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Review of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and the Court of Navarre by David Honneyman

A book review by Ramon Jimenez

This review was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Oxfordians will be intrigued by the title of David Honneyman’s book because any demonstrable connection between the Sonnets and the Court of Navarre suggests an even greater distance between Shaksper of Stratford and the Shakespearean canon. But even with the title as a tip-off, the reader is likely to be startled by this sentence in Honneyman’s Preface: “The Sonnet people are not to be found in England . . .”

Otherwise an orthodox Stratfordian, Honneyman acknowledges that the experiences, personality, attitude, and style of the writer of the Sonnets were totally at odds with anything we know of Shaksper of Stratford. Although plainly autobiographical, the Sonnets reflect someone other than the down-to-earth and hardworking playmaker envisioned by orthodox scholars. How can this be? Honneyman’s answer is that Shakespeare did not write them, he translated or “recomposed” them.

By a series of leaps of faith, and several “must haves” and “most likelys,” Honneyman connects the writer and the three “characters” in the Sonnets (Fair Friend, Dark Lady, and Rival Poet) to four actual people in French royal circles and to a series of historical events that took place at Nerac–the site of the Court of Navarre, an independent state dominated by France.

Honneyman’s Navarre Hypothesis is that the sonnets we know as Shakespeare’s were originally written in French during the 1570s by the scholar/soldier/poet, Agrippa d’Aubigné who had a close relationship with Henry de Bourbon, Prince and then King of Navarre, who is himself identified as the Fair Friend. The Dark Lady and the Rival Poet are Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Valois, and Guillaume Du Bartas, the leading poet at the Court. Never mind that d’Aubigné the supposed sonneteer, was only two years older than Henry, and that he is supposed to have written nearly all the sonnets while in his twenties. Never mind that the only evidence for his supposed relationship with Dark Lady Margaret (Fair Friend Henry’s wife) is his affair with her cousin, Diane Salviati. (According to Honneyman they were “very similar in appearance.”)

The rest of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. The frequent characterizations of the Fair Friend as “crowned” (Sonnets 37 and 114), “sovereign” (57), “king” (63, 87), etc. reveal that he is of royal blood. The “sun” and “lilies” metaphors point to Henry of Navarre because the sun was the main feature of his mother’s coat of arms and the lily was the emblem of the Bourbons, his father’s family. The Fair Friend’s “errors” in Sonnet 96 refer to Henry’s reputation as a womanizer.

Margaret of Valois was known for dark and seductive eyes, loose morals, unreliability, and “intransigent Catholicism,” and thus meets Honneyman’s requirements for the Dark Lady. On the basis of other references in French poetry of the time, she is also identified with the “pearl” of Sonnet 34 and the “mortal moon” of 107.

Nailing down the Rival Poet is a little harder, but since Guillaume du Bartas was an “official Court poet” at Nerac, and was older and more renowned than d’Aubigné, Honneyman identifies him with the “worthier pen” and “better spirit,” of Sonnets 79 and 80. Du Bartas was of such value to the crown that he was given a pension of 440 livres a year in 1580.

On top of this shaky structure Honneyman places his final supposition–that Shakespeare somehow gained access to a manuscript copy of d’Aubigné’s “Ur-Sonnets,” and recomposed them as a literary exercise. This manuscript is unfortunately now lost, and Honneyman admits was most likely never published. The last two Sonnets, 153 and 154, which have been shown to be direct adaptations of a Greek epigram, are explained by the fact that d’Aubigné as “a considerable Greek scholar” and as a student resided in Geneva, where an edition of the Greek Anthology was published. As for the “Will” Sonnets, 134 and 136, these must have been original with Shakespeare, or “much adapted.”

Along the way, Honneyman provides us with a new solution to the “W.H.” initials in the dedication. By a tortuous process involving a diagonal misreading of a calligraphic doodle, the initials “N.H.” (Henry of Navarre) somehow became “W.H.”

According to Honneyman, it was his investigation of Love’s Labour’s Lost and its stylistic associations with the Sonnets that led him to develop his Navarre Hypothesis for the “Sonnet people.” The same reasoning that conjured up the “Ur -Sonnets” imagined a French predecessor to LLL that featured the same Henry and Margaret, and a cast of characters from the French court. This play is also lost. The Hypothesis extends to “A Lover’s Complaint” and “The Phoenix and Turtle,” which Honneyman also explains as translations of poems by d’Aubigné about Henry and Margaret.

Although Honneyman’s Navarre Hypothesis is woefully short on evidence, Oxfordians might find it provocative because it trades on the obvious familiarity with French royal circles and the Court of Navarre displayed by the writer of the Shakespeare plays. While Honneyman dismisses the Oxford argument (in an earlier book, Closer to Shakespeare, 1990), one wonders if his research into the Navarre connection led him to the facts that Edward de Vere was well acquainted with the leading figures of contemporary France, and had even visited the Court of Navarre.

Shake-speare’s Sonnets and the Court of Navarre is another example of the tunnel vision of orthodox scholars who try to account for the hidden meaning of the Sonnets and their total remoteness from the man they think wrote the plays. If the two cannot be reconciled, what better way to account for the Sonnets’ obvious autobiographical content than to acknowledge it, and then attribute it to someone else? But in strange way the Navarre Hypothesis tends to support the Oxford argument. Edward de Vere’s interest in and debt to French poetry is well known. And if, in a fantasy world, Shake-speare’s Sonnets were, indeed, written in French about figures in a French court, who but Edward de Vere would have been most likely to have had access to them, have known the principals, and have translated or “recomposed” them for an English reader?

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