The Earl of Oxford Shared Shakespeare’s Knowledge of France and the French Language – Reason No. 33 to Believe They Were One and the Same Writer

Five Shakespeare plays are set at least partly in France — King John, Henry V, 1 Henry VI, All’s Well That Ends Well and Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Would most playwrights deliberately set a play in France if they had never been there?  Well, maybe they’d set one play in France, but five?  Was it possible for Shakespeare to create scenes set in France without ever having spent time in that country?  Well, maybe, but the author of the Shakespeare works also wrote French dialogue – I know, not necessarily good dialogue, but in fact it was French, right?

In the play King Henry V the entirety of Act III, Scene 4 is set within the French king’s palace and consists of French dialogue between Princess Katherine and Alice, the lady attending on her.  I have reprinted the scene below and here include a video of it from the brilliant 1989 Kenneth Branaugh film, with Emma Thompson as Katherine and Geraldine McEwan as Alice.  And yes, I realize, some of it is even “vulgar” French, but wouldn’t that have been deliberate?

Young Oxford would have learned all about the De Vere family and its French origin — the name apparently derived from Ver, near Bayeux — as well as about its founder, Aubrey de Vere, who had come into England with William the Conqueror in 1066, five centuries earlier.  Edward would have learned to read, write and speak French at a very early age, perhaps in the household of Sir Thomas Smith, where he apparently was sent after turning four years old.  In any case, following are just fragments of recorded information:

The letter in French written by 13-year-old Edward de Vere to Sir William Cecil, master of the royal wards, in August 1563. (CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW)

When Edward de Vere was twelve and entered Cecil House in London in September 1562 as a royal ward in the custody of William Cecil Lord Burghley, the printed “Orders for the Earl of Oxford’s Exercises” involved a daily routine that included two hours of French studies per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  In a letter dated August 23, 1563, the thirteen-year-old boy wrote to Burghley entirely in French.   Six years after that, Oxford at nineteen ordered books that included “Plutarch’s works in French” as well as works in Italian and English.

Henry III of France (1551-1589)

When Oxford almost twenty-five in February 1575, he and his retinue arrived in Paris, where he was entertained at the French court by the royal family: Henry III, Catherine de Medici (the Queen Mother) and Marguerite de Valois.  Valentine Dale, the English ambassador in Paris, wrote Burghley on March 7th of having ‘presented my Lord of Oxford unto the French King and Queen, who used him honorably.  Amongst other talk the King asked whether he was married.  I said he had a fair lady.  ‘Il y a donce ce,’ dit-il [he says], ‘un beau couple.’

A few days later, after Oxford had left Paris for Strasburg, the ambassador again wrote to Burghley, conveying that he had been favorably impressed by the young earl.  “I will assure your Lordship unfeignedly my Lord of Oxford used himself as orderly and moderately as might be desired, and with great commendation, neither is there any appearance of the likelihood of any other.”  So we have Oxford as a young man at the French royal court, undoubtedly speaking fluent French with the royal family – and Mark Anderson suggests in Shakespeare By Another Name:

Map of Paris - 1575

“At the time she sent de Vere overseas, [Queen] Elizabeth required the attentions of a high-ranking courtier fluent in French and Italian for important diplomatic missions in Paris and Venice.   Could it simply be coincidence that the Queen gave de Vere license to travel to these two key cities at the same time she needed these tasks completed?”

At the end of Sonnet 73, which proceeds from autumn to winter in the poet’s life, the final couplet reads:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In that last line the phrase “leave ere” is the exact sound of l’hiver, French for winter, and simultaneously playing upon Oxford’s own name Ver or Vere.  Then there is the Shakespeare play The Winter’s Tale, which, translated into French, is l’histoire de l’hiver…

Of course Oxford’s entire life as a high-ranking nobleman was involved with matters involving France, such as the so-called French Match during the 1570’s and early 1580’s when Queen Elizabeth carried on the great public fiction that she would marry Alencon.

Pierre de Ronsard, 1524-1585

And all of the above items are merely tips of an iceberg when it comes to the deep knowledge of the great French poet Ronsard that “Shakespeare” reveals.  As Richard Malim observes in his new book The Earl of Oxford and the Making of Shakespeare, so full was Oxford-Shakespeare’s knowledge of Ronsard  that he “comes perilously close to plagiarism of Ronsard,” who wrote in 1564:  “Le monde est la Theatre, et les hommmes acteurs” or, if you will, “All the world’s a stage…”

KATHARINE Alice, tu as ete en Angleterre, et tu parles bien le langage.
ALICE Un peu, madame.
KATHARINE Je te prie, m’enseignez: il faut que j’apprenne a parler. Comment appelez-vous la main en Anglois?
ALICE La main? elle est appelee de hand.
KATHARINE De hand. Et les doigts?
ALICE Les doigts? ma foi, j’oublie les doigts; mais je me
souviendrai. Les doigts? je pense qu’ils sont
appeles de fingres; oui, de fingres.
KATHARINE La main, de hand; les doigts, de fingres. Je pense
que je suis le bon ecolier; j’ai gagne deux mots
d’Anglois vitement. Comment appelez-vous les ongles?
ALICE Les ongles? nous les appelons de nails.
KATHARINE De nails. Ecoutez; dites-moi, si je parle bien: de
hand, de fingres, et de nails.
ALICE C’est bien dit, madame; il est fort bon Anglois.
KATHARINE Dites-moi l’Anglois pour le bras.
ALICE De arm, madame.
KATHARINE Et le coude?
ALICE De elbow.
KATHARINE De elbow. Je m’en fais la repetition de tous les
mots que vous m’avez appris des a present.
ALICE Il est trop difficile, madame, comme je pense.
KATHARINE Excusez-moi, Alice; ecoutez: de hand, de fingres,
de nails, de arma, de bilbow.
ALICE De elbow, madame.
KATHARINE O Seigneur Dieu, je m’en oublie! de elbow. Comment
appelez-vous le col?
ALICE De neck, madame.
KATHARINE De nick. Et le menton?
ALICE De chin.
KATHARINE De sin. Le col, de nick; de menton, de sin.
ALICE Oui. Sauf votre honneur, en verite, vous prononcez
les mots aussi droit que les natifs d’Angleterre.
KATHARINE Je ne doute point d’apprendre, par la grace de Dieu,
et en peu de temps.
ALICE N’avez vous pas deja oublie ce que je vous ai enseigne?
KATHARINE Non, je reciterai a vous promptement: de hand, de
fingres, de mails–
ALICE De nails, madame.
KATHARINE De nails, de arm, de ilbow.
ALICE Sauf votre honneur, de elbow.
KATHARINE Ainsi dis-je; de elbow, de nick, et de sin. Comment
appelez-vous le pied et la robe?
ALICE De foot, madame; et de coun.
KATHARINE De foot et de coun! O Seigneur Dieu! ce sont mots
de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et
non pour les dames d’honneur d’user: je ne voudrais
prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France
pour tout le monde. Foh! le foot et le coun!
Neanmoins, je reciterai une autre fois ma lecon
ensemble: de hand, de fingres, de nails, de arm, de
elbow, de nick, de sin, de foot, de coun.
ALICE Excellent, madame!
KATHARINE C’est assez pour une fois: allons-nous a diner.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is terrific, Hank. And remember, Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream can all be appreciated as comic allegories on the French court, namely Henry III (M4M), Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV (LLL), and Francois Hercule Valois, Duke of Alencon (AMND). We have a French connection here that challenges traditional thinking about Shakespeare and subversive allegories.

    • Great point, Earl. So all three cry out for much earlier dates of composition than orthodox thinking can think about. And once the time frame is shifted back about a decade and a half, give or take, whole other levels of allegory and “second intention” (as Stowe put it) are to be found and savored. I know how you enjoy this in your own work on it. What’s not to like?

  2. Dear Hank!

    The story about The Winter’s Tale is even better than that. A perfect translation of the title into french would be

    “Le Conte d’Hiver”

    which sounds exactly the same as

    “Le Comte de Vere”


    The earl of Oxford

    I find this joke very amusing. Also note that the definitive article is necessary for the joke to be complete (“A Winter’s Tale” is of course a more expected title, but it would spoil the wordplay)

    Best wishes

    Mikael Kjellgren, Göteborg, Sweden

    • Thanks for adding this, Mikael! Wonderful!

  3. Been noticing connection between French and Shakespeare’s language. ‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts’ (Ophelia) is a joke in French. (pensees/pensees) ‘Fardels’ Hamlet and ‘superflux’ Lear are everyday words ‘fardeaux’ and ‘superflu’ in French. Perhaps ‘brave new world’ is the French word ‘brave’ as in ‘un brave homme’? Unfortunately ‘Conte d’hiver’ and ‘Comte de Ver’ are pronounced differently.
    Ray Byrne, Dublin

    • Much appreciated. Please keep us informed of your observations. Thanks.

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