Edward de Vere, “Commedia dell’arte” and “Shakespeare”: Re-posting No. 41 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

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: the list includes Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing.

The same scholars, however, cannot plausibly explain how “Shakespeare” became so familiar with this “comedy of art” performed by troupes of traveling players in Italy, since it was virtually unknown in England when he was supposedly writing the plays.  The traditional author never set foot in Italy, while Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford had made his home base in Venice during 1575 and 1576, when the Commedia dell’arte was at the peak of its popularity.

Early on, supporters of Oxford’s authorship predicted they would find evidence the earl attended Commedia dell’arte performances in Venice during his several months there. In 1956, Julia Cooley Altrocchi discovered a “clincher” for that long-held prediction. At the Bibliotecha Marciana in Venice she came upon a book called Dell’Arte Rappresentativa Premeditata ed all’Improviso or Dramatic Art by Rote and Extemporaneous Performance (1699) and subsequently 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 included an example of such a long and hilarious “tirade”:

“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 Oxford…” (Emphasis added)

Here in a book published in Naples at the end of the seventeenth century was an apparent reference to Edward de Vere, mentioned by his earldom title as “Milord of Oxfort,” within the speech of a stock character in a performed skit of the Commedia dell’arte!  Altrocchi continues:

“With his outgoing nature, his innate acting ability which would later manifest itself so impressively before the Queen, would 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 Oxfort” rode a faun-colored horse named Ultramarine  (“Beyond the Sea”) and wore a violet-colored costume while carrying a large sword.

“In this Tirata,” Altrocchi reported, “Milord of Oxfort, amusingly enough, tilted against Alvilda, Countess of Edemburg, who was mounted on a dapplegray, and was armed with a Frankish lance while 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!”

She concludes that Oxford was “well and very companionably known” at presentations of the Commedia dell’arte while in Venice for many weeks during 1575.” He was “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 undoubtedly witnessed many Commedia performances.  He may have watched this skit in which the actor playing Doctor Graziano, knowing he was in the audience, suddenly paid him a public tribute by improvising a “tirade” that included him by name. 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!

In Othello … Annotated from an Oxfordian Perspective, editors Ren Draya and Richard Whalen comment on the surprising evidence that even this painful tragedy is strongly influenced by Commedia dell’arte.  They indicate, for example, how the opening of the play can 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 have eloped. A slice of raucous, obscene comedy, opening a tragic drama of jealousy and rage!

[This post is a revised version of no. 41, as edited by Alex McNeil for 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford (2016), in which it now appears as Reason 46.]

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