As the greatest writer in the English language, Shakespeare’s work and life have invited enormous speculation. No part of his opus more so than his Sonnets, which seem the most closely related to his life. Speculation has played with such questions as: Are the sonnets autobiographical? Who are the ‘fair youth’ and the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets? Is the ‘fair youth’ identical with the ‘W.H.’ to whom the sonnets were dedicated when first published in the 1609 quarto? Was W.H./the fair youth one of Shakespeare’s noble patrons?
Speculation has failed to answer these tantalising questions. We know, also, that the 154 sonnets were not written in the order in which they were arranged in the 1609 quarto – and are arranged today.
I’m no Shakespeare scholar. So in this reading, I will assume that ‘the speaker’ is Shakespeare, the ‘fair youth’ a young man to whom he was close, and the ‘dark lady’ a woman with whom Shakespeare had a sexual relationship. I will summarise each set of sonnets from a first-person perspective, taking them by the groups into which they are conventionally sorted. I will then offer some critique of each group, still in the person of the poet.
My focus is simply the story that is told by the sonnets as they meet the reader’s eye.
I’ve been commissioned to persuade a young nobleman to marry and have children. (This task I seem to have received from his relative: perhaps his mother or uncle.) I’m a poet, so how better can I argue my point than by writing a set of sonnets? This nobleman is young and beautiful: so those will be my arguments. He must marry and beget children, in whom his beauty may live on when he himself is old or dead. Being young, he lacks the foresight to provide for his own genetic continuance.
I start out well enough: Sonnet #1 is one of my best-known:
From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die…
The young cannot see beyond today: so I must invoke the future vividly for him:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow (Sonnet #2)
Forty is considered old in my time. How foolish this youth will feel, if he wakes up one day, finds he’s forty, and still single! He’s in the spring of his life now, and cannot foresee his winter. Let me help him visualise his own future:
Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled (#6).
He’s young, wealthy, beautiful. Anyone would have him. I wonder what stops him marrying? Perhaps he’s not interested in women sexually? Or perhaps:
Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye
That thou consumest thyself in single life? (#9)
Hmm. That’s possible. I must argue, then, that if he were to die issueless, then the whole world would be his inconsolable widow. And that’s just what I do, in this selfsame Sonnet #9.
I keep writing sonnets exhorting this foolish youth to wed and to beget. But all my eloquence is of no avail. So, at his mother’s behest, I keep churning out more sonnets. I’m a genius, but there are limits to even my inventiveness. I confess some of the least inspired sonnets in this collection are the latter ones in this first 17:
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet methinks I have astronomy (#14)…
And what is it that I predict with my not-supernatural powers of prophecy? That either this heedless young man will propagate his beauty and truth – or that he won’t, and these qualities will die with him. Not my best work, I confess. Poetically or ‘astronomically’ (which is how we say ‘astrologically’).
After I’ve written the seventeen ‘procreation sonnets,’ something happens. The bored and repetitious tone into which I’d sunk is gone. I begin anew.
What, exactly, happened? Perhaps the old relative ceased to commission me to nag by proxy. Perhaps the young man agreed to start looking at prospective brides. Perhaps he accepted my personal friendship – and, overwhelmed by this honour, I flung my nagging to the winds.
Sonnets 18-25: My Art, Which You Inspire, Will Immortalise Us Both
What have I been doing all this while? Urging the fair youth to marry and perpetuate his beauty and other desirable properties? Bah. He’ll die; his children will die. All mortals must die. What lives is art. So now, instead of exhorting him to have children, I reassure him that his beauty will live forever in my poetry – poetry which he inspires. Yes: he has become my sole, my sublime muse.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
So long as men can live or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (#18)
So: is it a sexual relationship I’ve embarked upon with this fair youth, whose beauty and tenderness have a feminine quality?
A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion. (#20)
No: our relationship is probably not a sexual one:
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure. (still #20)
‘She’ is nature. Nature ‘pricked you out’ – gave you a prick, which is ‘to my purpose nothing.’ So here’s a bright idea. You go have sex with women – not that I’m going to be nagging you to marry and father children anymore, my commission is concluded. Let your lovemaking go to women, and let your love and friendship fall to me. Clever bit of wordplay, that business with the ‘pricking thee out,’ eh?
So: now I see that it is not in your fleshly children, but in my art, that you will have immortality. And what’s in this relationship for me? Doubtless your love is all very good: but there’s more. Through you, I get to reexperience youth vicariously:
My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date (#22).
Now, I wrote these sonnets in my 30s or 40s – so I’m not exactly a doddering old man. But, throughout the sonnets, I’m going to pretend to be pretty near the end of my life. So watching you romp about definitely gives me a dollop of vicarious pleasure.
So: my end of our bargain is that I get your love. And this I consider a greater treasure – and a safer – than other worldly treasures:
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast…
[but] at a frown they in their glory die…
Then happy I that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed. (#25)
Just now it appears that our love is tranquil and indestructible. So it’s a safer asset for me to have than worldly glory. Again, in these sonnets I will pretend to have no fame or fortune to speak of: will pretend that you are all I have. So I’m glad I have you.
Sonnets 26-78: Mortality, Despair, and Unrequited Love
Your love, fair youth, still comforts me:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state…
[then] thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (#29)
But all is not smooth with my love. Already he injures me:
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud (#35)
Besides, the difference in our worldly ranks necessitates that we keep our relationship, whatever may be its exact nature, secret. For I would hate to be the unwitting cause of any slight to my beloved’s fair name:
Let me confess that we two must be twain
Although our undivided loves are one. (#36)
The physical distance that we must generally maintain leaves my beloved free to gambol with other people. His closeness with others upsets me, though I know it shouldn’t. After all, he’s so desirable that everyone wants a piece of him; and he’s young, so with him it’s ‘out of sight, out of heart’:
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from thy heart
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits (#41)
Meanwhile, the fair youth is not my only beloved. In fact, the youth is so very fair that he steals from me women whom I also love:
That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly (#42)
The multiplicity of my loves, my need for secrecy, and this fair youth’s preternatural attractiveness create a situation where I’m jealous of everybody. But it’s clear on whose account I’m most jealous:
That she hast thee is of my wailing chief (#42)
My love has now intensified to a pitch where, night and day, I have no rest; all I can think is when I’ll catch a glimpse of you:
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see…
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
All nights bright days when dreams do show thee me. (#43)
When I go away on a trip, I regret that I can’t lock you up, safe from craving eyes, just as I lock up my other treasures:
How careful was I when I took my way
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust…
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are…
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief. (#48)
Thief? Am I afraid that someone will steal your heart from me, against your will? How stupid do I imagine you? First I blame you for your own unkindness (#35 above, and more to come); then for loving other people (#41-42, above); then I blame others for seducing you away from me. Whom exactly do I blame, and for what?
I don’t know. As a great a poet as I am, in love I am as foolish and unreasonable as any mortal. And my love is now intensifying into a pitch of obsession. I am changeable and irrational. When I need to take another trip away from you – after all, I am a man of the world, with much business to transact here and there – then I fancy that the horse that carries me knows how unwilling I am to go away from you:
How heavy do I journey on the way…
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee. (#50)
And knows also how eager I am to return to you; he goes as fast as he can, and still I spur the ‘wretch’ to go faster than the wind, since now it is back to you that I am coming:
O, what excuse will my poor beast then find
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind (#51)
I fancy my fair youth beloved by all:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend? (#53)
(It doesn’t occur to me that it’s your wealth that the thronging crowd is after.)
I also fancy you as virtuous as you are good: your ‘smell’ or essence is as lovely as your appearance:
O how much more does beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth does give! (#54)
But I resent the fact that clearly I love you more than you love me. You seem to know you have me in your power, and you make me wait upon your pleasure:
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire? (#57)
And I seem to know that I’m being a fool, behaving this way:
So true a fool is love that, in your will
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill. (still #57)
I’m still sleepless, and I wonder if my torture is your intention:
Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night? (#61)
But all my tortures are inspiring some of the best poetry in the English language:
When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age (#64)
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea (#65)
Meanwhile, it seems that, after thronging around you day and night, the crowd is beginning to slander you. I am incensed, but I comfort you, and explain to you why elephants shouldn’t mind the dogs barking:
That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair…
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love (#70)
Sonnets 79-87: A Rival Poet Intrudes
I’ve tolerated the advances of other people on your attention. But when other poets vie for your attention – then I get restless. Especially since it appears that I consider one of them, at least, to be a more gifted poet than I am. The shock of this betrayal has incapacitated by art:
…But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick muse doth give another place. (#79)
I know I can’t legitimately blame you for lending your inspiration to another poet:
I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject… (#82)
(It’s this kind of thing that will suggest to later scholars that you, fair youth, are one of the noble patrons to whom I have dedicated my previous publications.)
Why, exactly, did you turn away from me to other poets? Why was I not enough? I suspect it’s because you thought I didn’t praise you highly enough:
I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set…
This silence for my sin you did impute (#83).
Don’t you see? Your beauty is so great that it doesn’t need the kind of exaggeration that this newcomer poet is giving you. It doesn’t even need to be depicted at all: for:
…You yourself, being extant, well might show [it]…
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise. (still #83)
The upshot of all this is that I bid you farewell. You’ve found another poet who, you fancy, does your gifts better justice than I, in my restrained poetry, ever did:
Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing… (#87)
Sonnets #88-126: The Fickle Youth sonnets, a.k.a. Now I begin to see your true character
Even though I left you, two sonnets later, I blame you for leaving me:
Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault (#89)
So, if you would just tell me what I did wrong, then I will agree with you wholeheartedly that I’m a worthless wretch:
For thee, against myself I’ll vow debate,
For I must ne’er love him whom thou doest hate. (still #89)
If you hate me, then I’ll hate myself too. Just tell me what I did wrong! Why did you leave me? It was you who left me, wasn’t it?
In time, you and I, fair youth, have achieved some kind of reconciliation. Our honeymoon is over; I’ve doffed my rose-tinted glasses; I still love you, but with a more realistic love. I’m even prepared to pretend that you’re faithful to me, even though you’re not. If men can live cuckolded, then I, too, can live knowing that you’re not faithful to me. (Again, this kind of language raises questions about the nature of our relationship – but there’s nothing explicitly in these sonnets to suggest that it’s sexual. Contrast with the Dark Lady sonnets, coming up, where she and I are clearly in bed together. Not that there’s anything wrong with same-sex sexual relations. It’s just that, obsessive as my love of you is, it doesn’t seem to be sexual.)
So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband…
How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show! (#93)
What a turnaround, eh! A moment ago I was saying your virtue is as remarkable as your beauty; that you, like the rose, are beloved because you’re not just beautiful but virtuous. And now – now I see that your beauty is deceptive. It has seduced me into falling in love with you – and now it leads me into suffering, just as Eve’s apple did. In fact, I see now that your virtue is a carefully cultivated façade: you are a master dissembler. Or should I say a ‘master-mistress’ dissembler:
How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name! (#95)
An accomplished youth indeed: still very young, just beginning to make a name in his own right: and already skilled in the art of appearing virtuous, while being the opposite. Do you have a portrait, a la Dorian Gray, stowed away somewhere in your mansion, who’s bearing the mark of your shame, while your face remains looking unstained and virtuous?
And yet, though I see you now in your true colours, I can’t stay away. I make further attempts to tear myself away. But, away from you, the world loses all colour:
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee… (#97)
From you I have been absent in the spring…
Yet seemed it winter still… (#98)
And, wherever I looked, I could only see reminders of you. Mad with longing for you, I roamed about chastising flowers for having stolen their beauty from you. For you, clearly, are the source of all beauty on earth:
The forward violet thus did I chide:
‘Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath?…
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
…had annexed thy breath…
But, for this theft…
A vengeful canker eat him up to death. (#99)
See what comes when flowers dare to steal the beauty and perfume from your hair, hands, cheeks, etc.! Nature herself detects the flowers’ theft, and punishes them with canker.
And what’s the upshot of all this? I cease trying to stay away from you. My love has matured and is quieter. And, since you punished me before for the restraint of my language by running away to a rival poet, let me preemptively assure you that, if my love is quieter now, it is not less:
My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear. (#102)
Perhaps I’m just being more cautious with my heart. After all, I’m an old man, and I must look after the old cardiac organ.
Let’s talk timescales. How long has it been since – via that blasted commission for the seventeen procreation sonnets – my eyes were first entranced by you? Just three years. And, beloved, believe it or not, you haven’t aged at all! Three long years, and you’re still the same jewel you were when you first seduced me:
…Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green. (#104)
You are so uncannily flower-like, that I really have confused a human with a flower. What a miracle you are, my beloved flower! Still fresh, after three whole years.
Now the shoe is on the other foot: now you reproach me with inconstancy:
O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify…
Never believe, though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good. (#109)
So: are you good, or not? Really virtuous, or only pretending to be? On that, you see, I go still back and forth. I’d never confess this to you: but I’m delighted that you can be jealous on my account. And why did I go away, and mingle with other people? Perhaps even love other people? I’ll tell you why. We’ve been in love three years now, and I guess I just needed a change of scene. All those other people whom I had fun with – they were just meant to cleanse my palate, so that I could come back to same old you, and enjoy you again:
Like as to make our appetites more keen
With eager compounds we our palate urge…
Ev’n so, being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding. (#118)
I really am a clever poet. I assured you that your ‘sweetness’ could ‘never’ be cloying. It could never be too much: it was just the Goldilocks amount of sweetness. But, you see, I still needed a break from it. So I went away and loved other people. Have you heard of neem? It’s bitter as hell, and popular in India as a palate-cleanser. That’s all they were, love, all those other people whom I loved: neem leaves whom I chewed, to cleanse my palate, before coming back to your saccharine nauseating sweetness.
Sonnets #127-154: The Dark Lady
This is a short group of sonnets, but full of action. I’ve fallen in love with a woman who is dark – black-haired, black-eyed, dun-skinned (and, as I’ll soon discover, black-hearted). In the beginning, in this love affair’s honeymoon phase, I argue that having a dark complexion does not rule out being beautiful:
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… (#127)
This mood of adoration passes in a blink. Soon, I grow restive of this new love. I find creative ways to insult her – and, at the same time, to argue that all those other poets, who pretend that their love is flawless (just as I was doing with my Fair Youth) were liars:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun…
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks…
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as fair
As any she belied with false compare. (#130)
The most charitable reading my mistress could make of this odd ode is this: I am simply being a realist. I’m acknowledging that my new beloved is imperfect: is human. And I still love her. If, on the contrary, my beloved were to read this sonnet uncharitably, she’d see that I love her not because of, but in spite of her flaws. I seem to consider her positively unattractive.
The Dark Lady has a heart as black as her eyes. Lo, she has stolen from me, to torment me, my Fair Youth:
…Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed.
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken…
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail. (#133)
Wretched woman! Was it not enough for you that you made me, against my own better judgment, love you? My love of you has alienated me from myself – in a way that I never experienced (or at least, never complained of) in my love affair with the Fair Youth. Why are you so covetous? Why did you have to seduce also my Fair Youth? Oh take me, if you will: but let him go.
And please, stop teasing and have sex with me. You have in your time had many men’s willies in you: why not mine too?
…Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine? (#136)
We have sex; I fall deeper in love; daily I excoriate my own senses for being so blind as to fall in love with you. Much as, in later times, Mr. Darcy shall tell Elizabeth Bennet that he loves her in spite of his better judgment:
Thou blind fool, love, what dost thou to mine eyes
That they behold and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be. (#137)
For you, oh wretched, unattractive, unfaithful woman, I deny myself lovers more beautiful. To all the true beauties of the world I prefer to ‘lie’ with you, in both senses:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies…
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young…
And wherefore say not I that I am old?…
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be. (#138)
Our relationship is based on lies on both sides.
I’m mad with love of you. Yet you neglect me, and run after other lovers; and I run after you, as a desolate child runs after his mother, who in turn is chasing after an escaping chicken.
Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feathered creatures broke away…
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her…
So run’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I, thy babe, chase thee afar behind…
But if thou catch thy prey, turn back to me
And play the mother’s part – kiss me, be kind.
(This is sonnet #143, my favourite of the lot. It’s touching in its surrender to a beloved who is clearly a corrupt woman, is chasing other loves right before the poet’s eye. The poet sees clearly the Dark Lady’s flaws – yet he wants her at all costs. He prays that she can catch her other victims – as long as, afterwards, she turns and tosses a smile at her poor love-mad Will.)
But I keep struggling against this love. Is it my senses that lead me astray, or my mind – allowing me to love so worthless a woman?
O me, what eyes hath love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight?
Or, if they have, where is my judgment fled…
O cunning love, with tears thou keep’st me blind
Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find. (#148)
Hey: just a thought. Maybe it’s not love, but the Dark Lady herself, who keeps me blind by making me cry. If she were to settle down for an instant, and let me have her instead of chasing her – then I’d see she’s not worth having.
But she won’t stop. So I keep chasing her. All the while knowing how evil she is. Alas, there’s no escape for me. To love’s burning, consuming fire, there is no cure except in love itself. Of that I remind myself in the two final sonnets:
Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep.
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain…
But found no cure; the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid’s got new fire – my mistress’ eyes. (#153)
I am wretched in love. I would if I could be out of love. Yet there is no quenching this fire. I must keep haunting my mistress: keep seeking the disease that fevers me.
Whether read as autobiographical puzzles, or as purely imaginative technical exercises that reinvent the sonnet and subvert the tropes of courtly love – Shakespeare’s Sonnets are an entertaining read for a weekend afternoon. Familiar themes are developed in endlessly inventive imagery, and bold apt conceit. The Sonnets’ meditations on the triangular relationship between love, art, and mortality are timeless. The beloved inspires the lover to make art; that art achieves immortal, and in turn immortalises both lover and beloved. The Sonnets illustrate the instability and illusion at the heart of love. When we first fall in love, we fancy our beloved to be perfect. Even when we perceive their flaws, we are unable to tear ourselves free. Love splits us internally: we love against our better judgment. We go away, but love brings us back. We vow not to be jealous or controlling. We fail. Sometimes we fall in love with people whom time teaches us to see more clearly; sometimes, on the contrary, the longer we know someone, the more we admire them.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets capture the dynamics of romantic and sexual desire as we experience them today.
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