John Lyly as Both Oxford's and Shakespeare's
"Honest Steward"

Copyright 1948 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Autumn 1948.


                    I do proclaim
One honest man—mistake me not—but one;
No more, I pray,—and he's a steward . . .
Methinks thou art more honest now than wise;
For by oppressing and betraying me,
Thou mightst have sooner got another service:
For many so arrive at second masters,
Upon their first lord's neck.
                               Timon of Athens
, IV. 3. 500.

WHILE THE EARL OF OXFORD was convalescing from the effects of his duel with Anne Vavasor's uncle in the spring of 1582, suspicion seems to have been raised in his mind regarding the personal loyalty of his secretary-steward, John Lyly. Very likely rumors had been started by the Earl's enemies to cause dissension in his household. On the other hand, evidence indicating Oxford's constitutional lack of good judgment in all matters relating to the protection of his own material interests is so voluminous that it becomes apparent no secretary or steward could handle his affairs without getting into hot water sooner or later. In this instance it seems that Lyly had been blamed for the deplorable condition of the Earl's accounts.

The situation can be gathered from a letter in John Lyly's hand, addressed to Lord Burghley and endorsed "July 1582" by one of Burghley's secretaries. 1

It is evident from Lyly's correspondence with the Lord Treasurer during the 1570's that Burghley had originally recommended the author of Euphues to Oxford for employment. Due to this circumstance, it would be quite natural for Lyly to seek Burghley's advice in trying to straighten out a serious misunderstanding with his temperamental master. In partially modernized spelling, the letter reads as follows:

To ye right honorable, ye L. Burleigh, L. high Tresorer of England.

My dutie (right honorable) in most humble manner remembered.

It hath pleased my Lord (Oxford) upon what color I cannot tell, certain I am upon no cause, to be displeased with me, the grief whereof is more than the loss can be. But seeing I am to live in the world, for that an honest servant must be such as Caesar would have his wife, not only free from sin, but from suspicion. And for that I wish nothing more than to commit all my ways to your wisdom, and the devises of others to your judgment, I here yield both my self and my soul, the one to be tried by your honor, the other by the justice of god. And I doubt not by my dealings being sifted, the world shall find white meal, where others thought to shew coarse bran. It may be many things will be objected (to), but that any thing can be proved I doubt; I know your L(ordship) will soon smell devises from simplicity, truth from treachery, factions from just service. And god is my witness, before whom I speak, and before whom for my speech I shall answer, that all my thoughts concerning my L(ord Oxford) have been ever reverent, and almost religious. How I have dealt god knoweth and my Lady (of Oxford) can conjecture, so faithfully as I am as unspotted for dishonesty, as a suckling from theft. This conscience of mine maketh me presume to stand all trials, either of accounts, or counsell, in the one I never used falsehood, nor in the other dissembling. My most humble suit therefore unto your L(ordship) is that my accusations 2 be not smothered and I choked in the smoke, but that they may be tried in the fire and I will stand to the heat. And my only comfort is, that he that is wise shall judge truth, whose nakedness shall manifest her nobleness. But I will not trouble your honorable ears with so many idle words only this upon my knees I ask, that your L(ordship) will vouchsafe to talk with me, and in all things will I shew my self so honest, that my disgrace shall bring to your L(ordship) as great marvel, as it hath done to me grief, and so thoroughly will I satisfy every objection, that your L(ordship) shall think me faithful, though unfortunate. That your honnor rest p'suaded of mine honest mind, and my Lady (of Oxford) of my true service, that all things may be tried to the uttermost, is my desire, and the only reward I crave for my just, (ay just I dare term it) service. And thus in all humility submitting my Cause to your wisdom and my Conscience to the trial. I commit your L(ordship) to the Almightie.

Yor most dutifullie to command
Ihon Lyly

for that I am for some days going into the country if your L(ordship) be not at leisure to admit me to your speech, at my return I will give my most dutiful attendance, at which time, it may be my honesty may join with your L(ordship's) wisdom and both prevent, that neither would allow. In the mean season what color soever be alleged, if I be not honest to my L(ord Oxford) and so mean to be during his pleasure, I desire but your L(ordship's) secret opinion, for as I know my L(ord Oxford) to be most honorable, so I beseech god in time he be not abused. Loth I am to be a prophet, and to be a witch I loath.

Most dutiful to command
Ihon Lyly

Whether or not the Lord Treasurer adjudicated these differences between his playwright son-in-law and the latter's playwright secretary we do not know. Lyly declares his eagerness "to stand all trials, either of accounts or counsell;" is sure that an audit of his "dealings" will convince "my Lady (of Oxford) of my true service" and goes on to "beseech god in time he (Oxford) be not abused." These statements might indicate that Lyly had opposed some one of the Earl's extravagant schemes for raising ready money, which may have seemed speciously alluring to Lady Oxford at the time. Moreover, the reference to "counsell" suggests that Lyly had very likely aroused the Earl's resentment by speaking his mind too plainly.

But the misunderstandings between the two men were evidently only temporary affairs, for we know that Lyly continued for many more years in Oxford's service, either as his secretary or as stage manager of the company of boy actors who appeared at the Blackfriars Theatre and at Court under the Earl's patronage.

The fact that Oxford's secretary was able to clear himself of all imputations of disloyalty to his master's interests is further witnessed by a grant of land which Lord Oxford made to Lyly in 1584. The annual income from this property is listed at 30 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence—not an insignificant sum when we consider that the purchasing power of Elizabethan money is estimated at ten to twelve times its modern equivalent. The conveyance, made out in Lyly's name, states that it has been drawn "in consideration of the good and faithful service that the said John Lyly hath heretofore done unto the said Earl." 3 During the same year of 1584, Oxford also turned over to Lyly the lease of the Blackfriars Theatre.

Throughout the period of which we are writing the Earl's financial situation was becoming more precarious as importunate creditors forced him to divest himself of control over his ancient estates. The crisis finally came in 1586, when his acceptance of a pension from the Crown was virtually an admission of bankruptcy.

In view of these subsequent events, let us look again at John Lyly's letter of July, 1582, with its insistence upon his "faithful" and "just" service to his spendthrift Lord who has evidently resented the secretary-steward's conservatism in the matter of "accounts" and Lyly's "counsell," given "without dissembling."

Once more we find a series of circumstances of vital import in the private life of Edward de Vere, the playwriting Earl of Oxford, reproduced with amazing fidelity in a work of "William Shakespeare's." We have only to turn to Timon of Athens, that strange study of misanthropy growing out of thoughtless generosity and extravagance, to discover the Bard's painfully intense preoccupation with the same emotional reactions that must have given Lord Oxford food for reflection following his financial break-up. In Timon, significantly enough, is to be found a dramatized version of Oxford's differences with his honest and plain speaking servant, Lyly, who can be identified immediately as Timon's steward, Flavius.

Act Two, Scene Two, of the play finds Flavius bringing the matter of unpaid accounts to his master's attention, after an unpleasant session with Timon's creditors:

You make me marvel; wherefore, ere this time,
Had you not fully laid my state before me,
That I might so have rated my expense
As I had leave of means?

You would not hear me,
At many leisures I proposed.

Go to:
Perchance some single vantages you took,
When my indisposition put you back;
And that unaptness made your minister
Thus to excuse yourself.

O my good lord,
At many times I brought in my accounts,
Laid them before you; you would throw them off,
And say, you found them in mine honesty.
When for some trifling present you have bid me
Return so much, I have shook my head and wept;
Yea, 'gainst the authority of manners pray'd you
To hold your hand more close: I did endure
Not seldom nor no slight checks, when I have
Prompted you in the ebb of your estate
And your great flow of debts. My loved lord,
Though you hear now, too late!—yet now's a time—
The greatest of your having lacks a half
To pay your present debts.

Let all my land be sold. 4

'Tis all engaged, some forfeited and gone,
And what remains will hardly stop the mouth
Of present dues: the future comes apace:
What shall defend the interim? and at length
How goes our reckoning?

To Lacedaemon did my land extend.

O my good Lord, the world is but a word:
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!

You tell me true, Flavius
If you suspect my husbandry or falsehood,
Call me before the exactest auditors,
And set me on the proof. So the gods bless me,
When all our offices have been oppress'd
With riotous feeders, when our vaults have wept
With drunken spilth of wine, when every room
Hath blazed with lights and bray'd with minstrelsy,
I have retired me to a wakeful couch,
And set mine eyes at flow.

* * * * *
Come, sermon me no further;
No villanous bounty yet hath pass'd my heart;
Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.
Why dost thou weep? Canst thou the conscience lack,
To think I shall lack friends?

* * * * *
Assurance bless your thoughts!

Who can read these passages without sensing a realistic presentation of Oxford as Timon and of Lyly in the role of the honest and outspoken steward, blamed for circumstances over which he has no control?

Not only is the general situation between master and servant, as outlined by Lyly in his letter to the Lord Treasurer, the same as that presented in the play; but under pressure of identical emotional stress, the reactions of John Lyly are echoed in the words of Flavius.

This conscience of mine maketh me presume to stand all trials, either of accounts, or counsell, in the one I never used falsehood, nor in the other dissembling ... that all things may be tried to the uttermost is my desire . . . . Lyly.

If you suspect my husbandry or falsehood,
Call me before the exactest auditors,
And set me on the proof.—Flavius.

In fact, throughout the play, the attitude of candid but reverent loyalty which the steward expresses toward Timon, despite undeserved rebuffs and suspicions, as the master plunges headlong down the primrose path to ruin, is so similar to Lyly's attitude toward Oxford under like circumstances that it seems plain the characterization of Flavius may have been designed as a tribute to the literary Earl's famous retainer.

One honest man, (proclaims Timon) but one;
No more, I say,—and he's a steward.

* * * * *
That which I show, Heaven knows, is merely love,
Duty and zeal to your unmatched mind.

It is a notable fact that no record exists of any production of Timon of Athens during the Shakespearean Age. Neither was the play printed before its appearance in the First Folio. The almost unrelieved pessimism of the work, its all too realistic resentment of the degeneration of a noble mind, given over to thoughtless pleasure and beset by parasites and calculating time-servers, has worried so many Shakespearean editors that several of them have concluded that this very unpleasant play must be non-Shakespearean. Yet this cannot be, for Timon contains ample measure of the Bard's characteristic effects. The fact that its terrific cynicism cannot be made to coincide with the artificially-tailored legend of the optimistic and thrifty citizen of Stratford-on-Avon, "warbling his native wood-notes wild," should not militate against the authenticity of the play—however much it militates against the authenticity of Willm Shakspere as its author.

Dr. Henry N. Hudson gives us the logical line of reasoning to follow in his introduction to the Era Edition of Timon when he refers the writing of the play "to a time when, for some unknown cause, the Poet's mind seems to have dwelt, with a melancholy, self-brooding earnestness, among the darker issues of human life and passion. . . For the subject is certainly ill-adapted to dramatic uses. And this lack of anything in the matter that should have determined the Poet's choice to it may well lead us to suspect that the determining cause lay in himself." 5

Shrewdly observed! And the only appropriate comment seems to be that the voluminous documentation of the playwriting Earl of Oxford's private life is explicit in informing us that he experienced the same alterations in fortune, due to many of the same causes, that brought Lord Timon low. No known Elizabethan dramatist could say with more feeling than Edward de Vere, after he had lost control of the vast properties that had once been his:

Now Lord Timon's happy hours are done and past, and his estate shrinks from him.

Again we find that "Shakespeare's" work is basically autobiographical—much too realistically
autobiographical ever to have been publicly acknowledged by the actual creator.

John Lyly's expression, in the letter to Burghley, of his personal feeling toward the strange, temperamental genius who employed him, bears repetition at this point.

. . . all my thoughts concerning my L(ord of Oxford) have been ever reverent, and almost religious.

Bearing in mind that this is one literary man speaking of another, these words clearly prefigure a general attitude assumed by other writers of the period toward the man who was Shakespeare to call forth Ben Jonson's oft-quoted remark in the next generation:

. . . I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. 6

Capt. B. M. Ward 7 gives many excellent and logical reasons for his belief that the playwriting nobleman whose own talents as a writer of stage comedy are on record, 8 was an active collaborator with his long-time "servant," John Lyly, in the writing of the Court comedies upon which Lyly's fame as a dramatist rests. While these arguments are convincing and gain in weight as our knowledge of Lord Oxford's character and activities increases, they are too extensive to be repeated here. To those who wish to pursue the subject, it should be significant enough to point out that all six of the comedies that were finally published under Lyly's name in 1632—twenty-six years after his death—were originally printed in Elizabethan days without attribution of authorship. And this despite the fact that John Lyly had signed both of his immensely popular Euphues allegories which had set a new style in light literature. As one of the most talked-of writers of his era, his name would have been of recognized value on any publication. Yet it was conspicuously omitted from these early quarto editions of the comedies. Moreover, none of the songs, such as "Cupid and Campaspe" and the "Song of the Fairies" from Endymion, which are now considered among the outstanding features of the plays, were included in any printings of these comedies until Edward Blount brought out his collected edition bearing Lyly's name in 1632. (Blount, incidentally, was one of the men most actively concerned in the printing of "Mr. William Shakespeare's" First Folio.) These facts argue that Lyly could not claim full credit as author of the Court comedies during his own or Lord Oxford's lifetime, although it would have been to his advantage as a professional writer to have done so. Furthermore, when Gabriel Harvey in his Pierce's Supererogation (1593), tells of his early acquaintance with Lyly at the Savoy Palace, where the playwright was serving as Oxford's secretary, and had also written his popular novels, the pundit broadly intimates that Lyly was really a mask for more productive brains. Certain it is that Harvey is referring to some form of literary creation, and not to experiments in poultry culture, in stating that "young Euphues hatched the eggs that his elder friends laid, would God Lilly had always been Euphues . . ."

What, indeed, would be more natural than that Oxford with his outstanding talents as poet and comedian, musician and tilt-yard showman, should take an active hand with his secretary-stage manager in composing comedies primarily designed for Court audiences? It is also the most logical explanation of the well authenticated creative links connecting the comedies now known as "Lyly's" and those now known as "Shakespeare's." The names of these two pioneers in the difficult art of high Elizabethan comedy have been indissolubly linked in the minds of drama students since 1871, at least, when W. L. Rushton published his convincing analysis of Shakespeare's Euphuism. Professor Warwick Bond, Sir Sidney Lee and others have amplified Rushton's evidence. But Ben Jonson's conjunction of the two dramatists is most interesting of all.

Jonson's testimony appears in his poetic address "To the Memory of my Beloved, the author," in the 1623 First Folio. Herein he explicitly states that Shakespeare was the outstanding luminary among the 1580-92 group of Elizabethan playwrights to which Lyly indisputably belongs. Says Jonson of the author of the First Folio:

For if I thought my judgment were of years,
   I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell, how far thou didst our Lily out-shine,
   Or sporting Kid, 9 or Marlowe's mighty line.

In other words, from a strictly chronological viewpoint, and in direct comparison with his creative compeers, Shakespeare's radiance is unrivalled.

But—wait a moment. Jonson is giving us a very important piece of testimony in these lines. Authorities agree that all of Lyly's Court comedies were produced before 1590. Moreover, Marlowe was murdered June first, 1593, while Thomas Kyd—inactive for some time before his death, being under ban of suspected heresy—was buried in 1594. The best work of all three dramatists can be assigned to the 1580's. So, if Jonson's Shakespeare is to be committed surely with these playwrights chronologically, it is immediately apparent that he is not the citizen of Stratford-on-Avon (born 1564).

Why not? Because approved Stratfordian conjecture assures us that the elusive William considered Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe his "masters," cribbed from all three freely, and had just begun to create plays of his own when Marlowe and Kyd made their exit. The Stratfordian dramatic chronology covers the period between 1594 and 1612. It must of necessity meet the exigencies of William of Stratford's lifespan.

But here we find that Ben Jonson notably disagrees with Stratfordian authority.

It is too bad for the Stratfordian and Baconian myth-makers that Jonson took this occasion to be so devastatingly explicit in his 1623 lines to the Elizabethan Starre of Poets. Moreover, his factual realism is corroborated by the conclusions to be drawn from the scientifically-based studies of the piratically garbled versions of the Shakespeare plays which began to flood the bookstalls, about 1591. These studies prove that the original masterpieces thus stolen actually go back to the productive heydey of Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe. This revolutionary circumstance cannot be emphasized too strongly. Ben Jonson provides the contemporary testimony which verifies the bibliographical and textual labors of Greg, Rhodes, Sykes, Alexander, Cairncross and Hart. The best First Folio authority and the keenest and most scientifically honest modern brains that have been applied to the problem of the Shakespearean creative chronology are thus at one. The overwhelming bulk of the great plays were composed at periods earlier than the most liberal Stratford canon may tolerate.

By the same token, the whole Stratfordian creative scaffolding, ingeniously erected on the Great Perhaps, comes tumbling down!

The real Shakespeare's finest plays, according to Jonson's reckoning, had been written, produced and approved by the judicious in direct comparison with the best that Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe could offer. And the era, we repeat, was prior to 1592.

As a matter of fact, it seems unquestionable that Jonson had means of knowing the actual Shakespearean creative chronology better than any modern writer who has labored the problem. Ben was also a shrewd and fearless critic of his contemporaries. In composing his considered opinion of the genius behind the First Folio, he had some thirty years' experience in the field of literature and the drama to guide him. He knew all the great writers of his day as well as any man in England could have known them. It is impossible to doubt his ability to rate their comparative abilities, decade by decade.

Viewing them in retrospect, then, if the supposititious Stratfordian creative chronology were the correct one, it would be absurd for Jonson to overlook the great figures of the 1594-1612 period for comparative purposes in favor of the then antiquated Lyly and a journeyman hack such as Thomas Kyd's signed offerings prove him to have been. On the horizon of critical memory much more worthy peers of a 1594-1612 Shakespeare are apparent in Beaumont and Fletcher. Jonson's refusal to include either dramatist within the scope of his comparative judgment of years thus tends to strengthen and reaffirm the realistic force of his testimony.


1. Reproduced from the Lansdowne MSS. in The Complete Works of John Lyly by R. Warwick Bond, Vol. 1, pps. 28-29. back

2. I.e., the accusations against Lyly. back

3. See Feuillerat's John Lyly, p. 536. back

4. See Ward, p. 110. Oxford's letter to Burghley from Siena, Jan. 3rd, 1576, urging Burghley "to sell any portion of my land" or "more of my land where your Lordship shall think fittest, to disburden me of my debts." One of several such expressions. back

5. My italics. CWB back

6. Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries: "De Shakespeare nostrat." back

7. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, pps. 274-79. back

8. Meres, Palladis Tamia (1598). back

9. Note that in characterizing Kyd as sporting, Jonson indicates a writer of comedy, rather than a tragic playwright, as others rate Kyd. back

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