Patterns of Consolation in Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-126
Emily E. Stockard, Florida Atlantic University
Since their mysterious publication in 1609, Shakespeare's Sonnets have resisted a variety of attempts to place an ordering construct on them.1 This essay offers readers a purchase on what strikes many as a bewildering collection of poems. I will suggest that many of the sonnets can be understood as belonging to the tradition of Renaissance consolatory literature. Further, Shakespeare's rhetorical strategies of consolation place the sequence in the tradition of Renaissance skeptical thought. My approach to the Sonnets is unusual in that I consider individual poems in their surrounding contexts when, with the exception perhaps of the "procreation sonnets" (sonnets 1-17), it is more common to see them in isolation. In previous readings of the Sonnets, certain poems have been picked out for extensive treatment; many more have been ignored, perhaps rightfully so. But my approach does not require consideration of the relative literary merits of various sonnets; rather I will look at a sonnet's relation to those that surround it in order to point out patterns of argument that take form when individual sonnets are considered in their place in the sequence.
Although my primary objective in this essay is to identify the patterns of thought that the sequence as a whole displays, I do not want to suggest that these patterns can account for every sonnet. Nevertheless, despite the vexed question of the order of the Sonnets, Shakespeare's sequence has more cohesion than is generally acknowledged. For example, the many linked pairs and triads among Shakespeare's poems give evidence of a greater degree of organic unity than found in either Sidney's Astrophil and Stella or Spenser's Amoretti—the two major sonnet sequences contemporary with Shakespeare's.2 In addition to explicit verbal links within small groups of sonnets, larger groups of poems share thematic concerns (the "procreation sonnets" being the example most often acknowledged). Obviously, many of the poems share the subject of mutability, primarily of beauty, life, and love. Less obviously, the sonnets cohere in their manner of argumentation, and it is this rhetorical consistency that is my focus. By its nature my study will draw attention to the large number of formally and thematically linked poems in Shakespeare's sequence. But I will focus most explicitly on the patterned rhetorical strategies by which many of the sonnets seek consolation for the problems posed by intractable reality, a reality no less intractable for being incorporated into a fictional construct.3 In its attempt to grapple with reality, Shakespeare's sonnet sequence shares characteristics that Joel Altman finds in Renaissance drama. Altman asserts that
Renaissance tragedies and comedies reveal the inadequacy of invention before the "facts" of life. . . . Invention is variously characterized as persuasive power, poetic conceit, witty double-talk, imaginative capability, incantatory rite .. . but regardless of its local coloration, one can trace through the canon a growing anxiety about the capacity of wit, in its fullest sense, to master ultimate reality.4
The sonnets that I will look at also bring an array of inventive tools to the task of mastering the "'facts' of life." Shakespeare undertakes a search for ways to think about mutability that afford some consolation—but these methods ultimately fail.
An episode in Richard II demonstrates Shakespeare's interest both in the topos of consolation and, what is more important for my argument about the Sonnets, in the illusory or self-deceptive nature of consolatory thought. Early in the play, John of Gaunt suggests a variety of ways by which his son can console himself after being banished by Richard. All depend upon Bolingbroke's ability to think in a way that belies the reality of his punishment:
Think not the king did banish thee,
But thou the king. . . .
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor,
And not, the king exiled thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime.
Look what thy soul holds dear, imagine it
To lie that way thou goest, not whence thou com'st.
Bolingbroke resolutely rejects Gaunt's suggestion that imaginative thinking will relieve the pain of his punishment:
O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?5
Shakespeare's Sonnets display in a more complex form the types of consoling strategies that Gaunt urges his son to accept. The sequence lacks the overt skeptical voice that would correspond to Bolingbroke's, but the patterns in the search for consolation themselves suggest in a covertly skeptical fashion the limitations of "bare imagination."6
Although the notion of consolation as expressed in the English literary tradition is usually connected to Chaucer and his use of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, I prefer to place Shakespeare's methods of consolation in the context of Montaignian skeptical thought. The methods of consolation exhibited in the Sonnets are the same strategies that Montaigne attributes to his own mind. Doubting the efficacy of the mind's pursuit of truth, Montaigne describes his tendency to use ideas for his own purposes, to deceive himself, to rationalize, to explain. In "Of Experience," he tells of the workings of his mind, including both its powers and its limitations. During a severe attack of kidney stones, his mind finds good reasons for him to suffer:
[It] tells me that it is for my own good that I have the stone; that buildings of my age must naturally suffer some leakage. It is time for them to begin to grow loose and give way. It is common necessity. .. . [It tells me that] company should console me, since I have fallen into the commonest ailment of men of my time of life. On all sides I see them afflicted with the same type of disease, and their society is honorable for me, since it preferably attacks the great; it is essentially noble and dignified.7
With sentences that could describe the self-deceptive methods of thought that Gaunt recommends, Montaigne calls upon these powers of his mind to "flatter" his imagination:
Now I treat my imagination as gently as I can, and would relieve it, if I could, of all trouble and conflict. We must help it and flatter it, and fool it if we can. My mind is suited to this service; it has no lack of plausible reasons for all things. If it could persuade as well as it preaches, it would help me out very happily. (836)
The ability of the mind to invent strategies for relieving the imagination outstrips its ability successfully to persuade; however, Montaigne explains that his mind works on, undaunted by this failure:
By such arguments, both strong and weak, I try to lull and beguile my imagination and salve its wounds, as Cicero did his disease of old age. If they get worse tomorrow, tomorrow we shall provide other ways of escape. (839)
Montaigne's obsessive search for comforting ways to view his illness mirrors that of Shakespeare's persona, who also creates consolations in response to a painful reality.8 Like Montaigne's essays, Shakespeare's sonnet sequence implicitly calls into question the purpose and efficacy of mental effort. Both Shakespeare and Montaigne imply the skeptical view that momentary and illusory comfort, rather than truth, is the aim of thought.
This essay will track through the subsequence of sonnets 1-126, examining the different strategies of consolation that Shakespeare employs. Because similar methods tend to appear in clusters of sonnets, and because I want to point out the progression of these rhetorical strategies, I have divided the essay into six sections and organized it sequentially.9 The name of each section refers to the strategy of consolation that dominates the particular group of poems noted in parentheses. At the end of the essay, I will briefly place the first subsequence (1-126) in relation to the second subsequence (127-154), where the search for consolation appears in an exaggerated and specifically sexual form.