Ben Jonson’s Eulogy (5)

“Thou hadst Small Latin and less Greek

Section 5 (25-40): Reference to the Meres essay

That I not mixe thee so, my braine excuses ;
    I meane with great, but disproportion’d
Muses :
For, if I thought my judgement were of yeeres,
    I should commit thee surely with thy peeres,

And tell, how farre thou dist our Lily out-shine,
    Or sporting
Kid, or Marlowes mighty line.
And though thou hadst small
Latine, and lesse Greeke,       
    From thence to honour thee, I would not seeke
For names; but call forth thund’ring
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,                                       
Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,                            
    To life againe, to heare thy Buskin tread,                              [F2: To live]
And shake a Stage : Or, when thy Sockes were on,
    Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all, that insolent
Greece, or haughtie Rome                    
    sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

    This section clearly references an essay found in Francis Meres’s book, Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury (1598).  The essay was entitled: “A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets” and anyone interested in the Authorship Question should study it with care.  Though the essay was found in Meres’s book, it is highly unlikely that Francis Meres, a country parson who lived most of his life some 125 miles north of London—and who had no involvement in the London literary scene—could have written this piece. It was clearly written by someone, or someones, “plugged into” the London literary scene—and more importantly by someone who was a part of the “inner circle” and who had access to Shakespeare's unpublished works.  The essayist’s deliberate, and somewhat strained, mention of virtually all the Shakespeare plays written up until that time—most of which were not published or published anonymously—suggests that the essayist included this near complete list of the Shakespeare plays at the behest of the Author herself, as a way to lay claim to, or tag, all the plays with the Shakespeare name.  (Recall that it was around 1598 when the name Shakespeare first appeared on the title page of a play.)  Thus, in all likelihood, the primary essayist (with help from others) was a member of the Wilton Circle, personally knew the Author of the Shakespeare plays (and the author of the Shakespeare sonnets and poems) and included the near complete list of all the Shakespeare plays at the behest of the Author.

    By the content of the essay we find that its author(s) is fully conversant with the literary scene of his age. He was also amongst the Shakespeare’s “private friends”; he was aware of, and had read, the sonnet sequence being circulated (which he found to be “sugared.”)  He may have also been partial to his friend, “Shakespeare” as evidenced by the higher-than-deserved praise for Shakespeare’s two narrative works. The author writes: “As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras: so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in the mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared Sonnets among his private friends, &c.” 
One thing to note, though of limited significance, is that the praise for “Shakespeare” as the author of Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the sonnets, is distinct from any praise related to Shakespeare the playwright.  This obliquely supports the tenet that the author of the “Shakespeare” plays was different from the author of the narrative poems and sonnets---a tenet which is also supported by the First Folio, which does not include any of the sonnets or poems attributed to “Shakespeare.”  (It seems that, in 1598, the sonneteer and narrative poet, who once used the name "Shakesepare," was no longer intending to use the name; and, at that time, the name was wholly adopted by the playwright.  As discussed elsewhere---see Notes Section---the "Shakespeare" name may have first been used by William Herbert; in 1597, when he entered court, and had no intention to use the penname again, it was adopted by his mother, Mary Sidney, who in 1598, affixed the name to all her as-of-then, anonymously published plays.)

    What connection did Meres have to Wilton House?  In other words, how did the essay get to Meres (to then be included in his book) if Meres was not the author? The most likely candidate is John Florio.  He was Francis Meres’s uncle and Italian tutor to William Herbert.
     The primary importance of the Meres essay is that the author lists almost all of the Shakespeare plays (except for the Henry VI plays), which positively dates the listed plays prior to 1598.  Up until that time most of the plays were published anonymously. It is possible that, in 1598, Mary Sidney felt the need to establish the “Shakespeare brand name” and to provide a clear list, through an anonymous essayist, of all the “Shakespeare” plays written up till that time.  Thus, she had someone (or perhaps it was a group effort) in Wilton Circle write an essay which would clearly list and identify the “Shakespeare” plays.  Such a listing would establish the cannon of Shakespeare plays.  This comprehensive list of the Author's plays is not found elsewhere (nor afforded to any other author listed by Meres).

The Meres essay, printed in 1598, is significant in that it was the first published account to list the “plays of Shakespeare,” attributing 12 plays to Shakespeare. Prior to 1598, ten “Shakespeare” plays, including Romeo and Juliet, had been published anonymously.  The Meres essay is also important to scholars in terms of dating the Shakespeare plays as it positively dates 11 plays (or some embodiment of them) prior to 1598.  The play, Love’s Labor Won, though listed in Meres, was never published or performed under that name.
In the essay, the author lists a lot of ancient Greek and Latin poets—seemingly right out of a school textbook.  He then lists all the poets and dramatists of his day in accordance with certain virtues (and often compares them to the poets and dramatists of ancient Greece and Rome).  Meres often lists Shakespeare along with his peers yet, in this comparison, Shakespeare’s name is often found in the middle or toward the end of the list (with the more esteemed poets and playwrights generally cited first).
Jonson cites the Mere essay—and his often low placement of Shakespeare in comparison with his peers—only that he may refute Meres’s assessment.  (And, if this essay originated at Wilton House, with the Author having a hand in it, the most likely location for praising “Shakespeare” as a playwright would be to modestlyplace the name somewhere in the middle of the various lists, and not at the top). Jonson states that the Author outshines all his peers—and none of them can be compared to them—and, moreover, that “Shakespeare” is far greater than all the ancient and Greek and Roman dramatists whom Mere cites as paramount exemplars of the art.  It is curious—though expected—that Jonson never compares “Shakespeare” to Philip Sidney, even though Philip Sidney is praised as the greatest literary figure of the age, and headed many of the lists in the Meres essay.  Clearly, if Jonson wanted to establish the supremacy of Shakespeare over all his peers he would have had him outshine Philip Sidney.  However, holding that Mary Sidney was Author, such a comparison would be amiss, and Jonson would have avoided it.
When it becomes clear that Jonson is referencing the Meres essay—and we are fully situated within the framework of that essay—he makes a small shift in his perspective in his address to the Author by saying: And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke, | From thence to honour thee.  The first use of thou refers to the Author, writing under the name Shakespeare, (as mentioned in the Mere essay); the second use of thou refers to the Author, in her true identity, as Mary Sidney, in propia, (who is also mentioned, by name, in the Meres essay).  In the Meres essay Mary Sidney is honored with a small Latin verse and by a comparison between her and a ‘lesser’ Greek poetess, Sappho.  (In this interpretation, Jonson calls Sappho a ‘lesser’ Greek poetess even though she was the greatest poetess of her age: what Jonson is saying is that Sappho—the greatest woman poet of her age—is a ‘less Greek’ poetess when compared to the Author.).  Thus, the Author (Mary Sidney) was honored in the Meres essay with “small Latin” (a small Latin verse) and ‘less Greek’ (by a comparison with a ‘lesser’ Greek poetess).

How do we know that Jonson is citing the Meres essay in this section?—because he clearly ‘tags’ or references the Meres essay in several ways: first, he refers to a piece where the Author, “Shakespeare,” is listed with, and compared to, his peers. The piece found in Meres is the only place where such a comprehensive comparison is made.  Second, Jonson mentions Lily, Kid, and Marlowe—the same prominent dramatists who are listed with Shakespeare (in the Meres essay), and all who are listed in front of Shakespeare. (During Meres’s time, in 1598, these dramatists were ‘current,’ however, 24 years later, in 1623, the citing of these long-gone dramatists—who were not current in people’s minds—would have been misplaced.  John Lily did not write anything after 1590; Thomas Kyd died in 1594; Christopher Marlowe was killed in 1593.  (Jonson also uses the uncommon spelling “Kid,” rather than “Kyd,” because that is how he is referenced in Meres.)  The third way that Jonson lets us know he is referencing the Meres essay is that he cites three ancient Greeks in the exact order as they appear in Meres: “Æschilus, Euripides, and Sophocles.”

From the Meres Essay

These are our best for Tragedy, the Lords Buckhurst, Doctor Legge of Cambridge, Doctor Edes of Oxford, Master Edward Ferris, the Author of The Mirror for Magistrates, Marlowe, Peele, Watson, Kid, Shakespeare, Drayton, Chapman, Decker, and Benjamin Johnson . . . .”   

“The best for Comedy amongst us is, Edward Earl of Oxford, Doctor Gager of Oxford, Master Rowley, once a rare Scholar of learned Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, Master Edwards one of her Majesty’s Chapel, eloquent and witty John Lyly, Lodge, Gascoine, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood . . .”

“These Tragicke Poets flourished in Greece, Æschylus, Euripedes, Sophocles.

Analysis of Lines 25 - 40  ______________________________

That I not mixe thee so, my braine excuses ;
    I meane with great, but disproportion’d
Muses :
For, if I thought my judgement were of yeeres,
    I should commit thee surely with thy peeres,

That I not mix thee so [That I do not compare you with the poets of your age, and the great tragic and comic playwrights of ancient Rome and Greece, as Meres has done] my brain[my wit and intellect] excuses [has good reason for this]: I mean [the reason I do not compare you] with [these] great but disproportion’d muses[with these great poets, who are disproportioned in that: a) Meres has assessed them too highly in comparison to you b) they cannot even be compared to you—you being disproportionately greater than them as to exclude any meaningful comparison].  For, [However] if I thought my judgment were of years [if I should judge you in accordance with your age, or some standard of this time] I should commit thee surely with thy peers, [then I would surely (have a basis to) compare you with, or place you in the same league as, your peers (i.e., with the other great poets of the age).][However, I am not making this comparison: I am judging you in accordance with a different set of standards—and, in accordance with that standard, I hold you infinitely more dear and incomparable with any of the great poets of your age].

Key Words:

If I thought my judgment were of years:
“If I thought”implies that if Jonson were using his brain, or some external measurement—such as in reading the Author’s words and the words of his peers—then, perhaps, some kind of comparison could be made.  However, Jonson’s judgment is not based on a disinterested mental assessment but upon Jonson’s personal feelings for the Author.  Thus, by this judgment, by this sentiment—held by Jonson, in his heart—none of the Author’s peers, nor any of the ancients, can compare with her. Jonson’s judgment is not made according to years (the age of the Author) or any other such standard.  What then is Jonson basing his judgment on?—such that he claims the Author is incomparably greater than all her peers?  It could only be based upon Jonson’s personal feelings and sentiments toward the Author, ‘his beloved.’

And tell, how farre thou dist our Lily out-shine,
    Or sporting
Kid, or Marlowes mighty line.

And [If, however, I were prompted to ‘commit thee with thy peers’ and compare you with the other dramatists of your age, as did Meres] [I would] tell how far thou [and thou plays] dist our Lily out-shine [did outshine John Lily], or sporting Kid [or outshine Thomas Kyd] or [outshine of over-shadow] Marlowe’s [Christopher Marlowe’s] mighty line.

And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,        
    From thence to honour thee,

And though [in the Meres essay] thou hadst [you were honored with] small Latin[a small, or “poor” Latin verse—‘small’ in that it was only two lines long; ‘poor’ in that it was not an original verse, but simply taken from another source] and less Greek [and compared to the lesser Greek poetess (Sappho)] from thence [from the material found in the Meres essay] to honor thee . . .

Latin and less Greek:   

In the Meres essay Mary Sidney is honored with a “small” Latin verse (of two lines) and the honor in that verse is that she is compared to Sappho—the greatest poetess of ancient Greece, called ‘the Tenth Muse’ by Plato. (Jonson, however, is calling Sappho a “less” Greek—which means she cannot be equally compared to the Author).  In this line, Jonson is playing upon the dual meaning of the words ‘less Greek’: in the first part he is saying that the Author was honored by “small Latin” (a small Latin verse, or a ‘poor’ and unoriginal Latin verse); in the second part he is saying the Author was honored by “less Greek” (not referring to the Greek language—as he did with Latin—but to a “lesser” Greek poetess).  The “small Latin” verse from thence the Author is honored (in Meres) is as follows:

sister unto Augustus the Emperor was exceeding bountiful unto Virgil . . . so learned Mary, the honorable Countess of Pembroke, the noble sister of immortal Sir Philip Sidney, is very liberal unto Poets; besides she is a most delicate Poet, of whom I may say, as Antipater Sidonius writes of Sappho

    Dulcia Mnemosyne demirans carmina Sapphus,    

    Quaesiuit decima Pieris unde foret.

[Translation: “Sweet Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), amazing is the poetry of Sappho, | Now I know why she is called ‘The Tenth Muse.’ [Or: I seek to know from whence she became the Tenth Muse.]

    Jonson’s reference to the way that Mary Sidney, the Author, was honored in the Meres essay is quite clear.  However, one might also see that Jonson’s reference to “small Latin and less Greek” might apply to the way that the Author was honored in her lifetime, by her peers.  Mary Sidney, being a woman, was never properly honored upon her death with eulogies and verses, as were most of her male peers (with the notable exception of “Shakespeare”).  Mary Sidney was, however, honored and praised in her lifetime with a Latin dedication, attributed to Marlowe; also by Edmund Spenser (dedicating his Ruines of Time to her), Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, John Davies, Thomas Morley (Canzonets); Nicholas Breton (Pilgrimage to Paradise)—and her brother, Philip Sidney, who dedicated his Arcadia to her. [See Appendix for the various dedications to Mary Sidney]
    The line, And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke, From thence to honour thee is perhaps the one line in Jonson’s poem which is most often misinterpreted. Many people take this line to mean that the Author ‘hadst,’ or knew, very little Latin and less Greek—which is certainly not the case,nor could not be the case, since many plays rely upon source material only found in Latin.  However, when interpreting this line in the context of the Meres essay, it is a clear reference to the way the Author had been honored in Meres’s book, and not a reference to the language skills of the Author.

    Mark Anderson (who supports Edward de Vere as “Shakespeare”), interprets Jonson’s line in a slightly different—and somewhat ‘stretched’—way:

   “Jonson leads into his famous quote by comparing Shakespeare with contemporary English authors. [Note: Lily, Kid, and Marlowe, in 1623, were no longer as ‘contemporary,’ as they were in 1598, when the Meres essays was published.] But Jonson suggest that this comparison instead reveals how far Shakespeare outshines all his theatrical peers.  To Jonson, Latin and Greek drama represented the pinnacle of artistic expression.  So, he says, although he can draw small Latin and less Greek from thence (from the list of English playwrights) to honor Shake-speare, Jonson does not seek for names of playwrights with which to make ample comparisons to Shakes-speare.  Instead, Jonson calls forth the great Aeschylus, etc.  The entity that had “small Latin and less Greek” was Shake-speare’s contemporaries—meaning Jonson felt there was little of classical or enduring value in Lyly, Kyd, and Marlowe.

No mention of Philip Sidney

In the Meres essay, Philip Sidney is often cited among the greatest literary luminaries of his age, and often placed at the top of the list (in the various literary categories)—and he is always listed before Shakespeare—yet Jonson never mentions him, nor compares him with the Author.  If there was one person to signify the greatness of the literary age, it was Philip Sidney; and if Jonson wanted to establish the supremacy of the Author over his peers he could have done so by having him ‘out-shine’ Philip Sidney. (Jonson tells how the Author out-shines the greatest poets/playwrights of her age—Lily, Kid, and Marlowe—and the greatest of all Greek and Roman dramatists—and Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont in the previous section—but never Philip Sidney!)  Thus, Jonson did not cite Philip Sidney in comparison to the Author because, a) the Author was Mary Sidney—and, as such, she could not be compared to her brother—because his issue lived in her and this would have been seen as a great insult to her or b) Jonson felt that Philip Sidney was the one writer of the age whom the Author did not out-shine—which is unlikely given the tone of Jonson’s eulogy.

    From the Meres essay:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Æschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides, and Aristophanes; and the Latin tongue by Virgil, Ovid, Horace. . . . so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and resplendent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman.

And as Horace saith of his; Exegi monumentaere perennius . . .  so say I severally of Sir Philip Sidney’s, Spencer’s, Daniel’s, Drayton’s, Shakespeare’s, and Warner’s works;

. . . so these are the most passionate among us to bewail and bemoan the perplexities of Love, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyat the elder, Sir Francis Brian, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Rawley, Sir Edward Dyer, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare, Whetstone, Gascoigne, Samuel Page . . . 

As Theocritus in Greek, Virgil and Mantuan in Latin, Sannazar in Italian, and the author of Amyntae Gaudia and Walsingham’s Meliboeus are the best for pastoral, so amongst us the best in this kind are Sir Philip Sidney, master Chaloner, Spencer, Stephen Gosson, Abraham Fraunce and Barnfield.

As Xenophon, who did imitate so excellently, as to give us effigiem justi imperii, the portraiture of a just Empire under ye name of Cyrus (as Cicero saith of him) made therein an absolute heroical poem; and as Heliodorus writ in prose his sugared invention of that picture of love in Theagines and Cariclea, and yet both excellent admired poets: so Sir Philip Sidney writ his  immortal poem, The Couutess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, in prose, and yet our rarest poet."

When looking at Jonson’s poems and dedications made after 1623 we might expect to find some continued or “fallout” praise for Shakespeare—yet there is none.  We find several stellar references to “Sidney” (not Philip Sidney but Sidney) but none to “Shakespeare.”  For instance, in his Timbers, Jonson talks of the best poets to read, and mentions Sidney, but not Shakespeare. In a dedicatory poem to the Edward Sackville, Third Earl of Dorset [see Appendix for full poem], Jonson invokes the name of the greatest writer of the age, as “Sidney,” not as “Shakespeare.”  Both of Jonson’s references, of course, were read to mean Philip Sidney—but, in the context of Jonson’s incomparable praise of the Author, these references might secretly have been to Mary Sidney, writing under the pen name of “Shakespeare.”  Again, if Jonson held Philip Sidney to be the greatest writer of the age after 1623, he certainly held him to be the greatest writer of the age in 1623 (when his eulogy was written).  Why then did Jonson not favorably compare the Author, “Shakespeare,” to Philip Sidney?

                          I would not seeke
For names; but call forth thund’ring
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,                                                         
Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,                                            
    To life againe, to heare thy Buskin tread,                    [F2: To live]
And shake a Stage : Or, when thy Sockes were on,
    Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all, that insolent
Greece, or haughtie Rome                     
    sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

Interpretation A:
I would not seeke for names
[I would not seek to compare you (like Meres has done) with the names of others—such as your peers, or the ancient Greek and Roman playwrights, or a lesser Greek poetess (Sappho); instead, I would] call forth [to life the greatest of all the Greek tragic playwrights, such as] thund’ring Æschilus, Euripides, and Sophocles to us [and I would also call forth the great Roman tragic dramatists], Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead, [Seneca] to life again, to hear thy Buskin tread [to sit in the audience, along with everyone else, to see your tragedies performed] and shake a Stage [and see the actors perform their parts on stage (and to hear the thunderous applause)]. Or, when thy Sockes were on [Or, in terms of your comedies] leave thee alone, for the comparison of all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome sent forth, [I would not compare your comedies to any of work that the ancient playwrights of Greece or Rome have ever produced] or since did from their ashes come [or to any of the plays that have since emerged which were based upon the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome.  I would not compare you—as Meres has done—because your work is incomparably greater].

Interpretation B:

I would not seeke for
[I would not cite the] names [of the ancient dramatists of Greece, and Rome, nor any of playwrights of the modern age, in comparison to you—as did Meres] But [rather] I would call forth [to life, the living presence of the great] thund’ring Æschilus, Euripides, and Sophocles to us; [I would call forth] Paccuvius, [greatest among the Roman tragic poets] Accius, [Roman playwright] him of Cordova dead, [the great Seneca, born in Cordova; or Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the younger] to life again [to behold the wonder of your Art,] to hear thy Buskin tread [to see and hear thy tragic actors, walking across the stage, with their buskin (heavy-soled half boots)] and shake a Stage [and move the audience with their great performance]. Or, when thy Socks were on, [Or, hen your comedies were performed, I would have them sit in the audience to watch your play and see your actors perform in soft slippers called “socks.”  Seeing the greatness of your work they would] leave thee alone [in a class by yourself], for the comparison of all [for none of the ancient greats could be compared with you]. [No work] that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome[has] sent forth [produced during the age of their greatest playwrights and poets], or [nor anything that has] since [been produced, which] did from their ashes come [nor anything that has since been inspired by, or arisen from, those ancient cultures can be compared with what you have produced in this Book.]


shake a Stage:
this is phrase associated with the theater and acting which, by Jonson’s use of the term, means, “to act out a part on the stage,” “to shake out a scene on the stage.” It has the implication of playing a part well, ‘shaking up the stage,’ or playing the part where it shakes up the audience to applause.  This term is similar to “shake a scene” or “Shake-scene” which means to act out a part well; however, when used sarcastically, it has the sense of over-acting a part or hamming it up on stage.  Jonson uses this theater term, “shake,”—meaning to ‘act’ or ‘shake out a scene’—in order to give the reader a ‘hint’ as to his intended meaning by the term, “shake a lance” which he uses later in his eulogy.
Jonson’s use of “shake a stage,” (which means to act out a scene on stage) can give us an insight into a passage found in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) which many scholars believe to be a reference to William Shakspere of Stratford (and his untoward ways of stealing the work of others).  Greene’s line reads: “he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes factotum, [one who thinks he is better at everything than everyone] is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”  The reason why some scholars have pinned Greene’s lines on Shakspere, of Stratford is because they believe that the term “Shake-scene” is an implied reference to “William Shakspere.”  However, Jonson’s uses of the term, “shake a Stage” is similar to “Shake-scene” and merely tells us that the terms applies to the stage and to acting, and would not be a particular reference to William Shakspere. (Moreover, William Shakspere of Stratford, at that time, was known by the name “Shack-spur,” not “Shake-speare” and so the reference to “shake” would be lost on him.)  
    Thus, in accordance with this theater term, Greene’s line most likely meant: “and he believes himself to be the only one able to shake a scene (act out a scene well) in the whole country”—in other words, the person Greene is describing thinks himself to be the best actor in the country, and in a class or a country of his own.  (Shakspere of Stratford was not an accomplished actor, who could bombast out a blank verse, which gives further evidence that this passage does not refer to him).
What Jonson’s use of the term “shake a Stage” and Greene’s “Shake-scene” tell is that the term “Shake” is a generic term that relates to acting on a stage.  Accordingly, the pen name “Shake-speare” was most probably derived from the stage term, “Shake,” meaning, ‘to act on stage” and “speare,” indicating a weapon or lance.   Later in his eulogy, Jonson gives us a further hint with respect to a possible origin of the pen name, “Shake-speare,” by his linking it to the term, “shake a Lance.”

Praise of “Shakespeare,” in Meres:

As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras: so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared Sonnets among his private friends, &c. 

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Loves Labors Lost, his Love Labors Won, his Midsummer Night’s Dream, & his Merchant of Venice: for Tragedy his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.

As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speak with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with
Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase, if they would speak English. . .

in Meres

The best poets for comedy among the Greeks are these, Menander, Aristophanes, Eupolis Atheniensis, Alexis Terius, Nicostratus, Amipsias Atheniensis, Anaxandrides Rhodius, Aristonymus, Archippus Atheniensis and Callias Atheniensis, and among the Latins, Plautus, Terence, Naevius, Sext. Turpilius, Licinius Imbrex, and Virgilius Romanus, so the best for comedy amongst us be Edward Earl of Oxford, Doctor Gager of Oxford, Master Rowley, once a rare scholar of learned Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, Master Edwards, one of her Majesty's Chapel, eloquent and witty John Lyly, Lodge, Gascoigne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Munday, our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.  (Meres) 

   The person or persons who wrote the Meres essay was certainly in the know about the London theater and literary scene, and he seems to have been a member of “Shakespeare’s” intimate circle of friends.  Thus, we can assume that he knew the identity of the person, or persons, who wrote under the pen name of “Shakespeare.”  Many supporters of the Earl of Oxford cite this paragraph in the Meres essay as evidence that Oxford was an accomplished writer of comedy—and this supports their claim that he was “Shakespeare.”  (Indeed, it appears that Oxford was a superior writer of comedy, which is evidenced in both the Meres essay, and in an earlier essay, The Art of English Posey, attributued to George Puttenham; it also appears that Oxford openly penned his comedic verse in his own name and did not have need to write under a pseudonym).  Though this citation in Meres is held in support of Oxford, this same citation can be seen as positive evidence that Oxford was not “Shakespeare.”  Why else would the essayist, who knew the true identity of Shakespeare, cite the Earl of Oxford and Shakespeare in the same breath?   Had the Earl of Oxford been Shakespeare then the essayist would not cite Oxford, he would simply cite Shakespeare.   (Oxfordians put forth the argument that the essayist may not have known that Oxford was "Shakespeare the playwright"; and if he did know, he "might have joined in the ruse by pretending that Shakespeare was a different writer." (If, however, the writer was from Wilton House, and fluent with "Shakespeare" and his works, which seems to be the case, the Oxford argument would be severly weakened).  In the same line of reasoning, if Oxford was already known to have written “the best of comedies amongst us” he wrote these comedies in his own name.  Why then would he have used the pen name “Shakespeare” when he was already known to have written similar works in his own name?
Oxford may also head the Meres list for those “best in comedy amongst us” for less than flattering reasons;  his placement there may be an inside joke (especially if the essay was written by a member of Wilton House, who may not have been a "friend" of Oxford.)  Two points should be borne in mind:  First, Mary Sidney loved her brother Philip. [“Her love for her brother passes even her own understanding . . . there is no doubt that the deepest emotional commitment of her was to her brother, both before and also after his death.” (Waller)].  Second, the bitter rivalry between Philip Sidney and Oxford was well-known.  There was a famous dispute at a tennis match and Philip had “the uncomfortable distinction of being one of those the Earl of Oxford said he wanted to kill.” (Duncan-Jones)  So, Oxford was neither a friend to Mary Sidney nor to the writers at Wilton House.  Related to this, there was a famous incident between the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth: “The Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart’.” (Aubrey)  Thus, the Earl’s fart, and not his comical writing, may have provided for “the best in comedy amongst us” and landed him on top of Meres’s list.

    In deference to the Earl, however, it appears that he was an accomplished writer and excelled in writing comedy; his claim to this distinction is evidenced in
The Arte of English Poesy (1589), which was published anonymously yet commonly attributed to George Puttenham.  It is a piece that is similar in tone and style to the Meres essay (which appeared some eight years later).

    "And in her Majesty's time that now is are sprung up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford; [next]Thomas Lord of Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Greville, Gascoigne, Breton, Turberville and a great many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envy, but to avoid tediousness, and who have deserved no little commendation. . . .
Of the later sort I think thus. That for Tragedy, the Lord of Buckhurst, and Master Edward Ferris for such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest price: The Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of her Majesty’s Chapel for comedy and Interlude. For Eclogue and pastoral Poesie, Sir Philip Sydney and Master Challenner, and that other Gentleman who wrote the late Shepherd’s Calendar. For ditty and amorous Ode I find Sir Walter Raleigh's vein most lofty, insolent, and passionate. Master Edward Dyer, for Elegy most sweet, solemn and of high conceit. Gascoigne for a good meter and for a plentiful vein. Phaer and Golding for a learned and well corrected verse, specially in translation clear and very faithfully answering their author's intent. Others have also written with much facility, but more commendably perchance if they had not written so much nor so popularly."  (p. 49-51)

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