“Principum Amicitias” : Does it matter?


While everyone is discussing the new portrait, few are discussing the motto at the top (“Principum Amicitias”),

Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare

which apparently appears only on the Cobbe portrait, making it a unique addition to the story. The unique appearance of the motto on this portrait is significant since there are apparently four other versions of it without the motto (check these out at the Channel 4 (BBC) website). In the press kit at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust it is noted that the portrait “was inscribed with a quotation from the Classical writer, Horace, taken from an ode addressed to a playwright,”  which they cite as further evidence that the sitter in the portrait is Shakespeare. There is no mention in the press kit on their site of what the inscription actually says or what it might mean (although elsewhere it has been reported that the Trust translates it as “Beware the alliances of Princes”).

So, just what does this Latin two-word motto/inscription say, and does what it says matter in understanding anything about Shakespeare? Over at the New York Times Lede Blog (in an item we highlighted the other day under Touchstone’s Recommended Reading) they take a closer look at the motto by  providing a very informative (and lengthy) quote from a Latin scholar somewhere in academe (he wishes to stay anonymous):

The phrase “principum amicitias” does look like a quotation of the Horatian ode. The idea of translating it “beware the friendships of of princes” is certainly not explicit in Horace, who addressed this poem to Asinius Pollio, a writer but himself an
important political man who had written or was writing a history of
Rome from the time of the so-called first triumvirate to the death of
Cicero, 60-43 BC. That was a very dangerous time, and the end of it was
not more than 20 years in the past when Horace wrote the ode, so he
characterizes writing about it as dangerous as well. There were plenty
of people around who did things during that period that they would just
as soon forget, including Augustus, who was complicit in the murder of

Anyway, the “first triumvirate” was just an agreement among Caesar, Pompeius, and Crassus to cooperate with one another for mutual advantage (rather than, say, for the good of the state). Cicero was invited to work with them, but refused to do so. When the agreement
became public, people were rightly alarmed. But the agreement — the
“friendships of princes” in Horace’s phrase — kept the three men from
one another’s throats, until Crassus was destroyed when he decided to
make war on the Parthian Empire (roughly, Persia). After he was out of
the way, Caesar and Pompeius found it impossible to cooperate, and
between 49 and 45 B.C. they fought a civil war that left Caesar as
dictator for life. When he was assassinated in 44, an actual
triumvirate consisting of Octavian (the future Augustus), Marcus
Antonius, and C. Lepidus was appointed by the senate. These triumviri
had many of their enemies murdered, including Cicero, and this is where
Pollio’s history stopped.

Whether in Horace the plural “friendships” refers to the various one-to-one relationships among Caesar, Pompeius, and Crassus, or to that three-way friendship and other friendships as well, is hard to say. The “second triumvirate” could be considered a form of amicitia,
since that was the word that the Romans used to denote political
; and Pollio may have structured his history by beginning and
ending it with these two instances of friendship among princes. Note
that for Horace the apparent meaning is just that — “friendships among
princes,” not “friendships of princes with other, lesser people.” So if
the meaning is in any sense “beware the friendships of princes,” it
should mean (in Horatian terms) not beware of friendships with princes,
but beware for the state when princes form friendships with one
another. It’s certainly a cynical comment on Machiavellian political
friendships, though.

How does all of this relate to Shakespeare?

It could just be that the phrase is not meant to interact in any direct way with the Horatian context. “The friendships of princes” might then refer to Shakespeare’s friendships with noble patrons, as a kind of compliment and an acknowledgment that their patronage was a
factor in his success. In this case, the classical reference would also
be a compliment to his culture, but not a specific reference to
whatever Horace was talking about.

There could on the other hand be a more pointed reference to the history plays that deal with how the current dynasty came to power, although I’m not sure that I can think of any close parallel in that process to the “first triumvirate.” But maybe the phrase “friendships of princes” had some currency as a way of acknowledging the cynical
behavior of the powerful towards one another and towards everybody else
[From the New York Times, emphasis added].

This is very interesting. The motto can clearly be tied to an instance of Roman POLITICAL history (which is exactly the sort of thing Shakespeare did a lot … Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, etc.), and, significantly, the friendship being alluded to would be “among Princes” (NOT “between Princes and ‘other lesser people‘”).

And please note just what the Latin scholar explains this motto is saying (if one assumes the Horatian ode connection): beware for the state when princes form friendships with one
and the possibility that the reference could also be about “how the current dynasty came to power.”

How in the world does this relate to the traditional Shakespeare of Stratford? If this Latin scholar is right, any speculation about the motto alluding to a friendship between Shakespeare and Southampton based on Shakespeare’s being a “lesser” person (as, of course, the Stratford man must be seen) just doesn’t fly. As the Latin scholar does consider, the only way the motto could be alluding to Shakespeare himself (i.e., the Stratfordian Shakespeare) would be to assume that no allusion
to the Horation ode was meant at all
(and as we noted above, the press kit at the
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust site does claim a link with the Horatian ode!). 

It is, on the other hand, Oxfordians who already have Shakespeare and Southampton in the same social class, and therefore can consider that the Horatian ode allusion might be deliberate. But “Princes”? Should we take that literally as meaning those who are not just Earls, Dukes, etc., but those who have “royal” blood? Or at least, for some reason, have “royal” aspirations? For “royal” aspirations does get right into the Essex Rebellion and the fact that Essex was accused at his trial of wanting to be King Robert I. And Southampton was his co-conspirator all the way (i.e., for the six years leading up to the Rebellion). And Shakespeare’s Richard II (written or re-written around 1595-96?) was an eloquent argument for the “rightness” of their cause, and was performed on the eve of the Rebellion. Connect all these dots and there it is: Shakespeare, Southampton and Essex are three peas in a pod.

Stratfordian scholars keep trying to deal with this “inconvenient truth,” but keep coming up short. However, for Oxfordians who subscribe to the so-called “Prince Tudor” theory (i.e., a theory concerning the politics of the Elizabethan succession crisis of the 1590s and the possibility that the “non-Virgin” Queen had at least one or more bastard children) of how the authorship problem came to be, the Essex Rebellion is the “Ground Zero” of the whole authorship debate, a nexus where all the key players and elements came together and wound up producing one of the most incredible stories in the history of Western Culture.

That the Stratfordian camp, speaking from their own “Ground Zero” (the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), has now introduced into the debate this portrait with this motto is incredible. And they tell us further that its provenance is clearly that Southampton once owned it, and that it is likely the model for the Droeshout engraving —well, what a world! For the latest in considering the Southampton factor in all this, check out this post from Linda Thiel at the Oberon Shakespeare Study Group blog.

Perhaps when Wells and Cobbe publish their book on Shakespeare and Southampton next year they will deal with all this, and perhaps they feel that they have an answer to the “inconvenient truth”, and that they will once and for all try to deal with the Shakespeare, Southampton, Essex, and Essex Rebellion problem. I hope they do try. The authorship debate could then get really interesting.

All hail the new portrait!

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In recent weeks in this space I’ve commented on how the authorship debate is a story unto itself, and how the Stratfordian camp keeps cranking out one “new ” story after another in response to the debate, all the while denying that there is a debate. New biographies! New interpretations! New facts! Like a carnival barker … come one, come all! It’s new!

And now, right on cue, comes a new portrait (touted by the prominent Stratfordian Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells) , with headlines around the world, even in the midst of the financial crisis of a lifetime. And then we — those of us on the authorship beat, at least — start to learn “the rest of the story” (as the recently departed Paul Harvey would have put it).

Mark Anderson over at the Shakespeare By Another Name blog is already peeling back the rest of the story by noting the eerie similarity of this story to the 2002 story about the same man (Cobbe) “discovering” that he owned a portrait to the Earl of Southampton. I think the current story quickly sinks of its own weight when one just considers, 1) the dissimilarity of this portrait with the Droeshout and the memorial bust, plus 2) what’s with the lace collar (as some have already been asking). Isn’t such attire for aristocrats only? Given these two glaring problems (plus the peculiar linkage of the Cobbe angle in 2002 and again today) one might think that somewhere in the current media someone would be onto the authorship angle in all this. But, sadly, no. No surprise there.

What interests me the most in all this is the Shakespeare-Southampton linkage, both in the provenance of the current portrait and in the 2002 story about Cobbe and the Southampton portrait. This comes as no surprise to this writer, since it is an indisputable fact that there had to have been some sort of Shakespeare-Southampton personal contact (V&A, Lucrece, the Sonnets, RII and the Essex Rebellion) that is the Achilles heel of the entire Stratfordian attribution. Given recent new evidence on the anti-Stratfordian side of the fence (e.g. the possible linkage of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with the Essex Rebellion as Hank Whittemore has demonstrated), plus such recent mainstream scholarship on the Elizabethan Succession, Shakespeare and treason as this and on Shakespeare, Richard II and the Essex Rebellion as this), it is reasonable to say that it is this connection that we should all be looking at.

There is one hell of a Shakespearean story in “Shakespeare and Southampton,” but it’s sure not the one Stanley Wells is trying —yet again— to sell. And when I say sell, I do mean sell, since the rest of the “rest of this story” is that Wells and Cobbe are working together to publish a new book on Shakespeare and Southampton sometime next year!

The Shakespeare authorship debate … it is the never-ending story … or as the Stratfordians might put it, the “never eVer” story.

Bravo, Folly!

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The Shakespeare biographies keep coming …sometimes it feels like almost every week. But in fact it’s only a couple each year, but still, in the past 20 years or so, that adds up. One of the more recent is Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: the World as Stage (2007), which has received numerous good reviews from the media and the public (see reader reviews at Amazon.com for a sampling). Recently on this blog there were several commentaries on Bryson posted under Touchstone’s Recommended Reading which I wished to comment on at the time, and will do so now. These two commentaries (“Bravo Bryson” from  Stratfordian Terry Gray and “Bryson’s Folly” from Oxfordian Hank Whittemore) are a neat little capsule summary of the state of the authorship debate, circa 2009.

First off, we should begin towards the end of Terry Gray’s piece. He writes:

“It is a sad commentary on our time, and we should expect more of ourselves, having more access to facts, that Bryson must add a final chapter to his book dealing with ‘claimants’ … that is, the crackpot modern notion … that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Redressing these ridiculous claims does become a biographic imperative. And Bryson is the man to do it. Gray then quotes Bryson, ‘So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment –actually all of it, every bit– involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.’ Bravo Bryson [emphasis added].”

Gray continues a few lines later,

“They [i.e., anti-Stratfordians] join that scourge of the information age, the conspiracy theorists with their wayward and unsubstantiated stories about the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations, deniers of the holocaust, promoters of chariots of the gods, alien abductions, the Protocols of Zion, and so on. The stagnant swill that chokes the marginal banks of the turgid river of serious scholarship. But I digress.

Well, gee, who could argue with that? In his comments on Bryson, Oxfordian Hank Whittemore cuts right to the chase:

“Looking through Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World as Stage … I just couldn’t help wondering how he managed to get through writing it without recognizing his own contradictory statements and outright falsehoods, not to mention his snide, snickering dissimulation.”

Whittemore, quoting from the same section of the “Claimants” chapter as Gray [above], cites Bryson’s line:

“There is an extraordinary — seemingly an insatiable —  urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.”

To which Whittemore replies,

“… you are begging the question — assuming the truth of the very point being challenged!

Indeed! And that is the bane of the authorship debate, and has been from the beginning. No one, of course, is saying that the author of the Shakespeare Canon was not the author of the Shakespeare Canon. That would be absurd. What is being said is that the warm body from Stratford may be the wrong warm body, and that the name “Shake-speare” (often hypenated) may have been a pseudonym. There are myriad reasons why both those suppositions are reasonable, which in turn in why so many intelligent people (including “scholars,” whether Gray or Bryson can bring themselves to acknowledge it or not) have kept this issue simmering away for 150 plus years, and why it will never go away until there is some reasonable

There is an interesting tipoff in Bryson’s concluding chapter on the “Claimants” as to how he and Gray — and all Stratfordians — play their roles in the authorship game. In writing about Delia Bacon’s 1857 book he cites the title as: The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere [sic] Unfolded. Note the bracketed “sic,” an editorial note to the reader that the spelling “Shakspere” is not a typo. This is interesting because, as
anyone at all familar with this issue knows, the “Shakspere” spelling was used by many scholars writing about Shakespeare throughout the 19th century (check out this title page at Google Books; in fact, search “Shakspere” there and see what you get). It was, as I understand it, their way of “honoring” the true author from Stratford by using the “correct” spelling of his name, and not the spelling that appeared on title pages. Go figure! Of course once anti-Stratfordians began to exploit the spelling difference to argue that the man from Stratford (“Shakspere”) and the author named on title pages (“Shakespeare”) were two different people (i.e. two different warm bodies) …well, guess what? Bye-bye spelling differences. And so the man from Stratford is now “Shakespeare” all the time, spelling differences be damned. And so now, any time the name “Shakespeare” is found anywhere …it’s him! it’s him! Stratman! And that is that.

Does Bryson address this point? No, he does not. And further, he freely cites instances of the name “Shakespeare” appearing anywhere as being equivalent to the known documentary records concerning the life of the man from Stratford. On page 183 he claims that a professor at the University of Wales (William Rubenstein) is wrong to say none of the records concerning the Stratford man’s life mention him as an author, and he then proves his point by going on to cite instances of the name “Shakespeare” cited in the Master of the Revels accounts for 1604-1605 as the author of plays as proof that the man from Stratford was therefore identified as an author. Well, no he wasn’t.

When Whittemore wrote about Bryson’s “snide, snickering dissimulation,” this is what he meant. Not much we can do about it except to keep pointing it out. They’ll never change.