Sonnet 124

Shakespeare Sonnet 124

YF my deare loue were but the childe of ſtate,
It might for fortunes baſterd be vnfathered,
As ſubiect to times loue, or to times hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gatherd.
No it was buylded far from accident,
It ſuffers not in ſmilinge pomp, nor falls
Vnder the blow of thralled diſcontent,
Whereto th’inuiting time our faſhion calls;
It feares not policy that Heriticke,
Which workes on leaſes of ſhort numbred howers,
But al alone ſtands hugely pollitick,
That it not growes with heat, nor drownes with ſhowres.
To this I witnes call the foles of time,
Which die for goodnes, who haue liu’d for crime.

Sonnet 124 is often presented as one of the more beautiful yet intractable of the sequence, because of difficulties defining the “childe of state” of its first line and the “foles of time” of its couplet. The opening “childe of state,” with which the poet’s love might be identified, is Shakespeare’s rendering of filius populi, a child of the people or state, a bastard, in Latin a nothus (see Huloets Dictionarie, “Bastarde. Filius populi, Nothus, thi, Vulgo conceptus”). The term carried the sense not only of ‘base-born’ but also of ‘not genuine’ (see Thomas, Dictionarium nothus, “Base borne, a bastarde: not lawfull, counterfeit”) and was used as a recrimination: Anthony Copley, who appears later in this commentary, accuses the Jesuit, Robert Parsons, of being “a bastard, he is (as you know) filius populi, and consequently . . of more names than one.” 1

If, the poet hypothesizes, his love were merely (“but”) a love ‘born out of wedlock,’ a bastard love, then it might be disowned by the friend, its begetter (“vnfatherd”). (Juridically Shakespeare is correct: a nothus or “childe of state” was one born out of wedlock but of a known father; one born out of wedlock and of an unknown father was a spurius. To ‘unfather’ a “Heriticke” was a polemical trope: Arthur Dent, for example, calls on English recusants, who are “made drunken with heresie,” to “vnfather him [the Pope] of such hatefull blasphemies.”) 2 The poet’s love would then become a child or bastard of fortune (“fortunes basterd”). The epithet, ‘child of fortune,’ was a well-known Latinism, awarded to Horace by those envious of his closeness to Maecenas, his friend and patron, as they watched and paraded about together during public triumphs and spectacles:

Between seven and eight years have now passed since Maecenas began to number me among his friends . .  Through all this time, through every hour and every day, I have been subjected to such envy: our “child of fortune,” they all say, watches public spectacles and triumphs (“ludi”) and sports together (“luserat”) with Maecenas in the Campus Martius. 3

The poet thus associates himself with his Maecenas between sonnets which allude to similar public processions and triumphs (Sonnet 123) and a royal Coronation (Sonnet 125). As in Sonnet 55 he plays on the relationship with his friend and patron: if his love were a bastard love, which it is not, it might be disowned by the friend and become not fortune’s child, as was the Horace-Maecenas relationship, but “fortunes basterd.” His love would be the result of, and possessed by, the wilfulness of time, cast as an unstable, even tyrannical father, who vacillates between love and hate: “subiect to times loue, or to times hate.” While echoing Eccles. 3.8, “A tyme to loue, and a tyme to hate,” the line points to the pressures, to which fickleness submits the poet’s love: if it were base-born, it would be harvested, as by time’s scythe, as a weed from among weeds; if it were not, it would be reaped as a flower from among flowers (“Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gatherd”). The poet denies his love is “fortunes basterd,” disowned or “vnfathered,” and prey to whim or accident.

The sonnet’s sestet, after the manner of 1 Corinthians 13, defines love “by comparison of contraries” (1 Cor. 13.4; GV, sidenote). “No,” exclaims the poet, his love was “buylded far from accident;” it does not come about by chance (an etymological pun, since “accident” comes from accidens = a falling down; the GV sidenote to 1 Cor. 13.8 affirms that love is “necessarie for the building vp of the Church”). Where Paul affirms that “Loue suffreth long,” the poet claims his love “suffers not in smilinge pomp:” his love remains impervious when public display or advantage is showered upon it. Where Paul asserts that “Loue doeth neuer fall away” (Vulgate, “non excidit”), the poet’s love never “falls / Vnder the blow of thralled discontent.” His love doesn’t succumb to any discontent that might imprison or captivate it, even though discontent (or imprisonment) is something to which the present time entices men as attractive (“Whereto th’ inuiting time our fashion calls”).

The poet’s love is not susceptible to short-term expediency (“feares not policy”), which it terms a “Heriticke,” because it forsakes what is true (religion) and is based on temporary commitments (“leases of short numbred howers,” recalling Sonnet 123.5, “Our dates are breef”). Rather his love, by itself and without debt to others, stands forth as massively iudicious or prudent (“all alone stands hugely pollitick”); it is not subject to increase (“nor growes with heat”) nor to extinction (“nor drownes with showres”), both metaphors recalling the earlier “weeds” and “flowers.” Finally the poet invokes as witnesses to his claims, “the foles of time” (recalling Sonnet 116, “Lou’s not Times foole”), those ‘children of state,’ who are born from and into the sinfulness of bastardry (“who haue liu’d for crime”) and are prey to capricious time’s love or hate. They are innocents (“foles”) because, subject to time and punished as heretics, they bear witness to the “pollitick” nature of love (“die for goodness”).

These last lines, “To this I witnes call the foles of time, / Which die for goodness, who haue liued for crime,” have proven enigmatic. While they appear aphoristic, they seem to point to more. Frequent attempts have been made to identify the fools of time, who might have borne witness: the Protestant martyrs under Mary, Jesuits under Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex and his co-conspirators of 1599-1601 (see Sonnet 107), Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Nothing can be proved conclusively, but given Sonnet 124’s placement between sonnets that allude to the Coronation of James on 25 July 1603 (Sonnet 125) and the Triumphal Procession of 15 March 1604 (Sonnet 123), the closest and most likely set of events to have given rise to any allusion are the interwoven conspiracies, the “Bye Plot” and “Main Plot,” that unfolded during the period, June – December 1603, particularly their final outcome, all of which were the subject of much speculation and popular excitement. The “Bye Plot” involved two Catholic priests, William Watson and William Clarke, together with a dissatisfied courtier, George Brooke, the brother of Lord Cobham, in a hopeless scheme to capture James I, confine the Privy Council to the Tower, and pressure the King to appoint Catholics to positions of authority. 4 Two further agents were engaged, Sir Griffin Markham and Anthony Copley.

Word of the plot soon got out. On 2 July 1603 the King issued a “publicke declaration,” which was widely circulated and posted through the land, charging all agents of the Crown to search out “Anthony Copley  [who] hath dealt with some to be of a conspiracie to vse some violence vpon our Person.” Copley remained at large only briefly, because on the 16 July a further proclamation informed the public that he had “bene apprehended,” but with further news that his apprehension had “brought us withall, cause of further griefe, in that by the said Copleys confession, there is discouered a conspiracie of a great number of others to have made an attempt not only dangerous to our person, but to our whole State: Whereof some principall Gentlemen of qualitie are already apprehended.” Attached to the proclamation were descriptions of Markham, Watson and Clarke.

Copley, on being captured, had turned informer, being suborned by an offer of freedom outside the realm. He had revealed details of a further (“Main”) plot involving “twelve gentlemen” including George Brooke, Lord Cobham, Lord Grey of Wilton, and Sir Walter Ralegh, who intended to advance the interests of papal Spain and put Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne. Giovanni Scaramelli, the Venetian ambassador to England, reports on 30 July 1603 that

Immediately after Anthony Copley’s proclamation as a rebel he was arrested, and soon after his arrest, in the hope of saving himself, he betrayed a plot of twelve gentlemen to kill the King and some of the Council. 5

The conspirators were arrested during the fortnight leading up to the King’s Coronation and held in the Tower, including Ralegh, whose despair according to Sacramelli caused him to try “to plunge a knife into his heart; it glanced off one of his ribs, and so saved his life, for his Jailors prevented him from repeating the blow.” 6 On Copley’s evidence Ralegh, though innocent, would be confined to the Tower for another 13 years.

Evidence against the conspirators was considered by judges meeting in early September in Maidenhead; Sir Thomas Edmonds reported to the Earl of Shrewsbury on 11 September that the case against Ralegh seemed a weak one (“The Judges have of late mett at Maydenhedd, to consider of the crymes of the psoners; and, as I understand, they make noe question of fynding them all culpable, save onlie Sr Walter Rawleigh, agaynst whom it is sayd that the proofes are not so pregnant.”) 7 The conspirators were arraigned initially on 15-29 October, but had to be removed from London, because “the rifeness of the Plague in London rendered it impossible to hold the Court of Justice there, his Majesty removed them to Winchester.” 8 A large and colourful entourage accompanied them from the Tower to Bagshot between 7-11 November and from Bagshot toWinchester between 9-12 November, where they were again arraigned on the 15 November. Milner records that

In the month of November the City of Winchesterbecame the scene of much public business of great notoriety . . by the middle of the month, Winchesterwas crowded, not only with the Crown Officers, but also with the Peers of the Realm . . for now matters of the utmost importance were to be discussed, which equally required the attendance of the latter as of the former. This was no other than the trial of the pretended Conspirators, for what was called Sir Walter Raleigh’s Conspiracy. 9

The procedings were the subject of high interest. “Whilst these transactions were carrying on, the eyes of the whole Kingdom were directed towards Winchester, where the conflux of great personages, and the expenditure that this must have occasioned, exhibited some faint image of its former consequence. It appears also that the King himself was sometimes at Winchester.” 10 The conspirators were all found guilty in a spectacular trial and “the two Priests were executed on Tuesday the 29. of Nouember, and Master George Brooke on Munday following.” On the same day, 5 December, the King “signed three Warants, for the Execution of the late Lord Cobham, L. Gray, and Sir Gryffin Marckham Knight, with particular direction to the Sheriffe, to performe it on Friday after before ten a clocke in the morning.” 11

The denouement occurred on 9 December and was theatrical. Nicolo Molin, Scaramelli’s successor, gives an detailed account of the way events played out:

in obedience to the King’s orders, the conspirators were taken, one by one, to the place of execution. The first was Lord Cobham; he mounted the scaffold, and, after briefly commending his soul to God and asking pardon of the King and of many others he kneeled down and laid his head on the block to await the fatal stroke. The headsman had lifted the axe to strike off his head, when there sprang upon the scaffold two emissaries of the King, and raising the body of Lord Cobham, an inert mass, more dead than alive, they carried him into a neighbouring house. Then came the second Lord, Baron Grey; he ascended the scaffold under the firm conviction that Lord Cohham was dead, but received pardon in the same fashion. A like scene was enacted with the others. His Majesty resolved to grant them grace, but in such a way that they may be said to have looked death in the face, and will retain for ever a memory of the danger they were in. Thus of the eleven prisoners only the two priests and another have been executed, one has been acquitted, the others granted their lives. 12

A different tone is provided by Nichols, “It seems, that after an insulting farce of bringing the convicted Conspirators to the scaffold, and after an inexpressible aggravation of cruelty in the ceremony of the preparation for execution, and in minute expectation of the catastrophe, the tragedy being worked up to the highest point, a pardon, as to their lives, was produced.” 13

Within days an official version of events was rushed into circulation. By 23 December Sir Thomas Edmondshad already inquired of the Earl of Shrewbury, “whether yor L. have alreadie or no receaved the booke wch is published concerning the mercie shewed by the K.’s Matie in respyting the execution of the prsoners at Winchester. I thought good to send yor L. this, which was bestowed on me by my Lord Cecyll.” 14 The book he received from Cecil and forwarded was The Copie of a Letter Written from Master T.M. neere Salisbury, to Master H.A. at London, concerning the proceeding at Winchester; Where the late L. Cobham, L. Gray, and Sir Griffin Marckham, all Attainted of hie Treason were ready to be executed on Friday the 9 of December 1603: At which time His Maiesties Warrant, all written with his owne hand, whereof the true Copy is here annexed, was deliuered to sir Beniamin Tichbourne high Sheriffe of Hampshire, commanding him to suspend their execution till further order. It was produced by Robert Barker, publisher to the King, comprised 12 pages and was dated 1603. The author, either “T.M.” or “C.S.,” depending on which of two editions, claimed to be the cousin of the High Sheriff of Hampshire, Benjamin Tichborne, but is otherwise anonymous. His account was designed to enhance the King’s munificent wisdom and goodness by giving an official report of what occurred, the author avowing that, “You will thanke me more, for suffering the trueth to shew it selfe vnclothed, then if I had laboured to haue deliuered you a Tale well painted with curious words and fine phrases.” 15 The King designed the theatrics, because of his “speciall desire, that euery one of them (being seuerally brought vpon the Scaffold) might quietly breath foorth their last wordes, and true confession of his secretest conscience.” 16 The author gives a detailed acount of the King’s actions, his use of an unknown, imported Scotsman to go secretly to Winchester, who early mingled with the crowd, stood close to the scaffold and, as the axe was raised, shouted to the Sheriff that he carried a new warrant from the King, so setting in train the piece of theatre. T.M. concludes,

my relation may rather seeme to be a description of some ancient History, expressed in a well acted Comedy, then that it was euer possible for any other man, to represent at one time, in a matter of this consequence, so many liuely figures of Iustice & Mercy in a King, of Terror & Penitence in offendors, & of so great admiration & applause in all others, as appeared in this Action, caried only & wholy by his Maiesties owne direction. 17

The report’s final intent was to act as a caution to the people, that they should never “lift vp their hearts or hands against a Prince, from whom they receive so true effects of Iustice and goodnesse.” 18 On the 15 December 1603 those who had been spared were returned to the Tower. 19

The conspirators, particularly Copley and Clarke, had a history of being acclaimed fools and their activities traiterous follies. During the 1590s Copley had attacked his Jesuit co-religionists as “poore fooles, conspiring companions” for defending schisms and had in turn been excoriated in 1602 by Robert Parsons in a libel whose title A Manifestation of the Great Folly drew on Copley’s insult. Parson’s subtitle is, “2 Tim.3. Their folly shalbe manifest to all men.” Parsons divided his book into chapters each beginning, “Their Folly,” and finally washes his hands of Copley,

In breef, if he haue byn a Iudas to Gods church and his countrey, to the disparage of the Seminaryes, &c. And now where yow fynd such vngrateful trayterous and Iudas-like natures to them that haue byn benefical to him and so profitable to Gods Church and his countrey as this man hath byn, what disputing is there with him? 20

(The “Bye Plot,” Copley claimed, was betrayed to the authorities by the Jesuits.) 21 Clarke later responded to Parsons in A Replie vnto a certaine Libell, latelie set foorth by Fa: Parsons, in the name of vnited Priests, intitutled, A manifestation of the great folly and bad spirit, of certaine in England, calling themselues seculer Priestes, published in 1603. His Replie attempts to counter all accusations of folly and all uses of the title fool, showing that “Fa: Parsons extenuating the worke, (thereby to giue a touch vnto the author:) sheweth apparently vnto all the world, that passion, partiality, and emulation hath weakned, or cleane darkned his iudgement; or else you must needs say, that onely Fa: Parsons is wise, and all men else are sots, and fooles.” 22

The conspiracies thus involved Catholic heretics who been publicly exposed and acclaimed as fools, and who were prosecuted for crimes which were their lives’ purpose or for which they were prepared to give their lives (“who haue liued for crime”). In the end they either bore witness as fools mistakenly believing their self-offering something good or, being spared and having “looked death in the face,” they were made examples by the King for the sake of or to display in T.M.’s words the “true effects of . . goodnesse.” To Shakespeare’s contemporaries such “foles of time” were parodies of the true fools of Christ, the early martyrs who bore witness so that they might claim Paul’s title, “We are fooles for Christes sake,” because, Paul explains, “I thinke that God hath set forth vs the last Apostles, as men appointed to death” (1 Cor. 4.9-10).


124.1. Anthony Copley, Another letter of Mr. A.C. to his dis-Iesuited kinseman, concerning the appeale, state, Iesuites Also a third letter of his, apologeticall for himselfe against the calumnies contained against him in a certaine Iesuiticall libell, intituled, A manifestation of folly and bad spirit, &c. (London: R. Field, 1602) 51. Parsons was notorious for disguising his authorship under cyphers, see Introduction.

124.2. Arthur Dent, An earnest perswasion to a Worshipfull Gentleman, and his good friend to continew constant in Christian Religion, and to loath and detest the flights of Superstitious Papistry attached to The Opening of Heauen gates, or The ready way to euer-lasting life (London: John Wright, 1610) 102-03.

124.3. Horace, Satires 2.6.40-43; 47-49:
septimus octavo propior iam fugerit annus,
ex quo Maecenas me coepit habere suorum
in numero . . .

per totum hoc tempus subiectior in diem et horam
invidiae noster. ludos spectaverat, una
luserat in campo: ‘fortunae filius’ omnes.

124.4. See Brown 26, where Giovanni Scaramelli, the Venetian Secretary in England, reports on 15 May 1603 (the date would seem wrong) that, “Three Englishmen, charged with complicity in a conspiracy of the Catholics, have been arrested. The plot was to murder the King ten days after his coronation in case he should refuse to grant the petition . . to allow the Catholics to employ the Latin rite.”

124.5. Brown 70.

124.6. Brown 82.

124.7. Nichols 258.

124.8. Nichols 292.

124.9. Milner’s Winchester I.390. 396 in Nichols 292-93.

124.10. Milner’s Winchester I.390. 396 in Nichols 293.

124.11. T.M. (or C. S.), The Copie of a Letter Written from Master T.M. neere Salisbury, to Master H.A. at London, concerning the proceeding at Winchester; Where the late L. Cobham, L. Gray, and Sir Griffin Marckham, all Attainted of hie Treason were ready to be executed on Friday the 9 of December 1603: At which time His Maiesties Warrant, all written with his owne hand, whereof the true Copy is here annexed, was deliuered to sir Beniamin Tichbourne high Sheriffe of Hampshire, commanding him to suspend their execution till further order (London: R[obert] B[arker], 1603) 3.

124.12. Brown 126.

124.13. Nichols 229.

124.14. Nichols 302.

124.15. T.M., Copie of a Letter 2.

124.16. T.M., Copie of a Letter 4.

124.17. T.M., Copie of a Letter 7.

124.18. T.M., Copie of a Letter 8.

124.19. Nichols 300.

124.20. Robert Parsons, A Manifestation of the Great Folly and Bad Spirit of certayne in England calling themselues secular priestes (Antwerp: A. Conincx, 1602) 98v. Copley’s reply, Another letter of Mr. A.C. to his dis-Iesuited kinseman, is cited earlier.

124.21. Scaramelli, however, was of a view that since “the information was laid by a Frenchman, who put in intercepted letters . . the whole affair may have been got up by the French” (Brown 66).

124.22. William Clarke, A Replie vnto a certaine Libell, latelie set foorth by Fa: Parsons, in the name of vnited Priests, intituled, A manifestation of the great folly and bad spirit, of certaine in England, calling themselues seculer Priestes. With an addition of a Table of such vncharitable words and phrases, as by him are vttered in the said Treatise, aswell against our parsons [sic], as our bookes, actions, and proceedings (London: James Roberts, 1603) 95r.