Reprinted from Shakespeare Matters, Spring 2002
I recently interviewed a controversial scientist whose work in the fields of physics and neurology has stirred up a firestorm of debate — with staunch orthodox and heterodox champions, character assassinations and highbrow mudfights that would all be familiar stuff to Oxfordian eyes.
“I really enjoy it when people get hostile,” the researcher said. “Because I’d much rather be criticized than ignored.”
I am pleased to report that “The Potent Testimony of Gabriel Harvey,” a column Roger Stritmatter and I adapted for the Winter 2002 issue of Shakespeare Matters, has certainly not been ignored. Two strongly worded critiques so far have come in — one from each side in the authorship debate.
After going through the objections raised, two facts become clear: A few important clarifications and emendations are in order, which I will cover in the following pages. More important, I’ve also learned that “The Potent Testimony” suffers from one major oversight: Our case is actually considerably stronger than we first appreciated. At the conclusion of this article, I’ll bring forward new evidence that buttresses our essential claim that the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey effectively cited Edward de Vere in 1593 as the author of the forthcoming Shakespeare poem Venus and Adonis.
The most indignant critique of “The Potent Testimony,” by Terry Ross, co-editor of the Shakespeare Authorship web page with fellow Stratford advocate David Kathman, appeared on the Usenet forum humanities.literature.authors.Shakespeare.
Ross’ objections — filled with those blustery sighs of disbelief that will be familiar to anyone who’s read his work before — come in three flavors this time:
1) Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford has nothing to do with the Elizabethan nom de guerre “Pierce Penniless”
2) The Cambridge University academic Gabriel Harvey’s 1593 statement about “Pierce Penniless” and the “garden of Adonis” has nothing to do with Shake-speare’s Venus and Adonis (1593)
3) Harvey’s subsequent 1593 statement about “Venus” and the “harness of the bravest Minerva” also has nothing to do with Shake-speare’s Venus and Adonis (1593).
The effect of Ross’s essay is almost exclusively negative. He does not provide a coherent alternate reading of Harvey’s words. Instead, one is left with a series of pronouncements about what Harvey did not say. Indeed, as might be expected, Ross attacked every point in the previous column, which argued that in the 1593 pamphlet Pierces Supererogation or A New Praise of the Old Ass, Harvey deftly announced the print debut of Edward de Vere’s forthcoming poem Venus and Adonis, under a pen-name given by that “spear-shaking” goddess Minerva. Alas, as Ross put it, the column was “Utterly valueless as literary history or literary criticism.”
“But hey,” he then adds, “Maybe that’s just me.”
Before delving into Ross’ three objections in detail, it’s worth revisiting the context in which Gabriel Harvey’s words appeared. At the time, Harvey was enmeshed in a heated and often obscure literary dispute — not unlike the present-day authorship controversy — with his witty rival Thomas Nashe. The two argued in print over topics that centuries of scholarship still haven’t fully understood. However, it is known that the whole affair came to a halt in 1599 when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all the copies of books by both authors to be confiscated and destroyed. In 1910 Ronald B. McKerrow came closest to an explanation of these events in proposing that the scandalous quarrel “Seems in its origin to be an offshoot of the well-known one between Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and [his rival] Sir Philip Sidney in 1579.”
To a first approximation, Nashe and Harvey were foot-soldiers in a longstanding feud between two rival factions at court. On one side were Edward de Vere and his merry pranksters — including Nashe and the playwright John Lyly — and on the other were the surviving strands of the Sidney-Leicester faction (both Sir Philip Sidney and his uncle the Earl of Leicester had died by 1593), with their literary allies, including Edmund Spenser and Harvey.
One of Nashe’s volleys in this dispute was his 1592 pamphlet Strange News, which he dedicated to de Vere under the sobriquet “Master Apis Lapis.” Charles Wisner Barrell’s persuasive analysis of this dedication, which originally appeared in the October 1944 Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, is now posted in the Shakespeare Fellowship web site. As Barrell was the first to emphasize, Nashe’s dedication praises Apis Lapis as a brilliant and prolific author — and refers to him under the loaded nickname “Gentle Master William.” It is unfortunate that Barrell’s discovery has remained obscure even within Oxfordian circles. It is, I would argue, one of the most important articles in the history of the authorship controversy.
Barrell’s opus is also the starting point for the “Pierce Penniless” argument. For it establishes, without any further argument, that Ross is simply wrong on his first point: “Harvey’s references to ‘Pierce Penniless’ … are ALWAYS references to Thomas Nashe and are NEVER to Oxford,” Ross asserts. [Ross’s caps] Ross gives no evidence for this ex cathedra statement, and one can readily appreciate why. The position is untenable. While it is certainly true that sometimes Harvey refers to Nashe as “Pierce Penniless,” it is certainly not true that he only uses the name to refer to Nashe.
As Barrell first argued, and as Stritmatter and I pointed out in the last issue of Shakespeare Matters, de Vere reneged on a deal he had apparently made with Nashe and the poet Thomas Churchyard to pay their rent. Harvey chides Nashe over this fiasco — for which Nashe ended up in debtor’s prison — and in the passage speaks of the mystery man who got Nashe into trouble (i.e. de Vere), using the nickname “Pennilesse.” (Of course, as Ross points points out, Harvey elsewhere refers to de Vere by name. But this point is irrelevant to our argument. Harvey also refers to Nashe by name and by multiple nicknames.)
Shakespeare Fellowship member Elizabeth Appleton van Dreunen continues the “Pierce Penniless” = Edward de Vere argument at length in her book An Anatomy of the Marprelate Controversy. Appleton points out, for instance, that in the pamphlet Pierce Penniless, Pierce is someone other than Nashe himself. He is an older and more experienced writer and is also Nashe’s patron. Van Dreunen also notes that Harvey describes “Pierce” with the same words (the alpha of alphas, the “A per se A”) that he used to portray de Vere in 1580 as a Tuscanish noble. Those still doubtful that Harvey and Nashe alluded to de Vere as “Pierce Penniless” should seek out van Dreunen’s book.
One recurrent theme in Harvey’s commentary on Pierce Penniless is that Penniless is an author with a huge store of unpublished materials being held “in abeyance” by unnamed institutional forces: “[I]n honor of the appropriate virtues of Pierce himself,” Harvey writes. “… His other miraculous perfections are still in abeyance, and his monstrous excellencies in the predicament of Chimera.” The Chimera was a fabled monster with a goat’s body, dragon’s tail and a lion’s head which, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “is used in English for an illusory fancy, a wild, incongruous scheme.” In other words, Harvey says that Penniless himself — a distinction that suggests that this is the real of the two Pennilesses, i.e. de Vere — has some “miraculous” works that are nevertheless stuck in a strange intermediate state where the head and the body are two different entities. This, to my inferior eyes, looks suspiciously like Harvey is pointing to a disguised author hiding behind a front-man.
Of course, one must also keep in mind that sometimes when Harvey writes of “Pierce Penniless,” he means Nashe. Yet even some third-party commentators on the Nashe-Harvey battles understood that “Pierce” was at times a sobriquet for de Vere. Consider Thomas Dekker’s belated response to Pierce Penniless — his 1606 tract News from Hell — which addresses the ghost of the late Nashe as “thou sometimes secretary to ‘Pierce Penniless’ and master of his requests.” Dekker obviously isn’t calling Nashe a “sometimes secretary” to himself. So we find again that “Penniless” must be someone other than Nashe — someone like that mysterious penniless Earl who wouldn’t pay Nashe’s 1591 rent.
This brings us to the second point: Gabriel Harvey’s statement in April of 1593 that “M. Pierce Penniless” is an author whose wit has lately “blossomed… in the rich garden of poor Adonis.” (See Figure 1) As asserted in the previous column, this is a surprisingly explicit piece of testimony, because Harvey also names Nashe in the same sentence — thereby excluding him as the “Penniless” of this passage. And what, less than a fortnight after the registration of Shake-speare’s Venus and Adonis, could Harvey possibly have meant when he wrote of “Pierce Penniless … in the rich garden of poor Adonis”?
According to Ross, it’s not what you think: “Harvey’s point thus is NOT that Pierce Penniless intends to write (or has written) a riff ABOUT the Garden of Adonis, but that [Pierce’s] magnificent wit blossomed as rapidly as flowers bloom in that garden. … [Emphasis in original] ”
“Not to spoil the joke for readers more astute than Stritmatter and Anderson, but Harvey really means to mock by overpraising,” Ross continues. “… Perhaps the irony of Harvey’s mock encomium was too subtle for Stritmatter and Anderson, so let me plainly state that Harvey really didn’t think that Nashe WAS superior in art and wit to Cheke and Ascham, to Sidney and Spenser.”
Ken Kaplan, a patient Oxfordian advocate on the Usenet Shakespeare forum, brought the first “Pierce” column to the group’s attention. And that, apparently, was his first mistake:
“One of the difficulties in helping someone like Ken Kaplan with the explication of texts written in the 1590s is that Ken does not know a great deal of Elizabethan literature,” Ross writes. “I do not mean this as an attack on Ken; it’s just that if he were more widely read in the literature of the period, he might be less impressed by Oxfordian essays. I’ve read a fair amount of the literature of the period, and I cannot read the phrase ‘garden of Adonis’ without being reminded of Spenser’s Garden (or Gardens) of Adonis in book 3 of The Faerie Queene.”
Funny. I’m actually more reminded of Mark Twain’s Schoolmaster Dobbins in chapter 21 of Tom Sawyer: “Vacation was approaching. The schoolmaster, always severe, grew severer and more exacting than ever, for he wanted the school to make a good showing on ‘Examination’ day. His rod and his ferule were seldom idle now — at least among the smaller pupils. … As the great day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings.”
But hey, maybe that’s just me.
Certainly, no one would deny the importance of Spenser’s discussion of the “gardens of Adonis” in his Fairy Queene (1590, 1596). But Spenser is hardly the only author of the period who cites this literary idiom. More important, in all his huffing, Ross obscures the basic point that his interpretation of Harvey’s words, “Pierce Penniless… in the rich garden of poor Adonis,” makes little sense. Ross would have us believe that “M. Pierce Penniless” is either Nashe’s 1592 pamphlet Pierce Penniless, or it’s a stand-in for Nashe himself. Yet the parallelism of the passage suggests that each entry in the list is an author, not six authors and one pamphlet written by an author who has already been named. And the logic of the passage suggests that each entry in the list is a unique individual, not five authors and one author under two different names.
Our reading proposed in the previous column — that “M. Pierce Penniless” is Edward de Vere and the “rich garden of poor Adonis” refers to the Shake-speare poem Venus and Adonis — is still the most plausible. Why would Harvey say that Nashe’s work has “grown to perfection” in Nashe’s own work? On the contrary, Harvey labors to maintain the parallel development of the two branches of this passage to make it clear that Penniless is not, here, the same person as Nashe. And yet we’re instructed to pick the interpretation that scuttles the parallelism. Again, unless one’s dogma prohibits such a reading, the simplest explanation in this case is clearly the one that is also anathema to the Stratfordian faith. No wonder Ross has come so unglued.
Yet I don’t dispute all of Ross’s arguments. I certainly agree with his contention that Harvey’s writing about the “garden … of Adonis” invokes an idiomatic meaning. Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, defines Adonis’s garden as “a worthless toy” or “very perishable goods” and cites passages from Spenser and Milton as examples. In other words, Adonis’ garden is a mythological place where all things are ephemeral and transitory.
Venus and Adonis was a popular, stylized text which Harvey himself would later mention in a handwritten marginal note to one of the books from his library. In this note, found in Harvey’s 1598 edition of the works of Chaucer, Harvey says that Venus and Adonis appeals to “the younger sort” — as contrasted to graver works such as Lucrece and Hamlet, which are suited to “please the wiser sort.” In addition to providing a perspective on contemporary Elizabethan views about Venus and Adonis, Harvey’s quote also aptly illustrates the idiomatic meaning of “garden of Adonis.” On one hand we have a bunch of kids who adore Venus and Adonis, on the other we have the “wiser sort” who apparently don’t.
Ross argues as follows: Because there’s no “garden of Adonis” explicitly mentioned in Venus and Adonis, then Harvey couldn’t possibly have been referring to the Shake-speare poem when he wrote “Pierce Penniless… in the rich garden of poor Adonis.” However, as seen above, the idiomatic meaning of “garden of Adonis” suits Harvey’s purposes perfectly. By saying that Pierce’s wit has blossomed “in the rich garden of poor Adonis,” Harvey is taking a sarcastic jab at what he evidently sees as a frivolous exercise of Pierce’s poetic talents. In April of 1593, Pierce’s wit has newly “blossomed” in an ephemeral work where Pierce’s incredible mind is only being used — in the words of Harvey’s more explicit description of Venus and Adonis — to “please the younger sort.”
This statement of Harvey’s is an important new piece of evidence for the Oxfordian case: It provides an immediate rejoinder to the objection that no one ever just came right out and said that Edward de Vere wrote Shake-speare. Here, thanks to Harvey and his testimony concerning “Pierce Penniless,” we can see that, in fact, someone did.
There’s plenty more where that came from, too. Van Dreunen’s book takes a fine first step toward piecing together the entire record of the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet war — a literary dispute in which the Earl of Oxford figures prominently.
Having said that, there’s a trickier later part to our previous column that Ross attacks that also must be addressed.
In our analysis, Stritmatter and I cited the following later passage from Pierce’s Supererogation: “The stay of publication resteth only at my instance: Who can conceive small hope of any possible account or regard of mine own discourses were that fair body of the sweetest Venus in print, as it is redoubtedly armed with the complete harness of the bravest Minerva.” In short, we argued that the “fair body of the sweetest Venus” in this passage was a reference Venus and Adonis and the “complete harness of the bravest Minerva” was the pen-name “Shake-speare,” given by the commonplace affiliation between Minerva and the shaking of spears.
Here, all kidding aside, I would like to thank Ross for pointing out — in his own vindictive way — an important ambiguity to this Harvey quote. The passage manifestly connects with other passages in Pierce’s Supererogation in which Harvey appeals to a patroness whose anticipated works he expects to redeem him from his critics. Ross aptly cites Nashe’s 1596 pamphlet Have With You to Saffron Walden, where Nashe makes it clear that Harvey’s “Venus” is his patroness. Although the identity of the patroness has never been definitively established, Alexander Grosart in the collected works of Gabriel Harvey ventures a plausible educated guess that she was, in fact, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.
Both Stritmatter and I agree with Ross that this larger context qualifies our reading and suggests a more innocent surface interpretation. But, as with Ross’s claim that Penniless “ALWAYS” means Nashe, one needn’t be dogmatic about a single interpretation here either. Both readings work, and it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Harvey meant it that way.
The “idle hours” of Gabriel Harvey
In any event, the point is secondary. The “Venus/bravest Minerva” passage was only offered up as independent confirmation of our primary thesis. Although we didn’t fully appreciate it when we wrote “The Potent Testimony,” there’s actually more confirmatory evidence of our thesis than what we’ve cited above. In one passage we present here for the first time, Harvey parodies the epistle dedication to Shake-speare’s Venus and Adonis — removing any potential objections that Harvey was unaware of the yet-unpublished Shake-speare poem when he wrote Pierce’s Supererogation.
As he concludes Pierces Supererogation, Harvey signs off with a riff that jokes on the epistle dedication of Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Here’s the relevant passage from Shake-speare: “[I]f your honor seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised and vow to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honored you with some graver labor.”
Here are the words with which Harvey concludes Pierce’s Supererogation:
“And so for this present, I surcease to trouble your gentle courtesies: of whose patience I have … in every part simply, in the whole tediously presumed under correction. I write only at idle hours that I dedicate only to Idle Hours [his emphasis]: or would not have made so unreasonably bold in no needfuller discourse than The Praise or Supererogation of an Ass.”
Notice here that Harvey not only emphasizes and repeats the phrase “idle hours,” but he also does it in the larger context of a mock dedication. So much for the fall-back position that Harvey was simply ignorant of the implications of equating “Pierce” with literary works about Adonis in 1593.
Harvey “Dismasks” a “rich mummer”
More astounding still is a previously unconsidered passage from Pierce Pennilesse in which Harvey alludes frankly to an emerging authorship controversy in which he could unambiguously “dismask” a well-to-do actor — but he declines to do so to appease those in power with whom he wants to remain on good terms. The theme is well-know to reader’s of Harvey’s book: the pedant is often privy to some of the greatest secrets of the age, but for the sake of discretion he will not commit this knowledge to print. In Four Letters Harvey boasts of noble authors whom he cannot dare to name in print: “I dare not name the Honorabler Sons & Noble Daughters of the sweetest, & divinest Muses, that ever sang in English, or other language: for fear of suspicion of that, which I abhor.” The thing Harvey abhorred, ironically, is the vice for which he became famous around the Privy Council: indiscretion.
In Pierce’s Supererogation, if he chose to, Harvey could state things much more plainly; there would be no mistaking his inside knowledge of great affairs. In fact, in one astounding passage Harvey threatens to “dismask” a “rich mummer.” And as the OED tells us (definition 2), a “mummer” is “an actor in a dumb show.”
Furthermore, Harvey boasts that if he did unmask this well-off player, it would make his book the “vendablest book in London” and transform the registrant of the book into “one of the famousest authors in England.” (Might this in fact be what Harvey really meant when he promised the “supererogation” of “Pierce Penniless”?) Harvey concludes that the man who keeps secrets also keeps powerful friends, and this to him was evidently reason enough to say nothing more explicit:
Here’s the stunning passage in Harvey’s own words (and with his emphasis):
“Pap-hatchet talketh of publishing a hundred merry tales of certain poor Martinists; but I could here dismask such a rich mummer and record such a hundred wise tales of memorable note with such a smart moral as would undoubtedly make this pamphlet the vendablest book in London and the register one of the famousest authors in England. But I am none of those that utter all their learning at once. And the close man… may per-case have some secret friends or respective acquaintance that in regard of his calling or some private consideration would be loathe to have his [heraldic] coat blazed or his satchel ransacked.”
Translation: Just like John Lyly (who took the nickname “Pap-Hatchet” in the Martin Marprelate quarrel) threatened to unmask Martin Marprelate, I could here unmask a rich actor — and in doing so, I could make this book the best-selling book in all of London and make yours truly the most famous author in all of England. But I won’t do that.
The word “rich” is particularly revealing here. Recall that by 1592, we find the Stratford denizen William Shakspere in London doling out a £7 loan. The fact that he had ready cash on hand representing more than a third of a typical year’s wages for an actor suggests that while he may not yet be lord of New Place, the epithet is certainly appropriate. He may not have been a rich man in 1593, but he was a rich mummer.
So here, in the end, is the rub: If one stipulates that Harvey does not mean Edward de Vere when he writes of “Pierce Penniless… in the rich garden of poor Adonis” in 1593, alternative plausible explanations need to be advanced for the passage in question in addition to the following other passages:
• Dekker’s assertion that Nashe was “sometimes secretary” to Pierce Penniless
• Harvey’s assertion that “Pierce” has “miraculous perfections… in abeyance.” And those “perfections” are in the “predicament of Chimera.”
• Harvey’s ending Pierce’s Supererogation with a spoof of the epistle dedication to Venus and Adonis
• Harvey’s astonishing statement that he could “dismask… a rich mummer” and in so doing, his book would become “the vendablest book in London.”
Despite Harvey’s best efforts to button his own lips, he still ended his literary career in disgrace and disrepute. And that, one suspects, was in no small part due to his own inability to keep a secret. In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury and others issued a decree stating, in part, that “All Nashe’s books and Dr. Harvey’s books be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of their books be ever printed hereafter.” All copies of the Nashe and Harvey books which could be confiscated by authorities were burned. Nashe died within two years of this decree. Before dying, he managed to publish his Summers Last Will and Testament (written c. 1592), a play which features an obvious cameo of appearance of the “penilesse” de Vere as the character “Ver.” Harvey lived another thirty-two years, dying an old man in 1631. But, during this long dry season, he never published another book.
One is, of course, free to continue reading the above “Pierce Penniless” revelations as if Harvey were writing all along about his powerless adversary Thomas Nashe and his romantic book about a wholly imaginary bankrupt nobleman who makes a supplication to the devil to help him survive. Such a reading is consistent with the premises on which orthodox Bardolatry depends to perpetuate itself. In fact, Nashe himself at times even tries to obfuscate the record and encourage the misinterpretation of Harvey’s words so that his “sometimes” boss de Vere can be kept out of the fray. But the Archbishop of Canterbury and the privy council apparently saw through the ruse. And so should 21st century readers: Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe spilled the beans on the secret life and identity of a powerful nobleman, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
For this, Harvey and Nashe were punished by an Elizabethan state dedicated to preserving the public fiction of Shake-spearean authorship. But, by the same token, they also become our two most compelling witnesses to the truth.
Roger Stritmatter contributed to this article.
“Bentiu: Both thou and he talk much of that Gentlewoman, but I would we might know her, and see her unhuskt and naked once, as Paris, in Lucians Dialogues, desires Mercury hee might see the three Goddesses naked, that strove for the golden Ball.
“Carnead: The Venus shee is that would win it from them all, if the controversie were now afloate againe: and, which thou permittedst before, he puts her in print for a Venus, yet desires to see her a Venus in print; publisheth her for a strumpet (for no better Venus was) and yet he would have her a strumpet more publique.” (McKerrow, 3:120-1) One could, of course, object that “idle hours” is a commonplace. Yet, of the four instances of the phrase “idle hours” in Elizabethan and Jacobean book dedications I could find, none pre-dated Venus and Adonis — leaving open the distinct possibility that they were tips of the hat to Shake-speare’s famous dedication — and one was, in fact, to the Earl of Southampton himself. (Sir John Harrington, “To the great Ladies of the Court,” The Most Elegant and Witty Epigrams (1618); Alexander Garden, “To the Most Honoured Ladie, The Ladie Clunie,” A Garden of Grave and Godlie Flowers (1609); John Dickenson, “To the Right Worshipful Maister Edward Dyer,” Arisbas (1594); John Hind, “To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly, Earle of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield,” Lysimachus and Varrona (1604))  Grosart, 1:219  That is, John Lyly, writing in his 1589 pamphlet, Pappe with a hatchet, an anti-Martinist tract which girds Harvey and is alluded to by Nashe in Strange News (McKerrow, 1: 300). For Lyly’s pamphlet see Warwick Bond, The Complete Works of John Lyly (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1902), 3:390-416.  Grosart, 2:312  Diana Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn. (2001) 15  Henslowe’s company reportedly paid a shilling a day to its actors. (cf., e.g., http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLTnoframes/society/cost.html) So £7 is 140 days salary.  Richard A. McCabe, “Elizabethan Satire and the Bishop’s Ban of 1599” The Yearbook of English Studies 2 (1981) 188