“Against Strange Maladies A Sovereign Cure” — Queen Elizabeth as the Dark Lady … in Sonnet 153

Here’s the ninth item on our continually growing list of ways in which Elizabeth I of England appears within the Sonnets, adding to the evidence that she herself is the powerful dark lady, whose dominating “eye” or viewpoint permeates the sequence – for example, turning the younger man from “fair” to “black” with an imperial frown.

Roman Bath at the City of Bath, England

Roman Bath at the City of Bath, England

These items are being highlighted one by one, in no particular order; and now we focus on Sonnet 153, wherein the author journeys to the medicinal springs of a hot bath in search of “a sovereign cure” but finds, instead, that only “my mistress’ eye” can save him.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,

And thither hied, a sad distempered guest.

“‘I … thither hied.’ Whither?” Sir George Greenwood mused in The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908).  “Surely here is an allusion to the City of Bath, popular in Elizabethan times as ‘against strange maladies a sovereign cure’ … Here, then, I believe, we have an allusion to the poet’s ‘Mistress,’ the Virgin Queen, and to the City of Bath … Was Shakspere at Bath with the Queen?” he asked, referring to the man from Stratford, before replying, “I think it probable that ‘Shakespeare’ was.”

More than a dozen years before Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was identified as the great author, Greenwood had become convinced that he must have been a nobleman close to Elizabeth Tudor. “The real problem of the Sonnets is to find out who ‘Shakespeare’ was,” he wrote in the same volume of 1908.  “That he would be found among cultured Elizabethan courtiers of high position, I can entertain no doubt.”

Queen Elizabeth I and the Royal Maundy

Queen Elizabeth I and the Royal Maundy

It turns out that Elizabeth visited Bath in the west of England only once in her entire reign of nearly forty-five years, according to the meticulous work of Mary Hill Cole in The Portable Queen (1999).  It was a stay of two nights during August 21-23, 1574, as part of her progress.  Earlier that summer Oxford had bolted across the Channel to the Continent on an unauthorized trip only to return three weeks later, catching up to her Majesty at Bristol and continuing with her and the royal court to Bath, with its ancient Roman shrines built around natural springs with healing waters:

Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep.                                

A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,       

And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep        

In a cold valley-fountain of that ground:             

Which borrowed from this holy fire of love,        

A dateless lively heat still to endure,        

And grew a seething bath which yet men prove

Against strange maladies a sovereign cure:                

But at my mistress’ eye love’s brand new-fired,

The boy for trial needs would touch my breast.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,         

And thither hied, a sad distempered guest.                

But found no cure; the bath for my help lies      

Where Cupid got new fire: my mistress’ eye.     

POSTSCRIPT: “Against strange maladies a sovereign cure”

Carole Levin writes in The Heart and Stomach of a King (1994):

“By the Tudor period the monarch had become clearly associated with the Maundy ceremony. The ceremony of washing the feet of the poor, done in imitation of Christ washing the feet of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper, was a part of the Easter vigil … The use of these religious ceremonies fit well with Elizabeth’s self-presentation as the Virgin Queen, an image she presented to her people as a means to replace the Virgin Mary and help heal the rupture created by the break with the Catholic Church …

Christ washing the feet of disciples

Christ washing the feet of   disciples

“Elizabeth’s progresses were critical in systematically promoting the cult of the Virgin Queen for people of all classes all over the country … The continuation of the Maundy ceremony and touching for the king’s evil were manifestations of the sacred aspect of monarchy Elizabeth represented to a people suffering from the dislocations of so many changes in church and state.

“Elizabeth deliberately performed these ceremonies with as much drama as possible, a holy or sacred theatre … Blessing and curing with the queen’s touch was yet another aspect of religious functions subsumed by the monarch … As with touching, Elizabeth began celebrating the Maundy from the very beginning of her reign … There were carpets and cushions on which the queen could kneel and basins of holy water …”

In Macbeth the author writes of a “most miraculous work in this good King,” who tends to the needs of “strangely-visited [sick and suffering] people, all swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,” and “the more despair of surgery, he cures…” (4.3)

Roman Bath at the City of Bath, nighttime

Roman Bath at the City of Bath, nighttime

A most miraculous work in this good King,

Which often, since my here-remain in England,

I have seen him do.  How he solicits Heaven,

Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,

All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,

The more despair of surgery, he cures…          

Macbeth, 4.3.148-152

The list to date:

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

9 – Sonnet 153: “Against Strange Maladies a Sovereign Cure”

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://hankwhittemore.com/2016/02/08/a-sovereign-cure-queen-elizabeth-as-dark-lady-in-sonnet-153/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Hank, type on on “131”. You are working at too fast a pace! Although, I’m sure that “tyrannous” in 131 catches the eye 🙂

    • Thanks, Jeff! Just a little scattered, working on too many things at once. Something like that:-)

    • But — do you mean in The Monument? I spelled “tiranous” as “tyrannous” the way Booth modernized it. But I see “their” for “they” in line 7, which must be what you mean:-)

  2. He means 131 should be 149 because the title of your post from December 7 is taken from line 12 of sonnet 149. You grabbed 131 because you also mention sonnet 131 (black deeds) at the top of that same post.

  3. I believe he means the sonnet 131 in your list should be edited to sonnet 149. The title of your December 7 post (Commanded by the motion of thine eyes) comes from line 12 of sonnet 149, but at the top of the post you also refer to sonnet 131 (black deeds). You simply grabbed 131 by mistake.

    • Thanks to both of you for helping — but I am having trouble seeing what might be changed. I grabbed the line from 131 to illustrate the point that she is not “black” because of her skin or eye color. Yes, the sonnet is about the “commanded” line of 149, but I deliberately used the 131 line first. Maybe it should be clarified somehow?

      • I think it’s clear.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: