“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.

“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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