The Inversion of Cultural Traditions in Shakespeare's Sonnets - Essay

William Shakespeare

The Inversion of Cultural Traditions in Shakespeare's Sonnets

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Robert Ellrodt, Université de Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle

In an earlier essay I have pointed out that Shakespeare, while writing within a convention in his Sonnets, had in fact left out much of the convention, discarding a great many themes and rhetorical devices. From this point of view the Sonnets might be described by negatives like Gonzalo's utopia: no moment of enamoration, no wooing or whining, no flinty heart, no kiss, no adventures of Cupid (with the ironical exception of the closing sonnets), no address to Love, to the Muse, or to a river, no catalogue of delights, no blazon, no emblem, no mythologizing, no pastoralism, no military metaphor, no astro-logical or heraldic poem.1

A statistical study of the vocabulary in the sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, and Drayton confirms this originality. Shakespeare has the lowest percentage of words expressing the traditional feelings of the Petrarchan lover: sigh, tear, weep, admire, wonder.2 He has the highest percentage of words connoting negative values and suggesting a satiric strain: hate, abhor, abuse, accuse, adulterate, shame, canker, cure, shadow, stain, defect, bastard, barren, rage, mad, nothing? Distinctive too is the predominance of true or truth, either asserted or questioned.4 The emphasis on the seasons, time, change, and death is in keeping with traditional poetic themes, particularly in complaints and elegies, but is not found in the other sonnet sequences.5

My intention in this paper is to explore other ways in which the prevailing cultural conventions were subverted, modified, or simply ignored. The perspective will be literary rather than social or anthropological.

The triangular relationship described in Sonnet 144, "Two loves I have of comfort and despair," was by itself uncommon in sonnet sequences. Astrophel had made an impassioned allusion to the conjugal bond of Stella, who "hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is" (Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 34), but only the husband's name, not his presence or image, stood in the lover's way. The woman's resistance to his entreaties was only felt to be due to her sense of honor. In all the Petrarchan sequences, whether in single adoration or mutual flame, the lover and the beloved were emotionally unrelated to anyone else. One could argue that this confinement of experience to a single relation also prevails in the vast majority of the Shakespearean sonnets addressed to the Young Man. Yet, when the poems are read in succession, the sense of betrayal, at first expressed in general terms in Sonnets 33 to 36, is definitely linked with the stealing of the poet's mistress in Sonnets 40 to 42. The "two loves" theme, I admit, will remain in the background in the following sonnets to the Young Man, but the first quatrain of Sonnet 42 gives the reason why:

That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

The fear of losing his friend's love affects the poet more than the unfaithfulness of his mistress. Yet faint though her presence is when attention is focused on the "man right fair," the "woman color'd ill" lurks in several allusions to deception as in Sonnet 93:

So shall I live supposing thou art true
Like a deceivéd husband; so love's face
May still seem love to me, though alter'd new—
Thy looks with me thy heart in other place.

The revelation of other relationships is delayed until we read in Sonnet 152:

In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing:
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.

Apparently both the poet and his mistress have broken an earlier vow—a marriage vow in her case and probably in the poet's own, since symmetry invites a perfect parallel, whether autobiographical or not.6 The woman becomes "twice forsworn" when she betrays her lover as well. Thus, had Shakespeare wished to give dramatic form to his sonnet sequence, he might have played throughout on a multiplicity of triangles: the poet, his wife or previous love, and his mistress, the mistress, her husband, and the poet as her lover, or the mistress, the poet and her new lover, whom the poet himself loves as the "master-mistress of [his] passion" (Sonnet 20). This might have proved good stuff for an unromantic comedy. Fortunately there is no more than a belated and random allusion to these diverse entanglements. Three figures only emerge from the sequence: the poet, the youth, and the mistress. In a way there is only one conflict in the poet's breast, that between love and con-tempt. These emotions, however, have a man and a woman as their different objects, which explains the difference in their nature and in the resolution of the conflict.

I have insisted so far on the obvious to emphasize the presence in Shakespeare's sequence of a close mesh of interrelations for which there is no equivalent in Petrarchan compositions. The superior interest of his sonnets is not merely due to style, even in the larger meaning of the term; it also proceeds from a greater variety of human experience. Literature cannot be reduced to words, to a play with signifiers signifying nothing or anything.

The attention devoted to the Rival Poet offers a further instance. Petrarch had celebrated dead poets in the Canzoniere.7 Ronsard had interspersed his Amours with sonnets addressed to contemporary poets.8 Sidney only alluded to Petrarch's imitators and Pindar's apes (Astrophel and Stella, 3, 15). Shakespeare, with the dramatist's instinct, creates one more occasion for conflict: as a poet the speaker in the Sonnets has a competitor for the Young Man's patronage or admiration just as he must compete for the Young Man's love with his own mistress. In each case he seems to give up the fight, but only to preserve the relationship he cherishes most.9

So far Shakespeare's handling of the sonnet sequence improves upon the cultural tradition by enriching rather than modifying it. Only the centering of the love interest on a "lovely boy" (Sonnet 126) may be called an inversion. It was not, however, without precedent in Elizabe-than England. Imitation of the Virgilian eclogue had allowed Richard Barnfield to write about homosexual love within a convention in The Affectionate Shepheard: Containing the Complaint of Daphnis for the love of Ganymede—a pastoral poem published in 1594.10 The author was twenty at the time, which prevents his identification with the speaker in the poem, for the latter describes his old age in wintry images as in Shakes-peare's Sonnet 73, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold":

Behold my gray head, full of siluer haires,
My wrincled skin, deepe furrowes in my face:
Winter hath snow'd upon my hoarie head.11

The parallel is a welcome warning against a narrowly autobiographical interpretation of Elizabethan poems. One may note that Daphnis has also to compete for the love of the boy with Queen Gwendolen, a woman "light in her behauiour" whose tears are not to be trusted "for they can watonnize" (1.27). Shakespeare may have read the Complaint of Daphnis at the time when he started writing sonnets in which a poet of mature years declares his love to a young man.12 He may have felt justified by the precedent: Barnfield had dedicated his Affectionate Shepheard to "the Ladie Penelope Ritch." He suggested, however, from the beginning that the shepherd's love might be regarded as sinful "If it be sinne to loue a louely Lad" (1.2). Yet in his plea against the cruelty of the "loue-scorning Boy" (2.4), Daphnis falls into moralizing. His invitation to show humility curiously turns into a praise of blackness (2.37-52) developed after the manner of a paradox and more elaborate than either Shakespeare's Sonnet 127, "In the old age black was not counted fair," or Biron's apology in Love's Labor's Lost (4.3.246-63). Incidentally, the assertion that nothing is "more noysomer unto the smell / Than Lillies are," though "for pure white the Lilly beares the Bell" (2.39) may have inspired Shakespeare's sharp warning to the Young Man in Sonnet 94, probably written after 1594: "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

Like most poets of Donne's generation Barnfield professed to seek uncommon or paradoxical subjects, as he claimed in his preface to a later poem, The Encomion of Lady Pecunia.13 His handling of a man's love for a boy, however, remains conventional, hovering between a sensual indulgence allowed by the classical tradition and a pretense of chastity preserved in keeping with Christian morality. The same uneasy combination is conspicuous in the twenty sonnets published together with Cynthia in 1595. Again a boy called Ganymede is courted by a man. Mythological references to Jove, Apollo, and Sylvanus (Sonnets 7 and 15) are meant to justify a love excited by physical attractiveness. Attention is again lingeringly focused on "naked limbs" (Affectionate Shepheard 1.22), "loue-enticing soft limbs" in a body said to be "sinne-procuring" (Sonnet 17). The kissing of lips is insistently evoked in both sets of poems: "O would to God … My lips were honey, and thy mouth a Bee," "When thy Lips touch my Lips …" (Affectionate Shepheard 1.16; 2.18), "Kill me with kisses … "; "I wish that I his pillow were, / So might I steale a kisse"; "Weening to kisse his lips, as my loues fee's" (Sonnets 5, 8, 16). The final claim, "my pure loue / (Sweete Ganymede) to thee hath still beene pure" (Sonnet 19) therefore seems to be paying lip ser-vice to the moral code, akin to the casuistry of courtly Platonism.

In Shakespeare's Sonnets the praise of the Young Man's beauty is no doubt directed at a beautiful body. Yet what-ever innuendoes may be traced or forced upon the poems, not a single line is sensuously suggestive of a sensual longing.14 The emotion is aesthetic: beauty is apprehended in stasis. No yearning to touch or kiss is expressed and a consciousness of sinful desire only appears in the son-nets concerned with the mistress.

The feelings of the poet for the youth have even less in common with Marlowe's complacent and provocative presentation of homosexual love between Edward II and Gaveston, or Charles IX and his minions in The Massacre at Paris, or again in the dialogue between Jupiter and Ganymede in the opening scene of The Tragedy of Dido. That Marlowe himself was attracted to pederasty is clear not only from reported sayings but from his loving description of the male lover's body in Hero and Leander. Touch and taste are the senses most vividly stirred:

His bodie was as straight as Circes wand,
love might haue sipt out Nectar from his hand.
Euen as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his necke in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops shoulder. I could tell ye,
How smooth his brest was, & how white his
And whose immortali fingars did imprint
That heavenly path, with many a curious dint,

That runs along his back, but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon foorth the loues of men.

On the contrary, evocations of the beauty of women—Hero, Zenocrate, or Helen—only appeal to the eyes: these ladies, indeed, "sit for men to gaze upon" and to gaze upon their "faces."15 The contrast is so evident that it seems to betray Marlowe's own sexual inclinations.

There are no such indications in the poetry of Shakespeare. Obviously the dramatist who made Cleopatra give her "bluest veins" to kiss (Antony and Cleopatra 2.5.29) had his senses stirred by the body of woman. The physical beauty of the "lovely boy" in the Sonnets no doubt evoked a deep emotional response as well as aesthetic delight, but the loveliness was that of "a woman's face" (Sonnet 20). The emotion probably owed its intensity to the secret workings of Eros, but my concern as a reader and a critic is not with the latent impulses, but with their expression in poetry. Impulses are monotonously alike; their imaginative expression only becomes infinitely various through the prism of personality.

Barnfield's approach to homosexual love is inconsistent. The speaker clearly expresses physical desire while claiming his love is "pure" and yet complains he cannot move Ganymede's "obdurate beuty," for the boy can "resist desire" (Sonnet 19). Though he denied homoerotic tendencies,16 the author of The Affectionate Shepheard may have intended to gratify the taste of readers so inclined. Sitting astraddle of two conventions he lays himself open to the charge of hypocrisy. Marlowe intends to be subversive but the flaunting of unconventional opinions tends to become another convention. After defining the nature and the boundaries of the poet's "passion" in Sonnet 20, Shakespeare is consistent and quietly unconventional. Incidents in the relation are often shrouded and we are free to surmise and speculate, but there is no intimation of physical contact and the reader's response to the literary text is therefore different in nature from his response to the erotic pictures offered by Barnfield and Marlowe.

Shakespeare still appears unconventional when his sonnets are compared with the poems written by Michelangelo for Tommaso di Cavalieri, though here at least we come across a comparable depth of feeling and amplitude of mind. Leishman unerringly seized upon the parallel but The he confined his attention to the forms of spirituality.17 The italian artist was fifty-seven and Tommaso twenty-three when they first met in 1532. Michelangelo consented to draw a portrait of Cavalieri, a privilege he only granted to persons of "infinite beauty."18 His powerful drawing of the abduction of Ganymede by an eagle was offered to the young man. His sonnets convey a love that James Saslow rightly characterizes as "being as much emotional and aesthetic as it is erotic or sexual."19 The elderly artist expresses feelings of subjection to the youth comparable to the speaker's attitude in some of Shakespeare's sonnets, but differences are nevertheless conspicuous. It is generally agreed, despite Aretino's slur, that Michelangelo never consummated his passion for Cavalieri, though different conclusions may be drawn concerning other affairs.20 Yet his poems, as Saslow observes, definitely show him "caught between his desires and the fear of realizing them, a fear including not only rejection by his beloved but also the rejection of the validity of his love by church, society, and self."21 In Shakespeare's Sonnets the poet at times expresses a fear of disgracing himself or his beloved, but there is no evidence of a struggle to repress sexual desire for the youth, nor any sense of guilt for his love as such, though guilt may be felt for other reasons. There is therefore no need for the kind of sublimation achieved by Michelangelo, who availed himself of Florentine Neoplatonism to transmute his homosexual attachment into a longing for the divine:

né Dio, suo grazia, mi si mostra altrove
più che'n alcun leggiadro e mortai velo;
e quel sol amo perch'in lui si specchia.22

Hence his adoption of the traditional mystic interpretation of Ganymede's upward flight, turned into a symbol of reunion with God in the ecstasy of love. Shakespeare steers clear from these Renaissance commonplaces. His originality lies in his ability to invest human passion with an intensity and radiance that owe nothing to a transcendent illumination. To convey his emotions he only borrows his images from Nature's store: the sun's "golden face," "earth and sea's rich gems," "the spring and foison of the year," and the "process of the seasons": "Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd" (Sonnets 33, 21, 53, 104). Love in the Sonnets never transcends the world of human experience, but it does take in all its splendor in transitoriness and the pity of it. There is no reaching for a divine universal but a quiet acknowledgment of individual irreplaceableness, for "you alone are you" (Sonnet 84). This love is bound to hold a plea with time for it dare not aspire to eternity. Yet it creates its own intimations of immortality through the poetic imagination.

That is why love can survive the discovery of the youth's "sensual fault" and the growing awareness of his "inconstant mind" and selfishness (Sonnets 35, 92, 94). In no other sonnet sequence had the beloved been subjected to such a clear-eyed scrutiny of his failings. If the poet actually addressed a patron in Sonnet 94 I know no bolder instance of free speech and devastating irony than the lines that denounce those who, "moving others, are them-selves as stone. … And husband nature's riches from expense." Poets had cursed obdurate or inconstant mistresses and sent them to the devil. Yet the lover of the "gentle thief (Sonnet 40) loves on. His forgivingness and self-abasement at times may breed uneasiness. His submissiveness, however, is not that of the Petrarchan lover. Conflicting statements about the Young Man's attitude to his friend may seem irreconcilable they probably reflect various moods. The ground bass, however, is the reassertion of a love that, like charity, faileth never, endureth all things.

Love for an unworthy object becomes the main theme in the sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady, but it is a love of a different nature, "lust in action," "Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight" (Sonnet 129). The variations played upon black beauty in sonnets 127 and 132, the debunking exercise ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"—130), and the recantation sonnet ("Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth"—146) are conventional in various ways. Other poems (138, 140, 150) are an exploration of willing self-deceit not unrelated to the classical theme of the illusions of lovers harped upon in Sonnet 148. We only move away from the more traditional themes when the Young Man is dragged into the situation: "But then my friend's heart let my poor heart bail," "Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me; / He pays the whole, and yet am I not free" (Sonnets 133, 134). In several poems (Sonnets 141, 147, 149, 152) the self-spurning and sex nausea reach a passionate intensity. They owe their force to an acute self-consciousness and the twisting use of pelting words culminating in the restrained fury of the imprecation upon "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame" (Sonnet 129). This fierce obfuscation of the glamour of love goes far beyond the dignified rejection of earthly love that had been thought a fitting close for a sonnet sequence. It links up with an older tradition, the medieval abhorrence of the flesh, but it holds up no Christian message: the accent is modern and "this hell" is a metaphor for the human condition. The sonnet is the stark acknowledgment of the workings of the sexual instinct, shorn of all pretenses, and it looks towards the total disruption of time-honored cultural traditions in King Lear. Shakespeare, however, unlike our contemporaries, made subversion a prelude to restoration. Words addressed to the Dark Lady in a rare moment of tenderness, "How oft, when thou, my music, music play'st" (Sonnet 128), will be spoken again to the heroines of the romances, and the "lovely boy" who had met with "base infection" seems to live again, unstained in the dream of Polyxenes "to be boy eternal."


1 See Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 35-37.

2 The comparison is made easy by Herbert S. Donow's Concordance to the Sonnet Sequences of Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Spenser (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969). To compare frequencies the number of occurrences must be divided by the number of sonnets in each sequence. I retain only Ideas Mirrour (1594) for Drayton since the final revised version, Idea, only appeared in 1619. For the first group of selected words frequencies are: Shakespeare, 0.13; Daniel, 0.62; Drayton, 0.75; Sidney, 0.38; Spenser, 0.33.

3 Shakespeare, 0.74; Daniel, 0.22; Drayton, 0.53; Sidney, 0.25; Spenser, 0.29.

4 Shakespeare, 0.41; Daniel, 0.16; Drayton, 0.16; Sidney, 0.29; Spenser, 0.11.

5 Including the following words:—season, spring, summer, autumn, winter—time, year, day, hour, minute—change, alter, mortal, mortality, death, die, decease, tomb, grave, worms frequencies are: Shakespeare, 1.72; Daniel, 1.22; Drayton, 0.86; Sidney, 0.5; Spenser, 0.83.

6 The term poet here refers to the speaker presented as the author of the Sonnets, not to Shakespeare himself.

7 Cino da Pistoia, Fra Guittone, Dante: see Canzoniere 92,287.

8 Baïf, Jodell, Peletier, Pasquier, Belleau: Amours 133, Continuation des Amours 2, 4, 24, 54, and passim.

9 Claiming "my friend and I are one," the poet can pre-tend to enjoy whatever his friend owns: cf. Sonnets 40 and 42 with 80; "Then if he thrive and I be cast away, / The worst was this: my love was my decay."

10 The theme appears in the fourth eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender but is confined to the opening stanzas, a prelude to the praise of Elizabeth. So formal is Spenser's treatment of Hobbinoll's love and so free from sensual images that E. K.'s denial of "unlawful fleshlinesse" in the very first gloss was hardly needed.

11Complaint of Daphnis 2.70. George Klawitter's edition of Barnfield's Complete Poems (Susquehanna University Press, 1991) is not wholly reliable: see Katherine Duncan-Jones's review in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 June 1991, p. 28. I therefore quote from E. Arber's edition: Richard Barnfield, Poems 1594-1598 (English Scholar's Library, 1882), but refer to part and stanza in The Complaint of Daphnis and to sonnet number in Cynthia.

12 The first sonnets are likely to be contemporary with Love's Labor's Lost and Romeo and Juliet (1594-96): see Cambridge Companion, ed. Wells, 44.

13 On the craze for originality see my Poètes métaphysiques anglais, 3 vols. (Paris: Corti, 1960), 3: 127-32.

14 The most elaborate attempt to find references to sexual acts between the poet and the youth is Joseph Pequigney's Such Is My Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985). Most of the innuendoes had been traced by Booth in Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), but he had wisely abstained from assuming that "sexual undercurrents" implied actual intercourse. Indeed Pequigney, and even Booth at times, seem blind to an essential difference. Sonnet 151 to the mistress is invoked to justify a sexual interpretation of Sonnet 75 to the youth. But Sonnet 151 is explicit about physical inter-course and can only make sense if "rise," "point," "proud," "stand," and "fall" allude to the penis. Sonnet 75 makes sense if no sexual overtone is perceived in "proud as an enjoyer" (of the "wealth" represented by the youth) or in "possessing," which, applied to "delight," does not mean "possessing you." And why should "all" activate "a pun on a sexual sense" (Booth, Sonnets, 263) since it echoes "all full with feasting on your sight" [my italics]? One could show in the same way that Sonnet 52 (on rare encounters) and Sonnet 87 (on separation) make sense when "had" is not given a sexual meaning though the overtone here, I admit, would reinforce the meaning if the context called for it.

Pequigney's assumptions that words can take on a sexual meaning regardless of context leads to downright absurdity as in the attempt to prove that Sonnet 80 alludes to carnal intercourse between the youth and the rival poet. Again false analogies are multiplied. Since the mistress in 137 is "the bay where all men ride," to "ride" upon the youth's "deep" in 80, line 10, is said to refer to anal intercourse (though the line only extends the ocean metaphor of line 5) and in Sonnet 33 the cloud-man is sup-posed to "ride" on the face of the sun-youth to suggest fellatio. In 137 "ride," of course, must mean "mount sexually" to make sense, but sonnets 80 and 33 have an obvious meaning that is distorted, not enhanced, by Pequigney's reading. Homoerotic tendencies in the Son-nets were eagerly denied at a time when moral obloquy was attached to homosexuality. May not some interpretations nowadays proceed from a desire to vindicate it? Neither "prepossession" should affect our literary experience of the poems.

15Hero and Leander 1.61-69; 1 Tamburlaine 3.3.1215-20; 5.1.1916-40; Faustus 1328-47.

16 In the preface to Cynthia, ed. Arber, 44.

17Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets (London: Hutchinson, 1961), 2.3.

18 See James M. Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 26.

19 Ibid., 27.

20 See R. J. Clements, The Poetry of Michelangelo (London: Owen, 1966), 1.6.

21 Saslow, Ganymede, 66.

22Rime, ed. Girardi (Bari: Laterza, 1960), no. 106. Saslow (Ganymede, 28) gives Gilbert's translation:

God, in His grace, shows himself nowhere more
To me than through some veil, mortal and
Which I will only love for being His mirror.

23The Winter's Tale 1.2.65.

Source: "The Inversion of Cultural Traditions in Shakespeare's Sonnets," in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells, eds., University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 90-8.