Chapter 49

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

Chapter Forty-Nine


SEVERAL CHAPTERS could be written on the subject of Burghley as Polonius, but as much restraint as possible must be exercised here. Seldom did Lord Oxford portray an individual so realistically. Usually he combined traits of two or three persons, making a composite effect, recognizable though fluid, not fixed, not portraiture. For example, he used the two Annes, Cecil and Vavasor, for Juliet and also, together with the Queen, for Cressida; he combined Elizabeth with Lady Mary Pembroke for Olivia, and so on. Or he divided one person into two characters, as he did Burghley in The Tempest and in Troilus, or even into several, as he did himself almost inveterately. In Hamlet, the King is a composite of Leicester and Hatton; but Polonius is all Burghley, and Ophelia all Anne.

It is no wonder that neither Hamlet nor Troilus and Cressida was published during Burghley’s lifetime. As for the latter, it evidently just missed exclusion from the First Folio, along with Pericles; for the title does not appear in the Table of Contents. When one bears in mind that William Cecil’s obsessive ambition was to found a great family and leave a great name—Hume says he “regarded with horror the idea that any scandal should attach to the family name”—one can understand his determination, from a personal standpoint, to obliterate the identity of his son-in-law as author of the plays. He was extraordinarily successful in this, as he was in most of his enterprises; but even he could not separate himself from his portrait as Polonius. That has been widely recognized.

Hamlet is as completely and definitely Edward de Vere as Polonius is William Cecil. This play is Hamlet’s story—de Vere’s story: the summing up; in effect, of his youthful life—which with his dying breath he requests his cousin, Horatio, to tell, in order to clear his “wounded name” —the great name they both bore, wounded to the point of extinction even to this day by the machinations of Polonius-Burghley, and by the strange circumstances of Edward de Vere’s relationship with the Queen.

Horatio Vere may have done his best: no one knows. He may have been at least partly responsible for the publication of the First Folio, even for the inclusion of Troilus and Cressida and the preservation, for later editions, of Pericles. For it was a solemn charge he had received. This, says Vere, the courtier, soldier, scholar, and dramatist, is my story. Tell it, Horatio; be at pains to give it to the world, for,

O God, Horatio! what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me.

Originally Hamlet was an abstract of his life up to the summer of 1583: his position at court; his betrayed faith in Elizabeth—whom he calls his mother here, but whose adultery with base men after her pledge of love to him corrodes his pride and his heart; there had been Leicester, Hatton, and Simier, Leicester, Hatton, and Alençon, Leicester again, and now, to his supreme disgust, the newcomer, Ralegh.—Regarding the comparison, “Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.140), that was true of Darnley and Bothwell, Sussex or Oxford himself and Leicester; while Alençon had been said actually to look like a satyr.— It is an account of his deep-seated contempt for Hatton, his sense of impotence against Leicester; of his young love for Anne Cecil, her father’s interference, her mendacity, his disillusionment, and the wreck of their union; of his theatrical activities at court; his two false friends whom he sent to destruction to avoid the ruin they plotted for him; the attack on his ship by pirates; his pinioning of Burghley—fatally, for all time,—on the point of his wit; his exposure of the Queen and her (collective) paramour in his little play, and in this great one too; his duel with “a Lester”; and the betrayal and death of his own idealistic youth amid the grisly debris.

Specific details are provided to round out the picture. Oxford was, by 1583, in severe financial straits. And Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (II.2.269-71):

I will not sort you with the rest of my servants, for, to speak to you like an honest man, 1 am most dreadfully attended;

as he was indeed, having had, at this time, only four pages in his retinue, and “one of them a kind of tumbling-boy.”

Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks. (276.)

All this while Leicester, Hatton, and Ralegh lived sumptuously, and Ralegh was being granted vast lands and emoluments. His pride could find small thanks for this usurper who had power to bespeak the Queen’s condescension for him, the deposed—this former friend who had acted as intermediary only for the sake of obtaining Burghley’s “favour and good opinion”: a “fellow-student,” if not precisely of Wittenberg, at least of the religious philosophy of Wittenberg and elsewhere.

Hamlet tells the King (III.2.94):

I eat the air, promise-crammed; you cannot feed capons so.

Oxford was weary of Elizabeth’s fruitless promises: his money and estates had dwindled in her service, while her flatterers waxed rich. He could hardly have chosen a better word to describe Hatton.

We take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be a composite representation chiefly of Ralegh, with only a fleeting implication of the two friends of Oxford’s youth, Howard and Arundel, who had betrayed him. We agree with Mr. Looney that Oxford certainly had the new favorite in mind in the following passage, and we believe further that he was, incidentally, voicing his scornful resentment of the Queen’s insult to him in allowing an outsider to intercede for him with her:

Rosencrantz. She desires to speak with you in her closet. . . .
We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?
Rosencrantz. My lord, you once did love me.
Hamlet. So I do still, by these pickers and stealers.
Rosencrantz. Good my -lord, what is your cause of distemper? you do surely bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to a friend.
Hamlet. Sir, I lack advancement. (111.2.335-44.)

And he quotes the proverb Oxford had quoted on this same subject in the letter to Burghley eight years before. No wonder he was tired by now of “the chameleon’s dish”! But he admits that Ralegh has been a friend to him. “So I do [love you] still. [But] I [who have given everything] lack advancement.”

Looney makes the point that, since Ralegh had been called “the sanctimonious pirate who went to sea with the ten commandments”— less one of them, Hamlet, in saying, “By these pickers and stealers,” instead of “By these hands”—or, as he later says (V.2.258), “By this hand”—”coins an expression from the Catechism and calls his hands ‘pickers and stealers,’ thus indicating most ingeniously the combination of piracy with the religiosity of Ralegh.”

If “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the insolence of office” referred to Burghley, Leicester, and Hatton, a later line in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy—”Who would fardels bear?”—applies to Ralegh, whose father was Walter Ralegh of Fardell. It is again the Queen at whom Oxford is lashing out in the matter of his “despis’d love.” She had subjected him to an intolerable indignity, for he was a prince, the Veres were designated “companions to the monarch,” and Ralegh, for all his genius, was no better than an upstart, was so considered by all the disgruntled nobles. Prince Hamlet was the Earl of Oxford, and he was speaking truly when he said (V. 1.268-70):

For though I am not splenetive and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous,
Which let thy wisdom fear.

Elizabeth and her court had’ had proof of this before. They were receiving added proof now.

Oxford had of late been collaborating on plays produced at court under Lyly’s name, and a comparison of lines from Munday’s Two Italian Gentlemen with the Earl’s youthful poems, as well as with A Midsummer-Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor, indicates that he had been contributing to Munday’s work; but Hamlet was his own story, and he was determined that there should be no doubt as to its authorship. To this end, several pointed identity-clues were introduced into the text. In the first, Hamlet’s meeting with Horatio, there are puns on his name (I.2.160-63):

Hamlet. I am glad to see you well [Le., spring or Ver], Horatio, or I do forget myself [who am also a Vere].
Horatio. The same, my lord, and your poor servant, ever [E. Ver].
Sir, my good friend; I’ll change that name with you.

In the second of these passages it is less overt. Hamlet pledges his friends to secrecy regarding the revelation, pointing up his desire with the injunction that they do nothing to betray the fact

That you know aught of me (I.5.179),

and concluding with the graceful speech which, in Elizabeth’s day only a polished courtier could have written, the final one in the first Act,

Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.

“That E. Ver, I, was born to set it right”—as he is attempting to do in his play, where, as he has Polonius resolve to discover,

truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre. (1)

As indeed it is!

You are naught, you are naught,

says Ophelia to Hamlet (II1.2.150); which is to say, You are O.

In the first quarto, as we have noted, Polonius was called Corambis: a forthright allusion to Burghley’s appropriated motto, Cor unum, via una. The dramatist, ever truthful, considered “double” (bis) a juster description of the Cecilian heart and way than “single” (unum-una): thus Corambis.

Polonius, for all his old man’s garrulity and surface amiability, shrewdly managed everything, swaying the King and Queen to his designs. If, as was sometimes said, Elizabethan England could have been called regnum Cecilianum, the Denmark of Hamlet might have been regnum Polonii. The old minister was well aware of the means by which Claudius had won his crown and his queen, but he was as suave and decorous toward him as Burghley was said unfailingly to have been toward Hatton and Leicester, although Leicester was constantly working against him, and he against Leicester. He well knew that both men were the Queen’s lovers. In the Gonzago-play scene, when the situation grows tense and the King rises, Polonius immediately orders,

Give o’er the play. (III.2.271.)

Subsequently Oxford changed the old minister’s name. His initial choice, however, indicates the strength of his determination to tell the truth about the arch double-dealer, “old Double,” Corambis. So does the name Ophelia, which is Greek, and means a help, a source of gain.

Shylock cries:

My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!

How can a daughter more readily be a “source of gain” than by making a profitable marriage, say to a prince out of her star?

Polonius asserts (II.2.106-7):

I have a daughter, have while she is mine,
Who, in her duty and obedience. . . etc.

as Capulet says of Juliet (R. and J.: III.4.12-14):

Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender
Of my child’s love: I think she will be rul’d
In all respects by me;
nay, more, I doubt it not.


. . . o’ Thursday tell her,
She shall be married to this noble earl. (III.4.20-1.)

Pandarus made “a desperate tender” of Cressida’s love, too, while she held off, feigning indifference, as Polonius instructs Ophelia to do. He says he “went round to work,” and “thus. . . did bespeak:”

Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:” and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice. (II.2.141-5.)

Ophelia was quite docile:

. . . my good lord. . . as you did command,
I did repel his letters and denied
His access to me. (II.1.107-9)

Polonius, still like Pandarus, tells the King and Queen so; this, after he has explained how he happens to have Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia, which

. . . in obedience hath my daughter shown me;
And. . . hath his solicitings
All given to mine ear. (II.2.125-8.)

(The letter is no doubt one of Oxford’s poems written to Anne.)


I will . . . suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter. (II.2.212-14.)

Later, when Ophelia returns “remembrances” Hamlet has given her, he believes she is doing so on her father’s instructions, and he exclaims:

Ha, ha! are you honest? (III.1.103.)

That the connection of Polonius with Shylock was in Oxford’s mind appears in the passage (II.2.408 et seq.):

O Jephtha, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius. What a treasure had he, my lord?
Hamlet. Why
             “One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.”
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Am I not right, old Jephtha?

And his ensuing allusion to the “pious chanson” (424) is no less apt. The Lord Treasurer was conspicuously, one might almost say flamboyantly, pious.

Ophelia was clearly her father’s creature, as Oxford felt Anne was. It was her father’s death, not Hamlet’s defection, that unsettled her reason. Her grief and shock were for him.

Much has been written about the correspondence between Burghley’s precepts to his son, Robert Cecil, and those of Polonius to Laertes. The Lord Treasurer seems to have derived many of them from Montaigne, a recent edition of whose works both he and Lord Oxford had obviously read. Laertes appears here to be a composite of Thomas, the likeable but profligate Cecil, “very wild,” and Robert, the studious, ambitious one. We quote the two sets of precepts for the record. (2)

Lord Burghley’s maxims are as follows:

Let thy hospitality be moderate. . . rather plentiful than sparing, for I never knew any man grow poor by keeping an ordinary table. . . . Beware thou spendest not more than three or four parts of thy revenue, and not above a third part of that in thy house. That gentleman who sells an acre of land sells an ounce of credit, for gentility is nothing else but ancient riches. Suffer not thy sons to cross the Alps, for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism; and if by travel they get a few broken languages, they shall profit them nothing more than to have one meat served up, in divers dishes. Neither train them up in the wars, for he that sets up to live by that profession can hardly be an honest man or a good Christian. Beware of being surety for thy best friends; for he that payeth another man’s debts seekest his own decay. Be sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not with trifles; compliment him often with many, yet small, gifts. Towards thy superiors be humble, yet generous; with thine equals familiar, yet respectful; toward thine inferiors, show much humanity and some familiarity, as to bow the body, stretch forth the hand, and to uncover the head. Trust not any man with thy life, credit, or estate, for it is mere folly for a man to enthrall himself to his friend. (3)

It is easily seen that this councilor had an attitude very different from that of the Earl of Oxford. One might go further and suppose that he even had Oxford in mind and was warning Robert against following his example. This was hardly necessary, since the younger Cecil had inherited, with his father’s ability, his politic nature and craft. We have italicized the points which imply a criticism of Oxford’s. beliefs and behavior. Being a Vere, he approved a martial career for a young man and had himself hoped to follow one. How scornfully he, the disciple of Castiglione, who held honor and valor above all other virtues, would have rejected Burghley’s dictum that gentility was “nothing else but ancient riches”! And to him it was simply a Shylock speaking in the line, “Beware of being surety for thy best friends,” etc.

Polonius. . . . Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.
Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the appearance oft proclaims the man.
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day, .
Thou canst not then be false to any man. (I.3.59-80.)

Looney observes that we are prone to take the phrase, “To thine own self be true,” as nobler than it can have been meant, following as it does “a speech which, throughout, is a direct appeal. . . to mere self-interest. . . unto ‘thine own self:’ not to the best that is in you, nor the worst. Consistently. . . he closes with [an injunction] which summarizes all.”

At the time Hamlet was written, Robert Cecil was about twenty years of age and was studying in Paris, where he became proficient in the French language. Thomas had sojourned in France when a young man and had been guilty of most of the indiscretions that Polonius anticipated on the part of Laertes. Burghley received from Windebank regular reports upon Thomas’s conduct; and it is evident that Oxford well knew that he did the same with regard to himself during his stay in Paris; (4) for Polonius gives pointed instructions to Reynaldo (another Fox) to

. . . breathe his faults so quaintly
That they may seem the taints of liberty,
The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind,
A savageness in unreclaimed blood. (II.1.31-4.)

These attributes clearly applied to Oxford, descendant of “the wolfish earls,” not to the indolent Thomas or the cautious, ambitious Robert Cecil.

There was a’ gaming, there o’ertook in’s rouse;
There falling out at tennis. (58-9.)

The tennis-court quarrel had become a kind of cachet for Oxford.

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth. (63.)

And here we make connection with the “fishmonger” and the implications found in several of the plays in respect to the characters representing Burghley.

There is evidence that Oxford had been rummaging among old files at the time he wrote Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet. We have previously quoted Pandarus’s thrice-repeated assurance that he will not “meddle.” Here Polonius says (II.2.136-7):

If I had play’d the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb. . .

These two words had been used in the concluding sentence of Gilbert Talbot’s letter of May 11, 1572, in which he informed his father of Lady Burghley’s jealousy regarding the delight the Queen was taking in the young Lord Oxford:

At all these love-matters my Lord Treasurer winketh and will not meddle in any way.

It was in 1576 that the Earl had written his father-in-law from Siena of his frustrated hopes to be employed in Her Majesty’s service, remarking disconsolately, “and I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve while the grass doth grow.”

Hamlet complains that he lacks advancement.

Rosencrantz. How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?
Hamlet. Ay, sir, but “While the grass grows,”—the proverb is something musty. (III.2.344-9.)

It was indeed, by this time!

No doubt the scene in which Polonius gives instructions to Reynaldo was prompted by the letter from the British Ambassador in Paris, written to Burghley in 1575, indicating to the alert reader the kind of questions which must have been asked about him while he was there:

I will assure your Lordship unfeignedly my Lord of Oxford used himself as orderly and moderately as might be desired, and with great commendation, nor is there any appearance of the likelihood of any other.

This would have made the Vere blood boil, generating some of the heat which produced the merciless caricature of the meddlesome old minister, the “wretched, rash, intruding fool.”

It would be of tremendous interest to learn whether the documents he perused had revealed any hint of collusion at that time between Burghley and Leicester which might have shed light upon the mysterious attack by pirates on his ship as he was returning to England in 1576. Soon after that, it will be remembered, Oxford had written Pericles, relating how, when Pericles had guessed the shameful riddle of Antiochus, the latter had sent an agent in pursuit to murder him, and Pericles had been wrecked at sea. (He would have known if Leicester had in fact tried to have Simier’s ship sunk by pirates from Flushing.)

In the case of the attack on Oxford, Burghley had protested vigorously to the Prince of Orange against the vandalism of these ruffians from Flushing; but that signified very little, since nothing was more natural to the Fox than a great show of righteousness when he himself was guilty. It was a most mysterious affair, for, while the pirates were said to have robbed the Earl, they certainly left him with many of the fine “new-fangled” clothes which he had brought back with him. Perhaps he had been able to win them over, as Hamlet did in the case of those who attacked him.

They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy,

he writes Horatio. (IV.6.19.)

It seems to us, from Oxford’s adherence to the essential truth of events in Hamlet, that he must have had definite suspicions of some kind against Leicester and, partly for this reason, did not spare him in portraying him in the roles of both Claudius and L~cianus. Edward de Vere was a man of sanguine temperament, affectionate nature, and large generosity. To this last many writers of the day attest; and surely there is evidence of the author’s nobility of mind and heart in the plays, notably in Hamlet. He had done his best to meet Burghley upon a basis of affection and trust, but it had been impossible. Now he himself had been tented to the quick. In Hamlet he let down the bars and allowed the players to “tell all.”

Hide fox, and all after (IV.2.31.)

It may be well to speak here, parenthetically, of Hamlet’s explanation of how he had foiled the King’s plans to have him executed in England (V.2.31-6):

      I sat me down,
Devis’d a new commission, wrote it fair;
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair, and labour’d much
How to forget that learning; but, sir, now
It did me yeoman’s service.

He means that he had once striven to forget the German or Gothic script still used for formal documents: that is to say, he wrote the Italian hand (as was the fashion with Elizabethan courtiers; Hamlet being of course an Elizabethan, not a Dane); but he was glad he had previously learned the other, for now it stood him in good stead. Two of Lord Oxford’s letters which have been preserved are written in the modern Italian script.

Another proof that, in writing this play, the Earl had certain files of semi-official correspondence before him confronts us unmistakably in the parallels between Polonius’s rambling speeches and one of Burghley’s verbose letters. These can be correlated through long passages.

A letter from Burghley to the Queen, April 23, 1576, reads:

Most sovereign lady, As I was accustomed from the beginning of my service to your Majesty until of late by the permission of your goodness and by occasion of the place wherein I serve your Majesty, to be frequently an intercessor for others to your Majesty, and therein did find your Majesty always inclinable to give me gracious audience; so now do I find in the latter end of my years’ a necessary occasion to be an intercessor for another next to myself, in a cause goodly, honest, and just; and therefore having had proof of your Majesty for most favours in causes not so important, I doubt not but to find the like influence of your grace in a cause so near touching myself as your Majesty will conceive it doth. . . .

To enter to trouble your Majesty with the circumstances of my cause, I mean not for sundry respects but chiefly for two; the one is that I am very loth to be more cumbersome to your Majesty than need shall compel me; the other is, for that I hope in God’s goodness, and for reverence borne to your Majesty, that success thereof may have a better ending than the beginning threateneth. But your Majesty may think my suit will be very long where I am so long ere I begin it; and truly, most gracious sovereign lady, it is true that the nature of my cause is such as I have no pleasure to enter into it, but had rather seek means to shut it up for them to lay it open, not for lack of the soundness thereof on my part, but for the wickedness of others from whom the ground work proceedeth.

. . . whereas I am, by God’s visitation with some infirmity and yet not great, stayed from coming to do my duty to your Majesty at this time, and my daughter, the Countess of Oxford, also occasioned to her great grief to be absent from your Majesty’s Court. . . and of my daughter, your Majesty’s most humble young servant, as of one that is toward your Majesty in dutiful love and fear, yea, in fervent admiration of your graces. . . and in the cause betwixt my Lord of Oxford and her, whether it be for respect of misliking in me or misdeeming of hers whereof I cannot yet know the certainty, I do avow in the presence of God and of his angels whom I do call as ministers of his ire, if in this I do utter any untruth.

. . . yet now I have taken God and his angels to be witnesses to my writing, I renounce nature, and protest simply to your Majesty. I did never see in her behaviour in word or deed, nor ever could perceive by any other means, but that she hath always used herself honestly, chastely, and lovingly towards him. . . .

The letter continues in this wise ad infinitum, finally winding up with:

. . . not meaning for respect of my old service. . . to challenge any extraordinary favour, for my service hath been but a piece of duty. . . . I do remain constant to serve your Majesty in what place so ever your Majesty shall command, even in as base as I have done in great. (5)

One can easily imagine the effect of this long-winded, tedious, self-righteous plaint upon the high-strung Earl and upon Elizabeth too, for that matter. With what artistry Oxford satirizes the writer!

Polonius. My liege and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is ‘t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.
Queen. More matter with less art.
Polonius. Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity;
And pity ’tis ’tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him, then; and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause;
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.
I have a daughter, have while she is mine;
Who, in her duty and obedience. . . (II.2.86 et seq.)

Elizabeth must have shaken with lusty laughter at this burlesque of her pious, prolix, self-justifying, artful chief minister. Such mirth would have gone far to remove the sting from some of the darts aimed at herself. Nothing would have induced this cultured, subtle, witty, pleasure-loving Queen to relinquish the delights her Turk offered. He was the only one who had never fawned, the only man who had dared to stand up to her; and she was too essentially feminine not to relish that boldness in her wayward heart.

As for Oxford—Ralegh had been right about laying “the serpent before the fire”: he made short shrift of those who were so presumptuous as to interpret him to Elizabeth, even though in his low moments he had been willing to have Burghley intercede and had once stated his position in “a wise letter” to Hatton. One had really preferred not to believe that he was alluding to Ralegh in the following passage (V.1.142-6),

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.

But as a matter of fact, in January 1585, the Captain had been at court just “three years”; incidentally, he spoke, all his life, with a broad Devonshire accent; and, indeed, he had not behaved very nobly in helping his friend merely for policy’s sake, having been prompted rather by a peasant’s shrewdness than a knight’s chivalry. In any case, it was Elizabeth at whom the rebuke was chiefly aimed. These lines were a kind of sequel to the great speech on Degree in Troilus, and both were written for her benefit. So was the passage beginning, “The cease of majesty” (III.3.15 et seq.), reminiscent of the censorious periods on misuse of authority in Measure for Measure. Moreover, when Hamlet speaks to his mother (III.4) it is the Earl of Oxford speaking to the Queen:

Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good. (152-5.)

He was clearly unburdening himself, in this play, of all his bitter grievances: seeing to it that “the enginer” —not only Leicester and Hatton, but Burghley too, and the rest—was “hoist with his own petar.” (III.4.207.)

Incidentally, the courtiers were often called “crows,” and Hamlet, in speaking of them in his second soliloquy (II.2.586-7) as “region kites,” means regina’s kites; as the word “regina” is intended to be taken in Sonnet 33, in “the region cloud.”

One more document the dramatist had undoubtedly been glancing over during the composition of Hamlet was his own preface in Latin to Bartholomew Clerke’s translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier, and he must have turned the pages of this admired volume itself which had since youth served him as a model of conduct. It is impossible for us to point out the many obvious and also subtly pervasive parallels between Hamlet and The Courtier, as well as Lord Oxford’s eloquent and graceful preface to the work. This is a subject which will repay careful study. One commentator has observed that

Hamlet’s manner of speech, the range of his vocabulary, his freedom and dignity of utterance, are what we should expect. . . from the suggestions in The Courtier. All his doings are, besides, marked by that “certain recklessness” or nonchalance which is Castiglione’s hall mark of gentility. But it is not only Shakespeare’s Hamlet that seems to follow Castiglione. Shakespeare himself does so. (6)

This, we submit, is a very astute observation.

In his preface, Oxford had written:

I will say nothing of the fitness and the excellence with which he has depicted the beauty of chivalry in the noblest persons. Nor will I refer to his delineations in the case of those persons who cannot be Courtiers, when he alludes to some notable defect, or to some ridiculous character, or to some deformity of appearance.

Compare Hamlet’s words to Horatio (I.4.23 et seq.):

So oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth-wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin—
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Their virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
.     .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. . . .

Ferdinand in The Tempest, remarks significantly of women:

     . . . never any
With so full soul but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she ow’d,
And put it to the foil. (III.1.43-6.)

It is interesting to note that the King expresses Elizabeth’s own sublime confidence when he says (IV.5.122-4):

There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will.

Elizabeth had declared, “He that placed me on the throne hath power to keep me on it.”

There are two passages which may well represent the tenor of the conversation between Lord Oxford and Elizabeth in June 1583, when she finally put an end to his banishment. (Hamlet shared with Romeo, Valentine, Posthumus Leonatus, and other characters who represent Oxford, the stigma of banishment.) It is undeniable that the Earl ascribed to Leicester and Hatton a large share of the blame for his protracted banishment. Thus it is the King who says (IV.1.14 and 29-30):

His liberty is full of threats to all;


The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch
But we will ship him hence.

Oxford must have approached the Queen with a resolve similar to the Dane’s (III.2.401-5):

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

He would have chidden her about her lovers, as Hamlet chided the Queen, punning on the word “moor” (III.4.65 et seq.):

       . . . have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor?

She had called Alençon her Moor, and Leicester was said to have been “as dark as a gypsy,” while Hatton was a man of low degree—”a mean gentleman at Court.” Himself was the “mountain,” being of high estate, as well as of high moral code.

Oxford had found himself freer to work and make the terms of his own life during his absence from the court and may have expressed an intention of remaining away more constantly hereafter, even of retiring to Wivenhoe to study and write. But Elizabeth could be gracious, and she was undoubtedly delighted to see the Earl again; besides, she had no idea of releasing her “most excellent” dramatist; so that what she said to him may be inferred from the King’s speech, reading “Wivenhoe” for “Wittenberg” (I.2.112-17):

       For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire;
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

“. . . after some bitter words and speeches,” wrote Roger Manners of this interview, “all sins are forgiven, and he may repair to the Court at his pleasure.”

Perhaps, then, with someone eavesdropping behind the arras, he did “speak daggers” to her. But if he had left anything unsaid, he made up for it in Hamlet!

Polonius urges the Queen (III.4.1-4):

                Look you lay home to him;
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with,
And that your Grace hath screen’d and stood between
Much heat and him.

We may take it as certain that Burghley had upon occasion appealed to the Queen about Oxford’s all but unbearable “pranks” in the plays; we are told here that the Queen shielded him against much angry resentment.

No one can deny that old Polonius had been sorely tried, but he was like his prototype in his practice of keeping things smooth on the surface. Burghley “would do anything,” said Hume, “to avoid a quarrel.” This policy was’ evident in Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius (III.2.381-7):

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet. Or like a whale?
Polonius. Very like a whale.

One of the many indications that Oxford revised Hamlet during the ’90’s, as well as again just before his death, occurs in the derivation of this passage. In a letter Henry Howard wrote Essex at some time before 1598, about Burghley and his son, Robert Cecil, both of whom these two men hated, he said, “The dromedary [i.e., Burghley] that would have won the favour of the Queen of Sabez is almost enraged”; and he asks the Earl whether he cannot “drag out the old leviathan and his cub.” (7) One of Elizabeth’s nicknames for Burghley was Leviathan. Oxford himself seems to have supplied the word “weasel”: a fitting appellation.

In the scene between Hamlet and the Queen, in which Polonius is stabbed, we have a graphic reference to Elsinore, where the great hall of the Kronberg Palace was divided into two parts by a vast tapestry which depended from the ceiling, with portraits of the Kings of Denmark woven into it. Nowadays we are shown Hamlet comparing pictures in two lockets—the one he wears his father’s, the Queen’s her second husband’s. But originally Hamlet would have pointed to the figures on the arras. (8)

Polonius had hidden twice behind the arras at Elsinore. That was a bad thing to have known about a man, especially if it were true.

Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger,

remarks Hamlet (III.4.33), after having impulsively made a thrust through the arras with that “certain recklessness” characteristic of him.

He carries it off with nonchalance, this macabre affair-which is largely symbolic, for he is a Prince ridding himself of an “intruding fool,” and also he is the premier Earl of England and a great dramatist stabbing a persistent busybody with his rapier-wit. The Queen told the King he had whipped out his “rapier.”

Hamlet lightly parries the King’s indignant questions regarding Polonius’s whereabouts with,

. . . a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. (IV.3.21.)

This remark is anything but nonsense. Burghley, who was in social intercourse frequently jocose, as we have seen, and as Hume declares him to have been, often spoke of having been born at the time the Diet of Worms was in session. (9) No doubt Oxford had found himself excruciatingly bored by a reiteration of this fact.

Hamlet’s point is unmistakable. This man had his beginning with “a certain convocation of politic worms”; every man comes in the end to “one table”: the worm’s. He plays with the idea:

Your worm is your only emperor for diet.

The Diet of Worms. But the affair becomes more complex and symbolic when one reflects that Ver means worm. And Ver has dieted like an emperor on his victim. He rounds out the passage with a suggestion of the “fishmonger” allusion:

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

After Hamlet has stabbed Polonius with his rapier, he expresses his penitence with just the kind of weary exasperation the Earl of Oxford must chronically have felt as a result of having penetrated Burghley and served him up, as he seemed to have a helpless compulsion to do.

                For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath Pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. (III.4.172-7.) (10)

(Here we have Hamlet stating his playwright’s mission, as Jaques and the Bastard do. He is the “scourge and minister.”)

The Prince has remarked casually to Polonius, when directing him to use the players well (II.2.529-30):

. . . after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.

This turned out to be a long-range truth, and Ver, like the worm, has had the final disposition of his subject; for in this tragical-comical-historical presentation of the busybody statesman and father, the players have given Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer a report which will outlast the epitaph on his tomb in Westminster, because it will live

Where breath most breathes-even in the mouths of men.

1 Burghley was trying to discover this very thing when he sent for one of Oxford’s servants to come to him, while the Earl was writing it.

2 Burghley is said to have written these out for his favorite son, Robert, on his departure for Paris. But he had evidently given Thomas a similar set years before, for his son-in-law had entered them upon his “tables,” allowing Lyly to make use of half a dozen of them for his Euphues, where they are called “these few precepts,” just as in Hamlet.

3 Hume: The Gr. Ld. B.; p. 25.

4 When the Earl had discovered that the portrait-painter, Lewyn, was reporting on him to Burghley, he had eluded the man. Chap. Eight.

5 Chap. Nine.

6 Drayton Henderson: Note on Castiglione; Everyman ed. of The Courtier.

7 Winstanley: Hamlet, and the Scottish Succession; p. 125.

8 Percy Allen: The Life-Story, etc.; p. 205. Mr. Allen believes the remains of this arras are still extant in one of the Copenhagen museums.

9 Phillips; p. 144.

10 This statement shows that Hamlet is not irresponsible in his revenge. It is because he is not irresponsible, not because he lacks resolution, that he postpones killing the King until he has proof of his guilt.

Contents | Chapter Fifty