Marie’s Musings

No. 8: Putting the SON in Shake-Speares SONNETS

by Marie Delgado Travis

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Over my last posts, I discussed how the Dedications to Shakespeare’s works make perfect sense, IF we realize that the young dedicatees were considering marriage to two of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford’s daughters:

  • Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (H.W.), dedicatee of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) was engaged to Elizabeth Vere, the Earl’s eldest daughter, and
  • William Herbert (W.H.), the future 3rd Earl of Pembroke, dedicatee of Shake-Speares [sic] Sonnets (c. 1597 and published posthumously in 1609) was contemplating marriage to the second of de Vere’s three daughters, Bridget.

In other words, both promising young aristocrats were about to become de Vere’s sons … sons-in-law, but sons nonetheless. This explains the intimate language, e.g., the fatherly advice to them from an older man— e.g., about the benefits of having children— all written under a pseudonym, Shake-Speare.

Please excuse my skepticism, but in what universe would the man from Stratford-upon-Avon get the chutzpah to speak to young aristocrats that way? Just wondering….

Note that the ”Neuer Before Imprinted” is an anagram for Edvv. de Uere.
Below: William Herbert, Henry Wriothesley (left), Edward de Vere (center), Droeshout Portrait (right). Source: Wikipedia.
All Images for Educational Purposes Only

Today I’d like to look more closely at the Dedication to Shake-Speare’s [sic] Sonnets. But first, I’d like to revisit the notion of « Mr. W.H. » [Master William Herbert] as the « only begetter of these insuing [sic] sonnets. »

As suggested above, the camp of « begetter, » in the sense of « originator, creator » (Oxford English Dictionary, hereinafter OED)— seems more logically to be occupied by Edward de Vere.

It would make little sense, for instance, for a 17-year-old like William Herbert to be giving advice as an older man, and to be describe himself as « lame, poor and despised, » — except through his progeny— as Shake-Speare does in Sonnet 37.

Source: Wikipedia.

Other than producing pretty lame poetry, William Herbert was none of the above at the time, and Edward de Vere arguably all of those things.

For instance, in the letter of September 8, 1597 to his father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, also mentionef in my last post, de Vere cites ill health to excuse himself from his courtly duties:

« I am sorry that I have not an able body which might have served to attend on her Majesty in the place where she is …. »

THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SP 12/264/111, f. 151 2 (modern transcription by Nina Green)

De Vere was also a notorious spendthrift, reduced to writing his father- and brother-in-law, Robert Cecil, begging letters. For their part, the Cecils could not have overlooked the fact that de Vere treated his late first wife, Anne Cecil cruelly, to the point of denying his eldest daughter Elizabeth’s paternity for a time, and fathering an illegitimate son with his mistress, Anne Vavasour, among other indignities— not, um… vere endearing qualities. It is fair to think that any help they gave de Vere was for his daughters’ sake, not his own. So lame, poor and despised, indeed.

Was there possibly another definition for the word begetter, I wondered. Sure enough, the OED and an article by Dieter Kastovsky, « Deverbal nouns in Old and Modern English … » Historical Semantics – Historical Word-Formation (2011) at 238, mention an alternate meaning for begetter from the Old English begietend: « one who gets, obtains » — the true sense of the Dedication.

The Sonnets « belong, » to W.H. (William Herbert), because he inspired them, as Bridget’s potential— and equally on point, reluctant— groom. The verses were « given » to him by the author— so they were, in that sense, « his only. »

But as always with Shakes-Speare, there are other layers to be unraveled. As I suggested in my last post, the « only » is hyperbole, a poetic exaggeration because there are clearly other influences present in the Sonnets, e.g., Erasmus’ « Letter Persuading a Young Gentleman to Marriage. »

By the time in question (1597), Henry Wriothesley was no longer engaged to de Vere’s daughter. In fact, Elizabeth was married to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1595), and Wriothesley was beginning an affair with his future wife, Elizabeth Vernon, which would land them both in Fleet Prison. Yet H.W.’s beauty as a young man was so great that a portrait once considered to be that of a young lady is now believed to be of him. So Master W.H. [William Herbert] as the « only » inspiration for the « Fair Youth Sonnets » is not an Absolute, either.

Henry Wriothesley as a
Young Man. Source: Wikipedia.

What IS Absolute, however, is cleverly « hidden » within the confines of the Dedication to the Sonnets. Some years ago, I decided to mark off letters which were repeated in the Dedication, to see what, if any, « message » might remain at the end.

My Muse was working overtime, because I had recently overheard someone claim that Shakespeare never mentioned Jesus Christ—not even once!

Jesu, Jesu! Since I was not directly involved in the conversation, I had to bite my tongue. But I flinched, because I had personally found over 20 religious references in Act I, Scene 1 of Henry IV Part One alone.

It is precisely Shakespeare’s reliance on the Bible that makes his work MAJESTIC, in my opinion. How could one interpret Hamlet’s admission in Act 5, Scene 2, that « There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, » without reference to Jesus Christ’s words in Matthew 10: 29-31?

So there I was striking letters that appeared more than once in the Dedication to the Sonnets, and in the end— or shall I say, In the Beginning, only ONE letter was left, in the vere center of the page:

Marking mine.
SHAKE FORK in Heraldry Source: Wikipedia.

the letter Y, or Upsilon in Greek, one of the symbols used by persecuted early Christians to cryptically profess that Jesus (Ι) Christ, the Anointed One (Χ) is the SON (Υιός) of God (Θ) and our Savior (Σ).

Two Christograms (the lettering and the wheel), found at Ephesus.
Source: Wikipedia.

Source: Wikipedia.

The resulting sound of the first letters of this declaration of faith is “Ichthys” (fish in Greek). There are, of course, miracles associated with fish in the New Testament, and Jesus promised to make the Apostles « Fishers of Men.» Matthew 4:19.

In sum, the Dedication to the SON-NETS is also a Christogram! And it makes perfect sense, at least to me, because the only truly « Ever-Living Poet » is God the Creator, the Alpha and the Omega. A single beautiful sunset proves His Existence and His Artistry and MASTER-Y.

Even the pagan philosopher Plato realized that the Perfect Form resides outside of ourselves— and that the human artist in any field is only an imitator (mimesis).

Having found the « Why, » Jesus Christ, the « Master H.W. » took on a second, more significant meaning. YHW formed the first letters of the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God: YHWH « I Am That Am, » (Exodus 3:14). But if my hunch was correct, was there a second, independent H hidden in the Dedication?

It took a while, but it finally dawned on me that the T.T. for the publisher of Shake-Speare’s Sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, also serves a multiple purpose. The double Ts form both the missing H and a Crucifix.

So what the Dedication says in words might be depicted in painting, stained glass or other media, in a manner similar to the the images below.

« It is Finished » (Consummatum Est) by James Tissot (c. 1886-1894). Source: Brooklyn Museum.
Note Tetragrammaton above Christ’s Body, and how reminiscent this image is of Matthew 3:17: « This is My Beloved Son, in Whom I Am Well-Pleased. »
19th Century Stained Glass
Tetragrammaton in a Cruciform.
St. Mary’s Church, Wivenhoe, U.K.

Before closing, let’s look at the Dedication through the eyes of John M. Rollett, whose work I have referred to since my vere first post. In « Secrets of the Dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, » Oxfordian 2 (1999), Rollett makes a number of intriguing observations, but one in particular still «shakes » me.

Rollett brilliantly noted that the structure of the Dedication to Shake-Speares Sonnets is:
6 lines – 2 lines – 4 lines without realizing that the sequence corresponded to the number of letters in the name, Edward (6) de (2) Vere (4).

Markings mine.

In fact, Rollett stated that didn’t even know of de Vere’s existence, much less that the Earl was a candidate for the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.

Rollett did, however, realize that the numerical sequence might be some sort of « key. » Studying the Dedication to the Sonnets further, he observed that words and several letters were separated by dots. He started noting the 6th, then 2nd, then 4th word or letter between the dots, with the following result:

« These Sonnets All By Ever. »

Markings mine.

But again, not knowing about de Vere, Rollett initially dismissed his own findings. It wasn’t until he read Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn’s works on Edward de Vere as Shakespeare, that he realized that Ever was anagram for Vere:

« These Sonnets All By Vere. »

Now, an acquaintance of mine has puzzled over the fact that if one continues the 6-2-4 pattern, the result seems to make little sense:

« These Sonnets All By Vere The Forth. »

My acquaintance rightfully points out that Edward de Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford, not the 4th. But she also adds that if someone could explain « The Forth » to her convincingly, she’d be more inclined to believe Rollett’s conclusion about the Dedication. So I’d like to take a stab at it here.

I’ll begin by saying that the Dedication has 13 lines, including the T.T. (Thomas Thorpe)— when it might well have been 14 lines, as in the Sonnets themselves. So that calls particular attention to the midpoint of the text, line 7, « Our Euer-Living Poet. » There are 6 lines before that line, and 6 lines after it.

The text, therefore, is divided into two distinct parts: the first six lines describe what the Ever-Living Poet created: « All these Sonnets. » Apparently, the poet (Shake-peare, we gather from the front cover) is deceased by the Sonnets’ publication in 1609, for you wouldn’t really call a living poet, ever-living— he’d still be quite mortal— and we wouldn’t yet know if his work could withstand the test of time.

In the last six lines (lines 8-13) the Publisher (T.T.) wishes the Adventurer well in setting forth the Sonnets. While the extended metaphor appears to be that of setting forth on a journey or adventure, the words Adventurer and Setting Forth were also business terms, at that time:

  • Adventurer – Investor in a business enterprise, presumably W.H. who had obtained the original manuscript from the author, and as a well-known patron of the arts, may have helped fund its publication;
  • Setting Forth – printing or publishing a work.

So it is theoretically possible that the 6-2-4 pattern was only meant to apply to the first 7 lines, which dealt with the author’s creation, rather than its publication. But since one of my English Professors used to say « nothing is wasted in Shakespeare, » I’ll give « The Forth » a try, as well:

  • THE – the missing « de » for de Vere. Consider how in Henry V, Act III, Scene 2, Jamy (the Scottish captain) says, « de gud service, » and in Scene 4, Princess Katherine, practicing English with her lady-in-waiting, says, among others: « La main, de hand; les doigts, de fingres. Je pense que je suis le bon ecolier … » Katherine’s assertion that she is a good scholar at the end is poignantly reminiscent of a 13-year-old de Vere’s first letter to his guardian, William Cecil, in French.
  • FORTH While admittedly, there is no dot between « FOR » and « TH, » under the principle that God is always with us, i.e., not separated from us, FORTH could well mean « FOR ΘΕΟΣ (θεος, Theos, God). »
  • And the fact that EVER THE for de Vere is transposed in an infinity sign (sideways figure 8) sort of way, suggests that the sentence can be rearranged, i.e., not only are:
    • « These Sonnets All by De Vere for God, » but…
    • « These Sonnets by de Vere [are] All for God, » and
    • « These Sonnets All by God for de Vere. »

But for the Doubting Thomases, here is an alternative theory for FORTH, that I think you’ll like:

  • The TH in Forth is a D (see discussion on « De » above), and if you repeat the O, you have O’FORD. But where is the X?
  • Recall that Y for γιός (Son) is the only letter left, once the letters that appear more than once in the Dedication are removed.
  • We also found the Tetragrammaton or the Name by which God described Himself to Moses, YHWH, Yahweh, « hidden » in the Dedication.
  • And who is the Son of God? Why, Christ (X) … and there you have the missing X for OXFORD!

« These Sonnets All by de Vere, Oxford »

Although my Muse prefers the « for Θ, Theos, God » THEOry, I suppose this last option is best because it is more straightforwarth (smile), and it does not take away from the Y and YHWH Christograms. On the contrary, it builds on it.

One ingenious strategy for a proud and accomplished writer forced by his destiny to remain « anonymous » would be to conceal his identity through cryptograms. And in the tumultuous Age of Faith in which Oxford lived, one consolation would be to offer that sacrifice of being « erased » to God.

Further Reading:

« For of him, and through him,
and for him are all things: to
him be glory for ever. »
— Romans 11:36

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