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Hoby, Thomas (1530–1566) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

hoby’s courtier castiglione’s translation

Thomas Hoby, traveler, translator, and finally ambassador, died at the advent of the courtly life he had always emulated. Born in 1530 to William Hoby and Katherine Fordan Hoby, in 1545 he entered St. John’s College of Cambridge, where both John Cheke and Roger Ascham were teaching. In pursuit of a diplomatic career, in 1547 he traveled to Europe to fortify his knowledge of languages and culture. He studied for one year in Strasbourg with the Lutheran Martin Bucer, whose “Gratulation unto the church of England” Hoby later translated. Scholars have often speculated that this year with Bucer was urged upon Hoby to strengthen his Protestantism before the young man continued on to Italy in the spring of 1548. Hoby remained in Italy until December 1550, when he returned to England and was introduced at the court of Edward VI.

Appropriate to the courtier of Baldassare Castiglione’s* description, Hoby first took up the task of translating Il Cortegiano at the request of a woman— the wife of his employer the marquis of Northampton. In his journal entitled Book of the Travaile and Lief of Me Hoby explains that when he reached Paris in 1552, “the first thing [he] did was to translate into Englishe the third booke of the Cowrtisan , which [his] Ladie Marquess had often willed [him] to do” (78). In Hoby’s translation we read the words of Castiglione’s Lord Cesar Gonzaga:

[N]o Court, how great ever it be, can have any sightlinesse, or brightnesse in it, or mirth without women, nor anie Courtier can be gratious, pleasant or hardye, nor at anye time undertake any galant enterprise of Chivalrye onlesse he be stirred wyth the conversacion and wyth the love and contentacion of women, even so in like case the Courtiers talke is most unperfect ever more, if the entercourse of women give them not a part of the grace wherwithall they make perfect and decke out their playing the Courtier. (3:3)

Hoby translated the other three books of Castiglione’s masterpiece between 1553 and 1555 in Italy, where he fled from London after Mary’s accession.

In 1558, when his brother Sir Philip Hoby died and bequeathed the family estate to Thomas, the rising diplomat married Elizabeth Cooke, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke (whom Hoby met while in exile in Italy). He lived quietly on his estate until the last months of his life, when he reached the apex of his diplomatic career. One week after dubbing him knight, in March 1566, Queen Elizabeth* appointed Hoby ambassador to the court of the French king. Tragically, in July 1566, after only three months in office, Hoby died suddenly from an unexplained fever. Perhaps even this image of unblemished promise and early death is apposite for the translator of The Book of the Courtier .


In addition to Ascham’s favorable notice of Hoby’s translation, the work was embraced by Gabriel Harvey,* who filled his copy of Hoby’s translation with enthusiastic, if sometimes cryptic, marginalia, often providing names of his contemporaries as examples of Castiglione’s descriptions. For example, Harvey wrote “Sir Thomas More”* next to the passage referring to the courtier’s “certaine sweetnesse” in jesting and laughing (Matthiessen, 14). In his introduction to his 1901 edition of Hoby’s translation, Walter A. Raleigh suggests that Edmund Spenser’s* “Of Heavenly Love” and “Of Heavenly Beauty” are based on the Bembo orations in the fourth book of The Courtier and that Christopher Marlowe’s* famous lines “It lies not in our power to love or hate,/For will in us is over-rul’d by fate…/Who ever loved, who loved not at first sight?” (from Hero and Leander ) were inspired by Hoby’s “Forsomuch as our mindes are very apte to love and to hate…it is seene that the lookers on many times beare affecion without any manifest cause why” (48). Mary A. Scott asserts further that the witty repartee between Shakespeare’s* Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado about Nothing reflects Castiglione’s representation of Lady Emilia Pia and Lord Gaspare Pallavicino. It would indeed be odd in this list of those influenced by The Courtier to overlook Sir Philip Sidney,* of whom Thomas Nashe* could write when discussing the ideal courtier in the dedicatory epistle of his Anatomy of Absurdity , “England… never saw any thing more singuler then worthy Sir Philip Sidney, of whom it might truely be saide, ‘arma virumque cano’” (7). Sidney, however, may have taken “ sprezzatura ” to another level, one of true self-irony.

While recent attention to Castiglione continues to be great, Hoby is often ignored. Steven Masello tried to generate interest in Hoby’s journal, completing a new, abundantly annotated edition as his dissertation. However, his work has not yet been published. In the twentieth century it seems Hoby’s achievement has suffered from the faint praise of F. O. Matthiessen, and teachers have often thus looked to other translations. More recently than Matthiessen, Julius Molinaro asserts that even with its shortcomings Hoby’s is the only English translation that “has acquired a measure of universal acclaim” and that it “does possess an authentic English flavor” (262). In his Italian Influence in English Poetry , A. Lytton Sells writes that Hoby’s background and travel make him “the perfect translator and interpreter of Castiglione*” (86), an accolade attributable to no later translator.

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