The Sea and Seamanship: No. 61 of 100 Reasons Why Edward, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

tempest shipwreckIt’s been nearly fifty years since Lt. Commander Alexander Falconer, a naval officer during World War Two 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 brought his firsthand knowledge and experience to bear on an investigation of Shakespeare’s use of seafaring terms and situations involving the sea.  His conclusion was that the great author brought with him detailed, accurate knowledge of naval matters and was well-informed about storms, shipwrecks, pirates, voyages of exploration, navigation:

“The manning and running of royal ships … duties of officers and seamen … strategy and the principles of sea warfare, gunnery, grappling and boarding are all known to him; so, too, are the main types of ship, their build, rigging, masts, sails, anchors and cables.  The sea itself in its varied working, tides, waves, currents, storms and calms, never goes out of his work.”

Writing about the opening scene of The Tempest, when the ship is wrecked in a storm, Falconer noted Shakespeare’s care for details and that he “has not only worked out a series of maneuvers, but has made exact use of the professional language of seamanship.”

A ship of the Spanish armada, 1588

Ships of the Spanish armada, 1588

This year the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a “shipwreck trilogy” of Shakespeare plays:  The Tempest, Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors.  In reaction, Charles Spencer of The Telegraph noted that “although there were books on navigation in Shakespeare’s time, nothing on seamanship was published until later.”  In any case, Falconer believed that 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 great 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 William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon (1564-1616).  It’s sheer fantasy to think he might have been a sailor during his “lost” years (presumably in the 1580’s), just as it’s wishful thinking to imagine he was a schoolteacher or a law clerk or whatever else during that time.

Perhaps scholars generally fail to notice the bard’s experience at sea precisely 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 to ignore it.

The Oxfordian scholar Paul Altrocchi puts it this way: “Closed minds automatically blockade new information which conflicts with their own beliefs, preventing highly persuasive evidence from entering their brains for evaluation.  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 look at the life of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), however, there is no need to imagine his experience with the sea and no reason to ignore the vast knowledge of the sea to be found in the poems and plays.  No. 61 of 100 Reasons to conclude that Oxford was “Shakespeare” is that the earl did have such maritime experience.

Oxford at twenty-two in September 1572 wrote to William Cecil Lord Burghley, in reaction to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France, offering to help defend England in any way that 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…”

A 16th-century map of Venice

A 16th-century map of Venice

Oxford traveled extensively by ship or boat.  He crossed the Channel to France in 1575 and would have taken many boat trips on the then-existing canals and other waterways between Italian cities, making his home base at Venice.  In Shakespeare by Another Name, author Mark Anderson notes Oxford’s letter to Burghley saying he would “bestow two or three months to see Constantinople and some part of Greece.”

In Venice the earl lived in the heart of a community of Greeks who traveled to and from their native country.  “The 1,100-mile, fifteen-day voyage to Athens would have followed the Adriatic currents down the Illyrian (now Croatian) coastline,” Anderson writes.  Oxford would have made such a journey by means of a Venetian galley ship; and, in fact, it would be reported in the autumn of 1575 that Oxford had hurt his knee in a Venetian galley.  Oxford was stopped by pirates and nearly killed [as Hamlet would be] in the Channel in April 1576, while returning to England.

Martin Frobisher  (1536/9-1594)

Martin Frobisher

He crossed by ship over to the Netherlands in 1585, on a military mission, and this time pirates stopped the vessel carrying his belongings and apparently they stole everything on board.  The earl had invested (disastrously) in Martin Frobisher’s voyages to discover the Northwest Passage to China, so he would have learned about the various aspects of the navigation involved.  He was well acquainted with Dr. John Dee, who was intimately involved in developing Frobisher’s navigational routes.

Moreover Oxford had his own ship, the Edward Bonaventure, which he contributed to Captain Edward Fenton’s expedition in 1582 to the Spanish Main.  (The Spanish rebuffed the little fleet, so the earl’s investment did not pay off.)  Then in June 1588, with the Armada on its way, Oxford prepared to take the Bonaventure into battle.  Although the English soundly defeated the great Spanish fleet, it appears that Oxford’s ship became disabled.

In the following year, a poem apparently by Oxford’s private secretary John Lyly envisioned the earl standing on the hatch-cover of the Bonaventure, 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 observed:

“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.”

He offered a line from King John (4.2.23) as an example of “inspired accuracy of allusion seasoned with wit” by Shakespeare: “And like a shifted wind unto a sail, it makes the course of thoughts to fetch about.”

“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 such impossibility “deprives the audience of much of a play’s texture so richly spun” by the author.

%d bloggers like this: