Not many stories about Shakespeare that are either credible or interesting survived the poet: but one can be found in an additional note to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which recalls him as ‘the more to be admired q[uia] he was not a company keeper, lived in Shoreditch, wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ This sounds true in more than one way; perhaps Shakespeare did suffer from headaches as well as high principles and good manners. But what makes the anecdote memorable is that it so nicely sums up a writer’s struggle against another kind of takeover bid: that made by the ‘Society’ of readers and of criticism. He needs to be read, but read on his own terms. Shakespeare said in the Sonnets: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’
The Sonnets are in themselves a monument to that struggle, a battle both lost and won. The attempt to make Shakespeare a ‘company keeper’ even conditioned their first appearance. In 1609, late in the dramatist’s career, a small volume called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’ came into print, with a dedicatory page so curious that it has been used, from at least the earlier 19th century, to throw light on poems found obscure or simply not read for a hundred years or more before that. Victorian readers in practice resolved the difficulties they met by taking the dedication to indicate a simple human drama narrated in the Sonnets and involving two personalities as well as the poet’s: the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady’. For a very long time – this approach still dominates at least the more conservative or biographical criticism – the Sonnets have been read as telling some kind of love story, the objects a man and a woman (Sonnets 1-126, 127-152): and the far more important figure of the man is to be met in that ‘Mr. W.H.’ whom most commentators take to be addressed in the dedication as the ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’ of these poems.
In the later 1860s a French librarian, M. Philarète Chasles, published in the Athenaeum an observation largely dismissed at the time and only very occasionally glanced at since. I hadn’t myself heard of him when some years ago I pleasedly ‘discovered’ what I only later found this almost-forgotten foreign scholar had propounded a century earlier. And Shakespeare’s biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, even now refers to him in a footnote as ‘a singularly gullible gentleman’, and to his suggestion as ‘this tormented reading’. What Chasles tried to point out in 1867 was that the Sonnets volume begins with what is recognisably a lapidary or monumental inscription.
Some of what Chasles proposed about the dedication is wrong – he couldn’t get clear of the whole ‘fair young man’ imbroglio, and insisted on seeing the book as dedicated to Southampton. All the same, he looked at the page in front of him with aesthetic intelligence. Curiously, many commentators on the Sonnets, a work perhaps more intensely debated than anything else Shakespeare wrote, have pondered the complications of the dedication without mentioning a simple fact. Every word in it is separated from every other by full stops. Roman inscriptions divided their close-packed words just so. When this literal habit is added to the visual form of the dedication – shaped seemingly with a conscious attempt at pattern, even perhaps intending the design of a Classical urn – then it becomes clear that the maker of this dedication has a perfectly definite purpose. He has worked in ambitious deference to a fashion then beginning to hold its own in the visual arts of Renaissance Europe.
What Chasles couldn’t do was to make complete sense of what he saw. If this is easier now, the reason must be partly the help more recently given by such learned work on the art of inscriptions as John Sparrow’s, whose Visible Words, Line upon Line and Lapidaria are gratefully quoted in this and the following paragraph. For some three hundred years after the mid-15th century, a new art born in Italy swept Europe, accompanying the greater visual arts. Sculptors, painters and then printers started to imitate Roman stonecutters, ‘never surpassed for the beauty of their lettering’. Simple paragraphing gave way to a new and distinctive lineation, ‘a significant text and a spatial representation of that text appropriate to its meaning’ (a form most readily called to mind now by good Augustan tombstones, suitably the relic of the art that has proved most enduring in England). Latin was par excellence the language of inscriptions because of its linguistic character, its inflected flexibility, its freedom from ‘articles and particles’. Inscriptions are laconic; and during the Renaissance the new art forged had a ‘calculated and felicitous ambiguity’.
This ambiguity is important, for – calculated if not felicitous – it underlies the difficulty for centuries found in the Sonnets’ dedication. For English is, as Sparrow says, not at all a lapidary language. Mr W.H. and T.T. were trying clumsily to do with it what more brilliant if small-scale artists had done in this Latin inscription of 1592 on the fifth bell in the Chapel Tower of Winchester College:
This says: ‘Bell-notes are prayers from earth to heaven as well as blessings descending to earth from the skies.’ The finest inscriptions of the time (some of the best are gathered into the Lapidaria, volumes printed with great beauty by Stanley Morison) work with this grace and wit, minute yet monumental. Carefully central or final in climax, a single verb or pregnant noun will so govern contrasting predicates as to reflect the tragi-comedy of the human condition. Thus Robert Burton (‘Democritus Junior’), the sad creator of the great Anatomy of Melancholy, is commemorated (1639) in the Cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford:
CUI VITAM DEDIT ET MORTEM
I follow here Sparrow’s slightly improved and cleaned-up version: the original at Christ Church punctuates exactly like the Sonnets’ dedication, but with commas between the words instead of full stops. The play of wit is obvious either way: the intellectual withdraws from the social (‘known to few’) to make possible his own work (‘unknown to fewer’); and ‘withdrawal’ itself, in more senses than one, may be the source and condition of that melancholia which gave Burton his great Anatomy while destroying the man himself.
The dedicatory inscription of Q (as the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets is known to scholars) lacks this learned or clerical economy. But its careful structure, which perhaps aspires to resemble an urn (another form of Renaissance wit – ‘figured’ writing) seems thus to attempt a classic statement. Linguistically, it falls between two stools, trying to add to the word-order of a Classical Latin sentence the syntactic ambiguity of a later age of inscription. The first half up to ‘WISHETH’ mimics in English Latin word-order: ‘Mr W.H. wishes to the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets all happiness and that eternity he, our ever-living poet, has himself promised (to another and to himself)’ is what it means. This solemn pastiche is then confounded by the bringing into play of the (in this case disruptive) bifocal verb of inscriptions. Having concluded one period, ‘WISHETH’ has to generate a second, in order to work – in theory – like ‘AUDITE’ and ‘DEDIT’ above. Not only Mr W.H. WISHETH but also and equally WISHETH T.T. the well-wishing adventurer.
The inventor of this artlessly artful device had, I would suggest, a motive beyond the saving of type and ink. And the clue to it lies in the first words of the inscription, that ‘ONLIE. BEGETTER.’ which has only begotten so much and such vexed discussion for upwards of two centuries. If academic studies of Q sometimes seem low in their appreciation of the aesthetic, they are hardly readier with the theological. Editors and commentators have with extraordinary frequency pronounced ‘beget’ in this context to mean ‘get’, ‘procure’, or ‘inspire’. But this simple word had for Elizabethans the straightforward sense it still has for us. To beget is literally to father, and metaphorically to give life. For the English Renaissance mind there was only one ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’: God, the Father and Maker of all things, who as the First Person of the Trinity ‘only begot’ (all alone, uniquely and for ever) the Second Person, God’s Son Jesus Christ who was the ‘only-begotten of the Father’. And it is this same God the Father who, as Jarweh of the Old Testament, defined himself by saying: ‘I am that I am.’
In their verbally-reciprocal sentence Mr W.H. and T.T. are dedicating their book with, literally, the greatest possible placatory deference (even if with also a little friendly humour). The dedicatee, the divine father who begot these ensuing sonnets on his Muse, can only conceivably be Shakespeare – the Sonnets are, after all, like children, called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES’. As the (again, literally) middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. (whom we know to be Thomas Thorpe) render back to the poet ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ himself, so do the inscriptional lineation and syntax work to involve the three men in a three-in-one, one-in-three pattern of mutual good. The dedicatory inscription is, in short, one of those now quite dead Trinitarian conceits or devices that haunt the art of the English Renaissance even in stone: Trinitarian (three-sided) houses were then designed and built, like Triangular Lodge, erected at Rushton, Northamptonshire, in 1594-7, with over the doorway the text: ‘TRES TESTIMONIUM DANT.’ The builder, not very surprisingly, was named Tresham.
Tresham, a converted Catholic, was putting up a brave show. The intentions of Mr W.H. and T.T. can similarly be guessed at. The very difficult doctrine of the Trinity clearly fulfils a distinct purpose in theological terms: it locates at the heart of Christianity a God creative and loving, and always in process of giving life. As such, the figure can be used for saying something about the peculiar conditions, at once private and public, of literary creativity. The middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. are selling a nice idea about literature. And they are manifestly selling it too (and first) to their First Person, the writer himself: the dedication says winsomely that, to the withdrawn poet, the publisher and the sales manager (if that is what the Holy Ghost is) are vital to the whole business of creativity. This is why the language of the inscription pleadingly and seductively interpenetrates itself, three-in-one and one-in-three: Shakespeare is given what he gives, ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ – and what keeps him ever-living is his publisher and his middle-man.
From this dedication two conclusions can be drawn. Both are important, yet the two are in a kind of opposition to each other. The first is simple. Shakespeare cannot have consented to the publication of the Sonnets. They are unauthorised or ‘pirated’ (not a rare circumstance several centuries before the Copyright Act). The dedication is meaningless except from its function of earnest rhetorical persuasion: the poet is being soothed and talked round. As I write, the most recent number of a Sunday newspaper magazine quotes a fashion designer whose sketchbook, published without his knowledge, was then dedicated to him: ‘You cannot dedicate a book to somebody who did the book. I am a little annoyed.’ Somebody clearly expected Shakespeare to be more than a little annoyed. But the obviousness of the poet’s reluctance has to be balanced against the second conclusion: these are no ordinary pirates.
Discussion of the Sonnets is difficult because the grounds of argument have become so confused. Belief that the edition is unauthorised has in the past been firmly linked with, or has even derived from, disapprobation of the text – a reaction often, in my view, dependent on actual dislike, not of the work of the compositors, but of the poems themselves. This is a subject I shall return to. For the moment it can be said that it is possible to believe the Sonnets to be unauthorised and yet to find Q basically a very good text: sensitively printed, close to the author’s own manuscripts which were evidently, even if in the form of a transcript, the copy for this edition. These pirates have therefore some degree of surprising authority. And this is a conclusion supported by the dedication itself. In literary terms, it’s no good (Shakespeare could never have had a hand in its dinky muddled pretentiousness), yet all the same it has its ‘idea’.
In other dedications Thomas Thorpe, who was a literate man, shows something of the same ambition, the same nerve, the same boisterous self-confidence. But the Sonnets inscription has more than this to provoke thought. Either T.T. or Mr W.H. is in some sense so much in touch with Shakespeare’s work as to seem to be in touch with Shakespeare too. The ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’ is a case in point. Somebody here seems to know enough about Shakespeare’s poetry to suggest a respectable acquaintance with his mind. In 1609 one of the dramatist’s most recent successes had been Pericles. In its ravishing last act a father embraces a long-lost daughter, calling her ‘Thou that begets him that did thee beget’: and the use of the word at this intense moment reflects exactly the double, literal and metaphorical use of the verb in the dedication, as Marina brings back to life, and to truer life, the man who fathered her.
More is at issue than a simple verbal echo: the moment in Pericles focuses a huge complex of themes and feelings that hold together Shakespeare’s career, just as the late Romances are a development of startling originality that looks straight back to the father-mother-child romance of the early comedy, The Comedy of Errors. Whenever the Sonnets were written (still an unsolved matter), some story of ‘ONLIE.BEGETTING.’, of the creativity of love and poetry, seems to hold together their development too. It will be noted that the line from Pericles manages, with an extreme lack of perversity, to make male and female roles fluid and reversible, as the girl-child fathers her own father. From the first the Sonnets are fascinated by the fruitfulness of similar transformations.
The first lines of the first Sonnet printed in Q contain the phrase ‘tender heire’:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauties Rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heire might beare his memory ...
So the 1609 Sonnets volume opens, with the first of 18 poems always described as a Renaissance persuasion to marry, written by an older man to a younger, with feelings that gradually deepen from the courteous to the passionate. Because the phrase ‘tender chorle’ (i.e. churl) later occurs in this one, the subject addressed probably does, if necessary, have to be imagined a man. Yet ‘beare his memory’ has an odd sound of pregnancy, as if the ‘tender heire’ – always thought of as the male subject’s imagined son – were, in fact, a woman. And in Cymbeline, which was possibly first performed just when Q appeared, a phrase curiously similar to ‘tender heire’ proves to be a woman and a princess:
The peece of tender Ayre, thy vertuous Daughter,
Which we call Mollis Aer, and Mollis Aer
We terme it Mulier; which Mulier I divine
Is this most constant wife ...
At this moment of Cymbeline, of course, the ‘constant wife’ Imogen is a ‘tender heire’ – so disguised as a boy that her father King Cymbeline doesn’t recognise her. The disguising stage-conventions of the time (boys playing girls dressed as boys) join Elizabethan word-play and false etymologies to help Shakespeare work out stories of love’s endurance in which gender comes to seem not primarily important – less ultimate than the qualities that make men and women together human. The Sonnets too confuse identities and categories for their own purposes. Sonnet 8 goes so far as to confuse commentators too, so much does Shakespeare want a perhaps unworkable image of the family as music:
Marke how one string sweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing ...
Father, mother and child become as much alike as strings, as one as harmony. Despite all his incomparable realism, his respect for human identities, Shakespeare’s mind in the Sonnets restlessly dissolves genders and generations. The innocent and archaic triad of father, mother, child seems to mutate into another three, that of ‘friend’, ‘mistress’ and ‘poet’, and that in its turn darkens through alienation and betrayal to become the cruel Trinity of Sonnet 42:
If I loose thee, my losse is my loves gaine,
And loosing her, my friend hath found that losse,
Both find each other, and I loose both twaine,
And both for my sake lay me on this crosse.
Genders and roles not only mutate, all being among the ‘millions of strange shaddowes’ thrown by the light of love; they may flow into one and become the mockingly fused ‘Master Mistres of my passion’ – a character perhaps remembered when Viola in Twelfth Night speaks of ‘my master’s mistress’, being herself a member of that impossible creation, a pair of boy-girl identical twins: and identical twins and the master-mistress may be only two different ‘strange shadows’ of that ancient myth of the androgyne which helped the Renaissance poet to think about love. Twins and a ‘Master Mistres’; father, mother and child; friend, mistress and poet; I and she and you – all characters that grow back into the ‘I’ of the Sonnets, the dedicators’ ‘ONLIE. BEGETTER’.
Mr W.H. and T.T. are between them good enough literary critics, who know (or seem to know) a respectable amount about these astonishingly peopled poems, and the way that they finally resolve to a creative and haunted solitude. The curious unauthorised authority of these publishers of the Sonnets is worth stressing. To know that Shakespeare himself did not publish these poems may make a difference to how we think of them, or may at least confirm how we do think of them. But there is another reason. To go further and – as with the poems themselves – play the game of identities is, practically speaking, not necessary: yet, as with many games, not to play seems craven. And a little reflection on this unauthorised authority makes the identity of Mr W.H. – as indeed of the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady’ – seem clear. If the Quarto text is good enough to suggest at least a transcript of authorial manuscript, then that transcript points back to the location of the manuscript itself – the copy was made at source. Shakespeare passed much of his life in London lodgings, and is unlikely to have kept valuables – a large batch of unpublished poems – anywhere so vulnerable (Sonnet 48: ‘How carefull was I when I tooke my way,/Each trifle under truest barres to thrust’). But he had in New Place a fine strong-built house with lockable cupboards in. Also a wife with keys to unlock the cupboards.
It is regularly remarked that biographical interpretation of these poems meets a hindrance. Though he alludes to the sonneteers’ custom of honouring the loved one by giving a name, Shakespeare fails to abide by it. Sonnet 81 claims: ‘Your name from hence immortall life shall have.’ As the Sonnets’ latest editor, John Kerrigan, points out: ‘Yet we never learn the young man’s name.’ One name does, however, because of Mr W.H. and T.T., incorrigibly associate itself with the Sonnets: that of ‘SHAKE-SPEARE’. This is of course the name borne throughout the poet’s writing career by that Anne Hathaway who is, if Andrew Gurr is right, the single person named in the sequence – in the apparently early and also trivial Sonnet 145 (where ‘hate away’ quibblingly = ‘hathaway’ in Elizabethan pronunciation). In fact, even if we don’t accept the full Joycean story proposed, Stephen Dedalus is surely on the right lines when in Ulysses he conjures up Anne Shakespeare as a presence in her husband’s writing life.
Poetry is by no means biography: yet identities do colour what is written. Whether we read the figures in poems as historical or imagined, they as much as the writer could say, ‘I am that I am’: and by the rule of the dyer’s hand, the poem is what they are. For this reason it seems only economical to allow for the existence somewhere near the centre of the Sonnets of that unrecapturable, possibly mediocre presence, the poet’s wife: whose brother was called William Hathaway, Mr W.H. The prosaic is, in fact, more likely to foster the Dark Lady than events more historically picturesque. That writers have necessarily an interesting life, a belief prompted by the appreciative reading mind, is surely a fallacy. Imagination is an alternative to the capacity for being ‘interesting’; what many writers seem to ask for is peace and quiet to confront and make fruitful the great shadows thrown on them by the ordinary presences all around. When Shakespeare speaks – it is a steady theme of the Sonnets – of the important life of the Court, the career spent ‘bearing the canopy’ as an obverse of his own, he may be being simply factual as well as thematic and moral: the merely domestic may have generated the emotional violences of these poems (marriage after all accounts for most murders of husbands and wives).
It’s hard, at all events, to believe that the Sonnets lack trace of the person Shakespeare lived with for over thirty years, an image kept perhaps the more vivid by his constant absences from her. Conceivable as a powerful, even attractively masculine woman, eight years older than the writer; one capable of obsessing her young husband for many miserable jealous years, then of maddening and amusing and at last (‘second-best-bed’) boring him – it is believable that this perhaps ambitious, clever and wilful woman impatiently sent her brother off to London with the bundle of fair-copied, brilliant, confused poems which her obstinate husband wouldn’t publish and which she in any case remembered, rightly or wrongly, as being mostly addressed to herself and therefore arguably her own. For the dedication put together by her genuinely admiring brother and the willing publisher he found has that assured, complacent invasion of privacy which may be the original sin of blood relatives, and even more of in-laws.
Because, furthermore, the law of not multiplying entities is a good one, it may be assumed that the Dark Lady and the Fair Young Man are at least in part merely Anne (Helena in All’s well promises that her court lover will find her ‘A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,/A phoenix, captain and an enemy,/A guide, a goddess and a sovereign’ – roles bisexual enough): a woman seen in darkness and in light, masked and unmasked, always a shadowy haunter of the poet’s imagination. For the evidence scattered through the Sonnets there is little room here – though I have glanced earlier at the highly utilitarian use of pronouns. But one point may be recorded, because it is so simple. Sonnet 121 opens:
Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the iust pleasure lost, which is so deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others seeing.
For why should others false adulterat eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies;
Which in their wils count bad what I think good?
Noe, I am that I am ...
This is in a way a very difficult poem because highly Henry-Jamesian. The point it makes is the dangerous power of imaginative sympathy, in poetry as in love – the poet becomes what his readers’ presuppositions make them make him. Yet inside its opacity (exactly as with Henry James) is an unforced emotional directness which it seems a kind of insult not to take straight, as simple truth. On these terms it is hard to understand what this poem is about unless it is written by a poet bitterly angered by having his verse misunderstood. When in the 1590s some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets were read among what a critic alluded to as the poet’s ‘private friends’, they can only have been taken with amusement as a confession of adultery – for so the force of ‘adulterat’ must be, meaning ‘corrupt, an adulteration of decency by their habit of lewdly in-reading adultery’. More, as a confession of adultery with a man as well as a woman, and therefore – by Shakespeare’s reckoning – ‘vile’.
The poem takes us straight into a stranglehold knot of relationship that, like the Trinitarian conceit of the dedication, works for poetry as for love: to write to be read is, the poem seems to say, to enter into engagement with sympathies and understandings possibly ‘frail’, ‘adulterat’, even ‘vile’, minds unalterably misjudging. But the poem also says something simpler than this. If ‘adulterat’ eyes are ‘false’, it appears that Shakespeare was not himself adulterous. No fair young man, no dark lady. ‘He was not a company keeper ... and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’
Most readers of the Sonnets now meet them in the editions of Ingram and Redpath (1964) and of Booth (1977); and in both the poems are prefaced by the 1609 dedication page printed in facsimile. Kerrigan relegates the dedication to his Commentary and there reproduces it as a paragraph.This decisiveness gives its style and edge to his edition and also conditions the image of the poet he proposes. His packed sixty-page Introduction, equal in elegance and force, brings to our attention in its first sentence a Shakespeare who when his Sonnets first appeared was ‘already the author of most of the plays that have made him famous’: not therefore the sort of writer who might want not to be famous, or fear that his poems could in any sense make him infamous. The same first page concludes by calling into play a contemporary audience of readers precisely fitted to such a poet: ‘Inevitably, the question arises: would the diversity of Shakespeare’s volume have baffled its early readers? The central claim of this edition is that, no, it would not.’
Jacobean readers remained unbaffled because in possession of ‘a proper framework for the book’. And it is this ‘proper framework’ which Kerrigan’s Introduction and his animated and learned two hundred and fifty pages of Commentary make it their business to construct. Its basis is the argument that the 1609 Quarto was indeed a ‘book’ – that it was so conceived and carried out by ‘the most, not the least, self-conscious of great artists’: in short that Shakespeare planned, wrote and published it. ‘It’ in this context involves the whole contents of the 1609 volume, in which the collection of sonnets is succeeded by a longish lament in stanzas called ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, a poem still doubtfully regarded by Shakespeare scholars, sometimes even on authorial grounds. Lucidly synthesising and extending recent scholarly approaches to this Sonnets volume, Kerrigan outlines a three-part structure comprising what he follows tradition in calling the two ‘sequences’ of sonnets (1-126, ‘the fair young man’; 127-152, ‘the dark lady’); plus two linking sonnets (153, 154, the ‘Cupid’ sonnets); plus the ‘Complaint’. With this invention, the editor suggests, Shakespeare located himself within Renaissance culture proper. He was a poet working within the Courtly sonneteering conventions perfected by Daniel, Lodge, Spenser and above all Sidney – ‘Shakespeare stands behind the first person of his sequence as Sidney had stood behind Astrophil.’ Thus understood in terms of his own time, the poet’s sonnets stand clear of the confusions introduced equally by two fallacies, the biographical (or post-Romantic) and the opposing formalist (or Modernist). Shakespeare’s themes can be read and appreciated as they really are: the use of a Courtly love poetry for a paradoxical refusal to praise; Time and its effects on love; the complications of gender in a world hardly countenancing the homosexual.
This ‘proper framework’ has perhaps its own proper framework. Literary studies have reached the end of a major phase of criticism, hardly distinguishable from the end of Criticism itself. The ‘Metaphysical’ image of the Renaissance explored by Eliot’s generation has in its passing taken with it Donne and the School of Wit – all the academic involvement with ‘difficult’ poetry. Such interest as survives in pre-1700 writing tends to be political, or more broadly historical-social-cultural. Students of 16th-century poetry have turned back to what both Donne and his modern critics reacted against: the conventional poetry of the Court of Elizabeth. Hence what might be called the Return of the Sonnet. It is studied now, not with the old Edwardian belletrism, but for its capacity to illuminate the whole courtly milieu within which the Petrarchan modes had their function, social and even economic. Kerrigan’s edition is strengthened by having these new approaches behind and within it. He compacts and abstracts masterfully, and often with an outstanding rhetorical power and flair, and the result is a striking contribution to Sonnets studies. Apart from local densities of information, the edition offers a continual play of aesthetic intelligence, and the two together make the ‘Elizabethan’ Shakespeare argued here a sharp, clear and self-consistent critical formula.
Formulae are of course not literature. Kerrigan’s Introduction gains authority and security from an image of the writer essentially literary-historical. This means that the editor can hardly do more than define the context which any writer achieves himself by escaping from, by surpassing. If my argument is right, Shakespeare never really played the part that this edition constructs for him – though the suggestion that he may at least have tried to consider publication remains an interesting one. But the vulnerability of Kerrigan’s thesis (if what I have said above has any truth in it) is of small importance: scholarship is always vulnerable to the randomness of fact. What does matter is the relation of the editor’s vision of Shakespeare to the actual work the poet achieved, and, in turn, to our sense of that work.
The treatment of the ‘Lover’s Complaint’ is a small indication of the problem. Kerrigan’s concept of an attempt on Shakespeare’s part to achieve a contemporary literary structure involving both this poem and the Sonnets may well be true (or it may not): but even if true it leaves little room for the fact that the attempt did not succeed. Though the editor works ardently to illuminate ‘this extreme, rewarding poem’, he does nothing to show it as comparable to any of the better Sonnets. Another long poem about a woman afflicted in love, the somewhat lumbering ‘Rape of Lucrece’, has unforgettable lines (the curse on Tarquin – ‘Let him have time to marke how slow time goes’; the bereaved Hecuba – ‘Staring at Priam’s wounds with her old eyes’), while the ostensibly efficient ‘Complaint’ can be read over and over again, and nothing from it stays. A great artist’s variability on subjects superficially similar is not only a fascinating but a significant matter: it enforces the inclusion in critical theory and judgment of questions of experience and character. But most current critical approaches, including the revived literary-historical, gain precisely their power and lucidity from a denial of the material distinction between good and bad. Characteristically, therefore, with all its brilliancies of local analysis, the central argument of this edition does not help it to explain why the Sonnets are good and where they are good. And, however difficult this question often proves, some at least implicit sense of the answer must be vital to a modern, popular edition of these poems.
Kerrigan’s edition postulates a Shakespeare made sense of essentially in terms of his own time and of his audience – perhaps even a kind of ‘company keeper’. To this end his Introduction early raises the issue of ‘obscurity’ or bafflement in early readers, and crisply dismisses it: ‘No, it would not.’ It is hard to know whether this is based on more than hypothesis. Discussion of reaction to the 1609 Quarto is peculiarly difficult because of the almost total silence that seems to have marked its publication. One contemporary allusion to the Sonnets was at last recently discovered: the actor Edward Alleyn noted down its purchase (for five pence) in the summer of 1609. Other than that, no reference exists in a hundred years; silence reigns. The contrast with the same period’s Hamlet fever is marked and obvious. When added to the fact that unusually few copies of the Quarto survive, this silence has made some critics suppose the suppression of the edition. But suppression is not the only explanation. It may be that Shakespeare had been strongly unwilling to publish the contents of the 1609 volume because (among other reasons) he knew that it would fail: and it did. Few copies survive because few sold, and those that did sell were not cherished and preserved.
The possibility has at least some evidence in its favour. Like all other editors of the Sonnets, Kerrigan is very disparaging about John Benson, who in 1639-40 gave the poems a second edition. Benson omits some sonnets, jumbles the rest, changes one or two masculine pronouns into feminine (and includes poems by other hands); and he adds a rather interesting Preface. It is usually interpreted as the lies of a ‘publishing scoundrel’, because Benson is assumed to be disguising his efforts as a first edition of these poems, which he says ‘had not the fortune by reason of their Infancie in [Shakespeare’s] death, to have the due accomodation of proportionable glory, with the rest of his everliving Workes, yet ... in your perusall you shall find them SEREN, cleere and eligantly plaine, such gentle straines as shall recreate and not perplex your braine, no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect, but perfect eloquence.’ Perhaps this means what Sonnets scholars think it means. But perhaps Benson is saying something very different to a public which after all contained many readers perfectly capable of remembering the circumstances of the first edition: that the Sonnets failed simply because their author died too soon to look after their fortunes, and not because – as one might otherwise all too clearly recall – everyone in London said the poems were hopelessly obscure.
This simple interpretation of Benson’s passionate plea for the Sonnets’ SERENITY (‘no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect’) is at any rate supported by the commendatory poem by John Warren included in Benson’s edition alongside one by Shakespeare’s own Leonard Digges: lines whose defensive, even indignant citation of Shakespeare’s ‘learning’ is suggestive, though it must have aroused complex feelings in Benson himself:
These learned poems amongst thine after-birth,
That makes thy name immortall on the earth,
Will make the learned still admire to see,
The Muses gifts so fully infus’d on thee,
Let carping Momus barke and bite his fill,
And ignorant Davus slight thy learned skill ...
If Kerrigan is right and his Jacobeans unbaffled, it is hard to see what Benson and Warren are on about, let alone what Momus and Davus are doing on the scene. The poet’s contemporaries surely found the Sonnets impossible. And this argument is supported by the fact that for a very long while after, almost all readers seem to have agreed with them. For nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death these poems, being omitted from the Shakespeare editions, seem to have gone largely unread; evidence is lacking for much response either to Benson or to Lintott’s early-Augustan incorporation of Q into a collection of Shakespeare’s poems – or even perhaps to Malone’s first scholarly edition of the Sonnets in 1780. At the end of the 18th century their existence begins to be acknowledged, but only by spasms of detraction – a resentment summed up by Wordsworth’s now well-known allusion to what was ‘abominably harsh, obscure and worthless’ in them, their ‘sameness, tediousness, quaintness and elaborate obscurity’. The Sonnets were in fact saved only by the bell – by the Victorian radical simplification into the fictive-sentimental, the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady, and Mr W.H., and the whole still-surviving business of the Enigma or Riddle or Mystery of the Sonnets.
As editor of this new Sonnets, Kerrigan earns real sympathy when he brushes aside the cloud of biographical Enigma-cant. Yet perhaps the gesture is over-decisive in what it finds expendable. The history of the Sonnets usefully reminds us of what is often forgotten by academic criticism, that the understanding of poetry can be rare, especially among the professionally intellectual. More than this, the long stress on ‘obscurity’ has something genuine and important to say about the poems themselves. In their great strength as in their difficulty, in their intransigently abrasive originality, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are obscure. Textually speaking, the editorial problem of the Sonnets – for which there is too little room here – consists, not in the fallibility of the first compositors, but in successive editors’ inability to believe that the poet is saying the extraordinary and extraordinarily complicated things he appears to be saying. In the same way, it seems to me vital that our image of Shakespeare should widen and deepen to include a man whose poems failed. The 1609 Sonnets failed because the poems were too good, too difficult, and perhaps even too defeated: beyond a certain point they refused to ‘keep company’ with the writer’s public.
Kerrigan stresses, and writes well on, the paradoxical aspect of Shakespeare’s thematic refusal to write a praise poetry. But the argument needs to be taken much further, so as to show the real bearing and effect of this refusal – the revolutionary lack of ‘company-keeping’ in these love-sonnets. The point can be made most briefly by comparing two poems: one of the best Court sonnets with that Sonnet 107 for which the editor in his Commentary reserves perhaps his longest single note. A characteristically well-turned exhibit from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella reads:
Whether the Turkish new-moone minded be
To fill his homes this year on Christian coast;
How Poles’ right king means, without leave of hoast,
To warme with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
How Holland hearts, now so good townes be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange tree;
How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scottishe Court be weltring yet;
These questions busie wits to me do frame;
I, cumbred with good maners, answer do,
But know not how, for still I thinke of you.
Sidney’s sincerity in his love-poems is another critical problem, but at least it could not be said that this one is obscure. Its allusions are riddles and are meant to be, but they can be solved by any editor with a little historical information. And this is a fact known to the poet himself – the peculiar charm of whose poem lies in its sound of a cosy but open secret. The love-relationship is revealed with an effect of sudden wit at the end of the rattle of court gossip, like a secret behind the talkative face: but the secret is no more than a silence understood – for if it were more, it would go beyond ‘good maners’, and Sidney’s achievement as a poet was to make love in the language of those same ‘good maners’. His brilliant innovation was to find a fully public speech for what was, in theory, a most private utterance. Petrarchanism itself had become in the latter part of the 16th century a social language with wide, even political functions (Elizabeth translated her courtiers into lovers, and her foreign wooers were their countries’ diplomats). Sidney’s new style reflected this dangerous and exciting border-country, where secrets were acted out in the Courts of Love. As a result, his then greatly influential sonnets are now praised for the social realism of their picture of Court life. Within this specialised realism, this recall of the multiple social voices that make up a court, Sidney’s sonnet invents a sort of cosy public fantasy: a nest-of-boxes pleasure of the secret within the man within the chattering gossiping Court.
Kerrigan sometimes underestimates the actual (if ironic) link that will join a sonnet by Shakespeare to one of Sidney’s. There is perhaps some such relationship between the earlier poem and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 107. The comparison of the two at all events indicates what precisely it means to call Shakespeare’s a much greater poem:
Not mine own feares, nor the prophetick soule,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love controule,
Supposde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipse endur’de,
And the sad Augurs mock their owne presage,
Incertenties now crowne them-selves assur’de,
And peace proclaims Olives of endlesse age.
Now with the drops of this most balmie time,
My love lookes fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spight of him He live in this poore rime,
While he insults ore dull and speachlesse tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants crests and tombs of brasse are spent.
Sonnet 107 is a poem that retains its creative obscurity. It cannot be ‘cracked’, as the earlier poet’s can, by information. It might even be true to say that the silence of that ‘thinke’ (in line 14 of Sidney’s sonnet) here takes over, not only reigning but flowering and bearing fruit. Instead of the loud Court, there is a coronation whose Vivat! (‘O live!’) is ageless olive trees. Editors offer combative annotations designed to explain the ‘mortall Moone’ and the ‘sad Augurs’; in one of his best and densest notes Kerrigan helps to support the case – according to the New Variorum, the majority view – that James VI’s coronation is glanced at here, thus dating the poem at or after 1603. So it may be. Yet, if the Court is central to Sidney’s sonnet, the coronation is in some sense eccentric to Shakespeare’s – a game of ‘dull and speachlesse tribes’. ‘Allusion’ means something different to the greater poet. The ‘Moone’, the ‘Augurs’, ‘Incertenties’, ‘Olives’ are figures in a dream. In ‘Whether the Turkish new-moone’ the inbred Court holds the poet silent at its talkative centre. In ‘Not mine own feares’, intensity of experience absorbs even the ‘wide world’ unegoistically into itself, into ‘feares’, a ‘soule’, ‘dreaming’.
The poem is written ‘in love’: it has become one self-consistency, an autonomy – hence that quality of free-floating spacious calm. Whoever crowns the King, and whichever King is crowned, ‘Incertenties crowne them-selves assur’de’: ‘the sad Augurs mock their own presage’; the ‘mortall Moone’ only exists in terms of that endurance of eclipse. As in a number of the later sonnets explicitly, and many of the earlier implicitly, even ‘my love’ has almost ceased to connote anything external, anything other, here it shows signs of being an embodied feeling that like a natural process turns outward to the light.
The contrast with Sidney is useful, in fact, because it suggests by what processes Shakespeare far surpassed his age. The greatest developments in the Elizabethan literary arts don’t take place at the centres of power, within the Court – however hard all writers struggled to get in. The real breakthroughs were with the excluded; they were acted out not in the Court but on the despised public stage; and of course depended above all on Shakespeare – whose private sonnets confront the themes of exclusion, dishonour, subordination. As love-poet, Shakespeare is one of the great losers, whose wry honour it is finally to be kind (Sonnet 125) to the mere successes, the ‘thrivors, in their gazing spent’ – ‘Pittifull thrivors’. In practical terms, this means not mere lament or complaint, but a continual heroic reassessment of what the excluded are left with – ‘Noe, I am that I am’: the self explored and understood always without dishonesty or disillusion. To some degree, the Court poet is prevented from this self-discovery by other terms of reference. Therefore, even as skilled and original a poet as Sidney is with all his talents a miniaturist, working in a world still essentially Medieval. His ‘psychological realism’, though fine, is external; his polite verbal people have no insides to their minds. If Shakespeare’s Sonnets, on the other hand, are difficult, it is because the writer is struggling in them to define, to realise and to come to terms with the whole dimension of internality that we think of as the possession of the modern world. If the Sonnets are, with their textual knots, their frightful metaphysical self-contradictions, the test of editors, the reason is that to the writer the wrestling ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ of love lock together in the same knots and self-contradictions: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’
It is in the tragedies that Shakespeare most fully achieved this creation of human inwardness, the ‘I-am-that-I-am’ of character. Hamlet says, ‘To know a man well were to know himself [i.e. oneself],’ which sums up well enough what takes place in the Sonnets. But the tragedies are tragedies; they end unhappily. The Sonnets, too, probably disturb as much as they provoke admiration from the simple fact that this great poet of love comes more and more in these poems to define love as a loneliness. One of the greatest, 124 (‘Yf my deare love were but the childe of state’), calls love not ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘thou’, but it: and in the end makes ‘it’ seem the desperate generosity of the individual. Hence the total irony that closes this obscure poem, and that moves so deeply throughout the Sonnets; love ‘all alone stands hugely pollitick’.
This irony is an attribute of the Sonnets’ free-standing quality, their wholeness and their intellectual independence. In his Note to 107, Kerrigan disagrees with rivals over the meaning of ‘drops’ in ‘Now with the drops of this most balmie time/My love lookes fresh’; dismissing Mattingly’s suggestion of rain or dew, he proposes medicinal drugs, adding bitter tears for Elizabeth. I suspect he has left one out: the ‘drops’ that a woman wears in her ears or at her breast, as Cordelia wears her tears like ‘pearls from diamonds dropped’. Shakespeare’s ‘love’, however gendered, bears dew- or rain-tears as diamonds: a marvellous crystallisation of these Sonnets’ rich ironies, their glittering hidden multi-facetedness.