he Marginalia of Edward De Vere's Geneva Bible:
Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning and Historical Consequence
A Dissertation Presented by
Reviewed by John Mucci.
|Mr. Stritmatter's dissertation on Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible is one that has long been anticipated. In numerous precursors, he has teased his audience by offering up bits and pieces of his thesis at conventions, on web sites, on video, and in friendly publications. Now that his document of 515 pages (nearly half of which are appendices and statistical data) is complete, we can see that it was well worth the wait. The only real question is, even after a decade of work, whether he has published too soon.
While Dr. Stritmatter uses the term marginalia in his title, this might lead one to believe that his study comprises the articulate reflections of an Elizabethan reader in reaction to certain Biblical passages. While such a trove of phrases or even aides-memoires would be invaluable from many standpoints, the majority of the actual "marginalia" referred to in the lengthy title of this work amounts to little more than strokes of a penmany hardly more than tick marks under a verse-number. True, there are a few words written in, but for a passage concerning sin to have the word "Sinne" written in the margin is no find in anyone's gamebag.
Essentially, Dr. Stritmatter's dissertation is a study in minute detail of the possible importance of these tick marks in such an historical book. For this so-called "Geneva" Bible (1570) is the one incontrovertably owned by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. This infamous Elizabethan gentleman was of course re-discovered in the early twentieth century as a possible candidate for Shakespeare's authorship, and hotly contested thereafter. But if the Geneva verses so marked in de Vere's copy show us his patterns of interest he had in Biblical themes and turns of phrase, Stritmatter argues that they might show a consonance with themes and Biblical allusions in Shakespeare's work. Having the Earl of Oxford's Biblical interests be parallel with themes found in King Lear, Othello, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, and Macbeth, some down to exact phraseology, it is a heavy burden but short leap to say that they were written by de Vere himself under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.
Having seen and photographed the very Bible in question when it was in the Folger's Fine Bindings exhibition, I can attest that the volume is a beautiful enough object, printed in double columns, bound in red velvet, emblazoned with silver escutcheons depicting a boar and a single star. While the weak, watery lines in many colors that underscore the verses from de Vere's hand do not seem much on which to base a thesis this grand, Dr. Stritmatter carefully constructs a cataract from these very small droplets and pulls off a scholarly tour de force that is filled with rich new connections and literary surprises. Anyone with an interest in Shakespeare's works would be fascinated by what he has to say, whether they agree with his conclusions or not. For while it does take a leap of faith by those who need to be 100% convinced for de Vere or against William of Stratford as author, and it takes a partially blind eye to discount some poor choices in editing and layout of Dr. Stritmatter's tome, the reward is a whole new field of topics concerning the meaning of Shakespeare and what he has to say to us today.
The thesis hinges on a valid observation. Shakespeare had a particular view of humanity that was informed by a certain tradition, and influenced by a number of literary works. Among these works are certain passages of the Bible, and, pointedly not others. Shakespeare's insistence on thematically returning to identifiable tropes and turns of phrases give his work a characteristic viewpoint and contribute to his justifiably being lauded as a writer who understood the human heart so well. The question begged at once is this: if Edward de Vere wrote the works we recognize as Shakespeare's, do the marked verses in de Vere's Bible correspond to those influences?
It is that very correspondence that resides on an intellectual level that is sometimes uncomfortably fanciful, but at times temptingly firm. For example, if de Vere had penned in the margin of Revelation 14:13, "Would go well in acte 1, Hamlet" or if Polonius, in that play, added a spoken precept to Laertes, "stretch out thine hand, and give unto the poore" (Ecclesiasticus, 14:13), all would indeed be well that ended well, and there would be no contest.
Obviously, that is not the case. While de Vere has marked off over 1,000 verses in his Bible, there is seldom a one-to-one correspondence with Shakespeare, unless a character in a play quotes scripture verbatim. It is a frustrating puzzle to fit the underlined passages to dramatic works (or the lyric poetry). One's tolerance for being force-fed is being tested, so one must sit back and listen to Dr. Stritmatter explain the consonance and leave it up to the reader as to whether it is a convincing parallel.
When Shakespeare has Falstaff say "I fear not Golias with a weaver's beame", and the phrase at 2 Samuel 21:19
"...the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam"has a de Vere tick mark next to it in the relevant passage in the Geneva Bible, Stritmatter makes the most of this as a palpable "hit". From this bull's-eye, the hits spin out wider and wider until the parallels become almost entirely based on faith alone.
One soon discovers that this 400 year old Bible is a narrow aperture through which to observe either de Vere or Shakespeare, and to make these kinds of comparisons. Given the limitations, as well as the built-in antipathy to the subject from so many of his scholarly audience, Dr. Stritmatter has done a marvellous job in showing us how prescient these little parti-colored marks are. Half the proposition is entirely convincing: in thumbing through the marked Bible, we are looking at part the mind of Edward de Vere, his sensibilities, his interests, his selection of one passage over another. It is an Elizabethan hidden web-cam, and as such open to further interpretation. Most poignantly, can you assert that such a personality is also Shakespeare's?
Dr. Stritmatter again and again argues that it is. For example, a passage marked by de Vere at Hebrews, 13:6,
"To do good and to distribute, forget not."an odd translation of the passage by the Genevan writer, using the concept of "distribution" for "charity". But it is in King Lear that Gloster says, "So distribution should undo excess..." with the same meaning implied, charity. (Both the Biblical and Shakespearean passages are longer in the original, but only reinforce each other).
Dr. Stritmatter spends a considerable amount of ink reporting the Biblical references found in de Vere's contemporaries. He gives us Bacon's Biblical allusions, as well as those of Marlowe, Spencer, Rabelais, and Montaigne. And while the French examples strike one as not being as convincing as the English (I think it is a question of translation that doesn't stray far from the literal), it is evident that Marlowe had quite a different agenda, and Bacon yet another. A Bible so marked by Marlowe (odd though that thought may be in the first place), would would definitely have different passages noted.
The sands upon which so much of this is built sometimes stands, sometimes shifts, sometimes topples. In the body of the thesis, at chapter 19, we see that the Biblical verse from Ecclesiasticus 38:15, which reads "He that sinneth before his maker let him fall into the hands of the physicians" is a possible analogue to Henry IV's Bardolph,
"Marry the Immortal part need a Physician and that moves not him."And the doctor in Macbeth says of the sleepwalking Lady,
"More needs she the divine than the physician..."and Lear's cry,
"Let me have surgeons! I am cut to the brains!"Now the three Shakespeare examples may or may not be illustrative of the Biblical pericope, but a number of similar examples accrete a case that is circumstantial, but compelling.
Eventually, the instances of exact phraseology dwindle, and the more difficult to sell, but even more compelling idea of the image cluster is given the spotlight. While some of the themes Shakespeare used from the Bible are part of a common heritage in 16th century England, there are also very definite peculiaritiesone might almost say an obsession with a narrow list of topics having to do with the collective importance of small things, with the worthlessness of worldly goods, with the question of deeds and good works as being the key to gaining salvation. Here we find de Vere and Shakespeare sitting in the same part of the hall, and indeed, at times, occupying the same seat.
However, later on Dr. Stritmatter turns the tables, and by the same means attempts to discredit the critics who date The Tempest after de Vere's death in 1604 solely on the same kind of circumstantial evidence found in a book by William Strachey (The True Repertory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates 1610):
Strachey: We threw overboard much luggage and [stowed] many a Butt of Beer, Hogsheads of Oil, Cider, Wine, and Vinegar, and heaved away all our ordnance...The reader who can truly make the distinction between these two opposing groups of parallels is one who can adjudge very fine consonances. While Dr. Stritmatter avouches that he can and does discern this distinction, the balance is so tender that its tipping point remains the exquisite fulcrum of this dissertation.
The ultimate effect of this work is that it was conceived episodically, and although parts of it are compelling, it has an ununified, unfinished feel about it. If this is Dr. Stritmatter's life work, this is the infancy of its publication, and we are eager to see it into its adolescence if not a more cohesive maturity.
Finally, while Dr. Stritmatter's work is the result of over a decade of research and cognative systhesis, and so obviously a labor of love, it is disappointing to see how a volume of this size can be copy-edited so indifferently. In a long, complex catena of evidence, and with a presupposed conclusion so volatile and susceptible to suspicion of any deviation from a sequence of wateright graduations, the elementary errors in layout, typography, spelling, and consistency on almost every page are as astonishing as every other aspect of this remarkable book.