“In deed as in name—Vere nobilis for he was W . . (?) . .”
Shakespearean Master of Revels Discusses the Oxford Mystery
In Partly Burned Manuscript, Now Fully Transcribed
Copyright 1948 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Autumn 1948.
AMONG THE ELIZABETHAN and Jacobean manuscripts gathered by Sir Robert Cotton, the antiquary, were private papers of Sir George Buck who served in the office of the Revels during the last decade of Elizabeth. In 1606 Buck succeeded Edmund Tylney, his uncle, as Master of the Revels, keeping this place until a short time before his death in 1622.
Through the Stationers’ Company, Buck or his deputy licensed five of the Shakespeare plays for publication, but all of the records of the Revels Office relating to play production during Buck’s administration have disappeared entirely.
In 1731, when the Cotton Library and manuscript collection was at Ashburnham House, London, it was seriously damaged by fire. Among the manuscripts salvaged were some in Buck’s handwriting. One page consists of rough notes in which the Master of the Revels endeavors to sum up his personal impressions of the poetical Earl of Oxford. About one-fourth of the writing on this sheet has been charred away. The sentences and words still legible are most interesting, however, and serve to deepen the regret of students of Lord Oxford’s career that Buck was not able to leave us a more complete commentary on the strange genius whose familiar acquaintance he says had been vouchsafed me. As the official authority on the drama of his time, every comment now identifiable as from Buck’s pen on playwrights of his day would be of unusual value to historians. But it is now apparent that Oxford is the only Elizabethan playwright of record whose personality this Master of the Revels sought to explain and defend in surviving memoranda.
It will be observed, moreover, that Buck weighs every word he sets down here with extreme care, adds and rejects words and phrases, leaves unfinished a name dangerous to many, records another beginning with a capital W which the fire erases, and in general struggles hard to explain (without too much revealing) the one great poet-playwright of the era whose loss of property and political prestige has always been shrouded in mystery.
That Buck, who was himself a poet and historian of mark, feels an intense admiration for the man Edward de Vere which outweighs his pity for the ruined nobleman, is apparent. His partially destroyed commentary was first reproduced sixteen years ago in Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans by C. J. Sisson and Mark Eccles. In the chapter headed “Sir George Buc and the Office of the King’s Revels,” Dr. Eccles reproduces a good photoengraving of the manuscript, which is now owned by the British Museum. His printed transcription of the Oxford commentary, however, consists of little more than half of Buck’s lines. These appear in such typographical clutter as to confuse much of their sense.
In compiling the present transcription with the assistance of specialists in Elizabethan chirography at the New York Public Library, we have adopted a simplified system in rendering the Buck notes into type. Thus, each group of triple dots signifies a charred portion of the script. Words partially destroyed are contiguous to these dots. Where Buck has crossed out a word or a phrase in favor of another, we designate the rejected characters in a rounded bracket immediately following. Words or letters obviously required to complete sense are also given in rounded brackets. The elongated brackets represent Buck’s own enclosures.
Near the top and center of this partially burned sheet, the numeral 3 appears, indicating that the Master of the Revels had written at least two other pages of commentary on the great and unfortunate Elizabethan poet nobleman. These were undoubtedly entirely consumed in the fire of 1731. Our transcription runs as follows:
. . . 3.
. . . fully begotten by himselfe in much . . .
. . . lases tyme that great & stately . . .
. . . the opulent & friendly patro(n) . . .
. . . and was very (struck out but restored) sodenly . . .
. . . consumed [como sal en agua . . .
. . . say in the Refran] but not by the fault . . .
. . . lord Harys (Howard’s) but rather by the sale of the
. . . dmaur. (word contracted) for certainly the erl was a
. . . magnificent & a very (s.o.b.r.) learned & religious . . .
& so worthy in every way, as I haue heard some graue & . . .
(d)iscret & honorable persons [who knew the erl from his y(outh) . . .
& could very well iudge of the hopefullness & . . .
tow(ard) lynes of young men] say & affirme he was much more like(ly) . . .
to raise & acquire a new erldome then to dis (s.o.) . . .
decay & loose an old erldome. yet this erldome was * * *
(Buck’s own dots after erldome was, witness his disinclination to record the grim facts of Oxford’s financial insolvency.)
. . . in a word he was a . . .
in deed as in name – – – Vere nobilis for he was W . . .
(In the charred right-hand margin, interlined below the missing word beginning with W, appears the rounded remnant of another capitalized letter which may have stood for S. It therefore seems quite possible that the now partially destroyed line above may originally have read: in deed as In name. – – – Vere nobilis for he was William Shakespeare. One thing at least is certain. No authority in England would then be more likely to appreciate the “noble Truth” of Oxford’s creative deeds as “‘William Shakespeare” than Master of the Revels Buck. His script continues:)
& truly noble,& a most noble Vere (note pun.) I spea(k) . . .
. . . what I know, for he vouchsafed me his familiar ac(quaintance) . . .
(A variant interlineation after know reads: haueing had the honour of, etc.)
It seems strange that Dr. Eccles does not include a transcription of the last line of this manuscript in his printed version, for in the light of Buck’s foregoing efforts to explain how the earldom under Oxford suffered notable loss of property and prestige, these nine words are of surpassing significance:
And whereas I and all that overthrew a Stately.
Although the sentence begins with a capital A and is unfinished—proving the continuance of Buck’s apology for the poet Earl on succeeding pages, now hopelessly lost—the personal element in the thought carries on from Buck’s statement that he was on terms of familiar acquaintance with Oxford. Also, the word Stately, meaning noble or grand, is obviously a reference to the same earldom of Oxford which Buck likewise designates in the second line of his script. Yet does this make sense? How could Buck himself be associated with persons or circumstances responsible for Lord Oxford’s overthrow as a great aristocrat?
The answer is, Buck had been one of a group of Elizabethan writers and dramatists to whose support Oxford had contributed with lavish generosity until his financial break-up, about 1585. In the third and fourth lines here, Buck refers to the disasters that very sodenly overcame this opulent & friendly patron. As early as 1582 we find Buck’s name on the first sonnet of commendation printed in Thomas Watson’s Passionate Century of Love. This collection of poems, frequently mentioned as a forerunner of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is dedicated to Oxford, who unquestionably paid for its publication. Watson intimates that the Earl helped edit the volume. Two famous dramatists, John Lyly and George Peele, also contributed commendatory verses, together with Matthew Royden, Thomas Acheley, and C. Downhalus. As it is now known from excellent testimony that Watson was a prolific writer for the stage, while Oxford’s dramatic genius is featured by Meres, we thus find George Buck’s name early in life associated on the one hand with that of the playwright Earl, and on the other with a representative group of Oxford’s proteges. A veritable regiment of these sought and obtained Oxford’s patronage during his years of prosperity, including many eminent scholars, and dramatists and poets such as Churchyard, Lyly, Munday, Greene, Nash, Watson, Marlowe, Kyd and Spenser; not to mention composers such as Byrd and Farmer, theatrical managers such as Hunnis and Evans, together with various troupes of the most talented actors of the period. In fact, the Earl’s generosity to creative workers is definitely known to have outrun his means, though it hardly deserves the obtuse sneer which Lee accords it in the Dict. Nat. Biog. when he says: “Oxford had squandered some part of his fortune upon men of letters whose bohemian mode of life attracted him.”
Here we find Sir George Buck, Shakespearean Master of the Revels, sadly recording the Earl’s waste of money, but in a truly Noble cause, and for reasons wherein Buck holds himself partly responsible. Their mutual connection with the drama would account for this. Finally, it should be noted that, beginning with the phrase in a word he was a . . . ,Sir George has criss-crossed out every line of his script to the bottom of the page. Despite this, all uncharred words are fairly legible. Buck evidently decided that he had told too much about the playwright nobleman whose strange career stirred him to conscience-smitten admiration.
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