Part Three of Reason No. 30 to Believe Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: His 1576 Letter from Siena etc…

Siena, Italy

Edward de Vere Lord Oxford wrote to William Cecil Lord Burghley from Siena, Italy on January 3, 1576, despondently observing he had “made an end to all hope to help myself by her Majesty’s service, considering that my youth is objected unto me, and for every step of mine a block is found to be laid in my way,” continuing several lines later:

“I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve like the horse while the grass doth grow.”

The proverb – “While the grass grows the horse starves” – had been published in 1546 and again in 1562, the year Oxford turned twelve and, upon his father’s death, became a royal ward of the Queen in Burghley’s custody.  Composing his letter at nearly twenty-six in 1576, he recalled the proverb as though he had known it ever since his boyhood.

In the play of Hamlet, when Rosencrantz reminds the prince that “you have the voice of the king himself for your succession [on the throne] in Denmark,” he replies:

“Ay, sir, but while the grass grows – The proverb is something musty.”

The grass-horse proverb certainly would have been “musty” or outdated by the time Hamlet was written.  In any case, the references to it by the earl and the prince both occur automatically and spontaneously.  The two references to the proverb might as well have been identical reflex responses by the same man – the author, Oxford, in his letter to Burghley and in the voice of his most autobiographical creation.

(“Shakespeare” also uses the proverb in The Comedy of Errors, which may have been “The historie of Error” recorded as performed for the Queen by the Paul’s Boys – forerunner of Oxford’s Boys — at Hampton Court on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1577, just a year after Edward de Vere’s reference to the saying in his Siena letter.  Dromio of Syracuse speaks of Luciana, who has mistaken him for his twin brother: “She rides me, and I long for grass.”)

A street in Siena

In the same letter Oxford tells the Queen’s chief minister he is sorry to hear how hard my fortune is in England” – a plaint, William Plumer Fowler writes, that is “echoed over and over again in the Shakespeare works,” such as:

“It is my wretched fortune” – Othello, 4.2.128

“The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – Hamlet, 3.1.57

“So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite” – Sonnet 37

And in the same sentence he tells Burghley he knows “how vain a thing it is to linger a necessary mischief – a thought, Fowler notes, “that is twice impressively echoed by Shakespeare, even to the inclusion of Oxford’s identical verb ‘linger’”:

“And linger not our sure destructions on!” – Troilus and Cressida, 5.10.9

“To linger out a purposed overthrow” – Sonnet 90

A view of Siena

“Thus I leave your Lordship to the protection of almighty God,” Oxford begins his conclusion of the Siena letter, “whom I beseech to send you long and happy life and better fortune to define your felicity in these your aged years…”

Oxford’s “striking” phrase “to define your felicity,” Fowler writes, “is noteworthy, first, for his use of the distinctive verb ‘define’ – one found but five times in Shakespeare, though quite similarly in reference to an abstract personal quality:

“Mad I call it; for to define true madness, what is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” – Polonius in Hamlet (2.2.92),using “define” in the infinitive, as Oxford does [though expressing a directly opposite thought].

“And for myself mine own worth do define” – Sonnet 62

To cite just one other example from an Oxford letter of May 18, 1591, the earl writes of having been “intercepted by these unlooked-for troubles,” using the “very distinctive” verb “intercepted,” Fowler notes, adding that Shakespeare uses it four times – as he does “rather similarly” in Titus Adronicus (2.3.80) when Lavinia, after coming upon Queen Tamora in her woodland tryst with Aaron, refers to her as “being intercepted in your sport.”

And Oxford’s use of “unlooked-for troubles” gives expression to a phrase and thought often voiced by Shakespeare – almost identically so in his outburst against Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece: “Oh, unlooked-for evil, when virtue is profaned by such a devil!”

Shakespeare employs the “unlooked-for” compound participle nine times, as he does in Richard II (1.3.155): “A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege, and all unlooked-for from your Highness’ mouth”; and in his antithetical phraseology in Sonnet 25: “Whilst I, whom fortune from such triumph bars,/ Unlooked-for, joy in that I honor most.”

Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters by Fowler comprises some 900 pages containing similar correspondences with remarkably similar thoughts, words and phrases in Shakespeare; but we must err on the side of caution and warn none of the correspondences should be mistaken for proof – rather, they add up to further evidence.

In answer to a question from Ken Kaplan in the Comments section:

Fowler applies the same inductive analysis to five letters of William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby (1561-1642), Oxford’s son-in-law [husband of Elizabeth Vere], and concludes that Derby “had without question some share” in the writing of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well and Cymbeline – plays for which the French writers Abel Lefranc and George Lambin had given Derby sole credit.

The five letters that Fowler examined “afford definite evidence of collaboration between Oxford and Derby in certain plays, and/or of Derby’s editorial touch as one of the ‘Grand Possessors’ of the Shakespearean dramatic productions, during the nineteen years between the date of Oxford’s death in 1604 and the publication of the Folio in 1623.”

(Derby himself lived another nineteen years; at his death in 1642, he was eighty-one years old.)

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