by David Cope
The greatest of all sonnet sequences, Shakespeare's sonnets were written in the years following Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, a sequence which had opened up many new formal possibilities while employing a standard Petrarchan plot line. Shakespeare was beginning to emerge as a playwright of great substance in the 1590s, and while most of the sonnets are probably from this period of his career, they were not published until 1609. That edition appeared and went quickly underground; in 1640, John Benson would publish an edition in which the sonnets were "rearranged, in many cases combined into longer 'poems,' given titles, and altered so that most of those addressed to the young man were made to seem addressed to a woman" (Smith 1747-48). The original poems would not reappear until 1711, when Bernard Lintott published them from an original copy once owned by William Congreve, the playwright (Giroux 5), and Malone would publish the first "reliable" edition with commentary in 1780 (Smith 1748).
Shakespeare's sonnets stand out from all others for a number of reasons. Other than in sonnets 99, 126, and 145, he exclusively used the English pattern of three quatrains and couplet invented by Surrey. The sonnets do not show anywhere near as much formal variety and experimentation as Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, yet like Sidney's work, the Shakespearean sonnet is "more colloquial in tendency, more fluent, more suggestive of spontaneous utterance" than earlier sonnets; further, "it rarely produces the exquisite sense of highly wrought perfection, as of an ivory carving," but "at its best the three quatrains seem like incoming waves of imagery, each following upon its predecessor and rising a little higher; then there is a pause, when the couplet more quietly sums up or comments on the meaning of the three" (Alden, Shakespeare 126-27, quoted in Booth 17). The main character to whom most of the poems are addressed is a young man, not a woman, unlike other sequences, and when the poems do address the famous "dark lady," we discover a vastly different character than the conventional Petrarchan mistress. Further, Shakespeare's sonnets display the compression of language, his characteristic vivid metaphors and choice of images, and most importantly, show a tension that can only come from real emotional commitment.
The sequence itself does not follow the usual Petrarchan scheme of an unrequited love for an unattainable woman, but seems to involve a love affair or at least a very close friendship between two young men, plus the love for a raven-haired woman, the "dark lady," who is alluring but not beautiful in the usual sense. The sequence also includes poems admonishing the young man—who in sonnet 20 is described as the "master mistress" of the poet's passions—to marry (sonnets 1-17), poems exploring the shame and anger of untrue love (33-36 and 40-42), poems against a rival poet, possibly Marlowe or Chapman (78-86), and a "Mortal Moon" sonnet (107), supposedly written in 1603 as a tribute after the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Other poems explore the plight of the actor and include a reference to Robert Greene's attack on Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" among playwrights (110-112). That most vituperative of the university wits had written that "there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shake-scene in a country" (Greene 22); Shakespeare admits in sonnet 110 that he has made himself "a motley to the view" and "gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear," turning to his lover for redemption. In number 111, he complains of "public means which public manners breeds," speaking of the penance and correction he must undergo; sonnet 112 develops a pun on Greene's name as he begs, "what care I who calls me well or ill, so you overgreen my bad, my good allow?"
There is also a "gross" sonnet (151), as well as sonnets playing on the triple meaning of the word will—its significance as Shakespeare's own name, as the "will" of willfulness, and also as an Elizabethan slang term for the sex organs (135, 136). Finally, there are two Bath sonnets (153, 154) ending the sequence with meditations on the power of Love in human and divine affairs; in different ways, each of these poems tells the story of how Diana's votaress stole Cupid's fire and quenched it in a "cold-valley fountain." Despite this, the heat of the fire would not die and transformed the fountain into a "seething bath" which cures "strange maladies." The poet next asserts that the fire had burned anew in his mistress's eyes, that he went to the bath for help but could find none because "the bath for my help lies where Cupid got new fire—my mistress' eyes."
As with Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, one can roughly trace a story in the sonnets: they begin with the poet's admonition to his friend to marry, which leads to the two friends' apparent emotional entanglement with each other. After this, there is some act on the friend's part that necessitates forgiving him: in number 34, the poet complains that the friend has made him "travel forth without my cloak" and "let base clouds o'ertake me in my way, hiding thy brav'ry in their rotten smoke." Number 35 forgives the friend for his act, claiming that the poet has authorized "thy trespass," excusing the friend's "sensual fault." The poet is apparently not satisfied by his own forgiveness, however, and in the following poem tells the friend that "we two must be twain, although our undivided loves be one" because "these blots" that remain with the poet are his concern alone. The interpretation of these poems has been central in the debate over whether Shakespeare is portraying gay love in his sequence; the rancor of the debate can be seen in discourse concerning sonnet 20, which sees in the friend's face "a woman's face with Nature's own hand painted." This same poem has been cited by critics who support a gay interpretation as proof of the affair (Giroux 20-21), and by those who oppose such interpretation as proof that the love between the friends is "platonic" and not "any kind of homosexual attachment" (Smith 1746). In his usual manner of snorting at those who disagree with him, Rowse claims "it is not worth commenting on the vast amount of nonsense this sonnet has given rise to, when it is perfectly clear what it says and what it means" (43). J. Dover Wilson explains that platonic declarations of love between men were in Shakespeare's time cordial statements, not indicative of homosexuality; in support of his assertion, he repeats the claim once made by Malone:
Such addresses to men, however indelicate, were customary in our author's time and neither imported criminality, nor were esteemed indecorous. To regulate our judgement of Shakespeare's poems by the modes of modern times, is surely as unreasonable as to try his plays by the rules of Aristotle. (quoted in Wilson 34)
Wilson does mention that the friend's admirable and wanton qualities are elicited in 126 poems in the entire sequence, but does not explore the significance of that quantity and of the breadth of feeling the poet displayed for the friend. That number of protestations, hopes, dreams and despairs connected with the friend's love for the poet in itself implies something more than cordiality or simple decorum. Giroux correctly points out that the closing lines of the poem explicitly state that "physical love between him and the young man is out of the question" (20) despite what he sees as an obvious attachment between them, arguing that this love progresses later to the friend's "trespass" in sonnets 33-36.
I am inclined to follow Giroux rather than Smith and the others; whether the love between poet and friend begins as a sexual affair or is simply "platonic," it's clear that their love is an attachment and passion beyond mere casual male camaraderie. Further, it seems fairly certain to me that in sonnets 33 to 36 there has been a physical encounter involving the friend's "sensual fault," and that the poet has since experienced contrary feelings about that encounter, necessitating an emotional retrenching on his part. Rowse claims the encounter refers to the friend's later involvement with the dark lady (71), claiming proof in the fact that the story beginning in sonnets 33 and 34 is "duplicated and viewed from the point of view of Shakespeare's relationship to his mistress precisely one hundred sonnets later in the numbering" (71). In the first place, there are no clear references to the dark lady in sonnets 33 to 36; indeed, she does not appear until sonnet 127. Secondly, even if one grants that the ordering of the sonnets is beyond question, there is no structural reason why Shakespeare should purpose such a cross reference. Thirdly, Rowse's numerical claim flies in the face of the fact that most commentators have admitted that the ordering of the sonnets cannot be authoritatively proven. L. C. Knights goes so far as to suggest that the whole idea of the sonnets as an ordered sequence should be abandoned, calling them "a miscellaneous collection of poems, written at different times, for different purposes, and with very different degrees of poetic intensity" (174). Knights' claim overreaches the mark, but does show that Rowse's idea of numerical ordering is suspect. Hallet Smith provides a more balanced view of the order of the poems: "the order in which the 154 sonnets are printed in Thorpe's  edition cannot be said to have the authority of the poet himself, but attempts by various editors to rearrange them have failed to carry conviction to others, and the original order is therefore followed in most modern editions" (1745). Thus, because there is no clear reference to the dark lady and because the one-hundred poem cross reference theory is suspect even in its conception, I conclude that the friend's sensual trespass involves not the dark lady, but the poet himself. Their relationship could thus be seen as the heterosexual poet's experimentation in gay love and his subsequent confusion and withdrawal as a result of his own feelings of guilt; in any case, the love was real for a time.
After this, the sequence features poems about betrayal, meditations on the identities of lovers and the problem of love and aging. Among these last, sonnet 73 is probably the most famous, presenting the theme of carpe diem in terms of love and age. The narrator is an older man who in three successive quatrains points out that he is like an autumnal leafless tree whose boughs no longer contain "sweet birds," like twilight heralding that rest that imitates death, and like the ashes of a fire "consum'd with that which it was nourished by." Each of these quatrains underlines the brevity of the narrator's time; the summary couplet ties this to a request that the beloved to whom the poem is addressed "love that well, which thou must leave ere long."
Next come the problems with the rival poet—a rival in love and perhaps in patronage; number 79 remembers when the friend listened only to the poet's verse, worrying that now "my sick Muse doth give another place." In number 80, "a better spirit" has taken the poet's place, and in this poem and in number 86, the poet's muse is "tongue-tied" by the rival poet's ability to enshrine the friend in verse. The rival poet's work is described in terms of "the proud full sail of his great verse" (86) with "a style admired every where" (84), and Shakespeare feels his own poetry is "inferior far to his" (80). Biographical critics have long argued over these lines, claiming they refer to either Chapman or Marlowe, whose "mighty line" was universally admired by English playwrights in the early nineties. Hallet Smith is quick to point out that "no one has found any evidence that either Chapman or Marlowe wrote verse to either Southampton or Pembroke," the two major candidates for the friend's identity (1746). Smith also admits that much of the verse from the period has not survived, and consequently we may never know who either the rival poet or the friend may be—partisans of each candidate will thus continue to press forward with their favorites. In any case, the poet narrator is clearly upset by the competition; he reminds the friend that the rival poet's verse only reflects the friend's own natural beauty (79), admits that he deserves the greater praise the rival poet can give him (79) and that the friend is not "married to my Muse" (82), ending in a farewell in which the friend is seen as "too dear for my possessing" (87).
Once this rivalry is resolved, there are poems of departure and return, and poems written to the raven-haired mistress, the most famous of which begins "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" (130). This poem has always intrigued me; it can be read as a serious reflection on the fact that beauty and the inner heart cannot be seen in outward features, which can only be "belied with false compare," yet it also satirizes all those "beauties" who populate Petrarchan sequences with their ruby lips, ivory teeth, snow white skin and souls as vapid as their eyes must be glazed over; it deconstructs the concepts of love represented in all those stereotypical "ideal" women and the men who dote on them, and as such is a comment on the entire set of conventions so many poets had echoed. Both the poet and the friend become entangled with the dark lady, and many of the later sonnets explore the jealousy and despair excited when a sexual affair involves such a threesome. In number 133, the poet asks the lady about the extent of her cruelty: "is't not enough to torture me alone?" In number 134, he confesses that "he is thine," apparently accepting the loss of both friend and lady. Numbers 135 and 136 explore the triumph of the will over reason in puns on the poet's name, and in the poems following these he meditates on love as a hell of desire (144), as "the centre of my sinful earth" (146), and as a fever (147); the two Bath sonnets conclude the sequence in a formalized meditation on the nature of sexual love.
Shakespeare's sonnets thus involve an immense variety of emotional stances and actual entanglements—he is never the static and patient lover bemoaning the fact that an idealized mistress won't come down to him, but is always involved in and experiencing the action, the physical as well as emotional distresses of a complicated love life involving both a male friend and a dark lady who represent his "comfort and despair" (144). Scholars have argued endlessly about the identity of these lovers, whether the apparently gay poems are in fact expressions of homosexual love, and what individual lines refer to. It's probably safe to say they were mostly written in the early 1590s, during the same period as the composition of Love's Labour Lost (which also contains several sonnets), and that they were written under the patronage of the young Earl of Southampton, a noted dandy and reckless lover, protegé of the soon-to-be ill-fated Earl of Essex. Giroux speculates that Southampton is the young man of sonnets 1-126 (59-102), citing two letters and the similarity between one of these to sonnet 26. The exact identity of the lovers is unimportant, in the end; the point of the writing is its meditation on the problems and excesses that love, and especially youthful love, is sometimes ensnared in.
Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets . New Haven and London: Yale U P, 1969.
Giroux, Robert. The Book Known as Q. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Greene, Robert. "Greenes Groats-worth of witte, 1592." Prose of The English Renaissance. Ed. J. William Hebel et al. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952.
Knights, L. C. "Shakespeare's Sonnets." A Casebook on Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Gerald Willen and Victor B. Reed. New York: Crowell, 1964.
Rowse, A. L. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Edited, with Introduction and Commentary. New York and Evanston: Harper, 1964.
Shakespeare, William. "The Sonnets." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Smith, Hallet. "Sonnets." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Wilson, J. Dover. An Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Cambridge U P, 1964.