The Literary Patronage of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford – Excerpts from a Master’s Thesis

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Following are excerpts from Jonni Koonce Dunn’s Master of Arts in English thesis The Literary Patronage of Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, presented in 1999 at the University of Texas, Arlington.  I attended Ms. Dunn’s talk that year at the Shakespeare Authorship conference at Concordia University, Portland OR, and since then she has made her 93-page thesis available to an Oxfordian group on Facebook.  These excerpts merely scratch the surface of an important work that, in my view, deserves the widest circulation:

“With nearly forty percent of [the Earl of Oxford’s] patronage expended on fiction with an Italian flavor, de Vere provided the late sixteenth century with a body of source works to which the literature of the English Renaissance is sorely indebted.”

“By the end of his life in 1604, some thirty-three dedications had been made to him, an unusually large proportion of which were literary as opposed to utilitarian or devotional in nature.”

[The actual count is elusive, depending on how a “dedication” is defined; my own total so far is twenty-five dedications plus three more quasi-dedications, or twenty-eight, which accords with the number indicated by Franklin Williams in his Index. – HW]

“It is … likely that, because of his being put forward as a candidate for authorship of the Shakespeare plays, some scholars feel called upon to savage his reputation and overlook his patronage rather than assess its scope and influence.”

“Stephen W. May notes concerning the body of de Vere’s patronage that its focus was literary. Thirteen … books which were presented to him were either original or translated works of literature.  Edwin H. Miller adds that there is not a strong tradition of rewards to poets and creative artists in the history of Elizabethan patronage since the emphasis was placed on utilitarian works, and that ‘propagandists of the government’s political and religious policies were more generously rewarded.’ …

“The Earl of Leicester, certainly in a position to bestow favor on authors whom he favored, was the dedicatee of more than ninety works, and yet of that number only a small percent was literary. The Second Earl of Essex was also a greater patron in volume than de Vere, but only eighteen percent of it was literary.  Though fewer total works were presented to de Vere, a surprising forty percent was literary rather than utilitarian.”

Minerva Britanna - 1612

Minerva Britanna – 1612

“As is the case again and again with the works patronized by de Vere [such as Thomas Underdowne’s translation of An Aethiopian Historie by Heliodorus, dedicated to nineteen-year-old Oxford in 1569], the author’s voice is fresh, new, and often never witnessed from that same pen again once the relationship with de Vere ends.

“Such is not to suggest that de Vere was, in fact, the ghost author of all the works dedicated to him. Rather, perhaps it is time that scholarship at least acknowledged that coming into de Vere’s circle of influence resulted in similar positive results for the creative process which flourished under his protection.  Shakespeare undoubtedly knew Heliodorus, probably from the Underdowne translation…” [Citing a direct reference to Theagenes and Chariclia in Twelfth Night*].

“Although there was no calculated plan for the scope of his patronage, beginning as it did when he was a mere boy, his preference for literary work over the devotional or practical became obvious. Such works lent themselves to being models for adaptation for the forerunners of the novel as well as being instrumental in the development of English drama.  His early boldness in writing introductions to such works as the Latin translation of Il Cortegiano [The Courtier] or Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort suggests his desire to be instrumental in shaping what was read by the university student and the courtier, thus in a roundabout way to transform the Elizabethan court into the cultured society depicted at Urbino in Castiglione’s work…

“It would eventually come to pass that William Shakespeare would benefit from the works de Vere patronized, for his plays came to make use of practically every one of the literary number in some fashion.”

Without such patronage, Dunn concludes, many of those Shakespearean sources “might not have been available for inspiration” – a realization which, by itself, “should ensure Edward de Vere the gratitude of every student of English literature.”

  • “Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death, Kill what I love?” – Twelfth Night, 5.1

Sources Cited Above:

May, Stephen W., “The Poems of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex,” Studies in Philology, Early Winter, 1980

Miller, Edwin H., The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England, Harvard, 1959

Williams, Franklin W., Jr., Index of Dedications and Commendatory Verses in English Books before 1641 (1962)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “As is the case again and again with the works patronized by de Vere … the author’s voice is fresh, new, and often never witnessed from that same pen again once the relationship with de Vere ends.”

    I understand that Jonni is reluctant to endorse the controversial theory that de Vere may have been the actual author of at least some of these works, but the above statement is consistent with that possibility.

    Hank, thank you for bringing much deserved attention to Jonni’s important work.

    • Many thanks, Rick.


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