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The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron

From Shakespeare's patrons & other essays by Henry Brown.

The name of this earl has so long been closely connected with Shakespeare that, to merely mention it, is sufficient to recall to the mind, the memory of a patronage that has fixed itself foremost on the thoughts of all readers as having subsisted between this nobleman and the poet at a very early period of his life; the poet himself in two dedications, one to his poem of "Venus and Adonis," and the other to his "Tarquin and Lucrece," has published the news broadcast, and the numerous editions not only in the poet's lifetime, but since his death, that have appeared have tended to inscribe it indelibly on the minds of all readers.

The Earl of Southampton when quite a young man became in a very few years after the poet's first arrival in London his chosen patron, and accepted the poet's dedication of the "Venus and Adonis" in 1593, and in the following year the "Tarquin and Lucrece."

These addresses are as follows; the first is couched in these words —
"To the
"Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly,
"Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.
"Right Honourable,

"I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden: Only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart's content: which I wish may always answer your wish, and the world's hopeful expectation.
"Your honour's in all duty,
"William Shakespeare."
The dedication to the "Tarquin and Lucrece" evinces a fuller affection, confidence of his patron's regard for him and his offering —
"To the
"Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly,
"Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.

"The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness,
"Your lordship's in all duty,
"William Shakespeare."
The poet has herein protested most fully his devotion to his patron, and doubtless he intended to the utmost to fulfill the declarations he has made, but it is somewhat strange that no other non-dramatic work, or dramatic work, was ever after dedicated by the poet to him; and of course it would be, and is, the non-dramatic efforts of his muse the produce of "idle hours," when not engaged in writing plays or in acting, the means by which he obtained his livelihood, catering for the public, no other poem or poems appearing is extraordinary after his repeated and fervent avowals pointing to new and more important poems in prospect. However that may be, Southampton's connection with Shakespeare and his influence and bearing upon his writings need alone reviewing here; his various military adventures, his embroilments, tiffs, Court troubles, enmities, entanglements in factions, enterprises, etc., and military, naval, political life, Court affairs, strife and restlessness, need not now be viewed; from this we turn and chiefly view him as patron and friend of the poet, exhibiting the better side of his nature. His love of learning and of learned men, his perhaps over-zealous duty for what he thought his own and his country's honour, the dignities loftily sustained to which he was born, and to those which he was appointed to fulfill by King James, have all in all lent a lustre and brightness to his name never to be effaced.

There is no question but that this lord, then but a young man when the poet first sought his patronage, was a great admirer and greatly favoured Shakespeare; that he assisted the poet with a most extraordinary bounty is, however, a very late tradition, and was first published by Rowe in 1709. A gift from the earl may well be believed, but the amount stated to have been given the poet is beyond probability. Rowe tells us: "There is one instance so singular in the magnificence of this patron of Shakespeare that, if I had not been assured that the story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not have ventured to have inserted; that my Lord Southampton at one time gave him a thousand pounds to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to." And this is rendered more probable, or at least the gift of something munificent, as we further learn from other testimony that the poet, besides the advantages of his wit and worthy qualities, his "honesty" and "uprightness of dealing," was in himself a good-natured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion. This the printed records of the time, from his earliest period as also the latest that have been handed down, most expressly affirm; to these qualities as also to his poetical merit we may doubtless attribute his rapid advancement.

The large sum said to have been given to the poet, an amount equal at the present value of money to £5,000 [approx $135,000 in 2010], was not reported till long after the event — probably it was augmented mistakenly from £100 to £1,000, and as the sum of £100 was then equal to a sum of £500 of present money, that for the young earl to have given must be viewed as a considerable gift. The earl early in life was a recognised patron of poets and learned men, and Gervase Markham, in a sonnet addressed to the earl in 1595, appears to point especially to his patronage of Shakespeare —
"Thou, the laurel of the Muses' hill,
Those eyes doth crown the most victorious pen."
The earl's love of learning and learned men is well known; it was, however, chiefly confined to his early years, and strange to say there does not appear to have been a dozen books dedicated to him comprising the two early poems of Shakespeare. Of the Earl of Southampton's regard for literature, poetry, and the drama, and help to learned men there is full and direct testimony, therefore a munificent gift of considerable importance to Shakespeare may be looked upon as conclusive, being perhaps like others at that time as much attracted by the poet's modesty and gentleness as by his merit; and his kind regard probably extended for several years. There is, however, no direct proof of close intercourse between the earl as years advanced; in fact, it would appear that there was a coldness, if not disunion, grew up between them.

Probably as time went on the earl may have been twitted for the amorous nature of the Greekish fable of the "Venus and Adonis" poem, or of the erotic titianesque presentment of the picture of the fair queen of love; if so, the poet would deeply feel the charge against the poem, a charge as we know that was long alleged against it, both during and long after the poet's life, and out of this may have grown the severance or at least silence we have spoken of in reference to further dedicated poems by the poet to the earl. And the mysterious "Willobie Arisa" poem of 1594, a year after the publication of the Venus poem, may secretly and satirically point to Shakespeare and the earl. During the poet's middle period the earl's military duties would however alone occasion long periods of separation. The earl at that time had been much absent from the metropolis and became involved through a long-growing fiery temper in many factions, State difficulties, and other matters to which we have alluded, and was finally mixed up with the rebellion of the Earl of Essex; and though with Essex doomed to death, Southampton obtained a remission of the sentence, but was condemned to imprisonment in the Tower, We are, however, now somewhat anticipating events. The loyal poet may in some way have offended the too-impetuous earl; of this, as will be seen, there appears several indications. After 1597 the earl in almost every transaction in which he engaged invariably incurred either the displeasure of the Queen or the Court, whether in military affairs, Court life, politics, or private affairs. His courtship and final marriage with one of the Queen's maids, for a long period was the source of much unhappiness; this offence still more excited against him the enmity of Elizabeth, as will be seen not without some cause.1

After Southampton's too-ardent courtship with the Queen's maid of honour, fair Mistress Vernon, whom he, we may presume truly loved, on March 17, 1598, he passed over to France and offered his military services to Henry IV; but the campaign ending by the peace of Vervius, the chivalric earl, after a stay at Paris for a few months, upon his return, married privately Mistress Vernon, whose condition compelled her to retire from the Court to the house of the Earl of Essex at Wanstead, to which Essex had retired from the favour of the Queen. Some of the wits of the day poked fun at the fair lady's obvious condition, though she was in great sorrow — weeping her fair eyes out of her head, she yet asserted full belief that Lord Southampton would "justify it." This marriage greatly displeased the Queen, and she threatened to send all parties concerned in it to the Tower; the countess was committed to the best lodgings of the Fleet, and the earl was for a brief time cast into prison. Southampton with all his faults, his fiery temper, continued impetuosity, and dominant self-will, was a nobleman of high courage, great honour, and integrity. His joining the Essex faction in 1601, as we have above remarked, finally doomed him to the Tower till the close of Elizabeth's reign; the prospect before the countess must have been one of deep grief and desolation, and the event doubtless also caused much sadness of heart to Shakespeare.

Southampton and the Drama

There is evidence, in a letter by Rowland Whyte written in 1599 to Sir R. Sydney, that the Earl of Southampton was a lover of plays, and at that time was a constant visitor to the theatres. He says: "My Lord of Southampton and Lord Rutland come not to the Court. The one doth very seldom. They pass away the time in London merely in going to plays every day." And a year or two later the earl, who unfortunately joined Essex in his rebellion against Elizabeth, appears with some of the other conspirators to have sought to influence the people to join them by having exhibited at the Globe Theatre, and also at various other places in London, a play on the subject of Richard II, representing the deposition and murder of that king, and was played at the Globe on the day previous to the outbreak, February 8, 1601. Great interest is attached to this event, as to whether it was Shakespeare's Richard II, or an old play on the same subject. It has long been supposed to have been our poet's drama; it is a subject of considerable importance and worthy of further investigation, and it will be seen that in all probability it was not Shakespeare's play for the following reasons.

Augustine Phillipps, one of the players of the company of the Globe, appears to have been delegated on this occasion to treat with some of the leading party of the Essex faction, and was induced by them upon the payment of an extra allowance to perform a play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II, as he stated in his examination before the judges; but he, as is quite clear, only came to terms with the conspirators, by undertaking to play an old play long out of use, apparently stale, unattractive, and unprofitable, hence a larger fee was given. Any such description would hardly apply to Shakespeare's play of 1595 of that name; his plays always filled the theatre, even though they were not new. Phillipps, who appears to have had the sole transaction in his hands, was sent to represent the company. This accounts for the withdrawal of Shakespeare and the leading members from any complicity in the transaction, and the company of the Globe were fully excused; but it has not perhaps been clearly seen why, but for this reason alone — for not using their own play of Richard II, written by Shakespeare, but an old, long-disused play upon the same subject, a play that had been long since thrust into the background as far as the Globe company was concerned, and a play upon which no censorship had been passed, a play that had been revived at the instigation of the conspirators and had recently been played by their influence in theatres and elsewhere in London, and the same play was performed at the Globe at their entreaty; being the most important theatre, the service of that company was most valued.

Shakespeare's play of Richard II had been printed in 1597, with the suppression of 154 lines containing the trial and deposing of the king. Elizabeth appears greatly to have feared this deposing exhibition would stir up the people against her, on account of her religious principles. Sir John Hayward in 1599, in a history of the first part of Henry IV,'s reign, included an account of Richard II, and dedicated the work in words of high eulogy to the Earl of Essex, and at once received severe censure in the Star Chamber, was committed to prison, and the Queen threatened the author with the rack to force him to a full confession. We cannot well suppose Shakespeare and his colleagues to have been so unwise as to allow his play, with the scene of the deposition of Richard II, to be played by the company and that, the Lord Chamberlain's company of players for the purpose of inciting a spirit of insurrection. Though he had regard for the Earl of Essex and special admiration for the Earl of Southampton, we cannot believe the loyal poet would connive in such a league against his sovereign, who, in an especial manner, had honoured him and his company. The poet was doubtless fully aware a Richard II had been played quite recently a large number of times at various places in London, and, as we have noticed, probably bribed to perform it by some partisans of the Essex faction, and he was also aware that those who sought to publish his own Richard II. had been compelled to withdraw the deposition scene by the censorship in 1597. Would he, in the face of all this or his colleagues, with Sir John Hayward's fate before them, be foolishly bold to crown all this by allowing his play to be performed by the Queen's players with that scene at the Globe theatre? but would stand the risk, we may well suppose, of offending his rash patron rather than join in the endeavour to subvert the state, and we believe that his refusal offended Southampton. And the Richard II played at the Globe was an old play, and is spoken of as such at the time and as out of date, and as it would not pay to play it, few would come to witness it, therefore an extra bribe was given to ensure its performance. This, from what we can gather, exculpated the Globe company, no blame was imputed to them, and the Queen continued to extend her favour to them, and just before the death of Essex, witnessed a performance by them at Richmond Palace on Tuesday, February 24, 1601,

Thorpe the antiquary has recorded in reference to the old play of King Richard II which had been played in various places in the metropolis "in open streets and houses," and we are further told the Queen, in a conversation with Lambarde the Keeper of the Records in the Tower, her Majesty speaking to him of the reign of King Richard II, said in reference to the Essex plot: "I am Richard II, know ye not that?"

In the midst of the stirring affairs consequent upon the rebellion of Essex, Shakespeare must have been much grieved and perplexed as to his future line of action. What was the poet to do? He now stood in a very peculiar position; he loved his patron without doubt, but a new claimant had for about two years sought very zealously and it would appear persistently, to obtain the regard of the poet and had obtained it. This would also point to a division in some way having occurred between the poet and his first patron at an earlier period, and this may have been viewed as still widened by the Essex conspiracy — not perhaps that the poet did not still love and admire his early patron, but events seem to prove that it could not stand up firm and lasting, but must sooner or later fall. This perhaps the new patron — we now refer to the young Lord Herbert — clearly saw, and we learn that the poet did not have to seek his patronage and favour; he sought the regard of the poet and heaped favours upon him. This can all be shown from the records of the time and from the Sonnets. And the poet upon his part thought well to take into his regard the young lord, whom for his qualities, gifts, handsomeness, and position, and as the future head of a most noble house, he viewed the alliance with a most cordial and happy spirit.

Upon the Earl of Southampton being cast into the gloomy dungeon of the tower —
"To Julius Caesar's ill-erected tower."
Richard II, Act V., Sc. i.
Shakespeare doubtless found himself in a curious position; he could not pen a poem on the treasonable outbreak or defend Southampton as he may to some extent have wished to. The poet was, however, equal to the occasion; he clearly, we find, desired to express his regard for him, and he has done so, not by writing a poem, but by penning a drama after the earl's doom of imprisonment in the Tower, a period destined to be at least as long as Elizabeth's reign lasted.

The drama he has selected for his purpose is the noble play of Julius Caesar, written probably late in 1601, in which the opening scenes largely reflect the Essex plot and the closing years of Elizabeth. To effect this, Caesar is not made the leading character, except in the title of the play. Brutus and Cassius are the foremost figures, and it is somewhat remarkable that it has not hitherto been observed that Brutus is Southampton, and Cassius the Earl of Essex. The poet had to adhere to Roman history, but as far as possible has made it subservient to the rebellion of Essex, in character, incident, and detail, as far as regards the Earls of Essex and Southampton; the latter nobleman, his dear friend, stands most prominent. The play of Julius Caesar is therefore of political significance; he has glanced at the rebellion against the Queen, and at the two leading personages of the plot, but has mainly, and in his position wisely and judiciously, adhered closely to the story of the conspiracy against Caesar as narrated by Plutarch and as translated by Sir Thomas North.

The poet's regard for the personal qualities of Essex and Southampton is reflected in the effulgent brightness with which he has invested the portrayal of Brutus and Cassius. To add to their greater brightness he has dimmed the glory, greatness, and majesty of Caesar with the gathering clouds that finally enveloped the lurid sunset of his closing days; for this decadence of Caesar, Plutarch gives charter; it also points more significantly to the decadence of Elizabeth's last years. Despite, however, of his eulogy of Southampton and Essex, the drama, like our poet's Richard II, is adverse to State plots and conspiracy against the Crown.2

Southampton's short-sightedness and unpractical political ideas fully appear in Brutus, he is impulsive and wholly regardless of the course of events; so was Southampton, The willfulness of Brutus as a general and a man ended in his disgrace and brought ruin upon him; this was Southampton's error right through his career. Whatever dignity was in the conspiracy against Caesar, was conferred on it by the presence of Brutus, and it was Southampton's chivalric spirit that lent a certain amount of importance to the plot of Essex. Cassius is bitter of speech, unscrupulous, and merciless, he persuaded Brutus to join in the conspiracy; and Essex besought the aid of Southampton. Cassius was well reputed as a military commander; Essex had a like high repute. Essex's bitterness of tongue is well known; among other fatal expressions he uttered is that "The Queen grew old and cankered; and that her mind was become as crooked as her carcass." The conspirators meet at the orchard of Brutus, and they pledge themselves by oath to carry out their plot; Essex and the conspirators meet at Southampton's house for a like purpose. Brutus exhibits a zealous love of liberty for the common welfare; Southampton showed the same regard. Brutus was brother-in-law to Cassius; Southampton married Elizabeth Vernon, the cousin of the Earl of Essex. There have been differences between them, but this love for his relative brought that to an end. Elizabeth Vernon, who became Southampton's honoured wife; the poet pictures as Portia, wife to Brutus, and the devotedness of husband and wife and of her tender and most ardent regard towards him is finely shown in the scene between them. Brutus, after a midnight meeting with the conspirators, addressing Cassius ere they disperse on the approach of early morning, says —
"Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily;
Let not our looks put on our purposes;
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untir'd spirits and formal constancy;
And so good-morrow to you every one."
Portia seeks him, and gives in addressing Brutus a fine portrayal of Southampton to the life, to which we refer the reader — Act II., Sc. i. — and gently chides him for his rebukes and impatience of late to her, and being his wife therefore entreats upon her knees to know his secret sorrow and weight of care and his cause of midnight meeting with men —
"Who did hide their faces
Even from darkness."
She doubts to call herself his wife and not to know his secrets, which she vows though he divulge them she will not reveal; and in the fullness of his soul he says —
"You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart."
And this may well apply to the marriage of the earl and his lady and the Court tattle upon the event. The noble play ends with a fine eulogium directed towards his dear friend Southampton, whom to all the world was as dead, immured in that gloomy fortress; and the poet well might in the words of Antony in his tribute of praise over the dead Brutus, say —
"This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only in a general honest thought.
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!'"
It may be a strained compliment, but pardonable as the outcome of a devoted friendship, and doubtless Southampton's early years were gentle and most loving till soured by Court factions and real or imagined grievances or errors. Nat Lee tells us, in the dedication of his "Lucius Junius Brutus" to the Earl of Dorset, that "Shakespeare's Brutus with much ado beat himself into the heads of a blockish age, so knotty were the oaks he had to deal with." But did not this arise from the play appearing in Elizabeth's last years? Her loyal subjects may well have thought the eulogy of Brutus too excessive. The poet could not of course be too open in his representations of Essex and Southampton; this might have brought the enmity of the Queen upon him. The poet steered clear of offending, yet found a way to express his love and pity for his noble patron and friend. This drama may not have been written to draw his patron nearer to him, assuming there had been somewhat of a coldness or division between them, but to evince his regard for him at the time of his overthrow. It is certainly remarkable that through all this time there seems to have been no alliance or connection that can be traced between them, no poem of condolence openly addressed to him pitying his misfortunes and sad state, which in Shakespeare's case perhaps would have been unwise, and was fully excused by the earl. The bounteous gift given by the earl to the poet may very likely have been given after the earl's release from the Tower in the next reign, and arose from the kind tribute offered to him and to the Earl of Essex in Julius Caesar, and he might readily forget former differences, if any, as he did in the case of Essex, and became his most zealous friend. No poem, however, is certainly known to have been written by Shakespeare on the earl's release from the Tower. The poets Daniel and Davies were jubilant on this occasion. Shakespeare's may not have appeared in print.

There is one event that places Southampton in touch with one of Shakespeare's plays, though not apparently with the poet himself. It appears that the comedy of Love's Labour's Lost, upon the visit of the Queen of James I to the Earl of Southampton in January, 1605, was selected by Burbage, the principal player of the company to which Shakespeare belonged, to be performed before her. Burbage extolled the wit and mirth of the play and said that it would please her exceedingly; it was played either at Southampton House, Bloomsbury, or at the earl's house in the Strand; the original letter is preserved at Hatfield.3 We should perhaps remark that the British Museum stands on a portion of the immediately surrounding ground then belonging to the old mansion, and the poet we may well suppose frequently trod the very ground on which our national museum stands in the company of his early patron; the Earls of Southampton were lords of the manor of Bloomsbury. The mansion, which was large and stately, stood upon the north side of Bloomsbury Square; in the reign of Elizabeth the old manor house stood in the open country, the adjacent fields then formed part of the court of the manor.

It need not be supposed that Southampton stood aloof from Shakespeare any time of the poet's life, but circumstances occurred later in the earl's life that appear to have turned his attention to a great extent from his early love of literature and the society of learned men and poets, and though he continued to foster literary men at intervals, his life led him widely away to a large extent from London life and associations. Therefore though there might appear a disunion, it may have arisen from different duties, both on the earl's part and the part of the poet, that largely occupied their attention. We need not therefore suppose that after Herbert appears before the poet and desires to favour him with his special patronage, that Southampton must needs retire to the background as far as Shakespeare is concerned. The poet, however, seems to have been very exclusive in his seeking or accepting patronage; during his life he sought public patronage and won it by his dramas and his acting; for his poems he sought the higher patronage of the nobility, and for their acceptance he had many admirers and "private friends."

Beyond this circle there were but three noblemen that we know were his patrons: the Earl of Southampton stands first, and with him later in time were the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, the two brothers to whom the first folio is dedicated; and the elder brother William Herbert has long been identified with the "W. H." of the Sonnets. Ben Jonson, on the other hand, sought and obtained many patrons, amongst them were many noble and distinguished men and women, but he could not obtain the patronage of the public for the acceptance of his plays, therefore was always miserably poor and became very morose. Shakespeare exalted patronage up to ardent, constant, and most loving friendship; he appears to have thought it his greatest joy and esteemed it as his highest honour. That the favour of the two "incomparable brothers," Earl William and his brother Philip Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, was enjoyed and viewed as the poet's highest honour, not only has the poet's testimony as to Earl William, but the player editors, as we have noticed in their dedication of the first folio to these lords, couple them together as the poet's most eminent dramatic patrons, and speak of the great favours granted by them to the then deceased poet. And of Pembroke's especial patronage of the poet we shall have to notice other contemporary evidence.

Some have sought to show, but without any proof whatever, that the Sonnets were written for and dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, but the view is most difficult to accept. Finally, we may truly say that Southampton was a brilliant and a most noble and heroic peer, a chivalric Elizabethan lord, but somewhat of a quixotic disposition — restless, ever ready to trample down a real or supposed grievance, or to participate in some adventure of knight-errantry or military quest, whether directly in or not in connection with his own affairs, his personal, country's, or his sovereign's interest, and this spirit remained in him to the last. Finally, it may justly be said that Shakespeare's Sonnets present not the faintest reflection of the personal character or life of Southampton. The earl had the effusions, during his early period, of the almost insane, if not grossly wild and inebriated strains of sonnets and occasional poems, excessive and wantonly laudatory verses by Tom Nash, Barnaby Barnes, and Gervase Markham. Southampton's ear was receptive of the most vile and outrageous praise; he verily exceeded Queen Elizabeth in accepting the grossest and most impious flattery.

We learn from a letter of Mr. Edward Bruce, a correspondent of King James during the last years of Elizabeth, to Lord Henry Howard, written just before the death of Elizabeth, in which it is said the Queen" . . . very near approaches to her everlasting rest. The Earl of Southampton has written to King James an earnest letter for a warrant of his liberty immediately upon the Queen's death." This was one of the first acts granted by the new King. Elizabeth died March 24, 1603. The imprisoned earl was at once liberated upon the entry of James to his new kingdom. But, strangely enough, he seldom could make friends or be long at peace in the King's Court from the very first, and he seems to have been in real amity with few great persons at the new Court, but there are evidences of friendship having subsisted right through between Southampton and Pembroke. In 1603, on several occasions between August and December, both the earls were at Wilton, and Shakespeare's company of players were entertaining the new King and his distinguished company with plays at the mansion of Pembroke.


1: His ardent love was fixed on Elizabeth Vernon, the cousin of the celebrated Earl of Essex. Dr. Drake exactly puts it when he says "between whom and Southampton differences had arisen, which this passion for his fair relative dissipated forever."

2: The poet has been much blamed for his representation of Caesar, and many have imputed it to the poet's ignorance. Our view shows clearly why great Caesar is cast into the shade, though the central character, and why Brutus has the effulgent rays of Shakespeare's genius cast upon him.

3: Halliwell-Phillipps, "Outlines," seventh edition, 1887, vol. ii. pp. 83. 84.

How to cite this article:
Brown, Henry. Shakespeare's patrons & other essays. London: J. M. Dent & sons, 1912. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >.

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