The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.160  Monday, 31 March 2014


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

     Date:         March 28, 2014 at 2:32:11 PM EDT

     Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Sonnets 


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

     Date:         March 28, 2014 at 3:58:13 PM EDT

     Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Sonnets 


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

     Date:         March 29, 2014 at 7:31:34 AM EDT

     Subject:    Sonnet 18: Gender and Date 




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

Date:         March 28, 2014 at 2:32:11 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Sonnets


>Can we not think of these poems as permutations on a series of 

>issues that expand the range of the genre considerably?


Agreeing with John, I’d simply add that the permutations are in the first person and in language that frequently shows itself to be saying either more than the speaker seems to be trying to say or else something that differs from and may contrast with what the speaker seems to be trying to say. 



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

Date:         March 28, 2014 at 3:58:13 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Sonnets


Ian Steere ingeniously shows how one may weave from a series of poems a narrative scenario that connects the “dots” seen. This scenario fits his conception of the nature of the characters portrayed in these poems and of the motives of its author. While Ian may believe that he does nothing more than interpret the meaning of these poems, he has in fact imposed a meaning on them in the light of the preoccupations of our own era and of his own ratiocinations, but not necessarily that of the author.


In all fairness, I do much the same. I too read the dots of the poems as he does. Like Ian, the meaning I derive, of course, is distilled on the basis of my own preoccupations, experience, and knowledge. This leads me to support the allegorical interpretation of the poems that I have posed, particularly since I find many poems to support this view.


Also, I must strongly disagree with the idea that the great poet would have written a series of autobiographical poems that record, sequentially, his actual loves, revealing him with a disturbed mentality at great variance from the observed nobility of his characters and plays. I would also disagree with the idea that the poet wrote, willy nilly, an extensive body of poems for which there is no overarching meaning, something most uncharacteristic of a poet of the supreme level of Shakespeare.


And then, I would subscribe to the observation made by John Drakakis, “there have been many biographical contortions gone through simply in order to produce a coherent narrative from a collection that is, in terms of a story, incoherent.” I would add to his observation the fact of the great ambiguity of the poems, which were obviously written in a cryptic style, meant to present an esoteric meaning.


To show how there are more ways of looking at the sonnets and that these perspectives open different doors to meaning, I would offer two samples of sonnet analyses, Sonnets 20 and 40. These reveal a poet with a far different mental outlook than that posed by Ian. The first is supportive of the allegorical interpretation I have found and the second shows a sonnet that is autobiographically based. This is surely a credible avenue for exploration before settling on approaches that leave the substance of these poems unexamined.


Sonnet 20: A Man in Hue


Sonnet 20 is probably among the most misunderstood of the poems of the Sonnets. While in it the poet explicitly rejects the idea that he has anything of a romantic, physical attachment to his strikingly attractive friend that he addresses in the sonnet, many commentators insist otherwise.  But the poet has precluded this very idea through “a charming myth of origin”—a term used to describe it by Helen Vendler—about a “doting” Nature that had defeated such a possibility “by adding one thing”—his friend’s maleness. The inescapable conclusion is that the poet is telling that his love for his friend is of a pure kind, like that between the Bible’s David and Jonathan. Given this fact, the real mystery of this sonnet is who is the poet’s friend and why was their mutual love so deep and special. The sonnet is presented below in its original spelling and approximate layout.



   [1]  A   Womans face with natures owne hand painted,

   [2]      Haste thou the Master Mistris of my passion,

   [3]  A womans gentle hart but not acquainted

   [4]  With shifting change as is false womens fashion,

   [5]  An eye more bright then theirs,lesse false in rowling:

   [6]  Gilding the obiect where-vpon it gazeth,

   [7]  A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,

   [8]  Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amaseth.

   [9]  And for a woman wert thou first created,

   [10] Till nature as she wrought thee fell a dotinge,

   [11] And by addition me of thee defeated,

   [12] By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

   [13]   But since she prickt thee out for womens pleasure,

   [14]   Mine be thy loue and thy loues vse their treasure.


The mystery concerning the poet’s friend is resolved when the information on him already given in Sonnet 18 is consulted. In the latter, the friend is identified as a personification of the immortal higher soul. We learn from Sonnet 18 that the poet’s friend addressed is not mortal but is an angelic, spiritual being, the immortal part of himself that draws him toward a godly, higher, moral life on earth.


In this context, Sonnet 20 is another of the sonnets written in praise of this angelic friend. While in Sonnet 18, we learned of the friend’s eternal nature—he represents the part of the soul that returns to God after the death of the body—it is the mission of Sonnet 20 to further delineate him by extolling his extraordinary beauty, a most fitting attribute for a pure, angelic creature. As mentioned, the praise of his beauty in the sonnet takes the form of a poetic myth, in which is recounted the supposed response of a doting lady Nature to this beauty. In this way, Nature, originally intending for this beauty to adorn a woman, found the beauty she created so stunning that she was tempted to intervene to change the sex of its bearer into that of a man so that she could be its consort.


While the extolling of the friend’s beauty may have been the primary mission of Sonnet 20, it seems not unlikely that the poem had the secondary purpose of dispelling the notion that there was any carnality in the relationship between the poet and his friend. In so doing, the sonnet adds further subtle clues concerning the nature of the poet’s friend as a spiritual presence representing his higher soul. This can be gleaned from the poet’s careful selection of words on lines 7 and 8:


   [7] A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,

   [8] Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amaseth.


The word “hew”—its definition a subject of much critical controversy—appears twice on line 7. Commentators have offered a variety of meanings to make sense of it. Some of the suggestions have fallen into the following categories: (a) form, shape, appearance; (b) complexion; (c) color; and (d) apparition, phantasm, specter. As the spiritual nature of the poet’s friend is recognized, the most clarifying definition of “hew” that emerges is its reference to the “form”—the apparition—in which his friend appears. Accordingly, line 7 would tell that the “man in hue” is not only a man in form but that it is he that controls all forms—all apparitions (both male and female) -- in which he appears. Thus, the friend’s dominion extends to all his manifestations, whether appearing as a man in a man— in which he “steals mens eyes”—or in a form as a woman, in which it “amaseth”—strikes with admiration—the female host inhabited.


It is not farfetched to interpret the word “eyes” in line 8’s phrase, “mens eyes,” as representing what it sounds like, “I “—“men’s Is”—their persona. This surmise would parallel an assumption that the word “hew” likewise refers to what it sounds like, “you,” thereby giving the words in line 7 the meaning, “a man in ‘you,’ all ‘yous’ in his controlling.” This reading gets across the idea that this friend is not only a presence in the poet but is one that inhabits the “I” and “you” of all human beings irrespective of sex and takes appropriate form in each.


Further indications of the spiritual interpretation of Sonnet 20 is alluded to in Sonnet 144. The latter sonnet is often regarded as the poet’s metaphorical musings about his relationships with an actual man and woman. However, when it is recognized that these beings personify spiritual aspects of the soul, the sonnet can be read as describing their role within the human host. In fact, this sonnet specifically states that these friends are like “two spirits” and “angels.”


Thus, the young man is referred to as the “better angell” of the two, “a man right faire,” from which it may be inferred that he represents the “better” aspect, the higher, godly part of the soul. The soul’s other aspect is referred to as the “the worser spirit” and imaged as “a woman collourd ill”—regarded by commentators as the mysterious Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Unlike the high, angelic calling of the young man, she represents something dark, namely, the lower soul, the earthly life force that inhabits the soul of all creatures. Its personification as a woman, expresses the physicality and carnal aspects that a woman may manifest. But this is symbolic, not an actual woman sonneteered as many commentators have erroniously insisted.


Sonnet 144 further tells that both these disparate “spirits” are beloved by the poet as friends, which explains his heart and mind toward each. Since with the lower spirit alone, a person remains beastly in appetite and devoid of any attraction to morality or other higher, godly aspiration, there is the need of the influence of the higher spirit. Similarly, alone with the higher spirit, a person is also incomplete and defective, unfit for life on earth, lacking the aggressive appetites to see to feeding and self- protection and is without the carnality needed for procreation.  Interestingly, this defective condition of purity appears illustrated by the young man of the first 17 sonnets who will not “sully” himself to enter life to procreate.


This picture of the larger design of the Sonnets is clarifying. Through it, we are given the meaning of the condition depicted in the Sonnets of the poet’s preferred love for the beautiful young man as opposed to that of the Dark Lady. This is nothing more than the poet’s aspiration toward godliness, his positive attraction toward a godly, higher, moral life— represented by the young man—and his dismay at the temptations of his irresistibly attractive female friend that would draw him to a lower carnal existence. What this preference is not is a proclivity toward a physical relationship with the young man.


Since commentators have misinterpreted the signs of this inner conflict of soul as expressing the poet’s rejection of women, they have read Sonnet 20’s words—“false women’s fashion,” their “shifting changes” and “rowling” eyes” as negative feelings toward women in general . Overlooked is that this merely refers to the class of “false women” and by no means to all women, whom the poet regards highly as being characterized as possessing a “gentle heart” and shows to be the humanizing force for men in his plays.


Sonnet 20 is not without signs of its religious subject matter. A glimpse of this can be read in the poet’s hope expressed in the sonnet’s last line, “Mine be thy loue and thy loues vse their treasure.” This can be read as an allusion to the prayer invoked by the Psalmist in verse 4 in corresponding Psalm 20--“[May your wish be granted] according to thine own heart, and fulfil all thy counsel”—a similar prayer for the fulfillment of the poet’s heartfelt love of his higher angel as expressed in the sonnet.


Sonnet 20 is revealing of its poet-author in ways not previously seen.  The content of this sonnet reveals the poet as a man of religious convictions. While the general view of scholars today has been to regard the him as fully secularist in outlook, the poet has told us otherwise. He has covertly revealed another view of himself as a man of faith who believes in the vital role of faith as a necessary accompaniment of a moral, worthy life.




Sonnet 40 finds Shakespeare expressing his theodicy—the attempt to justify God’s ways to man in the face of the suffering of the righteous. This the poet attempts in his sonnet as applied to an instance of God’s blatant unkindness to him—him, a person who has made the love of God and devotion to Him his highest aspiration.  Below is the poem in the layout and spelling of the 1609 quarto.



   [1]  T   Ake all my loues,my loue,yea take them all,

   [2]      What hast thou then more then thou hadst before?

   [3]  No loue,my loue,that thou maist true loue call,

   [4]  All mine was thine,before thou hadst this more:

   [7]  But yet be blam'd,if thou this selfe deceauest

   [5]  Then if for my loue,thou my loue receiuest,

   [6]  I cannot blame thee,for my loue thou vsest,

   [8]  B y wilfull taste of what thy selfe refusest.

   [9]  I doe forgiue thy robb'rie gentle theefe

   [10] Although thou steale thee all my pouerty:

   [11] And yet loue knowes it is a greater griefe

   [12] To beare loues wrong,then hates knowne iniury.

   [13]   Lasciuious grace,in whom all il wel showes,

   [14]   Kill me with spights yet we must not be foes.


The poem begins with the word “TAke,” the opening letters “Ake” conspicuous and sounded again seven words later in “take,” the sound “ache” foreshadowing the poet’s heartache to be revealed in later lines.


As in others of the sonnets, the poem addresses the poet's friend, God.


As we read the poet’s words, he declares to God, “Take all my loves, my love,yea take them all.” But, continues the poet, taking that “all” of love, God would not then be in possession of any more of the poet’s “true love” than the “all mine” that the poet has already given. If anything, it seems to the poet, God “dece[i]vest” in that He “refusest” to accept the poet’s fully rendered “true love”— assumedly, the very caliber of love that God most cherishes from His loved ones.


By lines 9 and 10, in cryptic words, the poet arrives at the painful burden of his sonnet. He tells God, “I doe forgiue thy robb’rie gentle theefe / Although thou steale thee all my pouerty.” The words perplex. Is God a robber? Surely we misunderstand and explanation is called for.


To provide this, we must ask a key question: What is it that makes a poor man poor? It then dawns that what makes a poor man poor is the cost of providing for his children. So when God is said to steal a poor man’s poverty, it can be understood as another way of saying that God “steals” from the poor man one or more of his children. And so it was. The poet’s son, Hamnet, age 11, was, as if, stolen by God. This was a devastating blow that was made more so by the fact that this was not a “wrong” committed by a hating enemy but that committed by the loving Friend, God, so loved by the poet.


The sonnet's couplet climaxes the poet's reaction, as he passionately exclaims:


  Lasciuious grace,in whom all il wel showes,

  Kill me with spights yet we must not be foes.


In the Bible, God is described as a “consuming flame”—a lusty inferno that lasciviously devours—an image of overwhelming power.  It is God addressed by the poet, God, in Whom “all ill well shows.” For to those who love God, even the “ill “ He inflicts shows “well.” But this can become apparent only within the context of a larger whole. This is a truth the poet has recognized and finds true even to the extent that God may “kill [him] with spites”—a thought parallel to that expressed in Job 13:15: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him:”


The poet concludes that, despite the slings and arrows with which God may afflict man, man and God “must not be foes.” The higher wisdom that the poet draws from this painful experience is that man must not allow himself to become the foe of God.


The aching loss of his son was obviously not far from the poet’s thoughts since he is found to express his grief indirectly in some of his plays. Thus, in King John, a character, Constance, movingly expresses her grief for her lost child. Having been chided by an unfeeling critic who “never had a son” and accused of being as fond of grief as of her dead child, she poigniantly responds:


   Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

   Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

   Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

   Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

   Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

   Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

   Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,

   I could give better comfort than you do.

    * * * *

   O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!

   My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

   My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure!


From these words, do we not gain a share in the emotional feelings that coursed through the poet as he wrote them?


Also, there may be an actual portrayal of the poet’s son in The Winter’s Tale in the guise of Mamillius,a young child who dies in the play. In the few lines that the young boy speaks, he is revealed as precociously perceptive and skilled at telling stories—a glimpse of a son who would have been a grievous loss to the poet and, as we may surmise from his promise, to the world. It is a mark of the poet’s faith that after such a devastating loss he was not to succumb to endless bitterness, as his inspiring Sonnet 40shows.


The poet—plainly wishing to bring forward his message of faith and devotion to God—uses every literary means to confirm this intent, his repeated use of allusions to a lost child.


The sonnet reflects a poet inspired by a love of God and an overwhelming desire to overcome the challenges that this love poses, persisting in his faith despite the sorrows that life presents.


David Basch



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

Date:         March 29, 2014 at 7:31:34 AM EDT

Subject:    Sonnet 18: Gender and Date


John Drakakis and Bob Grumman make fair points: that in order to maximize enjoyment of the poems, a reader should not feel constrained to a biographical interpretation.


I agree strongly. However, there are also readers who are interested in the human behind the sonnets and that person's motives. Some also seek satisfying explanations for the arrangement of the poems and for the peculiarities of their publication.


I have shown that there is no significant failure of logic (nor remarkable offense to artistic sensibility) in the interpretation of the wording of Sonnets 1-126 as the subsequently printed renditions of private communications from a talented poet to a mercurial patron. Indeed, such interpretation enables one to multiply experience of the poems—as sought by John, Bob and others.


More to the point (which, so far, has been conspicuously ignored by each respondent to my comments), I have referred to substantial independent evidence in support of the above interpretation. By “independent”, I mean independent of the Sonnets and by “substantial” I mean based on objective and reliable information, applied with deference to Occam.


Unless and until the argument is sufficiently discredited, there is, I suggest again: no rational reason to dismiss the probability of pervasive biography in the Sonnets. For those who would like a reminder of the key points (briefly summarized), here they are again, in Seeking the Truths of Shakespeare and his Sonnets


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