Who was Shakespeare?

9th annual global Authorship Conference in Toronto Oct. 17–20.

Sponsored by York and Guelph Universities, conference attracts renowned scholars and premieres two films

TORONTO, October 15, 2013 – As millions of students read Shakespeare plays and millions of tourists flock to his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon each year, a growing number of respected theatre scholars are asking the question: “Could the name ‘Shakespeare’ be a pseudonym?”

Nearly 100 scholars from Germany, the UK, U.S. and Canada will arrive at the Metropolitan Hotel Toronto this week for the ninth annual global Shakespeare Authorship Conference, one of the largest gatherings of people who argue that the name William Shakespeare was a pseudonym and that the presumed identity of the world’s greatest writer should be reconsidered. The conference runs from Oct. 17 through 20.

Sponsored by the theatre and drama departments of York University and Guelph University, and under the auspices of the U.S.-based Shakespeare Oxford Society and the Shakespeare Fellowship, the Toronto conference will feature the Canadian premieres of two new authorship films from the U.S. and Germany, 21 hours of academic papers, and a visit to the Stratford Festival to see The Merchant of Venice.

In keeping with the theatre-related interests of the two Canadian universities, many of the papers focus on theatrical conditions in Shakespeare’s time, including discussions on who among the aristocracy was sponsoring Elizabethan theatre troupes.

“We are hoping that the conference will offer new understandings of these companies and these connections. The obvious thing is that the man who wrote under the name of Shakespeare had to have been a man of the theatre,” said Prof. Don Rubin, a York University theatre professor and organizer of the conference. “We know that William of Stratford had connections to the Globe Theatre in London where these plays were first performed, but few people know that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and one of the alternative candidates proposed as the Bard, also had significant theatre connections to both adult and children’s companies of the period. De Vere also travelled extensively in Italy, where nearly a third of the Bard’s plays are set.”

A growing number of scholars are questioning whether the presumed author—a businessman from the rural town of Stratford who clearly had trouble writing his own name on documents (his parents as well as his children were all functionally illiterate)—would have had the worldliness, much less the vocabulary or knowledge of numerous foreign languages and topics including the expensive aristocratic sport of falconry, to actually write the plays.

“Could he have been the front man for someone else? He never actually claimed to have written the plays,” said Prof. Rubin. “As well, more than a third of these works were set in Italy, a country he never visited. They also boast enormous knowledge of medicine and the law, subjects he never studied. Even a genius needs opportunities.”

Among the many early authorship doubters were Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and even Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a founder of the Stratford Festival of Canada.

The Canadian premieres of the two new films to be shown during the conference are free. They will take place:

  • Thurs. Oct. 17, 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm: The Naked Shakespeare by Claus Bredenbrock. Introduction by German scholar Hanno Wember.
  • Sat. Oct 19, 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm: Last Will. & Testament by directors Lisa and Laura Wilson, who will be present for the Canadian premiere of this PBS film just released in the U.S. They will take questions following the viewing.

Keynote speakers will include American Mark Anderson, author of the groundbreaking biography, Shakespeare By Another Name, and John M. Shahan from California, chair of the The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which leads The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt campaign that argues the authorship is still in dispute. The campaign now has thousands of signatures including English actor and stage director Sir Derek Jacobi, actor Mark Rylance (the first Artistic Director of the rebuilt Globe Theatre) and Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons.

To interview Don Rubin or other attending scholars, or to cover the conference, please contact:

Don Rubin, Professor
York University Theatre Department
905-960-9150
drubin@yorku.ca

Theresa Ebden, President
Joshua Tree Communications Inc.
416-988-8733
JoshuaTreeCommunications@rogers.com

About Don Rubin:

Professor Rubin is a founding member of York University’s Department of Theatre and Faculty of Fine Arts. He served as Chair of the department for three years and later was a founder and first Program Director of York’s Graduate Program in Theatre and Performance Studies (MA and PhD). Don’s areas of specialization today include Canadian Theatre, African Theatre, Criticism, Theatre Theory, and Modern Drama. A founder and editor of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review for eight years and a working daily critic in print, radio and television for the Toronto Star and CBC Radio among others, he is the editor of the standard scholarly text Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings (Playwrights Canada Press) and Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Prof. Rubin is a former president of the Canadian Centre of UNESCO’s International Theatre Institute, a founder and current President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, a member of the International Executive Board of the International Association of Theatre Critics, and a member of the editorial board for the IATC web journal, Critical Stages (criticalstages.org). He serves on the Executive Board of the Shakespeare Fellowship and studied Elizabethan theatre (now called Early Modern Theatre by many scholars) at Hofstra University (with Bernard Beckerman, author of the groundbreaking Shakespeare At the Globe) and at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Bridgeport (connected to the Stratford, Connecticut Shakespeare Festival). Don has taught and lectured at major universities and theatre schools in South Africa, Nigeria, Russia, China, Japan, France, England, Sweden, Mexico, Egypt and at numerous universities across North America. In December, he will be a guest professor at Charles University in Prague, one of central Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities. In 2011-12, he taught a senior-level course at York in Shakespeare: The Authorship Question, a course which interrogated the mystery surrounding who really wrote the plays ascribed to “Shakespeare.” A trained actor, Don began his career at the famous High School of Performing Arts in New York City.

The Stratford Monument: A monumental fraud

TODAY’S Stratford monument is the defining image of William Shakspere of Stratford- on-Avon as the alleged author of Shakespeare’s poems and plays. In the church where he’s buried, it shows a writer with pen, paper and writing surface (a cushion of all things). The plaque on it says it’s for “Shakspeare,” although without a first name. Thus, according to the Stratfordian story line, the monument was erected to honor the world’s greatest writer, namely the man from Stratford. But this monument is a fraud, a “monumental” fraud. It is not the original, nor does its effigy resemble the original. The cumulative power of the evidence against the authenticity of today’s monument is clear and convincing. The principal witnesses against its authenticity are a respected antiquarian who left an eyewitness description of the original monument, an eighteenth-century artist whose engraving is the first to depict a writer in it, and a famous painter who called it “a silly smiling thing.” The evidence includes the letters of a Stratford curate who protests far too much about how he “refurbished” it, his mention of a mysterious “Heath the carver” whose role has not heretofore been sufficiently recognized, and the records of those who at various times complained of the wear and tear on a monument that today looks like it has survived over four centuries untouched by time. Underlying the faulty rationale of orthodoxy is a mistaken standard of accuracy.

There are two fundamental issues: first, whether the antiquarian William Dugdale was accurate when, in 1634, he sketched the effigy in the monument as a dour man with a down-turned moustache clutching a large sack––not a writer with pen and paper, as in today’s monument––and if so, how the sack-holder became a writer. If Dugdale and his engraver, Wenceslaus Hollar, are to be believed, Oxfordians have a persuasive argument that William Shakspere of Stratford was not the great poet-dramatist, while Stratfordians and their biographers have a major problem. Although the controversy began in earnest around 1900, evidence and analysis acquired since then all tends to confirm that today’s monument is not the original, but the result of a long series of alterations. Most Stratfordian biographers avoid the issue, among them: Stephen Greenblatt (2004), and notably in his collected works of Shakespeare for Norton (1997), Michael Wood (2003), Park Honan (1998), and Stanley Wells (1995). None mentions Dugdale’s sketch or the engraving that Hollar made from it for Dugdale’s book, even though Dugdale’s sketch is the earliest eye-witness evidence of what the monument looked like. Dugdale was also the first to transcribe the abstruse epitaph on the monument. Stratfordian biographers, however, rarely try to explain what it means, even though it, too, is primary source evidence suggesting what contemporaries thought about the man for whom it was written and engraved. Evidently, they do not want to

Dugdale

Figure 1 (left): Dugdale’s sketch of the Stratford monument made in 1634 during his visit to Stratford. Courtesy of
Sir William Dugdale, a descendant. Photo courtesy of Gerald Downs.
Figure 2 (right): Hollar’s engraving of the monument in Dugdale, published in 1656, 1730 and 1765 editions.

confront what the effigy and the epitaph might reveal about his identity. A few Stratfordian scholars have recognized and struggled with the problem. The first was probably the antiquarian John Britton. In 1816, he summarily dismissed Hollar’s engraving in Dugdale’s book as “tasteless and inaccurate” (13). In 1853, J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps called it “evidentlytoo inaccurate to be of any authority” (Greenwood Problem 247 fn1).

Inaccurate compared to what?

Since those who allege inaccuracy have no hard evidence such as a photograph or explicit description of what the monument looked like in the early 1600s, their standard of accuracy, though unstated, can only be the effigy as per the 1800s figure, essentially the one we see today. That effigy, however, cannot be the standard of accuracy for something created two centuries earlier. Dugdale’s sketch, the earliest eye-witness evidence (Fig. 1, above left), and Hollar’s engraving, based on Dugdale’s sketch (Fig. 2, above right), are primary-source historical evidence depicting what the original effigy looked like, i.e. a man with a sack. No pen. No paper. No cushion. Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, a Stratfordian, was the first to analyze the evidence in detail.

The Case for Oxford Revisited

Ramon Jiménez


In his recent biography of William Shakespeare, the critic Jonathan Bate writes: “Gathering what we can from his plays and poems: that is how we will write a biography that is true to him’ (xix). This statement acknowledges a widely recognized truth—that a writer’s work reflects his milieu, his experiences, his thoughts, and his own personality. It was the remarkable gap between the known facts about Shakespeare of Stratford and the traits and characteristics of the author revealed in the Shakespeare canon that led an English schoolmaster to suppose that the real author was someone else, and to search for him in the backwaters of Elizabethan poetry.

This inquiry led him to conclude that ‘William Shakespeare’ was a nom de plume that concealed the identity of England’s greatest poet and dramatist, and that continued to hide it from readers, playgoers, and scholars for hundreds of years. In 1920, J. Thomas Looney published his unique work of investigative scholarship, demonstrating that the man behind the Shakespeare name and the Shakespeare canon was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604).[1] Since then, hundreds of books and articles have augmented the evidence that this unconventional nobleman and courtier not only wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, but concealed the fact of his authorship throughout his life. It appears that after his death his descendants and those in their service deliberately substituted an alternative author and fabricated physical and literary evidence to perpetuate the fable.

The web of evidence associating Oxford with the Shakespeare canon is robust and far-reaching, and grows stronger and more complex every year. Although he was recognized by his contemporaries as an outstanding writer of poetry and plays, he is the only leading dramatist of the time whose name is not associated with a single play. This fact, alone, about any other person would be sufficient to stimulate intense interest and considerable research. Yet the Shakespearean academic community has not only failed to undertake this research itself, it has willfully and consistently refused to allow presentations or to publish research on the Authorship Question by anyone who disputes the Stratford theory. What Oxfordian research it does not ignore, it routinely dismisses, usually with scorn and sarcasm, as unworthy of serious consideration.

However, during the ninety years since Looney’s revelations, the continuing and comprehensive investigation of the biography of the putative author, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, has failed to produce any evidence of his connection to the Shakespeare canon, other than several ambiguous phrases in the prefatory material to the First Folio, published seven years after his death (Price, ‘Unorthodox,’ 190–1). In addition, repeated examinations of the documents of the Elizabethan theater have unearthed nothing that supports the theory of the Stratford man’s authorship, and have revealed that no one who knew him associated him with literature of any kind.[2] On the other hand, Looney’s conclusions, drawn from the plays and poems themselves, about the playwright’s personality, his education, his selection of plots and characters, his familiarity with foreign countries and languages, his attitudes about women, money, public order, and the crown, all comport with what we have learned about Edward de Vere.

Attributes of the Playwright

Walt Whitman was one of the first to doubt the Stratford theory and to suggest that the author was an aristocrat—‘one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower . . .’ (II 404). It is a truism that Shakespeare almost always writes from an aristocratic point of view and tends to support the interests and reflect the attitudes of the aristocracy. His heroes and his villains are members of royal families, the nobility, or the wealthy, and all but one of the plays are set in their royal courts or their homes. A great number of the images and metaphors that Shakespeare uses come from the hobbies and diversions of Elizabethan aristocrats and wealthy people: falconry; hunting, especially with dogs; fencing and dueling; archery; horsemanship; bowls; and card games. Shakespeare reveals not only a precise and comprehensive knowledge of all these activities, but a facile and consistent use of language, imagery, simile and metaphor based upon them (Spurgeon 26–7, 30–2, 110–11). There is little argument that the canon reflects these characteristics. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described Shakespeare as a ‘cultured, sophisticated aristocrat, fascinated alike by the comedy and tragedy of human life, but unquestioning in his social and religious conservatism’ (42).

Another distinctive characteristic of the playwright is his obvious interest and competence in music. ‘In no author are musical allusions more frequent than in Shakespeare’ (Squire 32). In the plays and poems there are hundreds of images, metaphors, and passages relating to music, as well as numerous ballads, love songs, folk songs, and drinking songs. The playwright demonstrates a clear technical knowledge of musical theory and practice, writing about the musicians, the instruments, and even the notes (Squire 32–49).

These attributes and characteristics comport precisely with those of the 17th Earl of Oxford—a courtier, aristocrat and Lord Great Chamberlain of England who was an intimate of both Queen Elizabeth and her Principal Secretary, William Cecil, whose daughter he married at his coming-of-age. Oxford was praised for his affection for and competence in music, and for his patronage of musicians and composers, notably John Farmer and William Byrd (Ward 203–4; Anderson 205). However, these are only the most obvious similarities between him and the playwright Shakespeare. The details of his education, his literary and theatrical activities, his personal experiences, his travels, and the people surrounding him all supply strong evidence that he is the author of the Shakespeare canon.

Oxford’s Early Environment and Education

Among Shakespeare scholars, there is general agreement that he was one of the best read and most broadly educated playwrights of the Renaissance. In the words of Emerson, ‘His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see’ (254). He displays a wide-ranging familiarity with the literature of Elizabethan England and the continent, as well as with the classics of ancient Rome and Greece. Besides literature, he was also obviously interested in and familiar with a variety of scholarly subjects, such as botany, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy. Scholars have identified hundreds of plays, poems, novels, histories, etc. by dozens of authors that he referred to, quoted, or used as sources (Gillespie 521–8). His use of untranslated works in Latin and Greek, as well as his frequent use of words from, and creation of words derived from, those languages, attest to his competence in both (Theobald 14–15).


Oxford’s childhood and adolescence suggest an
environment and an upbringing that would have
been an ideal preparation for a poet and dramatist.

The facts and circumstances surrounding Oxford’s childhood and adolescence suggest an environment and an upbringing that would have been an ideal preparation for a poet and dramatist, especially one who would write about the characters and subjects that dominate the Shakespeare canon. The tradition of sponsoring playing companies by the de Vere family was in place no later than 1490, during the tenure of John, the 13th Earl (Lancashire 106, 407)—a tradition maintained by Oxford’s father and Edward himself. The author of one of the earliest English history plays, John Bale, wrote it for Oxford’s grandfather in the 1530s and subsequently revised it for a performance for Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Ipswich in 1561 (Harris 71). It is likely that Oxford was in attendance. As a young child he lived with, and was tutored by, Sir Thomas Smith, one of England’s greatest scholars, and the owner of an extensive library (Hughes 1, 9). His father’s sister Frances was the widow of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a major poet who is credited with the first sonnets written in the distinctive Shakespearean form, a modification of the Petrarchan sonnet.

Oxford matriculated at Cambridge at age eight, and was later awarded Masters’ Degrees by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities (Ward 11, 22, 27). In his collection of studies of the Elizabethan drama, Frederick A. Boas refers to ‘the curious fact that Shakespeare shows familiarity with certain distinctively Cambridge terms’ (47–9).[3] In 1562 Oxford’s father died, and the twelve-year-old became a royal ward. He was sent to London to live in the home of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, Principal Secretary to the Queen. A surviving schedule of Oxford’s rigorous daily schooling in Cecil’s household (Ward 19–20) confirms that he was a student in what G. P. V. Akrigg has called ‘the best school for boys to be found in Elizabethan England’ (25).


The early environment and education of Oxford prepared him to be the writer Shakespeare was, and led him to fill his dramas with the same kings and queens, aristocrats, clergymen, and courtiers he saw about him.

The early environment and education of Oxford prepared him to be the writer Shakespeare was, and led him to fill his dramas with the same kings and queens, aristocrats, clergymen, and courtiers he saw about him.

By his early teens, Oxford had already been recognized as a precocious student. In 1563 his tutor, the antiquary, Laurence Nowell, advised Cecil that his services would not much longer be needed (Ward 20). In a translation from the Latin that was dedicated to him in 1564, Oxford was praised for ‘a certain pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding’ by his uncle, the classical translator Arthur Golding (Chiljan, ‘Dedications’ 4). As the heir to one of England’s oldest earldoms and a member of the Cecil household, Oxford was embedded in an environment that figured prominently in the Shakespeare canon—the royal court and the center of English culture, power, and wealth. ‘Cecil House was England’s nearest equivalent to a humanist salon… As a meeting place for the learned it had no parallel in early Elizabethan England’ (van Dorsten 195). Besides being the dedicatee of dozens of literary works, Cecil was also one of the premier book and manuscript collectors of the Elizabethan age, and modern scholars have described his extensive library (Jolly 6). There is clear documentation that Oxford purchased a Geneva Bible, and editions of Chaucer and Plutarch, all major sources of Shakespeare’s plays (Ward 33). When he was in his early teens, his uncle Arthur Golding translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, probably Shakespeare’s most important source. Thus, the early environment and education of Oxford prepared him to be the writer Shakespeare was, and led him to fill his dramas with the same kings and queens, aristocrats, clergymen, and courtiers he saw about him.

Literary and Theatrical Activities

Evidence of Oxford’s literary activity and his association with the Elizabethan theater extends from his teen years to the end of his life. Beginning in 1564, he was the dedicatee of more than two dozen books, including a dozen works of translation and imaginative literature, produced by poets, playwrights, and translators, such as Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, and Arthur Golding. The interests of Shakespeare the playwright are reflected in several other books dedicated to the Earl of Oxford—on medicine, on music, and on the military.[4] The Earl was repeatedly cited as a generous patron and a keen reader of poetry and prose, foreign and English, both contemporary and classical.

Poems first appeared in print over the Earl of Oxford’s initials in a widely-read Elizabethan collection, The Paradise of Dainty Devices, published in 1576 and repeatedly reprinted for the rest of the century. These poems have been praised as experimental, innovative, and skilful. According to Stephen W. May, Oxford’s youthful poems in Paradise ‘create a dramatic break with everything known to have been written at the Elizabethan court up to that time’ (53). He describes poem 4, in which the author cries out against ‘this loss of my good name,’ as a ‘defiant lyric without precedent in English Renaissance verse’ (53). The charged subject of this eighteen-line cri de coeur has been associated with an accusation made by Oxford’s half-sister Katherine in 1563, when he was thirteen, that he was born of a bigamous marriage, and was therefore illegitimate (Anderson 24).

Oxford’s poems have been linked to Shakespeare by Joseph Sobran, who found some 250 phrases, lines, and images in 20 of his poems that are repeated one or more times in the Shakespeare canon, an average of about a dozen per poem (231–70). He found hundreds of similar echoes of the canon in Oxford’s letters (170–1).[5]

At the age of 21 the Earl of Oxford sponsored the translation into Latin of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano and wrote a prefatory note in Latin to the translator Bartholomew Clerke. The following year he commissioned and wrote an introductory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s English translation of De Consolatione (Cardanus’s Comfort), a work recognized by orthodox scholars as ‘Hamlet’s book’ (Craig 17–37; Campbell 17, 133–4). He employed well-known literary men, such as John Lyly, Anthony Munday, and Abraham Fleming as his secretaries, the former two being playwrights (Anderson 482). For almost a decade he maintained an unconventional literary salon near the theater district that was a headquarters for impecunious poets and playwrights (Anderson 156–61).

In 1573 the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey wrote that Oxford’s introduction to Cardanus’s Comfort was an example of ‘how greatly thou dost excel in letters,’ and praised him as the writer of ‘many Latin verses’ and ‘many more English verses’ (Anderson 139). He was cited by name in three different works of literary commentary as a leading poet and playwright. In A Discourse of English Poetry (1586) William Webbe praised the Earl of Oxford as the ‘most excellent’ of poets at court (Smith I, 243), and the anonymous author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589) asserted that he would be known as the best of the courtly poets ‘if their doings could be found out’ (Smith II, 65). This judgment is confirmed by more recent critics, such as A. B. Grosart, W. J. Courthope and Sidney Lee, who asserted that Oxford ‘wrote verse of much lyric beauty’ (Looney 124–5; Lee 228).

De Vere’s life-long association with the theater, with players, and with playwrights is unquestionable. During the 1580s, and as late as 1602, he sponsored his own playing companies, and in 1583 leased one of the earliest private Elizabethan theaters, the Blackfriars, for the use of his own troupe, the Earl of Oxford’s Boys (Anderson 187–8). In Palladis Tamia (1598), a commonplace book of similes, quotations, and observations on all manner of subjects, Francis Meres included him in a list of the best comic playwrights. However, no play bearing his name has survived, nor has his name ever been associated with any play.


Over a period of more than four decades, repeated opaque suggestions were made that there was an unknown writer behind the Shakespeare name who could not be revealed.

Over a period of more than four decades, repeated opaque suggestions were made that there was an unknown writer behind the Shakespeare name who could not be revealed. In the ‘L’envoy’ to his poem ‘Narcissus’ (1595), Thomas Edwards devoted fifteen stanzas to describing several contemporary poets, identifying each of them by a name from one of their poems. In the three stanzas describing the author of ‘Adon’ (referring to Venus and Adonis), he used such phrases as ‘in purple robes destain’d,’ ‘one whose power floweth far,’ ‘the only object and the star,’ and ‘he differs much from men / Tilting under Frieries.’ These and other phrases have been shown to point in general to a leading nobleman, and particularly to the Earl of Oxford (Stritmatter, ‘Tilting’ 1, 18–20).

In his pamphlet The Scourge of Folly (1610), the poet John Davies of Hereford addressed ‘Shake-speare’ [sic] as ‘our English Terence’ (II, 26), a comparison very likely referring to the tradition that the comedies of the former slave and Roman playwright Terence were actually written by the aristocrats Scipio Africanus and Gaius Laelius. The assertion was first made in 50 BCE by Cicero in a letter to his friend Atticus (271), and again in the next century by the rhetorician Quintilian (IV 57).

In The Schoolmaster (1570) Roger Ascham repeated the assertion (143–4), as did Montaigne, whose essays were translated by John Florio in 1603 (199). Similar suggestions about a concealed poet were made in 1598 by John Marston in Scourge of Villanie (Ogburn 401–2) and in 1612 by Henry Peacham in Minerva Britannia (Stritmatter, Minerva).

These examples do not exhaust the abundant evidence that Oxford was a significant literary figure throughout his lifetime, and that he was referred to as the concealed author behind the Shakespeare pseudonym.

Legal Training and Experience in the Military

Shakespeare’s familiarity with the law and his frequent use of legal language has long been a subject of intense interest. The most recent analysis of the legal terms, concepts, and procedures occurring in the Shakespeare canon conclusively demonstrates that he had an extensive and accurate knowledge of the law (Alexander 110–11). He used more than two hundred legal terms and legal concepts in numerous ways—as case references, as similes and metaphors, images, examples, and even puns—with an aptness and accuracy that can no longer be questioned. In 1567 Oxford matriculated at Gray’s Inn, one of the Elizabethan law colleges. He was a member of the House of Lords for more than thirty years, a juror in two of the most important treason trials of the period, and was involved in legal matters and court suits throughout his life.


Shakespeare used more than two hundred legal terms and legal concepts in numerous ways, with an aptness and accuracy that can no longer be questioned.

Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of military affairs was noticed in the mid-nineteenth century, and has more recently been fully documented. According to the compiler of a dictionary of his military language, Shakespeare possessed ‘an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of warfare, both ancient and modern’ (Edelman 1). Nearly all the history plays, as well as Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida, are set in a place and time of armed conflict, and numerous obscure military analogies and references can be found throughout the canon. Several of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters are soldiers or ex-soldiers, including the faux soldier Sir John Falstaff. One of Oxford’s most fervent wishes as a young man was to serve his Queen in the military against her enemies. After missing a chance because of illness, he rode with an English army in the Scottish campaign in 1570 before he was 20, and later faced the Spanish in the Netherlands as Commander of the Horse in 1585 (Anderson 41–3, 204–206).

Shakespeare’s knowledge of the sea and ships is just as striking and comprehensive. According to naval officer A. F. Falconer, there is a ‘surprisingly extensive and exact use of the technical terms belonging to sailing, anchor work, sounding, ship construction, navigation, gunnery and swimming’ in the Shakespeare canon. He adds that ‘Shakespeare does not invent sea terms and never misuses them’ (vii). Again, Oxford had ample opportunity to become familiar with ships and the sea. The trip from the de Vere home in Essex to London was routinely made by ship from the seaside town of Wivenhoe at the mouth of the Colne River, where the de Veres had had an estate for over a century. Oxford made at least two Channel crossings during his 20s and traveled extensively by water in and around Italy during his visit in 1575–6. There is also evidence that he was aboard ship in the preliminary maneuvers against the Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588 (Anderson 223–25).

Thus, three distinctive characteristics that the author of the Shakespeare canon displayed—an authoritative knowledge of the law, the military, and ships and the sea, are readily explained by the record of Oxford’s activities. No other candidate for the authorship, including Shakespeare of Stratford, had these kinds of personal experiences.

France and Italy Prominent in the Canon

The concordance between Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge of the language, culture, and geography of Italy and France and the travels of Edward de Vere in those countries is one of the strongest indicators that they were one and the same person. It is well-known that Elizabethan imaginative literature, especially its drama, was heavily indebted to Italian sources and models, and made use of such devices from Italian drama as the chorus, the dumb show, and the play-within-the play (Grillo 65). To no other writer did this apply more than to Shakespeare. Fully a third of the plays in the canon take place in Italy, including ancient Italy, and another half dozen in France. In addition, more than a dozen are wholly or partially derived from Italian plays or novels.

Scholars have repeatedly documented Shakespeare’s unexplained familiarity with the geography, social life, and local details of many places in Italy, especially northern Italy.[6] ‘When we consider that in the north of Italy he reveals a… profound knowledge of Milan, Bergamo, Verona, Mantua, Padua and Venice, the very limitation of the poet’s notion of geography proves that he derived his information from an actual journey through Italy and not from books’ (Grillo 146). Italian scholar Noemi Magri has identified the locales and documented the accuracy of numerous details in Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice .[7]

Nor is Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy limited to details of geography and local custom. It is clear that he directly observed and was profoundly affected by Italian painting and sculpture, and used several specific works—murals, sculptures, and paintings—as the bases for incidents, characters, and imagery in his plays and poems. For instance, the language and imagery in The Winter’s Tale, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Venus and Adonis, and Lucrece have been traced to the sculpture and murals of Giulio Romano in Mantua’s Ducal Palace and Palazzo Te, and elsewhere in the same city (Hamill, Ghosts 86–92). The original Italian paintings that inspired three of the ‘wanton pictures’ described in The Taming of the Shrew (Ind. 2.49–60) have been located and identified with a high degree of certainty.[8] During the 1570s they could be seen at three places on Oxford’s itinerary—Fontainebleau, Mantua, and Florence (Magri 4–12).

Among the most striking examples of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy are the acute observations he makes about Italian attitudes and behavior. As de Vere biographer Mark Anderson points out (xxx), the dramatist ‘knew that Florence’s citizens were recognized for their arithmetic and bookkeeping’ (Othello 1.1.19–31); ‘he knew that Padua was the “nursery of arts,” and that Lombardy was ‘the pleasant garden of great Italy’ (The Taming of the Shrew I.i.1–4); and he knew that ‘a dish of baked doves was a time-honored northern Italian gift’ (The Merchant of Venice II.ii.135–6). Moreover, these observations are made in a natural and unobtrusive way and are entirely appropriate in their context. Critics have observed that in plays by some other dramatists, such as Jonson and Webster, such details are intrusive and unsubtle, as if they were taken from books (Furness 72–3; Elze 270–7).

After waiting several years for permission from the Queen to leave England, Oxford was allowed to travel to Paris and then to Italy via Strasbourg in February 1575. After leasing quarters in Venice, he toured Italy for more than a year, visiting nearly all the locations in Shakespeare’s Italian plays, including Milan, Padua, Verona, Florence, Mantua, and Palermo (Anderson 74–107). Significantly, the Italian cities and city-states that Oxford did not visit, such as Bergamo, Naples, Ravenna, etc., are not mentioned in the Shakespeare canon. Shakespeare’s Italy, it turns out, is the Italy that Oxford visited.

Why the Anonymity?

One of the central questions about the case for Oxford that has not been definitively answered is why he concealed his authorship of the canon and used a pseudonym. Of the several possible reasons for this, the most obvious is the so-called ‘stigma of print,’ the idea that the creative work of self-respecting aristocrats, including most courtiers, was merely a pastime, a leisure activity. Allowing it to appear in print over their own names suggested a crass seeking of publicity or even monetary compensation.[9] The stigma applied especially to playwriting. Even late into Elizabeth’s reign ‘the condemnation of public plays and the people concerned with them was fairly general’ (Bentley 43).

Another reason for anonymity was simple custom. Most of the plays performed during Elizabeth’s reign were never published, and most of those printed appeared without an author’s name (Maxwell 5–6). Plays now attributed to Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Marlowe, Heywood, Drayton, Shakespeare, and dozens of others were first printed anonymously. As Alfred Hart wrote about Elizabethan printed plays, ‘It is correct to state that anonymity was the rule rather than the exception’ (6). There is no evidence that the author of the Shakespeare canon had any interest or role in the publication of his plays or poems. Nor is there any record that he objected or intervened when corrupt or allegedly ‘pirated’ editions were published (Price ‘Unorthodox,’ 129–30, 170). But it is possible that he had a hand in the publication of his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), both of which appear to have been carefully edited.


Oxford may have imposed anonymity upon himself, or had it imposed by higher authorities, because of some aspect of his personal behavior.

A third reason for anonymity, one that appears to apply directly to the Earl of Oxford, has to do with his position as hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England who had a close association with Queen Elizabeth. Many prominent figures in the court and in the highest levels of government were the targets of satire in the Shakespeare plays, some of it extremely disparaging. Knowledge that the author was a genuine insider who had a personal acquaintance with the subjects of his satire would make them easier to identify and would lend credence to his mocking portraits. In this case, it might have been William Cecil, or even the Queen, who required that Oxford remain anonymous.

Finally, Oxford may have imposed anonymity upon himself, or had it imposed by higher authorities, because of some aspect of his personal behavior. Late in 1580, he confessed to the Queen that he and some others had been reconciled to the Catholic Church. This led to the arrest of two of his acquaintances, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, who then unleashed a lengthy screed of invective against him that accused him of everything from treason to pederasty (Anderson 165–9).

In March of the next year, Anne Vavasour, a 19-year-old lady-in-waiting to the Queen, gave birth to Oxford’s son, the pregnancy being actually her second by him. The three of them were sent to the Tower, where Oxford remained until released by the Queen in June, but he was banned from the court for another two years (Anderson 172–3). At the time, Oxford had been living apart from his wife for five years because of his suspicion that she had betrayed him with another man. Although he reunited with her in 1582, these scrapes and scandals, and certain other indignities, may have led him to consider himself in disrepute and disgrace, which, along with regret and awareness of imminent death, are the themes of a dozen or more of his sonnets (Cossolotto 8–12).

It appears that Oxford assented to the publication of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, and wrote the very personal dedications to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who is widely believed to be the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. It may have been that he was anxious that his relationship with him, whatever it was, not be known to the public, and for this reason caused the dedications to be signed with the pseudonym ‘William Shakespeare.’ The name recalls the Greek goddess Athena, who was said to have sprung from the brow of Zeus brandishing a spear. She was the protector of Athens, the birthplace of classical drama, and was widely perceived as both a patron goddess of poets and fearless warrior in battle.[10] As such, she was most likely the inspiration behind a common English name that concealed a nobleman and a dramatist who had martial aspirations.

How, when, and why the pseudonym came to be associated with the man from Stratford with the same name is unknown. What is clear is that it continued to be used after Oxford’s death in 1604. The perpetrators appear to have been his surviving relatives, who may have had the same motivation as he did. Their roles in the production of the First Folio are described below.

Oxford’s Life and Circumstances in the Plays

Every work in the Shakespeare canon contains allusions to circumstances, events, and people in Oxford’s life. Portraits of him, his family, and his contemporaries have been identified in most of them by both orthodox and Oxfordian scholars. These allusions and portraits are ‘too numerous, consistent, complex and intimate to be mere coincidences’ (Malim, Will). Of all the plays, Hamlet contains the most autobiographical material, including characters that appear to represent Oxford’s father-in-law William Cecil (Polonius), his wife Anne Cecil (Ophelia), Cecil’s son Robert (Laertes) and Oxford himself, whose circumstances, interests, and experiences are clearly depicted in the portrait of Prince Hamlet (Sobran 189–95). Oxford can also be identified as Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well (Ogburn 489–91) and Timon in Timon of Athens (Anderson 323–4). His street quarrel with the Knyvet family is echoed in Romeo and Juliet (Anderson 180–1).

Twelfth Night is perhaps the play that connects Oxford with the Shakespeare canon more strongly than any other, for two reasons. In the first place, the plot and the characters depict an episode in which Oxford had a strong interest—the courtship of Queen Elizabeth (Olivia) by the French Duc d’Alençon (Duke Orsino) in 1579. Also identifiable in the cast are Oxford’s sister Mary (Maria), his friend Peregrine Bertie (Sir Toby Belch), the poet Sir Philip Sidney (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Sir Christopher Hatton (Malvolio), and Oxford himself, whom the dramatist portrayed in Feste, the professed fool in Olivia’s court (Clark 220–232).[11]

Secondly, in 1732 the antiquarian Francis Peck described a manuscript that he proposed to publish as ‘a pleasant conceit of Vere, earl of Oxford, discontented at the rising of a mean gentleman in the English court, circa 1580,’ a statement that particularly applies to Twelfth Night. Although this manuscript was never published and is probably lost, it was identified by Peck as belonging to the library of Abraham Fleming (c.1552–1607), a London translator, poet, historian, and clergyman who was a secretary to the Earl of Oxford, c.1580 (Anderson 486).

Oxford’s anger and despair at the infidelity of Anne, which he later came to doubt, is a recurring theme in at least four plays—Measure for Measure, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, in all of which a husband is deceived by slanders against his innocent wife (Ogburn 566–71). The hot-tempered and blunt talking Welshman Fluellen in Henry V has been identified by Oxfordian and orthodox scholars alike as Sir Roger Williams, a follower of the Earl of Oxford (Barrell 59–62). A prank ambush of two of Lord Burghley’s servants by three of Oxford’s men at Gad’s Hill near Rochester in 1573 is recapitulated in 1 Henry IV (II.ii) by Falstaff and three of Prince Hal’s servants (Ogburn 529). The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and others contain names, incidents, and situations that can be found in the biography of Edward de Vere (Anderson xxvii).

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are an especially rich source of associations with Oxford. They are filled with autobiographical details and references that are directly linked to what is known about his life: the author’s intention that his identity remain unknown—‘My name be buried where my body is’ (72); his lameness, his shame and his ‘outcast state’ (89, 129, 29); his preoccupation with the ravages of time, old age and his own imminent death (16, 62, 73). Several sonnets suggest that the writer is a nobleman (91, 125), and Sonnet 76 contains an unmistakable reference to ‘E. Vere’—‘That every word doth almost tell my name.’ Most scholars and editors agree that the Sonnets are in some way autobiographical, but beyond that opinions vary widely as to their actual meaning.


Shakespeare’s
Sonnets are an especially rich source
of associations with Oxford. They aref filled with
autobiographical details and references that are
directly linked to what is known about his life.

Some scholars have found evidence of homosexual love of the Fair Youth by the Sonnets author, and evidence of the same predisposition in several of the plays (Sobran 98–100, 198–201; Hamill, Sexuality 49–53). Others detect a father-son relationship between them (Ogburn 342–6; Whittemore, ‘Chronicles’). There are several significant connections between Oxford and Henry Wriothesley, the presumed subject of the Fair Youth sonnets, but the role of the young man, whether patron, son, lover, or merely dear friend, is still a much-debated question. Regardless of these uncertainties, however, the basic facts about the Sonnets supply further evidence that they were written by Edward de Vere.

Dating the Plays and Oxford’s Death in 1604

Orthodox scholars typically dismiss the Oxfordian argument with the claim that several of Shakespeare’s plays, as many as a dozen, were written after 1604, the year of Oxford’s death. But no definite post-1604 allusion or source has been shown to be essential to any Shakespeare play. In no play is there a reference to any natural phenomenon, scientific discovery, or topical event that occurred after 1604, nor is there a reference to anything published after 1604 (Whalen 75–6).

Despite intense research and analysis, scholars have been unable to establish an unambiguous date of composition for any Shakespeare play. Registration, publication, and performance dates have been obtained from various documents, but they can only indicate a terminus ante quem, a date before which the play must have been written. It is clear that several canonical plays were written many years before they were mentioned anywhere (Sobran 161). Eighteen plays that appeared in the First Folio in 1623 had never been printed before, and for three of them, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and All’s Well That Ends Well, there is no surviving record of any kind before that date.

There is evidence, however, that the playwright ceased writing in 1604. Critics have noted Shakespeare’s frequent references to contemporary astronomical events and scientific discoveries, such as the supernova of 1572, remarked upon by Bernardo in Hamlet (I.i.36–8), William Gilbert’s theory of geomagnetism, which he published in 1600, referred to twice in Troilus and Cressida (II.ii.179 and IV.ii.104–5), and the lines in 1 Henry VI that allude to the uncertainty of the orbit of Mars (I.ii.1–2).[12] But similar events and discoveries that occurred after 1604 are absent from the canon. The discovery of Jupiter’s moons (by Galileo in 1610), the explanation of sunspots (also by Galileo, in 1612), and the invention of the working telescope (1608), for instance, go unmentioned in the plays supposedly written after 1604.

Another indication that the author wrote nothing after 1604 is the fact that of 43 major sources of Shakespeare’s plays, all but one, the so-called ‘Strachey Letter’ (discussed below), were published before Edward de Vere died, in 1604 (Sobran 156–7). In fact, a few orthodox scholars have even concluded that Shakespeare stopped writing in 1604.[13]

The most persistent argument for a post-1604 Shakespeare play is that for The Tempest, which was mentioned for the first time in a record of its performance at court in 1611. Its earliest appearance in print was in the First Folio. For many decades, orthodox critics have routinely claimed that the travel narratives of Sylvester Jourdain (1610) and William Strachey were the sources for the storm and shipwreck material in The Tempest. But recent research has demonstrated convincingly that the ‘Strachey Letter’ (which was not actually published until 1625) could not have been written and taken to London in time to be used as a source for the play. The precise details and language of the storm and shipwreck scenes appear to have as their sources the play Naufragium by Erasmus, published in 1518, and a collection of travel narratives, The Decades of the New Worlde, translated from the Latin by Richard Eden.[14] Significantly, Eden was a friend and former student of Sir Thomas Smith, with whom Oxford was living in 1555, the year that Decades was published (Hughes 9).

Oxford and The First Folio

The evidence that the author of the canon was actually the Earl of Oxford continued to accumulate after his death in 1604. The mysterious dedication to Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, with its enigmatic phrase—’our ever-living poet,’ suggested that the author was dead (Price ‘Unorthodox,’ 145–6). An even more pointed message appeared in the cryptic epistle titled ‘A never writer, to an ever reader. News’ that was added to the second version of the Troilus and Cressida quarto published in the same year. The phrase is easily read as ‘an E. Vere writer to an E. Vere reader.’ Moreover, the epistle refers to the ‘scape’ of the manuscript from certain ‘grand possessors,’ suggesting that, Oxford being dead, someone other than the author was in control of his plays.

The collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623, the First Folio, gives every appearance of being the fruit of twenty years of association among Ben Jonson, the three de Vere daughters, Elizabeth, Bridget, and Susan, and the Herbert brothers, William, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and Philip, 1st Earl of Montgomery. Both Oxford’s son, Henry Vere (b. 1593), and his friend and close ally Henry Wriothesley (b. 1573), 3rd Earl of Southampton and dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, were also closely associated with the Herbert brothers.

In 1590, Elizabeth Vere, Oxford’s oldest daughter, was proposed by her grandfather William Cecil as the wife of Henry Wriothesley, who had entered Cecil’s household as a nine-year-old ward in 1582 (Akrigg 20–22). Wriothesley is generally regarded as the addressee of the first seventeen of Shakespeare’s sonnets—the marriage sonnets.

If this belief is correct, they failed to convince him, and he avoided the marriage. The parents of William Herbert, and Edward de Vere himself, favored the marriage of William to de Vere’s second daughter Bridget, but in 1598 she married someone else (Anderson 313–14). In 1604 the younger Herbert, Philip, married Oxford’s youngest daughter Susan. During the next few years, Susan, as well as other ladies of the court, performed in several of Jonson’s masques, and she was the subject of one of the epigrams that appeared in his Works (1616). The association of Jonson and William Herbert began about 1605, and a decade later Jonson dedicated to him the Epigrams section of his Folio (Riggs 179, 226). In 1615, after a determined campaign for the position, Herbert obtained the office of Lord Chamberlain of the Household, and gained control the Revels Office, as well as the playbooks of the King’s Men, who had performed many of the Shakespeare plays.

The orchestration and financing of the First Folio by the Herbert brothers, and editorial work by Ben Jonson are additional strong indications that Oxford was the author of the plays.

The names of two former King’s Men actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, appear under the dedication of the First Folio to the two Herbert Earls, who may have financed its publication. Although Heminges and Condell claim to have collected the plays, it is far more likely that this was done by the Folio’s publishers. And there is strong evidence that it was Ben Jonson who not only edited the plays but also wrote both the dedication and the subsequent epistle that also bore the two actors’ names (Price ‘Unorthodox’ 170–4).

The orchestration and financing of the First Folio by the Herbert brothers, and editorial work by Ben Jonson, who had a long-standing association with them and with Oxford’s daughter Susan, are additional strong indications that Oxford was the author of the plays. Furthermore, an extensive analysis of the prefatory material in the First Folio concludes that it is ‘littered with hints that the poet was a man of rank . . .’ (Price ‘Unorthodox’ 176). The deliberate concealment of the actual author and the allusions to Shakespeare of Stratford in the First Folio accord with the efforts made by Oxford during his lifetime to remain anonymous and, after 1593, to allow his work to be credited to a man whose name happened to be identical with his pseudonym.

It is only in, and not until, the First Folio of 1623 that the few ambiguous phrases appear that purport to connect the Shakespeare plays with the William Shakespeare of Stratford who died in 1616. There is substantial evidence that the only other connection—the putative monument to the author in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church—was originally a bust of John Shakespeare that was altered to represent his son (Kennedy). It is upon this scanty evidence that the entire case rests for the Stratford businessman’s authorship of the world’s most illustrious dramatic canon.

The Future of Oxford

Cases of mistaken or concealed identity of authors and the people they write about are relatively common in literature. But it is rare that a literary deception has had an impact as important and as widespread as the Shakespeare hoax. Emerson was one of the earliest to recognize its importance when he asserted, in 1854, that the Stratfordian narrative was improbable, and that the identity of the writer posed ‘the first of all literary problems’ (Deese 114). The accumulation of evidence for Oxford, here much condensed and summarized, is the most comprehensive and detailed solution to the ‘problem.’ It is hard to believe that it will not eventually result in the acceptance of Edward de Vere as the genuine Shakespeare.

When this occurs, all the biographies of the Stratford man, and at least one of Oxford, will become comical literary curiosities. Every Stratfordian analysis of every play and poem will have to be rewritten, and dozens of speculations about sources, meanings, characters, and allusions will prove to be incorrect. The canon will be expanded, and its beginning and ending dates corrected to coincide more closely with the reign of Elizabeth.

More than that, the history of Elizabethan drama and poetry will be drastically revised by the revelation that Sidney, Lyly, Watson, Daniel, Greene, Kyd, Lodge, and Marlowe, all younger and less talented than de Vere, did not influence, and were not precursors of, Shakespeare, but the reverse.[15] Most of the plays and poems will be redated at least fifteen years earlier, changing antecedents into derivations and lenders into borrowers. The map of Elizabethan creative literature will be turned upside-down or, more properly, right-side-up, and this extraordinary man will finally be accorded his rightful place in the history of drama, of poetry, and of the language itself.

Endnotes

  • Shakespeare’ Identified as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. 1920.
  • These facts are documented in Jiménez, ‘Eyewitnesses.’
  • Although Boas claims that Shakespeare was more familiar with Oxford than anywhere else in England, except Stratford and London, he is able to cite only two references to it in the canon, both general in nature, in Henry VIII and The Taming of the Shrew (46–7). Furthermore, the Welsh-hating Dr. Caius, who is a significant character in The Merry Wives of Windsor, was obviously based on Dr. John Caius, a scholar and physician who had a long association with Gonville College, Cambridge (ODNB). See also Gilvary, ‘Queens’ College Cambridge.
  • The Practice of New and Old Physic by George Baker (1599), Plainsong Diverse & sundry (1591) and English Madrigals (1599) by John Farmer, and Defense of the Military… (1579) by Geffrey Gates. See Chiljan, Dedications, pp. 41, 94, 98. John Harrison, the publisher of the Gates volume, also published Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.
  • The most comprehensive treatment of the subject is Fowler, 1986.
  • Among the earliest to write on the subject was Karl Elze in 1874.
  • Magri’s articles can be found in Great Oxford, Richard Malim ed., pp. 66–78 and pp. 91–106.
  • Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. G. Blakemore Evans, ed.S
  • The concept is explained more fully in Price, ‘Stigma.’ See also Sheavyn at 162–3, 168.
  • The Elizabethan association of Athena with spear-shaking and dramatic poetry is best explained in Paul, ‘Pallas-Minerva = Spear-Shaker.’
  • See also Farina at 82–7.
  • These are explained more fully in Altschuler, ‘Searching.’
  • Anderson cites several at 397–8 and 572.
  • See Stritmatter and Kositsky, ‘Voyagers.’
  • Among the revelations of Michael Egan’s The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One (2006) is that Marlowe’s Edward II follows rather than precedes Shakespeare’s treatment of the Richard II story.

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Who Was Spencer’s EK: Was He the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford?

Nina Green


Scholars have never satisfactorily identified the mysterious individual known only as E.K. who collaborated with Spenser on The Shepheardes Calender of 1579 and was the author of a lost commentary on Spenser’s Dreames. The suggestion that E.K. was Edward Kirke (1553-1613), a Cambridge contemporary of Spenser’s, seems to go nowhere through lack of information (Oram 6). An alternative suggestion, that E.K. was Spenser’s friend, Gabriel Harvey, is incompatible with Harvey’s style, which is more ponderous and a good deal less effective than any of E.K.’s arguments or notes. A third theory, that E.K. is a Spenser persona, is ingeniously supported by the suggestion that the initials E.K. stand for “Edmundus Kedemon,” a translation of Spenser’s name into Greek (Oram 6). However, E.K.’s emphases suggest a textual presence distinct from Spenser’s (Hamilton 2805).

The question of E.K. ‘s identity is often discussed as though no evidence exists apart from the initials themselves and the information about E.K.’s academic and poetic pursuits revealed in the pages of The Shepheardes Calender. However, this assumption ignores Spenser’s own references to E.K. in two letters to Gabriel Harvey. The first of these letters was written on October 15th and 16th, 1579. Portions of four successive paragraphs are quoted below, illustrating the context in which Spenser’s reference to E.K. appears:

Your desire to heare of my late beeing with hir Majestie, muste dye in itselfe. As for the twoo worthy Gentlemen, Master Sidney and Master Dyer, they have me, I thanke them, in some use of familiarity: of whom, and to whome, what speache passeth for youre credite and estimation, I leave yourselfe to conceive. . . . Maister E.K. hartily desireth to be commended unto your Worshippe: of whome what accompte he maketh, your selfe shall hereafter perceive, by hys paynefull and dutifull verses of your selfe. Thus much was written at Westminster yesternight: but comming this morning, beeying the sixteenth of October, to Mystresse Kerkes, to have it delivered to the Carrier, I receyved youre letter, sente me the laste weeke: whereby I perceive you otherwhiles continue your old exercise of Versifying in English: whych glorie I had now thought shoulde have bene onely ours heere at London and the Court .. . I will impart yours [Harvey's verses} to Maister Sidney and Maister Dyer at my nexte going to the Courte.[italics indicate 16th-century quote] (Grosart 79)

The clues afforded by this letter are admittedly slender; however, they give rise to important inferences. The first two paragraphs, written at Westminster yesternight (ie., on October 15th), group together items of news from Court. Spenser mentions his audience with the Queen, his growing intimacy with Sidney and Dyer (who are residing at Court) and E.K.’s greetings to Gabriel Harvey. The third and fourth paragraphs, written on October 16th, after Spenser’s visit to Mystresse Kerke’s, show that Spenser expects to be at Court again in the near future, at which time he promises to show Harvey’s verses to Sidney and Dyer.

Two important inferences arise from these comments. In the first place, the fact that Spenser conveys commendations from E.K. to Harvey disposes unequivocally of the theories that E. K. was either Spenser himself or Gabriel Harvey. Secondly, it can be inferred from Spenser’s remarks that it was at Court that he met with E.K. Six months later, in a postscript to a letter written to Harvey from Westminster in April, 1580, Spenser again mentions E.K.:

I take best my Dreames shoulde come forth alone, being growen by meanes of the Glosse (running continually in maner of a Paraphrase) full as great as my Calendar. Therin be some things excellently, and many things wittily discoursed of E.K., and the pictures so singularly set forth, and purtrayed, as if Michael Angelo were there, he could (I think) nor amende the beste, nor reprehende the worst. (Grosart 38, Hamilton 737)

Again, the clues to E.K.’s identity are slender. However, it can safely be inferred from the context of the letter that E.K. exercises considerable influence over the publication of Spenser’s works. Spenser tells us that E.K. has prepared a lengthy gloss for the printed edition of the Dreames; in addition, it is seemingly E.K. who has arranged for the pictures, the beauty of which seems to have come as a complete surprise to Spenser. These two letters of Spenser’s leave the reader with the impression that E.K. is a very singular individual. He is someone connected with the Court. He is also someone with the knowledge, the leisure, and the financial means to provide glosses and appropriate illustrations for Spenser’s published works. He is someone to whose critical judgment Spenser is prepared to yield in certain respects. Finally, and most curiously, he is someone who can only be mentioned—even in personal letters from Spenser to Gabriel Harvey—under the mask of the cryptic initials E.K. This singular individual, we believe, was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Before examining further evidence that supports the identification of Oxford as E.K., however, it is necessary to glance at the role played by E.K. in The Shepheardes Calender. In this regard, Johnson makes the interesting analogy that E.K.’s role is like that of the sly pilgrim Geoffrey in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Johnson also suggests that E.K.’s role included the important task of shielding Spenser from the consequences of his use of topical satire:

Spenser’s possible reasons for prefacing a serious poem with a comic prologue must remain as mysterious as E. K.’s actual identity, but we can guess at several reasons for the decision. First, E.K.’s jocular tone, pedantry, and carefree handling of Immerito’s own metaphors are disarming. It may well be that Spenser felt certain that the eclogues glanced too sharply at the persons and issues of the late 1570′s; if so, E.K.—half clown, half capable exegete—served to screen the author from political reprisals. (Johnson 26, 30; Hamilton 231)

Johnson’s comment seems particularly apposite with respect to the February and May eclogues. In the argument to the February eclogue, E.K. cautions that this eclogue is “rather morall and generall, then bent to any secrete or particular purpose,” thus forestalling the temptation to interpret the fable of the Oak and Briar in terms of current religious or political events (Oram 39). Similarly, in the argument to the May eclogue, E.K. states cavalierly that “under the persons of two shepheards, Piers and Palinode, be represented two formes of pastoures or Ministers, or the protestant and the Catholique,” whereas, in fact, the eclogue deals, not with the opposition of Protestant and Catholic views, but with the much more dangerous debate between reforming and conservative factions of the Anglican church (Oram 87; Cullen 41-49, 131). Thus, E.K.’s disingenuous interpretation throws dust in the eyes of those of his contemporaries who might be inclined to accuse Spenser of criticizing the church of which his sovereign was the head.

But E.K.’s role in The Shepheardes Calender is not limited to the task of protecting Spenser from the consequences of comment on dangerous political or religious issues. As Oram points out, only about half of The Shepheardes Calender is poems. In other words, fully half of the materials that make up the Calender-the dedicatory epistle and general argument, the brief argument that prefaces each eclogue, and the extensive gloss that follows it are the work of E. K., who skillfully directs this disparate material toward a much more comprehensive objective, that of launching a new poet. In the dedicatory epistle, for example, E.K. tries to deflect the adverse criticism that he foresees will result from Spenser’s experimental style. He devotes three pages to a defense of Spenser’s use of archaic language, granting these ancient words to be “something hard,” but justifying their use as an attempt to garnish and beautify the English language. He concludes by likening those who would criticize this linguistic experiment to dogs in the manger whose “currish kind, though [they] cannot be kept from barking, yet I conne them thanke that they refrain from biting” (14,7). E.K.’s fear that Spenser’s use of archaic language would be objected to was well,founded: even Philip Sidney, to whom Spenser dedicated the work, criticized this feature in his Defence of Poesy: “That same framing of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since neither Theocritus in Greek, Virgil in Latin, nor Sannazaro in Italian did affect it” (Shepherd 133).

To further assist in rendering Spenser intelligible to the reader, E.K. also thought well to take the pains upon himself of preparing a gloss to each of the eclogues. According to E.K., these glosses serve both for the exposition of old words and harder phrases and as a means of drawing attention to Spenser’s stylistic techniques (“forsomuch as I knew many excellent and proper devises both in words and matter would passe in the speedy course of reading, either as unknowen, or as not marked”) (Oram 19). In a further effort to smooth a path for the new poet, E.K. emphasizes that The Shepheardes Calender is Spenser’s first work, “the maydenhead of his Poetrie.” In an attractive simile, he points out that poets have traditionally written eclogues “at the first to trye their habilities: and as young birdes, that be newly crept out of the nest, by little first to prove theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght” (18). Thus, suggests E.K., allowances for Spenser’s poetic inexperience are to be made.

    To the right Honourable the Earle of
Oxenford, Lord high Chamberlayne
of England, &c


Receive most Noble Lord in gentle gree,
The unripe fruit of an unready wit:
Which by thy countenaunce doth crave to bee
Defended from foule Envies poisnous bit.
Which so to doe may thee right well befit,
Sith th’ antique glory of thine auncestry
Under a shady vele is therein writ,
And eke thine owne long living memory
Succeeding them in true nobility:
And also for the love, which thou doest beare
To th’ Heliconian ymps and they to thee,
They unto thee, and thou to them most deare:
Deare as thou art unto thy selfe, so love
That loves and honours thee, as doth behove.

E.K. also undertakes to explain to the reader the underlying structure of The Shepheardes Calender, stating that the twelve eclogues, “everywhere answering to the seasons of the twelve months, can be divided into three formes or ranckes, plaintive, recreative and moral” (223). As Cullen, Johnson and others have shown, E.K.’s deceptively simple statement affords a key to the unity and design of the entire work (120147j 37-44). Finally, in a disarming display of erudition, E.K. clears away one remaining obstacle to the Elizabethan readers’ appreciation of The Shepheardes Calender: Spenser has made January the starting-point of the calendar year (which, for most, began on March 25th), and E.K. provides arguments justifying Spenser’s unorthodox choice (Oram 235). From the foregoing, it is clear that E.K. was some’ one who understood exactly what Spenser was attempting to do, and who facilitated the introduction of Spenser’s fledgling work by serving as an interpreter between the poet and his readers. This is a task that very few of Spenser’s contemporaries were equipped to undertake, and a task that Spenser himself would have entrusted only to someone whose judgment he trusted implicitly. The question then becomes whether that person—the individual known as E.K.—was Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

Internal evidence in The Shepheardes Calender makes it clear that Spenser and his collaborator, E.K., enjoyed a friendship based on shared literary Interestingly, evidence of a friendship of precisely this sort is found in Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet to Oxford in the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queen (see below left: Greenlaw V3 191): If E.K. is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, any surviving evidence of a friendship between Spenser and Oxford should contain the suggestion that it, too, was based on shared literary interests.

Spenser’s sonnet to Oxford is one of the original series of ten sonnets—dedicated to Hatton, Essex, Oxford, Northumberland, Ormond, Howard, Grey, Raleigh, Lady Carew, and the Ladies of the Court—that appeared in the first edition of The Faerie Queen. (Subsequently, the sonnets to Lady Carew and the Ladies of the Court were dropped, and seven new sonnets added, to make a total of fifteen. (Hamilton 259–292, 3)

Several of these dedicatory sonnets, including those dedicated to Essex, to Lady Carew, and to “the gratious and beautifull Ladies in the Court,” are merely exercises in graceful compliment. In others, however, Spenser singles out for praise specific achievements or qualities of the dedicatees. Thus, he draws attention to Lord Howard’s victory over the Spanish Armada, and to Sir Christopher Hatton’s counsel and policy. Similarly, the sonnets dedicated to the Earl of Ormond and to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, acknowledge their patronage of literature (Greenlaw 190, 193–4). In only two of the original ten sonnets, however, does Spenser refer to the recipients as persons of literary accomplishment in their own right: Sir Walter Raleigh is “the sommers nightingale,” and the Earl of Oxford “bears love to the Heliconian ymps and is most de are to them” (Greenlaw 196).

According to Spenser, Raleigh is better qualified to write in praise of Queen Elizabeth than he; nonetheless, he begs his indulgence for his “rusticke Madrigale in faire Cinthias praise.” In his sonnet to Oxford, however, Spenser eschews comparisons and makes three points that establish a direct connection between Oxford and The Faerie Queen:

1. Spenser begins with the statement that he is relying on the Earl’s protection for his new work: “Which by thy countenaunce doth crave to bee/Defended from foule Envies poisnous bit.”

2. Spenser then points out two reasons why it right well befits Oxford to countenance and protect The Faerie Queen: first, the poem memorializes the de Veres and, more particularly, Oxford himself:

Which so to doe may thee right well befit,
Sith th’ antique glory of thine auncestry
Under a shady vele is therein writ,
And eke thine owne long living memory
Succeeding them in true nobility.

Second, it is fitting that Oxford should champion The Faerie Queen because of his love for the Muses, and theirs for him: “And also for the love, which thou doest beare/To th’ Heliconian ymps and they to thee.”

3. In the closing couplet, Spenser states that, as it behoves him to do, he loves and honours Oxford as dearly as Oxford loves himself. (The wording is admittedly elliptic and ambiguous, and ‘love’ perhaps refers to the Muses, rather than to Spenser; if so, then Spenser states that it “doth behove” the Muses to love Oxford as dearly as he loves himself.)” Deare as thou art unto thy selfe, so [he] love[s] That loves and honours thee, as doth behove.” Thus, the theme of this extraordinary sonnet is Spenser’s reliance on Oxford’s protection for The Faerie Queen because of its memorialization of the de Veres and because of Oxford’s love of literature.

Given the manner in which Spenser has personalized the relationship between Oxford and The Faerie Queen in this sonnet, it is not unreasonable to expect that Oxford would have reciprocated by writing a poem in praise of Spenser’s brilliant new work. If a poem of this sort has survived, it would seem logical to search for it among the commendatory verses printed in the first edition of The Faerie Queen.

Unfortunately, all seven commendatory poems in the first edition are signed with initials or pseudonyms, making identification of the authors problematic. However, one poem among the seven is signed with a pseudonym (Ignoto) first claimed for Oxford over 70 years ago. (see below left: Johnson 26, 30; Hamilton 231)

Ignoto’s verses in praise of Spenser and The Faerie Queen are remarkable for their graceful elegance and simplicity, and also for the rather marked absence of the extravagant praise of Queen Elizabeth that we see in a number of the other commendatory verses.

If the Ignoto poem was indeed written by Oxford, then Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet and Ignoto’s commendatory verses represent an exchange of sincere compliment of a very high order. Spenser claims that he has written of the antique glory of the de Veres and of Oxford himself in The Faerie Queen, and he praises Oxford as one beloved of the Muses. Oxford, in turn reciprocates with verses that pay Spenser and The Faerie Queen the ultimate compliment:

“I here pronounce this workmanship is such,
As that no pen can set it forth too much.”,


To looke upon a worke of rare devise
The which a workman setteth out to view,
And not to yield it the deserved prise
That unto such a worksmanship is dew,
Doth either prove the judgement to be naught,
Or els doth shew a mind with envy fraught.
To labour to commend a peece of work
Which no man goes about to discommend,
Would raise a jealous doubt that there did lurke,
Some secret doubt, whereto the prayse did tend.
For when men know the goodnes of the wyne,
‘Tis needlesse for the hoast to have a sygne.
Thus then to shew my judgement to be such
As can discerne of colours blacke, and white,
As alls to free my minde from envies tuch,
That never gives to any man his right,
I here pronounce this workmanship is such,
As that no pen can set it forth too much.
And thus I hang a garland at the dare,
Not for to shew the goodnes of the ware:
But such hath beene the custome heretofore,
And customes very hardly broken are
And when your tast shall tell you this is trew,
Then looke you give your hoast his utmost dew.

  Ignoto. (Oram 39)

Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet to Oxford in the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queen provides evidence of a literary connection between the two men, and support for the hypothesis that Oxford, as “E.K.,” was the author of the critical apparatus for Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender. However, the Calender was published a decade earlier than The Faerie Queen, and it is therefore necessary to show that Oxford and Spenser could have been acquainted as early as 1579. Although the actual circumstances under which the two men first met will probably never be known, a likely point of contact between them in the 1570′s was their mutual relationship with the Spencers of Althorpe.

According to a pedigree given in the Visitation of Warwickshire, Sir John Spencer of Althorpe (d. 1586) came from an ancient family that could trace its lineage to the time of William the Conqueror. Sir John’s branch of the family was said to be descended from a younger brother of Hugh le Despenser, Chief Justice of England, grandfather of another Hugh le Despenser (d. 1326), the ill-fated favorite of King Edward II (Harleian 282–5). The authenticity of this pedigree has been disputed in modern times, however, by claims that, in the earliest years of the sixteenth century, the Spencers were simple sheep farmers (Fogle 5).

Whatever may be said of the authenticity of the pedigree, there is no dispute about the fact that Sir John Spencer of Althorpe was a very wealthy man. He left great estates to his sons, and the prestige of the family was considerably enhanced by the marriages of his daughters. This was particularly true of Elizabeth, Anne, and Alice, who married into families that numbered themselves among the kindred of Queen Elizabeth: the Careys, the Stanleys and the Sackvilles. Elizabeth Spencer (1557–1618) married, in 1574, George Carey (1556?–1603), eldest son of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon (1526–1596) (GEC V6 630). Anne Spencer’s first and third marriages connected her with the Stanleys and the Sackvilles: in 1575, Anne married William Stanley, 3rd Lord Monteagle (1529?–1581), and in 1592 she took, as her third husband, Robert Sackville, later 1st Earl of Dorset (1561–1609) (GEC V9 116, V4 423). Perhaps the best match of all was made by Sir John Spencer’s youngest daughter, Alice (1556?–1637), who in 1579 married Ferdinando Stanley, later 5th Earl of Derby (1559?–1594) (GEC V4 212).

These alliances with families related to the Queen introduced the Spencer sisters into an intimate court circle that included among its members Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, himself a cousin of the Queen and a courtier from his earliest youth. Years later, Oxford and the Spencers of Althorpe were brought into an even closer connection when Oxford’s eldest daughter Elizabeth became the sister-in-law of Alice Spencer through her marriage in 1595 to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561–1642). But for the purposes of establishing the identity of Oxford as E.K., it may be sufficient to show that by 1579, when The Shepheards Calender was published, the three Spencer sisters had gained entree into the uppermost ranks of the Elizabethan nobility and would perforce have been well-known to Oxford, and he to them.

The significance of Oxford’s acquaintance with the Spencer sisters lies in the fact that the Spencers of Althorpe were related to the poet Edmund Spenser. The specific relationship between the two branches of the family has not been traced; however, Spenser himself seized a number of opportunities to make it abundantly clear in print that the relationship existed (Fogle 16–18; Collier VI xii–xiv). In his Complaints, published in 1591, he dedicated a separate long poem to each of the Spencer sisters: Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterfly to Elizabeth Spencer; Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberd’s Tale to Anne; and The Tears of the Muses to Alice (Oram 412, 334, 268). Spenser also dedicated one of the ten original dedicatory sonnets in The Faerie Queen to Elizabeth Spencer, Lady Carey (Hamilton 293). In addition, he sang the praises of all three sisters (as Phyllis, Charillis and sweet Amaryllis) in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, published in 1595. In this poem, Spenser makes explicit reference to his relationship to the “sisters three” who are the “honor” of the “noble familie” of Spencer of Althorpe. He speaks of himself as the “meanest” of that family, and considers it an honor that “unto them I am so nie”:

No lesse praisworthie are the sisters three,
The honor of the noble familie:
Of which I meanest boast my selfe to be,
And most that unto them I am so nie.


Phyllis, Charillis, and sweet Amaryllis,
Phyllis the faire, is eldest of the three:
The next to her, is bountifull Charillis.
But th’ youngest is the highest in degree.
Phyllis the floure of rare perfection
Faire spreading forth her leaves with fresh delight,
That with their beauties amorous reflexion,
Bereave of sense each rash beholders sight.
But sweet Charillis is the Paragone
Of peerlesse price, and ornament of praise,
Admyrd of all, yet envied of none,
Through the myld temperance of her goodly raies.
Thrise happie do I hold thee noble swaine,
The which art of so rich a spoile possest,
And it embracing deare without disdaine,
Hast sole possession in so chaste a brest;
………………………..
But Amaryllis, whether fortunate
Or else unfortunate may I aread,
That freed is from Cupids yoke by fate,
Since which she doth new bands adventure dread.
Shepheard what ever thou has heard to be
In this or that praysd diversly apart,
In her thou maist them all assembled see,
And seald up in the threasure of her hart.

 (Oram 546–7)

Spencer then continues with a description of each of the three sisters (see below left) in which he refers to Anne Spencer’s marriage to Robert Sackville, and to the recent death of Alice’s husband, Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby.

Thus, the Spencer sisters, as intimate members of the Court circle, formed a link between Oxford and Edmund Spenser. And, although it may not have been this link which original ly drew Oxford and Spenser together, the fact of its existence lends plausibility to the hypoth esis that it was Oxford, writing under the pseudonym “E.K. ” who gave Spenser a helping hand in launching The Shepheardes Calender in 1579.

E.K.’s friendship with Gabriel Harvey is a prominent feature of The Shepheardes Calender. If Oxford was E.K., he, too, must have been on friendly terms with Gabriel Harvey. It is thus necessary to examine in some detail the historical evidence of the relationship between the two men. The Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey (1550?–1631) and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, were both born in Essex in 1550. Although their situations in life were vastly different, they had in common a fascination with books and learning and a mutual friendship with Sir Thomas Smith (1513–1577). Sir Thomas Smith and Gabriel Harvey’s father, John, were neighbors in Saffron Walden: “The town centre is marked by a broad Common . . .. At the western side of the Common on what is known as ‘Common Hill’ stood the nearly adjacent mansions of Sir Thomas Smyth (later to become Principal Secretary to Queen Elizabeth) and of Mr. John Harvey, father of Gabriel” (Stern 3).

Besides being neighbours, the Harvey and Smith families were also kin. The exact nature of the familial relationship has not been established; however, in Foure Letters, published in 1592, Harvey states that he is a cousin of Sir Thomas Smith’s illegitimate (and only) son. Gabriel Harvey and Master Thomas Smith were friends as youths, and there is a record of their mutual reading of Harvey’s copy of Livy shortly after Harvey’s sixteenth birthday. Harvey was also a close friend of Sir Thomas Smith’s favorite nephew, John Wood (14). But Gabriel Harvey’s friendship with the Smiths was not confined to the younger members of the family. A close friendship also existed between Harvey and Sir Thomas Smith himself. Since Sir Thomas was largely absent from England after 1571, Stern deduces that this relationship ripened during the years 1566–1571, when Smith was living in Essex:

Harvey would have had the opportunity to become intimate with Smith between April 1566 and March 1571, when he was living almost continuously in Essex. Before and after this and during a very brief trip to France in 1567, Smith was out of England on government service; but for most of the five years after Sir Philip Hoby succeeded him as ambassador, Smith was living either at his country estate at Theydon Mount or at his town residence in the central square of Walden close to the Harveys’ home. (13, 26)

Gabriel Harvey’s father, John, was a stern and demanding parent, and it was perhaps because of a lack of sympathy between father and son that an almost paternal relationship developed during these years between Sir Thomas and his brilliant protege:

By 1573, the elder statesman had certainly become intellectual father to the gifted young scholar. Harvey’s letters to Sir Thomas refer to the advice he has given him, his guidance in studies, and his orienting Harvey toward a life of service to the state. He visited him at his country home at Theydon Mount, studied with him, sought his counsel, and corresponded regularly. In a 1573 letter Harvey writes of the special “frendship that I alwais hetherto sins mi first cumming to Cambridg have found at your hands as suerly I do, and must neds remember it often, having continually had so ful trial thereof.” He refers to Smith’s having aided him in attaining his fellowship at Pembroke “not past thre yers ago,” and he discusses whether or not he should take up the study of civil law: “I know wel both your wisdum to be sutch, that you can easly discern what is best for me, and I assure mi self your gud affection to be sutch, that you wil gladly counsel me for the best.” (13, 26)

After Smith’s death in August, 1577 following “a long and painful illness,” Harvey was chief mourner at the funeral, as Thomas Nashe noted with satirical malice two decades later in Have With You To Saffron Walden:

Onely hee [Harvey] tells a foolish twittle twattle boasting tale (amidst his impudent brazen fac’d defamation of Doctor Perne,) of the Funerall of his kinsman, Sir Thomas Smith, (which word kinsman I wonderd he causd not to be set in great capitall letters,) and how in those Obsequies he was a chiefe Mourner. (McKerrow 58)

As Nashe parenthetically remarks, the funeral was the occasion of an unpleasant incident between Harvey and Doctor Andrew Perne. To Doctor Perne’s chagrin, Lady Smith bestowed on Harvey some “rare manuscript books” belonging to Sir Thomas. Perne desired these manuscripts for himself and, according to Harvey’s account in Pierces Supererogation, expressed his annoyance by calling Harvey a “Foxe”:

[Perne] once in a scoldes pollicie called me Foxe between jest, and earnest: (it was at the funerall of the honorable Sir Thomas Smith, where he preached, and where it pleased my Lady Smith, and the coexecutours to bestow certaine rare manuscript bookes upon me, which he desired). (Stern 38)

Lady Smith’s bestowal of her husband’s rare manuscripts on Gabriel Harvey is proof of the regard in which Harvey was held by Sir Thomas Smith and his family. And Harvey’s respect and affection for Sir Thomas are evidenced by the fact that he began, immediately after the funeral, to write the Latin elegies in memory of his former friend, counsellor, and benefactor that were published in January, 15 78, as Smithus: Vel Musarum Lachrymae (39).

Given the extraordinarily close relationship between Sir Thomas Smith and Gabriel Harvey, it is significant that it was none other than Sir Thomas Smith who served as the catalyst for a friendship between Harvey and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Smith had been one of Oxford’s childhood tutors (probably during the years 1556–1558) (Ward 10–11). Thus, it was likely in deference to Sir Thomas that Oxford went out of his way to offer financial help to Harvey during the latter’s undergraduate years at Cambridge. In Foure Letters, Harvey specifically identifies his kinship with the Smith family as the motive for Oxford’s generosity toward him:

In the prime of his [Oxford's] gallantest youth, hee bestowed Angels upon mee in Christes Colledge in Cambridge, and otherwise voutsafed me many gratious favours at the affectionate commendation of my Cosen, M. Thomas Smith, the sonne of Sir Thomas. (65–6)

The reference to Christ’s College dates Oxford’s benefactions to the years 1566–1570, when Harvey was an undergraduate, and these Cambridge years provide evidence of yet another link between Oxford and Gabriel Harvey. Harvey’s tutor at the university was William Lewin (d. 1598), who had formerly served as tutor to Anne Cecil, Oxford’s wife, and the daughter of Lord Burghley, his guardian. Harvey’s friendship with Lewin continued for many years (he dedicated Ciceronianus to him in 1577), and a friendship must also have developed between Lewin and Oxford, since the former tutor, now a student of the civil law, accompanied Oxford on the first stage of his continental tour in 1575; as a companion, Lewin was said to be “a Raphael … both discreet and of good years, and one that my Lord [Oxford] doth respect” (10–11; DNB VII 1048–9). Thus, the few historical records that have survived from this period bear witness to a developing friendship between Oxford and Harvey during the latter’s student years, based on mutual friendships with Sir Thomas Smith and William Lewin, and on Oxford’s generosity toward Harvey.

The records for the next eight years are a blank, so far as the relationship between Oxford Tand Harvey is concerned. In July of 1578, however, the two men are momentarily highlighted against the colorful backdrop of Queen Elizabeth’s summer progress. On July 26th and 27th, the royal party was at Audley End, three miles from Saffron Walden, where Cambridge dignitaries and scholars presented gifts and entertained Elizabeth and her courtiers with speeches and disputations. Harvey himself participated in a three-hour disputation and offered as a gift of his own, four manuscripts of Latin verse written on large folio-sized sheets in his ornamental Italian hand. The four manuscripts were later printed, with additions, as Gabrielis Harveii Gratulationum Valdinensium Libri Quatuor and presented by Harvey to the Queen on September 15th at Hadham Hall, the Hertfordshire estate of Harvey’s friend, Arthur Capel (Stern 65). The printed volume was “comprised of four books of Latin verse: Book I addressed to Elizabeth, Book II to Leicester, Book III to Burghley, and Book IV to Oxford, Hatton, and Sidney” (39–41; Nichols V2 109–14, 222). Harvey’s Latin verses to Oxford in Book IV praise the Earl as a poet and—in extravagant terms—as a potential military leader. Translated into English prose, Harvey’s encomium to Oxford reads, in part, as follows:

O great-hearted one, strong in thy mind and thy fiery will, thou wilt conquer thyself, thou wilt conquer others; thy glory will spread out in all directions beyond the Arctic Ocean; and England will put thee to the test and prove thee to be a native .. bom Achilles. Do thou but go forward boldly and without hesitation. Mars will obey thee, Hermes will be thy messenger, Pallas striking her shield with her spear shaft will attend thee. For a long time past Phoebus Apollo has cultivated thy mind in the arts. English poetical measures have been sung by thee long enough. Let that Courtly Epistle – more polished than the writings of Castiglione himself – witness how greatly thou dost excel in letters. I have seen many Latin verses of thine, yea, even more English verses are extant; thou hast drunk deep draughts not only of the muses of France and Italy, but hast learned the manners of many men, and the arts of foreign countries. It was not for nothing that Sturmius himself was visited by thee; neither in France, Italy, nor Germany are any such cultivated and polished men. 0 thou hero worthy of renown, throw away the insignificant pen, throw away bloodless books, and writings that serve no useful purpose; now must the sword be brought into play, now is the time for thee to sharpen the spear and to handle great engines of war …. In thy breast is noble blood, Courage animates thy brow, Mars lives in thy tongue, Minerva strengthens thy right hand, Bellona reigns in thy body, within thee bums the fire of Mars. Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears; who would not swear that Achilles had come to life again? (Ogburn 596–7)

The entertainment at Audley End, and the favour shown to him by the Earl of Leicester for a brief time thereafter, marked the high point of Harvey’s career. At some time during this period, he seems to have served as Leicester’s secretary and was “bending every effort toward securing a niche for himself at Court” (Stern 46, 50, 68). However, after a brief trial, according to Nashe’s admittedly biased account, Leicester told Harvey he was “fitter for the Universitie than for the Court”:

He that most patronizd him, prying more searchingly into him, and finding that he was more meete to make sport with than anie way deeply to be employd, with faire words shooke him of, & told him he was fitter for the Universitie than for the Court or his tume, and so bad God prosper his studies, & sent for another Secretarie to Oxford. (Stern 46; McKerrow 79)

Any further hope of preferment that Harvey might have entertained was dashed in the summer of 1580 with the anonymous and unauthorized publication of a part of his correspondence with his friend Edmund Spenser in Three Proper and Wittie Familiar Letters. This volume, entered in the Stationers’ Register on June 30th, 1580, included a letter from Harvey to Spenser containing Latin hexameter verses that Harvey himself characterized as a “bolde Satyriall libell.” In the letter, Harvey indicated that these verses, entitled Speculum Tuscanismi, had been “lately devised” at the instigation of a gentleman in Hertfordshire (perhaps Harvey’s friend, Arthur Capel) (Stem 40, 65, 251, 254):

But seeing I must needes bewray my store, and set open my shoppe wyndowes, nowe I pray thee, and coniure thee by all thy amorous Regardes, and exorcismes of Love, call a Parliament of thy Sensible, & Intelligible powers together, & tell me, in Tom Trothes earnest, what II secondo, & famoso Poeta, Master Immerito, sayth to this bolde Satyriall Libell lately devised at the instaunce of a certayne worshipfull Hartefordshyre Gentleman, of myne olde acquayntaunce: in Gratiam quorundam Illustrium Angofrancitalorum, hic & ubique apud nos voli, tantium. Agedum vero, nosti homines, tanquam tuam ipsius cutem.

Speculum Tuscanismi.

Since Galateo came in, and Tuscanisme gan usurpe,
Vanitie above all: Villanie next her, Statelynes Empress.
No man, but Minion, Stowte, Lowte, Plaine, Swayne, quoth a Lording:
No wordes but valorous, no workes but woomanish onely.
For life Magnificoes, not a beck but glorious in shew,
In deede most frivolous, not a looke but Tuscanish alwayes.
His cringing side necke, Eyes glauncing, Fisnamie smirking,
With forefinger kisse, and brave embrace to the footewarde.
Largebellied Kodpeasd Dublet, unkodpeased halfe hose,
Strait to the dock, like a shirte, and close to the britch, like a diveling.
A little Apish Flatte, cowched fast to the pate, like an Oyster,
French Camarick Ruffes, deepe with a witnesse, starched to the purpose.


Every one A per se A, his termes, and braveries in Print,
Delicate in speach, queynte in araye: conceited in all poyntes:
In Courtly guyles, a passing singular odde man
For Gallantes a brave Myrrour, a Primerose of Honour,
A Diamond for nonce, a fellowe perelesse in England.
Not the like Discourser for Tongue, and head to be found out:
Not the like resolute Man, for great and serious affayres,
Not the like Lynx, to spie out secretes, and privities of States.


Eyed, like to Argus, Earde, like to Midas, Nosd, like to Naso,
Wingd, like to Mercury, fittst of a Thousand for to be employde,
This, nay more than this doth practise of Italy in one yeare.
None doe I name, but some doe I know, that a peece of a twelvemontth
Hath so perfitted outly, and inly, both body, both soule,
That none for sense, and senses, halfe matchable with them.
A Vulturs smelling, Apes tasting, sight of an Eagle,
A Spiders touching, Hartes hearing, might of a Lyon.
Compoundes of wisedome, witte, prowes, bountie, behaviour,
All gallant Vertues, all qualities of body and soule:
o thrice tenne hundreth thousand times blessed and happy,
Blessed and happy Travaile, travailer most blessed and happy.
Penatibus Hetruscis laribusque nostris Inquilinis.

Tell me in good sooth, doth it not too evidently appeare, that this English Poet wanted but a good patteme before his eyes, as it might be some delicate, and choyce elegant Poesie of good M. Sidneys, or M. Dyers (ouer very Castor & Pollux for such and many greater matters) when this trimme geere was in hatching. (Grosart VI 83–6)

Harvey’s reference to Sidney and Dyer hints discreetly that they might be a receptive audience for Speculum Tuscanismi, and in the closing paragraph of the letter, Harvey authorizes Spenser to “communicate” his letter to them:

You knowe my ordinarie Postscripte: you may communicate as much, or as little, as you list, of these Patcheries, and fragments, with the two Gentlemen [i.e., Sidney and Dyer]: but there a straw, and you love me: not with any else, friend or foe, one, or other: unlesse haply you have a special desire to imparte some parte hereof, to my good friend M. Daniel Rogers: whose curtesies are also registred in my Marble booke. You knowe my meaning. (Grosart 107)

Although Harvey’s letter containing the Speculum Tuscanismi verses is undated, its approximate date of composition can be fixed by the circumstances of its publication in Three Proper and Wittie Familiar Letters. The first of Harvey’s letters in this volume deals with the earthquake of April 6th, 1580 (Stem 54–5). His second letter, which contains Speculum Tuscanismi, dates from about the same time and cannot have been written later than the introductory epistle to Three Letters, that is dated June 19th, 1580 (Stem 54). Thus, Harvey must have written the poem Speculum Tuscanismi sometime between early April and mid-June, 1580.

Unfortunately for Harvey (and, probably, for Spenser), the publication of Three Letters caused a furor, and the matter came before the Privy Council (principally, it would seem, because of a remark of Harvey’s which was misinterpreted as an attack on Sir James Croft, Controller of the Household). Harvey himself admitted that “the sharpest part of those unlucky Letters was over-read at the Council Table” (Ogburn 631). And John Lyly, in Pap With A Hatchet, gleefully recalled in 1589 the punishment for libel which might have befallen Harvey:

And one will we conjure up, that writing a familiar Epistle about the naturall causes of an Earthquake, fell into the bowells of libelling, which made his eares quake for feare of clipping. (McKerrow V3 74)

The whole matter came back to haunt Harvey a decade and a half later in his famous quarrel with Nashe, whose ruthless exposition of the incident in Have With You To Saffron Walden clarifies much that would otherwise be obscure about the composition of Speculum Tuscanismi. In the first place, Nashe unambiguously imputes the composition of the poem to Harvey’s ambition (“his ambicious stratagem to aspire”) and his desire to ingratiate himself with the Earl of Leicester (“that Nobleman … for whome with his pen hee thus bladed”):

I had forgot to observe unto you, out of his first foure familiar Epistles, his ambicious stratagem to aspire, that whereas two great Pieres beeing at jarre, and their quarrell continued to bloudshed, he would needs, uncald and when it lay not in his way, steppe in on the one side, which indeede was the safer side (as the foole is crafty inough to sleepe in a whole skin) and hewe and slash with his Hexameters; but hewd and slasht he had beene as small as chippings, if he had not playd ducke Fryer and hid himselfe eight weeks in that N oblemans house for whome with his pen hee thus bladed. Yet neverthelesse Syr James a Croft, the olde Controwler, ferrited him out, and had him under hold in the Fleete a great while, taking that to be aimde & leveld against him, because he cald him his olde Controwler, which he had most venomously belched against Doctor Perne. Uppon his humble submission, and ample exposition of the ambiguous Text, and that his forementioned Mecenas mediation, matters were dispenst with and quallified, & some light countenance, like sunshine after a storme, it pleased him after this to let fall uppon him, and so dispatcht him to spurre Cut backe againe to Cambridge. (McKerrow V3 78)

Nashe’s account makes it clear that the composition of Speculum Tuscanismi was part of a larger quarrel (“two great Pieres beeing at jarre”), into which Harvey stepped, unasked, on the safer side (“uncald and when it lay not in his way, steppe in on the one side, which indeede was the safer side”). The “quarrel” to which Nashe alludes can be equated with the long-drawn-out conflict in 1579–80 over Queen Elizabeth’s proposed marriage to Francois, Duke of Alencon. The two peers who were “at jarre” were Leicester and Sussex; with Leicester, along with the Earl of Pembroke, Sir Christopher Hatton and Sir Francis Walsingham, opposing the marriage, while Oxford and Burghley sided with Sussex, who favored it. In late August, 1579, animosity between the two sides flared up in the celebrated tennis court quarrel in which Oxford called Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew and heir apparent, a “puppy.” Sidney fiercely resented the insult (Duncan-Jones 164) . His friends—Harvey among them—doubtless did likewise, and it may have been partly to avenge this insult to the Leicester party that Harvey, in the early months of 1580, “bladed his pen” against Oxford (Stern 65).

In his exculpatory account in Foure Letters, written many years after the event, Harvey ascribed the writing of Speculum Tuscanismi to a combination of youthful indiscretion and the urging of friends who did not scruple to use him for their own purposes. At the time, he says, he was “yong in yeares, fresh in courage, greene in experience, and as the manner is, somewhat overweeninge in conceit.” He had been reading invectives and satires and had been exasperated by some “sharpe undeserved discourtesies” (Oxford’s insult to Sidney is perhaps referred to in line 3 of Speculum Tuscanismi). Moreover,

… some familiar friendes pricked me forward: and I neither fearing daunger, nor suspecting ill measure, (poore credulitie sone beguiled) was not unwilling to content them, to delight a few other, and to avenge, or satisfie my selfe, after the manner of shrewes, that cannot otherwise ease their curst hearts, but by their owne tongues, & their neighbours eares. (59)

He had not intended to publish the “infortunate Letters, which had fallen into the left handes of malicious enemies, or undiscreete friends: who adventured to imprint in earnest, that was scribbled in jest, for the moody fit was soone over.”

Understandably, Harvey also stoutly disputed the accusation that Speculum Tuscanismi was directed at Oxford:

[Lyly] would needs forsooth verye courtly perswade the Earle of Oxforde, that some thing in those Letters, and namely the Mirrour of Tuscanismo, was palpalby intended against him: whose noble Lordeship I protest, I never meante to dishonour with the least prejudicial word of my Tongue, or pen: but ever kept a mindefull reckoning of many bounden duties toward The-same: since in the prime of his gallantest youth, hee bestowed Angels upon mee in Christes Colledge in Cambridge, and otherwise voutsafed me many gratious favours at the affectionate commendation of my Cosen, M. Thomas Smith, the sonne of Sir Thomas, shortly after Colonel of the Ardes in Ireland. But the noble Earle, not disposed to trouble his Joviall mind with such Saturnine paltery, stil continued, like his magnificent selfe. (65–6)

Harvey’s assertion that he “never meante to dishonour” the Earl of Oxford with the “least prejudicial word of his tongue or pen” cannot be totally discounted; Speculum Tuscanismi takes some liberties with the Earl’s Italianate dress and mannerisms, but otherwise attributes many “remarkable gifts” to Oxford (Ogburn 630). However, Harvey’s own characterization of the verses as a “bolde Satyriall Libell,” taken in conjunction with some notes in his Letter-book, suggests that his intentions were “not altogether innocent”:

On folios 51 v and 52 v of Sloane MS.93 there is the draft of a discourse entitled a “dialogue in Cambridge between Master GH and his cumpanye at a midsumer Comencement, togither with certayne delicate sonnets and epigrammes in Inglish verse of his makinge.” One of the gentlemen in the company quotes the first twenty-three lines of the satirical poem which in 1580 was published as Speculum Tuscanismi. The discourse continues: “Nowe tell me … if this be not a noble verse and politique lesson … in effecte conteyning the argumente of his [Master GH's] curragious and warly[k]e apostrophe to my lorde of Oxenforde in his fourth booke of Gratulationum Valdinensium.(Stern 66)

Harvey’s account in Foure Letters conveys the impression that he regretted writing Speculum Tuscanismi. However, his evidence does not point to a permanent breach between himself and Oxford. In the first place, he states confidently that the Earl shrugged the matter off as beneath his notice (“the noble Earle, not disposed to trouble his Joviall mind with such Saturnine paltery, stil continued, like his magnificent selfe”). Secondly, he recalls, for the benefit of his readers, Oxford’s openhanded generosity towards him in his youth. Both these statements are incompatible with any long-lasting animosity between the two men. Moreover, when considering Oxford’s relationship with Harvey during the years 1579­80, it is necessary to keep the chronology of events clearly in focus. On April 10th, 1579, when E.K. signed and dated the dedicatory epistle to Harvey in The Shepheardes Calender, Speculum Tuscanismi was still a year in the future. There is, thus, every reason to believe that relations between Oxford and Harvey on April 10, 1579, were on the friendly basis that had obtained during the lifetime of their mutual friend, Sir Thomas Smith, and that E.K’s attitude toward Harvey in The Shepheardes Calender is entirely consistent with Oxford’s relationship with Harvey at that time.

At this point, it is necessary to consider the nature of E.K.’s friendship with Gabriel Harvey, as revealed in the dedicatory epistle and glosses in the Calender. In the first place, E.K. ‘s dedicatory epistle to Harvey is notably warm and courteous, and generous in its praise of Harvey’s abilities:

To the most excellent and learned both Orator and Poete, Mayster Gabriell Harvey, his Verie special and singular good frend E.K. commendeth the good lyking of this his labour, and the patronage of the new Poete. (Oram 13 )

The opening paragraph of the epistle is also remarkable for the informal manner in which E.K. draws Harvey, as it were, into a friendly discussion with the Reader:

Uncouthe unkiste, Sayde the olde famous Poete Chaucer. . . . Which proverbe, myne owne good friend Ma. Harvey, as in that good old Poete it served well Pandares purpose, for the bolstering of his baudy brocage, so very well taketh place in this our new Poete, who for that he is uncouthe as said Chaucer, is unkist, and unknown to most men, is regarded but of few. (13)

E.K. concludes the epistle by gracefully submitting his efforts to Harvey’s judgment and soliciting his protection for the work of the “new Poete.”

These my present paynes, if to any they be pleasurable or profitable, be you judge, mine own good Maister Harvey, to whom I have both in respect of your worthinesse generally, and otherwyse upon some particular and special considerations vowed this my labour, and the maydenhead of this our commen frends Poetrie, himselfe having already in the beginning dedicated it to the Noble and worthy Gentleman, the right worshipfull Ma. Phi. Sidney, a special favourer and maintainer of all kind of learning, Whose cause I pray you Sir, yf Envie shall stur up any wrongful accusasion, defend with your mighty Rhetorick and other your rare gifts of learning, as you can, and shield with your good wil, as you ought, against the malice and outrage of so many enemies, as I know wilbe set on fire with the sparks of his kindled glory. And thus recommending the Author unto you, as unto his most special good frend, and my selfe unto you both, as one making singuler account of two so very good and so choise frends, I bid you both most hartely farwel, and commit you and your most comendable studies to the tuicion of the greatest.(

Your owne assuredly to be commaunded E.K . (20)

This closing salutation is followed by a lengthy postscript urging Harvey to publish his own unpublished manuscripts (whether this postscript was written tongue,in,cheek by someone who had listened to Harvey’s extravagant praise of him at Audley End must be left to the judgment of the individual reader):

Now I trust M. Harvey, that upon sight of your speciall frends and fellow Poets doings, or els for envie of so many unworthy Quidams, which catch at the garlond, which to you alone is dewe, you will be perswaded to pluck out of the hateful darknesse, those so many excellent English poemes of yours, which lye hid, and bring them forth to eternall light. Trust me you doe both them great wrong, in depriving them of the desired sonne, and also your selfe, in smoothering your deserved prayses, and all men generally, in withholding from them so divine pleasures, which they might conceive of your gallant English verses, as they have already doen of your Latine Poemes, which in my opinion both for invention and Elocution are very deli .. cate, and superexcellent. And thus againe, I take my leave of my good Mayster Harvey from my lodging at London thys 10 of Aprill. 1579. (20–1)

The introductory epistle to The Shepheardes Calender thus suggests a friendship between E.K. and Gabriel Harvey that is generally consistent with what is known of the friendship between Harvey and Oxford in 1579. And E.K.’s glosses to the Calender take the identification between E.K. and Oxford a step further by linking E. K. with people and events which had mutual significance for both Oxford and Harvey.

In his gloss to the word “couthe” in the January eclogue, for example, E.K. mentions the very circumstance that gave rise to the friendship between Harvey and Oxford, namely Harvey’s kinship with Oxford’s old tutor, Sir Thomas Smith:

… couthe commeth of the verb Conne, that is, to know or to have skill. As well interpreteth the same the worthy Sir Tho. Smith in his booke of goverment: wherof I have a perfect copie in wryting, lent me by his kinseman, and my verye singular good freend, M. Gabriel Harvey: as also of some other his most grave and excellent wrytings. (33)

His gloss makes it clear that Sir Thomas Smith is a focal point of E.K.’s relationship with Gabriel Harvey. Moreover, E.K. has read not only Smith’s manuscript treatise on government, but also “other his most grave and excellent wrytings,” and his study of them has been so thorough as to enable him to recall Smith’s usage of a particular word: “couthe.” There may have been a number of reasons for E.K.’s interest in Smith’s works. If E.K. was Oxford, however, there is no mystery about the matter, and his interest in Smith’s published and unpublished works is readily accounted for by the fact that they came from the pen of his former tutor. Similarly, in a gloss to the September eclogue, E.K. mentions with approval Harvey’s elegiac verses on Sir Thomas Smith, Vel Musarum Lachrymae.

Even more significantly, E.K. refers in this gloss to the 1578 entertainment at Audley End in which Harvey and Oxford had played prominent parts. And E.K.’s reference to the entertainment is noteworthy for its completeness: not only does he mention the dedication of Gratulationum Valdinensium to the Queen at Audley End, but also Harvey’s subsequent presentation of a printed copy at “the worshipfull Maister Capells in Hertfordshire”:

Colin cloute: Nowe I thinke no man doubteth but by Colin is ever meante the Authour selfe, whose especiall good freend Hobbinoll sayth he is, or more rightly Mayster Gabriel Harvey: of whose speciall commendation, as well in Poetrye as Rhetorike and other choyce learning, we have lately had a sufficient tryall in diverse his workes, but specially in his Musarum Lachrymae, and his late Gratulationum Valdinensium which boke in the progresse at Audley in Essex, he dedicated in writing to her Majestie, afterward presenting the same in print unto her Highnesse at the worshipfull Maister Capells in Hertfordshire. Beside other his sundrye most rare and very notable writings, partly under unknown Tytles, and partly under counterfayt names, as his Tyrannomastix, his Ode Natalitia, his Rameidos, and esspecially that parte of Philomusus, his divine Anticosmopolita, and divers other of lyke importance. (163–4)

E.K.’s mention of Harvey’s presentation to Elizabeth of a printed copy of Gratulationum Valdinensium at Hadham Hall appears to be the sole historical reference to this event (Churchyard’s account of the 1578 progress merely records the royal party’s stop at “Mayster Kapel’s, where was excellent good cheere and entertaynement”) (Nichols V2 222). Moreover, Harvey’s presentation of his book to the Queen is likely to have been remarked upon only by an eyewitness to his minor triumph; in other words, someone within a small circle of courtiers, Cambridge officials, and personal friends of Gabriel Harvey. By his references to Gratulationum Valdinensium, E.K. necessarily includes himself in this limited group, suggesting once again that he and Oxford were one and the same individual. In summary, then, Oxford meets one of the most important tests for identification with E.K.: he was a friend of Gabriel Harvey in April, 1579. The friendship may have been weakened a year later by the publication of Three Letters, but at the time it was entirely consistent with the warm and generous attitude displayed toward Harvey by E.K. in The Shepheardes Calender.

Works Cited

Bond, R. Warwick, ed. The Complete Works of John Lyly. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

Collier, John Payne, ed. The Works of Edmund Spenser. London: Bell & Daldy, 1862.

Cullen, Patrick. Spenser, Marvell, and Renaissance Pastoral. Harvard UP, 1970.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Fogle, French R. Such a Rural Queen: The Countess Dowager of Derby as Patron in Patronage in Late Renaissance England. Los Angeles: UC Press, 1983.

GEC. The Complete Peerage. London: St. Catherine Press, 1926.

Greenlaw, Edwin, ed. The Works of Edmund Spenser. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1934.

Grosart, Alexander, ed. The Works of Gabriel Harvey. London: Hazell, 1884.

Hamilton, A.C., ed. The Spenser Encyclopedia. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1990.

Harleian Society. Visitation of Warwickshire.

Johnson, Lynn Staley. The Shepheardes Calender: An Introduction. Pennsylvania UP, 1990.

McKerrow, R.B. The Works of Thomas Nashe. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.

McLane, Paul. Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender: A Study in Elizabethan Allegory. U of Notre Dame, 1961.

Miller, Ruth Loyd, ed. “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. 3rd ed. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1975.

Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. New York: Franklin, 1823.

Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and The Reality. New York: Dodd, 1984.

Oram, William, ed. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Shepherd, Geoffrey, ed. An Apology for Poetry, or The Defense of Poesy. London: Nelson, 1965.

Stern, Virginia F. Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia and Library. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Waldman, Louis. Spenser’s Pseudonym E.K. and Humanist Self-Naming, in Cullen, Patrick and Thomas P. Roche, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual. New York: AMS, 1991.

Stephen, Leslie, ed. The Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1917–1968.

Ward, B.M. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550–1604). London: John Murray, 1928.

Hotwiring the Bard into Cyberspace: Insights into automated Forms of Stylistic Analysis Which Attempt to Address Elizabethan Authorship Questions

W. Ron Hess


There has long been controversy about who wrote what during the Elizabethan era because there was an extraordinary proclivity among Elizabethan authors to write anonymously or under pseudonyms, to collaborate, and to borrow (or to quote without attribution, what today we would call “to plagiarize”). Therefore, it is not surprising that this controversy has significantly touched on the works of that most beloved of all Elizabethans, William Shakespeare. As such, this topic is integral to our modern’ day approach to the Shakespeare authorship question. Given this labyrinth of possible multiple hands in works of disputed attribution throughout Elizabethan literature, how can we pick out, with reasonable assurance, who wrote what, and maybe even when? For most of the intervening centuries, stylistic discrimination had to depend exclusively on the arbitrary personal judgment of “experts.” The experts were often self-appointed scholars whose intensive studies of Shakespeare’s works somehow conferred upon them the ability to detect Shakespeare’s style and nuances, at least in their own minds. One example was Earnest A. Gerrard’s 1928 work (Elizabethan Drama and Dramatists 1583-1603) which unsatisfactorily claimed to be able to tell which parts of Shakespeare’s works were written by the various professional playwrights of the Elizabethan era. Another example more familiar to non-orthodox scholars was William Plumer Fowler’s massive 1986 book (Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters) that stylistically compared most of the 17th Earl of Oxford’s letters, plus five letters of his son-in-law, the 6th Earl of Derby, to Shakespeare’s works. Fowler concluded that both had a hand in writing the works. Though we may respect Fowler’s conclusions and methods more than Gerrard’s, whether either “expert” was right remains personal opinion, no matter how many “credentials” each may have held.

Going one step better than merely resorting to authority have been those stalwarts who for centuries have viewed Shakespeare’s works from a statistical or enumerative standpoint. Typically, they would attach to a concordance, or put in an Appendix, a list of the occurrences of some word, phrase, or anomaly, piecework often astounding in their demonstrations of thoroughness and dedication during an era before automated tools could assist in such laborious efforts. When we run across one of these brave efforts, we should ask whether the underlying theory itself was valid; whether the word, phrase, or anomaly really had verifiable meaning with regard to the authorship question at hand.

An instructive case in point was the statistical system touted in 1901 by Dr. Thomas Mendenhall, who claimed that “frequency of word lengths” was a meaningful discriminator, and that Christopher Marlowe’s works match Shakespeare’s in this one criterion, but Bacon’s do not (Michell 228–231). However, over the many decades since this claim was first made, no convincing support for this particular statistical approach has emerged. And, except for panning Bacon, no really good extensions of the system to other authorship comparisons seem to have been made. Criticism of Mendenhall’s methods by H. N. Gibson is additionally instructive:

As a mere scientist, Mendenhall did not understand the conditions of Elizabethan literature; how old copyists and modern editors have tinkered with the lengths and spellings of words; how authors collaborated to such an extent that it is impossible to be sure of selecting pure samples of anyone’s work; how often revisions were made by other hands. Mendenhall’s samples were not large enough to be significant, nor did he test enough authors to be sure that the Marlowe-Shakespeare correspondence was really unique. It is unfair to compare Bacon’s prose with Shakespeare’s verse. Finally, Mendenhall did not double-check his results, so he and his tired assistants probably made mistakes in their counting. This [however] ignores the virtue of Mendenhall’s method: that a writer’s word-length pattern is unconscious and does not significantly vary, whatever the subject or style adopted. Yet no system is perfect. When Mendenhall analyzed “A Christmas Carol” he found that the number of seven-letter words in it was unusually high for a Dickens sample. That was because of the repetition of the name, Scrooge.” (229–30)

Many of the criticisms of Mendenhall above might also be applied to more modern dabblers in automated stylistic analysis, as we shall see. We must attempt to overcome these weaknesses in any system that we may wish to construct ourselves. But, seeing no great support for this methodology except among supporters of Marlowe as the author of Shakespeare, one must conclude that Mendenhall’s system does no better than to set the opinions of a few “experts” against those of the rest of the world.

This has been a common problem for all non-automated approaches to date: the need to achieve to the greatest extent possible objectivity, perfection, unassailability, and to weed out the human element prone to error and bias. This, then, has been the “Holy Grail” of all who wish to automate stylistic discrimination. It remains to be seen whether such a dependable system will remain forever romantically elusive, or whether it is, in fact, a real possibility.

With the emergence of modern statistical methods and primitive electronic computing, the best that could initially be done was to try to formalize the experts’ rules sufficiently to allow them to be put into partially-automated statistical systems. Such was Prof. Warren Austin’s 1969 effort, which claimed to have identified significant similarities between the style of Henry Chettle and the style used in the 1592 pamphlet published by Chettle, called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance, which pretends to be Robert Greene’s deathbed work. Austin’s conclusion was that Greene made little if any contribution to the pamphlet, and more than likely it was a forgery by Chettle. It is a testament to how unpersuasive Austin’s methodology was (notwithstanding his use of statistics and computers) that a deep division continues in all circles of scholarship, especially over the Internet, as to whether Greene, Chettle, Nashe, or someone else wrote that pamphlet. Austin’s conclusion has been dismissed by many orthodox scholars for many reasons, not the least of which was that if Greene did not write Groatsworth, they may have to forfeit one of their few snippets of putative Shakespearean “biography” (see discussion of this in Hess 1996). Austin’s plight can be summed up in his own words from 1992, when he reported that:

I have recently had produced a much more comprehensive concordance to Greene’s prose, including over 300,000 words of Greene’s text from all periods of his publishing career. This provides a data base that should make it possible to establish vis-a-vis the whole Chettle corpus, previously concorded, the particular verbal, syntactical, and other usages which so consistently differentiate the Greene and Chettle styles, and thus to determine decisively the true author of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.

Thus, after several decades, poor Prof. Austin still had not “decisively” reached a conclusion about a relatively simple issue such as Greene vs. Chettle, let alone Shakespeare vs. anyone else. It is safe to say that Austin’s system was not “perfect” or “unassailable.”

Another instructive case was the statistical system enhanced by computers which was developed by political science Prof. Ward Elliott and his “clinic” of undergraduate students. This system was reviewed by Peter Moore in The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Summer 1990), was defended by Elliott in an unpublished article (October 1990), and finally explained in Elliott’s published article in Notes & Queries (December 1991), giving some insights into his methodology, findings, and conclusions, some of which will be discussed in the second part of this article [to be published in the 1999 Oxfordian]. Elliott’s system attempted to evaluate Shakespeare’s “linguistic tendencies” and characteristics in a way that he hoped would uniformly generate results to be run against other authors of the same era.

However, Moore’s 1990 review asserted that many of the criteria used by Elliott’s system turned out to be purely editorial-based or punctuation-based, not really related to authorship, while Elliott’s choices of texts to evaluate often had serious flaws which should have been avoided. (Does this sound similar to criticisms of Mendenhall by Gibson?) We should recognize that the English language, spelling, punctuation, printing technology, editorial habits, and many other aspects were in great flux during the time of the publication of Shakespeare’s works and the King James Bible, both of which did much to set the standards for our language thereafter (McCrum 90106, 11015). The 1623 Shakespeare First Folio was punctuated quite differently from the modern Riverside Shakespeare chosen by Elliott, and 16th-century punctuation was relatively slight compared to that of later eras. For example, Elliott’s system used occurrences of exclamation marks, when in fact the exclamation mark was not adopted into the English language until the 1590s, some time after the publication of many of the works Elliott compared against, such as the 1570s poems of the Earl of Oxford (Moore 9). Not surprisingly, Oxford’s punctuation and exclamation-deficient poems were rated by Elliott’s system as poorly matching Shakespeare’s 1609 and 1623 works with their 20th-century editing and punctuation. Elliott acknowledged in his unpublished 1990 article that “exclamation marks may [be] a weak test” (5); something of an understatement.

Such foibles make it clear that Elliott’s system is no more “perfect” or “unassailable” than Austin’s; that it is open to improvement and could be better accepted by his colleagues. Elliott has explained his methodology in more comprehensive articles in 1996 and 1997, even though his Shakespeare Clinic “closed down” in 1994. He now claims Shakespeare was probably not the author of Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, Pt. 3, or A Lover’s Complaint.

Elliott, however, remains active in criticizing his successor as king of the automated hill, Prof. Donald Foster. Foster’s hypotheses and preliminary conclusions were originally stated in his 1989 book identifying Shakespeare as the author of a 1612 poem known as “Elegy by W.S.” Foster hypothesized that William Shakepeare wrote this elegy to mourn the brutal murder of one William Peter (variously spelled Peeter and Petre) of Whipton near Exeter and then somehow managed to get it published only days afterwards in London, though Foster did acknowledge that the verse was far from Shakespeare’s best. Oxfordian author Joe Sobran jumped on these improbabilities in his entertaining 1996 article, where he argued that Oxford wrote “Elegy” as a youthful effort, which was set aside in shame, only to emerge when it was stolen from his widow’s estate by a pirate publisher in 1609 and then saved until the 1612 murder provided a pretext for publishing the poem (because of the poem’s featuring of the name “Peter” in certain lines).

Foster’s system, dubbed Shaxicon in his 1995 article, works from similarities, such as the use of the words “who” and “whom” in reference to inanimate objects, to maintain that Shakespeare was the author of “Elegy.” However, in a 1997 article, his fellow orthodox scholar Prof. Elliott questioned whether Foster’s use of “rare words and quirks” constituted sufficient proof. Further, Elliott prefers to emphasize elements that exclude Shakespeare’s authorship, rather than Foster’s elements, which are inclusive of it. Clearly Foster’s system is not “unassailable.”

The debate over whether Austin’s, Elliott’s, or Foster’s systems are acceptable rages on, with many scholars, orthodox or not, left scratching their heads, while publicity and egos have frequently skewed the debate. Foster used Shaxicon in 1996 to evaluate the style in the book Primary Colors by Anonymous, identifiing Joe Klein as the real author at least six months before Klein’s public confession (a feat which others could have duplicated simply by examining what sorts of things Anonymous appeared to know about the internal workings of the Clinton ’92 campaign).

This raises a general concern for us: If a system’s creator knows something specific, even subliminally, about the subject being searched for, in many cases the creator can “tweak” the system to specifically look for that something. For instance, Joe Klein may have been known to use unusual word contractions or endings also used by Anonymous, which Shaxicon then could conceivably have been tweaked to search out, not necessarily as a normal exercise. This might make the creator look brilliant when the system magically finds the something, but, if presented as a scientific methodology, it may have no more validity than the horse trainer who caused his horse to count to 20 without realizing that the horse was following the unintentional nods of the trainer’s head with each hoofbeat, so that when the trainer stopped nodding, the horse stopping counting.

Might Shaxicon have been tweaked with regard to its Shakespeare vs. “Elegy” evaluation? It is hard to say without detailed examination of the inner workings of Foster’s system; but one should be skeptical, if only because we know that Foster initially published a proposal of his “Elegy” theory in a book, then later created “Shaxicon,” which then validated his theory. More than just accurate, a system must be demonstrably objective in order to be “perfect” or “unassailable.”

Since Foster is the authority du jour, it is worthwhile looking into reasonable non-computer oriented alternatives to his theory about the “Elegy by W.S.” We might prefer either of two Oxfordian solutions. The first is the suggestion by Richard Desper in an article in The Elizabethan Review that “Elegy” was a youthful product by the Earl of Oxford, written in 1581 as a memorial to the brilliant Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion. Desper notes that Oxford has often been taken for a closet Catholic, and suggests that the use of the name “Peter” is actually a reference to the Catholic Church as the heir to St. Peter.

Desper makes a strong case, one which readers should judge for themselves. Among other things, his theory has the virtue of explaining things that Foster could not, such as the fact that William Peter had not been married for nine years, as is stated in the poem, whereas Campion had been “married” to the Church for exactly that number of years when he was executed in 1581. On the other hand, he fails to establish a strong historical relationship between Oxford and Campion (though not surprising if Oxford felt forced to hide his Catholic sympathies). Most problematic is the quality of “Elegy,” which many feel is not even up to the Earl of Oxford’s early standards of poetry, let alone Shakespeare’s.

A second theory has been posited by Richard Kennedy on the Oxfordian Internet group, Phaeton. Kennedy believes “Elegy” was written in 1612 by the leading elegist of that time, John Ford, a known friend of the Peter family. Notably, Kennedy has support from the principal expert on John Ford’s works, Prof. Leo Stock, also a Shakespeare scholar. Stock has stated in a letter to Kennedy that he would “unhesitatingly” ascribe the “Elegy” to Ford, and not to Shakespeare, who is not known to have been an elegist at all.

There might be some middle ground between the Desper and Kennedy positions if it can be established that Ford adapted his elegy about William Peter from an earlier lost or anonymous elegy about Campion.[1] A clue to this might be certain key passages that Desper highlights as relating to Campion; if those prove to be poor matches to Ford’s style, while the rest of the elegy otherwise is shown to be a good match to Ford’s style, the case for a missing precursor will be supported. Foster’s failure to use Shaxicon to compare the elegy against Ford’s style and that of other early 17th-century elegists, and his failure to adequately seek peer review from subject authorities such as Prof. Stock, might be viewed as an unfortunate lack of objectivity and dubious professionalism. A.K. Dewdney’s 1996 book amusingly chronicles slightly similar vainglorious excesses by proponents of “Cold Fusion” and other absurd departures from the scientific method.

At the moment, Foster’s Shaxicon has edged to the front in the overall challenge to unlock the secrets of authorship, but for him to claim the prize, he will have to deal with the questions and suggestions of other scholars that haven’t been dealt with, including those of Oxfordians such as Desper and Kennedy.

Perhaps the Holy Grail of systems will never be achieved, one that is “objective,” “perfect,” or “unassailable,” but there are ways to make these computer systems more objective, less biased by their creators’ prejudices and less subject to being tweaked to get results satisfying their creators’ pet theories. One approach might be to more rigorously adopt an Expert System approach, and it would not be giving away too much to point out that Austin’s, Elliott’s, and Foster’s systems can be characterized as nothing more than primitive, marginally successful examples of expert systems, though certainly they are brave pioneers!

Decision-paths and knowledge are required for a human expert to do something that we would normally associate with human intelligence. Included in these are applications requiring “interpretation, prediction, diagnosis, design, planning, monitoring, debugging, repair, instruction, or control” (Turban 92-93). Moreover, an expert system “employs human knowledge captured in a computer to solve problems that ordinarily require human expertise” and will “imitate the reasoning processes experts use to solve specific problems” (74).

Most chess programs are expert systems, with large databases of rules, strategies, stored positions, computational routines, all of which rely on raw computing power to “look” ahead many moves into the game in order to select the best moves. Notably, chess programs rarely have a “learning” capability, which means that if one defeats the program today by use of a particular strategic line, one will likely be able to do so indefinitely with the same line. The basic reason why World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov appeared to explode in an unsportsman-like way after his famous loss to “Deep Blue” in 1997, was that he felt that somehow the IBM team had tweaked Blue into the ability to exploit Kasparov’s personal weaknesses; that they had managed to cover up specific program flaws, but that overall the program was still weaker than was claimed. The refusal of the IBM team to consent to a rematch or to allow wider examination of their system, and the close consultancy with that team by Chess Grandmaster Joel Benjamin, have led some to wonder if Kasparov might have been right to be upset. But the machine-beats-man syndrome captured the public attention; again perhaps more than it should have.[2]

So, if it is reasonable to expect human expertise to be able to pick out so-called “weak endings” {sometimes referred to as “feminine endings”} from Shakespeare’s plays and to tally those, certainly we can set up an expert system to do just that, and more besides. That is because an expert system can do boring, error-prone operations far faster and more consistently than a human can, assuming it is programmed properly. But what if weak endings really aren’t normal expertise; what if they are counter-intuitive? What if they are contrived criteria amounting to no more than a tweaking of the system to find something its creator already has biases and preconceived conclusions about? What if our expert system is merely a reflection of its creator’s mind? We’d be using our expert system to do things faster and come to more conclusions in a given time frame, but would they be better conclusions or, once again, just “garbage-in-garbage-out”?

Clearly, one disadvantage of expert systems is that they will always reflect the lapses, biases, preferences, and mistakes of the “experts” who constructed them. And given the heated debates surrounding all aspects of the Shakespeare authorship question, there are biases aplenty. The best hope for expert systems is that their creators will be adaptive and reasonable in use of outside criteria to objectively evaluate their results, employ wide peer review of their methods, and make appropriate modifications to iteratively and progressively render their systems more “objective,” “perfect” and “unassailable.”

Neural networks may be a significant improvement over expert systems in years to come. Neural networks are pattern-recognition programs that can be “taught” by trial and error to pick out correct patterns. With each wrong answer the program gets adjusted in a systematic way that can lead eventually to nearly flawless performance. Note that “systematic adjustments” are different from what I’ve been calling “tweaking,” because the former has been built into the system as part of the rules, whereas tweaking, or adjusting for a particular task based on what’s known about it, is really no better than cheating.

This “teaching” process found in neural networks deliberately mimics the biological function of the human brain in learning (Turban 621, 624), such as when a child is trained by a reward and deprivation strategy to pick out various patterns in learning the alphabet. The child’s brain is full of neurons and neural pathways that enable it to use trial and error to eventually distinguish the pattern.

Current applications for neural network include stock market-trading predicting for Mutual Funds, diagnosing diseases, identifying types of cars and airplanes, classifying galaxies by shape, spotting fake antique furniture, and deciding which customers will be good credit risks, among a number of others (Ripley 1,2). The newest fad in database management systems is “Data Mining,” which has at its core one or more neural network applications, the purpose of which is to assist a company in discovering hidden uses for its stored data. If Deep Blue was all that has been claimed for it, then it is very likely that it had a neural network component to help it learn from its experiences.[3]

Typically, a neural network is taught by running it through 90% of a data sample and doing thousands of “corrections” to multiple layers of decision paths designed into the program. Then the neural network is “self-validated” by running it against the remaining 10% of the sample. One key distinction between a neural network and an expert system (and a human “expert” for that matter): the former can be self-validated in such a way that any objective observer would be able to accept that its remarkable results are unbiased, accurate, and reflective of reality, not some human’s prejudicial tweaking, whereas the latter is always subject to errors and biases.

Indeed, neural networks are already being used for “stylometrics” purposes, albeit with mixed results. Strides are being made by Bradley Kjell, through use of neural networks to nail down identifications in such well-established literary material as the “Federalist Papers.” Another pioneer is Thomas V. N. Merriam, who has authored and co-authored a number of articles listed in our ‘Bibliography’ section, dealing with use of neural networks for evaluating Shakespeare vs. Fletcher or Shakespeare vs. Marlowe, but notably no attempt has been yet made to have a more complex comparison, such as Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Marlowe vs. each other. Merriam claimed to have identified works that were collaborations between Shakespeare and others, or to which Shakespeare had contributed.

As always with neural networks, the crux of the exercise lies first in how to teach the program and second in how to interpret the results. For instance, Merriam seems to have used one set of criteria for evaluating Fletcher and another for Marlowe (might this be akin to tweaking?). Then there is the underlying matter of dating the works, and with that the feasibility of the alleged collaborations being assumed (this factor will be discussed in more detail in Part II, where it will be shown that use of stylometrics to assign dates to works, followed by using the relative timing of works to evaluate stylometrics is “circular reasoning” fraught with error!). For instance, if the current trend continues in orthodox circles to accept earlier dating of Shakespeare’s works than had been established by such pillars as E.K. Chambers, then it is no longer likely that Shakespeare and Fletcher were creative contemporaries, an assumption which underlies much of Merriam’s reasoning (Matthews, New Science 27).

We may also be of the opinion that Merriam’s long-term approach is flawed, since he seems bent on piecemeal analysis of peripheral issues (such as whether Shakespeare had a hand in Edward III) when he should be first consolidating the full potential of the self-verification capability of neural networks for the whole of 16th and early 17th century literature in noncontroversial identifications before proceeding to the fringe areas where identifications are hotly debated. In short, Merriam risks discrediting neural networks over these peripheral issues before their wider potential has been fundamentally established. For instance, as critic M.W.A. Smith is paraphrased as having said in the 1995 British Humanities Index item 5546, with regard to Merriam’s peripheral investigations: “For more than a decade Merriam has been trying to impress on sceptical scholars that his stylometry has revealed that the conventional ascription of ‘Sir Thomas More’ to Munday is wrong, and that most of the play is by Shakespeare. [Smith's] critical review “… indicates that much needs to be corrected and reworked before a serious literary reassessment would be warranted.”

The most important task, in this author’s view, is to evaluate the styles of a much wider mix of 16th, 17th century authors using neural network comparisons; beyond only Shakespeare vs. one-at-a-time, we should evaluate him against a much broader mix of his era. Once we have this broader base of comparison (Jonson vs. Nashe, Watson vs. Munday, Greene vs. Chettle, de Vere vs. Sidney, Raleigh vs. Spenser, Lyly vs. Shakespeare, and each in this list with each other) to add to the basic non-controversial Shakespeare comparisons, only then can we begin to press the envelope into the peripheral areas where the Shakespeare authorship question dwells.

Results of certain neural network applications may conceivably be made admissible in legal matters someday. One such application might be DNA analysis, in which case one can imagine exhaustive, lawyerly probes into how well “educated” the application was, and about interpretation of the results, which, again, revolves around the human element in the process and its varying degrees of reliability. But in court the results from the Neural Network process itself will probably remain “unassailable.”

Another key distinction is this: Just because a neural network solves a problem doesn’t mean that we can define with precision how it arrived at the solution. This is similar to human pattern recognition, too. As Ripley says: One characteristic of human pattern recognition is that it is mainly learnt. We cannot describe the rules we use to recognize a particular face, and will probably be unable to describe it well enough for anyone else to use the description for recognition. On the other hand, botanists can give the rules they use to identify flowering plants.

Similarly, when you are shown a paper with dots apparently randomly scattered on it, statisticians might try to fit a “regression analysis” linear function to the dots to attempt to come as close as possible to describing the distribution mathematically, but the straight line of a regression analysis is only an approximation of the real-life distribution of the dots, which may be much closer to a squiggly line. Astoundingly, after enough trials and errors the neural network can actually arrive “by accident” at a high-level function describing a complex curve that matches the distribution of the dots far more accurately than statistical regression analysis can. Yet the function of the curve will only be simulated, not defined in a precise mathematical way.

The most valuable aspect of neural networks may be the frequently unexpected nature of their results. A well-established neural network can actually work within the rules to yield results that its human “teachers” did not foresee; it may “think outside of the paradigm” in ways that might almost be seen as creative. In effect, it may teach the teachers, in the way that data mining can be used to show novel ways for a company to reconnect its data pathways and interpersonal communications. So, from a neural network we may expect to learn things we didn’t expect to know about Shakespeare’s stylistic patterns.

While neural networks may show more long-term promise, expert systems still have one useful characteristic, as mentioned above: They can perform repetitive, boring tasks rapidly with few human-style errors. Because of this, this article proposes that an expert system be used to assist in selecting a random but educated sample of lines and phrases from Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and early 17th century authors, and to build a database with which to teach an appropriately designed neural network (let’s call it Cyber-Bard). This process is not trivial and could be expensive. Moreover, even among orthodox scholars there remains great debate over exactly which plays and parts of plays Shakespeare wrote, and which were written by others with whom he may have collaborated or from whom he may have “stolen.” Still, in spite of the limitations of expert systems, if objectivity can be scrupulously maintained, they can be very useful in speeding up those things that can be automated, and they may also help to impose a discipline and deeper thinking onto the process than that would normally be required for alternative human-hands-only processes.

After Cyber-Bard has been taught with a high success rate to distinguish Shakespeare’s lines from other authors’ lines, and has been self-validated, then it can be used for purposes related to the Shakespeare authorship question. The first task would be to run Cyber-Bard against representative samples of authors whose works span from the 1570s to 1630s to determine which of the authors get the highest match-rate scores against the pattern(s) recognized for Shakespeare. In fact we might wish also to consider checking out even earlier authors in order not to overlook early Elizabethan poets and playwrights such as Sackville, Norton, or the Earl of Surrey, from whom Shakespeare conceivably could have borrowed. Then Cyber-Bard can be run against Shakespeare’s own works to determine which sections might better correspond to other authors’ match-rate scores. These might support any theories that those Shakespeare sections reflect the styles of other authors and give us clues to further research and applications.

Ultimately, Cyber-Bard could be run against the vast body of anonymous and pen-named literature that has come down to us from that era. In this way, works now entirely unattributed to any known author may be identified as probably by a given author who chose to remain anonymous, and good matches might be added to the Shakespeare canon as probable additional works by him.
Touching on this, did Shakespeare suddenly appear from rural Warwickshire in about 1590, with a distinctive Warwickshire dialect (see Miller, Vol. II, 285)? More than just an accent, a dialect involves altogether different sets of nouns, verbs, idioms, and syntax to an extent where often the speaker cannot be easily understood by someone from a neighboring district. And then, only three years later, did he start writing polished poetry in an upper-class London dialect that we identify as Shakespearean? Or is it more likely that there is a body of earlier works by Shakespeare, which we might term “immature Shakespeare,” works which are seen as anonymous or incorrectly attributed to a variety of other, lesser writers? Cyber-Bard may be able to help us answer exciting questions like these!

In criticizing neural networks, A.K. Dewdney, in his very entertaining and educational 1997 book, felt that there was too much hype surrounding them back in the 1970-80s and that their promise has come up short. Still, the memory-management and other architectural advancements needed to improve upon the original approaches to neural networks are actually advancing all the time, with decreasing costs as well, and are likely to improve for the foreseeable future. The probability is that the problems cited by Dewdney will simply evaporate in the light of micro-miniaturization, parallel architectures, and other developing concepts.

In fact, neural networks appear to be literally the wave of the future. Bauer’s 1998 article states that “neural networks are making a comeback,” and lists the following applications where we might find them in the near future, if not already here: medicine, banking, astronomy, enhanced Internet search engines, “fuzzy logic,” genetic algorithms, developing legal strategies, analyzing real estate markets, modeling power outages, developing models that predict the size of the catch for Atlantic fisheries, finance, insurance, target marketing, voice recognition, optical character recognition, digital control systems for factory automation, customer relationship management, and monitoring events on a transaction basis. He even mentioned “Jeff Zeanah, a consultant whose Atlanta, GA, based company, Z. Solutions LLC, offers a neural network boot camp.” So, can we all hope to send our teenagers off to camp to return as neural network gurus? Maybe yes, since Bauer concludes:

Montgomery [an earlier-quoted expert] points out that with today’s sophisticated neural network tools, “The user doesn’t have to have any knowledge of neural networks. Anybody that wants to can do advanced modeling.” Experts agree that this factor alone will contribute significantly to market growth for neural networks. What’s more, Montgomery believes that most technical professionals could pick up neural networking without much difficulty. “Give me a good software programmer or engineer, and I can teach them the modeling,” he said. However, he adds that to be successful, they also need functional knowledge of the business where the software is used, as well as some “statistical common sense.”

Let us venture to predict that within the next decade we will see the hardware and software required for something approximating Cyber-Bard and so may actually begin to see some solutions to the complex Shakespeare authorship question. Of course, that still says nothing about the accuracy of the assumptions with which the material is chosen for educating and validating the program; nor the validity of the interpretation of any results. Nevertheless, the hope remains strong that such problems can be worked through to the satisfaction of most reasonable scholars, with the hoped-for result that almost anyone will be able to rerun the program and verify the results without having to resort to “expert opinion.”

It’s exciting to think of what can be accomplished in stylistic discrimination by objective application of expert systems and neural networks. But shall we allow these emerging tools of the Shakespeare authorship question to be left exclusively in the hands of those whose careers, academic tenure, self-esteem, and funding depend upon linkage to orthodox precepts and results? Or shall we forthrightly establish our own paradigm and do it the way it should be done? Are there open-minded scholars or an organization willing to back such scholars with the means, the faith, and the motivation necessary to fund such a project? This will be the Oxfordian challenge for the new millennium![4]

[Author's Updates: July 2011]

  1. In 2002, Foster succumbed to his critics by agreeing that “Elegy” had not been written by Shakespeare and that he had erred in not considering Ford to have been its author. He said simply that he didn’t know why his Shaxicon system had identified it as a work of the Bard. But this 1998 article had predicted that he had not likely managed to divorce his preconceived notions from objective criterion for his system.
  2. Since the publication of this article in 1998, great advances have been made in “Expert System” Chess programs for personal computers. Grand Master level programs can be purchased for under $200, such as the “Fritz” product. Such products are routinely used for preparation and analysis by top players, and professional commentary on games are now often supplemented by notes like, “Fritz suggests …,” as if Fritz were another Grand Master of consummate skill. Of course the software has improved, but the greatest improvement has been in the hardware and memory improvements, allowing the computer to compute dozens of “plies” (or half-moves) deep in a matter of seconds, and do a much more accurate evaluation of who is winning in each possible position. Some players lament that “the Game of Kings” is essentially “dead” because computers have increasingly removed genius, intuition, and mystery. For most other players Chess is, after all, still “just a game!”
  3. Readers will have heard of the 2011 competition between IBM’s “Watson” system and 3 of the highest earning “Jeopardy” champions on TV. The “Watson” system is a neural networks application which learns from its errors and from a database of opponents’ right answers, plus a database of “facts” and web-searches relevant to the task of playing the game. It was most remarkable in its ability to understand spoken questions and to give human-like oral answers. As with Chess programs, this is a specialty application which has limited utility beyond its intended purpose—except that it illustrates very solidly what the power and potential of neural networks will be in the near future.
  4. In 2001 I was preparing an article on this subject in collaboration with Professor Lew Gilstrap, a pioneer in neural networks for military applications, who was a fellow adjunct professor with me at Johns Hopkins University Graduate School. In a proposal to set up the Cyber-Bard system described here, we applied for a $25,000 grant from Ambassador Nitze’s foundation, but got no reply, and the ambassador died a few years later. Unfortunately, I’ve now lost contact with Lew, believing him to be deceased.

Bibliography

Austin, Warren B. “A Computer-aided Technique for Stylistic Discrimination: The Authorship of ‘Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit’.” U.S. Dept. of HEW. Washington, DC: 1969.
———”Groatsworth and Shake-scene.” The Shakespeare Newsletter Spring (1992).
Bentley, Gerald E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven: Yale UP. 1961. Bauer, Claud J. “Neural Networks Are Making a Comeback.” The Washington Post High Tech Careers Advertising Supplement. 12 July 1998. Clark, Eva Turner. Hidden Al lusions in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Study of the Early Court Revels and Personalities of the ‘Times. 1930. Ed. Ruth Loyd Miller. New York: Kennikat Press: 1974.
Crain, Caleb. “The Bard’s Fingerprints.” Lingua Franca . July/August (1998): 29–39.
Desper, Richard. “An Alternate Solution to the Funeral Elegy.” The Elizabethan Review. 5.2(1997): 79–82.
Dewdney, A. K. Yes, We Have No Neutrons. New York: John Wiley. 1996. 79–97.
Elliott, Ward and Robert Valenza. “Computers and the Oxford Candidacy: A Response to Peter Moore’s Critique of The Shakespeare Clinic.” Unpublished distribution. October 1990.
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