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Thomas Watson (1557-1592)

Extract from Alf Dotson, “Thomas Watson:  Biographical Notice.”

“Master Watson,” Elizabethan novelist and poet—the attributed author of  “The Trewe Misterie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke” (1589)—is not to be confused with Dr. John H. Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction (c. 1853-1939); nor with the Thomas Watson (1874-1956) who founded IBM and became one of the richest men of the 20th century. The original “Hamlet” is here ascribed to the the same Thomas Watson who, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest writers.  He was a close friend and lover of Sir Philip Sidney (poet, novelist, and courtier, shot at Zutphen in 1586); next, of Christopher Marlowe (scholar, playwright and private investigator, stabbed in a Deptford tavern in 1593). Watson in his lifetime received critical acclaim from Thomas Nashe (the satirist, hanged in 1600/1, for libel) and from Richard Barnfield (the homoerotic poet, who was run out of town and died in obscurity); Nashe and Barnfield thought Watson the best Latin elegist in all of Europe.

But Tom Watson was also a great journalist.  In 1598, six years after his death, his name is mentioned with “Shakespeare,” “Peele,” and “Marlowe,” as “the best for tragedie,” among English wits (Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia).  But until the Jamestown Shakespeare Manuscripts were discovered, not one original tragedy by Watson was known to modern scholarship.  “The Trewe Misterie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke,” though autobiographical and based on actual historical events, may be the tragic text referenced by Meres.
Watson hitherto was best known for his touching love-lament for Sir Philip Sidney (under the sobriquet, “Phillis”), and for his Hecatompathia or Passionate Centurie of Love, dedicated to Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th earl of Oxford.  It is not known whether de Vere had a hand in the production or early transmission of Marlowe’s Othello l’Amour. It was to Lord Oxford that Watson, in 1589, dedicated his fair copy of The True Mystery.  Watson’s sycophantic epistle, which survives among the unpublished Jamestown Shakespeare Manuscripts, invites further study. […]

[…] On September 26, 1592, at age 35, Watson was buried in London, in the Church of Saint Bartholomew the Less.  The cause of his death is unrecorded.  A letter in State Papers Domestic: Elizabeth I suggests a possibility that Watson was assassinated by agents of King Christian, in revenge for disclosures in The True Mystery of Hamlet; but the allusion is oblique and uncertain.  A month after Watson was buried, his second Latin epic, Amintae Gaudia, was seen through the press by his friend, Christopher Marlowe.  Seven months after that, Marlowe, too, was dead, slain by Ingram Frizer in a Deptford tavern in what many commentators believe was actually an assassination.    It is only by a stroke of luck, or possibly through the patronage of Lord Oxford, that the True Mystery of Hamlet survived—without which, Shakespeare’s tragedy of a similar name would never have made much sense.