What never? Hardly Ever?
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures
Shakespeare's seamanship provides a classic example of Oxfordians both having their cake and eating it. There are plenty of shipwrecks. Dozens offstage, two in Pericles, one in Twelfth Night but those are not portrayed with the intensity of detail in which Shakespeare revels in the opening scenes of The Tempest.
Oxford went to sea. There's no evidence that Will did.
However, with one exception, Oxford's experiences of the sea were much like most people's today. He took ferries from Dover to Calais or Ostend and back again. With his retinue and perfumed hankies, he probably didn't learn more seamanship than the lift operators on the Titanic. Like Hamlet, he was attacked by pirates, although Hamlet boards the pirate ship and is promptly abandoned. Theories about what happened abound. My own view is that Hamlet recruited the pirates before embarking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to furnish him with a plausible escape while allowing them to continue their journey to their doom in England. When Oxford was down to his nightshift, his pirates recognised him as an English Earl and allowed him home. It's not a perfect match, is it?
So the idea that he could splice the mainbrace is pure fantasy. Yet while Oxfordians insist on the need for first hand experience, once again, Oxford is hardly more qualified than Will. Half a morning in Rotherhithe followed by lunch at The Mayflower with a few nautical types could have provided all the knowledge needed for the Elizabethan dramatist, anxious for colourful sea-going detail.
Then we come to one of the rockiest rocks Oxfordian face. The Tempest and the noisy, onstage shipwreck into which the audience are plunged, without warning, in the opening seconds.
The problem with De Vere's authorship of The Tempest is twofold.
- There's a lot of likely-looking source material dating from 1610
- De Vere was dead when it was written
The detailed account of the unfolding shipwreck contains a convincing Boatswain:
Botes. Downe with the top-Mast: yare, lower, lower, bring her to Try with Maine-course. A plague -
[A cry within. Enter Sebastian, Anthonio & Gonzalo.]
vpon this howling: they are lowder then the weather, or our office: yet againe? What do you heere? Shal we giue ore and drowne, haue you a minde to sinke?
and later, Ariel will describe fire darting about the ship, like St Elmo's Fire, a rare but real enough phenomenon that Coleridge later featured in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
I boorded the Kings ship: now on the Beake,
Now in the Waste, the Decke, in euery Cabyn,
I flam'd amazement, sometime I'ld diuide
And burne in many places; on the Top-mast,
The Yards and Bore-spritt, would I flame distinctly,
Then meete, and ioyne. Ioues Lightning, the precursers
O'th dreadfull Thunder-claps more momentarie
And sight out-running were not; the fire, and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring, the most mighty Neptune
Seeme to besiege, and make his bold waues tremble,
Yea, his dread Trident shake
Once again, Oxfordians give zero credit to the imagination of a playwright capable of a convincing recreation of Ancient Rome from a dusty series of biographies.
Oxford was on a ship and therefore wrote everything in which ships feature. The reduction of all the possibilities to just one is a recurring feature of Oxfordian argument. 'Oxford saw this…' or 'Oxford did that…" so "Oxford must have written this…"
However, if we have to have source material, the strikingly similar accounts of a famous shipwreck off Bermuda include descriptions of the storm, St Elmo's fire, the separation and reunion of the crew, all on an island haunted with noises and spirits which turn out to be benign. These documents were in circulation in 1610, six years after Oxford died and were much discussed both at James' court and by the writing and play-acting community. Tom Veal's review of Kositsky and Stritmatter's contorted attempt to separate The Tempest from this source material is all anyone could ask for to permanently reattach it. Tom Reedy's more extensive rebuttal of the same material is even more damning. And there are other sources of possible material, also published in 1610.
As with Coriolanus, however, if you lay down your Oxfordian spectacles, you don't need any of it. The play, its language, its imagery, its topical references, its genre, its stylometrics, its sources, its thematic content, its valedictorian ambience and its whole context suggest it was written shortly before it was first performed on All Saints Day in 1611.
The Tempest is impossible to fiddle into the hazily mapped but brutally curtailed Oxfordian timeframe. All manner of hideous contrivances are heaped upon it to overcome the fact that Oxford died seven years before the première.
None of which make any sense at all.
Seaman or no, Oxford was dead when The Tempest was written.