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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.

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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

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Footnotes:

  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.
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