In the current Brief Chronicles (No. VII, 2016, published 12 January 2017), edited by Roger Stritmatter, PhD with Michael Delahoyde, PhD for the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, researchers Elke Brackmann and Robert Detobel suggest a possible dating of Sonnet 81 that coincides with the one expressed in The Monument (2005), which presents a time frame for the central 100-sonnet sequence:
Sonnet 27 upon the failed Essex Rebellion on 8 February 1601 ….. to Sonnet 125 upon Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on 28 April 1603 ……… (plus Sonnet 126, the “envoy” ending the sequence)
Sonnet 81 begins with a sense of the younger man’s impending death: “Or I shall live your Epitaph to make…”
That opening line, Backmann and Detobel write, “would suddenly take on a piercing dramatic quality” if the youth’s life had been threatened. (Well, yes!) And in fact, they note, the life of Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, was definitely threatened when a tribunal on 19 February 1601 sentenced him to be executed for his role in the rebellion.
The case for Southampton as the younger man in the Sonnets “can now be considered firmly established,” they continue, adding, “We know of one point in time in his life (and within the generally accepted period of composition of the sonnets) when he was in great danger and/or about to die. This was in February 1601, when he was sentenced to death for high treason. It is also useful in this context to recall that the use of the word ‘epitaph’ is suggestive of death in a foreseeable future…”
Essex was beheaded on 25 February 1601, but Southampton’s penalty was commuted into lifelong imprisonment. “The exact date of the commutation is not known,” Brackmann and Detobel write, “but it must have occurred before the end of March.”
Therefore, Sonnet 81 could have been written “between February and March when Southampton’s life was in the balance,” they suggest, adding, “It could also have been written later in the year, during the first six months or so of Southampton’s imprisonment in the Tower, when he was reported to have been very sick.”
We might add that Oxford could not know, during the next two years, whether Southampton would be left to die in the Tower. Everything depended upon Robert Cecil being able to bring James of Scotland to the throne upon Elizabeth’s death — and it appears, from our reading of the Sonnets, that the Earl of Oxford was forced to help the Secretary engineer the succession of James.
The success of this “deal” between Edward de Vere and his former brother-in-law is expressed in Sonnet 107, the high point of the sequence — with Oxford declaring that Southampton had been “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” but that now, upon the queen’s death, Henry Wriothesley was free. The queen died on 24 March 1603 and Southampton was released from the Tower on 10 April 1603; and this view of the biographical/historical context of the central 100-sonnet sequence (1601-1603) is the basis for The Monument…
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read… (Sonnet 81)
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent. (Sonnet 107)