Sonnet Secrets

Stuff you probably never knew about Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Five outlandish proposals for the identity of  the young man of the sonnets:

1.  Wine personified (expressing Shakespeare’s drinking problem)
2.  Shakespeare himself  (love poems to his creative muse)
3.  Queen Elizabeth
4.  The Protestant Church
5.  An imagined illegitimate son, or Shakespeare’s real son Hamnet

Five proposed alternative authors of the sonnets and their corollary identifications of the young man (I do not subscribe to any alternative authorship theories for either the plays or the sonnets):

1. Philip Sidney to Sir Edward Dyer
2. Walter Raleigh to King James’ eldest son Prince  Henry
3. Francis Bacon to  himself
4. The Earl of Oxford to his illegitimate son by Queen Elizabeth
5. Anne Whately to William Shakespeare (Anne Whately,  whom Shakespeare is supposed to have betrothed but not married,  is a personage created out of thin air–from a clerical error in a church register of marriage licenses).

Five sonnets that I believe deserve more attention than they usually receive: 15, 76, 115, 122, 135.

Five of the most risquè sonnets: 20, 42, 135, 136, 137.

The sonnet with the most dramatic rise in popularity, as measured by rates of selection for anthologies: sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”).  The sonnet experiences a whopping 1200% increase in the rate of anthologization pre- and post-1900, almost all of the increase coming post-1950.

The only sonnet with any likelihood of having been written for Anne Hathaway: sonnet 145 (written in tetrameter rather than pentameter, it has never been a popular sonnet).

Some grace notes in popular sonnets:

• Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”).  The sonnet repeats the word “eternal” twice.  The first time it refers to the recipient of the sonnet, but the second time to the sonnet itself.  What is Shakespeare really praising in this sonnet?

• Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”).  The line “Like to the lark at break of day arising” provides a nice example of the musicality of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Note the echoes of the letters l, i, k, and a, and especially how Shakespeare opens and closes the line with the long i.

• Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”).  The sonnet begins with things that are strong but dead and that mark the dead (these “monuments” are specifically tombstones).  It ends with the living: “you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.”

• Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”).    Shakespeare reverses the comparison and the thing compared in his metaphor.  He doesn’t say I am like the autumn, but the autumn is like me!  The speaker of the sonnet may be aging, but he sure is important.

• Sonnet 116: (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”).  The idea of a strong bond between a pair of lovers is emphasized by the echoing words of the first quatrain: “love”/”love,”; “alters”/alteration”; “remover”/remove.”  Even word sounds can’t separate themselves.

• Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”).  This sonnets suggests that poets’ figures of speech dis-figure the beloved  as much as they figure her, since no one really has eyes like the sun, etc.  There is a wonderful visual equivalent of this idea in a picture (below) from a 1653 book The Extravagant Shepherd.

The Extravagant Shepherd
Frontispiece to the The Extravagant Shepherd, 1653.