One of Shakespeare’s most amazing gifts is his power of inspiring with new life and interest a perfectly commonplace topic. Beethoven will sometimes take a theme so bare that you wonder at his wasting a thought on it—the bass it may be of a cadence, or three notes of a diatonic scale—and weave it straightway into a texture of unexpected and incomparable beauty: Shakespeare in like manner will take some familiar fact of human nature and by a fresh turn of idea or a fresh adjustment of relations reveal in it an unforeseen depth of purpose and significance. His most memorable scenes are often those which deal with simplest issues, his most memorable lines those which tell a plain thing in plain words: with the whole palette at his command he lays the foundation of his design upon a scheme of primary colours.
Now there is one topic which is as old as romance itself:—that in which two men bound to one another by ties of friendship or service fall under the attraction of the same woman. It is the theme of Tristan and of Lancelot, it points the temptation-scene in Sir Gawayn, it has formed the plot of a thousand novels and the subject of a thousand lyrics. As it turns in the hand it reflects light from many facets: the competing claims of love and friendship, of desire and honour, the imperious demands of passion, the injunctions of duty and self-control: but with all its variety the conclusion of the whole matter has usually been stated in two or three simple alternatives: that to resist is loyal and to fall is treacherous, that the wronged man, robbed of all that he holds dearest on earth, has, if he choose to exercise it, the right of pardon or vengeance, and that the only plea of guilt, if indeed any plea be availing, is an overmastering irresistible passion of love which sweeps a man from his feet like a torrent, and snaps friendship asunder as its waters snap a bridge across their banks. Nor when guilt is deepest, can even that plea stay the course of retribution. There is no issue for Lancelot but exile or for Tristan but death: only so, we judge, can their sin be expiated.
The Sonnets of Shakespeare unfold from the same theme a situation so strange that we may feel little wonder at the controversies to which it has given rise. The dramatis personae are the usual three—two friends and the woman who comes between them—the strangeness lies in the perspective of the story and in its upshot. Of the two friends one is a poet, as yet humble and obscure, often ‘in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’, compelled by need of livelihood to join a degraded profession and ‘make himself a motley to the view’. The other, a far younger man, is rich, noble, popular, endowed with great personal beauty and charm, a patron of letters, himself perhaps with some skill of verse-making, on all sides one of the most brilliant figures of a brilliant epoch. At the outset the poet’s life is swayed by two conflicting influences—the ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ of Sonnet cxliv. For his friend he feels a pure passionate affection; such an affection as subsisted between Languet and Sir Philip Sidney; the full expression of his higher and nobler self, devoted, adoring, ‘passing the love of women’. And as this is wholly spiritual, so the senses take their revenge by driving him into the toils of an unworthy mistress, a dark-haired, dark-eyed C[Editor: illegible character]ce skilful and unscrupulous, who holds him enthralled by the gross attraction of desire. Some avocation calls him away from home and during his absence he finds that friend and mistress have conspired to play him false: that the enchantress from whom he cannot escape has given herself to a rival, and that the rival is the man whom he worships.
Such is the bare outline of the situation which Shakespeare presents: it follows to consider how and to what end he develops it. But first a word may be said on the vexed question whether the Sonnets are in any literal sense autobiographical; whether they depict any actual experience of Shakespeare’s life. It is known that during the closing years of the sixteenth century he was on terms of friendship with the young William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a munificent patron of letters who, in Mr. Wyndham’s phrase, was then ‘one of the brightest particles in the shifting kaleidoscope of Court and Stage’. It is believed that at the same time he was acquainted with the brilliant and unscrupulous Mary Fitton1 who, before 1600, became Herbert’s mistress. If then the Sonnets can be dated between 1597 and 1599 it is quite possible that he dramatized a situation of real life, or at least found in it, like the poet of A light Woman, ‘a subject made to his hand.’ And in this there is no inherent improbability. The last line of Sonnet xciv is identical with one in a scene, attributed to Shakespeare, of Edward III which was printed in 1596, and the balance of likelihood is that the Sonnet quoted from the play. The first known allusion to the Sonnets is the statement of Meres (1598), that they, or some of them, were being circulated among Shakespeare’s ‘private friends’. Two, including one of the most significant, were printed by Jaggard in the Passionate Pilgrim (1599). It is arguable that a few were written earlier as isolated numbers and afterwards fitted to their place in the general scheme: it is possible that some were written after 1600, though the supposed allusion to Queen Elizabeth’s death (lvii) is far too shadowy to stand as evidence.2 We may, therefore, not unreasonably conjecture that the bulk of the sonnets were written when a story suggesting that which they narrate may have actually occurred, and that Shakespeare may have used it with the same imaginative latitude with which he rewrote the history of King Lear or remodelled the caricature of Oldcastle. That the events took place as they are here depicted is not a matter of possible belief. No man, not even Shakespeare, has ever shown the tireless forbearance of the first scene: no man, and least of all Shakespeare, has ever sunk to the degradation of the second. But in human nature are groups of qualities which, though held in check and counterpoise, may for the poet’s purpose be analysed separately. If in real life a man is oscillating between a pure friendship and a sensual passion, each will react on the other: the friendship will suffer in some degree, the passion will be in some degree ennobled. Yet nothing prevents the psychologist from severing them, from considering each apart, and, where they clash on the same event, looking on the conflict from their two different points of view. And this may well be what Shakespeare has done. The occasion, whether this or another, may have borne the same relation to the Sonnets as Count Guido Franceschini’s trial to The Ring and the Book, it may have been but the alloy which held the metal together. If we can suppose that Shakespeare at some time in his life saw friendship and passion on either hand of him, and allowed his imagination to trace each to its furthest conceivable point, we may find a reasonable solution of the question at issue: At any rate it is far more likely than the alternative views which have been suggested—that he was writing a set of academic exercises, that he was satirizing Drayton and Davies, or that he was constructing an elaborate bloodless allegory of the Ideal Selt and the Catholic Church.
It may be said that the tone of the sonnets is entirely personal, and that had it been genuine, apart from any question of actual experience, Shakespeare would never have admitted the world to so close an intimacy. But this contention proves too much. On the spiritual plane all great poetry is autobiographical: and of all poetic forms the lyric (in which the sonnet may be included) is the most self-revealing. We should know Sidney from Astrophel and Stella and Spenser from the Amoretti if we had never heard of the passion which inspired the one and the courtship which is narrated by the other. And on this point two further considerations may be added. First, that in Shakespeare’s case the story is but the ground-plan of his palace, but the opportunity for those golden thoughts on beauty and decay, on life and time, on love and honour, which are his truest autobiography and which alone would suffice to rank the Sonnets in the forefront of English poems. Second, that he wrote them not for the public but for ‘his private friends’. The first edition (1609) was issued, so far as we can tell, without his authorization or knowledge, and there are, indeed, some critics who find in its dedication the saturnine smile of the successful pirate. That he should have circulated in private a key which unlocked his heart is in full accord with the practice of his time: and though Browning protests, ‘If so, the less Shakespear he,’ yet we think of One Word More and the Epilogue to Asolando and wonder whether this advocate of reserve is not another Gracchus complaining about sedition.
The Sonnets are divided into two unequal groups, which, in their relation to the story, so far synchronize that a turning-point of both is upon the same event. It is extremely probable that the longer group (i-cxxvi) outlasts the shorter (cxxvii-clii) by some considerable period of time1 : it can hardly be doubted that the catastrophe narrated in xli-xlii of the first is that narrated in cxxxiii-cxxxiv of the second. Each is in a sense complete in itself, for each is the description and analysis of a state of mind; yet they are as interdependent as the movements of a symphony. In one the poet addresses his friend, in the other his mistress: in the two together he tells the history of his fate and reveals in successive aspects the temper with which he meets it. The narrative is broken by digressions, by episodes, by sudden changes of mood: but these, it may be maintained, are psychologically true. The sequence, in short, has its own logic, though it is the logic of a poem, not of a syllogism.
In the first seventeen Sonnets the poet urges his friend to marry. Such advice was natural enough and common enough—Languet writes to Sir Philip Sidney in exactly the same strain—but its appearance here opens the drama on a curious note of irony. The friendship is so secure that even the rivalry of woman’s love is not to be feared. Indeed it may be observed that in the whole seventeen hardly a word is said about the lady. The plea is based entirely on the prospective son who is to inherit his father’s qualities: the prospective bride never comes into the picture at all. It is death, not estrangement of which the poet is afraid: while his friend lives he will sing his descant on the melody of Astrophel:
My true love hath my heart and I have his.
The Sonnets which immediately follow are the happiest of the entire series. Every device of fancy, every sweet and gracious word is heaped upon the altar:
The affection is so confident that it can afford to smile at its own enthusiasm:
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
and in xxv the song rises to the highest pitch of rapture as it hymns friendship and its eternity. The prince’s favourite is but a marigold which spreads its leaves for a season to the sunshine. The ‘painful warrior famoused for fight’ will some day be razed from the book of honour. But love is everlasting:
With xxvi comes the first change to a minor key: the first indication that tragedy is impending. The tone hitherto has sometimes been grave and earnest; it now becomes poignant. The poet is absent from the ‘Lord of his love’ and writes from a distance his written embassage. In half a dozen sonnets of magnificent and sustained beauty he describes his sorrow at parting, his days of anxiety, his sleepless nights, the gleam of remembrance which comes to cheer him, the relapse back to the thought of
all that weary round well-known to the lonely room and the solitary watcher. Then, in xxxiii, the current is changed by a hint of disgrace and wrong, which grows more articulate in xxxiv:
and is stated in plain words by the opening lines of xlii:
Now had the poet’s love for the dark lady been pure and noble, had it been ‘the maiden passion for a maid’ that was here outraged and deceived, we may gather that Shakespeare would still have held the claims of friendship to be paramount and would have counselled forgiveness. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona Valentine grants to Proteus a pardon which we may think too easily earned and even crowns his magnanimity by resigning Silvia to the arms of his treacherous rival:
In the Sonnets, and here is the very centre of the situation, we have a different standpoint. All the force of pure and ennobling emotion is bestowed on the friendship, the other tie is but a ‘love of despair’, a bond of sin and shame the momentary sweets of which are bitter in the recollection. And so, when the first sting of the wound is past, the poet finds that his whole concern is for his friend. He will forgive everything, will resign everything:
he forces himself to speak lightly of the wrong
his deepest sorrow is not the knowledge that his mistress is unfaithful, but his anxiety lest she may take his friend from him:
Indeed throughout the numbers from xxxiii to xlii the same theme is developed: a spontaneous cry of pain at the offence, followed by desperate and loving excuses for the offender.
As the series proceeds, the fear of estrangement grows more acute, more apprehensive. The poet still writes in absence, and, though he strikes divers notes of regret or protestation or fervour, recurs time after time to the subject which is nearest his heart. Constancy is praised in a more wistful tone; the promise of poetic fame is repeated with more emphasis—as though it were the only bribe he had left to offer: and through all there runs, like a connecting thread, the possibility that he may be cast aside as unworthy, that others may come to take his place, that his love may be postponed to passion or superseded by flattery. Thus in xlix:
in lvii—the first hint of a wider rivalry:
At this point it would appear that the friend returns a disdainful answer, asserting his liberty, complaining of reproof, and declaring that he is being better praised by new favourites.1 The reply to this begins in Sonnet lxxviii:
and continues, with increasing urgence, until in lxxxvi it breaks into an outburst of unconcealed jealousy. ‘My rival is no better a man than I am. He has supplanted me not by his genius nor by the spirit which he invokes, but solely by your favour. It is your breath that has filled the sail of his verse, it is your preference that has exalted him and driven me to silence:
In the next Sonnet the blow has fallen: the estrangement has taken place:
Yet now, as before, and with even more insistence than before, the first cry of pain is followed by a despairing effort to condone and excuse. The poet brings no accusation against his friend: in passionate protestation he takes all blame upon his own head:
For thy right myself will bear all wrong;
and again, lxxxix:
In xc he pleads for hatred rather than coldness, that he may have the worst at once: in the succeeding sonnets he passes from mood to mood of regret, despair, anything but reproach, closing in a love-song which begins like a memory of the lost happiness, and in xcix breaks off abruptly as though the writer’s hand faltered.
The last twenty-six sonnets of this group (c-cxxv)1 take up the thread again after a great silence. The poet has accepted his doom, has gone forth into the outer darkness, and he now pleads for pardon and recall. During his wanderings he has sunk in fortune and in character, he has consorted with ill companions, he has tried to seek forgetfulness in ‘harmful deeds’. But through all changes and vicissitudes his constancy has remained unbroken:
His affection, indeed, has been confirmed and strengthened by suffering:
and again, cxix:
He is ready to take a humble place if he may only return, if he may only end the intolerable separation: his love is not dependent on beauty or favour or any other accident of circumstance, he rises above the hope of reward or the fear of denial, and in the last number offers his ‘oblation poor but free’ as a willing gift to the shrine that he adores.
The first group of sonnets traces the course of a man’s better nature as it passes through the extreme alternations of joy and sorrow, of hope and disappointment. The second group, pendant and antithesis of the first, shows how the worser nature answers to a similar assay. In one the soul, buffeted and storm-beaten, driven sometimes from its course, tottering sometimes near to shipwreck, yet holds throughout to the helm of constant loyalty until it finds its haven in the certain peace of self-sacrifice and self-devotion. In the other a sensual passion puts forth, without pilot or compass, into an ocean of turbulent desires: at the outset it is gay with pleasures and gallantry, amid seas it is helplessly drifting before every gust, and at the last it founders.
The sonnets to the ‘dark lady’ form a sequence from cxxvii to clii.1 It is possible that in some instances the order might be bettered; at any rate the transitions are often very abrupt: but the whole scene is such a chaos of conflicting emotions that any exact consecution would be against the truth of human nature. Some are playful, some even bantering, some couched in that tone of courtly compliment which, at the time, any lover might have used toward his mistress: then the mood sways and in the magnificent sonnet on ‘lust in action’ pours forth its flood of repentance and self-reproach. But the chain is too strong to break. In the next number he laughs away his contrition, in the next he is back at his mistress’s door asking for pity; even when he finds that she is unfaithful he cannot leave her:
and again, more ominously:
When feeling comes to this point words are not far off. Once more the moods change with rapid alternation, but in shorter and shorter circuit they return to the sense of sin and dishonour and unworthiness. The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint, fevered with desire, torn between love and loathing, more sensitive to wounds as it has less vitality to heal them, until in Sonnet clii ‘all honest faith is lost’ and passion itself dies away into remorse and hatred.
In all literature there is no more tremendous revelation of human weakness. The cry of Catullus:—
is faint in comparison: the story of Lesbia and her poet does not lift the veil with such a remorseless hand. To ask how this hand could be Shakespeare’s is an idle question. All things were in Shakespeare: he was, as Sainte-Beuve said, ‘la nature même’, and to his power of creation we can place no limit. But at the same time it cannot be too strongly insisted that the Sonnets, though lyric, have a dramatic basis: and that Shakespeare’s true self is revealed not in the story which they narrate but in the judgements on life and love which they contain.
It may be worth while to add a few words of formal criticism. Wyatt, who introduced the Sonnet into England, adopted with one slight variation the ‘Petrarchian’ form, which was almost universal among the writers of France and Italy; the form which consists of an octave on two rhymes and a sextain on two or three. Surrey, Wyatt’s younger contemporary, chose instead the scheme of three alternate-rhyming quatrains with a final couplet; as described, some thirty years after his time, in George Gascoigne’s treatise The Making of Verse:
‘I can best allow to call those sonnets which are of fourteen lines, every line containing ten syllables. The first twelve do rhyme in staves of four lines by cross-metre, and the last two, rhyming together, do complete the whole.’
This passage of Gascoigne is the more noteworthy since the pattern which it ‘best allows’ had not been preferred by any considerable poet except Surrey, and was not preferred afterwards either by Sidney or by Spenser. However, in the press of sonnet-writing which followed the publication of Astrophel and Stella it came into not infrequent use: there are many examples of it among the collections of Daniel and Drayton and their lesser contemporaries, and amid all these it was raised to its highest honour by the invariable practice of Shakespeare.
The reasons of his choice are not difficult to conjecture. One of them is that from the beginning of his career he was evidently interested in experimenting with the quatrain and the couplet: he uses them separately, he weaves them into every conceivable pattern. In the plays of his first period there are at least two instances of dialogue written in quatrains1 : there are throughout many instances in which a single rhymed couplet sums up and concludes a speech or scene of blank verse. We have the pattern of one quatrain with a couplet in Venus and Adonis, of two in Beatrice’s soliloquy,2 of three—the Shakespearian sonnet-form—in Helena’s letter,3 in two choruses of Romeo and Juliet, and in no less than five examples of Love’s Labour’s Lost.4 It has been argued from these analogies that the Sonnets themselves are early in date, and very possibly some of them, e. g. the last two, may belong to this period of metrical experiment. In any case there can be little question of its bearing upon the formal side of Shakespeare’s ultimate selection. And, for another reason, the general character of the Elizabethan Sonnet is akin to that of the Epigram—its nearest analogue is perhaps to be found in the Palatine Anthology—and for purposes of the Epigram the final couplet, which Petrarch studiously avoided, has special use and appropriateness. Sometimes it may degenerate into a mere conceit, as, for example, in lxv; far more often it brings to a pointed climax the thought which has been developed through the preceding staves.
In point of pure structure the Shakespearian scheme is perhaps less beautiful, certainly less organic, than that of Petrarch. It is like the sonata form of Bach beside that of Beethoven: more narrow in scope, more fixed and determinate in measure. But the outline is filled with such living melody that we cannot wish it otherwise. All the strength and sweetness of Elizabethan song are here; pictures of exquisite invention, haunting cadences of musical speech, lines that have passed, like jewels, into the treasury of our language:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day;
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,
To me, fair friend, you never can be old.
It may be true that the Sonnets are unequal: that is the common censure brought against every great poet. It is more to the purpose that they have given us an inexhaustible heritage of beauty, and that each successive reading only deepens our wonder and our admiration.
The edition of 1609 appended to the Sonnets an elegiac poem called A Lover’s Complaint, which is therefore included in the present reprint. It is the lament of a girl who has been betrayed and abandoned, and is told in gentle smooth stanzas of the Rhyme Royal which, in 1594, Shakespeare employed for Lucrece. Its authenticity may be questioned. The picture with which it opens is more in Shakespeare’s manner than in that of any known contemporary: but the verse, especially if we take 1597 as its date, is far inferior to his. A further piece of evidence is afforded by the strangeness of the vocabulary. Shakespeare was rich in the coinage of new words, but this poem is lavish beyond his measure. A few seem to have been accepted by him, like ‘credent’ which afterwards appears in Hamlet; a few like ‘impleach’d’ may have been his, though they are not elsewhere found in his work: but there is little trace of his mintage in such forms as ‘acture,’ ‘enpatron,’ ‘fluxive,’ though that is used by Drayton, and ‘laundering’, though that is borrowed, together with the line in which it occurs, by Drummond of Hawthornden. Indeed one of two conclusions alone would seem to be tenable: either that the poem is attributed to him by a publisher’s error, or that, as so often happened, he shared the design with a collaborator of lesser genius.
W. H. HADOW.
She was certainly acquainted with some members of Shakespeare’s company, for Kempe dedicated to her his Morris to Norwiche. See Mr. Wyndham’s Introduction, p. xliv, and Mr. Tyler’s Introduction, ch. viii.
[2 ]On this question see Professor Dowden’s Introduction, pp. xl-xlv, and Mr. Beeching’s Essay in the ‘Shakespeare Head’ Edition, vol. x, pp 368-71. See on the other side Mr. Sidney Lee’s Life of Shakespear, pp. 85-7.
[1 ]The whole duration of the story is said in civ to be three years, which would fit the hypothesis 1597-9.
[1 ]Compare, at this point, Sonnets cxxxiii, cxxxiv, where the fear for his friend is even more poignantly expressed.
[1 ]Critics who press into detail the view that the Sonnets are autobiographical have asserted these favourites to be Daniel and Chapman, both of whom were patronised by the Earl of Pembroke.
[1 ]cxxvi is a stanza of six couplets which seems to be intended as an Envoy to the group. It is inferior in value to the rest and may possibly be an interpolation.
[1 ]Sonnets cliii and cliv, two variant adaptations of a Greek epigram, are evidently occasional pieces which do not belong to this collection.
[1 ]Love’s Labour’s Lost,iv. iii, beginning ‘That like a rude and savage man of Inde’: Comedy of Errors,iii. ii.
[2 ]Much Ado about Nothing,iii. i. For a burlesque parallel see the prologue to the Clowns’ Play in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
[3 ]All’s Well that Ends Well,iii. iv.
[4 ]The three ‘letters’ and two passages of dialogue in i. i. For further extensions of the pattern, in which the final couplet is preceded by four and five quatrains respectively, see v. ii. of the same play.
Last modified April 13, 2016