Thomas Watson, De Vere and “Shakespeare”: Re-posting No. 35 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford

The poet Thomas Watson is a direct forerunner of the poet of Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets. A leader in the long procession of Elizabethan sonnet-cycle writers, he is linked to “Shakespeare” through Edward de Vere in some startling ways.

Watson’s Sequence of 100 Sonnets Dedicated to Edward de Vere (1582) CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW

In 1582, Watson published Hekotompathia or The Passionate Century of Love, a sequence of 100, or a “century,” of numbered eighteen-line sonnets or “passions”, with “prose headers” demonstrating his knowledge of works by some fifty classical or renaissance authors in their original languages. He dedicated it to Oxford, testifying that the earl “had willingly vouchsafed the acceptance of this work, and at convenient leisures favorably perused it, being as yet but in written hand.”

It appears likely the “prose headers” were also written by Oxford, who may well have written all of this poetical sequence.

In 1589, the year after de Vere sold his London mansion Fisher’s Folly to William Cornwallis, Watson became employed in the Cornwallis household.  That September, when Christopher Marlowe was attacked by an innkeeper’s son, William Bradley, for failure to pay a debt, Watson came to his friend’s aid and killed Bradley – an act for which he spent six months in prison.

Francis Walsingham, the spymaster (1530?-1590)

Marlowe served as a spy for the English government and it would seem that Watson did, too.  His association with Francis Walsingham, head of the secret service, brings him into probable contact with Oxford from this direction as well. On 21 June 1586, Burghley urged Walsingham to confront the queen about financial assistance to Oxford; five days later Elizabeth awarded de Vere his annual grant of 1,000 pounds, which would be continued by King James in 1603 until the earl’s death a year later.

The fact that Burgley appealed to Walsingham on Oxford’s behalf indicates that the latter’s grant was somehow connected to intelligence activities at the highest level, perhaps involving Catholics among the English nobility as well as diplomatic contact with foreign rulers and courts.

Watson’s Italian Madrigals was published in 1593, the year after his death. Most of its contents had been composed originally by Luca Marenzio while Marenzio was in Mantua living with the Gonzaga family from 1568 to 1574. Watson had never traveled to Italy, but Oxford had apparently stayed with the Gonzaga family while visiting Mantua in 1575.

Also in 1593, Watson’s posthumous sequence of sixty numbered sonnets (in the later-known “Shakespearean” form of fourteen lines) appeared in print as The Tears of Fancie, or Love Disdained (with no author’s name on the title page and only “Finis T.W.” after the final sonnet, which was clearly a version of Oxford’s early sonnet Love Thy Choice, written in the 1570s to express his devotion to the queen.)

When SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS was printed in 1609, one verse in the so-called Dark Lady series (no. 130) was clearly a takeoff on one of the sonnets printed under Watson’s name (no. 7) in the Hekatompathia of 1582. For example, Watson wrote,“Her lips more red than any Coral stone,” and Shakespeare turned it inside-out: “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.”

Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love attributed to Watson is often cited as paving the way for the Shakespearean sonnet sequence published twenty-seven years later; the two are related through Oxford himself. In the SHAKE-SPEARE volume there is also a series of exactly 100 verses or a “century” (nos. 27 to 126) between two equal segments of twenty-six sonnets apiece (nos. 1-26 and 127-152); this central 100-sonnet sequence contains two sections, of eighty and twenty sonnets, respectively, exactly as Watson’s earlier century had been “divided into two parts” (as indicated on the title page) in an eighty-twenty format.  Watson’s dedication begins:

“To the Right Honorable my very good Lord Edward de Vere, Earle of Oxenford…

“Alexander the Great, passing on a time by the workshop of Apelles, curiously surveyed some of his doings, whose long stay in viewing them brought all the people into so great a good liking of the painter’s workmanship, that immediately after they bought up all his pictures, what price soever he set them at.  And the like good hap (Right Honorable) befell unto me lately concerning these my Love Passions, which then chanced to Apelles for his Portraits.  For since the world hath understood (I know not how) that your Honor had willingly vouchsafed the acceptance of this work, and at convenient leisures favorably perused it, being as yet but in written hand, many have oftentimes and earnestly called upon me to put it to the press, that for their money they might but see what your Lordship with some liking had already perused…”

(This updated post, reflecting the help of editor Alex McNeil and other editorial work by Brian Bechtold, has become no. 36 of the book 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford.)

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