Monday, February 21, 2011

Shakespeare's Sonnets

I'm drawing on Cockburn's book for the following:

The direct evidence we have with Bacon and sonnets is very slight. In 1599 he says he wrote a sonnet to the Queen who was to dine with him. This was after the Earl of Essex made his disastrous return from Ireland. And it's been surmised that possibly this sonnet was an effort to lessen the damage to Essex from the Queen's anger. And that possibly this sonnet or it's theme  found it's way into the play The Merchant of Venice where Portia gives her speech to Shylock "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, etc. It does seem odd that Shake-Speare in this speech of Portia speaks of the Mercy of the monarch as above the power he/she wields. What does this aspect of a monarch have to do with a moneylender? Wouldn't a somewhat despised moneylender relate better to, say, a Duke than to a monarch?  In any case, we don't have the sonnet that Bacon wrote for the Queen. But the assumption is that based on Bacon's language skills and poetic reputation (which I'll get to) that his sonnet would likely be of good quality if he felt confident enough to read it to the Queen.

His poetic reputation comes from a few sources. 1. He wrote how poets behave when they come for an opinion of their poetry. The assumption here is that he's  implying that poets come to him for his advice on their poetry, further implying that his reputation with poetry is well-regarded. 2. He called himself a poet. Further than that, he called him self a "concealed poet". He called himself this to another poet--John Davies, a distinguished poet who was on his way to meet James I to assume the English throne. The implication here is that Bacon wouldn't have identified himself as a poet to a known distinguished poet unless his own reputation, even as an anonymous poet, was well-regarded. It also shows that his anonymity wasn't complete, that others, such as Davies must have known of his concealed poet status. Also, this letter from Bacon to Davies was in the hand of one of Bacon's secretaries, though it was signed by Bacon in his own hand. This shows further that Bacon's anonymous writings were known by some others who honored his desire for anonymity. 3. Bacon did write some poems, some to his name, and some other that are argued to be his though not in his name. He wrote some Psalm paraphrases under his name in late 1624. These are not on the same quality as the Shake-speare sonnets or early poems. However, at this time an explanation for their poorer quality (assuming Bacon did write the Shake-speare poetry) is that by late 1624 "Bacon was an old and broken man, undergoing a prolonged sickness, perhaps with declining powers, and within 18 months of death." And he probably hadn't written any poetry since 1613 when he was appointed Attorney-general, so that his inspirational powers were weaker. Further, even trying to paraphrase the psalms into verse was probably a poor judgment on his part as they don't lend themselves well to this change without subtracting from their effect. 

More importantly is whether Bacon's style in these psalm paraphrases is like Shake-speare's style. Cockburn says they are similar in diction and the use of alliteration. And there are a number of verbal parallels in his paraphrases with phrases in Shake-speare. For example, both Bacon and Shake-speare use the term "line of life" (Bacon regarded life as a line that moves forward). "Mounted high" is used by both; the both use "frail mortality"; they both use "thou to them" or some other version having 2 personal pronouns joined by a preposition. These are just a few of many similarities.

Cockburn also argues that the best identity for W.H. would be William Hall, whose last name you can see in the dedication if you remove the period after the 'H'. His initials are used in another dedication similar to that of the Sonnets. This other dedication (to a Mathew Saunders) is "W.H. wisheth [Saunders] with long life a prosperous achievement of his good desires." William Hall, along with his business partner John Beale, both owned the copyright to the second edition of Bacon's Essays (1612).

Also, it should be kept in mind that an argument can work more than one way. So, one way is by saying "this person has written sonnets that are equal in quality to the Shake-speare sonnets, therefore he/she could have written them." Another argument can be made that "this person wrote the other Shake-speare works--the plays and longer poems" therefore, he/she also likely wrote the sonnets."

Of course, we're not trying to prove anything here. We're just sharing ideas and evidence we have. Ideally we'd like a large commission of experts to examine all the evidence and see what they say.
If you have the time you can read Cockburn's full chapter on Bacon's connections to the Sonnets by downloading the pdf file of the first half of his book. The Sonnets discussion is in Chapter 25, pages 281-316.

Another Baconian has tried to map out many of the sonnets to Bacon's life, as others have tried connecting them to Oxford, Raleigh, or whomever. I haven't read many of this person's analysis and wouldn't attempt to try vouching for them. I just want to point out that other people think they can see biographical connections between Bacon's life and the Shake-speare works.


  1. If Bacon wrote Shake-Speare's Sonnets, who were the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady in your opinion?

  2. I prefer Cockburn’s analysis. Here’s a rough summary.
    Apart from the first 17, the Sonnets likely almost entirely mere literary exercises on conventional Elizabethan sonneteering themes.
    The Fair Youth
    Many of the sonnets were probably written to impress a specific person, the Earl of Southampton. Lord Burleigh was pressing Southampton to marry Burleigh’s own granddaughter. 17 sonnets seems a lot to write on this theme unless there was some practical purpose behind them. Bacon as a member of the Burleigh family circle was far more likely than Shakspere to know of Burleigh’s marriage plans for this granddaughter. Even though “addressed” to Southampton this may have been only as a kind of literary game. After the first 17, he probably found that he enjoyed writing sonnets to a beautiful youth and so carried on by addressing fictional sonnets to Southampton. There was a French precedent for this theme. Etienne Jodelle had written passionate love sonnets to his patron, Count de Fauquemberge et de Courtenay, apparently without any emotional relationship between them.
    1)Elizabethan love sonnets were almost always fictional. 2) The very idea of Shakspere losing his head and heart to an effeminate youth strains credulity. Bacon, an almost certain homosexual may have been attracted to Southampton, but he was too self-controlled and too discreet to have an affair with an Earl or to write about it so emotionally and unguardedly. 3) We know of no other instance of an Elizabethan actor having an affair with a nobleman. It would be unprecedented and contrary to the social ethos of the time. 5) Shake-Speare revised at least two of his Sonnets, Nos 2 and 128, years later. Does a real lover revise the working of his love poems after they have been delivered? 6) Many of the themes cannot be true. No. 31 says many of the poet’s friends (seemingly all) had deserted him and gone over to the Youth. Obvious fiction. Nos. 57-8 depict the poet as the Youth’s slave. Neither Bacon, nor Shakspere would behave thus. No. 69 says “But why thy odour matcheth not they show / The soil is this – that thou dost common grow”. No Elizabethan actor would have addressed an Earl in such terms, whether he was his patron or not. In No. 122 the Youth had given the poet some notebooks, but the poet has given them away. A surprising discourtesy to confess to. But the French poet Ronsard had written fictionally on the same theme.

    The Dark Lady. Several factors suggest they she is fictional. 1) Three of these sonnets are on the theme of “black is beautiful”. Earlier ‘fair’ was considered the ideal coloring for ladies, but by the 1590’s black seems to have been coming into vogue. This new theme was originated by French sonneteers including Jodelle. 2) Most of these sonnets are insulting to the woman. Nos. 135-136, and 137 depict her as little more than a prostitute. No. 144 invests her with veneral disease. The truth seems to be that Shake-Speare was once again following a fashion of poetic fiction. Jodelle had written sonnets in dispraise of love. So had other French poets and English poets had followed suit. One literary historian wrote “He [Jodelle] develops with marked success the themes of absence, solitude, silence and love lost [all Shake-Speare sonnet themes]. Jodelle also wrote of a ‘amour obsceur’ (another ‘dark lady’). 3) A version of 138, which abuses the woman, appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), revised and improved. Do real lovers revise the working of their abuse later?

    Even if one can swallow the idea of an Elizabethan actor chasing the same mistress as an Elizabethan Earl, would the actor pen sonnets to the Earl about the latter’s theft of the lady? Not even Bacon would have reproached an Earl in this fashion. Sir Sidney wrote “Italian poets and novelists habitually brought friendship and love into rivalry and conflict. The call of friendship often “…required “a lover . . . to abandon to his friend the woman who excited their joint admiration”.