Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 167
Over 400 years after Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in 1609, what is left to learn? All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, a new edition of the sonnets published in 2020, takes some bold steps to help us look at the poems with new eyes. The book, co-edited by Dr. Paul Edmondson and Sir Stanley Wells, dispenses with the Sonnets’ traditional numbering and arranges them in the order in which Edmondson and Wells believe they were written. It also includes nearly thirty additional sonnets drawn from the texts of Shakespeare’s plays.
As a result, the collection is a fresh take on the Sonnets, Edmondson tells us, one that dispatches with the “Fair Youth” and “Dark Lady” narrative and helps us better understand Shakespeare as a writer and thinker. Edmondson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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The Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson is the Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 11, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “He Writes Brave Verses,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
Read, download, and search the Sonnets online with The Folger Shakespeare.
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The Early Years of Shakespeare's Sonnets (16th and 17th centuries)
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Order It: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
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Shakespeare Lightning Round: Paul Edmondson
The All the Sonnets of Shakespeare co-editor joins us on Instagram to answer our 30 lightning-fast Shakespeare questions.
MICHAEL WITMORE: They're moody. They’re pensive. Some are beautiful. Some are down-right enigmatic. And some say, they are the very best way to fully understand who William Shakespeare was as a person.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. I'm talking about Shakespeare's Sonnets.
The sonnet form was one that Shakespeare clearly liked to use. A lot! It’s reasonable to argue that 182 of his sonnets were published, either on their own or within his plays, where they’re spoken by Romeo and Juliet. Jupiter and Diana. Antipholus of Syracuse. The King of Navarre in Love’s Labor’s Lost. By Helen. By Beatrice. You get the idea.
There's a new collection of the sonnets, just out from Cambridge University Press. It was put together by the eminent Shakespeare scholars, Sir Stanley Wells and Dr. Paul Edmondson, the Head of Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Their book ignores the numbering structure that we're most familiar with, putting everything in what Stanley and Paul think are their proper, chronological order. In their book, the sonnets in the plays appear alongside the 154 poems that were originally published in 1609. Listing them this way, they say, gives us a clearer window into who Shakespeare was as a person.
Paul Edmondson joined us from Stratford-upon-Avon to talk about all of this in a podcast episode called “He Writes Brave Verses.” Paul is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: So, Paul, when you look at the sonnets, at all of them, how does Shakespeare compare to other sonnet writers of his era? Does he stand out?
PAUL EDMONDSON: He does in several ways. The first thing perhaps to say is that he’s not writing a sequence; his poems are written over a long period of time, 27 years. They also stand out because of their personality. It’s fair to say that his sonnets, for example, treats sex much more frankly than any other sonnet of his time. Now if you add that to our continued understanding that these are—many of them are—personal poems, then it becomes a collection which is highly distinctive from other sequences of his time.
BOGAEV: I’m so glad you mentioned sex because we’re going to talk a lot about sex in this interview. But this is what I don’t understand: I mean, perhaps by 1609, when the 1609 quarto version of the sonnets came out, maybe sonnets had already gone out of fashion as a form.
EDMONDSON: They had. Yes, they had.
BOGAEV: Oh. My question was, why did they disappear? I mean, if they’re that interesting, and that sexy, and that good, why didn't the sonnets fly?
EDMONDSON: Isn’t it interesting that the first reference we have to Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets is after the vogue has already died out? 1598, mentioned by Francis Meres, “Shakespeare’s sugared sonnets, amongst his private friends.” And the last sequence had already been published by that time.
BOGAEV: When he was known as a playwright, right? So…
EDMONDSON: Known as a playwright, but he’s writing sonnets already and they’re appearing in the plays, as well as being written for other purposes too. So, these “sugared sonnets among his private friends,” we suppose, are the sonnets that eventually made their way into the 1609 quarto. They may be poems which have been lost to time.
But let’s suppose they’re in the 1609 quarto and he’s already a writer of sonnets because he’s been writing them from a long period of time. They’ve just not been printed. The new edition that Stanley Wells and I’ve just been working on posits that the earliest poem might go back to just before 1582. And that’s a compelling suggestion. Now if you admit that, then the 1609 quarto contains poems from different periods of Shakespeare’s life up until 1609.
BOGAEV: Well, we’re going to talk about the sonnet you just mentioned in a moment, but I did want to follow up and ask you. These sonnets, they never sold as well as say Venus and Adonis or The Rape of Lucrece. Why?
EDMONDSON: Well, I imagine people queuing up to buy The Rape of Lucrece because they’d enjoyed Venus and Adonis so much. And what a contrasting poem it is. But it sold well—not as well as Venus and Adonis. And of course, Venus and Adonis is, by far in a way, Shakespeare’s most popular publication is his lifetime. It’s a page turner; it’s a comic, erotic, ultimately tragic poem. The sonnets are not a story.
BOGAEV: It’s meaty.
EDMONDSON: It’s meaty. The sonnets are not a story, so the sonnets are not easy to enjoy as a collection of poems read one after another in the way that you would read a narrative. Every time you finish reading a sonnet, you hit the couplet, it’s like having a double line drawn beneath a poem. Your mind has mentally to adjust before moving on to the next one. I don’t know about you, Barbara, but I read maybe four or five or six sonnets at a sitting, and I realize I can’t remember any of them.
BOGAEV: That’s so true. That’s so true. And it’s almost as if they’re all… I mean, they tackle different subjects, but they do all have these themes and these threads that run through.
EDMONDSON: And it’s a repetition of the form as well, if you, you know, you read several at a time.
EDMONDSON: I like to say to groups of students at the Shakespeare Center, when I’m talking about the sonnets, “You know, just read. Sip them. Read one, two if you must, at a time. Read them again and think about them. Then when a friend asks you, ‘How’s your morning been?’ you can say, ‘Well, I’ve read two sonnets by Shakespeare,’ and that will be the best thing. The best way you could spend your morning.
BOGAEV: La dee da. You know, I’m thinking of a guest we had on twice. I’m sure you know her: Jane Kingsley-Smith.
EDMONDSON: Ah, yes.
BOGAEV: —who talked about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Lovely woman, so interesting. She said that in the 19th century and part of the 20th century the sonnets mattered a lot to poets. But, okay, we’re talking about now. Who do they matter a lot to today?
EDMONDSON: Well, I think they continue to matter to poets. I have several anthologies of recently published sonnets by modern poets on my bookshelves. I think especially about a contemporary British poet called Wendy Cope. She’s often said to me how much she listens to Shakespeare in her mind as she’s writing poetry, especially the sonnets. And that's interesting.
But they matter to Caroline Duffy, they matter to Andrew Motion; they’re two former poet laureates. And they do to our current poet laureate, Simon Armitage. The form is alive and well, and I think actually more and more people are writing sonnets than ever before.
BOGAEV: Let’s talk about sonnets in terms of what light they shed on Shakespeare, the man—on his biography. There are plenty of people over the centuries who’ve said that you can get a window into Shakespeare by reading the sonnets. You seem to say, though, that you can do that… but only if you forget everything you think you know about Shakespeare’s life. So, explain that for us.
EDMONDSON: Well, what I mean by that is I think we need to leave at the door all the previous books that we’ve been reading about Shakespeare’s sonnets for the last two and a half centuries because those books are criticism. Indeed, those editions of the sonnets will tell you things like, “Oh, the first 126 are addressed to a Fair Youth, or a young man. The rest of the sonnets are addressed to a so-called Dark Lady.” This is simply not true; it never has been true.
What we’ve inherited, and what has become a really difficult-to-get-rid-of critical meme, has been precisely what I’ve just been talking about. It’s not the case when we start to read them. We realize it’s not the case. It’s definitely not the case that they’re all addressed to somebody. What I’ve just said also is true for, let’s call it, the second part of the 1609 collection. They’re definitely not all addressed to a so-called Dark Lady. So what do we do with that?
BOGAEV: Well, how do you explain people thinking that, though? I mean, do they go looking for something and then find the proof of it?
EDMONDSON: It started with good authority; it started with a great Shakespeare scholar, Edmond Malone. Concerns about to whom these sonnets are addressed started even earlier than that back, in 1640, by the time, let’s call it the second edition of the 1609 quarto, was published by Benson. He changed some of the pronouns and joined some of them together. So, there was already a kind of critical unease about these poems.
And by the time you get into the 19th century we’ve suddenly got this story which the sonnets somehow tell. Why only one young man, when it’s clear that those sonnets, which do address a male subject, are addressed to men: males of different ages and different social statuses? It’s a nonsense to talk about “the” young man.
BOGAEV: Why do you think this story, this narrative, sticks, though?
EDMONDSON: Because it’s easy. Because people think they know it to be true. It’s presented to them as a kind of, “This is so, isn’t it?” And yet, all the editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets—until ours—all of them are locked into the narrative that I’ve just been describing. All of them. And we feel in looking at the sonnets differently as we have, we hope—we sincerely hope we’ve moved the conversation on about these remarkable poems.
BOGAEV: Well, I have some thoughts about that, but let me ask you this. When we leave baggage at the door then—we leave that whole false, as you say it, false narratives behind—what do we learn about Shakespeare the writer and the man by reading the sonnets?
EDMONDSON: Well, I think if you remove the perspective of what we’ve just been talking about, you’ve suddenly expose the poems. They’re fresh and they’re unusual. Especially when you look at them in chronological order, which defamiliarizes what we expect from the traditional order, these poems seem to me continually to be surprising in the moods that they present. Jealousy, and inner turmoil, and self-loathing, and regret, and guilt.
I remember walking the Shakespeare Way, which is 146 miles from the Birthplace to Shakespeare’s Globe. A friend and I did it to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 2016. 146 miles, we thought, “We’ll read a sonnet every mile.” Usually, Barbara, our reactions were, “Oh, is that really what that’s about? Yes, I think it is. Oh!” We felt, you know, jolted by it.
Let’s bear in mind that 25 of them, for a start, are personal meditations, by which I mean they’re not addressed to anybody. And why can’t they be, therefore, Shakespeare thinking out loud about things that are really important to him? For example, Sonnet 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,” is not addressed to anybody. And neither is Sonnet 138: “When my mistress tells me she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies.” And neither is: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” They’re reflections; they’re thought pieces.
BOGAEV: I love thinking of you walking across, walking that path, that Shakespeare Way, and stopping and reading a sonnet every mile. My husband and I walked across England on the Coast-to-Coast Walk—
EDMONDSON: Oh, how lovely.
BOGAEV: I think every mile we stopped too, but that was for a pint.
EDMONDSON: Every mile, good. Glad to hear it.
BOGAEV: Let’s talk about the sonnets more in detail. I want to start with the ones that you include from the plays, which are often overlooked, I guess, in collections. For instance, the one that Beatrice recites in Much Ado About Nothing when she overhears that Benedict is in love with her and realizes that she can love him back.
EDMONDSON: Isn’t that a lovely moment? And, it’s the first moment of verse she speaks in the whole play.
BOGAEV: Yes, and that’s why I wanted to ask you. Would audience members in the 1590s have recognized this as a sonnet? Like, in other words, would it have flowed through their brains along with all the other poetry in the play? Or would some of them just go, “Oh, here we are, we’re suddenly hearing a sonnet?”
EDMONDSON: I think they’d have heard a sonnet. I think that for several reasons. I think it because they’ll have been familiar with the form of a sonnet, and their ears will have heard a quatrain, then another quatrain, and then a couplet; it’s a 10-line sonnet. And it’s a moment of revelation because she’s alone on stage, and our enjoyment as audience is then to hear her reactions knowing that she’s been loved.
BOGAEV: Right, it’s a heightened moment for her.
EDMONDSON: It is. It is.
BOGAEV: So, is it like when people break into song in a musical?
EDMONDSON: It is. Isn’t it interesting, that it begins with, “What fire is in mine ears?” Which is a bit like, “Open your ears,” at the beginning of Henry IV, Part II. So, it seems to me that we’re being asked to hear differently in that moment from the word “go.” It is an aria moment; it’s like a solo in a popular musical, perhaps.
BOGAEV: Well, I realize you can’t really answer this question, but do you think that the boy playing Beatrice back then would have signaled in some way that he was taking his big solo? You know, would he have made it obvious, “Ah, now I am speaking poesy,” or might he have just naturally spoken the first?
EDMONDSON: He would’ve known what he was doing. He would’ve known it was one of his big moments in the play. My moment to impress, this is how I feel. Then, “Benedict, love on. I will requite thee.” Having learnt the lines, he’d have realized that everything until that point he was speaking was in prose, and now he’s got to do something differently to make the language register with the audience.
BOGAEV: Mm. Now you include some sonnets that appear in Pericles, which is one of the plays that’s thought to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and George Wilkins.
BOGAEV: Do we know what in Pericles was written by Shakespeare and what was written by Wilkins?
EDMONDSON: Well, I think we’ve got one sonnet in the collection which is probably by Wilkins, and one sonnet which is probably by Shakespeare. But the fact that they collaborated on the work… we think we know a lot about that collaboration, but it seems to me that they might have read each other’s work and commented on it. Because I’ve collaborated a lot with people in my professional life and that’s certainly one model of collaboration; you read each other’s work and you comment freely on in. And who’s to say that Wilkins and Shakespeare didn't do that?
So, we also include a sonnet, the epilogue to Henry VIII, “All is True,” cowritten with John Fletcher, which again is probably from the Fletcher part of the play. But if it’s from a work that Shakespeare worked closely on we wanted it in the volume.
BOGAEV: So, since you think that they probably gave each other notes or edited each other, are they very much the flavor of Shakespeare? Or do you see real differences in these?
EDMONDSON: I see differences in the George Wilkins sonnet; it’s cast in old English. So, I think there’s a project there in that particular moment which feels un-Shakespearean. The other sonnet is Diana speaking, so it’s part of a theophany. Shakespeare’s especially interested, I think, in presenting gods speaking sonnets; he does this with Jupiter in Cymbeline as well. There’s something there, isn’t there, Barbara, about sonnets happening in the plays at heightened moments of emotional and spiritual intensity.
BOGAEV: I was going to ask you: that’s the idea? That gods speak in an exalted form?
EDMONDSON: Or that we are, as it were, seeing Beatrice, seeing Orlando, seeing Helen, Cressida, in slow motion. And a lamp is being lit into their inner worlds somehow through the way which they’re suddenly speaking in a sonnet.
BOGAEV: I am curious, though, what your criteria was for picking your sonnets. Because you look at passages that are not quite sonnets; they’re sonnet-like. But then there are others that you considered “not sonnet enough”—and that's a phrase you’ve coined.
EDMONDSON: I mean, the cannon was very difficult to draw. Very difficult to establish. Stanley, my collaborator on this, we have to thank. He went through the complete works three times looking for hidden sonnets.
BOGAEV: Oh, he’s a saint.
EDMONDSON: And you know, people have not done this before. We knew about the obvious ones like, oh, the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, and the epilogue to Henry V, and when Romeo and Juliet first meet, and Helen’s letter in All’s Well. And the lords having a sonnet writing competition in Love’s Labor’s Lost. These are obvious; it was where else are we going to find them.
We decided that we would admit two quatrains and a couplet because those moments are rare across the cannon. There are many moments of quatrain, there are many movements of sextet, there are many couplets. There’s quatrain-couplets, quatrain-sextets, one after the other, beautiful, patterned verses especially in the earlier plays.
But then something remains from that and you start to spot—for example, Valentine’s letter to Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is two quatrains and a couplet. And Orlando, “Hang there my verse in witness of my love” is two quatrains and a couplet. So, we thought a 10-line sonnet of that kind could get in, especially since there are anomalies within the 1609 collection. It’s not the case that all sonnets of the period all have 14 lines or have to have 14 lines.
And then there’s the rhyme scheme. So, for example, sonnet 126 is made up of six rhyming couplets only 12 lines long. Then, we look at Cressida’s speech at the end of Act One, scene two of Troilus and Cressida, where she’s alone on stage. She has 14 lines, but they’re all rhyming couplets. So that one got in. Helen at the end of Act One, scene one in All’s Well That Ends Well, she has 14 lines in rhyming couplets.
BOGAEV: Well, let me ask you the big question in more detail about the ordering of the sonnets. Like many people who’ve written about the sonnets, you’ve reordered them. So, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is not Sonnet 18. It comes on around sonnet 65 or so, in your book. Why did you think the standard order needed fixing?
EDMONDSON: It’s not that it needed fixing, it was that it could be looked at differently. I suppose that the intellectual proposition would go something like this. There are probably two ways of thinking about the ordering of Shakespeare’s sonnets: one is the order in which they were first printed in 1609, the other, which is ultimately unknowable, is the order in which he wrote them.
Because of the work of the scholar MacDonald P. Jackson, we were able to think chronologically about Shakespeare’s sonnets. No one’s ordered the sonnets chronologically as far as I know, so we decided that we were going to do that. It was an original thing to do, it was a very unusual thing to do, and it needed doing because it prompts conversations between the sonnets and the plays, prompts conversation about Shakespeare’s biography, because it makes us think again and think differently about the 1609 sonnets.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s talk about an example. For instance, the 1582 poem titled, “Those lips that Love’s own hand...” That’s Sonnet 145 in the standard order, but you say it’s often thought to be Shakespeare’s first poem, “written when he was a teenager courting Anne Hathaway,” to quote you again. We all know how slippery Shakespeare’s biography is. Why do you feel so confident saying this?
EDMONDSON: The person who first drew this to our attention was Professor Andrew Gurr back in 1971. It’s a direct biographical reading of this poem, and the biographical reading is permitted for two main reasons. The first is the pun on the name “Hathaway” with the words “hate away.” “’I hate’ from hate away she threw.” “Hate away” was an alternative pronunciation of Hathaway, the maiden name of Shakespeare’s wife. Even in the next line you’ve got, “And save my life,” which could sound like, “Anne, saved my life.”
The second reason is it’s in iambic tetrameter, rather than pentameter, so it feels early. I think it’s too often the case that since the literary theory of “The Death of the Author,” and before then, with the New Criticism, back in the 1930s, that the default position of most literary scholars has been, “Oh, we can’t read biographically.” Well, then if we can’t read biographically, why are enormous biographies being produced all over the world about great writers? Why? Because we’re interested in their lives, and poetry is usually, and is very often, personal. I do not believe that Shakespeare was pretending to be somebody else when he was writing a sonnet, except when he’s writing in the plays. That itself—that difference I’ve just defined—can be seen when you look at a 1609 sonnet and compare it to one of the sonnets in the plays. They read differently; you hear them differently.
BOGAEV: Let’s talk about the poem that you title “In the old age,” which you pegged 1590 to 1595, there abouts. Especially these lines:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty’s slandered with a bastard shame.
This is one of a series that talk about blackness being beautiful. What do you think Shakespeare meant by “black?”
EDMONDSON: Well, he might’ve meant the black features which he writes about in relation to the subject of Sonnet 132, a few sonnets later. Especially the black eyes of that subject. One of them, the sonnet that you’ve highlighted on, 127, is not addressed to anybody; it’s a meditation again.
It’s also referring to the application of makeup, isn’t it? So, black eyes, which were not usually thought to be fashionable, because they’re so beautiful suddenly are. And that, you know, any attempts to, as it were, paint yourself and to present false beauty is far less attractive.
It’s also been suggested that it might be about black skin. And Margreta de Grazia, for example, in her fine essay called “The Scandal of Shakespeare Sonnets” talks about this.
BOGAEV: So, you do think it might be a reference to black skin.
EDMONDSON: I personally don’t.
BOGAEV: Because I mean, we know that Shakespeare grapples with attitudes towards Blackness in plays like Othello and Titus Andronicus.
EDMONDSON: Yeah. I personally don’t see black skin in any of these poems. I find black brows, and I find black eyes, and I find black hair. He uses the word “complexion” at the end of Sonnet 132: “That they thy complexion lack.” But complexion doesn’t necessary need to mean skin. It might do, but he has not been talking about skin—he’s been talking about eyes in that poem.
BOGAEV: Well, then you have people who like to dive into supposed biography, and they’ll bring up that Emilia Bassano, maybe she was Mediterranean in her appearance. So, maybe this is about complexion.
EDMONDSON: Yes, but you know why they do that, Barbara, is because they think they have to find a Dark Lady because that wretched narrative has been hovering over the poems before they’ve even got to them. So, for me the whole Emilia Lanier thing is piffle; it means absolutely nothing. Because the Dark Lady was never there in the first place. We can find lots of people with dark eyes and dark hair if we go looking for them. It doesn’t prove one jot or tittle, does it?
BOGAEV: So we’re back to that blank slate idea.
EDMONDSON: We’re back to the blank slate.
BOGAEV: Come with open eyes.
BOGAEV: Which is great because I want to talk about my favorite sonnet which begins, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”
EDMONDSON: I love it.
BOGAEV: Well, I mean it’s not a very original choice. But I love how it reminds me of the Rogers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine” where they’re basically saying, “I don’t have to idealize you or change you to love you”
EDMONDSON: I know.
BOGAEV: “Her looks, they’re laughable; they’re un-photographical.”
EDMONDSON: I love that song: “You’re my funny valentine, stay.” I love it.
How about the Cole Porter song? “But I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion.”
BOGAEV: Yes, they all hang together that way.
EDMONDSON: You know, and Kiss Me Kate.
EDMONDSON: And you said—bless you—you said it’s not an original choice. It doesn’t have to be original; you’ve highlighted on one of the greatest poems in English ever written. I love that poem.
BOGAEV: Well, I think that’s true. This is what I wanted to ask you about, though: you’d have to be a very sophisticated lover to not be insulted by the lines about your breast being dun, and your hair being wires. So… I guess I’m anticipating that you’ll say, “Shakespeare isn’t writing to anyone or for anyone; they’re just for him. This is a dialogue with himself, so that’s why it’s okay”
EDMONDSON: Oh, that's true; it’s a meditation. It’s a meditation.
BOGAEV: But what are your thoughts on that?
EDMONDSON: My thoughts are that he’s writing with someone in mind. And my thoughts are that that person would probably appreciate the literariness of that particular sonnet.
BOGAEV: But he wouldn’t necessarily send it?
EDMONDSON: Well, he might. He might say, “Look, I’ve written this sonnet and, you know, we know who it’s about. And I would hope she’d find it very amusing, because, you know, all of the false comparisons that poems have been churning out for centuries, our love is greater than that, it’s greater than that.” You know, the key line in that sonnet—and it’s so often misread and whenever I hear it read I always listen out for it—it’s the last line and it needs to be: “Than any she belied with false compare.” “She,” being a noun, as in any other woman, not “she belied” as third person subject who’s doing the belying.
BOGAEV: Oh, I never read it that way. I mean never imagined; I can’t imagine it that way.
EDMONDSON: Oh, and so you need a little pause between “she” and “belied” otherwise it makes no sense.
EDMONDSON: So often you hear people reading: “Than any she belied with false compare” and it needs to be: “Than any she, belied with false compare.” “All those other women who’ve been falsely compared by their poets, you’re better than that, I’m better than that; we’re worth more than that. And this my poem about it.”
BOGAEV: Shakespeare does express similar ideas in the poem “In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,” but I don’t like that sonnet nearly as much. It’s just so much less playful and witty, and so much less visual. And it’s kind of whiny:
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,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
EDMONDSON: So, I mean, that particular sonnet is addressed to a woman. And it touches on enslavement, doesn’t it? Suffering. Yes, there is pain there.
BOGAEV: Well yes. There is a lot of desperation in these sonnets or sonnets like that. A lot of, you know, “You’re driving me crazy,” and, “Why won’t you love me better,” and, “Doth thou desire my slumber should be broken.” So, if we see this as telling us something about Shakespeare’s actual life, what does this tell you about Shakespeare?
EDMONDSON: That he knew what it was to spend sleepless nights. I think Shakespeare, thinking about these sonnets, probably he was easily attracted by other people. I think that he was then able to step back and analyze that and then maybe something like that was one stream of his creativity.
I think that those sonnets about sleeplessness and about self-loathing, they’re not happy poems, Barbara. They’re really not. I think when we think about Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s so often the case we think probably about a dozen that we like, because they’ve become justly famous. It’s so much richer than that, isn’t it, the 1609 collection? There are difficult moods there. As you work through them, you know, you’re going to hit some quite painful and some difficult things. They’re painful and difficult in a way that other sonnets of the period are not by other writers. Which again suggests to me that these are Shakespeare’s personality in them.
BOGAEV: Interesting. Do you have a favorite sonnet?
EDMONDSON: Oh. During Advent, Barbara, I sometimes read a sonnet a day, like an advent calendar. But I think I’d say Sonnet 30.
BOGAEV: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought.”
EDMONDSON: Don’t you just love that sonnet?
BOGAEV: Especially at this time.
EDMONDSON: This time, this awful time the world is in.
BOGAEV: I mean, it’s just so sad. Then you get to the end and there’s this catharsis that…
EDMONDSON: It’s beautiful because it’s a sonnet about mourning and a sonnet about loss:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I 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.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
BOGAEV: You know the line that really… That was beautiful, thank you.
EDMONDSON: Thank you.
BOGAEV: The line that really hits me hard especially now is, “For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.”
EDMONDSON: I know.
BOGAEV: The finality. Then you get to that turn of hope, that hope is real, at the end.
EDMONDSON: And the hope comes through thinking on the—
BOGAEV: In friendship.
EDMONDSON: Yeah, the hope comes through the friend, doesn’t it?
BOGAEV: Yeah. Yeah, but it’s also a bit desperate, or I guess I feel the desperation. The hope is real, but I’m really hoping hard that it’s real.
EDMONDSON: I mean it’s so perfectly turned, that sonnet. And it’s so lyrical with the repetition of the word “woe.” It’s musical and it’s musical of an emotion of grief and pain. And that…
BOGAEV: It’s so much more consoling than another one of my favorites, “When I have seen by time’s fell hard defac’d.”
BOGAEV: That sonnet ends in tears, just pure tears.
“This thought is a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.”
EDMONDSON: Well, and that, we all can identify with that. You know, our closest ones, we dread them dying, don’t we?
BOGAEV: Well, thank you for ending on hope with us. Thank you so much for talking today and thanks for the book.
EDMONDSON: You’re very welcome; I’m thrilled to talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets. The genius of these poems just continues to give, and to be revealing, and to be thought provoking. So, I’m delighted to speak to you about this, thank you.
WITMORE: The Reverend Doctor Paul Edmondson is the Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Paul’s new book, co-edited with Sir Stanley Wells, is titled All the Sonnets of Shakespeare. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.
Our podcast episode, “He Writes Brave Verses,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.