Hank Whittemore has developed an exciting and fascinating new theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets, perhaps the most controversial and mysterious series of poems in all of literature. For some time now, I've wanted to blog about Whittemore's ideas, but I couldn't find a way to compress his complicated theory into a brief capsule description. I've finally decided that the only way to do it is to give you the bare bones of his ideas, with minimal elaboration, and then direct any interested readers to Whittemore's Web site, where they can read the details for themselves.
So here we go. Hang on, because this gets a little confusing.
We began with the assumption that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In his younger days, the dashing de Vere was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Whittemore conjectures that Elizabeth and de Vere had a secret affair which produced a son. The romance was covered up, and the boy was raised by the Earl of Southampton under the name of Henry Wriothesley. The truth of the boy's parentage was a closely held secret known only to a few knowledgeable insiders.
Illegitimate or not, Henry was the true heir to the British throne, and his biological father wanted very much to secure this prize for him. Accordingly, when Henry was 17 years old, Edward de Vere tried to orchestrate a marriage between Henry and de Vere's own daughter Elizabeth Vere. (There is good reason to think that Elizabeth Vere was not her father's flesh and blood, so the marriage would not have been incestuous.)
Elizabeth Vere's grandfather was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful person in Elizabethan England other than the Queen herself. Had Henry married Elizabeth Vere and become part of the Cecil family, it is quite likely that Cecil would have arranged for Henry's succession to the throne upon Queen Elizabeth's death. Henry Wriothesley would have reigned over England as King Henry IX. The fact that he was the so-called Virgin Queen's son could not, of course, have been revealed to the public, but it would have been known to those highest in the government; and in those days royal blood was greatly valued as a prerequisite for a successful monarch. (See David Shelley Berkeley's book Blood Will Tell in Shakespeare's Plays for an exhaustive review of the importance of blood in Shakespeare's thinking.)
The proposed marriage was a stroke of genius on the part of de Vere, which would have virtually ensured his son's eventual succession to the throne. But young Henry, as headstrong as his biological father, refused to make the match and instead threw in his fortunes with the rebellious Earl of Essex. Essex led an ill-fated uprising against the government, possibly intending to install Henry as king. The rebellion failed, and Essex and his fellow conspirators were promptly arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Among the prisoners was Henry Wriothesley.
In short order the traitors were put on trial before a jury of nobleman. Edward de Vere, as the highest ranking aristocrat in the realm, had no choice but to serve on the jury and to vote for the death penalty for both Essex and Southampton. Essex was executed soon afterward, but Southampton's death was delayed; and later, inexplicably, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower. It seems that some political machinations were going on behind the scenes to spare Henry Wriothesley's life. When King James ascended to the throne after Elizabeth's death, one of his first orders was to release Southampton from his cell.
In Whittemore's view, the Sonnets can be read as a chronicle of Henry Wriothesley's birth, life, imprisonment, and release. It should be noted that Shakespeare had previously dedicated two long narrative poems to Henry Wriothesley, and many commentators of all persuasions have believed that the Sonnets were also addressed to Henry. Further ,there is near-universal agreement that Sonnet 107 celebrates the release of Henry, "supposed as forfeit to a confined doom," from prison following the death of Queen Elizabeth ("The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured").
It is Whittemore's insight that not just Sonnet 107, but Sonnets 27 through 126 relate directly to Henry, forming a central sequence of 100 poems that provide a chronological record of this life-and-death struggle. Of course, the poet could not express himself openly in Elizabeth's authoritarian regime. Instead he had to disguise his meaning in the form of conventional love poetry. But those who could decode the verses would discover the hidden truth behind Southampton's imprisonment and release. "Your monument shall be my gentle verse," Shakespeare/Oxford wrote in Sonnet 81.
Space does not permit a detailed listing of the almost innumerable allusions to these current events that Whittemore has uncovered. One or two examples must suffice.
Sonnet 30, which corresponds in the chronology to the time when de Vere was summoned to the trial - or "sessions," as it was known as in Elizabethan parlance - begins, "When to the Sessions of sweet silent thought..."
De Vere had to vote for his own illegitimate son's execution while working behind the scenes to save his life; in Sonnet 35 he reminds his addressee, "Thy adverse party is thy Advocate."
As part of the deal to secure the commutation of his son's sentence, de Vere had to renounce any public connection with his written works, which were closely associated in the public mind with Southampton, to whom both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece had been dedicated. Henceforth de Vere would have to conceal his own name, a sacrifice reflected in the Sonnets' recurring motif that their author's name would never be remembered, and in verses like Sonnet 76, line 7: "That every word doth almost tell my name..."
De Vere also had to agree never to publicly acknowledge Henry Wriothesley as his son or have further contact with him. Sonnet 36, lines 1,9: "Let me confess that we two must be twain... I may not ever-more acknowledge thee."
Whittemore's approach makes sense of the numerous legalistic terms strewn throughout the Sonnets, which otherwise seem jarring in the context of love poetry. Given that the Sonnets' real subject matter is a desperate legal dispute, the use of such terminology is entirely appropriate.
His approach also makes sense of the otherwise baffling insistence of the poet that the young man being addressed must get married and have children. Why would Shakespeare care one way the other whether or not some other man got married? And why would he pursue the subject with such urgency? In Whittemore's theory, there was more at stake than a mere marriage; Henry, in resisting the betrothal, was recklessly casting aside his best chance to become England's future king. No wonder the poet expended such efforts in an attempt to change his mind.
The enigmatic Dark Lady of the Sonnets turns out to be Queen Elizabeth herself, who was "dark" not in complexion but in her baleful influence, first refusing to acknowledge her own son and later willing to have that son executed.
And the two Sonnets that conclude the book, which under conventional interpretation seem to be an irrelevant afterthought, turn out to be highly meaningful. In Whittemore's view, they describe the Queen's royal progress to the resort town of Bath following the delivery of her son, who is mythologized in Sonnet 154 as the "Little Love-God." These two Sonnets serve as a nostalgic coda to the series, harkening back to happier times.
As I said, it is not possible to do more than sketch out Whittemore's complex hypothesis. I realize that any brief description like this is hardly persuasive. There seem to be too many wild, implausible assumptions -- that Oxford was Shakespeare, that Oxford and Elizabeth had a son, that Oxford sought to put this son on the throne, etc. People have a natural resistance to such seemingly far-fetched ideas. I can only say that when you take the trouble to read Whittemore's detailed analysis -- and I am currently working my way through his 900-page book The Monument, which is crammed with detailed argumentation -- it begins to seem surprisingly convincing. If you're interested, look for yourself.
Sonnet 81 eloquently sums up the themes of de Vere's buried name, his concern over his son's impending execution, and his determination to provide a poetic monument that future generations might decode:
- Or I shall live your Epitaph to make,
- Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
- From hence your memory death cannot take,
- Although in me each part will be forgotten.
- Your name from hence immortal life shall have
- Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.
- The earth can yield me but a common grave,
- When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
- Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
- Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
- And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
- When all the breathers of this world are dead.
- You still shall live (such vertue hath my Pen)
- Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.