Who was W.S.? Was he really mocking Shakespeare in his pamphlet, Bought Wit is Best, or Tom Long’s Journey to London to buy wit? Did he know Shakespeare to be an illiterate from the country? Did he actually teach Shakespeare how to write comedies? For SAQ enthusiasts getting access to EEBO is worth it just to read this pamphlet. It holds a number of works attributed to W.S. from the late 16th Century and early 17th Century. Not all of them appear to be from the same author. It’s their content that has to be considered when trying to group them as having passed through the editorial or authorial hands of W.S..
What has puzzled me about the Elizabethan writer Edward Oxenford, Earl of Oxford, is that he was lauded as being the best for writing comedies by his contemporary Francis Meres, but none of his comedies is said to have survived. Meres mentions many poets, but the best of each age he places first.
“The best Poets for Comedy among the Greeks are these, Menander, Aristophanes . . . and among the Latines, Plautus, Terence, . . . so the best for Comedy amongst us bee, Edward Earle of Oxforde, . . .”
– Francis Meres Palladis Tamia (1598)(1)
I love this quote as by listing first the Ancient Greek comic writers then the Latin, followed by the English, it puts them on a par. Meres also relates the styles of the first among each age. Plautus and Terence deferred themselves to Menander, as in Shakespeare’s time, Shakespeare greatness was compared to Plautus and Terence. In their comedies of mixed identities and convoluted storylines each of these playwrights passed on a Chinese whisper that informed their plots. Oops!. . . I said Shakespeare and not Oxford. But was Shakespeare, Oxford? I don’t hold the proof for that but I think I have an argument that Oxford was W.S.(Musario).
Musario was the beloved of the Muses, the comic impresario of 1590’s London. He was London’s greatest wit, a well read scholar of the upper classes. According to the W.S. pamphlet, he taught Tom Long, the country bumpkin, how to write comedy. If we take Francis Mere’s 1598 word for it, a simple socratic deduction would conclude that Musario had to be the Earl of Oxford.
But this is just one pointer. It’s unsatisfying. The argument needs more. I went over my past searches for lost plays by Oxford.
The first pamphlet I came across was The Complaint, which made me suspect erroneously, that Edward Oxenford(e) had written it. I came to this incorrect conclusion based on the biographical references in the prefatory epistle. In my mind, he is most likely to have been its editor. Soon afterward I discovered EEBO and started searching for works by W.S.. Since then it has been a waiting game as more and more early modern lit is scanned and made available. Following is a list of works that I consider that Oxford either wrote or prepared for print, based on those searches. For some, Oxford’s authorship has already been debated and rejected or held. The criteria for my search has not taken into consideration the style of writing but the content and the possibility, however remote, that Oxford had a hand in them. They are all credited as the work of W.S.. Dates of publication are purely based on my searches and are the earliest that I have found. A date of publication is not a date of authorship, particularly in Elizabethan times.
1581- A Compendious or Briefe Examination of Certayne Ordinary Complaints (aka The Complaint by W.S. Gentleman, at one time attributed to William Shakespeare, now shown to be by Sir Thomas Smith)
1595 – The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine . . Newly set foorth, overseene and corrected, by W.S. (A play also attributed to William Shakespeare and reprinted in the 3rd Folio of Shakespeare’s works) – An edited piece by W.S.?
1602 – The True Chronicle Historie of the Whole Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell As it has Sundry Times publikely acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his servants. Written by W.S..(A play also attributed to William Shakespeare and reprinted in the 3rd Folio of Shakespeare’s works)
1607 – To the Faithful Christians – A religious pamphlet/diagram, dense with biblical references signed, “Christes unworthy minister, that desireth your edification. W.S.”
1607 – The Puritaine or the Widow of Watling- Streete Acted by the Children of Paules, written by W.S..(A play also attributed to William Shakespeare and reprinted in the 3rd Folio of Shakespeare’s works)
1612 – A Funerall Elergye in memory of the late virtuous Maister William Peter of Whipton neere Excester – thought also to have been written by Shakespeare at some time.
1634 – Bought Wit is Best, or Tom Long’s Journey to London to Buy Wit, the Prefatory Epistle is signed by W.S..
Of the earliest of the works above, in signing W.S. Veritatis on A Newe Balade or Song, W.S. provides us with a surname that is a play on Oxford’s family name, Vere. In the Complaint he furnishes us with particulars of his personal life and situation in 1581 that match the Earl’s. He also forces us to consider that he may have been an editor of others’ works. Oxfordian scholar, Nina Green, argues convincingly that The Widow of Watling Streete, was written much earlier than 1607, in the 1570s. (2) She offers, “a matrix of topical references in the play” to argue that it may have been written by Oxford.
Is this enough to require an academic investigation into the possibility that the Earl was W.S.? And if the Earl was W.S., a writer and editor and also Musario, could he also have been responsible for the finished works of Shakespeare? It is a bit of a leap – Oxford as W.S. to W.S. as Shakespeare. However, five of the seven titles signed W.S. above have been considered as the works of William Shakespeare.
Oops! I’m assuming that you’ve already heard that Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is disputable – along with his image.
(1) Quoted from the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship: www.shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/wp-content/uploads/Meres.pdf ·
(2) Edward de Vere Newsletter, no.4., De Vere Press, June 1989,February 2001.