The Monument
Shakespeare's Sonnets

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The Fair Youth of the
Shakespeare Sonnets

Southampton (Hilliard portrait)Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton is the Fair Youth of the Sonnets by William Shakespeare. Here are the most basic reasons for coming to this conclusion beyond any reasonable doubt:

  • “Shakespeare” dedicated his first two published books to Southampton, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), pledging: “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end … What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours.”  This is the only evidence of any link between “Shakespeare” and any younger man.
  • In Sonnet 26 the author addresses the younger man in terms and sentiments virtually the same as those he used in the Lucrece dedication to Southampton: “Lord of my love,” he begins the sonnet, “to whom in vassalage thy merit hath my duty knit, to thee I send this written ambassage, to witness duty, not to show my wit.  Duty so great…”  [The word “duty” appears three times in the course of the two public dedications; the author also uses it three times in Sonnet 26.]   
  • Thirty-six lines spoken by the goddess Venus in Venus and Adonis, dedicated to Southampton, are virtually carbon copies of lines in the first seventeen of Shakespeare’s sonnets, thereby linking the earl to those private verses.
  • Most commentators have agreed that Southampton is the subject of Sonnets 1-17, in which the author urges the younger man to marry and beget an heir of his bloodline.  They have agreed that the context of these “marriage and procreation” sonnets was the active pressure that William Cecil Lord Burghley was putting upon Southampton to marry his granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford [who had denied his paternity of her].  If Oxford was the author, then he was the prospective father-in-law – on the public record, if not biologically. 
  • Most commentators have agreed that in Sonnet 107 the poet is celebrating the release of Southampton from prison on April 10, 1603 after he had been “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” in the Tower of London.  Rather famously in this sonnet the author refers to Queen Elizabeth as “the mortal Moon” who had recently died and to the proclamation of James of Scotland as King James I of England.
  • Southampton motto
  • Southampton’s motto Ung par Tout, Tout par Ung or One for All, All for One is played upon throughout the sonnets in a variety of ways; for example:

    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? (Sonnet 76)

    Resembling sire, and child, and happy mother,
    Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing. (Sonnet 8)

    And thou (all they) hast all the all of me. (Sonnet 31)

    Since all alike my songs and praises be
    To one, of one, still such, and ever so...
    One thing expressing, leaves out difference...
    Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
    Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone, (Sonnet __)

These are just some of the reasons for concluding that Southampton is the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.  Within the Monument context, however, we can perceive a far more specific and compelling “story” involving Southampton.  For example, the Monument solution shows how the eighty verses of Sonnet 27 to Sonnet 106 cover the two years and two months of the earl’s confinement in the Tower, from the night of the failed Essex Rebellion on February 8, 1601 through the night of April 9, 1603.

The Royal Identity of the Fair Youth

Southampton in TowerThe Monument context also answers the question of why Edward de Vere uses royal imagery throughout the Sonnets – because he and Queen Elizabeth are the biological parents of Southampton, so that the younger earl is her Majesty’s natural heir to the throne.  In that context the Sonnets become a “monument” to preserve for posterity “the living record of your memory,” that is, the true story that the “winners” (i.e., Robert Cecil) were able to obliterate. 

The very opening lines of Sonnet 1 serve to announce the presence of a royal and/or dynastic diary: 

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's Rose might never die (Sonnet 1, lines 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 the 1609 quarto “Rose” in Sonnet 1 is both capitalized and italicized)

There are significant obervations from past sonnet commentary that focus on this presence of the royal imagery embedded throughout the sonnets. For example, consider these excerpts from G. Wilson Knight and Leslie Hotson:

From G. Wilson Knight, The Mutual Flame, 1955, and The Sovereign Flower, 1958:

“The Sonnets regularly express love through metaphors from royalty and its derivatives, using such phrases as my sovereign, thy glory, lord of my love, embassy of love, commanded by the motion of thine eyes

"At their greatest moments the Sonnets are really less love-poetry than an almost religious adoration …

Royal images recur …

The poet addresses the youth as lord of my love, to whom he sends a written ambassage; he is my sovereign and the poet his servant or slave

"The loved one is royal …

"He is crowned with various gifts of nature and fortune, especially all those beauties whereof now he’s King

"Like a sovereign, he radiates worth, his eyes lending a double majesty

"Our final impression is of love itself as king, of some super-personality, the Sun … The associations are just, since the king, properly understood, holds within society precisely this super-personal and supernal function …

"Kingship is naturally golden, and golden impressions recur with similar variations in use …

The Sun is nature’s king, and also pre-eminently golden. Throughout Shakespeare king and sun are compared …

With the Fair Youth, the association of that Sun, thine eye comes easily enough…

“We have various clusters of king, gold, and sun. Kings and gold come together in the gilded monuments of Princes; and sun and gold, when the Sun’s gold complexion is dimmed in the sonnet, Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day, or the young man graces the day and gilds the evening in place of stars. We may have all three.  So great Princess’ favorites are compared to the marigold opening to the Sun’s eye …

These impressions are not just decoration … That the poet of the Sonnets was deeply concerned with such themes is clear from the many comparisons of his love to kings and state-affairs.  His very love is felt as royal and stately. The Sonnets are the heart of Shakespeare’s royal poetry.”

From Leslie Hotson, Mr. W. H., 1965:

“It is well known that, following a general Renaissance practice drawn from antiquity, kings commonly figured as earthly ‘suns’ in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries … ‘Gods on earth’ was proverbially used of kings as far back as Menander, and is frequent in Shakespeare … ‘Ocean’ or ‘sea’ as a figure for ‘king’ is often found in Shakespeare and his fellow-writers. 

"Here, then, we have Shakespeare typifying his Friend variously as a sun, a god, an ocean or a sea: three familiar metaphors which he and his contemporaries use to represent a sovereign prince or king … Whatever may be meant by it here in the Sonnets, the Shakespearean and Elizabethan element common to the three is certainly king, and the metaphors exhibit a consistency of reference.”

Hotson cites various usages in the Sonnets of succession, heir and issue, explaining that when Shakespeare uses these terms elsewhere, he applies them in various ways “to the paramount problems of royalty.” 

This “sustained and unmistakable” royal language in the Sonnets makes it obvious that “what he sets before us” is an array of powers “peculiar to a king: power to grant charters of privilege and letters patent, power to pardon crimes – in short, the exclusively royal prerogative.” 

And we “need no reminder that it was to the king, and to no mortal but the king, that his dutiful subjects and vassals offered oblations; similarly, that it was only to the monarch or ruling magistrate that embassies were directed.”

“Of largess it is significant to note that in his other works Shakespeare applies it only to the gifts or donatives of kings,” Hotson writes.  “As for bounty, the poet’s attribution of this grace to kings, while not exclusive, is characteristic … In the same way we recognize grace, state, and glory typically in Shakespeare’s kings...     

“Clearly these consenting terms ... cannot be dismissed as scattered surface-ornament.  They are intrinsic.  What is more, they intensify each other. 

“By direct address, by varied metaphor, and by multifarious allusion, the description of the Friend communicated is always one: monarch, sovereign prince, king ...

“The harping on the same string is so insistent as to make one ask why it has not arrested attention.  No doubt everyone has regarded this king sense as formal hyperbole and nothing more.  Any literal meaning looks quite incredible – a rank impossibility.” 

A Final Thought on the Virgin Queen and Children

Did Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, have any previous children by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester? There were innumerable rumours throughout her reign and after that she did, but no definitive proof one way or the other.

There is, however, one intriguing historical document located in the archives of the Spanish Court that sheds some light on this question. Check out the story of one Arthur Dudley, who turned up at the Spanish Court in late spring 1587, claiming to be the son of the "Virgin" Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester. The Spanish did not dismiss his claim outright. It was treated at the very least as "plausible."

The full transcript of Sir Francis Englefield's report to King Philip about Dudley (as recorded in the Calendar of State Papers, Spain (Simancas), Volume 4: 1587-1603) is located here.

A synopsis of the story can be found here.