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In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mina Murray is at one point visiting Whitby Abbey. She encounters an old man, who, after he crammles away, she meets again later:

1 August. – I came up here an hour ago with Lucy, and we had a most interesting talk with my old friend and the two others who always come and join him. He is evidently the Sir Oracle of them, and I should think must have been in his time a most dictatorial person.
Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker. Chapter VI, Mina Murray's Journal. 1994 Puffin Classics (New York) edition.

Mina refers to the old man as a "Sir Oracle", which I assume is a reference of some sort to another work or story. However, I am not familiar with what this reference might be to.

Who is the Sir Oracle that Mina is comparing him to? What is being said about the old man with this comparison?

2 Answers 2

18

This alludes to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

Gratiano. Let me play the fool,
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
Sleep when he wakes? And creep into the jaundice
By being peevish? I tell thee what, Antonio,
(I love thee, and ’tis my love that speaks):
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.”

William Shakespeare (c. 1597). The Merchant of Venice, act 1, scene 1. Project Gutenberg.

In this speech Gratiano mocks people who, in old age, pretend to a wisdom they do not possess, by adopting a mien of stillness and gravity, and requiring that their every pronouncement be given attention. The word “oracle” is used in this sense:

oracle, n. III.8.a. A person of great wisdom or knowledge, whose opinions or decisions are generally accepted; an authority believed or claiming to be infallible.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Gratiano’s use of “Sir Oracle” is facetious—he clearly doesn’t think much of this (hypothetical) elderly fount of wisdom. So when Mina uses the phrase in Dracula she indicates that the “two others” look up to the “old friend” as a dispenser of wisdom, but she does not concur with this opinion.

The phrase “Sir Oracle” comes from the Quarto editions of The Merchant of Venice, but the First Folio has different wording:

As who should say, “I am sir an Oracle,

Most modern editions have adopted the Quarto’s wording, I assume because it scans and the Folio’s does not. But Richard White commented:

In the folio, “I am sir an Oracle," in the quartos, "I am sir oracle;" and the absence of a capital letter in the title is remarkable in the folio—which, in this respect, is very carefully printed—even if not in the quartos. I believe the ‘sir oracle’ of the quartos, which has been universally adopted, to be the result of accident, and that the change in the folio is intentional and by authority. ‘Sir Oracle’ is so awkward an effort in nomenclature, and a specimen of so cheap a sort of wit, that I for one am quite willing to take the testimony of the authorized edition, that it is none of Shakespeare’s. But being one of those phrases which save people the trouble of thinking and finding words for themselves, it has become almost a part of the language; and to disturb the text would, under the circumstances, be a thankless work of supererogation.

Richard Grant White, ed. (1857). The Works of William Shakespeare, volume 4, page 238. Boston: Little, Brown.

Horace Furness quoted White and added:

I think it is a little too severe to say that the phrase is popular because it saves the trouble of thinking or of finding words. There is a certain pomposity in ‘Sir Oracle’ which befits the character and which speaks to all. Yet it is this very pomposity which gives it a disagreeable tone and makes me wish that the Folio were right, which it cannot be, I fear, in its present unrhythmical line, unless we suppose, with Allen, that the indefinite article was slurred in pronunciation: ‘I am, sir, ’n Oracle.’

Horace Howard Furness, ed. (1888). New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, page 13. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

4

This is a reference to a line from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, spoken by Gratiano:

As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.”

In other words, someone who insists on being heard while they lecture, and refuses to be interrupted. Lucy is suggesting that the old man is garrulous, enthusiastic and talks too much.

This isn't the only reference Lucy makes to the bard in Dracula. She also invokes Othello, saying:

I sympathize with poor Desdemona when she had such a dangerous stream poured in her ear, even by a black man.

And Hamlet:

lying like Ophelia in the play, with virgin crants and maiden strewments

These references serve to highlight Lucy's learnedness to the reader, to colour her character as someone that's fond of making literary comparisons and, of course, for a reader that's also familiar with the plays, to make emotive reference points for how Lucy is feeling at the time.

References:

  • Gothic death 1740-1914. A literary history. Smith, Andrew.

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