Shakespeare, Phoebus and Petrarch

Establishing that Joseph Hall was the earliest Shakespeare authorship doubter is underway. The poems he is attacking are heroic in nature, use hyphenated adjectives, and begin many lines with ‘But’ and ‘O’. There are two other distinctive characteristics referred to by Hall which are rarely if ever mentioned by commentators in this debate.

The first is his observation:

Phoebus filled him with intelligence:
He can implore the heathen deities
To guide his bold and busy enterprise.

Shakespeare is by no means alone among Renaissance writers who regularly invoked the names of Greek and Roman deities in his work, having been influenced by the ancient poets at the centre of a humanist Renaissance education. But Venus and Adonis is prominently fronted by a quote from Ovid that very specifically invokes Apollo, also known as Phoebus, asking the ancient god of music, poetry, art, sun, light and knowledge very specifically to ‘guide… his enterprise’:

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.

which Marlowe translated as

Let base conceited wits admire vile things.
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

The second rarely quoted quality of works by ‘Labeo’ that Hall mentions is that they owe a debt to Petrarch.  Hall observes that the author can ask for Phoebus’s guidance (as Shakespeare does in Venus and Adonis)

Or filch whole pages at a clap for need,
From honest Petrarch, clad in English weed.

Lynne Enterline notes how the post-rape scenes in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece are essentially stolen from Petrarch’s canzone delle metamorphosi.[1]

  • After she is raped, ‘Lucrece shares with Petrarch a keen sense of her want of verbal skill.’  Both Shakespeare and Petrarch ‘represent such self-alienation in language by summoning Ovidian characters (Actaeon and Philomel)’.
  • Shakespeare mirrors Petrarch’s language exactly: where Petrarch expresses alienation from himself as ‘Non son mio, no’ — ‘I am not my own, no’, we are told of Lucrece that ‘She is not her own’.
  • A taboo against speaking provokes the poet of Petrarch’s narrative to call for pen and paper: ‘ond’io gridai con carta et con inconstro’— ‘whence I cried out for paper and ink’.  This sentiment, too, is mirrored exactly by Shakespeare: Lucrece, finding spoken language of no use to her, calls to her maid: ‘Go get me hither paper ink and pen’.

Thus Hall, in his declaration of the two alternative actions that Labeo can take to write verse that (as he admits) reaches the ‘true strains’ of heroic poetry, exactly pinpoints two actions that Shakespeare took in the only works published under that name when Hall was writing; invoking Apollo/Phoebus to guide the writing of Venus and Adonis, and ‘filch[ing] whole pages from Petrarch’ in The Rape of Lucrece.

And there is one more identifying mark from Hall.


[1] Lynne Enterline, The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare (CUP 2006), p.171-4.


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Shakespeare’s But, O, and Hyphenated Adjectives

How can we establish that Hall is referring to Shakespeare’s first two publications? Firstly, there is the number of lines beginning with ‘But’ and ‘Oh’, which Hall mocks: ‘While big But Ohs each stanza can begin’.  A search for these terms in Venus and Adonis furnishes these examples from the first six hundred lines of the poem:

  • But rather famish them amid their plenty, (40)
  • But when her lips were ready for his pay,  (109)
  • ‘O, pity,’ ‘gan she cry, ‘flint-hearted boy! (115)
  • O, be not proud, nor brag not of thy might, (133)
  • But having no defects, why dost abhor me? (158)
  • O, had thy mother borne so hard a mind, (223)
  • But, lo, from forth a copse that neighbors by, (279)
  • But when the heart’s attorney once is mute, (355)
  • O, what a sight it was, wistly to view (363)
  • But now her cheek was pale, and by and by (367)
  • O, what a war of looks was then between them! (375)
  • O, give it me, lest thy hard heart do steel it, (395)
  • But when he saw his love, his youth’s fair fee, (413)
  • But, when his glutton eye so full hath fed, (419)
  • O, learn to love; the lesson is but plain, (427)
  • O, would thou hadst not, or I had no hearing! (448)
  • ‘But, O, what banquet wert thou to the taste, (466)
  • But blessed bankrupt, that by love so thriveth! (487)
  • But hers, which through the crystal tears gave light, (512)
  • ‘O, where am I?’ quoth she, ‘in earth or heaven, (514)
  • But now I lived, and life was death’s annoy; (518)
  • But now I died, and death was lively joy. (519)
  • ‘O, thou didst kill me: kill me once again:  (520)
  • But for thy piteous lips no more had seen. (525)
  • O, never let their crimson liveries wear! (526)
  • But then woos best when most his choice is froward. (591)

The rest of Venus and Adonis continues in the same vein. The Rape of Lucrece exhibits lines beginning ‘But’ or ‘O’ with almost the same frequency.

Secondly there is Shakespeare’s fondness in these poems for hyphenated adjectives, which ‘sweet Philisides’ [Philip Sidney] introduced from France in his Arcadia. Hall mocks this practice:

In Epithets to join two words as one,
Forsooth for Adjectives cannot stand alone.

Turning to The Rape of Lucrece, here are some hyphenated adjectives from the first 600 lines.

  • Lust-breathed Tarquin (55)
  • at such high-proud rate (70)
  • silver-melting dew (75)
  • His high-pitch’d thoughts (92)
  • His all-too-timeless speed (96)
  • still-gazing eyes (135)
  • subtle-shining secrecies (152)
  • with heaved-up hand (162)
  • this poor-rich gain (191)
  • death-boding cries (216
  • brain-sick rude desire (226)
  • still-slaughter’d lust (239)
  • love’s modest snow-white weed (247)
  • an ever-during blame (275)
  • coward-like (282)
  • hot-burning will (298)
  • the self-same (340)
  • Night-wandering weasels (358)
  • fiery-pointed sun (423)
  • holy-thoughted Lucrece (435)
  • snow-white dimpled chin (471)
  • a new-kill’d bird (508)
  • Quick-shifting antics (510)
  • heart-poor citizen (516)
  • never-conquer’d fort (533)
  • dead-killing eye (591)

Again, the poem continues in the same vein. Venus and Adonis indulges in this device with an even higher frequency.

We know that the poems to which Hall is referring, like Venus and Lucrece, were written in heroic style, for he admits that ‘Labeo reaches right: (who can deny?) / The true strains of Heroic Poesy’.

But if all this were not sufficient to identify Shakespeare’s poems as Hall’s target, there are even more specific pointers.


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