(Shakespearean Criticism)


From the eighteenth century until about 1950, speculation about possible autobiographical elements in Shakespeare's sonnets was the dominant feature of commentary on these poems. There were heated debates about what the sonnets may imply about Shakespeare's morals and his sexuality. But over the past forty years, critics have increasingly avoided such conjecture, asserting that there is no basis for reading the poems as personal allegory. These scholars have emphasized the paradoxical, even enigmatic, nature of the sonnets and the multiple perspectives on human experience embedded in the sequence.

Many recent commentators have examined the effect of the contradictions and uncertainties that are implicit in Shakespeare's sonnets. A number of critics have pointed out that these poems—individually and as a sequence—are unusually resistant to general conclusions. Gerald Hammond (1981), for example, has argued that a majority of the sonnets present simultaneous oppositions, which produce unexpected meanings but also create improbabilities that baffle a reader or critic trying to assess the mood of the poem. Similarly, Gregory W. Bredbeck (1991) has contended that in many of the sonnets there is virtually an infinite number of meanings that yield contradictory, not merely different, readings and thus frustrate interpretation.

In the judgment of numerous critics over the past two decades, these lyrics formulate paradoxes but leave them unresolved. It is therefore impossible, they claim, to make definitive statements about the poems or establish a single perspective on the sequence. Richard A. Lanham (1976) has linked the paradoxical nature of these lyrics to Shakespeare's unusual combination of fanciful and serious modes; he asserts that the logical uncertainties, even absurdities, of the sonnets make us doubt our initial responses and ultimately call into question the validity of any effort to generalize about them. Carol Thomas Neely (1977) has contended that throughout the sequence, every attempt to resolve contradiction or determine a fixed perspective is inevitably thwarted as an individual poem shifts to a different point of view or is succeeded by other poems which shatter that perspective. In her study of the indeterminacy of the sonnets, Heather Dubrow (1996) has argued that the poems simultaneously encourage and undermine a reader's search for unity or consistency in narrative, characterization, or values. She further remarks that because many of the poems are not explicit with regard to the gender of the person being addressed, the notion of a sustained plot line throughout the sequence is highly questionable.

The ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets is presently a major critical issue, as many scholars who have written about Shakespeare's sonnets have noted that in only a few of these poems is it clear whether the addressee is a male or a female. Rosalie Colie (1974) has contended that Shakespeare's inversion of the Petrarchan convention of addressing love poems to a young woman represents only one aspect of his unique approach to the traditional sonnet. Yet, she asserts, the poet maintains the conventional role of an unselfish, detached admirer of an idealized youth, never suggesting that he harbors a carnal desire for the young man. Lanham has similarly regarded the substitution of an ideal male as part of Shakespeare's attempt to reinvigorate the worn-out clichés of the Petrarchan sonnet; the critic further points out that the youth is not individualized either in feature or in character. This last point was amplified by Bredbeck, who has maintained that the sonnets do not particularize expressions of desire but rather set out to frustrate a reader's ability to determine erotic significance. He asserts that there is nothing in Sonnet 1 or Sonnet 20, for example, that imparts a single meaning or dictates a single gender.

Several commentators have examined the issues of gender identity and sexuality in the sonnets in the context of early modern views of society. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) has contended that these poems reveal a misogynist attitude toward women, presenting them as a threat to the bonds between men that uphold patriarchal supremacy. In her judgment, the sequence demonstrates that lust for a woman deprives a man of his self-identity. Margreta de Grazia (1994) has also argued that in these sonnets the female gender represents a disruptive force. She maintains that beginning with Sonnet 126 and through the remainder of the sequence, the poet's lust for a woman who has other lovers is depicted as a menace to the orderly succession of power and property, for it would be impossible to determine the paternity of any child she bore. Analyzing the ambiguously addressed sonnets, Dubrow has challenged assumptions that the negative ones necessarily refer to the Dark Lady. However, she concludes that throughout the sequence—and particularly in the lyrics where there can be no dispute about the gender of the addressee—the poet is harsher on women than on men. Bruce R. Smith (1991) has pointed out, in his discussion of homoerotic images in the sonnets, that this imagery introduces sexual emotions in the context of the bonds that men routinely made with one another in late sixteenth-century England. He also notes that erotic images in the sonnets are used randomly, whether the object of affection is a man or a woman.

Virtually every essay on Shakespeare's sonnets includes a discussion of the poems' language and imagery. In Murray Krieger's judgment (1967), the dreamlike, associational linkage of imagery in many of the lyrics masks a conscious strategy to create a logical movement—from metaphor to substance—within each sonnet. Anne Ferry (1975) has assessed Shakespeare's manipulation of language as a self-conscious demonstration of the poet's artistry and power to create verbal patterns that modify the laws of nature. Conversely, Sandra L. Bermann (1988) has asserted that although Shakespeare's metaphors provide new ways of looking at human experience, they do not attempt to alter reality. Nevertheless, she concludes, the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in his paradoxical linking of things and persons represent an extraordinarily original application of poetic figures.

Shakespeare's unique synthesis of traditional and original forms and themes has also drawn the attention of several recent commentators. In her examination of the sonnets' representation of the nature of love, Neely has contended that Sonnet 116 depicts the fallibility of love and Sonnet 129 shows lust as a corruption of love. Similarly, Smith has asserted that throughout the sequence, the emphasis is on love after sexual consummation—a love that is devoid of spiritual elements. Ferry has identified time, in its role of destroyer, as a principal thematic issue; in her assessment, the sonnets delineate poetry as an agent of immortality and the only means of defeating time. Ferry's position may be compared with Hammond's, who has remarked that Sonnets 1-19 emphasize the inevitability of death and renounce human qualities for poetic immortality. Several commentators have evaluated the concept of idealization in the sonnets, particularly with regard to the tradition of idealizing the beloved. For instance, Smith has compared Shakespeare's lyrics with the classical poet Horace's Carmina, discovering in both a lack of idealism, a matter-of-fact description of sexual desire between men, and a tone that is unusually intense and intimate. Bermann, on the other hand, has focused on the Petrarchan tradition, arguing that Shakespeare subverted the conventions of the courtly love poem—especially its central mode of idealization—even as he employed them as essential bases for his poems. Critics have frequently pointed out the importance of understanding the poetic tradition as it was developed by Shakespeare's predecessors in order to appreciate his incomparable adaptation and transformation of that tradition.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Superposed Poetics: The Sonnets," in The Motives of Eloquence, Yale University Press, 1976, pp. 111-28.

[In the following essay, Lanham argues that Shakespeare created a unique kind of poetics in his sonnets by superimposing a rhetorical or "play" discourse upon a serious one. The critic points out that this mode of expression allowed Shakespeare to reanimate Petrarchan clichés, to praise the youth extravagantly while simultaneously destroying his character, and to continually re-present the poetics in a series of inconsistent, contradictory guises.]


From the two views of life [I call] rhetorical and serious there devolve, [I suggest], two corresponding poetics. Since Shakespeare's sonnets superpose these two poetics one upon the other, it may be useful to review the differences between them.

Western poetics descend from Aristotle, and for Aristotle poetry was serious. We don't know what he said about comedy but, since he complains in the Poetics that at first it was not taken seriously . . . , perhaps he would have remedied this deficiency. His discussion of tragedy intertwined it with seriousness in a way lasting from that day to this. Tragedy imitates an action first and foremost serious. . . . The word σπουδαίαζ, usually rendered "heroic," points not to a specific pattern of behavior but a different kind of self. Else makes my point in his commentary on ἥ σπουδίουζ ἥ φαύλους (1448a2):

1. The dichotomy is moral, but not in the Platonic, much less in a Christian sense.

2. It denotes, not virtue and vice as states, but two different attitudes toward virtue. The σπουδαιοι are those who strive for it, who spend their lives, and if necessary lose them, for the prize of aretê. The φαυλοι are those who do not. They are not the vicious but the "no-account," those who spend their lives making money, or "having fun," or both.

3. Thus the σπουδαιοι are those who take themselves and life seriously and therefore can be taken seriously; the φαυλοι are those who do not and cannot.

4. The dichotomy is, by the nature of the case, absolute and comprehensive. All men who act—i.e., all men engaged in the practical life—are necessarily either σπουδαιοι or φαυλοι; there is no room for a third class.1

Serious man and rhetorical man, nicely distinguished. Serious poetic, like tragedy itself, premises a central self; rhetorical poetic premises a social self whose behavior splits into two parts—persuasion and pleasure. We might think such a rhetorical poetic, if admitted at all, a contextual poetic, an enclosing parenthesis for formalist theorizing. Or as positing two defining extremes of theoretical purity, each more not less real than the intervening spectrum of compromises. Any serious poetic, though it purposes sooner or later aut prodesse aut delectare, insists on both at once and integrally related. A rhetorical poetic does the opposite. It accommodates each in a pure state. It charts ground both above and below serious poetic. Above, it allows propaganda, teaching, rhetorical purpose unalloyed; below, it allows delight, pure entertainment. Neither, for serious poetic, ranks as "literature." The propagandistic extreme of self-serving includes psychoanalytical coordinates as well. One extreme of the rhetorical poetic points outward, toward politics and the state; the other inward, toward self and the psyche. It is a commonplace that classical rhetoric and poetic were the same. In this respect, not so. Poetic has defined itself essentially in terms of seriousness. Rhetoric has charted different ground.

Serious poetic insists the poet keep faith with some vision of experience, realistic or apocalyptic. He must want to share this vision. And must have felt it. So Horace famously si vis me fiere, dolendum est / primum ipsi tibi (Ars Poetica 102-03). A poet may write to eat but this remains incidental to keeping the faith. A rhetorical poetic allows the whole range of sordid motive—money, spleen, urge to shine, narcissistic posturing—as interpretive categories. So too with the category of pure play. From a serious point of view, this category is yet worse. A serious poet does not play games just for his own amusement. He will know moments of exaltation if he is lucky; he will by definition know many of despair; but he cannot just delight. No pot-boilers, then, and no games.

A poetic not built on a central self can have no plot, of course, in the Aristotelian sense. Probability judgments in literature depend on a central self. So the Aristotelian preference for probable impossibilities over vice versa. Serious poetic insists that a causal pattern be traced in experience by holding the coattails of a single self. Or it dramatizes the impossibility, or exorbitant price, of doing so. It does not matter which; both are equally serious. The difference is not grounded on a theory of knowledge. The rhetorical poetic, too, admits patterns, but it admits too many. It finds them impositions on, not expositions of, reality. So it need not relate them, fuse them. It is all episodes, those episodes Aristotle so disliked. It leaves order up to us, remains aleatory. It does not finally care how we put things together.

Style must never show for the serious poetic because that means (1) someone is propagandizing us or (2) someone is having a good time for no good reason. Likewise, style and subject must cohere into a decorum. Just the opposite for play poetic. It aims at style/subject discontinuities. It depends on puns and other false wits. It fails to honor metaphor as a god-term, ignoring it altogether or cooking up outrageous ones.

If tragedy serves as reference-genre for serious poetic, a peculiar genre for which we might borrow "tragicomedy" (a misleading term probably, since tragedy and comedy are both serious genres) serves for rhetorical poetic, a genre which, instead of combining serious tragedy and comedy, stands back to consider the merits of each. The sonnets are tragicomedy in this sense. Such documents by nature come to us enmeshed in topical reference and local allegory. They are mixed up with life. A serious critic must precipitate out this topicality straightaway, insist that such things, if present, make no difference, for the serious critic must rigorously separate art from life. The term ìßìçóéò implies such a distinction, of course, as well as the idea of beginning and end. The rhetorical poetic, with no plot, need worry about neither. It can play games with our expectation, or ease into fiction, as Renaissance prose narrative often does, behind a screen of prefatory apparatus. But it finds beginnings and endings equally a matter of convenience. Part of rhetoric's confounding, pouring together, of art and life is a willingness to define private audiences and play with them. So Shakespeare made plays which address two different plays to two different audiences at once. And rhetorical documents often use the bizarre or grotesque, ignore probability. Since they acknowledge no separate referent reality, they need not defer to it.

Nor need they be concerned with changes in scale. The unities have known their critics but their argument fits sensibly and easily into the serious poetic. Scale must not show. Conventional distortions indeed know no natural limitation, as Johnson insisted in the 1765 Preface to Shakespeare, but only if they are consistent. The conventions of scale must never themselves become objects of contemplation. Scale aims at a coherence such attention destroys. This is what Aristotle is trying to get at in Poetics 1450b, when he insists that beauty consists in size and arrangement. . . . For a rhetorical opposite, one need think no further than Gargantua and Pantagruel.

The Aristotelian poetic is premised on order. Morse Peckham, in Man's Rage for Chaos, has sought to overthrow this premise by insisting that art aims to disorder not order. It tries to break up and challenge experience, make us put it back together in different ways. It provides a gymnasium for the imagination. Peckham argues that art works by cognitive tension, confronting us with conflicting orchestrations we must sort out. It aims to expand our reality, to explain more accurately what happens when art and beholder interact. But that is just it. Explain. A poetic of play asks only that we enjoy. Thus the documents which use rhetorical coordinates can play games of order or disorder, balance and unbalance. They can use either for its whole range of nefarious applied purpose. The reconstructing and re-creating reader of the last few years develops clearly from Peckham's conception of the perceiver's role, a role terribly serious as well as infinitely difficult. But neither the order/disorder dispute nor the reader/text dispute growing from it change the Aristotelian premises of the discussion. Both seem to offer help with rhetorical documents but both can carry us only so far. They go further toward play than before only to pull further back.

To restrict literature to the serious critical reader is a possible, even legitimate restriction, but a big one. It leaves out not only the common reader but most uncommon ones as well. Is a rhetorical poetic necessary? What is it good at describing? Just its two extremes, avowed purpose and avowed purposelessness. It charts human self-serving. The element of play deserves special stress. Art works as a check on purposive experience. It reminds us of the inevitable playful, and hence self-serving, ingredient in experience. It can thus be moralized, at least negatively: it teaches how and how often we mask pleasure with high-minded purpose. Art acts as perpetual reminder of our resources of pleasure, pleasures beyond purpose. Such resources are there, if we are clever, to enhance, invigorate purpose, but they do not exist to do so. They exist in themselves, as a treasury of human resource. A poetic of play, then, allows for a radically un-Aristotelian reader, one who responds in nonserious ways.


The world does not always coincide with our images of it. This discontinuity presents problems—the area of serious poetic. But it also presents opportunities to become rich and to rejoice—the area of rhetorical poetic. Seriousness would preclude play and vice versa. But Shakespeare shows every sign, in the sonnets as elsewhere, of having felt and understood both. Rhetorical and serious poetic differ essentially, in pattern of expectation, not in a particular text. One can read any text seriously, philosophize the funny papers, explicate pop music. Or one can relish Homer, lose oneself in the romance. Texts, too, can invite one kind of attention or another. The sonnets systematically invite both kinds at once. We find here the alternating . . . narrative pattern discussed earlier, but collapsed in on itself. They open with an exhortation to share oneself. Taken as a whole, though, they exhibit the liveliest awareness that the one element in art truly untranslatable into another language is its fundamental selfishness. We can see this ambivalence most easily in the vexed problem of order.

How the best kind of serious criticism might deal with it Stephen Booth's brilliant An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets has shown. He argues that the 1609 Q order, however it got that way, makes us uneasy as we pass through it, leads us in and out of differing, often contradicting orientations, tones, styles, at a bewildering rate. Shakespeare will stay with one subject or tone for a sonnet, or two or three, then turn the world upside down. The sequence re-creates in us the radical orientative unease the sonneteer himself feels. The sonnets re-create the world as a gymnasium of the imagination. Within serious coordinates, Booth is right, brilliantly so. But what if we read with a rhetorical expectation? If the order makes us uneasy, we rearrange it.

Here, as often with rhetorical documents, critical history lends external support to the need for rhetorical coordinates. From the beginning—from Thomas Thorpe perhaps—readers have itched to rearrange the sonnets. Such rearrangements please only the rearrangers. Obviously all the rearrangers cannot be right. Yes they can. The sonnets present orderless order, invite rearrangement. All the rearrangers are right. Aleatory composition—allowing a performer re-creative latitude—is not after all a modern invention. It was the customary proceeding for much Elizabethan music. Rearrangement, for the serious reader, is illegitimate. It makes the world too simple, especially since Shakespeare took so much trouble to make it ambiguous. Surely that is the point. Shakespeare took no trouble one way or the other. We do so. The sonnets invite us to specify our own poetic, examine our own pattern of expectations. To trigger this response, Shakespeare did not have to do anything but write the poems and gather them hugger-mugger together. The present order does abound in cognitive tension. So will any other, if we seek for it. Try the experiment with a revised order, Brents Sterling's for example or, as one of my students did, with one random-generated by a computer. Or accept each sonnet as a separate experience, neglect the context. Shakespeare offers an anthology. Pluck the flowers one by one.

Shakespeare often writes about the form he writes in. Does some such reflection on the nature of lyric emerge here? The sonnets represent the lyric anthology in its purest form because they pose most clearly its central formal question. What is the basic unit of order? What is the referential "event" you need before you can begin to think about order? What are you ordering? Now all the sonnets are, in some ways, identical and interchangeable. In other ways, they differ completely. A reader must reflect on his own expectations, his preconditions for seeing. He is invited to meditate on the nature of plot.

Do the sonnets tell a story? Not a clear one, but the invitation for us to make up a story is clear enough. Here, like the medieval allegorists of Ovid, the silliest readers have been the wisest. What a cast the sonnets offer! Why not make up a story to suit your taste? No other assumption really makes sense of the sonnets' fragmented biography and topical reference. A sonnet sequence is a poor vehicle for telling a story. Of course. But, as the sonnets' critical history demonstrates, it can stimulate all kinds of stories. A story, though, means a plot and plot demands the consistent self, for sonneteer at least, which the sonnets, in their multiple tergiversations, take pains to deny. We are made to see the price paid for plot. Lyric meditation unearths multiple selves hard to fit into plots. We are urged to make up a plot or, if we want, pointedly refrain from doing so.

Shakespeare's superposed strategies come especially clear when we consider the golden youth and the first seventeen sonnets. The sonnets issue plenty of invitations which legitimize biographical speculation. Private audience, manuscript circulation, publication pirated, obvious address to a single youth, sonnet series as social courtship. These all demand rhetorical coordinates, enact the poet's private plea for advantage. Yet so much does the youth evoke if not embody disinterested love, so many are the Renaissance commonplaces touched, from friendship to the parable of the talents, that serious coordinates are triggered equally. Shakespeare, like Plato, builds his serious encomia on thoroughly rhetorical grounds. And to this perplexity add a rhetorical coup for the first seventeen. Shakespeare came to the sonnet game when it was old and had to galvanize somehow a worn-out repertoire of Petrarchan clichés. He does so not by varying them but by shifting the sexual object to which they refer. In a stroke Petrarchan metaphor is renewed. A new area of serious reflection on love and sexuality opens up. The great extension in range of Shakespeare's sonnets, moving far beyond the begging mode to love accomplished, sealed, grown old, love Platonic and love physical, emerges from this decision. A profoundly serious gesture, then, but also a brilliant rhetorical one. Masterpiece psychology again. An act, first, of self-revelation, confession, and second of exceptional technical acumen; as a serious act it is outgoing, philosophical, moral, as a rhetorical gesture, a selfish master-stroke.

A sonnet sequence is by its form a virtuoso act—any sonnet sequence. Can the sonneteer do it, go on? The challenge to be new, fresh, is a game of balance. How long can he keep it up? He denies himself all but a basic form, and then, like a tightrope walker with his balance bar, tries to make it across. The narrower the theme, the tougher the game. Shakespeare egregiously increases the odds; a praising mode but praising a man. What is there to say? What man cares whether another begets children? And seventeen sonnets on the same theme? Daring—what Robert Frost called "scoring"—runs all through the sonnets. We reenact Shakespeare's uncertainty, as Booth shows. But we also participate in his virtuosity, admire him, wonder at the immense pleasurable resources of language.

The golden youth proves tremendously useful to Shakespeare. He enables Shakespeare to strike a pose altogether different from the frustrated adolescent heated with Petrarchan cliché. The exercise in panegyric rhetoric masks a very different tone. Never has anyone been so praised and damned at once as the youth. The sonneteer seems to do all the giving—a nice presentation of self—but he manages to recoup much of his own. A courtly lover, he is also a brilliant character-assassin who crowns his strategy by vowing to make the youth's unnamed name, his nonentity, live forever. A lot of getting-even goes on in the sonnets. It does not weaken the serious meanings clustering around the youth. It just sits atop them. The parable of the talents is all very well, but Shakespeare serves himself too.

In the opening sonnets, in the 1609 order, our attention falls on rejuvenation as a theme but on language being rejuvenated at the same time. We must simultaneously look at the words and through them.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.2

In a serious reading, it is the first line that surprises. Babies do not figure strongly in Petrarchan poetry. From the beginning, the sterility of courtly passion had preoccupied Shakespeare. He noticed above all the narcissism in the Petrarchan orchestration. He writes, then, a sonnet about his own narcissistic passion? No, he has it both ways. His passion stands opposite narcissism. Nothing in it for him but pure love. It is the youth who consumes himself in self-containment. The imagery reverses direction. Eye-beams, darting outward in standard operating procedure, now go backward: "But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes." The lady usually oils the fires of love. The youth "feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel." As for "beauty's rose," its point is that it dies. It represents a commitment in the private life and these, like the people whom they bind, do not last.

The act of continuance Shakespeare asks comes from the public life. We may ask that human beauty be continued, but what has this to do with love? And why must the youth encapsulate within himself Petrarchanism's narcissistic sterility? "Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel." Serious readings dwell on the parable of the talents; we are but custodians of ourselves. But often the first seventeen sonnets argue nonsensically. They seem to aim for bewilderment, logical outrage. The sonneteer asks his male love to beget children, betray him with a woman in just the way later to call for reproach. The youth is given the attributes of both Petrarchan lover and Petrarchan beloved and then blamed for being narcissistic. Commentators have universally remarked that the youth, for all Shakespeare's praise, remains a shadowy figure. With good reason. More real, he would be less convenient. Shakespeare could not hang such contradictory arguments upon him. Not only the first seventeen sonnets work in this way, or the golden youth. The lady is a convenience too, as well as a tramp. Youth and lady fail to come together under serious coordinates but they make sense as rhetorical excuses, occasions for manipulation. What is outrageously contrived in the sonnets is less imagery than argument. Argument often becomes an intellectual prestidigitation meant to be seen as such, as with the homosexuality theme.

Sonnet 20 tells us, a bit late, that intellectual not physical homosexuality stands at issue. Scholars can relax; Shakespeare depicts only Renaissance friendship. But ought such friendship carry a full range and type of sexual jealousy, as in the sonnets? Shakespeare's love for the youth: if not homosexual, what is it? We never learn. It emerges as both numinously idiosyncratic and just plain hollow, not there, an excuse for effect. Both show in sonnet 20 itself.

A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

Now this sonnet figures strongly in a serious reading of the sonnets. "Use" is sexual knowledge and this Shakespeare renounces. All the puzzlement about Shakespeare's possibly illicit sexual proclivities ought to be relieved here. Not simply because he says so but because it suits his rhetorical purpose much better if the relationship is not physical, remains vague, rhetorically convenient. In a sexual relationship, the Petrarchan imagery could, with a little physical readjustment, find a home; with the vague relationship, it stays up in the air and thus new. It can lend itself to the kinds of word games exemplified by sonnet 20, with its feminine rhymes and endings and its sexual puns.

The lady is an occasional piece, too. Look at sonnet 135:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus.
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

This sonnet brings out the serious tut-tutting Elizabethan punning always generates. Yet if you read for "Will" the sonneteer, volition, sexual desire, and the male and female sexual organs, 135 turns out a bitter poem. "Since you sleep with the standing army, why not with me?" The pun anatomizes the sexual life from top to bottom. Superficial verbal ornament becomes profound metaphor for the degrading, exalting democracy of sexual life. But it still remains rhetorical ornament. Disinterested verbal pleasure sits atop the bitterness. Sonnet 135 shows with maximum compression Shakespeare's strategy of superposed poetics, the simultaneous insistence that we remain on the verbal surface and that we penetrate beneath it. Like the pun, it both insists that we take language seriously, and prevents our doing so.

At a higher level, we surprise the same double attitude toward verbal surface applied to time. On a serious level, the aere perennius arguments have been much rehearsed, yet the crucial distinction seldom drawn. Horace says he will last in his verse, just as Ovid in Amores 1.15 says he will survive in his. Shakespeare weasels. He again uses the youth to flatter himself. He writes to eternalize the youth, to eternalize beauty itself, not poor old Will. Thus the occasional sonnet which opines that when Shakespeare's arts of style decay into unfashion, the golden youth's golden youth will still shine bright. As arguments, of course, both kinds of sonnets are absurd. Sonnet 81 is the most famous:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten.
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave
When you entombèd in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'erread;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

A monument to nothing. Where does the famous irony go? Shakespeare misapplies his topos absurdly. The argument Shakespeare develops points to a beauty beyond verbal surface, to the youth, beauty itself, we are told at length. Yet the Horatian topos insists that only the verbal surface lasts. Again the double invitation. Look at the verbal surface; that's all there is. Look below the surface; the surface means nothing. The paradox is implicit—Shakespeare once again reflecting on his form, the lyric anthology. Itself a collection of self-contradictory presents, it inevitably looks at past and future. It pleads, in its arguments, for the evanescence of the present but by the allegory of its form sees life as but a series of presents.

Sonnet 81 thus celebrates the sonneteer and his power, but less honestly than Horace. The additional complexity flows from the need to include the youth—to attack as well as praise him—and the need to do the same for language. The poem's statement about time emerges so obviously we may overlook it. Documents using rhetorical coordinates often veer toward mutability as a theme, tend to find verbal surface the only reliable constant. To make the point the surface has to show. For Spenser, antique diction authenticated the allegory. For Shakespeare, obvious verbal artifice is varied by the sonneteer's continual denial of verbal artifice, his claim to gaze upon the thing itself. So in 55. What kind of monument is it? Odi et amo, hate and love both maximally strong and both at the same time. Lovers' eyes see another and see themselves, and for just this reason Shakespeare needs both poetics.

The rhetorical view of the world knows only a continuous present because it denies a central self. We can, thus, change roles absolutely, play another, enter the present moment without trailing clouds of past self. We become another creation. The sonnets say this often enough, and the form itself implies it: new sonnet, new self. Again, this continued re-creation of self erects a far more eloquent monument to sonneteer than to youth. But each sonnet, by re-creating a self, reaffirms the sonneteer's existence, tends to accrete substance for a central self. The sonneteer wants us to think his self a constant too, lasting from pose to pose. Some good thinking about the sonnets has allegorized, in a Freudian way or otherwise, the "cast" of the sonnets as aspects of the sonneteer's self. We might call them part of an ideal self, and thus construe the sonnets as an anatomy of self under sexual pressure, much like the middle books of The Faerie Queene. Such a thesis provides the most comprehensive serious explanation of the sonnets' theme. But if the sonneteer wants to bring his selves together, he also enjoys leaving them apart, role playing for its own sake. Again, Shakespeare has it both ways.

And naturally the clash between the two selves and hence the two poetics becomes a subject for sonnets, most famously, I suppose, for 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Is the final couplet paradoxical? Doesn't it rather make two different kinds of statements in the same words? If "nor no man ever loved" is a private statement, topical reference, private audience, it means one thing. If a public statement—not "I never loved any man" but "No man ever loved anybody"—then it says something else. The couplet illustrates perfectly the sonnets' characteristic reasoning. The "proof runs this way. "If such ever-constant love is a delusion, I never writ. But since I have manifestly writ, then it must be true." Reality, the chain of reasoning, the only undeniable premise, however absurd, is the act of writing. Style, the act of writing, again forms both center and surface. Not writing the truth, since he admits in line one of 115, "Those lines that I before have writ do lie," but the act of writing. On this premise is built true love. Or, if writing again is the only undeniable reality, if true love really is a delusion—and the previous one hundred fifteen sonnets have shown Shakespeare's love shaken, removed, unfixed, full of nothing but impediments—then, following the "logic," some other "I" must have written them. No problem. One hundred fifteen other "I's," at least, stand ready. Neither central self nor true love finally supplies the referent reality. Shakespeare in sonnet 116 argues a case for rhetorical coordinates, as well as against them. Amo ergo sum on the one hand; Scribo ergo sum on the other. Read as a serious poem, it argues that the "star," love, is a necessary assumption if the world is to make any sense. We must start with some commitment. Why not call it Love. Amo ergo sum. Read within rhetorical coordinates, it says that all you really start with is the act of writing. Scribo ergo sum. The poem is about the relation between the two poetics. A poem about defining essence—the marriage of true minds—it yet leans on its words in such a way, varying their sense with repetition, that essence dwells first in words: Love, love; alters, alteration; remover, remove. Is such a subject serious? It is and it isn't. The poem seems at once the most profound and the most playful in the sequence. Two different poems share the same words.

Again and again in the sonnets the most serious statement comes through verbal artifice meant to show. Look at sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world's false subtilties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

The pun on "lie," from the second line to the last, encapsulates the essential duplicity of passion the poem seeks to describe. It also introduces a series of puns: made, vainly, simply, habit, told (homonym—tolled). Ploce, antanaclasis, a complicated kind of chiasmatic pronoun pattern (she not: not I / she is: I am), the suggestion of syllogism in "wherefore . . . therefore," the symphony of verbs sentiendi ac declarandi (swears, believes, lies, thinks, thinking, thinks, knows, credits, false-speaking, suppressed, says, loves, lie, flattered); all this is rhetorical manipulation and meant to show. The poem does not work in spite of its virtuosity but because of it. The virtuosity holds us always, in the sonnets, slightly at a distance, and thus enables us to move so abruptly from one tone or subject to another (from 128 to 129, for example) without an unendurable sense of fracture.

It is a mistake to argue that, finally, the sonnets are not tricksy, show-off, prestidigitous. Of course they are. They are also calculated to display the sonneteer in a favorable light, youth and lady in mottled shade. They also harrow a divided self, map the aggressive duplicity of passion. They seem especially conceived to deny Petrarchan sublimity and the central self that forms its major premise. How can they do all this at once? By superposing a rhetorical poetic on a serious one. The sonnets include enormous logical inconsistencies. The uncertainties and the manifest absurdities of the sonnets are meant to give us pause. Perception psychologists tell us it is impossible simultaneously to perceive an object and analyze our mode of perception. Something like this the sonnets ask us to do nevertheless. If the sonnets are more profound than other Elizabethan sequences, this profundity comes not simply from Shakespeare's decision to write, in maturity, of fulfilled love, or to widen his cast to an androgynous range. He also widens the range of attitudes demanded of the perceiver. Or rather, he brings to more precise focus the double poetic that the sonnet sequence as a whole worked within, he makes it part of his subject. For from Petrarch on, the sonnet sequence combined two extremes, a sublime goal and a game procedure, without reflecting on or perhaps even noting the enormous gap between them. Shakespeare both notes and reflects upon it. He sees that the form draws on two extreme, two opposed, theories of motive, and on the two theories of rhetoric and attitudes toward style appropriate to each. The sonnets thus share the main concern of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the nature of human motive.

Ransom's churlish article, "Shakespeare at Sonnets," stumbled over an important truth. What troubled Ransom, arguing that Shakespeare should have been more like Donne, was that the act of formal discipline seemed almost divorced from the subject. In a way it is, and meant to be seen so. Form and subject inseparable; form and subject divisible. Such is the sonnet-form allegory, a series of poems alike in form, utterly different as poems. Sublime and dramatic motive, serious and rhetorical, move forward on parallel tracks. The sonnets are a spontaneous outpouring of feeling. But never was feeling more prompted by a form already in being, a formal challenge. The fundamental parallelism the sonnets seek to enforce is, obviously, that between the lover and the poet. Both are outgoing, self-sacrificing, seek a fundamental commitment, a hermaphroditic union. Both are narcissistic, self-serving, seek a hermaphroditic self-sufficiency. Both pour out, dissolve the self. Both display and hence reinforce it. This fundamental duplicity both explains and justifies the strategy of double poetic. Again, the rhetorical style, like Shakespeare's puns, works best when most rhetorical, most opaque, most outrageous.

Works Cited

Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven, 1969.

Else, Gerald F. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, Mass., 1967.

Peckham, Morse. Man 's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts. Philadelphia, 1965.

Ransom, John Crowe. "Shakespeare at Sonnets." Southern Review 3 (January, 1938): 531-53.


1 Gerald F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, Mass., 1967, p. 77.

2 Ed. Douglas Bush.

Gerald Hammond (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "'This Poet Lies': Text and Subtext," in The Reader and Shakespeare 's Young Man Sonnets, Barnes & Noble Books, 1981, pp. 11-29.

[In this essay, Hammond explores the sources of readers ' uncertainties about the predominant tone of the sequence and the mood of individual sonnets. Focusing on Sonnets 1-19, he illustrates the discrepancies between text and subtext, the sometimes bewildering array of possible meanings in a single line or quatrain, and the sonnets' immunity to comprehensive generalizations.]

I begin by wondering why Shakespeare's sonnets should be so unpopular. Despite their being the only collection of poems by our greatest poet, as a sequence they remain almost as unconsidered and unread as they were in his lifetime.1 Individual sonnets are known and loved, but as exceptions to the general run of a collection of lifeless poems. Even literary critics have treated them with disdain. In the last forty years, apart from scattered forays by a handful of critics . . . , they have been the happy hunting ground of biographical detectives, novelists, or the kind of literary moralist who constructs arguments by welding together lines and quatrains pulled painfully out of their context. And it is significant that, apart from the work of Stephen Booth, even the good critics have concentrated upon individual sonnets or sonnet groups, leaving the sequence as a whole in benign neglect.

Why should this neglect exist? It can hardly be the result of the intellectual complexity which generates so much silence about The Phoenix and the Turtle. The sonnets present few specifically intellectual problems, and if they did the vogue for Metaphysical wit has provided the techniques and the audience for that kind of explication. My suggested answer is that the sonnets cause reader and critic alike the more fundamental problem of determining the tone, both of individual poems and groups of poems, and of the sequence as a whole. this difficulty destroys the reader's basic allegiance to the sonnets, and only from such an allegiance does constant rereading of the work and eventually a good work of criticism emerge. It is, after all, quite possible to read a poem and have no clear understanding of its ideas, but be engaged with it all the same. In such a case we find ourselves responding intuitively to its level of seriousness and the poet's commitment to his subject. But the opposite is not easily done and even a fair degree of certainty about a poem's meaning may not overcome a reader's frustrating uncertainty at, to put it crudely, not knowing whether the poet means what he says or not.

My argument is that this kind of uncertainty is built into many individual sonnets and into the whole young man sequence with the aim of frustrating and alienating the reader—not forgetting that the chief reader, and in the terms of the sequence's fiction its only reader, is the young man himself. From very early in the sequence he encounters forms of wit, sarcasm, and innuendo which force him to reconsider his response to a sonnet or group of sonnets. Sometimes the reconsideration only begins in a sonnet's couplet, at others it begins as early as the first line, but, and this is a crucial difference between Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it is seldom complete. The poet's irony or sarcasm or bitterness do not replace the lover's pose: the two co-exist so disturbingly that the reader is often frustrated in his attempts to make a decision about the tone of the poem.

Let me begin to describe what I mean by means of a simple example, Sonnet 103, which develops a common idea in the sequence, that it is impossible to write to a perfect model:

Alack what poverty my muse brings forth,
That, having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside.
O blame me not if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That overgoes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend,
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you, when you look in it.

On the surface this sonnet is a piece of conventional self-abasement. In the first quatrain the poet admits that he falls short precisely where, as a poet, he should have most scope for his talents. The second and third quatrains then specify the reasons for the failure by concentrating on the face in the mirror. In one sense, in lines 7-8, the poet goes so far as to suggest that the young man could write the poem himself simply by concentrating on his own reflection, since that "overgoes" anything which the poet's blunt invention can produce. Then the couplet rounds off the whole argument by repeating the young man's action of looking in the mirror.

Looking in a mirror might originally have seemed an innocent action, but the couplet's repetition of the image alerts the reader to the possibility that the poet might not be entirely sincere in drawing our attention so forcefully to his subject's narcissism, and indeed it underscores a series of innuendoes which had begun in the second quatrain. The young man looking in the mirror and seeing "more, much more" than the poet could ever write implies that he sees more than anyone can ever write. "More, much more" may well recall to the reader the "no more" of line 5, and if it does then the innuendoes which he will earlier have avoided are now given retrospective force by the couplet: "O blame me not if I no more can write" carries the double implication that the poet is blamed because he does not describe the young man as better than he is, and because he does not write enough about him.2

The deliberate prosaicness of the couplet in its repetition of the image—in particular the harping on the second person pronoun in "Your own glass shows you, when you look in it"—also admits retrospectively all kinds of subversive possibilities into the body of the sonnet. The face which appears in the glass in line 6 is quite pointedly what the young man sees, and quite possibly not what the poet sees, depending upon the way in which "blunt" is understood as it applies to "invention".3 Then the third quatrain plays tricks on the proverbial opposition of "mend" and "mar":

Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend,
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell.

Of course one may mar a subject with the best intentions, simply by being an inadequate poet—and something like that is the literal meaning of the quatrain—but now unavoidable is the innuendo that one may also mar a subject in his eyes, if no one else's, by trying to make him better. That innuendo is given life by the vagueness of "that before was well", a phrase which may carry all kinds of overtones, ranging from morally well to merely self-satisfied. Stephen Booth is right when he identifies 'the speaker's general tone of subservience' in lines 11-12, but they can also carry exactly the opposite tone.4 "Graces" and "gifts", the "pass" to which the poet's verses tend, are in no way limited to the appearance of the face in a mirror, and the sense emerges of a subject who wants the poet to write about one thing only and stop writing about others, and of a poet who will not.

My purpose in treating the sonnet like this is not to substitute the innuendoes for the surface, but simply to recognise the existence of the innuendo throughout the last ten lines. A poem which, like so many of the sonnets, projects self-abasement to the point of humiliation, carries within itself rebellion and vindictiveness, a sub-text which says that the young man's vanity blinds him to his own faults and to the poet's talents. The sub-text never becomes the main text: the sonnet remains, substantially, the most moving kind of love poetry, wherein the lover-poet abnegates himself. The reader, though, ends the sonnet in self-distrust, having inadequate material to keep the surface uncontaminated by innuendo, but the innuendo is too vague for him to organise it into a counter-statement.

I can illustrate this point further by comparing two poems which treat the idea of the poet's death and its effect on the lover, Shakespeare's Sonnet 71 and Donne's 'The Apparition'. Shakespeare's sonnet is usually read as an exercise in sarcasm:5

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vildest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I, perhaps, compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love ev'n with my life decay,

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

The sarcasm is evident from the opening lines—'don't mourn for me any longer than it takes the bell to ring'—and bitterness carries through the sonnet, in the contrast of the poet's "vile world" with the young man's "wise world", the repeated ifs with their implication that he will not read the poetry or think of the poet, and the self-humiliation of the couplet. I describe the sarcasm as evident but a sensitive reader might well balk at that response, pointing out that the sonnet contains undeniable elements of self-sacrifice which my analysis ignores. In contrast with Sonnet 103 it is the self-sacrifice which is the sub-text here, but it nonetheless exists alongside the poet's bitterness. The central lines in particular are not easily resistible:

for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.

The result is that where most critics detect sarcasm or self mockery, others like Philip Martin find that the sonnet 'breathes the most complete and noble selflessness'.6

Set that sonnet against Donne's 'The Apparition':

When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feigned vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink,
And then poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I;
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'd rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.

Here the opening lines plunge the reader straight into the convention of coy mistresses murdering their unrequited lovers. In true Petrarchan fashion the poet seems to take his figurative death to the literal extreme and looks forward to the time when his ghost will return to torture the disdainful lady. The poem can easily be read in that way, and usually is; Joan Bennett's comment that it shows the poet's 'contempt for the woman who has refused him' being typical of what critical discussion there has been of the poem.7

But 'The Apparition' is much more a poem of disgust than the conventional reading will allow. "Feigned vestal" in line 5 gives the first indication of the lady's character and by the centre of the poem she has emerged as distinctly nymphomanic, in the poet's eyes at least, for whatever man she has next will be "tired before", hence her doomed efforts to pinch him awake at the ghost's appearance. The poem's location, it turns out, is in bed, and its content an address from one experienced lover to another, rather than the originally anticipated conventional suing for a look or a favour. Murder and death have literally occurred, but only as slang expressions for orgasm, and behind the bluster of the last lines—not even "I'll do such things", but "I'll say such things"—is the humiliation of a lover upon whom too great demands have been made ("and since my love is spent").

The joke played on the reader is typical of Donne. The poem opens in a traditional way and then turns the stock phrases on their head so that the reader is forced to see a different kind of "scorn", "dead", and "solicitation" from those he will have expected. But once he perceives the joke then the effect is complete; the poem will not permit co-existent opposites in the way the Shakespeare sonnet does. The reader's experience of 'The Apparition' is first one of chastity, unrequited love, and righteous anger, and then one of sexual humiliation and impotent rage, but there is no point at which the two can sustain each other. In Shakespeare's sonnet no such reversal is made. Self-sacrifice and sarcasm are kept side by side and the reader's doubts that they can possibly co-exist make him the more perceptive of the nature of those contraries.

The difficulty of responding to such co-existent contraries in the majority of sonnets in the sequence probably explains why the sonnets have, in Winifred Nowottny's words, 'proved to be remarkably resistant to generalisations'. Every reader is likely to find areas in the sequence where he senses the possibility of innuendo but doubts its probability, or its reasonableness, or even its probity. And these difficulties begin early in the sonnets, as early indeed as the procreation group which opens it. Few critics have questioned the superficial claims of these sonnets to be plain encouragements to the young man to marry and breed, and the theme has proved so uninteresting that they are often dismissed as a poetic exercise, Shakespeare learning the art of sonnet-craft. I do not believe that the experience of reading the group seriously leads to such uncritical acceptance of its claims; instead it is within this group that the reader feels his first uncertainties about the relationship between the poet and the young man and, if only subconsciously, begins to detect the existence of a subversive sub-text. Consider Sonnet 4:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then beauteous niggard why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which used lives th' executor to be.

For a start, any response to this sonnet must clearly take in the financial metaphor which runs through it, presenting the young man as spendthrift and usurer, bequeather and legatee. The apparent purpose of the metaphor is to convey the beauty and worth of the young man, a design supported by the form of gentle persuasion which the sonnet provides, with stern vocatives softening into questions whose implied answers can only reinforce the young man's image of himself. But the metaphor also carries the undermining innuendo that the young man masturbates, spending upon himself and trafficking with himself alone both being phrases which unavoidably signify this extreme of sexual miserliness.

It is worth exploring in a little detail the way these phrases work upon the reader. After the stylised opening vocative "Unthrifty loveliness" he meets the question "why dost thou spend / Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy?" Intact the question is typical sonnet wit, beginning the development of the financial metaphor with the paradox of a spendthrift miser; but the reader only maintains the intactness of the question by suppressing the masturbatory innuendo of "spend / Upon theyself". He does this willingly in the knowledge that the innuendo could not have been intended—it must be the product of his own mind and the poet's clumsiness in working out the conceit,...

(The entire section is 22817 words.)

Gender Identity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Rosalie L. Colie (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Mel and Sal: Some Problems in Sonnet-Theory," in Shakespeare 's Living Art, Princeton University Press, 1974, pp. 68-134.

[In the excerpt below, Colie regards Shakespeare's sequence as an exercise in reappraising the conventions and limitations of the traditional sonnet, calling attention to Shakespeare's innovative juxtaposition of mel and sal—sweetness and sharpnessand to his distinctly unconventional decision to address many of his sonnets to a young man rather than a woman.]

Edward Hubler's remark that "sweet" was Shakespeare's favorite epithet59 is in good...

(The entire section is 31034 words.)

Language And Imagery

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Murray Krieger (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Innocent Insinuations of Wit: The Strategy of Language in Shakespeare's Sonnets," in The Play and Place of Criticism, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, pp. 19-36.

[In this essay, Krieger scrutinizes the internal logic of several sonnets in which the movement from one set of images to another appears spontaneous yet is, in his judgment, the result of a conscious strategy. In these sonnets, he maintains, Shakespeare develops a subtle dialectic which the reader does not perceive until the final lines, when the various images merge into one, inevitable resolution.]

If I were to use a single phrase to...

(The entire section is 22158 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare 's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969, 218 p.

Identifies a system of organization in Shakespeare's sonnets based on overlapping patterns of form, logic, ideas, syntax, rhythm, and phonics. This seminal analysis continues to be frequently cited nearly thirty years after its publication.

Dubrow, Heather. "Petrarchan Executors: Sidney, Shakespeare, Wroth." In Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses, pp. 99-161. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Examines evidence of both Petrarchism and anti-Petrarchism in Shakespeare's sonnets, arguing that the principle attacks on...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)