Truths about Shakespeare

Lithograph, "Romeo & Juliet," c.1879, Metropolitan Litho. Studio, Library of Congress
"Romeo & Juliet," Library of Congress, c.1879.

Valentine’s Day. Time to pull out your Shakespeare’s Sonnets, choose one to type up in a fancy font for that special someone, and deliver it with a box of chocolates. But as you thumb through the sonnets you begin wonder why they ever got connected with romance in the first place.

Here’s one that begins “When forty winters shall beseige thy brow / And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field.” A warning about growing less beautiful with age isn’t going to win anyone’s heart—especially someone who’s seen 40 winters.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate”? Summer’s better than winter. And this sonnet worked for Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. But Gwyneth Paltrow stopped reading after the first few lines. Copying out the entire poem, you begin to worry that “Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou growest” will not leave the right impression. It’s an attractive idea, that poetry will preserve the loved one in death. But it’s a little obscurely stated and besides, you’re looking for romance, not more worry about aging. You crumple up your paper and keep looking.

Leaf through other favorites. Sonnet 29: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone bewail my outcast state.” Too pathetic; doesn’t go with chocolates. Not even the sonnet’s happier but still needy conclusion—“For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings”—entirely helps. You start to wonder that Shakespeare shares your fear of dying alone.

Determined not to use sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”—which you’re saving for your wedding, you peruse other well-known sonnets.

73: More aging and death.

129: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” You wish.

130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Too arch. And what if special someone won’t like being referred to as a “mistress” or becoming the subject of a macho bragging contest (“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare”)?

Try a new tack; look over the more unfamiliar sonnets; realize why they’re unfamiliar: “But why thy odour matcheth not thy show, / The soil is this: that thou dost common grow” (69); “So shall I live supposing thou art true / Like a deceived husband” (93); “eyes corrupt by over-partial looks / Be anchored in the bay where all men ride” (137).

It looks like it will have to be 116 after all. But doubts remain. The sonnet is famous for being read at weddings, but is alarmingly clingy for a courtship. Love never “bends with the remover to remove.” What if there’s a restraining order? Closing your book, you wonder why can’t you find a single appropriately romantic sonnet by Shakespeare.

The answer, of course, is that good poetry isn’t necessarily good for serving useful ends, even an end as apparently non-utilitarian as romance. We often connect Shakespeare’s sonnets to romance—heterosexual romance in particular—but that’s because of the way that they’ve been framed, and marketed, in the last half century. Having spent several years studying the reception of Shakespeare’s sonnets, my favorite example of this marketing comes from a book called Shakespeare in Love: The Love Poetry of William Shakespeare. Published by Miramax in 1998 to coincide with its release of the movie of the same name, it features stills of Paltrow and Fiennes. In one still “Shakespeare” and “Viola” stare lovingly into one another’s eyes. Juxtaposed to the photo is sonnet 138, which begins, “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies” and goes downhill from there.

I have marveled how this particular picture got connected to that particular sonnet. Had the compiler of the book not read the sonnet? Was he or she counting on the book’s supposed readers not to read it? Or, my favorite idea, was it a bit of mischievousness on the part of a bored aspiring poet or former English major, striking a blow against the corporate marketing of Shakespeare as a figure of heterosexual romance. If so: I got your message, brother (or sister).

Though they are seen this way today, Shakespeare’s sonnets have not always been linked to heterosexual romance—or even been very highly regarded. For nearly 200 years after their first publication in 1609, readers often considered them among the worst things Shakespeare ever wrote. Nathan Drake, writing late in the last years of the 18th century, praised a 1793 edition of Shakespeare’s Works for pointedly leaving the sonnets out. “For where is the utility,” Drake asked, “of propagating compositions which no one can endure to read?”

Since the beginning of the 19th century the sonnets have become far more popular. But not without hesitations. Many readers are familiar with the fact that Shakespeare wrote the first 126—most scholars agree—to a man, and just the last 28 to a woman. (Notably, all the really famous sonnets, except for “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” come from the first 126.) For some readers, such as the early 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the idea of Shakespeare writing love poetry to another man was intolerable. Coleridge imagined that the male recipient must really have been female, an idea perpetuated in the modern habit of putting women, or men and women (rather than, say, two men), on the covers of editions of the sonnets.

It is less well-known, however, that 19th- and early-20th-century readers were often more disturbed by the sonnets to the woman. For many Victorian readers especially, the sonnets’ expressions of male-male love were completely familiar within the homosocial world (not to mention public schools) of Victorian England, which considered one man’s love for another a sign of proper manliness. Moreover, these Victorians, as many readers before and after them, were appalled by the bitter, lascivious, and adulterous sonnets to the woman who would become known as “the dark lady”—itself a euphemism, since the sonnets make it clear she is no lady (she is the one sonnet 137 calls “the bay where all men ride”).

While Coleridge fretted over Shakespeare’s sonnets to the young man, his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth believed it was the sonnets to this dark lady that were “abominably harsh, obscure and worthless.” The Victorian literary dynamo and Shakespeare editor F.J. Furnivall wrote that no one would doubt that the sonnets were autobiographical, if it were not for the fact that they told the story of Shakespeare’s liaison with a married woman. For Furnivall, it was the story of love between men that redeemed the sonnets.

Modern marketing (and too often, teachers of English) has “solved” the “problems” of homoeroticism on the one hand, and misogynist, licentious, adulterous sex on the other, by this sleight of hand: Select the most appealing of the generally more appealing sonnets to the young man, and pretend that they’re to a woman.

So what? Why should it matter to us today to whom the sonnets were written, or how earlier readerships received them? What’s wrong with this romantic Shakespeare? Well, he’s not really that romantic. And just as overly sentimental ideas of the sonnets reduce their range of emotion and psychological complexity—one of the reasons that readers really do value them—so do understandings of the sonnets that ignore their historical meanings too easily make Shakespeare’s sonnets a mirror of our own limited experience of the world. Good poetry should stretch minds, not be molded to them.

So read Shakespeare’s sonnets, and read about them. But for Valentine’s day, give chocolates.

This article first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Robert Matz

Robert Matz is professor of English and Senior Associate Dean for Curriculum and Technology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. He is also the author of The World of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Introduction (McFarland). Find out more about Robert Matz.

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