The Oxfordian Researcher Gwynneth Bowen and Her Recognition of Royal Words in the Sonnets

Below are excerpts from an article Shakespeare to his Sovereign by the late Gwynneth Bowen, first published in 1960 by the Shakespearean Authorship Review (England) and reprinted online in Mark Alexander’s incomparable website the Shakespeare Authorship Sourcebook.

Ms. Bowen believed that Edward de Vere  Earl of Oxford wrote under the pen name “William Shakespeare,” but she disagreed with the so-called Prince Tudor theory that Oxford and Queen Elizabeth were the natural parents of Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton.  In her view, therefore, Oxford could not be addressing Southampton in the Sonnets as his royal son and prince who deserves to become King Henry IX of England.

Southampton in the Tower 1601-1603

Nonetheless Ms. Bowen was not one to ignore evidence.  She could see that Oxford is in fact addressing the recipient as royal.

Her article begins by citing Louis P. Benezet’s suggestion that Oxford addressed a number of the Shakespeare sonnets to Queen Elizabeth.  Then she notes that Dr. Benezet had failed to include numbers 57 and 58 as among them.  In his view, Oxford was addressing 57 and 58 to his lover Anne Vavasour, who gave birth to his illegitimate son Edward Vere in March 1580.

And she continues (with my emphasis in italics):

“For the orthodox, the sonnets must all, and always, be highly metaphorical, but for those of us who believe that they were written by a nobleman, it is sometimes difficult to say where literalism ends and metaphor begins. I would like to point out, however, that these two sonnets in particular are couched in terms which are either appropriate to a reigning monarch alone, or, in some instances, take on a different meaning when associated with royalty.”

Ms. Bowen reprints the two sonnets (emphasizing key words) before providing a glossary:

Sonnet 57

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I (my sovereign) watch the clock for you
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu,
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought,
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave stay and think of nought
Save where you are, how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love, that in your Will
(Though you do anything), he thinks no ill.

Sonnet 58

That God forbid, that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand th’account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure.
Oh let me suffer (being at your beck)
Th’imprison’d absence of your liberty,
And patience tame, to sufferance bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong,
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will, to you it doth belong,
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.

Here are excerpts from her glossary, created with assistance from the New English Dictionary, showing that all these words are related t:

The Tower

Desire: A wish as expressed or stated in words.

Sovereign: No gloss needed.

Will: The royal will.

Control: To check or verify, and hence to regulate (payments, receipts or accounts generally): by comparison with counter-roll or duplicate register.

(Controller): A household officer whose duty was primarily to check expenditure, and so to manage in general, a steward. Now chiefly used in the household of the sovereign.

Pleasure: The condition or fact of being pleased or satisfied, the negation of which is displeasure; satisfaction, approval (rare).  [As in “His Majesty’s pleasure – HW]

Vassal: [No gloss needed].

Liberty: Exemption or release from captivity, bondage or slavery. A privilege or exceptional right granted to it subject by the sovereign power.

Charter: A written document given by the sovereign or legislature. “Charters are donations from the sovereign; and not laws, but exemption from law” Hobbes Leviathan 1651.

Privilege: To authorize, licence (what is otherwise forbidden or wrong); to(verb) justify, excuse … the privilege, the royal prerogative.

Pardon: To remit the penalty of (an offence); to pass over (an offence or offender) without punishment or blame; to forgive.  Pardon is a more formal term than forgive, being that used in legal language; also often in theology. (1535-6. Act 27 Henry VIII: “No person shall have any power … to pardon or remitte any tresons … or any kyndes of felonyes whatsoever they be . . . but the Kinges Highnesse . . . shall have the whole and sole power and auctoritie [authority] thereof.”)

Pleasure: (with possessive pronoun or substantive in possessive relation). How one is pleased or wills in reference to any action contemplated; that which is agreeable to one’s will, desire, choice. [With special reference to the royalpleasure, as in the legal sentence of detention “during Her Majesty’s pleasure”.]

“The above interpretation of particular words affects the meaning of the two sonnets as a whole,” Ms. Bowen writes.  “They are not love poems in the ordinary sense at all and the words pleasure and desire have no sensual implication…”

Citing the line “The imprison’d absence of your liberty,” she observes that “liberty belonged to the Queen—to grant or to withhold,” adding, “If addressed to Anne Vavasour, or, for that matter, the Fair Youth, these two sonnets are degradingly servile, but from an Elizabethan nobleman to his Queen, in the circumstances described, they are matter-of-fact, dignified, and daring in their rebuke.”

Ms. Bowen deserves credit for refusing to ignore the clearly “royal” meaning of various key words in the Sonnets.  The evidence provided in The Monument, however, is that there is no need to turn the “fair youth” into the female sovereign; rather, the evidence shows that these same “royal” words are written in connection with Southampton, during his imprisonment in the Tower for his role in the failed Essex Rebellion of 8 February 1601.  Once that time frame and historical circumstance are accepted, Ms. Bowen’s own understanding of the words makes it impossible to avoid concluding that Sonnets 57 and 58 are addressed to Southampton as a Tudor prince being held hostage (by Secretary Robert Cecil) until the Queen dies and King James succeeds her.

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