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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
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The Sonnets

The both/and possibilities of erotic experience in early modern England receive their most searching exploration in Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. First printed as a group in 1609, Shakespeare's sonnets belonged originally not to the public culture of print but to the private culture of manuscript poetry that circulated among friends.

In a catalog of England's great writers, made eleven years before the sonnets saw print, Francis Meres speaks of Shakespeare's "sugred Sonnets among his private friends." Just who these friends were is not known. Only twelve of Shakespeare's sonnets show up in any surviving seventeenth-century manuscripts; in only two of these manuscripts does more than a single sonnet appear.

By every indication, Shakespeare had nothing to do with the volume of Shakespeares Sonnets. Never before Imprinted that the printer Thomas Thorpe put on the market in 1609. With its title alone, the book communicates a sense of privacy breached, of secrets made public--an effect enhanced by the poems' first-person perspective.

To watch a play is to observe other people's actions. To read a story like Venus and Adonis is to find out about someone else's experience. To read a poem that begins with "I ... " is to establish terms of intimacy with that "I," to make his experience your experience.

The results of these circumstances have been two: (1) a small library of books that try to sleuth out who the people mentioned in the sonnets "really" are and (2) a still-continuing culture war over the homoerotic desires articulated by the speaking "I."

As they were printed by Thorpe in 1609, Shakespeare's sonnets imply a definite cast of characters if not an agreed-upon plot line. The first 126 poems seemed to be addressed to a fair-complexioned man, possibly a nobleman, who is younger than the speaker; the final 28, to a dark-complexioned woman who is the speaker's mistress.

Centuries of hours, acres of trees, and vats of ink have been consumed since the eighteenth century in the quest to prove just who these people are. The most frequently mentioned candidate for the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Outside the sonnets themselves, however, not a single piece of evidence survives to prove or to disprove such claims.

Rather than assuming that the first-person of the sonnets speaks for William Shakespeare, we should perhaps note the ways in which these three characters--the speaking "I," the young man, the woman--depend on one another for their identities. At least in this book of poems, none of them ever stands alone, not even the speaking "I."

He may be talking about himself, but he does so only by also talking about the young man or the woman. He needs both of them, as sonnet 144 confesses:

Two loves have I, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still.
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.

The controversy centers on whether he needs both of these people sexually.

"Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be" (138.13-14): The cynical sensuality of the sonnets addressed to "the dark lady" have never been in question.

The speaker's erotic attachment to the young man is much less direct: It emerges only gradually in the course of the sonnets, it is communicated through puns, it is fundamentally implicated in the speaker's sexual relations with the lady.

Taken altogether, the sonnets to the "man right fair" seem to tell the story of a failed love affair--but a love affair in which "a woman colored ill" is very much a factor.

The first nineteen poems urge the young man to preserve his beauty by getting married and begetting children. By sonnet 16 ("But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon the bloody tyrant, time"), the speaker has begun, however, to insinuate his own designs on the young man, first by promising to preserve the young man's beauty in the medium of verse, then by speaking more and more openly about the erotic desires that he himself feels toward the young man.

The pair formed by sonnets 20 ("A woman's face with nature's own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion") and 21 ("So is it not with me as with that muse / Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse") conjoin the two things that preoccupy the speaker in all the ensuing sonnets to the young man: making love and making verse.

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