In August of 1566, Oxford’s former tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, made a list in one of the notebooks he used for such things of the more than 400 titles in his personal library at that time. (This notebook is now located in the Old Library at Smith’s alma mater, Queens’ College Cambridge). Having recently returned from a four-year stint in France as Elizabeth’s ambassador, Smith may have made the list because he realized that he was going to have to do some substantial rebuilding of Hill Hall. A great do-it-yourselfer, Smith designed the mansion himself (Drury xx), and unfortunately, also had the bricks made to his own formula. Not realizing that the clay in that part of Essex did not have enough lime in it to make good bricks, they began to crumble at one point, so the list may have been the means by which the ever so organized Smith would be able to preserve the order in which they’d been shelved.
We can be fairly certain that most of the books on this list were available to Oxford during his years with Smith. Many of them would have been purchased during the two years from 1540 to 1542 that Smith was in France and Italy acquiring the credentials in Civil Law he was going to need as the first Henrician Chair in Civil Law at Cambridge. Since it was difficult to get the kind of quality books in England on the subjects most dear to his heart, he would have been shopping not only for himself, but also for the books that he would be needing as a teaching fellow at Queens’. These books, noted by Erasmus, the creator of the curriculum that Smith and most of his fellow Reformation teachers followed, are easily noted on this list. The only titles that may have been added after Oxford’s departure in 1562 would have been those books he picked up during his recent tour of duty in France.
Smith’s own version of this list is easily found online in John Strype’s 1698 biography of Smith, beginning on page 274. I’ve made it easier to use for research by putting it in alphabetical order, and adding as much information as I could on the titles, dates, subjects, authors, and importance. Much remains to be done, but this is a start. For anyone who wishes to dig a little deeper, many of the texts listed by Smith can be found online in translation, most notably by Bill Thayer of the University of Chicago.
Smith had one of the biggest libraries in England at that time, and certainly one that reflected the interests of one of the most respected scholars and thinkers of his time. It also reflects those areas of his interest that he passed along to his student, areas reflected in the works of Shakespeare: Civil Law, Greek and Roman drama and poetry, English history, astronomy/astrology, horticulture (gardening), medicine, and pharmacology.
Oxford left Smith at twelve to live with William Cecil in London. Cecil’s libary, which one day would reach well over 1,000 books, was already more substantial than Smith’s. Although there were many of the same books, there differences are interesting. In general, Cecil shows a far greater bent towards Geneva than Smith, and a far greater emphasis on the Reformation than the Renaissance.
In articles published in the De Vere Society Newsletter and The Oxfordian, English scholar Eddi Jolly lists a number of titles from Cecil’s immense library, titles of works that scholars over many years have determined were among the sources for Shakespeare’s poems and plays (10-12). Among the books she lists owned by Cecil that were sources for Shakespeare are: Plutarch’s Lives and his Moralia and Appia, both sources for Antony & Cleopatra; Boccaccio’s Decameron, a source for Cymbeline; Amadis de Gaule for A Winter’s Tale; Cinthio’s Hecatommithi for Measure for Measure; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Cardinal Contareno’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice for Othello; Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia, Seneca’s Hercules Furens and his Hippolytus for Macbeth.
Cecil also owned books by those contemporaries of Shakespeare that traditional scholars see as sources, Bedingfield’s translation of Cardan’s Comforte (Hamlet); Gascoigne’s The Supposes (Taming of the Shrew); Golding’s Metamorphoses (Romeo & Juliet, Venus and Adonis, etc.); Robert Greene’s Pandosto (A Winter’s Tale); Thomas Lodge’s Truth’s Complaint (Richard II); Munday’s Zelauto: The Fountain of Fame (The Merchant of Venice). Cecil also owned copies of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (Jolly “Library” 13).
The older books would have been available to de Vere from the age of twelve on, for even after he’d left Cecil House his father-in-law’s library would still have been available to him. The greater likelihood, of course, is that, as Earl of Oxford and for many years a patron of literature, he would have owned many of these books himself, although records of his own library are lost, as is so much about him. (The Folger does have two from Oxford’s own library: his Geneva Bible and Guicciardini’s Historia d’Italia.)
The important point is that, during his most formative years, many if not most of the books that all agree were the sources for Shakespeare’s greatest plays were readily available to Edward de Vere, first in the library of his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, then in the library of his guardian and father-in-law, William Cecil.