Chapter 11

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Eleven


ACCORDING TO THE FEUILLERAT Documents, “The Historie of the solitarie knight [was] showen at whitehall on Shrovesun-daie at night, enacted by the Lord Howard’s servauntes”; this being February 17, 1577. It was the Lord Chamberlain’s (Sussex’s) company, actually, with Lord Howard of Effingham acting as his deputy. (1)

The editor of the Irving Shakespeare speaks of a play based upon the life of Timon of Athens which came out sometime during the ’70’s and supposes that it must have been after North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives appeared in 1579. But the record of books bought by Lord Oxford in 1569 (Chapter 2) shows that he owned “Plutarch’s works in French” ten years earlier; so he did not have to wait for the translation. We are convinced that the play called The History of the Solitary Knight is the early version of Timon of Athens.

As would often have been the case with the wealthy young Earl of Oxford, a Poet, a Painter, a Merchant, and a jeweller are awaiting Timon’s appearance, to proffer their wares to him; Senators come and go; and presently a Messenger arrives to request of Timon a loan for his master. Timon, like Oxford, knows nothing of the value of money and is generous to all. He is accustomed to what the Poet speaks of (V.1.36) as “the infinite flatteries that follow youth and opulency.”

The Poet regales the Painter with the theme of his verses, for which he hopes to gain Lord Timon’s patronage—as many writers had already sued for and gained Lord Oxford’s. (Note the dominant vowel sound in Timon: E. O.) His poem is an allegory prophetic of Timon’s life. And this is particularly interesting, in the light of the fact that much of the Elizabethan dramatic and poetic writing was allegorical—the present play being an example, for the scene here is not Athens but, in reality, London. The dramatist has thus given us a valuable clue.

Nothing is more important in reading the works of the sixteenth-century poets than a realization that the psychology of the Elizabethans was very different from ours. This is natural enough, for their heritage was different because of their earlier position in the world’s history; and psychology is evolutionary, historical. The Elizabethans were just emerging from the Middle Ages: their language was only now becoming vernacular; Latin was still used in cultivated conversation. The way had been paved by such men as Erasmus, Vives, Melanchthon, Agricola; and Ronsard, Ariosto, and the Earl of Oxford, pre-eminently, with their thorough knowledge of Latin, were able to develop their own languages into rich and fluent media of expression. Gordon Bottomley has very properly said that

when English poetry, by the union of several sources, took its eventual authentic form, it did so at the hands of the aristocracy. The young men who decided the eventual forms of English verse on the lines of verseforms already fixed in France and Italy were the young courtiers—peers and knights and members of embassies—who passed between England and the continent in the reigns of the Tudor princes; as their fore-runner Chaucer had arrived at the normal English iambic line in the company of Petrarca and Boccaccio, three courtiers together.(2)

In the Morality and Miracle plays, to which the English people had been habituated, moral attributes and qualities were personified and characters not individualized as they were later to become. Even with the development of verisimilitude and the increasing flexibility of language, the use of symbolism remained. Spenser’s work is symbolic—” symbolic mythology,” as one critic calls it: The Faerie Queene is such from beginning to end. On a much higher and more complex scale, so is the work of Shakespeare. So was much of Ben Jonson’s symbolic—as we shall fully demonstrate—Lyly’s also, and some of Drayton’s. With an almost inspired percipience Lilian Winstanley observed that the Elizabethan dramatists wrote with the same kind of purpose which animated Hamlet in his presentation of the Gonzago play. And this is true. It is what the author of Hamlet was doing throughout his life. If we do not look beneath the slight and often childish-seeming plots of the dramas for the symbolic meaning, we are missing the cream of the dramatist’s intention. The poetry remains; but much of the subtle intellectual and the vibrant human significance is lost.

There was a great deal more in the plays of the time than appears on the surface. The annalist, Stowe, wrote: “Now it was the custom of the period to enfold in poems a second intention, such as was fully illustrated by Spenser in his Faerie Queene.” He could not mention Shakespeare’s plays in this connection, for that was a forbidden subject.

Incidentally, the French writers of this era also employed symbolic mythology in their histories as well as in their poems: D’Aubigné, de Thou, Mathieu, no less than Malherbe, Ronsard, du Bartas, du Bellay, and others.

To return to Timon and the allegory the Poet has written upon his patron’s life—and here the dramatist seems to be announcing his theme, as a composer does in music:

Poet. Sir, I have upon a high pleasant hill
Feign’d Fortune to be thron’d: … amongst them all
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fix’d,
One do I personate Lord Timon’s frame,
Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her;
Whose present grace to present slaves and servants
Translates his rivals. (I.1.64-72.)

This had indeed been Oxford’s position. Then Fortune frowns.

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late belov’d, all his dependents
Which labour’d after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Painter… . Yet you do well
To show Lord Timon what mean eyes have seen
The foot above the head. (85-95.)

It is interesting to note here that the last line repeats a favorite expression of Queen Elizabeth’s, which she used with variations. On one of the occasions when Parliament pressed for her marriage, she declared tartly that it was “monstrous that the feet should direct the head.” (3) The audience at court would have recognized the allusion with pleasure and amusement.

Timon is gracious to them all when he comes in. He pays the debt of Ventidius; he gives a poor girl a dowry, so that she may marry the man she loves; when the Poet proffers his work, he says:

I thank you; you shall hear from me anon (154),

as Oxford must often have said to importunate writers; he agrees to buy the portrait the painter has made; he is accessible to the Merchant and the jeweller, as we have had evidence that Lord Oxford was. The cynic, Apemantus, who is at least partially Burghley, a cynic if there ever was one—a man who hated the arts and to whom kindness, or certainly liberality, for its own sake, without value received, was unthinkable—warns him, but he pays no heed. Apemantus is quite at home in the house, naturally: it is probably Cecil House, or Theobalds. Timon says of him (I.2.29):

But yond man is ever angry.

He means chronically angry about the largesse the young Lord Oxford dispenses.

When Ventidius comes to return the money he has borrowed, Timon refuses it (I.2.9-10):

Honest Ventidius; you mistake my love;
I gave it freely ever….

Here he sounds like Hamlet; and it is no wonder, for both Timon and Hamlet are absolute de Vere.

In his Epistle Dedicatorie addressed to Lord Oxford in 1593, Thomas Nashe says: “… how many pounds you have spent … upon the dirt of wisdom called Alchemy: Yes, you have been such an infinite Maecenas to learned men … [who] have tasted the cool streams of your liberalitie … I would speak in commendation of your hospitalitie …” (Chapter 68.)

So, then, we have indeed the Earl’s fictional counterpart.

While Timon is entertaining his many friends and protégés at an elaborate banquet, ladies arrive and a masque is performed. (Jonson satirizes this scene in The Poetaster, II.1.) The ladies are feasted. To his steward’s distress, Timon sends for his jewel-casket to bestow further gifts upon his friends. He himself receives presents of horses and greyhounds, with which he promises to hunt. (Burghley records: “Earl of Oxford at the hunting of the stag”; 1574.) The scene is set for the lavish scale upon which this young lord lives and dispenses hospitality.

Flavius, the steward, is worried, but Timon will not listen to talk of money.

Flavius. What will this come to?
his land’s put to their books…. (I.2.194, 203.)

Finally realization of the situation dawns, and Timon says to Flavius, in much the same spirit that Oxford had written Burghley about his creditors clamoring for payment—and this in the very year of Timon’s composition:

How goes the world that I am thus encounter’d
With clamorous demands and date-broke bonds,
And the detention of long-since-due debts, ,
Against my honour? (II.2.37-40.)

Oxford had written:

That, whereas I understand the greatness of my debt and greediness of my creditors grows so dishonourable and troublesome to your Lordship, that that land of mine which is in Cornwall I have appointed to be sold.

And Timon presently says to Flavius (II.2.148 et seq.):

Let all my land be sold.
* * * * * *
To Lacedaemon did my land extend.

Lacedaemon is about the same distance from Athens that Cornwall is from London. The letter, moreover, had continued:

And to stop my creditors’ exclarnations—or rather defamations I may call them—I shall desire your Lordship, by virtue of this letter … to sell any portion of my land… .

Timon’s creditors make “clamorous demands,” Oxford’s “exclamations,” or “defamations.”

He must have been glancing over his correspondence when he wrote Timon—a constant practice of his, by the way—for he puts into the mouth of a Senator almost the same words he had used in this letter to Burghley:

My uses cry to me; I must serve my turn
Out of mine own.

Oxford had written his father-in-law:

I have no help but of mine own, and mine is made to serve me.

One of the hereditary offices of the Earls of Oxford as Lords Great Chamberlain was that of the Ewry, or Water-Bearer to the Monarch. It was purely honorary, a formal gesture of presenting water in a ewer on state occasions when the Monarch sat at meat. There is a direct reference to this in Lucullus’s lines (III.1.5-7):

One of Lord Timon’s men! a gift, I warrant. Why, this hits right;
I dreamt of a silver basin and ewer tonight.

It is recorded that in 1579 “The Queene’s New Yeares gift to therle of Oxfourde [was] a bason and ewer of our store, per oz. 72 oz. di. qr.” (4)

Timon’s bitter jest of serving his false friends and flatterers with covered dishes containing only warm water (III.6) is thus particularly ironical, expressing, as it does, the scorn of the impoverished Lord Great Chamberlain.

All his life Lord Oxford was to abhor the politic man, the one who fawned for favor, as both plays and Sonnets testify. Here a Servant says (III.3.28-31):

The devil knew not what he did when he made man politic; he crossed himself by ‘t; and I cannot think but in the end the villanies of man will set him clear.

Finally Timon becomes enraged, quite as Oxford did when he found that Burghley had not protected his interests and that he was in financial straits. As he had punned on Vere and Veritas in the inscription in the Greek Testament, so the Earl often introduces his name by the use of “ever” (E. Ver.) It is significant that he says (III.4.81 et seq.):

What! are my doors oppos’d against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my gaol?
* * * * * *
Come, cut of my heart in sum,
* * * * * *
Tell out my blood.
* * * * * *
Tear me, take me; and the gods fall upon you!

This of course prefigures Antonio-Oxford conceding to Shylock-Burghley the pound of flesh. Antonio and Timon are one. The cynic’s day of reckoning has not yet come.

Alcibiades speaks with Portia’s charitable temper when he reminds the Senators (III.5.8) that

… pity is the virtue of the law;

and Timon will presently say (IV.3.112-13):

Pity not honour’d age for his white beard;
He is a usurer;

referring again to the cynical Burghley, who not only had a “white beard” but had consistently practised usury, which, put down in Edward VI’s reign, he reinstated as a definite policy in the latter years of his life.

We take Alcibiades, the soldier, to be Gascoigne, the soldier-poet, who had been Oxford’s friend from boyhood but who had lately circumvented him by publicly sponsoring as his own the young Earl’s too candid verses.

Alcibiades. My heart is ever at your service, my lord.
Timon. You had rather be at a breakfast of enemies than a dinner of friends.
Alcibiades. So they were bleeding-new, my lord, there’s no meat like ’em;
I could wish my best friend at such a feast. (I.2.76-82.)

We read in this a taunt that Gascoigne would rather go over to a new set of persons who have no real affection for him than to stand by his old companion. And the other’s reply means that if they were wounded, as Hatton had been, and perhaps he means Elizabeth too, they are good meat for him; for doing them a service brought him a real “feast” (i.e., the Laureateship). Later Timon calls him “My Alcibiades” (II.2.15)

The scene (III.5) in which Alcibiades makes an appeal to the Senate for a friend who has killed a man, is so deliberately disguised that we cannot be sure how literally it may be taken. It is George Gascoigne pleading with Elizabeth, or even the Council perhaps, on Oxford’s behalf, but whether it is because he had been too outspoken in the poems he had written in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres which had metaphorically “killed” Hatton, or because he had actually killed a man, it is difficult to say. From evidence brought out in other plays it appears that Oxford may have killed a man for slandering him, and Elizabeth thereupon have banished him for a time from the court. He alludes to this situation in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Valentine says (IV.1.27-9):

I killed a man, whose death I much repent;
But yet I slew him manfully, in fight,
Without false vantage of base treachery;

and it comes up again in The Taming of the Shrew, another play written within two years of Timon, when Lucentio confesses (I.1.232):

I kill’d a man and fear I was descried.

Here Alcibiades assures the Senators (III.5.14 et seq.):

He is a man, setting his fate aside,
Of comely virtues;
Nor did he soil the fact with cowardice.—
An honour in him which buys out his fault,—
But with a noble fury and fair spirit,
Seeing his reputation touch’d to death,
He did oppose his foe… .

There is an argument, and the first Senator sums up with:

To revenge is no valour, but to bear;

which sounds like Burghley. Alcibiades appeals for mercy for his friend:

To kill, I grant, is sin’s extremest gust;
But in defence, by mercy, ’tis most just. (55-6.)

Presently the Second Senator remarks (69-75):

He’s a sworn rioter; he has a sin that of ten
Drowns him and takes his valour prisoner;
If there were no foes, that were enough
To overcome him; in that beastly fury
He has been known to commit outrages
And cherish factions; ’tis inferr’d to us
His days are foul and his drink dangerous.

Oxford’s candor is thoroughly disarming. If he did not let Burghley off anything, he was equally severe with himself. In the grip of his creative genius, he had a godlike detachment.

The First Senator announces (99);

We banish thee for ever.
Banish your dotage; banish usury….
Alcibiades. Banish me!

In the last scene Timon has turned against Alcibiades, as well as all the rest, quite as Oxford for a time must have turned against Gascoigne:

Timon. I pray thee, beat thy drum, and get thee gone (IV.3.95);

which is as we should say, “Blow your own horn, and leave me alone.” There are many points we shall have to skip, because of the number of plays to be examined. Besides ever name-hints, (5) there is another kind: the word, “rother,” which means ox, in Timon’s bitter speech (IV.3.1 et seq.):

It is the pasture lards the rother’s sides,
The want that makes him lean. Who dares, who dares,
In purity of manhood stand upright,
And say, “This man’s a flatterer?” if one be,
So are they all; for every grize of fortune
Is smooth’d by that below … all is oblique;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures
But direct villany. Therefore be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!
… Earth, yield me roots! [Digging]
What is here?
Gold! yellow, glittering gold! (12-26.)

But he will dig roots for himself now, and scorn gold.

Flavius expresses his master’s contempt for wealth, which was Oxford’s own feeling of revulsion, in 1576 and again twenty-five years later, when there are definite evidences that he put some new touches to Timon of Athens:

Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt,
Since riches point to misery and contempt?
Who would be mock’d with glory? or so live,
But in a dream of friendship? …
Poor honest lord! brought low by his own heart,
Undone by goodness. Strange, unusual blood,
When man’s worst sin is, he does too much good! (IV.2.31-9.)

Flavius may well be a presentment of Oxford’s faithful steward, Thomas Churchyard. (Does not the phrase, “a dream of friendship,” suggest Hamlet’s “But in a fiction, in a dream of passion”? The two plays are closely allied.) When Lord Oxford was only seventeen years old, he sent Churchyard as a kind of scout to Dillenburg, near Cologne, where William of Orange had withdrawn, in order to raise troops to combat the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands: young as he was, he wished to have first-hand information of the situation. (6) Churchyard was still serving the Earl loyally in 1590. Flavius was loyal to Timon in adverse fortune, just as Churchyard was to Oxford. He brings all his small store of wealth and offers it to Timon, who has gone to live in solitude, and when, in his new cynicism, the latter doubts his motive, he says (IV.3.510 et seq.):

No, my most worthy master; in whose breast
Doubt and suspect, alas! are plac’d too late.
You should have fear’d false times when you did feast;
Suspect still comes when an estate is least.
That which I show, heaven knows, is merely love,
Duty and zeal to your unmatchèd mind.

This is precisely the way Churchyard felt towards Lord Oxford.

It is Flavius’s speech (V.1.116-19) which gives the clue to the early title of the play, The Solitary Knight:

It is in vain that you would speak with Timon;
For he is set so only to himself
That nothing but himself, which looks like man,
Is friendly with him.

Mention must be made of the scene (IV.3) in which Alcibiades brings the two light women to Timon’s refuge. Following a speech about the “moon” (67-9), which, as it stands, would seem to belong to a later period, Timandra says:

Is this the Athenian minion, whom the world
Voic’d so regard fully?— (80.1.)

meaning Elizabeth’s—Diana’s—minion; as Falstaff does when he speaks (1H.IV: I.2.26-30) of “minions of the moon … being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon.”

Timon, like Hamlet, abhors painted faces:

Paint till a horse may mire upon your face… (148.)

Apemantus, the cynic—who is called a dog, because of the derivation of cynic from a Greek word meaning dog—comes to the forest to taunt Timon, with:

A poor unmanly melancholy sprung
From change of fortune. (IV.3.204-5.)

(We shall henceforth hear more of Oxford’s melancholy; it becomes a salient trait.)

… thou’dst courtier be again
Wert thou not beggar,

he mocks. (242-3) Shylock will say, “This is the fool that lent out money gratis.”

Timon’s bitter reply foreshadows another characteristic utterance, or rather, in this case, a characteristic piece of imagery:

… But myself,
Who had the world as my confectionary,
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes, and hearts of men
At duty, more than I could frame employment,
That numberless upon me stuck as leaves
Do on the oak, have with one winter’s brush
Fell from their boughs and left me open, bare
For every storm that blows
… (IV.3.260-7.)

From Timon of Athens through King Lear, the disasters which overwhelm the characters who stand, either wholly or partially, for Oxford himself, will be described as “wracks” or “storms.” And not only is this the case in the plays, but in his life too, as will be seen.

Apemantus’s sneering jibe that

When thou wast in thy gilt and thy perfume, they mocked thee for too much curiosity (303),

applies directly to Oxford who, especially after his return from Italy, was said to be “fantastical” in his dress. But the pun on medlars and meddlers (IV.3.307-10.) alludes in its conclusion to Burghley:

Apemantus. An thou hadst hated meddlers sooner, thou shouldst have loved thyself better now.

This will be borne out when the Earl’s father-in-law appears as Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida.

Timon derides the Senators who come to woo him back to Athens; but they touch his heart when they promise him so much “love and wealth” that they will “block out” the “wrongs” he has suffered,

And write in thee the figures of their love
Ever to read them thine. (V.1.155-6.)

So Elizabeth may have comforted the young Earl in his despair.

The first Senator promises that:

… thou shalt be met with thanks,
Allow’d with absolute power, and thy good name
Live with authority. (162-4.)

Here we have the “good name” again, almost an obsession with the Earl of Oxford.

But Timon is too badly hurt.

Come not to me again; but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood;
Who once a day with his embossèd froth
The turbulent surge shall cover.
* * * * * *
Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign. (V.1.215-24.)

He had been called Phoebus at court. Phoebus would no longer shine there.

Fortunately, the passionate young Earl was unduly pessimistic at this juncture. It was to be some time yet before his beams were hidden from the court.

Although we have nowhere in our reading seen the point suggested, it must surely be that Greek scholars have found in Timon of Athens a direct derivation from the Symposium of Plato. Timon-Oxford is merely a highly individualized English presentment of the charming and hospitable Agathon, who entertains his friends at a banquet soon after having been awarded a prize for a tragedy he has written. The dinner is even interrupted by the arrival of revellers and a flute-girl, as Timon’s is by Amazons with lutes, while at both feasts Alcibiades is present in person. Plutarch speaks of Alcibiades’s mistress, Timandra, who appears in this play. While the matter has seemed somewhat too tenuous to elaborate here, one suspects that, in a revision of Timon, made a number of years after Gascoigne’s death, Alcibiades transiently became the banished Oxford; for the magnificient young Alcibiades, beloved of the people, star pupil of Socrates, had, during a wild riot, desecrated the Eleusinian Mysteries, even painting the holy statues, and was, in consequence, publicly degraded and then exiled.

Incidentally, Timon’s speech (IV.3.434-40) beginning, “The sun’s a thief,” is closely related to one by Pythagoras in the concluding book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Many of Lord Oxford’s early dramas have their source in classical works, Greek and Latin, with which he was familiar long before some of them had appeared in English translation.


1. In this, we follow Mrs. Eva Turner Clark, who made a meticulous and exhaustive study of the old records. We are deeply indebted to her research also for many of the topical allusions in the plays; but we have, nevertheless, examined and interpreted all of them from the standpoint of our own reading, independently, and have made numerous recognitions and discoveries of our own. Mrs. Clark’s pioneer work in this field cannot be too highly praised. Feuillerat Documents, p. 270, cited here.

2. Her Infinite Variety; from A Celebration for Edith Sitwell, pub. by New Directions.

3. F. Chamberlin: The Sayings of Q. Eliz.; p. 143.

4. Nichols: Progresses, vol. II, p. 264.

5. We shall not stress Oxford’s use of ever, every, very, as name-clues, principally because it may seem far-fetched and irritating to many readers. We shall, therefore, leave them to decide for themselves regarding his intention. However, it may be well to quote, in this connection, from Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, a book which has nothing to do with the Oxford-Shakespeare question, certain remarks concerning the Elizabethan mentation: “fantastic and closely allied to action … it fostered a high and fantastical conception of the universe among men who lived in an England whose standards of hygiene, decency and humanitarianism would make a modern sick…. In 1914 when Joffre and French were commanders-in-chief, many people were truly delighted that each name contained six letters and that the last three letters of the first name and the first three of the second were identical. But in Elizabethan days the coincidence would have been felt to be truly portentous. Indeed the amount of intellectual and emotional satisfaction these correspondences then afforded is difficult both to imagine and to overestimate. What to us is merely silly might to an Elizabethan be a solemn or joyful piece of evidence that he lived in an ordered universe, where there was no waste and where every detail was a part of nature’s plan.” pp 41 and 78.

6. Ward; p. 29; cit. A Discourse Heroical, 1602; p. l0.

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