Reason No. 46 Why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare: Edmund Spenser’s Lament in 1590 for “Our Pleasant Willy” Who Was “Dead of Late”

In 1590 the poet Edmund Spenser published the first books of The Fairie Queene and then in 1591 The Teares of the Muses.  In the latter poem, nine goddesses bemoaned the current state of the arts, despite the fact that just two years earlier, the great renaissance of English literature and drama had reached the zenith of its glory — just in time for England’s defeat of Spain’s invasion by armada, in the summer of 1588.  Now, at the start of a new decade, Spenser was warning that the renaissance had ended.

(The English government, having used the wartime services of writers working under the patronage of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, promptly forgot them.  Lord Burghley, father-in-law of Oxford, began to pressure the earl financially; as a result, many writers who depended upon him fell to the wayside.  Lyly, his private secretary, was out of a job; Kyd was tortured to death on the rack; Watson had died in 1590; Greene would die in 1592; Marlowe would be murdered in 1593; Lodge left England — and so  forth, so that future scholars would conclude that “Shakespeare,” upon the appearance of that name in 1593, “had the field to himself.”)

One of Spenser’s laments in Teares is delivered by the goddess Thalia, Muse of Comedy, who wails over the public withdrawal of a specific poet-dramatist who has been “learning’s treasure” delivering “comic sock” to audiences at his plays:

Where be the sweete delights of Learning’s treasure,       
That wont with comick sock to beautefie
The painted theaters, and fill with pleasure
The listners eyes, and eares with melodie,
In which I late was wont to raine as queene,
And maske in mirth with graces well beseene?           

O, all is gone! and all that goodly glee,
Which wont to be the glorie of gay wits,
Is layd abed, and no where now to see;
And in her roome unseemly Sorrow sits,
With hollow browes and greisly countenaunce               
Marring my joyous gentle dalliance.

Oxford had been bringing plays to Court and the private Blackfriars Playhouse during the 1570’s and 1580’s.  (The evidence also shows he was supplying the Queen’s Men with plays for its traveling troupes during the 1580’s.)  William Webbe in A Discourse of English Poetry (1586) wrote, “I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and Gentlemen in Her Majesty’s Court, which, in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most skillful; among whom the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of most excellent among the rest.”  

The same praise was given to him in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), when the anonymous author* praised Court poets “who have written excellently well as it would appear 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,” declaring elsewhere in the same pages, “For Tragedy Lord Buckhurst and Master Ferrys do deserve the highest praise: the Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel** for Comedy and Enterlude.”

* The author of Arte has been identified variously as George Puttenham and Lord Lumley, but the evidence actually points to Oxford himself as the author.

** Richard Edwards had died more than two decades earlier, in 1566, when Oxford was sixteen.  Certainly they had worked together during 1563-66, and it may well be that the teenage Oxford, not Edwards, had written Damon and Pithias (1564) and Palamon and Arcyte (1566), the latter a “lost” play thought to be a source of The Two Noble Kinsmen as by Shakespeare.

(Other evidence makes clear that Spenser and Oxford were well acquainted and even had worked together.  Spenser certainly knew in 1590 that Edward de Vere had abruptly withdrawn from public life and, in that sense, was “dead of late.”)

Continuing her lament in Spenser’s poem, Thalia declares:

And he, the man whom Nature selfe had made
To mock her selfe, and truth to imitate,
With kindly counter* under mimick shade,
Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late:
With whom all ioy and iolly merriment
Is also deaded, and in dolour drent**.

[* Counter – counterfeit.]
[** Drent – drowned.]

Instead thereof scoffing Scurrilitie,
And scornfull Follie with Contempt is crept,
Rolling in rymes of shameles ribaudrie
Without regard, or due decorum kept;
Each idle wit at will presumes to make*,
And doth the learneds taske upon him take.

[* Make – write poetry.]

But that same gentle spirit, from whose pen
Large streames of honnie and sweete nectar flowe,
Scorning the boldnes of such base-borne men,
Which dare their follies forth so rashlie throwe,
Doth rather choose to sit in idle cell,
Than so himselfe to mockerie to sell.

There was only one man in Elizabethan England who held the mirror up to Nature with such scathingly accurate imitations of Truth that his audiences roared with laughter and swooned with delight.

“We should be convinced that by ‘our pleasant Willy,’ Spenser meant William Shakespeare,” Nicholas Rowe wrote in his Some Account of the Life of the bard in 1709, explaining that “such a character as he gives could belong to no other dramatist of the time.”

Spenser’s description has also presented an insurmountable problem, however, given that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon, the bard of tradition, had barely begun his alleged career in 1591.  In no way could he have withdrawn from writing for the stage, nor could he have been “dead of late” or “sitting in idle cell.”  

But such was precisely the case with 40-year-old Edward de Vere, who had become a virtual recluse by 1591 – and, in the Oxfordian view, had begun revising his previous stage works, which would be published under the “Shakespeare” pen name.  In that view he was “idle” only in terms of writing more original works for the public; otherwise he was hard at work, alone, transmuting that prior work into literary and dramatic masterpieces that would live for all time.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that, as a much younger man in 1576, Oxford had published a signed poem in The Paradise of Dainty Devices concluding he “never am less idle, lo, than when I am alone.” ***

And what about Spenser’s statement that “our pleasant Willy” was “Scorning the boldness of such base-born men,” reflecting the attitude of a high-born nobleman?  At a time when class distinctions were extremely rigid, the commoner William Shakspere of Warwickshire could never fit that description — unless he was scorning the boldness of such men as himself!  Otherwise it expresses exactly the view of proud Edward de Vere, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, the highest-ranking earl of Queen Elizabeth’s realm.

“The Faire Queene” by Spenser (1590) and his Dedication to Queen Elizabeth

One of Spenser’s seventeen dedicatory verses to noble individuals in The Fairie Queen of 1590 was to Oxford, whom he praised directly and personally as a poet, in unusual language that called attention to:

… the love which thou dost bear

To th’Heliconian imps [the Muses] and they to thee,

They unto thee, and thou to them, most dear.

Spenser was publicly writing to Edward de Vere, calling him the poet most loved by the Muses, adding:

Dear as thou art unto thyself, so love

That loves and honors thee; as doth behoove.

Charlton Ogburn Jr. translated those lines as Spenser telling Oxford:

“As dear as you are to yourself, so are you to me, who loves and honors you, as it behooves me to.”

The bafflement over the identity of “our pleasant Willy” will be cleared up quickly once the “experts” realize that Spenser was referring to the great author who was not, after all, William Shakspere, but that same Earl of Oxford who was “most dear” to the Muses — and who would soon adopt the pen name “William Shakespeare.”

*** See the entire poem as printed by J. T. Looney in his Poems of Edward de Vere in 1921.

*** Spenser’s dedicatory verse to Oxford:

TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE THE EARLE OF OXENFORD, LORD HIGH CHAMBERLAYNE OF ENGLAND, &C.

RECEIVE, most noble Lord, in gentle gree

  The unripe fruit of an unready wit,
  Which by thy countenaunce doth crave to bee
  Defended from foule Envies poisnous bit:
Which so to doe may thee right well befit,
  Sith th’ antique glory of thine auncestry
  Under a shady vele is therein writ,
  And eke thine owne long living memory,
Succeeding them in true nobility;
  And also for the love which thou doest beare
  To th’ Heliconian ymps, and they to thee,
  They unto thee, and thou to them, most deare.
Deare as thou art unto thy selfe, so love
That loves and honours thee, as doth behove.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Just straighten me out on this one point – is Spenser indicating “Willy” in 1591 before De Vere published with that pen name in 1593? Or do I have my dates mixed up?

    Thanks,
    Dennis Dacey

    • Good question, Dennis. The next Reason will hark back to 1579 and The Shepherd’s Calender, with Spenser creating a rhyming contest between Willie and Perigot, thought to represent Oxford and Philip Sidney. If so, was Oxford actually known as Willie or Willy from the 1570’s onward? Some think so. There’s certainly much evidence that “Willie” in 1579 was Oxford, supporting the appearance of Oxford as “Willy” in 1591 — yes, before the introduction of the Shakespeare name in print in 1593. Spenser could have made up the name for him, or used the name because others knew Oxford as Willie or Willy, and then Oxford might have adopted the pen name “William” or “Will” Shakespeare for that reason.

      By the way, I have no doubt that Oxford came up with the pen name before William Shakspere came on the scene in any connection with all this. And that he was never linked to the writings until seven years after his death, in the folio of 1623.

      If you still have any question, please ask, and I’ll try…

      • I should clarify the above by saying I have no good opinion as to whether Spenser’s used of Willie and Willy for Oxford actually had anything to do with the choice of the pen name William Shakespeare. But it’s possible.

  2. I’m not clear. If there was a “stigma of print”, often given as the reason for Oxford’s use of a pseudonym, why would Oxford have allowed these references exposing him as an author in Webbe, Meres and Puttenham? If Puttenham was indeed Oxford, that would make it even stranger.

    • You are right that “the stigma of print” fails to explain a lot of things, and fails to explain Oxford’s use of a pseudonym. It’s not the correct explanation in any case, although it certainly did exist. For example, if the very young Oxford translated Ovid, why was it passed off as the work of his uncle Arthur Golding? The young Oxford probably did think it unseemly to take credit — for that and for a number of other writings in the 1560’s — and probably so did Burghley, his guardian.

      But Oxford was breaking with the noble tradition pretty loudly in the early 1570’s. He very prominently sponsored The Courtier and Cardanus’ Comforte. For the latter he not only wrote a prefatory letter but a poem, “The laboring man that tills the fertile soil.” In his epistle for the former, he spoke of “a new glory of language” and signed it “Given at the Royal Court on the 5th of January 1571 [1572].” At twenty-one, he is starting to rip off that stigma!

      And he signs other poems with his initials for The Paradise of Dainty Devices in 1576.

      Meanwhile he has been writing plays — for which the stigma has been much stronger and tougher. I am sure he saw no reason for it. He would have loved to be getting the credit for what he did. He and the writers around him were transforming the English language and drama and literature.

      Those books in the 1580’s were part of the effort to transform English writing and literature — defining it, describing it, giving names to various aspects of it, such as the different types of poetical forms.

      So Oxford was, after all, subject to all the human impulses and push-pull conflicts: stay hidden, but carve my initials in the tree; “Kilroy was here” — leave your mark. Meanwhile he used many pen names, of real persons and fictitious ones — all before age 43 and the used of the Shakespeare name.

      But that was different. No stigma of print behind it, no, because this name contained all the state secrets that would be opened to the world. He was revealing the Queen in dozens of ways, from Gertrude to Cleopatra to Sylvia to Titania, to Portia and even Richard II, not to mention Venus and even Lucrece. In those poems and plays he was revealing the truth of his relationship to the queen, the truth of their royal son and heir to the throne — the truth of things that went counter to whatever myths the regime promoted. And “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s tool for publicly supporting Southampton, linking him to these great works, from behind the scenes. So we are far beyond stigma of print…

  3. Thanks Hank, What you say makes a lot of sense. I was wondering, however, with all their Puritan disdain for the arts, if the Queen and Burghley and other higher ups in the court knew that Oxford was a hidden poet as stated by Puttenham and Webbe and was praised “best for comedy” by Meres, wouldn’t they at least have questioned Oxford’s involvement and even asked to see the works he was being praised for?

    • Howard, in my view the Queen and Burghley (and a limited number of others, in and out of the royal court) knew of Oxford’s writings all the way through the 1580’s. I also believe that Burgley and Elizabeth knew Oxford was “Shakespeare” as well.

      A distinction is to be made after 1593, however. Venus and Adonis that year, as by Shakespeare, was approved by the Archbishop, signalling that Burghley and the Queen were behind this publication as well. It contains 36 lines, spoken by Venus-Elizabeth, urging the begetting of an heir, using much the same language as in the private sonnets 1-17 to Southampton. The public poem was a last-ditch effort to have Southampton marry Elizabeth Vere, graddaughter of Burghley and niece of Robert Cecil.

      After Southampton made clear his refusal, Oxford comes out with Lucrece (the chaste queen whose regime is destroyed) with that warm public dedication to Southampton, pledging that “what I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours,” now signalling that Oxford has chosen to stay on Southampton’s side (as Shakespeare) and even, if necessary, against the Cecils.

      That’s an amazing story — the genius who, like Hamlet, supported the Crown but then had to turn against his own queen…

  4. Remarkable work, Hank! Spenser was at the highest reputation among the writers of the 1590’s time frame, yet he takes a considerable amount of time and effort to extoll the talents of one he considers superior to himself in artistic achievement. He Willy’s talents. Surely this “Willy” is not the gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon, who has yet to lift a pen for art’s sake.
    One fact that I find most intriguing: as we well know, there were a number of plays published on or before this time frame Anonymously – with no author’s name provided at all – and a number of these plays would later be revised and published carrying the “William Shake-Speare” name. When one compares these plays, one finds that the anonymous version and the “Shake-Speare” versions have an incredible amount of text in common. “William Shake-Speare” takes the liberty to incorporate very long speeches practically intact into a work that he publishes under the name “Shake-Speare”.
    Orthodox scholars see this as the new young author simply writing a revised version of someone else’s earlier work. But the level of plagiarism between the two versions is astonishing. How could it happen, did “Shake-Speare” have no conscience? A very simple explanation: it’s not plagiarism to revise and update your own previous work.

    Dick Desper

    • Thanks for this, Richard. Your point about the orthodox Shakespeare being a plagiarist is really essential, I’d say, and so clear! (See Reason 12, parts 1 and 2, about the Queen’s Men of the 1580’s and how they performed works that appear to be the basis for no less than six of Shakespeare’s history plays — but, as you point out, clearly they are earlier versions. We have them as evidence to fill in Shakespeare’s biography, that is, to discover what Looney called “the long foreground” leading up to the Shakespeare phenomenon in 1593.
      Thanks again for the comment and, too, for expressing the point so well.


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