The Royal Imagery of the Sonnets – And the Genius of the Double Image

In 1964 the Shakespeare scholar Leslie Hotson went out on a limb in his book Mr. W.H. by declaring that the younger man addressed in the Sonnets was royal.  Hotson meant this literally.

“By direct address, by varied metaphor and by miltifarious allusion, the description of the Friend communicated is always one: monarch, sovereign prince, king.  The poet’s harping on the same string is so insistent as to make one ask why it has not arrested attention.  No doubt everyone has regarded this ‘king sense’ as formal hyperbole and nothing more.  Any literal meaning looks quite incredible, a rank impossibility.”

The main reason readers could not take this ‘king sense’ seriously was, simply enough, that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616) could not have been writing the private sonnets to someone he regarded as a prince or king.  That possibility does exist, however, when Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) is viewed as the author; and the likelihood of it is strengthened when Oxford is viewed as writing to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573?-1624), as a father to his son.

The young Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Given that Oxford and the Queen had been viewed as lovers circa 1572-1574, during which time Southampton was born, it becomes even more plausible that he wrote the sonnets to Southampton as a father writing to royal son:

I (my sovereign) watch the clock for you – Sonnet 57

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a King, but waking no such matter – Sonnet 87

Directly royal words such as  “sovereign” and “king” might be dismissed as metaphorical, but other echoes of kingship are virtually impossible to dismiss.  Among my favorites is an example from Sonnet 96:

How many gazers might’st thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!

Have you ever heard one man speak to another man and refer to “all thy state”?  Those who are unable to view the obvious royal imagery are at sea.  Editors Ingram and Redpath gloss “the strength of all thy state” as “all the glamour at thy command.”  Yikes!  Dowden sees the line as, “If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy strength,” which must deserve some kind of award for contortion.  Other attempts have included “the full force of your status” or simply “all your power,” and so on.

Katherine Duncan-Jones says the line suggests both “the power that comes from your condition of youthful beauty” and “the force of your high rank” — the latter coming close to what it actually means.

When we consult “Shakespeare” himself on the matter, the phrase “thy state” refers more often than not to the authority and power of a king or queen:

“Fair Queen of England, worthy Margaret, sit down with us: it ill befits thy state and birth that thou should’st stand while Lewis doth sit.” – 3 Henry VI, 3.3

“Today, today, unhappy day, too late, o’erthrows thy joys, friends, fortune and thy state” – to the king in Richard II, 3.2

“The resignation of thy state and crown” – Richard II, 4.1

(“If my dear love were but the child of state” – Sonnet 124, indicating either a ward of the crown or state, which Southampton was, and/or a prince born into royalty and the state of kingship by birth.   And when Oxford writes in Sonnet 64 about the time he will see an “interchange of state,” he had to be anticipating the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the succession to her on the throne.)

The Sonnets of Shakespeare are written on two levels, one more readily grasped as the poetry of love, and the other, just below the surface, carrying Oxford’s intended subject matter and story.  By the power of his own genius, he was able to create these little poems the way an artist draws a double-image picture: whichever image is seen depends entirely upon the perception of any given viewer.

A famous double image - Old Hag & Young Woman - Every Line in service of both images at once

When the Sonnets are viewed strictly as love poems, words such as “beauty” and “fortune” take on their most literal meanings, while words such as “sovereign” and “state” are seen as metaphorical.  In the other view, wherein we perceive Oxford’s intended meaning, “beauty” refers metaphorically to Queen Elizabeth and her Tudor blood and “fortune” is another word for her, while “sovereign” and “king” and “state” can be taken literally!

One picture, simultaneously containing two entirely different images!

Another favorite line of mine in this regard is from Sonnet 10:

Be as thy presence is, gracious and kind

Could this line be written to anyone but a prince, that is, to a king or queen or heir apparent to the crown?  Both “presence” and “gracious” are associated by “Shakespeare” with kingship, as the works themselves testify:


“What’s he approacheth boldly to our presence?” – King Lewis in 3 Henry VI, 3.3

“Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths, even in the presence of the crowned King, thus did I keep my person fresh and new, my presence, like a robe pontifical, ne’er seen but wondered at” – spoken by the King in 1 Henry IV, 3.2

“And sent to warn them to his royal presence” – Richard III, 1.3


“Accept this scroll, most gracious sovereign” – 1 Henry VI, 3.1

“Great King of England, and my gracious lord” – 2 Henry VI, 1.1

“I hold my duty as I hold my soul, both to my God and to my gracious king” – Hamlet, 2.2

The Earl of Oxford — the man who was “Shakespeare” — wrote to Robert Cecil on May 7, 1603 and referred to King James as “so gracious and virtuous a sovereign.”

Meanwhile the word “kind” is often used by “Shakespeare” as meaning related by nature and blood, that is, belonging to someone by birth; and even used in the sense of lawful or rightful.  Once Oxford is viewed as writing to Southampton as his royal son by Queen Elizabeth, the word “kind” takes on enormous power with these meanings.

“A little more than kin, and less than kind” – Hamlet, 1.2

“Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound” – Richard II, 4.1

As Leslie Hotson observed, this “sustained and unmistakable” language of kingship in the Sonnets even “lends no support to the common theory that his youthful Friend might be some nobleman or other, for it is obvious that his chosen terms point not to nobility but to royalty.”

Well, that would seem to eliminate Southampton — until we perceive him as an unacknowledged prince who was raised as a nobleman!

“Shakespeare’s Son and His Sonnets” – An Amazon Review

I’d like to share an Amazon customer review of Shakespeare’s Son and His Sonnets by my friend and colleague Peter Rush, as a way of publicly thanking him for the rave, which now follows:

In 2005 the author, Hank Whittemore, published his “monumental”, and I would say definitive, study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, entitled The Monument.  Its 900+ pages is an extended tour de force, and represents, in my opinion, and the opinion of a growing number of others, scholars and “lay” persons alike, the heretofore missing “smoking gun” that not only explains, fully and totally, the entire cycle of 154 sonnets, down to every word in every line in every sonnet, but resolves, definitively, with no room for an alternate explanation, the “Shakespeare authorship” debate, in favor of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

The present volume is the author’s teaser, intended to reveal the core of his analysis and argument, in a very readable, relatively abbreviated format, that will by virtue of a more affordable price and much shorter format, reach a much broader and more general audience.

It is to be hoped that, teased by this volume, many will recognize the need to acquire The Monument itself in order to fully appreciate, at a much deeper, far more satisfying level, dozens and dozens of sonnets they have probably never read before, and which, had they read them, they would have found them incomprehensible, but which they will now find become transparent as to meaning, which will open up the ability to appreciate the astounding poetry, rich beyond compare.

I could attempt to provide some of the actual evidence for Whittemore’s thesis in this review, but I could only begin to scratch the surface, and I couldn’t do it as well as it is done in this volume. This volume can be read in one sitting, and does the job extremely well.  I do commend people to read my review of The Monument in Aug. 2005,  the first review that comes up, for some more information on Whittemore’s revolutionary discovery.

What I do want to say is that Whittemore has identified that not only a few sonnets, as some others have correctly determined, but every single sonnet, is about the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Queen Elizabeth, and/or Oxford himself, which has importance for one reason only — that Southampton was Oxford’s unacknowledged son by Elizabeth, thus of royal blood, a potential successor to Elizabeth, requiring only that she recognize him as her bastard
son for him to become king on her death. Don’t freak out, if this is the first time you’ve heard this thesis. Trust me, when you read this book, you will see hundreds of references in the sonnets that only make sense if this hypothesis is correct. Please don’t prejudge the argument without reading the evidence for yourself.

What I can confirm is that no other attempt to explain the entire sonnet cycle by any other researcher (and only a few have even attempted to analyze all 154 in detail and as a unified corpus), comes remotely close to explaining every sonnet, much less every word and every line in every sonnet. Absent Whittemore’s brilliant analysis, the sonnets at best remain an enigmatic exercise by an acknowledged genius that continues to elude intelligible explication. Anyone with any interest in Shakespeare, the sonnets, and/or the authorship debate, must read this book.

What you will find here is a wealth of different types of evidence that matches the sonnets, one by one, to historical events in Southampton’s life through his release from imprisonment in 1603. The first 17 are entreaties to marry (anyone) in order to procreate, in order to carry on the royal line. Sonnets 27-106 start on the day Southampton was arrested for teason on Feb. 8, 1601, and end the day before he was released. 107-126 cover the days to the burial of Queen Elizabeth. 127-152 are a reprise of the imprisonment period, more briefly, focusing more on Oxford’s anger at Queen Elizabeth, the “dark lady.”

Whittemore convincingly shows who the “rival poet” is, and by establishing that Southampton was his own son, obviously solves the riddle of how/why these poems could be putative love poems to–another man!

What distinguishes The Monument from this volume is that, in addition to providing even more detail along the lines of what this book contains, The Monument provides 14-line translations of every sonnet, rendering the underlying meaning clear, and then providing, in 1-3 pages each, detailed analysis of every line, and many words and phrases, for every sonnet, and showing how the same words or concepts also have appeared in one or more plays.  One needs to read The Monument to really appreciate every sonnet. But the present volume is a wonderful introduction to the thesis, and permits understanding many of the more crucial sonnets.

The Shakespeare authorship debate is in as full a swing as it has ever been. Finally, a number of leading Stratfordians have realized that ignoring the Oxfordian argument wasn’t working for them, and they have decided they need to fight back with books of their own on the authorship debate, websites, etc.

James Shapiro signs my copy of "Contested Will" for me after giving a talk in New York City.

James Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare” is just the latest book I believe to be entered in the lists (a wretched, pathetic attempt, in my opinion), and there are a number of extensive websites. In several of these, the Stratfordian side has finally attempted (I think futilely) to actually mention the arguments from the Oxfordian side, and attempt to refute them.  I mention this because, despite being available for the past five years, I have been unable to track down a single attempt by any Stratfordian to tackle Whittemore’s thesis.

I believe this fact (unless I’ve missed some analysis somewhere) is extremely telling.  Given the slowly gathering recognition by more and more people that Whittemore has found the key to both the sonnets and to the authorship issue, it seems pretty certain that had the Stratfordian side any serious argument with which to debunk Whittemore’s thesis (other than prima facie “the thesis that Southampton is QE’s son is impossible”), we would have seen it by now. Their silence speaks volumes in favor of the power of his thesis and
likelihood that Whittemore has, indeed, solved this mystery. I can only imagine that they pray every night that most people will never be able to “get over” their aversion to believing that Southampton could be QE’s bastard son by Oxford, and hence never have to confront Whittemore’s thesis on the evidence itself. If so, I believe they will find themselves sadly mistaken.

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to make known that I have become a personal friend of the author, having read an early draft of his thesis in 2000 on a listserve, when I first contacted him, and have followed his progress from tantalizing hypothesis to confirmed theory ever since. I don’t believe this taints my review. I was intrigued by his early hypothesis, and totally convinced by The Monument, his completed thesis. The present volume is wholly derivative from that 2005 book.

I also want to note a criticism of the way the book was put together, which doesn’t negatively impact the thesis, but does cry out for improvement in a second edition.  The volume reads like a compilation of three or four essays that might have been written separately and then just published together (but I don’t believet his was the case).  Transitions between some of these sections are lacking, and the effect leads to occasional repetition of points already made in an earlier section, and some jumping around of the subject matter.

Thanks to Peter Rush — and Cheers from Hank

2011 – The Big Year for Edward de Vere?

Happy New Year!  Many of my friends and colleagues (I include myself) in the “Oxfordian” world are starting to feel that this is going to be the “big year” for us — that is, for those of us who have concluded that Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) was the true author of the works printed under the name — the pen name, that is — of William Shakespeare.

Why has this ridiculously optimistic feeling come over us?  Well, let’s see…

First and foremost is that producer-director Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous is set to open in theaters this fall — on Friday, September 23, 2011.  Here’s the idea of Oxford as “Shakespeare” finally on the big screen — for the first time in the ninety-one years since the earl was “identified” in 1920 (by British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney) as the greatest writer of the English language.

Film director Roland Emmerich on the set of "Anonymous," due in theaters in September

Whatever any critic will say about this film, or however any individual viewer reacts to it, or to what extent it does or does not come close to the true history, is beside the point — which is simply that the Shakespeare Authorship Question itself will finally be brought out of hiding … out of the dark cave of censorship and suppression … into the daylight where everybody can see it and evaluate the subject for themselves.

You think this might be a bit of hyperbole?  A little over the top?  Well, when my friend Charles Boyle introduced me to the topic in 1987, I was stunned to hear about it.  Even though I’d gone through the University of Notre Dame in the Theater Department and the Great Books Program, no one had ever even mentioned that there might be a Shakespeare problem, much less that there had been a real-life eccentric, mysterious individual at the Court of Elizabeth the First who could have served as the model for Prince Hamlet.

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

How could not one of my professors or play directors have ever mentioned this to me?  Even if they thought the whole subject was nonsense, why wouldn’t they bring it up?  I ran to the public library (in Portland, Maine, where I lived at the time) and discovered to my shock that right there were at least a dozen books questioning the traditional attribution of Shakespearean authorship — and some fascinating books putting forth the theory that Edward de Vere was the true poet and playwright.

How could I not have known this before?  Over the ensuing years I would discover that many others had experienced the same wonderment — intelligent, educated, well-read men and women who had gone through more than half their lives without an inkling that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616) might not have been the writer known as William Shakespeare.

I recalled having played the part of Laertes in our production of Hamlet at Notre Dame, and how I’d stood in the wings watching and listening to the late great actor Richard Kavanaugh playing the lead role — and I remembered a specific moment when I heard these lines spoken by the Prince to his young girlfriend Ophelia:

“I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?”

Right then it struck me that this was very candid stuff, and very modern in terms of the protagonist of a play, the so-called hero, being so self-critical.  More than that, within those words or behind them seemed to be the voice of the author himself, this great dramatist about whose identity and life I had never given any thought whatsoever!

And a few minutes later, during a break in rehearsals, I walked onto the stage and asked co-director Fred Syberg, “What do we know about Shakespeare?”

“Well,” Fred replied, “he was a guy who went to London and became an actor and started writing plays.  That’s about it.”

Uh-hunh, I thought.  Okay.  Sureand then pushed that little kernel of curiosity back into its cave, back into that darkness where it continued to be hidden from most of the world….

I’ll be back here soon, to continue the subject of why many Oxfordians feel that 2011 is going to be “the big one” for the Shakespeare Authorship Question … a year different from all the other years.  As Bette Davis tells the folks as Margo Channing at the party in All About Eve:  “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

The Asbourne Portrait of "Shakespeare"

The so-called Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare (note the skull, as in the picture of Hamlet above) “was first brought to light by Clement Usill Kingston in 1847. The painting bore the date 1611 and purported to show William Shakespeare at the age of 47. Subsequently, it was widely reproduced during the 19th century, having entered the canon of Shakespeare portraits.  The identity of the artist is unknown.  It was subsequently altered to cater to
public demand for more pictures of the bard, and conform to 19th century ideas of Shakespeare.  In 1940, Charles Wisner Barrell made a searching investigation of the portrait using modern technologies and concluded the painting was a retouched portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Art historian William Pressly, who catalogued the Folger’s paintings, and directed the 1988 restoration of the work, states that the controversy surrounding the sitter’s identity was resolved in 1979, when restorative work on the painting revealed conclusively that it had been begun as a portrait of Sir Hugh Hamersley.  [Well, now … “conclusively”? – Hmmm– H.W.] The Folger Library dates the painting to 1612, and while stating that most researchers identify the painting’s subject as Sir Hugh Hamersley, notes that some Oxfordians contend it depicts Edward de Vere. It currently hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library.”  (From Wikipedia – emphases added)

%d bloggers like this: