Oxford vs. Other “Claiments” of the Edwards
Shakespearean Honors, 1593
Copyright 1948 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Summer 1948.
IN THE PRECEDING ISSUE of the QUARTERLY the first serious attempt was made to analyze the personal allusions to the author of Venus and Adonis in Thomas Edwards’ 1593. “L’Envoy to Narcissus.” That we succeeded in proving the poet-playwright Earl of Oxford to be Edwards’ nominee for the authorship of the “Shakespeare” poem is the opinion of several well-versed Elizabethan scholars to whom our analysis has been submitted.
Let us now anticipate the skepticism of those who may wish to suggest a candidate other than the Earl of Oxford as the poet-playwright described by Edwards.
It appears indisputable that this one whose power floweth far and whose purple robes distained identify him with the stately tropes rich conceited of the masking Adon, as well as with the writing of satirical comedy for Blackfriars Theatre production is at the same time signified as of the royal circle at the Center of this clime.
What poet-playwright of contemporary renown occupied an Elizabethan Court position comparable to Edwards’ specifications in 1593?
Could it be William of Stratford?
Not even his most vehement partisans will seriously advance such a claim for the reported butcher’s apprentice and horse-groom from Warwickshire.
Was it Francis Bacon then?
There is no record of Bacon having written a line of first-class poetry or drama during the lifetime of Elizabeth. His acknowledged experiments, in verse speak for themselves—with mediocre. flatness. Any lines less “Shakespearean” would be difficult to find in the dust-bin of literary oblivion.
Moreover, Francis Bacon was not of the purple-veined nobility. His forbears were lawyers and professional scholars, several of them extremely able, but distinctly middle-class. Bacon himself remained plain “Master” Bacon until Elizabeth’s successor came to the throne. In 1593 this gifted young commoner was frantically tilling wires to secure some governmental post which would assure him leisure to pursue his philosophical studies—and that with notable non-success. When he came to Court it was as a supplicant or an intelligence agent. The only real influence he exerted during the latter decade of Elizabeth was as the private adviser of Essex, until he turned upon his benefactor to advance himself over the unfortunate Earl’s dishonored corpse.
The fatal weakness of the so-called “Bacon-Shakespeare” authorship claims resides in the fact that it is absolutely impossible to certify Bacon as a personal participant in the rise of the creative art of the Elizabethan drama by any contemporary testimony. The “claims” of his advocates are primarily based upon “cryptograms” and “ciphers”—long since exploded as childishly unreliable.
Could Edwards, perchance, be referring to the 6th Earl of Derby as the author of Venus and Adonis?
Hardly, inasmuch as William Stanley was chiefly notable for his absence from Court circles when Edwards wrote. The general belief is that he spent most of his time in foreign travel. He was a younger son, then on the “outs” with his relatives, and certainly occupied no position of any demonstrable power whatever at the Court of Elizabeth. Neither is there any direct evidence during the early 1590’s that he was considered an influential and experienced poet or dramatist. There are later references to Derby—then Oxford’s son-in-law—as a writer and producer of “comedies for the common players”. But these are not dated before 1599. They indicate that Derby’s interest in playwriting and theatre production gained headway through intimacy with Lord Oxford. And distinctly so as his father-in-law’s bodily powers waned. My own opinion is that Derby is not to be discounted as a possible collaborator with Oxford in certain Shakespearean enterprises. At least, he can be accurately documented through recent research as Ben Jonson’s active patron, and provides an authentic personal connecting link between Jonson and the real “Shakespeare.”
Finally, to recapitulate Oxford’s fitness for the Edwards’ identification:
As one born in the purple and related to many of the ablest and most highly cultivated families in English history, Oxford is the only nobleman of great prestige in 1593 who can be thoroughly documented by his contemporaries as a poet and playwright of genius.
His honorary office of Lord Chamberlain of England and his ancient lineage gave him precedence over all other Earls of the realm. And the royal Sword of State, of which he had the disposition, by right of office, symbolizes the delegated authority of the reigning sovereign. That this poet-playwright could be accurately described as one whose power floweth far, both in Court circles and in Elizabethan literary affairs, admits. of no question. There is definite proof, also abundantly available, that his great name was sullied by intimate association with “lewd” writers of the Shakespearean creative circle. Nash’s satirical address to Oxford as “Gentle Master William, Apis Lapis,” the Sacred Ox of contemporary letters, in the 1593 dedicatory epistle of Strange News, verifies everything in this connection that the statements of Lord Treasurer Burghley, Spenser and Sir George Buck suggest.
We have already noted that the dedication of Nash’s Strange News to his patron proves that Oxford’s literary nickname was the same as that borne by the “Gentle Master William” of the immortal plays. Furthermore, this playwright nobleman’s ownership of a favorite manor on the River Avon in Warwickshire, and the historical record of his appearance as an actor in a spectacular show given on the same stream for the Queen’s pleasure, certify Oxford’s right to be considered the subject of Jonson’s metaphorical reference to “Shakespeare” as Sweet Swan of Avon.
In the space now at our disposal, it would be impossible to digest all realistic evidence to the same effect. Such evidence has been detailed in many books and pamphlets, beginning with Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified (1920), and continuing throughout the eight previous volumes of this periodical.
I will only say that the lavish praise of Lord Oxford as poet, playwright and voluminous creative worker by such critical authority and fellow writers of his day as Webbe; the anonymous author of The Arte of English Poesie; Angel Day; Spenser; Nash; Meres; Harvey; and Henry Peacham, cannot be matched in the case of any other candidate for Shakespearean authorship honors who was living when Thomas Edwards wrote his Narcissus—and who at the same time meets all personal requirements of this remarkable description of the creator of Venus and Adonis.
Associations of the Earls of Oxford And Members of Edwards Family
The identity of the Thomas Edwards who in 1593 wrote the exceedingly rare and historically important Cephalus and Procris (and) Narcissus, which contains the description of the 17th Earl of Oxford in his pseudonymic role of “Shakespeare,” does not seem to have been settled up to this time.
The British Museum catalogues him as “The Poet” to distinguish him from other Thomas Edwardses of about the same era; while the editors of the Dictionary of National Biography languidly view the problem with the remark that “Edwards is a common name.”
All known circumstances considered, however, I would venture to suggest that this little known poet and Shakespearean commentator was a member of the family of Richard Edwards, the Elizabethan poet, musician and playwright who composed and staged Palamon and Arcite and Damon and Pithias.
A native of Somersetshire, Richard Edwards was born about 1523, and is said to have died toward the end of 1566. A scholar of Corpus Christi, Oxford, he received his M.A. degree in 1547. Later he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and was appointed a Gentleman of the Queen’s Chapel and Master of the Children of the Chapel about 1561. His skill in music and dramatics is frequently mentioned by his contemporaries. Edwards trained selected groups from the boys of the Royal Choir in several successful dramatic offerings, including his own plays. The Queen is said to have encouraged this, expending more than a thousand pounds a year to maintain the Chapel’s musical and acting forces.
The most humanly interesting account extant of Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for the stage is to be found in a contemporary manuscript in the Harleian collection. It is written by the Oxford scholar Neal and tells of the Queen’s visit to that university in September 1566, when Edwards and his youthful actors gave their first performance of Palamon and Arcite before Elizabeth, her courtiers, and the whole university personnel. The production was so graphically enacted that many of the younger undergraduates present who had never seen a play were entirely carried away, shouting directions to the players in some of the hunting scenes. This so amused the Queen that she applauded them on from her box, crying
“Oh, excellent! These boys in very troth are ready to leap out of the windows to follow the hounds.”
The young Earl of Oxford, then several months past his sixteenth birthday, was one of Elizabeth’s personal attendants on this occasion, and was among those who received an honorary M.A. degree from the university, following the two days devoted principally to Edwards’ dramatic offerings.
There can be no doubt that young Oxford was personally acquainted with Richard Edwards, for they had marked mutual interests in music, acting, writing and the stage. Also eight of Oxford’s early poems appear in a famous Elizabethan anthology entitled The Paradise of Dainty Devices which Edwards is credited with having collected “for his private use” from the writings of “divers learned Gentlemen.” The first edition of the volume is dated 1576, whereas Edwards was buried in 1566. Therefore, if the statements of Henry Disle, editor-publisher of the Paradise can be accepted at face value, the poems by Oxford included therein must all have been composed before the Earl was seventeen years of age. Several of these signed lyrics of his are, nevertheless, of outstanding spirit and felicity. In fact, some of their lines have been accepted as of genuinely adult Shakespearean composition by eminent professors of English. For such tests, a potpourri has been arranged by Dr. L. P. Bénézet, consisting of an admixture of the Oxford lines (unidentified) with others taken from the songs and sonnets of “William Shakespeare.”
It is not merely an “accident,” either, it would seem, that one of Richard Edwards’ songs, beginning “When griping grief the heart doth wound” provides a tunefully mirthful interlude in Romeo and Juliet.
As has been previously noted, some years after Richard Edwards’ death, the boy actors company which he had organized at Westminster was combined with a similar group at Windsor to create the professional troupe for the Blackfriars Theatre. As the backer of this enterprise, Oxford’s own theatrical interests can thus be seen to be a direct continuation of an important Elizabethan stage movement, pioneered by Richard Edwards.
These are the main reasons why I think it not unreasonable to suggest that the poet Thomas Edwards, who was in touch with contemporary creative writing and obviously knew something of the Blackfriars Theatre group of satirists, was either a direct or collateral descendant of the author of Palamon and Arcite. Edwards may be “a common name,” but a facility for poetry and an interest in stagge affairs was certainly not held in common by many Elizabethans answering to the cognomen. In fact, family tradition could very well be a determining factor—according to the immemorial English point of view—to justify such a remarkable departure by the Thomas Edwards of 1593.
I would also venture to suggest that he was probably the Thomas Edwards who is recorded as a scholar of Queen’s College, Cambridge, from which he received the degrees of B.A. in 1579 and M.A. in 1582. Queen’s was the college at which Edward de Vere (then known by the title of Lord Bulbeck) originally matriculated as an “impubes” fellow-commoner (before his ninth birthday) in November 1558. Thomas Edwards of Queen’s, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, became in 1618 Rector of Langenhoe, Essex, one of the parishes in Lord Oxford’s native county.
And now for a final piece of authenticated documentation from the public records, which indicates a relationship between members of the Edwards family and that of the poet Earl of Oxford, continuing from the days of Richard Edwards, the playwright, on into the period immediately succeeding the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
It is to be found in the records of the Exchequer of James I, filed in The King’s Remembrancer, No. XVI, where are listed “Licenses to pass from England beyond the Seas.” Under date of “23 Oct. 1624” appears this entry:
George Parsons, 24, silkweaver, resident in Hackney (the London suburb where. the 17th Earl of Oxford had his home during the final decade of his life) to the Leager (Lowlands) about c’ten his affaires with ye Earle of Oxford (the poet’s son, Henry de Vere, 18th Earl). In the room of this partie went on (e) Richard Edward(s) 68, resident in Hackney, whose pass was made dated in (for) Nov. 1624.
This Richard Edward(s) who accompanied Parsons to the Lowlands on “affaires with ye Earle of Oxford” appears to have been born about 1556. In point of years, therefore, he could have been a son and namesake of the 1523-1566 playwright Edwards, whose literary and dramatic activities overlap and notably highlight those of the youthful Edward de Vere with constructive significance.
Whether the Thomas Edwards who wrote the 1593 commentary on Lord Oxford as “Shakespeare” was closely related to this 1624 Hackney resident has not yet been determined. But, while it is reasonable to argue that the author of “L’Envoy to Narcissus” had believable opportunities to acquire personal knowledge of Oxford’s career as most powerful concealed poet-playwright of the age, no evidence of any associations of any type can be found to connect the Stratford-on-Avon native personally with a single person named Edwards throughout his entire lifetime.