“Our Pleasant Willy”: Re-posting No. 46 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford

Edmund Spenser published the first books of The Fairie Queene in 1590; in the following year came the Complaints, which contained his poem The Teares of the Muses.  In the latter, nine goddesses bemoan the current state of the arts, despite the fact that a great renaissance of English literature and drama had been taking place, just in time for England’s defeat of Spain’s attempted invasion in 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 de Vere’s patronage, promptly forgot them. Burghley began to pressure the earl financially. As a result, many of the 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 died in 1590; Greene died in 1592; Marlowe was murdered in 1593; Lodge left England. Future scholars would conclude that “Shakespeare,” arriving onto the printed page in 1593, “had the field all 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 particular poet-dramatist who, while being “learning’s treasure,” has been delivering “comic sock” to audiences with 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.

Spenser certainly knew in 1590 that de Vere had abruptly withdrawn from public life; in that sense, as well as financially, the earl was “dead of late.”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.*

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

[*”Counter” = counterfeit, imitate; “drent” = drowned; “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.

Only one man in Elizabethan England 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 writes in his Some Account of the Life of the bard (1709), the first attempt at Stratfordian biography, explaining that “such a character as he gives could belong to no other dramatist of the time.”

But Spenser’s description has presented an insurmountable problem, as Shakspere of Stratford 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 forty-year-old de Vere, who had become a virtual recluse by 1591; in the Oxfordian view, he had begun revising his previous stage works to be published under the “Shakespeare” pen name.  In that view he was “idle” only in the sense that he was no longer writing many original works for the public; otherwise he was hard at work, alone, transmuting much of his 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 was “never am less idle, lo, than when I am alone.”

And what to make of Spenser’s statement about “our pleasant Willy” that he was “Scorning the boldness of such base-born men,” reflecting the attitude of a high-born nobleman who looks down with scorn upon commoners?  At a time when class distinctions were rigid, how could the commoner Shakspere have fit that description unless he was scorning the boldness of such men as himself? Otherwise it expresses exactly the view of proud de Vere, 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 language that called attention to “the love which thou dost bear to th’Heliconian imps [Muses] and they to thee, they unto thee, and thou to them, most dear.” Writing publicly to de Vere, using his real name and calling him the poet most beloved of the Muses, Spenser added:

Dear as thou art unto thyself, so love

That loves and honors thee; as doth behoove.

Ogburn Jr. translates 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” disappears once the “experts” realize that Spenser was referring to the great author who was not, after all, Shakspere of Stratford, but that same earl of Oxford who was “most dear” to the Muses and would soon adopt the pen name “William Shakespeare.”

[This blog post, with editing by Alex McNeil, now appears as No. 30 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford (2016), published by Forever Press.]

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