Those “Precepts” of Polonius and Burghley: Reason No. 14 Why the Earl of Oxford was the Man Who Wrote “Hamlet”

William Cecil Lord Burghley (1520-1598)

The way I see it, this one is a piece-a-cake.  Holler the word “precepts” to an Oxfordian and the odds, ten to one, are that you’ll get a quick reply about Polonius delivering “these few precepts” in Hamlet and how Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford would have known Lord Burghley’s real-life Certain Precepts, which were not printed until 1616, the year that William of Stratford died, and long after the play had been written.  Well, no, of course this is not proof that Oxford was “Shakespeare,” but, hey, it’s pretty cool…don’t’cha think?

Back in 1869, the scholar George French wrote Shakspeareana Genealogica in which he observed that in Hamlet the three characters of Lord Chamberlain Polonius, his son Laertes and his daughter Ophelia “are supposed to stand for Queen Elizabeth’s celebrated Lord High Treasurer Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, his second son Robert Cecil and his daughter Anne Cecil.”  In other words, in the days before the “authorship debate” got rolling, there wasn’t any question in people’s minds that Polonius = Burghley; those three characters were “supposed” or generally thought to be modeled on Burghley, Robert Cecil and Anne Cecil.

Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford became a royal ward of Elizabeth at age twelve in 1562, in the custody of her chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley; and in 1571, at twenty-one, he entered an arranged marriage with his guardian’s fifteen-year-old daughter Anne Cecil.

When Burghley knew that his son Robert Cecil was about to set out on his travels in 1584, the year when most Oxfordians believe Oxford wrote the first draft of Hamlet, he wrote out “certain precepts” for him as guides to behavior – “and in some of these,” French noted in the nineteenth century, “the identity of language with that of Polonius is so close that SHAKSPEARE [yes, spelled this way, and in caps] could not have hit upon it unless he had been acquainted with Burghley’s parental advice to Robert Cecil.”  

My reason number 14 for contending that Oxford was “Shakespeare” focuses on those “precepts” by Polonius and Burghley.   It would seem evident that the author of Hamlet needed to be familiar with Burghley’s maxims, the better to mirror them and satirize them at the same time!  He had to have heard them “firsthand” – at Cecil House, for example, where Edward de Vere had lived from age twelve to twenty-one.

The first quarto of "Hamlet" appeared in 1603; this is the second one, the "authentic" version, twice as long, published in 1604, the year of Oxford's death.

[Such was the argument made in 2007 during the annual Shakespeare Authorship Conference at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon by Michael Cecil, the eighteenth Baron Burghley, who is directly descended from William Cecil, the first Baron Burghley.]

In the decades after J. Thomas Looney put forth Oxford as “Shakespeare” in 1920, orthodox scholars began to back away from Polonius = Burghley.  They’ve even tried to suggest that the two sets of precepts are not necessarily very similar.   Humbug!!!

The best online analysis of the Polonius-Burghley link is from Mark Alexander in his Sourcetext site at:

http://www.sourcetext.com/sourcebook/essays/polonius/corambis.html

Following are some comparisons, with the line breaks removed from Polonius’ speech [which is printed below in full, as it appears in the play].   Not only are these specific pieces of advice very similar; also, there is an overall resemblance of tone.

POLONIUS:

Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportion’d thought his act … be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

BURGLEY:

Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests

POLONIUS:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; but do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new hatch’d unfledged comrade.

BURGHLEY:

Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table.  Grace them with thy countenance … But shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperity…

POLONIUS:

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

BURGHLEY:

Neither borrow of a neighbor 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.

Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil (1563-1612)

Here is the speech of Polonius followed by the full text of Burghley’s ten precepts:

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

Polonius:

And these few precepts in thy memory

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportioned 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 hoops 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 express’d 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.

Polonius and Laertes

CERTAIN PRECEPTE FOR THE WELL ORDERING OF A MAN’S LIFE

Son Robert:

The virtuous inclinations of thy matchless mother, by whose tender and godly care thy infancy was governed, together with thy education under so zealous and excellent a tutor, puts me rather in assurance of the hope that thou are not ignorant of that summary bond which is only able to make thee happy as well in thy death as life–I mean the true knowledge and worship of thy Creator and Redeemer, without which all other things are vain and miserable. So that, thy youth being guided by so all sufficient a teacher, I make no doubt but he will furnish thy life both with divine and moral documents; yet that I may not cast off the care beseeming a parent towards his child, or that thou shouldst have cause to drive thy whole felicity and welfare rather from others than from whence thou receivedst thy birth and being, I think it fit and agreeable to the affection I bear to help thee with such advertisements and rules for the squaring of thy life as are gained rather by much experience than long reading, to the end that thou, entering into this exorbitant age, mayest be the better prepared to shun those cautelous courses whereinto this world and thy lack of experience may easily draw thee. And because I will not confound thy memory, I have reduced them into ten precepts and, next unto Moses’ tables, if thou do imprint them in thy mind, then shalt thou reap the benefit and I the contentment. And these are they.

1. When it shall please God to bring thee to man’s estate, use great providence and circumspection in the choice of thy wife, for from thence may spring all thy future good or ill; and it is an action like a strategem in war where man can err but once. If thy estate be good, match near home and at leisure; if weak, then far off and quickly. Inquire diligently of her disposition and how her parents have been inclined in their youth. Let her not be poor how generous soever, for a man can buy nothing in the market with gentility. Neither choose a base and uncomely creature altogether for wealth, for it will cause contempt in others and loathing in thee. Make not choice of a dwarf or a fool, for from the one thou mayest beget a race of pygmies, the other may be thy daily disgrace; for it will irk thee to have her talk, for then thou shalt find to thy great grief that there is nothing more fulsome than a she-fool. Touching the government of thy house, let thy hospitality be moderate and according to the measure of thine own estate, rather plentiful than sparing–but not too costly–for I never knew any grow poor by keeping an orderly table. But some consume themselves through secret vices and their hospitality must bear the blame. Banish swinish drunkards out of thy house, which is a vice that impairs health, consumes much, and makes no show, for I never knew any praise ascribed to a drunkard but the well-bearing of drink, which is a better commendation for a brewer’s horse or a drayman than for either gentleman or serving man. Beware that thou spend not above three of the four parts of thy revenue, nor about one-third part of that in thine house, for the other two parts will do no more than defray thy extraordinaries, which will always surmount thy ordinaries by much. For otherwise shalt thou live like a rich beggar in a continual want, and the needy man can never live happily nor contented, for then every least disaster makes him ready either to mortgage or to sell, and that gentleman which then sells an acre of land loses an ounce of credit, for gentility is nothing but ancient riches. So that if the foundations sink, the building must needs consequently fail.

2. Bring thy children up in learning and obedience yet without austerity; praise them openly; reprehend them secretly; give them good countenance and convenient maintenance according to thy ability; for otherwise thy life will seem their bondage, and then what portion thou shalt leave them at thy death they may thank death for it and not thee. And I am verily persuaded that the foolish cockering of some parents and the overstern carriage of others causeth more men and women to take evil courses than naturally their own vicious inclinations. Marry thy daughters in time, lest they marry themselves. Suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps, for they shall learn nothing but pride, blasphemy, and atheism. And if by travel they attain to some few broken languages, they will profit them no more than to have one meat served in divers dishes. Neither by my advice shalt thou train them up to wars, for he that eats up his rest only to live by that profession can hardly be an honest man or good Christian, for war is of itself unjust unless the good cause may make it just. Besides it is a science no longer in request than use, for “soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer.”

3. Live not in the country without corn and cattle about thee, for he that must present his hand to the purse for every expense of household may be likened to him that keeps water in a sieve. And for that provision thou shalt need lay for to buy it at the best hand, for there may be a penny in four saved betwixt buying at thy need or when the market and seasons serve fittest for it. And be not willingly attended or served by kinsmen, friends, or men entreated to stay, for they will expect much and do little, neither by such as are amorous, for their heads are commonly intoxicated; keep rather too few than one too many; feed them well and pay them with the most, and then mayest thou boldly require service at their hands.

4. Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy table, grace them with thy countenance, and ever further them in all honest actions, for by that means thou shalt so double the bond of nature as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind my back. But shake off these glowworms–I mean parasites and sycophants–who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperity, but in any adverse storm they will shelter thee no more than an arbor in winter.

5. Beware of suretyship for thy best friend, for he which payeth another man’s debts seeks his own decay; but if thou canst not otherwise choose, then rather lend that money from thyself upon good bond though thou borrow it, so mayest thou pleasure thy friend and happily also secure thyself. Neither borrow money of a neighbor or friend but rather from a mere stranger, where paying for it thou mayest hear no more of it, for otherwise thou shalt eclipse thy credit, lose thy freedom, and yet pay to him as dear as to the other. In borrowing of money be ever precious of thy word, for he that cares to keep day of payment is lord commander many times in another man’s goods.

6. Undertake no suit against a poor man without receiving much wrong for therein making him thy competitor. Besides it is a base conquest to triumph where there is small resistance. Neither attempt law against any man before thou be fully resolved that thou hast the right on thy side, and then spare not for money nor pains, for a cause or two so being well followed and obtained may after free thee from suits a great part of thy life.

7. Be sure ever to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not for trifles, compliment him often, present him with many yet small gifts and of little charge, and if thou have cause to bestow any great gratuity let it then be some such thing as may be daily in sight, for otherwise in this ambitious age thou mayest remain like a hop without a pole, live in obscurity, and be made a football for every insulting companion to spurn at.

8. Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous; with thy equals familiar yet respective; towards inferiors show much humility and some familiarity, as to bow thy body, stretch forth thy hand, and to uncover thy head, and suchlike popular compliments. The first prepares a way to advancement; the second makes thee known for a man well-bred; the third gains a good report which once gotten may be safely kept, for high humilities take such root in the minds of the multitude as they are more easilier won by unprofitable courtesies than churlish benefits. Yet do I advise thee not to affect nor neglect popularity too much. Seek not to be E. and shun to be R. [Essex and Raleigh? -SFR]

9. Trust not any man too far with thy credit or estate, for it is a mere folly for a man to enthrall himself to his friend further than if just cause be offered he should not dare to become otherwise his enemy.

10. Be not scurrilous in conversation nor stoical in thy jests; the one may make thee unwelcome to all companies, the other pull on quarrels and yet the hatred of thy best friends. Jests when they savor too much of truth leave a bitterness in the mind of those that are touched. And although I have already pointed all this inclusive, yet I think it necessary to leave it thee as a caution, because I have seen many so prone to quip and gird as they would rather lose their friend than their jests, and if by chance their boiling brain yield a quaint scoff they will travail to be delivered of it as a woman with child. Those nimble apprehensions are but the froth of wit.

I have reprinted the above precepts from:

http://princehamlet.com/burghley.html

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. In “The Faerie Queene” (Book V, Canto II, 5-10)) there is a Pollente who is as close as Polonius as one can see. Note how Pollente robs the rich for his own benefit, a remainder of how the helpless minor rich were robed by him through the Court of Wards:

    He is (…) a man of great defence;
    (…)
    Having great Lordships got and goodly farmes,
    Through strong oppression of his powre extort;
    By which he still them holds, & keeps with strong effort.

    (…)
    But he himself vppon the rich doth tyrannize.

    His name is hight Pollente, rightly so
    For that he is so puissant and strong.
    (…)
    And makes them subiect to his mighty wrong;
    (…)
    For on a Bridge he custometh to fight,
    Which is but narrow, but exceeding long;
    And in the same are many trap fals pight,
    Through which the rider downe doth fall through ouersight.

    And vnderneath the same a riuer flowes,
    (…)
    Into the which whom so he ouerthrowes,
    All destitute of helpe doth headlong fall,
    But he him selfe, through practise vsuall,
    Leapes forth into the floud, and there assaies
    His foe confused through his sodaine fall,
    That horse and man he equally dismaies, (…)

  2. It was my understanding that it was Thomas Cecil’s trip to Paris, not Robert’s. Also, the warnings given to Laertes are strikingly similar to the warnings to Thomas in a private letter not discovered until decades later. One amazing (sic) coincidence is Hamlet calling Polonius a “:fishmonger”. Burghley tried to monopolize the fish trade years earlier. Polonius’ original name was Corambis, a pun on Burghley’s motto.

    It is inconceivable to me that anyone can deny the characterization in the play. That the author was not beheaded for (literally) skewering Elizabeth’s chief adviser, especially soon after his death (put in for publication with a stay-read Detobel as to how it got published in 1602) is even more inconceivable.

    But know it all Shapiro says this just can’t be. Gosh, if he said it???

    • Hi Ken. First, thanks again for another helpful comment. [Somewhere I have the text of comments Cecil made on fish days at Parliament in January 1563, when Edward de Vere was still twelve and listed as a minor behind the rail — another minor at the time, five years older, being the second earl of Southampton. Listening to the long tedious fish speech:-)

      Ken, I too would have thought the precepts were written for Thomas Cecil, the older son, who went off to France, as Laertes did. But it seems they were written later for Robert:

      http://www.bartleby.com/209/166.html

      Nonetheless I agree with your understanding of the logic of it. Maybe we can get to the bottom of it:-)

      Hank

  3. Arthur Falcone

    Those “Precepts” of Polonius and Burghley: Reason No. 14 Why the Earl of Oxford was the Man Who Wrote “Hamlet” | Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog

    • Thanks – great comment!

  4. This is the first time I’ve read the Cecil ‘precepts’ in full (and in nicely ‘modernised’ English).

    It’s startling, from what we know of de Vere’s life (and how well must Cecil have known it!), how much of it might have been borne of having watched the latter’s inexorable fall from grace, Cecil then making point-by-point examples of almost every one of his ‘ill-advised’ life-choices and traits.

    Of course, since William Cecil, throughout his entire life, was never inclined in the slightest to any of these ‘errors’ and ‘vices’, he must have been reflecting on the characters and lives of other men, who he knew well, holding them up as cautionary examples (he does indeed probably refer to E[ssex] and R[aleigh] – he would probably have preferred, simply, O[xford], but didn’t dare).

    “Suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps” (the most obvious), “Jests when they savour too much of truth leave a bitterness in the mind of those that are touched” (de Vere was known for his sarcastic wit – even Raleigh saw fit to warn a peer about it) and so on – almost the entire tract seems to be a pointed warning to his son about his once-ward de Vere.

    It’s easy to imagine de Vere reading them and quickly recognising this, finding them directly insulting and being incensed, which would have provided the motive for paraphrasing them in Hamlet, probably in the very first draught (where, presumably from from the outset, he intended to show Burghley as the conniving, hypocritical politician (Corambis – “two-hearted”, two-faced) he regarded him as.


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