The Courtier as Sexual Slave to Elizabeth, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Centerpiece of canvas attributed to Robert Peake called "Queen Elizabeth going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1600"

Centerpiece of canvas called “Queen Elizabeth going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1600”

“From the royal court I lately came,” said he,

“Where all the bravery that eye may see,

And all the happiness that heart desire

Is to be found …

But tidings there is none, I you assure,

Save that which common is, and known to all,

That courtiers as the tide do rise and fall.”

(Edmund Spenser, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, 1591)

The image of courtiers rising and falling in or out of favor at the court of Elizabeth I was apparently translated by some writers into the image of male sex organs helplessly rising and falling at the command of their sovereign lady, who was often called the “female prince.” Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford used the metaphor referring to himself and the queen in Sonnet 151:

My soul doth tell my body that he may

Triumph in love: flesh stays no farther reason,

But rising at thy name doth point out thee

As his triumphant prize: proud of this pride,

He is contented thy poor drudge to be,

To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

No want of conscience hold it that I call

Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

(Emphases added.)

(Oxford’s use of “dear” in relation to Elizabeth recalls a letter Essex wrote to the queen as he was leaving for the Azores in 1597, addressing her as “most dear and most admired sovereign,” adding that “to your royal dear heart I appeal.”)

Oxford would never use the tone and language of the so-called Dark Lady sonnets in writing to or about any woman other than Queen Elizabeth herself. Only his sovereign mistress had the power to make him “contented thy poor drudge to be, to stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.”  He is referring not to love affairs, but, primarily, to great affairs of state, as Brutus uses the word in Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men …”

Editor Stephen Booth views “stand in thy affairs” in Sonnet 151 as referring to “a soldier’s loyalty to his commander, or comrades, or of a knight’s loyalty to his king” – or in this case, I would argue, his queen.  In line with nearly all commentators, however, Booth views the literal topic to be sexual and the military theme to be metaphorical, while I suggest the reverse – that the literal meaning is Oxford’s very real loyalty to the queen, while the sexual matter is mostly metaphorical. (I say “mostly” because, given that Oxford and Elizabeth had shared a romantic relationship many years earlier, the use of sexual imagery here is not without foundation.)

As Dorothy Ogburn writes in This Star of England (1952), the young Oxford “had been so fascinated by Elizabeth’s brilliant and cultivated mind, her peculiar eloquence, as well as her glamorous personality and authority, that he had given her his ardent love, in spite of the difference in their ages.” She adds that “from the beginning, everything he wrote concerned the queen.”

So this is just one more way that Queen Elizabeth emerges in the Sonnets as the dark lady, from the words and lines themselves.  Here is the list as it has grown so far:

1 – Sonnet 76: “Ever the Same” – the Queen’s motto in English

2 – Sonnet 25: “The Marigold” – the Queen’s flower

3 – Sonnet 131: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes” – to a monarch

4 – Sonnet 1: “Beauty’s Rose” – the Queen’s dynasty of the Tudor Rose

5 – Sonnet 107: “the Mortal Moon” – Queen Elizabeth as Diana, the chaste moon goddess

6 – Sonnet 19: “The Phoenix” – the Queen’s emblem

7 – Sonnet 151: “I Rise and Fall” – the courtier as sexual slave to his Queen

Archbishop Cranmer’s Speech Proclaiming That Queen Elizabeth Will Leave an Heir

Adding to the previous blog post, I have thought to include Cranmer’s entire speech in the final scene of Henry VIII by Shakespeare.  The archbishop is exclaiming upon the sight of the newly born Princess Elizabeth, with the king looking on, and I encourage you to envision Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford expressing his own hopes for the future of the English throne.  Is he giving Cranmer words of praise for the Scottish monarch who will succeed the Virgin Queen?  Or might he be declaring, in rather bold language, that Elizabeth Tudor is destined to leave an heir — a royal son — of her own blood?  I have emphasized lines that would seem to suggest the latter:

Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.
This royal infant–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,*
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.

  • The frequent uses of “one” in the Sonnets are allusions to the motto of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton:  “One for All, All for One,” as suggested by line 144 of The Rape of Lucrece, dedicated to Southampton: “That one for all or all for one we gage.”  Whether the Stratford man would have cared to imbed Southampton’s motto is open to question; but the Earl of Oxford, so highly conscious of such matters, could not have inserted those words without being fully aware of what he was doing.  Oxford as “Shakespeare” was alert to the reverberations of each separate word.

Queen Elizabeth as Dark Lady – “The Long-Lived Phoenix”

The Phoenix Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575 - National Portrait Gallery, London

The Phoenix Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575 – National Portrait Gallery, London

Devouring time, blunt thou the Lion’s paws,

And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce Tiger’s jaws,

And burn the long-lived Phoenix in her blood. (Sonnet 19)

Elizabeth I of England had “adopted the Phoenix as an emblem of herself,” Roy Strong notes in The Cult of Elizabeth. “The Phoenix Jewel in the British Museum is a badge of gold bearing a profile image of the Queen.”  The Phoenix is the mythological bird with a life span of more than 500 years.  When its life is over, it burns itself upon a wood pile set ablaze by the sun but then rises from its own ashes.

This linkage is taken up by Shakespeare in Act Five of Henry VIII, when Archbishop Cranmer predicts that when the newly born Princess Elizabeth finally dies she will leave an heir to the throne:

“But, as when bird of wonder dies, the maiden Phoenix, her ashes new create another heir as great in admiration as herself, so shall she leave her blessedness to one.” 

(The line is ambiguous. Does “Shakespeare” really believe that James of Scotland will be “as great in admiration” as Gloriana?  Or is he referring to the hope that she will produce an heir to rise from her own “ashes” or genetic material?)

This reference to the Phoenix is just another way the author of the Sonnets refers to Queen Elizabeth – one of many ways on this list, to which I’ll keep adding, to provide more evidence that the 1609 sonnet sequence continually points to her Majesty as the third member of the triangular relationship being chronicled.

It was she, of course, who refused to settle the “succession crisis” that plagued England, most especially during the final years of her reign. Clearly the author (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) is furious at her for jeopardizing the country’s future.  In that regard it’s undoubtedly fitting that later in Sonnet 19 he pleads with “time” on behalf of his beloved fair youth (Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton):

Him in thy course untainted do allow

For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.

As Cranmer says of the princess in the same scene of the Shakespeare play, Henry VIII’s newly born daughter will grow to become “a pattern to all princes living with her, and all that shall succeed.”

(All italics in the Shakespearean lines are my emphases.)

The List as it now stands:

1 – Sonnet 76: “Ever the Same” – the Queen’s motto in English

2 – Sonnet 25: “The Marigold” – the Queen’s flower

3 – Sonnet 131: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes” – to a monarch

4 – Sonnet 1: “Beauty’s Rose” – the Queen’s dynasty of the Tudor Rose

5 – Sonnet 107: “the Mortal Moon” – Queen Elizabeth as Diana, the chaste moon goddess

6 – Sonnet 19: “The Phoenix” – the Queen’s emblem

Two More Pointers to Queen Elizabeth as the “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth 1_original.jpg

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England

Included below are two more ways in which the Earl of Oxford points to Elizabeth I of England as the so-called “dark lady” of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS, adding to:

Sonnet 76: “Ever the Same” – the Queen’s motto in English

Sonnet 25: “The Marigold” – the Queen’s flower

Sonnet 131: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes” – to a monarch

And now these two:

Sonnet 1: “Beauty’s Rose” – the Queen’s dynasty of the Tudor Ros

Sonnet 107: “the Mortal Moon” – Queen Elizabeth as Diana, the chaste moon goddess

BEAUTY’S ROSE – Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauties Rose might never die

Those opening two lines serve to announce the overriding theme of the entire sequence of one hundred and fifty-four consecutively numbered sonnets: “What you are about to read involves the fate of Queen Elizabeth’s long Tudor Rose dynasty.”

Roy Strong in The Cult of Elizabeth (1997) writes that in the 1590s “we find overt celebrations of Elizabeth as ‘Queen of Love’ and ‘Queen of Beauty.’”  Back in 1580, however, John Lyly in Euphues and his England, dedicated to Oxford, referred to “the beauty of this Prince,” meaning Elizabeth, and wondered in print “whether our tongue can yield worlds to blaze that beauty.”

In 1599 Sir John Davies in Hymnes of Astraea, vertically spelling ELISA BETHA REGINA with the first words of his verse stanzas, used the actual phrase “Beautie’s Rose” in reference to the Queen and her dynasty:

R ose of the Queene of Love beloved,

E ngland’s great Kings divinely moved,

G ave Roses in their banner;

I t showed that Beautie’s Rose indeed,

N ow in this age should them succeed,

A nd reign in more sweet manner.

One of Elizabeth’s mottos was Rosa Sine Spina or Rose Without a Thorn. And as “Shakespeare” writes in Henry VI, Part Three:  “The red rose and the white are on his face, the fatal colors of our striving houses,” referring to the Houses of Lancaster and York, which were merged under Henry VII to begin the Tudor dynasty.

THE MORTAL MOON – Sonnet 107

The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured,

And the sad Augurs mock their own presage

Strong also writes of the “ample justification for identifying [the Queen] with Diana, and hence the cult of the Queen as the moon goddess, Cynthia or Belphoebe. He writes that the moon cult was begun by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s “as a personal, private” identification, but that it “became public in the nineties.”

“Elizageth-Diana-Venus-Virgo is ever young and ever beautiful,” Strong writes, referring to a song by John Dowland. “Her youth is perpetually renewed, like the waxing and waning of the moon.”  Images of Elizabeth in the final decade of the reign depict her with the crescent moon of Cynthia or Diana in her hair.

I suppose that if William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon wrote these sonnets he might not have been aware of these associations with his female monarch, or he might have been simply referring to pretty roses and the moon, but I do know this: If her Majesty’s highest-ranking earl wrote them, there is no way he would NOT be referring, quite consciously and deliberately, to Elizabeth Tudor.

Many more of these pointers to come…

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