The Road to Polisy: An Overview

When viewed from an extreme Hamlet-like angle the mutant mass of bone in Han’s Holbein’s The Ambassadors is transformed into a skull that looks suspiciously like old Yorick. Scholars frequently compare these two scene stealing skulls but none have dared to send William Shakspere overseas to a French noble estate. Yet if the Earl of Oxford or one of the alternative candidates was accepted as the author we would have no trouble identifying Holbein’s anamorphic masterwork as an inspirational source for Hamlet.


  • The road to Polisy starts in Mantua. Part I examines some of the references in the Shakespearean works to the Gonzagas, the ruling family of Mantua who were great aficionados of perspective art. Beginning with their court artist Giulio Romano we will explore a network of artists whose contacts stretched from Mantua to Fontainebleau to Polisy France, where Holbein’s painting hung in the chateau belonging to the Dinteville family. For instance Primaticcio, who trained with Romano, must have seen that painting when he stayed at the chateau, and he had long term contact with the Dintevilles, the Mantuans and the French Royals. At least eleven of Shakespeare’s plays contain a Gonzaga or Mantua reference by John Hamill’s count but we will follow those that form an associational chain in the works, a linked trail that leads from Italy to France and that intriguing anamorphic skull.
  • Part II looks looks deeper into the connections of the Gonzaga family in Mantua and France and their close relations.  The influence of Mantua has been recognized by Professor Michael Delahoyde, Professor Noemi Magri and John Hamill, but by bringing this kinship based social network into sharper focus we can see that the author is hitting this tree almost systematically, creating the densest area of Shakespeare connections outside of England itself. Shakespeare’s Duke of Mantua Guglielmo Gonzaga was a year older than his brother Louis, the Duke of Nevers of France, a key figure in the French Wars of Religion, father-in-law of “Longueville” and of a son and daughter of “Dumaine”, also brother-in-law of the protestant general Conde and of Guise, founder of the Catholic League to point out a thicket of relations that are not often associated with the Mantuans though, as we will see, Shakespeare did.
  • Part III covers the logistics of Oxford’s return trip to Paris in March of 1576, showing that he passed close to and probably through the small town of Polisy France where Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting was located on a noble estate. We will also look at how the Fifth War of Religion may have increased the chances that he would travel through Polisy.
  • Part IV examines the noble Dinteville family of Polisy who owned the Ambassadors and had both direct and indirect connections to the French royals, the Gonzaga family in Italy and France and the network of Italian artists working in both countries. The connectivity of these royals, nobles and artists increases the chance that someone in these circles recommended a visit to that chateau. This section also compares references in Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing to an allegorical painting featuring the Dinteville brothers known as Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh which was also hanging at the Polisy estate.
  • Part V will look at Holbein’s The Ambassadors through the eyes of the author and consider how anamorphism affected his approach to writing.



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