Shakespeare’s Sonnets both express and excite strong passions, though many troubled readers have tried to downplay the poems’ effusions of passion. The reason is simple:
The principal addressee and object of praise in most of these poems is not a beautiful woman, but a beautiful young man.
There are 154 sonnets in the sequence, arranged in a way that hints at a story. The details are vague, but there is enough to suggest a salacious soap opera – a love triangle involving the poet, his mistress and his handsome young friend (40-2). There is another triangle (it may or may not be a love triangle) involving a rival male poet (78-80, 82-6). The final sequence (127-54) concerns the poet’s mistress (it is unclear whether she is the same one mentioned earlier), whose looks and behaviour are unconventional. The traditional Petrarchan lady was blonde and chaste; this woman (commonly called ‘the Dark Lady,’ though Shakespeare never uses that phrase) is of dark complexion and sexually active. Her activities extend to the poet’s friend, so he feels doubly betrayed. This is, of course, the stuff of soap opera and many readers have been unable to resist the temptation to speculate about Shakespeare’s private life. “With this key,” William Wordsworth wrote of the sonnet form in Scorn not the Sonnet (1827), “Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “If so,” Robert Browning drily replied in his poem House (1876), “the less Shakespeare he.”
A sonnet sequence is not a long narrative poem and it would be a mistake to read Shakespeare’s sonnets for a story they never really tell. It is uncertain whether the original order of poems as published in 1609 was established by Shakespeare himself, and readers who want a coherent narrative have often felt the need to rearrange the sequence. In the original order (followed by most editors), there is an introductory series (1-17) that celebrates the young man’s beauty and urges him to marry and beget children so his image will survive. Sonnets 18-126 (a sequence of 108 sonnets, intriguingly the same number as in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella) are also concerned with beauty and time’s destructive power, but now the poet offers poetry as a means of preserving the young man’s beauty. The predominant theme throughout the sequence is the power of poetry to resist the inexorable ravages of time.
The argument as to whether the sonnets are autobiographical, and (if so) what (if anything) they tell us continues to this day. Questions of autobiography are not unique to Shakespeare. They come up with many works of literature, including other sonnet sequences, such as Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. But readers get especially worked up in Shakespeare’s case because his most passionate sonnets are addressed to someone of his own sex. That is why so many people have tried to deprive the poems of their passionate intensity. The standard line when I was an undergraduate almost 40 years ago was that the sonnets are poems of praise addressed to an aristocratic patron. If that were true, we should expect Shakespeare’s contemporaries and near contemporaries to have been unfazed by the poems’ supposedly conventional and dispassionate language. But when John Benson published a second edition in 1639 (23 years after Shakespeare’s death) he changed the pronouns in several poems to create the impression they were written to a woman. Benson, at least, seems to have caught a whiff of potential scandal.
The argument that Shakespeare’s sonnets are simple poems of praise runs into another difficulty in the young man’s anonymity. We should expect a poem of praise to name its addressee, as Jonson’s epideictic poems do, often in their titles. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81 promises the young man “Your name from hence immortal life shall have,” but (ironically) the one thing about him no one has ever been able to ascertain is his “name.” It has not been for lack of trying. The 1609 title page makes a cryptic reference to a “Mr. W. H.,” and countless ingenious interpreters have read that title page as if it were a coded message in a Dan Brown novel. The leading candidates for “W. H.” have been William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and (by transposing the initials) Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. The difficulty with both of these contenders is the title “Mr.,” which (as Colin Burrow has reminded us) does not fit someone of aristocratic rank. If “Mr. W. H.” is the young man praised in the sonnets (and some have doubted this), his title points to someone of lower than aristocratic rank, distinguished by beauty, not birthright. Unless, of course, the intent was to disguise an earl, but why do that if these are simple poems of praise? Oscar Wilde, in his ingenious and playful The Portrait of Mr. W. H., conjectured that the young man was a boy actor in Shakespeare’s company. This theory has not won wide assent. The truth is, we do not know who “Mr. W. H.” was.
Does it even matter? The identity of the persons doesn’t matter, but it does matter whether the poems are love poems. Their chief virtue, literary critics rightly insist, is their metaphorical splendour, lexical and syntactical compression and enormous range of moods and emotions, much wider than in any other sonnet sequence, even Sidney’s wonderful Astrophil and Stella. But we diminish Shakespeare’s sonnets if we exclude romantic love from their legitimate range. Some of these poems deserve to be counted among the greatest love poems ever written. Sonnet 116 has special resonance now that same-sex marriage enjoys legal recognition:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments: love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Yes, the poem celebrates a marriage of “minds,” not bodies, but its strong, surging rhythms yearn to throw off “impediments” and go all the way, “even to the edge.” Shakespeare’s sonnets are nothing if not “edgy” and we do them a disservice if we impose spurious boundaries. One modern editor, the usually astute John Kerrigan, has gone so far as to argue that the final double negatives (“I never … nor no”) “show the poet protesting too much, losing confidence in his protestations.” Invoking the grammatical rule that two negatives make a positive, Kerrigan claims that the sonnet’s conclusion “subverts itself grammatically.” It seems to me that this is a misreading. The intensive double negative was perfectly good English in Shakespeare’s time and it survives to this day in rock ’n’ roll and country and western songs (“can’t get no satisfaction,” “ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe,” “ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”). Kerrigan is right in one sense. The point of “nor no man ever loved” is that men have loved. But Shakespeare says this not in a spirit of litotic concession (“losing confidence” as he “subverts” himself “grammatically”), but robust defiance. Men have indeed “loved” and Shakespeare’s sonnets yearn to love with them.
A winner of Western’s Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching, English and Writing Studies professor John Leonard was recently inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada thanks to his outstanding international reputation for his intellectual authority, his exacting scholarship and encyclopedic knowledge of 17th-century English literature.