Sonnets (Vol. 51)



Shakespeare's sonnets have been studied for possible biographical elements and for their placement within the sonnet-writing tradition in Europe. Scholars have examined Shakespeare's frequent use of paradox and punning in his sonnets and have debated over his employment of natural, and sometimes ambiguous, imagery to convey his themes. Ultimately, much of the interest for general readers as well as for critics revolves around the sonnets's conventional theme of love with its focus on the poet-lover himself and the objects of his affection.

After observing that Shakespeare's sonnets "regularly outsell everything else he wrote," Anthony Hecht (1996) explains why they are so appealing. The sonnets, Hecht remarks, successfully communicate in fourteen brief lines not only a lover's feelings "of perfect happiness, but also submission, self-abnegation, jealousy, fear, desperation, and self-hatred." The object of love in the sonnets is "the Friend," or fair young man, who appears in the early poems of the sonnet sequence. The poet's love for the Friend has been described by some critics as homosexual and by others as asexual and idyllic. John Dover Wilson (1964) characterizes it as the "affectionate admiration .. . of a man of mature years for another man much younger than himself." Wilson asserts that the older man's affection includes an altruistic concern for the younger man's well-being. According to Wilson, this romantic, idealized love turns into tragedy when the younger man steals the poet's mistress (the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets), thereby revealing himself to be shallow and unworthy of the poet's admiration.

An assessment of the Dark Lady and her role in Shakespeare's theme of love and romance can be found in Robert W. Witt's 1979 discussion of sonnets 127-52. The Dark Lady, Witt observes, is the focus of the poet's lust rather than of his love and is characterized in terms of her sexual attractions. Witt notes that the Dark Lady "disdains" the poet and that, therefore, any love he might feel for her "can lead only to despair." Witt contrasts this negative, false love of the poet's with his "reasonable" and therefore genuine love for the young Friend. According to Witt, the Friend's sexual liaison with the Dark Lady represents a "test" of the poet's devotion to his friend; ultimately, the poet passes this test of love by forgiving the "truly repentant" young man.

David K. Weiser (1987) shares Wilson's opinion that the young Friend does not live up to the poet's idealized view of him. However, Weiser argues that the Dark Lady's behavior proves even more disappointing to the poet and that his sonnets to her reveal a "single, nearly obsessive train of thought" aimed not simply at her but at his own needs and the faultiness of his perceptions.

The poet's self-absorption is an issue for several other commentators, who describe it in terms of narcissism, or self-love. Jane Hedley (1994) and Elizabeth Harris Sagaser (1994) both suggest that the poet's love for the Friend folds back onto itself until the poet's own thoughts and words become the source of his preoccupation. Hedley notes that the poet manipulates words and indulges in puns and double meaning expressly to fulfill his desire to turn the object of his affection into an idealized, mirror image of himself. Sagaser puts a positive light on the poet's self-absorption. She remarks that while "the celebration of cerebral experience" was a common practice in Renaissance poetry, most of the love lyrics of the period concentrated on the tormenting effect of love on the mind. Sagaser asserts that by contrast, Shakespeare's sonnets—despite their focus on the brevity of life and the fleeting nature of love—convey a degree of pleasure or melancholy joy. Sagaser contends that this joyful meditation on death is positive because it prepares the poet in advance for the day when he will lose the object of his affection.

Like Sagaser, Philip Martin (1972) believes that there are positive aspects to the poet's narcissism. Martin rejects a commonly held assessment of the poet as submissive and self-abnegating and argues instead that the poet's apparently negative self-image is in fact "an unusual mingling of irony with acknowledgement of limitations." Martin concludes that, far from idealizing the Friend, the poet shows his awareness of the young man's imperfections and finally, an acceptance of himself

Hallett Smith (1981) and John Klause (1983) look at the ways in which the poet is characterized in the sonnets. Smith discusses the self-absorbed or "meditative" quality of the poet's voice. Klause describes the poet as a "protagonist" who demonstrates his humanity through his contradictory assertions about love. Like Martin, Klause does not regard the poet as humble or submissive; Klause suggests that the poet is too inconsistent in his behavior to be considered humble. Instead, Klause asserts, the poet saves face by pretending to be something other than he is when confronted with the Friend's betrayal and the Dark Lady's cruelty.


Anthony Hecht (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Sonnets, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Hecht examines the types of love which are expressed in Shakespeare's sonnets. He also compares the poetical imagery in the sonnets with that found in Shakespeare's plays. Throughout his essay, Hecht traces scholarly assessment of the sonnets and how this assessment has changed over the centuries.]

It may be that the single most important fact about Shakespeare's Sonnets—at least statistically—is that they regularly outsell everything else he wrote. The plays are taught in schools and universities, and a large annual sale is thereby guaranteed for Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the Sonnets are still more widely read. There are several diverse factions among their readership, many of which are not scholarly. Some people are eager for a glimpse into what they suppose is Shakespeare's private life; they hope for scandal. There are those who treat the Sonnets as biographical fiction; they yearn to decode the poems and reveal a narrative of exciting, intimate relationships. And there are readers whose overriding preoccupation with sexual politics makes them determined that no one shall view the Sonnets in any way that differs from their own.

In all likelihood, however, the largest group within this readership is made up of young lovers, for whom these sonnets compose a compact and attractive vade mecum. The poems speak directly to their condition, being rich and emotionally complex, and they describe states of perfect happiness, but also submission, self-abnegation, jealousy, fear, desperation, and self-hatred.

It is possible to argue that there exists no work of comparable brevity and excellence that digests such intimate emotional experience. What is more, the Sonnets are written with an astonishing self-consciousness, a deep sense that love opens enormous vistas of novel reflection, not all of it flattering. Loving another human being, we find that our motives are no longer disinterested; everything we do or feel is no longer purely a personal matter, but is strangely compromised by our relationship with this other person; our hopes and fears are not only generated by another, but by how we wish to be thought of and how we have come to feel about ourselves. Initially, when we fall in love, this does not appear as any sort of danger, or indeed as anything to be deplored. Our own happiness seems enormously enlarged by being both shared with and caused by another. That is only the beginning of what, for a thoughtful person, becomes an increasingly complicated state of mind, with almost infinite permutations, most of them unforeseeable. How do we react, for example, when the person we love commits a transgression that really wounds us? If the relationship is not immediately halted, it is necessary to palliate the fault, first and foremost to ourselves, and then to the beloved. The simple first step is to fall back upon reassuring proverbial wisdom ('To err is human' or 'no one is perfect'), and, while acknowledging our pain, to temper our feelings with the suspicion that, in our idolatry of the beloved, we may have imagined an impossible perfection which it would be ludicrous to expect anyone to live up to, and which may itself have put an insupportable burden on the person we love. We begin to blame ourselves for what may have been unrealistic expectations. And if we are deeply enamoured, we wish to spare the beloved any additional anguish of guilt that would be entailed by our explicit blame. Yet this kind of generous thinking can end in the danger of our viewing ourselves as supine and servile, and lead to an active form of self-hatred. So to guard against that danger and against any tendency to blame the beloved, we may find ourselves determined to assert our unconditional love—which is, after all, as we desperately tell ourselves, what love ought to be—and to rebuke any third party who might criticise the beloved, a rebuke designed as much to confirm our own commitment as to silence the critic. I have known both heterosexual and homosexual instances of this kind of devotion which, to an outsider, is likely to seem perverse, obstinate, and full of misery. Consider, for example, the following:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud. 4
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authòrising thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than their sins are; 8
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—


And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate 12
That I an àccessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

(Sonnet 35)

The first line presupposes a penitent attitude on the part of the beloved. Whatever the offence that is referred to as 'thy sensual fault', it is clearly something that would cause a deeper sense of guilt than could be cleared away with a simple apology. What was done is serious enough for the speaker to think of himself as offering absolution—an absolution based on the universal imperfection of all sublunary, terrestrial things that figure in the catalogue of the following three lines. It should be noted that the moon and sun, beyond the orbit of imperfection, are not themselves contaminated, but are viewed through imperfections nearer at hand. These imperfections are traditionally explained as a consequence of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and of man's first disobedience. (Milton himself was to write of that paradise, 'Flow'Rs of all hue, and without thorn the rose'.)2 This fallen world is thus a kind of paradox, where 'loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud'. What is being said here is complex. 'Loathsome canker' is strong language, potentially wounding to the beloved: will it seem vengeful? The speaker may hope that its tone of indictment will be sufficiently mitigated by the description 'sweetest bud'. The fifth line is more tactful, and finds fault first of all with the speaker himself for so much as venturing to excuse the beloved, and for doing so by means of metaphorical examples. There is good reason for him to apologise. The instances that he cites from nature are consequences of our fallen state and are now unalterable. To. describe the faults of the beloved in the same terms is to risk saying something like: 'There's no point in your apologising, because you can't help doing what you do'—which makes the beloved a primitive or perverse creature and completely invalidates the sincerity of the grief mentioned in the first line. The speaker goes on, in the seventh and eighth lines, to balance any offence he may have given by proclaiming himself the worse sinner of the two, both for making too much of the trespass in the first place, and then for taking upon himself the role of the priest offering absolution, as if he himself were without taint.

The ninth line is pivotal and richly suggestive. William Empson has described it as containing at least three possible lines of thought: (1) 'I bring in reason, arguments to justify [your sensual fault]'; (2) 'I bring in feelings about it, feel it more important than it really was (and thereforeexcuse it more than it needs)'; (3) 'I bring extra sensuality to it; I enjoy thinking about it and making arguments to defend it, so that my sensuality sympathizes with yours.'3 It can also bear this further meaning: 'To the sensuality of your fault I bring in (to my regret) my own sensuality, which may well, alas, have been the initial cause of your arousal, though now it is not directed at me—in other words, I am myself the unwitting author of your newfound promiscuity.'

Lines 10 and 11 are a very ingenious paradox:

Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

They may be a way of lessening slightly the gravity of the moral predicament in which both parties are now deeply enmeshed. But in addition, the paradox turns the whole focus of complaint and indictment against the speaker himself, leaving the beloved out of the picture to such a degree that with the twelfth line the love and hate are not merely balanced; we are entitled to feel that the hatred is as much self-directed as it is directed at the sensual fault of the beloved, and the love is that which is not only directed towards the beloved but generates the requisite (and, to the speaker, degrading) absolution. This 'civil war' is, in Marlowe's words, an 'intestine broil',4 and it is highly complex. (1) Love and hate are at war. (2) The speaker is at war with himself, as well as with the beloved. (3) He is furthermore at war with the impulses of war and the impulses of hate. This warfare may end in total disaster. It seems almost, in fact, on its way to that very end in the concluding couplet, which, among other things, seems to say that the very distraction of the speaker may be driving his beloved from him; or that his generous willingness to forgive transgressions has encouraged the beloved to feel that no harm has been done; and either alternative would be a highly undesirable state of affairs. These two possibilities are mutually exclusive, and this leaves the speaker in an agonising and insoluble predicament. What is finally so effective about this poem is its stunning dramatic power. It hovers among alternatives, all of them anguishing, delicate in its manoeuvring, tense in its anxiety not to place too much blame on the beloved, but unable to conceal the torment from which the poem sprang. The 'sweet' and 'sour' of the last line echo the mixed imperfections that began the poem, in which the loathsome canker must find out and infect the sweetest bud.5 The bitterness here is not wholly veiled by the cosmic explanation that everything is corrupt. The human drama is based on the terrible truth that thinking about and imagining infidelity is at least as poisonous as any proof of it, and as sickening to the contemplator. Othello and The Winter's Tale are extended illustrations of this, if any confirmation were needed. Moreover, the speaker's drama in Sonnet 35 is enhanced by the fact that we are allowed—indeed, virtually invited—to feel that he is discovering the complexity of his situation as the poem develops. The first line is grammatically and syntactically independent. It can be conceived as spoken in the uncomplicated spirit of charity, sympathy, and good will. The illustrative examples of imperfection in the lines that immediately follow are fairly conventional, and might initially seem to confirm the permissiveness and generosity of the first line, did they not almost unwittingly introduce the appalling note of universal corruption. And from there on we move into increasing darkness and unending corridors of guilt.

It seems to me impossible not to find deeply moving and compelling the complicated and tormenting emotions latent in this poem, though it may be added that such riches are, or might be, implicit in any love poetry that is searching enough. In England in the 1590s there was a vogue of sonnet-writing in which poets admonished themselves, in the words of Philip Sidney, to look in their hearts and write.6 Such introspection and honesty are not easy in any age, and it is the general consensus that, of all the sonneteers, Shakespeare was beyond question the most penetrating. He was also the one who seemed most perfectly to adapt the form itself to his analytic or diagnostic and deeply dramatic purposes.

It may be as well at this point to say something about the sonnet as a literary form; this is not so simple a matter as commentators have supposed. In the 1870s Walter Pater argued that some parts of the early play Love's Labour's Lost resembled the Sonnets: 'This connexion of Love's Labours Lost with Shakespere's poems is further enforced by the actual insertion in it of three sonnets and a faultless song.'7 The song, of course, is the one that ends the play: 'When daisies pied and violets blue'. But as to the three sonnets, only two of them count as such by our modern and conventional definition; the third is a poem in tetrameter couplets twenty lines long. So it should be said here that there are at least two distinct definitions of the sonnet. One of them is not formally precise; it is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as simply 'A short poem or piece of verse'—in early use especially, one 'of a lyrical and amatory character'. Though OED calls this loose definition rare and indeed obsolete, it was current in English between 1563 and 1820, and it is worth remembering that Donne's Songs and Sonets (1633) contained not a single poem composed in the conventional fourteen-line form. Giroux (see n. 7 above) nevertheless continues to refer to Love's Labour's Lost as 'the sonnet play'. He would have done much better to have cited Romeo and Juliet, which employs far more sonnets, as well as sonnet fragments.8 Indeed, Shakespeare seems in that play to have counted upon his audience's familiarity with some aspects of the sonnet form, and with that form's association with amatory verse.

Under the formal modern definition, the sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, usually written in pentameter verse, though Sidney, for example, sometimes used hexameters, and there have been other variations. The fourteen-line sonnet can be divided into two sorts, the Italian or Petrarchan on the one hand, and the Shakespearean on the other. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) did not invent the Petrarchan form; it was used earlier by Dante (1265-1321) and his circle, but Petrarch's use of this form of sonnet to celebrate his beloved Laura made it widely known, and it was much imitated, notably in France by Ronsard (1524-85) and Du Bellay (c. 1522-60). The Petrarchan sonnet is composed of an octave—an initial passage of eight lines, rhyming ABBAABBA—followed by a sestet—six lines requiring only that each line have a rhyming mate. In addition to the separation of octave from sestet by rhyme-scheme, there is almost invariably a subtle but dramatic shift, a change of tone or point of view, introduced by the sestet and bringing to the poem a sort of 'Re-vision' or revelation. The severe restriction placed on the rhyming words in the octave—only two rhyme sounds for eight lines—is not difficult to overcome in Italian, which has an abundance of rhyming words; despite the fact that it is very much more difficult to deal with in English, the Petrarchan sonnet has become the preferred form, used by Milton, Wordsworth, and many more recent poets.

The Shakespearean sonnet, too, is named after its most famous practitioner, but as a form it was already firmly established, and was used by Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries, including Spenser, Surrey, Sidney, Giles Fletcher, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Thomas Lodge, Richard Lynche, William Smith, and Bartholomew Griffin. It consists of three quatrains rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and concluding with a rhymed couplet, GG. This form is particularly easy to 'catch by ear' and identify when spoken aloud. The final six lines of a sonnet, even though written in Shakespearean form, can become its sestet, and Shakespeare often seemed to think of his sonnets in terms of the Italian division, including the dramatic or rhetorical relationship of octave to sestet. This is clearly the case in Sonnet 35, discussed above, and Shakespeare enjoyed the rather luxurious advantage of being able to write his sonnets in the spirit of either the form named after him or the Petrarchan fashion,9 as can be shown by comparing Sonnet 73 and Sonnet 18:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 4
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 8
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by. 12
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

(Sonnet 73)

This sonnet is a perfect example of the Shakespearean form. Three quatrains, each with its own governing figure of decline, serve as incremental parts of a discourse; each parallels and reinforces the others with beauty and delicacy of detail, and describes the inexorable truth of the natural world's mutability. William Empson's imaginative account of the fourth line is famous:

there is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling, in
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,

but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like theskies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare's feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puntanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind.10

But these boughs are either themselves (by metaphoric transmutation) the bare ruined choirs, which shake against the 'cold', used as a noun; or else 'cold' is an adjective modifying bare ruined choirs themselves. This is not merely grammatical quibbling. Empson places a certain weight on the physical presence of a ruined church, cathedral, or monastery, and derives from these stones a good deal of religious controversy and historical ferment, to say nothing of the putative narcissism of the beloved—an imputation expounded at greater length in 'They that have power', an essay on Sonnet 94 in Some Versions of Pastoral.11

The decline of the year, of the day, of the fire, involving the repetition of autumnal, russet and golden colours, even in the fire, is also graduated in brevity, gaining force thereby. The second quatrain is emotionally more ambiguous than the first, since death is explicitly mentioned, but its terrors are tempered by the soothing comparison with sleep, and more especially a sleep that 'seals up all in rest'. This note of tranquillity is close to Macbeth's 'Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day' (3.2.46-7).12 The four lines progress from twilight to dark, and we are permitted to regard that conclusion as either a consummation devoutly to be wished or else as the end of all the pleasures, beauties and joys of this mortal world. But the final quatrain is dramatically and emotionally the most dense and meaningful. The fire, once brilliant, has dimmed; its ashes now serve to extinguish the very flame that, when those ashes were wood, they fed. What is implied, of course, is that the vigour and liberties of our youth are precisely what serve to bring us, by the excess of that youthful folly and energy, to our demise. We are thus self-executed. This is not altogether remote from the notion (to be found in Donne's 'Farewell to Love') that every sexual experience abbreviates our lives by one day. This sense that youth, injudiciously or wantonly expended, brings about its own forfeiture, is restated in other terms in Sonnet 94, where Shakespeare writes of those who 'Rightly do inherit heaven's graces / And husband nature's riches from expense'. These are people who maintain their youth and beauty seemingly for ever because they are by temperament 'unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow'.

And then we come to the deeply unnerving couplet. A number of critics have observed that 'To love that well' means either to treasure your own youth, or to love the poem's speaker, whose old age and imagined death have been the subject of this poem. Either alternative presents problems of emotional complexity. If the beloved is being instructed to husband his own youth and beauty, there is the double pathos of his being instructed by the decay of the poet before him, and of the poet's making himself into a seemingly disinterested object lesson. In addition, this act of husbandry is cruelly doomed, since youth is something 'thou must leave ere long'. If, on the other hand, the beloved is being praised for the nobility of loving someone whom he is destined soon to lose, the poignancy is greatly increased, and the continued love, especially in the face of aravaged lover, is quietly heroic. Something of the deep risk of all mortal attachments is expressed, and we once again realise that to avoid such attachments may be the safer and more prudent course, but it is not to live life to its fullest, whereas to love means to expose oneself to every possible kind of grief. On being told his newly married wife is dead, Pericles exclaims:

O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away?

(Per. 3.1.22-4)

Something of Ben Jonson's anguished cry upon the death of his first son—'O , could I lose all father, now'—haunts the ending of the poem.

Sonnet 18 offers a direct contrast to Sonnet 73 in form and structure.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date; 4
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course
un trimmed: 8
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand'Rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st. 12
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(Sonnet 18)

This sonnet is decisively Petrarchan, notwithstanding its Shakespearean rhyme-scheme. To begin with, it is rhetorically divided into octave and sestet, the change between the two parts balanced on the fulcrum of the word 'But' at the beginning of the ninth line. The poem is widely and deservedly admired. Great riches of implication are packed into the interrogatory first line, which is a single sentence. A summer's day is itself full of meanings both lovely and ominous. It represents the season of growth, fertility, flowers, juvenescence, love, when days are not only luxurious in themselves but at their longest of all the seasons of the year. But that fact itself reminds us of a single day's brevity, no matter how long it lasts by count of daylight hours. We are already made conscious of the portents of decline and imperfection that are inevitably to follow. And how may it be said that some human being is 'like' a summer's day? This person is declared to be superior to any of them, since even the best of them have their faults. There is, I think, a danger, in reading the octave, of forgetting that the descriptive terms drawn from theworld of nature are in fact metaphors for human imperfection and mutability. The third line, for example, is filled with the most delicate and tender solicitude for the fragility of beauty—and not just the beauty of buds. We are disposed to think of Hamlet's description of his father as 'so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly' (Ham.1.2.140-2). Even the most seemingly benign forces of nature, the 'Eye of heaven', can induce drought and parch the skin; in Sonnet 62 Shakespeare describes himself as 'Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity'. The octave concludes with a vital distinction between 'chance' and 'nature's changing course'. Of these two forces, the latter is predictable, the former not; both are perilous. The sequential progress of the seasons is inexorable, and that it should present itself as a law of nature in the last line of the octave was implicit in the first line. But chance is another matter. In medieval times it was personified, notably by Boethius and Dante, as the pagan goddess Fortuna. Her vagaries and fickleness were proverbial, but a belief in her power provided a wonderful solution to an otherwise vexing theological problem. How could a beneficent and omnipotent God visit calamity or misfortune upon the meek, the pious, and the innocent? Speculation along these lines invited all the perils of heresy and atheism. But Fortuna, with her authority strictly confined to mundane and earthly matters, could be as capricious as she liked, and thereby exculpate God from any charge of negligence or malignity. This solution can, however, be viewed in many ways, not all of them comforting. The licensed rule of chance, undiscriminating as death itself, was reassuring to those in unfavourable circumstances, as a guarantee that if things get bad enough they could only take a turn for the better. Kent reassures himself in this way—not altogether justifiably—when he is put in the stocks: 'Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel' (Lear 2.2.173). That turning of the wheel of chance also assured men that no temporal greatness was durable, and that the mighty would surely fall. If this was a consolation to the powerless, it was a serious admonition to the powerful, urging clemency and charity upon them in that season when they were in a position to confer such favours. But when chance turns to havoc, as it does in Donne's The First Anniversarie, very little in the way of consolation or admonition is offered:

'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee
None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.


King Lear abqunds in this sort of apocalyptic chaos of vanity and disorder, and it is this chaos that is quietly implied in Sonnet 18 by the word 'chance'.

Then comes the brilliantly defiant sestet, in which the poet promises to immortalise his beloved in deathless verse. It needs immediately to be said that this is not personal vanity, nor even a shrewd intuition on Shakespeare's part, but a poetic convention that can be traced back to classical antiquity. It can be found in Homer and Virgil, and J. B. Leishman noted that 'passages on the immortalizing power of poetry are very frequent in Pindar's Odes'.14 This tradition was sostrong among the Pléiade—the group of poets who acclimatised the sonnet form in France—that Ronsard in one of his sonnets threatened to withhold immortality from one particular unnamed lady unless she acceded to his decidedly carnal desire. The convention is to be found in Spenser's 'Epithalamion':

Song made in lieu of many ornaments,
With which my love should duly have bene dect .. .
Be unto her a goodly ornament,
And for short time an endlesse moniment


and in Shakespeare's own Sonnet 55:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'Rful rhyme.

If Shakespeare is undoubtedly invoking an ancient convention in asserting the poet's capacity to confer immortality, it is not the only convention he employs in his sonnets. We commonly assume that, whatever else love may be, it is at the very least a spontaneous and undeniable impulse, but it was not always thought to be so, and in the Renaissance, views about it were much more complicated. One modern critic has declared flatly: 'l'amour? une invention du douzième siècle.'16 What could seem more pedantically offensive to our habits of feeling and thought? But the fact is that in classical literature, love is almost invariably regarded as an aberration, a dangerous taking leave of one's senses, most likely to lead to catastrophe and generally to be deplored. Many of the greatest Greek tragedies—Oedipus Rex, Medea, Hippolytus, The Bacchae—treat love as a tragic madness; so does Virgil in the episode of Dido in the Aeneid. The whole calamity of the Trojan war was brought about by a surrender to this insane impulse, which is treated in the Iliad as altogether...

(The entire section is 12362 words.)

Love And Romance

John Dover Wilson (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Friend and the Poet," in An Introduction to the Sonnets of Shakespeare for the Use of Historians and Others, Cambridge University Press, 1964, pp. 31-44.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson examines the sonnets which describe the love that the "Poet, " or Shakespeare, feels for his young male "Friend. " After asserting that the relationship between the two men was not homosexual, Wilson speculates about the Friend's social rank and his personality, and suggests that when a poet as great as Shakespeare was settles his affections on one so apparently "commonplace " and uncomprehending as was his Friend, the...

(The entire section is 14131 words.)


Philip Martin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Self-Love and Love Itself," in Shakespeare's Sonnets: Self Love and Art, Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 64-99.

[In the following excerpt, Martin discusses the manner in which the sonnets deal with positive self-lovea trait that he describes as "necessary, if the self is to survive and not disintegrate." Martin asserts that the poet of the sonnets is neither as "passive" nor as "slavish" as some critics have described him, but that instead, the poet reveals a healthy knowledge and irony about himself and the object of his affection.]

A proper self-love

The Sonnets...

(The entire section is 13859 words.)


Halle Smith (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Voices and the Audience in Shakespeare's Sonnets," The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare's Sonnets, Huntington Library, 1981, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay. Smith draws on the writings of T. S. Eliot to show how the voice heard in the sonnets is directed both toward itself—in the form of a soliloquy or meditationand toward an audiencethe Friend, for example, but also posterity.]

T. S. Eliot maintained that there are three voices of poetry. "The first voice," he said, "is the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody. The second is the voice of the poet...

(The entire section is 13540 words.)

Further Reading

Bayley, John. "Who Was the 'Man Right Fair' of the Sonnets?" TLS, No. 3748 (January 4, 1974): 15.

Examines the theme, tone, and wordplay of sonnets 40-43, and puts them in context with the "Dark Lady" sonnets.

Burnham, Michelle. "'dark Lady and Fair Man': The Love Triangle in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Ulysses" Studies in the Novel 22, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 43-56.

Traces the influence of Shakespeare's sonnets on James Joyce's characterization of Molly Bloom, Leopold Bloom, and Blazes Boylan in his novel Ulysses.

de Grazia, Margreta. "The Motive for...

(The entire section is 974 words.)