Henry Peacham’s Loud Silence in “The Compleat Gentleman” of 1622 — No. 38 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford = “Shakespeare”

In 1612, Henry Peacham (1578-c. 1644) apparently suggested in Minerva Britanna (1612) that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) had been a playwright of hidden identity.  A decade later, in 1622, he published his most popular work The Compleat Gentlemanin which he stated:

Title Page of The Compleat Gentleman

“In the time of our late Queene Elizabeth, which was truly a golden age (for such a world of refined wits, and excellent spirits it produced, whose like are hardly to be hoped for, in any succeeding age) above others, who honoured Poesie with their pennes and practice (to omit her Majestie, who had a singular gift herein) were Edward Earle of Oxford, the Lord Buckhurst, Henry Lord Paget; our Phoenix, the noble Sir Philip Sidney, M. Edward Dyer, M. Edmund Spencer, M. Samuel Daniel, with sundry others: whom (together with those admirable wits, yet living, and so well knowne) not out of Envie, but to avoid tediousnesse I overpasse.  Thus much of Poetrie.”

Eva Turner Clark (1871-1947)

The first Oxfordian to report on this passage was Eva Turner Clark in The Man Who Was Shakespeare (1937).  In that work Clark acknowledges that Peacham was following others (in the 1580’s and 1590’s) who had cited Oxford for his poetry and for his (officially “lost”) writings (“comedies”) for the stage; and “significantly,” she adds, Peacham “does not mention Shakespeare, a name he knew to be the nom de plume of Oxford.”

Louis P. Benezet (1876-1961)

Picking up on Clark’s observation, Louis P. Benezet, Chairman of the Department of Education at Dartmouth College, wrote in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly of October 1945 that Peacham’s statement in The Complete Gentleman is “one of the best keys to the solution of the Shakespeare Mystery.”  And he continued:

“We recall the statement of Sir Sidney Lee [1898], that the Earl of Oxford was the best of the court poets in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and Webbe’s comment [1586] that ‘in the rare devices of poetry he (Oxford) may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.’

“Also we remember that The Arte of English Poesie [1589] after confessing that ‘as well Poets as Poesie are despised, and the name become of honourable infamous’ so that many noblemen and gentlemen ‘are loath to be known of their skill’ and that many who have written commendably have suppressed it, or suffered it to be published ‘without their names,’ goes on to state that in Elizabeth’s time have sprung up a new group of ‘courtly writers, who have written excellently well, if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman, Edward, Earl of Oxford.’

“Now comes Henry Peacham, confirming all that has been said by others,” Benezet writes, noting the date of 1622, when the likes of George Chapman and Ben Jonson were “yet living, and so well knowne,” while William Shakspere of Stratford had been dead for six years and, by all rights, should have been on the list – unless, of course, the real “Shakespeare” was in fact heading the list under his real name, Edward de Vere, who had died in 1604.

Peacham  “was in a position to know the truth,” Dr. Benezet continues.  “He had been for several years the tutor of the three sons of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, Oxford’s cousin.  Living in the family circle, he knew the secret behind the pseudonym under which were published Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, those poems which, with The Fairie Queene [by the late Edmund Spenser, whom Peacham mentions], provide the high water mark of Elizabethan rhyming.”

Sir George Greenwood in The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908) had noted that the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe had never entered Shakespeare’s name in his diary, Dr. Benezet recalls, adding that “still more compelling is the silence of Henry Peacham, for not only does he ignore the Stratford man, but, at the head of his list of the great poets of ‘the Golden Age,’ where the name of the Bard of Avon should be expected, we encounter instead that of one who is not even mentioned in any of the histories of English literature consulted as ‘authority’ by my colleagues of the Departments of English, the greatest of the world’s unknown great, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.”

Back in the mid-1590’s, as a seventeen-year-old Cambridge graduate, Peacham had created a sketch apparently depicting the rehearsal or performance of a scene from Titus Andronicus,which was first published anonymously in a 1594 quarto.  Given that four years later Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia of 1598 listed Titus as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies on the public stage, we can be sure, if Henry Peacham had thought “Shakespeare” and “Edward de Vere” were separate individuals, he would have included both names on his list of the greatest no-longer-living authors of Elizabeth’s time.  Instead he knew the two names designated one and the same man.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think this should be posted in the Wikipedia page for Henry Peacham. There is no mention there of his naming de Vere or excluding Shakespeare in “The Compleat Gentleman.”

    • Good idea. Maybe you should do it:-) Thanks.

  2. This seems to be one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for Oxford as the great author. I wonder what Stratfordians have to say in reply.

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