“The Living Record” – 10

Our premise, based on strong evidence and supported by many scholars, is that the younger man urged to propagate in Sonnets 1-17 must have been the Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), to whom “Shakespeare” dedicated Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594). But no commoner could have lectured and even scolded the proud young lord as this poet does, to cite just one example, in Sonnet 1: “Pity the world, or else this glutton be,/ To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee!”

Hey, this is tough stuff!  This haughty nobleman of vast possessions, this earl swiftly rising at the Court of Elizabeth in her Majesty’s highest favor, becoming therefore a prominent figure in England and even on the world stage, would have run his sword through the guts of that poet!

Sir George Greenwood in The Shakespeare Problem Restated of 1908 remarked that no scholar had yet succeeded in satisfactorily explaining the Sonnets.  “And I venture to say,” he added, “that such success will never be obtained on the assumption that they were written by Shakspere of  Stratford.”

He continued:

“The idea that this young provincial actor was writing a succession of impassioned odes [in the early 1590’s] to the young Earl of Southampton, urging him to marry at once and become a father ‘for love of me’ [Sonnet 10] appears to me, in the absence of anything like cogent evidence to that effect, simply preposterous.”

The background to these early sonnets is that Southampton was being pressured to marry the granddaughter of his guardian William Cecil, the great Lord Burghley (the most powerful man in England, perhaps even more powerful than the Queen, who relied upon him absolutely).  But what could the Warwickshire lad possibly have had to do with such matters of high statecraft and political influence?

As Walter Begley wrote in Is It Shakespeare? of 1903:

“Why should he, of all people, write a series of elaborate ‘procreation’ sonnets in order to induce a young nobleman of high prospects to marry the granddaughter of the highest dignitary in the kingdom?  What was Burghley to Will Shakespeare or he to Burghley?”

“The real problem of the Sonnets,” Greenwood concluded in 1908, “is to find out who ‘Shake-speare’ was … That he would be found among cultured Elizabethan courtiers of high position, I can entertain no doubt.”

A dozen years later John Thomas Looney published his landmark work ‘Shakespeare’ Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford:

“Shakespeare’s work of poetic self-expression is, of course, the Sonnets.  The idea that these poems are fantastic dramatic inventions with mystic meanings we feel to be a violation of all normal probabilities and precedents … We are not told who the particular young man was; but the general assumption is that it was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.  This is not only a reasonable supposition, but it would be unreasonable to suppose that it was anyone else …

“Now, as to the man who wrote the sonnets … Throughout the whole series he assumes the attitude of a matured man addressing a youth … We find that the first sonnets of the first set are assigned generally to about the year 1590, when Oxford was just forty years of age …  Behind him there lay a life marked by vicissitudes in every way calculated to have given him a sense of age even beyond his forty years.

[‘When forty Winters shall besiege thy brow’ – Sonnet 2]

“He was a nobleman of the same high rank as Southampton and just a generation older … [and] the peculiar circumstances of the youth to whom the Sonnets were addressed were strikingly analogous to his own.  Both had been left orphans and royal wards at an early age, both had been brought up under the same guardian, both had the same kind of literary tastes and interests, and later the young man followed exactly the same course as the elder had done as a patron of literature and the drama.

“Then just at the time when these sonnets were being written urging Southampton to marry, he was actually being urged into a marriage with a daughter of the Earl of Oxford [and granddaughter of Burghley]; and this proposed marriage Southampton was resisting …

“This furnishes the vital connection between the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Oxford … To have urged marriage as a general and indefinite proposition upon a youth of seventeen, with the single aim of securing posterity for the youth, would have had something fatuous about it.  In connection with a definite project of marriage, from one who was personally interested in it, the appeal comes to have, at last, an explicable relationship to fact.”

Just as Sonnets 1-17 had been linked to the specific marriage arrangement being pressed upon Southampton in 1591, so  Sonnet 107 had been linked already to the great events in the spring of 1603, i.e., the death of Elizabeth, the succession of King James and the release of Southampton from the Tower. Back in 1866 the brilliant Gerald Massey had written in The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Unfolded:

“Sonnet 107 will show us that Shakespeare did find a call for secure congratulations when James had restored Southampton of his liberty [on April 10, 1603] … The sonnet contains evidence beyond question – proof positive and unimpeachable – that the man addressed by Shakespeare in his personal sonnets has been condemned in the first instance to death, and afterward to imprisonment for life, and escaped his doom through the death of the Queen.”

Looney expressed his amazement at finding that Oxford, his new candidate for the authorship, had been forced to head the Tribunal of Peers in 1601 and to find Southampton guilty of high treason [for his leadership role in the failed Essex Rebellion], thereby sentencing him to die by being hanged, drawn and quartered — the very young man to whom, if Oxford was in fact the man writing as “Shakespeare,” he had publicly pledged his “love … without end,” adding, “What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have devoted yours.”

No wonder, then, that once Southampton was freed after having been “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” Oxford would have written the triumphant opening lines of Sonnet 107:

Not mine own fears nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.

NEXT: Even now, nearly nine decades after Looney’s identification of De Vere in 1920, and even with this clear identification of Southampton as the younger man of the Sonnets, the Oxfordian community is divided over the relationship that would have existed between Oxford and Southampton.  Were they gay lovers and close friends?  Or were they father and son (or, more correctly, father and royal son)?  This deep (and deeply emotional) division was my starting point in November of 1998, when the first elements of the Monument Theory of the Sonnets began to appear.

Published in: Uncategorized on December 28, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Hank,

    I agree that the poet’s tone in the first 17 sonnets is inconsistent with a social inferior taking it upon himself to upbraid and chastise an Earl. But I think there are two possible explanations: either the poet is a social superior to the young man,as you suggest, or the poet is speaking on behalf of a social superior.

    If I were a Stratfordian, I would argue that Shakespeare must have been commissioned by someone of high social standing to write these sonnets. Lord Burleigh seems the obvious choice, since he was the fatherly figure in Southampton’s life. Plus, we know that Burleigh had written to Southampton urging him to marry. The first 17 sonnets express the same sentiment in verse that Burleigh had already expressed in prose. Of course, we think this scenario works even better with Marlowe, who was already an established poet of unsurpassed skill(and Burleigh’s de facto employee).

    Oxfordians insist that this is the Earl of Oxford, taking it upon himself,(or perhaps with Burleigh’s complicity?) to urge Southampton to marry. By itself, this is a plausible explanation. But nowhere in the first 17 sonnets does the poet say, or even imply, that he is 40. The poet does not talk about himself at all. All he does is ask Southampton to imagine himself at 40. If the poet assumes Southampton to be capable of imagining himself at 40, then why cannot the poet imagine himself, or others, at 40? A poet in his mid-twenties, as Marlowe (or Shakespeare) would have been, is in the prime of his poetic powers. Aging, mortality, transience; these are not unfamiliar themes to younger poets. The Romantics, Keats for example, possessed this sensibility while still young. The ability to think deeply, to write precociously as if wizened by age, this is a hallmark of a great poet. I think we can reject the argument that the poet must be any particular age, at least based on these sonnets.

    Since we must allow that the poet could be 40, Oxford cannot be ruled out on this account. The Oxford scenario breaks down, however, when we move on to the poems written to the patron; the “sonnets of exile”, and the “rival poet sequence”. If the 154 sonnets were all written by the same individual, then who was Oxford’s patron? Who did Oxford compete with for his patron’s affection? Who is the social superior he is addressing? I have not heard satisfactory answers to these questions. The poet’s age may be debatable, but he does not speak as an Earl should speak in these sonnets.

    We can surmise more plausible scenarios involving Marlowe, and, though less convincing, scenarios involving the Stratford man are also plausible. That these sonnets were written by an Earl is less convincing.

    Daryl Pinksen

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