“I am but mad north-northwest” – Hamlet; “For the discovery of Cathay by the northwest … I will enter into bond” – Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Reason 72 Why He Was “Shakespeare”

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”  – Prince Hamlet

These lines operate on at least two levels:

On the surface Hamlet appears to be referring to an Elizabethan notion that melancholy grows worse when the wind comes out of the north; his madness worsens when the wind is northerly, but, when it’s southerly, he grows clear-headed and can tell one different thing from the other.

frobisher_routeOn another level the author, Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, is referring to his own investment in the 1578 expedition by Martin Frobisher to discover the Northwest Passage to Cathay, or China – an act of financial madness ending in his loss of all three thousand pounds that he had put into it.

frobisher stampJust four days before the eleven Frobisher ships set forth, hoping to find “gold ore” as well as to establish a settlement on the Meta Incognita peninsula, Oxford dispatched a letter to “My Very Loving Friends,” the commissioners for the voyage:

“Understanding of the wise proceeding and orderly dealing for the continuing of the voyage for the discovery of Cathay by the northwest … as well for the great liking Her Majesty hath to have the same passage discovered … [I] offer unto you to be an adventurer therein for the sum of 1000 pounds or more, if you like to admit thereof; which sum or sums, upon your certificate of admittance, I will enter into bond … I bid you heartily farewell.  From the Court, the 21st of May 1578.  Your loving friend, Edward Oxenford.”

The earl’s share soon rose to three thousand pounds.  He entered into bond to buy the stock from Michael Lok (or Lock), a London merchant who also did business in the Mediterranean.  The two men may have met in Venice or Genoa, during Oxford’s 1575-76 travels in Italy.   Oxford became the largest investor – that is, the gambler with the most at stake.  The expedition resulted in no gold, however, so Oxford got no return at all – a staggering loss of three thousand pounds, the sum for which he was “in bond” to Lok, akin to the three thousand ducats for which Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is “in bond” to Shylock.

Al Pacino as Shylock

Al Pacino as Shylock

A mob of furious men attacked Michael Lok, with Frobisher himself calling him “a false accountant to the company, a cozener of my Lord of Oxford, no venturer at all in the voyages, a bankrupt knave.”  Convicted upon testimony that he had known beforehand that the ore was worthless, Lok wound up in the Fleet prison.

Added to Hamlet’s mention of “north-north-west” (for the Northwest Passage) are the repeated references in Merchant to “three thousand ducats” (echoing Oxford’s three thousand pounds) and the “bond” (echoing Oxford’s bond), not to mention the name “Shylock” and its similarity to the name of Michael Loc or Lock.

In Merchant the phrase “three thousand ducats” becomes a kind of insistent drumbeat, with the precise of three words uttered exactly a dozen times.  And the word “bond” is used thirty-nine times, with different meanings but forming another emphatic, persistent drumbeat:

“Three thousand ducats; I think I may take his bond … I’ll seal to such a bond … You shall not seal to such a bond for me … I do expect return of thrice three times the value of this bond … I will seal unto this bond … let him look to his bond … let him look to his bond … let him look to his bond … Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel [as did Oxford’s own creditors, as he descended into insolvency], my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit …

“I’ll have my bond; speak not against my bond: I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond … I’ll have my bond … I’ll have my bond … I will have my bond … to have the due and forfeit of my bond … I would have my bond … I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond … “

Michael Lok “may or may not have been a Christianized Anglo Jew,” writes William Farina in De Vere as Shakespeare (2006).  “Add to this the prefix ‘Shy’ (one meaning of which is ‘disreputable’), and it would be an understatement to say that the (otherwise mysterious) origin of Shylock’s name is strongly suggested.”

On 2 February 1580, a little over a year after the fiasco of the third Frobisher voyage, The History of Portio and Demorantes was performed at Whitehall Palace by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, under whom Oxford had served in 1570 in the successful (and brutal) campaign to defeat the Northern Rebellion of Catholic earls.   Sussex had been Oxford’s mentor and supporter at Court ever since; and in the view of Eva Turner Clark, Portio and Demorantes was the early version of Edward de Vere’s play The Merchant of Venice, to be attributed to Shakespeare two decades later in 1598.

Once Oxford is viewed as the author of Merchant, the character of Antonio may be viewed as standing in for Oxford himself; and, too, Portia quite distinctly becomes Queen Elizabeth – making it a pretty safe bet that “Portio” in Portio and Demorantes had been the early Portia-Elizabeth.  (It has also been suggested that “Demorantes” could have been a misspelling of “the merchants.”)

Antonio’s friends appear to voice the concerns and anxieties Oxford must have experienced while the ships were away and there was little to do but wait for the results:

“Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,/ The better part of my affections would/ Be with my hopes abroad, I should be still/ Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,/ Peering in maps for ports, and piers, and roads … My wind, cooling my broth,/ Would blow me to an ague [fever] when I thought/ What harm a wind too great might do at sea … ”

The orthodox dating of The Merchant of Venice has been roughly 1596, but all the major sources for the play were available by 1558, according to Joe Peel and Noemi Magri in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays (2010) edited by Kevin Gilvary.  And others connections to Oxford and Elizabeth and the doings at the English court are so strong that this play will become a separate “reason” to believe that Edward de Vere was the great author and, in 1593, adopted “Shakespeare” as a pen name.

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