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Shakespeare’s Sonnets

I performed this half-hour show with my friend Andrew Bannerman on 23 April 2016 in the Unitarian church in Shrewsbury.

Acknowledgement: I drew much of the information in the linking passages from Michael Wood’s excellent book In Search of Shakespeare, published in 2003 by BBC Worldwide to accompany the television series of that name.

John: Good afternoon! We’re here to mark the approximate birthday, and the 400th anniversary of the probable death day, of England’s greatest writer. He’s best known for his plays, of course, but in the next half hour we’ll dip into his smaller but no less extraordinary oeuvre: the 154 sonnets. Taken together, these compact poems are an astonishing, unblinking meditation on love, on the short distance between love and hate, on sexual passion, physical decay, on politics, the passage of time, the inevitability of death. And the bulk of them concern a triangular love affair between himself, a young nobleman whom he many times passionately addresses, and a dark-skinned married woman.

Andrew: A triangle, then, with one certain and two probable points, or sides. We shall identify the probables in a moment. But the very earliest of the sonnets concerns neither of them. It isn’t the most famous of the 154, nor the best. But it isn’t bad for an 18-year-old obliged to marry in a hurry, since his visits to his lover, eight years older than he, had had an increasingly obvious consequence. Listen for the wordplay in the couplet at the end around the words ‘hate’ and ‘away’.

Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languish’d for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
   ‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
   And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

John: William and Anne were married in Temple Grafton church, Warwickshire, on St Andrew’s Day, 1582. William then disappears from our view for ten years. By the time he reappears, in London in 1592, he is already a successful writer, operating in the glamorous and dangerous milieu of the theatre, where beauty, talent, wealth and power mingle, where a glover’s son may please — or displease — the great. And it is here that the love triangle forms.

We don’t know for sure the identities of the two other points or sides of the triangle, but the most likely candidate for the nobleman is another William, William Herbert, born in 1580, arrived at court in London in 1597 around the time of his seventeenth birthday, ennobled as the 3rd Earl of Pembroke in 1601. Later, he founded Pembroke College, Oxford and was Chancellor of that university. Herbert wrote poetry himself, though not as well as his kinsman George Herbert. William Herbert’s work includes some poems referring to a dark mistress, and many echoes of Shakespeare’s sonnets; in one of them he quotes ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, which we shall hear later.

So let us say that the ‘beauteous and lovely youth’ was William Herbert, sixteen years younger than Shakespeare. Let us say that he came to see the plays (as his father had), and that he favoured the poet with his kind attention. Shakespeare, who so often played with androgyny in his dramas, responded thus:

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 women’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,
Much 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.

This tribute combines conventional sexism, as we would now call it (‘false women’s fashion’), with questionable remarks to the effect that two pricks together are of no use.

Andrew: Two middling efforts, so far: but which of us would not be glad to have written as badly as that? From now on, the quality improves, starting with this, perhaps the most famous of all the sonnets:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

John: ‘Mr W.H.’ are the riddling initials of the dedicatee on the title page of the first complete edition of the sonnets, published in 1609. Speculation as to whether Shakespeare’s love for Mr W.H. was expressed sexually is useless. But passion it was. In another, hardly less famous sonnet, it is the marriage of minds that he praises:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Andrew: So much for the man; what of the woman? The most likely candidate for Shakespeare’s mistress is Emilia Lanier, born Bassano, of a family originating in northern Italy. She was a Sephardi Jewish woman, a musician, married to a Frenchman who was one of the queen’s musicians, but who left his wife in London for several months in order to accompany the Earl of Essex on his expedition to the Azores to attack the Spanish fleet on its way back from South America. That trip could have been a mistake.

Emilia had also been the mistress of Shakespeare’s patron Lord Hunsdon, and it seems likely that William got to know her through that connection. She was a poet too. Later, in 1610, she became the first woman in England to publish a volume of poetry. Her work contains proto-feminist statements and pleas. Addressing men about the rights of women, she says:

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny.

As for her colour: when two of her male cousins appeared in a London court case, they were described as ‘black men’, which is how Sephardi Jews from northern Italy probably appeared to white Londoners.

John: In ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, Shakespeare disparages conventional female beauty (‘rosy lips and cheeks’) in terms reminiscent of Athenian notions of the superiority of male love. But the poems to his mistress are unambiguously physical. In this sonnet, he praises his actual woman’s actual beauty, at the same time overturning all the conventional clichés of the male gaze:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

Andrew: There we have a vivid picture of the beloved; among other details we know that her ‘eyes are nothing like the sun’. In another tribute, Shakespeare goes further with these eyes, rebutting the whole, familiar idea of blackness as associated with evil:

Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black, and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.
And truly not the morning sun of heaven
Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east,
Nor that full star that ushers in the even,
Doth half that glory to the sober west,
As those two mourning eyes become thy face:
O, let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
Then will I swear beauty herself is black
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.

John: But love triangles have a habit of collapsing, and it seems that this one did too. The nobleman and the mistress get together, leaving the poet out:

That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved 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 knowst 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.

Andrew: Are we convinced by the poet’s attempt at the end to cheer himself up (‘my friend and I are one… then she loves but me alone’)? He hasn’t even convinced himself. He takes a similar tone when he imagines the mistress as a housewife who has dumped her baby (Shakespeare) in order to chase after a prized fowl (the young man):

Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe and makes all swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind:
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will’,
If thou turn back, and my loud crying still.

John: Understandably, the poet’s mistress had no interest in being his mother, and the whole thing ended, so far as Shakespeare was concerned, in guilt and anger:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Andrew: When the scholars have had their say (and they haven’t finished yet) the historical identities of the participants in the triangle matter less than the beauty of the work: those charges of feeling confined in the little rooms of fourteen lines. We finish with three of the loveliest.

It’s April now, and April, Shakespeare’s birth month, pops up frequently in the sonnets and the plays. This next poem may have been written by a man to a boy, but it does duty for any absent lover’s declaration to her or his beloved, far away. My father used the last line as the title of his writings to my mother from his prisoner-of-war camp.

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
   Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
   As with your shadow I with these did play.

John: Jostling in the cut-throat competitiveness of his profession, bruised by attacks from jealous rivals, even (we are amazed to see) momentarily doubting his talent, Shakespeare pays his beloved this tribute:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Andrew: Again and again, the poet declares his confidence in the capacity of his writing to defy the ravages of time. As in:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

John: No one has spoken better of the power of personal love. That black ink that should last another 400 years, at least. Thanks for coming.