No. 90 of 100 Reasons Why “Shakespeare” was Edward de Vere: His Tutor Had the Only Manuscript of “Beowulf,” an Influence upon “Hamlet”

Beowulf Image  Superimposed Over Original Manuscript Text

Beowulf Image
Superimposed Over
Original Manuscript Text

Most often when scholars have begun to suspect that “Shakespeare” was influenced in his writing of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by the ancient narrative poem Beowulf, they have made a sharp turn away from that idea. Beowulf, as generations of students can attest, is the earliest surviving Old English poem, dated between the eighth and eleventh centuries, by an unknown author. Set in Scandinavia and told in 3182 alliterative lines, it’s one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, as well as one of the earliest European epics written not in Latin but in the vernacular or native language. And the traditional author of the Shakespeare works, the man from Stratford upon Avon, could not have read it.

Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hroogar, King of the Danes, whose mead-hall (great royal feasting hall, where warriors could sleep at night) has been under attack by the monster Grendel. Beowulf slays Grendel; when Grendel’s mother attacks, he kills her, too; and then he returns home to Geatland in Sweden, where he becomes King of the Geats.

The Death of Beowulf (with friend Wiglaf)

The Death of Beowulf
(with friend Wiglaf)

Fifty years pass until the third and final battle, when Beowulf’s friend Wiglaf helps him slay the Dragon; but after being mortally wounded in the fight, Beowulf delivers his dying words to his friend — as rendered below in the 1963 translation by Burton Raffel, with echoes from Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio:

Take what I leave, Wiglat, lead my people,
Help them; my time is gone…

O, I die, Horatio,
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit…

Have the brave Geats build me a tomb …
And build it here, at the water’s edge, high
On this spit of land, so sailors can see
This tower and remember my name.

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

Laurence Nowell's self portrait (with empty purse) at lower left corner of a pocket map he made for Wm. Cecil

Laurence Nowell’s self portrait (with empty purse) at lower left corner of a pocket map he made for Wm. Cecil

One – and only one – Beowulf manuscript exists. It’s a fragile document, possibly the anonymous author’s working copy, the result of two scribes taking down the words as he spoke them. Although the poem is set in Scandinavia, it was written in England; and the earliest known owner of the manuscript was the scholar Laurence Nowell, who received it after entering the London house of his patron, William Cecil, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, in 1562 or 1563. An expert collector of Anglo-Saxon documents, Nowell later compiled the first Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. After coming into possession of a volume of handwritten manuscripts containing the Beowulf text, he signed his name in pencil on the back of it along with the year, 1563. The manuscript volume is bound in what is still known as the “Nowell Codex” and is kept today at the British Library.

The immediate point here is that only a few highly placed individuals in the world ever got to read Beowulf until well after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can be certain that William Shaksper of Stratford could not have seen the ancient poem. So the scholars who have noticed the influence of Beowulf in Hamlet have had to either find some explanation for the similarities or ignore them.

(It’s like the shock that would occur if, say, an elephant suddenly walked through the living room. The mind scrambles to explain; otherwise, it cries out: “This does not exist!”)

A page of the Beowulf  Manuscript

A page of the Beowulf

It turns out, however, that the influence of Beowulf in Shakespeare’s Hamlet does exist. Laurence Nowell – antiquarian, cartographer, Anglo-Saxon scholar – had been summoned by Cecil to act as a special tutor to young Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who arrived at Cecil House at age twelve in September of 1562, as a royal ward of the Queen in the chief minister’s custody. It was in 1563 that, through Cecil (as well as Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury), he acquired the manuscript; and young Oxford, to whom so much evidence points as the true author of the Shakespeare works, was literally in the same room with Nowell when the Anglo-Saxon scholar was brimming with excitement over having this precious text in his hands.

This is the kind of surprising information that Oxfordians have been discovering since J. Thomas Looney published “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920. This specific discovery has been known at least since the publication of “Beowulf, Hamlet and Edward de Vere” by the late Dr. Andrew Hanna in the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter of Spring 1990 (Vol. 26, No. 2); they may have read a wonderfully succinct account of it in Mark Anderson’s biography Shakespeare by Another Name (2005); and they may have seen Dr. TK Kenyon’s blog review of that book, in which she writes:

“Consider, if you will, the obvious plot and character parallels between Hamlet and Beowulf. The author of Hamlet clearly had read Beowulf and understood deeply. (Any other explanation is like denying the literary relationship between The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.) De Vere was one of very few people in England or elsewhere with access to Beowulf, let alone that his tutor signed it at the time he tutored de Vere.”

[Also highly recommended is the comprehensive work of Stephanie Hughes in her blog Politicworm – see “Laurence Nowell and Beowulf”.]

The Death of Hamlet

The Death of Hamlet

B.M. Ward writes in his documentary biography of Edward de Vere: “In June 1563 Laurence Nowell wrote a Latin letter to Cecil, drawing his attention to the slip-shod manner in which the cartographers and geographers of England were doing their work … He goes on to ask Cecil that to him may be entrusted the task of compiling an accurate map, because ‘I clearly see that my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required.'”

Some defenders of the Stratfordian faith have tried to turn Nowell’s statement into a negative remark about Oxford, but common sense points elsewhere, even if only because Nowell would never dare to speak ill to Cecil of the young nobleman in his charge, who stood to become the highest-ranking earl of the realm. As Ward comments, “That a scholar of Nowell’s attainments should speak thus of his pupil, then aged thirteen and a half, argues a precocity quite out of the ordinary.”

Here is a selection from the ground-breaking essay by Andy Hanna:

“But what was Beowulf to ‘Shake-speare’? Conventional scholarship on the play most likely to show such a link, Hamlet, is silent on any connection to Beowulf. The Stratford fellow couldn’t possibly have known of the Old English manuscript of a poem that didn’t ‘surface’ to literati until a librarian noticed it over a century later, the wisdom holds … But scholars also realize that the play Hamlet abandons the obvious Saxo/Belleforest ‘source’ after the revengeful killing of the uncle. That is, what happens after Amleth kills Feng in Saxo is not found in Hamlet, nor is any of the motif of Hamlet’s death found in Saxo or Belleforest. Enter Beowulf

The mead-hall or feasting hall of the King was usually the safest place in the kingdom

The mead-hall or feasting hall of the King was usually the safest place in the kingdom

“I would like to suggest that in the dying words of Hamlet we see a refiguring of the poignant exchange between the dying Beowulf and his faithful (and lone follower) Wiglaf – who also is a relative, a cousin, of his lord [the military hero Horatio Vere was Oxford’s cousin]. Not insignificantly, both Beowulf and Hamlet are concerned not just about their own names and stories – which Wiglaf and Horatio will report – but also over the fate of the kingdom, the succession to the throne. Both lands either are or soon will be overrun by foreign power. And oddly, the puzzling slipping of time, the aging of Beowulf, bears a curious resemblance to the passage of time in which Hamlet appears in Act Five to have aged from a Prince in early manhood to an ostensible thirty years of age …

“As for the youthful Oxford ever seeing the Beowulf story, I cannot imagine a tutor such as Nowell not at some juncture showing his pupil that poem – and telling the story – written in a hand from the days of the first earls of Oxford. De Vere, many years later to be sure, recollected, and ‘I am Beowulf the Great’ became ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane!’

monster in beowulf

[I cannot bring myself to omit another observation from Dr. Hanna — that “as any observer of the ‘Shake-spearian’ critical industry could attest, if Laurence Nowell could be shown to have had any connection to the Stratford youth, or to the school he is postulated to have attended, we soon would be wading in our piscatory hip boots in Hamlet-Beowulf studies.”]

Here’s an excerpt from Mark Anderson:

Beowulf was as inaccessible as the crown jewels to anyone outside of Cecil House. With an author whose childhood education would have exposed him to Beowulf, the ancient poem’s influence on Shake-speare becomes not inexplicable but rather expected…

Beowulf and the original Hamlet myth (‘Amleth’) are cousins from the same family of Scandinavian folklore. Shake-speare uses both as sources for Hamlet. Once Hamlet kills his uncle Claudius, Shake-speare stops following ‘Amleth’ and starts following Beowulf. It is Beowulf who fights the mortal duel with poison and sword; it is Beowulf who turns to his loyal comrade (Wiglaf in Beowulf; Horatio in Hamlet) to recite a dying appeal to carry his name and cause forward…”

beowulf image

More from the same section of the Burton Raffel translation, near the end:

“For this, this gold, these jewels, I thank
Our Father in Heaven, Ruler of the Earth—
For all of this, that His grace has given me,
Allowed me to bring to my people while breath
Still came to my lips. I sold my life
For this treasure, and I sold it well. Take
What I leave, Wiglaf, lead my people,
Help them; my time is gone. Have
The brave Geats build me a tomb,
When the funeral flames have burned me, and build it
Here, at the water’s edge, high
On this spit of land, so sailors can see
This tower, and remember my name, and call it
Beowulf s tower, and boats in the darkness
And mist, crossing the sea, will know it.”

Then that brave King gave the golden
Necklace from around his throat to Wiglaf,
Gave him his gold-covered helmet, and his rings,
And his mail shirt, and ordered him to use them well:

“You’re the last of all our far-flung family.
Fate has swept our race away,
Taken warriors in their strength and led them
To the death that was waiting. And now I follow them.”

The old man’s mouth was silent, spoke
No more, had said as much as it could;
He would sleep in the fire, soon. His soul
Left his flesh, flew to glory…

And from the pen of the author of Hamlet:

… the rest is silence.

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you! So useful! If only blind eyes would see, deaf ears hear!

    • Much appreciated!

    • They surely will, not a long time, I promise.

  2. Whittemore, talking on Beowulf, could Oxford had take some parts of Hamlet’s plot from Aeschylus’s “Oresteia”? Orestes’ story remembers me of Hamlet’s familiar drama and also Oxford’s.

    • Yes, Francisco, and here is a great paper from Earl Showerman –

      Click to access Showerman-Orestes.pdf

      • Thanks, Whittemore. This also remembered me that I once read of a theory which propose Hamlet’s soliloquy “to be or not to be” was from a latin translation by George Buchanan from Euripedes’ “Alcestis”. Looks like Oxford was focused in Greek Drama while penning Hamlet back to the early 1580’s…

  3. I like the link to Vikings for the origins of Hamlet which may place its performance in the 1560s. The second reason I like it is that I remain convinced Hamlet is by a young author and not by an old man. The third reason why I like it is because a Viking did come sailing over to woo Elizabeth even before she began her reign. The mad royal prince Eric whose own life followed the slings and arrows in the Hamlet plot. While out sailing for a princess, the prince returned home each time to beat up the Danes in numerous battles (the Seven Years’ War). Talk about natural viagra. –

    • Thanks, Greg. Very interesting!

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