Barksted and Shakespeare

by and

Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford died in 1604; William Shakespeare of Stratford died in 1616. These dates pose a problem for Oxfordians, because some of Shakespeare's plays were written after the death of Oxford, and thus he couldn't have written them. Oxfordians contest the traditional dates, but they also argue that there is evidence that the author who wrote under the name "William Shakespeare" died before the Shakespeare of Stratford. A key piece of Oxfordian "evidence" is William Barksted's 1607 poem Mirrha, the Mother of Adonis, in which Shakespeare is referred to in the past tense. Sobran and the other Oxfordians are making the simple but wrong assumption that anyone who referred to Shakespeare in the past tense must have thought that Shakespeare had already died. If it were true that Barksted had referred to Shakespeare as being dead in 1607, this might be a point for the Oxfordians, but it is false. Indeed, Barksted's Mirrha is evidence not that Shakespeare had died but that some of his work had achieved the status of a classic even while he was alive.

Before turning to Barksted's poem, however, it might be useful to sketch what is known of his life.

Barksted was a rather interesting figure among Elizabethan poets. Born about 1589, he was a boy actor with the Children of the King's Revels, and was only 18 when Mirrha, the Mother of Adonis was published with commendatory verses by Lewis Machin, who wrote plays for Barksted's company. Barksted was apparently a Shakespeare fan; his poetry is heavily influenced by Venus and Adonis, and Mirrha is the earliest known work to show the influence of Measure for Measure, which had been written around 1604 but was not to be published until 1623. At some point after 1608 he may have finished The Insatiate Countess, a play left unfinished by John Marston when Marston abruptly retired from the stage. In 1610, Barksted was arrested for being in a notorious bawdy house in Field Lane, but bond was posted by Robert Browne, a well-known actor who had toured Germany for many years but who was now a sharer in the Whitefriars theater, where Barksted acted. In 1611, Barksted published his second poem Hiren, the Fair Greek, and around this same time he joined Lady Elizabeth's Men as an adult actor. The next year, he was sued by Robert Keysar, the former manager of the Whitefriars, over some bonds Barksted had signed in 1609; Barksted claimed that the bonds were invalid because he was a minor when he signed them, while Keysar claimed that Barksted was over 21 at the time. Barksted is last heard of as an actor in 1616, and he disappears from the record after his 1617 arrest for abusing a constable. He was probably dead by 1638, when John Taylor referred to him as "Will Baxted, a late well known fine comedian." Taylor told a couple of anecdotes about Barksted that portray him as a sharp wit and something of a drinker.

Oxfordians have no particular interest in Barksted himself, but rather in a few lines in the last stanza of Mirrha, Mother of Adonis. Mirrha is a long poem, ostensibly about the title character but involving many other mythological figures, including Venus, Adonis, and Cupid. The poem may well seem confusing, especially since Barksted constantly switches tenses, and the original quarto lacks quotation marks or other means of indicating when different character are speaking. The mention of Shakespeare comes at the very end of the poem, in the last of about 120 stanzas, and Shakespeare is the first and only real person named in the poem. Here are the last four stanzas of the poem: ("she" here is Venus, who has accidentally been pricked by one of Cupid's arrows and is now madly in love with the "fair boy" Adonis, whose mother Mirrha had been turned into a tree):

Nor Paphos, Amathus nor fishie Gnide,
 delights she now to haunt, nor Etna now
Burnes more then her, she roans the wood so wide
 after her game, that to his game doth bow.
And will not heare or see, for eies and eares,
If they her heare or see, their use forbeares
 Yet she persues, and leaves her power uneven
on heaven & earth, she loves him more then heaven.

Oft would she say, and bathe those words in tears
 oh thou faire boy, wold God thou lovdst like me
but sure thou art not flesh, it well appeares,
 thou wert the stubborne issue of a tree,
So hart thou art, then she a sigh would set,
and with that Vulcan had not made his net,
 For boysterous Mars, shee'd fayner ha' bin sped
 with this choice floure, claspt in her yron bed.

Shee'd nere have blusht, then she does make a vow
 though al the Gods of both worlds had then seen
She raveth that she ever lov'd til now,
 that she might worthily ha bin loves Queene.
wel, wel (quoth she) thou hast reveng'd the spight
which from my accurst Sons bow did fowly light
 On thy faire Mother, O immortal boy,
 Though thou be faire, tis I that should be coy.

But stay my Muse in thine owne confines keepe,
 & wage not warre with so deere lov'd a neighbor
But having sung thy day song, rest & sleepe
 preserve thy small fame and his greater favor:
His song was worthie merrit (Shakspeare hee)
 sung the faire blossome, thou the withered tree
Laurell is due to him, his art and wit
hath purchast it, Cypres thy brow will fit.

Sobran quotes only the last four lines of the poem. He has two arguments. First, he thinks the use of the word "was" in the line
His song was worthie merrit (Shakspeare hee)
suggests that Shakespeare was dead in 1607 when Mirrha appeared. Note that there is no reference in Barksted to Shakespeare's actually having died; all that the use of the past tense here means is that Shakespeare had written impressively before Barksted, not that he was dead.

The Oxfordian reading of Barksted assumes that living poets were never spoken of in terms that might also apply to the dead, but this assumption is false. In fact, Shakespeare was apparently referred to as dead as early as 1598, six years before Oxford died (and eighteen years before Shakespeare himself died). Here is a passage from Richard Barnfield's poem "A Remembrance of Some English Poets," which appeared in his Poems in Divers Humours (1598):

And Shakespeare thou, whose hony-flowing Vaine,
(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth obtaine.
Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweete, and chaste)
Thy Name in fames immortall Booke haue plac't.
  Liue euer you, at least in Fame liue euer:
  Well may the Bodye dye, but Fame dies neuer.
Had this poem appeared ten years later, the Oxfordians would have brandished it triumphantly, and surely would have made it a centerpiece of their arguments. Not only does Barnfield seem to allude to Shakespeare's death, but he says "live ever" twice, parallel to the "ever-living" of the Sonnets dedication. But it was published in 1598, when both Oxford and Shakespeare were very much alive; the only antistratfordians who could make hay from this are the Marlovians (though Calvin Hoffman failed to do so in The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare). Of course, Barnfield never actually says that Shakespeare is dead; rather he indicates that some of Shakespeare's works (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece) have already achieved the status of classics. He does not say that Shakespeare's body has already died, but rather that although Shakespeare's body is mortal, some of his works have already won him immortal fame. Amazingly enough, Sobran quotes Barnfield's entire poem (p.215) but seems oblivious to its implications for his own interpretation of Barksted.

Let's do something Sobran didn't do, and look at references to another great poet of the age, Edmund Spenser, who was also sometimes spoken of in the past tense while he was alive. Thomas Nashe in his 1592 Strange News wrote,

Homer and Virgil, two valorous authors, yet were never knighted, they wrote in hexameter verses: ergo, Chaucer and Spenser, the Homer and Virgil of England, were far overseen that they wrote not all their poems in hexameter verses also.
To someone who reads like Sobran, this would be proof that Spenser was dead by 1592. Not only is he referred to in the past tense, he is lumped with other dead poets, and the phrase "all their poems" suggests that he is no more likely than the dead Chaucer to produce new works. Of course, Edmund Spenser lived until 1599 and wrote thousands of lines after 1592, but by Oxfordian reasoning, somebody else must have written The Faerie Queene because Nashe's use of the past tense tells us that the author "Spenser" had been dead years before the man "Spenser" died.

In his 1593 Pierces Superogation, Spenser's friend Gabriel Harvey also referred to the poet in the past tense:

Art did but springe in such, as Sir Iohn Cheeke, and M. Ascham: and witt budd in such, as Sir Phillip Sidney, and M. Spencer; which were but the violets of March, or the Promeroses of May.
Cheke died in 1557, Ascham in 1558, Sidney in 1586. By Sobran's reasoning, this must mean that Spenser himself was dead, yet he had six more years to live.

While he was yet alive, Spenser was also spoken of in the past tense in poetry. Here are lines from Thomas Edwards's 1595 Cephalis and Procris (Spenser had been know as Colin Clout since adapting that name in The Shepheardes Calender):

Collyn was a mighty swaine,
In his power all do flourish,
We are shepheards but in vaine,
 There is but one tooke the charge,
By his toile we do nourish,
 And by him are inlarg'd.

He unlockt Albions glorie,
He twas told of Sidneys honor,
Onely he of our stories,
 Must be sung in greatest pride,
In an Eglogue he hath wonne her,
 Fame and honor on his side.

Finally, Richard Barnfield, in the same 1598 poem in which he referred to the yet-living Shakespeare as immortal, did much the same for the yet-living Spenser:
Live Spenser ever, in thy Fairy Queene
Whose like (for deep Conceit) was never seene.
Crownd mayst thou be, unto thy more renowne,
(As King of Poets) with a Lawrell crowne.
In the same poem Barnfield similarly praised the still-living Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton.

Nashe, Harvey, and Edwards speak of Spenser in the past tense not because they thought he was dead, but because he had written works that were already recognized as classics. Countless poets and other writers paid homage to Spenser while he was alive, and many of them paid the high honor of imitation. Poets writing in the wake of Spenser's achievements often (justly) contrasted the feebleness of their own efforts with his matchless verse. We see a related phenomenon in Barksted's Mirrha.

For Barksted, the great living classic writer was Shakespeare. Barksted's Mirrha is a narrative poem that expands on an incident in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Barksted graciously nods to Shakespeare, whose Venus and Adonis was one of the most popular and influential poems in the genre of the Ovidian brief epic. Barksted's poem, in relating the tale of Adonis's mother, is a sort of pre-quel to Venus and Adonis. At the end of his poem Barksted begins to tell the story of Venus's love for Mirrha's son, but then breaks off, as if realizing that he is encroaching on Shakespeare's poem. It was Mirrha's fate to be turned into a tree (Barksted's poem tells of "the withered tree"); from the blood of the dying Adonis sprang a purple flower, the anemone (Shakespeare sang "the faire blossom"). Thus, Barksted's use of the past tense is not a sign that Shakespeare had died, but rather than Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis had already become a classic, a work to imitate and to be inspired by, but not a work that an ordinary poet like Barksted could hope to surpass, any more than Edwards could hope to outdo Spenser.

The second point Sobran makes is that "the cypress was a symbol of mourning; is this stanza a salute to a poet whom Barksted expects his readers to understand is deceased?" Sobran misreads Barksted, whose final stanza contrasts the low merits of his own muse (referred to in the second person) with the poetic greatness of Shakespeare (referred to in the third person). Here are the last six lines with added references [bracketed and in red] for the benefit of readers who may find Barksted confusing.

But having sung thy [Barksted's muse's] day song, rest & sleepe
 preserve thy [Barksted's muse's] small fame and his [Shakespeare's] greater favor:
His [Shakespeare's] song [Venus and Adonis] was worthie merrit (Shakspeare hee)
 sung the faire blossome, thou [Barksted's muse] the withered tree
Laurell is due to him [Shakespeare], his [Shakespeare's] art and wit
hath purchast it, Cypres thy [Barksted's muse's] brow will fit.
Sobran has simply misunderstood the lines: clearly it is the laurel (emblem of victory or poetic superiority) and not the cypress that Shakespeare is due here for his achievement in writing Venus and Adonis, just as Barnfield had awarded the laurel to Spenser in 1598. Of course, Sobran and other Oxfordians should be warned that Barksted's granting the cypress to his own muse should not be taken as evidence that Barksted himself was dead in 1607.

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