A Balanced ‘Profile’ of Edward de Vere
By Charles Graves
Oxfordians have presented credible ‘profiles’ of Edward de Vere, writer of ‘Shakespeare’s works’. But some commentators have noticed the ‘feminine’ side of lord Edward’s personality. However, that has been generally downplayed among Oxfordians. The problem with such approach is that we neglect talking about the Sonnets and the obvious love of a man, or love of youthful male, which is portrayed in these sonnets. When you read the first 100 of the published sonnets and if you come away discounting any love of the author for a male person, you are simply blind or ‘in denial’. Richard Malim has solved this by claiming that the reference to a male youth as inspiration or ‘muse’ for the author Edward de Vere is a reference to his illegitimate son Henry Wriothesley (to whom Edward gives ‘fatherly’ counsel in the first 20+ sonnets). But Richard Malim couldn’t expect Edward’s illegitimate son to marry Edward’s daughter Elizabeth (which was the plan of the Cecils) even if Elizabeth herself was illegitimate (as rumours circulated when Edward was travelling in Italy in 1573). In the high society of the Cecils and the Queen that would be going too far since certainly some would suspect incest within the highest families of the land.
So I do not accept Henry Wriothesley as Edward’s illegitimate son. Henry was a young boy of seven or eight years old living in Cecil’s household on the Strand to which Edward had himself had been attached since age twelve, and Edward was twenty three years older than young Henry. One hypothesis would be that Edward fell in love with the child around the time he was having his affair with Anne Vavasour (circa 1580). This would explain all the passages in the Sonnets where the author is torn between his love for the boy (which provides him an inspiring ‘muse’) and an explicitly sexual love for a ‘dark lady’, i.e. Anne, who tears him away from his ‘true love’. In this case the person who arranged the Sonnets for publication in the early 1600s after Edward’s death placed all the dark lady sonnets at the end of the book out of context. And the publisher placed all the sonnets encouraging Henry to marry (i.e. nos. 1-20+) at the very beginning also out of context. What is in the middle refer to the poet’s love for a male youth or man, interspersed with sonnets on other topics, e.g. the court, the Queen, Edward’s meditations on life and death, etc.
The only other possibility is that Edward knew some ‘dark lady’ after Henry had grown up – either Anne Vavasour who had married at least twice since she had borne Edward’s illegitimate child (Edward Vere) or someone else. Elizabeth Trentham (Edward’s second wife after Anne Cecil) does not seem to fit the type called the ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets.
Thus it may appear that Edward fell in love with Henry Wriothesley when Henry was a boy ward of William Cecil and that he knew Henry as a child. Perhaps Henry reminded Edward of himself when he was but a boy entering the household of the Cecils ten or twelve years before. For some reason (perhaps Freud can tell us) Edward fell in love with Henry, and when Henry had grown up to adulthood this love remained. Although these feelings were not known, the Cecils tried to arrange a marriage of their ward Henry with Edward de Vere’s oldest daughter Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Cecil). This did not take place, but in Sonnets 1-20+ (not known to the public) an older man is strongly counseling a younger man to marry and have progeny (perhaps written circa 1590 when Henry was 17 years old). These appear to be the author and someone close to him (whom we believe was Henry Wriothesley). Soon after this, in 1590, the two long poems Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece appeared (no doubt written by Edward de Vere, but under the pen-name of ‘William Shakespeare’). These poems not only hid the author’s name but also hid the author’s love for Henry Wriothesley. The topics of these poems were very ‘delicate’ in an age when Protestantizing England was on the lookout for what people might describe as sexual debauchery or ‘abnormality’.
What was, exactly, the relation between Edward and Henry who was 23 years his junior? Was it the sexual attraction of a 40 year old for a 17 year old? In reading how the sonnets were arranged in their publication it would seem as if the relation of the older and younger man began at the time of the proposed marriage of Henry with Elizabeth de Vere (i.e. circa 1590). In this case Edward, the poet, would be giving counsel to his future son-in-law. But much more was included in other, following Sonnets. In later sonnets the author demonstrates his love for a male youth who had become his only ‘inspiration and ‘muse’. He called him the ‘master mistress of my passion’. In a whole series of sonnets, the author expresses his love for a youth and adult male who appears to be constantly in his thoughts and to be inspiring his whole literary production. What kind of love is this? In a way this could be called a ‘Platonic love’ often demonstrated in Italian and European Renaissance art and literature. But the love seems quite intimate as we see in the following verses where the poet calls his beloved: ‘master mistress of my passion’ or ‘in black ink my love shall still shine bright; or O know sweet love, I always write of you and you and love are still my argument; or ‘two loves have I of comfort and despair which like two spirits do support me still. The better angel is a man right fair, the worser spirit a woman coloured ill ‘. This latter seems to be quite bi-sexual.
But the supposed bi-sexual side of Edward de Vere is not only to be seen in the Sonnets, but attraction to men can be glimpsed elsewhere in some of the plays. I believe that the characters of Touchstone and Jaques in As You Like It show some bi-sexual aspects. Certainly in the 1600 anonymous work The Wisdom of Doctor Doddypoll (which I attribute to Edward de Vere) the dual characters of Earl Lassenberg and Count Albedure show the concern with both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies. The Preface to The Taming of the Shrew includes the lord’s trick on the tinker of putting a boy (Bartholomew) in his bed. But the Sonnets, above all, reveal the love of a man for a boy with particular indications of the passion involved (a situation quite frowned upon in Elizabethan society). It could be said that Edward loved Henry simply as physical attraction. It was more than this: Henry was his passion and also his inspiration (as ‘muse’). It seems to have been a sexual passion sublimated into an ideal implement for writing. How can we say more?
Of course, this aspect of the ‘Profile’ of Edward de Vere is only one aspect of a greater whole regarding the Earl of Oxford and his place in society. It is the ‘secret part’ which makes an imprint on the overall profile. This person, as Earl, was very well known at court, was close to the Queen (who called him ‘Will’ thus conspiring with him to hide the person behind the pseudonym), and he was a public figure often in conflict with other courtiers such as Dudley, or lord Leicester. In secret he was writing his love sonnets. As a man of means, who owned a troupe of Players, he could hire and fire – according to my belief he hired his own distant cousin in his grandmother’s Trussel line, i.e. William Shakespeare of Stratford and used him as pseudonym. He was a one of the greatest Earls but one who wanted - at the same time - to be a playwright-poet, and he succeeded. But aside from this public ‘profile’ he was the poet who wrote the Sonnets (whose main character was his beloved -Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton). We should not forget the various sides of Edward de Vere as we propose him as author of ‘Shakespeare’.
ADENDA TO 27 ESSAYS
Photograph: Hedingham Castle, Essex, by Derek Voller