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Gabriel Harvey and the Genesis of “William Shakespeare”


The title page of Gabriel Harvey’s Gratulationis Valdinensis Liber Quartus (Walden Rejoicing, in Four Books), London, September 1578 (STC 12901). The tract includes poems, dialogues and orations to assembled court dignataries: Queen Elizabeth, The Earl of Leicester, Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Lord Treasurer William Cecil.

by Andrew Hannas

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter,
Winter 1993, Volume 29, No. 1B

In attempts to explain the choice of the name “William Shakespeare” subscribed in print to the dedicatory epistles to Henry Wriothesley for Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), most Oxfordians draw attention to the description of Edward de Vere in 1578 by the then-fellow at Cambridge, Gabriel Harvey: “Thy countenance shakes spears.”

Harvey’s occasion was a royal progress to Cambridge pausing at Audley End in Essex: in addition to De Vere, Harvey delivered encomiums to the Queen, Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Philip Sidney. As Harvey’s oft-cited utterance is by no means inconsequential in the genesis of the appellation “William Shakespeare” , and — as Harvey’s words were actually made in Latin rather than English (the translation above is B. M. Ward’s, the Oxfordian biographer, and potentially open to scrutiny for an Oxfordian bias– see appendix), I decided to consult Harvey’s actual Latin as well as Latin-English dictionaries of the day for possible further gleanings on the description. I share my findings:

Harvey’s description occurred in a 168-line poem composed in dactylic hexameter verses which he styled an Apostrophe ad eundem (Apostrophe to the same man, i.e. De Vere), printed in Gratulationis Valdinensis Liber Quartus (The Fourth Book of Walden Rejoicing), London, 1578, in September. The Latin words in question end line 40 and begin line 41:

. . . vultus
Tela vibrat . . .

The initial problem is simply whether or not Harvey’s words, vultus/Tela vibrat, would have reasonably enough borne Ward’s ideation. A 20th-century study of Harvey’s encomiums, for example, renders the words “your glance shoots arrows”, rather unsuggestive of “shakes spears” — see end note, Appendix. While modern dictionaries such as the Oxford Latin Dictionary treat all senses of the words thoroughly, they lack the weight of contemporary 16th-century signification and hence interpretation not just by Harvey but by his audience as well. Fortunately, such 16th-century lexicographical commentary does exist in the form of a well-established tradition of Latin-to-English dictionaries, chiefly those of Thomas Elyot before 1550 and Thomas Cooper, his successor, whose Latin-English dictionaries of 1565, 1573, 1584 and 1587 became “standard authority” according to DeWitt Starnes, the eminent scholar (Robert Estienne’s Influence on Lexicography, Texas, 1963, p. 104).

To cite Cooper’s Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae (Thesaurus of the Roman and British Tongue), 1565 and 1573:

Vultus– A countenaunce or cheere: a looke: a visage.

Telum– All thinge that may be throwen with the hande, be it stone, wood, or Iron: a darte: an arrow: a quarrell [i.e., metal arrowhead]. A weapon to fight with: a swoorde.

Vibro– To shake a thyng: to make a thing to shake or quaver: to brandish.

Thomas Thomas, 1587, in his Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (Dictionary of the Latin and English Tongue), follows Cooper closely; thus, during the period in question, the 1560s through the 1580s, the academic significations of vultus/Tela vibrat were fairly standard. But what of Ward’s rendition?

While “countenance shakes” for vultus … vibrat is quite accurate, fairness demands that his “spears” for Tela is a bit of an Oxfordian liberty, since Harvey could have used a form of hasta — “a speare, forke, or iaveling” (Cooper) — to signify specifically spears. So, why Tela? I suspect Harvey has made a deliberate and greatly reverberating pun, but first to return to vultus.:

In the Dictionary of Thomas Elyot, 1538 and 1559, the Latin words are rendered essentially as in Cooper/Thomas. However, the word vultus is printed twice, i.e., given two separate entries. Above the entry rendered “countynaunce or chiere” one sees:

Vultus, of olde wryters is taken for wylle, a Volendo.

Vultus, vultus, & vultum, countynaunce or chiere.

That is, vultus (from the verb volo and its gerund volendo), carried the sense of will in addition to countenance!

Granted, by 1578 the use may have been a trifle obscure, but Harvey was a master of the obscure. Thus, a perfectly permissible translation of vultus … vibrat is “(thy) will shakes. (Elyot’s use of “wryters” in his definition is tantalizing as a reference to earlier poets.) Now to the Tela.

As treated thus far, Tela is taken as the accusative plural of the neuter noun, telum. The e is long, the a short, hence Tela for metrical conformity to the dactylic foot.

Similarly, vultus is treated as the nominative singular of the masculine noun, vultus. That is, vultus is the subject, tela the direct object, of the verb vibrat. (If the grammatical tedium rings of the sort parodied in Love’s Labour’s Lost, bear in mind the notorious pedantry of Harvey. The points are key in appreciating the wordplay.) Again, as treated thus far, vultus/Tela vibrat could be rendered, on the basis of 16th-century lexicography, as:

(Thy) countenance shakes “missiles”,

or even

(Thy) will shakes “missiles”,

where “missiles” is the most generic equivalent I can enlist, avoiding “spears”, for the idea of “all things that may be throwne with the hand.”

I am surmising that Harvey chose Tela (missiles) as a weakened form of “spears” because he had in mind another word Tela, metrically identical but quite different from telum-as-thing-thrown. This other word tela is a noun in the feminine, nominative, singular, defined in Thomas:

Tela–A web of cloth: also any enterprise, busines, or worke.

Here Tela would become the subject of vibrat:

(Thy) web/enterprise shakes,

with, in turn, vultus now shifting to the accusative plural (the genitive singular is possible, but I think less likely) as the direct object of vibrat:

(Thy) enterprise shakes countenances/wills.

Thus, I suspect that Harvey chose the less precise tela for hastas (spears) because of the double-sense created: vultus/Tela vibrat is both “(Thy) countenance /will shakes missiles/spears” and “(Thy) enterprise/web shakes countenances/wills.”

And what is implied by De Vere’s “web” or “enterprise”? Here more of Harvey’s context becomes important, though no doubt the “cloth”, strange and stylish, of De Vere would have turned many a countenance — Harvey’s context is more literary.

The persistent rhetoric of Harvey’s address urges:

calamum, Memorande, pusillum / … Abijce:
O Noteworthy one, throw away the petty pen: (21-23)

Harvey would turn Oxford’s “petty pen” (calamum pusillum) to arts more martial, a diminution of literary activities clearly not to be taken at face value, as in lines 5-13 Harvey has lauded Oxford’s English and Latin poetry and his Latin epistle prefacing Clerk’s translation of Castiglione’s Courtier, 1572. Harvey’s duplex posturing invites a double-edged interpretation.

Charlton Ogburn, Jr. offers a plausible scenario in which De Vere actually put Harvey up to persuading the Queen and Burghley to permit him to engage in military office (The Mysterious William Shakespeare, pp. 597-598); but Harvey, increasingly drifting toward the Sidney literary circle that would keep close rein on public display of letters, just as plausibly might have been pandering to Burghley, Chancellor of Cambridge, in the latter’s move to curtail De Vere’s literary endeavors. What of such endeavors?

In a very peculiar expression just two lines before the vultus/Tela vibrat, Harvey may have exposed the more subtle context of De Vere’s “enterprise” that could “shake wills” of others. The Latin is:

Minerva / In dextra latitat:

rendered by Ward as:

Minerva strengthens thy right hand

where “strengthens” translates the verb latitat. Yet latitat does not by any lexical evidence mean “strengthens”: a frequentative or repetitive form of lateo (cf. latent), which Cooper defines, “to lye hydde; to be secrete: to be unknowen”, the far more accurate translation is:

Minerva lies hidden in (your) right hand:

Here, I suggest, Harvey signals De Vere’s “enterprise”, which he will further depict ten words later with vultus/Tela vibrat. Moreover, the latter instantly looks over its own shoulder to Minerva, Latin for Athena, whose epithet “Pallas” the scholar-printer Henri Estienne explained in his Thesaurus Linguae Graecas (Geneva, 1572):

dicitur enim pallas quasi Vibratrix dea. & quidem hastae vibratrix, utpote bellicosa. (III.29.D.1-2)

for Pallas is said (to be) like a brandisher goddess. and indeed a brandisher of the spear, inasmuch (as she is) warlike. (My translation)

Harvey could, in simple fashion, be remarking only on De Vere’s neglected martial pursuits, in line with Mars and Bellona, the Roman war deities invoked in lines 38-40. But those deities, and for that matter vultus/Tela vibrat, do little in their obvious contexts to parallel the notion that “Minerva lies hidden”, since Harvey’s images seem infused in and emanating from De Vere’s totality, making a war-like image of Minerva that is hidden rather puzzling.

I suggest, instead or in addition, that Harvey chose Minerva latitat to connect De Vere to the goddess’ role as patroness of the arts, especially of drama, and that Minerva is in large sense the Tela, the “enterprise”, that “lies hidden” in his right (? pen) hand. De Vere’s Minervan enterprise, spear-shaking patron of drama, is not so much martial frustration as unacknowledged theatrical involvement, and it is this activity — surely as a dramatist as well as patron –that could shake others’ wills. De Vere’s dramatic enterprise was the popular stage, whose boards would shake as the very projection of his will.

To recapitulate, before final observations: Ward’s “Thy countenance shakes spears”, while stretching Tela (things thrown by hand) a permissible bit into “spears” (usually hastas), actually missed the signification of vultus, as “will”, such that “thy will shakes spears” already stands as a more telling rendition than hitherto has been appreciated.

Additionally, the admittedly tortuous but linguistically and contextually valid Harveian inversion yielding “Thy enterprise shakes wills” reverberates on the preceding “Minerva lies hidden in your right hand” in such a way as to connect De Vere’s spear-shaking will with a theatrical enterprise that, even though unacknowledged, is stirring the populace.

All of the foregoing ideation, which a preferment-seeking academic sort such as Gabriel Harvey could publish in 1578, should be enough to locate the genesis of “William Shakespeare” much earlier than the years of the 1590s. Was, that is, the name “William Shakespeare” occasioned by events of those later years merely, or had the cognomen with all its ramifying associations been “lurking hidden” for some fifteen years before its debut in print?

I would venture that Harvey’s Latin plays on De Vere’s alter ego not just as a spear-shaking and stage-shaking young dramatist but also as a personage linked instantly to the name of “Will” even in the 1570s. If “Willye”, for example, in the August Eclogue of Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, 1579, is as most Oxfordians believe an allusion to De Vere as a poet-rival to Sidney (and Sidney, Spenser and Harvey were well-acquainted in 1579), then the sobriquet must have been in circulation long enough to prompt Spenser’s use. How could Edward De Vere have acquired the nickname?

To my knowledge (I readily defer to previous thoughts along these lines; the Ogburns, for example, in This Star of England, p., 175, trace “will” via I “well” and “spring” to Ver or Vere), the very obvious and oh-so ironic linkage of “Will” and Edward De Vere to his guardian and surrogate-father, William Cecil, has not been advanced as an origin of “William” Shakespeare. The practice of calling children whose given names are different from their (grand)parents’ by their parents’ given names is not uncommon; with De Vere, from age twelve the ward of William Cecil (28 years his senior), those familiar with the pair could not have failed to notice the developing antipathy between the two, the headstrong yet powerless youth more titled than the prudent yet power-hungry and less-titled elder.

Inevitably, observers must have hit upon a wry but apt “young Will” to designate an adolescent Edward De Vere as the “son” of William Cecil. I would be surprised if this association had not already been afloat by the 1565-67 years, when Harvey and De Vere apparently grew acquainted at Cambridge. Such an appellation, “young Will” or later just “Will”, would not have been especially pleasing to De Vere, as it would remind him of Cecil’s control of his aspirations and rights, intellectual and material. How De Vere reacted to Harvey’s “vultus” — not to mention to Spenser’s “Willye” within the year – no doubt would have depended on the degree of “good” as opposed to “ill” will he perceived in the words.

I suspect that De Vere somewhat ruefully realized that once the likes of Harvey and Spenser had picked up on “Will” and “spear-shaking”, he could do precious little to protest. Better to accept the irony and appreciate the potentially rich pen-name, one that, however, could only be played as a master stroke — and preferably in a context Cecil would understand.

De Vere also would have filed away Harvey’s epithet for Cecil, “Polus”[1], sounded half a dozen times in his 1578 toast to Cecil, literally of course referring to the central pole or axis on which the earth turns, but for an ear tuned to the Greek of Plato also the name of the blustering, sycophantic protege of the sophist Gorgias, whom Socrates mocks in the Gorgias much the way Hamlet does Polonius (literally “colt” in Greek, polos, punned on polios, “gray”, also befitting Cecil). “William Shakespeare” would be saved for use as a “pointed” message to Cecil that their clash of wills and enterprises could be aired for all to see if the stakes warranted.

The puzzle remains, of course, as to why the long narrative poems of 1593 and 1594 became the vehicles for the unveiling of “William Shakespeare”. The scenarios are as numerous as the curious mind can envision. Given, however, the multiplex levels of signification in the works (especially in Venus and Adonis), the choice of the name, I suggest, likewise was multi-layered both in its significations (known to some, baffling to others) and in its decision to be used. I doubt that “William Shakespeare” was used simply because of the presence (?) of a provincial actor (?) with a phonetically similar name, though such coincidence may have been a contributing factor.

Rather, I surmise that “William Shakespeare” was prompted by 1) its long-standing associations with De Vere; 2) a “familial” dispute involving De Vere, Cecil,. and Southampton; and 3) an emergent or precipitating event that forced De Vere’s hand. Such linguistic association with De Vere has been the focus of this article; of the familial context for the name, this observer cannot avoid positing a connection to the marriage-negotiations then afoot between Southampton, Cecil’s ward, and Elizabeth, De Vere’s eldest daughter. The young earl eventually bought his way out of the match, for 5,000.

The role, if any, played by Venus and Adonis or Lucrece in such a costly extrication from the plan (Cecil’s), usually has been seen as supporting the marriage. For those who know their Ovidian context of incest in Metamorphoses Book X, precisely the opposite may have been the poem’s message to Southampton. Any dedicatee reading the poem would have been most squeamish, especially given the disaster befalling Adonis as he fails to heed the warning not to hunt the boar.

The precipitating event, whatever the pathways to the choice, was, I suggest, the death of Marlowe just one month after the entry of Venus and Adonis into the Stationers’ Register, sans author (entered in April of 1593).

“William Shakespeare” seems to me a move to steer clear of the explosive political stakes that an association with Marlowe had knowingly or unwittingly brought. As with so many of the latter’s alliances and intrigues, Marlowe’s literary and personal relationship with De Vere is problematic at best. Of all the poets in De Vere’s sphere, however, Marlowe certainly was the most Ovidian in terms of “sources”. Even if Venus and Adonis, were intended to be printed with no authors name, it very likely would have been seen as Marlowe’s work — to Southampton’s scandal.

Thus, a name had to be attached to the work, one that the intended audience would “get” though a general audience would not, serving De Vere’s purpose yet disassociating such purpose from the Marlowe affairs. If a provincial actor’s name and presence were enlisted as a screen, so be it. Propping up a Shaxper at least would not incur those kinds of liabilities, though by 1596-7 the ruse brought its own set of headaches, including no small degree of authorial embarrassment and chagrin. Harvey himself must have derived a measure of glee at the vicissitudes of his prophetic encomium.


[1] In an essay more blistering than reasoned, Terry Ross has challenged the theory, which Hannas here presumes as an established fact, that Polus was a popular court nickname of Cecil, the father-in-law of de Vere parodied in Hamlet as Polonius. It is noticeable that neither Mr. Ross nor any of his associates has sucessfully challenged any other part of this essay, despite numberless (now retracted) claims that the word “tela” cannot be translated as “spear” — which of course, it can be, and frequently is. –Ed 3/14/02


Harvey’s Apostrophe ad eundem, lines 38-43:

Virtus fronte habitat: Mars occupat ora; Minerva
In dextra latitat: Bellona in corpore regnat:
Martius ardor inest; scintillant lumina: vultus
Tela vibrat: quis non redivivum iuret Achillem?
O age, magne Comes, spes est virtutis alenda
Ista tibi;

A translation (clearly lacking the poetic gift):

Valour dwells on brow: Mars seizes the mouth: Minerva
In right hand lies hid; Bellona in body reigns:
Warlike heat’s within; eyes spark: countenance
Missiles shakes: who would not swear Achilles reborn?
O act, great Earl, your hope of heroism must be fed
By you;

Ward’s translation (The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, London, 1928, pp. 1578):

Courage animates thy brow, Mars lives in thy tongue,
Minerva strengthens thy right hand, Bellona reigns in
thy body, within thee burns the fire of Mars. Thine
eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a* spear; who
would not swear that Achilles had come to life again?

*Ward translates singular for the Latin plural.


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