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...
(The entire section is 12,102 words.)