“The Quality of Mercy” – Reason No. 32 to Conclude that the Earl of Oxford Wrote the “Shakespeare” Works

The works of “Shakespeare” contain the results of the author’s own meditations on justice and mercy, emphasizing the need for kings to carry out lawful remedies and punishments with compassion and kindly forbearance.  In Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice about “the quality of mercy” being “not strained” (not constrained), she declares that mercy is “mightiest in the mightiest” and “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”  Mercy is above such trappings and is “enthroned in the hearts of kings,” she says, adding:

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice (4.1)

On May 7, 1603, six weeks after Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I of England, 53-year-old Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford wrote a business letter to Secretary Robert Cecil and, in passing, made this comment, which is printed below in the form of a speech in a Shakespeare play:

Nothing adorns a King more than justice,

Nor in anything doth a King more resemble God than in justice,

Which is the head of all virtue,

And he that is endued therewith hath all the rest.

By no means am I the first to notice a remarkable similarity of thinking between Oxford and “Shakespeare” and of the words expressing it.  Portia’s statement that when a King combines justice with mercy his “earthly power doth then show likest God’s” is reflected in Oxford’s remark that “nor in anything doth a King more resemble God than in justice” – by which he clearly means a justice that contains the “virtue” of mercy or the capacity for forgiveness.

Surely it’s not difficult to imagine Oxford giving Isabella these words about monarchs in Measure for Measure:

Not the King’s Crown nor the deputed sword,

The Marshall’s Truncheon nor the Judge’s Robe,

Become them with one half so good a grace

As mercy does.  (2.2)

In Chapter 30 of his 2001 dissertation on the “marginalia” of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible, which the earl had purchased in 1568-69 before the age of twenty, Roger Stritmatter reports that Oxford had marked a series of verses in Ecclesiasticus on the theme of mercy.

Ecclesiasticus 28.1-5, as marked by Edward de Vere in his Geneva Bible

The question of mercy “is central to the unfolding action of The Tempest,” Dr. Stritmatter notes.  “In this fable Prospero, like Hamlet, learns to abandon the lust to punish his enemies and realizes that ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.’ (5.1.27) — in which statement ‘virtue’ is a metaphor for ‘mercy.’ ”  He points out that previous students of Shakespeare and the Bible had failed to notice that Prospero’s epilogue “as you from crimes would pardoned be…” derives “direct, unequivocal inspiration” from Ecclesiasticus 28.1-5, which Oxford had marked in his Geneva Bible.

Ellen Terry as Portia in 1885

I recommend an informative (and amusing) exchange on this subject between William J. Ray and Alan Nelson, author of Monstrous Adversary (2003), the anti-Oxfordian biography of Oxford.  The dialogue was initiated by Ray, who pointed out similarities between Oxford’s “remarkable sentence on the theme of justice” and Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy.

“Apparently De Vere studied kingship and justice from Old Testament teachings,” Ray observes in the course of the exchange, adding later, “I do not see your implacable opposition of justice and mercy as represented by the one quotation versus the other, since to my ear they both [Oxford and “Shakespere”] were speaking of the same virtue(s) … and with virtually the same cadence and language.”

"The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle" painted by Edouard Berveiller (1843-1910)

“There can be little doubt as to which side Oxford’s sympathies would lean” during the treason trial of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in October 1586,” J. Thomas Looney wrote in “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, introducing the Oxford theory of Shakespearean authorship – in other words the earl, who sat as one of the commissioners at the trial, would have been on Mary’s side; and “as we read of her wonderfully brave and dignified bearing, and of her capable and unaided conduct of her own defense, we can quite believe that if the dramatist who wrote The Merchant of Venice was present at the trial of the Scottish Queen … he had before him a worthy model for the fair Portia…”

Looney quoted Martin Hume on the trial: “Mary defended herself with consummate ability before a tribunal almost entirely prejudiced against her. She was deprived of legal aid, without her papers and in ill health. In her argument with [William Cecil Lord Burghley] she reached a point of touching eloquence which might have moved the hearts, though it did not convince the intellects, of her august judges.”

Drawing of the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots as part of the official record made by Robert Beale (1541-1601)

[Hume had quoted a letter in which Burghley says of Mary, “Her intention was to move pity by long, artificial speeches” – and Looney wrote, “With this remark of Burghley’s in mind, let the reader weigh carefully the terms, of Portia’s speech on ‘Mercy,’ all turning upon conceptions of royal power, with its symbols the crown and the scepter … Now let any one judge whether this speech is not vastly more appropriate to Mary Queen of Scots pleading her own cause before Burleigh, Walsingham, and indirectly the English Queen, than to an Italian lady pleading to an old Jew for the life of a merchant she had never seen before.  Who, then, could have been better qualified for giving an idealized and poetical rendering of Mary’s speeches than ‘the best of the courtier poets’ [Oxford], who was a sympathetic listener to her pathetic and dignified appeals?”

I include Looney’s remarks despite the fact that I share the view of many Oxfordians that Edward de Vere had written the first version of The Merchant of Venice several years prior to the trial of Mary Queen of Scots – that is, in the early 1580’s, four or five years after he had returned (in April 1576) from fifteen months on the Continent with Venice as his home base.

Portia’s speech in 4.1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Prospero’s farewell at the end of The Tempest:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands:

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://hankwhittemore.com/2012/01/29/the-quality-of-mercy-reason-no-32-to-conclude-that-the-earl-of-oxford-wrote-the-shakespeare-works/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Through Henry VI, unlike through Othello, the author would try to convince himself to abandon his lust for power and the crown (and thus, to plead mercy for himself and his state of mind) with these words (Part III, Act III, Scene I, 31-68):

    K. Hen. My queen and son are gone to France for aid;

    Sec. Keep. Say, what art thou, that talk’st of kings and queens?

    K. Hen. More than I seem, and less than I was born to:
    A man at least, for less I should not be; 60
    And men may talk of kings, and why not I?

    Sec. Keep. Ay, but thou talk’st as if thou wert a king.

    K. Hen. Why, so I am, in mind; and that’s enough.

    Sec. Keep. But, if thou be a king, where is thy crown?

    K. Hen. My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
    Not deck’d with diamonds and Indian stones,
    Nor to be seen: my crown is call’d content;
    A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.

  2. Super discussion on this important theme in Oxford’s heart and Shakespeare’s writing. Was Mr. McCaves acquainted with Oxford’s “In Praise of a Contented Mind”:

    “…Content I love, this is my stay,/ I seek no more than may suffice;/ I press to bear no haughty sway,/ Look what I lack, my mind supplies./ Lo thus I triumph like a king,/ Content with that my mind doth bring…”

    It is amazing what a guy can learn in taverns. Shakespeare seemed to remember every word Oxford ever said.

    Another stratum of the ‘Mercy’ subject is that Oxford’s second wife Elizabeth Trentham was a brilliant legal brain, known to advocate the introduction of equity into the fixed rules of English Common Law, whose antecedents traced back to Roman law two millennia old. This was another example of human Biblical justice trying to make inroads into paralyzed Tradition. I assume the author of Merchant of Venice admired her very much, giving her the best lines in the play. At one stretch, the dialogue between Portia and Bassanio said ‘ring’ seventeen times. Pure co-incidence probably, or else there was an echo in the room. Oxford’s Latin initials were ECO.

    Thanks Hank for making me and old pal Alan Nelson famous. Incidentally, for the record, we exchanged some more sweet nothings at the September 2011 Concordia conference. When I mentioned that John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, surprisingly sponsored Venus and Adonis, [damn, that Shakspere got around] he blurted from the audience, “That is wrong…I’ll talk to you afterwards, but that is wrong…it would take fifteen minutes to show it…no I don’t have any documentation to prove it…” Funny, W.W. Greg made the claim on page 20 of ‘Licensers for the Press to 1640’. I don’t know why he would do us like that.

    Great series, maybe send it to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust just so we can see them look red on video. They can’t have sore noses all the time can they?


    William Ray

    • Welcome again to the fun house, William Ray. Great information, and where can we learn more about Elizabeth Trentham and her legal knowledge? [Perhaps the blog site of Jeremy Crick at
      http://www.jeremycrick.info/ ]
      Be well – Hank

  3. The debate between justice and mercy is an important one in Shakespeare’s work. A strange and little commented-upon scene in RII (5.3) exemplifies: King Bollingbroke has a god-like role as he chooses between justice and mercy in his judgment of Aumerle, whose parents, like bad and good angel, alternately plead for his punishment or pardon. “A god on earth art thou,” exclaims the relieved Duchess of York when the King pardons her son. See my article “Shakespeare’s ‘Figure of an Angel’: An Iconolgraphic Study”. Colby Library Quarterly XVII, 1, March 1981, 6-25. Make my day!

    • Thanks, Allan, and I look forward to reading it! I’ll make sure to comment back to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: