(Shakespearean Criticism)


Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were first published in 1609. These love poems are split into two groups—those addressed to the young man (Sonnets 1-126) and those addressed to the woman, or dark lady (Sonnets 127-54). Shakespeare's sonnets have fascinated critics and the general reading public for centuries due to the suspicion that the characters and relationships depicted in the poems reveal hidden aspects of Shakespeare's life. While many modern critics assert that such conjecture is unfounded, others suggest that the sonnets may reflect aspects of Shakespeare's life and career, at least to a limited degree. Other scholars center their studies instead on the language, themes, and structure of the individual poems and the sequence as a whole.

There has been much critical discussion concerning the order of composition of the sonnets. Colin Burrow (see Further Reading) observes that while there is little external evidence regarding the dates the sonnets were composed, the sequence has fixed points, which suggest that the order in which the sonnets appear in the 1609 Quarto edition was carefully determined. Burrow points out that stylistically, individual poems are linked to neighboring poems through moods, sounds, and “rhythms of thought.” Despite such connections, however, Burrow asserts that the sonnets are a miscellaneous collection of themes and thoughts rather than an ordered sequence about particular relationships, and that they are not organized according to numerological or biographical principles. Arguing to the contrary, Alvin Kernan (1995) contends that while there are gaps in the narrative sequence, each of the sonnets is a compact, enigmatic incident in a larger framing story. Kernan suggests that although the sonnets should not be viewed as autobiographical, they do reflect Shakespeare's experience as a writer closely involved with his patron, and as such they reveal the poet's attitudes toward the patronage system and art in general. Like Kernan, Michael Cameron Andrews (1982) cautions that whether or not the sonnets have any autobiographical basis, the persona adopted by Shakespeare in the sonnets should be understood as a dramatic character separate from his creator.

While Andrews focuses on the character of the speaker, James Joseph Davey (1986) investigates the role of the dark lady in the sonnets. Davey finds that she signals a change in the tone, intensity, and scope of the sonnets, and that she negates the movement toward idealization found in first group of sonnets—those addressed to the young man—by emphasizing the worldly, physical, and even vulgar. In his study of the language and structure of the sonnets, Joel Fineman (1984) examines how the falsity of language found in the dark lady sonnets is able to capture the truth of the poet's vision. Fineman also examines the language, imagery and rhetorical structure of the sonnets composed to the young man. Like Fineman, Jonathan Hart (2002) explores the language and imagery of the sonnets, concentrating on the themes of time and death. Hart examines the ways in which Shakespeare's analysis of these themes highlights the limitations of language, the sonnet, and poetry in general. Heather Dubrow (1997) finds that thievery, as it was understood in Elizabethan terms, is used as trope by Shakespeare in the sonnets to emphasize the personal loss of regenerative ability and idealism.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kernan, Alvin. “Shakespeare's Sonnets and Patronage Art.” In Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court 1603-1613, pp. 169-210. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Kernan analyzes the sonnets within the context of the relationship between patron and artist in Renaissance England. The critic maintains that the collection of poems may be viewed as a loosely structured story concerning the relationship between an older poet of lower social standing and a young aristocratic patron.]

In spite of postmodernist skepticism, we conceive, in our still romantic way, of all art of any worth as being the privileged expression of the unlimited creative imagination of the individual artist. We think of patronage, therefore, even as we call for government art subsidies, as a condition of servitude against which the true artist by nature rebels, and one which inevitably produces bad art.

But in the Renaissance, art was—as it still largely is to this day in costly public arts like opera and architecture—designed in the first instance to satisfy a rich patron. To display their wealth and power, prelates competed for the most fashionable artists to plan and decorate the churches they had chosen as their monuments. Secular princes required not only palaces but heroic portraits of themselves and their families, or depictions of biblical and mythological scenes in which they appeared. (Erotic scenes from mythology were sometimes specified by the German princelings.) Dimensions were sometimes written into contracts for artwork intended to fit into a particular place and blend with other works in the increasingly fashionable fine-art collections, like those Charles I and the earl of Arundel assembled in the seventeenth century. Samples—modelli—patterns, and sketches were sometimes required, particularly if the painter was not well known. Artists and patrons usually made agreements beforehand not only for subject and fee but for the amounts to be paid for stretchers, canvas, colors, scaffolding—if it was required for frescoes and the like—and even for meals, if the painter would be working away from home (Haskell).

On the Continent, particularly in Italy, relationships between patrons and artists, particularly painters, were often as warm and mutually sustaining as the arrangement

frequently described by seventeenth-century writers as servitù particolare. The artist was regularly employed by a particular patron and often maintained in his palace. He was given a monthly allowance as well as being paid a normal market price for the work he produced. If it was thought that his painting would benefit from a visit to Parma to see Correggio's frescoes or to Venice to improve his colour, his patron would pay the expenses of the journey. The artist was in fact treated as a member of the prince's “famiglia,” along with courtiers and officials of all kinds. The degree to which he held an official post varied with the patron; … some princes might create an artist nostro pittore, “with all the honours, authority, prerogatives, immunities, advantages, rights, rewards, emoluments, exemptions and other benefit accruing to the post.”

(Haskell, 6)

If, as we saw in the last chapter, an autonomous aesthetic was beginning to appear in Renaissance Italy—in Benvenuto Cellini's fanciful memoirs, for example—patronage remained for most artists a well-defined and smooth-working social arrangement for the production of art. When Pietro da Cortona “refused to choose his own subjects and claimed that he had never done so in his whole life” (Haskell, 11), his indignation reveals how completely most artists in the patronage situation accepted the priority of the interest of the patron as the normal artistic situation.

But if patronage worked well for the visual arts on the Continent, it did not meet the needs of the talented young men who appeared in England in the late sixteenth century to try to make their way in the world as professional writers. The aristocratic Sir Philip Sidney, who, seeking advancement in court, used poetry as one tactic in the patronage game, constructed in his life and writings a mythology of the poet. According to Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie (ca. 1584, published 1595), the poet was the first thinker and bringer of light in all societies, an Orpheus, or a David, Homer, Dante, Chaucer. Etymology, as well as history, established the poet as vates or maker. Where history and other forms of discourse merely imitate nature, the poet, said Sidney, transcends all limits, political or natural, to create beyond the existing world a more perfect imaginary reality: Nature's world “is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden.” The poet teaches and delights by showing not what is but only “what may and should be.” Sidney's poet inhabits a world where poetry plays not only a metaphysical but a social role as well, whether it be Hungarian songs of one's ancestors' valor, the border ballads of the Percy and the Douglas, or even the more humble Irish satires that rhyme rats to death. But in all noble societies the poet commands respect with his ability to lift the mind “from the dungeon of the body to the enjoying of [its] own divine essence” (161).

In his noble life and death Sidney came close to his ideal, but other writers who tried, like Shakespeare, to make a living by their art found the going rough. There was as yet no reading public and no open market that could support an independent author. In all of England 45 books had been published in 1500, and only 460 were published in 1630. Printings were legally limited to 500 copies, and 250 was more usual. There was no author's copyright to protect a writer's work. A manuscript belonged to whoever had a license to print it, not to the person who wrote it. Thomas Churchyard, who put together 60 books during a fifty-year career, was a rare, and unsuccessful, writer who tried to live by the sale of his work, and the poet George Wither (Pope's “wretched Withers”) was a lonely voice far ahead of his time, obsessively insisting that writing was property and that the person who wrote a book owned it.

In these limited economic circumstances, the relationship with patrons necessarily was the central fact of literary life for professional writers. Ninety percent of all published books appeared with a dedication to an actual or a prospective patron (Franklin B. Williams). In late Tudor times about 250 works were dedicated to Elizabeth I alone and similar numbers to her favorite, the earl of Leicester, and her secretary William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Over a twenty-year period at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries there were 80 dedications to the Sidney and Herbert families, the most generous literary patrons of their age. In a time when there were too many writers and too few patrons, the search for patrons never ceased. Robert Greene addressed 16 different great ones in his 17 published books, while Thomas Lodge tried 12 patrons in the period 1584-96. “What need hast thou of me? or of my Muse?” Ben Jonson plaintively asked the most powerful man in the realm in the early seventeenth century, Robert Cecil, “Tofore, great men were glad of Poets. Now, I, not the worst, am covetous of thee” (“To Robert, Earl of Salisbury,” VIII).

An ideal patronage contract of mutual support and respect—what writers offered the patron and what they hoped for in return—is to be found in the dedication to Leicester of The Five Bookes of the Famous, learned, and eloquent man, Hieronimus Osorius (1576): “Neither Princes maye live cleare and knowen to posteritie wythoute the penne and helping hande of learned Arte, neyther men excelling in learning, woulde be either in lyfe reputed or spoken of after death, withoute the countenaunce, defence, and patronage of noble Peeres” (sig. a3). The words already sounded old-fashioned in Stuart times, when the reality of letters had become something far different from Osorius' utopian view. Flattery of person, praise of land and house, condolence and congratulation, masques, exercises of wit, and celebrations of visits, progresses, processions, and marriages were the day-to-day writings a patron required. A glance at the table of contents of the collected writings of even the greatest poets of the time, Donne or Jonson, say, shows how regularly they engaged in some form of service writing. Their skill lies in the way they develop their art of words inside these patronage genres, not outside them.

The relationship of the English writers with their patrons was always difficult, and professional writing in Tudor and Stuart England was a stressful business. Edmund Spenser, coached by his Cambridge tutor Gabriel Harvey, used his poetry quite deliberately to advance his career, and he succeeded far better than most, becoming secretary to a bishop and a clerk in the earl of Leicester's household. With Leicester's support, Spenser later held a secretaryship in Ireland, became a landholder and Sheriff of Cork, and eventually received a modest pension, which he considered inadequate, from Queen Elizabeth. Spenser was one of the first in the new class of educated professional writers who attached himself to a political circle of the great men of his world—Sidney, Leicester, and Raleigh—and proved his worth to the state with such professional writing as his national epic, The Faerie Queene, which identified England's legendary king, Arthur, with its reigning queen, Gloriana-Elizabeth. The poem was designed primarily to please her majesty, but it opened with an address to Sir Walter Raleigh, followed by seventeen dedicatory sonnets to different courtiers. Spenser's poetry was patronage poetry from start to finish, but he was unable entirely to suppress outrage at what life at the feet of the mighty meant for the artist:

Most miserable man, whom wicked fate
Hath brought to court, to sue for [that] ywist,
That few have found, and manie one hath mist!
Full little knowest thou that hast not tride,
What hell it is, in suing long to bide:
To loose good dayes, that might be better spent;
To wast long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to day, to be put back to morrow;
To feed on hope, to pine with feare and sorrow;
To have thy Princes grace, yet want her Peeres;
To have thy asking, yet waite manie yeeres;
To fret thy soule with crosses and with cares;
To eate thy heart through comfortlesse dispaires;
To fawne, to crowche, to waite, to ride, to ronne,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne.

(Mother Hubberd's Tale, l. 892)

John Donne did little better. An early mistake of marrying above his station without his patron's (or his powerful father-in-law's) permission removed him for years from the usual paths of advancement at court. He sought patronage all his life, often with flattery that sounds sycophantic to modern ears, and finally got it, but in a way he did not want, by taking orders and becoming the king's chaplain and dean of Saint Paul's. King James stubbornly refused to favor him, though he admired him greatly, except in the church. But though Donne sought patronage ceaselessly and obsequiously, he, like Spenser, did not conceal his disgust with what went on at a court where everyone, including himself, smiled and watched all that happened with reptilian intensity and a precise calculation of their own advantage “When the Queene frown'd, or smil'd.” Hoping to advance their suits, the court hangers-on idled and gossiped about “who loves; whom; and who by poyson Hasts to an Offices reversion.” Eyeing their rivals nervously, they gossiped about “who' hath sold his land, and now doth beg A licence, old iron, bootes, shooes, and egge-shels.” Breathlessly, they speculated on the sex lives of the great, “who loves whores, who boyes, and who goats” (Satire IV, l. 99).

The arrival of the Stuarts, with their heightened appreciation of the usefulness of art to the state, offered artists new patronage opportunities, of which they were not slow to take advantage. The coterie poet and author of Cleopatra, Samuel Daniel (“well-languaged Daniel”), a tutor and member of the countess of Pembroke's early-Bloomsbury, high-culture circle at Wilton, galloped north posthaste, along with every other office seeker, to greet the new king on his journey south in 1603. Daniel caught up with him at the house of Lucy, countess of Bedford, where James refused to sit still for all of the 72 ottava-rima stanzas of Daniel's Panegyrick. But he listened for a while, and this was all that was necessary. The countess of Bedford had herself earlier hastened to Edinburgh on the news of Elizabeth's death and immediately gotten the trust of the new queen, who needed gossips familiar with the English court. The two, along with the countess of Pembroke, who also became a confidant of Queen Anne, contrived to procure for Daniel the patronage plum of writing the Twelfth Night masque that, as we have seen, allowed the queen to display her legs on her first Christmas season in England. The role he created for her as Athena so pleased her majesty that she made him the licenser of a company of child actor-singers she controlled, the Children of the Queen's Chapel.

Encouraged by his rapid rise, Daniel finished a Senecan tragedy, Philotas, written according to the most advanced neoclassical principles—unities, decorum, and those sorts of things—and used his new authority to get it performed by his troupe of boy players. Cleopatra had been a closet drama, designed only for reading to the highly cultured ears of the Wilton art circle, and Daniel found himself wishing that he had left Philotas in the closet as well when he was called before the Privy Council in early 1605 to explain it.

Philotas, an officer of Alexander the Great, learns of a plot against the king, but since he is already troubled by Alexander's claim to godhead, he fails to tell Alexander of it, and for this he is informed on by two unscrupulous councillors, tortured, and put to death. The story seems to point directly to James's claims of divine right and to Sir Walter Raleigh's failure in 1603 to let the authorities know about the Bye plot. And Wilton had, as we saw earlier, been involved in trying to help Raleigh. But it was now charged that the two vicious councillors in Philotas were portraits of Cecil and Howard, pursuing not Raleigh but Essex to his death (Michel).

Under heavy pressure, Daniel sweated and denied any political purpose. The first three acts had been written before Essex's rebellion, he protested; the play had been passed by the censor; he had read parts of it to the duke of Devonshire, who found no objections; need alone had forced him to print the play and to have it performed. Above all, he wrote to Cecil, my lord must realize that the play was not history but art, a universal story about political activities that occur in all ages: “I p[ro]test I have taken no other forme in personating the Actors yt p[er]formd it, then the very Idea of those tymes, as they appeared unto mee both by the cast of the storie and the universall notions of the affayres of men, w[hi]c[h] in all ages beare the same resemblances, and are measured by one and the same foote of understanding. No tyme but brought forth the like concurrencies, the like interstriving for place and dignitie, the like supplantations, rysings & overthrowes, so yt there is nothing new under the Sunne, nothing theas tymes yt is not in bookes, nor in bookes that is not in theas tymes. And therefore good my lord let no misapplying wronge my innocent writing” (Michel, 37). Daniel squeaked through, just barely, without the loss of his freedom or his ears, but only after learning how dangerous writing that played too forward a part in the affairs of great men and their courts could be.

The stresses and rewards of writing for the court stand out even more sharply in Ben Jonson's career, with its continuous involvement in patronage. Coming from humble circumstances—he was a bricklayer—and, like Shakespeare, lacking a university education, although he went to Westminster school, Jonson made himself the voice of classical correctness in letters and prospered socially and financially in the reigns of James and Charles I beyond any other writer. From the time of James's arrival in England, Jonson was at home in the court, living with Lord d'Aubigny, writing most of his poetry in praise of the important people of the realm, attacking enemies and rivals (Evans), and collaborating in the annual masque. He was equally at home with patrons like the earls of Newcastle and Pembroke and after 1616, he drew an annual pension from the king of a hundred marks and, later, an annual butt of wine. Jonson justified the poet's right to such support by identifying his writing with that of the classical authors. Along with many other advertisements for himself, he published his “Workes” in a sumptuous folio volume, composed learned commentaries on the art of writing, and insisted always that the poet is not merely an adornment but an index to the greatness of a kingdom.

Adept at attacking enemies and flattering the nobility in distinguished poetry, most notably in his praise for the Sidney's style of life at their great house in “To Penshurst,” Jonson's masques provided the court with theater that gave brilliant reality to divine-right ideology. Setting his pieces in front of the spectacles and ingenious machinery of Inigo Jones, Jonson invented a theatrical form in which a grotesque anti-masque first presented various kinds of disorder that were identified with the king's enemies, only to be displaced and controlled in the masque proper, where divine right and hierarchical order triumphed over chaos in poetry, music, and dance. The triumph of order over anarchy emblematized the benign power of the chief spectator, the king, in language sufficiently elevated and symbols sufficiently arcane to give stage life to the divine authority which James Stuart claimed for himself. Year after year, Jonson's masques glanced at the court's affairs of the moment—the success of the new favorite, Buckingham, in The Gypsies Metamorphosed or the successful return from Spain of Prince Charles in Neptune's Triumph—but always Jonson's baroque art blazed the triumph of hierarchy and the mystical authority of kings (Riggs).

Jonson had the greatest success of all the English professional writers working in patronage circumstances, and yet this contrarious and aggressive man never fitted entirely comfortably into the court where he did so well. In his first Christmas there in 1603 he was asked by the Lord Chamberlain to leave the Hall for obstreperous behavior. His manner afterward improved somewhat with his fortunes, though he remained a roughneck, but he always had trouble with the authority and hierarchy of the court that he praised so brilliantly. He was frequently in trouble with the censor, and while making his reputation and living at court, he continued, though less and less frequently, to write plays for the public theater—where he had begun years before as a combative actor—that bring authority of all kinds into question. This tendency climaxed in Bartholomew Fair, a play performed downtown in the Hope Theater in 1614 by Princess Elizabeth's Men. The Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the tutor Humphrey Wasp, and...

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Michael Cameron Andrews (essay date autumn 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Sincerity and Subterfuge in Three Shakespearean Sonnet Groups.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 314-27.

[In the following essay, Andrews explores Shakespeare's sonnets to the young man. The critic contends that the speaker of these sonnets should be understood as a dramatic character separate from his creator, and demonstrates that through the course of the sequence the speaker journeys from insincerity and delusion to anguish.]

Early in Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling comments on the “implicit pathos” of Polonius' final adjuration to Laertes: “Who would not wish to be true to his own self?...

(The entire section is 7674 words.)

James Joseph Davey (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Davey, James Joseph. “The Function of the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's Sonnets,” in The Function of the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 5-27. Trieste, Italy: Università Degli Studi Di Trieste, 1986.

[In the following essay, Davey contends that in Shakespeare's sonnets to the dark lady, the poet moves away from the idealization of the first group of sonnets—those addressed to the young man—and instead emphasizes the dark lady's physical, earthly nature and beauty.]

Shakespeare's Sonnets, though read through with exquisite pleasure, though capable of cutting deeply into the tender marrow of the sensitive reader, are certainly not easily approached...

(The entire section is 9243 words.)

Joel Fineman (essay date summer 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fineman, Joel. “Shakespeare's ‘Perjur'd Eye.’” Representations, no. 7 (summer 1984): 59-86.

[In the following essay, Fineman studies the language, imagery, and rhetorical structure of Shakespeare's sonnets.]

In the first portion of his sonnet sequence—in the subsequence of sonnets addressed to a young man—Shakespeare writes a matching pair of sonnets that develop the way in which his eye and heart initially are enemies but then are subsequently friends. The first sonnet of the pair begins: “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war, / How to divide the conquest of thy sight” (46).1 In contrast, the second sonnet, relying on a...

(The entire section is 14160 words.)

Heather Dubrow (essay date October 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dubrow, Heather. “‘In Thievish Ways’: Tropes and Robbers in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Early Modern England.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 96, no. 4 (October 1997): 514-44.

[In the following excerpt, Dubrow contends that thievery, as it existed in Elizabethan England, is used metaphorically in Shakespeare's sonnets to suggest various types of loss and destabilization.]


Proclaiming her resolve to remain faithful to Romeo, Juliet catalogues the dreadful fates she would accept in lieu of wedding his rival:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in...

(The entire section is 9835 words.)

Jonathan Hart (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hart, Jonathan. “Conflicting Monuments: Time, Beyond Time, and the Poetics of Shakespeare's Dramatic and Nondramatic Sonnets.” In In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, edited by Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster, pp. 177-205. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Hart explores Shakespeare's treatment of the themes of time and death in the sonnets, observing that Shakespeare's rhetoric in the sonnets transcends the boundaries of language and poetic modes.]

In the Sonnets a conflict occurs between the ruins of time and the gilded monuments of...

(The entire section is 16062 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Burrow, Colin. Introduction to The Complete Sonnets and Poems, by William Shakespeare, edited by Colin Burrow, pp. 1-158. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Discusses the date of composition and order of the sonnets, reviews their structural influences, and argues that they are a miscellaneous collection of themes and thoughts rather than an ordered sequence about particular relationships.

Freinkel, Lisa. “Willful Abuse: The Canker and the Rose.” In Reading Shakespeare's Will: The Theology of Figure from Augustine to the Sonnets, pp. 159-236. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.


(The entire section is 300 words.)