Re-Posting Reason No. 3: Oxford Sponsored “The Courtier” — A Primary Inspiration for Prince Hamlet

“O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form…”
— Ophelia speaking of Prince Hamlet

When Shakespeare created his greatest and most self-revealing character with the words and actiions of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, he drew upon his own intimate knowledge and obvious love for Baldesar Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, that is, The Book of the Courtier, one of the great volumes of the High Renaissance.

Castiglione’s & The Book of the Courtier

Portrayed in the book is a group of real-life thinkers, politicians, soldiers, clerics, diplomats and wits who gathered together at the Palace of Urbino in 1507 to play a game, over four evenings, to try to piece together a portrait of the perfect courtier.

Their conversations about courtliness ranged “from chivalry to humanist debates about language, literature, painting and sculpture,” John Lotherington writes in his introduction to a 2005 edition from Barnes & Noble Books, “to the art of conversation and the telling of jokes, the role and dignity of women, the delicate job of guiding willful princes, and finally to love and its transcendent form in pure spirit.”

The Courtier, published in 1528, attempts “to refashion the medieval ideal of the chivalrous knight and to fuse it with the Renaissance virtues of learning and grace,” James Oscar Campbell writes in The Reader’s Encylopedia of Shakespeare (1966), adding that Shakespeare “may have derived the ‘merry war’ of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing from a similar battle in The Courtier.”

The Ducal Palace at Urbino

“Shakespeare may have read Castiglione in Italian,” Charles Boyce writes in Shakespeare A to Z (1990) — a fairly amazing statement from one who supposedly believes the author was William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon, who was unlikely to have been able to read works in Italian.

Translated into English in 1561 by Thomas Hoby, The Courtier exerted a strong influence on the courtly ideals of the reign of Elizabeth I of England.

The Courtier in English as translated by Thomas Hoby in 1561

A little more than a decade later, in January 1572, having just come of age as a courtier, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford made possible the publication of a new Latin translation of Castiglione’s work by one of his former tutors, Bartholomew Clerke.  To give it the biggest send-off possible, Oxford even wrote an eloquent introduction, also in Latin, which Charlton Ogburn Jr. in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984) called “a remarkably finished piece of work for a 21-year-old writing in a classical language.”

Oxford’s first biographer B. M. Ward wrote in 1928 that becoming a leader in war had been Edward de Vere’s goal, “if only because that was the normal expectation for any young nobleman seeking to fulfill his destiny,” but having been denied military service it was “only natural” that the young earl then turned to literature.

The Latin translation of The Courtier by Bartholomew Clerke in 1571, published from the Royal Court with Oxford’s blessing

But Ward also noted that most likely Edward de Vere had been captivated by literature from boyhood.  He had taken degress at Cambridge and Oxford universities at ages fourteen and sixteen; before age twenty his library had included works of Chaucer, Plutarch, Cicero and Plato, not to mention the Geneva Bible and “other books and papers.”

In 1571, the year before he issued his former tutor’s Latin translation of The Courtier, his uncle Arthur Golding noted in print that that he knew from personal experience how Oxford had taken a keen interest in “the present estate of things in our days, and that not without a certain pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding.”

Oxford in January 1572 was receiving the highest royal favor at Court.  The intimacy of his relationship with Queen Elizabeth was the subject of much scandalous gossip; the year before, he had married the Ophelia-like daughter of William Cecil Lord Burghley, the Polonius-like chief minister to the Queen.  Although he had grown up in the household and custody of Burghley, the architect of the Protestant reformation, Oxford leaned away from the Puritan movement and instead fell in love with classical languages and the old feudal values of knighthood and chivalry.

Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

In his early twenties, he was the latest descendant of noble earls stretching back 500 years to William the Conqueror and, in every way, the man whom Walt Whitman would describe as one of the ‘wolfish earls’ who must have written the Shakespeare plays:

“Conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism – personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded history.”

When our modern world realizes sooner than later that Edward de Vere wrote the Shakespearean works, students will find more and more ways in which those works reflect his devotion to the ideas and ideals set forth by Castiglione, of whom the young earl wrote enthusiastically in his preface:

“For who has spoken of Princes with greater gravity?  Who has discoursed of illustrious women with a more ample dignity?  No one has written of military affairs more eloquently, more aptly about horse-racing, and more clearly and admirably about encounters under arms on the field of battle.  I will say nothing of the fitness and the excellence with which he has depicted the beauty of chivalry in the noblest persons.”

Drayton Henderson wrote a book in 1934 with a title that directly declared its theme:  Hamlet as a Castiglionean Courtier.  He also wrote introductory notes for the Everyman edition of The Courtier, stating that “without Castiglione we should not have Hamlet.  The ideal of the courtier, scholar, soldier developed first in Italy, and perfected in the narrative of Il Cortegiano, was Castiglione’s gift to the world,” adding, “Hamlet is the high exemplar of it in our literature.  But it is not only Shakespeare’s Hamlet that seems to follow Castiglione.  Shakespeare himself does.”

Hamlet the character is drawn in large part from Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier … Shakespeare created Hamlet as a special work of self-delineation … and it turns out that the leading candidate for the real author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, strove to embody the “perfect courtier” as recorded by Castiglione in The Courtier — which, in turn, as a young man newly arrived at Court, he had read over and over and then caused to be published.

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword…

In the spring of 1570 the 20-year-old courtier Edward de Vere had been a soldier while accompanying the Earl of Sussex near the end of the Northern Rebellion, witnessing some battles of that English civil war; he was already known as a brilliant scholar;  he was famous for his sharp tongue and was the new champion jouster of the Whitehall tilt yard …

So that’s my Reason No. 3 why Oxford was author of the “Shakespeare” works.  The next installment, No. 4, will focus on the actual contents of the wonderful 1,100-word preface Oxford wrote for his former tutor’s Latin translation of The Book of the Courtier — a piece of writing that one day will be the basis of an essential chapter in the biography of the man who wrote the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

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

(Note: This post became Reason 7 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford by Hank Whittemore)

 

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My new book ‘Bethy’, an intimate novel of Oxford’s Shakespeare years with Elizabeth Trentham, is now available. Hoping you might find it a wicked sobering read of what really happened. First in a trilogy of the triangle. Thank you for all you do on behalf of the Oxfordian effort. Kindest regards,
    Eliza Todd.

    • Wishing you best success with the book and I look forward to reading it!

  2. Excellent post! Castiglione is also a pertinent existence of the stigma of print among the nobility, helping to explain why Oxford used pseudonyms and allonyms.

    Kenneth Bartlett directs the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto. I strongly recommend his excellent Teaching Company course on the Italian Renaissance. In his lecture on Castiglione, he explains why Castiglione, a nobleman, finally published his Book of the Courtier. He had constantly revised it in manuscript, and wanted readers to have his most recent revision. Bartlett says this is why he overcame the traditional reluctance of noblemen to publish their literary works.

    So Bartlett takes for granted the existence of the stigma of print, despite Steve May’s efforts to minimize it.

  3. A must read, excellent scholarship on the part of the author, Hank Whittmore. We read parts of the book for MSU’s humanities classes, the ‘courieter’. To bad that manners and deportment have fallen away to, chaos and rioting in my country. JBB

  4. Hank, you know that I’ve found the clue in Hamlet, in a famous passage, which connects (and at the same time identifies) Polonius/William Cecil and Hamlet/Henry Wriothesley. I hope the world will see it – thank you for your efforts and help.


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