Tales From The Dark Side – Of Oxfordian Scholarship

 Caliban = "In Cabal"?"Don Juan" in Hess    Bermoothes = "Biremis"? Sundry Oxfordian Myths    The Oxfordian Double Standard    Food for Thought


FAQ: Why do I pay attention to issues raised by controversialists? Because, I reply, they point to many things in Shakespeare scholarship that can use some pointing to: facts and topics that need more exploration, reappraisal, correction, or just a fresh look. Above all, they have, directly or indirectly, vastly expanded my view of the age that gave the world a Shakespeare, taking me beyond the specialization of Shakespearean studies. I have assiduously followed the advice of the noted philosopher and grammarian Lawrence Peter Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and in so doing I have been so consistently led into something of value that I can’t recall an exception to it offhand.

Until  I became the recipient of Prof. W. Ron Hess’s essay, “Tempest’s Red Herrings: Does ‘Bermoothes’ = Bermuda or ‘Caliban’ = Cannibal?’ … from his The Dark Side of Shakespeare trilogy” that is, customized for my scholarly pleasure. His hypothesis is that this play did not “originate” in 1610-11, as the Shakespearean chronology has it, but in 1576-77. The clues for this are in its author’s purported adversarial obsession with “Don Juan” of Austria (known to the rest of the English-speaking world as Don John), the illegitimate half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. What’s more, it shows the influence of a “fascination with the occult” (which, of course, Oxford had), reflected in the derivation of Caliban, Ariel and the Bermoothes. We are also treated to his scholarly insight into Gabriel Harvey’s “encomium” to Oxford, on Shakespearean scholarship in general, and in particular, the scholarship of this “orthodox Stratfordian.” (Is there another kind?) 

In order to understand Hess’s exertions, and why I give it so thorough a reply, a little history is in order. Oxfordian problems with The Tempest are founded in the work of their founder, J. Thomas Looney, who, in his book Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, said that “the greatest obstacle is that presented by one play, The Tempest” (429). Based on

its more modern character, and, what seems to us the less Elizabethan quality of its diction, it appears to justify the assumption that the work as a whole belongs to the date to which it has been assigned. . . . it appears, at first blush, as if “The Tempest” were threatening the shipwreck of all our hopes and labours in the cause of Shakespearean authorship [431].

Looney was not about to let this happen, needless to say, so the man who devised the “Ident-a-kit” that led him to Oxford as Shakespeare, set about fashioning a De-ident-a-kit” for this play to expunge it as Shakespeare’s work entirely. This includes its very un-Shakespearean “Negative philosophy” (434); “Muddled metaphysics” (436); “Un-Shakespearean details,” as well as “Without wit” (439); “Horsemanship” (Shakespeare used the word horse in one form or another nearly 300 times in his 36 other plays, he notes, “not one of which occurs in ‘The Tempest’ – the only play attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ of which this can be said.”) (444). But the coup de grace is the “Weak endings” (447). And thus what we have here is “Not Shakespeare’s work,” because “the absence of so many dominant marks of his work, along with the presence of several features which are quite contrary to his style, compels us to reject it” (452). Oxfordians have been trying to reclaim it ever since.


Now it must be explained why I have been singled out for the honor of getting a personalized essay from Prof. W. Ron Hess. He was on the Oxfordian panel, I on the Shakespearean, of a debate sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates on April 19, 2003, where the matter at issue originated. Let’s hear precisely what occurred that inspired Hess’s essay in his own words:

[O]rthodox Stratfordian scholar Irvin Matus announced [the] discovery of a pre-1610 instance of Bermuda described at “Bermoothes,” and he implied this somehow “proved” the date of Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest could not be earlier than 1610. Why 1610? Because that was the year William Strachey’s story of a shipwreck in Bermuda was available in manuscript…. So, Matus and his orthodox colleagues argue that Mr. Shakspere “must have” read from Strachey’s unpublished manuscript and then rushed to insert it into his play in time to have it’s [sic] first known performance at Court in 1611.

Hess either misheard what I did say, heard me say what I didn’t say, or is just putting words into my mouth. For instance, I did not say my discovery in itself “proved” anything except that there is a precursor to Bermoothes, whereas Oxfordians claim (in the words of one) “nowhere by anyone else were the Bermudas called the Bermooths [sic].” Furthermore, I can say with certainty that I never said the item in question is a “pre-1610 instance of Bermuda described at ‘Bermoothes’.” It was beyond doubt both written and published in 1610.

This work is called Newes from Virginia. The lost Flocke Triumphant, a sixteen-page poem that begins with an account of the wreck of the Virginia Company flagship Sea Venture in the Bermudas. Written by “R. Rich, Gent. One of the Voyage.” On the title page he announces the story he has to tell:

With the maner of their distresse in the Iland of Devils (otherwise called Bermoothawes) where they remained 42. weekes, & builded two Pynaces, in which they returned into Virginia.

This spelling of Bermoothes is repeated in a stanza of the poem:

The Seas did rage, the windes did blowe, / distressed were they then: Their Ship did leake, her tacklings breake, / in daunger were her men. But heaven was [Pilot] in this storme, / and to an Iland nere: Bermoothawes call’d, conducted then, / which did abate their feare.

The imprint of this book reads: “Printed by Edw[ard] Aldee, and are to be sold by John Wright at Christ-Church dore. 1610.” Beyond a doubt, both the book and its content dates to 1610.

Apart from this book and The Tempest, no other “Bermooth” spelling has been found. That the fate of the “lost Flocke” was of great current interest in 1610 is reflected in Rich’s epistle “To the Reader,” for he was aware of its commercial value: “I did fear prevention by some of your writers, if they should have gotten some part of the news by the tail.” In other words, he wanted to be the first to get the story of the wreck into print. Unfortunately, a longer more descriptive prose work by another of the voyage, Silvester Jourdain, called A Discovery of the Barmudas, was published in October 1610, about the same time as Rich’s, which has hitherto gotten all the glory of being a source for The Tempest.

It should also be noted that Strachey, he of the unpublished manuscript, was not merely telling some sundry “story of a shipwreck in Bermuda.” He was instead still another of the fated voyage of the Sea Venture, and his manuscript written in Virginia arrived in England in September 1610, on the same ship that carried Rich . Something that is usually mentioned in passing (if at all) in regard to this manuscript needs particular attention here. Strachey was the secretary of the Jamestown colony and appointed himself the task of being its “Remembrancer of all accidents, occurrences and undertakings.” Known in brief as A True Repertory, it is an account of events from the time of his departure for Virginia on the flagship Sea Venture in June 1609, until the date of its writing, July 15, 1610. It was originally intended for the Council of the Virginia Company and substantial portions of it were included in the report of the company, which was in bookstalls under the title A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, on or about November 14, 1610. It does not contain his account of the hurricane; typically, the council preferred to cloak the event in religious terminology, for the True Declaration wanted to counter the sensational tales.

Shakespeare had associations with the numerous members of the Council, just as Strachey had associations with many of Shakespeare’s colleagues. Under any circumstances, Shakespeare clearly did not have to rush in order “to insert [Strachey’s account]  into his play in time to have it’s first known performance at Court in 1611.” This performance was on November 1st of that year – a good 13 months after the account arrived in England. (The parallels between Strachey and other matters relating to the dating of The Tempest are in an online article by Dave Kathman. A link is at the end of this essay.)

This notwithstanding, it is doubtful anything will shake Hess’s conviction that

this string of orthodox conjectures are weak, so they’ve strained to find more links of Tempest to the Americas and presumably to 1610, when some of Montaigne’s essays touching on cannibals were first published.

“Cannibals,” does he say?


“Caliban” = “In Cabal”?

Cannibal is as old as European awareness of the Americas. Indeed, it may be one of the first words from the New World to be incorporated into Old World vocabularies inasmuch as it was brought across the Atlantic by Columbus on his first voyage. When he sailed toward Haiti with some Cuban Indians aboard, he recorded their fear of this island of men with “one eye in the forehead” and, worse, “Canibales.” And there the antic sits: cannibal spelled with a single ‘n’. Hess cannot abide this:

Caliban” is only a NEAR anagram for canNibal, but it is an EXACT anagram for “in Cabal,” which the O.E.D. shows to have been an alternative name for the Jewish book of the occult and magic, “the Cabala.”

Indeed, “in Cabal” is in OED (Oxford English Dictionary) except the c in “Cabal” is in lower case, and “in cabal” is not defined as “an alternative name” for the mystical interpretation of the Old Testament that dates to the thirteenth century. It is instead defined as we know it today: a “secret or private meeting, esp[ecially] of intriguers or of a faction.” What’s more, he doesn’t mention that the earliest use of the phrase is in Andrew Marvell’s Poems – in 1678, about 100 years after Hess claims Oxford penned his “ur-Tempest.” (Marvell, be it noted, spelled the word “caball.” Perhaps the creature’s name should then be “Calliban”?)

There are, of course, some other words in OED, and cannibal happens to be one of them. The entry has examples of this word in eleven quotations during Shakespeare’s lifetime and in nine it is spelled with one ‘n’ only. Two of them are from the First Folio texts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Othello (“Caniballes” and “Canibals” respectively). The speech that includes Caniballes in the Folio 3H6 does not appear in the quartos, but the spelling in the 1622 quarto of Othello is “cannibals.”

The latter is one of four quartos of King’s Men’s plays that were printed for the bookseller Thomas Walkley between 1618 and 1622; all but one are thought to be from scribal copies made for private patrons. The acting company had a preferred scribe at the time, Ralph Crane, who wrote a poem celebrating their employment of his “useful pen” in the tome, The Workes of Mercy (1621). The modern spelling of cannibals in the Othello quarto corresponds with his writing habits.

There are four other examples of cannibal in Shakespeare that are not in OED. It is in both the quarto and Folio editions of Henry IV, Part 2. The source of the text of the quarto published in 1600 is considered to be a manuscript close to Shakespeare’s own, if not the thing itself. The word is spelled “canibals” in the quarto, “caniballs” in the Folio. The other is in the very same 3H6, where it appears in the 1595 octavo edition as “Cannibals,” in the Folio as “Caniballs.” The 1595 text is a “bad” one; seemingly a reconstruction of the play as it was then performed, it is some 1,000 lines shorter than the Folio text, the source of which, like the 2H4 of 1600, was either Shakespeare’s own manuscript or a near relative. Thus, in Shakespeare’s plays, cannibal with one ‘n’ is preferred, five to two.

There is still another example, one of special interest. The reader may recall Hess’s mention of the publication in “1610” of “some of Montaigne’s essays touching on cannibals.” John Florio’s translation of these essays into English was in fact first published, not in 1610, but in 1603. It is certain that it influenced The Tempest, for “The thirtieth Chapter” of this work is reflected in Gonzalo’s musings on his ideal commonwealth that would “excel the golden age” (2.1. lines 143-164). By the way, the title of this chapter is “On the Caniballes.” That’s one more single-‘n’ cannibal for the pot, bringing the total to 13 to 4. In Jacobethan England, Caliban was indeed an “EXACT anagram” of cannibal.

Hess, however, is not quite done with the Cabala:

within the Cabala is a demon of darkness ‘Kaliban’ and an angel of the air ‘Uriel,’ two apparent sources for two important names in Tempest.

I did not find an entry for Kaliban in the many encyclopedic sources I consulted on Judaism, Catholicism, mysticism and the occult. But there is a good deal on Uriel who, along with Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, is an archangel in the Old Testament. Uriel entered into mystical literature as the angel of fire, for his name in Hebrew may be translated as “fire of God,” “flame of God,” “light of God,” or “sun of God.” He is called “the angel of light” by Dr John Dee, the mystic and mathematician knowledgable of the Cabala, with whom Oxfordians claim Oxford had a consequential acquaintanceship though there is nothing more than Dee’s statement that he had “favorable letters” from the earl in 1570. There is no reference to Uriel as the “angel of the air” in any of the many sources I consulted.


“Don Juan” in Hess

In which he announces: “The connections of Oxford to Tempest only get better” (which by no means defies the laws of probability). The better begins with “Evidence that Oxford’s travels to Italy in 1575-76 were an elaborate mission to contact, probe, engage, and ultimately to betray Don Juan of Austria,” renowned for his exploits against the Turks in the Mediterranean Sea. What is this evidence?

[In] 1573 Gregory XIII’s Papal Bull had renewed his predecessor’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth, declared her deposed in favor of Mary Queen of Scots, wed Mary to Don Juan (without consulting either party [this proposed union never occurred]), and then ordered Don Juan to invade England to make it all happen…. In 1576 to 78, Philip [king of Spain] sent Don Juan to the Netherlands in a hopeless attempt to quell the rebellion there. He bore secret orders from Philip to prepare an invasion of England, inevitable knowledge of which brought hysteria to England’s noble circles, linking us back to Oxford.

Which, in turn, links us to the fulcrum for Hess’s hypothesis about the 1575-76 covert op: Gabriel Harvey’s “Apostrophe” to De Vere delivered before the queen and her court at Saffron Walden on July 26, 1578, in which, according to Hess, the poet

predicted Oxford would destroy Don Juan … equated the latter with Hannibal (which explains Tempest’s allusions to “Carthage”) and portrayed Oxford as “Hector standing at England’s gates” featuring the phrase “thine Will / Speares shakes.”

Actually, this appears early amidst 144 lines of hysterical Latin, which Hess makes a botch of in English. Harvey anoints Oxford England’s “hereditary Achilles,” for whom “Mars keeps your mouth [a feat doubtful even a god could do], Minerva is in your right hand, Bellona reigns in your body” … and bologna like this runs on for another few pages. (Little wonder that there is suspicion that Oxford himself may have written this.) It is in the prelude to this passage that we find Harvey declaiming:

Suppose Hannibal to be standing at the British gates; suppose even now, now, Don John of Austria is about to come over, guarded by a huge phalanx … what if suddenly a powerful enemy should invade our borders? if the Turk should arm his immense cohorts against us?

Clearly, there is no “prediction” of Oxford defeating Don John here. Nor is Hannibal “equated” with Don John; and it is Hannibal, not Hector/Oxford, who stands at British gates. For that matter, not only does Harvey liken Oxford to Achilles – not Hector – but nowhere in his high-flown hyperbole peppered with Greek and Roman gods and legendary figures is Hector mentioned at all.

It is, rather, an extravagant advertisement for the military ambitions of Oxford, who had tired of wielding his “feeble pen” (an assessment with which I fully concur). Anyone tempted to take Harvey seriously might consider that the earl’s only military engagement on record came in the Battle of Warwick six years earlier when, as the commander of a canvas and lathe fort set up on the grounds of Warwick Castle, rounds of pyrotechnic “artillery” went awry and set fire to some homes in the town.

What then does Don John – and Hannibal – have to do with The Tempest? Hannibal was, of course, the great general of Carthage, which in modern times is known as Tunis and, Hess notes, Don John had achieved a “half-hearted conquest of Tunis” in 1573, which encouraged the pope to bruit that the idea he be made King of Tunis (which the Turks threw a damper on by recapturing the city in the next year). Thus is the stage set for Oxford to interfere in John’s brief life.

It goes like this: though Tunis was lost, John always had Sicily (amongst other Italian territory under Spanish sway). Recall Hess’s remarks about the papal “deposition” of Elizabeth and ordering Don John “to invade England to make it all happen.” This suggests the invasion scheme was broached in 1574, “the inevitable knowledge of which brought hysteria to England’s noble circles.” Who else would the queen dispatch to prevent all this from happening than the cool-head hero of the Battle of Warwick, Edward De Vere? Thus was he dispatched on his “elaborate mission” in January 1575 to ensnare Don John in Sicily. Who would suspect Oxford, who had cunningly crafted his cover as a fickle-headed Elizabethan playboy? Clearly he had the French fooled. Before the earl left England, the French ambassador in London wrote his king, Henry III, that Oxford had been promised that “he might be of service to the King of Spain, as soon as he arrives in Italy, and to be able to meet Don John of Austria.” (Oxford as a fan of the don. Good!) On the continent, he played his role to the hilt, disguising his dark purposes by dawdling away some eleven months in France and northern Italy, plus a great deal of his inheritance to pay for his extravagances, before (arguably) setting off for Sicily in January 1576.

Wonderful story – but for a few details. The pope’s designs did not exist at the time Oxford left England. Gregory XIII did not unveil his scheme until March 1575, in a proposal that was presented to King Philip. Relying in good measure on the assurances of English and Irish Catholics of support from coreligionists in both countries, and with the burdens of providing military and financial support placed heavily on Spain, the proposal was greeted warily by both the Spanish king and Don John. By October the pope himself had cooled to the plan. In other words, this scheme withered months before Oxford’s expedition to Sicily.

Hess offers no evidence whatsoever that Oxford probed, engaged and betrayed Don John, or that the two men ever met. Their acquaintance postponed, Don John soldiered on for another two-and-a-half years, until Harvey’s “prediction” inspired Oxford to take action in 1578, and we learn from Hess:

Two months after this prediction, Don Juan died of poison, Queen Elizabeth rewarded Oxford with the grant of Castle Rysing, and Don Juan’s ambitious invasion plans were shelved until 1588, granting England a precious decade’s reprieve.

If Oxford was indeed responsible for Don John’s death, he did so counter to his nation’s interests. For in 1578 the queen’s concern was not about him but in  preventing an alliance between the Netherlands and France to invade the Low Countries and make war against Don John. This was evidently less palatable to England than the Spanish occupation, since she threatened to unite with Philip to make war against William of Orange and the French. Elizabeth subsequently dispatched Francis Walsingham to mediate in the situation and he spent the summer in ultimately unsuccessful negotiations.

Walsingham was an interesting choice, for he had been implicated earlier in a plot to poison Don John. Now on a diplomatic mission with a retinue of 180 men, surely he could have slipped in a couple of competent poisoners to do the job that Oxford allegedly took upon himself. Except the rumors of his death by poison had been circulated by the Dutch, who let out he was murdered by his half-brother, King Philip. The probable cause of his death was a ruptured typhoid ulcer. According to Don John’s most recent biographer, Sir Charles Petrie, who cited current medical analysis, his army was devastated by typhoid fever, and John had been ill for several months.

Furthermore, it is definite that Oxford was not given Castle Rising as a reward for dispatching Don John. Whereas he died on October 1, 1578, the patent for Rising is recorded on January 15, 1578, in the Calendar of  the Patent Rolls (Elizabeth, vol. 7, pp. 408-9). The queen had apparently promised to give the earl outright ownership of the castle at an earlier date and was not doing it promptly enough to suit him. On July 25, 1577, a letter from Sir John Stanhope was sent to Lord Burghley asking him in effect to remind the queen of her promise to Oxford.

Which gives rise to the question, where did Hess get the information that would date this grant after Don John’s death? Charlton Ogburn put it at July 1578 (perhaps confusing the patent with Stanhope’s letter to Burghley). The first of Oxford’s biographers, B. M. Ward, was no more precise than to place it in 1578. He did, however, provide a citation to the Patent Rolls that a competent scholar would have made an effort to track down, especially if it is a matter used to confirm one’s argument.

(There is a footnote to this grant. Oxford, who sold so many of the properties he inherited to pay for his continental spree, may have been intent on acquiring Castle Rising as another saleable property. Perhaps he tried to do so just that, for the grant was subsequently revoked.)


Bermoothes = Biremis?

G. de Andrade brings in a Turkish galley [= Latin, a “biremis”]

Note the capture of a still vex’d Biremis or “Turkish galley,” likely informing “Ariel’s” still vex’d Bermoothes line.

The first quote is one from a collection of such snatches that Hess alleges is on page v of the second volume of a 19th-century biography of Don John by William Stirling-Maxwell. The page cited happens to be the table of contents and nowhere in it does this – or any other item as Hess states it  – appear. In regard to the second, we are confronted with another of Prof. W. Ron Hess’s struggles with the dictionary.

Whatever the nationality of the vessel, the word for galley in Latin is galea or galeia. The Latin biremis translated into English is bireme. Galley is a term for single-decked ships propelled by sails and oars that were in common use in the Mediterranean going back to ancient Greece – as were biremes, vessels with two decks of oarsmen, and triremes, which had three. Put plainly, whereas all biremes are galleys, not all galleys are biremes. This is made certain in the first recorded usage of bireme in OED, where in Philemon Holland’s translation of Livy’s history of Rome, the vessel is called “a bireme gally.”

Which brings us to Hess’s invention: the “still-vex’d Biremis.” This phrase is in a passage in The Tempest in which Prospero asks Ariel where he has stowed the king’s ship; replies the spirit:

          ...  in the deep nook where once  Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew From the still-vexed Bermoothes.

First notice that nowhere in the purported quotation supplied by Hess is it said that the Turkish galley was “still-vex’d,” or that it had ever been vexed at all. So, perhaps on the principle that what happens to one bireme happens to all of them, he introduces “the harrowing adventures in 1576-77 of John Fox,” which requires a rather long excerpt to understand what is to come. It seems that after Fox freed 266 Christian prisoners in Alexandria, he then

seized a Turkish galley, narrowly eluded capture, and doubled-up at the oars (their labour with the oares, in helping one another) in rowing to Crete and Italy. ... The point is their doubling-up likely meant they had seized a biremis, since they were too few to fully double-up for a triremis.  Also, their “famine (likely also lacking water) caused 8 men to die in 2 weeks.  They would have added to their water by collecting dew condensation from the morning mists on the sails (so, fetching dew from a vexed biremis originally may have had the sinister occult connotation of stealing vital essence from a beleaguered-famished ship!).

Apparently Hess regards still-vexation as a chronic condition of the “biremis,” and we may thus suppose that fetching dew from one or another of them, apart from having a “sinister occult connotation,” was a common occurrence.

Perhaps. However, Hess began this excursion with reference to a specific event: the capture of a Turkish galley by Gil de Andrade, not in 1576-77 but in late October or earlier November 1573. The ship was “surprised” in the harbor of Bizerte in Tunisia and there is reason to believe it had anything but a vexed voyage to a rendezvous with Don John in Palermo. It was a fine ship and, since it apparently suffered no damage in its capture, it was added to Don John’s squadron of Naples. Unless its Muslim decks were vexed by being trod on by Christians, it was probably as unvexed as any ship can be.

Why does Hess insist that the galley must have been a bireme? Why does he persist in capitalizing bireme? And in using the Latin word for it? Because he asserts that “things” were added to the play

during a 1610-11 revival, at that time confusing the original name “Biremis” with the newer name “Bermoothes.”

It does appear that our scholar contends that Bermoothes was a corruption of Biremis. And biremis must then be capitalized in order to make it a precursor to capital-B Bermoothes. However, as the OED quotation from Holland’s Livy shows, there was indeed a “newer name,” a modern English name for biremis, and it is bireme. Could it be that biremis might have lingered on in modern Latinate language? No. In Italian, it is bireme; in Spanish, birreme. It therefore seems certain that unless Oxford wrote his purported ur-Tempest in Latin, he would not have in any circumstance used biremis.


Sundry Oxfordian Myths

Before we put this strange voyage through Hess’s scholarship into perspective, some well-roasted chestnuts of Oxfordian scholarship that he throws back into the fire require comment.

   Myths and errors die hard – if ever – in Oxfordianism, none harder than that “orthodox scholars” regard an island in the Bermudas as the site of Prospero’s island. In the long history of Shakespearean essaying, I do not doubt that some have done so. This is, however, either so rare or so distant that I have not come across an example of it. But now we have a remark by Hess that is curious in this context:

Nothing about Tempest links significantly to a non-Mediterranean setting, [or] to a post-1601 time-frame … Nothing at all!

However, earlier in his essay he embarked on a magical, mystical tour of islands that may have been Oxford’s exemplar for the island of The Tempest, and notes that “Grace Cali argued some pre-1602 events at the Maine island of Cuttyhunk may have influenced details in The Tempest.” The title of Cali’s article? “Shakespeare’s Tempest Locale: Cuttyhunk?” First of all, inasmuch as the earliest known landing on Cuttyhunk was in 1602, how can anyone know what events occurred there pre-1602? Might it be that these purported events are identified as being pre-1602 simply to keep the play out of the “post-1601 time-frame”?

But it may be that our Oxfordian Prosperos have hit upon something that offers persuasive evidence that Cuttyhunk is (non-Mediterranean though it is) indeed the magician’s bewitched isle. My recollection is that it is in Massachusetts, but apparently it has been magically transported from its position off the coast of Cape Cod to Maine.

   Of the shipwreck depicted in the play, Hess notes that certain “details and criticisms have been neglected by orthodox scholars.” What are they?

Others have … pointed out that the ship [in The Tempest] was said to be “safely in harbor,” so this does not at all refer to a shipwreck, but more likely a grounding or abandonment by her distressed crew.

I will address these hitherto neglected details. Rather, I will allow the play itself to address them, for all the answers are in act one, scene two (lines 194-237), where Prospero asks Ariel if he performed his tasks in the raising of the tempest to the utmost. “To every article,” assures the sprite. He describes the illusion he created to make it seem the ship was lost in order to create turmoil that would infect reason. Prospero then seeks assurance of Ariel that all are safe (“Not a hair perished,” he replies; “On their sustaining garments not a blemish / But fresher than before.”); that the King of Naples’ ship and the rest of his fleet were not damaged and the mariners not harmed (of the king’s ship, “Safely in harbor”; the mariners, supposing the king and his ship lost, “are upon the Mediterranean flote / Bound sadly home for Naples.”).

Evidently the Oxfordian “others” have been engaging in what academic scholars call “close reading,” which may blur one’s comprehension no less than one’s vision. Shakespeare took the accounts of a tempest in contemporary sources to create a rousing beginning for his play – not to recreate an actual event. It does appear Hess and fellow Oxfordians forget about the author’s “fascination with the occult” – the magic of the play and in the play disappear as they become hard-eyed literalists. 

Just in case there are Oxfordians who prefer to think an actual shipwreck influenced the storm, Hess obligingly offers a suitable pre-1602 example, thus:

Even if there was a Bermuda-connection for Tempest (which is doubtful), accounts reached London in 1594 of the wreck in Bermuda of the Edward Bonaventure, a ship in which Oxford had tried to invest in 1581; and this account was first published in Hakluyt’s Voyages of 1600!”

Except the account, by one Henry May, alluded to does not relate the wreck of the Edward Bonaventure in Bermuda – or anywhere else. This ship in fact met its end in the Caribbean, after it had been hijacked by six members of the crew and ran aground off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. (The fixation of Oxfordians on this ship, and its true history, is on pages 158-60 of my book, Shakespeare, In Fact.)

Lastly, once more unto the dictionary, dear friends: a vessel that is grounded is indeed defined as a wreck: “A vessel broken, destroyed, or totally disabled by being driven on rocks, cast ashore, or stranded” (my italics). In Newes from Virginia, Rich writes:

But yet these Worthies forced were, / opprest with weather againe: To runne their Ship between two Rockes, / where she doth still   remaine.


The Oxfordian Double Standard

Hess’s “Red Herrings” is remarkable as an extreme in the double standards that pervade Oxfordian scholarship. The Shakespearean dating of thirteen plays (fourteen, if the lost Cardenio, based on Don Quixote, is included) places more than a third of them after 1604, the year of Oxford’s death. Oxfordians reject this chronology based on the absence of incontrovertible “documentary proof” for it. Indeed, this topic has been of particular interest to Hess, whose Oxfordian chronology essentially assigns a scattered selection of plays to early dates and asks those in between to fall obligingly into place. This usually entails a great leap backward of some ten or fifteen years.

In the case of The Tempest, he leapfrogs its origins back 35 years. Let’s put his assertions in support of this into chronological order. Conjecturing that Oxford “originated” The Tempest in 1576-77, he states that

Tempest derived from an ur-Tempest related to the Love’s Labour’s Wonne play mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598 ... there were various periods when revamps, rewrites, and even complete restructures of the play occurred up to late 1600-early 1601. Could “someone” (like Derby [an earl who was Oxford's son-in-law] for example) have added things to the play during a 1610-11 revival, at that time confusing the original name “Biremis” with the name “Bermoothes”?

Let’s recall Hess’s remark quoted above in regard to Shakespearean evidence for the 1610-11 date: “this string of orthodox conjectures are weak, so they’ve strained to find more links of Tempest to the Americas and presumably to 1610 …” Might it not as well be said that Hess is straining to find justification for his very early dating of this play? For he says as much:

So it seems … the ur-Tempest was “originated” in about 1576-77 (to account for the abundant references to Don Juan) … [my emphasis].

Now, as Hess has noted, affirmation of the Shakespearean dating of The Tempest is indebted to the unpublished Strachey manuscript  – as well as three other contemporary accounts – and its parallels to the play in events, language or both, are numerous. This he dismisses. But here we have his “origination” of a play – an ur-Tempest – in 1576-77 on no better grounds than it must be so in order to “account for the abundant references to Don Juan.”

There is absolutely no evidence such a thing ever existed. It is entirely consistent that he supports this baseless conjecture with another, relating it to Love’s Labor’s Won, a play that was indeed put into print but of which no copy has been found. To use a no longer extant work to affirm the existence of work that never existed may be most kindly put as absurd. There is conjecture, and there is surmise, naughty words in the Oxfordian lexicon in regard to Shakespearean scholarship. And then there is fabrication, which this chronology is, and its fabric is whole cloth.

Hess is no more scrupulous in concocting his associations between Oxford and Don John that are the sole reason for his hypothesis. It must be remembered that this is founded in a single clause in a panegyric that one must believe only Oxford can have taken, and only Oxfordians can possibly take, seriously. It is from this that he conjures a certainty that The Tempest cannot have originated without its author “having encountered Don Juan.” And:

It was improbable that Mr. Shakspere of Stratford would have learned such things or encountered Don Juan, but almost certainly Oxford did!

It can be said with a greater degree of almost certainty that Oxford did not!

It is not credible that the Munchausenesque earl, the self-lionizing braggart who boasted that the brutal Duke of Alva, “as he [Oxford] will constantly affirm, grew so much to affect him for those rare parts he saw in him, as he made him lieutenant general over all the army then in the Low Countr[ies],” would have neglected entirely to mention any concourse with the infinitely more famous Don John, however passing. Nor is it plausible that he would not have boasted still more grandly had he indeed been the instrument of John’s death. The notion that Oxford and John had an “encounter” is contradicted by the biography of the latter by Stirling-Maxwell that is Hess’s source. Its two thick folio volumes mined Spanish and Vatican documents among other contemporaneous sources, and nowhere in them is there a whiff of Oxford.

Ultimately, the allegedly “abundant references to Don Juan” are confined to 32 lines of The Tempest (2.1.66-97), where the Panglossian counselor Gonzalo declares: “Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on first in Afric, at the marriage of the King’s fair daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis.” When Lord Adrian says, “Tunis was never graced with such a paragon to their queen,” Gonzalo has the misfortune to utter “Not since widow Dido’s time.” Which leads to an exchange that reveals a source that unquestionable exercised a significant influence on this play:

Antonio.  Widow? A pox o’ that! How came that “widow” in? Widow Dido! / Sebastian.  What if he had said “widower Aeneas” too?

Virgil’s Aeneid is likened to The Odyssey from a Roman perspective, depicting the adventures of Aeneas, the son of Venus, a Trojan fated to become the founder of “the race destined to hold the world beneath its rule.” Second only to Hector as a warrior, he escaped Troy when it fell and with his father, son and a host of Trojans, sought a place to settle. Driven from each, Aeneas was told in a dream that their destined land was Italy.

Upon reaching the coast of Sicily, the seafarers had the misfortune of catching the eye of Juno, who not only hated Trojans generally but Aeneas especially because she knew that he was chosen by the Fates to rule Carthage, her pet city. Thus she asked Aeolus, the King of Winds, to raise a mighty storm – a tempest, one might say – to sink the Trojan ships. The storm blew Aeneas to Carthage, where Juno now contrived to have him fall in love with Dido, the Queen of Carthage, to keep him away from Italy.

The Aeneid was well known to Shakespeare; mention of Dido and/or Carthage appears in eight plays in addition to The Tempest. Tunis, the modern name of Carthage, is found in The Tempest only. We cannot know if the vivid tales of the storm that wrecked the Sea Venture recalled to Shakespeare the tempest that swept Aeneas to Carthage and thus influenced the “origination” of the play. Although resonances of the Aeneid run throughout it, many another influence is evident. To all appearances Shakespeare marshaled his dramatic powers to their summit to create this play, gathering its diverse strands and melding them with a facility and imagination that has few rivals in any single work that preceded it.

The magic of The Tempest is not limited to the action of the play. Though it has its memorable phrases and quotables, it is the magic of its language, sometimes humorously discordant, sometimes harshly so, but over all part of the harmony of the invention of this at once enchanted and bewitched isle, that we breathe its air and hear its airs. Its unity, its wholeness, belies a creation that is the product of “revamps, rewrites, and even complete restructures” done intermittently – and by other hands – across five decades.

For the final word on the “baseless fabric” of Hess’s vision that The Tempest had been conceived 35 years before the traditional dating, I offer the very apt observation of no less than the Founding ’Fordian himself, J. Thomas Looney:

It seems incredible that it could have been written and staged in the early Shakespearean period without some trace appearing, and it is very improbable that such a play should have been written and allowed to remain unstaged for many years, seeing that the staging element in it is more pronounced than in any other play attributed to “Shakespeare.”


Food for Thought

Since Prof. W. Ron Hess’s scholarship has been somewhat gnawed, let’s allow him some redemption with this tasty sample of his delicious wit:

To conclude, Mr. Matus should be careful of the company he keeps, especially those who persist in finding cannibals under every bush. In his dark nights at the inner sanctum of the Folger Library when the natives get restless, he should consider that orthodox Shakespeare scholars have been less than civil to those who aid their opponents with our Oxfordian arguments. Yes, they will “eat their own.” Bon appetite! [sic]

I believe I have acquitted myself of giving aid to Oxfordianism. However, since Hess was so concerned about my well-being, I felt obliged to worry about how his compatriots would treat someone who damages the reputation of Oxfordian scholarship. But it seems theyve taken it in stride, Indeed, I hear they want to have Prof. Hess for dinner. “Bon appetite,” ladies and gentlemen. Or is it “Bon Apetite!” Prof. Hess?

© 2004 Irvin Leigh Matus

Special thanks to Alan Nelson for the timely gift of his book Monstrous Adversary, which was most helpful to this essay; and to Virginia and Alden Vaughan for sharing their long experience in scholarship on The Tempest.

Dave Kathman, “Dating The Tempest

The text of Hess’s “Red Herrings”