Shakespeare and the Narrator of the Sonnets
Whether or not the pronoun "I" is explicitly present in their individual texts, all of the 154 verse pieces that comprise Shakespeare's sonnets are presumably narrated by a single persona. The narrator of the sonnets has a distinctive character and appears to partake in an ongoing story that revolves around his Platonic relationship to a "fair youth" and is later complicated by his carnal relationship with a "dark lady." Although the pendulum has swung back and forth over centuries of interpretation, throughout the history of Shakespeare sonnet criticism we find a deep division between critics who presume that there is an autobiographical basis to these poems and those holding that the narrator is a fictional device. The former are encouraged in their identification of the narrator as the poet himself by the fact that the sonnets are the only work in which Shakespeare wrote in the first person singular. Beyond this, however, the collective evidence that it is Shakespeare himself speaking about his own actual life in the sonnets is purely circumstantial and internally inconsistent. The predominant (but not universal) opinion among modern Shakespeare scholars is that the sonnets are to be read apart from their creator's biography. Nevertheless, the issue here has not been conclusively settled, the autobiographical thesis is intriguing and a brief consideration of the "I" problem in the Sonnets furnishes us with insight as to how they have been presented and read over the ages.
While they were first published as Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609, it is fairly well established that this set of 154 poems was written in its entirety by Shakespeare during an early period in his career, probably over a succession of years between 1592 and 1598. The Shakespeare who wrote the Sonnets would therefore be a relatively young man in his late twenties or early thirties, having already written and staged a few plays, but turning to verse for the private enjoyment of private patrons as a means of cashing in on the sonnet fad that swept through the Elizabethan court in the 1590s. It is the claim of those who identify Shakespeare as the narrator "I" of the sonnets that actual persons and events from this period in the Bard's life are represented in these poems. Working on that premise, many scholars have sought to identify the "fair youth" addressed in the first 126 sonnets, the "dark lady" addressed in the following 28 (or 26) sonnets, and the "rival poet" to whom periodic references are made in the "fair youth" poems. Shakespeare himself left but a single clue in a cryptic dedication of the 1609 collection to a "Mr. W. H." (although there is some doubt about the authenticity of even this slight inscription). On the basis of this fragment, ingenious efforts have been made to "find" the presumed patron of the Sonnets among Shakespeare's contemporaries, William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton) being the prime candidates. Affirmations concerning a possible relationship between Shakespeare and one of these noblemen have been sought from biographies and other records of these men, particularly Southampton, but the correspondences are not clear enough or strong enough to justify equating any historical person with the young man of the Sonnets. On even thinner bases, similar labors have been devoted to discovering the respective real identities of the "dark lady" and the "rival poet." From a complementary angle, scholars have looked to the text of the Sonnets for allusions to current events of the 1590s, constructing elaborate arguments to sketch out historical parallels. These too have fallen well short of proof. When the early twentieth-century Shakespeare scholar Edmund K. Chambers stated, "more folly has been written about the Sonnets than about any other Shakespearean topic," he...
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