“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.


 

Portia’s Estate of Belmont — Part Two of Reason 73 Why Oxford was Shakespeare: It was a Real Place that the Author Saw Firsthand

Background Image: Henry de Vere, eighteenth Earl of Oxford; and Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton – the “Two Henries” circa 1619

“In Belmont is a lady richly left; and she is fair, and, fairer than that word, of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages: her name is Portia” – Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice

BELMONTthe estate of Portia … apparently located on the mainland near Venice a fictitious place” –  Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z, 1990

“Belmont is a real place, though called differently in Italian: its identification has been made possible by the precise geographical information and a specific historical reference given in the play.” – Dr. Noemi Magri, De Vere Society Newsletter, 2003; reprinted in Great Oxford, 2004

Villa Foscari on the River Brenta, built by 1560, is Portia's estate of Belmont

Villa Foscari on the River Brenta, built by 1560, is Portia’s estate of Belmont

Portia’s home in The Merchant of Venice is a grand palace where trumpets sound as each new member of the nobility is received in its richly decorated Great Hall, where musicians serenade and aristocrats dance and players perform.  Shakespeare took the name “Belmont” from his main Italian source, Il Pecorone, a novella composed around 1380 and printed in Italian in 1558, wherein the character Gianetto travels a long distance from Venice to see the Lady of Belmont.

The original Belmont in the story was a port on the Adriatic coast.   To simplify things for his play, Shakespeare indicates that Belmont is much closer to Venice; but no real place by that name actually existed or exists at the location he gives — or at any location anywhere near it.   Given that William Shakspere of Stratford never left England, much less spent time in Italy, it follows that he had no real grand estate in mind to begin with; and so, as Boyce indicates above, scholars have universally viewed Shakespeare’s Belmont as a wondrous “fictitious place” he created as a vivid contrast to the crass commercial world of Venice.

The trouble, however, is that the author takes great pains to precisely locate and identify Portia’s estate of Belmont.  He indicates, for example, that the mansion is on a riverbank — in the scene with Lorenzo and Jessica outside the great house in the evening, gazing at the water, when Lorenzo exclaims: “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!”

So Portia’s great house is on a river.  And in the third act she plans to go to Venice with Nerissa, both disguised as men (to be at Antonio’s trial, where Portia will appear as a lawyer), and then to return straightaway to Belmont.  She tells Nerissa to “haste away, for we must measure twenty miles today.”   So the roundtrip is twenty miles, or ten miles to Venice and ten miles back to Belmont.

Now the author inserts another clue.  To conceal her true plan, Portia tells Lorenzo and Jessica a fake story about where they’re going:  “There is a monastery two miles off,” she says, and “there we will abide” until the trial in Venice is concluded.

malcon01So now we know Belmont is (1) on the bank of a river, (2) ten miles from Venice and (3) two miles from a monastery.   And it so happens that there was, and still is, a famous grand mansion on the bank of the River Brenta – the Villa Foscari-Malcontenta, the country residence of the illustrious Foscari family in Venice, exactly ten miles from Venice and precisely two miles from the monastery Ca’ delle Monache, the Nun’s House.

These clues from “Shakespeare” serve to identify Belmont as the architectural masterpiece Villa Foscari , designed by Andrea Palladio and constructed by 1560, when Elizabeth I of England was at the outset of her reign.  This grand villa on the River Brenta, with its richly decorated interior rooms and Great Hall, was known for receiving members of the nobility (and royalty, such as Henry III of France, in 1574) with trumpets sounding, and for entertaining the guests with music and dance and plays – an unforgettable place that the author saw firsthand, later changing its name to Belmont.

“Though now the central seat of the University of Venice, the Villa-Foscari-Malcontenta can be visited today,” writes Richard Paul Roe, author of The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (2011), who independently came to the same conclusion as Dr. Noemi Magri.  “It was an easy reach to Venice and a fitting ‘Belmont’ for an heiress, such as Portia, whose hand was sought by princes far and wide” – just as princes came from far and wide for the hand of Queen Elizabeth.

fusina on map

But the man who wrote The Merchant of Venice supplied even more specifics — such as when Portia sends her servant Balthasar to Padua for “notes and garments” that she needs, telling him to then continue in haste “unto the Tranect, to the common ferry which trades to Venice,” where she will be waiting with Nerissa in her coach.   The two women will go from the Tranect by ferry to Venice.

According to Roe, scholars have been wide of the mark trying to identify the Tranect, unaware that it was a narrow strip of land where travelers could transfer from their coach to a ferry, which was pulled across the dry land by machinery to the water and the final lap to Venice.   Their rendezvous at the Tranect “would have to have been in Fusina,” Roe concluded, because it’s five miles alongside the river from Belmont to Fusina, and from there across the water it’s “exactly five miles to the landing place called ‘il Molo,’ which sits in front of the Ducal Palace and Courts of Justice,” where Antonio’s trial was being held.

The ten-mile journey was in two parts of five miles each.  Portia and Nerissa would return from Venice by ferrying the five miles across the water to the Tranect at Fusina, then travel by coach beside the River Brenta for five miles back to the Villa Foscari — or, as it’s called in the play, Belmont.  In total the roundtrip had four legs of five miles apiece, adding up to the “twenty miles” that Portia states so emphatically.  In other words, the great dramatist of The Merchant described not only the various lengths of the journey, but, also, the practical means by which the two women went to the trial in Venice and back.

Now for that “specific historical reference” mentioned by Dr. Magri – an event that is mentioned in The Merchant as having occurred at Belmont and that actually did happen at Villa Foscari.  The reference is made by Nerissa, who asks Portia if she remembers Bassanio’s visit to Belmont:  “Do you not remember, lady, in your father’s time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier that came hither in company of the Marquis of Montferrat?”

“Yes, yes, it was Bassanio, as I think, so he was called,” Portia says, but totally ignoring Nerissa’s recollection of the Marguis of Montferrat, who is neither one of Portia’s suitors nor one of the play’s characters; in fact, this is the only time he’s mentioned.  Traditional scholars have never found any good reason for the playwright to make such an allusion, but Dr. Magri, viewing The Merchant as written by Edward de Vere, found the reason — in the historical record of the visit to Venice in July 1574 by Henry III of France, who traveled with his party up the River Brenta and stopped at Villa Foscari, where he had been invited for dinner.

It turns out that with the French king on that visit was Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and Marquis of Montferrat!

"il Molo," Portia's landing place in front of the Ducal Palace and Courts of Justice

“il Molo,” Portia’s landing place in front of the Ducal Palace and Courts of Justice

Just eight months later in March 1575, the twenty-five-year-old Earl of Oxford arrived at the royal court in Paris and met King Henry III, who was fond of expressing his admiration for Villa Foscari and its charming location.  Oxford continued his journey to Italy and stopped in Mantua — where, Mark Anderson writes in Shakespeare by Another Name, the earl’s “probable host” was Guglielmo Gonzaga, Marquis of Monteferrat, who surely would have told Oxford about his experiences during that historic visit of the French king.

Oxford’s trip from Padua to Venice by traghetto (horse-drawn ferry) along the River Brenta lasted seven hours.  His ferry ride passed “the classically inspired Villa Foscari,” Anderson writes, “as the traghetto slowed down to round a wide curve on the riverbank.”

Noemi Magri concluded that Oxford “intended to describe Villa Foscari and had in mind the Brenta with its villas” and that he “wished to remember the Marquis of Montferrat, Guglielmo Gonzaga Duke of Mantua, the ruler of one of the greatest centers of learning in Renaissance times.”

What does it matter who wrote the Shakespeare plays?  I’d say that Belmont = Villa Foscari is one good reason all by itself.

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