1. Anyone who has looked into John Nichols’ compendious The Progresses of King James the First (London, 1828), or its companion series of volumes describing the progresses of Elizabeth, will be familiar with the kinds of salutatory poems and more or less mimetic pagaent pieces recited to greet the visiting sovereign. Generally speaking, such minor effusions may seem an infinitely forgettable genre, possessed of no particular literary merit or interest. One specimen of this genre of historical significance, Matthew Gwinne’s poem in dactylic hexameters entitled Tres Sibyllae, is better known by reputation than in actuality. NOTE 1
2. This piece was recited to James I on August 27, 1605, as he passed by St. John’s College while making his way from his palace at Woodstock to Oxford; at the time St. John’s was situated outside the north gate of the Oxford city wall. NOTE 2 Its author was Matthew Gwinne [1558 ? - 1627; go here for a biography], a life Fellow of the College, first Professor of Physic at Gresham College, London, and a Royal Physician. Gwinne was one of those sixteenth century medical men with a strong bent for literature and, besides furnishing one of the comedies written for the king’s entertainment on the present occasion (Vertumnus, sive Annus Recurrens ) and supervising the dramatic productions, had published tragedy Nero in 1603. Previously, he and Fulke Greville had edited Sir Philip Sidney’s New Arcadia, and he had helped his friend John Florio with his translation of Montaigne, and may have supplied the translations of Montaigne’s copious quotations. NOTE 3 He was also a notoriously frequent writer of gratulatory verses to preface other men’s books, had published some bad Italian sonnets under the pseudonym Il Candido (Gwinne is Welsh for “white”), and was author of some professional treatises. NOTE 4 Probably Nero deserves to be regarded as his chef d’ouevre. It contains a number of interesting and lively scenes based on lurid material from Tacitus and Suetonius, and has a memorably delineated protagonist. But it was prevented from being brought to the stage by its huge length, enormous cast of characters, and the great expense its production would have incurred, and a misguided attempt to import Euphuistic effects into Latin often stands in the way of ready comprehensibility.
3. In Tres Sibyllae three sibyls recall the old prophecy that Banquo’s descendents, the Stuarts, would reign in perpetuity as kings of Scotland, and simultaneously remind us that James is the latest in the line. But their imperium was limited to Scotland; his is extended to the Great Britain newly formed out of Scotland and England, to Ireland, and even, nominally, to France. Ruling over these lands, he has the potential to be a latter-day Canute four times over.
4. Shakespearian scholars frequently suggest that Tres Sibyllae was a precursor of Macbeth, in all probability produced in the following year: James’ satisfaction with Gwinne’s little work, it has been thought, suggested to Shakespeare how he might write a play calculated to please the king. NOTE 5 The implication, of course, is that Shakespeare’s three witches are transmogrified equivalents of Gwinne’s three sibyls. Macbeth, indeed, is one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. Whether or not Garry Wills was correct in perceiving in it such a programmatic amount of references to the Gunpowder Plot, NOTE 6, Macbeth is decidedly political in that it dramatizes the foundation myth of the Stuart dynasty, just as Richard III dramatized that of the Tudors, and supplies a supernatural authorization for Stuart rule. More precisely, it serves to give new currency to the tale of the seers’ prophecy, as it had been set forth in Holinshed’s chronicle, at an opportune moment, not long after James had ascended the throne and, no doubt, appreciated all the legitimization he could obtain. Gwinne sketches out the line which Shakespeare was to develop.
5. Was Shakespeare familiar with Tres Sibyllae? Henry N. Paul and others have suggested that Shakespeare was present during the royal visit. This is certainly possible, as there is good evidence associating Shakespeare with Oxford. The author of a recent biography, Park Honan, mentions a tradition that Shakespeare was in the habit of returning to Stratford annually, most probably in the summer when the theaters were closed. NOTE 7 In travelling between London and Warwickshire he would naturally pass through Oxford, and after 1601 he stayed with his former London friends John and Jennet Davenant, who had moved to Oxford and leased a wine shop on Cornmarket Square across from New College (Honan pp. 318 - 21). Failing that, Honan (p. 330) states, although without supplying documentation, that Shakespeare’s company, now called the King’s Players, arrived at Oxford on October 9, 1605, when memory of the royal visit would still be vivid. Paul (p. 23) argued that Macbeth ’s “imperial theme” (I.iii.129) echoes 2 imperium sine fine. In Gwinne each of the sibyls says salve in succession twice, and likewise the three witches successively say All hail! at I.iii.48 - 50, then Hail! at 62 - 64. NOTE 8 In addition, part of the entertainment provided the royal guest was the staging of academic disputations, and Honan (p. 330) wrote that “One question debated…was An imaginatio possit producere reales effectu
s…The imaginatio [subject], by coincidence or not, is answered in Macbeth when the killer’s imagination alone creates a dagger in the air before Duncan’s murder.”
6. Another suggestion made by Paul is impossible to believe (p. 223): that Gwinne served as some kind of personal consultant to Shakespeare and steered him to source-material on Scottish history. There is not an iota of evidence that Gwinne (a Welshman, not a Scotsman) was possessed of any expertise on this subject. Certainly, Tres Sibyllae contains no factual information beyond what could, and doubtless was, obtained from Holinshed.
7. I take this opportunity to thank Dr. M. J. Wigg
ins for a valuable suggestion for the improvement of this contribution.