Polonius as Lord Burghley

Polonius as Lord Burghley

by Mark Alexander

Text excerpts are reproduced under provisions of 17 USC 107, pertaining to the fair use of a copyrighted work, for purposes of criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, research, and non-profit educational purposes and are not intended for use of a commercial nature.

 Gentle Reader

Please indulge me as I beg your patience and understanding with all that follows. We who do not always see eye to eye will often approach each other with impatience and cynicism, especially when we quickly think that we have “pegged” the argument of the other before giving it a full reading. I ask you, gentle reader, to set aside your cynicism.

I promise you that what follows is a new argument, one you have not seen in this form before, arranged in a manner most able to arouse your interest and challenge your assumptions. I beg that you not give way to unwarranted apprehensions, that you not supply arguments that you think are present but which, in fact, are not.

If I have succeeded, you will find my argument focused and narrow in scope, inviting the exploration of other arguments, but not attempting to argue them here.

I make three very focused propositions, and I think that any thoughtful reader who values evidence and reason over prejudice and self-deception, and who has taken the time to thoroughly acquaint themselves with my entire argument, not just portions, will agree that I have supported persuasively all three propositions:

1) That the character of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet so strongly mirrors William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that no reasonable person would deny that the author of the Shakespeare plays to a great extent consciously modeled Polonius after Burghley, with no other interpretation coming nearly as close to having such circumstantial support.

2) That many notable Stratfordian scholars have supported this interpretation.

3) That major Stratfordian scholars and critics, while presenting the Oxfordian case, have failed to mention most or all the strong arguments supporting the Polonius/Burghley connection.

In many areas of scholarship, the better arguments have already been made, but they are often ignored or misrepresented by those whose reputation or livelihood would be affected by those better arguments. This unfortunate fact of professional life does not require a conscious conspiracy; it simply follows a common pattern of human behavior. One way to expose their methods is to trace some of the history of the arguments in such a way that readers can examine many relevant sources, compare the arguments, and then come to their own conclusions. This I propose to do.

Since I firmly believe that a reader is best served by having access to copies of the original sources, I will quote much material in context, which means that quotes may appear lengthier than necessary. I think that a reader should be able to see the actual context as much as possible.

May your thoughts be clear and your breast free from all hindering passions as you adventure forth.

Mark Alexander (1)

 Polonius as Lord Burghley

A Short Journey Through the History of the Arguments


The first recorded speculation that Polonius was modeled after William Cecil, Lord Burghley, occurs in Stratfordian George Russell French’s 1869 book Shakspeareana Genealogica:

The next important personages in the play are the “Lord Chamberlain,” POLONIUS; his son, LAERTES; and daughter, OPHELIA; and these are supposed to stand for Queen Elizabeth’s celebrated Lord High Treasurer, Sir WILLIAM CECIL, Lord Burleigh; his second son, ROBERT CECIL; and his daughter, ANNE CECIL. (French 301)

When French says, “these are supposed to stand for”, it implies that such speculation was already ongoing in the mid-19th century and that the idea was neither overly controversial nor uniquely advanced. French then draws attention to the similarities between Ophelia and Anne Cecil followed by those between Laertes and Robert Cecil:

It is well known that an alliance of marriage was proposed by their fathers to take place between Philip Sidney and Anne Cecil, the “fair Ophelia” of the play: here is one link of resemblance in the story. Queen Gertrude says,–

“I hop’d thou should’st have been my Hamlet’s wife.”

Anne Cecil became the wife of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This was not a happy marriage for the lady, and the only quarrel in which Philip Sidney ever engaged was with Oxford, who had behaved to him with great rudeness, and the challenge between them was only frustrated by the Queen’s interference. Did our Poet bear this quarrel in mind when he makes Hamlet leap into Ophelia’s grave and grapple with Laertes?–

“I will fight with him upon this theme.”

In the drama Polonius, on his son Laertes leaving him for foreign travel, gives him his blessing, and advice, telling him,–

“And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.”

We have now come to a second link in the chain of evidence. When Robert Cecil was about to set out on his travels, his father (who lived till 1598) was careful to enjoin upon him “ten precepts,” in allusion, as he explains, to the Decalogue, and in some of these the identity of language with that of Polonius is so close, that SHAKSPEARE could not have hit upon it unless he had been acquainted with Burleigh’s parental advice to Robert Cecil, who was forty-six years old when the play was written. It is worth while to compare the “precepts” of the two fathers: those of Polonius can with certainty be divided into at least nine sections; they are not of course intended to run parallel in all respects with those of Cecil, but some of them are wonderfully alike.









………..”Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel*;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new hatch’d unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
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 ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man,
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee.”Act I. Scene 3.


[*In some editions it is “hoops of steels,” but “hook ” will best agree with grapple.”]

Now Lord Burleigh’s “ten precepts,” which are numbered in due order, contain some startling coincidences of expression with the precepts of Polonius; those which do not fit the Poet’s text may be merely glanced at. Precept 1 relates to “choosing a wife,” and keeping house; 2, to bringing up children; 3 contains advice respecting servants. Precept 4 — “Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table. Grace them with thy countenance, and farther them in all honest actions. For by this means thou shalt so double the band of nature as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind thy back. But shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperitie, but in an adverse storme they will shelter thee no more than an arbour in winter. 5. Beware of suretyship for thy best friends. He that payeth another man’s debts seeketh his own decay. But if thou canst not otherwise chose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it. So shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend. Neither borrow of a neighbour or of a friend, but of a stranger, whose paying for it thou shalt hear no more of it. 6. Undertake no suit against a poor man without receiving much wrong. 7. Be sure to make some great man thy friend. 8. Towards superiors be humble, yet generous. With thine equals familiar, yet respective. Towards thine inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity. 9. Trust not any man with thy life credit, or estate. 10. Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests.” (French 302-304)

Thus we have the first recorded link between Polonius and William Cecil. French was the first to point out that Polonius’s precepts to his son Laertes were similar to Lord Burghley’s Preceptes to his son Robert Cecil, which were not published until 1616. (Schoenbaum 493) However, French does not explain which of Polonius’s precepts he sees linking to Burghley’s.

The question then is: Why would French even look for such a linkage? The answer seems to be that given the fact that Polonius’s relationship to the monarch is very much the same as Burghley’s relationship to the monarch, French would then look for similarities in the precepts of both, either in content or in tone. I believe that he had in mind the following precepts, which are somewhat similar in content:

Polonius Burghley
#1 and #2

………..”Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

And glancingly, #5 and #6

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.


Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests.


Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel; / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new hatch’d unfledged comrade.


Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table. Grace them with thy countenance, and farther them in all honest actions. For by this means thou shalt so double the band of nature as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind thy back. But shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperitie, but in an adverse storme they will shelter thee no more than an arbour in winter.


Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

#5 and #9

Beware of suretyship for thy best friends. He that payeth another man’s debts seeketh his own decay. But if thou canst not otherwise chose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it. So shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend. Neither borrow of a neighbour or of a friend, but of a stranger, whose paying for it thou shalt hear no more of it.

Trust not any man with thy life credit, or estate.

These similarities in content, along with some overall similarity in tone and a few other arguments, have formed the basis for many later Stratfordian scholars to believe that Polonius was Burghley. Although I believe that the similarity in precepts can form the basis of one argument, I do not see it as strong enough by itself to make the identification. If the author of Hamlet were to parallel closely a majority of the precepts, then perhaps a definitive case could be made. But we have here similarities based on less than half of the precepts.

Furthermore, other individuals such as Sir Walter Raleigh also created “Instructions to a Son,” as pointed out by Louis B. Wright in his Advice to a Son: Precepts of Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Osborne. But like Burghley, Raleigh was long dead when his instructions were published. Both postdate the death of William Shakspere.

One may wonder, then, why so many Stratfordian scholars strongly maintained that Polonius was modeled on Burghley. Later writers would have to come up with other strong instances of circumstantial evidence before making a good overall case for Polonius as Burghley.

Part One: A Brief Discussion –
On Discovering Genuine Topical Allusions

Before we can discuss the rest of the circumstantial evidence, we must satisfactorily answer two questions, since many students of Shakespeare have never thought much of the plays in terms of topicality:

1) Is there any reason to think that dramatists in Shakespeare’s time wrote topically and satirically?

2) If so, how does one go about establishing a strong case for a topical allusion and overcoming the inevitable *projections* one may have when biased toward a particular interpretation?

Is there any reason to think that dramatists in Shakespeare’s time wrote topically and satirically?

Yes. Two Stratfordian scholars out of many have explored this topic in the last fifteen years: Annabel Patterson in Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, and Leah S. Marcus in Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Readings and Its Discontents.

“…poetry, or literature, has had from antiquity a unique role to play in mediating to the magistrates the thoughts of the governed, and that it exists, or ought to, in a privileged position of compromise.” (Patterson 13)

“In the plays of Ben Jonson and Philip Massinger, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, in a court masque by Thomas Carew, in the sermons of John Donne, there is evidence, if we look carefully, of a highly sophisticated system of oblique communication, of unwritten rules whereby writers could communicate with readers or audiences (among whom were the very same authorities who were responsible for state censorship) without producing a direct confrontation. The official recognition of the public theater as both, up to a point, a privileged domain with laws of its own, and a useful safety valve or even a source of intelligence, has been well established. Elizabeth’s famous recognition of herself in a 1601 revival of Richard II and James’s equally famous decision to let Middleton’s Game at Chess play for twelve days tell the same story, and show that they recognized the wisdom of the message brought from the grave by the poet Collingbourne. One of the least oblique critics of Jacobean policy, the pamphleteer Thomas Scott, remarked in the significantly entitled Vox Regis that “sometimes Kings are content in Playes and Maskes to be admonished of divers things.” (Patterson 45)

“Given the feckless, highly ingenious, almost ungovernable gusto with which contemporaries found parallels between stage action and contemporary events, there are few things that plays could be relied upon not to mean. In early Tudor times, plays were openly used both for official propaganda and for political agitation. Heavy-handed moralities glorified the Reformation; one play displayed Henry VIII cutting off the heads of the Catholic clergy with a two-handed sword. On the other hand, according to Holinshed it was at a play that leaders of Kett’s Rebellion (1549) incited followers to “enter further into their wicked enterprise.” During the early years of Elizabeth, the drama was no less embroiled in events and personalities. Plays like Gorboduc and The Comedy of Patient and Meek Grissell took up the vexed matter of royal succession. During the 1560s Elizabeth herself regularly interpreted comedies presented at court as offering advice about the succession: she was to follow the “woman’s part,” a part she professed to dislike, and marry as the heroine inevitably did at the end. Given her ability to find “Abstracts of the time” even in seemingly neutral materials. No comedy performed before her was safe from topical interpretation.

“Her subjects were no less agile. The fact that some plays like Gorboduc and the Tudor moralities commented so directly on contemporary affairs encouraged audiences to find similar resonances nearly everywhere else. During the 1580s court plays like George Peele’s Arraignment of Paris built the presence of the queen into their very structure: the arraignment could not be performed at all unless the queen played her part. But even when such connections were not made structurally necessary, they were regularly found out. Negative examples are the most prominent in the surviving records if only because censorship caused them to receive special scrutiny. So, in 1601, a sudden rash of performances of Shakespeare’s Richard II was taken by Elizabeth and her chief ministers (and not without reason) as propaganda for the Essex rebellion.” (Marcus 27) (2)

It appears that not only were dramatists writing plays that were topical, their audiences actually expected plays to be topical. Dramatists, therefore, could not help but expect their audience to read into the play those matters of topical interest. In fact, the more one studies the history of English drama, particularly in the early 16th century, the more one is struck by how virtually every play of any worth was full of topical, and even strongly political, allusions. (For a fascinating discussion of *devices* and topical allusions in early plays, see Glynne Wickham’s multi-volume Early English Stages 1300 to 1660, especially volume three, pages 65-82. Wickham does an excellent job of helping the reader look through 16th-century eyes.)

The question now is:

How does one go about establishing a strong case for a topical allusion and overcoming the inevitable *projections* one may have when biased toward a particular interpretation?

The best way to ensure a convincing topical allusion is to have more than one kind of linking evidence. If one wants to make a case that a person is being caricatured in a play, one needs more than the coincidence, say, of the same name; or that the character talks in the same way. More than one kind of circumstantial evidence is needed to make a convincing case.

In a criminal trial, a case based on circumstantial evidence can be strong enough to convict, even for murder. In Shakespeare Identified, J. Thomas Looney (pronounced “Loney”) describes the character of circumstantial evidence:

“[Circumstantial evidence is taken] mistakenly by some to be evidence of an inferior order, but in practice the most reliable proof we have. […] The predominating element in what we call circumstantial evidence is that of coincidences. A few coincidences we may treat as simply interesting; a number of coincidences we regard as remarkable; a vast accumulation of extraordinary coincidences we accept as conclusive proof. And when the case has reached this stage we look upon the matter as finally settled, until, as may happen, something of a most unusual character appears to upset all our reasoning. If nothing of this kind ever appears, whilst every newly discovered fact adds but confirmation to the conclusion, that conclusion is accepted as a permanently established truth.” (Looney 80)

In a murder trial without eyewitnesses, prosecutors must build a strong circumstantial case based on different kinds of evidence that intersects on the suspect. For example, before a jury will convict, strong evidence concerning motive, means, and opportunity must be presented. That is, the suspect must be shown to have intent, access to the murder weapon or other means to commit the murder, and be available in the timeframe and place of the murder. It helps when artifacts or *signs* can be linked to the suspect (i.e., shoe prints, make and model of car, etc.)

This triple-angled structure of circumstantial evidence is similar to the requirements exerted within a three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, where three terms (x, y, z) are needed to identify the intersection that locates a single and unique point in the coordinate system. In a 2-d system, only (x, y) are needed. [I bring up this mathematical model simply to point out how one needs more than one angle of information to precisely locate a point.]

The same holds true in making a strong case for a topical allusion or a modeling of a character on a real person. One single angle of evidence, no matter how compelling, is usually not enough. Simply saying that Polonius uses “words” that are strongly similar to Lord Burghley’s is not enough. Thus, the coincidence that Polonius give precepts to his son and that Burghley has given precepts to his son is not enough to persuasively make the case that Polonius is modeled on Burghley. By itself, this link stands merely as a coincidence. Other coincidences, other angles of evidence must be presented. If a case can be made with three separate sets of coincidences, or angles of evidence, one can be more assured of overcoming biases and of presenting a strong, objective interpretation.

And a circumstantial case built from several angles is, by the nature of circumstantial evidence, stronger than others built merely on oen or two angles.

I propose to satisfy this three-angled approach to circumstantial evidence in showing that there exists a strong case in favor of Polonius being modeled after Lord Burghley. (3)


1. This page is the result of a series of posts on the Shakespeare newsgroup humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare.

2. Marcus is critical of anti-Stratfordians (pp. 34-36) and isolates Oxfordians for particular censure. She holds the notion that the Oxfordian case is built primarily upon topical readings of the plays. Her entire chapter on “Localization” is worth reading for the insights into the “universalizing and generalizing” of the author in the First Folio and for her discussions surrounding issues of topicality.

3. I have relegated many weak arguments to the texts linked from the footnotes. Weak arguments only gain stature once the strong arguments are in place.


Part Two: The Arguments from 1869 to 1981

[Note: Although the approach may be less efficient, I present arguments roughly in chronological order.]

In 1869, George Russell French managed to supply at least two pieces of strong circumstantial evidence:

Strong Argument #1. Polonius’s role as head counselor stands in the same relation to the monarch as does Burghley’s role.

Strong Argument #2. Polonius presents precepts to his son in a manner similar to Burghley’s presenting precepts to his son.

Although French has also supplied arguments based on Ophelia and Laertes, we shall see that others have better formulated them.

The next writer to explore an in-depth connection between Polonius and Lord Burghley was Oxfordian J. Thomas Looney. He quotes a passage from Macaulay’s Historical Essays describing Burghley, and then he comments upon it:

“To the last Burleigh was somewhat jocose; and some of his sportive sayings have been recorded by Bacon. They show much more shrewdness than generosity, and are indeed neatly expressed reasons for exacting money rigorously and for keeping it carefully. It must, however, be acknowledged that he was rigorous and careful for the public advantage as well as for his own. To extol his moral character is absurd. It would be equally absurd to represent him as a corrupt, rapacious and bad-hearted man. He paid great attention to the interest of the state, and great attention also to the interest of his own family.”

Hardly any one will deny that Macaulay’s delineation of Burleigh is correct portraiture of Polonius; and, therefore, if Burleigh appeared thus to Macaulay after two and a half centuries had done their purifying work on his memory, one can readily suppose his having presented a similar appearance to a contemporary who had had no special reason to bless his memory. The resemblance becomes all the more remarkable if we add to this description the spying proclivities of Denmark’s minister, the philosophic egoism he propounds under a gloss of morality, his opposition to his son’s going abroad, and his references to his youthful love affair and to what he did “at the university.” All these are strikingly characteristic of Burleigh and the most of them have already been adequately dealt with. (Looney 400-401)

These vague character descriptions strike me as weak arguments in themselves that can only gain stature with stronger and more specific evidence from other areas. But Looney lays the groundwork for another strong connection in this next excerpt. (I am skipping his discussion on the Precepts, a discussion in which he mentions that some have tried to link the precepts of Polonius to some similar ones in Lyly’s Euphues. He also points out that Lyly had close ties to Burghley’s household and would likely know of Burghley’s penchant for precepts. Looney seems not to have read George Russell French, since he seems to think he is the first to point out this connection to Burghley. )

The advice of Polonius to Laertes is given just as the latter is about to set out for Paris, and all the instructions of the former to the spy Reynaldo have reference to the conduct of Laertes in that city. The applicability of it all to Burleigh’s eldest son Thomas Cecil, afterwards Earl of Exeter, and founder of the present house of Exeter, will be apparent to any one who will take the trouble to read G. Ravenscroft Dennis’s work on “The House of Cecil.”

The tendency towards irregularities, at which Ophelia hints in her parting words to her brother, is strongly suggestive of Thomas Cecil’s life in Paris; and all the enquiries which Polonius instructs the spy to make concerning Laertes are redolent of the private information which Burleigh was receiving, through some secret channel, of his son Thomas’s life in the French capital. For he writes to his son’s tutor, Windebank, that he “has a watchword sent him out of France that his son’s being there shall serve him to little purpose, for that he spends his time in idleness.” We are told that Thomas Cecil incurred his father’s displeasure by his “slothfulness,” “extravagance,” “carelessness in dress,” “inordinate love of unmeet plays, as dice and cards”; and that he learnt to dance and play at tennis.

With these things in mind let the reader again go carefully over the advice of Polonius to Laertes, and the former’s instructions to Reynaldo. He will hardly escape, we believe, a sense of the identity of father and son, with Burleigh and his son Thomas Cecil. One point in Hamlet’s relations with Laertes strikes one as peculiar: his sudden and quite unexpected expression of affection:

“What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever.”

Now the fact is that Thomas Cecil was one entirely out of touch with and in many ways quite antagonistic to Burleigh and his policy. In spite of his wildness in early life he is spoken of as “a brave and unaffected man of action, out of place in court, but with all the finest instincts of a soldier.” He was also one of those who, along with Oxford, favoured the Queen’s marriage with the Duke of Alencon, in direct opposition to the policy of Burleigh. Thomas Cecil was an older man than Oxford, and they had much in common to form the basis of affection. (Looney 403-404)

This identification of Laertes with Thomas Cecil is also echoed ten years later by none other than Stratfordian E. K. Chambers:

It has often been thought that Polonius may glance at Lord Burghley, who wrote Certain Preceptes, or Directions for the use of his son Robert Cecil. These were printed (1618) ‘from a more perfect copie, than ordinarily those pocket manuscripts goe warranted by’. Conceivably Shakespeare knew a pocket manuscript, but Laertes is less like Robert Cecil than Burghley’s elder son Thomas. (Chambers I, 418)

We shall be returning to the interesting text surrounding this passage, but for now we can note that Chambers makes no objection to the identification of Polonius with Burghley, and even presents some corroborating evidence with his identification of Laertes with Thomas, as had Looney before him. (Chambers was a well-read man and undoubtedly had read Looney’s book. And he certainly would have read Lilian Winstanley’s book discussed below.)

So we now have a third piece of strong circumstantial evidence:

Strong Argument #3. Polonius’s perceptions of his son Laertes’s character, and Laertes’ travel to Paris are strikingly similar to Burghley’s perceptions of his son Thomas’s character and Thomas’s travel to Paris.

The first Stratfordian to give the connections between Polonius and Burghley a more thorough treatment than Looney was Stratfordian Lilian Winstanley. In her book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, she devotes 20 pages exploring connections between scenes involving Polonius and events and persons in Elizabethan England. (Both Looney and Winstanley published within one year of each other, so it is highly unlikely that either was aware of the work of the other, although Winstanley was aware of George Russell French’s work.)

She too is aware of how circumstantial evidence edges toward persuasiveness: “Any of these references might be accidental if it stood alone; it is, as always, the combination which is the convincing thing. (Winstanley 112)” Although French and Looney allude to it, she more directly supplies us with the connection between Thomas and Laertes:

Polonius, throughout the play, stands isolated as the one person who does really enjoy the royal confidence; he is an old man, and no other councillor of equal rank anywhere appears. This corresponds almost precisely with the position held by Burleigh; he had, for the greater part of his reign, been among Elizabeth’s chief councillors, and the death of Walsingham and others left him isolated in her service, surviving almost all the men of his own generation.

Again, Burleigh’s eldest son — Thomas Cecil — was a youth of very wayward life; his licentiousness and irregularity occasioned his father great distress and, during his residence in Paris, his father wrote letters to him full of wise maxims for his guidance; he also instructed friends to watch over him, and bring him reports of his son’s behaviour. So Polonius has a son — Laertes — whom he suspects of irregular life; Polonius provides that his son, when he goes to Paris, shall be carefully watched, and that reports on his behaviour shall be prepared by Reynaldo.

I will place side by side the parallels that seem to me most pertinent, pointing out first that there is no resemblance whatever in the saga source.

Amidst his manifold public anxieties Cecil had to bear his share of private trouble…. Thomas, his only son by his first marriage with Mary Cheke was now (1561) a young man of twenty, and in order that he might receive the polish fitting to the heir of a great personage, his father consulted Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, the Ambassador in Paris, in the Spring of 1561, with the idea of sending him thither. A subsequent recommendation of Thomas Windebank, the young man’s governor, to the effect that it would be well to accept Throgmorton’s offer, although Sir William Cecil was loath to trespass on his friend’s hospitality, “in order that the youth might learn, not only at table but otherwise, according to his estate,” leads us to the conclusion that Thomas Cecil had not hitherto been an apt scholar . . . from the first it was seen that the father was misgiving and anxious. Cecil was a reserved man, full of public affairs; but this correspondence proves that he was also a man of deep family affections, and above all, that he regarded with horror the idea that any scandal should attach to his honoured name. In his first letter to his son he strikes the note of distrust.. . . “He wishes him God’s blessing, but how he inclines himself to deserve it he knows not.” None of his son’s three letters he explains, makes any mention of the expense he is incurring. . . . To Windebank the father is more outspoken. How are they spending their time, he asks, and heartily prays that Thomas may serve God with fear and reverence. But Thomas seems to have done nothing of the sort, for, in nearly every letter, Windebank urges Sir William to repeat his injunctions about prayer to his son…. But the scapegrace paid little heed…. Rumour of his ill-behaviour reached Sir William, not at first from Windebank. In March 1562 an angry and indignant letter went from Cecil to his son, reproaching him for his bad conduct. There was no amendment he said, and all who came to Paris gave him the character of “a dissolute, slothful, negligent and careless young man and the letter is signed ‘your father of an unworthy son.'” [Martin Hume, Burleigh.]

A week later Cecil writes: “Windebank, I am here used to pains and troubles, but none creep so near my heart as does this of my lewd son…. Good Windebank, consult my dear friend Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, to whom I have referred the whole…. If ye shall come with him (i.e. Thomas) to cover the shame, let it appear to be by reason of the troubles there.” [Martin Hume, Burleigh.]

We may compare this with Hamlet? [Act II., i.]

POL. Give him this money and these notes, Reynaldo.
REY. I will, my lord.
POL. You shall do marvellous wisely, good Reynaldo,
Before you visit him, to make inquire
Of his behaviour.
REY. My lord, I did intend it.
POL. Marry, well said; very well said. Look you, sir,
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
. . . . . . . . . . . and finding
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer,
Than your particular demands will touch it:
. . . . . . . . . . . put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.
REY. As gaming, my lord.
POR. Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,
Drabbing: you may go so far.”

Now, surely we notice here an essentially similar situation to the one given in Burleigh’s life; the father an immaculate, all-wise councillor at home, the spendthrift son leading a licentious life in Paris, and anyone who knows the father encouraged to give reports on the son’s behaviour which the father anticipates, with only too much justice, will almost certainly be evil reports. (Winstanley 114-118)

Thus does Ms. Winstanley give strong support to our third strong argument that Laertes is modeled on Thomas Cecil.

We should note at this point that a well-meaning critic may be thinking that these connections break down because if Shakespeare really wanted the audience to think that Polonius was modeled on Lord Burghley, he would have made sure that Polonius had two sons. (And, besides, where is Polonius’s wife? Surely Shakespeare would know that there was a Lady Burghley and would have characterized her as well.) We can only say that topical allusions need not be exact. They must be close enough to establish the relation, but ambiguous enough to give the author deniability. Certainly such would be the case if the author were engaging in deliberate satire.

Ms. Winstanley also has some things to say about Polonius and Ophelia. (Although she does draw a parallel in this passage with Oxford, she does not explore it, and she gives no reason for us to think that she is anything other than devoutly Stratfordian.)

Intercepted letters and the employment of spies were, then, a quite conspicuous and notorious part of Cecil’s statecraft, and they are certainly made especially characteristic of Shakespeare’s Polonius. Polonius intercepts the letters from Hamlet to his daughter; he appropriates Hamlet’s most intimate correspondence, carries it to the king, and discusses it without a moment’s shame or hesitation: he and the king play the eavesdropper during Hamlet’s interview with Ophelia: he himself spies upon Hamlet’s interview with his mother. It is impossible not to see that these things are made both futile and hateful in Polonius, and they were precisely the things that were detested in Cecil.

It is also worthy of note that Burleigh took the utmost care not to conduct marriage projects for his daughter in a way that might suggest he was using her to further his own interests.

“How careful he was to avoid all cause for doubt is seen by his answer to Lord Shrewsbury’s offer of his son as a husband for one of Burleigh’s daughters…. The match proposed was a good one and the Lord Treasurer — a new noble — was flattered and pleased by the offer.” [Martin Hume]

He refused it, however, because Shrewsbury was in charge of the Queen of Scots, and he feared the suspicion of intrigues.

“A similar but more flattering offer was made by the Earl of Essex in 1573 on behalf of his son; but this also was declined.”

Cecil, in fact, was always particularly careful not to let Elizabeth or anyone else think that ambition for his daughter could tempt him into unwise political plans.

In exactly the same way we find Polonius guarding himself against any suspicion that he may have encouraged Hamlet’s advances to Ophelia. “The king asks [Act II., ii.]: “How hath she received his love?” and Polonius enquires, “What do you think of me? “The king replies: “As of a man faithful and honourable”; Polonius proceeds to explain that, such being the case, he could not possibly have encouraged the love between Hamlet and his daughter; but he had informed the latter that she must “lock herself” from the prince.

There is a further curious parallel in the fact that when Cecil’s daughter — Elizabeth [sic – Anne was her name] — married De Vere, Earl of Oxford — the husband turned sulky, separated himself from his wife, and declared that it was Cecil’s fault for influencing his wife against him.

“A few days later Burghley had reason to be still more angry with Oxford himself, though with his reverence for rank he appears to have treated him with inexhaustible patience and forbearance…. Oxford declined to meet his wife or to hold any communication with her; Burghley reasoned, remonstrated, and besought in vain. Oxford was sulky and intractable. His wife, he said, had been influenced by her parents against him and he would have nothing more to do with her.”

So, also, in the drama we find Polonius interfering between his daughter and her lover, we find his machinations so successful that Hamlet turns sulky, and is alienated from Ophelia for good. (Winstanley 122-124)

Strong Argument #4. Polonius’s daughter Ophelia and her circumstances with Hamlet are strongly similar to Burghley’s daughter Anne Cecil and her circumstances with Oxford.

These parallels were strong enough, not only to persuade E.K. Chambers of the probability that Shakespeare modeled Polonius after Burghley, but also to persuade other Stratfordian scholars and biographers. None, however, discuss the uncomfortable parallels between Oxford and Hamlet, probably because these same writers have, at times, come to believe that Hamlet is closely associated with “Shakespeare” the dramatist.

In 1937, seven years after Chambers, John Dover Wilson wrote in The Essential Shakespeare:

Hamlet the play goes back a long way, and was in some form or other being acted by Shakespeare’s company as early as 1594. Shakespeare himself had probably handled it by 1598, since there is a reference to his Hamlet in that year or soon after, and since the figure of Polonius is almost without doubt intended as a caricature of Burleigh, who died on August 4, 1598. (Dover Wilson 104)

Almost without doubt.

Joel Hurstfield, in his 1958 book The Queen’s Wards, quotes Burghley’s precepts, and then writes: “It is the authentic voice of Polonius.” (Hurstfield 257) And six years later, after the Folger library released a special book denouncing anti-Stratfordians (MacManaway’s The Authorship of Shakespeare), Mr. Hurstfield had grown more confident in the identification, as indicated in his book Shakespeare’s World (written with James Sutherland): “The governing classes were both paternalistic and patronizing; and nowhere is this attitude better displayed than in the advice which that archetype of elder statesmen William Cecil, Lord Burghley — Shakespeare’s Polonius — prepared for his son.” (Hurstfield 35)

Stratfordian biographer (and intolerant flamer of Oxfordians) A. L. Rowse indicated his unabashed support for the parallel in his 1963 book William Shakespeare: A Biography:

Nor do I think we need hesitate to see reflections of old Lord Burghley in old Polonius — not only in the fact that their positions were the same in the state, the leading minister in close proximity to the sovereign, in ancient smug security. Shakespeare had had plenty of opportunity to imbibe Southampton’s unfavourable view of the prosy and meddling Lord Treasurer. It is not so much that there is question of the marriage of his daughter to a prince, but that his whole personality reflects the view of these young men, while there are certain specific references reflecting Burghley’s known characteristics. (Rowse 323)

Ignoring the fantasy of Shakspere and Southampton’s relationship (there is no evidence of a connection outside the dedications, so Rowse’s depiction of an “opportunity to imbibe” is his creation), Rowse has given his unequivocal support to the modeling of Polonius on Burghley. Ten years later, his view had essentially not changed. In Shakespeare The Man, Rowse writes: “The late Lord Treasurer, prosy old Burghley — of whom Southampton had no kind memory — is clearly glanced at in the grave councillor, Polonius.” Although for some reason he shows a slight sign of hedging in the next paragraph: “Whether Polonius was Burghley or no, Burghley was certainly a Polonius.” (Rowse 185, 186)

Rowse uses the epithet “prosy.” In the 1955 biography of Burghley, Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth, Stratfordian Conyers Read points out this major characteristic of Burghley’s (This letter to his son Thomas I quote only in part for the sake of brevity):

‘If you offend in forgetting God by leaving your ordinary prayers or such like, if you offend in any surfeiting of eating or drinking too much, if you offend in other ways, by attending and minding any lewd or filthy tales or enticements of lightness or wantonness of body, you must at evening bring both your thoughts and deeds as you put off your garments to lay down, and cast away those and all such like that by the devil are devised to overwhelm your soul. . . .

‘And for ending this matter I commend you to the tuition of Almighty God, having in this behalf discharged myself of the care committed to me by God . . . If you shall please Him and serve Him in fear I shall take comfort of you. Otherwise I shall take you as no blessing of God but a burden of grief and decay of my age.’

This is the sort of sermon which William Cecil like to preach to young men. He preached many such in the course of his life. They reveal the strong Puritan strain in him. In this particular case we get some inkling of those weaknesses in young Thomas about which his father was most concerned. Obviously William Cecil had a very inadequate understanding of the psychology of adolescence. Even Polonius was never quite so tedious and pedantic as this. (Read 214)

Even Polonius was never quite so tedious…

From Act II Scene 2:

POL. 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. . .

And so on, and so on, and so on . . . (1)

Let’s do a quick review of the strong arguments, rearranged slightly to fit the “three-angled model” I mentioned in Part One. The first angle:

The “x” Axis: The relationship to others.

Strong Argument #1: Polonius’s role as head counselor stands in the same relation to the monarch as does Burghley’s role.

Strong Argument #3. Polonius’s son Laertes’s character and travel to Paris are strikingly similar to Burghley’s son Thomas’s character and travel to Paris.

Strong Argument #4. Polonius’s daughter Ophelia and her circumstances with Hamlet are strongly similar to Burghley’s daughter Anne Cecil and her circumstances with Oxford.

The second angle:

The “y” axis: Speaking characteristics.

Strong Argument #2. Polonius presents precepts to his son in a manner similar to Burghley’s presenting precepts to his son.

To which we can now add, based on Rowse and Read:

Strong Argument #5. Polonius’s tedious verbosity is nearly identical with Burghley’s in tone and manner.

But what of the “z” axis? Is there a third angle, one that is compelling enough to supply enough circumstantial power to strongly lock onto the identification of Burghley?

Yes, there is, and it is one that Stratfordians bend over backwards to ignore. The “z” axis is in the name that Shakespeare gave to his character and its connection to Burghley.

Some have claimed that the name Polonius is a takeoff on a couple of nicknames that Burghley had: Polus (as mentioned in Gabriel Harvey’s 1578 Latin address to Lord Burghley) and Pondus (found in a letter from Roger Manners to the Earl of Rutland dated June 2, 1583). Obviously Polonius could be a simple expansion of both Polus and Pondus, with the simple insertion/substitution of three or four letters, but the case for Polus as a nickname appears to be non-existent, and the case for Pondus at minimum very weak.

The truly strong argument comes in the little known and rarely discussed fact that the name Polonius first appears in the second quarto of Hamlet in 1604. In the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, the name for the old tedious and verbose councillor who spied on his son and played the go-between in everything was . . .Corambis!

Lord Burghley’s Latin motto was Cor unum, via una . . . “One heart, one way.” (2)

With “cor” meaning “heart” and with “bis” or “ambis” meaning “twice” or “double” (think “ambidextrous”), Corambis can be taken for the Latin of “double-hearted,” which implies “deceitful” or “two-faced”.

The “z” axis: The name.

Strong Argument #6. Corambis, the original name for the character Polonius, resembles the Latin for “double-hearted”, which satirically points to Lord Burghley’s Latin motto Cor unum, via una, “One heart, one way.”

The circumstantial evidence is strong: Polonius was consciously modeled after Lord Burghley. (3)


1. It’s interesting to note that Conyers Read also reports of Cecil’s use of plays: “Evidently Feria [Spanish Ambassador to England] was doing what he could to discredit Cecil with his mistress. It was at this juncture that Feria protested against comedies in London which made mock of his royal master. He said that Cecil had supplied the authors of them with thief themes. According to Feria, Elizabeth practically admitted that Cecil was the guilty man. From what we otherwise know of Cecil it is not easy to picture him in the role of coach to obscure playwrights composing ribald comedies. But Feria could hardly have invented the tale. As it stands, without any confirming evidence, it is an interesting revelation of the use of the stage for political propaganda.” (Read 133) Indeed.

2. Lord Burghley’s motto is printed with his coat of arms as a frontpiece to Gabriel Harvey’s Gratulationes Valdinenses, printed in 1578. It can also be seen in the portrait of Sir William Cecil attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1585) in Neville Williams All The Queen’s Men, page 45.

3. We also have the 1967 biography by B. W. Beckingsale, Burghley: Tudor Statesman, in which the author, like those before him, acknowledges the parallel to Polonius:

By being all things to all men, Burghley presented a baffling mirror to those observers to whom he did not choose to reveal himself. He could discern ‘what things are to be laid open, and what to be secreted and what to be showed at half lights and to whom and when.’ To those foreign ambassadors who expected a cunning politician he was no disappointment. Yet to that honest and perspicacious Spaniard de Silva he appeared straightforward. Like Elizabeth, who knew that princes were set upon a stage for all the world to see, Burghley understood that public life was a play and he acted his part behind the appropriate masks. He was well aware of what Cranmer had once written to him, ‘For the example of rulers and heads will the people follow.’ His poses were calculated and dutiful responses to conventional expectations. He took the roles of wise counsellor, great lord, just judge in the morality play of the public imagination. If in the end he was taken for Polonius, it was the penalty of having held the stage so long. (Beckingsale 193) 


Part Three: Corambis, Polonia, and Comparing Arguments

A Bit of History on the Treatment of Corambis

Lilian Winstanley mentioned Corambis in her 1921 book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, but she did not make the connection with Burghley’s motto. (Winstanley 114).

E. K. Chambers also noted the first quarto’s use of Corambis in his 1930 William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems, and he also set the stage for later scholars and critics to misdirect attention away from the strong circumstantial evidence for the Polonius/Burghley connection:

Two other divergences in Q1 are noteworthy. For the names of Polonius and his servant Reynaldo we get Corambis and and Montano. It is impossible that these should, as Tanger thought, be mishearings of the reporter. Many students have assumed that Corambis and Montano were the earlier names, but there is nothing to show this, and if I am right in supposing Q1 dependent on Q2, the chances are that it was the other way around. Shakespeare used the name Corambus in All’s Well iv. 3. 185. There are two rather curious stage-directions in Q2, which may conceivably be relevant. At I.ii.1 comes ‘Enter . . .Consaile: as Polonius, and his Sonne Laertes’, and at II.i.1., ‘Enter old Polonius, with his man or two’. These may be mere examples of indefiniteness, although Laertes would make an odd councillor. But it is also possible that, when the change was made in an acting version, the new names were roughly noted in the original manuscript, and were there misread by the compositor. Again the motive for the change is quite obscure. One can only suspect censorship, or the fear of censorship. Gollancz has suggested that Polonius and his worldly maxims may be a reflection of the Polish statesman Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius, whose De Optimo Senatore was translated as The Counsellor in 1598. If so, this is another reason for regarding Polonius as the original name.

Why this is *another reason* is not clear, since the original could easily have been Corambis (Q1 was published first, after all) and under the heat of the censors be changed to something more palatable and still ambiguous like Polonius. I think Shakespeare’s audience may very well link the name Polonius with Polonia (Poland), but unless a number of strong circumstantial links can be identified to rival the links between Polonius and Burghley, the argument that Shakespeare was linking Polonius primarily to Goslicius’s The Counsellor remains weak. But Chambers goes on with a passage we have already quoted, here presented in context:

It has often been thought that Polonius may glance at Lord Burghley, who wrote Certaine Preceptes, or Directions for the use of his son Robert Cecil. These were printed (1618) ‘from a more perfect copie, than ordinarily those pocket manuscripts goe warranted by’. Conceivably Shakespeare knew a pocket manuscript, but Laertes is less like Robert Cecil than Burghley’s elder son Thomas. And if the Chamberlain’s men feared that Polonius would be taken for Burghley and Reynaldo for Robert Cecil, why should a change of name but not of character make a difference?

Good point!

I do not profess to solve the mystery. But some theatrical allusion to Polish affairs seemed to me a possible element in the trouble about The Isle of Dogs in 1597, and there might have been some reason for avoiding the appearance of another at any time during 1600-3. (Chambers 417, 418)

Of course, there is no surviving copy of The Isle of Dogs, so Chambers here is engaging in pure speculation. At this point, it is worth noting that Chambers knew many of the strong arguments favoring the Polonius/Burghley connection, so he rightly presents the probability, even though he reveals only two of the strong arguments. His speculation on the Polish connection, by comparison, is weak and certainly not enough to persuade many later scholars such as Dover Wilson, Hurstfield, and Rowse, all of whom had read Chambers. We will see what others in the 1980s and 1990s do with the Polish connection.

In 1942 in his book The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, W.W. Greg writes about the first quarto: “In this text for some obscure reason the names Corambis and Montano were substituted for Polonius and Reynaldo.” (Greg 66) That’s it.

But in 1962, in the introduction to Hamlet: The First Quarto 1603, Albert Weiner gives it more thought:

Corambis and Montano in Q1 become Polonius and Reynaldo in Q2. A number of explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, but none has been very successful. It has been suggested that the reporter did not hear or transcribe the names properly, but this is too weak to be entertained even for a moment. Since Q1 is perfectly consistent with the names of Corambis and Montano, we must reject any explanation which depends upon error, whether the error be ascribed to hearing or transcribing. It has been suggested that Polonius and Reynaldo were caricatures of contemporary officials (Lord Burghley and Robert Cecil are the popular choice), and that the names Polonius and Reynaldo were similar to the nicknames of these officials. Burghley felt the thrust, put pressure on Shakespeare, and so the names were changed to Corambis and Montano.

It seems to me that the explanation must take into account the fact the Shakespeare wrote at least two versions of Hamlet. In his first version he used the names Corambis and Montano. For some obscure reason he changed the names in a later version. It is of course debatable whether Q1 is based on an earlier version than Q2 and, therefore, whether Corambis or Polonius came first; but there seems to be no evidence to accuse anyone but the author of the change of names. (Weiner 51)

I think Weiner is right that the author changed the names. Corambis is a much more direct and personal swipe at Burhgley. Polonius on the other hand is closer to some rather public nicknames that carry less of a personal swipe.

But Weiner seems to be unaware of Burghley’s motto, so he fails to make that link as well. He also fails to make the links to Thomas and Anne, so all round he seems to have missed most of the strong arguments favoring the Polonius/Burghley connection, all of which had been publicly advanced by this time. (The earliest link between Corambis and Burghley’s motto that I can find is in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter of April 1950 in an article by J. Shera Atkinson. I have yet to find a single Stratfordian willing even to mention this circumstantial link, even in a refutation!) (1)

The First Attempt at a Comprehensive Refutation

The first real attempt to refute the Polonius/Burghley connection that I have found is in Harold Jenkin’s 1982 “Introduction” and in his “Longer Notes” to The Arden Shakespeare Hamlet. I quote the huge paragraph on pages 34 and 35, with my commentary:

There remains the substitution of the names Corambis and Montano for Polonius and Reynaldo. The general assumption that Q1 preserves the original names, natural enough when it was thought to be an earlier version of the play, often persists now that it is recognized as derivative. But the thing we must be clear about is that, whatever occurred in the Ur-Hamlet, Polonius, not Corambis, was the original name in Shakespeare’s play.

This is a rather strong and incredible statement given that there is no doubt that Q1 was published prior to Q2. Q1 may very well have been derivative of Q2 to some extent, but Jenkin’s fails to explain why the name change had to have been in reverse order. Whatever the status of an Ur-Hamlet, Jenkins offers absolutely no evidence that counters the idea that Corambis was the original name.

And since Shakespeare very often departed from the nomenclature of his sources, the problem in any case is not why he but why Q1 made the change. No satisfactory solution has ever been suggested. It is difficult to think that a reporter who had acted in the play would forget the name of so important a character as Polonius; but we who are used to seeing it in stage-directions and speech-headings might do well to note that it occurs only five times in Shakespeare’s dialogue and always in passages which are ill remembered in Q1 There is no instance where Corambis is simply slotted in in place of it: its elimination, in a memorial text, may have been less purposeful than it is usual to suppose. Yet with Reynaldo also replaced by Montano, the one thing we can feel certain of is that the double substitution is part of a single process; and a double forgetting is perhaps less probable than some now irrecoverable design (whether on the part of the reporter or, perhaps more probably, of the stage version he was recalling).

Jenkins is an admirable editor, but the first sentence here is rather odd to say the least. One gets the feeling that Jenkins is going to great pains to establish a foundation for something. Jenkins does not mention the Corambis/motto connection, so he sees no satisfactory solution for the existence of Corambis. Since every accomplished Shakespeare editor is also accomplished in Latin, it is amazing that none seem to have perceived, even without the motto connection, that Corambis would indicate a “double-hearted” (i.e., deceitful) character.

The chance of a topical allusion is always alluring to commentators; but the notion that Polonius, on the strength of his similar role at court, was a caricature of Burghley is sheer conjecture;* and in any event, a caricature would not be concealed by a change of name.

[The footnote is discussed below.] Jenkins reveals his intent, it seems to me. He has been laying a foundation to distract attention away from any implications the name Corambis may have regarding a possible Polonius/Burghley connection. He makes the sweeping claim based on his authority that it is all “sheer conjecture.” He is right, however, that a name change would not conceal a caricature. I suspect it probable that Jenkins knows full well all of the strong arguments and is consciously constructing this paragraph to draw attention away from those.

Any personal satire must have lain in the name Polonius itself, presumably because it pointed, or was thought to point, to a man of Polish — or Polonian — connection; and if it could ever be shown that one such had an associate or underling who could be recognized in the name Reynaldo (which gets stress in each of Polonius’s first three speeches to the man), the case might be held to be proved.

Whoa! Do you see what Jenkins has done? He is drawing all attention away from Corambis and putting it on Polonius. Then he presents Chambers’ proposition concerning Polonia almost as if it were ready to be proved!

Otherwise the problem is likely to remain unsolved. Whatever the cause of the change, it is of course possible that the names in Q1, whether through design or confusion, revive those of the Ur-Hamlet. The one point in favour of supposing so is that Shakespeare must have come across the names somewhere, since he used them shortly after, Montano for a character in Othello and Corambus (perhaps the correct form) incidentally in All’s Well that Ends Well (IV.iii. 153). But we can have no assurance that these names were in the Ur-Hamlet, or even that the Ur-Hamlet had a Reynaldo character at all.

That Jenkins is primarily concerned in the entire paragraph with the name change is confirmed by the passage above. I think this focus strongly suggests that he was aware of the Corambis/motto connection. Also note his reference to All’s Well where a “Corambus” is glancingly mentioned in a list of names. (Chambers mentioned this as well.) Jenkins suggests that “Corambus” is the “correct form” (whatever that means — he gives us no reason as to how anyone could detect such a thing). His “correct form” conveniently replaces the “i” with a “u”, which works to remove the “bis” that supplies the basis for “double.” Now, to the footnote on the same page:

* This was believed to be supported by an analogy between Burghley’s Precepts for his son and the ‘precepts’ delivered by Polonius to Laertes. But now that these have been shown to derive from a long literary tradition, a reflection upon any individual can no longer be supposed. See r. iii. 58-80 LN. Gollancz (A Book of Homage, pp. 173-7) believed that Corambis was Burghley and that by a change of name Shakespeare, writing after Burghley’s death in 1598, directed the portrait at The Counsellor of the ‘Polonian’ Goslicius (English translation 1598). But since the change, as I have insisted, was in the opposite direction, it could not introduce, though it might remove, an allusion to a Pole. See Dramatis Personae, Polonius, LN.

For him to say that Polonius’s precepts have been “proved” to derive from a “long literary tradition” without citing a source appears rather deceptive. Of the strong arguments favoring a Polonius/Burghley connection, he presents only one (the Precepts, which is the most famous) and makes the implied claim that somehow it has been shown that Shakespeare had no one in mind when he created those precepts presented by Polonius. And that last sentence is quite remarkable. Acoording to his reasoning, since he “insists” that the name change went from Polonius to Corambis, Gollancz is wrong! (2)

Note: Jenkins best and most interesting arguments appear in the “Longer Notes” section on pages 421-422,


1. I have looked through several dozen Stratfordian biographies and critical texts for discussions on the links between Polonius and Burghley. I have referenced all of those that do make such mention. If the reader knows of any texts that contain refutations of those links prior to 1982, please let me know. Interestingly, four books attacking anti-Stratfordian views from 1958-1965 make no mention of links between Polonius and Burghley. (Frank Wadsworth’s The Poacher from Stratford, H. N. Gibson’s The Shakespeare Claimants, James MacManaway’s The Authorship of Shakespeare, and Milward W. Martin’s Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?)

2. As far as I can tell, in their 1997 William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor completely manage to avoid mentioning the change from Corambis to Polonius in their 7-page, two-column essay (in small type) that discusses almost every other significant difference between Q1 and Q2. (Wells 396-402) That name change has such an interesting history of discussion that to not mention it is, at minimum, an astonishing lapse of scholarship.


Part Four: The Avoidance of Strong Arguments Since 1981

Any accurately presented framing of the Oxfordian authorship must include the Polonius/Burghley connection. In many ways it functions as an axis for other Oxfordian arguments.

With the publication of Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984, revised 1992) and Joseph Sobran’s positive review in his syndicated column in 1984, the Polonius/Burghley connection was once again out in the open. More pro-Oxfordian books followed, which sold well, including Richard F. Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? (1994) and Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare (1997).

Many books defending Stratfordian authorship and attacking Oxfordian authorship directly (or indirectly through the arguments alone without mention of Oxford) arrived on the scene as well: Schoenbaum’s revised Shakespeare’s Lives (1991), Ian Wilson’s Shakespeare: The Evidence (1993), and Irvin Leigh Matus’s Shakespeare, IN FACT (1994). (We will see that Andrew Gurr in his 1995 William Shakespeare: The Extraordinary Life also perpetuates one Stratfordian weak argument.)

Let’s examine these arguments.

Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives
Samuel Schoenbaum brings up the Polonius/Burghley connection (parenthetically) safely outside of any of his authorship discussions, and outside any discussions concerning Oxford (although he does glance at Oxfordians), in the first paragraph of the chapter “Dark Ladies.” However, he is careful to ensure that the context will make readers cringe at being in the company of anyone who argues in favor of topical allusions — the preceding chapter he entitles “Studies Mad and Bad”:

The sonnets Shakespeare composed for his own lute rather than his Maker’s went on inspiring hypotheses, less bizarre perhaps than Shatford’s hallucination, but not necessarily more persuasive. Hopeful explicators continued to pursue the real-life counterparts of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. (Did Shakespeare satirize William Cecil, Lord Burghley, a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and, throughout most his career, Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser — as Polonius in Hamlet? Maybe Shakespeare saw Burghley’s Certain Precepts, or Directions (1616), written for his son Robert Cecil, in manuscript; after all, the few precepts which Polonius gives his son parallel Burghley’s Precepts. Of course, many cunning parallels obtain between literature and life, and parental maxims, savouring of worldly prudence, were traditional in this period; but these have given comfort to those who envision Shakespeare at home in the corridors of power, as well as to Oxfordian schismatics.) (Schoenbaum 493-494)

This is very good in its diplomacy. Schoenbaum knows all of the strong arguments supporting the Polonius/Burghley connection, so he knows the danger of being found out if he directly contradicts the connection. So what does he do? Following Jenkins, he only admits to the Precepts connection and accomplishes it in such a way that it can be read as acknowledging the connection while also dismissing any value in it.

Wilson’s Shakespeare: The Evidence
Ian Wilson is also very good at avoiding discussion of the Polonius/Burghley connection. He first mentions that Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law well into his book, over 100 pages after he discusses Oxfordian authorship on pages 18-20:

On succeeding to his earldom at just eight years old Henry had become a royal ward, under the tutelage of Elizabeth’s first Minister, Lord Burghley. Among much else, Burghley supervised the youngster’s education, sending him at the age of twelve to his own Cambridge college, St John’s, and in the Armada year of 1588 likewise to his old law school, Gray’s Inn. Two years later, when Southampton was still only seventeen Burghley set his sights firmly on Southampton marrying his grand-daughter, Lady Elizabeth Vere, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Burghley’s recently deceased favourite daughter Anne, and the wayward Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford (whom, of course, we have already met as one of the candidates for the Shakespeare authorship). (Wilson 137)

Then, over 100 pages after that, he takes a glance at the Polonius/Burghley connection:

Now all this is of course but incidental to what Shakespeare was really aiming to do with Hamlet, and arguments over the play’s many nuances will continue till doomsday. On any level, Hamlet is a masterpiece of brilliant scenes, from its teeth-chattering opening on Elsinore’s battlements in the dead of night (note how this would have had to be staged convincingly in afternoon light), to its second scene of the black-clad Hamlet as the odd man out in Claudius’s otherwise so colourful court (a reprise of the device used with Marcade in Love’s Labour’s Lost’s closing scene); from Hamlet’s unwitting murder of the eavesdropping Polonius, hidden behind a curtain or ‘arras’ to its breath-takingly bloody denouement. With characters as varied as the infinitely interpretable Hamlet, the Lord Burghley-like Polonius and the foppish Osric, the play is a treasure house of masterly characterisations. (Wilson 267)

The Lord Burghley-like Polonius. Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for your in-depth discussion of a central Oxfordian argument.

Since Wilson has read both Ogburn and Looney, we know he is familiar with the strong arguments. Perhaps he finds them too “uncomfortable” to mention.

Matus’s Shakespeare, IN FACT
One who does not find the topic uncomfortable is Irvin Leigh Matus. He works very hard to show the reader that he is fairly and thoroughly confronting the argument and showing its weaknesses:

It is a fact, however, that Oxford was a royal ward, though he was actually brought up under the supervision of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. According to the Oxfordians, he is impersonated in the part of Polonius in the play in which the earl is cast in the title role: Hamlet. According to the Oxfordians, Polonius is an unmistakable lampoon of the lord who was Queen Elizabeth’s closest counselor. So satisfied are they that that’s a fact, they go on to assert that such audacity in a common playwright would have resulted in the play being censored and its author punished. Instead, they note, it was given the royal seal of approval, signified by the royal arms on the first page of the 1604 Hamlet printed by James Roberts.

According to Oxfordians. Matus knows that the Polonius/Burghley connection has long been supported by Stratfordians. Why would he want to suppress that evidence? (The very next paragraph is a digression that I have relegated to a footnote. (1)) But without presenting any of the strong arguments he knows exist, he goes on:

But then, it is doubtful anyone would have recognized Burghley in the buffoonish counselor in Hamlet in the first place. His relationship with Elizabeth has been called “one of the most remarkable partnerships in English history.” He was present at the queen’s first council meeting in November 1558 and, until his death forty years later, guided her through one of the most dangerous periods in that nation’s history. He was rewarded with one of only ten new peerages that were created during the queen’s 44-year reign and was one of only two new peers who did not already possess ancestral claims or blood relationship to the queen. He was alone in being raised to the peerage “exclusively on the grounds of political and administrative services to the Crown.”

So Matus thinks that Burghley would be so universally admired that the playgoers of the day would not even come close to seeing a parallel. As far as I have been able to determine, Matus is the only person to have advanced this rather “interesting” argument. Still avoiding presenting any of the strong arguments he knows exist, Matus is ready to slander Oxford.

About all that can be said for the Oxfordian conjecture is that it would be entirely consistent with Oxford’s character to so abuse Burghley. After all, the earl taxed the counselor for failing to rescue him from the financial straits he got himself into, as well as for not getting him the preferments he sought. But this pales beside the misery he visited on Burghley by marrying his daughter Anne. Abroad in Italy, Oxford joyfully greeted the news of the birth of his first child in July 1575. By the time he returned from his Grand Tour in April 1576, he was convinced the girl was not his. He would allow his wife to come to court, provided that she did not come when he was present, “nor at any time have speech with me.” It would be six years before they were reconciled but, despite the birth of two more daughters thereafter, the relationship remained an uneasy one. On May 5, 1587, Burghley wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham of the state of Oxford’s household:

No enemy I have can envy me this match; for thereby neither honour nor land nor goods shall come to their children; for whom, being three already to be kept and a fourth likely to follow, I am only at charge even with sundry families in sundry places for their sustenance. But if their father was of that good nature as to be thankful for the same I would be less grieved with the burden.

Certainly Burghley’s daughter was not Oxford’s Ophelia — anymore than Oxford was a bereaved Hamlet when his wife died. Instead of leaping into his beloved’s grave in an extravagance of grief, upon her death in June 1588, Oxford is not named among those who attended the funeral.

Matus has accomplished quite a contortionist’s feat here. He still has not presented any of the strong arguments that he knows exist, but instead twists the evidence to show, rather bizarrely, that since Oxford did not leap into Anne’s grave, Anne is therefore not meant to be Ophelia. But Matus is not done.

It comes as no surprise that those who would see Burghley in Polonius should see Oxford in Hamlet. It would be a surprise, however, if Oxford’s contemporaries saw the earl in Ophelia’s description of the prince:

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers.

The only substantial biography of Oxford is by B. M. Ward, written with the declared purpose of rescuing the earl from his reputation as “an eccentric of doubtful character and boorish manners.” Ward did indeed quite thoroughly comb archival records relating to Oxford specifically and, on the face of it, his biography seems authoritative. Unfortunately, in his determination to rehabilitate his subject, he did not do his research on events surrounding the earl’s public life quite as thoroughly. (Matus 234-237)

Matus has done nothing to show that he is willing to argue here. He presents none of the strong arguments he knows exist. His technique is one of suppression of evidence and misdirection.

This is a book that Publishers Weekly thinks “dismantles the arguments of those who claim that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays.” David Bevington of the University of Chicago finds “Matus’s account fair, balanced, and persuasive.” Andrew Gurr of the University of Reading and the author of William Shakespeare: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Successful Writer of All Time (in which he actually claims that Shakespeare used Montaigne’s Essays as the source for Polonius’s precepts to his son (2)) says, “It is rare and valuable for the way that it offers sane and dispassionate review of the evidence and the arguments in this much-trampled and disputed territory.” (All on the dust jacket.)

Since the publication of his book, Matus has given a talk entitled “Why There Is a Shakespeare Authorship Question,” delivered at the Library of Congress, April 24, 1997. A portion of that talk is made available by The Shakespeare Authorship Page (maintained by Terry Ross and David Kathman) under the title “The Oxfordian Hamlet: The Playwright’s the Thing” where Matus once again succeeds in entirely avoiding stating the strong arguments that he knows exist and instead misdirects attention, this time claiming in a very poorly supported argument that most scholars (without naming any) agree with Chambers’ speculation regarding The Counsellor by Polish statesman Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius:

Which leads directly to the next assertion. It is a fact that, after his father’s death, Oxford became a ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. What follows is not. We are told that Burghley is “the man most scholars today recognize as the inspiration for the character of Polonius.” In fact, most Shakespearean scholars do not. They prefer instead the prolix author of The Counselor [sic], a book of advice on affairs of state published in English translation in 1598. The author, known as Goslicius, was a bishop and statesman who happened to be Polish — hence the character’s name: Polonius.

Inasmuch as the purpose of this Oxfordian claim is that courtiers would have recognized Polonius as a lampoon of Burghley, we should consider the image of him in the words of William Camden, perhaps the most reliable commentator on the famous figures of his day. Writing years after Burghley’s death, he said of him,

Certainly he was a most excellent man who, to say nothing of his reverend presence and undistempered countenance, was fashioned by nature and advanced with learning, a singular man for honesty, gravity, temperance, industry and justice. Hereunto was added a fluent and elegant speech, and that not affected but plain and easy, wisdom strengthened by experience and seasoned with exceeding moderation and most approved fidelity.

Coincidentally, just as Polonius had a daughter, so did Burghley; thus does Ann Cecil become Ophelia. Picking up the story according to Stritmatter, “Once he became de Vere’s guardian, [Burghley] betrothed the young Earl of Oxford . . . to a Cecil daughter for the political advancement of the Cecil clan.” But in the play the situation is just the opposite: Polonius expressly forbids his daughter to marry the prince because he is above her station. More to the point, precisely what political advantage did Oxford have to offer Burghley, who Elizabeth made her principal secretary days after her accession in 1558? From that day until his death 40 years later, he would be her most valued counselor, forming what has been characterized as “one of the most remarkable partnerships in English history.”

In regard to Oxford’s betrothal to Burghley’s daughter, a letter by him at the time states that this marriage was the earl’s wish. It would not be long before Burghley regretted granting it. Oxford was estranged from his wife for a good part of their marriage and it has been said of it on the whole that he made Ann’s life “such a living hell that her early death came as a merciful relief.” It is impossible to imagine Oxford as the grief-stricken Hamlet leaping into the grave of his beloved — especially not when he didn’t even bother to attend his wife’s funeral.

This “argument” is suppression of evidence and misdirection plain and simple. Again, he offers none of the strong arguments. But this is typical of Matus’s style throughout his book. No reader can safely assume that Matus is fairly or accurately framing the arguments of those he claims to refute. As Peter R. Moore points out in “Recent Developments in the case for Oxford as Shakespeare”, “Irvin Matus’ book, Shakespeare, In Fact, is a complete exercise in shooting holes in … weak arguments and errors, while totally ducking all of the strong arguments.”

Matus’s “arguments” are weak in critical scholarship.

David Kathman
It is somewhat refreshing to find that David Kathman has less trouble admitting possible Polonius/Burghley connections. He discusses the issue in a brief essay “Alleged Parallels between the Plays and Oxford’s Life”, but he fails to address any of the strong arguments that he knows exist. Instead of facing the arguments directly and pursuing any possible implications, he jumps into arguing that there is absolutely no significance in any parallels. He even provides a link to Matus’s muddy and misleading essay.

It is interesting how Kathman attempts to deflate the notion of topical illusions while simultaneously presenting examples of topical allusions that are much more obscure than that of Polonius as Burghley. He actually provides more support for the Polonius/Burghley connection. What then is his purpose? He attempts to dilute the significance of the Polonius/Burghley connection by attempting to argue that attacking Burghley was a kind of popular public sport. (This notion directly contradicts a mainstay of Matus’s argument that nobody would even think to ridicule a great man such as Burghley. By linking to Matus’s article, and by supporting Matus’s book, Kathman indirectly and incredibly uses Matus for support, even though he probably does not agree with Matus on this point.) Here is the final paragraph of Kathman’s essay. Notice the opening sentence where he casually says “the standard Oxfordian argument” as if no Stratfordian ever entertained the notion. [Note: This is Kathman’s actual text as of May 31, 1998. After this discussion, he may find the need to alter it.]:

One more thing on this topic. “E” drags out the standard Oxfordian argument that Polonius was modeled on Burghley, and how could a commoner like Shakespeare know enough about Burghley to lampoon him, let alone get away with such impudence? Well, we had this argument last year on SHAKSPER, and I don’t want to repeat all that, so I’ll just say this. I don’t know whether Polonius was partly modeled on Burghley; some of the Oxfordian arguments on this point are a mighty stretch, but you can make a respectable case. Even if he was, that is absolutely no reason to say or imply that William Shakespeare could not have written Hamlet. First of all, we have abundant evidence that court gossip was extremely popular at all levels of Elizabethan society, and that Burghley was one of its most popular topics. For example, John Manningham’s Diary, written in 1602-3, has several unflattering anecdotes about Burghley, and the man had been dead for four years. (The diary of Manningham, a commoner, is full of court gossip, as are the letters of John Chamberlain, another commoner.) Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale, published in 1591, contained a vicious parody of Burghley in its fable of the Fox and the Ape, and we know from external evidence (a letter dated March 19, 1591) that Burghley was widely known to be the target. Thomas Nashe also parodied Burghley in Pierce Pennilesse, and D. Allen Carroll has recently made a strong case that Burghley was attacked in the notorious Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. If these commoners could attack Burghley, why couldn’t Shakespeare, who as a member of the Chamberlain’s Men often played at Court, where he undoubtedly had access to the latest gossip?

“I don’t know whether Polonius was partly modeled on Burghley;” means that he doesn’t want to get too close to exploring the implications that immediately arise once he concedes that a strong case exists. “…some of the Oxfordian arguments on this point are a mighty stretch,” means that he would like there to be more attention on the weak arguments and none on the strong arguments. “…but you can make a respectable case.” We must bow our heads in appreciation for this much of an acknowledgement. If only he mentioned what he thinks that “respectable case” is. “Even if he was, that is absolutely no reason to say or imply that William Shakespeare could not have written Hamlet.” Actually it is. But here is where Kathman attempts to derail any examination of the direct implications of Polonius as Burghley.

Kathman points out that other “commoners” had attacked Burghley, and he leaves the reader with the notion that “abundant evidence” exists for these attacks. He makes no statement about the relative openness or obscurity of the attacks. He does not give any direct examples to support his claim. The implication is that Shakespeare was only doing something that was quite common, and that there is no reason to think that anyone would have taken special notice.

Shakespeare’s “attack” was in the form of a very public play with an extended and direct dramatic presentation of the character. Since we can assume that Kathman would naturally cite the most obvious examples that come to his mind, examples that should be somewhat comparable to Shakespeare’s play in their public nature and direct presentation, let’s examine them. We should first note that none of his examples are plays.

A. John Manningham’s diary: Leaving aside that this is merely a personal diary that obviously was not meant for publication, let’s see how directly it “attacks” Burghley. According to the index supplied by Robert Parker Sorlien in his complete The Diary of John Manningham, there are five entries that refer to Burghley:

1) “Tarlton called Burley house gate in the Strand towardes the Savoy, the Lo[rd] Treasurers Almes gate, because it was seldome or never opened. (Ch. Davers)” (Sorlien 46)

2) “Upon a tyme when the late Lord Treasurer, Sir William Cecile, came before Justice Dyer in the Common Place with his rapier by his side. The Justice told him that he must lay a side his long pen-knife yf he would come into that court. This speache was free, and the sharper, because Sir William was then Secretary. (Bradnux)” (Sorlien 70)

3) “When there came one which presented a supplication for his master to the Counsell, that upon sufficient bond he might be released out of Wisbishe Castle, where he lay for recusancy, that he might looke to his busines in harvest, the L[ord] Admirall thought the petition resonable, but the old L[ord] Treasurour, Sir W. Cecil, said he would not assent, ‘For,’ said he, ‘I knowe howe such men would use us yf they had us at the like advantage, and therefore while we have the staffe in our handes lett us hold it, and when they gett it lett them use it.’ (Mr. Hadsor narr.)” (Sorlien 98)

4) “The old L[ord] Treasurors witt was as it seemes of Borrowe Englishe tenure, for it descended to his younger sonne, Sir R[o]b[er]t, (W[?])” (Sorlien 123)

5) “Their talke is of advauncement of the nobility, of the subsidies and fifteenes taxed in the Q[ueenes] tyme; howe much indebted shee died to the commons, notwithstanding all those charges layed upon them. They halfe despayre of payment of their privey seles, sent in Sir William Ceciles tyme; they will not assure themselves of the lone.” (Sorlien 209)

The first represents a general sense of humor that is more directed at the office than the man. The second appears to be the Justice’s humorous way of informing Burghley of a matter of court decorum. The third holds no relevance. The fourth, like the first, seems more for the joke itself than its target (keeping in mind that Manningham was now a member of the Middle Temple and surrounded by lawyerly humor). And the fifth, like the third, holds no relevance.

Why Manningham’s diary would be the first example to leap into Kathman’s mind perhaps indicates the general weakness of his argument. It does not contain “several unflattering anecdotes” as he claims.

B. Kathman parenthetically mentions John Chamberlain’s letters. Norman McClure’s index in his 2-volume edition of The Letters of John Chamberlain lists five references to Burghley, none of them relevant (most refer to his illness, death and funeral). Since Kathman does not explicitly claim these letters as support, I give only the page numbers: 33, 41, 46, 162, all in volume I.

C. Kathman points out that Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale contains a vicious parody of Burghley. Crowell’s Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature states:

In the second part, the Ape and the Fox are again discredited, and here Spenser’s tale is confined entirely to the bestiary. They discover a Lion asleep in a wood with crown and scepter, which they steal to usurp the thrown. The Fox in the tale acts as the Ape’s power-behind-the-throne and chief mentor, and many scholars see in this a satirical portrait of Elizabeth’s lord treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. The Fox so ravishes the land with his injustices (including his persecution of poets and scholars) that the Olympian gods interfere to save the kingdom. (Ruoff 304)

Apparently, the book was recalled (after Burghley’s death), and this has led scholars to speculate as to why. (Beckingsale 224) However, we do know that Burghley actually supported many scholars and was a lover of books. His biographer Conyers Read says that his household “indeed was currently regarded as the best training school for the gentry in England.” (Read 124-125) There is a “well-known anecdote” that Burghley reduced Spenser’s pension for The Fairie Queen (thus supplying motive for a Spenser attack). I do not know how credible the anecdote is, or its source.

Since Mother Hubbard’s Tale is available on the Web, I invite the reader to read and discover the “vicious” parody that Kathman speaks of. I also invite Kathman to present the circumstantial evidence that reveals this “topical allusion.” He claims that “we know from external evidence (a letter dated March 19, 1591) that Burghley was widely known to be the target.” Perhaps he can send me the text of that letter. I will gladly print it here. (Invitation made May 31, 1998)

I also invite him to present the circumstantial evidence in Mother Hubbard’s Tale itself that clues in the reader that Burghley is the object of a vicious parody. He can use the same “three-angled” method I use in arguing that Polonius was Burghley, though I suspect that the allusion is much more ambiguous and hidden. In any event, a reading of the Tale reveals that it comes nowhere close in the kind of directness that is true of Shakespeare’s dramatic characterization. I believe that Mother Hubbard’s Tale is much too veiled for a strong case to be made that the Fox is Burghley. Nevertheless, I would not be surprised that Spenser did supply a veiled attack.

D. If Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse parodies Burghley, it is an obscure parody. Perhaps scholars see the parody in the Fox, taking Mother Hubbard’s Tale as a cue. But if Nashe’s Fox is Burghley, the circumstantial support appears to be almost non-existent. Crowell’s does not mention it, nor does the Penguin edition of The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, nor does G.B. Harrison in the Bodley Head Quartos edition. Once again, I invite David Kathman to supply his “three-angled” circumstantial support for his claim that this is a parody on par with that of Polonius (from internal evidence only, that is).

E. [Several days after writing the above, D. Allen Carroll’s book arrived.] We finally come to Kathman’s final example, D. Allen Carroll’s argument in his 1994 Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. The argument is found in Appendix C, “Lamilias Fable”, pages 107-113. It is an interesting argument that is worth reading in its entirety. But what should fascinate us are the second and third paragraphs:

Two features of this fable seem certain. First, after the public reaction to Spenser’s Mother Hubberd ‘s Tale in the Complaints volume (ens. 29 December 1590), any such fable would be taken to allude to serious matters involving those in high places. For some time now, based on indirect evidence, scholars have suspected that Spenser’s volume was called in because of its fable of the fox and the ape. Now, with the recent discovery by Richard Peterson of a contemporary letter dated 19 March 1591 , we can be absolutely sure. Writing within two or three months of the publication of Mother Hubberd’s, the author describes how scandalous its fable was thought to be and notes the scarcity and high cost of the forbidden book. After Mother Hubberd ‘s, an animal fable would put a book in great demand. Nashe’s Pierce (ens. 8 August 1592) had an elaborate beast fable and beasts scattered throughout, to which Gabriel Harvey, who wanted Nashe to get into trouble for Pierce, alerted the authorities in Four Letters: “they can tell parlous Tales of Beares and Foxes, as shrewdlye as Mother Hubbard, for her life,” and in Pierce’s Supererogation: “my leisure will scarcely serve, to moralize Fables of Beares, Apes, and Foxes: (for some men can give a shrewd gesse at a courtly allegory).” Nashe had repeatedly to defend himself: his only intention in presenting a fox, he said, was “to figure an hypocrite.” “Lamilias Fable” is designed to exploit the demand started by Mother Hubberd ‘s, and it would have been read for the same kind of meaning. Greene, the apparent author, was beyond consequence.

Second, the fox in the fable would be taken for Burghley. The fox had long been a generalized emblem of malicious hypocrisy, as Nashe suggests. More recently, in allegories on the difficulties of the religious settlement, it represented Anglican churchman with covert Catholic sympathies. But a fox in the early nineties has to be Burghley because of Mother Hubberd’s. Nashe has Burghley in mind for the Pierce foxes, as Anthony G. Petti has shown, and Burghley conforms neatly to the role of the fox in our fable. He was the chief marriage maker of his day, being, in Joel Hurstfield’s view, which is based on Burghley’s correspondence, “a matchmaker for all England.” He took special interest in and considerable profit from the marriages of his own wards, which included the choicest available during his tenure as Master of the Court of Wards. The badger here, having lost all family and friends, has become, in effect, a ward and is urged to marry by the fox. “It was imagined,” Burghley’s domestic biographer tells us, that “he made infinite gain by the wards.” The gray, which is either another, related fox or another badger (gray is regularly listed in dictionaries of the time for badger), might stand for Gray’s Inn, Burghley’s Inn, where he saw to it that his wards enrolled. While he seems to have been busy at this time about arrangements for the marriage of one of his wards, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, of Gray’s Inn, Badger does not clearly point to the earl or any of his other wards. The fable relies, it seems, on this particular sphere of activity for which Burghley was well known and criticized in order, by association, to draw attention to activity in another sphere for which he was not known and deserved criticism. (Carroll 107-109)

From these paragraphs we can immediately see several interesting things:

1) Kathman used Carroll for all of his arguments, except Manningham’s Diary. (3)

2) Kathman probably based his claim “we know from external evidence (a letter dated March 19, 1591) that Burghley was widely known to be the target” on the authority of Carroll as well. However, Carroll does not quote the letter. But he does say that the author “describes how scandalous its fable was thought to be and notes the scarcity and high cost of the forbidden book.” In other words, the author does not make the claim that Burghley was the target. If you read Carroll closely, all he is saying is that the letter confirms that the book “was called in because of its fable of the fox and the ape.”

If the text of the letter does say that Burghley was widely known as the object of the attack, Kathman now must provide the text of the letter in order to support his claim. (In a footnote, Carroll indicates that the text is in a “forthcoming” essay in Spenser’s Studies, so it is possible that Kathman has yet to even read the text of the letter on which he bases his claim.)

3) Carroll bases his argument on Spenser’s Mother Hubberd’s Tale and on the arguments of Anthony G. Petti that Nashe had Burghley in mind with his Fox. This approach shows that Carroll would have trouble making his case based on Green’s text alone. I think it quite possible that Greene and the others were ridiculing Burghley, but the real point is that if someone were to accept the circumstantial evidence that the Fox in Spenser, Nashe, and Greene was Burghley, then one must accept that Polonius was Burghley, since the circumstantial case there is far superior in quality, internal consistency, and variety.


At the beginning of this presentation I made three claims that I can now claim to have strongly supported:

That the character of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet so strongly mirrors William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that no reasonable person would deny that the author of the Shakespeare plays to a great extent consciously modeled Polonius after Burghley, with no other interpretation coming nearly as close to having such circumstantial support.

That many notable Stratfordian scholars have supported this interpretation.

That major Stratfordian scholars and critics, while presenting the Oxfordian case, have failed to mention most or all the strong arguments supporting the Polonius/Burghley connection.

That some recent Stratfordian scholars and critics suppress strong arguments advanced by Oxfordians and misdirect attention to weak or non-existent arguments is not limited to the Polonius/Burghley connection. The same pattern can be seen in a number of areas, including Shakespeare’s knowledge of the classics and Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law.

Given the examples of Matus and Kathman, I encourage the serious student investigating authorship issues to focus attention on two areas:

A. The history of various arguments, with the understanding that strong arguments are often made decades in the past and left deserted by Stratfordian scholars and critics.

B. Sources that are cited but not quoted, with the understanding that Stratfordian scholars and critics may intentionally or unintentionally distort sources.


1. ‘A minor detail: the coat of arms in the quarto was no longer the royal arms when it was published. Upon the accession of King James in March 1603, the lion of the monarch’s native Scotland and the harp of Ireland replaced the old arms of England and the “new” arms of France in two of the quarters of the royal arms. In fact, what appears in Hamlet is nothing more than a printer’s decorative ornament known as a headpiece. This is confirmed by its appearance in later books. It was passed on to Jaggard when he bought out Roberts, and he made similar use of that ornament in the misdated quartos of 1619, where it is to be found in Henry Vl, Part Three, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Pericles. Surely these were not printed with royal sanction. Furthermore, it is also found in the first English translation of the entire Decameron, which was duly entered to Jaggard on March 22, 1620, though the imprint of his son, Isaac, appears in the books. Although the work was licensed by the Bishop of London’s secretary, the Register entry notes it was “recalled by [the Archbishop] of Canterbury’s command.” There is no doubt this ornamental headpiece was not a royal cachet.’

2. On page 63: “He [Henry Wriothesley] made himself a patron of scholars like John Florio, the exiled Italian who translated Montaigne’s Essays, some of the phrases from which Shakespeare mischievously gave later on to Polonius in Hamlet, when Polonius is pompously advising his son how to behave when he is away in Paris.” One can only stand in jaw-dropping astonishment.

3. This fact helps explain why Kathman put the Manningham example first, even though it was the weakest of the arguments. Manningham was Kathman’s one original instance in support of his argument, so we can understand why he put it first. We must now not hold Kathman to the idea that he listed first what he thought to be the “best” example.



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