Chapter 48

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

Chapter Forty-Eight


IF Troilus and Cressida is “a comedy of disillusion,” Hamlet may be called a tragedy of disillusion.

It seems evident that, at some time after his return to court in the summer of 1583, following two years of banishment, Lord Oxford had examined the dossier of Burghley’s correspondence with Walsingham, Hatton, Leicester, and Ralegh, in which he had begged them to intercede with the Queen for the Earl’s restoration to favor. He would have felt a sick contempt for the Lord Treasurer’s bumbling methods, his unctuous appeals to such a man as Hatton for him, a Vere, and he would have seen through Hatton’s deceitful temporizing and Leicester’s perfidy. He had known, none better, how powerful these two were at the time of his banishment. It had been so obvious that the Spanish Ambassador had reported to Philip, “The Queen is completely in the hands of these two men, Lycester and Hatton.”

The final insult would have been Ralegh’s willingness to bring the Queen round for the sake of Burghley’s “favour and good opinion,” although Ralegh had been a friend of his own: almost, it might be said, a fellow-student, since they had been accustomed to meet with other young intellectuals to discuss religion and philosophy. Oxford’s rage must have been all but insupportable. That he, a prince, should be beholden to such men as these was the ultimate ignominy.

While working upon the combination of a play of his youth, Troilus and Cressida, with Agamemnon and Ulisses, he had been brooding about Hamlet. Now, throwing himself with abandon into the former, he paid his caustic respects to the congenital old meddler, who even used his daughter as a pawn in his ambitious game; then he turned to the play in which he meant to show up the lot of them for the loathsome kites they were. He would no longer be deterred by “some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event.” Why should he hesitate, he asked himself, saying, “This thing’s to do,” since he had every reason and qualification for doing it?

No; men were not given their godlike reason for nothing. Self-restraint in this case was cowardly. Toleration, nice consideration, would no longer serve. His resolve was taken. Come what might, he knew his course.

The protagonist of this great drama is a sensitive idealist, a poet with the code of a soldier and knight, who, shocked by the murder of his father, the desecration of truth, the superficiality of the two women he had loved and counted upon, the wickedness and double-dealing of men, challenges destiny with only one friend standing by, partially to comprehend, partially to sustain him, in his terrible ordeal.(1)

Hamlet is the poet of the Sonnets: highly sensitized, profoundly emotional but intellectually objective, with innate dignity and fierce pride. Mr. Looney has observed that the intense vitality of the play comes from its author’s self-revelation, which is similar to that made in the Sonnets. “Every line of Hamlet’s speeches,” he declares, “pulsates with the heart and spirit of Oxford.” It is moreover true of the Prince, as it unfailingly was of the Earl, that even when he is most melancholy, his “wit and subtle fun never desert him.”

Hamlet’s devotion to his father is Oxford’s devotion to his, together with his idealistic ancestor-worship—Vere- or truth-worship—combined with his love for Sussex, who had been a second father to him. As Hamlet was shocked and horrified by his mother’s hasty marriage to her husband’s murderer, so the young Oxford had been by his own mother’s second marriage to a poltroon, which had followed almost immediately upon her noble husband’s death. Later he had been almost shattered by Elizabeth’s faithlessness to him. (2)She had made him a honorable pledge of love; then she had not only given herself to others, she had subjected him to disgrace, and had returned to the despised Hatton and to Leicester, who, if he had not actually murdered Sussex, had consistently persecuted him, allowing both men to induce her to prolong his recent banishment. Oxford, in his disconsolate melancholy, may really have persuaded himself that Leicester had murdered Sussex. He has the Player Queen observe that her husband is “so sick of late” (III.2.166); and the Player King admits that death approaches (176):

Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too.

Thus it would be Sussex’s dying words, as well as those of his father’s spirit, to which Hamlet refers when he says (III.2.289-90):

O good Horatio! I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

Leicester had been definitely accused of murdering Amy Robsart. Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, who had been ill-advised enough to report that on the Continent he was believed to have been her murderer, died suddenly after dining with Leicester. Immediately after Lord Sheffield’s death in highly suspicious circumstances, Leicester had married Douglas, Lady Sheffield, who gave birth to a son three days later. (He denied that he had married her, but she claimed to the end that he had.) He was believed to have murdered the elder Earl of Essex, the King of Sweden, and many others, besides making several attempts on Simier’s life. (The account in Camden’s Annals of Leicester’s attempt to have Simier murdered on Queen Elizabeth’s barge bears the stamp of Burghley’s arrangement for the record.) The author of Leycester’s Commonwealth states that, after having failed to get Simier murdered, “hee [Leycester] dealt with certaine Flushiners and other Pirates to sinke him at sea.”

Undoubtedly Hamlet’s play, The Mousetrap, was connected in the minds of some of the audience with Leicester’s poisoning of the Earl of Essex and marriage to his widow. Elizabeth, who had finally been restrained from throwing him into the Tower for such lese majesty, would not have minded seeing him given a sharp thrust on this score. In Hamlet’s play the murderer is suggestively named Lucianus. (Leicester had been Luccios in Othello.) Some editions give the line, “Lucianus pours poison into the sleeper’s ear,” in the text (264); in others it is a stage-direction. (Incidentally, Leicester had been pouring poison into the monarch’s ear for some time.)

Didst perceive? [asks Hamlet, III.2.290-2]
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Upon the talk of the poisoning?

Leicester was reported by his contemporaries to be “vain, gluttonous, extravagant, and cruel to women.” Naunton wrote that after middle-life, he “grew high-coloured and red-faced.” This man who owed everything to Elizabeth might well have said of her, as the King says of Gertrude (IV.7.14-16):

She’s so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.

Not only Hatton, but Leicester and Ralegh, prime favorite at this time, were parvenus compared with the scion of the ancient line of Vere, in whom was deeply ingrained the finest tradition of feudalism, with its idealistic conceptions of duty, devotion, and social responsibility. If these men offended his sense of honor and fair play, what would be the effect on Hamlet of Polonius, with his busybody craft, his subornation of his own daughter to spy upon her lover, his calm appropriation of Hamlet’s love-letters to read to the King and Queen? —a procedure which Hamlet, made wise by experience, had anticipated.

Here, of course, we have Burghley again, in perhaps the most realistic picture of all: the officious chief-minister—as Polonius is—who spent his life intercepting and examining correspondence from ambassadors to their courts, spied upon his son-in-law, as he had upon his own son in Paris, and of whom it has been said, “Everything seemed to pass through his hands. No matter was too large or small to claim his attention. His household biographer wrote that he worked incessantly except at mealtimes when he unbent and chatted wittily to his friends but never of business.” Polonius, Pandarus, Capulet, and the rest: he, too, was a creature of the Renaissance, a man of tremendous vitality and complexity, but Machiavellian: a contriver—almost a different species from the creative artist.

The Earl of Oxford was, when young, the “nearest approach to a royal prince in the English Court.” Exuberant, sanguine, brilliant, keenly perceptive, he was all too soon to learn that he could not afford to be spontaneous and open, as was natural to him; he must cloak his “purest faith” and “simple truth” in artful seeming. Long before he spoke of these things in the Sonnets, he had written the boyish poem, “I am not as I seem to be.”

Hamlet, finding himself faced at the Court of Denmark with a more immediately serious situation than that of the young Oxford at Gloriana’s court, where cultured and sophisticated opportunists lied and vied for favor, went further and feigned madness. But the provocation and the impulse were alike in both cases; they differed only in detail and degree.

While we believe it is by far too great a simplification to say, with Looney, that “grief and disappointment at his mother’s conduct [lay] at the root of all the tragedy of his life,” we concede that it made him more vulnerable to the inconstancy he was to encounter afterward in Elizabeth, in Anne Cecil—to an extent—and in Anne Vavasor, the “wanton” of the plays, the siren of the Sonnets, and made him more bitter also. But if he learned about women from these, he learned at first hand about deceit, craft, greed, and hypocrisy from Burghley. He learned, at court, about lust too; and that was another lesson which darkened his life. The “hopeless outlook on fundamental human relationships” which he so early acquired was intensified by the disappointment resulting from everyone into which he had thrown himself with such ardor.

No wonder Hamlet so admires Horatio, of whom he is able to say:

. . . for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and bless’d are those
Whose blood and judgments are so well co-mingled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of hearts,
As I do thee. (III.2.65-74.)

This sentiment is echoed in Sonnet 94.

It was through bitter experience that Oxford envied the man who was not “passion’s slave.” Looney points out that the fact of Hamlet’s describing this personality, instead of its being presented through dramatic characterization, indicates that it is a tribute to some man. And that this man is predominantly Horatio Vere appears certain from the account of him in Fuller’s Worthies:

[Horatio Vere had] more meekness and as much valour as his brother [Francis]. As for his temper, it was true of him what is said of the Caspian Sea, that it doth never ebb nor flow, observing a constant tenor neither elated nor depressed… “returning from a victory in silence. . . in defeat [with] cheerfulness of spirit. (3)

A good case can be made out for the original title’s having been Felix and Philomela—this no doubt the one referred to as the “lost” or Ur-Hamlet—which play was presented at Greenwich on January 3, 1585. There had been an early Roman named Felix Claudius; and it is worth noting that Felix could have been changed to Claudius without upsetting the rhythm of the lines, since the King is never called by his name throughout the action. Felix would have been a logical choice for anyone so lucky as Leicester had been (Oxford had made a point of this already in the Soothsayer’s words to Antony), while it is not to be forgotten that Hatton’s posy was Felix Infortunatus. Moreover, Philomena—beloved daughter of Jupiter—would have pleased Elizabeth as a name for the Queen.

If it be objected that the correspondences between the characters at Elsinore and those at the English court were too obvious to have been permitted, we reply that the Earl of Oxford was infinitely resourceful, and he had apparently taken care of this risky matter by making them equally applicable to another situation.

It is, as we have said, in this amazing gift for artistic legerdemain that we encounter one of the striking features of his genius. For while Hamlet was aimed at Elizabeth and Leicester-cum-Hatton, vis-à-vis Oxford and Sussex, with a backward glance at Leicester and the Countess of Essex, etc., the story of the murder of the elder Hamlet by his successor to his wife’s love, the appearance of his ghost, the exhortation of his son to revenge—all this was almost literally the story of the murder of Darnley by Bothwell, Mary Stuart’s lover, the appearance of Darnley’s ghost to the Earl of Atholl and others, and the exhortation to James to avenge his father’s murder. Gertrude, like Elizabeth and also Mary Stuart, was “the imperial jointress,” or hereditary monarch, the King her consort. This, in actuality, is the play within the play by which Lord Oxford meant to catch the conscience of the Queen and her pseudo-king and lover, who is a combination of the self-seeking Hatton and Leicester, the ambitious, lecherous murderer. It is one of the subtlest effects in all the profoundly significant panorama of the dramas, which were intended and frankly announced to be “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time.”

But the Earl was even more ingeniously fortified than this; for he had taken the name and a few of the salient points of the plot from an old tale by Saxo Grammaticus, in which the Dane, Amleth, avenges the death of his father, Horvvendile, related in Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, of 1570. Amleth shammed madness, “rent and tore his clothes, running through the streets,” etc.

Ophelia. My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac’d,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d and down-gyved to his ankle. . . . (II.1.77-80.)

Amleth stabs an eavesdropper with his sword, but in a more fantastic manner.

Oxford, while a ward at Cecil House, had killed an under-cook, through his “running upon a point of a fence sword of the said Earl’s.” And in the light of what we have seen of Burghley’s methods of espionage, we are justified in assuming that the cook was spying for his master. Amleth is also sent to England to be killed but alters the letter of instructions to command that he be married to the King’s daughter. It is simply the bare bones of a plot, but the dramatist decided that it would serve. He must, indeed, have been almost ecstatic when he found how perfectly it was suited to his purpose. Probably not the least of his minor satisfactions lay in the name Amleth, which he could alter to Hamlet, so nearly like the word helmet, or mask; for Hamlet is only a slightly disguised, a faintly masked, Oxford. Another analogy is that the Veres were of Danish origin.

In order to substantiate our point regarding the similarity between the play and the Scottish tragedy, we shall cite a few incidents relating to Darnley’s murder. First of all, however, there is the coincidence that Darnley was a Catholic, as Sussex was, while Darnley’s son, James, was a Protestant, as we are to take it Hamlet is, since he attended the University at Wittenberg, a place intimately connected with Martin Luther. Besides, Oxford belonging, as he did, to the old aristocracy, had his roots in Catholicism, although his training, under the Puritan Golding and the Protestant Cecil, had taken him away from the religion of his fathers.

Darnley, who had indeed committed “foul crimes,” including the murder of Rizzio, was abruptly cut off before he could expiate them. On the night he was murdered, the Earl of Atholl and three friends testified that his ghost had appeared to them. (There was no ghost in the Saga.) And a contemporary ballad represented Darnley as returning to recite his pitiful tale.

Moreover, not long before the final, fatal attack upon his life, Darnley had been given medicine for some ailment which had caused him to break out all over with black pimples full of pus, a “tetter”; he expected to die and suffered extremely.

Ghost. And a most instant tetter bark’d about
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
All my smooth body. (I.5.71-3.)

Darnley was also killed out of doors, in the garden; the elder Hamlet in his orchard, while sleeping. The house in which Darnley and his attendant were sleeping was blown up by gunpowder; but they escaped, without burn or scar, only to be caught and strangled as they were fleeing over the garden-wall.

Bothwell, like Leicester, was described as cruel, especially to women, thrice-married, an adventurer “given to drunkenness and licentiousness.” In his Detection (of Mary Stuart) Buchanan wrote that Mary “long beheld. . . with greedy eyes his [Darnley’s] dead corpse, the goodliest corpse of any gentleman that ever lived in this age.”

Horatio. I saw him once; he was a goodly king. (I.2.186.)

Mary’s friends and enemies, including the hostile lords in their proclamations, averred that Bothwell had won her favour by unlawful means, philtres, witchcraft, or what we may call hypnotism. (4)

Sussex had called Leicester “the gypsy.” And the epithet is recalled when Hamlet uses a gypsy expression in reply to Ophelia’s question regarding the preliminary dumb-show (III.2.140):

Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.

Later he says (289)

I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound;

part of this meaning being that he’ll take Sussex’s word that Leicester is a dangerous gypsy. And Lucianus-Leicester, in the Gonzago play, confesses to “witchcraft” in the lines about the

. . . midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected. . . . (III.2.260 et seq.)

Furthermore Hamlet, in taunting his mother, calls her new husband a “paddock [i.e., a toad], a bat, a gib [tom-cat],” combining the King’s (Leicester’s) gypsy properties with his lechery.

It took a powerful person, a man proudly sure of his position, to address Elizabeth thus, even vicariously. The Earl of Oxford was such a man, the only one who could have been so proud and so sure. We may take it as certain that Leicester dared not avenge himself upon Lord Oxford for the very reasons the King gives for fearing to coerce Hamlet:

He’s lov’d of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes (IV.3.4-5),


           The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks. . . . (IV.7.11 et seq.)

It was said that people dared not accuse Bothwell openly of the murder but spoke together darkly. . . . The Lords would have been lenient with Mary, but she would not abandon Bothwell. (5)

We are not told how much general suspicion there was against the King, although we may be sure Polonius knew everything and was playing both ends, taking care that he should be on the winning side, just as Burghley always kept in the good graces of Hatton, as well as of Leicester. Only Hamlet calls the king a murderer and a villain. (III.4.96)

Referring scathingly to Bothwell as “an Ape in purple,” Buchanan said that Darnley “was a comely Prince of fair and large stature of body, pleasant in countenance. . . devout, well exercised at martial pastimes.” He loved to wear “full armour,” and in 1565 appeared thus “at Mary’s side in their brief war against the Lords of the Congregation, a peculiarity at that age.” (6)

Marcellus says of the Ghost (1.1.66):

With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.

And later Hamlet asks (I.2.226):

Arm’d, say you?
Marcellus } Arm’d, my lord.
Hamlet. From top to toe?
Marcellus } My lord, from head to foot.

There was a Guildenstern at the Scottish court, and one of the men receiving Bothwell upon his capture, in Denmark, was named Eric Rosencrantz, the first name suggesting Osric.(7)

Because of these recognizable parallels, the general audience could be expected to accept the allusions as such: the sous-entendus were “caviare” to them. But the elect appreciated the subtler flavor, got the deeper significance, just as the King and Queen, Polonius, and certain members of the inner circle got it in the murder of Gonzago, while many of the ladies and gentlemen at the performance took the little play merely as an historical allegory.

It was no doubt the embassy in 1583 of his brother-in-law, Lord Willoughby de Eresby, to Denmark, where he had been sent by Elizabeth to invest King Frederick II with the Order of the Garter, which piqued Oxford’s interest in Saxo’s Historia Danica. In the Contemporary Review for January 1896, one Jan Steffanson pointed out that the author of Hamlet manifested a “correct knowledge of Danish names, words, and customs of his time,” as well as “a local knowledge of the royal Castle of Elsinore, which he could not have derived from books.” He adds that in Act III, scene 4, the dramatist shows a detailed knowledge of a room in the castle, and elsewhere a familiarity with the strictly Danish custom of drinking “cannon healths” —in which every time the king drinks, guns are fired; he uses the names, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which belong to “powerful and respected families of the Danish nobility.” (8)

No jocund health that Denmark drinks today,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell. (I.2.125-6.)

(A flourish of trumpets and ordnance shot off, within.)

Hamlet. The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse, Keeps wassail and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drinks his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge. (I.4.7-11.)

King. . . . Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth,
“Now the king drinks to Hamlet!” (V.2.274-8.)

Special mention is made of Polonius’s,

Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris. (II.1.7.)

Dansker is a Danish word meaning Dane. Nowhere else in the whole range of English literature does it occur save in this passage, though Dansk and Danske are incorrectly used by many other writers, as far back as 1578, for the people of the country.(9)

Lord Willoughby’s account of the ceremony in which he took part has been preserved, written in his own hand. After describing the King’s investiture with the royal robes and his acceptance “with great contentment” of “the Garter, the Collar, and the George,” Lord Willoughby tells of the “many affectionate and loving speeches to Her Majesty and all of the Order,” adding:

All of which performed after a whole volley of all the great shot of the Castle discharged, a royal feast, and a most artificial and cunning fireworks. (10)

A highly significant fact is “that this last sentence has been lightly scratched out in the MS.” (11) Had it been overlooked by Burghley when editing this document and tentatively scratched by someone who knew he wished to erase any connection between the play, Hamlet, and a brother-in-law of the Earl of Oxford? It had been while he was writing Hamlet that Oxford had found Burghley sending for one of his servants to make inquiries regarding his activities and was provoked into protesting hotly, not only in a letter but also in Sonnet 121. The scratching of that revealing sentence indicates the scope and vigilance of Burghley’s censorship.

In the English aspect of the play, young Fortinbras stands for James of Scotland, who was about eighteen years old at this time, old Fortinbras for his mother, Mary Stuart, who, though not “slain” by Sussex in the rebellion of 1569, as old Fortinbras was by the elder Hamlet (I.1.86), was so badly defeated that eleven years elapsed before her friends began plotting seriously again with Spain—at about the time of Sussex’s death. It will be remembered that Sussex commanded the English troops in the rebellion in the North, which led to the Duke of Norfolk’s execution; and Horatio refers to this (I.1.80 et seq.):

Our last king,
Whose image even but now appeared to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick’d on by a most emulate pride,
Dar’d to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet—
For so this side of our known world esteem’d him—
Did slay this Fortinbras; who, by a seal’d compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit with his life all those his lands
Which he stood seiz’d of to the conqueror. [etc.]

The Queen of Scots, although not executed until several years after Hamlet was written, did forfeit her (free) life through long imprisonment. By 1583, the English situation was “growing desperate through the increasing tension with Spain and Scotland.” (12) Oxford would have been badly worried.

In order to establish the date of the original production and before we take up the inner significance of the drama, we shall run over a few external points, first citing several of the forty-five topical references listed by Admiral Holland, (13) interspersed with some of Mrs. Clark’s findings and some of our own.

In 1583, when war with Spain appeared certain, new ships were built and stores provided for a rapid mobilization.

Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day? (I.1.75-8.)

Of the first two lines of this passage, Lord Chief Justice Campbell wrote:

Such confidence has there been in Shakespeare’s accuracy that this passage has been quoted, both by text-writers and judges on the bench, as an authority upon the legality of the press-gang, and upon the debated question whether shipwrights, as well as common seamen, are liable to be pressed into the service of the royal navy. (See Barrington on the Ancient Statutes, p. 300.) (14)

There was an eclipse of the sun of some importance in 1582, recorded in an astronomical discourse by Richard Harvey.

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. (I.1.117-20.)

This same passage, which begins (113),

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did quake and gibber in the Roman streets,

refers to the plague of 1582, and to the comet which appeared in that same year, both omens of disaster. A few months before the original version of Hamlet was produced, William of Orange had been assassinated, and the reference to Julius Caesar here strengthens the analogy pointed in the play of that name.

In Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse, the following line occurs: “When comedy comes upon the stage, Cupid sets up a Springe for Woodcock.” Hence Polonius’s line is a semi-quotation (I.3.115):

Ay, springes to catch woodcocks.

Numerous references were made during the latter 1580’S to a passage,”Hamlet’s revenge,” and one quotes, “Hamlet, revenge my griefs.” Holland suggests therefore that the lines,

Adieu, adieu, Hamlet, remember me (I.5.90),


Now to my word; it is adieu! Adieu! remember me (111),

originally were:

Hamlet, revenge my griefs, remember me,


Now to my word; it is Revenge my griefs, remember me.

In his Arcadia, written in 1580, Philip Sidney said, “Thou are gone to a beautified heaven.” This is the first recorded use of the word “beautified,” and Oxford has Polonius condemn it (II.2.109-11):

“To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia.”— That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; “beautified” is a vile phrase. . . .

This gains point when it is recalled that not only did Sidney represent a literary clique opposed to Oxford’s, but he had been Anne’s suitor before Oxford was.

Another amiable satire, this time on Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, occurs in the speech of Polonius (II.2.401 et seq.):

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. . . .

Sidney’s dissertation goes thus:

The most notable (poets) bee the Heroick) Lirick, Tragick, Cornick, Satirick, Iambic, Elegaic, Pastorall, and certaine others. . . . Now in his parts, kindes, or Species (as you list to terme them) it is to be noted, that some Poesies have coupled together two or three kindes, as Tragicall and Comic all, whereupon is risen, the TragicaIl-comicalI. . . .

He continues with comments on Seneca and Plautus. Although the Apologie was not published until 1595, nearly ten years after Sidney’s death, it was circulated in manuscript, as most other works of the time were, long before publication, probably in 1580 or ’81, since it was a reply to Gosson’s School of Abuse, which started a controversy about Poets and Players, and of which Oxford takes cognizance in the speech of Rosencrantz (II.2.357-61):

Faith, there has been much to-do on both sides: and the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to controversy; there was, for a while, no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

The jests aimed at Sidney were, of course, written long before his death, which took place in 1586 at Zutphen. Not only would Oxford never have taken this teasing attitude toward him after that, but the public would not have been responsive to playful jibes at the man who had become a national hero.

When Rosencrantz informs Hamlet of the approach of the players, he explains that they are

Even those you were wont to take delight in, the tragedians of the city.
How chances it they “travel? their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.
Rosencrantz. I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation. (II.2.333-8.)

After Sussex’s death, his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s, passed to the patronage of the Fourth Earl of Sussex. It was composed of “the tragedians of the city,” who had formerly acted in a number of Lord Oxford’s plays, but now it no longer appeared at court. This is the “inhibition”; the “innovation” was the “formation of the Queen’s Company, which recruited the best players of the others and now performed at court in place of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company.

Hamlet. What! are they children? who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? [i.e., paid.] (II.2.350-1.)

He knew only too well the answer to this question, since he himself— Oxford, that is—was being impoverished by maintaining actors and producing plays.

In 1581, Thomas Newton collected the ten translations of Seneca’s plays into one volume, beginning with Hercules Oetaeus and ending with Hercules Furens. The following dialogue evidently refers to this:

Hamlet. Do the boys carry it away?
Rosencrantz. Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too. (II.2. 365-7.)

They had also carried the “load” of Hercule-François Alençon; so that there is a double meaning here. For Oxford was an English Seneca, as Thomas Nashe was to point out in 1589, when he wrote:

. . . yet English Seneca, read by candle-light, yields many good sentences, as blood is a beggar, and so forth; and if you intreat him fair, in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets; I should say, handfuls of tragical speeches.

An Ambassador from the Russian court arrived in London in 1583, on a mission to obtain an English wife for his Emperor. Undoubtedly at the entertainment, to which he invited the court, caviare was served. Since it was not likely to have been imported to England at that time, caviare was a rarity.

‘Twas caviare to the general. (II.2.442.)

That Oxford was fond of such delicacies is indicated by Jonson, who probably considered any exotic taste an affectation, as he did many of the qualities of the sophisticated Earl. There are two passages in Cynthia’s Revels in which Amorphus-Oxford is shown to be an epicure. In the first, Asotus is described as eager to do anything he can to please the older man:

He doth learn to make strange sauces, to eat anchovies, maccaroni, bovoli, fagoli, and caviare, because he loves them. (II.1.)

In the other, we have added allusion to Hamlet’s speech to the Players. Amorphus is coaching Asotus in the art of being a courtier (a sneering reference on the part of the inverted snob, Jonson, to Oxford’s interest in Castiglione’s The Courtier and to the Earl’s polished manners.) Hamlet has said:

You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in ‘t, could you not? (II.2.544-6.)

And Amorphus:

Come, let us go and taste some light dinner, a dish of sliced caviare, or so; and after, you shall practise an hour at your lodging some few forms that I have recall’d. (III.1.)

(“Sliced caviare,” as well as the spelling of the Italian dishes, would seem to indicate Jonson’s inexperience at that time in the finer gastronomical arts. Later, when Lord Oxford’s family became his patrons, he grew more cultivated in his tastes and less jealous in his heart.)

On the subject of Hamlet and the Players, we shall quote at some length Admiral Holland’s remarks apropos of the Hecuba passage, but first he suggests that the line about “Aeneas’ tale to Dido” (II.2.-451) probably refers topically to a Latin play, Dido, performed before Count Alasco at Christ Church on June 12, 1583. There are, besides, half a dozen other references to works published during 1582-83; but these must be omitted here.

Admiral Holland decided to clear up the following passage in the belief that, by doing so, he could refute an old scandal about the Queen. (Perhaps Lord Oxford had been motivated by the same gallant impulse!)

Hamlet. Say on; come to Hecuba.
First Player. But who, O! who had seen the mobled queen—
Hamlet. “The mobled queen?” (15)
Polonius. That’s good; “mobled queen” is good.
First Player. “Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood; and, for a robe,
About her lank and all-o’er-teemed loins,
A blanket in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep’d,
‘Gainst Fortune’s (16) state would treason have pronounc’d:
But if the gods themselves. did see her then,
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs,
The instant burst of clamour that she made—
Unless things mortal move them not at all—
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.” (II.2.504-22.)

Note first of all [writes Admiral Holland] how, by the use of the archaic word, “mobled,” in the comments of both Hamlet and Polonius, the Queen herself is brought into prominence. In the second place, what is there in this story to make it “treason” for a person who had seen it to repeat it? And where would be the venom? . . .

In 1582 or 1583 scandalous stories were being circulated by the Countess of Shrewsbury, who had presumably received them from some lady or gentleman-in-waiting, to the effect that Queen Elizabeth had been seen going to meet Simier, the French envoy, in a lady’s chamber, that she had met Alençon, his master, at the door of her bedchamber with only her shift and nightgown on, and that he had remained with her for three hours. This is the first story, and what of the version of it in the above-quoted lines?

That after retiring to her private rooms (for the diadem has been removed) the Queen is disturbed by her impassioned suitor; that in fear she comes out, having thrown a blanket over herself, that far from being amenable to his passion, she flies into a blinding rage and threatens him; and that anybody who saw the incident and repeated it with any other construction is nothing less than a venomously tongued traitor. It is possible that the word “flames” is not used to refer to passions but symbolically—as oriflamme—to refer to the French Prince and his envoy, the oriflamme being the ancient Royal Standard of France.

[The dramatist], however, does not deny that the Queen was very fond of Simier, and we now come to the second incident. Simier was shot and wounded while in a boat with the Queen at Greenwich, and history tells that the Queen behaved with exemplary calmness. [That is, the account in Camden, via Burghley.—D. and C.O.] The last six lines of the passage quoted suggest the opposite, and state that she made “an instant burst of clamour” and showed such grief as would make the gods weep. [We agree that this is most likely, since she upbraided Leicester in a rage for one of his plots against Simier.]

Lord Chief Justice Campbell’s remarks apropos of the knowledge of law manifested by the dramatist in Hamlet are so interesting and informative that we are constrained to quote a few of his points.

The Grave-diggers’ scene, however, is the mine which produces the richest legal ore. The discussion as to whether Ophelia was entitled to a Christian burial proves that Shakespeare had read and studied Plowden’s Report of the celebrated case of Hales v. Petet, tried in the reign of Philip and Mary, and that he intended to ridicule the counsel who argued and the judge who decided it.

He gives a resume of the case, concluding, with:

Lord C. J. Dyer and the whole court gave judgment for the defend- ant, holding that although Sir James Hales could hardly be said to have killed himself in his lifetime, “the forfeiture shall have relation to the act done by Sir James Hales in his lifetime, which was the cause of his death, viz., the throwing of himself into the water.” Said they, “Sir James was dead, and how came he to his death? by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he drown him? in his life- time. So that Sir James Hales, being alive, caused Sir James Hales to die; and the act of the living man was the death of the dead man. He there- fore committed felony in his lifetime, although there was no possibility of the forfeiture being found in his lifetime, for until his death there was no cause for forfeiture.”

The argument of the gravediggers upon Ophelia’s case is almost in the
words reported by Plowden:
1 Clo. Is she to be buried in Christian burial, that wilfully seeks her own salvation?
2 Clo. The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it Christian burial.
I Clo.
How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence? 2 Cia. Why, ’tis found so.
I Clo. It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act; and an act hath three branches; it is to act, to do, and to perform. Argal she drowned herself wittingly. . . Here lies the water: good; here stands the man: good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes; mark you that: but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
2 Clo. But is this law?
I Clo. Ay marry is ‘t, crowner’s quest law. (V.1.1-23.)

Hamlet’s own speech, on taking in his hand what he supposed might be the skull of a lawyer, abounds with lawyer-like thoughts and words: Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Humph! The fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines; and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? (V. 1. 101 et seq.)

These terms of art [Lord Campbell concludes] are all used seemingly with a full knowledge of their import; and it would puzzle some practising barristers with whom I am acquainted to go over the whole seriaturn, and to define each of them satisfactorily. (17)

Never, it seems to us, did Lord Oxford manifest his thorough Englishness more strikingly than in these two passages. W. S. Gilbert is scarcely more modern.

Ben Jonson’s plays, Every Man In His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, and Cynthia’s Revels abound in parodies on Hamlet. These works would be too tedious to read, if it were not for the strongly colored woof of allusion threading through the drab warp of the action—if “action” it can be called, for it is chiefly long-winded talk.

Hamlet says (III.2.133-6.):

Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year; but, by’r lady, he must build churches then, or else shall he suffer not thinking on. . . .

Jonson paraphrases this passage with great effectiveness, for our case, in one between Sogliardo-Shaksper and Carlo (E.M.O.: II.1):

Sogliardo. Mass, and I’ll have a tomb, now I think on’t; ’tis but so much charges.
Carlo. Best build it in your lifetime then, your heirs may hap to forget it else.

In the drama of the Prince of Denmark, Lord Oxford called several of the characters by their own names. Besides the realistic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, there are Horatio and Francisco, who stand for Horatio and Francis Vere, Lord Oxford’s first cousins, of whom he was very fond. Polonius is quite similar to Pondus, Burghley’s nickname, but the doddering old statesman had a more suggestive name than this in one of the early versions.

That Jonson knew who Horatio was becomes manifest in several places.

Hamlet. Horatio, or I do forget myself. . . I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student. (I.2.161 and 176.)
Every Man In.—Servant. I should enquire for a gentleman here, Signior Lorenzo. . . do you know any such, sir, I pray you?
Lorenzo, se. Yes, sir; or else I should forget myself.

In imitation of Hamlet’s speech to Horatio, quoted above, commending him for not being “passion’s slave,” Jonson, in Every Man In, has a long dissertation by Lorenzo, jr., to his own “cousin,” which goes in part as follows:

. . . Why, cousin, a gentleman of so fair a sort as you are, of so true carriage [Horatio and Oxford were both Veres], of so special good parts
. . . nay more, a man so graced, gilded, or rather, to use a more fit metaphor, tinfoiled by nature: not that you have a leaden constitution, coz, although perhaps a little inclining to that temper. . . . Come, cousin.
Stephano. [Like Hamlet to the Ghost.] I’ll follow you.

And Jonson certainly has in mind Hamlet’s speech to Guildenstern about the recorder, later in the play.

Hamlet. . . . S’ blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me. (III.2.374-7.)

Every Man In.—Prospero. . . . I can compare him to nothing more hap- pily than a barber’s virginals, for everyone may Play upon him.

Hamlet.—Francisco . . . ’tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart. (I.1.7-9.)

E. M. I.—Thorello. Oh, I am sick at heart, I burn, I burn.

The names Prospero and Thorello (a rough anagram for Othello), may be noted. As we have said, it is not unlikely that, since they are so replete with allusions—one might really say founded on allusions, many of them mean-spirited and scoffing, to Lord Oxford and his work —Jonson gave two of his plays titles which embodied the E. Vere puns. He thought Oxford overdid the use of the word, “humour.”

Hamlet. In the secret parts of Fortune? O! most true; she is a strumpet. (II.2.236-7.) .
Every Man Out.–Macilente. See how the strumpet fortune tickles him. O! O! O!

Not only are Every Man In and Every Man Out simply hodge-podges of reference to many of the plays, they satirize the Sonnets too, and the Fair Youth’s story; so does Cynthia’s Revels. In this last we have two especially sharp darts aimed at Hamlet.

Crites-Jonson’s speech to Philautia (a rough anagram for Ophelia: Auphilia, with an extra t) is reminiscent of Hamlet’s equivocal remarks to Ophelia (III.l.90 et seq.):

Well, madam, I do love you in some sort, do you conceive? [Compare Hamlet’s words: I did love thee once. . . . I loved you not (115 and 119.) And to Polonius: But not as your daughter may conceive (II.2.185)] and though I am no monsieur, nor no signior [i.e., no courtier] and do want, as they say, logic, and sophistry [i.e., a pretence of scholarship] to tell you why it is so; yet by this hand [Hamlet replies to Laertes’s, “You mock me, sir,” with, “No, by this hand” (V.2.258)] and that candle, it is so; and though I be no book-worm [Hamlet’s book and Ver., worm] nor one that deals by art, to give you rhetoric and causes. . . .

There are really too many jibes to record here: they come thick and fast.

In a mock-duel in Cynthia’s Revels, the word of Osric,

A hit, a very palpable hit (V.2.280),

is mocked by Crites,

The Dor, the Dor, the Dor, the Dor, the Dor, the palpable Dorl (V.2.)

A dor is a buzzing insect, drone, idler: Jonson’s idea of a courtier.

The word “fishmonger,” which Hamlet applies to Polonius, is mentioned several times in Every Man In, and there are repeated references to the “water-bearer” and the “bason”: this of course pointed at Lord Oxford’s hereditary office of the Ewry, or Water-bearer to the Monarch. Every Man Out uses “hobby-horse” (Hamlet: III.2.137) insistently.

Since Every Man In and Every Man Out were produced at the close of the 1590’s, followed by Cynthia’s Revels, we have added evidence that Oxford’s plays were by then sufficiently familiar to the public for even rather recondite allusions to be understood. Many irrefutable evidences were found which disturbed the orthodox scholar, Halliwell-Phillips, that Hamlet was well known in 1589, the year the Stratford man attained his twenty-fifth year.

One of the most interesting circumstances connecting Hamlet with the middle 1580’S is the sojourn in London of Giordano Bruno from 1583 to ’86, where he was under the patronage of “certain prominent noblemen.” For Tschischwitz is quoted by Dowden as having found in Hamlet indications that the dramatist was acquainted with the philosophy of Bruno. (18) Further point is added by the fact that Bruno became a professor at Wittenberg.

However, anyone familiar with the dramatist’s life is aware that after his wife, Anne Cecil, died, he never again wrote of her with the mixed emotions he had felt during her lifetime, but always with tenderness and remorse. This fact alone would prove that Hamlet was written well before the summer of 1588. (19) It would seem that, while he returned to this play, as he did to most of the others, adapting and revising certain parts, he left the main sections-the Ophelia-Polonius-Laertes, the Gertrude-Claudius, as well as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio, and the Ghost parts-substantially as they were in the beginning, and probably the rest too, except the character and the philosophy of Hamlet himself. These matured with the poet, and Hamlet’s last words must almost have been Oxford’s own dying message.


1 The Prince of Denmark is the courtier delineated by Castiglione; although not actually a soldier, Hamlet regards himself as one (and traditionally he is), because the perfect courtier is a man of arms as well as a scholar and polished gentleman. It is interesting that Castiglione advised the courtier to have “one dependable friend.”

2 Never did Lord Oxford more effectively demonstrate his unerring discrimination and mastery of values than when he made Gertrude Hamlet’s mother. For in thus conforming to the classic pattern of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, he lifted the action above the personal and the mundane. Orestes, horrified by his mother’s adultery with Aegisthus and her murder of his noble father the king, Agamemnon, first kills her lover and then, after confronting her as Hamlet confronts Gertrude, kills Clytemnestra too, in order to avenge Agamemnon’s betrayal and death. Hamlet even has a close friend, Horatio, as Orestes had Pylades. The Herald in Agamemnon (I. 555) says, “I could a tale unfold.”

Further resemblances occur. Hamlet opens with a watch being kept on the roof of the castle; so does Agamemnon. In Hamlet the dawn appears; in Agamemnon a beacon-light.

In the second part, The Choephori, Orestes verges upon madness; Hamlet feigns madness. In the third part, The Eumenides, the Ghost of Clytemnestra appears; in Hamlet, it is the Ghost of the King.

3 J. T. Looney: Sh. Ident.; p. 479.

4 Winstanley: Hamlet and the Scottish Succession; pp. 61, 63.

5 Op. cit.

6 Op. cit.; pp. 58, 60.

7 Op. cit.; p. 70.

8 Edwards: Shaksper, not Shakespeare; pp. 238-40.

9 Op. cit.

10 Ward; p. 234; cit. Cotton MSS., Titus., CVII. 226.

11 Op. cit.; p. 235.

12 E.T.C.; Hidd. All.; p. 461.

13 pp. 60-80.

14 Sh.’s Legal Acquirements; pp. 103-4.

15 I.e., muffled. “Mobled queen is good,” because it shows her as being covered, with more than “her shift and nightgown on.”

16 Elizabeth was sometimes called “Fortune” by the poets of the day.

17 Lord John Campbell: Sh.’s Legal Acquirements; pp. 104-10.

18 Dowden: Shakspere, His Mind and Art; note, p. 118; cit. Shakspere-Forschungen—I. Hamlet (Halle, 1868.)

19 The circumstances of Hamlet’s encountering the funeral procession of Ophelia, whom he had repudiated, parallels an occurrence in France at the end of the 1570’s. Heléne de Tournon, a friend of Marguerite de Valois (allusion to both of whom is made in L.L.L.) , died after having been forsaken by her lover, the Marquis de Varenbon. Returning to claim her again, he was met by her funeral procession.

Contents | Chapter Forty-Nine