Sir Lewes Lewkenor: Master of the Ceremonies

Can you keep a secret?

William Corbett's new book delves into the secret authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare and the Catholic message encoded within their pages.

"I came across the phrase 'the stings and terrors of a guilty conscience' in an anonymous treatise from 1595 and I couldn't help noticing the similarity with the line 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' from Hamlet's famous 'to be or not to be' speech. Not something you come across everyday, but when I discovered that the man who wrote it is cited again and again by different scholars as a major source for the plays I had to conduct a thorough examination of his life which revealed him in a sequence of unique places, places only the author could have been.

The man who wrote that striking line was Lewes Lewkenor, a renegade soldier who had spent a decade fighting for the Catholic Philip II of Spain in the Low Countries. In the wake of the failed Spanish Armada of 1588 Lewkenor was welcomed back to court by Burghley and soon began working as Elizabeth I’s translator and receiver of foreign ambassadors. 

Lewes published four works that can be certainly attributed to him. All have drawn interest from scholars who recognise a shadowy influence on Shakespeare, which suggests the two men were friends and had discussed Lewkenor's manuscripts.

Just how much influence Lewkenor exacted upon the playwright is a matter for debate, but his career path places him as the guiding hand behind the plays that have been attributed to William Shakespeare.

King James I created the position of Master of the Ceremonies for Lewkenor, placing him front-row at the recorded debut performances of many of the plays in the company of the very people they were written to please.    

Lewkenor urged that his name should be kept from his work, unknown for four hundred years. Finally we have found the author that the world and the works deserve. This is a remarkable tale of deceit and intrigue at the highest level. 

The greatest story never told.  Until now.

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The Resolved Gentleman
The Estate of English Fugitives
The Commonwealth of Venice
The Spanish Mandeville
A translation of Hernando de Acuña’s Castillian El Caballero Determinado, which is itself a reworking of Olivier de la Marche’s French Le Chevalier Délibéré (1483). Marco Nievergelt discusses The Resolved Gentleman, concentrating on Lewkenor’s translation in the context of the Elizabethan court politics of the 1590’s, emphasizing Lewkenor’s own dissent and self-imposed exile to Catholic Spain in the 1580’s and his eventual return to England.[1] Professor J.C. Santoyo recognises a clear trend for periphrastic translation, or rather over-translation; for example ‘is awakened’ becomes ‘did ... waken & revive.’ This appears to be Lewkenor’s most prominent stylistic feature and is embodied in his constant use of gemination semantics -creating meaning by combining words - most evident in the introduction of hendiadys - i.e. Solitaire & sorrowful equals. Professor Santoyo also senses a mounting verbal bombast required by Lewkenor to convey an idea that is concise and austere in Castilian. 

[1] Catholic loyalism, service and careerism: Lewes Lewkenor’s quest for favour. Marco Nievergelt.

Twelfth Night

Lewes escorted the Duke of Orsino to the debut of Twelfth Night, which opens with the character of the Duke himself, who speaks the famous lines, ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’    

Pyramis and Thisbe

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe which forms the play-within-a-play of LLL. The contemporary translation which 'Shakespeare' would have turned to was by Arthur Golding, but Golding had made a mistake in his translation and confused the names of the various narrators, he had named the narrator of the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe as Leucathoe, but anyone working from the Latin original would spot that after the tragic tale the line that follows should read,  ‘There was a pause, and then Leucanoe began to speak’.

Carol Enos[1] has identified one of Lewkenor’s ‘fugitive’ soldiers as Jaques Francesco - the melancholy Jaques - one of the roster of characters found in Lewkenor’s treatise that completes the cast of As You Like It.
Clare Asquith[2] has equated the play’s exiled Duke with William Stanley and Orlando with his son, Rowland Stanley, and ‘Father Hugh the Welsh Parson’ with Hugh Owen.
As You like It is closely based on Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde published in 1590, which connects back to Edmund Spenser and his love for Rosalind, and here we can decipher another character; Orlando’s faithful retainer who attends him into exile is called Adam Spencer in Lodge’s book and so we would connect As You Like It’s Adam with Edmund Spenser.
Enos says ‘The play depicts a seeming first-hand knowledge about the life of exiles that a student at (William) Allen’s school (at Douai) would have seen frequently.’ Interestingly she goes on to quote from John Strype,[3] who in turn is quoting from Lewkenor’s anonymous letter.

[1] See her article ‘Catholic exiles in Flanders and As You Like It: or, what if you don’t like it at all?’  Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare. [2] Shadowplay: the hidden belief and coded politics of William Shakespeare. Clare Asquith. 2005. P.138-9 [3] Annals of the Reformation. John Strype, V.III, p. 513.


When I came across the phrase ‘the styngs and terrors of a guilty conscience’ in an anonymous tract from 1595, I couldn’t help noticing the echo of Hamlet’s famous speech, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’   Lewes' first wife, Beatrice, died of smallpox in 1604 and he immediately remarried to the widow of his cousin and fellow lawyer, Sir Thomas Argall, described as ‘the widow of one Argal’ she too died of smallpox soon after.  This explains the obscure use of the word ‘argal’ in the gravedigger scene in Hamlet.

The Commonwealth was ‘written at idle times when I had nothing else to do, being at much more leisure than willingly I would be’. His translation provided source material for both The Merchant of Venice and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Lewes’ translation appeared between The Merchant of Venice and Othello, which would require William Shakespeare to have read his manuscript or spoken to him to glean the details he needed for The Merchant of Venice. 

Notes and Queries for April 1964, Christopher Whitfield; ‘It is not claimed that all that has been quoted from The Merchant of Venice is an accurate version of Lewkenor’s statements, or even of Venetian law, but Shakespeare was writing a play to entertain the public, among whom were many lawyers and law students; he needed knowledge to give his play verisimilitude; and somewhere he found what he wanted. Here it is merely suggested that he obtained at least some of his knowledge from Lewkenor, particularly that relating to the situation relating to the doge vis-à-vis the law, and that he obtained it either from Lewkenor’s manuscript or from his conversation, or both. Beyond this we cannot go without letting fantasy lead us- but are we not perhaps justified in doing so in this case? “Is not this something more than fantasy? What think you on ‘t?” It is no ghost that we pursue; only ghosts of facts hidden in the shifting fog of time, which has perhaps parted for us for a moment, as we peer in to the past.’

Ferdinando Walker’s introduction sheds some interesting light on Lewes Lewkenor’s character, “was the first labor of a worthy Gentleman of your Lordships Country of Sussex, . . who did it for his exercise in the Spanish tongue, and keeping it by him many years, as judging it utterly unworthy of his own name, did lately bestow the same upon me, with express charge howsoever I should dispose thereof, to conceal all mention of him: wherein I should have done both him and my self too much wrong in obeying him.”
One commentator, William Hazlitt, remarked, ‘When one turns over the pages of a volume such as the translation by Lewes Lewkenor of The Spanish Mandeville of Miracles of Torquemada, printed in 1600, one perceives one of the collateral helps, which served our dramatist [Shakespeare] somewhat in the same way and degree as equally trivial indications have served other original creators. A remark in a book, as in conversation, has often proved capable at the hands of a man of genius of an indirect or ulterior bearing unimaginable by the writer or speaker.’
Shakespeare By W. Carew Hazlitt. P.125

Receive, therefore, gentle Master Lewkenor, this poor Treatise, having so many long years lien obscured among your waste papers, and lately by your cruel sentence condemned to the fire, now with a milder conceit under your protection; For though you think it unworthy of the worlds view, as being the fruit and exercise of your youngest years, yet I assure you, it hath passed the censure of grave and learned judgments, and received excellent allowance; through whose encouragements I have presumed to give it life, and no longer to deprive the world of a discourse so worthy to be known and published whatsoever there in is faulty, let the same lie upon my shoulders, as for yourself, your own worthiness of desert, your great learning, your excellent skills in languages, your many times approved valor, your long experience in martial affairs, and generally the great worth wherein the world holds you both abroad and at home, will be for you a strong and efficient warrant, and bulwark against any whatsoever calumniation. 


Love's Labour's Lost

Lewes served under Baptista del Monte, who later became the Venetian General of the Horse – the very role assigned to Othello; Along the way he has been in the company of the duplicitous captain Rowland Yorke often cited as the blueprint for Iago. 

It was Lewkenor’s translation of The Commonwealth of Venice that was used by authors wanting to set a play there, like The Merchant of Venice and Volpone. 

Lewes stood by the queen as she had audience with the Barbary ambassador, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the only Moorish ambassador to visit England in Elizabeth's reign and the real life basis for Othello; no author of Othello could ask for more. Read more..

There is a scene in Love’s Labour’s Lost in which the author makes ‘a prolonged run upon the Roman numeral for fifty—L’.

HOLOFERNES: I will something affect the letter, for it argues facility.

     The preyful princess pierced and prick’d a pretty

     pleasing pricket;

     Some say a sore; but not a sore, till now made

     sore with shooting.

     The dogs did yell: put L to sore, then sorel[1] jumps

     from thicket;

     Or pricket sore, or else sorel; the people fall a-hooting.

     If sore be sore, then L to sore makes fifty sores

     one sorel.

     Of one sore L an hundred make by adding but one more L.

‘Affecting the letter,’ the author tells us, ‘argues facility’ and any grammar school boy knows that the Roman numeral for 100 is C. But that’s not what he’s telling us, ‘Of one sore L an hundred make by adding but one more L’  Of one L -to achieve 100 per cent- add but one more L, which gives you LL, the initials of Lewes Lewkenor.

[1] A sorel is a buck in its third year.


But me thinks I hear it upbraid unto me, that it is now rather a time to do than to write: I confess it to be so for him that is well set on work: and yet he that writeth well is never the farther off from doing well: so that for my part I hold it no disgrace to write so long as my pen uttereth no dishonesty. My education hath been in the wars: This I only do to beguile time; wishing that whosoever shall herein censure me amiss, would be as ready as myself, both in mind and body, when either commandment of my prince, or occasion of my country shall injoin me to other courses.

Lewes Lewkenor

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