Shakespeare's Eulogies


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Eulogies for William Shakespeare, 1616-1640
  3. Other Playwrights vs. Shakespeare
  4. Other Nondramatic Poets, and the Question of Social Rank
  5. Other Not-so-Mysterious "Silences"
  6. Conclusion
  7. Notes
  8. Sources

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616, according to the inscription on his monument, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church two days later, according to the church register.[1] The reaction to Shakespeare's death -- or rather, the alleged lack of it -- has long been a prominent feature in antistratfordian arguments. Oxfordians claim that the death of William Shakespeare of Stratford went completely unnoticed in England, and they see this "fact" as evidence that he was not a famous playwright; after all, wouldn't the death of such a famous man as Shakespeare evoke an immediate torrent of praise? The Beginner's Guide on the Oxfordian web site says that "in an age of copious eulogies, none was forthcoming when William Shakspere [sic] died in Stratford," and goes on to note several further examples of alleged contemporary indifference to the Stratford man's demise.

As with other Oxfordian arguments, this one is based on a combination of factual distortion and ignorance of context. First of all, the claim that Shakespeare's death evoked no eulogies will be puzzling to any Shakespeare scholar -- of course there were eulogies for Shakespeare, the inscription on his monument and the famous poem by Ben Jonson being only the best known of many. What the Oxfordians apparently mean is that there were no eulogies printed for Shakespeare within a year or two of his death, a fact which they find suspicious. But there is nothing suspicious about this at all. Printed eulogies in Shakespeare's day were only for socially important people like nobility and church leaders; posthumous eulogies for poets circulated in manuscript, only reaching print years later, if at all. The seven years before the first printed eulogies to Shakespeare appeared in the First Folio is actually remarkably fast, unprecedented for an English playwright, and the number of tributes written to the Bard is more than for any of his contemporaries before Ben Jonson 20 years later.

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2. Eulogies for William Shakespeare, 1616-1640

As a point of reference, consider the eulogies we do have for Shakespeare from the 25-year period after his death, including references to his death in poems not entirely devoted to him (I have modernized spelling in the extracts given below). To sum up: four years after Shakespeare's death, he was included in a printed tribute to England's greatest deceased poets; sometime in the first seven years after his death, a monument was erected to him in Stratford, and another poem, widely circulated in manuscript, suggested that he should have been buried in Westminster Abbey; seven years after his death, a massive edition of his plays was published along with four eulogies, the longest and most affectionate of them written by England's poet laureate; around the same time (and possibly earlier) another manuscript eulogy was circulating; and over the next twenty years a dozen new eulogies appeared in print, including three in the second edition of his plays and three in an edition of his poems.

To anyone familar with seventeenth-century poetry, this is a very impressive group of tributes, virtually unmatched for any other contemporary poet or playwright. But, someone might object, these eulogies were spread out over decades; why wasn't there an immediate torrent of praise for the man we now recognize as the greatest writer in the English language? Such a question, while understandable from our twentieth-century perspective, reveals an ignorance of seventeenth-century practice. In Shakespeare's day only "important" people (e.g. noblemen, or at least knights) were eulogized immediately in print, and as hard as it may be for us to believe, playwrights were simply not considered important enough for such an honor. Many of them were clearly admired by their fellow playwrights and poets, but our evidence for this generally comes from many years after their deaths, and is in virtually every case much less than what we have for Shakespeare.

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3. Other Playwrights vs. Shakespeare

Consider the most prominent playwrights of Shakespeare's day, and compare the reactions to their deaths with the reaction to Shakespeare's. The only two English playwrights before Shakespeare whose deaths received any significant notice at all in the printed record were Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe, but in both cases this notice was primarily negative, and had nothing to do with their play writing activities. There are some interesting similarities between the two men: both were notorious figures (Greene for his hedonistic lifestyle among the dregs of London society, Marlowe for his homosexuality and heretical opinions) whose notoriety increased after their deaths, and both died relatively young (Greene at 34, Marlowe at 29) while under the threat of legal action (Greene was about to be sued for libel by Gabriel Harvey, while Marlowe was under suspicion by the Privy Council for alleged blasphemous writings). Because of their ill fame, both men also were mentioned in print numerous times in the few years after their deaths -- they died within nine months of each other -- but mostly in the context of attacks rather than eulogies. Greene and Marlowe were special cases because of their public notoriety, but their deaths received by far the most notice of any English playwright before Shakespeare, and for 20 years afterwards.

The playwright who finally broke the pattern, and who finally surpassed Shakespeare in the number of eulogies he received after his death, was Ben Jonson. As Oxfordians (e.g. Ogburn, 112) are fond of pointing out, Jonson was honored within a year of his death in 1637 by a volume of elegies (Jonsonus Viribus). But this volume did not appear in a vacuum; its existence was the result of a number of converging factors which had not been present when Shakespeare died 21 years earlier. For one thing, the professional theater had been steadily growing in respectability, and by the 1630s plays were almost considered literature by some people. Although Jonson was at least as well known for his nondramatic poetry and his court masques as for his plays, he had done the unheard-of by including his plays alongside his other poetry in the Folio edition of his 1616 Works. While this move was ridiculed at the time, in retrospect it was a major step in making plays more respectable as reading material, a process which was helped tremendously by the publication of the Shakespeare First Folio in 1623 and the Second Folio in 1632. Then, too, Jonson was a relentless self-promoter and flamboyant personality who cultivated a band of proteges (the "Tribe of Ben") to carry on his poetic legacy.

Even with all this going for him, though, the volume of tributes to Jonson nearly didn't come off. Doctor Brian Duppa, Dean of Christchurch, had been gathering manuscript elegies for Jonson, but Sir Kenelm Digby had to write Duppa to urge that the collection be printed, or else it would have followed previous custom and remained in manuscipt (Bradley and Adams, 201). The unprecedented publication of Jonsonus Viribus in 1638 seems to have made the idea of printed eulogies for playwright-poets respectable, and a small flurry of such tributes followed in its wake. As noted above, the next three years saw eight published poems honoring Shakespeare, at least three of which had actually been written years before; the first two printed tributes to Fletcher; and a number of other tributes in such collections as Wits Recreation.

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4. Other Nondramatic Poets, and the Question of Social Rank

As noted above, only people who were relatively prominent in the Elizabethan social hierarchy -- those who had at least been knighted or were prominent in the Church -- were generally honored with printed elegies soon after their death. Professional playwrights, including Shakespeare, were overwhelmingly middle class, and thus it is not surprising that none of them were so honored until Jonson's followers set a precedent in the late 1630s. When we look at nondramatic poets, matters are a little more complicated: since poetry was considered a respectable avocation for a gentleman of means, some poets were in fact prominent on the social scale, while others were middle class like Shakespeare. Comparing the two groups is instructive, and illustrates very well that social position, not poetic ability, was the primary factor in determining how the deaths of Elizabethan poets were memorialized.

First, consider Sir Philip Sidney and John Donne. Both of these men were outstanding and innovative poets, and both were honored with printed eulogies within a few years of their deaths. However, they also share a number of characteristics which differentiate them sharply from Shakespeare and his fellows. Neither was a professional poet; all of Sidney's poetry and the vast majority of Donne's circulated only in manuscript and was published posthumously; and the relatively little of Donne's poetry which did reach print during his lifetime was published anonymously. Most importantly of all, both men were high in the Elizabethan social order, and well-known for reasons having nothing to do with poetry; they would have undoubtedly been eulogized even if they had never written a line of verse.

Sidney and Donne are the best-known examples, but a couple of lesser poets of high social standing active during Shakespeare's lifetime were also eulogized in print: When we turn to poets who were not as high in the social order, though, a different picture emerges. In light of the major role of social position in determining the extent of posthumous eulogies, it's instructive to compare Shakespeare with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who Oxfordians believe was the "real" author of Shakespeare's plays. Oxford's death in 1604 really did go virtually unnoticed, even though he was the type of socially promenent person who could be eulogized in print. No poetic tributes to him were published in the years immediately after his death, or indeed during the entire seventeenth century, nor is there any record of any particular mourning outside of his immediate family. Oxford was occasionally mentioned in print over the next few decades, always with the requisite praise for one of his rank, but without any indication that he had been a great writer. (See Terry Ross's article on Oxford's Literary Reputation for more details.) The eulogy argument is an uncomfortable double-edged sword for Oxfordians; if there should have been more tributes upon William Shakespeare's death, as Oxfordians argue, then certainly we should expect some tributes upon the death of Oxford, whom they depict as a jewel of Elizabeth's court and the greatest writer in England. Yet such tributes were not forthcoming, perhaps because Oxford was remembered not as a great writer, but as a nobleman who had wasted his considerable promise and bankrupted his estate.

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5. Other Not-so-Mysterious "Silences"

In addition to the alleged lack of eulogies, Oxfordians point to other sources which they claim were mysteriously silent on Shakespeare's death in 1616. However, as with the eulogies, a little examination reveals that Oxfordians have badly distorted the facts and their context. The "Beginner's Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem" on the Oxfordian web page says that "William Camden in his book Remaines had praised the author 'Shakespeare', but in his Annales for the year 1616 Camden omits mention of the Stratford man's death. Also, in the list of Stratford Worthies of 1605 Camden omits the Stratford man's name, even though Camden had previously passed on Shakspere's application for a family coat of arms." These two sentences contain a number of major inaccuracies and distortions. Back to Table of Contents

6. Conclusion

If there is anything unusual about the reaction to William Shakespeare's death in the historical record, it is the relative abundance of tributes to him, and the speed which with they reached print. The poetic tributes in the First Folio were completely unprecedented for an English playwright, or for a non-noble poet; even Spenser, whose contemporary reputation was much greater than Shakespeare's, did not receive such an organized tribute, though a few poems in his memory were printed within a year of his death. In addition to the First Folio, at least two manuscript elegies to Shakespeare circulated (both of which tie him to Stratford), and a steady stream of poetic tributes followed over the next two decades. The reaction to Shakespeare's death, far from being mysterious, was about what we should expect for a Jacobean Englishman of his social standing who had made a reputation as one of the most popular poets and playwrights of his day.

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[1] We don't know anything about Shakespeare's funeral, but it must have been reasonably elaborate, given that he was buried in the church proper rather than in the churchyard, and that a monument in his honor was put in the church. The only local anecdote about his death which has come down to us was written down 45 years later by John Ward. Shortly after he became vicar of Stratford in 1661, Ward wrote in his diary that "Shakespear, Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for it seems Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted" (Chambers, II, 250). We have no way of knowing whether this anecdote is true, but it was obviously the story going around Stratford several decades after the fact, and it seems plausible enough.

[2] Thomas Nashe in The Unfortunate Traveller has a discussion of the Italian playwright Pietro Aretino which some (including Nicholl) have seen as an oblique tribute to Marlowe, though this is a matter of conjecture since his name is nowhere mentioned. "Gorgon," a poem by Gabriel Harvey published late in 1593 as an appendix to his New Letter of Notable Contents, has generally been taken to be about Marlowe's death, though it does not mention him by name either. Nicholl, however, argues persuasively that the poem is actually about the death of Peter Shakerley, a well-known eccentric habitue of St. Paul's churchyard whose name does appear in the poem, and who died days before it was written.

[3] In 1695 Edward Gibson published another English translation of Camden's work, with additions; Gibson does mention Shakespeare in his section on Stratford, since by then Shakespeare was history rather than news.

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(Note: For titles published before 1640, I have given their number in the Short Title Catalogue for easy reference)

Anon. 1593. Greenes Newes Both from Heaven and from Hell. London: A. Charlwood. [STC 12259] [Facsimile reprint along with Barnfield 1594, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1911]

Anon. 1640. Wits Recreations, Selected from the Finest Fancies of Modern Muses. London: R. Hodgkinson for H. Blunden. [STC 25870] [Facsimile reprint, Scholar Press, 1990]

Anon. 1996. "Beginner's Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem." World Wide Web

Aubrey, John. 1949. Aubrey's Brief Lives. Ed. by Oliver Lawson Dick. London: Secker & Warburg.

Bancroft, Thomas. 1639. Two Books of Epigrammes, and Epitaphs. London: I. Okes for M.Walbancke. [STC 1354]

Barnfield, Richard. 1594. Greenes Funeralls. London: J. Danter. [STC 1487]

Beard, Thomas. 1597. The Theatre of God's Judgements. London: A. Islip.[STC 1659]

Beaumont, Francis. 1640. Poems: by Francis Beaumont, gent.. London: R. Hodgkinson for W.W. and L. Blaikelocke. [STC 1665]

Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher. 1647. Comedies and Tragedies. London: H. Robinson and H. Moseley.

-----. 1854. The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher. Ed. by Alexander Dyce. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co.

Beaumont, John. 1602. The Metamorphosis of Tabacco. London: F. Kingston for J. Flasket. [STC 1695]

-----. 1629. Bosworth-Field: With a Taste of the Variety of Other Poems. London: F. Kyngston for H. Seile. [STC 1694]

-----. 1869. The Poems of Sir John Beaumont, Bart.. Ed. by Alexander B. Grosart. Printed for private circulation.

Camden, William. 1615. Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha, ad Annum Salutis MDLXXXIX. [STC 4496]

-----. 1627. Tomus Alter Annalium Anglicarum, et Hibernicarum, regnante Elizabetha. [STC 4496.5]

-----. 1586. Britannia sive florentissimorum regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae chorographica descriptio. London: R. Newbery. [STC 4503]

-----. 1587. [2nd edition]. London: R. Newbery. [STC 4504]

-----. 1590. [3rd edition]. London: G. Bishop. [STC 4505]

-----. 1594. [4th edition]. London: G. Bishop. [STC 4506]

-----. 1600. [5th edition]. London: G. Bishop. [STC 4507]

-----. 1607. [6th edition]. London: G. Bishop & J. Norton. [STC 4508]

-----. 1610. Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of the Most Flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands Adjoyning, out of the Depth of Antiquity. (translated by Philemon Holland) London: G. Bishop & J. Norton. [STC 4509]

-----. 1637. [2nd edition]. London: F.K., R.Y., and J.L. for A. Heb. [STC 4510]

-----. 1695. Camden's Britannia, newly translated into English: with large additions and improvements. (Translated by Edward Gibson) London: F. Collins for A. Swalle.

-----. 1605. Remaines of a greater worke, concerning Britain. London: G. Eld for S. Waterson. [STC 4521]

-----. 1614. [2nd edition] London: J. Legatt for S. Waterson. [STC 4522]

-----. 1623. [3rd edition] London: N. Okes for S. Waterson. [STC 4523]

-----. 1629. [4th edition] London: A. Islip for S. Waterson. [STC 4524]

-----. 1637. [5th edition; additions by John Philipot] London: T. Harper for J. Waterson. [STC 4526]

-----. 1657. [6th edition; additions by John Philpot]. London: Simon Miller.

Chambers, E. K. 1930. William Shakespeare: A Study of the Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Colaianne, A. J., and William Godshalk, eds. 1980. Elegies for Sir Philip Sidney (1587): facsimile reproductions. New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints.

Colman, William. 1632. La Danse Macabre, or Deaths Duel. London: W. Stansby [STC 5539]

Daniel, Samuel. 1623. The Whole Works of Samuel Daniel Esquire in Poetrie. London: N. Okes for S. Waterson.

D'Avenant, William. 1638. Madagascar, with other poems. London: J. Haviland for Thomas Walkly. [STC 6304]

Donne, John. 1632. Deaths Duell. London: T. Harper for R. Redmer and B. Fisher. [STC 7031]

-----. 1633. Poems, by J. D. With elegies on the authors death. London: M.F. for J. Marriot. [STC 7045]

-----. 1635. [2nd edition]. London: M.F. for J. Marriot. [STC 7046]

Drayton, Michael. 1627. Bataille of Agincourt. London: A. Mathewes for W. Lee. [STC 7190]

-----. 1941. The Works of Michael Drayton. Ed. by J. William Hebel. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Duppa, Brian, ed. 1638. Jonsonus Virbius. London: E. Purslowe for H. Seile. [STC 14784]

Evans, Robert C. 1988. "'Whome None But Death Could Shake': An Unreported Epitaph on Shakespeare." Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), 60.

Fletcher, John. 1639. Monsieur Thomas. London: T. Harper for J. Waterson. [STC 11071]

Greville, Fulke, Lord Brooke. 1870. The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of the Right Honorable Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Ed. by Alexander B. Grosart. Printed for private circulation.

Grosart, Alexander B. 1869. "Memorial-Introduction" in Beaumont 1869.

-----. 1870. "Memorial-Introduction" in Greville 1870.

Gurr, Andrew. 1996. The Shakespearean Playing Companies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Habington, William. 1635. Castara. 2nd edition. [STC 12584]

Harvey, Gabriel. 1592. Three Letters, and Certaine Sonnets. London: J. Wolfe. [STC 12899.5]

-----. 1593. A New Letter of Notable Contents. London: J. Wolfe. [STC 12902]

Herford, C.H., and Percy Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson. Volumes I & II: The Man and His Work. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Heywood, Thomas. 1635. Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels. London: A. Islip. [STC 13327]

Hotson, Leslie. 1937. I, William Shakespeare. London: Jonathan Cape.

Jenkins, Harold. 1934. The Life and Works of Henry Chettle. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Jonson, Ben. 1616. The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. London: W. Stansby. [STC 14751]

Meres, Francis. 1598. Palladis Tamia, or The Wits Treasury. London: C. Burbie. [STC 17834]

Milton, John. 1645. Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, Composed at Several Times. London: R. Raworth for H. Mosedey.

Nashe, Thomas. 1594. The Unfortunate Traveller. London: T. Scarlet for C. Burby. [STC 18380]

Newdigate, Bernard. 1941. Michael Drayton and His Circle. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Nicholl, Charles. 1992. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Harcourt Brace & Company.

Ogburn, Charlton. 1992. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: the Myth & the Reality. 2nd edition. McLean, VA: EPM Publications.

Peele, George. 1593. The Honour of the Garter. London: A. Charlwood for J. Busbie. [STC 19539]

Peerson, Martin. 1630. Mottects or Grave Chamber Musique. London: W. Stansby. [STC 19552]

Shakespeare, William. 1623. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. London: I. Jaggard and E. Blount. [STC 22273]

-----. 1632. [2nd edition]. London: T. Cotes for R. Allot. [STC 22274]

-----. 1640. Poems. London: T. Cotes for J. Benson. [STC 22344]

Spenser, Edmund. 1595. "Astrophil." In Colin Clouts Come Home Again. London: T. Creede for W. Ponsonbie. [STC 23077]

Stow, John. 1580. The Chronicles of England. London: R. Newberry for H. Binneman. [STC 23333]

-----. 1592. Anneles of England [2nd edition of the above]. London: R. Newberry. [STC 23334]

-----. 1600. [3rd edition]. London: R. Newberry. [STC 23335]

-----. 1605. [4th edition]. London: G. Bishop and T. Adams. [STC 23337]

-----. 1615. [5th edition, continued by Edmund Howes]. London: T. Adams. [STC 23338]

-----. 1631. [6th edition, continued by Edmund Howes]. London: R. Meighen. [STC 23340]

Taylor, John. 1620. The Praise of Hemp-seed. London: E. Allde for H. Gosson. [STC 23788]

-----. 1637. A Funerall Elegie, in Memory of the Rare, Famous, and Admired Poet, Mr. Benjamin Jonson, Deceased. London: E. Purslowe for H. Gosson. [STC 23759]

Vaughan, William. 1600. The Golden-Grove, Moralized in Three Books. London: S. Stafford. [STC 24610]

Ward, B. M. 1928. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604. London: John Murray.

Wells, William, ed. 1972. Spenser Allusions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Wells, Stanley, and Gary Taylor. 1987. William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Oxford University Press.

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