On a day in mid May of 1575, a powerful 25-year-old English nobleman named Edward de Vere landed in Venice in northern Italy. One of the foremost cultural and mercantile cities in the world, Venice would be the young man’s base for almost a year and a half of travels, after which he would return to England, where, according to some, he spent the rest of his years producing the works of Shakespeare.
Oxfordians, as those who believe de Vere wrote the works of “Shakespeare” are called (de Vere was the 17th earl of Oxford), say that de Vere’s time on the Continent, and particularly in Venice, provided him with much of the fodder for the Shakespearean canon. Not merely characters, plots and settings, but customs, law and even geography are reflected in the plays. Cheryl Eagan-Donovan says this is especially obvious in the Venetian plays, “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice.”
Eagan-Donovan will be among presenters at the Ashland Authorship Conference, a four-day scholarly event attended by Oxfordians from around the nation. The conference begins Thursday, Sept. 16 and runs through Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Ashland Springs Hotel. Many of the speakers plan presentations on “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hamlet,” both of which are running in repertory at the nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival, each directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
At 3 p.m. Thursday, Eagan-Donovan, a Boston, Mass.-based filmmaker, will present a paper called “Shakespeare’s Ideal: Sexuality and Gender Identity in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ” in which she will claim that de Vere, a brilliant but troubled earl, was bisexual.
It’s a notion others have raised, pointing to Antonio’s (the merchant of the title) love for his young friend Bassanio. It was common in Elizabethan times for gentlemen to speak of “love” for each other in a platonic sense, but some Oxfordians think something more is at stake as Antonio tells Bassanio in the first scene, “My person lies all unlocked to your occasions.”
“Oxford (de Vere) was an A-list party boy who took this grand tour of Europe,” Eagan-Donovan says in a phone interview. “He was all about collecting experience, art and music and all of that. And he came back with the experiences that were the material for the canon.”
That’s a case that has been made by Mark Anderson in the 2005 book “Shakespeare by Another Name,” and other Oxfordians. Eagan-Donovan is making a film based on Anderson’s treatment of de Vere’s time in Venice titled “Nothing is Truer Than Truth,” the motto of the de Veres. In his book, Anderson alludes to “rumors of de Vere’s bisexuality” but does not press the case.
“It’s a position that a lot of Oxfordians and Stratfordians (those who believe the works of Shakespeare were written by William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon) both don’t like,” Eagan-Donovan says.
“But the dance that unfolds in ‘Merchant’ is second only to the sonnets” in replicating the dynamics of relationships in de Vere’s life, she says.
“When Antonio sanctions Bassanio wooing Portia, one can’t help but remember that de Vere may have sanctioned an affair between Yorke and Wriothesley,” she says, referring to Rowland Yorke, a de Vere employee, and Henry Wriothesley, the earl of Southampton, believed by many to have been the “fair youth” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Eagan-Donovan believes that de Vere based Portia, the plucky heroine of “Merchant,” on his second wife, Elizabeth Trentham, whom Anderson describes as “a sharp-minded, independent woman at ease with legal and business matters.”
“Elizabeth is Portia, completely,” Eagan-Donovan says. “She even won a legal case for the de Veres, a property case.”
De Vere led a complicated, sometimes dissolute life that often saw him go in and out of favor with Queen Elizabeth as well as winding up in the chancery courts, which were courts of equity, not common law courts. Much as Eagan-Donovan believes Elizabeth may have, Portia enters the trial in “Merchant,” probably the greatest courtroom drama ever, to save the day. The play makes a distinction between the letter of the law and the concept of equity, a distinction Oxford is thought to have made in court.
Eagan-Donovan and other writers have also contended that the love triangle of Antonio, Bassanio and Portia reflects the love triangle of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with the middle-aged poet, fair youth and dark lady.
“What’s so striking in the sonnets is the passion,” Eagan-Donovan says. “Here you have a man who loves another man so much he’s willing to die for him.”
She says that even if you’re not ready to buy a bisexual Oxford, there are a lot of coincidences in “Merchant” to explain away. Oxford would have used the traghetto ferries mentioned in the play, would have known Venice’s Rialto Market mentioned in the play, would have seen the Gobbo statue in the market (Launcelot Gobbo is the name of the play’s clown). As a foreigner in Venice, he would have been subject to the same harsh alien statute as Shylock — and all the Jews of relatively tolerant Venice.
Eagan-Donovan says believing that de Vere wrote “Merchant” demystifies the process of writing and allows us to understand how great writing happens. She says there are three main ingredients: experience, imitation and revision.
“There’s mining of life experience, which Oxford gained in Venice. There’s imitation of other great writers, which he had in his translations and access to books. And most Oxfordians would agree that he revised all his life.
“Finding that he’s Shakespeare makes him more accessible for me as a writer. It’s not the same as the Stratford myth, that anybody can become a writer. It shows how it happens. I think that should encourage students to become writers.”
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune.
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