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CHAPTER X

THE SONNETS: FUNDAMENTAL IDEAS IN

SHAKESPEARE

SHAK

Attempts to portray the personality and beliefs of Shakespeare.

Emerson thought this easy;

HAKESPEARE is the most elusive of all men.

If any proof of this be required, apart from his works themselves, it is given in the multiplicity of the constructions placed by his admirers upon them. Some of the interpreters, mistaking the perfection of dramatic art for the sincerity of personal confession, have imagined it possible to find in his writings (particularly in the Sonnets) an extensive autobiographical revelation; others, from the plays, have ventured to tell the world what were Shakespeare's religious, philosophical and political opinions. Emerson is quite confident that “Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare,” though he prudently hastens to add that “even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” In subsequent comments, Emerson lets us see that he had used the word “biographer” in a Pickwickian sense. What he meant was not that Shakespeare's life-story is told in his works, but only that these reveal the poet's convictions as to what is right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly, in character and conduct: which need not be disputed, though we must resist the temptation to find Shakespeare's personal expression only in what we most like in the plays.

[ 270 ]

Matthew Arnold, placing himself at the opposite Arnold de

clares it extreme, pronounces Shakespeare inscrutable:

impossible. Others abide our question; thou art free:

We ask and ask, thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.

Thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know, Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure, Didst walk on earth unguessed at.

According to Arnold, this spiritual incognito was the necessary condition of Shakespeare's becoming the

nterpreter and spokesman of all the joys and sorrows of humanity.

The Sonnets are the only portion of Shakespeare's The delusive writings in which we get even the appearance of di- semblance rect personal disclosures. At first glance, we seem to revelation in have in them the story of an intense friendship, the Sonnets. marred by betrayal but subsequently restored; and a record of love, made tragic by the perfidy of the beloved, who guiltily seduces the man friend of the preceding poems. We have glimpses of a philoso! phy, according to which all that happens in the world is but the endless and inevitable repetition of what has happened before. The air of deep melancholy in these poetic epistles conspires with their seeming intimacy of self-revelation to produce the impression of unaffected sincerity.

Taking it for granted that the Sonnets actually Hasty conare what they thus seem to be, many critics have erected romantic structures of interpretation upon them. Shakespeare is assumed to be veraciously recording his own joys and sorrows, his own sin, suffering and repentance. We are told that he is addressing the Earl of Pembroke, as his adoring intimate. Some have even perpetrated the extrava

from this.

gance of construing the Sonnets as evidence of a scandalous sexual connection between the writer and

his man friend - an accusation for which no jot or The Dark tittle of evidence is anywhere to be found. The“ Dark Lady.

Lady” addressed in a number of the poems has been identified with a certain Mary Fitton, who is alleged to have been by turns the mistress both of Shakespeare and of Pembroke. Others, on the basis of reckless posthumous gossip, have identified her with the wife of a country innkeeper, the mother

of Shakespeare's godson, Sir William D'Avenant." Evidence In building up such speculations on the meaning of against the

the Sonnets, the writers forget that they are dealautobiographical in- ing with the greatest of dramatists: that is, with terpretation. the man who had the most consummate skill in

placing himself in imaginary positions, submerging his own identity in that of other persons, and expressing feelings that had been engendered in his

heart quite otherwise than by immediate experience. The sonnet- They also forget, or remain unaware, that during the teering craze last decade of the sixteenth century sonnetteering of the 1590's.

was a literary craze in England, and that many sequences of such poems were written, almost all of them revolving around themes identical with those treated in the Sonnets of Shakespeare. The evi

dence on this point has been amassed with crushing Lee, chaps. completeness by Sir Sidney Lee, who, to my mind, x-xii and Appendices

has amply proved his contention that there is no reason to suppose the friend and lover of the Sonnets a real person identical with Shakespeare, or the experiences they relate genuine. The “I” of the

v-ix.

1 The gossip is to the effect that D'Avenant, when a boy, spoke of Shakespeare as his godfather, and was wittily told not to “take the name of God in vain.” But there is no evidence for the implied charge against Shakespeare.

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Sonnets may well be as purely a dramatic phantom
as Romeo or Valentine, or any other of the char-
acters in the plays.

Against the identification of the man friend of the
Sonnets with the Earl of Pembroke there are two
conclusive objections. The one is that Shakespeare
never had anything to do with that nobleman; and
the other is that the "Mr. W. H.” to whom the “Mr. W. H.”
Sonnets were dedicated (not by Shakespeare, but by been Pem-

cannot have the piratical editor “T. T.,” Thomas Thorpe) can- broke, not by any possibility have been the Earl of Pembroke, or any other earl. Such a man would naturally and necessarily have been accorded his full ceremonious designations — as, indeed, Pembroke was, by this very Thomas Thorpe, in a volume dedicated to him a few years later; and again by Heminge and Condell in the Folio. If he had not been, the dedicator would have suffered a Star Chamber prosecution for an insult to the orders of nobility.

With the refutation of the Pembroke theory, the nor the Dark Mary Fitton legend, which depended upon it, falls Lady Mary

Fitton, also to the ground. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever spoke to that lady in his life. Apart from this slight difficulty, the Fitton theory is open to the further objection that Mary was not a dark lady at all, but is proved by authentic portraits to who was

fair. have been fair. It is perfectly possible that the woman subject of the Sonnets may have been a purely fictitious personage.

There is only one man to whom Shakespeare's Shakeflattering protestations of friendship and appeals friendship for continued favour apply in a fashion consistent for his with what is known from other sources: namely,

patron,

Southamp Henry Wriothesly, the young Earl of Southampton, ton. to whom the poet in his own name dedicated Venus

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7 a bor, tily told

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and Adonis and Lucrece. In the letter prefixed to the Lucrece, Shakespeare, putting into prose a sentiment that to modern ears sounds almost as unrestrained as the poetical avowals of devotion in the

Sonnets, begins by declaring, “The love I dedicate Professions to your Lordship is without end." The seeming inof "love" to tensity of such expressions, however, is diminished patrons,

when we remember that in the Elizabethan period the word “love” was currently used as a mere synonym for friendship or liking, and that all authors used similar extravagant language in address

ing their patrons. especially to The most crucial illustration of this state of things Queen Elizabeth.

is found in the way in which men were wont to apostrophize Queen Elizabeth, with all the seeming ardour of lovers for their mistresses. Many of the dedications of books and poems to Elizabeth, after she was sixty years old, would make it seem that she was still a paragon of personal beauty, and the “soul's idol” of her implorers. Even such first-rank men as Spenser and Sir Walter Raleigh were guilty of absurdities of this kind.

The opening sequence of Shakespeare's Sonnets consists of appeals to a beautiful young man to marry and perpetuate his name and qualities in offspring. Southampton at the time was young, unmarried, and conspicuously handsome, and was the only male representative of his line. That he knew Shakespeare and befriended him is a well-established fact. But even this plea for posterity was one of the stock themes of the sonnetteers, several of whom

confess unequivocally that the passions and affections Stock themes that informed their verses were all feigned. and poses of

Almost every point in the Sonnets,— their themes, the sonnetteers. their metaphors, their violences of flattery and de

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