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On the Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Kate Hillard


The last thing which the student learns, the last thing which the world, that universal student, comprehends, is how to study. It is only after our little store of facts has been laboriously accumulated, after we have tried path after path that promised to take us by an easy way up the Hill Difficulty, and have abandoned each in turn,—it is only when we have attained a point somewhere near the top, that we can look down and see the way we should have come, the one road that avoided unnecessary steepness and needless windings, and led by the quickest and easiest direction to the summit. The knowledge that we have thus gained, however late to profit by it ourselves, should at least be valuable to others. But, unfortunately, as Balzac has said, experience is an article that no one will use at second hand. When the great teachers of the world, who have been its most patient scholars, shall go to work to teach us how to study, and when we are content to learn, then we shall all be in a fair way to become sages.

But, in the mean time, there are two things we must apprehend—truisms both of them, but, like all truisms, better known theoretically than practically. The first is, that we must not use a microscope if we want to study the stars; and the second is, that we must beware of having a fly between the lenses of our telescope, unless we wish to discover a monster in the moon. If a discriminating public would not consider it an insult, one might add, in the third place, that it is useless to look for lunar rainbows in the daytime.

It is true that all this sounds like child's play, but it is astonishing how many of our Shakespearian critics commit one or all of these faults. Forgetting entirely that criticism demands common sense, impartial judgment, intense sympathy, a total absence of prejudice, and a great deal of general information, they bring to their task minds deeply tinctured with preconceived systems of truth, goodness and beauty, upon whose Procrustean bed the unfortunate poet must be stretched; while, as if ignorant of the history of thought, they judge the productions of another age and another atmosphere by the canons of criticism that hold good to-day among ourselves. Not only this, but they snuff enigmas in every line, and scent abstruse theories behind the simplest statement. They take up passages of Shakespeare whose obvious meaning any person of average intelligence can understand, and turn and twist them into such intricate doublings that they cannot undo their own puzzle. They attack his poetry as if it were a second Rosetta Stone, or as if it had to be read, like the lines in a Hebrew book, backward. They study him in the spirit of the fool, who, being given a book upside down, stood on his head to read it—a position naturally confusing to the intellect.

Nor is it only in their methods of investigation that many of our Shakespearian critics are at fault. Their fondness for rearing vast temples of possibilities upon small corner-stones of fact is proverbial. We know that Shakespeare went to London, where he both wrote and acted plays, and upon this slender basis you may find, in almost any of his commentators, such added items of biography as this sentence from Heraud's book upon Shakespeare's Inner Life: "That he had a house in Southwark, that his brother Edmund lived with him, and that his wife was his frequent companion in London, are all exceedingly probable suppositions." So they may be to Mr. Heraud's mind, but the next biographer shall form a totally different set of "exceedingly probable suppositions" equally satisfactory to himself. The same critic says that when Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, spoke of "a black beauty" (a phrase universally used to express a brunette as late even as the age of Queen Anne), the poet had his Bible open at Solomon's Song, and meant the Bride "who is black but comely;" in other words, the Reformed Church. Mr. Page, the artist, finds in the Chandos portrait, after it has been cleaned and scraped, and upon the photographs of the German mask, a certain mark which he thinks the indication of a scar. Two gentlemen, one an artist, who have seen the mask itself, assure him that they find his scar to be merely a slight abrasion or discoloration of the plaster; but Mr. Page, secure in his position, quotes Sonnet 112,

Your love and pity doth the impression fill

Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow,

and triumphantly asks, "If that doesn't refer to the scar, what does it refer to?"

The Sonnets of Shakespeare have been quite too much neglected by the lovers of his plays, and Stevens said that the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service. Two classes of minds, however, have always pondered over them—the poets, who could not fail to appreciate their wonderful power and beauty, and the psychologists, who have found in them an ample field for speculation. The variety and extent of the theories of these latter gentlemen can only be rivaled by the feat of the camel-evolving German. Indeed, it is the true German school of thought to which these speculations belong, and it is but just that to a genuine Teuton belongs the honor of the most extraordinary solution of the mystery yet given. It would take too long to sum up all the theories that have been broached upon the subject, but two or three will do as an example. Without stopping to dwell upon the ideas of M. Philarète Chasles, or of Gen. Hitchcock, who believes the Sonnets to be addressed to the Ideal Beauty, we will pass on to the book of Mr. Henry Browne, published in London in 1870. His idea is that the Sonnets are dedicated to William Herbert, afterward earl of Pembroke, and are intended chiefly as a parody upon the reigning fashion of mistress-sonneting and upon the sonneteers of the day, especially Davies and Drayton; that they also contain much which is valuable in the way of autobiography, and that "the key to the whole mystery lies in Shakespeare's conceit (i.e., Mr. Browne's conceit) of the union of his friend and his Muse by marriage of verse and mind; by which means, and for which favor, his youth and beauty are immortalized, but which theme does not fully commence till the friend had declined the invitation to marriage, which refusal begets the mystic melody." Mr. Browne graciously accepts the Sonnets in their order, and professes to be unable to name the real mistress of Herbert, though he considers Lady Penelope Rich to be the object of their allegorical satire.

Mr. Heraud also accepts the order of the Sonnets as correct. His book contains an article on the Sonnets published by him in Temple Bar for April, 1862, the result, he declares (and far be it from us to dispute it), of pure induction. He has evolved the theory that Shakespeare in writing against celibacy had in view the practice of the Roman Catholic Church; that the friend whom he apostrophizes was the Ideal Man, the universal humanity, who gradually develops into the Divine Ideal, and becomes a Messiah, while the Woman is the Church, the "black but comely bride" of Solomon. "Shakespeare found himself between two loves—the celibate Church on the one hand, that deified herself, and the Reformed Church on the other, that eschewed Mariolatry and restored worship to its proper object.... Thus, Shakespeare parabolically opposed the Mariolatry of his time to the purer devotion of the word of God, which it was the mission of his age to inaugurate."

This is pretty well for a flight of inductive genius, but it is quite surpassed by the soaring Teutonic mind before mentioned, who, in the words of the reflective Breitmann,

Dinks so deeply

As only Deutschers can.

This mighty philosopher, of whom Mr. Heraud speaks with becoming reverence, is Herr Barnstorff, who published a book in 1862 to prove that the "W.H." of the dedication means William Himself, and that the Sonnets are apostrophes to Shakespeare's Interior Individuality! Mr. Heraud thinks this idea is rather too German, but, after all, not so very far out of the way, for in Sonnet 42 the poet certainly declares that his Ideal Man is simply his Objective Self. For, as Mr. Heraud beautifully and lucidly remarks, "the Many, how multitudinous soever, are yet properly but the reflex of the One, and the sum of both is the Universe." And herein, according to Mr. Heraud, we find the key to the mystery.

In 1866, Mr. Gerald Massey published a large volume on the same subject, with the somewhat pretentious title. Shakespeare's Sonnets, never before interpreted; his private friends identified; together with a recovered likeness of himself. The first chapter contains a summary of the opinions of Coleridge, Wordsworth and others upon the Sonnets; a notice of the theory of Bright and Boaden (Gentleman's Magazine, 1832), afterward confirmed by a book written by Charles Armitage Brown (1838); the theories of Hunter, Hallam, Dyce, Mrs. Jameson, M. Chasles, Ulrici, Gervinus and many others (most of them, by the way, confirming the theory originated by Boaden and Bright); and having thus gone over the work of twenty-five named authors, and a space of time extending from 1817 to 1866, Mr. Massey begins his second chapter by saying that as yet there has never been any genuine attempt to interpret the Sonnets, "nothing having been done except a little surface-work." Mr. C. Armitage Brown in particular (who, by the way, must not be confounded with Mr. Henry Browne) appears to be Mr. Massey's special aversion. The very name of Brown irritates him as scarlet does an excitable bull. Armitage Brown was the intimate friend of Keats and Landor, and, Severn says, was considered to know more about the Sonnets than any man then living, while the "personal theory," as Mr. Massey styles it, has had a far larger number of supporters than any other. Unfortunately, the opinions of others have not the slightest weight with Mr. Massey, and words are too weak to express his scorn of this theory and its supporters. Mr. Brown wraps things in a winding sheet of witless words (delicious alliteration!); he leaves the subject dark and dubious as ever; his theory has only served to trouble deep waters, and make them so muddy that it is impossible to see to the bottom; in short, Mr. Brown and his fellow thinkers, in the opinion of Mr. Massey, are arch-deceivers and audacious misinterpreters, and have no more idea of what Shakespeare meant than they have of telling the truth about it. Why Mr. Massey should have worked himself into a passion before he began to write is a mystery darker than any he attempts to solve, but the intemperate, bitter and self-conceited tone of the whole book is alone an immense injury to its critical value.

In constructing his elaborate theory of the Sonnets, Mr. Massey has committed many grave offences against the rules of criticism. He has gone to his work with the strongest possible prejudices; he has begun it with certain preconceived ideas of what Shakespeare meant to write; he has found it necessary to destroy entirely the order of the poems, and to rearrange them, even sometimes to alter the text, to fit his own notions; and he has carried his investigations into such puerile and minute twistings of the text as can only be paralleled by Mr. Page's quotation in support of his scar. For instance, in Sonnet 78 occur these lines:

Thine eyes that taught the dumb on high to sing

And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,

Have added feathers to the learned's wing

And given grace a double majesty.

Mr. Massey thinks that in this quatrain (which the vulgar mind would accept as it stands, nor expect to treat as other than figurative) Shakespeare was passing in review the writers under the patronage of the earl of Southampton, to whom the sonnet is addressed, and that he can identify the four personifications! Shakespeare of course is the Dumb taught to sing by the favor of the earl; resolute John Florio, the translator of Montaigne, is Heavy Ignorance; Tom Nash is the Learned, who has had feathers added to his wing; and Marlowe is the Grace to whom is given a double majesty! Marlowe's chief characteristic was majesty, says Mr. Massey; therefore, we suppose, he is spoken of as grace. The rest of his "exquisite reasons" may be found at pages 134-143 of the book.

This is nothing, however, to the feats of which Mr. Massey's subtlety is capable. Sonnet 38 begins:

How can my Muse want subject to invent,

While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse

Thine own sweet argument, too excellent

For every vulgar paper to rehearse?

That is, kindly explains Mr. Massey—lest we should be tempted to accept the obvious meaning of the lines, that the poet could not want a subject while his friend lived, whose worth was too great for every ordinary writing to celebrate fitly—"that is, the new subject of the earl's suggesting and the new form of the earl's inventing are too choice to be committed to common paper; which means that Shakespeare had until then written his personal sonnets on slips of paper provided by himself, and now the excelling argument of the earl's love is to be written in Southampton's own book"! Perhaps it means that Shakespeare had taken to gilt-edged, hot-pressed, double-scented Bath note.

Mr. Massey's ingenuity in getting over a difficulty is as great as his faculty of construction. Having assumed Lady Rich (that Stella whose golden hair makes half the glory of Sidney's verse) to be the "black beauty" of the Sonnets, he finds that Sonnet 130 perversely says, "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head"—a bit of evidence that would seem to upset this theory. But Mr. Massey is not to be put down so easily. This is ironical, he says in effect; Shakespeare did not mean this; "it is a bit of malicious subtlety to call the lady's hair black wires, which was so often besung as golden hair; and she had been so vain of its mellow splendor! ... And there is the 'if' to be considered—'much virtue in an if'!—'If hairs be wires,' says the speaker, 'black wires grow on her head!' So that the 'black' is only used conditionally, and the fact remains that 'hairs' are not 'wires.'" If we are to interpret Shakespeare in this manner, where is such foolery to cease?

To sum up the principal facts of Mr. Massey's elaborate theory in a few words, we find that he considers the Sonnets to be dedicated to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, as "their only begetter" (or obtainer) for the publisher, Mr. Thomas Thorpe; that they consist properly of two series, the first written for Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, the second for the earl of Pembroke; that they begin with the poet's advice to Southampton to marry; that when the earl fell in love with Elizabeth Vernon, he suggested a new argument (see Sonnet 38), wherein is no such thing as a new argument, by the way; and that then the poet begins to write love-poems in the person of his friend. This continues up to the year 1603, when the earl of Southampton was released from prison, the dramatic sonnets being interspersed with personal ones. These dramatic sonnets also include sonnets written for Elizabeth Vernon of and to Penelope Lady Rich, of whom she is supposed to be jealous; sonnets from Southampton to herself upon the lovers' quarrel, and the desperate flirtation of Elizabeth Vernon to punish her lover (which Mr. Massey says ensued upon this jealousy); together with various other sonnets between them, and upon the earl's varying fortunes, his marriage, imprisonment, etc., which make up the first series. The second series are love-poems written for William Herbert, and addressed to Lady Rich, who is supposed by Mr. Massey to be the "black beauty" (or brunette) of the closing sonnets, although it is well known that Lady Rich was a golden blonde, with nothing dark about her but her black eyes. To make out this complicated story, Mr. Massey arranges the Sonnets in groups to suit his fancy, baptizes them as he chooses, and does not scruple to vilify the fair name of man or woman in order to make out his argument and to defend the spotless purity of Shakespeare's moral character.

Shakespeare's Autobiographical Poems, by Charles Armitage Brown (1838), is the book which more than all others on the subject seems to have excited Mr. Massey's indignation, chiefly because it is the leading advocate of "the personal theory"—that is, the autobiographical and non-dramatic character of the poems. This implies an acceptance of the statement clearly made in the Sonnets of Shakespeare's infidelity to his wife; and this Mr. Massey pronounces an outrageous and unwarranted slander. But in order to leave the name of Shakespeare pure from any stain of mortal imperfection, Mr. Massey arranges a dramatic intention for the Sonnets which involves, with more or less of light or evil conduct, no less than four other names—the earl of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon (daughter of Sir John Vernon), whom he afterward married; William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and Lady Rich, for whom Mr. Massey finds no words too abusive, and whom he considers the "worser spirit" of the later Sonnets. The history of this lady is sufficiently well known, and, so far as I can ascertain, there is no historical warrant for supposing her to have been the mistress of Herbert, or the beguiler of Southampton into such a lapse of duty to his beloved Elizabeth Vernon as should inspire the expressions of Sonnets 134, 133, 144, which Mr. Massey says are written in the person of this lady to Lady Rich. Lady Penelope Devereux, sister of Essex, was born in 1563, and her father, who died when she was but thirteen, expressed a desire that she should be married to Sir Philip Sidney. For some unknown reason the intended match was broken off, and the fair Penelope, who is described as "a lady in whom lodged all attractive graces of beauty, wit and sweetness of behavior which might render her the absolute mistress of all eyes and hearts," was married in 1580 to Lord Rich, a man whom she detested. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, a series of one hundred and eight sonnets and poems addressed to Lady Rich, and celebrating the strength and the purity of their love for each other, was first printed in 1591. Sidney had died five years before, and so long as he lived, at least, no whisper had been breathed against Lady Rich. In 1600 we have the first notice of her losing the queen's favor from a suspicion of her infidelity to her husband, and in 1605, having been divorced, her lover, the earl of Devonshire, formerly Lord Mountjoy, immediately married her. He defended her in an eloquent Discourse and an Epistle to the King, in which he says: "A lady of great birth and virtue, being in the power of her friends, was by them married against her will unto one against whom she did protest at the very solemnity and ever after." Lord Rich treated her with great brutality, and having ceased to live with her for twelve years, "did by persuasions and threatenings move her to consent unto a divorce, and to confess a fault with a nameless stranger." In spite of Mountjoy's noble pleadings for his wife, the whole court rose up against his marriage. The earl's sensitive heart was broken by the disgrace he had brought upon one whom he had loved so dearly and so long (for he was Sidney's rival in his early youth, and had been rejected by Lady Penelope's family before her marriage with Lord Rich), and he died of grief four months after their marriage, April 3, 1606. His countess, "worn out with lamentation," did not long survive him.

Does that look like the conduct of a light and fickle heart? or was it likely that so noble a man as Charles Mountjoy would have died of grief for the disgrace he had brought upon a notoriously bad woman? As to Lord Southampton's alleged flirtation with Lady Rich, which so excited Elizabeth Vernon's jealousy, Mr. Massey has not one circumstance in proof of it but the forced interpretation he chooses to put upon certain lines of certain sonnets which he has wrested from their proper places, as well as their proper meaning. After using such sonnets as the 144th to express this jealousy, he quietly confesses at the end of the chapter that it could not have gone very deep, as the intimacy of the two fair cousins (for such was their relationship) continued to be of the closest—that it was to Lady Rich's house that Elizabeth Vernon retired after her secret marriage to the earl in 1598, and there her baby was born, named Penelope after her cousin and friend! There was only matter enough in it for poetry, Mr. Massey concludes after having upset the whole order of the Sonnets to prove its reality.

Now, as to the story of Lady Rich's having been the mistress of Herbert, for whom Mr. Massey says that twenty-four of the Sonnets were written. William Herbert, afterward earl of Pembroke, was born in 1580. He came up to London in 1598, being then eighteen years of age, and made the acquaintance of Shakespeare, who was then thirty-four years old. Lady Rich, at that time, according to Mr. Massey's own statement, was "getting on for forty." The fact is that she was just thirty-five, having been born, as he tells us, in 1563. According to the obvious meaning of the Sonnets, the lady spoken of is much younger than Shakespeare, instead of a year older, and, according to Mr. Massey, Lady Rich was at that time (1597) in the midst of her love-affair with Mountjoy. The lady of the Sonnets, if we take them literally, could have borne no such high position as Lady Rich: she seems to have been neither remarkably beautiful and high-bred, nor virtuous, and was evidently a married woman of no reputation. (Sonnets 150, 152.)

It is impossible to bring up separately, in a single article, the items contained in a volume of 603 pages, so we must be content to leave Mr. Massey's theory with these meagre allusions to its principal statements, and pass on to that of Mr. Charles Armitage Brown. Upholding the opinion that the Sonnets are autobiographical, he maintains that they are in reality not sonnets, but poems in the sonnet stanza, there being but three sonnets, properly so called, in the series. The poems are six in number, terminating each with an appropriate envoi, and are addressed, the first five to the poet's friend, "W.H.," and the sixth to his mistress. That friend must have been very young, very handsome, of high birth and fortune; and to all this the description of William Herbert exactly answers. The divisions made by Mr. Brown are as follows: First poem, 1 to 26—to his friend, persuading him to marry. Second poem, 27 to 55—to his friend, who had robbed the poet of his mistress, forgiving him. Third poem, 56 to 77—to his friend, complaining of his coldness, and warning him of life's decay. Fourth poem, 78 to 101—to his friend, complaining that he prefers another poet's praises, and reproving him for faults that may injure his character. Fifth poem, 102 to 126—to his friend, excusing himself for having been some time silent, and disclaiming the charge of inconstancy. Sixth poem, 127 to 152—to his mistress, on her infidelity. In this last poem, says Mr. Brown, we find the whole tenor to be "hate of my sin grounded on sinful loving." However the poet may waver, and for the moment seem to return to his former thralldom, indignation at the faithlessness of his mistress and at her having been, through treachery, the cause of his estrangement from a friend, at the last completely conquers his sinful loving. "For myself," continues Mr. Brown, "I confess I have not the heart to blame him at all, purely because he so keenly reproaches himself for his own sin and folly. Fascinated as he was, he did not, like other poets similarly guilty, directly or by implication obtrude his own passions on the world as reasonable laws. Had such been the case, he might have merited our censure, possibly our contempt."

Having thus glanced over the work of the principal commentators upon the Sonnets, let us try the simple plan of reading them as we read Tennyson's In Memoriam, for instance, or the Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Mrs. Browning. In Mr. R.G. White's admirable edition of Shakespeare he confesses that he has no opinion upon the subject: "Mr. Thomas Thorpe appears in his dedication as the Sphinx of literature, and thus far he has not met his Oedipus." But herein have we not the main difficulty stated? The first great error committed by almost all students of the Sonnets, if we may be pardoned the opinion, is to take it for granted that they are a mystery whose key is lost. Just so long as the Sonnets are considered as a species of enigma they will be misunderstood and misinterpreted. It was not Shakespeare's habit to talk in riddles or to propound psychological problems: of all poets except Chaucer he is the most simple, direct and straightforward.

We have in the Amoretti of Spenser, and in the Astrophel and Stella of Sir Philip Sidney, admirable examples of autobiographical poems written mostly in sonnet stanza, of irregular and varied construction and subject, although the general theme is the same. Surely we may bring to the study of Shakespeare's poems the same simple method used in reading these. Poets of his own day, and using in their highest flights the form which was Shakespeare's familiar relaxation, nobody has tried to ascribe to Sidney and Spenser metaphysical mysteries and psychological conceits. Let us hope that some day this mistaken idolatry of Shakespeare, which besmokes his shrine with concealing clouds of incense, will be done away with, and that we shall be allowed to behold the simple truth, which never suffers in his case for being naked.

In his 76th Sonnet, Shakespeare says,

Why write I still all one, ever the same.

And keep invention in a noted weed,

That every word doth almost tell my name,

Showing their birth and whence they did proceed?

Oh know, sweet love, I always write of you,

And you and love are still my argument.

With this explicit declaration of Shakespeare, the general character of the poems, and the similar writings of his friends and contemporaries, we can but consider the Sonnets as autobiographical poems, written during a period of time beginning certainly as early as 1598 (when Meres speaks of Shakespeare's having written sonnets), and ceasing some time before their first publication in 1609. In the same way were written the poems composing Tennyson's In Memoriam, which, although dedicated to "A.H.H.," close with a long poem addressed to the poet's sister.

The first and principal series of the Sonnets (divided from the second in many editions of Shakespeare by a mark of separation) is clearly addressed to a male friend. The extremely lover-like use of language by which they are characterized was a common trait of the age; and here again we see the necessity of thoroughly understanding the atmosphere that Shakespeare breathed. To us, with our frigid vocabulary of friendship, such a style sounds unnatural, and undignified perhaps: with the Elizabethans it was an every-day habit. Lilly, the author of Euphues, says in his Endymion, "The love of men to women is a thing common and of course; the friendship of man to man, infinite and immortal." And indeed it is to the influence of the Euphues that much of the poetic ardor of language characterizing the masculine friendship of the time was due. A man's beauty was as often the theme of verse as a woman's, and the endearing terms only associated by us with the conversation of lovers were used continually among men. The friends in Shakespeare's plays, as in all the other dramas and novels of the period, continually address each other as "sweet," and even "sweet love" and "beloved." Ben Jonson called himself the "lover" of Camden, and dedicated his eulogistic lines to "my beloved Mr. William Shakespeare." There is therefore no reason for considering the language of the first series of Sonnets as necessarily inapplicable to a masculine friend. The second series, beginning with the 127th Sonnet, is as evidently addressed, as Mr. Brown says, "to his mistress, on her infidelity;" and the Sonnets end with two upon "Cupid's Brand," admitted by all to be separate poems, and wrongfully tacked on to the Sonnets proper.

Taking it for granted, then, from this very literal survey of the text, that the Sonnets are autobiographical, we find their study divided into two branches: (1) the story that the poems themselves tell by the most simple and direct statements; and (2) the conjectural explanation of the personages of that story, involving a careful historical comparison of names and dates, but amounting, after all is said that can be said, simply to conjecture, incapable of direct proof. The first part is to the real lover of Shakespeare and of poetry the only important one; the second concerns that which is mortal and has passed away. The first implies a knowledge of the friendship and the love of Shakespeare; the second the discovery of the names of his friend, of the poet who was his rival in the praises of that friend, and of the mistress who was unworthy of them both; not to mention such other items concerning time and place as might be ascertained by a persevering antiquarian.

It is impossible, within less than a volume, to quote from the Sonnets very freely, therefore we shall be compelled to trust to the reader's recollection of them, assisted by an occasional reference; this explanation of them being simply a record of the impressions they have produced upon an unbiased mind reading them as one would read any other poetry of the same character.

The story unfolded by the Sonnets, then, is this: Shakespeare had an ardent friendship, made all the livelier by the fervor of the poetic temperament, for a young man of noble birth and very great personal beauty, himself a lover of poetry, if not a poet. This youth was very much younger than Shakespeare, who was already beginning to speak of himself as past the prime of life, although he was probably not more than thirty-four. The friend of Shakespeare was almost perfect in beauty, intellect and disposition, but he had two faults: he was extremely fond of flattery (Sonnet 84), and he was over-addicted to pleasure:

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame

Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,

Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!     (95.)

Shakespeare scorned to palter with the truth—"fair, kind and true" he had called his friend—but he saw his faults with the keen eye of love, that cannot bear an imperfection in the one who should be all-perfect.

Thou truly fair wert truly sympathized

In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;    (82.)


I love thee in such sort,

As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report;    (36.)

therefore in all love he warns him to take heed.

Such was the character of Shakespeare's friend, to whom he begins by addressing seventeen sonnets (or poems in the sonnet stanza, which is the better definition), urging him to marry. He knows the weakness of his character and the temptations that beset him, and in a strain of loving persuasion, whose theme bears great resemblance to many passages in Sidney's Arcadia, he beseeches him, now that he stands upon the top of happy hours,

Make thee another self for love of me.

That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

Sonnet 17 in a most beautiful manner sums up the argument and ends the subject.

The Sonnets from the 18th to the 126th are all addressed to this beloved friend, who nevertheless, early in the history of their friendship, inflicted upon the poet a cruel wrong. With the 33d Sonnet begin the references to this double treachery. It is impossible for an unprejudiced reader to interpret this and the other poems upon the same subject in any way but one. The mistress of Shakespeare, fascinated by the beauty and brilliant qualities of his friend, took advantage of the poet's absence to win that facile heart, so incapable of resisting the charms of woman and the tongue of flattery;

And when a woman woos, what woman's son

Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?    (41.)

His friend's loss was the greater to the poet, for, although he loved with passionate strength, it was against his conscience and his reason. Such a love, he says, is "enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;" "Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream."

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leadeth to this hell.    (129.)

Nor does he mince matters in directly addressing her. She is a brunette, with black eyes and black hair, yet black in nothing except her deeds, which have given her an evil reputation. She has sealed false bonds of love as often as he, and is twice forsworn, having deceived both her husband and her lover. She is as cruel as if she had that transcendent beauty which in reality she only possesses in his doting eyes. He knows that her heart is "a bay where all men ride," and yet love persuades him to believe her true.

Who taught thee how to make me love thee more

The more I hear and see just cause of hate?

She is his "worser spirit," tempting him to ill—his "false plague," whom he knows to be "as black as hell, as dark as night," though he has sworn her fair and true. His friend's name is Will also, and Sonnets 135, 136 contain a play upon their names:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy "Will,"

And "Will" to boot, and "Will" in overplus.

Only love my name, he says to her, and then you will still love me, for my name too is "Will."

Such are the three actors in this tragedy of sin and sorrow and remorse; and the more we read these wonderful poems, and perceive the intense passion that throbs through them, the nearer we seem to get to the great heart of Shakespeare, the real inner life of that man of whose outer personality we know so little. We see him wounded to the quick by his dearest friend, yet weighing the sin of that friend in the balance of divinest mercy as he acknowledges the strength of the temptation, and, while he does not extenuate the sin, extends a loving pardon to the sinner. He knows weakness of his own soul: he himself struggles in the toils of an unworthy passion, which his reason abhors while his heart is led captive. His is the battle and the defeat: who is he that he should judge with indignant virtue the failing of another?—

I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,

Although thou steal thee all my poverty;

And yet love knows it is a greater grief

To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury.    (40.)

He pardons the penitent as freely as only so great and magnanimous a soul can, but gently reminds him that "though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:"

The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief

To him that bears the strong offence's cross.    (34.)

Hereafter we two must be twain, the poet says, although our undivided loves are one, for fear thy good report suffer, which is to me as my own. Do not even remember me after I am dead, if that remembrance cause you any sorrow, nor rehearse my poor name, but let your love decay with my life;

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

And mock you with me after I am gone.

Such is the story of the Sonnets, the saddest of all stories, as it comes to us from the simple and unbiased reading of the series as it stands, without alteration or transposition. The meaning is sufficiently obvious without making any change, although, judging from the purely eulogistic character of some of the first series of the Sonnets, and the purely reflective style of others, it seems probable that those which are more or less reproachful in tone may belong together, nearer the second series. Still, even to this rearrangement there are objections when we consider the alternations of feeling and the different conditions that must have affected the poet during the space of time covered by these poems. In the 104th Sonnet three years are mentioned as having elapsed since the friends first met, and the time covered by the whole series was probably still longer. Conjectural evidence points to William Herbert as the person to whom the Sonnets are addressed. His name, his age, his beauty, his rank, all agree with Shakespeare's description. As for the earl of Southampton, the poet's early patron, to whom the Venus and Adonis and the Lucrece are dedicated, his name was Henry; he was but nine years younger than Shakespeare, and therefore not likely to have been called by him "a sweet boy;" he was a remarkably plain man, instead of an Adonis, and noted, not for his devotion to women in general, but for his ardent attachment to Mistress Elizabeth Vernon, whom he married secretly, in spite of the queen's opposition, in 1598. Now, the earliest mention that we have of Shakespeare's poems is when Meres speaks of "his sugared sonnets among his private friends." This was in 1598, and, as Hallam and other critics have argued, is probably a reference to earlier sonnets which have been lost, not to those published in 1609. It was in 1598 that William Herbert, a brilliant and fascinating young man, addicted to pleasure and susceptible to flattery, but strongly disinclined to marriage, came up to London to live, having visited the metropolis during the previous year.

As for Lady Rich, besides the objections already urged on the score of her personal appearance and her age, Shakespeare would never have dared to speak of a reigning beauty of the court in the words of Sonnets 137, 144, 152. In fact, Mr. Massey's whole argument upon this head is based upon his assertion that the poems are dramatic and not personal.

Mr. Massey's conviction that Marlowe is the rival poet of whose "great verse" Shakespeare was jealous depends upon Southampton, and not Herbert, being acknowledged to be the friend addressed, for Marlowe died in 1593, when Herbert was but thirteen years old, and five years before we have the first mention of Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets. Certainly, a writer who had died five years before we find any mention of the Sonnets can hardly be the living poet of whom Shakespeare distinctly speaks in Sonnets 80 and 86. Also in Sonnet 82 he makes mention of the "dedicated words" this rival addresses to his friend. Now, we have no evidence that Marlowe ever dedicated anything to Southampton, although Mr. Massey tries to bolster up a desperate case by saying that "there is nothing improbable in supposing that Marlowe's Hero and Leander was intended to be dedicated to Southampton" had the poet lived to finish it!

A stronger chain of evidence (still conjectural, it must be remembered) points to Ben Jonson as this rival poet. His Epigrams, which contain a eulogy upon Pembroke, and his Catiline, were both dedicated to this earl, although neither of them was published till after the Sonnets. We find the earl of Pembroke's name among the actors in Ben Jonson's masques, and Falkland's eclogue testifies to their intimacy. And in the 80th Sonnet, Shakespeare uses the same comparison of himself and his rival, to two ships of different bulk, which Fuller used to describe Shakespeare and Ben Jonson as they appeared at the Mermaid Tavern.

As for the name of the false woman who ensnared two such noble hearts, it is lost for ever, let us hope, in a deserved oblivion. The scanty data that we have given here are about all that can be accepted without wrenching history and poetry from their proper sphere. But so long as the spirit is more than the letter, so long will the Sonnets of Shakespeare be read by all true lovers of true poetry, whether their historical significance ever be known or not. They are the saddest and the sweetest story of friendship that we have in all literature; and while one faithful friend remains possessed of that fine wit that can "hear with eyes what silent love hath writ," his heart will beat in answer to the perfect love of the greatest of all poets and the noblest of all friends.