Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"A Funeral Elegy": W(illiam) S(hakespeare)'s "Best-Speaking witnesses."(Forum: "A Funeral Elegy" by W. S.)

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"A Funeral Elegy": W(illiam) S(hakespeare)'s "Best-Speaking witnesses."(Forum: "A Funeral Elegy" by W. S.)

Article excerpt

William Peter was born in Devonshire on or about Christmas Day of 1582, the younger son of an Exeter merchant. At sixteen he matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford. He remained on the rolls at the university for ten years, although he took several leaves of absence. In 1609 he finally returned to Exeter, where he met and married Margaret Brewton, a teenager. The couple resided at Whipton, to the east of Exeter, not far from the infamous Heavitree gallows. They had two children, both girls. Will Peter (as he was known to friends) was a gentleman and scholar of modest income. His means of support after he resigned his fellowship at the university remains uncertain; as an Oxford MA, he may have supported himself by teaching. Until shortly after his twenty-ninth birthday, Peter seems to have led a pedestrian and rather uneventful life. Then, on 25 January 1612, he was murdered.

Peter had spent the afternoon tavern hopping with his kinsman Edward Drew, of Killerton. In the course of their revels, bitter words passed between them--the fresh eruption of a smoldering quarrel. About seven in the evening, in the courtyard of the Mermaid, Drew and Peter called for their horses, then lingered over still another pot of ale, pausing to chat with friends. But after mounting, the two men silently crossed their horses, repeatedly blocking each other's way. Peter then turned and departed for Whipton. Drew gave chase, shouting, "He rideth fast, but I will ride faster, and will geve him a nicke before he comes home" (Martyr 114). It was more than a nick: outside the city gate, just past St. Anne's Chapel, Drew overtook his companion and drove the point of a short-sword through Peter's skull.

On 1 February 1612 Will Peter was buried beside his father, Otho, in the parish church of St. Martin's, Exminster. Edward Drew was tried and convicted, but he escaped punishment. A Drew family tradition has it that Edward made a jailbreak and fled to the colonies (Drew 1). If so, he returned eventually to England, for he died of natural causes in 1637 at the home of his elder brother, Thomas.(1)

Less than three weeks after the murder, in the guildhall of the London Stationers' Company, a poem in Peter's memory was registered to be printed: "A funeral Elegye In memory of the late virtuous master William Peeter" (Arber 477). The expense of publication was evidently borne by the author without hope of reimbursement, or so he would have readers believe (Shakespeare, Elegye, dedication, 46-48, 224-35). The twenty-one-page pamphlet lacks the usual bookseller's address on the title page, an omission that likewise points to private publication. (Private issues of this sort, generally distributed as gifts, were sometimes printed in fewer than a dozen copies.)

A Funerall Elegye (1612) has survived in two copies, both at Oxford. The poet addresses his text not to Peter's wife of three years but to John Peter, the older brother. Observing a convention of modesty in Renaissance funereal verse, the poet withholds his name, signing his brief dedication as he signs his poem: "W. S" John Peter would, of course, know who the poet was--indeed, WS speaks of himself within the text as a figure of some prominence, the envy of less fortunate men (140-44, 399-409)--but the poet expresses no intimacy with the family, only with the deceased, and he discloses little about himself.

I first encountered W. S.'s elegy in 1984 while investigating the book list of Thomas Thorp, the London stationer who published Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609. I was struck by the frequent echoes of Shakespeare in the elegy, beginning with the poet's prose dedication to John Peter, which is modeled on the epistle to Southampton in Shakespeare's Lucrece.(2) The poem's tissue of allusion to Shakespearean texts further invites the supposition that W. S. could be Shakespeare.(3) But the identification seems counterintuitive. W. S. speaks with regret and some bitterness about envious persons who in his "days of youth" "sifted to embane [his] reputation with a witless sin" (559, 143-44). …

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