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Shakespeare's Sonnets /

Further Reading: Shakespeare's Sonnets

Abbreviations: Ant. = Antony and Cleopatra; AWW = All’s Well That Ends Well; AYL = As You Like It; Ham. = Hamlet; Lear = King Lear; LLL = Love’s Labor’s Lost; Oth. = Othello; Rom. = Romeo and Juliet; Tro. = Troilus and Cressida; TN = Twelfth Night

Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Edited with Analytic Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Booth provides the text of the 1609 Quarto (Apsley imprint, the Huntington-Bridgewater copy) and his own edited text in parallel, followed by a detailed analytic commentary on each sonnet. What Booth thinks “a Renaissance reader would have thought” in progressing through a sequence felt “as both urgent and wanting” determines both text and commentary. The “pluralistically-committed” glosses reflect Booth’s view that the poems are best thought about in terms of “both . . . and” rather than “either . . . or.” In an appendix the editor briefly touches on matters relating to authenticity, dating, sources, arrangement, and biographical implications; addressing the question of Shakespeare’s sexual preference, Booth observes: “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.”

Cheney, Patrick. “ ‘O, Let My Books Be . . . Dumb Presagers’: Poetry and Theater in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2001): 222–54.

Cheney counters the commonplace view of Shakespeare as a “playwright and occasional poet.” Noting frequent references to Shakespeare’s theatrical career and the extensive use of theatrical metaphors and vocabulary (e.g., “show,” “mask,” “rehearse,” “play,” “part,” “action,” “actor,” “shadow,” “mock,” and “dumb”), Cheney finds in the Sonnets “an unusual site” for exploring Shakespeare as “inextricably caught” in the rivalry between printed poetry and staged theater for cultural authority in early modern England. Cheney’s examination of the intersection of poetic and theatrical discourses in several key sonnets (15, 29, 54, 108, 144, and especially 23) leads him to conclude that in these poems Shakespeare—the only prolific professional dramatist of the period to leave behind a sonnet sequence—resurrects and perfects a model of authorship tracing back to the celebrated Ovid, namely, the author as poet-playwright.

De Grazia, Margreta. “The Scandal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 35–49. [Reprinted in Schiffer, pp. 89–112.]

De Grazia contends that editors and critics have erred in identifying the “scandal” of the Sonnets as Shakespeare’s “desire for a boy,” a desire that, in “upholding [the] social distinctions” essential to a patriarchal society, was really “quite conservative and safe.” The real scandal lies in Shakespeare’s “gynerastic longings for a black mistress”; these desires are “perverse and menacing, precisely because they threaten to raze the very distinctions his poems to the fair boy strain to preserve.” Emphasizing psychosocial rather than psychosexual differences, de Grazia advocates a reclassification of the traditional reading of Shakespeare’s “Two loves” that would replace post-eighteenth-century sexual categories of normalcy and abnormalcy with sixteenth-century social categories of hierarchy and anarchy—i.e., “of desired generation and abhorred miscegenation.” Recent scholarship on early modern England’s contact with Africa and on the cultural representations of that contact encourages an association of the Dark Lady’s blackness with racial blackness.

Dubrow, Heather. “ ‘Incertainties now crown themselves assur’d’: The Politics of Plotting Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 291–305. [Reprinted in Schiffer, pp. 113–33.]

In her revisionist readings of the poems, Dubrow proposes switching the usually assumed addressee to his/her gendered opposite, thereby challenging critical claims based on a “map of misreading” that has characterized scholarship on the Sonnets since the end of the eighteenth century—most notably the bipartite division positing a male friend as the focus of the first 126 poems and a woman as the concern of the remaining 28. Also thrown into question is the widely held assumption of a linear plot involving the triangulated desires of Poet, Friend, and Dark Lady. If, for example, Sonnets 18 and 55 are read as addressing the woman, the sequence not only opens up a range of “contestatory images” imparting to her a Cleopatra-like infinite variety but also suggests a period of “idyllic happiness with her followed by disillusion.” The 1609 Quarto’s loose and rather arbitrary arrangement of the poems permits a reader “to construct any number of narratives.”

Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

In one of the twentieth century’s most influential studies of the Sonnets, Fineman argues that “Shakespeare rewrites the poetry of praise by employing (implicitly in the sonnets addressed to the young man, explicitly in the sonnets addressed to the dark lady) in an unprecedentedly serious way the equally antique genre of the mock encomium,” in the process inventing “the only kind of subjectivity that survives in the literature successive to the poetry of praise.” Within this larger argument Fineman details the visual orientation of Shakespeare’s rhetoric in the poet’s praise of the young man and then explores how other sonnets in the sequence put into question such a rhetoric and thus how the “eye” is “perjured.” Fineman’s reading of the poems highlights, among other things, their privileging of their own textuality over visual media of representation. His dazzling critique and its indebtedness to the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan belong very much to the deconstructionist turn in twentieth-century criticism.

Herrnstein, Barbara, ed. Discussions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1964.

Herrnstein gathers nineteen items spanning the years 1640 to 1960 under the following headings: early commentary (the views of John Benson, George Steevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Henry Hallam), speculation (Leslie Hotson’s theory that most of the poems were written by 1589 and F. W. Bateson’s retort), interpretation (Edward Hubler’s “Shakespeare and the Unromantic Lady,” Patrick Cruttwell’s “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the 1590’s,” G. Wilson Knight’s “Time and Eternity,” and J. W. Lever’s “The Poet in Absence” and “The Poet and His Rivals”), evaluation (negative assessments by John Crowe Ransom and Yvor Winters), and analysis (the Robert Graves/Laura Riding study of original punctuation and spelling in Sonnet 129, William Empson’s focus on different types of ambiguity, Arthur Mizener’s rebuttal to Ransom’s critique of Shakespeare’s use of figurative language, and Winifred M. T. Nowottny’s discussion of formal elements in ss. 1–6). In the volume’s final selection, “The Sonnet as an Action,” C. L. Barber claims that the “patterned movement of discourse [i.e., ‘determinate rhythm and sound’],” not the imagery, is the “main line” of the Shakespearean sonnet.

Hunter, G. K. “The Dramatic Technique of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Essays in Criticism 3 (1953): 152–64.

Hunter locates the “peculiar quality” of the poems’ excellence in Shakespeare’s “bias” toward the dramatic. What distinguishes Shakespeare’s treatment of stock themes and use of rhetorical techniques like paradox and simile from that of Spenser, Sidney, Drayton, and Donne is an expressiveness that vividly defines the emotional tension in the “I-Thou” relationship of each sonnet, rendering it immediate, and thereby encouraging the reader to supply “from his imagination a complete dramatic situation.” In Shakespeare’s hands, “the Petrarchan instruments turn . . . into means of expressing and concentrating the great human emotions, desire, jealousy, fear, hope and despair, and of raising in the reader the dramatic reactions of pity and terror by his implication in the lives and fates of the persons depicted.”

Lever, J. W. The Elizabethan Love Sonnet. 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1966. [First published in 1956.]

Following chapters on the Petrarchan model, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser, and the late Elizabethan sonneteers, Lever turns his attention to Shakespeare’s reworking of Petrarchan conventions. After a comparatively brief commentary on the sonnets addressed to the Mistress (the “subplot” of the sequence in which satire is the dominant mode), Lever discusses those concerned with the Friend under the following headings: “The Invitation to Marry,” “The Poet in Absence,” “The Friend’s Fault,” “The Poet and His Rivals,” “The Poet’s Error,” and “Immortalization.” For a full appreciation of Shakespeare’s insights into human nature and his attitude toward various kinds of love, the reader needs to be aware of the “dual interpretation” at work in the sequence as a whole. The tension between the love sonnet’s Petrarchan origins and a “distinctively English attitude” yields the main dynamic of development that commenced with Wyatt and culminated in Shakespeare.

Magnusson, Lynne. “ ‘Power to Hurt’: Language and Service in Sidney Household Letters and Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH 65 (1998): 799–824. [Incorporated into Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters, pp. 35–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.]

Magnusson uses ideas from discourse analysis and linguistic pragmatics, especially “politeness theory,” to explore the rhetoric of social exchange in early modern England. Her analysis of the language of servitude in sample household letters of the Sidney family sheds light on how “social relations of power are figured” in several sonnets addressed to the young man, particularly Sonnet 58, which she reads “historically as the outward expression of a subservient social relation developed into the inner speech of the Poet-Servant’s complicated desire.” Stylistic resemblances between the interlocutory dynamic found in the letters and that in the sonnet—e.g., shared rhetorical strategies of nonpresumption, noncoercion, and self-disparagement on the part of the subordinate—demonstrate that Shakespeare’s poetic language “derives something of its peculiar power” from everyday Elizabethan discourse.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequences.” ELH 45 (1978): 359–89.

Neely finds in the English Renaissance sonnet sequences a “characteristic overall structure” that is loose and elastic, and hence amenable to refining, reworking, and rearranging over time. This shared structure has several implications: (1) it confirms the indebtedness of the English sequences to those of Dante and Petrarch; (2) it validates the long-questioned standing order of the English sequences; and (3) it helps explain “the perplexing conclusions” of the major ones. The division into two unequal parts is the “primary structuring device” for developing the dichotomy between idealized love and sexual desire at the heart of the sonnet sequence genre. In its movement toward “mutual sexual passion” rather than “solitary sublimation and transcendence,” the English sonnet sequence reconstructs rather than reproduces the Italian model.

Roberts, Sasha. “Textual Transmission and the Transformation of Desire: The Sonnets, A Lover’s Complaint, and The Passionate Pilgrim.” In her Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England, pp. 143–90. London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2003.

Roberts points out that “perhaps because of their comparative scarcity in print,” there are “more recorded transcriptions of Shakespeare’s sonnets in manuscript than for any other of his works in the seventeenth century.” There are, she writes, “some 24 manuscript copies of the sonnets largely dating from the 1620s and 1630s.” Those who copied Shakespeare’s sonnets felt free to alter the gender dynamics “so as to construct conventionally heterosexual love poems”; in copying, titles were also added and textual variants introduced. Sonnet 2 is particularly interesting in this context. It was “by far the most popular sonnet for transcription,” and, in the context of Caroline collections of amorous verse in which it appeared, it reads “more like a carpe diem lyric addressed to a female beloved,” a reading “fostered by the addition of the title [in four of the manuscripts] ‘To one that would die a maid.’ ”

Schalkwyk, David. Speech and Performance in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Drawing on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, Schalkwyk reads the Sonnets in relation to the Petrarchan discourses in a select group of plays to argue (in contrast to Fineman) that the language of the poems is essentially performative rather than descriptive. Like Magnusson, Schalkwyk argues that their “dialogic art” negotiates power relations between the interior and social worlds of “I” and “You.” After an initial examination of the performative of praise (Sonnets, Ant., and AYL), the author addresses such issues as embodiment and silencing (Sonnets, LLL, Rom., and TN), interiority (Sonnets, Ham., and Lear), and transformation (Sonnets and AWW). In his discussion of proper names and naming events in the Sonnets, Rom., Tro., and Oth., Schalkwyk reopens the autobiographical question, claiming that “it is precisely the peculiar absence of proper names in ‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’ that testifies to their autobiographical nature.” [Earlier versions of chapters 1 and 2 appeared, respectively, in Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 251–58 (“What May Words Do? The Performative of Praise in Shakespeare’s Sonnets”) and in 45 (1994): 381–407 (“ ‘She never told her love’: Embodiment, Textuality, and Silence in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plays”).]

Schiffer, James, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Schiffer’s anthology of four reprinted essays and fifteen newly published ones offers a snapshot of critical theories and methodologies dominant in Sonnets scholarship of the 1990s. The reprinted essays are those by Peter Stallybrass, Margreta de Grazia, Heather Dubrow, and George T. Wright (see individual entries for annotations). Among the newly commissioned essays are Gordon Braden’s revisiting of Shakespeare’s Petrarchism; Naomi Miller’s examination of the Sonnets in the context of early modern codes of maternity; Rebecca Laroche’s reconsideration of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr. W. H.; Marvin Hunt’s reading of the Dark Lady as “a sign of color”; Joyce Sutphen’s discussion of memorializing strategies in the sequence’s bipartite structure; Lisa Freinkel’s “post-Reformation” reading of the poems’ Christian “figurality”; Peter Herman’s investigation of the language and imagery of usury in Sonnets 1–20; Bruce Smith’s exploration of the sexual politics informing the pronominal interplay among “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” and “we”; and Valerie Traub’s examination of sodomy “as simultaneously a construction of and reaction to gender and erotic difference.” In his extensive introductory survey of Sonnets criticism, Schiffer notes how Fineman’s Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye serves as a “leitmotif ” throughout the volume.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Editing as Cultural Formation: The Sexing of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Modern Language Quarterly 54 (1993): 91–103. [Reprinted in Schiffer, pp. 75–88.]

In this cultural materialist study, Stallybrass argues that the Sonnets, assigned to the margins of the Shakespeare canon prior to Malone’s 1780 edition, became in the editions and critical commentary of the nineteenth century a crucial site on which the “sexual identity” of the National Poet “was invented and contested.” Out of the “cultural hysteria” prompted by the sexual implications of Malone’s “narrative of characterological unity” linking the “I” of the poems to their author came the construction of “Shakespeare” as an interiorized heterosexual, a “back-formation” functioning as a “belated defense against sodomy.” Consequently, the unified character of the author we as moderns know as “Shakespeare” is not “punctual”—i.e., is not a product of his own historical time—but rather retroactive, the creation of the nineteenth century’s homophobic response to the Sonnets.

Willen, Gerald, and Victor B. Reed, eds. A Casebook on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964.

Willen and Reed offer a newly edited text of the Sonnets, accompanied by six full-length essays and eight short explications of individual poems. The focus of the essays by Robert Graves and Laura Riding, L. C. Knights, John Crowe Ransom, Arthur Mizener, Edward Hubler, and G. Wilson Knight is on the poems themselves (their punctuation, structure, figurative language, and symbolism) rather than on “biographical puzzles.” In the frequently anthologized “Shakespeare at Sonnets,” Ransom faults the poems, with few exceptions, for their lack of logic and coherence, their “great violences” of idiom and syntax, and their “mixed effects.” The Hubler piece, “Form and Matter,” excerpted from his The Sense of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1952), examines Shakespeare’s poetic practice to argue that the poet valued matter (the subject) over form (the means by which the subject finds expression); the homely image and the “vignettes of nature” are what we remember. The specific sonnets receiving explication are 57 and 58 (Hilton Landry), 71–74 (Carlisle Moore), 73 (R. M. Lumiansky and Edward Nolan), 129 (Karl F. Thompson and C. W. M. Johnson), 143 (Gordon Ross Smith), and 146 (Albert S. Gerard). The appendices include a bibliography and a series of pedagogic exercises.

Wright, George T. “An Art of Small Differences: Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In his Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, pp. 75–90. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Wright’s focus here is on the contribution of the Sonnets to Shakespeare’s dramatic verse art. It was in these poems, Wright notes, that “Shakespeare learned, presumably in the early 1590s, after he had written a few plays and the narrative poems, to fashion a reflective verse whose resonances would thereafter be heard in the speeches of his dramatic characters.” Wright illustrates the ways in which the metrical art of the Sonnets “proceeds by way of small differences, quiet additions or withdrawals of emphasis,” making the most “of small differences—of stress, of pattern, of feeling.” The phrasing, he shows, is “extremely various,” rising “to a height of expressive variation in one line and then [subsiding] in the next,” but with the speech-tones “imitated in the sonnets . . . almost always those of quiet, intimate speech.” Especially notable is the “softness and musical grace that result from [Shakespeare’s] skillful use of pyrrhic feet [i.e., feet composed of two unstressed syllables].” The result is the “essentially quiet register” that characterizes the Sonnets.

Wright, George T. “The Silent Speech of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Los Angeles, 1996, edited by Jonathan Bate, Jill A. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, pp. 306–27. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998. [Reprinted in Schiffer, pp. 135–58.]

Noting how we usually read poetry in silence, Wright examines the Sonnets as silent meditations, “unvoiced, unsounded, unperformed,” in which the phenomenon of silent speech functions as both theme and medium. The “ruminative” tone of the poems makes it easy to “take them to be not really spoken to anyone but as having been produced during ‘sessions of sweet silent thought’ ” (s. 30). Wright connects this reflective quality, especially strong in the first 126 sonnets, to an emphasis on absence, separation, and silent waiting—themes that distinguish Shakespeare’s sonnets from many others. The emergence of an inner voice has important implications for Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist and for the development of the later English lyric.