This article was first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
The Sonnets are the only work by “Shakespeare” that give the immediate impression of being directly autobiographical. The plays may contain some autobiographical elements, but their form is predominantly fictional.
Only in the Sonnets does the poet speak in the first person. His complaints about his “fortune” sound real; so do many details, such as his passing references to his “lameness.”
Moreover, the Sonnets lack the form and style of Shakespearean fiction: they have no exposition, development, or characterization. The first 126 are addressed to a young man who is expected to understand the poet’s complaints and allusions, which the context doesn’t explain and which are consequently opaque to other readers.
There is only one reason to think the Sonnets are “fictional”: if we take them as autobiography, they don’t match what we know of their supposed author’s life.
The poet says he is “old,” “lame,” and “in disgrace.” He is a public figure of sorts, the subject of “vulgar scandal.” His life and fortune are on the wane; he hopes that his “name” will be “buried” with his body. His fondness for legal terms and metaphors also suggests that he has been trained in the law.
None of this can be shown to square with the records of “William Shakespeare of Stratford” and much of it contradicts those records. Most of the Sonnets were evidently written before 1603, the likely date of Sonnet 107, and two were published in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599. One of these two describes the poet as “old,” his days “past the best,” though in 1599 William was only 35 (and the sonnet was probably written several years earlier).
Moreover, William was never a figure of “vulgar scandal.” During the 1590s he was prospering, both in London and in Stratford. He would have had no reason to wish his name “buried”: if he were the author of the popular and highly praised poems bearing his name, such a wish would be inexplicable, especially when he expects his “verse” to be “immortal.”
Who was the young man to whom the first 126 sonnets speak? He closely resembles Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, a young, handsome, highly eligible bachelor. The first seventeen sonnets urge the young man to beget an heir in the same peculiar terms as Venus urges Adonis to procreate in Venus and Adonis, the first published work by “William Shakespeare,” dedicated to Southampton in 1593.
At the time, Southampton was being pressured by Lord Burghley to marry Elizabeth Vere, Burghley’s granddaughter and the daughter of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Only if Oxford was the poet can we make sense of such lines as this one in 10: “Make thee another self, for love of me.” No common poet could have taken such liberties with a nobleman.
The simplest explanation is that Southampton was the young man. If so, the case for Oxford’s authorship is greatly strengthened.
Oxford, past 40 when the Southampton match was being pressed, was aging and in disgrace. His letters mention several ailments, and in one he wrote to Burghley in 1595 he speaks of himself as “a lame man.” He had also been trained in law at the Inns of Court.
Read without prejudice — that is, without prior assumptions about their authorship — the Sonnets confirm that Southampton was the young man, as even many of William’s partisans have agreed. This, along with the poet’s self-description, supports the belief that Oxford wrote them.
Such, in brief, is the case I made for Oxford in my book Alias Shakespeare and in subsequent exchanges and debates with Stratfordian reviewers and scholars. This was the most original and distinctive part of my book; I devoted two chapters to it. (I also argued a thesis many of Oxford’s partisans reject: that after the proposed marriage fell through, Oxford and Southampton had a long homosexual amour.)
I was surprised by the Stratfordian response. Not one of the hostile reviews even tried to argue that the Sonnets support William’s claim to authorship.
The chief arguments were old ones, addressed not only in my book itself but long since answered by earlier Oxfordians: Oxford died too soon to have written the later plays, too many people would have to have been fooled, and Stratford had one hell of a grammar school. But nobody wanted to tangle on the Sonnets.
A couple of reviewers accused me of “assuming” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical. I not only didn’t assume this; I dealt with the old dispute at some length. But these reviewers preferred to create a false impression rather than confront the problems the Sonnets raise for William of Stratford. Others dismissed my argument with a word or two (“over the top,” “questionable”) without further explanation, then changed the subject back to anti-Stratfordian “conspiracy theories.” Others made no mention of the Sonnets at all!
As I debated the authorship question in print and in person, I found every single opponent unable to explain either how the Sonnets support William’s claim or why, if William wrote them, they seem powerfully to support Oxford’s. Even if they are “fictional,” they present a remarkable fact: that their hero should so closely resemble a real man who has been suspected of being “Shakespeare” on other grounds.
This took no great debating skill on my part; the most learned scholars, when challenged to face the evidence of the Sonnets, were simply at a loss. Even their habitual mockery of anti-Stratfordianism became a little subdued.
My experience has taught me one great lesson: the Sonnets are the Achilles’ heel of the Stratfordian view, an insuperable problem for the myth of “Shakespeare of Stratford.” The strongest line William’s partisans can take is that the Sonnets, despite all appearances, tell us nothing about their author–a truly desperate defense of a bankrupt position.