THE SONNETS: PART I
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
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
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
Thou friend of an ill fashion!
<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
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
"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
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
"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
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.