Here’s another must-have for your Oxfordian book collection. From 1998-2011, Noemi Magri, Professor of English at the ITIS School in Mantua Italy, published a series of articles on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy in the British Oxfordian journal, the De Vere Society Newsletter. Now the German publisher, Verlag Uwe Laugwitz, has collected these in an affordable paperback that adds a host of details to what we learned from Richard Roe in his Shakespeare in Italy, details that leave no doubt as to Shakespeare’s, and Oxford’s, first-hand knowledge of Italy. While Roe adds to the information he provides the pleasures of accompanying him on his investigations, a sort of literary whodunit, Magri, as a professor of literature and a native Italian, provides citable material in a scholarly format that writers of articles and lectures for professional journals can turn to without reserve when addressing Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy. Her abundant end notes add detailed flesh to the bones of fact
For centuries, academics, aware of the importance of Italy and Italian works to Shakespeare, have focused, not on his knowledge of Italy, but on what they believed was his ignorance, one more instance of the disassociative thinking forced on them by the Stratford biography. Since the humble provincial could not possibly have known Italy without leaving some record of his travels, ergo to wit: Shakespeare must have been ignorant about Italy, just as he must have been ignorant of Greek, Latin, French, etc..
The gulf that separates university studies of history from studies of literature is also to blame, for as Magri clearly shows, this ignorance of Italy is all theirs, for in every instance we find that it was Shakespeare who knew what he was talking about, not his critics. Our Strat-watchers will report on any apparent response to Magri’s evidence, but the likelihood is that they will do as they’ve always done with the evidence provided by authorship scholars, simply pretend it isn’t there. After all, who cares about a truth so arcane as who created the language we speak, in which we think, with which we communicate and in which all the great works of English have been written since the Bard first put pen to parchment?
Magri covers just about everything in Shakespeare that requires personal knowledge of Italy, its language, its geography, its history, its customs and its laws. Major articles deal with his awareness of Italian paintings by Titian and Giulio Romano and the part these play in Venus and Adonis, Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew. She provides the history behind The Merchant of Venice, his knowledge of Portia’s Belmont, of the precise distances and modes of transportation involved in getting from one place to another, and his knowledge of Italian law as demonstrated in the trial scene. That he knew more about the geography of Italy, Sicily, and the Dalmatian coast than his critics she shows in articles on Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale.
She clears up the eternal confusion over his seeming ignorance of the geographic locations of Verona and Milan in her article on Two Gents, providing a great deal of useful background on the two cities. She makes the point that Oxford, after visiting the German scholar Johannes Sturm, would have entered Italy via the St. Gotthard Pass rather than, as previously conjectured, by the Brenner Pass, since the St. Gotthard Pass was “the route usually taken by travellers coming down the Rhine valley into Italy” (111-2). Stopping briefly outside Milan (he would only have encountered problems with the Inquisition had he lingered inside the City), he would have learned all he needed for the adventures of his two gentlemen. [At the time of Oxford’s visit, Milan was experiencing an horrific outbreak of the plague.] These are but hints of the important information to be found in every article in this book, and in the end notes.
Evidence from Orazio Cuoco
One of the most important additions to our store of precise knowledge about Oxford is the evidence Magri provides of the Venetian Inquisition’s examination of Orazio Cuoco recorded in 1577, a few days after his return from the 11 months he lived with Oxford in England. Magri provides a verbatim transcript of the original manuscript, located in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (201), in which the questions and answers are in Italian, the rest in Latin. Facing this on the opposite page is her word-for-word translation.
As she reveals, the sole issue concerning the Holy See was whether or not Cuoco had been suborned by Oxford into giving up or ignoring his religion. Clearly they were satisfied that he had not. When asked “What made you go with him” to England, the record states that Cuoco replied, “He heard me sing in the choir in Santa Maria Formosa and he asked me if I wanted to go to England with him.” When asked if he had asked anyone for advice on whether to go or not, he replied, “I asked my father and my mother and both advised me to go.” Since both his parents died of the plague while Orazio was gone, it seems that Oxford (unwittingly) may have saved the youth from a similar fate. Beyond that the primary concern of Orazio’s inquisitor appears to have been whether or not he ate meat on fast days; he did not, or at least, so he said.
Of most interest to Oxfordians in Cuoco’s statement is the evidence it gives of Oxford’s religious tolerance and his interest in Greek. According to Orazio, while Oxford himself ate either meat or fish, on fast days he provided his household only with fish, and he also had “an attendant and a manservant who were Catholics.” To more particular questioning on religious matters, he answered that he never was required (or desired) to hear “sermons of heretics” (Protestants), and that he was allowed to attend Mass “in the house of the Ambassadors of France and Portugal” (207, 209). When asked if Oxford ever tried to convert him, he answered “No Sir. He let everyone live as they wanted.” When asked “Who associated with the Earl in this town (Venice)” he replied, “No one here from this town. He used to go to Mass at the Church of the Greeks, and he was a person who spoke the Latin and Italian languages well.” Well-acquainted with the church in question, Magri describes it as “the most important Greek Orthodox church in Europe” and “a center of Greek and Renaissance learning.” Inaugurated in 1573, Oxford would have seen it “in all its splendor.” Nearby was “one of the first printing presses” in Venice, one that printed books in Greek (214).
Magri vs. Nelson
In comparing the truth about Cuoco’s deposition to the version in Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, Magri reveals Nelson’s egregiously sloppy scholarship. For some reason the good professor had a hard time getting right the spelling of Cuoco’s name, spelling it either Coquo or Cocco (and Cogno in an earlier article on the internet), all meaningless; Cuoco means Cook in English. Although Magri had sent him the right spelling, Nelson continued to misspell it. Where Nelson reports that Cuoco claimed that Oxford was a “great lover of music,” it’s clear from Magri’s word-for-word translation that the youth never said any such thing. Where Nelson claims that “he attended churches,” Cuoco actually spoke of only the one church. Where Nelson reports that the Service at the Greek Church was in Latin, Magri corrects: “The Mass (not the service) was, and still is, said in Greek” (215). Magri was particularly peeved by Nelson’s description of the Greek Church as “notorious for attracting religious dissidents, a statement she labels “false, arbitrary and defamatory.” The church was “a cultural center,” its location in Venice “a meeting place for literary men” (215).
These are only a few of the six pages worth of mistranslations and arbitrary inventions that Nelson has foisted off on his readers as genuine scholarship, some of them obviously based on his need to represent Oxford in as dim a light as possible. For those who desire to stick to the truth, anything Nelson has to say on Oxford’s time in Italy must be rejected in favor of Magri’s version. His insinuation that Oxford’s motive in taking Orazio to England was sexual is replaced by something far more likely: that having heard him sing in the church choir, Oxford, in his capacity of prime provider of entertainment to the English Court, hoped to dazzle the Queen and the Court with Orazio’s singing . Indeed, when asked, “Did you ever speak with the Queen?”Orazio responded, “I sang in her presence” (210).
Although Roe is unparalleled in his role as tour guide to Oxford’s travels in Italy, for those who dream of the day that rigorously-researched authorship articles and books will be accepted by mainstream academic publishers, it’s Magri’s standing as a PhD and a native whose deep roots in Italian culture and history will best provide the kind of support required for scholarly exegesis. Unfortunately, both books lack an index. For those who forsee the need to use her evidence as support for your own work, I suggest you keep a record of important points and pages numbers as you go. You’ll be glad you did.
Don’t let too much time pass before getting this book. Libraries don’t buy paperbacks (when they do they have to pay to have them properly bound so they can shelve them), and hard experience has taught me the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nature of the publishing business. As long as we remain a fringe discipline, we need to do what we can to keep the most important books available. Orders can be made through Magri’s editor, Gary Goldstein, at his website The Elizbethan Review, or through amazon.com. If the latter, don’t forget to add your own review or at least, click yes on the good ones.
Can we please stop calling him Lord Oxford?!
I have only one criticism of Magri’s excellent book, or any other in which he’s referred to as “Lord Oxford.” Once or twice is understandable as it helps to identify him, but more than that is not only a bore, it’s actually detrimental to our cause. Sure it’s a fact that “lordship” was his inheritance and that his contemporaries called him “Lord Oxford,” but his contemporaries were referring to him in his social role, not to his role as a playwright and a poet, which is what makes him important to us and, hopefully, to the entire world someday, once we can get past that dratted word Lord! It would have been appropriate to call him Maestro, but that was impossible for the very reason that a lord back then couldn’t be a maestro, or anything but a lord.
For all the good it did him, for all the freedom, the time, and the credit with money-lenders that his rank provided, making it possible for him to write, produce and publish what would have been utterly impossible had he been born a commoner, it also did him and generations of readers a serious harm in the very area governed by his name, for it is largely due to his rank that his identity had to be hidden behind a pseudonym borrowed (for a hefty consideration) from the son of a provincial wool dealer. It’s the very thing that for four centuries has made it so difficult to identify him as the author of the greatest works in English literature.
His given name, “de Vere,” is appropriate for his childhood, but as a constant term it lacks the power and strength of Oxford. It’s also mispronounced: in a letter to Burghley the Countess of Southampton spelled it “de Vayer,” which, no matter how it was spelled, is surely how it was pronounced by himself and those who knew him personally. (Consider how much Shakespeare liked the word “fair,” or that vert in French, meaning green, is pronounced vair unless the following word begins with a vowel, or, most telling, ver in Latin, which means truth and is pronounced veyr, as shown by the pronunciation of Latin words like veritas. ) As it’s invariably pronounced today, de Veer, it has no such associations.
Let’s call him Oxford. It’s short, it’s easy, and by now everyone knows who is meant by it. Apart from the town and the university, there’s no other Oxford with which he can be confused. The earls of the second creation are more easily identified by their birth name of Harley. Lord Byron, who certainly identified himself with his role as poet far more than with his rank, called himself Byron, as did all his friends, associates, readers, enemies and admirers. There may be some who pursue this study because they have a thing for English lords, just like there are some who pursue it for the purpose of writing soap opera romances and screenplays, but let’s hope that there are at least some among us whose primary interest remains in seeing him established in history as the author of the Shakespeare canon.
By calling him Lord Oxford (and, the ultimate of damning him at the outset––introducing him as “the seventeenth blah blah blah”)––we are buying into the very mindset that has been keeping us from getting him accepted as Shakespeare, as immediately it places him, not with the writers of his era, but with the aristocrats! As an introduction, all that need be done is to call him Edward de Vere (pronounced de Vayer), Earl of Oxford (dropping the totally unnecessary four-syllable phrase, “the seventeenth”), and from then on call him plain Oxford.
In his role as playwright, author of Venus and Adonis, Hamlet, and the other works that are the only reason we want to know anything about him, Oxford’s socio-political rank has about as much importance as the fact that his hair was auburn, that he was married twice, and that in later life he probably walked with a limp. These are facts that belong to his biography, and however interesting, and however much they may bear on the attitude and subject matter of his works, they have nothing whatsoever to do with where he fits with Chaucer, Milton, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley in the pantheon of English literary greats. Their social status has nothing to do with their greatness. Neither should his.