The Case for Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
Ben Jonson’s Eulogy
“To the memory of My Beloved, the Author”
All material copyright (c) Jonathan Star, 2009
Ben Jonson’s poem, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author,’ is so full of hints towards the identity of the true writer that [when considering the Shakespeare Authorship Question] we must place it at the head of the list [of works] to be analyzed.
(James and Rubinstein, The Truth Will Out)
Jonson’s opinion of Shakspere is highly relevant to the Authorship question. Everything, in fact, depends on it, because Jonson’s eulogy of Shakespeare in the Folio, plainly identifying him as the man of Stratford, is the strongest bastion of the orthodox, Stratfordian case. Every heretical writer has had to confront it. It has been the most hotly debated text in the entire controversy. Stratfordians regard it as the clinching evidence in favor of their own candidate, while their rivals ingeniously pick holes in it, claiming either that Ben Jonson was insincere in his flattery of Shakespeare or that he was secretly praising another man [or woman], the real author, whose identity he knew.
(Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p.74)
Ben Jonson's Eulogy to the Author >>
The Shakespeare Authorship Question
The Shakespeare Authorship Question is an ongoing debate which is based on the question, “Who wrote the plays attributed to “Shakespeare”? (The underlying assumption, of course, is that someone other than William Shakspere of Stratford was the true author of the Shakespeare plays.) Those who hold to the Orthodox position that William Shakspere of Stratford was the author of the Shakespeare plays keep insisting that there is no debate. (This is the same scenario with global warming: one camp is trying to debate the issue while the other camp denies that there is a even an issue, or a problem, to debate). For Stratfordians—those who believe that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the plays—there is no debate. However, for everyone else there is a debate; and the reason why there is a debate—over Shakespeare, and no other writer of the period—is because there is no positive indication that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the “Shakespeare” plays (and much evidence that he did not).
Those who are called “anti-Stratfordians” all agree on one thing: Shakspere of Stratford did not write the plays attributed to Shakespeare—yet there is no agreement among this group as to who did write the plays. The major authorship candidates are Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Francis Bacon, Mary Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Neville, Roger Manners and a host of others. Most of the supportive evidence for a candidate comes in the form of linking the content of the plays to various aspects of the candidate’s life, such as linking a candidate to a major character or linking the general arch of the plays to the "ups and downs" of the candidate's life. This method, though sound, is vague and inconclusive since all the major candidates (except for Shakspere) knew each other and many of them were related; and some shared similar "ups and downs" in life. The only conclusion we can gain from this life-comparison method is that some well-educated aristocrat, having access to a vast amount of written material, and knowing several languages, with a penchant for play writing (and plenty of time to write), could have written the plays—and such a description could fit most of the authorship candidates except for William Shakspere of Stratford.
So, where else can we look for distinguishing evidence in favor of one candidate over another?
Ben Jonson’s Eulogy
The only positive and identifiable (though not conclusive) statement made about the Author is found in Ben Jonson’s eulogy, entitled ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author.’ This eulogy appears in the preface of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623. Ben Jonson was one of three people who we know knew the identity of the Author (the other two were William and Philip Herbert, the dedicatees of the First Folio). Thus, in light of no solid evidence in support of any one candidate (Shakspere included) Jonson's eulogy remains the most central piece of writing with respect to the true identity of Shakespeare, the Author.
We can see that Jonson’s eulogy was carefully and exactingly crafted, with no stray or arbitrary lines. Clearly, almost every one of Jonson's lines was used as a literary device to indicate or "suggest" the Author’s identity, without actually revealing it. His eulogy is a masterpiece of cryptic writing—not in the sense of containing elaborate mathematical ciphers—but by its incorporation of the full breadth of the English language whereby the same words are able to both conceal and reveal. Thus, in trying to discover the Author’s true identity our most obvious question is: “To whom did Jonson write his eulogy?” And more specifically, “How do the references and metaphors found in Jonson’s eulogy relate to the Author?”
What we know from Jonson’s own words is that he was not at liberty to reveal the actual identity of the Author, as he would have wished, and that he was forced to couch his words in oblique references and metaphors. Thus, the eulogy has to be read with this understanding in mind. If William Shakspere was “Shakespeare, the Author”—with no need to hide anything—then Jonson would have openly praised him, using direct and traceable life references (as was the custom) rather than couching his words in cryptic verse—and then complaining about having to praise the Author in such an indirect way! Jonson, it seems, responded begrudgingly to the Author’s wish that she remain anonymous; yet, through the use of keys, inferences, metaphors—and a skillful manipulation of the language—Jonson could have it both ways: he could hide the Author's identity (especially to the obtuse reader) and, at the same time, reveal it (to those "in the know," and who were able to read between the lines).
How the Major Authorship Candidates Relate to Jonson’s Eulogy
In trying to gauge the solidity of any candidate's claim to being the Author of the “Shakespeare Plays,” we only need ask: “How strongly can that candidate be linked to Jonson’s eulogy (and the other prefatory material of the First Folio)?”
Below is a short list of how each authorship candidate relates to Jonson's eulogy:
William Shakspere of Stratford
♦ The expression, “Sweet Swan of Avon” could be a reference to William Shakspere since he was from Stratford, a town situated on a branch of the Avon River. However, there is no indication as to why he would be addressed as being “sweet” nor does the image of a swan have any relevance to his known life. The Avon River best known by writers at the time was the Wiltshire branch—which ran through Wilton—not the smaller branch running through Stratford.
"Ben Jonson was a crafty professional writer, versed in all the literary techniques of wordplay and subtle allusion by which, in an age of ruthless censorship, secret ideas and information were communicated among the initiated. The Stratfordians naturally insist that his lines to Mr. William Shakespeare, Sweet Swan of Avon, should be taken at face value and clearly intended for William Shakspere of Stratford. But they are not necessarily right. Their opponents emphasize the complete difference in tone between Jonson’s unstinting praise of Shakespeare in the First Folio and the scornful allusions made to him elsewhere, both before and after Shakspere’s death."
(Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare? p., 78)
♦ In their Dedication, Hemings and Condell mention that Shakespeare was a “Friend & Fellow,” thereby implicating William Shakspere of Stratford, who was a friend and fellow of Hemings and Condell (and who named these fellow players in his will); however Hemings and Condell never make any direct reference by which "their friend" could be identified. (Virtually all scholars agree that the Dedication was not written by Hemings and Condell (but by Ben Jonson) and only attributed to them. Thus, nothing in the Dedication can be taken at face value nor as the true words of Hemings and Condell.)
♦ In their “Note to the Reader,” Hemings and Condell state that they received papers from their friend with scarce a blot in them. It is assumed that their “friend” was William Shakspere though he is never mentioned by name nor is there mention of anything which positively identifies their friend as William Shakspere of Stratford. (Again, all scholars agree that the “Note to the Reader” was probably written by Ben Jonson and only attributed to Hemings and Condell. Moreover, this notion of receiving near-perfect plays from the Author is refuted in Jonson’s eulogy when he makes it clear that the high art of the Author's plays only came about through careful revision).
♦ In Leonard Digges’s poem (found in the First Folio) he makes mention of ‘thy Stratford Moniment” and William Shakspere was from Stratford. (Digges's line is sufficiently vague since the modest memorial structure in Stratford-on-Avon could hardly be called a "moniment" or a monument. There was, however, an ancient stone monument that existed near Salisbury, in Stratford-sub-Castle, which could have been the “moniment” that Digges was referring to; or, he could have been referring to Wilton House, the residence of Mary Sidney, just outside of Stratford-sub-Castle).
♦ William Shakspere died in 1616 which fits in with date that Jonson wrote his eulogy (in 1623). Yet, why would Jonson, so obviously fond of the Author, wait seven years to write a eulogy about him? (Why hadn't Jonson written a eulogy to his "beloved" shortly after his death? And why, for that matter, was no eulogy, or honorary poem, nor even a note or internal communication, written about the passing of Shakspere of Stratford, by anyone? Compare this to the volumes of honorary poems written about Jonson, and many other poets and playwrights of note, in commemoration of their death.
"The editors of the First Folio [who are listed as Hemings & Condell, but whom most scholars agree was Ben Jonson] hinted by two or three phrases that the author was the man buried at Stratford-on-Avon, but they never openly stated it. There were no biographical notes on the great dramatist, nor any indication of where and when the plays were written. On the question of how they acquired authentic copies and the rights to plays previously published, the editors were secretive and mendacious. The originals from which they worked have never been seen since."
(Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 80)
Nothing in regards to Jonson’s earlier comments about Shakspere (and his mockery of the boor in his play Every Man Out of His Humour) would suggest that he is now referring to the man from Stratford as “my beloved.” (The discovery of some of Jonson's writings, after his death, also confirms his less than stellar opinion of the man and his writing talent; in that note Jonson stated his wish that Shakspere of Stratford had "blotted a thousand," i.e., erased most if not all of the poor-quality work he had written.)
In sum, the bastion of the Stratford cult is wholly based upon four references which tentatively link William Shakspere of Stratford to the prefatory material of the First Folio. There is no documentation to suggest any relationship between his life and the material found in the plays, no evidence of his having anything beyond a grammar school education, no evidence that he knew the languages necessary to read the original source material (many of which were written in Latin, French, and Italian, and not yet translated into English), no evidence of his having access to the extensive number of written written works that would have been needed to write the plays, no evidence of his ever having owned a book or written any plays or been part of any literary culture, etc. Moreover, there is nothing in the life of William Shakspere of Stratford (and what we know about him) to indicate greatness; there is nothing about the man from Stratford to suggest that any part of Jonson’s eulogy was addressed to him. To the contrary, all evidence from the life of Shakspere of Stratford (and what Jonson himself wrote about the man) strongly suggest that he was not the subject of Jonson's eulogy; and that he was not, and could not have been, the Author of the Shakespeare plays.
♦ The expression, “Sweet Swan of Avon” closely relates to Mary Sidney: She was sweet (and generous); the swan was a symbol first used by her brother (Philip), based on his family name, Sidney, resembling the French word for swan, cygne and later adopted by Mary. In her last portrait engraving she is adorned by swan embroidered lace. Also, a branch of the Avon River ran past her Wilton Estate (and she is buried in Salisbury Cathedral, which sits upon the Avon River).
♦ The expression, “thy Stratford Moniment” (as mentioned in the Leonard Digges poem) could refer to Wilton House itself or it could be a metaphor, which does not refer to an actual structure but to a moniment—something which was long-lasting, something monumental, a legacy. This could have been a reference to Wilton Circle (the greatest literary circle of the age, founded by Mary Sidney and her brother) which met at Mary’s estate, Wilton House. Wilton House was also situated across the river from a town called Stratford (or “Stratford-sub-Castle”) and her family chapel was in Stratford-sub-Castle. Thus, Mary Sidney could have been called, “Mary Sidney of Stratford.” The most famous of all ancient monuments, Old Sarum—which was build from stones, many of which were ‘rended’ to help make Salisbury Cathedral—is in the town of Stratford-sub-Castle. That Stratford Monument, Old Sarum, overlooked Mary’s estate.
It appears that the most significant lines from Leonard Digges' poem (particularly the one which refers to 'thy Stratford Moniment') keys-into images from an earlier poem by Samuel Daniel. Daniel's poem is a dedication to Mary Sidney. The similar use of words and phrases in this key-in may suggest that 'thy Stratford Moniment' is Wilton Circle or Wilton House.
♦ Virtually every reference and metaphor in Jonson’s eulogy can be applied to Mary Sidney.
♦ Jonson had a close relationship Mary Sidney (being part of her writer’s circle), and with Mary’s two sons (to whom the Folio is dedicated).
♦ The patrons of the First Folio (which means the ones to whom the First Folio was dedicated, and the ones who paid the massive publication costs) were Mary Sidney’s two sons, William and Philip.
♦ Mary Sidney died in 1621. This date is in synchrony with the publication date of the First Folio and Jonson’s eulogy.
♦ Jonson calls the Author, the “Star of Poets.” Sackville’s father, Thomas Sackville was an advisor to the Queen, and associated with the Star Chamber.
♦ Jonson’s eulogy makes a reference to the Author’s father (“Look how the father’s face | Lives in his issue”). This could be a reference to Robert Sackville’s famous father, Thomas Sackville—whose work lived on in his son’s work. Moreover, Thomas Sackville was ‘the father’ of blank verse, having written the first play in this form. All the plays written by “Shakespeare” follow the same, blank-verse form, first used by Sackville.
♦ Sackville’s son, Edward, married the literary figure, Lady Anne Clifford, in 1609. After his death, in 1624, Lady Anne married Philip Herbert (one of the patrons of the First Folio).
♦ Jonson had a close relationship with the Sackville Family. Jonson was honored in a memorial poem by Sackville’s great-grandson (the fifth Earl of Dorset); and Jonson honored Robert Sackville’s son in a poem. A section of that poem is similar to a section in Jonson’s eulogy, where he states that a poet is not simply born, but must be made:
No! he must feel and know that will advance;
Men have been great, but never good by chance,
Or on the sudden. It were strange that he
Who was this morning such a one, should be
Sydney ere night? Or that did go to bed
Coryate should rise the most sufficient head
Of Christendom? And neither of these know,
Were the rack offered them, how they came so;
‘Tis by degrees that men arrive at glad
Profit in aught; each day some little add,
In time ‘twill be a heap; this is not true
Alone in money, but in manners too.
(Ben Jonson, from, An Epistle to Sir Edward Sackville)
♦ Sackville was especially fluent in many languages and had a noble character consistent with the Author, as we might imagine him to be (as the writer of such deeply moving and sensitive works), and as described by Jonson. (A look at Sackville's will, and the grace and generosity he exhibits in it, will confirm his character—especially when compared to the will of William Shakspere of Stratford).
♦ Few references can be directly applied to Sackville (due to a paucity of data).
♦ Sackville died in 1609. This suggests a rather long time delay between his death and the publication of the plays (yet, most of the plays were completed before 1609).
Extract from Robert Sackville’s will:
"Whereas I have been long and still am purposed to build and erect an Hospital or College in the said Town or Parish of East Grinstead, in the County of Sussex, and to bestow on the building thereof the sum of one thousand pounds, or such a sum as shall be necessary, and to endow the same with a rent charge of £330 by the year, to be issuing out of all and singular my lands and tenements in the said County of Sussex, or elsewhere within the Realm of England, for ever, towards the relief of one and thirty single and unmarried persons, thereof one and twenty to be men and the other ten to be women, there to live, to pray, serve, honour, and praise Almighty God : I therefore will and devise that mine executors, if I shall not live to perform the same in my life-time, shall bestow a sufficient sum of money in the purchase of a fit place in the said Town or Parish of East Grinstead, to thereupon erect and build a convenient house, of brick and stone, with rooms of habitation for the said one and thirty persons, employing and bestowing thereupon such reasonable sums of money as they shall think fit in their discretions, and that they shall incorporate the same, according to the laws and statutes of this Realm, by the name of Sackville College for the poor.
Edward de Vere
♦ Jonson was a friend of Henry de Vere, Edward de Vere’s son.
♦ Jonson was close to the Herbert Family, and de Vere’s daughter was married to Philip Herbert.
♦ Edward de Vere’s manor at Bilton was on the Avon river which was supposedly frequented by swans.
♦ Nothing in Jonson’s eulogy ‘fits’ de Vere, and there is no indication that Jonson would refer to the contentious de Vere as being ‘sweet’ or as ‘my beloved.’
♦ de Vere died in 1604. This date is problematic since a large portion of the plays, including The Tempest, (which reference local events) seem to have been written after 1604. It is also amiss that so many years separate his death from the publication of the First Folio (and Jonson waiting so long a time to write such a eulogy).
Note: in Mark Anderson’s 500+ page book, Shakespeare by Another Name, which argues in favor of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, only one paragraph attempts to link Oxford to Jonson’s poem—and the only link offered by Anderson is that Jonson was a friend of Henry de Vere (Edward de Vere’s son).
Sir Francis Bacon
♦ Jonson knew and admired Bacon.
♦ Bacon was associated with William Herbert; Herbert was one of the first Grand Masters of the Freemasons.
♦ Bacon was linked to the term ‘Apollo,’ which was a “symbolic title associated with the President of the Rosicrucians.” (However, many noble personages can be linked to ‘Apollo,’ and the symbol of the sun; thus, such a reference is too vague and ubiquitous to be meaningful).
♦ Jonson praised Bacon with a phrase similarly-worded to a phrase found in his eulogy:
‘. . . he [Bacon] who hath filled up all numbers, and performed that in our tongue, which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece, or haughty Rome.’ (Ben Jonson, Discoveries, 1641)
“Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. (Jonson’s eulogy to the Author)
♦ Bacon died in 1626 which is not consistent with Jonson’s eulogy, which was written “to the memory of my beloved, the Author.”
♦ Marlowe was a great poet and playwright, and certainly capable of having written the plays.
♦ Marlowe died young, in his prime; thus, Jonson’s line, And all the Muses still were in their prime, could apply to Marlowe.
♦ Marlowe is mentioned in Jonson’s eulogy, and compared (unfavorably) to the Author, which indicates that Marlowe was not the Author:
And tell, how farre thou dist our Lily out-shine,
Or sporting Kid, or Marlowes mighty line.
Roger Manners, Fifth Earl of Rutland
♦ Jonson knew Manners
♦ The word ‘manners’ is mentioned in Jonson’s eulogy
♦ Manners had direct connections to Denmark, around time that Hamlet (Q2) was rewritten.
Sectional Breakdown of Jonson's Eulogy:
Section 1: (Title) “To the memory of my beloved, The Author.”
This title, addressed to “my beloved,” lets us know that the Author was very dear to Ben Jonson and that this was a person for whom Ben Jonson would openly admit his affection. Jonson also adds the modifier, “The Author,” which may be one way of distinguishing “William Shakespeare, the Author” from “William Shakespeare, the actor” who is listed as a Principal Actor (in the prefatory material of the First Folio).
Section 2a: (lines 1-6) In the first lines of his eulogy, Jonson tells of his predicament and his frustration of not being able to praise the Author in the manner that he had hoped for.
Section 2b: (lines 7-16) In this section, Jonson talks about the ways that the Author’s pristine work may have been lowered and ‘disfigured’ by profiteering theater-owners so as to make the work suitable for the public theaters. He likens these low characters (with perhaps Will Shakspere included among them) to pimps and whores and he intimates that their corruption of the Author’s work came as an insult to the Author and her art.
Section 3: (lines 17-18) This section opens the eulogy with a short praise of the Author.
Section 4: (lines 19-24) In this section a poem by William Basse is referenced. The poem, written in 1622, puts forth the position that the great playwright, “Shakespeare”—whom Basse assumed was a recently deceased person—should be honored, along with all the other great Poets, by being buried along with them in Westminster Abbey. Jonson then does Basse “one better”: he states that the Author is so much greater than the other poets named by Basse, and entombed in Westminster Abbey (Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont), that he should not be entombed with them. Moreover, Jonson states that the Author is a “moniment without a tomb”—that his works are immortal and can never be buried, as such.
Section 5: (lines 25-40) In this section Jonson references a well-known entry found in Francis Meres’s book, Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury (1598), which lists and compares “Shakespeare” with various poets and playwrights of his age. Jonson, however, refutes Mere’s positive comparisons by saying that no one can be compared to the Author, and that the greatest of the ancient playwrights should come to life so that they can sit in the audience and watch the Author’s plays. Most significantly, within this essay is found a small Latin verse whereby Mary Sidney is honored by name (and where she is compared to a Greek poetess). This direct reference to Mary Sidney in the Meres essay offers an insight into Jonson’s intended meaning of the line: And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke, From thence to honour thee.
Section 6: (lines 41-50) This section refers to Mary Sidney’s illustrious brother, Philip Sidney. This section opens with an address to the Author but then the subject shifts to her brother: “Triumph, my Britaine [to Mary], thou hast one to show [referring to her brother, Philip] To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.” Jonson’s famous line, “He was not of an age, but for all time” is a third person reference to the Author’s brother, Philip, and not the Author herself (Mary Sidney).
Section 7a: (lines 51-54) The first part of this section mentions how some of the ancient dramatists have been abandoned because their work is “not of Nature’s family.” These four lines appear as a throw-back to Section 5 where numerous Latin and Greek dramatists are cited and compared unfavorably to the Author. These somewhat orphaned lines, however, may be a reference to a poem by the English epigramist, Thomas Freeman, who, in 1614, may have criticized Shakespeare as a playwright—and his was the only piece of writing that found fault with Shakespeare’s literary acumen. Thus Jonson may be suggesting that Freeman’s work (and the negative sentiment it carries) was “not of Nature’s family” and, therefore, has been abandoned. (If Freeman's poem is read as sarcasm, its tone is decidedly negative; if it read otherwise it may be interpreted as lukewarm praise).
Section 7b: (lines 55-65) In this section Jonson refutes the comment attributed to Hemings and Condell (in the “Note to the Variety of Readers”) wherein they state that the papers they received from their "friend" had scarce a blot on them (i.e., were near perfect upon first draft). Jonson refutes this statement (and any claim suggesting that Will Shakspere of Stratford was, or could have been, the Author) by stating that a “praise-worthy” play cannot be written extempore, and must be revised— and, moreover, that all of the plays written by the Author (and any writer of worth) could only have been produced through careful revision. Jonson goes on to say that a playwright who does not rewrite his plays, and hands them in without revision (as Hemings and Condell suggest was the case with their "friend"), would only produce works of poor quality—works that would be worthy of scorn (as opposed to praise). Thus, the papers received by Hemings and Condell, “with scarce a blot on them”—from whomever—could not have been the plays written by the Author, nor the plays found in the Folio. (Hemings and Condell may have received newly penned copies of plays, with scarce a blot on them, from Shakspere of Stratford (or someone assigned to make plays ready for public showing); however, these would have been plays which had been newly edited for the public stage, not the plays as conceived by the original Author.)
Jonson’s ‘dismissal’ of Hemings and Condell’s statement, is also a dismissal of their ‘front’ as being the collators and editors of the Folio. Virtually all scholars agree that these two men were not capable of editing the First Folio nor had the wherewithal to bring about its publication; they only loaned (or sold) their names as "editors," while the real editing and production of the First Folio was carried out by Ben Jonson (and William Herbert). Most scholars also agree that all written pieces in the Folio attributed to Hemings and Condell—such as the Dedication, and the “Note to the Variety of Readers”—were written by Jonson.
Section 8: (lines 65-70) This section is a tribute to the Author’s literary heritage or ‘race,’ and in it Jonson seems to acknowledge that the Author received support and actual help from her literary peers—which, in this case, were most likely members of the Author’s family. Jonson is again refuting the notion that these plays were written in a vacuum, by a lone author (and writing for profit); he is suggesting that the plays were a product of the Author’s literary heritage, and that they could not have been written by someone who was not supported by a literary tradition and culture—nor by someone who did not share any of the same life experiences as the characters depicted in the plays. In sum, Jonson is saying that William Shakspere of Stratford—or anyone else who lacked the education, heritage, culture, and life-experience—and who wrote in isolation, from book-knowledge—could not have written the plays.
Section 9: (lines 71-80) This section offers a final praise of the Author and her work, beginning with a direct reference to Mary Sidney as the “Sweet Swan of Avon.” Jonson also suggests that the plays were written for the delight of a royal audience, and shown privately—and were neither written nor intended for showing at the public playhouses. (What was shown at the public playhouses were not the plays, as originally conceived by the Author, but some “disfigurement” of the true and original versions).