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Shakespeare's Sonnets /

A Modern Perspective: Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Lynne Magnusson

In the movie Shakespeare in Love, it is a conventionally beautiful woman of high social status and at least respectable morality who fires up Will Shakespeare’s desire. If the filmmakers were taking their cues for a script about Shakespeare’s passions from the Sonnets, one might have expected a less orthodox story. Most of the first 126 sonnets—if we can trust that the order in which the 154 sonnets were published in 1609 represents a planned sequence—evoke a poet’s highly charged desire for a beautiful young man of high status. He is the one praised in Sonnet 18’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,” the famous romantic tribute that Will in the movie addresses to his lady. For the sonnet speaker, the fair young man is what grounds his idealizing imagination and his lyrical poetry, the trigger for complex emotions, and the object of sexual desire. The young man’s face may be like a beautiful woman’s, leading the poet to call him “the master mistress of my passion” (s. 20.2), but what is special in this relationship is between men. The reception of the sonnets has been colored by strategies for denying or downplaying this basic situation, allowing readers of scattered anthologized sonnets—like moviegoers—to slip very easily into the unchallenged assumption that the addressee to whom the speaker says “I love you so” (s. 71.6) is a woman like the fair and remote “she” of Petrarchan sonnet convention. Thus, before we come to the necessary qualifications about the sketchiness of the sonnet story, it is important to be explicit about the primary relationship. Shakespeare transforms the conventional sonnet story by making his beloved a “he.”

There is also a female lover in the sonnets, the focus of a secondary relationship treated in many of the last twenty-eight sonnets (127–54). But when attention turns to her, it is not to assert the normality of heterosexual romance. Things have gone downhill for the speaker, into an obsessive cycle of longing and loathing. By the conventional standards of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, the woman in question lacks beauty and sexual virtue. Regularly referred to by sonnet readers as the “dark lady,” she is described in the famous anti-Petrarchan poem “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (s. 130). It affords her ironic praise by inverting and undermining unrealistic sonnet compliments. The speaker’s passion for the dark lady, set in contrast to his love for the fair young man, grounds his discourse in lies and equivocation, triggers out-of-control emotions and self-loathing, and tangles him in insatiable and shameful lust. The speaker deploys a playful satiric cleverness in some of these poems, as if to detach himself from strong emotions, but the savage self-loathing precipitated by dependence on this woman and even hints of misogyny break out. The speaker compares the dark lady’s apparently promiscuous sexuality to a “bay where all men ride” (s. 137.6), and his punning imagination fantasizes a situation with his “will,” or sexual member, only one among others filling her “full with wills” (s. 136.6). To top it all off, he turns the virtuosity of his poetic skill to excusing the ultimate degradation of the dark lady’s sexual affair with his own male beloved.

Insofar as the sonnet sequence tells a story of passion, this sketch sets out some of its basic coordinates. Yet whether the sonnets are telling any story that bears on Shakespeare’s life—or, indeed, any consistent story with a clear cast of characters at all—is a contentious issue. Are the sonnets in any sense a record of events, evoking autobiographical reference or, more generally, particular sociohistorical contexts? Or are they exquisitely self-contained poems, to be valued primarily for their artistic play of words? Admirers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets have tended to choose one approach or the other, often in an all-or-nothing way. This essay will argue for a middle course by suggesting how Shakespeare’s verbal artistry is embedded in historical contexts. But let’s first look briefly at the problems with the standoff.

Those seeking Shakespearean life events have cried “eureka” over identifications of the young man sparked by publisher Thomas Thorpe’s inscription in the 1609 edition to a “Mr. W.H.” Some, insisting the initials became somehow reversed, identify the young man as Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, who was one of Shakespeare’s earliest known patrons; others opt for another known patron, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. Still others, adding cues from Shakespeare’s wordplay, argue that puns on “will” and “hues” point to a Willie Hughes.1 Scholars seeking to persuade readers of their various identifications of the mistress with, for example, an Elizabethan lady-in-waiting (Mary Fitton), a female poet (Emilia Lanier), or a London prostitute (Luce Negro), usually isolate the Sonnets’ somewhat elusive characterization of her in terms of “blackness.”2 With varying interpretive ingenuity, they seek to apply this ideologically loaded descriptor to their candidate’s eyes, deeds, hair, character, or complexion.

There are problems with reading the sonnets in this way. To begin with, there is simply too little information about Shakespeare’s life on which to build arguments about his personal relationships or their intensity. Furthermore, reading to this end does little to open up the accomplishment of the sonnets: active interpretation of these complex and original poems is sacrificed to a narrow search for evidence. Finally, even if the poems were partly inspired by particular relations and circumstances, these are mediated by the sonnets’ interplay with literary traditions and poetic intertexts. Shakespeare’s choice of a male beloved is itself a good example, for what it signifies is closely tied to its surprising innovation on Petrarchan convention.

In the other camp, astute critics of lyric poetry such as Helen Vendler and Stephen Booth press readers to attend to the “sonnets as poems,” not primarily because information about Shakespeare’s life is scarce but because of their conviction about how poetic language works. In Vendler’s view, the “true ‘actors’ in lyric are words,” and the event or “drama of any lyric” has to do with innovations in words or “new stylistic arrangements.”3 It is undoubtedly true that the richest pleasures of the individual sonnets are to be gained through active reading. Such a reading process might profitably attend to the overall sonnet structure—to how the shape of the sentences and the trajectory of the thought cohere with or pull against the three quatrains and final couplet of the Shakespearean form. At a more detailed level, the reading might focus on rhetorical figures of speech. Part of the pleasure of a Shakespearean sonnet comes in recognizing its rhetorical play, both where repetitions of words and sounds (e.g., alliteration, assonance) make for rich resonances and where metaphor and wordplay trigger unexpected meanings in words.

Nonetheless, most readers would not accept that words are the only actors. The poems excite curiosity about the speaker’s situation, and they powerfully express his emotions and private consciousness. If the lyric refers to or mimes anything outside the realm of words, Vendler claims, it is delimited to “the performance of mind in solitary speech.” In her view, lyrical poetry typically “strips away most social specification (age, regional location, sex, class, even race),” so that the speaking “I” is “voiceable by anyone.”4 My contention is that to deny the relevance of social context is to misunderstand much of the innovation of Shakespeare’s language. These sonnets are not the unaddressed speeches of an anonymous “I.” They are utterances in which it matters who is speaking, to whom, and in what situation.

Shakespeare’s use of pronouns gives a strong cue that direction of address and situational specifics matter. In other major sonnet sequences of his time, after the first-person pronoun “I,” the third-person pronoun (i.e., “she,” “her,” or “him”) occurs with greatest frequency. In Shakespeare, it is the second person of direct address, the “thou” or “you,” and these pronouns occur almost as frequently as the speaking “I.”5 Shakespeare’s speaker is not analyzing his inner experience in relation to the loved object, the “she” of most other Elizabethan sequences. Instead, the poems work like conversation, even if they get no direct answer. Most Shakespeare sonnets are less the isolated expression of an “I” than a social dialogue, albeit with only one speaker. As with any conversation or phone call overheard, they make a demand on the interpreter to imagine who would say this to whom, and in what situation. Speech is a social activity: what one says depends on whom one speaks to and in what context. Shakespeare, a dramatist turning his hand to lyric, innovates by creating the private thought of his speaker out of the materials of socially situated conversation. We as readers cannot come to know this “I” without making an active effort to figure out the context and follow the conversation. The rest of this essay will take a look at the opening movement of the sonnets as a changing “dialogue of one.”6

Changing the Conversation

While the Sonnets as a whole are famous for giving a new intonation to inward feeling and private thought, the focus is not on the speaker’s “I” from the outset. The sequence begins with seventeen sonnets often referred to as the procreation group. They advise a beautiful young man to marry and procreate so that his beauty will be replicated and preserved in his children against time’s ruinous process of decay: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” (s. 1.1–2). Who would speak this way, and in what situation? It is true that a conventional Petrarchan sonnet lover might use metaphors like “beauty’s rose,” but this speaker adopts a surprisingly public and authoritative stance. A first cue is the choice of “we” over “I,” as if he is speaking for a larger group. In the first line, his vocabulary (“creatures . . . increase”) seems to echo God’s message in the scriptural creation story, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1.22, 28). Nonetheless, the voice that will eventually set up Nature and Time as the reigning forces in the sonnets’ worldview sounds more secular than religious, more like a teacher than a preacher. The public role is reinforced in the couplet’s directive not to pity a private lover but to “Pity the world” (s. 1.13). This directive raises curiosity about who the addressee can be to be so important that the world should care. Only the addressee’s great beauty is given as an explicit reason in Sonnet 1, but soon the vocabulary, even where used metaphorically, comes to associate the addressee with the nobility. His imagined child is spoken of as an “heir” (s. 6.14) and in terms of “succession” (s. 2.12); he is spoken of as if in possession of a “legacy” (s. 4.2) and a “fair . . . house” (s. 13.9); and it is taken for granted he can afford liveried servants (s. 2.3) and the pompous splendor of a “tomb” (s. 3.7).

If the addressee is so important, in a society in which power differences between nobles and commoners were strongly displayed and enforced, how is it that the speaker dares to criticize him? How can he accuse him, even with the indirection of a pun, of being “contracted” (i.e., pledged but also shrunken, as opposed to increased) to his “own bright eyes” (s. 1.5)? In Elizabethan English, power differences are strongly marked in use of pronouns: “you” is the usual address to a social superior, with “thou” tending to denote someone of lesser power or in an intimate relationship that is reciprocal.7 How, then, is it that the speaker dares to “thou” the addressee throughout the first fifteen sonnets? The answer is in the historically specific social relationship signaled by the details of language: that of humanist poet-educator to youthful highborn patron.

How would an Elizabethan reader recognize this specialized relationship? The procreation group strongly echoes themes and metaphors from a famous letter written in Latin by the humanist educator Erasmus and circulated in English translation in Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric as “An Epistle to Persuade a Young Gentleman to Marriage.”8 The letter is the source, for example, for the incredibly unromantic metaphor of plowing—“the tillage of thy husbandry” (s. 3.6)—used of what a man does when he has dutiful sex with a wife for the purpose of procreation.9 This letter and other educational writings by Erasmus also modeled an interaction script recommended for educators instructing youthful prospective power-holders.10 The vocation of Shakespeare’s speaker is not, of course, tutor but poet. Renaissance poets, however, looked to the educational program of humanism to give an ethical grounding to the poet-patron relationships on which they depended for cash and other kinds of support.

Shakespeare had addressed and dedicated his first two published poems—Venus and Adonis and Lucrece—to a patron, the earl of Southampton, in an opening epistle that is separated from the artistic composition. With the Sonnets, the address to an unnamed patron is assimilated into the composition, given extended voicing in the compliments, advice giving, and boastful offers to the young man of poetic longevity. The speaker sounds like a humanist tutor instructing an aristocratic youth in the duties of his class. Like Erasmus, whose writings illustrate how instructors should use language that is both forceful and familiar to influence their charges, the speaker addresses the patron in ways that half insult and half praise: “Unthrifty loveliness,” he calls him, and “Profitless usurer” (s. 4.1, 7). He dares to give him orders, such as “Be not self-willed,” and then, like a schoolmaster, balances his reprimands and exhortations with praise and encouragement: “for thou art much too fair / To be death’s conquest” (s. 6.13–14). Thus, to make sense of the language in the opening sonnets is not to strip away social specifications. Instead, it involves recognizing the markers of sex, age, class, and vocation in the dialogue script that Shakespeare develops to give initial definition to the primary relationship.

The implied conversation is soon to change. Indeed, Shakespeare constructs the unique love relationship of his sonnets by situating it first as a poet-patron relation and then displacing that relation—that is, changing the conversation. The private “I,” withheld until Sonnet 10, begins to make quiet intrusions into the safe and publicly accountable language of instruction. In urging “Make thee another self,” the poet repeats his persuasion to “breed,” but supplies a new motive: “for love of me” (s. 10.13). The “I” assumes a greater prominence in Sonnets 12 to 15. The speaker is no longer acting as spokesperson for the conventional sexual politics of heterosexual marriage and thereby effacing his own agency. He makes an intoxicating claim to a self-important poetic role: “And, all in war with Time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I engraft you new” (s. 15.13–14). Surprisingly, this emerging “I” also shifts his pronoun of address, at least temporarily, to the more deferential “you” (Sonnets 13, 15, 16, and 17). Why should the addressee now become “you”? I think it is because as the speaker’s promise becomes more personal, he cannot hide behind the public role. The dutiful poet-teacher had kept his focus on the other and registered little consciousness of self. But the self-asserting poet-lover is suddenly also self-conscious. To be self-conscious is here to newly recognize what he is, not in himself but in relation to the elite and powerful other. The self-asserting “I” weighs himself in relation to “your most high deserts” (s. 17.2; emphasis added), and his status-conscious pronoun choice is an early register of a developing thematic concern with his own self-worth and deserts. If Shakespeare is inventing new language for private self-consciousness, what is fascinating here is how it shows itself in the verbal ballet of “thou” and “you,” “we” and “I.”

Then, in Sonnet 20, the authoritative script of humanist advice-giving is interrupted, never to be wholly resumed, by a confession—however guarded—of personal involvement, of an intimate love relationship. There has been endless debate about whether this sonnet supports or denies a physically enacted homosexual relationship in the overall sequence. Some readers imagine the debate is only an effect of the other side’s intransigence, but it is almost certainly also an effect, at least in part, of the sonnet’s language. The confessional speech act is indirect, ambiguous, and deniable—what linguists and politicians call “off-record.” The sonnet distances self-revelation by telling a mythical story about how the beloved “master mistress” came to have the kind of beauty and attraction he has. Nature, intending to create a woman,

             as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

(s. 20.10–14)

Something, we must infer, happens in response to this poem, or else between this poem and the next, for in Sonnets 21 through 32 the discourse and the relationship between the two men have been transformed. For the speaker, the most salient fact is his certainty that “I . . . love and am beloved” (s. 25.13). Now “thou”—pretty clearly here the “thou” of intimacy—replaces the “you” of deference,11 even though in these poems the overwhelming rapture and the emotional complexity of the speaker’s reciprocated affection are heightened and given specific definition by an awareness of status difference. The other’s social importance is in large measure what makes the speaker “Unlooked for joy in that I honor most” (s. 25.4). It makes the situation feel all the more miraculous, as though something impossible has nonetheless happened. The speaker, like “an unperfect actor on the stage” (s. 23.1), imagines himself speechless in the face of what he can give in “recompense” for whatever gesture of the beloved has gifted him with love’s assurance. He nonetheless knows he has at least one gift to put in the balance—his writing: “O, let my books be then the eloquence / And dumb presagers of my speaking breast” (s. 23.9–10). On the one hand, the recognition of attention from his important friend brings on expressions of unworthiness and self-deprecation: “Duty so great,” he imagines, is owed, “which wit so poor as mine / May make seem bare” (s. 26.5–6). On the other hand, the gracious recognition by the important other suggests potential worth in the self-deprecating speaker, putting “apparel on my tattered loving / To show me worthy of thy sweet respect” (s. 26.11–12).

It is important to see that the emotional contours of the speaker’s happiness at “falling in love” are not blandly anonymous or universal. Unequal power relations complicate his speech and emotion. The introductory movement of the sonnet sequence has tracked an interruption in one kind of internalized conversation among unequals, the dutiful instruction by a humanist poet of an aristocratic patron. The interruption stages and enables the reader to follow a changed conversation and relationship, still historically specific but now unconventional and intimate. It is a relation for which Shakespeare has invented a new dialogue script, and hence a love relationship that escapes easy stereotyping. Furthermore, the “dialogue of one” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is artistically innovative partly because of the exciting way—long before novelists invented the artistic form of stream of consciousness narration—in which it adapts social conversation to put complex inward experience into words. Although the present discussion shows how the words and emotions grew out of their historical moment, they can nevertheless help illuminate the psychological processes of modern-day love relationships. Power imbalances and self-doubt, for example, still affect lovers today, who can recognize in the sonnets variations on their own situations and relational scripts without leveling all differences in such a manner as to colonize the speaker’s “I.”

I have illustrated a way to read the opening movement of Shakespeare’s Sonnets that links lyric and history, the linguistic text and social context. Some qualifications are needed before extending this (or any other) interpretive strategy to the overall sequence. The interpretation above treats Sonnets 1 to 32 as a roughly sequential narrative built up out of the speaker’s individual speech acts. This takes us back to the question of whether the sonnets can—in any sense—be read as a record of events. The answer is complicated by other unanswered questions. Did Shakespeare authorize the publication in 1609 of his sonnets, many of which must have been written as early as the 1590s? Does their printed order reflect Shakespeare’s plan, or could it be indebted to someone else—the publisher Thomas Thorpe, for example? If Shakespeare was writing individual sonnets over the course of many years, later gathered into the 1609 grouping, can we even be sure that the overall sequence has a consistent cast of characters, let alone a developing story line?

Internal evidence certainly casts doubt on any simple assumption that the sonnet order is chronological. Compare, for example, Sonnets 41 and 42 with Sonnets 133 and 134. Both early and late sonnet pairs treat a triangular relationship involving “me,” “my sweet’st friend” (s. 133.4), and a mistress. Does the sonnet sequence treat two different triangular relationships separated by a period of time? Or—perhaps more likely—does it return, out of temporal sequence, to the same situation and the same set of characters? Sonnet pairs 57/58 and 153/154 pose a different but related problem as we consider the coherence of the sequence as a whole. Sonnet 58 reads like a rewrite of the situation in 57, with each poem giving vivid expression to the speaker’s feeling of slavery at having to wait around until the powerful friend deigns to give him attention. Sonnet 154 replays the mythical anecdote in 153 of Diana’s maid stealing Cupid’s arrow and creating with its help an ineffective healing bath for diseased lovers like the poet-speaker. Do these twinned sonnets illustrate the Renaissance love of amplification, the art of elegantly varying a single theme? Or did Shakespeare’s publisher fail to choose between a draft poem in Shakespeare’s manuscript and its revision?

A cautious reader will regard the sonnet order as provisional; but need one go further, as some recent critics have suggested, and discard the overall sequence as contextual moorings for readings of individual sonnets?12 That is, when we ask key questions—who is speaking? to whom? in what situation?—must we limit evidence to that individual sonnet? To make that argument would, in some cases, come close to reverting to Vendler’s anonymous “I” and “thou” stripped of sex, rank, age, and other social specifications, since only about one-fifth of the sonnets specify even the sex of the beloved. But it would, in my view, be the wrong choice, if our aim is to gain insight into the rich psychology of the speaker or the exciting wordplay charging the language. In Sonnet 32, for example, what does Shakespeare’s shadow-self mean by calling his own magnificent verse “poor rude lines” or by wittily recommending that his friend resolve: “Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love” (ll. 4, 14; emphasis added)? It is not the false modesty of a great poet. Rather it is the internalized and perhaps inescapable doublespeak of someone living within a hierarchical culture and caught between two measures of self-worth: here, social status and poetic ability. If we are aware, from the context of surrounding sonnets, of the speaker’s class consciousness, we will understand that the word choice of this utterance he imagines in his friend’s mouth does not simply declare his own verse devoid of poetic style. Consider, for example, how Shakespeare’s contemporary, William Cecil, announced his newly awarded peerage: “My stile is, Lord of Burghley.”13 In Shakespeare’s sonnet, we should be able to hear the speaker’s punning dig at his elite friend’s snobbish value system: read theirs for their style (i.e., their social titles), mine for my love. It will help us see how the intense emotions arise within a unique relationship and a specific social context. We will better appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic language and, through its innovative “dialogue of one” for expressing inward consciousness, something of how he might have felt.

My work on this essay was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and benefited from the advice of Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Stevens, and Paul Werstine.

  1. Hyder Edward Rollins reviews conjectures up to the date of the New Variorum edition of The Sonnets (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1944), 2:166–232. Katherine Duncan-Jones reviews recent views and opts for Pembroke in the Arden Third Series, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson, 1997), pp. 49–69. Donald Foster has argued that the “begetter” of the sonnets referred to as “W.H.” is a misprint for Shakespeare’s own initials, “W.SH.,” in “Master W.H., R.I.P.,” PMLA 102 (1987): 42–54.
  2. See reviews of “dark lady” candidates in Rollins, The Sonnets, 2:242–76; Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, pp. 47–55; and S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 493–98.
  3. Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1997), p. 3; for Stephen Booth’s similar emphasis on poetic art as multiple verbal patterns, see An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969).
  4. Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 2.
  5. Giorgio Melchiori, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 15.
  6. This is John Donne’s phrase in his poem “The Ecstasy” (1633), but he uses it with a different sense to refer to the paradox of a communal speech by two persons so closely united as to be one.
  7. On further complexities of second-person pronoun variation in early modern English, see Roger Lass, “Phonology and Morphology,” in The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 3, 1476–1776, ed. Lass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 56–186, esp. 148–55.
  8. Erasmus’s letter was first published in 1518 and later circulated widely as an example of epistolary persuasion in De conscribendis epistolis. For a modern translation of the latter work, see “On the Writing of Letters,” trans. Charles Fantazzi, in vol. 25 of Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. J. K. Sowards (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), pp. 10–254, esp. 129–45. See also Thomas Wilson, The Art of Rhetoric (1560), ed. Peter E. Medine (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 79–100. For excerpts from Erasmus’s letter as translated by Wilson, see “Appendix of Intertextual Material.”
  9. Compare Wilson, The Art of Rhetoric, p. 92.
  10. On this interaction script in Erasmus, see Lynne Magnusson, Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 66–74.
  11. This pronominal shift occurs gradually, with no second-person pronoun appearing in ss. 21, 23, or 25, and with s. 24 unusual for alternating between forms of “thou” and “you.”
  12. See, for example, Heather Dubrow’s suggestions for reading strategies that reject the consistency of the standard sonnet story in “ ‘Incertainties now crown themselves assur’d’: The Politics of Plotting Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 291–305; rpt. in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays, ed. James Schiffer (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), pp. 113–33.
  13. Lord Burghley to Nicholas White, 14 March 1570/1; in Thomas Wright, ed., Queen Elizabeth and Her Times: A Series of Original Letters (London: Henry Colburn, 1838), 1:391.