwright, George Chapman, hailed him as ‘matchless’ in his virtues, and ‘of spirit passing great’ who ‘writ sweetly or of learned subjects … valiant and learned, liberal as the sun’. George Buc (1560-1622), a scholar who was in charge of licensing all plays for the stage, described him as a ‘magnificent and very learned’ nobleman.

While the documentary record for William of Stratford contains no evidence of interest in poetry, language, astrology, history, military skill, medicine, the Classics or music (all subjects considered important in the plays) Oxford’s intense interest in all these matters is well documented. John Soothern wrote of him:

For who marketh better then he,
The seuen turning flames of the Skie:
Or hath read more of the antique.
Hath greater knowledge in the tongues:
Or vnderstandes sooner the sounds,
Of the learner to loue Musique.

Shakespeare’s love of music shines through his plays. Organist and composer, John Farmer, lauded Oxford’s skill in music, noting that by ‘using this science as a recreation’ he had ‘overgone most of them that make it a profession’. As poet Henry Lok commended the ‘excellence’ of Oxford’s ‘mind’ in 1597, so the poet and scholar Gabriel Harvey reported that among ‘Gallants’ at court in 1580, ‘this English Poet’, was considered a ‘fellow peerless in England … not the like discourser for Tongue, and head to be found out’. Queen Elizabeth, writing ‘from her heart’ five years earlier, described the young Oxford as possessed of an ‘outstanding intellect … innately endowed with manners, virtue and learning’. Not only was he ‘innately endowed’ with learning but he soon became famous for his limitless generosity to other scholars. As Gervase Markham, twenty years after Oxford’s death, recalled: ‘It were infinite to speake of his infinite expence, the infinite number of his attendants, or the infinite house he kept to feede all people’ the ‘bounty which Learning daily took from him’ are as ‘trumpets so loud that all eares know them.’

An ‘infinite Maecenas’ (as Thomas Nashe described Oxford) is necessarily headed for financial ruin and, typical of many poets and men of intellect, Oxford had no head for figures. Like the eponymous nobleman of Shakespeare’s Timon he was generous to a fault and found himself squeezed by unscrupulous friends seeking to exploit his largesse. In 1584 William Warner, in possibly the earliest allusion to Shakespeare’s Timon, wrote ‘let the Athenian misanthropos, or Man-hater bite on the Stage’ – a reminder of Shakespeare’s Timon who memorably complains: ‘I am Misanthropos and hate mankind.’ Orthodox scholars have placed Timonamong the ‘late’, ‘problem’ plays (1606-7), but more recent studies have shown that it cannot post-date 1602. If Warner’s allusion of 1584 relates to this play then Timon’s cry ‘Let my lands be sold’ precisely reflects the desperation that Oxford felt between 1580 and 1585 when he (like Timon) was besieged by creditors, flatterers and scroungers and, for want of cash, was forced to sell thirty-two estates to pay his debts and control his outgoings.

It is not known how much of Oxford’s patrimony was squandered on theatrical entertainments for the Queen. In 1601 he reminded Robert Cecil of his ‘youth, time and fortune spent in her Court’. The historian Edmund Bohun (1693) described him as a courtier ‘drawn into great expenses, Chargeable Feasts, Balls and Interludes and an excessive Gallantry’. In 1580 he presented a lavish comedy before the Queen, described in a letter to the King of France as ‘une belle comedie qui se conclust par un marriage’. The French word ‘comedie’ meant ‘a Play or Enterlude that begins in dissention, or sorrow, and ends in agreement or merriment’. This particular evening involved a spectacular shipwreck. Oxford’s servant, the playwright Anthony Mundy, described how:

a brave and comely ship brought in before her Majesty wherein were certain of her noble Lords, and this ship was made with a gallant devise that in her presence it ran upon a rock & was despoiled. This credit was the bravest devise that I ever saw, and worthy of innumerable commendations.

Oxford, who had concealed himself within the ship, danced his way from the wreck into the audience, where he presented the Queen with a sparkling jewel. The name of the ‘beautiful comedy’ of 1580 is not known but its shipwreck and final scene of happy marriage brings Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to mind, as does a handwritten manuscript note by Abraham Fleming (Oxford’s servant) which lists ‘a pleasant conceit of Vere, Earl of Oxford, discontented at the Rising of a mean Gentleman in the English Court, circa 1580’, and appears to recall the lampooning of the ambitious courtier Christopher Hatton as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Could both records refer to a 1580 version of Twelfth Night? If so, might Oxford have acted the part of Sebastian?

The Stratford man’s connections to the theatre are often cited as reason why he must have written then plays, but the records of his lifetime are scant. Oxford’s theatre connections are more impressive. For over two decades he was involved with the theatre, both at Court and on the public stage. In the 1580s he supported, as well as his own bands of acrobats and musicians, several companies of players including Oxford’s Men, Oxford’s Boys, the Queen’s Majesties Players, the Children of Windsor, Paul’s Boys and the Children of the Chapel Royal. In 1583 he acquired a lease on England’s first public indoor theatre, later transferring it to his secretary, the playwright John Lyly, and Rocco Bonetti, a fencing master despised by Oxford, whose preposterous fencing terms are said to be lampooned in Romeo and Juliet.

In the 1590s Oxford’s players chose as their favourite stage the yard of the Boar’s Head Tavern adjacent to Oxford’s home and ‘Great Garden’ east of Aldgate. This public theatre (later sponsored by Oxford’s son-in-law, Lord Derby) shares its name and reputation for rowdiness with the infamous ‘Boar’s Head Tavern’ of Falstaff and Prince Hal. Just as Falstaff and his men’s reckless raid on servants bringing money for the exchequer – along the road from Rochester to Gravesend on 20 May – appears to mirror the reckless raid by Oxford and his men on Burghley’s servants bringing money for the exchequer on 20 May (1573) along the road from Rochester to Gravesend.

In his mid-twenties Oxford wrote ‘I have appointed for myself to serve my turne beyonde the seas […] In consideration whereof I am content to resign my interest and estate in Combe’; and thus, like Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Oxford ‘sold his lands to see other men’s’ (4. i). While in Padua (Nov 1575) he sent a letter to Lord Burghley (by this time his father-in-law) urgently requesting the sale of his lands not to be delayed and asking his father-in-law to underwrite a loan of 500 crowns. Burghley dutifully agreed, organizing lines of credit for Oxford through the Genovese banking firm of Baptista Spinola, whose sons ran offices in London and Venice. Set in Padua, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew portrays a wheeler-dealer, rich in crowns, called Baptista Minola, who demands that Lucentio’s marriage bond be underwritten by his father. While Stratfordians appear content to assume ‘Shakespeare was thinking of London’ when he composed Taming of the Shrew about Padua, Richard Roe shows how details in the play – the proximity of merchants’ houses, a lodging house, the university and a port within the parish of St Luke’s – can apply only to 16th century Padua and not to London, where there was no church of St Luke’s until 1733 and no university until 1826.