Chapter 20

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Twenty


IN 1579, a diatribe against the stage of the day, called School of Abuse, was published by Stephen Gosson; but the writer made exception of two plays he had just seen at the Bull. One was called Ptolome and the other The Jew. For both of these he had praise:

These playes are good playes and sweete playes, and of all playes the best playes, and most liked, worthy to be soung of the Muses, or set out with the cunning of Roscius him self, yet they are not fit for every mans dyet. [Then after a passage of philosophizing he adds:] I speak not this to prefer Botley to Oxeford, a cottage of clownes before a colledge of Muses, Pans pipe before Apollo’s harp.

It would be interesting to know whether Ptolome might not have been a simple version of Anthony and Cleopatra; The Jew must surely have been the original draft of The Merchant of Venice being tried out before its presentation at court; because Gosson says that “it represented the greediness of worldly chusers, and bloody minds of usurers,” and also because the play in its later form ties in with so much that was happening at that time.

The suit of Alençon for the Queen’s hand was being actively pressed. He was merely the last in a long line of European princes beginning with Ivan the Terrible who had sought a match with the Queen of England. Hume states that “every marriageable prince in Christendom had, in his turn, been suggested as a suitor for Elizabeth’s hand.” (1)

Although Portia lived at Belmont, some distance inland from Venice, one of her suitors describes Elizabeth’s country when he says (II.7.39-47):

From the four corners of the earth they come,
. . . to . . . view fair Portia:
The watery kingdom whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As o’er a brook, to see fair Portia.

It is a striking circumstance that less than three weeks after a court performance—on February 24, 1580—Mendoza made the following report to his government: “. . . being alone in her chamber with Cecil and the Archbishop of York, whom she considers a very clever man, she [Queen Elizabeth] said, ‘My Lord, here I am between Scylla and Charybdis. Alençon 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 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?’ “ (2)

Could she have had the simile suggested to her by Launcelot’s speech (III.5.14-6), or was he paraphrasing hers?—

. . . thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother: well, you are gone both ways.

She seems to have felt that she too was “gone both ways.”

For the casket-motif Lord Oxford adapted an old story which had been told often and in various forms; but it is significant that he made the metal of the three caskets correspond to that of the three crowns of England: silver, gold, lead, for the French, the Irish, and the English kingdoms. Il Schifanoya’s description of the coronation of Elizabeth says:

The orb was carried by the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Marshal, and in advance were knights clad in the ducal fashion, carrying the three crowns, they being the King-at-arms; they bore the three sceptres, with their crowns of iron, of silver, and of gold on their heads, and in their hands three naked swords, signifying the three titles of England, France, and Ireland.

Portia was to be won by the man who chose the lead casket, because that symbolized the English crown. And she is identified as Elizabeth in her speech (I.2.12-24):

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree. . . . But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, 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.

Henry VIII’s provision in his “will” for Elizabeth’s marriage stipulated that

Our said daughter Elizabeth, after our decease, shall not marry, nor take any person to be her husband, without the assent and consent of the Privy-Councillors and others appointed by us to be of Council with our said dearest son, Prince Edward. (3)

Thus the daughter’s will was curbed by the will of her dead father. Portia’s other remark on this subject is thoroughly characteristic of Elizabeth (I.2.104-6):

Portia. 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.

Moreover, the quoting of proverbs like those in the first of these speeches was typical of the Queen.

Further marks of identification are the following:

Portia. You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian; and you will come into the court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English. (I.2.66-70.)

Which recalls Elizabeth’s statement that when she came to the throne, she spoke six languages better than her own; and these included Latin, French, and Italian.

Bassanio. The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
A golden mesh to entrap the hearts of men
Faster than gnats in cobwebs. (III.2.121-3.)

This a tribute to Elizabeth’s red-gold hair; while another tribute that would have pleased the Queen was Bellario’s letter in praise of Portia’s learning—

the greatness of which I cannot enough commend. (IV.1.157.)

Surely there was never a more flattering portrait offered a woman, even a doting sovereign, than this of Portia for Elizabeth of England.

Oxford had without doubt been brooding uneasily about the outcome of his investments, as Antonio does at the beginning of the play:

Antonio. In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.

Antonio seems to us one of the loneliest of all the characters of the dramas. He has the kind of forsakenness that Timon feels when disillusioned by the desertion of his self-seeking friends, though the older man is less bitter, more resigned. He is distinguished by a melancholy thoughtful dignity and tenderness characteristic of the poet in his maturity, the poet of the Sonnets. The Antonio of Twelfth Night is the same man.

In the play, as we have it today, Bassanio stands for, and was probably acted in private theatres by, the Fair Youth. But Portia’s words to Bassanio, as he goes to make his choice of the right casket, were written in compliment to the current suitor, Hercule-François Alençon, ostensibly, although there is a veiled allusion here to a former exchange of rings between Oxford himself and the Queen.

These points show the English-French aspect of the play and also fix the date of the early version—or rather, serve to identify it as the one Gosson called The Jew, which seems to have appeared at court at this same time under the title recorded as Portio and demorantes. (4) But there is the customary dramatization of Lord Oxford’s own personal situation, while the ideology that forms the substructure of the play and explains Shylock’s being called a Jew, is of far-reaching significance.

This is an amazingly ingenious and complex affair. The author employed a technique which was not only a regular practice of the sixteenth century, but was in his hands especially subtle and powerful, a method that accounts for the heroic scale upon which his great characters exist and for the clear-cut identity of even his minor ones. He starts from a type and a truth; then he individualizes the type and illuminates the truth.

Lilian Winstanley has observed that his “greatest figures are as essentially superhuman as the sibyls and prophets of Michael Angelo: all the elements are human, but there is something in the total effect that is more than humanity.” She is the only writer we know who has even begun to realize why this dramatist’s work is at once so powerful and so universal, why, aside from its moral and poetic beauty, it has kept its deep and abiding appeal. As she points out:

Carlyle said, “In Dante thirteen silent centuries find a voice.” The truth is that Homer is not a man but . . . a whole glorious and noble era of the human spirit which, without him, would have sunk into oblivion. . . . Dante, also, is not a man, but an era. . . . It is the same with Shakespeare; he is not only a man, he is an era of the human spirit; there is a sense . . . in which the whole of the sixteenth century and every country in Europe have helped to write his plays. (5)

That this brilliant student of the sixteenth century has been almost completely ignored is one more regrettable evidence of the inertia of scholars. She has shown, as no one else has done, how the psychology of the Elizabethans and their European contemporaries differed from ours and how this difference must be considered in any informed and adequate interpretation of their work. Like countless other students, she was seriously handicapped by supposing “Shakespeare” to have written nearly twenty years later than he did, but one can feel her chafing at the restrictions and puzzled by the discrepancies inherent in this belief. We are indebted to her scholarship and to her studies for our understanding, so far as it goes, of the epic quality which gives to the dramas of the great poet of the English Renaissance their vital force and range.

Miss Winstanley makes the important point that sixteenth-century writers nearly always started from the type, not from the individual. This was of course the method of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It was the method of the Earl of Oxford in his more serious work: scholar that he was, he was writing in the great tradition, and lesser writers of the time took their cue—or it would be more accurate to say, learned their art—from him.

It has been said of the works of the great Greek trio:

The problem of apprehending and fully understanding the dramas is therefore not a simple one, since they cannot be divorced completely from the epic, lyric, and dramatic tradition which precedes them. . . .

The creative literary activity of this epoch likewise betokens on the part of the Greeks an increasingly higher level of self-understanding and self-consciousness, in the best sense of the word. (6)

These very words might have been written about the work of the great Elizabethan dramatist. He cannot be divorced from the tradition in which he wrote, and he belonged, as his Greek predecessors did, to the golden age of his country, which saw the awakening and the flowering of the individual, the attainment of “a higher level of self-understanding and self-consciousness.” Therefore, it can be said of his work, as Mr. Oates says of that of the Greek dramatists, “The problem of apprehending and understanding the dramas is not a simple one.”

First of all, it must be remembered that in the formative years of his life the young Edward de Vere had been accustomed to see performances of Miracle and Morality plays, in his own home and also in the homes of his relatives and friends. Indeed, it had been only recently that the earlier species had given way to the latter in what Symonds calls the passage of the Drama toward liberty.

Allegory and personification [he declares] supplied the necessary intermediate form. We have only to remember what a commanding part was played by Allegory through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries all over Europe—in the Divine Comedy of Dante, in Giotto’s painting and Orcagna’s sculpture, in the French Romance of the Rose, in the mysticism of the German Parzival, in the Vision of our English Ploughman—in order to comprehend why . . . the type determined by it for the drama was not then without attraction. . . . It is our duty, if we care to understand the last phase of medieval culture, to throw ourselves back into the mental condition of men who demanded that abstractions be clothed for them by art in visible shapes . . . men who delighted in the ingenuity and grotesquery of what to us is little better than a system of illustrated conundrums . . . men who naturally thought their deepest thoughts out into tangibilities by means of allegorical mythology. (7)

Consideration must be given to the notable features of the time in which Lord Oxford wrote, for this, too, constitutes a salient aspect of his tradition. The symbol, the myth, had a tremendous power over the Elizabethan mind and over the minds of their European contemporaries; it was utilized extravagantly in political pamphlets which were published in the different countries, immediately translated into other languages, widely disseminated and read. These pamphlets were in many respects like our more lurid newspapers today; although they were intensely serious and pitched on a higher plane, they were sensational, they dramatized important issues, and they served to give the literate man a vivid conception of international questions.

Political pamphlets emanating from the Low Countries but translated into English, French, Italian, and Spanish, thus spreading all over Europe, depicted the Duke of Alva, Philip II’s representative in the Netherlands, as a usurer, a Jew, hard of heart, who mutilated and set a price upon living flesh and blood. It was his cruelty in exacting taxes from the people of the Netherlands which gave him the name of “usurer.” Later these things were said of Philip as well.

Certain modern historians, among them H. Forneron, author of Philip II of Spain, support the belief that there is a valid ethnological basis for holding the common people of Castile to be, to a large extent, of Jewish or Moorish origin. Miss Winstanley states that this was emphatically the belief of the people of the sixteenth century. They “considered the Castilians to be of Moorish and Jewish blood, not Europeans, and regularly represented them as such.” (8) She adds that Spain is personified in the pamphlets as a Jew or a Moor “not once but hundreds and hundreds of times.” William the Silent in his reply to the accusations brought against him by Philip called the Spanish King “an enemy of Christendom.”

The Earl of Oxford, although far in advance of his time, nevertheless had his roots in his time: its idolum was perforce his own, for we all share in the psychological pattern of our own era. In The Merchant of Venice he was giving a symbolic “chronicle of the time,” as well as telling, as usual, his own story. Whether he started with the symbol and immediately grasped its application to his own situation, or whether it was the other way round, it is fruitless to guess. But given his electric perception and keen apprehension of all the analogies implicit in the situation—for he not only punned with words, he punned with concepts and ideas too—he must have seen in a flash that the symbol of the Spaniard, or Jew, who was a usurer, who was striving to maintain a close grip upon his daughter, the Netherlands, shutting her away from outside influences and keeping her for his own purposes, embraced Burghley, a money-lover, a confirmed usurer, abnormally possessive toward his daughter, Anne. We shall not go into all the historical parallels here, but it is significant that Portia, who stands for Elizabeth, was a friend to Lorenzo and to Jessica, whom he rescued from the stern, possessive father; and that thus, in one aspect of the story, Jessica is Flanders, Lorenzo another presentment of Alençon, whose efforts to save the Low Countries from Spanish domination Elizabeth was supporting. Tubal’s remark (III.1.115-16),

One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey,

has some esoteric reference to the exchange of rings between Elizabeth and Alençon, and to Simier, whom Elizabeth called her monkey, or ape, and who had accompanied Alençon to Flanders.

It is noteworthy in this connection that Queen Elizabeth, in a proclamation issued in 1586, declared that England and the Low Countries had been “man and wife for centuries.” So here we have another cue. This is the way the sixteenth-century mind worked. We shall never really understand and intelligently appreciate the great Elizabethan dramas if we ignore such a salient fact. (9) (Incidentally, we shall never understand “Shakespeare” if we do not recognize his intimate relationship with the Queen and his concern for her problems.)

One reason why it is important to bear in mind the underlying symbolic design of The Merchant of Venice is that it to some extent exonerates Oxford from planning the action simply to show Burghley as he was. In a short time he will be stating, in the person of Jaques, the dramatist’s position regarding the personal application of stage-characters:

Why, who cries out on pride,
That can therein tax any private party?
Doth it not flow as hugely as the sea,
Till that the weary very means do ebb?
What woman in the city do I name,
When that I say the city-woman bears
The cost of princes on unworthy shoulders?
Who can come in and say that I mean her,
When such a one as she, such is her neighbour?
Or what is he of basest function,
That says his bravery is not on my cost,—
Thinking that I mean him,—but therein suits
His folly to the mettle of my speech?
There then; how then? what then? Let me see wherein
My tongue hath wrong’d him: if it do him right,
Then he hath wrong’d himself: if he be free,
Why then, my taxing like a wild goose flies,
Unclaim’d of any man. (A.Y.L.I.: II.7.70-87.)

If the shoe pinched, tant pis. If Burghley was a usurer, he had “wronged himself”; it was not the playwright who had wronged him. However, for every person who saw in Shylock a portrayal of Burghley, there were many hundreds who passionately responded to him as an embodiment of Spain, or of King Philip, who, they knew, wished to keep a hold on the Low Countries and then to conquer England. The fact that Burghley’s policy was always to placate Spain made his characterization as a Jew—i.e., a Spaniard, or Spain herself— all the more fitting. But there again, it was he who “wronged himself” in this, not the dramatist.

Now, revenons à nos moutons.

Oxford was still smarting from his father-in-law’s withholding of funds needed for his expenses during his travels. He had evidently gone into the matter somewhat thoroughly and seen what the Fox had been up to for years past. He despised the type of man who regarded money itself as more important than the uses to which its possessor wished to put it and even than human sympathy or human life. Oxford seems to have experienced a spasm of revulsion against his father-in-law’s mercenary meanness, which his own recent losses at sea, through the cupidity of another money-coveting villain, a sly, “shy” man named Lok, or Lock, had made more bitter. From time to time the Earl owed debts to the Court of Wards, and Burghley may have been pressing for payment. It is quite likely that Elizabeth’s gift of the Manor of Rysing at this juncture had been made partly to see him through such a crisis, for Portia offers generously to pay Antonio’s indebtedness doubly or triply. Since at this time Oxford was still Elizabeth’s prime favorite and as much beloved of her as anyone had ever been, Portia’s lines are significant (III.4.19-21):

How little is the Cost I have bestow’d
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish cruelty!

Oxford had already suspected Burghley of having something to do with the attack by pirates on his ship in the Channel when he was returning home—an act it is suggested Shylock may have thought of duplicating. This attack is glanced at in Salarino’s speech to Salanio, who are, incidentally, Oxford’s “lewd”—or in French, “sale,” pronounced “sal”—friends. Sale friends to E.O.

Salanio. Marry, well remembered.
I reason’d with a Frenchman yesterday,
Who told me—in the narrow seas that part
The French and English,—there miscarried
A vessel of our country richly fraught.
I thought upon Antonio when he told me,
And wish’d in silence that it were not his. (II.8.26-32.)

And Shylock says (I.3.21 et seq.):

But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land-rats and water-rats, land-thieves and water-thieves,—I mean pirates,—and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks. . . .

He catalogues the dangers with relish. Burghley made lists and catalogues of everything; he kept long memoranda in which various aspects of problems were set forth. It would have been to his interest to have had Oxford wrecked at sea.

The historical symbol which caused Shylock to be a Jew—as it will later cause Othello to be a Moor—gave Oxford two advantages. One was the disguise thus provided, for Burghley made a great show being a Christian; the other was the opportunity afforded to satirize the arch-hypocrite’s display of piety in quoting from the Scriptures. In the story from Il Pecorone, upon certain features of which The Merchant is based, the money-lender is a Jew; and this bolstered the characterization. It may be that the tragic fate meted out to Shylock, which always strikes one as excessively unjust, had reference to the crime of Dr. Lopez, who was executed on June 7, 1594, for having plotted to poison the Queen, this belonging to a contemporaneous revision. But a marked disguise was essential here. Undoubtedly Lok himself had some of Shylock’s traits; even so, informed persons would have recognized this portrait of a man who was at once bold and cringing; who spoke so passionately of “my daughter and my ducats” and so devoutly of “my sober house”; a man who had precepts for thrift, such as

“Fast bind, fast find,”
A proverb never stale in thrifty mind (II.5.54-5);

a man whom the many victims of his “racks and gibbets” knew to be

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy. (IV.1.4-6.)

In the Lorenzo-Jessica love-scenes Oxford shows how tenderly he had felt toward Anne when he had taken her away from her father’s house, just as his letters to Burghley, written soon after his marriage, “from my country Muses of Wivenhoe” indicate that he did feel. Lorenzo playfully calls Jessica “little shrew.” He now seems to be reflecting that if he had kept her away, their love might have continued; and this heightens the resentment already seething in his mind against Burghley, who had used his daughter to entrap his wealthy ward.

One of the things the Earl had held against the Lord Treasurer was that he had made the allegations of Anne’s unfaithfulness “the fable of the world,” when the matter could have been discussed and resolved privately. And he has Shylock crying “in the streets”:

My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! . . . (II.8.15-22.)

The scenes presenting Antonio vis-à-vis Shylock, in which the distinction is made between the Christian and the Jew, are merely intended to point the contrast between Oxford’s attitude about money—which happened to be in line with the Christian precept of taking no thought for the morrow, although its motivation was not religious but aristocratic in his case—and Burghley’s antipodal point of view, that of the peasant or of the self-made man. Oxford, like Timon, supported artists and writers, to the Lord Treasurer’s intense disapproval. Hence Shylock (I.3.40-49):

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance
here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even where the merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift
Which he calls interest.

Oxford is more than once spoken of as “railing.” He evidently expressed himself freely at court against usury and other abominations. (The word “simplicity” is used in the same sense in Sonnet 66.)

Usury, condemned from the time of Aristotle, was “first openly permitted in England under Henry VIII.” Repealed under Edward VI, “when usury was declared to be ‘by the word of God utterly prohibited as a vice most odious and detestable,’ [it] was revived in 1571, shortly before Cecil was made Lord Treasurer.” And in 1597, the date given for the final revision of The Merchant of Venice (“We may be content with placing it conjecturally in 1596 or 1597,” says Dowden), “Cecil’s government passed an Act declaring usury to be ‘very necessary and profitable.’ ” (10)

Shylock. Methought you said you neither lend nor borrow
Upon advantage.
Antonio. I do never use it. (I.3.76-8.)


Shylock. Three thousand ducats; ’tis a good round sum.
Three months from twelve, then let me see the rate.
. . . . . . . …
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug. . . . (101-7.)

The young ward must many a time have heard Cecil compute interest as Shylock does and must have expressed shock and amazement at his “usances,” for though Burghley ostentatiously dispensed charity at his gates (a fact which he made sure was recorded), he ground down the unfortunate and waxed rich on the confiscation of church and other properties.

It is startling to be told that the gentle Antonio has “spet upon” Shylock and called him “dog,” until one reflects that since Burghley’s attitude had been represented by the “cynic,” or the “dog,” Apernantus, in Timon, Antonio-Oxford had figuratively done that very thing. Burghley might well have taken him to task for it, reminding him that this also has been “borne with a patient shrug.” If the Earl has “railed” at times, like Antonio he is unregenerate: he is utterly disgusted with the cynical, mercenary hypocrite. Burghley was of course humiliated by and thus doubly resentful of Oxford’s aristocratic point of view.

Antonio. I am as like to call thee so again.
. . . . . . . . . .

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends,—for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?—
But lend it rather to thine enemy

Shylock. Why, look you, how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love. . . . (128 et seq.)

Here we have Burghley to the life: placating, affecting amity, keeping everything smooth. His scorn for the help Oxford gave literary men is expressed again in Shylock’s words (III.3.2):

This is the fool that lent out money gratis.

The merchant’s statement must have been true of Oxford:

Antonio. I oft deliver’d from his forfeitures
Many that have at times made moan to me;
Therefore he hates me. (22-4.)

The Earl states his own philosophy in Arragon’s speech (II.9.41 et seq.):

O! that estates, degrees, and offices
Were not deriv’d corruptly, and that clear honour
Were purchas’d by the merit of the wearer. . . .

Jessica speaks truly of Burghley when she says of Shylock (III.2.285-91):

When I was with him, I have heard him swear
. . . . . . . . .
That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him; and I know, my lord,
If law, authority, and power deny not,
It will go hard with poor Antonio.

Oxford knew whereof he wrote. It has, even to this day, “gone hard with” him. Bassanio puts the final word upon the Cecil-Vere relationship (IV.1.21 1-12):

If this will not suffice, it must appear
That malice bears down truth.

In the matter of Shylock’s reference to his “Jewish gaberdine” (I.3.110), it is interesting to note that while the Lord Treasurer did wear a long gaberdine cloak, Venetian Jews, according to Phillips, wore no such garment at this time. And in the same connection, Shylock’s oath, “By Jacob’s staff I swear” (II.5.36), seems to pertain directly to Burghley, who is usually pictured with his long staff. (11)

From many passages relating to Shylock, it is evident that the dramatist had been looking through his Bible. This would have reminded him that Antonio’s attitude toward debtors was in line with the Christian precept as opposed to the old Hebrew lex talionis.

During the reign of Mary Tudor, Cecil had always ostentatiously carried a “great pair of beads” (the word “ostent” is used twice in this play, as though Burghley’s outward seeming was present in Oxford’s mind while he was penetrating beneath it), but now he kept a prayer-book in his pocket, “larded his speech and writing with pious cant, and made a great show of religious observance in his stately homes.” (12) It is told of him how, in a conversation with Essex, he drew out his prayer-book and pointed to the verse, “Blood-thirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days.”

Gratiano describes him realistically (II.2.189-96):

If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer-books in my pocket,
look demurely,
Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sigh, and say “amen”:
Use all the observance of civility,
Like one well-studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam, never trust me more.

In spite of his surface piety, Burghley sometimes swore terrible oaths, but he made a practice of having religious exercises at home, such as prayers, and grace before meals.

Shylock is called a devil by almost every prominent character in The Merchant of Venice; and this adds point to Antonio’s lines (I.3.96-100):

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

Burghley would never put up with idleness. Thus Shylock:

Let not the sounds of shallow foppery enter
My sober house (II.5.35-6);

and, of Launcelot—or Lancelet, as he appears in the Folio—who is the comedic side of Oxford, as he was when a Royal Ward:

The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder;
Snail-slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wild cat: drones hive not with me. (46-8.)

Since Launcelot also represents the bohemian side of Oxford, Shylock’s scorn of him as an outcast—”that fool of Hagar’s offspring” (II.5.44)—refers to his fall from his high estate to the world of the theatre. (13)

When Shylock stresses the seemingly irrelevant statement that Jacob (the supplanter) was “the third possessor,” the implication, says Phillips, “must be that Burghley, who could count no further back than his grandfather, David, founder of the family fortune, was also “the third possessor.”

When Jacob graz’d his uncle Laban’s sheep,—
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
And his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor, ay, he was the third. (I.3.69-72.)

Phillips makes the point that Jacob’s wife, Leah, was substituted for Rachel by a trick of Laban (Genesis XXXIX.16-30). Therefore Shy-lock says (III.1.117-19):

Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. . . .

(We may have here another allusion to the trick Burghley is reported to have played on Oxford, of substituting Anne for a woman with whom he had a rendezvous.)

Gen. XXVII.36: And he said, Is he not rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.

Phillips adds that Shylock, in calling Portia “a Daniel come to judgment,” is no doubt prompted by the name she had assumed, Balthazar, because the Book of Genesis says: “. . . Daniel came in before me, whose name is Baltassar.” (14)

Interesting for our thesis is the fact that the learned doctor, Bellario, who was supposed to have sent the young judge to Venice to try the case, had his exact prototype in a professor at the University of Padua during the latter half of the sixteenth century, a man whom the Earl of Oxford would have arranged to meet while there, as he had met and conversed with Sturmius in Germany. (15)

To return for a moment to Launcelot: Lorenzo, who is (in the non-historical aspect of the play) merely another representation of the young Oxford—the lover—accuses him of getting “the Moor” with child. (III.5.35 et seq.) If Anne Vavasor, the “dark wanton,” is referred to thus cryptically here, this was true in the latter part of 1580, and the passage would have been added later. Launcelot’s reply is replete with puns, and Lorenzo comments:

How every fool can play upon the word! (41.)

And further:

The fool hath planted in his memory
An army of good words: and I do know
A many fools that stand in better place,
Garnish’d like him, that for a tricksy word
Defy the matter (65-9);

which is substantially what Holofernes had said about Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is Oxford again mocking his own overweening tendency to word-play, soon after he has used the epithet, “the Moor.” Of course we could have no better witness for our case.

There are innumerable pointed allusions throughout The Merchant of Venice. Of the remainder we shall touch only upon those which require little elaboration.

Two speeches placed in sequence (I.1.77 et seq.) express the contradictory sides of the poet’s nature, which combined the brooding melancholy of Antonio with Gratiano’s talkative gaiety. (There were “two gentlemen” embodied in this one Ver.)

Antonio. I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

Gratiano. Let me play the fool:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man, whose blood is warm within,
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
Sleep when he wakes, and creep into the jaundice
By being peevish?

The figure of Lord Oxford’s “grandsire,” the Fifteenth Earl, was actually “cut in alabaster” in the family tomb at Castle Hedingham,where the young scion of the Veres had been familiar with it throughout childhood.

All the suitors catalogued by Nerissa (I.2.38 et seq.) can be identified with their historic prototypes. Three must suffice for mention here. (16)

Nerissa. First there is the Neapolitan prince.
Portia. Ay, that’s a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation of his own good parts that he can shoe him himself. I am afraid my lady his mother played false with a smith.

This witticism would have amused the court in the late 1570’s, for the reference was to Don John of Austria, natural brother of Philip of Spain, who was then King of Naples. From the naval base at Naples Don John had won the battle of Lepanto; he was made Military Governor of the Netherlands in November 1576. Don John’s mother was a woman of low origin named Barbara Blomberg, and his reputed father was Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire. Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic states that

through the country round there was none who could break a lance or ride at the ring like him, and in taming unmanageable horses he was celebrated for his audacity. [His mother lived in the Netherlands until Don John arrived there, when] by his persuasion or commands she was induced to accept exile, but revenged herself by asserting that he was quite mistaken in supposing himself to be the Emperor’s child.

Nerissa. How say you by the French lord, Monsieur Le Bon?

Portia. God made him and therefore let him pass for a man . . . he is every man in no man; if a throstle sings he falls straight a-capering.

Before he attained to his title, Alençon has been known as “Monsieur.” He was small in stature and, as we have said, repulsively ugly, with a red bulbous nose and pock-marked bumpy complexion. According to Admiral Holland, the French word for “throstle”—which was “trassel” in the First Folio—is “mauvis.” (The English mavis is a kind of thrush.) Alençon was reputed to dance to whatever tune the Ambassador, Mauvissière, played for him. Of course, in the 1579 version of the play, Portia would not have been so outspoken about her suitor, for at that time Alençon was represented by the successful Bassanio.

Nerissa. How like you the young German, the Duke of Saxony’s nephew?

Portia. Very vilely in the morning when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk. . . . I pray thee, set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket. . . .

The reference here is to John Casimir, himself a Palatine of the Rhine and a son-in-law of the Duke of Saxony. Motley wrote, apropos of Alençon and Casimir—and strikingly enough, using the same symbolism we have mentioned—that “of the high-born suitors for the Netherland bride two were still watching each other with jealous eyes”; and while nothing is said directly about Casimir’s excessive drinking, the Marquis Havre recorded of his troops that “Their outrages are most execrable, they demand the most exquisite food, and drink champagne and burgundy by the bucketful.”

And so on with the others, Portia’s description of each of whom would have delighted the sophisticated audience at court.

During the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign the rack was seldom used, but toward the close of 1577 the Attorney General was directed to examine Thomas Sherwood on the rack, and thereafter it was resorted to more frequently.

Bassanio. Let me choose;
For as I am, I live upon the rack.
Portia. Upon the rack, Bassanio! then confess
What treason there is mingled with thy love. (III.2.24-7.)

Southampton, who became, to some extent, the Bassanio of the play in the latter 1590’s, joined Essex in a conspiracy in 1601. Oxford must have augmented this passage at that time in such a way as to suggest his treason in aspiring to the leaden casket, which represented the crown of England.

Not without a thrill does one read the two speeches of Bassanio describing the dazed excitement of the winner of a prize at the tourney, when one realizes that it is the author’s own experience as champion of famous jousts:

Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he has done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether these peals of praise be his or no. . . (III.2.141-5.)


As after some oration fairly spoke
By a beloved prince
, there doth appear
Among the buzzing, pleased multitude,
Where every something, being blent together,
Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy,
Express’d and not express’d. (III.2.179-83.)

The latter passage certainly alludes to the speech Elizabeth made upon delivering a prize to Oxford for his championship, whether in the 1571 tournament or the next, in 1581.

The love of music expressed by Lorenzo is the poet’s own feeling, and part of Lorenzo’s speech (V.1.54 et seq.) is related to a passage in The Courtier, to which Oxford had written the eloquent Latin preface, though his poetry and his thought are more vivid and beautiful than anything Castiglione has to offer.

Numerous commentators have admitted, in a perplexity mingled with dismay, that no one, even under the inspiration of transcendant genius, could have conveyed the atmosphere, the essence, of Italy as this dramatist has done without having been there. They have said that only a poet who had experienced the magic of an Italian night could have written Lorenzo’s exquisite lines in Act V, and further, that only a man who had actually visited such a splendid summer residence as Portia’s in Belmont, in its setting of well-kept gardens and treasures of art, could have described the place. It is quite different from the locale of Il Pecorone. (Montebello— Belmont—by the way, is in northwest Italy, not far from Genoa, Allessandria, and Montferrat, the Marquis of Montferrat being mentioned by Nerissa— I.2.112.) What these commentators regard, however, as the Italian temperament of the characters would seem to us to be rather the Renaissance temperament, the verve, the bloom, enhancing the personalities of that age whether in England or Italy; and we agree with Coleridge that the characters of the dramas are all essentially English.

Although many believers in the power of genius to know without learning and to apprehend without ever having experienced, will scoff at these assertions, surely no one will claim that the author could have dreamed the exact and detailed information he displays without having known Venice well. For instance, when Portia instructs her messenger (III.4.52-4) to

Bring them, I pray thee, with imagin’d speed
Unto the traject, to the common ferry
Which trades to Venice,

her reference is to the traghetto which crosses the laguna morta and goes up the Grand Canal to the Rialto. In that day, the ferry was at Fusine, at the mouth of the Brenta. The dramatist also knows that the exchange “where merchants most do congregate” is the Isola di Rialto, not confusing it with the Ponte di Rialto. And he would have seen the stone figure on the Isola di Rialto called Gobbo di Rialto supporting a granite pillar from which were proclaimed the laws of the Republic. (17) This is especially pointed in view of the fact that Venetian law is a striking feature of the play.

All of which brings us with not a few skips and jumps to Gobbo, the sand-blind father who did not know his own child, Lancelet, or Little Spear, now that he had become “Master” Lancelet, and their common recollection of the boy’s mother, Margery. (Oxford’s mother’s name was Margaret.) This scene, which concerns the concealed authorship, will be discussed in a subsequent chapter. Suffice it to say here that in 1581 Lord Oxford was accused of necromancy, doubtless to his secret glee, because he stated that his long-dead stepfather, Tyrrell, had “appeared to him with a whip, which had made a better show in the hand of a carman than of Hob-Goblin.” (18) The central letters of Hob-Goblin may have aroused in a mind always alert for verbal similarities a memory of the Venetian figure, Gobbo; and what could have been more appropriate than a Venetian name for his fantastic doppelganger?

Oxford seems to have included everything reprehensible about Burghley in this play, even his aversion from music and the arts; for it is once more to the self-righteous Lord Treasurer, the man who would have drained the poet’s life-blood for his own aggrandizement, that he refers in the famous lines (V.1.83-8):

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.

The last line but one embodied the Earl’s lurking suspicion which was never, apparently, to be dissipated.

Lord Oxford’s loathing of all that Burghley stood for is that of uncompromising, idealistic youth betrayed by meanness and hypocrisy. He shows here his almost medieval impulse for revenge, to which he admitted in the early poem, Revenge of Wrong, signed Earle of Oxenforde:

No quiet sleep shall once possess mine eye
Till Wit have wrought his will on Injury.
My heart shall fail, and hand shall lose his force,
But some device shall pay Despite his due. . . .

This was precisely what he had done. He had used the only weapon he had, his rapier-wit, in this “device,” this play, to give his enemy his due. It would seem that, after having thus relieved his mind of its heavy knowledge and resentment of Burghley’s villainy, the Earl felt far more kindly toward him. Like Antonio, he was ready to say:

Hie thee, gentle Jew.
This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind. (I.3.175-6.)

However, it is not surprising that the Lord Treasurer himself neither experienced a similar katharsis nor entertained a similar faith in improved relations. On the contrary; although he seems to have managed to maintain a surface suavity, as he did with Leicester and others, Oxford was to portray him many more times—he could, in fact, never let this tantalizing devil alone—but not again as quite so malicious, though even here, such was the keenness of his perception and the potency of his art, he gave this one-idea’d, ambitious, ruthless worldling, albeit in disguise, the pathos of his limitations.

How, we should like to ask—if there had been no other play than this: no Love’s Labour’s Lost, no Romeo and Juliet, no Hamlet—how in heaven’s name could the eminent Shakespearean scholar, Halliwell-Phillips, have said that this dramatist’s “sole aim was to please an audience most of whom, be it remembered, were not only illiterate, but unable either to read or write”?

This was not true even of Ben Jonson, whose only eloquence and only grace were derived from a close imitation of Oxford’s work, which in his earliest plays he constantly paraphrased. One of his most literal parodies in Every Man Out of His Humour, which is a far from amiable satire upon the Earl of Oxford, his works, and the difficulties attendant upon his secret authorship, is based upon the pleasant foolery between Bassanio and Portia (V.1.192 et seq.):

Bassanio. Sweet Portia,
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring,
It would abate the strength of your displeasure. . . .

In E.M.O., Sordido, who is John Shaksper, has come by a so-called “Almanack,” which is actually Lord Oxford’s plays, the story—as Jonson never lets one forget—of his “very life,” and he is gloating over the prophecy of “great tempests of rain, thunder and lightning”— which are the terms in which Oxford always describes his personal disasters in the plays, as well as in letters. To point the mockery, Jonson throws in the words “never, very, true,” in the same way Oxford used them to indicate his own name throughout the dramas:

Sordido. . . . O good again, past expectation good!
I thank my blessed angel, never, never,
Laid I a penny better out than this,
To purchase this dear book: not dear for price,
And yet of me as dearly prized as life,
Since in it is contained the very life,
Blood, strength, and sinews of my happiness.
Blest be the hour wherein I bought this book,
His studies happy that composed the book,
And the man fortunate that sold the book!
Sleep with this charm, and be as true to me,
As I am joyed and confident in thee. (I.1.)

(Jonson habitually mimicked Oxford’s use of “dear,” in such phrases as “dear honour,” “dear perfection,” etc. Here he includes “sinews,” also in the Earl’s manner.)

This was many years later, but The Merchant of Venice was still drawing crowds at the theatres and some of the audience would recognize the parodies, while perhaps a select few would understand the allusion to the anonymous nobleman who could not openly claim his own plays even when they were being pirated, though he could sign them in his own way.


1. The Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 33.

2. Op. cit.; p. 226.

3. E.T.C.: Hidd. All.; p. 194. F. Chamberlin: Priv. Char, of Q. Eliz.; p. 8, n.

4. According to the Feuillerat Documents “shewen at whitehall on Candlemas daie at night enacted by the Lord Chamberleynes seruantes wholly furnished in this office. . . . ” Tuesday, Feb. 2, 1580.

5. Othello, as the Tragedy of Italy; p. 57.

6. Whitney J. Oates: General Intro, to The Complete Greek Drama; p. xiii.

7. Shakespeare’s Predecessors in the Eng. Drama; pp. 116-17.

8. Othello, as the Tragedy of Italy; p. 63.

9. The finest statement we have encountered of the use of symbolism in art, which was brought to a dazzling pitch of effectiveness in the great tragedies of Shakespeare, is the following:

“Goethe was at pains to clarify the significance of the symbol in art by distinguishing it from the allegory more precisely than the art criticism of the eighteenth century was wont to do . . . he established the fact that the allegorical points directly to the idea which is to be designated, the symbol indirectly.

“Goethe says that where something particular merely serves as an example of the general, the result is allegory; but . . . that whereas in the symbols of poetry something particular is expressed, it is done in such a way that the poet does not point to the universal. Without noticing it one becomes aware of the universal, the idea, if only one takes in the totality which the particular thing represents. Goethe thought that in this statement he had found the correct formula: in the symbol the idea and phenomena coincide and are grasped as one. But the idea retains something many-sided and mysterious. ‘The very finest symbols are those which allow a multiple interpretation, while the visible object portrayed always remains the same.’ The symbol has no meaning that could be abstracted from it it is ‘a picture assembled in the mirror of the mind, and yet identical with its object.’ In the allegory, on the other hand, the meaning is but externally combined with the picture and can he abstracted from it, as in a picture puzzle. The allegory turns a concept into a picture: there is no thought of ambiguity and mystery . . . one might even call [it] didactic, as an example of something universal. hut this universal idea can be expressed abstractly . . . . From Goethe the Thinker, by Karl Vietor; pp. 175.6.

10. This information from G. W. Phillips: Ld. B. in Sh.; p. 193.

11. Op. cit.; p. 191.

12. Op. cit.

13. It is of interest in the matter of Oxford’s use of symbolism and Biblical reference in this play that Philo Judaeus (B.C. 20), whom he would undoubtedly have read, had applied the principles of Plato’s philosophy to the literal text of the Hebrew Scriptures, deriving a philosophical meaning. We quote an illustration from Donaldson’s History of the Literature of Ancient Greece: “Sarah, who represents devotion, gives birth to Virtue; Hagar, who indicates learning, gives birth to the sophist. If Learning will not serve Virtue, what says the Scripture? ‘Cast forth the handmaiden and her son.'” The Scriptural account of the Fall is elucidated in this wise: “Eve is concupiscence connected with the heart of Adam. . . . The serpent is sensual pleasure. . . . ” Vol. II, pp. 175-6.

14. Ld. B. in Sh.; pp. 185-95.

15. Wm. H. Edwards (Shaksper Not Shakespeare; p. 237) speaks of this professor, quoting Lawrence Hatton, in Harper’s Magazine, July 1896, who in turn Cites F. K. Elze: “[The professor’s] characteristics fully and entirely correspond with the qualities of ‘old Bellario.'”

16. For much of this we are indebted to Holland: Sh., Ox., and Eliz. Times; pp. 14-18.

17. Sir George Greenwood, M.P.: The Shakespeare Problem Restated; pp. 116-17.

18. Percy Allen: The Life-Story, etc.; p. 136.

Contents | Chapter Twenty-One