There are people (including some who are certain that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him) who believe that the character Polonius in “Hamlet,” based, at least in part, on William Cecil, Lord Burghley. There are some reasonable arguments to be made on both sides of this issue. What is not reasonable is the argument that the author of “Hamlet” must necessarily have had access to a copy of the precepts that William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote to his son Robert. They claim that the speech the Polonius delivers to his son Laertes in “Hamlet” is so remarkably similar to the precepts Lord Burghley gave to his son Robert that only someone with access to a copy of Burghley’s precepts could have written “Hamlet.”
Oxfordians argue that because Burghley’s precepts were not published and available to the public at the time “Hamlet” was created, William Shakespeare of Stratford would not have had a copy, while Oxford, as Burghley’s ward, would. The argument concerning access is not completely unreasonable, although not advanced much since there is no evidence that the Earl of Oxford had a copy of the precepts written for Robert.
However, it is utter nonsense to argue that the author of “Hamlet” would have had to have access to a copy of Burghley’s precepts. All you have to do is to read the two pieces of advice to see that one is not copied from the other.
Here are Burghley’s precepts:SON ROBERT—The virtuous inclinations of thy matchless mother, by whose tender and godly care thy infancy was governed, together with thy education under so zealous and excellent a tutor, puts me in rather assurance than hope, that thou art not ignorant of that summum bonum, which is only able to make thee happy as well in thy death as life; I mean the true knowledge and worship of thy Creator and Redeemer; without which all other things are vain and miserable: so that thy youth being guided by so sufficient a teacher, I make no doubt but he will furnish thy life with divine and moral documents; yet that I may not cast off the care beseeming a parent towards his child; or that you should have cause to derive thy whole felicity and welfare rather from others than from whence thou receivedst thy breath and being; I think it fit and agreeable to the affection I bear thee, to help thee with such rules and advertisements for the squaring of thy life, as are rather gained by experience, than much reading; to the end that entering into this exorbitant age, thou mayest be the better prepared to shun those scandalous courses whereunto the world and the lack of experience may easily draw thee. And because I will not confound thy memory, I have reduced them into ten precepts; and next unto Moses’ tables, if thou imprint them in thy mind, thou shalt reap the benefit, and I the content; and they are these following:— IWhen it shall please God to bring thee to man’s estate, use great providence and circumspection in choosing thy wife; for from thence will spring all thy future good or evil; and it is an action of life, like unto a stratagem of war, wherein a man can err but once. If thy estate be good, match near home and at leisure; if weak, far off and quickly. Enquire diligently of her disposition, and how her parents have been inclined in their youth; let her not be poor, how generous soever; for a man can buy nothing in the market with gentility; nor choose a base and uncomely creature altogether for wealth; for it will cause contempt in others and loathing in thee; neither make choice of a dwarf, or a fool; for by the one you shall beget a race of pigmies, the other will be thy continual disgrace, and it will yirke 1 thee to hear her talk; for thou shalt find it, to thy great grief, that there is nothing more fulsome than a she-fool. And touching the guiding of thy house, let thy hospitality be moderate, and according to the means of thy estate; rather plentiful than sparing, but not costly; for I never knew any man grow poor by keeping an orderly table; but some consume themselves through secret vices, and their hospitality bears the blame; but banish swinish drunkards out of thine house, which is a vice impairing health, consuming much, and makes no show. I never heard praise ascribed to the drunkard, but for the well bearing of his drirk, which is better commendation for a brewer’s horse or a dray man, than for either a gentleman, or a serving man. Beware thou spend not above three or four parts of thy revenues; nor above a third part of that in thy house; for the other two parts will do no more than defray thy extraordinaries, which always surmount the ordinary by much: otherwise thou shalt live like a rich beggar, in continual want: and the needy man can never live happily or contentedly; for every disaster makes him ready to mortgage or sell; and that gentleman who sells an acre of land, sells an ounce of credit, for gentility is nothing else but ancient riches; so that if the foundation shall at any time sink, the building must need follow. So much for the first precept. IIBring thy children up in learning and obedience, yet without outward austerity. Praise them openly, reprehend them secretly. Give them good countenance and convenient maintenance according to thy ability, otherwise thy life will seem their bondage, and what portion thou shalt leave them at thy death, they will thank death for it, and not thee. And I am persuaded that the foolish cockering of some parents, and the overstern carriage of others, causeth more men and women to take ill courses, than their own vicious inclinations. Marry thy daughters in time, lest they marry themselves. And suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps, for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism. And if by travel they get a few broken languages, that shall profit them nothing more than to have one meat served in divers dishes. Neither, by my consent, shalt thou train them up in wars; for he that sets up his rest to live by that profession, can hardly be an honest man or a good Christian; besides it is a science no longer in request than use; for soldiers in peace, are like chimneys in summer. IIILive not in the country without corn and cattle about thee; for he that putteth his hand to the purse for every expense of household, is like him that putteth water in a sieve. And what provision thou shalt want, learn to buy it at the best hand; for there is one penny saved in four, betwixt buying in thy need, and when the markets and seasons serve fittest for it. Be not served with kinsmen, or friends, or men intreated to stay; for they expect much and do little; nor with such as are amorous, for their heads are intoxicated. And keep rather two too few, than one too many. Feed them well, and pay them with the most; and then thou mayest boldly require service at their hands. IVLet thy kindred and allies be welcome to thy house and table; grace them with thy countenance, and farther them in all honest actions; for by this means, thou shalt so double the bond of nature, as thou shalt find them so many advocates to plead an apology for thee behind thy back; but shake off those glow-worms, I mean parasites and sycophants, who will feed and fawn upon thee in the summer of prosperity, but in adverse storm, they will shelter thee no more than an harbour in winter. VBeware of suretyship for thy best friends; he that payeth another man’s debts, seeketh his own decay; but if thou canst not otherwise choose, rather lend thy money thyself upon good bonds, although thou borrow it; so shalt thou secure thyself, and pleasure thy friend; neither borrow money of a neighbour or a friend, but of a stranger, where paying it, thou shalt hear no more of it, otherwise thou shalt eclipse thy credit, lose thy freedom, and yet pay as dear as to another. But in borrowing of money be precious of thy word, for he that hath care of keeping days of payment, is lord of another man’s purse. VIUndertake no suit against a poor man without receiving much wrong; for besides that thou makest him thy compeer, it is a base conquest to triumph where there is small resistance; neither attempt law against any man before thou be fully resolved that thou hast right on thy side; and then spare not for either money or pains; for a cause or two so followed and obtained, will free thee from suits a great part of thy life. VIIBe sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not with trifles; compliment him often with many, yet small gifts, and of little charge; and if thou hast cause to bestow any great gratuity, let it be something which may be daily in sight otherwise in this ambitious age, thou shalt remain like a hop without a pole; live in obscurity, and be made a football for every insulting companion to spurn at. VIIITowards thy superiors be humble, yet generous; with thine equals familiar, yet respective; towards thine inferiors show much humanity, and some familiarity; as to bow the body, stretch forth the hand, and to uncover the head, with such like popular compliments. The first prepares thy way to advancement, the second makes thee known for a man well bred, the third gains a good report, which once got is easily kept; for right humanity takes such deep root in the minds of the multitude, as they are easilier gained by unprofitable courtesies, than by churlish benefits; yet I advise thee not to affect or neglect popularity too much; seek not to be Essex; shun to be Raleigh. IXTrust not any man with thy life, credit, or estate; for it is mere folly for a man to enthrall himself to his friend, as though, occasion being offered, he should not dare to become his enemy. XBe not scurrilous in conversation nor satirical in thy jests; the one will make thee unwelcome to all company, the other pull on quarrels, and get thee hatred of thy best friends; for suspicious jests, when any of them savour of truth, leave a bitterness in the minds of those which are touched; and, albeit, I have already pointed at this inclusively, yet I think it necessary to leave it to thee as a special caution; because I have seen many so prone to quip and gird, as they would rather leese 2 their friend than their jest; and if, perchance, their boiling brain yield a quaint scoff, they will travail to be delivered of it as a woman with child. These nimble fancies are but the froth of wit.
Compare the above with Polonius’s speech to Laertes:
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
There are a few vague similarities. For example, Burghley advises, “ Towards thy superiors be humble, yet generous; with thine equals familiar, yet respective,” while Polonius urges, “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.” Oxfordians will point out that both Burghley and Polonius use the word “familiar” in advice as to how their sons should behave toward others. And both Burghley and Polonius use the word “costly,” although Burghley uses it in connection with entertaining others, while Polonius uses the word “costly” with respect to Laertes’s wardrobe.
Burghley and Polonius both advise their sons to spend moderately on entertaining their friends. And they both give advice on borrowing and lending, though the actual advice on those subjects is quite different. Burghley says, if you have to borrow, borrow from strangers. Polonius says don’t borrow at all. Burghley says, if you have to lend, get a bond in writing for collateral. Polonius says don’t lend at all.
And that’s about it for similarities. Any reasonable and honest person comparing Burghley’s precepts with Polonius’s advice must acknowledge that, whatever the similarities between the two statesmen, one is not a necessary source for the other.