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A Quintessence of Dust

An interim report on the marginalia of the Geneva Bible of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

by Roger Stritmatter

This article was first published in the spring 1993 (Vol. 29, no.2A) Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

The following report summarizes the results of a nine-month study of the underlined verses and marginal notations of the Geneva Bible (1570) of Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.. The Bible, first examined by the author in January 1992, was included in the Folger’s Collection of Fine Bindings from February through September 1992. First purchased by Henry Clay Folger in 1925, five years after the publication of John Thomas Looney’s path breaking study “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the Bible has not been examined by any scholar prepared to evaluate the possible historical significance of the underlinings of more than one thousand verses by a sixteenth century annotator almost certain to have been the original owner, Edward de Vere.(1)

Note 1: This conclusion is offered on the basis of the following considerations: 1) The reliability of the Folger’s provenance information determining de Vere’s original ownership; 2) the principal investigator’s familiarity with de Vere’s holograph as attested in publications Amphlett (1955), Fowler (1986), and Miller (1988). Efforts to verify comparison of the holograph and ink composition through expert testimony, delayed due to the Fine Binding Exhibit, are currently being undertaken.)

Folger curators responsible for cataloging marginal notations of historic significance, unaware of the annotations until brought to their attention in January 1992, expressed surprise and great interest on learning of the nature of the annotations. (2)

(Note 2: Special collections curator Dr. Nati Krivatsky, who mounted the fine bindings exhibit and has subsequently retired from the Folger Staff, registered surprise and enthusiasm when shown several examples of the evidence included in the present report tying the annotations to Shakespeare. Dr. Laetitia Yeandle, curator of rare manuscripts, asked about the need to test the ink to pin down the date of the annotations, expressed her opinion that the inks used by the annotator were unlikely to be other than 16th century. Nevertheless, ink testing will undoubtedly be required.)

The present report draws on the more than two centuries of serious scholarly study of Shakespeare’s compositional technique—the means by which, as Greenwood puts it, “the great magician turns all that he touches into purest gold” (Greenwood, 1908, p.96)—and his Biblical knowledge. Particular emphasis is laid on the significance of Walter Whiter’s path breaking but rarely studied 1794 essay on Shakespeare’s mental associations as wells as on several more recent studies of Shakespeare’s biblical references: Richmond Noble’s classic, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (1935), which set the scholarly standard for organization, precision and classification; Peter Milward’s Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies (1987), a comprehensive study of Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet ; and two books by Naseeb Shaheen which, following Noble’s footsteps, carefully outline a large number—though, as we shall see, certainly not all—of the Biblical references in two genres of plays: Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1987) and Biblical References in Shakespeare’s History Plays (1989).

As this list makes apparent, much of the important work in studies of Shakespeare’s biblical references has taken place within the last five years and much remains to be discovered. Richmond Noble pessimistically described the status of research in 1935:

Mistakes in attribution have frequently occurred, sometimes with far-reaching results. Since Shakespeare is not available for examination we may ascribe to him allusions to books he had no intention of making, and also he may have utilized those selfsame books on occasions that have escaped our notice. Our inquiry in the nature of an Inquest of Documents, where the principal witness is not available for personal interrogation and where all the evidence is contained in existing documents to which it is impossible to add anything. (1935, p.24, italics added)

The study shows that of the one thousand verses marked and underlined in the Earl of Oxford’s Geneva Bible, as many as two-hundred, or one-fifth, demonstrate a definite, probable, or possible influence in the Shakespeare canon. Over eighty of these verses, as well as some sixteen psalms, are attributed as Shakespeare references to the Bible in the studies published by Noble, Milward and Shaheen. The remaining one-hundred and twenty verses, only a small portion of which (not more than 20x) fall into the category “possible”, are attributed to Shakespeare on the strength of the present study. This distribution of evidence is highly significant. The verses which are already evident in the literature anchor the present study in a tradition of scholarship which, proceeding on the assumptions of Noble, working in the absence of any documentary evidence, has succeeded in isolating and describing a large number of Shakespeare’s biblical references. The new verses added by the present study highlight the heuristic value of the Oxfordian thesis as well as providing an independent confirmation of the premise on which the study depends.



The principal investigator holds a masters degree with honors from the New School for Social Research (1988) and a PhD from the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation focused on the marginalia of the Edward de Vere bible owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. He currently an associate professor at Copin State University in MD.

Portions of the material included in this Report are featured in GTE’s 1992 Interactive Video Teleconference on Shakespearean authorship, Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update . The first public presentation of the material was made October 17, 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio, at the 16th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society of America. The author addressed the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable in Santa Monica, Ca. on January 16, 1993. Dr. Anne Pluto (PhD, English), Shakespeare professor at Leslie College in Boston, will co-author two articles based on the material supplied in the Report.

[A fuller presentation of these findings was also made at the 18th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society of America in Carmel, CA, on October 1, 1994.]
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