“The Quality of Mercy”: Re-Posting No. 32 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

The works of “Shakespeare” contain the author’s own meditations on justice and mercy, emphasizing the need for kings to carry out lawful remedies and punishments with compassion and forbearance.  In Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice about “the quality of mercy” being “not strained” (not constrained), she declares that mercy is “mightiest in the mightiest” and “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”  Mercy is above such trappings and is “enthroned in the hearts of kings,” she says, adding:

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice (4.1)

On 7 May 1603, six weeks after Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I of England, fifty-three-year-old Edward de Vere wrote a business letter to Secretary Robert Cecil and, in passing, made this comment (printed below in the form of a speech in a Shakespeare play):

Nothing adorns a King more than justice,

Nor in anything doth a King more resemble God than in justice,

Which is the head of all virtue,

And he that is endued therewith hath all the rest.

There is a remarkable similarity of thinking between Oxford and “Shakespeare” as well as a similarity of words; for example, Portia’s statement that when a king combines justice with mercy his “earthly power doth then show likest God’s” is reflected in Oxford’s remark that “nor in anything doth a King more resemble God than in justice” – by which he clearly meant a kind of justice that contains the “virtue” of mercy, or the capacity for forgiveness.

It’s easy to imagine Oxford giving Isabella these words about monarchs in Measure for Measure:

Not the King’s Crown nor the deputed sword,

The Marshall’s Truncheon nor the Judge’s Robe,

Become them with one half so good a grace

As mercy does.  (2.2)

In his dissertation on the “marginalia” of de Vere’s Geneva bible, which the earl had purchased in 1569-70 before age twenty, Roger Stritmatter reports Oxford had marked a series of verses in Ecclesiasticus on the theme of mercy.The question of mercy “is central to the unfolding action of The Tempest,” he notes.  “In this fable Prospero, like Hamlet, learns to abandon the lust to punish his enemies and realizes that ‘the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.’ (5.1). In that statement, ‘virtue’ is a metaphor for ‘mercy.’ ” Stritmatter also points out that previous students of Shakespeare and the Bible failed to notice that Prospero’s epilogue — “as you from crimes would pardoned be — derives “direct, unequivocal inspiration” from Ecclesiasticus 28.1-5, which Oxford had marked in his Geneva bible.

Ecclesiasticus 28.1-5, as marked by Edward de Vere in his Geneva Bible

Ellen Terry as Portia in 1885

 

“The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle” painted by Edouard Berveiller (1843-1910)

“There can be little doubt as to which side Oxford’s sympathies would lean” during the treason trial of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in October 1586,” J. Thomas Looney wrote in “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, introducing the Oxford theory of Shakespearean authorship. In other words, the earl, who sat as one of the commissioners at the trial, would have been on Mary’s side, and “as we read of her wonderfully brave and dignified bearing, and of her capable and unaided conduct of her own defense, we can quite believe that if the dramatist who wrote The Merchant of Venice was present at the trial of the Scottish Queen … he had before him a worthy model for the fair Portia…”

Looney quoted Martin Hume: “Mary defended herself with consummate ability before a tribunal almost entirely prejudiced against her. She was deprived of legal aid, without her papers and in ill health. In her argument with [William Cecil Lord Burghley] she reached a point of touching eloquence which might have moved the hearts, though it did not convince the intellects, of her august judges.”

Drawing of the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots as part of the official record made by Robert Beale (1541-1601)

Hume himself quotes a letter in which Burghley says of Mary, “Her intention was to move pity by long, artificial speeches.” Looney writes, “With this remark of Burghley’s in mind, let the reader weigh carefully the terms, of Portia’s speech on ‘Mercy,’ all turning upon conceptions of royal power, with its symbols the crown and the scepter … Now let any one judge whether this speech is not vastly more appropriate to Mary Queen of Scots pleading her own cause before Burleigh, Walsingham, and indirectly the English Queen, than to an Italian lady pleading to an old Jew for the life of a merchant she had never seen before.  Who, then, could have been better qualified for giving an idealized and poetical rendering of Mary’s speeches than Oxford, touted as ‘the best of the courtier poets,’ who was a sympathetic listener to her pathetic and dignified appeals?”

Oxford may have written the first version of The Merchant several years prior to the trial of Mary Stuart – that is, by the early 1580’s, having returned in 1576 from fifteen months on the Continent with Venice as his home base.

Portia’s speech in 4.1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Prospero’s farewell at the end of The Tempest:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands:

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.


 

“One Whose Power Floweth Far”: Re-Posting No. 26 of 100 Reasons why Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

A thick volume printed for the Roxburghe Club of London in 1882 featured an Elizabethan book of two narrative poems, Cephalus and Procris and Narcissus, translated from Ovid by the otherwise unknown Thomas Edwards.  It was registered in 1593 and printed in 1595, just after the “Shakespeare” name had made its debut on the dedications of Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594 to the Earl of Southampton.

Attached to Narcissus was an “envoy” or postscript in several stanzas of verse, identifying major poets by characters in their works: “Collyn Clout” for Spenser; “Rosamond” for Daniel; “Leander” for Marlowe; and “Adon”  for Shakespeare.

This was followed immediately by reference to a poet “in purple robes distained … whose power floweth far” with his “bewitching pen” and “golden art” that should make him “the only object and the star” of England’s writers.

Who was this poet, said to be the best of all?

In the Roxburghe appendix, one scholar identifiedthe star” as Edward de Vere while another said it must be a description of Shakespeare! If those two scholars of the late nineteenth century had been in the same room at the same time, one identifying Oxford and the other pointing to Shakespeare, might it have occurred to them that maybe they were both talking about the same man?  If so, they would have solved the authorship question then and there.

Here, in modernized English, is the stanza praising Shakespeare as “Adon,” followed by those praising the poet who “should have been … the only object and the star”:

Adon deafly masking through 

Stately troupes rich conceited,

Showed he well deserved to,

Love’s delight on him to gaze,

And had not love herself entreated,

Other nymphs had sent him bays.

Eke in purple robes distained,

Amidst the Center of this clime,

I have heard say doth remain

One whose power floweth far,

That should have been of our rhyme

The only object and the star.

 

Blackfriars Playhouse

Well could his bewitching pen

Done the Muses’ objects to us;

Although he differs much from men

Tilting under Frieries,

Yet his golden art might woo us

To have honored him with bays. [Emphases added.]

[Note that the first stanza about Adon, and the second of the next two stanzas about “one whose power floweth far,” conclude with “bays” – perhaps intended as a way for readers to link all three stanzas in their praise of a single poet.]

Roxburghe Club editor W.E. Buckley reported how one scholar identified Oxford and the other pointed to Shakespeare:

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

“If ‘purple robes’ may mean a Nobleman’s robes, it gives some colour to the conjecture of Professor [Edward] Dowden, that Vere, Earl of Oxford, may have been intended, ‘as his reputation stood high as a Poet and Patron of Poets’ … Dr. B. Nicholson is of opinion that these two stanza must be connected with the preceding one in which Adon — that is, Shakspere — is described.”

Buckley noted that The Arte of English Poesie (1589) had named Oxford “first among the crew of courtly makers” and that Edmund Spenser had written a dedicatory sonnet to the earl in The Faire Queen of 1590 “in which he speaks of ‘the love that thou didst bear To th’Heliconian Nymphs, and they to thee.’  His ‘power flowed far’ as he was Lord High Chamberlain of England.  He had contributed to The Paradise of Dainty Devices, signing E.O. or E. Ox. [1576] and to The Phoenix Nest in 1593.  One of his poems is a vision of a Fair Maid (‘clad all in color of a Nun and covered with a Vail’) who complains of love and gets Echo answers of ‘Vere.’  In another, Oxford represents himself as ‘wearing black and tawny’ and [having] ‘no bays’ …”

Prior to John Thomas Looney’s identification of de Vere in 1920, orthodox scholars could mention him in a positive light without worrying about giving any ground in the authorship debate. Buckley also referred to a statement made by the literary antiquary Thomas Coxeter (1689-1747): Oxford was said by Coxeter to have translated Ovid, which would connect him with Narcissus, but no one has ever seen his Ovid.”

The street fighting in “Romeo and Juliet” is a mirror image of the “tilting” at Blackfriars involving Oxford’s men

An important contribution to work on the Narcissus L’Envoy was done by Dr. Roger Stritmatter, who introduced new evidence allowing “definitive identification of the phrase ‘tilting under Frieries’ as referring to a notorious series of Blackfriars street fights (1582-85) involving Oxford’s retainers.”  The fighting, in which Oxford was wounded and lamed for life, “left an indelible impression in the popular imagination of the era,” he writes, citing a series of documents (transcribed by Alan Nelson  for his Oxford biography Monstrous Adversary) confirming that the earl’s men were “tilting under frieries” in spring 1582 at Blackfriars. Stritmatter further observes:

“The significance of this finding, identifying Oxford as the poet with the ‘bewitching pen’ who ‘should have been’ – but cannot be – the ‘only object and the star’ of the chorus of the Elizabethan poets, should not be underestimated. Without doubt, the 1582-83 Oxford-Knyvet affair at Blackfriars was the most striking instance of ’tilting under Frieries’ during the thirty-seven years of Elizabeth’s reign that informed the imagery and diction of Edwardes’ enigmatic poem.  Before the fray had ended, a literary peer of the realm had been lamed for life, and followers of both factions wounded or killed.  The concealed poet of ‘bewitching pen’ and ‘golden art’ – whose men were in 1582 notoriously ’tilting under frieries’ – is none other than the still controversial Edward de Vere.”

The “Envoy to Narcissus” is an example of how, soon after publication of Venus and Adonis and the first appearance of the “Shakespeare” name in print, writers were already dropping hints about the presence of an author – in fact the “star” among them – who had chosen to withhold his identity. The chatter was growing from the start.

[This reason, with tremendous help from Editor Alex McNeil, as well as Brian Bechtold, is now no. 31 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford).

 

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