Chapter Four summary of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Chapter Four: "The Form of Shakespeare's Sonnets"

One of the big questions regarding Shakespeare's sonnets are whether they are meant to stand alone or to function as a collection, maybe even a sequence. Sequence is generally out of the question for most critics and scholars, most of whom allow for some mini-sequences Collection, maybe, but that depends upon what is meant by a collection. Are they all meant to be part of a unified whole, when they were written? Doubtful, again, according to most critics and scholars. These two concerns, to greater or lesser degrees, will remain fodder for quite some time, at least as far as I can tell.

Part of the reason few see a sequence or a collection is because of the way they poems are organized. To be clear, no one can say whether the poems were written in the way they or organized, or that Shakespeare organized them as they are now. There's a good bit of speculation, such as that since they were published in his lifetime, if there were a problem, he would have (so "they" say) spoken up to correct any concerns. No record of that.

In the first 126 poems, there is no explicit reference to a female. In poem 127 through 152 (if I get my numbers right) there is no explicit reference to a male. Poem 116 is missing its concluding couplet, and some think it intentional and some think it a printer's oversight. Only the poet knows for sure, and he's long dead and not talking. Those who speculate on the intentionality of the missing couplet have a number of suppositions about what was intended. I'll not go into that here except to say that the brackets may indicate several different notions of failure in relationships. Overall, there are only 20 explicit mentions of maleness and only 7 for femaleness, largely pronouns. The 20 mentioning maleness are within in the first 126 poems. The 7 mentioning femaleness are in the latter poems. 123 of the poems would appear to be addressed to an individual, but it need not be a single individual. It could be many individuals, real or imagined. Sonnets 5 & 6 and 73 & 74 seem to be paired.

When it comes to the "rival poet" poems, that too could be one or more poets, male or female (as sex, with the rival poet and the other objects of the poem, must often be inferred), as there is nothing to indicate otherwise. What is clear is that the poet Shakespeare, or his persona as invented in the sonnets, resents the rival poet, who is either real or imagined. According to Edmondson and Wells, building links between the poems, links that may or may not be there, can create more questions than those they answer, assuming they offer any answers that are worthwhile (which I would say they are, even if they just prompt a rethinking of the sonnet(s) in question). Lines from sonnet 94 appear in Edward III, which may or may not have been written by Shakespeare, either in whole or part.

When it comes to the chronology of the sonnets, all evidence is circumstantial and results in a highly speculative ordering. It is thought the sonnets may have been written over a stretch of 20 years, and that at least some of them were being revised up until the 1609 publication date. Earlier known instances of some of the 1609 sonnets were thought to be corruptions, but are now being viewed as earlier drafts of poems that underwent continued revision. But that too is speculation. The chronology is often based upon stylistic consistencies among various sonnets, and some of those stylistic elements are tied to similar elements in plays, for which there is somewhat better sense of publication dates. However, the ordering of the plays is at least as speculative as the ordering of the sonnets, and when each was written. Speculation fuels speculation, which is fine as far as it goes, but this is what constitutes begging the question--using an unproven assertion as evidence in support of another unproven assertion.

Going back to notions of revision: other poets of the day were known to revise, so why, Edmondson and Wells ask, not Shakespeare as well? Yeah, he's a great poet and playwright, but if I had to bet one way or the other, I'd bet in favor of revision. (If you read this whole summary, you should see that Edmondson and Wells are not all that linear in their argument, bouncing around a bit. I write this because another bounce is coming.)

As printed in 1609, the sonnets deal with these topics, pretty much in this order: procreation, absence, infidelity, loss. Numerological notions have also been encountered. Sonnet 60 deals with minutes and hours. Physical effects on aging lover discussed in sonnet 63, the age at which the human body enters a "grand climatic" (major decline). Number 49 addresses the "minor climatic" in a similar manner. The reason all of this is of concern (trying to make it flow with the text being summarized) is that if the dates are willy-nilly, then so are the objects, the rival poets, the dark lady/ies and so on. There are at least four person in the poems (poet, young man, dark lady, rival poet) but, assuming the sonnets are autobiographical and not just literary exercises, there could be more than one young man, more than one rival poet (and may more than one sex for multiple rival poets), more than one lady, dark, black or otherwise.

We have the poet's voice, the young man or men, a woman or some women, and some other poet(s). Evidence of Shakespeare being an autobiographical poet appears in 135, 136 and 143: repeated mention of "will," sometimes capitalized and italicized, sometimes as a pun on both vagina and penis. When it comes to capitals and italics, it can't be said whether this is the poet's doing, the printers, a copyist or whomever. And all of this adds up to, at best, a scattered sense of narration, of a narrative thread, or a story being told through the sonnets.

And that's the end of chapter four.