being a close reading demonstrating that they are in an ordered thematic sequence, most probably that of the order in which they were written:
Chapter 1. The Sonnets
The Southampton Sonnets
Elicitation of the sonnets: Loss of a child
On first entering the enclosed world of Shakespeare’s sonnets, one cannot but be struck by the bizarre nature of their infatuation — the repeated urging that a young man, aged 22 or 23 and not even married, should have a child.
I From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die …
II This were to be new-made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
III But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.
IV Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy.
VII So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.
What set of circumstances could make Shakespeare so obsessively concerned that a “beautiful” young man should have a son? The only event of sufficiently devastating power and cognitive relevance that I was able to invoke from his known life was the death of his son, Hamnet. Shakespeare’s first child was a daughter, Susanna, born when he was only eighteen. His second and third children were twins, Hamnet and Judith, born when he was twenty. Hamnet died in 1596, at the age of eleven, but we have no information as to the cause of his death.
This is to suggest that Shakespeare displaced his grief at his son’s death into the urgent desire that Southampton, his patron and, I will go on to suggest, the object of yearnings for an elite friendship, should have a son in his stead. His own son perhaps insufficiently cherished due to his long absences in London, he may, in some manner, have already transferred his paternal affection, a dormant unexercised love, to this other older boy. Thus having lost his own male heir, he may seek, in these sonnets, to ensure that this desert of loss will not recur should this currently beloved boy die.
Shakespeare urges procreation because Southampton’s beauty will inevitably be destroyed by ageing, but also on the grounds of his duty not to take his beauty with him when he dies. If it were simply a case of Shakespeare being devotedly attached to, even in love with, a beautiful young man, one could imagine him idly feeling it a pity that he should not reproduce his beauty, and writing one or two sonnets. In fact, a man in his early twenties can expect forty years of fertility, or at least twenty at a time when average life expectancy was in the early forties. The apparently illogical haste suggests the shadow of early mortality – the fear that his young friend, like his own son, will die too soon.
IX The world will be thy widow, and still weep,
That thou no form of thee hast left behind …
Suggestions that the sonnets were written to please Southampton’s mother and guardian are in similar case: if Shakespeare was urging Southampton to marry and reproduce to curry favour, as Holden suggests, the reason he gives — to reproduce beauty, rather than to carry on the family line – is rather ancillary, and his arguments would probably have seemed spurious to Southampton’s family. The torrent of passionate persuasion, and the conviction of the pressure of time, bespeak personal loss, and this — a deep loss misplaced — makes sense of the urgency which the first seventeen of Shakespeare’s sonnets express, and their scarcely differentiated reiteration of a single idea.
Ivor Brown believes that Shakespeare’s grief for the death of Hamnet is reflected in his play, King John, in the mother Constance’s expressions of grief for the death of Little Arthur:
… therefore never, never,
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
and Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me …
The empathy with, the pathos of the mother’s grief are certainly riveting. Some scholars date this play earlier than 1596, which would preclude this interpretation. But the anonymous Gawthorn editor suggests some time between 1596 and 1598, which is consistent with the suggestion of personal experience these lines evoke.
If the play was written in 1598, these words are the fruit of the passage of time, which allowed Shakespeare to look directly at his loss, while the sonnets may show, by contrast, an immediate response of displacement of emotion to avoid intense pain: Shakespeare has deflected his grief into an energy of creation, like the Tasmanian father who built a memorial hut in the aftermath of his son’s death in the wilderness. Neither a memorial nor other offspring can actually substitute for the loss of a child, but they create a presence in the material world to refute, however illogically and inadequately, the baffling absence caused by death. Rationalizing this essential illogicality, Shakespeare rewrites his personal anxiety as the world’s claim not to be denied the hereditary continuation of beauty. Later so philosophical about the transience and futility of life in the reflective words of his dramatic characters, he here (aged only 32) displays the usual entrapped non-sequiturs of the combat with intolerable feeling when suffering a personal loss.
The passion of the first sonnets is, in this interpretation, the externalization of an unanticipated violence of grief at the loss of a child. I therefore place the commencement of The Sonnets sequence in late 1596, shortly following the death of Hamnet in August of that year.
Sonnets I – XIX Preserving beauty
One’s automatic and instinctive reading of many of the sonnets, taken in isolation, is as superb love poems of man to woman; but if read consecutively it becomes clear, within the first few, that they are written to a man:
III Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry.
IX Is it for fear to wet the widow’s eye
That thou consum’st thyself in single life?
XVI And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers.
To begin with, the emphasis is on beauty alone, as the quality in the young man which must be preserved:
VI Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d …
X Make thee another self, for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine and thee.
As this sentiment is reiterated, without qualification, through many poems it begins to seem superficial and unworthy. But Shakespeare is feeling his way within a received tradition of love sonnets, in which beauty is paramount and whose themes are not entirely appropriate to the address of a man. Possibly this fact of sexual inappropriateness prompted the absence, at this stage, of any real expression of the strong affection which undoubtedly was central to their genesis. Perhaps, even, Shakespeare was dismayed at the warmth of affection he felt for this young man, and was avoiding any hint of homosexual attachment; and if, as Rowse has suggested, Southampton was at the time that way inclined, Shakespeare was playing down personal attraction.
The excessive adulation of physical beauty reaches a peak in Sonnet XI, when the ugly are discounted for procreation:
XI Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish …
Perhaps at this point Shakespeare realized the unseemliness of this exclusive emphasis, for hereafter a more personal element is allowed to enter the conversation.
Sonnet XII is the first of the “pearls” which, in a consecutive reading, leap out from the good poetry of the majority to punctuate the sequence of the sonnets. With the first use of the pronoun “I”, feeling dressed in image replaces argument, and an inner world appears as Shakespeare attaches the inconsolable transcience that imbues all the processes of the natural living world, to one identity within the general flood of birth and loss.
XII When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver’s o’er with white …
Then of thy beauty do I question make …
He realizes, or admits, that he is concerned not just with the fading of beauty, but with love, and with personal loss, if Southampton should age and die, as he must. With the change to a personal tenor in the address of the sonnets, comes the change from an impersonal appeal to the world’s right to have beauty preserved, as in:
XI If all were minded so the times should cease,
And threescore years would make the world away.
to an invocation of the parental passion of procreation and generation:
XIII Dear my love, you know
You had a father; let your son say so.
This is a harbinger of the concern with the problematic and vulnerable nature of parenthood – through the investment of personal identity in another – which is endemic in Shakespeare’s plays from the latter 1590s onward. It is subordinate to plot in those of his middle years, but becomes central and explicit in his last plays.
In that the sonnets make no overt reference to the death of his son, there can obviously be no suggestion in them that Shakespeare might himself repair his loss by having another child. It is, of course, an outrage to the nature of bereavement, to suggest that loss of one person can be substituted by another. But in this context, linking the sonnets to the life, one might consider the question of why Shakespeare had no further children after the age of twenty-one. It is thought that Shakespeare left Stratford suddenly or impulsively in about 1586, when his twins were still toddlers. Aubrey informs us that, once established in London, Shakespeare “was wont to go to his native country once a year”. Evidence of a renewed and stronger association with the area only really begins after 1596, the year in which Hamnet died, and he did not return on a permanent basis until 1612, when both his girls were in their late twenties.
Did sexual relations cease between Shakespeare and his wife after his first leaving Stratford? Anne was eight years older than Shakespeare and already in her early thirties by the time he left. At the time of Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare was thirty-two and his wife forty, so she may well have reached the end of her fertility. It is notable that no documentary evidence from the 1590s until Shakespeare’s will in 1616, apart from an item in a labourer’s will, refers to his wife, and there is a similar silence on his mother, while his father, siblings, and daughters appear and reappear in the fragments we have. This silence perhaps suggests a personal and sexual alienation, on which the interlineation in his will, leaving his wife his “second-best bed”, may be a wry comment, despite the exonerating explanations produced for it by those who wish Shakespeare, against all the odds, to have had a happy marriage. But at this juncture such speculation is premature.
Signalling the opening up of personal feeling, the first endearment of the sonnets, “dear my love”, occurs in Sonnet XIII, and “for love of you” in XV. From this point, although beauty continues to be stressed as a prominent characteristic of the person loved and so contributes to the character of that love, and has a value of its own which Shakespeare does not discount, it becomes clear that the preoccupations the sonnets express are not driven by the power of beauty alone, unmediated by attachment. At sonnet XIV, Shakespeare turns to appealing traits besides beauty in his now “beloved” Southampton: truth and constancy:
XIV But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And (constant stars) in them I read such art,
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou would’st convert …
Sonnet XV is more concerned with transience in its own right than with procreation:
XV When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment …
and first introduces, glancingly, what is to be a major theme, completely supplanting that of preservation through procreation — the proposition that Shakespeare’s poems can give his beloved Southampton’s beauty permanence:
XV And, all in war with Time, for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
This idea is continued in sonnets XVI and XVII, although still with the disclaimer that the earlier advice to procreate will achieve this end more surely and completely:
XVI … fortify yourself in your decay [he says]
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme …
XVII Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts? …
But were some child of yours alive that time
You should live twice; — in it, and in my rhyme.
Several writers have commented on the difficulty in detecting, in surviving portraits of Southampton, the feminine beauty by which Shakespeare was so bewitched. Ivor Brown memorably refers to his disappointingly “rather foxy look”, and certainly the two portraits I have seen reproduced show him singularly lacking in feminine, or for that matter, masculine charm. It is odd that no one seems to have looked closely at the sculpture in miniature on his forebears tomb in Titchfield church, a sculptured portrait in which he kneels facing his sister below their father’s full size effigy. The profile that presents readily to the viewer is indeed nothing remarkable, but if one bends sideways to obtain the frontal view of his face, it is just as Shakespeare describes him — a face of startling beauty, with broad cheekbones and full, feminine lips. His hair and physique compare poorly with the two fine men above him, his father and grandfather, but the portrait, taken while he was a youth, has caught the transient beauty Shakespeare speaks of. Something of the features, particularly the full lips, remains in the Hilliard miniature of 1594, but the face has lengthened and become more introspective. The tomb was ordered by the second Earl who died before it was erected, but it was executed at just the time to capture Shakespeare’s beautiful boy. As Shakespeare had feared, he apparently lost his looks with maturity.
The next sonnet, XVIII, is Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, one of the finest of “pearls”, and is read idyllically as a heterosexual love poem. It draws together a number of the preceding themes of personal transcience and nature’s decay, employing the same images raised to a limpid (rather than a melancholy) perfection:
XVIII Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …
It also returns, again glancingly, to the barely touched theme (in sonnet XIV) of beauty of character as well as person — ‘Thou art more lovely and more temperate’. Moreover it is the first to fully abandon the procreation theme, and to claim the preservation of Southampton’s beauty through poetry alone:
XVIII But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest …
At last, in place of expounding the public good of the preservation of Southampton’s beauty, this sonnet personalises Shakespeare’s appreciation of his beauty and joy in the happy conjunction of two human beings.
Sonnet XIX rings another change on the transience theme with violent, in place of idyllic, images:
XIX Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-live’d phoenix in her blood …
but nevertheless persists in the move to the personal:
XIX But I forbid thee one most heinous crime,
O carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow …
Again, Shakespeare awards his verse the high power of outwitting time, perhaps more to his satisfaction than to Southampton’s:
XIX Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
The predominant concern of these first nineteen sonnets is procreation and the preservation of physical beauty. The ease with which some of them can be read as addressed to a woman, and the verbal endearments in the last few of them, may appear to raise the possibility of homosexual attachment. But the emphasis on sexual engagement and marriage with a woman as the solution to Shakespeare’s anguish at the prospect of the loss of Southampton’s beauty argues against this interpretation. There is no intimation that this course could in any way conflict with or threaten Shakespeare’s relationship with his friend (although in the event, as we shall see, this is a large failure of prescience). If these poems were known to be expressions of parental love, which is of course as passionate as any romantic love, we would not find them in any way bizarre or difficult, particularly if they had been evoked by the death of another child. The fact that the young man was not, indeed, Shakespeare’s child permitted the expression of an ungoverned degree of admiration which parental modesty and responsibility would not permit.
It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that so far the sonnets address Southampton largely as a surrogate offspring, though with a strong element of more adult friendship and affection in place of parental care. This was soon to change, and an increasingly dominant element of the relationship revealed in the sonnets is Shakespeare’s investment of personally ambitious hopes in his friend and patron. Although not yet patent, this hidden aspiration was probably at work already, heightening the importance of the friendship to Shakespeare and thereby the intensity of emotion given expression in an initially narrow field.
Dating, sequence and flavour
The sonnets were not published until 1609, but it is almost universally accepted that they were written in the 1590s. There is dispute, however, as to whether they were written in the early, middle or late years of the decade. Writers early in the twentieth century favoured the early 1590s, while the middle years are favoured at present.
If, as is most commonly accepted, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton is the subject of the sonnets, then it is usually concluded that they were written after Shakespeare’s first publishing success with the long poem Venus and Adonis, in 1593. Pearson suggests that as Southampton was a member of Gray’s Inn, and there was, at the Inns of Court, a group of sonneteers and enthusiastic theatre-goers — well-born bohemians — this could be the origin of Shakespeare’s acquaintance with him. Venus and Adonis is dedicated to the Earl but in language which suggests there was no intimacy between Shakespeare and his patron at that time — a relationship is aspired to rather than achieved. By contrast, in the dedication of Shakespeare’s second long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, published a year later, a relationship of patronage is confidently assumed.
Rowse considers that Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the sonnets were all written in the early 1590s. I find this implausible on the basis of accomplishment and style. The two long poems and the sonnets are worlds apart in development, individuality and finesse — the poems dogged and pedestrian, the work of a beginner with possible promise, appreciated in their day but of no interest for their own sakes beyond their time. The sonnets, within their first few manifestations, develop into productions of illuminated genius. Accomplishment also tells against Hotson’s placement of them in the late 1580s, on the grounds of a detected reference to the Armada of 1588 in one sonnet, and hence predating Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Madden argues that, because Shakespeare refers to Venus and Adonis in the dedication to Southampton as “the first heir of my invention”, it must have been written before the production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, his first play, in 1591, despite its later publication date. This would accord with its circulating in manuscript at the time of Spenser’s visit to London in 1589, thus accounting for his reference to Shakespeare in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again. So, in all probability, was The Rape of Lucrece, which was not published until 1594. A time gap of these dimensions would allow the forward leap in quality, in part the result of writing the early plays. But the self-reference and reflection of the sonnets goes well beyond any contemplative element in the plays of the early 1590s. Significantly also, from the late 1590s, there are parallels between the events of Shakespeare’s life and the themes of his plays, missing previously, for which the writing of the autobiographical sonnets would provide the transitional apprenticeship.
Their initial subject-matter also creates problems for early placement. If, as Rowse says, the sonnets were written in 1591-2, when Southampton was eighteen or nineteen, Shakespeare was urging a teenager to marry. This seems hardly likely, given either his own experience of early marriage or common wisdom. Hotson’s dating of the sonnets in the later 1580s is even more impossible on these grounds, but then, he has a different candidate for the young man to whom they were addressed. But if the writing of the sonnets began in 1596, Southampton was by then 23, and the persuasion becomes much more reasonable.
At the time of publicaton of the sonnets, Southampton was in his mid-thirties. In the interim, he had displeased Queen Elizabeth by marrying in secret, had had and lost children (a daughter who died aged four has a memorial in Titchfield church), had been imprisoned for his part in the Essex rebellion, and was now, under the new monarch, James I, released again and a figure in public life. If the sonnets were written for him and had been given to him, he was in a position to release them for publication. More than a decade after the flourishing of his indiscreet (for one of his rank) friendship with Shakespeare, which they record, he probably considered them no longer potent nor dangerously revelatory.
The Gawthorn editor expresses the commonly held view that although numbered consecutively, the sonnets are in no sort of organic order — “such numbering is purely arbitrary”, he writes. This view has occasionally been disputed. Rowse, for example, insists that it is essential to read the sonnets straight through, and, like me, sees them as a key to Shakespeare’s life during the period of their writing. Masson, too, is certain they are a diary. We have, so far, seen the unity of obsession in the first nineteen sonnets, together with an evolution in its character and expression, and the succeeding sonnets exhibit the characteristics of a development even more convincingly — so decidedly that the view that they were randomly thrown together must surely derive from only ever dipping into them at random.
There has been much debate, also, as to whether Shakespeare’s sonnets are an expression of experience and feeling with an immediate reference to his personal life; or rather, are impersonal meditations on the condition of human life and passion, like the set pieces which occur from time to time in his plays; or are simply formal exercises using the love poetry conventions of his day. The Gawthorn editor finds them impersonal. “It is,” he acknowledges, however, “also a subject for controversy among students as to whether any or the whole of the Sonnets can be a description of the poet’s own feelings or not. Some members certainly favour the theory that he reveals himself. But in none of his other works does he do so; they are purely objective.”
That Shakespeare never reveals himself in his plays is far from indisputable. Recurring characteristics in the philosophical outlook expressed in his work create the conviction that it is Shakespeare who is speaking, and not an impartial recorder of a variety of possible viewpoints. However, there can be, and is, further debate as to whether the sonnets express the particular and personal in both emotion and the intellectual understanding of emotion, as felt by Shakespeare at a particular point in time and in particular circumstances (the diary view to which I adhere), or whether, like the plays, they express in objectified form, and detached from particular circumstances, what Shakespeare must nevertheless have somewhere, sometime, experienced, thought, and felt.
Pearson finds evidence of their conventional and therefore, he assumes, impersonal, character in the Certaine Sonnets of a contemporary, Richard Barnfield, which are also addressed to a youth of “worship”, who arouses jealousy and is addressed as “my love”, “nature’s fairest work”, “sweet boy”, whose lips drip honey, and at whose beauty the world stands amazed. Pearson is of the opinion that, ‘… it is perfectly clear to anyone but a Shakespeare commentator that an artist does not fool about with words when expressing his true emotions’, while Bradbrook asserts that, ‘The promise that he will ‘eternize’ the virtues which he celebrates is of course a commonplace …’
It seems to me not unlikely that those defending the view that the poems are impersonal exercises of a set poetic form are thereby avoiding the dread implication that Shakespeare is declaring a homosexual love. I have already alluded to the passionate desire, in the constructions of Shakespeare’s life put forward by late nineteenth and very early twentieth century scholars, to find in him a paragon of virtue, and more latterly, in the mid-twentieth century, to see in his plays perfect models of ethical and admirable character and action. An accompanying phenomenon has been, at least since Oscar Wilde, the not disinterested attempts to claim him as homosexual on the evidence of the Sonnets.
Auden sidesteps this conclusion by proposing that Shakespeare’s love for their male addressee was the “vision of Eros”, which is a mystical, non-sexual passion, like that of Dante and Beatrice. In an introduction to the Sonnets, he argues vehemently for their personal expressiveness (although he also considered them to be in no meaningful order):
‘… what is astonishing about the sonnets, especially when one remembers the age in which they were written, is the impression they make of naked autobiographical confession. The Elizabethans were not given to … “unlocking their hearts”… It is not until Rousseau and the age of Sturm und Drang that confession becomes a literary genre. … he wrote them, I am quite certain, as one writes a diary, for himself alone, with no thought of a public.
‘When the sonnets are really obscure, they are obscure in the way that a diary can be, in which the writer does not bother to explain references that are obvious to him, but an outsider cannot know.’
In fact, the sonnets can both be personal and leave Shakespeare heterosexual without flights to the mystical, but they certainly do not reveal his life at this stage as calm, pure, and fulfilled. Like Masson, the Shakespeare I find in the sonnets is “meditative, metaphysical and melancholy”, even despairing — anything but calm and cheerful, and still less gregarious and rumbustious, as several biographers, most recently Holden and Duncan-Jones, have sought to present him. My reading of the sonnets is that they reveal personal emotions specific to the particular circumstances of Shakespeare’s life at the time of their writing, which in turn depend on his earlier history. There are three sources of evidence for this view, which I will spell out here. One of these has already been examined in detail; the other two will find their place as our path through the sonnets proceeds.
Firstly, the dedication of the sonnets, if properly deciphered, reveals a decision to detach Southampton from the poems, as an identified subject, in a way which would only be felt necessary if the poems were, in fact, decidedly personal in content. At the same time, it disguisedly reiterates the central relationship, the personal history, of their composition. The pseudo-retention of anonymity testifies to their personal significance. (This will be examined in detail later.)
Secondly, there is a major tragic event in Shakespeares’s life, namely, the death of his son in 1596, to which the sonnets can sympathically be seen to be related.
And thirdly, contrary to assertions that the sonnets, although numbered, are in random order, they show an organic and sequential development. From the initial group which resound as a displacement of repressed grief, the poems move through a range of increasingly acknowledged feelings collateral to this documented tragedy, and finally become fully integrated with Shakespeare’s life events, career, and social position, consonant with what we know them to have been at that time.
But let us return to that intimate history.
Sonnets XX – XXIV Is this love?
The word “love” was commonly used in Shakespeare’s day in a context where today we would probably choose “loyalty” or “gratitude”, for the feeling of a client for his patron, or a follower of any degree for his overlord, as in the Barnfield sonnets referred to above. But the introduction here of sexual love as a parallel makes it quite clear that Shakespeare is not using the word in this formal manner. In sonnet XX, Shakespeare first confronts the possibility of sexual feeling in his now explicitly recognised “love” for Southampton, and explains it as due to a certain femininity in the young man’s face and nature.
XX A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion …
However, the poem explicitly denies the possibility of a physical relationship or genuine sexual attraction. The much seized-on lines:
XX Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated.
assert the absence of a physical relationship such as today defines homosexuality. Rowse, indeed, suggests that the sonnet may be a response to the young man’s expressed inclinations, which Shakespeare politely declines. Love, the emotion, is reserved for himself and his young friend, while the sexual act is deployed to women.
XX Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure …
“Treasure” here refers back to sonnet VI: “treasure thou some place / With beauty’s treasure”, with the meaning of fertilising a womb.
In this sonnet one feels securely for the first time that the dominant feature of the emotion invested in Southampton has ceased to be his loss of his son. It has assumed a character of its own, which was presaged by the transitional poems XVIII and XIX, in which the urging to produce a son finally disappeared. As the attachment assumes its own identity, Shakespeare achieves the detachment to reflect upon its peculiarity, and seeks an explanation. The plays which hinge on cross-dressing and wrong-sex love resulting from disguise — The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, As You Like It — all were written within five years of this experience (if we agree to date the sonnets as beginning shortly after Hamnet’s death), and can be seen as objectified explorations of, or excuses for, his infatuation.
In sonnet XXI, what is to become a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s writing, the rejection of hyperbole, appears for the first time, signalling the innovation which makes Shakespeare’s sonnets unique in their time and for centuries to come, their intense self-examination of feeling through verbalization.
XXI So it is not with me as with that muse,
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse;
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use …
This reflection on the stylistics of representing beauty reminds us that, despite the apparent obsession with Southampton’s beauty in the earlier sonnets, there was in fact neither realistic nor mannered description of his appearance, but only the expression of anxiety at the prospect of its loss. Perhaps Shakespeare is now looking back and commenting on his departure from the common practice, which might be interpreted as remiss. In the course of the sonnets Shakespeare derides all such artificialities of expression, and this is a further argument against their being mere exercises in courtly praise.
But the sonnets do not now proceed to a realistic description of Southampton’s beauty, but instead, to an examination of the rewarding qualities of the love he returns, which may have helped to resolve Shakespeare’s distress for his son. It is significant that the love between them can now be asserted to be mutual. Sonnet XXII reflects on the value of Southampton’s love, which relieves Shakespeare of fears of his own ageing. This fear was, perhaps, also an element in the emotional confusion of the first sonnets.
XXII My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date …
He legitimizes his concern with Southampton’s beauty as the “raiment” of his love, which he now values for its own sake rather than as a due to some putative offspring and to the world which will admire it:
XXII O therefore, love, be of thyself so wary,
As I not for myself but for thee will.
A common Elizabethan conceit of the exchange of hearts by lovers occurs in the last couplet and has much of the artificiality which Shakespeare claimed to reject at the beginning of the sonnet — an artificiality of conceit rather than image:
XXII Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.
Bradbrook maintains that, ‘The one convention which provided Shakespeare with the means of making something new, something that went beyond the convention itself, was that in which the lover described the exchange of hearts between his lady and himself’, as in Sidney’s “My true love hath my heart and I have his …” (from his Arcadia). ‘The eyes and the heart were both invoked in songs of this kind (`Send back my own strayed eyes to me’), and debates between the eye and the heart on their mutual responsibility for the singer’s plight went back to the medieval Courts of Love’.
Bradbrook’s comment appears to me a complete misunderstanding of the real innovation of the sonnets. As we shall see, Shakespeare uses both these conventions repeatedly, but it is usually when he is producing “filler” sonnets, in the periods of calm between peaks of turmoil and torment. It is in the latter circumstances that he makes “something new”, finding his own language with a strict veracity of image to express his internal conflicts.
Sonnets XXIII and XXIV continue to explore the nature and characteristics of his love for Southampton. In sonnet XXIII, he is fearful that, through gaucheness, he has not, in person, expressed his love properly or adequately (perhaps not meeting courtly requirements). Southampton should, he says, look into his writing to find its full measure.
XXIII As an imperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part … So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite …
This may indicate that Southampton was to some extent, at this stage of the friendship, endeavouring to maintain the proprieties of the patron relationship.
In Sonnet XIV, the conceit of exchanging eyes appears hard on the heels of that of exchanging hearts:
XXIV Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
The familiar image, however, is turned into one of bafflement. Shakespeare’s eyes place Southampton’s beauty in his heart; but Southampton’s eyes, for Shakespeare, reveal only his presence in Shakespeare’s heart; Shakespeare’s eyes cannot show him the truth of Southampton’s feelings towards him:
XXIV Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.
Thus Shakespeare has here used two of the central images of pleasure and delight in the poetic tradition of courtly love, and turned them into doubt through a relentless empiricism and application of logic: loving another remains one’s own emotion, exchange is not real. Shakespeare’s iconoclastic vision erupts as if he has suddenly recognized that he has fallen into the very follies he has criticized. But perhaps true doubt, soon to be anguish, was also involved.
Sonnets XXV – XXXII You leave me languishing here
With sonnet XXV we have the first hint of a major theme that develops over the next several sonnets — the social distance between Shakespeare and Southampton, and Shakespeare’s inability to break through this barrier. In this first sonnet, Shakespeare introduces as a given that he cannot hope to achieve his ambitions, which, as the images used (favourite of a prince, successful warrior) indicate, are for recognition, and a place, in the highest levels of aristocratic society. The pain of his exclusion has, he says, been unexpectedly obliterated by the reciprocal love of one in that sphere, which he trusts (one would think rashly) to be inextinguishable.
XXV Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumphs bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honour most …
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
Where I may not remove, nor be remov’d.
The succeeding poems develop, with ever-growing beauty and poignancy, this theme of personal riches providing a recompense for social poverty, although the conviction of full recompense is obviously sustained with difficulty. In this group, there is an increasingly explicit exposition of the pains both of his social distance from Southampton and of the perceived failure of his ambitions, culminating in the superb “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”.
The opening sonnet of this thematic sequence, XXVI, suggests that Shakespeare entertained the vain hope that his bond with Southampton would bring him into his social circle, where their relationship of close friendship would find full expression:
XXVI Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit …
Till whatsoever star that guides by moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee,
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.
Sonnets XXVII and XXVIII express his grief and despair at his social separation from Southampton temporarily superseding the benefit he enjoys in that love for its own sake. By day he must work and at night he returns to his own lodging, far from his friend, nor is he able to visit Southampton’s places of consortium, and this is perpetual frustration:
XXVII Weary with toil I haste me to my bed …
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee …
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
He is miserable in a harsh round of work and longing:
XXVII How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarr’d the benefit of rest? …
But day by night and night by day oppress’d …
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
To an extent that it is difficult to credit today, Shakespeare’s success in the theatre could do nothing to further his wishes for higher social station, but rather, constantly defeated them. The profession of acting at that time carried a definite social stigma, and as an actor, Shakespeare was not just a commoner but almost an untouchable in certain quarters. The theatres, along with the brothels, were expelled outside the bounds of the city of London; they were part of a demi-monde, supported by the court but spurned by the respectable middle-classes. This meant that Shakespeare’s advancement in his profession made him ever more publicly an impossible social associate for Southampton in his own sphere.
Shakespeare’s lodgings seem to have been exceedingly modest, and quite unsuitable for the entertainment of people of gentility. Aubrey, in his biographical Brief Lives, considered Shakespeare, ‘The more to be admired because he was not a company keeper: lived in Shoreditch: would not be debauched, and, if invited to, writ; he was in pain.’ This is the same tale as the sonnets tell (his lonely nights), and do not fit the pub-loving character entertained by many biographers. The excuse of “pain” could well have been a metaphorical truth, reflecting his wish to be in other company. So long as Shakespeare had any hopes of rising socially, involvement in the social lives of his actor colleagues would have been counterproductive, confirming his low quality; and, anyway, it probably did not meet his social cum cultural needs. This quiet life would have given him time to write and study. Beyond this, various legal documents unearthed by Hotson and others indicate that Shakespeare had a respectable acquaintance with local tradespeople who mutally called on each other as legal witnesses in various capacities, and in this network were included some middle-class professionals, who perhaps provided him, to some extent, with more educated company.
In sonnets XXIX and XXX, Shakespeare returns to assuring Southampton of the intrinsic value of his love, despite its ineffectuality as social patronage. But now, in addition to the pain of their social separation, we find he has more truly personal and endemic dissatisfactions (to use an inadequate word) with his life. The first of these sonnets, almost a pearl, and certainly in the process of generating one (the “pearls” tend to occur after a number of inferior “trial runs” on a given subject), is about what, today, we would call career failure. The first four lines establish that he feels passionately that he is not what he would wish to be.
XXIX 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 myself and curse my fate …
The next three lines express the extent of his misfortune and imagined inadequacy: ill-favoured in “expectations” (in the Dickensian sense), in looks, contacts, creative gift and education.
XXIX Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope …
But, after luxuriating in self-pity, he touches base with reality again, admitting that he is not entirely ill-served in fortune’s gifts and that he devalues what he has through concentrating on what he lacks.
XXIX With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising …
The poem then moves into the resolution, that Southampton’s affection compensates for all these discontents, if Shakespeare turns his mind to it:
XXIX Haply I think on thee, — and then my state
(Like to a lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate …
It is almost unaccountable on first contemplation, that Shakespeare, who is acknowledged as the greatest writer of all time, and author of the largest body of superb work in any literature, and who found himself in circumstances which both supported him financially and gave him a vehicle for his art, should see himself as unfortunate and a failure. At the time this sonnet was written, probably in late 1596 or early 1597, Shakespeare, aged 32, was already successful as a business man (he was a shareholder in the Blackfriar’s theatre by 1589) and as an actor, and was an acknowledged talent as a playwright and poet. His two published long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were highly thought of and successful, although he had still only the fairly narrow range of historical plays of English kings and some slight comedies to his name.
On the other hand, if his ambitions lay in the direction of poetry, and these two poems were written in the 1580s, perhaps even before he came to London, then he had made no progress as a poet in the decade he had spent in London, up to the time of the writing of the sonnets. He was, in a sense, bogged down in histories. And it appears from the internal evidence of these three sonnets, and the lack of anything to contradict it, that in his daily life in London he had remained largely in the lowly company of actors. His increasingly recognised gifts had not achieved him any social elevation in the capital.
The first contemporary reference to Shakespeare as a writer is thought to be Spenser’s in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, written in 1589-90 (although not published until 1595):
And then, though last not least, in Aetion;
A gentler shepherd may no where be found, Whose Muse, full of high thoughts invention
Doth like himself heroically sound.
The timing is problematic if, as suggested, the reference is to Shakespeare as the poet of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, but nevertheless it promises well. But the next reference, Greene’s attack on him in 1592 in his Groatsworth of Wit is as a playwright rivaling the University Pens or Wits, of whom Greene was one:
“.. there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Greene was apparently furiously concerned to differentiate Shakespeare from the set of playwrights known as the University Pens, who made (generally poor) livings by writing for the theatre, but were definitely not actors. The venom of his attack may have derived from a fear that playwrights would lose their perhaps fragile social standing if playwriting became a co-occupation with acting, and his diatribe would thus be an early manifestation of the history of professional definition and protection by exclusion. Although Greene’s publisher, after his death, apologized to Shakespeare, there is no evidence that Shakespeare was ever accepted into the “superior” company of the University Pens.
The researches of Hotson, tracking down associates in legal transactions (referred to above), suggest, however, that Shakespeare had a social network, with its origins in Stratford but spread across England, among educated men at the intermediate level of secretaries and tutors to great families that would have sustained his intellectual life, even though his working life as an actor fell lower, and his aspirations rose higher. But as regards Shakespeare’s life away from these connections, Rowse, for example, would seem to be entirely wrong in believing that the patronage of the Earl of Southamption gave Shakespeare, “a gentleman”, entry into “cultivated and sophisticated society”. His exclusion is confirmed, and its terminal state emphasized, by the persisting below-the-boards character, as pictured in the sonnets, of his intense friendship with the aristocratic young man whom we are presuming to be Southampton. It is most unlikely, on the internal evidence of the sonnets, that Shakespeare ever took up residence in Southampton’s household, in his mansions in Holborn and Titchfield, as Holden presumes he did during the years of the plague and closure of the theatres in London in 1592 and 1593.
With sonnet XXX, the pearl generated by this particular internal struggle flashes its deep melancholy, as Shakespeare, steeped in his failed expectations, conjures up the deep roots of sorrow and remorse which are common to humanity:
XXX When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past …”
Although the sonnet begins with the failures of ambition of the previous sonnets, it soon turns to the sadness of the loss of valued friends and places with time’s and life’s passage, admitting the very human habit of refreshing the sorrows of the past in resonance with present disappointments:
XXX I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe …
Yet again, the resolution is the overweening comfort of Southampton’s friendship:
XXX But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
The assertion of the healing power of friendship in the final couplet, which has become something of a habit, fulfils the role of pulling each of these sonnets back within the convention of address to a patron or a beloved, although the body of the sonnet has far more the character of personal expression for its own sake. The voicing of need, and of comfort, may, however, also be designed to implant an obligation on Southampton’s side to repair and relieve his misfortune by admitting him to his social world.
The list of woes in Sonnet XXX can be read as the most general of human regrets, but they might equally be specific references to events of Shakespeare’s own life which move and trouble him — totally specific, although the details are not given. We already know, from the previous two sonnets, that unfulfilled ambition was tormenting him. Death was no stranger to him. His sister, Anne, died in 1579, aged seven or eight, in the year when things began to go wrong in the Shakespeare family, and Shakespeare was fourteen or fifteen, an age to feel the loss of a sibling. Very likely he had lost friends in the plagues that regularly visited Stratford and London. A particular grief, perhaps cancelled by time in everyday consciousness, but evocative still, was the loss “long-since” of his first and chosen love, Anne Whateley, to the stronger practical claims of Anne Hathaway’s pregnancy, of which we will say more later.
Importantly, we see in Shakespeare, in the conjunction of these two sonnets, XXIX and XXX, a profound psychic reorientation, prepared by his son’s death, but finally configured by the devastating realisation, at this point, that the wonder and success apparently promised by his friendship with a young lord would not and could not lift him from the low social status of actor to the level of London society which his intellect and sensibility craved. In the first of the two poems, his “outcast” state is defined by his failure to achieve social elevation. Failure and loss can halt a brave forward motion and make us re-appreciate the youthfully despised securities of family and community; and in the second, Shakespeare casts about for the sources of comfort found in acceptance by one’s peers (even while he asserts that Southampton’s affection is adequate compensation), only to find that both “precious friends” and familiar places (“the expense of many a vanish’d sight”) have retreated into the past.
The affections of the past which have been put on emotional hold during a decade of effort to make his way in London are no longer accessible. The 1960s Beatles song Help expresses something of this same experience of the sudden loss of youthful confidence:
When I was very young, oh so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way;
But now those days have gone I feel so insecure,
Now I know I need you like I never did before.
Shakespeare’s new-found nostalgia for Stratford and his origins was to be given concrete expression in his purchase of New Place, one of the largest houses in the town, in the year following Hamnet’s death, and probably not very long after the writing of this sonnet. This marked the return to rebuilding associations in Stratford of which the Oxford Companion fore-warned me.
However, with an eye on Southampton and a care not to suggest any diminution in his ardour for the friendship, Sonnet XXXI reneges on the precious friends of the past, now lost:
XXXI Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts,
Which I by lacking have supposed dead;
And their reigns love and all love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried. …
Their images I lov’d, I view in thee,
And thou (all they) hast all the all of me.
An easier version of the central idea of this sonnet is expressed in a Beatles lyric also, In my life, I love you more:
There are faces I’ll remember
All my life …
But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compared with you …
In my life, I love you more.
But those old loves have merely resonated with his new love, Shakespeare says. They are now absorbed in the person of, and in his love for, Southampton. But this is protestation, and the reawakening of old affections described in this and the previous sonnet is, I think, significant in its own right, as later events will show.
Sonnet XXXII (also XXXIII, dealt with in the next section) still harps on, although it also attempts to come to terms with, Shakespeare’s discontent at the social distance between himself and Southampton, and the fact that Southampton cannot, or will not, lift Shakespeare into his sphere. With pretended modesty, he suggests that his poems are not as great as they might become, should he live long enough to bring his gifts to maturity, but that the perfection of the amity they render into words makes them more valuable than samples of merely more perfect art:
XXXII And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
Behind this, however, can be read the complaint that Shakespeare’s personal worth has not gained for him the status he desires. He refuses to accept that the social distance cannot be bridged, and pretends that if his art had been better,
XXXII A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
The apparent metaphor of rising in birth, status and society in fact expresses the underlying complaint. Provokingly, Shakespeare blames his own poor abilities for Southampton’s disinclination to raise him socially, thereby elliptically laying a challenge of disrespect in Southampton’s court.
Sonnets XXXIII – XLII In mutual shame
We see the relationship take its first real downward step when sonnet XXXIII abandons discretion, and expresses patent disappointment — that the joy which raised hopes had brought is now dashed.
XXXIII Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye …
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face …
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out! Alack! He was but one hour mine …
There is also reproach and even blame. The apparent disclaimer of the final couplet, that his affection for Southampton is in no wise altered, simultaneously accuses Southampton of behaving badly:
XXXIII Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth:
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven’s sun staineth.
Sonnets XXXIV and XXXV record a quarrel or at least serious discord, probably arising from this same issue, for there is the implication that some good had been expected of the friendship, but did not eventuate:
XXXIV Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak …
The harm or insult that has occurred is, Shakespeare rashly declares, irreparable, regardless of Southampton’s regrets and apologies:
XXXIV ‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beated face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, but cures not the disgrace …
Perhaps Southampton subjected Shakespeare to a social slight, through Shakespeare’s assuming an impermissable social nearness. Despite his regret for the hurt caused, nothing is altered. If Southampton is unable to close the class gap, Shakespeare refuses to see that it may not be a matter of personal choice:
XXXIV Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss …
The avowals of sonnets XXIX and XXX, that Southampton’s love compensates for all such disadvantages, are now abandoned, although a weak effort to regain this ground is made in the final couplet of XXXIV:
XXXIV Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.
Sonnet XXXV continues the theme of Shakespeare’s difficulty in forgiving Southampton for the wrong done him. It begins with the platitudinous thought that all things of great beauty have their ugly aspects:
XXXV Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud …
But it seems that now more than a social slight is involved and that Southampton has offended Shakespeare not just personally but in a manner which he finds truly morally repugnant. To forgive this, through acceptance of Southampton’s error, is a contamination of the self:
XXXV All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting …
Further, he argues that what was impulsive, involuntary, or unthought in Southampton will become, in himself, if he condones it with full awareness, a far more serious fault. Any defence he makes of Southampton becomes an indictment of himself:
XXXV For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
(Thy adverse party is thy advocate,)
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate …
Shakespeare is clearly no longer merely railling at the separating wedge of social inferiority as a source of anguish and shame. “Sensual fault” suggests a sexual misdemeanour, perhaps with a woman but in some way involving Shakespeare, or, taking up Rowse’s suggestion, an unwelcome homosexual advance by Southampton to Shakespeare himself in which Shakespeare acquiesced, hoping to thereby seal and equalize their relationship. Rowse, however, thinks that the whole sequence of sonnets XXXIV-XLII describes the turmoil into which Shakespeare was thrown by Southampton’s supplanting him in the favours of the Dark Lady of the later sonnets. It may well be that this sonnet is indeed an expression of Shakespeare’s wrestling with the emotional and moral horror of betrayal conjointly by his two “loves”, one of which fed his intellectual, and the other his erotic, needs. But this interpretation creates such a disjunction for this sonnet’s place in the thematic development of the series that it seems to me that either this sonnet has been displaced from its proper slot in the sequence because, like sonnet XXXIV which precedes it, it deals with internal conflicts and the need to forgive, or one must seek some other interpretation, such as the shock of a homosexual approach by Southampton (perhaps in the hope of placating the earlier insult).
In sonnets XXXVI and XXXVII Shakespeare seems at last to have accepted the social distance between himself and Southampton – that friendship cannot eliminate it, even though it may span it:
XXXVI Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one.
Although the first line could delclare the impossibility of a homosexual relationship, the succeeding tenor is that Southampton will not or cannot help him rise from his disdained social position:
XXXVI So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
The relationship will not be publicly acknowledged, socially or politically:
XXXVI I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame;
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name …
Again, the final couplet pretends to lessen the sting of these bitter words through laying claim to a reflected honour:
XXXVI But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
In sonnet XXXVII, this last sentiment is given greater and more dignified substance, as Shakespeare assumes the dignity of a parent who properly delights in his child’s youthful advantages:
XXXVII As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth …
His pride in Southampton’s “beauty, birth, wealth, or wit” is like that of a parent’s in his child’s accomplishments.
In this short sequence of sonnets we have watched Shakespeare wrestle and finally come to terms with the disappointing reality that the attachment he has nurtured between his patron and himself will not bring him into an aristocratic milieu. In this final sonnet, Shakespeare expresses explicitly a father-son element in the relationship which, I suggested, was hidden in the first seventeen sonnets. But the situation has now changed: the impelling grief of Shakespeare’s loss of his own son has receded, and the father-son motif provides in metaphor a resolution of the bitter struggle with social division.
Within each of the first two major themes we encountered in the sonnet cycle, there is both an acknowledged and a submerged topic, a text and a subtext, a metaphorical and a psychological argument. Initially Shakespeare’s urging of an obligation to preserve beauty disguised his grief at the loss of his son; and subsequently his expressions of anguish at separation and social distance mirrored his despair at his perpetual consignment, despite his great gifts, to an underclass in society. In the course of this third thematic grouping, we can read, in the increasing perfunctoriness of the final couplets and their loss of organic connection with the impassioned reasoning of the body of the sonnet they terminate, that Shakespeare’s driving sentiment has, for a time at least, shifted from passionate attachment to Southampton as to a life-buoy, to a clear recognition of his subjugation to the realities of social class. It is a far cry from the relaxing into elation of:
XXIX For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
to the contrived casuistry of:
XXXVII Look what is best, that best I wish in thee;
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!
The reconstrual of his relationship with Southampton as that of father and child rather than excluded menial and overlord returns Shakespeare to dignity, and he is able to put aside (only temporarily, it proves) his bitter disappointment. The thread of nagging discontent is largely excluded from the succeeding sonnet XXXVIII, which returns to simple praise of Southampton. But the praise is of a formal and emotionally empty kind, in both image and concept:
XXXVIII How can my muse want subject to invent,
Whilst thou dost breathe …
And he cannot resist a self-pitying note in the final line:
XXXVIII The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.
This controlled, non-conflictual (conflict is conspicuous by its absence) and metaphorical tenor continues in the next two sonnets. Although separation is treated again in sonnet XXXIX, its anguish is transformed into a conceit:
XXXIX O absence, what a torment would’st thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love …
And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
By praising him here, who doth hence remain!
There is a sharp change of tone in sonnet XL, the juncture at which I believe the Dark Lady, the real object of Shakespeare’s sexual passion, played out in the final twenty-eight sonnets of the sequence, briefly enters the Southampton sequence, with an ambigous, but also desperate, play on the word “love”:
XL Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all,
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call:
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.
The injunction to “take all my loves” of this sonnet almost surely refers, in a double entendre, to Southampton’s stealing of Shakespeare’s lady love or mistress. In this context, the play on the word “love” is not a mere verbal juggling but a bitter and truly intellectual and passionate cry against amorous injustice. The central passage, thus read, is a straight recounting of Southampton’s meeting with Shakespeare’s “mistress” as a favour to him, and a subsequent deceitful seduction.
XL Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blam’d, if thou thyself deceivest …
And there is a quickening to bitterness in the acknowledgment of powerlessness in the tail of the sonnet:
XL Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.
The genuine affection which was severely wounded, or anaesthetized, in the withering of a parasitic ambition has been revived by sexual jealousy.
The next two sonnets continue the intellectual and moral history of this “eternal triangle” composed of Shakespeare, his mistress, and his friend. Sonnet XLI begins the “compulsory” exoneration of Southampton, firstly on the excuse of his youth and beauty:
XLI Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits …
and then by turning the blame on his mistress:
XLI And when a woman wooes, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail’d?
This opinion echoes the plot of Shakespeare’s first poem, Venus and Adonis, a tale of seduction of a young man by a mature woman (and may reflect his experience with Anne Hathaway, which precipitated their marriage).
In sonnet XLII, he begins by assuring Southampton that the major element of the pain he feels in the betrayal is the loss of Southampton to his mistress, and not the loss of his mistress to Southampton:
XLII That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov’d her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief …
Southampton briefly becomes “friend”, rather than “beloved”, now that love of a woman is also a presence, and the affair between his friend and his mistress is rationalized as arising from their love for him, artificially mitigating the horror of betrayal:
XLII Thou dost love her, because thou knew’st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me …
To reiterate, the woman who makes this brief entrance is almost certainly the Dark Lady of the last twenty-eight sonnets of the sequence.
Recovering from a disastrous adolescence
On this sad note of betrayal and the desperate refusal to countenance its full impact, let us retreat, and take an overview of the tale of Shakespeare’s emotional and mental life thus far revealed in his sonnets in relation to what is known of his personal and professional history. We recall that the origin of the relationship they depict was a bid, via the dedication of a poem, for patronage, as a socially sanctioned accompaniment to artistic ambition. This legitimate cross-class service developed, in Shakespeare’s and Southampton’s case, into an intense personal relationship which was unavoidably in extreme conflict with the imperatives of class distinction of the period. Shakespeare had by now realized the implications of the fall from his origins at close to gentry status which he had incurred by taking up the theatre at the level of actor, and this friendship, based on his qualities of intellect and creativity, must have appeared to promise the chance to regain social ground. Hamnet’s death, shattering in itself, occurred at a time of career crisis for his father.
What do we know, factually, of Shakespeare’s life, as a backdrop to these events and at this point in its unrolling? From the little that is documented in Stratford local history, it appears that Shakespeare’s father, both before the poet’s birth and throughout his childhood, was executing a steady upward mobility from tradesman (he was a glover) to civic personage. He made a good marriage to a wife of superior background, who brought land with her, and he appears to have increased in property, if not wealth, through the late 1550s and the 1560s. Although it is thought that he could not write his name (he signed documents with a mark), he was active in town affairs as both alderman and bailiff (mayor) in the 1560s and 1570s. At the time of his daughter Joan’s baptism in 1571, he is titled Magister, perhaps in recognition of this service and honour. In the late 1560s he may have obtained a grant of arms, the signification of a gentleman, from the Herald’s College, although it appears not to have been finalized at that time. Thus Shakespeare, growing up, would have seen himself as a member of a respected family with good prospects.
It has been generally assumed that Shakespeare was educated at the local grammar school (founded under Edward VI), although there is no evidence of his attendance or not, due to a gap in the records. An alternative possibility that has emerged recently is that he served as a youth in a high-ranking Catholic household where he may have been exposed to the considerable intellectual advantages of a Catholic education.
Be this as it may, in 1578 or 1579, when Shakespeare was fourteen or fifteen, something appears to have gone wrong in the family circumstances. In 1578, John Shakespeare was so financially distressed that he mortgaged some of his wife’s land, and there are records of other transactions designed to raise money. When, in 1586, he was removed as alderman, it was noted that he had ceased to attend “the halls” since 1579. We do not know what the cause was, or how severe were the circumstances, but there is no evidence of his return to public life in later years. The Gawthorn editor notes that, in 1578, documents refer to him as yeoman, instead of glover, and conjectures that he made an unsuccessful attempt to change from tradesman to farmer.
Thus it seems possible that Shakespeare’s natural expectations of a good position in the community into which he was born were dashed, just as he was on the brink of manhood and reliant on his parents’ good offices for an easy passage to successful adult life. This material and social change of fortune was followed, only three years later, by the personal disaster of his marriage at the age of only eighteen, and the birth of his first child a few months later. At the age of twenty, he was the father of three children. No one could wish this on a teenage boy, and particularly not on one with Shakespeare’s gifts.
In 1586 or 1587, when he was about twenty-two, Shakespeare went to London. It is considered likely by the Gawthorn editor that his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written before he left for London, and certainly they have a falsity of style which is aeons away from the plays and sonnets of the mid-1590s, when they were published. Venus and Adonis, dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, was published in 1593, and in the dedication Shakespeare calls it “the first heir of my invention” — although Ivor Brown interprets this as indicating his first publication rather than his first creation. In the dedication, also to Southampton, of The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare writes to his patron : “What I have done [my italics] is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.” The text in italics may indicate that this poem dates from before he was acquainted with Southampton.
So possibly Shakespeare went to London as an aspiring poet, even though his work there to support himself and, presumably, his family still in Stratford, became that of an actor. His acting job may have been arranged in advance, as other members of the troupe of players which he joined were from Warwickshire. But there are also tales that Shakespeare’s original connection with the theatre was a self-initiated holding of gentlemen’s horses at the theatre door, which suggests he arrived without theatrical plans, but was drawn into acting by proximity. There is ample evidence that Shakespeare quite soon made a successful business venture of this move, becoming a shareholder in his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Players, and then in the Blackfriars and Globe Theatres.
Let us consider the young poet at the outset of this venture, leaving his home town where all prospects have collapsed around him, moving to London, and taking his unpublished poems with him, but still bearing financial responsibility perhaps not just for his wife and children, but also for his parents and three younger siblings. Like any young man of ability, born or raised in circumstances “below” his talents, he probably hoped not only to find the opportunity for their exercise and recognition, but also to achieve a transition into the ranks of society appropriate to his gifts — the social and intellectual milieu which sustains and expresses the highest levels of scholarly and artistic culture – which, at that time, outside the church, was the society of the aristocracy and the court.
Ten years later, in the year of Hamnet’s death, although the first part of this goal was showing substantial achievement, there is no evidence that the second was in any way fulfilled. The pressure of earning a living through acting and dramatization seems to have prevented Shakespeare writing poetry, as such, during his first decade in London. It is possible that his choice of subject-matter for his plays in this period formed part of his strategy of recommending himself, and so gaining entry, to aristocratic society. It could seem that the giving of high expression to English patriotism, history and kingship would be pleasing to the ruling classes and make a place among them for their author, although there is also the fact that historical plays were already in vogue and that several of Shakespeare’s were re-writings of earlier plays by others. Shakespeare did not gain such admittance, nor did his obviously wide reading and high intelligence give him a place among the intelligentsia of the theatre, the University Pens or Wits.
By the mid-1590s, Shakespeare had moved from re-writing the dramas of others to his own plays entire — the histories of English kings — and there is evidence that his gifts were well-recognized in cultural circles. Spenser twice wrote in praise of him (by reference, not name) before this time, and Robert Greene’s malicious maligning of him in 1592 is recognition of his stature. Greene referred slightingly to his “tyger’s hart, wrapt in a player’s hide”, drawing attention to the baseness of the latter calling and the dysjunction of the higher status of dramatist and actor in the one person. But at last in 1593, in a period of vacation from acting due to plague and closure of the theatres, Venus and Adonis was published. It was immediately popular and acclaimed, and in 1594 The Rape of Lucrece followed.
Yet there is no evidence that these achievements and their recognition ever allowed Shakespeare to move from the social level of, and association with, actors, to the higher levels of society in London which he must have desired. He lived in the area around the theatres, which were relegated to the outskirts of London, lodging, for example, for some time with a wig-maker. His writerly gifts were exercised and known, yet he persisted stubbornly in the demi-monde of the acting world. He remained a business-man player, resident near his theatre. However, to say this perhaps suggests an unduly narrow acquaintanceship and alienation from intellectual influences, for Hotson’s research among legal documents reveals that Shakespeare maintained a network of associations with educated men from Stratford in the forerunners of the professions — secretaries to great men, lawyers and the like, so that he was probably not without intellectual friendships. But these men were scattered across England, wherever their employment took them. They were not part of his daily life, and did not enhance his occupational status.
The making of a marriage in the right, upward, direction can be a crucial aid to elevation for a young man aspiring to the social class appropriate to his talents. Thus Sidney Nolan, the Australian artist, made three marriages successively at higher levels of the art establishment’s social hierarchy. The third was made when he was already at the peak of his artistic career, acknowledged as Australia’s greatest and one of the world’s leading living artists; yet he still apparently felt sufficient social insecurity to wish to endorse his position by marriage into Australia’s leading artistic family, which combined money and class. John Lennon, the most intellectual of The Beatles, but from a working-class background, in his upward climb first married a local middle-class girl; but later, when he sought to move from pop to avant garde artistic culture, made a second marriage into this milieu. (Recall also Room at the Top, that 1950s novel of class mobility.)
When a lowly young man succeeds in marrying upwards on the basis of exceptional abilities that, much precedent shows, make him acceptable “at the top”, he is more than half way to achieving his aspirations of upward mobility. For Shakespeare, unlike those cited above for whom divorce was an option, his early marriage within, or below, his own class was an insuperable impediment to his social elevation by this means in London. In sonnet XXX the lines:
Then I can grieve at grievances forgone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before …
may refer back to the tragic early adventure, the forced marriage, of his youth, which in a sense pre-ordained his acting and thence the later frustrations of his career. And the reference to laming in sonnet XXXVII:
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite …
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised …
may have his marriage, as well as his acting, in mind.
When the association with Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was formally initiated in the dedications of his poems in 1593 and 1594, and the long years of stagnation were crowned by his intimate and passionate friendship with the Earl, it must have seemed to him that this relationship could serve the same function as a successful marriage, at last breaching the wall of class and status which held him out. In the progress of the sonnets so far, we see this aspiration and also that it was not achieved.
Shakespeare seems to have decided, at this juncture, that his previous strategy, indeed his goal itself, had now been demonstrated to be indubitably, and perhaps irrevocably, baulked of success, and in the recognition of this failure we may detect the origin of two major changes of direction, in Shakespeare’s life and his work, respectively. The first, regarding his social aspirations, involved setting his sights at a lower level, but one which was capable of achievement — accepting that he would never gain the social access which was his natural due, and settling for something lower, which would give a lower level of satisfaction than he had aspired to, but nevertheless higher than he had been able to achieve by his current course.
In 1596, the year of Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare applied for a grant of arms which appears to have been conflated with his father’s earlier application of the 1560s. It was confirmed in 1599. The Gawthorn editor is of the opinion that Shakespeare could not have procured a grant for himself ‘from the fact that he was an actor, (a profession then much looked down upon) and not of a rank in life to entitle him to it’. The claims of position in the application (bailiff and justice of the peace) appear to relate to his father, and those of wealth and ancestry, to the Arden connection, devolved on Shakespeare through his mother, but not claimable by his father.
In the following year, 1597, Shakespeare bought New Place, or “the great house”, in Stratford — one of the best houses in one of the best parts of Stratford, and thereafter there is continuing evidence of his accumulation of property, in both houses and land, in the Stratford area. Whether, or who of, his family occupied New Place is a matter for conjecture, but the legend of a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in its courtyard suggests that this was his place of residence when in Stratford. There is no evidence of comparable domestic investment in London. He eventually bought a house in Blackfriars in 1613, but perhaps only as an investment, as he had by then retired from theatrical involvement to live in Stratford.
A reorientation to Stratford and to his family connections appears, then, to have begun shortly after Hamnet’s death; and, on the evidence of the sonnets, this also shortly followed the crisis of the failure of his attempt to use his friendship with Southampton to gain social status in London. The friendship itself was not in question. It seems likely that Shakespeare, finally recognizing that he could not achieve a gentlemanly position in London where his acting connection, still financially essential to him, dragged him down, looked back to his home town and family as a more fertile and securer base from which to rise. At that distance, his acting persona need not cast a slur, while his money allowed him to establish a propertied basis whereon to build the rank of gentleman. This was a goal far short of, and different from, the ambitions he had entertained via Southampton, but nevertheless a distinct improvement on his London status. Little more than a decade after leaving he began to re-establish his family’s status and fortunes, lapsed in his father, in Stratford.
There is an early hearsay story, attributed to Nicholas Rowe, that the Earl of Southampton, ‘at one time gave him a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he had heard he had a mind to.’ The Gawthorn editor suggests that this was most probably a gift to enable his share in the building of the Globe Theatre, and would have been made shortly after the dedication of the long poems, perhaps in 1594. He also suggests, however, that Shakespeare would not have had any greater need of this assistance than the various other members of the undertaking.
It is just as possible, therefore, that the gift was made in response to the conflict recorded in the sonnets, as a way out of the undoubtedly distressing position Southampton found himself in, of being unable to assist Shakespeare in his ambitions of upward mobility in London. It could well have been offered in order to facilitate the alternative, and achievable, solution of building up Shakespeare’s position in his home county. Tautologically, the report of a gift of “£1,000” from the Earl of Southampton, the purchase of New Place, and the discord recorded in the sonnets, lend further weight to the identification of Southampton as the subject of the sonnets. If made in 1596 or 1597, it could have provided both the financial backing for his application for a coat of arms and for the purchase of New Place. There is some internal evidence for a gesture of this nature later in the sonnet sequence, following a renewed crisis vexed by social distance.
Duncan-Jones concurs (independently) with this interpretation of the legend although she suggests that Southampton’s gift of £1,000 was probably more like £100 (Rowe and legend exaggerating) and that it went to purchase both New Place and the Shakespeare coat of arms as a joint operation — a coat of arms needs a fine house on which the coat and crest are displayed. New Place cost £60, with the remaining £40 for purchase of the coat of arms and its appurtenances — it had to be put on furniture, book bindings, seal rings and so on. Shakespeare’s design was costly, with much gold and silver.
A satire written some years later, Ratsey’s Ghost (1605, quoted by Brown) is suggestive evidence that an improvement in social status was the motive behind the purchase of New Place. It advises an ambitious actor to go to London and ‘when thou feelest thy purse well-lined, buy thee some place or lordship in the country, that growing weary of playing, thy money may bring thee to dignity and reputation.’ This appears to be one of a number of contemporary unkind digs at Shakespeare’s social aspirations and the path he took to achieve them, unless we suppose it to have been a general a pattern. Brown contrasts Shakespeare’s acquisition of property in Stratford with his lack of it in London. Shakespeare’s failure to acquire property in London almost certainly reflects his “bachelor” status there. The establishment of a substantial London household would have been far more costly, but would not have given him gentry status as it did in his home county, Warwickshire.
As noted earlier, the University Pens or Wits were concerned to dissociate themselves from the social stigma of the theatre which attached particularly to acting, and which made Shakespeare, as both actor and playwright, a threat to their precarious gentility. Ivor Brown quotes John Davies’ lines, written in 1610, which are friendly, but make the same point:
Some say, (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,
Hadst thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but, raile as they thinke fit,
Thou hast no rayling, but, a raigning Wit:
And honesty thou sow’st, which they do reape;
So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.
Brown, who was well aware of Shakespeare’s unhappiness with his actor status, and even quotes sonnet CXI which expresses his feeling of being marked for humiliation by his profession, finds this cryptic, but it is entirely in keeping with the concerns revealed by the sonnets.
Acting barred Shakespeare from high society (Davies dismisses this as a real possibility anyway), and may even have stood in the way of his appointment by King James I to the position of Master of the Revels which he sought (see below); and if he had not fallen to this “quality” or profession, he could have “beene a King among the meaner sort” — perhaps the intelligentsia of poets, dramatists and philosophers. This is the view of those of “good will”. “Some others raile” — against Shakespeare, as Greene did — but rail as they will, Shakespeare’s gift has no limits (“rayling”), and he is without peer in verse (“a raigning Wit”). And the raillers, within the sphere of drama, have benefitted from Shakespeare’s innovations and reputation. Brown does not appreciate that Shakespeare was not content with his rising status in Stratford.
The sonnets were published in 1609, five years after Shakespeare’s retirement as an actor. It is therefore possible that their publication represented yet another attempt by his patron to assist his social standing — to establish him as a poet, as distinct from a dramatist, and so diminish the slur of his earlier, but now abandoned, profession of acting. This appears to have been a misjudgment and unsuccesful. Unlike Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, the sonnets did not attract favourable attention and were not reissued in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Their lack of success may have reflected a judgment on the class misdemeanour revealed through the thin disguise of the actual persons so caught in painful conjunction.
Shakespeare’s “return” to Stratford, if it occurred at the juncture I am suggesting in the sonnet sequence, might have been undertaken to establish a permanent change of focus, or he may have viewed it as merely a new strategy in a continuing ambition to enter the higher ranks of society — as the establishment of an outside position of greater advantage, a flanking movement. Shakespeare applied for, and was refused, a position of public office as Master of the Queens’s Revels in 1603, when he was at the height of his powers and his plays were much favoured at court. This was surely a blow to his self-esteem, and in the following year, 1604, he retired from the stage as an actor, perhaps judging that the disrepute associated with acting had stood in the way of his elevation to a respected position, despite the merits of his writing and his improved provincial standing.
There is, however, no evidence that the higher social or intellectual circles in London ever gave him a place within them, while pieces from the pens of the university-educated dramatists who were his contemporaries single out his aspirations to gentlemanly class for mockery. A Cambridge undergraduate play of the period satirizes the actor-dramatist who becomes rich in London and uses his wealth to buy himself the position of a gentleman in the country. Indeed, one wonders if the appellation of “gentle” (having the meaning of a character appropriate to good birth: noble, generous, courteous) which was frequently applied to Shakespeare in his later years was not, in fact, a sign of respect, but was rather a nasty stab at one who bore the Achilles heel of a passionate wish for position — which today society would accord him on the basis of his talents alone.
The second change of direction was in his work, which he now allowed to follow a new bent which expressed more lavishly his own nature and concerns than had the conventional subjects he had earlier adhered to. The conjunction of Hamnet’s death and Southampton’s failure to deliver the goods appears to have evoked in Shakespeare an introspective reorientation towards family and youthful experience, as well as the practical one. From about this time, date the first appearances in his writing of the passions and problems of personal and family relationships.
Shakespeare, let us suppose, began his writing career as a poet as a young man in Stratford, but the necessities of earning a living turned him, for ten long years, unrelievedly into a dramatist. His first poetry was stylistically formal and apparently impersonal. When he returned to poetry with the sonnets, in the mid 1590s, the wounds of his son’s death and his “betrayed” attachment to his young patron and friend wrenched his poetry from him at a new personal level, making of it an entirely new vehicle for the expression not just of emotion, but of impassioned reasoning, and for the review of his lived circumstances — an expression of the savage and joyous interaction of disparate feelings, and of the succour and destruction of his aspirations.
The effect flowed into his plays. Shakespeare began to put behind him the purely historical plays and courting comedies, and turned his attention from the traditional treatment of politics and conventional comedy to the passions of parents and children — to the drama of human life in its domestic and familial context, rather than its manifestation in political and courtly forms. In the years immediately succeeding this crisis are dated Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet, plays which deal with the vicissitudes of parent and child relationships, with the perils of the transition from adolescence to adulthood and of courtship and love, with the pains of despised social status, and with the ambiguities of masculine and feminine identity.
And in the poetic passages of these plays, instead of the vigour and hopefulness of the early “This earth, this realm, this England”, there first appears that note of melancholy in the midst of rapture, of the minor key, of illusioned disillusion and disillusioned illusion, which is Shakespeare’s poetic and philosophical signature. This quality of the disappointed man who still knows that life is good is fundamental to his universal appeal.
Sonnets XLIII – LVI Separation and acceptance
Following Shakespeare’s forced acceptance that he could not join publicly in the society of his friend and patron, that driving passion disappears from the sonnets for a time. There is no further mention of the disruptive intrusion of the Dark Lady for the time being. Shakespeare’s jealousy has, in fact, been turned against the Dark Lady herself and the set of sonnets which express his continuing fury have been relegated to an independent sequence which, without the distinction of a break, follows the major one, which now stays clear of these complications while recording the further vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s and Southampton’s relationship.
Sonnets XLIII and XLIV make it absolutely clear that Shakespeare did not move in Southampton’s circle, and that their time together was brief and snatched.
XLIII When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they see things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee …
How would (I say) mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day …
XLIV If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way …
But ah! Thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan …
Three further sonnets, XLV – XLVII, continue to play on the dissonance of bodily absence and introspective obsession, the latter two employing a then current stereotype which counterpointed eye and heart. Thus:
XLVII With my love’s picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Another time mine eye is my heart’s guest …
The opening lines of the next sonnet give a brief glimpse of the surprising Shakespeare who was so successful a business man, even while developing his art to its heights:
XLVIII How careful was I when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That, to my use, it might unused stay
From hand of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
The sonnet goes on to contrast this practice with the lack of surity he feels where Southampton is concerned:
XLVIII Thou, best of dearest, and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
And in passing he notes their disparity of wealth — “But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are”. This line may, of course, bear the double meaning of comparing Shakespeare’s and Southampton’s personal worth.
The next sonnet is embued with his fear of loss even while it provides a psychological defence against the theft of affection that may come; it is a reminder of his unworthiness of Southampton’s love:
XLIX Against that time, if ever that time come …
Against that time, when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye …
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear …
This last line may be a first mention of the attraction of suicide, which becomes a recurring thread in Shakespeare’s picture of his own and the human condition. It was, as a personal trait, one that would emerge at times of loss of prospects, such as at this point in the sonnets.
Sonnets L – LVI are again about separation, but this time the real separation of Shakespeare’s removal from London and from Southampton’s proximity, perhaps on his annual visit to Stratford or on one of the tours of the provinces which his company was accustomed to make (described by Rowse). Sonnets L and LI make unsympathetic mention of the horse that bears him away. Compulsory and unequivocal absence can be easier to bear than separation despite proximity, and Sonnets LII and LVI make a virtue of the famine of absence:
LII So am I as the rich, whose blessed key
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
LVI Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted-new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view …
Between these two sonnets are three of the pattern sonnets of adulation which mark Shakespeare’s calmer periods. Sonnet LIII finds all traits that are disparately praised, whether in Greek mythology or the changing seasons, conjunct in Southampton, and ends with a compliment whose truth Shakespeare has frequently doubted:
LIV In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
Sonnets LIV and LV reiterate the promise that the sonnets will perpetuate Southampton’s graces. The first of these is fairly undistinguished:
LIV And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, by verse distils your truth.
The second raises the claim that his verse will bestow immortality on Southampton to a new level of power:
LV Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme …
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth …
With sonnet LVII, Shakespeare is clearly in London again, or at least in proximity to Southampton, and the pains of his position return with a vengeance.
Sonnets LVII – LXV Pain and desperation
In sonnets LVII and LVIII, Shakepeare casts himself as a slave; not, however, merely in the tradition of the suing lover, as in the first group of poems, but in the daily doings of life; he clothes in humility an inequality of status which was all but denied in the earlier sonnets.
LVII Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Subservience of the lover is a conceit of Renaissance love poetry, but this expression of subservience does not ring with the pride of voluntary service. It is an unequal dancing of attendance or making of availability in recognition of social inferiority rather than the courtly adoption of a symbolic inequality assumed between social equals. The irony we read with hindsight into the declaration of his lesser worth may not have been so apparent, nor intended, at the time.
In sonnet LVIII, Shakespeare is again a “slave”, and his subservience is bitter and upbraiding:
LVIII O let me suffer (being at your beck) …
Without accusing you of injury …
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell;
Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.
Then follow two sonnets of adulation:
LIX If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d …
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
The second, LX, generalizes the loss of youth into the more common melancholy Elizabethan theme of time and transience, and again declares the power of his verse to withstand them:
LX Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before …
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow …
And yet, to times in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
However, the next poem is again one of writhing jealousy, and one can feel some sympathy with Pearsons’s censure of Shakespeare’s “servile admiration”, for it does seem that he has become unable to exercise the self-control necessary for dignity against the frantic hopes he has vested in Southampton. If, as seems likely, these poems were delivered immediately into Southampton’s hands, the pain expressed is a form of begging. If, however, they were written only for Shakespeare’s own private relief, but given to Southampton later, then they can, rather, be accepted non-judgmentally as vivid expressions of the swings of mood of frustrated strong affection mingled with ambition.
Sonnet LXI harps again (like the earlier sonnets XXVI and XXVIII) on Shakespeare’s “broken” and “weary” nights, tormented by absence from Southampton but visited by his image, and reaches a pitch of jealousy in the last line: “From me far off, with others all-too-near.” Emotion, often ugly and despairing, has gained the upper hand.
Sonnet LXII returns to self-disparagement, but interestingly now combined with an admission of his personal conviction of his own worth:
LXII Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart. …
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity …
Finally he adopts the now familiar conceit of the lover’s possession of the qualities of the beloved; his self-love is love of Southampton:
LXII ‘Tis thee (myself) that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.
The next three sonnets, LXIII – LXV, return to the theme of time’s destruction of beauty, but with a mounting pain and poignancy which lays to rest any suspicions one might have entertained that the attachment on Shakespeare’s part was largely feigned out of self-interest. Sonnet LXIII expresses his conviction that his own youthful bloom is gone:
LXIII … as I am now,
With Time’s injurious hand crush’d and o’erworn …
and predictably proffers his verse as a means of saving Southampton’s from oblivion:
LXIII For such a time I do now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty …
Mercifully, the middle sonnet, LXIV, omits the now repetitious final couplet declaring that Southampton’s beauty will be preserved by his poetry. A painful nostalgia in the contemplation of Time’s destruction of Southampton’s beauty is expressed through images of change and decay, but the sentiment stays with Shakespeare’s personal anticipation of this future loss:
LXIV Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate —
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Sonnet LXV, despite a lapse in the final couplet, has something of the character of the gem of this series. Its lines 3 and 4 were frequently quoted by mid-twentieth century commentators, as expressing the magic of Shakespeare’s power to move us with the frailty of words:
LXV Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days …
O fearful meditation! where, alack!
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Sonnet LXVI The culmination of despair
Just as the first forty sonnets moved, with mounting passion, from urging and complaint in formal derivative language and contrived argument, through the heart’s cry of distress, finding new forms in stunning and unexpected images and conjunctions of words, and ended in the blatant exposure of a wound which appears marginal to the apparent central preoccupations of what went before — so the next twenty-five (XLII-LXV) end now in a new cry of pain as the long simmering erupts to reveal a larger landscape of perceived failure.
With its disillusion and despair at his frustration, despite his talents, sonnet LXVI harks back to the vanity of sonnet LXII. But the emphasis is now external as it sets out the ways in which genius is defeated by the world. This complaint has undoubtedly been made by many an ambitious young person, convinced of his exceptional talents which somehow fail to be recognized, as expressed, for example, in the song from the American musical, Show Boat:
I’ve got talents but they ain’t been tested
No one’s even interested.
Life upon the wicked stage ain’t nothing for a girl.
Usually the self-estimate is inflated, but in Shakespeare’s case it happened to be absolutely true. although the realization of his talents at the level which astonishes the world still lay in the future. Enough of this sonnet’s catalogue of evils have an apt autobiographical reference to justify accepting the remainder in the same sort, although all are also good general exemplars.
So Shakespeare, more than disheartened, produces a pearl, full of protest against the world’s injustice:
LXVI Tir’d with all these for restful death I cry, —
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity …
Shakespeare, without a family background of position or money, found himself constantly lacking what his talents required, while an untalented person in the same position could be perfectly content.
The sonnet continues:
LXVI And purest faith unhappily foresworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled, …
The plaint of foresworn faith and misplaced honour could refer to Southampton’s recent actions, or might refer to his family’s loss of position, while others benefitted; or, if taken together with “maiden virtue rudely strumpeted”, these lines might lament the youthful love affair of Shakespeare and Anne Whateley (if such there was), whom Shakespeare applied to marry the day before the application for his marriage with Anne Hathaway was placed, not by himself, but by two men of no obvious family connection. “Gilded honour shamefully misplac’d” may then refer to his submission to the marriage, and “perfection…disgrac’d” to the ultimate outcome for Anne Whateley. As he has earlier referred to himself as lamed (sonnet XXXVII), the last line may be another lament for the disablement resulting from his early, and probably inappropriate, marriage.
The next four lines decry in turn “art … tongue-tied by authority”, “folly … controlling skill”, “simple truth” maligned as “simplicity”, and “good” work forced to accommodate itself to “ill”, all of which can be interpreted as expressing his tribulations as a junior member of a company, whose work is altered and amended by others less able but with higher authority — both his early and his late work suffered from such tampering. The criticism of simplicity may hark back to the supercillious assessment of his work by the University Pens, as a means of drawing attention to his lack of education. Even Spenser’s kindly praise of his “native woodnotes wild” echoes this opinion, which Shakespeare explicitly challenges in both his sonnets and his plays, defending verbal empiricism — simple truth — even in love poetry. It is a verdict that pursued him all his life, and thereafter.
In this sonnet, thus early in his career and when he was as yet a young man, Shakespeare unequivocally expresses exhaustion with the unequal battle to obtain the merited recognition of his talents. He yearns to turn his back, not just on his abilities, but on life itself. And indeed, Shakespeare could well be tired. He had achieved an enormous amount in ten years, starting from scratch. With his personal choice undoubtedly his art, the priority of earning an income had been forced on him, for two families depended on him, young as he was. A part of the burden of exceptional talent is that it does not allow contentment without its exercise, and an essential part of its exercise is purchase on the minds of other men and women of understanding. To live a life of contentment confined within the preoccupations of the essentially mundane business of family and society is not a possibility. Dylan Thomas, also, suffered from this destructive conflict, driven to write what would earn a living, while his real creativity was put on hold — and managed it far less successfully than did Shakespeare.
Sonnet LXVI shows us Shakespeare visited by the deep depression — not anguish but tiredness — which comes from an awareness of the uncontrollability of life, and finding it too persistently wounding to be sustained emotionally. And it reveals that, thus early, he entertained the wish to be dead, as the only avenue of relief. The allure of suicide, so famously meditated in Hamlet, which was written within a few years of the sonnets, was already there.
To read in Shakespeare’s sonnets a tale of defeated ambition does not imply that the love and devotion to Southampton so reiterated in the poems is a pretense, and that this great poetic cycle is nothing but an elaborate and determined confidence trick. There is no reason to believe that Shakespeare was not sincerely and passionately devoted to his friend. And equally, the fact that his career hopes were, even prior to this, lodged in the Earl of Southampton does not mean that there was not also a sincere friendship from the beginning. Nor does the continuation of such hopes and the continued rankling of their unfulfilment mean that the affection for the person in whom they were vested was any the less sincere.
The adventuress played by Marilyn Monroe in the film Gentlemen prefer Blondes unteases the same paradox when she ingenuously explains to the millionaire father of the plain young man she hopes to marry, that she isn’t marrying him just because of his money, even though it is an important part of the things she prizes in him — just as he isn’t marrying her just because of her beauty, although that is an important part of what makes him want her. The existence of two quite disparate motives turning on the same fulcrum does not necessarily mean that one cancels the authenticity of the other. But Shakespeare’s position is like to Catullus’ “Odi et amo” — I hate and I love — for the disparate motives engendered in him do not combine to promote harmony and well-being. And so the sonnet ends:
LXVI Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Sonnets LXVII – LXXVII Estrangement
As the next set of sonnets unfolds, it seems that Shakespeare’s despair may have been brought to this pitch by Southampton’s taking his favours elsewhere without even with the excuse of seeking society within his class. At first Shakespeare attacks him with praise, but it is perhaps an unconscious sign of withdrawal of trust and intimacy that he changes his address to Southampton from “thou” to “he”:
LXVII Ah! Wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society? …
O, him she [Nature] stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.
In an appalling world, Southampton is the only survivor of a better past. He alone is unsullied in a world of corrupt beings, who feed on his beauty and virtue.
Sonnet LXVIII is a reworking of much the same idea, extending the fancy of the last line of sonnet LXVII, that true beauty and virtue existed in the past, and live on now only in Southampton. In others, there is only their outward seeming:
XVIII Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow …
Sonnet LXIX returns to the second person, and is a carefully contrived criticism of Southampton’s behaviour in consorting with people of whom Shakespeare is obviously jealous, but more seriously, of whom he sincerely disapproves. The urge to the demi-monde that took Southampton to Shakespeare’s milieu has now taken him even lower. The criticism is carefully cradled in a context of praise of Southampton’s appearance:
LXIX Those parts of thee that the world’s eyes doth view …
All tongues (the voice of souls) give thee that due …
Thine outward thus with outward praise is crown’d;
But his good character will be misjudged, on account of deeds which belie its reality, and will perhaps be genuinely undermined:
LXIX They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that, in guess, they measure by thy deeds.
Then (churls) their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds.
This image – the rank smell of weeds used to evoke fallen character – recurs, mutated, in sonnet XCIV as one of Shakespeare’s most powerful.
The sonnet concludes:
LXIX But why thy odour matches not thy show,
The solve is this, – that thou dost common grow.
This is strong, even insolent, criticism from a commoner to a peer, and that Shakespeare could make it suggests either extreme folly or extreme trust. There is historical support for its aptness. Lee writes that Southampton’s character was, by the mid-1590s, showing evidence of unsteadiness, and a suitable bride had refused to marry him on these grounds.
Sonnet LXX is, rather, an offer of comfort at a time of loss of reputation. It assures Southampton that all who are finest attract calumny, and that he has been lucky to have got so far without it:
LXX For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass’d by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail’d, or victor, being charg’d.
He softens his warning with assurances of his continuing admiration.
Alternatively, in these three sonnets Shakespeare, who has a few sonnets earlier demeaned himself as playing the role of slave, may be identifying himself as a source of infection (and assuming an acceptance of the Puritan judgment of actors): he admits that he should not use Southampton as a means to rise to a better atmosphere, and that Southampton is harmed by the contact, and warns of a growing disapprobation which Southampton is incurring because of their association. In either case, lying behind these sonnets there is, apparently, the reality of a public falling from grace involving Southampton; and Brown writes of “a smell of scandal”, when the sonnets were eventually published in 1609, that resulted in their suppression.
The next few sonnets find Shakespeare again thrown into deep depression. In sonnets LXXI – LXXIV, the world-weariness and despair of sonnet LXVI return. Although Shakespeare’s thoughts are again on suicide, the tone is now one of self-pity and perhaps of threat, far removed from the stark anguish of its earlier appearance:
LXXI No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
The sonnet projects the pathos of a selfless love which would have the beloved turn immediately to the living for distraction, to diminish the pain of loss. It calls to mind Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “And if you will remember, And if you will forget.” The background of scandal persists in the suggestion that mourning is better avoided because harm could come, even after his death, from advertisement of Southampton’s association with so unworthy and questionable a person as Shakespeare:
LXXI Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Sonnet LXXII continues in the same vein, but with greater self-abasement:
LXXII After my death, — dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove …
For I am sham’d by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
The reference of the penultimate line would seem to be to attacks such as Greene’s on Shakespeare’s work, and he has himself already belittled his verse for its inefficacy.
After a pedestrian beginning a few sonnets earlier, this new turn in the emotional history of the Shakespeare-Southampton relationship, drops suddenly into the almost placid but sorrowing beauty of sonnet LXXIII – a new gem, despite its extravagance:
LXXIII That time of year thou dost in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
The poems’s evocation of the spare end of life obviously cannot refer to old age literally, given Shakespeare’s at most early maturity, but to a barrenness of prospect and emotion which is felt to be a psychological precursor to the taking of his life, almost negatively — his dying out like the ashes of a fire,
LXXIII Consumed with that which it was nourished by …
this being both his youthful ambition and his love for Southampton, which have become almost indistinguishable in his mind and desire.
In a more optimistic interpretation, the image may only intend the low time in the cycle of seasons, in the sense of ‘When winter comes, Can spring be far behind?’. The nature of the seasons is a cycle and “winter” does not have to imply the approach of death; indeed, in the seasonal image, it should not, but rather the cycling dip of fortune’s wheel.
However, the following sonnets suggest the more pessimistic interpretation. Sonnet LXXIV continues the theme of suicide:
LXXIV … my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife …
After his death, he says, Southampton can be comforted by the thought that in the sonnets he leaves behind “the better part” of him, the emblem of his devoted love:
LXXIV My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee.
The first two lines, if taken literally, attest that the sonnets were given into Southampton’s keeping.
In sonnet LXXV, the crisis of deep depression we have traced, which already had lost its force in the previous sonnet, seems to be past, but Shakespeare returns to worry at one of his recurrent themes, the pain of separation from Southampton. The riches he has in Southampton are a source of constant anxiety:
LXXV As for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found …
— as are the limitations set on their intercourse by the need for secrecy in meeting.
LXXV Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure …
This is a fairly explicit statement of the circumstances I have suggested, the classic position of the mistress of a high-born man — that although Shakespeare enjoyed Southampton’s sincere admiration and friendship, he did not enter his social arena. He had Southampton’s company in private, but could not enjoy a normal public sociability. Shakespeare clearly cannot let this alone and be satisfied with the private friendship.
LXXV Possessing or pursuing no delight,
Save what is had or must from you be took.
Sonnet LXXVI recognises this trying repetition and his apparent inability to break out of it, which he attributes to the persistent nature of his love:
LXXVI Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted week,
That every word doth almost tell my name …
Then in the next sonnet, LXXVII, he contrives something quite new on the familiar refrain of time wasting beauty. Having written so much, himself, of their relationship, he appears to be advising Southampton to do the same, promising him that, although beauty and time will fly, he will be able to savour the record of his thoughts:
LXXVI The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
One cannot remember all one’s passing thoughts and impressions, but if written down, they can be revisited.
LXXVII Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find,
Those children nurs’d, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
This sonnet is a curiously unemotional little lecture that hints at a pedagogical aspect of their friendship, with the older Shakespeare the teacher, which rarely appears in the sonnets.
Sonnets LXXVIII-LXXXVI Rivalry and jealousy
Sonnets LXXVIII – LXXXVI form a longish sequence, or rather, group, in protest at, and jealousy of, another poet pretending to, and apparently successfully gaining, Southampton’s patronage and favour. Various guesses have been made as to who this poet might be — Marlowe, Chapman — but knowledge of his identity is largely inconsequential for the interpretation of the poems and his role. The first, LXXVIII, does not mention a rival explicitly but makes the bold claim that Shakespeare’s poetry has already become a model for competing poets — and as Southampton has inspired Shakespeare, so the virtues of these other poets can also be attributed to Southampton:
LXXVIII So oft have I invok’d thee for my muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse,
As every alien pen has got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.
On the other hand, the praise may be, quite differently, of Southampton’s effectiveness as a patron; he has so advanced Shakespeare that other poets are seeking him as patron also.
In the last two lines, Shakespeare appears to accept the “native woodnotes wild” view of his writing:
LXXVIII But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.
If one adopts the second interpretation, these lines may be a specific acknowledgment of Southampton’s importance to Shakespeare’s further or higher education – again a pedagogical relationship, but with the roles reversed. In this way, their friendship could provide an answer to those who doubt the capacity of Shakespeare’s Stratford education to have equipped him with the cultivated ease which is displayed in his writing (although his possible Catholic education provides a solution too).
Those who, possessing a mental equipment and delicacy demanding of high culture, are raised in a comparatively uneducated milieu, not uncommonly find, in fact seize upon, someone who is for them “the way” into the intellectual world their intelligence demands. This person provides not so much direct teaching as guidance in what to read and explore, together with an example of the assurance of judgment which makes what is read or perused into a structured cultural world in which to move and elaborate. It is possible that Southampton, with presumably a good mind and a good education behind him, provided this entry for Shakespeare. He certainly appears, on the evidence of the sonnets, to have given Shakespeare enough private time for the endowment of this gift. This, in itself, could account in large measure for Shakespeare’s passionate devotion and dependence.
A passionate attachment with a similar basis, close in kind to romantic love but certainly not homosexual, is expressed in a letter from the early naval explorer of the Australian coast, Flinders, to Bass, the friend and associate of his first two expeditions on the east coast of the continent. The balance of dependency parallels that of Shakespeare and Southampton, for Bass was more educated and of a higher social class than Flinders. At this later date Flinders remonstrates with Bass for his failure of reciprocity and recalls the time when to hear Bass’s footsteps on the deck above him filled him with an impetuous desire to rush out and seek his company. (By this time both men were married, and Mrs Bass was far from pleased with the contents of the letter, which came into her hands.) Flinders felt the loss even though he had now achieved in his own right a greater eminence than his friend.
Southampton as a source of refined education for Shakespeare makes less metaphoric Shakespeare’s insistence that Southampton has, in effect, created the sonnets. We may read this meaning further in the lines:
LXXVIII Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
In others’ works thou does but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be …
That is, other poets, who bring the necessary educational background with them, use Southampton’s influence merely for decorative purposes.
The succeeding eight sonnets, LXXIX – LXXXVI, are a closely-argued special pleading in verse. Though vehement, and often more wordy than meaningful, they make their case within the confines of normal, decent intercourse. Firstly, Shakespeare speaks of the depressing effect his rival has upon his own productions:
LXXIX Whilst I alone didst call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d,
And my sick muse doth give another place.
LXXX O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name …
The next two sonnets appear to be a ripost to a defence by Southampton that Shakespeare’s rival’s poems “paint” a more gratifying picture of him than do Shakespeare’s:
LXXXII Thou truly fair wert truly sympathiz’d
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend,
And their gross painting might be better us’d
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abus’d.
LXXXIII I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set.
Sonnet LXXXIV is critical in a variety of ways of the praise which is heaped on Southampton by his rival. First, it is but a copy of Southampton’s excellence, and not an original achievement:
LXXXIV Let him but copy what in you is writ …
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired everywhere.
Second, it is not admirable in Southampton to require such admiration:
LXXXIV You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
But sonnets LXXXV and LXXXVI abandon criticism and acknowledge his rival’s skill: this is the reason for his own silence and failure to compete in the writing of overt praise. Sonnet LXXXV asserts that in thought, though not in word, his admiration of Southampton is equal to his rival’s.
LXXXV My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still …
I think good thoughts, while others write good words …
These sentiments foreshadow Cordelia’s response to Lear’s demand for protestations of love. Sonnet LXXXVI claims that his own attempts are inhibited by the achievements of his rival:
LXXXVI Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
There does appear to be a genuine indication in these poems that Southampton was better pleased with the praise of Shakespeare’s rival than with Shakespeare’s own sonnets. This need not indicate superficiality of taste. I have already commented on the effectual “absence” of Southampton from the sonnets, and they are far from complaisant in their overall tenor. The rival may have provided a more personal embodiment of Southampton in verse than Shakespeare ever delivered, and this may well have been edifying after approaching a hundred verses from Shakespeare of urging and discontent.
Sonnets LXXXVII-XCIX Relinquishing what was never had
Then, at sonnet LXXXVII, something seems to have snapped in Shakespeare’s attitude. Again, it is a familiar experience that stress or anxiety can reach such a pitch, or have lasted so long, that one realizes one must let go, or go under. The death-seeking sonnets between LXVI and LXXIV suggest that Shakespeare was teetering at this point, and the appearance of a genuine rival may have been just that last straw which turned him back towards self-preservation and survival. Sonnet LXXXVII reads as a cool-headed, if bitter, relinquishment of a level of relationship which is not to be had:
LXXXVII Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The giving of oneself to a relationship is likened to the giving of a gift, which Southampton has now revoked, and this is excused on the reiterated grounds of unequal worth. The language is ambiguous, so that the reference may be either to unequal social status or to personal value:
LXXXVII For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting …
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but, waking, no such matter.
Nevertheless, this and the ensuing sonnets belabour the issue of whether his loss of pre-eminence in Southampton’s estimation — his falling or departure from favour — is deserved. But the insight remains, and we can read a profound movement in the relationship. A schism sits, in a way which was entirely missing before, as a harsh reality behind the familiar arguing over worth.
Sonnet LXXXVIII is another example of Shakespeare’s “slavish obsequiousness”, in which he ostensibly assumes the blame for what he really believes is Southampton’s poor behaviour in rejecting him:
LXXXVIII When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art foresworn …
Within this changed context of a real rift, the sonnet expounds the self- sacrifice of the lover who gladly takes on the wrongs of the beloved. Sonnet LXXXIX asks for reasons for his dismissal and brings up again the issue of his “lameness”, the disability of his poor status as an actor. Shakespeare appears to be asking for clarification of the nature of the severance, and expressing an acceptance that it should be absolute, if that is demanded. Given his record of deviousness in defining the relationship, he is perhaps pushing Southampton to draw back and admit a wish for continuation in some form:
LXXXIX … knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet-beloved name no more will dwell;
Lest I (too much profane) should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
Is there a suggestion here that Shakespeare has been insufficiently discrete in airing his friendship with Southampton publicly, and this is the reason for the break, rather than the presence of a rival? Masson, quoting Ben Jonson’s criticism of Shakespeare’s fluency in composition — “He sometimes required stopping” — comments, ‘Whoever does not see a whole volume of revelation respecting Shakespeare in that single trait has no eye for anything’. A lack of restraint certainly is characteristic of the sonnets, even if meant for private perusal only, and Southampton may have been putting on the brakes.
Sonnet XC suggests that this blow from Southampton has come at a time when other matters are not going well for Shakespeare.
XC Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart has scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe …
One cannot escape the suspicion that Shakespeare is drawing Southampton’s attention to this double blow, even while he asserts that it is better to have the worst blow along with the lesser, rather than while recovering. Nevertheless the plea that the severance be quick and now is indicative of a person who has reached the end of his tether.
Sonnet XCI is a simple lament at the loss he is suffering, built on his now familiar complaint that the good things of life which other men enjoy directly, he has enjoyed only at second hand in his friend. Although the gifts and pleasures which are most desired — high birth, wealth, sport etc — were not his, he overleapt them in gaining Southampton’s friendship. But now the loss of that friendship leaves no consoling alternatives.
XCI But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be …
In an intriguing commitment to truth, he places “skill” in his list of the desirable gifts of life, while the reiteration does not place it among his losses.
Sonnet XCII reverts to the suicide theme of the previous section but one, although it is not clear that the reference to end of life is not here figurative rather than literal. Shakespeare declares that at the moment when he loses Southampton’s love, his life will end:
XCII … life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine …
Thou canst not vex me with unconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
The final line, “Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not”, makes this threat paradoxical, and therefore looks forward to the following four sonnets, which assume and accept Southampton’s guilt, but assert its existential unreality. Its lack of real impact is attributed, not to Shakespeare’s obsession, but to Southampton’s outward show of fairness in form and action, which deceives the world, and not just Shakespeare.
The first three of the next group of four sonnets (XCIII – XCVI) take the only once precedented step of actually condemming Southampton, and insisting on the ugliness of a mismatch of appearance and behaviour. With sonnet XCIII, the rift between Southampton and Shakespeare is apparently over. Southampton has denied his duplicity, but Shakespeare is not convinced of his truthfulness, although in his need for Southampton’s love he will “believe” his assurances:
XCIII So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband …
As will be suggested later, Sonnets XCII – XCVI may be a revisiting of Southampton’s betrayal of Shakespeare with the Dark Lady. Both XCIII and XCV concentrate on the deception implicit in the alliance of Southampton’s beauty with shameful action. Thus sonnet XCIII proceeds:
XCIII In many’s looks the false heart’s history
Is writ, in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange;
But heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell …
However, his detachment fails in a final admonitory simile:
XCIII How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show.
The second of these four sonnets, XCIV, is the achieved gem of this thematic group, the famous “They that have power to hurt and will do none”, in which Shakespeare turns from decrying ill-doing in the outwardly fair to stating the virtue of the opposite case — the supreme value of those who live up to their high “seeming”:
XCIV They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit Heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces …
They do not present an aspect that misbeseems them.
Why, then, does Shakespeare praise the unmoved and impassive? We easily approve of refraining from hurt and resistance to temptation, but why link these to clamminess of personality? Is it because Southampton himself has yielded to temptation and hurt others, and Shakespeare wishes to attribute his failings to a sensititve and hot-headed nature? Southampton, after the preceding sonnets, cannot be “he that hath power to hurt and will do none”, “the lord and owner of his face”. In his face, according to the previous sonnet, “sweet love ever dwells”, regardless of his real feelings. In this one, he is “the summer’s flower” which
XCIV … is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity …
Southampton is wrongly, not rightly, an inheritor of “Heaven’s graces”, which he wastes. In yielding to passion, he is “but steward of his excellence”, and the sweetness of his appearance and disposition can mask callousness. While innocent in beauty, a lack of sobriety is no matter, but when he errs, the dissociation of beauty from goodness becomes repulsive. To have addressed such thoughts to Southampton shows great trust, great intimacy, and great recklessness.
If this interpretation makes the sonnet too bold, even vicious, a criticsm of Shakespeare’s patron, it can, alternatively, take its place here as a detached meditation on the ambiguous character of beauty, with its power to move and influence, made doubly weighty when allied with social position. Beauty and position are inherited without merit or asking, and yet their possession is burdened with a moral duty from which those who lack them are free — the power to hurt and yet the obligation not to. This requires in their possessor a restraint of disposition which those not so endowed have less need to exercise. Only this morality of conduct can make their inheritors worthy of the gifts with which they are endowed. These gifts are a joy to their possessor’s acquaintances without any voluntary action on his part; and yet if he fails to live up to their superficial promise, his actions will seem far more reprehensible than similar deeds in one whose outward show makes no such unwarranted promise of inner beauty. As a meditation on the burdens of beauty, the sonnet is to some extent an exoneration of Southampton, unfairly burdened with moral obligations from which the unfair are free.
In the final couplet of the sonnet, a superbly powerful image (far outshining its first version in an earlier sonnet) expresses the corruption Shakespeare wishes to condemn:
XCIV For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Sonnet XCV also, or by contrast, is overtly condemnatory, making no pretence of glossing over an unmistakable wrong-doing on Southampton’s part, and developing further the image of fairness masking foulness:
XCV How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame,
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
But Shakespeare is still in thrall, so that:
XCV That tongue that tells the story of thy days…
Cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise:
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
And there is still tenderness — “Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege …”, followed by a note of warning that even a devoted love can fail:
XCV The hardest knife ill-us’d doth lose his edge.
The next sonnet, XCVI, suggests a return of the fatherly stance which appeared briefly at sonnet XXXVII, in place of the abased inequality of the beseeching lover which has obtained for fifty sonnets. The excuse of Southampton’s youth is raised, and the poem progresses to a solemn lecture, urging the young man not to abuse the many opportunities for betrayal which his personal charm and position allow him The threat of loss of edge is somewhat retracted — Southampton’s charms will go a long way:
XCVI As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem’d …
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
Though indirect, these are strong censures of deliberate malpractice. The impersonal lecture changes to the personal in the final couplet:
XCVI But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
Shakespeare, because of his attachment, will suffer if Southampton, is not well thought of.
The next three sonnets, XCVII – XCIX, speak again of separation, but with a novel equanimity which suggests a separation with an acceptable purpose. Although Shakespeare misses his friend, he is essentially acquiescent. Sonnet XCVIII tells us that the season of this absence is the spring — April — but both this and the preceding sonnet use the image of winter to evoke the temper of absence:
XCVII How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year! …
XCVIII Yet seem’d it winter still, and you, away …
In the second line there is a suggestion of ending of the bad, and new beginnings to look forward to. The separation seems to have arisen from Shakespeare’s, not Southampton’s, removal.
In the first of these three sonnets, XCVII, it seems likely that the references to summer and autumn are also metaphors. The time of separation, which Shakespeare refers to as summer, was the time of preparation for bringing to fruition in “autumn” a wonderful event or achievement which nevertheless lacks its full pleasure because of Southampton’s absence:
XCVII And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lord’s decease;
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans, and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute …
The separation may have been due to Shakespeare’s company’s tours to great houses, but these visits generally took place in the winter. It is perhaps more likely that this was the time of Shakespeare’s return to Stratford and purchase of New Place, and his establishment of a position there in various other ways. The period just prior to spring 1597 is that securely settled on by the Gawthorn editor as the time of his purchase of New Place. As suggested earlier, Southampton may have assisted Shakespeare with this project as a way out of the increasingly bitter quandary of their friendship. The metaphors of “widow’d wombs” and “unfather’d fruit” would then fit the giving of the gift as a means to ending the relationship on its current terms. Although Shakespeare says that the gift lacks its full pleasure divorced from Southampton’s involvement, this of course was its sui generis. And it nevertheless would indicate how genuine was the young Earl of Southampton’s regard for this passionate genius whose needs and demands he was quite unable to manage, wish as he might, in the context in which they were laid.
The next two sonnets suggest a more positive return to calmness, and are expressions of simple gratitude, disguised as praise of beauty. Both describe the spring and the flowery beauties of the season, and have a limpid beauty and serenity which has not appeared since “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”:
XCVIII Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermillion of the rose,
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
XCIX The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair …
The mood of their observation of floral detail is purely aesthetic, and presages the lyricism of the songs which are slotted into the comedies, such as ‘It was a lover and his lass’ and ‘A poor soul sat sighing’. Their tone perhaps indicates that Shakespeare was for the time satisfied and encouraged by the New Place venture.
Sonnet XCIX, however, makes a reversion to the festering flowers of the earlier sonnets:
XCIX The roses …
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stolen both …
But for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
This sonnet has something of the quality of a virtuoso performance in showing that the same metaphor can be turned to quite opposite purposes. The flowers have stolen Southampton’s qualities to deck themselves in beauty. But their features, given figurative meaning, can sinisterly reflect on the outcome of an attempt to use another’s qualities as one’s own. Shakespeare’s attempt to draw on Southampton’s position has endowed him with shame, despair, and a death wish. Its intrusion casts a shadow over the suggestion, otherwise, in these sonnets of a successful resolution — the entry not just of peace, but of joy — of the conflict and the turmoil which we saw reaching breaking point several sonnets back. Southampton has shown that he is, after all, worthy of his outward show, but a simmering malaise persists. The mannered images of sonnet XCIX should be recalled when we come to the Dark Lady sonnet, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, in which just such hyperbole is derided.
This exercise is significant for the emotional autobiography we are tracing here, but also for the biography of Shakespeare’s professional development. The impulse to make words true to reality, whether of the objective or the subjective worlds (as physical beauty and as emotional response, respectively) – explicitly affirmed in the first case, practised ruthlessly in the second – parallels the empiricism advocated by Bacon, at much the same time, for science. This tour de force is a reminder of the treacherousness of image and the intricacy of the path of empiricism within art.
From this point in the sonnet sequence, with the crisis of Hamnet’s death separated from his relationship with Southampton, and the disappointment of his hopes of social elevation at least temporarily dealt with, Shakespeare’s drive to constant and urgent production diminishes. At times, the emotions exhibited in the sonnets – the projection onto Southampton of the need to procreate and the professed dependent, subservient love – have called to mind the panic fear of Thorndike’s cat in the puzzle box. They have been like the cat’s flailing before it finds the loop of string to pull, which opens the door to escape. But, as in so many real life situations, there is no single string and no permanent escape, and acquiescence is the only resolution. A sort of “string” has been identified in the strategy of building a position in Stratford, although this may have provided, in the longer term, only a passage to another box. But for the moment, it looks like rescue.
Sonnets C – CVIII Return to friendship
The previous three sonnets indicated a pause in the emotional impetus of the relationship with Southampton, while Shakespeare was away, doing business in Stratford. Now, on his return, there is no return to the old flow of adulation in verse, and in these next sonnets Shakespeare seeks reasons, or apologizes, for a departure from what has been the chief badge of his “faith”, his passionate declarations of admiration. Their cessation, following a large gift of money, might make the whole earlier performance look contrived and deceptive. So Shakespeare apologizes for their absence. In sonnets C and CI, he queries his lack of production, invoking his “Muse” with an artificiality quite absent in the earlier poems of despair, and returns to the familiar refrain of the importance of giving Southampton’s beauty permanence in verse.
C Where art thou, Muse, that thou forgett’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Sonnet CI affirms what he had denied so recently, that “truth” is a significant element in Southampton’s worth, and this affirmation is a lasting presence in the subsequent sonnets of the Southampton sequence.
CI O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dy’d?
No longer is Southampton’s beauty a mask for lasciviousness. It is an expression of his true worth, and this turnabout is in keeping with gratitude for, and a conviction of the goodwill, realized in the gift of money for Shakespeare’s grand Stratford house and coat of arms of my hypothesis. Sonnet CI declares that truth needs no representation, and CIII that Shakespeare’s poor words detract from, rather than enhance, Southampton’s beauty:
CIII Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite …
And more, much more than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you, when you look in it.
These sentiments did not stand in the way of his versifying for a previous one hundred sonnets; but now that the passion of his pursuit of favour has been allayed, the impetus to writing sonnets of personal praise has apparently evaporated.
Sonnet CII, interleaved, is more thoughtful. Shakespeare asks himself if the loss of the urge to write is a sign of lessened love, and declares that it is not:
CII My love is strengthen’d, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appears; …
Two new thoughts emerge: that to display love is to cheapen it (but again, what does this make of the preceding hundred sonnets?); and that too much expression, even of praise, will weary — as indeed it may have.
CII That love is merchandiz’d whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
The slowed pace is, he says, part of a natural progression, as novelty moves into custom: the nightingale sings to greet the spring but falls silent in summer, even though summer is as pleasant as spring:
CII Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays,
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days …
In sonnet CIV, Shakespeare reflects that he has known Southampton for three years, and that in that time there has been no lessening of his beauty.
CIV To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.
But he knows that inevitably the processes of disintegration have been at work; and he declares, histrionically, that no like beauty will ever be again:
CIV For fear of which [loss of his beauty], hear this, thou age unbred,
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead.
In the course of the Southampton sequence, the word “beauty” seems often to stand in for the meaning “friendship”, perhaps a sort of code to maintain the appearance of patronage rather than intimacy, and the concentration on Southampton’s eyes may have a second meaning of favour to Shakespeare — his eyes are beautiful in that they look on him and acknowledge his worth.
The special interest of this poem is that it provides some corroborative evidence for the dating of the sonnets I have suggested. It declares that their first meeting (“when first your eye I eyed”) dates back three years:
CIV … Three winters’ cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride …
How does this fit into the backdrop I have hypothesized? If we suppose that Shakespeare knew the Earl of Southampton before the dedication of Venus and Adonis there are problems; but if we follow Ivor Brown’s suggestion, based on the change in tone between the first and second dedications, that the personal acquaintance began as a result of the first dedication and is confirmed by the second, then the fit is perfect. If Shakespeare and Southampton first met in 1594, then three years takes us to 1597, past the death of Hamnet in 1596, and into the year in which Shakespeare acquired New Place and the year in which there is first evidence of property negotiations on his part in Stratford. The renegotiations for a Shakespeare coat of arms began two years earlier, but there is no absolute necessity to connect them with this period of crisis. They were, after all, a continuation of an earlier interest of his father’s, and he may have hoped the outcome would benefit him in London, rather than Stratford.
Sonnets CV – CVIII maintain a high, but not the highest, expression. Sonnet CV parries a possible criticism of his extravagant praises of Southampton:
CV Let not my love be call’d idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be,
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
It is justified by the unchanging conjunction in Southampton of the very qualitites whose dislocation Shakespeare had earlier berated:
CV Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true varying to other words …
Sonnet CVI stakes Southampton’s claim to superlative beauty in time past, balancing the same claim for time future in sonnet CIV: just as the future will not know the perfection of beauty that is Southampton, neither did the past. This sonnet begins with the flow and accumulation of plangent image which typically create a “pearl”:
CVI When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights …
but unfortunately falters and peters out in the familiar unconvincing declarations of Southampton’s perfection and his own unworthiness.
Sonnet CVII, too, begins bravely with a beautiful expression of the certainty of his continued love amid the uncertainties of life:
CVII Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul,
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Suppos’d as forfeit to a confin’d doom.
but ends with the now tiresome assurance that his poems will outlast monuments et cetera. Sonnet CVIII defends the repetitiousness of his sentiments:
CVIII What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o’er the very same …
The advantage of repetition is, he says, that it keeps love fresh:
CVIII Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward forms would show it dead.
Sonnets CIX – CXXI The hurt I did
Following the interlude of these reassuring sonnets, there is a long sequence of thirteen, CIX – CXXI, which deal retrospectively with the period of scandal, distrust and bitterness which preceded Southampton’s (hypothesized) decisive attempt to achieve resolution and reconciliation. They exhibit what is something of a pattern in the sonnets, of expressing a woe passionately, then retreating and apparently returning to “normality” and forgetting it, but in fact sitting on it for a space, only to resurrect and examine it, and construct good out of the ill that has been experienced.
At first, these sonnets appear to be replying to expressions of hurt and wrong reverting back to that period that are now ventured by Southampton. In sonnet CIX, Shakespeare declares that, despite his alienation, anger and bitterness at the time, his heart, his real affection, was never changed and could not be:
CIX O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify!
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie …
CIX Never believe, though in my nature reign’d
All frailties that beseige all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good …
In CX, he expresses regret that he paraded his supposed wrongs rather than kept them private:
CX Alas, ‘tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view …
and saw wrong where there was none:
CX … I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely …
But these offences, he says, have made his love stronger:
CX These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worst essays prov’d thee my best of love.
There is a suggestion that he acted badly, in reaction to a false suspicion:
CX Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend.
Sonnet CXI acknowledges Southampton’s commiseration with Shakespeare over the ill hand dealt him by fortune; and Shakespeare now admits that neither Southampton, nor anyone, can alter the “brand” of his employment in the theatre.
CXI O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide,
Than public means, which public manners breeds.
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand …
Does this mean that not only is Shakespeare held down by the fact of his profession, but also that, unavoidably, moving in such circles has coarsened his manners in subtle ways, or worse, his very nature has taken “strong infection”, for which a cure is needed:
CXI … like a willing patient I will drink
Potions of eysell, ‘gainst my strong infection…
Certainly his expression of his feelings has not exhibited a seemly restraint. Southampton will be his medicine, he says, the bitterness of which he will receive gladly. Again, as so often, a slick optimism in the final couplet belies the pessimism of the body of the sonnet, as if Shakespeare touches his cap and reverts, with a conscious sardonic gesture, from the cruel lucidity of his own vision to the poetic propriety of the sonnet form — or to the requirements of decency which Southampton represents.
CXI Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.
Sonnet CXII speaks of the lasting impression which the scandal has created, but it is unclear whether this is the recent scandal in which both were involved, or whether, since it appears it adheres to him but not to Southampton, it is the long hand of whatever went wrong in his parental family in his youth, by which he is marked. But he is determined that Southampton’s good opinion will outweigh all other — a demonstrably unstable determination in the course of the earlier sonnets:
CXII Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp’d upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
Do you o’ergreen my bad, my good allow?
Sonnet CXIII begins with the words, “Since I left you”, which, together with a reference to absence in sonnet CIX, suggest a continuation of physical separation. Perhaps Shakespeare was still in Stratford, or perhaps there was an agreement to attenuate the frequency of companionship, as a means to dampen the scandal and the passions which caused it. It describes Southampton’s ever-presence in his perceptions, to the extent that his form supersedes present reality, much as in sonnet XCVIII he spoke of his failure to see the spring:
CXIII The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature,
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue.
Sonnet CXIV develops a curious inversion of thought to explain Southampton’s perfection in his eyes: because of his love, he himself is gratified by the praise he offers — flattery “with his gust is ‘greeing”. This is an interesting subjective distancing, given the paeans of praise he has heaped on his friend. But sonnet CXV returns to the thought of sonnet CX, that the period of misunderstanding has increased his love for Southampton in its wake:
CXV Those lines that I have writ before do lie;
Even those that said I could not love you dearer …
And indeed, the surety of affection demonstrated by a costly gift attempting to retrieve his position could have changed his affection into something less volatile, more stable, and therefore larger and deeper. The knowledge that time can cause decay, he says, made him sure that his love was at its height, whereas in fact it was still growing:
CXV But reckoning time, whose million’d accidents,
Creep in twixt vows, and change decrees of kings …
Alas! Why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, “Now I love you best”,
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Sonnet CXVI, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”, is the pearl for which this group of sonnets have generated the heat for “lift off”. Its central image was presaged, pedestrianly, in sonnet CIX:
CIX That is my home of love; if I have rang’d,
Like him that travels, I return again …
But we now have the perfection of:
CXVI Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Shakespeare’s and Southampton’s friendship has survived a major catastrophe in which each doubted the other and felt betrayed; but it has survived, and is stronger than before.
The crisis to which Southampton is reverting may not have been entirely caused by the differences of station that Shakespeare so badly wished to overcome, but could not; it may, as references in sonnets CXVII and CXVIII suggest, have been triggered by rivalry or jealousy involving the Dark Lady of the second group of sonnets. But the friendship is, after all, intact. Therefore Shakespeare is able to say with confidence that such “impediments” do not stand in the way of “the marriage of true minds”. Love which is founded on quality or virtue is above class and extraneous attachments.
Having maintained this love for three years, in which he has been rather more than convinced of the transience of beauty and love, Shakespeare is now able to assert that:
CXVI Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come …
Although anyone knowing the capacity of love to dwindle and die must have doubts about the durability of his own, no matter how keenly felt, now Shakespeare feels this friendship is permanently assured:
CXVI If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
And indeed the publication of the sonnets in 1509, if by Southampton, is evidence of its long term endurance.
The “pearls” rarely complete a sequence, and sonnet CXVII returns to Southampton’s accusation that Shakespeare has been untrue to him in seeking other company — a reversal of their normal roles in the making of complaints.
CXVII Accuse me thus: that I …
Forgot upon your dearest love to call …
That I have frequent been with unknown minds …
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.
Was this because Shakespeare, as it were, took the advice a Dorothy Dix might offer the heartsore: Find other friends and take up a hobby; or even the less proper: Pretend to be interested in someone else, to excite his jealousy. Southampton clearly did not appreciate this “strategy” at the time of his efforts in compensation. It seems to have hurt him keenly, for Shakespeare, while accepting his disapproval, begs him not to hate him — “But shoot not at me in your waken’d hate” — and offers the insulting extenuation that he was testing his love.
Sonnet CXVIII further explains Shakespeare’s unfriendly actions in terms familiar to the lovesick, as an attempt to prepare for loss by seeking absence, and again rather insultingly, that he was guarding against the cloying of requited perfect love by seeking bitter contrast:
CXVIII As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness, when we purge;
Even so, being full of your ne’er cloying sweetness
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding.
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseas’d, ere that there was true needing.
But the last line admits that this was not a good policy:
CXVIII But thence I learn, to find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that fell so sick of you.
Despite the implication of a numerous company in sonnet CXVII, it is possible that the reference in these two sonnets is to a renewed pursuit of the Dark Lady, to which Shakespeare returned when Southampton drew away. The same metaphors of sweetness and disease recur in the sonnets of the Dark Lady sequence, and the metaphor of “poison” is contiguously, if the two sets of sonnets were written contemporaneously, applied to the Dark Lady.
Sonnet CXIX is a further reflection on the confused state he was in, which made him act in this self-defeating way. Its invocation of “foul as hell within”, which is a constant of the Dark Lady sonnets, strengthens the likelihood that a continued infatuation with the Dark Lady elicited Southampton’s reprimands:
CXIX What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecs foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
The self-accusation of this sonnet turns the excuses of the previous two sonnets into mere superficial evasion. Shakespeare’s defection was autonomously real, not just a palliative excursion.
CXIX What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,
In the distraction of this madding fever!
Finally comes the apparently obligatory assurance that anything that goes wrong only ends by making his love for Southampton the stronger:
CXIX And ruin’d love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first …
But the fact remains that a heterosexual passion has been strong enough to make Shakespeare put at risk a relationship which he has clung to as essential to his spirit and to his ambitions. It has reasserted itself when the relationship of same sex patronage it disrupted has borne all the fruit it seems likely to produce.
Sonnet CXX is a moving sonnet, seeking reconciliation by asserting equality in error. Earlier, Southampton hurt Shakespeare badly, as we saw in the first cycle of grief, anger and separation; now Shakespeare has hurt Southampton in like measure:
CXX For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you have pass’d a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffer’d in your crime.
His regret is that recall of his own earlier hurt did not moderate his action and give him insight into his friend’s feelings. But now they are quits:
CXX But that your trespass now becomes a fee:
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
Sonnet CXXI returns to the scandal which began this cycle of trouble. It is a complex poem which begins with the thought that the truly vile person is happier than he who is wrongly believed to be so.
CXXI ‘Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d,
When not to be receives reproach of being.
This echoes the earlier sentiment, that to have one’s quality misplaced, as Shakespeare’s is, is worse than to have none, to be properly low-grade. But it is not in this case a generalized reflection on Shakespeare’s social condition, for the poem progresses to make it clearer that a particular act of Shakespeare’s, a course of action, is its real subject. Shakespeare admits that he erred somewhat, but avows that his error has been supposed far greater that it was, and that the false suspicions reflect the lack of standards and the common behaviour of those who condemn him:
CXXI For why should others false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
The adjectival implication of adultery in this sonnet is more fully admitted in the Dark Lady sonnets. But Shakespeare seems also to be saying that actions must be judged in context, and that it is simplistic to see only the act and not its purport. Thus he makes a plea for moral relativity which is both insightful and dangerous:
CXXI No. — I am that I am; and they that level
At my abuses, reckon up their own:
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown …
Sonnets CXXII – CXXVI Farewell to desire
The four sonnets CXXII – CXXV form, in effect, a ralentando for the whole sequence of Southampton sonnets, a winding down which allows their production to cease without its being taken as a sign of lessening of Shakespeare’s affections, as he appeared to fear in his earlier “evocations of his Muse”. Sonnet CXXII asserts that his love is recorded eternally (within the scope of nature) in his brain, and that therefore he needs no external records, such as written sonnets:
CXXII Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character’d with lasting memory
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or at the least so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist …
As the sonnet proceeds it appears that he may, literally, and not metaphorically, have given away his copies (tables) of the sonnets, probably to Southampton. (This would give him full control of their publication later):
CXXII Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me I was bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more …
Obviously, writing at such pace could not go on forever, and once the driving passion, whether of love or hope of social profit, was gone, so was the pressure which forced the sonnets into existence. What had been a necessary release, or was conceived as a key to his future, would become a mere task, and by despatching the lot Shakespeare could, in effect, cut his traces and free himself of the nagging obligation to add to the sequence. In any case, Southampton was no doubt concerned at their potential for scandal, the more so as some had already been filched and published in a pirated collection, The Passionate Pilgrim.
In sonnet CXXIII, Shakespeare elaborates on the ability of his love (not his poetry) to withstand the metamorphoses of unfolding events.
CXXIII Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
This is a difficult sonnet to fully understand, word for word, but it appears to be a statement of relativism worthy of post-modernist theory, which Shakespeare promptly discards in favour of the factuality of his attachment to Southampton.
CXXIII Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire,
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Now that Shakespeare is certain of the permanence of his love, striving for extraneous forms of permanence, which will soon become uninterpretable, is unnecessary:
CXXIII I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
In sonnet CXXIV, Shakespeare has accepted that the Earl of Southampton cannot really help him as he desired; and neither can Shakespeare really benefit Southampton, other than through the unworldly good of a creative friendship. He declares that his love is not of a mercenary or self-serving nature:
CXXIV If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d …
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent …
Existing across class and beyond mutual practical benefit, it is a force in itself:
CXXIV It all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
These assurances perhaps reflect a nagging doubt in Shakespeare’s mind that such expectations might in fact have been the real origin, or at least a real part, of his passionate attachment to Southampton.
Sonnet CXXV combines elements of all of the previous three sonnets. In the first four lines we are reminded of the weight Shakespeare has given his sonnets in securing honour to Southampton. The eternity he promised has, he says, been less than brief:
CXXV Were it aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Perhaps Southampton told him that he had destroyed the sonnets given into his keeping and Shakespeare replies that he does not care. He has seen enough of the world not to have expected otherwise. Their exaggeration, or artificiality, meant that he risked the imputation of hypocrisy that all who sue for favour suffer, and he knew it:
CXXV Have I not seen dweller on form or favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent.
What dwells in his heart is more important than public protestation, feeling is more important than art in words:
CXXV No; — let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free…
The final two lines of the sonnet are difficult to interpret in the preceding terms, and perhaps are addressed to the Dark Lady, the “suborn’d informer”, source of their most recent misunderstanding. They assert again that true love thrives under, rather than is destroyed by, malicious attack and exposure:
CXXV Hence thou subborn’d informer! a true soul,
When most impeach’d, stands least in thy control.
In all, the sonnet confesses to flattery, but insists there was deep affection as well.
The Southampton sequence, despite its frequent obfuscation by the allure of status and position, rather than constituting a formal cycle of poems of love or of patronage, documents the intensity of a friendship born of intellectual loneliness. Southampton offered Shakespeare a quality of intellectual interaction which he found nowhere else, and the drive to such “marriage of true minds” is indeed, as surely as the drive to mate, a form of love.
The final poem of the Southampton sequence, CXXVI, which at first I suspected might really belong in the Dark Lady sequence, or at least to be transitional, looking back and forwards, is on closer examination a careful, if disguised, reflection on the whole mad whirl of emotion and mental agony of the previous 125 sonnets, sober and summatory. It abandons the sonnet form, and is a series of six couplets. Wraight points out that in Thorpe’s original edition, the two “missing” lines are marked by empty brackets. (We cannot know whether this simply draws attention to the departure from the standard 14 lines, or whether perhaps some “answer” to the mystery of the sonnets had been included here, but was politicly deleted.) The Gawthorn edition nevertheless prints the final couplet with the usual indentation, and it retains something of its habitual twist of viewpoint.
CXXVI O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who has by waning grown, and therein showst
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st!
“My lovely boy”, whom Shakespeare addresses here, is ostensibly not Southampton, but Cupid, love. Shakespeare has learned in the course of writing these sonnets that it is neither monuments nor poetry, but love itself that survives time’s depredations. Love, he says, grows as a consequence of the passage of time, even while the mortal lovers are in passage to decay. This is the triumph of Nature (as Spirit) over time and its devastations:
CXXVI If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou [i.e. love] goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace …
Shakespeare introduces here, in incipient form, a conceptual trait of which he became master — an intellectual holding together, in juxtaposition, of a pair of warring conditions which are jointly intrinsic to the natural world of which we are part, refusing to slide down either of the adjacent slopes of optimism and pessimism which have lured almost all other philosophers of the human condition into one inaccuracy or the other. In this case, no sooner has he asserted the triumph of love over time, than he superimposes an assertion of the triumph of time over love:
CXXVI Yet fear her [i.e. Nature], O thou [i.e. Cupid] minion
of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep her treasure;
Her audit, though delay’d answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
The terminal couplet, which Shakespeare has used so consistently throughout the sonnet sequence to deny, in a facile recoup, the implacable paradox of his experience as expressed in the body of the poem, here remains organic to it; and so one of the many internal contradictions harboured in the human condition, in this case of ruthlessness and solace, which Shakespeare so relentlessly picks out with intellect and image in the poem’s development, is allowed to stand, uncontradicted. He has come through, in the Lawrentian sense, and all his later work is marked by this journey. Through it, he has acquired an empiricism of thought and expression, a methodology of careful, original self-observation, rather than trusting to the received ideas and phraseology of subjectivity; and it has generated in him the impetus to an exploration of the early catastrophes of his life in his evolving dramatic works.
With the examination of the Southampton sonnets completed, it is time to return to the dedication, which can be dissected in the light of what the sonnets themselves purvey.
The dedication of the Sonnets is always reproduced in the curious form of its first printing, as if, despite the consensus of opinion as to its grammatical construal, there lurks a suspicion that the actual format holds a code which has not yet been broken, and that to fail to reproduce the oddities of lay-out is to lose forever the chance of solution. The full-stops placed after every word are perhaps a ploy to indicate that the punctuation will give no help in the grammatical interpretation.
This is it:
TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF THESE. INSUING. SONNETS.
MR. W. H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. AND. THAT. ETERNITIE.
OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET. WISHETH.
THE. WELL-WISHING ADVENTURER.
IN. SETTING. FORTH.
T.T. is unproblematically identified as Thomas Thorpe, the printer/publisher, and it is well-nigh universally understood that the printing of the sonnets is dedicated to “Mr W.H.”, who is also their “onlie begetter”, and who is wished “all happinesse” & etc. The Gawthorn editor demonstrates this interpretation when he writes: ‘These verses collected by “Mr W.H.” from Shakespeare’s private friends are numbered consecutively … It is a matter for conjecture whether in naming “Mr W.H.” the “onlie begetter”, applies [sic] the term meaning “the getter together” or considered him the inspirer of most of the verses. As a number of these Sonnets are addressed to a ‘dark lady’ the former is probably the correct meaning of the phrase.’
Madden, similarly, writes that the sonnets were known to Francis Meres in 1598 as circulating among Shakespeare’s private friends, but that ‘they were not published until 1609, when they were printed by an adventurous publisher named Thorpe, dedicated to their “onlie begetter”, one “Mr.W.H.”.’ Pearson likewise reports that the sonnets are inscribed “To the Onlie Begetter … Mr.W.H.”.
Of the many suggestions which have been made as to the identity of Mr W.H., the most common, among those who favour the interpretation of “begetter” as “inspirer”, is that the initials are, in reverse, those of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron. Mr W.H. as “collector” has been identified as Sir William Harvey, the third husband of the Earl of Southampton’s mother, this connection suggesting the means whereby they came into his possession, if Southampton is indeed their subject. It has also more recently been suggested (Foster, 1987; Bate) that the ‘H’ is a printer’s error for ‘S’ or ‘SH’, the dedication being to Shakespeare himself, who was, indeed, their only begetter in the sense neither of collector nor inspirer, but of creator.
Although so many words have been expended on speculating as to who Mr W.H. is, I have encountered no comment on the grammatical problem which occurs if this usual interpretation is placed on the first four lines, for this leaves the last two lines in grammatical limbo, and “wisheth” a verb with no subject. I would like to suggest a different construal of the dedication which draws the whole text into a single grammatical unit, albeit unconventional, via the instantiation of two separate but overlapping predicates hingeing on a single verb. This device results in a word order distinctly odd in English, but recognisable, and far from unfamiliar in Latin. The dedication, I believe, is indeed to Shakespeare himself, but I am undecided as to whether Mr W.H. is the dedicator, Henry Wriothesley, or the dedicatee, Shakespeare.
In the former case, Mr W.H. is the subject of the dedication sentence, and it is he that wisheth all happinesse and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet. This wish of happiness and eternity is directed To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, an indirect object of the ensuing sentence, placed ahead of the subject, verb and direct object of the sentence of which it is part — a not impossible inversion in archaic formal English ( e.g. To thee I thanks give). Thus the publication of the sonnets is dedicated to their begetter, who is Shakespeare, the author of the sonnets, with wishes for his happiness et cetera. Our ever-living poet who has promised “eternity” is, again, Shakespeare himself.
Mr W.H. wishes that same happiness and eternity to The well-wishing adventurer who, as a second, and parallel, indirect object, is again Shakespeare, who so often, in the course of the sonnets, has wished Southampton well; that is, Shakespeare, the onlie begetter, also the well-wishing adventurer, is wished happiness and eternity by Southampton (as formerly wished Southampton by Shakespeare). This wish is made in setting [the sonnets] forth: that is, in publishing them, and it is hoped this will achieve the immortality for Shakespeare, their author, which he had promised Southampton in their composition. Or in a more conventional layout:
Mr W.H., in setting forth these ensuing sonnets, wishes their only begetter, our ever-living poet and well-wishing adventurer, all happiness and the eternity he himself promised.
In the alternative, simpler, rendition, Mr W.H. is Shakespeare, giving him the honorific of Mr which he so greatly desired, and he is wished “all happiness and that eternity promised by the ever-living poet” (that is, promised by Shakespeare himself through the means of his sonnets), by the “well-wishing adventurer”, who is setting them forth (that is, publishing them) for the purpose of granting Shakespeare happiness and immortality. The “well-wishing adventurer” may be Thomas Thorpe, but it seems reasonable to me that it is in fact Southampton himself, who has had the sonnets in his keeping for over a decade, and is aware that they may be lost to posterity if they are not published. Perhaps, even, both meanings were intended and the ‘W.’ and ‘H’ represent William and Henry. Bate (TLS 15/8/08) is reluctant to contemplate Southampton as the dedicatee on the grounds that “Mr” was the term of address for a gentleman, and therefore unacceptable for a nobleman. But in a scheme to implicate parties of disparate status, it might be employed as a halfway position.
In either case, the dedication is almost certainly a disguised attribution of the poems to Shakespeare, carrying the pretence of keeping their authorship, and their subject, anonymous, and I see no difficulty in assuming a reference to Henry Wriothesley, Shakespeare’s patron and friend, in the role of bringing them to publication. The dedication may well be a deliberately constructed grammatical puzzle whose aim is to ease the passage into print of a brilliant set of extraordinarily personal poems, both by professing anonymity and by defusing the possible embarrassments of their contents. Southampton’s dedication of the sonnets to Shakespeare echoes Shakespeare’s dedication to him of The Rape of Lucrece which includes the words: “to whom [i.e. Southampton] I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness”. It is also an obvious ringing of changes on Shakespeare’s reiteration, in the sonnets, that his poems will endow their subject with eternal life, substituting the hope that their publication will give their author himself eternal life.
The term “adventurer” at that time had much the meaning of “entrepreneur” today, and is readily applicable to the venture of publishing the sonnets, if the second interpretation is preferred. The “Merchant Adventurers”, for example, were the corporation of traders in woollen cloth. Hobbes, writing a century later used the term for merchants buying at home to sell abroad, although not necessarily confined to foreign trade, and the word “adventure” as the act of trading.
If the first interpretation is preferred, the use of the term “adventurer” introduces what could be a cruel touch in the light of Shakespeare’s obsession with attaining the status of gentleman and the mockery he suffered for it. His effusive praise of Southampton in the sonnets can easily carry overtones of ambitious wheedling. The choice of the word “adventurer” perhaps asserts a truth that Southampton clear-sightedly perceived and Shakespeare denied, that the poems were indeed written, however unconsciously and partially, with an underlying motive of personal ambition, namely of stimulating his patron and friend to ameliorate his social standing. The implication that the sonnets were a career bid — a means to worldly advance — could also have served a politic role as a denial of the relationship as a true intimacy, which, certainly, to the modern reader, they seem to portray. In describing Shakespeare as the well-wishing adventurer, rather than as, say, “the passionate lover”, Mr.W.H. declares that the feeling expressed in the poems is not romantic or chivalrous love, but at most generosity and strong positive regard allied with practical ambition. The joining of well-wishing with adventurer softens the self-interested implication of the latter term, affirming that there were true good feelings present as well as “expectations”.
In denoting Shakespeare “the onlie begetter” of the sonnets, Southampton disclaims all virtue and actual part in their creation, against Shakespeare’s reiterated assertion, within them, of his generative role. As we have seen in reading the sonnets, no note of individuality in the character or person of the young man praised in them comes through to us. They give us no living picture of him, despite their constant assurance that he will live on in them. The most specific of details are bright eyes and lovely limbs, and truth — and this is very little. In a way, he is not there. We know that Shakespeare was well able to put individuality into words, could transcribe appearance, character and spirit — his plays are ample evidence of this. Yet really, only Shakespeare’s feelings and rationalizations of his feelings are portrayed in the sonnets. Perhaps more of Southampton appears in his dedication of the sonnets than in all of the sonnets themselves, and perhaps the dedication also points this out.
The grace of the dedication is entirely worthy of the young man whom Shakespeare so highly praised. There is modesty in the dedication of the published sonnets to Shakespeare himself, as their “onlie begetter”, and in the disclaimer of any personal role in their creation. “Yours was the virtue, not mine,” it declares. In setting them forth, Southampton is not seeking his own “eternity” through them, but their eternal life and the eternal life of their creator’s genius. Thus the dedication is a delight in its exhibition of a delicate generosity of spirit and an absence of vanity in the man towards whom Shakespeare directed such passionate feeling.
The publication of the sonnets in 1609 did not achieve the acclaim for their author which might have been anticipated, and they in no way matched the popularity of his two long poems of the early 1590s, which ran through several editions in his lifetime. The sonnets were not published again for over thirty years. Either they were considered scandalous, despite the efforts of the dedication, or public taste was simply not yet ready for their honesty and realism, their abandonment of what Wordsworth called poetic diction in favour of the hard referential bones of words to express his meaning.
The Dark Lady Sonnets
Sonnets CXXVII–CXL Confusion: love, lust and friendship
Although the Dark Lady sonnets appear in their own separate sequence, following the terminating sonnet of the Southampton series, it is fairly clear from the internal evidence of both series that the emotional histories they record are partly co-incident. We can mark a point at which they coincide both in time and matter, although they have separate beginnings and diverge again after their brief amalgamation.
If the Southampton sonnets are mildly disturbing to us because of the passion expressed for a man, one can take from them a positive, even reassuring, picture of the vicissitudes of intense attachment: the poems of conflict are eventually superseded by the achievement of at least a measure of resolution and of determined loyalty. The Dark Lady sonnets, by contrast, are not a pretty sight. They begin with self-torment about the reality of their subject’s beauty, and they end with the conviction of her moral ugliness. Given the absence of evidence for this stigmatization in the course of their exposition, one could be forgiven for branding Shakespeare a thorough, self-congratulating misogynist.
With sonnet CXXVII, the series begins mildly enough. It is built as a conceit (a favourite intellectual device to spice love poetry of the period, variants of which we have seen in the Southampton series) around an enigma, that while fairness is the pattern of beauty, Shakespeare’s mistress is dark but beautiful:
CXXVII In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name …
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited; and they mourners seem
At such, who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says, beauty should look so.
The Dark Lady’s eyes are said to be mourning the denial of their rightful credit because of a merely superficial non-conformity to the ideal of beauty. (Similarly, Shakespeare has rebelled at his social exclusion on superficial grounds). But a different, less sympathetic, interpretation of the same image occurs a few sonnets later.
Sonnet CXXVIII is a light but still entirely positive poem, in which Shakespeare, observing his mistress at a keyboard instrument, envies the keys their physical contact with her — which suggests there has been no sexual consumation between them.
CXXVIII Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
Following these two pieces of unrelated trivia, we make the vast leap into the one diamond of the DL series, sonnet CXXIX:
CXXIX The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad …
In the Southampton series, the jewel sonnets are without exception preceded by a number of poetic skirmishes on the same topic, as if a good deal of mental fertilization had to be accomplished to produce the one superb bloom; and it is followed by yet more, of inferior quality, as the urge to expression is expended. But this sonnet falls in here as if from somewhere quite else, without even apparent sequential connection with the preceding or following sonnets — the preceding two give no inkling of passions bordering on “perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust …” and those immediately following, if they have become somewhat cynical, do not suggest a reaction as extreme as “past reason hated” and a “hell”. Epithets with this degree of furious reprobation come only much later in the series.
For a prelude to this sonnet we may, perhaps, go outside the sonnets to the treatment in rather similar terms of Tarquin’s lust and its quenching in The Rape of Lucrece:
So surfeit-taking Tarquin fares this night:
His taste delicious, in digestion souring,
Devours his will that liv’d by foul devouring. …
He runs, and chides his vanish’d, loath’d delight.
We may reasonably entertain the hypothesis that at this point Shakespeare achieved copulation with his mistress, the Dark Lady (“made love” would hardly be a suitable epithet given the emotional outcome); and we should bear in mind this extreme response – a poetical enterprise of sublimation or cartharsis – when, later, we encounter his reiterations of her evil character. If, as I shall suggest later, Shakespeare’s two earlier poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, deal indirectly, via a classical model, with Shakespeare’s first, disastrous, experiences of sexuality – his seduction by Anne Hathaway, and, perhaps, a crisis in his parent’s marriage – it is possible that this, his next, or perhaps first real, sexual infatuation recalled his disturbing prior encounters and his exploration of them in poetry, so that the earlier treatment of lust and its execration, in The Rape of Lucrece, suddenly intrudes here.
An alternative possibility is that this poem in fact belongs in the Southampton series, and is deliberately placed in the Dark Lady series, out of context, in order to disguise its real subject, Shakespeare’s recoil from a homosexual encounter with Southampton to which he finally submitted in his despair of the friendships’s yielding what he so ardently desired. Obviously it was not a success, and might be the key to the fury of the penultimate Southampton sonnets, and to the relinquishment of passion in the relationship, which appears in the final few.
The “lust” of the poem would then be both Shakespeare’s lust for social status and Southampton’s sexual appetite, both extreme and humiliating since so long held on tenterhooks, and an eventual sexual encounter yielding only sackcloth and ashes on both counts, since it could not deliver what either party desired, given Shakespeare’s social inferiority and heterosexuality. In the final couplet:
CXXIX All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
There is ample space for ambiguity in that the “heaven” which should be shunned may not be the sexual release of the surface meaning, but worldly success or position, the attempt to achieve which can cost too dear. This interpretation would make this sonnet more or less contiguous with Sonnets XXXV (‘No more be grieved at that which thou hast done’) and XXXVI (‘Let me confess that we two must be twain’).
A third possibility is to see this sonnet as extracted from the Southampton series at the point where Shakespeare has discovered Southampton’s seduction of his “mistress”, thus accounting for its fury.
Sonnet CXXX expresses a milder antagonism. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, Shakespeare declares, as he declines to be lyrical about his mistress’s beauty, although he has been freely so in just such terms as are derided here, in praise of his male friend, Southampton. Post-coital cynicism may be the cause, but this embrace of empiricism may also be a sign that the former “passion” had a largely metaphorical or formal status compatible with the language of courtship, whereas the hard realities of the sexual drive and sexual infatuation compel a more brutal appraisal.
The case for “truth in language” which Shakespeare has been making in fits and starts throughout the Southampton sonnets is here made explicit:
CXXX Coral is far more red that her lip’s red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
Indeed, Shakespeare seems to go further than is needful in making his point by choosing ugly words for the human side of the comparison — “wires” and “reeks”. And yet one cannot help feeling that the mere urge to speak of roses as “damask’d red and white” comes from observation of the human cheek rather than from the nature of rose petals. In such mockeries, Shakespeare may also be challenging his detractors who impugned his lack of education which, he seems here to be saying, teaches mere artificiality. His “natural” style, is born, not of ignorance, but of reason and observation.
Sonnet CXXX ends with the couplet:
CXXX And yet by heaven I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
which clinches his point as regards the gap between words and reality and perhaps, like D.H. Lawrence three centuries later, urges that the human body can be appreciated on its own terms, with a direct rather than an averted gaze, and that there is no call to employ euphemism to escape physicality.
Just as Southampton’s betrayal of Shakespeare with the Dark Lady follows hard on the heels of the mutual shame episode, so a few sonnets after ‘The expense of spirit ..’ has made its case, the presence of a rival is made explicit, and there is a marked darkening of tone. In sonnet CXXXI the Dark Lady’s beauty again becomes suspect, arguable:
CXXXI Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold,
Thy face has not the power to make love groan …
and is a figment of his entrapment:
CXXXI For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel …
Others see her evil character in her face and therefore fail to see its physical beauty, but can dissociate the one from the other:
CXXXI Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black, save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.
This is hardly a pleasing justification of his personal conviction of her beauty. A major theme of the Dark Lady sonnets, the verbal counterpoint of black (colouring) as fair (beauty), and simultaneously as evil (character), enters here, balancing the fair (colouring) which equals fair (beauty) and good (character) theme of the Southampton sonnets. Could any woman be blamed for acting less than warmly when the response to her favours is this ungracious ambivalence and disillusion? Certainly “unkindness” seems to enter into the Dark Lady’s behaviour from this point in the sequence.
In sonnet CXXXII, Shakespeare challenges his mistress with showing a pity or kindness which she does not really feel. Lying behind the sonnet one detects a situation in which he is trying to constrain her to something which, exercising her own judgment, she will not do, although she is sorry to disappoint him.
CXXXII Thine eyes I love and they as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black, and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.
The image of dark eyes as mourners for the cruelty they have inflicted is not peculiar to Shakespeare and the Dark Lady. Bradbrook identifies it as taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. Shakespeare pursues the image quite pleasantly at first, making the plea that she should bring her heart into mourning for him as well. But this is followed by the less pleasing implication that what her eyes express is mere show, and a bite occurs in the final couplet:
CXXXII Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.
While presuming to sit in judgment on the Dark Lady’s moral qualities, Shakespeare in fact applies a sliding scale according to which pleasing him makes her both fair and good.
Sonnets CXXXIII and CXXXIV, as indicated earlier, deal with the same events as sonnets XL – XLII in the Southampton series, which suggested an intrigue between Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and Southampton. In the first, Shakespeare merely puts the plea that he will sacrifice his own heart for the release of Southampton, implying that any infatuation with the Dark Lady must be an evil, not a good:
CXXXIII Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me!
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’s friend must be?
… Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail …
That is, he offers his heart in return for Southampton’s freedom. He accuses the Dark Lady of taking what is most precious from him, that is, Southampton, declaring to her (or to Southampton, depending on whom these sonnets were presented to) who is the more prized and truly loved:
CXXXIII Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engross’d;
Of him, myself, and thee, I am forsaken …
CXXXIV Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still.
However, he knows that she will release neither him nor his friend:
CXXIV Him have I lost, thou has both him and me;
He pays the whole, and yet I am not free.
Perhaps these lines do not seem so very different in image from those of the Southampton sequence which equally play on ownership and inescapable bondage in love, but the tenor of the sentiment is entirely different: a desired bondage to Southampton, for the Dark Lady, resentment.
The second of these sonnets confirms the suggestion in the Southampton series that Southampton made the acquaintance of the Dark Lady through seeing her on Shakespeare’s behalf, only to fall for her as Shakespeare did:
CXXXIV The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take …
And sue a friend, came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Southampton’s part in this triangle was excused by Shakespeare, as we have seen, as “pretty wrongs” deriving from his beauty, youth and gentleness, and from the Dark Lady’s female power and determination:
XLI And when a woman wooes, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her, till she have prevail’d?
A third alternative for the ‘Expense of spirit ..’ sonnet, touched on above, is that it is a response to Southampton’s betrayal of Shakespeare with the Dark Lady. Does it in fact have the ring of immediate reflexive personal horror, or is it a moral meditation on, and in part an exoneration of, another’s sexual lapse, albeit drawing on past personal experience? At first I assumed the first, but now I incline to the second, partly because of its strong family resemblance to ‘They that have power to hurt ..’.
If this is so, perhaps we should discard the “homosexual encounter” hypothesis and accept Rowse’s interpretation – namely, that all the sonnets of the In Mutual Shame group derive from the Dark Lady betrayal. The slight pause in each case between the initial expression of unidentified outraged wrong and the explicit introduction of rivalry may be the effect of shock, before Shakespeare regroups to express his position more calmly but at length.
The likeness of ‘The expense of spirit ..’ and ‘They that have power to hurt ..’further suggests that the Relinquishing what was never had group are not in reaction to some anonymous wronging of Shakespeare by Southampton, but to the continuation of Southampton’s affair with the Dark Lady, in spite of promises that it would be ended. Shakespeare’s raging against her for another fifteen or so sonnets in the Dark Lady sequence suggests that the betrayal was not, indeed, short-lived, although the cause could also have been that she insisted on maintaining her distance from Shakespeare, having once “sinned” with Southampton. Shakespeare’s position in the conflict was not helped, it becomes clear, by the fact that he was a married man, while Southampton was still formally unattached. In the immediate aftermath, Shakespeare found it unnecessary, or impolitic, or impossible, to continue to blame or reject Southampton for usurping his relationship with the Dark Lady. But he has no such compunction, and finds no similar conceit to permit and support a similar forgiveness and a continuing regard for the Dark Lady. His attachment to her is now simply sexual bondage.
Sonnets CXXXV and CXXXVI are both entirely devoted to a play on the common and proper nouns “will” and “Will”, respectively, and are pleas for the inclusion of the poet, as Will, within the lady’s pleasure and desires, as her will. “Will”, in Elizabethan usage had the double entendre of sexual desire, as well as its still familiar usage in the diminutive to denote the male sex organ, making this a rather unpleasant play on words at the Dark Lady’s expense.
CXXXV … thou hast thy will,
And will to boot, and will in over-plus.
Both sonnets are quite nasty — frivolous and contemptuous, with an objectification of the poet which reflects on the Dark Lady’s capacity for proper attitudes and feeling:
CXXXVI Will will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one …
They carry the insulting implication that she is a nymphomaniac, insinuating that it could not hurt her to take on one more man when she already accepts so many:
CXXXV The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addest to his store;
So thou, being rich in will, add to thy will
One will of mine, to make thy large will more.
CXXXVI Will will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one …
Among a number one is reckon’d none.
Shakespeare never found it fit to go on in this spiteful way towards Southampton, even at the height of his discontents. In his plays so fair to women, here he is just plain sexist — a lapse which admittedly both sexes occasionally enjoy in the absence of the other when suffering at the hands of one of its members. The imputation of the Dark Lady’s extreme promiscuity is not to be taken literally – only Shakespeare and Southampton may be involved.
The next sonnet, CXXXVII, begins:
CXXXVII Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is, take the worst to be.
and ends (perhaps in his doubts of Southampton’s regard):
CXXXVII To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.
It ushers in a series of love-hate sonnets which persist to the end of the sequence, interspersed with dishonorable pleas for kindness and attention from the very person who is so roundly reviled. The central section of this sonnet repeats the nasty accusation of promiscuity of the previous two sonnets:
CXXXVII If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why, he asks, should the false eyes of a flirt be as able to secure adoration as do the eyes of truth?
Holden’s supposition that Shakespeare and Southampton contracted “the clap” or some species of venereal disease from the Dark Lady, based on lines in the satire Willobie his Avisa, is altogether unnecessarily literal in its interpretation. The passage runs:
‘… a familiar friend W.S. who not long before had tried the courtesy of the like passion, and was now newly recovered of the like infection …”
With love or infatuation so commonly described as a disease, there seems no reason to go beyond the metaphorical meaning, unless one is positively in search of evidence, as Holden appears to be, that Shakespeare was lightly promiscuous and generally bohemian during his early years in London. This assorts so ill both with his own and others’ reports of his reclusiveness, and with the internal evidence of the early poems, sonnets and plays of extreme and growing dislike of such behaviour, that there is no reason to entertain it seriously.
After the cruel outburst of this sonnet, sonnet CXXXVIII is a welcome return to some semblance of decency, and Shakespeare admits to mutual deceptions as a part of love:
CXXXVIII When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies …
The naivity on his part is a pretence of youth, which he knows he lacks (he was just over thirty). Mutual deception may not be admirable, but at least the sonnet ends by recognising fault on both sides:
CXXXVIII On both sides thus is simple truth supprest …
O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.
The final couplet introduces, in a new context, the ambiguity of the physical and the ethical which Shakespeare characteristically expresses in word plays on beauty and truth — in this case the elision of the meanings of copulation and deception in the word “lie”.
If women can be accused of contrareity when coping with contradictory impulses, so can Shakespeare in the next sonnet when he begs his mistress not to turn her eyes away from him — to speak the truth, but not to deny him the false promise of love from her eyes:
CXXXIX Tell me thou lov’st elsewhere; but in my sight,
Dear heart, forebear to glance thine eyes aside.
What need’st thou wound with cunning, when thy might
Is more than my o’erpress’d defence can ‘bide!
Shakespeare upbraids the not surprisingly mortified or wounded Dark Lady with not meeting his eyes, and is still dissatisfied when she acts as well as speaks the truth:
CXXXIX ah! my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes …
In its working through of a microcosm of lovers’ interaction, this sonnet is reminiscent of Donne, abandoning the unpleasantly passionate tone of its immediate predecessors and ending in a conceit:
CXXXIX Yet do not so: but since I am near slain,
Kill me outright with looks, and rid my pain.
Despite its detached cleverness, the impression remains that the attachment is more real than Shakespeare is elsewhere inclined to admit.
Sonnet CXL moves towards a humble recantation of the unjust fury of the earlier sonnets, while making a plea similar to that of sonnet CXXXVIII, that neglect is more than he can bear:
CXL Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain …
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so …
He admits his proneness to cast false aspersions, which he has already shown he can do (though perhaps not delivered to the Dark Lady ) in half a dozen sonnets:
CXL For, if I should despair, I should go mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
Pity the poor lady who innocently engaged with “gentle” Shakespeare! But we may perhaps extend to him, still a young man, some commiseration in the triangle of his hopes of Southampton, and his infatuation with the Dark Lady which threatens those hopes, and consider also the possibility that this is something of a panic reaction to any hint of uncertainty in a relationship with a woman, deriving from early bitter experience — an out-of-character product of the still not dealt with tragedy of his youthful vulnerability.
This sequence of love-hate poems has presented an oscillation between eyes and heart, beauty and truth, as reciprocals of the seeming and the real, whereas in the Southampton series, both pairs elide as different aspects of the same entity. Southampton embodies their combination, whereas in the Dark Lady all four are burst asunder; even her beauty is contestable, being black. The straightforwardness and unity of intention of the sonnets of same-sex attachment or friendship, despite their disturbed backdrop, is in marked contrast with the conflict — the fierce internal and dyadic struggle — embedded in its heterosexual counterpart. The miseries of the Southampton sonnets are not sexual, as the Dark Lady sequence makes clear by its contrast.
Sonnets CXLI -CLII Grappling with wrongful love
It is customary to assert that love is finer if it does not rest simply on the persuasion of beauty and its effect on the senses, but is founded in the judgment of the heart — as in “Believe me if all those endearing young charms … were to fade by tomorrow …thou would’st still be adored” — quite a horrifying thought, really. In sonnet CXLI Shakespeare turns this morality on its head, and denies that the person of the Dark Lady is pleasing to his senses. Declaring that his love is in his heart (the mystery of sexual bonding), he rails against the inability of his senses, with their messages of displeasure (a change from sonnet CXXXI), to dislodge it:
CXLI In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ‘tis my heart that loves what they despise …
Nor are mine eyes with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone …
But my five wits, nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee.
Shakespeare is indeed at war with himself. And it is finally hinted that the conflict derives from a conviction of wrong in the relationship itself, rather than from the Dark Lady’s personal character and treatment of him:
CXLI Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin, awards me pain …
The aspersion of wrongful love is repeated in the next sonnet, CXLII. In the previous sonnet, we cannot be sure that a subjective, rather than an objective, assessment of its moral deficiencies is not the issue, but in this sonnet a more material basis for abjuration is made explicit. The opening couplet declares his love to be sinful. This, he argues, makes her rejection of him, her “hate”, virtuous:
CXLII Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving.
But he goes on to argue that she has loved sinfully in like wise, and is in no position to condemn him:
CXLII O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profan’d their scarlet ornaments,
And seal’d false bonds of love as oft as mine …
The sin in both cases appears to be adultery, as both have:
CXLII Robb’d other’s beds’ revenues of their rents …
The seemingly contradictory positions of the apostrophes in this line (if they are indeed Shakespeare’s) make it most likely that what is denoted is that each, Shakespeare and the Dark Lady, have loved, or are loving, extra-maritally, hence robbing their respective spouses of their sexual dues. There is no necessary implication in the previous two lines that either Shakespeare or the Dark Lady has been grossly promiscuous — the infidelity referred to may have been “sealed” several times with the one person, and as the accusation is, “as oft as mine”, perhaps only mutually with each other, although the surrounding implications are that she has been with Southampton.
But Shakespeare is not really repentant, for he goes on to ask for her pity, despite his sin, on the grounds that she will then have the right to claim pity too:
CXLII Root pity in thy heart, that, when it grows,
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
Shakespeare was, of course in a double bind as regards the duty of fidelity in marriage. His entrapment in a marriage which at this stage, with his long absences, was only that in name, might lead him to cynicism; but if infidelity had been a source of the upheavals in his parental family that had destroyed his young prospects, an unavoidable awareness of the havoc it can cause would have debarred his treating it as trivial.
In keeping with his return to a calmer and juster mind, the next sonnet, CXLIII, constructs a quaint and innocent image of Shakespeare as the Dark Lady’s baby, and Southampton, or whoever had become Shakespeare’s rival, as an escaped chicken to which, in order to secure it, she momentarily turns her attention from her baby, who howls for her return:
CXLIII Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe …
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind …
And he will be glad to have her even on these terms:
XLIII But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind …
There is quite a clever mockery of Southampton, as the object of her new infatuation, in comparing him with a chicken, while Shakespeare, the baby, has the position truly near the heart; and it creates a touching picture of Shakespeare, when a young father, observing his crawling or toddling child in the home.
With sonnet CXLIV, the censure and unforgivable branding as evil returns. This sonnet is another example of parallelism in the Southampton and the Dark Lady sonnets, and indeed, like “The expense of spirit” (CXXIX) gives the impression of having fallen out of the Southampton series to be slightly wrongly placed here, interrupting with its biassed slander the overall return to greater balance:
CXLIV Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman, colour’d ill …
While both recipients of his love are acknowledged, Southampton is praised as benign and the Dark Lady denigrated as evil. The previously separated (in different sonnets) associations of goodness with fair complexion and evil with dark are here placed side by side in an explicit comparison: Not only is the Dark Lady evil, but she is now deemed to be corrupting Southampton while he is under her spell. She:
CXLIV Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
A real rift between Shakespeare and Southampton is suggested, which could account for the panic we saw when he feared the life-raft of his ambition was drifting out of reach:
CXLIV And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend,
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
And being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
The last line has, possibly, a double meaning, a sexual reference expressing Shakespeare’s ignorance of the extent of the affair.
Sonnet CXLV is an access of sentimentality at a verbal kindness.The Dark Lady began to say, “I hate (you)” (one can imagine her being driven to it by Shakespeare’s tantrums), but caught herself in time, presaging his distress, and changed her words to, “not you”. This glimpse of the Dark Lady’s character is very different from the evil creature the sonnets declare her to be.
CXLV Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breath’d forth the sound that said, ‘I hate’,
To me that languish’s for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come …
Sonnet CXLVI is, I would imagine, addressed by Shakespeare to himself, and not to the Dark Lady, and is a self-reflective interlude:
CXLVI Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Fool’d by these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
In the mind-body dichotomy, the soul is led astray by the body’s concern with itself, to expend its energies on achieving what today is called “image”. This is the first suggestion we have had that Shakespeare might have been vain in his dress, an important part of image. In the context of the sonnets’ concern with ambition, however, the reference here is probably broader than to mere clothing, and includes pursuits of worldly goods and possessions. This sonnet therefore marks a stage in Shakespeare’s abandonment of his unrealistic quest for social elevation which we saw developing at about this time in the Southampton series. The “rebel powers” are the attraction of position and unworthy love, represented by Southampton and the Dark Lady, respectively, but they have been too much for him, have cost him too dear. Why bother, he says, as so often in the most quoted passages from his plays, when life is a phantom, and so short:
CXLVI Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
The words “thy fading mansion” remind us of the “wither’d choirs” of the Southampton series, and his conviction that his youth is gone. It is better, he recognises, to abandon these longings and preserve his spirit’s health, than to go under in this losing battle:
CXLVI Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s [his body’s] loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store …
Seeking refuge in the Christian teaching that denial of material things wins wealth for the soul, he instructs himself:
CXLVI Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on [conquer] Death …
The next sonnet, CXLVII, turns from death to illness, treating love as a fever which feeds on its cause, so that it can only persist:
CXLVII My love is as a fever longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease …
an intuition familiar to anyone who has suffered unrequited love. He has been unable to persuade himself out of his thrall to the Dark Lady, and :
CXLVII My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me …
He could well have taken Blake’s advice, “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than to nurse ungratified desires,” for the poem builds up to a passion of sexual hatred as extreme as that of sonnet CXXIX, “The expense of spirit ”:
CXLVII My thoughts and my discourse as mad men’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
But here Shakespeare does not admit that his reaction is unbalanced — as when he spoke of “lust in action” as “past reason hated”. The execration of the Dark Lady is witheringly affirmed. After such outbursts one is again inclined to agree with Ben Jonson’s quoted opinion that, “He sometimes required stopping.” The sentiments of these sonnets are so unlikely to have endeared him to his Dark Lady, that it seems probable that although formally addressed to her, she never saw them.
Sonnet CXLVIII returns to the measured pace and Donne-like logical illogic of sonnet CXXXIX, while continuing to pursue the contradictions of the physical and metaphysical fair/dark, good/evil opposites. If his eyes accurately see the Dark Lady as good and fair, then:
CXLVIII … where is my judgment fled,
That censures falsely what they see aright?
If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
What means the world to say it is not so?
We cannot tell at this distance, because of the constant juggling of the physical and metaphorical meanings of fair, whether the social world actually declared the Dark Lady morally stained, or simply dark and therefore unattractive. How, Shakespeare asks, can a distressed and weeping lover’s eyes expect to see clearly, for:
CXLVIII The sun itself sees not till heaven clears.
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep’st me blind …
Only in the last line does the viciousness again assert itself — “Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find.”
Yet in the next sonnet, in total vacillation, he apostrophizes the Dark Lady:
CXLIX Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not,
When I, against myself, with thee partake?
The sonnet then proceeds with a catalogue of subservient behaviour which Shakespeare proffers as evidence of love:
CXLIX Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frownst thou that I do fawn upon?
Nay if thou low’rst on me, do I not spend
Revenge upon myself with present moan?
Even this pleading sonnet has a sting in its tail when Shakespeare claims that he does not value such of his qualities as should entail his rejection of her:
CXLIX What merit do I in myself respect,
That is so proud thy service to despise,
When all my best doth worship thy defect.
Given the usage in the Southampton series, “all my best” may here refer to Southampton who is also a slave to her “blackness”. The final couplet,
CXLIX But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind; Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.
may indicate that the Dark Lady, like Shakespeare himself, is blighted by unrequited, or unequally requited, love for Southampton, for, Shakespeare says, she loves only those who see her faults, which Shakespeare cannot.
With such alternations of avowal, it seems likely that some, or most, of the sonnets were written for Southampton’s consumption alone, assuring him that the Dark Lady was in no way his rival, and perhaps hoping by his invective to turn Southampton away from her. A few, it is plausible, were written for the Dark Lady herself, pleading his cause. Nevertheless they all ended up in the same hands, probably Southampton’s, so perhaps he saw them all from the beginning. Having got the habit of dealing with his feelings through sonnet writing, in his address to Southampton, Shakespeare continued it with the Dark Lady, even though the Dark Lady sonnets were not strictly for her perusal.
Sonnet CL rises to even greater heights of moralistic denigration. It begins with an admission of bafflement:
CL O, from what power hast thou this powerful might,
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
How can her “insufficiency” so possess his total being? He then moves to the familiar verbal conceit of vision deceived:
CL To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill …
That in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I see and hear just cause of hate?
“O, though I love what others do abhor,” he says, though on his earlier accusation she has lovers a-plenty. The sonnet finishes with the insult that because he loves one so unworthy, he all the more deserves to be loved in return — scarcely endearing words, but politic if his motive is to express his feelings but demean their significance for Southampton’s benefit, as reader.
CL If thy unworthiness rais’d love in me,
More worthy I to be belov’d of thee.
Sonnet CLI begins with another change of tone, this time to the philosophic, and with a conundrum: that love lies outside the pale of normal conscience and yet is the foundation of our moral natures:
CLI Love is too young to know what conscience is:
Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?
Then the understanding changes from love as spiritual to love as physical at the most fleshly level. The vocabulary of “sexual drive” and “body language” was not available to Shakespeare, but it is clear that he is grappling with sexuality’s social and emotional centrality, which sets it above mere appetite, together with the contradiction of its independence of judgment and volition and its clearly carnal goal. The Dark Lady’s “false” body language elicits in Shakespeare both emotional infatuation and physical yearning, neither of which his reason can suppress. If Shakespeare had lead a virtually celibate life for most of his twenties as a result of his exile from Stratford, it is understandable that he should fall a particularly powerless victim to sexual desire when at last it engaged him:
CLI For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason:
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason;
But, raising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize.
The sonnet then descends further into what John Cowper Powys would call “viciousness”, and Shakespeare describes, with unpleasant glibness, his sexual arousal — perhaps a mere snigger between male friends:
CLI He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side,
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her — love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.
Sonnet CLII begins as so often with a reproach, but this time the implication is that the Dark Lady is not habitually promiscuous. She is twice foresworn compared with his once, but only because, having broken her “bed-vow” in loving him, she has broken that second love-vow in turning from him – to Southampton, one assumes:
CLII In loving thee thou know’st I am foresworn,
But thou art twice foresworn; to me love swearing;
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn,
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
Then in a backhanded concession, he says that he has broken more vows than she, through his failure to keep all those he has made to despise her:
CLII … I am perjur’d most;
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost …
reiterating that, in her, all virtue is fouled, inverted and turned from its nature, and that when he calls her kind, loving, true and constant, he falls into deepest error — moral, not just verbal, error:
CLII For I have sworn thee fair: more perjur’d I,
To swear, against the truth, so foul a lie.
This brings us effectively to the end of the Dark Lady series, for the final two sonnets of the sequence of 154 provide a resolution quite different in tenor from what has gone before. In the Dark Lady sonnets we see Shakespeare struggling just as painfully with frustrated sexual passion as he does in the Southampton sonnets with frustrated ambitious passion. The saving grace of both sets is that, while he reveals himself as “only human”, there is no suggestion that his conflicting emotions are admirable or even acceptable. His passions are destructive to his inner life, and he must conquer them. We see the ugly aspects of his struggle to gain control, but it is, eventually, provisionally won, in both departments.
Sonnets CLIII & CLIV – Finale
The final two sonnets of the sequence, CLIII and CLIV, are two very similar workings out of a single conception. Shakespeare uses the same allegory to express the quandary in which he finds himself as a far-fetched conundrum. The fancy is neither intellectually nor emotionally convincing.
The major part of each sonnet recounts a myth explaining the origin of hot springs — that Cupid’s hot “brand” was plunged into a cool stream by a passing nymph. Thus:
CLIII Cupid lay by his brand, and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain …
CLIV The little love-god, lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
While many nymphs etc
The heated waters which resulted are said to be medicinal, but a visit by love-distempered Shakespeare to the hot baths failed to cure his illness, thus demonstrating that:
CLIV Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
It is possible that the nymph’s quenching of love’s brand in a cool well is used here as a metaphor for copulation, which is meant to cool desire, and that Shakespeare is declaring that this remedy has failed for him. His illness of love can only be assuaged by the reciprocity of mutual regard:
CLIII … the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire, — my mistress’ eyes.
These two sonnets may be a retraction of the “expense of spirit” accusation, and as such might be gratifying to the Dark Lady. With their freedom from reproach, Shakespeare achieves in them a more dispassionate view of the conflicts within his relationship with the Dark Lady, conflicts that were only exacerbated when he dealt with them in his own strictly empirical style compounded with the metaphors of contemporary poetical conceits. But there is a sugary quality to the verses, redolent of Venus and Adonis, which is far less pleasing to the modern taste than is the downright conflictual rancour of the series of poems which they terminate.
Review of the Dark Lady sequence
Looking back over both sonnet sequences, one realises that Shakespeare’s distress in his love for the Dark Lady was of quite a different character from that of his love for Southampton — an inwardly, rather than an externally, focussed discord. He distrusted the nature of that love in a manner quite foreign to his, one might have thought more problematic, love for Southampton. Such inward turmoil may arise from an attachment that cannot have the desired end. If this was his compulsion, and even if she wished it, Shakespeare and the Dark Lady were not free to marry. Although a hope built into the Southampton relationship was not achieved, and Shakespeare raged at this, its failure did not unavoidably discolour the personal attachment, because it could be clearly discriminated as an extraneous goal. Further, Shakespeare’s feelings appear to have been unequivocally reciprocated in Southampton’s case, but not in the Dark Lady’s. As a result, he is temporarily false, but is restituted; she is evil and remains so.
Could our lovely Shakespeare, with his nicety of mind and observation, have fallen into so gross an error as to project the horror of miscegenated sexual love entirely onto a generous woman, rather than seeing it as a joint fall from grace, in part dictated by cruel circumstance, of both man and woman? Of course he has weighty precedent for taking this line in the Medieval church’s view of sexual evil as residing in women; and we have already observed his masculine predisposition to generalize and project a private woe, in his obsessive concern that Southampton should procreate to offset his own loss of his son. And he was only in his early thirties and this was early in his writing career.
One only hopes that the Dark Lady never saw these sonnets, with their torrents of hatred and self-hatred. Perhaps, as suggested earlier, they were written only for the eyes of Southampton, to assure him of the primacy of his place in Shakespeare’s esteem, even while Shakespeare was obsessed with the Dark Lady, and while Shakespeare’s hopes of social advancement were still set on him. This would account for their being in his possession, allowing their eventual publication together with the Southampton sonnets.
Thus, if the sonnets were given to Southampton rather than to the Dark Lady, their intention may have been to defuse the competition for a single woman, and to deny any moral weight in an obvious infatuation which must seem to attenuate the declared devotion to Southampton himself — particularly if Southampton had a sexual interest in Shakespeare. Perhaps, also, they embodied the double purpose of impressing the power of his feeling for the Dark Lady on Southampton and at the same time attempting to persuade him that she was unworthy of him. If so, we see in the Dark Lady series, just as in the Southampton series, Shakespeare miserably driven by violent desire (grief, infatuation, ambition) and giving his feelings brilliant and shameless expression in sonnet form, but at the same time trusting in their suasive power as weapons of manoevre in his attempt to employ Southampton as a means to his social goals.
Schalkwyk in an essay in the Shakespeare Quarterly, draws attention to a section in Love’s Labours Lost where a character, Berowne (often identified with Shakespeare), derides his “crush”, Rosalind, much as Shakespeare does the Dark Lady. Thus:
And among three to love the worst of all,
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard…
Schalkwyk writes: ‘Most important, however, is the fact that the dramatic context makes it clear that these are no more than obsessions, projections for which there is not only no evidence, but which the closure of the play reveals as being internal to the man rather than features of the woman.’ Rowse, also, draws the parallel between the Dark Lady and Love’s Labours Lost, but does not remark that Berowne’s aspersions of Rosalind are false and represent him, not her. Schalkwyk further identifies the theme of “social powerlessness” and inferiority in the sonnets, and finds its replica in the relationship of Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, where he identifies Antonio with the speaker of the sonnets.
Love’s Labours Lost was printed in 1598, but is thought to have been written by 1595. Although it is often placed early in Shakespeare’s production, there is in fact no evidence that it was written earlier than 1598, and there are several references to it about this time. It could, at this stage, also be an updated version of an earlier play. It is possible that in this play Shakespeare rendered penance to the Dark Lady, and set the tables straight; it is even possible that while denigrating her for Southampton’s benefit, he kept a sort of faith by simultaneously writing a play of apology, acknowledging the truth about the Dark Lady, to offset letting himself go subjectively in the sonnets. This, of course, is the grandeur of Shakespeare’s introspection — that he could both know his subjectivity, and correct it objectively. It is also possible that both Shakespeare’s relationship with the Dark Lady and the play preceded the Sonnets, but the problems of the relationship only assumed serious proportions once Southampton intervened as documented in the Southampton series.
What was the social position of the Dark Lady? There seems no reason to assume she was a prostitute or promiscuous by habit, as has sometimes been inferred from the references in sonnet CXXXVII to her eyes and face as “the bay where all men ride” and “the wide world’s common place”. This need only mean that her pleasing expressions were not signs of exclusive preference, as Shakespeare had mistaken them to be. Later sonnets, to which I have drawn attention, suggest that her “untruth” was confined to her infidelity as a wife, on Shakespeare’s behalf, and her interest in Southampton.
My preferred construction of her, though scarcely founded on evidence, is that she was an educated and witty woman of good position who was attracted to Shakespeare for the same reasons as Southampton — his talent, still largely incipient, and the undoubtedly interesting personality which went with it. She may be the pattern of the intelligence and charm of his heroines of this period — Beatrice, Portia, Viola, Rosalind. Brown suggests her emergence as Cleopatra. She would have needed such qualities, to be attractive to his friend Southampton, and so create the discord between the friends, rather than a woman of low character and taste whose unaccountable appeal to Shakespeare would be unlikely to be repeated in his friend — or perhaps the same argument should be more powerfully made vice versa.
One might imagine her as of higher social class than Shakespeare (certainly than his class as an actor), but lower than Southampton’s, an Elizabethan equivalent of today’s educated middle or professional classes — a woman of the class into which Shakespeare might have hoped to marry upwards on the basis of his ability, if he had not been already tied to a farmer’s daughter. The relationship might have been not unlike that of Leonard Bask and Helen Schlegel in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, with the man’s mismatch of class and sensibility arousing a nurturing sense of obligation in the woman, which in both cases did not come to good. Both the Dark Lady’s married state and Shakespeare’s definition of their intimacy as lust might well have inclined the Dark Lady to withdraw from sexual relations, while attempting to continue to fulfill the obligations of friendship. The writhings of the Dark Lady sonnets were the result.
She might, perhaps, in addition to qualities of intelligence and talent, have been a Jew, which would consort with her colouring and dark eyes (mourners), and, given the period, with the connotations of evil identified with these physical characteristics. It would give some meaning other than vindictiveness (just or not), to Shakespeare’s assertions of general disapproval and that others call her “ill”, and would provide a personal basis for his exploration of Jewishness in The Merchant of Venice. It would place her, like Shakespeare, in a situation of problematic class identification unhelpful to his social ambition and conducive to emotional ambivalence.
Writing for The Times in 1963, and believing that he had solved all the riddles of the Sonnets except for the identity of the Dark Lady, Rowse declared that she was certainly a lady, ‘Shakespeare’s superior in social station — and that was an element in her unsympathetic treatment of him.’ But when later he believed he had solved the problem of her identity, he chose a far from salubrious personality, Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) who was the daughter of an Italian musician and the mistress of Henry Carey (Lord Hunsdon), then Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare’s acting company was at that time The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Emilia Lanier married another musician when she became pregnant, and her promiscuity is reported in the casebook/diary for the years 1597 to 1600 of Simon Forman, a doctor and astrologer of some popularity at the time. An association with the Southampton-Essex network is suggested by the fact that her husband went on a sea expedition with these two nobles. These seem insufficient reasons for the identification, and Rowse does not use it to cast any significant new light on the Sonnets.
Nor is the Dark Lady’s identity of any great moment. Because they are so thoroughly subjective, her true position and characteristics are not essential to an understanding of the Dark Lady sonnets, though perhaps it is true that if she were really found to be a Jewess, or a courtesan, this would place them in rather a different light.
Scenes from the past
The power of the Dark Lady sonnets lies in the totality of bitter passion which sweeps them forward, almost without pause. This contrasts with the patterning of the Southampton sonnets in which a series of discrete gems, mostly of reflective beauty, illuminate at points a long sequence of poems which for the most part are of interest for their close and largely static, albeit uncomfortable, argument. While they are full of objective discontent, they do not carry the relentlessly sustaining white-hot intensity of internal discord of the Dark Lady sonnets.
Is it likely that this torrent of abuse was elicited because the Dark Lady reneged on a sexual relationship with Shakespeare, and forced him to reforge his now unrequited love as the shackles of friendship? Was it an element of his rage that this sexual entanglement would, like his marriage, inhibit rather than further his social ambitions? Was this why (most shamefully) he attempted to put her below even his own despised status? All these motives are possible. And if his rival was indeed Southampton throughout, how cruel a triangle this was, with Shakespeare’s rivalry in love creating a conflict with and threat to the hopes and ambitions he had vested in that very rival. The bile and hatred of this phase were kept under some sort of control in his addresses to Southampton, but vented themselves unfairly, indeed in dastardly fashion, on the woman with whom he was infatuated.
All these factors are candidates for inclusion in the motivation of the writing of the Dark Lady sonnets, but there is a ring of horror and despair in the sexuality they express which goes so far beyond the customary pangs of rivalry and rejection that too much is left unaccounted for. In these sonnets of Shakespeare, one finds the precursor in mood of the deep “sex-nausea” which Ivor Brown detects in “almost everything he wrote after 1600”, and which is a dominant element in his “Age of the Dark Vision”, the period of All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure.
In two of the sonnets, we have seen that Shakespeare does not regard infidelity in marriage lightly, but rather as an immoral stamp set on those, himself and the Dark Lady included, who commit it. This censure does not accord with the urbane, morally carefree character favoured for Shakespeare in numerous interpretative biographies. And, indeed, why should we expect it in him? Shakespeare was hardly positioned, by his life’s course, to take extra-marital sex lightly, since he had himself experienced its consequences so profoundly. As I have suggested, his description of himself as lamed in the Southampton sonnets very likely connotes his premature marriage to an unsuitable wife, his early fatherhood and attendant responsibilities, and the barrier all this formed to his just recognition and furtherance in society.
The origin of Shakespeare’s sexual hate might, then, lie in the personal disaster of his early marriage — that exemplar of the potential that disordered sexuality has to wreck a life. Coming at a time when the long-term, irrecoverable effects of these early events were becoming increasingly clear, the affair could, understandably, in reaction to difficulties which emerged during its course (and they were peculiarly bitter), have become tainted with a bleak vision.
There is, moreover, a potentially sinister scenario complicating the bare facts of Shakespeare’s marriage six months before the birth of Susanna, which would predispose him to fall into helpless distrust of women and sex. As we have seen, the precursors to Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway were distinctly odd. On 27 November, 1582, the issue of a marriage licence to William Shaxpere and Anne Whateley was recorded in the episcopal register at Worcester. A family named Whateley was neighbour to the Shakespeares, living in the same street in Stratford, but this Anne Whateley is registered as from Temple Grafton, a nearby village. The very next day, the Worcester register records that two men, Fulk Sandells and John Richardson, agreed to pay £40, a considerable sum in those days, should any legal consideration arise to invalidate the hasty marriage of William Shagspere and Anne Hathaway of Stratford without the usual waiting period between posting the banns and the ceremony.
There were often errors in the transcription of names in early documents, but Ivor Brown is confident of the reality of the two Annes (particularly given the two quite different places of residence recorded, Temple Grafton and Stratford, respectively), and makes the suggestion that Anne Whateley had replaced Anne Hathaway in his affections, hence the pressure brought to bear for a quick marriage. But it is also possible that Anne Whateley preceded Anne Hathaway, and remained his true love, and the first registration represented a hope to forestall a forced marriage to the woman who had seduced him. It would appear that Shakespeare preferred Anne Whateley but was constrained to marry Anne Hathaway.
The present-day visitor to Anne Hathaway’s cottage is shown a primitive straight-backed bench, almost unsittable on, which, according to Hathaway tradition, one is told, is where the young William sat by the fire with Anne to court her. It is not very plausible that Shakespeare, married at eighteen, spent much time in courting a less educated woman eight years older than he was, and given the date of birth of their first child, Susanna, on the 26th of May following their marriage in November, it seems more likely that their courtship, if such it was, occurred in the fields, like that of Venus and Adonis, in high summer. Shakespeare’s first published poem, Venus and Adonis, could well be a classicized account of his seduction by Anne Hathaway, with its depiction of an inexperienced and unwilling youth and a confident, pressing, mature woman. The unusual persistence “Venus” displays could have masked an ulterior motive.
Why were Messrs Sandells and Richardson, yeomen of Stratford, so financially interested in Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway? The first of these had been an executor of her father, Richard Hathaway’s will and the second a witness, which might imply some protective interest. Their names indicate no family relationship of responsibility on the paternal side, and both could not be closely related on the maternal. A worst case scenario is that one one of these men was himself Anne Hathaway’s lover and that, already married and finding her pregnant, he and his mistress contrived to dupe the young Shakespeare into marrying her — which would have involved her seduction of Shakespeare to confuse the issue of paternity. If this was Shakespeare’s suspicion, then his view of women and sex could well be bleak and tortured; and even if Anne Hathaway acted sincerely in seducing the young Shakespeare, or Shakespeare was simply two-timing, his body of work, in which husbands’ wild rages at suspected infidelities of wives are a recurring feature, can be taken to suggest that he had gripping doubts concerning his paternity of their first child, which lingered on as unconfirmed suspicion.
Another possibility I will raise in more detail later is that there may have been troubles in the parental marriage in Shakespeare’s early adolescence, which were the origin of John Shakespeare’s dereliction of duty and other erratic behaviour. Early experiences such as these, so very close to home, would have placed Shakespeare in a double-bind as regards the demands of marriage on fidelity. While his own forced marriage might conduce to cynicism, a vicarious experience of infidelity in his parents’ marriage (remember Hamlet), which may have contributed to his own unsteady behaviour in his late adolescence, would further identify sexual irregularities with the spoiling of his prospects and long-term “laming”.
Hotson (1949) dates the Sonnets in the late 1580s, chiefly by identifying the reference to the “mortal moon” in sonnet CVII with the Spanish Armada. He therefore places them prior to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and gives them the role of filling “the lost years”. I find this ordering quite untenable on the internal evidence of style and sophistication, while I believe it not unlikely that the long poems were written as a very young man, possibly in the mid 1580s, before Shakespeare left Stratford.
Rowse also finds references to current political events in the Sonnets — the mortal moon to him represents Queen Elizabeth and the reference is to an attempt on her life — and dates them 1592 to 1594, which still allows Southampton to fill the position of the fair young man, for which he would have been too young in the 1580s. Rowse believes that Shakespeare was heterosexual and Southampton bisexual, and that Shakespeare’s rival for Southampton’s patronage was Marlowe, generally dubbed a homosexual, and this necessitates a dating of the Sonnets prior to May 1593 when Marlowe was murdered. Rowse sees the intense relationship with Southampton, or as he would have it, the period of patronage, as being over, and the Sonnets past, before I would start it, with the dedications of the long poems occurring at its end, not at its beginning.
Rowse thinks Shakespeare’s “personal life” ended with the Sonnets, before 1595, and that thereafter he totally absorbed himself in work, choosing fellow actors rather than nobility as company, and that we have no signs of his personality in his writing thereafter. Shakespeare, he says, turned his back on patronage and poetry to build a career in the theatre from about 1594, when he bought his share in his acting company using the “₤1,000” given him by Southampton. He applauds Shakespeare’s choice of “independence”, and awards him a fruitful, jolly life thereafter.
Pearson, by contrast, is adamant that the Sonnets are formalities of patronage, and deplores their “obsequiousness”. His conviction that they have no personal content is a recurring defence against suspicions that Shakespeare’s love for Southampton was homosexual. Shakespeare’s late nineteenth century biographer, Lee, for example, claims that their expression of “love” is purely formal and ritual, and a feature of numerous sonnets addressed to either sex by writers of the period, and he provides convincing evidence of the genre. The existence of sonnets expressing formal love of patrons does not, however, eliminate the idiosyncracy and passion from Shakespeare’s.
Lee corroborates his gutting of emotional content in the sonnets with the view that they are unconnected and in random order, but this does not withstand a sequential reading. Rowse, like me, accepts that the order of the sonnets is meaningful and that the Dark Lady sequence is co-incident with a section of the main sequence, and also surmises that all were given to Southampton, including those addressed to the Dark Lady. Their late publication in 1609, he suggests, was via the channel of Southampton’s mother, the Countess of Southampton, and her third husband, Sir William Harvey (WH), although after her death in 1607.
In contrast to Hotson and Rowse, I have chosen to date the sonnets via a known personal event in Shakespeare’s life rather than a veiled political reference. Unlike Rowse, but like Pearson, I imagine the mutual regard between Shakespeare and Southampton to have continued throughout Shakespeare’s life, although losing its intensity as foreshadowed in the last of the sonnets, and attenuated further as Southampton became more involved in family (marriage) and political affairs, including imprisonment from 1601 to 1603 for his part in the Essex rebellion.
But, as I believe the plays show, Shakespeare’s inner turmoil, laid down by the miscegenations of his youth, was far from happily resolved by his absorption into the world of the theatre. The publication of the sonnets in 1609 may have been an attempt on Southampton’s part to revitalize Shakespeare’s career as a poet, after his retirement from the theatre but before his final return to residence in Stratford. Brown suggests that some scandal relating to the publication of the Sonnets prevented their receiving the acclamation they deserved, and perhaps this explains their ineffectuality in winning Shakespeare a poet’s position in London or court society. It is possible that Shakespeare was not entirely happy about the publication of a sequence of sonnets which, despite their brilliance as poetry, show him in an often unfavourable light. Pearson suggests that the following lines from Timon of Athens express disgust at his former obsequiousness:
Painter: You are rapt, in some work, some dedication
To the great lord.
Poet: A thing slipped idly from me,
Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes
From whence ‘tis nourished.
In the event, the lapse of more than a decade and the only partial concealment of identities was perhaps not enough to defuse their highly personal content, and the problems they presented to nineteenth and twentieth century critics probably applied with greater force in the lifetime of those involved.
Moral, psychological and literary evolution
When, immediately following the Southampton sonnets, one reads those to the Dark Lady, it is powerfully apparent that sexual fervour is not involved in the former as it is in the latter — was not a real factor in Shakespeare’s bond to Southampton as it was in his love/hate of the Dark Lady. Shakespeare’s love for Southampton did not evoke in him the confounding, penetrating, morally constraining emotions of heterosexual relationships. His early sexual disasters, with their moral dimensions and real consequences, which he could neither ignore nor reconcile, were ressurrected by the complex entanglement with the Dark Lady, to plague and confuse his conceptions of her and her actions, while his regard for Southampton was comparatively untouched by them. It seems to me that this difference of tenor refutes any case for Shakespeare’s relationship with Southampton as homosexual, in the sense we understand that word today.
We see in Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets the inescapable moral dimension of heterosexuality, although in a dark-mirror version. They are in stark contrast, even in their treatment of sexual betrayal, to the more argumentative pretensions to moral concern of those addressed to Southampton, and to their even-tempered formality when the relationship itself, rather than Shakespeare’s ambitions, is their subject matter. It is these latter qualities which make it so tempting and pleasing to co-opt the Southampton sonnets to heterosexual love — to accept their false promise that it can be divorced from the testing and constraining demands of procreation and the re-creation of culture.
Shakespeare did not simply shed his early experience of the potential for harm of “immoral” heterosexual behaviour, that is, when given expression outside its primary biological and social role in human society; he was unable, simplistically, to employ a new sexual encounter to wipe out — erase from the slate — his early unfortunate experience. The “rules” he had learned were turned on himself. If his disastrous marriage resulted from extra-marital dalliance, how could he lightly, and with self-approval, recommit that profound error? And if he doubted and blamed his mother, how could he think well of his married mistress when, in loving Shakespeare or Southampton, she committed a version of the transgression that had so destabilized his own life’s course. The interpenetration of heterosexual behaviour with the course of successive generations makes it unavoidably moral, and the poisoned aspect taken on by sexuality when it conflicts with social (and therefore moral) necessity becomes a major theme of the “Dark Vision” plays.
A bad conscience over sexual “cheating” appears to lie behind the poem “Love’s Perjuries”, attributed to Shakespeare in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The title is significant for its interpretation. A youth, enraptured at the sight of “a blossom”,
Air, quoth he, thy cheeks may blow,
Air, would I might triumph so!
But alack, my hand is sworn
Ne’er to pluck thee from thy thorn;
Vow, alack, for youth unmeet;
Youth so apt to pluck a sweet;
Do not call it sin in me
That I am forsworn for thee:
His concern appears to be for his betrayal of his new love, ordained by the existence of the old, which he lightly betrays:
Thou for whom e’en Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiope were,
And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.
Why the introduction of “Ethiope” as a denial of a spouse’s beauty? Is it a tribute to the Dark Lady? But the poem is unretrievably ambiguous, and without the title one might read it as a regretful denial of fulfilment to a new love because of a prior relationship – and one thinks of Ann Whately.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are probably more revealing of the personally shameful than any other writer has knowingly allowed himself to be, and than many would be capable of being. They might be optimistically viewed as Shakespeare’s personally devised psychotherapy, the temporary success of which allowed him to move on to the innovative work of his mature plays. The method he adopted in the last two sonnets of the Dark Lady series, using a received tale as a verbal context for the resolution of a personal dilemma, becomes habitual in his choice of stories for the plays of his later periods. This therapy, of using the re-telling of traditional tales to express his own preoccupations was, I have surmized, present in his very first work, Venus and Adonis, if it recounts his victimization by Ann Hathaway; and The Rape of Lucrece is, perhaps, through comparison, a damning reflection on his own mother’s behaviour.
In the Sonnets, however, there is self-examination that generally proceeds without the mediation of traditional tales, maintaining instead a direct link between words and experience. Only the last two sonnets, embed their autobiographical subject matter in a traditional landscape, abandoning the direct vision achieved in their predcessors. However, the methods of expression developed in the Sonnets were not lost, and we may, I believe, view them as the gateway to his later practice, in the plays, of achieving existential expression through the selection and modification of traditional plots or stories whose characters play out his personal experience. Having developed a means of working out his personal perplexities in poetry, Shakespeare, as it were, got the habit. Thenceforth his plays bend their texts to that same purpose so successfully that he did not turn to pure poetry again to apply that poultice to the still festering wounds of his youth.
In his use of traditional tales, Shakespeare makes a significant advance on, say, Chaucer or Spenser or Racine. Where they accept the received wisdom of the old tale, Shakespeare begs to differ and, using something of the scientific — the sociological — method, steps thereby into the modern world. Rather than refurbishing traditional stories or histories which illustrate a conventional social ethic, he binds them to the demonstration of his personal experience of life, which may, nevertheless, eventuate in the same conclusions. The empiricism, the allegiance to careful, accurate observation, seen in pure form in the Sonnets is now directed at social concatenations of disorder. The expression in the Sonnets of the turmoil of Shakespeare’s emotional life in the period 1596-97 was a forge which enabled him to reshape an old cast of story-telling into a new vehicle of thought. Although his method of a modest, disguised empiricism was superseded in the late eighteenth century with the introduction of scientific rationalism into literature, his invention has continued to delight the world beyond the achievements either of its predecessors or of its successors. It is perhaps well-nigh unique to Shakespeare.
The progression of the Sonnets is a long exercise in expressing the real and the individual, in place of the formalized and the assumed, in emotion and in human attachments, and this hard traffic bore fruit in the succeeding plays. Shakespeare realized that there was a vast world of the personal and the domestic waiting to be put into dramatic form, in another sphere from the received conventions of the heroic and the political, and that it could be expressed with an intricate and intense sensibility. Nevertheless it seems likely, on the evidence of the plays and his later life course, that for Shakespeare, personally, the resolution they delivered was not permanent, and his battle with ambition and with his past was never entirely won.
[Chapter 1 – 3 from Shakespeare’s Shattered Youth by Lucy Sullivan; available from Windrush Press at windrushpress.net]