Shakespeare: his own genius after all

By Greg Bryant

© 2012-2013, revisions © 2013-2016 Greg Bryant cc by-nc-sa under this Creative Commons License

No one else showed Shakespeare’s style and quality over his or her own signature. If other people were really better qualified or prepared to write like Shakespeare, why didn’t they?


Preface: “Not on his Picture, but his Booke”

O learne to read what ſilent loue hath writ,
To heare wit eies belongs to loues fine wiht.

—Sonnet 23

There has been a reciprocal disconnect in the William Shakespeare authorship discussions: on one side, anti-Shakespearians[1] avoid close readings of the written works, preferring arguments about Shakespeare’s social, economic, and educational status, for which evidence can be sketchy and conjecture seems inevitable; conjecture converts more “believers.” On the other side, Shakespearians have until recently mostly avoided replying to circumstantial challenges for exactly the same reason: those conjectures, for want of evidence, must be embroidered with further conjectures, producing a fabric of interdependent speculations ranging from improbable to absurd. For Shakespearians, the poet’s identity is best revealed in his style and is best recognized through close readings of his works, which do exist and which speak for themselves. This approach is after all more cognitively and aesthetically rewarding.

Recently, Shakespearians have made efforts to mend the disconnect on their side. Two recent publications by recognized scholars (Contested Will, James Shapiro, 2010, and Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, eds. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, 2013) summarize for general readers the circumstantial arguments and the scholarly responses to them. To varying extents, these books also refer to evidence in the writings themselves. Several of the Beyond Doubt essays introduce the objective stylometric studies — important because general readers, especially those drawn to the anti-Shakespearian arguments, probably would not otherwise encounter these studies, and because in recent decades stylometric analysts have introduced valuable objectivity into the authorship question. These books are breaths of fresh air because, as Shapiro writes, “the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn’t made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever” (5).

Anti-Shakespearians have not met mainstream arguments with like success, especially those relating to style. When they address literary style at all, they exhibit a profound tone deafness for what is actually going on in the poems and plays. As we will see, the text comparisons they offer in evidence are hilarious to readers equipped to understand them critically. Shakespeare’s contemporaries would surely have found them so, but general readers 400 years later will need guidance to distinguish quality in Elizabethan-age literature. Mainstream scholarship is fully prepared to teach these literary principles — has taught them all along — and can easily apply them to the authorship question. Having entered the fray on anti-Shakespearian turf, it now seems sensible for Shakespeare scholars to move the challenge to a field where something more decisive can be achieved.

In passages, both Contested Will and Shakespeare Beyond Doubt introduce and often briefly discuss some of the less objective, more poetic qualities of style,[2] but the battles so far have been fought mostly in the fields of cryptology, biography, and sociology. Let us drag into the daylight the aesthetic, dramatic, and psychological features of the writings and do our best to help general readers see the real differences between the poets. There seems to be little left to say about the circumstantial speculations without more hard data, but there is always something more to say about the poetry.

When my attention was first drawn to the authorship debate it was in regard to Oxford. I read the poems in Stephen May’s edition and thought, “Can’t they tell the difference?” When I turned to the Marlovians I read the plays in J. B. Steane’s edition and wondered the same thing. As a matter of fact, May and Steane seemed puzzled by it too. This question is surely the heart of the issue for most of us who love the literature. To me the idea that people would propose ghostwriters for Shakespeare without even reading the writers’ works seemed ridiculous, so it followed that they must not have read closely enough to distinguish them, either because they considered such subjective observations inferior to what they thought was more conclusive evidence in biography or cryptology, or, what may amount to the same thing and is even more disturbing, because they couldn’t hear the difference.

Then I had an even more disturbing thought: suppose I am wrong? Suppose I only hear a difference because I expect it? We all struggle with confirmation bias. My first impulse was to dismiss the doubt, but I really wanted to know if I was wrong. Before long I was pleased to discover and to see confirmed with greater and greater certainty that with every close examination the doubts recede. Resemblances between these writers’ works are indeed superficial. Close comparison does not damage Shakespeare’s position but only enhances it. I learned to keep digging and not to flinch.

A school of close-reading comparison between works attributed to Shakespeare and his challengers for the explicit purpose of distinguishing them on grounds not limited to statistical stylometrics — call it literary ear training — would deflect attention from circumstantial arguments, toward ideas more interesting and worth everyone’s time. For readers with a trainable ear, it may even obviate the need for an authorship “question” at all, and perhaps persuade some well-educated and prominent advocates of doubt to reassess their positions. To borrow Shapiro’s phrase, let’s “shift our attention” (268) once again, this time to the poems and plays. Many readers, broadsided by the authorship disputes, need good reasons to dismiss what they suspect is a sort of sideshow anyway. Encouraged to compare Shakespeare with his challengers on poetic imagination, use of the sounds of language, handling of metaphors, and characterization, they may come to understand that the controversy thrives in a culture of poetic tone deafness and that Shakespeare’s authorship really is beyond question. In the process, they will develop a deeper appreciation of the works.

The following discussions are intended as contributions to what I hope is a broad and sustained effort by scholars and teachers to make close comparative reading of literature as accessible to general readers as conspiracy theories already are.


Students and friends have asked me, because I like reading Shakespeare, whether there is anything to the authorship challenges. I’ve often given them flip answers because I just didn’t know where to start. Now I do. This is the kindest way I know to say it and still be clear: Most Shakespeare doubters are either cryptology enthusiasts, elitists, or poetically tone deaf. Some are a combination of these.

Only one of these causes, elitism, has an ethical dimension, and all three errors can be corrected with understanding. The only correction that is really necessary, however, is to develop an ear for poetic qualities. Discussions like this one will help with that, and as understanding and appreciation grow, the distractions of historical gaps and theories will drop away.


I’m not saying there’s nothing to cryptology. The essay “The Stratford Monument: A Riddle and Its Solution” by Peter Farey half persuaded me that someone like Ben Jonson may have played a mean posthumous trick on Shakespeare, all the meaner because posthumous: encrypting in Shakespeare’s monument inscription a rebus of “Christofer Marley,” as playwright and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe signed his name (Wikipedia “Christopher”), and adding a strong suggestion that Shakespeare was just a front man to “serve” Marlowe’s wit to the world. Jonson certainly could have resented Shakespeare that much. But to accept that a message may be encrypted is not to accept that it may be truthful. Jonson more than most could surely hear, see, taste the difference between Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s work.

Other cryptology theories reflect an obsession with obscure typographical detail without reference to probability. Because it requires an expert to explain the statistical significance of, say, occurrences and arrangements of numerals and letters in texts, for example — and another expert even to understand the explanations — these imaginative constructs leave the reader with a vague discomfort that they may actually be true.

I’m not saying geekiness is a bad thing. A Shakespeare scholar I admire, whom I’ll introduce in the next section, was a geek. It’s only a problem if you get so involved in minutiae that you do not learn to read the literature. As we will see later when we compare texts, the poetry simply makes cryptological arguments irrelevant.


Some people become anti-Shakespearians because they hate to think the greatest English dramatic and poetic genius could have been a country kid with no college or pedigree. It’s not necessary to prove this social bias because many of them plainly state it as their major premise. One of the first anti-Shakespearians of them all wrote,

[W]e should hardly expect to recognize in a person, born and brought up as we have represented Shakespeare to have been, the probable possessor of such vast and varied requirements. (Smith 12)

This was William Henry Smith, claiming in 1856 that Francis Bacon was the “real” Shakespeare. Bacon was cultured and schooled, a much more palatable candidate for Greatest English Literary Genius. Other theories launched by the early twentieth century: in 1895 novelist Wilbur G. Zeigler suggested Christopher Marlowe, whose character Baldock nearly describes his creator: “my gentry / I fetch’d from Oxford, not from heraldry” (Edward II, II.2.237-38) — except Marlowe went to Cambridge. Then in 1920, Thomas Looney proposed Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who fetched his gentry from heraldry. The advocates of these proposed Shakespeares are called Baconians, Marlovians, and Oxfordians.

Education and breeding are their main assumptions: only a university man could show genius, only a gentleman could be gentle, a nobleman noble, a courtier courtly. I don’t think these prejudices deserve much attention, but it’s worth pointing out that Shakespeare had a decent middle-class education, access to books, practical stage experience, and well-born acquaintances with ties to the court. Those acquisitions, plus a brilliant ear and cognitive powers that could have manifested in any social environment, shaped the writer of those poems and plays. More importantly, as we will see, whoever wrote those works casually and naturally used the homely imagery of rural English life, exactly the kind of background Shakespeare came from.

Tone deafness

The glaring reality that renders the “authorship controversy” infertile is that the anti-Shakespearians must be either insensible or indifferent to poetic beauty and dramatic artistry. To anyone with the patience and time to examine a few passages of 16th- and 17th-century literature, as we are about to do, the secret codes and hillbilly theories are all beside the point. No one else ever showed Shakespeare’s genius over his or her own name. If other people really could write like Shakespeare, why didn’t they?

How plausible is it that a gifted writer from the outset of his career contrived always to write serviceable, unexceptional English and to construct thin plots just so he could one day fool the world and give credit for his brilliant work to someone else? We are told that the motivation for the worshipful Bacon or the noble De Vere was to insulate his name from a contaminating association with the public theater, but why should that prevent their writing brilliantly for other, more respectable audiences? The story concocted for Marlowe, an actual playwright, is different: that faking his own death necessitated a pen name to prevent the discovery that he was still alive. Of the three, Marlowe’s published work superficially resembles Shakespeare’s, but his language and his storytelling themselves show he couldn’t have been Shakespeare either, unless the trauma of virtually dying awakened in him a creative genius and great-mindedness he had never known before.

Let’s take these three most frequently proposed ghostwriters — Bacon, Oxford, and Marlowe — one at a time and explore a few ways of comparing their work with Shakespeare’s.

Francis Bacon

When the Baconians quote these writers side by side, why don’t they hear what we hear?

The notion that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare arose from several sources in the middle of the 19th century. Their beliefs were based not on any analysis of literary style, but on the circumstances Shakespeare’s origins, education, and experience, and on odd notions about where genius comes from. Aside from the profound flaws in their assumptions and reasoning, a careful look at the writings themselves should have closed the matter forever and sent them looking for another candidate. They were asserting in all seriousness that the author of the following passages must have been the same as the poet who wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

1605: And as for the facility of credit which is yielded to arts and opinions, it is likewise of two kinds; either when too much belief is attributed to the arts themselves, or to certain authors in any art. The sciences themselves, which have had better intelligence and confederacy with the imagination of man than with his reason, are three in number: astrology, natural magic, and alchemy; of which sciences, nevertheless, the ends or pretences are noble. (Bacon “Advancement” 289)

1622: The first means of prohibiting or checking putrefaction, is cold; for so we see that meat and drink will last longer, unputrified, or unsoured, in winter, than in summer: and we see that flowers, and fruits, put in conservatories of snow, keep fresh. And this worketh by the detention of the spirits, and constipation of the tangible parts. (Bacon Sylva 367-68)

1625: Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; Adversity is the blessing of the New; which carrieth the greater benediction, and the clearer revelation of God’s favour. Yet even in the Old Testament, if you listen to David’s harp, you shall hear as many hearse-like airs as carols; and the pencil of the Holy Ghost hath laboured more in describing the afflictions of Job than the felicities of Salomon. Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and Adversity is not without comforts and hopes. We see in needle-works and embroideries, it is more pleasing to have a lively work upon a sad and solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work upon a lightsome ground: judge therefore of the pleasure of the heart by the pleasure of the eye. Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed: for Prosperity doth best discover vice, but Adversity doth best discover virtue. (Bacon “Of Adversity” 386)

These represent the range of Francis Bacon’s best prose, the third one chosen by Macaulay to represent his “richer and softer” mature style (437). Nothing in that language, even in the relatively lofty “Adversity” passage, recalls Shakespeare.

Anti-Shakespearian rejection of evidence

At least one critic undertook to demonstrate the impossibility of confusing Bacon and other writers with Shakespeare. Carolyn F. E. Spurgeon identified the homeliness of Shakespeare’s imagery: much of his rhetorical advantage was that he drew most of his images not from classical mythology and literature, as Marlowe tended to do, nor from science and history and philosophy as Bacon did, nor from aristocratic life, as we might expect from the Earl of Oxford, but from birds in flight, rabbits fleeing predators, gardening tools and skills, housekeeping, the motions of rivers, thunderstorms, light, daily life, games, the human body and its movements (Spurgeon 43 ff.) — common and familiar images that every reader will recognize as long as men can breathe and eyes can see. Other writers could have used homely, timeless figures, too, but they displayed their education and refinement instead, so even if Shakespeare hadn’t been the most compact and graceful wordsmith of them all, his poetry would still have outlasted theirs.

Spurgeon’s book Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935) is a succinct overview of an enormous databank the author collected by enumerating, classifying, and cross-referencing all of the figures of speech (which she calls images) in all of Shakespeare’s works. Dr. Spurgeon was not your typical Shakespeare scholar: she applied the instincts of a taxonomist to the most dizzyingly inspired poetry in English, much as an art critic might enumerate and catalog the dots of various colors on Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. She did all this long before computers, using index cards and typewriters and pencils.

No one before Spurgeon had ever quantified Shakespeare this way. Other critics don’t know what to do with her. With tentative respect they acknowledge the enormity of her work of love and the useful insights it provides. Sometimes they mock her even as they exploit her scholarship. Here is Alan S. Downer, citing her in his own essay on imagery in poetic drama:

From her analysis… Miss Spurgeon concludes that Shakespeare was more sensitive to the horror of bad odors than to the allure of fragrant ones, and to the loathsomeness of bad cooking than to appreciation of delicate and good, presumably because he had “more opportunity of experiencing the one than the other.” There is no other evidence that Miss Spurgeon had a sense of humor. (Downer 21)

They make jokes, they patronize her, but Downer and other scholars (like Edward A. Armstrong, Shakespeare’s Imagination) all use the trail she broke.

About Spurgeon’s evidence that Bacon could not have been Shakespeare, a Baconian complains,

What the people who say this never do, of course, is to bother to ask for and present any Baconian response to her research and conclusions. (Unfoldyourself par. 2)

That’s because what’s needed is a Baconian response not to Spurgeon, but to Shakespeare:

What people who insist Bacon was Shakespeare never do is point out a paragraph or stanza of Bacon’s that sounds like Shakespeare.

One express motive for Spurgeon’s enormous project was to inject the authorship discussion with some objective evidence (13, 15-16, 23-24, 31-32, etc.), the only evidence a critic could understand who would conflate Shakespeare with another writer so obviously different in compression, imagery, grace, wit, subject, and genre. Because she wanted to help them see where they were wrong, she also catalogued the images in much of Bacon’s work and in all of Marlowe’s plays, matching them against those in five of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, As You Like It, Macbeth, and A Winter’s Tale) in one chapter of discussion (12-29) and a special set of three bar-graph charts (Charts I-III). (The Oxfordians were probably too late to get on her research agenda.) She devoted yet another chapter to a comparison of the images of Shakespeare and of five of his contemporary dramatists: Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, and Massinger (30-42), and illustrated those comparisons graphically as well (Chart IV). She intended to follow this first study with a series of books specially addressing the authorship question (Spurgeon preface ix) but never finished those works. Nevertheless those two chapters and four charts make her point pretty clearly.

As far as the Baconians were concerned, she could have saved her breath. They dismissed her studies indignantly, insolently. They continue to do so:

Dr. Spurgeon, for the purposes of her comparison, has analysed only Bacon’s Essays, the Advancement of Learning (we are not told whether the Latin or English version was used), Henry VII and the first part of the New Atlantis. In the comparative anatomy of two brains, she might just as well have ignored a lobe of one of them, or, having carefully dissected Shakespeare’s body, removed from Bacon’s only the skin, crying “The poor man was without bones!” (F.E.C.H. and W.S.M. par. 3).

First of all, it is disingenuous of these writers to question whether Spurgeon may have used Bacon’s Latin version when they knew her purpose was to compare his language with Shakespeare’s English. Bacon’s English text was published contemporaneously with Shakespeare in 1605 (Wright xxix), Bacon’s own Latin translation not until 1623 (xliv). But what difference would it make? Shakespeare’s English against Bacon’s Latin would hardly injure the comparison; all they were looking for was the occurrence of a couple of words in the same context, as we will see.

I’ve selected what seem to be typical samples of Bacon’s prose (above) and poetry (below). A little later we’ll look at some brief passages that Baconians themselves offer for comparison. I think you’ll agree my choices here are much kinder to Bacon.

Density of figures

To discuss Shakespeare’s style and compare him with others it is necessary to acknowledge a central fact, well expressed here by the critic Walter Raleigh:

Accustomed as he is to deal with concrete reality and live movement, Shakespeare seems to do his very thinking in metaphor. (Raleigh 294; also quoted in Spurgeon 146)

With this in mind, because so much of Francis Bacon’s work is prose nonfiction discussing science and theology, when we compare him with Shakespeare it seems only fair to look at some of his verse, where he is using metaphors and being more deliberately poetic. Here I’m considering his translation of the 90th Psalm because the Psalms are “the only verses certainly of Bacon’s making that come have down to us, and probably with one or two slight exceptions the only verses he ever attempted” (Spedding et al. “Preface to the Translation” 193) and because the 90th is one of those in which he uses pentameter. First let’s look at stanza 3, which I think is the most beautiful in the poem. Together with stanza 6 a little later, it will show that although Bacon and Shakespeare both use metaphors, they use them neither in the same density nor with the same skill or efficiency.

Thou carry’st man away as with a tide:
Then down swim all his thoughts that mounted high:

Much like a mocking dream, that will not bide,
But flies before the sight of waking eye;

Or as the grass, that cannot term obtain,
To see the summer come about again. (Ps. 90:5)

(Bacon Translation of Certain Psalms 555)

First let’s count the ratio of figures to syllables and briefly remark on their quality. In 60 syllables Bacon uses five figures:

  1. “Thou [God] carryest man away as with a tide” for God taking a life. This is not Bacon’s simile but the Bible’s (“flood”).
  2. “down swim all his thoughts that mounted high,” metaphor for disillusion, the end of earthly ambition and hope. This figure is awkward. Normally, in the context of “mounting” hopes, suggesting flight, we would interpret “swim” as an embedded metaphor for flight also. However, the preceding “tide” metaphor forces some other reading: rising and falling with the wave — but the wave wasn’t there when his thoughts were rising; or rising from the deep toward the surface then sinking again — not really connoting loftiness; or flying, then swimming — a mixed metaphor? Bacon’s editors excuse these flaws, reasoning that an “unpractised versifier… must of course leave many bad verses” (Spedding et al. “Preface to the Translation” 196). This is kind and reasonable, yet it emphasizes the vanity of comparing these writers’ metaphors for elegance.
  3. “like a mocking dream… / that flies before the sight of waking eye,” comparing life to a dream that “will not bide” but vanishes. I believe “life as a dream” was conventional, but here the comparison is skilfully imagined and phrased.
  4. “Flies” in the previous simile is an embedded metaphor. It was very worn, already a dead metaphor for escape; “flee” was “already in OE. confused with Fly” (“Flee” SOED). But as it here portrays dreams vanishing by animal movement, it is a figure.
  5. “as the grass, that cannot term obtain / To see the summer come about again,” the Psalmist’s metaphor, but inaccurately paraphrased. The original, “…in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth” (Ps. 90:5-6 KJV), is a diurnal, agricultural cycle, which Bacon changes to an annual, apparently natural one.

Now Shakespeare’s first stanza of The Rape of Lucrece:[3]

From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathèd Tarquin leaves the Roman host
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire

And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

(lines 1-7)

These 70 syllables present seven figures:

  1. “the trustless wings of false desire,” metaphor for the haste, energy, and deceit of lust, love’s counterfeit. “Wings of desire” is nothing original, a very conventional metaphor, but the modifiers “trustless” and “false,” at first apparently redundant, complicate the image and suggest a richer interpretation.
  2. “Lust-breathèd,” “fig.Lust-b. (in Shaks.): Breathing lust” (“Breathed” SOED 1) — apparently original with Shakespeare.
  3. “bears the lightless fire / …in pale embers hid,” metaphor for carrying his lust with him, but concealed, as ash hides live coals (with possibly a bonus ironic allusion to fire-bearers for nobler purposes). This seems fresh, an apt and complex image.
  4. “lurks,” personification of lust that hides and watches, predator-like, for its opportunity.
  5. “to aspire,” meaning “To mount up to, reach, attain,” from ad- + spirare, breathe (“Aspire”), metaphor for the coals’ desire both to be fanned into flame and to achieve a goal, with all the connotations appropriate to lust. A subtle, complex, and compact image.
  6. “girdle with embracing flames the waist” [of Lucrece], metaphor for the act of embracing in order to rape; “waist” I believe daintily represents more anatomy than we associate with the word today, so that…
  7. “waist” is a euphemism and a kind of metonymy.

By this count there is a comparable density of tropes per syllable: Bacon’s .0833 to Shakespeare’s .1000. Now consider that I chose Bacon’s richest stanza for comparison with Shakespeare’s first stanza. For a true picture you would also have to take Bacon’s poem as a whole, including stanzas like this:

The life of man is threescore years and ten,
Or, if that he be strong, perhaps fourscore;

Yet all things are but labour to him then,
New sorrows still come on, pleasures no more.

Why should there be such turmoil and such strife,
To spin in length this feeble line of life? (Ps. 90:11)

(Bacon Translation of Certain Psalms 556)

This really is not poetry but versified prose. The first five lines contain no figures at all. Strange as it sounds, I think Shakespeare would have needed considerable effort to write down to that standard. Metaphors were the way Shakespeare thought: they burrowed cosmic wormholes in his syntax. You may continue through “The Rape of Lucrece,” counting figures as you go, and see little thinning of Shakespeare’s figure density. Bacon at his figurative zenith does not quite soar to Shakespeare’s baseline. Shakespeare’s metaphor is unconscious play; Bacon’s is self-conscious effort.

Economy of expression

Shakespeare’s artful compression mystifies his readers. Bacon’s work, pleasant and clear as it is, has none of that quality. In the stanza just above, as typical of Bacon as the lovelier one, the first two lines take twenty syllables to say what you might say in sixteen even without contractions: A man will live seventy years, maybe eighty if he is strong. To be fair, the King James Bible does no better than Bacon with those opening lines; neither elevates the thought to poetry. Remove the last two lines of Bacon’s stanza for the gratuitous and nonscriptural question it is, and Bacon still just equals the KJV’s 40 syllables for verse 11. Both are bulky and awkward. Even wordier is Bacon’s treatment, quoted earlier, of the fifth verse: 60 syllables to the KJV’s 28; but he is ranging wide of scripture in his eloquence, and possibly working to fill out the stanza form, so that comparison may not be fair.

Nevertheless, compare those with Shakespeare’s first twenty syllables in the “Lucrece” stanza, which I need 24 to paraphrase intelligibly (maybe you can do better): From besieged Ardea with all speed derived from haste and energy of deceitful lust, not love, [Tarquin rides, and so on].

Strangely, the difference in these poets’ verbal economy seems somehow involved with their figurative language. Shakespeare achieves economy through metaphor, whereas Bacon’s metaphor, when he uses it, bloats. Shakespeare gets a lot of mileage out of the admittedly conventional image “wings of… desire,” connoting both haste and an insensitivity to discomfort and fatigue. In contrast, Bacon, when he does use figures, as in his third stanza, needs to explain them as if he either is pleased with them or is not sure we will understand them:

Or as the grass, that cannot term obtain
To see the summer come about again.

Which leads us to matters beyond quantification.


Earlier I referred to some features of style that, for me, distinguish Shakespeare from other writers: “compression, imagery, grace, wit, subject, and genre.” The first two I’ve touched on. The last two are too obvious to dispute: anyone suggesting it is unfair to compare Bacon’s Psalm translations with Shakespeare’s soaring myth must accept that their choices of subject and genre, too, are elemental to their styles. In the words of Bacon’s apologetic editors:

The truth is that Bacon was not without the “fine phrensy” of the poet; but the world into which it transported him was one which, while it promised visions more glorious than any poet could imagine, promised them upon the express condition that fiction should be utterly prohibited and excluded. (Spedding et al. “Preface to the Translation” 197)

Could such a mind permit itself to dream the Dream?

“Grace” and “wit” remain. They are matters of taste, but later when we discuss Marlowe we will need to deal with them in depth, both because they are among Shakespeare’s most undeniable excellences, and also because they are some of the most challenging features to explicate. Attention to grace and wit will help us later to distinguish Marlowe and Shakespeare.

In the meantime, if “tone deaf” seems too strong for the Baconians, you can appreciate the differences in grace and wit yourself by reading aloud* the foregoing three verse stanzas. Another good contrast would be to read the three Bacon prose samples quoted at the top of this essay and then, say, this soaring speech by the Prince Hamlet:

I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god — the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet II.2.296-309)

…or the clown Lance’s loving address to his dog Crab:

Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. [To Crab] Thou think’st not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark me, and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? Didst thou ever see me do such a trick? (Two Gentlemen of Verona IV.4.29-38)

* Reading aloud: I will be saying throughout this essay If you read this aloud… and I’m perfectly serious. I don’t mean If you listen to it being read aloud, I mean Read it aloud yourself. Several times. Appreciating poetry is a participatory sport. Spectators have one experience of football, linemen have another. You have to do more than hear poetry, you have to feel it — feel the consonants in your mouth and throat and on your lips and tongue, feel the vowels humming in your chest and resonating in your nose. I could keep begging you to do this, but you just have to experience it yourself. This essay contains many opportunities to rehearse this kind of appreciation. Start with the examples above and begin developing this habit now.

Before we leave this alone we should give the Baconians a chance to make their case. You may remember I said earlier the anti-Shakespearians never “point out a paragraph or stanza of Bacon’s that sounds like Shakespeare.” While that is true, I should acknowledge that some of them have taken the trouble to point out some phrases they think sound like Shakespeare. As we examine these passages, it will be necessary to remark on the absurdity of some Baconian conclusions. I have reviewed my comments below and rephrased those that seemed truculent or sarcastic, but it is also necessary to be plain. I beg the reader always to keep this in mind: I am not displeased with Francis Bacon, only with absurd remarks by anti-Shakespearians. It is not Bacon’s fault that they forced his comparison with Shakespeare.

Here are three pairings of language selected not by me, but by a pair of Baconians I cited earlier, the ones so disparaging of Spurgeon’s work. In the discussion below they undertake to prove that the two writers use the same imagery. As they discuss Ptolemy, architecture, and Cicero, all they actually do prove, with dramatic irony, is that as critics they are insensitive to grace and wit:

Dr. Spurgeon wrote that “Astronomical images reveal very definite differences between Bacon and Shakespeare, yet both hold by the old Ptolomaic system.” This statement is also entirely unsupported except by one example – Shakespeare never mentions the primum mobile. Against this we will record three very striking identities between Bacon and Shakespeare’s astronomical images.

First, to both the stars are fires.

  • Shakespeare: “The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks; They are all fire” (Julius Caesar, Act III, 1);
  • Bacon: “The stars are true fires” (Descriptio Globi Intellectualis).

(F.E.C.H. and W.S.M. par. 16)

It is absurd to accuse Bacon of poetry here. It probably would offend Bacon. He is a 17th-century natural philosopher — that is, scientist — writing that the stars are fires: not figuratively, but literally. I don’t know how anyone could have excerpted the phrase from this context without understanding it:

For it is one thing to say, that the stars are true fires; and another thing to say that the stars (admitting them to be true fires) exert all the powers and produce the same effects which common fire does (Bacon “Translation of the Descriptio” 538; emphasis Bacon’s).

Like almost everyone in that day, Shakespeare considered it a fact that the stars are fires:

Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

(Hamlet II.2.116-119)

Bacon was scientifically examining the idea, whereas Shakespeare has Caesar incorporate this familiar idea into a metaphor; the relationship between stars and fire is not chemical but visual: “The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks” is a metaphor nested in another metaphor: sparks = stars = people. An image of sparks flying up from a fire on the ground and coloring the sky represents stars in their swirling motion, an image that in turn represents the many people swirling about Caesar whose wills are moved by pity, conflicting information, and so on. The sparks “are all fire and every one doth shine” means that each star is bright, and in turn that each of Caesar’s supplicants has his own motives and passions. There is no more implication here that the stars are literally “all fire” than that the stars are literally “sparks.” Caesar, refusing to repeal Publius Cimber’s banishment, compares his own constancy with that of the Northern Star, the only one of those “unnumbered sparks” that “doth hold his place.” Caesar’s, and Shakespeare’s, entire tenor is of human behavior, as is made clear by Caesar’s whole speech (J. Caes. III.1.58-73); Bacon’s tenor is of the stars themselves; far from nesting metaphors within metaphors, he says nothing of sparks or people and remains comfortably literal.


Second, both Bacon and Shakespeare think of the stars as like the frets [“Arch[itecture]: Carved ornament, esp. in ceilings, consisting of intersecting lines in relief” (“Fret” SOED 3.a.) -gb] in the roofs of houses; a very unusual comparison and we think a highly individual one.

  • Shakespeare: “This majestical roof, the sky, fretted with golden fire” (Hamlet)
  • Bacon:“For if that great Workmaster had been of a human disposition, he would have cast the stars into some pleasant and beautiful works and orders, like the frets in the roofs of houses” (Advancement of Learning).

(F.E.C.H. and W.S.M. pars. 17-19)

“this majestical roof
fretted with golden fire”

photo G. Bryant 2014
Robinson, Kansas

This pairing perfectly contrasts both the power of metaphor against simile, and Shakespeare’s economy against Bacon’s bloat. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s Hamlet says the sky is fretwork (though he is misquoted above — he doesn’t insert the redundant phrase “the sky”) and he probably means some kind of pattern of light and cloud at sunset or sunrise. Similarly, in Julius Caesar, Cinna argues with Casca that “yon gray lines / That fret the clouds are messengers of day” (J. Caes. II.1.102-3). Bacon, on the other hand — referring only to the stars, not to clouds — says they are not like fretwork because God does not design with a “human disposition.” Shakespeare does and Bacon does not see an imaginative resemblance between the sky and a decorated ceiling. It is just possible that Bacon was objecting to what he considered a faulty comparison in Hamlet, but we cannot know that.

Going on:

Third, and a singular conception, is of God arranging the stars as a show and this is common to both Bacon and Shakespeare and seems to have been derived from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. This identity is very remarkable.

  • Shakespeare: “This huge stage presenteth nought but shows whereon the stars in secret influence comment” (Sonnet 15).
  • Bacon: “Velleius, the Epicurean, needed not to have asked why God should have adorned the heavens with stars, as if he had been an AEdilis, one that should have set forth some magnificent shows or plays” (Advancement of Learning).

(F.E.C.H. and W.S.M. pars. 20-21)

First, Shakespeare’s remark here is an astrological fantasy, having nothing to do with God; Bacon’s is a philosophical insistence that the stars are not a mere entertainment presented by God. Second, to Shakespeare the show is presented on the “huge stage” of the earth with the stars as audience and critics; Bacon considers (and rejects) the idea of the stars themselves as a show, with earthlings as spectators. This is not an “identity” of expression at all; nor would it even be “remarkable” if the critics were correct in saying in the preceding sentence that both were “derived from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum.”

Of course as we read those pairings aloud we hear they have certain words in common, but more important, we hear what the Baconians apparently cannot: in each example, the first quote is compressed and poetic; the second is deliberate and prosaic.

Shakespeare and Bacon may have sometimes reached for similar comparisons merely because they were conventional thoughts in their day. However, if we were to agree with these critics that these are all rare and fresh expressions by the same writer, we would have to wonder why the quote attributed to Shakespeare is always the most elegant, and, in the first two examples at least, the earliest:

  • Julius Caesar was written around 1599-1600 (Mabillard “Chronology”), and Descriptio Globi Intellectualis certainly not before 1611, probably 1612 (Spedding et al. “Preface to the Descriptio” 715-16).
  • Hamlet was written around 1600-1601 (Mabillard “Chronology”), and Advancement of Learning was completed and published in 1605, probably composed in the years leading up to that (Klein par. 10).
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609 but composed during a span five to fifteen years before that (Rolfe); Bacon’s Advancement of Learning was published in 1605 (Klein par. 10), so these quotes may be contemporaneous. But it doesn’t matter, because, as I pointed out, they aren’t talking about the same thing at all.

The Baconian claim, however, is not of influence between the writers, but of their identity. What the Baconians fail to detect is that the expressions attributed to Shakespeare are far more imaginatively conceived, compactly expressed, and beautifully phrased than those attributed to Bacon, and despite the coincidence of a few words, they are unrelated expressions.

The early Baconian William Henry Smith, in his book-essay Bacon and Shakespeare: An inquiry touching players, playhouses, and play-writers, proposed that Shakespeare’s brilliance couldn’t be reconciled with his cultural and educational background, but that it could with Bacon’s. As his essay has been so influential we should examine its reasoning. I think a few examples of Smith’s selection of supporting evidence will illustrate the problem. At first his selectivity seemed shrewd to me, as if for the purpose not of comparing, but of avoiding comparison between the two writers; but he is not so shrewd, as you will soon see. First, in order to compare the two writers’ “wit,” here meaning “liveliness of fancy… apt expression” (“Wit” SOED II.3), Smith takes the roundabout path of quoting Thomas Babington Macaulay’s opinion of Bacon’s wit, then later quoting François Guizot’s somewhat similarly phrased opinion of Shakespeare’s wit. This is an extremely distant and blurry method of comparison, to put one critic’s opinion of one writer alongside a different critic’s opinion of a different writer. But then he blurs the comparison even more: when Macaulay provides examples of Bacon’s “happy similitudes” (i.e. beautifully apt comparisons), Smith edits the examples out:

[Smith quotes Macaulay:] “…But it occasionally happened, that when he was engaged in grave and profound investigations, his wit obtained the mastery over all his other faculties, and led him into absurdities, into which no dull man could possibly have fallen.” After giving several instances, Mr. Macaulay proceeds thus:— “The truth is, his mind was wonderfully quick in perceiving analogies of all sorts…” (Smith 14 — emphasis mine -gb)

Here are the examples of Baconian wit that Macaulay cited but Smith deleted:

We will give the most striking instance which at present occurs to us. In the third book of the “De Augmentis” he tells us that there are some principles which are not peculiar to one science, but are common to several. That part of philosophy which concerns itself with these principles is, in his nomenclature, designated as philosophia prima. He then proceeds to mention some of the principles with which this philosophia prima is conversant. One of them is this. An infectious disease is more likely to be communicated while it is in progress than when it has reached its height. This, says he, is true in medicine. It is also true in morals; for we see that the example of very abandoned men injures public morality less than the example of men in whom vice has not yet extinguished all good qualities. Again, he tells us that in music a discord ending in a concord is agreeable, and that the same thing may be noted in the affections. Once more, he tells us, that in physics the energy with which a principle acts is often increased by the antiperistasis of its opposite, and that it is the same in the contests of factions. If this be indeed the philosophia prima, we are quite sure that the greatest philosophical work of the nineteenth century is Mr. Moore’s “Lalla Rookh.” The similitudes which we have cited are very happy similitudes. But that a man like Bacon should have taken them for more, that he should have thought the discovery of such resemblances as these an important part of philosophy, has always appeared to us one of the most singular facts in the history of letters. (Macaulay 434)

That does not sound at all like someone describing Shakespeare’s famously apt and vivid comparisons. Listen to Cleopatra watching her Antony die in her arms:

CLEOPATRA:   Noblest of men, woot die?
Hast thou no care of me? Shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty?


O see, my women,
65The crown o’th’ earth doth melt. My lord!
O, withered is the garland of the war.
The soldier’s pole is fall’n. Young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
70Beneath the visiting moon.

(Ant. & Cleo. IV.16.61-70)

…or eulogizing the late Antony for his godlike magnificence:

His delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element they lived in.


…or her almost last words, as the asp is poisoning her:

Peace, peace.
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?


Compare those with Bacon’s “happy similitudes.”

I mentioned that I first suspected Smith of being dishonest in concealing those examples chosen by Macaulay, but I was wrong. Two chapters later Smith offers, in his simple confidence that we will recognize their identity, seven pages of “Parallel Passages, and Peculiar Phrases, from Bacon and Shakespeare.” This one is typical:

[Bacon’s] Essay on Building:—
He that builds a fair house upon an ill seat committeth himself to prison; nor do I reckon that an ill seat only, where the air is unwholesome, but likewise where it is unequal.

[Shakespeare’s] Macbeth, act i. sc. 6:—
This castle hath a pleasant seat—the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

(Smith 41)

“The speech itself was nimble, sweet, and gentle,” writes one critic (Van Doren 229), himself falling into comfortable pentameter to praise King Duncan’s deft verbal landscape sketch. It mystifies me why the Baconian Smith cannot distinguish these writers in his own examples.

Follow the link above and examine all of Smith’s examples. You will perceive that he is quoting two men who share a culture and probably some familiarity with each other’s works, and that Smith is critically deaf to poetry.

Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Anyone who reads Shakespeare with pleasure needs only to read these De Vere poems to recognize it is not the same personality.

Of the three candidates, Bacon’s supposed authorship is the easiest to dismiss. Each of the others presents more difficult challenges.

The problems with disqualifying Marlowe, which we will confront later, have to do with the fact that they were of similar origins, the same age, competing in the same genres and the same market. Their resemblances are obvious and will make it necessary to examine differences in themes, deftness, subtlety, ability to imagine life outside their own skins, and so on.

The problems are very different with Oxford. Instead of too much resemblance, there’s little basis for comparison at all. Nothing attributed to Edward De Vere survives but a handful of lyric poems and a lot of letters. It should be unnecessary to address the question at all; as with the Baconians, the burden really lies with the Oxfordians to find Shakespeare in De Vere’s writings. Oxford’s contemporaries praised his poems and plays, but of course people often praise the efforts of prominent social figures; it’s good manners, and it’s good business. The bar for excellence is set considerably lower for aristocrats in deference to the fact that they don’t really have to write for a living, and the other, more important fact that they are able to confer favors. Professional writers have a much tougher audience: a paying audience.

Therefore contemporary praises of works no longer extant must be doubted. We must find evidence of Shakespeare in a few poems if we can, and we will need striking evidence indeed to overcome the bulk of contemporary documents and testimonies by fellow theater professionals who collaborated or competed with Shakespeare and knew him for who he was, and the apparent vacuum of contemporary rumor to the contrary. More important, we must explain why, if Oxford wrote Shakespeare, their writings give the impression of two distinct personalities working at two very different levels of language and of thought. Close examination confirms that impression.

De Vere’s closest approaches to Shakespeare

De Vere’s poems 12, 15, and 16 (Stephen W. May’s enumeration) have claims to consideration: they resemble some of Shakespeare’s lyric poems in form; some of their themes, diction, and ideas resemble some of Shakespeare’s; and in many ways these poems are well done.

The dating of the poems presents a problem, but maybe we can sidestep it. Oxford’s earlier poems, none very good, were written when Shakespeare was from eight to twelve years old. Most of the others are difficult to date with any precision, certainly not enough precision to trace a writer’s development from Oxford into Shakespeare. However, De Vere’s poem 12 has so many themes, words, and thoughts in common with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 that it invites comparison; in my opinion it is one of the three closest points of approach between the two poets, even though De Vere’s poem predates Shakespeare’s by at least six years, probably more like eight or ten (May 75 and Rolfe par. 1). Oxfordians will surely point to this passage of time to excuse the improvements in depth and control and the changes in style. It is just possible to imagine a single writer, born in 1550, undergoing radical changes in personality and language habits between the ages of thirty and forty that account for such an improvement in poetic power; possible to imagine, but not easy to believe, and not necessary unless to rationalize a devoutly wished conclusion.

If you read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and De Vere’s poem 12 (below) and study the line notes it will give a good sense of how the two writers compare. (Hover the cursor over red words for definitions, blue phrases for observations of style, and purple for a comparison of certain lines between the two poems. These notes are repeated below[4].) In the right margin I’ve listed figures of speech to get a sense of their coherence and aptness. Following the poems is a discussion of these and two other of De Vere’s poems.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with Fortune and mens eyes,personification
I all alone beweepe my out-cast state,“state” wordplay
And trouble deafe heaven with my bootlesse cries,personification
4And looke upon my selfe and curse my fate.
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,wealth metaphor
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possest,
Desiring this mans art, and that mans skope,
8With what I most injoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts my selfe almost despising,
Haplye I thinke on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the Larke at breake of daye arising)skylark metaphor
12From sullen earth sings himns at Heavens gate,more metaphors

For thy sweet love remembred such welth brings,
That then I skorne to change my state with Kings.

(from facsimile in Booth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets pp. 26, 29)

De Vere’s poem 12

Wing’de with desyre, I seeke to mount on hyghe;flight
Clogde with myshapp yet am I kept full lowe;encumbrance
Whoe seekes to lyve and fyndes the waye to dye,
Sythe comforte ebbs, and cares do daylye flowe.tides in, out

5But sadd despayre would have me to retyre,battle retreat,
When smylynge hoape setts forward my desyre.advance

I styll do toyll and never am at reste,work, rest
Enjoyenge least whan I do covet moste;
With wearye thoughtes are my green yeers opprest,age, youth
10To dawnger drawen from my desyred coast.hazard, harbor

Nowe crazed with Care, than haled up with Hope,crush, hoist (?)
With world at will yet wantynge wished scope.freedom, restraint

I lyke in harte, yet dare not saye I love,
And lookes alone do lend me cheefe releife.
15I dwelt sometymes at rest yet must remove,stay, leave
With fayngned joye I hyde my secret greefe.

I would possess yet needs must flee the placeoccupy, flee
Where I do seek to wyn my cheefest grace.fight, honor

Lo thus I lyve twyxte feare and comforte toste,seafaring
20With least abode wher best I feell contente;habitation
I seelde resorte wher I should setle most,homecoming
My slydinge tymes to sone with her are spente.time passing

I hover hyghe and soare wher Hope doth tower,flight, soaring
Yet froward Fate defers my happy hower.waiting

25I live abrod but styll in secreat greef,exposure
Then least alone when most I seeme to lurke;exposure
I speak of peace, and lyve in endles stryfe,peace, war
And when I playe than are my thoughts at worke;play, work

In person farr that am in mynd full neere,distance
30Makynge lyghte showe where I esteeme most deere.value, cost

A mall-content yet seeme I pleased styll,
Braggyng of heaven yet feelynge paynes of hell.heaven, hell
But Tyme shall frame a tyme unto my will,personification
Whenas in sporte thys earnest will I tell;

35Tyll than (sweet frende) abyde these stormes with me,weather
Which shall in joys of eyther fortunes be.

(May 34-35)

First observations

De Vere’s poems 12 and 16 share the same stanza form as Venus and Adonis. However, this is “one of the most commonly used stanzas in Elizabethan poetry” (Ross par. 17) according to Terry Ross’s “The Verse Forms of Shakespeare and Oxford,” a very useful essay that will reassure anyone who is distracted by formal resemblances. Those may be set aside, even in the case of De Vere’s single Elizabethan-style sonnet (below).

Of course anyone looking at these poems together will notice the word “scope” hanging out at the end of De Vere’s second stanza and Shakespeare’s line 7. I do not know if this word was a commonplace among courtier poets; certainly courtiers sought to increase their influence and authority. In any case the word is used differently in the two poems. De Vere has the “world at will” but paradoxically feels limited in his freedom to act (SOED def. 6). While the same sense resonates with Shakespeare’s whole sonnet and in fact with much of the sonnet sequence, in this particular line Shakespeare is pairing “skope” with “art,” two halves of an artist’s power: mastery of the medium (art) and cognitiion (scope): “The distance to which the mind reaches in its workings or purpose; reach or range of mental activity; extent of view, outlook, or survey” (SOED def. 5). That, in Shakespeare, is a piece of ostentatious humility if I ever saw one. De Vere’s ambitions are more practical and political. The coincidence of the word “scope” need not trouble us, unless we want trouble.

Poetic conventions and syntax

Another striking resemblance, after examination, shows De Vere circling in conventions and Shakespeare artfully transforming the same conventions and giving them fresh power. Even if these poems had not been placed side by side, many readers encountering De Vere’s “Enjoyenge least whan I do covet moste” (line 8) would immediately recall Shakespeare’s “With what I most injoy contented least” (line 8). Before the end of De Vere’s poem we run into three more lines clearly of that construction: “With least abode wher best I feell contente” (line 20); “Then least alone when most I seeme to lurke” (line 26); and “Makynge lyghte showe where I esteeme most deere” (line 30), though this one lacks the consonance of the “least / best” or “least / most” pairing. Each of De Vere’s four lines is structured like balancing scales, two opposing expressions teetering on the fulcrum of a “where” or “when,” yet in each case the scales are actually out of balance; his habit is always to place the modifier and the word modified in the same order. The modifiers come second in both halves of the first instance: verb-adverb, verb-adverb (line 8), but first in all other cases: adjective-noun, adverb-adjective (line 20), adverb-adjective, adverb-verb (line 26), and adjective-noun, adverb-adjective (line 30).

In shattering the teeter-totter balance of this device, Shakespeare creates a more intense, focused symmetry. If De Vere had been responsible for Shakespeare’s line, he surely would have preferred “Contented least with what I enjoy most,” if only it would scan. Shakespeare, perhaps familiar with this conventional syntactic irony, simply gets the fulcrum out of the way first so he can jam together in what is left of the line the words that really matter: “most injoy contented least.” And notice the reversal of elements: he inverts the second phrase in order to associate most closely the words modified, emphasizing their similarity in mood – “injoy contented” – then gives them opposing charges by sandwiching them between the polarizing adverbs “most” and “least.” It is a much stronger line. Readers of Shakespeare learn to expect this kind of compression, as if it was the poet’s habit always to wrench the language into the best shape to punch the meaning through.

More should be said about that device. Shakespeare used it just once in Sonnet 29, so it doesn’t look like a habit as it does with De Vere. In Shakespeare it sums up the octave’s mounting discontent and expresses the spiritual effect of the envy in his second quatrain. In De Vere’s poem it is used much differently. Line 8 seems grammatically to modify line 7 before it, to which it is linked by a comma, but in fact there is no rational connection between the two thoughts. Line 20 expresses a similar sense of comfort denied just before it, but it mixes metaphors, jumping from seafaring to habitation. Lined 30 echoes line 28 two lines up, in which he seems to “playe” but is really thinking seriously. Indeed, line 30’s flippant outward behavior (“lyghte showe”) which conceals his deep respect parallels and clarifies the thought: it is more specific and more beautifully phrased and makes line 28 superfluous except to fill out the stanza. Line 29, between them, seems to have nothing to do with the thought; linked to 30 by a comma, it appears related, but the reader cannot make it clarify line 28, as 30 does, so it is in the way; it is only justified to fill out the form. All in all, De Vere uses this rhetorical see-saw too often, disconnectedly and to little benefit.

It’s also worth noticing, speaking of modifiers, that Shakespeare’s line 8 is but the fourth in a series of five lines that present six participial phrases, stretching from the beginning of the second quatrain seamlessly into what can no longer be called a sestet; together, these phrases modify not the “I beweepe… and curse” of the first quatrain, but rather the “I think on thee” following these phrases — at least if you accept the punctuation in the original 1609 publication. Let me make a case for that punctuation.

Modern editors, possibly anticipating a conventional sonnet structure, reassign this block of six parallel participial phrases (lines 5-9) to refer backward to modify the first four lines of the poem, instead of forward to the last five as Shakespeare seems to have had it. They do this by moving the stop: they change Shakespeare’s period at the end of line 4 to a comma, and his comma at the end of line 8 to a semicolon (Booth Shakespeare’s Sonnets 28) or to a colon (Wells and Taylor 375), creating a distinct octave. Wells and Taylor even insert a comma in line 1 after “When,” making it impossible for a modern reader accustomed to grammatical punctuation to see the first quatrain as a complete sentence; Stephen Booth leaves Shakespeare’s first line as is, retaining both possibilities and preserving a disorienting uncertainty. Booth points out elsewhere that Shakespeare’s syntax and logic are not ruled by form; “the first four lines [of #29] are logically complete in themselves and could stand alone; it is a surprise to the reader when the syntax carries over into line 5” (Essay 39).

With this insight in mind, is there any need to change the punctuation at all? Shakespeare’s commaless “When in disgrace” in line 1, the full stop after the first quatrain, and the comma after the second quatrain are much more unsettling than the usual emendations because they cast the reader adrift in a sense very similar to the way the speaker feels cast adrift. To discuss this we need to examine how the usual modern emendation changes the sense. Ignoring the couplet, whose grammatical relation to the poem is unchanged, editors usually create in lines 1-12 a sense that can be summarized by this single complex expression (plain = subordinate clause, underline = independent clause):

When, with Fortune and others looking down on me, I weep and waste prayers and curse my outcast state, [at the same time] envying others more fortunate, feeling discontented with my own art, yet despising myself for these jealous thoughts, [then] by chance I think of your love, which raises my spirits.

Shakespeare’s own punctuation, however, creates thought which is better summarized by two complex sentences:

When Fortune and others look down on me, [then] I weep and waste prayers and curse my outcast state.

[As I am occupied in] envying others more fortunate, feeling discontented with my own art, yet despising myself for these jealous thoughts, [then] by chance I think of your love, which raises my spirits.

To me this makes more sense semantically. It also avoids — or preserves? — the confusion about whether those participial phrases modify the loss and anger that precedes them or supply a contrasting psychological setting for the happy surprise that follows. Shakespeare’s original punctuation makes the first quatrain seem tidy: one line describing his situation and three lines describing his response. Booth’s “surprise… when the syntax carries over into line 5” (Essay 39) is actually a result of modern repunctuation that forces it to carry over. The effect of Shakespeare’s punctuation develops more slowly: instead of “surprise,” his full stop to leaves the reader satisfied  that the thought was complete, then lets him grow increasingly uncomfortable as he sees no relief, grammatically or emotionally, from a growing string of untethered participial phrases: wishing… featured… possessed… desiring… least contented… self despising. That full stop has put the reader out to sea with no landfall in sight. This disorientation positions us to understand the speaker’s situation emotionally, so that when we finally reach “Haply I think on thee, and then,” we see with relief that through the gloom we have, after all, been drifting, unconsciously but surely, to the poem’s bright exit.

My point is that Shakespeare asks more of the reader than De Vere does; he expects you to hold one, two, three, four, five lines of mental condition in mind while watching for a main clause which you increasingly suspect you already missed, and which is so long in coming that you feel a little lost, even glancing backward for refuge toward the hostile lost heaven of the first quatrain — in sympathy with the speaker, in fact. In contrast, De Vere’s modifying phrases always trail their main clauses and never reach farther than two lines back. He seems satisfied with that pattern; Shakespeare is not, and uses a more complex syntax that directs the reader’s attention forward in anticipation, then rewards the wait.

Thematic unity and clarity

The teeter-totter shares this lack of aim and purpose with other features of De Vere’s poem. Backing off a little we see that this device is just a type of the entire conceit, which is one not of ideas but merely of rhetoric: paradoxes, paired ironies, some so contrived as barely to reflect reality. If we loosen the grammatical description we find several similar constructions:

But sadd despayre would have me to retyre,
When smylynge hoape setts forward my desyre
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
I styll do toyll and never am at reste
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
With fayngned joye I hyde my secret greefe
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
I seelde resorte wher I should setle most
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
I speak of peace, and lyve in endles stryfe
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
In person farr that am in mynd full neere
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
Braggyng of heaven yet feelynge paynes of hell

Loosen it a little more, and it clearly is the basis for the entire poem save the last four lines. An underlying theme exists but is never clear: much of the language indicates a frustrated secret love that the speaker cannot actively pursue, but other language suggests this is only a metaphor, in the courtly-love tradition, for frustrated ambition, especially at the end where the speaker seeks the consolation of a friend other than the beloved, anticipating jolly times with that friend when they enjoy better fortunes and can laugh at all these by-then-bygone cares. As it wraps up, the whole poem seems to have been an exercise in semantic juggling. He expresses one or two versions of frustrated hopes in at least twenty or thirty different tropes, even if we ignore repeats. He seems to lack any artistic restraint or discretion. Perhaps he simply allowed himself too many lines to make his point.

In contrast, Shakespeare’s theme is unified. Like De Vere, the speaker laments his “out-cast state,” but his main focus is inward, remaining so even as his quiet recollection of his friend’s love lifts his mood not to the place he fell from, but far above it. Friendship replaces professional ambition and leaves him closer to heaven even than “bootlesse” prayer. As the poem ends we understand that the auditor is the speaker’s only and sufficient friend. There is no implication that their future celebrations will be of the fulfilment of the speaker’s ambitions in court, owed to the favor of some other person.

Integrity of idea and imagery

Furthermore, Shakespeare expresses the inward motions of the speaker’s mind in deft, restrained, and expertly controlled imagery with a single graphic trajectory from high to low, then after a horizontal travel, back to higher than ever. This is especially noticeable in the second of those paraphrases above, the one reflecting Shakespeare’s original punctuation:

When Fortune and others look down on me, I weep and waste prayers and curse my outcast state.

While I am thus occupied envying others more fortunate, feeling discontented with my own art, yet despising myself for these jealous thoughts, by chance I think of your love, which raises my spirits.

After a first-quatrain curse upward at the Fortune, heaven, and fate that have thrown him down, Shakespeare sinks to earth and turns his gaze laterally on those he envies, then inward on his own shortcomings. In the doldrums of his most inner pain, with the delightfully abrupt word “Haplye” he remembers “thee,” his friend, and is lifted emotionally from earth to heights transcending even his lost glory. Most of the figurative language with which he accomplishes this is quiet, in order not to interfere with the literal expression of the qualities he envies. The personifications of “Fortune” and “heaven” are so conventional as to pass almost unnoticed, and occupy only the first quatrain, leaving the second almost without a trope: the “rich” metaphor for intangible possessions is just as conventional and inobtrusive, and serves mainly to transition gracefully from the glories he has lost to his earthbound contemplation of his more fortunate peers in the second quatrain, which is as explicit as prose. It also resonates very subtly with “possest,” “welth,” and two senses of “state” to unify the poem under the theme of the riches of friendship. The “state” wordplay that begins in line 2 and underlies the entire poem is almost as invisible; I never noticed it, despite the repetition of the word, until Stephen Booth’s book brought it to my attention (Booth Shakespeare’s Sonnets 180). The sonnet’s one truly vivid image is the metaphor of the skylark for the speaker’s spirits, so fully expressed that it almost consumes the religious terms “himns” and “Heaven” embedded in it. It is true that the lark is a frequent metaphor in English literature, but this is something new. Shakespeare seems to have swept the stage clear of competing images to emphasize the lark, reserving it for the third quatrain, the poem’s spiritual center, and investing it with the first rich multisensory detail in the poem. The spiritual coloration recalls the “heaven” of the first quatrain, more than reversing the fall from mere earthly grace “with Fortune and mens eyes.” The “sullen earth” reminds us how low the speaker has been, and the suggestions of music and flight refresh us after that metaphorically barren period in the second quatrain. The lark metaphor embodies the theme, synthesizes all the rest of the imagery, and unifies the poem’s structure in a way that the reader senses is under masterful artistic control.

I have not been able to find any such trajectory or control in De Vere’s poem. There seems to be no meaningful movement from one thought to the next. He begins by expressing frustrated ambition, moves to merely trying to survive, settles on a middle ground of mere lack of comfort, then, through the meaningless conjunction “But,” drops back down to “sadd despayre” – meaningless because this is a poem of two polar states, favor and disfavor, and the reader considers discomfort and despair as on the same end of the scale. Then all the way up to “smylynge hoape,” and all this is in the first stanza alone. The second stanza is toil, longing, the unrelated ideas of weariness and hazard grammatically linked, then crushing worry, hope, and powerlessness. Third stanza: unrequited love, unsettledness, grief, shame, esteem. Fourth stanza: fear and discomfort, discontent, unsettledness, time flying, hope, time dragging. Fifth stanza: pretense, grief, conflict, restless thought, longing from afar, joking to avoid expressing affection. Last stanza: discontent, pretending joy to hide misery, then looking forward with the auditor to better times. Compare this with Shakespeare’s fall from grace, weeping and cursing, envy and self-pity, surprising joy, ascent to bliss. De Vere’s poem stumbles aimlessly back and forth over a spectrum of emotions from bliss, through little joys and inconveniences, to despair, then at the last turns away from them all to address a different relationship entirely.

As an experiment, in my notes I drew “right” arrows in the left margin of De Vere’s poem when he was winning near his love, “left” arrows when he was drawing away, and undirectional dashes when his expression had nothing to do with either. There was no pattern there, either. What is his point? It is to play with phrases, to write as many paradoxical variations as possible on a single theme. In the end, the pursuit of a remote love is barely a theme.

Looking for patterns in the imagery is another dead end. The reason Dr. Spurgeon catalogued Shakespeare’s imagery and that of his contemporaries was that she believed a writer’s habitual selection of metaphoric “vehicle” (Richards 96), that is, the classes of images he was prone to select to convey the meaning, was a relatively unconscious choice, especially when writing under pressure or inspiration, and revealed more of the writer’s personality than other choices: “In the case of a poet, I suggest that it is chiefly through his images that he, to some extent unconsciously, ‘gives himself away’ ” (Spurgeon 4). She seems to be right. I wish she had gotten her analytic hands on De Vere, but he wasn’t an issue when she was working, and even if he had been, De Vere’s extant poems would have provided too meager a sampling of images for her to work with. Therefore I won’t try to categorize them as “Birds,” “Four-footed animals domestic/wild,” and so on. But we should at least compare De Vere and Shakespeare in their artistic use of figures.

Here are De Vere’s images in #12, as I see them, in order of appearance: encumbered flight, tidal motion, regressing and advancing, work and rest, age and youth, rocky coast and safe harbor, crushing, hoisting, staying and moving off, retreat and advance in battle, seafaring, habitation, flight, showing versus hiding, war and peace, play and work, distance, value, heaven and hell, storms. It is such a clamor of images in so many keys that I cannot sense the least bit of planning and order.

Again, compare with Shakespeare: disdainful Fortune personified, friendship as wealth, renewal of spirit as a skylark rising to sing at Heaven’s gate. The imagery is at the service of the theme, not the other way around.

I thought perhaps the words or images that are repeated might signify something or help unify De Vere’s poem, but I examined them and I can’t see how. The image of flight in the first line recurs as “hover[ing] high” much later, but in the back-and-forth oscillation of the entire poem there can be no sense of reclaiming a former bliss, as there is in Shakespeare. The regress-progress in line 5 echoes in retreating and advancing two stanzas later, but again there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the coincidence; they are merely two images of ironic opposition among many others. There are too many metaphors and too many moods for any one of them to stand as an emblem of the theme, or for a theme to emerge clearly at all.

Phonetic patterns: integrity of idea, image, and sound

By now it should be clear that the closer we look at these poems, the more apparent it is that they are products of different writers. A closer analysis, the kind that involves phonetics and unconscious language habits, only strengthens that impression.

There is a property of Shakespeare’s style that is so subtle that it is invisible, even inaudible not only to most readers but apparently even to most poets, including De Vere himself. It is the expressive use of phonetic patterns. I don’t believe I would have become aware of this level of control if it had not been for the patient work of Stephen Booth, whose Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets carefully traces patterns of assonance, consonance, and even recurring pairings of phonemes. The essay is painstakingly prepared and takes some patience to read, but the effort rewards anyone who loves the sound of Shakespeare’s language and wants to understand it as a source of his power; so will a careful reading of Paul Edmondson’s recent essay explicating “Shakespeare’s Word Music” in short passages from several plays. Close readings like these are both hard work and great fun to read, and surely just as laborious and fun to write; most important, they help readers develop a clear sense of a poet’s style. I would think scholars with an ear for such work would find worthy applications for it in the authorship discussions. I hope more of them undertake it. For this essay a cruder analysis will probably do.

Even so, we need a little courage to continue. Most students of literature at some point in stylistic analysis begin to question whether the author really intended this symbol or that useful ambiguity; there is an even farther point, probably where we are now, where all of us throw up our hands and dismiss the minutiae as accident. We are probably right, but in Shakespeare’s case they are very happy accidents and so frequent and consistent as to merit a better word than “accident”; maybe “unconscious brilliance” or “intuitive grace” or something. These sound patterns deserve this praise because they work so well to knit meaning to form. To dismiss them as “accident” is to pretend that the unconscious mind plays no part in creativity. Furthermore, in the current discussion these phonetic patterns merit attention precisely because they are mostly unconscious. They are difficult habits either to assume or to put aside deliberately. As Dr. Spurgeon said of selection of metaphoric vehicles, these habitual patterns seem profoundly idiosyncratic and corroborate other evidence that we are reading different poets.

For this part of the comparison with Sonnet 29 I chose De Vere’s poem #15 (May’s numbering) because it is an Elizabethan sonnet; because it is one of his latest poems, probably written only a few years before the earliest of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and because it shows some artistic control not evident in De Vere’s earlier work:

Who taught the[e] first to sighe alas my Harte?}love.
Who taught thy Tongue the wofull wordes of plaint?
Who fild thine Eyes with Teares of bitter smarte?
4Who gave the[e] grief and made thy Joyes so faynt?
Who first did print with Coloures pale thy face?}Love.
Who first did breke thy slepes of quiet rest?
Above the rest in Court who gave thee Grace?
8Who made the[e] stryve in vertue to be Best?
In Constant troth to bide so firme and sure,}Love
To scorn the world regarding but thy frend,
With pacient mynd ech passion to endure,
12In one desire to settle to thy end?

Love then thy Choyse, wherin such fayth doth bynde,
As nought but death may ever Change thy mynde.

(May 37)

Because I love the music of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, I thought it would be interesting to compare the movement of the place of articulation through both sonnets, through five areas from front to back:

  1. lips or lips + teeth (p, b, m, w, f, v)
  2. alveolar ridge or teeth and tongue (th, t, d, n, l, r, s, sh, z, zh, j)
  3. hard palate and tongue (y)
  4. soft palate and tongue (k, g, ng)
  5. uvula and glottis (qu, h, glottal stop)

As I acknowledged above, this is a very blunt instrument compared to the work of real linguists, but it will serve to show some differences in control. For a graphic illustration I will simplify even further and merely point out the strongest back-consonants against the rest of the articulation in both poems. You may read the poems aloud — in fact you must read them aloud if you want to understand this discussion — and your lips, teeth, tongue, palate, and throat, as well as your ear, will demonstrate these articulation patterns. As you do, note that wishing, desiring, and despising were pronounced by Elizabethans as if they were spelled wishin’, desirin’, and despisin’; that is, toward the front, not the back. Also note that in emphasizing back-consonants I mark heaven, hope, Haplye, and Who because their initial sound is a glottal “h”, but leave the more labial When, what, and wherin unmarked.

The softest music comes from front-consonants, those produced with the lips, the teeth, and the tip of the tongue (“in these thoughts myself almost despisin’ ”). The soft palate, uvula, and glottis produce louder, sometimes harsher, always livelier music (“sings hymns at Heaven’s gate”). Here is how Shakespeare makes use of this:

When in disgrace with Fortune and mens eyes,
I all alone beweepe my out-cast state,
And trouble deafe heaven with my bootlesse cries,
4And looke upon my selfe and curse my fate.
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possest,
Desiring this mans art, and that mans skope,
8With what I most injoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts my selfe almost despising,
Haplye I thinke on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the Larke at breake of daye arising)
12From sullen earth sings himns at Heavens gate,

For thy sweet love remembred such welth brings,
That then I skorne to change my state with Kings.

Shakespeare’s first quatrain, dealing with the speaker’s fall from grace, presents several sharp back-consonants that cough out the words disgrace, out-cast, cries, look, and curse.

In the second quatrain, where the speaker licks his wounds and assesses his condition, back-consonants jab a finger at three comparative fortunates — like to one, like him, like him — and at two bitterly envied attributes, hope and scope. These noises spend themselves and mostly quiet down in lines 7 and 8 as he mutters his disconent.

Line 9 structurally opens the third quatrain but really only extends and wraps up “these thoughts” of the second quatrain. After the initial y in “yet,” it is the most frontal line in the poem, and would be the quietest except for its hiss of self-loathing that brings the speaker to his lowest point, settling on the word “despising.”

The next line, however, breaks in with the glottal “Haply” and initiates the brightest sounding passage in the poem, imitating the skylark’s hymn with the liveliest back-to-front warble yet. Line 12 darkens momentarily only to brighten again, accompanying the lark’s (and the speaker’s) ascent “From sullen earth” to “Heavens gate.” Anyone who has heard the Eurasian Skylark’s bright, rapid warble and looked up to find it fluttering high overhead can appreciate the joyful aptness of this metaphor. (Akira Ooyagi has contributed clear examples on YouTube (Ooyagi, several aerial samples starting at 2:42.)

The couplet settles the poem on a quieter note, punctuated at the last by the speaker’s “skorne” for courtly esteem.

De Vere’s poem #15 shows a very different pattern of back-consonants:

Who taught the[e] first to sighe alas my harte?
Who taught thy Tongue the wofull wordes of plaint?
Who fild thine Eyes with Teares of bitter smarte?
4Who gave the[e] grief and made thy Joyes so faynt?
Who first did print with Coloures pale thy face?
Who first did breke thy slepes of quiet rest?
Above the rest in Court who gave thee Grace?
8Who made the[e] stryve in vertue to be Best?
In Constant troth to bide so firme and sure,
To scorn the world regarding but thy frend,
With pacient mynd ech passion to endure,
12In one desire to settle to thy end?

Love then thy Choyse, wherin such fayth doth bynde,
As nought but death may ever Change thy mynde.

If De Vere is making any use of these patterns at all, it is not the same use Shakespeare makes. The sense of De Vere’s poem descends into grief for several lines, then reascends into favor; yet the liveliest consonant activity crescendoes during the descent and the poem falls phonetically asleep as it rises again. By contrast, Shakespeare’s music rises and falls with his mood, and especially with the lark.

In fact De Vere has no imagery at all to suggest or require musical accompaniment. He has no skylark, no sullen earth or heaven’s gate to articulate in sound. The only sustained imagery in the poem is in the first few lines, the several personified grieving body parts, but the image of a heart sighing is not recognizable from nature and seems slightly grotesque in this quiet lovelorn context. Beyond line 5 there are no more figures, not one vivid evocation of the senses, not one challenge to the imagination. It would be completely unlike Shakespeare to write such a concatenation of abstractions.

If we look for patterns that might correspond to De Vere’s phonetic crescendo and decrescendo, at first the poem seems a mere concatenation indeed, with no movement or purpose, just a catalog of griefs and gifts the speaker has received from the object of his courtly love. On closer inspection, however, there is something of a pattern: although almost everything about it pretends to the 4-4-4-2 Elizabethan sonnet form, could there be something of an experimental 6-6-2 structure? The first six lines list symptoms of grief (sighe, plaint, Teares, pallor); the next six argue the benefits conferred by the beloved, although with no clear connection with the griefs that preceded them. They may be the spiritual results of his endurance of frustrated affection, or he may simply be reminding himself of the other side of the coin of his “Choyse” of beloved. In either case, the couplet reaffirms his commitment despite its attendant griefs.

We could suspect De Vere was experimenting with a new sonnet strategy, abandoning the octave-sestet convention in favor of two sestets and a couplet: the first six lines open with “Who” and the rest in a variety of ways with no particular pattern; the “first sestet” deals with the griefs of love, then with a turnaround in line 7, signalled by the first opening consonant that’s not an “h”, the “second sestet” discusses the offsetting benefits of this particular love: special favor in court, which apparently inspires him to deserve the honor.

But the rhyme scheme enforces the Elizabethan convention, and if the reader was still open to other patterns, they are strenuously shouted down by De Vere’s bracketing of each quatrain and supplying the answer “Love” in the margin. Although logically what would be the third quatrain is part of the “second sestet,” formally it seems to introduce a true sestet by breaking the established (monotonous) eight-line pattern of single-line questions. It also holds together as a quatrain by being a sentence fragment consisting of four infinitive phrases modifying his striving “to be Best.”

Yet there is that 6-6-2 pattern under it all, doubly reflected in the six Whos and in the shift to positive thoughts in line 7. As Stephen Booth demonstrates in his Essay, overlapping patterns of form, logic, syntax, sound, mood, and so on exist also in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Is this a connection? No, it is barely a surface resemblance. Booth’s very careful analysis reveals a complex interweaving of grammar, image, sound and rhythm, and other rhetorical features working together in a highly focused way, yet Shakespeare’s many patterns rarely coincide exactly on a line or syllable unless to emphasize an idea. In most instances they do not distract the reader, but conceal themselves in each other’s shadows under such restraint that the reassuring illusion of the formal sonnet structure remains comfortably but quietly intact. Booth stresses the overall effect of this subtlety:

If it is granted that the patterns do not stand out from the poem and that even a meticulously gained awareness of their existence does not alter a reader’s response, what, besides the negative value of being unobtrusive, do these patterns contribute to the poem? They all but destroy the possibility that anything can seem arbitrary. […] An awareness of the multiplicity of the designs to which a superficially new factor in a poem can be appropriate contributes one source for an explanation of the sense that the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets give of rightness, inevitability, and incontrovertible truth. (Booth Essay 83-84)

Shakespeare’s poetry gives this emotional reassurance because his rhetorical strategies are quieter than his theme. Patterns overlap and are feathered together so as not to “pop” too loudly. The reader’s conscious impression is of the sense, not the rhetoric, of the expression.

De Vere’s sonnet gives no such impression. The two-sestet logical contrast of griefs versus gifts coincides exactly and abruptly with the six-line pattern of “Who” openings broken on line 7 by “Above,” broken in turn six lines later by a full stop. The two formal sonnet structures remain in the Elizabethan rhyme scheme and in the (not especially Shakespearian) octave-sestet pattern of eight one-line questions followed by an interrogative fragment of participial phrases plus a couplet. The intersections of these three structures of form and grammar draw our attention to three prominent breaks between the quatrians, but to no expressive purpose. De Vere’s experimental structure, if that is what it is, of sestet-sestet-couplet intrudes so loudly on the two conventional forms that it looks and feels a little like a square peg in a round hole.

Reality check

At this point it occurs to me that no Oxfordian will be persuaded by this kind of analysis. I can invent arguments around it myself. For example, compare the end of Venus and Adonis, lines 1135 to 1164, with De Vere’s poem 12 above. We’ve already noticed they share a stanza form; now notice Shakespeare’s pairings of opposites and ironies:

Find sweet beginning, but unsavory end
. . .
The strongest body it shall make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak
. . .
It shall be sparing, and too full of riot
. . .
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures

…and so on. These somewhat resemble the paired contrasts in De Vere #12. But what the writers share is not an identity, but a convention. You may notice that in the Venus and Adonis conclusion Shakespeare’s stanzas develop themes, whereas De Vere’s opposites just pile up and reiterate the weary tone of frustration. Reiterating is not developing.

Anyone who has no reason to overthrow Shakespeare and install De Vere in his place by now is probably willing to allow Shakespeare his due. Anyone who reads Shakespeare with experience and with pleasure won’t need my arguments; the text of De Vere’s poems will be adequate to dismiss him. The two poets are simply not the same personality.

And in the end, personality is the most pertinent argument.

Personality and awareness

Psychologists would have the most to say here; surely the preoccupations of these two poets would speak to them. They do to me, anyway. It’s hard to imagine De Vere maturing into Shakespeare, at his age. Going back to De Vere’s poem #12, we see a mind unself-consciously and childishly ambitious, equally irked by danger and mere delay, mixing fear and despair and thwarted ambition in no particular relation, buffeted passively by Fate and Time and disfavor, “clogde” and “opprest” and “drawn” and “crazed,” one frustration following another with no sense of sequence, progress, or even a solid central perspective. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 presents a mind rebuffed, temporarily despairing of self-worth, then climbing by the power of friendship out of depression to a higher state than ever. There is a central consciousness here, a single spring that bends and snaps back.

Another of De Vere’s poems reveals something even more unlikeable about the poet. He expresses so ingenuously an attitude of shallow self-involvement that I don’t think he is aware of how he sounds; Shakespeare would never have felt it, probably would not have cared to voice it if he did, and in fact expresses quite the opposite attitude in various poems and plays. It is revealed in this well-turned little lyric of De Vere’s:

De Vere’s poem 16

Weare I a kinge I coulde commande content;
Weare I obscure unknowne shoulde be my cares,
And weare I ded no thought should me torment,
Nor wordes, nor wronges, nor loves, nor hopes, nor feares;

5A dowtefull choyse of these thinges one to crave,
A Kingdom or a cottage or a grave.

(May 37)

The problem is in line 2. Clearly De Vere doesn’t know from cottages. His consciousness doesn’t seem to extend below his own privileged social class, though it dotes on those higher. Because he doesn’t know the cares of the obscure, he believes their cares are unknown. He believes either that the obscure do not know their own cares — cannot feel them as real people might — or that they do not even have cares. He could possibly mean, and be expressing ambiguouslyly, that if he were unknown his present cares, those of nobility, would be alien to him, but if this is his point, then he still assumes his own cares are more burdensome than those of the obscure. No matter how you read line 2, the struggles of common people are beneath De Vere’s notice. I may seem to be making too much of an obscure isolated sentence, but I don’t think I am. The speaker deftly establishes a gulf between common people and himself, a nobleman. By contrast, if the persona of the Sonnets is any indication, I don’t recall Shakespeare ever assuming either an unquestioned status of prominence or any obliviousness to the humanity of the truly obscure. I think the difference shows a characteristic, unconscious self-perception in each writer.

Gormless elitism is much worse, for a poet, than lack of compassion: it is lack of imagination. A callous disinterest in the dreams and fears of his fellow human beings would have hobbled Shakespeare as a playwright (as it did hobble Marlowe; more on that later). “Obscure” Londoners attending plays represented a good deal of his income. Shakespeare enjoyed creating comical commoners, but he created at least as many comical lords. Harold C. Goddard suggested that Shakespeare may have intended the title The Two Gentlemen of Verona to refer to the clowns Launce and Speed; they are both wiser, and Launce more noble in character, than any of the six nominal “gentlemen” portrayed (44-45). Just consider the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream preparing their entertainment for the noble wedding; the rustic shepherds in As You Like It; the citizens deciding the fate of Coriolanus; even the half-human indigene Caliban in The Tempest or about any other sampling of “obscure” characters in the plays. They may be foolish, ignorant, crude, even mean, but they are conscious of their own cares, and the tone of the scenes reflects the author’s concern for them. If anything, Shakespeare gives more allowance for their foibles than for those of the strutting, self-important lords and knights looking down on them.

In Henry V when the king disguises himself to hear frank speech, the common soldiers he meets are not ignorant, insensitive clowns. They are sharply aware not only of their perils but of the complex moral dimensions of their own duties:

BATES: [The king] may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold a night as ’tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck. And so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

KING HENRY V: By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king. I think he would not wish himself any where but where he is.

BATES: Then I would he were here alone. So should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.

KING HENRY V: I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds. Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

WILLIAMS: That’s more than we know.

BATES: Ay, or more than we should seek after. For we know enough if we know we are the kings subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS: But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’ — some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it — who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

(Henry V, IV.1.113-45)

Both Williams and Bates put their cases well, and their attitudes are carefully distinct. Of course the poet who imagined this scene could also imagine a character as shallow as the speaker of line 2 of De Vere’s #16, but why would he? Of what interest, dramatic or comical, would such a character be?

Like most rhetorical questions about literature, this is worth answering.

King Henry V turns out to be a somewhat rounded-out version of that character, and he is of dramatic interest, especially in contrast with the honest soldiers who have confronted him. Their conversation worries the King into a long soliloquy. The audience does not take too seriously his wistful musings about the “infinite heart’s-ease” enjoyed by the peasant following “profitable labour, to his grave.” Something tells us the soldiers’ challenges are being dismissed too easily, that they have struck home. Henry paints a highly idealized picture of obscurity. Henry, the character Shakespeare created, can say this:

The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it, but in gross brain little wots
280What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.


As mentioned earlier, De Vere may have meant just that by his second line, that the weak do not know the cares of the powerful. The difference is that this scene from Henry V, taken in its entirety, reflects a broader consciousness than Henry’s alone. Shakespeare, a Great Soul, speaks as sincerely through the soldiers as through the king. Even Henry himself a few lines later acknowledges his soldiers’ capacity of “reck’ning,” so dangerous to his own military ends:

O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts.
Possess them not with fear. Take from them now
The sense of reck’ning, ere th’opposèd numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.


It is probably unfair to compare a six-line poem with one speaker against a play with many voices. But no play under De Vere’s name survives. We have nothing but a vacuum of evidence for the Oxfordian hypothesis. All we know is that nothing in his poems justifies awarding him credit for the works of Shakespeare.

Making reasonable conclusions

Of course this discussion proves nothing except that the two writers, or the single writer at different times and in different media, handle similar themes with widely different levels of skill and grace.

One of the following must be true: either De Vere in his later poems drew on some of the same conventional conceits and vocabulary as Shakespeare did in some of the sonnets; or Shakespeare borrowed some of De Vere’s conceits and refined them; or De Vere discovered a new power in mid-life, refined some of his own earlier conceits, and then for some reason attributed the products of his new genius to Shakespeare instead of himself.

The first seems most likely; poetry was a courtly occupation and many courtly writers are indistinguishable when they write in these modes. De Vere’s editor Stephen W. May notes that Thomas Looney, the first Oxfordian theorist, based his analyses on a mistaken attribution to Oxford of poems actually written by Lyly, Campion, Greville, and Greene — and never noticed the difference (May 10-11). May ultimately pronounces the “wholesale failure of the basic Oxfordian methodology” (May 11) and dismisses the Oxfordians in these words:

Put in the simplest terms, Elizabethan poets drew upon a broad, common range of motifs, rhetorical devices, allusions, and adages, so that, given the relative abundance of Shakespeare’s verse, it would be surprising indeed to find a contemporary poet whose themes and phrasing did not correspond at some point and in some way with a passage or two by the Bard. Accordingly, the comparisons set forth by Looney and elaborated upon by his successors fail in any way to connect Oxford with Shakespeare; they reveal instead that verses from a number of Elizabethan poets cannot be detected from the work of either Oxford or Shakespeare when the excerpts are placed in selective juxtaposition. (May 12)

The second proposal is also possible: that Shakespeare read, borrowed, and improved some of De Vere’s conceits. Shakespeare was a brazen idea thief; any understanding of his genius must acknowledge that. Manuscripts of De Vere’s poetry were surely circulated among Shakespeare’s court-connected acquaintances.

The third proposal, however, seems senseless: that De Vere would write two versions of the same conceit, only to acknowledge the worst and disown the best. It cannot be argued that the best was too biographically revealing, because the reality is clearly just the opposite. I can imagine explanations for such remarkable behavior that would satisfy someone determined to identify a more eligible Best English Poet than the actor from Stratford, but the same answers seem far-fetched and desperate to me and fail to justify denying the well-established customary attribution. Anyone can imagine a scenario to suit any theory, and the screenwriting of Anonymous must have been a lot of fun, but eventually we have to use Occam’s Razor: there is too little credible information and no respectable motivation to scrap the obvious in favor of conjecture.

Let us think clearly. If we dismiss resemblances attributable to common references to conventional topics, imagery, methods, and diction; if we can recognize a difference in style and competence between these differently credited bodies of work; if we understand how well Shakespeare’s position is established; if we acknowledge on what sparse information and specious reasoning the Oxfordian claim stands; if we have no urgent, honest incentive to seek a ghostwriter for Shakespeare, do not share Sir Laurence-Durning’s sense of affront and usurpation of privilege, do not insist on an aristocratic entitlement that compels us to suspend rationality and assert the improbable in the face of evidence, then we have to allow Shakespeare credit for his work until compelling information turns up against him.

Oxfordians must do more than merely adjust recorded history to accommodate De Vere’s death in 1604; they must also be prepared to argue that De Vere was capable of conscious mastery of extremely subtle rhetoric yet deliberately thwarted his better poetic instincts, pretending sincere effort but intending much less than his best, except when writing as Shakespeare; and then they must suggest some plausible incentive for injuring his own poetic reputation on pieces he was willing to acknowledge with his own name; either that, or they must concede that these poems betray two different poets writing in their own styles.

Certainly we need not consider seriously the hypothesis that a poet of modest talent, in order to conceal his identity, adopted the ruse of suddenly writing better than he had ever done, or appeared capable of doing.

Christopher Marlowe

Henry VI Part 2 contains the moment when Shakespeare found his stride, outstripped Marlowe, and left him halting behind.

Here is the introductory paragraph to an online summary of “Literary Similarities Between Marlowe and Shakespeare.” Its tone is typical of some anti-Shakespearian writings:

Many readers, critics, and biographers have remarked on close similarities between Marlowe’s works and Shakespeare’s poems and plays. The following material is summarized by Alex Jack, editor of the 400th anniversary edition of Hamlet by Christopher Marlowe…. It is sincerely hoped that this material will contribute to ongoing dialogue, research, and mutual respect among historians, critics, and everyone else who has been touched by the beauty and magic of the Marlovian and Shakespearian works. (Morgan par. 1)

(Hamlet by Christopher Marlowe!)

The respect may not be entirely mutual. Many serious scholars would agree with the editor of Edward De Vere’s poems that some anti-Shakespearian scholars, perhaps incidentally to their mission, “have made worthwhile contributions to our understanding of the Elizabethan age” (May 10), but few readers familiar with Elizabethan English and appreciative of poetic drama are “touched by the beauty and magic” of Marlowe in the same sense as by Shakespeare.

The viewer’s experience

William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote poems, but mostly poetic drama, so it might seem that the way to detect their differences would be to watch productions of their plays. Of course the main purpose of these plays is performance. Appreciation begins with watching and listening because an uncritical real-time experience is fundamental to understanding the art. Harold Goddard explains that art holds up a mirror to let us see ourselves (11-14), to see how we are different from what we think we are. If we haven’t allowed ourselves to fall for all the illusions the protagonist falls for, to love and make mistakes, then we’re only watching someone else’s folly. Reading a play may give us too much time for thought to let this happen. Watching a performance can “captivate us, carry us out of ourselves” (14). Without this subjective experience we have no basis for understanding anything deeper about the literature.

It’s also true that a Shakespeare play and a Marlowe play acted side-by-side would reveal different ways of managing changes in time and place, different approaches to theater, though with much the same audience in mind. Some differences, especially in personality and tone, may show up most vividly right on the surface, in our first impressions before we get tangled in analysis.

The reader’s deeper insight

These can be vivid impressions, but at the same time live performance can flatten certain distinctions between two writers that exist in the undercurrents, motifs, characterization, deep levels of suggestive meaning, and poetic subtleties. These often manifest only through repeated viewing, and especially reading. It is debated whether some of these nuances can work even subliminally to much effect on a live audience. One playwright just cannot help developing the deeper layers, whether anyone notices or not; another playwright ignores them without detection. What we miss is the fact that we are even missing anything. Critics find much more available under the surface of a Shakespeare play than a Marlowe play. Some of that depth is probably consciously inaccessible to some even after several viewings. Nevertheless it is there, if not in the action, then in the poetry (Goddard 61-62), and I believe it may profoundly affect the response even of an uncritical viewer.

One reason for the flattening effect is that the actors can do much to pass off uninspired dialog, to make two hours fly by charmingly, through the sheer creative power of their craft, although occasionally they can’t pull it off. These lines of Marlowe’s[5] presented a special challenge for actor Ian McKellan:

QUEEN ISABELLA: …Lord Valois our brother, King of France,
65Because your highness hath been slack in homage,
Hath seized Normandy into his hands.
These be the letters, this the messenger.

KING EDWARD: Welcome, Levune. Tush, Sib, if this be all,
Valois and I will soon be friends again.
70But to my Gaveston: shall I never see,
Never behold thee now! Madam, in this matter
We will employ you and your little son;
You shall go parley with the King of France.


Clearly Marlowe wants to show Edward distracted, wavering between court matters and private ones, public expressions and inner thoughts. But how is an actor to handle this? In the middle of carelessly dismissing a real diplomatic emergency, Edward flips suddenly to brooding grief for Gaveston for a line and a half, then flips back again. McKellan and his director attempt to make sense of this with the help of a change in camera angle and a halting and hushing of all other action. The moment slows down and McKellan turns his gaze into the camera to deliver the brief aside (Edward II 1970, at about 54:15). Anything more brisk would have been ridiculous. He just about makes it acceptable, but the action has been tripped up for a purpose so uncertain that the result is just short of comical. It is hard to imagine how this dialog could be carried off on a live stage without cinematic assistance.

Derek Jarman’s screenplay for his 1991 film simplified the plot considerably and cut many scenes and lines, including this one. (While this link lasts, you may watch the entire Jarman production, which someone, ostensibly Jarman, has uploaded to YouTube.)

The other reason for the flattening effect is that the opposite is also true: performance not only fills the valleys but can also lower the hills. The most excellent qualities of language and story are inevitably somewhat obscured by the inexorable pacing, environment, and other realities of a theater performance. One of those realities is the physicality of performance. Poetry and imagination are airy nothings trying to impress themselves on an audience over and above the sight and sound of a human body thumping across a wooden stage. Those bodies and voices can be amusing, terrifying, even inspiring, but what if the playwright was creating more than amusement and inspiration? What if magic was the goal? How much magic survives delivery through the aperture of a live performance?

The character of Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s many almost miraculous creations; some say his best. Goddard compares him to a fusing of two characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the heavy, earthbound, ass-like Bottom and the airy, playful Puck. Goddard says we actually see the two merged momentarily in the speech when Bottom awakes to tell us his dream, maybe the single transcendent insight of his lifetime. But how could Shakespeare sustain two such opposing natures as Bottom and Puck for the duration of two plays in one body? “That may be one reason he made it so huge” (176) writes Goddard, who believes this impossible duality and range is why

we shall never see Falstaff on the stage. On the stage there the monster of flesh stands — made, we know, mainly of pillows — with all his sheer material bulk and greasy beefiness, a palpable candidate for perdition. It takes rare acting to rescue him from being physically repulsive. And as for the miracle — it just refuses to happen in a theater. It would take a child to melt this too too solid flesh into spirit. It would take Falstaff himself to act Falstaff. But in a book! On the stage of our imagination! That is another matter. There the miracle can occur — and does for thousands of readers. (179)

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom says he is so used to seeing Shakespeare’s plays butchered in performance that he nowadays prefers just to read them (476). But the actors and directors are not to be blamed entirely. It is the limitation of the medium that it cannot pause for the unhurried contemplation of each phrase. We see the qualities a playwright displays, or lacks, much more clearly by reading and taking the time to look closely at what we read.

So that is the approach we will take.

A reasonable mistake

Dr. Johnson sensibly states:

As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so, in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. (23-24)

Because Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere left few or no “works of the same kind” as Shakespeare’s, I have been saying it is easy to prove that Shakespeare is superior, but Johnson says here it is impossible. We’re both right, somehow. In the same way, comparing Shakespeare with Marlowe is more challenging because it is possible.

The problems with disqualifying Marlowe are that he is of middle-class origin like Shakespeare, he was the same age, his written works fall in the same genres as Shakespeare’s, and he was generally acclaimed one of the finest, most exciting playwrights of the day. No one disputes that Shakespeare consciously imitated Marlowe, especially in his earliest efforts, and Marlowe probably returned the compliment (Tonkin 1). To distinguish between them, and to disqualify Marlowe as ghostwriter, requires some close analysis.

I don’t believe Marlowe could ever have imitated Shakespeare successfully, but to William Empson it seemed “obvious that [Shakespeare] could imitate the style of Marlowe whenever he thought that style would be suitable” (75). He believed that was what Shakespeare was doing in Henry V when the king grieves tenderly over a report of the death of the Duke of York, then immediately orders mass slaughter:

EXETER: …So did he turn, and over Suffolk’s neck
25He threw his wounded arm, and kissed his lips,
And so espoused to death, with blood he sealed
A testament of noble-ending love.
The pretty and sweet manner of it forced
Those waters from me which I would have stopped.
30But I had not so much of man in me,
And all my mother came into mine eyes
And gave me up to tears.

KING HENRY V:       I blame you not;
For hearing this I must perforce compound
With mistful eyes, or they will issue too.


35But, hark, what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scattered men.
Then every soldier kill his prisoners.

The soldiers kill their prisoners

Give the word through.

PISTOL: Coup’ la gorge.



Empson has a point, easily illustrated by these moments in Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris:

GUISE: ‘Dearly beloved brother,’ — thus ’tis written.

Stabs LORRAINE, who dies.

ANJOU: Stay, my Lord, let me begin the psalm.

10GUISE: Come, drag him away, and throw him in a ditch.


And minutes later:

Enter two MEN, with the ADMIRAL’S body.

FIRST MAN: Now, sirrah, what shall we do with the

SECOND MAN: Why, let us burn him for an heretic.

FIRST MAN: O, no! his body will infect the fire, and the
5fire the air, and so we shall be poisoned with him.

SECOND MAN: What shall we do, then?

FIRST MAN: Let’s throw him into the river.

SECOND MAN: O, ’twill corrupt the water, and the water
the fish, and by the fish ourselves, when we eat them!

10FIRST MAN: Then throw him into the ditch.

SECOND MAN: No, no. To decide all doubts, be ruled by
me: let’s hang him here upon this tree.

FIRST MAN: Agreed.

They hang up the body on a tree, and then exeunt. Enter GUISE, CATHERINE the Queen-Mother, and the CARDINAL OF LORRAINE, with ATTENDANTS.

GUISE: Now, Madam, how like you our lusty Admiral?

15CATHERINE: Believe me, Guise, he becomes the place so well,
As I could long ere this have wish’d him there.
But come,
Let’s walk aside; the air’s not very sweet.

GUISE: No, by my faith, madam.
20Sirs, take him away, and throw him in some ditch.


As a means of getting rid of a body, this is a comfortable motif for Marlowe. Here it is again in Edward II:

LIGHTBORN: Tell me, sirs, was it not bravely done?

GURNEY: Excellent well: take this for thy reward.

Stabs LIGHTBORN, who dies.

120Come, let us cast the body in the moat,
And bear the king’s to Mortimer our lord:


In these scenes both Shakespeare and Marlowe seem bent on portraying crass brutality. Shakespeare, however, achieves his point by contrasting barbarism against sincere, if maudlin, tenderness in the same scene, and even in the same character; Marlowe, here and about everywhere, gives up the stage almost entirely to snideness and crassness. More on this later.

Shakespeare’s brief internship

Harold Bloom calls the opening lines of Henry VI, Part One a “passable Marlowe” imitation (44). Stylometrics analysts, who statistically examine many subtle language patterns to distinguish authors, see a powerful early Marlowe influence on Shakespeare (Yang, Peng, and Goldberger 18). However, they are uncertain whether the resemblance in a very few of his earliest plays indicates Shakespeare imitating Marlowe, or possibly reworking a Marlowe original, or maybe even incorrectly credited for a Marlowe play (Merriam and Matthews, abstract; Fox, Emoda, and Charniak 33). See their statements below. Together they confidently reject Marlowe’s hand in almost all of the Shakespeare canon.

“At most,” the stylometric scientists point out, “the results suggest that measurement can be done in the absence of appreciation” (Fox, Emoda, and Charniak 34). As my argument will be based on appreciation of the literary qualities of style, I leave the stylometric analysts to summarize their developing consensus themselves:

[1994] Using principles set out in an earlier paper, a neural network was constructed to discriminate between the works of Shakespeare and his contemporary Christopher Marlowe…. In the light of these favourable results, we used the network to classify a number of anonymous works. Strong support emerged for Tucker Brooke’s view that The True Tragedy is the Marlovian original of Henry VI, Part 3, the latter being the product of subsequent revisions by Shakespeare. (Merriam and Matthews, abstract)

[1996] The Shakespeare Clinic has developed 51 computer tests of Shakespeare play authorship and 14 of poem authorship, and applied them to 37 claimed “true Shakespeares,” to 27 plays of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and to several poems of unknown or disputed authorship. No claimant, and none of the apocryphal plays or poems, matched Shakespeare. Two plays and one poem from the Shakespeare Canon, Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, Part 3, and “A Lover’s Complaint,” do not match the others. (Elliott and Valenza, abstract)

[2003] [O]ur results using a validated statistical approach to establishing textual phylogeny show that Marlowe’s texts are classified on a separate branch clearly distinct from the Shakespeare texts. The gap between these plays is too large to be accounted for by a change in style, even assuming Marlowe survival…. The major dramatic works attributed to William Shakespeare are clearly distinct from those of Christopher Marlowe. (Yang, Peng, and Goldberger 21-22)

(The italics are mine. I am glad they considered and addressed this standard argument so often used by Marlovians to blur the authorship argument. –gb)

[2012] [E]ven within the bounds of stylometry, Marlowe is hard to pin down because of the small corpus that exists for him. That said, our results are best explained by the assumption that Marlowe is not Shakespeare. (Fox, Ehmoda, and Charniak 34)

These studies argue scientifically that Marlowe is not Shakespeare, while corroborating an emerging critical consensus that portions of some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays may be attributable either to Marlowe or to his influence. This is useful. Now let’s move on and examine some elements of style that do not submit to machine analysis, and that show where Shakespeare began to surpass his competitor.

A basis for comparison: two plays

Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 were written about the same time, probably the same year. The earliest date usually suggested for each is 1590 (Eliot “Introductory note,” Goddard 28, Tonkin 3) and the latest 1591 (Eliot “Introductory note,” Wells and Taylor 1), though Tonkin suggests Marlowe’s Edward II was later, 1592-93 (2), and followed Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI by one or two years. If these are by the same poet-playwright, we should see about the same degree of sophistication, if not some improvement in Marlowe.

Besides their similar dates of composition, these plays provide a good thematic baseline of comparison. Each focuses on a politically weak king and the damage to the kingdom wrought by his weakness. Each features an ambitious, parasitic character close to the king, eventually exiled for abuse of position and later killed (Gaveston, Suffolk). Most important, each play contains scenes of anger, love, sorrow upon parting, impending death, and other situations of extreme passion that require and inspire a poet’s highest skills of observation, empathy, characterization, and poetry. They supply plenty of analogous passages to study.

Furthermore, these plays seem remarkably alike in depth and tone, not only to the viewer of a live performance, but to the reader, at least for a while. The moment of their abrupt divergence is a good place to illustrate the difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare. I will describe my observations on reading these two plays and show why I believe 2 Henry 6 contains the moment when Shakespeare found his stride, outstripped Marlowe, and left him halting behind.

Initial sparsity of figures

What Bloom and the stylometrics say of Henry VI, Part One and Part Three I believe goes as well for Part Two, which I have chosen for comparison for the reasons stated above, and also because the Marlowe resemblance persists through the first two entire acts. If stylometrics is correct that Marlowe did not actually write them, then it seems to me that the apprentice Shakespeare mimicked his model so successfully that his own distinctive voice is rarely heard until Act III.

The sparsity of figurative language is one indicator, and in Shakespeare an essential indicator, that he has yet to discover his power. The recognizable Shakespeare, the poet-playwright who eventually “seems to do his very thinking in metaphor” (Raleigh 294) is in 2 Henry 6 still learning through imitation. If you go through both plays and mark the similes in blue and the metaphors in red, as I did[6], your printout of Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI will show only occasional spots of color through the first two acts: by my count, 60 figures in 1179 lines, an average of about one figure per 20 lines; at the risk of sounding more precise than we are, let’s use an abbreviation: .051 fpl (figures per line; and just keep in mind that it is partly a subjective exercise to identify “figures of speech”). This figure differs almost not at all from Marlowe’s first two acts, 69 figures in 1286 lines, or about .054 fpl. Here is a bird’s-eye view of a typical page of Marlowe and of Shakespeare:

Marlowe Ed2 1.4.15-136:Shakespeare 2hen6 2.1.154-2.2.70:


( texts. You may click on these to read. Requires PDF viewer.)

So we can consider .05 fpl a rough baseline for both plays. To establish the scope: we’ll see several bursts around .3 fpl in both plays, and one sustained passage that approaches .5 fpl, or one figure per two lines — about ten times the baseline density. That will be the moment Shakespeare seems to have discovered his voice.

Several passages in Shakespeare’s first two acts show somewhat higher density of figurative language, from .067 to .083 fpl; an example is the first scene of the play, fairly dry until it ends with York’s soliloquy (.130 fpl) of helplessness and frustration at the loss of French territories; another is the first two thirds of the second scene, where the Duchess of Gloucester asserts her ambition and the Duke denounces it, recounting his dream of his broken staff of office (also .130 fpl). There also are a few extreme moments: a brief catfight between the Queen and the Duchess in the third scene, using four figures in 11 lines (about .364 fpl); and in the other direction, the fourth scene, where the witches and priests and Bolingbroke conjure a demon for the Duchess, amazingly contains no figures at all.

It must be remarked also that in many of these figures early in the play Shakespeare demands very little from the reader’s imagination:

Her words yclad with wisdom’s majesty (I.1.31)

Blotting your names from books of memory (I.1.97)

We’ll quickly hoise Duke Humphrey from his seat. (I.1.167)


Under the wings of our Protector’s grace (I.3.40-41)

…and so on. One particular passage:

80She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies,
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey’s wife.
Strangers in court do take her for the queen.
She bears a duke’s revenues on her back


…is so close to Marlow’s

YOUNGER MORTIMER: He wears a lord’s revenue on his back,
410And, Midas-like, he jets it in the court

(Edward II I.4.409-410)

…that either these were already conventional expressions, or one of the poets copied from the other; or, some would say, they were the same poet. In any case the image requires no great power of visualization.

Below I’ve charted the figure density by scene through both plays. See the notes at left, then if you want you can refer back to this illustration in the discussion that follows. (You may view my markup notes for both plays. In longer quoted passages below I will not distinguish metaphor from simile by color but simply indicate figures in boldface.)

Figures per line (fpl) by scene:
Marlowe and Shakespeare
Marlowe’s first two acts show about the same average and range of figure density as Shakespeare’s. I.1
Act I average .068 .051
Act II average .035 .051
First 2 acts .054 .051
In Act III, Marlowe’s fpl almost vanishes, whereas Shakespeare’s triples. III.1
Act III average .013 .153
In Act IV, Shakespeare is still using more figurative language than Marlowe. IV.1
Act IV average .045 .064
Shakespeare’s last act is more than twice as rich in figures as Marlowe’s; his last three acts taken together are more than 2½ times as rich. V.1
Act V average .054 .128
Last 3 acts .043 .114
A big difference overall. Whole play .048 .090

Shakespeare breaks loose: figure density and power

As you see, the sparseness and flatness of Shakespeare’s first two acts are shattered in his Act III. It opens with a premonitory splattering of color — averaging maybe .1 fpl — as the Parliament rehearses allegations against the absent Gloucester and we approach a major turning point. Enter the accused, warily:

GLOUCESTER: [kneeling before King Henry]
All happiness unto my lord the king.
Pardon, my liege, that I have stayed so long.

95SUFFOLK: Nay, Gloucester, know that thou art come too soon,
Unless thou wert more loyal than thou art.
I do arrest thee of high treason here.


This exchange commences a figurative dry spell of 45 lines, a very uncomfortable calm before the storm, ending with this fairly prosaic defense and response:

GLOUCESTER: Why, ’tis well known that whiles I was protector
125Pity was all the fault that was in me,
For I should melt at an offender’s tears,
And lowly words were ransom for their fault.
Unless it were a bloody murderer,
Or foul felonious thief that fleeced poor passengers,
130I never gave them condign punishment.
Murder, indeed — that bloody sin — I tortured
Above the felon or what trespass else.

SUFFOLK: My lord, these faults are easy, quickly answerèd,
But mightier crimes are laid unto your charge
135Whereof you cannot easily purge yourself.
I do arrest you in his highness’ name,
And here commit you to my lord Cardinal
To keep, until your further time of trial.

KING HENRY: My lord of Gloucester, ’tis my special hope
140That you will clear yourself from all suspense.
My conscience tells me you are innocent.


Then the cloudburst:

GLOUCESTER: Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand.
145Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled your highness’ land.
I know their complot is to have my life,
And if my death might make this island happy
And prove the period of their tyranny,
150I would expend it with all willingness.
But mine is made the prologue to their play,
For thousands more that yet suspect no peril
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.
Beaufort’s red sparkling eyes blab his heart’s malice,
155And Suffolk’s cloudy brow his stormy hate;
Sharp Buckingham unburdens with his tongue
The envious load that lies upon his heart
And doggèd York that reaches at the moon,
Whose overweening arm I have plucked back,
160By false accuse doth level at my life.


And you, my sovereign lady, with the rest,
Causeless have laid disgraces on my head,
And with your best endeavour have stirred up
My liefest liege to be mine enemy.
165Ay, all of you have laid your heads together
Myself had notice of your conventicles—
And all to make away my guiltless life.
I shall not want false witness to condemn me,
Nor store of treasons to augment my guilt.
170The ancient proverb will be well effected:
A staff is quickly found to beat a dog.’


There has been nothing to compare with this until this moment in the play. In this 29-line speech Gloucester uses 14 figures, an unprecedented density of .483 fpl. Even the scene immediately before this, illustrating Gloucester’s plummeting status and foreshadowing his demise, averages only .072 fpl, barely above the average for Acts I and II. Now at the start of the third act, with all the principle characters gathered on stage to arrest Gloucester and to supply an audience for his outburst, the Duke suddenly in fifteen lines releases such a crowd of personifications and grotesques and synechdoches that the other actors are almost superfluous: ambition strangles virtue, rancor banishes charity and equity, eyes and brows blab malice and hate, a tongue unburdens envy from the heart.

It is not figure density alone; Gloucester portrays the viciousness of his enemies’ plotting through metaphors that surpass everything that has gone before in freshness and imaginative punch. Their scheme against his life he calls a “complot” (“A covert design planned in concert; a conspiracy; PLOT” — SOED), saying his enemies are plotting a tragedy and his death will be only the “prologue to their play.” This expansive metaphor broadens the imaginative scope of his speech from the past and present conspiracy to a future involving the deaths of “thousands more.” Shakespeare must have considered this scene the turning point of the play, because here he spreads his own plot before the audiece, illuminated by the fireworks of Gloucester’s startling monologue.

Gloucester’s characterization of the others on stage with him, listening awestruck, has the frankness and abandon of a man with nothing more to lose. He knows his bluntness now cannot do more than speed his sentencing and execution. Therefore Shakespeare treats his pre-cinematic audience to a rush of extreme closeups: “Beaufort’s red sparkling eyes,” “Suffolk’s cloudy brow”… Buckingham “unburden[ing] with his tongue / the envious load that lies upon his heart,” York’s “overweening arm,” the queen “lay[ing] disgraces” on his head, and a final proverbial image of his own utter indignity: “A staff is quickly found to beat a dog.”

These verbal extreme closeups deserve attention, so I will call attention to more of them later. In writing this scene it seems to have occurred to Shakespeare that poetic imagery — that is, invoking the viewer’s sensory imagination — could be applied to the stage as a method of overcoming the physical distance betwen the action and the audience. His particular genius in this method would give him an advantage over competing playwrights.

The imagery and the music of this speech provide all the scenery, color, movement, fanfare, and passion the situation needs. Gloucester’s emotion is not only betrayal, or rage, or terror, or despair, or prophetic clarity, but a tapestry of them all, expressed with an unprecedented density of suggestive sensory images. It also seems that Shakespeare is breaking free of conventional expressions and is minting his own stark, often grotesque metaphors from images accessible to everyone in the audience regardless of background: hands, eyes, hearts, brows, arms, heads — and, of course, plays. This is something so new to the stage, so rare, and so sustained and developed over the following two decades that we have only one name for it: Shakespeare.

This intensity does not sustain at the same level through the last three acts, but the rest of the scene never falls back to the figure sparseness of Acts I and II. Having brightened the poetic timbre, Shakespeare manages to average .153 fpl for this scene.

The next scene is even stronger, .163 fpl; and more and more of those figures are extended metaphors several lines long, such as this one:

KING: What, doth my Lord of Suffolk comfort me?
40Came he right now to sing a raven’s note
Whose dismal tune bereft my vital powers;
And thinks he that the chirping of a wren,
By crying comfort from a hollow breast
Can chase away the first-conceivèd sound?


Furthermore, this scene closes with the play’s most poignant moment, in a way even more stirring than Gloucester’s: Suffolk and Queen Margaret say goodbye forever in some of the most elegant language in all Shakespeare. Against Gloucester’s earlier rage, these two lovers counterpose the tender side of tragedy. We will look at that scene later.

The third scene in Act III is brief and contains only one figure, a simile, but it is a disturbingly vivid simile and provides another of Shakespeare’s extreme closeups. The cardinal is dying painfully in a swarm of guilt-induced hallucinations as King Henry, Salisbury, and Warwick look on in horror:

15CARDINAL: …Comb down his hair — look, look: it stands upright,
Like lime-twigs set to catch my wingèd soul.


This tiny scene does not contribute its fair share to the figure count, but no one is likely to notice. As it is, Shakespeare still manages to average .153 fpl for all of Act III. (By comparison, in Marlowe’s Act III the average figure density is only .013 fpl, one-fourth of the “baseline.” It’s true the act is brief, only 307 lines, and enough happens that we may not consciously miss the imaginative language: Gaveston is executed; Edward furiously vows to avenge him, captures the barons, and has them put to death, except the Younger Mortimer, who escapes. Yet these are important people and major turning points, and like Cardinal Beaufort’s death, they call for emotional intensity. Marlowe’s habit is to express passion with overt action and violence; Shakespeare reaches for vividly imagined extreme closeups.)

Shakespeare’s Act IV, richly figurative in scene 1, soon settles down around the baseline or a little below. Comedy and warfare are crowding out poetry, though not to the extent of Marlowe’s Act III. We see Jack Cade in action (many of the figures in his scenes are puns) and watch the putting down of the peasant rebellion. Cade’s character is entertaining in itself, his language colorful without metaphor, and his own character a satirical caricature of the peasant rebellion.

Act V, after a start where much happens without much metaphor, resumes fairly rich language towards the end.

The striking emotional depth that shone through in the “hoising” of the Duke and the parting of the lovers in Act III fades through the last two acts, when we begin getting a mix of farce and warfare — good drama, but out of tune with Gloucester’s pivotal speech and Margaret and Suffolk’s farewell. Except for that third act and moments of the fourth and fifth, we could almost mistake 2 Henry VI for a Marlowe play, but moments of incipient Shakespearian brillance transcend anything with Marlowe’s name on it.

A closer look and a comparison with Marlowe

As we have seen, in thirty lines Gloucester manages to convey, in a room where all action is momentarily frozen except his own gestures, with his words alone, the passions and motives of all the major characters, exposure of past plotting, and warnings of the future. Not only is Shakespeare’s language more packed with metaphor than Marlowe’s, but his metaphors are more fresh, varied, vivid, and disturbing than Marlowe’s.

Moments like this of Gloucester’s betrayal, crucial turning points in characters’ lives, demand the richest characterization and imagery a writer can muster. Shakespeare obviously sensed that. Marlowe did as well, but to different effect, through different methods. For comparison, two passages in Marlowe’s Edward II present situations — loss of authority and prestige, the threat of imprisonment and death — which should evoke emotions similar to Gloucester’s mix of rage, indignation, and mortal fear. The first is at the beginning of Act V, where Edward is diplomatically pressured to reliquish his crown, with the understanding that he will lose it anyway. Again, I have marked Marlowe’s figurative language:

LEICESTER: Be patient, good my lord, cease to lament;
Imagine Killingworth Castle were your court,
And that you lay for pleasure here a space,
Not of compulsion or necessity.

5KING EDWARD: Leicester, if gentle words might comfort me,
Thy speeches long ago had eas’d my sorrows,
For kind and loving hast thou always been.
The griefs of private men are soon allay’d;
But not of kings. The forest deer, being struck,
10Runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds
But when the imperial lion’s flesh is gor’d,
He rends and tears it with his wrathful paw,
[And], highly scorning that the lowly earth
Should drink his blood, mounts up into the air
15And so it fares with me, whose dauntless mind
Th’ ambitious Mortimer would seek to curb,
And that unnatural queen, false Isabel,
That thus hath pent and mew’d me in a prison
For such outrageous passions cloy my soul,
20As with the wings of rancour and disdain
Full often am I soaring up to heaven,
To plain me to the gods against them both.
But when I call to mind I am a king,
Methinks I should revenge me of the wrongs
25That Mortimer and Isabel have done.
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

My nobles rule; I bear the name of king;
I wear the crown; but am controll’d by them,
30By Mortimer, and my unconstant queen,
Who spots my nuptial bed with infamy;
Whilst I am lodg’d within this cave of care,
Where sorrow at my elbow still attends,
To company my heart with sad laments
35That bleeds within me for this strange exchange.
But tell me, must I now resign my crown,
To make usurping Mortimer a king?

BISHOP OF WINCHESTER: Your grace mistakes; it is for England’s good
And princely Edward’s right we crave the crown.

40KING EDWARD: No, ’tis for Mortimer, not Edward’s head
For he’s a lamb, emcompassed by wolves,
Which in a moment will abridge his life.
But, if proud Mortimer do wear this crown,
Heavens turn it to a blaze of quenchless fire!
45Or, like the snaky wreath of Tisiphon,
Engirt the temples of his hateful head!
So shall not England’s vine be perished,
But Edward’s name survive, though Edward dies.

LEICESTER: My lord, why waste you thus the time away?
50They stay your answer: will you yield your crown?

KING EDWARD: Ah, Leicester, weigh how hardly I can brook
To lose my crown and kingdom without cause;
To give ambitious Mortimer my right,
That, like a mountain, overwhelms my bliss;
55In which extreme my mind here murder’d is!
But that the heavens appoint I must obey.
Here, take my crown; the life of Edward too:

Taking off the crown

Two kings in England cannot reign at once.


Most readers will agree that this scene so far is elegant speech and deft blank verse. The weakness is in the figurative choices, which reveal a better acquaintance with myth and fable than with nature at first hand. Actual forest deer do not run to herbs that close their wounds. In describing a lion mounting up into the air, the poet might have helped the reader by mentioning a tree, but the latter half of his extended simile has his soul soaring “as with… wings” — an apparently irretrievable mixed trope. “Mortimer… like a mountain, overwhelms my bliss” is an impossible image to anyone who hears the literal sense of “overwhelm.”

There is more to the abdication scene, but as we will see, the rest does not improve from this. If you find the scene bland, you are not alone. Marlowe’s modern editor himself decribes it as “the desert” and “a poetry of statement” (Steane 29), a disappointment compared to stronger speeches in his other plays. In Edward’s speeches in this scene he finds only four lines “imaginative, beautiful and memorable” (29) including

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

(lines 26-27)

Those lines certainly deserve that praise. They present a fresh, striking image that challenges the reader’s imaginative interpretation. They are not characteristic of the entire speech, however. Of Edward’s last speech above, “Ah Leicester, weigh how hardly I can brook…”, the editor acknowledges “the deadness of the lines,” their “poetic barrenness” (29).

The imagery in the rest of this scene not only is more uneven and sparse, but also creates a tone of ambivalence, a character without an emotional center. Compared with Shakespeare’s Gloucester above, Edward himself seems not to know how he feels. Word choices can accumulate in a strong speech to leave an overpowering emotional impression. Scanning through a passage and collecting the most charged or suggestive words and phrases should create a distillation of the speaker’s emotional state. Looking back at Shakespeare: Gloucester’s speech sweeps all his enemies in its wake, its scope spreads far beyond the castle walls and the present moment, and the diction seems to be providing the energy, a focused stream of furious, graphic activity: charity chased by rancour; foul subornation; equity exiled; if my death might make this island happy, willingness; peril; blab his heart’s malice; cloudy, hate, envious, overweening, disgraces, enemy; make away my guiltless life; false, condemn, treasons, beat a dog. Later we will look at another Shakespeare character who exhibits a core of emotional integrity under pressure — Richard II’s own abdication scene.

By contrast, Edward’s speeches above, although, like Gloucester, he utters them in the face of degradation and death, do not sweep or spread. They alternately snarl or pout, leaving an impression of vagueness and self-absorption, as if Edward could hardly appreciate his own situation, much less imagine those of others. I think Marlowe’s image and word choices create this unfocused effect. The expressions on the left seem tame or passive, those to the right violent or aggressive. There is no single emotional trajectory:

eas’d my sorrows; kind and loving; griefs of private men are soon allayed, but not of kings; struck, closeth up the wounds

lion’s flesh is gored, rends and tears, wrathful; scorning, lowly, drink his blood, mounts up; dauntless; unnatural, false; pent and mew’d me in a prison; outrageous, rancour, disdain.

soaring up to heaven, [com]plain


perfect shadows in a sunshine day; controll’d by them; unconstant, spots


care, sorrow, sad laments

heart bleeds

resign, usurping

lamb encompassed by wolves; blaze of quenchless fire; snaky, hateful, perished, survive, dies

hardly can I brook / To lose my crown; overwhelm my bliss


I must obey.

We must allow that Edward is not Gloucester and may respond differently, even distractedly, and still be in character. Nevertheless he has the composure to frame elaborate similes (lines 11-19, 20-22, 45-46) to describe his own predicament with the detachment almost of a narrrator, self-conscious of his tragic role. Earlier we heard Gloucester represent his tormenters as active: exiling, plotting, blabbing, condemning, beating dogs. Edward’s enemies seem only to have acted: they have “pent and mew’d [him] in a prison”; he asserts vaguely and passively that he is “controll’d by them.” He offers the audience no prophetic insight, but only laments insults and injuries the audience has already witnessed.

It is puzzling how Edward can seem not Edward but an emotionally disengaged narrator, but at the same time entirely wrapped up in Edward. I think the answer is that Marlowe lacks the imagination to empathize with anyone unlike himself. He puts in Edward’s mouth the simile of the lion, “wrathful” about his injuries, soaring “[a]s with the wings of rancour and disdain” above such indignity; but this proud image in no way reflects Edward’s self-pitying behavior here. On the other hand, the metaphor “sorrow at my elbow still attends, / To company my heart with sad laments” falls short of the cold dread or terror we would expect of “a lamb, encompassed by wolves” (line 41).

Shakespeare’s Gloucester portrays his enemies’ characters, motives, and schemes with brisk, jabbing strokes as he whirls from one antagonist to the next. Marlowe has created an Edward so pitiful we cannot pity him, and has given him vague emotions, expressed with little depth or intimacy, in too many words.

Edward remains pitiful to the end. The perverse emotional cat-and-mouse between the creepy assassin Lightborn and the imprisoned king (V.6) does not advance the action, only delays it, and shines no new light on the King’s character. Lightborn falsely soothes his fears but Edward intuits that he is there to kill him. Possibly something in Lightborn’s leer gives him away, or possibly Edward simply understands the political realities. Yet sure as he is that Lightborn is his death, Edward expresses no more range of feeling than sadness, numbness, and fear. His physical endurance amazes his jailers. Their constant psychological torture does not madden him but only makes him sad. His words to express his misery in the damp dungeon that was intended to kill him suggest pitifulness (“thy heart… will… melt ere I have done my tale”), indignation (“They give me bread and water, being a king”), confusion (“my mind’s distemper’d”), numbness (“my body’s numb’d… whether I have limbs or no I know not”), and even ironic vanity (“I look’d not thus when for her sake I ran the tilt in France”). He seems almost as glad of Lightborn’s company as fearful of his mission. His last words are “O, spare me, or despatch me in a trice!” The viewer in the audience, finding no redemptive courage, forgiveness, or wisdom in any of the characters, wonders why he was asked to watch this scene.

For comparison, consider the brief and terrifying scene, noted briefly above, of the death of Cardinal Beaufort in 2 Henry 6 (III.3). In only 34 lines Shakespeare portrays wrenching guilt, spiritual terror, and compassion. There is none of Marlowe’s numbness, nothing like mere sadness, and no senseless cruelty for the sake of spectacle. Marlowe leaves us ashamed of watching; Shakespeare leaves awed and humbled:

CARDINAL: Bring me unto my trial when you will.
Died he not in his bed? Where should he die?
10Can I make men live whe’er they will or no?
O, torture me no more — I will confess.
Alive again? Then show me where he is.
I’ll give a thousand pound to look upon him.
He hath no eyes! The dust hath blinded them.
15Comb down his hair — look, look: it stands upright,
Like lime twigs set to catch my wingèd soul.
Give me some drink, and bid the apothecary
Bring the strong poison that I bought of him.

KING HENRY VI: O Thou eternal mover of the heavens,
20Look with a gentle eye upon this wretch.


Unlike Marlowe’s scene above, this does not linger with voyeuristic cruelty. It is quick and emotionally stark. Unlike Marlowe’s numb, remote affect, Shakespeare’s nightmarish grotesque (lines 14-16) is an extreme-closeup face-to-face confrontation of horror.

Crownplay: a digression on abdication scenes

In Marlowe’s earlier Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, so many crowns are passed from hand to hand, voluntarily or otherwise (nine, by a quick and possibly incomplete count, not considering offstage actions) that the device becomes a cliché. This abdication of Edward is different because it receives more stage time, apparently to open up Edward’s final defeat emotionally to the audience. The tone, however, is not so much contemplative as gloomy, and as I said earlier, Marlowe seems uncertain how Edward should feel, finds little for him to say that he hasn’t said already, and the scene never gets off the ground.

A few years later Shakespeare creates in Richard II a more likeable, more poetic, and more consistently introspective version of such a king, and an abdication scene (IV.1.165-324) that resembles but far excels this of Edward II. Both kings philosophize and stall and speechify before inevitably handing over the crown; we’ll call this business “crownplay.” Edward II’s crownplay is desperate and weak, the dodges of a trapped prey. Here is the exchange that follows the first crown doffing above, trimmed to emphasize the reversals. There are at least four, maybe six or eight abrupt changes of mind, yet the character gains no depth in the process:

KING EDWARD: …Here, take my crown; the life of Edward too:

Taking off the crown

Two kings in England cannot reign at once.
But stay a while. Let me be king till night,
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
But day’s bright beams doth vanish fast away,
And needs I must resign my wished crown.
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
See, monsters, see! I’ll wear my crown again.

Putting on the crown.

What, fear you not the fury of your king?—
But, hapless Edward, thou art fondly led;
They pass not for thy frowns as late they did, …
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
And in this torment comfort find I none,
But that I feel the crown upon my head;
And therefore let me wear it yet a while.

TRUSSEL: My, lord, the parliament must have present news;
And therefore say, will you resign or no?

The king rageth

KING EDWARD: I’ll not resign, but, whilst I live, [be king].
⋅ ⋅ ⋅

BISHOP OF WINCHESTER: This answer we’ll return; and so, farewell.

Going with TRUSSEL

LEICESTER: Call them again, my lord, and speak them fair;
For, if they go, the prince shall lose his right.

KING EDWARD: Call thou them back; I have no power to speak.

LEICESTER: My lord, the king is willing to resign.

BISHOP OF WINCHESTER: If he be not, let him choose.

KING EDWARD: O, would I might! but heavens and earth conspire
To make me miserable. Here, receive my crown
⋅ ⋅ ⋅
Take it. What, are you mov’d? pity you me?
Then send for unrelenting Mortimer,
And Isabel,
whose eyes being turn’d to steel
Will sooner sparkle fire than shed a tear.
Yet stay; for, rather than I’ll look on them,
Here, here!

Gives the crown


Trussel and the Bishop seem bored and irritated with Edward’s impotent stalling, and he risks boring and irritating the audience too. The parliament’s evil machinations must remain on hold during this mockery of diplomacy, and everyone — the Bishop, Sir Trussel, the audience — has heard Edward say these things before. He has alternately bullied, pouted, raged, and bribed, and now he’s doing it again. We actually feel more sympathetic toward Trussel, Leicester, and the Bishop, if only because they try to keep the story going forward. The 90 lines from Edward’s first question of losing his crown, to Trussel and the Bishop exiting with it, are more than the scene deserves for all that it advances the action or develops any new understanding of Edward’s personality.

Recognizing that Shakespeare’s Richard II is several years later than the two focus plays for this essay, I still think the comparison is useful, not only because the style doesn’t reflect Marlowe’s habits at all, but also because it has the same recognizable qualities of characterization, scope, and poetry we have already seen budding in 2 Henry 6. What’s more, Shakespeare even seems to parody Marlowe in a couple of places.

Richard’s crownplay is very different from Edward’s. It is expressive and playful. It lets the audience follow the turns of his mind adjusting to new realities and getting reacquainted with what we feel is his own long-neglected core self. It is 160 lines from Richard’s entrance to his exit and we do not wish it abbreviated. Richard is not much of a king, but he is regal. He immediately asserts control of his audience, easily and ironically mocking the fickle loyalties of the courtiers:

God save the king! Will no man say ‘Amen’?
Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, Amen.
165God save the king, although I be not he.
And yet Amen, if heaven do think him me.
To do what service am I sent for hither?


This strength from some inner imaginative resource is not invented for the scene. It is completely in character with the verbally nimble, philosophical Richard we are used to, but he is finding new themes.

Having lost control of the kingdom, he still dominates the leaden Bolingbroke in conversation, asserting a moral and psychological superiority even in defeat:

KING RICHARD II: Give me the crown.


        Here, cousin, seize the crown.
Here cousin. On this side my hand, on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
175That owes two buckets filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

180HENRY BOLINGBROKE: I thought you had been willing to resign.

KING RICHARD II: My crown I am; but still my griefs are mine.
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

HENRY BOLINGBROKE: Part of your cares you give me with your crown.

185KING RICHARD II: Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care by old care done;
Your care is gain of care by new care won.
The cares I give I have, though given away;
They ’tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.

190HENRY BOLINGBROKE: Are you contented to resign the crown?

KING RICHARD II: Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.


This is like watching a bear-baiting, and poor dull Bolingbroke is the bear. Everyone knows who is the loser here: Richard knows, Bolingbroke knows, the audience knows. Yet unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare does not teach us to sympathize with the winner. Richard goes down in style.

Is Shakespeare satirizing Marlowe in lines 191-92? Of course there are many interesting ways to read “ay, no; no, ay… no, no,” but the literal yes-no-no-yes-no-no seems a self-conscious parody of indecision. Unlike Edward, Richard is not really being blown back and forth by shifting fears. He knows he is finished. During the entire 160 lines we sense an inner core of Richard that is in control, if not of his state, then at least of himself, his dignity, and poor Bolingbroke’s wits. In those two lines he seems to pick up Edward’s flip-flopping as a rhetorical device, slap Bolingbroke with it a couple of times, and throw it aside. I am no Edward, he seems to say. (I am no Marlowe, says Shakespeare.)

It is not until the business with the mirror that Bolingbroke, forgetting his opponent is already defeated, gets one in on him:

KING RICHARD II: …A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,

He shatters the glass

For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers.
280Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport:
How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face.

HENRY BOLINGBROKE: The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed
The shadow of your face.

KING RICHARD II:       Say that again:
‘The shadow of my sorrow’ — ha, let’s see.
285’Tis very true: my grief lies all within,
And these external manner of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.
There lies the substance, and I thank thee, king,
290For thy great bounty that not only giv’st
Me cause to wail, but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.


It is a good hit, but Richard picks it up, examines it with (mock?) critical respect, and hands it back to him with an ironic reminder that it was a rude and ignoble interruption; this, by rights, was Richard’s moment. The prosaic Bolingbroke, smarting under the social rebuke, returns to single-line reactions. Richard is a character who’s fun to watch.

There is another bit of abdication business so obvious that Shakespeare must have been aware of it, must have consciously borrowed it from Marlowe. At some point in each of these abdications the king is suddenly offended by the address “My lord,—” and angrily reminds the speaker he is no one’s lord. The difference between these two writers shows in the immediate contexts. First, Marlowe, taking up again from the moment Edward finally hands over the crown:

KING EDWARD: …Here, here!

Gives the crown.

        Now, sweet God of heaven,
Make me despise this transitory pomp,
And sit for aye enthronisèd in heaven!
110Come, death, and with thy fingers close my eyes,
Or, if I live, let me forget myself!

BISHOP: My lord,—

KING EDWARD: Call me not lord. Away, out of my sight!
Ah, pardon me! Grief makes me lunatic.
115Let not that Mortimer protect my son…


Now Shakespeare, a moment between the business of the two buckets and the business of the looking-glass:

KING RICHARD II: Mine eyes are full of tears; I cannot see.
235And yet salt water blinds them not so much
But they can see a sort of traitors here.
Nay, if I turn mine eyes upon myself
I find myself a traitor with the rest,
For I have given here my soul’s consent
240T’undeck the pompous body of a king,
Made glory base and sovereignty a slave,
Proud majesty a subject, state a peasant.


KING RICHARD II: No lord of thine, thou haught-insulting man,
245Nor no man’s lord. I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But ’tis usurp’d. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself!


We should put aside the difference in the two kings’ personalities, that Edward snivels and shifts position whereas Richard holds his stance but stalls for philosophy. What is important is the dramatic use these two writers make of this business.

Marlowe makes it one more example of Edward’s volatility, instability, and willingness to beg, but without new intensity or significance. The audience knows all these things about Edward already, having watched him for four acts, and this iteration neither entertains us nor changes our response to him. Marlowe wastes this moment as he wastes other opportunities to enlighten and entertain.

Richard, who also behaves in his familiar character, nevertheless surprises us with fresh reflections on this new experience in his life. He expands the audience’s understanding of the irony in his decision, that it makes him a “traitor” too, along with his enemies. He emphasizes the enormity of this criminal act in five rapid-fire expressions of dethronement (lines 254-56). His reaction to “My lord,—” makes this obsolete title stand for the nullification of his place in the royal succession and, in a way, of his very identity.

And I remind you how important it is to read aloud. Saying Richard’s powerful words above will put you in his skin, make you understand physically another quality of Shakespeare’s style: he makes every passion beautiful and directs the actor’s choices with the verse itself.

Try it now. Go up a few paragraphs and start with line 234, “Mine eyes are full of tears; I cannot see.” Assume Richard’s frustration and indignation, and when Northumberland interrupts you (“My lord,—”) lash out at him with “No lord of thine, thou haught-insulting man, nor no man’s lord!” and keep going. Feel what those consonants, and all those nos, are doing to your mouth, the tone of your voice, your face and even your attitude, right up through those last two lines with all their ns and ws. Do it several times. It’s fun, and you won’t wear it out.

Well done! Now calm down. Take a deep breath. See what I mean?

Enough comparing Marlowe with someone writing three years after his death. Back to the two contemporary plays, about which there is so much more to say.

Another comparison with Gloucester: The Younger Mortimer

There is one other situation of degradation and peril in Edward II that should have been an opportunity for Marlowe: the very end of the play (V.6) when the Younger Mortimer is condemned by the newly crowned young King Edward III. Though more defiant in the face of death than Edward, Mortimer is no less self-consciously theatrical:

FIRST LORD: Why speak you not unto my lord the king?

YOUNGER MORTIMER: Because I think scorn to be accus’d.
40Who is the man dares say I murder’d him?

KING EDWARD the THIRD: Traitor, in me my loving father speaks,
And plainly saith, ’twas thou that murder’dst him.

YOUNGER MORTIMER: But hath your grace no other proof than this?

KING EDWARD the THIRD: Yes, if this be the hand of Mortimer.

Showing letter

45False Gurney hath betray’d me and himself.

I fear’d as much: murder can not be hid.

YOUNGER MORTIMER: ’Tis my hand; what gather you by this?

KING EDWARD the THIRD: That thither thou didst send a murderer.

YOUNGER MORTIMER: What murderer? Bring forth the man I sent.

50KING EDWARD the THIRD: Ah, Mortimer, thou know’st that he is slain!
And so shalt thou be too. Why stays he here?
Bring him unto a hurdle, drag him forth;
Hang him, I say, and set his quarters up,
And bring his head back presently to me.

55QUEEN ISABELLA: For my sake, sweet son, pity Mortimer!

YOUNGER MORTIMER: Madam, entreat not: I will rather die
Than sue for life unto a paltry boy.

KING EDWARD the THIRD: Hence with the traitor, with the murderer!

YOUNGER MORTIMER: Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
60There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d,
And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
Why should I grieve at my declining fall?

—Farewell, fair queen. Weep not for Mortimer,
65That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown.


This is more noble but no more exciting than Edward’s abdication scene, and nowhere near as stirring as Gloucester’s desperate outburst.

We will return to this scene in a different comparison.

Another theme: lovers parting, portrayed by Marlowe

The parting of two lovers should be one of the most poignant scenes in a story, especially when the lovers believe they may never meet again. Marlowe has four opportunities to present such a dramatic moment. Shakespeare, in his play, has two. First let us see how Marlowe handles this theme, then later turn to Shakespeare’s treatment of it.

One “parting of lovers” Marlowe scene (the last sequentially, but sequence is not important here) is the one cited just above, the sentencing of the Younger Mortimer. Marlowe simply misses it: Mortimer’s last words with Isabella consist of a hurried whisper between the foiled villains, Isabella’s plea to Edward to save Mortimer’s life, Mortimer’s refusal of clemency, and his short, nobly phrased speech of resignation, focusing not on their parting, but on his solitary journey to “countries yet unknown.” Isabella, too, misses her chance at a tender parting: after his exit she makes one last plea for Mortimer, begs briefly and ineffectually for her own life, and the play is over.

As for figurative language, Marlowe has Mortimer express his resignation in an extended metaphor on the Wheel of Fortune and a simile of death as a one-way voyage of discovery. That is all. Both expressions are conventional. Neither sounds spontaneous or heartfelt. Mortimer is only slightly interested in Isabella (“Farewell, fair queen”) and is so self-conscious about making a good exit that in his last words he speaks of himself in the third person.

The three other opportunities for an impassioned parting are two between Edward and Gaveston and one between Edward and the Younger Spenser. Here is the first:

GAVESTON: My lord, I hear it whisper’d everywhere,
That I am banish’d and must fly the land.

KING EDWARD: ’Tis true, sweet Gaveston: O were it false!
110The legate of the Pope will have it so,
And thou must hence, or I shall be depos’d.
But I will reign to be reveng’d of them;
And therefore, sweet friend, take it patiently.
Live where thou wilt, I’ll send thee gold enough;
115And long thou shalt not stay; or, if thou dost,
I’ll come to thee; my love shall ne’er decline.

GAVESTON: Is all my hope turn’d to this hell of grief?

KING EDWARD: Rend not my heart with thy too-piercing words:
Thou from this land, I from myself am banish’d.

120GAVESTON: To go from hence grieves not poor Gaveston;
But to forsake you, in whose gracious looks
The blessedness of Gaveston remains;
For nowhere else seeks he felicity.

KING EDWARD: And only this torments my wretched soul,
125That, whether I will or no, thou must depart.
Be governor of Ireland in my stead,
And there abide till fortune call thee home.
Here, take my picture, and let me wear thine:

They exchange pictures

O, might I keep thee here, as I do this,
130Happy were I! but now most miserable.

GAVESTON: ’Tis something to be pitied of a king.

KING EDWARD: Thou shalt not hence; I’ll hide thee, Gaveston.

GAVESTON: I shall be found, and then ’twill grieve me more.

KING EDWARD: Kind words and mutual talk makes our grief greater:
135Therefore, with dumb embracement, let us part.
Stay, Gaveston; I cannot leave thee thus.

GAVESTON: For every look, my love drops down a tear:
Seeing I must go, do not renew my sorrow.

KING EDWARD: The time is little that thou hast to stay,
140And, therefore, give me leave to look my fill.
But, come, sweet friend; I’ll bear thee on thy way.

GAVESTON: The peers will frown.

KING EDWARD: I pass not for their anger. Come, let’s go:
O, that we might as well return as go!


145QUEEN ISABELLA: Whither goes my lord?

KING EDWARD: Fawn not on me, French strumpet; get thee gone!

QUEEN ISABELLA: On whom but on my husband should I fawn?

GAVESTON: On Mortimer; with whom, ungentle queen,—
I judge no more — judge you the rest, my lord.

150QUEEN ISABELLA: In saying this, thou wrong’st me, Gaveston.
Is’t not enough that thou corrupt’st my lord,
And art a bawd to his affections,
But thou must call mine honour thus in question?

GAVESTON: I mean not so; your grace must pardon me.

155KING EDWARD: Thou art too familiar with that Mortimer,
And by thy means is Gaveston exil’d.
But I would wish thee reconcile the lords,
Or thou shalt ne’er be reconcil’d to me.

QUEEN ISABELLA: Your highness knows, it lies not in my power.

160KING EDWARD: Away, then! touch me not.—Come, Gaveston.

QUEEN ISABELLA: Villain, ’tis thou that robb’st me of my lord.

GAVESTON: Madam, ’tis you that rob me of my lord.

KING EDWARD: Speak not unto her: let her droop and pine.

QUEEN ISABELLA: Wherein, my lord, have I deserv’d these words?
165Witness the tears that Isabella sheds,
Witness this heart, that, sighing for thee, breaks,
How dear my lord is to poor Isabel!

KING EDWARD: And witness heaven how dear thou art to me:
There weep; for, till my Gaveston be repeal’d,
170Assure thyself thou com’st not in my sight.



That passage is almost barren of figurative language: I could find only one clear metaphor (“Thou from this land, I from myself am banish’d”) though it is an apt one, two expressions that sound metaphoric but in the context are practically literal, and one so timeworn it is essentially dead (“this heart, that, sighing for thee, breaks”).

The emotion is nearly as sparse. The first 22 lines are mostly expository, Edward summarizing for Gaveston the banishment signing the audience has just watched and promising to put it right. He shows little distress until Gaveston’s anger and grief send him into frantic reversals, actually a very human moment:

O, might I keep thee here…
Thou shalt not hence; I’ll hide thee…
…with dumb embracement, let us part.
Stay, Gaveston; I cannot leave thee thus.


But the human moment does not last long. Edward’s Queen enters and the men interrupt themselves to exchange insults with her: Strumpet! Bawd! Villain! Tenderness cannot survive such bickering.

In the next act is their second parting. As it turns out it is the last time they meet, more hurried and desperate than before, yet Marlowe reduces it to an almost comical synopsis of the first:

KING EDWARD: Farewell, sweet Gaveston; and farewell, niece.

QUEEN ISABELLA: No farewell to poor Isabel thy queen?

KING EDWARD: Yes, yes, for Mortimer your lover’s sake.


This childish jealousy is out of place, the sarcasm gratuitous and out of tune. The scene is wasted. It flattens what should have been a passionate moment. It is true we are not led to like either of these men very much, but they are a romantic pair whose love is supposed to have driven the entire plot. Marlowe should have taken their destruction seriously. Even villains can be really in love, as Shakespeare will show us, but we are left with the feeling that there must never have been much real love between King Edward and his “sweet Gavestion.”

With almost bureaucratic expediency Gaveston’s place is assumed by the recently hired Younger Spenser (III.2), renewing the King’s conflict with his lords. Just before the final Act Edward and his remaining attendants, the Younger Spenser and Baldock, are under arrest and must part as the younger men are led away to their deaths. Certain lines here I have italicized for the discussion below:

KING EDWARD: Spenser, ah, sweet Spenser, thus, then, must we part.

YOUNGER SPENSER: We must, my lord; so will the angry heavens.

75KING EDWARD: Nay, so will hell and cruel Mortimer:
The gentle heavens have not to do in this.

BALDOCK: My lord, it is in vain to grieve or storm.
Here humbly of your grace we take our leaves.
Our lots are cast; I fear me, so is thine.

80KING EDWARD: In heaven we may, in earth ne’er shall we meet.
And, Leicester, say, what shall become of us?

LEICESTER: Your majesty must go to Killingworth.

KING EDWARD: Must! it is somewhat hard when kings must go.

LEICESTER: Here is a litter ready for your grace,
85That waits your pleasure, and the day grows old.

RICE AP HOWELL: As good be gone, as stay and be benighted.

KING EDWARD: A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence;
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
90And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

For friends hath Edward none but these,
And these must die under a tyrant’s sword.

RICE AP HOWELL: My lord, be going: care not for these,
For we shall see them shorter by the heads.

95KING EDWARD: Well, that shall be shall be: part we must;
Sweet Spenser, gentle Baldock, part we must.
Hence, feigned weeds! unfeigned are my woes.

Throwing off his disguise

Father, farewell.—Leicester, thou stay’st for me;
And go I must.—Life, farewell, with my friends!


100YOUNGER SPENSER: O, is he gone? is noble Edward gone?
Parted from hence, never to see us more!
Rend, sphere of heaven! and, fire, forsake thy orb!
Earth, melt to air!
Gone is my sovereign,
Gone, gone, alas, never to make return!

105BALDOCK: Spenser, I see our souls are fleeted hence;
We are depriv’d the sunshine of our life.
Make for a new life, man; throw up thy eyes
And heart and hand to heaven’s immortal throne;

Pay nature’s debt with cheerful countenance,
110Reduce we all our lessons unto this:
To die, sweet Spenser, therefore live we all;
Spenser, all live to die, and rise to fall.


This parting scene presents an odd confusion of character, affections, and philosophy. It is as if these characters had met only hours ago on a doomed ship and have developed a forced camaraderie with strangers in the shadow of death. In a way this is true; yet this is our next-to-last chance to see a passionate parting scene (the last, as we saw, will be Isabel and Mortimer in V.4) and we are disappointed. Apparently no one is really torn from anyone else; each faces death in his own private way.

Nothing has prepared us for Edward’s cavalier musings about Charon’s shore and Hell’s bells, nor his peculiar detachment from his fellow prisoners. Throughout the play until now he has been petulant, indecisive, and emotionally volatile, courageous only occasionally in defense of his love. Here at his end he is cynically serene, with not even a thought of his sweet, departed Gaveston. Perhaps he is just numb.

Baldock the professional courtier has likewise grown philosophical, coaching the others to accept the inevitable and turn their attention to heaven. Only the formerly cocky young Spenser is a little hysterical. After Edward sheds his useless monk disguise and exits with a hearty “Life, farewell, with my friends,” Spenser is left muttering variations of “O, is he gone?… Never to make return!” for several lines until Baldock cuts him short with a speech that contains the single metaphor in the entire scene (“Pay nature’s debt”) and closes with the dusty voice of Ecclesiastes. Their brief acquaintance is over, and seems after all to mean little to anyone except the wretched Spenser.

What little imagery there is in this scene consists in Edward’s pagan anticipation of crossing the River Styx, Spenser’s hyperbolic invocation of Earth and the Spheres to dissolve in a celestial pathetic fallacy, and Baldock’s Old Testament fatalism. In their final hour these characters achieve no more metaphysical cohesion than they do camaraderie. As loosely tied to each other, finally, as Isabella and Mortimer, these three men have taken to separate lifeboats and are drifting out of hailing distance of each other, to sink alone.

Lovers parting, Shakespeare’s way

There are two truly loving couples in 2 Henry 6. The first are Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and his Duchess, Eleanor. The second are Queen Margaret and the Lord Suffolk, whose relationship predates his fetching her from France to marry the King. Each couple is forced apart forever, and Shakespeare devotes an emotionally charged scene to each.

Eleanor, the ambitious Duchess of Gloucester, clashes with the Duke her husband when he refuses to connive for the throne. There are scolding and tears, forgiveness and tenderness (I.2), but Eleanor persists on her own to seek information about her husband’s political prospects through a silly and illegal séance arranged by agents of the villain Suffolk, who seeks Gloucester’s ruin (I.4). She is convicted and paraded in shame through the streets. Gloucester, ruined by her foolishness, remains loyal to her though he cannot condone her actions. Now in Act II scene 4 he waits in the street to console her and say goodbye to her as she passes by to her imprisonment. As badly as her crime has hurt them both, just now he has no thought for his own troubles but is filled with compassion for hers. I quote the scene’s complete dialog here in order to annotate some nuances of language, characterization, drama, and thematic control that I believe are beyond the skills of Marlowe.

Enter Duke Humphrey of GLOUCESTER and his men in mourning cloaks

GLOUCESTER: Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold;
So cares and joys abound as seasons fleet.

And that’s all the metaphor we’ll hear from the Duke until in this scene. He continues:

5Sirs, what’s o’clock?

SERVANTS: Ten, my lord.

GLOUCESTER: Ten is the hour that was appointed me
To watch the coming of my punished duchess;
Uneath may she endure the flinty streets,
10To tread them with her tender-feeling feet.
Sweet Nell, ill can thy noble mind abrook
The abject people gazing on thy face
With envious looks, laughing at thy shame,
That erst did follow thy proud chariot wheels
15When thou didst ride in triumph through the streets.
But, soft, I think she comes; and I’ll prepare
My tear-stained eyes to see her miseries.

Shame will be the key theme in this very central, tightly focused scene. The word occurs eight times. Gloucester’s use of it in line 13 is the first; the rest are Eleanor’s.

The fall from pride into shame governs not only this couple’s, but most of the characters’ fates from this point onward. This scene expands the theme through Eleanor’s past shameful acts, her present humiliation, and an ironic foreshadowing of Gloucester’s own degradation soon to come.

Enter the DUCHESS, Dame Eleanor Cobham, barefoot, with a white sheet about her, written verses pinned on her back, and carrying a wax candle in her hand; she is accompanied by the two Sheriffs of London, and Sir John STANLEY, and officers with bills and halberds

So please your grace, we’ll take her from the sheriffs.

GLOUCESTER: No, stir not for your lives, let her pass by.

20DUCHESS: Come you, my lord, to see my open shame?
Now thou dost penance too. Look how they gaze,
See how the giddy multitude do point
And nod their heads, and throw their eyes on thee.
Ah, Gloucester, hide thee from their hateful looks,
25And, in thy closet pent up, rue my shame,
And ban thine enemies — both mine and thine.

GLOUCESTER: Be patient, gentle Nell; forget this grief.

DUCHESS: Ah, Gloucester, teach me to forget myself;
For whilst I think I am thy married wife,
30And thou a prince, Protector of this land,
Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mailed up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.

Already in twelve lines Eleanor has dropped the word “shame” three times. “Mailed up in shame” is a bitter enough metaphor for a warlike woman whose impenetrable pride has been stripped from her. Her next remark, an extreme close-up of injury and indignation, initiates a bitter meditation on her shame, his disloyalty to her, and both their peril:

35The ruthless flint doth cut my tender feet,
And when I start, the envious people laugh,
And bid me be advisèd how I tread.
Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke?
Trowest thou that e’er I’ll look upon the world,
40Or count them happy that enjoys the sun?
No, dark shall be my light, and night my day;
To think upon my pomp shall be my hell
Sometime I’ll say I am Duke Humphrey’s wife,
And he a prince and ruler of the land;
45Yet so he ruled, and such a prince he was,
As he stood by whilst I, his forlorn Duchess,
Was made a wonder and a pointing stock
To every idle rascal follower.
But be thou mild and blush not at my shame,
50Nor stir at nothing till the axe of death
Hang over thee, as sure it shortly will.
For Suffolk, he that can do all in all
With her that hateth thee and hates us all,
And York, and impious Beaufort that false priest,
55Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings,
And fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee.
But fear not thou until thy foot be snared,
Nor never seek prevention of thy foes.

Eleanor’s earlier hint of “enemies — both mine and thine” Gloucester dismissed: “forget this grief.” Now that she has expressed the warning more explicitly, Gloucester will insist his innocence protects him, that her guilt does not touch him — an error exposed immediately, with blunt dramatic irony, with the arrival of a Herald:

GLOUCESTER: Ah, Nell, forbear; thou aimest all awry.
60I must offend before I be attainted,
And had I twenty times so many foes,
And each of them had twenty times their power,
All these could not procure me any scathe
So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless.
65Wouldst have me rescue thee from this reproach?
Why, yet thy scandal were not wiped away,
But I in danger for the breach of law.
Thy greatest help is quiet, gentle Nell.
I pray thee sort thy heart to patience.
70These few days’ wonder will be quickly worn.

Enter a Herald

HERALD: I summon your grace to his majesty’s parliament holden at Bury the first of this next month.

GLOUCESTER: And my consent ne’er asked herein before?
This is close dealing. Well, I will be there.

Exit Herald

No one in the theater but Gloucester misses this hint.

Notice that Gloucester’s speech here is devoid of figurative language. Notice further that, except for Gloucester’s timeworn opening meditation, no one but Eleanor has used, or will use, figurative language. The effect is dramatically powerful: Eleanor is at this point the only character initiated in the dangers of the situation, and her speeches bristle with resentment, prophecy, and imagination. The still-benighted Duke’s plain words reflect the doggedness of his illusions. (What a contrast when the plot against him is revealed in the following scene, and his language transcends everything that has gone before!) This is not a gratuitous use of figures, but deliberate restraint and release, skillfully applied.

Here follow thirteen nonfigurative but sincere and touching lines in which Gloucester begs his wife’s keepers to “use her well.” He is so painfully bewildered and worried, so quietly frantic in his effort to assert his diminishing influence for her safety, he nearly neglects her:

75My Nell, I take my leave; and, Master Sheriff,
Let not her penance exceed the king’s commission.

[FIRST] SHERIFF: An’t please your grace, here my commission stays,
And Sir John Stanley is appointed now
To take her with him to the Isle of Man.

80GLOUCESTER: Must you, Sir John, protect my lady here?

STANLEY: So am I given in charge, may’t please your grace.

GLOUCESTER: Entreat her not the worse in that I pray
You use her well. The world may laugh again,
And I may live to do you kindness if
85You do it her. And so, Sir John, farewell.

GLOUCESTER begins to leave

DUCHESS: What, gone, my lord, and bid me not farewell?

GLOUCESTER: Witness my tears — I cannot stay to speak.

Exeunt GLOUCESTER and his men

And now that Eleanor is the only important character remaining on stage, surrounded by a few officials, figurative language returns — first with an inward meditation upon despair:

DUCHESS: Art thou gone too? All comfort go with thee.
For none abides with me. My joy is death—

90Death, at whose name I oft have been afeard,
Because I wished this world’s eternity.

Now, after a few nearly prosaic lines, Shakespeare further clears the stage of everyone but Eleanor and Stanley. It is in this quieted setting that Stanley’s mention of travel clothes sparks Eleanor’s last and most powerful metaphoric expression of shame:

Stanley, I prithee go and take me hence.
I care not whither, for I beg no favour,
Only convey me where thou art commanded.

95STANLEY: Why, madam, that is to the Isle of Man,
There to be used according to your state.

DUCHESS: That’s bad enough, for I am but reproach;
And shall I then be used reproachfully?

STANLEY: Like to a duchess and Duke Humphrey’s lady,
100According to that state you shall be used.

DUCHESS: Sheriff, farewell, and better than I fare,
Although thou hast been conduct of my shame.

SHERIFF: It is my office, and, madam, pardon me.

DUCHESS: Ay, ay, farewell — thy office is discharged.

Exeunt Sheriffs

105Come, Stanley, shall we go?

STANLEY: Madam, your penance done, throw off this sheet,
And go we to attire you for our journey.

DUCHESS: My shame will not be shifted with my sheet—
No, it will hang upon my richest robes
110And show itself, attire me how I can.

Go, lead the way; I long to see my prison.


“My shame will not be shifted with my sheet,” she fairly spits at the poor dutiful Stanley, the sh alliteration as close to vulgarity as she probably ever spoke in her life. Her acknowledgement that shame will sully the rest of her existence is no exaggeration and far from tedious. “Go, lead the way; I long to see my prison,” she concludes. With a conclusion like those four lines, who needs a couplet? Rhyme would jar with her bristling practicality as badly as one of Marlowe’s epic similes.

As I indicated earlier, this encounter is written to foreshadow and build tension for the next scene, but not to steal its thunder. Even with Eleanor’s passionate eloquence, its density of figures is barely above the average thus far in the play, almost prosaic until her last expression of shame turns up the volume in anticipation of Gloucester’s audiovisual extravaganza in the next scene.

As to characterization: Humphrey’s and Eleanor’s speeches here, like their emotions, are responsive to the moment, unrehearsed, always sensitive but never overstated. We may not have been able to guess what they would say when they met, but hearing them, we recognize their responses as honest and in character: Eleanor is still proud, though defeated. Humphrey, though grieved, still does not recognize his hopeless position. Eleanor does. Unlike the lovers in Marlowe’s parting scenes, neither Eleanor nor Humphrey is distracted or even much concerned with bystanders or other annoyances of the present moment. Unlike Marlowe’s Edward, Spenser, and Baldock, these two are not drifting apart in self-absorption but being torn apart and reaching out to each other to the last:

DUCHESS: What, gone, my lord, and bid me not farewell?

GLOUCESTER: Witness my tears — I cannot stay to speak.

(lines 86-87)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote of the art of fiction, “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action” (9). In drama’s tight economy a line often must do both. In this scene Gloucester and his Duchess reveal their character in their responses to the events of the moment, even as they enact them. The action advances through them, then in spite of them, and eventually past them, yet through it all they remain faithful to their integral selves and to each other. Shakespeare is recalling to the stage the couple’s past together even as he portrays the Duchess as cynically prescient and Gloucester, surprisingly, as a babe in the political woods. At the same time, he foreshadows their separate futures and prepares to move the play beyond them.

It is a beautiful and painful scene, skilfully crafted, and properly subordinated to the greater dramatic purpose. Shakespeare promptly submerges it in the wreckages of Act III: First, Humphrey’s framing, arrest, and passionate protest, discussed earlier; then the parting of Queen Margaret and her lover Suffolk, probably the most beautiful moment in the play.

Shakespeare has never given us reason to like either Margaret or Suffolk. If it weren’t for their love, they could be Marlowe characters. Margaret is proud, selfish, and snide. Suffolk is ambitious and ruthless. They are adulterers, and together they are a sinister team. Yet they are really in love, as we see here, whether or not we could believe it before. Marlowe’s Edward and his sweet Gaveston do not finally seem unselfishly in love. They have their tender moments, but nothing we see between them approaches the truth and beauty of this scene. Suffolk and Margaret understand perfectly, her forced optimism notwithstanding, that these are their last minutes together, and we see them almost magically redeemed by their love.

Sentiments and thoughts we hope might have been our own, expressed more powerfully and beautifully than we could have managed, is something we come to expect from Shakespeare. Their private discussion is worth reading in its entirety (III.2.304-417) to learn how devoted lovers, however villainous, speak in their last moments together — or should speak. For the present purposes, however, we can focus on their last few lines. They contain more freshly imaginative descriptions of affection than we can find in any of Marlowe’s plays and they close with a startling simile that threatens to make itself the center of Shakespeare’s entire play with its simplicity and heartbreaking aptness:

If thou be found by me, thou art but dead.

SUFFOLK: If I depart from thee, I cannot live.
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?
395Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
As mild and gentle as the cradle babe

Dying with mother’s dug between his lips;
Where, from thy sight, I should be raging mad,
And cry out for thee to close up mine eyes,
400To have thee with thy lips to stop my mouth,
So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul
Or I should breathe it, so, into thy body—

He kisseth her

And then it lived in sweet Elysium.
To die by thee were but to die in jest;
405From thee to die were torture more than death.
O, let me stay, befall what may befall!

QUEEN MARGARET: Away. Though parting be a fretful corrosive,
It is applièd to a deathful wound
To France, sweet Suffolk. Let me hear from thee.
410For wheresoe’er thou art in this world’s Globe
I’ll have an Iris that shall find thee out.


QUEEN MARGARET: And take my heart with thee.

She kisseth him

SUFFOLK: A jewel, locked into the wofull’st cask
That ever did contain a thing of worth.
415Even as a splitted barque, so sunder we—

This way fall I to death.

QUEEN MARGARET:       This way for me.

Exeunt severally


These are not two lifeboats sinking in isolation. They are halves of the same wrecked ship.

This passage is very rich in figurative language, at least 8 figures in 26 lines, or .308 fpl. Half are developed in some detail. Half seem especially original and sponstaneous, especially the closing simile, which nothing could possibly follow.

Suffolk’s 15-line plea at the start of this excerpt is as rich in figures as the mournful crown-relinquishing speech of Marlowe’s King Edward II, above. But Marlowe’s metaphors are high-flown allusions to ancient myth and inaccurate lore about wounded forest animals, whereas Shakespeare’s are present, human, and uncomfortably, sometimes almost unbearably intimate: “a pleasant slumber in thy lap,” a “cradle-babe / Dying with mother’s dug between its lips,” “I should breathe [my flying soul] into thy body” — extreme closeups of life’s essences passing through lips from one body to another.

Also unlike Marlowe is the way all of Shakespeare’s images urge a unified theme, in this case that regardless of how long Suffolk’s life lasts, it is death without Margaret. First Shakespeare develops the theme through images of inseparable dichotomies: mother and babe, body and soul. Then he wraps up this theme in a final transcendent image, even more intense because it describes not a dichotomy, but a shattered identity: one ship, broken on the rocks, sinking, its selfhood no longer sustainable in its parts. Anyone who has experienced such a union recognizes the feeling perfectly expressed here.

As we analyze these moments of focus we become aware of two writers at work, one who understands and portrays a much wider range of the human spirit than the other, and who through the events, characters, and language is capable of communicating much more profound themes and honest emotions.

Understanding of the human spirit

By now you have closely examined enough of both these writers that you probably notice a difference in the variety of personalities they create, the likability of those characters, their depth, and the sense of whether a character’s essential core being persists in varying circumstances. And yet Marlovian anti-Shakespearians insist they cannot detect this difference. Here is an example of the hyperbole characteristic of Marlovians:

His last play, Edward II, was, say the modern knowledgeable, his best — near perfect. (Jarvis par. 12)

Yet one modern knowledgeable, Marlowe editor J. B. Steane, says otherwise:

[T]he depressing quality [of Edward II] seems to me to be virtually omnipresent and to lie between two pervasive characteristics. One is the almost unredeemed meanness, weakness or wickedness of the people and their actions; the other is the drab thinness of the verse. (28)

Incidentally, if Shakespeare really was mimicking Marlowe’s style (or lifting Marlowe’s text) during the opening acts of 2 Henry 6 it would explain the universal meanness of the noblemen at one particular moment. On a falconing outing, Gloucester and his enemies Suffolk, Cardinal Beaufort, and Queen Margaret have been irritating King Henry with their bickering exchange of insults and threats. Our sympathies are with the baited Gloucester until a townsman runs up to report that a man has been miraculously healed of blindness. The newly sighted peasant, Simpcox, is brought on a chair. Suffolk and the Cardinal question Simpcox sarcastically. When he declares he is also lame, Gloucester himself, uncharacteristically, not only joins the pack but steps up as lead interrogator and proves the man has lied about his former blindness. Then, to prove he is also faking lameness, Gloucester performs a second “miracle”: he calls for a whip and forces Simpcox to leap over a stool and run away (2.1.149-150). Only King Henry shows no viciousness in the scene, but he is as sanctimonious, ineffectual, and credulous as ever. No one is redeemed. I for one am willing to cede the attribution of that scene to Marlowe.

Steane acknowledges another difference between the two writers, one very close to the heart of my thesis:

[W]e do find recurrent in [Marlowe’s] writing certain tones that are inescapably personal so that we are from time to time made aware of an author, in a sense that we are not when reading or watching Shakespeare. (11)

With that in mind, it is easy to suspect that his characters’ “meanness, weakness or wickedness” is an expression of Marlowe’s own personality. Watching or reading Marlowe’s other plays only reinforces the impression. This constant infusion of Marlowe’s personal attitudes and responses throughout the action blurs the distinctions between characters and prevents them from “coming alive” in their own right. The author lacks the gift for understanding the motives and feelings of others, for setting himself aside. Shakespeare gives the opposite impression: such enjoyment of the liveliness of personalities of all kinds that he allows them the stage all to themselves, and such acute observation and clear intuition of the motives of people unlike himself, that now and then one of his characters possesses the “quality of being too large for the play he inhabits” (Bloom 51). An author may feel an identification with, and even let himself shine a little through, a particular character. Marlowe seems to shine through most of his, but it’s hard to detect a common personality in the words and behavior of Shakespeare’s Gloucester and Suffolk as each in turn faces exile and death in 2 Henry VI.

Anti-Shakespearians, frustrated by gaps in Shakespeare’s documented biography, not finding his life written into his plays and poems and believing they should, interpret the author’s transparency as evidence that someone else must have written those plays — someone like one of his characters. James Shapiro identifies and traces this error in some detail in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? To Shakespearians, this narrative transparency is part of the poet’s genius and distinguishes him from other writers, who don’t seem to have the greatness of spirit and imagination to get themselves out of the way.

It is unreasonable to believe it was Marlowe penning these Shakespearian speeches but strategically adopting an unprecedented, unself-conscious brilliance of characterization merely as a ruse to make the plays appear to have been written by a much better poet-playwright.


Just read the poets. Genius isn’t the domain of any class, race, gender, or school. You’ll learn to distinguish their voices for yourself.

Surely many anti-Shakespearians are merely drawn to mysteries, unable to resist entertaining possibilities: What if Elizabeth had an illegitimate son? What if Marlowe actually faked his death? What if Shakespeare was really an illiterate thug? They mean no harm. They see no literary, historical, or social implications in the question of authorship. Shakespeare’s legacy means nothing to them. I can somewhat understand this: after all, somebody wrote those poems and plays. Few would dispute that a singular genius arose in Elizabethan England. Who cares if it was the son of a wool merchant, a Cambridge graduate, a bookish philosopher, or an earl?

Maybe this authorship issue can serve a purpose. I would be happy if people’s curiosity about it pulled them into reading the literature itself. If they do, the authorship theories won’t matter so much.

However, curiosity isn’t the only motive. There are worse ones. In particular, the currently fashionable Oxfordian theory is motivated in part by snobbery, a sort of class warfare, a counterattack to a perceived threat to prestige. Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence “Bart. B.A., LL.B., etc.” in his 1910 Bacon Is Shake-speare acknowledges from page one that the necessity to dethrone Shakespeare resulted from upper-class embarrassment:

When the Shakespeare revival came, about eighty or ninety years ago [i.e., ca. 1820], people said “pretty well for Shakespeare” and the “learned” men of that period were rather ashamed that Shakespeare should be deemed to be “the” English poet. (Durning-Lawrence 1)

“Dethrone” is not my word, not is it Durning-Lawrence’s. It from a Francis Bacon quote Durning-Lawrence selected for the epigraph of his book:

“Every hollow idol is dethroned by skill, insinuation and regular approach.” (Bacon “Interpretation” 111)

Bacon’s usage is entirely metaphorical, but used in the context of Durning-Lawrence’s challenge of Shakespeare’s authorship, “dethrone” carries a class war connotation: the commoner Shakespeare is a usurper. Genius is an entitlement of the higher-born. The words following “dethroned” indicate what Lawrence-Durning is willing to do to correct the injustice. Truth-seeking and fairness are not in the list.

In their desperation to hijack the work of the greatest English writer to gild the prestige of the privileged class, many anti-Shakespearians use circuitous reasoning because they recognize that style comparison would obviate the entire discussion. Others, unable to hear the stylistic difference but having engaged in real debate and had it thrown in their faces, know comparisons are countereffective and avoid them. The rest, excited by the occurrence of similar thoughts or words in dissimilar passages, innocently quote away and reveal their insensitivity to poetry. Other readers quote all these and are quoted in turn. Eventually it begins to look like a body of knowledge, as persuasive as 5,000 facebook “likes” on a spurious quotation.

You should read anti-Shakespearian theories if the question interests you, and then read arguments on the other side too. If you don’t read any of that, don’t feel like you’re neglecting your education. You can be comfortable thinking Shakespeare was just what he was. All you need to do is study the poets, listen to their voices, follow the motions of their minds, and acknowledge that genius isn’t the exclusive domain of birth, race, gender, education, or other classification of people. You’ll develop the ear to distinguish their voices for yourself. You’ll find beauty in Marlowe, De Vere, Bacon, and the rest of them. There’s no need to think less of them just because none of them was William Shakespeare.

End notes

[1] “Shakespearian” vs. “Stratfordian”

In their introduction to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells explain the aptness of the term “anti-Shakespearian”: “ ‘anti-Stratfordian’… allows the work attributed to Shakespeare to be separated from the social and cultural context of its author” (xii). It seems uncontroversial that anti-Shakespearian arguments are intrinsically ad hominem; personal, not literary, and often explicitly class-oriented. I would add that “Oxfordian” refers not to a town but to the Earl, and “Baconian” and “Marlovian” also identify writers, so in fairness and clarity we should use “Shakespearian.” Authorship is the question, so we use the authors’ names.

[2] References to style in Contested Will and Shakespeare Beyond Doubt

In Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro’s topic is the doubters themselves, what they think, and especially “why they think it” (8). He enhances our understanding of the psychology and religious fervor of the Baconians and Oxfordians and makes that strange history make sense; in a few places he touches on critical analyses of the poetry and drama: most notably, the questions about Oxford’s copy of the Geneva Bible (214-15), “the full extent of Oxford’s literary range” (216), Shakespeare’s later blank verse style (251-54), recent stylometric studies of the writers’ “habits… versification… [and] minutest of verbal tics” (254-55), and the role of imagination in the literary bridge between author and audience (278-79).

In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, style receives a somewhat stronger focus. Several of the essayists either allude to or summarize hard-data stylometric studies, and some mention or discuss what John Jowett calls the “less quantifiable aspects of writing such as the intellectual and emotional temper of the writing, and the techniques of dramatization” (93). Graham Holderness says Delia Bacon’s work is “not literary criticism, since it alludes to no textual source” (14). Alan Stewart notes briefly that there is “nothing in the contents of the [Northumberland] manuscript that suggests Shakespeare” (24). Matt Kubus reports that Derbyite theory failed in 1919 “predominantly due to the lack of a corpus of writing to which Shakespeare’s plays could be compared” (53); indeed Shakespearians could (and do) point to the same failure in most of the popular contenders. Jowett himself frequently, though briefly, emphasizes the “less quantifiable”: he notes that “many readers identify transformation in poetic depth and emotional temperature where Shakespeare takes over” for a collaborator (95), that Shakespeare’s writing shows “stronger dramatic energy and greater stylistic complexity” than Fletcher’s (96), and that the “point at which Marlowe has indeed been identified in the Shakespeare canon is also, definitively, the point at which Shakespeare and Marlowe can be seen to be different, even though they are writing the same plays at about the same point in time” (98). (In this essay I identify such a point.) MacDonald Jackson’s essay “Authorship and the evidence of stylometrics” occasionally goes beyond statistics to deal with the poetic imagination, reminding us that stylometrics “objectively confirms what must be obvious to any reader sensitive to poetic style and value” (108). (It is the job of critics, however, to develop this sensitivity in those to whom poetic style and value are not obvious.) Carol Chillington Rutter points out that reading viva voce develops an “inner ear” for “some effects which are lost on the moderns” (139), which is very close to the thesis of the present essay. Barbara Everett, while cautioning against biographical readings because “Shakespeare tells lies,” points to a possible reading of some of the sonnets that is figuratively but not literally biographical and provides some literary insights into the text. She concludes with a reference to the First Folio prefatory epistle urging us to “Read him” (159) — and I think this should be the new Shakespearian rallying cry. Andrew Murphy suggests that Delia Bacon might have been a pioneering feminist Shakespearian scholar had she not chased the “biographical chimera” but instead analyzed “the plays themselves” (188).

These anticipate my thesis and invite a fruitful discussion: None of the contenders for authorship displayed Shakespeare’s manner or excellence in writings clearly attributed to them.

[3] Oxford Shakespeare

For Shakespeare’s works, text edition and line numbering are from The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 1987, except Sonnet 29, for which I followed the facsimile in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: edited with analytic commentary, Stephen Booth, 1977.

[4] Line notes on the Oxford-Shakespeare comparison

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29

1. Disgrace: compare with De Vere, “grace” (line 18). Grace: II. “Favour” (SOED). See the note of comparison on the ultimate word “Kings,” line 14.

2. State: II.1. “A person’s condition or position in life; a person’s natural, social, or legal status, profession or calling, rank or degree” (SOED). Compare with usages in lines 10 and 14.

3. Bootless: a.1, 3. “To no purpose; unprofitable” (SOED).

5. The words “rich” here, “possest” in the next line, “welth” in line 13, and “state” in line 14 all refer figuratively to non-monetary possessions: here, to another with hope; later, to the speaker’s one friend; and in the couplet, to a happiness that transcends a kingly “state.”

6. Featured: 1. “Fashioned, formed, shaped; well-formed, comely” (SOED). “with friends possest” — possess: II.2.c. Possessed + “of” or “with”: “having possession of, possessing” (SOED). Although one doesn’t literally possess friends, this phrase “with friends possest” compactly expresses the central metaphor: friendship is wealth. See notes on “rich” in line 5, “welth” in line 13, and “state” in line 14.

7. Art: I. “Skill” (SOED). Scope: Two meanings could operate here. In the context of “art” just before: 5. “The distance to which the mind reaches in its workings or purpose; reach or range of mental activity; extent of view, outlook, or survey.” In general, 6. “Room for exercise, opportunity or liberty to act; free course or play” (SOED). Cf. De Vere, line 12.

8: Compare with De Vere, lines 8, 20, 26, 30.

10. Haply: “By hap; by chance or accident; perhaps”; but also phonetically “happily”: 4. “With mental pleasure or content” (SOED). State: I.2. “A condition (of mind or feeling)” (SOED). Compare with usages in lines 2 and 14.

13. Welth: See note on “rich” in line 5, and cf. “state” in line 14.

14. State: [two senses] of self, see usage in line 2; of kings, add II. “Status; high rank; pomp” (SOED). Compare with usages in lines 2 and 10. Also see note on “rich,” line 5. Kings: Consider the change in state from “disgace” (loss of favor) in line 1, to “skorne” even for kings who confer favor.

De Vere #12

1. Clog: “to fasten a clog or block of wood to; to fetter” (SOED).

5. Retire: to withdraw “for seclusion, shelter, or security” (SOED).

8. Cf. Shakespeare, line 8.

11. Craze: shatter, crush, “render infirm,” “impair in intellect” (SOED). Hale: “to draw or pull,” haul (alt. “to make whole; to heal” unlikely with “up”) (SOED).

12. Scope: Cf. Shakespeare, line 7, where two meanings can be operative. Here, the context of “With world at will” seems to limit it to: 6. “Room for exercise, opportunity or liberty to act; free course or play” (SOED).

15. Remove: “to go away or depart from a place; to move off to somewhere else” (SOED).

16. “secret greefe”: The repetition of this phrase in line 25 may be a scribal error (May 75).

18. Grace: Cf. Shakespeare, “disgrace” line 1. Grace: II. “Favour” (SOED).
20. Cf. Shakespeare, line 8. Abode: 3. “Habitual residence”; 4. “habitation” (SOED).

21. Resort: 5. “To repair, make one’s way, come or go, esp. habitually or frequently to a person or place” (SOED). Settle: II.3.d.”Of affections, etc.: To come after wandering to” (SOED).

22. Sliding: “transitory; unstable; inconstant; passing” (SOED). “Her”: the only third-person pronoun, and only reference to the remote beloved, in the poem – cf. lines 35-36, final couplet, imperative, implied second person.

23. Tower: “To rise to a great height like a tower; to rise aloft, stand high” (SOED).

24. Froward: “perverse” (SOED).

25. Abroad: 2. “at large” 3. “out of one’s house” (SOED).

26. Cf. Shakespeare, line 8. lurk: “to hide oneself” (SOED).

30. Cf. Shakespeare, line 8. Light: III.1. “Of small consequence… slight, trivial”; b. “Cheap” (SOED). Dear: I. “Of persons.” 2. “Regarded with esteem and affection; loved.” II. “Of things.” 1. “Of high estimation; precious, valuable” (SOED).

34. Earnest: sb (noun) 1. 1. “…intense desire”; 2. “Seriousness, as opp. to jest” (SOED).

35. “(sweet frende)”: Second person; not the third person subject referred to in line 22. Also cf. Shakespeare in the next sonnet following (30), “(deare friend)” (line 13).

36. “This seems to mean that, later… their present hardships will be accounted good fortunes amidst their mutual joys” (May 75).

[5] Steane’s Marlowe edition

For Marlowe’s works, text edition and line numbering are from Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays, edited by J. B. Steane,1969.

[6] My markup notes of Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s figures

Here you may view my markups of both Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI. It is a bulky file (6.5 Meg) and requires a PDF viewer.

And this is as out-of-the-way a corner as any to acknowledge that I follow a lazy and sloppy precedent in often using “metaphor” informally for all figures, and in neglecting many types in this markup and in my discussions. I say “precedent” because I see few scholars take such care to discriminate the various tropes as I see in several of the essays in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, ed. Jonathan F. S. Post. Many of them pointedly define each term in the context, a practice that seems self-conscious: “…an ecphrasis, or verbal description of a work of art, …” (Burrow par. 9); “That the ruined abbey in Titus is anachronistic and out of place (anatopic?) shows a playwright’s power over time” (Prescott par. 26). This may be necessary, however, to save general readers, and I suspect other scholars, the bother of looking them up. I realize the hazard of saying I find it hard to believe that many scholars actually keep a hundred and fifty of these terms in ready memory.

Yet maybe we should, and maybe these essayists’ real purpose is to teach what other teachers have neglected. Sophie Read, granting the importance of metaphor, says “its dominance is, nevertheless, distorting.” She advocates renewed attention to the “classical traditions” that define and distinguish the types of figures because they indicate subtle but discrete movements of the mind (information obviously pertinent to authorship discussions like this one). Read calls for

the rehabilitation of the discourse of rhetoric in all its intricate particularity: to suggest how the arts of rhetoric less frequently regarded, tropes like synechdoche and metalepsis, figures like chiasmus and polyptoton, might also trace cognitive patterns in the verse they shape. (par. 9)

I think she is right. For this essay, my crude count may serve the purpose, but I resolve to study the vocabulary and begin using it more carefully.

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© © 2012-2013, revisions © 2013-2016 Greg Bryant cc by-nc-sa under this Creative Commons License


About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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