Saturday, April 16, 2011

Shakespeare: The Sonnets

Shakespeare's Sonnets are famous for clever, moving, haunting and melancholy rhymes. But they are equally famous for the unsettled controversies that have swirled around them for at least the last 150 years or so.
Some say the "young man" whom Shakespeare urges to marry and have children is one of two Earls: the first candidate being Henry Wroithsley, Earl of Southampton, who was without question the nobleman Shakespeare dedicated his two long poems "The Rape of Lucrece" and "Venus and Adonis".

Those two major poems were likely written between 1593 and 1594, when the theatres in London were closed due to fear of plagues and a time when, historians surmise, Shakespeare was in unusual need for a well-off patron. Legend has it that Southampton rewarded the Stratford poet with a enough money to buy a major share in his theatrical company, the only playwright of his time to have such a benefit.

It is thought by the major Elizabethan historian, A.W. Rowse ,that Shakespeare wrote his admiring poems to Southampton at a time when he was smitten by the younger man, an appreciation which was reciprocated for a time by the nobleman until a rival poet (possibly Christopher Marlowe) stole the Earl's affections until his death in 1593.

Others say the beloved earl was an even younger man, the Earl of Pembroke, who was the object of the poet's attraction. That earl, William Herbert by another name, was also the man that the actors John Hennings and Henry Condell dedicated The First Folio to when it was published some six years after their fellow player (and company playwright's) death in 1616.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

There is also mention of a "dark mistress" in the later poems. The identity is also controversial, some like George Bernard Shaw thought that the lady was Mary Fitton, a future wife of William Herbert and a mistress-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth's Court.

Rowse however believed with some serious evidence in his book "Shakespeare the Man" (1971) that the mistress whose "eyes were nothing like the sun" (Sonnet 130) was Emilea Bassano Lanier, a woman who also married well (quite a few times in fact) and was once the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the man who was the patron of Shakespeare's theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain's men. She was also a published poet herself --unusual for that time and place,and maybe a clue as to why Shakespeare was so taken with her. (for more, see link below)


  1. I love sonnet 130. It is the most true of all f them. I recited it in high school.

  2. One of my favorites as well Fred.