Chapter 16

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

Chapter Sixteen


ON JANUARY 5, 1579, the French envoy Simier arrived at the English court to carry on negotiations for the marriage of Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon. The Queen received him on Sunday, the 11th, and Leicester honored him with a supper. Following this was a grand ball and “an entertainment in imitation of a tournament between six ladies and a like number of gentlemen who surrendered to them.” (1)

This would have been the Double Maske—A Maske of Amasones and A Maske of knightes—which was “shewen before her maiestie the ffrench Imbassador being presente the sonday night after Twelfdaie.” (2) The “tournament” was a contest of wit; for not only is the word wit used forty-five times in the play, but also, in one scene, the Amasones are told to make ready:

Armed in arguments; you’ll be surpris’d:
Muster your wits; stand in your own defence. (V.2.84-5.)

In the beginning it is called “this civil war of wits.” (II.1.224.)

That The Rape of the second Helene and this comedy, which later came to be called Love’s Labour’s Lost, both have their scenes laid in France indicates that, since there had been three months’ advance notice of Simier’s arrival, they must have been prepared to some extent in his honor.

The Double Maske, even as we know it today, is a pure expression of Euphuism, a literary movement concerned with verbal expression, metaphor, rhetoric, juggling of words and sentences—including punning, anagrams, acrostics—which so fascinated the Elizabethans. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, was published at this time, with its author, John Lyly, after an association already covering some six years, now becoming Lord Oxford’s secretary and chief factotum, an office he held until the 1590’s.

Dr. Samuel Johnson once declared, apropos of Shakespeare, that a quibble had a malignant power over his mind, it was “the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career or stoop from his elevation.” But Dr. Johnson was here following the typical line Shakespearean criticism has taken, of judging the poet’s work and even his psychology by that of the critic’s own age: in this case applying the eighteenth-century attitude toward quips and quibbles, which failed to take note of the part such verbal gymnastics had played in the development and expressiveness of the language. The great poet was not turning aside or stooping from his elevation, he was not reaching for a spurious golden apple: he was mining for gold, exploring the veins that lay half hidden in the dense, hitherto impenetrable mass, revealing vast resources of wealth, of which such men as the erudite Dr. Johnson subsequently took casual advantage without questioning its source. If Shakespeare had not added five thousand words to the English language, many formulated from Greek and Latin roots. (3) Dr. Samuel Johnson could not have written so ample a dictionary.

Barrett Wendell understood the case better:

From the beginning of Elizabethan literature whoever had written had been constantly playing on words and with them (as with the badinage between Benedick and Beatrice). Fantastically extravagant as such verbal quibbles generally were, they resulted in unsurpassed mastery of the vocabulary. Combine such mastery of the vocabulary with an instinctive sense that words are only symbols of actual thoughts, and the quibbler or punster becomes a wit of the first quality.

In later times, following Addison’s and Johnson’s lead, men came to look with complacent superiority if not contempt upon some of the verbal exercises of the Elizabethans; but these sixteenth-century writers were pioneers examining the possibilities, feeling out the resources of a rigid and uncultivated but fertile medium, and it does not behoove their beneficiaries to carp at the techniques they employed.

Heywood asserted that, through the means of the Drama, English had been raised “from the most rude and unpolished tongue” to “a most perfect and composed language.” And of whose drama could this more effectively have been said than that of Shakespeare? If, as T. S. Eliot has observed (in The Sacred Wood), “Every development of language is a development of feeling as well,” the debt of English speaking people to this great genius becomes immeasurable.

Throughout his work Oxford punned on his name, Vere, or Ver (pronounced Vair), which in its several definitions was highly provocative to him. First of all it meant truth. Ver, as it was occasionally written, meant spring of the year: Oxford punned on it to mean spring of water, or well, which the Elizabethans sometimes spelled wyll; [According to Nina Green, there is no evidence for this claim.] it thus stood for brook too, or beck. (One of his titles was Lord Bolebec, or Bulbeck.) The word will was also a synonym of desire. The longest poem among those known to be by the young Edward de Vere is on Desire, a theme predominant throughout his work. One commentator has observed that “Shakespeare gave immortal expression to desire and its offspring, love, jealousy, etc. . . . Desire, in especial, has inspired him with phrases more magically expressive even than those gasped out by panting Sappho.” (4)

A poet, in Elizabethan times, was sometimes called Willy. [According to Nina Green, there is no evidence for this claim.] Spenser called Sidney that in the early days, and later, Oxford. After the adoption of his nom de plume, Oxford was nicknamed by his playwright friends “Gentle Master William” (“gentle” used in the sense of gentility or aristocracy), while Nashe referred to him on occasion as “Will Monox.”

Veru means spear; ver is French for worm; verres means boar; and the Earl punned on these forms too, the boar being his cognizance. (5) Elizabeth called Lord Oxford her Turk. And even this name had a complex significance, for the Gaelic word, Torc, means boar. We have previously noted that he always spelled virtue “vertue”. thus he connected it with his name, and, because he was a knight imbued with the code of chivalry, virtue—”vertue,” like his “good name”—was an ideal to him.

We have already quoted Gilbert Talbot’s pun in a letter to his mother about “the young Earl of Oxford, of that ancient and Very family of the Veres.” Oxford used all the variants and combinations of Ver—truth, vertue, ever, never, very, every, verity, even at times discover, persevere, etc., etc.—not only consciously but purposefully throughout the plays, as a signature. In its different forms it threads and branches within the body of his work like an arterial system which centered in the poet’s heart. His “good name” was dearer to him than his life’s blood, and the Sonnets attest that he made almost a fetish of a great name’s immortality. Those who scorn to read his signature or care nothing for his name’s immortality are scorning the poet himself.

Lord Oxford, with Lyly as his secretary, headed the Euphuist literary movement and was its representative at court. Other member of the clique were Anthony Munday and later Thomas Lodge.

During the year 1579 Munday dedicated The Mirror of Mutability to his patron in the following words:

To the Right Honourable and his singular good Lord and Patron Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxenford, Lord of Escales and Badlesmere, and Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Anthony Munday wisheth in this world a triumphant tranquillity, with continual increase of honourable dignity, and after this life a crown of everlasting felicity in the eternal hierarchy.

After that I had delivered (Right Honourable) unto your courteous and gentle perusing my book entitled Galien of France…. [He continues with an account of his desire to attain to “a pithiness of style,” and concludes] I rest, Right Honourable, on your clemency, to amend my errors committed so unskilfully….

At the end is a Latin poem addressed:

Ad preclarum et nobillissimum virum, E. O.:

My noble master, farewell. May your desires which are dear to us all prevail. Earnestly do I pray for your welfare and success in the struggle. To the guardianship of Christ I commit you and yours, till the day when as conquerors we may peacefully resume our delightful literary discussions. (6)

Munday meant the Earl’s “desires” to raise the status of literature and to improve the condition of the stage.

This sidelight upon the struggle in which Lord Oxford was already engaged is illuminating. With the publication of his next book, Zelauto, the Fountain of Fame, “By A. M., Servant to the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxenforde,” Munday shows that he is now employed by the Earl. This rather turgid composition at least gives some idea of the nature of “the struggle”; for Zelauto seems to be a roughly allegorical representation of Oxford himself, who, standing before the Soldan, says: “But now attend you noble freemen to write and you modest Patrons: First I come to sue and intreate, that you would remember the race it [i.e., literature] is descended of; Heere I am by force of armes to defend it against any other champion that will live and dye in its defence.”

Lyly’s second volume, Euphues and his England, is similarly dedicated; and because it deals with “the estate of England,” he requests the Earl’s protection, since

I know none more fit to defend it than one of the Nobility of England, nor any of the Nobility more ancient and honourable than your Lordship; besides that describing the condition of the English Court and the Majesty of our dread Sovereign, I could not find one more noble in Court than your Honour, who is or should be under Her Majesty chiefest in Court, by birth born to the greatest office, and therefore, methought, by right to be placed in great authority; for whoso compareth the honour of your Lordship’s noble house with the felicity of your ancestors may well say, which no other can truly gainsay, Vero nihil verius.

These two men, in common with many others, received from Lord Oxford encouragement—including his reading of their manuscripts as well as protection. In fact, Lyly could never have launched his Sapho and Phao, to say nothing of his Endymion, independently. Elizabeth would have come down on him with a blast of indignation; he was able to represent her in these plays only because he had a strong amtcus curiae. All Lyly’s writing was done while he was in the employ of the Earl of Oxford; and it is especially notable that the lovely lyrics which occur in his plays—in the body of which the poetry is uniformly mediocre—were not included in the contemporary versions but only in Blount’s collected edition published in 1632, twenty six years after Lyly’s death; and they are so strikingly similar to the poems and lyrics in Oxford’s dramas both in imagery and choice of words that the question invites special study. A brief comment must suffice here.

Gabriel Harvey recorded that he first knew Lyly in the Savoy, where apartments could be had on the recommendation of an influential friend. In his twenty-third year Edward de Vere had begun renting apartments in the Savoy, where he was no doubt housing his “lewd friends,” as Burghley called them. Lyly’s biographer, R. Warwick Bond, in observing that Lyly “was engaged as private secretary to the Earl and admitted to his confidence,” adds, “Suggestion, encouragement and apparatus thus lay ready to Lyly’s hand.”

With the unfortunate tendency scholars have for finding Shakespeare derivative, thrown out of gear as they are by the confusion of dates—Shakespeare, they say, learned this from Lyly, borrowed that from Marlowe, and so on—Mr. Bond states that

In comedy Lyly is Shakespeare’s only model . . . imitation of him is abundant…. It extends beyond the boundaries of mechanical style to the more important matters of structure and spirit. . . . [Lyly was] the first regular English dramatist, the true inventor and introducer of dramatic style, conduct and dialogue, and in these respects the chief master of Shakespeare.

How he thought John Lyly learned these things only Mr. Bond an his Creator knew! Yet he continues further on:

Lyly was one whose immense merits and originality were obscured by his surface-qualities, the artificiality and tedium of his style.

And he says of Euphues:

The book is artificial, divorced from homely realities. It is deficient, too, in characterization and pathos; but undoubtedly its chief defect is its want of action . . . [which is] probably referable to poverty of invention. (7)

The conclusion to be drawn from these and other similar statements on the part of both Bond and Sidney Lee is, as Mr. Looney has pointed out—has indeed established as a fact—”that the real inventor of those things which Shakespeare is supposed to have derived from Lyly was the Earl of Oxford. . . . The inventiveness and dramatic form and dialogue in Lyly’s plays is therefore due to Oxford’s participation either direct or indirect.” The Earl was of course not signing his name to any of his own productions, and he was known to be the patron of writers, giving them financial support as well as literary encouragement. Not only can it be said that Lyly did his best work while in the employ of Oxford: he produced nothing at all except during that time. Looney remarks that, “As a kind of unconscious Boswell to the Earl of Oxford it is more than probable that even his Euphues owes much to his intercourse with his patron.”

We respectfully protest that Mr. Looney is far too temperate. Deriving so much as Lyly did from his patron, he could hardly have been an “unconscious” Boswell. Actually Euphues was entered in the Stationers’ Register, December 2, 1578, as “compiled by John Lyllie.’ And this would have been a strange procedure on the part of a independent author of an original novel—the first, as Mr. Bond observes, of all the English novels. In listing the works which most notably influenced Lyly, Mr. Bond is merely citing those intimately associated with Lord Oxford: Ovid, The Courtyer, and “Gascoigne’s [sic] A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres”; the last of course being, for the most part, Oxford’s own poems! He makes parallels of ideas an phrases appearing in Euphues and in Shakespeare’s plays; and h states that “Jaques is simply Euphues Redivivus.” Actually Jaques is simply the Earl of Oxford, and Lyly was anything but “an unconscious Boswell.”

Indeed, the long opening paragraph of Euphues is a description of Lord Oxford as he reveals himself in the dramas, even to the extent of Hamlet’s “mole of nature,” with Timon leading off:

There dwelt in Athens a young gentleman of great patrimonie & of so comely a personage that it was doubted whether he were more bound to Nature for the lineaments of his person, or to fortune for the encrease of his possessions. . . .

It is more than ordinarily shocking to find the scholarly, conscientious Mr. Bond remarking, “Shakespeare could claim no classical learning at all on a par with that of his highly educated predecessor.” It is not only deplorable, it is positively tragic, that critics of unquestionable literary distinction should have been led into such absurd, shallow, and destructive judgments regarding the man whose mind has been called “the mightiest intellect that ever lived upon earth.” Ben Jonson with his tune of “small Latin and less Greek” has been their Pied Piper. Hypnotized, they have danced in his wake into a literary limbo which is the death of intelligent criticism.

The fact seems incontestable that Lord Oxford, with his “prodigious fertility of thought” and fluency, simply poured out the material of Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, while the admiring, energetic Lyly took it down, or, as the Stationers’ Register records, “compiled” it. The text contains a wealth of classical learning of the very kind which forms a basis of the knowledge Shakespeare shows in the dramas, as well as the beginnings of his philosophy. It reveals material fresh from the tables of his memory—the “trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there.” The truth cries out for recognition. Euphues is Oxford Redivivus.

In our opinion, Lyly’s Endymion, The Man in the Moon, not only shows unmistakable signs of Oxford’s auctorial hand, but the Earl even furnished the subject-matter of it: he is obviously Endymion, and Elizabeth Cynthia, the Moon.

Euphuism has been defined as “the form assumed in England by a linguistic movement which, at some particular stage of development, affected every literature in modern Europe. The process in all countries was the same, namely to refine the vocabulary and syntax of the language by adapting the practice of early writers to the usage of modern conversation.” (8)

We might add that one of the literary practices conspicuously adapted by Oxford, and consequently by Euphues, was antithesis, a characteristic of the Greek dramatists; another he used was alliteration. Both are employed to excess in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, as well as in his unsigned poems in contemporary anthologies; and both are found in the Earl’s plays, alliteration especially in his earlier work, antithesis with magnificent effect in Macbeth.

The Double Maske, then, which was presented at court in January 1579, celebrated Euphuism in its purest form. Incidentally, it is the only non-historical play of Edward de Vere’s, besides Hamlet and the quasi-historical Macbeth (excepting Arden of Feversham and certain apocryphal plays, such as Sir Thomas More and Sir John Oldcastle) which uses names of well-known personages. Although of course most of the characters have fictitious names, Alençon is referred to by his title, as well as by his given names, Francis—”Oh marry me to one Francis”—and Hercules.

The lines (II.161-2),

A man in all the world’s new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain,

refers directly to Euphuism, to its protagonist.

The title adopted when this play was rewritten was Love’s Labour’s Lost. We are given a vivid impression—if not indeed a kind of fictional recapitulation—of the persiflage and banter in which Elizabeth and her court frequently indulged, such as could have been written only by a member of the coterie, himself a polished courtier. Many incidents of the progress of 1578 are retailed; and the dramatist sketches with effervescent though gentle mockery some of the personages, including, in the characters of Berowne and Armado, his own gay and irrepressible self. Lord Oxford had a deadly insight and, artist that he predominantly was, he could no more blindfold this than he could mute his fluent and often unruly tongue.

The prototype of Sir Nathaniel, with his opening remark (IV.2),

Very reverend sport, truly; and done in the testimony of a good conscience

was Nathaniel Woods a minister in Norwich, where the recent progress had stopped for a while after visiting Cambridge; he wrote a play, The Conflict of Conscience, printed in 1581. And the Dutchman, from the Dutch Colony at Norwich who, in All’s Well, is quoted as saying “Lustig,” is here referred to in the line (V.2.247):

“Veal,” quoth the Dutchman.

The pedant, Holofernes, is undoubtedly Gabriel Harvey, who was called Hobbinol by Spenser; though amiably caricatured, he seems to have been hurt nonetheless. This is understandable. He was a poor scholar vain of his learning, who had been accorded the distinction of addressing the greatest of the realm; he had done so with a certain exaltation, and now he was made ridiculous by the man he had so signally honored. The fact that the Earl made himself equally ridiculous, comforted him not at all. Harvey was utterly deficient in a sense of humor, but many of us are not amused by jokes about ourselves.

Hatton the (psalm-singing) Puritan is rightly jibed at. Oxford could no more keep his wit off Hatton than he was ever able to keep it off Burghley. In The Two Gentlemen he will speak of Hatton as “vain Thurio,” who “borrows his wit,” and of his “dire lamenting elegies.” One of the poems about “Master F. I.” in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres went thus:

Fayre Bersabe the bright once bathing in a Well,
With dewe bedimmd King Davids eyes that ruled Israell.
And Salomon him selfe, the source of sapience,
Against the force of such assaultes could make but small defence:
To it the stoutest yeeld, and strongest feele like woo,
Bold Hercules and Sampson both, did prove it to be so.
What wonder seemeth then? when stars stand thick in skies,
If such a blasing starre have power to dim my dazled eyes?

Elizabeth’s charms had, of course, called forth the Fair Bersabe image. We gather that the psalm-singing Hatton had written a sonnet full of such Biblical significance—the images perhaps borrowed from Oxford—and signed with his posy, Felix Infortunatus, which Oxford had improved upon and mischievously satirized in this one in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. The Earl himself had certainly been King David to Elizabeth’s Bersabe during their stay at Bath together in 1572—this sojourn being the subject of the longest poem in the Flowres collection, Dan Bartholmew of Bath, and also the subject, differently disguised, of Sonnets 153 and 154. The point here is that as David, author of the Psalms, could not withstand the allurement of Fair Bersabe, neither could a modern psalm-singer resist that of Bersabe’s modern counterpart. Now “Hercules” stands for Hercule-François Alençon, and Hatton has become the strong man, “Samson.” There is a pun on Hatton’s excellent carriage.

Thus the incorrigible Earl in his own absurd role of Armado (I.2.67 et seq.):

Armado. Most sweet Hercules! … name more; let them be men of good repute and carriage.
Moth. Samson, master; he was a man of good carriage, great carriage, for he carried the town-gates on his back like a porter; and he was in love.
Armado. O well-knit Samson! strong-jointed Samson! I do excel thee in my rapier as much as thou didst me in carrying gates. I am in love too. Who was Samson’s love, my dear Moth?
Moth. A woman, master.
Armado. Of what complexion?….. Tell me presently of what complexion.
Moth. Of the sea-water green, sir.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Armado. Green indeed is the colour of lovers; but to have a lover of that colour, methinks Samson had small reason for it. My love is most immaculate white and red.
Moth. Most maculate thoughts, are masked under such colours.

There is some jest about Hatton, who can be seen in his portraits to have been “a man of good carriage,” carrying something which we know nothing about, but Armado’s “rapier” is Oxford’s sharp and probing wit. And Hatton was no match for it—which was one cause of his hatred. The Tudor colors—here used for Elizabeth’s “complexion”—were green and white. Oxford always writes of Elizabeth as “red and white”—”roses and lilies.” He considers it impertinent for one of Hatton’s status, no better than a porter, to be in love with the Queen, whom he calls “immaculate,” following the fashion which held her to be a virgin, although it was well enough known that she wasn’t. Oxford’s “maculate” thoughts about her were masked under the words of his poems, describing her as Diana, chaste, red and white, and so on.

He pricks the solemn Hatton again when Berowne (also Oxford), in making fun of all the lovers, says (IV.3.162-7):

O me! with what strict patience have I sat,
To see a king transformed to a gnat;
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Solomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at push-pin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys.

Himself, as the dramatist, is “critic Timon,” who has learned to take a cynical attitude when he sees such sights as himself—as King David, lover of Elizabeth-Bersabe—”transformed to a gnat”: that is to say, put on a par with such rivals as Hercules-Alençon (“great Hercules” reduced to such a role) and Hatton, who brings the “profound” Songs of Solomon down to a jigging level—this Puritan who had “danced his way into the Queen’s favour in a galliard.”

When Armado says (I.2.171-4),

Yet was Samson so tempted, and he had an excellent strength; yet was Solomon so seduced, and he had a very good wit. Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules’ club, and therefore too much odds for a Spaniard’s rapier, he is embroidering the same theme.

Some editors—W. J. Craig, of the Oxford edition among them—have altered the name “Francis” to “Frances” in Costard’s speech,

O! marry me to one Francis: I smell some 1’envoy, some goose, in this (III.1.121-2.),

simply because they do not understand that François, duc d’Alençon, is meant, and that the “l’envoy” Costard smells in his “envoy,” the perfumed Simier sent to promote the marriage.

The chief incidents in the Double Maske, which was actually not a play as such, referred to the visit paid by Henry of Navarre to his wife, Marguerite de Valois, during the preceding year, 1578, to settle among questions, a matter of dowry involving towns in Acquitaine, and Catherine de’ Medici’s presence at their meeting accompanied by a group of Maids of Honour brought from the French court, who were called the “Flying Squadron.” These were subjects of great interest to Elizabeth and her associates, as well of course as to the visiting French emissaries.

The revised form, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which has come down to us, was kept as euphuistic as the original must have been at the height of the fashion. It has more rhymed lines than any of the other dramas: 1150 out of a total of 2785. Owing, no doubt, to a printer’s error, there are two passages each of which is duplicated in sense, showing that they had been recast, although the former versions are inadvertently included. In IV.3, lines 315-51 repeat 294-314; and in V.2, lines 818-64 repeat 812-17. In revising, Oxford always left in the text the original topical allusions, as if purposely to indicate the date of composition; these are invaluable pointers today, as he knew they would be.

The Areopagus, the literary club opposing the Euphuists, was represented by Philip Sidney, Dyer, Spenser, and probably Gabriel Harvey. Its object was to silence “bald rhymers, and also of the very best too,” and it had “prescribed certain laws and rules of quantities of English verse.” Evidently a friendly rivalry existed between the two opposing groups. There was room in the burgeoning field of English letters for the theories and activities of both. Spenser said he had been “drawn in” to the faction of the Romanticists. But it is certain that he was always a devoted admirer of Oxford.

The aim of the Romanticists was to rewrite and adapt the old stories of knighthood, making them more suitable and attractive to their own times, their idea being to develop what we should call a love-story in the form of a novel. It was the story in which Sidney was interested, while Oxford’s chief preoccupation was with “the refining and enriching,” as Ward puts it, of the English language. He was not only the Queen’s “allowed fool,” he was her “corrupter of words.”

An incident is related by Courthope which brings the two young poets vis-à-vis in their literary aspect. He was unaware that he was paraphrasing one of the Earl’s own expressions when he described Lord Oxford as “not only witty in himself, but the cause of wit in others. Several of the courtiers,” he continues, “set themselves to solve the problem proposed in his well-known epigram—

Were I a King, I might command content,
Were I obscure, unknown would be my cares,
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears,
A doubtful choice of these three which to crave,
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.

Sir Philip Sidney declared that there could be no doubt as to the answer:

Wert thou a King, yet not command content,
Sith empire none thy mind could yet suffice.
Wert thou obscure, still cares would thee torment,
But wert thou dead, all care and sorrow dies.

An easy choice of these three which to crave,
No kingdom, nor a cottage, but a grave.” (9)

Philip Sidney (who was not, by the way, knighted until three year before his death) was beyond all doubt an estimable young man courtly and brave; his generous act of giving the dying soldier his cup of water when he himself sorely thirsted has been celebrated for hundreds of years. As a poet, however, he was merely facile: imitative (to put it charitably) at best, sentimental and even silly at worst; but he is a national hero. As Ward observed, “For every historian who has devoted an hour to reading about Lord Oxford there are hundred who have devoted years to studying Sidney’s life.”

It is characteristic of the strange injustices history has perpetrated and perpetuated, that the story of the famous quarrel upon the tennis court between these two young courtiers has always been given from Sidney’s side. Incidentally, the significance of the spat itself has been absurdly exaggerated. It was a transitory affair; the two men became friends again and were partners as defendants in a tournament in January 1581; while to the end of his life Lord Oxford was devoted to Sidney’s sister, Mary Countess of Pembroke, sharing with her many literary interests, and one of his daughters married her younger son.

A slight preamble is essential for getting the story into focus, an the story is germane to our present study.

By the summer of 1579 everyone about the court had taken side upon the question of the Alençon match. The majority favored it, and this included Sussex, Burghley, Hunsdon, and Oxford, who had finally—ostensibly—come round. Leicester was strongly opposed, and Philip Sidney, who was his nephew and prospective heir, stood by him. It is possible that there was already a slight friction between Sidney an Oxford on this account.

Lord Oxford was four years older than Philip Sidney. Evidence that he viewed the younger man’s literary imitativeness and his excessive elegance of manner with an amused tolerance, is abundant in Berowne-Oxford’s description of Boyet-Sidney in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.2.316-35) which at the outset twits Sidney for plagiarism:

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease,
And utters it again when God doth please.

Two instances will suffice to illustrate the point, one in which Sidney borrows from Spenser, the other from Oxford. He himself, it should be said, admitted that soldiery was his métier, not poetry, and he confessed that he got ideas from others.

Spenser wrote as follows in the August eclogue of The Shepheard’s Calendar:

Will. Be thy bagpipes run far out of frame?
Or lovest thou, or be thy younglings miswent?

Sidney, in Dialogue between two shepheards:

Will. What? Is thy bagpipe broke or are thy lambs miswent?

De Vere wrote, in his Dialogue on Desire:

What fruits have lovers for their pains?
Their ladies, if they true remain,
A good reward for true desire.
What was thy meat and daily food?
What hadst thou then to drink?
Unfeigned lover’s tears.

Sidney’s Shepheard’s Dialogue:

What wages mayst thou have?
Her heavenly looks which more and more
Do give me cause to crave.
What food is that she gives?
Tear’s drink, sorrow’s meat. (10)

It has been said by Sidney Lee that “Petrarch, Ronsard and Desportes inspired the majority of Sidney’s efforts and his addresses to abstractions like sleep, the moon, his muse, grief, or lust are almost verbatim translations from the French.”

His contemporaries would not have failed to note this; certainly nothing escaped Oxford’s Argus-eye, as it was soon to be called. Sidney’s Shepheard’s Dialogue had been presented at a pastoral show given at Wilton, his sister’s home. Thus Berowne, speaking of Boyet (V.2.318-19):

He is wit’s pedlar, and retails his wares
At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs,
And we that sell by gross, the Lord doth know
Have not the grace to grace it with such show.

Dean Church’s statement that “Sidney was not without his full share of that affectation which was then thought refinement” would no doubt have been considered rather mild by a contemporary who, like Oxford, would have found it irritatingly overdone.

The remainder of the speech from which we have quoted the first lines (L.L.L.:V.2.316-35) testifies to this feeling:

This gallant pins the wenches on his sleeve;
Had he been Adam, he had tempted Eve;
He can carve too; why, this is he
That kissed his hand away in courtesy;
This is the ape of form, monsieur the nice,
That, when he plays at tables, chides the dice
In honourable terms. . . . .

………….. The ladies call him sweet;
The stairs, as he treads on them, kiss his feet.

. . . . . . . . .

And consciences, that will not die in debt
Pay him the due of honey-tongu’d Boyet.

(Ben Jonson, no mean plagiarist himself, in satirizing Oxford—Cynthia’s Revels: III.2—makes use of one of these lines and this metre in describing a procession of courtiers when he says, Another

         anon cloth seem
As he would kiss away his hand in kindness;
Then he walks off melancholic, and stands wreath’d,
As he were pinn’d up to the arras thus.)

Considering how much Oxford could have said, his satire would seem to be mild enough. No doubt Sidney, on seeing the Double Maske at court, had somewhat mixed emotions: he would have been flattered by the general picture of Boyet and miffed by some of the details. Of course there is no assurance that Berowne’s little critique upon Boyet appeared in the original version; but the chances are all that it did, for the first two lines are decidedly in Oxford’s early manner, and it would have given him wicked delight to clothe his delicate satire in the “bald rhyme” to which Sidney’s Areopagus so objected.

Returning to the tennis-court quarrel, it is only fair to say that, since Fulke Greville’s account of the incident was written many years later, from memory, and not published until 1652, and also since he almost worshipped Sidney, it can scarcely be taken as infallible. He refers to Oxford as “a peer of the Realm, born great, greater by alliance [he must have meant through Burghley’s political power], and superlative in the Prince’s favour.” It seems that Oxford and Sidney had sharp words within earshot of the French Commissioners who, “unfortunately, had that day audience in those private galleries whose windows looked into the Tennis Court. They instantly drew all to this tumult, every sort of quarrel sorting well with their humours, especially this.”

In a long-winded and roundabout statement, Greville relates the story as he recalls it. He contradicts his first assertion, that Sidney was on the court when Oxford arrived, by showing later that the reverse was true, Sidney being the interloper after whose departure “the great Lord . . . continues his play.” So it seems that Oxford was playing when Sidney came onto the court with some friends. Oxford shouted to him to go away. Perhaps he called out in the heat of the game, using the Elizabethan equivalent of “scram.” From what has been recorded even by some of his enemies, as by almost everyone who knew him, the Earl was invariably courteous; but in the absorption of an exciting game of tennis a man is likely to shout.

Sidney protested, evidently drawing himself up and getting on his dignity, and Oxford, irked by having to go through all this when he wished only to finish his game, shouted the louder, requesting him to take himself and his friends out of the way. Whereupon Sidney, we are told,

temperately answers that if his Lordship had been pleased to express desire in milder characters perchance he might have led out those that he now should find would not be driven out with any scourge of fury. This answer (like a bellows) blowing up the sparks of excess already kindled, made my Lord scornfully call Sir Philip by the name of Puppy. Sidney looking up and seeing the French Commissioners] asked my Lord with a loud voice that which he had heard clearly enough before. [And] my Lord … repeated this epithet of “puppy” the second time. [On this Sidney] gave my Lord a lie, impossible (as he averred) to be retorted; in respect all the world knows, Puppies are gotten by Dogs, and Children by Men. Hereupon those glorious inequalities of fortune in his Lordship were put to a kind of pause by a precious inequality in this gentleman. [Whatever that means!] So that they both stood silent for a while like a dumbshow in a tragedy; [then with dignity Sidney leaves, and] the great Lord … continues his play.

Greville seems, in his overweening loyalty to his friend, to have considered “the great Lord” brutal, when he was probably never more than half-serious, exasperated with such silly solemnity, and only wished to finish his game. He evidently dismissed the incident as too trivial to notice, but not so the other. Greville proceeds:

A day Sir Philip remains in suspense, when hearing nothing of, he sends a gentleman of worth to awake him out of his trance; wherein the French would surely think any pause, if not death, yet a lethargy of true honour in them both. This stirred a resolution in his Lordship to send Sidney a challenge …

which, as Sidney was reminded by his friends, a nobleman was in honor bound to do.

The upshot was that the Queen took the matter in hand and forbad the two hotheads to fight a duel, reminding them of “the difference in degree between Earls and Gentlemen,”

and the necessity in Princes to maintain their own creations, as degrees descending between the people’s licentiousness and the anointed sovereignty of Crowns; how the Gentleman’s neglect of the Nobility taught the peasant to insult both. (11)

The phrase about the Prince’s “own creations” is reminiscent of the King’s speech in All’s Well: II.3.159-60:

It is in us to plant thine honour where
We please to have it grow;

and the last line, about the “Nobility” and the “peasant,” suggests a passage from Hamlet, which will be begun within “three years,” since the play will be produced in four:

By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe. (V.1.143-6.)

Although against the Queen’s fiat Sidney made proud and honorable protestations, the matter was settled; that is, it was dropped, though there are many pointed but good-natured allusions to it in the plays, as will presently be seen. (12)

However, we have other information regarding this famous quarrel which, as Ward says, is “of far greater importance historically because it is absolutely contemporary with the event.” This comes from a letter from Sidney’s friend Languet in Antwerp, with whom he corresponded in Latin, and Languet expressed himself very sensibly, as it would seem. He had not only had an account of the affair from a common friend, Clusius, but had analyzed Sidney’s own version set forth in a letter received from him. Languet does not hesitate to tell Sidney:

You have gone further than you ought to have done carried away by your quick temper, you sent him a challenge. . . . If you had stood fast after you had given your adversary the lie [Query: does this mean by saying he was not a puppy?], it would have been his business to challenge you. . . . I am aware that by a habit inveterate in all Christendom a nobleman is disgraced if he does not resent such an insult. (13)

With characteristics French realism, Languet wrote further:

If the arrogance and insolence of Oxford has roused you from your trance, he has done you less wrong than they who have hitherto been more indulgent to you.

Sidney retired for a time to his sister’s house at Wilton, where he had leisure to write The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. It may be taken as certain that if Lady Pembroke did not hold the affair against Oxford, his behavior to her brother could not have been very reprehensible.

Elizabeth, who had no idea of allowing these two bright young courtiers to exterminate one another—or one the other—may have been somewhat more severe with Leicester’s nephew than she would ordinarily have been (she was to be far more severe with Oxford in time). She may have taken pleasure in paying Leicester off still further; for by now she had learned of his marriage to Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex, and was not receiving him at court.

The alert and artful Simier had made the discovery that Leicester had been secretly married, and it was he who gave the information to the Queen during the summer of 1579. She had grown very fond of Simier, whom she called her monkey, punning on his name. Elizabeth was restrained by Sussex from putting Leicester into the Tower, but she had him confined in a small fort then standing in Greenwich Park. (14)

Elizabeth’s jealousy of the new Countess of Leicester was extreme. She is said to have resented the magnificence of Lettice’s gowns and of the richly appointed coach in which she drove around London. In 1579 she went so far as to box her rival’s car in public, just as the angry Queen in 2 Henry VI boxes the Duchess of Gloucester’s (I.3.139-40):

(The Queen drops her fan.)
Give me my fan; what, minion! can ye not:
(Giving the Duchess a box on the ear.)
I cry you mercy, madam; was it you?

Elizabeth would have pronounced this final sarcasm with relish. (The scene is all the more pointed because other references in 2 Henry VI belong to the year 1579, as well.)

So it was that, to the literary opposition between Oxford and Philip Sidney and their constitutionally opposed loyalties, was added a brief but, on the younger man’s part, burning animosity resulting from the tennis-court quarrel. But it did not last. He will appear in several comedies before becoming Poins to Oxford’s Prince Hal and all will be merry again.

At this very time Spenser, who had gone to live at Leicester House with Sidney, was writing, under the pseudonym of Immerito, his Shepheard’s Calendar, including in the August eclogue a rhyming match written shortly before the tennis episode, which was held between Perigot (Oxford) and Willye (Sidney.) (15) He himself, as Cuddie, says, in an introduction which may refer to the Were I a King match:

Gynne when ye lyst, ye jolly shepheards twayne.
Sike a judge as Cuddie were for a king.

Perigot begins:

Per. It fell upon a holy eve,
Wil. Hey, ho, hollidaye!
Per. When holy fathers wont to shieve;
Wil. Now gynneth this roundelay.
Per. Sitting on a hill so hye,
Wil. Hey, ho, the hye hyll!
Per. The whyle my flocks did feed thereby,
Wil. The whyle the shepherd selfe did spill.
Per. I saw the bouncing Bellibone,
Wil. Hey, ho, Bonibell!
Per. Tripping over the dale alone,
Wil. She can trippe it very well.
Per. Well decked in a frocke of gray,
Wil. Hey, ho, gray is greete!
Per. And in a kirtle of greene saye,
Wil. The greene is for maidens meete.
Per. A chapelet on her head she wore,
Wil. Hey, ho, the chapelet!
Per. Of sweete Violets therein was store,
Wil. She sweeter than the Violet.

One writer has been able sufficiently to penetrate the smoke-screen to state the following:

Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is unfortunate in being chiefly known to posterity as the antagonist of Sidney in the quarrel already alluded to [on the tennis-court]; beyond this little is recorded of him. We see, however, that he was a great patron of literature, and headed the literary party at Court which promoted the Euphuistic movement. (16)

‘Little is recorded of him” because history has been criminally juggled by an ambitious contriver, because, for a positive and ignoble purpose, much that belonged by right to posterity was in the beginning deliberately destroyed, throwing the whole story as badly out of proportion as has been that of the tennis-court quarrel.

Historians cannot be absolved from the charge of sloth and easy methods. Had they been willing to pursue their investigations into out of the way places, instead of following the broad and beaten track—had they even been willing to follow clues by means of independent and directed reasoning, they could have discovered truths which were there for the seeking.

For instance, the records of the Master of Revels show that Queen Elizabeth delighted in plays, masques and interludes: there are detailed statements of such entertainments at court, besides letters, plays and other documents testifying to the popularity of what Jonson was to call “Cynthia’s Revels.” The drama had an immense fascination for this Queen. She improved the estate of actors, who had hitherto been vagabonds, giving them their own livery and making them Grooms of the Chamber. It is impossible in a well-rounded picture of her and her era to omit her prime enthusiasm, to say nothing of the service she thus rendered to English culture. And yet famous historians have casually omitted it, at best squinting at it myopically as they passed by. Not only that. They have given no inkling of her acquaintance with her foremost courtier and dramatist—with the foremost dramatist of all time—a man whom she not only encouraged but loved, for a long period passionately, whom she no doubt felt she had “created,” and whom she certainly helped to make and then helped to ruin, a man with whose life her own was inextricably woven in a relationship which inspired poetry of a grandeur no other era in the history of the world has surpassed.

The Earl of Oxford was in his day proclaimed on every side as the best of all for poetry and drama alike. Actually, he created the Elizabethan theatre. Plays—his plays—were constantly presented at court. Yet the historians are content to declare that little is known of him, and some even state that Elizabeth was too busy to take interest in such things as stage-plays. (17)

One of the most profoundly discouraging features of this anomalous situation is that a vast edifice of so-called biography and commentary has been erected to celebrate as the author of Shakespeare’s works a man who, because he had a similar name, was used by “the grand possessors” of the manuscripts of the plays as a dummy, in order to conceal—for a time at least, as they must have hoped—the true author. This is all largely fictional, compounded of guesswork and conjecture, since there is no documentary evidence whatever to support the claims that are made for his authorship. But now matters grow worse. Now straight fiction is being written, so suavely, with so deceptive a veneer of scholarship, that millions of readers are beguiled and cheated. A prominent English author published in 1949 such a book which can hardly even be called a pseudo-biography and which was brought out in this country with great réclame. He is very sophisticated: he uses all the tricks of a consummate prestidigitator. He designates those persons who support the Earl of Oxford as author of the plays and Sonnets as “snobs,” knowing this epithet will have a wide appeal, thus pandering to the egoism of little men. In our opinion, the only class of people who are more tiresome and more vacuous than snobs are the inverted snobs; and the man who will make so base an appeal is beneath contempt.

We should do well to go to the source, as the Elizabethans did, to find out the truth and have standards of intellectual integrity and of conduct which would give our lives a vitality, and a validity, of which softness of living and slackness of thinking have deprived us. Politically we have advanced. We do not need an absolute monarch to hold us to the mark; we have dispensed with the social hierarchy. But we do need a moral code. As the Earl of Oxford said, “Truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”

We can do no better than to seek the truth. As men and women worthy of our heritage we shall thus add our own small contribution to man’s accretion of knowledge, while profiting immeasurably from the quest.

What these historians make of the Revels accounts and the performances recorded in the Feuillerat Documents is one of the mysteries which enshroud everything that touches England’s greatest genius.


1. Hume: The Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 200.

2. E.T.C.: Hidd. All.; p. 107; cit. Steele: Plays and Masques at Court; p. 73.

3. Shakespeare had the largest vocabulary of any English author: 15,000 words; Milton was next, with 8000. This according to Max Muller in Science of Language. Craik estimates Shakespeare’s vocabulary (poems and plays) at 21,000. Clark and Meiklejohn agree.—Wm. H. Edwards: Shaksper Not Shakespeare; p. 195.

4. Frank Harris: The Man Shakespeare; p. 228.

5. This kind of verbal juggling was not peculiar to England. Addington Symonds tells how “Campanella in his prison punned upon his surname and peculiarly shaped skull, rejoicing in the sobriquet of ‘Settimontano Squilla,’ or the ‘Seven-hilled Bell. Bruno uttered his philosophy in a jargon of conceits, strained allegories, and allusive metaphors, which is all but incomprehensible”—Shakspere’s Predecesoors; p. 406. It so happens that Lord Oxford knew and must have had many discussions with Giordano Bruno.

6. Ward; pp. 185-6. Tr. by Ward.

7. R. W. Bond, M.A.: The Complete Works of John Lyly; vol. I, p. 162.

8. Courthope: History of English Poetry; vol. II, p. 179.

9. OP. cit.; vol. II, p. 313.

10. Verses quoted from J. T. Looney: Shakespeare Identified; p. 298.

11. Ward; pp. 169-71; quot. Sir Fulke Greville: The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney; p. 63. (Ed. Nowell Smith; 1907.) It is interesting to see how later historians have distorted this account, damning Oxford.

12. The Earl of Oxford would have been even more exasperated with Sidney if he had known of the flattering (to the point of fawning) letter he addressed to Sir Christopher Hatton on Aug. 28, 1579, in which he said: “As for the matter depending between the Earl of Oxford and me, certainly, sir, howsoever I might have forgiven him, I should never have forgiven myself if I had lain under so proud an injury as he would have laid upon me; neither can anything under the sun make me repent it, nor any misery make me go one half-word back from it. Let him therefore, as he will, digest it. For my part, I think tying up makes some things seem fiercer than they would be. Sir, let me crave still the continuance of my happiness in your favour and friendship. . . .”—Nicolas: Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton; p. 129.

13. Ward; P. 172; quot. Huberti Langueti Epistolae. Ed. Hailes (1776.)

14. Aikin: Memoirs of the Court of Q. Eliz.; vol. I, p. 69.

15. Sidney was nicknamed Willy; Oxford-later-Will. Sidney was undoubtedly the “Wily” of the play, Wily Beguiled, afterwards The Merry Wives of Windsor.

16. Courthope: History of Eng. Poetry; vol. II, P. 312.

17. We cite two examples: (1) Arthur Lyon Cross, Ph.D. Prof. of European History, Univ. of Mich.: A History of England and Greater Britain (Macmillan, 1914); p. 369: “On the other hand, she [Elizabeth] cared little for poetic or dramatic literature; and partly from indifference, partly from parsimony, she did almost nothing for that wonderful group of writers which made her reign so famous.” (2) Katharine Anthony: Queen Elizabeth (Knopf, 1929); pp. 245-6: [As the Queen approached the end] “there was the usual music and dancing in which the Queen took part…. English country dances were revived. An English play was produced before her, but did not make much impression. Perhaps Elizabeth thought that plays were pieces to be read or translated, and for sheer entertainment she preferred tilting and bear baiting. She was too old to assist at this Titan birth and the presence chamber was too narrow for such a popular offspring. The Players withdrew to the more congenial hurly-burly of the great city, and the Queen never realized the great phenomenon that had appeared before her.” What these historians make of the Revels accounts and the performances recorded in the Feuillerat Documents is one of the mysteries which enshroud everything that touches England’s greatest genius.

Contents | Chapter Seventeen