“The Merchant of Venice” is Reason 73 to Conclude that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare – Part One

“For several years in succession I had been called upon to go through repeated courses of reading in one particular play of Shakespeare’s, namely The Merchant of Venice.  This long continued familiarity with the contents of one play induced a peculiar sense of intimacy with the mind and disposition of its author and his outlook upon life.  The personality which seemed to run through the pages of the drama I felt to be altogether out of relationship with what was taught of the reputed author and the ascertained facts of his career.”

First Quarto

First Quarto

So wrote British schoolmaster John Thomas Looney in his introduction to “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1920), explaining what led him to conduct a new investigation into the authorship of Shakespeare’s works.

“For example,” he continued, “the Stratford Shakspere was untraveled, having moved from his native place to London when a young man, and then as a successful middle-aged man of business he had returned to Stratford to attend to his lands and houses.  This particular play on the contrary bespeaks a writer who knew Italy at first hand and was touched with the life and spirit of the country.  Again the play suggested an author with no great respect for money and business methods, but rather one to whom material possessions would be in the nature of an encumbrance to be easily and lightly disposed of: at any rate one who was by no means of an acquisitive disposition.”

So it was The Merchant of Venice that inspired Looney’s search for “Shakespeare,” leading to the Oxfordian movement now approaching its centennial in less than seven years.  We have mentioned the similarities between Edward de Vere’s entrance “into bond” in 1578 with Michael Lok (or Lock) for 3,000 pounds and Antonio’s entrance “into bond” with Shylock for 3,000 ducats; now we begin Reason 73 why Oxford must have been “Shakespeare” by focusing on other aspects of the play itself.

“I am always inclined to believe, that Shakespeare has more allusions to particular facts and persons than his readers commonly suppose,” Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) commented in connection with The Merchant, adding, “Perhaps in the enumeration of Portia’s suitors there may be some covert allusion to those of Queen Elizabeth.”

Kate Dolan as Portia Painter, J.F. Millais 1829-1896

Kate Dolan as Portia
Painter, J.F. Millais

Dr. Johnson was speaking freely without worrying whether his perceptions fell in line within the context of the Stratford man’s life.  He noticed, for example, that Portia’s unflattering descriptions of her suitors reflect characteristics of Elizabeth’s actual suitors from different countries – including those of her main suitor, the Duke of Alencon, who visited England in 1579 and 1581, when Shakspere was only fifteen and seventeen.

Alencon was known as “Monsieur” at the English royal court; and Portia’s waiting-gentlewoman asks her:  “How say you by the French lord, Monsieur le Bon?”

The mocking reply by Portia may reflect what Oxford heard the Queen say privately about Alencon:

“God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.  In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he! Why, he hath a horse better than the Neapolitan’s, a better bad habit of frowning than the Count Palentine; he is every man in no man.  If a thrush sing, he falls straight a-cap’ring.  He will fence with his own shadow.  If I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands.  If he would despise me, I would forgive him, for if he loves me to madness, I shall never requite him.”

In a diatribe against the stage called School of Abuse, published in 1579, Stephen Gosson reported he had seen a now-lost play about “the bloody minds of usurers” called The Jew, performed at the Bull inn-yard in preparation for presentation at Court; and Eva Turner Clark in 1931 suggested that The Jew was performed for the royal court at Whitehall Palace on 2 February 1580 as Portio and Demorantes, which, in turn, was the original version of The Merchant of Venice.

In the play attributed to Shakespeare the character Lancelot Gobbo, a clown and servant to Shylock, refers to “Scylla,” a sea-monster, and “Charybdis,” a violent whirlpool in the strait between Italy and Sicily – invoking the proverbial difficulty of avoiding one without falling prey to the other – what today we might refer to as being “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“Truly then I fear you are damned both by father and mother,” Lancelot tells Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.  “Thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother.”

Remarkably enough it was on 24 February 1580, just three weeks after the Whitehall performance for her Majesty and the court, when the Queen referred to the same proverb to describe her dilemma in relation to the French match.  According to Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, Elizabeth was in her chamber with William Cecil Lord Burghley and the Archbishop of York when she said:

“Here I am between Scylla and Charybdis.  Alencon has agreed to all the terms I sent him, and he is asking me to tell him when I wish him to come and marry me.  If I do not marry him, I know not whether he [and France] will remain friendly with me; and if I do I shall not be able to govern my country with the freedom and security I have hitherto enjoyed.  What shall I do?”

Had Elizabeth used the Scylla-Charybdis proverb during a conversation with Oxford?  Was the proverb still fresh in her mind after attending the recent court performance of Portio and Demorantes a.k.a. The Merchant of Venice?  Whatever the case, it turns out that the only use of this proverb within all of “Shakespeare’s” works – in a speech by Portia, who is clearly modeled on the Queen –appears to have originated at the same time, in the same context, as Elizabeth’s own historical use of it!

Portia expresses her dilemma, moreover, in virtually the same way that the Queen of England expressed her predicament; and she even invokes an image of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who left behind a “will” instructing that Elizabeth “shall not marry, nor take any person to be her husband, without the assent and consent of the Privy-Councilors and others…”

“O me,” Portia cries out in Act 1 Scene 2 of The Merchant, “the word ‘choose’!  I may neither choose whom I would, nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.”   And later in the same scene she speaks literally as Elizabeth did:  “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will.”

The motif of the three caskets comes from an old story, but in the play their contents correspond to the three crowns of England: silver for the French, gold for Irish and lead for the English kingdom – exactly as depicted at Elizabeth’s coronation.

Given such topical allusions to the great issue of the French match at the English royal court circa 1579, how can it still be maintained that it was even possible for William of Stratford to have written The Merchant of Venice?  In part two we’ll look at more remarkable aspects of this particular Reason to believe it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.

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