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Are all the Sonnets addressed to two Persons?

An excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1905.

It is hardly possible that certain of the sonnets in the second group (127-152) were really addressed to the "dark lady," 129, for instance, though it may have been suggested by his relations with her, and 146, which seems to be entirely independent of that entanglement.

It is also very doubtful whether certain sonnets in the first group (1-126) properly belong there. Some of them appear to have been addressed to a woman rather than a man for instance, 97, 98, 99, etc. Of course everybody familiar with the literature of that time knows, as Dyce remarks, that "it was then not uncommon for one man to write verses to another in a strain of such tender affection as fully warrants us in terming them amatory." Many of Shakespeare's sonnets which he addressed to his young friend are of this character, and were it not for internal evidence to the contrary might be supposed to be addressed to a woman. But Sonnets 97, 98, and 99 could hardly have been written to a male friend even in that day. Look at 99, for example:

"The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stolen thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stolen of both,
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
   More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
   Hut sweet or colour it had stolen from thee."
If this sonnet were met with where we had no external evidence that it was addressed to a man, could we have a moment's hesitation in deciding that it must be addressed to a woman? Even in Elizabethan times, when extravagant eulogies of manly beauty were so common, do we find the poet dwelling upon his "love's breath" or the "lily " whiteness of his hand? From first to last, the sweetness and loveliness described in the verses are unmistakably feminine.

I find a curious parallel to this sonnet in one of Constable's (9th of 1st Decade), published in 1594:

"My Lady's presence makes the Roses red,
Because to see her lips they blush for shame.
The Lily's leaves, for envy, pale became,
And her white hands in them this envy bred.
The Marigold the leaves abroad doth spread;
Because the sun's and her power is the same.
The Violet of purple colour came,
Dyed in the blood she made my heart to shed;
In brief. All flowers from her their virtue take;
From her sweet breath, their sweet smells do proceed;
The living heat which her eyebeams doth make
Warmeth the ground, and quickeneth the seed.
The rain, wherewith she watereth the flowers,
Falls from mine eyes, which she dissolves in showers."
Reference to the lily hands and sweet breath of women are frequent in the Elizabethan sonnets, but I have noted nothing of the kind in the sonnets addressed to men.

There are several other of Shakespeare's sonnets in this group (1-126) which may or may not be addressed to women; the internal evidence does not settle the question beyond a doubt. Our editor, if he thought of the question (which is unlikely, as it does not appear to have occurred to him in connection with the 99th), gave them the benefit of the doubt and included them in this group.

How to cite this article:

Rolfe, W. J. Ed. Are all the Sonnets addressed to two Persons? From Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: American Book Company, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetstwopersons.html >.

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