Shakespeare’s Son on Death Row?

Spanish Ambassador’s letter makes it clear that 18th Earl’s life may have
hung in the balance as the First Folio was rushed to completion

by William Boyle

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Summer 1998).


On July 7th researcher Peter Dickson gave his third lecture of the year at the Library of Congress on his theory about the publication of the First Folio and the Spanish Marriage Crisis. Since our report about Dickson’s work in the last issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter he has uncovered more new documents which lend support to his theory about the Folio publication.

The July 7th lecture, held at the Hispanic division of the Library of Congress, was highlighted by Dickson’s presentation of a letter he had just received from Spain’s royal archives in June. In this letter (see the translation on page 4) the Spanish ambassador to London at that time, Count Gondomar (full name, Don Diego Sarmiento de Acua), wrote back to his home government that the action that King James took in April 1622 in imprisoning Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford, were at the behest of Gondomar himself. Furthermore, in this same letter, Gondomar states that King James had also relieved the 18th Earl of Oxford of his fleet command in the English Channel because of Gondomar’s request, and Gondomar goes on to say that he personally would like to see the 18th Earl of Oxford executed.

Count Gondomar’s letter to the King of Spain, 16 May 1622

The two sections reproduced above are of the two consecutive pages of the Gondomar May 16, 1622 letter that refer to the 18th Earl of Oxford’s imprisonment. The sections before and after the references to the 18th Earl were written in code about military matters (the text on the left of these sections is the decipherment of the code). It is interesting that Gondomar did not consider his remarks on his relationship with King James merited encoding.

The translation of the Oxford section of the letter is courtesy of Dr. Juan Manuel Perez of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress:

“In the letter of April 1, I said to your Majesty how the King removed the Earl Oxford as commander in chief of the armada in the Strait [Ed. note: the fleet in the Channel] because I told him to, because he [Oxford] was partial to the Dutch, and also because of the way Oxford was bad mouthing the King and me. He spoke even to the point of saying that it was a miserable situation that had reduced England’s stature because the people had to tolerate a King who had given the Pope everything spiritual; and everything temporal to the King of Spain. I told King James to arrest this man and put him in the Tower in a narrow cell so that no one can speak to him. I have a strong desire to cut off his head because he is an extremely malicious person and has followers. And he is the second ranking Earl in England, and he and his followers are committed to the Puritan Faction with great passion and to the faction of the Count of the Palatinate against the service of the Emperor and your Majesty.”


The clear implication in the letter is that James is doing whatever Gondomar wishes to see done. This in itself is not new information, since Gondomar is already notorious in history as a Machiavellian type who had more than once manipulated the English monarch in the name of Spanish policy objectives. What is new is that the letter clearly reveals that Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford–Shakespeare’s son–is now in the sights of a man who can convince King James to do what he wants him to do.

The Gondomar letter itself has only been cited once in earlier historical scholarship about this period, and never (to Dickson’s knowledge) has it been reproduced in full as we have done in this issue of the newsletter (see box, this page). In an 1869 book, Prince Charles and the Spanish Marriage Crisis by Samuel Rawson Gardiner, the author makes reference to this letter (which he had read while researching in the Royal Spanish archives in Simancas). It was a footnote in Gardiner’s book about this letter that lead Dickson to request a copy from the archives earlier this year.

As for the “Marriage Crisis,” this is a period in English history that seems to have drifted off into obscurity. Dickson has stated to the newsletter that he believes “this is primarily because the Liberal Nationalist and even anti-Catholic bias of most British historians prior to the middle of this century encouraged them to turn a blind eye to the conduct of King James and his young advisor/protege/lover George Villiers–the Duke of Buckingham–in what was, for them, a disgraceful scheme to achieve a permanent peace with Spain through a marriage alliance.”

This alliance was to have been the marriage of James I’s son Charles with King Philip IV’s sister, and would have thus been the key event in sealing a permanent peace agreement between England and Spain. From about 1613 through 1623 the marriage alliance was a major foreign policy objective of the Spanish. It became a crisis in England because a majority of the English population wanted no part of such a deal–seeing it as a return of the papacy to the Isle–and it was opposed at higher levels of government by a most interesting (to Oxfordians) set of leaders: the 3rd Earl of Southampton, the 18th Earl of Oxford, and the Earl of Pembroke, one of the dedicatees of the First Folio and Lord Chamberlain from December 1615 through 1626. The crisis reached hysterical heights when Prince Charles and Buckingham secretly left England in 1623 for eight months to travel to Spain to secure the marriage deal in person.

Incredibly, 120 years passed before the Marriage Crisis received the serious attention of scholars again. Thomas Cogswell of Harvard University wrote about it in The Blessed Revolution (1989), but his book is actually about the period immediately following the failure of the marriage proposal, beginning in the fall of 1623 when Buckingham and Prince Charles had returned from Spain empty-handed, and the nation went into a prolonged celebration which included bonfires in the streets throughout London.

Cogswell does not mention the May 16th Gondomar letter in his book, nor does he dwell much on the roles of Southampton and Oxford in the whole affair. And, as Gardiner before him, he pays no attention at all to the parallel event of the First Folio publication occurring in 1622-1623, let alone consider that the Folio publication and the Marriage Crisis are linked. But this “oversight” is shared by nearly all scholars of the period, and in the authorship debate neither Stratfordians nor anti-Stratfordians have ever made this connection either.

Dickson’s new theory addresses this oversight by stating that there clearly is a connection between a Folio publication project that has always been acknowledged to have been sloppy and flawed, the monumental proportions of the Marriage Crisis, and the involvement of Oxford’s friends and family in both the crisis and the Folio publication.

Dickson has further stated that, given the historical evidence of this period, the Folio publication project can no longer be seen as a purely literary project, and that once one accepts the political dimensions of the project, the Oxfordian theory of the Shakespeare authorship has by far the best explanatory powers.

Why the Folio in 1623?

In order to fully understand the possible interconnection between the Marriage Crisis and the publication of the First Folio one must first ask why was the Folio published in 1623? There has never really been any serious question in either Stratfordian or anti-Stratfordian camps about why the Folio was published at this particular time. It appears to have just been generally accepted that it was published when it was published because that’s apparently how long it took for those involved to get organized, go to the printer and have it done.

It has been considered by some that the strange events of 1619 when a series of quartos known as the “Pavier” quartos appeared might constitute an early attempt at publishing a Shakespeare Folio. These quartos were published by Pavier in association with Jaggard, but the titles involved are a mixed bag of previously published Shakespeare titles and such apocryphal plays as Sir John Oldcastle and A Yorkshire Tragedy. None of the previously unpublished 18 plays that would first appear in the Folio four years later were part of this project, which would seem to indicate that the key players in the later Folio project (i.e. those who held the text of all the unpublished plays in some form–”the grand possessors?”) were not involved in releasing them to anyone in 1619, even if printers such as Pavier and Jaggard were themselves thinking at this time about collecting whatever they could of Shake-speare’s plays.

However, there is one significant fact about the First Folio that all scholars–Stratfordian and anti-Stratfordian–have always acknowledged, and that is that the First Folio was full of errors, to a point of embarrassment as some critics have noted. Why this is so, no one has ever been able to figure out, or even to theorize much about. It is this telling fact, coupled with the scholarship of Charlton Hinman in his 1963 work The Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, that provides the linchpin for Dickson’s theory. Hinman’s work clearly establishes that the Folio printing process could not have begun any earlier than February or March 1622 (and may even have started later in 1622), and in the 35 years since his work was published no one has rebutted this key fact.

We know that work on the Folio must have been completed in October to November 1623 since the first copies for sale appeared in bookstores in December 1623. This means that the entire project was completed during virtually the same period of time that Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford, was in the Tower (April 1622 to December 1623).

Another intriguing fact about the whole Folio project that should also be mentioned here is that Jaggard registered 16 of the previously unpublished 18 plays with the Stationers’ Register on November 8th, 1623. This event thus came at the very end of the printing schedule, not the beginning, a most peculiar ordering of priorities. Compare this, for example, with the Ben Jonson folio project in 1615- 1616, for which the printer registered all the previously unpublished material as the first step in the process, not the last.

Jaggard’s trip to the Stationers’ also took place just days after a very public reconciliation between Southampton and Buckingham and an agreement for the release of Oxford from the Tower, an agreement which included an arrangement for him to marry Diana Cecil, great granddaughter of Lord Burghley. All these events took place within four weeks of the return of Buckingham and Prince Charles from Spain, empty-handed. The Marriage Crisis was over.

While mainstream scholars from Sidney Lee in 1902 to Irvin Matus in 1994 have all commented on the First Folio’s clear shortcomings and wondered why more care was not taken with such an ambitious and important project, one of the best quotations we could find that illustrate the significance of this unanswered question about the Folio publication comes from none other than Charlton Ogburn, in his The Mysterious William Shakespeare. At the conclusion of Chapter 13 Ogburn has this to say about the First Folio publication:

A second reason for the textual failings of the Folio must be that however long the collection had been planned the actual production was rushed. A much better job could have been done with the materials available. Were the compilers fearful that the longer the work of assembling and printing took the greater the danger would be of provoking a reaction at the highest level of the realm and of a bar to the publication? A guess as to the cause of haste, relying on our present information, can be only a shot in the dark. (TMWS, page 239)

The newsletter has been in touch with Ogburn about Dickson’s theory and about this paragraph from Chapter 13 of his book. Ogburn commented to us that, “Dickson appears to have taken this shot in the dark, and I am coming to believe that he is correct in his theory about the Folio publication and the Marriage Crisis. It would certainly explain a great deal that has, up to now, been unclear.”

Ogburn also later commented in a separate conversation with Dickson that, “You have placed the Oxfordian theory at the heart of English history.”

Was the 18th Earl in danger?

In addition to Gondomar’s (pictured left) May 16th letter, there is another significant historical fact that must be considered here in understanding that Oxford’s imprisonment was serious business–the fate of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618. The historical record is quite clear that Raleigh’s execution on Oct. 29th, 1618 was primarily an accommodation with the wishes of the King of Spain and the English-Spanish “peace process” of the time.

And the record is equally clear that Count Gondomar played a key role in convincing King James that Raleigh must be executed for the sake of that peace process. Surviving letters between Gondomar and King Philip IV show the King instructing his ambassador on how to convince James that Raleigh’s execution is a political necessity for the good of English-Spanish relations.

It should also be noted here that James’ young and upcoming favorite George Villiers–at this moment the Marquis of Buckingham, but soon to be the “Duke of”–supported Raleigh’s execution in his new role as James’ chief advisor, a fact undoubtedly not lost on the increasingly alarmed opponents of James’ policy with Spain.

Thus, when Oxford spoke of James giving “everything temporal to the King of Spain” (as cited in the May 16th letter) he may well have had in mind this earlier sacrificial execution of Sir Walter Raleigh in addition to more recent affronts. And there can be little doubt that Oxford’s friends and family also had in mind Raleigh’s death, and must have believed that he could just as easily be sacrificed for the sake of English-Spanish relations as had Raleigh.

Since Gondomar’s May 16th letter echoes the arguments used in 1618 to engineer Raleigh’s execution, there really can be no doubt that Oxford’s life was in danger over his politics and over his role in publicly criticizing both King James and Gondomar. And we also now know that he was seen as “the” leader in opposing Spanish Policy vis-?is England, and not just by Gondomar.

On 18 April 1623 King James wrote to Buckingham in Spain (Letters of King James IV & I, 409), and informed him that the Star Chamber had considered freeing Oxford at that time–since no charges had yet been brought–but the Lord Treasurer, the Earl of Middlesex, interceded and warned the King against freeing Oxford, stating that, “he would provide a ringleader for the mutineers.” So, James wrote, “…which advice I followed.”

This characterization by Middlesex is quite interesting, since the use of the word “mutineers” implies the absolute authority of the King and his decisions–the captain of the ship of state–even as a majority of his subjects and of the peerage were clearly against the course being set for the nation through the proposed Spanish marriage.

The reference in the final sentence of Gondomar’s letter to the “Palatinate” is a reference to James’ daughter Elizabeth Stuart (driven by the Hapsburg armies into exile in Holland with her husband, the Elector of the Palatinate) and seen by Protestants in England–the mutineers?–as “The Queen of Hearts,” a superior alternative to the increasingly “soft on Catholicism” James, his boy-wonder advisor George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham), and the dark presence of the notorious Count Gondomar–popularly called “The Spanish Machiavelli”–serving as the ambassador/broker between England and Spain.

Othello a harbinger?

The first imprisonment of both the 3rd Earl of Southampton and the 18th Earl of Oxford had occurred in the summer of 1621, shortly following the downfall of Francis Bacon over bribery in the conduct of his office–with, interestingly, Southampton leading the opposition against Bacon. The 47-year old Southampton and the 28-year old Buckingham nearly came to blows on the floor of Parliament over this matter.

Just months later the Countess of Pembroke died, and within weeks of her death Othello (one of the Shakespeare plays that had never been published before) was registered for publication. Dickson believes that the Folio publication process probably began in earnest following this first imprisonment, and that the appearance of Othello was perhaps a first step in that process.

If Eva Turner Clark is at all correct in her assessment of Othello in Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays, the play dates from the 1580s and alludes to such matters as the politics of a marriage match (Elizabeth and Alen?) and the seemingly endless military efforts of Spain to bring the rest of Europe back to Catholicism, with the battleground then–as again in the early 17th century–the Netherlands. Such allusions would not be lost on an audience with any historical memory of the Elizabethan era.

Concerning Othello it is especially interesting to note that Iago’s name can be seen as a diminutive (Jago) of “Diego” in Spanish–”Diego” being Gondomar’s first name and also being Spanish for “James.” James is known to have referred to himself and Gondomar as “the two Diegos.”

When Othello speaks of Iago in Act V –”…demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnar’d my soul and body?” (V, ii, 300-01)–it is not hard to imagine politically aware readers or audiences in the1620s thinking of Gondomar (“Diego”) and his “ensnaring” hold on their English monarch–the other “Diego”–and thus on England’s future.

So, the appearance of Othello at this time (even though it was registered with a different printer than Jaggard) could well have been a harbinger of the Folio publication soon to come, complete with an implicit message that those involved in getting the Folio published did have in mind the political crisis of the time and the key players in that crisis.


In re-examining the history of the early 1620s, it becomes clear why the Marriage Crisis has dropped from sight in the traditional histories. The bizarre personal-political relationship between the aging James (left) and his twenty-something advisor, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (right) was marked by an era of increasing corruption and bribery scandals, a dazzling increase in the creation of and sale of titles to all comers (with Buckingham’s meteoric rise being a prime example), and–most importantly–the clear willingness of both the King and his young advisor to let the likes of Count Gondomar dictate terms of English policy at critical moments. All this combines to paint a most unflattering portrait of how England was being governed at this moment in history, and makes it clear how publishing the Shakespeare Canon at this moment could well have been seen by those involved as making a sane statement in a world gone mad–so long, of course, as a pseudonym separated the treasured works and their philosophy from any skeletons in the Elizabethan closet.

The Folio and politics

Over the past year Dickson has been in regular touch with a small number of Oxfordians around the country about his theory and its implications for the authorship debate. The question that has most often come up in these discussions is “how does publishing the Folio have any bearing on saving Oxford?”

That is, of course, a difficult question to answer. It may be that the rush to publish was simply an attempt to preserve the plays, given that the political climate indicated that more than Oxford’s life could be lost if the Spanish Marriage became a reality.

In other words, for the Protestant faction in England the stakes in this crisis could be that they feared–with good reason–that the days of Bloody Mary could be returning, and that many lives might be lost, along with many books and manuscripts.

Also to be considered here is that the “grand possessors” certainly had their own strong convictions about the philosophical, political, and artistic accomplishment of these plays and of their author, and in this light their publication at this point in time might be seen as a political statement in opposition to what was undoubtedly perceived by James’ opponents as the betrayal of the nation by its own monarch. The publication might also then have been a message to this monarch to “think twice before you execute Shakespeare’s son.”

The other key question involved here is, of course, why publish the Folio under the name “Shakespeare,” especially if the purpose–in part, at least–was to save the 18th Earl’s life?

This is, again, a difficult question to answer. Dickson believes that, in the heat of this crisis, it was way too late to change, assuming that there ever was a thought or a plan to someday publish under Oxford’s name. Publishing now was a bold enough move in itself, but to use Oxford’s name would have been somewhat like “rubbing it in” and would most likely have been counterproductive. Undoubtedly James knew who the true author was anyway.

For most Oxfordians, the more familiar answer to the question about sticking with the Stratford man is the matter of what the plays might have to say about the behind-the-scenes politics of the nation-building Elizabethan era, about Gloriana herself, and about the author. Such realities would have been laid open to everyone’s scrutiny once the true identity of the author was known–or, if you will, openly acknowledged. From this point of view, the time would never be right, as Oxford himself wrote in the Sonnets: “… I, once gone, to all the world must die.”

Such considerations as these will certainly occupy the minds of Oxfordian–and all other–scholars for years to come. And, of course, we cannot even begin here to consider such eternally vexing questions as “What was the true religion of the true author?” …or “Are there political secrets embedded in the Shakespeare canon?” …or “Had the author by the end of this life transcended all the “mere” political and religious ritual and dogma of the day as he explored his soul and spoke to posterity of his explorations?”


Finally, then, we should conclude by returning to the key question postulated by Dickson’s theory: “Is there, in fact, a connection between the Marriage Crisis of 1621-1623, the imprisonments of Southampton and Oxford in 1621, and of Oxford again in 1622-1623, and the late-starting and too-soon-finishing Folio publication process of 1622-1623?” This is the core of Dickson’s new and provocative theory, and, if he is right, neither Shakespeare authorship scholarship nor mainstream Shakespeare scholarship will ever be the same.

We can say, after months of consideration, that Dickson’s conclusions are not based simply on unfounded speculation (as a few Oxfordians familiar with his work have already remarked), but have been carefully thought out in light of the existing historical record, and they do seem to indicate some sort of causal relationship among these key events. The wonder, really, is that no one had seen it before.

Whatever various critics (Stratfordian, Oxfordian, or other) may now say about the pros and cons of this theory, it is probably safe to say that no one will ever again look at this critical period in English history in the same way as before.


1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

“Publish We This Peace…”

A note on the design of the Shakespeare First Folio and the Spanish Marriage Crisis

by Roger Stritmatter (© 1998)

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Fall 1998).


For decades anti-Stratfordians have echoed the complaint of James Boswell the younger, the editor who completed Edmund Malone’s Variorum Shakespeare, about the Shakespeare First Folio (1623). There was, believed Boswell, “something fishy” about the folio. Literary historians such as George Greenwood or Gerald Rendall thought they knew the reason for the smell. If you want to hide the writer, what better way than to pin someone else’s face to the cover of his work? When Sidney Lee finally threw down the gauntlet of folio editor Ben Jonson’s authority as the first “Stratfordian,” Greenwood smiled and replied, without missing a beat, “we of the heretical persuasion can afford to smile. For we see no reason to suppose that Jonson might not have taken the course we attribute to him [i.e. participate in a conspiratorial hoax] and considered himself quite justified in doing so…”

Rendall, an early Oxfordian known primarily for the influence his two books on The Sonnets exercised on Sigmund Freud, proposed Jonson as the “skilled and most effective agent of anonymity.” Rendall then followed suit with additional materials pointing directly to folio editor Jonson’s employment by the family of de Vere’s son-in-law Phillip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, during the two year period in which the folio was under preparation. To this day a suite in Mary Sidney’s Wilton estate is known as the “Jonson room.”

Perhaps for obvious reasons, then, the folio has always been on the list of the seven things one does not discuss in a Freshman Shakespeare survey. Stratfordians, as Charlton Ogburn argues in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984, 1992), “have no case if they do not take the First Folio at face value” and “grant it the claim of authenticity.”

Recently, however, the orthodox practice of backpedaling the folio’s irregularities has started to change. In 1988 Leah Marcus authored an astonishing expose of the folio. Although her intentions are orthodox beyond reproach, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading And Its Discontents (1988) is on my list of the top ten orthodox Shakespeare books Oxfordians should love to hate. Indeed, it is the first book by anyone to begin the job of placing the curious semiotics of the folio in a proper comparative light.

And now we have Peter Dickson’s exciting new research on the political context of the 1620s period demonstrating that Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and the Herbert brothers (William and Philip) who patronized the folio (with one, Philip, being married to Susan Vere), were all at the forefront of the intense public hostility against the marriage negotiations between Prince Charles and the sister of Philip IV. These staunch English Protestants feared the worst– that the country was about to be auctioned off to the Spanish Crown, and all because the love-struck James I had already delegated a frightening degree of power to the irresponsible Duke of Buckingham George Villiers while the implacable international chess player Gondomar watched, calculated, and maneuvered. The contretemps over the marriage became the greatest domestic dispute of James’s reign.

I daresay that no careful reader of the two past Shakespeare Oxford Newsletters will wish to admit to entertaining any serious doubts that Dickson has established a prima facia case for his theory. Even those who remain skeptical must admit that the circumstances seem remarkably suggestive. Let us consider some of the relevant facts.

The printing of the folio was a sloppy, rushed job; to this day a small industry –which includes the past labors of Emily Clay Folger, Charlton Hinman, Edwin Elliott Willoughby and other luminary scholars–is devoted to establishing a documentary record of folio publication anomalies. So bad is the folio typography that each copy exists in a unique state. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of errors in many copies. Hinman, treading where no cypher-crunching Baconian would dare to go, actually invented a special machine to enable collation of the myriad textual variants to the giant book. Yet, the Stratfordians have no explanation for why the First Folio was so sloppily printed.

The folio was patronized by de Vere’s in-laws. These, like his son, were also among those spearheading the Protestant opposition to the impending Spanish marriage and resisting the rising influence of Villiers and Gondomar in the court. The dates of Henry de Vere’s imprisonment (April 1622 to December 1623) match the dates of production of the folio almost exactly (February 1622 or later to November 1623).

The folio effects a nationalist character which would have served such a political cause well. It celebrates a dramatic tradition which was reputedly an inspiration to both Elizabeth and James. It places the historic deeds of the ancient Brittains and their medieval and Renaissance descendents such as Henry V or the Bastard Falconbridge on a par with those of the ancients.

Are we left, then, with a case–however plausible–which must remain “speculative,” “subjective” or “unproven” in the absence of that much lamented category of thing, the “documentary evidence”? Do we need a note in the Earl of Pembroke’s handwriting to the publisher William Jaggard, “hurry it up, old man, my cousin’s in the tower”?

The purpose of this article is to propose that we do not. There is in fact a document, one well known, I should hope, to all readers of this Newsletter and now available in paperback for $19.95 in many bookstores, which confirms the intrinsic plausibility of Dickson’s thesis. I mean the Shakespeare First Folio itself. Before passing negative judgement on Dickson’s thesis, find yourself a copy of any one of the popular facsimiles of this “smoking gun.” Review the introductory materials, the table of contents, and the general plan of the book; you may begin to understand what Jonson and the other architects of the folio (if any) were up to.

Notice that the first play, for example, is The Tempest. Now, isn’t that, somehow, appropriate? The Tempest tells the allegory of de Vere’s life as an artist, the exiled magi Prospero. Prospero is an older and more-alienated version of the same character we saw as the Duke in Measure for Measure–the artist himself, comically trying to have an impact on a social order which spurns his humors and his magic. The play tells the story of how this man came to be marooned on the desert island of his own art, within the magic circle of the 1623 Folio. Imprisoned here, he is, as Samuel Shepherd wrote of Shakespeare in 1651, “a Shepheard cag’d in stone,” cut off from the common redemption which would be granted through the recognition of his identity could it be restored through prayer, scholarship, or any other means.

If you think that this sounds plausible but you aren’t yet convinced (after all, such an effect could be achieved, in this case, by mere coincidence), consider my second example of how the folio exhibits a structural character which appears to be intentionally designed. Editor Jonson has constructed the folio to communicate messages (particularly messages keyed to the date 1623, or more generally to the politics of the era or of de Vere’s life as the artist) which individual component plays cannot. In other words, the whole of the folio is more than the sum of its parts.

If you think I’m making this up and you can therefore safely ignore it, think again. I’m merely transposing what the best Jonson experts have already said about his careful design of his own 1616 folio. Consider Richard Dutton’s explanation:

Over the last few years there has been a growing recognition that the organization of the Epigrams–like that of Bartholomew Fair–is far more subtle, sophisticated and significant than at first meets the eye; behind the apparent randomness or spontaneity, there is a careful and deliberate structure. In different, though related ways we may now begin to appreciate that the same is true of the first folio as a whole … the organization of the first folio is surely intended to impress upon us the essential interrelatedness of the items within it, inviting us to read it as a unified volume, across generic boundaries.

Obviously, the idea that The Tempest was placed first in the Shakespeare folio to invoke an allegory of authorship finds ample warrant in this description of Jonson’s editorial technique when applied to his own literary corpus. But can we find further evidence for the deliberate arrangement of the component parts of the folio in order to make architectonic statements? Undoubtedly many could be proposed and at least several of these might be “correct” — whatever that means here.

But the one I have in mind is special for one very good reason: to my way of thinking, it supplies all the “documentary” proof Dickson’s theory could ever want. It also happens to make a nice complement to the example of The Tempest. In that case the allegory deduced is of a personal, authorial, perhaps even subjective nature. My second case, on the contrary, concerns public affairs of state and history. This is the fact–the documentary fact–that the last play in the folio is Cymbeline.

Now, why is that? Can anyone think of a really good reason which has escaped my notice? For Stratfordians the placement of Cymbeline is another unexplained anomaly. The play certainly does not belong in the concluding section of tragedies. An early Arden editor conjectured that its placement may have been “the result of late receipt of the ‘copy’ in the printinghouse.” W.W. Greg supposed that it may have been “through a misunderstanding that Jaggard placed it at the end of the volume instead of the section [containing the comedies].” Other Stratfordians may discover other excuses for the play’s placement. I think such explanations are wrong.

If, however, we instead consider the placement of Cymbeline from the point of view of Dickson’s theory about the Spanish marriage crisis, everything seems to fall into place with no need to impute misunderstandings to Jaggard or any other party to the folio’s production. Cymbeline, whatever genre we may assign it to, is conspicuously a play about the prehistoric battle for English independence from Roman rule. In it the English king Cymbeline, with the help of Posthumous Leonatus, defeats the Roman forces and runs them out of the land. The play ends with Cymbeline offering the comic promise that Britain,

Although the victor, [submits] to Caesar
And to the Roman empire, promising
To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were persuaded by our wicked queen.

No English reader of 1623 could have considered this plot without being reminded of the parallel between Cymbeline’s war for the independence of Britain and the current counter-reformation politics of James’s reign and the Spanish marriage crisis. The play concludes on a note of British victory, but the victoryis tempered by strenuous protestations of Cymbeline’s desire for peace with Rome–from the vantage of independent equality.

It is the perfect conclusion to a volume sponsored by the era’s leading faction of Protestant nobles and designed to send a forceful message to a monarch who was, they believed, flirting with disaster. Consider the play’s concluding lines:

Cym: Laud we the Gods,
And let our crooked Smoakes climbe to their Noftrils
From our bleft Altars. Publifh we this Peace
To all our Subiects. Set we forward : Let
A Roman, and a Britifh Enfigne waue
Friendly together : fo through Luds-Towne march,
And in the Temple of great Iupter
Our Peace wee’l ratifie : Seale it with Feafts.
Set on there : Neuer was a Warre did ceafe
(Ere bloodie hands were wafh’d) with fuch a Peace.
Exeunt (5.5.477-485)

Note the key phrase, from the point of view of the Folio conspirators,

Publifh we this Peace,
To all our Subiects

As applied to the publication of the First Folio, the phrase means that Pembroke, Montgomery, de Vere, Southampton and the rest, not Buckingham and Gondomar, or even King James, were dictating the terms of an acceptable peace with Spain and international Catholicism. Their “magna carta” was the First Folio of “Shakespeare.”

“Bestow how, and when you list…”

Susan Vere, William Jaggard and the 1623 Shakespeare Folio

by Roger Stritmatter (© 1998)

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Fall 1998).


Advocates of the Oxfordian view attributing the authorship of works published in the 1623 “Shakespeare” folio to Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, have naturally drawn attention to the fact that the folio was dedicated to, and apparently published under the patronage of Phillip and William Herbert, the two sons of Mary Sidney who were respectively de Vere’s son-in-law and a near son-in-law. Although this striking circumstance was not included among the elements of evidence adduced in J. Thomas Looney’s original book on the theory, by 1984 when Charlton Ogburn published The Mysterious William Shakespeare, the Herbert brothers are pegged, very plausibly, as “engineers of the crucial artifacts.”

In 1621, when work on the folio’s production began in earnest, these two renowned arts patrons possessed the power, the political connections and, quite likely, the requisite manuscript materials, to turn the folio into a reality. Pembroke had in 1615, after several years of angling, obtained the position of Lord Chamberlain and was therefore in administrative control of the archives of the King’s Men, formerly the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” who had acted many of the Shakespeare plays. Therefore, whether unpublished play material came from the archives of the Company or from private holdings among de Vere’s descendents and in-laws, it was Pembroke and Montgomery –and perhaps Susan Vere–who were positioned to hold final authority over any plans to publish. It was this trio, apparently, which authorized, facilitated, and subsidized the First Folio’s 1623 publication by the firm of Isaac and William Jaggard.

In evaluating the undoubtedly complicated process by which the folio came to be published, literary historians would do well, however, to avoid the great bugaboo of monocausal explanation and instead consider the potentially conflicting or converging motives of all the possible historical actors. Jaggard and other publishers may have had their own motives for seeking the laurels of publishing the works of “Shakespeare.” In 1619, two years before the publication of the folio began (during the summer of 1621), the Jaggard firm, working in collaboration with Thomas Pavier, published a series of seven Shakespearean and pseudo-Shakespearean quartos. This series of plays, known collectively as the Pavier quartos after the name of the printer Thomas Pavier, included quartos of 2 & 3 Henry VI, Henry V, Pericles, Merchant of Venice, Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Nights Dream. For reasons not well understood, as William J. Neidig documented in a remarkable 1910 article in Modern Philology, three of these plays were falsely backdated to 1600 or 1608.

This venture indicates Jaggard’s apparently mounting enthusiasm for undertaking publication of the Shakespearean plays, which by 1619 must have been viewed as a prize to be bestowed on some eager printer, who could hope not only for profit but lasting fame from the enterprise. By many accounts, however, Jaggard was not the most likely candidate for the job. It is not without some interest, therefore, that in the same year that the Pavier quartos were published, the Jaggard firm dedicated a major folio volume, ARXAIO-PLOUTOS. Containing, Ten following Bookes to the former TREASURIE of AUNCIENT AND MODERN TIMES to Phillip Montgomery and also, very pointedly, to Montgomery’s wife, the Lady Susan Vere.

The Jaggard-Vere link was brought to my attention in 1990 while working at a Northampton (Mass.) book auction at which the volume was offered for sale. Among other bibliographical links between ARXAIO-PLOUTOS and the folio, the book employs many of the same typographical devices which appeared four years later in the Shakespeare folio. Before that time, this concrete 1619 link between Susan Vere and the Jaggard firm was not known to students of the authorship question.

Incidentally, the fact that this discovery represented a completely new and unprecedented connection between the Jaggard firm and the de Vere family did not stop one major orthodox scholar whom I approached about the book from authoritatively pronouncing that there was “nothing new” about the find. This utterly untrue and deceptive claim was apparently made in attempt to splash cold water on any enthusiasm I might have felt about the potential implications of such an unambiguous 1619 link between Susan Vere and William Jaggard. Charlton Ogburn, for his part, was enthusiastically “floored” by the discovery and considered it of the highest importance.

ARXAIO-PLOUTOS is a translation and amalgamation of several works detailing the customs and cultural traditions of the Gauls, Spaniards, and Italians, to which the English Herald Thomas Milles has added material on the heraldry and customs of England. As the reproduction below shows (left), the book is prominently dedicated to Susan Vere, as well as her husband, the patron of the 1623 Folio (right).


The similarity between the 1619 dedication “To the Most Noble and Twin-like Paire…” (left) and the 1623 Folio dedication “To the Most Noble and Incomparable Paire…” is striking. It is difficult to believe that Jaggard did not have the 1619 version in mind when he designed the 1623 Folio dedication. But more importantly, it is also difficult to believe, when he wrote the 1619 dedication to the Lady Susan Vere, extolling both her and her illustrious father, that he wasn’t thinking ahead to a day in the future when there would be a Shakespeare Folio.


In fact, a close reading of the dedication suggests that Susan is the primary dedicatee of the volume; although the dedication initially makes appeal to the “most Noble Lord & Lady,” subsequent passages are directed solely to the “gracious madam” Susan Vere. The complete title-page dedication reads,

To the moft Noble and Twin-like paire,
of truely Honourable and compleat perfection, Sir Philip
Herbert, Knight of the Bath to our dread Soueraigne
King Iames, at his Royall Coronation ; Lord Baron of
Sherland, Earle of Mountgomery, and Companion in the
vnparaleld and famous Fellowship, of the
Order of the Garter

As alfo, To the truly vertuous and Noble Counteffe his Wife,
the Lady Sufan, Daughter to the right Honourable Edward Vere, Earle of Oxen-
ford, Vifcount Bulbec, Lord Sandford and of Badelefmere :
and Lord High Chamberlaine
of England, etc.

The extended praise of her father, Edward de Vere, is also noteworthy, given that it ends with an “etc.” which seems to invite filling in the following blank space with some “other honors” to which he may be entitled, but which must remain unmentioned.

In any event, the dedication itself invites both patrons to “enter into a spacious Forrest”–evidently a metaphor for the world of historical customs embodied in ARXAIO-PLOUTOS — “affording all choise of pleasing Game, either for Hawking, Hunting, Fishing, Fowling, or any other Noble exercise beside.” Jaggard goes on from this to assure his patrons that, Orchard stands wide open to welcome you, richly abounding in the fairest Frutages: not to feed the eie only, but likewise to refresh the Heart, inviting you to plucke where, and while you please, and to bestow how, and when you list: because they are all yours, and whosoever else shall taste of them, do enioy such freedome but by your favor.

In this garden, Jaggard assures Lady Vere,

…you may meete with a faire Bevey of Queenes and Ladies, at diverse turnings as you walke, and everie one will tell you the Historie of her life and fortune (rare examples of Vertue and Honor) as themselves can best, truly & plainly discourse unto you. Some other also you shall see, sadly sitting under Eughe & Cipresse tress, with Garlands of those leaves wreathed about their heads, sighing out their divers disasters: whom your noble nature cannot choose but commiserate; as greeving to see a scratch in a cleare skin, and a bodie beautified by Nature, to be blemished by unkinde Destiny.

Is Jaggard, in this final passage, referring to the bounteous literary exploration of female subjectivity embodied in the “Shakespeare” canon? Certainly, his language calls to mind characters such as Ophelia, Desdemona, Cleopatra, Lucrece or Imogen –who all are made to tell “the history” of their “lives and fortunes” in a manner quite unprecedented for early 17th century England and undoubtedly quite capable of stirring considerable emotional response in a cultivated arts patron such as Lady Vere. She was one who could commiserate with the “divers disasters” of such characters, not only from literary precedent, but out of secret sympathy with her own father and other relatives who had survived the hurricane of his life.

If so, the entire address to Montgomery and his wife assumes an awesome consistency. Jaggard’s patrons are credited with being stewards of the orchard. The fruits “are all yours, and whosoever else shall taste of them, do enioy such freedome but by your favor.” These stewards are therefore urged to “…bestow how, and when you list [i.e., please].”

Have we here a public appeal to the “grand possessors”–who are in the 1609 preface to the second state of Troilus and Cressida also referred to as the “grand censors”–ultimately responsible for the inhibition of plays such as T&C? Is Jaggard signaling his flattering enthusiasm for proceeding with the folio project and requesting the approval and patronage of Montgomery and his wife, the daughter of Edward de Vere?

Whether or not the reader accepts this interpretation of Jaggard’s dedication, ARXAIO-PLOUTOS establishes a tangible and telling political link between Phillip Montgomery, his wife Susan Vere, Edward de Vere’s youngest daughter, and the folio publisher, during the period in which the political decisions leading to the 1623 First Folio publication were being made.

Henry Peacham on Oxford and Shakespeare

Is the scholar’s 1622 decision unimpeachable evidence for Oxford as Shakespeare?

by Peter W. Dickson (© 1998)

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Fall 1998).
A note from the author to readers of this article.


In the Shakespeare authorship debate, there is a general perception among both Stratfordians and Oxfordians that after Francis Meres’ famous list of great poets and dramatists in Palladis Tamia (1598), the awareness of Oxford as a literary figure largely disappeared until Alexander B. Grosart collected and published some of his poems in 1872.

This perception is inaccurate, because one can reconstruct a trail of interconnected historical references to him as a literary figure throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In a separate article on this site (“Oxford’s Literary Reputation”) is a brief survey of references to Oxford as a literary figure spanning the two centuries after his death. This reconstruction also permits some useful comparisons with the emergence in the early 1700s of the Bardolatry associated with William Shakespeare of Stratford, a topic which goes beyond the scope of this essay, but which is a subject worthy in its own right of close analysis by students of the authorship question.

Of utmost importance among all these references, however, is the one from Henry Peacham in his list in The Compleat Gentleman published in 1622 when the First Folio project was well underway. For it is Peacham who lists Oxford first among the greatest Elizabethan poets, and yet fails to mention Shakespeare at all.

This essay’s primary objective, therefore, is to contextualize Henry Peacham and his list of great poets in The Compleat Gentleman (1622) in order to show that Peacham knew Shakespeare and Oxford, and must have known that there was no difference between the two.

Peacham made this deliberate decision to exclude Shakespeare’s name from his list of the greatest poets of the Elizabethan era based on a number of different factors, including the politics of the era in which he lived. This decision to exclude Shakespeare was Peacham’s way of signaling — in the delicate political situation of the early 1620s — that the imprisoned 18th Earl of Oxford’s father was, in fact, Shakespeare.

This calculation was not an easy decision for Peacham because, ironically, he was dedicating his work to a member of the Howard family–in fact, to a direct descendent of the Catholic cousins whom Oxford had exposed in the 1580s for political reasons. Therefore a decision even to include Oxford in any list, especially a list in which Shakespeare’s name is conspicuously absent, was no trivial matter for Peacham given this past history.

Furthermore, Peacham had to be well aware of the inception of the First Folio project and also of the ongoing vendetta which the King and his homosexual lover (the Duke of Buckingham) were engaged in against the 3rd Earl of Southampton and the 18th Earl of Oxford (Henry de Vere) in 1621-1622.

Despite the firm nature of the evidence and conclusions presented in this essay, it should be emphasized that this is a difficult subject requiring close attention and careful evaluation. Nonetheless, the contextualization of Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman and its relationship to the near simultaneous First Folio project does provide, in this writer’s estimation, a key by which the Shakespeare authorship dispute should be seen as having been conclusively resolved in Oxford’s favor.

Possible Sources of Peacham’s List

Henry Peacham’s list of the greatest Elizabethan poets published in The Compleat Gentleman (1622) begins with Oxford, Buckhurst, and then continues with Paget, Philip Sidney, Dyer, Spenser, and Daniel.

On the surface, it might appear that the focus we find in Peacham’s list derives directly from the famous lists found in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia (1598) which cites Oxford as best for comedy and Buckhurst as best for tragedy, and which also prominently mention Shakespeare for both his plays and his sonnets.

However this is not correct–at least not for Peacham–who was actually utilizing and revising to his own satisfaction an earlier list from George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589).1 This fact is crucial to an analysis of Peacham’s thought process as he ranked the great Elizabethan poets, and yet failed to list Shakespeare.

There is no sign that Meres’ lists had any impact on Peacham. Meres, who graduated from Cambridge in 1587, eight years before Peacham, provides many different lists of poets, including those versed in Latin and other foreign languages, and offers sub-lists for eight categories or styles of poetry. However, his main list for the greatest poets in the English tongue includes: Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chapman.

Writing three decades later, Peacham explicitly excludes from his list those Elizabethan-era poets who were still alive in 1622, which would explain the omission of Chapman and Drayton (whom Meres gave top billing). Nonetheless, it is puzzling why Peacham omits Marlowe and it is especially puzzling why he omits Shakespeare, whose famous poems such as Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and The Sonnets–plus numerous popular quarto versions of his plays–had all been published during the three decades preceding publication of The Compleat Gentlemen in the Summer of 1622.

This glaring omission of Shakespeare’s name from Peacham’s list is astounding and in all likelihood was not an oversight but, on the contrary, was a deliberate exclusion because Peacham knew that Oxford and Shakespeare were the same person. There are a number of factors to be considered in support of this conclusion that Peacham’s decision in 1622 was clearly testimony that there was no Shakespeare–but, instead, only Oxford. We shall now proceed to examine more closely each of these factors.

Who Was Henry Peacham?

First, we should look briefly at just who Henry Peacham was and what role he played in 17th-century England. Unlike Frances Meres, Henry Peacham (1578-1643?) was extremely well-connected in the world of art and literature in London as well as the royal court, both as an artist and as a writer, for more than three decades.2

Like a good courtier, he cultivated relationships across a broad terrain, both with Ben Jonson and also with Jonson’s great rival Inigo Jones, a man who valued Peacham’s artistic talent. Further, Peacham was associated with Prince Henry prior to his death in 1612, and then, finally, he became associated with the antipode to this fanatically Protestant prince–namely, with the Howard family which was notorious for its pro-Catholic and pro-Spanish sentiments.

Peacham was also on good terms with Daniel and Drayton who, as members of the Herbert-Pembroke-Sidney literary circle, were drawn into the cult and worship of Prince Henry as the perfect Protestant Prince whom this circle hoped would someday slay the Catholic dragon at home and abroad.

For example, Peacham (unlike Shakespeare) joined John Selden, a famous, erudite lawyer, to write many poems upon the death of Prince Henry in 1612, and then more poems a year later celebrating the marriage of his sister (the Princess Elizabeth) whom many Protestants hoped would succeed her father as the monarch rather than Prince Charles.3

In any case, the most important point to emphasize about Peacham is that he was extremely well-connected to the literary world for decades and that he had to know the true identity of Shakespeare, as did his close friends, Jonson, Drayton, and Daniel.

We can be certain of this conclusion for one other important reason. If Peacham is famous for anything among Shakespeare scholars, it is because he is the artist who drew and added his name (Henricus Peacham) and the year (1595) to a sketch of costumes designed for a performance or a rehearsal of Titus Andronicus.4

At the time, Peacham was seventeen and had just graduated with his degree from Cambridge University. This sketch is one of the most cherished documents relating to Shakespeare because it is the only drawing relating to a contemporary staging of one of his plays known to have survived. It remains in the library of the Marquis of Bath (Longleat House,Wiltshire). E. K. Chambers brought it to the public’s attention only in 1925.

A few scholars have questioned the authenticity of this sketch, but Samuel Schoenbaum, who reproduced the sketch in William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975), has stated that, at best, skepticism was only justified concerning an inscription in the upper right margin, not Peacham’s signature in the lower-left portion of the manuscript. In his words, this signature is “authentic enough.”

This curious phraseology may convey Schoenbaum’s sour grapes about a treasured document that plays right into the hands of those who wish to advance the Oxfordian theory on the authorship question. Ironically, Oxfordians have for decades overlooked the significance of this document for their claim.

Peacham’s List: Other Factors

Given what we know about Peacham’s close friendship with insiders on the literary scene for three decades and his sketch relating to Titus Andronicus, his omission of Shakespeare’s name on the list of great poets in The Compleat Gentleman (1622) looks more and more suspicious. One possible argument to explain Peacham’s exclusion of Shakespeare–that he wished to list only those poets who wrote only non-dramatic poetry–makes no sense because Buckhurst, Daniel, and–evidently–Oxford wrote plays as well as poetry.

Also, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609)– arguably the most celebrated of his poetry–had been published more than a decade earlier, to say nothing about Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Both these epic poems of the 1590s went through multiple printings, were quite popular, and were even referred to in other poems of the period. So there was certainly more than ample reason to include Shake-speare’s name in a list of leading poets under Elizabeth. Furthermore, there are other factors why the omission of the name “Shakespeare” could not have been an oversight, but must have been a deliberate exclusion.

The first of these factors pertains to the circumstances and timing of the publication of The Compleat Gentleman. The publisher, Francis Constable, owned the White Lion, a book store in the courtyard on the north side of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the center of the book trade in London at that time. Sixty or seventy feet from the front door to The White Lion in the same block were The Black Bear and The Parrot, two other book stores owned, respectively, by Edward Blount and William Aspley.5

Along with another man named John Smethwick, Blount and Aspley were the principal members of the Syndicate behind the First Folio project which was printed by the Jaggard firm. Smethwick’s book store was only a few blocks away on Fleet Street to the west of the Cathedral. Given the proximity of the White Lion to these other book stores, the small circle of those in the book trade, and Peacham’s extensive network of literary friends, it is highly improbable that he and Constable did not know that the First Folio project was underway in 1622.

This date–1622–is an additional factor in understanding that Shakespeare’s name could not have escaped Peacham’s attention as he prepared his list, for we now know that this was the year that the actual production of the Shakespeare folio got underway.

In his landmark work, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963) Charlton Hinman conclusively demonstrated that the folio syndicate and Jaggard began the printing of the folio project later than previously understood, not in 1620-21, but rather in 1622, sometime between February and August of that year.6

Obviously, the planning for the folio preceded the actual printing, though Hinman argues in his book that the decision to assemble a comprehensive folio had to have come after the October 1621 registration with the Stationers’ Register for the first-time publication of Othello as a quarto.7

In any case, a folio project of this magnitude could not be hidden from others in the book trade for long and we know that Peacham dated the dedication to his own work on May 28th, 1622 and was still making last minute alterations in the text to include material pleasing to his then patron Richard Sackville (grandson of the same Lord Buckhurst whose name follows Oxford’s in Peacham’s list of poets).8 Peacham’s publisher (Constable) finally registered The Compleat Gentleman with the Stationer’s Register on July 3rd, 1622, and we can assume that the work appeared in book stores not long after that date.

Yet another factor that must have been an important consideration as Peacham compiled his list of the greatest Elizabethan poets was the political situation at the time. Like most persons, he was aware of the crisis over religion and foreign policy associated with the Spanish Marriage crisis in 1621-22, and the increasing repression against the freedom of thought and expression under King James and his homosexual lover, the Duke of Buckingham. He also knew that the Earls of Southampton and Oxford (Henry de Vere), along with his own good friend John Selden (the famous lawyer), had been imprisoned for a time in the spring of 1621 for challenging the King and the Duke over these issues.

Since The Compleat Gentleman appeared well after these imprisonments, and after King James had dissolved Parliament on January 9th, 1622, Peacham and Constable were fully aware of how rapidly the situation was deteriorating. There can be no doubt about this because Peacham wrote his dedication on May 28th, a full month after the second imprisonment of Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford (an imprisonment which lasted twenty months in all).

Thus, the decision to include in his list Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford– father of Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford–among the greatest poets of the Elizabethan era was no light matter, regardless of whether he was Shakespeare or not. At a minimum, Oxford had to have been a substantial literary figure in Peacham’s mind to justify his inclusion at all.


A final reason why Peacham’s decision on whom to include in his list must have been a step taken with great deliberation relates to The Compleat Gentleman‘s dedication. The work was dedicated to William Howard, the youngest son of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. Peacham had been a tutor some years earlier for the three older sons and became William’s tutor sometime after August 1620, which strongly suggests that the bulk of this book dedicated to the young man was drafted in 1621.9

The most important point concerning this dedication is that politically astute persons knew that Edward de Vere was held in low regard by this particular branch of the Howard family given that he had betrayed his Catholic cousins in the 1580s as traitors to Queen Elizabeth to save his own neck. (The accompanying genealogical chart “The Howard-Sackville-de Vere Connection” shows the interconnection among several generations of these families). The two individuals who suffered most from this betrayal directly or indirectly were William’s grandfather (Philip), who died in prison in 1595, and especially his grandfather’s uncle, Henry Howard, the First Earl of Northampton (second iteration). Northampton’s bitter feud with Edward de Vere included counter-accusations that Oxford was a homosexual as well as a traitor in his own right.

Furthermore, the notorious Lady Somerset (Francis Howard) was first cousin to young William’s father, Thomas. She and her own granduncle (Northampton again), who was the leader of the court faction partial to Catholicism and Spain in foreign policy, were suspected of being responsible for the murder in the Tower of Thomas Overbury, a member of the Protestant faction at Court associated with the Herbert family and Southampton. Francis Howard and her husband (Somerset) spent nearly six years in the Tower for the crime and were released just three months prior to the second imprisonment of Henry de Vere (the 17th Earl’s son) for his opposition to King James’ dissolution of parliament in January 1622 and the monarch’s zeal to marry Prince Charles to a sister of the Spanish King.

Given the revolving door to the Tower involving the release of the Somersets and the second incarceration of Henry de Vere in April 1622, Peacham’s dedication has a special political edge to it. He had revered Prince Henry and his politics were much closer to the politics of the Herberts, Southampton and Henry de Vere in their long-standing struggle to counter the influence of the pro-Catholic, pro-Spanish Howard family.

Nevertheless, here in 1622 when Henry de Vere has been sent to the Tower for a second time–with a good chance of never coming out alive–Peacham is dedicating to a Howard family member a work that places Edward de Vere’s name among the greatest English poets. The genealogical chart on page twelve helps illustrate the tricky political waters that Peacham was navigating during the explosive situation of the 1621-22 period.


Return to text


Henry Peacham was a man who had lived through the end of Elizabeths reign and the first two decades of James. He knew of Shakespeare dating back to the mid-1590s, as is attested to by his famous 1595 sketch (left) of a performance of Titus Andronicus (accompanied by hand-written excerpts of some of the plays text).
Seventeen years later Peacham produced the well-known Minerva Britanna (below right), with its title page message of someone who is concealed behind a stage curtain, and that someone almost certainly being identified as Edward de Vere through the anagram Eva Turner Clark found in the message the hidden hand is writing.
With such a long-standing and unique background, how could Peacham have accidently left Shakespeares name out of his best-selling The Compleat Gentleman?

Peacham, Puttenham, and Minerva Britanna

While the above evidence clearly indicates that Peacham knew quite well the significance of, and was self-conscious about, the exclusion from his list of “Shakespeare” and the inclusion of “Oxford,” there are several more pieces of important evidence to be considered. This crucial information, coupled with the historical context surrounding the publishing of The Compleat Gentleman, further strengthens the case that, in Peacham’s mind, these two persons–Oxford and Shakespeare–were one and the same individual.

The first piece of additional evidence is Peacham’s prior identification of Oxford as an important literary figure who required concealment for some reason. In 1612, Peacham published Minerva Britanna, a compilation of literary emblems dedicated to Prince Henry. Minerva is the Roman equivalent for Athena, the hasti-vibrans (spear-shaking) patron Goddess of Greek theater. The title page consists of a large emblem with a pen in a hand jutting out from beneath a curtain attached to the proscenium of a theater arch. That the image depicts the concealment of a person involved with the theater and/or with literature should be obvious to any reader. The question then is: “Who is this concealed individual?”

The hand in question has nearly completed writing on a scroll the words MENTE.VIDEBORI, with the Latin “mente videbor” translating as, “In the mind I shall be seen.”10 In other words, only through this person’s literary works will others come to know this writer (but never his true identity?). The other Latin inscriptions attached to the wreath surrounding the theater proscenium and curtain are:


There are several possible renditions of the entire three-part inscription, but that offered by John Astley-Cock in 1975 is as follows:

In the Mind [I] Shall be Seen
Resurrected by the Talent,
All Else by Death Concealed.11

The most important facet of this emblem in Peacham’s work (analyzed for the first time by Eva Clark Turner in her 1937 work, The Man Who Would be Shakespeare) is an anagram contained in the key phrase “MENTE.VIDEBORI” with its all-important period flanked by the intriguing letters E and V. Her suggestion–later supported by Astley-Cock–for a logical and virtually unavoidable decipherment of the concealed identity in this anagram is:

Thy Name is De Vere.12

Therefore, barely a decade before publishing The Compleat Gentleman–at the zenith of the cult of a young Prince Henry who revered Shakespeare’s works– Peacham had already hinted on the title page of his work Minerva Britanna that an important English writer’s identity was hidden or concealed for some mysterious reason, and that this writer’s name was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

The second additional piece of evidence that further illuminates Peacham’s thought process as he sat down in 1622 to compose his list of the greatest Elizabethan poets pertains to the close parallel between his list and the list which Puttenham gave thirty-three years earlier in The Arte of English Poesie (1589).

The crucial point to understand at this juncture is that Peacham did not use any of Meres’ lists from 1598, but instead revised Puttenham’s 1589 list, and in so doing he clearly reveals his deliberate, self-conscious exclusion of “Shakespeare.”

First, we provide the passage from Peacham, who is very emphatic about the importance of what he is about to say concerning the greatest Elizabethan poets:

In the time of our late Queen Elizabeth, which was truly a golden Age (for such a world of refined wits, excellent spirits it produced, whose like are hardly to be hoped for, in any succeeding age) above others, who honoured Poesie with their pennes and practice (to omit her Majestie who had a singular gift herein) were Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Lord Buckhurst, Henry Lord Paget, our Phoenix, the noble Sir Philip Sidney, M. Edward Dyer, M. Edmund Spenser, M. Samuel Daniel, with sundry others (together with those admirable wits, yet living, and so well known) not out of Ennuie, but to avoid tediousness, I overpass.13

Now let us compare Peacham’s 1622 passage on the great poets with that found in Puttenham’s 1589 work:

And in her Majesties time that now is are sprung up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesties servauntes, who have written excellently well as it would appeare if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest, of which first is that noble Gentleman, Edward, Earl of Oxford. Thomas Lord of Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Rawliegh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Grevell, Gascon, Britton, Turberville and a great many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for enuie, but to avoyde tediousnesse, and who have deserved no little commendation.14

Now, it is quite obvious from the concluding parallel phraseology (ennuie/tediousnesse) in both citations, as well as the sequence of the list of poets, that Peacham did not start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper when he sat down to make up his list. He clearly is utilizing (plagiarizing?) Puttenham’s list.

His revisions provide an important insight into his thought process. Even with the benefit of considerable hindsight (thirty-three years!) concerning that “truly golden age,” Peacham repeats the first four poets from Puttenham’s list, then drops Raliegh, retains Dyer, and then drops the last four names. To round out his own list, Peacham then adds Spenser and Daniel, but for some reason he cannot bring himself to add “Shakespeare” despite the great fame attached to this name for non-dramatic as well as dramatic poetry.

Given that the facts about Peacham’s life clearly show that he had to have known Shakespeare for nearly thirty years, that he and his publisher also had to have known that the First Folio project was underway in 1622, and–last but not least–that Peacham had already–in Minerva Britanna–fingered Edward de Vere as a literary figure who could not be identified openly with his works, there is really only one obvious, logical, and inescapable conclusion that can be drawn: Peacham excluded “Shakespeare” from his list because it was Oxford’s pen-name.

The only alternative to this conclusion would be to argue that the unwanted redundancy Peacham alludes to (i.e. his concluding statement he “overpass[es] … sundry others … not out of Ennuie, but to avoid tediousnesse [i.e. repetition]“) pertained to one of the other poets on the list.

But the mountain of evidence accumulated since the 1920s favoring Oxford as the true Shakespeare–plus the Minerva Britanna emblem from Peacham’s own hand–makes such alternative arguments unconvincing.

Further evidence that Peacham had no second thoughts about the exclusion of Shakespeare’s name from his list is the fact that The Compleat Gentleman was a national best seller as the pre-eminent guide for those in the higher social strata or for those aspiring to such rank. It was as well known as the First Folio, with three other editions appearing in 1627, 1634, and 1661. Peacham, who lived until 1643, therefore had ample opportunity to correct the obvious absence of Shakespeare’s name from the list of the greatest Elizabethan poets, but he never did. This is another strong sign that the real Shakespeare’s name was already on the list–Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Summary and conclusion

Given that Peacham is quite emphatic in The Compleat Gentleman about characterizing the Elizabethan era and its most famous poets as a glorious period in the nation’s history, probably never to be equaled in the future, the deliberate exclusion of Shakespeare’s name makes no sense unless Oxford and Shakespeare were one and the same man. The evidence presented and analyzed in this essay supports this inescapable conclusion.

Peacham’s personal dilemma was that he could not really ignore the question of Shakespeare, because he knew the Bard going back to the 1590s, and both he and his own publisher had to be aware of the folio project, to say nothing of the long publication history of the numerous quarto editions of the Bard’s plays, Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets.

If Shakespeare was, in fact, a different person from any of the other names on Peacham’s list, it would have been logical and rational for Peacham to include it because he had to have known–as did other figures such as Jonson and Drayton–who Shakespeare was. Therefore, a decision to include Shakespeare’s name in his list would have avoided any possible confusion in the reader’s mind, and would not later raise any questions about Peacham’s competence as a literary expert–a reputation which he undoubtedly valued highly.

Certainly, if Shakespeare really was a separate person and the nation’s greatest poet, then the temptation for Peacham to exclude Oxford’s name instead would have been overwhelming. There can be no doubt that to include the name of a notorious Earl ran a risk of upsetting some within the particular branch of the Howard family, given the wounds from the past. So, it would have been quite easy and even convenient for Peacham to drop Oxford, especially if he was really more or less a minor court poet.

Logic and the evidence (i.e. Oxford’s inclusion on the list) clearly indicate that Peacham’s thought process came from the opposite perspective, namely, that Oxford’s name absolutely needed to be on the new list, as it had been on the one prepared in 1589 by Puttenham. The only real issue and tough question for Peacham was whether to add the name “Shakespeare.” Ultimately, he decided upon reflection to exclude the name “Shakespeare,” which indicates clearly that he knew–and assumed others would know–that Shakespeare was the pen-name for Oxford.

In conclusion, Peacham’s final choice represents the least probable among the four possibilities open to him, if Oxford and Shakespeare were really different persons. His choice to include Oxford and exclude Shakespeare confirms their shared identity and underscores Peacham’s ability to finesse the awkward political situation of the early 1620s.

Peacham could not risk stating “Oxford also known as Shakespeare” because this might have irked the Howards, and would have also risked the anger of the King and Buckingham following their imprisonment of Southampton and Henry de Vere in June-July 1621 (which included Peacham’s friend John Selden) and then the second imprisonment of Henry de Vere in mid-April 1622.

Peacham’s solution was to honor the true Bard by omitting the pen-name “Shakespeare,” trusting that most educated or sophisticated readers would read Oxford’s name and make the logical connection ontheir own, especially given that a large Folio of his plays would be available within the next year or so.15

In contrast to Peacham’s situation, those in the syndicate sponsoring the First Folio project faced a different dilemma. They were assembling the plays of the Bard already known by the Shakespeare pen-name, no doubt with the assistance of the Lord Chamberlain (the Earl of Pembroke) and his brother (the Earl of Montgomery–a brother-in-law to the 18th Earl of Oxford, Henry, and the son-in-law of the 17th Earl, Edward), both of whom were the First Folio dedication’s “Incomparable Paire.”

So placing the 17th Earl’s name on the title page was not a viable option for Pembroke and Montgomery, both because of the still compelling pre-existing rationale for concealment (whatever it was) dating back three decades, and also because of the current awkward political situation given the King’s imprisonments of the 17th Earl’s son Henry and the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Thus, the conclusion that Oxford was Shakespeare rests on the inescapable correlation of crucial, solid pieces of evidence which include: Peacham’s personal knowledge of and association with the real Shakespeare dating back to the 1590s, the emblem/anagram in Minerva Britanna (1612) signaling Oxford’s need for concealment, Peacham’s determination in 1622 to list the greatest Elizabethan poets, his simultaneous awareness and that of his own publisher (Francis Constable) concerning the First Folio project prior to the completion of The Compleat Gentleman, Peacham’s curious decision to list Oxford’s name but not “Shakespeare,” and lastly Peacham’s acute awareness of the delicate situation involved in listing Oxford’s name given the Howard family’s sensitivities and the Court’s ongoing vendetta in 1621-22 with Southampton and Henry De Vere, Oxford’s son.

There is no longer any reason for anyone to have any doubt that Peacham knew that Edward de Vere and Shakespeare were one and the same man. What was true for Peacham in 1622 is also true for us today.



  1. It was actually Puttenham (not Meres) who ranked Oxford and Buckhurst as first respectively for Comedy and Tragedy. See George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, Cambridge University Press, 1936, pages 62-63.
  2. Our background information concerning the life and work of Henry Peacham was obtained from The Dictionary of National Biography (1895-96), volume XV, pages 578-580; Robert Ralston Cawley, Henry Peacham – His Contribution to English Poetry (1971); and Alan R. Young, Henry Peacham (1975).
  3. The poems written by Peacham and John Selden were collected in The Period of Mourning, published in 1613.
  4. Samuel Schoenbaum reproduced this drawing on pages 123-124 of his work, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975).
  5. See the map of Pauls Cross Churchyard on page 27 of Peter Blayneys The First Folio of Shakespeare (1991).
  6. See Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, 1963, pages 342-346.
  7. Ibid., pages 28-29.
  8. Cawley, op. cit., page 10; Young, op cite., pages 27, 103, and footnote 56 on page 144.
  9. Young, op. cit., page 70. After settling in the Norwich area in 1615 as a schoolmaster, Peacham evidently was drawn toward the family of Thomas Howard, the Earl of Suffolk, because of this Lords interest in fine art as well as literature.
  10. It has been pointed out that the inscription, as written, is not correct Latin for either the first or second person conjugation. It should read either MENTE.VIDEBOR (…I shall be seen) or MENTE.VIDEBERIS (…thou shall be seen). Peacham knew his Latin, and it must be assumed that the hand is writing the letter I after VIDEBOR only to complete the anagram. E.T. Clarks interpretation that the letter S should be assumed after the I is negated by the fact that the correct Latin for the second-person should then be VIDEBERIS, not VIDEBORIS.
  11. See pages 311-314 for Astley-Cocks essay in Oxfordian Vistas, the subtitle of a supplemental volume of essays attached to the 1975 Minos Publishing reprint of Thomas Looneys Shakespeare Identified, originally published in 1920.
  12. When Looney published his work in 1920 he apparently did not have the benefit of knowing about this anagram or the emblem in Peachams Minerva Britanna, nor about the inclusion of Oxford in a list of great poets in The Compleat Gentleman. The first person who evidently uncovered this important evidence was Eva Turner Clark sometime after 1930. She included it in her 1937 work as cited in this essay.
  13. Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman, 1622, pages 95-96.
  14. Puttenham, op. cit., page 61.
  15. Peachams predicament in 1621-1622 brings to mind that of Ben Jonson who felt compelled to make deletions/insertions in his famous folio for political reasons after the Overbury Murder scandal broke upon the country in late 1615. Although never really close to the pro-Catholic Howard faction, Jonson removed some material in their honor from the folio because the scandal badly damaged the Howard clique at Court and included poems in favor of the newly triumphant and staunchly Protestant faction associated with the Herbert-Pembroke-Sidney family network.

A Note from the Author: ( Back)

The author believes the essay “Henry Peacham on Oxford and Shakespeare” concerning a list of the greatest Elizabethan poets which Henry Peacham compiled in 1622 as the First Folio project got underway, constiutes prima facie evidence and irrefutable proof that he knew “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s pen name. We urge readers to review on this same Web site prior articles from the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter pertaining to this author’s contextualization of the First Folio project, especially “Shakespeare’s Son on Death Row?” prepared by editor William Boyle. Before Dickson’s research, no one had undertaken a meticulous study of the historical context within which Peacham decided to exclude “Shakespeare” from his list. Therefore, readers should pay close attention because every effort was taken to anticipate counter-arguments. For example, arguments that the omission of Shakespeare’s name was a typograhical error lack credibility —later editions of The Compleat Gentleman (a national best-seller) show no effort while Peacham was still alive to add “Shakespeare.” (and editions published after his death also remained unchanged.)

Readers unable to find a flaw in this proof for Oxford’s claim should not try to shift discussion to the inconclusive (thin and poor) documentary trail of non-literary evidence concerning the Stratford man. The ambiguous and sole literary evidence in his favor can neither counter the above proof nor survive detailed contextualiztion. The prefaces to the First Folio which contain the phrases “Sweet Swan of Avon” and “Thy Stratford Moniment” were type-set in late 1623, well after Peacham’s work, and after the folio publishers knew the retention of the pen name required a surrogate figure (deceased) to deflect curiosity. The abject humiliation of King James at the climax of the fiasco known as the Spanish Marriage Crisis –a policy which Henry de Vere (Oxford’s son) and Southampton had warned against and for which they were imprisoned– required a stratagem of sustained long-term concealment –a concealment whose need Peacham had first noted in Minerva Britanna (1612). Whatever your views, we encourage readers to dissect this essay on Peacham and the First Folio to identify significant flaws, and we will count the days until someone does just that.

Prepared by Peter W. Dickson to accompany publication of this article in The Ever Reader. Individuals wishing to contact the author directly can reach him at or by phone at: 703-243-6641
17 December 1998

Oxford’s Literary Reputation in the 17th and 18th Centuries

References more frequent than previously thought, even as Bardolatry starts to take hold

by Peter W. Dickson

This article was first published in the Fall 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Between Peacham’s list in 1622 and Grosart’s publication in 1872 of some of Oxford’s poems, there are at least six major commentators on him as a literary figure.

The first and only one in the seventeenth century was Anthony Wood (1632-1690) who published the Athenae Oxonienses and Fasti Oxonienses in 1675. In these two compendia listing all the great writers educated at Oxford University, Wood reveals that his knowledge of Oxford as a famous court poet comes from his poems as they appeared in Richard Edward’s The Paradise of Dainty Devices published in 1576, 1578, and eight more times thereafter. Wood describes Oxford as “an excellent poet and Comedian as several matters of his composition, which were made public, did shew, which I presume are now lost or worn out.” 1

Two genealogists in the next century repeated almost verbatim Wood’s observations about Oxford’s literary talent, and also that the Earl was the first to introduce embroidered gloves and certain purfumes from Italy which impressed Queen Elizabeth. These genealogical experts on the British Peerage were Arthur Collins (1682?-1760) and Samuel Egerton Brydges (1763-1837). Collin’s passages concerning Oxford can be found on page 265 of his Historical Recollection of the Noble – Families of Cavendish, Hollis, Vere, Harley and Ogle, 1752.2 A prominent publisher and expert on Elizabethan literature and poetry, Brydges in his Memoirs of the Peers of England during the Reign of King James the First (1802) makes four terse but emphatic references to “Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, the poet.”3

In his prior work Reflections on the late augmentation of the English Peerage (1798), Brydges offers a detailed biographical sketch of Oxford which echoes Wood’s description, stating that Oxford was “a celebrated poet, distinguished for his wit, adroitness in his exercises, and valour and zeal for his country.”4

Brydges in his earlier work also revealed that in addition to Wood, he had two other sources of information about Oxford. The closest in time to Brydges was the classic three-volume work, The History of English Poetry of Thomas Warton (1726-1790). In volume one published in 1774, Warton makes passing references to the lists of famous poets, which included Oxford, that Meres published in Palladis Tamia in 1598 and George Puttenham published in The Arte of English Poesie in 1589.5 William Webbe’s reference to Oxford in A Discourse of Poetrie (1586) is not given but Warton cites this book in other places.

More important than Warton is Brydges’ reference to A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, with Lists of their Works published in 1758 by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the Fourth Earl of Oxford (second iteration). Walpole was a famous scholar of English literature who voiced only qualified praise of Shakespeare which upset others who questioned this Earl’s talent as a literary critic. Nonetheless, he was famous as the publisher who established the Strawberry Hill Press and was a major expert on English literature like Warton with whom he had a great rivalry.

In a section devoted to Oxford in volume one of his work, Walpole cites The Paradise of Dainty Devices and initially repeats almost verbatim what could be found in Wood’s prior work from 1675.6 Along with Oxford’s reputation as a poet, Walpole confirms that he was “reckoned as the Best writer of Comedy in his time,” but adds that “the very names of all his plays are lost.”

Nevertheless, Walpole offers his own unique perspective concerning Oxford a few pages later in a section on another writer, Thomas Sackville, Lord of Buckhurst and Dorset, the same author whose name follows Oxford’s in Peacham’s list in 1622. Walpole’s comments are extraordinary because he also refers to Shakespeare in the same passage on Oxford and Buckhurst. The passage in question is as follows:

Tiptoft and Rivers set the example of bringing light from other countries, and patronized the art of printing, Caxton. The Earls of Oxford and Dorset struck out new lights for Drama, without making the multitude laugh or weep at ridiculous representations of Scripture. To the former we owe Printing, to the two latter Taste — what do we not owe perhaps to the last of the four our historic plays are allowed to have been found on the heroic narratives in the Mirrours for Magistrates; to that plan, and to the boldness of Lord Buckhurst’s new scenes perhaps we owe Shakespeare. Such debt to these four Lords, the probability of the last obligation, as sufficient to justify a Catalogue of Noble Authors.7

Walpole has clearly identified and highlighted two distinct pairs of aristocrats for their historical contribution to English drama and literature. According to The Dictionary of National Biography, Tiptoft and Rivers were two Earls who introduced foreign literature and the art of printing into England in the second half of the fifteenth century. They were John Tiptoft, a Baron and also First Earl of Worcester, and Anthony Woodville, the Second Earl of Rivers.

Walpole then links Oxford and Sackville (Buckhurst-Dorset) as the fathers of English drama and he highlights the impact on Shakespeare of the latter’s multi-volume work Mirrour for Magistrates which first appeared in 1559. Walpole’s selection and emphasis on Sackville was no doubt influenced by the fact that this Earl was famous as the co-author of the first English tragedy in blank verse, namely Gorboduc written in 1561.

Since Walpole, like Warton a decade or so later, refers to Shakespeare as a distinct person, we must conclude that he did not think that Oxford and Shakespeare were the same man, even though the latter is never discussed with any specificity. The main reason for this omission is that Walpole only wanted to write about authors of royal or noble blood. Some Oxfordians might try to force an interpretation of the foregoing passage by arguing that since Buckhurst-Dorset preceded Oxford by a full decade or more, then Walpole is hinting that it is Oxford as Shakespeare who owed the great literary debt to Buckhurst. This interpretation is impossible to prove and must remain debatable or problematic.

The final and extraordinary detailed literary reference concerning Oxford (long overlooked) can be found in Bibliographica Poetica: A Catalogue of English Poets (1802) by the literary critic, Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). The passage is worth quoting in full for the record:

Vere Edward, earl of Oxford, the 14th [sic] of his surname and family, is the author of several poems printed in “The Paradise of Daintie Devices,” 1576, etc. and in “Englands Helicon.” One piece, by this nobleman, may be found in “The Phoenix nest,” 1592, another is subjoin’d to “Astrophel & Stella,” 1591, and another to “Brittons Bowre of Delights,” 1597 (selected by mister Ellis). Some lines of his are, also, prefix’d to “Cardanuses Comforte,”1573. All or most of his compositions are distinguished by the signature E.O. He dye’d in 1604; and was bury’d at Hackney (not as Wood says, at Earls-Colne in Essex). Webbe and Puttenham applaud his attainments in poesy: Meres ranks him with the “best for comedy.” Several specimens of Oxford’s poetry occur in Englands Parnasus, 1600, in the posthumous edition of Lord Oxford’s works, Vol. 1. two poems, by the Earl of Oxford, are given from an ancient MS. miscellany: but the possessor is not pointed out. One of these is reprinted by mister Ellis.8

Ritson also reveals that Oxford’s first wife (Anne Cecil) also wrote a few poems, a fact which he extracted from the last Edition of Walpole’s work cited above.9 Walpole obtained his information concerning Lady Oxford from an article written by the famous Shakespeare expert and editor George Steevens in the European Magazine (June 1788).

While Peacham (1622) and Anthony Wood (1675) are the only commentators in the seventeenth century to acknowledge Oxford’s literary reputation, the Stratford man’s identification as the real Shakespeare existed only in brief, scattered written accounts (Thomas Fuller in 1662, John Aubrey in 1680, and Gerard Langbein in 1691) during this same period. Prior to 1700, the name “Shakespeare” in the public mind was primarily associated with the works as found in the four folio editions of his plays. However, Irvin Matus in Shakespeare In Fact (1994) warns against Oxfordian claims that Bardolatry took hold only after David Garrick’s sponsorship of the Jubilee in Stratford town in 1769, and points to the town’s pro-active interest in its famous son as early as 1746.10

Matus is correct but unintentionally deflects attention from the Cult of Bardolatry promoted by the Drury Lane Theater under the leadership of Colley Cibber and his son, Theophilus, long before Garrick became an actor and co-manager of this theater in the 1740s. It is intriguing to observe that in his The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Theophilus Cibber (1703-1758) significantly expanded on the first serious biographical account of the Stratford man that Nicholas Rowe had attached to his critical edition of the Bard’s works in 1709.11

At the same time, the younger Cibber, who had been connected with the Drury Lane Theater, makes no mention of Oxford despite his prominence in the lists of well-known poets prepared by Webbe (1586), Puttenham (1589), Meres (1598), and Peacham (1622). Cibber explores the lives of more than 25 Elizabethan poets, but not Oxford. This exclusion may have been deliberate, though the similar absence of Dyer and Paget from the list may provide a rationale for Cibber because these poets’ works, like those of Oxford, had been largely lost or never published. Nonetheless, Oxford becomes a non-person for those reading Cibber’s work, whereas contemporaries such as Collins (1752), Walpole (1758), and Warton (1774) reiterate the high praise for the Earl found in the lists from a century or more earlier.

Whatever Theophilus Cibber’s motives, it is hard to avoid the impression that Bardolatry was stimulated by Rowe’s biographical essay in 1709 and intensified with the reopening of the old Theater Royal (renamed The Drury Lane Theater) in 1710-11 under the leadership of Colley Cibber. Thus, when Garrick joined this theater in the 1740s, Bardolatry was well underway.

For their part, however, the people of Stratford town remained relatively passive even after the Jubilee in 1769 and did not build and dedicate a local theater to their favorite son until 1870. Meanwhile, Oxford’s literary reputation never died out completely, and was finally saved for posterity when Grosart collected some of his poems in 1872.

Return to Henry Peacham article



  1. The passages in Wood can be found in Athenae Oxonienses, column 152, and in Fasti Oxonienses, page 99, column 1.
  2. Collins was the only eighteenth-century work which cited Oxford as a significant poet known to Thomas Looney (the originator of the Oxfordian theory in 1920).
  3. The references can be found on pages 2, 148, 494, and also in a footnote at the bottom of page 163.
  4. The biographical sketch can be found on pages 50-51 of this work.
  5. Warton, The History of English Poetry, pages 242-244.
  6. The passage concerning Oxford in Walpole’s work can be found on page 144. We should note that Walpole might have cribbed this passage directly from Collins’ work which had been published only six years earlier in 1752.
  7. Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England (1758), page 144.
  8. Ritson, Bibliographica Poetica, pages 381-382.
  9. Ibid., page 380-381.
  10. Matus, Shakespeare In Fact, 1994, page 201. Matus devotes his eighth chapter to the origins of Bardolatry.
  11. Compared to Rowe’s forty pages on the Stratford-man in 1709, Theophilus Cibber devotes more than twenty pages in his 1753 work.

The Queen’s Worm

Does another of Shakespeare/Oxford’s word games clarify an enigmatic scene?

by Richard F. Whalen (1998)

This article was first published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Summer 1998).


At the climax of Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra is about to kill herself, Shakespeare introduces a Clown. The clown, or fool, or jester in Shakespeare is most often the truth-teller, the character who can tell painful truths to the monarch with impunity. He also seems to be the voice of the dramatist commenting on the action. When he speaks the audience should pay particular attention to what he says. As far as can be determined, scholars have not given the clown’s scene in Antony and Cleopatra the attention it deserves. For Oxfordians the scene may appear to be loaded with special meaning. (Text of the scene)

The clown scene and Cleopatra’s death by snakebite also deserve attention because they do not occur in Plutarch’s Lives, which Shakespeare otherwise follows closely. Plutarch merely says that Cleopatra’s use of a poisonous asp brought to her in a basket was one of several different ways she was supposed to have killed herself. There is, of course, no clown in Plutarch. The scene with the clown and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s invention. All the more reason to examine what they say to each other.

Throughout the scene the poisonous asp is referred to not as an asp, or a snake, or a serpent.

Shakespeare refers to it repeatedly as a “worm.” That is an unusual word for a serpent, but it is the first and now archaic meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary; it comes from the Old Saxon. The dictionary uses a line from the clown scene to illustrate that meaning. Shakespeare could have used any of the other synonyms in his vocabulary, including “serpent,- ‘-snake-’ or –viper”; but he used “worm.” (Incidentally, Shakespeare never used the word “asp,– but Thomas Nashe did, and in connection with Cleopatra. Alexander Pope put it into a stage direction in Antony and Cleopatra.)

More surprising is that the word “Worm” appears nine times in just thirty- six lines in the clown scene–far more than in any other play. It occurs only once or twice in about half of the other plays, sometimes to mean a serpent, usually to mean an earthworm or maggot, as in “the worm of conscience” (Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing). This unusual frequency in thirty-six lines in Antony and Cleopatra bears examination.

The significance may well lie in the fact that “worm” in French is “ver”–and, of course, the Earl of Oxford’s family name was de Vere. The plays are full of puns and wordplay, some of it multi-lingual. The English “worm” thus can be seen here as a pun on the French “ver,” standing for de Vere, the English dramatist with the French surname. Moreover, “Vere” was probably pronounced “vair” in English as well as in French, the same pronunciation as for the French word for worm.

With this in mind, analysis of the passage suggests some interesting interpretations that seem to have gone unnoticed. Any one of the interpretations taken by itself may not have the strength of validity. Taken together, however, they may be persuasive that Edward de Vere in the person of the clown is talking about himself, the worm, to Queen Elizabeth in the person of Cleopatra.

Cleopatra is the first to refer to the asp as a worm. She calls it “the pretty worm of Nilus that kills and pains not.” This might be taken as the queen’s recognition that de Vere’s plays kill false notions but without intending to cause pain to the holder of them, especially if she is the queen.

In his answer the clown mis-speaks (a natural blunder for a clown) and says the worm’s bite is “immortal;” people die of it. But the blunder can be seen as deliberate, one that conveys a truth. The worm’s bite–that is, de Vere’s play–will indeed make Cleopatra immortal. And, by extension, his plays will make Queen Elizabeth immortal. Many commentators over the years have taken Cleopatra to stand for Queen Elizabeth.

The clown then rambles on about an honest woman who lied and then died when the worm bit her. The meaning is obscure, but the clown concludes by saying “the worm’s an odd worm.” Just as de Vere was certainly a difficult, odd lord in Elizabeth’s court, not like any of the others. He was the odd de Vere, the odd worm. The queen tries to dismiss the clown, but he will not leave; so she tolerates him, as a monarch tolerates a court jester.

The clown wishes her “all joy of the worm.”– a strange benediction, unless de Vere is asking her to enjoy and appreciate him and his plays. Then he lectures her, just as the court jesters in Shakespeare, the “allowed fools,” are permitted to lecture the monarch. She must understand that “the worm will do his kind–that is, that de Vere will do his thing. He will write plays. He will critique court affairs.

Again, he lectures her: –”The worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people.” That is, de Vere’s plays are only for the wise who will understand them and their advice. “There is no goodness in the worm,” confesses de Vere’s drive to bring painful truths to the stage, truths that will not have goodness for anyone but the wise. The non-wise will find no goodness in the worm de Vere, only painful satire. The queen assures him that his advice will be heeded, and the clown, pleased, again drops into mock humility and says, in effect, that the worm–de Vere–is not worth the feeding. He is not worth being taken care of.

Suddenly Cleopatra asks, “Will it eat me?” A strange question. This might be seen as a sudden switch in meaning of “worm,” that is: Will the earthworms eat me when I’m dead? The clown gives her a strange reply that seems to reassure her: Of course not, he may be saying, “a woman is a dish for the gods” unless the devil gets hold of her. Perhaps this implies that de Vere recognizes the queen as a favorite of the gods, a queen who is unmarred by the devil and who will be immortal.

Leaving, the clown repeats, “I wish you joy of the worm.” Perhaps de Vere is saying again that his writings, with their criticism of the court and society, are not meant to bring sorrow and pain to the queen, but only entertainment and wisdom, that is, “Joy.” Just as Cleopatra in the play will find joy in her death by the bite of the worm.

Twenty lines later, Cleopatra clasps the asp to her breast. At this moment, the worm and the fool or court jester–that is, de Vere–all come together. She calls the worm her fool: “Come thou mortal wretch … poor venomous fool…”

Then, in a change of pace, Cleopatra finds peace. Her attendant is wild with grief, but Cleopatra in an astonishing metaphor says to her: “Peace, peace, dost thou not see my baby [the worm, the serpent, de Vere?] at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?” Usually the baby falls asleep at the breast. Here the nursing woman, Cleopatra, with the asp at her breast, falls into the everlasting sleep of death.

The guards and Caesar arrive, but the asp, the worm, the fool, de Vere–all one–have disappeared, leaving, however, a trail. Oxfordian scholars apparently have not remarked on the unusual clown scene–except for Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn Sr. in This Star of England (1,172). They warn that the scene is “not to be taken at face value.” They describe the clown as a truth-teller, and although they mention the significance of “worm,” they do not explain its significance. They simply call the passage “a lucid word to those of us who are ‘wise.’” They may well have read “worm” as “de Vere” in Antony and Cleopatra, but they do not say so.

Ruth Loyd Miller mentions the French word for worm in her edition of A Hundreth Sundry Flowers (92). She notes how Edward de Vere punned on his name in several languages, particularly an the Latin word for truth in his motto, “Vero Nihil Veritas.” She leads off a list of such puns with “ver” for worm, or for spring, but she doesn’t mention the clown scene in Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare scholars generally say little or nothing about the odd scene even though it comes at the climax of the play. It may contain too many puzzlements for them.

Read from an Oxfordian perspective, however, the scene’s strange emphasis on “worm” may make sense and give the climax an even more powerful emotional impact.

Through this scene between the clown and Cleopatra Edward de Vere may be telling his audience, and Queen Elizabeth, about himself as her playwright.


The Worm’s Bite

From Antony and Cleopatra (Riverside) (V,ii,241-79, 305-11)Enter Guardsman and Clown [with a basket]

Guard: This is the man.
Cleopatra: Avoid, and leave him. (exit Guardsman)
Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there,
That kills and pains not?
Clown: Truly, I have him; but I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal; those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.
Cleopatra: Remember’st thou any that have died on’t?
Clown: Very many, men and women, too. I heard of one of them no longer than yesterday, a very honest woman–but something given to lie, as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty–how she died of the biting of it, what pain she felt. Truly, she makes a very good report of the worm; but he that will believe all that they say, shall never be saved by half that they do. But this is most falliable, the worm’s an odd worm
Cleopatra: Get thee hence, farewell.
Clown: I wish you all joy of the worm.
Cleopatra: Farewell.
Clown: You must think this, look you, that the worm will do his kind.
Cleopatra: Ay, ay, farewell.
Clown: Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people; for indeed, there is no goodness in the worm
Cleopatra: Take thou no care, it shall be heeded.
Clown: Very good. Give it nothing, I pray you, for it is not worth the feeding.
Cleopatra: Will it eat me?
Clown: You must not think I am so simple but I know the devil himself will not eat a woman. I know that a woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her not. But truly, these same whoreson devils do the gods great harm in their women; for in every ten that they make, the devils mar five.
Cleopatra: Well, get thee gone, farewell.
Clown: Yes, forsooth; I wish you joy o’ th’ worm

Cleopatra: [to an asp, which she applies to her breast]
…Come, thou mortal wretch…
Poor venomous fool,
Be angry and dispatch…
…Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?