The “Second Intention” of the Sonnets

Posted By on March 9, 2012

The 3rd Earl of Southampton, "supposed as forfeit to a confined doom" in the tower of London, spring, 1603.

For some time now, noted Oxfordian author and freelance scholar Hank Whittemore has had a standing invitation to write a guest post  (or several) for my blog, and after some thought he sent me this post last week. In this essay, Hank offers a friendly challenge to Dr. Richard Waugaman, one of the most prolific and influential Oxfordian scholars on the contemporary scene, and author of several previous guest blogs on this site.

Hank, Richard, and I are on the same side in the authorship debate: having studied the evidence, we agree that a vast preponderance of evidence supports the proposition that Oxford wrote the plays and poems. Beyond that, as is only natural and good, we also have differences. As the Quaker proverb says, “when everybody thinks alike, no one thinks very much.”  I am fortunate to have two such smart and talented friends and intellectual compatriots. Richard now has a standing invitation to respond, either in discussion, or with a post of his own, to Hank’s challenge. Hank’s ongoing series, 100 Reasons Oxford wrote Shakespeare, is available (now on number 36) at his regular online venue. — Ed.

Guest post by Hank Whittemore

“Now, it was quite the custom of the period to enfold in poems a second intention” – Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, 1922

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, published a paper in Psychoanalytic Review of October 2010 entitled “The Bisexuality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Implications for De Vere’s Authorship,” in which he explores “the blind spots in previous scholarship on Shakespeare’s sonnets, using a psychoanalytic perspective” based on his “central claim” that the Sonnets “reflect the poet’s bisexuality.”

Dr. Waugaman is an Oxfordian whose website The Oxfreudian has become a valuable resource for Shakespeare authorship studies. He has no doubt that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was the great author, and also that Oxford was bisexual. He also believes that the bisexuality expressed in the Sonnets “has been strikingly ignored, covered up, or rationalized away by the vast majority of Shakespeare scholars for the past 400 years – including by those who believe, with Freud, that de Vere was the pseudonymous author of Shakespeare’s works.” Open-minded exploration suggests “we have been the victims of severe distortions and blind spots in previous Shakespeare scholarship” and that many such distortions “have been fueled by homophobia.”

In the same article Dr. Waugaman sets about to use “what we know about de Vere’s bisexuality and probable love affair with the Earl of Southampton to examine the history of homophobic scholarly reactions to the sonnets, which have justifiably been called [by Joseph Pequigney in Such is My Love] ‘the grand masterpiece of homoerotic poetry.’” Then In a guest post on this site last November, reviewing Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, Dr. Waugaman added to the same theme:

Some of us believe the bisexual de Vere had an affair with [Henry Wriothesley, Lord] Southampton,” he wrote. “Others – possibly because of their discomfort with de Vere having been bisexual – instead claim that Southampton was de Vere’s son by Queen Elizabeth. They can then explain the unusual warmth of these sonnets as reflecting paternal love. (My emphases)

Since we are in a psychoanalytic mode, might we turn the mirror so Dr. Waugaman can see a reflection of his own approach? Might he then see how James Shapiro used Contested Will (2010) to attack anti-Stratfordian theories by dissecting the theorists themselves (and concluding, of course, that they must be psychologically flawed)? Professor Shapiro’s theme is basically, “I’m okay – you’ve got a problem.” Is Dr. Waugaman making the same mistake of projecting a psychology upon those with whom he disagrees?

There’s no question that the history of Sonnets commentary has been fraught with homophobia. Undoubtedly many critics have concluded at least privately that the poet recorded a homosexual affair with the younger man, but “discomfort” over a bisexual Shakespeare has driven them to deny it. In recent times more critics have boldly adopted and promoted that view.
Shouldn’t we acknowledge, however, that traditional scholars perceiving a bisexual story have operated entirely within the Stratfordian paradigm? (And that many have advocated it with no particular author in mind?) The point here is that even if William Shakspere could have carried on a love affair with Southampton, he was nonetheless only nine years older than the earl and could not have been his father; and therefore, orthodox critics have been limited to viewing the poet and fair youth as friends or lovers, but with no possibility of perceiving a father-son relationship. For traditional critics, homophobic or otherwise, the bisexual love story has been the only game in town.

Once Oxford is seen as “Shakespeare,” however, the old paradigm is turned inside-out. The “story” must be viewed through a new lens: no longer is the poet a commoner, but the highest-ranking earl in England; no longer is he an outsider, but an insider at the Court of Elizabeth. Moreover Oxford had reached his greatest intimacy with the Queen back in 1573, the very year of Southampton’s recorded birth; so that if he’s addressing Southampton in the Sonnets, their age difference of twenty-three years opens the previously unthinkable possibility that he’s writing to his son whom he regards as a prince.

It’s a cliché among Oxfordians that at one time we were all Stratfordians; and that when we finally left Stratford, it was only natural to carry some old baggage with us before being able to let go. We could not help maintaining some cherished assumptions, even with new ones clamoring for attention. And accordingly, some who had viewed the Sonnets as a bisexual love story continued to see it that way – retaining Southampton as the fair youth while simply replacing Shakspere with Oxford, making it that much easier to experience the paradigm change.

I can fully understand that, for some who journeyed from New Place to Castle Hedingham, the syllogism goes this way:
1. Within the traditional context the poet and Southampton must be lovers;
2. Most orthodox critics who deny this bisexuality are probably homophobic; therefore:
3. Oxfordians who deny the bisexual story must be similarly biased.

“William Shakespeare” appeared first on the dedications to Southampton of Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594). Never again would Oxford use that pen name to dedicate any other work, uniquely linking Southampton to “Shakespeare” from then on. But why would he deliberately call attention to the young earl? Why connect him alone to the new pen name? And why tell the world, albeit from behind a pseudonym, that his “love” for him is “without end”? If it was a homosexual love, in a society that viewed sodomy as a heinous crime, why would he wish to call attention to it?
Oxfordians have been so divided on the Oxford-Southampton relationship that it’s hard to find common ground. Each side can draw upon the known history along with lines of the Sonnets; but surely we can agree that Oxford and Southampton as individuals were each possibly or even probably bisexual, yet still not know whether or not they were engaged with each other in a sexual affair.

If we can agree on that, perhaps we can temporarily move beyond our opposing views of their relationship (lovers or father-and-son) and focus on the contemporary history suggested by Sonnets 1-126, the so-called fair youth series.
It’s a given that we’re talking not about fictional creations but real individuals in real circumstances, often with much at stake. And as far as the best minds can tell, the fair youth sonnets are in at least some roughly chronological order, recording the author’s reactions to real events that occurred in real time. There is, in fact, a story – one story, for which most scholars have identified at least two chronological markers:

1593: Sonnets 1-17: The first seventeen sonnets in which Oxford pleads with Southampton to beget an heir, echoed in similar language in Venus and Adonis of 1593.

Southampton’s guardian Lord Burghley had been pressuring him since 1590 to marry his granddaughter Elizabeth Vere, Oxford’s eldest daughter, of whom he had originally denied paternity.

1603: Sonnet 107: The “dating” sonnet that appears to reflect Southampton’s release from the Tower on April 10, 1603, following the death of Elizabeth and the succession of James without civil war.

So a probable time span for Sonnets 1 to 107 is from 1593 to 1603, a busy decade:

On the domestic front, Oxford retires from Court in 1590 just before Southampton is presented to Queen Elizabeth. Oxford marries Elizabeth Trentham in 1591 and in 1593 his male heir is born; Southampton resists marrying Elizabeth Vere and in 1595 he begins a furtive romance with Elizabeth Vernon, whom he impregnates and secretly marries in 1598 before their daughter is born.

On the military front, Southampton steals across the Channel to Dieppe, France in 1591, without permission, hoping but failing to join Essex; he accompanies Essex on the Cadiz voyage of 1596, without permission; he joins him on the Islands Voyage of 1597; after spending most of 1598 at the French royal court, he joins Essex on the failed Irish campaign in 1599; and in 1600 he returns to Ireland and, under Mountjoy, distinguishes himself in battle.

On the political front, Southampton co-leads the abortive Essex Rebellion of 8 February 1601 and is imprisoned in the Tower. Oxford comes out of retirement to sit as a judge at the treason trial of the two earls. After Essex is executed, Southampton is spared but remains a convicted traitor in prison. He languishes there for the next two years until King James releases him in April of 1603.

Following that high point marked by Sonnet 107, the fair youth sequence moves swiftly (but with increasing emotional and lyrical power) to its end at Sonnet 126. Along the way, Oxford in Sonnet 120 supplies a remarkably clear reference to the “second intention” or partially hidden story. He refers to “how once I suffered in your crime,” which in the same sonnet he also calls a “trespass”. Of course the “crime” that Southampton committed was his participation in the Rebellion of 1601, for which he had been convicted; but if the climax is Sonnet 107, when his imprisonment ends in 1603, at what point in the fair youth sequence does his confinement begin?

Well, I submit that “Shakespeare” was such a great storyteller that he would never insert the climax out of nowhere, without preparation; that is, he would not make Southampton’s release from prison the high point of the sequence without first establishing his incarceration and then leading up to his liberation. And I suggest that this single story begins at least by Sonnet 35, when Oxford tells the younger earl, “No more be grieved at that which thou hast done,” referring in the same verse to “thy trespass” and offering an apt description of his own role on the tribunal at the trial:

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense:
Thy adverse party is thy Advocate…

[When Southampton was in the Tower awaiting execution in February and March 1601, he wrote letters to the Privy Council begging for mercy and referred to his crime as a “fault” or “faults” no less than six times. When King James wrote the order for Southampton’s release in April 1603, he noted that the late Queen Elizabeth, “notwithstanding his fault towards her,” had spared his life.

Although “sensual” has appeared to some readers as referring to sexual matters, the word was used by Lord Burghley in 1584 when he referred to Catholic traitors as “sensual and willful recusants.” I would argue that Oxford deliberately uses “sensual” in opposition to “sense” – that is, “To your irrational crime I bring in rational argument,” followed by his promise to Southampton, “I am your judge who must condemn you to death, but I am also your legal defender determined to save you.” And as it turned out, someone did save him.

This basic scenario requires a radical change in perceiving the time frame and story of the “fair youth” sequence, as I have argued in The Monument (2005), since it means a majority of sonnets must correspond with Southampton’s 1601-1603 imprisonment. If such is the case, it might explain why the Sonnets appear to contain few if any references to Southampton’s earlier known experiences in the 1590’s, such as the Islands Voyage of 1597.

My conclusion is that the main story takes place during Southampton’s time in the Tower from February 1601 to his liberation in April 1603 after being “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” as Oxford records in Sonnet 107. Is there another stretch of recorded contemporary history and biography that might supply a chronological foundation for the legal language, not to mention the grief and disgrace, expressed in so many of the fair youth sonnets? I know of none.

Meanwhile, can we arrive at the scenario suggested here without knowing the nature of the Oxford-Southampton relationship? I believe the answer is not only “yes” but, also, that the “love” expressed in the Sonnets could still be viewed as either homosexual or parental. Isn’t it so? Just asking…

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


4 Responses to “The “Second Intention” of the Sonnets”

  1. knitwitted says:

    I’m still exploring the “Fair Youth” sonnets but for now let’s say I agree with their paternal nature. I’m puzzled why de Vere wouldn’t write these to his son Henry? De Vere was heirless for a long time. He may have had other son(s) but only Henry could legitimately carry on his de Vere name.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    That theory has been proposed and has adherents – most notably Charles Wisner Barrell in a series of articles in the Shakespeare Fellowship newsletter during the 1940s.

  3. knitwitted says:

    Ok kewl. Will see what I can find out… Thanks!

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    If you email l me I’ll send you a copy of James Warren’s Oxfordian bibliography, which can give you the precise place to look for Barrell’s articles.

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