Oxford’s Letter to Bedingfield and “Shake-speares Sonnets”
Copyright 1967 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1967.
WHEN Will Shaksper was nine years old and presumably creeping like snail to Stratford Grammar School, a book was “imprinted at London in Fleete streate,” described on its titles pages as: “Cardanus Comforte translated into English and published by commaundement of the right honourable the Earle of Oxenford. Anno Domini 1573.” Three years later a second edition appeared, with the words, “translated by commaundement of the right Honourable the Earle of Oxenforde. Newly perused and augmented. Anno Domini 1576.” The original was written in Latin by a contemporary Italian mathematician, physician and astrologer, Girolamo Cardano (or Jerome Cardan), and first published, under the title De Consolatione, in 1542. The English translation is now very rare, but there are copies of both editions in the British Museum, and many years ago I was privileged to see one in the Osler Library of McGill University, Montreal, which still contained a bookseller’s ticket, pricing it at £163, as a Shakespearean item of great interest, because it was Hamlet’s book!
The translator’s name does not appear on the title-page of either edition, but by way of dedication, there is a letter, signed Thomas Bedingfield and addressed “To the Right Honourable and my good Lord the Earle or Oxenforde, Lord Great Chamberlain of England.”
“My good Lord, I can give nothing more agreeable to your mind and fortune than the willing performance of such service as it shall please you to command me unto. And therefore rather to obey than to boast of my cunning, and as a new sign of mine old devotion, I do present the book your Lordship so long desired. With assured hope that howsoever you mislike or allow thereof, you will favourably conceal mine imperfections, which to your Lordship alone I dare discover, because most faithfully I honour and love you. My long discontinuance in study, or rather lack of grounded knowledge did many times discourage me, yet the pleasure I took in the matter did countervail all dispair, and the rather by encouragement of your Lordship, who (as you well remember) unwares to me found some part of this work and willed me in any wise to proceed therein. My meaning was not to have imparted my travail to any, but your Lordship hath power to countermand mine intention. Yet I most humbly beseech you either not to make any partakers thereof, or at the leastwise those who for reverence to your Lordship or love to me, will willingly bear with mine errors … Sure I am, it would have better beseemed me to have taken this travail in some discourse of arms (being your Lordship’s chief profession and mine also) than in philosopher’s skill to have thus busied myself: yet sith your pleasure was such, and your knowledge in either great, I do (as I will ever) most willingly obey you. And if any either through skill or curiosity do find fault with me, I trust notwithstanding for the respects aforesaid to be holden excused. From my lodging this first of January 1571.
Your Lordship’s always to command,
This is followed by a letter from Oxford to Bedingfield and verses to the Reader, also by Oxford. Then comes another letter and another poem, both addressed to the Reader, by Thomas Churchyard. In his letter Churchyard writes:
“The translator thereof (as many others the more the pity do the like) sent the copy to a nobleman to be read and lapt up in silence,” but the nobleman “showed me the book, and the translator’s desire (always eager to pleasure good people as I conjectured by his countenance) and I who found mine own infirmities finely healed (or favourably handled by this good hap) persuaded as I durst the publication, or this precious present, hoping that some as sick as myself shall be cured or eased by this good Counsel.”
And so, in due course, the book was published, by commandment of the Earl of Oxford, but surely not as some have conjectured, without Bedingfield’s knowledge and concurrence. Oxford’s letter is undated, perhaps because it was revised for publication, but it may well have been based on an earlier, private letter, in answer to Bedingfield’s. Like any other Foreword, it is primarily a valuable recommendation of the book, but it is also an “apology,” in the old sense of the word which did not involve repentance.
It was reprinted with Oxford’s Poems, by A. B. Grosart in 1872, and by J. Thomas Looney in 1921. Since then, it has appeared, as a whole or in part, in several Oxfordian books, including B. M. Ward’s biography, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1928), but it has been largely, if not entirely, ignored by Orthodox Shakespeare scholars. Yet the book in which it made its first appearance was “Hamlet’s book,” and it has even been suggested that it was the book Hamlet was reading when interrupted by Polonius (Act 2, Scene 2). Many parallels have been pointed out, and the conclusion is that Shakespeare must have read it, but it has been left to the Oxfordians to discover Shakespearean parallels in Oxford’s prefatory letter. Those adduced so far have mostly referred to the plays, but I shall here confine myself to the Sonnets, where the inter-relation of whole groups of word, image and idea is all the more impressive for being concentrated in a small space. There is also an underlying similarity of theme, for Oxford seeks to immortalize Bedingfield; not indeed, by persuading him to marry and beget an heir, nor merely by singing his praises, but by publishing his own book. It will be best to print the letter in full, once more, with pauses for comment and quotation from the Sonnets.
“TO MY LOVING FRIEND THOMAS BEDINGFIELD ESQUIRE,
ONE OF HER MAJESTY’S GENTLEMEN PENSIONERS.”
After I had perused your letters, good master Bedingfield, finding in them your request far differing from the desert of your labour, I could not choose but greatly doubt, whether it were better for me to yield to your desire, or execute mine own intention towards the publishing of your book. For I do confess the affections that I have always borne towards you could move me not a little. But when I had thoroughly considered in my mind, of sundry and diverse arguments, whether it were best to obey mine affections, or the merits of your studies: at the length I determined it were better to deny your unlawful request, than to grant or condescend to the concealment of so worthy a work. Whereby as you have been profited in the translating, so many may reap knowledge by the reading of the same, that shall comfort the afflicted, confirm the doubtful, encourage the coward, and lift up the base-minded mail to achieve to any true sum or grade of virtue, whereto ought only the noble thoughts of men to be inclined.
And because next to the sacred letters of divinity, nothing doth persuade the same more than philosophy, of which your book is plentifully stored: I thought myself to commit an unpardonable error to have murdered the same in the waste bottoms of my chests; and better I thought it were to displease one than to displease many; further considering so little a trifle cannot procure so great a breach or our amity, as may not with it little persuasion of reason be repaired again. And herein I am forced, like a good and politic captain, oftentimes to spoil and burn the corn or his own country, lest his enemies thereof do take advantage. For rather than so many of your countrymen should be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies (whereof you are bound in conscience to yield them all account) I am content to make spoil and havock of your request, and that, that might have wrought greatly in me in this former respect, utterly to be of no effect or operation. And when you examine yourself, what doth avail a mass of gold to be continually imprisoned in your bags, and never to be employed to your use?”
Bearing in mind the earlier phrase, “to have murdered the same in the waste bottom of my chests“, I we may compare this image with:
Look, what an unthrift in the world doth spend,
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame commits.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-bless’d,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Oxford then goes on to point the moral:
“I do not doubt even so you think of your studies and delightful Muses. What do they avail if you do not participate them to others?” Wherefore we have this Latin proverb: Scire tu nihil est, nisite scire hoc sciat altar.
Reduced to an abstraction, the thought is not remarkable for its originality: it is to be found in the New Testament and elsewhere. Nevertheless this is the recurrent argument of Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets, where he tries to persuade his young friend to immortalize himself by producing an heir. Oxford, not content with one image, proceeds to enlarge upon his theme:
“What doth avail the tree unless it yield fruit to another? What doth avail the vine unless another delighteth in the grape? What doth avail the rose unless another took pleasure in the smell? Why should this tree be accounted better than that tree but for the goodness of his fruit? Why should this vine be better than that vine unless it brought forth a better grape than the other? Why should this rose be better esteemed than that rose, unless ill pleasantness of smell it far surpassed the other rose?”
It is, of course, the rose which recalls the imagery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and this ill spite of the fact that it is it general favourite. But here the rose is odd man out. Appropriately enough, it is the fruit or the tree and of the vine that is stressed as it symbol of achievement and immortality. With the rose it is its smell. Oxford does not make it clear why this should be so, but “Shakespeare” does:
For never resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there
Sap check’d with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Lose but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
Oxford’s letter continues
“And so it is in all other things as well as in man. Why should this man be more esteemed than that man but for his virtue, through which every man desireth to be accounted of? Then you amongst men, I do not doubt but will aspire to follow that virtuous path, to illuster yourself with the ornaments of virtue. And in mine opinion as it beautifyeth a fair woman to be decked with pearls and precious stones, so much more it ornifyeth a gentleman to be furnished in mind with glittering virtues.”
In the first Sonnet of all we find a curious blend of Oxford’s words and ideas:
From fairest creatures we demand increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die . . .
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament . . .
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
In No. 70 we have: “The ornament of beauty is suspect,” but the great parallel of parallels, both with reference to Oxford’s Letter and the sonnets already quoted, is:
O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a die,
As the perfuméd tincture of the roses;
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly,
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses;
But for their virtue only is their show;
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so:
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.
So much for roses and the respective ornaments of beauty and virtue. Our next image is more homely:
“Wherefore, considering the small harm I do to you, the great good I do to others, I prefer mine own intention to discover your volume, before your request to secret the same; wherein I may seem to you to play the part or the cunning mediciner or physician, who although his patient in the extremity of his burning fever is desirous of cold liquor or drink to qualify his sore thirst, or rather kill his languishing body: yet for the danger he doth evidently know by his science to ensue, denyeth him the same. So you being sick of so much doubt in Your own proceedings, through which infirmity you are desirous to bury and insevill your work ill the grave of oblivion: yet I knowing the discommodities that shall redound to yourself thereby (and which is more unto your countrymen) as one that is willing to salve so great an inconvenience, am nothing dainty to deny your request.”
Shakespeare uses the same image of fever and physician, though differently applied:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me; and I desperate now approve,
Desire is death, which physic did except.
But Oxford will not allow Bedingfield to bury his work in the grave of oblivion. His work, itself, is to be his monument! And here, quotation from the Sonnets is superfluous.
“Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs: whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument; but with me behold it happeneth far better; for in your lifetime I shall erect you such a monument, that as I say, in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life, shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone. And in your lifetime, again I say, I shall give you that monument and remembrance of your life, whereby I may declare my good will, though with your ill will, as yet I bear you in your life.
Thus earnestly desiring you in this one request of mine (as I would yield to you in a great many) not to repugn the setting forth of your own proper studies, I bid you farewell.
From my new country Muses of Wivenghole, wishing you as you have begun, to proceed in these virtuous actions. For when all things shall else forsake us, virtue will ever abide with us, and when our bodies fall into the bowels of the earth, yet that shall mount with our minds into the highest heavens.
From your loving and assured friend, E. Oxenford.
To conclude: If Will Shaksper of Stratford was indeed the author of Hamlet and the Sonnets, he must have assimilated Oxford’s Letter to Bedingfield even more completely than Bedingfield’s translation of Cardan; but there is no evidence that he ever set eyes on the book. Oxford, on the other hand, not only read Bedingfield’s translation in manuscript, but encouraged him to make it in the first place, insisted on its publication, and wrote the Letter himself.
Personally, I have no doubt at all that Oxford was, or became, “Shake-speare,” but lest I be suspected of hinting, or should lead anyone else to infer, that Thomas Bedingfield, despite his initials, was the young man of the Sonnets—which were obviously written much later—let me hasten to add that he was ten years older than Oxford; who was twenty-three when the book was published.