The Sea and Seamanship: No. 61 of 100 Reasons Why Edward, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

tempest shipwreckIt’s been nearly fifty years since Lt. Commander Alexander Falconer, a naval officer during World War Two and a professional sailor steeped in the history of seamanship and navigation, published two books that were largely ignored at the time: Shakespeare and the Sea (1964) and A Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sea and Naval Terms including Gunnery (1965).

Falconer brought his firsthand knowledge and experience to bear on an investigation of Shakespeare’s use of seafaring terms and situations involving the sea.  His conclusion was that the great author brought with him detailed, accurate knowledge of naval matters and was well-informed about storms, shipwrecks, pirates, voyages of exploration, navigation:

“The manning and running of royal ships … duties of officers and seamen … strategy and the principles of sea warfare, gunnery, grappling and boarding are all known to him; so, too, are the main types of ship, their build, rigging, masts, sails, anchors and cables.  The sea itself in its varied working, tides, waves, currents, storms and calms, never goes out of his work.”

Writing about the opening scene of The Tempest, when the ship is wrecked in a storm, Falconer noted Shakespeare’s care for details and that he “has not only worked out a series of maneuvers, but has made exact use of the professional language of seamanship.”

A ship of the Spanish armada, 1588

Ships of the Spanish armada, 1588

This year the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a “shipwreck trilogy” of Shakespeare plays:  The Tempest, Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors.  In reaction, Charles Spencer of The Telegraph noted that “although there were books on navigation in Shakespeare’s time, nothing on seamanship was published until later.”  In any case, Falconer believed that the Bard’s knowledge in this area could not have come from books alone.

“Most current scholarship fails to note the sophistication of Shakespeare’s maritime imagination,” writes Dan Brayton in Shakespeare’s Ocean (2012), noting “the extraordinary degree [in the poems and plays] to which human lives are connected with the sea, or the remarkable specificity of his descriptions of marine phenomena.”

The great author’s exact use of naval and maritime language, along with his intimate knowledge of the sea and seamanship, cannot be explained by anything in the documented life of William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon (1564-1616).  It’s sheer fantasy to think he might have been a sailor during his “lost” years (presumably in the 1580’s), just as it’s wishful thinking to imagine he was a schoolteacher or a law clerk or whatever else during that time.

Perhaps scholars generally fail to notice the bard’s experience at sea precisely because they know the Stratford man never once left dry land. When one assumes that it’s impossible for something to exist, it becomes quite easy to ignore it.

The Oxfordian scholar Paul Altrocchi puts it this way: “Closed minds automatically blockade new information which conflicts with their own beliefs, preventing highly persuasive evidence from entering their brains for evaluation.  Oxfordians believe with conviction that Stratfordianism represents a classic example of the common human tendency to stick tenaciously with conventional wisdom, preventing much more logical and coherent newer theories and facts from being given a fair hearing.”

When we turn to look at the life of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), however, there is no need to imagine his experience with the sea and no reason to ignore the vast knowledge of the sea to be found in the poems and plays.  No. 61 of 100 Reasons to conclude that Oxford was “Shakespeare” is that the earl did have such maritime experience.

Oxford at twenty-two in September 1572 wrote to William Cecil Lord Burghley, in reaction to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France, offering to help defend England in any way that he could.  “If there be any setting forth to sea, to which service I bear most affection,” he wrote, “I shall desire your Lordship to give me and get me that favor…”

A 16th-century map of Venice

A 16th-century map of Venice

Oxford traveled extensively by ship or boat.  He crossed the Channel to France in 1575 and would have taken many boat trips on the then-existing canals and other waterways between Italian cities, making his home base at Venice.  In Shakespeare by Another Name, author Mark Anderson notes Oxford’s letter to Burghley saying he would “bestow two or three months to see Constantinople and some part of Greece.”

In Venice the earl lived in the heart of a community of Greeks who traveled to and from their native country.  “The 1,100-mile, fifteen-day voyage to Athens would have followed the Adriatic currents down the Illyrian (now Croatian) coastline,” Anderson writes.  Oxford would have made such a journey by means of a Venetian galley ship; and, in fact, it would be reported in the autumn of 1575 that Oxford had hurt his knee in a Venetian galley.  Oxford was stopped by pirates and nearly killed [as Hamlet would be] in the Channel in April 1576, while returning to England.

Martin Frobisher  (1536/9-1594)

Martin Frobisher
(1536/9-1594)

He crossed by ship over to the Netherlands in 1585, on a military mission, and this time pirates stopped the vessel carrying his belongings and apparently they stole everything on board.  The earl had invested (disastrously) in Martin Frobisher’s voyages to discover the Northwest Passage to China, so he would have learned about the various aspects of the navigation involved.  He was well acquainted with Dr. John Dee, who was intimately involved in developing Frobisher’s navigational routes.

Moreover Oxford had his own ship, the Edward Bonaventure, which he contributed to Captain Edward Fenton’s expedition in 1582 to the Spanish Main.  (The Spanish rebuffed the little fleet, so the earl’s investment did not pay off.)  Then in June 1588, with the Armada on its way, Oxford prepared to take the Bonaventure into battle.  Although the English soundly defeated the great Spanish fleet, it appears that Oxford’s ship became disabled.

In the following year, a poem apparently by Oxford’s private secretary John Lyly envisioned the earl standing on the hatch-cover of the Bonaventure, literally breathing fire instilled within him by Pallas, the spear-shaker: “De Vere … like warlike Mars upon the hatches stands./ His tusked Boar ‘gan foam for inward ire/ While Pallas filled his breast with fire.”

Shakespeare and the Sea was reviewed in the autumn 1965 edition of the Shakesperean Authorship Review by I.L.M. McGeoch, who observed:

“Professor Falconer points out that whereas many educated Elizabethans understood the art of navigation – in those happy days art was science, and science was art – only those who actually served at sea could acquire a profound knowledge of the practice of seamanship and the correct meaning and use of the terms proper to the working of ships.  That Shakespeare possessed such a profound knowledge is instanced many times.”

He offered a line from King John (4.2.23) as an example of “inspired accuracy of allusion seasoned with wit” by Shakespeare: “And like a shifted wind unto a sail, it makes the course of thoughts to fetch about.”

“Tacking is to bring a ship’s head to lie the other way,” McGeoch noted.  “True.  And ‘to fetch about’ is synonymous with ‘to tack’; but subtler still is the reference to ‘course,’ which is not only the direction in which a ship is heading, but also the name given to the principal sail on any mast of a square-rigged ship.  The essence of tacking, therefore, is to bring the wind onto the other side of the sail, or ‘course,’ and the necessary re-trimming of the sail is assisted by the wind blowing upon it from the side appropriate to the new tack.”

“Not knowing that Edward de Vere wrote the great plays of Shakespeare makes it impossible to understand many of the allusions and subtleties within every play,” Dr. Altrocchi writes, adding that such impossibility “deprives the audience of much of a play’s texture so richly spun” by the author.

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  1. Whittemore, didn’t Oxford himself have a ship called “Edward Bonaventura”? I think he was in this ship when it was assalted by pirates and let the Earl almost naked in the coast (remeber this in “Hamlet” ;)?). This same ship was present in the late 80s of 16th Century, when Oxford and Walter Raleigh were in some kind of competition for the attention and affection of the Queen. As travellers, full of talent, fortune and beauty, they had their own ships and used compete with each other. What may have provoced this was a Raleigh’s publication of his “Ocean of Love to Cynthia”, a poem flirting Elizabeth. Try to google “Walter Raleigh as the Rival Poet” and you will find a link saying “The Rival Poet Indentified – Truth of Authorship”, you will find here everything I say (but I still believing that Shake-Speare himself was the Rival Poet).

    Shake-Speare knowledge in the art of sailing is too in the sonnets. Don’t forget Sonnets 80 and 86, when Oxford compares his alter-ego and nom-de-plume, Shake-Speare himself, with ships and boats.

    • Yes, he did have a ship with that name, and I do mention it somewhere in the blog post. Not the same ship that got stopped by pirates, however. Thanks for reminding me about 80 and 86. I wonder if he thought about Raleigh at all while writing those sonnets of the rival series. Sonnet 82 definitely refers to the dedications by “William Shakespeare,” and it seems the series is a beautiful and profound way of expressing the deal that the pen name is now becoming a mask glued to his face. Abruptly we start again with 87 — “Farewell!” — part of the deal, to sever their relationship; and “misprision” as the “better judgment” (misprision of treason) that will allow him to be spared. And winding up with the great couplet of 87. Helen Vendler, without realizing why, notes that in 87 the whole rhetorical scheme leads to “king” in the final line. That deliberateness should awaken interest, but of course nothing awakens interest in blocked minds. She notes all the lines ending with “ing” — lines 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. In lines 10 and 12 both “mistaking” and “making” contain “king.” The deal is done, you were king in my dream, but now I am awake and there is no such “matter” or substance.

      It would be good to envision Oxford and Raleigh competing with their ships!

      • Maybe Sonnet 87 was Southampton’s treason reduced (as your say in “The Monument”) but I think it wasn’t the end of Oxford’s (forced) rejection on Shake-Speare’s works.

        I have in my power “Shakespeare: The World as a Stage” by Billl Bryson and I got myself impressed with stratfordians’ ignornace. I don’t want to offend someone but I just can’t believe who Bryson mocks with the Authorship Question, with the four more plausible candidates and the Group Theory. He says that Shakespeare had enough knowledge of many crafts (one of them was seamanship) which we can see in the plays and poems.

        Bryson says that the Authorship Question is “anti-Shakespeare” and a “manipulation of facts”. It’s revolts me how someone can say this. If some academic or writter manipulted right now Shakespeare’s Authorship Question, it wouldn’t be the first time but manipulation of facts is EVERYWHERE even in the Stratfordian Bank. It’s more in them if compared to us (anti-stratfordians).

        Bryson says that Oxford was too old to have write Shakespeare and too proud and vain to have concealed his authorship.

        According to Bryson, it is a anti-stratfordian lie that Shakespeare never was acknowledged in life as the author of his plays and poems. He says that he was and prove of that are Francis Mere and Ben Jonson. He forgets that “Palladis’ Treasure” was published in 1598, after William Cecil’s death and it was this same book that made the plays referenced be published under Shakespeare’s name, and ALL the first edition in 1598 had “Shakespeare” with and hifen (like in “Richard III” we can read “William Shake-Spear” with the last “e” and with hifen).

        Bryson says that Oxford “didn’t had the knowledge of Shakespeare”, was too old to have wrote the plays and poems and was too much proud and vain to have concealed his authorship.

        This revolts me so much…

        PS: if it wasn’t Edward Boneventure that inspired Hamlet’s episode, then what the mane of the true ship?

      • I don’t know the name of the ship. There were two episodes. The one in 1575 probably inspired the Hamlet episode. Undoubtedly. Then in 1585 the ship carrying his possessions got stopped and raided. When did he buy the Bonaventure? In the early 1580’s?

        The Bryson attack reminds me of religious and political fanatics who feel justified in what they say. And Stratfordians have no corner on the market; some Oxfordians are the same. I no longer try to get into the ring and do battle.

        The irony is that Bryson would never choose the Stratford man if he had to start with an equal playing field and then decide who might be Shakespeare. He would never pick that guy. But he is committed to the myth and so defends miracles by any means, including mockery, vilification, distortion, whatever. Sit back and watch it as a movie:-)

        Meanwhile know that the work you do is of the highest value, not because of the “game” about who is right or wrong, but because you are in the Temple of Truth where everything is new and sacred. Know that you have riches in this temple that are far greater than Bryson can have in this subject matter. He is the poorer for it, but not in his pocketbook:-) He is probably a good man, certainly talented, and so on, but he cannot see what is essential because it is invisible — because there is no mirror for him to see what he does.

        Such is Hamlet’s goal in confronting Gertrude the Queen by setting up a glass to show her the inmost part of herself. Hamlet will die for it.

        How does Bryson figure the Stratford fellow writes as one who has spent much time at sea? Either he must “dumb down” the sea knowledge in the plays and poems and sonnets, or he must have him learning by conversations in the pubs, or both. At least Lt. Commander Falconer, the sea expert, decided that Shakspere must have spent some “lost” years as a seaman. He cannot turn away from the evidence in the plays; he does not have an authorship question at stake; he may not have heard of such an authorship mystery, or given it any attention; and, given his honest look at the sea knowledge in the works, he must find a reason (or go a little mad). It is akin to me turning from my desk and finding a panther in the room — I must find a reason, make one up — or either ignore the panther or find some explanation for the miracle.

        We anti-Stratfordians are even called Creationists — those who believe the world was created in six days only thousands of years ago. I would say we are the evolutionists, but so it goes.

        Carry on, my friend.

  2. Thanks, Whittemore. Talking on “Hamlet”, is curious the fact that we have records of such tragedy begin perfomed in the summer of 1601 and in the summer of the next year. According to your “The Monument”, sonnet 86 was wrote in April 8th 1601 and sonnet 87 in the next day, when Southampton escaped from death penality. I don’t think that Oxford “sacrifice” his authorship on Shake-Speare for something like one week. I’m not denying your theory, no way in thinking on it.

    I think the Queen and Cecil blackmailed Oxford to give up on his authorship on Shake-Speare. He have many other pseudonyms, but is plausible saying that Elizabeth and Cecil noted: Shakespeare’s plays and poems are telling more the truth that what they should. Probably, Elizabeth and Cecil started to believe Oxford would never revelead the authorship and so reduced Southampton’s penality. They were using the young earl and prince to forced Oxford.

    But he did revenge. The first performance we have of “Hamlet” came in 1584, when Shakespeare was but a 20 years old married moneylender, like his father. We have a version of “Ur-Hamlet” in 1589. We have a tablet in Oxford saying that “Hamlet by Shakespeare” was perfomed there in 1593. Then, Philip Henslowe cited an “Hamlet” in his diary in 1594 and Thomas Lodge cited a phrase from this play in 1596. As I already said, we have records of “Hamlet” in the summer of 1601 and the official first perfomance is in June 29 th 1602. I think this perfomance of “Hamlet” in 1601 was the answer of Oxford to the blackmail he suffer.

    “Hamlet” is one of the few plays that represent Oxford and Elizabeth as a couplet (at least, Freud detected edipian matter in dialogues of Hamlet and Gertrude). Is curious to have plays like “Anthony and Cleopatra” and “Troilus and Cressida” were just performed under Oxford/Shake-Speare’s name after Elizabeth’s death (remember that they were performed in 1607 and 1604, respectively).

    • Yes, the Hamlet data you cite is most telling. And the other plays like A&C and T&C, using the names to signify Oxford and Elizabeth. As you may also know, in the Monument notes for the final twenty sonnets, a lot of them, there are more than usual correspondences with Hamlet.

      One that occurs in 154, which may have been written much later than 153, we find the child Southampton “sleeping by a Virgin hand disarmed” which correlates with “sleeping, by a brother’s hand/ Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched.” The parallels are all there, in much the same context, and it is either unconscious or deliberate, I think the latter. Hamlet’s father was “dispatched” by the hand, Southampton was “disarmed” by the hand, and both were kings.

      Well the only thing that appears for sure is the sequential day to day correspondence of sonnet 27 to 66, forty sonnets for forty days, akin to Christ’s forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil — followed by verse in that same gospel of Mathew 4.4., in sonnet 76 — “every word … proceed.” So the first forty sonnets are fixed by the time frame; in terms of planning and writing and structuring the next forty, he is free to do what he wants so long as he includes exactly forty more until Southampton’s last night in the Tower. He has no idea in March 1601 when that will be, a year or two or five, etc, or whether Southampton will die in a month. So why not include another ten right away? This would be 67 to 76, which are all about the sacrifice, the death, my name be buried; and then another ten, 77 to 86, all about his resurrection as “Shakespeare” — and this includes sonnet 81 about “your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die” followed by sonnet 82, with the first quatrain containing a description of the dedications to Southampton. Then he has but twenty to go, reserving places for the first anniversary of imprisonment (97), the second anniversary (104), the queen’s death (105) and final night in the Tower (106), thus completing the second string of forty.

      The first monument is eightty sonnets with the center at 66-67. The second monument becomes 100 sonnets with the center at 76-77. What a beautiful structure…

  3. Hi Gents!
    I don’t know the previous versions of Hamlet, which were written/played long before the Rebellion and the shadow of death on Southampton. Are there relevant changes in the text from the previous versions to the on in/after 1601, which would show in the direction of hiding facts of Southampton’s life between the lines?

    • The good editions are Q2 of 1604 and Folio of 1623. In these two you will see the amazing allegorical representation of the rebellion, the trial, and the deal resulting in pardon. This begins in Act three and keeps picking up steam — I need to find my extensive notes on it — and in Act Five Hamlet is by now transformed into both Oxford and Southampton together, since they are “one.” In scene 2 he speaks of the failure of our plots, a commission or trial jury being assembled, his expected execution with his head to be struck off. Laertes is now Robert Cecil. A duel must be fought with him. The fight will be unfair, of course. Then Hamlet-Oxford-Southampton confronts Laertes-Cecil and says, “Give me your PARDON, sir; I have done you wrong; but PARDON’t, as you are a gentleman” — and we are in a trial, so to speak, with Oxford-Southampton begging for his life and pardon, having shot the arrow o’er the House and hurt My Brother. Laertes-Cecil speaks of his first inclination being revenge.
      I’ll look for my notes… see what you might find….

      • Thank you 🙂 Previously we’ve had some discussion about the ‘final’ Hamlet, representing both Oxford and Southampton, that’s crystal clear. What really would prove -not to me, but to the rest (is silence 🙂 )- the Oxford-case is to show the changes: look, this was back in the 1580s, 1590s AND THEN came the rebellion, the trial, the death-threat and this-and-this meaning is interwoven between the lines… don’t you think so? See what we might find 🙂

      • As a follower of Prince Tudor Theory Part II, I can tell you that Elizabeth and Dudley had children too. Paul Steitz said that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Elizabeth Leighton, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and Robert Cecil were Elizabeth’s bastards with Dudley (but I believe that Francis Bacon was one of them).

        Steitz follow historical records of Cecil’s birth in the summer of 1565, when the Queen was almost killed by smallpox. To Steitz, the smallpox did afected Cecil during the pregnancy and that make him born “hunchback” (tough such he wasn’t).

        Cecil, like his (foster) father, abuse of his power and knew more than he sould. He, not William Cecil’s first born (Thomas Cecil), did inherit William Cecil’s place as Lord Burghely because of this. That why in sonnet 67 he (and James) have “poor beauty” and try to imitate the hue of Southampton (try to be king). In the Act Four (I think it’s Four) Scene Five, when Laertes is returning from Paris (Robert Cecil did a voyage to Paris), we can ear:

        “. . . young Laertes, in a riotous head,
        O’erbears your officers. The rabble call him lord,
        And, as the world were not but to begin,
        Antiquity forgot, custom not known —
        The ratifiers and props of every word —
        They cry ‘Choose we! Laertes shall be king.’
        Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
        ‘Laertes shall be king, Laertes king’ ”

        Here, Leartes is not coming to revenge his sister’s (Ophelia) death. Looks like he’s coming back to have what he want. In this same Act and Scene, Laertes by himself says:

        “That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
        Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
        Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow
        Of my true mother.”

        Laertes proclaims himself bastard. He is not saying his father is a cucklod, he is talking about the act of betraying and Robert Dudley was is true father. The “true mother” is Elizabeth, that even have a “chaste” brow (pun on “VIRGIN Queen”?).

        The “Act of Treason” of 1571 make clear that every “fruit” of “her Maj’s body” can inherit the throne. In the end of that same year, Oxford married against his will William Cecil’s daughter, Anne Cecil. If we believe that Oxford was Elizabeth’s first born and incestuous lover, then only the fact of he begin the true Prince make his royal bastar and brother (Southampton) and heir to the throne. I ask myself if Robert Cecil saw in his (foster) sister a way to the throne by get she married to the secret Prince. He must have supported his foster father, even if he was too young.

        Anne Cecil died in mystery in 1588. Oxford had always the bad fame of his vanity and arrogance. Did he killed his first wife and in some circunstance told Cecil that he would never be king (if Oxford’s signature had a crown because of royal motives in 1569, when he was 19/21 years old, maybe he knew who were his brothers).

        Knowing that he would never become king, Cecil’s revenge was to keep Southampton in the Tower after the Rebellion. My theory is that he knows that he would never be king and none of his brother would be. So he betrays England with the scotish James Stuart (Fortinabras). Maybe Cecil was really that evil man as we was named in the Court…


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