THE SONNETS: PART III
The most interesting question in the sonnets, the question the vital
importance of which dwarfs all others, has never yet been fairly tackled
and decided. As soon as English critics noticed, a hundred years or so
ago, that the sonnets fell into two series, and that the first, and
longer, series was addressed to a young man, they cried, "shocking!
shocking!" and registered judgement with smug haste on evidence that
would not hang a cat. Hallam, "the judicious," held that "it would have
been better for Shakespeare's reputation if the sonnets had never been
written," and even Heine, led away by the consensus of opinion, accepted
the condemnation, and regretted "the miserable degradation of humanity"
to be found in the sonnets. But before giving ourselves to the novel
enjoyment of moral superiority over Shakespeare, it may be worth while
to ask, is the fact proved? is his guilt established?
No one, I think, who has followed me so far will need to be told that I
take no interest in white-washing Shakespeare: I am intent on painting
him as he lived and loved, and if I found him as vicious as Villon, or
as cruel as a stoat, I would set it all down as faithfully as I would
give proof of his generosity or his gentleness.
Before the reader can fairly judge of Shakespeare's innocence or guilt,
he must hold in mind two salient peculiarities of the man which I have
already noted; but which must now be relieved out into due prominence so
that one will make instinctive allowance for them at every moment, his
sensuality and his snobbishness.
His sensuality is the quality, as we have seen, which unites the
creatures of his temperament with those of his intellect, his poets with
his thinkers, and proves that Romeo and Jaques, the Duke of "Twelfth
Night" and Hamlet, are one and the same person. If the matter is fairly
considered it will be found that this all-pervading sensuality is the
source, or at least a natural accompaniment of his gentle kindness and
his unrivalled sympathy.
Shakespeare painted no portrait of the hero or of the adventurer; found
no new word for the virile virtues or virile vices, but he gave immortal
expression to desire and its offspring, to love, jealousy, and despair,
to every form of pathos, pleading and pity, to all the gentler and more
feminine qualities. Desire in especial has inspired him with phrases
more magically expressive even than those gasped out by panting Sappho
when lust had made her body a lyre of deathless music. Her lyric to the
belovèd is not so intense as Othello's:
Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee";
or as Cleopatra's astonishing:
"There is gold, and here
My bluest veins to kiss";
--the revelation of a lifetime devoted to vanity and sensuality,
sensuality pampered as a god and adored with an Eastern devotion.
I do not think I need labour this point further; as I have already
noticed, Orsino, the Duke of "Twelfth Night," sums up Shakespeare's
philosophy of love in the words:
"Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."--
Shakespeare told us the truth about himself when he wrote in sonnet 142,
"Love is my sin." We can expect from him new words or a new method in
the painting of passionate desire.
The second peculiarity of Shakespeare which we must establish firmly in
our minds before we attempt to construe the sonnets is his extraordinary
English snobbishness is like a London fog, intenser than can be found in
any other country; it is so extravagant, indeed, that it seems different
in kind. One instance of this: when Mr. Gladstone was being examined
once in a case, he was asked by counsel, Was he a friend of a certain
lord? Instead of answering simply that he was, he replied that he did
not think it right to say he was a friend of so great a noble: "he had
the honour of his acquaintance." Only in England would the man who could
make noblemen at will be found bowing before them with this humility of
In Shakespeare's time English snobbishness was stronger than it is
to-day; it was then supported by law and enforced by penalties. To speak
of a lord without his title was regarded as defamation, and was punished
as such more than once by the Star Chamber. Shakespeare's position, too,
explains how this native snobbishness in him was heightened to
flunkeyism. He was an aristocrat born, as we have seen, and felt in
himself a kinship for the courtesies, chivalries, and generosities of
aristocratic life. This tendency was accentuated by his calling. The
middle class, already steeped in Puritanism, looked upon the theatre as
scarcely better than the brothel, and showed their contempt for the
players in a thousand ways. The groundlings and common people, with
their "greasy caps" and "stinking breath" were as loathsome to
Shakespeare as the crop-headed, gain-loving citizens who condemned him
and his like pitilessly. He was thrown back, therefore, upon the young
noblemen who had read the classics and loved the arts. His works show
how he admires them. He could paint you Bassanio or Benedick or Mercutio
to the life. Everybody has noticed the predilection with which he lends
such characters his own poetic spirit and charm. His lower orders are
all food for comedy or farce: he will not treat them seriously.
His snobbishness carries him to astounding lengths. One instance: every
capable critic has been astonished by the extraordinary fidelity to fact
he shows in his historical plays; he often takes whole pages of an
earlier play or of Plutarch, and merely varying the language uses them
in his drama. He is punctiliously careful to set down the fact, whatever
it may be, and explain it, even when it troubles the flow of his story;
but as soon as the fact comes into conflict with his respect for
dignitaries, he loses his nice conscience. He tells us of Agincourt
without ever mentioning the fact that the English bowmen won the battle;
he had the truth before him; the chronicler from whom he took the story
vouched for the fact; but Shakespeare preferred to ascribe the victory
to Henry and his lords. Shakespeare loved a lord with a passionate
admiration, and when he paints himself it is usually as a duke or
Holding these truths in our mind, Shakespeare's intense sensitiveness
and sensuality, and his almost inconceivable snobbishness, we may now
take up the sonnets.
The first thing that strikes one in the sonnets is the fact that, though
a hundred and twenty-five of them are devoted to a young man, and
Shakespeare's affection for him, and only twenty-six to the woman, every
one of those to the woman is characterized by a terrible veracity of
passion, whereas those addressed to the youth are rather conventional
than convincing. He pictures the woman to the life; strong, proud, with
dark eyes and hair, pale complexion--a wanton with the rare power of
carrying off even a wanton's shame. He finds a method new to literature
to describe her. He will have no poetic exaggeration; snow is whiter
than her breasts; violets sweeter than her breath:
"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare."
His passion is so intense that he has no desire to paint her seduction
as greater than it was. She has got into his blood, so to speak, and
each drop of it under the microscope would show her image. Take any
sonnet at haphazard, and you will hear the rage of his desire.
But what is the youth like?--"the master-mistress" of his passion, to
give him the title which seems to have convinced the witless of
Shakespeare's guilt. Not one word of description is to be found
anywhere; no painting epithet--nothing. Where is the cry of this
terrible, shameless, outrageous passion that mastered Shakespeare's
conscience and enslaved his will? Hardly a phrase that goes beyond
affection--such affection as Shakespeare at thirty-four might well feel
for a gifted, handsome aristocrat like Lord Herbert, who had youth,
beauty, wealth, wit to recommend him. Herbert was a poet, too: a patron
unparagoned! "If Southampton gave me a thousand pounds," Shakespeare may
well have argued, "perhaps Lord Herbert will get me made Master of the
Revels, or even give me a higher place." An aristocratic society tends
to make parasites even of the strong, as Dr. Johnson's famous letter to
Lord Chesterfield proves. But let us leave supposition and come to the
sonnets themselves, which are addressed to the youth. The first sonnet
"From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die."
This is a very good argument indeed when addressed to a woman; but when
addressed to a man by a man it rings strained and false. Yet it is the
theme of the first seventeen sonnets. It is precisely the same argument
which Shakespeare set forth in "Venus and Adonis" again and again:
"Seeds spring from seeds and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot; to get it is thy duty."
"And so, in spite of death, thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive ..."
"Foul cankering rust the hidden treasure frets,
But gold that's put to use more gold begets."
At the end of the third sonnet we find the same argument:
"But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee."
Again, in the fourth, sixth, and seventh sonnets the same plea is urged.
In the tenth sonnet the poet cries:
"Make thee another self, for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee."
And again at the end of the thirteenth sonnet:
"You had a father; let your son say so."
Every one of these sonnets contains simply the argument which is set
forth with equal force and far superior pertinence in "Venus and
That is, Shakespeare makes use of the passion he has felt for a woman to
give reality to the expression of his affection for the youth. No better
proof could be imagined of the fact that he never loved the youth with
In sonnet 18 Shakespeare begins to alter his note. He then tells the
youth that he will achieve immortality, not through his children, but
through Shakespeare's verses. Sonnet 19 is rounded with the same
"Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young."
Sonnet 20 is often referred to as suggesting intimacy:
"A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false woman's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure."
The sextet of this sonnet absolutely disproves guilty intimacy, and is,
I believe, intended to disprove it; Shakespeare had already fathomed the
scandal-loving minds of his friends, and wanted to set forth the noble
disinterestedness of his affection.
Sonnet 22 is more sincere, though not so passionate; it neither
strengthens nor rebuts the argument. Sonnet 23 is the sonnet upon which
all those chiefly rely who wish to condemn Shakespeare. Here it is:
"As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might.
O, let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast;
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit."
We can interpret the phrases, "the perfect ceremony of love's rite" and
"look for recompense" as we will; but it must be admitted that even when
used to the uttermost they form an astonishingly small base on which to
raise so huge and hideous a superstructure.
But we shall be told that the condemnation of Shakespeare is based, not
upon any sonnet or any line; but upon the way Shakespeare speaks as soon
as he discovers that his mistress has betrayed him in favour of his
friend. One is inclined to expect that he will throw the blame on the
friend, and, after casting him off, seek to win again the affections of
his mistress. Nine men out of ten would act in this way. But the sonnets
tell us with iteration and most peculiar emphasis that Shakespeare does
not condemn the friend. As soon as he hears of the traitorism he cries
"Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven's sun staineth."
It is the loss of his friend he regrets, rather than the loss of his
mistress; she is not mentioned save by comparison with "basest clouds."
Yet even when read by Gradgrind and his compeers the thirteenth line of
this sonnet is utterly inconsistent with passion.
In the next sonnet the friend repents, and weeps the "strong offence,"
and Shakespeare accepts the sorrow as salve that "heals the wound"; his
friend's tears are pearls that "ransom all ill deeds." The next sonnet
begins with the line:
"No more be griev'd at that which thou hast done";
Shakespeare will be an "accessory" to his friend's "theft," though he
admits that the robbery is still sour. Then come four sonnets in which
he is content to forget all about the wrong he has suffered, and simply
exhausts himself in praise of his friend. Sonnet 40 begins:
"Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou may'st true love call; All mine was
thine, before thou hadst this more."
This is surely the very soul of tender affection; but it is significant
that even here the word "true" is emphasized and not "love"; he goes on:
"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."
Never before was a man so gentle-kind; we might be listening to the
lament of a broken-hearted woman who smiles through her tears to
reassure her lover; yet there is no attempt to disguise the fact that
Herbert has done "wrong." The next sonnet puts the poet's feeling as
strongly as possible.
"Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail'd;
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail'd?
Ay me! but yet thou might'st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth;
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me."
The first lines show that Shakespeare is pretending; he attempts not
only to minimize the offence, but to find it charming. A mother who
caught her young son kissing a girl would reproach him in this fashion;
to her his faults would be the "pretty wrongs that liberty commits." But
this is not the way passion speaks, and here again the sextet condemns
Herbert in the plainest terms. At length we have the summing-up:
"That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov'd her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know'st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
But here's the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone."
This sonnet, with its affected word-play and wire-drawn consolation,
leaves one gaping: Shakespeare's verbal affectations had got into his
very blood. To my mind the whole sonnet is too extravagant to be
sincere; it is only to be explained by the fact that Shakespeare's
liking for Herbert was heightened by snobbishness and by the hope of
patronage. None of it rings true except the first couplet. Yet the
argument of it is repeated, strange to say, and emphasized in the
sonnets addressed to the "dark lady" whom Shakespeare loved. Sonnet 144
is clear enough:
"Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man, right fair,
The worser spirit a woman, colour'd ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out."
As soon as his mistress comes on the scene Shakespeare's passionate
sincerity cannot be questioned. The truth is the intensity of his
passion leads him to condemn and spite the woman, while the absence of
passion allows him to pretend affection for the friend. Sonnet 133,
written to the woman, is decisive:
"Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me!
Is't not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet'st friend must be?
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engross'd:
Of him, myself, and thee, I am forsaken;
A torment thrice threefold thus to be cross'd.
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom's ward,
But then my friend's heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe'er keeps me, let my heart be his guard;
Thou canst not then use rigour in my gaol:
And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
Perforce am thine, and all that is in me."
The last couplet is to me "perforce" conclusive. But let us take it that
these sonnets prove the contention of the cry of critics that
Shakespeare preferred friendship to love, and held his friend dearer
than his mistress, and let us see if the plays corroborate the sonnets
on this point. We may possibly find that the plays only strengthen the
doubt which the sonnets implant in us.
"The Merchant of Venice" has always seemed to me important as helping to
fix the date of the sonnets. Antonio, as I have shown, is an
impersonation of Shakespeare himself. It seems to me Shakespeare would
have found it impossible to write of Antonio's self-sacrificing love for
Bassanio after he himself had been cheated by his friend. This play then
must have been written shortly before his betrayal, and should give us
Shakespeare's ordinary attitude. Many expressions in the play remind us
of the sonnets, and one in especial of sonnet 41. In the sixth scene of
the second act, Jessica, when escaping from her father's house, uses
Shakespeare's voice to say:
"But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit."
Here we have "the pretty follies" which is used again as "pretty wrongs"
in sonnet 41. Immediately afterwards Lorenzo, another mask of
Shakespeare, praises Jessica as "wise, fair, and true," just as in
sonnet 105 Shakespeare praises his friend as "kind, fair, and true,"
using again words which his passion for a woman has taught him.
The fourth act sets forth the same argument we find in the sonnets. When
it looks as if Antonio would have to give his life as forfeit to the
Jew, Bassanio exclaims:
"Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife and all the world
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil to deliver you."
This is the language of passionate exaggeration, one might say.
Antoniois suffering in Bassanio's place, paying the penalty, so to
speak, for Bassanio's happiness. No wonder Bassanio exaggerates his
grief and the sacrifice he would be prepared to make. But Gratiano has
no such excuse for extravagant speech, and yet Gratiano follows in the
"I have a wife whom, I protest, I love:
I would she were in heaven, so she could
Entreat some power to change this currish Jew."
The peculiarity of this attitude is heightened by the fact that the two
wives, Portia and Nerissa, both take the ordinary view. Portia says:
"Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer."
And Nerissa goes a little further:
"Tis well you offer it behind her back,
The wish would make else an unquiet house."
The blunder is monstrous; not only is the friend prepared to sacrifice
all he possesses, including his wife, to save his benefactor, but the
friend's friend is content to sacrifice his wife too for the same
object. Shakespeare then in early manhood was accustomed to put
friendship before love; we must find some explanation of what seems to
us so unnatural an attitude.
In the last scene of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," which is due to a
later revision, the sonnet-case is emphasized. And at this time
Shakespeare has suffered Herbert's betrayal. As soon as the false friend
Proteus says he is sorry and asks forgiveness, Valentine, another
impersonation of Shakespeare, replies:
"Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest:
Who by repentance is not satisfied,
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas'd;
By penitence the Eternal's wrath's appeased;
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee."
This incarnation of Shakespeare speaks of repentance in Shakespeare's
most characteristic fashion, and then coolly surrenders the woman he
loves to his friend without a moment's hesitation, and without even
considering whether the woman would be satisfied with the transfer. The
words admit of no misconstruction; they stand four-square, not to be
shaken by any ingenuity of reason, and Shakespeare supplies us with
further corroboration of them.
"Coriolanus" was written fully ten years after "The Merchant of Venice,"
and long after the revision of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." And yet
Shakespeare's attitude at forty-three is, in regard to this matter, just
what it was at thirty-three. When Aufidius finds Coriolanus in his
house, and learns that he has been banished from Rome and is now
prepared to turn his army against his countrymen, he welcomes him as
"more a friend than e'er an enemy," and this is the way he takes to show
I loved the maid I married: never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold."
Here's the same attitude; the same extravagance; the same insistence on
the fact that the man loves the maid and yet has more delight in the
friend. What does it mean? When we first find it in "The Merchant of
Venice" it must give the reader pause; in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"
it surprises us; in the sonnets, accompanied as it is by every
flattering expression of tender affection for the friend, it brings us
to question; but its repetition in "Coriolanus" must assure us that it
is a mere pose. Aufidius was not such a friend of Coriolanus that we can
take his protestation seriously. The argument is evidently a stock
argument to Shakespeare: a part of the ordinary furniture of his mind:
it is like a fashionable dress of the period--the wearer does not notice
The truth is, Shakespeare found in the literature of his time, and in
the minds of his contemporaries, a fantastically high appreciation of
friendship, coupled with a corresponding disdain for love as we moderns
understand it. In "Wit's Commonwealth," published in 1598, we find: "The
love of men to women is a thing common and of course, but the friendship
of man to man, infinite and immortal." Passionate devotion to friendship
is a sort of mark of the Renaissance, and the words "love" and "lover"
in Elizabethan English were commonly used for "friend" and "friendship."
Moreover, one must not forget that Lyly, whose euphuistic speech
affected Shakespeare for years, had handled this same incident in his
"Campaspe," where Alexander gives up his love to his rival, Apelles.
Shakespeare, not to be outdone in any loyalty, sets forth the same
fantastical devotion in the sonnets and plays. He does this, partly
because the spirit of the time infected him, partly out of sincere
admiration for Herbert, but oftener, I imagine, out of self-interest. It
is pose, flunkeyism and the hope of benefits to come and not passion
that inspired the first series of sonnets.
Whoever reads the scene carefully in "Much Ado About Nothing," cannot
avoid seeing that Shakespeare at his best not only does not minimize his
friend's offence, but condemns it absolutely:
"The transgression is in the stealer."
And in the sonnets, too, in spite of himself, the same true feeling
pierces through the snobbish and affected excuses.
"Ay me! but yet them might'st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth,
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me."
Shakespeare was a sycophant, a flunkey if you will, but nothing worse.
Further arguments suggest themselves. Shakespeare lived, as it were, in
a glass house with a score of curious eyes watching everything he did
and with as many ears pricked for every word he said; but this foul
accusation was never even suggested by any of his rivals. In especial
Ben Jonson was always girding at Shakespeare, now satirically, now
good-humouredly. Is it not manifest that if any such sin had ever been
attributed to him, Ben Jonson would have given the suspicion utterance?
There is a passage in his "Bartholomew Fair" which I feel sure is meant
as a skit upon the relations we find in the Sonnets. In Act V, scene
iii, there is a puppet-show setting forth "the ancient modern history of
Hero and Leander, otherwise called the Touchstone of true Love, with as
true a trial of Friendship between Damon and Pythias, two faithful
friends o' the Bankside." Hero is a "wench o' the Bankside," and Leander
swims across the Thames to her. Damon and Pythias meet at her lodgings,
and abuse each other violently, only to finish as perfect good friends.
"<i>Damon</i>. Whore-master in thy face;
Thou hast lain with her thyself, I'll prove it in this place.
<i>Leatherhead</i>. They are whore-masters both, sir, that's
a plain case.
<i>Pythias</i>. Thou lie like a rogue.
<i>Leatherhead</i>. Do I lie like a rogue?
<i>Pythias</i>. A pimp and a scab.
<i>Leatherhead</i>. A pimp and a scab!
I say, between you you have both but one drab.
<i>Pythias and Damon</i>. Come, now we'll go together to
breakfast to Hero.
<i>Leatherhead</i>. Thus, gentles, you perceive without any
'Twixt Damon and Pythias here friendship's true trial."
Rare Ben Jonson would have been delighted to set forth the viler charge
if it had ever been whispered.
Then again, it seems to me certain that if Shakespeare had been the sort
of man his accusers say he was, he would have betrayed himself in his
plays. Consider merely the fact that young boys then played the girls'
parts on the stage. Surely if Shakespeare had had any leaning that way,
we should have found again and again ambiguous or suggestive expressions
given to some of these boys when aping girls; but not one. The
temptation was there; the provocation was there, incessant and prolonged
for twenty-five years, and yet, to my knowledge, Shakespeare has never
used one word that malice could misconstrue. Yet he loved suggestive and
Luckily, however, there is stronger proof of Shakespeare's innocence
than even his condemnation of his false friend, proof so strong, that if
all the arguments for his guilt were tenfold stronger than they are,
this proof would outweigh them all and bring them to nought. Nor should
it be supposed, because I have only mentioned the chief arguments for
and against, that I do not know all those that can be urged on either
side. I have confined myself to the chief ones simply because by merely
stating them, their utter weakness must be admitted by every one who can
read Shakespeare, by every one who understands his impulsive
sensitiveness, and the facility with which affectionate expressions came
to his lips. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that while the sonnets
were being written he was in rivalry with Chapman for this very patron's
favour, and this rivalry alone would explain a good deal of the fervour,
or, should I say, the affected fervour he put into the first series of
sonnets; but now for the decisive and convincing argument for
Let us first ask ourselves how it is that real passion betrays itself
and proves its force. Surely it is by its continuance; by its effect
upon the life later. I have assumed, or inferred, as my readers may
decide, that Shakespeare's liking for Herbert was chiefly snobbish, and
was deepened by the selfish hope that he would find in him a patron even
more powerful and more liberally disposed than Lord Southampton. He
probably felt that young Herbert owed him a great deal for his
companionship and poetical advice; for Herbert was by way of being a
poet himself. If my view is correct, after Shakespeare lost Lord
Herbert's affection, we should expect to hear him talking of man's
forgetfulness and ingratitude, and that is just what Lord Herbert left
in him, bitterness and contempt. Never one word in all his works to show
that the loss of this youth's affection touched him more nearly. As we
have seen, he cannot keep the incident out of his plays. Again and again
he drags it in; but in none of these dramas is there any lingering
kindness towards the betrayer. And as soon as the incident was past and
done with, as soon as the three or four years' companionship with Lord
Herbert was at an end, not one word more do we catch expressive of
affection. Again and again Shakespeare rails at man's ingratitude, but
nothing more. Think of it. Pembroke, under James, came to great power;
was, indeed, made Lord Chamberlain, and set above all the players, so
that he could have advanced Shakespeare as he pleased with a word: with
a word could have made him Master of the Revels, or given him a higher
post. He did not help him in any way. He gave books every Christmas to
Ben Jonson, but we hear of no gift to Shakespeare, though evidently from
the dedication to him of the first folio, he remained on terms of
careless acquaintance with Shakespeare. Ingratitude is what Shakespeare
found in Lord Pembroke; ingratitude is what he complains of in him. What
a different effect the loss of Mary Fitton had upon Shakespeare. Just
consider what the plays teach us when the sonnet-story is finished. The
youth vanishes; no reader can find a trace of him, or even an allusion
to him. But the woman comes to be the centre, as we shall see, of
tragedy after tragedy. She flames through Shakespeare's life, a fiery
symbol, till at length she inspires perhaps his greatest drama, "Antony
and Cleopatra," filling it with the disgrace of him who is "a strumpet's
fool," the shame of him who has become "the bellows and the fan to cool
a harlot's lust."
The passion for Mary Fitton was the passion of Shakespeare's whole life.
The adoration of her, and the insane desire of her, can be seen in every
play he wrote from 1597 to 1608. After he lost her, he went back to her;
but the wound of her frailty cankered and took on proud flesh in him,
and tortured him to nervous breakdown and to madness. When at length he
won to peace, after ten years, it was the peace of exhaustion. His love
for his "gipsy-wanton" burned him out, as one is burnt to ashes at the
stake, and his passion only ended with his life.
There is no room for doubt in my mind, no faintest suspicion. Hallam and
Heine, and all the cry of critics, are mistaken in this matter.
Shakespeare admired Lord Herbert's youth and boldness and beauty, hoped
great things from his favour and patronage; but after the betrayal, he
judged him inexorably as a mean traitor, "a stealer" who had betrayed "a
twofold trust"; and later, cursed him for his ingratitude, and went
about with wild thoughts of bloody revenge, as we shall soon see in
"Hamlet" and "Othello," and then dropped him into oblivion without a
It is bad enough to know that Shakespeare, the sweetest spirit and
finest mind in all literature, should have degraded himself to pretend
such an affection for the profligate Herbert as has given occasion for
misconstruction. It is bad enough, I say, to know that Shakespeare could
play flunkey to this extent; but after all, that is the worst that can
be urged against him, and it is so much better than men have been led to
believe that there may be a certain relief in the knowledge.