“Lay On Me This Cross” – The Living Record – Chapter 39

Traditionally Sonnets 40, 41 & 42 have been viewed as the poet’s reaction to the youth’s betrayal of him by stealing his mistress.  The point  here, however, is that this perception represents only the surface, just one side of the “double image” created by Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, who, in his real-life record running in parallel, is actually referring to Queen Elizabeth.  The time is February 1601 and she (because of the now all-powerful Secretary Robert Cecil) has  imprisoned their son, Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton, who has been convicted of high treason and sentenced to die.

At the high point of this sequence, near the end of Sonnet 42, he presents a vision of himself as Jesus bearing the Cross on Calvary — or perhaps as Simon of Cyrene being made to carry it for Him.

Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross…

The traditional view inevitably leads to the question whether “Shakespeare” is really serious about this biblical image of himself and his suffering.  Given the imagined context (his young male lover in bed with his mistress), it seems way over the top.  Moreover the lines are followed by this couplet:

But here’s the joy, my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery!  Then she loves but me alone.

Sounds like a joke, eh?  Katherine Duncan-Jones deserves credit for commenting candidly:

“The claim that the woman, in loving the youth, actually loves only the poet, is both logically and emotionally weak. First, the argument that love for one person is really love for another is inherently implausible; and secondly, the poet has made it quite clear in preceding lines of the sonnet that what he cares about is the young man’s defection, not the woman’s.”

Two of those preceding lines to Southampton, are:

That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
As loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Within the real-life context that this is Southampton’s father writing of his son’s imprisonment and death sentence, the same words of suffering no longer appear “logically and emotionally weak,” but finally do make logical and emotional sense.

The actuality, I argue, is that this is Oxford’s record for posterity of how he chose to save Southampton’s life by (1) persuading him to give up any claim of succession and (2) sacrificing his own identity as the father of Southampton and as author of the immortal works printed under the “Shakespeare” pen name.

In Sonnet 44 he will refer to “heavy tears, badges of either’s woe” (yours and mine), more directly reflecting the context of Southampton’s imprisonment and the verdict of guilt.

In Sonnet 46 he will wrap up this “chapter” (37-46) with a stream of words reflecting the recent treason trial [at which Oxford served as highest-ranking earl on the tribunal and was forced to join the unanimous verdict of guilt for both Essex and Southampton:  (“plead … defendant … plea deny … impanelled … quest [jury] … verdict”).

Traditionally these words create a sustained metaphor.  Well, yes, but here again that’s just one half of the double image. The other half is a sustained personal and political reality.

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