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Uniquely in the annals of English literature, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was credited during his lifetime, and for many years afterwards, with writing two large and distinct sets of literary works. The first, conveniently described as the "Shakespeare Canon," contains the Bard's famed works--some three dozen plays, 154 sonnets, and several longer poems. (1) The second set, the "Shakespeare Apocrypha," contains a dozen or so uncelebrated plays printed under William Shakespeare's name or attributed to him in some fashion, but excluded from the 1623 First Folio. Bridging the Canon and the Apocrypha are the "Bad Quartos," poetically inferior versions of six or so canonical works. Scholars don't actually know how the Apocrypha and the Bad Quartos came into being. There is no way to disprove that William Shakespeare wrote them (in full or in part) without resorting to stylistic arguments and invoking the authority of the Folio.
Some of the apocryphal plays and Bad Quartos speak with more than one authorial voice, but stylistic threads linking these works suggest they shared a common author or co-author who left the following sorts of fingerprints in his writings: wholesale pilferings (especially from the works of Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene during the late 1580s and early 1590s), bombast, a breezy style, clumsy blank verse, a salty sense of humor, food jokes, crude physical slapstick, inventive slang, very funny clown scenes, a penchant for placing characters in disguise, jingoism, bungled Latin tags and inept classical allusions, unsophisticated but sweet romances, shrewish and outspoken women, camaraderie among men, an emphasis on who is or isn't a gentleman, and a complete lack of interest in political nuance and philosophical digressions. The overall sense is of a brash and confident writer with little more than a grammar-school education, seeking to create works of maximum popular appeal by whatever means necessary, with little regard for posterity. (2)
The anomalous existence of two sets of works exhibiting distinct poetic voices printed under one man's name suggests a fascinating possibility. Could William Shakespeare have authored the Apocrypha, portions of the Bad Quartos, and pieces of the Canon (especially the late co-authored works), while serving as a front man for a hidden poet?
A Major Hidden Poet
England did hold a revered hidden poet capable of writing at the Bard's level around the time the Canon was composed. This man was first lauded by the writer Thomas Edwards in the 1593 volume Cephalus and Procris, and Narcissus (Barrell). In one poem, "Envoy to Narcissus," Edwards praises a number of contemporary poems and poets. After commending Shakespeare's elegant narrative poem Venus and Adonis, first published earlier in 1593, Edwards begins lauding a mysterious poet in "purple robes", a man who wielded immense power throughout the land:
Eke [likewise] in purple roabes destain'd [dyed], Amid'st the Center of this clime, I have heard saie doth remaine One whose power floweth far, That should have bene of our rime The only object and the star.
By declaring that this mysterious poet "should have bene ... the only object and the star" of his poem, Edwards subtly implies (without forcing the point) that the purple-robed poet--whose "bewitching pen" and "golden art" Edwards compliments in a second stanza--wrote Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Assuming the hidden poet wore real as opposed to metaphorically purple robes, he must have been a duke, marquis, earl, or Knight of the Garter, since only these men were permitted to wear purple, the color of royalty. (3)
Another poem of the 1590s which plausibly pays tribute to a major hidden poet is Sir John Davies's Orchestra, or A Poem of Dancing (1596). Davies concludes Orchestra by singing the praises of one living English poet far above the rest: the Swallow,
... whose swift Muse doth range Through rare Ideas, and inventions strange, And ever doth enjoy her joyful spring, And sweeter then the Nightingale doth sing. O that I might that singing Swallow hear To whom I owe my service and my love, His sugared tunes would so enchant mine ear, And in my mind such sacred fury move, As I should knock at heav'ns great gate above ... (907-15)
Who can the "singing Swallow" have been? Davies had already praised the highly regarded poets Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel, and he wasn't the sort of man who would have felt that he owed his "service" to a stage actor. By a process of elimination, the Swallow seems to have been a major aristocratic poet who avoided publishing under his own name.
A third contemporary allusion to a major hidden poet can be found in John Marston's Scourge of Villainy, a collection of satirical poems published in 1598. In Satire IX, Marston longs for the poet he loves best of all to achieve the fame he so richly deserves: "Far fly thy fame / Most, most of me beloved!" (48-9). This poet was still unknown to the general public, but Marston hints that his "silent" (unspoken) name was bounded by "one letter" (49-50). "Thy true judicial style / I ever honor," gushes Marston, "and, if my love beguile / Not much my hopes, then thy unvalued worth / shall mount fair place, when apes are turned forth" (50-53). "Apes" was a common term of abuse for actors, also used to describe literary imitators.
Considered as a group, the testimony of Thomas Edwards, John Davies, and John Marston strongly implies the existence of a hidden poet at court in the 1590s whose identity was a closely guarded secret among members of the London intelligentsia.
The hidden poet is most likely to have been Thomas Sackville, "one of the great might-have-beens of literature" (Pyle, 315). Like Edwards's most admired poet, Sackville was entitled to wear "purple robes" as a Knight of the Garter. And like Marston's best-loved poet, Sackville's name began and ended with the same letter--his titled name was Thomas Lord Buckhurst at this time.
Surprisingly, Sackville has received no serious or sustained consideration as a Shakespeare candidate, (4) though nothing in his personal biography or lifespan rules him out. What's more, he is an excellent literary fit.
In English literature departments, Thomas Sackville--the scion of an ancient family that came to England with William the Conqueror--is now remembered for composing a handful of innovative works by his mid-twenties that paved the way to the great poetry and drama of the late Elizabethan age. He is often described as the most important English poet between Chaucer and Spenser, despite the small body of work attributed to him. The eminent critic E. K. Chambers described Sackville in 1906 as "a great poetic genius, indeed," whose first major poem was "a meteoric portent of a poem, not connected with any other in the generation" (237).
In addition to being a poet of very high ability, Sackville was one of the preeminent statesmen of his age. His second cousin Queen Elizabeth I made him the first Baron of Buckhurst in 1567, a privy councilor in 1586, a Knight of the Garter in 1589, the Chancellor of Oxford University in 1591, and the Lord Treasurer of England in 1599. Sackville also sat under a canopy of state as Lord High Steward of England during the shocking 1601 trial of the Earls of Essex and Southampton for treason against the crown. After Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor King James I made him the first Earl of Dorset.
Sackville died on April 19, 1608 while conducting business at the king's privy-council table. He was outlived by his wife of fifty-three years, Cecily Baker Sackville, with whom he had seven children. By all indications, theirs was an unusually loving marriage (Swart 15).
A Renaissance Man
Sackville has been hailed as a Renaissance man of unusual integrity, generosity, and patriotism, but "there are intriguing anomalies and paradoxes" in his career--perhaps because his archive of personal papers burned in the 1666 Great Fire of London (Zim, "Poet" 200-1). His personality remains elusive, in part because of his "tactical preference for acting behind the scenes. 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" (Zim, "Poet" 201).
As a young man Sackville studied at Oxford University for a time, but left without taking a degree. He then joined the Inner Temple, one of London's Inns of Court, where he studied the law (when he was not devoting himself to poetry) for about seven years. Sackville's legal training could explain Shakespeare's impressive knowledge of the law (Alexander, Phillips). The Inner Temple was in those days a richly theatrical milieu. Students were encouraged to gain mastery in public speaking by writing dramatic works and performing in their own plays at revels seasons, sometimes giving repeat performances before the queen.
Elizabeth reminisced near the end of her life that young Sackville's conversation had impressed her as "judicious, but yet witty and delightful" (Brydges, 124). "By her particular choice and liking," she invited her cousin "to a continual private attendance upon her own person" (Brydges 137). During his years as a courtier, Sackville plausibly wrote many plays for private performances before the queen, who adored theatre-going. Sackville's appreciation for the drama continued even after he became a prominent statesman. One of his first acts after becoming Chancellor of Oxford University was to refurbish the students' theatre (Gager, 11). As well as being interested in poetry and the drama, Sackville was a great music lover. He kept musicians about him all his life, "the most curious which anywhere he could have" in Queen Elizabeth's estimation (Brydges, 124).
The few substantial poetic works published …