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Shakespeare and Richard Field

by David Kathman

Oxfordians sometimes point out connections between Oxford and some of the books used by Shakespeare as sources, trying to use such connections as evidence that Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays. For example, one of Shakespeare's major sources was Arthur Golding's English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Oxfordians never tire of pointing out that Golding was Oxford's uncle and dedicated two books to him. A few of Shakespeare's minor sources also have ties to Oxford; for instance, Oxford wrote a preface for Thomas Bedingfield's translation of Cardanus Comforte, which some scholars have seen as an influence on Hamlet's soliloquy.

Such connections are not particularly remarkable, given the number of sources Shakespeare used and the relatively small number of noblemen who tended to be the subjects of dedications. What is remarkable, though, is the number of large and small sources for Shakespeare's works which were printed or published by William Shakespeare's Stratford contemporary Richard Field. While many people are aware that Field was the printer for Shakespeare's first two published works, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, few people realize the extent to which he is connected with the sources used by Shakespeare. The two most direct and widespread sources for Shakespeare's plays are the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles and Thomas North's English translation of Plutarch's Lives; both of them were printed by Field and would certainly have been in his library. The books Richard Field published or printed had a far greater influence on Shakespeare than the works which can be connected (however tenuously) with Oxford. These connections not only establish a strong connection between William Shakespeare of Stratford and the plays that bear his name, but they go a long way toward explaining how Shakespeare gained the knowledge displayed in the plays.

First, let me give a little background on Field. He was baptized on November 16, 1561, and was thus about two and a half years older than Shakespeare. Richard's father Henry was a tanner, much like John Shakespeare (who was a glover), and the Fields lived on Bridge Street, a few hundred yards down the road from the Shakespeares. Given their similar occupations in a small town, we can reasonably assume that the two men knew each other, and in fact the documentary record shows them associated over a period of nearly four decades: John Shakespeare sued Henry Field over a debt in 1556 (before either of their sons was born) and helped appraise Henry's goods upon the latter's death in 1592 (the year before Venus and Adonis was published). Given all the above, I think we can be virtually certain that William Shakespeare and Richard Field knew each other from childhood, and it's entirely reasonable to think that the relationship continued when they were both living in London. (In the real world, the fact that Field published Venus and Adonis counts as evidence of their association in London, but I realize that that's out of bounds here.)

On September 29, 1579, at the age of 17, Richard Field was apprenticed to George Bishop, one of the more prominent stationers (i.e. printers/publishers) in London, for the normal term of seven years. However, it was agreed that Richard would spend the first six of these years under Thomas Vautrollier, a French refugee printer with an excellent record of printing difficult books, many in foreign languages. On February 2, 1587, Field was made free of the Stationer's Company, and in July of that year, Thomas Vautrollier died. His widow Jacqueline carried on the business for a few months, but in February 1588 she married Richard Field, who thus took over his former master's thriving business at the age of 26. Field inherited not only Vautrollier's type and devices (which he continued to use), but the publishing rights to Vautrollier's books as well. This would have necessarily included at least one copy of each of these books, from which later editions could be printed as needed (and in fact Field published further editions of many of the books he inherited from Vautrollier).

When we look at the books Field published himself or inherited from Vautrollier, we find a treasure trove of definite or likely Shakespeare sources, including many of the most important. For example, there's Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy, printed by Vautrollier in 1586 (and thus inherited by Field). Bright's work is widely accepted as an important background source for Hamlet, more important (I would argue) than Cardanus Comforte. Edward Dowden accepted Bright as a significant influence in his 1899 Arden edition of Hamlet, and the case was strengthened by such later scholars as M. I. O'Sullivan and Dover Wilson; this case involves not only the general discussion of melancholy but specific images and ideas.

If we move on to Ovid, we find more connections to Field. Shakespeare used Golding's English translation of the Metamorphoses extensively, but he also sometimes alludes to the original Latin, and he also used other works of Ovid that had not been translated into English -- for example, the Fasti is a major source for The Rape of Lucrece. And who published the Latin editions of Ovid that Shakespeare would have consulted? Why, Thomas Vautrollier, of course, and after his death Richard Field. In 1574 Vautrollier received a patent to exclusively print the works of Ovid and other Latin authors. In 1582 he published the Metamorphoses in Latin, and in 1574 had published the Latin edition of Ovid's Fasti that Shakespeare used for Lucrece. Field inherited these books (among many other Latin works) from Vautrollier, and printed later editions of many of them; in fact, one of his first independent publications was a second edition of the Metamorphoses in 1589. It's not too hard to imagine William Shakespeare encountering Ovid in the original Latin in Field's library, then seeking out the English translation so he could understand it more readily.

As I noted above, the two most important narrative sources used by Shakespeare are the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles (for the history plays) and North's translation of Plutarch (for the Roman plays). Let's take a look at Holinshed first. The 1587 edition was published by a consortium of five stationers -- John Harrison, George Bishop, Rafe Newberry, Henry Denham, and Thomas Woodcock. This is the same George Bishop to whom Richard Field was apprenticed, and in fact Field was serving out the last year of his apprenticeship with Bishop during the very time Holinshed was being printed there -- the colophon says the book was finished in January 1587, and Field's apprenticeship ended on February 2. Furthermore, Field had a close relationship with John Harrison, who was not only one of the publishers of the 1587 edition but one of the compilers. Field and Harrison had a mutual partnership throughout the 1590s, but especially in the early part of the decade: for example, Field printed and published Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in 1593, but it was sold in Harrison's shop, and of the 27 books Harrison published from 1590 to 1596, 17 of them were printed by Field. Given his role in the printing of the 1587 Holinshed and his close relationship with two of the publishers, I think it's more than likely that Field owned a copy of the book, and in any case he was certainly very familiar with it.

Field's relationship with North's Plutarch is more direct, since he owned the rights to the book and certainly had it in his library. The first edition of North's translation was published by Vautrollier in 1579, the same year Field joined the shop as an apprentice. A copy of this book must have been among the library which Vautrollier passed along at his death, for Field printed the second edition in 1595, then the third in 1603 and the fourth in 1607. The influence of North's translation on Shakespeare is persistent, most obviously in the Roman plays but also in such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Many other major or minor sources for Shakespeare's works can be traced in Richard Field's publishing history. He published Sir John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso in 1591, and this was used by Shakespeare as a primary source of Much Ado About Nothing. He printed the second edition of Robert Greene's Pandosto, the main source for Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. He printed the first full edition of Spenser's Faerie Queene, which influenced Shakespeare in many ways, and in 1598 he printed an edition of Sidney's Arcadia, which Shakespeare used as a source for numerous plays, most notably King Lear and Pericles. In 1599 he printed Richard Crompton's Mansion of Magnanimitie, which Shakespeare used as a source for Henry V, genearally considered to have been written just about the same time.

Vautrollier had published many books in foreign languages (mainly French, Italian, and Spanish), as well as books in English about France and Italy, and Field continued the practice. Some of Shakespeare's sources were written in Italian or French and not yet translated into English; how, Oxfordians ask, could William Shakespeare have learned to read these languages without formal training? As it turns out, Vautrollier/Field were the leading publisher of language instruction manuals in Elizabethan London. In 1593, Field published John Eliot's Ortho-epia Gallica, a manual for English speakers learning French; this book heavily influenced Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, published in 1594. Consider also the following books published by Vautrollier or Field:

  • An Italian Grammar written in Latin by Scipio Lentulo a Neopolitane: and turned into English by Henry Grantham
    [published by Vautrollier in 1587].


  • The historie of Gucciardin, conteining the warres of Italie. Reduced into English by G. Fenton
    [published by Vautrollier in 1579, with later editions by Field in 1599 and 1618].


  • The French Alphabet, Teaching In a Very Short Tyme, by a most easie way, to pronounce French naturally, to reade it perfectly, to write it truely, and to speake it accordingly. Together with The Treasure of The French toung, conteyning the rarest Sentences, Proverbes, Parables, Similes, Apothegmes, and Golden sayings, of the most excellent French Authours, as well Poets as Orators by G. Delamonthe
    [published by Field in 1592, with later editions in 1603, 1615, and 1625].


  • Campo di Fior, or else, The flourie field of foure languages... For the furtherance of the learners of Latine, French, English, but chieflie of the Italian tongue by Claude de Sainliens
    [published by Vautrollier in 1583].


  • The French Littleton. A most easie way to learne the Frenche tongue, also by Claude de Sainliens
    [first published by Vautrollier in 1576, with later editions in 1578, 1579, 1581, 1583, and editions by Field in 1591, 1593, 1597, 1602, 1607, 1609, and 1616].


  • A treatise for the declining of verbes, which may be called the second chiefest worke of the french tongue, also by de Sainliens
    [first published by Vautrollier in 1580, with editons by Field in 1590, 1599, 1604, and 1613].


  • The Spanish Schoole-master. Containing seven dialogues. Whereunto, are annexed the Lord's prayer by William Stepney
    [printed by Field in 1591].

In addition to all these works for English learners of Italian, French, and Spanish, Vautrollier/Field also published many works in the original Italian, French, and Spanish, plus a few other languages such as Welsh. As the above list shows, there was an abundance of works available for an English speaker who wanted to learn the major languages of the Continent, and a large number of these could be found in Richard Field's library.

The connections between Field's publications and the works of Shakespeare are many and varied. Field had no known connection with the Earl of Oxford, but he had grown up in Stratford down the street from William Shakespeare. If I might be allowed a bit of speculation after all the facts I've just presented, it's very easy to imagine William Shakespeare, fresh off the turnip truck (or whatever vehicle he used to get there), looking up his childhood acquaintance Dick Field upon his arrival in London, and finding there a library full of books to be devoured. Field's connection to so many of the primary sources of Shakespeare's works is no coincidence, and it constitutes a series of parallels much more impressive than anything Oxfordians are able to muster.

This article also appears on the  SHAKESPEARE AUTHORSHIP home page.

Reproduced with permission of David Kathman

July 2004