2. Reception of the Sonnets

That Thorpe, who held the copyright, did not reissue the 1609 quarto appears to support Sidney Lee's contention that it "does not seem to have been received by the public with enthusiasm" (51). Its only other appearance in the seventeenth century, Benson's 1640 repackaging of the poems, apparently was more responsible for popularizing them than the 1609 edition and was the source text for most of the eighteenth­century editions. In 1766, George Steevens included an accurate transcription of the 1609 quarto in his Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare; however, in 1793 in the fourth edition of the Johnson­Steevens The Plays of William Shakespeare, Steevens excluded the sonnets with strong words of condemnation:

We have not reprinted the Sonnets, &c. of Shakspeare, because the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service; notwithstanding these miscellaneous Poems have derived every possible advantage from the literature and judgement of their only intelligent editor, Mr. Malone, whose implements of criticism, like the ivory rake and golden spade in Prudentius, are on this occasion disgraced by the objects of their culture. -- Had Shakspeare produced no other works than these, his name would have reached us with as little celebrity as time has conferred on that of Thomas Watson, an older and much more elegant sonnetteer. ("Introduction")

James Boswell in his "Preliminary Remarks" to the sonnets in the 1821 Malone edition defends Malone and takes exception with Steevens: "The poetical merits of Shakespeare's Sonnets are now, I believe, almost universally acknowledged, notwithstanding the contemptuous manner in which they have been mentioned by Mr. Steevens" (Malone, 20.222).

Concerning their "poetical merits," during the nineteenth century, the Sonnets received generally the highest praise. In this respect, the remarks of Alexander Dyce in the introduction to his 1832 The Poems of Shakespeare are typical:

Next to the dramas of Shakespeare, they [the Sonnets] are by far the most valuable of his works. They contain such a quality of profound thought as must astonish every reflecting reader; they are adorned by splendid and delicate imagery; they are sublime, pathetic, tender, or sweetly playful; while they delight the ear by their fluency, and their varied harmonies of rhythm. Our language can boast no sonnets altogether worthy of being placed by the side of Shakespeare's, except the few which Milton poured forth,--so severe, and so majestic. (lxxxvii)

Similar assessments can be found in Charles Knight (1845), Thomas Budd (1868), and Richard Grant White (1875), but there were dissenting voices, like Thomas Kenny (1864): "The mere fact that those compositions have obtained no firm hold in any way of the minds of men, affords the most conclusive evidence of the vast space which separates them from the poet's dramas. There is not a single sonnet, or a single passage in the poems, which the world greatly cares to remember" (100­01). Kenny's assessment appears clearly to be a minority position. Contemporary evaluations range from C. C. Stopes in 1904: "The perfection of Shakespeare's art, the refinement of his philosophy, the dramatic intensity of his feelings, the richness and variety of his imagery, and the delicacy of his musical ear, are nowhere more fully shown than in his Sonnets" (ix­x) to Lee's "Though Shakespeare's sonnets are unequal in literary merit, many reach levels of lyric melody and meditative energy which are not to be matched elsewhere in poetry" (7). On the whole, the Sonnets have been valued for their "poetical merits." Helen Vendler in her recent The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, continues in this mode as she approaches the each sonnet ". . . to disclose some of the sonnet's significant features-imaginative, structural, semantic, syntactic, phonemic, graphic-and to point out their cooperation in a mimetic aesthetic result" (xiii).

Much that has been written about the sonnets, other than about their poetical merits, pertains to issues surrounding the characters in the sequence. The most infamous pronouncement of this sort is probably George Chalmers's assertion, made in defense of the Ireland forgeries, that the "Master Mistress" of the sonnets was none other than Queen Elizabeth (41­43). Others who have set forth theories that surely fit under Chambers's category of "folly" (1.561) view the sonnets as radically metaphoric, as hermetic; to them the sonnets are ciphers or riddles to be figured out.

In 1865, Ethan Allen Hitchcock contended that "they belong to the class of hermetic writings having a profoundly mysterious sense, and no one seems to reflect that perhaps they cannot be explained or understood from any merely literal point of view" (8). Thus, the objects addressed in the sonnets are not characters, real or fictional, but "an irrepressible spirit of beauty, the true source of artistic births" (11). To Thomas Budd (1868), "there is a deeper and more beautiful phase" than the literal: "It is no other than the soul materialized, and they are thus applicable to mankind generally, individually, and to the poet in particular. In thus materializing his soul and addressing himself, he has followed the highest point of literary etiquette" (5). Charles Armitage Brown also rejects a literal reading; to him the sonnets "bear a mystic burden" (239). George Palmer (1912) maintains that the sonnets offer insights into three types of immortality. Charles Ellis (1902) asserts that the "Two loves" are Christ, while John Forbis (1924) argues that the sonnets recount Shakespeare's struggle to overcome the enticements of wine.

Although recent theory has cogently challenged and blurred the distinction between "fact" and "fiction" (especially in the area of autobiography) and although the "fact"/"fiction" binary is clearly an oversimplification, nevertheless reading the Sonnets as "fact" or as "fiction" represents two categories into which much commentary has fallen. James Boswell, for example, appears the first to maintain that the sonnets are fictional. Objecting to those critics who "have attempted, by inferences drawn from them, to eke out the scanty memorials, which have come down to us, of the incidents of his life," Boswell, even questioning Malone's assertion that Sonnet 111 expresses Shakespeare's weariness with having to be an actor and playwright, argues that the sonnets were imaginative exercises: "Upon the whole, I am satisfied that these compositions had neither the poet himself nor any individual in view; but were merely the effusions of his fancy, written upon various topicks for the amusement of a private circle" (Malone, 20.219­220). Dyce (1832) agrees with Boswell that the sonnets are fictitious: "I have long felt convinced, after repeated perusals of the Sonnets, that the greater number of them was composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement, and probably at the suggestion, of the author's intimate associates" (lxxvi), as does Howard Staunton (1858): "it is reasonable to conclude that they were written on different occasions, and with no more adaptation of fact to fancy than is usually found in imaginary compositions" (3.759). Edward Dowden (1881) may best express the reason so many deem the sonnets fictional: "The moment, however, we regard the Sonnets as autobiographical, we find ourselves in the presence of doubts and difficulties, exaggerated, it is true, by many writers, yet certainly real" (xvi).

Many, like J. Payne Collier (1843), continued to read the sonnets autobiographically: "It is evident that the Sonnets were written at very different periods of Shakespeare's life, and under very different circumstances--some in youth, some in more advanced age; some when he was happy, and some when he was desponding and afflicted at his own condition in life, and place in society" (473). Thomas Tyler (1890), while maintaining that "the Sonnets as a whole are concerned with actual fact," reminds his readers that "Their language is the language of poetry, sometimes of compliment, and as such it should verily be interpreted" (11). Samuel Butler offers one of the more venturesome autobiographical readings, contenting that the sonnets recount Shakespeare's youthful, sexual experimentation, but Butler willingly forgives Shakespeare his perceived transgressions as if the affair were a public school romance:

Considering again, the perfect sanity of all his later work; considering further that all of us who read the Sonnets are as men who are looking over the shoulder and reading a very private letter which was intended for the recipient's eye, and for not else's; considering all these things--for I will not urge the priceless legacy he us left us, nor the fact that the common heart, brain, and conscience of mankind holds him foremost among all Englishmen as the crowning glory of our race--leaving all this on one side, and considering the only youth, the times, penitence, and amendment of life, I believe that those whose judgement we should respect will refuse to take Shakespeare's grave indiscretion more to heart than they do the story of Noah's drunkenness; they will neither blink it nor yet look at it more closely than is necessary iu [sic] order to prevent men's rank thoughts from taking it to have been more grievous than it was.
Tout savoir, c'est tout comprendre--and in this case surely we may add--tout pardonner. (86­87)

Here Butler willingly embraces the very "doubts and difficulties" that appeared so troubling to Dowden.

Much of what has been written about the autobiographical aspects of the sonnets relates to the identities of characters. Dowden represents those who argue that the sonnets were addressed to a variety of people: "But the Sonnets of Shakspere, it is said, lack inward unity. Some might well be addressed to Queen Elizabeth, some to Anne Hathaway, some to his boy Hamnet, some to the Earl of Pembroke or the Earl of Southampton; it is impossible to make all these poems (I.­CXXVI.) apply to a single person" (xxvii­xxviii). Still more have attempted to identify the Young Man, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet. A. L. Rowse confidently claims to have solved all the problems associated with the sonnets, offering Emilia Lanier as his candidate for the Dark Lady. Besides her, the two most frequently mentioned possibilities are Mary Fitton and Lucy Negro. George Chapman is by far the most frequently mentioned for the role of the Rival Poet, with Christopher Marlowe a distant second. The most energy has unquestionably been centered on identifying the Young Man, who may or may not be "W. H."--with the two leading contenders being Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Dr. Nathan Drake in his 1817 Shakspeare and His Times was the first to suggest the Young Man was Southampton:

Indeed the phraseology of Shakspeare so positively indicates a male object, that, if it cannot, in this respect, be reposed on, we may venture to assert, that no language, however, explicit, is entitled to confidence. ... If we may be allowed, in our turn, to conjecture, we would fix upon LORD SOUTHAMPTON as the subject of Shakspeare's sonnets, from the first to the hundredth and twenty­sixth, inclusive. (2.61­62)

In the September and October 1832 Gentleman's Magazine pieces, "To What Person the Sonnets of Shakespeare Were Actually Addressed" (217­221; 308­314) and in the 1837 On the Sonnets of Shakespeare: Identifying the Person to Whom They Are Addressed; and Elucidating Several Points in the Poet's History, James Boaden became the first to argue for William Herbert. Many other candidates have been set forth, including Sir William Harvey, William Hart, William Hatcliffe, William Hathaway, and Oscar Wilde's Willie Hughes and Barnstorff's Mr. William [Shakespeare] Himself.

Another area of inquiry has been into the nature of the relationship between the Young Man and the Poet. Seemingly many from Benson, to Steevens, to Malone, to Dowden, to many twentieth­century commentators have been disturbed that the poet "is bound to the youth by ties of strong affection" (Knight 117). To counter Steevens's "disgust and indignation," Malone contends that "such addresses to men, however, indelicate, were customary in our author's time, and neither imported criminality, nor were esteemed indecorous" (20.241). The following remarks of Boswell reveal the influence that Malone's contention had on the thinking of his age and succeeding generations in this area:

In the selection of his topics, Shakespeare has been exposed to no small censure; but Mr. Malone, in a note on the thirty­second Sonnet, has fully vindicated him by the practice of his times, and it would be easy to multiply examples of those who, like him, have adopted language, when addressing a male object, which the more correct taste of the present day would consider as appropriate only to the other sex. (Malone, 20.221)

Nevertheless, many in the twentieth century have written about the sexual nature of the relationship. Butler, as we have seen, believes Shakespeare engaged in youthful sexual experimentation, but Lord Alfred Douglas (1933) "utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist" (19). H. McClure Young (1937), after declaring that "Homosexuality . . . is all but universal among very feeble­minded males, congenital imbeciles, and the epileptic insane" (27), declares that he has undertaken "to establish the complete normality of Shakespeare's affective life as revealed in these sonnets" (65). Edward Hubler (1952) also rejects "the now widely spread notion that Shakespeare's sonnets to the young man reflect a homosexual relationship with him" (136). G. W. Knight (1955), on the other hand, argues that Shakespeare was bisexual: "the creative consciousness is bisexual; otherwise there could be no creation; and in representing the poet's engagement with both sexes, the Sonnets describe steps on the path towards the creative integration"(33). Martin Seymour­Smith (1963), after asserting that "The Sonnets, then, provide a poetic insight into what may be described, paradoxically as a heterosexual's homosexual experience," concedes that "It is likely that on at least one occasion Shakespeare did have some kind of physical relationship with the Friend. The sonnets addressed to him, particularly 33­36, are difficult to explain on any other hypothesis" (34). John Dover Wilson (1963) and Ingram and Redpath (1965) deny that Shakespeare was a pederast, while the most fully developed case that the sonnets are homoerotic is found in Joseph Pequigney's Such Is My Love (1985):

. . . I argue (1) that the friendship treated in Sonnets 1­126 is decidedly amorous-passionate to a degree and in ways not dreamed of in the published philology, the interaction between the friends being sexual in both orientation and practice; (2) that verbal data are clear and copious in detailing physical intimacies between them; (3) that the psychological dynamics of the poet's relations with the friend comply in large measure with those expounded in Freud's authoritative discussions of homosexuality; and (4) that Shakespeare produced not only extraordinary amatory verse but the grand masterpiece of homoerotic poetry. . . . A second major thesis, of no less importance than the one described above and closely bound up with it, is that the received arrangement of the poems--received from the first edition--is accurate. (1)

Pequigney's readings of the Sonnets are particularly relevant in light of the emergence of Queer Studies and the work of Alan Bray, Jonathan Goldberg, Bruce R. Smith, and Claude J. Summers. Stephen Booth (1977) has offered perhaps the sagest commentary on this issue: "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter" (548).