With all of the candidates who have been proposed over the last 150 years, why do you think that Sackville received so little attention? In the authorship discussion, it seems like he was almost able to “hide in plain sight.”
Thank you so much for submitting this, Rory! Here is my answer, which I will also include in Chapter 45 of Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper.
I believe there are four main reasons why Sackville has received virtually no attention as a Shakespeare authorship candidate for the last century and a half. First, nearly all of Sackville’s private papers were lost through a series of calamities. His London residence at Dorset Court on Fleet Street burned down in 1666 during the Great Fire of London, and for various reasons his country estate, Knole House, has almost no papers dating from his time, and few prior to 1650. As a result, even if Sackville’s papers did contain any original poems, manuscripts, or letters that could have established his authorship, virtually nothing was left to reveal this within a half century after William Shakespeare’s death. Much of Sackville’s business correspondence does survive, but like most business correspondence, it doesn’t make for exciting reading or provide many insights into his character.
Second, hardly anyone has even heard of Thomas Sackville. I didn’t know about him myself, despite reading widely on the Shakespeare authorship question between 1999 and 2008, until I read Edmund Spenser’s tribute to the Lord Buckhurst in his 1590 The Faerie Queene. For a man of Sackville’s literary and historical significance, his life has received remarkably little scholarly attention. He’s been the subject of only two books in English, a 1948 study by Jacobus Swart and a 1974 study by Normand Berlin (both long out of print), a 1966 French biography by Paul Bacquet, a handful of scholarly articles written by Rivkah Zim between 1989 and 2013, and a 2010 Doctor of Philosophy thesis by Edward Town. This is all the attention received by the man who founded England’s blank verse dramatic tradition, is often said to have written the most influential poetry between Chaucer and Spenser, and played a key role in nearly all of England’s major political events between 1586 and 1608, even serving as Lord Treasurer for the last nine years of his life! Scholars have probably neglected Sackville because so few of his private papers survive, his personality remains elusive, and his name is not associated with any exciting public scandals. He had a “tactical preference for acting behind the scenes,” observes the Sackville scholar Rivkah Zim. “Some of his most revealing letters show him using his rhetorical gifts to persuade others or to manipulate readers’ responses, rather than to promote himself.”
Third, and this is probably a result of his general scholarly neglect, Sackville is now viewed only as a poet of the early Elizabethan period, more than a generation before Shakespeare’s time. Literary historians fell long ago into the erroneous belief that Sackville “abandoned” poetry after the 1563 publication of his Mirror for Magistrates poems. It baffles me why this false belief ever took hold, because literary historians should have known that as Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin and a prominent aristocrat, Sackville was subject to a very real ‘stigma of print.’ Just because he wasn’t publishing original creative works under his own name doesn’t mean that he didn’t continue writing them. Even before Sacvyle’s Olde Age was discovered in the 1980s, conclusively proving that Sackville remained devoted to poetry until ~1574, there were other clear indications that he continued writing:
· A library inventory from 1580 listing the lost work Tragical Discourses by the Lord Buckhurst. (If Sackville authorized the publication, it can safely be assumed to be a collection of Italian translations; if not, it might contain tragic plays which were sometimes called “discourses.”)
· Giordano Bruno’s mention of Sackville’s John Lyly and Samuel Daniel translations in the early 1580s.
· Thomas Campion’s 1602 praise of Sackville’s “public and private” poems which “so divinely crowned” his fame.
· John Donne’s ~1607 poem to the “E. of D.,” asking the Earl of D. to review his “Six Holy Sonnets.” Donne wrote to the Earl as to a very major poet, an “alchemist” whose wit held such power that a single spark of it “could make good things of bad.” Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset after 1604, is the only plausible recipient of Donne’s poem, even though Donne scholars don’t appear to have realized this yet.
· Joshua Sylvester’s 1608 dedication to Sackville’s memory, which used an anagram of Sackville’s name to create the following Latin phrases: “Vas lucis” (vessel of light), “Esto décor Musis” (beautify the muses), and “Sacris Musis Celo Devotus” (secretly devoted to the sacred muses). In the English poem accompanying the anagram, Sylvester declares that Sackville had “lov’d so long the sacred sisters,” and “(sad sweetly most) thyself hast sung (under a feigned ghost) the tragic falls of our ambitious throng.” Sylvester’s words hint at the possibility that Sackville had lately been writing under a “feigned ghost,” a pretended name, while glancing back at Sackville’s 1563 Complaint, ostensibly narrated by the Duke of Buckingham’s ghost.
Unfortunately, literary historians never connected these dots—I believe I was the first to discover the Sackvillian relevance of the library inventory, Bruno’s letter, and Donne’s poem, and to take seriously the implications of Sylvester’s Latin anagram. As a result, until the year 1989, when Rivkah Zim and M. B. Parkes published Sacvyle’s Olde Age, anyone who even began to think of Sackville as a possible Shakespeare authorship candidate would have immediately learned from the historical literature that he set aside poetry after his youth for a career as a diplomat and a statesman. Never mind that Sackville’s career as a diplomat consists of two fairly short trips overseas, one in 1571 and one in 1586, and that his career as a statesman didn’t even begin until 1586. This leaves his occupations between 1565, after he returned from Italy, and 1586, when he joined the Privy Council, largely unaccounted for.
Lastly, I think you are right that Sackville was “hiding in plain sight.” In some ways he is such a prominent historical figure that it’s almost terrifying to think of the possibility that he was secretly writing as Shakespeare. What if the people of England had learned that the great Earl of Dorset, Lord Treasurer of the realm, was really the poet and playwright Shakespeare? Paradoxically, Sackville’s very preeminence is probably the reason why the secret of his authorship never leaked out, and why his authorship has not been previously suspected. Those few people “in the know,” a group that appears to have included Thomas Edwards, Sir John Davies, John Marston, and Ben Jonson, would have closely guarded such a scandalous secret for fear of the repercussions should it become generally known. They do appear to have occasionally slipped and revealed a telling detail or two about the major hidden poet of the 1590s, such as John Marston’s useful clue in his 1598 Scourge of Villainy that the “silent name” of the poet whom he loved far above the rest, and whom he hoped would one day achieve the fame he so richly deserved after “apes” were turned out, began and ended with the same letter (as is true for Thomas Sackville as Thomas Buckhurst). However, Marston, Jonson, and the rest of the little group of satirists who enjoyed lampooning William Shakespeare as an incompetent hack (they didn’t mind if his reputation was damaged) appear to have been very careful never to implicate Sackville.