One honest manmistake me notbut 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
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
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
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
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 pencenot
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.
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 playhowever 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 autobiographicalmuch
autobiographical ever to have been publicly acknowledged by the actual
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,
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 1632twenty-six
years after his deathwere 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.
Butwait 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 Kydinactive for some time before his
death, being under ban of suspected heresywas 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
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
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."
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