A Life of William Shakespeare - with portraits and facsimiles
by Sidney Lee
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'Love's Labour's Lost.'

There is no external evidence to prove that any piece in which Shakespeare had a hand was produced before the spring of 1592. No play by him was published before 1597, and none bore his name on the title-page till 1598. But his first essays have been with confidence allotted to 1591. To 'Love's Labour's Lost' may reasonably be assigned priority in point of time of all Shakespeare's dramatic productions. Internal evidence alone indicates the date of composition, and proves that it was an early effort; but the subject-matter suggests that its author had already enjoyed extended opportunities of surveying London life and manners, such as were hardly open to him in the very first years of his settlement in the metropolis. 'Love's Labour's Lost' embodies keen observation of contemporary life in many ranks of society, both in town and country, while the speeches of the hero Biron clothe much sound philosophy in masterly rhetoric. Its slender plot stands almost alone among Shakespeare's plots in that it is not known to have been borrowed, and stands quite alone in openly travestying known traits and incidents of current social and political life. The names of the chief characters are drawn from the leaders in the civil war in France, which was in progress between 1589 and 1594, and was anxiously watched by the English public. {51} Contemporary projects of academies for disciplining young men; fashions of speech and dress current in fashionable circles; recent attempts on the part of Elizabeth's government to negotiate with the Tsar of Russia; the inefficiency of rural constables and the pedantry of village schoolmasters and curates are all satirised with good humour. The play was revised in 1597, probably for a performance at Court. It was first published next year, and on the title-page, which described the piece as 'newly corrected and augmented,' Shakespeare's name first appeared in print as that of author of a play.

'Two Gentlemen of Verona.'

Less gaiety characterised another comedy of the same date, 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona,' which dramatises a romantic story of love and friendship. There is every likelihood that it was an adaptation—amounting to a reformation—of a lost 'History of Felix and Philomena,' which had been acted at Court in 1584. The story is the same as that of 'The Shepardess Felismena' in the Spanish pastoral romance of 'Diana' by George de Montemayor, which long enjoyed popularity in England. No complete English translation of 'Diana' was published before that of Bartholomew Yonge in 1598, but a manuscript version by Thomas Wilson, which was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton in 1596, was possibly circulated far earlier. Some verses from 'Diana' were translated by Sir Philip Sidney and were printed with his poems as early as 1591. Barnabe Rich's story of 'Apollonius and Silla' (from Cinthio's 'Hecatommithi'), which Shakespeare employed again in 'Twelfth Night,' also gave him some hints. Trifling and irritating conceits abound in the 'Two Gentlemen,' but passages of high poetic spirit are not wanting, and the speeches of the clowns, Launce and Speed—the precursors of a long line of whimsical serving-men—overflow with farcical drollery. The 'Two Gentlemen' was not published in Shakespeare's lifetime; it first appeared in the folio of 1623, after having, in all probability, undergone some revision. {53}

'Comedy of Errors.'

Shakespeare next tried his hand, in the 'Comedy of Errors' (commonly known at the time as 'Errors'), at boisterous farce. It also was first published in 1623. Again, as in 'Love's Labour's Lost,' allusion was made to the civil war in France. France was described as 'making war against her heir' (III. ii. 125). Shakespeare's farcical comedy, which is by far the shortest of all his dramas, may have been founded on a play, no longer extant, called 'The Historie of Error,' which was acted in 1576 at Hampton Court. In subject-matter it resembles the 'Menaechmi' of Plautus, and treats of mistakes of identity arising from the likeness of twin-born children. The scene (act iii. sc. i.) in which Antipholus of Ephesus is shut out from his own house, while his brother and wife are at dinner within, recalls one in the 'Amphitruo' of Plautus. Shakespeare doubtless had direct recourse to Plautus as well as to the old play, and he may have read Plautus in English. The earliest translation of the 'Menaechmi' was not licensed for publication before June 10, 1594, and was not published until the following year. No translation of any other play of Plautus appeared before. But it was stated in the preface to this first published translation of the 'Menaechmi' that the translator, W. W., doubtless William Warner, a veteran of the Elizabethan world of letters, had some time previously 'Englished' that and 'divers' others of Plautus's comedies, and had circulated them in manuscript 'for the use of and delight of his private friends, who, in Plautus's own words, are not able to understand them.'

'Romeo and Juliet.'

Such plays as these, although each gave promise of a dramatic capacity out of the common way, cannot be with certainty pronounced to be beyond the ability of other men. It was in 'Romeo and Juliet,' Shakespeare's first tragedy, that he proved himself the possessor of a poetic and dramatic instinct of unprecedented quality. In 'Romeo and Juliet' he turned to account a tragic romance of Italian origin, {55a} which was already popular in English versions. Arthur Broke rendered it into English verse from the Italian of Bandello in 1562, and William Painter had published it in prose in his 'Palace of Pleasure' in 1567. Shakespeare made little change in the plot as drawn from Bandello by Broke, but he impregnated it with poetic fervour, and relieved the tragic intensity by developing the humour of Mercutio, and by grafting on the story the new comic character of the Nurse. {55b} The ecstasy of youthful passion is portrayed by Shakespeare in language of the highest lyric beauty, and although a predilection for quibbles and conceits occasionally passes beyond the author's control, 'Romeo and Juliet,' as a tragic poem on the theme of love, has no rival in any literature. If the Nurse's remark, ''Tis since the earthquake now eleven years' (I. iii. 23), be taken literally, the composition of the play must be referred to 1591, for no earthquake in the sixteenth century was experienced in England after 1580. There are a few parallelisms with Daniel's 'Complainte of Rosamond,' published in 1592, and it is probable that Shakespeare completed the piece in that year. It was first printed anonymously and surreptitiously by John Danter in 1597 from an imperfect acting copy. A second quarto of 1599 (by T. Creede for Cuthbert Burbie) was printed from an authentic version, but the piece had probably undergone revision since its first production. {56}

Of the original representation on the stage of three other pieces of the period we have more explicit information. These reveal Shakespeare undisguisedly as an adapter of plays by other hands. Though they lack the interest attaching to his unaided work, they throw invaluable light on some of his early methods of composition and his early relations with other dramatists.

'Henry VI.'

On March 3, 1592, a new piece, called 'Henry VI,' was acted at the Rose Theatre by Lord Strange's men. It was no doubt the play which was subsequently known as Shakespeare's 'The First Part of Henry VI.' On its first performance it won a popular triumph. 'How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French),' wrote Nash in his 'Pierce Pennilesse' (1592, licensed August 8), in reference to the striking scenes of Talbot's death (act iv. sc. vi. and vii.), 'to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding!' There is no categorical record of the production of a second piece in continuation of the theme, but such a play quickly followed; for a third piece, treating of the concluding incidents of Henry VI's reign, attracted much attention on the stage early in the following autumn.

Greene's attack. Chettle's apology.

The applause attending the completion of this historical trilogy caused bewilderment in the theatrical profession. The older dramatists awoke to the fact that their popularity was endangered by the young stranger who had set up his tent in their midst, and one veteran uttered without delay a rancorous protest. Robert Greene, who died on September 3, 1592, wrote on his deathbed an ill-natured farewell to life, entitled 'A Groats-worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance.' Addressing three brother dramatists—Marlowe, Nash, and Peele or Lodge—he bade them beware of puppets 'that speak from our mouths,' and of 'antics garnished in our colours.' 'There is,' he continued, 'an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum is, in his owne conceit, the only Shake-scene in a countrie. . . . Never more acquaint [those apes] with your admired inventions, for it is pity men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude groomes.' The 'only Shake-scene' is a punning denunciation of Shakespeare. The tirade was probably inspired by an established author's resentment at the energy of a young actor—the theatre's factotum—in revising the dramatic work of his seniors with such masterly effect as to imperil their hold on the esteem of manager and playgoer. The italicised quotation travesties a line from the third piece in the trilogy of Shakespeare's 'Henry VI:'

Oh Tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide.

But Shakespeare's amiability of character and versatile ability had already won him admirers, and his successes excited the sympathetic regard of colleagues more kindly than Greene. In December 1592 Greene's publisher, Henry Chettle, prefixed an apology for Greene's attack on the young actor to his 'Kind Hartes Dreame,' a tract reflecting on phases of contemporary social life. 'I am as sory,' Chettle wrote, 'as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because myselfe have seene his [i.e. Shakespeare's] demeanour no lesse civill than he [is] exelent in the qualitie he professes, besides divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that aprooves his art.'

Divided authorship of 'Henry VI.'

The first of the three plays dealing with the reign of Henry VI was originally published in the collected edition of Shakespeare's works; the second and third plays were previously printed in a form very different from that which they subsequently assumed when they followed the first part in the folio. Criticism has proved beyond doubt that in these plays Shakespeare did no more than add, revise, and correct other men's work. In 'The First Part of Henry VI' the scene in the Temple Gardens, where white and red roses are plucked as emblems by the rival political parties (act ii. sc. iv.), the dying speech of Mortimer, and perhaps the wooing of Margaret by Suffolk, alone bear the impress of his style. A play dealing with the second part of Henry VI's reign was published anonymously from a rough stage copy in 1594, with the title 'The first part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of Yorke and Lancaster.' A play dealing with the third part was published with greater care next year under the title 'The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henry the Sixt, as it was sundrie times acted by the Earl of Pembroke his servants.' In both these plays Shakespeare's revising hand can be traced. The humours of Jack Cade in 'The Contention' can owe their savour to him alone. After he had hastily revised the original drafts of the three pieces, perhaps with another's aid, they were put on the stage in 1592, the first two parts by his own company (Lord Strange's men), and the third, under some exceptional arrangement, by Lord Pembroke's men. But Shakespeare was not content to leave them thus. Within a brief interval, possibly for a revival, he undertook a more thorough revision, still in conjunction with another writer. 'The First Part of The Contention' was thoroughly overhauled, and was converted into what was entitled in the folio 'The Second Part of Henry VI;' there more than half the lines are new. 'The True Tragedie,' which became 'The Third Part of Henry VI,' was less drastically handled; two-thirds of it was left practically untouched; only a third was thoroughly remodelled. {60}

Shakespeare's coadjutors.

Who Shakespeare's coadjutors were in the two successive revisions of 'Henry VI' is matter for conjecture. The theory that Greene and Peele produced the original draft of the three parts of 'Henry VI,' which Shakespeare recast, may help to account for Greene's indignant denunciation of Shakespeare as 'an upstart crow, beautified with the feathers' of himself and his fellow dramatists. Much can be said, too, in behalf of the suggestion that Shakespeare joined Marlowe, the greatest of his predecessors, in the first revision of which 'The Contention' and the 'True Tragedie' were the outcome. Most of the new passages in the second recension seem assignable to Shakespeare alone, but a few suggest a partnership resembling that of the first revision. It is probable that Marlowe began the final revision, but his task was interrupted by his death, and the lion's share of the work fell to his younger coadjutor.

Shakespeare's assimilative power.

Shakespeare shared with other men of genius that receptivity of mind which impels them to assimilate much of the intellectual effort of their contemporaries and to transmute it in the process from unvalued ore into pure gold. Had Shakespeare not been professionally employed in recasting old plays by contemporaries, he would doubtless have shown in his writings traces of a study of their work. The verses of Thomas Watson, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Sir Philip Sidney, and Thomas Lodge were certainly among the rills which fed the mighty river of his poetic and lyric invention. Kyd and Greene, among rival writers of tragedy, left more or less definite impression on all Shakespeare's early efforts in tragedy. It was, however, only to two of his fellow dramatists that his indebtedness as a writer of either comedy or tragedy was material or emphatically defined. Superior as Shakespeare's powers were to those of Marlowe, his coadjutor in 'Henry VI,' his early tragedies often reveal him in the character of a faithful disciple of that vehement delineator of tragic passion. Shakespeare's early comedies disclose a like relationship between him and Lyly.

Lyly's influence in comedy.

Lyly is best known as the author of the affected romance of 'Euphues,' but between 1580 and 1592 he produced eight trivial and insubstantial comedies, of which six were written in prose, one was in blank verse, and one was in rhyme. Much of the dialogue in Shakespeare's comedies, from 'Love's Labour's Lost' to 'Much Ado about Nothing,' consists in thrusting and parrying fantastic conceits, puns, or antitheses. This is the style of intercourse in which most of Lyly's characters exclusively indulge. Three-fourths of Lyly's comedies lightly revolve about topics of classical or fairy mythology—in the very manner which Shakespeare first brought to a triumphant issue in his 'Midsummer Night's Dream.' Shakespeare's treatment of eccentric character like Don Armado in 'Love's Labour's Lost' and his boy Moth reads like a reminiscence of Lyly's portrayal of Sir Thopas, a fat vainglorious knight, and his boy Epiton in the comedy of 'Endymion,' while the watchmen in the same play clearly adumbrate Shakespeare's Dogberry and Verges. The device of masculine disguise for love-sick maidens was characteristic of Lyly's method before Shakespeare ventured on it for the first of many times in 'Two Gentlemen of Verona,' and the dispersal through Lyly's comedies of songs possessing every lyrical charm is not the least interesting of the many striking features which Shakespeare's achievements in comedy seem to borrow from Lyly's comparatively insignificant experiments. {62}

Marlowe's influence in tragedy. 'Richard III.'

Marlowe, who alone of Shakespeare's contemporaries can be credited with exerting on his efforts in tragedy a really substantial influence, was in 1592 and 1593 at the zenith of his fame. Two of Shakespeare's earliest historical tragedies, 'Richard III' and 'Richard II,' with the story of Shylock in his somewhat later comedy of the 'Merchant of Venice,' plainly disclose a conscious resolve to follow in Marlowe's footsteps. In 'Richard III' Shakespeare, working single-handed, takes up the history of England near the point at which Marlowe and he, apparently working in partnership, left it in the third part of 'Henry VI.' The subject was already familiar to dramatists, but Shakespeare sought his materials in the 'Chronicle' of Holinshed. A Latin piece, by Dr. Thomas Legge, had been in favour with academic audiences since 1579, and in 1594 the 'True Tragedie of Richard III' from some other pen was published anonymously; but Shakespeare's piece bears little resemblance to either. Throughout Shakespeare's 'Richard III' the effort to emulate Marlowe is undeniable. The tragedy is, says Mr. Swinburne, 'as fiery in passion, as single in purpose, as rhetorical often, though never so inflated in expression, as Marlowe's "Tamburlaine" itself.' The turbulent piece was naturally popular. Burbage's impersonation of the hero was one of his most effective performances, and his vigorous enunciation of 'A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!' gave the line proverbial currency.

'Richard II.'

'Richard II' seems to have followed 'Richard III' without delay. Subsequently both were published anonymously in the same year (1597) as they had 'been publikely acted by the right Honorable the Lorde Chamberlaine his servants;' but the deposition scene in 'Richard II,' which dealt with a topic distasteful to the Queen, was omitted from the early impressions. Prose is avoided throughout the play, a certain sign of early work. The piece was probably composed very early in 1593. Marlowe's tempestuous vein is less apparent in 'Richard II' than in 'Richard III.' But if 'Richard II' be in style and treatment less deeply indebted to Marlowe than its predecessor, it was clearly suggested by Marlowe's 'Edward II.' Throughout its exposition of the leading theme—the development and collapse of the weak king's character—Shakespeare's historical tragedy closely imitates Marlowe's. Shakespeare drew the facts from Holinshed, but his embellishments are numerous, and include the magnificently eloquent eulogy of England which is set in the mouth of John of Gaunt.

Acknowledgments to Marlowe.

In 'As you like it' (III. v. 80) Shakespeare parenthetically commemorated his acquaintance with, and his general indebtedness to, the elder dramatist by apostrophising him in the lines:

Dead Shepherd! now I find thy saw of might: 'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'

The second line is a quotation from Marlowe's poem 'Hero and Leander' (line 76). In the 'Merry Wives of Windsor' (III. i. 17-21) Shakespeare places in the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans snatches of verse from Marlowe's charming lyric, 'Come live with me and be my love.'

Between February 1593 and the end of the year the London theatres were closed, owing to the prevalence of the plague, and Shakespeare doubtless travelled with his company in the country. But his pen was busily employed, and before the close of 1594 he gave marvellous proofs of his rapid powers of production.

'Titus Andronicus.'

'Titus Andronicus' was in his own lifetime claimed for Shakespeare, but Edward Ravenscroft, who prepared a new version in 1678, wrote of it: 'I have been told by some anciently conversant with the stage that it was not originally his, but brought by a private author to be acted, and he only gave some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.' Ravenscroft's assertion deserves acceptance. The tragedy, a sanguinary picture of the decadence of Imperial Rome, contains powerful lines and situations, but is far too repulsive in plot and treatment, and too ostentatious in classical allusions, to take rank with Shakespeare's acknowledged work. Ben Jonson credits 'Titus Andronicus' with a popularity equalling Kyd's 'Spanish Tragedy,' and internal evidence shows that Kyd was capable of writing much of 'Titus.' It was suggested by a piece called 'Titus and Vespasian,' which Lord Strange's men played on April 11, 1592; {65} this is only extant in a German version acted by English players in Germany, and published in 1620. {66a} 'Titus Andronicus' was obviously taken in hand soon after the production of 'Titus and Vespasian' in order to exploit popular interest in the topic. It was acted by the Earl of Sussex's men on January 23, 1593-4, when it was described as a new piece; but that it was also acted subsequently by Shakespeare's company is shown by the title-page of the first extant edition of 1600, which describes it as having been performed by the Earl of Derby's and the Lord Chamberlain's servants (successive titles of Shakespeare's company), as well as by those of the Earls of Pembroke and Sussex. It was entered on the 'Stationers' Register' to John Danter on February 6, 1594. {66b} Langbaine claims to have seen an edition of this date, but none earlier than that of 1600 is now known.

'Merchant of Venice.'

For part of the plot of 'The Merchant of Venice,' in which two romantic love stories are skilfully blended with a theme of tragic import, Shakespeare had recourse to 'Il Pecorone,' a fourteenth-century collection of Italian novels by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. {66c} There a Jewish creditor demands a pound of flesh of a defaulting Christian debtor, and the latter is rescued through the advocacy of 'the lady of Belmont,' who is wife of the debtor's friend. The management of the plot in the Italian novel is closely followed by Shakespeare. A similar story is slenderly outlined in the popular medieval collection of anecdotes called 'Gesta Romanorum,' while the tale of the caskets, which Shakespeare combined with it in the 'Merchant,' is told independently in another portion of the same work. But Shakespeare's 'Merchant' owes much to other sources, including more than one old play. Stephen Gosson describes in his 'Schoole of Abuse' (1579) a lost play called 'the Jew . . . showne at the Bull [inn]. . . representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers and bloody mindes of usurers.' This description suggests that the two stories of the pound of flesh and the caskets had been combined before for purposes of dramatic representation. The scenes in Shakespeare's play in which Antonio negotiates with Shylock are roughly anticipated, too, by dialogues between a Jewish creditor Gerontus and a Christian debtor in the extant play of 'The Three Ladies of London,' by R[obert] W[ilson], 1584. There the Jew opens the attack on his Christian debtor with the lines:

Signor Mercatore, why do you not pay me? Think you I will be mocked in this sort? This three times you have flouted me—it seems you make thereat a sport. Truly pay me my money, and that even now presently, Or by mighty Mahomet, I swear I will forthwith arrest thee.

Subsequently, when the judge is passing judgment in favour of the debtor, the Jew interrupts:

Stay, there, most puissant judge. Signor Mercatore consider what you do. Pay me the principal, as for the interest I forgive it you.

Shylock and Roderigo Lopez.

Above all is it of interest to note that Shakespeare in 'The Merchant of Venice' betrays the last definable traces of his discipleship to Marlowe. Although the delicate comedy which lightens the serious interest of Shakespeare's play sets it in a wholly different category from that of Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta', the humanised portrait of the Jew Shylock embodies distinct reminiscences of Marlowe's caricature of the Jew Barabbas. But Shakespeare soon outpaced his master, and the inspiration that he drew from Marlowe in the 'Merchant' touches only the general conception of the central figure. Doubtless the popular interest aroused by the trial in February 1594 and the execution in June of the Queen's Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, incited Shakespeare to a new and subtler study of Jewish character. {68} For Shylock (not the merchant Antonio) is the hero of the play, and the main interest culminates in the Jew's trial and discomfiture. The bold transition from that solemn scene which trembles on the brink of tragedy to the gently poetic and humorous incidents of the concluding act attests a mastery of stagecraft; but the interest, although it is sustained to the end, is, after Shylock's final exit, pitched in a lower key. The 'Venesyon Comedy,' which Henslowe, the manager, produced at the Rose on August 25, 1594, was probably the earliest version of 'The Merchant of Venice,' and it was revised later. It was not published till 1600, when two editions appeared, each printed from a different stage copy.

'King John.'

To 1594 must also be assigned 'King John,' which, like the 'Comedy of Errors' and 'Richard II,' altogether eschews prose. The piece, which was not printed till 1623, was directly adapted from a worthless play called 'The Troublesome Raigne of King John' (1591), which was fraudulently reissued in 1611 as 'written by W. Sh.,' and in 1622 as by 'W. Shakespeare.' There is very small ground for associating Marlowe's name with the old play. Into the adaptation Shakespeare flung all his energy, and the theme grew under his hand into genuine tragedy. The three chief characters—the mean and cruel king, the noblehearted and desperately wronged Constance, and the soldierly humourist, Faulconbridge—are in all essentials of his own invention, and are portrayed with the same sureness of touch that marked in Shylock his rapidly maturing strength. The scene, in which the gentle boy Arthur learns from Hubert that the king has ordered his eyes to be put out, is as affecting as any passage in tragic literature.

'Comedy of Errors' in Gray's Inn Hall.

At the close of 1594 a performance of Shakespeare's early farce, 'The Comedy of Errors,' gave him a passing notoriety that he could well have spared. The piece was played on the evening of Innocents' Day (December 28), 1594, in the hall of Gray's Inn, before a crowded audience of benchers, students, and their friends. There was some disturbance during the evening on the part of guests from the Inner Temple, who, dissatisfied with the accommodation afforded them, retired in dudgeon. 'So that night,' the contemporary chronicler states, 'was begun and continued to the end in nothing but confusion and errors, whereupon it was ever afterwards called the "Night of Errors."' {70} Shakespeare was acting on the same day before the Queen at Greenwich, and it is doubtful if he were present. On the morrow a commission of oyer and terminer inquired into the causes of the tumult, which was attributed to a sorcerer having 'foisted a company of base and common fellows to make up our disorders with a play of errors and confusions.'

Early plays doubtfully assigned to Shakespeare.

Two plays of uncertain authorship attracted public attention during the period under review (1591-4)—'Arden of Feversham' (licensed for publication April 3, 1592, and published in 1592) and 'Edward III' (licensed for publication December 1, 1595, and published in 1596). Shakespeare's hand has been traced in both, mainly on the ground that their dramatic energy is of a quality not to be discerned in the work of any contemporary whose writings are extant. There is no external evidence in favour of Shakespeare's authorship in either case. 'Arden of Feversham' dramatises with intensity and insight a sordid murder of a husband by a wife which took place at Faversham in 1551, and was fully reported by Holinshed. The subject is of a different type from any which Shakespeare is known to have treated, and although the play may be, as Mr. Swinburne insists, 'a young man's work,' it bears no relation either in topic or style to the work on which young Shakespeare was engaged at a period so early as 1591 or 1592. 'Edward III' is a play in Marlowe's vein, and has been assigned to Shakespeare on even more shadowy grounds. Capell reprinted it in his 'Prolusions' in 1760, and described it as 'thought to be writ by Shakespeare.' Many speeches scattered through the drama, and one whole scene—that in which the Countess of Salisbury repulses the advances of Edward III—show the hand of a master (act ii. sc. ii.) But there is even in the style of these contributions much to dissociate them from Shakespeare's acknowledged productions, and to justify their ascription to some less gifted disciple of Marlowe. {72a} A line in act ii. sc. i. ('Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds') reappears in Shakespeare's Sonnets' (xciv. l. 14). {72b} It was contrary to his practice to literally plagiarise himself. The line in the play was doubtless borrowed from a manuscript copy of the 'Sonnets.'


Two other popular plays of the period, 'Mucedorus' and 'Faire Em,' have also been assigned to Shakespeare on slighter provocation. In Charles II.'s library they were bound together in a volume labelled 'Shakespeare, Vol. I.,' and bold speculators have occasionally sought to justify the misnomer.

'Mucedorus,' an elementary effort in romantic comedy, dates from the early years of Elizabeth's reign; it was first published, doubtless after undergoing revision, in 1595, and was reissued, 'amplified with new additions,' in 1610. Mr. Payne Collier, who included it in his privately printed edition of Shakespeare in 1878, was confident that a scene interpolated in the 1610 version (in which the King of Valentia laments the supposed loss of his son) displayed genius which Shakespeare alone could compass. However readily critics may admit the superiority in literary value of the interpolated scene to anything else in the piece, few will accept Mr. Collier's extravagant estimate. The scene was probably from the pen of an admiring but faltering imitator of Shakespeare. {73}

'Faire Em.'

'Faire Em,' although not published till 1631, was acted by Shakespeare's company while Lord Strange was its patron, and some lines from it are quoted for purposes of ridicule by Robert Greene in his 'Farewell to Folly' in 1592. It is another rudimentary endeavour in romantic comedy, and has not even the pretension of 'Mucedorus' to one short scene of conspicuous literary merit.


Publication of 'Venus and Adonis.'

During the busy years (1591-4) that witnessed his first pronounced successes as a dramatist, Shakespeare came before the public in yet another literary capacity. On April 18, 1593, Richard Field, the printer, who was his fellow-townsman, obtained a license for the publication of 'Venus and Adonis,' a metrical version of a classical tale of love. It was published a month or two later, without an author's name on the title-page, but Shakespeare appended his full name to the dedication, which he addressed in conventional style to Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton. The Earl, who was in his twentieth year, was reckoned the handsomest man at Court, with a pronounced disposition to gallantry. He had vast possessions, was well educated, loved literature, and through life extended to men of letters a generous patronage. {74} 'I know not how I shall offend,' Shakespeare now wrote to him, 'in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden. . . . But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather.' 'The first heir of my invention' implies that the poem was written, or at least designed, before Shakespeare's dramatic work. It is affluent in beautiful imagery and metrical sweetness, but imbued with a tone of license which may be held either to justify the theory that it was a precocious product of the author's youth, or to show that Shakespeare was not unready in mature years to write with a view to gratifying a patron's somewhat lascivious tastes. The title-page bears a beautiful Latin motto from Ovid's 'Amores:' {75a}

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.

The influence of Ovid, who told the story in his 'Metamorphoses,' is apparent in many of the details. But the theme was doubtless first suggested to Shakespeare by a contemporary effort. Lodge's 'Scillaes Metamorphosis,' which appeared in 1589, is not only written in the same metre (six-line stanzas rhyming a b a b c c), but narrates in the exordium the same incidents in the same spirit. There is little doubt that Shakespeare drew from Lodge some of his inspiration. {75b}


A year after the issue of 'Venus and Adonis,' in 1594, Shakespeare published another poem in like vein, but far more mature in temper and execution. The digression (ll. 939-59) on the destroying power of Time, especially, is in an exalted key of meditation which is not sounded in the earlier poem. The metre, too, is changed; seven-line stanzas (Chaucer's rhyme royal, a b a b b c c) take the place of six-line stanzas. The second poem was entered in the 'Stationers' Registers' on May 9, 1594, under the title of 'A Booke intitled the Ravyshement of Lucrece,' and was published in the same year under the title 'Lucrece.' Richard Field printed it, and John Harrison published and sold it at the sign of the White Greyhound in St. Paul's Churchyard. The classical story of Lucretia's ravishment and suicide is briefly recorded in Ovid's 'Fasti,' but Chaucer had retold it in his 'Legend of Good Women,' and Shakespeare must have read it there. Again, in topic and metre, the poem reflected a contemporary poet's work. Samuel Daniel's 'Complaint of Rosamond,' with its seven-line stanza (1592), stood to 'Lucrece' in even closer relation than Lodge's 'Scilla,' with its six-line stanza, to 'Venus and Adonis.' The pathetic accents of Shakespeare's heroine are those of Daniel's heroine purified and glorified. {77a} The passage on Time is elaborated from one in Watson's 'Passionate Centurie of Love' (No. lxxvii.) {77b} Shakespeare dedicated his second volume of poetry to the Earl of Southampton, the patron of his first. He addressed him in terms of devoted friendship, which were not uncommon at the time in communications between patrons and poets, but suggest that Shakespeare's relations with the brilliant young nobleman had grown closer since he dedicated 'Venus and Adonis' to him in colder language a year before. 'The love I dedicate to your lordship,' Shakespeare wrote in the opening pages of 'Lucrece,' 'is without end, whereof this pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous moiety. . . What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.'

Enthusiastic reception of the poems.

In these poems Shakespeare made his earliest appeal to the world of readers, and the reading public welcomed his addresses with unqualified enthusiasm. The London playgoer already knew Shakespeare's name as that of a promising actor and playwright, but his dramatic efforts had hitherto been consigned in manuscript, as soon as the theatrical representation ceased, to the coffers of their owner, the playhouse manager. His early plays brought him at the outset little reputation as a man of letters. It was not as the myriad-minded dramatist, but in the restricted role of adapter for English readers of familiar Ovidian fables, that he first impressed a wide circle of his contemporaries with the fact of his mighty genius. The perfect sweetness of the verse, and the poetical imagery in 'Venus and Adonis' and 'Lucrece' practically silenced censure of the licentious treatment of the themes on the part of the seriously minded. Critics vied with each other in the exuberance of the eulogies in which they proclaimed that the fortunate author had gained a place in permanence on the summit of Parnassus. 'Lucrece,' wrote Michael Drayton in his 'Legend of Matilda' (1594), was 'revived to live another age.' In 1595 William Clerke in his 'Polimanteia' gave 'all praise' to 'sweet Shakespeare' for his 'Lucrecia.' John Weever, in a sonnet addressed to 'honey-tongued Shakespeare' in his 'Epigramms' (1595), eulogised the two poems as an unmatchable achievement, although he mentioned the plays 'Romeo' and 'Richard' and 'more whose names I know not.' Richard Carew at the same time classed him with Marlowe as deserving the praises of an English Catullus. {79} Printers and publishers of the poems strained their resources to satisfy the demands of eager purchasers. No fewer than seven editions of 'Venus' appeared between 1594 and 1602; an eighth followed in 1617. 'Lucrece' achieved a fifth edition in the year of Shakespeare's death.

Shakespeare and Spenser.

There is a likelihood, too, that Spenser, the greatest of Shakespeare's poetic contemporaries, was first drawn by the poems into the ranks of Shakespeare's admirers. It is hardly doubtful that Spenser described Shakespeare in 'Colin Clouts come home againe' (completed in 1594), under the name of 'Aetion'—a familiar Greek proper name derived from [Greek text], an eagle:

And there, though last not least is Aetion; A gentler Shepheard may no where be found, Whose muse, full of high thought's invention, Doth, like himselfe, heroically sound.

The last line seems to allude to Shakespeare's surname. We may assume that the admiration was mutual. At any rate Shakespeare acknowledged acquaintance with Spenser's work in a plain reference to his 'Teares of the Muses' (1591) in 'Midsummer Night's Dream' (v. i. 52-3).

The thrice three Muses, mourning for the death Of learning, late deceased in beggary,

is stated to be the theme of one of the dramatic entertainments wherewith it is proposed to celebrate Theseus's marriage. In Spenser's 'Teares of the Muses' each of the Nine laments in turn her declining influence on the literary and dramatic effort of the age. Theseus dismisses the suggestion with the not inappropriate comment:

That is some satire keen and critical, Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.

But there is no ground for assuming that Spenser in the same poem referred figuratively to Shakespeare when he made Thalia deplore the recent death of 'our pleasant Willy.' {80} The name Willy was frequently used in contemporary literature as a term of familiarity without relation to the baptismal name of the person referred to. Sir Philip Sidney was addressed as 'Willy' by some of his elegists. A comic actor, 'dead of late' in a literal sense, was clearly intended by Spenser, and there is no reason to dispute the view of an early seventeenth-century commentator that Spenser was paying a tribute to the loss English comedy had lately sustained by the death of the comedian, Richard Tarleton. {81a} Similarly the 'gentle spirit' who is described by Spenser in a later stanza as sitting 'in idle cell' rather than turn his pen to base uses cannot be reasonably identified with Shakespeare. {81b}

Patrons at court.

Meanwhile Shakespeare was gaining personal esteem outside the circles of actors and men of letters. His genius and 'civil demeanour' of which Chettle wrote arrested the notice not only of Southampton but of other noble patrons of literature and the drama. His summons to act at Court with the most famous actors of the day at the Christmas of 1594 was possibly due in part to personal interest in himself. Elizabeth quickly showed him special favour. Until the end of her reign his plays were repeatedly acted in her presence. The revised version of 'Love's Labour's Lost' was given at Whitehall at Christmas 1597, and tradition credits the Queen with unconcealed enthusiasm for Falstaff, who came into being a little later. Under Elizabeth's successor he greatly strengthened his hold on royal favour, but Ben Jonson claimed that the Queen's appreciation equalled that of James I. When Jonson wrote in his elegy on Shakespeare of

Those flights upon the banks of Thames That so did take Eliza and our James,

he was mindful of many representations of Shakespeare's plays by the poet and his fellow-actors at the palaces of Whitehall, Richmond, or Greenwich during the last decade of Elizabeth's reign.


The vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet.

It was doubtless to Shakespeare's personal relations with men and women of the Court that his sonnets owed their existence. In Italy and France, the practice of writing and circulating series of sonnets inscribed to great men and women flourished continuously throughout the sixteenth century. In England, until the last decade of that century, the vogue was intermittent. Wyatt and Surrey inaugurated sonnetteering in the English language under Henry VIII, and Thomas Watson devoted much energy to the pursuit when Shakespeare was a boy. But it was not until 1591, when Sir Philip Sidney's collection of sonnets entitled 'Astrophel and Stella' was first published, that the sonnet enjoyed in England any conspicuous or continuous favour. For the half-dozen years following the appearance of Sir Philip Sidney's volume the writing of sonnets, both singly and in connected sequences, engaged more literary activity in this country than it engaged at any period here or elsewhere. {83} Men and women of the cultivated Elizabethan nobility encouraged poets to celebrate in single sonnets their virtues and graces, and under the same patronage there were produced multitudes of sonnet-sequences which more or less fancifully narrated, after the manner of Petrarch and his successors, the pleasures and pains of love. Between 1591 and 1597 no aspirant to poetic fame in the country failed to seek a patron's ears by a trial of skill on the popular poetic instrument, and Shakespeare, who habitually kept abreast of the currents of contemporary literary taste, applied himself to sonnetteering with all the force of his poetic genius when the fashion was at its height.

Shakespeare's first experiments.

Shakespeare had lightly experimented with the sonnet from the outset of his literary career. Three well-turned examples figure in 'Love's Labour's Lost,' probably his earliest play; two of the choruses in 'Romeo and Juliet' are couched in the sonnet form; and a letter of the heroine Helen, in 'All's Well that Ends Well,' which bears traces of very early composition, takes the same shape. It has, too, been argued ingeniously, if not convincingly, that he was author of the somewhat clumsy sonnet, 'Phaeton to his friend Florio,' which prefaced in 1591 Florio's 'Second Frutes,' a series of Italian-English dialogues for students. {84}

Majority of Shakespeare's sonnets composed in 1594.

But these were sporadic efforts. It was not till the spring of 1593, after Shakespeare had secured a nobleman's patronage for his earliest publication, 'Venus and Adonis,' that he became a sonnetteer on an extended scale. Of the hundred and fifty-four sonnets that survive outside his plays, the greater number were in all likelihood composed between that date and the autumn of 1594, during his thirtieth and thirty-first years. His occasional reference in the sonnets to his growing age was a conventional device—traceable to Petrarch—of all sonnetteers of the day, and admits of no literal interpretation. {86} In matter and in manner the bulk of the poems suggest that they came from the pen of a man not much more than thirty. Doubtless he renewed his sonnetteering efforts occasionally and at irregular intervals during the nine years which elapsed between 1594 and the accession of James I in 1603. But to very few of the extant examples can a date later than 1594 be allotted with confidence. Sonnet cvii., in which plain reference is made to Queen Elizabeth's death, may be fairly regarded as a belated and a final act of homage on Shakespeare's part to the importunate vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet. All the evidence, whether internal or external, points to the conclusion that the sonnet exhausted such fascination as it exerted on Shakespeare before his dramatic genius attained its full height.

Their literary value.

In literary value Shakespeare's sonnets are notably unequal. Many reach levels of lyric melody and meditative energy that are hardly to be matched elsewhere in poetry. The best examples are charged with the mellowed sweetness of rhythm and metre, the depth of thought and feeling, the vividness of imagery and the stimulating fervour of expression which are the finest fruits of poetic power. On the other hand, many sink almost into inanity beneath the burden of quibbles and conceits. In both their excellences and their defects Shakespeare's sonnets betray near kinship to his early dramatic work, in which passages of the highest poetic temper at times alternate with unimpressive displays of verbal jugglery. In phraseology the sonnets often closely resemble such early dramatic efforts as 'Love's Labour's Lost' and 'Romeo and Juliet.' There is far more concentration in the sonnets than in 'Venus and Adonis' or in 'Lucrece,' although occasional utterances of Shakespeare's Roman heroine show traces of the intensity that characterises the best of them. The superior and more evenly sustained energy of the sonnets is to be attributed, not to the accession of power that comes with increase of years, but to the innate principles of the poetic form, and to metrical exigencies, which impelled the sonnetteer to aim at a uniform condensation of thought and language.

Circulation in manuscript.

In accordance with a custom that was not uncommon, Shakespeare did not publish his sonnets; he circulated them in manuscript. {88} But their reputation grew, and public interest was aroused in them in spite of his unreadiness to give them publicity. A line from one of them:

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds (xciv. 14), {89a}

was quoted in the play of 'Edward III,' which was probably written before 1595. Meres, writing in 1598, enthusiastically commends Shakespeare's 'sugred {89b} sonnets among his private friends,' and mentions them in close conjunction with his two narrative poems. William Jaggard piratically inserted in 1599 two of the most mature of the series (Nos. cxxxviii. and cxliv.) in his 'Passionate Pilgrim.'

Their piratical publication in 1609. 'A Lover's Complaint.'

At length, in 1609, the sonnets were surreptitiously sent to press. Thomas Thorpe, the moving spirit in the design of their publication, was a camp-follower of the regular publishing army. He was professionally engaged in procuring for publication literary works which had been widely disseminated in written copies, and had thus passed beyond their authors' control; for the law then recognised no natural right in an author to the creations of his brain, and the full owner of a manuscript copy of any literary composition was entitled to reproduce it, or to treat it as he pleased, without reference to the author's wishes. Thorpe's career as a procurer of neglected 'copy' had begun well. He made, in 1600, his earliest hit by bringing to light Marlowe's translation of the 'First Book of Lucan.' On May 20, 1609, he obtained a license for the publication of 'Shakespeares Sonnets,' and this tradesman-like form of title figured not only on the 'Stationers' Company's Registers,' but on the title-page. Thorpe employed George Eld to print the manuscript, and two booksellers, William Aspley and John Wright, to distribute it to the public. On half the edition Aspley's name figured as that of the seller, and on the other half that of Wright. The book was issued in June, {90} and the owner of the 'copy' left the public under no misapprehension as to his share in the production by printing above his initials a dedicatory preface from his own pen. The appearance in a book of a dedication from the publisher's (instead of from the author's) pen was, unless the substitution was specifically accounted for on other grounds, an accepted sign that the author had no hand in the publication. Except in the case of his two narrative poems, which were published in 1593 and 1594 respectively, Shakespeare made no effort to publish any of his works, and uncomplainingly submitted to the wholesale piracies of his plays and the ascription to him of books by other hands. Such practices were encouraged by his passive indifference and the contemporary condition of the law of copyright. He cannot be credited with any responsibility for the publication of Thorpe's collection of his sonnets in 1609. With characteristic insolence Thorpe took the added liberty of appending a previously unprinted poem of forty-nine seven-line stanzas (the metre of 'Lucrece') entitled 'A Lover's Complaint,' in which a girl laments her betrayal by a deceitful youth. The poem, in a gentle Spenserian vein, has no connection with the 'Sonnets.' If, as is possible, it be by Shakespeare, it must have been written in very early days.

Thomas Thorpe and 'Mr. W. H.'

A misunderstanding respecting Thorpe's preface and his part in the publication has led many critics into a serious misinterpretation of Shakespeare's poems. {91} Thorpe's dedication was couched in the bombastic language which was habitual to him. He advertised Shakespeare as 'our ever-living poet.' As the chief promoter of the undertaking, he called himself 'the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth,' and in resonant phrase designated as the patron of the venture a partner in the speculation, 'Mr. W. H.' In the conventional dedicatory formula of the day he wished 'Mr. W. H.' 'all happiness' and 'eternity,' such eternity as Shakespeare in the text of the sonnets conventionally foretold for his own verse. When Thorpe was organising the issue of Marlowe's 'First Book of Lucan' in 1600, he sought the patronage of Edward Blount, a friend in the trade. 'W. H.' was doubtless in a like position. He is best identified with a stationer's assistant, William Hall, who was professionally engaged, like Thorpe, in procuring 'copy.' In 1606 'W. H.' won a conspicuous success in that direction, and conducted his operations under cover of the familiar initials. In that year 'W. H.' announced that he had procured a neglected manuscript poem—'A Foure-fould Meditation'—by the Jesuit Robert Southwell who had been executed in 1595, and he published it with a dedication (signed 'W. H.') vaunting his good fortune in meeting with such treasure-trove. When Thorpe dubbed 'Mr. W. H.,' with characteristic magniloquence, 'the onlie begetter [i.e. obtainer or procurer] of these ensuing sonnets,' he merely indicated that that personage was the first of the pirate-publisher fraternity to procure a manuscript of Shakespeare's sonnets and recommend its surreptitious issue. In accordance with custom, Thorpe gave Hall's initials only, because he was an intimate associate who was known by those initials to their common circle of friends. Hall was not a man of sufficiently wide public reputation to render it probable that the printing of his full name would excite additional interest in the book or attract buyers.

The common assumption that Thorpe in this boastful preface was covertly addressing, under the initials 'Mr. W. H.,' a young nobleman, to whom the sonnets were originally addressed by Shakespeare, ignores the elementary principles of publishing transactions of the day, and especially of those of the type to which Thorpe's efforts were confined. {93} There was nothing mysterious or fantastic, although from a modern point of view there was much that lacked principle, in Thorpe's methods of business. His choice of patron for this, like all his volumes, was dictated solely by his mercantile interests. He was under no inducement and in no position to take into consideration the affairs of Shakespeare's private life. Shakespeare, through all but the earliest stages of his career, belonged socially to a world that was cut off by impassable barriers from that in which Thorpe pursued his calling. It was wholly outside Thorpe's aims in life to seek to mystify his customers by investing a dedication with any cryptic significance.

No peer of the day, moreover, bore a name which could be represented by the initials 'Mr. W. H.' Shakespeare was never on terms of intimacy (although the contrary has often been recklessly assumed) with William, third Earl of Pembroke, when a youth. {94} But were complete proofs of the acquaintanceship forthcoming, they would throw no light on Thorpe's 'Mr. W. H.' The Earl of Pembroke was, from his birth to the date of his succession to the earldom in 1601, known by the courtesy title of Lord Herbert and by no other name, and he could not have been designated at any period of his life by the symbols 'Mr. W. H.' In 1609 Pembroke was a high officer of state, and numerous books were dedicated to him in all the splendour of his many titles. Star-Chamber penalties would have been exacted of any publisher or author who denied him in print his titular distinctions. Thorpe had occasion to dedicate two books to the earl in later years, and he there showed not merely that he was fully acquainted with the compulsory etiquette, but that his sycophantic temperament rendered him only eager to improve on the conventional formulas of servility. Any further consideration of Thorpe's address to 'Mr. W. H.' belongs to the biographies of Thorpe and his friend; it lies outside the scope of Shakespeare's biography. {95a}

The form of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Shakespeare's 'Sonnets' ignore the somewhat complex scheme of rhyme adopted by Petrarch, whom the Elizabethan sonnetteers, like the French sonnetteers of the sixteenth century, recognised to be in most respects their master. Following the example originally set by Surrey and Wyatt, and generally pursued by Shakespeare's contemporaries, his sonnets aim at far greater metrical simplicity than the Italian or the French. They consist of three decasyllabic quatrains with a concluding couplet, and the quatrains rhyme alternately. {95b} A single sonnet does not always form an independent poem. As in the French and Italian sonnets of the period, and in those of Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, and Drayton, the same train of thought is at times pursued continuously through two or more. The collection of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets thus presents the appearance of an extended series of independent poems, many in a varying number of fourteen-line stanzas. The longest sequence (i.-xvii.) numbers seventeen sonnets, and in Thorpe's edition opens the volume.

Want of continuity. The two 'groups.'

It is unlikely that the order in which the poems were printed follows the order in which they were written. Fantastic endeavours have been made to detect in the original arrangement of the poems a closely connected narrative, but the thread is on any showing constantly interrupted. {96} It is usual to divide the sonnets into two groups, and to represent that all those numbered i.-cxxvi. by Thorpe were addressed to a young man, and all those numbered cxxvii.-cliv. were addressed to a woman. This division cannot be literally justified. In the first group some eighty of the sonnets can be proved to be addressed to a man by the use of the masculine pronoun or some other unequivocal sign; but among the remaining forty there is no clear indication of the kind. Many of these forty are meditative soliloquies which address no person at all (cf. cv. cxvi. cxix. cxxi.) A few invoke abstractions like Death (lxvi.) or Time (cxxiii.), or 'benefit of ill' (cxix.) The twelve-lined poem (cxxvi.), the last of the first 'group,' does little more than sound a variation on the conventional poetic invocations of Cupid or Love personified as a boy. {97} And there is no valid objection to the assumption that the poet inscribed the rest of these forty sonnets to a woman (cf. xxi. xlvi. xlvii.) Similarly, the sonnets in the second 'group' (cxxvii.-cliv.) have no uniform superscription. Six invoke no person at all. No. cxxviii. is an overstrained compliment on a lady playing on the virginals. No. cxxix. is a metaphysical disquisition on lust. No. cxlv. is a playful lyric in octosyllabics, like Lyly's song of 'Cupid and Campaspe,' and its tone has close affinity to that and other of Lyly's songs. No. cxlvi. invokes the soul of man. Nos. cliii. and cliv. soliloquise on an ancient Greek apologue on the force of Cupid's fire. {98}

Main topics of the first 'group.'

The choice and succession of topics in each 'group' give to neither genuine cohesion. In the first 'group' the long opening sequence (i.-xvii.) forms the poet's appeal to a young man to marry so that his youth and beauty may survive in children. There is almost a contradiction in terms between the poet's handling of that topic and his emphatic boast in the two following sonnets (xviii.-xix.) that his verse alone is fully equal to the task of immortalising his friend's youth and accomplishments. The same asseveration is repeated in many later sonnets (cf. lv. lx. lxiii. lxxiv. lxxxi. ci. cvii.) These alternate with conventional adulation of the beauty of the object of the poet's affections (cf. xxi. liii. lxviii.) and descriptions of the effects of absence in intensifying devotion (cf. xlviii. l. cxiii.) There are many reflections on the nocturnal torments of a lover (cf. xxvii. xxviii. xliii. lxi.) and on his blindness to the beauty of spring or summer when he is separated from his love (cf. xcvii. xcviii.) At times a youth is rebuked for sensual indulgences; he has sought and won the favour of the poet's mistress in the poet's absence, but the poet is forgiving (xxxii.-xxxv. xl.-xlii. lxix. xcv.-xcvi.) In Sonnet lxx. the young man whom the poet addresses is credited with a different disposition and experience:

And thou present'st a pure unstained prime. Thou hast pass'd by the ambush of young days, Either not assail'd, or victor being charg'd!

At times melancholy overwhelms the writer: he despairs of the corruptions of the age (lxvi.), reproaches himself with carnal sin (cxix.), declares himself weary of his profession of acting (cxi. cxii.), and foretells his approaching death (lxxi.-lxxiv.) Throughout are dispersed obsequious addresses to the youth in his capacity of sole patron of the poet's verse (cf. xxiii. xxxvii. c. ci. ciii. civ.) But in one sequence the friend is sorrowfully reproved for bestowing his patronage on rival poets (lxxviii.-lxxxvi.) In three sonnets near the close of the first group in the original edition, the writer gives varied assurances of his constancy in love or friendship which apply indifferently to man or woman (cf. cxxii. cxxiv. cxxv.)

Main topics of the second 'group.'

In two sonnets of the second 'group' (cxxvi.-clii.) the poet compliments his mistress on her black complexion and raven-black hair and eyes. In twelve sonnets he hotly denounces his 'dark' mistress for her proud disdain of his affection, and for her manifold infidelities with other men. Apparently continuing a theme of the first 'group,' the poet rebukes the woman, whom he addresses, for having beguiled his friend to yield himself to her seductions (cxxxiii.-cxxxvi.) Elsewhere he makes satiric reflections on the extravagant compliments paid to the fair sex by other sonnetteers (No. cxxx.) or lightly quibbles on his name of 'Will' (cxxx.-vi.) In tone and subject-matter numerous sonnets in the second as in the first 'group' lack visible sign of coherence with those they immediately precede or follow.

It is not merely a close study of the text that confutes the theory, for which recent writers have fought hard, of a logical continuity in Thorpe's arrangement of the poems in 1609. There remains the historic fact that readers and publishers of the seventeenth century acknowledged no sort of significance in the order in which the poems first saw the light. When the sonnets were printed for a second time in 1640—thirty-one years after their first appearance—they were presented in a completely different order. The short descriptive titles which were then supplied to single sonnets or to short sequences proved that the collection was regarded as a disconnected series of occasional poems in more or less amorous vein.

Lack of genuine sentiment in Elizabethan sonnets. Their dependence on French and Italian models.

In whatever order Shakespeare's sonnets be studied, the claim that has been advanced in their behalf to rank as autobiographical documents can only be accepted with many qualifications. Elizabethan sonnets were commonly the artificial products of the poet's fancy. A strain of personal emotion is occasionally discernible in a detached effort, and is vaguely traceable in a few sequences; but autobiographical confessions were very rarely the stuff of which the Elizabethan sonnet was made. The typical collection of Elizabethan sonnets was a mosaic of plagiarisms, a medley of imitative studies. Echoes of the French or of the Italian sonnetteers, with their Platonic idealism, are usually the dominant notes. The echoes often have a musical quality peculiar to themselves. Daniel's fine sonnet (xlix.) on 'Care-charmer, sleep,' although directly inspired by the French, breathes a finer melody than the sonnet of Pierre de Brach {101a} apostrophising 'le sommeil chasse-soin' (in the collection entitled 'Les Amours d'Aymee'), or the sonnet of Philippe Desportes invoking 'Sommeil, paisible fils de la nuit solitaire' (in the collection entitled 'Amours d'Hippolyte'). {101b} But, throughout Elizabethan sonnet literature, the heavy debt to Italian and French effort is unmistakable. {101c} Spenser, in 1569, at the outset of his literary career, avowedly translated numerous sonnets from Du Bellay and from Petrarch, and his friend Gabriel Harvey bestowed on him the title of 'an English Petrarch'—the highest praise that the critic conceived it possible to bestow on an English sonnetteer. {101d} Thomas Watson in 1582, in his collection of metrically irregular sonnets which he entitled '[Greek text], or A Passionate Century of Love,' prefaced each poem, which he termed a 'passion,' with a prose note of its origin and intention. Watson frankly informed his readers that one 'passion' was 'wholly translated out of Petrarch;' that in another passion 'he did very busily imitate and augment a certain ode of Ronsard;' while 'the sense or matter of "a third" was taken out of Serafino in his "Strambotti."' In every case Watson gave the exact reference to his foreign original, and frequently appended a quotation. {103a} Drayton in 1594, in the dedicatory sonnet of his collection of sonnets entitled 'Idea,' declared that it was 'a fault too common in this latter time' 'to filch from Desportes or from Petrarch's pen.' {103b} Lodge did not acknowledge his borrowings more specifically than his colleagues, but he made a plain profession of indebtedness to Desportes when he wrote: 'Few men are able to second the sweet conceits of Philippe Desportes, whose poetical writings are ordinarily in everybody's hand.' {103c} Giles Fletcher, who in his collection of sonnets called 'Licia' (1593) simulated the varying moods of a lover under the sway of a great passion as successfully as most of his rivals, stated on his title-page that his poems were all written in 'imitation of the best Latin poets and others.' Very many of the love-sonnets in the series of sixty-eight penned ten years later by William Drummond of Hawthornden have been traced to their sources in the Italian sonnets not merely of Petrarch, but of the sixteenth-century poets Guarini, Bembo, Giovanni Battista Marino, Tasso, and Sannazzaro. {104a} The Elizabethans usually gave the fictitious mistresses after whom their volumes of sonnets were called the names that had recently served the like purpose in France. Daniel followed Maurice Seve {104b} in christening his collection 'Delia;' Constable followed Desportes in christening his collection 'Diana;' while Drayton not only applied to his sonnets on his title-page in 1594 the French term 'amours,' but bestowed on his imaginary heroine the title of Idea, which seems to have been the invention of Claude de Pontoux, {104c} although it was employed by other French contemporaries.

Sonnetteers' admission of insincerity.

With good reason Sir Philip Sidney warned the public that 'no inward touch' was to be expected from sonnetteers of his day, whom he describes as

'[Men] that do dictionary's method bring Into their rhymes running in rattling rows; [Men] that poor Petrarch's long deceased woes With newborn sighs and denizened wit do sing.'

Sidney unconvincingly claimed greater sincerity for his own experiments. But 'even amorous sonnets in the gallantest and sweetest civil vein,' wrote Gabriel Harvey in 'Pierces Supererogation' in 1593, 'are but dainties of a pleasurable wit.' Drayton's sonnets more nearly approached Shakespeare's in quality than those of any contemporary. Yet Drayton told the readers of his collection entitled 'Idea' {105} (after the French) that if any sought genuine passion in them, they had better go elsewhere. 'In all humours sportively he ranged,' he declared. Giles Fletcher, in 1593, introduced his collection of imitative sonnets entitled 'Licia, or Poems of Love,' with the warning, 'Now in that I have written love sonnets, if any man measure my affection by my style, let him say I am in love. . . . Here, take this by the way . . . a man may write of love and not be in love, as well as of husbandry and not go to the plough, or of witches and be none, or of holiness and be profane.' {106a}

Contemporary censure of sonnetteers' false sentiment. 'Gulling Sonnets.'

The dissemination of false sentiment by the sonnetteers, and their monotonous and mechanical treatment of 'the pangs of despised love' or the joys of requited affection, did not escape the censure of contemporary criticism. The air soon rang with sarcastic protests from the most respected writers of the day. In early life Gabriel Harvey wittily parodied the mingling of adulation and vituperation in the conventional sonnet-sequence in his 'Amorous Odious Sonnet intituled The Student's Loove or Hatrid.' {106b} Chapman in 1595, in a series of sonnets entitled 'A Coronet for his mistress Philosophy,' appealed to his literary comrades to abandon 'the painted cabinet' of the love-sonnet for a coffer of genuine worth. But the most resolute of the censors of the sonnetteering vogue was the poet and lawyer, Sir John Davies. In a sonnet addressed about 1596 to his friend, Sir Anthony Cooke (the patron of Drayton's 'Idea'), he inveighed against the 'bastard sonnets' which 'base rhymers' 'daily' begot 'to their own shames and poetry's disgrace.' In his anxiety to stamp out the folly he wrote and circulated in manuscript a specimen series of nine 'gulling sonnets' or parodies of the conventional efforts. {107a} Even Shakespeare does not seem to have escaped Davies's condemnation. Sir John is especially severe on the sonnetteers who handled conceits based on legal technicalities, and his eighth 'gulling sonnet,' in which he ridicules the application of law terms to affairs of the heart, may well have been suggested by Shakespeare's legal phraseology in his Sonnets lxxxvii. and cxxiv.; {107b} while Davies's Sonnet ix., beginning:

'To love, my lord, I do knight's service owe'

must have parodied Shakespeare's Sonnet xxvi., beginning:

'Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage,' etc. {107c}

Shakespeare's scornful allusion to sonnets in his plays.

Echoes of the critical hostility are heard, it is curious to note, in nearly all the references that Shakespeare himself makes to sonnetteering in his plays. 'Tush, none but minstrels like of sonnetting,' exclaims Biron in 'Love's Labour's Lost' (IV. iii. 158). In the 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' (III. ii. 68 seq.) there is a satiric touch in the recipe for the conventional love-sonnet which Proteus offers the amorous Duke:

You must lay lime to tangle her desires By wailful sonnets whose composed rime Should be full fraught with serviceable vows . . . Say that upon the altar of her beauty You sacrifice your sighs, your tears, your heart.

Mercutio treats Elizabethan sonnetteers even less respectfully when alluding to them in his flouts at Romeo: 'Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in: Laura, to his lady, was but a kitchen-wench. Marry, she had a better love to be-rhyme her.' {108} In later plays Shakespeare's disdain of the sonnet is still more pronounced. In 'Henry V' (III. vii. 33 et seq.) the Dauphin, after bestowing ridiculously magniloquent commendation on his charger, remarks, 'I once writ a sonnet in his praise, and begun thus: "Wonder of nature!"' The Duke of Orleans retorts: 'I have heard a sonnet begin so to one's mistress.' The Dauphin replies: 'Then did they imitate that which I composed to my courser; for my horse is my mistress.' In 'Much Ado about Nothing' (V. ii. 4-7) Margaret, Hero's waiting-woman, mockingly asks Benedick to 'write her a sonnet in praise of her beauty.' Benedick jestingly promises one so 'in high a style that no man living shall come over it.' Subsequently (V. iv. 87) Benedick is convicted, to the amusement of his friends, of penning 'a halting sonnet of his own pure brain' in praise of Beatrice.


Slender autobiographical element in Shakespeare's sonnets. The imitative element.

At a first glance a far larger proportion of Shakespeare's sonnets give the reader the illusion of personal confessions than those of any contemporary, but when allowance has been made for the current conventions of Elizabethan sonnetteering, as well as for Shakespeare's unapproached affluence in dramatic instinct and invention—an affluence which enabled him to identify himself with every phase of emotion—the autobiographic element in his sonnets, although it may not be dismissed altogether, is seen to shrink to slender proportions. As soon as the collection is studied comparatively with the many thousand sonnets that the printing presses of England, France, and Italy poured forth during the last years of the sixteenth century, a vast number of Shakespeare's performances prove to be little more than professional trials of skill, often of superlative merit, to which he deemed himself challenged by the efforts of contemporary practitioners. The thoughts and words of the sonnets of Daniel, Drayton, Watson, Barnabe Barnes, Constable, and Sidney were assimilated by Shakespeare in his poems as consciously and with as little compunction as the plays and novels of contemporaries in his dramatic work. To Drayton he was especially indebted. {110} Such resemblances as are visible between Shakespeare's sonnets and those of Petrarch or Desportes seem due to his study of the English imitators of those sonnetteers. Most of Ronsard's nine hundred sonnets and many of his numerous odes were accessible to Shakespeare in English adaptations, but there are a few signs that Shakespeare had recourse to Ronsard direct.

Adapted or imitated conceits are scattered over the whole of Shakespeare's collection. They are usually manipulated with consummate skill, but Shakespeare's indebtedness is not thereby obscured. Shakespeare in many beautiful sonnets describes spring and summer, night and sleep and their influence on amorous emotion. Such topics are common themes of the poetry of the Renaissance, and they figure in Shakespeare's pages clad in the identical livery that clothed them in the sonnets of Petrarch, Ronsard, De Baif, and Desportes, or of English disciples of the Italian and French masters. {111} In Sonnet xxiv. Shakespeare develops Ronsard's conceit that his love's portrait is painted on his heart; and in Sonnet cxxii. he repeats something of Ronsard's phraseology in describing how his friend, who has just made him a gift of 'tables,' is 'character'd' in his brain. {112a} Sonnet xcix., which reproaches the flowers with stealing their charms from the features of his love, is adapted from Constable's sonnet to Diana (No. ix.), and may be matched in other collections. Elsewhere Shakespeare meditates on the theory that man is an amalgam of the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire (xl.-xlv.) {112b} In all these he reproduces, with such embellishments as his genius dictated, phrases and sentiments of Daniel, Drayton, Barnes, and Watson, who imported them direct from France and Italy. In two or three instances Shakespeare showed his reader that he was engaged in a mere literary exercise by offering him alternative renderings of the same conventional conceit. In Sonnets xlvi. and xlvii. he paraphrases twice over—appropriating many of Watson's words—the unexhilarating notion that the eye and heart are in perpetual dispute as to which has the greater influence on lovers. {113a} In the concluding sonnets, cliii. and cliv., he gives alternative versions of an apologue illustrating the potency of love which first figured in the Greek anthology, had been translated into Latin, and subsequently won the notice of English, French, and Italian sonnetteers. {113b}

Shakespeare's claims of immortality for his sonnets a borrowed conceit.

In the numerous sonnets in which Shakespeare boasted that his verse was so certain of immortality that it was capable of immortalising the person to whom it was addressed, he gave voice to no conviction that was peculiar to his mental constitution, to no involuntary exaltation of spirit, or spontaneous ebullition of feeling. He was merely proving that he could at will, and with superior effect, handle a theme that Ronsard and Desportes, emulating Pindar, Horace, Ovid, and other classical poets, had lately made a commonplace of the poetry of Europe. {114a} Sir Philip Sidney, in his 'Apologie for Poetrie' (1595) wrote that it was the common habit of poets to tell you that they will make you immortal by their verses. {114b} 'Men of great calling,' Nash wrote in his 'Pierce Pennilesse,' 1593, 'take it of merit to have their names eternised by poets.' {114c} In the hands of Elizabethan sonnetteers the 'eternising' faculty of their verse became a staple and indeed an inevitable topic. Spenser wrote in his 'Amoretti' (1595, Sonnet lxxv.)

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize, And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Drayton and Daniel developed the conceit with unblushing iteration. Drayton, who spoke of his efforts as 'my immortal song' (Idea, vi. 14) and 'my world-out-wearing rhymes' (xliv. 7), embodied the vaunt in such lines as:

While thus my pen strives to eternize thee (Idea xliv. 1). Ensuing ages yet my rhymes shall cherish (ib. xliv. 11). My name shall mount unto eternity (ib. xliv. 14). All that I seek is to eternize thee (ib. xlvii. 54).

Daniel was no less explicit

This [sc. verse] may remain thy lasting monument (Delia, xxxvii. 9). Thou mayst in after ages live esteemed, Unburied in these lines (ib. xxxix. 9-10). These [sc. my verses] are the arks, the trophies I erect That fortify thy name against old age; And these [sc. verses] thy sacred virtues must protect Against the dark and time's consuming rage (ib. l. 9-12).

Conceits in sonnets addressed to a woman.

Shakespeare, in his references to his 'eternal lines' (xviii. 12) and in the assurances that he gives the subject of his addresses that the sonnets are, in Daniel's exact phrase, his 'monument' (lxxxi. 9, cvii. 13), was merely accommodating himself to the prevailing taste. Characteristically in Sonnet lv. he invested the topic with a splendour that was not approached by any other poet: {115}

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; {116} But you shall shine more bright in these contents Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time. When wasteful war shall statues overturn, And broils root out the work of masonry, Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn The living record of your memory. 'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room Even in the eyes of all posterity That wear this world out to the ending doom. So, till the judgement that yourself arise, You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

The imitative element is no less conspicuous in the sonnets that Shakespeare distinctively addresses to a woman. In two of the latter (cxxxv.-vi.), where he quibbles over the fact of the identity of his own name of Will with a lady's 'will' (the synonym in Elizabethan English of both 'lust' and 'obstinacy'), he derisively challenges comparison with wire-drawn conceits of rival sonnetteers, especially of Barnabe Barnes, who had enlarged on his disdainful mistress's 'wills,' and had turned the word 'grace' to the same punning account as Shakespeare turned the word 'will.' {118a} Similarly in Sonnet cxxx. beginning

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red . . . If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head, {118b}

he satirises the conventional lists of precious stones, metals, and flowers, to which the sonnetteers likened their mistresses' features.

The praise of 'blackness.'

In two sonnets (cxxvii. and cxxxii.) Shakespeare amiably notices the black complexion, hair, and eyes of his mistress, and expresses a preference for features of that hue over those of the fair hue which was, he tells us, more often associated in poetry with beauty. He commends the 'dark lady' for refusing to practise those arts by which other women of the day gave their hair and faces colours denied them by Nature. Here Shakespeare repeats almost verbatim his own lines in 'Love's Labour's Lost'(IV. iii. 241-7), where the heroine Rosaline is described as 'black as ebony,' with 'brows decked in black,' and in 'mourning' for her fashionable sisters' indulgence in the disguising arts of the toilet. 'No face is fair that is not full so black,' exclaims Rosaline's lover. But neither in the sonnets nor in the play can Shakespeare's praise of 'blackness' claim the merit of being his own invention. Sir Philip Sidney, in sonnet vii. of his 'Astrophel and Stella,' had anticipated it. The 'beams' of the eyes of Sidney's mistress were 'wrapt in colour black' and wore 'this mourning weed,' so

That whereas black seems beauty's contrary, She even in black doth make all beauties flow. {119a}

To his praise of 'blackness' in 'Love's Labour's Lost' Shakespeare appends a playful but caustic comment on the paradox that he detects in the conceit. {119b} Similarly, the sonnets, in which a dark complexion is pronounced to be a mark of beauty, are followed by others in which the poet argues in self-confutation that blackness of feature is hideous in a woman, and invariably indicates moral turpitude or blackness of heart. Twice, in much the same language as had already served a like purpose in the play, does he mock his 'dark lady' with this uncomplimentary interpretation of dark-coloured hair and eyes.

The sonnets of vituperation.

The two sonnets, in which this view of 'blackness' is developed, form part of a series of twelve, which belongs to a special category of sonnetteering effort. In them Shakespeare abandons the sugared sentiment which characterises most of his hundred and forty-two remaining sonnets. He grows vituperative and pours a volley of passionate abuse upon a woman whom he represents as disdaining his advances. The genuine anguish of a rejected lover often expresses itself in curses both loud and deep, but the mood of blinding wrath which the rejection of a lovesuit may rouse in a passionate nature does not seem from the internal evidence to be reflected genuinely in Shakespeare's sonnets of vituperation. It was inherent in Shakespeare's genius that he should import more dramatic intensity than any other poet into sonnets of a vituperative type; but there is also in his vituperative sonnets a declamatory parade of figurative extravagance which suggests that the emotion is feigned and that the poet is striking an attitude. He cannot have been in earnest in seeking to conciliate his disdainful mistress—a result at which the vituperative sonnets purport to aim—when he tells her that she is 'black as hell, as dark as night,' and with 'so foul a face' is 'the bay where all men ride.'

Gabriel Harvey's 'Amorous Odious Sonnet.'

But external evidence is more conclusive as to the artificial construction of the vituperative sonnets. Again a comparison of this series with the efforts of the modish sonnetteers assigns to it its true character. Every sonnetteer of the sixteenth century, at some point in his career, devoted his energies to vituperation of a cruel siren. Ronsard in his sonnets celebrated in language quite as furious as Shakespeare's a 'fierce tigress,' a 'murderess,' a 'Medusa.' Barnabe Barnes affected to contend in his sonnets with a female 'tyrant,' a 'Medusa,' a 'rock.' 'Women' (Barnes laments) 'are by nature proud as devils.' The monotonous and artificial regularity with which the sonnetteers sounded the vituperative stop, whenever they had exhausted their notes of adulation, excited ridicule in both England and France. In Shakespeare's early life the convention was wittily parodied by Gabriel Harvey in 'An Amorous Odious sonnet intituled The Student's Loove or Hatrid, or both or neither, or what shall please the looving or hating reader, either in sport or earnest, to make of such contrary passions as are here discoursed.' {121} After extolling the beauty and virtue of his mistress above that of Aretino's Angelica, Petrarch's Laura, Catullus's Lesbia, and eight other far-famed objects of poetic adoration, Harvey suddenly denounces her in burlesque rhyme as 'a serpent in brood,' 'a poisonous toad,' 'a heart of marble,' and 'a stony mind as passionless as a block.' Finally he tells her,

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