“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.


Another Bombshell — The New Book on ‘The Tempest’ by Stritmatter and Kositsky Demolishes the Old Stratfordian Arguments

A copy of the long-awaited new work by Roger A. Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky — On the Date, Sources and Design of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ – recently arrived and, as we anticipated, it’s another blockbuster bombshell of evidence and cogent argument by which the foundations of traditional Shakespearean biography are destined to be torn asunder. Put it up on your shelf alongside The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by the late Richard Paul Roe and you will have ten times the information needed to know for certain that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the great poet-dramatist.
Tempest Book

The wildly incorrect dating of The Tempest to 1611 is among the foremost arguments that Stratfordians use against Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford as the author, given his recorded death of 24 June 1604. This line of attack involves much sneering, ridiculing and joking about how Oxford must have written this play from the grave. Well, let’s get this work from Stritmatter and Kositsky into every high school, every college and university, and see if the teachers and professors (of English, Drama and History) can deal with it fairly and even … hopefully … expand their perspectives to allow for a shift of view … to be able to change their minds.

In their introduction the authors write with the calm, inner confidence of explorers who have traveled throughout this territory and know every inch of its landscape:

“This book challenges a longstanding and deeply ingrained belief in Shakespearean studies that The Tempest – long supposed to be Shakespeare’s last play – was not written until 1611. In the course of investigating this proposition, which has not received the critical inquiry it deserves, a number of subsidiary and closely related interpretative puzzles come sharply into focus. These include the play’s sources of New World imagery; its festival symbolism and structure; its relationship to William Strachey’s True Repertory account of the 1609 Bermuda wreck of the Sea Venture (not published until 1625); and ultimately the tangled history of how and why scholars have for so long misunderstood these matters … Our book hopes to explore new vistas in Tempest scholarship… ”

William S. Niederkorn, formerly an editor at The New York Times and now writing criticism for The Brooklyn Rail, has contributed a fine introduction — although I must add that “Prospero’s exit” is, in my view, a late addition to the play by Oxford, written between 1601 and 1603, when he had agreed to an obliteration of his identity as Shakespeare. (See editor Bill Boyle’s take on it in A Poet’s Rage, his new collection of Oxfordian essays, where he compares Prospero’s epilogue with Sonnet 120.) Meanwhile we can certainly agree with Niederkorn that the reverberations from this Stritmatter-Kositsky book “should be seismic for Shakespeare scholars.”

(And on a more personal level, I would like to congratulate Roger and Lynne for their determination and hard work over the past several years, enabling them to produce a landmark publication. Bravo!)

Dr. John Dee + Prospero = No. 59 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford = “Shakespeare”

“It is almost certain that William Shakespeare modeled the character of Prospero in The Tempest on the career of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia

“Queen Elizabeth’s philosopher, the white magician Doctor Dee, is defended in Prospero, the good and learned conjurer, who had managed to transport his valuable library to the island.” – Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age

Dr. John Dee (1527-1608)

Dr. John Dee

The mathematician and astrologer Dr. John Dee was enlisted by Elizabeth Tudor to name a day and time for her coronation when the stars would be favorable (January 15, 1559), after which he became a scientific and medical adviser to the Queen.  A natural philosopher and student of the occult, his name is also associated with astronomy, alchemy and other forms of “secret” experimentation.  He became a celebrated leader of the Elizabethan renaissance, helping to expand the boundaries of knowledge on all fronts.  With degrees from Cambridge and studies under the top cartographers in Europe, Dee led the navigational planning for several English voyages of exploration.

At one point, defending against charges of witchcraft and sorcery, Dee listed many who had helped him, citing in particular “the honorable the Earl of Oxford, his favorable letters, anno 1570” – when Edward de Vere Lord Oxford was twenty years old and about to become the highest-ranking earl at the Court of Elizabeth, who would quickly elevate him to the status of royal favorite.

“We may conjecture that it was in 1570 that Oxford studied astrology under Dr. Dee,” B.M. Ward wrote in his 1928 documentary biography.  “We shall meet these two [Dee and Oxford] again later, working together as ‘adventurers’ or speculators in Martin Frobisher’s attempts to find a North-West Passage to China and the East Indies.”

Dr. John Dee and Queen Elizabeth

Dr. John Dee and Queen Elizabeth

Oxford’s links to Dr. Dee, along with his deep interest in all aspects of Dee’s work, is yet another piece of evidence pointing to his authorship of the poems, plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare.

In 1584 a Frenchman and member of Oxford’s household, John Soowthern, dedicated a pamphlet of poems entitled Pandora to the earl.  His tribute asserted that Edward de Vere’s knowledge of the “seven turning flames of the sky” (planets, through astrology) was unrivaled; that his reading of “the antique” (classical and ancient history) was unsurpassed; that he had “greater knowledge” of “the tongues” (languages) than anyone; and that his understanding of “sounds” that lead students to love music was “sooner” (quicker) than anyone else’s:

For who marketh better than he

The seven turning flames of the sky?

Or hath read more of the antique;

Hath greater knowledge of the tongues?

Or understandeth sooner the sounds

Of the learner to love music?

Prospero as played by Michael Winters

Prospero as played by Michael Winters

This might as well be a description of the man who wrote The Tempest!  [It’s a description of an extraordinarily knowledgeable man, which perfectly fits “Shakespeare” until the defenders of the Stratfordian faith try to “dumb down” the author to fit their man’s meager biography.]  And it’s no coincidence that scholars have not only seen Prospero as based on Dee, but, also, viewed Prospero as the dramatist’s self-portrait.  Once that window opens, the evidence leads to both Prospero and “Shakespeare” in the person of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Oxford’s familiarity with “planetary influences” is “probably attributable to acquaintance with Dee,” writes Charlton Ogburn Jr. in The Mysterious Shakespeare, “as is likewise the knowledge of astronomy claimed by the poet of The Sonnets.” In regard to the latter, here are some examples of the poet’s easy, personal identification with both astronomy and alchemy:

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck,

And yet methinks I have Astronomy – Sonnet 14

Or whether shall I say mine eye saith true,

And that your love taught it this Alchemy? – Sonnet 114

Dr. Dee got into trouble when his delving into the supernatural led to necromancy, the magic or “black art” practiced by witches or sorcerers who allegedly communicated with the dead by conjuring their spirits.  The Stratfordian scholar Alan Nelson, in his deliberately negative biography of Oxford entitled Monstrous Adversary, includes an entire chapter called Necromancer – detailing charges by the earl’s enemies that he had engaged in various conjurations, such as “that he had often times copulation with a female spirit in Sir George Howard’s house at Greenwich.”

Christopher Plummer as Prospero

Christopher Plummer as Prospero

The irony of Nelson’s charge is that it not only serves to portray Oxford as similar to both John Dee and Prospero, but aligns him with the authors of what Nelson himself calls “a long string of necromantic stage-plays” starting in the 1570’s.  One such play was John a Kent by Anthony Munday, who was Oxford’s servant; and another was Friar Bacon and Friar Bungary by Robert Greene, who dedicated Greene’s Card of Fancy in 1584 to Oxford, calling him “a worthy favorer and fosterer of learning” who had “forced many through your excellent virtue to offer the first fruits of their study at the shrine of your Lordship’s courtesy.”

In 1577 Oxford and Dr. Dee both became “adventurers” for financiers of Frobisher’s third expedition to find a sea route along the northern coast of America to Cathay (China) – the fabled Northwest Passage.  In fact Oxford became the largest single investor, sinking three thousand pounds, only to lose it all, which may explain Prince Hamlet’s metaphor in his remark: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (i.e., he’s mad only on certain occasions, the way he was when he invested so much in that expedition to the north-north-west).

One of Dr. Dee's charts of his own birth, found among his papers

One of Dr. Dee’s charts of his own birth, found among his papers

A play before the Queen by the Paul’s Boys on December 9, 1577 appears to have been a version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in which the character of Lord Cerimon seems to be a blend of Oxford (preferring honor and wisdom above his noble rank and wealth) and Dr. Dee (whose “secret arts” included alleged knowledge of properties within metals and stones):

‘Tis known I ever

Have studied physic, through which secret art

By turning o’er authorities, I have,

Together with my practice, made familiar

To me and to my aid the blest infusions

That dwells in vegetives, in metals, stones…

Through an Oxfordian lens The Tempest probably originated in the bleak period during Christmas 1580 to June 1583, when the Queen had banished Oxford from Court and he suffered from exile (unfairly, the way Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, suffers in the play).  But Oxford would have revised and added scenes over the next two decades, especially near the end of his life in 1604, when the greatest writer of the English language makes his final exit through Prospero — begging us to forgive him for his faults, to pray for him and to set him free from the prison of his coming oblivion:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own…

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.

Ongoing Work on “The Tempest” by Lynne Kositsky and Dr. Roger Stritmatter

It’s long past time for this blog to direct readers to the website of Dr. Roger Stritmatter and his colleague Lynne Kositsky — SHAKESPEARESTEMPEST.COM, with links to five articles on various aspects of Tempest sources, chronology, and literary themes, as follows:

From page 1 (after the introductory matter) of the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623 -- with some markings added later

O Brave New World: The Tempest and Peter Martyr’s De Orbe Novo.”  Critical Survey 21:2 (fall 2009), 7-42.

Pale as Death: The Fictionalizing Influence of Erasmus’ ‘Naufragium’ on the Renaissance Travel Narrative.” Festschrift in Honor of Isabel Holden,  fall 2008, Concordia University, 141-151.

The Spanish Maze and the Date of The Tempest.”  The Oxfordian, fall 2007, 1-11.

Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited.”  The Review of English Studies, September, 2007 (published online June, 2007), 447-472.

How Shakespeare Got His Tempest:  Another “Just So” Story,” Brief Chronicles I(2009), 205-266, print edition.

There’s much more on their site and I recommend that readers keep in touch with it as they continue to develop this important story.


Report on a Panel to Discuss “Anonymous” the Movie

Here’s my report on the panel discussion following a preview of ANONYMOUS last Saturday at the Chelsea 9 Theater in New York, sponsored by the Media Educators Association.

John T. Yurko, director of the group and chairman of the Communication Arts Department at Caldwell College, NJ, did a great job leading a question-answer session; and I was grateful to be on the panel with English professor Dr. Mary Lindroth and History & Political Science professor Dr. Ben Lammers, both from Caldwell, who made important contributions.   This account covers only some of the topics and it’s by no means intended to be complete.

First of all the audience seemed to really like the movie.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop as all attention was focused on the screen; and that alone is a great achievement on the part of screenwriter John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich, along with the cast and crew.

HISTORY OR FICTION:  How much true history is in the film?  I answered that the major characters and their relationships, along with major plot points, are most certainly real.  As an example I pointed out that in the movie there’s a performance of Richard III just before the abortive Essex Rebellion of 8 February 1601, when in fact the conspirators had gotten the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to play Richard II at the Globe.

Sir Robert Cecil, Principal Secretary

But the purpose in real history was the same – to signal an attempt to remove Secretary Robert Cecil from his control over the aging Queen Elizabeth I and persuade her to name an heir to the throne or, at the least, call a Parliament on the matter of succession.  The movie’s choice of Richard III instead of Richard II was to use the more dastardly king, depicted by Shakespeare as a hunchback, to remind the Globe audience of the hunchbacked Cecil; otherwise, the basic point is that a play by “Shakespeare” was definitely used for a political purpose — something that traditional teachings of Shakespearean history have tended to underplay or even to forget.

OTHER CANDIDATES: There was a question about authorship candidates other than Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford, as depicted in the film.  I answered that in my view, if you look at Oxford’s biography it becomes very difficult to walk away.  Why do our teachers and students know so little about this pivotal figure within the English renaissance of literature and drama during the 1580’s?  Why do they usually neglect the crucial history leading to the sudden appearance of “Shakespeare” in 1593?  How come they seldom try to explain the great author’s full-blown maturity as exhibited by that highly cultured, sophisticated narrative poem, Venus and Adonis?  Was it a miracle?

SHAKESPEARE (OR SHAKSPERE) THE ACTOR:  Does the movie go too far in terms of making the Stratford man pretty much a buffoon?  Maybe so, I said, pointing out that in the “Oxfordian” community we’re still grappling with the question of what role that William Shakspere actually played, if in fact Edward de Vere was the true author.  My own feeling is that the Stratford man was never running around London claiming to be “Shakespeare” the poet-playwright.  In other words, I do not believe he was ever an active “front man” for the Earl of Oxford.

SHAKESPEARE’S PHYSICAL APPEARANCE:  In response to another question, I replied that the engraving in the First Folio, by Martin Droeshout, is the most “accurate” portrait the Stratfordians have – but, of course, the engraving is pretty much a cartoon.  You can see it’s a mask.

The Droeshout Engraving - 1623

THE TEMPEST:  One person asked how Oxford could have written The Tempest, since he died in 1604 and the play was written in 1611.  I asked:  “How do you know it was written then?”  He replied:  “Well, everybody says so.”  I think it was written much earlier than 1604; I also think, as some others do, that it was performed in 1604 for King James under the title The Spanish Maze.  (See some of the great work on the dating of The Tempest that’s being done by Dr. Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky.)

COLLABORATORS:  Someone wanted to know how all those “collaborations” could have taken place after 1604 if Oxford was dead by then.  I replied that other writers may have worked on some of the plays precisely because the author was no longer alive.  Of the thirty-six plays to appear in the First Folio of 1623, seven years after Will of Stratford’s death, exactly eighteen or half of them had never been printed before.  Why not?  And why would the living Shakespeare have needed any collaborators in the first place?

There were more questions and answers, of course; overall I felt a genuinely positive atmosphere and interest in learning more.  I tried to emphasize that one thing at stake is our understanding of the “creative process” itself and how we teach young people about it.

Are we teaching them that, because Shakespeare was such a great “genius” (which I’m sure he was), he had no need to draw upon any life experience and apprenticeship?  I suggested that, as the author Charles Beauclerk has said, imagination is being confused with fantasy; that is, the imagination used by Shakespeare must have required much more than fantasizing; on the contrary, it must have required a transmutation of many elements of learning and living and hard work.  And that’s what we need to tell those who represent our potential poets, novelists, playwrights and writers of the future.

I sense a new energy on its way, a new enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for literature, for theater, for film, for art  itself – all to replace the dull stuff that has “turned off” so many in previous generations.  A great dam is about to burst open; a great flood of new exploration and discovery is about to begin.

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