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Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Autobiographical?

From Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe.

Are the Sonnets, wholly or in part, autobiographical, or are they merely "poetical exercises" dealing with imaginary persons and experiences? This is the question to which all others relating to the poems are secondary and subordinate.

For myself, I firmly believe that the great majority of the Sonnets, to quote what Wordsworth says of them, "express Shakespeare's own feelings in his own person;" or, as he says in his sonnet on the sonnet, "with this same key Shakespeare unlocked his heart." Browning, quoting this, asks: "Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!" to which Swinburne replies, "No whit the less like Shakespeare, but undoubtedly the less like Browning."

The theory that the Sonnets are mere exercises of fancy, "the free outcome of a poetic imagination," as Delius phrases it, is easy and specious at first, but lands us at last among worse perplexities than it evades. That Shakespeare, for example, should write seventeen sonnets urging a young man to marry and perpetuate his family is strange enough, but that he should select such a theme as the fictitious basis for seventeen sonnets is stranger yet; and the same may be said of the story or stories apparently underlying other of the poems. Some critics, indeed, who take them to be thus artificially inspired, have been compelled to regard them as "satirical" intended to ridicule the sonneteers of the time, especially Drayton and Sir John Davies of Hereford. Others, like Professor Minto, who believe the first 126 to be personal, regard the rest as "exercises of skill, undertaken in a spirit of wanton defiance and derision of commonplace." The poems, to quote Dowden, "are in the taste of the time; less extravagant and less full of conceits than many other Elizabethan collections, more distinguished by exquisite imagination and all that betokens genuine feeling. . . . All that is quaint or contorted or 'conceited' in them can be paralleled from passages of early plays of Shakespeare, such as Romeo and Juliet, and the Two Gentlemen of Verona, where assuredly no satirical intention is discoverable."



If the Sonnets were mostly written before 1598 when Meres refers to them, or 1599 when Jaggard printed two of them, or in 1593 and 1594, as Sidney Lee assumes, and if most of them, as the same critic believes, were "little more than professional trials of skill, often of superlative merit, to which the poet deemed himself challenged by the efforts of contemporary practitioners," it is passing strange that Shakespeare should not have published them ten or fifteen years before they were brought out by the pirate Thorpe. He must have written them for publication if that was their character, and the extraordinary popularity of his earlier poems would have assured them a favourable reception with the public. His fellow-townsman and friend, Richard Field, who had published the Venus and Adonis in 1593 and the Lucrece in 1594, and who must have known of the circulation of the sonnets in manuscript, would have urged him to publish them; or, if the author had declined to have them printed, some pirate, like Jaggard or Thorpe, would have done it long before 1609. Mr. Lee tells us that Sidney, Watson, Daniel, and Constable circulated their sonnets for a time in manuscript, but he tells us also that the pirates generally got hold of them and published them within a few years if the authors did not do it.

But the history of The Passionate Pilgrim shows that it was not so easy to obtain copies of Shakespeare's sonnets for publication. It was the success of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece (the fourth edition of the former being issued in 1599, and the second of the latter in 1598) which prompted Jaggard to compile The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599; and it is a significant fact that he was able to rake together only ten poems which can possibly be Shakespeare's, and three of these were from Love's Labour's Lost, which had been published in 1598. To these ten pieces he added ten others (eleven, as ordinarily printed) which he impudently called Shakespeare's, though we know that most of them were stolen and can trace some of them to the authors.

His book bears evidence in its very make-up that he was hard pushed to fill the pages and give the purchaser a tolerable sixpence-worth. The matter is printed on but one side of the leaf, and is further spun out by putting a head-piece and tail-piece on every page, so that a dozen lines of text sandwiched between these convenient pictorial devices make as fair a show as double the quantity would ordinarily present.

Note, however, that, with all his pickings and stealings, Jaggard managed to secure but two of the sonnets, though a considerable number of them were probably in existence among the author's "private friends," as Meres expressed it a year before. The pirate Newman, in 1591, was able to print one hundred and eight sonnets by Sidney which had been circulated in manuscript, and to add to them twenty-eight by Daniel without the author's knowledge ; and sonnets by Watson and Constable, as Mr. Lee tells us, were similarly circulated and pirated. How, then, are we to explain the fact that Jaggard could obtain only two of Shakespeare's sonnets, five years or more after they had been circulating among his friends ? Is it not evident that the poems must have been carefully guarded by these friends on account of their personal and private character? A dozen more of those sonnets would have filled out Jaggard's "larcenous bundle of verse," and have obviated the necessity of pilfering from Barnfield, Griffin, Marlowe, and the rest; but at the time they were in such close confidential keeping that he could get no copies of them. In the course of years they were shown to a larger and larger number of "private friends," and with the multiplication of copies the chances of their getting outside of that confidential circle were proportionally increased. We need not be surprised, then, that a decade later somebody had succeeded in obtaining copies of them all, and sold the collection to Thorpe.

Even if we suppose that the Sonnets had been impersonal, and that Shakespeare for some reason that we cannot guess had wished to withhold them from the press, we may be sure that he could not have done it in that day of imperfect copyright restrictions. Nothing could have kept a hundred and fifty poems by so popular an author out of print if there had not been strong personal reasons for maintaining their privacy. At least seven editions of the Venus and Adonis and four of the Lucrece appeared before Thorpe was able to secure "copy" for his edition of the Sonnets.

If, as Mr. Lee asserts, Southampton was the patron to whom twenty that may be called "dedicatory" sonnets (23, 26, 32, 37, 38, 69, 77-86, 100, 101, 103, and 106) are addressed, it is all the more remarkable that Shakespeare should not have published them, or, if he hesitated to do it, that his noble patron should not have urged it. He had already dedicated both the Venus and Adonis and the Lucrece to Southampton; and Mr. Lee says that "three of the twenty dedicatory sonnets [26, 32, 38] merely translate into the language of poetry the expressions of devotion which had already done duty in the dedicatory epistle in verse that precedes Lucrece." Other sonnet-sequences of the time (including the four mentioned by Mr. Lee as pirated while circulated in manuscript, except Sidney's, which were not thus published until after his death) were brought out by their authors, with dedications to noble lords or ladies. Shakespeare's Sonnets, so far as I am aware, are the only exception to the rule.

Mr. Lee himself admits that "at a first glance a far larger proportion of Shakespeare's sonnets give the reader the illusion of personal confessions than those of any contemporary;" and elsewhere he recognizes in them more "intensity" than appears in the earlier poems except in "occasional utterances" of Lucrece; but, for all that, he would have us believe that they are not personal, and that their "superior and more evenly sustained energy is to be attributed, not to the accession of power that comes with increase of years, but to the innate principles of the poetic form, and to metrical exigencies which impelled the sonneteer to aim at a uniform condensation of thought and language." I cannot help agreeing with those who regard their personal character as no "illusion," and who believe that they clearly show the increase of power which comes with years, their true date probably being 1597-98 rather than 1593-94.

For myself, I could as soon believe the penitential psalms of David to be purely rhetorical and fictitious as the 129th Sonnet, than which no more remorseful utterance was ever wrung from a soul that had tasted the ashes to which the Sodom-apples of illicit love are turned in the end. Have we there nothing but the "admirable fooling" of the actor masquerading in the garb of the penitent, or the satirist mimicking the conceits and affectations of the sonneteers of the time? If this is supposed to be the counterfeit of feeling, I can only exclaim with Leonato in Much Ado, "O God! Counterfeit! There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion!"

How to cite this article:
Rolfe, W. J. Ed. Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Autobiographical? From Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: American Book Company, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetsautobio.html >.
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Sonnet Notes ... Sonnet 75 opens with a seemingly joyous and innocent tribute to the young friend who is vital to the poet's emotional well being. However, the poet quickly establishes the negative aspect of his dependence on his beloved, and the complimentary metaphor that the friend is food for his soul decays into ugly imagery of the poet alternating between starving and gorging himself on that food. The poet is disgusted and frightened by his dependence on the young friend. He is consumed by guilt over his passion. Words with implicit sexual meanings permeate the sonnet -- "enjoyer", "treasure", "pursuing", "possessing", "had" -- as do allusions to five of the seven "deadly" sins -- avarice (4), gluttony (9, 14), pride (5), lust (12), and envy (6). Read on...

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