Shakespeare's Sonnets Thou Maist Have Thy Will: The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters - Essay

William Shakespeare

Thou Maist Have Thy Will: The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Thou Maist Have Thy Will": The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters

Josephine A. Roberts, Louisiana State University

One of the dangers in teaching Shakespeare's sonnets is that undergraduates may quickly become overwhelmed by the array of unanswered and unanswerable questions that surround the 1609 Quarto. When they come to the sonnets with the expectation of hearing the unmediated voice of the Bard, they confront instead a group of shifting and mysterious figures—the fair young friend(s), the rival poet, and the dark lady. If they share Wordsworth's conviction that "Shakespeare unlocked his heart" in the sonnets,1 they may follow in the wake of many earlier generations of readers who have searched in vain for a key.

To lead students into more fruitful approaches to the sonnets, I prefer to teach the sequence in conjunction with lyrics by contemporary women poets, including Elizabeth I, Aemilia Lanyer, and Lady Mary Wroth. By using a paratactic method—juxtaposing sonnets on related subjects, such as absence, night, lust, betrayal, or constancy—it is possible to see how these poets differ in their treatment of conventional motifs.2 It is also valuable to explore how Shakespeare and the women authors radically transform their Petrarchan heritage, for most of these poets are writing after the extraordinary outpouring of English sonnet sequences in the 1590s. They confront the common problem of how to write in a genre in which the female beloved is generally silent, distant, and unattainable.

One strategy to use in teaching the sonnets is to divide the class into teams, each responsible for researching and discussing a critical perspective on the poetry. Although the particular approaches listed below could easily be changed or expanded, the advantage of having students working together is the opportunity it gives them to discuss the poetry in small groups, to formulate their own interpretations, and then to share their results with the class; often the groups offer vastly different readings of the same poem, especially Sonnets 20, 93, or 116. In the first week of study on the sonnets, I generally meet with each of the teams outside of class to discuss the readings (and in some cases to provide additional reading materials, such as xeroxes of the 1609 Quarto or Wroth's manuscript poems). During the second and third weeks, the teams give their class presentations. The students working on physical features of the texts generally speak last because their topic is the least familiar and requires some extra time for preparation.


Rather than open the study of Shakespeare's sequence by analyzing Thomas Thorpe's dedication to the 1609 Quarto (this topic is actually explored by the last group), we begin with a discussion of Queen Elizabeth's "On Monsieur's Departure":

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.3

Perhaps the first questions to consider are who is the "I" of the poem and who is "another self from whom the speaker has turned away? Initially the reader may assume that "another self is the unnamed "Monsieur" of the title, and that the poem invokes the Petrarchan idea of the beloved as mirror image of oneself. Yet other possibilities immediately occur: could the speaker be referring to the spurning of love (rather than a particular person) or to a part of her own nature that must be suppressed?

Students quickly discover that the identity of "Monsieur" cannot be established with certainty either, for while two manuscripts identify him as the French Due d'Anjou, who departed from England in 1582, a third copy (titled "Sonetto") appears among papers connected with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex.4 These two possibilities invoke radically different situations: in the case of d'Anjou, Elizabeth's poem may well be a politic display of affection for a man whom privately she never intended to marry. On the other hand, if the dashing and charismatic Essex is veiled under the title of "Monsieur," then the "I" may hint at deeper recesses of emotion. The poem plays on the mysterious identity of "Monsieur" in the second stanza, where the speaker laments, "No means I find to rid him from my breast"; here "him" can refer either to the lover or to the allegorical figure of "care" that haunts the speaker. Leicester Bradner, a modern editor of Elizabeth's poetry, classifies "On Monsieur's Departure" as one of six poems of "undoubted authorship" based on its manuscript tradition but is deeply troubled by the implications of the final stanza. Bradner states, "I cannot believe that the Queen would ever have committed to writing personal feelings of this kind, particularly as they show her in a light which would not have pleased her."5 What he may have found especially incredible is the eroticism of the last line, with its dual meanings of die as orgasm and oblivion. Yet one of the characteristic features of this poem is its exploration of a divided self, torn between conflicting impulses of affirmation and surrender. Indeed, the editor's uneasiness in attributing it to Elizabeth may reflect a larger problem encountered when dealing with Shakespeare's sonnets, when some readers assume that the "I" of the poem must be read autobiographically.

In reading "On Monsieur's Departure," students begin to discover alternative methods of interpretation that emphasize the persona's changing states of mind. I often assign to one group of students the introductory chapter of Joel Fineman's Shakespeare's Perjured Eye as critical reading.6 Although undergraduates typically find Fineman's book difficult, they quickly grasp his important thesis concerning how Shakespeare contrasts a poetic of praise for the fair young man with a poetic of paradox in the sonnets explicitly addressed to the dark lady. Out of this fissure in poetics, Shakespeare fashions the persona of the later sonnets, "disrupted, at the same time as it is constituted, by its doubled language and its divided desire."7 In their own readings of the sonnets, students search for examples of contrasting poems that illustrate, on the one hand, the orthodox poetry of praise and, on the other, the later, fractured sense of self. Frequently groups will select Shakespeare's Sonnet 133 for discussion:

Me from myself thy cruel eve hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed.
Of him, myself, and thee, I am forsaken—
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

(11. 5-8)8

From "On Monsieur's Departure" students will be familiar with the image of "myself as both 'my true nature' and 'my beloved friend,' but Shakespeare's sonnet enhances the complexity with its eye/I pun and its emphasis on a triple abandonment. Students also explore how subjectivity is created in the sonnets, as in this case, by means of the persona's continual shifts between past and present, then and now, and here and there.

One of Fineman's most significant claims is that Shakespeare introduces "a subjectivity altogether novel in the history of lyric."9 Because my students examine the sonnets of Shakespeare alongside those of contemporary women poets, they are in a position to test this assertion. They are able, for example, to consider how the persona in Wroth's sequence is neither fixed nor unchanging but moves from an initial position as a passive and powerless dreamer at the beginning of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus to emerge in the final sonnet as a fully conscious, assertive poet who renounces "the discource of Venus, and her sunn."10 Yet saying farewell to the language of love is not the same as forsaking passion, as the speakers of both sequences suggest.

Finally, I invite the group to consider what happens when Shakespeare's sonnets are read aloud, how the "I" of performance compounds interpretation of the subjective "I" of the text. Students may consider, for instance, the effect of reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in its place within the sequence versus its performance in isolation at a wedding service. Or they may consider its very different impact in Emma Thompson's 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne tearfiilly delivers the same sonnet as she overlooks the estate of the man who has betrayed her.


The concept of a sonnet sequence suggests to most readers a clearly defined linear progression; yet while Shakespeare's sonnets are sequentially numbered in the 1609 Quarto, how the order was determined—whether by the author, by the editor, by the printer, or by chance—is unknown. Because of this uncertainty, much criticism on the sonnets has been devoted to rearranging the poems into various configurations. As early as 1640, John Benson reordered Shakespeare's sonnets, interspersed them with lyrics and third-person narratives by other poets, and affixed generic titles, such as "An Intreatie for Her Acceptance" and "A Perjurie."11 Subsequent critics have proposed various rearrangements of the sonnets into related groups that would produce a straightforward narrative, although significantly no reordering has ever won widespread acceptance.12

Rather than asking students to consider particular controversies over sonnet order, I encourage them to explore more general questions dealing with the design of sonnet collections. Many modern reordering schemes are directed toward producing a linear pattern, but what alternative models exist in sonnet sequences written by Shakespeare's contemporaries? Fortunately there is evidence to suggest how early modern poets approached the task of arrangement.

In the case of Mary Wroth's sonnets, the Folger manuscript of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (V.a.104) provides a corrected fair copy of her songs and sonnets, as well as later poems interspersed throughout the text of the prose romance Urania. Students can examine Wroth's reordering of the sequence and the process of selecting, revising, and substantially rearranging the poems in the printed version of her sonnet sequence published in 1621. Wroth's two collections can be compared to see how the author heightened the emotional conflicts of the persona and to what extent she relied on clusters or contrasting groups of sonnets, using circular patterns rather than clear-cut narratives.

Her collection "A Crowne of Sonetts dedicated to Love" (a group of fourteen sonnets in which the last line of one sonnet serves as the first line of the next) also offers a specific model of design: the labyrinth.13 Deriving from Petrarch's Rime 211, the idea of the labyrinth or maze of love was an Elizabethan commonplace, prevalent in literature as well as in gardens and all types of ornamental design. Its associations with the myth of Ariadne, who rescued Theseus only to be later betrayed by him, reinforces the connection between the labyrinth and tragically frustrated love. Recent studies have shown that labyrinths could be categorized into two main types of design: those that have a single point of entry and exit and those that have multiple pathways and points of egress.14 In the case of Wroth's own crown of sonnets, the speaker wanders through a maze of repeated efforts to pay homage to Cupid but emerges with a renewed feeling of entrapment: "Soe though in Love I fervently doe burne, / In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?"15 Interestingly, some of Wroth's greatest changes in her ordering of the Pamphilia to Amphilanthus sequence occur immediately after the appearance of the selfcontained crown of fourteen sonnets.

Further evidence that Shakespeare's contemporaries designed their collections according to nonlinear principles occurs in the manuscript of Robert Sidney's sonnets.16 Although these poems did not appear in print until 1984, the manuscript reveals Sidney's intense interest in the arrangement of his sonnets, for he numbers them in two different series, excluding some of the lyrics in his notebook. He also provides an alternative sequence of thirteen poems, in the center of which he places his own uncompleted crown of sonnets.17 While they remain a part of the larger se quence, this group of thirteen poems may be read entirely separately as an exploration of the speaker's "unlucky" experience in love. P. J. Croft suggests that the multiple numbering systems reflect the author's interest in tracing the "shifting moods of love."18

In turning to Shakespeare's collection, students may apply the concept of the labyrinth by considering how the persona follows, abandons, retreats, and advances along numerous paths in search of love. Instead of placing emphasis on narrative events, students focus more on the dilemma of the poet-lover. This approach has the advantage of freeing readers from trying to construct, with few individualizing details, a characterization of the fair young friend, who "steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth" (20.8).19 Northrop Frye points to the fact that all our knowledge of the friend is mediated through the voice of the poet-lover: "we are forced to conclude that Shakespeare has lavished a century of the greatest sonnets in the language on an unresponsive oaf as stupid as a doorknob and as selfish as a weasel."20 Yet the poet, trapped in a maze of love, sees only intermittently through the walls of his own self-deceptions.

As they explore the design of Shakespeare's collection, students consider the relationships between poems addressed to the fair young friend and those addressed to the dark lady, with special attention to how later sonnets repeat an image or idea included earlier (such as lying in Sonnets 115 and 138, or love and lust in Sonnets 116 and 129). They may also consider the relationship between sonnet sequences and other genres with which they were originally published. For example, the 1609 Quarto prints Shakespeare's sonnets together with "A Lover's Complaint," a long poem written in the voice of a deceived woman. As Katherine Duncan-Jones has shown, there are ample precedents for combining a sonnet sequence featuring a male persona with a ventriloquized female complaint.21 This arrangement can be contrasted with Wroth's sonnet sequence, which appears at the end of the first part of her long prose romance The Countess of Montgomery's Urania. Throughout this fiction the central character, Pamphilia, conceals her inmost feelings of love, fear, and grief from her closest friends; only in the appended sonnet sequence does she reveal the extent of her emotional suffering.


A key problem faced by both Shakespeare and early modern women poets was how to write in a tradition marked by highly polarized gender roles, where the Petrarchan poet-lover is a distinctly masculine subject fashioned in relation to a female other. In considering poets' responses to this challenge, students must deal with the fact that it is often difficult to determine whether a sonnet is addressed to a man or a woman. Critics have traditionally assumed that Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to one or more men and 127-52 to a woman, but the question of the addressee's gender is open for debate in the case of many individual poems.22

Shakespeare's Sonnet 93, for example, deals with the problem of how to discern the beloved's genuine feelings beneath the surface of "love's face":

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


In his 1780 edition of the sonnets, Edmond Malone interpreted the poem as Shakespeare's allusion to his wife's adultery, reading the simile "like a deceived husband" as biographical fact. But this poem is typical of many of the sonnets addressed to the young man in that it uses the words "sweet" and "sweetness."23 The speaker himself identifies with the role of husband, pondering whether to believe in the fidelity of his beloved, who is finally cast in the role of woman, regardless of actual sex: "How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow, / If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show" (11. 13-14). As Stephen Booth suggests, the last line plays on the idea of the deceptive appearance of the apple, which may conceal falsehood and corruption within its core, but it also hints more darkly at the assignment of gender roles, for if a beloved woman might deceive, why might not a beloved man?

As students explore the problems of gendered address in the sonnets, they also consider more generally the issue of homoeroticism. Some of my students read excerpts from Bruce R. Smith's Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England to learn more about early modern attitudes toward same-sex love.24 It is important, I think, to encourage students to discuss the issue, with a particular focus on the interpretation of Sonnet 20. In the debate over whether Shakespeare's sonnets express a denial of sexual desire toward the young man or a veiled admission of it, this sonnet is crucial. It is valuable for students to consider the poem's historical reception, ranging from George Steevens's homophobic outrage in 1780—"It is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation"—to Edmond Malone's reply: "[S]uch addresses to men, however indelicate, were customary in our author's time, and neither imported criminality nor were esteemed indecorous."25 Between these two extremes there is certainly room for a variety of interpretations of the poet's relationship with the fair friend as it evolves and changes over time.

In the case of Wroth's sonnets, the issue of gendered address is even more problematic because Wroth's persona avoids speaking to her beloved directly. Although Amphilanthus's name appears in the title, he is never explicitly mentioned in the sequence, and indeed Wroth's poems apostrophize such abstractions as Night, Absence, Hope, Grief, and Time far more often they address the beloved. Part of the persona's evasiveness may be explained in the context of the social constraints on a woman of Shakespeare's time from dealing frankly with the subject of desire. Yet Wroth develops techniques to circumvent these obstacles, as in the following sonnet:

Deare fammish nott what you your self gave food;
Destroy nott what your glory is to save;
Kill nott that soule to which you spiritt gave;
In pitty, nott disdaine your triumph stood. . . .

On the one hand, the poem can be read as an open confession to her lover, but it can just as easily be interpreted as an address to the god Cupid, with an allusion to Petrarch's Trionfi in line 4. The mythological veil allows the persona to speak with the same bluntness as the male lover Astrophil in crying "Your sight is all the food I doe desire."27 Occasionally a poem that begins as an apostrophe may undergo a subtle shift of address, as in the sonnet beginning "You blessed Starrs," which moves from a description of the heavens to refer to the "Light of my joye, fixt stedfast nor will move."28

Rather than attack her lover directly for his infidelity, Wroth's speaker links him to the mischievous Cupid, who evades control by his mother, Venus, and describes the various punishments the child undergoes.29 At times the speaker seems exhausted by the futile effort involved in concealment, as when she issues a plea to her beloved (masked as Cupid): "I should nott have bin made this stage of woe / Wher sad disasters have theyr open showe."30

To what extent does the persona of Wroth's sequence identify herself as a woman rather than a disembodied lover? When students begin to read the sequence closely, they are apt to notice how frequently Wroth assigns a feminine gender to the abstractions she addresses. For example, she speaks of Night as a female friend: "My thoughts are sad; her face as sad doth seeme: / My paines are long; Her houers taedious are."31 26 The female bonding with Night intensifies in a later sonnet, as Naomi J. Miller notes, when the speaker actually sees herself as part of a larger community of "oprest" lovers, emphasizing the female perspective of the speaker in contrast to "mens phant'sies."32 The speaker's fellowship with feminized Night reappears when she invokes the name of darkness (which "doth truly sute with mee oprest") as it covers a carpet woven of dead leaves: "If trees, and leaves for absence, mourners bee / Noe mervaile that I grieve, who like want see."33

Wroth's speaker often identifies with images of oppression, as in the sonnet comparing her adoration of her beloved to that of the Indians, "scorched with the sunne."34 But perhaps her most graphic reference to the female body occurs in the following sonnet:

Faulce hope which feeds butt to destroy, and spill
What itt first breeds; unaturall to the birth
Of thine owne wombe; conceaving butt to kill.
And plenty gives to make the greater dearth.35

Here she describes false hope in an image of miscarriage, which "feeds butt to destroy," and links it in the next stanza to an example of the political ruler who rewards and advances his subjects only to betray them. By moving from the body natural to the body politic, she hints at the tyrannical power of delusory hope to entrap the lover.36 Like Shakespeare, Wroth emphasizes the speaker's struggle with self-deception, to resist the temptation that in "our faults by lies we flattered be" (138.14).


Although the term dark lady appears in nearly all discussions of the sonnets, significantly Shakespeare's speaker never refers to her as a lady and only once as "dark" (147.14).37 It is not surprising, however, that the phrase has such widespread currency, for the dark lady has become emblematic of female evil. She stands in opposition to nearly every cultural value associated with the idealized Petrarchan beloved, who is fair, chaste, and unattainable. While James Winny has questioned whether the sonnets may refer to more than one woman, the mistress who pursues the fair young man in Sonnets 40-42 gives every indication of being the same active and aggressive wooer of the later Sonnets 133-35.38 The speaker intimates her married status ("In act thy bed-vow broke" [152.3]) and strongly implies that she is a source of disease and contagion (137.14; 144.14).

One key question for students to consider is whether the so-called dark lady functions primarily as a character (comparable to Cleopatra or Cressida) or as a universal symbol or both. As in the case of the fair young man, all knowledge of her is filtered through the voice of the poet-lover, who freely admits his own prejudices, lust, and obsession. On the one hand, he praises her unadorned black beauty because it stands opposed to false show (127), but the same blackness comes to serve as a sign of her interior evil ("In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds" [131.13]).

The multiple implications of blackness are disturbing to some students, who find that older editions of the sonnets offer an unsatisfactory one-word annotation of "black" as brunette. Indeed, earlier sonnet collections, such as Astrophil and Stella, had explored the dynamics of fairness versus blackness in relation to physical appearance (for example, Stella's dark eyes—"She even in blacke doth make all beauties flow" [7.11]). But if the clash between dark and light is a conventional motif, in Shakespeare's collection it assumes complex dimensions, for the love associated with the young man is described as "fair, kind, and true" (105.9), whereas love for the woman is characterized in polar oppositions.

That blackness might suggest more than hair color is certainly an idea pursued by women poets contemporary with Shakespeare, who explore the racial implications of the term. Wroth's sonnet "Like to the Indians, scorched with the sunne" sets forth the contrast between the dark skin of the Indians and Pamphilia's fairness, unexpectedly to the advantage of the natives, who worship with hope, whereas Wroth's persona is pale with grief and despair. Similarly, in Elizabeth Cary's play The Tragedy of Mariam (1613) the central female figures, in competition with each other, are characterized as fair and black: Herod makes the racial implications of blackness explicit when he compares his sister Salome to Mariam: "Go your ways, / You are to her a sun-burnt blackamoor."39 Students quickly see how in Shakespeare's sonnets "blackness is neither a purely aesthetic nor a moral category but the site for crucial negotiations of sexual politics and cultural and racial difference."40 At the end of Kim F. Hall's important study Things of Darkness is a collection of lyrical poems that illustrates the highly charged nature of the tropes of blackness. Her book also provides invaluable visual material for exploring how modern Western notions of race were developing during the same period in which Shakespeare was writing his poems.

As further background to the sonnets, students may explore some of the misogynist ideas current in Shakespeare's time, such as the diatribes against cosmetics, often regarded as a symbol of female pride, falsehood, and lasciviousness. The speaker's claim that in the present age "each hand hath put on nature's pow'r, / Fairing the foul with art's false borrowed face" (127.5-6) can be considered in the light of Donne's paradoxical encomium "That Women ought to paint."41 They may consider how the speaker's principal accusation against the dark lady—her sexual aggression—can be viewed in the context of the treatment of women in the conduct books, where they are repeatedly enjoined to practice modesty and discretion; the illustrated frontispiece of Richard Brathwait's The English Gentlewoman 1631), together with its accompanying explanationof the emblems, offers students a highly accessible means of measuring how far the dark lady departs from the prevailing definitionof the submissive, careful wife.42

Students also enjoy researching some of the folklore and proverbs concerning women that relate specifically to the dense verbal texture of Shakespeare's sonnets. With the aid of Tilley's Dictionary of the Proverbs, they can discover the multiplicity of adages related to the subject of women's will. They range from the simple—"Women will have their wills"—to the complex—"Will will have will (wilt) though will woe win."43 They quickly begin to recognize the presence of bawdy innuendo surrounding the word will, which Booth demonstrates might refer more generally to lust, as well as specifically to both the male and female sex organs.44 The proverbs repeatedly imply a view of woman as carnally insatiable, an idea expressed most forcefully by Edgar in King Lear when he reads over Goneril's seductive letter to Edmund and exclaims against her lasciviousness: "O indistinguish'd space of woman's will!" (4.6.271). Occasionally the proverbs point to the sexual double standard ignored by Edgar: "Women must have their wills while they live because they make none when they die."45 This proverb plays on the fact that few women held land or property in their own names unless they were rich widows. Once students become familiar with the range of will's Elizabethan connotations and the negative associations of the term with women, they are in a better position to interpret Shakespeare's elaborate wordplay in the later sonnets (especially 134-36 and 143).

Despite the speaker's description of the dark lady as "my female evil" (144.5), some contemporary poets attempted to counteract this cultural stereotype of women. One of the most important works to confront the issue was Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Devs Rex Ivdaeorvm (1611), published only two years after Shakespeare's sonnets. Lanyer carefully constructs her book as a defense of women, with a series of nine dedications to powerful female patrons, including Queen Anne: Princess Elizabeth; Lady Arbella Stuart; Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke; Lucy Harington, countess of Bedford; Margaret Russell, countess dowager of Cumberland (Lanyer's principal patron); and others. Even more important, Lanyer extends her praise of womankind from the highborn to the "Vertvovs Reader," addressed in the prose preface, to whom she speaks frankly about the need to defend the reputation of women. She anticipates the argument of her major poem by stressing the importance of women at each stage of Christ's life, "from the time of his conception, till the houre of his death."46 By linking examples of wise and virtuous women from the Old Testament with those of the New, Lanyer creates a vision of womankind that is designed to "inforce all good Christians and honourable minded men to speake reverently of our

Central to the structure of Lanyer's poem is the dramatic monologue spoken by the character of Pilate's wife and identified on the title page as "Eues Apologie in defence of Women." Students are naturally attracted to this section of the poem because it is a highly imaginative recreation of what Pilate's wife may have said to warn her husband against condemning Christ to death.48 The monologue is framed with the melancholy recognition that Pilate did not heed his wife's dream, and that it was he, not she, who would act willfully.

Pilate's wife insists that the crucifixion is an action undertaken by men alone, and that this historical event frees women from the taint of Eve's fall. Pilate's wife insists that Eve was tricked by Satan's temptation because, in her innocence, she was unprepared to detect guile or cunning. By contrast, "Adam can not be excusde" because, as Lanyer argues, he was not deceived:

If Eue did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?49

Thus Lanyer's division of responsibility for the Fall does not completely exonerate Eve, but it does place the major burden on Adam's shoulders. Rather than presenting Eve as a vain and self-centered seductress, Lanyer offers a portrait of a loyal, devoted wife, "whose fault was onely too much loue" in sharing the apple with her husband.50

Lanyer modulates the voice of Pilate's wife with increasing fervor as she mounts this defense of her first mother; the argument reaches its climax in line 809, when she argues that any evil in Eve must derive ultimately from Adam and then turns to remind Pilate that Eve's sin was small by comparison to his. On this basis she will make her claim for equality: "Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine / Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?" Pilate's wife thus goes beyond merely removing the "staine / Vpon our Sexe" caused by Eve's fall, for she defiantly denounces men's claim to rule.51

What were the precedents for Lanyer's extraordinary dramatic monologue? Three apocryphal gospels include positive references to Pilate's wife, who was named Procula (or Procla) and was eventually made a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church.52 But Lanyer may have been familiar with a more immediate dramatic tradition developed in the fifteenth-century English cycle plays. Pilate's wife appears as a character in three of the surviving mysteries—the Ludus Coventriae (or N-Town plays), the Cornish Ordinalia, and the York cycle. In each of these cycles, the dream of Pilate's wife comes directly from Satan, who seeks to forestall Christ's crucifixion.53 The episode is most extensively drama tized in the York cycle, where Procula is a vain woman, proud of her husband's position: "Wife to Sir Pilate here, prince without peer. / All well of all womanhood I am, witty and wise."54 Satan warns her in the dream that if Pilate puts Christ to death, she will lose all of her riches, and so she hastily sends a messenger to stop him. In the York play Pilate's wife serves as Satan's unwitting agent and instrument; in fact Procula becomes a second Eve in the way in which she falls through pride.

Lanyer's poem is all the more remarkable because it opposes the earlier medieval dramatic tradition of Pilate's wife. Instead of offering a demonic dream inspired by Satan, Lanyer presents the dream of Pilate's wife as a divinely inspired vision. She creates a highly sympathetic portrait of the wife who genuinely wants to help her husband see the truth and to spare the life of Christ ("Condemne not him that must thy Sauiour be").55 Most important, Lanyer seeks to vindicate both Pilate's wife and Eve and, in so doing, to break the misogynistic identification of woman with evil.

As students begin to recognize the degree of Lanyer's innovation in creating "Eues Apologie in defence of Women," they may be surprised to learn that the first editor of Lanyer's poems, A. L. Rowse, seriously proposed her as a candidate for Shakespeare's dark lady, and that he regarded Salve Devs as a reply to the sonnets.56 They will discover the irony that the author who wrote most powerfully against the myth of "female evil" was cast into the literal role. In order to make her fit the part of Shakespeare's mistress, Rowse provided his own modern stereotyping of what he believed to be Lanyer's loose character; but despite his best efforts, he failed to uncover any documentary evidence that the two authors even knew each other. Yet in calling attention to Lanyer's poetry, Rowse performed a valuable service: her Salve Devs Rex Ivdaeorvm can be read as a counterdiscourse to Shakespeare's own literary creation of the dark lady.57


The task of the last group is to examine the physical features of the 1609 Quarto, to consider where the text comes from and how the process of transmission from manuscript to print affects interpretation of the verse. Students begin with Thomas Thorpe's vexing dedication, which they may analyze by comparing it with other similar prefaces.58 While they will certainly disagree over its meaning—whether the "onlie begetter" of the sonnets refers to the author, the person addressed, or the intermediary who obtained the handwritten copy for Thorpe—the advantage of considering the dedication is that it provides a reminder of the lost manuscript(s) that forms the basis of the printed text. Unlike the other groups, which work exclusively with a modern edition of the sonnets, this last group also consults a xerox of the 1609 Quarto so that they can become familiar with some of the physical features of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization that are part of the original text.

Because most undergraduates know little about the nature of Elizabethan printing houses and their practices, it is important to warn them against assuming that the typographical oddities of the Quarto are authorial. In fact, meticulous analysis of the Quarto has revealed that the punctuation of the sonnets is the work not of the poet but of two compositors in George Eld's printshop.59 The frequent and heavy use of punctuation throughout the 1609 Quarto appears to be at variance with what we know of Shakespeare's own habit of light punctuation in the portion of the manuscript play Sir Thomas More attributed to him: but since no autograph copy of the sonnets survives, it is impossible to tell to what extent the printed text departs from the original.

Fortunately students can see the process of transmission at work in Wroth's sonnets when they compare a xerox of the Folger's autograph manuscript with the 1621 printed text of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. They quickly notice how the manuscript provides a punctuation that is mainly rhetorical (rather than grammatical) and that indicates where the pauses belong in reading aloud. A good example is illustrated below, where the author's absence of punctuation suggests that there is no break between the first and second quatrains: "then hopes still bee / bred in my brest" (11. 4-5). However, the compositors of the 1621 text inserted a period at the end of the first quatrain, breaking the enjambement of the line and disrupting its meaning. After comparing only one or two of Wroth's poems in manuscript and print, students can see how radically the compositors, working with a printinghouse style, could change the text before them.

When students return to the 1609 Quarto, they may regard the material text with a greater degree of skepticism, but they also express a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of meaning conveyed by accidentals. This group often analyzes the 1609 text of Sonnet 20, with its reference to the "Master Mistris of my passion." They consider what difference it makes that these words are capitalized and unhyphenated in the printed text. When they compare the poem with modern critical editions, they can see how some editors treat "Master" as a lowercase subordinate adjective, while others treat it as a hyphenated appositive to "Mistris." The ambiguities of syntax cannot easily be resolved, and the material approach to the text often calls attention to shades of meaning overlooked when the poem is discussed by earlier groups. The Quarto version of Sonnet 126 is also a good candidate for analysis, since students discover that the printed text inserts two sets of parentheses following the 12-line sonnet. Because this poem is often regarded as marking the division between the poems addressed to the fair young friend and those to the dark lady, it is particularly valuable to consider what the brackets might mean. Are they simply an indication that the printer thought something was missing, or do they reflect the author's expression of loss or incompletion?

Even more curious are the italicized words found in the 1609 Quarto. Again, textual study of Eld's printing house has shown that his books often contain italicized proper names as well as a selection of italicized common nouns. 60 For this reason it is impossible to know whether the italicized Will found in several of the sonnets (134-36 and 143) derives from the printer or the author. But surely the italicized name in the 1609 Quarto calls attention to the complexity of the wordplay. For example, Sonnet 143 begins with an epic simile, in which the speaker compares his lover to a distressed housewife, torn between running after her chickens and attending to her crying baby. This poem appears late in the sequence and so is generally assumed to be addressed to the dark lady (although students working on gender construction may point out that a satirical address to the fair young friend is at least a possibility). In the sestet the poet-lover casts himself in the role of the baby chasing after the mother: "So will I pray that thou maist have thy Will, / If thou turne back and my loude crying still" (1609 Q, 11. 13-14). Part of the comedy of the sonnet depends on the reversal of roles (the dark lady domesticated, the eternizing poet reduced to babbling babe), but the speaker's frustrated desire is summed up in the multiple meanings of his own name. Here class discussion can draw on nearly all of the critical approaches, including the persona's fractured sense of identity, what it means to satisfy another's will and yet remain Will.

This complex wordplay has its counterpart in Wroth's Sonnet P55, which concludes the first subgroup of poems in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. While a number of Wroth's lyrics involve wordplay on "worth" as well as "will," this sonnet is especially rich in the way it alternates between the concepts of will as earthly, passionate desire and will as a driving aspect of the immortal soul. 61 The speaker describes the fires of love as all-consuming, able to purify her heart "to theyr best pleasing will"; but in the last line, the speaker asserts her own control over love in an affirmation of both desire and constancy: "Yett love I will till I butt ashes prove." 62 Interestingly, in the Folger manuscript the author does not italicize "will" or call attention to what might be a pun on the name of her lover, William Herbert. Instead she emphasizes the persona's identity as Pamphilia, "all-loving," with the signature surrounded by the repeated sign of s fermé (a symbol of herself as a member of the Sidney family).63 The simple italics in the 1621 printed text give only a hint of Wroth's arrangement of the persona's name, encircled by the author's larger identity. Thus the manuscript Pamphilia reflects the complex representation of subjectivity, in which the persona and author are not equated.

There are numerous advantages to teaching Shakespeare's sonnets alongside the works of his female contemporaries. Many of the material features of the 1609 Quarto which are most puzzling to students become clearer and easier to understand when they are viewed in the light of authors such as Wroth, for whom we have surviving autograph manuscripts. How Shakespeare treats gender in the sonnets can be studied in relation to the way in which women deal with some of the same problems of trying to create a new poetics by finding alternatives to the older Petrarchan tradition, with its starkly opposed gender roles. Students can compare how Shakespeare and contemporary women poets engaged in the process of fashioning subjectivity, using a variety of creative methods. In the case of Elizabeth I, Aemilia Lanyer, and Lady Mary Wroth, we are only beginning to recognize the magnitude of their accomplishments. Above all, the technique of parataxis tends to undercut bardolatry by showing that Shakespeare's creation of subjectivity in the sonnets was not an isolated stroke of genius. The juxtaposition with women authors by no means diminishes Shakespeare's achievement in creating some of the greatest poetry in English—"Thou maist have thy Will"—but it enhances our understanding of it.


1 William Wordsworth, "Scorn not the Sonnet" (1827) in Wordsworth: Poetical Works., ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford UP, 1969), 206.

2 For a discussion of parataxis and its application to the study of women's writing, see Laurie A. Finke, Feminist Theory, Women's Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1992), 28.

3The Poems of Queen Elizabeth I, ed. Leicester Bradner (Providence, RI: Brown UP, 1964), 5.

4 Bradner, ed., 73. Other useful discussions of the poem include Ellen M. Caldwell, "John Lyly's Gallathea: A New Rhetoric of Love for the Virgin Queen" in Women in the Renaissance: Selections from English Literary Renaissance, Kirby Farrell, Elizabeth H. Hageman, and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988), 69-87; and Leonard Forster, The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969), 122-47.

5Bradner, ed., xiii.

6 See Joel Fineman, Shakespeare 's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986), 1-48.

7 Fineman, 84.

8 Quotations of Shakespeare's sonnets follow Stephen Booth's edition, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1977).

9 Fineman, 48.

10Pamphilia to Amphilanthus in The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, ed. Josephine A. Roberts (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983), P103.9. Quotations of Wroth's poetry and numeric citations of her sonnets follow this edition, which uses as copy-text the Folger Shakespeare Library autograph manuscript of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus with the order of the poems revised to reflect the arrangement of the 1621 printed edition.

11 For an account of the impact of Benson's 1640 miscellany, entitled Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare, Gent., see Margreta de Grazia, "The Motive for Interiority: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Hamlet." Style 23 (1989): 430-44; and her Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 163-73.

12 For interesting discussions of attempts to rearrange the sonnets, see Brents Stirling, The Shakespeare Sonnet Order: Poems and Groups (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1968); J. W. Lever, The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London: Methuen, 1956); and John Padel, New Poems by Shakespeare: Order and meaning restored to the Sonnets (London: Herbert Press, 1981).

13One of my students, Elena Khalturina, called my attention to the importance of the "crown of sonnets" in twentieth-century Russian poetry, where the crown typically consists of fourteen sonnets, followed by a fifteenth, or magistral, sonnet that combines the first lines of all the previous sonnets.

14 See Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), 46-63.

15Wroth, P90.13-14.

16British Library Add. MS 58435.

17See The Poems of Robert Sidney, ed. P. J. Croft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 124.

18 Croft, ed., 112.

19 Note the pun here on amaze and a maze.

20 Northrop Frye, "How True a Twain" in The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Edward Hubler, ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 23-53, esp. 27.

21 Katherine Duncan-Jones, "Was the 1609 Shakespeares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?" Review of English Studies 34 (1983): 151-71.

22See de Grazia, "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 35-49, esp. 4041; and Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and its Counter-discourses (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1995), 122-25.

23See Shakespeare's Sonnets 4.10; 13.4-8; 29.13; 35.14; 76.9; 89.10; and 95.1.

24See Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare 's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991), 225-70. On the sonnets, see also Joseph Pequigney, Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare 's Sonnets (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1985); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), 28-48; and Martin Green, The Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Examination of Sexual Elements in Shakespeare's Language (London: Charles Skilton, 1974).

25Quoted in Smith, 230.

26Wroth, P15.1-4.

27Wroth, PI5.9. In this passage Wroth invokes Astrophil's famous line: "'But ah,' Desire still cries, 'give me some food'" (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler Jr. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962], Astrophil and Stella, 71.9 and 14).

28Wroth, P47.1 and 10.

29See Wroth, P58, P64, P70, and P96.

30 Wroth, P48.12-13.31

31 Wroth, P13.9-10.

32Wroth, P17.11 and 3. See Naomi J. Miller, "Rewriting Lyric Fictions: The Role of the Lady in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, eds. (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1990), 295310, esp. 299-300.

33 Wroth, P22.3 and 13-14.

34 Wroth, P25.1.

35 Wroth, P40.1-4.

36 For the political implications of P40 (Wroth's Sonnet 35), see Nona Fienberg, "Mary Wroth and the Invention of Female Poetic Subjectivity" in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller, eds. (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991), 175-90, esp. 183.

37 See Pequigney, 144.

38 See James Winny, The Master-Mistress: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968), 91.

39 Elizabeth Gary, Lady Falkland, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, ed. Barry Weiler and Margaret W. Ferguson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994), 131.

40 Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995), 116.

41 John Donne, Paradoxes and Problems (1633) in John Donne: Selected Prose, ed. Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 1-22, esp. 7-8.

42 For reproductions of Brathwait's frontispiece, see Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England, Kate Aughterson, ed. (London: Routledge, 1995), figs. 4-5; and the cover and frontispiece of Attending to Women in Early Modern England, Betty S. Travitsky and Adele F. Seeff, eds. (Newark: U of Delaware P; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994).

43 Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1950), 749 and 726.

44 For a discussion of six distinct meanings of will, see Booth, ed., 466-67.

45 Tilley, 748.

46 Aemilia Lanyer, Salve Devs Rex Ivdaeorvm (London, 1611), f3r-v.

>47 Lanyer, f3r-v.

48 The character of Pilate's wife is mentioned in only one biblical verse, Matthew 27:19: "When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him."

49 Lanyer, D[l]r-v. Lanyer's argument may be based on an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:14: "And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression."

50 Lanyer, D[l]v.

51 Lanyer, D2r and D[l]v.

52 The three apocrypha include the Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, the Paradosis Pilate, or Trial and Condemnation of Pilate, and the Letter of Pilate to Herod. These texts are reprinted in The Apochryphal New Testament, ed. J. K. Elliott (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 164-85, 208-11, and 222-23.

53 In the Ludus Coventriae, Satan's warning to Pilate's wife is given in dumb show; see The N-Town Play, ed. Stephen Spector, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford UP for the Early English Text Society, 1991), 1:317. In the Cornish Ordinalia, Beelzebub tells Pilate's wife that she and her family will be punished if Christ is put to death; see The Cornish Ordinalia: A Medieval Dramatic Trilogy, trans. Markham Harris (Washington, DC: Catholic U of America P, 1969), 138. The most developed characterization of Pilate's wife appears in the York cycle: see York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, ed. Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 154-66.

54 "Christ before Pilate 1: The Dream of Pilate's Wife" in Beadle and King, eds., 154-74, esp. 156.

55 Lanyer, C[4]v.

56 See A. L. Rowse, The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978).

57 The beginning stanzas of Lanyer's poem offer "An Invective against outward beauty unaccompanied by virtue" (marginalia, 1. 185), in which Lanyer mentions a number of examples, including Lucrece, Cleopatra, Rosamund, and Matilda. Janel Mueller calls attention to this passage as a reflection of Lanyer's interest in "how female moral agency is represented in recent English secular poetry and drama"; see "The Feminist Poetics of Aemilia Lanyer's 'Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum'" in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, eds. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994), 208-36, esp. 214.

58 On the Thorpe dedication, see Donald W. Foster, "Master W. H., R.I.P.," PMLA 102 (1987): 42-54. A facsimile of the 1609 Quarto is readily available in Booth's edition of the sonnets.

59 See MacD. P. Jackson, "Punctuation and the Compositors of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609," The Library, 5th ser., 30 (1975): 1-24.

60 See Alice Walker's study of the quarto of Troilus and Cressida printed by Eld in 1609, the same year in which he published Shakespeare's sonnets: "The Textual Problem of 'Troilus and Cressida'." Modern Language Review 45 (1950): 459-64, esp. 461-62.

61 Sonnets that pun on Wroth/worth include P1 5, P25, P35, and P84: the puns on will are more numerous: P3, P6, P7, P8, P12, P15, P20, P30, P40, P47, P49, P55, P64, P69, P89, and P103.

62 Wroth, P55.6 and 14.

63 For other examples of Wroth's use of the same symbol, see Lady Mary Wroth 's Love 's Victory: The Penshurst Manuscript, ed. Michael G. Brennan (London: Roxburghe Club, 1988), 16.

Source: "Thou maist have thy Will: The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 407-23.