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Response of Early Modern Literature to the Ideas of Authority and Power: Role of Anne Boleyn

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The early modern period roughly encompasses the time period from 1500 to 1800. This period gave rise to many acclaimed authors, playwrights, and poets including Sir Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare, both of whom I will be discussing in this essay. The literature I will be exploring are Wyatt’s poems “Whoso List to Hunt” and “They Flee from Me”, and Shakespeare’s sonnet 66 “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry”. The purpose of this discourse is to discuss how the writings of both Sir Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare responded to authority and power at the time they were writing in. For context, both men wrote during the 16th century in England, but many years apart and under different authority figures. Wyatt wrote during the reign of King Henry VIII circa 1530, and Shakespeare wrote during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1595.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was an advisor to King Henry VIII during his early reign in England. However, Wyatt fell out of favour with Henry and the Henrician court when he was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. (Griffin) Despite the fact that there was no explicit evidence of a sexual relationship between the two, Henry VIII ordered for Sir Thomas Wyatt and his wife Anne to be imprisoned. While Wyatt was released a year after his arrest, Anne was executed by beheading on the grounds of adultery and treason. (Griffin) This unfair imprisonment, unfair due to the lack of empirical evidence surrounding a supposed affair, is an example of the absolute power of the monarch in the 16th century. The idea of undisputed, and in my personal opinion regal, authority can be seen throughout much of Wyatt’s poetry.

It was during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, alongside Anne Boleyn and other suspected suitors, that some scholars suspect Wyatt may have written his poem “Whoso List to Hunt”. Wyatt begins the poem with his speaker challenging the reader to hunt a “hind” with him. However, in just the next line the speaker reveals that he himself “may no more.” The speaker’s lack of freedom to hunt is interesting when paired with the audience Wyatt would have been writing for; the Tudor Court and an English society devoted to their King. Following this revelation of a lack of free will, the speaker also appears to acknowledge the power of the crown in lines 12 to 14 which read “It is written, her fair neck round about, “Noli me tangere, for Caeser’s I am, And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.” (Wyatt, p. 77) The deer’s collar bears the inscription ‘Noli me tangere’. This is a biblical reference to the phrase “Touch me not” which Jesus is attributed to saying to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. (Griffin) This phrase reads as an order as if the hunter will face repercussions from her owner “Caesar” if the command she be left alone is not obeyed. This command solidifies the speaker’s lack of freedom to hunt the hind which was referenced at the beginning of the sonnet. If the deer represents Anne Boleyn, it could be said that her owner, Caesar, represents King Henry. This reference to Caesar, presumably from Caesar Augustus in the Bible, carries heavy connotations to the ideas of authority and power. Wyatt understands that, like Caesar in the Roman Empire, Henry holds all the power in the Tudor society of the day. The speaker desires the deer, but she belongs to Caesar. Wyatt desires Anne Boleyn, but she ‘belongs’ in a sense, through marriage, to Henry. Wyatt understands that Henry holds great authority that could lead to him losing his position in Henry’s court or, worse, execution on the grounds of adultery and treason like Anne Boleyn. Wyatt presents his social and political world as one, in which the political powers control how people act in the social world. In ‘The Comparatist’, Louis Schwartz describes “Whoso List to Hunt” as a “narrative concerning the relationship between a courtly speaker, the desired woman, and the temporal reader who holds the key to all privileges and actions in their world”. (p.2) From my knowledge of Wyatt and analysis of the poem itself, I believe attributing the courtly speaker to be Wyatt himself, the desired woman to be Anne Boleyn, and the temporal ruler to be King Henry VIII is a fair assumption.

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Another of Wyatt’s poems concerned with the ideas of authority and power is “They Flee from Me”. Albert S. Gerard notes that this is a particularly “obscure poem” of Wyatt’s which even has explicators “in utter disagreement as to whom the poet is writing about.” (p. 359) This is why the reader perspective is crucial in deciphering the message of the poem. Based on my analysis of, and research surrounding, “They Flee from Me” I interpret the message from Wyatt’s speaker as being that the Tudor court is an extremely dangerous place. Dangerous in that one who was once sought after, as the speaker says he was in the first line, can be exiled without remorse. At the time this poem was written Wyatt was very disillusioned from court politics because, as aforementioned, he had been shunned and exiled by King Henry VIII on suspicion of adultery with Anne Boleyn. (Griffin) This disillusionment can be seen overtly throughout “They Flee from Me”. It is a very personal poem that intertwines the political and the sexual. The speaker seems to dwell on the role of politics and political power in everyday life. Although he is “in [his] chamber”, there is still little to no privacy. The political world he was a part of and shunned from is permeating his personal life. He is completely at the mercy of those who hold the power in court, specifically King Henry. Wyatt is aware that, as King, Henry has the power to order for him to be executed if he so wished. The image of a “naked foot” conveys a sense of vulnerability and exposure of the speaker to the authority figures surrounding him. The first stanza of the poem reflects the role of power and politics in people’s lives, particularly those in Henry’s court. The second stanza focuses more on fortune, and the futility of thanking fortune, but is still connected to the ideas of power and powerlessness. The speaker recognizes that fortune is always changing out of the control of the receiver. Wyatt’s good fortune of being a privileged and respected advisor to the King of England has turned to misfortune. He is now powerless, exiled, and shunned shell of his former high-ranking self. While the first two stanzas are highly critical of the authority and power present within society, the final stanza reflects more on the speaker’s personal powerlessness. Line 16, “all is turned thorough my gentleness”, criticizes the power system but simultaneously laments that the speaker is far too noble and good for court politics. There is no resolution at the end of the poem, which reflects the discord and hopelessness of the political situation Wyatt found himself in at the time. He had fallen from grace and was left powerless, vulnerable, and weak.

Although he is famed for his plays, William Shakespeare is also an acclaimed poet of the Elizabethan era. As mentioned in the introduction, Shakespeare wrote his sonnets during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. Sonnet 66 “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry” deviates from other Shakespearean sonnets as it is not a love poem but a lamentation of the corruption of the world, from which the speaker desires to be released from. This sonnet serves to criticize three different aspects of life: the unfairness of life itself, corrupt society, and an autocratic, repressive governing body. Lines 2 and 3 “As, to behold desert a beggar born, And needy nothing trimmed in jollity” (66. 2-3) reflect on power, and lack thereof, in relation to the position and nobility of a person in society. The higher your status, the more power, and authority you possess. In order to be respected and successful during the Elizabethan era, family nobility and contacts of the same class and status was of the utmost importance. Shakespeare rejects this in his sonnet and reveals that, if he did not have to leave his lover behind in such an unfair, oppressive society, he would like to die rather than live in such a world. This resentment of the power structure of society may have stemmed from the lack of freedom of expression for artists in their work, Shakespeare says art is “made tongue-tied by authority” (66. 9) The nobility, who were the authority figures in society, could control the art produced by those they sponsored. If they did not agree with a piece of art, for example, a poem or sonnet, written by an individual they could censor it and ensure it was not released to the public. For a writer like Shakespeare, this would have been extremely frustrating, but he did not have the power to challenge those of higher prestige than him. His critique of society in sonnet 66 was not intended to be published which may explain why Shakespeare felt he could be overtly critical in this work.

Throughout this essay, I believe I have shown how poets of the early modern period, like Sir Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare, responded to the ideas of authority and power in their literature. In the early modern period, sources of authority and power were often heads of states, like King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth 1, or high-status nobility born into their prestigious positions. Wyatt was concerned with the repercussions of going against an authoritative figure like King Henry VII, and how the political and sexual were linked in his everyday life leaving him powerless and vulnerable. Shakespeare was also concerned with the oppressive power figures of the day and wrote from a position of the anguish of wanting to leave behind such a cruel, unfair society.

Works Cited

  1. Gerard, Albert S. Wyatt’s ‘They File From Me’, Essays in Criticism, Volume XI, Issue 3, July 1961, pp. 359 Griffin, Carrie. “Courtly Literature.” February 2019, University of Limerick. Lecture.
  2. Schwartz, Louis. “But as for me, Helas, I may no more’: Petrarchan imitation and courtly sociability in Wyatt’s ‘Who So List to Hounte.’” The Comparatist, vol. 18, 1994, pp. 1-22. JSTOR.
  3. Shakespeare, William. Shake-Speares Sonnets.: Neuer before Imprinted. By G. Eld for T.T. and Are to Be Sold by Williaam Aspley, 1609.
  4. Wyatt, Thomas, and Rebholz, R A. The Complete Poems. Yale University Press, 1981. pp. 77.· pp. 116-117.

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Response of Early Modern Literature to the Ideas of Authority and Power: Role of Anne Boleyn. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
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