What Did George Puttenham Really Say About Oxford

And Why Does It Matter?

by Terry Ross

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 courtier, and he therefore had to conceal his authorship. They cite the 1589 work The Arte of English Poesie (generally and hereafter 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 quoted in some of the most prominent Oxfordian sources, including 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 tape 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 publisht 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 an other 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 Frontline has 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. Frontline also ignores the rest of the names after Oxford, thereby giving the impression that Puttenham thought Oxford was unique in this respect. Had the Frontline people actually read Puttenham, they would have seen 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 whose poetry is known to him 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: thus an earl (Oxford) precedes lesser lords; all lords precede knights; all knights precede mere gentlemen.

Puttenham does refer to one poet who published 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 four dramatists, I know of only two that have survived. Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (later 1st Earl of Dorset) collaborated with Thomas Norton on Gorboduc. Richard Edwards wrote the comedy Damon and Pithias. Edwards also wrote a two-part tragedy, Palamon and Arcite, which has not survived (unless Oxfordians wish to identify it with Shakespeare's Two Noble Kinsmen). Gorboduc is the only tragedy Buckhurst is known to have had a hand in, and Damon and Pithias is Edwards's only known comedy. Nothing in Puttenham suggests that Oxford's dramatic works ever amounted to more than one comedy or interlude (now, alas, lost).

The third and final reference to Oxford comes in Book 3, Chapter 19, in a discussion of the rhetorical figure "antipophora" 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.
Remember that the reason Puttenham gives for the timidity of some in the court who had written poetry without affixing their names to it was that they thought it "unseemly" for a gentleman to "seem learned," and yet in this passage Puttenham not only quotes Oxford's poem, he names Oxford and calls him "a most noble and learned gentleman." Clearly, Puttenham does not regard Oxford one of those who thought it unseemly to be either learned or a poet. And that's all Puttenham has to say about Oxford. Oxford wrote poems and a comedy or interlude under his own name. 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).

And yet Oxfordians have concocted out of these isolated references an entire romance in which Oxford, fearing his works will prove dangerous, invents a pseudonym "William Shakespeare" to protect himself. Here is how the meager evidence from Puttenham is presented on the Oxfordian web site:

             In the Renaissance period in England no courtiers
             were allowed to publish poetry--this was an
             unwritten code of the court. The need for a
             pseudonym by an author-courtier such as Oxford
             would have been essential. If the name "William
             Shake-speare" is a pseudonym, Oxford would have
             had many reasons for adopting this particular nom
             de plume.
If the Oxfordian view is true, then not only Oxford but Buckhurst, Sidney, Raleigh, Gascoigne, Turberville and the others named by Puttenham would have needed to use pseudonyms. In fact, however, poems by all of these courtiers had appeared under the poets' own names at the time The Arte of English Poesie was printed. Another section of the Oxfordian web site quotes Puttenham directly:

            The anonymous author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), in
            writing of those "noble Gentlemen in the court that have
            written commendably well and suppressed it aganye, or else
            suffered it to be publisht without their own names to it," and
            then referring later in the same work to those whose writing
            would be seen as [excellent] "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," clearly
            provides significant evidence of Oxford's status as one of
            several anonymous and pseudonymous Court writers of the
            1580s.
There is no acknowledgement here that the two quoted passages are from different chapters of Puttenham's work; or that Oxford is not mentioned at all in the chapter from which the first passage has been taken; or that Oxford's name when it first occurs is in a list not of anonymous or pseudonymous poets, but is rather in a list of those whose poetry has already been "made public" either by being printed or by circulating in manuscript; or that Oxford's name appears again in the work, this time accompanied by one of his poems and by Puttenham's praise for both his learning and his art. Oxfordians such as the Frontline people and those responsible for the anonymous FAQ at the Oxfordian web site are so intent on distorting Puttenham's words to support their fantasy of the pseudonymously-published earl that they do a disservice to the poetry and character of the actual 17th Earl of Oxford. The man had his faults, but he was not the cowardly poet that the Oxfordian position requires.

Puttenham encourages those who (unlike Oxford) wished to hide their intelligence:


             Since therefore so many noble Emperours, Kings
             and Princes have been studious of Poesie and
             other civill arts, and not ashamed to bewray
             their skils in the same, let none other meaner
             person despise learning, nor (whether it be in
             prose or in Poesie, if they them selves be able
             to write, or have written any thing well or of
             rare invention) be any whit squeamish to let it
             be publisht under their names, for reason serves
             it, and modesty does not repugne.
Thus, everything that Oxfordians say about the evidence from Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie is wrong.

Why does the doctored quotation from Puttenham matter? There are two reasons. The first, and less important, is that it displays the carelessness with the evidence that seems almost to be a part of the Oxfordian methodology. Instead of checking to see whether they are quoting Puttenham correctly, the people responsible for the Frontline program and the Oxfordian web site are content to repeat an old falsehood. If accuracy were important to them, they would check their sources. The Arte of English Poesie is in print, it may be found in any good-sized library, and it is available on the web. The Frontline case is especially egregious, because somebody took the trouble to photograph the page of The Arte of English Poesie from which part of the phony quotation was taken. I see no reason to think the rest of the Frontline program or the Oxfordian web site would display any greater concern for accuracy.

The more important reason is that without the phony quotation from Puttenham, there is no case for Oxford (not that there's much of one even with it). Consider the fable Oxfordians tell: Oxford wrote all of Shakespeare's plays and poems (with the possible exception of the Funeral Elegy), but because they contain politically dangerous material, he feared for his life and had them published under the pseudonym "William Shakespeare." After Oxford died, the secret was still protected, and when the works of Oxford were collected and published in 1623, they still bore the name "Shakespeare," and the persons responsible for publication ascribed the works to a man of Stratford by that name who had died in 1616.

I think even Oxfordians would grant me that the above is a fair statement of their story. Stratfordians find the story implausible in every detail, and they find it completely without merit or evidence. But let us try to take the story seriously. The whole story depends on there being some reason to believe that Oxford, fearing death or some other horrible punishment, had to publish his works pseudonymously. However, the only evidence for this belief is the phony quotation from Puttenham that Oxfordians have put together from two widely separated passages taken out of context. Oxfordians tell us Elizabethan courtiers were afraid to publish under their own names because they would be punished or even executed. Oxfordians tell us Oxford was one of those timid courtiers. Oxfordians tell us they found all this in Puttenham.

Puttenham himself tells a different story. In the old days, says Puttenham, poets and other learned men were admired, but in his own day, too many courtiers disdain poetry and all learning, and would rather remain ignorant. Some courtiers, however, are not afraid to seem learned and to write poetry, and one of those learned poets is Oxford. Puttenham is on the side of the nerds against the dumb jocks.

So what we actually learn from Puttenham is that Oxford was not one of the stupid or timid, but was one of the learned and open poets. What evidence is there that Oxford's poetry was politically dangerous? What evidence is there that Oxford was afraid to write under his own name? What evidence is there that Oxford therefore employed a pseudonym? It all comes down to Puttenham, and the genuine evidence from Puttenham contradicts the Oxfordian fable at every turn.

What then is left of Oxfordianism without their phony evidence from Puttenham? If there's no evidence Oxford wrote dangerous plays and poems under a pseudonym (and the only external evidence Oxfordians adduce is the doctored version of Puttenham), there's no reason to speculate whether that nonexistent pseudonym was William Shakespeare or Thomas Kyd or Walter Brennan. If there's no evidence that Oxford was afraid to write under his own name (and the only external evidence Oxfordians adduce is the doctored version of Puttenham), there's no reason to invent a nonexistent cover-up involving dozens if not hundreds of courtiers, actors, and publishers.

There may still be some who feel comfortable as antistratfordians, but without the doctored bits from Puttenham there is no pro-Oxfordianism.

Terry Ross tross@bcpl.net


I sent a version of this essay to Frontline, and they were kind enough to post part of it along with their response. I have put up the text of Frontline's Response and My Reply to that response, which contains more evidence aginst Frontline's misuse and misreading of Puttenham. More discussion of the Frontline's program is available at "The Shakespeare Mystery" web site.

See the relevant parts of Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie


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