...droll but generally unreliable...

From: Terry Ross (4/13/96)
To: frontline@PBS.ORG
Re: Errors in your "Shakespeare Mystery" program

I have been told that Frontline is to rebroadcast "The Shakespeare Mystery" April 23. I recently submitted evidence of errors in that show in two posts to the newsgroup "humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare" and readers of that group have suggested I send you that evidence. Here it is:

One seeming problem with the Oxfordian story is that his name was never attached to any of the works of Shakespeare. Oxfordians reply that he was a nobleman, and they cite the 1589 work "The Arte of English Poesie" (generally and herein attributed to George Puttenham):
"I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it agayne, or els sufred it to be publisht without their own names to it, of which number the first is that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford."

This is the way Puttenham is usually cited by Oxfordians, and the passage even appears this way in the sometimes droll but generally unreliable Frontline show, "The Shakespeare Mystery." The problem with it is that it's a fake. Anybody who doubts this should watch a tape of the show. As the narrator reads the words of Puttenham, a page of his book is shown on the screen. Alas, the name "Oxford" does not appear on that page (if you have the show on tape, freeze the picture on the page from Puttenham). The first part of the quotation is taken from chapter 8 of the first book of "The Arte of English Poesie"; here it is in context:

"Now also of such among the nobilitie or gentrie as be very well seen in many laudable sciences, and especially in making or Poesie, it is so come to passe that they have no courage to write and if they have, yet are they loath to be knowen of their skill. So as I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it agayne, or els sufred it to be published without their own names to it, as it were a discredit for a gentleman, to seeme learned, and to show himselfe amorous of any good Art."

Puttenham's point here is not that it was dangerous for a courtier to be a scientist or a poet, but that it was, as we might say today, uncool to be a nerd. By the way, Oxford's name does not occur in this passage, nor is it to be found anywhere in chapter 8.

The second part of the passage occurs in chapter 31 of the first book of "The Arte of English Poesie"; here it is in context:

"And in her Majesties [i.e., Queen Elizabeth's] time that now is are sprong up another crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesties owne servauntes, who have written excellently well as it would appeare if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford. Thomas Lord of Bukhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Walter Rawleigh, Master Edward Dyar, Maister Fulke Grevell, Gascon, Britton, Turberville and a great many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envie, but to avoyde tediousnesse, and who have deserved no little commendation."

The falsified sentence that Oxfordians have created from different chapters of Puttenham is meant to persuade us that Puttenham knew that Oxford had secretly written great literature but had had it published under another name. If Oxfordians would actually read Puttenham, they would see that he says something very different. Oxford's name and verse are known to Puttenham, and he is first on the list of "the rest"--that is, of those who poetry is published under their own names. That Oxford is first on the list does not even mean that Puttenham thought his verse was the finest among "the rest"; he names poets in order of social rank.

Puttenham does refer to one poet who did publish under an assumed name: "that other Gentleman who wrote the late shepheardes Callender" (Edmund Spenser published the work under the name "Immerito"). So far as I know, Oxfordians do not claim that their man was Spenser as well as Shakespeare, but perhaps I haven't looked in the right places.

There are two other references to Oxford in "The Arte of English Poesie", and it's only fair to be as complete as I can here. At the end of Book 1, Chapter 31, Puttenham mentions playwrights:

"That for Tragedie, the Lord of Buckhurst, and Maister Edward Ferrys for such doings as I have sene of theirs to deserve the hyest price: Th' Earle of Oxford and Maister Edwardes of her Majesties Chappell for Comedy and Enterlude."

Of the works of these dramatists, I believe the only one that has survived is Richard Edwards's "Damon and Pithias," a work with which I am not familiar. Edwards also wrote a two-part "Palamon and Arcite," which has not survived (unless Oxfordians wish to identify it with Shakespeare's "Two Noble Kinsmen").

The third and final reference to Oxford comes in Book 3, Chapter 19, in a discussion of the rhetorical figure "antiphora" or "response" (in which a poet asks and answers a series of questions). Puttenham quotes some charming lines from Oxford:

"Edward Earle of Oxford a most noble and learned Gentleman made in this figure of responce an emble of desire otherwise called "Cupide" which from his excellencie and wit, I set down some part of the verses, for example.

When wert thou borne desire?
In pompe and prime of May,
By whom sweete boy wert thou begot?
By good conceit men say,
Tell me who was thy nurse?
Fresh youth in sugred joy.
What was thy meate and dayly food?
Sad sighes with great annoy.
What hadst thou then to drinke?
Unfayned lovers tears.
What cradle wert thou rocked in?
In hope devoyd of feares."

And that's all Puttenham has to say about Oxford. Oxford wrote poems and comedies under his own name which were known to Puttenham. Puttenham does not suggest that Oxford ever published anything under a pseudonym, nor does he suggest that Oxford held back other verse or comedies that he was afraid to publish. Puttenham praises Oxford, but then he praises almost everybody. He refers to Chaucer, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Raleigh, and Dyer more often than he refers to Oxford (he refers to Gascoigne and Vaux just as often).
From: Terry Ross



FRONTLINE's Response:

Your criticism derives from an apparent misinterpretation of the three words--with the rest. You are saying these words are referring to the list of "learned Gentlemen" which immediately follows these three words. Whereas, we believe the words with the rest means "the rest" [of those who are publicly acknowledged poets/writers].

And therefore, we do not believe the compression of the two excerpts cited changes the meaning of what was written in Puttenham's (actually Sir John Lumley's) "Arte of English Poesie." Both say the same thing: there are noblemen writing good works who don't dare put their names to it.

Here are the two excerpts, with the words used in the FRONTLINE documentary in italics:

"....and many notable gentlemen in the Court have written commendably, and suppresssed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it...."

"and in her majesty's time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtley makers, Noblemen and gentlemen of Her Majesty's own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford."

FRONTLINE considered using both excerpts but didn't because they are redundant. To have included both would, if anything, have strengthened the evidence that Lumley thought DeVere's name as poet and author was being suppressed.


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