Reason No. 21 to Believe Oxford = “Shakespeare” – All That Suspicion and Jealousy!

When first learning about Edward de Vere and his relationship to “Shakespeare,” I was startled to see a letter written by his wife Anne Cecil in December 1581.  Oxford had flown into a rage over Court gossip in 1576 that he was not the father of the baby girl (Elizabeth Vere) to whom she had given birth the previous year when he was in Italy.  Besieged by doubts, and furious that the scandal had become “the fable of the world,” he separated from her and refused to acknowledge the child.

Othello and Desdemona

Now, five years later, they had begun to communicate again; and Anne wrote to him from the Westminster home of her father William Cecil Lord Burghley, pleading:

“My Lord – In what misery I may account myself to be, that neither can see any end thereof nor yet any hope to diminish it – and now of late having had some hope in my own conceit that your Lordship would have renewed some part of your favor that you began to show me this summer…”

I paused and wondered:  What does this remind me of?  Where did I hear something like this before?

“Now after long silence of hearing anything from you, at the length I am informed – but how truly I know not, and yet how uncomfortably I do not seek it – that your Lordship is entered into misliking of me without any cause in deed or thought.” 

The first quarto of "Othello" - 1622, one year before the First Folio of plays appeared

Well, yes, of course … Desdemona, wife of Othello…

“And therefore, my good Lord, I beseech you in the name of God, which knoweth all my thoughts and love towards you, let me know the truth of your meaning towards me, upon what cause you are moved to continue me in this misery, and what you would have me do in my power to recover your constant favor, so as your Lordship may not be led still to detain me in calamity without some probable cause, whereof, I appeal to God, I am utterly innocent.”

I had played the part of Cassio way back in college, but now the final scenes came back to me with sudden vividness … the way Desdemona was so baffled by Othello’s suspicions and accusations … how she begged him to reveal the torturous contents of his mind … how she was so helpless, in the face of his blind rage … how she was left to merely plead her innocence… plaintively telling Iago, the very manipulator who had roused Othello’s jealousy in the first place:

“Alas, Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?  Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven, I know not how I lost him.  Here I kneel: If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love either in discourse of thought or actual deed … comfort forswear me!  Unkindness may do much, and his unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love.”

Yes, I thought … Anne Cecil could have been saying the same words…

If Oxford was Shakespeare, I mused, then Anne’s statement “I am utterly innocent” from the depths of her heart echoes in the play when, after Othello strangles Desdemona to death, Iago’s wife Emilia shouts at him: “Nay, lay thee down and roar, for thou hast killed the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye!”  And later, when Iago stabs Emilia, she cries to  Othello again before dying: “Moor, she was chaste!  She loved thee, cruel Moor!”

Suspicion and jealousy run through other Shakespearean plays such as Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.  Hamlet turns on his fiancé Ophelia, distrusting her and complaining that “the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness.”  The prince is coming unglued, with young Ophelia crying out, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”

“Good my Lord,” Anne Cecil wrote to Edward de Vere again in December 1581, “assure yourself it is you whom only I love and fear, and so am desirous above all the world to please you…”

She died less than seven years later, at the much-too-young age of thirty-one, having suffered emotional strains that we can only imagine.  Oxford had had his complaints about Anne acting too much on her father’s side, much as Hamlet reacts to Ophelia’s spying on him for her father; but on the other side of the coin, he may well have blamed himself for his wife’s early death.  Once the earl is viewed at the great author, he may be seen drawing upon these upheavals in his own life, including his remorse, for his portrayals of Desdemona’s plight and Ophelia’s madness followed by her apparent suicide.

Ophelia as played by Helena Bonham-Carter in the Franco Zeffirelli film of "Hamlet" in 1990

When Hamlet sees her brother Laertes leap into her grave, he holds nothing back:  “What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?  Whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers?  This is I, Hamlet the Dane!”  He leaps into the grave with Laertes; and after they nearly fight: “I loved Ophelia!  Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum!”

The prince’s grief and anger, his mixture of rage and guilt, are all palpable as he challenges Laertes: “What wilt thou do for her? … Woo’t weep?  Woo’t fight?  Woo’t fast?  Woo’t tear thyself?  Woo’t drink up eisell?  Eat a crocodile?  I’ll do’t!  Dost thou come here to whine?  To outface me with leaping in her grave? … Nay … I’ll rant as well as thou!”

During the final scene of that long-ago college production of Othello, I never failed to experience a wave of gut-wrenching emotion as the Moor begs for any crumbs of sympathy or empathy before taking his own life:

“Soft you; a word or two before you go.  I have done the state some service, and they know’t – no more of that,” he says, and we might well hear Oxford himself, speaking of his own service to the state as a playwright and patron of writers as well as acting companies that performed around the countryside to rouse national unity against the coming Spanish invasion by armada – which England survived in the summer of 1588, just a few months after Anne Cecil’s death.

“I pray you,” Othello continues, “in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood*, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinable gum…”

I believe we are listening to Edward de Vere expressing his own measureless sorrow over the wreckages of his past – another reason to believe he was the man “Shakespeare” who had written The Tragedy of Othello printed for the first time in 1622.

 * “One whose subdued eyes, unused to the melting mood” is echoed when Oxford speaks personally in Sonnet 30:  “Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow…”

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Conventional dating has Othello being written in 1603 or 1604. But one interpretation of the play is that the dark-skinned Othello represents the Spanish Philip II, who is trying to conquer England. Othello’s murder of Desdemona represents the putative murder of Elizabeth II, should Philip have his way.

  2. John, your points are very cogent but I don’t see how the latter part of your argument affects the former. I don’t see the Spanish connection — which is, surely, correct — as attached to any specific time frame. In fact, if you study the bibliographical history you’ll notice there’s a very odd 1622 quarto of Othello, published only a year before the folio was published (and long after it had begun printing). Why was that? Follow the dots to the Spanish marriage crisis.

  3. Hank, that comparison of the letter with Desdemona’s speech is quite good. The ideas do indeed seem to mirror one another. You can go further with this if you look in Rape of Lucrece, don’t know the line numbers of the top of my head, but Lucrece actually sits down at one point to write a letter to Collatine, and you can hear the connection between that letter and some of Anne’s plaintive missives (I believe she wrote at least 2 or 3 such letters, enough to establish some kind of pattern). How’s that for you? Rape of Lucrece. Anne Cecil. Hmmm. Repeat after me: “Thou Shalt Not seek biography in the works, and shouldst thou find it, mistake it for nought.”

  4. Oops, I just realized that John’s discussion of dating was relative to speculation of an earlier chronology. Sorry, my mistake. I tend to think these plays, many of them, took shape over many years. I think 1602-3 might be about right for the play we have. But I’m sure that the idea and the literary genesis was much earlier.

    • Thanks for these comments. I first encountered Anne’s letters of 1581 in Charlton Ogburn’s “Mysterious William Shakespeare” (1984) and made that simple connection to Oxford’s personal life; but this morning it took only minutes to find, on p. 518 in his parents’ book “This Star of England” (1952), both Desdemona’s speech to Iago and Anne’s Cecil pleading her utter innocence — the Ogburns commenting, “If the correspondence between Desdemona’s heartbroken speech and Anne Cecil’s heartbroken letters does not show the two suspect wives one and the same, what does internal evidence count for? The dramatist had done everything he could do except name both Desdemona and Ophelia Anne.”
      So I am hardly original in my blog about this.
      On another note, for some time in my Oxfordian life the combinations of personal and political aspects of this particular play were somewhat confusing to me — not only trying to figure out the political/historical contexts but wondering how in hell a writer of such artistic power could pull it off. The Ogburns deal with this in at least two of their chapters, 39 and 40. For them the play reflected one political situation in 1583, another when it was rewritten in 1585, and “then a grand merging of the historical-symbolical and personal in 1588; while Othello’s final speech must have been given a last touch shortly before the author’s death [1604], since it constitutes Oxford’s own plea to posterity.”
      On p. 509: “Othello was undoubtedly begun as an allegory, with Desdemona impersonating the city of Antwerp topically, and the chaste Elizabeth romantically, while Alencon was the prototype of Othello. That the scoundrel, Alencon, was called by Elizabeth ‘her Moor’ is arresting.”
      I like your comments, Roger, both about Lucrece (the chaste) and the 1622 quarto in relation to the Spanish marriage crisis. I must now study what Richard Whalen and Ren Draya have to say in their edtion from an Oxfordian perspective — well, I see that they mention the personal parallel with Anne Cecil in their introduction but have no notes about it next to Desdemona’s speech to Iago (4.2.148) – ‘Alas, Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?'”
      Now, to find those lines in Lucrece…..

  5. For what it is worth: Lilian Winstanley in “”Othello” as the tragedy of Italy: Showing that Shakespeare’s Italian contemporaries interpreted the story of the Moor and the lady of Vencie as symbolizing … of their country in the grip of Spain”” does this interpretation of Phillip II being Othello the Moor and the broader context being the compromise Venice had to make with the Spanish empire in order for the West to defeat the Turks/Ottomans around the Battle of Lepanto. (Please see below the cut and paste:
    The principal source for Othello is a story by an Italian author, Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Giraldi, who is also known as Cinthio or Cinzio, in his collection of novellas entitled Hecatommithi,(3.7), published in Venice in 1565. [1] The work was published in a French translation by Gabriel Chappuys in 1584. Cinthio named none of his characters except for his heroine, called ‘Disdemona’, a name of ‘unlucky augury’)

    Oxford, if anyone, would have been familiar with the material having access to his adoptive father and (later) father in law Cecil’s books and communications.

  6. One question it would be helpful to bear in mind is: “What did they know, and when did we stop knowing it?” The `they’ here would be that English audience of the late 16th early 17th centuries which would be evolving but defined, the `we’ be us.

    Key references are the Battle of Lepanto (1571) synthesized with the source of Cinthio’s pre-battle story. (I cut and pasted for brevity)

    Basically, Lilian Winstanley understood and wrote that Venice had to compromise and sell its virginity (Desdemona in Othello play) to Philip II/which was viewed by a late 16th century English audience as dark/Moorish to defeat the more evil Ottoman/Turks. We have the enlightenment/blinders of separating the modern view of 16th century Spain from the Ottomans for various reasons including the race factor. Back in Merry Ole England, conflation of the Spanish Empire with melanin content was tolerated, minimally for propaganda to get the English jacked up against the impending invasion from Philip and his armada.
    Please see `”Othello” as the tragedy of Italy: Showing that Shakespeare’s Italian contemporaries interpreted the story of the Moor and the lady of Venice as symbolizing … of their country in the grip of Spain’ by Lilian Winstanley. (originally written in 1923)


    The principal source for Othello is a story by an Italian author, Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Giraldi, who is also known as Cinthio or Cinzio, in his collection of novellas entitled Hecatommithi,(3.7), published in Venice in 1565. [1] The work was published in a French translation by Gabriel Chappuys in 1584. Cinthio named none of his characters except for his heroine, called ‘Disdemona’, a name of ‘unlucky augury’.

    • Good stuff and I hope readers will look closely at it. Thanks.

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