One of the most frequently debated questions relating to Shakespeare is the matter of whether his sonnets are directly based on his own experience, or whether they are, as is often suggested, ‘literary exercises’, fictitious projections of imagined experiences. It is a question to which there could, perhaps, be more than one answer. As Paul Edmondson and I write in our book on the Sonnets, we believe it to be fallacious to read the 154 poems as a unified collection.1 We suggest for instance that not all of the first 126 poems are necessarily addressed to a male, as is still frequently stated, and that those that are so addressed are not necessarily all addressed to the same male. Similarly it is possible that some of the poems are more or less genuinely personal outpourings while others are more fictional imaginings. As a dramatist, Shakespeare spent most of his life imagining himself into the lives and imaginations of fictitious persons. The Sonnets might be as it were dramatic monologues with no basis in real life. Some of them could be straightforward exercises in lyric form. I have come to believe, nevertheless, that some, indeed many of them, reflect circumstances of the author’s own emotional and sexual life.
There are several reasons for this. One is that, while it is impossible to date the poems with any precision, there are good reasons for believing that many of them were written during the 1590s, when the sonnet was a fashionable form, so their late, and possibly unauthorized publication in 1609, long after this fashion had died down, suggests at least that they were not written as professional exercises, to make money and to enhance the poet’s reputation, as the narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), clearly were. Another, far more subjective reason is that to me the exploration of, especially, emotional situations of extreme anguish in some of the poems has the ring of authenticity. I should not be able to defend this position on purely intellectual grounds, since the man who could portray the emotional and sexual anguish of characters such as Troilus and Othello could have written no less convincingly of such passions in non-dramatic poems. But I could point to the fact that in the only poems in which the protagonist has a name, it is Shakespeare’s own name – Will. This distinguishes the collection from all others of the period, in which an addressee has a personal name, usually of a romantic cast such as Fidessa, Delia, Stella, and so on.
Another reason for believing that some of the poems spring from personal experience is that they clearly adumbrate a triangular love relationship between the poet, a male friend also named Will, and an unnamed woman who is sexually involved with both of them. They do this in a manner that, regarded as an attempt at the figuring forth for uninformed readers of a coherent narrative, is utterly incompetent, while being more intelligible as a projection of events that have for the poet a reality which he does not need or wish to spell out for readers, or indeed which he actively wishes to conceal from them. This makes many of the poems rather like telephone conversations in which we are allowed to hear only one of the speakers, and it contributes greatly to their enigmatic quality. It differentiates them from anguished speeches in the plays, by characters such as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Posthumus in Cymbeline, in that there the suffering is explained by its context.
It may also be worth pointing out that of all the sonnet collections of the period, Shakespeare’s is the most original, the one least clearly indebted to the continental tradition of Petrarchism. Indeed the poem with the closest links with this tradition parodies it: ‘My mistress’ eyes,’ writes Shakespeare, ‘are nothing like the sun.’ (Sonnet 130) And he declares that the reality of his love transcends convention. And another aspect of their originality is the extreme explicitness about sex displayed in some of them, including one of the ‘will’ poems that I shall quote later. There is nothing remotely like this in any sonnet collection of the period. The ones that come closest are Richard Barnfield’s but they are far more playful in tone. Yet recently Barbara Everett, in a lengthy and characteristically subtle essay published in the London Review of Books and called ‘Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnet’, succeeded in writing about the poems without once mentioning sex.2
So, if we think of the collection as including poems of autobiographical content, what do they tell us? One, they show that Shakespeare was unfaithful to his wife, and probably frequently so. Furthermore we need to consider the triangular relationship involving friend and mistress adumbrated in both the poems printed earlier in the collection, up to No. 126, which include all those clearly addressed to a male, and in those printed later, from No. 127 onwards, which include the ‘dark lady’ sonnets.
It has been justly remarked that, uniquely among Elizabethan sonnet collections ‘for the first time in the entire history of the sonnet, the desired object [the writer assumes a single object] is flawed.’3 Sonnet 35 alludes to an unnamed ‘trespass’, a ‘sensual fault’ which the poet forgives. No. 41 opens a mini-sequence with what starts as a mild enough admission that it is understandable that the friend’s youth and beauty should cause a woman to woo him:
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
But in the sestet the poet more bitterly expresses dismay that the woman with whom the friend is linked is the poet’s own mistress:
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
Ay me, but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
Then the next poem says that, though the poet dearly loved the woman, ‘That she hath thee is of my wailing chief, / A loss in love that toucheth me more dearly.’ Other poems, too, such as Sonnets 93, 95-6, and 120 show a troubled sense of a friend’s transgressions.
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a two-fold troth:
Hers, by the beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.
The same theme emerges in the ‘dark lady’ poems. Sonnet 133 ‘curses ‘that heart that makes my heart to groan / For that deep wound it gives my friend and me.’ Nothing is left. The woman has both betrayed the poet and enslaved his ‘sweet’st friend’, his ‘next self’, so that ‘Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken.’ Sonnet 134 runs straight on to beg the ‘covetous’ woman to restore his ‘kind’ friend to him. But there is no hope: ‘Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me; / He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.’ Then in Sonnet 135 he puns tortuously and despairingly on the many possible senses of the word ‘will’ – the word occurs 13 times -, senses which include the name of both the poet and another man, desire, penis, and vagina, At what points to capitalize the word as a proper name here is very much a decision for the editor to puzzle over:
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
The following poem continues the word play, with seven uses of the word ‘will’, concluding categorically with ‘my name is Will.’
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus.
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
I find it difficult not to read these poems as expressions of resentment at sexual infidelity on the part of both a friend and a woman with whom he is linked. To me, the intensity of the poet’s involvement with both one or more males and at least one woman suggests that he had both homosexual and heterosexual extra-marital relationships. But there is everything to suggest that if he did so he was conscious of betraying ideals, of behaving out of unreasonable human frailty in ways that part of him deplored: his eyes ‘know what beauty is, see where it lies, / Yet what the best is take the worst to be’ (137); ‘she that makes me sin / Awards me pain’ (141); ‘Love is my sin’ and his mistress’s lips ‘have sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine, / Robbed others’ beds’ revenues of their rents’ (142); ‘Past cure I am, now reason is past care, / And frantic mad with evermore unrest’ (147); ‘In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn . . . But why of two oaths’ breach do I accuse thee / When I break twenty?’ (152) He is, he acknowledges, the victim of lust which overwhelms reason:
The’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
This is surely a man with a conscience, betrayed by his sexuality.
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (129)
1. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Oxford Shakespeare Topics (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004)
3. Michael Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction, (London, Routledge, 1992), p. 156.