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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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I know (and respect) your beliefs – though I disagree.

    A big problem is the fact that a Sovereign (Elizabeth) was living at the time of the composition of these Sonnets. So, even if Southampton was the Royal Son, he shouldn’t have been addressed as Sovereign yet – it would be treason! Instead, is being used metaphor here.

    And de Vere (if he had any sense) would have recognized that to have Southampton declared King would be impossible, in that, politically, a bastard, unacknowledged until nearly the end of Elizabeth’s reign, would be a particularly unstable figure as King. None of the powerful figures of the time would have gone along with it.

    So, the only way I can conceive of this PT reading is to see de Vere as a fickle-headed fool, clinging to an impossible hope against all better judgement, without a friend in the matter. Which might be what you assert, but I’ve never seen it put that way in print.

    • Ah — I just realized this post is also here. Well, again you have a valid point, and to some extent I agree with you. And you are right that it’s never really explained this way, so let me try right here:

      First … I wrote The Monument after “discovering” that the vast bulk of the Fair Youth sonnets correspond to the Post-Essex-Rebellion period that includes (1) Sonnets 27 to 106 = Southampton’s imprisonment from 8 Feb 1601 to 9 April 1603; and (2) Sonnets 107 to 126 = the nineteen days from Southampton’s release on 10 April 1603 to the Queen’s funeral on 28 April 1603 followed by a single “envoy” to the series, 126. [And the “discovery” that all the Dark Lady sonnets 127 to 152 are intended to correspond with the time of Southampton’s imprisonment up to the Queen’s death on 24 March 1603.]

      Second, within this framework … all of Oxford’s expressed frustrations, the loss, disgrace, grief, blackness, the wasted time, etc., occur AFTER it is no longer possible for Southampton to gain the throne … and yes, even then, he appears to be thrashing about, emotionally … but I believe his intention was to construct a “monument” of verse for posterity (55, 81, 107) to learn the truth of things, and he did so in this poetical fashion, for reasons explained in the reply above (and also because it was a way of expressing his emotional howl, if you will). All is lost from the get-go, except for Sonnets 1 to 26 and the Bath sonnets 153-154, which related to earlier time frames.

      In addition the story he tells, beginning after the official history is over, is about what happened after the rebellion failed — the trial, where he served on the tribunal (“Thy adverse party is thy Advocated” – 35) — and had to vote to condemn Southampton to death before working behind the scenes to save his life and gain his freedom with a royal pardon from James, assuming James would get to the throne safely. Thus the jubilation of Sonnet 107, the climactic sonnet of 1 to 126. And here he is also preserving, for us, the how and why he agreed to glue the pen name to his face, and be smothered by it — “I, once gone, to all the world must die” (81) is a direct statement of the authorship problem, by the author himself.

      The irony is that this aspect of the anti-PT is correct, in a way — after all, Southampton certainly never got on the throne and Oxford’s name sure got buried, as in “My name be buried where my body is” (72)…

  2. Sorry – I don’t know how I did it but I goofed in the original post. Here is a correction:

    A big problem is the fact that a Sovereign (Elizabeth) was living at the time of the composition of these Sonnets. So, even if Southampton was the Royal Son, he shouldn’t have been addressed as Sovereign yet – it would be treason! Instead, metaphor is being used here.

    • Well, we agree on at least one thing, that addressing Southampton as “my sovereign” was an act of treason. Let me give my view, strongly, while granting that you have a legitimate point to make. Thanks in advance for provoking me to write it:

      In my view the treasonous nature of the subject matter is precisely why Oxford wrote the truth in the “noted weed” (76) or familiar costume of poetry and used a special language based on “dressing old words new” (76) or “varying to other words” (105) and thereby create two simultaneous images, one universal and the other specific. Within the first level, of course, is a full range of possibility, ambiguity, diversity, metaphor, etc., so the poems are never “limited” in their scope; yet Oxford tells us in Sonnet 66 that his “art” has been “tongue-tied by authority,” or by officialdom, or by the sovereign herself, making his true meaning treasonous. He even worried in Sonnet 17, speaking to Southampton, that “your true rights” might well be termed “a Poet’s rage” (emotional outpourings of an Elizabethan poet) in the future — and that dire prediction has (unfortunately, in my view:-) occurred. You might say that he worried that readers of the future would mistakenly think these were simply love poems using metaphor.

      It would have continued to be treason when the Sonnets were printed in 1609, with another monarch on the throne, and that would explain the really amazing fact that it appears as though the Sonnets were suppressed. There were no public reactions to them whatsoever. It seems they existed in a kind of underground world — popping up within another context in 1640, perhaps a deliberate attempt, certainly successful, to obscure the true story recorded in the 1609 sequence — and reappeared in correct order and text more than a century later in 1711. I don’t think we can name any other publication in the reigns of Elizabeth and James with such a bizarre history.

  3. My main problem with PT theory is the idea of a Royal Son.

    Your insight that the Sonnets reflect de Vere’s reaction to the Essex treason would be unchallenged if the PT part is set aside, with these (certainly speculative) reinterpretations:

    First – if de Vere fathered the 3rd Earl on the 2nd Countess of Southampton, he would indeed be addressing his son in the Sonnets.

    Second – the real Treason may have been simply an attempt to nullify the inevitability of Royal Succession (from Henry viii) BY FORCE, as an attempt to prevent the problematic James from gaining the throne.

    In this scenario, de Vere would be supporting an action to put the Crown in DESERVING English hands (with Southampton deserving to be at the top, due to his personal characteristics), rather than simply acquiescing to succession based on birthright. So the Essex Rebellion wasn’t just a treason against Elizabeth, but also against the inevitable succession of James (with actual power flowing through Robert Cecil).

    The Essex action makes more sense as an actual “rebellion” against traditional succession than as an effort to put a Royal (bastard) Son on the throne.

    This would explain the stain on de Vere’s name, which continued through James’ reign.

    • Very interesting comments. My major contribution (in my view) has been the post-rebellion context of Sonnets 27 to 126, followed by the observation that the author inserted a sequence of exactly 100 sonnets; and perhaps then the division of 80 + 20 which is exactly the same as Hekatompathia, or the Passionate Century of Love, by Thomas Watson, 1582, dedicated to Oxford. Sonnet 81 is the high point of that sequence, and is marked by a fancy design of orthography; and Sonnet 107, the high point of the Shakespeare century, is also the 81st sonnet. I suspect that without PT this contribution would have had less trouble being accepted. On the other hand, we are still faced with determining precisely the relationship of Oxford and Southampton; it has seemed to be a choice between father-son and lover-lover. The latter has no biographical-historical context, in my view.

      Thanks for giving us some more to think about.

  4. As an aside, the structure of the Sonnets is an architectonic testimony to the tragic non-reality on earth of what had been justly divined in heaven, i.e., the heir of the monarch (Southampton) by right should be divinely royal as the true successor. The first 26 sonnets correspond to the age of the Prince before the judgment of his being imprisoned as a traitor. (He wished to replace Cecil, not Elizabeth.) He was imprisoned for 26 months.The last 26 sonnets (127-52) preceding the two-sonnet coda (153-4) correspond to the Sonnets 1-26 prelude to crisis-and the 100-Sonnet sequence. The main numerological symbolism is in the 100 between those pillars, a 100-sequence being a literary usage at least from Erasmus. Embedded as an inner sonnet-sequence are the 26 sonnets between Sonnet 77 and Sonnet 102 which contain 365 lines to represent a royal or eternal Year. That Year concept is spaced on either side by two 24’s, for hours in a day, Sonnets 53-76 and Sonnets103-26. Shifting from Time to vassalage reference, the five pledges of eternal fealty in the entire Sonnet sequence occur 26 sonnets apart: starting with Sonnet 29, then 55, 81, and 107. Five was considered the royal number, mid-way between l and 9. There is a yet more abstract ‘Time’ related symbolism, conveyed by the total lines in the Sonnets and Lover’s Complaint-2484-corresponding to the Platonic Great Year, or for all intents and purposes the Age in a quasi-astrological sense. The Event was placed within the fullness of Time, by way of numerological symbolism packed together to honor a never-Kingship on earth. Without the history, this complicated Elizabethan apostrophe would be reasonably interpreted as a poet’s rage, or as T.S. Eliot put it an ‘autobiography of a foreign man in a foreign tongue which will never be translated’. With the history however, it is an aesthetic artifact about and remnant shadow upon HIstory or, to adopt the author’s own word, a monument to what never was nor could be. We cannot call the Kingship history, since it never happened. It was left instead on the lonely spiritual terrain of legend and art.


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