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No No Vulcano

Isola Vulcano was, until recently, the Oxfordian’s location of choice for Prospero’s Island.

Not much can really be concluded from isolating the actual location but Oxfordians think it’s important to tie locations to the Earl’s Italian itinerary as they suffer from the delusion that no one can describe a place they haven’t actually visted. To illustrate this, they try to look for accurate geographic details only a real visitor would have noticed.

Of Vulcano Roe, the Great Panjandrum of Oxfordian Italian Geography says, “No other place in the world possesses the unique combination of features described in “The Tempest.” Thus begins his guided tour of a place we have no evidence Oxford ever visited.  We’re not even sure he visited Sicily.   In fact, Ogburn takes him no further south than Siena (Chapter 8, “This Star of England,” 1952).  

Even now uncertainty remains evident in a chronology of Oxford’s Italian travels on the Oxfordian website maintained by Dr. Michael Delahoyde at Washington State University.  

Midway through the chronology there’s an entry claiming “the plays offer evidence de Vere travelled to Sicily, Palermo, and Messina,” citing no less an Oxfordian touchstone than Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare By Another Name.  (To a dutiful Oxfordian, “evidence” in the plays constitutes proof Oxford was there, since the works are his autobiography, because a poet cannot write but what he’s lived.) No dates are given for the excursion, other than the entry lies between May and September, although Delahoyde, again per Anderson, mentions that Oxford was “certainly in Genoa at some point in 1575.”  The chronology picks up again, taking Oxford to Padua and perhaps Mantua in November, then Florence in December, and finally Siena in January, where Delahoyde admits, “The next three months, we don't know. Oxford seems to have visited Sicily, via Rome?”  This is an odd intrusion into what seems an otherwise reliable itinerary, but Dr. Delahoyde must devise a way to get Oxford to Sicily, so the wishful thinking is understandable.  After that, Oxford next appears in Lyon in March, probably by way of Genoa, then on to Paris, arriving in April. 

Nelson’s 2003 volume, whatever its prejudices, includes two entries with other useful information. The first, a September 1575 letter (available on Dr. Nelson’s website) to Burghley from Clemente Paretti, a banker in Venice, notes Oxford’s return “from Genoa” where “his Lordship hurt his knee on one of the Venetian galleys.”  So Oxford may have taken a galley around the boot and up the west coast to Genoa, then back.  This would admit a stopover in Messina, thus putting Oxford in Sicily that summer.   Or down the coast and up the Po to Piacenza, perhaps changing to a lighter along the way, then overland. (Commercial traffic still runs to Cremona and Piacenza, some 375 km from the sea.)

Second, Nelson cites in full the apocryphal recollection of Edward Webbe, from his 1590 “Travels,” of Lord Oxford’s challenge to all comers at Palermo.   Beauclerk (“Lost Kingdom” 2010) also cites this event, suggesting that in the summer of 1575 Oxford went down the Adriatic, perhaps stopping to see the “coast” of Bohemia, as well as Greece, and from there sailed on to Sicily.  This, it would seem, is Beauclerk’s version of the galley trip Nelson referenced, but Beauclerk does not take Oxford to Genoa, so caught up is he in breathlessly regurgitating Anderson’s fantasy of an Oxfordian Quixote.  Thus it’s not surprising that Beauclerk ultimately proposes the most expansive itinerary.  After Sienna and Genoa, he adds, “Naples, Palermo (and Messina?), and possibly Rome.” 

Nelson, Beauclerk, and Delahoyde agree on this much of Oxford’s travels, Paris, Strasburg, Milan, Venice, a galley trip returning to Venice, Padua, Florence, Siena, and then home via Lyon and Paris.   But nothing farther south than Siena. That’s the historical record.  There’s no reliable evidence to support a side trip to Sicily, much less Rome or Naples, which would seem to have been much higher priorities.  Anything else is speculation, including Webbe, since he was captured by the Turks in 1572.  He spent most of his captivity in the Middle East, getting no closer to Sicily than Egypt, and not escaping until 1588. (although he managed to improve his lot considerably by offering his services to the Turks as a master gunner).   The editor of an 1868 edition of Webbe’s “Travels” knew of the Palermo challenge and placed it in 1571 (apparently the editor was not an Oxfordian) when Webbe was on the “Henry” out of London for Livorno.  The ship and crew were captured the following year along the trade route from Livorno to Alexandria. 

The historical record does not, however, deter Roe, nor dampen the enthusiasm of Oxfordians for his appealing tome. Stritmatter claims, “that his knowledge of Italy is significant was first demonstrated in detail by Ernesto in his 1949 Shakespeare and Italy and reiterated more recently in the 5 star Amazon available work of Richard Roe The Shakespeare Guide to Italy.  Clearly the good doctor believes that its “5 Star” ratings on Amazon testify to the verisimilitude of Roe, apparently because Oxfordians, including himself, have voted it thus. 

But such learned testimony notwithstanding, let’s look coolly upon the evidence presented and how it’s argued by this man of law and generous contributor to the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center, a man allegedly wise enough to see Shakespeare for the bumpkin he was and to lay out the biographical travels of the true Bard.

Roe opens by properly noting that the water route from Milan to the sea goes east, down the Po to the Adriatic, making a voyage around the “boot” to Vulcano incredible.  So he proposes Florence as the origin, thence down the Arno as far more practical.   But how do we explain this error, given the playwright’s perfect knowledge of Italy.   Well, let’s make something up.  Let’s say he had it right in the original, but the play was later “doctored” (Roe’s term) so as not to offend the Tuscan States with whom England traded. Besides, Prospero was too much like their problematic duke, the first Francesco de’Medic (1541-1587).   (Incidentally, we have here more evidence of just how early “The Tempest” was conceived and likely drafted, although Roe tastefully chooses not to mention this useful insight. His book is, after all, not about Oxford.)

Next, Roe delights us with parallels between the homeward voyages from Carthage of Aeneas to Rome and King Alonso to Naples, along the north coast of Sicily, past the Aeolian Islands and Vulcano, to the mainland of Italy.  From this predicate, Roe imagines that Oxford (let’s drop the charade) is imitating “The Aeneid,” in particular the storm wrought by Aeolus at the behest of a scorned Juno.  This opens the door for Roe to mention that “the playwright  experienced the frightening truth of that Tunis-Italy route first hand”—even though there’s no evidence he was ever near Tunis or Sicily, much less Vulcano and the Aeolian Isles on “that Tunis-Italy route.”  (This is the first of several matter-of-fact references to the special knowledge Oxford acquired while he surveyed Vulcano, each made so casually you can’t help but realize how sincerely Roe believes his truth.)   

Unfortunately, Roe seems to have “finessed” the actual location of Juno’s storm, which occurred south of Sicily, likely in the Ionian Sea, with Aeneas managing to make Tunis on the North African coast, nowhere near the Aeolians.  Nevertheless, with the “The Aeneid” still in mind, Roe, I mean the playwright, “supplants the roles of Juno and Aeolus with those of Prospero and Ariel.”

Well… Prospero likened to an enraged Juno seeking the wreck and ruin of Aeneas compared to Propsero’s magical zero-fatality non-wreck?  Ariel the spirit sprite likened to blustery Aeolus the bringer of storms (until Neptune tells him to get a grip)?   While such imaginings may seem egregious wishful thinking, there is, nevertheless, an inspired logic to it. Reasoning backwards, if Vulcano is Prospero’s island, and Prospero’s island is in the Aeolian Isles, which is named after the bringer of storms, and a storm is central to “The Tempest,” and the learned Oxford knows “The Aeneid,” so the storm in “The Tempest” alludes the storm in “The Aeneid” caused by Juno, so Juno informs Prospero, and Aeolus Ariel, then Oxford must, with matter-of-fact certainty, have experienced a similar tempest-tossed passage from, let’s say, Naples to Messina, providing the requisite biographical experience to which we owe this most magical of plays. 

Next Roe regales us with a tale of Duke Francesco’s outrageous behavior leading to, it now seems, his poisoning.   Without comment Roe moves quickly on.  Perhaps he was too embarrassed to press Prospero as Francesco any harder, since Prospero was neither a murderous philanderer nor was he eventually murdered himself for gross malfeasance.

Then Roe offers several similarities between Vulcano’s environs and the play.  Roe emphasizes the “hot mud pools” twice, then cites Ariel’s report of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo “I’th’ filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell.”   No heat, no sense of hotness, except the trio was “red-hot with drinking.”   Instead, it seems like just plain old filthy mud.  Then Roe emphasizes the “volcanic sulfur dust” covering the pools.   Yet the trio smells not of sulfur.   Says Trinculo, “Monster, I do smell of Horse piss.”   Sounds, rather, smells like a stable, a cesspool, a London gutter, a country barnyard--but not rotten eggs.  Roe then places special emphasis on the “filthy-mantled” nature of the stinking pool.   Notice, it is not yellow-mantled but filthy-mantled.  Well, we all know what floats.

Next Roe emphasizes the “yellow sand” of Ariel’s song (I.ii.), again matter-of-factly insisting “the playwright had seen this marvel.” But yellow sand is common enough, even in England.  At Holkam Bay, Norfolk, “the yellow sands here are mesmerically vast, and when the tide is out, the elements merge together, creating a bewildering, two-dimensional sense of space. Even in bad weather, the four-mile walk along this brooding beach is worth it for the atmosphere.”   A scene from “Shakespeare in Love” was shot there, while QEII likes to walk her corgis on these yellow sands.

Then Roe points out Caliban describing the music of the island:  “…the isle is full of noises/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”  Roe inexplicably compares this to Virgil’s description of “Vulcano’s groaning, hissing, pounding, and panting.”   And this would be “sweet airs?”  But we must have a correspondence.   So a spewing volcano becomes sweet music.   Come now.  The “evidence” is being waterboarded!  Because no spewing volcanos are ever described, or even alluded to, on Caliban’s island.   The closest phenomenon Roe latches onto are Vulcano’s undersea fumaroles, which he sees in Miranda’s frantic description of Prospero’s storm: 

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th' welkin’s cheek,

Dashes the fire out.

A pitch black rain pouring down, thick and impenetrable, as the sea comes crashing into the rocky shore hurling great geysers up through the crevices into the sky, where both tempests collide in mid-air dousing the figurative fire of their collision.   Does this describe a fumarole?  That occasionally spews upward only?   And, as Roe reminds us again, stinks of sulfur dioxide?  Smell, they say, is the strongest sense in memory, yet there’s not one mention of sulfur or the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs in all “The Tempest.”

Roe moves on to the flora and fauna of Vulcano with the “hedgehogs which/lie tumbling” in Caliban’s path and prick his feet.  No hedgehogs in England’s hedges are there?  And the “young scamels,” which Roe acknowledges are found along the beaches in England, an interesting concession given the difficulty determining just what they are (although probably a type of shellfish, or perhaps a rock-hopping seabird that eats ‘em). 

And the berries, which, according to Roe, have caused “considerable consternation.”  But he has the answer and thus announces, “the berries of which Caliban speaks are clearly mulberries.”  And how does Roe know?  Because mulberries are found on Vulcano.  Never mind that they are found across Europe and are quite common to England.   Just like crab apples.

And the “sharp furzes” and “prickling gorse” that while prominent in Iberia, thrive from Ireland to France, along highly exposed Atlantic coastal heathland habitats.  Wiki even has a picture of controlled burning of gorse in Devon.

Likewise, Caliban digs pignuts, which are also found across Europe, tending more to the north, and likely unsuited to the soil and climate of Vulcano, as they are normally found in long-established grasslands.  They are, of course, found throughout green England.   

Caliban will also “Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how/To snare the nimble marmoset.”  The jay is another common fauna across Eurasia, and prolific in England.  The marmoset, however, is a New World species, which likely explains why Roe “overlooked” them.  

Vulcano has flora and fauna found across Europe, except for the “far away” marmoset and, most likely, the tuberous pignut.  Thus the specialness of Caliban’s Island isn’t so special after all, when it’s flora and fauna are as common, if not more so, in England than on Vulcano.

Next, Roe suggests that in Catalan “caliban” means outcast or pariah, and thus provides the true source of Caliban’s name. But Caliban is not an outcast.  The island he has perfect knowledge of is his home:  “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother.”  The outcast here is Prospero.  And typing Caliban as an outcast, a pariah, seems reductive when “this thing of darkness” is so much more.   Besides, Caliban as cannibal is, undeniably, a perfect “other’ for Elizabethan audiences, unless you think they’d catch that clever bit of Catalan and say, “Did you catch that clever bit of Catalan? This Caliban fellow is no cannibal, he’s a pariah.”   If Occam were attending, he’d think “cannibal,” given the great voyages of exploration that brought back tales of cannibals--and marmosets.  And he’d likely heard of Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.”

Likewise, Roe strokedst and madest much of the word “ariel,” that, he claims, in popular Catalan tradition means “a spirit of the air and of the water, generally mischievous.”  He dutifully acknowledges the Ariel of Ezra 8:16-20, one of leaders sent to gather the faithful.   The name also appears in Isaiah 29 1-7 as a personification of Jerusalem.  But the most likely source is simply a poetic cognate of airy, as spoken by Prospero as he works his final charm:

…But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for…

Roe, sensing a stretch regarding the author’s knowledge of Catalan, concedes, “How much of this language the playwright learned in his southern travels can only be guessed.”   But Roe still insists, because he must, that the playwright had “enough association with Catalonians for him to have absorbed at least some of their distinct vocabulary.”  So he would have us believe that Oxford took such an interest in the Catalan language and their traditions that he learned enough to remember these obscure words and their secondary meanings.  Even though Oxford thought Spain the worse, having seen Italy (the 24 September letter to Burghley from Venice) at a time when Sicily was very Spanish.   Even though his travels in Italy lack any evidence he was ever south of Tuscany.

Near the end of the chapter Roe digresses on the Bermoothes.  Correctly he notes this may allude to the wet and stormy Bermudas, some place “far away” from the deep nook. Or it may refer to the London Bermoothes, another place very different and very “far away.”  And therein lies the rub.  Together these far different places add to the strangeness of Caliban’s island.  Like Oz, Caliban’s island is imagined.  It’s everywhere and nowhere.  But it’s not a somewhere, however much Oxfordians insist on grounding the plays in dull sublunary geography—and biography.  Caliban’s island is not Vulcano, it is something otherworldly, a no-time and no-place of Shakespeare’s imagination. 

Roe, in his Epilogue, cannot even imagine that Caliban’s island is imaginary.  Thus, and sadly, Roe ends up like so many other Oxfordians, especially, it seems, the lawyers and doctors and astrophysicists, who, most assuredly, are smarter than the bellowing butcher from Turnip Town.  And in his efforts to erase Shakespeare, the sincere barrister has only proven once again that if you look hard enough for evidence to prove what you already know in your heart, you’ll find it, somewhere, over the rainbow, or perhaps in the “deep nook” on Caliban’s island, even though it doesn’t even have a volcano.     

Finally, I agree entirely with Peter Farey’s observation that Wright’s introduction is best left unread, lest it turn this otherwise delightful book into the a poisonous tree, thus fully warranting a similarly venomous review.

Postscript:  As mentioned above by Stritmatter, a Reverend Hunter tried to do for Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily, what Roe attempted 150 years later for Vulcano.  But seems this earlier  “discovery” was also met with skepticism, as it was roundly roasted, with great aplomb and wit, in the “London Quarterly Review” of 1840.   Hunter claimed Lampedusa was believed to be haunted, and was not Shakespeare’s island haunted by spirits?  And on Lampedusa a hermit always lived, as did Shakespeare’s hermit magician.   Best of all, Lampedusa provided wood for Malta, which was Prospero’s trade, with Caliban and Ferdinand the gatherers.  The review is a delightful anti-anti-Stratfordian romp, and interesting on its own by how far it predates the current silliness.  Myself, I’m torn between the two, although the” trade in faggots with Malta” does seem “the clencher.”  I believe Dr. Stritmatter also shares my sympathies.

For more on Hunter, see Elton & Lang (1904).


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