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! 

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  1. […] II, Visits Castle Hedingham, and Touts Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the AuthorReason No. 41 Why the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: The Frequent and Deep Influence … html { margin-top: 0px !important; } * html body { margin-top: 0px !important; } […]

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