Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
The book Hamlet carries on stage and reads during the play has been identified by scholars as De Consolatione, by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano a.k.a. Jerome Cardan (1501-1576), and its English translation was published for the first time upon the orders of the passionate, enthusiastic, 23-year-old Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, who financed the printing as well.
Well, now, there’s a coincidence for you…
The first London edition appeared under the heading Cardanus Comforte translated into English and published by commandment of the right honorable the Earl of Oxenford, Anno Domini 1573. Signaling his intention henceforth to devote himself primarily to literature, Edward de Vere also contributed a prefatory letter and poem in honor of the translator, his friend Thomas Bedingfield.
The earliest identification of Cardanus’ Comforte with Hamlet apparently came from Francis Douce in 1839, writing, “Whoever will take the trouble of reading the whole of Cardanus as translated by Bedingfield will soon be convinced that it had been perused by Shakspeare.” [Yep, back then they often spelled the name as it generally appeared in Stratford.]
“This seems to be the book which Shakespeare placed in the hands of Hamlet,” Joseph Hunter wrote of Cardanus Comforte in 1845, citing passages that “seem to approach so near to the thoughts of Hamlet that we can hardly doubt that they were in the Poet’s mind when he put [certain speeches] into the mouth of his hero.”
In the first quarto of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in 1603, just before the prince launches into “To be or not to be,” the king sees him “poring upon a book” — suggesting that originally Hamlet was to be holding the book while delivering that famous soliloquy, which is virtually a poetical paraphrase of it. Examples (with my emphases) follow.
CARDAN: “In holy scripture, death is not accounted other than sleep, and to die is said to sleep … better to follow the counsel of Agathius, who right well commended death, saying that it did not only remove sickness and all other grief, but also, when all other discommodities of life did happen to man often, it never would come more than once … Seeing, therefore, with such ease men die, what should we account of death to be resembled to anything better than sleep … Most assured it is that such sleep be most sweet as be most sound, for those are the best wherein like unto dead men we dream nothing. The broken sleeps, the slumber, the dreams full of visions, are commonly in them that have weak and sickly bodies.”
HAMLET: “To die, to sleep – no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep — to sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.”
The resemblances, Hardin Craig wrote in 1934, are in fact “more numerous and of a more fundamental character than even Hunter seems to have realized.” Indeed it may be said “without exaggeration,” he continued, “that Cardanus Comfort “is pre-eminently ‘Hamlet’s book,’ since the philosophy of Hamlet agrees to a remarkable degree with that of Cardano.”
Craig cited “a number of even more striking agreements” between Hamlet and Cardan, for example:
CARDAN: “For there is nothing that doth better or more truly prophecy the end of life, than when a man dreams that he doth travel and wander into far countries … and that he travels in countries unknown without hope of return…”
HAMLET: “But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns…”
Hardin Craig found not only parallels to Hamlet’s speeches but clarifications of their meaning; for example:
CARDAN: “Only honesty and virtue of mind doth make a man happy, and only a coward and corrupt conscience do cause thine unhappiness.”
HAMLET: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.”
Previously most scholars had interpreted Hamlet’s use of “conscience” as a “sense of right and wrong,” but Hardin Craig’s reading of Cardanus’ Comfort in Bedingfield’s 1573 translation revealed that Hamlet is referring not to moral scruples about suicide, but, rather, to lack of virtue. In speaking of “virtue” both Cardano and Hamlet mean the power to find remedies for our ills within ourselves; our innate capacity to exercise fortitude and control our minds; and both also use “virtue” to mean our ability to act in response to the calamities of life.
CARDAN: “The life of man must not be accounted long or short in respect of his years. The life of all mortal men is but short, because with death it shall be most certainly ended. It is virtue and worthy acts that make the life long, and idleness that shortens thy days.”
HAMLET: (Taking the above thought and rendering it anew in his words): “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”
“Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is steeped in the philosophy of Cardanus’ Comforte,” Charles Beauclerk writes in his current book Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, “and shot through with quotations and reminiscences from the work … [Hamlet’s] praise of Horatio’s ability to accept triumph and adversity with equal indifference (‘Give me that man that is not passion’s slave…’) is a masterful summation of Cardan’s recipe for a contented life. Hamlet gives the speech just before he puts on The Mousetrap in front of the king and queen, highlighting the fact that through theater he achieves dispassion, which is, in Cardan’s view, essential to the clear and contented mind. In other words, by choosing the appropriate role and playing it with understanding, we make peace with our lot. Thus Cardanus’ Comforte gives us an insight into the way Shakespeare used theater as a means of coming to terms with his fate.”
Here are some of the comments made by Charles Wisner Barrell in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly of July 1946:
“AMONG THE MANY revealing circumstances that identify the poet-dramatist Earl of Oxford as the personality behind the pen-name of ‘William Shakespeare’ none is more telling than the fact that books which are intimately associated with Oxford’s intellectual development are clearly traceable in the great plays and poems. There are more than a dozen such books—amply certified as unquestionable Shakespearean source material—which contemporary records show the Earl owned, or which were publicly dedicated to him. Many others were written by his personal friends, relatives or known proteges.
“One of these key exhibits which Lord Oxford took a personal hand in bringing to the attention of Elizabethan readers in the year 1573 is a small blackletter translation from the Latin which bears the title of ‘Cardanus Comforte’….
“The human sympathy which Cardan expresses in this one passage is typical of his general out look. By the same token, it is also typical of Shakespeare who rarely fails to give even his deepest-dyed villains opportunity to air their grievances against fate. Comfort, consolation and their derivatives are words for which the Bard displays a significant partiality….
“Cardan’s philosophy of consolation which made such a deep impression upon Shakespeare owes, in turn, a joint debt to Socrates. Plato, Catullus and Marcus Aurelius, but is shot through with the lively and realistic questioning of an active participant in the Revival of Learning. Wisdom and Wit go forward hand in hand. Neither does Cardan scorn to pause by the broad highway every now and then to chant a snatch of poetry appropriate to some phase of his commentary on the human journey…
“It speaks well for the character and mental proclivities of the young Earl of Oxford that he had encouraged or ‘commanded’ Bedingfield to the accomplishment of this work of permanent, cosmopolitan interest. The situation, however, is all of a piece with Oxford’s recorded career as an inspiring leader and generous, supporter of so many of the scholars and literary innovators whose works are clearly reflected in the deep well of Shakespeare’s knowledge.”
The next installment of the “100 Reasons” will take up Oxford’s prefatory letter, a “document of considerable importance,” the Oxfordian researcher Ruth Miller noted, adding, “It gives the creative credo of a young but rapidly maturing writer. It forms a part of that ‘long foreground somewhere’ which is missing in the early manhood of Stratford’s William. It is a key exhibit in matching the shadowy figure of the Earl of Oxford to the silhouette of ‘Shakespeare.’”
Oxford’s connection to the language and themes of “Cardanus’ Comforte” ran deep in his veins, as they did in Shakespeare’s — adding one more link in the chain of evidence, I’d say, that the two were one and the same.
Many Oxfordians over the past near-century have made enormous contributions to the scholarship related to Oxford’s sponsorship of Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus’ Comforte – among them J. Thomas Looney, B. M. Ward, Percy Allen, Ruth Miller, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, Charlton Ogburn Jr and Joseph Sobran. Reason No. 11 will include a list of online links to some of their work in this regard; meanwhile, here are some links relevant to Reason No. 10: