2 Corinth

“I clearly see that my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required.”

Lawrence Nowell

De Vere’s formal education ended at thirteen, when his last known tutor, Lawrence Nowell, washed his hands of him: “I clearly see that my work for the Earl of Oxford cannot be much longer required.” Tactfully put. Oxfordians interpret that to mean that the pupil had outstripped his master. But the tutor lavishes no praise, and offers no regrets at leaving what would—in Oxfordian fantasy—have been the student of a scholar’s dreams. If you had the boy Shakespeare as a pupil, would you shrug him off? But Nowell had other, more congenial work in hand. And Oxford had received all the tutelage that a boy of his rank— who would always have secretaries—would need. Dancing, drawing, French, cosmography (that is to say, maps), and a bit of Latin—a small fraction of what a grammar-school boy would learn—made way for lordlier accomplishments, fencing and horsemanship. Some lessons took. Oxford had a nice italic hand; he was a pretty dancer and a champion at tilting.

Nonetheless, his cult imagines him a prodigy of wit and learning: a belief unevidenced in any of his work.

His mangled attempts at Latin can be very odd. He writes summa totalis (the sum of all) as summum totale, which means nothing at all. This isn’t a spelling error—it looks as if he’s trying to parrot a phrase learned by rote, and hasn’t a clue (or only half remembers) how the grammar works. It’s almost a Mistress Quickly malapropism—except that hers are funny. “Vengeance of Jenny's case!”

If privilege alone created genius, then the Earl might have dazzled. It does not. Many a bright, ambitious boy without advantages—or girl, against all odds—has rocked the world. There have been astonishingly learned scholars who have made themselves by reading and experience, practice and discourse. Take Ben Jonson. (I have myself known self-taught polymaths.) Some few of the ruling class have studied to be great. But the malcontent, great Oxford, lolling in a shallow pool of flattery, let others work for him. Why bestir himself, when he was told that he exceeded all?

Here’s a much brighter man than Oxford, offering a little book of his, a tale of fantasy translated from Italian, to his patron and that noble’s “second selfe,” his viscountess:

“I read that a poore man meeting Artaxerxes, hauing nothing to giue him as a guift gratulatorie, did present him with a handfull of Water: the right true bred King, seeing his loue, caused the Water to be put into a Cup of Gold, and returnes it the partie, with kingly thankes, and loue.”

That’s gracefully done. And the fellow knows a bit of legal Latin: a few sentences later, he “pleades vnder forma pauperis.” That is, he appeals to the court—his patrons—to hear his suit without costs, forgiving him his poverty of wit. Like summa totalis, forma pauperis is a common phrase: but here it’s aptly and exactly used.

Any merit in his book, the writer says, is the Italian poet’s:

“for mee, I but light a Taper at his Torch, & I wish the flame may neither putrifie the sense, nor infect the imagination. There are rough Stones heawed out from the Quary; and the lines leueld by which they are squarde: If they appeare crooked to straight iudgment, I beseech you, call to question my Weaknes; and my Will, will answere in my behalf.”

Then he calls a poet-friend of his as witness. “There is shrowded (Madame) vnder the glister of your Starre, a Poeticall light, which shines not in the world as it is wisht, but yet the worth of it luster is knowne.” That light is Mathew Royden, poet of the School of Night, and friend as well to Spenser, Marlowe, and Chapman. “I doe stand to his censure, to second yours both; and I doubt not but he will plead for my weaknes in this worke, knowing that, Non cuiuis homini contingit adire Corinthum?

The allusion is to Horace, Epistles 1.17.35–36:

Principibus placuisse viris non ultima laus est.
Non cuivis homini contingit adire Corinthum.

To have pleased the great, is not the least of praises.
It’s not every man’s lot to go to Corinth.

For the classical world, Corinth was the bright lights, a city of luxury, culture, and delectable sensual indulgences: call it New York. (St. Paul had uphill work with the Corinthians.) That word contingit is the root of our “contingency”: the city is attained not by merit but by chance, fortuity. So the Horatian tag is used to mean, All men have not the same fortunes. Not everyone lucks out.

It's not everyone that can get to Oxford or Cambridge or the Inns of Court. As the writer did not: he was a tailor’s son from King’s Lynn in Norfolk. There had been a grammar school there since 1534; but no record of his attendance there exists. (Gosh, we’ve heard this story.) Quite probably his formal education ended at thirteen or fourteen. We don’t know where he learned his Latin or his good Italian. We do know that he served as an apprentice to a goldsmith in London, where his wit and ballad-making were admired and led him to employment in another sort of company. He worked his passage to Corinth.

The poet was the player Robert Armin, the King’s Men’s fool.




He had made a name—many names—for himself before joining the company in 1599 or 1600. He was Snuffe, Clonnico de Curtanio (Clown of the Curtain); he was Tutch, selfnamed from his old trade of goldsmith: a touch is the black stone “that trieth out the gold.” In his History of the Two Maids of More-clacke (published 1609, but written around 1597) he doubled as the natural, John i’ th’ Hospital or Blue John, and as the witty fool Tutch, who disguises himself as John, counterfeiting true folly, as a boy who played a girl might counterfeit a boy.

He loved to play two personas in argument, himself against himself. Quips Upon Questions (1608) records his conversations with his fool’s bauble, his marotte, whom he called Signior Truncheon:

What’s near her?

Nothing is nearer (I think) than her smock.
Yes, her skin’s nearer, that it is, by cock.

That is a weed too, to keep out the weather.
Then nothing’s nearer, we conclude together.


{Yes, one thing's nearer than her smock or skin,
{Of which I speak not, but will keep it in.

There are fore-echoes of Feste in his catechisms. Who is the madman? Which of us is the fool? “But tell me true, are you not mad indeed, or do you but counterfeit?” If you have a Robert Armin in your company, you write for his temperament. You write for his voice. When he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1600, Shakespeare’s comic parts changed key. Kemp’s clown had been a self-conceited innocent, a malaprop, a maker of jigs. Dogberry and the Nurse’s Peter were created for him—his name is in the stage directions— and he would have played Bottom. Armin’s fool was a quibbler: witty, quirky, quicksilvery, melancholic. He sang. He was Touchstone, Feste, Lear’s fragile Fool. He played the trickster Autolycus as an elfish figure: Simon Forman remembered him as “the Rog that cam in all tottered like coll pixci.” (A colt-pixie is a sort of hobgoblin, a mischievous sprite.) As the Gravedigger, he dug himself up—or another of his selves: the fool Richard Tarlton had been as a father to him.

Armin's The Maid of Moreclacke was both performed and published for Elizabethan consumption. Once again, it illustrates that the gulf in quality between Shakespeare and Oxford was densely populated with strivers who managed to serve up much more accomplished fare than his lordship

Shakespeare gave Armin back himself, refigured for the stage. Scholars have seen their work together as collaboration: Armin’s style—his philosophy of fooling—reshaped his fellow’s. “If any player breathed,” says Leslie Hotson, "who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin.” (Shakespeare’s Motley, p. 100-101)

Bart van Es writes that “The Fool in Lear ... would test this character to its destruction—so much so that Shakespeare would never write for that figure again.” And he argues:

“What we find in Lear is not only a fool role that directly imports Armin’s performance characteristics, but also a pervasive mood of dark comedy, paradox, and purgative judgment that is there in the jester’s published work. None of these elements are present in the play’s conventionally acknowledged sources, but the line between sanity and madness had been the sustained interest of his lead comic actor for many years. Writing speeches for the Fool and also for the natural madman Poor Tom, who is impersonated by Edgar, the precedent of Armin’s prose, poetry, and drama on this subject would have been impossible to ignore.” (Shakespeare in Company, p. 184.)

They worked well together, the tailor’s son from Norfolk and the glover’s son from Warwickshire, the goldsmith and the playwright. And they shared an eye for good stories. That Italian translation of his was from Le piacevolti notti of Giovanni Francesco Straparola, a Decameron-like set of stories, varying from bawdy to fantastic to heroic. Among them are the earliest known versions of tales like “Donkeyskin” and “Puss in Boots”: this was arguably the first European collection of fairy tales. Armin’s choice, The Italian Taylor and His Boy, is a marvellous tale of tricksters and transformations, of a great magicians’ duel. In 1609, it seems, more than one of the King’s Men had a taste for wizardry and romance.

The donnish little Armin (Tutch was titchy) played well to intellectuals. He was proud of that. In a preface to the men of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Inns of Court in his Nest of Ninnies (1608), he writes, like a higher-minded Falstaff, “I have seen the stars at midnight in your societies.” Then wistfully: “... and might have commenst [taken a degree] like an ass as I was, but I lacked liberty in that.” Non cuivis homini contingit adire Corinthum. “Yet I was admitted in Oxford to be of Christ’s Church, while they of All Souls gave aim [pelted him with bread rolls, probably] ... I promised them to prove mad and I think I am so, else I would not meddle with folly so deeply.”

There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in Armin. In his woodcut portrait, he wears an inkhorn at his side, as a gentleman might wear a sword.

There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in Armin. In his woodcut portrait, he wears an inkhorn at his side, as a gentleman might wear a sword. He is defensive of his right to walk the streets of Corinth. For now (1609) is “a strange time of taxation”—of accusation, blame, reproof —“wherein euery Pen & inck-horne Boy will throw vp his Cap at the hornes of the Moone in censure, although his wit hang there, not returning vnlesse monthly in the wane*: such is our ticklish age.” So he writes to the “Inuisible Reader” (Ad lectorem hic et vbiq.) of his tale of magic. He imagines his critics saying, “Is it so? is it so, & no better? will this meere foole, little learning, be so bould? why the wisest can doe no more? Well, to answere for the follie, I say Boltes are shot of the vnskilfull, as well as the archer; and they now and then hit. ... Why [,] did not a Crow speake (ave) to Caesar? May not a Foole cry (bo) to a Goose?”

Robert Armin - Italian Taylor

Extract from The Italian Taylor and his Boy, by Robert Armin, Servant to The King's Most Excellent Majesty
Better verse than Oxford's. Better prose too. See below for the dedication

Enter his lordship.

On Oxford, the gods had lavished every possible advantage, of birth, wealth, power, tutelage, and travel: but to no avail. You can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear.

Here’s a letter from his Grand Tour in 1575. Having spent a year and a fortune lounging in Italy—where he picked up nothing but an underage Venetian choir boy and some spectacular outfits (later stolen by pirates)—he’s sick of it. He writes more like a sulky adolescent than a courtier of 25. For Italy throughout, read Corinth:

“Yowre Lordship semes desirous to know how I leake Corinth, what is myne intention, in trauell, and when I meane to returne; for my lekinge of Corinth, my lord I am glad I haue sene it, and I care not euer to [se] see it any more vnles it be to serue my prince or contrie. for myne intention to trauell, I am desirows to see more of Germanie, wherfore I shall desire yowre Lordship withe my Lord of Lecester, to procure me the next summer, to continue my licence. at the end of whiche I meane vndoughtedly to returne. I thought to haue sene Spaine, but by Corinth, I gess the worse.”

So much for advantages. “For what says Quinapalus? ‘Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.’”

Take the fool away.

Oxfordians like to make much of Oxford's letter to Bedingfield urging him to publish his translation of Cardanus' Comfort. In fact, they will often step back to admire what they see as its Shakespearean grandeur. These Shakespearean qualities are entirely invisible to readers without an agenda. In fact Oxford's prose can't match Armin's for colour, inventiveness, variety and effect. The following two pieces, side by side, demonstrate the distance between these writers and Shakespeare. Yet Armin's crisper, more humorous style makes far better reading than the Earl's homiletic dullness. The gulf between Oxford and Shakespeare is populated by a spectrum of writers like Armin. Hundreds of them better than the Earl. None better than Will.



After I had perused your letters, good master Bedingfield, finding in them your request far differing from the desert of your labour, I could not choose but greatly doubt, whether it were better for me to yield to your desire, or execute mine own intention towards the publishing of your book. For I do confess the affections that I have always borne towards you could move me not a little. But when I had thoroughly considered in my mind, of sundry and diverse arguments, whether it were best to obey mine affections, or the merits of your studies: at the length I determined it were better to deny your unlawful request, than to grant or condescend to the concealment of so worthy a work. Whereby as you have been profited in the translating, so many may reap knowledge by the reading of the same, that shall comfort the afflicted, confirm the doubtful, encourage the coward, and lift up the base-minded mail to achieve to any true sum or grade of virtue, whereto ought only the noble thoughts of men to be inclined.

And because next to the sacred letters of divinity, nothing doth persuade the same more than philosophy, of which your book is plentifully stored: I thought myself to commit an unpardonable error to have murdered the same in the waste bottoms of my chests; and better I thought it were to displease one than to displease many; further considering so little a trifle cannot procure so great a breach or our amity, as may not with it little persuasion of reason be repaired again. And herein I am forced, like a good and politic captain, oftentimes to spoil and burn the corn or his own country, lest his enemies thereof do take advantage. For rather than so many of your countrymen should be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies (whereof you are bound in conscience to yield them all account) I am content to make spoil and havock of your request, and that, that might have wrought greatly in me in this former respect, utterly to be of no effect or operation. And when you examine yourself, what doth avail a mass of gold to be continually imprisoned in your bags, and never to be employed to your use?"

I do not doubt even so you think of your studies and delightful Muses. What do they avail if you do not participate them to others?" Wherefore we have this Latin proverb: Scire tu nihil est, nisite scire hoc sciat altar.

What doth avail the tree unless it yield fruit to another? What doth avail the vine unless another delighteth in the grape? What doth avail the rose unless another took pleasure in the smell? Why should this tree be accounted better than that tree but for the goodness of his fruit? Why should this vine be better than that vine unless it brought forth a better grape than the other? Why should this rose be better esteemed than that rose, unless ill pleasantness of smell it far surpassed the other rose?"

And so it is in all other things as well as in man. Why should this man be more esteemed than that man but for his virtue, through which every man desireth to be accounted of? Then you amongst men, I do not doubt but will aspire to follow that virtuous path, to illuster yourself with the ornaments of virtue. And in mine opinion as it beautifyeth a fair woman to be decked with pearls and precious stones, so much more it ornifyeth a gentleman to be furnished in mind with glittering virtues."

Wherefore, considering the small harm I do to you, the great good I do to others, I prefer mine own intention to discover your volume, before your request to secret the same; wherein I may seem to you to play the part or the cunning mediciner or physician, who although his patient in the extremity of his burning fever is desirous of cold liquor or drink to qualify his sore thirst, or rather kill his languishing body: yet for the danger he doth evidently know by his science to ensue, denyeth him the same. So you being sick of so much doubt in Your own proceedings, through which infirmity you are desirous to bury and insevill your work ill the grave of oblivion: yet I knowing the discommodities that shall redound to yourself thereby (and which is more unto your countrymen) as one that is willing to salve so great an inconvenience, am nothing dainty to deny your request."

Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs: whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument; but with me behold it happeneth far better; for in your lifetime I shall erect you such a monument, that as I say, in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life, shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone. And in your lifetime, again I say, I shall give you that monument and remembrance of your life, whereby I may declare my good will, though with your ill will, as yet I bear you in your life.

Thus earnestly desiring you in this one request of mine (as I would yield to you in a great many) not to repugn the setting forth of your own proper studies, I bid you farewell.

From my new country Muses of Wivenghole, wishing you as you have begun, to proceed in these virtuous actions. For when all things shall else forsake us, virtue will ever abide with us, and when our bodies fall into the bowels of the earth, yet that shall mount with our minds into the highest heavens.

From your loving and assured friend,

E. Oxenford.



The noble by birth, and vertuous by education,
his second self, the Lady ELIZABETH
FITZWATER, his Viscountess and wife :
content in this life, and joy
in the life to come.

Right Honourable, a late lord of England, being presented with a poem of some young writer, seeing his boldness, and having graveled him in question, found that his will was worthier than the work; yet contrary answered his amated fear, thus: fools make books for wise men to laugh at. I have known some that have loved the writer for the work, however weak, the will pleaded so powerful; and the party presenting it, had (at the least) thanks for his labour. I read that a poor man meeting Artaxerxes, having nothing to give him as a gift gratulatory, did present him with a handful of water. The right true bred King, seeing his love, caused the water to be put into a cup of gold, and returns it to the party, with kingly thanks and love. There is (right Noble) as much difference in the rewards, as in the births: the first, noble and unkind; the last, majestical and well inclined.

I speake not this (right Honourable) to gloze, or rather waste afar off a near-come bounty, but to shew the pith of the one, & the power of the other. To your Honour I plead neither, because I fear not the first, nor wish I the last: only your spirit of love towards me, which I am persuaded I am possessed of—I do desire it in continuance. Yet if you do return the first, it may be fitting, for the poem procures it and I wish it so: that I (being as your Honour knows) make this book for your wisdom to laugh at, and I wish it the very tickling of delight. How ever it is, a well compounded jest, and your Italians are in this (as in all) neat. If my weak translation darken it, I beseech the sunshine of your Honour to enlighten it, that it may outvalue worth itself in your estimation, being (as you are) the blessed hande for Britain, ordained in your cradle (under God) to preserve the life of our royal King JAMES, then in danger of the devilish minded Gowery.

Likewise, most affable Lady, kind and debonair, the second of the first which I saucily salute, pardon I pray you the boldness of a beggar, who hath been writ down for an ass in his time, & pleads under forma pauperis in it still, not-withstanding his constableship and office. I do entreat your Ladyship (being of a noble strain) graciously to regard this poor petit of transformation: laugh at them (if you can) heartily, and I have my wish. If not, return them witty, for so much the Italian poet merits at the least: for me, I but light a taper at his torch, & I wish the flame may neither putrify the sense nor infect the imagination. There are rough stones hewed out from the quarry, and the lines leveled by which they are squared. If they appear crooked to straight judgment, I beseech you, call to question my weakness; and my will, will answer in my behalf.

There is shrouded (Madame) under the glister of your star, a poetical light, which shines not in the world as it is wished, but yet the worth of it[s] luster is known: he hath remained in Sussex many years; and I beseech God, and your noble father (the Earl) he may live and die beloved so still. It is (if I speake darkly) that pen-pleading poet (grave for years and knowledge) Master Mathew Roiden. I do stand to his censure, to second yours both; and I doubt not but he will plead for my weakness in this work, knowing that, Non cuiuis homini contingit adire Corinthum?

And so wishing as much joy to your right well affected Viscount and you, from the King of heaven, as I know you are possesed of from the King of earth: I leave your Honours both to him that is, and ever shall be yours, and our redeemer.

Your Honour's in all humbleness


Robert Armin Two Maids

This image also appears in Coriolanus (1608): “they threw their caps /
As they would hang them on the horns o' the moon.”


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Comments (1)

  • anon

    An excellent example of how to increase the certainty of one proposition by shining a light on an adjacent one. Will and Robert had a clear understanding of one another that goes far beyond what knowledge of each other's reputations could have achieved. This type of connection to Oxford looks impossible.

    Mar 08, 2014