Sonnet 125

Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favor
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savor,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
  Hence, thou suborned informer! A true soul
  When most impeached stands least in thy control.

In one section of Chapter 4 on Marlowe of My Shakespeare – The Authorship Controversy,edited by William Leahy, Ros Barber deals with “Marlowe in the Sonnets”.
The section opens affirmatively: “Marlowe’s narrative maps powerfully onto Shakespeare’s sonnets.” (p. 100) She starts with sonnet 125 and despite the forceful opening comments on only 2 lines of it, the final couplet:

Hence, thou suborned informer, a true soul
When most impeached, stands least in thy control.

 “Adopting a Marlovian  narrative gives us the biographical basis for a literal reading, and we may assume it is Richard Baines that Marlowe is addressing when he writes” (p. 101) these  two lines.

My first objection is that there are divers other narratives that would give a biographical basis for the two lines.  Why not Sir Walter Raleigh? He too had been accused of atheism. And deciphering (or what in Augustan Rome was called a “delator”) was a general evil in court societies, not restricted to accusations of atheism.

But what is a “court society”? The term is borrowed from Norbert Elias’s seminal study The Court Society (Norbert Elias. Die höfische Gesellschaft, Frankfurt/M., 1983, English translation by Edmund Jephcott, The Court Society,Oxford, 1983. “We have to do here with a different social system of norms and values, whose commands individuals can escape only if they renounce contact with their social circle and membership of their social group.” (p. 66) The court under the Tudors (and in France under the Valois and the Bourbons alike) meant far more than palaces and theaters of ceremony and etiquette. It was the center of power distribution and kind of “academies” formation of  proper social behaviour and culture (at the court of the Valois in France the noblemen formed such academies, see Frances Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century, London 1947); it is a central theme of Love’s Labour’s Lost).

“The major theme of the sonnets,” Helen Vendler observes, “more powerful even than the themes of friendship, love, death, and time, is the deception purveyed by appearance.” (Helen Vendler , The Art of SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS, Cambridge, MA, London, 1997, p. 263). However, another major theme Vendler does not mention, is the author’s social isolation: “outcast state,” not “with friends possessed (sonnet 29), “poor, lame, and despised (S.37), or the defiant “I am that I am”    (S. 121), “Although in me each part will be forgotten (S. 81), “For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,” (S.72) .

This “outcast state” was intimately connected with the conditions of a court society, as were  “envy,” “rank thoughts” of others (S. 121), for as Elias notes:

„Life in court society was not peaceful. The number of people permanently and inescapably bound to one circle was large. They pressed on each other, struggled for prestige, for their place in the hierarchy. The affairs, intrigues, conflicts over rank and favour knew no end. Everyone depended on everyone else, and all on the king. Each could harm each. He who rode high today was cast down tomorrow. There was no security. Everyone had to seek alliance with others [in sonnet 29 Shakespeare not only reports his “outcast state”, he also states that he is not “with friends possessed] whose stock was high, avoid unnecessary enmities, fight unavoidable enemies with cold calculation, and scrupulously maintain towards all others the degree of distance befitting their status.” (p. 104)

Oxford made this experience. See “Though I seem strange, sweet friend, be thou not so”

(Kreiler, "Der zarte Faden, den die Schönheit spinnt"- “The thriftless thread which pamper’d beauty spins” - Hundred poems of Edward de Vere. English /German) No 82, pp. 246-8)

2nd stanza:
Thou seest me live amongst the lynx’s eyes,
That pries into each privy thought of mind:
Thou knowst right well what sorrows may arise,
If once they chance my settled looks to find.

4th stanza:
We silly dames, that false suspect do fear,
And live within the mouth of Envy’s lake,
Must in our heart a secret meaning bear,
Far from the show which outwardly  we make.

5th stanza:
So where I like, I list not vaunt my love,
Where I desire, there I most feign debate:
One hath my hand, another hath my glove,
But he my heart whom I seem most to hate.
And Shakespeare made the same experience:

Shakespeare also made this experience, see Sonnet 121:

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties whay are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own;

 Of course other courtiers too, most prominent among them Sir Walter Raleigh in “The Lie” (Say to the court, it glows/ And shines like rotten wood).

“One cannot understand an instrument of power without considering the structure of the sphere for which it is intended. This gives rise to a particular task for the sociologist: the court must be studied as a structure of rule that prescribed, like any other, quite specific ways of ruling to a person wishing to control it.” (Elias, 118)

And :

“Symbols of power take on a life of their own value and the character of prestige-fetishes. The prestige-fetish that best expresses the self-justifying character of the king’s existence is the idea of gloire. (Elias, 134).

“one must hear the king himself speak to understand the full significance of this kind of motivation:

The love of gloire surpasses all the others in my soul… I found myself held back and pressed forward almost equally by one and the same desire for gloire.

The Elizabethan Age, though over nearly a century earlier than France under Louis XIV, prefigured the latter in more than one respect. “Gloriana” was one of Elizabeth’s honorific sobriquets. Cynthia was another. Cynthia was the moon-queen and as such the natural female counterpart of the Sun king. A more basic parallel, however, is the conception of power acquisition and maintenance

How a Tudor   courtier conceived it:

“The idea of  a deliberate annual anti-papal triumph had been suggested to Henry VIII in a treatise, probably by Richard Morison, entitled A Discourse touching the reformation of the laws of England. This was back in the fifteen-thirties. He proposed to the King the creation of a feast in memory of the deliverance of the English people ‘out of the bondage of the most wicked Pharaoh of all pharaos, the bishop of Rome. There ought, he wrote,to be set aside a certain time each year both each time of the year both for teaching and preaching against the usurped power of the pope, annnnd more especially in defence of the king’s title of the supreme head of the Church of England, Further, antipapal plays ought to be substituted for the traditional folk mummings, for he shrewdly remarked: ‘Into the common people things sooner enter by the eyes then by the ears, remembring more better that they see than that they hear.’ There is no evidence to prove that this tract had any influence upon Elizabethen festivities, and yet it reads like a blueprint for them.” (Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth , London, 1977, p. 118)

And how Louis XIV himself saw the functionality of ètiquette:

“Those people are gravely mistaken who imagine that all this is mere ceremony. The people over whom we rule, unable to see to the bottom of things, usually judge by what they see from outside, and most often it is by precedence and rank that they measure their respect and obedience. As it is important to the public to be governed only by a single one, it also matters to it that the person performing this functione so elevated above the others, that no-one can be confused or compared with him.” (Elias, p.118)

 King and nobility were mutually dependent, but the king was the mightier person in this partnership. “The nobility’s need for distinction, on which they depend for their existence, serves the King’s need for power. The threatened elite group’s desire for social distance [and this again helps understand why not acting or performing certain other activities associated with “mechanics” in public was thought so essential by Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531 in his Boke of the Governor, a handbook for the education of the aristocracy] is the point at which the king can exert leverage on them. The aristocracy’s desire to survive and the king’s task of governing interlocks like the links of a chain encircling the nobility.

 If a court person said: I care nothing for distinction, considération, valeur, honneur, and whatever else the symbols of prestige and distance were called, the chain was broken.” (Elias, p. 117) “ Of course, one could have said: ‘I shall have no more part of this ceremony [my remark: which Oxford expressly wrote in his letter of 11 May 1601 to Robert Cecil:  ‘as a hater of ceremonies’] and isolated nobles perhaps did so. But this also meant forfeiting privileges, losing power, and declining relatively to others. In short, it meant humiliation and, to an extent, self-immolation, unless the person concerned possessed other assurances of his selfhood and identity, in his own eyes or in those of other people.” (Elias,    88).

Sonnet 29 possibly expressed such a situation.
And is it not precisely this what Shakespeare proclaims in sonnet 125? 

Keyword : canopy

In the first stanza the keyword is canopy. “To parade under the canopy was a privilege that the monarch shared solely with the Sacred Host.”( Cañeque, Alejandro, “The King’s Living Image”, in Postlewate, Laurie and Hüsken, Wim N.M. , Acts and Text: Performances and Rituals in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Amsterdam, New York,  2007, p.112

The phrase „Wer’t aught to me I bore the canopy“  naturally raises the question whether the author of sonnet 125 would ever have had the opportunity of bearing a canopy above queen or king. And perhaps more important: who was the real or imagined addressee of the sonnet.

As for the first question, it might be easier to find out the occasions on which our courtier-poet did NOT bear a canopy. To begin with, he wouldn’t have done so at coronations, for this right was since John Without Land the privilege of the barons of the cinque ports. The cinque ports, the fiveports  were: Sandwich, Romney, Hastings, Hythe, and Dover. Later Win- chelsea and Rye were added; the barons were members of parliaments, but no members of the peerage, hence “properly speaking” no barons at all. But members of the peerage might, if not bearing, have been holding the canopy above a monarch. (John M. Rollett, William Stanley as Shakespeare - Evidence of Authorship by the sixth Earl of Stanley, Jefferson, NC, 2015, pp.28 ff.)

As bearing a canopy was somehow a “mechanical activity”, it seems possible that members of the peerage never carried a canopy.

The former question might perhaps matter less than doubters of the traditional authorship have hitherto presumed; on the contrary, the question whether the poet would have used this symbol of divine kinship (the canopy was thought to be a symbolic substitute of God and heaven) in relation to the aristocratic youth does matter. For we then would have to conclude that the poet’s imagined or intended interlocutor was not other than the queen herself or else, more likely in my view, the ritual surrounding the absolute monarchy.

The poet would have declared that “gloire” meant nothing to him, and what was thought to be “great bases for eternity” would last no longer than “waste or ruining”. And if a courtier, the consequence would be clear. In the words of Norbert Elias: “If a court person said: I care nothing for distinction, considération, valeur, honneur, and whatever else the symbols of prestige and distance were called, the chain was broken.” Social isolation would be inevitable.  For Oxford’s isolation ath the end of his life, see Peter R. Moore, “The Earl of Oxford and the Order of the Garter”, in Shakespeare Oxford Newletter, Spring 1996.

The courtier-poet who authored sonnet 125, was living against the grain of the era and his peers. Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells thought it “not unreasonable to look in them for reflections of his personal experience.” (Edmondson, Paul and Wells, Stanley, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Oxford. 2004, quoted from Barber, Ros, “My Shakespeare: Christopher Marlowe” in William Leahy, My Shakespeare – The Authorship Controversy, Brighton, 2018, p. 100). With a little more social-historic background, Edmondson and Wells might discover this “personal experience”. Unfortunately for Marlowians, the Marlowe narrative is not helpful either, because it too lacks the necessary social-historic background.

The key phrase of the second stanza is: “gazing spent”. Again, the  phrase points to the heart of the court ritual (maybe others will prefer “dwellers on form and favour”).

Once more, we can refer to the reign of the Sun-King and look for a reasonable match in the reign of Cynthia, the Moon-Queen.

 Norbert Elias quotes from the memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon. “No-one knew as well as he how to sell his words, his smile, even his glances. Everything in him was valuable because he created differences, and his majesty was enhanced by the sparseness of his words. If he turned to someone, asked him a question, made an insignificant remark, the eyes of all present were turned on this person. It was a distinction that was talked of and increased prestige… (p. 131).

So the French courtiers “spent their gazing”. And the Elizabethan courtiers? Probably they did the same, if we interpret correctly the account of the German traveler Paul Hentzner: “ whoever speaks to her, it is kneeling, now and then she raises some with her hand. While we were there, W. Slawata, a Bohemian baron, had letters to present to her; and she, after pulling off her glove, gave him her right hand to kiss, sparkling with rings and jewels, a mark of particular favor: wherever she turned her face, as she was going along, everybody fell down on their knees.” (

As for the “suborned informer”, we need not know who he was. In a court society enough candidates are waiting in the queue.