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Sonnet Theories

From Shakespeare Personally by David Masson. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

All now agree that the Sonnets are a collection of almost matchless interest, a legacy from Shakespeare at once strange and precious, -- nothing less, in fact, than a preserved series of metrical condensations, weighty and compact as so many gold nuggets, of thoughts and feelings that were once in his mind. The interpretations of them collectively, however, the theories of their nature and purport collectively, differ widely.

The earliest theory, and that which has the largest and strongest support (adopted as it was by Coleridge and Wordsworth, followed by Hallam, Boaden, Brown, Ulrici, Gervinus, and others), is that they are strictly autobiographical, and tell a story of Shakespeare's London life through a certain number of years -- a curious story of a remarkable private friendship of his with a certain young man of high rank, called merely "Mr. W. H." in the dedication of the Sonnets when they were published in 1609; which friendship was complicated by a love-intrigue, and by the presence on the scene of another rival poet.

Another theory is that a good many of the Sonnets are autobiographical, but that others, of a non-personal nature, are jumbled with those. A third theory, or a variation of the last, is that, while some of the Sonnets are autobiographical, or written in Shakespeare's own name, a good many of them are vicarious, or written by him for other people -- notably for the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke on occasions when they wanted the use of Shakespeare's pen.

A fifth theory is that they are wholly fantastic and imaginary, a novel of friendship and love sketched out by Shakespeare and told imperfectly and in a shadowy manner in lyrics supposed to be spoken by the fancied persons; and a sixth is that they are a mystic or Platonic allegory, in which Shakespeare is really present, but, as it were, far back, and hid in symbolisms and hyperboles of his own contriving. Observe that all the theories, except the fifth, allow an autobiographical significance in the Sonnets, though they differ as to its amount, and as to the mode in which it is involved and has to be evolved. I may say at once that I adhere to that theory which makes them expressly and thoroughly autobiographical, and see no other theory that will stand real investigation.

Wordsworth's testimony to this effect is worth that of a score of those more prosaic critics who, true to the instinct of the prosaic nature, will always send their wits to the ends of the earth rather than abide on a plain basis of fact. In the Sonnets "Shakespeare expresses his own feelings in his own person," said Wordsworth emphatically; and he added: "In no part of the writings of this number of exquisite feelings felicitously expressed."

How to cite this article:
Masson, David. Shakespeare Personally. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1914. Shakespeare Online. 12 Aug. 2013. < >.

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