The Latest Stratfordian Assault on the Integrity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence: Part Two

Waiting for the arrival of my copy of the new Edmondson-Wells book about Shakespeare’s sonnets, I already know what to expect.

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare will further spread the falsity that SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS, the one hundred and fifty-four consecutively numbered sonnets printed in 1609, can be manipulated at will. It will present the carefully constructed sequence as an ever-expanding dreamscape of Stratfordian faith, much like the mythological Hydra that grows two heads for each one lost.

Stanley Wells & Paul Edmondson

Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson will also offer the mistaken notion that the Sonnets are only love poems, even though the heart of the sequence contains dozens of references to law, politics, government, state power, trials, prison, crime, revolt and death.

The Shakespearean sonnets may be filled with romantic and sexually erotic words or phrases, but those other, far more important terms are also right there on the printed page; for example: “Sessions, summon, ransom, fault, trespass, adverse party, advocate, liberty, offenders, defendant, plea deny, verdict, locked up, lawful reasons, guard, allege, bloody, offense, up-locked, imprisoned, absence of your liberty, pardon, crime, gates of steel, suspect, fell arrest, bail, dead, knife, attaint, confine, releasing, misprision, judgment, attainted, defense, purposed overthrow, term of life, revolt…”

Those words, too, are on the surface, but our gentlemen scholars of unbounded fancy must view them as “metaphors” when, in fact, they can be related to recorded events from the Essex Rebellion of 1601 to the end of the Tudor Dynasty in 1603.  The hundred sonnets between nos. 27 and 126 can be placed as stencils over the lives of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton and Queen Elizabeth of England during that period, resulting in a true story or “living record” of the younger earl preserved for posterity:

When wasteful war shall Statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.     (55, 5-8)

Here are two samples of what appears to be sexually charged writing in the sonnets that can be looked at from more than one perspective:

(1) Sonnets 151 and 152 to the Dark Lady

During a recent interview with Wells, preserved on You Tube, the former president of the Birthplace Trust mentions lines of Sonnet 151:

For thou betraying me, I do betray

My nobler parts to my gross body’s treason;

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.

Without any subtext, these lines are graphically sexual. They occur near the end of the Dark Lady series, which Wells and Edmondson have tossed to the wayside; nonetheless, those two gentlemen are correct to see them as filled with blatant sexual imagery. For example, the word “pride” – indicating the author’s penis, rising and falling before the beloved, who has betrayed him. Oxfordians can agree with this obvious expression of “triumph” and betrayal in the myriad ways of love and physical attraction. Given such happy harmony between Stratfordians and Oxfordians, the authorship question is almost forgotten.

In this case, however, if an Elizabethan courtier is writing the above couplet, he cannot help but also think of lines written by Edmund Spenser in Mother Hubbard’s Tale:

Save that which common is, and known to all,

That Courtiers as the tide do rise and fall.     (614)

Courtiers of Elizabeth undoubtedly joked that way about themselves. Seeking the patronage of their Sovereign Mistress, that radiant, sexually flirtatious female monarch, they approached her as [literally] servants rising and falling in supplication. They must have joked ruefully about their virtual helplessness as they waited upon her absolute royal power to raise or lower them with a flick of her long, slender finger.

Such was also the case with Edward de Vere in relation to his Queen in Sonnet 151, and, too, as he concludes the Dark Lady series in Sonnet 152, telling her:

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.         (152, 7-14)

I look forward to seeing how Wells and Edmondson deal with those lines in terms of the Stratfordian imagination, but it seems clear the Poet (Oxford) is expressing a deeply heartbreaking and bitter loss of “faith” in this woman for whom he has sworn falsely, perjuring himself and betraying his own knowledge of the “truth” by lying for her.

This is a far cry from the spirited, idealistic young courtier, writing as “Earle of Oxenforde” in his early “Shakespearean” sonnet about the Queen, asking himself:

Above the rest in Court who gave thee grace?

Who made thee strive in honor to be best?

In constant truth to bide so firm and sure,

To scorn the world regarding but thy friends?

With patient mind each passion to endure,

In one desire to settle to the end?

Elizabeth was the one who made him “strive in honor to be best.” She was the only woman “above the rest in Court” who could have compelled him to serve her with “constant truth,” regardless of the consequences. In the early 1570s, when that sonnet was written, did Oxford have a sexual relationship with the Queen? If so, was he still suffering the consequences as expressed decades later in Sonnet 152?

(2) Sonnet 52 to the Fair Youth

This verse to the Earl of Southampton can be viewed entirely in terms of its possible sexual imagery, leading up to “pride” again, for penis, followed by the image of him being “had” by the Poet (with some words emphasized, for reasons to become clear):

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key

Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,

The which he will not every hour survey,

For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.

Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,

Since seldom coming in the long year set,

Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,

Or captain jewels in the carcanet.

So is the time that keeps you as my chest,

Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,

To make some special instant special blest

By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.

Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,

Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope.

We can readily interpret the imagery as sexual. Now, also, let’s look at part of a speech by the King in 1 Henry IV, addressing his son Harry, or Prince Hal, the future Henry V. In this case, certain words or forms of words – keep, robe, seldom, feast, rareness, solemnity – are used within an entirely different context, that is, in this history play the father is speaking to his royal son, explaining how he gained his subjects’ adoration by limiting his public appearances:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast,

And won by rareness such solemnity.   (3.2.53-59)

Those words of Henry IV need no other context than that of this play of royal history; the same words within the sonnet, however, are delivered without any such frame of reference. The sexual context may appear obvious, but Wells and Edmondson want us to believe it’s the only context.

Might Edward de Vere have written the entire numerical sequence of the Sonnets within another, much more important  framework as well? One worthy to outlive “marble” and “the gilded monument(s) of Princes”? If he also wrote those lines to record the historical circumstances and events of political power and danger that both he and Henry Wriothesley faced, the Oxfordian case will prevail just as soon as readers are able to see it — regardless of any and all Stratfordian fantasies.

A New Stratfordian Attempt to Destroy the Integrity (and Testimony) of the Sonnets

PART ONE

Most believers in William Shakspere of Stratford as the author known as “Shakespeare,” along with those who conclude he was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, understand that the poems, plays and sonnets are filled with sexual innuendo, that is, double entendres or language with two meanings. Members of both camps agree that “Shakespeare” the man was probably bisexual, although the term was then unknown.

In addition, Shakespeare lovers generally recognize that the Sonnets as printed in 1609 come closest to revealing the author’s person and why, as he confesses, “My name be buried where my body is, and live no more to shame nor me nor you” (72). Many Oxfordians realize that once we discover how the Sonnets use the language of romantic and erotic love to preserve a more important story, the Stratfordian myth will automatically be shattered.

When J. Thomas Looney presented evidence in 1920 that “Shakespeare” was the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, close to the absolute monarch and her powerful chief minister, he stood the traditional image of the author on its head. In a single breath he identified the poet-dramatist as the antithesis of a commoner and confirmed that the “authorship question” is inextricably bound up with Elizabethan court politics and royal government.

Whatever the circumstances that caused Oxford to agree with the posthumous burial of his identity, they are alive within this very same sonnet sequence, which seeks to ensure the eternal fame of Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton:

‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom. (55)

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,

Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.  (81)

And thou in this shalt find thy monument,

When tryants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.  (107)

In that couplet of Sonnet 107 he is glancing at the recently deceased Queen, whose body is set to be borne on 28 April 1603 to Westminster Abbey, where her coffin will rest in the shadow of the great brass tomb of her grandfather, Henry VII of England. And yes, Oxford is saying that Elizabeth Tudor was a tyrant.

“If we suppose that ‘Shakespeare,’ whoever he may have been, retained in 1603 the feelings he had expressed for Southampton in 1593 and 1594,” Looney argues, “it is impossible to think of him writing panegyrics on Queen Elizabeth whilst his friend was being kept in prison … Oxford’s experience as a whole [would] indispose him to join in any chorus of lamentation or of praise.”

Looney agrees that 107 celebrates Southampton’s release from the Tower by King James on 10 April, following the Queen’s death on 24 March and the unexpectedly peaceful succession. He also proposes that 125 is “the Earl of Oxford’s expression of his private feelings relative to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral” and “may be taken as his last sonnet” (given that 126 is the envoi of the series). In other words, the schoolmaster recognized that 107 and 125 each express Oxford’s glaringly opposite attitudes toward Southampton and Elizabeth. He refers, for example, to these lines of 125:

Have I not seen dwellers on form and favor

Lose all and more by paying too much rent

For compound sweet forgoing simple savor,

Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?   (125)

This sentiment is “strongly suggestive of an allusion to royalty,” Looney writes, “and is exactly descriptive of what Oxford represents Elizabeth’s treatment of himself to have been.”

No such links to the royal court trouble Stratfordian leaders, however; only one thing frightens them, consciously or otherwise: the prospect of Oxfordians demonstrating that the sonnet sequence of 1609 contains a story that is both cohesive and based on specific events in the life of Edward de Vere, Henry Wriothesley and the Queen of England.

Over the past century since “Shakespeare” Identified was published, however, they have been confident (again, knowingly or not) that no such demonstration will appear. They have no problem with Looney’s statement that the Sonnets “reflect at once the soul and the circumstances” of the Earl of Oxford – no problem, just so long as such reflections appear to remain free of any overall coherent narrative linked to the contemporary history.

The goal of this Stratfordian game is to be able to keep on playing it.

Nor are they bothered that Oxford undoubtedly led a lusty sexual life, with both male and female partners, while trying to pull England out of the Dark Ages into the bright freedoms of the waning European renaissance. Most Oxfordians agree the Sonnets are drenched in the language of eroticism and bisexuality; but even that is no cause for Stratfordians to worry, so long as no true story within the 1609 sonnet sequence – one based on the record of actual persons, situations and events – comes to the surface.

If Oxford was bisexual, which the evidence suggests he was, Stratfordians can say the same about their champion – because, after all, the biographical fantasy of William Shakspere as “Shakespeare” allows for anything. So long as neither side discerns a coherent narrative in those deeply personal sonnets, it’s a draw; and the title, according to custom and convention, stays with the reigning champ.

The chieftains of tradition will continue to prevail, despite overwhelming evidence of Oxford’s authorship, so long as the 1609 sequence remains an unfathomable free-for-all. They will prevail because the 154 consecutively numbered sonnets – so profoundly autobiographical, so obviously arranged in order with careful connectivity – are still viewed (by Stratfordians and possibly by most Oxfordians) as loosely related little poems that can be rearranged at will and, therefore, remain supposedly ripe for any interpretation at all.

The unspoken Stratfordian fear of a real-life Oxfordian story within the Sonnets, one supported by a genuine historical context, nonetheless persists; and the latest demonstration of this underlying dread is now upon us, in the form of a new book by Sir Stanley Wells and Dr. Paul Edmondson. This latest blast from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust represents what may be the most direct assault on the cohesion of the Sonnets ever launched. Here, finally, is a frontal attempt to completely shatter the integrity of the numerical sequence and, thereby, remove any possible semblance of a recorded story.

Welcome to All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, which includes additional poetry from the plays, adding up to 182 verses arranged according to the chronological order in which the authors believe they were written. “We’ve removed the story which has plagued the sonnets for centuries about the so-called Fair Youth and the Dark Lady,” Edmondson told BBC Radio, “because it was never there. It was an eighteenth-century invention.” This new arrangement of the sonnets “in their probable order of composition” now “exposes them as free poems laden with Shakespeare’s personality.”

Free poems!

Stephen Greenblatt, who has admitted that his Will in the World was not a genuine “life” of Shakespeare but, rather, a historical novel, praises Wells and Edmondson for “jettisoning the order in which the sonnets appeared in print” because the result is “radical and unsettling.” The creators of this newly invented arrangement may imagine they have finally removed the specter of an Oxfordian story from the 1609 sequence; as the blurb from Greenblatt suggests, they will be applauding themselves for appearing to have slain that lurking dragon.

But Oxford’s more important true story is not going anywhere. It continues to exist right there, forever embedded within the familiar costume of the romantic and erotic poetical language, and one day it will be widely recognized as “the living record” (55) of Southampton preserved within a “monument” (81, 107) of verse for posterity – that is, for us.

(PART TWO will be posted next week.)

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