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!

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