A little break from the shorts, this is a small essay I wrote about some of the themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Public or Private: Who read the Sonnets?

            Normally, I stay away from first person in academic writings (And I haven’t gone first in the discussion board yet, which is the reason for this preamble). There was a teacher I had, at an early age, who would always stress, “You’re name is at the top of the paper,” meaning people know that these thoughts are your thoughts – starting every sentence with “I ____” is not necessary. But I’m going to break my rule for the sonnets. I’m going to break the rule because the sonnets are such intensely personal, emotive pieces of verse that I think expressly expressing my thoughts is the appropriate thing – and ultimately mirrors my stance on the issue of public or private audience – to do.

Before anything, let’s make some claims:

  1. The Fair Youth: Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southhampton
  2. The Rival Poet: Christopher Marlowe
  3. The Dark Lady: Emilia Lanier

In addressing whether the audience for Shakespeare’s sonnets was public or private, the first look shall always settle on The Fair Youth Poems (either 1 through 126, or 18-77 and 87-126) as they are the largest sampling of pieces within the Sonnets. The prevailing question exists: why Wriothesley? Well, they definitely knew each other and had a substantial relationship. As Rene Weiss in Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life attests: “They seem to have met in the summer of 1590” (131) [Shakespeare’s sonnets arguably began in 1592], “Shakespeare’s two famous narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which were puiblished in 1593 and 1594 respectively, are both dedicated to Wriothesley” (131), and “Perhaps no relationship in his life left as deep a mark on Shakespeare as the one with Southampton. At its most innocuous, their friendship was one of homage and patronage, at its most daring, a full-blown homoerotic affair, which stopped just short of physical consummation” (134). David Bevington echoes all of this in his introduction to the sonnets: “The poet’s relationship to his friend is a vulnerable one. This friend to whom he writes is aristocratic, handsome, and younger than he is. The poet is beholden to this friend as a sponsor and must consider himself as subservient, no matter how deep their mutual affection” (882). And, contextually, the reasoning for the sonnets comes across in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: [According to Greenblatt, Southampton wouldn’t marry, refusing to participate in arrangements organized by his family. In desperate need for him to acquiesce, they tried to persuade him through poetry] “The strategy was not entirely foolish: the stubborn, self-willed young nobleman, who had received a fine humanistic education, was steeped in poetry and had been brought up to expect that in time he would be a significant patron of the arts. If he would not take counsel from his sober elders, he might conceivably be reached by more indirect, more artful means” (229). Greenblatt suggests that the first seventeen poems could be considered as part of the commission from such a venture. In those Shakespeare implores Southampton to “eschew masturbation and have sex with a woman” (231) as a means of moving from his alleged narcissism and procreating. All of this considered is why 18 is such a grand, breakthrough poem when discussing the relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare. Let’s look at the first quatrain:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. (1-4. 18).

Shakespeare begins the poem with a question which does two things: it narratively forces the reader to keep reading – because we all want to know what the answer to the question is going to be – and it overtly addresses the question of procreation, lineage, and order within the mind of Wriothesley. If he is more lovely and more temperate than a summer’s day, then he is more lovely and more temperate than the orders of nature [i.e. continuing the bloodline]. The rough winds of line three, those that shake the darling buds of May, in this instance, directly refer to Wriothesley’s situation at that time. He may be being pressured to follow a set path, because summer’s lease hath all too short a date in the minds of the patriarchy [which, reflecting more on this, is telling of nature and the patriarchy] but, as the third quatrain, the turn, suggests, he is not to be beholden to those standards.

While I could keep going on 18 and Wriothesley, and, subsequently, do the same for Lanier and Marlowe, I think we’ve established the notion that Shakespeare’s sonnets have significant cause to have been written as private reading. Greenblatt brings up an important point when he discusses Shakespeare’s sonnets being read in court as aristocratic performance. Greenblatt writes: “If his astonishing verbal skills and his compulsive habit of imaginative identification, coupled with deep ambition, drove him to public performance, his family secrets and his wary intelligence – perhaps reinforced by the sight of severed heads on London Bridge – counseled absolute discretion” (249). It is undeniably plausible that Shakespeare’s poems could have been read publicly [it’s possible that there were some Gwyneth Paltrow moments – although in Shakespeare in Love she read 18 in private], but considering we are studying the potential of relationships with Wriothesley, Marlowe, or Lanier more than 400 years after his passing, I’m more likely to argue the immediate audience private more than public.




Works Cited

Bevington, David. “Sonnets.” Necessary Shakespeare, The, 5th Edition. Pearson, 2017. 882. VitalSource Bookshelf Online.

Greenblatt, Steven. Will in the World. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2004. 229-249. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18”. The Necessary Shakespeare. 5th Edition. Pearson, 2017. 884. VitalSource Bookshelf Online.

Weiss, Rene. Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2013. 131-134. Ebook.

What do you think? Do you agree? Do you love it? Or am i a complete tool? Any response is welcome!

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