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What do the Sonnets Tell us About Shakespeare?

The third in a four-part lecture series; 'What Was Shakespeare Really Like'

ShakespeareBT · What do the Sonnets tell us about Shakespeare?

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Professor Lena Orlin, Georgetown University, and Trustee of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Hello, everyone. This is Lena Orlin, a professor at Georgetown University and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I am honoured to introduce this third lecture in a series of four recognizing the 90th birthday of Professor Sir Stanley Wells. We have already heard ‘What manner of man was Shakespeare?’ and ‘How did Shakespeare write a play?’ Next up will be ‘What made Shakespeare laugh?’

But the theme for today’s lecture is ‘What do the sonnets tell us about Shakespeare?’—a central, provocative issue for the question that has guided the entire series: ‘What Was Shakespeare Really Like?’ My theme for this introduction is ‘What is Stanley Wells really like?’

He is a dignified man. He has been director of that important centre of advanced study, The Shakespeare Institute; editor of the internationally renowned journal Shakespeare Survey; general editor of the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare; and vice-chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is now honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the custodian of Shakespeare properties and archives which sponsors these talks. These are all big names, august institutions, and yet it has been Stanley’s gravity and discipline that have conferred dignity upon them. Each organization has grown more lustrous through its association with him.

Stanley is a deeply learned man. He is a brilliant and intuitive close reader of the poetry, has an exhaustive memory for stage moments, and is an expert on the early modern period. He weaves all these strands of knowledge and technique together in his textual editing, in his literary interpretation, in his ability to share his erudition with people of all ages, stations, and educational backgrounds. He is always eager to engage with new ideas, but he is also frank and fearless in assessing them. He knows that we don’t do Shakespeare any favours without values and standards.

At the same time, Stanley is supremely generous. He has been kind to so many, has created professional opportunities for so many, that we can never know his true impact worldwide. Having collaborated with Stanley on some publication projects, I like to think that I have a personal relationship with him. What always surprises me is how many Shakespeare lovers feel that they have personal relationships with Stanley. I won’t even know that they know Stanley, but then it comes out: they’ve exchanged correspondence, they’ve had dinner, they’ve shared a joke, they feel affection as well as respect for him. Somehow, he makes us all feel special to him.

So many anecdotes and experiences come back to me, but I most cherish the story from a professor in Russia who had worked to keep Shakespeare studies alive through all the Soviet years. When she finally got the chance, this keeper of the Shakespeare flame organized a conference for her Russian colleagues. The conference achieved a sublime authority when Stanley agreed to deliver their keynote lecture. My Russian friend remembered every line of the lecture. But she also recalled, with emotion, that Stanley had sat through all the other sessions of the conference, listening to papers delivered in Russian, presumably not himself knowing a word of Russian, but honouring the occasion, honouring the speakers, welcoming them to join him in the global circle of all who honour Shakespeare.

This is what Stanley Wells is really like. 

Professor Sir Stanley Wells:

Shakespeare was primarily a public writer, an entertainer, a teller of tales about people other than himself, two of them – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece - in narrative verse, but mostly dramas which cast only an oblique light on the mind and emotions of their writer. But he also wrote 154 independent sonnets and almost all in the first person singular, as if they were personal utterances. They are at once some of the most famous, the most personally revealing, and the most badly misunderstood poems ever written. Like many readers I got to know some of them as an adolescent, attracted by their quintessentially romantic reputation – a bit like Abraham Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor who, inarticulate at the prospect of wooing Anne Page, wishes he had his ‘book of songs and sonnet here.’ Much later I edited them for the Oxford Complete Works, published in 1986, and over the years I’ve written about them quite a lot: in for example the book I co-authored with Paul Edmondson for the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series published in 2002, in a number of essays published in Shakespeare Survey and elsewhere; and in another co-authored book, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, published by Cambridge University Press and due to appear this September. But I continue to find them fascinating and often enigmatic in themselves, in relation to one another, and in relation to Shakespeare’s life. In this talk I want to address the much disputed question of how personal they are, what they tell us about their author.

It is helpful to think of their literary context. As a literary form the sonnet was especially popular during the early years of Shakespeare’s career – more indeed than at any other period in English literary history. Seventeen sequences of sonnets were published between 1591 and 1597 when the vogue came to a sudden end. Typically they are presented as coherent sequences, collections of poems addressed to or concerning a particular, sometimes identifiable woman who is unresponsive to her lover’s wooing. Varying in length from around 40 to 108 sonnets, none of them is anything like as long as the Shakespeare collection of 154 sonnets published in 1609 (which also includes the narrative poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint’).

Shakespeare was writing sonnets at the same time, both as stand-alone poems and as part of the poetic fabric of his plays. Current scholarly studies date most of his independently written sonnets to the early 1590s, when the vogue was at its height. But there is one crucial difference. While the other writers may have been addressing a particular love object, often under a fictionalized name such as Celia, Delia, Phyllis, Diana, Fidessa and so on, Shakespeare was writing privately, with apparently no intention of publication; and not a single one of his sonnets names an addressee. The only sonnets by Shakespeare given to the public during this period are those that form part of his plays – sonnets such as those composed by the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost as part of their wooing campaign, those that form the choruses to the first and second acts of Romeo and Juliet, and, most famously, that into which Shakespeare cast the first encounter of the lovers in that play. But this does not mean that he was not writing independent sonnets during these years.

His collection of sonnets did not appear till 1609, but then the very title of the book – clearly deriving not from the author but from the publisher - draws attention to the fact that they are not new: these are – so the publisher hopes - long-awaited poems from a writer well enough known to be identifiable from his surname alone: Shakespeare’s Sonnets Never Before Imprinted.

Shakespeare could certainly have found a publisher for sonnets during this period, as is clear from the fact that two of them did actually appear under his name but without his permission in a pirated publication, The Passionate Pilgrim, of 1598 or 1599. Somewhat different versions of these two poems were to appear as Sonnets 138 and 144 in the collection published in 1609. It used to be supposed that the earlier-printed versions were corrupt, but more recent thought suggests that they are printed in the form in which Shakespeare first wrote them, and that the 1609 versions represent his revisions.

The fact that these two sonnets appeared without their author’s permission makes it reasonable to suggest that Shakespeare regarded his sonnets as private poems, written out of an impulse for self-expression rather than for publication. This impression is consonant with the first printed reference to any sonnets by Shakespeare, which appeared in 1598 in a book by the literary chronicler Francis Meres. In Palladis Tamia (Wit’s Treasury) Meres wrote ‘The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c.’. Curiously the phrase ‘sugared sonnets’ had been used in a cryptic poem published four years previously by Richard Barnfield, a friend of Meres and author of a number of charmingly light-hearted and unabashed love poems addressed to a man, which forms part of Barnfield’s sequence Greene’s Funerals (published in 1594) There, oddly referring it would seem to Marlowe as ‘Malta’s poet’ – i.e. the author of The Jew of Malta – Barnfield writes that his own muse ‘seldom sings’ ‘sugared sonnets.’ The association of this phrase with the two best known homoerotic poets of the period (other than Shakespeare) is intriguing; might ‘sugared sonnets’ have implied poems that were homoerotic in tone? (We should bear in mind that the sonnets that Meres knew about are not necessarily among those that have survived.)

At the time Meres was writing, in 1598, no non-dramatic sonnet by Shakespeare had appeared in print. Clearly Meres had inside knowledge; he may have known Shakespeare personally. At any rate he had somehow got to know that Shakespeare was writing ‘sugared’ sonnets. What exactly he meant by ‘private friends’ is unclear. Did he mean that Shakespeare had written sonnets to commission by unidentified patrons?

The two sonnets published in The Passionate Pilgrim and later in the 1609 collection (as Sonnets 138 and 144) are highly intimate poems concerning their author’s – or at least their imaginary speaker’s - sex life which, if we read them autobiographically, their author might well have preferred to be read only by his ‘private friends’ – or even to keep to himself. Deeply serious, even introverted in tone, they read to me more like a man’s private attempts to wrestle with his inner demons than to entertain or charm a paying public. Circulation of poems in manuscript was common at the time, but if, as I suspect, these are really poems that their author preferred to keep under wraps, the fact that they nevertheless got into print suggests either that he must have been astonishingly indiscreet in allowing them to be copied, or that one or more members of his inner circle must have betrayed his confidence.

The 1598 version of Sonnet 138 reads:

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
Unskilful in the world's false forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I, smiling, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love with love's ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young,
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.

This is an intimate, psychologically complex, tortuously expressed poem which I will paraphrase as clearly as I can. The poet complains that when the woman he loves says she’s faithful to him he pretends to believe her even though he knows ‘she lies.’  And he deceives himself into appearing to believe that she thinks he’s younger and less experienced than he really is, knowing nothing of worldly deceits. He blandly pretends to himself as well as to her that he believes her ‘false-speaking tongue’, putting a brave face on lovers’ deceits with a lover’s troubled mind. But, he asks, why does she say she’s younger than she really is, and why doesn’t he admit that he’s old? Lovers do best to appear to trust one another even when they don’t really do so, and people in love don’t like to admit that they are as old as they really are. So he will lie – meaning both ‘speak untruthfully’ and ‘lie down’ - with love (in the abstract, and also with his lover), and she with him, because that is a way of concealing their faults as lovers.

Whatever else this is, it is not a ‘sugared’ sonnet in any obvious sense, nor is it obviously written out of lyrical impulse. It appears to be a cryptically private rather than a public poem, and if it is autobiographical it is a poem that its author might well have preferred to keep to himself, especially if there was any likelihood that the woman might see it. At the time it appeared, in 1599 – when it may not have been new  - Shakespeare, writing of himself as ‘old’, was aged 35 – scarcely ‘old’ in our terms, though possibly relatively so at his time in relation to a much younger woman. I suppose it could have been entirely fictional, but it doesn’t sound in the least like, for example, a speech from a play.

The other sonnet in the 1599 collection is a variant of one printed in 1609 (Sonnet 144). Jaggard’s version reads:

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
That like two spirits do suggest me still.
My better angel is a man right fair,
My worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her fair pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
For being both to me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
                                The truth I shall not know, but live in doubt
                                Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

Again, this is no conventionally lyrical utterance. Sexually explicit like its partner, it is based on the medieval concept of a conflict for a man’s soul between good and bad angels, as in a morality play, and it proclaims the author to have both a male and a female lover. Let me attempt a paraphrase:

I have two lovers, one comforting, the other that makes me despair, who continually, like two spirits, tempt me. The better is a handsome man, the worse a woman of ill favour. My female evil spirit tempts my better angel away from me in order to condemn me to hell, and seeks to corrupt my saintly friend to be a devil, seducing his purity with her enticing sexuality. And though I may suspect but cannot know for certain that my (male) angel has become a devil, I can’t be sure, because since both of them are friends with both me and one another, I guess that each is occupying the other’s intimate spaces. (The word ‘hell’ could refer to the vagina.) I shall not know the truth, but must live in suspicion until my bad angel (the woman) expels my good one (the man, by infecting him with venereal disease.)

If we read this poem autobiographically we must unequivocally regard Shakespeare as both heterosexually adulterous and bisexual, in love at once with a handsome man and an ill-favoured but sexually enticing and apparently promiscuous woman.  Moreover his statement of this had been made public. He had, as it were, been outed by the poem’s appearance in print. Around the time he was preparing to write Hamlet, soon after he was asserting his respectability and his prosperity by buying the largest house in the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon, William Jaggard published poems, apparently without his permission, in which he declares himself a bisexual and an emotionally troubled adulterer. 

By 1599, then, the reading public knew first hand from Francis Meres and at second hand from The Passionate Pilgrim that Shakespeare had written an unknown number of sonnets, and were able to read versions of two of them, both erotic, without necessarily knowing that others existed.

But more were to come. The book Shakespeare’s Sonnets of 1609 is not expensively or elegantly produced: many of the poems run clumsily over the page with awkward breaks. Stylistic studies suggest that the bulk of the poems published in it had been written while the vogue for sonnet sequences was at its height, early in Shakespeare’s career, from about 1591 onwards, when he was making most use of the form in his plays. The latest printed (Sonnets 127 to 154) are believed to be the earliest composed, followed by Sonnets 1 to 103. The latest composed – Sonnets 104 to 126 - date from between 1598 and 1604 –  all well before they were first published. Their author may have gone on tinkering with individual poems in the years after he wrote them, especially while he was transcribing them into the version in which they eventually appeared in print.

This means that the 1609 order of printing is not the order in which the sonnets were written. But it is not entirely haphazard. The poems do not form an orderly ‘sequence’, although this term is often misleadingly applied to them by analogy with the sonnet sequences of the 1590s. It reflects and creates serious misunderstanding. A more accurate term is ‘collection.’ Nevertheless some of the poems run on in sense from one to the next, and others fall into pairs or mini-sequences related by subject matter: for instance, as I have said, the first seventeen all exhort a young man to marry. Poems in which the writer mentions other, unidentified rival poets, include Sonnets 78 to 80, 82 to 86, and are grouped together.

False assumptions, which started towards the end of the eighteenth century, resulting from comparisons with sonnet sequences of the 1590s are responsible for the frequently repeated statement that all the poems in the first group concern a male person, and that all those from Sonnet 127 onward are about a ‘woman coloured ill', as she is called in Sonnet 144. In fact only twenty of the poems, all in the first group, can confidently be said, on the evidence of forms of address and masculine pronouns, to be addressed to, or to concern, a male, while seven, all in the second group, are clearly about a ‘dark’ female. In the sonnets clearly addressed to a male he is variously addressed or mentioned as ‘sweet’, and his youth is emphasized:  ‘tender churl’ (Sonnet 1), ‘sweet boy’ (Sonnet 108), and ‘my lovely boy’, (Sonnet 126).

There is a break towards the end of the collection. Sonnet 126 is in rhymed couplets and has only twelve lines, instead of the usual 14, followed cryptically by two pairs of empty brackets. All the poems concerned with a so-called ‘dark’ woman follow it, mixed up with others that are not. Someone had clearly imposed a degree of order upon a collection of poems written at diverse dates.

So there are two very basic questions. One is ‘Who arranged these poems, written at a variety of dates, some individually, others in clusters, or pairs, into the order in which they appeared in print?’ It must have been someone who knew all the poems intimately and had thought hard about their relationship to one another. Shakespeare himself seems the obvious candidate. The other question is ‘If some or all of the poems are concerned with real people, who are these people?’

We should like to have answers to the questions that the volume raises if only because they would help us to know what their author was really like. If, for example, he cold-bloodedly handed over for publication – for ready money - love poems addressed to and concerned with persons still living who would have known he was putting their intimate relationships into the public domain (even if they could not be easily identified), that would suggest a serious lack of concern for their feelings. If the printed text of the sonnets derives, directly or by way of a scribal transcript, from Shakespeare’s own manuscript it would appear that he had manuscripts of all 154 of them, that he had transcribed them into a single notebook, as if for his personal use – a bit like a boy collecting stamps, or more seriously like someone who writes poems with no expectation of publication but enjoys writing them out in their best handwriting, for private perusal or perhaps to be shown only to selected ‘private friends.’ But we don’t know how the poems got into print.

On the surface, because of the third-person phrasing of the title page and the dedication by the publisher rather than by the author, it seems that such a manuscript came into Thorpe’s hands without Shakespeare’s approval. But some scholars argue that Shakespeare himself handed over the poems to Thorpe for publication – presumably in return for money - and that the reason that Thorpe rather than Shakespeare wrote the dedication and supervised the book’s publication is because the author was unavailable – Katherine Duncan-Jones suggests that he had left London to escape the plague (but presumably that Thorpe bravely, or foolhardily, stayed put) – and that he gave Thorpe a free hand as to the details of their appearance. It has even been suggested that Shakespeare held publication back till 1609 for reasons of delicacy until his mother had died – in September 1608 – but one might suppose that he had more to fear from his wife’s reactions, and she outlived him and could well have known of the book. (Even if she couldn’t read it herself, some kind friend might well have told her about it.)

The best we can do is to examine the evidence and to form our own conclusions from what it tells us. My conclusion, for what it is worth, is that Thorpe got hold by underhand means of a manuscript into which all the poems had been transcribed, probably by their author, certainly in an order that Shakespeare approved and which Thorpe followed, that the publisher’s dedication to the unknowable ‘Mr W.H.’ is deliberately cryptic and may be addressed to some individual not in the public eye, and that Shakespeare disapproved of the publication but kept quiet about it, possibly so as not to draw attention to it.  

In 1609, Shakespeare, aged 45, was coming towards the end of his playwriting career. What Thorpe published is an extraordinarily diverse collection of poems – and their very diversity makes them very different from the sonnet sequences of the 1590s, which are far more uniform in tone and content. Shakespeare’s, written over a period of some twenty or more years, vary in content and style from the impersonal through the lyrical, the meditative, the celebratory, the apparently autobiographical to the opaquely intimate and the confessional, and they include at the end two which are simply paraphrases of poems from a collection of fifth or sixth century poems known as the Greek Anthology which had been translated into Latin in the sixteenth century: we don’t know how Shakespeare got hold of them but it is conceivable that they are early essays in translation dating back to his schooldays.

Most, though not all, of the 1609 sonnets are written in the first person singular, or at least from the author’s point of view. Some are as it were ‘public’ poems, which could have been written just for their writer’s pleasure, or professionally as contributions to poetic anthologies. But other sonnets are far more private utterances, containing cryptic references to public or even personal events which would have been unintelligible to readers unacquainted with intimate details of the poet’s life. This surely suggests that they are primarily private poems written as a form of self-expression, or self-exploration, rather than for professional reasons.

The first group of poems in the volume, Sonnets 1 to 17, are closely related in that all of them are addressed to a beautiful, unnamed young man whom the poet urges to marry. It has been suggested that they were written to commission from a mother anxious that her son seemed not to be facing up to his duty of perpetuating the family line, but they imply a degree of intimacy between the poet and the person addressed that goes far beyond the formal. The poet addresses the young man as ‘love’ (Sonnet 13), and goes so far as to beg him, in veiled but surely unmistakable terms, to stop masturbating and to start propagating – from Sonnet 1:

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding [that is, paradoxically, behave wastefully by keeping your seed to yourself.] .

And again – from Sonnet 4:

having traffic with thyself alone
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive

Is this how a poet might address a man he was simply being paid to advise? The situation portrayed may seem paradoxical: a man who loves a beautiful younger man nevertheless urges him to marry a woman, as if in conflict with the poet’s personal desires. Perhaps it could be explained if the addressee were someone – like, dare I say, Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton – whose social position required him to marry whether or not he wanted to. But whatever the biographical situation may have been, it precipitated poems which give abiding lyrical expression to the emotions of a lover and of any human being contemplating the effects of time on ‘everything that grows’ (Sonnet 15). Many of the poems in the later part of the collection, too, show their author meditating on traditional themes of lyric poetry – the destructive effects of time on youth and beauty, the possibility that love and art may transcend time, the hope that the poet’s verse may confer immortality upon the addressee. In this, though they may have had a topical purpose, they transcend it.

But some of the poems stand far outside the traditional boundaries of lyric verse in the intensity of their exploration of what appear to be deeply personal, even private issues. So for example Sonnet 129 is a profoundly serious poem in which the poet meditates in anguished terms on the consequences of yielding to lust without love:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
                                All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
                                To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

This poem would seem completely out of place in a conventional sonnet sequence of the period. It might be thought to resemble a meditation on a topic such as the actions of the rapist Tarquin in Lucrece, or the state of mind of Angelo lusting after Isabella in Measure for Measure; equally, it might express Shakespeare’s personal experience of remorse and shame springing from consciousness that lust has driven him to self-betrayal.

The most profoundly personal, even confessional of the poems are to be found among the last-printed group, from 127 to 152 – it’s tempting to call them a group, as they include all that are clearly addressed to a woman, but that applies to only seven of them. The poet speaks of his mistress – if indeed there is only one mistress – in conflicting and conflicted terms. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ (130), which parodies the conventions of Petrarchan verse using a phrase also found in Sonnet 127 -  ‘My mistress’s eyes are raven black’ - denies her the conventional attributes of a poetical love object but ends with a declaration of love which is all the more powerful for the volte-face that it expresses:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. 

There is also a small group of poems, Sonnets 78 to 86, which include references to a so-called ‘rival poet’ (or conceivably more than one such poet) who was a rival in the author’s love. Many attempts, all fruitless, have been made to identify him with known poets of the period – (among those suggested have been Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and other, lesser poets). Indeed Sonnet 86 alludes to a confederacy of rival collaborators, ‘compeers by night’. Presumably these poems would have been as puzzling to readers of Shakespeare’s time as they are to us, a fact that supports the idea that the sonnets are private poems.

The most explicitly autobiographical sonnets seem to be those that pun on the poet’s first name - William. They are the only poems in the collection that give a personal name to any of the protagonists. ‘My name is’, he declares unequivocally, ‘Will’ (in Sonnet 136). Nowhere else does the poet identify himself so emphatically.

A number of these poems imply that the poet is involved in a triangular affair with another man and a woman. But other poems in this group are cryptic in allusions to a love triangle, Sonnet 133, for example, is expressive of a love-hate relationship that is totally at odds with conventional love poetry. Shakespeare, apparently addressing a woman and without identifying himself by name, speaks of the affair with anguish, and implies that both his male and his female lover have abandoned him in a manner that deprives him of his sense of identity:

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed.
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken -
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

Self-identification resumes with Sonnet 135, beginning ‘Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will’, which uses the word ‘will’ 13 times, and does so, sometimes with grotesquely lewd punning, in at least five distinct senses: the poet’s own name, desire, object of desire, vagina, and penis.

The poem that follows, Sonnet 136, uses the word ‘will’ five times and ends ‘my name is Will.’ The next two, though they do not pun on ‘will’, continue the theme. In Sonnet 137 the poet castigates himself for thinking ‘that’ – the woman’s vagina - to be  ‘a several plot’ –  an exclusively owned territory – although his heart knows it to be ‘the wide world’s common place’ - she is promiscuous; and in No. 138, admitting that he suppresses truth by ‘believing’ his mistress’s lies, he acknowledges his folly with bitter puns:

Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our lies by lies we flattered be.

The harsh, explicit, and totally unsentimental sexual frankness of these poems, exceeding anything to be found in the sonnet sequences of the 1590s, and indeed in of most of Elizabethan literature other than the avowedly pornographic, reaches a climax in Sonnet 151 which portrays the poet’s soul as giving him permission to permit his erect penis repeatedly to penetrate his woman friend:

My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
                                No want of conscience hold it that I call
                                Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

I think it can safely be said that no sonnet of the period – or indeed of most other periods –approaches this in its explicit – in this case, heterosexual - sexuality. It is powerfully eloquent in for example the enjambment of the first two and the third and fourth lines; in the rhythmic regularity of the first and the inverted opening foot of the second line; in the alliteration of ‘flesh’ and farther’ and of ‘prize … Proud …pride’; and in the rhythmic inversion of ‘fall by thy side’ which creates an impression of detumescence. Masterly in technique, this poem gives us exceptional access to Shakespeare’s sexual imagination.

In the midst of all this tormented sexual self-examination and overt sexuality, which would be obscene were it not so earnest, comes, incongruously, Shakespeare’s only religious poem (except perhaps for the obscurely mystic ‘Phoenix and Turtle’), Sonnet 146, beginning ‘Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth’. There seems to be no reason why we should not accept this poem, which is as solid in its affirmation of spiritual over worldly values as any of the magnificent Holy Sonnets of John Donne (which circulated only in manuscript during Donne’s lifetime), as Shakespeare’s personal affirmation of religious belief.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Rebuke] these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
                                So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
                                And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then. 

This poem, which speaks against the kind of personal display associated with theatre, may well express a creed to which Shakespeare adhered throughout his life. It shows that he could empathize with religious believers, and it should not be ignored in attempts to assess his religious faith.


To sum up, then, it seems to me that the Sonnets are a highly diverse collection of poems with varying degrees of relevance to Shakespeare’s personal and public life. Some of the poems are not particularly personal and would be at home in any collection of love poetry of the period. Others may be more or less identifiably related to Shakespeare’s personal experience but would nevertheless have been intelligible and enjoyable to contemporary readers who did not know him. Some of the Sonnets seem so intimately personal, not to say confessional, that I find it difficult not to see them as highly original poems that are autobiographical in origin and which Shakespeare wrote primarily for himself, to help him to clarify his mind and emotions about personal dilemmas and rivalries in love.

These poems reveal a man who was at various times of his life caught up in emotional and sexual entanglements with more than one male – men or boys, or (as Malvolio says of Viola) ‘in standing water, between boy and man’, one of whom was also a poet – and with more than one woman; a man of conscience who experienced transcendent joy and happiness in love but who suffered as the result of other people’s infidelities, who understood the pangs of physical separation and emotional estrangement from the beloved, and who was tormented with profound jealousy, guilt, and remorse about his own behaviour.

Among all Shakespeare’s writings the Sonnets, in all their diversity of moods and their profound introspection, bring us closest to a sense of what Shakespeare was really like. In this sense they form a kind of emotional autobiography. And they suggest that even when he was asserting bourgeois respectability with his rising social status in Stratford and his artistic success in London he was experiencing an inner life of at least intermittent emotional turmoil and sexual tension which found release in poetic composition. It should not surprise us if he wished to keep his sonnets to himself.

A talk by Stanley Wells, for reference purposes only; not to be copied or reproduced

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