Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A fan letter to ... The Courtier

Below, a guest post by author John Lowry Lamb about Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier.  

The first English translation of Castiglione's  The Courtier was published in 1561. Thomas Hoby's English translation (from its original Italian) is often used to this day and can be found in its entirety on Google Books. Then eleven years later, England saw its first translation of this courtly etiquette book into the lingua franca of the court, Latin. It is this 1572 Latin edition of The Courtier that Edward de Vere became involved with.

Think of The Courtier as a sort of answer to Machiavelli's The Prince – an austere, dark treatise on how to succeed in politics. The book offers Castiglione's comments on a similar subject matter presenting an alternate, more altruistic approach to court behavior. There can be little doubt that Edward de Vere was responsible for the publication, as he himself composed the introduction to the translation by a man named Bartholomew Clerke. While most Elizabethan writers/patrons crafted brief introductions of a few sentences, Edward de Vere wrote lengthy, gorgeously written piece which honors not only Castiglione but Clerke, too. 

For some reason, I kept re-reading what is typed below. First of all I was impressed that it was written by a twenty one year old. Secondly, I thought about Hamlet. The author of that play had to know the rules, in order to convincingly break them.  He had to understand the plight and station of high nobility. Surely Shakespeare wasn't guessing. Saying so would be an insult to the author.

I think this is why I was so drawn to this historical document. It just made sense that a man like Edward de Vere qualified as the author of Hamlet.

(Introduction to the Latin translation of The Courtier 1572, written by Edward de Vere, translated from the Latin by B.M. Ward)


Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Viscount Bulbeck and Baron Scales and Badlsemere, to the reader – Greeting.

A frequent and earnest consideration of the translation of Castiglione's Italian work, which has now for a long time been undertaken and finally carried out by my friend Clerke, has caused me to waver between two opinions: debating in my mind whether I should preface it by some letter and writing of my own, or whether I should do no more than study it with a mind full of gratitude. The first course seemed to demand greater skill and art than I can lay claim to; the second to a work of no less good-will and application. To do both, however, seemed to combine a task of delightful industry with an indication of special good will.

For what more difficult, more noble, or more magnificent task has anyone ever undertaken than our author Castiglione, who has drawn for us the figure and model of a courtier, a work to which nothing can be added, in which there is no redundant word, a portrait which we shall recognize as that of the highest and most perfect type of man.  And so, although nature has made nothing perfect in every detail, yet the manners of men exceed in dignity that which nature has endowed them; and he who surpasses others has here surpassed himself, and even has outdone nature which by no one has ever been surpassed.

The author has been able to lay down principles for the very Monarch himself.
Again, Castiglione has vividly more and even greater things than these. For who has spoken of Princes with greater gravity? Who has discovered of illustrious women with a more ample dignity? No one has written of military affairs more eloquently, more aptly about horse racing, and more clearly and admirably about encounters under arms on the field of battle. I will say nothing of the fineness and excellence with which he has depicted the beauty of chivalry in the noblest persons … whatever is heard in the mouths of men in casual talk and in society, whether apt or candid, or villainous or shameful, that he has set down in so natural a matter that is seems to be acted before my eyes.

All this my good friend Clerke has done … he deserves all the more honour, because to great subjects – and they are indeed great – he has applied the greatest lights and ornaments.

For who is clearer in his use of words? Or who can conform to the variety of circumstances with greater art? If weighty matters are under consideration, he unfolds his theme in a solemn and majestic rhythm; if the subject is familiar and facetious, he makes use of words that are witty and amusing.

When therefore he writes with precise and well chosen words, with skillfully constructed and crystal-clear sentences, and with every art of dignified rhetoric, it cannot be but that some noble quality should be felt to proceed from his work.
To me it seems, when I read this courtly Latin, that I am listening to Crassus, Antonius, and Hortensius, discoursing on this very theme."


Upon reading this, I found myself staring at the page. And finally at the names Crassus. Antonius and Hortensius. Obviously de Vere had sufficient knowledge of these historical Romans in order to make this comparison. So I turned to the works of Shakespeare. Would the names show up?

Crassus:  Three mentions – Antony and Cleopatra.

Antonius: Ten references –  in five different plays;  Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends well, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest.

Hortensius: Two references – Timon of Athens, Taming of the Shrew.

And of course Antonius slightly altered gives us Antonio (Merchant of Venice) Hortensius altered gives us Hortensio (Taming of the Shrew)

Was de Vere laying breadcrumbs as early as 1571? Did he insert these names into his introduction in full knowledge that he would use the names in the plays he wrote? Is it a coincidence? One thing is certain. He absolutely could have have written the works of Shakespeare. 

© 2012 John Lowry Lamb


Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. said...

As we learn more about de Vere's pattern of signing his work with other people's names, it's reasonable to ask if this may have been de Vere's own translation into Latin. He knew Latin well-- Gabriel Harvey praised de Vere's Latin poetry (could someone please track it down for us? and translate it?)

Unknown said...

Yes Richard, I felt the same way... and made the assertion in my original article, which Mark Anderson wisely edited out ... "need more proof." But it's funny you should say that. If Edward had anything he had a sense of humor!

Someone (hint hint) should look into this further.