‘I must each day say o’er the very same’
Touch lightly on each subject (Page) and drive through to the point (Stage).
Real Shakespeare is replicated human response to the rhythms inherent in the verse he composed out of linguistic necessity. (that’s as far as I want to go with Sh intentions thus avoiding Intentional Fallacy)! The Sonnets virtuosity stands a side-by-side test with any other Elizabethan scribbler, Noble or not, in terms of form and content.
Focus for a minute on the fact that the author was a poet in search of a patron like so many of his contemporary poetasters. Court patronage demanded a taste of your wares. A good narrative poem or two about a gory date-rape starring 2 popularly known mythological figures, or a rape by a lust-filled King might get you some credit and good standing as a poet.
This sonnet series I feel was a long-term project and perhaps undertaken whimsically. What the Italians knew as serio ludere (serious playing). Certainly he created and worked on them from 1593 – 1608. (as early as 1588 if you follow Andrew Gurr with 145’s Hate-away pun).
We know nothing of how they were composed or delivered, except for two variants of 144 and 138 being printed in ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ in 1599. Further the year before Francis Meres mentions Shakespeare’s sonnets to his private friends in Palladis Tamia.
Sonnet 138 from 1599:
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her (though I know she lies)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus, vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I, simply, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love, with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I, that I am old?
O, love’s best habit’s in a soothing tongue,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love, with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smothered be.
Sonnet 144 from 1599:
Two Loves I have, of Comfort and Despaire,
That like two Spirits do suggest me still;
My better Angell is a Man (right faire),
My worser spirite a Woman (colour’d ill).
To winne me soone to hell, my female evill
Tempteth my better Angell from my side,
And would corrupt my Saint to be a Devill,
Wooing his purity with her faire pride.
And whether that my Angell be turnde feend,
Suspect I may, (yet not directly tell:
For being both to me: both to each friend,
I ghesse one angel in anothers hell;
The truth I shall not know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad Angell fire my good one out.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 144. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online.
We know not how they eventually transferred to the hands of Thomas Thorpe, who ‘staied’ them to be printed and looked to earn some money off them as he had numerous other collections. His nickname was Odd Thorpe and indeed his dedication to the sonnets is odd.
They were published in May, 1609. One batch was printed on the press of George Eld, two of whose compositors compiled the Quarto, from a copy, foul or fair, we cannot know which. They were titled, unusually for comparable series, with the author’s name and the subject at hand: Shake-speare’s Sonnets. Pericles came from the same press the same year.
Two printer/booksellers split the batch for selling, William Aspley and William Wright, and who we assume sold out. (Edward Alleyn made a note of paying a shilling for his copy). Thirteen copies are extant and jealously guarded, in libraries public and private,. The copies show few variations and in 1944 one scholar Hyder Rollins collated them.
I actually want to start with the idea that this quarto of 154 Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint (I believe they belong together) was written by Anonymous.
The three-fold consequence of this is that:
1. the author’s biography,
2. the identities of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady, and who wrote the Dedication,
3. and most importantly, the Conspiracy theorists
are eliminated from requiring explication in one fell swoop.
Sexually their author was either hetero, homo, or bi. The persona is any one, or all three, the sonnets prove nothing of the author’s sexuality. Sexual he was, for he had offspring. Diseased, he may also have ended.
The other pronouns this persona invokes are aimed at establishing the persona’s state when in love. Fiction is too good for them, reality too prosaic. They exist, but only in the persona’s mind, and remember you are he. In fact the persona is really just blotches of ink from a printer’s press, twice perhaps thrice removed from their author.
The author will figure personally only as the agent necessary to creating the persona we judge or identify with as readers. So the author is the ‘I’ of the sonnets, and you are he, by reason of your eyes reading his poems. We are after poesy here not conspiracy.
We know EM Readers liked to interact with their texts. They would garner sententiae and exempla for their common-place books. So the author knew his work would be read and said.
I’m a reader not a writer. For me this author shakespeare writes like Michelangelo sculpted, or Mozart played piano (anachronism noted), and how Mike Tyson punched!
The sonnet is a true marriage of mind and soul distributed over form and content.
Each ideal Elizabethan sonnet is
a string of words, ideas, and sounds,
expressing an argument in 14 lines,
confined to a maximum of 154 syllables and a minimum of 140 syllables,
riming abab cdcd efef gg. (As usual there are exceptions).
Like the four steps of a combustion engine
Suck, Quatrain 1 a question or statement is posed.
(likes to jump right in, like the first lines of his plays)
Squeeze, Quatrain 2 a riposte or development
Bang, Quatrain 3 jumps to a higher or deeper level
Blow. C final couplet closes or opens the argument: salt sweet bitter sour.
The grand conceit is that the individual sonnet reflects as a mirror for the sonnet series. Simultaneously, it is one sonnet alone and by synecdoche, all the sonnets in one.
Rhetorical analysis and use of orthography are demonstrably applied throughout the series.
Assonance and alliteration support the tone and atmosphere of each sonnet. Argument moves from cerebral conceit to smutty wit in dancing figures, climbing tropes and devious schemes. The balance of metre and rime is worked to the bone and fleshed out as quickly.
Masculine and feminine are both liberally, and almost hermaphroditically, intermixed in form and content. Time is fought and conquered (Q146) and given his due. Nature turns five hundred courses of the sun (Q59) and seasons wax, seasons wane charting the body politic.
Their ordering is just fine. It is consistent with a poet developing an argument from sonnet 1 to sonnet a 154 with recurring themes increasing in intensity until the ties, which first bound them so fast to pain and sorrow, are broken, in a resolutely major, (Q126) then minor fashion (152). Both light plot and dark sub-plot intertwine on an inner stage, only imagination can compass.
The final couplet of the sequence (so to speak) is two almost identical sonnets on Cupid (153 + 154) capping the whole.
In fact you can almost apply a 5-Act structure in terms of narrative though the story is disappointingly thin on spiffy action and actual events, but big on the few characters confessing private sins and tumultuous hidden passions.
The Young man is the typical sonneteer’s beloved but with a twist in character. He is portrayed as wanton, frivolous and cruel, exhibiting selfish behaviour and with a low intellect, at least judging him by his friends. The Mistress is all this, but smarter and foxier than the young man could ever be, and we know she beds him as well, as Will.
A man loves a young man, who steals the man’s mistress. The young man dallies then bores with the mistress, the man forgives the young man, who promptly employs another poet to sing his praises.
The man again forgives the young man and realizes the young man in reality (funny that) is hardly any of the virtuous things he’s been calling him, so the man considerately and ceremoniously dumps him.
Meanwhile the mistress continues to make the man’s life a living hell. He’s forgiven her too. Eventually the man realizes his submission to his lover is sick and maddening, so he scornfully and unceremoniously dumps her.
This action was new to sonnet personas. One idealized and forgave one’s beloved for all unattainable eternity. But then it was usually just one beloved. So perhaps this thin gruel of a story is smoke and mirrors hiding the feast of its true purpose.
This series of 154 sonnets can be diagrammatically represented as a circle. An opus circulatorium representing the alchemical struggle of the soul towards God. His verse incorporating the universe within, as Hermes 3x stated: so above, so below.
Their numerology is quixotic and amusingly spaced, if you consider the series as a whole. It fits the Hermes 3x and Pythagorean traditions. The Natural philosophy clubs of London Antwerp Amsterdam etc had their literary and magical counterparts. In any case the precedent is set for clubs like Oxford’s Fisherman’s Folly and Raleigh’s school of night, the friday nights at the Mermaid Tavern.
Fair, kind and true is all their argument.
Let’s review the narrative’s character list
The young man is the beloved who inspires the series is quickly dropped as an over-arching quest (17) in favour of expressing immortality through verse. The poet’s own immortality more than any other character is the end result. These sonnets are more personal than Montaigne, and Less public than Burton.
One fool for love, = the poet Q30
Two loves, = the poet and the young man Q26
Three is a love-triangle, = the poet, the young man and the mistress. Q144
Four Humours and four elements Q44 + 45
Five Wits and Five Senses. Q140
Wit + Will Q135 + 136
Seven sins and virtues.
8 notes in one scale.
10 times thyself.
Perfection, the godhead.
The eye is the primary sense: for judging beauty.
The heart judges truth and goodness.
The mouth and nose assist in love’s pleas to the beloved .
The ears receive the beloved’s answer, whether sweet or sour.
The touch is the road to perdition or salvation.
CONCLUSION: This inside out look at the Sonnets of Shakespeare concentrates more on the medium than the message. It deals with the words, ideas and sounds that are in the series and imposes nothing more than is necessary for understanding and successfully reciting them. The medium is YOU, your mouth, lips, tongue and breath, his witty twists and bitter turns of invention yours for as long as you speak ‘em.