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Edmund Campion
Edmund Campion as Shakespeare
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Ah the Sonnets! In these poignant autobiographical poems Shakespeare bears his soul, in contrast to his anonymous stance in the plays wherein he is always a detached and objective observer. Still the sonnets frustrate us in their obscurity where every line almost tells the author’s name but in the end tells us very little indeed, except of course for the couple of sonnets that continually mention ‘will’ and ‘Will’ in what seems a mockery of the author’s favourite device of repetition.

Critics of the sonnets all more or less agree on the thematic concerns of the writer. John Berryman describes their writer’s manner as being more plain and natural than that of any other sonnet writer, with the over-riding theme being that of Time. Following is Berryman’s synopsis of Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle. [20]. Sonnets 1-17 are addressed to a handsome young boy urging him to marry and have a child to ensure his beauty will live on forever. Most of sonnets 18-126 seem to be addressed to the same fair youth and describe the poet’s platonic love for this young man who seems to be of high birth, fair complexioned, perhaps narcissistic, and whose father has died. The poet himself is described by Berryman as by turns “confident, happy, proud, jealous, reproachful, forgiving, ironic, prostrate, gloomy, resentful and hopeless..”. He is older than the youth, sometimes narcissistic as well, hates the artifice of makeup and wigs and is constantly saying his verse will last forever while in moments of doubt not thinking it as good as the rival poet’s or any good at all. Twenty of the sonnets numbered from 127-154 are written to the poet’s mistress, a married woman with black hair. I suspect these poems were not written by Shakespeare, but by the Earl of Oxford to his mistress, Anne Vavasour. Finally, a dozen or so of the sonnets seem to be about the poet himself. Berryman states that “Among these are two of the sonnets’ greatest achievements, the ferocious invective against lust, (129) (one would think hardly in character with Shakspere or Oxford) , and the grave spiritual poem numbered 146.”

I believe the sonnets were written by Campion beginning just after the occasion in 1566 when he met the sixteen year old Earl of Oxford at Oxford University during the Queen’s state visit. The first of these sonnets may have been commissioned by William Cecil who offered his patronage to Campion as did the Earl of Leicester. Cecil was very keen for his ward, Oxford, to marry his own daughter Anne, and fortuitously received a peerage from the Queen so that Anne, no longer a commoner, was able to marry the Earl when finally the arrangements were made. The marriage took place in 1571. The sonnet that mentions a time period of three years having passed since first the poet and the Beloved met could be alluding to 1569, the year Campion fled to Ireland. The later poems that speak of the poet being even further away and unable to see his friends could be referring to the period after 1571 when Oxford married and Campion went into exile in Europe, not to return for nine years.

John Michell in his comprehensive analysis of the authorship debate Who Wrote Shakespeare describes the character of the poet of the sonnets as:

a senior man in both rank and age....cultured, sensitive, fastidious
and inclined to self pity. He cast himself as an outsider. Physically
he had been lamed or wounded, but the main reason for his suffering
was his deep sense of disgrace and failure. For some reason he
had become a social outcast. For the sake of his lover’s reputation
he could not declare his love. He was fated to die in ignominy, leaving
a dishonoured name behind him, but one day the lover would be
proud of him and would become famous by association with him. [21]

If we consider the case of Campion and my theory concerning Oxford, the sonnet cycle has biographical ‘logic’, - a circumstance that has not been achieved with the consideration of any other authorship candidate including Shakspere. Campion was senior to Oxford by ten years. He was his intellectual superior, but by birth did not share such an exalted social position. By all accounts, he was a sensitive and fastidious man. Because Campion refused to renounce his Catholic faith, he became an outsider and was later forced into exile abroad. In the ensuing years he would have realized and have had to come to accept that all hope for an illustrious academic career in his beloved England was lost. He would have felt a deep sense of disgrace and failure at this time. He was indeed fated to die as a traitor to the throne, his name dishonoured in his country of birth. I’m sure Oxford must have been very proud of the works of Shakespeare, to go to such great lengths to see the plays produced, and to keep the more personal sonnets from public knowledge. The poems have become famous, along with the anonymous Beloved, and if this theory is proven correct, there is no doubt the name of Oxford himself will become famous by association. Three of Shakespeare’s most beautifully crafted and moving sonnets are discussed below:


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon thyself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friend’s possess’d
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate:
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

In this poem, the poet is bewailing his fate and his outcast state, confessing his jealousy towards those more fortunately situated who have hope, friends, professions and opportunities .Uncomfortably aware of his self pity, he begins to think about his beloved, at which thoughts he is able to be happy again. He is finally scornful of the pleasures brought by earthly riches for he believes that such pleasures cannot compare with the joy of loving someone as sweetly as he does.

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