3.1. Honest or civil conversation


In 1592  a tale, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, provoked some turmoil in the London literary world. Robert Greene, who died on 2 or 3 September 1592, would have written it while dying. The small book contained a letter (Appendix I to this chapter) in which Greene warned three unnamed playwrights against the unscrupulous theatre companies. One actor was singled out. He was nicknamed “Shake-scene.” This would be the first and for several years the only reference to the actor William Shakespeare.  The allusion to Shakespeare seems impervious to doubt. The pun on the name Shakespeare and the line quoted from one of his plays are believed to be entirely reliable, indeed unequivocal, marks of identification. The first playwright was called a “gracer of Tragedians” but denounced as a follower of Machiavelli and his “diabolical Atheism.” The general consensus is that this must be Christopher Marlowe. The second playwright was admonished for taking “too much liberties” with scholars; he was addressed as “young Juvenal, that biting satirist.” Opinion as to his identity has for some time been divided between Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe, but the general consensus now favors Nashe. He was called “Juvenal” by Francis Meres in 1598;  also in 1598 or some time before, the character Moth in Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost is nicknamed Juvenal; Thomas Nashe is thought to have informed to some extent that personage. The third playwright is thought to be George Peele. Exactly what this third playwright was charged with has thus far eluded commentators.[1]

Robert Greene, if we are to believe the publisher, penned another work on his deathbed, The Repentance of Robert Greene, published a few weeks after Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.  But according to the publisher of Greene’s Vision, also published the same year, this was unquestionably his ultimate work, written as it was, “at the moment of his death.”  This publisher erred.  One work certainly came later: Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell, published the following year. Contemporaries, of course, did not believe that. Nor did they all believe that Robert Greene was the author of the first of these works capitalizing on the death of the popular author. Henry Chettle, a compositor and playwright, was suspected to have written Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.  In due course a public apology was required of him. Chettle followed suit in a preface to a pamphlet, Kindheart’s Dream.  In this apology he states that "one or two" of the three playwrights had taken offense and that he had been compelled to publicly apologize. One of the offended authors was the first playwright, Christopher Marlowe. The other was in all likelihood the third playwright, who did not request this apology personally. “Divers of worship” visited Henry Chettle and reported “his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing”. 

Such is the camel which the mainstream of orthodox theory, whilst straining at gnats, has been swallowing for a long time: Shakespeare would have been warned against himself. Prima facie this is a crude illogicism, at least if put forth in what can perhaps be called the unsophisticated orthodox version of which Brian Vickers, in Shakespeare, Co-Author, writes: "From Malone to Schoenbaum biographers of Shakespeare have happily identified him as the writer so soothingly conciliated.  But Lukas Erne has recently read these texts more carefully, showing that Chettle's pamphlet is addressed to the three 'Gentlemen' writers..."[2]

The identification of Shake-scene as a playwright is based on an assumption of the harmlessness of the reproaches addressed to the other two, an assumption based upon a naïve, patently unhistorical view of early modern society.

“Greene’s” offense would be that of pride, one of the seven deadly sins. Shake-scene would have transcended the charge of hubris, Robert Greene had levelled at actors four years before in his Francesco’s Fortunes: “... for it grew to a general vice among the actors to excel in pride as they did exceed in excellence, and to brave it in the streets as they brag it on the stage: so that they reveled it in Rome, in such costly robes that they seemed rather men of great patrimony than such as lived by the favour of the people.”[3]  Shake-scene, however, thought himself as able to “bombast out a blank verse” as the best of the three others.  In Francesco's Fortunes, Greene names no actors, but he is nonetheless plain enough about whom he is writing : the actors of the Queen’s Men, officially servants to the queen, “grooms of the Queen’s chamber”: “…disdain no thy tutor, because thou pratest in a King’s chamber”.[4]

               In 1590, the year Francesco’s Fortunes was published, these men could have been John Laneham, Lawrence Dutton, John Singer, or others.  None of them is known to have taken offense. Nor is anyone known to have required an apology from Thomas Nashe, when in the epistle to Greene’s Menaphon (1589) he scolded actors and some authors alike: “I am not ignorant how eloquent our gowned age is grown of late; so that every mechanical mate abhors the English he was born to... But herein I cannot so fully bequeath them to folly as their idiot art-masters, that intrude themselves to our ears as the alchemists of eloquence: who, mounted on the stage of arrogance, think to outbrave better pens with the swelling bombast of a bragging blank verse.”[5] Nashe and Greene had accused them of pride, yet nothing is heard of a scandal in 1589 or 1590.   In 1592, in Groatsworth, it was the charge of atheism laid against Marlowe that made the difference, not the reproach of pride levelled at Shake-scene.  But was it in fact the accusation of pride that Chettle rescinded?  No, clearly it was the charge of “dishonesty” and “uncivility” which was repealed.

                Chettle recants by saying that the demeanor of the man in question (the third playwright) was "civil," whereas the “divers of worship” testify to his “honesty.” Take both witnesses together and you have more or less the same testimony as that of Francis Meres' about Michael Drayton: “a man of virtuous disposition, honest conversation, and well-governed carriage, which is almost miraculous among good wits in these declining and corrupt times.”  Here we obtain a glimpse of the nature of the charge that had been made by the author of Groatsworth against the third playwright: that he was not, as was his fellow-author Michael Drayton, "of honest conversation, and well-governed carriage."[6] The orthodox assumption that there was nothing offensive in this rests on another 'tale of a tub.'

The vital importance of being honest

In Euphues and His England John Lyly (universally regarded as having had a profound influence on Shakespeare) defined what contemporaries understood by 'honesty':

“Honesty, my old grandfather called that when men lived by law not list [desire]; observing in all things the mean which we name virtue; and virtue we account nothing else but to deal justly.”[7]

                If we compare this definition with the reproach to the third playwright, we can see that something in it amounted to a charge of “dishonesty.”  He who is “driven to extreme shifts” does not observe the mean. The mean can be nothing else than virtue and virtue nothing else than dealing justly or “dealing uprightly,” another term the “divers of worship” used. 

The “divers of worship” intervened on the behalf of the third playwright.[8]  Now, Lyly offers an alternative definition of honesty. Elsewhere he writes that “late watching in the night” is “unhonest” while a wife’s honesty is essentially her honour.[9]  Again the word “honest” refers in a general way to a lifestyle. Lyly also uses the word “honest” in the sense of a man’s “honour.” [10]  

Lyly remarks: “There belongs more to a courtier than bravery... It is sober and discrete behaviour, civil and gentle demeanour.”[11]  Alternatively we find “uprightness of life.”  Speaking of behavior at court Lyly remarks: “But in things which come on the sudden one cannot be too wary to prevent or too curious to mistrust. For thou art in a place either to make thee hated for vice or loved for virtue, and as thou reverencest the one before the other, so in uprightness of life show it.”[12]

            Thus we see that in both Lyly’s and Meres' usage these terms do not carry the meaning modern commentators of the letter in Groatsworth and Chettle’s apology, have assigned them.  A courtier should affect a “civil demeanour,” Lyly writes.  Is this not what Chettle affirms, that he knew the third playwright to be of "civil demeanour"?  Let us ask: what does Francis Meres mean when he lauds Drayton’s "honest conversation”? Was this not the same as the “civil conversation” Stefano Guazzo wrote of in Civil Conversatione? “The phrase was not invented by Guazzo, but beyond all doubt, his use gave the expression its European currency during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Neither of the constituent words, conveys to the modern reader what would have been its normal meaning for an Elizabethan. The phrase, therefore, must be glossed if it is to be properly understood. In Guazzo’s day the meaning was so patent that the expression could be transferred literally from the Italian into Latin, French, Spanish, or English without the slightest confusion. The German translation (1599) of the Civil conversatione equated the title page Latin, civilis conversatio, with bürgerlich Wandel, and the Dutch (1603) rendered it as burgerlyck Ommegangh.”[13] The German translation can be rendered in English as “civil way of life,” the Dutch one as “civil intercourse” or “civil social dealing”. “Civil conversation” is “civil behaviour.” Stefano Guazzo himself gives the following definition of “civil behaviour,” equating civility to honesty:

            “You see then that we give a large sense and signification to this word for that we would have understood, that to live civilly, is not said in respect to the City, but of the quality of the mind. To be short, my meaning is, that civil conversation is an honest, commendable, and virtuous kind of living in the world.”[14] 

It is the way Shakespeare’s contemporaries understood it. In the 1580s Lodowick Bryskett wrote his Discourse of Civil Life, published in 1606. Bryskett was a friend of Spenser’s and Sidney’s; he accompanied Sidney on his journey to Italy. The purpose of his dialogue is “to frame a gentleman fit for civil conversation.”[15] Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary (1611) lists the following meanings for the French adjective honneste: honest, good, vertuous; just, upright, sincere; gentle, civill, courteous, worthy, noble, honorable, of good reputation, comelic, seemelic, handsome, wellbefitting. What an author on honnêteté and civilité in 17th-century France observes, also holds for 16th- and 17th-century England and Italy. “The gobal unit of significance in the discourse of sociability – what we traditionally call courtly behavior – was civilité, an unmotivated sign which drew its meaning from conventions rationalized through time. In Nicole’s view, civilité, is one of those ‘simple laws of decorum, whose authority originates in a consensus among people who have agreed to condemn those who do not obey them... This is why we owe to those around us the civilities laid down by the honnêtes gens, even though they may not be governed by clearly stated laws.”[16]

Despite the centrality of these notions in contemporary works on education, Shakespeare scholars have not understood it so, not like Guazzo, Lyly, and a multitude of others.  But Elizabethans understood it so. “Honesty” and “civility” are broad behavioral categories, meaning, as Guazzo stresses, largely the same. And let us remember, it  is the third playwright’s behaviour to which Chettle refers.

            In 1951, the eminent Shakespearan scholar John Dover Wilson challenged the orthodox interpretation.  He reasoned that something graver must have happened to trigger the intervention of the worshipful persons:

             “And this brings me back to my argument. Why should men of rank in that age of rigid class distinctions go out of their way to make representations to an obscure printer on behalf of a player-poet? Such things are not done without good cause and a definite end in view, and Chettle’s words themselves strongly suggest that the extraction of a complete and public apology was what was aimed at, possibly even peremptorily required. But an apology for what? What was the nature of the charge which had moved these gentry of worship to intervene in defence of their protégé? Here Chettle is plain enough. They have assured him, he tells us, and we may guess have bidden him assure the world at large, that Shakespeare is both an excellent dramatic poet and honourable man. Moreover, these two assurances were, we need not hesitate to assume, directly related to the attack made upon him. Greene’s sneers about ‘bombast’ and ‘an absolute Iohannes fac totum’ are for example countered by the testimony to a ‘facetious grace in writing’, that is to say, a polished and witty poetic and dramatic style. But why drag in that pointed reference to ‘honesty’ and ‘uprightness of dealing’? One does not publicly certify a friend is no thief unless someone else has previously asserted the contrary as publicly.”[17]

             However, given the wide range of meanings the words “honest” and “civil” could denote it is by no means a foregone conclusion that “honesty” and “uprightness of dealing” must be the opposite of theft.  It is, in the light of Lievsay’s clarifications, even unlikely they could have meant what Wilson understands by them. Somewhere in her memoirs Marguerite de Valois reports an encounter with Don John of Austria, whom she qualifies as “fort honnête homme,” “a very honest man. ”  Clearly it is ludicrous to imagine that she would have meant that Don John of Austria would never steal something.  She praised his “decorum,” his “very refined manners.”                                              

Thus if we apply the meanings defined by Lyly, the cause for the intervention of the worshipful persons points to the third playwright. Being “driven to extreme shifts” and earning a living not in accordance with his social status was living “dishonestly” or “uncivilly.” 

That he should subject his passions to reason was the very observation made by Lord Burghley which the earl of Leicester took in high dudgeon.  In an undated letter which must have been written in the run-up to Leicester’s expedition in the Low Countries in 1585, Leicester addresses Burghley irately: “... what was it but to leave me, in her majesty’s opinion, to be a man either affectionate, or opiniative in my own conceits... That I like so ill, that I would and could find way to anger you as well. I can hardly dissemble, or bear the unkind dealing of them: but rather to deal as I am dealt withal... And that I said was to your Lordship's self and before none other; but moved, as your Lordship said, in passion.”[18]

            Why was Leicester so incensed? Commentators on the Groatsworth affair would likely aver that there was nothing in Burghley's criticism to justify the intensity of the earl's response, yet Leicester’s ire is perfectly understandable.  By reproaching him for being led by opinion, not reason, and for not controlling his own passions, in fact, accusing him of not behaving honestly, Burghley denied Leicester the qualities of a “governor.” 

             What at first remains mysterious is that the “divers of worship” should refer to the third playwright’s “facetious grace in writing, which approves his art,” to bear witness to his “honest way of living”. We must recall that Castiglione had defined the ideal courtier’s behavior by criteria borrowed from the aesthetic sphere: painting, music and dancing.  In Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie the standard-setting is sometimes inverted. It is the courtier’s behavior which in some cases serves as stylistic criterion. When, for instance, Puttenham explains allegory, he refers to the courtier’s art of dissembling. “... and first by the Courtly figure Allegoria, which is when we speak one thing and think another, and that our words and our meanings meet not. The use of this figure is so large, and his virtue of so great efficacy as it is supposed no man can pleasantly utter and persuade without it... insomuch as not only every common courtier, but also the gravest councillor, yea an the most noble and wisest prince of them all are many times enforced to use it...And you shall know that we may dissemble, I mean speak otherwise than we think, in earnest as well as in sport...”[19] One other example: “And there is a decency to be observed in every man’s action & behaviour as well as in his speech & writing which some peradventure would think impertinent to be treated of in this book, where we do but inform the commendable language & style: but that is otherwise, for the good maker  who is in decent speech & good terms to describe all things and with praise or dispraise to report every man’s behaviour, ought to know the comeliness of an action as well as of a word...”[20]

                Courtly behaviour and good poetry had become interchangeable, an aspect of Puttenham’s theory which has escaped most commentators of his work. “While critics have shown that many of its theoretical prescriptions reflect and anticipate English poetic practice, hardly anyone has observed that courtly manners determine the viability of these prescriptions. Yet one of the controlling assumptions in the work is that to be a good poet entails being a proper courtier.”[21]

                 And this is what the “divers of worship” testified to by insisting on the third playwright’s “facetious grace in writing”:  he was a good poet and a proper courtier.

The Italianate gentleman

                   In 1592, Gabriel Harvey had grown more sober. As seen, he published his Four Letters, and certain sonnets, one letter more than twelve years earlier but with a considerably shorter title. The full title of his 1580 publication is Three proper wittie familiar Letters, lately passed betweene two Universitie men, touching the Earthquake in April last, and our English reformed versifying.  He refers to these three letters in 1592.  Not unlike Chettle, he regrets not having used more discretion.  Harvey tells us why he had been somewhat indiscreet, “I was then young in years, fresh in courage, green in experience, and as the manner is, somewhat overweening in conceit.”[22]  Harvey had libeled someone, clearly a 'special' person. 

            Like Chettle twelve years later, Harvey had been compelled to apologize for something he had published, also by persons “of worship.” He explains that “the sharpest part of those unlucky letters had been overread at the Council Table; I was advised by certain honourable and divers worshipful persons to interpret my intention in more express terms.”[23] It is even likely that he was sent to the Fleet prison for slander or at least threatenened with it, though he expressly denies that he was “orderly clapped in the Fleet for the foresaid letters: where he saw me, saw me in Constantinople.”[24] McKerrow found the meaning  of the last phrase in Stow’s London: “where it is said that for a bribe the Marshall will allow prisoners in the King’s Bench to go where they please insomuch, that when anyone asks the rules, or limits of this prison, answer is made, at Constantinople; and indeed anywhere.”[25]  This may mean that Harvey was formally committed to the Fleet but could come and go freely. We need not speculate about the “Council Table” and the identity or function of the “some honourable and divers worshipful persons,” they are privy councillors. Two of them Harvey identifies: second secretary of state Thomas Wilson and Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

            What had been Harvey’s offense? The third of the Three familiar letters (the one on English versifying) contained a lampoon on the 17th Earl of Oxford.  De Vere, though not named, was the recognizable target.  In a poem entitled “Speculum Tuscanismi” (the mirror of Tuscanism or Italianism), the earl was depicted as one with effeminate Italianate manners, a smear not as grave as the atheism with which Marlowe was charged in 1592, but a defamation of character nonetheless. Only ten years before Ascham’s The Scholemaster had branded Italy in general as “the court of Circe” and the Italianate Englishman in particular as an “incarnated devil.”  “If you think we judge amiss... hear what the Italian says of the Englishman... Inglese Italianato è un diabolo incarnato, that is to say, you remain men in shape and action, but become devils in life.”[26]  Only bad manners could be learnt in Italy. “He that by living and traveling Italy brings home into England out of Italy the religion, the learning, the policy, the experience, the manners of Italy... for manners, variety of vanities, and change of filthy living. These be the enchantments of Circe, brought out of Italy to mar men’s manners in England, much by example of ill life, but more by precepts of fond books, of late translated out of Italian into English, sold in every shop in London, commended by honest titles the sooner to corrupt honest manners.”[27] And in unmistakable allusion to Machiavelli, “they make Christ and his Gospel only serve civil policy”.[28] The reproach of the Italianate was not too far from that of atheism. Lord Burghley held similar opinions. In instructions to his son Robert Cecil he gives this advice: “And suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps: for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism.”[29] Some of Ascham’s characterizations occur in Harvey’s libel: “Vanity above all,” “Indeed most frivolous, not a look but Tuscanish always,” “None do I name, but some do I know, that a piece of twelvemonth,/ Hath so perfected outly and inly.” Twelve months was about the time Oxford had passed in Italy. There could be no doubt that Oxford was aimed at, the more because “Speculum Tuscanismi” was immediately followed by the comment, “Tell me in good sooth, does it not too evidently appear that this English poet wanted but a good pattern before his eyes, as it might be some delicate and choice elegant Poesie of good M. Sidney’s and M. Dyer’s.”[30]  Finally, any hypothetical residual doubt is dissolved by Harvey’s Letter-book (not printed until 1884) where a slightly different version of “Speculum Tuscanismi” appears, followed by the comment “Now tell me, I beseech you, if this be not a noble verse and politic lesson... in effect containing the argument of his courageous and warlike apostrophe to my Lord of Oxenforde in his fourth book Gratulationum Valdinensium.” [31]

            Besides, Harvey had been spewing dragonish flames of insult at Dr. Andrew Perne, his “old controller... A busy and dizzy head, a leaden brain, a wooden wit, a copper face; a stony breast, a factious and elvish heart... a morning bookworm, an afternoon maltworm, full of his sleights... odd shifts,and knavish practices, as his skin can hold. He often tells me he loves me as himself, but out liar out, you lie in your throat.”[32] Ironically, twelve years later Harvey would call Thomas Nashe a “Thundersmith of terms” using “rattling terms... to rail his patrons, to bite his pen, to rend his papers, to rage in all points.“[33] Perne was vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the highest permanent official,  Lord Burghley’s chancellorship being in fact virtually an honorary office. Four years after Perne’s death (1589) Harvey’s rancour was still haunting him; over no less than sixteen pages (pp. 295-311) in Pierce’s Supererogation), oscillating between admiration and hatred, he describes Perne as a sly fox.  Harvey had hoped to be appointed public orator of the university, and egocentric as he was, he might have thought himself the only one suitable for the office.  It may well have been his overweening that caused the cautious Dr. Perne to oppose his candidature. Unfortunately for Harvey, old Sir James Croft, controller of the royal household, believed the insults were levelled at him. It is hard to see how Croft could have drawn this conclusion; apart from the word “controller,” it lay on the surface that Harvey’s insults were directed against some high-ranking official at the university of Cambridge. But at that time Harvey was a client of the earl of Leicester with whom Croft had recently run afoul over politics with Spain.  Leicester led the war party, Croft belonged to the Spanish faction, being an ardent advocate of peace negotiations. At some time before 1581 he had received a pension from the Spanish crown. He might have wanted to give the servant 'a punch to pinch the lord.'

            According to Harvey’s own account, which must be taken with a grain of salt, it all ended well. “Indeed Sir James Croft, whom I never touched with the least tittle of detractions, was cunningly incensed and reincensed against me. But at last pacified by the voluntary mediation of my honorable favourers, M. Secretary Wilson and Sir Walter Mildmay, unrequested by any line of my hand or any word.”[34] After that Harvey was informed that Sir James Croft was satisfied.

            Dr. Perne and Sir James Croft, even if they felt personally slandered (which Perne certainly was) could not intervene personally.  It was more than their personal affair.  It was an affair of state.

Scandalum Magnatum

                Dr. Perne and Sir James Croft were protected against slander by several statutes.

First, by Statute 3ºEdward I. (1275) c.34: “Forasmuch as there have been

oftentimes found in the Country Devisors of Tales, whereby discord or occasion of discord, hath many times arisen between the King and the People, or Great Men of this Realm... It is commanded, That from henceforth none be so hardy to tell or publish any false News or Tales, whereby discord, or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his People, or the Great Men of the Realm.” The chapter was re-enacted in 2º Richard II. (1378) as chapter 5. The “Great Men of the Realm”, the class of “magnates” was more detailedly specified: “Prelates, Dukes, Earls, Barons, and other Nobles and Great Men of the Realm, and also of the Chancellor, Treasurer, Clerk of the Privy Seal, Steward of the King’s House, Justices of the one Bench or the other, and of other Great Officers of the Realm.” Dr Perne’s rank as vice-chancellor and dean of Ely qualified him as a prelate, Croft’s office of controller of the royal household as one of the “other Great Officers of the Realm”. The chapter was again re-enacted as chapter 11 of 12º Richard II. (1388). A significant addition was made to the last phrase of the previous statute, “to be punished by the Advice of the Council, notwithstanding the said Statutes.”

            The narrow relation between Privy Council and Star Chamber existed throughout the reign of the Tudors, and basically the Star Chamber served the same purpose under Tudors and Stuarts, to establish and strengthen the royal prerogative and the public order and, reciprocally, to suppress seditious and private slander alike. Slander of “magnates” was considered seditious, private slander was a breach of the peace. “The Council and the Star Chamber had, in the interests of the peace and security of the State, assumed a strict control over the Press. Naturally the Star Chamber assumed jurisdiction in all cases in which its rules on this matter had been infringed; and this led it to regard defamation as a crime. Borrowing perhaps from the Roman law Libella Famosa, it treated libels both upon officials and private persons as crimes. The former were seditious libels, and directly affected the security of the State [our emphasis] and the latter obviously led to breaches of the peace. On the same principle it dealt with seditious words.”[35] Thus, in the case of the controller Sir James Croft and Dr Perne the slander constituted not just a breach of peace and an affair between private people, it was regarded as a “scandalum magnatum” for which the statute of 12º Richard II., c. 11 provided the possibility of an intervention of the Privy Council. This was not the case for Chettle’s slander of Marlowe. But Marlowe could have sued Chettle in the Star Chamber and Chettle would have been facing imprisonment.

              The notion that this statute might only have been effective in the 'dark reign' of Richard II or that of his more immediate successors, but with time unfolding toward 'enlightenment' that it would have faded into insignificance, is erroneous.  The opposite is true:  “There is very little evidence of the working of these statutes during the middle ages, but cases begin to appear in the common law courts under Elizabeth. This is perhaps connected with the fact that the statutes on scandalum magnatum were once more re-enacted in 1554 and again in 1559, but with additional clauses on “seditious words”; justices of peace were given the jurisdiction, and the punishment was loss of ears for words, and of the right hand for writing.”[36] Thus we see that far from leveling social distinctions and mitigating the punishment for their transgression, both Mary and Elizabeth reinforced the statutory basis for enforcing their respect. On the one hand, the respect of degree was a rationale of the political order. Shakespeare’s words are well known:

            "Take but degree away, untune that string,

            And hark what discord follows"   --Troilus & Cressida, I.iii.109-10).

Queen Elizabeth’s words, as related by Fulke Greville, are not nearly so famous.  In 1579 she forbade a duel between Philip Sidney and the earl of Oxford. “ The Queen... presently undertakes Sir Philip... and lays before him the difference in degree between earls and gentlemen; the respect inferiors owed to their superiors: and the necessity in princes to maintain their own creations, as degrees descending between the people’s licentiousness and the anointed sovereignty of crowns: how the gentleman’s neglect of the nobility taught the peasant to insult upon both.”[37]

              On the other hand, neither Mary's claim nor Elizabeth’s was firmly established in the wake of the tribulations around the succession in the last years of Henry VIII’s reign. Under these circumstances the “scandalum magnatum,” the affirmation of “degree,” was more and more drained into the jurisdictional sphere of the prerogative courts: the Privy Council in its judicial quality and its prolonged judicial arm, the Court of the Star Chamber. The matter became “pre-eminently the province of the council, and it is unlikely that the justices of peace would be allowed much scope for the independent exercise of their statutory powers under the act of 1559. The throne of Elizabeth was too unsteady, and the political situation much too dangerous for the council to resign the trial of political offences into the hand of the country justices.”[38] Violations of the statute of “scandalum magnatum” were nevertheless handled with caution. There was one John Stubbs in the 45 years of the reign of Elizabeth I, there were Alexander Leighton and William Prynne in the 17 years of the reign of Charles I. Not many cases of “slander of peers” are known for the Elizabethan era.  There were certainly more than are known today, partly due to the loss of documents, partly because they did not make their way into the public eye, but probably most often because the authorities were cautious not to over-react and simply ignored them.

                 John Lyly was not wallowing in poetic license when in 1589 in his anti-Martinist pamphlet Pappe with a Hatchet he announced Gabriel Harvey’s entrance into the theatre of the “civil war of wits” and recalled the latter’s libeling of Oxford in 1580: “And one will we conjure up, that writing a familiar Epistle about the natural causes of an earthquake, fell into the bowels of libelling, which made his ears quake for fear of clipping... If he join with us, periisti Martin, thy wit will be massacred; if the toy take him to close with thee, then have I my wish, for this ten years have I looked to lamback him.”[39] 

            Clipping of the ears was the penalty determined, in the statute of 1559, for slander of peers.  In theory Harvey could have been sent into the pillory and had his ears clipped, in practice the only real harm Harvey seems to have suffered was the definitive clipping of his much longed-for academic career. By publicly exposing the earl of Oxford’s Italianate manners he had slandered a peer.  To be Italianated was to be dishonest, and noblesse oblige, it was one of the obligations of the aristocracy to be “makers of manners,” honest manners; to deny that an aristocrat had been living honestly was to dishonour him. In 1592 Harvey denies the intent, confirming at the same time the effect: “...whose noble Lordship I protest I never meant to dishonour with the least prejudicial word of my tongue or pen: but ever kept a mindful reckoning of many bound duties to the same: since in the prime of his gallantest youth he bestowed angels upon me in Christ College in Cambridge...”[40] Harvey further writes that Oxford was not put out with him over “Speculum Tuscanismi.” “But the noble Earl, not disposed to trouble his jovial mind with such Saturnine paltry still continued like his magnificent self.”[41] This is most likely true, but it did not profit Harvey much. Oxford’s subjective feelings lost any bearing upon the case the moment John Lyly publicized the libel, drawing the Privy Council’s attention to it.  Once public, it became a “scandalum magnatum”, and the Privy Council could not remain inactive.

            Perhaps nothing would have happened between Harvey and Oxford in 1580 had not John Lyly publicized the affair.  In Pierces Supererogation (the part written in 1590) Harvey says: “Papp-hatchet, desirous for his benefit, to curry favour with a noble Earl; and in defect of other means of commendation, labouring to insinuate himself by smooth glosing & counterfeit suggestions...”[42]  But further details do not appear. Harvey is more outspoken in his Four Letters: “And that was all the Fleeting that I ever felt; saving that an other company of special good fellows, (whereof he was none of the meanest that bravely threatened to conjure up one, which should massacre Martin’s wit, or should be lambacked himself with ten years provision) would need forsooth very courtly persuade the Earl of Oxford that something in those letters, and namely the Mirror of Tuscanismo, was palpably intended against him.”[43] Then, we learn from the notebook of a contemporary that Lyly drew the Privy Council’s attention to it.  Once apprised, the Council had to act.  Harvey’s letters were overread by the Council. Oxford himself might have preferred not to take notice of it. If Harvey had reached beyond his station in slandering a peer, Lyly had been overzealous in remonstrating with him. The notebook of the contemporary scholar, William Withie, contains the following doggerel:

            Thus to apply, by tattling them

            as I think Lyly lets not ofttimes great men

            who troubled perchance with matters of weight

            plucks up by the root this Lyly grown straight

            him great men & grave men do laugh still to scorn

            Thus checked, they bid him go where he was born.[44]         

[1] See also Det.2.1.1. Anntoations and  3.5.5 Henry Chettle, Greenes Groatsworth of Wit.

[2] Cited by Brian Vickers in Shakespeare, Co-Author: a historical study of five collaborative plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 141, from Lukas Erne, 'Biography and Mythography: Rereading Chettle's Alleged Apology to Shakespeare,' ES 79 (1998): 438.

[3] Greene, Life and Works, ”Francesco’s Fortunes”, Vol. 8, pp. 132-33.

[4] Ibid., p. 132.

[5] Nashe, Thomas: Works, ed. R.B.McKerrow and F.P. Wilson, 5 vols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell , 1958, vol. III, p. 311).

[6] The author of Groatsworth says: “And thou, no less deserving than the other two, in some things rarer, in nothing inferior, driven (as myself) to extreme shifts, a little have I to say to thee, and were it not an idolatrous oath, I would swear by sweet St. George thou art unworthy better hap sith thou dependest on so mean a stay [sustenation]”.

[7] Lyly, John: “Euphues & His England” in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit – Euphues & His England, ed. M.W. Croll and Harry Clemons. New York: Russell & Russell Inc, 1964, p. 241-2.

[8] Chettle wrote: “Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty.” It is not sure that there took place any intervention or admonition. [KK]

[9] Ibid., p. 209.

[10] Ibid., p. 239.

[11] Ibid., p. 249.

[12] Ibid., p. 250.

[13] Lievsay, John L. Stefano Guazzo and the English Renaissance 1575-1675. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1960, p. 34.

[14] Ibid., p. 35.

[15] Ibid., p. 85.

[16] Stanton, Domna C. The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, p. 131.

[17] Wilson, John Dover: “Malone and the Upstart Crow,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 4, 1951, pp. 61f.

[18] Strype, John: Annals of the Reformation and of Establishment of Religion, 4 vols., Reprint of original edition, Oxford 1824, New York: Burt Franklin, 1966, Vol. Iv.2, pp. 506-8.

[19] The Art of English Poesie, p. 186.

[20] Ibid., p. 276.

[21] Javitch, Daniel: Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 50.

[23] Ibid., p.180.

[24] Ibid., p. 182.

[25] Nashe, IV.178, n. 297.

[26] Ascham, Scholemaster, p. 26b.

[27] Ibid., p. 27a.

[28] Ibid., p. 28b.

[29] Strype, Annals, III.2, p. 477.

[30] Harvey, Works, I.86.

[31] Harvey, Gabriel: Letter-book of Gabriel Harvey, A.D. 1573-1580, ed. E.J.L. Scott, printed for the Camden Society, 1884, p. 99.

[32] Harvey, Works, I. 72-3.

[33] Ibid., I.206.

[34] Ibid., p. 182.

[35] Holdsworth, William S.: “Defamation”, July 1924, p. 305.

[36] Plucknett, T.F.T. : A Concise History of the Common Law , fifth edition, London: Butterworth & Co. Ltd. First edition 1929, p. 486.

[37] Greville, Fulke: “The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney“ in Complete Works, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 4 vols., New York: AMS Press, 1966, vol. IV, p. 69.

[38] Plucknett, Concise History, p. 487.

[39] Lyly, John: The Complete Works of, ed. R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols., Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1902, vol. 3, p. 400.

[40] Harvey, Works, I.184.

[41] Ibid., p. 184.

[42] Ibid, II.122.

[43] Ibid., I. 183-4.

[44] Austen, Warren B.: „William Withie’s Notebook“ in Review of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1947, p. 303.