Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5,898 words.)