WHEN Will Shaksper was nine years old and presumably creeping like
snail to Stratford Grammar School, a book was "imprinted at London
in Fleete streate," described on its titles pages as: "Cardanus
Comforte translated into English and published by commaundement
of the right honourable the Earle of Oxenford. Anno Domini 1573."
Three years later a second edition appeared, with the words, "translated
by commaundement of the right Honourable the Earle of Oxenforde. Newly
perused and augmented. Anno Domini 1576." The original was written
in Latin by a contemporary Italian mathematician, physician and astrologer,
Girolamo Cardano (or Jerome Cardan), and first published, under the
title De Consolatione, in 1542. The English translation is now
very rare, but there are copies of both editions in the British Museum,
and many years ago I was privileged to see one in the Osler Library
of McGill University, Montreal, which still contained a bookseller's
ticket, pricing it at £163, as a Shakespearean item of great interest,
because it was Hamlet's book!
The translator's name does not appear on the title-page of either edition,
but by way of dedication, there is a letter, signed Thomas Bedingfield
and addressed "To the Right Honourable and my good Lord the Earle
or Oxenforde, Lord Great Chamberlain of England."
"My good Lord, I can give nothing more agreeable to your mind
and fortune than the willing performance of such service as it shall
please you to command me unto. And therefore rather to obey than to
boast of my cunning, and as a new sign of mine old devotion, I do
present the book your Lordship so long desired. With assured hope
that howsoever you mislike or allow thereof, you will favourably conceal
mine imperfections, which to your Lordship alone I dare discover,
because most faithfully I honour and love you. My long discontinuance
in study, or rather lack of grounded knowledge did many times discourage
me, yet the pleasure I took in the matter did countervail all dispair,
and the rather by encouragement of your Lordship, who (as you well
remember) unwares to me found some part of this work and willed me
in any wise to proceed therein. My meaning was not to have imparted
my travail to any, but your Lordship hath power to countermand mine
intention. Yet I most humbly beseech you either not to make any partakers
thereof, or at the leastwise those who for reverence to your Lordship
or love to me, will willingly bear with mine errors ... Sure I am,
it would have better beseemed me to have taken this travail in some
discourse of arms (being your Lordship's chief profession and mine
also) than in philosopher's skill to have thus busied myself: yet
sith your pleasure was such, and your knowledge in either great, I
do (as I will ever) most willingly obey you. And if any either through
skill or curiosity do find fault with me, I trust notwithstanding
for the respects aforesaid to be holden excused. From my lodging this
first of January 1571.
Your Lordship's always to command,
This is followed by a letter from Oxford to Bedingfield and verses
to the Reader, also by Oxford. Then comes another letter and another
poem, both addressed to the Reader, by Thomas Churchyard. In his letter
"The translator thereof (as many others the more the pity do the
like) sent the copy to a nobleman to be read and lapt up in silence,"
but the nobleman "showed me the book, and the translator's desire
(always eager to pleasure good people as I conjectured by his countenance)
and I who found mine own infirmities finely healed (or favourably handled
by this good hap) persuaded as I durst the publication, or this precious
present, hoping that some as sick as myself shall be cured or eased
by this good Counsel."
And so, in due course, the book was published, by commandment of the
Earl of Oxford, but surely not as some have conjectured, without Bedingfield's
knowledge and concurrence. Oxford's letter is undated, perhaps because
it was revised for publication, but it may well have been based on an
earlier, private letter, in answer to Bedingfield's. Like any other
Foreword, it is primarily a valuable recommendation of the book, but
it is also an "apology," in the old sense of the word which
did not involve repentance.
It was reprinted with Oxford's Poems, by A. B. Grosart in 1872,
and by J. Thomas Looney in 1921. Since then, it has appeared, as a whole
or in part, in several Oxfordian books, including B. M. Ward's
biography, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1928), but it has
been largely, if not entirely, ignored by Orthodox Shakespeare scholars.
Yet the book in which it made its first appearance was "Hamlet's
book," and it has even been suggested that it was the book Hamlet
was reading when interrupted by Polonius (Act 2, Scene 2). Many parallels
have been pointed out, and the conclusion is that Shakespeare must
have read it, but it has been left to the Oxfordians to discover Shakespearean
parallels in Oxford's prefatory letter. Those adduced so far have mostly
referred to the plays, but I shall here confine myself to the
Sonnets, where the inter-relation of whole groups of word, image
and idea is all the more impressive for being concentrated in a small
space. There is also an underlying similarity of theme, for Oxford
seeks to immortalize Bedingfield; not indeed, by persuading him to marry
and beget an heir, nor merely by singing his praises, but by publishing
his own book. It will be best to print the letter in full, once more,
with pauses for comment and quotation from the Sonnets.
"TO MY LOVING FRIEND THOMAS BEDINGFIELD ESQUIRE,
ONE OF HER MAJESTY'S GENTLEMEN PENSIONERS."
After I had perused your letters, good master Bedingfield, finding
in them your request far differing from the desert of your labour,
I could not choose but greatly doubt, whether it were better for me
to yield to your desire, or execute mine own intention towards the
publishing of your book. For I do confess the affections that I have
always borne towards you could move me not a little. But when I had
thoroughly considered in my mind, of sundry and diverse arguments,
whether it were best to obey mine affections, or the merits of your
studies: at the length I determined it were better to deny your unlawful
request, than to grant or condescend to the concealment of so worthy
a work. Whereby as you have been profited in the translating, so many
may reap knowledge by the reading of the same, that shall comfort
the afflicted, confirm the doubtful, encourage the coward, and lift
up the base-minded mail to achieve to any true sum or grade of virtue,
whereto ought only the noble thoughts of men to be inclined.
And because next to the sacred letters of divinity, nothing doth
persuade the same more than philosophy, of which your book is plentifully
stored: I thought myself to commit an unpardonable error to have murdered
the same in the waste bottoms of my chests; and better I thought
it were to displease one than to displease many; further considering
so little a trifle cannot procure so great a breach or our amity,
as may not with it little persuasion of reason be repaired again.
And herein I am forced, like a good and politic captain, oftentimes
to spoil and burn the corn or his own country, lest his enemies thereof
do take advantage. For rather than so many of your countrymen should
be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies (whereof
you are bound in conscience to yield them all account) I am content
to make spoil and havock of your request, and that, that might have
wrought greatly in me in this former respect, utterly to be of no
effect or operation. And when you examine yourself, what doth avail
a mass of gold to be continually imprisoned in your bags, and
never to be employed to your use?"
Bearing in mind the earlier phrase, "to have murdered the
same in the waste bottom of my chests", I we may
compare this image with:
Look, what an unthrift in the world doth spend,
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murderous shame
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-bless'd,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Oxford then goes on to point the moral:
"I do not doubt even so you think of your studies and delightful
Muses. What do they avail if you do not participate them to others?"
Wherefore we have this Latin proverb: Scire tu nihil est, nisite
scire hoc sciat altar.
Reduced to an abstraction, the thought is not remarkable for its originality:
it is to be found in the New Testament and elsewhere. Nevertheless
this is the recurrent argument of Shakespeare's first seventeen sonnets,
where he tries to persuade his young friend to immortalize himself by
producing an heir. Oxford, not content with one image, proceeds to enlarge
upon his theme:
"What doth avail the tree unless it yield fruit to another?
What doth avail the vine unless another delighteth in the grape? What
doth avail the rose unless another took pleasure in the smell?
Why should this tree be accounted better than that tree but for the
goodness of his fruit? Why should this vine be better than that vine
unless it brought forth a better grape than the other? Why should
this rose be better esteemed than that rose, unless ill pleasantness
of smell it far surpassed the other rose?"
It is, of course, the rose which recalls the imagery of Shakespeare's
Sonnets, and this ill spite of the fact that it is it general
favourite. But here the rose is odd man out. Appropriately enough,
it is the fruit or the tree and of the vine that is stressed
as it symbol of achievement and immortality. With the rose it is its
smell. Oxford does not make it clear why this should be so, but
For never resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there
Sap check'd with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o'ersnow'd and bareness every where:
Then were not summer's distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was
But flowers distill'd though they with winter
Lose but their show; their substance
still lives sweet.
Oxford's letter continues
"And so it is in all other things as well as in man. Why should
this man be more esteemed than that man but for his virtue,
through which every man desireth to be accounted of? Then you amongst
men, I do not doubt but will aspire to follow that virtuous path,
to illuster yourself with the ornaments of virtue. And in mine
opinion as it beautifyeth a fair woman to be decked with pearls
and precious stones, so much more it ornifyeth a gentleman
to be furnished in mind with glittering virtues."
In the first Sonnet of all we find a curious blend of Oxford's words
From fairest creatures we demand increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die . . .
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament . . .
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
In No. 70 we have: "The ornament of beauty is suspect,"
but the great parallel of parallels, both with reference to Oxford's
Letter and the sonnets already quoted, is:
O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a die,
As the perfuméd tincture of the roses;
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly,
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses;
But for their virtue only is their show;
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so:
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.
So much for roses and the respective ornaments of beauty and virtue.
Our next image is more homely:
"Wherefore, considering the small harm I do to you, the great
good I do to others, I prefer mine own intention to discover your
volume, before your request to secret the same; wherein I may seem
to you to play the part or the cunning mediciner or physician,
who although his patient in the extremity of his burning fever
is desirous of cold liquor or drink to qualify his sore thirst, or
rather kill his languishing body: yet for the danger he doth
evidently know by his science to ensue, denyeth him the same. So you
being sick of so much doubt in Your own proceedings, through which
infirmity you are desirous to bury and insevill your work ill the
grave of oblivion: yet I knowing the discommodities that shall
redound to yourself thereby (and which is more unto your countrymen)
as one that is willing to salve so great an inconvenience, am nothing
dainty to deny your request."
Shakespeare uses the same image of fever and physician,
though differently applied:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me; and I desperate now approve,
Desire is death, which physic did except.
But Oxford will not allow Bedingfield to bury his work in the grave
of oblivion. His work, itself, is to be his monument! And here,
quotation from the Sonnets is superfluous.
"Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare
our affection more than by erecting them of tombs: whereby when they
be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their
monument; but with me behold it happeneth far better; for in your
lifetime I shall erect you such a monument, that as I say, in your
lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life, shall
hereafter remain when you are dead and gone. And in your lifetime,
again I say, I shall give you that monument and remembrance of your
life, whereby I may declare my good will, though with your ill will,
as yet I bear you in your life.
Thus earnestly desiring you in this one request of mine (as I would
yield to you in a great many) not to repugn the setting forth of your
own proper studies, I bid you farewell.
From my new country Muses of Wivenghole, wishing you as you have
begun, to proceed in these virtuous actions. For when all things shall
else forsake us, virtue will ever abide with us, and when our bodies
fall into the bowels of the earth, yet that shall mount with our minds
into the highest heavens.
From your loving and assured friend, E. Oxenford.
To conclude: If Will Shaksper of Stratford was indeed the author of
Hamlet and the Sonnets, he must have assimilated Oxford's
Letter to Bedingfield even more completely than Bedingfield's translation
of Cardan; but there is no evidence that he ever set eyes on the book.
Oxford, on the other hand, not only read Bedingfield's translation in
manuscript, but encouraged him to make it in the first place, insisted
on its publication, and wrote the Letter himself.
Personally, I have no doubt at all that Oxford was, or became,
"Shake-speare," but lest I be suspected of hinting, or should
lead anyone else to infer, that Thomas Bedingfield, despite his initials,
was the young man of the Sonnetswhich were obviously written
much laterlet me hasten to add that he was ten years older
than Oxford; who was twenty-three when the book was published.