LL: This sonnet offers the challenging possibility that true love is constant and unconditional. It proposes a stillness, a daily certainty of an ‘ever fixèd mark’ within an ever changing world where perhaps the surrounding darkness enables a greater illumination and guidance. I often look up at the moon to inspire that mystery and possibility. I was a teenager when I first heard the profound music of Arvo Pärt; the pauses within the notes held a space of mystery in me and years later still do and therefore seemed a fitting choice to compliment this sonnet.
Lucinda Lloyd is an actress and writer based in the UK. This is the first of a triptych of sonnet films: Love - Lust - Loss.
LL: As I read this sonnet I was struck by the intensity and ferocity of the words. It felt potent, mesmerising and intoxicating. I was reminded of the sensation I had standing in front of this bonfire I filmed in Wimbledon one very cold November evening. Staring into the fiery shapes and hearing the crackles burning into a frenzy had a hypnotic effect which I feel lends itself to this tortuous sonnet.
Saskia van Ryneveld is a South African actress, based in UK - though her sonnet video comes from Madrid:
SvR: Sometimes you don’t fall blindly in love. Sometimes you walk into it with a very clear understanding of what you’re agreeing to. At least once, I have found myself embroiled with someone who was unequivocally bad for me. Every time I returned a text message or agreed to see them, it wasn’t without full awareness of what was going on. My reason, certainly, was past care. Sonnet 147 beautifully reflected this paradoxical affair that I had fallen into once or twice. I recognised the fever, the madness, the inevitable pull of the dark creature that you are desperately trying to convince everyone else is an angel.
Whilst it may be tempting to think of oneself as a victim in these situations, I think that what is reflected in the sonnet is a certain element of empowerment. There is a sense of agency, of daring and wilful recklessness which we all lust after in our own small way. The drag of an occasional cigarette, a couple too many pieces of chocolate, not to mention perhaps driving a little too fast, or even daring to jump out of an aeroplane. I feel we’re not always adept at choosing what is good for us, which is what drew me to this particular sonnet.
Interestingly, I found myself reflecting on how the sonnet could also be a very clear description of our relationship with social media. It's widely accepted that spending too much time on the various platforms increases anxiety and depression. There is also the element of social comparison and competition that fuels the addiction, the fever. The “sweet sickly appetite to please” of always trying to present ourselves in our best light, with the right angle and pose, to get some sense of being adored through the ‘like’ function. And of course, due to the relative anonymity of the experience we find our thoughts and discourse as madmen’s are, most definitely far from the truth.A little note on the sculpture in the video. The sculpture is in the Retiro park in Madrid and is a monument to the Álvarez Quintero brothers, Serafín and Joaquín. They were playwrights who created an extensive body of work and were much appreciated in Spain. They were born in Andalucia and consequently the monument is of an Andalusian horseman and a woman in flamenco dress, such as you would see in Seville. There is a beautiful poem by Joaquín Álvarez Quintero called ‘La rosa del jardinero’ - the rose of the gardener, that speaks about a rose that blooms as a horseman rides by, and the gardener desperately tries to question the rose about what she knows about love, and what she will do without him. Will she fall blindly for this dark and mysterious figure or will she do so fully cognisant of her actions?
There've been many attempts to find someone fitting the profile of Shakespeare's Dark Lady - so called because many of the images used to describe her, from sonnet 127 onwards, aren't what you might call light. These range from literal descriptions of her (black) hair and eyes, to intimations about her dodgy character. At best they are earthy and sultry - at worst, blunt and downright offensive. What characterises then mainly though, is how sexually charged they are.
Many scholars have floated the suggestion that the DL is a figment of the author's fantasy. It's even been suggested that any attempts to identify her are 'fruitless', 'pointless' even. Once again I feel obliged to counter that if people will insist on scrabbling around at the bottom of the Stratford-Upon-Avon barrel looking for connections, it's no wonder it seems pointless (because no doubt, it is!). And yet again though, if you look through the portal of other contenders, possibilities are readily forthcoming.
Suggestions include the marvellously named Black Luce - a Clerkenwell madam and courtesan-made-good, well known to those at the Inns of Court (where De Vere studied for a time and Marlowe frequented).
Another more recent suggestion has been Emilia Bassano. The discovery of this Jewish, highly cultured and musical woman created such a flurry of activity that she rapidly went from being suggested as having written The Merchant of Venice, to skyrocketting as author of the entire cannon. Attractive as it sounds, evidence has not been what you might call fulsome (not yet, anyway) - though she certainly fits the physical profile of the lady described, as well as the bill of the virginal player from sonnet 128 over whom the poet has a voyeuristic, fetishistic fantasy.
Then there's Mary Fitton - the mistress of that potential Mr W H, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. This suggestion might certainly explain the liaison hinted at in the sonnets, between the Dark Lady and the poet's own Fair Youth - causing a fierce rivarly, extrordinary forgiveness (for the Fair Youth at least) and the onset of a deep depression and obsession with ageing..
Some say the Dark Lady sonnets are addressed to several women. First and foremost, Queen Elizabeth herself - which carries credibility, given there are some references to the poet being both her 'slave' and 'servant', and they a 'sovereign'. There is also the opening line of sonnet 125, with its reference to 'bearing the canopy' - a duty De Vere and several other high ranking nobles were known to have performed for Elizabeth; holding up the cloths above her throne, on cermonial processions (and if it doesn't mean this, the line's meaning is unfathomable).
A contender gaining significant traction of late is Lady Penelope Rich. Golden haired but black eyed, a celebrated court beauty, she was also centrepiece of a number of sex scandals at court. Serially unfaithful wife to several Barons, she was muse to the poet Sir Philip Sydney. The inceasing amount of shady suggestions in various, salacious publications of the period suggest tantalising connections to some of the DL sonnets.
Personally though, the most obvious contender for the Dark Lady seems to be Ann Vavasour, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. Edward de Vere had a secret affair with her, when still married (to his long suffering wife Anne, surely the inspiration for Hermione in The Winters Tale). The passionate affair resulted in Ann Vavasour falling pregnant, prompting a sensational scandal at court that saw DV, AV and their new born son all being thrown into the tower by an enraged and jealous Regina.
So many of the sonnets seem to come into an undeniable clarity in this scenario (the references to shame, scandal, reget and charges of being treated pitilessly and harshly). The poet does indeed seem angry with the Dark Lady for luring him into a sexual union in the first place, because of the consequences that have befallen him - even furious at fate / God / his genitalia for the frenzied pursuit of pleasures that led him to momentary ecstasies, compromised morals and lots of trouble further down the line. De Vere never really recovered his position at court after the Vavasour scandal - and was hitherto estranged from his son, and guilt ridden about the way he had treated both his faithful wife and his Sovereign.
There are allusions to cosmetics in the Dark Lady sonnets - something which some have seen leaning towards the suggestion that the Dark Lady was a lady of the night. However, it's interesting to consider both the amount of make up worn by the ageing Elizabeth (to cover smallpox scars it has been suggested) and also the amount of slap on the face of the most notable remaining portrait of Ann Vavasour - in which she appears in such obvious make up that one might assume either the painter disliked her intensely, was colour blind or amateur, or making a none too subtle point that any blushes she had were but artificial. What's certain though, is that her hair and eyes are undeniably black.
Whoever the lady was, the relationship with the poet was clearly physical. Unlike those written to the Fair Youth, who is pedasalised as an untouchable, the DL is shown not as a courtly romantic maiden, but a siren who lures our spear bearer with her irresistable charms ,
De Vere was celebrated as a champion jouster. The Queen gave him a prize of a diamond studded journal to celebrate his triumph at one tournament she presided over as guest of honour. Literally, he shook his spear for her. Unending resonances..
Reece David is currently a third year student on the BA Professional Acting course at Drama Studio
I must admit, when I first stumbled on the Prince Tudor theory I didn't give it the time of day. In retrospect though, I probably came upon it prematurely, as now it feels an intriguing possibility that illuminates the sonnets in all kinds of ways. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that our honey boy, Henry Wriothesley, is purported the illegitimate son of Edward De Vere and none other than The Virgin Queen herself - given away at birth to be reared as the child of a compliant 2nd Earl of Southampton and his wife. There is plenty of precedent for this kind of thing. In fact, it was reasonably common for children born on the wrong side of aristocratic beds to end up as the changeling wards of others (who no doubt made themselves richer and more highly treasured for their loyalty in the process).
So far (perhaps) so good. However, there is a sequel - the Prince Tudor II theory - but I won't go into that just yet at the risk of losing you utterly by overegging the pud (like a certain film, which shall remain anonymous. If ever there was a missed opportunity). Suffice to say it bolts on the suggestion that De Vere was also the son of Elizabeth - adding incest into a mix that's already quite a lot to stomach. Though it certainly gives substance to the oft trumpeted Freudian aspects of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude (which I must confess, I've never quite bought), I'm just going to deal with theory 1 for now.
I shouldn't let the moment pass without a slight digression though, for anyone unaware, that Sigmund Freud was convinced in his belief that De Vere wrote Shakespeare; though he felt the Prince Tudor theories (both) distracted from the general credibility of the case. He had a point. Stratfordinans have often tried to cast aspersions on the sanity of doubters. The fact that the first person to bring De Vere as a candidate to the attention of the world was called Thomas Looney, is something they've been dining-out on for years.
The portraits of Elizabeth and Southampton certainly show striking resemblances. Southampton's cascade of red-copper (ginger) hair, swept back from his chalky, bony face, like a Renaissance Bonnie Tyler (or indeed James Hewitt) is unmistakably reminiscent of Gloriana. There've also been many rumours about the illicit love life of the Queen down the years - of various affairs and illegitimate children born to her in secrecy (including Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex). We do know for a fact that Elizabeth left strict instructions that she should not, on any account, be examined after her death. Some have said this was because she did not die as intacta as all were led to believe, or that her womb might have shown she'd known motherhood.
There is certainly much evidence that De Vere was one of the Queen's favourites at court and documented proof that he was gifted a substantial annuity (of £1000 pouns) for unspecified services; though subsequently suggested as potentially funding the writing and putting-on of plays at court with one of his two theatre troupes. Even years after their supposed affair, Eliza was to fly into a furious, jealous rage when hearing De Vere had impregnanted one of her Ladies-in-Waiting, Anne Vavasour. A tantrum so cyclonic that resulted in him, her and even their newborn baby being thrown into the Tower of London. Like with so many of her favourites, Elizabeth could be possessive and fabulously unforgiving if they dandled with someone else on the side.
There is also much about Elizabeth's treatment of Southampton to suggest a (justified) paranoia on her behalf that he might usurp her one day, should his true parentage become known. Southampton was thrown into the Tower of London in 1601 for his part in the Essex rebellion. De Vere had to use all his remaining influence with the Queen to plead for Southampton's life. If Elizabeth's illegitimate child, he had more claim to the hotly contested throne spot on than most. Though she spared him from the block (unlike Essex), Southampton and his black-and-white cat (Trixie, apparently) we not freed. That didn't occur until James 1st was on the throne - when a particularly grovelling letter to him from Southampton, accompanied by a present of a picture testifying to his famed good looks (as well his reputation of being bisexual, no doubt) warmed the gay Scotsman's heart.
On the subject of sexuality, if we are to accept that De Vere was Southampton's father, the love expressed in the Fair Youth sonnets is perhaps transmuted into something more fatherly in tone. This is certainly a credible hypothesis, as there are actually no explicit suggestions of a sexual relationship between the two men in the poems - although certainly a passionate, idealistically romanticised, deeply loving yet Platonic one. The poetry of the Fair Youth sequence is sufficiently different from the fevered, overt sexuality of the latter sonnets to the Dark Lady that all of the hysteria/shame/pronoun-changing of the past could have been avoided.
Any sex scandals positively pale in comparison to those surrounding the Prince Tudor theories though -and would absolutely account for the references in the sonnets to disgrace, exile, loss of name and vilification; as they would to for the frenzied attempts made for their publication to be supressed (a fact brushed aside by traditionalists). There is also much here to justify why such elaborate measures might have been taken to obfuscate the true author, even after his death, and protect those implicated within the poems (and plays) still living.
Sonnet 33 contains the line 'he was but one hour mine', one of those seemingly specific references in the sonnets that bears some explanation. It could of course mean a mere hour of sexual congress with a lover or even just an intensely memorable meeting - but given that the sonnet also puns quite extensively on the word sun (son) it's intriguing to consider a father speaking of his child, taken away from him, and the grief of a relationship never to be acknowledged.
Gerorgia Fournier is currently a third year student on the BA Professional Acting course at Drama Studio
There appears general agreement that the sonnets open with a sequence addressed to a teenage nobleman, The Fair Youth. The notion that numbers 1 to 17 are a self-contained sub-set also seems reasonably uncontentious. Dubbed the procreation sonnets, their purpose seems essentially to be, through flattery and persuasion (unctious urging + mild scare tactics), to get the young man to seize the day, make hay while the sun shines and get married pronto - his beauty being such that it'd be a crime against posterity (humanity even) for his gorgeous genes not to be passed-on, and reproduction made of the masterpiece he is. A cynic might ponder whether the fair youth's fortune was perhaps as lavish as his looks, that the haste to propel him to couple might be dynastically motivated. But I run ahead of myself...
Some advance the idea that the procreation sonnets reflect the youth's age at the time of writing; a present on his turning 17. But who was the birthday boy? For years it was fairly unanimously accepted to be Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Early of Southampton. One glance at a portrait of him as a young man is enough to see a certain extravagance in his looks, somewhat feminine for men of the time even -with his long, lustrous red hair, cascading free or done up in a love-lock, his pert, rosy lips and chalk white skin (remember this descritption for a future blog). In fact, the most recently 'dicovered' portrait of him had for several hundred years been assumed a countess. He certainly doesn't appear to be hiding his light under any bushel though, indeed appears inordinately proud of his image, and perhaps therefore susceptible to the kind of forthright, look-in-thy-glass type flattery of the early sonnets.
On a side note, Southampton's apparent narcissism was undelined for me last year - when, visiting the Titchfield church in which his remains are buried, I noted he'd been given the sweetest (literally) and grandest send off imaginable (fit for a Pharoe no less): embalmed in a honey-filled coffin. Southampton was extolled in similarly Godlike fashon when living, in the named dedication to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Many have understandably assumed him and the Mr WH of the sonnet's own dedication to be one and the same (albeit with back to front initials). As such, the title of 'Shakespeare's patron' has stuck to Southampton ever since.
Trouble is, there is absoluetly no proof whatsoever that the Stratford man had (or would, or could ever really have) fraternised with someone of the status of an Elizabethan Earl. Certainly the intimate demands (of the beget children for love of me variety) and all the homoerotic suggestion, affection and flirting makes the notion of Shakespeare penning the poems for Southampton's delectation risable (at best), kamikaze (at worst). This is the kind of stuff and nonsense that we are expected to buy wholesale, like good little simpletons, and the kind of thing which sends me, personally, into ranting frenzies. After leaving Southampton's tomb, I figured I'd also take in the ruins of his manor house, up the road - where I found, shamelessly hawked and touted on every information board, references to these kind of ouright fibs about the phantom friendship between nobleman and bumpkin. On that day, tipping fully over to the bad side, I spent half a frenzied hour sticking up post-it notes on said signs, in the rain - stating Lies, Lies, Lies! in hostile red pen (yes it was me, English Heritage, what ya gonna do?). However, not to dwell, I'm actually going to move on and restore my equilibrium with some tangible facts.
Southampton was certainly aquainted with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. So welll aquianted in fact that the late, great writer and journalist Josef Sobran, in his wonderful and intriguing book Alias Shakespeare, purports they had a sexual relationship that scandalised the court and was the primary reason for Oxford's being shunned by society, and going into exile - as well as the reason for his absence from, and fluctuating pronouncements of blame and forgiveness to, his younger lover (who should not even as much as his name rehearse or be tainted by association). This is a fascinating line, and befitting of other aspects of De Vere's candidature and history on record, but for exploration in a later post. Suffice to say here that there are more than enough facts to support Oxford's connection to the procreation sonnets. When Southampton was 17 for instance, he was actually being urged by De Vere (then 40) to marry his daughter Elizabeth. Though Southampton demured (for which he was fined the astronomic sum of £3000) the history fits the words like a proverbial Warwickshire glove.
More recently, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert, was also suggested as a potential Mr W H. The most obvious bonus here is that no shifting around of initials is needed - and intriguingly, when he too was 17, De Vere (then 47) was also trying to cajole him to marry another of his daughters (Bridget) - though again unsuccessfully. So really, whichever it was (even if both, and the poems were recycled for a second occasion, God forbid) the importance these links is hard to dismiss. Added to the fact that William Herbert's brother Philip actually did marry De Vere's 3rd and youngest daughter Susan (anyone else thinking King Lear here?) and the two brothers took joint responsibility for funding the publication of the First Folio. On a side note, Wriothesley was apparently pronounced Rose-ly, and the Fair Youth's sonnets are indeed laden with specific allusions, puns and references to roses; as they are to sweet, sweets, sweetnesses etc. So Southampton has it for me just now, over Herbert, by a honeycomb.
I suppose it doesn't automatically follow that De Vere must have written them though. He could, of course, have comissioned someone else to write them for him, for the purpose. Incidentally, a deal of fuss has been made about the poet or publisher addressing W.H as a humble mister, rather than a Sir or something more elevated. It occurs to me that Mr might mean 'master' though, and an appropriate address to a young, unmarried man of 17- although perhaps someone will enlighten me that this is far too simplistic and not Elizabethan practice? It's also been suggested that master might be a Masonic term, for a member not fully initiated. But this, I couldn't possibly confirm.
Other theories of Mr W H include him being a lad called William Hall - said to be the person who procured the manusript of the sonnets for the publisher -though this would make for a rather banal meaning to his being the onlie begetter of the sonnets (rather the only courier). Oscar Wilde had a suitably wild theory that the initials were of a boy player called Willie Hughes (all hues in his controlling), but I fear, my dear, such things are the stuff fluff is made of. Whoever he was, one thing is certain - life appears pretty sunny with him by sonnet 18 (thought by some to signify his coming of age). It's also suggested, in what would become one of the most famous sonnets of all times, the text is rather more self-celebratory than Fair Youth worshiping - with the poet proposing the power of his own words, that can triumph over Nature herself and capture both the moment, Time and Youth, for posterity, through the poem's eternal lines.
Harry Haynes is an actor and graduate of the BA Acting course at Drama Centre London. He currently lives and works in Melbourne, Australia, and runs the company The Liminal Space: www.thisisliminal.com
HH: I find Sonnet 98 to be full of yearning - a tribute to the hole left in a person’s life in the absence of their lover. Before moving to Australia, for love, I very much connected to this dilemma, the inability to see any transcendence or beauty in my day to day. The hottest time of the year feeling altogether barren and cold without them. After moving to the other side of the world 2 years ago and being reunited with my love, I've begun to see the second meaning of this poem, the author's yearning for their home. Seeing the sonnets through the eyes of an potentially exiled Kit Marlow the words appear intimate feelings of an artist whose solitude and imagination are the only tools left to keep him connected to the love of his life.
The reason I was initially drawn to the theory that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare - having faked his death in Deptford and fled into exile abroad - was primarily because of a wise old lady (sadly no longer with us) called Dolly Wraight. She'd been the final speaker at the first Shakespeare Authorship Trust conference I attended, and proceeded to eclipse those who'd gone before her with restraint and reason. I'd begun to feel rather weary until then, especially after one particularly fanciful lecture, purporting the sonnets were written by a woman. The academic in question had little to base this sensational hypothesis upon except for 'overwhelming gut feelings' (for which I would have suggested Milk of Magnesia had I any mischief left in me at the time). It also provided an opportunity for said academic to overshare details of their seemingly moribund romantic life and accrimonious divorce however, which hopefully provided them (at least) with some comfort. I'm all for personal connections, but can't imagine such diversions add credibility to an already stigmatised debate.
Perhaps that's a bit harsh though, as Ms Wraight herself wasn't averse to a few confirmation biases and hypothetical detours of her own. She appeared somewhat unconvinced about the suggestions that Marlowe might have been gay or bisexual for instance; to some degree eager to santise his bad-boy image and dwindle it down (or romance it up) to a mere rogueishness. It seems to me though that if Marlowe wasn't sexually interested in men (at least partially) he'd a funny way of showing it. Should Edward the Second (gay royal biopic), Hero and Leander (gay erotic poetry), and the prologue to Dido Queen of Carthage (Jove and his mortal rent-boy Ganymede in a scene that wouldn't be out of place in gay soft porn) not be influenced by the writer's own particular proclivities, it's hard to imagine why he'd write such things.
There is also this bizarre and astonishing fact. The careers of Shakespeare and Marlowe, both born in the same year, perhaps even on he same day, all too conveniently dovetail. As Marlowe (the most celebrated poet and playwright of the age) supposedly dies, Shake-Speare (totally unheralded) springs into the fray with Venus and Adonis. This particularly courtly, intellectually flashy and racy (in its confessions of a cougar way) bestseller is dedicated to our old friend Henry Wriothesely. Imagine, friends, you are a young poet, with no credentials or standing in society, and you choose to approach a famously arrogant and vain member of the aristocracy with a poem that shows him being essentially sexually assaulted by a woman old enough to be his mother as well as an utterly absurd personal familiarity. And as implausable (and utterly without proof) that theory is, there are also clear connections to other contenders (as we have seen in the case of Edward de Vere). In terms of theme and style, the poem is clearly in the domain of Marlowe, stylometrically and thematically sitting alongside his Hero and Leander, to name just one.
Despite DW Wraight's desire to keep Marlowe in the closet however, her tireless investigative research kept the torch burning for him and inspired others (as others before her) to undertake all manner of unchartered territory and research (some of which even ended up disproving her own). The trail that leads from Deptford strand to Europe (France, the Netherlands and Italy) where Marlowe had supposedly fled may not have turned up absolute proof as yet. But nonetheless it's a fitting and deeply intriguing narrative that mirrors the almost obsessive focus on themes of exile, reconciliation and forgiveness - of coincidences and magical, miraculous restorations, resurrections, interventions and reaquaintances - of the late plays. In addition, the preponderance of sonnets (over half) that seem to deal with painful ideas like exile, banishment, scandal and absence from those beloved by the poet seem justified and clarified.
18: Georgia Fournier
33: Reece David
98: Harry Haynes
116: Lucinda Lloyd
129: Lucinda Lloyd
147: Saskia van Ryneveld
the-true-shakespeare.blogspot.com/Dead Elizabethan Portraits
The Shakespeare Underground
Dr Ros Barber
Shakesp. Authorship Coalition
Shakesp. Oxford Fellowship
Peter Farey's Marlowe Blog
The true Shksp. (Marlowe blog)