Edward de Vere’s Romantic Notions as Revealed in the Sonnets of ‘Shakespeare’, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
After making a study of the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis along with the Rape of Lucrece, we shall attempt to discover the author’s real attitude toward sexuality as shown in these works. If these were penned by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, then these pieces of literature can be used to investigate the Earl’s emotional attraction towards both men and women. I believe we have shown that these emotions related to the male object of the Sonnets include romantic as well as ^Platonic’ elements. These could not have been addressed to a son of the writer – the language includes not only a ‘fatherly’ love but also a romantic element (although hidden under a so-called ‘Platonic’ type of love)
We shall go through the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in order to investigate the ‘romantic’ elements found within them which indicate the ‘sexuality’ of the author, in considering that the author is Edward de Vere and the object of his romantic love is Henry de Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.
Sonnet (1) The author wishes the ‘loved one’ to procreate (‘increase’) but the male object does not wish to marry.
(2) The loved one will grow old - he should have a ‘fair child ’to preserve his ‘own youth alive’
Interpretation: There is a real male person known to the poet who, the poet thinks, should beget children and have a successor.
(3)(4)The loved one, by ‘self-love’ may impede himself making children
The male object of the poem is ‘beautiful’ but, because of this failure, ‘unthrifty’
.Interpr. If the loved one marries then the poet also will, vicariously, have progeny. The object should perpetuate his own ‘beauty’ and thereby put Edward’s love for him to a ‘moral end’. Otherwise Edward’s romantic love for him will be wasted.
(5) The male loved one - will lose his beauty over time. It is like keeping beauty in ‘walls of glass’
Interpr. ‘Beauty’ is the main thing seen in the boy indicating that the poet is interested not in his mind or thoughts but in an artistic quality.
(6)(7)The object is ‘to make sweet some vial’ in other words to procreate a child but the beloved is ‘self-willed’ and will not do it. (In fact, Henry de Wriothesley was supposed to marry Edward de Vere’s daughter Elizabeth which would have made him Edward’s son-in-law).
Interpr. If as some say, Henry was an illegitimate son of Edward de Vere, why should Edward concentrate on his son’s ‘beauty’ rather than other qualities? If Henry was a non-family member, Edward would see him ‘objectively’ as a beautiful boy. Henry was most likely not a family member - if he were, why marry him to another family member i.e. Edward’s eldest daughter Elizabeth de Vere (implying eventual incest). If Elizabeth were illegitimate (as Rowland York and others claimed while Edward was in Italy) even so, Edward certainly would not have risked, socially-speaking, having his ‘son in law’ married to a ‘so-called’ daughter. Two illegitimacies in the couple would have been unbearable for him and for his father-in-law the Queen’s treasurer William Cecil.
(8) The poet wants the boy to ‘make music’ in marriage. Edward was an amateur musician and he looked upon ideal marriage as ‘playing upon one string’ – a simile for nuptial life.
(9) (10) Beauty is associated with wealth which should not be wasted. By not loving any woman Henry is ‘ruining himself’’. He is becoming old like a roof which needs repair. He apparently ‘hates’ women.
Interpr. On the other hand, this male object of Edward’s love is apparently gracious and kind to Edward and thus should be kind ‘to himself’. If he marries he will return to Edward Edward’s love for him.
(Here we could note that as yet (in circa. 1590) Edward has as yet no male child as successor).
(11)(12)A ‘beautiful person’ should ‘increase beauty’ through procreation.
Interpr. Here is a rather strange ‘Renaissance’ view - combining ‘Renaissance love of beauty’ with the desire to promote family life.
(13) The poet reminds the boy that Henry ‘had a father’ and that if Henry has a son, the son will say ‘I had a father’.
Interpr. This Sonnet cannot be treated as proof that Henry is Edward’s illegitimate son – if so, the phrase would probably have been not ‘you had a father’ but ‘you have a father’
(14)(15)(16)(17)The author derives his knowledge of the beauty of his loved one from ‘thine eyes’. In eyes truth and beauty are seen together. Here the Renaissance ideal of ‘truth’ is combined with the ideal of beauty. But the poet is frustrated because the one who carries both these ideals does not wish to perpetuate them through procreation. Although Henry does not follow Edward’s advice, because Edward ‘loves’ him, Henry will continue to ‘live’ through Edward’s poetry (‘I engraft you anew’). But if he marries he will bear ‘living flowers’ and not simply create verse about himself. In fact, in such a case, people may not read the verse but they will certainly see Henry as a living person reproduced.
Interpr. Here we see the first indication in the Sonnets that Edward intends to make his beloved Henry a ‘muse’ for his poetry This will perpetuate Henry even though Henry does not want to perpetuate himself physically as in marriage.
(18)(19)Rough winds ‘shake the darling buds of May’ i.e. Henry may be going through a difficult period but his ‘buds’ (procreative powers) will eventually produce flowers. The poet asks ‘Time’ to spare my love’s fair brew’ i.e. the element which produces children.
Interpr. Here again the poet uses similes which imply sexual procreation.
(20) The loved one ‘has a woman’s face’ He is ‘master-mistress of my passion’, the face (‘nice gaze’) sheds life on all who look upon it. He was created ‘as a woman’ but ‘I’ (the poet) was added to his nature and he was ‘defeated’. But nature ‘pricked thee out’ (made him a male) for women’s pleasure, but I (i.e. the poet) ‘am your love’.
Interpr. The ‘prick’ has a double meaning both ‘to take out’ (of the child’s nature) and in a vulgar sense of the male organ. The poem implies that when Henry met Edward the male side of Edward ‘came out’ vis à vis the feminine side of Henry. This Sonnet. Introduces a basic theme found in all the Sonnets: the latent bi-sexuality of both persons, probably recognized by Edward de Vere about himself but perhaps not yet recognized by Henry. Henry is ‘master-mistress’ of Edward’s passion in the sense that as ‘woman’ the beloved one - Henry - incites the maleness of the poet and yet as recognized ‘man’ the loved one - Henry - incites the womanish love of the poet towards him. As a conclusion, Edward wants Henry to live a normal life as a man, to produce children, etc. He recognizes that Henry is good-looking and will please many women.
The later sonnets, while not emphasizing the desire for the poet to see his beloved producing children, nonetheless preserves the aspect of ‘love’ between the couple.
(25) ‘I love and am beloved’
(26) wants to be worthy of his beloved’s ‘sweet respect’
(29) ‘thy sweet love remembered’
(30) ‘dear friend’
(36) They must not show their love in public –‘We two must be twain’
(41) Henry has a girlfriend
(48) The poet holds love for his beloved ‘in his breast’
(53) The beloved keeps a ‘constant heart’ vis à vis Edward
(54) By his verse the poet ‘distills your truth (your) beauteous and lovely youth’ The poems’ subject matter is the poet’s ‘beloved’ i.e. Henry Wriothesley.
(57) Love is a ‘true fool’ (indicating the poet’s love for his beloved)
(58) Here the poet speaks of himself as the beloved’s ‘slave’
Interpr. When we consider that the Sonnets were most probably written over a period of time after Edward’s first encounter with Henry (i.e. after Edward was 40 years old in 1590), the love affair continued without a break. Later we shall try to interpret the nature of this romantic attachment, It certainly appears much stronger than a momentary and quickly fading physical attraction occurring in 1590.
(63) ‘thy sweet love’s beauty’
(64) (66) (71) when the poet dies he will ‘lose’ the beloved. But he, the poet, will not die and ‘leave the beloved alone. But when he does die he does not want Henry’s love to continue ‘because the world will know about their love’’
Interpr. These passages seem to indicate that the love affair is problematic for these two public figures. The verses do not, in our opinion, indicate that Edward is ashamed of the public knowing about Henry as his illegitimate son (which fact we believe is not the case) but because Edward prizes a love relation between two adult males (which the public will probably not understand)
(74) my spirit is thine – the better part of me’
Interpr. Here again we see the emotional dependence of Edward upon his beloved (cf. Sonnet 20 above).
(76) (77) (78) (81) ‘know, sweet love, I always write of you and you and love are still my argument’. As my love is new and old so is my love still telling what is told. ’What I compile (my writings) is ‘born of thee’. ‘Your monument shall be my gentle verse’ which shall always be read.
Interpr. Here we see that the same love is holding true during Edward’s literary career and it is his love for Henry Wriothesley which inspires (as a ‘muse’) his writings. Edward believes his writings already have, and will continue to have, an appreciative public, and he confesses in the Sonnets (not known to the public) that the source of his inspiration is his love for Henry.
(87) (88) (91)(95) (96)The love is returned to the poet by the beloved according to the beloved’s granting. The poet ‘belongs’ to the beloved who may grant a returning love. Thy love is better than high birth to me
Interpr. Evidently questions have arisen in the poet’s heart about his beloved returning his outgoing love. But even if Henry is in difficulty with the law (which was the case) , and Edward is one of the judges in the court (because of his ‘high birth’ as leading noble and Grand Chamberlain) still Henry should return the poet’s simple, sincere love for him (which is greater than any public circumstance).
(99) ‘the violet takes its’ sweet smell from my love’s breath. The beloved’s skin and hair are also inspiring to the poet.
Interpr. It appears that the poet is so attached to his beloved that not only his ‘’beauty’ is appealing but even the specific elements of that beauty. Is Henry Wriothesley’s breath so sweet? Apparently so. But in imagination the poet likens it to the fragrance of a violet. Hyperbole is not characteristic of the writer of the Sonnets so why is the beloved’s breath likened to violets? It is a simile based upon a dependent love-relationship. The intensity of the feelings attached to Edward’s love for his beloved allow common human breath to be violet-smelling.
(100) (102 Truth and beauty in Edward’s verse depends upon his ‘love’ (for Henry) Edward’s verses are on behalf of Henry’s ‘graces and gifts’.
(105)(109) Edward’s relations with Henry are ‘fair, kind and true’. The beloved is a ‘sweet boy’ Edward’s ‘first conceit of love’ was with Henry. Edward’s ‘soul rests in Henry’s breast which is the ‘home of love’ Henry is Edward’s ‘rose’
Interpr. Here is a supposedly ’late’ expression of continuing love for the beloved. It loses nothing of the early attraction for, and servitude under, the beloved one.
(110) Although Edward considers his love is always held within Henry’s ‘pure and most loving breast’, the poet believes he has contaminated this love (sold cheap what is dear’) in some of his writings.
Interpr. Here Edward is probably thinking of his obligation to the Queen to write the ‘History Plays’ glorifying the Tudor settlement of the ‘Wars of the Roses’. It is not love for Henry which inspires these works but simple historical research satisfying the Queen.
(111)(112) (116) Edward writes of a ‘strong infection’; that the poet is ‘branded and wants the beloved’s pity’; that Henry’s ‘inspiration’ helps
Edward continue with the History Plays; that ‘love is not love when it alteration finds’.
Interpr. A major shift in the tenor of the Sonnets continues here with important changes in Edward’s life and work: There are public impediments to the full expressing of Edward’s love for his beloved in his writings and in his other public activities.
(118)(119)(120)(121) Edward drinks ‘bitter sauces’; He drinks ‘potions’ of his own tears; he feels estranged from Henry; his ‘sportive blood’ has led him to be criticized by society. His public duties on behalf of the Queen (‘I bore the canopy’) have estranged him from Henry, but he still loves him (‘take my oblation poor, but free’).
(127)(128)(131)(132)’My mistress’s eyes are raven black’ Here Edward writes of his mistress Anne Vavasour; he speaks of her lips; he speaks of ‘lust in action’. He speaks about how his mistress’ breath ‘reeks’ and that she is ‘as black as her deeds’. She should ‘mourn for him’ because he is beginning to confess that ‘beauty is black’ (his earlier concept of beauty was that represented in his beloved, not that represented by his mistress).This relation with his mistress gives ‘a deep wound’ to ‘my friend and me’ (i.e. Henry and Edward). Edward’s relation with Anne enslaves Henry vicariously. The poet wants Anne to think about Henry also. And Edward wants to keep alive his relation with Henry all the while that he is promoting his own relation with his mistress Anne: ‘whoever keeps me let my heart be his guard’. Edward wants Anne to let Henry still continue to be his ‘comfort’. Anne, in fact, possesses both Edward himself and Henry (because Henry still lies in Edward’s breast).
(135) (136) Here are two poems addresses to Queen Elizabeth I. ‘Thou has thy will’ (‘Will’) which is a word-play upon the queen’s sovereign will and the fact that she calls Edward de Vere (her chief noble) ‘Will’. (This is because he is (and she knows he is) using the pseudonym ‘William Shakespeare’). The poet confesses: My name is ‘Will’ vis à vis the queen (and presumably others at court).
Interpr. Edward is writing about the fact that he has appealed to the queen to release him from the Tower (prison) - because he got the queen’s handmaid Anne Vavasour with child (the bastard Edward Vere) and the queen has been very displeased. Edward believes that the queen will restore him to favour – she previously treated him with familiarity calling him ‘Will’ and used his poetic talents (for the History Plays) - graciously reimbursing him for this.
(137) (138)(139)(140)(142) A continuation of Sonnets about Anne Vavasour. Complains about what his mistress did ‘to his eyes’ - replacing his beloved’s beauty by her own so-called beauty (‘fair truth is so false a face’). Anne thinks Edward is an ‘untutored youth’ (naive in sexual affairs?). She tells Edward he is young and they both flatter each other falsely. But ‘her pretty looks’ alienate his affection for his beloved Henry Wriothesley and in his sonnet he appeals to Henry to ‘save’ him. Edward is being slandered because of Anne and he is becoming a ‘slave’ to her. This is ‘sinful loving.
(143) Interposed among these sonnets about Anne is another one addressed to the queen. Edward wants her kindness: ’have thy will’ (meaning he accepts his condemnation for his relation with Anne but also meaning ‘have my presence’ (as ‘Will’) as usual at your side as courtier).
(144)(145)The famous delineation of Edward’s divided romantic propensities: ’Two loves have I- the better angel is a man right fair; the worser spirit a woman coloured ill’. And the latter love is corrupting the former. Anne tells the poet she ‘hates’ him but then repents and says it was not Edward she hates.
Interpr. The tenor of the sonnets has completely changed – the object has become Edward’s mistress Anne Vavasour (with whom he had the illegitimate son Edward Vere).
(146)(147)(148)(151)(152) Edward believes in ‘spending’ (i.e. loose living with Anne etc.) he is ‘feeding on death’. His ‘love’ (i.e. with Anne) is a ‘fever’. Reason has left the poet and he is ‘frantic mad’. He blames Anne’s ‘eye’s which ‘put this idea of love in my head’. He confessed he is ‘blind’ in this love for Anne –she ‘loves only those who see’ i.e. Anne is looking after exterior appearance and does not know hearts. The poet debates the relation between ‘conscience’ and ‘love’. He confesses that he ‘betrays his nobler part’ in this ‘love’ for his mistress but he cannot help it ‘flesh stays no further reason’. Unfortunately the poet has sworn oaths that Anne is fair and he continues seeing her
Interpr. Obviously this one was written before the child came and when Edward was cast into prison by an irate queen
(153)(154) The poet speaks about a ‘sovereign cure against strange maladies’. He refers to the classic story of Diana and her love-provoking accomplice Cupid. When once Cupid was asleep (i.e. he could not fire arrows and make hearts fall in love) a ‘maid of Diana’ put Cupid’s ‘love-kindling potion’ into a fountain and this mélange was supposed to be a ‘seething bath as a cure for strange maladies’. But in spite of such a treatment, ‘my mistress (Anne Vavasour) fired me again and again put the ‘boy on trial’ (i.e. his love for Henry). The supposed cure of Diana’s maid did not work: Edward remained caught in Anne’s ‘love’. He rues: ’Love’s fire heats water and water cools not love’.
Interpr. It is difficult to say what the poet is referring to in his implication of ‘Diana’s maid’ but it may have been some ‘treatment’ suggested to him by a female friend. The ‘seething bath’ may have been some suggested activity ( travel overseas?) which should make Cupid’s arrow be sidelined and another force put in its place. But such a remedy did not work.
Venus and Adonis
The poem was supposedly written by William Shakespeare and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. But in our opinion it was written by Edward de Vere who used the pseudonym of William Shakespeare (his distant cousin in the Trussel family line). Edward had introduced William to a career in the theatre after meeting him in Stratford during one of the visits of his troupe of actors.
With the information presented above, we can understand why Edward might wish to write a poem and dedicate it (under a pseudonym) to his beloved Henry Wriothesley. And the theme chosen by Edward is relevant to what we learn about their relationship as presented in the Sonnets. The theme concerns a young man-Adonis-who resists the romantic advances of a goddess (Venus-Aphrodite). This corresponds to Henry Wriothesley resisting women and marriage as presented in Sonnets 1-20. Edward de Vere choses a well-known theme in classical literature, namely that of a young man killed by a boar and whose death resulted in the Greek’s veneration of a flower.
According to Robert Graves (The Greek Mythology, Folio edition vol. I, pp.74-76). The boy Adonis was found by Aphrodite in a tree which had been split open. (Aphrodite is Venus in Latin writings) Aphrodite wishes to ‘lie with Adonis’ (as Venus wishes to do with Adonis in Edward’s poem). But Adonis is gored by a wild boar before Aphrodite’s eyes (such as happened to Venus in Edward’s poem). The wild boar was, in fact, the god Ares disguised. After he died anemonies sprouted from Adonis’ blood (in the poem Venus and Adonis a ‘purple flower chequered with white’ arose after Adonis was killed by the boar and the flower ‘smelled like Adonis’ breath’ (cf. Sonnet 99 above where Henry’s breath is sweet-smelling’).
An alternative story in Greek classical literature was that of Hyacinthus (according to Robert Graves (op.cit., Folio edition, I, p 269). Hyacinthus was a ‘Cretan spring-flower hero’. Homer’s hyacinth is a blue larkspur (hyacinthus grapta) which has a marking on the petals resembling the Greek letter AI and is sacred in Crete. The story of its origin is as follows: a beautiful youth Hyacinthus, a Spartan prince, is beloved by the poet Thamyris and is wooed by him (this is considered the first time such inter-male love is demonstrated in history). But Apollo also fell in love with Hyacinthus (the ‘first god to fall in love with a male’). Moreover the ‘West Wind’ loved Hyacinthus, was jealous, and a thrown discus returned from its flight to bash Hyacinthus in his skull and kill him. From his blood sprang the hyacinth flower,’ in which his initial letters ‘AI’ are still to be found’
We see that in both myths a young lad of a certain beauty dies tragically and a well-known flower springs out of his blood. In the first it is heterosexual love which brings about Adonis ‘fall; in the second it is homosexual love which occasions the fall (of Hyacinthus).
Either myth could have inspired Edward de Vere, (a scholar of the classics since the age of nine) to have written Venus and Adonis. But the fact that it was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley - Edward’s ‘beloved’ of the Sonnets - leads us to believe that Edward was appealing to his ‘beloved’ through this Greek myth to better to understand his feelings about women. This would be within a Greco-Latin-Renaissance context. He wrote for Henry dedicating the poem ‘to his future’. As a writer he was including Henry within his own career. And by dedicating it to him it demonstrated to his beloved Henry that he (Henry) was Edward’s ‘muse’.
The poem portrays the sexual love of Venus for Adonis in a favorable light. She is, after all, a goddess and has her rights. On the other hand it shows Adonis less favorably, he who stubbornly refuses Venus’ advances. Finally, through a fake loss of consciousness Venus provokes a certain kind of ‘love’ in Adonis, who fears for her life. But he insists on repelling her and he goes off - against her will - to hunt the boar with his colleagues. Venus is concerned for his safety, follows him in the hunt for the wild boar and, as she had predicted, Adonis is gored by the wild animal. He lies dead at her feet. And she sees his precious blood turned into a beautiful ‘purple flower checkered with white’.
Besides the obvious parallel between the subject matter and Edward’s concern in Sonnets 1-20 about Henry Wriothesley’s dislike of women, there is another theme which also reflects Edward’s view of life. In the poem Venus becomes a bold protector of life and an unsparing critic of death’s power. The death of Adonis in the poem is like what Edward in the Sonnets has predicted for Henry if Henry does not marry and have progeny. The common philosophy of both the early Sonnets and Venus and Adonis is that life and beauty are precious but they are vulnerable vis à vis aging and death. This ‘medieval,’ concept has been brought over into the English Renaissance literature by Edward de Vere and he wishes to teach it to his ‘beloved’ Henry.
Conclusions so far
The Sonnets are not ‘publication’ materials: they were written to express the author’s emotions and to keep a record of his intimate romantic feelings for at least two persons- his ‘beloved’ - a male younger than himself, and a female - the ‘dark lady’. It has been found very difficult for those who believe the Sonnets were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford to determine the personalities referred to in these sonnets. But with the recognition of Edward de Vere as author and believing ‘William Shakespeare’ was his pseudonym (as well as being his distant cousin in the Trussel line) the Sonnets become understandable. They refer to Henry Wriothesley and to Anne Vavasour.
Having romantic relations with both persons as we have shown above, leads us to ask the question if Edward de Vere was ‘bi-sexual’. There is no indication in the Sonnets that he had a physical homosexual relation with Henry Wriothesley but there is every indication that he ‘loved’ Henry. How to describe this kind of love’? With the ’dark lady’ there was ‘lying in bed’ – thus a physical sexual relation. Edward fathered at least five legitimate children with Anne Cecil his wife and at least one illegitimate child (‘Edward Vere’) with Anne Vavasour. Thus he was a heterosexually-oriented man. but there were two sides of him which contradicted each other as seen clearly in the Sonnets where he speaks of both his ‘beloved’ (a male) and Anne Vavasour his mistress. He confesses he has ‘two loves’ (Sonnet 144).
What do the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis teach us about Edward de Vere’s romantic life? The love-object in sonnets 1-110 and later was a male. This love we have shown goes beyond paternal love. It appears to be directed to a male outside his own family and the general ‘Oxfordian’ view is that it concerns Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. The loved person is called ’master-mistress of my passion (sonnet 20) and the beloved person is the ‘muse’ for the author’s writings. If the beloved person dies, the poet’s works will preserve the beloved person’s memory.
Here we seem to have a Renaissance-type sublimation of homosexual love. The definition of sublimation (according to the Oxford Dictionary) : In psychoanalytic theory ‘to direct or modify (an instinctual impulse) into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity. (2) to transform into purer or idealized form, The same Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word ‘sublime’: ‘of such excellence, grandeur or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe’. And its definition of ‘subliminal’: in psychology: of a stimulus or mental process perceived by affecting someone’s mind without being aware of it’.
Edward de Vere was certainly ‘aware’ of his different ‘loves’ and he penned iambic pentameter about them in the Sonnets.
Edward probably wanted a son – he did not have any surviving one with Anne Cecil. The son would prolong Edward’s life and work. But Henry Wriothesley was not his son – he was a prospective son-in-law. Edward’s love for Henry was more than fatherly – it had the element of ‘love of beauty’ in it everywhere. The boy was even idealized into a ’muse’ for the poet’s literary career.
It appears that there was a latent homosexuality element in Edward’s love for Henry which Edward was certainly aware of - which could be dangerous sociologically and legally in that era. The Sonnets show, however, that his love for his beloved obsessed him for years and he continued writing sonnets about him and about how their relation was affected by his mistress. The love for the boy was not explicitly shown to be sexual in the sonnets but nevertheless we could consider it as ‘sublimated sexual’. The reference to the ’eyes’ and ‘beauty’ of the ‘beloved’ implies much more than simple admiration. We are not ‘tied’ to someone we admire as Edward was ‘tied’ to his ‘beloved’ (‘the master-mistress of my passion’).
But Edward was also, and similarly, ‘tied’ to the ‘dark lady’ Anne Vavasour (Sonnets 146 ff.) whom he could not escape. His intimate relationship with her, although not ‘beautiful’ or inspiring, was nevertheless real and demanding.
In some passages the two aspects of Edward’s love were competitive. In his love for the ‘dark lady’ the homosexual aspect is thrown out and this bothers the poet - he feels he has betrayed his ‘true love’ (i.e. Henry W.). Edward was apparently going back and forth between these kinds of ‘love’ all the while playing his role as Grand Chamberlain and as leading nobleman at the court. He was ‘experiencing’, or ‘being himself obliged to live with’ a sort of ‘bi-sexuality’ Perhaps many people today have similar dual ‘loves’. But because of this, Edward de Vere could perhaps portray both men and women quite realistically in his writings - more than contemporary writers were able to do. Edward could play the feminine roles (as he was penning them) as well as the masculine ones. This could happen because Edward de Vere was not afraid of his emotional and sexual contradictions. He was employing them often in his writings.
The Rape of Lucrece
In the two poems dedicated to him Edward de Vere wishes no doubt to show Henry Wriothesley what his being a ‘muse’ for Edward could accomplish in poetry. Edward choses themes from Greek and Latin classical writing (his treasury of stories accumulated since his youthful studies at Queens’ College, Cambridge). In both cases it is a woman who is the main protagonist – Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) and Lucretia (Lucrece). It shows women both as aggressor towards men (Venus towards Adonis) and as being violated by men (Lucrece by young Tarquinius). How did the women react to what circumstances brought them? The men’s reactions in these tales were not central: Adonis went hunting after being wooed by Venus; Collatinus (Lucrece’s husband) and Lucretius (her father) cried in sorrow but could do little; only Brutus reacted in a fully positive, masculine fashion.
Here it seems that Henry was the ‘master and mistress of my passion’ (Sonnet 20) - Edward dedicates to Henry stories of several aspects of women’s and men’s ‘passions’ and the results. But it is clear that Edward considers that the ‘incentive’ for writing these was Henry Wriothesley. Otherwise, why take the trouble of instituting a pseudonym (‘William Shakespeare’) and under that name dedicate the two long poems to Henry? Of course, a sub-incentive for Edward was to see for himself if he could, using Henry as ‘muse’, employ his knowledge of Greek and Latin classics and convert the stories into long poems.
In what way did the poet identify with female characters in Venus and the Rape? For Venus, he penned her pleading for union with the beautiful boy (Adonis). Why write such a poem where the woman is main actor and the male is only a subject to her advances? It is certainly not a puritanical lesson addressed to the reader that he should avoid such women. Venus is the central personality, the heroine who suffers the loss of her boy-friend and, at the end, gives a testimony to his beauty (she notes that from his blood has sprung a beautiful flower).
With Lucrece, the poet considers masculinity - especially male sexuality (called lust) - and a rape incited by this ‘lust’ presenting all its consequences for the woman. The essence of this poem is the consequences of the rape in Lucrece’s mind - revolving around her loss of dignity, and Edward de Vere expresses all her myriad emotions in many stanzas. This might seem to be impossible for an author with no ‘feminine side’ by which he could delineate all the violence of the rape. The poet wished to write these explanatory lines in order to see if his poetry could encompass the reality and the results of the event. Apparently his love for Henry Wriothesley imposed upon him this particular exercise of poetic creation. Why was this so? There was perhaps a mutual understanding about male and female romanticism and sexuality which he believed they held in common.
The poet believed Henry would appreciate his two poetic works as a pot pourri of bi-sexuality. The effect of the violence of the rape of Lucrece and the hurt would be understood by both of them.
In a couple of stanzas the theme of prolonging one’s father’s progeny echoes the Sonnets 1-20. The poet tells of Lucretius’ sorrow that his precious daughter Lucretia (Lucrece) decided to take her own life and thereby deprive him of a favorite successor. The poet expresses a slight criticism of Lucrece doing this to her own father. Thereby Edward shows that he does not highly approve of her suicide. Nevertheless he will illustrate in her mouth how suicide became an answer which she chose for her own reasons.
Here, and in Venus and Adonis, Edward de Vere demonstrates his mastery of the Greek and Roman classical tradition and how he could use them to express himself poetically. Many of de Vere’s major plays emphasize the masculine roles, but here in these poems, and in the Sonnets, a complicated romantic and sexual feminine orientation is presented. The poet seemed to know and feel how Venus felt in wooing Adonis; he seemed to understand quite profoundly how Lucrece felt after the rape. To express such, a certain woman-hood must have lived inside Edward de Vere. And, apparently, he believed he shared this with the Earl of Southampton.
Poetry in literature, in putting pen to paper, is not simply mechanical art: choosing a topic, concocting words and then writing them down. Great literature comes from an inspiration which then becomes mechanical in the penning of its story. To forget the inspiration (the ‘muse’) would limit a good interpretation of the piece. There are hidden motivations in writing as well as talent in the production. There is an indispensable needed enthusiasm. In Edward de Vere’s case the ‘muse’ was his ‘beloved’ Henry Wriothesley (so he says in a multitude of sonnets). The love came from both Edward’s masculinity and his femininity and the kind of love resulting from these appears to be the secret of Edward’s literary productivity.
ADENDA TO 27 ESSAYS
Photograph: Hedingham Castle, Essex, by Derek Voller