What is debasement?
Why do the coins have bloody noses?
Why would Shakespeare have cared about debasement?
What’s the quickest way you can explain the Hamlet argument to me?
What are the weaknesses of your Hamlet argument?
What is the relationship between your Hamlet argument and your Measure for Measure argument?
How did you come up with the Measure for Measure argument?
How do you know that the connections you find in Hamlet and Measure for Measure are not due to coincidence?
Supposing that you are completely wrong about the debasement themes in Hamlet and Measure for Measure? Is your contribution to the literature then utterly worthless, or have you identified anything important along the way?
What qualifies you to tell us the meaning of Shakespeare?
If these themes are really there, why hasn’t anyone discovered them before?
Why did you take so much time to construct this web-site?
Wouldn't "Debasing Shakespeare" be a better and catchier name for this website?

What is debasement?

A monarch is said to have “debased” the currency when he introduces a base metal (such as copper) into a previously pure (or comparatively pure) coinage. Typically, this involved introduction of copper into a silver or gold coinage, resulting in a plated coinage, where the "core" of the coin was impure. Debasement of the coinage has always (at least since the time of Aristophanes) been an apt metaphor in the arsenal of dramatists seeking to depict the inner corruption of a human soul.

The monarch did not typically announce debasements, as this would defeat the debasement’s purpose. Paper, n.140 (citing Challis). Rather, individuals who brought their bullion or plate to the mint to be coined would find, to their dismay, that the coins received in return were not pure.

The introduction of base coin into the circulating currency caused a number of problems, the most obvious of which were confusion and inflation. People did not know what to do with their remaining pure coins – were they worth their face value, and thus equivalent to base coin of the same face value, or should they be traded based on their precious metal content? Another problem, documented in a contemporaneous record from the early 1600s, was what effect a debasement had on credit? Does the debt get repaid in debased coin? An excellent contemporary discussion of debasement, Discourse of the Common Weal of This Realm of England (1549), describes the effects of Henry VIII's debasement as including famine and other shortages. See Shaw, W.A., The History of Currency 1252-1896 (1896) (New York: August M. Kelley 1967), pp. 125-128.

Why do the coins have bloody noses?

Under Henry VIII’s “Great Debasement,” coins became so debased that the copper shone through the silver veneer in the area of the king’s nose. Such coins and even Henry himself were referred to as "coppernoses", and gave rise to jokes about copper and bloody noses. Paper, n.15 and associated text (citing Sandra Fischer, Econolingua: A Glossary of Coins and Economic Language in Renaissance Drama (Newark: U.Del. P. 1985), 99 (noting that Shakespearean references to copper noses (Tro. 1.2.106) and bloody noses (1 Henry IV 2.3.93–94) refer to these coins of Henry VIII)). Obviously, the pictures on the cover page are a bit of a joke, the noses did not bleed as depicted.

Why would Shakespeare have cared about debasement?

Every middle class person cared about it, just as people today worry about inflation. Elizabethans encountered base coin on a daily basis as they had to put up with both counterfeits and foreign coinage that may have been deliberately debased. At the turn of the seventeenth century, they had particular cause for concern due to the impending accession of King James of Scotland, who had debased the Scottish coinage almost continuously during his reign there.

The inevitable result of debasement is that the coinage shrinks, and the lower denominations eventually disappear. In other words, while during the initial debasement, coinage is the same size as before (but debased), when the coinage is restored to purity, the same denominations are typically used, but less metal. If as a result of a debasement a one pound coin contains only 1/12 as much gold as it did before the debasement, then the restored pound coin will weigh only 1/12 as much as the original coin. At the time Hamlet was written, the Scottish coinage included a 20-pound coin – an unthinkably high denomination to one thinking in terms of English pounds – owing to the fact that the Scottish coinage had been debased by a factor of 12 compared to the English currency over the previous centuries.

What’s the quickest way you can explain the Hamlet argument to me?

Hamlet’s reference to his uncle Claudius’s “picture in little” selling for 20, 40, 100 ducats in Hamlet 2.2 is a reference to coinage and denominations, not miniature portraits. Test this by looking at Hamlet’s next reference to “pictures,” when he forces his mother to look at “pictures” of Claudius and Old Hamlet in what he calls a “counterfeit presentment.” The Queen’s later quip that Hamlet’s vision of the ghost is “the very coinage of your brain,” strongly suggests that Hamlet was showing his mother coins. Seen this way, both the “picture in little” and “coinage of your brain” lines are simply better lines than under their traditional interpretations.

The case becomes more compelling when one considers that Claudius’s namesake – the Roman Emperor – was thought to have debased the Roman coinage in England. In the two pictures scene, Claudius’s “picture” is referred to as a “mildewed ear blasting his older brother,” because it is debased, contaminating the remaining pure coinage of Old Hamlet. The high ducat denominations of Claudius’s “picture in little” also support the debasement theory. Once these basic debasement references are seen, other possible references to debasement become apparent. The paper explains the rest. A more detailed synopsis can be found in Hamlet -- Birdseye View.

What are the weaknesses of your Hamlet argument?

No credible weaknesses have been identified by any critic. Obviously, the theory relies on the notion that Shakespeare intended a double-entendre with the “picture in little” line. If one is of the mindset that Shakespeare rarely used double-entendres, then one might resist the proposed interpretation. On the other hand, if one believes that Shakespeare typically intended his double-entendres, then one will have little trouble accepting the argument as to the picture in little scene.

The Hamlet paper suggests new interpretations of the “picture in little” line and the “two pictures” scene that improve those parts of the play. The paper goes on, based on the assumption that those two lines do indeed refer to coinage and debasement, to find additional supporting evidence. While I do not believe that the supporting evidence that I’ve found would independently support the case for a debasement theme, when it is added to the “two pictures” and “picture in little” interpretations, it makes the case stronger. I can safely acknowledge that it’s possible that some of the lines that I have identified as possible references to debasement were not consciously intended as such by Shakespeare. The single “interpretation” that I have the most doubts about occurs in Hamlet’s instructions to the actors. I point out that some of the language smacks of debasement, and that there may be a pun of “crown” with “clown,” but of course it's also possible that the passage was written to convey Shakespeare’s view of acting, and nothing more (on the other hand, it has been pointed out that it’s quite ridiculous for Hamlet to try to teach the famous Tragedians anything about acting, so it’s not crazy to search for an alternative meaning in the passage).

What is the relationship between your Hamlet argument and your Measure for Measure argument?

They are independent arguments, and each should be evaluated on its own merits. Having said that, I will say that the Hamlet argument occurred to me first, and that I would not have explored the MFM argument so extensively had I not been persuaded by the Hamlet argument. The Hamlet argument is simply a collection of suggestions of ways to make the play more enjoyable, and evidence that it was actually Shakespeare’s intent to make it so. For the MFM argument to be persuasive, it helps to start with the mindset that Shakespeare cared about and wrote about economic themes. While this viewpoint can be gathered through a review of the scholarship in this area – most notably, the work of Sandra Fischer (Ellston), Douglas Bruster, Stephen X. Mead, Frederick Turner, and Jonathan Gil Harris -- the existence of a fresh debasement theme in Hamlet makes the MFM argument more persuasive.

The reason that the Hamlet argument appears first is because it is probably the stronger – or in any event the less controversial – argument, since it is not proposing an allegorical meaning. To understand the overall paper, it is best to read the two arguments in sequence.

How did you come up with the Measure for Measure argument?

As with the Hamlet argument, after first noticing the potential connection to debasement – the testing of Angelo, named for a coin – I searched the rest of the play for confirmation. I was happy to find that other critics – including the editors of all the major editions – had already identified numerous coinage and testing references throughout the play, and that the argument had been made that the play had an economic bent. I see this fact – which I came across only after I had formulated my hypothesis – as an important confirmation of my hypothesis.

Moreover, the pieces continued to fall into place in unexpected and pleasing ways. I did not have the sensation of forcing the pieces of a puzzle to fit when they did not; rather, they seemed to fall right into place. From the starting point that Angelo was named for a coin, was being tested and was in danger of debasement, I noticed that the Duke, by virtue of his title, was a “monarch” figure, and I surmised that Isabella – by virtue of her name (Isabella is Spanish for Elizabeth) – could be a monarch figure as well. And this too was “confirmed” by the work of other scholars, who made these connections for independent reasons.

Following the debasement theme, I supposed that these two monarch figures might have something to do with the potential debasement of the coin, Angelo. Thus, a coin is being tested by one monarch (the Duke), and is being tested some more by another monarch (Isabella). The second refuses to allow the coin to become debased, just as Elizabeth did when she restored her father’s coinage.

The metaphor so far seems quite limited, and a very modest extension of preexisting thought, but it’s difficult to see where it’s going. The next observation is that Mariana also plays a role in the debasement metaphor: Because she was betrothed to Angelo, sleeping with her will not debase Angelo. It is therefore appropriate to consider whether there is a “debasement” association with the name “Mariana.” A google search immediately reveals that Juan de Mariana, a septogenarian Spanish Jesuit scholar at the time Measure for Measure was written, wrote a treatise on debasement that was first published in 1609.

Actually, the main return on google mistakenly says that the treatise was first published in 1605; further research shows that his debasement views were published as a chapter in the second edition of his book “On the Education of the King,” published in 1605. Additional research shows that at least one scholar believed that this chapter appeared in the first edition of the book, in 1599, as well, but this seems to be the minority view.

Putting aside the question of whether Mariana had formulated and expressed his views as early as 1604 and how Shakespeare would have learned of those views, the next step is to consider whether assuming that Mariana represents Juan de Mariana tells us any more about the play. We start by looking at the identifying features that Shakespeare gave her – she lives on a “moated grange” and her brother was Fredericke the “great soldier” who “miscarried” and was “wracked” at sea. We note that nobody has positively identified who – if anyone – “Fredericke” refers to, although one scholar has pointed out that Frederick the Great drowned while bathing in or crossing a river. Given the link to Spain provided by Mariana and the name “Isabella,” we search history for a Spanish Fredericke who died at sea, and immediately learn of Federigo De Spinola -- known to the English as "Frederike", a close match to the Folio's "Fredericke" -- who died at sea the year before the play was first performed, fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch.

Spinola was from a wealthy Genoese family – and thus his name is often spelled “Federico” – but he put up considerable wealth and manpower to support the Spanish cause against the Dutch and English. After his death, his older brother Ambrosio took over his quest, vanquished the Dutch, and went on to become Spain’s most prominent soldier for the first third of the seventeenth century.

Note how the assumption that Shakespeare was thinking in Iberian terms led quickly to the discovery of Spinola. Although not conclusive, it certainly was a pleasant experience to have the Juan de Mariana theory “predict” Frederick’s identity in this manner.

The next question was whether the “moated grange” had any significance. If Juan de Mariana could be firmly associated with a moated grange, that would strengthen the identification almost conclusively. I couldn’t find such a firm connection, but I did find a grange that was closely identified with Jesuits – Lyford Grange, where the Jesuit Edmund Campion was captured. Given that one of the primary identifying features of Juan de Mariana was that he was a Jesuit, this could be a connection between Juan de Mariana and the Mariana of the play.

Current commentary is not particularly helpful, pointing out that a grange might be either a “granary” or a country home. The weight of opinion seems to favor the idea that Mariana lived in a “granary” near a monastery. Why a granary would have a moat is never explained.

At this point I had identified Lyford Grange as a candidate for the “moated grange” but I did not know whether it had a moat. The theory predicted that it did. A little more research showed that it indeed did have a moat. Again, not conclusive, but if both Federigo Spinola and Lyford Grange are coincidences, the way they unfolded themselves to me – i.e. were predicted and then confirmed by my theory – was quite unusual.

Having now postulated identities of the main characters – Isabella, the Duke, Angelo and Mariana – I wondered whether other characters also might represent figures that had something to do with the debasement allegory.

I started with Claudio, Isabella’s brother, who was going to be killed for being debased under Viennese law. We already have from Hamlet the association of the name Claudius with debasement, so that’s a reasonable start. If Isabella is Elizabeth, could Claudius represent her brother Edward? This is of course possible, and one could point out that Edward continued the debasement policy of his father. One might also consider whether there is any connection between the time the laws have been allowed to “slip” (put at 14 years and 19 in two different lines in the play) and Edward’s connection to debasement. As it turns out, there is – the English coinage was debased for 14 years from the time that Edward took the throne in 1547 to the time Elizabeth restored the coinage in 1561, and, if we include Henry VIII’s reign, was debased for a total of 19 years (1542-1561).

The next realization was that Lucio in some sense could be seen to represent the dramatist himself. He knows things that nobody else knows. What’s more, like Shakespeare (probably), he was forced to marry the woman he had gotten pregnant. A quick check showed that the idea that Lucio represented Shakespeare had been proposed by others (specifically Lindsay Kaplan), although as far as I could tell nobody had pointed out the pregnancy parallel.

In the Measure for Measure paper, the obvious “weakness” is that I cannot show that Juan de Mariana’s views on debasement were published before Shakespeare wrote MFM. If we assume Shakespeare wrote MFM in 1604 (the year it was first performed) and that he did not subsequently revise it, I need to argue that Shakespeare heard of Mariana’s views on debasement the year before they were (apparently) first published in 1605. Although one authority asserts in a book and in personal correspondence that Mariana’s views were published as early as 1599, other authorities appear to be to the contrary.

Nevertheless, Spanish currency had been debased for five years by the time MFM was performed, and it’s likely that Mariana would have been aware of the issue and would not have held his tongue – he was already over 70 years old, and had been outspoken all his life.

The theory thus “predicts” that a way of conducting Mariana’s possibly unpublished views to Shakespeare existed. Somewhat surprisingly, long after I first proposed the theory, and somewhat after I debated this very point with Armado, I learned that Shakespeare had been in intimate contact with a set of upper-class Spaniards – the Spanish Peace Delegation – in summer 1604. Although this fact does not appear in all Shakespeare biographies, it is documented that the King’s Men received a substantial payment for their 18-day service, and it is generally accepted that Shakespeare was among those in attendance. I have been able to gather only very limited information about the Spanish Peace delegation. The Spanish ambassador was Velasco who had one year earlier had his secretary, Pedro Mantuan, publish a book critical of Mariana’s History of Spain. Assuming that Mantuan accompanied the ambassador on this trip, he might have proved a fertile source of information about Mariana’s latest views.

How do you know that the connections you find in Hamlet and Measure for Measure are not due to coincidence?

The dictionary tells us that a “coincidence” is when a seemingly natural or planned occurrence is actually the result of chance. Given Shakespeare’s likely interest in economics, there is already a presumption against the notion that an apparent debasement theme is merely the result of “coincidence.” Unless one categorically rejects the notion that Shakespeare had an interest in economics that worked itself into his plays, one cannot logically categorically attribute the apparent debasement themes to “coincidence.”

As an example, the way we “know” that some events are “coincidences” is that the alternative explanation is too unlikely. I.e. the fact that Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, and that both Presidents were assassinated, is a coincidence – the other explanation – that’s it’s all part of some supernatural scheme, is simply too unlikely.

Likewise, that some of Nostradamus’s predictions might appear to have come true can be attributed to a combination of coincidence and the vagueness of the predictions in the first place.

If we can “decode” the Bible to find information about, say, Ronald Reagan, we also know that what appeared to be a reference to Ronald Reagan was actually a coincidence – again, the alternative explanation is too unlikely.

On the other hand, if we don’t have a clear idea of whether or not Shakespeare cared about debasement, we can’t simply dismiss apparent references to debasement as “coincidence.” The probability that they are coincidence depends critically on a fact that we don’t know (or which we may disagree upon) – how interested Shakespeare was in economics.

I personally tend to believe that Shakespeare was interested in economics. He was obviously a successful businessman, in a business that relied greatly on the health of the local economy. The various lawsuits that he was involved in – suing people for small amounts of money – do seem to reflect the attitude of one concerned with money, as do his investments in grain and real estate. This “extrinsic” evidence supports the theory that economic references in the plays are not mere coincidences.

Suppose that you are completely wrong about the debasement themes in Hamlet and Measure for Measure. Is your contribution to the literature then utterly worthless, or have you identified anything important along the way?

Within the confines of this strange assumption, the following are certainly worthy of attention:

1. The great soldier Fredericke as Federico Spinola. He was a prominent soldier who died at sea in the year before the play was written, so it’s hard to imagine that Shakespeare would have chosen this name if (1) he intended anybody else, or (2) he intended the audience to make no association with the name.

2. The moated grange as “Lyford Grange.” If other scholars are correct in their identification of various references to Edmund Campion, then there’s a reasonable chance that the “moated grange” of MFM was another such reference.

3. Claudius as a debaser of the coinage. Even assuming one believes that there are no debasement references in Hamlet, the association of Claudius with debasement is a very good explanation of Shakespeare’s choice of that name (as well as his choices of “Claudio” in Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing).

4. “Picture in little” as a joke on coins. This makes the line better, even without debasement.

5. The equivalence of “Isabella” with “Elizabeth” as an explanation of why Measure for Measure was ripped out of the Valladolid copy of the Second Folio. The excision almost certainly occurred because “Isabella” was seen as a reference to “Elizabeth,” whose name was deleted everywhere else it appeared in the book. If the debasement theory is wrong, this explanation still stands (I note here that other scholars have noted that Isabella means Elizabeth, but I am unaware of anyone proposing that the Valladolid Folio’s Measure for Measure was excised for this reason).

6. The observation that the Queen’s role in the First Quarto of Hamlet might have been made less ambiguous (and more sympathetic) in order to avoid displeasing King James by suggesting that his mother might have been implicated in his father’s death. While of course the parallels between Hamlet and the Scottish succession have been explored before, I am not aware of anyone using the more sympathetic Queen’s role in an argument about the timing and/or precedence of the First Quarto. As explained in the paper, this suggests that the First Quarto was prepared after the Second Quarto, probably when it was clear that King James would become King, or perhaps for a performance before King James.

7. The observation that Lucio could be Shakespeare’s alter-ego, as supported by the parallel between his forced wedding to Kate Keepdown and Shakespeare’s forced wedding to Ann Hathaway. The suggestion that Lucio is Shakespeare’s alter ego has already been made (see Paper n.142-43 and associated text, citing Kaplan), but I am unaware of anybody mentioning the parallel shotgun weddings. An additional parallel not mentioned in the paper is that between the names Kate Keepdown and Ann Hathaway – both have monosyllabic first names, with last names consisting of verbs (Keep, Hath) and prepositions (Down, Away) where the verbs and prepositions have very similar meanings (i.e., “to keep” is “to have,” and “down there” (e.g.) suggests “away”).

8. Several additional plays on Angelo’s coin-based name that I don’t think have been mentioned by scholars.

9. Assuming, as many do, that the King of Hungary referred to in 1.2 is the King of Spain, then the suggestion that one not accept the King of Hungary’s “peace” is a very funny play on the debased Spanish coinage, even if debasement is not a theme of the play.

10. The observation that King James had debased the coinage in Scotland considerably prior to acceding to the English throne, even if merely a coincidence to the apparent debasement references in Hamlet and Measure for Measure, could be relevant to scholarship of other literature of the period. This is a well-known fact to those familiar with the history of Scotland, but I have seen little – maybe no – reference to it by those seeking to interpret literature of the period.

11. The potential reference to coinage in Cloten’s line about “wearing our own noses” in Cymbeline (Cymb. 3.1, paper n.51) may have independent significance.

12. The connection between Shakespeare and Spain through his service for the Spanish Peace Delegation could help explain other Spanish could help explain other Spanish references in MFM as well as Othello, both of which were first performed not long after that experience. The failure of many biographies to even mention this service should in any event be corrected by future biographers, given how threadbare the actual documentary record of Shakespeare’s life is. To the extent there is an "authorship" question, this connection of the plays to Shakespeare's biography makes the case for the Stratford man all the more compelling.

What qualifies you to tell us the meaning of Shakespeare?

I’m just reasonably logical person who has taken a logical approach to two of the plays, and has done some research to support that approach. My background and training make it unlikely that I am fooling myself, as my academic and professional success has always depended on the strictest application of logical principles. I majored in Math and Physics in College, worked for a several years as a nuclear engineer, went to a prestigious law school (where I did quite well), clerked for a well-known federal judge, practiced law at a major law firm, became a patent attorney, and now hold a reasonably important governmental position that requires me to apply my reasoning and persuasive abilities regularly in Federal court litigation, and allows me to teach a course on intellectual property on the side. I was the South Carolina State Chess Champion in 1985 and held the title of “National Master” for many years. I have been interested in Shakespeare for most of my life, but have always been skeptical of allegorical approaches to texts. In fact, I dropped out of the only English course in which I ever enrolled in college, when the teacher insisted that a particular reading of Balzac’s “Passion in the Desert” was the correct one.

If these themes are really there, why hasn’t anyone discovered them before?

Actually, it’s difficult for me to believe that no one has previously proposed that “picture in little” might represent coins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the suggestion has been made in the past. Whether the suggester followed up on that line of inquiry and came across the debasement theme is a different question. Obviously, by the time Shakespeare scholarship came into its own, debasement of the coinage was but a distant memory.

As for the Measure for Measure theme, the central point of that theme – Juan de Mariana as pointed to by Federigo Spinola – fell out of the English classical education long ago, awaiting to be rediscovered by someone like me, using modern research tools.

Why did you take so much time to construct this web-site?

Mainly to augment the limited circulation of the peer-reviewed publication in which the article appeared, and to provide a non-linear approach to the theory, for those who are intimidated by the idea of reading the article from beginning to end. The non-linear approach enables each individual to get a “sense” of the argument in his or her own way.

Beyond that, I recognize that changing a Shakespeare fan’s mind about Shakespeare is never easy. All Shakespeare enthusiasts have a preexisting emotional attachment to their own image of Shakespeare that any “new” theory has to somehow overcome. One popular image – which is certainly not incorrect, up to a point – is of Shakespeare as a master of drama and his plays as studies in human nature. From this perspective, any particular act or omission in a play can thus be endlessly debated in terms of whether it makes the play better (as a matter of dramatic art) as well as what it says about the human motivations of the characters involved. This can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding activity that Shakespeare has to offer. It is understandable then, that if I come up with a prosaic explanation of (for example) why Isabella does not speak when faced with the Duke’s marriage proposal, some people are going to feel a little like children robbed of their candy. I think Armado’s reaction on Shaksper was an extreme example of this.

Wouldn't "Debasing Shakespeare" be a better and catchier name for this website?

Yes. But it's a bit subtle, and it might tend to put people off before they have read the article and studied the materials on this website.