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Three Shakespeare Comedies

Three Comedies Out of Italy: Comedy of Errors,
Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night


I have already indicated the profound effect Italy's vital, fun-loving culture had on De Vere, himself out of place in the dark Calvinist aristocracy of his day. Here I will discuss three comedies that he wrote when he returned, which were directly influenced by his journey. The plots are farces, good fun, an armature for jokes, asides, cuts, speeches, and musings. Especially 'Comedy of Errors' was influenced by the frantic confusion of Commedia Dell'Arte, like a convention of skate-flies.

For our present purpose, showing how close his plays and life were, I will concentrate on building up evidence that no one else could have written the plays as De Vere did. The early plays usually had an Anne Cecil. In 'Comedy of Errors' her personality is split into light (Lucia) and dark (Adriana). His personality also splits into the separated shipwrecked twin brothers. Interestingly, they were shipwrecked at eighteen; now seven years later they are twenty-five, De Vere's age while on tour in Italy. The first brother is always fighting with his wife. He howls, "Dissembling harlot thou art false in all, and art confederate with a damned pack to make loathsome scorn of me." To the light filled female though his twin says,

"[You are] thyself's, mine own self's better part; mine eyes' clear eye, my dear heart's dear heart, my food my fortune and my sweet heart's aim; my sole earth's heaven and my heaven's claim."

That Antipholus of Ephesus likes his wife there is no doubt. He says, "I know a wench of excellent discourse, pretty and witty, wild and yet too gentle." But still he mistreats her. Luciana tries to reason with his irrational side by advising, "If you did wed my sister for her wealth, then for her wealth's sake use her for more kindness."

As the turmoil proceeds, in the kitchen is fat Nell, as big as all Europe. Her buttocks are near the Irish bogs, her various other parts are states of Europe, the nether regions located of course in the Netherlands. That's how big she is! This was De Vere's burleque on William Cecil, Lord Burghley's, pedagogical technique of viewing the map of Europe as a cartographic empress. Since Elizabeth was noticably thin, De Vere tranformed her into her opposite. Her paramour, a servant and another split personality, says of her:

And I think if my breast had not been made of faith and my heart of steel
She had transformed me to a curtal [docked] dog and made me turn in the wheel

Was this De Vere's admission concerning their affair? She was known to toy with her men.

Speaking of geography, the play is set on the Adriatic, specifically near Ragusa, now Dobrovnik. Scholars make patronizing allowance for "the Bard from Stratford", assuming the location was a mythic place on the Illyrian coast. It wasn't. De Vere mentions the sea route in this play (Corinth to Epidaurus, the ancient name for Ragusa) and describes the city-state's striking character ("I will go lose myself and wander up and down to view the city."). Olivia in 'Twelfth Night' alludes to the distinctive nearby caves where pirates camped. She calls Belch an 'ungrateful wretch, fit for the mountains and the barbarous caves, where manners ne'er were preached." Factual accuracy was part of De Vere's integrity, his grounding in truth. He was not a fantasist. Only an observant traveler would have recorded these specifics. Thanks to Mark Anderson for these geographical insights.

Young Edward De Vere
Edward De Vere at age 25
(Courtesy of family of Ruth Loyd Miller)


'Taming of the Shrew' and 'Twelfth Night' are feature and sequel starring De Vere's sharp-tongued sister Mary and her insufferable but brave husband Peregrine Bertie.

Mary was so irrepressible as to be shocking to her social class. Bertie's family wanted no part of her. Only he did. Bertie knew what he wanted in a woman and Mary had it–fire. He also knew the secret to calling her bluff, fight fire with fire.

I am as peremptory as she is proud-minded.
And where two raging fires meet together they consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fires grow great with little wind, yet extreme gusts will blow both fires out.

('Taming of the Shrew': II, 1)

In the wedding as Petruchio, (the name an adaptation of Petruchius who assisted in London theater productions) he grabs the sacramental wine from the minister and calls a toast. At their real wedding in 1577, for which the play was the entertainment, he ordered 500 gallons of wine. The swashbuckler, uncaring the consequence, meets his formidable mate by unexpectedly applying guile:

'For patience she will prove a second Grissel.'

In no way does Kate resemble Grissel, the medieval paradigm of woman's patient sufferance. But she appreciates the power he does not use and the respect he offers instead. Hence the original title, 'Mind and Measure". Shown the stick she had prepared for others–by him subtlely withdrawn–she sees a basis for conjugal harmony. In fact the Berties were a happy couple all their lives.

De Vere names this shrewish wife Kate after Bertie's mother, Catherine Somerset, who took no nonsense from her son or anyone else. As an example of her character, she contrived to have little Elizabeth De Vere in her home on an occasion she had invited De Vere to visit, and she put the infant in his lap. Estranged for five years because he thought the child was not his, he reconciled with Anne Cecil De Vere and later honored Kate Somerset as Pauline in 'Winter's Tale', the single wholesomely aggressive female in his dramatic canon.

For our purposes, an interesting feature of 'Taming of the Shrew' is Kate's father, Baptista Minola. When De Vere was in Padua, the setting of the later play, a Baptista Nigrone loaned him 500 crowns to continue his journey. Another money-lender who helped from London, through his Venetian representative, was the Marrano Jew Baptista Spinola. 'Minola' seems to be splitting the difference between 'Nigrone' and 'Spinola'. In "Two Gentlemen of Verona', there is a Baptiste Minole.

And in 'Much Ado About Nothing' there is Benedict Spinole. Benedict Spinola was Baptista Spinola of London's son. This was probably the first time Jews were portrayed sympathetically in European theater. They helped him. He must have come to realize honor exists at all levels and places, not just within the aristocracy. Appreciating that, De Vere found his way across the class line, a highly unusual thing for his time and place. Where his imagination could not go was toward the Lockean premise that the consent of the many permitted the governance of the few. He never veered from the divine rule of monarchs as higher links in the holy chain of Being.

There can be no doubt these plays followed from his southern European trip. Returning to geography as the common denominator of reality, he mentions Mantua and Venice at odds if not at war, something not known anywhere except locally. Correggio's "Io" in Milan is memorialized at the beginning of the play with the lines, "We'll show thee Io as she was a maid/And how she was beguiled and surprised/As lively painted as the deed was done." The painting hadn't ever been on tour to England. Lombardy is honored as 'the pleasant garden of Italy' and Padua as 'nursery of the arts'.

De Vere even got a celestial event into the wedding play. The November 1577-January 1578 comet warrants this very specific comment from Petruchio:

Gentles methink you frown
and wherefore gaze this goodly company
as if they saw some wondrous monument,
some comet or unusual prodigy.


With 'Twelfth Night' De Vere hit his stride as a lampooner through "art". In this sequel, about three years after 'Taming of the Shrew', Mary gets her name back, Maria. Petruchio becomes Sir Toby Belch. Let's see how this name got invented. Bertie's name has two strong consonants, B and T. The second, T, is joined to a vowel from his title, Willoughby, O, plus the last two letters of the title, BY, to get "Toby". Belch picks up the first strong consonant, B, and adds to it an L in Willoughby, finished by Bertie's typical table manners, B, L, plus CH, or Belch. De Vere didn't spend as much wit satirizing his rival Christopher Hatton, whom Elizabeth called "Sheep". He simply gave the malevolent courtier the name Malvolio and has Belch call him the "Sheep-biter" or in other words, nasty cur. Petruchio's sidekick, Andrew Aguecheek is based on Phillip Sidney, who had smallpox scars on his face. Elizabeth is in the play as Olivia, and Maria is her lady in waiting, as Mary was Elizabeth's. De Vere plays himself as 'the allowed fool', his role at the English court. He forges a letter supposed to be Malvolio's, signing it "the Fortunate Unhappy". Hatton (Malvolio) signed his poems Felix Infortunatus Infoelix, the happy Unfortunate. (Eva Turner Clark, 'Hidden Allusions In Shakespeare's Plays')

The plot depends on another shipwreck with two sets of siblings who eventually marry their opposite numbers and social order gets restored–just as in 'The Deceived' by Piccolomini in Siena, where De Vere arrived as his hero's guest during Twelfth Night festivities, 1576. His first title for 'Twelfth Night' was 'A Pleasant Conceit' in 1580. This version presumably exists in the papers of Abraham Fleming, his secretary at that time, but the papers were lost. If discovered, no more proof would be needed to set the Stratford myth to rest.

At things stand today, the manuscript would be pleasing but superfluous. To list the dramatis personae, independently connects the play to De Vere's life and times and to the previous play about the Berties.

At the beginning of 'Twelfth Night', Aguecheek says to Maria, "Bless you fair shrew," indicating that by this time all is well with the formerly combustible couple. The hapless Malvolio/Hatton gets more than his share of barbs. He complains that while he is a mere sheep, "the boar's tusk may both raze and tear". Such was De Vere's vicious reputation at court, the boar being the major feature of his Oxford crest. Another pointed scene occurs with Malvolio in prison, asking for pen and paper to plead his case Campion a French religious leader in England at that time asked the same, was denied any means to defend himself, and got tortured to boot. The cruel inquisition is parodied here as De Vere's "Fool" mocks Malvolio in his helplessness.

A startling co-incidence about the location of 'Twelfth Night', Epidaurus (i.e., this is the Roman name of the town De Vere used in the play, called Ragusa to the Venetian state, and Dobrovnik in Dalmatia now) brought out by Mark Anderson's 'Shakespeare By Another Name' (p. 87) is that De Vere was not the first in his line to visit the area. His ancestor Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford, shipwrecked near there with Richard the Lion-Hearted on the way to Palestine. The King built a church by the sea to give thanks he was saved.

When De Vere returned from Europe and produced these plays, Elizabeth sponsored him to further work, in particular the Histories during the build-up for the Spanish War. The early plays mixed farce with a genius's verbal fluency and understanding. He came to greater self-knowledge through his art even at this stage, by analyzing his hostility to married life, through the device of splitting psyches into dark and light aspects. He also comprehended the spiritual dead end of court life and would never be the same again:

The common rout against your as yet ungalled estimation
That may with foul intrusion enter in
[can] dwell upon your grave when you are dead
For slanders live upon succession
Forever housed when it gets possession

('Comedy of Errors': Act III, Scene 1)

In location, characters, plot, names, and style, these plays cannot be anyone else's but Edward De Vere's after his journey to Italy and the Mediterranean.

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