Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Shakespeare’s sonnets: debates and context

There are, as it turns out, lots of debates surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets:

a) Whether the publisher Thomas Thorpe used an authorised manuscript of Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy for the 1609 quarto.

b) Whether the sonnets are meant to be read in that order. 

c) When they were written. 

d) Whether “A Lover’s Complaint” was written by Shakespeare and how it fits in with the sonnets. 

e) Whether the speaker in the sonnets is a persona, a fictional character, or Shakespeare himself, whether the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady are real people, and who they are. Related: whether or not the sonnets are autobiographical and if they can reveal anything about the Bard. 

f) Who Mr W.H. in the dedication was. 

Regarding c), my copy is the Arden edition edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, and she believes that the sonnets must have been written over many years and revised a few times and possibly rearranged for publication. Shakespeare’s sonnets were first mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598 (“his sugred Sonnets among is private friends”), and in 1599, William Jaggard published a small octavo volume that was called The Passionate Pilgrim and credited to William Shakespeare. The volume contained 20 poems, only a handful could be confidently claimed as Shakespeare’s—3 sonnets were from Love’s Labour’s Lost, and there were 2 sonnets that later appeared in the 1609 quarto as sonnets 138 and 144. 

(On twitter I came across quite a few people “quoting Shakespeare” and putting up some poem from The Passionate Pilgrim that sounded nothing like him—these are clearly people who want to be seen as appreciating Shakespeare and therefore cultured but who know nothing). 

This proves that a few sonnets already existed in 1599. Internal and external evidence shows that the sonnets may reference or correspond to personal or public events, therefore they must have been written over a number of years. 

I like the suggestion that many of the sonnets may have been written during the plagues—after all, there was a London plague in 1592-1593, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was published in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece was published the following year, so it would have been plausible for Shakespeare to turn to poetry when a plague broke out in 1603 and theatres were shut till 1604. 

In the introduction of my copy, Katherine Duncan-Jones also discusses question a) and believes that the publication of the 1609 quarto was authorised by Shakespeare. Generally the argument is that Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, is the signatory of the dedication instead of Shakespeare, but it’s possible that the poet himself was away. There was also a plague outbreak in 1609.

“… Perhaps something of a last-minute rush attended Shakespeare’s sale of the copy manuscript to Thorpe. He may well have been anxious to complete the transaction as quickly as possible before retreating from the plague-ridden London for the summer. The King’s Men are recorded as being at Ipswich on 9 May 1609. […] Shakespeare seems not to have been in Stratford since the death of his widowed mother the previous September. His considerable holdings in tithe income, land and commodities all needed to be seen to, and there was at least one outstanding piece of litigation in Warwickshire.” 

Katherine Duncan-Jones also argues that there’s a good reason to believe Shakespeare authorised the publication: “his repeated deployment of the theme of immortalization through verse”. 

“Though this traditional motif has precedents in Horace and in the French Pléiade poets, it is hard to see how a writer so aware of the practicalities as Shakespeare could claim to immortalize his friend in ‘black lines’ unless he either allowed the sequence to achieve wide circulation in manuscript, which he clearly did not, or ensured that it was printed.” 

She makes a rather good case, adding that Thomas Thorpe published other texts that we know to have been authorised. Another argument against it is that Shakespeare’s narrative poems were published by his Stratford school-fellow Richard Field, but the response is that it’s possible Shakespeare turned to Thorpe because of his theatrical associations, his work for Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists, such as Ben Jonson or George Chapman.

I personally don’t see how it matters a great deal whether or not the publication was authorised, after all we have the sonnets (does anyone debate Max Brod’s decision to ignore Kafka’s wish and publish all of his works, including the unfinished novels?). The more important questions are whether Shakespeare or Thorpe or someone else arranged the sonnets in this order, and whether the poems are autobiographical. 

Anthony Burgess, whose Shakespeare book I’ve just read recently, seems to think that they were, and imagines a hot affair between Shakespeare and a dark-skinned woman. James Shapiro warns against such readings, explaining in Contested Will that in Elizabethan times (and a while afterwards), autobiography wasn’t a thing and poems were literary exercises rather than expressions of personal feelings. 

Katherine Duncan-Jones doesn’t think they’re autobiographical either, noting that they are in many ways anti-Petrarchan and anti-Sidneian (Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella): 

“[Shakespeare] sought to appropriate and redefine the genre, rejecting the stale conceits of mistress-worship, and to create a sonnet sequence so different from all its predecessors that the form could never be the same again.” 

He completely changed the form, the style, the subject. The Fair Youth sonnets are unusual, addressing a young man instead of a woman, but the Dark Lady ones are also unconventional, offering “backhanded praise of a manifestly non-aristocratic woman who is neither young, beautiful, intelligent nor chaste” instead of “a chaste and high-born lady who can never be possessed physically” as in conventions. People who seek to know the real Shakespeare and find nothing personal in the plays may go to the sonnets for his private views and feelings, but there’s probably nothing of Shakespeare there and the poems are just dramatic monologues. 

However, Katherine Duncan-Jones also writes about the discomfort of many scholars and critics who focus on the Dark Lady and ignore the Fair Youth, or even change the pronouns and try to turn the poems heterosexual, which is amusing.

What do you think about these debates?


  1. Last time I read the sonnets was quite a few years ago and, puzzled in those days by how little could be known about such a famous personage as Shakespeare, I tried to tease out from them some idea about how the nature of his love and art demanded the sacrifice of his historical or personal identity -- demanded he not exist as a person or personality in the normal sense.

    I couldn’t say what textual evidence lead me to that conclusion and anyway it’s nonsense and I think your editor has the proper idea, which is in keeping with the plays, that this was an impersonal exercise on his part, telling us more about the development of sonnets as an artform than about Shakespeare personally.

    Anyhow, thanks for your posts --

    1. I'm glad you enjoy them.
      I think the thing about Shakespeare is that he, to steal Walt Whitman's phrase, contains multitudes and can talk in so many different voices that it's impossible to *know* him in the plays, and now that I'm reading the sonnets, I don't really think they're autobiographical either, or if they are, only partly.

  2. Comparing Whitman, it’s interesting that he, claiming to contain multitudes, seems only ever identifiable as himself, Walt Whitman the poet, while Shakespeare, who does seem to have palpably contained multitudes, seems impossible to identify as himself.

    I think, in his impersonality, Shakespeare is most like modern film directors, whose scripts much of time, are imported from other sources, based on others’ books, and not derived from personal experience. There’s not a “Shakespeare character” like there is a “Hemingway Character” because the stories he used belonged to someone else.

    With respect to the sonnets, these seem a more personal artform for which you can’t import a text in the same way, but if it were my job to think about these things, I’d be inclined to start searching for such a text nevertheless.

    1. I've read too little of Whitman to comment.
      Your comparison to film directors is interesting, though I think in film criticism, auteurs (directors with a recognisable style and recurring themes/ ideas) are more highly regarded than those without an individual style, and it is because in film, it's much easier not to have a recognisable style and vision than to have it. Film is a collaborative art.
      Shakespeare is a playwright, so still a writer. I think the fact that he uses many sources is only part of it, he has the ability to talk in many different voices and disappear in the texts.

  3. Your remark that Shakespeare has so many individual voices reminds me that Tolstoy criticized him on the exact opposite grounds — that all his characters spoke like the same person. (I’m not sure where he said that, but think I read it in a Harold Bloom book -- who also calls Tolstoy’s criticism absurd.)

    If I’m understanding you rightly, I don’t think that farming out the story element of a film is the same as abandoning an individual style. "There Will Be Blood" and "The Shining" come to mind as films in which the director took the story from someone else (Upton Sinclair, Stephen King), freeing themselves to concentrate on other aspects of the film. Similarly, with Shakespeare, since he begins with this roadmap of where this story will go, in Hamlet, in Lear, he can concentrate on aspects of the drama, like poetry.

    1. Did Tolstoy say that? I read his essay so many years ago that I only remember him saying that Shakespeare's characters don't sound realistic, though I think Tolstoy didn't read the plays in English (not sure about this point though).

      About the films, I didn't mean that. What I mean is that film is itself a collaborative art, there are lots of people involved in the process of making a film, so directors with a strong, individual, recognisable style are more highly regarded than directors who don't have a personal mark over their films. The weakest directors are those who make it obvious that there are too many hands in the making of the film.
      A writer is the opposite, working alone, so writers who can talk in many voices and enter different characters' minds, such as Tolstoy or Shakespeare, are more highly regarded than writers whose characters all sound the same.
      So it's hard to make a comparison.

  4. Your dim memory of what Tolstoy said about Shakespeare clearly trumps my dim memory of what Bloom might have said Tolstoy said about Shakespeare so I suppose I’ll have to withdraw that remark.

    On the other point, I do see what you’re saying, and do agree.

    1. Haha. I think I should reread Tolstoy's essay soon, for fun.


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