The Writings of Charles Wisner Barrell 5.2

“Shake-speare’s” Own Secret Drama
Discovery of Hidden Facts in the Private Life
of Edward de Vere, Proves Him Author of the
Bard’s Sonnets (Part 2)
Copyright 1942 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, February 1942.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

There is a touchstone available for this type of comparative analysis. It is made up of those plays and poems that are considered most intimately autobiographical by competent critics and fellow-poets of unquestioned genius who have studied Shakespeare intensively.

Hamlet, the best-known drama in the language, will probably suggest itself to most readers at this juncture, though its full-bodied characterizations and richly patterned background of scholarship, mysticism, psychiatry and Court intrigue are so foreign to the recorded trivialities of the Stratford native’s life that any attempt to reconcile them on realistically autobiographical grounds becomes absurd. It is quite impossible to imagine any Elizabethan poet with the intellect and outlook of the Prince of Denmark pursuing small-town debtors with venomous persistency, hoarding malt to secure advantage of famine prices, and allowing a daughter of his own blood to grow up unable to write her own name—in a day when the education of women enjoyed royal sanction, and while “Shakespeare” himself was thundering against ignorance as “the curse of God.”

But when we study the career of Edward de Vere, the scholarly poet-peer, in direct comparison with the action and characterizations of Hamlet, we find the drama imitating life at every angle. In fact, the mirror that the unhappy Prince holds up to nature reflects so sharply the images of the Earl of Oxford and several of his close associates that it occasions no surprise to find so many of Hamlet’s characteristic speeches anticipated in the personal letters of Oxford, while his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, provides the living model for Polonius, complete to the last physical defect. The maxims that Polonius recites for the guidance of his son Laertes upon the latter’s departure for the University of Paris are plainly a blank verse paraphrase of the maxims that Burghley prepared for his son Robert Cecil when that young man left England—also to enter the University of Paris. These parallels and many others of equally telling import will be taken up and discussed at length elsewhere.

The identification of Burghley’s character with that of Polonius was made long before the Oxford theory of the authorship of Hamlet and the other works had been evolved. It is mentioned here merely to punctuate our line of argument and to symbolize the obstacles of negation that beset the Stratfordian student of “Shakespeare’s” creative personality in contrast with the wealth of corroborative evidence that greets the well-informed Oxfordian seeking autobiographical elements in the creative structure of the plays and. poems.

My own studies in this field prove that Lord Oxford’s personal documentation speaks with most miraculous organ when compared to “Shakespeare’s” Sonnets, those “divine and dangerous poems”—in the apt phraseology of Algernon Charles Swinburne—that have intrigued, inspired and frequently baffled the greatest minds in English literature since they were first published surreptitiously by the notorious literary pirate, Thomas Thorpe. 1

Such Shakespearean authorities as Professor Edward Dowden, Professor Sir Walter Raleigh, and Professor A. C. Bradley are agreed that the Sonnets are autobiographical.

“I believe,” says the conservative Dowden, “that Shakespeare’s Sonnets express his own feelings in his own person.”

“To say that they do not express his own feelings in his own person,” remarks Raleigh, “is as much as to say that they are not sincere. And every lover of poetry who has once read the Sonnets knows this to be untrue. It is not chiefly their skill that takes us captive, but the intensity of their quiet personal appeal…. These are not self-contained poems, like Daniel’s sonnet on Sleep or Sidney’s sonnet on the Moon; they are a commentary on certain implied events. If the events had no existence, and the sonnets are semi-dramatic poems, it is surely essential to good drama that the situation should be made clear. Moreover, the sonnet-form was used by the Elizabethans, who followed their master Petrarch, exclusively for poems expressive of personal feeling, not for vague, dramatic fantasies. The greater poets—Sidney, Spenser, Drayton—reflect in their sonnets the events of their own history. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are more intense than these; and less explicable, if they be deprived of all background and occasion in f act. Like Sidney, Shakespeare is always protesting against the misreading which would reduce his passion to a mere convention. He desires to be remembered not for his style, but for his love…. The situations shadowed are unlike the conventional situations described by the tribe of sonneteers, as the hard-fought issues of a law-court are unlike the formal debates of the Courts of Love. Some of them are strange, wild, and sordid in their nature; themes not chosen by poetry, but choosing it, and making their mark on it by the force of their reality. All poetry, all art, observes certain conventions of form. These poems are sonnets. There is nothing else conventional about them, except their critics.

“The facts which underlie them, and give to some of them their only possible meaning, cannot save in the vaguest and most conjectural fashion, be reconstructed. The names of the persons involved are lost. Two of these persons are described, a beautiful wanton youth, and a dark faithless woman. . . . The story that unrolls itself, too dimly to be called dramatic, too painfully to be mistaken for the pastime of a courtly fancy, is a story of passionate friendship, of vows broken and renewed, of love that triumphs, over unkindness, of lust that is a short madness and turns to bitterness and remorse. The voice of the poet is heard in many tones, now pleading with his friend, now railing against the woman that -has ensnared him; here a hymn of passionate devotion, there a veil of strained innuendo-clear-sighted, indecent, cynical. The discourse passes, by natural transitions, from the intimacies of love and friendship to those other feelings, not less intimate and sincere, but now grown pale by contrast with the elemental human passions: the poet’s hope of fame, or his sense of degradation in ministering to the idle pleasures of the multitude. The workings of his mind are laid bare, and reveal him, in no surprising light, as subject to passion, removed by the width of the spheres from those prudent and self-contained natures whom he has sketched with grave irony. . . .

“The poems of Shakespeare in no way modify that conception of his character and temper which a discerning reader might gather from the evidence of the plays. But they let us hear his voice more directly; without the intervening barrier of the drama, and they furnish us with some broken hints of the stormy trials and passions which helped him to his knowledge of the human heart, and enriched his plays with the fruits of personal experience. . . .

“In the Sonnets Shakespeare gave expression to his own thoughts and feelings, shaping the stuff of his experience by the laws of poetic art, to the ends of poetic beauty.”

Dr. A. C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy is generally recognized as a classic of modern criticism, agrees with Sir Walter Raleigh that the Sonnets are largely autobiographical.

The opinions of these distinguished critics are echoed by many of Shakespeare’s spiritual heirs, such as Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Swinburne.

Scorn not the sonnet (says Wordsworth)
………………with this same key his heart.
Shakespeare unlocked his heart.

Swinburne, impressed by the poet’s frequent expressions of passionate but secretive devotion to one of the handsome young men described in the Sonnets, was of the opinion that the Bard was a homosexual type. As a protagonist of strange sins himself, Swinburne rather gloried in this belief. But the idea seems to have been violently repugnant to the moralistically masculine Browning, who wanted the whole business hushed up forthwith:

“With this same key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart” once more!

Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!

“No whit the less like Shakespeare,” Swinburne commented tartly, “but undoubtedly the less like Robert Browning.”

The autobiographical motif of the sonnets, plus the seemingly implied sex aberrations of the Bard, have intrigued other writers too numerous to list.

Samuel Butler’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered develops both of these arguments and the author of The Way of All Flesh leaves his readers with the impression that the poet was, “though only for a short time,” more the decadent Greek than the normal Englishman.

Oscar Wilde also exploited the same sensational theory in his story, The Portrait of Mr. W. H., in which he suggests a rather unholy alliance between Shakespeare and a mythical female impersonator of the Bard’s stage heroines, one “Willie Hughes.” No actor of that name or even of those initials can be identified among the thespians of the period, however. The homosexual theory, as a matter of fact, has never been anything more than a theory, lacking corroborative documentation so completely that it would not be mentioned here were it not for the fact that an aura of mysterious scandal hangs about the Sonnets and seems to have grown with the passing generations. Proponents of the Baconian theory of authorship have boldly made the most of the situation, as their candidate is definitely known from contemporary sources to have been given to unnatural sex practices. Bacon’s cousin, Sir Symonds D’Ewes, historian of the British Parliament, speaks very plainly of the matter in his autobiography and says that he and other acquaintances of Sir Francis were surprised at the time of the Lord Chancellor’s removal from office that Bacon was not put upon his trial “for his darling sin.”

On the other hand, John Aubrey in one of his notebooks compiled during the 17th century, makes a certain Mr. Lacey, one of the oldest actors of the period, his authority for the information that William Shakespeare of Stratford “was not a company keeper” and “could not be debauched.”

This ticklish matter of the autobiographical elements in the Sonnets is one that must be either accepted fearlessly and pursued to a demonstrably reasonable conclusion, or else ignored completely as the puritanical Browning and his followers would have it. No half-way measures will answer the vivid challenge of these provocative poems. Many orthodox Stratfordian biographers of the present century evade the issue by adopting the extreme point of view of Sir Sidney Lee who blandly assumes that the Sonnets are per se mere flights of fancy exercises in poetic technique. This assumption is generally approved by the brotherhood whose professional standing depends upon the maintenance of an intransigent Stratfordian front, because of the painful paucity of any personal documentation—as already pointed out—which can be shown to associate their shadowy hero with the personalities, relationships and events which the Sonnets adumbrate. The begging, in this wise, of a question so vital to a realistic understanding of the dynamics of the foremost creative personality of the Anglo-Saxon race, long ago seemed to me a weak avoidance of responsibility.

After reading Looney’s exposition of the Sonnets in comparison with the documented life-facts of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford—”most excellent” of the Elizabethan Court poets whose mature literary “doings” were not to be “found out and made public with the rest”—it became plain that at last a personality had been discovered to match the vivid imagery of the verses that had so deeply impressed creative critics such as Dowden, Raleigh and Bradley, and geniuses such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Swinburne, Butler and Wilde.

Looney proves that the character, reputed talents and recorded idiosyncrasies—even some the surviving poems—of Lord Oxford equip him more convincingly for the mysterious role of author of the Sonnets than any other candidate for that high office that has been put forward. Where Shakspere of Stratford is purely conjectural and where Sir Francis Bacon lacks verisimilitude except upon grounds of the most repulsive connotation, Oxford’s credentials appear genuine and reasonable. Looney does not, however, develop the autobiographical leads of the Sonnets beyond a general surface outline. He shows the reflection of the Earl’s personal image in the poems clearly enough—the nobleman who has lost both property and social prestige in the pursuit of art, the scholar carrying the handicaps of intense physical desire, loyalty to misplaced affection and a fatally pathetic tendency to encourage trespasses by over-readiness to forgive, if not to forget.

The point of view throughout, as Looney makes plain, is that of an aristocrat, steeped in the lore and usage of feudalism, a mind entirely out of sympathy with the materialistic trend of Elizabethan politics and commercial life, one inclined to pursue defaulting debtors with an open invitation to repeat their offenses in the name of love and noblesse oblige. Personal pride struggles with the weaknesses of the flesh and is vanquished. “High birth” and “true desert” are forced to adopt the role of “beggar born,” and “art is tongue-tied by authority.” All of these circumstances are known to have governed Oxford’s career.

But at the time “Shakespeare” Identified was written, exigencies of space and lack of time from the main task in hand did not allow Looney to pursue research into the nooks and crannies of Lord Oxford’s hidden career for the express purpose of matching the Earl’s documentation with the detailed story—or personal diary, as other writers suggest—which is unfolded in Shake-speares Sonnets.

That the poems issued surreptitiously by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 were considered a sort of personal testament seems clear from the first contemporary reference to them. Francis Meres, whose Palladis Tamia (1598) contains the initial listing of several of the Bard’s plays, also mentions approvingly “Shakespeare . . . his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.”

This is positive evidence that the poems were not meant for public sale and could be fully understood only by those person’s who enjoyed the writer’s intimacy.

The corollary of biographical interest would seem to follow with geometrical precision.

And the problem before the investigator, seeking a solution of the “divine and dangerous” enigma posed by the lyrics also appears to be plainly in the realm of personal research. Find the acknowledged Elizabethan poetical genius whose personality proven activities and private associations match throughout with those described in the pirated poems, and the man who represented the living entity of the hyphenated “Shake-speare” of Thorpe’s title-page of 1609 may at last emerge into the light of day—provided it can be definitely shown that this furtive Lord of language was of an age to have completed those “sugred Sonnets” which Meres mentions in 1598.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, born April 12, 1550, reported dead on June 24, 1604, meets these requirements, as J. Thomas Looney suggests in “Shakespeare” Identified. But the Looney evidence, covering this particularly vital phase of the Shakespearean mystery, is neither extensive enough nor sufficiently categorical to be conclusive, as previously stated.

With the solution of the personal story behind the Sonnets as a humbly “hoped-for” ideal objective and a lively curiosity to learn more about the private life of the literary nobleman with the great contemporary reputation, whose “doings” could not be “found out,” I decided to take up the problem where Mr. Looney had been obliged to leave it.

This was the beginning of a seven years’ search which has led through the dusty files of the Public Record Office and Somerset House, various Courts of Chancery, Queen’s Bench, Prerogative and Request, among the yellowing pages of many thousands of volumes of genealogical records, State Papers, personal letters, diaries, armorial devices, biographic commentaries, histories—and finally to privately-owned collections of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits.

As a result of this gradgrindish pursuit of fact, I acquired much gray hair, permanent eyestrain and a bad disposition, but at the same time I may say without false modesty that I have emerged from the long continued paper-chase with documentation that appears to play a vital part in the permanent identification of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford with the creative life of “Mr. William Shakespeare.”

Complete corroboration of Mr. Looney’s pioneer discoveries is now available. And the secrets which the author of the Sonnets set down in his amazing diary more than three centuries ago can be interpreted in realistic detail. The creation of many of the poems can even be accurately dated.

Let us now briefly consider the Sonnets themselves for purposes of orientation, before exploring at leisure their vivid landscapes of the soul and the strange and tragic personalities that once dominated them in real life. Our documentation now guarantees us this long-withheld right. For we shall travel under the recovered passport of a forgotten genius, the ruined and socially-suspect literary peer whose “doings” could not in his own day “be found out and made public with the rest” of his fellow-poets, though he is admitted to have surpassed them all “in the rare devices of poetry.”

Owing to the fact that the Sonnets were pirated, it is logical to assume that the order in which they were published by the unscrupulous Thorpe is not the order in which they were written.

The placement of the poems throughout the book may be taken as Thorpe’s arbitrary arrangement. Much has been said by various editors about the “sequences,” the general assumption being that the 154 sonnets are addressed in the main to two people. One of these, it is generally held, is “a noble and beauteous youth, beloved for his own sweet sake, not for his exalted rank:” the other “a dark-eyed Circe, the reverse of beautiful, bewitching men by the magic of her eyes, a dark-haired, pale-cheeked siren, drawing her victims despite their knowledge of her wiles; a very Cleopatra in strength, intellect and hedonism. ” These two, with the poet himself—it is usually stated—comprise the cast of characters of the secret drama so absorbingly and at the same time so enigmatically developed. Close, realistic, personal descriptions appear throughout, some highly colored, some savagely unflattering. Names are obviously symbolized and played upon without being mentioned. And the writer does not spare his metaphorical scalpel in laying bare the most intimate reactions of his own mind and body. As studies in applied psycho-analysis, the Sonnets stand almost alone because of their subject matter as well as their peerless art. The Freudian dream world is given actuality.

Like many familiar wonders, however, these poems have not been fully understood because they have been taken for granted. The conventional patter of orthodox commentators has prevented too many readers from making clear-sighted appraisals of their own, taking into account the admitted biographical elements of the verses and the surreptitious manner in which they were made public.

One does not have to believe in any theory of authorship, as a matter of fact, to see that more than three persons—including the author himself—are described and openly addressed here.

Two handsome young men are clearly discernible. One of these is younger than the other, a noble of impeccable birth, brilliant and given to impulsive generosity, but essentially undependable. The poet has first met him some three years before he has selected him as a subject for adulation. This is the young Adonis upon whom “Shake-speare” urges so eloquently and persuasively the desirability of marriage and self-reproduction—that “so fair a house” may not “fall to decay.” But Adonis loves himself and his own freedom best. He does not heed the poet’s pleas to settle down and

“Make thee another self, for love of me.”

Instead, he meets and seduces or is seduced by the Bard’s dark-eyed and insatiable mistress. The plans for a normal and respectable relationship between the older and the younger man, based on a marriage in which the poet has a vital interest, go up in sordid smoke and the two are for a period estranged. But the poet forgives the impulsive boy’s transgressions, lays the blame on the dark lady—

“The bay where all men ride—”

and a friendship based on other mutual interests is continued with occasional breaks involving criticism, recrimination and philosophical forbearance. In the end, both men participate in an overwhelming tragedy. But it is the poet who holds the dominating position here and the power of “a tyrant” in estimating the “hell of time” through which his whilom friend has passed. Exercising the spirit of noblesse oblige, he decides that their mutual sufferings cancel one another and “ransom” is in order rather than revenge.

Several years, evidently three or four times the length of the “three beauteous springs” and “three winters cold” mentioned in sonnet 104, cover the period of this friendship between the egotistical lordling and the aging poet.

The other young man, whose “face fills up the lines” of at least forty-two of the poems, is of a different stamp, “fair, kind and true,” dependable and heroic, but the victim of a “crooked eclipse” that fights against his “wondrous excellence.” He is specifically described over and over again as bearing the closest possible relationship to the writer of the Sonnets, both physically and spiritually,

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from farina ill.
(Sonnet 22)

Neither high-flown flattery nor pleas for sympathy and understanding of the type lavished upon the temperamental noble are addressed to this youth. He himself gives love and understanding, whole-souled admiration for the poet and his works in unstinted—even embarrassing—measure. The older man warns him against the dangers, of such enthusiasm bringing disgrace upon an otherwise promising career. For although the two bear a “single name” and share an “undivided love”—the poet’s mistress being obviously the boy’s mother—there is between them a separable spite.” Their relationship must be kept secret to avoid public scandal.

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, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
(Sonnet 36)



It would be difficult to find clearer expression of a heart-broken father’s renunciation of the open pride of parenthood in a charming and worthy son born out of wedlock! Considering the conventions of the age, it is lain that the writer of these lines was primarily interested in dissociating the scandals and mistakes of his own career, as far as possible, from the boy’s future. He himself is an admitted failure:

Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.

Who can make these secrets of the confessional fit the optimistic claptrap of the Stratford man’s official biographies?

O, holy thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
Even for this let us divided live,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deservest alone.
(Sonnet 39)

It is surely one of the most amazing anomalies of English literature that this realistic acknowledgment of a father’s relationship to his bastard son was not sensed by the earliest students of Shakespeare’s autobiographical poems. The “homosexual” implications of Malone, Browning. Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Butler and the Baconians at once become vicious and arrant nonsense—the fantasies of prurient imaginations and faulty observation. Moreover, the Stratfordian case, with its vacuum of personal documentation, also disappears into the limbo of irrational vagaries, and we suddenly find ourselves face to face with one of the most dramatic and magnificently written personal tragedies in all literary history. The poet’s secret “up-locked treasure,” the “captain jewel of the carcanet” which he may not wear in public, is the beloved boy who has been named for him!

How careful was I, when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou, best of dearest and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not lock’d up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
   And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
   For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.
(Sonnet 48)

Here, at long last, we have uncovered—or more properly—read with open eyes the one great personal secret of “Shake-speare’s” life. And it is possible to see at once the reason why the poet gives his “better spirit” such explicit directions to bury in oblivion the name that he (the elder) has brought low, but which the young man himself may make honourable again in the new generation.

Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
But let your love even with my life decay;
(Sonnet 71)

O, lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
 For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
   And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
(Sonnet 72)

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,
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombéd in men’s eyes shall lie.
(Sonnet 81 )

When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me.
(Sonnet 74)

The passionate candor and essential realism of these lines is above all question. I read them as categorical statements of the poet’s desire to insure permanent anonymity to his own widely exploited personality in order that the family name which he shares with his unacknowledged son may not prove a handicap to this youth who has himself added heroic lustre to their jointly-held patronymic. To strain for dark and sinful connotations here is absurd. Equally so is the effort to make the situation fit the known facts of the Stratford businessman’s career, unless we are to assume that Willm Shakspere wished to discard an appellation that had become burdensome! Some may claim that there could have been two Willm Shaksperes of Stratford. But not an atom of contemporary documentation can be produced to back up any such surmise.

In any event, bearing in mind the import of the sonnet-form as a medium of personal expression, the problems discussed in these verses take form as intensely human ones, of vital concern to two Elizabethans bearing identical names. And instead of wasting time in the barren fields of Stratfordian conjecture, let us seek for enlightenment among the heretofore neglected records of the foremost Court poet of the age, whose spirit “was ever sacred to the Muses,” the eccentric nobleman who squandered vast estates in the cause of learning and who was the acknowledged leader of the most dynamic crew of mountebanks, poets, playwrights, musicians and writers of the whole Shakespearean era, one who, according to his contemporaries, could only be evaluated at his true worth if his “doings could be found out and made public with the rest”—Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Let us see if the recovered facts in the private life of the remarkable man fit the circumstances so clearly and dramatically stated in Shake-speares Sonnets. If they do, if documentary evidence can be produced which proves beyond all question that most of the situations and relationships which are described in the Sonnets are realistically paralleled in the personal career of the playwriting Earl, then it may well be that the age-old riddle of the Sonnets, as well as the authorship of the Shakespearean works in general, has been solved at last.

I propose to present such documentation, buttressed and particularized from many contemporary sources.

Charles Wisner Barrell


1. See Sir Sidney Lee’s Life of Shakespeare, Appendix V, for full account of the “underhand brokery” in the publishing field of Thomas Thorpe and William Hall, the latter being identified as the mysterious “Mr. W. H. all,” an associate of Thorpe, who secured or “begot” the manuscript of Shake-speares Sonnets for unauthorized publication.

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