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.