Reason No. 11 (Part One) Why Oxford was “Shakespeare”: His Prefatory Letter for “Cardanus’ Comforte” is … Shakespearean!

When J. Thomas Looney hypothesized that Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare,” he came upon Oxford’s prefatory letter for Thomas Beddingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte published in 1573 when Oxford was twenty-three (reprinted in 1576); and one can only imagine Looney’s amazement upon finding such self-evident support for his thesis.  Here is a letter that we might well expect to find from “Shakespeare” as a young man…

"CARDANUS Comforte, translated And Published by commaundement of the right Honourable the Earle of Oxenforde."

Looney wrote in “Shakespeare” Identified (1920) that Oxford’s letter “gives us a glimpse into the nature of the man himself as he was in these early years.  Whatever may have been the pose he thought fit to adopt in dealing with some of the men about Elizabeth’s court, this letter bears ample testimony to the generosity and largeness of his disposition, the clearness and sobriety of his judgment, and the essential manliness of his actions and bearing towards literary men whom he considered worthy of encouragement…

“As a letter it is, of course, prose, but it is the prose of a genuine poet: its terse ingenuity, wealth of figurative speech, and even its musical quality…”

Oxford had taken the court by storm; an expert in horsemanship, he was the new champion of the Whitehall tiltyard; and already he had risen to the heights of the royal favor, amid gossip that he and the queen were lovers despite his marriage to Lord Burghley’s daughter Anne Cecil. In addition, breaking with tradition as he had done with sponsorship of The Courtier by Castiglione, the young earl was clearly England’s great champion of literature and the Italian renaissance.

John Thomas Looney (1870-1944)

Looney’s parting word on the Cardanus preface was a plea to his readers to “familiarize themselves thoroughly with the diction of this letter” and then “read the dedication of Venus and Adonis” to Southampton printed in 1593. “So similar is the style that it is hardly necessary to make any allowance for the [twenty] intervening years.”

An Oxfordian who picked up on the latter theme was Joseph Sobran (1946-2010), who, in the appendix section of Alias Shakespeare (1997), offered perceptive observations such as:

“This document unmistakably prefigures the Southampton poems of Shakespeare: the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. Written when Oxford was only twenty-three, the letter anticipates these poems in spirit, theme, image, and other details. Like those poems, it borrows, for figurative use, the languages of law, commerce, horticulture, and medicine. It speaks of publication as a duty and of literary works as tombs and monuments to their authors. It has echoes in the plays, and the points of resemblance to the Southampton poems are especially notable…

"Alias, Shakespeare" (1997) by Joseph Sobran

“Oxford’s letter is Shakespearean in a wider respect too: in its overwhelming warmth and generosity, verging on excess, yet controlled by a pleasant irony. He loves to praise, but he avoids the risk of fulsomeness by disguising praise as admiring accusation. ‘For shame!’ he says: ‘You want to hoard your own excellence, deny your virtue to the world!’  This is exactly the rhetorical strategy of Sonnets 1 through 17, using much the same language and many of the same images…”

We’ll continue in the next blog post with Part Two of Reason No. 11, but meanwhile here is Oxford’s letter in 1573 to Bedingfield in full, followed by the dedication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 to Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton:

“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 labor, I could not choose but greatly doubt whether it were better for me to yield you 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 divers arguments, whether it were best to obey mine affections or the merits of your studies, at the length I determined it 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 man, 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 of our amity, as may not with a 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 of 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 an account) I am content to make spoil and havoc 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? 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 tuum nihil est, nisi te scire hoc sciat alter. What doth avail the tree unless it yield fruit unto 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 in pleasantness of smell it far surpassed the other rose?

“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 ornament of virtue.  And in mine opinion as it beautifieth a fair woman to be decked with pearls and precious stones, so much more it ornifieth a gentleman to be furnished in mind with glittering virtues.

“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 of the cunning and expert 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, denieth him the same. So you being sick of too much doubt in your own proceedings, through which infirmity you are desirous to bury and insevill your works in 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.

“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 that I do 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 at Wivenghole, wishing you as you have begun, to proceed in these virtuous actions. For when all things shall else forsake us, virtue yet 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.

“By your loving and assured friend, E. Oxenford”

DEDICATION OF “VENUS AND ADONIS” – 1593:

“TO THE RIGHT HONORABLE Henry Wriothesley, Earle of Southampton, And Baron of Tichfield

“Right Honourable,

“I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden.  Only, if your Honour seem but pleased, I account my self highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour.  But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather: and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest.  I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honour to your heart’s content, which I wish may always answer your own wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.

“Your Honors in all duty, William Shakespeare”

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “For when all things shall else forsake us, virtue yet 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.”

    Pure helenism.

    The realm of essence as a way to attain the perfection the flux of existence deny to all “wights”. Great essay.

  2. Have you read Book I, Canto II, stanzas 40-43 of “The Faerie Queene”?

    It is the Acteon myth.

  3. Except for Wm. Shakespeare’s bootlicking last sentence in the dedication to Southhampton, the difference between Oxford and Shakespeare’s writing in these two examples is stunning:

    Oxenford’s labored, circuitous and verbose self-indulgences:

    “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 of the cunning and expert 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, denieth him the same”

    Versus Wm. Shakespeare’s concise, light and self-deprecating wit:

    “I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden. ”

    Beyond the usual Elizabethan tropes and syntax, they are similar expressions of two distinctly different people.

    • Thanks for this comment. You are right — the styles are very different. Oxford would get into his euphuism phase later in the decade and the height of it would be 1579-1583 or so — the kind of thing “Shakespeare” would duplicate to make sport with, in Love’s Labour’s Lost. In any case it is an interesting observation and I hope others here will offer their views. Best from Hank

  4. Thanks for entertaining my sincere, but obviously biased thoughts. I look forward to reading the Monument. — as ever, Chris

  5. Wonderful blog post

    • Thanks very much.

  6. At least some bloggers can write. Thank you for this piece of writing!

    • Feels good to get such a comment. Much appreciated.


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