Shakespeare to his Sovereign
Copyright 1960 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1960.
IN The Six Loves of Shake-Speare, which I reviewed in our last issue, Dr. Louis P. Benezet suggests that several of “Shake-Speare’s” sonnets were addressed by the Earl of Oxford to Queen Elizabeth, but he does not include nos. 57 and 58. In his opinion, these and others, besides the “Dark Lady” sonnets, were addressed to Anne Vavasour.
For the orthodox, the sonnets must all, and always, be highly metaphorical, but for those of us who believe that they were written by a nobleman, it is sometimes difficult to say where literalism ends and metaphor begins. I would like to point out, however, that these two sonnets in particular are couched in terms which are either appropriate to a reigning monarch alone, or, in some instances, take on a different meaning when associated with royalty. I will quote the two sonnets in full and then provide a glossary to the words printed in italics:
Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I (my sovereign) watch the clock for you
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu,
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought,
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave stay and think of nought
Save where you are, how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love, that in your Will
(Though you do anything), he thinks no ill.
That God forbid, that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand th’account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure.
Oh let me suffer (being at your beck)
Th’imprison’d absence of your liberty,
And patience tame, to sufferance bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong,
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will, to you it doth belong,
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.
(The definitions are extracts from the New English Dictionary and any comments of my own are given in square brackets. For the sake of convenience, the order of the words as they appear in the sonnets has been preserved.)
Desire A wish as expressed or stated in words.
Sovereign [No gloss needed].
Will [The royal will].
Control To check or verify, and hence to regulate (payments, receipts or accounts generally): by comparison with counter-roll or duplicate register.
(Controller) A household officer whose duty was primarily to check expenditure, and so to manage in general, a steward. Now chiefly used in the household of the sovereign.
Pleasure The condition or fact of being pleased or satisfied, the negation of which is displeasure; satisfaction, approval (rare).
Vassal [No gloss needed].
Liberty Exemption or release from captivity, bondage or slavery. A privilege or exceptional right granted to it subject by the sovereign power.
Sufferance Patient endurance; long-suffering.
The suffering of a penalty (obs.).
Damage, injury (obs. rare).
Passivity, receptivity (obs.).
Check A stoppage of wages or a fine for non-fulfilment of duties or transgression of rules, inflicted on persons of tile royal household etc.; the amount stopped (obs.). Restraint upon action or conduct by a supervising or controlling power.
Charter A written document given by the sovereign or legislature. “Charters are donations from the sovereign; and not laws, but exemption from law” Hobbes Leviathan 1651.
Privilege To authorize, licence (what is otherwise forbidden or wrong); to
(verb) justify, excuse.
(noun) The special right or immunity attaching to sonic office, rank or station, prerogative.
The privilege, the royal prerogative.
Pardon To remit the penalty of (an offence); to pass over (an offence or offender) without punishment or blame; to forgive. Pardon is a more formal term than forgive, being that used in legal language; also often in theology. 1535-6. Act 27 Henry VIII: “No person shall have any power … to pardon or remitte any tresons … or any kyndes of felonyes whatsoever they be . . . but the Kinges Highnesse . . . shall have the hole and sole power and auctoritie theref”.
Pleasure (with possessive pronoun or substantive in possessive relation). How one is pleased or wills in reference to any action contemplated; that which is agreeable to one’s will, desire, choice. [With special reference to the royal pleasure, as in the legal sentence of detention “during Her Majesty’s pleasure”.]
The above interpretation of particular words affects the meaning of the two sonnets as a whole. They are not love poems in the ordinary sense at all and the words pleasure and desire have no sensual implication. It seems probable that they were written some time between 1581 and 1583 when the Earl of Oxford was under the Queen’s displeasure. He spent a short time in the Tower in 1581, and then under house-arrest, followed by banishment from the Court. If they were written while lie was actually under arrest, new light is thrown upon the rather puzzling line:
The imprison’d absence of your liberty
Liberty belonged to the Queen—to grant or to withold.
If addressed to Anne Vavasour, or, for that matter, the Fair Youth, these two sonnets are degradingly servile, but from an Elizabethan nobleman to his Queen, in the circumstances described, they are matter-of-fact, dignified, and daring in their rebuke.
The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 11