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Shakespeare's Sonnets

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"Shakespeare" is Summoned to
the Trial of Essex & Southampton

The treason trial of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex and Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton began on the morning of February 19, 1601, eleven days after the Essex Rebellion -- a story recorded in Shakespeare's Sonnets, which are the author's own version of Prince Hamlet's soliloquies, using the personal pronoun "I" to express his deepest thoughts and feelings for posterity...

19 FEBRUARY 1601


Essex Trial ReportSummoned to the Sessions (treason trial) was fifty-two-year-old Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who presided as Lord Great Chamberlain and highest-ranking earl among the twenty-five peers sitting in judgment (note his name at the head of the list in the handwritten arraignment on the left).  To save the life of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, his unacknowledged royal son by Queen Elizabeth I of England, he was forced to join his peers in rendering the unanimous guilty verdict, thereby condemning him to death. 


                                          Sonnet 30

            When  to the Sessions of sweet silent thought
            I summon up remembrance of things past,
            I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
            And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
            Then can I drown an eye (un-used to flow)
            For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
            And weep afresh love's long-since canceled woe,
            And moan th'expense of many a vanished sight.
            Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
            And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er 
            The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
            Which I new pay as if not paid before.
            But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
            All losses are restored, and sorrows end. 
The political maneuvering behind the scenes – to save Southampton from execution, and then to secure the promise of his eventual release with a royal pardon – explains the extensive use of legal terminology in these sonnets. 

In Sonnet 34, for example, Oxford portrays himself as a Christ figure who “bears the strong offence’s loss” – he will sacrifice himself for his son – using “offence” to indicate the crime of treason for which Southampton as the “offender” will be tried:

Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss;
Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s loss. 

In the ending couplet Oxford signals that by his own sacrifice he will “ransom” or secure the release of Southampton:

Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheeds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.  

Essex BeheadedOxford was Southampton's adverse party at the trial, but he also became his Advocate or legal defender behind the scenes in order to save his life as indicated in (Sonnet 35). Essex had been executed within days of his conviction ... Southampton also could have been -- or should we say should have been? -- executed within days ... and yet he wasn't. Note in the following lines of Sonnet 35 the emphasis on words related to crime and law:

All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare.
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy Advocate,
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

Edward de Vere made a lawful plea to his former brother-in-law Robert Cecil, the little hunchbacked Secretary, who emerged from the Rebellion as the victor and holder of all power behind the throne.

In the very next sonnet (No. 36) he spells out some of the terms:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one;
So shall those blots that do with me remain
Without thy help be borne by me alone…
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honor me,
Unless thou take that honor from thy name…

Oxford echoes the trial itself in Sonnet 46, which envisions a courtroom wherein a “quest” or jury is “impanelled” and charged with the duty of rendering a “verdict”:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war     
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;              
Mine eye, my heart thy picture’s sight would bar
My heart, mine eye the freedom of that right;              
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie                     
(A closet never pierced with crystal eyes),           
But the defendant doth that plea deny,              
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.            
To cide this title is impanelled                                       
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,              
And by their verdict is determined                     
The clear eyes’ moiety, and thy dear heart’s part:                
As thus, mine eyes’ due is thy outward part,                     
And my heart’s right, their inward love of heart.

Oxford agreed that Henry Wriothesley would give up any claim to the throne. He also agreed to the permanent obliteration of his own identity -- as the father of Southampton and as the author of the "Shakespeare" works that he had dedicated to him.

The high point of the sequence will be the Sonnet 107, in celebration of Southampton’s liberation by King James after being “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” followed by the solemn march to Elizabeth’s funeral marked by Sonnet 125. Approaching that moment, when the Queen will be in her tomb and her Tudor dynasty officially over, Oxford writes in Sonnet 120 that he knows Southampton has “passed a hell of Time” and reports that he himself has “no leisure taken” (has not allowed himself) “to weigh how much I suffered in your crime.” 

And he continues:

O that our night of woe might have rememb’red
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosom fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee,
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
(Emphasis added)

Oxford has paid his “fee” to “ransom” Southampton; now his son must “ransom” him, in return, by ensuring that the Sonnets will survive into the future, so the truth will be known by posterity.  

As he recorded for his son in Sonnet 81:

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.