Oxfordian Journal Chapter 2: When Prince Hamlet Became My Friend … My Soul Mate!

We put on Hamlet in my senior year of college.  I was cast as Laertes and began several weeks of practice with the fencing team, to prepare for the duel with Hamlet near the end of the play.  In fact it worked out well, with the two of us bounding up and down stairs, leaping off various parts of the set and clanging our swords (foils) according to a choreographed duel that we kept intensifying with each performance.

The 2nd Quarto of “Hamlet” (the first full, authorized version) was published soon after Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford died on June 24, 1604, and then no more authorized printings of yet-unpublished Shakespeare plays appeared for eighteen years.

Laertes, of course, is the brother of Hamlet’s bewildered young girlfriend, Ophelia, who is also his potential wife.  And of course the father of Laertes and Ophelia is Lord Polonius, chief minister to King Claudius.  And of course Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, Queen Gertrude, thereby stealing the crown of Denmark from the prince – who, in England at least, would have been the automatic successor.

It would be a very long time until I heard anything about the eccentric and Hamlet-like nobleman Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England.  It would be many years before I learned how Lord Oxford had married the bewildered young Anne Cecil, whose father was William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, and the man who, like Polonius, made spying and the enlistment of spies an integral part of life at the royal court (and everywhere else).

I am not sure whether any of that Elizabethan history would have interested me.  I was an actor, after all, and the world I was trying to inhabit was strictly the world of the play.  Nor did I have any interest in the identity and life of the author, Mr. William Shakespeare – “the play’s the thing,” as Hamlet himself put it, so why bother with anything outside it?  [Only much later did I realize that the prince is making that statement within a much different context than the one used by those who argue it doesn’t matter who wrote the play.]

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) — portrait of the eccentric, Hamlet-like nobleman at 25 in 1575, when he toured all through Italy

Looking back, it’s ironical that later in my senior year we put on Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, in which I played the older brother, Jamie, and it seemed quite natural to be keenly interested in that author’s life and how the play reflected it – especially in that particular masterwork, which is autobiographical inside-out.  I read all I could about O’Neill, including many of his other plays, but I had no such interest in learning about Mr. Shakespeare.

For reasons that never crossed my mind at the time, we had no inkling there might be a connection between the character of Hamlet and the character of the author who had created him and brought him to life with his pen.   On stage we were in the world of Denmark, not England, and in the world of Denmark we stayed.

Meanwhile I was becoming so fond of the prince that I listened to everything he said, not only when I was with him on stage but while standing in the wings as well.  I loved the guy – for his quick mind, his sharp sense of humor, his rebelliousness, his howls of pain.  I loved that he was hiding his true self from everyone except his pal Horatio, whom he trusted.  The other characters on stage had their different individual views of the prince (all of them wrong), but they were unaware that he was putting on an “antic disposition” to keep them off track.

James Dean (February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955) — in “Rebel Without a Cause,” released on October 27, 1955, a month after Dean’s death in an auto crash

Not since I’d first seen James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (yelling to his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!”) had I come upon a character whose inner life seemed to connect with my own.  I was being drawn into Hamlet’s inner self.  He had become … my friend!  He was … my soul mate!”

I loved his soliloquies and was thrilled by them:

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew … O all you host of heaven!  O earth!  What else?  And shall I couple hell?  O, fie!  Hold, hold, my heart … O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! … To be or not to be, that is the question … How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!  What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? … “

I loved the language, too.  I grew to love the rhythm of the lines (like music) and how that rhythm helped to convey their meaning.  Surely my personal discovery of Hamlet was a central event for me.  And then one night during a performance I was standing in the wings, watching and listening, and heard the prince say something that gave me a jolt … a sudden feeling, a thought, that may have changed my life …

(To be continued)

Oxfordian Journal Chapter 1: In College, Acting in “Othello” and Having No Clue about an Authorship Question

When I was in college no one ever mentioned that there might be any question about Shakespeare’s identity.  It was as if the whole history of that subject matter, from the nineteenth-century advocates of Francis Bacon to the Oxfordians of the twentieth century, never existed.

In college we put on productions of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Othello, the Moor of Venice, both unquestionably, I was sure, penned some four centuries earlier by Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon.

The first play we put on was Othello, during my sophomore year, and I had the role of Cassio, who gets to speak that great speech:  “Reputation, reputation, reputation!  O, I have lost my reputation!  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.  My reputation, Iago!  My reputation!”

(As far as I or anyone else was concerned, this was probably not a reflection of anything the author himself had experienced.  I mean, the last thing in the world that Mr. Shakespeare might have lost was his reputation.  He was a superstar!  I’d never heard about Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who really had lost his reputation – big time.  If that earl were alive today, why, he’d be scorned up and down; the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust would have him hung by his toenails off the Tower Bridge, or they’d tie him to a raft on the Thames and float him out to a pack of hungry sharks.)

I must have practiced that “reputation” speech a thousand times in as many ways, never really feeling I’d nailed it.  [I should attend the play whenever possible to see how various actors deliver it.]

During our rehearsals and performances I grew to love that play.  Without expecting it I found parts of the first act hysterically funny, mainly because the guy playing Brabantio, a Venetian Senator and the father of Desdemona, seemed to go way too far with his anger, spitting saliva all over the others on stage, as he shouted: “O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?”

[It felt somehow wrong to be laughing during a tragic play, but I could not have known, back then in college, that the author had actually used stock characters from the Italian form of comedy called Commedia dell’Arte, performances of which he had witnessed in Venice!]

I was deeply moved at the end of the play – amazed, too, that in just a few hours the great Mr. Shakespeare had taken Othello from the heights of graceful, powerful, mature manhood to the ravages of unhinged jealousy and finally to the depths of despair, horror, tragedy.  How had he performed this feat?  How could he have made it all so seamless, one scene flowing from the other in a string of actions that appeared to be inevitable?

[Of course I also didn’t know then that the Earl of Oxford, himself a poet and playwright, had been an active patron of play companies and other writers, or that in his own life he had gone through a period of terrible jealousy, accusing his wife of infidelity and causing her enormous pain and suffering.]

A couple of times during the play came the sudden sound of a trumpet from a guy playing it just offstage; we would hear it and the actor playing Iago would yell out: “The Moor!  I know his trumpet!”  In one performance, however, the actor playing Iago failed to wait for the sound and instead yelled out:  “The Moor!  I know his trumpet!”  This was followed by utter silence, which seemed to go on and on, until finally came the blare of the trumpet from the wings:  “Dat-Dat Dah-Daaaa!”

Those of us onstage and members of the audience cracked up.  And I was unlucky enough to have the very next line, in reference to the trumpet being Othello’s signature military call:  “’Tis truly so!”  Before saying it, however, I had to wait for the laughter to die down.  Then I had to speak the line, which was almost impossible to do without cracking up again; and once those three words came out of my mouth, the roars bounced off every wall of the auditorium before we could forge on.

That was my first taste of Shakespeare.  And then in senior year came Hamlet…

(To be continued)

Published in: Uncategorized on July 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shakespeare’s Legal Mind is Reason No. 43 Why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was the Great Author

A book of 524 pages published in 1911 was entitled Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare: with Explanations of the Legal Terms used in the Plays, Poems and Sonnets; and discussions of the Criminal Types Presented, with its author, Edward J. White, declaring:

Notice of a conference in May 2009 at the University of Chicago Law School

“In Shakespeare’s multiple personalities, there is none in which he appears more naturally and to better advantage than in the role of the lawyer.  If true that all dramatic writing is but a form of autobiography, then the immortal Shakespeare must, at some time in his life, have studied law.”

There’s not a shred of evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon ever went beyond grammar school (if he attended at all), much less to law school.

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford served as highest-ranking nobleman on the tribunal at the February 19, 1601 treason trial of Essex and Southampton — as indicated by a contemporary notice of the event

On the other hand, Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford was seventeen in 1567 when he entered Gray’s Inn to study law.  Oxford was steeped in legal matters involving his earldom and the royal court; he sat on the juries at the treason trials of the Duke of Norfolk (1572) and Mary Queen of Scots (1586) as well as the treason trial of the earls of Essex and Southampton (1601).

A more recent book, Shakespeare’s Legal Language (2000) contains more than 497 pages of detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s legal terms and concepts.  The authors, B.J. Sokol and Mary Sokol, point out that twenty-five of thirty-seven Shakespeare plays refer to a trial and that thirty-five of his plays contain the words “judge” and “justice.”

“Nothing adorns a king more than justice,” Oxford wrote to Secretary Robert Cecil in May 1603, referring to the newly proclaimed King James.  “Nor in anything doth a king more resemble God than in justice.”

James Plaisted Wilde, the Lord Penzance (1816-1899), the noted British judge who believed that Francis Bacon was author of the Shakespeare works; but that was before J. Thomas Looney identified the Earl of Oxford in 1920

Scholars upholding the Stratfordian view of authorship keep trying to tell us that Shakespeare didn’t really have any exceptional knowledge of the law, but at the same time they keep attempting to explain how he could have become so “law-obsessed,” as Sokol & Sokol put it.

Back in 1869, for example, Lord Penzance spoke of Shakespeare’s “perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms, and maxims, but the technicalities of English law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault … At every turn and point at which the author required a metaphor, simile, or illustration, his mind ever turned first to the law.  He seems almost to have thought in legal phrases…”

“Any intelligent writer can acquire knowledge of a subject and serve it up as required,” Charlton Ogburn Jr. wrote in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984), adding that it is “something else to have been so immersed in a subject and to have assimilated it so thoroughly that it has become part of one’s nature, shaping one’s view of the world, coming forward spontaneously to prompt or complete a thought, supply and image or analogy.”

Oxford served on the jury at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle in October 1586 (drawing by Edouard Berveiller)

The literature on Shakespeare’s legal knowledge is extensive.  For suggested reading I recommend Mark Alexander’s study “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument,” and the Shakespeare Fellowship page on “Shakespeare and the Law.”

“Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s works,” Mark Twain wrote, referring to Shakspere of Stratford, “for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways—and if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely-divided star-dust that constituted this vast wealth, how did he get it, and where, and when? . . . [A] man can’t handle glibly and easily and comfortably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he has not personally served. He will make mistakes; he will not, and cannot, get the trade-phrasings precisely and exactly right; and the moment he departs, by even a shade, from a common trade-form, the reader who has served that trade will know the writer hasn’t.”

Here’s a patchwork of snippets from Oxford’s letters showing him to be involved in matters of law, with my emphases:

“But now the ground whereon I lay my suit being so just and reasonable … to conceive of the just desire I make of this suit … so byfold that justice could not dispense any farther … The matter after it had received many crosses, many inventions of delay, yet at length hath been heard before all the Judgesjudges I say both unlawful, and lawful … For counsel, I have such lawyers, and the best that I can get as are to be had in London, who have advised me for my best course …  [to Queen Elizabeth]: And because your Majesty upon a bare information could not be so well satisfied of every particular as by lawful testimony & examination of credible witnesses upon oath … So that now, having lawfully proved unto your Majesty … “

Oxford attended at the House of Lords on forty-four days during the nine sessions held from 1571 to 1601.  In the sessions from 1585 onward he was appointed one of the “receivers and triers of petitions from Gascony and other lands beyond the seas and from the islands.”  In November of 1586 he was part of a committee appointed to address Elizabeth on the sentencing of Mary Queen of Scots.

Let us close out this reason why Oxford was “Shakespeare” with Sonnet 46:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war

How to divide the conquest of thy sight;

Mine eye, my heart thy picture’s sight would bar

My heart, mine eye the freedom of that right;

My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie

(A closet never pierced with crystal eyes),

But the defendant doth that plea deny,

And says in him thy fair appearance lies.

To cide this title is impanelled

A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,

And by their verdict is determined

The clear eyes’ moiety, and thy dear heart’s part:

As thus, mine eyes’ due is thy outward part,

And my heart’sright, their inward love of heart.

The TV Documentary Correspondent for “The Shakespeare Mystery” Now Brings Us a Novel about a TV Documentary Correspondent Making a Documentary in Search of the True Shakespeare

Just finished reading The Cottage, a new mystery-thriller novel by Alan K. Austin — and I zipped through those 217 pages so fast it’s a shame the guy didn’t write it twice as long.  One essential key to any good novel, it seems to me, is to tell it through the sensibilities of some larger-than-life central character…

Alan K. Austin

So Al Austin, the great investigative reporter and correspondent for documentary films who gave us The Shakespeare Mystery broadcast on Frontline (WGBH – PBS) back in the 1990’s, brings alive a fellow named Jack Duncan, a likeable guy whose various strengths and weaknesses keep competing with each other to determine his destiny, and who also happens to be … a great investigator and correspondent who sets off to create a documentary film that might as well be called “The Shakespeare Mystery.”

Austin takes us on the roller-coaster ride of Jack Duncan’s journey to England where he visits a number of places including Stratford upon Avon, birthplace of money-lender William Shakspere, whom academia still calls the greatest writer of the English language; and Castle Hedingham in Essex, birthplace of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, the true poet-dramatist who adopted “William Shakespeare” as a pen name.

Along the way we can feel that we’ve put ourselves in good hands.  Why so?  Well, to put it simply, we can be confident that the author of The Cottage knows what he’s talking about – he’s been there, as the saying goes.  We have no doubt that Austin is opening a window on the world of the documentary filmmaker, where he once lived and worked and earned his living.   Not to mention, of course, that in various ways through Jack Duncan he must be giving us more personal pieces of himself, small and large.

Castle Hedingham, where Edward de Vere was born and raised until age twelve in 1562, when he became a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth (who had visited the castle for five days the year before) in the custody of William Cecil, her chief minister and the future Lord Burghley

And come to think of it, this aspect of writing is one of the bedrocks of the Oxfordian case for Shakespearean authorship – the fact that within the great poems and plays we can see large and small aspects of Edward de Vere’s character and life and even, if you will, pieces of his soul.  We’re talking about some magical combination of experience plus imagination and, in this case, we’re discussing “genius” as well – but please, no miracles!

Austin is also opening a window on the world of the Shakespeare Authorship Question that he himself had investigated, to such great effect that the Frontline documentary did more for the Oxfordian cause than anything since publication of The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in 1984.  (It may be that the film attracted even more favorable attention, given the size of its audience and the power of its impact.)

A. L. Rowse (1903-1997), historian and Stratfordian biographer of Shakespeare

Along the way in Austin’s novel we can see reflections of some familiar figures – for example, in the marvelously drawn character of Dr. Lester Crowne, an authority on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age modeled on the late A.L. Rowse, whose appearance in Austin’s documentary for Frontline supplied one of its many memorable moments:

“The Earl of Oxford was quite talented, he knew Italian, been to Italy,” Rowse said on camera, “and he wrote just a few poems, he never wrote a single play, and he really became a most frightful lightweight.  He was married to the daughter of the great Lord Treasurer, whom he treated awfully badly.  Because in point of fact he was a roaring homo, as Marlowe was and as Bacon was.  I mean it was perfectly obvious William Shakespeare’s plays are full of passionate appreciation and feeling for women, where the Earl of Oxford had none.  Neither had Christopher Marlow – Christopher Marlowe was only interested in the boys, and Francis Bacon had no interest – he was also another homo.  And William Shakespeare you might say was almost abnormally heterosexual – he was only interested in the girls.”

[I must interject here that I always suspected that Dr. Rowse was a closet Oxfordian — that he knew, consciously or perhaps just beneath his conscious mind, that Edward de Vere was the true author.  My reason?  Well, for one thing, he made sure to know everything he could about the earl.]

It was a wonderful speech that made most Oxfordians laugh out loud, given their knowledge that Edward de Vere had been (1) cited as the most excellent of all the courtier poets, (2) named as “best for comedy” among contemporary English playwrights and (3) punished harshly by the Queen for having carried on a secret love affair at Court with one of her Majesty’s own Maids of Honor, Anne Vavasour, who gave birth to their illegitimate son – not quite the usual behavior of a “roaring homo,” as Dr. Rowse told viewers.

Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), author of “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality”

In the novel Al Austin cites a few Oxfordians by name, among them the late Ogburn Jr., whose strong emotions rose to the surface:

“I think Hamlet was Oxford, and I don’t see how anybody who knows anything about literary creativity can fail to say that the author, whoever he was, has given his picture as Hamlet.  This is written from the inside – things happen in Hamlet not according to a preconceived plot, but as they do in life … I know what it cost him to write these plays.  I know what it cost him to have to give up any hope of being acknowledged as the writer.  God, you read the sonnets, you see it: ‘Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.’ That’s a tragic cry for a man …”

You can read the entire transcript of “The Shakespeare Mystery” online.

But for sheer reading pleasure, you can bring The Cottage with you this summer on vacation and take Jack Duncan’s journey with a great cast of characters, lots of mystery and suspense, some nifty insights as well as information within a fast-paced yarn, and – oh, yeah, loads of laughs!

An Oxfordian Journal: What Do the Questions of Climate Change and Shakespearean Authorship Have in Common?

What does the question of Shakespearean authorship have in common with the pressing and dangerous issue of man-made climate change?

Answer:  It is difficult for the deniers to break free from the trap of their denial and admit they were wrong.  For some it’s virtually impossible.  This is especially true for the long-term, vehement deniers.  Here is what Paul Krugman writes today (Monday, July 23, 2012) in the New York Times:

More than 1,000 counties in 26 states are being named natural-disaster areas, the biggest such declaration ever by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as drought grips the Midwest. – Bloomberg News

“Will the current drought [in Midwestern U.S.] finally lead to serious climate action?  History isn’t encouraging.  The deniers will surely keep on denying, especially because conceding at this point that the science they’ve trashed was right all along would be to admit their own culpability for the looming disaster.”

Many upholders of Stratfordian tradition simply have too much to lose.  Think of the vehement public statements they have made.  Think of the books and articles and blogs they have written.  Think of what’s at stake in terms of the tourism industry in and around Stratford upon Avon.  Think of the publishing industry aimed at not only the general public but, also, at the academic community.  Think of all those textbooks.  Think of all the biographies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages that will have to be rewritten, to account for the drastic change of personal, political and artistic relationships to “Shakespeare” the real man and to his works!

To expect the deniers to reverse themselves is probably asking too much.  Reversal will probably have to happen a generation or two from now.

Southampton in the Tower
(8 Feb 1601 – 10 April 1603)

The same goes within the Oxfordian community, where there has been a vicious onslaught against anyone suggesting that Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford wrote the Sonnets to preserve the truth of Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton as his royal son by Elizabeth I of England.  Oxford understood perfectly well that the enemy was “time” and its “registers” and “records” that would be manifested in the false history to be written by the winners:

“No!” he shouts in Sonnet 123.  “Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change … Thy registers and thee I both defy … For thy records and what we see doth lie … This I do vow and this shall ever be: I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.”

He defies time and its registers and records and “what we see” that is anything but the truth.  But I strongly suggest to my Oxfordian colleagues that Oxford is not speaking here of his authorship of the Shakespeare works (although that is one consequence) – no, he is speaking of the truth of his royal son, to whom he cries out in Sonnet 126, the “envoi” of the opening long sequence:

O thou my lovely Boy who in thy power

Dost hold Time’s fickle glass his sickle hour…

I realize that Oxfordians who honestly hold other views of the Sonnets find it difficult if not impossible to change those views.  [They will say the same of me!]  And I respect that.  But I also predict, based on what I know about new materials forthcoming in the next year, that the true meaning of the Sonnets will become increasingly obvious to those who have not become trapped by their own denials – trapped, come to think of it, in the same way Elizabeth became trapped by the Big Lie of her Virgin Queen image, which prevented her from naming an heir and continuing her Tudor dynasty.

“Truth’s Authentic Author” – Reason No. 42 Why the Earl of Oxford Must Have Been “Shakespeare”

Shakespeare was obsessed with truth.  In his works he used the word “truth” at least 309 times and “true” no less than 766 times, with “truer” and “truest” and “truths” about three dozen times – well over a thousand usages of those five individual words.

Pallas Athena, a.k.a. the Goddess of Truth

Equally obsessed with truth was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, starting with his earldom motto Nothing Truer than Truth.  So similar are “Shakespeare” and Oxford, in this respect, that I list “truth” as another reason to believe they were one and the same.

The similarity is not just in terms of quantity but also of how “truth” is used by “Shakespeare” and by Oxford in writings under his own name.  For example, in the Shakespearean plays the phrase “truth is truth” appears three times – in King John (act 1, scene 1); in Love’s Labour’s Lost (act 4, scene 1); and in Measure for Measure (act 5, scene 1), when Isabella says: “It is not truer he is Angelo than this is all as true as it is strange:  Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth to the end of reckoning.”

Oxford wrote to Robert Cecil on May 7, 1603, several weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King James:  “But I hope truth is subject to no prescription, for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”

In my view Oxford not only wrote Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123, but he did so within the same period — just a few days before Elizabeth’s funeral on April 28, 1603, expressing the same theme: “NO!  Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change … Thy registers and thee I both defy … For thy records, and what we see, doth lie … This I do vow, and this shall ever be:/ I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.” [Yes, his opening “NO!” is capitalized with an exclamation point in the original 1609 quarto.]

Given such a similarity between those words in Oxford’s letter and the words of Shakespeare’s sonnet, how can anyone fail to consider that both might have been written by the same man?

Shakespeare believed that even though the “winners” [of political power struggles] would write the history for future generations, the truth will eventually come out – and certainly that was his overall objective for the sonnet sequence … a “monument … which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read.” (81)

The Merchant of Venice (act 2, scene 2): “Give me your blessing; truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at length truth will out.”

The Rape of Lucrece (stanza 135): “Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,/ To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.”

Oxford to Robert Cecil in January 1602, in eerily similar words: “But now time and truth have unmasked all difficulties.”

Shakespeare’s obsession with truth is evident in Sonnet 82: “Thou, truly fair, wert truly sympathized/ In true plain words by thy true-telling friend.”

Troilus and Cressida (act 3, scene 2): “Yet after all comparisons of truth,/ As truth’s authentic author to be cited,/ ‘As true as Troilus’ shall crown up the verse/ and sanctify the numbers.”  [The author refers to his 154 numbered sonnets as “my numbers.”]

So this is Reason No. 42 to believe Oxford was “truth’s authentic author.”

Reason No. 41 Why the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: The Frequent and Deep Influence of Italy’s “Commedia Dell’Arte”

Scholars identify at least a dozen Shakespeare plays influenced by the Italian dramatic art form known as commedia dell’arte, with its stock characters and improvised skits that were often bawdy and satiric – Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, to name a few.

The same scholars, however, have a difficult time explaining how “Shakespeare” could have become so familiar with this “comedy of art” performed in the sixteenth century by troupes of traveling players in Italy, since it was virtually unknown in England when he was supposedly writing the plays.  And, of course, the traditional author from Stratford upon Avon had never set foot in Italy, while Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford had made his home base in Venice during 1575 and 1576, when he was in his mid-twenties and the commedia dell’arte in Venice was at the peak of its popularity.

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St. Mark’s) – a Renaissance building in Venice and one of the earliest surviving public manuscript depositories

After 1920, when Oxford was first “identified” as the great author, supporters of his authorship predicted they would find evidence that the earl attended commedia dell’arte performances in Venice during his several months there.  It took a while … until in 1956, when the poet and author Julia Cooley Altrocchi (1893-1972) was researching at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice and discovered a “clincher” for that long-held prediction.

Ms. Altrocchi came upon a book by Andrea Perruci, published in 1699, called Dell’Arte Rappresentativa Premeditata ed all’Improviso or Dramatic Art by Rote and Extemporaneous Performance.  And subsequently she reported:

“A long section is devoted to the stock character of Graziano, the talkative Bolognese ‘doctor’ who tells long tales and never stops for breath.  With little schooling and without a medical degree, he blabs endlessly, often in Latin, impressing everyone until he is always shown to be a quack.  One of his famous recitals is the so-called ‘Tirade of the Tournament’ (Tirata della Giostra) in which the actor rattles off the names of twenty or thirty knights and ladies, their titles and countries of origin, the color and trappings of their horses, the color and devices of their garments and shields, and the events that befell each one on the field of tourney.  Even the ladies took part in this hypothetical tournament.”

The Doctor who gave the tirade…

The book in Ms. Altrocchi’s hands at the Biblioteca contained an example of a long and hilarious “tirade” by the garrulous Graziano:

“I found myself ambassador of my illustrious country of Bologna at the court of the Emperor Polidor of Trebizond, and attending the great tournament celebrating his marriage to Irene, Empress of Constantinople.  Present were many great worthies: Basil, King of Zelconda; Doralba, Princess of Dacia; Arcont, vaivode of Moldavia; Arileus, heir of Denmark; Isuf, Pasha of Aleppo; Fatima, Sultan of Persia; Elmond, Milord of Oxfort…”

Here, in a book published in Naples at the end of the seventeenth century, was the name of Edward de Vere, who had been in Venice at age twenty-five, mentioned by his earldom title as “My Lord of Oxford,” within the speech of a stock character in the commedia dell’arte!  And Ms. Altrocchi wrote:

“With his outgoing nature, his innate acting ability which would later manifest itself so impressively before the Queen, with at least one play [The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth] already under his belt, wouldn’t he have consorted in friendly fashion with the finest improvisators in the world?  Otherwise, why was he given a place in the doctor’s exuberant oration?  Wouldn’t it have been known that he was a tournament champion in 1571 in England at the young age of twenty-one?  Wasn’t Graziano paying him a form of personal tribute as an honored guest?”

The Doctor – an illustration of his costume

The doctor in his tirade says that “Milord of Oxford” rode a faun-colored horse named Oltramarin – “Beyond the Sea”.  The earl, Graziano goes on, wore a violet-colored costume and carried a large sword.  Oxford’s heraldic device was a falcon with a motto from the ancient Roman playwright Terence:  Tendit in ardua vitus or “Valor proceeds to arduous undertakings.”

[Ironically John Davies of Hereford would write a 1610 poem entitled To Our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.]

“In this Tirata,” Ms. Altrocchi reported, “Milord of Oxford, amusingly enough, tilted against Alvilda, Countess of Edemburg, who was mounted on a dapple-gray, was armed with a Frankish lance, and was robed in lemon color.  In the end, Edward and Alvilda, alas, threw one another simultaneously off their horses, both landing face down in the dust!”

In other words Oxford was “well and very companionably known” at presentations of the commedia dell’arte while he was a visitor to Venice for many weeks during his trip in 1575″ and “recognized as being a good sport as a well as a good sportsman,” not to mention having “so resilient a sense of humor that he could be introduced into a skit and, with impunity, be described as meeting a woman in tilt and being unhorsed and rolled to the ground with her in the encounter!”

Oxford must have witnessed any number of commedia skits.  He must have watched the skit in which the actor playing Doctor Graziano, aware of the earl in the audience, suddenly paid him a public tribute by improvising a “tirade” that included him by name!  And how fitting it was for such a compliment to be made, directly and openly, to the great playwright and comic genius who, nearly two decades later in 1593, would adopt the pen name “Shakespeare” as the author of at least a dozen plays bursting with influences from that same commedia dell’arte!

Ms. Altrocchi’s article Edward de Vere and the Commedia dell’Arte appeared in the Shakespearean Authorship Review, No. 2, Autumn, 1959, which is reprinted in Volume 5 (“So Richly Spun”) of Building the Case for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare (2009), edited by her son Dr. Paul Hemenway Altrocchi and yours truly.

I also recommend Othello, the Moor of Venice, Fully Annotated from an Oxfordian Perspective, edited by Ren Draya and Richard F. Whalen, in which the editors comment on what, to me, is the surprising evidence that even the tragedy of Othello is strongly influenced by the Italian commedia dell’arte!   They indicate, for example, how the opening of act one “could be played for laughs and probably should be” with Iago (the scheming Zanni of the commedia skits) and Roderigo (the witless, rejected suitor) waking up Brabantio (the foolish, old Pantalone) to taunt him with lewd suggestions that his daughter, Desdemona (the innocent), is having sex with Othello in a bestial way after they eloped.  Raucous, obscene comedy to open a tragic drama of jealousy and rage! 

An Oxfordian Journal – “Conspiracy” Theory, Continued…

My problem with the idea that “Shakespeare” might have been someone else was fairly specific.  How could some other guy walk around London claiming to be Shakespeare when the real author was right there, writing the plays and working with actors at the playhouse?  No, such a scenario was ridiculous.  And over the next couple of days, after my writer-actor friend had made his offensive suggestion, I never went beyond that stumbling block of two men simultaneously in the same place claiming to be Shakespeare.

Page770 of “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & The Reality” by Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1984, 1990, 1992) CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR A LARGER, READABLE VIEW

Then in the mail from my friend (Charles Boyle) came copies of pages in The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr., published three years earlier in 1984.  This section, entitled CHRONOLOGY OF THE PRINCIPALS IN THE CASE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, listed the years (from 1550 onward) in the far-left column and, for each year, presented separate columns for four different categories.

The first heading was RELATED EVENTS.  The next three were EDWARD DE VERE … “WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE” … WILLIAM SHAKSPERE.

The overall idea of “Shakespeare” being someone else was still disturbing to me, but here was a clear and simple answer to my specific problem.  Rather than postulate two men in London claiming to be Shakespeare at the same time, this chart presented an entirely different picture.  In the first place, it involved not two but three separate entities: (1) the Earl of Oxford, (2) the pen name “Shakespeare” and (3) the fellow Shakspere from Stratford upon Avon.

Ogburn’s chart made clear that such a monumental deception might actually be possible, with these hypotheses:

= That the true author, Oxford, had been born in 1550, some fourteen years earlier than the Stratford man.

= That Oxford originally created virtually all the relevant works from 1575 to 1590.  His plays had been aimed at aristocratic audiences at the private Blackfriars Playhouse, prior to presentation for Queen and court; and in the 1580’s other plays, mostly histories, were performed around the countryside by two troupes of the Queen’s Men, aimed at rousing nationalistic unity in the face of the coming invasion by Spain.

= That this roughly fifteen-year period immediately preceded the Stratford man’s career as told by traditional accounts; by 1590 the Earl of Oxford was forty years old, having written all the original versions of his great works.

= That Oxford withdrew from public life in 1590 and became a virtual recluse over the next decade, revising works for publication; then he began to use the “Shakespeare” pen name, in 1593.

= That whatever William of Stratford was doing in London (we don’t know how long he was in town at any given time), all that existed of “Shakespeare” was the printed name – first on Venus and Adonis in 1593, then on play quartos starting in autumn or winter 1598.  (It’s remarkable to think that the public had no idea of “Shakespeare” as a playwright until so late in the game; if the Stratford man were the dramatist, why had he remained anonymous till then?)

= That during the 1590’s, and even right up to his death in 1604, Oxford continued to revise many works, notably Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

= That upon Oxford’s death in June 1604, the full quarto of Hamlet appeared for the first time, but then all authorized printings of heretofore unpublished “Shakespeare” plays abruptly ceased.  The silence continued until an Othello printing in 1622 and then in 1623 the Folio contained thirty-six plays, eighteen of them previously unpublished.

Looking at this history, it occurred to me that until the Folio there had been no need for any “conspiracy,” elaborate or otherwise.  The man from Stratford never claimed authorship of the works, not during his entire lifetime.  When he died, no one outside Stratford even noticed; he left behind no papers claiming his authorship of anything.

“My name be buried where my body is,” the true author wrote in Sonnet 72.

“I, once gone, to all the world must die,” he wrote in Sonnet 81.

And in the words he gave to Prince Hamlet, “The rest is silence.”

An Oxfordian Journal: Wasn’t Shakespeare a “Conspiracy Theorist”?

I keep seeing blogs that accuse anyone questioning the traditional biography of Shakespeare as a “conspiracy theorist.”  I know what they mean.  I felt the same way back in 1987 when it was suggested to me that the guy from Stratford didn’t really write the great poems, plays and sonnets.  I didn’t much like that suggestion.

Conspirators arrive at the Senate House, having plotted to kill Caesar.

Probably the first thought that came to mind was that the whole concept was simply too staggering, too unbelievable, too overwhelming.  I had gone through four years of college (in English and Theater Arts) and had never heard the slightest hint of any problem with the Stratfordian authorship view.  This was probably the greatest writer who ever lived – how could it be possible that he had not been the man who everybody thinks he was?

I’m not sure if I used the word “conspiracy” at the time; but I probably did consider (loosely) that such a cover-up or hoax would have taken what my dictionary calls a “treacherous or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons.”   If there had been such a plan to disguise the true author of the “Shakespeare” works and attribute them to someone else, it would have involved the creation of the First Folio of Shakesepeare plays — published in 1623, long after Oxford and Shakspere had died respectively in 1604 and 1616.  (Prior to 1623 there is no discernible linkage between “Shakespeare” and Shakspere.) That publication would have indeed required at least several individuals engaged in a surreptitious plot.

When a previously arranged signal was given, the conspirators carried out the murder of Caesar

As I now ponder this subject, it occurs to me that regardless of his identity Shakespeare was a “conspiracy theorist” – both as a dramatist and as an Elizabethan.

It’s a given that many of his plays involve conspiracies, the most famous being the plot to kill Julius Caesar.  Then, of course, there’s the plot by Macbeth and his wife to murder King Duncan, not to mention Iago’s plot to entrap Cassio with Roderigo’s help.  Plots of one kind or another abound in the plays, even in the comedies.

And why not?  During the Elizabethan reign itself there were always conspiracies against the Queen’s life.  Three of the most famous ones revolved around Catholic attempts to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots – the Ridolfi Plot that surfaced in 1571, the Throgmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586.  The so-called Essex Rebellion of 1601 involved a plot to remove  the Queen’s closest advisors, notably Robert Cecil; and when James became king in 1603 there was the Bye Plot and then the Gunpowder Plot, for starters.

There was virtually never a time when there wasn’t some conspiracy afoot…

Actor Mark Rylance, left, has been a vocal public figure on the Shakespeare authorship question — here with actor Colin Hurley, holding the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt in Chichester on September 8, 2007

For court poets and dramatists of the time, the very act of writing was a kind of conspiracy.  The anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie (1589) wrote:  “I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.”  In other words, at times they used someone else’s name or some made-up pen name.

Who was that infamous author in 1588-89 calling himself Martin Marprelate?  Here was an obvious pen name, sometimes printed as Mar-prelate, indicating an author or authors intent upon “marring the prelates” of the Anglican Church; and no one has ever learned his identity for sure.  Whoever that writer was, it’s unlikely he could have acted entirely alone.

Are there political conspiracies even now?  Of course – just about every day.  And even as I write this, I’m getting an alert from the New York Times that “the most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children” victimized by Jerry Sandusky.  Wasn’t that some kind of conspiracy?

In upcoming blogs I’ll have comments about the Shakespearean authorship “conspiracy” in particular.

An Oxfordian Journal – 1

“Experience,” said that great American author Norman Mailer, “when it cannot be communicated to another, must wither within and be worse than lost.”

Norman Mailer
(1923-2007)

I wonder how many people feel that way and how many become writers because of that feeling.  I believe it was profoundly true of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who lived so much of his life in the shadows offstage, so to speak.  Writing, along with the act of publishing or putting on a play, was a way of stepping forth from the wings.

“Once in a while,” Mailer later wrote, “your hand will write out a sentence that seems true and yet you do not know where it came from.  Ten or twenty words seem able to live in balance with your experience.  It may be one’s nicest reward as a writer.  You feel you have come near the truth.”

This is one reason “Shakespeare” speaks to a universal audience.  Take a look at Oxford’s life and then think about so many plays that must have come from his need to communicate his experience.  Quite often, more than we may realize, he was communicating that personal experience to Queen Elizabeth.  It seems that if something happened in his life and made him have certain thoughts and/or feelings, it didn’t exist unless he shared it with her … through poetry, and mostly through characters on the stage of the royal court, before they were brought alive in the public playhouse.

If the Queen did not know about his joys and pains, they began to wither within and become worse than lost … the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the forest, a sound whose vibrations have no ear to receive them, no one to hear.

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