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 muse’s 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.

CONTINUE>>>


[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.

CONTINUE>>>


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5. ‘The Crafty Cuttle’ – Early Doubts

cuttlefish-squareLong as the craftie Cuttle lieth sure
In the black Cloud of his thick vomiture;
Who list complain of wronged faith or fame
When he may shift it on to another’s name.

Joseph Hall


Authorship doubt began in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Orthodox scholars will tell you that there was no doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship until the 1850s, as the depressingly prosaic nature of the historical record connected to Shakespeare became apparent and fell short of the notion of the lone genius author developed by the Romantic poets.  Non-Stratfordians, however, will tell you that doubt began in the sixteenth century, connected to the very first publications to appear under the name ‘William Shakespeare’.

Venus and AdonisThe first of these was the long poem Venus and Adonis, registered anonymously in April 1593 and on the bookstalls by June.  Though there was no name on the title page, it contained an authorial dedication to the Earl of Southampton signed ‘William Shakespeare’.  Orthodox biographies will tell you that William Shakespeare was well established as an author by this time, but the historical record says otherwise.  As far as we can tell, the name was unknown to the general public before it appeared on Venus and Adonis.  Though we have evidence that Titus Andronicus and early versions of Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 had already been staged (they would be published the following year), and scholars believe a number of other canonical plays were already in existence, the audiences would have had less idea of the playwright’s name than we have of the screenwriter’s name when we go to see a movie (which we at least have a chance of noticing, since a movie has credits).  There is no evidence that the name William Shakespeare had appeared in any literary or theatrical context before it appeared on this dedication in 1593.

John Whitgift Archbishop of Canterbury Bishops Ban 1599Venus and Adonis was a sensation, and became the most widely printed work in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  It went through seventeen editions before 1641, and provoked much admiration from other writers.  The next year it was followed by a similar long poem, The Rape of Lucrece.  Doubts about these poems’ authorship were raised, according to non-Stratfordians, in Joseph Hall’s Vergidemiarum (1597-8) and John Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image (1598), both satires.  We are fortunate to possess copies of these texts, since within two years of their publication, they became the first two items listed in the Bishops’ Ban of 1599.   Nine books were specifically singled out for destruction. Scholars disagree about what properties these nine books have in common to cause official offence, but the first two listed share an interest in an author they call ‘Labeo’.

There is evidence that ‘Labeo’ was their name for the author of Venus and Adonis, and that Joseph Hall was the first person to publicly question Shakespeare’s authorship. So what is this evidence, and does it withstand scrutiny?


Read the first section, and continue through chapter by using the links at the bottom of each post. Sections are summarised below.

  • Who is the ‘Crafty Cuttle’? Marston and Hall appear to believe that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written under a pseudonym: Labeo.
  • Shakespeare’s But, O, and Hyphenated Adjectives Shakespeare’s first two poems use the hyphenated adjectives that Hall criticises, and also ‘big But Ohs’, assisting his identification as Labeo. But there’s more.
  • Shakespeare, Phoebus and Petrarch Shakespeare’s identification as Hall’s ‘Labeo’ is strengthened by his stealing from Petrarch in Rape of Lucrece, and appealing to Apollo in Venus and Adonis.
  • Shakespeare as Poggies Ghost Hall’s Labeo is referred to as a ‘bawdy Poggies ghost’. What does Hall mean by this, and how does it link to Shakespeare?
  • Lynceus the Boar-Hunter John Marston appears to refer to Joseph Hall as Lynceus, the mythical boar-hunter. How does this help us identify Hall and Marston’s target?
  • Bacon and Mediocria Firma When John Marston used the phrase ‘medocria firma’ – the Bacon family motto – was he suggesting that ‘Labeo’ was Francis Bacon?
  • The Original Labeo Why the nickname Labeo? A look at three possible derivations of Hall’s nickname for the author we know as Shakespeare.
  • The Case for Sixteenth Century Doubt of Shakespeare’s Authorship A summary of the argument that Marston and Hall doubted Shakespeare’s authorship. This powerful combination of evidential points has not been successfully refuted.

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