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French | Patterson
| Looney | Winstanley
| Ogburn | Whalen
from Shakspeareana Genealogica
by George Russel French
(Macmillan & Co., London: 1869, pp. 299-310)
NOTES ON HAMLET.
Date of Action, B.C.
In Coxe's Travels, Volume
v., we find this passage in the History of Denmark;--"Adjoining
to a royal palace, which stands about half-a-mile from Cronborg,
is a garden which our curiosity led us to visit, as it is called
Hamlet's garden, and is said by tradition to be the very spot
where the murder of his father was perpetrated. The house is
of modern date, and is situated at the foot of a sandy ridge
near the sea. The garden occupies the scite of the hill, and
is laid out in terraces rising one above another. Elsineur is
the scene of Shakspeare's Hamlet, and the original history from
which that divine author derived the principal incidents of
his play is founded upon facts, but so deeply buried in remote
antiquity that it is difficult to discriminate truth from fable.
Saxo-Grammaticus, who flourished in the 12th century, is the
earliest historian of Denmark that relates the adventures of
Hamlet. His account is extracted and much altered by Bellforest,
a French author, an English translation of whose romance was
published under the title of the Historye of Hamblet, and
from this translation Shakspeare formed the ground-work of his
play, though with many alterations and additions."
In a foot-note Coxe says,--" The only
copy I ever saw of this work is in the library of Trinity College,
Cambridge, in the curious collection relative to the School
of Shakespeare, given by the late Mr Capell to that society.
It is in black letter, intitled, The Historye of Hamblett;
Imprinted by Richard Bradocke for Thomas Pavier."
Coxe proceeds to give a sketch of Hamlet's
history from Saxo-Grammaticus, whose Latin text he sometimes
quotes:--"Long before the introduction of Christianity
into Denmark, Horwendillus, Prefetct, or King of Jutland, was
married to Gerutha, or Gertrude, daughter of Ruric, King of
Denmark, by whom he had a son, called Amlettus, or Hamlet. Fengo
murders his brother Horwendillus, marries Gertrude, and ascends
the throne. Hamlet, to avoid his uncle's jealousy, counterfeits
folly....Fengo, suspecting the reality of his madness, endeavours
by various methods to discover the real state of his mind; amongst
others he departs from Elsineur, concerts a meeting between
Hamlet and Gertrude, concluding that the former would not conceal
his sentiments from his own mother, and orders a courtier to
conceal himself, unknown to either, for the purpose of over-hearing,
their conversation." Hamlet kills the hidden spy, as in
the play, and then reproaches his mother. "Fengo returns
to Elsineur, sends Hamlet to England under the care of two courtiers,
and requests the king, by a letter, to put him to death. Hamlet
discovers and alters the letter, the king orders the two courtiers
to immediate execution, and betroths his daughter to Hamlet."
The prince on his return to Denmark sets fire to the palace,
kills his uncle, and is proclaimed king. In the chronicle Hamlet
marries another princess, and lives happily for a time with
his two wives, but at length is "killed in a combat with
Vigletus, son of Ruric." In the old story Hamlet is little
better than a semi-barbarian; in the play he is delineated with
the lofty thoughts of a philosopher, and a scholar, and the
refined manners of an English gentleman, and the reason for
this it will be the aim of the Compiler of these Notes to show.
In his Genealogical Table of the Kings of Denmark, Betham places
Ruric in the year 434 B.C., and he names the personages before
alluded to, as Gerutha, whose first husband he calls Hurwendil,
father of Hamlet, and her second was Freggo, the usurping uncle.
Beyond these names none of the other persons in the play belong
to that remote period, but much interest in them is awakened
by the opinion of critics that SHAKSPEARE intended nearly all
the dramatis persona: to have some resemblance to characters
in his own day, and certainly there are good grounds for the
Bearing in mind that Bellforest's translation
was published in 1560, and that the wonderful drama was written
in 1596, we will proceed to the notice of the personages believed
to be indicated by certain names in the play, who are nearly
all in one way or other connected with the history of SIR PHILIP
SIDNEY, who seems by common consent to stand for "young
Hamlet." This is the key-note to the rest. His honoured
father, the wise and able Sir HENRY SIDNEY, of Penshurst, is
put down for the elder HAMLET, to whom the Poet does not assign
any other name, but to whom he ascribes so high a character,
as when the son is looking on his portrait, Act III. Scene 4,--
"See, what a grace was seated on his
Dr Zouch says, "a more exalted character
than that of Sir Henry Sidney can scarcely be found in the volume
of history." Of him, therefore, his son might say, as Hamlet
of his father,--
"I shall not look upon his like again."
One of the parts supposed to have been filled
by SHAKSPEARE himself was that of--
"The majesty of buried Denmark;"
according to Rowe; and SHAKSPEARE'S only son,
who died when under twelve years of age, was baptized Hamnet,
which is considered synonymous with Hamlet; his godfather most
probably being Hamnet or Hamlet Sadler, to whom the Poet left
a legacy, of--
"xxvjs viijd to buy him a ringe."
It is worthy of remark that Sir Henry Sidney
died (May 5, 1586) five months and twelve days before his accomplished
son, and that very date is reckoned by commentators to have
elapsed between the murder of the elder Hamlet and the final
catastrophe in the play, young Hamlet's death.
The usurping CLAUDIUS of the drama has been
regarded as a satire on the Lord Keeper, Sir NICHOLAS BACON,
not of course with reference to crime; nor has any one ever
ventured to link the revered name of Sidney's mother, Lady MARY
DUDLEY, with the guilty queen, GERTRUDE.
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. Hamlet's bosom friend HORATIO is said to be HUBERT
LANGUET (by Mr JULIUS LLOYD); MARCELLUS and BERNARDO are allotted
to FULK GREVILLE and EDWARD DYER; "FRANCISCO may perhaps
be intended for HARVEY." (LLOYD). LAMORD, who is only alluded
to in the play, Act IV. Scene 7,--
"he is the brooch indeed,
And gem of all the nation ;"
is meant for Raleigh; young Fortinbras,--
"Of unimproved mettle, hot and full,"
for the brave, but impetuous ROBERT DEVEREUX,
Earl of ESSEX, then in the height of his fame; "OLD NORWAY,"
uncle to young Fortinbras, is ascribed to Sir FRANCIS KNOLLYS,
whose daughter Lettice married Walter Devereux, first Earl of
Essex, and their son was Robert, just noticed. "Young Osric"
is a specimen of the foppish gallants of Queen Elizabeth's court,
who affected the style of language, called Euphuism, of which
Sir Walter Scott has given an amusing example, in the person
of "Sir Piercie Shafton," in the Monastery.
With the exceptions of Horatio, Marcellus,
and Bernardo, the Compiler does not seek to disturb these appropriations.
But first to examine into the history of the Cecils. 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
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,
"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.
..........."Give thy thoughts no
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 shine 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 shine equals familiar, yet respective. Towards shine 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."
The Lord Treasurer Burleigh was not over fond
of actors and the drama, whereas Robert Dudley, the splendid
Earl of Leicester, uncle to Philip Sidney, was the great friend
of the players. In 1573 "the Earl of Leicester's players"
visited the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, when the future Poet
was nine years old. Burleigh was often in antagonism to Leicester,
and prevented his obtaining the appointment of Lord Lieutenant
of Ireland, and otherwise thwarted his ambitious views. Next
to Leicester, the most able and bitter of Burleigh's adversaries
was Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, father-in-law of Sir Walter Raleigh,
and uncle of the wife of Edward Arden of Parkhall SHAKSPEARE'S
cousin on the mother's side, in whose condemnation the Lord
Treasurer concurred. Moreover Burleigh neglected Sir Francis
Walsingham, whose daughter Frances became the wife, first of
Sir Philip Sidney, and afterwards of the Earl of Essex. Hubert
Languet on one occasion suggested to his pupil Philip Sidney
to affect more attachment than he felt to Cecil.
SHAKSPEARE'S inclinations would naturally take side with the
great Warwickshire noble in remembering the political skirmishes
between Leicester and Burleigh, and his covert satire on the
latter, under the guise of Polonius, would be well understood
in his day, and probably relished by none more than by Queen
Elizabeth herself, who could enjoy a jest, though at the expense
of her wise and faithful William Cecil.
It is a charming trait in the character of
Hamlet that whereas, to keep up the delusion respecting his
sanity, he amuses himself at the expense of the good old Lord
Chamberlain, he will not allow any one else to show a want of
respect to him, and thus he cautions the player-actor,--"Follow
that lord, and look you mock him not."
We must now seek to identify (to some extent)
Sir Philip Sidney with "young Hamlet :" Ophelia's
"O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword:
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
The observ'd of all observers "--
has been often applied by biographers to Philip
Sidney, who is perhaps the character of all others of whom Englishmen
are most justly proud. Camden calls him, "the great glory
of his family, the great hope of mankind, the most lively pattern
of virtue, the glory of the world." Raleigh, who seems
to have had no jealous feeling towards him, styles him "the
English Petrarch ;" Owen calls him "the Marcellus
of the English Nation ;" Lee (author of Cæsar
Borgia) says, "he was at once a Cæsar and a Virgil,
the leading soldier, and the foremost poet. All after this must
fail. I have paid just veneration to his Name, and methinks
the Spirit of Shakspeare pushed the Commendation." The
great sons of Apollo, Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Waller, have
all recorded their admiration of Sidney. The Prince of Orange
spoke of him as "his master;" Queen Elizabeth called
him "her Philip," and her court and people shared
in the esteem of their sovereign for the man who was not less
valued abroad by the greatest princes of the time, who treated
him, young as he was, more like an equal than the subject of
another potentate. When Philip Sidney, who was born in 1554,
was on his "grand tour," in 1572, he fell in at Frankfort
with the famous scholar, Hubert Languet, "by whose advice
he studied various authors, and shunned the seductions of popery"
(Dr ZOUCH). The friendship between them was very strong, and
many letters are preserved written in Latin from Languet to
Sidney, which were first printed in 1639. The writer of these
remarks ventures to differ from those critics who assign Languet
to Horatio, and in proposing Fulke Greville instead, he brings
forward the following arguments to support the change. In the
first place Hubert Languet was at least thirty-six years older
than Sidney. It is generally understood that Languet was 63
years old at his death in 1581. In the second place, their tone
towards each other, in their correspondence, is rather that
of master and pupil, or Mentor and Telemachus, than of bosom
friends, equals in years. Languet addresses Philip, "mi
dulcissime fili," and Sidney writes thus of his tutor;--
"The song I sung old Languet had me
* * *
He liked me, but pitied lustful youth,
His good strong staff my slipp'ry years up-bore,
He still hoped well, because I loved truth"
Fulke Greville, in his Life of the renowned
Sir Philip Sidney, speaks of his tutor as--"the reverend
Languet, who became a nurse of knowledge to the hopeful young
Now to apply the test to Fulke Greville, as
Horatio. He was a kinsman of Philip Sidney; equally descended
from the noble Beauchamps; born in the same year, 1554; educated
with him at the same school, at Shrewsbury*, which they entered
on the same day; and they studied afterwards together at one,
if not at both of the Universities, Oxford and Cambridge; they
were the dearest friends through life; fellow-travellers; comrades
in the tilt-yard. They had prepared to accompany Sir Francis
Drake in his expedition to the West Indies, but were forbidden
to do so by Queen Elizabeth, who would not spare two such promising
youths from her court.
[*As Lord President of Wales Sir Henry Sidney
resided at Ludlow Castle, which is only about 24 miles from
Shrewsbury, then as now famous for its school. Philip Sidney
went to Christ Church College, Oxford, at twelve years of age,
and after studying there for three years, removed, as generally
supposed, to Cambridge, and was probably of Trinity College,
with his friend, Fulke Greville. Chalmers' Biog. Dict.]
Let us now examine SHAKSPEARE'S language. At
their first interview Hamlet recognizes his former comrade,
"Sir, my good friend, I'll change that
name with you ;"--
and again acknowledges their early association
in school at Wittenburg,--
"I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student"
Next we have the expression of Hamlet's strong
regard for Horatio, Act III. Scene 2;--in the passage, ending,--
"Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee."
All these expressions, and the affectionate
demeanour between the two friends throughout the play, point
to a companion of the same age and station, as was Greville,
rather than to one so much older than Sidney, as was Hubert
Languet. Fulke Greville, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and created
Lord Brooke by James the First, wrote Life of the renowned
Sir Philip Sidney, and directed this inscription to be placed
upon his own tomb;--
FYLKE GREVIL SERVANT TO QUEENE ELIZABETH:
CELLER TO KING JAMES: AND FREND TO Sr PHILIP SYDNEY.
One of Sir Philip Sidney's Pastorals
is addressed to his two most intimate friends (Sir) Edward Dyer,
and (Sir) Fulke Greville, coupling their initials with his own:--
"Welcome my two to me, E. D.--F. G.--P.
The number most beloved.--
Within my heart you be
In friendship unremoved;
Join hearts and hands, so let it be,
Make but one mind in bodies three."
To these two cherished friends, and congenial
spirits, Sir Philip Sidney in his will left a precious legacy
of regard;--"Item, I give and bequeath to my dear
friends, Mr Edward Dyer, and Mr Fulk Greville, all my books."
In the play Hamlet addresses Horatio and Marcellus evidently
as his chief intimates;--
"And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars, and soldiers,
Give me one poor request."
With some fair reason therefore it is urged
that Greville and Dyer were intended for Hamlet's friends Horatio
EDWARD DYER, of a good Somersetshire family,
cousin to Sir James Dyer, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas,
was born in 1540, and, having been educated at Oxford, travelled
abroad, and was much employed by Queen Elizabeth in several
embassies, particularly in Denmark, in 1589; and on his
return the Queen conferred upon him the Chancellorship of the
Garter, and knighted him. He wrote some poems, called England's
Helicon, and Description of Friendship, and died
in the reign of King James.
There are other remarkable coincidences to
be noticed. In the play, when Horatio desires to know how his
friend contrived to imitate his uncle's treacherous commission,
Hamlet tells him, Act v. Scene 2,--
....................."I sat me down,
Devis'd a new commission, wrote it fair;
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair, and labour'd much
How to forget that learning; but, sir, now
It did me yeoman's service."
In a letter written, Oct. 18, 1580, by Sir
Philip Sidney to his younger brother Robert (afterwards Earl
of Leicester), whom he lovingly addresses as "sweet Robin,"
and "dear boy," he says, "I would by the way
your Worship would learne a better hand, you write worse than
I, and I write evil enough."
Almost the last words of the dying Hamlet contain
an injunction to Horatio--
"If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story."
As we have seen, Fulke Greville did write the
"story" of his beloved friend, comrade and schoolfellow.
Sir Philip Sidney's last words to his weeping
brother Robert deserve to be quoted:--"Love my memory,
cherish my friends; their faith to me may assure you they are
honest; but, above all, govern your will and affections by the
will and word of your Creator, in me beholding the end of this
world, and all her Vanities."
May not the words of Fortinbras refer to the
rejection of the crown of Poland, which was offered to Sir Philip
Sidney, at the death of Stephen Bathori,--
"Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally"?
SHAKSPEARE was only ten years younger than
Sir Philip Sidney, and it is highly probable that the Poet was
personally acquainted with him, as it is evident he was with
Sidney's writings, the Arcadia being first printed in
1594, and the Defence of Poesie, in 1594. There are some
remarkable coincidences of language in SHAKSPEARE'S Pericles,
and SIDNEY'S Arcadia: in the latter a character is called
Pyrocles, and this passage occurs;--"The Senate-house of
the Planets was set no time for the decreeing perfection in
a man. SHAKSPEARE has:--
"The Senate-house of planets all did
To knit in her their best perfection."
Afterwards, in the same scene is this line,--
"For he's no man on whom perfections
Pericles, Act I. Sc 1.
And other passages in the same play have a
striking resemblance to parts of the Arcadia.
In those portions of the dramatic story which
conform to the incidents of the early chronicle the chief character
is still the heathen "Prince of Denmark," but in the
matchless inventions of the Poet we see in "Young Hamlet"
all the perfections of mind and body which adorned Sir Philip
Sidney*; and this resemblance once admitted brings one to the
conclusion that of all the glowing tributes of admiration which
have been paid to the memory of the brave, wise, and gentle
Sidney, by poet, historian, and biographer, none is more touching,
more deserved, or graceful, than the imperishable verse of SHAKSPEARE,
who in commemorating Sidney, under "Hamlet the Dane,"
might have addressed him in the words of one of his sonnets,
"Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead:
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men."
[*Aubrey says of Sidney, "he was not only
of an excellent wit, but extremely beautiful."]
from Censorship and Interpretation
by Annabel Patterson
(Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 1984.)
"For what we find everywhere apparent and widely understood,
from the middle of the sixteenth century in England, is a
system of communication in which ambiguity becomes a creative
and necessary instrument, a social and cultural force of considerable
consequence. On the one hand writers complain constantly that
their work is subject to unauthorized or unjust interpretation;
on the other they gradually developed codes of communication,
partly to protect themselves from hostile and hence dangerous
readings of their work, partly in order to be able to say
what had to publicly without directly provoking or confronting
the authorities. It has frequently been pointed out that legislated
control of the press by such mechanisms as prepublication
licensing tends to be virtually impossible to enforce, given
the variety of stratagems to which writers and printers could
resort to to evade laws - clandestine presses, books smuggled
in from abroad, not to mention the costs and difficulties
of administering such a system, and the inevitable fallibility
or carelessness of the licensers. Pottinger cites the extreme
case of a French censor who reported, of a certain translation
"called The Koran, by Mahomet," that he found "nothing
in it contrary to religion or morals." But there is a
whole range of publishing in England that can be better accounted
for by assuming some degree of cooperation and understanding
on the part of the authorities themselves, something that
goes even beyond the recognition that unenforceable laws were
better than none, that the occasional imprisonment, however
arbitrary, had an exemplary force. Rather, there were conventions
that both sides accepted as to how far a writer could go in
explicit address to the contentious issues of his day, how
he could encode his opinions so that nobody would be required
to make an example of him."
(p. 14-15, quoting Quintilian)
"You can speak as openly as you like against
as long as you can be understood differently, because you
are not trying to avoid giving offence, only its dangerous
repercussions. If danger can be avoided by some ambiguity
of expression, everyone will admire its cunning."
I see the prevailing codes of communication, the
implicit social contract between authors and authorities,
as being intelligible to all parties at the time, as being
a fully deliberate and conscious arrangement. This is the
significance of those famous puzzling incidents of noncensorship:
Elizabeth I recognized the topical meaning of a production
of Richard II in 1601
"Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia is a natural introduction
to the joint study of interpretation and culture."
(p. 28, quoting Sidney's Defence of Poesie)
"Is the poor pipe disdained, which sometime out of Meliboues'
mouth show the misery of the people under hard lords or ravening
soldiers? And again, by Tityrus, what blessedness is derived
to them that lie lowest from the goodness of them that sit
highest; sometimes, under the pretty tales of wolves and sheep,
can include the whole considerations of wrongdoing and patience."
(p. 29, quoting Puttenham)
"The Poet devised the Eglogue
not of purpose to
counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and
communication; but under the vaile of homely persons, and
in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters,
and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed
in any other sort, which may be perceived in the Eglogues
of Virgill, in which are treated by figure matters of greater
importance then the loves of Titirus and Corydon."
It seems clear that this fable is, like Geron's tale of the
silenced swan, not only about repression and the restriction
of free political commentary, but about itself, about fabling,
and about equivocation in the interests of safety. It is worth
remembering Sidney's point in the Defence, that living
"under hard lords" leads to writing "under
the pretty tales of wolves and sheep," a phrase that
conflates pastoral and beast fable as those forms which can
imply "the whole considerations of wrongdoing and patience."
While Sidney's fable seems to remain ambivalent on these subjects
(and hence, as we have seen, provocative of different interpretations),
it does not remain ambiguous; for by pointing out the need
for ambiguity, in a system where no one may "freely
speak" except the ruler, Sidney, in effect, makes plain
his desire for reform."
"What I shall suggest in this chapter is that Chamberlain
and his contemporaries were far more sophisticated about the
problems of interpretation than we might suppose; that their
sensitivity to both the difficulties and the interest of interpretation
is remarkably well documented; and that we can from these
documents reconstruct the cultural code, for that is what
developed, by which matters of intense social and political
concern continued to be discussed in the face of extensive
from Shakespeare Identified
by J. Thomas Looney
(Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York: 1920, pp. 400-407)
The personal relationship in the play which
bears most critically upon our present argument is that of
Hamlet with Polonius and Ophelia. The chief minister at the
royal court of Denmark is Polonius. The chief minister at
the royal court of England was Burleigh. Is the character
of Polonius such that we may identify him with Burleigh? Again
it is not a question of whether Polonius is a correct representation
of Burleigh, but whether he is a possible representation of
the English minister from the special point of view of the
Earl of Oxford. To what has already been said elsewhere in
this connection, it will perhaps suffice to quote from Macaulay's
essay on Burleigh:
"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.
Probably the most conclusive evidence that
Polonius is Burleigh is to be found in the best known lines
which Shakespeare has put into the mouth of Denmark's minister
-- the string of worldly-wise maxims which he bestows upon
his son Laertes (Act I. 3). They are much too well known to
require repetition here. With these in mind, however, consider
the maxims which Burleigh laid down for his favourite son,
of which Burleigh's biographer ( Martin A. S. Hume) remarks
that though "these precepts inculcate moderation and
virtue, here and there Cecil's own philosophy of life peeps
out." He then gives examples:
"Let thy hospitality be moderate."
"Beware that thou spendest not more
than three or four parts of thy revenue."
"Beware of being surety for thy best
friends; he that payeth another man's debts seeketh his
"With shine equals be familiar yet
"Trust not any man with thy life,
credit, or estate."
"Be sure to keep some great man for
The whole method, style, language and sentiment
are reproduced so much to the life in Polonius's advice to
Laertes that Shakespeare seems hardly to have exercised his
own distinctive powers at all in composing the speech. The
connection of the advice of Polonius with similar precepts
in Lyly's "Euphues" has long been recognized. What
seems hitherto to have escaped notice is that both have a
common source in Burleigh. How much of what appears in Lyly
of these precepts was derived through Oxford it would be useless
to discuss. The general relations of the two men has already
been sufficiently considered.
We take this opportunity of remarking, what
may not be very material to our argument, that the spirit
of the closing words of Polonius's speech, the words The ethics
beginning, "Unto thine own self be true," seems
to us to be generally quite misunderstood. These words bring
to a close a speech which, throughout, is a direct appeal
in every word to mere self-interest. Is, then, this last passage
framed in a nobler mould with a high moral purpose and an
appeal to lofty sentiment? We think not. The bare terms in
which the final exhortation is cast, stripped of all ethical
inferences and reinterpretations, are as direct an appeal
to self-interest as everything else in the speech. They are,
"unto thine own self"; not unto the best
that is in you, nor the worst. Consistently with his other
injunctions he closes with one which summarizes all, the real
bearing of which may perhaps be best appreciated by turning
it into modern slang: "Be true to 'number one.' Make
your own interests your guiding principle, and be faithful
This is quite in keeping with the cynical
egoism of Burleigh's advice, "Beware of being surety
for thy best friends"; but "keep some great man
for thy friend." And, of course, it does "follow
as the night the day" that a man who directs his life
on this egoistic principle cannot, truly speaking, be false
to any man. A man cannot be false to another unless he owes
him fidelity. If, therefore, a man only acknowledges fidelity
to his own self, nothing that he can do can be a breach
of fidelity to another. On this principle Burleigh was true
to himself when he made use of the patronage of Somerset;
he was still true to himself, not false to Somerset, when
he drew up the articles of impeachment against his former
patron. Bacon was true to himself when he made use of the
friendship of Essex; he was still true to himself, not false
to Essex, when he used his powers to destroy his former friend.
This philosophic opportunism was therefore
a very real thing in the political life of those days. And
the fact that Shakespeare puts it into the mouth not of a
moralist but of a politician, and, as we believe, into the
mouth of one whom he intended to represent Burleigh, serves
to justify both the very literal interpretation we put upon
these sentences, and the identification of Polonius with Elizabeth's
chief minister. Needless to say, one who like "Shakespeare"
was imbued with the best ideals of feudalism, with their altruistic
conceptions of duty, social fidelity and devotion would never
have put forward as an exalted sentiment any ethical conception
resting upon a merely personal and individualist sanction.
For this admiration of the moral basis of feudalism would
enlighten him in a way which hardly anything else could, respecting
the sophistry which lurks in every individualist or self-interest
system of ethics.
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
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
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.
It is impossible therefore to resist the
conclusion that Polonius is Burleigh, and that Thomas Cecil
formed, in part at any rate, the model for Laertes. This being
so, it follows almost as conclusively, that Hamlet is Oxford.
For, although Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, was not actually
Hamlet's wife, she represents that relationship in the play.
The royal consent had been given to the marriage, and it was
through no fault either of herself or her father that the
union did not take place. Hamlet's bearing towards his would-be
father-in-law is moreover strongly suggestive of Oxford's
bearing towards his actual father-in-law. What points of resemblance
may have existed between Ophelia and Lady Oxford it is impossible
to say. We notice, however, that the few words the Queen speaks
respecting Ophelia harp on the idea of that sweetness which,
we have noticed, Lady Oxford and Helena in "All's Well"
had in common:
"Sweets to the sweet: farewell! I
thought thou should'st have been my Hamlet's wife . . .
Something, too of that mistrust and peculiar
treatment which Hamlet extended to Ophelia has already been
remarked in Oxford's bearing towards his wife, along with
suggestions of the ultimate growth of a similar affection.
We have also observed that the only accusation
which Oxford was willing to make against his wife was that
she was allowing her parents to interfere between herself
and him. This is precisely the state of things to which Hamlet
objects in Ophelia. He perceives that Polonius is spying upon
him with her connivance, and cunningly puts her to the test;
whereon she lies to him. His reply is an intimation to her
that he had detected the lie.
is your father?
home, my lord.
the doors be shut on him that he may play the fool nowhere
but in 's own house.
Hamlet's use of the double sense of the word
"honest" in a question to Ophelia -- the identical
word which in its worse sense was thrust to the front by Burleigh
respecting the rupture between Lord and Lady Oxford -- is
not without significance. Polonius, we take it, then, furnishes
the key to the play of Hamlet. If Burleigh be Polonius, Oxford
is Hamlet, and Hamlet we are entitled to say is "Shakespeare."
No feature of the parallelism between Hamlet
and Oxford is more to the point than that of their common
interest in the drama, and the form that their interest takes.
Both are high-born patrons of companies of play-actors, showing
an interest in the welfare of their players, sympathetic and
instructive critics in the technical aspects of the craft.
They are no mere passive supporters of the drama, but actually
take a hand in modifying and adjusting the plays, composing
passages to be interpolated, and generally supervising all
the activities of their companies. Not only in the play within
the play, which forms so distinctive a feature of "Hamlet,"
but also before the period dealt with, it is evident that
Hamlet had been so occupied. In all this he is a direct representation
of the Earl of Oxford, and of no one else in an equal degree
amongst the other lordly patrons of drama in Queen Elizabeth's
To fully elaborate the parallelism between
Hamlet and Oxford would demand a rewriting of almost everything
that is known of the latter, illustrated by the greater part
of the text of the play. We shall therefore merely add to
what has already been said several of the minor points. Hamlet
expresses his musical feeling and even suggests musical skill
in the "recorder" scene (III. 2). In the same scene
he shows his interest in Italy. The duelling in which he takes
part also has its counterpart in the life of Oxford, and even
the tragic fate of Polonius at the hand of Hamlet is a reminder
of the unfortunate death of one of Burleigh's servants at
the hands of Oxford. Hamlet's desire to travel had to yield
to the opposition of his mother and stepfather. His unrealized
ambitions for a military vocation are indicated in the final
scene, and his actual participation in a sea-fight is duly
recorded. The death and burial of Ophelia at the time of Hamlet's
sea episode is elsewhere shown to be analogous to Lady Oxford's
death about the same time as De Vere's sea experiences. Suggestions
of a correspondence between minor characters in the play and
people with whom Oxford had to do can easily be detected.
Rosencrantz, for example, might well be taken for Oxford's
representation of Sir Walter Raleigh, "the sanctimonious
pirate who went to sea with the ten commandments"
-- less one of them. If we are right in this guess we have
a most subtle touch in Act III, scene 2. Hamlet instead of
saying "By these hands," in speaking to Rosencrantz,
coins an expression from the Catechism and calls his hands
his "pickers and stealers," thus indicating most
ingeniously the combination of piracy with the religiosity
of Raleigh. Hamlet's next ironical remark that he himself
"lacks advancement" helps to bear out the identification
That the dramatist had some definite personality
in mind for the character of Horatio hardly admits of doubt.
The curious way in which he puts expressions into the mouth
of Hamlet describing this personality, without allowing Horatio
any part in the play which would dramatically unfold his distinctive
qualities, marks the description as a purely personal tribute
to some living man. Here, however, it is the very exactness
of the correspondence of the prototype, even to the detail
of his actual name, that makes us suspect the accuracy of
the identification we propose. For the introduction into the
play of Oxford's own cousin, Sir Horace de Vere (or, as the
older records give it, Horatio de Vere) seems only explicable
upon the assumption that the dramatist was then meditating
-- just before his death -- coming forward to claim in his
own name the honours which he had won by his work; or, at
any rate, that he had decided that these honours should be
claimed on his behalf immediately after his death, and that
Horatio de Vere had been entrusted with the responsibility.
Such an assumption has full warrant
"Polonius, Rizzio and Burleigh"
from Lilian Winstanley's Hamlet and the Scottish Succession
(Cambridge University Press, London: 1921, pp. 109-128)
OTHER portions of Hamlet which appear
to contain historical reminiscences are the scenes connected
If the account of the murder, for instance,
be carefully compared with the saga on the one hand, and with
Scottish history on the other, it will be found, I think, that
it shows hardly any resemblances to the one but very close resemblances
to the other.
The saga reads:
Feng was purposely to absent himself, pretending
affairs of great import. Amleth should be closeted alone with
his mother in her chamber, but a man should first be commissioned
to place himself in a concealed part of the room and listen
heedfully to what they talked about. For, if the son had any
wits at all, he would not hesitate to speak out in the hearing
of his mother or fear to trust himself to the fidelity of
her who bore him. The speaker . . . zealously professed himself
as the agent of the eavesdropping. Feng rejoiced at the scheme
and departed on presence of a long journey. Now he who had
given this counsel repaired privily to the room where Amleth
was shut up with his mother, and lay down skulking in the
straw. But Amleth had his antidote for the treachery. Afraid
of being heard by some eavesdropper he at first resorted to
his usual imbecile ways and crowed like a noisy cock, beating
his arms together to mimic the flapping of wings. Then he
mounted the straw and began to swing his body and jump again
and again, wishing to try if aught lurked there in hiding.
Feeling a lump beneath his feet he drove his sword into the
spot and impaled him who lay hid. Then he dragged him from
his concealment and slew him. Then, cutting his body into
morsels, he seethed it in boiling water and flung it through
the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat, bestrewing
the stinking mire with his helpless limbs....
When Feng returned nowhere could he find
the man who had suggested the treacherous espial; he searched
for him long and carefully, but none said they had seen him
anywhere. Amleth, among others, was asked in jest if he had
come across any trace of him, and replied that the man had
gone to the sewer but had fallen to its bottom and been stifled
by the floods of filth, and that then he had been devoured
by the swine that came up all about the place. [Saxo Grammaticus]
The Hystorie of Hamblet gives substantially
the same tale; it says that Hamlet cut the body into pieces,
boiled it, and then cast it into an open vault or privy, so
that it might serve as food for the pigs.
Now, here there is one point of resemblance
with Shakespeare's Hamlet; that is the motive given to
the eavesdropper who is to report Hamlet's confidences to his
mother, but all the rest is entirely unlike.
What has Shakespeare's Hamlet in common with
this grotesque clown who crows like a cock, and with this hideous
barbarian who boils the body of his victim and then throws it
through a sewer to the pigs ?
Turn now to Scottish history and see what it
says of the murder of Rizzio:
Signor David became the queen's inseparable
companion in the council room and the cabinet. At all hours
of the day he was to be found with her in her apartments....
He was often alone with her until midnight. He had the control
of all the business of the state.... Darnley went one night
between twelve and one to the queen's room. Finding the door
locked he knocked, but could get no answer . . . after a long
time the Queen drew the bolt . . . he entered and she appeared
to be alone but, on searching, he found Rizzio half-dressed
in a closet.... Darnley's word was not a good one but that
was what he said. . . . Darnley desired the dramatic revenge
of killing Rizzio in the queen's presence.... The conspirators
ascended the winding stairs from Darnley's room . . . Darnley
entered . . . supper was on the table . . . the queen asked
Darnley if he had supped. [Froude]
So the scene proceeds; Rizzio calls loudly
for help, but he is stabbed; Darnley's dagger is left in the
body so that he may be clearly incriminated, the body itself
is dragged down a staircase and flung upon a chest.... The queen
lamented bitterly for him: "Poor David! Good and faithful
servant. May God have mercy on your soul."
Afterwards, we may remember, Darnley was reconciled
to the queen and showed or affected to show bitter repentance
for his share in the murder. The Lords Politic sat for several
days to consider the murder; but, since they feared to accuse
anyone, nothing was done.
Now, here, we surely have far closer resemblances
to the scene in Hamlet though, as in the other parallels,
the scene is dramatised by isolating and concentrating; two
scenes are run into one, the scene where Darnley alone discovered
(or said he discovered) Rizzio, and the scene of the murder.
We have the discovery by the hero alone, we
have the stabbing with the hero's weapon in the dead man's body.
We have the queen's bitter lament for the "good old man"
[Act IV., i.] and for the "rash and bloody deed."
Hamlet disposes of the body "by a staircase," and
the staircase played a principal part in the Rizzio murder.
We may also observe that Hamlet's gruesome
remark about Polonius being "at supper, not where he eats
but where he is eaten," [Act Iv., iii.] seems like a macabre
reference to the Rizzio murder where the victim also was found
"at supper"; the same may be said of the remark that
"a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him,"
which, again, looks like a macabre reference to the wearisome
and futile sittings of the "Lords Politic" in considering
the murder. Any of these references might be accidental if it
stood alone; it is, as always, the combination which
is the convincing thing.
We may observe that the intimacy of Polonius
with the queen is really close; he is not, like the eavesdropper
in the saga, a person with whom she has no intimate concern;
he is a genuinely trusted councillor.
It may be said that the Rizzio murder belongs
to Darnley and not to James I., but it had a close and vital
connection with the group of historic events, and was in itself,
a thing which probably determined the choice, magnificent dramatic
We may also observe that the whole scene is,
as it were, set apart in the play and stands detached from the
main action. There is, again, the statement that Hamlet repents
his deed, for, according to the queen " he weeps for what
is done," and she, at any rate, desires to shield and protect
him. All this is foreign to the saga, but does occur in the
history. Darnley professed penitence and the queen did protect
him. I may also point out that the other reference to the Rizzio
murder occurred in the first scene where the ghost appeared
to Hamlet, and in this scene with the queen the ghost appears
again. There is, apparently, a logical and dramatic connection
between the two.
Moberley has a note on the lines:
"Indeed this councillor
Is now most still, most secret and most grave
Who was in life a foolish prating knave."
He observes that they are almost exactly the
same words used by the porter at Holyrood, when Rizzio's body
was placed on a chest near his lodge.
But we do not, I think, dispose of the historical
resemblances in the character of Polonius by saying that his
death resembles that of Rizzio's. It has more than once been
pointed out that he shows a likeness to Burleigh, and this,
also, appears to be true. We may observe that Burleigh died
in the year 1598, shortly before Hamlet was produced;
he had died at the advanced age of seventy-eight, and was thought
by many to have been in his dotage; even Elizabeth in her wrath
occasionally accused him of dotage. [Martin Hume, Burieigh.]
Burleigh had been the bitter enemy of Shakespeare's
patrons-Essex and Southampton, and it was generally believed
that the Cecils between them had lured Essex to his ruin. The
popular mind also ascribed to Burleigh enmity against the Scottish
Now, if Burleigh were the bitter enemy of Shakespeare's
friends, if he were very generally unpopular and mistrusted,
if he were believed to be an enemy to the Scottish succession,
Shakespeare might very naturally represent him as another of
the main enemies of his philosophic prince, and that is what
he appears to have done, for the resemblances between Burleigh
and Polonius seem too great to be ascribed to any form of accident.
In the first place we may note that the original
form of the name was Corambis and not Polonius, and that Corambis
does suggest Cecil and Burleigh.
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.
Cecil was a man of learning, and Polonius obviously
desires to be esteemed as such. Cecil had been closely associated
with some of the chief classical scholars of the day, Cheke
for example, and Polonius makes a boast of his classical learning:
[Act II., ii.] "Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus
Cecil, in his youth, had played a prominent
part in Cambridge, and was proud to remain connected with the
university, and Polonius also alludes to his life in the university
and his taking part in the university plays. [Act III., ii.]
I did enact Julius Caesar; I was killed i' the Capitol; Brutus
We may also remember, in this connection, that
when William Cecil died, he was still Chancellor of the University
of Cambridge; there can be no doubt both from Hamlet's question,
and from his reply, that Polonius liked to associate himself
with the university as Cecil did.
Cecil had one romance, and one romance only,
in his life, that was when he married a penniless bride -- Mary
Cheke, the sister of the great Greek scholar; the marriage was
vehemently opposed by his family, but Cecil espoused her in
Now, according to his own account, Polonius
also had experienced a romantic love-affair in his youth: "truly
in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this."
[Act II., ii.]
This particular speech has nearly always been
considered as a pure absurdity; but it would be even more ironically
amusing if the audience believed it literally true.
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
POL. Give him this money and these notes,
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.
Cecil wrote a number of maxims for the guidance
of his son, and these maxims show a remarkable likeness to those
given by Polonius to Laertes.
"If his own conduct was ruled,"
says Martin Hume, "as some of his actions were by the
maxims which in middle age he had laid down for his favourite
son, he must have been a marvel of prudence and wisdom. Like
the usual recommendations of age to youth, many of these precepts
simply inculcate moderation, religion, virtue and other obviously
good qualities; but here and there Cecil's own philosophy
of life comes out, and some of the reasons for his success
are exhibited. "Let thy hospitality be moderate . . .
rather plentiful than sparing, for I never knew any man grow
poor by keeping an orderly table.... Beware thou spendest
not more than three of four parts of thy revenue, and not
above a third part of that in thy house."
"Beware of being surety for thy best
friends; he that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own
"Be sure to keep some great man thy
friend, but trouble him not with trifles; compliment him often
with many, yet small gifts."
"Towards thy superiors be humble, yet
generous; with shine equals familiar yet respectful; towards
these inferiors show much humanity and some familiarity, as
to bow the body, stretch forth the hand and to uncover the
"Trust not any man with thy life, credit
or estate, for it is mere folly for a man to entrust himself
to his friend."
We may compare with this Polonius [Act 1.,
"Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy psalm 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.
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."
Martin Hume sums up Burleigh's proverbs by
"Such maxims as these evidently enshrine
much of his own temper, and throughout his career he rarely
seems to have violated them. His was a selfish and ungenerous
gospel, but a prudent and circumspect one."
Exactly the same might be said of Shakespeare's
Polonius. This particular fact, that the maxims of Polonius
strongly resemble those of Burleigh -- was pointed out by George
Russell French in 1869.
Again, one observes the omnipresence of Polonius;
he manages everything, he interferes in everything, he keeps
everything in his own hands. This was certainly true also of
Cecil, who had a passion for detail:
"Everything seemed to pass through his
hands. No matter was too small or too large to claim attention.
His household biographer says of him that he worked incessantly,
except at meal times when he unbent and chatted wittily to
his friends, but never of business.'' [Martin Hume]
Cecil had a peculiar method of drawing up documents
touching matters of state: thus he would consider all the reasons
for and against a particular action, stating its advantages
and disadvantages in the most elaborate way and with meticulous
care of detail. It is in just the same close and elaborate way
that Polonius displays his ideas before the king. Everything
is surveyed, not a detail omitted. [Act II., ii.]
"He repulsed -- a short tale to make
. . .
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves
And all we mourn for."
This is an admirable satire on the type of
man who like Cecil, prides himself on the logical, methodical
development of detail.
Cecil was emphatically a man of peace; in politics
it was his great aim to keep out of war; in private life he
disliked the idea of a military career for his son Thomas, and
he was a person with whom everybody found it very difficult
to quarrel; he kept the peace with Leicester, and with Essex
in spite of infinite provocation; Essex, especially, was given
to taunting and tormenting him; but, when Cecil was unable to
avoid a quarrel in any other way, he was accustomed to develop
a timely fit of gout, and retire to his own house.
We see this same trait in Polonius who carefully
advises Laertes against quarrels: "Beware of entrance to
a quarrel," and who will put up with almost everything
from Hamlet in order to avoid an overt dispute, even, as Cecil
did from Essex, with the most contemptuous mocking.
Cecil employed spying and eavesdropping as
political weapons to a quite amazing extent:
"Spies and secret agents paid by him
were in every court and in every camp . . . the English Catholic
nobles were closely watched and for a month every line the
Spanish ambassador wrote was conveyed to Cecil by Borghese.
Once, early in May, the bishop's courier with important letters
for the Duchess of Parma, was stopped two miles beyond Gravesend
by pretended highwaymen who were really gentlemen (the brothers
Cobham) in Cecil's pay, and the man was detained while the
letters were sent to the Secretary to be deciphered and copied."
The Dictionary of National Biography
states the matter thus:
"His life began to be threatened; assassins
were bribed to slay him and the queen: the murder of both
or either, it was taught, would be something more glorious
than mere justifiable homicide. Against the new doctrine and
its desperate disciples it seemed to Cecil that extraordinary
precautions were needed, and for the next twenty years he
kept a small army of spies and informers in his pay who were
his detective police, and he used it without scruple to get
information when it was needed, to keep watch upon the sayings
and doings of suspected characters at home and abroad. They
were a vile band, and the employment of such instruments could
not but bring some measure of dishonour upon their employer."
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
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
"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."
He refused it, however, because Shrewsbury
was in charge of the Queen of Scots, and he feared the suspicion
"A similar but more flattering offer
was made by the Earl of Essex in 1573 on behalf of his son;
but this also was declined."
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 the prince.
There is a further curious parallel in the
fact that when Cecil's daughter -- Elizabeth -- 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 her."
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.
Other significant details may be observed.
Cecil was a new man, and nothing annoyed him
more than to have the fact called to his attention. "The
most artful of his enemies, Father Persons, well knew the weak
point in his armour, and wounded him to the quick in his books,
in which he pretended to show that the Lord Treasurer was of
base origin, his father a tavern-keeper, and he himself a bell-ringer.
We have seen in a former case that attacks upon his ancestry
almost alone aroused Lord Burleigh's anger." [Martin Hume]
Hamlet, we may remember, taunts Polonius with
following a base trade, with being a fishmonger; Polonius repudiates
the idea with scorn, to which Hamlet retorts: " Then, I
would you were so honest a man." [Act II., ii.]
There is probably more than one meaning here,
but the most obvious is a taunt at a low origin.
Again Ophelia sings songs of lamentation one
of which seems obviously intended for her father. "He is
dead and gone"; she confuses him with a religious man:
"his cockle hat and staff And his sandal shoon." [Act
Towards the end of Burleigh's life there was,
apparently, a standing jest about him in the character of a
religious man, a hermit.
Thus, Martin Hume refers to the queen's visit
to Theobalds, and to a letter presented by a man dressed as
a hermit; the letter reminded her that the last time she came
"his founder, upon a: strange conceit, to feed his own
humour, had placed the hermit contrary to his profession in
his house, whilst he (Burghley) had retired to the hermit's
Yet more curious parallels may be quoted. In
a strange letter to Essex, Lord Henry Howard exults that "the
dromedary that would have won the favour of the Queen of Sabez
is almost enraged" (meaning Burleigh by the dromedary),
and asks the earl whether "he cannot drag out the old leviathan
and his cub" (meaning the two Cecils). We may surely compare
this with Hamlet's conversation with Polonius:
HAM. Do you see yonder cloud that's almost
in shape of a camel?
POL. BY the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAM. Methinks it is like a weasel.
POL. It is backed like a weasel.
HAM. Or like a whale ?
POL. Very like a whale. [Act III., ii.]
When we remember that Shakespeare would, in
all human probability, have had access to the Essex correspondence
shown by Essex himself, we can see the point still more strongly.
It is hardly necessary to show, how, in the
correspondence of the time, such as that of Standen and Anthony
Bacon, Burleigh is continually alluded to with contempt. Thus
Standen writes to Anthony Bacon, March 1595, that the queen
paid no heed to Burleigh, when he protested against the expedition
to Cadiz: "When she saw it booted not to stay him, she
said he was a 'froward old fool.'"
Anthony, even in his correspondence with Lady
Anne Bacon, refers to Burleigh continually as "the old
This is the general tone of Hamlet to Polonius.
Burleigh seems to have done his utmost to conciliate Essex,
and Anthony Bacon speaks of Burleigh's humiliation with pleasure:
"Our Earl hath made the old Fox to crouch and whine."
The humiliation of Burleigh by his scornful rival was, indeed,
one of the standing jests of the court.
I may also quote in this connection Jonson's
estimate of the character of Polonius:
"Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised
in business, stored with observation, confident in his knowledge,
proud of his eloquence and declining into dotage . . . This
idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom will solve all the
phenomena of the character of Polonius."
Now, it does not seem to me possible that an
Elizabethan audience could overlook the resemblances between
Polonius and Burleigh, they are at once so wide and all-embracing
and so minute and detailed.
We have the fact that each is a councillor,
almost supreme,in his office, isolated in his generation with
no person of equal authority near him. Each has a passion for
detail, for personal management, for analysing matters with
the minutest care. Each has the habit of giving worldly-wise
maxims to a son, maxims which are full of prudence but totally
lacking in generosity and unselfishness, maxims which are sometimes
almost word for word the same. Each has a spendthrift son, who
goes to Paris and who receives many instructions from his father,
a licentious son who is watched by his father's orders, and
reports upon whom are brought home by the father's commands.
Each takes the same care not to aim too high in a daughter's
marriage lest he should compromise his own position. Each causes
a separation between his daughter and the man she loves because
the daughter is believed to be completely the father's agent
and his decoy. Each has the same methods of statecraft, by intercepting
letters of the most private nature, by shameless, undignified
incessant spying, spying practiced upon all possible occasions.
Each has the same reverence for rank, the same interest in the
university and university life, the same assumption of classical
scholarship, the same dislike of quarrels, the same willingness
to bear insults rather than resent them.
Each is insulted by being compared to various
animals, a camel, a weasel, and a whale, on one side, a dromedary,
a fox and a whale on the other. Each is made a public butt by
a brilliant young man, by Hamlet in the one case, and by the
Earl of Essex in the other.
It is difficult to see how Shakespeare could
have got more resemblances into the brief space at his disposal.
Add to this the fact that the Cecils were the bitter enemies
of Essex and his party, that it was the son of Burleigh who
has supposed to have triumphed over and destroyed the unhappy
Essex, and we have a motive for Shakespeare's satire of the
most powerful and cogent kind.
It does not seem to me particularly difficult
to see what Shakespeare's method is. Burleigh was just precisely
one of the characters who would interest his -- Shakespeare's
-- audience most, and who really did present a magnificent subject
for study. On the other hand, from the dramatic point of view,
Burleigh had one immense disadvantage: that nothing in particular
had ever happened to him, and that he died quite respectably
and tranquilly in his bed. The murder of Rizzio was, however,
one of the most dramatic events in recorded history; Shakespeare,
therefore, combines the character of Burleigh with the end of
Rizzio. The dramatic motive for doing so is just as clear and
definite as the dramatic motive for combining the parts of the
two Bothwells in one, and calling them both Claudius.
We have, of course, a real parallel between
Rizzio and Cecil; both were men put in a position of supreme
trust and wielding immense power by secret and underhand methods;
both were regarded as unprincipled and intriguers, and both
were objects of detestation and dislike.
Moreover, the uniting in one of the two characters
stitches, as it were, the two parts of the drama together; it
brings the James I. part into close relation with the Essex
(2nd ed., EPM, McLean: 1992.)
I do not know how much malice the Cecils may
have borne de Vere, though surely they resented and disapproved
of him. When Hamlet appeared with its satirical portrayal
of the chief counsellor to the throne, there must have been
a great to-do, for the name given to the pompous old man who
cited maxims so like Burghley's Preceptes was Corambis
-- Cor ambis, "two hearted," a palpable swipe
at Burghley's motto, Cor unum, via una, "one heart,
one way." Clearly, only a dramatist with royal protection
could have got away with it. But the record is silent on any
reaction, though Cecil power was sufficient to have Corambis
changed to Polonius after the first printing. Both from internal
evidence and Nashe's reference to it in 1589, we may judge
Hamlet to have been written by that year, but it may be
that the prolix old counsellor was made recognizably Burghley
only after his death in 1598, five years before the play was
first printed. (Ogburn 202-203)
The late Elizabeth Taylor, whose novels do
not suffer in comparison with Jane Austen's, has one of her
characters remark that she "can never understand why Polonius
has to look so ancient . . . with those youngish children"
and another explain that "He has to look like Lord Burghley,
you see. I've no doubt he was made up to be the spit image at
the first performance, and the idea has gone on ever since."
That the tradition is at one with the author's intention can
hardly be doubted -- though this is a fact from which the Stratfordians
have to tiptoe quietly away, quite unable to explain how a mere
actor-playwright would dare lampoon the man who for forty years
was nearest the Queen in power and whose son was coming to fill
his shoes and how, if he had so challenged authority, he could
conceivably have got away with it. (Let alone can they account
for the appearance of the royal coat-of-arms on the first page
of the play containing this enormity as it was printed, evidently
with fidelity to the author's manuscript upon Oxford's death
in 1604.) Yet there it is -- the unquestionable travesty of
Burghley in Polonius.
Burghley was fifty when Oxford married his
fourteen-year-old daughter, and the Earl at twenty-six, as we
know from a letter he wrote him at the time, considered his
father-in-law already aged; probably the Lord Treasurer even
then had the white beard in which, alone, we know him. Corambis,
as Polonius was called in the first quarto of Hamlet, is
palpably a play on Burghley's motto, "Cor unum . . .
," as we have seen. Another verbal play establishing
the same link comes when Hamlet, having dispatched Polonius,
tells the King:
A certain convocation of politic worms
are e'en at him.
Your worm is your only emperor for diet. [Italics
Burghley was given to recalling that he was
born during the Diet of Worms, which Emperor Charles V had opened
and at which Martin Luther had defended his doctrines. When
Hamlet calls Polonius "a fishmonger" he is referring
to Burghley's having put a bill through Parliament making Wednesday
a meatless day in addition to Friday to encourage the fisheries;
the Catholics called it "Cecil's Fast." Then there
are those maxims Polonius recites for his son's guidance, which
we have heard Sir E. K. Chambers acknowledge parallel those
which Burghley wrote for his son's, which had not been printed
when Hamlet was written; "Conceivably," Chambers
says with notable lack of conviction, "Shakespeare knew
a pocket manuscript." Some of Burghley's Certaine Preceptes
are, beginning with the best known:
And that gentleman who sells an acre of
land, sells an ounce of credit. For gentility is nothing but
Let thy hospitality be moderate; & according to the means
of thy estate; rather plentiful than sparing, but not costly.
Beware of surety for thy best friends. He that payeth another
man's debt, seeketh his own decay.
Be sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him
not for trifles.
In the Harvard Magazine article (to
which I have to keep reverting because it put the highest orthodox
authorities on the spot to answer to the evidence) I had only
small space to give to autobiography in Shakespeare's plays.
After quoting Queen Elizabeth's angry remark, "I am Richard
the Second; know ye not that?" I said that "actually,
she seems much more fully to have been Queen Gertrude in Hamlet,
and the Earl of Leicester -- as near to a husband as Elizabeth
ever had -- to have been King Claudius." I then quoted
from a characterization of Hamlet in a book by Brigid
Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne: "The prototype
of western literature's most deplorable and most formless form,
autobiographical fiction." Pointing out that the dramatist
"left us his speaking self-portrait as the most memorable
character in English letters," I had room left for only
His relations to Burghley's daughter Anne,
whom he married, were very much those of Hamlet's to Polonius's
daughter Ophelia. His mother seems to have married just a
few months after her husband's death, as Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's
mother did. Leicester, widely believed to have murdered his
wife, Amy Robsart, to clear the way to his marriage to Elizabeth,
was given possession of the bulk of the estates belonging
to the future dramatist [the real-life Hamlet], then a boy
-- just as Claudius, who also cleared the way to his marriage
to Gertrude and the throne by murder, acquired the kingdom
to which Hamlet was heir by the favor of Gertrude.
The Harvard professors replied that:
It is true that the Earl [of Oxford] had
a stepfather, Leicester; but the analogy can be carried further
only by straining and twisting; and Mr. Ogburn cannot make
up his mind whether Oxford's mother or Queen Elizabeth should
be cast as Gertrude.
The first part of that sentence, as we have
earlier remarked, reveals the extent of the professor's ignorance
of Oxford, if not of Elizabethan history. As for what the rest
reveals -- well, it was the editor's idea, not the professors'
that they undertake to reply to the article. (Ogburn 369-370)
I sent letters to entreat him to take my
house for his lodging, whereof I had no answer, and yet I
wrote twice by two several messengers. But my son sent me
word that he found him disposed to keep himself secretly two
or three days in his own lodging and yet that Edward Yorke
told him secretly that his Lordship would come first to my
house, but he would nobody knew thereof. Whereupon I was very
glad but his wife gladder. And the contrary I knew not until
he was landed and then my son told me how he did suddenly
leave the barge and took a wherry and only with Rowland Yorke
landed about Yorke's house.
Hereupon I sent to welcome him and with request
to take a lodging in my house, but thereto he answered that
he meant to keep himself secret in his lodgings two or three
days and then he would speak with me. And the messenger did
come from his wife with request that if he should not come
that night to her father's house she would come to him, for
she desired to be one of the first that might see him. To
it he answered neither yea nor nay, but said, "why, I
have answered you," meaning that he would keep himself
secret two or three days, as the messenger took it. Whereupon
I thought it convenient she would forbear to go to him until
we might see how others were suffered to come to him or he
to resort to others. Within two hours I heard by them that
had been with him how many had been with him without any his
misliking . . . and that there was a coach preparing for my
lady his sister to come to him, which, being heard by my daughter
she very importunately required me she might go to him. And
yet I required her to stay until I might send to my Lord Howard
from whom I would know whether he knew that my Lord her husband
would go to Court.... My Lord Howard sent me word that he
as yet could not tell.
On April 23rd, two days before setting down
the recapitulation for the record that we have just read, Burghley
had written the Queen a letter that in its merciless, repetitious
wordiness reads like the very effusion parodied in Polonius's
speech in Act II, Scene 2, of Hamlet -- the one beginning
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,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
Burghley's letter rambles like some rivers,
through continuous eddies:
Most sovereign lady, as I was accustomed
to from the beginning of my service to your Majesty until
of late by the permission of your goodness and by occasion
of the place wherein I serve your Majesty, to be frequently
an intercessor for others to your Majesty, and therein did
find your Majesty always inclinable to give me gracious audience;
so now do I find in the latter end of my years a necessary
occasion to be an intercessor for another next to myself,
in a cause godly, honest and just; and therefore, having had
proof of your Majesty for most favours in causes not so important,
I doubt not but to find the like influence of your grace in
a cause so near touching myself as your Majesty will conceive
To enter to trouble your Majesty with the
circumstances of my cause, I mean not for sundry respects
but chiefly for two; the one is that I am very loth to be
more cumbersome to your Majesty than need shall compel me;
Burghley will be no more cumbersome than Polonius
would be tedious.
-- the other is for that I hope in God's
goodness, and for reverence borne to your Majesty, that success
thereof may have a better end than the beginning threateneth.
But your Majesty may think my suit will be very long where
I am so long ere I begin it; and truly, most gracious sovereign
lady, it is true that the nature of my cause is such as I
have no pleasure to enter into it, but had rather seek means
to shut it up for them to lay it open, not for lack of the
soundness thereof on my part, but-for the wickedness of others
from whom the ground work proceedeth.
The Queen would have known what led her counterpart
in Hamlet to urge, "More matter, with less art."
My suit therefore shall be presently to your
Majesty but in general sort, that whereas I am, by God's visitation
with some infirmity and yet not great, stayed from coming
to do my duty to your Majesty at this time, and my daughter,
the Countess of Oxford, also occasioned to her great grief
to be absent from your Majesty's Court, and that the occasion
of her absence may be diversely reported to your Majesty --
because the ground and working thereupon toucheth me as nearly
as any wordly cause in my concept can do --
The sentence runs to no fewer than 248 words.
The writer protests that "old worn servant that he is"
he compares with the best of the others "for loyalty and
devotion," while his daughter could challenge any "in
fervent admiration of your graces." Whether "the cause
betwixt my Lord of Oxford and her" arise from his "misliking
of me or misdeeming of hers" he says he cannot guess. (Ogburn
(Praeger, Westport: 1994, pp. 108-111.)
With the characters of Ophelia and Polonius
the play Hamlet comes closest to the life of Oxford.
Ophelia is the young daughter of Polonius, councillor to the
king. She is supposed to marry Hamlet. Anne Cecil was the daughter
of Burghley, chief minister to the queen. Before she was fifteen
she was betrothed to Oxford, and she ultimately was married
to him, although the marriage was postponed once. Ophelia on
stage and Anne Cecil in real life were both young girls under
the sway of powerful rulers and councillors in the royal court.
Both were daughters of commoners and both were destined by their
elders for marriage to young aristocrats of noble blood.
Polonius has long been considered a caricature
of Burghley, Oxford's guardian and then father-in-law.'] Shakespearean
scholars in the nineteenth century recognized the caricature
decades before anyone thought Oxford might be the author. Since
then, even scholars who ignore or dismiss the possibility that
Oxford was Shakespeare have generally accepted the identification
of Polonius as Burghley. The evidence is quite convincing.
The author of Hamlet, whoever he was,
probably not only knew Burghley, but was closely associated
with him. The principal evidence for this close association
is Polonius's advice to his son, Laertes, in the string of maxims
that ends, "This above all, to thy own self be true."
Polonius's maxims are a parody of Burghley's long-winded advice
in a letter to his own son. Burghley's letter, however, was
not printed until years after he, Oxford, and Will Shakspere
were dead. To produce the parody, the author of Hamlet must
have seen Burghley's precepts in an early manuscript form or
heard about them. Oxford would have been perfectly placed not
only to see or hear about Burghley's precepts, but to have been
inspired to parody them. (There are no records that Will Shakspere
of Stratford ever met Burghley or had anything to do with him.)
Polonius was Burghley in name as well as in
character. The name's probable origin shows that it was not
picked at random but had insider connotations for those in the
queen's court. Two contemporary notes have been found that refer
to Burghley by the nicknames "Polus" and "Pondus,"
both easily combined and transmuted into the Polonius of the
Furthermore, the character Polonius had a different
name in an early version of the play, a name that could also
be linked to Burghley, but more disparagingly. In the first
quarto version the character's name is Corambis. Burghley's
Latin motto was "Cor unum, via una," that is, "one
heart, one way." By substituting "ambis" for
"unum" after "Cor," the author created a
name of doubleness instead of singularity. "Bis" means
twice or again. It could be heard as signifying double-hearted,
suggesting doubledealing or devious. The name Corambis, with
its pejorative connotation, was changed to Polonius in later
editions of the play. Only an author who was an insider at court
would be likely to create this sequence of nicknames based on
Burghley's character and reputation.
References to Lord Burghley abound in Hamlet.
Burghley was well known for his spying tactics, even to the
point of having spies report on his own son while the son was
in Paris. Polonius has spies report on his son while the son
is in Paris.
Hamlet kills Polonius while the councillor
is spying on him from behind a curtain, but makes light of the
slaying, almost as if it were symbolic, not real. He later tells
the king mockingly that "a certain convocation of worms"
is working on Polonius, adding that "your worm is your
only emperor for diet." Burghley expressed pride in having
been born during the Diet of Worms, a convocation of church
and secular leaders in the German city named Worms and presided
over by the emperor.
Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger";
Burghley sponsored a law that made Wednesday a meatless day,
in addition to Friday, in order to support the fishing industry
The set of allusions to Burghley, first minister
to the queen and Oxford's guardian and then father-in-law, are
multiple, pointed, and specific. Stratfordian scholars recognize
them, but do not explain how Will Shakspere of Stratford could
have conceived them or, if he did, how he could have escaped
public censure and punishment for ridiculing Lord Burghley,
even after Burghley's death. (One of Burghley's sons succeeded
him.) Oxfordians conclude that the allusions point inevitably
to the seventeenth earl of Oxford as the author, the insider
at court whose rank in the nobility and favored status with
the queen and then with King James protected him from reprisals.
The allusions in Hamlet to Oxford's
life are sometimes direct and extended, sometimes short and
subtle, merely throwaway lines. At one point in act 2, Hamlet
says, for no particular reason, "I am but mad north-north-west."
The line makes little sense in the play, unless it's an allusion
to the investment that Oxford lost in the expedition that was
seeking a northwest passage to Asia. If Oxford was the author,
he was making a jibe at his own expense.
Hamlet reports that his ship was set upon by
pirates while he was on his way to England; Oxford's ship was
twice set upon by pirates while he was returning to England.
Hamlet appears at one point reading an unidentified
book. Some Stratfordian scholars like to suggest that the book
must be Cardanus Comforte because so much of the book's
philosophy is reflected in the play. Several scholarly articles
have been written on the book's role in Hamlet. The first
of them was published in the nineteenth century, long before
Oxford was proposed as the author Shakespeare.
Oxford knew the book well. He commissioned
it and wrote a long preface addressed to the man who translated
it from the Italian. The importance of Oxford's role in the
book's publication is shown by the fact that Oxford's name,
but not that of the translator, appears on the title page.
Hamlet commands, organizes, and stages the
play within the play as an author, producer, and director-not
as an actor. He is an enthusiastic, well-known patron of the
visiting troupe of actors. They readily take his direction in
authorial and technical aspects of the performances that he
adapts in order to "catch the conscience of the king."
Oxford was an active patron of acting companies, and he wrote
and produced plays and was in a position to help direct them.
Oxfordians maintain that one of his purposes in some of the
plays was to catch the conscience of the queen.
Hamlet's most trusted friend is Horatio. One
of Oxford's favorite cousins was Horatio de Vere, fifteen years
his junior. Horatio took charge of Oxford's son Henry during
a military campaign on the Continent. At one point, when Oxford
was in his twenties, he reportedly wanted to make Horatio and
Horatio's brother the heirs to his earldom.
Hamlet's dying words to Horatio strike a note
of powerful poignancy for those who become convinced that Oxford
as Shakespeare revealed himself most intimately in Hamlet.
The dying Hamlet for some reason implores Horatio to tell
the true story about the events depicted in the play. If Hamlet's
words are also taken to represent Oxford's anguished cry that
posterity may never link his name with the work of his lifetime,
printed under the pen name William Shakespeare, then the passages
carry a devastating message: "Horatio," says Hamlet,
"I am dead. Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright
to the unsatisfied."
Horatio tries to join Hamlet in death by drinking
the poison that killed the queen, but Hamlet stops him and says:
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
(The Free Press, New York: 1997, pp.192-195.)
Burghley himself appears in Hamlet.
He is the model for Polonius. This is hardly deniable. It was
acknowledged by scholars as early as 1869, long before Oxford
was proposed as the author -- just as Southampton was seen in
the youth of the Sonnets long before anyone imagined that his
connection to Oxford was significant. Edmund Chambers, foremost
of modern Shakespeare scholars, agrees that Polonius appears
to be based on Burghley. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare
says of Burghley: "A master of craft himself, he had
a striking capacity to ferret out the conspiratorial designs
of others. In the 1590s his chief opponent at court was Essex,
whose faction Shakespeare is said to have supported." The
Reader's Encyclopedia concludes:
As a result many scholars have argued that
Burghley is being satirized as Polonius in Hamlet. Evidence
of this view is believed to be found in Burghley's Certaine
Preceptes, or Directions (1616), which he wrote for his
son, Robert Cecil, and which Shakespeare may have seen in
manuscript Polonius' famous advice to Laertes (I, iii, 58
- 80) is strikingly similar to Burghley's precepts in this
treatise. Hamlet's reference to Polonius as a "fishmonger"
may also be an allusion to Burghley's attempt as treasurer
to stimulate the fish trade.
The only thing amiss in this passage arises
from the assumption of Mr. Shakspere's authorship. It makes
the incongruous suggestion that Mr. Shakspere would not only
have taken sides in a political rebellion, but, having gotten
hold of Burghley's then unpublished precepts to his son, would
dare to satirize Burghley on the stage. Oxford would obviously
have been far more likely to have access to Burghley's precepts,
and to have had both motive and liberty to lampoon them.
Polonius does not appear in the play's source.
In Belleforest's account, Hamlet kills an unnamed "councillor"
whom he catches spying on him. Shakespeare not only expands
the part into one of the longest speaking roles in his play,
but makes Polonius Hamlet's chief antagonist, albeit a relatively
benign one, for the first three acts. The leisurely second act,
in which the action pauses, digresses languidly, allowing a
vivid portrait of Polonius to be drawn.
Like Burghley, Polonius is a garrulous royal
minister with a penchant for spying. When we first meet him,
his son Laertes wants to go back to France, where, we later
gather, he has been living wildly. Burghley's son Thomas Cecil
spent two years in France, causing his father great distress
with his wayward life, as reported to Burghley by his spies.
Shakespeare gives us a dramatically superfluous scene in which
Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes, explaining
to him the art of eliciting information without seeming to:
"By indirections find directions out" (Act 2, Scene
1). Soon afterward, Polonius is spying on Hamlet; in 1584, Oxford
was enraged to discover that Burghley had tried to use one of
his (Oxford's) servants as an informant.
Incidentally, Polonius' phrase "falling
out at tennis" (Act 2, Scene 1) may be a buried joke about
Oxford's famous spat with Sidney, whose pedantic taxonomy of
dramatic forms is also satirized through Polonius: "The
best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history,
pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral . . ." (Act 2, Scene
Thinking that Hamlet is mad, Polonius asks,
"Do you know me, my lord?" (Act 2, Scene 2) Hamlet,
pretending to be mad, replies, "Excellent well. You are
a fishmonger" -- a gibe at Burghley's efforts, mentioned
above, to promote the interests of fishermen in Parliament.
In 1563, he had urged a bill imposing a second compulsory fish
day every week, Wednesday as well as Saturday. In a surviving
memorandum, we find him arguing that it is "necessary for
the restoring of the Navy of England to have more fish eaten
and therefore one day more in the week ordained to be a fish
day and that to be Wednesday rather than any other." He
sought, among other things, restrictions on the import of fish
and the removal of restrictions on their export. Catholics called
the result "Cecil's Fast." Nothing could better illustrate
the difference between Oxford's temperament and his father-in-law's
than Burghley's energetic pursuit of this mundane measure.
We feel the difference all through Hamlet's
exchanges with Polonius, his almost-father-in-law. "Have
you a daughter?" Hamlet asks. When Polonius says yes, Hamlet,
still feigning insanity, warns: "Let her not walk in the
sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may
conceive" -- another allusion to the real-life relations
between Oxford and Burghley, whose daughter's first conception
resulted in such uproar.
Ophelia herself, sweet and innocent but unable
to cope with the warring males in her life, strongly resembles
the young Anne Cecil. Polonius is unable to believe that Hamlet
loves Ophelia honorably, and his cynicism undermines their budding
love, much as Oxford felt that his in-laws had blighted his
marriage to Anne.
When the acting troupe arrives at Elsinore,
Burghley's contempt for Oxford's "lewd friends" is
evident in Polonius' disdain for the players Hamlet loves, whom
Rosencrantz has announced as "those you were wont to take
delight in, the tragedians of the city." While Hamlet is
moved by the leading actor's recitation of Aeneas' speech on
the fall of Troy, Polonius merely complains that the speech
is "too long." He finds it unbearable that the actor
shows emotion: "Look, whe'r he has not turned his color,
and has tears in's eyes. Prithee no more!" -- an unmistakable
echo of Oxford's 1572 letter to Burghley, quoted earlier, describing
Huguenot refugees from the St. Bartholomew's Eve massacre as
"French Aeneases" recounting their "tragedies"
with "tears falling from their eyes."
Hamlet advises Polonius to treat the players
with respect, for they may have the last word about him: "Let
them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles
of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph
than their ill report while you live." The suggestion that
the theater is topical surprises us if we assume that Shakespeare
is writing "universally," with no special reference
to his own time. But Hamlet himself tells us otherwise, and
the play itself is the fulfillment of his warning. It gives
us a fascinating glimpse of Oxford and Burghley.
When Hamlet stabs Polonius, the deed has to
be covered up -- as Oxford's stabbing of Burghley's undercook
had been. The very phrase Burghley had used to excuse Oxford,
"se defendendo," is parodied in the gravedigger's
blundering legal terminology, "se offendendo."
Hamlet's grim pun that "politic worms" are making
the dead Polonius their "diet" looks like another
private joke: according to Gerald W. Phillips, Burghley liked
to recall that he was born during the Diet of Worms.
Such personal touches offer a tantalizing intimacy
with the playwright, and they have persuaded many of Oxford's
authorship. In reconsidering the Sonnets, we shall see evidence
both more intimate and more obvious.