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A Rational Person Reads Shakespeare

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 young earl, Henry Wriothesley, begged to differ. His elders were not pleased.

Shakespeare lent his eloquence to the persuasion project with a series of heartfelt sonnets we know today as the “marriage sonnets” though they could as well be called the “make a baby” sonnets. We are lucky to see them. For their first hundred and twenty years of life, the sonnets constantly flirted with destruction. This is their story (and Shakespeare’s).

Honor, Public and Private

In 1590, Shakespeare’s plays had yet to enliven a printing press. Even so, the bard’s voice found its way (already) into the local vernacular: in 1589, quick-witted hipster Thomas Nashe quipped in writing about “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” Nashe had evidently seen Hamlet despite the dearth of Shakespeare publications.

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. It was lavishly dedicated to Southampton. Shakespeare was now in print and his esteem for Southampton was advertised to the world.

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 same graver labor.

Venus and Adonis was a smashing success going through fifteen editions over the next fifty years. The baby-making inducements in the sonnets targeted a far smaller audience remaining, private as they were, in their zeroth edition.

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

Despite the beauty of the sonnets, the earl kept his husbandry to himself.

In 1594, the second epic poem, The Rape of Lucrece, marked the second appearance of the Shakespeare byline. The second and last Shakespeare dedication was also to Southampton; this one was even more effusive.

THE love I dedicate to your lordship is without end . . .
I wish [you] long life lengthened with all happiness.

Lucrece went through eight editions in fifty years, another smashing success. The sonnets continued their obsession with 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. 

The earl chose not to replicate just yet: in 1594, the now-adult Southampton formally refused his betrothed. Shakespeare gave up trying to convince him to marry but kept writing sonnets celebrating the self-willed earl. They would be a “monument” of “gentle verse” and would be “filled with your most high deserts.”

Shakespeare plays now finally began appearing in printed editions though, for whatever reason, without the Shakespeare byline.

In 1598, Southampton married a woman of his own choosing. That year, perhaps coincidentally, Shakespeare’s name appeared on printed plays for the first time. Work on the sonnet-monument continued and rumors of their existence leaked: “witness his sugared sonnets among his private friends,” wrote one admirer who apparently hadn’t seen the sonnets himself.

Even though they were private for the time being, Shakespeare clearly wanted them published:

And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
when tyrants’ crests of tombs of brass are spent.

Of course wanting something to happen and having it actually happen are two different things. Getting the sonnets published would have been a lot easier if Southampton hadn’t been so stubborn.


Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton as a boy. This is the “lovely boy” aka the “fair youth” of the Shakespeare’s sonnets.

The Politics of Failure

When Shakespeare broke ground on the “eternal lines” that would “preserve the living record of [Southampton’s] memory,” the boy was under pressure to marry the grand-daughter of the great Lord Burghley. Burghley was the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England, so one would think Southampton would be pleased to accept his grand-daughter’s hand. One would be wrong.

Lord Burghley was a consummate plotter who usually got what he wanted. The highest ranking earl in England, Edward de Vere, married his daughter, the long-suffering Anne Cecil. Now it was Southampton’s turn to gild the family name of the great William Cecil.

It was none other than William Cecil with his son and heir, Robert Cecil, who eventually engineered the ascension of King James of Scotland to the British throne after Elizabeth died in 1603. This led, of course, to the unification of Scotland and England. Southampton would have been wise to ally himself with this powerful family.

But he said no. This despite the raw power of Burghley’s office and despite the worshipful coaxing of the sonnets.


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


So Elizabeth Vere married the Earl of Derby instead who didn’t need any sonnetary convincing. Southampton may have been out of the picture but Shakespeare was still a welcome diversion: revelers enjoyed a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the wedding.

Later, Burghley’s youngest grand-daughter married the Earl of Montgomery. It was Montgomery and his brother who bankrolled the famous First Folio in 1623: thirty-six plays appeared in one stunning tome, including eighteen never-before-published manuscripts.

Perhaps not surprsingly, no sonnets, epic poems, or mention of Southampton was allowed between the covers of the all-important canon-preserving work. Shakespeare, undoubtedly unhappy about this, was too dead to complain in person.

The great author’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 Southampton carved into fragile paper with black ink, crafted over thirteen years, ultimately comprising one hundred and twenty-six intensely evocative sonnet-letters nearly became worm-food.

Shakespeare was sure they would survive (“such virtue hath my pen”) as indeed they did. The sonnets are some of the best love poetry ever written, after all. But since when is merit enough? A celebration of a stubborn earl was not what Burghley wanted.

With this key, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. — Wordsworth, of the sonnets.
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered. — Shakespeare, Cymbeline, IV.iii

We’ll see shortly how the sonnets managed their survival. But first, a bit of irony.

The Sonnets Today

Even today, the sonnets cause trouble. Most people you ask don’t know the “thee” in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is a self-willed young man whom Shakespeare apparently loved with all of his heart and soul. In Burghley’s day, the trouble with Southampton was political — Southampton’s mis-steps ultimately went far beyond refusing Burghley’s grand-daughter as we’ll see shortly.

Today, the trouble with the sonnets is that they might be read as autobiography. Professor James Shapiro at Columbia university has a very sensible view: “I steer clear of reading these extraordinary poems as autobiography.”

And really there’s no choice but to do this. Shakespeare was a twenty-something commoner when he came to London in the early 1590’s and became involved with a theater group as an investor and bit-part actor. Even though his two epic poems were dedicated to Southampton and even though the sonnets are written to Southampon, there’s no independent evidence that Shakespeare and Southampton ever even met (despite centuries of searching).

So it isn’t clear how Shakespeare could refer to Southampton as “O thou my lovely boy” or “tender churl” or “be not self-willed” or “make thee another self for love of me” much less be involved in Southampton’s marriage decisions or Lord Burghley’s power politics or how or why he would continue to celebrate Southampton’s greatness (even in private writing) for another decade. Because of the incongruities, it makes sense to avoid reading anything autobiographical out of the sonnets.

There’s actually very little autobiographical information about Shakespeare in general. There are many, many documents referring to him, more than for any other Elizabethan writer except Ben Jonson. But the documents are lot like the sonnets — ultimately not very helpful.

A typical Elizabethan author like Ben Jonson or Thomas Nashe, wrote manuscripts that were preserved and survive today. They also wrote and received letters discussing writing. Receipts survive showing they were paid to write. They inscribed books they had written as gifts for others. Their writing was mentioned by people who knew them. Jonson and Nashe owned books some of which survived to the present day. So it is possible, in these cases, to begin to construct a literary biography.

For Shakespeare, we have to resist the temptation to create biography and autobiography where none exists. None of his manuscripts survive and there are no letters he wrote or received either, so we really have nothing in his handwriting, not even inscriptions in books. There are no receipts and no books from his personal collection survive either. Shakespeare’s will carefully disbursed a house full of possessions, but didn’t mention books perhaps because his wife and children wouldn’t have been able to read them.

Even the people Shoenbaum calls Shakespeare’s “townsmen” never mentioned that their neighbor was known as the greatest writer in England. They apparently just didn’t care. “They saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs,” explain Schoenbaum.

So Shakespeare the Stratford man moved to London, separated from his family, wrote his epic poems, sonnets, and plays, and got involved somehow in Elizabethan politics. He was obviously a little unusual as writers go. Actually, given the sixty or so extant Shakespeare documents and the fact that all of them refer to his ordinary life apart from his writing life, we can say that Shakespeare was more than a little unusual.

Normally, an Elizabethan author would leave behind a sheaf of documents half of which would be related to writing in one way or another. So if Shakespeare had been a typical Elizabethan author, leaving behind sixty out of sixty literarily bland documents (legal troubles and business dealings) would be like flipping sixty tails in a row when you need to flip heads just once to win — a virtual impossibility that would be very unlikely even if you flipped coins steadily for a thousand years, or a million years, or a billion years.

This is why we cannot regard Shakespeare in the same light as other authors. We must accept that fact that what seems autobiographical in Shakespeare’s case, i.e., the sonnets, actually may not be autobiographical at all.

The only real autobiographical information we have on Shakespeare’s writing life is the monument in Stratford commemorating him as Socrates, Nestor, and Virgil rolled into one plus the mention of that same monument in the preface to the First Folio. This doesn’t tell us much, it is merely the posthumous recognition of the author himself that, despite the fame of Shakespeare’s works at the time they were produced, seemed to elude the author himself during his lifetime.


Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford.

There is another “monument” in Stratford, Shakespeare’s gravestone itself that serves as yet another reminder not to look for biography everywhere.

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Shakespeare gravestone.

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

Even though modern versions of Mark Twain look at the sonnets and regard them as autobiographical, we are nevertheless happy to have them. Shakespeare no doubt, would be pleased they survived as predicted even though they cause so much confusion.

The Editor-Pirate

One day in 1609, Thomas Thorpe, the well-known editor-pirate, got his unclean hands on a manuscript consisting of Shakespeare’s personal thoughts and feelings. Imagine! The priceless handwritten copy — maybe even the originals — of Shakespeare’s long declaration of love for the subject whom he wished to immortalize was crinkling in Thorpe’s trembling hands.

He only managed one printing of the sonnets, barely enough to allow fortune to save Shakespeare’s extremely politically incorrect monument. A century plus two years later, the sonnets were pulled back from the edge of the cliff of history and printed once again. They have been safe ever since.

Thorpe published the sonnets with a short dedication. Thorpe wished 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 “Mr. W.H.”

Southampton’s initials are “H.W.” and as an earl, he not properly addressed as “Mr.”, so it isn’t clear who Thorpe is referring to, perhaps Southampton’s stepfather, Mr. William Harvey.

Also a little confusing is Thomas Thorpe’s apparent reference to a eulogy in King Henry VI Part 1 (“that ever-living man of memory, Henry V”). Thorpe referred to the still-alive Shakespeare as “our ever-living poet.”


Thorpe’s eulogy is obviously inappropriate and is yet another reminder of the pitfalls of looking for biographical information where it may not be.


And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Now we will see why it required Thorpe to get the sonnets published and why he only managed one edition and why the sonnets and epic poems were excluded from the First Folio. Refusing Burghley’s grand-daughter was one thing. But then he REALLY stepped in it.

In 1601, our wayward, stubborn, I’ll-marry-whomever-I-want earl immortalized in the sonnets was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for treason. Southampton decided to lead, with the Earl of Essex, what is known as the “Essex rebellion” wherein the two idiot earls and some of their followers made a bid 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 did not notch an auspicious first year of the 17th century.

(This is where the “unconditional” part of unconditional love comes in.)

As the Queen lay dying, Southampton and Essex with an ever-shrinking group of supporters hatched a plan to gain access to the Queen’s bedchamber. It is not clear who they favored for the Queen’s successor or whether they had a detailed campaign in mind at all. 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) easily outwitted the Southampton-Essex amateur hour. “Outwitted” is a charitable term here, for we don’t wish to add insult to injury.

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 quickly. The four commoners also convicted were not as fortunate. Meanwhile, Southampton languished in the Tower. He was next in line to die.

Then something very odd happened, something history hasn’t ever gotten its head around because there’s no paper trail. Southampton’s death sentence was mysteriously commuted to life imprisonment. Everyone else connected to the foolish acts was dead or thanking their lucky stars they had bailed before the plan exploded in the earls’ pretty faces.

Southampton would now be spared.

The sonnets contain clues as to the reasons for Southampton’s remarkable escape, or, if not clues to the reasons precisely, at least an indication of the mechanism by which Southampton’s good fortune manifested itself. Sonnet 87 contains the following 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.”


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

We may never know precisely who Southampton was — it’s not clear who his real parents were as there is no baptismal record — or why he thought he could control the succession or why he wasn’t executed. All we know is Elizabeth died in 1603 without an heir while Southampton languished in the Tower.

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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. Not only was he not executed after being convicted of treason, not only was he singled out as the one surviving member of a conspiracy that targeted the crown itself, he was actually RELEASED when King James ascended the throne.

The ebullient sonnet 107 celebrating Southampton’s release from the Tower is probably the most imporant of all. It is easy enough to read and interpret.

The Queen has died (the mortal moon hath her eclipse endured), Southampton has been released (supposed as forfeit to a confined doom . . . my love looks fresh), and there was no civil war over the succession (the sad augurs mock their own presage, incertainties now crown themselves assured, and peace proclaims olives of endless age).

It’s hard to imagine a man more fortunate than Southampton. Celebrated in Shakespeare’s sonnets for all eternity even though he refused to marry properly, spared by the Queen herself even though he committed treason, released by King James himself despite a life sentence, Henry W. is the kind of guy I’d like to travel back to see. I’d sit down with him and we have some tequila and I’d ask him what he wants in life.


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 sizes and other details of the newly discovered atoms. The other group grew old, weakened, became wrinkled, and died.

Twenty-two sonnets will let you into a world inhabited by Shakespearean actors Sir Derek Jakobi, Mark Rylance, Sir John Gielgud, and Michael York, thoughtful observers Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Nobel laureate John Galsworthy, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Powell, O’Connor, Stevens, and Scalia.

Also part of this world is the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Concordia University in Oregon, currently the best example of serious academic discussion of the issue that has so far been mentioned only obliquely.

Of all the inhabitants of this world of logical observers, my personal favorite is the 18th Baron Burghley, Michael William Cecil, whose ancestor played a central role in the Shakespeare saga.

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

The mainstream is still holds to the idea that wondering who wrote Shakespeare is (pish-posh) best left to crackpots. But the question seems now to be entering the “how big are atoms” stage as scholars and amateurs slowly piece together the amazing story of the man who actually wrote the plays, epic poems, and sonnets (hint: it wasn’t the guy who left behind no manuscripts, letters, inscriptions, books, receipts, or third-party literary references).

As you may have guessed, the present author does not agree that we should not read what are obviously personal letters written by Shakespeare as autobiographical.

If personal letters aren’t autobiographical, what is?

If you read these twenty-two sonnets and you conclude that they were written by a commoner nine years older than Southampton who never met him, that’s fine. It is possible, for example, that the sonnets were commissioned. Read them and decide for yourself. Right now you know more than the typical Shakespeare scholar because your open mind has not been put into a blind trust.

Twenty-two Sonnets

I. 1, 2, 3, 17 (Get married my boy, make for us an heir.)

II. 33, 18, 55 (Wonder of wonders, you will live forever in these sonnets.)

III. 22, 62, 63, 73, 74 (As I age, I think of you, my dear boy.)

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

V. 27, 28, 35, 36, 87 (Arrest, trial, death sentence, new judgment of misprision of treason.)

VI. 107, 125, 126 (My love looks fresh, supposed as forfeit to a confined doom; I bore the canopy in a royal procession but I’m still loyal to you; O thou my lovely boy beware of Nature’s final due.)

I. Get married my boy, make for us an heir. 


This is how Sonnet 1 looked originally.

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II. You will live forever in these lines.

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III. As I age, I think of you

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IV. I am being forced to use a pseudonym.

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

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VI. Release from the Tower, death of the Queen, my true loyalties lie with you, farewell my boy and beware time’s unstoppable march.

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So who wrote the plays? I’ll give you a hint. When Edward de Vere’s brother-in-law went to the Danish court at Elsinore as an ambassador and came back with a handwritten, never-published report of his experiences, he mentioned two courtier/diplomats by name. Can you guess the names?

I’ll give you another hint. When Edward de Vere got Anne Vavasour (one of the Queen’s maids of honor) pregnant and got them and their infant thrown into the Tower for two months, their families and friends had some words to say to each other. Guess what happened in the streets of London as a result?

One more. If you take “Shakespeare’s” Italian plays and their extraordinarily accurately detailed settings (there was no Google earth in Shakespeare’s time) and make a trip to Italy out of it, guess whose well-known and well-documented trip to Italy you will be repeating stop by stop and play by play?

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

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


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