Oxfordian Myths:
"First Heir of My Invention"


  • Introduction
  • Heir
  • Invention


    Shakespeare in his dedication of Venus and Adonis describes the work as the "first heir of my invention." Antistratfordians of various stripes have claimed from that the phrase somehow signifies that "William Shakespeare" is not the actual name of the author of Venus and Adonis but is something that the "real author" made up or "invented." Charlton Ogburn, for example, in
    "The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not" said,
    In the dedication of [Venus and Adonis] the author referred to it as the "first heir of my invention," which could mean only "of my invented name.
    The issue has also frequently arisen on the humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare newsgroup. Mark Alexander, for instance, said on July 11, 1997,
    I would like to know how you interpret "first heir of my invention". The Oxfordian intepretetation makes more sense than any Stratford one I have seen: That the name "William Shakespeare" is an invention and that the poem (Venus and Adonis) is the first born of that name.
    It's a good question, because the language of Elizabethan dedications is very foreign to modern readers, and it is often dangerous to interpret such language in terms of what it might mean if a modern writer had called a work the "first heir of my invention," although to an Elizabethan reader the phrase would not have sounded strange.

    This essay has two parts. The first deals with the Elizabethan convention whereby authors spoke of their works as their children, a convention we must examine to understand why Shakespeare called Venus and Adonis an "heir." The second part of the essay concerns "invention." The Elizabethans also used the word differently from the way we do today, and we must look at the Elizabethan concept of "invention" before we can understand Shakespeare's phrase.



    There are many examples of the metaphor of an author's works being referred to as his "children," especially in Elizabethan dedications. Anybody with a reasonable grounding in Elizabethan literature will be familiar with plenty of them. I have decided to concentrate on two of the most popular and important Elizabethan works, The Shepheardes Calender and Sidney's Arcadia.

    Edmund Spenser's name did not appear on The Shepheardes Calender in 1579; rather the work was ascribed to "Immerito" (i.e, "unworthy"). Spenser dedicated the work to Sidney and prefaced it with this poem:

    To His Book

    Goe little booke: thy selfe present,
    As child whose parent is unkent:         [unknown]
    To him that is the president                 [ i.e., Sidney; also = "precedent"]
    Of noblesse and of chevalrie,
    And if that envie barke at thee,
    As sure it will, for succoure flee
    Under the shadow of his wing,
    And asked, who thee forth did bring,
    A shepheards swaine saye did thee sing,
    All as his straying flocke he fedde:
    And when his honor has thee redde,
    Crave pardon for my hardyhedde.
    But if that any ask thy name,
    Say thou wert base begot with blame:
    For thy therof thou takest shame.
    And when thou art past jeopardee,
    Come tell me, what was sayd of mee
    And I will send more after thee.
    -- Immerito

    It was conventional for an author to deprecate his own work, to glorify the person to whom the work was dedicated, and to seem worried that readers might react harshly to the work. Spenser begins by alluding gracefully to Chaucer (Troilus and Criseyde 5.1786). His book is a child whose father is unknown. If anyone asks who wrote the book, "Say thou wert base begot with blame," i.e., a bastard. However, if the book's reception is favorable, "I will send more after thee." As it happened, the book was a triumph, and Spenser sent much more after.

    Spenser's poem "to his book" was much imitated. Consider Samuel Daniel in his Delia (1593):

    Go, wailing verse! The infant of my love --
    Minerva-like brought forth without a mother --
    That bears the image of the cares I prove;
    Witness your father's grief exceeds all other;
    or T.W. in The Tears of Fancy (1593): "Go idle lines unpolished rude and base."

    Spenser does not actually use the word "bastard" to describe his book, but Barnabe Barnes certainly read him that way. His Parthenophil and Parthenophe (1593) was published without its author's name, and Barnes addresses his book thus:

    Go bastard orphan! Pack thee hence!
    And seek some stranger for defence!
    Now 'gins thy baseness to be known!
    Nor dare I take thee for my own!
    Barnes's child-book was cast out in the hope that "Some good man, that shall think thee witty / Will be thy patron! and take pity."

    Barnes's book is more indebted to Sidney than to Spenser, and the other dedication I wish to look at is for The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, which first appeared in print in 1590, four years after Sidney's death, though the work had circulated in manuscript. All editions contained his dedication of the work to his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. As expected, we find the conventional deprecation of "this idle work of mine," praise of his sister, and worry about the work's reception:

    For my part, in very truth (as the cruel fathers among the Greeks were wont to do to the babes they would not foster) I could well find it in my heart to cast out in some desert of forgetfulness this child which I am loth to father. But you desired me to do it, and your desire to my heart is an absolute commandment. Now it is done only for you, only to you: if you keep it to yourself or to such friends who will weigh errors in the balance of goodwill, I hope, for the father's sake, it will be pardoned, perchance made much of, though it have deformities. . . . In sum, a young head, not so well stayed as I would it were (and shall be when God will) having many fancies begotten in it, if it had not been in some way delivered, would have grown a monster; and more sorry might I be that they came in than that they gat out. But his chief safety shall be the not walking abroad; and his chief protection, the bearing the livery of your name, which (if much goodness will not deceive me) is worthy to be sanctuary for a greater offender.
    Obviously, the book as child metaphor can become very intricate. Sidney imagines exposing the child (as, say, the club-footed Oedipus was exposed), but his sister seems to dote on the child, and it almost becomes hers by adoption, "bearing the livery" of her name. Her role in fostering the development of the child is even more pronounced in later editions of the work.

    The second edition of Arcadia appeared in 1593, bearing an additional note to the reader from Hugh Sanford, who had helped edit the revised version under the Countess's direction. He speaks of "her honorable labor" in the preparation of the new edition, and further observes,

    If it be true that likeness is a great cause of liking and that contraries infer contrary consequences, then it is true that the worthless reader can never worthily esteem of so worthy a writing; and as true that the noble, the wise, the virtuous, the courteous, as many as have had any acquaintance with true learning and knowledge, will with all love and dearness entertain it, as well for affinity with themselves as being child to such a father. Whom albeit it do not exactly and in every lineament represent, yet considering the father's untimely death prevented the timely birth of the child, it may happily seem a thank-worthy labor that the defects being so few, so small and in no principal part, yet the greatest unlikeliness is rather in defect than in deformity. But howsoever it is, it is now by more than one interest The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia -- done, as it was, for her; as it is, by her. Neither shall these pains be the last (if no unexpected accident cut off her determination) which the everlasting love of her excellent brother will make her consecrate to his memory.
    Just as her brother had spoken of the necessity of his book's being "in some way delivered," so his sister will undergo more "pains" in seeing that more of his works are printed. As Sidney had hoped, his "child" was, "for the father's sake," not merely "pardoned," but "made much of."

    Now let's look at Shakespeare's dedication to Southampton of Venus and Adonis:

    Right Honorable, I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden; only, if your honor seem but pleased, I shall account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honored you with some graver labor. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it will yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honorable survey, and your honor to your heart's content; which I wish may always answer your own wish and the world's hopeful expectation.
    Once again, we have an author who deprecates his work ("unpolished lines"), lavishes praise on the subject of the dedication, and worries about the work's reception. Again the work is allegorized as a child, and there is worry about the child's being "deformed." It is significant that this work is not fatherless: it is not just a child but an "heir": a legitimate and acknowledged offspring. Although some of Shakespeare's plays had already appeared, this is the first published work to bear his name, and it bears that name legitimately.

    Where Immerito has sent his book as if it were fatherless, and where Sidney's death left Arcadia actually fatherless, Venus and Adonis has a father that will not disown it even if the work "should prove deformed." Will this be an only child? For both Spenser and Shakespeare, the question depends on how this first child turns out. It is as if a work's reception amounts to a kind of genetic counseling: if his first child proves defective, perhaps the author shouldn't father any more, lest they prove defective as well. The main criterion is said to be whether the work is worthy of the person to whom it was dedicated. In the case of Sidney, his sister (herself no mean poet, by the way) has adopted his works as if they were her own children. In the case of Barnes, his work will have to find its own patron.

    If the work's author had circulated Venus and Adonis under any name but his own, he would not have referred to it as an "heir." If the work had appeared under another name, or anonymously, it would more properly have been labeled a bastard, as Spenser obliquely and Barnes directly did. Far from being some kind of signal that "William Shakespeare" is a pseudonym, the dedication of Venus and Adonis amounts to a virtual warranty that the work bears its author's actual name.



    We say Edison invented the light bulb, but we don't say that Bellow "invented" Henderson the Rain King. It is therefore easy to understand why people who don't think "William Shakespeare" was the real name of the author of Venus and Adonis would misinterpret the phrase "first heir of my invention" to suggest that the real author "invented" the name William Shakespeare, and thus that the poem is the product of that real author under his "invention": the pseudonym "William Shakespeare." This reading, however, cannot stand up under scrutiny. I have looked, and I cannot find any instance where "invention" means "pseudonym"; the OED itself provides no instances. When Shakespeare elsewhere uses "invention" in connection with literary production, the word generally means "imagination" or "creativity" as in these instances:
    I will prove those verses to be very unlearned, neither savoring of poetry, wit, nor invention. (LLL 4.2.157-59)

    I'll give you a verse to this note, that I made yesterday in despite of my invention. (AYL 2.5.46-47)

    Go, write it in a martial hand, be curst and brief. It is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent and full of invention. (TN 3.2.42-44)

    For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee
    When thou thyself dost give invention light?" (Son 38.7-8)

    I'll return to these examples later, but first let me give some background on this word that seems to puzzle so many antistratfordians. This use of "invention" is not original with Shakespeare but was a literary commonplace long before Shakespeare was born and long after he died. "Invention" was originally a term in classical rhetoric and poetics. Wilson in his Art of Rhetoric (1560) said, "The finding out of apt matter, otherwise called Invention, is a searching out of things true, or things likely, the which may reasonably set forth a matter, and make it appear probable." Wilson is not, of course, saying that one should create a false identity or adapt a pseudonym before writing or speaking. Invention consists in looking over the available tropes and arguments and selecting those that will be most likely to persuade. A poet's task is similar to that of a rhetorician's. Both intend to convey meaning or emotion in a highly artificial form -- an address or a poem. Both wish to appear sincere, and both are craftsmen.

    George Gascoigne, in his Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English (1575), said,

    For it is not enough to roll in pleasant words, nor yet to thunder in Rym, Ram, Ruff by letter (quoth my master Chaucer), nor yet to abound in apt vocables or epithets, unless the Invention have in it also aliquid salis. By this aliquid salis, I mean some good and fine device, showing the quick capacity of a writer: and where I say some good and fine invention, I mean that I would have it both fine and good.
    "Invention" thus may be both a quality of the writer (wit or imagination) or of the poem (metaphors or other "devices" whose aptness shows the "quick capacity" of the writer), or it may be the poem itself that is produced by the poet's Invention (in 1578 an anthology of poems appeared with the title A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions). Gascoigne is not, of course, saying that a poet should create a false identity or adapt a pseudonym before he writes. Gascoigne goes on to describe how a poet uses Invention:
    To deliver unto you general examples it were almost unpossible, sithence the occasions of Inventions are (as it were) infinite; nevertheless, take in worth mine opinion, and perceive my further meaning in these few points. If I should undertake to write in praise of a gentlewoman, I would neither praise her crystal eye, nor her cherry lip, etc. For these things are trita et obuia. But I would either find some supernatural cause whereby my pen might walk in the superlative degree, or else I would undertake to answer any imperfection that she hath, and thereupon raise the praise of her commendation. Likewise, if I should disclose my pretense in love, I would either make a strange discourse of some intolerable passion, or find occasion to plead by the example of some history, or discover my disquiet in shadows per Allegoriam, or use the covertest mean that I could to avoid the uncomely customs of common writers.
    Note where Invention may lead the poet who wishes to write about love. The most trite and obvious expressions have all been used. Therefore a poet who wishes to display the quality of his Invention may decide to fasten on some seeming imperfection in his beloved and make that the object of his praise. This is one strategy behind Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets. There are other strategies that Gascoigne mentions; a poet shows the quality of his Invention by the quality of the choices he makes among the many possible strategies.

    Gascoigne concludes,

    Thus much I adventure to deliver to you (my friend) upon the rule of Invention, which of all other rules is most to be marked, and hardest to be prescribed in certain and infallible rules; nevertheless, to conclude therein, I would have you stand upon the excellency of your Invention, and stick not to study deeply for some fine device. For, that being found, pleasant words will follow well enough and fast enough.
    If a poet's invention were great enough, far more than "pleasant words" would follow. Entire realms could be summoned up. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defense of Poetry wrote,
    Only the Poet disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature: in making things either better then nature bringeth forth, or quite a new, forms such as never were in nature: as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimaeras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the Zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich Tapestry as diverse Poets have done, neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely: her world is brazen, the Poets only deliver a golden.
    Sidney is not saying that a poet should create a false identity or adapt a pseudonym before he writes. A poets' Invention (we would probably say "imagination") allows him to become in some ways a more marvelous creator than nature herself, but this happens not by ignoring nature but by going "hand in hand with nature." A poet's invention may select and recombine elements from nature's storehouse to create a world more marvelous than the one he or she inhabits.

    Sidney the poet wrestled with the ancient (and ever new) problem of saying something novel in a love poem. Here is the first sonnet of his Astrophil And Stella, one of the best sonnets from the most important sonnet sequence of the time:

    Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
    That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain:
    Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
    Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
    I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
    Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
    Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
    Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
    But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
    Invention Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
    And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
    Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
    Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
    "Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."
    I don't have the space to begin doing justice to this poem, but I would draw your attention to the role of Invention here. Astrophil has done just what Gascoigne warns against. He studied deeply for some fine device, but found his own Invention wanting. Only when he ceases trying to steal the inventions of other poets is Astrophil's Invention released. When he looks in his heart he sees the image of his beloved, Stella, and then he can write. Invention, for Astrophil, is something innate (and therefore a part of one by Nature). He calls Invention "Nature's child," while Study is invention's cruel stepmother (and also a harsh schoolmaster). Reading the works of other poets is necessary drudgery, but creating one's own poems requires one's own Invention. Of course, Sidney is being intricately clever in this poem. He could well have learned to scorn study by reading the poems of others who scorn study. The poem is simultaneously sincerely artificial and artificially sincere.

    For Puttenham, a poet who writes of an imaginary word has a more powerful Invention than one who deals with the quotidian:

    if the things we covet to describe be not natural or nor veritable, than yet the same asketh more cunning to do it, because to feign a thing that never was nor is like to be, proceedeth of a greater wit and sharper invention than to describe things that be true.
    The greatest poets were often considered those whose Invention was superior to the rest. In a commendatory poem to Spenser's Amoretti (1595), we are told that the poet's absence in Ireland has brought English poetry to a standstill:
    So while this Muse in forraine landes doth stay,
    Invention weeps, and pens are cast aside,
    The time like night, deprived of chearefull day,
    And few do write, but (ah) too soone may slide.
    Spenser himself, we are told in the same poem, writes "With rare invention, bewtified by skill." Once again, Invention is something innate to the poet. Spenser also happens to be the most highly skilled of poets, but that skill needs something to work on, and that "something" is supplied by Invention. Of all the English poets, we are told, Spenser alone has not felt his invention suffer: after all, he carried it to Ireland with him. The verse of the poets left behind in England has, however, dried up because in an England that lacks Spenser's invention, no poet's invention can thrive.

    This use of "Invention" lasted long after Shakespeare's day. Here is part of Alexander Pope's preface to his translation of The Iliad (1715):

    HOMER is universally allow'd to have had the greatest Invention of any Writer whatever. The Praise of Judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their Pretensions as to particular excellencies; but his Invention remains yet unrival'd. Nor is it a Wonder if he has ever been acknowledg'd the greatest of Poets, who most excell'd in That which is the very Foundation of Poetry. It is the Invention that in different degrees distinguishes all great Genius's: The utmost Stretch of human Study, Learning, and Industry, which masters every thing besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes Art with all her Materials, and without it Judgment itself can at best but steal wisely: For Art is only like a prudent Steward that lives on managing the Riches of Nature. Whatever Praises may be given to Works of Judgment, there is not even a single Beauty in them but is owing to the Invention: As in the most regular Gardens, however Art may carry the greatest Appearance, there is not a Plant or Flower but is the Gift of Nature. The first can only reduce the Beauties of the latter into a more obvious Figure, which the common Eye may better take in, and is therefore more entertain'd with. And perhaps the reason why most Criticks are inclin'd to prefer a judicious and methodical Genius to a great and fruitful one, is, because they find it easier for themselves to pursue their Observations through an uniform and bounded Walk of Art, than to comprehend the vast and various Extent of Nature.
    A century after Shakespeare and Spenser, Pope can still speak of Invention as the key determinant of a poet's genius. Invention is an innate aspect of the poet's mind, not something acquired by study (although study may be required for invention to flourish). Pope is not, of course, saying that one should create a false identity or adapt a pseudonym before writing.

    Let's return to the passages from Shakespeare that I quoted above and see how "invention" is used in each context. The first three are from plays in which characters assume different identities. If for Shakespeare the word "invention" had meant "a pseudonym or false identity" then we would have expected him to use the word in that sense in such plays as Loves Labors Lost, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. He does not. Instead we find that when he uses the word in the context of literary creation or judgment it is always allied to the meanings that have been outlined above.

    There are many critics in Shakespeare's plays. Characters in his dramas who write are often self-conscious about how wretched their literary efforts are, and those who read can often be very harsh in their judgments.

    I will prove those verses to be very unlearned, neither savoring of poetry, wit, nor invention. (LLL 4.2.157-59)
    The line is the judgment of Holofernes on a sonnet Berowne wrote to Rosaline. If one requirement of a great poet is the excellence of his Invention, one sign of a poor one is the lack of Invention.
    I'll give you a verse to this note, that I made yesterday in despite of my invention. (AYL 2.5.46-47)
    The quoted line is spoken by Jacques after hearing the second verse of "Under the Greenwood Tree." He apologizes in advance for a poor parody he has written "in despite of my invention": that is, even though he lacks the Invention of a true poet.
    Go, write it in a martial hand, be curst and brief. It is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent and full of invention. (TN 3.2.42-44)
    This line is spoken by Toby Belch as he incites Andrew Aguecheek to challenge Sebastian to a duel. Toby considers a challenge (like a speech or a poem) to be a literary text. It's not enough for Andrew to challenge Sebastian; he must do so using his Invention. Just as a poet in love must use Invention to find some creative expression of what he feels, so the composer of a challenge must do more than merely say "meet me at such a place at such a time." "Taunt him with the license of ink," Toby advises.

    Here is one example (out of many) from the Sonnets:

    For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee
    When thou thyself dost give invention light? (Son 38.7-8)
    Remember that Astrophil found Invention by looking "in his heart," where he would see an image of his Stella. Sonnets of love are ostensibly poems in praise of the beloved, but they often seem displays more of poetic virtuosity than of sincere affection (part of the game of a love poem is to appear simultaneously virtuosic and sincere). Therefore sonneteers will modestly deny responsibility for the excellence of their poems and announce that with such a beloved for a muse, anyone would be inspired to write well. Ordinarily, Invention is spoken of as something innate: a great poet must begin with Invention. Here the speaker is displacing Invention to the beloved, who could inspire anyone to write well. Thus, if the sonnets are excellent, it is to the beloved's credit, not the speaker's.

    Let us return to the dedication to Venus and Adonis. Some antistratfordians claim that when William Shakespeare refers to the poem as "the first heir of my invention" he is slyly stating that "William Shakespeare" is not really his name, but merely something that the alleged real author "invented." As I have said, this proposed sense of "invention" occurs nowhere in Shakespeare (or in any contemporary that I am aware of). On the other hand, the word "invention" had a long history in rhetoric and poetics, as I have outlined above. Shakespeare uses the word several times in a context of literary composition, and it there refers to a writer's imagination or his innate gift for writing.

    A great poet will have a great Invention, but Shakespeare makes no claims for his own gifts. He is not the one to rate his own Invention, but if Venus and Adonis should fail, then he will know that his Invention was inadequate: "if the first heir of my invention should prove deformed, I shall ... never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest." In this agricultural metaphor, the "harvest" is the poem and the "land" is Shakespeare's Invention. If the poem is wretched, he will then know that the cause was that he lacked the Invention of a fine poet, and he will write no more such poems.

    If we try to read the dedication the way some antistratfordians prefer, we end up in further nonsense because we have to consider the "land" to be the alleged pseudonym. If the antistratfordians were correct, the sense of the metaphor would then be "if the poem is not very good then I'll have to change my name once again." This presumes that the alleged real author believed that the quality of a pseudonymous poem depends entirely on the pseudonym itself, and not on some quality in the poet or the poem: that is, the antistratfordians' reading of "invention" as pseudonym requires them to believe that Shakespeare meant that if instead of being by "William Shakespeare" the poem had been published under the name "Osgood Muldoon," it might have been a much better poem.

    As I have already argued, the sense of "invention" that some antistratfordians wish to use is one that was unknown to Shakespeare, while the sense I have been describing existed long before Shakespeare was born, was frequently used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and persisted long after Shakespeare died. There is thus no reason to reject the traditional reading of "invention," and no reason to accept the antistratfordian view. When William Shakespeare calls Venus and Adonis "the first heir of my invention" he is saying that he wrote it by himself and as himself.


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