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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Leonard Digges and the Shakespeare First Folio

It can be quite difficult to get access to certain 17th century books.  One such book is Gerardo the unfortunate Spaniard (1622) by Leonard Digges, one of the poets who wrote a memorial poem for the Shakespeare First Folio.  It is one of only two known published works (both translations) by Digges who came from a highly respected intellectual family.  His grandfather and father wrote about mathematics and science.  His brother was highly respected in political circles.

Advocates of the Stratford candidate for the authorship of the works of Shakespeare have struggled over the years to explain why none of the persons who wrote memorial poems knew Shakespeare personally.  After exhaustive searching it turns out that Thomas Russell, one of the attorneys who drafted Shaksper’s final Will, may be the same Thomas Russell who married Digges’ mother, Anne.  As the result of subsequent reflections among the Stratford faithful, it has been declared that Russell’s role assures us beyond question that he was a close personal friend of the decedent.  No sources or examples, it would seem, are considered necessary to establish the claim as fact. 

Sometime between 1601 and 1603 the Digges family had moved from London to live with Russell in the township of Alderminster.  From that timeRussell and the Diggeses lived only 5 miles away from Stratford, the argument goes.  The Russell-Diggeses and their presumably highly intellectual connections at Court and in academia obviously became close friends with Shaksper.  It is, therefore, only reasonable to assume that the Stratford man was highly literate.  Also that Leonard’s First Folio poem was to a personal friend.

Among Stratfordians, all of this is understood to be sufficient evidence that surely the writers of the memorial poems knew Shakespeare personally however obscure their connections.  Also that Leonard was a close personal friend of Shaksper thus making clear the Stratford man’s intellectual acumen.  He was an autodidact of the first order — of an order only explicable by genius.

Regardless whether the attorney who drafted Shaksper’s Will was indeed Leonard Digges’ step-father or not, however, it is highly unlikely that Digges and Shaksper were ever friends — almost equally unlikely that they ever met.  The young Leonard left for Oxford University in 1603, the year that Anne Digges married her Thomas Russell.  This is considered to be about the time that Shaksper retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon.  In that year, Shaksper would have been 39 years of age and Leonard 15.

Upon receiving his baccalaureate, in 1606, Leonard briefly chose to reside in London.  After that he went on an extended tour of the Continent which ended around the year that Shaksper died.  Upon his return he took up residence at Oxford University.  He received his M.A. from Oxford, in 1626, based upon his attendance for many years at the finest universities in Europe.[1]


Regardless that the Diggeses lived in a village only 5 miles away, Leonard was only there, at most, during vacations and breaks from his Oxford University studies.  The inconveniences of travel being such as they were, in the early 17th century, he is likely to have remained in Oxford or to have visited London even on those occasions. Had he returned home, he remained half Shaksper’s age and is unlikely to have sought his company.  After 1606, Leonard was rarely at home or never at all.  He spent the next ten-or-so years studying at European universities.

Add to this the fact that Digges’ memorial poem includes not the slightest intimate personal note and the matter is right back where is was to begin with.  And where exactly was the matter?  The writers of the memorial poems all belonged to the stable of writers of Edward Blount, the main editor of the First Folio of the Plays of Shakespeare.[2]  Thomas Russell was chosen by Shaksper, a wily businessman, from among the lawyers in his vicinity, for the man’s professional capabilities rather than for friendship’s sake.

In the year 1622 (the year the final text of folio was being being finished), Edward Blount published:

Gerardo the unfortunate Spaniard, or a Pattern for Lascivious Lovers. Containing several strange miseries of loose affection. Written by an ingenious Spanish Gentleman, Don Goncalo de Cespides, and Meneces, in the time of his five years imprisonment.
Originally in Spanish, and made English by L. D.—
London : Printed for Ed. Blount. 1622.

The “L. D.” was Leonard Digges.  Remarkably, the connection between Blount and the Herbert brothers was active before their names appears as the dedicatees to the First Folio.

The Dedication to the Noble Brothers, William Earl of Pembroke, and, Philip Earl of Montgomery, nephews to Sir Philip Sidney, follows:

Right Noble: My Lords—

Translations, as says a witty Spaniard, are, in respect of their originals, like the knotty wrong-sides of arras-hangings : but by his wit's leave, as the fair outside could ill be seen, without help of the knots within; no more can the fame of a well-deserving author be far spread, without the labour of a translation. This made me, for the present Spanish author's sake, venture to make him speak English, and to do a public good by publishing the moral examples contained in the present tragical discourses. Now, that I presume to offer my weak endeavours to the view and protection of your Lordships, I shall no way despair of a pardon ; since the world, that takes notice of your noble good
ness, the first and best of your honoured titles, gives me assurance, that, though a stranger rather than an intruder, I shall be esteemed
To your Honors both,

A devoted Servant,
LEONARD DIGGES.[3]

The coincidence that the names of the memorial poets, Edward Blount, Ben Jonson and the Herbert brothers are often found together around the years 1622-23 is more than simply suggestive.  As they were working on the folio project, they were demonstrably trading the customary favors in terms of commendatory poems, book publications, etc.  This system of professional courtesies is the reason a poem by Leonard Digges appeared in the Folio.  It is also the reason why Hugh Holland[4] and James Mabbe, both associated with Blount’s press at the time, were selected for the other memorials.


Much of this material is also touched upon in Leah Scraggs' exceptional essay “Edward Blount and The Prefatory Material to the First Folio Of Shakespeare”. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 79, 1 (1997), pp. 117–26.




[1] Wood, Anthony.  Athenae Oxonienses.  An Exact History Of All The Writers And Bishops Who Have Had Their Education In The University Of Oxford. 592-3.
[3] Freeman, R. Kentish poets, a series of writers, natives of or residents in Kent;..., II, 1-3.
[4] Holland and Jonson had previously exchanged favors, on other projects, and this may be a factor as well.





  • Desperately Seeking Bridget (de Vere).  August 24, 2014.  "Even most people who assert that the Earl of Oxford was the poet and playwright Shake-speare (a group to which I resoundingly belong) do not seem to know that she was engaged, in 1598, to William Herbert, soon to inherit the Earldom of Pembroke,..."
  • Check out Virtual Grub Street's English Renaissance Article Index for articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.


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