The Bard’s Use of Heraldry: Re-Posting Reason No. 62 of 100 Reasons “Shakespeare” was the Earl of Oxford

Two books devoted entirely to Shakespeare’s knowledge and treatment of heraldry are The Heraldry of Shakespeare: A Commentary with Annotations (1930) by Guy Cadogan Rothery and Shakespeare’s Heraldry (1950) by Charles Wilfred Scott-Giles. They show that the Bard knew a great deal about coats of arms, blazons, charges, fields, escutcheons (shields), crests, badges, hatchments (panels), gules (red markings or tinctures) and much more.

But it’s not simply that Shakespeare has considerable knowledge about heraldry; it’s that such knowledge is an integral part of his thought process.  He uses heraldic terms in spontaneous, natural ways, often metaphorically, making his descriptions more vivid while stirring and enriching our emotions.

Take, for example, the word badge, which in heraldry is an emblem indicating allegiance to some family or property.  Shakespeare uses it  literally, of course, but also metaphorically:  Falstaff in 2 Henry IV  speaks of “the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice” (4.3); Ferdinand in Love’s Labour’s Lost cries out, “Black is the badge of hell” (4.3); Lysander in in A Midsummer Night’s Dream talks about “bearing the badge of faith” (3.2); Tamora in Titus Andronicus declares, “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge” (1.1);  and in Sonnet 44 the poet refers to “heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.”

Surely this author was “one of the wolfish earls,” as Walt Whitman perceived, a proud nobleman for whom hereditary titles, shields and symbols were everyday aspects of his environment.  From early boyhood, Edward de Vere had been steeped in the history of his line dating back five hundred years to William the Conqueror; the heraldry of his ancestors, as well as that of other noble families, became interwoven with his vocabulary.

Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream extends the metaphor of two bodies sharing the same heart by presenting the image of a husband and wife’s impaled arms:  “So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart; two of the first, like coats in heraldry, due but to one and crowned with one crest” (3.2)

Another example of “Shakespeare” thinking and writing in heraldic terms occurs in the opening scene of 1 Henry VI, at the funeral of Henry V at Westminster Abbey.  A messenger warns the English against taking recent victories for granted by describing setbacks in France as the cropping (cutting-out) of the French quarters in the royal arms of England:

“Awake, awake, English nobility!  Let not sloth dim your honors new-begot:  cropped are the flower-de-luces in your arms!  Of England’s coat one half is cut away!”

England’s coat of arms presented flower-de-luces or fleur-de-lis, the emblem of French royalty, quartered with Britain’s symbolic lions.  Cropping the two French quarters would cut away half the English arms – a vivid description of England’s losses in France.

Royal arms used by Henry IV up to Elizabeth I – English lions quartered with French fleur-de-lis

“The Vere arms changed repeatedly over many generations,” the late researcher Robert Brazil noted, adding that details of Oxford’s arms had “numerous documented precedents” consisting not only of drawings but also the “blazonry” or descriptions of shields in precise heraldic language, using only words.  “Through the science of blazon, infinitely complex visual material is described in such a precise way that one can accurately reproduce full color arms with dozens of complex coats, based on the words of the blazon alone.”

At the Vere seat of Castle Hedingham, the young earl necessarily studied the seals and tombs of his ancestors.  He, after all, was a child of the waning feudal aristocracy, set to inherit the title of Lord Great Chamberlain of England. To assert the rights and rankings of his Vere identity, he needed exact knowledge of his family’s heraldry and to “blazon” or describe it in words through the five centuries of its history.

“Shakespeare” uses “blazon” just as we might expect it to be employed by de Vere, that is, as a natural enrichment of language.  Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor employs the word in a burst of heraldic imagery:

“About, about; search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out … Each fair installment, coat, and several crest, with loyal blazon, evermore be blest!” (5.5)

A coat-of arms used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

Oxford knew Windsor Castle well; he is recorded as staying there several times. At nineteen he lodged in a hired room in the town of Windsor while recovering from illness.

Mistress Quickly refers to each “installment” in the castle, that is, each place where an individual knight is installed. The knight’s “coat” was on a stall-plate nailed to the back of the stall and the “crest” was a figure or device originally borne by a knight on his helmet.

From the same pen we find “blazon” in a variety of metaphorical contexts:

“I’faith, lady, I think your blazon to be true” – Much Ado About Nothing (2.1)

“Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit do give thee five-fold blazon” – Twelfth Night (1.5)

“But this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood” – Hamlet (1.5)

In Sonnet 106 the poet uses “blazon” in the context of accounts of medieval chivalry, writing of “beauty making beautiful old rhyme / In praise of Ladies dead and lovely Knights,” followed by: “Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,/ Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,/ I see their antique Pen would have expressed/ Even such a beauty as you master now.”

In Hamlet the prince tells the players that a speech he “chiefly loved” was the one that Virgil’s Aeneas delivers to Dido, Queen of Carthage, about the fall of Troy.  Before the first player can begin to recite it, however, Hamlet delivers thirteen lines from memory — describing how Pyrrhus, son of the Greek hero Achilles, had black arms while hiding inside the Trojan horse; but then his arms became drenched in the red blood of whole families that were slaughtered.

The story had even greater impact upon aristocratic members of the audience who knew the bloody tale was being told in the context of heraldic terms, such as “sable arms” (the black device displayed on Pyrrhus’ shield); “gules” (red); and “tricked” (decorated), not to mention that Pryrrhus’ arms, covered with red blood, are “smeared with heraldry”: (+see below)

The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,

Black as his purpose, did the night resemble

When he lay couched in the ominous horse,

Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared

With heraldry more dismal.   Head to foot

Now is he total gules, horridly tricked

With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons…(Hamlet, 2.2)

Even Lucrece (1594), the second publication as by “Shakespeare,” is filled with heraldic imagery:

But Beauty, in that white entitled

From Venus’ doves, doth challenge that fair field...

This heraldry in Lucrece’s face was seen… (Stanzas 9 & 10, emphases added)

(“Challenge”: lay claim to; “field”: the surface of a heraldic shield on which figures or colors are displayed, but also evoking a battlefield)

book of shakespeare's heraldryBrazil notes that previous earls of Oxford had employed a special greyhound as a heraldic symbol, but that Edward had stopped using it; in the opening scene of Merry Wives, which begins and ends with humorous dialogue involving heraldry, there’s a line (unrelated to anything else) about a “fallow” greyhound, one that is no longer used:

Page:  I am glad to see you, good Master Slender.

Slender: How does your fallow greyhound, sir?

In this “throwaway” exchange, is de Vere, pointing to his own heraldic history?

+ Earl Showerman writes: “The source of of the term ‘pyrrhic victory’ is historical not mythopoetic. King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC, but the victory cost him so dearly he had to withdraw his invasion of Italy because the Romans were quickly resupplied with fresh troops. Pyrrhus in Homer is of the same nature, to be sure, and his sin of slaughtering Priam at the family shrine was the primary cause of the difficulties incurred by all the Greeks in getting home from Troy.”

(This post is now No. 64 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, as edited by Alex McNeil with other editorial help from Brian Bechtold.)


Re-Posting No. 61 of One Hundred Reasons “Shakespeare” was the Earl of Oxford: The Sea & Seamanship

Lt. Commander Alexander Falconer, a naval officer during World War II 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 brings firsthand knowledge and experience to an investigation of Shakespeare’s use of seafaring terms and situations involving the sea.  He concludes that the poet-dramatist possessed detailed, accurate knowledge of naval matters and was well informed about storms, shipwrecks, pirates, voyages of exploration, and navigation:

Falconer notes that in the opening scene of The Tempest, when the ship is wrecked in a storm, Shakespeare took care for details. He “worked out a series of maneuvers” and “made exact use of the professional language of seamanship.”

When the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a “shipwreck trilogy” of Shakespeare plays (The Tempest, Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors), Charles Spencer of The Telegraph observed that “although there were books on navigation in Shakespeare’s time, nothing on seamanship was published until later.”  Indeed, Falconer believed 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 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 the man from Stratford.  It is sheer fantasy to think he might have been a sailor during his “lost” years, and the same goes for supposing he was a schoolteacher or a law clerk. Meanwhile scholars generally fail to notice the Bard’s experience at sea 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 — even necessary — to ignore it.

“Closed minds automatically blockade new information which conflicts with their own beliefs, preventing highly persuasive evidence from entering their brains for evaluation,” writes Paul Altrocchi, adding, “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 the life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, however, there is no need to “imagine” his experience with the sea and, importantly, there is no longer any reason to ignore the vast knowledge of the sea to be found in the poems and plays.

Oxford was twenty-two in September 1572 when he wrote to Burghley, in reaction to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France, offering to help defend England in any way 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…”

Eventually the earl traveled extensively by ship or boat.  He crossed the Channel to France in 1575 and took many trips on canals and other waterways between Italian cities, with Venice as his home base.

In the autumn of 1575 it was reported that Oxford had hurt his knee in a Venetian galley. While returning to England in April 1576, he was captured by pirates in the Channel and nearly killed.

Martin Frobisher (1536/9-1594)

Martin Frobisher

In 1585 he crossed by ship over to the Netherlands on a military mission; this time pirates stopped the vessel that was returning his belongings to England and apparently stole everything on board.  Earlier the earl had invested (disastrously) in Martin Frobisher’s voyages to discover the Northwest Passage to China, which involved varied and challenging aspects of navigation.  He was well acquainted with Dr. John Dee, who was intimately involved in developing Frobisher’s navigational routes.

In June 1588, with the Spanish Armada on its way, Oxford was one of many nobles who sought to rent or hire a ship to enter the fight.

In the following year, a poem, apparently by Oxford’s secretary Lyly, envisioned the earl standing on the hatch-cover of a ship, 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 writes: “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.”

As an excellent example of “inspired accuracy of allusion seasoned with wit,” he offers a line from King John (4.2): “And like a shifted wind unto a sail, it makes the course of thoughts to fetch about,” and further observes:

“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 this impossibility “deprives the audience of much of a play’s texture.”

[This reason is now Number 60 in the book 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, edited by Alex McNeil, to whom I am always grateful, and given additional editorial assistance from Brian Bechtold.]

Re-posting No. 60 of 100 Reasons Why Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford: “The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth”

The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, although not printed until 1598, was part of the wartime repertoire of the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s. Written by an obviously youthful (and anonymous) dramatist, the play also serves as a template or blueprint for the later Shakespearean trilogy 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V.

agincourt-3Virtually everything in Famous Victories is repeated, in a refined and expanded form, in the Shakespeare plays printed in the latter 1590s. From that, traditional scholars conclude that Shakespeare was a shameless plagiarist.  But isn’t it far more likely that the real “Shakespeare” wrote Famous Victories at a younger age, later re-working it to create his Henry trilogy?

Dr. Seymour Pitcher, a Stratfordian professor of English literature at the State University of New York, published a book in 1961 entitled The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of “The Famous Victories,” declaring that this youthful work “is not at all unworthy of Shakespeare as a spirited and genial apprentice dramatist.”

agincourt2The play is “a clatter of events, its quick narrative interspersed with light and raucous comedy.  Comical-historical it surely is, but, in its hybrid form, sufficiently self-consistent in tone.  Sketchy and sometimes banal, it is gusty and flaunting.  At best, it has poignancy in characterization and phrase.  How else should we expect Shakespeare to have begun?”

Dr. Pitcher suggests this must have been the Bard’s first play, written during his early twenties. Many Oxfordians would agree, although Ramon Jiminez has concluded that Edward de Vere may have written Famous Victories even earlier, in his teens.

Whatever the case, there is no evidence that Shakspere of Stratford could have penned Famous Victories in his twenties (or at any other time); but the young Earl of Oxford was uniquely qualified to have written it.

B.M. Ward concludes that Oxford wrote Famous Victories at age twenty-four in 1574.  One reason is that the play comically refers to the involvement of Prince Hal (the future Henry V) in a robbery on Gad’s Hill, just a year after Oxford’s own men had been involved in such a robbery (or prank) in the very same place.  Ward believes that the earl presented the play at court before Queen Elizabeth during the Christmas season of 1574.

famousvictorieshenry5titlepage.jpg“One can scarcely read The Famous Victories and not see in the skimpy little prose-play an early, comparatively amateurish exercise on the themes that would later come to magnificent flower in the Shakespearean dramas,” Charlton Ogburn Jr. writes, citing a speech in Famous Victories by the newly crowned Henry the Fifth in response to the belittling gift from the French Dauphin of tennis balls:

My Lord Prince Dauphin is very pleasant with me!  But tell him instead of balls of leather we will toss him balls of brass and iron – yea, such balls as never were tossed in France…”

This same early material, reworked in the Shakespearean play Henry V, becomes a masterful speech by the king that begins:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us:

His present and your pains we thank you for:

When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,

We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set

Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard… (1.2)

A prominent character in Famous Victories is Richard de Vere, 11th Earl of Oxford (1385-1417), but in 1 & 2 Henry IV and Henry V by “Shakespeare” that same earl disappears. Ogburn Jr. notes that this “initial inflation and later eradication of Oxford’s part” in the play is a telltale sign of something important.  Once the author is viewed as de Vere, the explanation for Richard de Vere’s disappearance from the play is clear: to continue to give such prominence to an ancestor would jeopardize Edward de Vere’s anonymity.

Note: This Reason is now No. 40 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, as edited by Alex McNeil.


%d bloggers like this: