Shakespeare's Sonnets Essay - Shakespeare's Greening: The Privacy, Passion and Difficulty of the Sonnets

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Greening: The Privacy, Passion and Difficulty of the Sonnets

Barbara Everett, Somerville College, Oxford

A friend whose mind I respect said not long ago that whenever he saw an essay on theSonnets he knew he wasn't going to believe it. I want to suggest here that Shakespeare's poems breed in readers a special incredulity-factor. Whatever we do with them and their criticism, we don't precisely believe either. The writer (probably the publisher) of that esoteric Dedication to the first edition of theSonnets, about onlie begetting, was merely toeing the line, was their first actively sympathetic professional reader. Ever since then we have read with fascination and admiration, but have been afflicted too by a version of that "good dulness" Prospero read in or into the somnolent Miranda.

Shakespeare has, of course, been described before now as failing to abide our question. But on this matter a distinction may need to be made between plays and poems. We surely leave a play by Shakespeare feeling that, despite all the opacity of the dramatic medium, we none the less know things about the person who wrote it; as we do indeed know a good deal about the Elizabethan dramatist, and the world he worked and lived in, and the work that he created. Any good modern edition of one of Shakespeare's plays will be packed with information on which there is reasonable agreement among scholars. A critic who tried to argue now, for instance, as Dryden once did, thatPericles is the writer's first play would not find the going good.

We do not, however, know the date of composition of theSonnets. Guesses by reputable scholars differ by up to twenty years. We do not know the circumstances of composition—whether the 1609 text, the first and only authentic one, was authorial or pirated or something else again; and uncertainty on that issue makes all leading modern editions radically and variously divergent, both from each other and from the original text. We do not know, finally, what these poems mean or how they work; who (to take the simplest point) the Dark Lady was, or whether a Dark Lady existed, or whether it makes any sense at all, having read these poems, to speak of a Dark Lady existing.

TheSonnets are my subject here. But it may be worth noting in passing that strangeness affects other of Shakespeare's poems. Few readers could praiseThe Phoenix and Turtle, one of the most entrancing of all Renaissance poems, without acknowledging that it is crafted as an open secret: insoluble, out of touch.The Lover's Complaint is certainly Shakespearian and would be quite wrongly described as bad, but it has an impermeability which brings both judgments into question. Both these works have, like theSonnets, a kind of beautiful cloudiness, an unpretentious yet decisive removal from easy understanding, which makes their author seem very different from the great theatre genius.

This is clearly the crux. The poet's plays were written for the public theatre, to be acted by common players like himself. Crammed with experience and observation and sheer intellectual power, these extremely brilliant works were not closed to the very simple. Highly as Shakespeare must have valued the appreciation of the gentry audience, his standing groundings unarguably loved and applauded him. This openness has lasted four centuries. At least some decades ago, and perhaps still,Macbeth has been regularly studied and acted in schools by children of ten or eleven years old, who have often enjoyed and understood it. Shakespeare's whole theatre art is a matter of ways into depths, of the translation of darkness into daylight.

It may be that writing naked verse, without the masks of drama, made problems for a reticent man. At all events, it seems possible that theSonnets were, by contrast, found difficult from the beginning. Unwontedly few copies survive from the 1609 edition of these often marvellous poems—a situation which, typically, we do not know whether to read as indicating authorial suppression or merely poor sales. When in 1640 the possibly piratical Benson put out a new version of this first edition, he added a preface which so vehemently argues these sonnets' plainness and lucidity as to suggest defensiveness. Benson protests too much; theSonnets had surely been found obscure. Difficulty, even impossibility, remained a charge levelled throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Only in our own time has there been a change. Academic literary criticism, an offshoot of cultural modernism, was for half a century strongly attracted to diffi-cult writing, especially of the dark and allegorizing Renaissance. But—paradoxically, if naturally—such criticism imposes a form of ease on the difficult art it loves. TheSonnets remain a central text of our time, but anthologists make us characterize them by (say) 119, "Let me not to the marriage of true mindes", a deeply quizzical piece which can sound simply resonant.

"Difficulty" is in itself an irritating concept. As readers, we can in fact understand a poem very well while what we understand is the limits necessitated by the forms of its own articulacy. What I want to do here is to lay new stress on the actual conditions which generate the use of such terms as "difficult". There are other terms which have glossed these same literary conditions. Francis Meres used one in hisPalladis Tamia of 1598, the well-known first allusion to Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets. Naming a number of the dramatist's earlier plays, Meres speaks also of sonnets passing around the poet's "private friends". The notion of the "private" is as important to these poems as is the "difficult".

The "private/public" distinction has weight in Renaissance sociology. Elizabethan aristocrats wrote, but did not sell their work, or allow the wider public entry into their personal lives. The extraordinarily influential first edition of Sidney's love-sonnets,Astrophil and Stella, in 1591, was pirated. Public authorship for money, as of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe, lowered a man's social standing. Whatever the circumstances of theSonnets ' first publication in 1609, the poems themselves are written in an intensely courtly medium—in the sixteenth century the sonnet was a courtly form throughout Europe; and Shakespeare's themes are always aware of this courtly context, even when they challenge it. Their intellectual debate involves worldliness in love, and turns on the intermarriage yet contradiction between self-assertion and self-abnegation, fulfilment and sacrifice.

The private in these poems often mutates into the lonely. Reticence finds itself silenced by paradox. There is in theseSonnets, that is to say, not merely the social awareness natural to the genre, but a metaphysical quality original to Shakespeare. Sonnet 124, "Yf my deare love were but the childe of state", takes its thinking towards a love so self-contradictory, as it "all alone stands hugely pollitick", as to imply a near-mysticism; hence the haunting but opaque "foles of time" who "die for goodness".

Shakespeare'sSonnets make their own this difficult span from the social to the unsociable. It can be seen working itself out, for instance, in Sonnets 110, 111 and 112: "Alas 'tis true, I have gone here and there", "O, for my sake do you with fortune chide", and "Your love and pittie doth th'impression fill". Shakespeare's biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, summarizes the subject of these poems when he writes (inShakespeare's Lives): "The Sonnets reveal that [Shakespeare] chafed at the social inferiority of actors. … But such passing moods must have yielded to a dominant professionalism."

It is a fact that these three sonnets, principally the first two, meditate on such corruption as might be felt to be involved in the life of a common player. As biographers must, Schoenbaum is stressing a social meaning. What he ignores is a wholly characteristic alteration of the social subject. Thus, 110 begins:

Alas 'tis true, I have gone here and there
And made my selfe a motley to the view,
Gor'd mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is
                                    most deare,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is, that I have lookt on truth
Asconce and strangely: But by all above,
These blenches gave my heart an other youth. …

Going here and there has only to be written to become metaphor. The "truth" at which the poet aims is hardly alone that of the stage player, the common actor. The "selfe" is at once poet and lover; truth is fidelity to the inward and constancy in relationship. Stage-acting, poetry-writing and loving are three modes of experience filled with mutual contradictions yet generated by one being, at once the lonelist and most conversable in existence. Moreover: "These blenches gave my heart an other youth"—the infidelity attendant on going out of and away from the self into the fallen world nourishes the thinking head and the feeling heart. Truth, which is easily said, is double and doubtful from the beginning: "Most true it is, that I have lookt on truth / Asconce and strangely". Romance, the mode of love, leads any traveller by roads that are strange and "asconce", oblique and circuitous—but not, for all that, less true.

I have been suggesting that it makes sense to see some real distinction between Shakespeare's plays and his poems, the first public and lucid, the second private, and often difficult. The social politics of the period itself encouraged these important distinctions. But Shakespeare is a great poet precisely because he understood, perhaps more fully than any other writer, the vital interconnections of public world and private mind. The one creates the other. Shakespeare's greatest stage-play is after all the tragedy of the solitary Hamlet (who writes poems); the Prince of Denmark was as popular with groundlings as with nobility.

And yet plays and poems are of course distinguishable in simple ways. The real difference is embodiment. Ezra Pound made the point that the medium of drama is not words or ideas but bodies moving on a stage. A stage-play can be read, and Shakespeare's later plays in particular demand to be read. But the soul of dramatic writing is this fact of embodied presence, both of actors and of audience. The linguistic element depends on this given occasion. Reflective poetry like theSonnets has no occasion but the page. Its voice is the voice in the head of the individual reader. These premisses are grasped everywhere by the poet of theSonnets, for whom both love and writing are engagements with a void, Teachings into a darkness of past and future. Shakespeare's great originality was half to perceive, half to invent the endemic paradox of the Elizabethan love-poem, which celebrates a love at once material and mysterious, and "all alone stands hugely pollitick". The beloved "you" of theSonnets is every-thing, yet bodiless everywhere but not there at all.

In a powerfully provocative essay, C. S. Lewis recorded a distrust of Donne's love-poetry, so realistic (Lewis suggested) as to make of the reader something like a voyeur. Regarding theSonnets, which he found the greatest of love poems, Lewis clearly never felt himself to be pruriently opening others' love-letters. The reasons lie with those conditions I have been hoping to define: these poems' privacy, difficulty, reticence. Startlingly intimate in terms of poetic presence, they offer little at the social level, and may, from this viewpoint, be contrasted markedly not only with Donne but with his and Shakespeare's predecessor, that most influential of sonneteers, Philip Sidney: who at once gives us the sound of the court he writes in, and evokes the secret of the love, unknown to the court itself, which he and Stella share.

Even if we happen not to know Sidney's love as Penelope Rich, we know her as Stella. Most sonneteers of the time name their mistress, even if only as Stella, Delia or Idea. In Sonnet 81, Shakespeare promises, "Your name from hence immortal life shall have". But he doesn't tell it to us. Just conceivably the name is "Anne Shakespeare", the surname to be found forever on the title-page—and Andrew Gurr has comparably suggested that the probably very early Sonnet 145 plays on the name "Hathaway" in its phrase "hate away". But these possibilities become little more than biographical accidents in the light of theSonnets ' own undenominating process. Face disintegrates into "millions of strange shadows" (53); the beloved is the "Master Mistris of my passion" (20). The youth not very credibly addressed in 1-17 is not at all necessarily the "Fair Young Man" conjectured elsewhere; and many of the sonnets in the 1-126 sequence have no indicating pronoun for the beloved, or could be at least as credibly read as addressed to a woman.

Human types and situations flicker in and out of theSonnets with an extraordinary broken vividness. We know, or seem to know, moments in Shakespeare's life with an unalterable clarity. What I am suggesting is that this historicism is cut across by quite different principles. The argument and development of these poems depend on thinking to which identity is irrelevant. It is thinking which demands from the reader a recognition that love governs at once inner and outer, psychological and social; and is capable of at once uniting us with the world about us as hardly any other force can, and of dividing us from it irreparably. These marriages and wars are not merely historical and take place namelessly. The words "my love" can, in short, as easily mean a feeling as a being, and the discrepancies latent in that fact yield both tragedy and comedy:

Two loves I have of comfort and dispaire,
Which like two spirits do sugiest me still,
The better angeli is a man right faire:
The worser spirit a woman collour'd ill.

Thus Sonnet 144, by not caring to name two chief actors, delineates the tragi-comedy of love played out in the self. Similarly, what is striking in Sonnet 81 is not simply that no name follows the promise of immortality. The poem shunts aside the issue of identity—and yet allows the speaker to remain what any serious reader (of whom Keats was, of course, the first) recognizes he is: the least egoistic, the most attentive of lovers as of writers. The closing couplet explains its own abstract purpose:

You still shall live (such vertue hath my pen)
Where breath most breaths, even in the mouths
                                   of men.

In the process of love, identity dissolves from an object or name into something as intimate, as inward and as transparent as breath itself; the sociality of love purifies into speech, at last into the silence of "mouths". The word "pen", which brings into the poem a faint hint of sexuality and thus of embodiment, translates even as it is read into the reader's reading, the almost unsayable "now".

A few of Shakespeare's sonnets are formulaic, tricksy or drudging. But he is in general the most superbly serious and direct, even naked of writers. At his best, he achieves over and over again the concentration of live thought. But along with all their truth the love-poems hold at their centre a kind of silence. If we think in terms of a reticence, this is not merely some social fastidiousness orpudeur. It is an apprehension that in loving and writing of love, some things cannot be said, or require the unsaying. The seemingly later sonnets seem to go further than this. They skirt saying that love is an act of faith which cannot be given religious language. The magnificent if very opaque Sonnet 125 defines love—"mutuali render only me for thee"—otherwise only by contrasting it with its false imitation, the worship of court servants who follow into a void, "Pittiful thrivors in their gazing spent". Their very success, or "thriving", is pitiable: their avid regard is fruitless, rewardless. Yet in a sense the definition of true love is in these poems equally in its "gazing spent", absorbed by its own struggle to exist. The poems move towards something like what Hopkins called "elected silence", their climax (127 onwards) essentially only the unlove of the Dark Lady. The figure of Nature in Sonnet 126, mother of the "lovely Boy" who is Cupid himself, says"Audite" and"Quietus"—"Listen" and "Be quiet". But these interesting word-plays also and principally mean "Here is my bill, my account"; and the bill is death.

The"quietus" of death is the hole in the page of each of these sonnets. Wonderful poems in their own right, they do not have anything to "say" about love. It is in this sense that it can be difficult to believe either theSonnets or their criticism. Information tends to be irrelevant or misleading. This very general observation perhaps needs to be illustrated. Simultaneously, some light may be thrown on the historically earlier sense of these poems as notoriously difficult. I have already referred to the group of three Sonnets, 110, 111 and 112, which develop the theme of privacy and reticence. The third of these, 112, repays quoting in its entirety—so well does this extraordinarily difficult poem throw light on that side of.theSonnets which reflects with purposiveness:

Your love and pittie doth th'impression fill,
Which vulgar scandali stampi upon my brow,
For what care I who calles me well or ill,
So you ore-greene my bad, my good alow?
You are my All the world, and I must strive,
To know my shames and praises from your
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steel 'd sense or changes right or wrong,
In so profoundAbisme I throw all care
Of others voyces, that my Adders sence,
To cryttick and to flatterer stopped are:
Marke how with my neglect I doe dispence.

You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
That all the world besides me thinkes
          y'are dead.

By no means all theSonnets are as hard as this; but Sonnet 112 is not uncharacteristic. Moreover, though not one of the very best, its quality of muffled intensity of thinking, its original honesty of wit, make it worth pausing over. Here as elsewhere I quote from the 1609 edition (with long ss modernized andus andvs reversed), and this together with Elizabethan idioms—"steel'd sense" meaning implacable judgment, "Adders sence" meaning deaf ears, "dispence" meaning talk out of court—certainly does not make the poem less obscure.

But there is a problem about modernizing and modern editions. Probably the three most widely used, all in their different ways able and helpful, are those by Ingrams and Redpath (1964), Booth (1977) and Kerrigan (1986). Like most of their colleagues and predecessors, the editors of all three texts assume the original text of this sonnet's last line to be "grossly faulty" (Booth's phrase). Its last few words are emended in Ingrams and Redpath to "besides methinks they are dead", in Kerrigan to "besides methinks they're dead"; Booth says the line "does not make ready sense without emendation", and believes the poem to be unfinished. The textual history of this line is a great per-mutation of very various emendations. For what it is worth—and although I want to confine myself to Sonnet 112 here—the immediately succeeding Sonnet 113 has an interestingly similar history. Beginning, "Since I left you, mine eye is in my minde", this, as it happens, much more routine poem develops the same theme of the dangerous introspection of love, but in the reversed direction. Where in Sonnet 112 the lover risks losing the beloved, in Sonnet 113 he risks losing himself. Describing a dazed and image-obsessed world, the poem comes to an abrupt and startling close: "My most true minde thus maketh mine untrue": and editors, including the three I consult here, replace the penultimate word "mine" with a large range of emendations.

The original version of Shakespeare's line seems to me, in each of these cases, quite certainly correct. But, because all the problems of theSonnets (as of most printed literature) are interdependent, more is at issue than textual dispute. The lines get altered even by editors as good as Ingrams and Redpath, Booth and Kerrigan, because the poem is difficult in ways we don't expect it to be. Not expecting, by rewriting we make it harder than it was before.

With its constant, necessitous leaning towards the biographical, criticism perhaps does not bother always to make much of the lack of embodiment in these later sonnets—say, from 110 to 126; for 127-154 seem contemporary rather than later still, and to "answer" rather than to conclude. In the last dozen or twenty of the first sequence, the sense of the beloved's presence is strikingly distant: all is feeling, meditation, intense ratiocination. That distancing or voiding helps to make sense of the fact that these poems end where they do. Some conclusion has been reached, even if relationship continues. Something of this is foreshadowed and hinted in the ambiguous and evasive twelfth line of Sonnet 112: "Marke how with my neglect I doe dispence".

The line, sourly light and social, means "Watch me getting out of my neglect of you"—or, because of the fruitful and troublesome double-senses of Elizabethan idiom, "your neglect of me". The social tone roots the poem in the actual and throws doubt backwards on all the preceding intensities, which we are made to feel may be ingratiating excuse-making. But "Marke" comes late enough to leave it possible that this is still a profound and tormented lover. Even a tormented lover may need to write brightly, "Darling, I'm so sorry I haven't written for so long" (or, "Truly, dear, you don't need to write to me").

The harshness, the range and the sheer slipperiness of this poem come from its perception of the marriage of the inner and outer in love—often a difficult, divided union. The poem is first and basically difficult, not because Elizabethan compositors did not know their job, but because Shakespeare knew his. Completely without several succeeding centuries' development in novelistic analysis of feeling, and in the languages of social existence, the poet with extraordinary originality struggles to say that love-poetry is difficult because loving human beings is diffi-cult, particularly if we have to articulate our feeling or give it social expression.

Characteristically, the difficulty finds itself through a rhetoric, everywhere double and based on word-play. A part of the whole inner/outer, private/public game emerges in the last line's "besides", which in the idiom of the time meant both "except for" and "as well as". Such puzzles are eased by the fact that the whole sonnet works by a doubleness. Love is, and is not, social. Love is our comfort when the world treats us badly, and yet is our only hope of deeply belonging to our world. This trou-bled condition the sonnet argues by a systematic, but soon denied, language of pairings. Our life (says the poem) is made up of good and evil, friends and enemies. The friend's "love and pittie" make up for enemies' "Vulgar scandali"; reputation speaks of us "well or ill"; the poet has (or talk gives him) bad qualities which the lover must "ore-greene", and good ones to be "alowed", or praised with what the poet converts to a gentlemanly dismissive modesty. Society gives him (and the reversal of world-order is suggestive here: the system begins to break down) "shames and praises", in response to which his behaviour and judgements shift "right or wrong", swayed by "cryt-tick and … flatterer".

I mentioned the reversing in "shames and praises"; "cryt-tick and … flatterer" goes further in its subtle undermining of expectation, its sense that love won't work by categories. "What care I?" "You are my All the world". The poem's society expands to contain the awareness of a love obsessive, entire—a love moreover able to recognize that the lover is as likely to be as involved with "shames" as "praises", to be a "cryttick" as much as "flatterer". The couplet of this sonnet reaches out to a conclusion as logical as it is paradoxical—and the couplet of Sonnet 113 exactly follows suit. These intense, angular and self-mocking poems say that love itself is appallingly difficult: and never more so than when it brings with it a full consciousness of its power to wreck—to wreck sane worldly clarities, to ruin in the end the existence of both the self and of the other.

Sonnet 113 is arguing, not unsimply, that the person who sees (as the writer certainly does) the world around as nothing but shadows of the love-object will lose the right to think even that he thinks at all: loses the power to call his own mind "mine". All the last line of this poem needs is inverted commas round, or italics on, the word "mine", which refers back to the first line's "mine eye is in my minde". It strikes me as very probable that if editors have failed to see this plain meaning in the last line, it is from disbelief that Shakespeare can be so "difficult", so extraordinarily modern in his capacity to invent self-referentiality. The fact is that the poet, in or out of theSonnets, can invent and has invented most things.

The last line of Sonnet 112 works by precisely this self-referentiality, this modernity. At her most Henry-Jamesian, Edith Wharton created a heroine inThe Age of Innocence at once scandal-haunted yet intrinsically virtuous (like Shakespeare's love); who, returned home from Eu-rope to a classy but closed New York society, looks around the opera audience and sighs with wistful irony that she's "sure I'm dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven". The Elizabethan poet's social-toned "the world … thinkes y'are dead", and "maketh mine untrue" are only because of their period a little more difficult than the forms of utterance of a Wharton or a James. The phrases say that even the devoutest, most apparently self-abnegating love can devour its object, detach it from social existence; and that even the most intense has to admit in the end that we do not belong to ourselves alone, perhaps not at all.

There is, of course, one great difference between Shakespeare and James and Wharton. The novel can easily handle and digest social ironies (if James can be called easy). A courtly verse-form here being used to express an al-ways deepening consciousness has more trouble with such complexities. Hence the curious effect a reader can some-times feel in theSonnets, that there is nothing here to believe, nothing to get a firm grip on—no social mechanisms that don't disintegrate. Presumed perceptions of the real, like the last line of Sonnet 112's "the world", dis-solve into a hole in the page: a disturbance faithfully registered by editorial emendation.

It happens that Sonnet 112 has a phrase which illustrates this process so well that I want to finish by considering it. Editors have real difficulty with the words in the fourth line, "So you ore-greene [over-greene] my bad". Along-side "my good alow", this is an obvious case of the poem's moral pairing by contrast. The speaker's good qualities are "alowed", praised even if with what the man himself turns into modest warmth; therefore "ore-greene my bad" must similarly mean "speak extra-ill of, denigrate even further, pour greater shames on". It matches "vulgar scandali", "ill", "shames", "wrong" and "cryttick".

All three of the editions quoted earlier, agreeing that "ore-greene" is a nonce-word (apparently invented by the writer for this context alone) and therefore productive of difficulty, give it a benign sense. Ingrams and Redpath: "Whether the image is from re-turfing or from covering an ugly patch with verdure remains uncertain"; Booth: "cover over (as a patch can be returfed or reseeded, or become overgrown by neighbouring plants)"; Kerrigan: "The friend covers the poet's bad … rather as green ivy grows over dead trees and ugly ruins, or … by inlaying greenery to conceal an unsightly blemish".

While obviously sensible, these glosses seem partial; like the emendations of the last line, they fail to penetrate through to an underlying reality. The word "ore-greene" follows hard on the violent image of the forehead-brand burned on Roman slaves and criminals as an identifying mark; the poet has been given just such a brand by scandal. "Vulgar scandali" means partly the scandal of being vulgar, no more than a common player ("vulgar" derives from the Latinvulgus, meaning crowd or mob). Within Shakespeare's own lifetime, actors could be whipped out of a parish like vagabonds. But the phrase also reaches towards the modern sense: a vulgar scandal is a vulgar scandal, such as might be read in theNews of the World.

Shakespeare himself once featured in theNew of the World, or in its parallel of the 1590s, and it seems odd that scholarship has never associated this fact with Sonnet 112:

there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with hisTygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absoluteIohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-scene in the countrey.

It seems worth while to quote this famous attack once again in a new context. After the seven "lost years" (as biographers call this period when the poet, with a wife and three children in Stratford, disappears from public view), the dramatist re-emerges prominent enough to make somebody hate him—as the sentence from theGroats-Worth of Witte. Bought with a Million of Repentance, a pamphlet published in 1592, illustrates well enough. Though it may impute plagiarism, its chief animus is social—that a mere common player has won where gentlemen lose. The botched quotation from Henry VI and the play of names in "Shake-scene" have convinced all relevant authorities that the victim was Shakespeare. The attacker was a University Wit (one of a group of gentlemen-writers later so named from their education at Ox-ford or Cambridge); dying in rage and penury, his name was Robert Greene.

Early in 1594, a compilation calledGreene's Funerals was published, and it contains repeated punning on Greene's name. The linguistic habit was not rare in the period. I find it impossible not to believe that Shakespeare's "ore-greene" contains just such a pun; and that Sonnet 112 was written not long after the public incident which plainly caused a reticent writer, struggling to survive and emerge, the most complex pain and shame. Greene's pamphlet created a scandal which (in the phrase of Shakespeare's biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum), "caused turmoil in its day". Its publisher had to apologize in print, and in detail. Its repercussions, I would suggest, included the chain of three Sonnets, 110-112, by which the poet digested and transmuted (with characteristic range of intelligence) what had happened to him. In short, Sonnet 112's "So you ore-greene my bad" recognizes the complexity of both love and beloved with a bitter joke straight out of real life. It says, "With you for a lover, who needs Greene?"

A reader who accepted that this is some kind of underlying allusion to Robert Greene's attack in 1592 would have to confront certain scholarly possibilities. Sonnet 112 seems late, not merely from its place in the sequence—I take 1-126 to be roughly chronological—but from its sophisticated development of thought and style. To see the year 1592 behind Sonnet 112 is to have some support for the once frequent, though now more often rejected, dating of theSonnets between 1592 and 1594, when the London theatres were closed by plague and the dramatist turned to non-dramatic verse. The great power of these poems inclines many admirers now to push their dating towards the end of the century or even later—when, of course, the great fashion for sonnet-writing had long died down; and this may well be a failure to distinguish between what constitutes maturity in a poet and in a dramatist. The current rage for revisionism in the plays comparably fails to allow that a brilliant imagination can "write late" for short passages. And the poet was, of course, by 1594 already thirty years old.

These factual considerations are, however, incidental. What I want to show is rather the way in which a single word or phrase like "ore-greene" can focus all the difficult richness of these poems. In the gap between the two meanings of the word "greene", the two sense of Nature and the natural which they bring together, is that sense of the hole in the page, of something not wholly articulable, which is a part of these poems' meaning. In "ore-greene", History is caught in the very moment of becoming a nonce-word. But if we try to trace backwards and find the real occasion, it has changed its meaning and ore-greened itself.

I suggested earlier that criticism does not very often ask why the sonnets stopped when they apparently did, with Sonnet 126 or a little after. The answer may be that the poet had reached a halt—had come to a conclusion. The later sonnets become lonelier: "None else to me, nor I to none alive" (112). Whatever relationship or relationships in life they reflect may well have continued vividly. What these poems suggest is a change in consciousness, brought about by the steady honesty of their awareness. Obsessive love grows towards something that has to be called charity: a principled, deep and active sympathy of the self. When this is reached, there are no more sonnets to be written.

Something of this is perhaps foreshadowed or enacted in the brief phrase, "you ore-greene my bad". A generous man's complex feeling for a dying enemy who is both rival and fellow poet may have fused with all that the difficult sonnet is saying about sympathy and empathy, about wounded and wounding lovers, about the "profoundAbisme" at the centre of love. Shakespeare ore-greened. Another poet, Thomas Nashe, described Greene, the initiating maker of dark pastorals, as possessing "more verrues than vices": a judgment not far from the tragi-comic and finally charitable end of theSonnets. A year or so after theseSonnets were first published, Shakespeare would use as source forThe Winter's Tale Greene's romance fiction, first published in 1588,Pandosto. The Triumph of Time. The Winter's Tale itself speaks of "great creating Nature", and perhaps the poet saw creativity as certainly a triumph of time—a triumph both of and over time. In the same spirit, Sonnet 126 is ruled over by a love which is in part the Cupid-like "lovely Boy", but more severely and magisterially by Nature, "soveraine misteres over wrack", who has death in her hand.

If Shakespeare really did, with this image of Nature—or with the more ferocious artifice of the corrupt "little LoveGod" in Sonnet 154—turn away from his sonnets by (say) 1594, then it was the writing them which enabled him to go back to his newly opened theatre with an art in itself new. His next two plays were both plays of love, the tragicRomeo and Juliet and the comicA Midsummer Night's Dream. As has often been remarked, the two are curiously interdependent. In their different ways, they share a sense of natural existence more complex than any single dramatic form can express. It is this sense which makes them seem deeper or larger, or more definitively Shakespearian, than the relatively academic earlier writing. The tragic children of the first survive as golden statues, first-fruits-offerings; the comic lovers wake sober from their dream of love in the beautiful, cruel wood. This is a Nature inside the head and heart, and real outside the self, green and growing. The poet is as dramatist free of that obsessive "God in love, to whom I am confin'd" (110); theSonnets are themselves by "gazing spent". Their very difficulty made of these poems a creative liberation; they were Shakespeare's own greening.

Source: "Shakespeare's greening: The Privacy, Passion and Difficulty of the Sonnets," inThe Times Literary Supplement, No. 4762, July 8, 1994, pp. 11-13.