ONE OF THE RAREST BOOKS ever printed in the English language contains
a heretofore unidentified description of the poet-playwright Earl of
Oxford as a dominating creative spirit of the Shakespearean Age.
This is Cephalus and Procris (and) Narcissus by Thomas Edwards.
In addition to a fragment comprising the title-page and a small part
of the opening poem, only one complete copy is known. It was discovered
in 1878 in the library of Peterborough Cathedral, and was reprinted
for the Roxburghe Club in 1882 with editorial comments by W. E. Buckley.
While the printed date of this unique volume published by John Wolfe
of London is 1595, it is evident that an earlier edition once existed,
and that the work was actually written at least two years before 1595,
for the following, entry appears in the Stationers' Register under date
of 22 October, 1593:
John Wolff . . . Entred for his copie . . . a booke entytuled PROCRIS
AND CEPHALUS, divided into foure partes . . .
Each of the two narrative poems signed by Thomas Edwards concludes
with a separate lyrical envoy, the whole comprising the "foure
partes" licensed for publication. These lyrics reflect the author's
reactions to contemporary thought and to the work of creative writers
of the period. "L'Envoy to Narcissus" expresses Edwards' appreciation
of Spenser as Collyn; praises Daniel for his Rosamond;
and laments the fact that Amintas (Thomas Watson) and Leander
(Christopher Marlowe) are "gone"both of these poets
having died by June 1, 1593. Edwards then continues his "Envoy"
with what are probably the earliest references extant to Venus and
Adonis, as that poem was licensed for publication on April 18, 1593,
only six months before the Edwards' manuscript was officially approved.
What makes this Shakespearean commentary of paramount interest, however,
is the fact that Edwards adds to his appreciation of Venus and Adonis
a remarkable pen-portrait of its author which, while negating the corpus
of Stratfordian creative claims, corroborates the Oxford-Shakespeare
documentation with constructive realism.
In writing this commentary, Thomas Edwards uses the same form that
he applies to Spenser and his worksfirst identifying the poet
with his best known speaking part (such as Colin Clout) and then going
on to particularize Spenser's character and life-interests. This is,
in fact, a mode of address then very much in vogue, Spenser himself
being its outstanding exponent. Yet the only Shakespearean authorities
who have deigned to note Edwards' spenserian treatment of the author
of Venus and Adonis in three stanzas of the "Envoy to Narcissus,"
beg the whole question by admitting only the first stanza as an authentic
The Edwards' verses are reprinted thus in the 1909 edition of The
Shakespeare Allusion Book, Volume I, page 25. L. Toulamin Smith.
one of the editors, adds this footnote:
"The two stanzas referring to 'one whose power floweth far' I
insert, but he has not been identified."
Adon deafly masking thro
Stately troupes rich conceited,
Shew'd he well deserved to
Loves delight on him to gaze,
And had not love her selfe intreated,
Other nymphs had sent him baies.
Eke in purple roabes destain'd,
Amid'st the Center of this clime,
I have heard saie doth remaine
One whose power floweth far,
That should have bene of our rime
The only object and the star.
Well could his bewitching pen
Done the Muses objects to us,
Although he differs much from men
Tilting under Frieries,
Yet his golden art might woo us
To have honored him with baies.
Editor Smith's footnote has a familiar ring. It is another admission
by a recognized Stratfordian expert that any such contemporary allusion
as this to a "Shakespeare" who was obviously of premier social
rank and Court influence when Venus and Adonis was published,
is too inexplicable to warrant investigation. In the present instance,
the total failure of all Elizabethan literary and biographical law-giverswith
ample money and leisure at their commandto pursue the Edwards'
lead, and given us some rational and convincing explanation of this
contemporary description of the 1593 overlord of Shakespearean art,
unquestionably convicts them of gross incompetence. Their complacent
laxity is, moreover, particularly inexcusable when the fact is so patently
susceptible of proof that Edwards' lines are all of a piece here, and
that the masking Adon of tropes rich conceited can so
logically be taken to be the most powerful example then typographically
extant of the golden art of this Great Unnamed.
Observe, then, the telling cogency of these comments upon the foremost
narrative and dramatic poet of that day, as they may now for the first
time in modern English literary history be read with reasonable understanding.
Archaic spelling of several of Edwards' words should not confuse when
"troupes" is translated as tropes or allegorical metaphors;
and when "baies" is spelled bays, meaning, laurel wreaths.
In the second stanza, "eke" is the early synonym for likewise,
moreover or also. "Roabes" is, of course, robes
and "destained" the ancient variant of distained, meaning
stained or, as the author of The Comedy of Errors (11.2)
uses it, disgraced, sullied: "I live distain'd,
thou undishonored." Also, "saie" is pronounced say
and "bene" been, the rhythm accenting have been.
In the second line of the third stanza, a poetic ellipsis of have
before done is apparent. The word "Frieries" in the
fourth line is the Elizabethan plural of Friary, its capitalization
by Edwards indicating a definite group of former religious buildings
which had become the scene of noteworthy poetical tournaments.
The Edwards' orthography having been somewhat modernized and defined,
this, then, is what our Shakespearean commentator tells us:
Shakespeare's Adonis, although deaf to the insistent advances
of Venus, is so realistically portrayed in the poet's rich allegory
of love scorned that other nymphs or feminine admirers of Adon's
creator would have openly hailed the author for his artistrybut
for one consideration. A real life Venus had intervened to prevent this.
Who was the living Queen of Love with authority so to ordain?
None other than Queen Elizabeth, her Court nickname being "Venus,"
as correspondence of the period assures us. But while it would be absurd
to suggest that the Queen might descend to such interference in the
professional doings or public adulation to which William Shakspere of
Stratford-on-Avon would thus be assumed to have been subjected by lovesick
admirers in 1593, it is a matter of detailed history that Elizabeth
selfishly circumscribed the poet Earl of Oxford's career as a man covetous
of military or naval glory in order to enjoy his intimate company. Also,
when this procedure failed, she intervened in his private relations
with other women with all the jealous ruthlessness of a Venus scorned.
Eke or like the Adonis of his creation, who is
transformed into a purple flower at the end of the poem, Shakespeare's
own robes of aristocratic purple oblige him to remain
deaf to expressions of love and esteem for his vulgarly popular
creative achievements. This, Edwards broadly intimates, is to be regretted
because the real-life Shakespeare is the only (meaning one)
poet of supreme power to whom Edwards should be dedicating his
fullest meed of praise. But the governing Venus has ruled otherwise.
Moreover, though his place is at the sovereign's Courtthe
Center of this climethe master's purple robes are already
distained or sullied in the sense that Adriana uses the
word in The Comedy of Errors to describe the "adulterate
blot" with which she charges herself for failure fully to perform
her duties as a wife. In other words, Shakespeare has been recreant
to the expectations of aristocratic usage in devoting too much of his
power to popular creative artparticularly the art of public
entertainment. Lord Oxford's personal documentation proves that his
standing had been compromised in the same way that Edwards suggests.
In the light of the rigid etiquette of the period, the poet Earl's literary
and dramatic preoccupations operated against his advancement in those
aristocratic circles where Court politics, high-flown social activities,
foreign diplomacy or military prowess were the approved roads to eminence.
In those days a nobleman might dabble in light verse or take part in
Court theatricals occasionally. But seriously to engage in literary
and dramatic creation in competition and collaboration with professionals
meant loss of "credit." That during the latter half of his
life Oxford's personal fame as a courtier bore a mysterious blot admits
of no doubt whatever. Glibly to attribute this beclouding impediment
to the Earl's "light-headedness" or "quarrelsome disposition"
or alleged inhuman treatment of his wife, or an insanely revengeful
desire to "destroy his estates" to spite his father-in-law,
the Lord Treasurer Burghleyas many ill-informed historians have
donewill no longer serve.
The records proving otherwise are now ample and of unquestionable authenticity.
The falsity of all such ill-founded gossip becomes doubly apparent when
it is found to emanate in the main from proven traitors and unscrupulous
Court rivals and their known agents. What the great scholars, such as
Laurence Nowell, Sir Thomas Smith, Arthur Golding, Thomas Underdowne
(translator of Heliodorus), Thomas Twyne (translator of the Æneid)
as well as Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser, have to say of Oxford's
love of learning and marked liberality is in illuminating contrast.
Just why the tainted words of historic scoundrels such as Sir Charles
Arundell and Lord Henry Howard should be deemed fair estimates of Oxford's
character in preference to the commendations of the notables I have
mentioned is, in fact, the real mystery.
But when we find this learned aristocrat in intimate personal contact
with a whole group of popular poets, playwrights and novelists, such
as Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, John Lyly, Thomas Churchyard, Robert
Greene and Thomas Nashall of whom acknowledge him as their "Maecenas"
and active supporterOxford's gradual loss of social prestige is
Thus, during the 1580's and early 90's when most should be expected
of him in the aristocratic pattern, he is otherwise engaged. It is also
during the same period that explicit records are found of his leadership
in stage affairs, and "in the rare devices of poetry."
Legal proof that Oxford's official title of Lord Great Chamberlain
of England was commonly shortened to that of "Lord Chamberlain"
further argues that he was the permanent supervising patron of "Shakespeare's
company" of players. The fact that he is placed first in Meres'
contemporary list of those professional playwrights considered "the
best for comedy among us," certainly indicates his artistic
endowment for such a task. His possession of the literary nickname of
"Gentle Master William," by the same token, makes his
identification as the one humanly accountable entity behind the long-suspected
pen-name of "William Shakespeare" thoroughly logical. Every
standardized "life" of the Bard dwells upon the fact that
his plays were produced by the "Lord Chamberlain's men"dogmatically
assuming thereby that one of the numerous Lords Chamberlain of the Queen's
Household is the patron indicated. With equally dogmatic finality we
are told that there could not possibly be any other "William Shakespeare"
connected with this company than one William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon
birth, notably illiterate family background and significantly unrecorded
personal qualifications as to creative genius. The fact that William
of Stratford never once wrote his name in the grand manner, and that
his six signaturesrepresenting his sole surviving manuscript outputbear
every evidence of unfamiliarity with a pen, we are ordered to disregard.
Fortunately for the verification of biographical fact, however, it
appears that there were no Stratfordian "authorities" issuing
such ukases when Thomas Edwards paid his respects to the author of Venus
The second stanza of this tribute to the purple-robed master
whose power floweth far, ends with a punning personal metaphor
of approved Elizabethan currency. For when Edwards laments that the
courtier-poet should have been
The only object and the star
of his "Envoy," he points with graphic aptnessat Edward
de Vere. This for the reason that the silver star in the Earl's
ancient shield of arms was the most famous star device then displayed
by any English family. In referring to an aristocrat, it was, moreover,
common practice to personify him by his heraldic symbols. Thirty years
after Edwards used this metaphorical pun, Ben Jonson, in accordance
with his own penchant for the same type of word-play, applied the same
heraldic-literary pun to "Shakespeare" in concluding the introductory
verses to the First Folio Plays:
Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets.
In 1630 Milton also tells us in his sonnet "On Shakespeare"
that we do not need a star-ypointing pyramid to recognize the
master's intrinsic worth.
And for those who may question the personal application of these star
metaphors in identifying Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, with his pseudonymously
printed plays and poems, I would draw attention to Andrew Marvell's
verses "On Appleton House," the Fairfax-Vere manor where he
acted as tutor to the collateral descendants of Lord Oxford during the
1650's. Marvell extols the intellectual joys he experienced therein
Under the discipline severe
Of Fairfax and the starry Vere.
Edwards' final stanza in tribute to the Elizabethan Star of Poets
contains perhaps the most revealing lines of all to alert students of
the Oxford-Shakespeare records.
Well could his bewitching pen,
Done the Muses objects to us,
evidently means that Edwards considers his own poetry a task of supererogation
in comparison. But the two lines which follow clinch the Oxford-Shakespeare
identification beyond reasonable doubt. This for the fact that they
corroborate established realities of the Earl's theatrical interests.
At the same time they directly echo Edmund Spenser's vivid description
of the playwright peer as "our pleasant Willy" in The
Tears of the Muses, the aristocratic leader and master craftsman
of the group of satirical comedy-writers who broke many quill-lances
to the honor of Thalia, Muse of Comedy, at the little theatre in the
Blackfriars Priory before the Puritan forces of London put a halt to
Although he differs much from men
Tilting under Friaries
could hardly refer to any other creative personality allied with the
Blackfriars Theatre than Lord Oxford for the reason that he was the
only playwright in the group of high social degree. All the rest were
commoners and lived largely upon the Earl's bounty. It is also plain
that in using the term tilting, Edwards signifies literary activities
or wit-combats. The Bard uses this tilting metaphor in exactly
the same sense in the final scene of Love's Labors Lost, together
with much tilt-yard word-play in Much Ado and other comedies.
Pope in the 18th century-echoes with this example:
Satire's my weapon, but I'm too discreet
To run a muck, and tilt at all I meet.
The only creative tournaments or notable wit-combats which could be
said with any allusive import to have been carried on under Friaries
in Edwards' day were those in the old Blackfriary, where the famous
little "painted theatre" of Spenser's Tears had been established.
Moreover, Edwards' metaphor is an effectively witty double-entendre
allusion to Lord Oxford's early reputation as a champion of the tilt-yarda
reputation which had been accorded revived publicity in an account of
the Earl's 1581 tournament exploits as The Knight of the Tree of
the Sun. printed in 1592, or the year before Edwards penned these
Thy countenance shakes a spear declares Gabriel Harvey in 1578,
in urging Oxford to give up bloodless books and writings that serve
no useful purpose, while Edwards' words bear witness that this same
tilt-yard champion who was mad about writing had finally developed into
the most poetically powerful spear-shaker of his era by tilting
under the roof of the Blackfriars Theatre.
This playhouse in the ancient Friary bounded by Fleet Street and the
Strand, was the first of all enclosed theatre buildings in London. Its
admission prices were higher than those demanded in the unroofed structures
catering to "the groundlings," a circumstance which restricted
its audiences to the wealthier and better educated classes. The Blackfriars
company had been established in 1580 when two able stage directorsRichard
Farrant, Master of the Children at Windsor, and William Hunnis, Master
of the Children of the Queen's Chapel, combined the best of their talent
for the enterprise. Neither of these directors are known to have been
capitalists, and Farrant died shortly after joining Hunnis. Yet the
latter went on to notable success. It is apparent that Blackfriars Theatre
had an influential and monied patron from its inception. In the opinion
of Sir Edmund Chambers, foremost authority on the documentation of the
Elizabethan stage, Lord Oxford was this patron. For after Hunnis passed
his lease of the house to one Henry Evans, a Welsh singing master, and
the latter became associated with John Lyly, Oxford's secretary, in
the public presentation of Lyly's Court comedies, Chambers comments
on these circumstances by saying:
". . . doubtless Hunnis, Lyly and Evans were all working together
under the Earl's (Oxford's) patronage."
It is a certainty that Lyly became Oxford's secretary about 1578, that
the Blackfriars boys enacted several of the Lyly comedies, that this
company was also frequently recorded as "the children of the Earl
of Oxford," or "the Oxford boys;" also that Henry Evans
is specifically named as payee of "the children of the Earl of
Oxford." By 1583 Oxford himself is designated as the holder of
the Blackfriars lease, but hastens to transfer the property to his man
In Shakespeare's Theatre (p. 263), in seeking to explain the
smooth operations of patron and personnel apparent in the development
of "Shakespeare's" own group, Thorndike cites Oxford's connection
with Blackfriars as
"The most striking case of personal relations between a patron
and his company."
The Earl can thus be personally associated with the fortunes of the
Blackfriars acting and playwriting forces for a matter of four or five
years, at least, from 1580 onward. Even after the original premises
at Blackfriars had to be given up, "Oxford's children," also
variously known as the children of the hospital" and the "Paul's
boys," continued to give public performances at some unidentified
location contiguous to Blackfriars and St. Paul's Cathedral.
There can be little doubt in the mind of anyone thoroughly alive to
the implications of Lord Oxford's creative and theatrical documentation
that the Earl's "lost" comedies were produced by the Blackfriars
boys for the edification of the Elizabethan smart set. It is equally
apparent that these same comedies were finally published many years
later under the "William Shakespeare" alias.
Other playwrights who tilted at the fads and foibles of the
day, such as Lyly, Munday, Churchyard, Greene and Nashall Oxford's
protégésmay also be believed to have had their best
works produced at the ancient Friary.
Evans, the Welsh singing-master and one of the managerial staff at
Blackfriars, seems to be hilariously burlesqued in the Merry Wives
of Windsor characterization of Evans, the Welsh parson who fulfills
the office of satyr-director of the boys chorus of singing imps in the
comedy's final scene. This ring of "Fairies," it will be recalled,
sing and pinch the harried Falstaff into renunciation of his evil intentions
toward the ladies of the cast. Their song is a very close paraphrase
of the "Song of the Fairies" in Lyly's comedy of Endymion,
as Looney has shown.
And while Oxford's personal association with the successful establishment
and temporary dissolution (through Puritan political interdiction) of
the first company of junior players to attain professional rating can
be clearly traced in Elizabethan theatrical history, another fact is
of illuminating interest:
A significant commentary on the Blackfriars or "Oxford boys"
appears in Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet, when Rosencrantz and the
melancholy Prince discuss the reasons why "the tragedians of
the city" have been obliged to travel abroad, to beg engagements
at inns and castles.
What players are they?
Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians
of the city.
How chances it they travel? their residence both in reputation and
profit was better both ways.
I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation.
Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city;
are they so followed?
No, indeed, are they not.
How comes it? do they grow rusty?
Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace; but there is, sir,
an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question,
and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion,
and so berattle the common stages (so they call them) that many
wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills, and dare scarce come
What, are they children? who maintains 'em? how are they escoted?
Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? will
they not say afterwards if they should grow themselves to common
players (as it is like most will if their means are not better)
their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their
Faith, there has been much to-do on both sides: and the nation holds
it no sin to tarre them to controversy. There was, for a while,
no money bid for argument, unless the Poet and the Player went to
cuffs in the question.
Hamlet's query, "Will they pursue the quality (i.e., the
acting profession) no longer than they can sing?" refers
to the same sort of choir boys trained to act, that Oxford had maintained
or "escoted" for long periods. Dr. Dover Wilson in
his latest Cambridge edition of the play annotates this passage with
the remark that
"The Children of the Chapel played at the Blackfriars, a 'private'
Throughout Hamlet there are a great many such direct allusions
to Elizabethan events and personalities. The playwright Earl can be
directly associated with practically all of them, just as surely as
Hamlet's interest in these young actors reflects Oxford's recorded patronage
of his own "little eyases." So Thomas Edwards' use of the
otherwise obscure metaphor tilting under Friaries can be seen
to be a realistic reference to the same satirical wit-combats which
the boy-actors described by Rosencrantz wage against the adult players
of "the common stages" and many of the vulnerable gentry
"wearing rapiers" who have ventured into the Blackfriars
Returning to the concluding lines of Thomas Edwards' stanzas on the
unnamed author of Venus and Adonis,
Yet his golden art might woo us
To have honored him with bays
brings to mind Sir William Herbert's 1594 reference to Shakespeare's
silver pen. It is also reminiscent of Chettle's 1603 plea to the Bard
as the silver tongued Melicert; and is especially remindful of
Horatio's remark in Hamlet that "all his golden words are spent."
Both the Cephalus and Procris and the Narcissus which
Edwards versified are among the works of Ovid translated by Arthur Golding.
The Golding translation is generally referred to as "one of Shakespeare's
best-loved books in youth." There is no record of the Stratford
native having either owned or read the volume. But Arthur Golding was
Lord Oxford's uncle, and the young peer's personal adviser and household
companion when the translation of Ovid was made about 1565.
The Oxford-Shakespeare references in the great plays and poems to the
Narcissus fable need not detain us, but it is interesting to note that
a reference to Cephalus and Procris, spelled in satirical phonetics,
appears in the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude in Midsummer Night's
Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true.
As Shafalus to Procrus, I to you.
In the same play, the author refers to Spenser's Tears
of the Muses (1591), wherein Lord Oxford, then practically bankrupt,
is described as "our pleasant Willy," the learned aristocrat
of the Blackfriars, whose theatrical career has been brought to a "dead"
halt by the type of puritanical "innovation" mentioned in
Theseus, host to the wedding party which ends the Dream, describes
one of the "devices" nominated by way of entertainment as
The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary.
He rejects it, with this comment:
That is some satire, keen and critical,
Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.
Incidentally, various commentators on the Dream opine that the
comedy was first given during the 1594-5 Court celebration of the wedding
of William Stanley, Earl of Derby, to Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter
of the poet Earl of Oxford.
Perhaps it is well to emphasize the fact that in personalizing Oxford
metaphorically and by masking him under the title of Adonis
one of his own literary creations, Edwards is following the approved
method of Elizabethan commentary. Edmund Spenser is the most notable
exponent of this art, paying tribute in like manner to practically all
of his known patrons, friends and fellow-poets throughout the pages
of The Shepheard's Calendar, The Fairie Queene and Colin Clout's
Come Home Again. Unless full consideration is given to the validity
of this style of personal address, a very large proportion of Elizabethan
poetry loses its meaning. The same thing holds true in regard to considerable
personal correspondence, not to mention sermons, legal addresses, and
state papers. The alleged "cryptograms" and unworkable "cyphers"
of the nineteenth century Baconians are something else again, and not
to be confused with the genuine metaphorical and allegorical writings
of Spenser and his contemporaries.
Every one of the 16th and earlier 17th century commentaries on Shakespeare
are of this approved pattern. Where the poet's personality is described,
the metaphors apply to a man of high social caste or one who is condescending
from such a caste to write poetry and plays for the populace. But significantly
enough, none of these commentaries printed during the lifetimes of either
Lord Oxford or William of Stratford applies in any particular to the
humble beginnings or well-recorded provincial background of Shakspere.
Regarding the present commentary, Edwards' pen-picture of the aristocratic
Bard whose purple robes have been distained is actually
too realistic. This circumstance undoubtedly explains the unique rarity
of Narcissus. It is apparent that those interested in eliminating
so keen a commentary upon the Lord Chamberlain of England's career as
a popular poet and playwright may very well have bought up and destroyed
all obtainable copies of the Narcissus.
This could have taken place when Oxford's son-in-law, the Earl of Montgomery,
joined with other highly-placed members of the Vere family in hiring
Ben Jonson to collect and "introduce" the First Folio collection
of the plays in 1623.
The parallel (and mutually explainable) "loss" of Oxford's
unnamed plays, together with the total disappearance of every last line
of the hundreds of thousands of lines of "Shakespearean" manuscript
that had once existed, evidently occurred about the same time.
A few years previous to 1623, the London-made monument to Oxford's
pen-name, dated to make it appear a mural memorial to one of the Lord
Chamberlain's theatrical handymen who had lived and died at Stratford-on-Avon,
was hung (without record) in the local church. It was obviously meant
to confuse any genealogist hardy enough to journey into the hinterlands.
Moreover, such a Comedy of Errors subterfuge to protect the social
prestige of the great Earldom of Oxford was again all of a piece with
the Elizabethan Lord Chamberlain's reputation for comedy, i.e., irony.
For no scrap of credible evidence has ever been discovered to prove
that the Lord Chamberlain's handyman (horse-groom or dummy director)
was personally capable of writing anything, more than his own name.
Even that seems to have been composed with laborious difficulty and
marked uncertainty as to its spelling.