Home / Articles / Contemporary Proof that the Poet Earl of Oxford’s Literary Nickname was “Gentle Master William”

Contemporary Proof that the Poet Earl of Oxford’s Literary Nickname was “Gentle Master William”

by Charles Wisner Barrell

Reprinted from the October 1944 issue of  The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly

To prove beyond reasonable doubt that the poet- playwright Earl of Oxford is the real man behind the mask of “William Shakespeare,” it is essential to present documentation published in his lifetime (1550-1604) showing that Oxford was known to competent witnesses by a nickname approximating the cognomen associated with the great plays and poems. Such contemporary testimony is vital to the corroboration of all other evidence which records Edward de Vere as foremost Elizabethan Court poet and admired author of plays–none of which was printed under his legal name or title.

In “Shakespeare” Identified, J. Thomas Looney argues persuasively that Oxford is the original of Spenser’s “Willie,”  the gentle shepherd who engages in a rhyming contest with his rival “Perigot” (Sir Philip Sidney) in the August eclogue of  The Shepheardes’s Calendar (published 1579) and “pleasant Willy,”  the veteran writer of stage comedies “from whose pen large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow” in The Tears of the Muses (published 1591). Moreover,  Spenser’s characterizations of both “Willie” and “Pleasant Willy” can be shown from several other circumstances not included in Mr. Looney’s  book to fit the Poet Earl better than any other known writer of Spenser’s acquaintance.

Incidentally, Nicholas Rowe states that John Dryden held that Spenser had Shakespeare in mind in describing “pleasant Willy”. “This same gentle Spirit,” typifying the beau ideal of Elizabethan comedy, has been forced into retirement after years devoted to

the sweet delights of learning’s treasure
That wont with Comic sock to beautify
The painted Theatres, and fill with pleasure
The listeners’ eyes and ears with melody.

 Spenser tells us that “Willy’s” activities have been brought to a dead end by recent puritanical interdictions against plays.

In the history of the English stage it is chronicled that just such a puritanical wave of repression was precipitated in 1589-90 when the company of boy actors long patronized by Lord Oxford presented an objectionable burlesque of Martin Marprelate — the popular literary symbol of rising ecclesiastical reform.

For some time following, no acting company–not even the Queen’s Men–could secure license to appear publicly in London.  So while Dryden (as well as Edmund Malone) was unquestionably correct in believing that Spenser’s “pleasant Willy” pictures the true Bard, the circumstance should be noted that this identification automatically debars the alleged genius of Stratford as the person intended on the score of age alone-without emphasizing the fact that Spenser carefully describes “Willy” as a highly cultured aristocrat, “scorning the boldness of such base- born men” (Greene, Peele, Nash and others) whose ribald satires have brought his own efforts to nought.

In associating him with the pen-name of “William Shakespeare,” it will also be recalled that throughout his early manhood the Earl of Oxford enjoyed outstanding reputation as a “spear-shaker” in the lists. In many quarters he was looked upon as the coming man of action, though he was to be effectually thwarted in all such ambitions by political and social rivals.

At the same time, the young nobleman’s gifts as scholar, poet, comedian and theatrical entrepreneur-all of which are voluminously documented – unquestionably militated against his advancement in the Tudor regime. Considerable evidence indicates that the Queen sometimes refused her influence to secure Oxford certain remunerative posts for which he was well fitted in order to keep him near her as an entertainer. Thus he was thrown back upon his own mental resources at critical periods of his life and developed innate creative faculties by way of compensation.

So in July, 1578, when Gabriel Harvey as orator of the day welcomes Oxford to Cambridge University to receive an honorary degree, Harvey’s address to the nobleman-as given in full in Ward’s Seventeenth Earl of Oxford-stresses the fact that the Earl’s natural potentialities as a leader in the field of action have been neglected for literary projects.

He declares that Oxford’s fame “demands even more than in the case of others the services of a poet possessing lofty eloquence.” Then Harvey goes on to say:

“For a long time past Phoebus Apollo has cultivated thy mind in the arts. English poetical measures have been sung by thee long enough…I have seen many Latin verses of thine…yea, even more English verses are extant; thou hast drunk deep draughts not only of the Muses of France and Italy. thou hast learned the manners of many men, and the arts of foreign countries… 0 thou hero worthy of renown, throw away bloodless books, and writings that serve no useful purpose; now must the sword be brought into play, now is the time for thee to sharpen the spear and to handle great engines of war…Mars lives in thy tongue, Bellona reigns in thy body…thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear….”

It must be admitted by any fair-minded student of this case that an Elizabethan poet and playwright of Lord Oxford’s contemporary reputation who can be adequately documented as (1) Spenser’s master- comedian, “pleasant Willy,” and (2) a voluminous writer of English measures whose “countenance shakes a spear,” is a claimant to the Long-disputed title of “William Shakespeare who will not be lightly brushed aside.

I shall now offer additional evidence, more complete and circumstantial than anything heretofore printed on the vital matter of Oxford’s nickname, which should convince the most skeptical that the literary Earl was publicly addressed as “gentle Master William” by a contemporary who is also a recognized authority on personalities of the Shakespearean Age.

The evidence appears mostly in “The Epistle Dedicatorie” to Thomas Nash’s Strange News of the intercepting Certain Letters &c. which was entered for publication on the Stationers’ Register the 12th of January, 1593.

Nash had written Strange News to defend himself and his intimate literary and playwriting associates, especially the recently deceased Robert Greene, from a vicious attack launched against them a few months previously by Gabriel Harvey (c. 1545-1630), the same pundit-orator who had addressed Lord Oxford in 1578 as a distinguished poet who might better devote himself to active spear-shaking.

Not long after delivering his oration, Harvey applied for the post of private secretary to the literary nobleman, but was rejected in favor of John Lyly. Now Lyly, as is well known, dedicated his most important fiction, Euphues and His England, to Oxford in 1579 and wrote and produced all of his sparkling Court comedies while in the Earl’s employ. Coincidently, Shakespeare’s early comedies contain many echoes of the Lyly mannerisms; and the foremost students of Lyly’s career are convinced that Lord Oxford collaborated with his secretary stage-manager.

Gabriel Harvey certainly believed that Oxford and his protege dipped their quills in the same inkhorn; for in his pamphlet entitled Pierce’s Supererogation (1593) Harvey reminds Lyly of earlier days when he enjoyed “thy old acquaintance in the Savoy, when young Euphues hatched the eggs that his elder friends laid.”

Personal jealousy of Lyly’s success and pique with Oxford for having favored the comedy writer instead of him explains many of Harvey’s future actions. His sharply illuminating burlesque of the Earl for aping the arts of the Italian Renaissance, Speculum Tuscanismi (The Mirror of Tuscanism), appeared in 1580.1

It is a cutting but extremely valuable caricature, written in jolting English hexameters, the opening volley in Harvey’s sniping campaign against Oxford and the lesser members of his new Shakespearean creative circle. Harvey belonged to the opposite literary camp of classicists, headed by Sir Philip Sidney, who fought all realistic innovations in English poetry. He was also an extremely egotistical and spiteful person with a full blown inferiority complex (shared by his brothers John and Richard), as the Harveys had risen in the world of scholarship and social prestige although their father–a worthy rope- maker of Saffron-Walden — undoubtedly owed some of his prosperity to “traffic with the hangman,” as Gabriel’s critics claim.

When the “Martin Marprelate” war of pamphlets got under way in 1588-89, the Bishops of the Church of England were at a distinct disadvantage in answering the scathing attacks upon their prerogatives until they employed a group of popular writers, made up chiefly of Robert Greene, John Lyly and Thomas Nash, to answer the annoying Martin in his own colloquial, hard-hitting style. The Bishops  had evidently followed the advice of Lord Oxford in utilizing the talents of playwrights and satirists in squelching “Martin,” for Greene, Lyly and Nash are proven proteges of the Earl.

The Harveys appear to have mixed into this vociferous debate, mainly to attract attention to their own merits; and Greene, Lyly and Nash were all held up by them as bad examples in the degeneration  of current literary trends.

Greene came back at Gabriel and Richard Harvey in some biting satirical thrusts in the first printing (now lost) of his Quip for an Upstart Courtier (C. 1592); and when Thomas Nash’s spirited commentary on the ups and downs of the creative worker in England appeared in the summer of 1592 under the title of Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Devil,  the Harveys were given another going over with one of Nash’s sharpest goose-quills.

Meanwhile, the gifted and versatile but lamentably-irregular Robert Greene had taken to his deathbed after one midnight banquet too many of “Pickled herring and Rhenish wine.”

Gabriel Harvey’s long-smoldering grudge against the red-bearded, devil-may-care satirist,  who he termed one of “the very ringleaders of rhyming and scribbling crew,” now found opportunity to vent itself.

Hard on the heels of the undertaker,  Dr. Harvey betook himself to the humble lodgings at the home of a Dowgate shoemaker, where Greene had expired, to gather fetid gossip of the sick-chamber at first hand (as he boasts) and to gloat over the wretched passing of this master of “impudent pamphletting, phantastical interluding and desperate libeling.” Within a month or so of Greene’s burial on September 4, 1592, Harvey’s disgraceful onslaught on the unfortunate writer appeared in Four Letters and Certain Sonnets, Especially Touching Robert Greene & c. Featuring the extraordinary slogan, “The dead bite not,”  this pamphlet is happily quite unique in English literature.

Harvey was a master of rhetoric at Cambridge–an authority on Latin prosody, author of the university text-books, Rhetor and Ciceronianus, and also a Doctor of Civil Law, but the Four Letters proves him shockingly bereft of the sense of decency and humanity one would expect to govern a normal university don and legal light. It is not too much to say that Harvey descends with ghoulish zest to the charnel-house and the latrine for similes with which to dishonor the dead humorist.

In his Palladis Tamia (1598), Francis Meres states the case as it must have appeared to many Elizabethans when he says:

“As Achilles tortured the dead body of Hector, and as Antonius and his wife Fulvia tormented the  lifeless corpse of Cicero: so Gabriel Harvey hath showed the same inhumanity to Greene that lies full low in his grave.”

Not content with bedaubing the decreased playwright’s remains with verbal nastiness, Harvey also took occasion in the Four Letters to denounce, reprove, twit and nag several of Greene’s most gifted colleagues, such as the deceased ballad- maker and stage comedian, William Elderton, John Lyly, George Chapman, the Earl of Oxford- first by title in an inverted apology for The Mirror of Tuscanism and later under contemptuous references to his loss of social prestige through his activities as a common playwright. Finally, the enraged pedant brought his stoutest birch rod whistling about Torn Nash’s ears.

Every one of these persons, it will be noted, had a recorded hand in the development of the Shakespearean stage. And it is significant to find at this early date (1592) that several portions of the Harvey diatribe devoted to the evil influence of “pelting Comedies (that) busy the Stage, as well as some graver Tragedies,” in which “some old Lads of the Castle have sported themselves with their rapping babble.”2

This obvious reference to the Oldcastle/Falstaff characterization is followed by other hits at “hypocritical Hotspur,” as well as “gouty Devils, and buckram Giants,” these being cited as current examples of poor taste and historical distortion. Such comments upon the influences exerted by the Henry IV comedies should not be overlooked in fixing the true chronology of the Shakespeare plays. Harvey’s remarks are reproduced in the new Variorum Edition of 1 Henry IV.

When the Four Letters was published in the early autumn of 1592, Thomas Nash was out of London, as he tells us in the second edition of Pierce Penilesse, because the plague was still rife in the city and “fear of infection detained me with my Lord in the City.”  But upon his return, with “my Lord” (of Oxford), Tom appears to have set promptly to work to vindicate himself, his dead comrade Greene, Lord Oxford and their professional circle from Harvey’s libelous strictures.

This devastating rejoinder, Strange News, is a classic of invective, scintillating with wit and merciless in the skill with which Nash flays his asinine tormentor. More than that, it is one of the key documents to the Oxford-Shakespeare mystery.

Study of Strange News is absolutely essential to a true understanding of the personal character of the playwriting Earl of Oxford, and of the position he occupied as a man among men in the year of grace, 1592.

I have said that Nash is a recognized authority on personalities of the Shakespearean Age. Prof. George B. Harrison, editor of the famous Elizabethan Journals, makes the flat statement in his valuable little work called Introducing Shakespeare (Penguin Books), that the collected writings of Nash (together with Greg’s edition of the Diary and Papers of Philip Henslowe) “have actually revolutionized modern notions about Shakespeare and  his plays.”

No truer words have been spoken by an honest Stratfordian. But Harrison should have gone further. He should have included Gabriel Harvey’s writings in this category. For Nash and Harvey fully interpret as well as abuse each other, and in the course of their controversy give us more unconventional and graphic information about the real Shakespeare through their extensive commentaries on the poet-playwright Earl of Oxford and his bohemian companions than can be gathered from any other contemporary publications.

By the same token, we can be very sure that if there had been any person such as the conjectured genius of Stratford-on-Avon writing the same type of “pelting Comedies” that Harvey attacks with such avidity at this time, the trivial and vulnerable background of the runaway butcher’s apprentice and holder of horses would certainly have come in for thorough dissection, ridicule or apology in the course of this acrimonious and long-continued contest between the Shakespearean and anti-Shakespearean schools of expression. But William of Stratford is neither nominated nor personalized under any recognizable metaphor by either Harvey or Nash. He was patently non-existent as a literary figure so far as the evidence of the eight books3 in which the disagreeable Doctor and lusty Tom quarrel over the relative merits of their opposing creative sects during the years 1592 to 1597.

At the same time, the Earl of Oxford is accorded extensive attention–both pro- and con– under his distinguished title and under less distinguished but vastly human and entertaining descriptive references. No other living nobleman of the era is given a fraction of the same notice by these pamphleteers. The significance of this circumstance cannot henceforth be ignored by anyone who makes any pretence of understanding Oxford’s real position in the Elizabethan creative world. At the same time it makes plain the motive behind the imperative order issued to the Stationers’ Company on June 2, 1599 by Bancroft, Bishop of London and Whitgift, Bishop of Canterbury:

“That all Nash’s books and Doctor Harvey’s books be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of their books be ever printed hereafter.”

Oxford, the Lord Chamberlain of England, had been written up disrespectfully by friend and foe alike.  His activities as a common playwright and companion of “lewd penmen” had been too freely discussed. Hence, the tardy official effort to expunge the evidence, just as certain other testimony such as the records of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The records of the Master of the Revels and various telltale items which would fully corroborate his connection with the Shakespearean theatre were even more effectually eliminated.

In Strange News Nash makes a determined effort to arouse Lord Oxford from the creative lethargy into which “our pleasant Willy…dead of late” has sunk, following proscription of his acting companies by puritanical statute in 1589-90. Young Nash wants the master-comedian to join him in giving the coupe-de-grace to the bitter enemy of their professional circle. With a gay and irreverent ruffle of drums before the public house where the brilliant veteran now spends his leisure “in idle cell,” Tom calls him out to give battle for the true Shakespearean cause.

The Epistle Dedicatorie of Strange News has never been adequately interpreted5 nor generally understood because it is composed in the esoteric, neo-classical  argot affected by the University Wits, of which Nash is a past master. The style of expression is as typical of the rarified intellectual atmosphere of the day as the mannerisms of Oscar Wilde and his fin-de-siècle school are of the last decade of the 19th century. Likewise, identification of certain real life characters addressed and the significance of situations obliquely referred to must be inevitably lost upon the casual reader who has not made a special study of both the human and humanist elements that shaped the times.

Classically derived nicknames and strange phrases, pregnant with meaning for Nash and his contemporaries of the Elizabethan writing fraternity, require explanation to bring them within the orbit of present day understanding. Nash is an avowed satirist and incorrigible punster. But despite his prideful knowledge of the ancients, which he rarely misses an occasion to display, he is essentially contemporary not to say modern, in his point of view, an extremely well informed and accurate historian of the Shakespearean period.

I will first reproduce The Epistle Dedicatorie in which Lord Oxford is addressed, as it appears in the original printing of 1593 with sufficient modernization of spelling to make it legible to modern readers. Then we can go over the composition, paragraph by paragraph and phrase by phrase, if necessary, to discover its full import.  [Read Barrell’s transcription and notes for The Epistle Dedicatorie here.]



Stay Informed
Join our FREE Email list to get the latest news on the Shakespeare authorship controversy
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.