Aug 4, 1598 – William Cecil Dies

Chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I for almost 50 years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, may have been a model for Polonius, the moralizing, meddling royal counselor and father of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The nuggets of wisdom he compiled for his son bear a striking resemblance to the memorable (and much more quotable) counsel Polonius offers Laertes: “To thine own self be true” and “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

From Burghley’s advice arsenal: “Be not scurrilous in conversation, or satirical in thy jests” and “He that payeth another man’s debts seeketh his own decay.

It is not known how William Shakespeare would have had access to Burghley’s family maxims.

For a detailed comparison of the two advisors’ dueling precepts, see Mark Alexander’s article Polonius As Lord Burghley.

Read Burghley’s Ten Precepts here — you’ll be a better person for it!


  1. Mark Johnson on August 6, 2012 at 9:51 am

    It isn’t at all surprising that William Shakespeare would have had access to Burghley’s family maxims. Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was Burghley’s ward. He was also Shakespeare’s patron, as is quite clearly demonstrated in the dedications to Venus & Adonis and Rape of Lucrece. Southampton’s patronage of Shakespeare [to the detriment of Thomas Nashe] is also depicted in the the middle play of the three Parnassus plays.

    • Jennifer on August 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Hi Mark,
      Great point. Whoever wrote as Shakespeare, whether “the man from Stratford” or someone else, undoubtedly had a relationship with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were dedicated to the young Earl, and he may have been the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. Southampton would have had access to inside stories about the court and the Cecil family.
      The Parnassus plays are intriguing — Southampton could indeed be parodied as Gullio, but the layers of satire and in-jokes are so thick that I wonder if it’s possible to say for certain who is being lampooned, and to what effect. It seems like much of the humor comes from the characters misreading (and misstating) reality.
      Thanks very much for your comment!

  2. Mark Johnson on August 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    You’re very welcome, of course. As for Parnassus, it is widely accepted that the character of Ingenioso is a representation of Thomas Nashe. Much of the language in the play is taken directly [some times almost verbatim] from works by Nashe. In addition, there are numerous textual references which match the character of Gullio to historical, topical allusions to Southampton…
    …such as the fact that Ingenioso has written an erotic poem for Gullio, just as Nashe dedicated Choice of Valentines to Southampton [Lord S];
    …such as the fact that Gullio is recently returned from the fighting in Ireland, just as Southampton was [with a quite sarcastic jibe at the way in which Southampton spent his time while in Ireland];
    …such as many more parallels that exist bewteen the Gullio character and the actual circumstances and events of Southampton’s life, which I won’t go into now. In fact, there is a highly probable reference to the Earl of Oxford and his daughter in the exchange between Gullio and Ingenioso, which corresponds to events in Southampton’s life — and, in that passage, de Vere is not the author of the Shakespeare works. The author is “sweet Mr. Shakespeare,” the fellow of Burbage and Kempe. Althought there is often uncertainty in identifying the target of an Elizabethan satire, I’d contend that the identification of Gullio as Southampton is as certain as these things get and that the evidence is there to confirm it…including corroborative evidence from Nashe’s own hand.

    Your website is quite enjoyable…excellent job.

    • Jennifer on August 7, 2012 at 10:17 pm

      Thanks, Mark, for your kind words and for the information! What would you recommend as a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more about The Parnassus Plays?

  3. Mark Johnson on August 8, 2012 at 8:16 am

    There is very little that has been written on the subject. The only [somewhat] contemporary book I know of that addresses the plays is by Paula Glatzer and is entitled ‘The Complaint of the Poet: The Parnassus Plays’ [Edwin Mellen Press, 1977]. I have not read this book…I’m searching for a copy that costs less than $100 which is the best price I’ve found so far. The plays themselves are available online.

  4. Mark Johnson on August 8, 2012 at 8:27 am

    I should add that there is an edition of the plays edited by J. B. Leishman, entitled ‘The Three Parnassus Plays,’ which was published in the 1940’s that you may be able to find at the library. If anyone has a copy that they would like to sell I would be very interested in buying it.