Introduction to The Sonnets
Anthony Hecht, Georgetown University
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, selfabnegation, 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:
(The entire section is 12,298 words.)