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10 of Crowns - the Sonnets

Dramatis Personae: The Fair Youth; The Rival Poet; The Dark Lady.

Roman à clef : Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford; Edmund Spenser; Philip Sidney; Anne Vavasour; Penelope Rich, née Devereaux, Countess of DevonshireElizabeth Tudor.

Text & Context: The Sonnets have been called "Poems on Several Occasions; not the flowers of rhetoric but the fruits of experience." Their subject is highly biographical. Their tone, at turns tortuously artificial and embarrassingly intimate. The first 17 sonnets see the author beseeching The Fair Youth to procreate. The poems which follow detail a vulgar scandal involving the author and The Fair Youth and a love triangle involving the author, The Fair Youth , and The Dark Lady. 

 Printed in 1609, The Sonnets were never intended for publication. The "ever-living poet" had been dead 5 years - hence the epithet - and the sonnets themselves smack of an outmoded style because they had been written some 15 years before. This places the author, Edward de Vere, in his early 40s, the self-professed age of The Sonnets' author. In 1593, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and Fair Youth, was 20. Hence The Sonnets date from roughly the time of the first public appearance of the Shakespeare pseudonym, in the two works expressly dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Significantly, this also coincides with the birth of the Earl of Oxford's first and only male heir, Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford.

 The Sonnets are notoriously opaque, and speculation on who The Dark Lady was, or who The Rival Poet, remains just that. Nevertheless, as insight into the person of The Poet, they are invaluable. Like family jewels, in The Sonnets are embedded the secret cache of the poet's legacy.

Subtext: In Sonnet 125, The Poet says: "Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy" - the one person in England uniquely responsible for bearing the canopy each year as the Queen opens Parliament is the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Earl of Oxford. The author notes that he is lame; Oxford had suffered a wound to his leg which caused him to walk with a limp. In myth, a wound in the leg is most often euphemism for a wound in the groin or sexual impotence. The name de Vere chose for his heir - Southampton's name - Henry, is not one traditionally used by the Oxford earldom. The Sonnets divulge how The Poet shared his mistress The Dark Lady with The Fair Youth. This, along perhaps with the homosexual subtext, must in part be an aspect of the vulgar scandal often referenced in The Sonnets. Yet no court record of a scandal involving Southampton survives. Of course, the court controls its own records, and little it doesn't wish to survive will.


 Elsewhere must be looked for reference, and one finds it in the anonymous, 1594 pamphlet Willobie His Avisa. The libelous poem, banned by the crown, clearly refers to known figures of the day, culminating in the young H.W. [Henry Wriothesley] being advised by the older W.S. [William Shakespeare] on how to get off with Avisa. Allusions are made by W.S. to poems by both William Shakespeare and Lord Oxford. The most likely candidate for the sluttish Avisa and therefor The Dark Lady of The Sonnets is the black-eyed Lady Penelope Rich, Robert Devereaux's sister, the Countess of Devonshire. Rich was also Stella of Sidney's sonnet cycle Astrophel & Stella as well as the subject of poems by Spenser, Aytoun, and Barnfield - the last, 1594's "The Affectionate Shepherd", is a satire on Rich's involvement with Southampton. 

 "The only begetter" then of The Sonnets' dedication, "Mr. W.H.", looks to be a play on H.W. and a plausible deniability - with the full "Mr. W.H.  all" - on William Hall, publisher Thomas Thorpe's type-setter. In 1608, government secret-service man William Hall entered the widowed Countess of Earl’s house in Hackney, on the trail of Father Garnet, a Jesuit wanted for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. What he found in the drawer were not letters of sedition but 154 of the late Earl’s sonnets. Popular as they were, no second edition was permitted until all of Oxford’s children and their spouses were dead.

 In the etching of Henry de Vere by Robert Vaughan, shown here in The Sonnets card, the 18th Earl of Oxford sports a love-lock, the unique affectation of the young Earl of Southampton. The baton he holds, bottom left to top right, is a "baton sinister" indicating bastardy. Meanwhile, the odd engraving of Southampton and Oxford mounted astride one another, known as The Two Noble Henries, draws deliberate attention to their similarities in a manner sentimental to say the least.  The 18th Earl of Oxford served under Southampton on the continent and his father's trusted cousin, Sir Horatio Vere, but the lineage of the Oxford Earldom died with him in 1625. Southampton had died the year before.

 Perhaps of note, Sonnet 116 is mis-numbered 119. The 116th day of the year is April 26, Shaksper's baptismal date. In the sonnet, Shakespeare says: "If this be error and upon me prov'd, I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd." Those who believe this is Shaksper are in error, whereas we know E. Vere, whose nom de plumes included "Ever and Never", both wrote and loved a man,  

 an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 

 the star to every wand'ring bark, 

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Intertext: The Moon XVIII Venus & Adonis

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