On the way to his mother, who wants to call him to order for the disturbance he has caused by staging the play, Hamlet says:

                        O heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever
                        The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;
                        Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
                        I will speak daggers, but use none.

Why this reference to the Roman emperor Nero here? The answer seems obvious. Nero killed his mother Agrippina the Younger or rather ordered her assassination. Yet this does not entirely explain the “soul of Nero”. Why not referring to the soul of another mother murderer, remaining within the dramatic universe, say Orestes? The case of Orestes has even some features more in common with Hamlet than that of Nero. However, it is precisely the historic-histrionic context that calls for the reference to Nero.

In his book Hamlet’s enemyMadness and Myth in Hamlet (1975) the American psychiatrist Theodore Lidz (1910-2001) writes that we may assume that Nero, the  incest-driven mother murderer who later went mad like Orestes,1 persecuted by the furies after he had unwillingly killed his mother (p. 59) and that the lines 418-421:

                         O heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever
                        The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;
                        Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
                        I will speak daggers, but use none.

are not accidental but indicate that Nero’s character must have vividly stood before Shakespeare’s eyes when he wrote his play2 ,as  is shown by his having substituted Claudius, the name of the Roman emperor, for Fengo in the Amlethus saga of Saxo Grammaticus. The association between Claudius and Hamlet Theodore Lidz offers, though, is what could be termed “a quasi-empty vector”. The known history  of the emperor Claudius has only little in common with Hamlet. The direct correspondences Lidz proposes are stretched. The name Claudius can be better explained as a “Galton photograph”, a sort of composite  photograph functioning as a form of  condensation which Freud employs in the Interpretation of dreams. Several portraits are superimposed on one another so  as to create a composite image. In this case the “Galton photograph”  is not Claudius himself  but the composite image of Caligula, nephew of Claudius and his predecessor, an adolescent emperor who like Nero showed a pronounced affinity to the theatre but unlike Nero without overstepping the borders between  spectator and actor, the space of the audience and the stage. The adolescent Caligula was the predecessor of Claudius, the adolescent Nero was his successor. The adolescent Hamlet is at the same time predecessor and successor of his uncle Claudius.  Georg Hegel in his Philosophy of History observes: “The Romans were as essentially different from the Greeks in respect to their public games. In these the Romans were, properly speaking, only spectators. The mimetic and theatrical representation, the dancing, foot-racing and wrestling, they left to manumitted slaves, gladiators, or criminals condemned to death. Nero’s deepest degradation was his appearing on a public stage as a singer, lyricist and combatant. As the Romans were only spectators, these diversions were something foreign to them; they did not enter into them with their whole souls.” 3

Insofar Nero would have been rather a Greek than a Roman – as indeed he was in his own conceit. And Hamlet too, differently from Horatio, would also have been more of a Greek than a Roman. In Sonnet 121 Shakespeare defends his own playfulness against criticisms: “For why should others’ false adulterate eyes/Give salutation to my sportive blood?” At this juncture some will perhaps be reminded of Oxford’s resolve expressed in his letter of 13 July 1576 to Burghley : “and will still prefer myne owne content before others.’”And if Hamlet is more or less Edward de Vere’s autobiography, it seems no  overheated expectation that we may gather some useful information on him from what we can learn about Nero.

            It should further be noted that a reference to Nero also arouses from Hamlet’s reaction immediately after the play. What Hamlet exults over before anything else, especially before the confirmation of the truth of the Ghost’s message and Claudius’ culpability, is the success of his theatrical performance:

            Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk
            with me, with Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry
            of players? (III.ii.269-272)

Is it not so that Hamlet’s words can be paraphrased as “what a great actor would the world get with me”? Which is the opposite of Nero’s famous last words before his suicide:“qualis artifex pereo” (“what a great artist perishes with me”).

            Hegel’s observation on Nero is in all likelihood derived from Tacitus’s Annals. A selection of quotes from the Annals might corroborate the parallelism between Nero and Edward de Vere. The parallelism is mainly of a sociological rather than a psychological nature.

            According to Tacitus, the degradation of exposing oneself on the stage not only debased the  individual aristocrat but his whole house including his posterity and even the whole aristocracy as a class . “Imagining that he mitigated the scandal by disgracing many others, he brought on the stage descendants of noble families, who sold themselves because they were paupers. As they have ended their days, I think it due to their ancestors not to hand down their names.” If this world view had also prevailed in Tudor England, we would here have a sufficient explanation of why Edward de Vere’s authorship and involvement in the world of the theatre was guarded as a secret by his descendants. And perhaps also why Shakespeare, virtually addressing another aristocrat, probably the Earl of Southampton, wrote “My name be buried where my body is,/ And live no more to shame nor me, nor you./ For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,/ And so should you, to love things nothing worth."/(Sonnet 72)

When asked about the emperor Nero the first things that come to mind might well be that he was a persecutor of Christians — which he was; that he set Rome afire and followed the burning singing it on the harp — which according to the historian Tacitus, his most implacable detractor, he did not; that he had an incestuous relationship with his mother — which is likely ; and, finally, that he ordered some thugs to kill his mother Agrippina — which he did.

If we can trust Tacitus, his mother Agrippina would have disapproved of his penchant for games and theatrical performance, but after her death this barrier was swept aside. “and {he] then plunged into all the excesses, which, though ill-restrained, some sort of respect for his mother had for a while delayed (14,13).

            What was so abject about the theatre? At the same time nothing and everything. Nothing, for the dictator Sulla, though politically strongly committed to aristocratic values , was fond of acting and liked the company of professional actors, likewise before starting and after terminating his political career. But not  DURING his activities as a  military and political leader, and not NOT PUBLICLY, before the eyes of the common people . At the beginning of his reign Nero’s main advisers, the philosopher Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the prefect of the praetorians, the emperor’s bodyguard, were willing to make a concession in creating some private area in which the young emperor, remained unseen by the multitude. “He could no longer be restrained, when Seneca and Burrus thought it best to concede one point that he might not persist in both. A space was enclosed in the Vatican valley where he might manage his horses, without the spectacle being public. Soon he actually invited all the people of Rome, who extolled him in their praises, like a mob which craves for amusements and rejoices when a prince draws them the same way. However, the public exposure of his shame acted on him as an incentive instead of sickening him, as men expected. Imagining that he mitigated the scandal by disgracing many others, he brought on the stage descendants of noble families, who sold themselves because they were paupers.” (14.14)

Tacitus goes on: “As they have ended their days, I think it due to their ancestors not to hand down their names.” As an aristocrat, Tacitus feels the obligation not to name those that disgraced themselves out of respect to their posterity. Obviously, Tacitus considers that if he named those having bowed to Nero’s request to join him on the public stage their disgrace would have inherited by their descendants. The disgrace consisted  in the breach with the long-standing tradition of Roman aristocratic houses. “When we had possessed ourselves of Achaia and Asia, games were exhibited with greater elaboration, and yet no one at Rome of good family had stooped to the theatrical profession during the 200 years following the triumph of Lucius Mummius, who first displayed this kind of show in the capital. Lucius Mummius Achaicus was the consul who defeated the Achaean league in 146 B.C.

            The most derogatory qualifiers Tacitus uses for Nero’s behavior have, indeed,  nothing to do with the killing of his mother but  with what in one case (14,13) he  considers his “public exposure”.  It is probably no coincidence when Helen Vendler  (who never considers the possibility that Shakespeare might have been an aristocrat) writes in her comments on Sonnet 110 (“Alas ‘tis true, I have gone here and there,/And made myself a motley to the view”) “One senses from subsequent lines that the speaker has been reviling himself inwardly with accusations quite different from the one of self-exposure voiced by the young man.” “I have gored my own thoughts, I have sold my dearest things for a farthing, I have taken up new affections, and the truest accusation of all is that I have avoided telling the truth.”5 At this point it seems almost inevitable to turn to Nietzsche’s remarks on Shakespeare and Brutus, but to keep to a less dizzying chronology we turn to Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490-1546) and The Boke named the Governour (printed in 1531).


The book was published in 1531 and dedicated to King Henry VIII. “Governor”  here means political leader. To Elyot a governor, a political leader can only be an aristocrat. In his book, Elyot enumerates the criteria  a governor has to fulfill. The totality of the criteria can be subsumed under the general heading “honesty”. The substantive “honesty” and its derivatives “honest,” “dishonesty, “dishonest,” occur  nearly 50 times in Elyot’s book, intended as an education guide for the aristocracy, the “new” aristocracy as it were, sort of new code of the aristocracy, no longer aligned to the feudal military-guided idea of “honor” but to honor, “honestum” as determined by Cicero in the slogan “cedant arma  togae! (let military power give way to civil power ) and unfolded in De officii. & Of Duties)

Roger Ascham’s The Schoolemaster was published posthumously in 1579. The writing was started in 1563 at the suggestion  of the then Secretary of State Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley.  The subject was the same as in The Boke of the Governor, the education of the aristocratic youth.  In the first half of the book the substantive “honesty” and its derivatives “honest,” “dishonesty, “dishonest,” occur  nearly 50 times.

But what does “honesty” mean? It can take on several meanings, including the modern meaning of “sincere”. However, most frequently it denotes a certain way of behavior and has a very general meaning of “propriety”. Into English it is  occasionally translated as “moral goodness”. The OED gives nearly 20 different possible meanings. It can also mean “honorable” as opposed to the feudal warlike definition of honour. As is insinuated in Lord Burghley’s counsel to his son Robert: “And suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps: for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism. And if by travel they get a few broken languages, they will profit them not more, than to have meat served in divers dishes. Neither by my consent shalt thou train them up to the wars. For he that setteth up his rest to live by that profession can hardly be an honest man or good Christian: for every war is of itself unjust, unless the cause make it just. Besides, it is a science no longer in request than in use: soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer. 6

Elyot’s and Ascham’s works read like a farewell to chivalry. We also know that Lord Burghley ans Roger Ascham alike disliked anything Italian – for whatever reasons.

            What matters most in the present context is that Elyot upholds the emperor Nero as negative example of cultural achievement on similar grounds as Tacitus more than a millenium earlier:

“But in this commendation of music I would not be thought to allure noble men to haue so muche delectation therein, that, in playing and singing only, they should  put their whole study study and felicity: as did the emperor Nero, which all a long summer day would sit in the Theatre, (an open place where all the people of Rome beheld solemn act and plays), and, in the presence of all the noble men and senators, would play on his harp and sing without cessing. [modernized spelling]”7

Elyot indicates the rationale of this counsel. This rationale is not essentially different from how Tacitus assesses Nero’s behavior or John Selden  about 1650 the use a Lord  may make of poetry: exposure to the common view.

“And if the child be of a perfect inclination and towardness to virtue, and very aptly disposed to this science, and ripely dothe understande the reason and concordance of tunes, the tutor's office shall be to persuade him to have principally in remembrance his estate, whiche makes him exempt from the liberty of usinge this science in every time and place: that is to say, that it onely serues for recreation after tedious or laborious affairs, and to show him that a gentleman, playing or singing in a common audience, appaireth [impairs]his estimation: the people forgetting reverence, when they behold him in the similitude of a common seruant or minstrel.”8

For a while afterwards Nero still refrained from “disgracing himself on the public stage”. One must assume that Agrippina deprecated her son’s artistic and sportive exhibitions for it is after her death that Nero overstepped the barrier between private and public. Typically, the first attempt to kill his mother was planned as a sort of circensial device. “An ingenious suggestion was offered by Anicetus, a freedman, commander of the fleet at Misenum, who had been tutor to Nero in boyhood and had a hatred of Agrippina which she reciprocated. He explained that a vessel could be constructed, from which a part might by a contrivance be detached, when out at sea, so as to plunge her unawares into the water. "Nothing," he said, "allowed of accidents so much as the sea, and should she be overtaken by shipwreck, who would be so unfair as to impute to crime an offence committed by the winds and waves? The emperor would add the honour of a temple and of shrines to the deceased lady, with every other display of filial affection... Nero liked the device”. (Annals, Book XIV) Compare with Hamlet. Hamlet stages a play to reveal a crime but appreciates the theatrical performance as much or more, at any rate sooner, than its evidentiary value; Nero recurs to a contrivance to conceal a crime but given the fact that there were simpler ways to kill his mother, as he chose later when she was slaughtered, but seems to have been attracted as much by the sophisticated scenario.


In sonnet 112 Shakespeare writes:

            Your love and pity doth th’impression fill,
            Which  vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow,

I know of no actual event in Oxford’s life to which this vulgar scandal could relate.But it is possible to relate it to an event alluded to by John Davies of Hereford in the famous epigram with which I’ve dealt at length on this website: front_content.php?idcat=190&idart=465&lang=1

Here I would like to add a complementary note on “honesty thou sowest”.  “Honesty” was not only required from aristocrats; but courtiers, according to Ascham had to set the example.  “Take hede therfore, ye great ones in ye Court, yea though ye be ye greatest of all, take hede, what ye do, take hede how ye liue. For as you great ones vse to do, so all meane men loue to do. You be in deed, makers or marrers, of all mens maners within the Realme. For though God hath placed yow, to be cheife in making of lawes, to beare greatest authoritie, to commaund all others: yet God doth order, that all your lawes, all your authoritie, all your commaundementes, do not halfe so moch with meane men, as doth your example and maner of liuinge.”9 Shakespeare echoes this precept in Henry V, V.ii: We are makers of manners, Kate.   

John Davies of Hereford tells us that Shakespeare fell into disgrace because “he played kingly roles “in sport”. Had he played such roles in private, which was admitted and often enough happened at Court, no disgrace would have ensued. Logically, he must have acted in public, which was ,  according to Tacitus, the biggest scandal Nero, provoked and which an English “governor” in Tudor times, according to Sir Thomas Elyot, should also shun. Such acting on a public stage was unfit, it could not be considered “honest” or honorable in the sense defined by Elyot.

            And now to the letter in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. I would like to draw the attention to several facts. First, the letter caused a certain scandal, see Thomas Nashe’s preface to Pierces Penniless. “lastly, to the ghost of Robert Greene, telling him what a coil there is with pamphleting on him after his death…

Other news I am advertised of, that a scald trivial lying pamphlet called Greene’ s Groatsworth of Wit is given out to be of my doing. God never have care of my soul but utterly renounce me, if the least word or syllable in it proceeded from my pen, or if I were any way privy to the writing or printing of it.

It is about this time that Oxford’s standing among his peers was quashed (see Peter Moore, “The Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter” and the sudden end of any favorable votes for the Order of the Garter)

Moreover, besides the “coil” noted there was a scandal, a veritable “scandalum magnatum”. Really, in several articles, all of them printed, none of them commented on, I’ve demonstrated that one of the playwrighths attacked was in all likelihood, as orthodox  scholars assumed, indeed “Shakespeare”, though in fact an aristocrat, that the “divers  of worship” requesting from Chettle a public recantation were privy councillors, that Chettle addressed a personal apology to one of the playwrights (Marlowe in all likelihood), but not to the other playwright for the simple reason that a restitution of honour  from a commoner to an aristocrat was an impossibility, only a punishment or a threat would suffice. All this can be demonstrated from a careful reading of Henry Chettle’s apology. Even more can be demonstrated from a careful reading of Henry Chettle’s apology!!!

Provided we are not immediately vying for the grand solution and learn asking simple questions and finding simple answers to simple questions. One such question is whether in the reproach to the third playwright something “dishonest” was implied, given that the “divers of worship” denied the  diffamation by testifying to his “honesty”. I repeat: if the  divers of worship assured that the third playwright was “honest”, the letter must have contained a reproach amounting to an accusation of dishonesty. And did Chettle retract, as urged by the divers of worship? Yes, Chettle did recant by  saying that he has seen the demeanour of the third playwright as civil as he excellent in the quality he professes. “Quality he professes” should be clear; it it the phrase Thomas Heywood and some legal documents employ to designate professional players. And “civility” and “honesty” were interchangeable predicates (which John Dover Wilson completely ignored). Further:

            The third playwright was not only a playwright and an aristocrat, he was at the time also behaving like a professional actor.

 But who was this third playwright? Was it Shakespeare as the old consensus was? Or was it George Peele as the current consensus now is . However, George Peele was neither aristocrat nor actor. But is there not the phrase “I would swear by Saint George”? Peele’s Christian name was George. Can this suffice for unequivocable identification? In the light of Saint George being the English patron saint identification on the basis of the Christian name alone becomes far less cerrtain, pace Brian Vickers and Lukas Erne. Swearing by Saint George must have been fairly common. Especially for soldiers10. Saint George was a military patron-saint. Not surprisingly Ben Jonson in Every Man in His Humour has his Miles Gloriosus Bobadill swear several times by Saint George. Proof in the appendix.

Robert Detobel, 2018    



By St. George, the Foot of Pharaoh, the Body of me, as I am a Gentle-
man, and a Soldier: such dainty Oaths!

 Hang him, rook, hee! why he ha's no more
judgment than a Malt-horse. By S. George, I wonder
youl'd lose a thought upon such an animal:


With your leave, Sir, and there were no more
Men living upon the face of the Earth, I should not fan-
cy him, by St. George.

O Lord, Sir, by St. George, I was the first Man
that entred the breach: and, had I not effected it with

1  Nero is not known to have gone mad.

2 The page numbers are taken from the German translation 0f 1980. From first part “The madness motive in Shakespeare’s dramas and paragraph 5 of first part “Hamlet’s mood reversal”. No evidence is known of Nero having gone mad after Agrippina’s assassination.


4 In the original spelled as „others“ without genitive apostrophe. I have assimilated it to old spelling. Compare modern spelling in sonnet 121: For why should others’ false adullterate eyes” and spelling in quarto of 1609: “For why should others false adulterate eyes.”

5 Helen Vendler, The Art of SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS, p.467.

6 Strype, Annals of Church and State, p. 477

7 P. 15

8 Ellyot, p. 16 . Compare John Selden: Tis ridiculous  for a Lord to print verses, ‘tis well enough to make them to please himself but to make them publick is foolish. If a man in a private Chamber twirles his Band string, or playes with a Rushe to please himselfe, ‘tis well enough, but if hee should goe into Fleet streete & sett upon a stall & twirle his bandstring or play with a Rush, then all the boyes in the streete would laugh att him. (Table Talk, p.96/archivorg p. 116)

9 Ascham, p. 28

10 Once more, Gabriel Harvey comes in. He several times, covertly or overtly, reproached Oxford, to be a lord of words, not of deeds, not to live up to his military destiny; and obviously Harvey was around when Greene’s papers came into the possession of booksellers  (likely Jon Wolfe and John Danter)