Why the fourth man can’t be anybody but Shakespeare

In response to Mark Griffiths’s article demonstrating that Shakespeare appears on the title page of Gerard’s Herball, a number of commenters have put forward theories of their own. But does the evidence stack up for them? Mark Griffiths demonstrates how it can be no one but Shakespeare.

Reacting to my article in this week’s Country Life, commenters have pointed out something I’ve been well aware of for the past four decades: the title pages of Renaissance herbals depict great botanists from Classical Antiquity (such as Theophrastus and Dioscorides), ancient rulers who had an interest in medicinal plants (such as Solomon and Mithridates), and the patron deities of sciences and arts that drew heavily on plants – namely Aesculapius (medicine) and Apollo (poetry).

These commenters believe that the Fourth Man on the title page of Gerard’s Herball is Dioscorides. Supposed corroboration is provided by the title page of the second edition (1633), on which Dioscorides is not only shown in Roman dress on the right-hand side of the engraving, but clearly named.

I do, in fact, address this point in my article. In engraving the 1597 title page, William Rogers subverted the convention of depicting ancient greats and deities. Conscious that this was the norm, he decided to play with it, turning such stock figures into camouflaged but cryptically identified portraits of the four men responsible for the book’s creation.

A poet of the stage

When he came to engrave the Fourth Man, he absolutely did not have Dioscorides in mind. The Fourth Man wears laurels, a garland that told Renaissance readers that they should think of Apollo and/or the poets who, inspired by the god, filled their writings with plants. Given that the Rogers title page contains disguised portraits of actual persons, this tells us that we are looking at an Elizabethan poet in fancy dress.

Recommended videos for you

Moreover, that dress is not properly Greek or Roman: it is what passed for Roman on the Elizabethan stage. The Fourth Man, Rogers is saying, is involved in theatre as well as poetry.

The other three men

true face of Shakespeare

On the 1597 engraving, Burghley is cast as Solomon to show his love of plants as well as to indicate his wisdom.

If you think that all sounds too clever for words, consider the unquestionable portrait of Lord Burghley on the other side of the page. Elizabeth’s chief counsellor is cast in the role of Solomon in tribute not only to his wisdom, but also because the king, like Burghley, was fascinated by plants – a point that Gerard makes in the book’s dedication and preface. That he is Burghley is brilliantly and incontrovertibly encoded in the plants associated with him on the page.

With similar ingenuity, Gerard is portrayed as a humble gardener and Rembert Dodoens as an ascetic scholar, both with their true identities indicated by signature plants. This is undoubtedly Rogers’s method with three of the men depicted on the title page; why would he have deviated from it when he came to engrave the fourth and given us instead a straightforward image of an ancient great?


How would Discorides be presented?

The Fourth Man is not a representation of Dioscorides, or a portrait of an Elizabethan cast as Dioscorides. If he were, he would not be wearing the laurel wreath that proclaims Apollo and poetry or faux Classical garb. He would be accurately dressed as a Roman military man (Dioscorides was an army surgeon and Rogers knew how real Romans dressed) and he would be shown with plants that were useful in medicine. Significantly, the species that accompany the Fourth Man were not medicinal in Gerard’s view.

Changes in the Herball’s second edition

true face of Shakespeare

The title page of the second edition of The Herball from 1633 (right) is very different to that of the first edition of 1597 (left). Its editor, Thomas Johnson, despised Gerard and replaced the frontispiece that so prominently displayed the four men who had collaborated on the work.

John Gerard had been dead for two decades when the second edition of The Herball was published. Its editor, Thomas Johnson, despised Gerard and did everything in his power to distance his 1633 edition from that of 1597/98. This included suppressing many of the poetic translations in which Gerard and Shakespeare had collaborated and replacing the original title page with a wholly new design.

The 1597 Rogers engraving was too frivolous for Johnson’s tastes and it reflected a collaboration in which he’d played no part. He knew that the four men it portrayed had been alive and active not long ago. Now, they were yesterday’s men, and they had to go. In commissioning the new title page, Johnson reverted to the convention that Rogers had subverted. It does indeed show Dioscorides, in correct Roman dress and wearing no laurel wreath. In identity, iconography, portrayal and purpose, this image of Dioscorides has no connection whatsoever to the Fourth Man.

Who else is it proposed to be?

Accepting my discovery that the figures on the 1597 are disguised portraits, some commenters have proposed alternative identifications for the Fourth Man.

Sir Walter Raleigh has been proposed – but the Fourth Man looks about 10 years too young to be Raleigh (born in about 1554), and he’s not grave and dignified enough to be a likely portrait of Raleigh, who had a fierce sense of his own standing in middle life. The Fourth Man’s cipher cannot be decoded to say ‘Raleigh’ and the status-conscious Sir Walter is unlikely to have countenanced the class-crossing implicit in this playfully modified yeoman’s or merchant’s mark.

There’s no connection between Raleigh and Fritillaria meleagris. I can see no reason why Raleigh would carry sweet corn—yes, it was an American native, but it was well-established in Europe, old hat, by 1597 and not one of Raleigh’s New World introductions. As a crop, Gerard didn’t esteem it. The other plants associated with the Fourth Man have no obvious connection to Raleigh.

There were, however, some exciting New World species that Gerard had received as a result of Raleigh’s American adventures; had Gerard wanted Sir Walter to appear on the title page of his book, he would have had him portrayed with one or more of these.

Although Raleigh and Gerard were friends, and the former’s Virginian project (in which Gerard was a shareholder) is mentioned in The Herball, Raleigh made no contribution to the book’s creation that would warrant his appearing on the title page. Yes, he was a poet, but he’d done nothing literary to deserve Apollo’s laurels in respect of The Herball.

The idea that the Fourth Man is Sir Francis Drake can be dismissed on similar, but even stronger grounds. Believe me, I considered, interrogated and rejected all such possibilities, all Gerard’s known associates, before arriving at Shakespeare.

The Earl of Oxford
The most dismaying and predictable of the alternative Fourth Man candidates proposed this week is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, believed by some (Oxfordians, as they’re known) to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works. The Cecils, they point out, left a vast amount of documentation, but nowhere does it include direct evidence of Burghley’s hiring the man from Stratford, someone far too lowly in any case to be offered such employment.

This is silly, and snobbish. Burghley recruited brilliant young outsiders to undertake tasks for him, leaving no direct bureaucratic evidence of the recruitment and commission—none survives, for example, of his hiring John Gerard, provincial, degree-less and controversial, but a long-standing and important member of his household.

The Cecils did not keep every bit of paper that crossed their desks. Indeed, the closer one was to Burghley and the more sensitive the nature of the relationship, the less likely it was that a paper trail would be created, let alone left.

In fairness to Oxfordians, they’ve adopted the Fourth Man very deftly. They accept that his cipher consists of a hybrid rebus that says ‘shake spear’ plus E, OR and W. But they’re reading it as ‘Shakespeare – E (= Edward de Vere) or W (= William Shakespeare, Oxford’s purported patsy or pen name)’.

Is Fritillaria meleagris associated with Oxford?

They find further evidence in the flower of Fritillaria meleagris that he holds. This species, they say, is famously identified with Oxford. I’ve even seen them cite an article I wrote for Country Life years ago, to the effect that the myriad wild-seeming fritillaries at my alma mater Magdalen College are one of the last great and ancient stands of what was once a far more widespread species.

But I was wrong back then. My investigations since have convinced me that Gerard was right when he wrote that Fritillaria meleagris was not a native species, but an exotic. In the 1590s, it had not long been introduced to English gardens (his, primarily) from France, where it was first discovered and described in 1571. Before that year, no European botanist had reported it, and it appears nowhere in Britain’s older monastic and vernacular traditions—a revealing absence given its striking looks.

Imported from the Continent and planted in bulk, it became a popular ornamental in the 17th century. England’s wild-seeming populations of this species all appear to have arisen from garden escapes. This can happen spontaneously and swiftly: in the garden here, our small patch of lightly managed damp meadow is covered with fritillaries spawned by a single pot of bulbs planted just five years ago.

The earliest catalogues of the Oxford Botanic Garden indicate that it was planted there in the 17th century, very much as something new and special. These early cultivated specimens almost certainly gave rise to the population in the nearby meadow at Magdalen, no record of which can be found prior to 1785.

In short, in the 1590s, there was no connection between Fritillaria meleagris and Oxford the city, university, or Earl.

Oxford and Gerard

Nor was there any real connection between the Earl of Oxford and John Gerard. Gerard maintained contact with several of Burghley’s former wards—the Earls of Essex and Southampton, Lord Zouch—but not with Oxford, who had left the Cecil household by 1577 when he joined it. Over a decade of full-time Gerard research, I’ve found nothing substantial to link them, and every reason to believe that he gave Oxford a wide berth.

The Earl loathed and opposed his father-in-law Burghley, going so far as to commission John Lyly to write plays for performance at Court that were thinly veiled attacks on the Lord Treasurer’s policies. The loathing was mutual and, after the death of his beloved daughter Anne Oxford in 1588, Burghley would have nothing more to do with the Earl.

Devoted to his master, Gerard, too, would have viewed Oxford as persona non grata.

Proof that Oxford didn’t write Shakespeare’s works

It is impossible that the Fourth Man standing gloriously opposite Burghley on the 1597 title page of The Herball is his hated and estranged son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford. In any case, this realistically portrayed figure doesn’t resemble the known portraits of Oxford, and he certainly doesn’t look like a hard-living 47-year-old, which the Earl was in 1597.

As I will begin to show in an article in next week’s Country Life, Shakespeare’s early works demonstrably serve Burghley’s interests. They were written in part to counter material commissioned by Oxford. Far from proving the theory that the Earl wrote Shakespeare’s canon, my discoveries kill it once and for all.


Shakespeare: Apollo reborn

Could the Fourth Man be Dioscorides or Apollo and not Shakespeare? Edward Wilson, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, thinks