Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Wins “Dark Lady” Debate

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

On Sunday (October 14), during its annual conference convened this year in Oakland, the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship held a three-way debate about the identity of the so-called Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Each of us agreed in advance that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford is the author and that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton is the so-called Fair Youth, leaving the identity of the woman open for debate. John Hamill argued for Penelope Rich; Katherine Chiljan made her case for Anne Vavasour; and I supported Queen Elizabeth, who won by a secret-ballot vote of the membership in the audience. Each of the others made a formidable case, in his or her 20-minute opening presentation, making for an afternoon session of special excitement. Here, in full, is the overview I gave at the outset:

Making sense of the Sonnets can begin with the realization that these intensely personal lines were set down by the highest-ranking earl at the royal court – and that the beloved younger man is also a member of the court. But finding the story in the sonnets becomes possible only by also identifying the right woman.

Even if we knew nothing of the author, it’s clear this woman is someone of incredible importance to him, and wields enormous power over him – a woman with whom he’s been involved in a long, complicated relationship – whom he’s believed in and defended, even when she has failed to live up to his belief in her – a woman for whom, in the end, he has sacrificed the truth and betrayed himself.

I’d like to present evidence that the powerful, dominating woman we call the Dark Lady can only be the same powerful, dominating woman who pervades the lives of both those earls, and who pervades so much of Oxford’s writing – from his own early Shakespearean sonnet professing his devotion to Queen Elizabeth to his portraits of Venus and the Phoenix, Cleopatra, Titania, Olivia, Portia, Silvia, Queen Gertrude, and more. His final words to this powerful, deceitful, inscrutable woman sum up their long relationship that has now, in the end, drained his soul and left him in bitter disillusionment:

And all my honest faith in thee is lost;/ For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,/ Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy,/And to enlighten thee gave eyes to blindness,/ Or made them swear against the thing they see./For I have sworn thee fair: more perjured eye,/To swear against the truth so foul a lie.”

Has there ever been a more wretched confession of shattered illusion and self-betrayal?

Three themes about Queen Elizabeth as Dark Lady:

First, context: Identifying the queen allows us to locate the time frame and historical circumstances for these sonnets – a context every true story must have.

Second, metaphor: The darkness of the woman is not literal but metaphorical; and the metaphor is inseparable from Elizabeth and her imperial frown.

Third, language: Oxford employs the same words to and about the Dark Lady that he’s already used to and about the queen, and used exclusively for her.

Context: The overall context is that Oxford desperately wanted the Sonnets not only published and eventually read, but also, hopefully, understood – by readers in the future. The Sonnets are for “all posterity” and “eyes not yet created,” even when “tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.” So there must be an important story here, for us. He’s playing the long game, which means the story must transcend all strictly personal issues, no matter how deeply felt. It must involve some major situation to be recorded by English history. Given all we know about Shakespeare, the story must also involve some great issue of his own time; and the most pressing issue was the urgent need for an uncontested – and, therefore, peaceful – royal succession.

The vital publishing life of Oxford’s Shakespeare plays coincides with this growing alarm: What will happen if the queen dies before naming her successor? The great issuance of Oxford’s plays under the Shakespeare name occurred in the final years of her life, up to her death. The man was still trying to guide and protect her and his country.

And the contents of his revised history plays reflect this intensifying crisis. The British author Peter Lake aptly titles his recent book “How Shakespeare Put Politics on the Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays.” His recurring theme is that Shakespeare was using history to raise awareness of the current crisis and ways of dealing with it. Elizabeth’s urgent responsibility was to put a successor in place, to avoid civil war and even possible takeover by a foreign power. But she could not – or would not – carry out this responsibility, and finally the tension boiled over in the Essex Rebellion of early 1601.

The rebels began by paying for a special performance of Oxford’s play Richard II, which Elizabeth knew was about her and the possibility of her being deposed, even killed. The earls were hoping to prevent Robert Cecil from further manipulating the queen to ensure his own survival. Oxford had portrayed Cecil as the hunchbacked tyrant Richard III; and now the secretary was terrorizing Elizabeth (“They were planning to kill you!”) and keeping her under his firm control. For Oxford, after a lifetime of service to queen and country, it was all crashing down with his cunning former brother-in-law maintaining total command of England. As James of Scotland put it, Cecil had made himself “king there, in effect.”

Now the context begins to reveal itself. Our goal, in my view, has always been to read these autobiographical sonnets to and about the Dark Lady (nos. 127-152) in conjunction with events that must comprise the framework and foundation of Oxford’s story. And once we see Elizabeth as this woman, it becomes clear that the story unfolds between the two most important events: the failed rebellion of 1601 and the queen’s death two years later in 1603. These moments, destined to be marked by history, are the two bookends. Then, from one to the other, the sonnets and events begin to illuminate each other and to bring the story to life.

It begins with Sonnet 127 on that tragic night when most young nobles of Elizabeth’s court have been jailed on charges of having plotted against her life. The age of “Gloriana” has come to an end. It’s over – and “therefore” the eyes of their sovereign mistress have turned “Raven black.” The ravens had become dread symbols of executions on the Tower Green. When Anne Boleyn was decapitated, it was said that “even the ravens of the Tower sat silent and immovable on the battlements, gazing eerily at the strange scene: a queen about to die!”

Now two former favorites, Essex and Southampton, are both set to die on that same Tower Green, so it’s no wonder the aging queen is in “mourning” as at a funeral. After the head of Essex is cut off, the beloved Fair Youth is next, and now his fate is also up to Elizabeth.

Imagine Oxford’s emotional turmoil over this tragic situation! He might even blame himself. All three of them – Southampton, Oxford, Elizabeth – are suffering. And so Oxford addresses the queen in words echoing those of Christ on the cross: “Of him, my self, and thee, I am forsaken, a torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.” What other kind of situation would compel this proud nobleman and great author, who hated hyperbole, to liken his own suffering to that of Christ?

Back in 1911, the legal expert Edward White declared that Sonnets 133 and 134 “clearly refer to the confinement of Southampton in the Tower” and “express the poet’s desire to go his bail by substituting his person for that of his friend, in jail.” It’s Elizabeth who has Southampton in her prison, so Oxford begs her: “Prison my heart … but then let my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail. Who ere keeps me, let my heart be his guard; thou canst not then use rigor in my jail.” In other words: “I will not let you execute him in my prison!”

White also declared: “The poet proffers to forfeit himself as security for Southampton.” Oxford tells the queen: “So now I have confessed that he is thine, and I my self am mortgaged to thy will. My self I’ll forfeit so that other mine thou wilt restore to be my comfort still.”

Now he begs her Majesty to relieve his suffering by executing him instead: “O call me not to justify the wrong that thy unkindness lays upon my heart … Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.” An old saying was that “monarchs have killing looks.” They kill, literally, with their eyes.

Waiting in the Tower, Southampton writes a lengthy poem to the queen, trying to save his life – the only poem by him that we know of. (Before Essex was executed, he, too, had written a poem to her Majesty while in the Tower. So clearly poetry was an important means of communicating with the queen – which makes three earls and former royal wards, each writing verse for Queen Elizabeth in relation to the very same dire circumstances.) In Southampton’s poem, discovered just several years ago, the earl reminds Elizabeth: “Only mercy is the prince’s own.” Only the monarch can deliver mercy; and when she does spare his life, a relieved Oxford responds in Sonnet 145: “Straight in her heart did mercy come.”

But time to settle the succession is running out; nor does Elizabeth seem to care about the ultimate fate of Southampton, who might be left to die in the Tower as a condemned traitor in perpetual confinement. So Oxford wails in amazing lines such as these in Sonnet 147: “Past cure I am, now reason is past care,/ And frantic mad with ever-more unrest;/ My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,/ At random from the truth, vainly expressed.” His continued loyalty to the queen stands at complete odds with her failure to name a successor and protect England from chaos and bloodshed.

James of Scotland has a blood claim, but with complications. He’s a foreign king, born on foreign soil, technically not qualified, and even more deeply unqualified in his character, not to mention that he’s also the willing pawn of Robert Cecil. For all that, however, he does have a claim; but still Elizabeth refuses to name him.

In the end Oxford delivers those final bitter words to the dying female monarch who has always been the most important person in his life: “And all my honest faith in thee is lost.” And now we can see the metaphor of the queen’s darkness.

Oxford established the metaphor in Sonnet 25: “Great Princes’ favorites their fair leaves spread/ But as the Marigold at the sun’s eye,/ And in themselves their pride lies buried,/ For at a frown they in their glory die.” Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers behave like her flower, the marigold, all opening to the warm light of “the sun’s eye” – her sovereign eye; but with just a frown casting her shadow of royal displeasure, their glory dies in darkness. That’s the metaphor, set forth by Oxford himself, and it’s inseparable from Elizabeth.

Of the twenty-six sonnets in this series, only five involve her darkness, and each time it’s a variation of that same metaphor:

In the opening sonnet (127), after eight lines, he reports: “Therefore” – “Therefore my Mistress’ eyes are Raven black,” – the raven, harbinger of death – “her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem” – the eyes of mourners at a funeral. It’s a metaphor. In 130, “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Back in those lines about the marigold, the queen’s eye was the sun; now, because of her imperial frown and negative view, the sunlight has disappeared. All is dark.

How the queen looks at someone or something is also what she does; and in 131 he tells her: “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds.” In 132 her eyes have “put on” black, again in mourning; but if her eyes are already black, why would she have to put it on? Finally, in 147, she’s “as black as hell, as dark as night.” And that’s it for the darkness, all metaphor, all tied to the power of the queen’s negative view that turns day into night.

And now the language, to and about the queen:

For example, in 134: “I my self am mortgaged to thy will.” In a letter to Cecil about the queen, he promised not to “contradict her will.” A common saying was, “Others debate, but the king wills.”

In 140 she has “tongue-tied” or silenced him, the same as when his art is “tongue-tied by authority.” Well, the queen is authority; and she’s the only one who can tongue-tie or officially silence him.

He writes to her in 149 about being in “thy service.” He had told Burghley, “”I have engaged myself so far in her Majesty’s service to bring truth to light.” What other woman has he ever served? Also in 149 he’s “commanded by the motion of thine eyes.” In a private memo he urged the queen to give her “commandment.” And in King John he wrote about “the motion of a kingly eye.”

In his early sonnet about the queen, Oxford had blared forth his “love” and “constant truth” on her behalf. He was loyal and consistently honest. Now, as she nears death, he writes about her side of that commitment: about “thy” love, “thy” truth, “thy” constancy – the same three words; but in the end, she has had no love or truth or constancy. She has betrayed him and England itself; and therefore he has sworn falsely, all his life, by supporting and praising her.

Recall him telling how he has engaged himself in her Majesty’s service to bring truth to light; but now all his honest faith in her is lost. He admits he has had to “swear against the truth so foul a lie.” What other woman could force this strong-willed man of high rank, for whom truth was the most sacred value, to swear against it for her sake?

Soon after Oxford died the following year, 1604, came the printed full Hamlet. He must have labored to revise and expand this magnum opus right up to his last breath. In the final scene, Fortinbras comes down from the north to rule Denmark amid its royal wreckage, just as Cecil triumphantly brought James down from the north to rule England its crippled royal court. Hamlet bemoans his “wounded name” and implores Horatio to “tell my story.”

Five years later, 1609, the Sonnets are published for posterity; and I have no doubt they contain the story Horatio promised to tell the “yet unknowing world” about “how these things came about.” Here is Edward de Vere’s most personal voice – his own story – and the most direct revelation of his authorship.

Here is Oxford’s cry that his own wounded name “be buried where my body is.” Here is the truth of the great author at the royal court of England; his devotion to Southampton; his long, conflicted relationship with the queen; his fury and despair over her failure to protect his beloved isle, not to mention her unwillingness to liberate Southampton. Here is his confession of misguided loyalty and self-betrayal for her sake; and his swift disappearance within the black hole of official anonymity: “I, once gone, to all the world must die.”

Only when Queen Elizabeth is recognized as the powerful “dark lady” will the context, metaphor and language of the Sonnets enable Oxford’s untold story to finally come into focus – for posterity, for history, for us.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. An eloquent thesis which must have been list’ with wide admiration in the former land of the oaks, species both black and white. I would add that Sonnet 107, written as the poet’s poignant elegy of the succession tragedy and her decease, states, “The mortal moon hath her eclipse endur’d…” Elizabeth, metaphorically identified with the moon, had gone into eclipse, a mortal material darkness, but as the Queen her divine fate decreed immortality, rendering her eclipse only a transitory moon phase. Eternity would purify her last in clarified light.

    • Eloquent as usual and much appreciated, my friend. You were there for the opening round with Penelope. Be well, and may the immortal gods be with ye.

  2. Congratulations, Hank. Your entire work is pioneering.

    • Thanks, Sandy, as usual. Best wishes for more success in your work!


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