Text excerpts are reproduced under provisions of 17 USC 107, pertaining
to the fair use of a copyrighted work, for purposes of criticism, comment,
teaching, scholarship, research, and non-profit educational purposes
and are not intended for use of a commercial nature.
Part One: A Brief Discussion -
On Discovering Genuine Topical Allusions
Part Three: Corambis, Polonia, and
Part Four: The Avoidance of Strong Arguments
Notes for this Page
Looney | Winstanley
| Wilson/Hurstfield/Rowse | Read
| Argument Summary
Part Two: The Arguments from 1869 to 1981
[Note: Although the approach may be less efficient, I present arguments
roughly in chronological order.]
In 1869, George Russell French managed to supply at least two pieces
of strong circumstantial evidence:
Strong Argument #1. Polonius's role as head counselor stands in the
same relation to the monarch as does Burghley's role.
Strong Argument #2. Polonius presents precepts to his son in a manner
similar to Burghley's presenting precepts to his son.
Although French has also supplied arguments based on Ophelia and Laertes,
we shall see that others have better formulated them.
The next writer to explore an in-depth connection between Polonius and
Lord Burghley was Oxfordian J. Thomas Looney. He quotes a passage from
Macaulay's Historical Essays describing Burghley, and then he commenting
"To the last Burleigh was somewhat jocose; and some of his sportive
sayings have been recorded by Bacon. They show much more shrewdness than
generosity, and are indeed neatly expressed reasons for exacting money
rigorously and for keeping it carefully. It must, however, be acknowledged
that he was rigorous and careful for the public advantage as well as for
his own. To extol his moral character is absurd. It would be equally absurd
to represent him as a corrupt, rapacious and bad-hearted man. He paid
great attention to the interest of the state, and great attention also
to the interest of his own family."
Hardly any one will deny that Macaulay's delineation of
Burleigh is correct portraiture of Polonius; and, therefore, if Burleigh
appeared thus to Macaulay after two and a half centuries had done their
purifying work on his memory, one can readily suppose his having presented
a similar appearance to a contemporary who had had no special reason to
bless his memory. The resemblance becomes all the more remarkable if we
add to this description the spying proclivities of Denmark's minister,
the philosophic egoism he propounds under a gloss of morality, his opposition
to his son's going abroad, and his references to his youthful love affair
and to what he did "at the university." All these are strikingly
characteristic of Burleigh and the most of them have already been adequately
dealt with. (Looney 400-401)
These vague character descriptions strike me as weak arguments in themselves
that can only gain stature with stronger and more specific evidence from
other areas. But Looney lays the groundwork for another strong connection
in this next excerpt. (I am skipping his discussion on the Precepts, a
discussion in which he mentions that some have tried to link the precepts
of Polonius to some similar ones in Lyly's Euphues. He also points
out that Lyly had close ties to Burghley's household and would likely
know of Burghley's penchant for precepts. Looney seems not to have read
George Russell French, since he seems to think he is the first to point
out this connection to Burghley. 1)
The advice of Polonius to Laertes is given just as the latter is about
to set out for Paris, and all the instructions of the former to the spy
Reynaldo have reference to the conduct of Laertes in that city. The applicability
of it all to Burleigh's eldest son Thomas Cecil, afterwards Earl of Exeter,
and founder of the present house of Exeter, will be apparent to any one
who will take the trouble to read G. Ravenscroft Dennis's work on "The
House of Cecil."
The tendency towards irregularities, at which Ophelia
hints in her parting words to her brother, is strongly suggestive of
Thomas Cecil's life in Paris; and all the enquiries which Polonius instructs
the spy to make concerning Laertes are redolent of the private information
which Burleigh was receiving, through some secret channel, of his son
Thomas's life in the French capital. For he writes to his son's tutor,
Windebank, that he "has a watchword sent him out of France that
his son's being there shall serve him to little purpose, for that he
spends his time in idleness." We are told that Thomas Cecil incurred
his father's displeasure by his "slothfulness," "extravagance,"
"carelessness in dress," "inordinate love of unmeet plays,
as dice and cards"; and that he learnt to dance and play at tennis.
With these things in mind let the reader again go carefully
over the advice of Polonius to Laertes, and the former's instructions
to Reynaldo. He will hardly escape, we believe, a sense of the identity
of father and son, with Burleigh and his son Thomas Cecil. One point
in Hamlet's relations with Laertes strikes one as peculiar: his sudden
and quite unexpected expression of affection:
"What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever."
Now the fact is that Thomas Cecil was one entirely out
of touch with and in many ways quite antagonistic to Burleigh and his
policy. In spite of his wildness in early life he is spoken of as "a
brave and unaffected man of action, out of place in court, but with all
the finest instincts of a soldier." He was also one of those who,
along with Oxford, favoured the Queen's marriage with the Duke of Alencon,
in direct opposition to the policy of Burleigh. Thomas Cecil was an older
man than Oxford, and they had much in common to form the basis of affection.
This identification of Laertes with Thomas Cecil is also echoed ten years
later by none other than Stratfordian E. K. Chambers:
It has often been thought that Polonius may glance at Lord Burghley, who
wrote Certain Preceptes, or Directions for the use of his son Robert
Cecil. These were printed (1618) 'from a more perfect copie, than ordinarily
those pocket manuscripts goe warranted by'. Conceivably Shakespeare knew
a pocket manuscript, but Laertes is less like Robert Cecil than Burghley's
elder son Thomas. (Chambers I, 418)
We shall be returning to the interesting text surrounding this passage,
but for now we can note that Chambers makes no objection to the identification
of Polonius with Burghley, and even presents some corroborating evidence
with his identification of Laertes with Thomas, as had Looney before him.
(Chambers was a well-read man and undoubtedly had read Looney's book.
And he certainly would have read Lilian Winstanley's book discussed below.)
So we now have a third piece of strong circumstantial evidence:
Strong Argument #3. Polonius's perceptions
of his son Laertes's character, and Laertes' travel to Paris are strikingly
similar to Burghley's perceptions of his son Thomas's character and Thomas's
travel to Paris.
The first Stratfordian to give the connections between Polonius and Burghley
a more thorough treatment than Looney was Stratfordian Lilian Winstanley.
In her book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, she devotes 20
pages exploring connections between scenes involving Polonius and events
and persons in Elizabethan England. 2
(Both Looney and Winstanley published within one year
of each other, so it is highly unlikely that either was aware of the work
of the other, although Winstanley was aware of George Russell French's
She too is aware of how circumstantial evidence edges toward persuasiveness:
"Any of these references might be accidental if it stood alone; it
is, as always, the combination which is the convincing thing. (Winstanley
112)" Although French and Looney allude to it, she more directly
supplies us with the connection between Thomas and Laertes:
Polonius, throughout the play, stands isolated as the one person who does
really enjoy the royal confidence; he is an old man, and no other councillor
of equal rank anywhere appears. This corresponds almost precisely with
the position held by Burleigh; he had, for the greater part of his reign,
been among Elizabeth's chief councillors, and the death of Walsingham
and others left him isolated in her service, surviving almost all the
men of his own generation.
Again, Burleigh's eldest son -- Thomas Cecil -- was
a youth of very wayward life; his licentiousness and irregularity occasioned
his father great distress and, during his residence in Paris, his father
wrote letters to him full of wise maxims for his guidance; he also instructed
friends to watch over him, and bring him reports of his son's behaviour.
So Polonius has a son -- Laertes -- whom he suspects of irregular life;
Polonius provides that his son, when he goes to Paris, shall be carefully
watched, and that reports on his behaviour shall be prepared by Reynaldo.
I will place side by side the parallels that seem to
me most pertinent, pointing out first that there is no resemblance whatever
in the saga source.
Amidst his manifold public anxieties Cecil had to bear
his share of private trouble.... Thomas, his only son by his first marriage
with Mary Cheke was now (1561) a young man of twenty, and in order that
he might receive the polish fitting to the heir of a great personage,
his father consulted Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, the Ambassador in Paris,
in the Spring of 1561, with the idea of sending him thither. A subsequent
recommendation of Thomas Windebank, the young man's governor, to the
effect that it would be well to accept Throgmorton's offer, although
Sir William Cecil was loath to trespass on his friend's hospitality,
"in order that the youth might learn, not only at table but otherwise,
according to his estate," leads us to the conclusion that Thomas
Cecil had not hitherto been an apt scholar . . . from the first it was
seen that the father was misgiving and anxious. Cecil was a reserved
man, full of public affairs; but this correspondence proves that he
was also a man of deep family affections, and above all, that he regarded
with horror the idea that any scandal should attach to his honoured
name. In his first letter to his son he strikes the note of distrust..
. . "He wishes him God's blessing, but how he inclines himself
to deserve it he knows not." None of his son's three letters he
explains, makes any mention of the expense he is incurring. . . . To
Windebank the father is more outspoken. How are they spending their
time, he asks, and heartily prays that Thomas may serve God with fear
and reverence. But Thomas seems to have done nothing of the sort, for,
in nearly every letter, Windebank urges Sir William to repeat his injunctions
about prayer to his son.... But the scapegrace paid little heed....
Rumour of his ill-behaviour reached Sir William, not at first from Windebank.
In March 1562 an angry and indignant letter went from Cecil to his son,
reproaching him for his bad conduct. There was no amendment he said,
and all who came to Paris gave him the character of "a dissolute,
slothful, negligent and careless young man and the letter is signed
'your father of an unworthy son.'" [Martin Hume, Burleigh.]
A week later Cecil writes: "Windebank, I am here
used to pains and troubles, but none creep so near my heart as does
this of my lewd son.... Good Windebank, consult my dear friend Sir Nicholas
Throgmorton, to whom I have referred the whole.... If ye shall come
with him (i.e. Thomas) to cover the shame, let it appear to be by reason
of the troubles there." [Martin Hume, Burleigh.]
We may compare this with Hamlet? [Act II., i.]
POL. Give him this money and these notes, Reynaldo.
REY. I will, my lord.
POL. You shall do marvellous wisely, good Reynaldo,
Before you visit him, to make inquire
Of his behaviour.
REY. My lord, I did intend it.
POL. Marry, well said; very well said. Look you, sir,
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
. . . . . . . . . . . and finding
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer,
Than your particular demands will touch it:
. . . . . . . . . . . put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.
REY. As gaming, my lord.
POR. Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,
Drabbing: you may go so far."
Now, surely we notice here an essentially similar situation
to the one given in Burleigh's life; the father an immaculate, all-wise
councillor at home, the spendthrift son leading a licentious life in Paris,
and anyone who knows the father encouraged to give reports on the son's
behaviour which the father anticipates, with only too much justice, will
almost certainly be evil reports. (Winstanley 114-118)
Thus does Ms. Winstanley give strong support to our third strong argument
that Laertes is modeled on Thomas Cecil.
We should note at this point that a well-meaning critic may be thinking
that these connections break down because if Shakespeare really wanted
the audience to think that Polonius was modeled on Lord Burghley, he would
have made sure that Polonius had two sons. (And, besides, where is Polonius's
wife? Surely Shakespeare would know that there was a Lady Burghley and
would have characterized her as well.) We can only say that topical allusions
need not be exact. They must be close enough to establish the relation,
but ambiguous enough to give the author deniability. Certainly such would
be the case if the author were engaging in deliberate satire.
Ms. Winstanley also has some things to say about Polonius and Ophelia.
(Although she does draw a parallel in this passage with Oxford, she does
not explore it, and she gives no reason for us to think that she is anything
other than devoutly Stratfordian.)
Intercepted letters and the employment of spies were, then, a quite conspicuous
and notorious part of Cecil's statecraft, and they are certainly made
especially characteristic of Shakespeare's Polonius. Polonius intercepts
the letters from Hamlet to his daughter; he appropriates Hamlet's most
intimate correspondence, carries it to the king, and discusses it without
a moment's shame or hesitation: he and the king play the eavesdropper
during Hamlet's interview with Ophelia: he himself spies upon Hamlet's
interview with his mother. It is impossible not to see that these things
are made both futile and hateful in Polonius, and they were precisely
the things that were detested in Cecil.
It is also worthy of note that Burleigh took the utmost
care not to conduct marriage projects for his daughter in a way that
might suggest he was using her to further his own interests.
"How careful he was to avoid all cause for doubt
is seen by his answer to Lord Shrewsbury's offer of his son as a husband
for one of Burleigh's daughters.... The match proposed was a good
one and the Lord Treasurer -- a new noble -- was flattered and pleased
by the offer." [Martin Hume]
He refused it, however, because Shrewsbury was in charge
of the Queen of Scots, and he feared the suspicion of intrigues.
"A similar but more flattering offer was made
by the Earl of Essex in 1573 on behalf of his son; but this also was
Cecil, in fact, was always particularly careful not
to let Elizabeth or anyone else think that ambition for his daughter
could tempt him into unwise political plans.
In exactly the same way we find Polonius guarding himself
against any suspicion that he may have encouraged Hamlet's advances
to Ophelia. "The king asks [Act II., ii.]: "How hath she received
his love?" and Polonius enquires, "What do you think of me?
"The king replies: "As of a man faithful and honourable";
Polonius proceeds to explain that, such being the case, he could not
possibly have encouraged the love between Hamlet and his daughter; but
he had informed the latter that she must "lock herself" from
There is a further curious parallel in the fact that
when Cecil's daughter -- Elizabeth [sic - Anne was her name]
-- married De Vere, Earl of Oxford -- the husband turned sulky, separated
himself from his wife, and declared that it was Cecil's fault for influencing
his wife against him.
"A few days later Burghley had reason to be
still more angry with Oxford himself, though with his reverence for
rank he appears to have treated him with inexhaustible patience and
forbearance.... Oxford declined to meet his wife or to hold any communication
with her; Burghley reasoned, remonstrated, and besought in vain. Oxford
was sulky and intractable. His wife, he said, had been influenced
by her parents against him and he would have nothing more to do with
So, also, in the drama we find Polonius interfering between
his daughter and her lover, we find his machinations so successful that
Hamlet turns sulky, and is alienated from Ophelia for good. (Winstanley
Strong Argument #4. Polonius's daughter Ophelia
and her circumstances with Hamlet are strongly similar to Burghley's daughter
Anne Cecil and her circumstances with Oxford.
These parallels were strong enough, not only to persuade E.K. Chambers
of the probability that Shakespeare modeled Polonius after Burghley, but
also to persuade other Stratfordian scholars and biographers. None, however,
discuss the uncomfortable parallels between Oxford and Hamlet, probably
because these same writers have, at times, come to believe that Hamlet
is closely associated with "Shakespeare" the dramatist.
In 1937, seven years after Chambers, John Dover Wilson wrote in The
Hamlet the play goes back a long way, and was
in some form or other being acted by Shakespeare's company as early as
1594. Shakespeare himself had probably handled it by 1598, since there
is a reference to his Hamlet in that year or soon after, and since
the figure of Polonius is almost without doubt intended as a caricature
of Burleigh, who died on August 4, 1598. (Dover Wilson 104)
Almost without doubt.
Joel Hurstfield, in his 1958 book The Queen's Wards, quotes Burghley's
precepts, and then writes: "It is the authentic voice of Polonius."
(Hurstfield 257) And six years later, after the Folger library released
a special book denouncing anti-Stratfordians (MacManaway's The Authorship
of Shakespeare), Mr. Hurstfield had grown more confident in the identification,
as indicated in his book Shakespeare's World (written with James
Sutherland): "The governing classes were both paternalistic and patronizing;
and nowhere is this attitude better displayed than in the advice which
that archetype of elder statesmen William Cecil, Lord Burghley -- Shakespeare's
Polonius -- prepared for his son." (Hurstfield 35)
Stratfordian biographer (and intolerant flamer of Oxfordians) A. L. Rowse
indicated his unabashed support for the parallel in his 1963 book William
Shakespeare: A Biography:
Nor do I think we need hesitate to see reflections of old Lord Burghley
in old Polonius -- not only in the fact that their positions were the
same in the state, the leading minister in close proximity to the sovereign,
in ancient smug security. Shakespeare had had plenty of opportunity to
imbibe Southampton's unfavourable view of the prosy and meddling Lord
Treasurer. It is not so much that there is question of the marriage of
his daughter to a prince, but that his whole personality reflects the
view of these young men, while there are certain specific references reflecting
Burghley's known characteristics. (Rowse 323)
Ignoring the fantasy of Shakspere and Southampton's relationship (there
is no evidence of a connection outside the dedications, so Rowse's depiction
of an "opportunity to imbibe" is his creation), Rowse has given
his unequivocal support to the modeling of Polonius on Burghley. Ten years
later, his view had essentially not changed. In Shakespeare The Man,
Rowse writes: "The late Lord Treasurer, prosy old Burghley --
of whom Southampton had no kind memory -- is clearly glanced at in the
grave councillor, Polonius." Although for some reason he shows a
slight sign of hedging in the next paragraph: "Whether Polonius was
Burghley or no, Burghley was certainly a Polonius." (Rowse 185, 186)
Rowse uses the epithet "prosy." In the 1955 biography of Burghley,
Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth, Stratfordian Conyers Read
points out this major characteristic of Burghley's (This letter to his
son Thomas I quote only in part for the sake of brevity):
'If you offend in forgetting God by leaving your ordinary prayers or such
like, if you offend in any surfeiting of eating or drinking too much,
if you offend in other ways, by attending and minding any lewd or filthy
tales or enticements of lightness or wantonness of body, you must at evening
bring both your thoughts and deeds as you put off your garments to lay
down, and cast away those and all such like that by the devil are devised
to overwhelm your soul. . . .
'And for ending this matter I commend you to the tuition
of Almighty God, having in this behalf discharged myself of the care
committed to me by God . . . If you shall please Him and serve Him in
fear I shall take comfort of you. Otherwise I shall take you as no blessing
of God but a burden of grief and decay of my age.'
This is the sort of sermon which William Cecil like to
preach to young men. He preached many such in the course of his life.
They reveal the strong Puritan strain in him. In this particular case
we get some inkling of those weaknesses in young Thomas about which his
father was most concerned. Obviously William Cecil had a very inadequate
understanding of the psychology of adolescence. Even Polonius was never
quite so tedious and pedantic as this. (Read 214)
Even Polonius was never quite so tedious...
From Act II Scene 2:
POL. My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.
Therefore, (since) brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.
"Mad" call I it, for , to define true madness. . .
And so on, and so on, and so on . . . 3
Let's do a quick review of the strong arguments, rearranged slightly
to fit the "three-angled model" I mentioned in Part One. The
The "x" Axis: The relationship to others.
Strong Argument #1: Polonius's role as head counselor stands in
the same relation to the monarch as does Burghley's role.
Strong Argument #3. Polonius's son Laertes's character and travel
to Paris are strikingly similar to Burghley's son Thomas's character
and travel to Paris.
Strong Argument #4. Polonius's daughter Ophelia and her circumstances
with Hamlet are strongly similar to Burghley's daughter Anne Cecil and
her circumstances with Oxford.
The second angle:
The "y" axis: Speaking characteristics.
Strong Argument #2. Polonius presents precepts to his son in a manner
similar to Burghley's presenting precepts to his son.
To which we can now add, based on Rowse and Read:
Strong Argument #5. Polonius's tedious verbosity is nearly identical
with Burghley's in tone and manner.
But what of the "z" axis? Is there a third angle, one that
is compelling enough to supply enough circumstantial power to strongly
lock onto the identification of Burghley?
Yes, there is, and it is one that Stratfordians bend over backwards to
ignore. The "z" axis is in the name that Shakespeare gave to
his character and its connection to Burghley.
Some have claimed that the name Polonius is a takeoff on a couple
of nicknames that Burghley had: Polus (as mentioned in Gabriel
Harvey's 1578 Latin address to Lord Burghley) and Pondus (found
in a letter from Roger Manners to the Earl of Rutland dated June 2, 1583).
Obviously Polonius could be a simple expansion of both Polus
and Pondus, with the simple insertion/substitution of
three or four letters, but the case for Polus as a nickname appears
to be non-existent, and the case for Pondus at minimum very weak.
The truly strong argument comes in the little known and rarely discussed
fact that the name Polonius first appears in the second quarto
of Hamlet in 1604. In the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet,
the name for the old tedious and verbose councillor who spied on his son
and played the go-between in everything was . . .Corambis!
Lord Burghley's Latin motto was Cor unum, via una . . . "One
heart, one way." 4
With "cor" meaning "heart" and with "bis"
or "ambis" meaning "twice" or "double" (think
"ambidextrous"), Corambis can be taken for the Latin
of "double-hearted," which implies "deceitful" or
The "z" axis: The name.
Strong Argument #6. Corambis, the original name for the character
Polonius, resembles the Latin for "double-hearted", which
satirically points to Lord Burghley's Latin motto Cor unum, via una,
"One heart, one way."
The circumstantial evidence is strong: Polonius was consciously modeled
after Lord Burghley. 5
Proceed to Part Three: Corambis, Polonia,
and Comparing Arguments
1. You can read all the entire eight pages Looney devotes to Polonius
and Burghley here. return
2. You can read Winstanley's entire 20-page chapter Polonius, Rizzio and Burleigh. return
3. It's interesting to note that Conyers Read also reports of Cecil's
use of plays: "Evidently Feria [Spanish Ambassador to England]
was doing what he could to discredit Cecil with his mistress. It was
at this juncture that Feria protested against comedies in London which
made mock of his royal master. He said that Cecil had supplied the authors
of them with thief themes. According to Feria, Elizabeth practically
admitted that Cecil was the guilty man. From what we otherwise know
of Cecil it is not easy to picture him in the role of coach to obscure
playwrights composing ribald comedies. But Feria could hardly have invented
the tale. As it stands, without any confirming evidence, it is an interesting
revelation of the use of the stage for political propaganda." (Read
133) Indeed. return
4. Lord Burghley's motto is printed with his coat of arms as a frontpiece
to Gabriel Harvey's Gratulationes Valdinenses, printed in 1578.
It can also be seen in the portrait of Sir William Cecil attributed
to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1585) in Neville Williams All
The Queen's Men, page 45. return
5. We also have the 1967 biography by B. W. Beckingsale, Burghley:
Tudor Statesman, in which the author, like those before him, acknowledges
the parallel to Polonius:
By being all things to all men, Burghley presented
a baffling mirror to those observers to whom he did not choose to
reveal himself. He could discern 'what things are to be laid open,
and what to be secreted and what to be showed at half lights and to
whom and when.' To those foreign ambassadors who expected a cunning
politician he was no disappointment. Yet to that honest and perspicacious
Spaniard de Silva he appeared straightforward. Like Elizabeth, who
knew that princes were set upon a stage for all the world to see,
Burghley understood that public life was a play and he acted his part
behind the appropriate masks. He was well aware of what Cranmer had
once written to him, 'For the example of rulers and heads will the
people follow.' His poses were calculated and dutiful responses to
conventional expectations. He took the roles of wise counsellor, great
lord, just judge in the morality play of the public imagination. If
in the end he was taken for Polonius, it was the penalty of having
held the stage so long. (Beckingsale 193) return
top of pag