Polonius As Lord Burghley

Mark Alexander

Gentle Reader

Introduction

Part One: A Brief Discussion - On Discovering Genuine Topical Allusions

Part Two: The Arguments from 1869 to 1981

Part Three: Corambis, Polonia, and Comparing Arguments

Part Four: The Avoidance of Strong Arguments Since 1981

Texts Page

Notes for this Page

Bibliography

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 Gentle Reader

Please indulge me as I beg your patience and understanding with all that follows. We who do not always see eye to eye will often approach each other with impatience and cynicism, especially when we quickly think that we have "pegged" the argument of the other before giving it a full reading. I ask you, gentle reader, to set aside your cynicism.

I promise you that what follows is a new argument, one you have not seen in this form before, arranged in a manner most able to arouse your interest and challenge your assumptions. I beg that you not give way to unwarranted apprehensions, that you not supply arguments that you think are present but which, in fact, are not.

If I have succeeded, you will find my argument focused and narrow in scope, inviting the exploration of other arguments, but not attempting to argue them here.

I make three very focused propositions, and I think that any thoughtful reader who values evidence and reason over prejudice and self-deception, and who has taken the time to thoroughly acquaint themselves with my entire argument, not just portions, will agree that I have supported persuasively all three propositions:

1) That the character of Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet so strongly mirrors William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that no reasonable person would deny that the author of the Shakespeare plays to a great extent consciously modeled Polonius after Burghley, with no other interpretation coming nearly as close to having such circumstantial support.

2) That many notable Stratfordian scholars have supported this interpretation.

3) That major Stratfordian scholars and critics, while presenting the Oxfordian case, have failed to mention most or all the strong arguments supporting the Polonius/Burghley connection.

In many areas of scholarship, the better arguments have already been made, but they are often ignored or misrepresented by those whose reputation or livelihood would be affected by those better arguments. This unfortunate fact of professional life does not require a conscious conspiracy; it simply follows a common pattern of human behavior. One way to expose their methods is to trace some of the history of the arguments in such a way that readers can examine many relevant sources, compare the arguments, and then come to their own conclusions. This I propose to do.

Since I firmly believe that a reader is best served by having access to copies of the original sources, I will quote much material in context, which means that quotes may appear lengthier than necessary. I think that a reader should be able to see the actual context as much as possible.

May your thoughts be clear and your breast free from all hindering passions as you adventure forth.

Mark Alexander 1

 

Polonius as Lord Burghley

A Short Journey Through the History of the Arguments

Introduction

The first recorded speculation that Polonius was modeled after William Cecil, Lord Burghley, occurs in Stratfordian George Russell French's 1869 book Shakspeareana Genealogica:



The next important personages in the play are the "Lord Chamberlain," POLONIUS; his son, LAERTES; and daughter, OPHELIA; and these are supposed to stand for Queen Elizabeth's celebrated Lord High Treasurer, Sir WILLIAM CECIL, Lord Burleigh; his second son, ROBERT CECIL; and his daughter, ANNE CECIL. (French 301)

When French says, "these are supposed to stand for", it implies that such speculation was already ongoing in the mid-19th century and that the idea was neither overly controversial nor uniquely advanced. French then draws attention to the similarites between Ophelia and Anne Cecil followed by those between Laertes and Robert Cecil:



It is well known that an alliance of marriage was proposed by their fathers to take place between Philip Sidney and Anne Cecil, the "fair Ophelia" of the play: here is one link of resemblance in the story. Queen Gertrude says,--

"I hop'd thou should'st have been my Hamlet's wife."

Anne Cecil became the wife of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This was not a happy marriage for the lady, and the only quarrel in which Philip Sidney ever engaged was with Oxford, who had behaved to him with great rudeness, and the challenge between them was only frustrated by the Queen's interference. Did our Poet bear this quarrel in mind when he makes Hamlet leap into Ophelia's grave and grapple with Laertes?--

"I will fight with him upon this theme."

In the drama Polonius, on his son Laertes leaving him for foreign travel, gives him his blessing, and advice, telling him,--

"And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character."

We have now come to a second link in the chain of evidence. When Robert Cecil was about to set out on his travels, his father (who lived till 1598) was careful to enjoin upon him "ten precepts," in allusion, as he explains, to the Decalogue, and in some of these the identity of language with that of Polonius is so close, that SHAKSPEARE could not have hit upon it unless he had been acquainted with Burleigh's parental advice to Robert Cecil, who was forty-six years old when the play was written. It is worth while to compare the "precepts" of the two fathers: those of Polonius can with certainty be divided into at least nine sections; they are not of course intended to run parallel in all respects with those of Cecil, but some of them are wonderfully alike.

 1.

2.
3.



4.

5.
6.
7.




8.


9.

.

.
.

..........."Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel*;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new hatch'd unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all, to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man,
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee."

Act I. Scene 3.

[*In some editions it is "hoops of steels," but "hook " will best agree with grapple."]

Now Lord Burleigh's "ten precepts," which are numbered in due order, contain some startling coincidences of expression with the precepts of Polonius; those which do not fit the Poet's text may be merely glanced at. Precept 1 relates to "choosing a wife," and keeping house; 2, to bringing up children; 3 contains advice respecting servants. Precept 4 -- "Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table. Grace them with thy countenance, and farther them in all honest actions. For by this means thou shalt so double the band of nature as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind thy back. But shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperitie, but in an adverse storme they will shelter thee no more than an arbour in winter. 5. Beware of suretyship for thy best friends. He that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own decay. But if thou canst not otherwise chose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it. So shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend. Neither borrow of a neighbour or of a friend, but of a stranger, whose paying for it thou shalt hear no more of it. 6. Undertake no suit against a poor man without receiving much wrong. 7. Be sure to make some great man thy friend. 8. Towards superiors be humble, yet generous. With thine equals familiar, yet respective. Towards thine inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity. 9. Trust not any man with thy life credit, or estate. 10. Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests." (French 302-304) 2


Thus we have the first recorded link between Polonius and William Cecil. French was the first to point out that Polonius's precepts to his son Laertes were similar to Lord Burghley's Preceptes to his son Robert Cecil, which were not published until 1616. (Schoenbaum 493) However, French does not explain which of Polonius's precepts he sees linking to Burghley's.

The question then is: Why would French even look for such a linkage? The answer seems to be that given the fact that Polonius's relationship to the monarch is very much the same as Burghley's relationship to the monarch, French would then look for similarities in the precepts of both, either in content or in tone. I believe that he had in mind the following precepts, which are somewhat similar in content:

Polonius Burghley

#1 and #2

..........."Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

And glancingly, #5 and #6

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.

#10

Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests.

#3

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel; / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new hatch'd unfledged comrade.

#4

Let thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table. Grace them with thy countenance, and farther them in all honest actions. For by this means thou shalt so double the band of nature as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind thy back. But shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperitie, but in an adverse storme they will shelter thee no more than an arbour in winter.

#8

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

#5 and #9

Beware of suretyship for thy best friends. He that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own decay. But if thou canst not otherwise chose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it. So shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend. Neither borrow of a neighbour or of a friend, but of a stranger, whose paying for it thou shalt hear no more of it.

Trust not any man with thy life credit, or estate.

These similarities in content, along with some overall similarity in tone and a few other arguments, have formed the basis for many later Stratfordian scholars to believe that Polonius was Burghley. Although I believe that the similarity in precepts can form the basis of one argument, I do not see it as strong enough by itself to make the identification. If the author of Hamlet were to parallel closely a majority of the precepts, then perhaps a definitive case could be made. But we have here similarities based on less than half of the precepts.

Furthermore, other individuals such as Sir Walter Raleigh also created "Instructions to a Son," as pointed out by Louis B. Wright in his Advice to a Son: Precepts of Lord Burghley, Sir WalterRaleigh, and Francis Osborne. But like Burghley, Raleigh was long dead when his instructions were published. Both postdate the death of William Shakspere.

One may wonder, then, why so many Stratfordian scholars strongly maintained that Polonius was modeled on Burghley. Later writers would have to come up with other strong instances of circumstantial evidence before making a good overall case for Polonius as Burghley.


Part One: A Brief Discussion -
On Discovering Genuine Topical Allusions

Before we can discuss the rest of the circumstantial evidence, we must satisfactorily answer two questions, since many students of Shakespeare have never thought much of the plays in terms of topicality:

1) Is there any reason to think that dramatists in Shakespeare's time wrote topically and satirically?

2) If so, how does one go about establishing a strong case for a topical allusion and overcoming the inevitable *projections* one may have when biased toward a particular interpretation?

Is there any reason to think that dramatists in Shakespeare's time wrote topically and satirically?

Yes. Two Stratfordian scholars out of many have explored this topic in the last fifteen years: Annabel Patterson in Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, and Leah S. Marcus in Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Readings and Its Discontents.

"…poetry, or literature, has had from antiquity a unique role to play in mediating to the magistrates the thoughts of the governed, and that it exists, or ought to, in a privileged position of compromise." (Patterson 13)

"In the plays of Ben Jonson and Philip Massinger, in Shakespeare's King Lear, in a court masque by Thomas Carew, in the sermons of John Donne, there is evidence, if we look carefully, of a highly sophisticated system of oblique communication, of unwritten rules whereby writers could communicate with readers or audiences (among whom were the very same authorities who were responsible for state censorship) without producing a direct confrontation. The official recognition of the public theater as both, up to a point, a privileged domain with laws of its own, and a useful safety valve or even a source of intelligence, has been well established. Elizabeth's famous recognition of herself in a 1601 revival of Richard II and James's equally famous decision to let Middleton's Game at Chess play for twelve days tell the same story, and show that they recognized the wisdom of the message brought from the grave by the poet Collingbourne. One of the least oblique critics of Jacobean policy, the pamphleteer Thomas Scott, remarked in the significantly entitled Vox Regis that "sometimes Kings are content in Playes and Maskes to be admonished of divers things." (Patterson 45) 3

"Given the feckless, highly ingenious, almost ungovernable gusto with which contemporaries found parallels between stage action and contemporary events, there are few things that plays could be relied upon not to mean. In early Tudor times, plays were openly used both for official propaganda and for political agitation. Heavy-handed moralities glorified the Reformation; one play displayed Henry VIII cutting off the heads of the Catholic clergy with a two-handed sword. On the other hand, according to Holinshed it was at a play that leaders of Kett's Rebellion (1549) incited followers to "enter further into their wicked enterprise." During the early years of Elizabeth, the drama was no less embroiled in events and personalities. Plays like Gorboduc and The Comedy of Patient and Meek Grissell took up the vexed matter of royal succession. During the 1560s Elizabeth herself regularly interpreted comedies presented at court as offering advice about the succession: she was to follow the "woman's part," a part she professed to dislike, and marry as the heroine inevitably did at the end. Given her ability to find "Abstracts of the time" even in seemingly neutral materials. No comedy performed before her was safe from topical interpretation.

"Her subjects were no less agile. The fact that some plays like Gorboduc and the Tudor moralities commented so directly on contemporary affairs encouraged audiences to find similar resonances nearly everywhere else. During the 1580s court plays like George Peele's Arraignment of Paris built the presence of the queen into their very structure: the arraignment could not be performed at all unless the queen played her part. But even when such connections were not made structurally necessary, they were regularly found out. Negative examples are the most prominent in the surviving records if only because censorship caused them to receive special scrutiny. So, in 1601, a sudden rash of performances of Shakespeare's Richard II was taken by Elizabeth and her chief ministers (and not without reason) as propaganda for the Essex rebellion." (Marcus 27) 4

It appears that not only were dramatists writing plays that were topical, their audiences actually expected plays to be topical. Dramatists, therefore, could not help but expect their audience to read into the play those matters of topical interest. In fact, the more one studies the history of English drama, particularly in the early 16th century, the more one is struck by how virtually every play of any worth was full of topical, and even strongly political, allusions. (For a fascinating discussion of *devices* and topical allusions in early plays, see Glynne Wickham's multi-volume Early English Stages 1300 to 1660, especially volume three, pages 65-82. Wickham does an excellent job of helping the reader look through 16th-century eyes.)

The question now is:

How does one go about establishing a strong case for a topical allusion and overcoming the inevitable *projections* one may have when biased toward a particular interpretation?

The best way to ensure a convincing topical allusion is to have more than one kind of linking evidence. If one wants to make a case that a person is being caricatured in a play, one needs more than the coincidence, say, of the same name; or that the character talks in the same way. More than one kind of circumstantial evidence is needed to make a convincing case.

In a criminal trial, a case based on circumstantial evidence can be strong enough to convict, even for murder. In Shakespeare Identified, J. Thomas Looney (pronounced "Loney") describes the character of circumstantial evidence:

"[Circumstantial evidence is taken] mistakenly by some to be evidence of an inferior order, but in practice the most reliable proof we have. [...] The predominating element in what we call circumstantial evidence is that of coincidences. A few coincidences we may treat as simply interesting; a number of coincidences we regard as remarkable; a vast accumulation of extraordinary coincidences we accept as conclusive proof. And when the case has reached this stage we look upon the matter as finally settled, until, as may happen, something of a most unusual character appears to upset all our reasoning. If nothing of this kind ever appears, whilst every newly discovered fact adds but confirmation to the conclusion, that conclusion is accepted as a permanently established truth." (Looney 80)

In a murder trial without eyewitnesses, prosecutors must build a strong circumstantial case based on different kinds of evidence that intersects on the suspect. For example, before a jury will convict, strong evidence concerning motive, means, and opportunity must be presented. That is, the suspect must be shown to have intent, access to the murder weapon or other means to commit the murder, and be available in the timeframe and place of the murder. It helps when artifacts or *signs* can be linked to the suspect (i.e., shoe prints, make and model of car, etc.)

This triple-angled structure of circumstantial evidence is similar to the requirements exerted within a three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, where three terms (x, y, z) are needed to identify the intersection that locates a single and unique point in the coordinate system. In a 2-d system, only (x, y) are needed. [I bring up this mathematical model simply to point out how one needs more than one angle of information to precisely locate a point.]

The same holds true in making a strong case for a topical allusion or a modeling of a character on a real person. One single angle of evidence, no matter how compelling, is usually not enough. Simply saying that Polonius uses "words" that are strongly similar to Lord Burghley's is not enough. Thus, the coincidence that Polonius give precepts to his son and that Burghley has given precepts to his son is not enough to persusively make the case that Polonius is modeled on Burghely. By itself, this link stands merely as a coincidence. Other coincidencs, other angles of evidence must be presented. If a case can be made with three separate sets of coincidences, or angles of evidence, one can be more assured of overcoming biases and of presenting a strong, objective interpretation.

And a circumstantial case built from several angles is, by the nature of circumstantial evidence, stronger than others built merely on oen or two angles.

I propose to satisfy this three-angled approach to circumstantial evidence in showing that there exists a strong case in favor of Polonius being modeled after Lord Burghley. 5

Proceed to Part Two: The Arguments from 1869 to 1981



Notes

1. This page is the result of a series of posts on the Shakespeare newsgroup humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare. return

2. You can read French's complete 12-page Notes on Hamlet. Among other speculations, he believes that Hamlet is Philip Sidney. French seems never to have questioned the traditional authorship attribution, so he seems disinterested in making the case for Burghley in an authorship context. return

3. You can read more of what Patterson has to say on poetic and dramatic writing as ambiguous political commentary here. return

4. Marcus is critical of anti-Stratfordians (pp. 34-36) and isolates Oxfordians for particular censure. She holds the notion that the Oxfordian case is built primarily upon topical readings of the plays. Her entire chapter on "Localization" is worth reading for the insights into the "universalizing and generalizing" of the author in the First Folio and for her discussions surrounding issues of topicality. return

5. I have relegated many weak arguments to the texts linked from the footnotes. Weak arguments only gain stature once the strong arguments are in place. return

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Bibliography

Titles link to order information or used-book search pages.

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