The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1413  Tuesday 10 August 1999.

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 10 Aug 1999 04:32:21 -0400
Subject: 10.1370 Re: Sonnets
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1370 Re: Sonnets

Dana wrote:

>MND II.1.150-164

Hey. Here's one of those neologisms!

>That is the kind of reference one made to Elizabeth, if one wanted to
>finish her reign with the same number of ears as one started with.
>Content: "Gloriana rules OK."
>"Yo, bitch, you bird-dogged my girlfriend" would not have been
>acceptable content.

True that Elizabeth almost hauled in Thomas Heywood to the Tower rack on
suspicion of a veiled allusion to her person (but for the intervention
of Walter Raleigh), but she could only justify such measures on
suspicion of actual treason and conspiracy.  A simple statement of
discontent of which we can only muster up a sneaking suspicion after all
these centuries, perhaps it was calculated to confound.  Prinne, to
whose ears you seem to refer, called actresses "notorious whores" while
the queen was playing in court masques, but that was after the

<snip> Not terribly creditable to any participant, and not the stuff
>of courtly flattery.

That stuff comes late in the cycle.  As Elizabeth approached her end, an
increasingly successful poet may have felt less need to be flattering.

Bruce Young wrote:

<snip>Sonnet 3 is addressed to someone who, by not marrying, will
>some mother"-i.e., deprive some woman of the blessing of being a
>mother.  So the sonnet's got to be addressed to a man, right?  Note also
>the rhetorical question ("For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb /
>Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?") suggesting that no woman, no
>matter how beautiful, would refuse to have his child.  Again,
>"husbandry" and the fact that the person addressed is imagined to be
>doing the "tilling" of a womb indicate a man.  "He" and "his" in the
>next two lines confirm the assumption.

One question that comes to mind is whether there is sufficient reason to
look beyond the most obvious inferences regarding the "plot line" of the
cycle.  The first reason is that the genre is conventionally used as a
metaphysical discourse involving Neoplatonic principles concerning the
nature of love and poetry absurdly thinly veiled beneath a courtly
romantic narrative.  We might then ask if Shakespeare is conforming to
the genre in this respect or diverging from it.  He clearly diverges to
a great extent by the use of a male persona.  The only real precedent I
can find among sonnets are those of  Michaelangelo which certainly
appear to be addressed to real men.  The erotic poetry of Marlowe might
also qualify as a precedent.  But both of these evoke the question of
the gender element of ideal beauty.  Even if Shakespeare's cycle is
really about heterosexual love, he may see the need to develop the theme
as a contrast to an ideal beauty which would, philosophically speaking,
be male.  His love for this male would also not be the usual selfish
love of a weak poet overcome by the beauty of his object, but an ideal
love expressed here as the altruistic desire to see the boy happilly wed
(to another) and childed.

Certainly the lines:

...that face...
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

seems to reveal (all unawares I suppose) the gender of the recipient,
confirmed by the following lines:

For where is "she" so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy "husbandry?"
Or who is "he" so fond will be the tomb
Of "his" self-love to stop posterity?

Four gender specific words in four lines, wow.  While there is clearly a
story here: a plot with all the earmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy in
which a poet is addressing a young man, there is also a reference to a
failure of renewal that will beguile the world, a world eager for "thy
husbandry," and a return of "thy golden time."  The association of
Elizabeth with Astreia and the return of the Golden Age is discussed by
Francis Yates.

>Among the sonnets urging marriage (1-17), there are others clearly
>addressed to a man: Sonnet 7 says "unless thou get a son"
>("get"="beget," which is what the father does); Sonnet 13, with the word
>"husbandry" and the closing line "You had a father, let your son say so"
>(so clearly a potential father is being addressed);

I just have to pause here.  How clear is it?  Could not this last line
be spoken to an unwed woman?  Does not a mother (at least a queen)
"get" sons?

>and maybe Sonnet 9,
>where references to widows and husband suggest the person addressed is
>A quick look at the other sonnets on marriage doesn't reveal any others
>so obviously addressed to a man as these, but the fact that the first 17
>sonnets pretty clearly form a series and that the themes and attitudes
>(and often phrasing) in 3, 7, 9, and 13 are echoed in many of the others
>suggests to me that they're all addressed to the same person.

It is, in fact, striking how vague and ambiguous all the gender specific
references become on closer reading, and this has led me to conclude
that gender itself is one of the dominant themes of the cycle.

After sonnet 3 cited above, there is no more gender until the widow of
sonnet 9, but here what begins as an apparent reference to the future of
the addressee's prospective wife again becomes a metaphor for the future
of the world:

The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep 4-5

Elizabeth, although a female, as sovereign is instrument of the world's
husbandry (if she is beign groomed for the role of empress, as Francis
Yates seems to suggest) will leave the world a widow if she fails to
address the question of succession.

Often the gender is conveyed through conditional pronouns as in line 14
of the same sonnet:

No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits

Even then, the problem of the gendered pronoun plagued the English
language, and a poet aiming at ambiguity of gender reference could make
use of this fact.

In sonnet 12 the addressee's future is compared with:

...summer's green, all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard; 7-8

Leaving aside the possibility of Elizabeth's aging facial
characteristics, the gender is once again implied but kept in the realm
of metaphor.

13 contains another reference to "husbandry." 10

16 to "maiden gardens yet unset " 6

It is only with sonnet 19 (leaving aside 3) that the poet seems to make
clear break with keeping the maleness of the adressee in the realm of
metaphor and ambiguity when he says to "swift-footed Time:"

O, carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.

But here we have moved to another chapter in the cycle. Along with the
replacement of procreation with poetry, there is an ambiguity of the
identity of "my love" as addressee or the poet's own Eros.  Sonnet 20 is
of course the notorious "master-mistress" sonnet which sums up the
ambiguity of 1-17 and signals the transformation of the poet to a new
mode of representation.

As to Susan C Oldrieve 's query:

>Has anyone ever suggested that Elizabeth is the Dark Lady of the
>sonnets?  In some ways that makes more sense to me than trying to see
>her as the recipient of the "young man" sonnets.

George Bernard Shaw's play: "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets" (which I
can't locate at the moment) had the queen meeting the poet behind
Whitehall, I think by chance and seemed to me to imply something of the

Elizabeth was equated with both Solomon and the queen of Sheba by
propagandists, and the latter in the Song of Songs also seems to me to
be related to Shakespeare's dark lady.

I wish there were a way to address these questions more concisely.  I
think that the sonnets are designed to support a naive reading in which
the several personae (including the poet's) are taken at face (and
gender) value.  But as the lover of the Lover's Complaint suggests,
sonnets are a "deep brained" genre and a grasp of their meaning can only
be attained by a deep reading which eschews the simplest inferences.

Clifford Stetner
C.W. Post College

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