In this blog post, based in part on my 2011 response to Hess published in The Oxfordian, I’d like to highlight the key similarities and differences between the case for Sackville and the case for Oxford. Sackville and Oxford share many traits and experiences which the Bard seems likely to have had: both men studied the law, traveled to Italy, were intimately familiar with the people and events of the English court between the 1560s and 1580s, and had expertise in aristocratic sports such as falconry, bowls, and deer hunting. Indeed, nearly all of the arguments made to support Oxford’s candidacy can be readily transferred to Sackville. Either one could have been the major hidden poet in “purple robes” (worn only by elite members of the nobility) whom Thomas Edwards lauded in his 1593 poetry volume Cephalus and Procris, and Narcissus. Also, either one could have been the beloved hidden poet whom John Marston honored in his 1598 Scourge of Villainy. In Satire IX, Marston longs for the poet he loves best of all, a man whose “silent name” is bounded by a single letter, to achieve the fame he so richly deserves:
.......Far fly thy fame,
Most, most of me beloved, whose silent name
One letter bounds. Thy true judicial style
I ever honour, and if my love beguile
Not much my hopes, then thy unvalu’d worth
Shall mount fair place when Apes are turned forth.
Edward De Vere’s name is bounded with an ‘e,’ while Thomas Sackville’s name is bounded with a ‘t’ as Thomas Lord Buckhurst.
I first became aware of the Shakespeare authorship question in April of 1999 when I read the cover story “Who was Shakespeare?” in Harper’s magazine. The arguments for the Earl of Oxford impressed me more than those for William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, and I soon became an Oxfordian. However, in the back of my mind I remained troubled by Oxford’s early death in 1604 and the minor quality of his acknowledged poetry, and I continued to read widely on all sides of the debate. One evening in 2007 I decided to read Edmund Spenser’s prefatory verses to his 1590 The Faerie Queen. Although I was already familiar with Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet to the Earl of Oxford, I wondered how his lines to Oxford compared to his lines to other court figures. One of Spenser’s dedicatory sonnets struck me as surprising: his tribute to “the Lord of Buckhurst, one of her Majesty’s Privy Council.” I had never heard of Buckhurst, but Spenser highly praised his “golden verse,” “lofty numbers,” and “heroic style,” even declaring that Buckhurst was “much more fit” than he to write a work such as The Faerie Queen, had he the leisure to do so. Spenser added that Buckhurst’s “dainty pen” could file the “gross defaults” of his own work, the product of a “baser wit.” Although Spenser was not above ingratiating himself to the powerful, it seemed to me that he sincerely considered Buckhurst to be a better poet than he was. I decided to learn more about this privy councilor who was also a gifted poet.
I soon discovered that the title Lord Buckhurst belonged to Thomas Sackville, an English poet born in 1536 to an ancient family of knights and courtiers, and a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth through her mother Anne Boleyn. The general facts of Sackville’s life can be found summarized in my earlier article, as well as in Hess’s articles, but the following facts immediately intrigued me from an authorship perspective: (1) Sackville died in 1608, making his lifespan more consistent with the standard chronology of Shakespeare’s works than the Earl of Oxford’s lifespan; (2) his acknowledged poetic works are of far greater literary merit than the Earl of Oxford’s acknowledged poetry; and (3) his co-authored play Gorboduc, written with Thomas Norton in 1561, was so influential that it paved the way to the flowering of the late Elizabethan drama, with a particularly strong connection to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
After I began investigating the case for Sackville in earnest, I came to realize that during my years as an Oxfordian I had not paid sufficient attention to the evidence that two of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth and King Lear, were composed or substantially revised in the 1605-6 period. Traditional scholars have long debated when Shakespeare wrote his last play, but they widely agree that he was still active as a playwright in the summer of 1606 based on what appear to be topical allusions to events from 1605 and 1606 in Macbeth and King Lear. Some of these allusions might be coincidental or could point to earlier similar events, as Oxfordians maintain, but others strike me as specific and unique to this two-year period.
I am now convinced that Thomas Sackville is a much stronger Shakespeare authorship candidate than the Earl of Oxford, not only because of his longer lifespan and demonstrated poetic genius, but also because his mindset seems (to me) to be more Shakespearean than Oxford’s. Sackville’s acknowledged and extant poetic works—one dedicatory sonnet, the narrative poems Induction and The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham, the verse epistle Sacvyle’s Olde Age, and the play Gorboduc, co-authored with Thomas Norton in 1561—explore a wide range of historical and philosophical topics. In contrast, Oxford’s known poems are focused on his inner state of mind and cover a narrow range of themes.