A Most Auspicious Star
But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there !
Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets…
~ Ben Jonson, “To the memory of my beloued, The AVTHOR…”
This week, it’s my pleasure to publish a delightful Oxfordian find that landed in my mailbox a few days ago. I do believe that what follows contains a vital new clue to the perennial mystery surrounding “The AVTHOR” of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.
by Richard J. Kennedy
In 1640, the publisher John Benson put forth a curious edition of Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. This was more or less the 2nd edition of the 1609 Sonnets, with a few omissions and some extra text in praise of the poet. Amongst the many small changes in this later quarto, there are questions for the close lookers-on who have a suspicion that the makers of this 1640 edition were puzzling with the reader.
The book opens with several questions. First, there’s the frontispiece portrait. The proportions are all off and the gentleman poet, if taken to be the Stratford man, is wearing the cape of a courtier, much above his station. The verse below says that “This Shadowe is renowned Shakespear’s ?” Yet the man casts no shadow, but like some gothic undead-creep who shows no reflection in a mirror, so it is with the sitter, unless that white space is meant to be a halo.
Well, the writer poses Shakespeare’s name as a question anyway, and follows with two more question marks (the applause? delight?) where none would be wanted. Then the concluding couplet of the frontispiece poem lays out a couple of trim anagrams for Vere, precious in the sight of Oxfordians:
For ever live thy fame, the world to tell,
Thy like, no age, shall ever parallel.
In the 1609 edition of the Sonnets, the dedication page was found out by John M. Rollett to hide a cipher, which reads: “THESE SONNETS ALL BY EVER” – playing on the same ‘ever’ anagram for Vere.
Given these several visual and typographic examples of playfulness on the frontispiece of the 1640 Poems, perhaps there’s more to be found out in the front matter of that edition. On the next page, we find a letter “To The Reader”, signed by “I.B.” (presumably John Benson) , in which the text is all italic except, in the fifth line, where the name of ‘William Shakespeare’ is straight up Roman, and on the second page, first line, the word ‘Seren’ is set in the identical font.
When the text is glossed by the scholars, they often take ‘Seren’ to be a misspelling, and report the word as ‘serene’, which is fine in context, but perhaps the writer is playing with us and he really means ‘Seren’ exactly as it’s printed.
Those two exceptions may only be the sort of haggard type-setting and approximate spelling often found in texts of that time. Yet if not a mere fumbling of some apprentice printer’s devil, why set the name William Shakespeare and Seren in typographic company, perhaps drawing Seren to our special attention in this large field of otherwise italic type?
A pleasing answer might be that Seren is the Welsh word for “Star”…
…and that we are to take the word as an epithet for De Vere because a single star is quartered in his shield, and we might remember that the Chorus in Henry V proclaims the king to be “this star of England”. The phrase is also the happy choice for the title of the Oxford biography by Charlton and Dorthy Ogburn.
The 1640 Poems can be found in facsimile at the Rare Book Room
yn seren mwyaf addawol — Prospero
Richard Kennedy, independent researcher and prolific writer of children’s books, known for his “wit, iconoclasm, wild exuberance, narrative skill and poetic prose” (Children’s Books and their Creators), was the first to identify John Ford as the author of The Funeral Elegy by “W.S.”, (NY Times, 2002) and the first to propose that Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument is actually a bust of William’s father, John Shakspere, the “Woolpack Man” (TLS 2006).