Recently I’ve been pre-occupied with the question of whether I’ve ever truly been in love. Properly in love. Head over heels. The real thing. Friends and ex-friends might offer a few examples of when it was perfectly possible that I must have been, because of all the talking, but it’s in these moments, right how, when I can honestly say that I’m not, that I wonder if I ever have. Then, I look at Shakespeare and he offers answers, just a few, as he did yesterday when I spent many hours reading this Arden Third Edition of his sonnets.
The reason Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds…” is popular is because it neatly explains to us how when we are in love, the world can be falling about around us, the person we’re in love with might even be the cause and yet, something within us continues to see something within them that and to paraphrase Laura Fraser in the underrated sci-fi romance Virtual Sexuality, our heart goes “ping!” As he says, love “looks on tempests and is never shaken”.
Which is enough to convince me. But what’s surprising about Shakespeare’s Sonnets is that for all its reputation as a collection of “love” poems, it offers a vast spectrum of emotions, not just passion, but also the kinds of melancholy and disappointment which can only be caused by a lover or, um, prospective lover, especially when realising that they aren’t a paragon, a venus or in Shakespeare’s case, Adonis, or as a school friend once cuttingly said “and then she opened her mouth”.
That’s presumably why they’ve maintained such longevity and certainly considered in higher public regard than his narrative poems and A Lover’s Complaint which was included in the original 1609 Quarto edition and is reproduced here. Whomever the sonnets are written for and directed too, male or female, they capture the same universal truths inherent in the plays and if you’ve ever been as reticent as I have about diving in, as a body of work they’re indispensable.
Katherine Duncan-Jones co-edited the third edition of the poems, but her introduction to this edition is more closely related to her biography, as she wades into the various puzzles which the sonnets perennially throw up, the identities of the youth and dark lady, the dedicatee Mr. W.H., dating the sonnets, publication order and the authorship of A Lover’s Complaint, forever aware that she’s not the first and won’t be the last.
I’ve previously been convinced by Jonathan Bate’s suggestion that Shakespeare, instead of writing autobiographically when constructing the sonnets, had instead rather like Meatloaf and Beyonce created a character or series of characters and then wrote with their voice about fictitious situations and that since there isn’t any documentary evidence to prove anything, although speculation is fun, it has the effect of sullying rather than illuminating our understanding of the sonnets.
Perhaps sensing a potential reader will want something richer, Duncan-Jones dives headlong into her own a document trail (her Mr. WH is William Herbert, the Third Earl of Pembroke) before coming up for air to admit that she too is just speculating because there’s little in the way of hard evidence. The process is not unlike the madcap mayhem of an authorship theory, the key difference being that Duncan-Jones understand that these are just theories, not “solid facts” being criminally ignored.
More interesting are the passages related to how and when the sonnets were written. They’re a microcosm of the treatment of Shakespeare’s canon as a whole. Just as Hamlet’s dating has causes decades of controversy, so single sonnets have proved equally difficult to pin down. The scrutiny applied to these parcels of fourteen lines has been ludicrous especially since, as Duncan-Jones explains, many of them may have gone through the same kind of process of revision as Hamlet.
In gathering this work for publication, and Duncan-Jones is very clear that this is the order he chose even if he wasn’t directly involved at the printing stage, Shakespeare pulled texts from throughout his career in 1609 and arranged them for best expression. If a “story” can’t easily be constructed (though some have tried) there is at least an emotional narrative, especially in the opening hundred odd sonnets directed at the youth, from the first blossoms of infatuation to loss and disappointment.
As proof, there’s a startling section that suggests Shakespeare was also interested in numerology, thematically linking the sonnet to its number. “When I do count the clock which tells the time” is Sonnet 12 (the number of hours on a clock face) and although some of the other associations are looser, it’s clear that these weren’t just a loose collection of poems (a reputation brought about by poor posthumous editing) but as carefully structured as any of his best plays.
A thorough critical history replaces the usual production run found in other editions. The critical treatment of the sonnets have been typically inconsistent as writers and academics have found it impossible, even recently, to reconcile Shakespeare’s muse (or apparent muse) with societal prejudices about homosexuality, especially after Oscar Wilde championed them, by attempting to deny the textual evidence and suggest they’re all about the female even implying corruption by a later hand.
The ludicrousness of that position is highlighted by the fact those same critics are able to cope with the same authorial voice writing strong female characters who’re equally able to communicate their infatuations, females who would have been portrayed by male youngsters on stage. Only recently have critics been able to bring themselves to the point of realising that the muse is besides the point and that it’s possible to offer close readings without caring about the context.
So Duncan-Jones offers an important survey and contribution to these debates. Based more closely than usual on the 1609 Quarto (the exclamation mark is back in Sonnet 123, “No! Time though shalt not boast that I do change…”), each is presented with extensive notes on the facing page with a short explanatory note at the top. These compasses prove invaluable for navigating Shakespeare’s fragmentary maps of the human heart, another helping hand for those of us who’ve become lost along the way.
Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Revised Edition). Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1408017975. Review copy supplied.