Robert Chester

(fl. c. 1576—1614) poet

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(fl. 1601). He wrote the poem Love's Martyr (1601), to which Shakespeare appended his most cryptic verses, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’. Chester was a long-term employee of Sir John Salusbury of Denbighshire, Wales. He contributed verses to a manuscript belonging to Salusbury, in which he shows an intimate knowledge of Sir John's affairs: they are full of obscure allusions to the women Sir John admired, and seem to mimic his master's poems, which are also full of obscure private allusions. It is thought that most of Love's Martyr was written to celebrate the marriage of Sir John Salusbury and Ursula Stanley in 1586. Shakespeare's ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ derives its subject matter and cryptic tone from an allegory developed in Chester's poem. E. A. J. Honigmann argues—not altogether convincingly—that it, too, was written at the time of the marriage, and that this furnishes support for his theory that Shakespeare was already a member of Lord Strange's company of players by the mid-1580s. Lord Strange was Ursula Stanley's brother, and he and his company could have visited the Salusburys to take part in the wedding celebrations. But if Chester's and Shakespeare's allegories were written in 1586, why were they published in 1601? The answer may be—and here Honigmann's argument is persuasive—that the volume was issued in response to a period of crisis in Salusbury's career. In 1601 he was in financial difficulties, involved in an expensive lawsuit, and standing for election to Parliament against a powerful local rival. Love's Martyr may have been published in a bid to drum up support for him in London. Chester's allegory contains what seems to be a flattering character-sketch of Sir John, and a set of patriotic verses on King Arthur, doubtless intended to link Salusbury, as a Welshman, with the dominant Tudor myth. A number of prominent poets were invited to add poetic postscripts to Chester's text: they included Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, as well as Shakespeare. If it was intended to help improve Sir John's fortunes, it failed. He died in debt.

From The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.

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