_____In 1598 Francis Meres wrote in praise of Shakespeare's "sugared sonnets among his private friends," one of the handful of contemporary encomiums that have come down to us. Sonnets had been in vogue since the reign of Henry VIII, when Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had tried their hands at them, and their work was included in one of the most popular anthologies of poetry of the age, Richard Tottel's Songs and Sonnets, published in 1557. English poets had developed a distinctive style: "a 4:4:4:2 formation replaced the Italians' 8:6 structure. Whereas the Italian style favored a single thought with a turn in the middle, the English encouraged more playful variation: three thrusts and a twist in the tail."
Tottel gave the poems in his anthology titles and arranged some of them in an order that suggested a narrative sequence about "an unfolding love affair. But Wyatt did not write these poems in sequence and address them to a single lover. This provides a cautionary warning for biographers seeking to reconstruct the story that Shakespeare's sonnets supposedly tell."
Coming out of the medieval courtly love tradition, the Italian sonnets that served as models for the English were about unfulfilled longing: "If the lady were to yield, there would be nothing to write about. All the thrill is in the chase, nearly all the emotion in the delicious pain of yearning."
In 1600 another anthology, England's Helicon, displayed the work of Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, and Shakespeare, among others. It was a celebration of the work that had appeared in the 1590s, "England's greatest age of lyric poetry." The poems in the volume were mostly pastoral, and the volume "was full of charming poetic trifles ..., where lovely ladies have a globe for a brow, gold for hair, ruby lips and pearl teeth, ivory breasts, lily hands, and a tread so light that they never crush a flower." It's this kind of poem that Shakespeare mocks in the sonnet that begins, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."
One of the main purposes of Shakespeare's sonnets is there in a nutshell: to express a love that is rare while also belying the "false compare" of conventional love poetry. As in Love's Labour's Lost, the intention is both to make you admire his wit and to think seriously about the realities as opposed to the fancies of love.The late sixteenth-century vogue in England for the sonnet was largely inspired by the publication in 1591 of Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. It was followed by sonnet sequences by Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Nicholas Breton, and Edmund Spenser.
In 1599 a volume called The Passionate Pilgrim appeared, containing twenty songs and sonnets supposedly by Shakespeare. There were "three sonnets and poems from Love's Labour's Lost, various lyrics not by Shakespeare (and some of uncertain authorship), and variant versions of two of the sonnets that appeared in the volume published exactly a decade later with the austere title page Shake-speare's Sonnets. Never before Imprinted." Although there is still dispute about the dates when most of Shakespeare's sonnets were written, versions of those numbered 138 and 144 were already known in the 1590s.
In his sonnets Shakespeare breaks all the rules: "that love is true, the lady is pure, the poet is young and full of desire, and sex does not take place." He radically reinvents love poetry in the way that no other contemporary does except John Donne -- whose work he probably doesn't know. In "Two loves I have, of comfort and despair," he introduces a love triangle: "A man's lover is sleeping with his best friend, the male bond broken by rivalry over a woman," a theme he explored in the early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona and returned to in the late plays The Winter's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Moreover, at the end of the sonnet he introduces a note of "sexual disgust: 'firing out' alludes not only to a fox being smoked from a hole, but also to the sexual temptress infecting the pure man with syphilis."
Because so many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man being urged to marry and leave a youthful image of himself, we tend to make assumptions about all of them, such as No. 2, "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow." Read in the context of the sonnets published in 1609, "we assume that it is to a man, but some early readers clearly assumed that it was addressed to a woman." In fact, Shakespeare's theme of "the power of art to defeat the ravages of time or the feeling of loss or rejection or disillusionment in love" makes the question of the identity of the person addressed immaterial. It is the collection itself that "stitches together multiple poems with very different origins and styles to make a single narrative. But this narrative should no more be read back literally into Shakespeare's life than should the narrative of that other lovely boy, Viola/Cesario" in Twelfth Night.
That play begins with Orsino sounding like "an archetypal Petrarchan lover who thrives on unrequitedness and uses imagery of music, the sea, food, rise and fall, all of which are typical of Elizabethan sonnetering." But Olivia, the object of his sonneteering, parodies the conventions, as when she itemizes the elements of her own beauty, "as, item, two lips, indifferent red: item, two grey eyes, with lids to them: item, one neck, one chin, and so forth." But things change when Viola, disguised as Cesario, appears, and both Orsino and Olivia fall in love with her/him. "In the sonnet form, the object of desire is just that, an object. Viola, desired by both man and woman, is a feeling subject."
Twelfth Night is an extraordinary exploration of the permutations of desire or, in Frances Meres's term, the perplexities of love. Both Orsino and Olivia love Viola in her disguise as Cesario. Viola loves, and wins, Orsino, while Olivia has to settle for Sebastian. Orsino insists on continuing to call Viola Cesario even after he knows that she is a woman. Sebastian is puzzled, though grateful, to find himself whisked to the altar by the wealthy and beautiful Olivia, but he cannot have had time to fall in love with her. The person who really loves him is Antonio, ... [who] is rewarded for his devotion by being left alone and melancholy, again in the exact manner of a sonnet writer turned away by his frosty mistress.Bate observes that we don't "look for biographical originals for Viola/Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia, and Antonio, nor should we necessarily do so for the 'lovely boy' and the 'dark lady.'... The very lack of names -- even of a mythological-allegorical kind -- suggests that attempting to 'unshadow' the origins of the sonnets is to read them against the grain."
But that said, the quest for the identity of "Master W.H.," whom Thomas Thorpe called "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets," in the dedication of the 1609 Shakespeare's Sonnets continues. Computer analysis of the style of the sonnets has "suggested that the poems in the first half of the sequence, which are mostly addressed to a man, belong to the first half of Shakespeare's career, as do the 'dark lady' sonnets.... But the sonnets numbered 104 to 126 in the 1609 collection show very strong marks of belonging to the middle or later period of Shakespeare's career, as do the group concerning a rival poet or poets (78 to 86)." The one sonnet that seems to contain a contemporary reference by which it could be dated is 107, which apparently refers to Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the Somerset House peace conference of 1604.
If "Master W.H." refers to the young man addressed in the sonnets, the chief candidates are Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke. The computer evidence of the wide chronological range of the sonnets "raises the possibility that ... Southampton is the 'man right fair' of the 1590s sonnets and Pembroke the 'lovely boy' of the later group." That would also suggest that the dark lady belonged to the Southampton set and the rival poet(s) to the Pembroke circle. Since sonnet 135 suggests that the man right fair is sleeping with the poet's mistress, that would place it in the earlier, Southampton, group, "and yet the young man in it is called Will, which fits Pembroke rather than Southampton." And then there's the third possibility: "we cannot be sure that the initials W.H. in the dedication to the Sonnets are not a misprint for W.S. or W.Sh., in which case Thorpe was dedicating the volume to its true begetter: Master William Shakespeare."
As Bate concludes, "Trying to unmask Master W.H. is a fool's game." But the computer dating that puts sonnets 77-86 and 104-126 in the early Jacobean period does have some significance for considering the earl of Pembroke's relationship to Shakespeare. In May 1603 the Lord Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men, meaning that they would do perhaps twenty performances a year for the court. But since they would receive only £10 per performance, to be divided among the nine shareholders after expenses were deducted, this was more hardship than tribute. "Shakespeare was keeping one eye on his property portfolio back in Stratford, ... but with the other eye he may well have been casting around for some new form of preferment or patronage."
William and Philip Herbert were prominent in King James's court. William had fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth after getting one of her maids of honor, Mary Fitton, pregnant, but after her death he regained his status. Writers began seeking his favor, including Ben Jonson, who dedicated Sejanus to him; others courting Pembroke included George Chapman, John Davies of Hereford, Samuel Daniel, and Francis Davidson. Any one of them might qualify as a "rival poet" to Shakespeare. Pembroke's younger brother, Philip, was "a lovely boy of nineteen when he rode north to meet the new king." He, too, became the object of patron-seekers, including Davies, who dedicated his volume called Wit's Pilgrimage to Philip Herbert in 1605. In a dedicatory poem Davies addresses not only Philip but also "his most honourable other half, Sir James Hay, knight," who was also a favorite of the king. In the poem about the two men, "Davies introduces references to 'minions' and 'sweet affects' that give a certain erotic charge to the conjunction, suggestive of the heated 'homosocial' atmosphere of James's court."
Though Shakespeare's sonnets are never quite so erotically explicit [as Davies's], the later ones especially are steeped in sexual puns. They surely belong in the very male and homoerotic world of the early Jacobean court, where Davies was insinuating himself, not in the more rarefied atmosphere that surrounded the Virgin Queen.... Could it then be that Shakespeare was competing with Davies and others for the patronage of one or both of the Herbert brothers in the years from 1603 to 1605?But the sonnets of this period also "persistently harp on a sense of the poet's shame," suggesting that there was some scandal around him, "the whiff of some sexual misdemeanor, which may have sullied Shakespeare in the eyes of the Herbert brothers."
Bate considers John Davies of Hereford to be a strong candidate for the "rival poet" of the sonnets, based in part on the reputation Davies had for penmanship. While "pen" is often a synecdoche for the poet himself and his poetic skill, the "rival poet" sonnets do dwell on it a lot. "Could it be that everyone has assumed that the 'rival poet' sequence is about the poetic gifts of a rival, but is actually about the gift of penmanship of a rival?"
Dating the later sonnets to the early Jacobean period may also have some relevance to an aspect of the sonnets that has tantalized commentators, by suggesting "that Shakespeare's project in these later sonnets to the 'lovely boy' may have been not so much to express some urgent personal homosexual desire as to explore the perplexities of love and service in what might be described as a newly bisexualized court."