The Sonnets (1): Some Background

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The Sonnets are in some ways the most personal of Shakespeare's works. As a result, much ink has been spilt in an attempt to create a biography of Shakespeare from the poems, on the assumption that they reveal his feelings about actual events, and that the various characters mentioned in them were real people. Especially intriguing is the question of the relevance of the artist's life to his works. W.H. Auden, himself a poet, remarked that artists would often "prefer to have no biography written," and would rather have their work published anonymously; [Note 1] you may not agree with him altogether, but his approach has the important advantage that it forces us to look at the poems themselves rather than to conjecture about the personalities who may or may not have been involved--and it is the poems themselves that you are studying in this unit. Sonnets Title Page

One of the most useful ways of looking at the poems -- which were after all written by a dramatist -- is as a kind of play, with a cast of characters exploring different moments in their relationships with lyrical mediations: the Poet, the Fair Young Man, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Woman. (At the risk of seeming precious, I shall capitalize the characters when I speak of them, not to be reverent, but to remind us that the persona or figure of the Poet in the poems is not necessarily Shakespeare himself in the strictly autobiographical sense.)

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Why did Shakespeare write the Sonnets?

In 1592 and 1593 the plague in London was so severe that the theatres were closed. Shakespeare seems to have turned his creative energies to poetry as a result. In 1593 he published the erotic narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, and the following year The Rape of Lucrece appeared. The two editions of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are carefully and accurately printed, unlike the texts of his plays. There is no definite evidence that Shakespeare corrected the proofs himself (authors seldom did), but is seems certain that the poems were set from his own fair copy in each case; the Sonnets, on the other hand, were almost certainly not approved for publication.

The Sonnets were published in 1609 by the publisher Thomas Thorpe (T. T.). At least some were written earlier, however, since they are mentioned some eleven years earlier, in 1598, by a commentator, Francis Meres. Meres mentions Shakespeare's "sugared Sonnets [circulating] among his private friends, etc."

Speculation about the personal nature of the Sonnets begins with the ambiguous wording of the dedication:

BY .
        T. T.

About the time he was writing the major narrative poems and at least some of the Sonnets, Shakespeare acquired a patron, Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton. The only clear documentation of their relationship exists in the dedications of the two poems. The dedication to Venus and Adonis is formal:

Right Honourable, I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden, only if your Honour seeme but pleased, I account my selfe highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I haue honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father: and never after ear so barren a land, for feare it yield me still so bad a harvest. . .

By the time he wrote The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare apparently felt that his dedication could be more intimate:

The loue I dedicate to your Lordship is without end: wherof this Pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I haue of your Honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines makes it assured of acceptance. What I haue done is yours, what I haue to doe is yours, being part in all I haue, devoted yours. . . .         Your Lordship's in all duty.         William Shakespeare."

Nine years younger than Shakespeare, Southampton was educated at Cambridge. He was a patron of literature, and a favourite of the Queen until he impregnated and married (in that order) Essex's cousin, Elizabeth Vernon.

The fact that Southampton gave Shakepeare a gift of 1000 pounds, an enormous amount at the time, has fostered speculation that Southampton was the "Mr. W. H." of the Sonnets. Certainly Shakespeare dedicated his two long narrative poems to Southampton, and the language of the second dedication is more intimate than the high rhetoric of the first.

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The cast of characters

The main candidates for "Mr. W. H." are: One way to clear away complicated speculation is to make the simple assumption that there is indeed a misprint in the dedication, and that it is "Mr W. S." --William Shakespeare--who is after all the "onlie begetter," or creator, of the sonnets. But then of course this theory would do away with all the entertaining speculation.

The poet, the "I" of the poem, is older than the Young Man, in some poems older than Shakespeare would literally have been. He loves the Young Man, but there is a quarrel and at times the Poet despairs of the Young Man's love. The poet is both attracted and repelled by the Dark Woman. Many of the sonnets become meditations on the destruction of beauty and the passage of time.

The first 117 sonnets are written to a Young Man; the first group (about 20) urge him to marry, while the later ones deal more generally with beauty, love, time and so on. The Young Man is a beloved friend, is very beautiful, and should preserve that beauty by having children. Later the Young Man has an affair with the Dark Woman, and there are sonnets describing the Poet's feelings during absence, a quarrel, and the Young Man's often irresponsible behaviour.

Just who the Young Man was, and what Shakespeare's personal relationship to him was, has been the subject of much speculation. Shakespeare was certainly starting from a well-established Renaissance tradition of male friendship. There is no concrete evidence to establish whether the relationship was sexual; although at least one sonnet seems explicitly to suggest that it could not be so, like many of the sonnets it is charged with strong feelings, both positive and negative. Nonetheless, the intensity of feeling in many of the poems to the Young Man suggest that the love experienced was deep enough to evoke jealousy when it went wrong. As you read the early sonnets, think about the degree of eroticism you find -- or don't find -- in them.

The Dark Woman, despite her darkness of hair and feature, is sexually attractive; the Poet is duly attracted--and repelled, as you will see when you look at the poems in this group.

And there is also a Rival Poet who, with "proud full sail" of his "great verse," competes for the attention of the Young Man (see numbers 79-86, not included in this module). Various candidates have been suggested: Marlowe, Chapman, Lyly, Markham, and others.


1. In his Introduction to the Sonnets in the Signet Edition, p. xix. [Back]

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This page last updated May 6, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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