“The Living Record” – Chapter 27 – “To Him That Bears the Strong Offence’s Loss”

So I looked again at the verses proceeding from Sonnet 27 through a new pair eyes, a different lens; and within the context of the aftermath of the Essex Rebellion, certain words or phrases leaped off the page with new meaning.

Once Sonnet 27 is seen as Oxford’s response to Southampton’s imprisonment on the night of Feb. 8, 1601, for his co-leadership of the failed Essex Rebellion that day, we can imagine him in the darkness of his home using “my soul’s imaginary sight” to envision his royal son in the Tower “like a jewel hung in ghastly night.”

With Sonnet 28 on Feb. 9th we can comprehend why Oxford, the grieving father, feels that “day’s oppression is not eased by night,” but, rather, that “day by night and night by day [is] oppressed.”

In Sonnet 29 on Feb. 10th he joins Southampton “in disgrace with Fortune [Elizabeth] and men’s eyes” while suffering the “outcast state” of a traitor along with his son; and he continues to “trouble deaf heaven [again, the Queen] with my bootless cries and look upon my self and curse my fate.”

This is strong stuff — but now, for the first time, the weight of the words can be seen and felt as equal to the weight of the underlying situation.

On Feb. 11th the Earl of Oxford is “summoned” to be the senior judge at the upcoming “sessions” or treason trial of Essex and Southampton; and imagine looking at Sonnet 30 within the context of that same day and reading:

“When to the Sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past…”

Coincidence? Well, it’s virtually certain that Oxford’s royal son has lost not only his honor and freedom and the crown itself, but, also, very likely he will lose his  life by execution; and we find the father weeping “for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night” — an apt description!

In Sonnet 31 on Feb. 12th we find Oxford thinking of “buried” friends and asking “how many a holy and obsequious tear hath dear religious love [reverence for his royal blood] stolen from mine eye.” He goes on to speak of “things removed that hidden in thee lie” — the truth of his son now to be permanently hidden from the world — and he tells Southampton outright:

“Thou art the grave where buried love [royal blood] doth live!”

Still addressing his son, he begins Sonnet 32 on Feb. 13th with the words “if thou survive” and then imagines his own death.  Oxford tells Southampton that “when that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,” he should still believe his father had hoped that “a dearer [more royal] birth than this his love had brought to march in ranks of better equipage” — that is, he had wanted his son to be “better equipped” as Elizabeth’s rightful heir by blood to succeed her on the throne as King Henry IX.

Immediately following this wish that his son had a “dearer birth,” Oxford uses Sonnet 33 on Feb. 14th to look back at the birth of “my Sunne” [his royal son] who had been his own for just “one hour” before “the region cloud” [Elizabeth Regina and her dark cloud of shame] had hidden him away [as a changeling child].  Here in the depths of darkness and despair, with his son in the Tower facing death, Oxford looks back and tells his heartbreaking story, cramming it with royal imagery:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy:

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing to west with this disgrace.

Even so my Sunne one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow,
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth:
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

And in Sonnet 34 on Feb. 15th he records his terrible sorrow over this loss, likening himself to a Christ figure while telling Southampton:

Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss;
Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s loss.

The Christ imagery fits when we realize that Oxford, suffering this “loss” as the father of a rightful king,  is going to pay “ransom” for his son’s life and freedom — by sacrificing his own identity as Southampton’s father and, too, as the writer “Shakespeare” who had dedicated his work to Southampton.

And the son pays with his tears:

Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheeds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

Now the flow of this real-life drama accumulates increasing power to the point that, in my view, there can be no more doubt as to the rightness of this biographical and historical context — regardless of how radically different  from the traditional context it happens to be.  From here we embark on great waves of thoughts and emotions within an amazing nonfiction story dressed as fiction — a story produced with a “double image” that carries its “universal” meaning on the surface while the intended, specific meaning runs in parallel.

Can you feel the enormity of this shift?  I know — the change of focus is so huge that it’s difficult to believe or accept.  But can you imagine the feeling of beginning to comprehend the powerful, real-life drama that exists beneath these immortal words?  The dawning realization that this is, in fact, the voice of the real, flesh-and-blood man who was Shakespeare, speaking to us through words set down four centuries ago…

Published in: Uncategorized on February 28, 2009 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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