“Most contemporaries alluded to Shakespeare’s famous lines or characters – they did not usually mention his name or give personal information. Even praise for the great author was often indirect, implying that there was something secret about him.” – Katherine Chiljan, “Shakespeare Suppressed”
These “reasons” to conclude that Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespeare works have generally avoided anagrams and the like, but for Reason No. 80 we make an exception. In my view, what we have here – based on common sense, requiring no formal training to recognize it – is a veritable knockout punch.
In 1595, two years after “Shakespeare” initially appeared — on the dedication of Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton — and one year after the name appeared on the dedication of Lucrece to that young nobleman, the University of Cambridge published a book containing one of the first mentions of the new poet.
A page of this book contained an italicized margin note “Lucrecia Sweet Shak-speare” alongside two lines of text, one containing the italicized word “Oxford” and the line below containing a perfect anagram of OUR DE VERE — A SECRET.
To be more precise, directly underneath “Oxford” was printed the odd hyphenated phrase “court-deare-verse,” with letters and words which, in correct sequence, spelled out OUR DE VERE. [c-OUR-t-e-DE-e-a-r-e VERsE.] Moreover, the remaining seven letters (c-t-e-a-r-e-s) formed a perfect anagram of A SECRET.
The book was Polimanteia. The publication in 1595 was anonymous, but later evidence showed it was written by William Covell, a clergyman who received his MA from Cambridge in 1588 and went on to serve as a Fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, from 1589 to 1599.
Discoverer of this rather amazing Oxford=Shakespeare reference, which had been hiding in plain sight for more than four centuries, is Alexander Waugh, the English writer who is also a critic, journalist, composer, cartoonist, record producer, television producer and outspoken critic of the traditional Stratfordian biography.
The grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh, he recently co-edited (with John M. Shahan) — and contributed to — the book of essays entitled Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, Exposing an Industry in Denial, published in response to the orthodox position of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The complete marginal note reads: “All praise/ worthy./ Lucrecia/ Sweet Shak-/ speare./ Eloquent Gaveston./ Wanton Adonis./ Watsons heyre (heir).”
(“The spelling ‘Shakspeare’ – missing the medial ‘e’ – is here forced by lack of space,” Waugh points out. Adding an ‘e’ after the ‘k’ would make it collide with the main text. “No other significance should be attached to this spelling.”)
The note’s references to “Lucrecia” and “Adonis” obviously refer to Shakespeare’s two narrative poems. Given that the overall topic covers poets and poetry, “Gaveston” most likely refers to Michael Drayton’s historical poem The Legend of Piers Gaveston, published in 1593; and “Watson” refers to the poet Thomas Watson, who had dedicated Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love (1582), a sequence of 100 consequently numbered verses, to his patron Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, who had viewed them in manuscript and apparently had been involved with their actual writing.
Covell, well aware that “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s new pen name and that this was a highly sensitive state secret, was careful to avoid pointing directly to the earl. On the other hand, he was equally careful to place the margin words “Lucrecia Sweet Shakspeare” right next to the lines containing “Oxford” and “courte-deare-verse” — and, therefore, the crucial aspect of his indirect message was the combination of both the margin note and the text; to get Covell’s barely hidden meaning, the reader must view them in conjunction with each other.
“The main text of Polimanteia is supported by a great many marginal notes,” Waugh writes in the De Vere Society Newsletter, “all of which have been precisely and meticulously placed by the printer so that there can be no doubt as to which line each is intended to reference.” With that observation in mind, he declares, “Given that only a handful of direct allusions to Shakespeare are known to exist from the 1590s, and given that the world has been turned upside-down in search of any information relating to the Bard, I find it very strange that no Shakespearean scholar has yet seen fit to investigate the meaning of this little note in relation to the text to which it is supposed to refer.” (My emphasis)
There is a definite political dimension to this story, however, and it involves Oxford’s support via “Shakespeare” to the Earl of Southampton, to whom he wrote in the Lucrece dedication: “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end … What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours.” During these years, roughly 1592-1594, there had been an open effort to raise Southampton in the public eye and even to suggest he was a prince who deserved to succeed Elizabeth I on the throne.
But the young earl had refused a political marriage to Elizabeth Vere, granddaughter of William Cecil Lord Burghley (and the reputed daughter of Oxford, who had denied his paternity), preferring instead to join Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex in breaking away from Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. And now William Covell was dedicating Polimanteia to Essex, pledging his “deep affection” as well as his “kindnesse and love” in the process of devoting “the full interest of my self to your dispose.”
Edward de Vere, Robert Devereux and Henry Wriothesley had all three been royal wards of the Queen in Burghley’s household; all three had been Cambridge men, as was Covell, who appears to have used Polimanteia to publicly (though indirectly) declare his support for the “Essex faction” in the power struggle to control the succession upon Elizabeth’s death.
This growing political battle would result just six years later in the Essex faction’s use of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (known to us as “Shakespeare’s Company”) to perform Richard II at the Globe (showing the deposition of a monarch) on the eve of the so-called Essex rebellion of 8 February 1601, aimed at removing Robert Cecil. It ended in utter failure, followed by the execution of Essex and the confinement of Southampton in the Tower until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and Cecil’s engineering of the succession of King James.
Going back to 1595, however, Alexander Waugh raises the question of how to explain the “brazen temerity” of William Covell in publishing with Cambridge at a time when Lord Burghley himself was Chancellor of the University. That fact, plus the dedication to Essex, leads to a “natural supposition,” he writes, “that the release of Covell’s secret [about Oxford as Shakespeare] was in some way sanctioned by Essex and/or Burghley.”
While the proposed alliance of Southampton and the Cecil family through marriage was in play, during 1590-1594, Burghley would have been in favor of Oxford’s attempt to persuade the younger earl to go along (in Venus and Adonis the Goddess of Love has thirty-six lines urging the young god to hurry into marriage and fatherhood, using virtually the same words as in the first seventeen sonnets to Southampton urging procreation). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury (who took his orders from Burghley and/or the Queen) had signed off on Venus and Adonis, that first published offering with “Shakespeare” attached to it.
By 1595, however, the potential Oxford-Elizabeth-Burghley alliance with Southampton had ended, so that now Oxford was breaking with William and Robert Cecil while using “Shakespeare” to support Southampton alone. And in doing so, he was inevitably joining the Essex faction — even against his better judgment. It appears to me, therefore, that Covell in 1595 must have been quite daring to insert his allusion to the Earl of Oxford as “Shakespeare,” with its implied support of Essex and Southampton against the entrenched Cecil faction.
Yes, quite daring, in a world where writers were being censored, imprisoned, tortured, killed.
At stake, after all, was the crown.