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Shakespeare's Sonnets


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The Dark Lady is Queen Elizabeth

Elizabeth Sieve PortraitQueen Elizabeth is “Beauty” and “Fortune” and “Heaven” in the Sonnets, as well as many other identities, but she is also the Dark Lady.

Elizabeth was the central female figure in every courtier's life throughout her reign, and the historical record is clear that Oxford was one of her favorites in the early days, especially during the 1570s. Both Oxford and Southampton were royal wards, which also made the Queen their "surrogate" mother at the very least.

The Monument solution to the Sonnets views the central 100-sonnet sequence (27 to 126) as containing two basic segments: the first eighty verses (27 to 106) covering the more than two years during 1601-1603 that Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton spent in the Tower; and the final twenty verses (107 to 126) covering the final days from Southampton’s liberation on April 10, 1603 to the Queen’s funeral on April 28, 1603 plus Sonnet 126 as the envoy of farewell. 

But, as we know, the true nature of this history --- and therefore the subtext of the sonnets (the Fair Youth series and the Dark Lady series) --- is this:

It was the Queen, under the control of Robert Cecil, who was holding Southampton in her prison – she was the “dark lady” who had “stolen” the fair youth from Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, by keeping him in the Tower. She was “dark” because, as the absolute monarch, her negative imperial viewpoint caused the entire curtain of darkness to fall over the Earl of Southampton and over the sonnets, which have been turned “black” with disgrace. 

Elizabeth is “dark” or “black” in the Sonnets not because of the coloring of her hair or eyes or skin, but, rather, because of her negative attitude and actions toward Southampton. 

The so-called Dark Lady Series (127 to 152) begins upon Southampton’s imprisonment on the night of the failed Rebellion of February 8, 1601, when he himself has been turned “black” although he remains “beauty’s [Elizabeth’s] successive heir” or her immediate heir by blood to the throne.  The Queen now views her own “beauty” or royal blood, which flows in herself and in her son, with disgrace; and therefore this “beauty” or Tudor blood is “slandered with a bastard shame.”

Oxford continues Sonnet 127 with the second quatrain before taking a dramatic turn with the word “therefore” [with special emphasis added below], making it absolutely clear (to anyone who looks at the lines without being blinded by preconceptions] that this negative view of the Queen [as opposed to any of her physical traits] is what makes her “dark” or “black”:

For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,        
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
THEREFORE my Mistress’ eyes are Raven black,
[Note: The Raven is the bird of the Tower]
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem… (Sonnet 127)

Sonnet 128 echoes the morning just a few weeks later on February 25, 1601, when the Earl of Essex was executed, and the Queen was in the privy chamber reportedly playing with her long white fingers on her virginals.  When the news came, she kept swaying gently as the wooden “jacks” went up and down; and spontaneously Oxford made a punning quip in relation to Sir Walter Raleigh as a “Jack” or upstart who had worked his way into her Majesty’s favor [by “kissing the tender inward of her hand] while helping Robert Cecil to defeat both Essex and Southampton:

        “When Jacks start up, heads go down.”  

And now he writes to Elizabeth:

How oft, when thou my music music play’st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those Jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand … (Sonnet 128)

A few verses later Oxford tells her:

In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds  (Sonnet 131)

And much later, near the end, again using “black” not in reference to her coloring, but, rather, to her refusal [or inability] to help Southampton:

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night. (Sonnet 147]

THE QUEEN’S MOTTO = SEMPER EADEM = EVER THE SAME

Elizabeth Semper EademAt the center of the monument at Sonnet 76 is Oxford’s key to reading the diary of the sonnets.  It comes in the second or central quatrain, where, in the first line, Oxford combines Southampton’s motto One for All, All for One with Queen Elizabeth’s motto Semper Eadem, which she wrote in English as Ever the Same:

Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?

Oxford tells us he is writing in the Sonnets all about just one thing, over and over; that subject matter is “all one” (Southampton) in relation to “ever the same” [Elizabeth]; and this basic formula is expressed as Love versus Time. 

We are following Southampton’s life [LOVE] as it proceeds according to the ever-dwindling life and reign of the Queen [TIME], leading to her inevitable death and the moment of succession to her on the throne, when the fate of her Tudor dynasty and the future course of England itself will be decided.

Oxford invites us to take his words literally, i.e., to see that he is always writing about “all one, ever the same,” or Southampton in relation to Elizabeth. Therefore the words of the Sonnets can be divided between the two of them; and in Sonnets 27-106, with Southampton in the Tower during 1601-1603 as a traitor, her negative imperial viewpoint casts its darkness over him, so that he becomes:  

Bare, Barren, Base, Black, Blamed, Dark, Darkly, Dateless, Despised, Disdained, Disgraced, False, Forlorn, Foul, Ghastly, Hidden, Masked, None, Profaned, Rank, Rotten, Sable, Scorned, Shamed, Slandered, Sullen, Sullied, Suspect, Ugly, Unfair, Unkind, Unseen, Untrimmed, Vulgar, Wasted, Worst…

But Oxford continues to shine his light into this darkness of tragedy and despair and royal condemnation: 

His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
And they shall live, and he in them still green.  Sonnet 63

And so in Oxford’s light Southampton becomes:

Abundant, Alike, All, Alone, Always, Beauteous, Beloved, Best, Blessed, Bounteous, Bright, Celestial, Clear, Constant, Controlling, Crowned, Darling, Dear, Dearest, Dearly, Divine, Entitled, Eternal, Excellent, Fair, Fairer, Fairest, Fairly, Fragrant, Fresh, Fresher, Full, Gaudy, Gentle, Gentlest,  Gently, Gilded, Glorious, Golden, Gracious, Green, Happy, High, Holy, Immortal, Kind, Lovely, Mightier, Near, Nearly, One, Only, Perfect, Powerful, Precious, Proud, Proudly, Pure, Purple, Rare, Religious, Rich, Richer, Right, Rightly, Riper, Scarlet, Silver, Special, Strong, Successive, Sweet, Sweetest, Sweetly, Tall, Tender, True, Virtuous, Wondrous, Worthy…

In fact Queen Elizabeth’s presence can be seen all through the Sonnets, once we begin to look for her:

BEAUTY – She was Venus, goddess of Love and Beauty
DIAN – She was also Diana, goddess of the Moon
FAIREST VOTARY – She was the “imperial Vot’ress” of A
     Midsummer Night’s Dream
EVER THE SAME – as she wrote her motto in English
FORTUNE – she was associated with Fortune
GODDESS – the divinely ordained goddess on earth
HEAVEN – she was associated with Heaven
LADIES DEAD – she was “our sovereign Lady”
MARIGOLD – she used it as her flower
MISTRESS – “our Sovereign Mistress”
MOON – Cynthia or Diana, goddess of the Moon
MOTHER – she was wife and mother of her subjects
NATURE – she was associated with Nature
PHOENIX – she adopted the phoenix as an emblem
PRINCES – she was the Prince of England
REGION – she was Elizabeth Regina
ROSE – her dynasty of the Tudor Rose began in 1485
THRONED QUEEN – she was Queen on the English throne
VIRGIN HAND – she was Virgin Queen, vowing not to marry
WE – she used the royal “we” on official documents

All these words reverberate with their own particular multiple meanings, thereby enriching the literary allusions and rhetorical devices used to convey the subject matter; but in fact each word signifies the Queen, or some aspect of her Majesty, in relation to the actual history that Oxford is recording and intending to preserve for posterity.

There are many ways to find the Queen in the Sonnets.  One way is to look at the individuals involved at the two places where commentators have come closest to reaching a consensus: (1) Sonnets 1-17 in 1591, urging Southampton to marry and beget children, and (2) Sonnet 107 in April1603, celebrating Southampton’s release from the Tower by King James.  Here is a list of those involved in both cases:

Sonnets 1-17: the Marriage Pressures of 1590-1594

  1. Southampton – being urged to marry Elizabeth Vere
  2. Lord Burghley – pressuring him to marry his granddaughter
  3. Oxford – the prospective father-in-law
  4. Queen Elizabeth – Southampton is her royal ward and, besides, she demanded that she approve any such marriage
  5. Elizabeth Vere – the lady in question

Sonnet 107: Southampton’s Liberation on April 10, 1603

  1. Southampton – being released from the Tower
  2. Robert Cecil (son of Burghley) – had held him hostage until the succession of King James
  3. Oxford – had been highest-ranking earl on the tribunal at the trial when Essex and Southampton were tried, convicted and sentenced to death
  4. Queen Elizabeth – “the mortal Moon” of Sonnet 107, who had died a few weeks earlier on March 24, 1603, after holding Southampton in her Tower prison [persuaded by Robert Cecil]
  5. James Stuart – having been proclaimed king 

Sonnets 1-17 [circa 1591] serve as the starting point of the Fair Youth Series and Sonnet 107 [April 10, 1603] serves as the climactic moment of that “story” being recorded.  In each case, the Queen is necessary to the dramatic action.  [In addition, the Monument solution presents Sonnet 125 as marking Elizabeth’s funeral procession on April 28, 1603, nineteen sonnets and nineteen days from Southampton’s liberation, so that she is also the indispensable figure at the conclusion of the Fair Youth Series.]  

The Queen herself is the dominant figure of the entire Fair Youth sequence of Sonnets 1-126, shown by the three key markers:

1-17 … 107 … 125

Oxford’s relationship with Elizabeth Tudor goes all the way back to his own boyhood when she visited Castle Hedingham in August 1561 and when he came of age at Court in April 1571.  Soon thereafter he wrote to her the first sonnet of the Elizabethan reign in the form to become known much later as the “Shakespearean” form.  In that sonnet, expressing his loyalty and devotion to her, he wrote these two lines:

Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart? ...

In constant truth to bide so firm and sure

And long after in the “dark lady” sequence of the Shakespeare sonnets, he wrote to her with similar words that stand his meaning on its head:

Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I hear and see just cause of hate? (Sonnet 150)

And all my honest faith in thee is lost;
For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy … (Sonnet 152)

The Virgin Mother?

The most important lingering question from this time is whether the Queen was ever anyone's real mother. There were numerous rumors throughout her reign -- and after -- that she had had children, most likely by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. 

Check out the story about Arthur Dudley, a bonafide historical fact preserved in the archives of the Spanish Court, and see if you can ever again simply dismiss the idea that the Virgin Queen may have had children (See a summary of this case here, or go here to read the transcript of Sir Francis Englefield's report to King Philip about Dudley).

Persian Lady PortraitAnother tantalizing clue in considering this question about Elizabeth as mother can be seen in the portrait on the left. This portrait, known as The Persian Lady, has a long history of controversy since:

1) it has at times been identified as Queen Elizabeth
2) it appears to depict a pregnant woman
3) it includes in the lower right-hand corner an enigmatic sonnet in the Shakespearean rhyme scheme.

It now hangs at Hampton Court and is simply called "An Unknown Lady." (A detailed analysis of this portrait and its history can be found in an article by Oxfordian Dr. Paul Altrocchi in the Winter 2002 issue of Shakespeare Matters, pages 8-16).

The implications for reading the Sonnets are enormous, since the very first two lines of Sonnet 1 can then be read as The Poet imploring The Fair Youth to have children, and thereby continue the Tudor succession after The Dark Lady dies (Queen Elizabeth was often referred to as the Tudor Rose):

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's Rose might never die.. (Sonnet 1, 1-2)

Which can be paraphrased as ... 

From royal children his parents command heirs,
So that Elizabeth's Tudor Rose dynasty might not die when she does...

In fact the 118-year rule of the Tudors, begun by Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII in 1485, did come to its end with her death.