The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1215. Thursday, 4 December 1997.
Date: Wednesday, 03 Dec 1997 10:32:33 -0500
Subject: Sonnets: dedication, date, dramatis personae
A friend and I-amateurs both-have formed a two-person study group to
read Shakespeare's Sonnets, using Helen Vendler's book as a jumping-off
place. As a supplement, we also got copies of Katherine Duncan-Jones's
new Arden edition of the Sonnets.
Vendler disdains biographical speculation, but Duncan-Jones appears to
revel in it. (So do I, so this is by no means uncongenial.) Her
introduction and glosses raise two questions for me, so far:
(1) In Thorpe's dedication, she glosses "begetter" as "inspirer," and
"our ever-living poet" as the author of the sonnets. I had just gotten
used to the idea (following Donald Foster and others) that "begetter"
was "author," and "our ever-living poet" was God (and that "W.H." was a
typo for "W.S."). Being an amateur, I'm not part of the ongoing academic
conversation on such matters. I see that G. Blakemore Evans, in the New
Cambridge edition, has explicitly rejected the suggestion that "Mr.
W.H." is Shakespeare; I couldn't find a comparably explicit declaration
in Duncan-Jones's introduction. The WH=WS interpretation of Thorpe's
dedication still makes better sense to me than anything else I've read.
Is there a scholarly consensus on this?
(2) Duncan-Jones argues for a later rather than an earlier date for the
sonnets. The later dating is then used to support the possibility that
William Herbert may have been both Mr. W.H. and the young man of the
sonnets. (The first 17 sonnets, for example, may have been written for
Herbert's 17th birthday in 1597.) The arguments for a later date in
general make sense to me, but the arguments for the Earl of Pembroke as
the young man don't. (Vendler's refusal to get into this quagmire is one
of the great appeals of her book-although she does, at one point, repeat
the suggestion that Chapman was the rival poet.)
Here's the rub, as I see it: the first 17 sonnets do not appear to
presume any great familiarity with the purported addressee. They tend to
be generic. In tracing the history of Shakespeare's relationship with
this person-if in fact the poems describe an actual relationship- these
would seem to come first. If Herbert is the person in question, then
1597 is a likely approximate date for these sonnets.
Yet within two years, Shakespeare had already distilled the great theme
of having two loves, the fair friend and the dark woman, with hints of
all the complexity of that triangle that appear in other sonnets. Two
sonnets from this sequence were printed by Jaggard in 1599, and may have
been in circulation much earlier (since Meres seems to refer to them).
Duncan-Jones suggests that Shakespeare himself may have been on the
verge of printing the 127-154 sequence shortly after Jaggard's volume
appeared, to set the record straight.
If we do take a biographical tack on this, something about the timing
doesn't work. If the procreation sonnets were written in 1597, and the
triangle sonnets were written 1598-1599, that presumes, like a hologram,
that the whole history of the triangle was present practically from the
beginning. Not that it couldn't happen, but it would give new meaning to
the term "Slick Willie." My own subjective impression is that the
sonnets describe a pair of relationships that grew and changed over
time, much longer than the literal "three years" mentioned in some. This
itself is supported by Duncan-Jones's argument that many of the sonnets
date from a later period, 1603-1604, and that some were labored over
right up to the point of publication.
Am I seeing a contradiction here that doesn't exist?