by Joseph Sobran
This article was first published in the Spring 1997 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
Do Shakespeare’s Sonnets refer to real people, events, experiences, and emotions? Or are they mere “literary exercises” about fictional characters, in which even the narrator is not to be literally identified with the author? Or are such questions, as the scholar Samuel Schoenbaum held, “unanswerable.”
Those three questions amount to a brief history of scholarly interpretation of the Sonnets. It used to be assumed that the poems were more or less literal accounts of the poet’s relations with the mysterious pair, the Fair Youth and the Dark Mistress, and that it was at least possible that these murky figures might be identified as real denizens of Elizabethan England. Let us call this the Realist view.
On their face, the Sonnets bespeak real and often painful emotions the Youth and the Mistress cause the poet. But the Sonnets proved very hard to fit into the accepted life of Shakespeare of Stratford.
In the mid-nineteenth century some commentators, uneasy with the Realist view, countered with what might be called the Fictional view of the Sonnets. The Sonnets became, for this school of thought, mere “poetical exercises,” in which Shakespeare wrote under an “assumed character” that was not his own.
But the Fictional view was hard to sustain too. After all, the Sonnets are unsatisfying as a story; they lack adequate exposition, to say the least; and they show none of Shakespeare’s genius for vivid characterization. This gave rise, in the mid-twentieth century, to a compromise, which might be called the Agnostic view: we don’t know and will never know whether, or to what extent, the Sonnets were rooted in the poet’s real experience, so we may as well ignore all that and read them purely as poetry. This has become the prevalent view among the mainstream Shakespeare scholars, many of whom are downright scornful of attempts to glean biographical information from the Sonnets. W.H. Auden, for one, has censured such attempts as “idle curiosity.”
Recently, however, a fourth view has been asserted: the Homosexual view. Its most powerful advocate is Joseph Pequigney, whose 1985 book Such Is My Love has already exerted considerable influence. Pequigney argues that the poet’s love for the Youth is unmistakably homoerotic, and that only prudery has prevented mainstream scholars from acknowledging what should be obvious.
Just as the Agnostic view was a variant of the Fictional view, the Homosexual view can be seen as a return to the Realist view. Since no Elizabethan poet would be likely to feign homosexual love -sodomy was considered an abomination and a capital crime – we can presume that if Pequigney is right, the poet is hinting at biographical information of startling implication.
Pequigney’s book has a certain air of advocacy and special pleading, but his argument is essentially sound and, I would say, undeniable. It should be compelling even to people who don’t welcome his conclusion. After all, the poet makes it clear enough that he has committed adultery, and we accept this not because we approve of adultery but because the evidence is simply indisputable. In the realm of historical fact, the central question is always, What happened? The historian who is indifferent to morality is a bad man. But the historian who lets his moral views decide questions of fact is a bad historian.
The redoubtable Charlton Ogburn now objects to the Homosexual view as “slander”; but, in his book The Mysterious William Shakespeare, he acknowledged that the question of the poet’s homosexuality “has always been the main issue” about the Sonnets. Though he proposed an alternative theory-that the poet was actually writing to his son-he admitted frankly: “The reader will be justified in deeming my answer too ingenious by half.”
The Sonnets contain history. To that extent the Realist view is right. I believe that the Homosexual view is also right, though not in the way Pequigney assumes. He argues that the Youth, though a real person, could not have been the Earl of Southampton, the favorite candidate among the Realist commentators, on grounds that Shakespeare could not have addressed a nobleman in such amorous terms. He has a point.
But if the Youth was the Earl of Southampton, it follows that the poet could not have been the mainstream scholars’ “Shakespeare of Stratford.” It could well have been Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
The mainstream scholars’ long and inconclusive debate about the Sonnets’ factuality parallels the authorship debate they regard as benighted. The parallel is no coincidence. The debate is generated precisely by the assumption-shared by the Realist, Fictional, Agnostic, and Homosexual schools-that the poet can only have been “Shakespeare of Stratford.” If we remove that assumption, most of the vexing data fall into place with surprising simplicity.
The first 17 Youth Sonnets urge a handsome young man to marry, not so much to preserve his line (though this is fleetingly mentioned) as to propagate his own personal beauty. The Realist scholars have usually taken this to mean that Shakespeare had somehow been engaged to help persuade the young Southampton to marry at a time when Lord Burghley was pressing him to accept a match with his granddaughter, Elizabeth Vere. The young earl, still in his teens, was reluctant. The poet sweetly chides him, arguing that he has a duty to beget a son, in much the same terms that Venus lectures Adonis in the long poem dedicated to Southampton.
Oxford, of course, was Burghley’s son-in-law and Elizabeth Vere’s father. He was perfectly situated to join the campaign to drag the young man to the altar. If he was the author of the Sonnets, we can reasonably infer from his lyrical response to the young man’s beauty that he had fallen in love with Southampton himself. This is the key to the otherwise inexplicable line in Sonnet 10: “Make thee another self, for love of me.” In begetting a son by Elizabeth Vere, Southampton would create a blood-link between Oxford and himself. Coming from a common poet, the line would be absurd. Noblemen didn’t beget sons for love of the poets they patronized.
Even after the subject of procreation is dropped, the poet remains in love with the Youth, promising to immortalize him in his verse: “Your monument shall be my gentle verse” (81). The chief arguments of the Sonnets are strikingly adumbrated in Oxford’s 1573 letter to Thomas Bedingfield, printed as a preface to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comfort. Just as the Sonnets argue that the Youth has no right to withhold his beauty from the world, Oxford argues that Bedingfield has no right to withhold his book from his countrymen; just as the Sonnets promise that they will be the Youth’s eternal “monument,” Oxford assures Bedingfield that his book will be a “monument” after Bedingfield himself is “dead and gone.” Oxford even anticipates the language and imagery of the Sonnets. Compare “Thou art the grave where buried love cloth live” (31) with Oxford’s gentle charge that Bedingfield seems determined to “bury and insevil your work in the grave of oblivion.” (Further parallels are cited in my book Alias Shakespeare.)
It is further proof of the Realist view, by the way, that the poet never names the Youth, even after promising to make his name immortal. This would surely be a strange way to treat an imaginary character!
Apparently a long, sometimes turbulent affair ensued between the poet and Southampton. The poet is clearly in love with the Youth in an erotic sense. He is fascinated by his physical beauty. He is obsessed with him. He idealizes him. He is jealous of him. He suffers during his absence. He speaks of “pleasure,” “desire,” and “appetite,” likens the Youth to “food,” and even praises the odor of his breath. There are anxieties of infidelity on both sides. And of course the poet is inspired by the Youth to write some of the most eloquent love poetry in the language. This is something more than ordinary male camaraderie. At every point the poet seems to resemble Oxford rather than the Shakespeare of the mainstream scholars. The poet is decidedly older than the Youth; he constantly contrasts their ages. The Youth is, of course, young, a “boy.” The poet is “old,” “beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” bearing “lines and wrinkles,” in “age’s steepy night.” He looks at the past with regret and to the future with the sense that his death is not far off. Time is running out for him. He likens himself to “a decrepit father” who “takes delight” in the Youth as in his “child” (37), implying a gap of a generation. Again this fits Oxford (who was twenty-three years older than Southampton) but not the scholars’ Shakespeare (who was only nine years older).
The poet’s forwardness with the Youth is good evidence that he was of the same rank. He woos him boldly; he calls him “thou”; he addresses him as “my love,” never “my lord”; he even jokes about his genitals (20). These would be amazing liberties from a commoner to a lord, but not from one lord to another. The poet feels free to scold the Youth. He says, in a tense moment, that “we must not be foes” (40), which would also be slightly grotesque coming from a commoner to a lord who would have little to fear from a poet’s enmity. Even when the poet is abject, he is not deferential in a social sense. He speaks of “possessing” (and losing) the Youth (87) and likens himself to a “deceived husband”-more evidence that there was no gap of rank between them. When the poet says, “I may not evermore acknowledge thee,” it is a strain to imagine a commoner speaking to a lord: the prerogative would be entirely on the other side.
The mainstream scholars have never given due attention to one of the most important motifs of the Sonnets: the poet’s disgrace. The reason for this neglect is probably that it puzzles them. Nothing in the standard life of Shakespeare suggests notoriety at any time. But the poet himself refers to it in a dozen of the Sonnets, from 25 to 121, in such emphatic terms as “disgrace,” “outcast,” “bewailed guilt,” “shame,” “blots,” “vulgar scandal,” and “vile esteemed.” He implies that he is well known, as Oxford indeed was. He hopes only for the relief of an obscure grave:
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you. (72)
Oxford, of course, had lived a scandalous life. In 1584 a social inferior, Thomas Vavasor, could taunt him about “thy decayed reputation.” (The most stinging word was “thy.”)
Sonnet 121 hints that the poet’s scandal was sexual. He speaks angrily but guardedly about others’ gossip about his “frailties” and “sportive blood.” Whatever this was, it was more scandalous than adultery, about which the Mistress Sonnets are explicit and jaunty. The poet is no prude, but he shies away from mentioning the specific charge against him. Was it homosexuality, or even pedophilia? In 1580 three of Oxford’s enemies discussed whether to accuse him of “pederastism.” One said he couldn’t attest it, but another accused him of “buggering” servant boys, whom he named. This may have been pure slander; many of the charges the three made were preposterous lies, and nothing seems to have come of this one. Yet even a calumny may point to a perceived vulnerability. And Sonnet 121 sounds as if the poet was fighting off some such rumor about himself.
The poet fears that his unnamed disgrace will also rub off on the Youth. Sonnet 36 is devoted to this apprehension – “Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame.” What kind of disgrace is so contagious? A reputation for sodomy certainly would have been. The poet also repeats his anxiety about shaming the Youth along with himself. This puts the famous Sonnet 71 in a new light: the poet cautions the Youth against mourning for him after his death,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I have gone.
He can hardly mean that the “wise world” mocks people merely for grieving at the death of friends. More likely he means that if the Youth is observed mourning for him, sophisticated society will draw certain conclusions about their relationship-and that those conclusions may be warranted.
Such utterances are baffling if we imagine them coming from the Shakespeare of the mainstream scholars, who reduce them to bland “universal” or “poetic” truths, rather than specific intimations about real individuals. But if I am right, they tell us a great deal about Oxford and Southampton. Much more may be gleaned from later Sonnets, where the poet first frets about losing the Youth, then confesses and tries to excuse his own infidelity. (Again, a fuller treatment will be found in my book.)
For now we may note a couple of other details. In two of the Sonnets, 37 and 89, the poet refers to himself as “lame.” Mainstream scholars are at a loss to explain this; most of them surmise that it is “figurative.” But in a letter to Burghley dated March 25, 1595, Oxford wryly refers to himself as “a lame man,” and other letters use the word “lame” similarly. Whatever he and the poet mean by it, they both use the same word. Surely few poets have described themselves as “lame,” figuratively or otherwise.
Finally, many Oxfordians have noted the odd first line of Sonnet 125: Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy . . .” Yet once more, the mainstream scholarship has no good explanation. But the line could well refer to a courtier’s function on solemn state occasions of helping carry the royal canopy over the monarch. As Lord Great Chamberlain and a leading courtier, Oxford was prominent at such occasions.
In sum, Oxford closely fits the profile of the poet. He is of the right age; he is of equal rank with the noble Youth. He knew both Burghley and Southampton; and his own daughter was the center of their tussle over marriage. He was first a brilliant courtier and, later in life, a notorious figure, apparently all but ostracized at court; his scandals included rumors of sexual deviancy. He was in some sense lame. By the 1590s he had good reason to feel what the poet of the Sonnets so deeply feels: that time is running out, and that his name has been irreparably ruined.
Not one of these things can be said with warrant about the Shakespeare the mainstream scholars have constructed from a few old documents and the claims of the First Folio. The prima facie case for his authorship collapses against the self-revelations of the Sonnets.