“The Living Record” – Chapter 38 Sonnet 42, Part One

Sonnet 42 is crucial to an understanding of the biographical and historical “story” or “chronicle” that is “hiding in plain sight” within the sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  (“When in the Chronicle of wasted time” – Sonnet 106)

If we get this single sonnet wrong, we get the whole string of 154 sonnets wrong — and this string, by the way, has been carefully arranged and numbered to create an amazingly elegant structure (“monument”) containing the recorded story.  (“And thou in this shalt find thy monument” – Sonnet 107)

Sonnet 42 is pivotal; my own colleagues (who pose that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) used the pen name “William Shakespeare”) are far from consensus on what real-life story is being recorded in this verse — and we DO agree that the Sonnets contain a SOME story related to the poet’s life.  Here in modern spelling are the first four lines of Sonnet 42:

That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Generally speaking we are divided between two choices:

(1) the poet tells the younger man that the fact he has stolen his mistress is not the only reason for his grief, although he did love her; the big reason for his sorrow is that SHE has YOU in her arms, and that loss of your love is what hurts me most; or

(2) As set forth in my edition THE MONUMENT, this sonnet relates to the confinement of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573/4-1624) in the Tower of London, not long after the failure of the Essex Rebellion on February 8, 1601, of which he had been co-leader; and 50-year-old Oxford, writing to 26-year-old Southampton, is referring to the fact that Elizabeth I of England (their sovereign mistress, whom they both have “loved” or served all their lives) has him locked in her royal prison fortress.

In the latter scenario, Southampton is the unacknowledged son of Oxford and the Queen; he is now a convicted traitor sentenced to be executed; Essex will be beheaded in a few days; this is an incredibly tense time; the clock is ticking, and we might begin to imagine the emotional pain and turmoil that Oxford is experiencing.

In regard to the fact that Southampton faces virtually certain execution, and very soon, Oxford uses the phrase “wailing chief” — echoing what editor Stephen Booth calls the “common term ‘chief mourner,’ the nearest relative present at a funeral.'”  If this doesn’t send a chill up and down the reader’s spine, what will?

My colleagues Lynne Kositsky and Roger Stritmatter, PhD., wrote a long “critique of the Monument theory” published in the Fall 2004 edition of Shakespeare Matters — before my book was published, but based on my own articles in the same newsletter of the Shakespeare Fellowship — and in the process they dealt with Sonnet 42, printed here in its entirety:

That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her,
And for my sake ev’n so doth she abuse me,
Suff’ring my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay me on this cross:
But here’s the joy, my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery!  Then she loves but me alone.

When Kositsky-Stritmatter came to Sonnet 42, first they quoted from an article I had written in the previous issue of the newsletter:

“Oxford reminds [Southampton] … that for now he is stuck with Elizabeth as his sovereign and that he himself had ‘loved her dearly’ or served her with devotion, but now his ‘chief wailing’ or sorrow is tht she has Southampton in her prison fortress.”

And they commented:

“A less plausible exegesis of what is apparently a poem about a lovers’ triangle is difficult to imagine.  None of the following words are mentioned in the sonnet: ‘Elizabeth,’ ‘Southampton,’ ‘prison,’ or ‘fortress.’  Instead, the poem describes the familiar circumstance of two men, the poet and presumably the addressee, fighting over a woman.  The poet rationalizes his position by suggesting that as his friend and he ‘are one,’ the poet’s mistress loves only the poet himself. He describes his own conceit as a ‘sweet flattery’ (‘flattery’ here meaning delusion) — a very strange phrase to employ with regard to ‘Southampton in [the Queen’s] prison fortress.'”

Well, first, if Sonnet 42 contained the words Elizabeth, Southampton, prison, fortress, we would not be having this discussion, would we?

Second, my view is that each of these sonnets is written to convey a “double image” — a fictional story on the surface, a nonfiction chronicle just below — and that the Kositsky-Stritmatter team chose to deal only with the ficitonal half, for which there is not a scrap of evidence.  (In other words, there is no evidence that any such “lovers’ triangle” ever existed EXCEPT in the world of fiction or sheer imagination.)

[Perhaps I should finally respond to the Kositsky-Stritmatter article, point by point, over a period of time, in this blog.  It dawns on me that this is the perfect venue for it.  I think I’ll do it!  If anyone has any thought or feeling about it, feel free to leave a comment.]

I can’t begin to cover everything about Sonnet 42 that I’d like to right now, so this is just the first part of it.

I should point out that the key to understanding the real-life contents of these particular verses (Sonnets 27-106, eighty of them!) is to view them within the “context” or “framework” of Southampton’s two years and two months of imprisonment (Feb 8, 1601 through April 9, 1603).

This underpinning is part of the historical record, i.e., the events are quite real, and documented, and they have specific dates on the calendar of contemporary English history: the rebellion, the Essex-Southampton Trial (with Oxford himself as highest-ranking earl on the tribunal), the execution of Essex, the executions of other conspirators, Southampton’s illness, the legal arguments, the sparing of Southampton’s life, the domination of Robert Cecil, the death of Elizabeth and the succession of James, leading to Southampton’s freedom on April 10, 1603, celebrated in Sonnet 107.

Here’s a brief list of items within Sonnet 42 that suggest, to me, the presence of this “context” of contemporary history AND of Southampton’s identity as a royal prince:

LOVED: “Thou didst LOVE York, and I am son to York” – 3 Henry VI, 2.6

DEARLY: “He loved his mother DEARLY” – Julius Caesar, 3.2

WAILING CHIEF: echoing “chief mourner” or nearest relative at a funeral

NEARLY: “NEAR to the King in blood, and NEAR in LOVE” – Richard II, 3.1

LOVING: “My most LOVING liege” – Richard II, 1.1

OFFENDERS: “The question was asked the Earl of Essex how he would deal with OFFENDERS” – from a record of the Trial on Feb. 19, 1601

EXCUSE: “My lord of Essex can no way EXCUSE nor shadow this his rebellious purpose” – from a record of the Trial.

ABUSE – APPROVE:  “All which APPROVE Her Majesty to be greatly ABUSED” – an Oxford memo, circa 1601-02, Cecil Papers, 146.19

APPROVE: “Nay, task me to my word; APPROVE me, lord” – 1 Henry IV, 4.1

LOSS: “Was never mother had so DEAR a LOSS” – Richard III, 2.2

LOSE: “The worthy gentleman did LOSE his life” – 3 Henry VI, 3.2

LAY ON ME THIS CROSS: Here the poet is suggesting that the other two are causing him to endure the sufferings of Christ.  (I would think that, in the context of a love triangle, a comparison to the Son of God is over the top, hyperbolic, fatuous.  Is Shakespeare ever fatuous?  No! But in the context of a father about to lose his royal son…)

MY FRIEND AND I ARE ONE:  This could be said to an earl only by someone of equal or higher rank; it could be said by an earl who is also the younger lord’s father.  (In this case, Southampton’s motto ONE FOR ALL, ALL FOR ONE is echoed in “ALL my grief” in the first line of the sonnet and in ONE here as well as in ALONE in the final line.)

SWEET- FLATTERY: What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage SWEET, but poison’d FLATTERY?” — Henry V, 4.1

So, maybe we can begin to perceive that these same words, in this same sonnet that appears to be about a love triangle, are indications of another level at work!

More to come on this…

Cheers from Hank

Published in: Uncategorized on August 5, 2009 at 7:07 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Hank,

    You’ve taken on a huge job. Good for you. I’m all for debate.

    I have lots of comments and questions about your take on this sonnet, but for the moment I will just ask, re the first line, “That thou hast her it is not all my grief…” how Wriothesley can be said to “have” the queen if she has imprisoned him, as per your scenario.

    I also suggest that there is a great deal of difference between providing or not providing evidence for a general reading of the sonnet, which seems to demonstrate quite clearly what it’s about, at least on the surface, and providing evidence for a complicated scenario that involves the queen, her son, the Essex Rebellion, the Tower of London, etc–in other words a solution that involves a raft of names of proper nouns: people, events, and places, none of which are apparent to me.

    I am not saying that your reading is necessarily incorrect, simply remarking that so many people have read other scenarios into this sonnet, and in fact into the whole sequence, that it’s almost impossible to decide which one of them, if any, is correct. It should also alert one to the fact that if there are so many readings because the sonnet is so vague re historical detail, it becomes much more difficult to sort out the truth than if there were only one or two alternatives. With regard to that, I’d be pleased if you took the “brief list of items” and show whether they appear in Shakespeare in other contexts. That would be very helpful in deciding how impressive your parallels are.

    I’ll also be very pleased if you critique in your blog the response article Roger and I wrote in the newsletter the issue after you and Bill both published articles on Monument. I hope you won’t mind if I comment as you go through what we wrote, as we did not have at that time access to the book itself.

    Thanks much. If sentences don’t quite make sense, I’m sure you know why. But am recovering slowly.

  2. Re not making sense:

    For “in other words a solution that involves a raft of names of proper nouns…”

    please read: “in other words a solution that involves a raft of proper nouns…”

    Working in a very small box with my very small mouse brain. 😦

    • Hi Lynne!

      So good to hear your voice. No time right now but want to thank you for continuing this discussion with me. I have the greatest respect for your opinions and insights, and I’m in awe of your spirit.

      I do this only when there’s some time, so the results may be erratic…

      Warmest regards,

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