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Shakespeare and the Fair Youth

by Charlton Ogburn, Jr.

This article was first published in the Summer 1997 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Joseph Sobran is a man of brilliant intellect. The case for Oxford as Shakespeare cannot but be significantly advanced by his advocacy. The past spring will surely be remembered for having brought us not only Dr. Daniel Wright’s “First Annual De Vere Studies Conference” at Concordia University but also Alias Shakespeare. Sobran’s analysis of the Sonnets in the spring issue of the Newsletter is notably astute, especially in drawing for the first time the parallels between the Sonnets and the young De Vere’s preface to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comfort. There is, however, one enormous exception to the value of his treatment. He has put us to the necessity of rescuing Oxford from the charge of conducting a homosexual relationship with the young friend, certainly the Earl of Southampton. The charge is one that must fail upon examination.

If the poet’s deep attachment to the young friend had been homosexual, common sense tells us that in addressing a sequence of sonnets to him, he would never have devoted the first 17 to urging the 20-year old to marry and thus terminate the relationship-write an absolute finis to it, unless we believe the bride would condone its continuation, of which she could hardly have failed to be aware. Further, Oxford would most assuredly never write a major work of English literature for all posterity-“as long as men can breathe, or eyes can see”-to be dedicated, we must believe, like the two long narrative poems, to “The Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley,” if he had believed that it would give grounds for believing that he had tarred the young earl with the charge of sodomy. This was a monstrous wickedness indeed at the time, a crime even punishable by death, Sobran admits. But “After all,” Sobran states, “the poet makes it clear that he had committed adultery.” So why not sodomy and even “pederastism.” Ye gods! The widest gulf separates the two. In support of his accusation, Sobran declares that “Oxford, of course, lived a scandalous life.” In support of this slander he quotes Thomas Vavasor, brother of Anne, whom Oxford had got with child in by no means the last of her sexual foibles; it was their uncle Thomas Knyvet who fell upon Oxford (or so I judge to have been the case) and wounded him, this being evidently the wound he would bear for life. What kind of witnesses are these for blackening Oxford’s character?

Then there are Henry Howard and Charles Arundel whose treason Oxford exposed and who replied with a sheaf of accusations against him beginning “To record the vices of this monstrous earl were a labour without end” and going on to enumerate nearly all of which men are capable. They make a fine pair to quote in attestation of Oxford’s pederasty.

A final thought on the subject: Had Oxford had homosexual impulses he would surely have betrayed them, even if inadvertently, in other poems and in his plays. Yet the only reference I can recall is its attribution to Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, when it is treated with disgust.

So why was Oxford in “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” when “I all alone beweep my outcast state”? (29). He tells us: “Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there and made myself a motley to the view.” (110) He chides Fortune

That did not better for my life provide
Than public means that public manners breeds (111)

He has squandered his estates-not, of course, without Burghley’s help-and must depend on the subsidy from the Queen. Moreover, he

… is shamed by that which I bring forth.
And so should you, to love things nothing worth. (72)

Oxford has disgraced a family name as noble as any in England by writing for the stage, by playing “kingly parts in sport” himself under his pseudonym “Shakespeare” when otherwise he might have “been a companion for a king,” and, doubtless worst of all, by associating with actors on their own level as Prince Hal with the patrons of the Boar’s Head Tavern. When Oxford elicited laughter from the crowd on his appearance in the entourage visiting Plymouth to honor the returned Francis Drake it was not because they had seen him pick up boys on the Embankment but because, surely his reputation from the theatre had preceded him, because of such antics as when he appeared riding a footcloth nag in parody of a French M’sieur. Oxford could not-thank heaven-help being what he was, and if he was abetted by a good sherris sack, what of it? But for a de Vere to have so betrayed his forebears as he saw himself doing under the compulsion of his genius, which habitually disclosed the world to him as a stage-it was a recurrent torture. At least he could warn his young friend not to love things nothing worth, Southampton being notoriously drawn to the theatre.

Finally, the poet explicitly rejects the sexual relationship with the young man in which Sobran finds the meaning of the sonnets addressed to him. Nature having fitted him “for women’s pleasure,” we read in Sonnet 20, “Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.” And I know of no indication that Oxford favored a match between his daughter Elizabeth and Southampton. As is made clear in Sonnets 3 and 16, what is important is the latter’s marrying, not whom he marries.

We may ask, then, in conclusion, what was the relationship of the poet and the beloved youth? In Sonnet 37, quoted by Sobran, we read:

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.

Where is the parent who does not read that with a pang of recognition, or who does not know, with a full heart, what he meant in writing in Sonnet 96, “Thou being mine, mine is thy good report.” “All through the Sonnets,” A. L. Rowse observes, with surprising discernment, “there is a quasi-parental element.” Then, in Sonnet 57, we find the poet addressing the youth as “my sovereign,” “to whom in vassalage (going on to 26) thy merit hath my duty strongly knit.” Having enlarged elsewhere on the reasons why I have felt, after long resistance, constrained to see in the Sonnets a father’s devotion to a son of whom he had long been deprived and, further, a son whom he found reason to acknowledge as his sovereign –and remember we are speaking of a poet embodying both surpassing emotion and the feudal tradition– I shall not take up space by rehearsing my argument here.

Let me, rather, join the reader in grateful congratulations to Joseph Sobran for his having shown incontrovertibly that the poet of the Sonnets cannot possibly have been a man still in his early thirties, newly arrived from the provinces and barred in the class-structured society of Elizabethan England from enjoying anything like the relationship with the sought-after young earl set forth in the Sonnets. Equally, we are in debt to Sobran for having, indeed, left no room for doubt that the poet was Edward de Vere.

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