The Bard of Avon
The collection of poems called Shakespeare's Sonnets includes 154 short poems composed as sonnets. These were published, together with a poem called "A Lover's Complaint," in 1609. It seems clear, however, primarily on stylistic grounds, that many of the sonnets were written well before that date. There is very little direct evidence in the poems themselves which might point to a specific date (Sonnet 107 is sometimes held to refer to the coronation of James I in 1603), and we have no independent authorities to help us with the dates of composition. The range of styles and attitudes explored in the poems suggests that some of them must have been written during the so-called "problem" period (1600-1603), for there is a great similarity between some of the sonnets and the style of Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. Others seem much earlier than this.
No single sonnet can be picked out without looking at the meaning of the sonnets together. Only by analyzing the entire set of sonnets can one discern their purpose as set forth by Shakespeare. For example, a sonnet with a certain meaning may be immediately followed by a sonnet conveying the opposite message. The firstone cannot be discussed without discussing the second because the contradiction defines the nature of its meaning. The sonnets build on, cancel out, and are formed by each other. The meanings of the sonnets are all relative.
The bulk of Shakespeare's sonnets were written between 1594 and 1597. During the 1590's, there was a sonnet vogue in England. Shakespeare was quick to follow this popular trend. Sonnets were thought to be personal poetry and usually circulated among one's friends and close acquaintances. It was considered unnecessary to publish sonnets and undesirable to write them for the purpose of being published. Because there were no copyright laws in 16th century England, Thomas Thorpe (who somehow obtained copies), was able to publish Shakespeare's 154 sonnets without the knowledge or consent of their author. The numerous, obvious errors found in the sonnets are a testament to the fact that Shakespeare did not prepare them for or see them through the printing press. Most of the sonnets are addressed to, or mention the "fair boy" or the "dark lady." Since Shakespeare never made reference to their actual names, there has been much dogmatic speculation as to the identity of these two people.
The first 126 sonnets are clearly addressed to a young man, whom Shakespeare describes as, "beauty's rose" (Sonnet 1) and often refers to as "my love." In the first 27 sonnets, Shakespeare urges the young man to get married and have children. In the next 100 sonnets, Shakespeare, at times, accuses the young man of betrayal and states to him his faults, praises the young man's beauty, reluctantly accepts that the young man and his mistress have had an affair, mourns his absence, and ultimately forgives the young man for all of his grievances and apologizes for his own infidelity.
John Benson in his 1640 edition changed all the "he" pronouns to read "she," thereby creating a surrealism of sexual anatomies. When the scholar George Stevens read the newly-corrected edition in 1780, he acknowledged reading them "with an equal admixture of disgust and indignation."
What is particularly remarkable about the sequence of poems addressed to or concerning the young man is the extraordinary range of emotions explored, everything from confident declarations of total love, to gloom at separation, joy at reunion, bitter disappointment at mutual infidelity, and savage despair at being locked into behaviour which will damn him to hell.
What is also remarkable is the range of styles in the sonnets. Some of the poems are relatively conventional sonnets in execution and achievement; and some are inferior poems by any standard. Some are clearly designed to show off the poet's skill at the expense of any real sincerity of feeling. Many have a richly complex style, and others are apparently very simple in vocabulary, syntax, and form (none more so than Sonnet 66). But the best of the sonnets, the finest love poems in English, display an astonishing synthesis of technical sophistication and passionate eloquence, qualities which transform any lingering conventional attitudes to love into something which registers as uniquely and sincerely felt (e.g., Sonnet 116).
Who was the young man loved by the Poet?
Not surprisingly, many scholars (professional and amateur) have seen in Shakespeare's Sonnets a revealing insight into the biography of William Shakespeare. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why we have to see these poems as based upon real experience; the poems could be about entirely imagined people and experiences. However, given the emotional pressure contained in many of these sonnets and the fact that some of them are about a person named Will, many people believe they must contain important clues to Shakespeare's life. Who is the young man? Who are the rival poet and the dark lady?
There is one vital clue given by the dedication to the Sonnets, which runs as follows:
The initials T.T. at the bottom evidently refer to Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. But who is Mr. W. H.? If he is "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets," then he might be the young man. Hence, if there is a biographical basis for the sonnet sequence, we need to find a young, single, handsome young man with the initials W.H. and with some connection (if possible) to William Shakespeare.
The identification of W.H. as William Hughes was first made by Thomas Tyrwhitte (1730-86). Oscar Wilde, made a painstaking investigation into the matter, and concluded, with persuasive evidence, that Willie Hughes was a boy-actor who played the women's parts in Shakespeare's early plays.
Wilde's essay is an excellent example of the best sort of erudite and critical argument that can be mounted, though it has been ignored by mainstream scholars simply because its author went to jail for his love's sake. Wilde's knowledge of the world of the theatre also helped him toidentify Will Hughes (or Hews) as a boy actor, who at one point abandoned Shakespeare'scompany for a rival writer or perhaps a rival theatre company.
In any case, we can be certain that W.H.'s first name was Will (William), because of the elaborate and repetitious puns in Sonnet 20, in which each occurrence of the word will is printed in italics in the original edition, and the punning Sonnets 135 ("Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,/ And Will to boot, and Will in over-plus"; it uses the word "will" 13 times) and 143 ("So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will").
We also know that W.H.'s second name was Hughes, because of the similarly elaborate and repetitious puns in Sonnet 20, in which the eighth line is properly spelled and italicized as "A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling" (Hews is an acceptable Renaissance spelling for Hughes). The pun on "hue," "hew," and "usury" is found especially in Sonnets 4, 20, 67, 82, 135, and 136.
It is impossible to give any final answer to the questions whether or not Shakespeare and W.H. physically consummated their love; whether or not there was mutual guilt if this love was so consummated; whether or not Shakespeare's desire for W.H. to beget offspring can be concommitant with homosexual love, or whether, as Wilde suggests, Shakespeare is exhorting Willie to "marry" his own Muse. What we can suggest is that at the time Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets he was not exclusively heterosexual, though neither was he exclusively homosexual. About a fourth of the Sonnets make it clear that he had a mistress, a "dark lady" who may have been Mary Fritton, a lady-in-waiting. Neither was Master W.H. exclusively homosexual, for he slept with this dark-complexioned lady, and this betrayal tore the poet's heart asunder. It should be emphasized, however, that the tragedy in this affair was not that Shakespeare's best friend nearly stole away his mistress, but that his mistress nearly stole away his boyfriend. There is no doubt whatsoever that Shakespeare preferred his boyfriend - his "better angel" - to his mistress.
Shakespeare also nearly lost his boyfriend to a rival playwright, as previously mentioned; Wilde speculates that he was enticed away by Marlowe to play the part of Gaveston in his homoerotic play Edward II. Shakespeare mentions that the playwright described Willie in sublimely rhetorical poetry ("the proud full sail of his verse"), and nearly all critics agree that the only poetry that fits this characterization at this time was that of the homosexual Christopher Marlowe.
Unfortunately it is not possible to chart the progress of Shakespeare's and Willie Hughes' love. The sonnets were not written in the order in which they were printed, and no one has been able to convincingly put forth a proper ordering for them. The relationship may have lasted anywhere from four or five years to more than a dozen years. There were one or two separations that lasted for more than several months, and there were one or two quarrels. The affair with the dark lady may have effectively terminated the relationship of the two men, or it may have been followed by a loving reconciliation. The fact that the group of dark lady sonnets are printed at the end of the squence proves nothing about when they were written in relation to the preceding group to Willie (and Wilde suggests that they should be moved to a position following Sonnet 33). And about half a dozen sonnets that appear within the dark lady section have no sexually identifiable pronouns and may well be addressed to Willie.
In general, there is no conclusive (or even very persuasive) evidence in the Sonnets that the love of Shakespeare and Willie reached some sort of crisis and ceased. Like many another love in history, it quite probably just faded away as the men went their separate directions.
The Sonnet Convention
The sonnet, as a poetic genre, began in Italy in the thirteenth century, and, under the later influence of the Italian poet Petrarch, became internationally popular. Petrarch established the basic form of the so-called Petrarchan sonnet: 14 lines divided into two clear parts, an opening octet (8 lines) and a closing sestet (6 lines) with a fixed rhyme scheme (abbaabba cdecde). Often the octet will pose a problem or paradox which the sestet will resolve. Petrarch also established the convention of the sonnet sequence as a series of love poems written by an adoring lover to an unattainable and unapproachable lady of unsurpassed beauty. The Petrarchan sonnet convention, in other words, established, not merely the form of the poem, but also the subject matter.
The sonnet form was brought into English poetry in the sixteenth century by Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey). They introduced some modifications in the form, sometimes substituting for the traditional division into octet and sestet a division into three quatrains (4 lines each) and a closing couplet, with a different (but still tightly controlled) rhyme scheme. This form later became known as the Shakespearean Sonnet, named after its greatest practitioner. Shakespeare uses both the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean structure in his sonnets. By Shakespeare's time the sonnet sequence was a very well established literary convention.
The Petrarchan convention of love (despairing lover writing to a lovely, unattainable lady in words of reverent praise and worshipful adoration) gave rise, as all really popular conventions do, to its opposite, an anti-Petrarchan convention, in which the woman to whom the poem was addressed was castigated as a deceitful and often ugly manipulator. In other words, the sonnet form developed as subject matter both the faithful adoration of the idealized female lover and the spiteful contempt for a person entirely unworthy of love (which was a continuation of a very old misogynist tradition in European literature).
An important part of the sonnet convention was often a celebration of the poet's "wit," that is, of his ability to show his poetic skill in appropriating metaphors and conceits (extended metaphors) in clever ways, so that the poem becomes, not just a tribute to the lady but also a testament to his great skill as a poet. Hence, the sonnet convention often encouraged a highly artificial and very literary treatment of feelings of love. One of the most remarkable features of many of Shakespeare's best sonnets is the way his language transforms this frequently artificial and conventional form of literature into something direct, urgent, and sincerely passionate.
Excerpts from Rictor Norton, "Enter Willie Hughes as Juliet: or, Shakespeare's Sonnets Revisited", The Queer Canon, updated 9 Jan. 2000
© 1998 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved.