The Six Loves of Shake-speare
By Louis P. Benezet.
(Pageant Press, Inc., New York.)
Copyright 1959 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1959.
Once upon a time, an internecine war was waged among Stratfordians about the identity of the Fair Youth of the Sonnets, but ever since the discovery that Mary Fitton, the Earl of Pembroke’s mistress, was not, after all, a dark lady, the claim of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare’s two narrative poems were dedicated, has gone almost unchallenged. Not that Southampton’s Dark Lady has been identified, but—dark ladies being equally elusive—his was the better claim. Since that time, perhaps for want of a serious rival to Southampton, and certainly for want of any evidence connecting Southampton with the player from Stratford, or either with a dark lady, the interest of orthodox scholars in the sonnets, as biographical data, has waned.
Now it is the turn of the Anti-Stratfordians, and if they disagree among themselves about the identity of the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, even where they agree about the identity of the author, the Stratfordians would do well to remember their own past battles. There is no point, however, in pretending that agreement has been reached, and the whole question is so complicated that, before reviewing the latest book on the subject, it seems advisable to give some account of the background.
Shakes-Speares Sonnets were first published in 1609, by Thomas Thorpe, with the famous dedication, signed T.T.:
“TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE ENSUING SONNETS MR. W. H. ALL HAPPINESS AND THAT ETERNITY PROMISED BY OUR EVER-LIVING POET. . . .”
The initials W.H. have been variously interpreted as standing for: William Herbert (Pembroke); Henry Wriothesley—inverted (Southampton); Sir William Harvey (Southampton’s step-father); and William Hall, an obscure publisher and purveyor of manuscripts. In the case of the last two, the theory is that “the only begetter” means, not the sole inspirer, but the procurer of the manuscript, for the sonnets were obviously printed without the author’s permission. William Hall was first suggested by Shakespeare’s biographer, the impeccably orthodox Sir Sidney Lee, who pointed out the possible double meaning in the words “Mr. W. H. All (Happiness). This suggestion was adopted and followed up by the Oxfordian, Col. B. R. Ward, who discovered that a certain William Hall was married at Hackney Parish Church in 1608—the year before the publication of the, sonnets, which coincided with the sale, by the widowed Countess of Oxford, of Brooke House, Hackney, where her husband had died five years earlier! J. Thomas Looney had already called attention to the fact that the phrase “our ever-living poet” implies that the author was no longer literally alive at the time of publication—a condition fulfilled by the Earl of Oxford alone among all the candidates for Shakespearean authorship, including William of Stratford.
The theory that Mr. W. H. was William Hall does not affect the identity of the Fair Youth, though if he was Southampton, the coincidence of the initials (inverted as they are) seems too good not to be true, and perhaps a side-long glance in his direction was intended after all.
The sonnets open with a series of seventeen, in which the author continually harps upon a single theme. They are addressed to a young man with the object of persuading him to get married and have a son. I suppose most, if not all, Oxfordians, on first reading “Shakespeare” Identified, by J. T. Looney, were greatly impressed by the fact that Southampton was for a while betrothed to Oxford’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, and that the match was being arranged by the young Earl’s mother and the lady’s grandfather, Lord Burghley, at the very time that these early sonnets were being written—according to orthodox dates. It has even been suggested that Shakespeare (of Stratford) was commissioned to write them by the Countess of Southampton for the express purpose of influencing her son. The argument that they might well have been written by the lady’s father formed an important part of the original Oxfordian case, and was the basic assumption of Canon G. H. Rendall’s two excellent books, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Edward de Vere (1930) and Personal Clues in Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems (1934). Yet some Oxfordians now believe that the Fair Youth was not Southampton after all, but an unacknowledged son of the author. Percy Allen, in this country, and Mr. and Mrs. Charlton Ogburn, in America, have attempted to combine the two theories by suggesting that the Earl of Southampton was the son of the Earl of Oxford—by Queen Elizabeth, but this raises an awkward question and, in order to exonerate Oxford from the guilt of trying to promote an incestuous union between his own son and daughter, they were obliged to deny that the first seventeen sonnets had anything to do with the proposed match. And so we have come full circle.
Dr. Louis P. Benezet, in The Six Loves of Shake-Speare, has something new to offer. Accepting Ward’s interpretation of “the only begetter”, he is not embarrassed by the idea of a sole inspirer—which, in any case, ignores the Dark Lady—and feels free to distribute the sonnets, all written by Edward de Vere, to six different people, four women and two men. In this way, he finds room for both the Earl of Southampton and an illegitimate son of the author:
“Four women loved him passionately, for he could be a charming and tender lover. Two of them he married. The other two were a maid of honor and a queen, for the protection of whose reputation his unequalled love poems were never allowed to be printed under his own name. His love for the son of the unwed mother was the theme of deathless verse, unmatched in literature. But their authorship was never revealed. The father wished it so.”
The maid of honour was, of course, Oxford’s dark mistress, Anne Vavasor who, in 1581, created a scandal at Court by giving birth to a child in the maids’ chamber. Oxford was named as the father, and presumably he was. At all events, Anne’s son, though never officially acknowledged by the Earl, bore the name Edward Vere. He is an historical person, who was educated abroad—at Leyden—knighted for military service in the Netherlands and killed in battle. As for Southampton, Dr. Benezet reverts to the original theory that the author wanted him as a son-in-law, but Southampton found his mistress more attractive than his daughter.
Once one has discarded the idea that the sonnets must all have been written to two people only—a Fair Youth and a Dark Lady—it seems quite reasonable to suppose that some may have been addressed to Oxford’s first or second wife, or both, and I am more than prepared to believe that some were addressed to his Queen. It would, indeed, have been strange if the Earl of Oxford, a courtier-poet and, at one time, the Queen’s favourite, had not written sonnets to her, but that does not mean that he was necessarily her lover in the modern sense of the word. Dr. Benezet does not suggest that they had a child, but believes that the young Earl was forced into all unwilling liaison with her. There seems to be insufficient evidence for this: Queen Elizabeth’s “love affairs” are still wrapped in mystery.
When it comes to the allocation of individual sonnets, Dr. Benezet gives the impression of being over-confident, but this may be due to his use of the narrative form, illustrated by sonnets, for the greater part of the book. A narrator has to assume omniscience in order to get on with the story. The method makes for easy reading, but has its drawbacks when the subject-matter is controversial. He does not keep to the order of the sonnets, as originally published, or to any given order, and there is really no reason why he should—in fact, there are obviously at least two series, which overlap in time. But once this restraint is thrown off, the possibilities of arbitrary re-arrangement are quite frightening, and “must give us pause”. Dr. Benezet has, however, indicated a new line of approach, which may prove fruitful.
The book begins, in the time-honoured way, with a refutation of the Stratfordian case, and ends with an Appendix on “What the Portraits Reveal”. Though quite extraneous to the main subject, this is a welcome addition, for it provides the fullest account so far to appear in print of the experiments conducted by Mr. Wisner Barrell, who, as Secretary of the American Branch of the Shakespeare Fellowship, X-rayed the Ashbourne, Janssen and Hampton Court Portraits of “Shakespeare”, and compared the photographs with the known portraits of the Earl of Oxford—with astonishing results. The amazing story—or part of it—was published, with X-ray and infra-red photographs, in the Scientific American, January 1940, but considerations of space forced Mr. Barrell to concentrate on the Ashbourne portrait. In Harper’s Magazine, July 1940, Professor O. J. Campbell, of Columbia, admitted that the Ashbourne portrait represented the Earl of Oxford, but dismissed the fact as of no significance. The coincidence that the other two portraits also resembled him and that the alterations in all three had been made at a very early date, apparently by the same hand, was ignored. The rest is silence!
G. M. B.