“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.


“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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