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. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/theoriessonnets.html >.
Portraits of Shakespeare
Worst Diseases in Shakespeare's London
Shakespeare on the Seasons
Shakespeare on Sleep
Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
Going to a Play in Elizabethan London
Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
Religion in Shakespeare's England
Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
Entertainment in Elizabethan England
London's First Public Playhouse
Shakespeare Hits the Big Time
More to Explore
Sonnet 80: Sailing Metaphor
How to Analyze a Shakespearean Sonnet
The Rules of Shakespearean Sonnets
Shakespeare's Sonnets: Q & A
Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Autobiographical?
Petrarch's Influence on Shakespeare
Themes in Shakespeare's Sonnets
Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton
The Order of the Sonnets
The Date of the Sonnets
Who was Mr. W. H.?
Are all the Sonnets addressed to two Persons?
Who was The Rival Poet?
Publishing in Elizabethan England
A Look at Metaphors ... "Metaphors are of two kinds, viz. Radical, when a word or root of some general meaning is employed with reference to diverse objects on account of an idea of some similarity between them, just as the adjective 'dull' is used with reference to light, edged tools, polished surfaces, colours, sounds, pains, wits, and social functions; and Poetical, where a word of specialized use in a certain context is used in another context in which it is literally inappropriate, through some similarity in function or relation, as 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune', where 'slings' and 'arrows', words of specialized meaning in the context of ballistics, are transferred to a context of fortune." Percival Vivian. Read on...
Shakespeare's Greatest Metaphors
Shakespeare's Metaphors and Similes
Shakespeare on Jealousy
Shakespeare on Lawyers
Shakespeare on Lust
Shakespeare on Marriage