Philip Sidney: Re-posting No. 47 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Edmund Spenser’s first mention of someone named “Willie” appeared in The Shepherd’s Calendar attributed to “Immerito,” a pen name, in 1579. At that time Oxford was twenty-nine and a recognized poet (but had stopped signing his poems three years earlier), whereas Shakspere of Stratford was just fifteen years old.

Spenser depicted a “rhyming match” between two poets “Willie” and “Perigot.” It was a thinly disguised spoof on the current rivalry between the leaders of England’s two literary factions: Oxford, head of the Euphuists, and Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), a de facto leader of a faction that thought to “standardize” English versifying. The two men were also on opposite sides politically; in general, Oxford was more liberal while Sidney leaned to the Puritan camp.

That year they also became embroiled in an infamous “quarrel,” or shouting match, on the Greenwich Palace tennis court, where members of the visiting French delegation had front-row seats, watching from the windows of their private galleries. The delegation had come to England to negotiate the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alencon, which Sidney opposed and Oxford publicly championed, though Oxford apparently knew, along with Burghley, that the French match was a big charade on her Majesty’s part.

Oxford held Sidney in contempt for his plagiarism of other writers’ works; for that reason he hated the contemporary praise Sidney received but didn’t deserve. On the royal tennis court, the earl scornfully glared at Sidney and shouted: “Puppy!” to which Sidney retorted: “In respect, all the world knows that puppies are gotten by dogs, and children by men!” 

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) – from the Miniature by Isaac Oliver at Windsor Castle

Oxford stood silent, allowing Sidney’s words to resound within the courtyard. The unintended implication was that Sidney, a puppy, was begotten by a dog (a son of a bitch, we might say). Then after some further sharp words, Sir Philip “led the way abruptly out of the Tennis-Court,” as Fulke Greville recorded in his adoring homage Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney (written in 1610-14 but not published until 1652).

Sidney and other Romanticists aimed to “reform” English poetry by instituting “certain laws and rules of quantities of English syllables for English verse,” as Spenser wrote to Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey. Their objective, B. M. Ward writes, was to “reclothe the old stories of knighthood and chivalry as to render them more vivid and applicable to their own times.”

Oxford and his Euphuists viewed laws and rules of literature as made to be broken (a view “Shakespeare” would share). Their aim was to refine and enrich the English language; as Ward writes, “It was the magic of words and the imagery of sentences that appealed to them.”

Ward also observes that, regardless of how much Sidney irked Oxford, “There is nothing essentially antagonistic in these two points of view; neither can live without the other.”  These men were literary “pioneers,” with Oxford and Sidney mutually providing each other with “the necessary stimulus without which no human achievement can be attained.”

Philip Sidney would die in the Battle of Zutphen in September 1586 at age thirty-one, adding to his popular image as a heroic courtier and soldier

Probably the most notable example of the Oxford-Sidney literary rivalry is their pair of epigrams, Oxford’s beginning with “Were I a king I might command content” and Sidney’s verse, in reply, beginning with “Wert thou a king, yet not command content.”

Spenser opens the contest in his Shepherd’s Calendar this way:

WILLIE (Oxford): Tell me, Perigot, what shall be the game,

Wherefore with mine thou dare thy music match?

Or been thy bagpipes run far out of frame?

Or hath the cramp thy joints benumbed with ache?

PERIGOT (Sidney):  Ah!  Willie, when the heart is ill assayed,

How can bagpipe or joints be well a-apaid?

The exchange continues through a succession of stanzas and grows into a wild volley of contrapuntal rhyming, such as:

PERIGOT (Sidney): It fell upon a holy eve,

WILLIE (Oxfod): Hey, ho, holiday!

PERIGOT (Sidney): When holy fathers were wont to shrieve.

WILLIE (Oxford): Now ‘ginneth the roundelay!

PERIGOT (Sidney): Sitting upon a hill so high,

WILLIE (Oxford): Hey, ho, the high hill!

PERIGOT (Sidney): The while my flock did feed thereby.

WILLIE (Oxford): The while the shepherd self did spill!

Here, I submit, we have Spenser describing a significant chapter in the development of the great author who would call himself “Shakespeare” some fourteen years later. The lines Spenser assigned to “Willie” can be described as “pre-Shakespearean,” that is, foreshadowing the scene in Twelfth Night when Feste the Clown (representing Oxford) sings with the same “hey, ho” and back-and-forth rhyming:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But this reason also involves the crucial issue of dating, with the example of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a “pleasant conceited comedie” first published in 1598, its title page advertising it as newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere.” Orthodox scholars (given the Stratford man’s chronology) need to have it written circa 1592-1596, but the evidence suggests a much earlier date.

In January 1579, several months before Spenser introduced “Willie” and “Perigot,” the Elizabethan court was entertained by the double bill of A Maske of Amazones and A Maske of Knights, which Oxfordians view as the first version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, an extremely sophisticated court comedy in which Berowne is an unmistakable self-portrait of de Vere and Boyet is unmistakably Sidney.

Love’s Labours Lost is full of the same contrapuntal jousting in which Oxford and Sidney were engaged in the late 1570s.  It appears to be all in fun, but finally the author moves in for the attack upon Boyet/Sidney, accusing him of stealing from the works of others:

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons peas,

And utters it again when God doth please … (5.2)

Three centuries later Sir Sidney Lee would point out that “the majority of Sidney’s efforts” had been inspired by Petrarch, Ronsard and Desportes, from whose works in French he grabbed “almost verbatim translations” as if they were his own.

One day, lovers of Shakespeare will be much richer for their ability to learn the true story of Oxford and Sidney within and beneath the lines.

Sidney died in the Battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands, fighting for the Protestant cause against Spanish forces. Shot in the thigh, he suffered from gangrene for twenty-six days until his death on 17 October 1586, after which he became a national hero.

(The above text now appears as No. 71 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, edited by Alex McNeil.)

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You may want to proof read what you have written. Tiny mistakes add fuel to the dissenters.

    • Thanks. I’ll try to spot the errors.

      • I did catch two or three mistakes, so thanks again. Strangely, they were not there originally, but must have happened for some technical reasons just prior to posting. Anyway, I appreciate being alerted.


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