Queen Elizabeth as the Dark Lady: “Do I envy those Jacks that nimble leap to kiss the tender inward of thy hand”

“Prominent among these favorites was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford … He was an agile and energetic dancer, the ideal partner for the queen, and he had a refined ear for music and was a dexterous performer on the virginals.” – Carolly Erickson, “The First Elizabeth” (1983)

How oft, when thou my music music play’st

Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds

With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st

The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

Do I envy those Jacks that nimble leap           

To kiss the tender inward of thy hand…

(Emphasis added)

Queen Elizabeth's Virginal

So begins Sonnet 128, the second verse of the Dark Lady series (127-152); and with Oxford viewed as the author, it is plainly about Elizabeth I, who was fond of playing on her virginals – a musical instrument of the harpsichord family, with “jacks” or wooden shafts that rest on the ends of the keys. The presumption here is that Oxford, an expert musician, composed pieces that he and the queen would play together:

Oxford had been jealous of Sir Walter Raleigh, a “jack” who had leaped into the court’s attention in 1580, when he went to Ireland to help suppress an uprising. He soon became a favorite of the queen, and in 1587 he was knighted and appointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard.  Later he helped the government bring Essex to his tragic ending upon the failure of the Essex Rebellion and was said to gloat at the time of the earl’s execution.

“When the news was officially announced that the tragedy was over, there was a dead silence in the Privy Chamber, but the queen continued to play, and the Earl of Oxford, casting a significant glance at Raleigh, observed, as if in reference to the effect of Her Majesty’s fingers on the instrument, which was a sort of open spinet, ‘When Jacks start up, then heads go down.’ Everyone understood the bitter pun contained in this allusion.” – Agnes Strickland, “The Life of Queen Elizabeth” (1910), p. 674, citing “Fragmenta Regalia: Observations on the late Q. Elizabeth, her times and favorites,” Sir Robert Naughton (1641)

[The Monument views the chronological arrangement of the Dark Lady series as beginning with Sonnet 127 on the night of the Rebellion on February 8, 1601; in this context, Sonnet 128 would follow upon the execution of Essex a little more than two weeks later on February 25, 1601.  The placement is a perfect fit within that context of the contemporary history.]

The lines about “those Jacks that nimble leap/ To kiss the tender inward of thy hand” recall a letter from Essex to Elizabeth in 1597: “And so wishing Your Majesty to be Mistress of all that you wish most, I humbly kiss your fair hands.”

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh

Francis Bacon apparently recalled the same incident with the virginals (or perhaps one that occurred much earlier) in “Apophthegemes New and Old” (1625): “When Queen Elizabeth had advanced Raleigh, she was one day playing on the virginals, and my Lord of Oxford, & another Noble-man, stood by. It fell out so that the Ledge, before the Jacks, was taken away, so the Jacks were seen [i.e., making them visible]; My Lord of Oxford and the other Noble-man smiled, and a little whispered.  The Queen marked it, and would needs know what the matter was?  My Lord of Oxford answered that they smiled to see that ‘when Jacks went up, Heads went down.’”

The actual occasion of the incident matters little in terms of its placement in the Dark Lady series or its relationship to Sonnet 128. The point is that there is, in fact, documentary evidence that the Queen and Oxford were together while she played on the virginals and he came up with his now-famous, spontaneous quip about the leaping jacks being like Raleigh, an upstart “jack” at the royal court.  To express his bitterness at Raleigh in relation to the execution of Essex, there was no better allusion than this one.  [In addition, all recollections of the quip have the same rather obvious allusion to an execution-by-beheading.]

Sonnet 128

How oft, when thou my music music play’st

Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds

With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st

The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

Do I envy those Jacks that nimble leap

To kiss the tender inward of thy hand…

Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,

At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.

To be so tickled they would change their state

And situation with those dancing chips,

O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,

Making dead wood more blest than living lips.

Since saucy Jacks so happy are in this,

Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

The list of ways in which Queen Elizabeth permeates the Sonnets of Shakespeare continues to grow:

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

8 – Sonnet 128: “Those Jacks that Nimble Leap” – recalling the Queen at her virginals

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oxfordians have more fun. This is so wonderful, and your findings are exceptional. Thank you, Hank!

  2. You are a genius! Your book ” The Monument” Is quite fabulous – I believe every word! thank you! 3. feb. 2016 7.29 p.m. skrev “Hank Whittemores Shakespeare Blog” :

    > hankwhitt posted: ““Prominent among these favorites was Edward de Vere, > Earl of Oxford … He was an agile and energetic dancer, the ideal partner > for the queen, and he had a refined ear for music and was a dexterous > performer on the virginals.” – Carolly Erickson, “The First” >

    • Much appreciated. Please don’t hesitate to contribute any thoughts or information. One day, I believe, millions will be able to look at the Sonnets without their vision being blocked by prior assumptions about the author and his work. Meanwhile I would say we are very lucky….


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