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SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS: Origin Story

May 9, 2017

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

It was 1590 and time for the teenaged Earl of Southampton to get married and create for the world a worthy heir. The golden good looks the boy inherited from his mother were, insisted Shakespeare, some waiting baby’s birthright.

The young earl, Henry Wriothesley (RYE-zlee), begged to differ.

No one knows how William Shakespeare got involved in the attempt by Henry’s elders to convince him to marry a particular young woman, but the six lines above and sixteen of the first seventeen sonnets — often called the “Marriage Sonnets” — begged the recalcitrant earl to marry and (more importantly) to produce a male heir.

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Begun in the early 1590’s, the sonnets weren’t published until 1609.

So “Marriage Sonnets” isn’t quite the right name. In sixteen sonnets, Shakespeare finds sixteen ways to refer to Southampton’s potential progeny: tender heir, fair child, thine image, acceptable audit, flowers distilled, beauty’s treasure, new-appearing sight, concord of well-tuned sounds [as in a harmonious family life], form of thee, another self, copy, breed, sweet issue, truth and beauty [as in “Thy end is Truthes and Beauties doome and date], living flowers, and, finally, some child of yours. In sixteen “Make-Us-A-Baby Sonnets,” marriage is nothing more than a means to an end.

Sonnet XV is an important outlier, being the only one of the first seventeen that refrains from shouting the joys of fatherhood from rooftops: this sonnet offers eternity in another form. Shakespeare says his immortal words will refresh Southampton’s “youthful sap” despite the “decay” perpetrated by “wasteful Time.”

At length, this becomes the central theme of the entire one hundred and twenty-six sonnet sequence: poetry and progeny versus old age and death. For Shakespeare, Time, capitalized, is the enemy that ages and kills. He calls Time, variously, never-resting, wasteful, bloody tyrant, coward, devouring, swift-footed, old, cruel, confounding, sluttish, injurious, thievish, filching, crooked, and, finally, fickle. 

In Sonnet CXXVI, “Time’s fickle glass” treacherously shows us youth one moment and wrinkles the next. In Sonnet LXXIV, Shakespeare sees his own body becoming the “coward conquest of a wretch’s knife” taken dishonorably as it were from behind. In Sonnet XII, he warns Southampton that “Time’s scythe” is a terrible weapon against which nothing “can make defense” except baby-making.

In Sonnet XV, Shakespeare declares all-out “war” on Time. His reason: love. His weapon: art. Suddenly there’s a way to do battle with Time without progeny.

And all in war with Time for love of you
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

As Queen Elizabeth’s reign entered its final decade, Shakespeare celebrated his love for a noble child, calling him variously, the world’s fresh ornament, most rich in youth, beauteous and lovely youth, thy mother’s glass, tender churl, beauteous niggard, profitless usurer, possessed with murderous hate [childlessness = murder], love, my love, sweet love, my true love, Dear my love, Lord of my love, Suns of the world, my all-the-world, all my art, my sovereign, my Rose, my all, all the better part of me, too dear for my possessing, Time’s best jewel, fair friend, sweet boy, and, finally, O thou my lovely boy. 

This was a private matter, not publishable right away. It almost didn’t happen at all. How we got them, how they prevailed against Time’s scythe — the sonnets’ origin story — is as fascinating as one might expect — as exciting and even as deadly as any Shakespeare drama.

A Story Rarely Told

At the end of the sixteenth century, a young earl lived in a maelstrom of political intrigue: from an early age, Henry Wriothesley weighed tempting offers and all-in risks. Shakespeare, obviously as close as one can be to the young nobleman, followed the boy’s/young man’s life with his pen.

Thus, for some ten, eleven, twelve, or thirteen years, poetry and history intertwined. The sonnets, ultimately, were not just about two people. The cast of characters includes Queen Elizabeth herself, Lord Burghley (the Queen’s closest advisor), Burgley’s grand-daughter Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex (Southampton’s friend and ally), and the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery as well as Shakespeare and Southampton. Love and longing, power and fate, life and death, and the terrifying roller-coaster of Elizabethan politics not only animated the art of one of England’s great poets, it made it rather too hot to handle.

Shakespeare expected his poetic skill would prevail over politics; he assumed his sonnets would be immortal. In Sonnet XXXII he speaks ironically of his “poor rude lines” that might someday be outstripped by a poet with superior “style.” But, he says, never will his lines be matched for “love.” It was the highest of high compliments: writing for the ages, Shakespeare nevertheless regards his talent as insignificant compared to his love for Southampton.

But the boy was reckless. A series of private poems celebrating the noble young fool, even written by Shakespeare himself, were anything but safe for posterity. Southampton lost his friend to an axe he himself dodged by dint of startling mercy delivered from on high; he miraculously saw the other side of fifty. But when he died (from an illness), the fate of the sonnets remained uncertain.

After dangling by the thinnest of threads for more than one hundred years, the sonnets survived as hope triumphed over circumstance. Interestingly enough, the sonnets, to this day, are the source of all manner of trouble. The story has yet to end.

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All’s well didn’t end well for Southampton’s friend, the Earl of Essex.

One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Five Lines of Controversy

Shakespeare’s only known first-person writing has a knack for controversy: no one involved in the modern acrimony is going to lose his head, but this year, last year — any year — wild theories fly from the sonnets like pollen in early spring. Everyone is allergic to one species or another. The 14-line poems seem to carry a curse right out of Harry Potter, forever a nexus of trouble and controversy.

Indeed, we cannot even say with certainty to whom the sonnets were written. Shakespeare overtly dedicated both of his first two publications (epic poems) to the young earl; in the first of these, thirty-six lines from the sonnets are repeated almost word for word; the sonnets fit Southampton’s documented life rather well. But everything is subject to interpretation.

In 1817, it was Nathan Drake who dared propose in print Southampton as Shakespeare’s great love. The mysterious subject of the sonnets acquired the nickname “fair youth” though no one seems to know its origin. We shall use Shakespeare’s term — lovely boy — as it seems more fitting.

Southampton remains the leading candidate for the lovely boy among observers both scholarly and casual. Eyes open, cognizant of risk, we shall gamble and accept Drake’s two-hundred-year-old identification as fact.

It is said one must speculate in order to accumulate and the truth of this is here revealed: our modest wager richly rewards us with a coherent and dramatic story. Hang on, it’s a wild ride.

Honor, Public and Private

In 1590, Shakespeare’s plays had yet to enliven a printing press. Even so, the bard’s voice had found its way into the local vernacular: in 1589, the quick-witted hipster Thomas Nashe giddily quipped about “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.” Nashe had evidently seen Hamlet, talked about Hamlet, and heard what others had to say about Hamlet with enough frequency to make Shakespeare’s over-the-top drama the target of his fun-loving pen.

Nashe did not mention Shakespeare by name which is not surprising given the lack of publication thus far. But in 1593, in the midst of the Southampton marital negotiations, Shakespeare formally introduced himself to the public with an epic poem called Venus and Adonis about a beautiful young man who refuses love and dies. It was lavishly dedicated to Southampton.

If your honor seem but pleased,
I account myself highly praised,
and vow to take advantage of all idle hours,
till I have honored you with some graver labor.

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Shakespeare finally in print.

Venus and Adonis was a smashing success going through sixteen editions over the next fifty years. In contrast, the Make Us a Baby Sonnets remained in their zeroth edition for approximately nineteen years. They were less than ideal for public consumption.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest
Thou dost beguile [deprive] the world, unbless [sadden] some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared [virgin] womb

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

The pretty young earl would be keeping his husbandry to himself for the time being, regardless of the consequences.

In 1594, a second epic poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was published. Plays waited in the wings, performed but not published. The Lucrece dedication made the Venus dedication seem reserved.

THE love I dedicate to your lordship is without end . . .
What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours,

being part in all I have, devoted yours . . . 
I wish [you] long life still lengthened with all happiness.

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Shakespeare’s second, and final, dedication.

Lucrece went through eight editions in fifty years, another success. It and its predecessor formed the public counterpoint to the sonnets’ private full-court press for baby earls.

Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.
. . .
Make thee another self for love of me
That beauty still may live in thine or thee. 

Self-willed teenagers, we see, are far from a recent invention. The “worms” in this sonnet are the first of four appearances of the hungry creatures who feast on the newly dead. To hear Shakespeare tell it, the sound of the worms licking their chops should be enough to make anyone want a child.

In Hamlet, worms again play an important role: they eat the unfortunate Polonius whom the protagonist has stabbed. Lord Burghley was born in 1520; the “Diet of Worms” took place in 1521. This was a diet (convocation) held for Emperor Charles V in a small town in Germany called Worms which marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It may be a nod to Burghley’s birth date — he is the most likely inspiration for the Polonius character. In any case, Hamlet is asked where Polonius is and cruelly replies, “At supper.” He is, but not at his supper, at someone else’s.

“Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table.” Hamlet Act 4, Scene 3.

Unfortunately, in 1594, Southampton came of age and refused his betrothed. Brushing aside the failure, Shakespeare continued the poetic celebration of his lovely boy over the next decade. The sonnets would be a “monument” of “gentle verse,” he promised, “filled with your most high deserts,” strong enough to withstand “war’s quick fire,” able to leap tall buildings in a single bound . . .

If Shakespeare felt similarly about his plays, he never said so. In 1594, Shakespeare’s plays began appearing in printed editions without a byline and without dedications. The often-garbled plays did not always (or ever) benefit from authorial oversight. The first play to be published was Titus Andronicus.

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Titus Andronicus was performed by three different acting companies. This edition was reasonably accurate.

In 1598, Southampton married a woman of his own choosing. The Shakespeare byline now appeared on the hit or miss plays, but if you were looking for more epic poems or more dedications, forget about it. Meanwhile, work on the sonnets progressed as rumors of their existence leaked. Francis Meres wrote, “Witness his sugared sonnets among his private friends,” along with praise for Shakespeare and a list of plays including both Love’s Labors Lost and Love’s Labors Won which is assumed to be a Shakespearean labor lost.

Mr. Meres clearly hadn’t seen the sonnets himself. No one who was telling had. Referential quips from the local quipsters about “whole seasons of summer’s days” would just have to wait (sorry Tommy).

For Shakespeare, privacy was supposed to be merely a temporary expedient. If we are to believe what the sonnets tell us, nothing was more important to him than these poems, their subject, and the immortality of both.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long lives this and this gives life to thee
. . .
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,

when tyrants’ crests of tombs of brass are spent.
. . .
Not marble not the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.
. . .
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
 [up to Time]
Praising thy worth, despite his
 [Time’s] cruel hand.

Very nice. But even if you are the greatest poet in England, even if you are literally Shakespeare, there are no guarantees when it comes to outliving marble monuments, especially if your glorious subject insists on kicking around tectonic plates like they are unruly servants.

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To say the Earl of Southampton, the “lovely boy” of the sonnets, did not behave himself is a fantastic understatement.

The Politics of Failure

When Shakespeare broke ground on the “eternal lines” that would “preserve the living record of [Southampton’s] memory,” the self-willed boy was in line to marry the grand-daughter of Lord Burghley. The puritanical Burghley was the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England, the kind of guy who eats “powerful rhymes” for breakfast. One would think Southampton would be pleased to accept the great man’s grand-daughter’s hand. One would be wrong.

Lord Burghley was a consummate plotter who usually got what he wanted, which seemed to be, quite often, consummation. The highest ranking earl in England, Edward de Vere, had already married his daughter, the long-suffering Anne Cecil. Now it was Southampton’s turn to gild the Cecil family name.

The great William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son, Robert Cecil, engineered the ascension to the British throne of King James of Scotland after Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. This of course eventually led to the unification of Scotland and England.

Southampton would have been wise to ally himself with this powerful family. But he said no. Refusing Burghley in 1594 was ill-advised. Crazy came later.

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William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the man who eventually determined who would succeed Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor Rose monarchs.

Fortune

So Elizabeth Vere married the Earl of Derby instead of Southampton. Derby didn’t need sonnets to be convinced, or if he did, we have not seen them. Southampton was out of the picture, but Shakespeare remained a welcome diversion: revelers enjoyed a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the wedding.

In due course, Burghley’s youngest grand-daughter, Susan Vere, married the Earl of Montgomery. It was a very Shakespearean family to be sure: Montgomery and his brother, the Earl of Pembroke, were the eventual dedicatees of the all-important First Folio.

In 1623, thirty-six Shakespeare plays, accurately rendered, miraculously appeared in one stunning tome — the First Folio. Twenty-four of these plays had either not been published during Shakespeare’s lifetime or had been published in corrupted, error-filled versions.

Without the First Folio, you would likely never have heard of sixteen Shakespeare plays: All’s Well that Ends WellAs You Like ItAntony and CleopatraThe Comedy of ErrorsCymbelineCoriolanusHenry VI part 1, Henry VIIIJulius CaesarMacbethMeasure for Measure, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, AND The Winter’s Tale.

Without the First Folio, you might have seen a broken version of The Taming of a Shrew and a disastrous muddling called The Troublesome Reign of King John, but you would not get to see the real versions as these early publications were so badly butchered that they bore little or no resemblance to Shakespeare’s actual work.

Five plays published during Shakespeare’s lifetime were, at best, somewhere in the ballpark of the First Folio versions: Henry VI part 2, Henry VI part 3The Merry Wives of WindsorHenry V, and King Lear.

The year before the First Folio was printed, one previously unpublished play, Othello, came out in a sort-of accurate printed version, differing from the First Folio version by only 170 lines or so.

With Othello, we have a grand total of twenty-four plays effectively missing from the canon the day Shakespeare died. To appreciate the horror of Shakespeare without the First Folio, take a look at its table of contents with the twenty-four rescued plays crossed out.

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It’s a good thing someone held onto the manuscripts.

Without help from the author or access to a manuscript, reasonable accuracy might or might not be attained by a scribe watching a play and producing a bootlegged version. In addition to the seven plays published in various states of disrepair, twelve decent versions of plays were printed, one way or another, during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The twelve are as follows: Hamlet, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Troylus and Cressida (this last is included in the First Folio, but was inserted at the last minute and does not appear on the “CATALOGVE” page).

The unpredictable nature of Shakespeare publications can be amusing for modern readers: for example, the first pre-Folio attempt to publish Hamlet contained the immortal line, “To be or not to be, Aye there’s the point.” An accurate version appeared a year later. Romeo and Juliet also had an evil twin.

Bottom line, as of 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, the Shakespeare publication history was a godawful mess. After seven more trips around the sun, the expansion of the canon from twelve to thirty-six intact plays came about by the good graces of the “incomparable paire of brethren,” two earls who evidently knew the right people.

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The two earls were joined by two of Shakespeare’s fellow members of the King’s Men acting company, John Heminge and Henry Condell. They gathered together Shakespeare plays that had already been published, plays that had never been published, and plays that had been published monstrously.

Heminge and Condell, writing in the preface to the First Folio, tell us that readers were previously “abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies maimed and deformed by the stealths of injurious imposters,” but now would get authoritative versions “perfect of their limbs.” The publishers, Edward Blount and William Jaggard, likewise promised in the preface that the First Folio was based on the “true original copies” of the plays.

The sonnets and epic poems were NOT included: no one knows why. Ben Jonson’s works, published by him in folio form in 1616 and thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s version, included plays and poems.

The earls and the actors may not have been able to obtain the rights to Shakespeare’s poetry. The epic poems had come out in several editions anyway. The sonnets were perhaps too personal for publication.

Southampton’s disastrous politics may have played a role in the plays-only decision. Political sensitivity was decidedly not optional in those days as authors and publishers could be jailed on a whim and tortured if the authorities saw fit. If King James didn’t want sonnets or epic poems included in the First Folio, that would be that.

It’s hard to imagine Southampton himself caring either way. In 1623, the now-fiftyish Venus/Lucrece dedicatee and the prodigal lovely boy of the sonnets, having survived his extravagant incaution, was content each morning to “look in thy glass” and see his head attached to his shoulders.

Southampton would die the following year of a fever contracted while out of the country commanding troops. Shakespeare, himself already “the prey of worms,” was in no position to protest.

And so the great poet’s unconditional love, deep identification (“my glass shall not persuade me I am old, so long as youth and thou are of one date”), and infinite esteem for the Earl of Southampton carved into fragile paper with black ink, lovingly crafted over thirteen years, the great author’s monument of one hundred and twenty-six intensely evocative sonnet-letters, those wondrous immortal lines we fawn over today were, for whatever reason, dropped like hot rocks by Pembroke, Montgomery, Heminge, Condell, Blount, and Jaggard.

The epic poems were protected by their multiple editions. The sonnets, however, were cast adrift in the uncompromising seas of time, with no guarantee of arrival at a friendly shore, ever.

Shakespeare had been quite confident in the power of his pen to see his sonnets home.

When all the breathers of this world are dead
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen).

Cymbeline, first published in the First Folio contained what looks like a prophecy today.

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered. — Cymbeline, IV.iii

And so it came to pass for the sonnets. We shall see how the sonnets survived and we shall follow the lovely boy to Hell and back. But first you must learn of the curse of the sonnets.

A 400-year-old Curse

How many people realize the “thee” in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is a self-willed young man who wouldn’t marry properly, a young man whose rash behavior got his noble friend killed along with a handful of commoners? The answer is “not many” and maybe it’s just as well.

The lovely boy is still at it, you see. First we’re talking about Southampton, then we shift to Shakespeare himself. We cannot resist. We become convinced Shakespeare is talking to us as himself through the sonnets. We become well-intentioned amateur biographers. We begin spewing wild theories, guessing our way out of intelligent history, out of control much like Southampton himself.

Professor James Shapiro at Columbia University has a simple and sensible remedy: “I steer clear of reading these extraordinary poems as autobiography.”

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Columbia Professor James Shapiro

And really there’s no choice. Shakespeare was a twenty-something commoner when he came to London in the early 1590’s and became involved with the theater as a shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who owned the Globe Theater and who were later rechristened the King’s Men. Shakespeare was also (later) part-owner of the Blackfriars Theater. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about his relationship with Southampton.

Even though his two epic poems were dedicated to Southampton and even though the sonnets were apparently written to Southampton, there’s not a jot of independent evidence that Shakespeare and Southampton ever even met. Concerted efforts to find a scrap of something, any little thing that would shed even a sliver of light on the nature of their relationship, have been futile.

So it isn’t clear how or why Shakespeare would refer to the Earl of Southampton as “O thou my lovely boy” or as a “tender churl” or say to him “be not self-willed” or ask him to “make thee another self for love of me” or be involved in the boy’s marriage decisions or Lord Burghley’s political manœuvres or anywhere near any of it. History is simply at a loss.

Shakespeare’s long celebration of Southampton’s greatness following the marriage debacle is touching and lovely and sweet, but here too the absence of supporting documents creates a critical lack of context which precludes reasonable people from using the sonnets as a foundation of biography.

We can’t even say with certainty that the subject of the sonnets even is Southampton — yes, it’s a widely held and fairly sensible conclusion, but it’s also speculation. Along these same lines, applying similarly strict standards, we must admit we don’t know that when Nashe mentioned Hamlet, he was talking about Shakespeare’s Hamlet — he might have been talking about an earlier play by the same name written by someone else, a play sometimes called the ur-Hamlet by professionals trying to piece together a reasonable history. The 1580’s are a bit early for Hamlet since Shakespeare was a teenager and young man living in Stratford during that decade.

With all the incongruities and uncertainties associated with any autobiographical reading of the sonnets, it makes sense to follow the lead of Professor Shapiro and virtually every other Shakespeare scholar and simply regard them as “extraordinary poems” written by an artist whose writing life is insufficiently documented to allow us to convert them into personal documents.

A typical well-known Elizabethan author like Ben Jonson or Thomas Nashe wrote manuscripts and letters that were, in part, preserved and that do, in part, survive today. Some of the letters discussed writing. Extant records and letters show or discuss payments made to and/or received by the authors for their writing. Friends, colleagues, and neighbors wrote about them and their work.

For these authors, we even have signatures in books . . .

. . . and long samples of handwriting . . .

. . . giving us a place to begin, providing us with at least some semblance of context.

However, the large number of surviving documents referring to Shakespeare do not shed light on his writing in general or on the sonnets in particular. We have legal, personal, and business records and so forth, but no manuscripts survive; there are no surviving personal letters concerning writing that might mention or allude to the sonnets. In fact, none of Shakespeare’s letters, written or received, survive.

Shakespeare may have written in the margins of his books or inscribed copies of his own publications for friends or relatives as other Elizabethan authors did; if so, such evidence is destroyed or undiscovered. There are a few (useless) signatures scrawled on legal documents, but these do not even begin to provide context for the sonnets.

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May 11, 1612. Lawsuit deposition. Useless for context.

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March 11, 1613. Mortgage, Blackfriar’s Theater. Shakespeare, John Jackson, William Johnson signatories. Useless.

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March 11, 1613. Mortgage (vendor’s copy), Blackfriars Theater, Shakespeare, John Jackson, William Johnson signatories. Useless.

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June 22, 1616. Will, 2nd page. It’s nice to have the will, but nothing about writing was mentioned.

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June 22, 1616. Will, 3rd page.

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June 22, 1616. Will, 3rd page, closeup 1.

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June 22, 1616. Will, 3rd page, closeup 2. He may have been ill when he signed.

Shakespeare became a wealthy man, so we know he was paid for his work. As a shareholder in his acting company, he would have received income for his play-writing though there is no surviving reference to payment for this or that play. The epic poems and their dedications appear to be authorial, but again there are no records of payments to Shakespeare. The sonnets appear to have been published without his cooperation; in any case, there is also no record of his participation either as an aggrieved author or as a payee.

All of the above together with the crucial fact that Shakespeare’s will didn’t mention books or manuscripts or writer’s tools (ink, pens, desks, shelves) perhaps leads us to an understanding of Shakespeare’s apparent double life. The omission of books etc., from his will makes perfect sense under the circumstances — Shakespeare’s wife and two grown daughters were not literate, so they wouldn’t have had use for such things.

Of course, we know Shakespeare owned books or had access to books: some of the plays, for example, used source material not even translated into English at the time; also, Shakespeare plays evince an extraordinary knowledge base. We may surmise therefore that Shakespeare simply transferred ownership of books and any manuscripts he had retained to an unknown party prior to leaving literary London around 1610 and returning to his business-oriented life in Stratford.

Shakespeare biographer Samuel Shoenbaum notes that Shakespeare’s “fellow townsmen” either never mentioned or didn’t realize their neighbor was known as a great writer: “They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs.”

A picture begins to emerge. The two-day ride from Stratford to London symbolizes the divide between Shakespeare’s writing life and personal life. If Shakespeare had been a typical Elizabethan author as regards leaving behind personal documents concerning writing, sixty out of sixty documents concerning family matters, legal issues, investment activity, business dealings, and so forth, leaving writing out of the picture, would be the equivalent (approximately) of flipping sixty tails in a row — impossible in the astronomical sense of the term.

Thus, the separation between Shakespeare’s personal life and writing life could not have happened by accident. We must therefore accept the fact that the sonnets may not be what they seem. Without other documents to provide context, we cannot intelligently treat the sonnets as if they were Shakespeare’s personal letters.

The only solid biographical information we have for Shakespeare as a writer is the posthumous monument in Stratford commemorating the man as a combination of Socrates, Nestor, and Virgil plus the frontmatter in the First Folio in which people who knew Shakespeare personally wrote of their friend.

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Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford.

The monument is mentioned in the preface to the First Folio (“thy Stratford moniment”) and actors Heminge and Condell refer to Shakespeare in their epistles as their “Friend and Fellow.” Both of these men were mentioned in Shakespeare’s will; they were members of the same acting company. In the First Folio, Shakespeare takes his place atop the list of the actors in the King’s Men. These are people who regularly performed at court.

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Shakespeare and his fellow actors.

We see that in death, Shakespeare received the personal recognition that seemed to elude him in life.

There is another “monument” in Stratford — Shakespeare’s gravestone itself. Here is yet another reminder not to fall into the trap of looking for autobiography everywhere.

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Shakespeare’s gravestone.

Mark Twain, for example, made the mistake of regarding this doggerel as an indication that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare (!) because the inscription isn’t Shakespearean and “the real Shakespeare” would have insisted on better poetry on his gravestone.

But the “cursed” sonnets have caused more trouble than a low-brow gravestone ever could. The sonnets are, say hordes of present-day Mark Twains evidently beguiled by Shakespeare’s enigmatic poems, “obviously” autobiographical. Therefore, they declare most stridently, we may seek in the sonnets answers to the “authorship question.”

As usual, those who seek enlightenment need only assume a false premise from which follows a host of “reasonable” conclusions. The enlightened ones and their followers then characteristically ride off into the sunset with the “truth” known only to them held firmly under their arms.

Sadly, despite cool heads like Professor Shapiro’s, the grim spectacle of speculative history rears its head in all manner of surprising places. In what one might call a modern haunting, the sonnets are wielded — sometimes even by Shapiro’s fellow professionals — as if they were the Sword of Gryffindor, an undefeatable weapon.

Just the same, we are happy to have Shakespeare’s extraordinary poems.

The Editor-Pirate

One day in 1609, Thomas Thorpe got his unclean hands on the celebration of Southampton Shakespeare had wrought with his pen. Imagine! The priceless handwritten copy — maybe even the originals — of Shakespeare’s long declaration of love to the one person he wished to immortalize was crinkling in the well-known editor-pirate’s trembling hands.

He only managed one printing, barely enough to allow fortune to save Shakespeare’s politically charged monument (another problem people had with the sonnets was the fact that the “lovely boy” wasn’t a “luscious maiden”). A century plus two years later, the sonnets were pulled back from history’s precipice and printed in their original form once again by one Bernard Lintott. Then, in 1780, the original sonnets with commentary were published by Edmund Malone. They have been safe ever since and thirteen copies of the 1609 publication — six in England, six in the U.S. and one in Switzerland — survive.

Thorpe published the sonnets with a short dedication wishing someone called “Mr. W.H.” the same “all happiness” Shakespeare had wished Southampton all those years ago in the Lucrece dedication. Thorpe further expressed his hope that the “eternity” Shakespeare wanted for his subject would be bestowed upon this “Mr. W.H.”

Southampton’s initials are “H.W.” and, as an earl, he is not properly addressed as “Mr.” Therefore, it isn’t clear to whom Thorpe is referring. Maybe Southampton’s stepfather, Mr. William Harvey, brought Thorpe the sonnets or maybe Thorpe sought to mislead. No one knows.

Also confusing is Thorpe’s apparent reference to a eulogy in King Henry VI Part 1 (“. . . our scarce-cold conqueror, that ever-living man of memory, Henry the Fifth.”). In his dedication, Thorpe referred to the still-alive Shakespeare as “our ever-living poet.”

Sonnet-Dedication

Thorpe’s eulogy is obviously inappropriate and is yet another reminder of the pitfalls of looking for biographical information in unlikely places. Of course, we forgive Thorpe his cryptic dedication, his early eulogy, and his unrepentant piracy for he gave us the sonnets.

A Bad Idea . . . or . . . The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For

With hindsight, given Southampton’s subsequent decisions, the first seventeen sonnets might have put progeny aside and more productively sung the praises of not committing treason. But then, Shakespeare couldn’t have known what his lovely boy was capable of.

In 1601, the wayward, stubborn, I’ll-marry-whomever-I-want earl was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Southampton and the Earl of Essex led what is known as the “Essex rebellion” wherein the two idiot earls and some of their followers attempted to control the royal succession.

Tossed into the Tower of London, watching his friends die one by one, waiting for his own date with the axeman, Southampton’s first few months of the 17th century were, shall we say, inauspicious. Here are the details of Southampton’s downfall.

As the Queen lay dying, Southampton and Essex, with an ever-shrinking group of uncertain supporters, hatched a plan to gain access to the Queen’s bedchamber. It is not clear precisely what their plan even was. In any case, they didn’t get far.

Burghley’s son, the cunning Robert Cecil, and his legendary network of spies (built by his father and as seen in Hamlet) outwitted the Southampton-Essex amateur hour. “Outwitted” used here is a charitable term employed simply because we have no wish to further insult our lovely boy. Still, putting aside the noble aim of gentleness, we must aver that we understand that the bird does not really “outwit” the worm.

Many expected the Queen to commute the death sentence of Southampton’s great friend, the popular Earl of Essex, but his head rolled as far as any commoner’s. For him, it was over reasonably quickly though his neck resisted the axe’s first two swings. Sirs Blount (no relation to the First Folio editor), Meyrick, Cuffe, and Danvers, the commoner co-conspirators also convicted of high treason, were not so fortunate as the gentle earl. They suffered greatly with their guts removed and their limbs torn from their bodies prior to the severing of their knighted heads.

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The Earl of Essex before he lost his head.

Then something odd happened, something history can’t get its head (so to speak) around because there is, again, no paper trail. The Essex Rebellion had so far killed five people. Many more were energetically thanking God for having granted them the wisdom to run far and fast as the plan, such as it was, exploded in the earls’ pretty faces. One more head would, shall we say, cap the episode.

It is not recorded that anyone at this time said to Southampton, “Lovely boy, have you ever thought maybe you should have married Elizabeth Vere? Lovely boy, may I offer you some advice you might have use for in the unlikely event you are still alive tomorrow?”

But Southampton was not destined to die. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It was a stunning development and that’s all we know about it. The Queen didn’t want to give an official reason, so she didn’t.

The sonnets may contain clues as to the reason, or, if there is no path to the precise reason for a fool’s deliverance, there may at least be an indication of the mechanism by which Southampton’s good fortune manifested itself.

Sonnet 87 contains the following interesting lines:

So thy great gift, upon misprision growing
comes home again on better judgment making. 

Misprision of treason is an Elizabethan term for failure to report treasonous activity. It is a serious crime, but NOT a capital crime. From Southampton’s and Shakespeare’s point of view, it is certainly a “better judgment.”

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King James I of England. This man was going to be King, if necessary over Southampton’s dead body.

We may never know precisely who Southampton was. We certainly don’t know why he and Essex thought they could control the succession or who they favored for the Queen’s successor or even whether that was the goal of their ill-conceived plot.

We know Essex’s great-grandmother was the sister of Queen Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Southampton’s baptismal record is missing, but, as far as we know, his bloodline wasn’t as impressive as Essex’s.

Elizabeth died in 1603 without an heir and without a clear successor while Southampton languished in the Tower and Essex’s remains made the local worms fatter. We may never know why the Queen spared Southampton but not Essex.

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Southampton was outrageously lucky to live to be this old. If the painting is accurate, he was a lucky alcoholic.

We know one more thing about Southampton. The treasonous wretch was not just not executed. The vile traitorous scum was not only singled out as the survivor of a conspiracy that targeted the crown itself. Southampton must have had some sort of magic. For when King James ascended the throne, he was actually RELEASED from the Tower, his life sentence thrown out althogether. Not only that, his earldom and all his lands were restored to him AND, that same year, James made him a Knight of the Garter — to this day a singular honor.

The ebullient Sonnet CVII celebrating a rather improbable release is central to this part of the story. As usual, we don’t know why King James was so sweet on Southampton. The sonnet seems clear enough though: The Queen has died (the mortal moon hath her eclipse endured), the feared civil war over the succession did not happen (the sad augurs mock their own presage), Southampton is free (supposed as forfeit to a confined doom . . . my love looks fresh), and the author will defeat death through his words (death to me subscribes [succumbs] . . .).

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control, 
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

It is hard to imagine a man more fortunate than Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Celebrated in Shakespeare’s incomparable sonnets for all eternity even though he refused to marry properly, his death sentence commuted to life in prison by the Queen even though he stood convicted of high treason, his lifetime in the Tower miraculously transmuted to freedom and a restored earldom even though he had opposed the succession of James of Scotland, Henry W. is the kind of guy I’d pay a lot to travel back to see.

I’d sit down with him and we would have tequila — he’d be game I’m sure — and I’d ask him what he wants out of life. My guess is he’d say, “To be King on my own terms,” before downing shot after shot. I would be nothing if not encouraging. “To your health,” I would say loudly and often. If only . . .

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Only the finest for my lovely boy.

Logic

In 1900, there were two worlds. In one, lived the scientists who believed in the atomic theory. In the other, lived those clinging to the eminently sensible, but wrong, theory that matter was continuous and not (pish-posh) largely empty space. One group busily calculated the radii and masses of the newly discovered atoms. The other group grew old, weakened, became wrinkled, and died.

Today, there is a world of logic inhabited by Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jakobi, Mark Rylance, Sir John Gielgud, and Michael York. Also in this world are thoughtful observers Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain. Sharing space with them are writers Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Nobel laureate John Galsworthy. At the head of the table, sit U.S. Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Powell, O’Connor, Stevens, and Scalia.

The Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Concordia University in Oregon is currently the best example of serious academic discussion of that annoying “authorship question.”

Of all the inhabitants of this world, perhaps the most extraordinary is the 18th Baron Burghley himself, Michael William Cecil, whose ancestor played a central role in the Shakespeare saga. He is a signatory to something called the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” in which the “doubters” codify their objections to the “official” viewpoint.

And there is Roger Stritmatter whose 2001 dissertation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on one aspect of the authorship question is the first doctorate awarded in this particular world of logic.

Dr. Michael Delahoyde at Washington State University, another heretic, was succinct and not 100% polite in giving his opinion about the notion that the sonnets are not autobiographical. The word he used was “insane.”

Finally, we have Diana Price, the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question. The discussion above of the paper trails left by Elizabethan authors is based on her seminal work, “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.”

The vast majority of Shakespeare scholars still characterize as a crackpot theory the notion that some nobleman or other may have used the Shakespeare name as a pseudonym and later the man himself as a front.

I must apologize for misleading you, dear reader. In the section featuring the redoubtable Professor Shapiro, I felt it my duty to present the mainstream viewpoint as forcefully as I could without cheating by leaving out information. It may indeed have been convincing or the argument may have crumbled under its own weight — either way, you mustn’t blame me. It is what it is.

As a physicist, I am concerned about the sixty (or more like seventy) tails in a row represented by the trove of personal Shakespeare documents from his lifetime that are not letters or books or inscriptions in books or payments for writing a particular work or anything remotely literary. Without the posthumous evidence or a conflation of acting with writing, Shakespeare’s substantial paper trail looks very strange indeed.

Shapiro and other mainstream scholars usually do not even concede that Diana Price has made an interesting point in her carefully researched work. They (reasonably) protest that she does not place sufficient (in their opinion) trust in the posthumous evidence and then simply refuse to discuss her many valid points. This is what one might call protesting too much.

It is only made worse when scholars of Shapiro’s stature claim that the character of Polonius in Hamlet, the scathing, rather vicious, lampooning of Lord Burghley — deadly accurate and horrifically funny — isn’t what it obviously is. Nothing prevents Shakespeare of Stratford from making fun of Burghley. It would have been risky for anyone to mess with the powerful man, even if the author was a nobleman close to his target as opposed to a commoner making use of gossip. Is it really necessary to deny one of the most obvious connections to a real person in all of Shakespeare’s works?

Shapiro also claims Shakespeare could have written the Italian plays without visiting Italy. Again, Shakespeare of Stratford could very well have found himself in Italy at some point so it isn’t necessary to deny the obvious as mainstream scholars seem bound and determined to do. Richard Roe and others have painstakingly verified the setting details in the Italian plays — a process that, even today with modern tools available, requires the researcher’s physical presence in Italy. The professors protest too much, methinks.

And then there are the sonnets, the elephant in the room. Could Shakespeare of Stratford have written them? Maybe. Did the man who wrote no letters, who owned no books, who raised illiterate children, say to the Earl of Southampton, “make thee another self for love of me”? Is this concept so scary for mainstream observers, do they feel so cornered that they must claim first-person poems written to a particular person whom you describe as the love of your life, poems kept private for many years — poems discussing real events in two men’s lives — are not personal? Really?

On the other hand, let us be fair. Maybe the self-taught genius from Stratford didn’t have time to write letters or teach his country girls to read as he simultaneously rose within the literary and acting worlds in Elizabethan London. He may have borrowed his books. It is possible he felt a fatherly or brotherly affection toward a teenaged earl whom he met (perhaps while performing at court) without attracting attention. And we must not forget we have the option to steer clear of reading the extraordinary poems as autobiography just as Professor Shapiro does. There are many possibilities. For example, the sonnets may have been commissioned by a relative of Southampton. Or the characters in the sonnets could even be fictional. Anything is possible, right?

Maybe.

Here are twenty-four key sonnets. Listen not to those with the trappings of authority for underneath their trappings they may be as brilliant as Portia or as foolish as Dogberry. You need not immerse yourself in Elizabethan trivia for the mantle of expert is hardly worth the weight it exerts on your shoulders. No, as a human being you possess a perfectly natural and perfectly extraordinary understanding of context. And to read the sonnets is to be carried away by an avalanche of context. Dare to read them. Fear not the avalanche for I guarantee that you shall arrive where-ever you are going in one roused piece.

Happy reading.

I. 1, 2, 3, 17: Get thyself married that thou may’st make for us an heir.

II. 15, 33, 18, 55: You are the most important thing in the universe and you will live forever in these lines.

III. 22, 62, 63, 73, 74: As I age, I think of you for you and I are one.

IV. 66, 81: I am writing under a pseudonym (sorry, Jimmy).

V. 27, 28, 35, 36, 87: Arrest, trial, death sentence, misprision of treason.

VI. 107, 125, 126: Release and peace; I bore the canopy in a royal procession; O thou my lovely boy . . .

VII. 140: Another twenty-eight sonnets were written to the mysterious “Dark Lady.” Unlike the case of the first 126 sonnets written to the Fair Youth (Southampton), there is no strong contender for the identity of the Dark Lady. Sonnet 140 is deliciously dramatic though it is far from clear what it means if anything.

I. Get thyself married that thou may’st make for us an heir. 

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This is how Sonnet 1 looked originally.

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II. You are the most important thing in the universe and you will live forever in these lines.

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III. As I age, I think of you for you and I are one.

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IV. I am writing under a pseudonym (sorry Jimmy)!

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V. Arrest, trial, death sentence, misprision of treason.

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VI. Release and peace, I bore the canopy in a royal procession, O thou my lovely boy . . . 

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VII. The Dark Lady — Careful or I’ll Spill the Beans

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Truth

So who wrote the plays? That’s really a separate and difficult question. It makes sense to first agree that there is a problem with the traditional authorship attribution before moving on to finding the actual author — a necessarily speculative task perhaps forever reliant on circumstantial evidence.

Nevertheless, those who believe the question has moved into the “how big are atoms” stage have a candidate for the actual author of the plays and poems and they are exploring his life for clues. They have made a case that is at least respectable if not overwhelming.

Southampton was supposed to marry Lady Elizabeth Vere, the eldest daughter of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Oxford’s youngest daughter, Susan, married the Earl of Montgomery, one of the two earls who backed the First Folio (they were the dedicatees). The 24 new manuscripts may have come courtesy of Susan Vere.

In 1582, Oxford’s brother-in-law went to the Danish court at Elsinore as an ambassador. When he came back, he wrote a private report of his experiences which survives. In the report, is the setting for Hamlet. The report also mentioned a number of Danish courtiers by name. Two of the names happened to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

On the other hand, these are common Danish surnames, so this may mean nothing.

Edward de Vere got Anne Vavasour, one of the Queen’s maids of honor, pregnant. The Queen was not pleased. In 1581, Edward, Anne, and their guiltless infant spent two months in the Tower contemplating their sins, committed or inherited. After they were released, their families and friends had words. Swords crossed on the streets of London. People died.

Of course, family feuds have never been uncommon.

Shakespeare’s Italian plays, as you know, contain many precise setting details.  The locations of the settings for these ten plays line up with Oxford’s well-documented 1575 trip to Italy.

Still, it is possible that Shakspere of Stratford made the trip to Italy at some point perhaps as part of a nobleman’s entourage. There is, as usual, no record of this, but four hundred years is a long time.

Shakspere, by the way is the family name used on all eight baptismal certificates for Shakspere and his seven siblings. It is also the name he used throughout his life for personal documents. Shakspere could be Shakespeare: if so, he is the only Elizabethan author who chose to eschew the use of his publication name in his private life.

If Oxford was Shakespeare, the vicious parody of Lord Burghley in Hamlet makes perfect sense. Oxford lived much of his life under the thumb of of the great lord. He had plenty of reason to hate him and more than enough knowledge of the man to create the parody which ends with the protagonist killing Polonius and cruelly jesting before the corpse had cooled.

But then Lord Burghley was well known in London and gossip travels far.

Truth is truth though never so old
and time cannot make that false which was once true.
— Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, letter to Robert Cecil

Nay, it is ten times true,
for truth is truth to the end of reckoning. 
— William Shakespeare, playwright and poet, Measure for Measure, V.i

I give unto my wife
my second-best bed with the furniture.
— William Shakspere of Stratford, actor and businessman, Last Will and Testament

Blessed be ye man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
— William Shakspere of Stratford, actor and businessman, Gravestone

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