The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0320  Saturday, 3 December 2011


[1] From:         Ian Steere <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         December 2, 2011 5:21:00 AM EST

     Subject:      Biography in the Sonnets


[2] From:         Brian Nugent <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         December 2, 2011 6:48:41 PM EST

     Subject:      Re: Bio Sonnets




From:         Ian Steere <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         December 2, 2011 5:21:00 AM EST

Subject:      Biography in the Sonnets


John Kennedy says "And here we see why trying to extract biography from the Sonnets is futile". Similar remarks were made (though not, in his defense, by John) of efforts to extract meaning from the motion of stars, planets, and winds (no doubt also involving some supine observation). All attempts to broaden our knowledge tend to involve their fair share of over-active imaginations, blinkered vision, quackery, and dead ends.


John, have you read the article? If so, where are its flaws? Of course, they must exist. But I bet they are nothing like as fundamental as you imply. And, it's just such a cynic as yourself who can add value, either by demolishing the quack or - who knows - by enabling us to build upon some of the elements of discovery.


Ian Steere



From:         Brian Nugent <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         December 2, 2011 6:48:41 PM EST

Subject:      Re: Bio Sonnets


Ian Steere

I am not trying to disparage your interesting researches on the subject, but I just didn't see there, and still don't see, any specific reference that would lead to the Earl of Southampton in the Sonnets, except that dedication you mention. Presumably what should be there would be some pun on his name or reference to his heraldic device or whatever? I didn't notice any such reference myself but maybe I missed it . . . 


John W Kennedy

It’s true enough that specific references can be hard to come by in the Sonnets but I don't think it’s as bad as all that though. You know during the time of Shakespeare one particular Irish title changed hands, in the sense that an heir succeeded his father to the title, and remember that at that time all the great aristocratic families in Ireland employed poets to sing their praises, usually with a vast recital of all the great deeds of the recently deceased lord etc., etc. The title I am particularly referring to is the Barony of Delvin, where the 10th Baron succeeded to the title in 1602. So then you have this in Sonnet 38:


"Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth

Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;"

Anyhow I am only speculating but I do think that it is not impossible to find out somehow what he was getting at here.


Duncan Salkeld

No, I am not related to Ted, for good or for ill!, but I am afraid I am standing over my interpretation of the Tudor use of the word 'mistress'!


Well, I guess the simplest way of approaching this word 'mistress' is to see how Shakespeare uses it in the plays. Obviously, we should be able to get the context, and his real meaning of the word, right in the large volume of text that constitutes each play, as opposed to our fleeting glimpse in the few lines of a sonnet. I would say you could make the case that William uses approximately five senses for 'mistress' in his plays:


1. Used in reference to the female employer of a servant.


Dromio of Ephesus, a servant referring to his employer:

"My mistress made it one upon my cheek:"

(The Comedy of Errors Act I Scene II Line 46)


Dromio of Ephesus again, referring to his employers:

"Adriana: But say, I prithee, is he coming home? It seems he

  hath great care to please his wife.

Dromio:    Why, mistress, sure my master is horn-mad."

(The Comedy of Errors Act II Scene I Line 56)


Antipholus speaking to Dromio, the latter being a slave and both being of Syracuse:

"Your mistress sent to have me home to dinner?"

(The Comedy of Errors Act II Scene II line 10)


Cloten talking about Pisanio's employer:

"Why should his [Pisanio's] mistress, who was made by     

him that made the tailor, not be fit too?"

(Cymbeline Act IV Scene I Line 4)


Macbeth himself:

"Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,

She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed.     

Exit Servant."

(Macbeth Act II Scene I Line 32)


Stephano, a servant of Portia:

"Stephano is my name; and I bring word

My mistress will before the break of day

Be here at Belmont; she doth stray about

By holy crosses, where she kneels and prays

For happy wedlock hours."

(Merchant of Venice Act V Scene I Line 35)


Boult speaking as a servant to his mistress Bawd:

"To-night, to-night. But, mistress, do you know the     

French knight that cowers i' the hams?"

(Pericles IV Scene II Line 96)


Nurse trying to wake Juliet, and she also calls her Madam:

"Mistress! what, mistress! Juliet! fast, I warrant her, she:

Why, lamb! why, lady! fie, you slug-a-bed!"

(Romeo and Juliet Act IV Scene V Line 1)


Grumio, a servant obviously referring to his bosses:

"but, thou     

knowest, winter tames man, woman and beast; for it     

hath tamed my old master and my new mistress and     

myself, fellow Curtis."

(The Taming of the Shrew Act IV Scene I Line 23)


Lucentio speaking to Biondello, who is a servant obviously: 

"Go, Biondello, bid your mistress come to me."

(Taming of the Shrew Act V Scene II line 83)


Ferdinand, not a servant normally but in this case is acting like one and is referring to his love and bride to be Miranda:

"This my mean task

Would be as heavy to me as odious, but

The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead

And makes my labours pleasures: O, she is

Ten times more gentle than her father's crabbed,

And he's composed of harshness. I must remove

Some thousands of these logs and pile them up,

Upon a sore injunction: my sweet mistress

Weeps when she sees me work, and says, such baseness

Had never like executor."

(The Tempest Act III Scene I Line 4)


Speed is a servant to Valentine and it seems Valentine is answering Silvia humorously as if he was a servant:

"Silvia: Servant!

Valentine: Mistress?

Speed: Master, Sir Thurio frowns on you.

Valentine: Ay, boy, it's for love.

Speed: Not of you.

Valentine: Of my mistress, then."

(The Two Gentlemen of Verona Act II Scene IV Line 2)


Launce, a servant of Proteus:

"as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master" 

(Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV Scene IV line 7)


2. Using it between social equals.


You can see how 'mistress' is similar to Madam, while to use both together is to stretch politeness a bit too far, Valentine talking to Sylvia:

"Valentine: Madam and mistress, a thousand good-morrows.

Speed: [Aside] O, give ye good even! here's a million of manners."

(Two Gentlemen of Verona Act II Scene I Line 97)


Katharina speaking to the widow that Hortensio will marry:

"Mistress, how mean you that?"

(The Taming of the Shrew Act V Scene II Line 23)


A 'Frenchman' is talking here in a passage that ends up such that "Posthumus accepts a 10,000 ducat bet that Frenchman Iachimo can seduce his wife Imogen, ruining her chastity." This then shows that it is their wives they are talking about, not mistresses in the modern sense:

"It was much like an argument that fell out last     

night, where each of us fell in praise of our     

country mistresses; this gentleman at that time     

vouching--and upon warrant of bloody     

affirmation--his to be more fair, virtuous, wise,    

chaste, constant-qualified and less attemptable     

than any the rarest of our ladies in France."

(Cymbeline Act I Scene IV Line 53. )


Antipholus of Syracuse talking to Lucianca who he is wooing: 

"Sweet mistress--what your name is else, I know not,"

(The Comedy of Errors Act II Scene II Line 29)


Simonides referring to his daughter:

"Tis well, mistress; your choice agrees with mine;"

(Pericles Act II Scene V line 19)


3. In reference to the Queen and Empress.


Pisanio, a servant to Posthumus but here he is referring to the Queen:

"I humbly set it at your will; but, for my mistress,

I nothing know where she remains, why gone,"

(Cymbeline Act IV Scene III Line 15)


Aaron referring to Tamora:

"Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,

To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,


To wait upon this new-made empress."

(Titus Andonicus Act II Scene I Line 13)


4. Used like a modern 'Madam' in front of a person's name


Mistress Quickly (Henry IV pt 2, Act II Scene I and The Merry Wives of Windsor Act II Scene II) and in the Merry Wives you have Mistresses Page, Ford and Overdone as well.


5. Modern sense of Mistress


This is the only reference where I think you could make the case that the modern sense of mistress fits the context. It is an interesting banter in Henry V involving the Dauphin, who is the heir of France obviously:

"Dauphin: I

  once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus:     

  'Wonder of nature,'--     

Orleans: I have heard a sonnet begin so to one's mistress.     

Dauphin: Then did they imitate that which I composed to my

  courser, for my horse is my mistress.     

Orleans: Your mistress bears well.     

Dauphin: Me well; which is the prescript praise and     

  perfection of a good and particular mistress.     

Constable : Nay, for methought yesterday your mistress shrewdly

  shook your back.     

Dauphin: So perhaps did yours.     

Constable: Mine was not bridled.     

Dauphin: O then belike she was old and gentle; and you rode,

  like a kern of Ireland, your French hose off, and in

  your straight strossers.     

Constable: You have good judgment in horsemanship.     

Dauphin: Be warned by me, then: they that ride so and ride     

  not warily, fall into foul bogs. I had rather have     

  my horse to my mistress.

Constable: I had as lief have my mistress a jade.     

Dauphin: I tell thee, constable, my mistress wears his own hair.     

Constable: I could make as true a boast as that, if I had a sow     

  to my mistress"

(Henry V Act III Scene VII Line 36)


But that is it, you have to say that the overwhelming use, by the author, of the word 'mistress' is as a respectful term of address that a person would usually use in addressing your betters. I think in the somewhat stylised context of the Sonnets I cannot see for a minute that the Henry V style bawdy sense of the word would have been used. For me anyway, in the Sonnets it definitely refers to Queen Elizabeth or possibly his wife and assuredly not his 'mistress' in the modern sense.


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