Peter Batten writes about The Sonnets . . .
Even today I often hear someone speaking on television or writing in a newspaper, blithely remarking, “Of course, we know so little about Shakespeare…” There are still a few fools about who think that his plays were written by the Earl of Oxford or, even worse, Christopher Marlowe.
More than 100 years ago university lecturers began earning a living by researching the history of literature. Since that time there are thousands of them in every country in the world. Shakespeare is one of their favourite subjects. They seek high and low for every possible bit of information about him. But there is one part of Shakespeare’s life story which is particularly intriguing. That is the period in his life described by his sonnets. In the last 20 years of Elizabeth I’s reign, there was a great enthusiasm for sequences of sonnets. These are poems 14 lines long arranged in a regular pattern of 8 = 6. Originally from Italian Renaissance literature, they arrived in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Shakespeare wrote a sequence of 154 sonnets. We know that they were circulating in manuscript in the 1590s and drew favourable comments. They were not finally published until 1609. Scholars are still arguing over two or three basic questions. First, did Shakespeare actually authorise the publication? Second, did he arrange the sonnets in this order? Third, because the first 125 sonnets are obviously addressed to a young man, or two young men, who is involved? Oscar Wilde suggested, humorously, that this Mr W.H. might even be a boy actor.
There is a more fundamental question. Do the sonnets tell a story? If they do, is it a romance concocted by Shakespeare, or is it his own life story at this time? Scholars today seem to agree that it is the story of several years in his life, probably during the 1590s. Some who support this view have arranged for public readings of the complete sequence, inviting the audience to try to follow a narrative. What sort of story emerges? I will try to give you a simple guide. The first few sonnets are addressed to a handsome young man in an effort to persuade him to produce some offspring. Then the tone of the poems becomes more intimate. The revelation of a homosexual relationship starts in Sonnet 20, which begins,
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion…
And which goes on to include a very rude pun on the word “pricked”. The implication of this sonnet was realised by scholars in the Victorian period, but they were reluctant to draw the conclusion: that Shakespeare was gay. But the story rapidly becomes more complicated. (From this point I will refer to the writer of the sonnets as ‘the poet’ as a concession to those who consider the whole sequence a fiction from Shakespeare’s imagination.) The poet expresses his anger that the young man has started an affair with his, the poet’s, mistress! So, is the poet gay, straight or bisexual? An extremely bitter sonnet later in the sequence (129) expresses disgust at “lust” in general. A recent commentator, the poet Don Paterson, thinks that this poem is fired by the feelings of a gay man who has ventured into heterosexual experiences. Surely it would be more plausible to assume that the poet is (was) bisexual? A further strain on the relationship with the young man is created by other poets. They have produced poems in tribute to the young man which have affected the poet’s imagination and caused another kind of breach in the relationship. By the time we reach 126, which is not a sonnet, the relationship seems to have come to a bitter end.
Then we have sonnets 127-152. (Sonnets 153-4 seem to be rather juvenile exercises which have been added to the sequence). These describe or discuss, often with great bitterness, the three-sided relationship which began to appear in sonnet 40. They should probably be read as a fuller explanation of the conflict which arose at that time. For example, in sonnet 144 we read,
The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
You may have read references to the famous “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Well, here she is. These are some of the best poems of the whole sequence.
Let me return to my argument. We do know a great deal about William Shakespeare. Those who continue to question his claim to be the true originator of his plays reveal the superficiality of their own studies and their incompetence as readers of poetry. If, as scholars now accept, the 154 Sonnets describe the loves, the quarrels and the agonising doubts of ten or more years in his life, they are a very important addition to our knowledge. At the same time they are some of the greatest poems in our language.