Against all odds, Gabriel Harvey’s obscure Latin verse work Gratulationes Valdinenses has become a sacred text of conspiracy theorists everywhere – namely, the uniformed mistaken into thinking Edware de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford, who often signed as “Oxenford(e)”) wrote the works of William Shakespeare (he did not). Grautlationes Valdineses contains insincere orations to noblemen – including Oxenforde and his father-in-law, Cecil Burghley (incidentally NOT the model for Polonius from Hamlet) – when they were visiting nearby Audley End in 1578, as members of Queen Elizabeth’s court.
They love this string of words in particular, in the poem for Oxenforde:
vultus tela vibrat
Their preferred translation: “thy countenance shakes spears.”
There’s no way that’s right or that it means what they want it to.
First, this is a wishful translation, both in a technical and a contextual sense. My Latin is worse than my Greek, but “tela” is more often translated “arrows” – Oxenforde’s biographer, Alan H. Nelson (who notably doesn’t believe Oxenforde was Shakespeare) has rendered it as “your glance shoots arrows.” It can refer to “weapons” generally, too. The “vibrat” is also a red herring since it’s tempting to read it narrowly with reference the English derivation “vibrate,” instead of considering its multiple possible meanings.
Moreover, Harvey was de facto translating from English into Latin, since English was his first lanugage. It’s worth trying to understand what English idiom Harvey was attempting to render in Latin. Luckily, we have examples from both Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare himself [emphasis added]:
Dekker: “And do thine eyes shoot daggers at that man…”
Shakespeare: “I will speak daggers”
Considering this Elizabethan idiom and Nelson’s translation, Harvey’s words likely have the thrust “your glance shoots daggers.”
This verse was written in 1578. Blank verse drama, in the form of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, was still a decade away. Even in the impossible scenario that the “shakes spears” traslation is accurate, there’s no playwright of the same name to refer to.
Harvey also thought very little of Oxenforde. Here’s what he wrote years later, in English, about him [emphasis added]:
No words but valorous, no works but womanish only,
For life Magnificos, not a beck but glorious in show,
In deed most frivolous, not a look but Tuscanish always
His cringing side neck, eyes glancing, physnomy smirking.
Notice the reference to “glancing,” riffing on “vultus” as a Latin rendering of “glance.”
In contrast, he made this testimony about Shakespeare in 1601:
“The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort.”
Harvey was contemporarenous with both Shakespeare and Oxenforde (and outlived both of them by many years, until 1631). It’s clear he knew they weren’t the same person.