The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.533 Monday, 9 November 2015
Date: November 8, 2015 at 12:55:22 PM EST
Subject: Shakespeare's Sonnets
Following Stanley Wells’ plug earlier in this thread, I splashed out some £78 to acquire the hot-off-the-press Shakespeare Survey 68 (Professor, if you or your staff read this note, please let it be used to claim fair commission from CUP).
I read his article, ‘My Name is Will’: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Autobiography. It was refreshing to find, inter alia, no mindset against autobiography, no predisposition towards authorized publication and no unbalanced assessment of, or resistance to, puns and sexual allusions. Instead, true scholarship. Thank you, Sir, for a good read. (It was well worth the money! Those interested in the osmosis of ideas and language between Marlowe and Shakespeare will also find within the Survey two relevant articles, whose content I thought impressive).
On the evidence which he brings to his Sonnets article, I am in almost complete agreement with Wells’ arguments. At a minor level, I have yet to share his belief that Sonnet 145 refers to Ann Hathaway or his leanings on Sonnet 26 (suggested as a missive to accompany the manuscript of Lucrece) - but the accuracy or otherwise of these theories is insignificant to the wider picture. Where we differ materially is in the identification (or range) of evidence considered germane to the analysis of the poems and their origins.
This difference in evidence employed brings us, in part, to different conclusions. The professor thinks that the sonnets are probably a “miscellany” or “collection” of poems, including some autobiography, perhaps aimed in part at Henry Wriothesley - but generally composed with large variations in muse, motive and circumstance. He sees no evidence that they are a “sequence” (albeit that he recognizes small sequences within the larger body of the collection). He suggests that the ordering of the poems followed a classification devised privately by Shakespeare for his own satisfaction and that publication was probably unauthorized. He offers no explanation for their arrival in print.
By contrast, and to use Wells’ terminology, I conclude that Sonnets 1-126 are a sequence, though I agree that Sonnets 127-154 (and ALC) form a collection (including miscellany). I suggest that all of the poems were supplied to Henry Wriothesley under ramifications of a campaign by Shakespeare to secure an intimate relationship - the latter to promote his primary goal of patronage. The ordering of the poems on printing may have followed an original pattern preserved in the original bundlings of manuscript poems (initially stored under Wriothesley’s control) - or Thorpe may have had guidance from the supplier of those manuscripts, Mr WH (of whom more below).
I have also suggested (I think originally, but certainly independently) that it was Wriothesley’s recorded feud with his second stepfather, William Hervey (the “WH” who, in this scenario, instructed Thorpe), which fueled the mischief of a publication which neither poet nor primary muse would have wanted. This argument (only available if one accepts that Sonnets 1-126 were directed at Wriothesley) is reinforced by its unusual ability to explain all the nuances and peculiarities of Thorpe’s introductory address without resort to manipulation of letters or strains of parlance.
All of these differential propositions are founded on evidence which has not been considered within the professor’s article. However, it is difficult to do justice to this absent material in just a short note. Instead, since it was tabled for consideration earlier in this thread (see, for example, here - 3rd post down), I should like to illustrate my point with just one piece of that evidence: the Venus & Adonis dedication, directed towards Wriothesley by Shakespeare in his own voice.
This address includes some dozen ambiguities of expression. The secondary meanings cohere to provide a disguised theme of resentment and remonstration. Indeed this theme hangs together better than the overt theme of obsequious dedication. Its coherence and the sheer volume of puns suggest that the wish to incorporate the disguised theme was a prime driver of Shakespeare’s choice of words. Its messages, having regard for the historical circumstances, then point to an extraordinary relationship between the pair: one that is mirrored with improbable exactness by content within Sonnets 1-126, read as autobiography and as a sequence.
I should add that my argument is disturbed by none of the observations on the poems within the article. These include, for example, references to dating assessments and the apparently extended period of time over which the sonnets were written. And there is nothing in the content of Sonnets 1-126 which would disqualify consideration of these poems as a sequence of compositions, directed towards Wriothesley. Indeed, his history provides other powerful parallels to reinforce the concept.