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Ever since Wordsworth wrote that the sonnets were the key to Shakespeare's heart, it has been taken for granted (save by those who regard even the sonnets as mere poetical exercises) that Shakespeare's real nature is discovered in the sonnets more easily and more surely than in the plays. Those readers who have followed me so far in examining his plays will hardly need to be told that I do not agree with this assumption. The author whose personality is rich and complex enough to create and vitalize a dozen characters, reveals himself more fully in his creations than he can in his proper person. It was natural enough that Wordsworth, a great lyric poet, should catch Shakespeare's accent better in his sonnets than in his dramas; but that is owing to Wordsworth's limitations. And if the majority of later English critics have agreed with Wordsworth, it only shows that Englishmen in general are better judges of lyric than of dramatic work. We have the greatest lyrics in the world; but our dramas, with the exception of Shakespeare's, are not remarkable. And in that modern extension of the drama, the novel, we are distinctly inferior to the French and Russians. This inferiority must be ascribed to the new-fangled prudery of language and thought which emasculates all our later fiction; but as that prudery is not found in our lyric verse it is evident that here alone the inspiration is full and rich enough to overflow the limits of epicene convention.

Whether the reader agrees with me or not on this point, it may be accepted that Shakespeare revealed himself far more completely in his plays than as a lyric poet. Just as he chose his dramatic subjects with some felicity to reveal his many-sided nature, so he used the sonnets with equal artistry to discover that part of himself which could hardly be rendered objectively. Whatever is masculine in a man can be depicted superbly on the stage, but his feminine qualities--passionate self-abandonment, facile forgivingness, self-pity--do not show well in the dramatic struggle. What sort of a drama would that be in which the hero would have to confess that when in the vale of years he had fallen desperately in love with a girl, and that he had been foolish enough to send a friend, a young noble, to plead his cause, with the result that the girl won the friend and gave herself to him? The protagonist would earn mocking laughter and not sympathy, and this Shakespeare no doubt foresaw. Besides, to Shakespeare, this story, which is in brief the story of the sonnets, was terribly real and intimate, and he felt instinctively that he could not treat it objectively; it was too near him, too exquisitely painful for that.

At some time or other life overpowers the strongest of us, and that defeat we all treat lyrically; when the deepest depth in us is stirred we cannot feign, or depict ourselves from the outside dispassionately; we can only cry our passion, our pain and our despair; this once we use no art, simple truth is all we seek to reach. The crisis of Shakespeare's life, the hour of agony and bloody sweat when his weakness found him out and life's handicap proved too heavy even for his strength--that is the subject of the sonnets.

Now what was Shakespeare's weakness? his besetting temptation? "Love is my sin," he says; "Love of love and her soft hours" was his weakness: passion the snare that meshed his soul. No wonder Antony cries:

"Whither hast thou led me, Egypt?"

for his gipsy led Shakespeare from shame to shame, to the verge of madness. The sonnets give us the story, the whole terrible, sinful, magical story of Shakespeare's passion.

As might have been expected, Englishmen like Wordsworth, with an intense appreciation of lyric poetry, have done good work in criticism of the sonnets, and one Englishman has read them with extraordinary understanding. Mr. Tyler's work on the sonnets ranks higher than that of Coleridge on the plays. I do not mean to say that it is on the same intellectual level with the work of Coleridge, though it shows wide reading, astonishing acuteness, and much skill in the marshalling of argument. But Mr. Tyler had the good fortune to be the first to give to the personages of the sonnets a local habitation and a name, and that unique achievement puts him in a place by himself far above the mass of commentators. Before his book appeared in 1890 the sonnets lay in the dim light of guess-work. It is true that Hallam had adopted the hypothesis of Boaden and Bright, and had identified William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, with the high-born, handsome youth for whom Shakespeare, in the sonnets, expressed such passionate affection; but still, there were people who thought that the Earl of Southampton filled the requirements even better than William Herbert, and as I say, the whole subject lay in the twilight of surmise and supposition.

Mr. Tyler, working on a hint of the Rev. W. A. Harrison, identified Shakespeare's high-born mistress, the "dark lady" of the sonnets, with Mistress Mary Fitton, a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth.

These, then, are the personages of the drama, and the story is very simple: Shakespeare loved Mistress Fitton and sent his friend, the young Lord Herbert, to her on some pretext, but with the design that he should commend Shakespeare to the lady. Mistress Fitton fell in love with William Herbert, wooed and won him, and Shakespeare had to mourn the loss of both friend and mistress.

It would be natural to speak of this identification of Mr. Tyler's as the best working hypothesis yet put forward; but it would be unfair to him; it is more than this. Till his book appeared, even the date of the sonnets was not fixed; many critics regarded them as an early work, as early indeed, as 1591 or 1592; he was the first person to prove that the time they cover extends roughly from 1598 to 1601. Mr. Tyler then has not only given us the names of the actors, but he has put the tragedy in its proper place in Shakespeare's life, and he deserves all thanks for his illuminating work.

I bring to this theory fresh corroboration from the plays. Strange to say, Mr. Tyler has hardly used the plays, yet, as regards the story told in the sonnets, the proof that it is a real and not an imaginary story can be drawn from the plays. I may have to point out, incidentally, what I regard as mistakes and oversights in Mr. Tyler's work; but in the main it stands four-square, imposing itself on the reason and satisfying at the same time instinct and sympathy.

Let us first see how far the story told in the sonnets is borne out by the plays. For a great many critics, even to-day, reject the story altogether, and believe that the sonnets were nothing but poetic exercises.

The sonnets fall naturally into two parts: from 1 to 126 they tell how Shakespeare loved a youth of high rank and great personal beauty; sonnet 127 is an <i>envoi</i>; from 128 to 152 they tell of Shakespeare's love for a "dark lady." What binds the two series together is the story told in both, or at least told in one and corroborated in the other, that Shakespeare first sent his friend to the lady, most probably to plead his cause, and that she wooed his friend and gave herself to him. Now this is not a common or easily invented story. No one would guess that Shakespeare could be so foolish as to send his friend to plead his love for him. That's a mistake that no man who knows women would be likely to make: but the unlikelihood of the story is part of the evidence of its truth--<i>credo quia incredibile</i> has an element of persuasion in it.

No one has yet noticed that the story of the sonnets is treated three times in Shakespeare's plays. The first time the story appears it is handled so lightly that it looks to me as if he had not then lived through the incidents which he narrates. In the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" Proteus is asked by the Duke to plead Thurio's cause with Silvia, and he promises to do so; but instead, presses his own suit and is rejected. The incident is handled so carelessly (Proteus not being Thurio's friend) that it seems to me to have no importance save as a mere coincidence. When the scene between Proteus and Silvia was written Shakespeare had not yet been deceived by his friend. Still in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" there is one speech which certainly betrays personal passion. It is in the last scene of the fifth act, when Valentine surprises Proteus offering violence to Silvia.

"<i>Val.(coming forward)</i> Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch,--
Thou friend of an ill fashion!

<i>Pro</i>. Valentine!

<i>Val. Thou common friend, that's without faith or love,-- For such is a friend now;</i>--treacherous man! Thou hast beguiled my hopes: nought but mine eye Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say I have one friend alive: thou would'st disprove me. Who should be trusted when one's own right hand Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus, I am sorry I must never trust thee more, But count the world a stranger for thy sake. <i>The private wound is deepest: time most accurst 'Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!</i>"

The first lines which I have italicised are too plain to be misread; when they were written Shakespeare had just been cheated by his friend; they are his passionate comment on the occurrence--"For such is a friend now"--can hardly be otherwise explained. The last couplet, too, which I have also put in italics, is manifestly a reflection on his betrayal: it is a twin rendering of the feeling expressed in sonnet 40:

"And yet love knows it is a greater grief To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury."

It contrasts "foe and friend," just as the sonnet contrasts "love and hate."

Mr. Israel Gollancz declares that "several critics are inclined to attribute this final scene to another hand," and to his mind "it bears evident signs of hasty composition." No guess could be wider from the truth. The scene is most manifestly pure Shakespeare--I take the soliloquy of Valentine, with which the scene opens, as among Shakespeare's most characteristic utterances--but the whole scene is certainly later than the rest of the play. The truth probably is that after his friend had deceived him, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" was played again, and that Shakespeare rewrote this last scene under the influence of personal feeling. The 170 lines of it are full of phrases which might be taken direct from the sonnets. Here 's such a couplet:

"O, 'tis the curse in love, and still approved, When women cannot love where they're beloved."

The whole scene tells the story a little more frankly than we find it in the sonnets, as might be expected, seeing that Shakespeare's rival was a great noble and not to be criticised freely. This fact explains to me Valentine's unmotived renunciation of Silvia; explains, too, why he is reconciled to his friend with such unseemly haste. Valentine's last words in the scene are illuminating:

"'Twere pity two such friends should be long foes."

The way this scene in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is told throws more light on Shakespeare's feelings at the moment of his betrayal than the sonnets themselves. Under the cover of fictitious names Shakespeare ventured to show the disgust and contempt he felt for Lord Herbert's betrayal more plainly than he cared, or perhaps dared, to do when speaking in his own person.

There is another play where the same incident is handled in such fashion as to put the truth of the sonnet-story beyond all doubt.

In "Much Ado about Nothing" the incident is dragged in by the ears, and the whole treatment is most remarkable. Every one will remember how Claudio tells the Prince that he loves Hero, and asks his friend's assistance: "your highness now may do me good." There's no reason for Claudio's shyness: no reason why he should call upon the Prince for help in a case where most men prefer to use their own tongues; but Claudio is young, and so we glide over the inherent improbability of the incident. The Prince at once promises to plead for Claudio with Hero and with her father:

"And thou shalt have her. Was't not to this end That thou began'st to twist so fine a story?"

Now comes the peculiar handling of the incident. Claudio knows the Prince is wooing Hero for him, therefore when Don John tells him that the Prince "is enamoured on Hero," he should at once infer that Don John is mistaken through ignorance of this fact; but instead of that he falls suspicious, and questions:

"How know you he loves her?

<i>D. John</i>. I heard him swear his affection.

<i>Bor</i>. So did I too, and he swore he would marry her to-night."

There is absolutely nothing even in this corroboration by Borachio to shake Claudio's trust in the Prince: neither Don John nor Borachio knows what he knows, that the Prince is wooing for him (Claudio) and at his request. He should therefore smile at the futile attempt to excite his jealousy. But at once he is persuaded of the worst, as a man would be who had already experienced such disloyalty: he cries:

"'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself."

And then we should expect to hear him curse the prince as a traitorous friend, and dwell on his own loyal service by way of contrast, and so keep turning the dagger in the wound with the thought that no one but himself was ever so repaid for such honesty of love. But, no! Claudio has no bitterness in him, no reproachings; he speaks of the whole matter as if it had happened months and months before, as indeed it had; for "Much Ado about Nothing" was written about 1599. Reflection had already shown Shakespeare the unreason of revolt, and he puts his own thought in the mouth of Claudio:

"'Tis certain so; the prince woos for himself. Friendship is constant in all other things Save in the office and affairs of love: Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues; Let every eye negotiate for itself, And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch, Against whose charms faith melteth into blood. <i>This is an accident of hourly proof, Which I mistrusted not</i>. Farewell, therefore, Hero."

The Claudio who spoke like this in the first madness of love lost and friendship cheated would be a monster. Here we have Shakespeare speaking in all calmness of something that happened to himself a considerable time before. The lines I have put in italics admit no other interpretation: they show Shakespeare's philosophic acceptance of things as they are; what has happened to him is not to be assumed as singular but is the common lot of man--"an accident of hourly proof"--which he blames himself for not foreseeing. In fact, Claudio's temper here is as detached and impartial as Benedick's. Benedick declares that Claudio should be whipped:

"<i>D. Pedro</i>. To be whipped! What's his fault?

<i>Benedick</i>. The flat transgression of a schoolboy, who being overjoyed with finding a bird's nest, shows it his companion and he steals it."

That is the view of the realist who knows life and men, and plays the game according to the rules accepted. Shakespeare understood this side of life as well as most men. But Don Pedro is a prince--a Shakespearean prince at that--full of all loyalties and ideal sentiments; he answers Benedick from Shakespeare's own heart:

"Wilt thou make a trust a transgression? The transgression is in the stealer."

It is curious that Shakespeare doesn't see that Claudio must feel this truth a thousand times more keenly than the Prince. As I have said, Claudio's calm acceptance of the fact is a revelation of Shakespeare's own attitude, an attitude just modified by the moral reprobation put in the mouth of the Prince. The recital itself shows that the incident was a personal experience of Shakespeare, and as one might expect in this case it does not accelerate but retard the action of the drama; it is, indeed, altogether foreign to the drama, an excrescence upon it and not an improvement but a blemish. Moreover, the reflective, disillusioned, slightly pessimistic tone of the narrative is alien and strange to the optimistic temper of the play; finally, this garb of patient sadness does not suit Claudio, who should be all love and eagerness, and diminishes instead of increasing our sympathy with his later actions. Whoever considers these facts will admit that we have here Shakespeare telling us what happened to himself, and what he really thought of his friend's betrayal.

"The transgression is in the stealer."

That is Shakespeare's mature judgement of Lord Herbert's betrayal.

The third mention of this sonnet-story in a play is later still: it is in "Twelfth Night." The Duke, as we have seen, is an incarnation of Shakespeare himself, and, indeed, the finest incarnation we have of his temperament. In the fourth scene of the first act he sends Viola to plead his cause for him with Olivia, much in the same way, no doubt, as Shakespeare sent Pembroke to Miss Fitton. The whole scene deserves careful reading.


Thou know'st no less but all; I have unclasp'd To thee the book even of my secret soul: Therefore, good youth, address thy gait unto her Be not denied access, stand at her doors, And tell them, there thy fixed foot shall grow Till thou have audience.

<i>Vio</i>. Sure, my noble lord,
If she be so abandon'd to her sorrow
As it is spoke, she never will admit me.

<i>Duke</i>. Be clamorous and leap all civil bounds Rather than make unprofited return.

<i>Vio</i>. Say I do speak with her, my lord, what then?

<i>Duke</i>. O, then unfold the passion of my love, Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith: It shall become thee well to act my woes; <i>She will attend it better in thy youth Than in a nuncio's of more grave aspect.</i>

<i>Vio</i>. I think not so, my lord.

<i>Duke</i>. Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound;

And all is semblative a woman's part. I know thy constellation is right apt For this affair. Some four or five attend him; All if you will; for I myself am best When least in company."

I do not want to find more here than is in the text: the passage simply shows that this idea of sending some one to plead his love was constantly in Shakespeare's mind in these years. The curious part of the matter is that he should pick a youth as ambassador, and a youth who is merely his page. He can discover no reason for choosing such a boy as Viola, and so simply asserts that youth will be better attended to, which is certainly not the fact. Lord Herbert's youth was in his mind: but he could not put the truth in the play that when he chose his ambassador he chose him for his high position and personal beauty and charm, and not because of his youth. The whole incident is treated lightly as something of small import; the bitterness in "Much Ado" has died out: "Twelfth Night" was written about 1601, a year or so later than "Much Ado."

I do not want to labour the conclusion I have reached; but it must be admitted that I have found in the plays, and especially in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "Much Ado," the same story which is told in the sonnets; a story lugged into the plays, where, indeed, its introduction is a grave fault in art and its treatment too peculiar to be anything but personal. Here in the plays we have, so to speak, three views of the sonnet-story; the first in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," when the betrayal is fresh in Shakespeare's memory and his words are embittered with angry feeling:

"Thou common friend that's without faith or love."

The second view is taken in "Much Ado About Nothing" when the pain of the betrayal has been a little salved by time. Shakespeare now moralizes the occurrence. He shows us how it would be looked upon by a philosopher (for that is what the lover, Claudio, is in regard to his betrayal) and by a soldier and man of the world, Benedick, and by a Prince. Shakespeare selects the prince to give effect to the view that the fault is in the transgressor and not in the man who trusts. The many-sided treatment of the story shows all the stages through which Shakespeare's mind moved, and the result is to me a more complete confession than is to be found in the sonnets. Finally the story is touched upon in "Twelfth Night," when the betrayal has faded into oblivion, but the poet lets out the fact that his ambassador was a youth, and the reason he gives for this is plainly insufficient. If after these three recitals any one can still believe that the sonnet-story is imaginary, he is beyond persuasion by argument.

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