The Sonnets – Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a quarto volume, was printed at London by “G. Eld for T.T.” in 1609. In the entry of the book in the Stationer’s Register, May 20, 1609, T.T. is identified as Thomas Thorpe; the scholarly consensus is that Thorpe gathered the contents of the book from manuscripts available to him and published them with Shakespeare’s knowledge. The printed text is not a very good one, although it seems to rest upon an authoritative manuscript. There are enough misprints in it to make it clear that Shakespeare did not see it through the press. The sonnets end on K­­­1 recto and are followed by the word “Finis” in large type. At the top of the next page appears the heading “A loivre’s Complaint, by William Shakespeare.” The poem follows. It is not a distinguished poem, and scholars have sometimes wished to deny Shakespeare’s authorship of it; but while Thorpe’s ascription of the poem to Shakespeare is no more conclusive than Jaggard’s ascription to him of all the poems in The Passionate Pilgrim, at least one of which is known not to be his, there is no external evidence for attributing the poem to anyone else. The poem may be his and until the unlikely discovery of conclusive evidence for assigning to another poet, the student of Shakespeare is not free to ignore it, although, of course, no responsible critic would depend upon it to any considerable degree in formulating his notions of Shakespeare as a poet.

Although the volume of sonnets was not printed until 1609, numbers 138 and 144 were printed in The Passionate Pilgrim, in 1599. In 1598, while listing and commenting on Shakespeare’s works, Francis Meres mentioned Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends,” indicating that, according to a custom of the time, Shakespeare’s sonnets were circulating in manuscript. An Elizabethan gentleman who did not wish to descend to what he took to be the vulgarity of print could gain a reputation as a poet by giving manuscript copies of his poems to friends, who, if they liked them, could give copies to their friends and so on. In this manner a writer’s reputation could be established without publication, and this is one of the means took to gain the name of a poet. It is not known how many sonnets were so circulating, and it is possible that some of the sonnets we now have were written well after 1598; but the probability is that they were all written in the early 1590s. The dating of the sonnets will depend in part on the view taken of their contents.

Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to or concerned with a young man whom the poet addresses in terms of affection and esteem. Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to or concerned with a young woman, who because of her black hair and swarthy complexion has come to be known as the Dark Lady. Sonnets 153 and 154 are free translations of a 5th century A.D. Greek poem and have no connection with the sonnets of the first two groups except a common authorship. Although Elizabethan sonnet sequences are not narrative poems, the reader discerns reflections of a story in the first two groups of Shakespeare‘s sonnets. They tell of four people:  Shakespeare who speaks in the first person, the young man, the Dark Lady and the rival poet. The young man is handsome, of good family, and, at least in the beginning, the possessor of boundless virtues. He is told that youth and beauty are brief, that fatherhood is a duty to himself and to the world (the same argument used in Venus and Adonis), and that his qualities must be preserved in the immortality which children can bestow. Shakespeare then promises to immortalize the young man in verses which will never die. After a while, other poets began addressing their poems to the young man, and one of them, a poet of more power than the rest, came to be regarded by Shakespeare as something of a rival. He is often referred to as the Rival Poet. Sometime after the friendship with the young man began, Shakespeare acquired a mistress, a woman younger than he, attractive with an unfashionable beauty, and with no moral principles whatsoever. The relationship between them had not a glimmer of romance, and in time, the poet came to recognize it as sexual enslavement, but not until the lady had seduced the young friend and maintained a liaison with him for sometime. Finding the triangular relationship increasingly unbearable, Shakespeare resolved the problem by rejecting the lady. Such is the story reflected in the Sonnets. It seems to some scholars to be purely fictitious, a mere manipulation of the conventions of the sonnet tradition. Let us take it to have had a basis in fact, partly because Shakespeare, if he were inventing a story, would surely have invented a better one. If the story is taken to be a fictitious one, we may suppose that Shakespeare added a sonnet to the sequence from time to time, perhaps up to the point of publication in 1609. If, on the other hand, the Sonnets reflect the events in Shakespeare’s life, it is plausible to suppose that they were written while the events were in progress. One of the sonnets to the young man was clearly sent to him as a verse letter, and it is possible that others also were. The sonnets which speak of the poet’s craftsmanship often express his discontent with it, and he writes of himself as an unestablished poet who will be forgotten after his death. By the end of the century he was famous. Everything in the sonnets suggests an early date. Sonnet 104 tells us that Shakespeare had known the young man for three years, and it is reasonable to suppose that the sonnets were written over a period of at least three years, probably from 1592 to 1596. These dates will be acceptable to scholars who have no axes to grind. The 1609 quarto is the only edition of the Sonnets to be published during Shakespeare’s life-time, and all other later editions derive from it. In 1640, they were reprinted by John Benson in a small octavo volume entitled Poems Written by William Shakespeare. The volume is a dishonest venture in publishing. Benson did not own the copyright. He scrambled the order of the sonnets, interspersing them with other poems by Shakespeare and other poets. He gave the sonnets descriptive titles which are often inept, and he changed the pronouns in some of the sonnets addressed to the young man making them appear to be addressed to a woman. But he did not correct, by conjectural emendation, some of the errors in the text of the 1609 quarto.

In a Preface addressed to the reader, Benson describes the poems as “seren(e), cleare and elegantly plaine, such gentle strains as shall recreate and not perplex your braine, no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect, but perfect eloquence…” And ever since then there have been critics to praise the sonnets fortheir simplicity, although some of them are in fact among the most difficult poems in the language. Shakespeare has, of course his simplicities. In sonnet 66 he makes a list of the things which discourage him the most, and one of them is “ simple truth miscalled simplicity.” He saw things as they were, and his sophistication did not compel him to condescend to the commonplace. Things sometimes become clichés because they are true, and they are to be recognised as truth. Nowhere in his works is there any avoidance of this. He could be disarmingly simple where other writers would not dare to be, as in the “good night, sweet prince” speech in Hamlet, and many of the memorable passages in the sonnets are characterized by their unobtrusive melody, easy grace and simplicity of statement. He always wrote with an unmatchable freshness on nature’s morning loveliness and her plenitude, subjects to which he took an unequivocal attitude, but the dominant mode of his nature work is complexity, and this first emerges fully in the sonnets. He saw all aspects of things, and they stand together in his works without canceling each other out. Spenser tends to give us the various aspects of things piecemeal. He presents one view of love in the episode of the Bower of Bliss, another in the garden of Adonis, and still others in the stories of the Squire of the Dames and of Hellinore, to mention only a few; (i) but in Shakespeare various and sometimes conflicting aspects of things exist simultaneously. (a) there is, for instance, virtue’s potential for evil. In Measure for Measure it is Isabella’s virtue which arouses Angelo’s lust and leads him to a temptation “where prayers cross.” she had no intention of tempting him, and, at the time, no awareness of having done so; yet in the end she asks mercy for him because she realizes that her innocence had been an agent of evil:

“I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me; since it is so
Let him not die.”

So it was with Lucrece who had done nothing to provoke the dilemma with which she was confronted but was nevertheless constrained to accept responsibility for what had occurred even though both husband and father assured her that there is no guilt where the mind does not consent. Here the values of innocence themselves are questioned.

(b) Shakespeare also explores evil’s potential for good; this is basic to such tragedies as Othello and King Lear in which man through error and suffering comes to self-knowledge and wisdom. This is explicit in Sonnet 119: “O the benefit of ill!” After forgiving a trespass on the part of the young man, Shakespeare, in Sonnet 35, apologises for the presumption of forgiveness. In Sonnet 111, a correction, itself justly made, must be corrected. The view of the Rival Poet is multiple. Shakespeare regards him with a mixture of admiration, envy and resentment. Although to Shakespeare the profession of writing was “what I most enjoy,” he was, at times, “contented least” with it (sonnet 29), and his conflicting attitudes to both it and the profession of acting are vividly set forth in sonnets 110 and 111. His compliments to the Dark Lady are always oblique, and at the very time when his passion for her is most uncontrollable, he views it, himself and her with revulsion. From the beginning his protestations of admiration for the young man are touched with rebuke. In sonnet 9 he suggests that the young man has “no love towards others.” As the sonnets proceed the reproaches increase. In sonnet 84 the friend is reproached for vanity, and in sonnet 69, he is told that he is growing common. In sonnet 83, Shakespeare questions his high estimate of his friend:

“I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt…”

There is no need to exhaust the reproaches here. The sonnets abound in irony and paradox, which are the manifestations of Shakespeare’s awareness of his own multiplicity, an awareness which he was later to confer upon Hamlet. And this is, of course, the awareness of the dramatist, for the most interesting dramatic choice is not between right and wrong but between two rights or two wrongs, or between things which are neither wholly right nor wholly wrong.

The sonnets are Shakespeare’s lyric expressions of perceptions later to find expression in the plays of his maturity – his perceptions of friendship, of love and lust, of growth through experience, of sin and expiation, of mutability, plenitude, and the knowledge of good and evil. They begin with a concern for physical beauty and exhortations to preserve it in such immortality as children can bestow, and the promise to eternalize beauty in poetry. In later sonnets mortality is found to be tainted with something more ghastly than mutability, and in this view the power of “sinful earth” to create itself does not console. At the close of the sonnets the body is rejected that the soul may live. At no point in the sonnets, or in the later works, is the concern for physical beauty abandoned. It is not that as Shakespeare grew older he came to love beauty less; it is rather that he came to love other things as much, moral beauty among them. And this, too, is in the sonnets which are a foreshadowing of the course his career as artist was to take. The best of the sonnets are in themselves perfect lyric realizations of the perceptions which were not actualized in his plays until a later time.

Shakespeare – General – Sonnets (2)


The sonnets of Shakespeare have hitherto presented the greatest problem in English literature. There has been no certainty recognised as to the person for whom they were written, the nature of the relation between Shakespeare and this person, the story they reveal, the identity of the rival poet and the part he played in the story, or even as to the character and dating of the sonnets.

The answers to these questions are of fundamental importance to our conception of Shakespeare; for the sonnet are of the first importance being the most autobiographical ever written. Many scholars have poured out their energy and critical acumen in re-arranging and disarranging the sonnets.

A.L. Rowse remarks: “After all Shakespeare did not write his sonnets to provide a puzzle for posterity; but he wrote them simply and directly, straightforwardly and rapidly in the heat of emotions many and varied.

“A sound historical method in the study of these sonnets provides the key to many problems connected with the sonnets. By watching the sonnets carefully for every internal indication of date and circumstance, and by keeping in mind what was happening in the external world from the Spanish Armada to the death of Queen Elizabeth and by noticing how far they are consistent – we will arrive at a fairly satisfactory explanation of the sonnets which contain infinite riches in little rooms.”

Every kind of speculation has run rife as to the dating of the sonnets. The sonnets were written during the years 1592-1596 though they mostly belong to the plague years – 1592 and 1593 – years of crisis in Shakespeare’s career when the theatres were closed.

The sonnets as we have received them point to a disorder for which Shakespeare could not have been responsible; and the evidence of the text reinforces the impression. Its indifferent printing and bad punctuation stand sharp in contrast to the carefully set up, well-corrected Quartos of Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece

But it is possible and really profitable to group the sonnets and classify them according to theme and subject-matter which we find in them. Thus we have various sequences of sonnets dealing with the young friend, the Rival Poet, the Mistress or the Dark Lady.

Of the 154 sonnets, a very large section – the first 125 sonnets deal with the friend, “the true beloved of the sequence.”

This friend is the young man, Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare came under his spell, an experience to which he owed inspiration and fulfillment and so much else – the discovery of himself and his own true nature, through which he revealed his nature to us in all its range of sympathy, humility, abnegation, a capacity for suffering while understanding all that was happening to him in a world of his own loveableness.

All praises accorded to former sonnet heroines are his by right, and all the poet’s bygone loves find their being again in his person. The cynosure of nature and mankind, he is “The world’s fresh ornament/And only herald to the gaudy spring” (1) as well as “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men” (19). He combines the promise and fulfillment of spring and autumn like trees of the earth’s paradise, bearing both flowers and fruits, and he is “the original of both Helen and Adonis, the paragon of the two sexes” (53).

Sonnet 20 gives us a clue to this entire sequence – the nature of the young man’s personality and of Shakespeare’s love for him:

“A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion
A man in hue, all “hues” in his controlling
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth” (20)

i.e., the young man possessed a feminine beauty which attracted men’s eyes to him as much as it did women’s hearts; and it was with this beauty that Shakespeare, susceptible to the loveliness of all things in nature, had fallen in love. But as to the nature of his love, Shakespeare could not be more clear. It was not homosexual – it was not sexual at all, but ideal and more enthralling of the heart and mind:

“And for a woman wert thou first created” (20).

A.L.Rowse is of the opinion that “there is not the slightest trace of homo-sexuality in Shakespeare or even interest in the subject – as there was in Marlowe and in Bacon.”

There is no trace of it in the plays, with the exception of Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, there treated with disapprobation. Shakespeare’s attitude towards women was perfectly normal and more than normally appreciative.

“The truth is that there was a great deal of the feminine in Shakespeare’s make-up. Hence the duality of his understanding, the duplicity (in the good sense) of his sympathies, his double meed of comprehension” (G. Wilson Knight: The Mutual Flame). It only argues for the complexity or the subtlety of such a nature.

George Wyndham, deeply troubled by the panegyric heaped on the friend, sought to explain them as echoes of the renaissance Neo-Platonism.

“This may be true of the sonnets of Spenser, but it does not explain Shakespeare’s approach” (J.W.Leaver).

In all the varied eulogies of the friend there is no suggestion of eternal types, emanation from the realm of pure ideas. But Shakespeare “seriously intended the friend’s beauty and his truth as well to appear as the very archetypal pattern and substance” which the sonnets declared them to be.

“At best, it effectively crystallises the late Elizabethan vision of an anthropocentric universe experienced by the poet in the act of creative composition.”

Invitation to marry (1-19) to 26

Now should the friend die without issue, the world will mourn him “like a makeless wife.” Probably Shakespeare was called in by the family of Southampton, perhaps by his mother to aid in their campaign to incline the youth to marriage (Earl of Oxford’s daughter).

And the sonnets proceed as duty-offerings of a poet to his patron and that character continues throughout with the proper deference of the writer to one so much above him in social status.

Unlike the mistress group, whose satirical effects were based upon simple paradox and antithesis, these 19 sonnets show a complex intellectual foundation gradually growing into a new poetic concept:

“From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose may never die.”

But Southampton showed no inclination to beget an heir. The poet warns him in traditional fashion that after “forty winters”

“The youth’s proud livery so gazed on now
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.”
He will do well to remember that his mother is reflected in his beauty:
‘and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime.”

Seeing that there was something of a Narcissistic strain in him, the poet conjures him by the affection, which exists between them, to heed his advice (10).

“Make thee another self, for love of me.”

Marriage then is the explicit theme of this group as it was of the greater part o f Spenser’s work. But Shakespeare the poet, unlike Spenser, is indifferent to the psychic or even the physical benefits of married love. The end of marriage is simply and solely procreation: a definition in one sense restrictive (since it precludes any treatment of courtship), but in another sense remarkably flexible since it allows Shakespeare to express through the sonnet medium one of the most vital and comprehensive doctrines of the age.

‘The Doctrine of Increase’ (which was, according to J.W.Leaver, a major concept of Shakespeare’s drama) with its stress upon breed, was reinforced by Erasmus, the great humanist scholar (and he was counterblast to the teachings of the Catholic church on virginity and also to the romance conception of courtly love). (Sidney in Arcadia and Marlowe in Hero and Leander re-state this position.

“Lone women, like empty houses perish.” The miser’s hoard and the celibate’s body were to be condemned as sterile. Nature’s legacy of beauty is seen by the poet as a loan granted for investment and by his reluctance to marry, the friend becomes a “profitless usurer.” In order to advocate the doctrine of increase Shakespeare admirably interweaves three analogies, expressed through the recurrent image of treasure hoarded or invested, flowers fading or distilled, and human beauty perishing or perpetuated.

In an attempt at “immortalization in verse” Shakespeare wishes that the friend’s eternal summer will not fade, and this by the strength and beauty of his own eternal lines.  Finally the poet hopes that his pen will defy “devouring time” and perpetuate the friend’s youth.

“despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.”

While the friend’s character is presented as the epitome of universal beauty and truth, the poet’s character sums up the essential qualities of the creative artist. The poet’s love of the friend traverses a different range of experience from that known to romance tradition; it is the very crystallization, in terms of a personal medium of the artist’s love of all on all planes.

And this relationship between the poet and the friend is neither static nor preconceived. It undergoes considerable change in accordance with the theme’s inner development.

And thus from sonnet 26, we have the theme of the poet’s absence from his friend. Like other poets, Shakespeare was also in love with the idea of being in love. This was an unexplored territory to him, an inspiration for his art, a revelation of himself to himself and, in the end, of the possibilities and powers of life.

The subject-matter is traditional: conceits on the eye and heart, laments at separation, accounts of the sleeplessness or troubled dreams of the beloved.

It was a commonplace of romance that love entered through the eyes and penetrated to the heart.

“My eye hath played the painter” (24)

In another sonnet (“My eye and heart are at a mortal war.’) Shakespeare takes up an equally time-honoured subject – the dispute of eyes and heart. But well worn-out conceits on absence become instruments of investigating the workings of poetic thought, its powers to transcend space, its visionary quality. (24, 27, 45, 46, 47 and 49)

The Friend’s Fault

The sonnets in which the friend’s sensuality is suspected but denied, admitted but excused, and finally accepted as one more contradiction in a bewildering universe, form the main body of the collection, i.e., from 33 to 96.

Here, there are some overlappings of the sonnets addressed to the mistress. What had happened was Southampton had committed a breach of friendship. The poet’s mistress got hold of the young man. But Shakespeare forgives readily the repentant youth,

“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done
Roses have thorns and silver fountains mud.”

Shakespeare takes the fault upon his own shoulders and defends the young man against himself. This new event forces the older man to review their whole relation, and this he proceeded to do with the unselfishness that is a charm in him.

“Let me confess that we two must be twain
Although our undivided loves are one.”

“The subject matter of the group has no precedent in traditional sonnet themes and is more closely linked with certain types of plays of Shakespeare’s middle period than with any other sequence” (J.W. Leaver).

According to sonnet 96, society approves both the friend’s grace and his faults. Just as the basest jewel becomes precious when seen on the queen’s finger, so errors, if discovered in the friend, are made into truths. Sometimes the poet wonders what could be the secret of Southampton’s magnetism.

“On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.”

– certainly it was the appeal of that peerless youth, in all the flourish of his spring and beauty, to the imagination. This explains the underlying fact of the situation that the young man had captured Shakespeare’s mistress, or rather been captured by her.

And what self-annulling reaction comes from Shakespeare:

“Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.”

But, Shakespeare condemns the mistress and forgives the friend – why? Secondly, the friend’s virtue was being corrupted by her influence. Again the friend shed tears of remorse at the wrong done by the poet. Some Victorians thought of the sonnets only as a literary exercise. The truth is that although there are numerous conceits they are also expressive of a sincere and real feeling and situation.

The Rival Poet (78 to 86)

We are now presented with a scene in which the friendship between the poet and the friend is exposed to a fresh danger. Though the poet identified his Muse with the friend, now a rival poet is offering (an alien pen) praises Southampton. Shakespeare meets it with his usual modesty admitting the young Earl “Deserves the travail of a worthier pen.” He feels discouraged, however, since this competition comes from “a better spirit.” But it now appears that this rival poet is taking Shakespeare’s place in Southampton’s favour. And this announces the situation of crisis for Shakespeare. If the rival poet succeeds in ousting him from Southampton’s favour, all is up with him; he will be “castaway.”

But Shakespeare affirms a proper confidence in his own verse if not in himself.

In sonnet (80) the two poets are represented as ships sailing the ocean of the friend’s worth  – the poet a “saucy bark”, the rival “a man-of-war of tall building and of goodly pride.” To the Elizabethan readers the image immediately suggested the little English ships that fought the Armada.

In sonnet convention the ship represented the lover, with the beloved as a harbour to which it sailed. Here the friend was the ocean itself with the rival “riding” on its “soundless deep”. For all the apparent dignity of the metaphor it was basically the same that applied to the mistress – “the bay where all men ride.” If she was physically accessible to all, the friend, by his acceptance of flattery, was spiritually promiscuous.

The innuendo, perhaps, is not wholly conscious, and not discernible to the friend as a reader of the sonnet.

The friend has rejected a union of the kind that would perpetuate him in the flesh. His one hope of immortality lies in marriage to a Muse. The poet points his finger at the friend’s own spiritual fault that brought the rivalry into being. But he wants to avoid the appearance of vulgar jealousy. Hence the subtleties of ambiguous praise or mock deference in referring to the rival. Anyhow the process of disillusionment that began with the revelation of the friend’s sensual fault is brought to a conclusion in these sonnets.

Yet even these sonnets, like those that treated of the friend’s sensual fault, contribute a certain positive element to the sequence. The encounter with the rival has crystallized the distinction in poetry between ornament and truth: “painted rhetoric” and “true plain words”. Authentic poetry is seen as a creative function, operating from within through sympathy with the subject. The sham substitute is barren and commercial, exploiting the subject for the sake of fame and profit.

Sympathy for the friend can be restored only by the mercy of time.

Now who was the rival poet, whose superiority of spirit Shakespeare was so ready to acknowledge and before whom his Muse became “tongue-tied”? Whose splendid verse,

(“proud sail of his great verse”) made his inspiration freeze?

Sonnet 86 tells us that this rival poet dabbled with the spirits- and to that he owed his more than human inspiration – the world disclosed by the following lines are those of Doctor Faustus (because the date of the sonnet is still 1593).

“Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write,
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.” – the attendant spirit of Dr. Faustus (A.L.Rowse)

“There is only one possible rival, who could be described in terms such as Shakespeare describes him and that is Marlowe; in that we can infer fairly well that Marlowe died in the interval between sonnets 85 and 86. Whereas Shakespeare employs present tense in sonnet 85, in sonnet 86 he employs past tense, for sonnet 86 is probably Shakespeare’s valediction to Marlowe. We can again conclude that by 1593 Shakespeare was not afraid even of Marlowe’s rivalry. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, written in competition with Venus and Adonis of Shakespeare’s, begins with a pleasant salute to the rival theme.

Sonnets 119-112 and 117-120

The poet’s return after a long silence and his plea for reconciliation with the friend constitute the theme of these sonnets. If previously the poet stood in mush the same relationship to the friend as Gaunt to Richard II, here he acts Falstaff to the regenerate prince. But he is far more penitent, and his end will be correspondingly more happy. He cries: “O, never was I false at heart.” (109). The poet’s absence has not a mere physical separation, he has spiritually degraded himself making himself a motley to the view. He has been a paid entertainer.

But the friend’s crimes parallel in number and magnitude. True, he has forgotten to invoke the friend’s love, and has “frequent been with unknown winds.” And the friend has exchanged his immortality for time in preferring “alien pens”. At best, only a precarious relationship remains.

“He perceives that the mutual love subsisting between the two equally erring, equally culpable human beings, is able to surmount all the antinomies of existence.”

“This love is not Eros, but Agape which suffereth long and is kind…nor envieth…but beareth all things…endureth all things.”

A reconciliation of this sort is effected on the human level not only of the individual poet and the individual friend, but on a universal scale, as between the creative artist and his world: “Your love and pity doth the impression fill.” (112)

The brand on the poet’s brow, the mark of Cain, affixed by scandals is wiped out, for society and its judgements have lost all their meaning. His good is allowed for; his bad “over-greened,” – restored, like a tract of fertile land after sowing, to nature.

“You are all the world and must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue
None else to me nor I to none alive.”(112)

Once again, as in the beginning, the poet is to celebrate the friend, without reservations, as the repository of universal good, not because his beauty and truth are immutable, but because love triumphs over mutability. The evolution of sonnet relationship is complete.

Both the friend and the poet have evinced all frailties that besiege all kinds of blood; both have succumbed to sensuality and vain applause. And their friendship has survived through sympathy and mutual forgiveness.

Fortified by this realization, the poet now rises to the height of his theme, and fulfils his original pledge that he will immortalize his friend.

Immortalization (100, 108, 115, 6, 123-125, 5, 59, 60, 62-68)

The last group of sonnets, from their grave and stately exordium to their triumphant close are, in every sense, the culmination of Shakespaeare’s writing in this medium. Indeed, there is no English sonnet to compare with them in imaginative range or intellectual power. (But disorderly mingled with the sonnet on the poet’s error, their value was lost for long.)

Explored on multiple levels, the underlying theme of these sonnets is the conflict of love with time. It is an epic engagement giving effect to the challenge offered at the end of the marriage group. Ovidian concepts predominate, but finally a poetic vision ensues.

“Rise resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey
If time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay
And make time’s spoils despised everywhere.”

63 “With Time’s injurious hand crushed an overworn.”

64 “That time will come and take my love away.”
– This thought is as a death –

65 “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea” can withstand mortality, how can beauty, which is like a flower, defend itself?

2 “when forty winters shall besiege thy brow.”
The time defying miracle of love can shine eternally in and by means of poetry.

63 “His beauty shall in these black lines be seen
And they shall live, and he in them still green.”

like nature’s beauty. Even truth is seen as belonging to the same world of sense, and, therefore, liable to be chewed by the “teeth of time.”  But the poet’s verse will meet this universal menace:

“And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.”

Neither past nor future need dismay the truly creative poet, whose love has its constancy above and beyond the flux of change, which is the “weak point” of Time (123)

After all, Time’s glory, as Lucrece declared, was a “blot to old books and alter their contents.” Only the poet will remain true, despite the scythe of Time and the lie in Time’s heart.

To conclude, the immortalization, intended first for beauty, then for truth, is directed at last to kindness which subsumes the friend’s other attributes and establishes a new secular trinity of the human spirit:

“Fair, kind and True, three themes in one.”

The sonnets taken as a conclusion to the Immortality group celebrate the universal triumph of human love, and in so far as the friend is a microcosm of the universe, the Poets’ love for him, effects a universal redemption.

The Mistress (127-152)

It is impossible to suppose that most of these sonnets were sent or shown to her, when we consider how very candid, often, dislodging and damaging in effect they are. And Shakespeare’s friend was as deeply concerned in these sonnets and appears in them almost as much, since the dark lady becomes his mistress too.

It is the equivocal position among the three, bur still more the feeling that the woman was corrupting the goodness as she had seduced the innocence of the young that partly accounts for the trouble of mind they express.

Satire governs the whole course of the series. Sometimes it has a smooth rapier-like thrust; more commonly it operates like the heavy, old English broad-sword. Satire charged with emotion brings together obscenity and earnestness, savage invective and cynical humour.

The opening sonnets show surface elegance; but there is a rapid descent to deeper and murkier levels.

Instead of blue eyes and golden or red-gold hair, the mistress had raven black hair and eyes and yet is enigmatically beautiful in his eyes.

In outline, the story is broadly reminiscent of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, describing an infatuation lightly entered upon, but leads to an ever sharper cleavage between conscience and desire until the affair is dissolved on a note of profound remorse. But Shakespeare differs much from Sidney and looks like parodying him.

Tradition required that the sonnet sequence should open with a panegyric to the lady’s beauty. In the sonnets describing the mistress, each item in the usual catalogue of charms was coupled with a negative. Her eyes were nothing like the sun, her lips were not as red as coral, her cheeks had no roses and her breath was not perfumed. Besides, occasional burlesque of the Petrarchan heroine, Shakespeare aims at parodying the minor sonneteers – Barnes or Lodge or Constable.

The mistress, Shakespeare says, was no Diana, nor any other goddess walking the sky. When she walked she trod the ground and was merely natural.

And yet his infatuation for her is paradoxical:
“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.” (130)

This mistress, the unknown dark lady – would we knew her name, but we shall never know it – has never been forgotten. There is an absolute reality about her, with her paradoxical charm.

She is a real woman, and Shakespeare is not the less, but all the more infatuated. It is not her beauty that holds him – other people cannot see that she has any – it is simply sex. He himself has no illusions about her.

“In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds
And thence this slander, I think, proceeds.”
Others can resist her, but Shakespeare cannot. He is under her spell:
“Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me.
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain.”

He knows that she has only scorn for him. Such a woman would have no hesitation in getting between him and his friend (superior position).

This accounts for the overlapping of the sonnets on Friend in the Mistress series (133-34 with 83). And thus Shakespeare captivated his friend whom he regarded as his better self:

“Me from myself thy cruel eye has taken
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed.”

The satire now moves on in a vicious descending spiral. The poet’s love for a mistress, without beauty or virtue, persists though consciously based upon illusion. He feels in revulsion that:

“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action…”

She does not even afford him sensuous pleasure. Neither sight nor any of the other five senses receives any satisfaction from her presence. Yet his heart is enslaved (141), leaving him behind as the mere likeness of a man. The inner conflict isprecisely between his heart and reason:

“If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride
Why of eyes falsehood hast thou forged hooks
Whereto the judgement of the heart is tied.” (137)

When Shakespeare is caught in an emotional dilemma, his images become a medley of indisciplined association. The archetypal female image of the  bay represents the Mistress, while all men ride there, coming and going freely, the poet’s eyes are anchored and he cannot fleet out to sea. His heart is submerged beneath the eaters, is caught on hooks like a fish. Finally, the bay itself becomes a dry land. With this awareness a certain cool cynicism appears.

The poet rationalizes his relationship at its lowest level:
“When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.” (138)

On this new basis of mutual mistrust the idyll is resumed

“Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults, by lies we flattered be.”
The pun on lie stands for lying and the act of love.

Moral nihilism passes over into deliberate obscenity in (151) where he answers a reproach that he lacks conscience. “To the nadir of the spiral belongs the masochistic satire of the Will sonnets 135, 136. The poet pleads with the mistress: having had so many men why not have one more? His name is will i.e., lust.

Suddenly Shakespeare is aware of the moral issues which the mistress has endangered by corrupting the friend. The poet’s supposed hatred is turned against the woman for corrupting the friend, to whom his better nature is committed (133).

And it is now that the dawn of a painful return to normality is discernible. Desiring is seen as a wasting fever etc. consuming both body and mind and he returns to reason as the “physician to his love.” In sonnet 146, which may be taken as the concluding sonnet thematically, the way is cleared for spiritual health and for restoration of values. “desire is Death,” and the poet addresses his soul as “the center of my sinful earth” and bids it subdue his body. In a Hamlet-like conceit, he uses the soul to “feed on death”.

The Mistress series, particularly the last sonnets, have roots in a real and painful experience. The fierce diatribe against sexual infatuation only brought within the compass of the sonnet, ideas which the neo-Platonists of the 16th century, notably Bembo and Castiglione, had already expressed in the medium of prose.

Spenser, too, in some way anticipated Shakespeare’s approach (in the sonnets to a Medusa-like Mistress, which were intermingled with the Amoretti). Both Shakespeare and Spenser in their own way, broke away from the romance tradition of the sonnet unlike the Italians.

“Yet the conscious motivation of Shakespeare’s mistress series was neither Platonic doctrine no Christian beliefs, but a contemporary empiricism which rejected ideal premises and interpreted love as the lust of blood and a permission of the Will. When all is said and done, Shakespeare’s was an integral view of life as well as love.

“The love for the mistress, sensual as it may be, contains large admixture of cold intellectualism; nor is the friendship wholly rational in its essence.


The sonnets are not finished like the contemporary sonnet sequences written for publication precisely because they were not literary exercises.

Some critics think that they are artistically inferior to the perfect sonnets of Sidney and Spenser, as they are totally opposite to the marble perfection of Heredia. They are a world away from the shadowy world of Daniel and the earlier Drayton, Greene and Constable with their pale evocations of a Delia, a Celia or an Idea, where the critics have sometimes not been sure if there was any lady at all or only the personification of an idea. Shakespeare’s mistress may not have been much of a lady, but she was a woman of flesh, blood and will.

So, too, with the young man:
Shakespeare with all the directness and sincerity of his open nature was, during this time, possessed by one of the most remarkable relationships recorded in English literature. This is why the poems are so moving, at the beginning sparkling with pleasure, progressing into a clouded region of doubt and anxiety becoming tormented and remorseful with those to the mistress running through the whole gamut of the emotions.