June 27, 2007

1. Shakespeare’s Sonnets

A. The Monument Theory

One of the websites that I visit regularly is an Oxfordian forum, where people discuss Shakespeare, especially the Oxfordian view of Shakespeare. About a month ago, while visiting the forum, I noticed a dispute about the sonnets — specifically, about Hank Whittemore’s view of the sonnets. The dispute had become heated, as Internet disputes often do. I subscribe to Hank’s theory, which is known as The Monument Theory, and I once arranged for Hank to lecture at a library in the Providence area. Since Hank seemed to have more critics than supporters on the forum, I decided to post something in support of his theory:

The linchpin of Hank’s Monument Theory is, in my view, Sonnet 27. On this sonnet, Hank’s theory will stand or fall.

Hank was the first to argue that this sonnet was written on the night of the Essex Rebellion, when the poet was in shock and despair at the imprisonment of his son, Southampton, whom he had probably hoped to see crowned as king. Previously, this sonnet had puzzled critics; “Suddenly we are all adrift, because the spirit of the verses so obviously changes” (Gerald Massey, 1866). Hank’s interpretation of this sonnet makes perfect sense, and helps us to understand many succeeding sonnets. Furthermore, it connects Shakespeare’s sonnets to the most dramatic events of his time, and to the poet’s deepest feelings and most painful experiences. And finally, Hank’s theory allows us to see the underlying structure, the numerical structure, of the sonnets.

I think Hank’s theory will eventually gain wide acceptance, but initially it will be rejected by people who are already committed to a particular interpretation of the sonnets, just as the Oxford theory is rejected by people who are already committed to a particular view of Shakespeare.

Some people object that Hank took the wrong approach, that he took his theory to the sonnets, instead of drawing his theory from the sonnets — that he took a deductive approach instead of an inductive approach. But while common-sense suggests that we should draw conclusions from a disinterested view of the data, new theories usually come suddenly, and then enable us to see the data in a wholly different way. As Kuhn put it, science advances not “by deliberation and interpretation, but by a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the gestalt switch.... Rather than being an interpreter, the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses. Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed through and through in many of their details.”

Some people object to the form of Hank’s work, and criticize his decision to write a big reference book. But the 75-page introduction to Hank’s book can be printed separately, and it makes a highly readable and interesting essay, suitable for the general reader.

Doubtless many of the points that Hank makes in his reference book will be questioned, but the broad outlines of his theory will never be refuted. Hank’s Monument Theory is a permanent contribution to our understanding of Shakespeare.

I’m not suggesting that Hank is the only Oxfordian who has done important work in recent years. In my e-zine, and on my website, I’ve tried to call attention to Roger Stritmatter’s work on Venus and Adonis, Grace Cali’s work on The Tempest, and Richard Whalen’s work on Macbeth. Doubtless there are many other interesting Oxfordian essays that I’m not aware of. But Hank’s work, in its 75-page form, deserves special notice because it’s original, it’s well-written, and it throws much light on Shakespeare himself, as well as his sonnets, which have often been described as his most personal, but also his most puzzling work.

B. Where Theories Come From

I followed that posting with this:

In my last message, I said that Hank “took a deductive approach instead of an inductive approach.” I’d like to qualify that. I doubt Hank would call his method “deduction.” Perhaps it was neither deduction nor induction.

Near the end of his book Ibsen and Hitler, Steven Sage discusses how he made his discovery about Hitler, and he compares his approach to the approach that Sherlock Holmes took to solving crimes: “Anomalies were the keys to Sherlock Holmes’s success.... Holmes would delve for that which did not fit. Oddities, he knew, led the way to solutions. He worked back from seeming trifles.... This process differed from either deductive or inductive logic. Deductive reasoning proceeds from a general rule to a specific case. Inductive reasoning tests general rules by experiment.... But where a phenomenon is intrinsically aberrant, these forms of reasoning are insufficient.”

Is Sonnet 27 about traveling and feeling homesick? Is it about traveling and missing one’s mistress? I wrote thus:

The dominant note of Sonnet 27 is, in my view, anxiety (“by day my limbs, by night my mind... no quiet find”). The poet’s anxiety prevents him from sleeping (“my drooping eye-lids open wide”). It is this deep uneasiness that prompted Massey to say, “the spirit of the verses so obviously changes.” It is this deep uneasiness that [Hank’s critics don’t] explain, but Hank does. If we miss our mistress, or if we’re homesick, we aren’t sleepless with anxiety, but if our son is suddenly imprisoned, we are.

As for the length of the journey, there’s no basis for a judgment about that. Is it a one-month journey? Or a one-day journey? We can’t tell from the sonnet. Today, we use the word “travel” for extended trips, but there’s no reason to suppose that Shakespeare did so. Everything in the sonnet is compatible with a trip of 5-15 miles, and then a return trip home — one day of travelling, a hard day’s work.

As for the jewel.... The poet is interested in the beloved’s situation right now, at night, as he’s writing. Again, I think this is best explained by Hank’s theory: Southampton is in the Tower, and the poet is thinking of him, unable to sleep, moved to the depths. The poet isn’t a lovesick adolescent who can’t stop thinking about his mistress, he’s a mature man in a difficult predicament, who uses literature as an outlet for his anxiety.

In the second paragraph of this message, you’ll notice the word “compatible”. This word became increasingly important as the discussion continued. I realized that, to someone who rejects Hank’s theory, Sonnet 27 contains little evidence that Southampton is the poet’s son, that he has just been “Towered”, etc. But if we assume that Hank’s theory is true, hypothetically, we find that everything in Sonnet 27 is compatible with Hank’s theory. We can’t start from 27, and say, “27 proves that Southampton is in the Tower.” In other words, 27 doesn’t function as a “forward proof.” But if we assume that Hank’s theory is true, or if someone we respect says “I find Hank’s theory convincing,” or if we read Hank’s 75-page pamphlet and find it somewhat persuasive, then we can come back to 27, and say “Hank’s theory fits 27 perfectly.” Thus, 27 functions well as a “backward proof” though not as a “forward proof.”

I think this is an important distinction, and doubtless has wide application in the sciences and the humanities. If I had studied logic, epistemology, etc., I suppose I could give you technical terms, instead of terms like “forward proof” and “backward proof”. Aren’t you glad I don’t know the technical terms?

Hank’s critics argued that Hank’s theory had already been refuted, to which I responded:

I don’t doubt that Hank’s theory has been refuted countless times, just as the Oxford theory has been refuted countless times. Like beauty, a refutation is in the eye of the beholder. Hank’s theory merits further discussion, in my opinion, just as the Oxford theory merits further discussion.

Hank puts a date on Sonnet 27: the night of February 8-9, 1601, the night following the failure of the Essex Rebellion. In fact, Hank dates many of the sonnets. He argues that the sixty sonnets following 27 correspond to the sixty days following February 8, and may have been written at the rate of one per day. Hank’s critics reject his dates; dates are a bone of contention with respect to The Monument Theory, as they are with respect to The Oxford theory.

I argued that we should be receptive to Hank’s dating scheme, and to his whole theory, if no more plausible theory was available. If the Sonnets are a puzzle, as many critics have said, and if all the attempts to make sense of the Sonnets are unsatisfactory, then we should give Hank’s theory a hard look. In Kuhn’s terms, if a paradigm has many weaknesses, we should be receptive to new paradigms. A theory shouldn’t just be criticized, it should be weighed against other theories that try to explain the same data. If you don’t like Hank’s dates, show me a better dating scheme.

C. Whence the Suffering?

My next post:

I can understand why many Oxfordians are uncomfortable when Hank speaks of numerical patterns in the sonnets. I myself am uncomfortable when people speak of numerical patterns in the Old Testament. Hank is bound to encounter resistance when he speaks of numerical patterns, just as Panofsky encountered resistance when he spoke of numerical patterns in Renaissance visual art. We are heirs of the Romantic conception of the artist as a free spirit, expressing his emotions without restraint; we don’t want to think that the artist is “cabin’d, cribb’d and confin’d” by a numerical pattern. We’re apt to forget that, in Shakespeare’s day, numerical patterns were thought to underlie the whole universe, and the artist used numerical patterns to give his work structure.

What I find enchanting in Hank’s work is not the numerical patterns that he has discovered, but rather that he explains the sonnets as a whole, explains the poet’s motives, explains what kept the poet awake at night — and does all that in a readable, 75-page booklet. “Whoever wrote the Sonnets must have known the depths of spiritual suffering; nor yet have known how to emerge from them.”(Wendell Barrett, 1894) Better than anyone else, Hank explains the poet’s “spiritual sufferings”, he explains the poet’s most personal work, he explains the poet’s heart. This is about more than numerical patterns.

Hank’s critics say that he has dragged Southampton into Sonnet 27 by the ears, that there’s no justification for bringing Southampton in. I contend, though, that it’s reasonable to approach every sonnet with the question, “Is this sonnet about Southampton?” After all, it’s widely agreed that Southampton had a special role in Shakespeare’s life (as shown by the two prefaces, etc.). It’s widely agreed that the early marriage sonnets are addressed to Southampton, and that certain late sonnets refer to Southampton. Who else looms so large in the sonnets, by common agreement? Furthermore, many Oxfordians regard Southampton as Shakespeare’s son. Southampton’s motto is sprinkled throughout the sonnets. Allusions to royalty are also sprinkled throughout the sonnets — just what you would expect if the poet were writing about his royal son, Southampton.

For all these reasons, I think it’s reasonable to ask of every sonnet, including 27, “Is this sonnet about Southampton?” And when we ask this question about 27, we find that Southampton fits perfectly into 27.

The sonnets as a whole have long been a puzzle, and no one has succeeded in identifying the chief actors in the sonnets; Hank’s solution to the sonnet-puzzle is the best yet. I wouldn’t describe Hank’s theory as a revolution; rather, I see it as an evolution of the work of Betty Sears and other Tudorites.

I elaborated on this point in an e-mail to Hank:

No theory is an island, alone unto itself. The Monument Theory is an outgrowth of Betty Sears’ work, it begins where Betty leaves off. Likewise, Betty’s work is an outgrowth of the Ogburns’, the Ogburns’ an outgrowth of Percy Allen’s,1 Percy Allen’s an outgrowth of Looney’s, and Looney’s an outgrowth of the work of anti-Stratfordians (Greenwood, Delia Bacon, etc.). The Monument is part of the Oxfordian tradition, a tradition that stretches all the way back to Delia Bacon. If you respect this tradition, you should give The Monument a hard look. The Monument is part of an evolution, it’s not a revolution.

If we describe the Monument as a new paradigm, a revolution, perhaps we arouse opposition among Oxfordians. Should we emphasize instead its place in the Oxfordian tradition (evolution rather than revolution)?

Shakespeare is often portrayed as one who loved pretty words and pretty images. I try to find the passions, the experiences, behind the poetry. I’m drawn to The Monument Theory because it connects the poetry to the man, to his life, to the experiences that kept him awake at night. My next post:

“Whoever wrote the Sonnets must have known the depths of spiritual suffering; nor yet have known how to emerge from them.”(Wendell Barrett, 1894)

The key question in sonnet-interpretation, it seems to me, is “whence the suffering?” Hank provides the best answer to this question by placing Southampton in the Tower for many of the sonnets. To say that the poet is homesick or lovesick is a weak explanation. You can discover numerical patterns until the cows come home, but if you can’t explain the “depths of spiritual suffering”, what have you accomplished? On the other hand, if you can explain the extraordinary suffering, then you’ve hit a home run — for biography as well as for literary criticism. I submit that the poet’s extraordinary suffering had an extraordinary cause: his son’s sudden fall from aspirant-to-the-throne to Tower-prisoner.

I summarized my argument as follows:

  • The sonnets exhibit “the depths of spiritual suffering.” This raises the question, “whence the suffering?”
  • If Southampton is Shakespeare’s son, as many Oxfordians believe, then surely the imprisonment of Southampton was one of the major traumas in the poet’s life. When we look for the source of the suffering exhibited in the sonnets, we should regard the imprisonment of Southampton as one of the most likely sources.
  • Southampton is addressed in many of the sonnets. Could there be a more likely source for the suffering exhibited in the sonnets than Southampton’s imprisonment?
  • It’s widely agreed that the sonnets are obscure, puzzling. Why not assume that they deal with Southampton’s imprisonment, and see how far that hypothesis takes us?

D. Eleven Sonnet Puzzles

What are the chief puzzles that have perplexed sonnet readers? How well do the various sonnet critics resolve these puzzles? How well does Hank resolve them? Some of the puzzles are:

  1. Why the paternal tone of the poet to the Fair Youth?
  2. Why is the poet eager for the Fair Youth to marry and have children?
  3. What’s the dedication all about? Who is “Mr. W. H.”?
  4. Who is the Fair Youth?
  5. Who is the Dark Lady?
  6. Why the angry tone toward the Dark Lady?
  7. Why the change of tone starting with 27?
  8. Why the “depths of spiritual suffering” found in many sonnets?
  9. Why the frequent allusions to Southampton’s motto?
  10. Why the numerous images of royalty?
  11. Who is the Rival Poet?
If the Monument resolves these puzzles better than any other sonnet-hypothesis, it deserves further consideration.

E. The Sonnet Diary

Hank argues that, beginning with Sonnet 27, many sonnets were written as a kind of diary, at the rate of about one per day. Have other writers followed a “one per day” pattern? The American philosopher Eric Hoffer decided, when he was about 70, to write one aphorism a day for a year, then rest. He called the resulting book Before the Sabbath. In Latin literature, there’s a maxim, nulla dies sine linea, meaning “no day without a line.” George Bernard Shaw said that, when he was young, he wrote five pages a day “rain or shine, dull or inspired. I had so much of the schoolboy and the clerk still in me that if my five pages ended in the middle of a sentence I did not finish it until the next day.”2

F. The Oxford Theory and the Occult: A Tale of Two Heresies

I often discussed the occult on the Oxfordian forum. In one posting, I discussed the parallels between the Oxford Theory and the occult:

Anyone who doubts that paranormal phenomena are proven and factual should read Dean Radin’s book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. Radin describes the careful, controlled, verifiable experiments that have been made over the last hundred years. His comments will strike a chord with Oxfordians. For example, this quote from Schopenhauer: “The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance of things present which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.”3 Radin himself says, “It is not easy to change a lifelong, strongly held belief, even when there is strong evidence that the belief is wrong, so the publicly proclaimed skeptics are not likely ever to admit that psi per se is genuine.”4 If we change a few words, this remark would fit nicely into an Oxfordian essay.

The key question for psi researchers is also the key question for Oxfordians: “How can the field improve its chances of obtaining a fair hearing across a broader spectrum of the scientific community, so that emotionality does not impede objective assessment of the experimental results?”5

“Science progresses mainly by funerals, not by reason and logic alone.”6

Radin quotes the same Sherlock Holmes remark that Oxfordians sometimes quote: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”7

I can’t resist one more quote. Again, if we just change a few words... “The eventual scientific acceptance of psychic phenomena is inevitable. The origins of acceptance are already brewing through the persuasive weight of the laboratory evidence.”8

G. An Objection

One person on the forum raised an interesting objection to The Monument Theory. He said it was difficult to believe, while reading Sonnet 27 and the succeeding sonnets, that the poet’s son was in The Tower; he pointed out that, in Sonnet 30, the poet writes,

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

I responded thus:

Good question. I’m sure Hank has addressed it, and will do so again. My own answer would be, “the thought of the beloved child is inherently pleasing. Memories of the child are pleasing. The thought of future visits with the child (perhaps prison visits) is pleasing. The poet is negotiating for Southampton’s life, and the negotiations have given him hope that Southampton’s life will be spared.”

The best way to approach Hank’s theory is to ask, “how many riddles does it solve?” Make a list of the best solutions that Hank has, using his 75-page booklet as your guide (if you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat). Then make a list of the riddles that Hank doesn’t solve. Now you’ll have some idea of the strength of his theory. Once you have this, go to someone else’s sonnet-theory, repeat the process, and see if Hank’s theory is, on the whole, stronger than the other theory. The point I’m trying to make is look at the theory as a whole, look at its strengths, balance it against other sonnet-theories. Don’t just pick out a line here and a line there, and say, “Hank’s theory is false.” In short, I’m asking you to approach Hank’s theory as you would ask someone to approach the Oxford theory.

H. The Monument Theory

My last post attempted to summarize The Monument Theory:

In case you’re new to this forum, I’d like to preface my remarks on Sonnet 27 by saying that an Oxfordian named Hank Whittemore has written a book called The Monument: “Shake-Speares Sonnets” by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Like many Oxfordian writings, this book is controversial within the Oxfordian movement; not all Oxfordians accept Hank’s conclusions, and many reject them vehemently. Hank argues that

  1. the 3rd Earl of Southampton has an even larger role in the sonnets than was previously thought
  2. many of the sonnets allude to the Essex Rebellion, the imprisonment of Southampton in the Tower (as a result of the failure of the Rebellion), and the trial that followed the Rebellion
  3. many sonnets were written in the immediate aftermath of the Rebellion, and were written at the rate of one per day, as a kind of “sonnet diary”
  4. there is a group of 100 sonnets, beginning with Sonnet 27, and ending with Sonnet 126; this group is set apart from the rest of the sonnets by its subject matter, and this group helps to make the sonnets as a whole a kind of “monument” to Southampton; in short, there is a numerical structure to the sonnets

Sonnet 27 has a triple significance for Hank’s theory. According to Hank, Sonnet 27

  1. was written on the night of the Essex Rebellion
  2. begins the 100-sonnet sequence
  3. begins the “sonnet diary”

Some aspects of Hank’s theory are inherited from his predecessors, but his interpretation of Sonnet 27 is original. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Sonnet 27 for Hank’s theory.

Hank’s critics say, “Sonnet 27 proves nothing — it doesn’t mention the Rebellion or the Tower.” My response is, “let’s assume that Hank’s theory is true, let’s use it as a hypothesis. Let’s test it against Sonnet 27. If it fits, we’ll say ‘one point for Hank,’ and then we’ll test it against another sonnet. If it doesn’t fit, ‘we’ll say ‘one point for Hank’s critics.’ If we test it against numerous sonnets, and it doesn’t fit well with any of them, then we’ll become skeptical of Hank’s theory, and we’ll look around for another hypothesis.”

Let’s give Hank’s theory a try. Let’s treat it as a hypothesis, and spend a few minutes testing it. Let’s approach it with an open mind, let’s try to see it as a whole, and let’s try to see what its strengths are.

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. For information on Percy Allen’s work, click here and here. back
2. Quoted in Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, ch. 4, #1, p. 144

In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviewed Neil Rudenstine’s book on the sonnets. Gopnik and Rudenstine miss almost everything, including the Oxford Theory. Occasionally, though, Gopnik makes a perceptive observation, as when he says, “The pressure of immediate experience is felt on every page and in every poem of the 1609 book.... The old-fashioned critics who saw the sonnets as a journal of responses to a set of bewildering circumstances in the poet’s life were surely more right than not.”(New Yorker, 7/6/15) It is indeed a journal, and your son’s arrest is indeed a bewildering circumstance. back

3. p. 208, hardcover edition back
4. p. 209 back
5. p. 4 back
6. p. 7 back
7. p. 145 back
8. p. 8 back