Shakespeare’s small Latin

Poor Ben Jonson!  What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup.  Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church.  Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.

Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.

But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority.  It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever.  Mary was dead.  Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church.  It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it.  It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.

The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End.  Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them.  But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.

The printer was waiting.  He stared at the blank sheet before him.  This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language.  It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus.  Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?

How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education?  Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks.  They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature.  Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.

The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished.  But this was a flat out lie.  Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek.  Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek.  Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it.  Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.

Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet.  Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death.  It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career.  Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.

Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument.  The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?

This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.

31 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s small Latin

  1. Hi, Stephanie,
    Speaking of ambiguities, we can’t be certain that Jonson referred to “the names of ancient dramatists” in the phrase “from thence to honour thee”.
    ‘Thence’ may mean ‘from that place’, or ‘from that just mentioned’, indicating Lyly, Kid, and Marlowe; or it may mean that Jonson himself would not seek for the writer’s name in Shakespeare’s “small Latine, and lesse Greeke” (Latin and Greek etymological roots). Though we find little to support the name ‘Shakespeare’ in Shakespeare’s Latin roots, we find an abundance of wordplay on ‘ver’, and a super-abundance on ‘Tu’, ‘dor’, ‘sim’, ‘mor’, etc.

    I suspect you and ‘Shakespeare’ are correct about the writer’s name being “in the book”. Sonnet 72:
    “O, lest your True a’MORE may SEEM false in this,
    That you for a’MORE SAY SPRING of me Untrue,
    My name be buried where my Corpus is,
    And live no MORE to shame nor me nor you.

    ‘Corpus’ is played as ‘body’ and ‘body of work’, or ‘book’.

    1. Hi Mike. Can you explain your take on the More reference? Whenever I see More and even Venus, Eros, Love, lovers I usually try to look for a Catholic frame of reference, as in ‘the love that more hath more expressed’.

    2. Since the author knew and used french, we should suppose that, if he’d wnated to write “amour” rather than, as he wrote, “love”, he’d have done that–since we have nothing here to indicate his intentions were otherwise.

      My habit is to take advantage of a possible punned meaning when, without one, the text either makes much less sense, little sense or simply no sense at all. In this sonnet, I do think that there are meanings which are indeed to be found between the lines–but these are meanings between the lines _as written_ –in this case–since we need not excavate it for other hidden ones by taking the _author’s_ terms as written and gratutitously substituting others to force a point.

  2. Mike, All I can say is that once you begin to hide things in ambiguous language you can be said to mean almost anything, which is of course Jonson’s purpose to begin with. So your guess is as good as mine. And of course Shakespeare was also driven to ambiguities in the Sonnets, the greatest being that while he promised the Fair Youth to make him famous, there was no way he could do that without revealing his name! No wonder the puritans accused the poets of lying.

    1. I think he was using anamorphosis in his writing, a little loftier than plain old equivocation. There were a few overt references to anamorphic perspective but it’s in evident in nearly every play and sonnet. That was the reason for all the twinning and mirrored images and contemplations of paradox like the difference between seeming and being or “a natural perspective that is and is not!” He made sure that all he wrote could be taken innocuously on the one hand but express his true meaning on the other. I’m kind of fascinated with the idea that he might have seen Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” when he passed close to Polisy France near the end of his grand tour. Gazing at the anamorphic skull, reading the symbolism in the painting and the motto VIRTVTI FORTUNE COMES or “virtue companion of fortune” in two places at the de Dinteville estate…I’m sure he was either there or would have been really sorry to have missed it!

  3. I don’t think we need concede so much scope to ambiguity. As the word implies, the writer’s meaning is often a case of this or that, especially if we have found the right man in de Vere.
    If we seriously examine his language, I think we’ll find that the semantics and grammar are ambiguous and disguise his meaning; but by considering Latin analogs of the English, we can nail down the specific semantic variation he intends. For reasons only de Vere can explain, personal identity is his great ambiguity.

  4. Great one, Stephanie. I think the dedicatory verses were a particular problem. Regardless of personal feelings Jonson had to put a convincing face on the cover up. So he gets his friend Hugh Holland, Thomas Russell’s stepson Leonard Digges and his friend James Mabbs. As the stepson of the overseer of Shakspere’s will, Digges was in a position to know that there were no books or manuscripts at New Place. He was presumably already an insider. I’m betting Jonson approached as few people as possible. That way they avoided gossip and scurrilous verses about the matter. I do find it surprising that he didn’t get Fletcher to contribute though.

  5. Hi Mystikel,
    My take is that ‘More’ is the most important metonym and surname fragment in ‘Shakespeare’. It is a sign that the present subject is the true identity of the writer, and derived from St. Maur, the original French for Seymour. “More’ is part of de Vere’s ‘invention’ where the Canon is contrived from references to the writers names; as he says in the key sonnet (76):

    “That every word doth almost tell my name,
    Showing THEIR birth, and where THEY did proceed.”

    The plural ‘their’ and ‘they’ refer to the multiple identities and titles of Edward de Vere, including:
    Vere, Ver, Spring, Well, Ring, Day
    Oxford, O, neat
    Seymour, More; Sea/Mer/Mar/Mor; Say, Speak, So, Summer
    Love, amore, amour, woe, woo
    Tudor, Two, Too, Tu; dor, Ore, Or, hear, gold; door, port
    Richmond, Rich; Mond, earth, world
    Beaufort, Beauty, Strong, Strange
    Monarch, One, Wonder, Rex, Rage (Regius), All, Matter

    The writer tells us that Authority (a de facto Regency, he calls it the “Region Cloud”) has tied his tongue; de Vere’s response appears to have been to assemble the great works ‘almost’ entirely from his names.

    1. I read that sonnet differently–but in a similar quest for the less than obvious meaning. Why? Because, in this case, it is simply not possible for the ordinary plain meanings of “every word” (literally) can “almost tell my (i.e. the author’s) name–note, singular “name” not “names.

      So, as I read it, the pertinent key is to be understood this way,

      that ‘EVERy W[O/(A)] D’ doth almost tell my name.

      EVER and WORD are in and parts of various places in EDWARD VERE.

      I can see neither any need nor any use for substituting “aMORE” for “love” just to strain out a meaning. But, we are challenged to understand just how it could be, if read and interpreted literally, that every word of the author’s works “doth almost tell his name” (singular.) That reading defies common sense–which, I believe, is why he wrote it that way. We’re invited to discover what he really means by “that every word doth almost tell my name.”

      Also, when he writes of “keeping invention in a noted weed” we could, if we bothered, notice that “keeping invention” can reasonably refer to an invented persona–“Shakespeare” as an invented name, and, “weed” is mourning dress, clothing that is not one’s usual everyday attire. It’s worn only for an occasion and serves a purpose. There’s also the qualifier “noted” preceding “weed” which is not a far stretch at all in which to see and understand,

      keep invention in a “not’ed’ [ward] weed” (dress/clothing).

      By careful use of such methods, I believe, there is a wealth of things to be recognized within the sonnets.

      1. And a wealth of things to interpolate that have nothing to do with the reason the sonnet was written or when it was written. The sonnets were written about a lot of things, not just about who he was.

  6. Jonson had to work with those who knew the truth and could be depended upon not to talk out of turn. It may be that the small number of dedicatory poems reflects this necessary limitation. Regarding Leonard Digges Jr., he was the grandson of the astronomer/astrologer Leonard Digges Sr.,who was married to Sir Thomas Smith’s wife’s first cousin Cecily Wilford. In such a small community as protestant astronomers with related wives, it’s impossible that Smith and Digges Sr. were not in touch with each other, nor that de Vere would have met and known him and his son Thomas during his boyhood with Smith. Leonard Jr.’s father, was Thomas Digges, astronomer-mathematician, his mother was Anne St. Leger. When Thomas died, Anne married Thomas Russell, who functioned as overseer of William’s will, and who, I believe, had at some point in time taken over from John Hemmings as go-between between the King’s Men and William, in part because he lived near Stratford.

    As for Jonson’s personal feelings, I believe the part in the Ode that is most honest and direct is at the end where he shows genuine love and grief at his absence. Aren’t we the most hurt by, the most angry at, at those we most love and admire? Jonson was a top notch poet and a man of great intelligence and understanding. He knew better than anyone his master’s value.

    1. Thanks, I did not know about the Smith connection.

      I still find it very interesting that Thomas Russell’s half brother the MP Maurice Berkeley was arrested with his close friend and kinsman by marriage Henry Neville and the Earl of Southampton, the Baron Danvers and a Lee I can not certainly identify on the night Oxford is supposed to have died.

      Neville and Berkeley married Killegrew cousins and then Berkeley’s brother Henry married Neville’s daughter. I don’t think Neville was our author but I do see him as a kind of late to the party insider, like Berkeley. I think Henry’s stint in the Tower alongside Southampton after the Essex Rebellion brought Maurice Berkeley into position as an insider if they were not already in. Besides Thomas Russell, who was a brother-in-law of Francis Trentham’s sister-in-law, being the stepfather of Leonard Digges, Digges and Russell had gone through the scare with everyone else of seeing Maurice arrested in the trumped up Scots Plot that mid summer night. Who knows it may even have been the tragedy that the group shared, losing Oxford on the night that Berkeley, Southampton, Neville and the surviving Baron Danvers were almost taken out in a plot, that brought Russell and Shakespeare together as friends and led to Jonson calling on Digges when he needed the favor.

      He was Thomas Russell’s stepson, Maurice Berkeley’s nephew. You could not find another writer more centrally placed in the nexus of connections between Shakespeare and de Vere. Of course he and IM used the tell-tale hyphen in their dedicatory verse.

  7. “Henry’s stint in the tower” should read as “Henry Neville’s stint in the tower” because Neville was kept in prison as long as Southampton was after the Essex Rebellion despite claiming that prior to events he had not seen Southampton since childhood. I think that was probably true because Neville and Berkeley were Cecil allies before the Rebellion. Yet after Neville and Southampton were released, in that first parliament Berkeley became the one who as his parliament online bio says “turned the tide” in getting Parliament to oppose James and Cecil over the proposed unification with Scotland. So I think the Scots Plot was designed to neutralize this faction or at least lean hard on them but when the dust cleared Oxford had somehow gotten lost forever.

  8. It is the authorship Neville. Henry Neville of Billingbear born 1562, French Ambassador until shortly before the rebellion. He also has a cousin with the same name which can be confusing.

  9. Mystikel, have you written about this at greater length somewhere? I have long sensed that there was a “cabel” that operated behind the scenes during the early years of James’s reign to protect Oxford and perhaps perform other services in the teeth of Robert Cecil’s attempts to run the government, but haven’t had the time for the necessary research to discern just who, apart from the Pembrokes, might have been involved. If you’ve done work on this, I’d be very interested to know about it.

  10. I made my deadline 😉 I definitely agree about the cabel though I see them more as a political faction that aligned over time, coalescing around opposition to the Cecils. I think for the inner circle, Oxford as Shakespeare was both their greatest secret and their secret weapon at times.
    I’m working on a longer treatment but recently started a blog that examines the connections between Oxford and Shakspere, focusing on the people in proximity to both men. I have gotten so much from reading you and Whittemore and other Oxfordians, I wanted to start giving back to the community.

    1. Thanks for this. Is the Henry Neville who held the lease to the apartment at Blackfriars before it was leased in 1576 to Richard Farrant for the little theater school related to Henry Neville of Billingbear?

  11. I had missed that connection, thanks. Sir Henry Neville who was arrested with Southampton was the son of the Sir Henry Neville (1520-1593) who I think was the one who owned the Blackfriar’s Theater lease. I’ll write this up for you on the blog so you have the documentation behind it but Shakespeare-Gessellschaft has a section on the establishment of Blackfriars Theater (p. 130) and describes this Henry Neville as living at Windsor and “the Queen’s lieutenant of the Castle and forest there.”

    The Sir Henry Neville who died in 1593 was “steward, Mote park, Windsor forest 1557” according to his History of Parliament biography, 1509-1558 edition.
    He is referenced similarly in the 1558 to 1603 Edition, also printed in 1581. So we would have to nail it down but the chances are very good that this is who the author of Shakespeare-Gessellschaft was referencing.

    Also I noticed just now that his son Sir Henry Neville, arrested with Southampton, was also educated at Cecil House (1604-1629 HOP bio). So that does put him in quite young with Cecil’s boys, though he claimed after the Essex Rebellion that prior to meeting with Southampton and hearing their plans for rebellion he had not seen him since Wriothesley was a boy at Cecil House — either true or a defense he thought would at least sound plausible to Robert Cecil.

  12. [ Why this hostility toward a comment which responded directly and reasonably to a previous comment (which had for some time stood without objection)? ]

    You write, “And a wealth of things to interpolate that have nothing to do with the reason the sonnet was written or when it was written.”

    I answer that understanding the meaning(s) behind the author’s words has everything to do with appreciating” the reason” [s] [each] “sonnet was written or when it was written.”

    1. I’m sorry, the above appears to be directed to some comment buried above, which I can’t locate. There’s a “reply” function after each comment, which allows a following comment to be properly placed.

      1. it’s a reply to this:

        @ hopkinshughes | July 31, 2015 at 10:50 am |

        : “And a wealth of things to interpolate that have nothing to do with the reason the sonnet was written or when it was written.”
        … etc.

        — for which, in my screen view at any rate, there was (and is still) no “reply” function visible at your comment. Hence my posting at the bottom of the page.

  13. On the present thread’s actual topic– Ben Jonson’s


    That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
    I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
    For if I thought my judgment were of years,
    I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
    And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
    Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
    And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
    From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
    For names;
    but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
    Euripides and Sophocles to us;
    Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
    To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
    And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
    Leave thee alone for the comparison
    Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
    Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
    Tri’umph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
    To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
    He was not of an age but for all time!

    A number of references present the intention here to be carried by the subjunctive mood–the conditional: and though (i.e. even if) thou hadst small Latin …

    Ogburn Jr. (1983)
    Post ; The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry

    maybe you could ask a specialist on elizabethan grammar and usage on this point?

  14. proximity1: You’re right. This setup supports only two replies per comment. I’m going to beg off at this point. As I’ve explained, I don’t take seriously arguments based on the Sonnets, and have explained at some length why I don’t. I’m just not interested. Nor am I interested in splitting hairs over Jonson’s Ode. What he’s saying seems very clear to me. If you’re interested here’s my view.

    1. Okay, then. At your site, there it’s assumed that there are at most never more than potentially interesting things to say about any one comment.

      I see. Well, though I’m disappointed that, after the nearly thirty years you say you’ve been at this, your patience and your curiosity are now exhausted for most things. I was hoping your site would be the place for many fascinating discussions in the comments threads but I see that that is not going to be the case.

      Instead, because I _am_ curious and interested, I’ll continue to mine your site’s articles for all their worth and not bother to comment on what I read. And you forego the potiential value of those comments since, as you indicate, your mind is made up about so much and thus you’re no longer really interested other than in those who have nothing to say except to nod in agreement with you.


      1. There are a thousand issues that continue to interest me. You happen to hit on the few that, as you put it so well, have “exhausted my patience”, and this because until we are agreed on a solid historical frame for these questions, energy spent in guessing is energy wasted. Over the past 30 years I have seen a tremendous amount of energy wasted on these very issues while no attention is paid to the historical background that would eventually resolve them. I am happy that you intend to read more here. Someday I hope someone will pick up where I will eventually be forced to leave off.

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