Shakespeare Sonnet Basics

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Scholarship /
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Meta-Oxymoron / Basics /

The other day I scribbled some Shakespeare sonnet basics: I’ll merge those with my notes of the late 1990s, published however fragmentary, at K.: first here are those notes pre-merged:

Text: our Source for the Sonnets

Shakespeare wrote a good deal. He performed and produced copiously. He published hardly at all. Our sources for Shakespeare are all second hand, third hand, and worse. Thank God we have the work at all, however corrupted.

Most relevant here, we have only one “original” for the Sonnets: it’s only “authority” is that we have no other version to compare it to.

Shake-speares Sonnets: Neuer before Imprinted was registered by Thomas Thorpe at Stationers’ Hall in 1609. The piracy infracted no patent. Shakespeare put them out there. We catch what we can. Scholars make education guesses, some wiser, some better informed, than others, in an effort to assess what Shakespeare actually wrote. In one of the notes to this section I report that scholars have redated a Chaucer variant, giving it an authority to rival the standard choice we’re passively inherited for centuries. Scribes can miscopy, listeners can mishear: especially if varying dialects are involved. I’ll concentrate for the moment on a possible explanation for variants I hear too little from others: the author himself wrote more than one version.

When I was just out of college, Brendan Behan’s The Hostage was playing at the then new Sheridan. Behan would show up and “improvise” variants from the audience. Let’s imagine that Shakespeare wrote “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” etc. Scribes copy out the parts for rehearsal. Maybe Will hands Burbage the sole “original.” We don’t know, but I bet it happened on at least a few occasions. Now don’t forget: the texts are hand written: first by Shakespeare, then by copyists. Budget considerations would have enlisted the staff itself (and when were they last paid?) for the copying. First rehearsal, Burbage reads “solid.” Third performance, Burbage utters “sullied.” Later at the inn, he says sorry, Will, I slipped. Shakespeare says, never mind, I like it better. Years later, one publisher gets his version from an actor who remembers the rehearsal; another from an actor who remembers the performance.

There a great deal more to this but you should be able to fill in some for yourselves. In the case of the sonnets, the theory that many of them were written to curry favor from a patron makes sense. Some could have been handed to girls (or other actors and writers) in bars. Some would have been copied or passed around more than others. In the case of the plays, there were many publications during Shakespeare’s life: none authorized. (Wouldn’t Paul McCartney have walked into a bar and heard some other band playing his song? Playing it differently? Or trying to be rote but missing? So what? Royalty or no, it’s a compliment. Even if it’s a mockery, don’t sweat it: it’s inevitable, not in your control.) After Shakespeare’s death, some colleagues got together and published all of the plays. Comparing that Folio edition with earlier quarto versions of particular plays gives Shakespeare scholars plenty to do. The Folio has the authority of being the enterprise of co-workers. Its commemorative aspect encourages us to believe it received more care than we’d expect from the earlier efforts of quick-buck artists. Still: you don’t just believe one and reject the others out of hand; you compare them, see if there might be something to the earlier, more commercial ventures after all.

For the Sonnets all we’ve got is the one version. Pirated. No authority. The only authority.

Subjectively, we can say Well, it sure sounds like Shakespeare. Much sonnet “criticism” has been of that nature. This one sounds noble. I declare it to be genuine; on the other hand, this one is scurrilous, the work of no gentlemen. Therefore it’s a fraud. And so forth. Surely any fourteen years old should see the circularity of the first and the vapidity of the rest.

I’m just blocking out principle considerations. I’ll expand and rewrite later. For now, there are just a couple of other things I want to broach in this context.
First: we live in an age of unprecedented accuracy of reproduction. The new giclée print is mistaken by the artist himself for the original. A hundred years later it fades or gets spilled on. Print another. The accuracy is in the digital file. You lose a son in war? Your surviving wife and you still have the source gametes. They won’t combine exactly the same. The next son’s experiences will produce a different individual. Do you really want the same son again? Guttenberg made us pathological in a new way. After you’ve listened to Furtwangler’s recording of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey for the hundredth time, you can’t stand how Von Karajan does it. Did you ever think we might be better off if Homer had never been printed? Or the Bible? Destroy the records. Lose the Beethoven. Make your own music.

Anyway, our century is accustomed to editions proofread by authors. That’s not how it used to be. A Shakespeare play was rehearsed but would have retained improvisational elements. Miles scribbles a scale on a napkin and All Blues got recorded. You’re in the club a year later and they play it again. Sure, it’s very much the same. They’re quoting themselves. And each other. But nothing was ever written down. The musicians were following coordinated ideas, not programmed parts. Whether or not Martin and Lewis started with a script, they themselves didn’t know what would actually happen. But of course The Kings Men were neither Martin and Lewis nor Nichols and May. Already there was a good deal of Gothenburg there. But far short of giclée.

Now. Second. Everyone has heard that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Shakespeare was written by Bacon, by Jonson, by Elizabeth herself. Funny. There’s no evidence that Bacon, Jonson, or Elizabeth thought so. His colleagues thought it was him. His audience thought it was him. I’ll let you in on a little observation: no one thought it wasn’t him until a mere century or so ago. Such books started being written, always by amateurs, retired doctors and so forth, none by Shakespeare scholars, right at the same time that the Victorian world began a love affair with doubt. Books were published to prove that Saint Joan was a man, that George Washington was a woman … Need I say more? (I’ll check the actual dates and offer specific examples another time.)

I will briefly cover this related point. A man spends his life at sea. Retired by his fireside, he reads Shakespeare. He gets to a marine scene and is jolted. Say, only a sailor could have written this. He writes a book to prove that Shakespeare had been a sailor. The same thing happens with a retired doctor, a retired lawyer, a retired diplomat. One the one hand the retiree may be able to publish his own book as a vanity. On the other, actual publishers, actually in business, look in their stock, see that anything that had that said Shakespeare sold at least a few, then sold some more … sure they may chance it: the more so since the “author” isn’t holding a gun to his head about up-front money. The next thing you know we’re swimming in paper that has no more to do with reality than a politician’s speech. Still, some dingbat reads it, repeats it … some other dingbat assigns

Are there any books to prove that Shakespeare was a hermaphrodite? Only a woman … Only a man … We should feel compelled by such books as shove the seamen and doctors aside to prove that “only a king” could have done it. We should feel more compelled by a proof that “only a commoner …” Unless we wish to agree with Kittredge: “Shakespeare could put himself in your place … and speak.”

I have and have used many editions of Shakespeare. For the sonnets, I refer to Hyder E. Rollins, William Allan Neilson … indifferently. Nothing I have to say about the sonnets relates crucially to disputes about words, spelling, or punctuation.

Importance of Text in Relation to Thesis

Sure I’d rather know what Shakespeare actually wrote and still approved a year later than passively swallow whatever some publisher palmed on us. I’d also like to know what he still approved a decade later: though I would not see it as germane to the text of the preceding decade. I’d like to know what Moses (or Jesus) in the Twentieth Century would think of his behavior millennia earlier. But my thesis of idealism versus realism in Shakespeare’s sonnets is not affected by niceties of text.

The Dating of the Sonnets

The sonnets were not published till 1609 but seem to have been written in the 1590s. I’ll return here to discuss their probable relation to the closing of the theaters and so forth. This section will also relate to a discussion of the history of sonnet sequences which in turn will relate to a topic more basic to this thesis: the degrees to which the Sonnets are and are not a “sequence.”

The Order of the Sonnets

We’ve inherited Thorpe’s order as our only order for the sonnets. We have no comment from Shakespeare or his friends on the matter. The first seventeen sonnets relate progeny to immortality. The poet recommends it. The poet ties the immortality of generations to the immortality of art, an immortality that apparently seemed real in the Renaissance when supply had not yet far exceeded demand. Whether or not they are a linear sequence, they unquestionably form a group. The remainder of the first 126 seem to form a more generalized group. They are typically read as the sonnet to the Fair Love. Some of them form other mini-groups, being linked by diction, by imagery, by directly contrasting ideas …

Sonnets 153 and 154 seem to be just stuck on at the end. They strike this reader as being juvenilia. I would judge them to be from the very early 1590s at the latest. The balance of the sonnets, 127 to 152, are generally recognized as the Dark Lady sonnets. This reader finds them less obviously a group than Sonnets 1 to 17 but more obviously a group than Sonnets 1 to 126.

For the general purposes of my thesis, 1-126 are the “ideal” sonnets and 127-152 are the “real” sonnets. By “general” I mean a human, not an absolute generality. As my readings will reveal, the ideal sonnets contain numerous realisms while the dark sonnets frequently idealize the real.

It would make a nice blindfold-test if we were to read portions of sonnets to Shakespeare buffs and ask them to sort them into a light or dark pile. How many would put sonnet #119 with the Dark Lady? Thorpe didn’t. Would Shakespeare have? #129 is dark according to Thorpe, dark according to me … Would Shakespeare have sorted them at all? We don’t know. But I say that my thesis works almost as well were we to throw them all into the air and let them land as they will.

Courtly Love

Original Source: The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Cappelanus

The fashion of Courtly Love developed in the court of Marie de France. That court was feudal in fact and ostensibly Christian. Courtly Love mixed politics with courtship. The noble male lover paid homage to the wife of his superior in nobility. The male in fact looked up to the “love” object socially and economically. Correct play had him look up to her admiringly as well.

The lord was more likely to be amused than jealous. He might in fact favor the knight. After all, his marriage had been arranged for political and financial advantage. He knows you won’t dare actually touch her. Why should you? You as well as he can have any female of lower station any time you want. And if you do touch his spouse, so long as his heirs are in place, so what? He probably hates the bitch.

Property and status jockeying camouflage themselves among natural emotions.

Literature is full of mythic examples that went badly: Lancelot, Tristan … Even in the latter, there’s little natural emotion involved: Tristan was a model of loyalty to his lord until he is accidentally served a magic potion intended to make that king actually “love” his wife. What was she after all but war booty? But that’s just it: she was what counts in feudal and other kleptocracies: she was his property!

The Ladder of Love

Dante had his Beatrice lead him on earth and in his fictional heaven toward God. God is light. Beatrice is blond. Shakespeare’s youth is “fair.” Like begets like. Homeopathic magic. The priest says stay away from women? The hell with the priest and his magic wafers, let your love magic take you to the top.

The process was in steps. First you see the love’s physical beauty. Then, if you’re worthy (meaning keep your hands off her), you see her physical beauty as emblematic of God’s beauty, the beauty of Truth.

Naturally, the chastity was more often in the poem than in the facts. Or, the chastity was like Lord Byron’s while he left his financée a virgin: he was screwing everything of either sex that moved including his intended’s aunt. The human urge to both eat the cake and still have it triumphs again.

on Shakespeare’s Sonnets Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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