Any reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets is, perforce, a virtuoso performance, since the reader is thrust into no less than four distinct but contiguous roles, from the part of the speaker to the parts of his postulated ‘listeners’ – the fair young man, dark lady and rival poet. And just as the reader’s performance is shaped by his or her cultural inheritance, so too is that of the writer. Thus Shakespeare’s characters are, I argue, products not only of his imagination but of his environment as well, in that each one embodies certain concerns – or themes – which correspond to aspects of the playwright’s world.
Hence the young man, his vanity and aloofness to the fore, tells us something about Elizabethan attitudes towards sexuality, while the dark lady, with her hint of danger and dominance, and the rival poet, with his aura of skill and competitiveness, give us an insight into contemporaneous views of politics and art respectively.
Of greater import, perhaps, owing to his ubiquity, is the speaker of the sonnets, whose preoccupation with life, death and decay not only reveals much about the status of religion in the Elizabethan world but, as we shall see, exposes the tension at the heart of life in Shakespeare’s day: the inescapable disjunction between personal and communal belief, and between private and public behaviour.
In narrative terms, Shakespeare’s series of sonnets tells the story of a man twice in love: with a ‘sweet’ but inaccessible boy (courted, for a time, by a rival poet) and with, we are told, a wanton and wilful woman. First, then, to the boy – he who is famously ‘more lovely’ than a summer’s day (18.1–2) and he who must, despite his vanity (1.5) and aloofness (4.9), take pains to perpetuate himself, that ‘thereby beauty’s rose might never die’ (1.2).
He is urged to do so, at first, in the orthodox manner – by becoming ‘sweet husband to another’ (8.9), with whom he might father a son (7.14). Before long, though, the message begins to change. ‘You should live twice: in it [a child], and in my rhyme,’ he is now advised (17.14). Ultimately, marriage and procreation are counselled no more; from Sonnet 18 onward it is the speaker – with his love and his ability to transform beauty into words – who holds the key to immortality.
Thus, the youth, initially posited as a masculine figure – a potential husband and father – later assumes a more feminised form, as the object of the male speaker’s affection; his gender, therefore, strikes us as unfathomable and unfixed, a single setting on a sliding scale of sexuality. This ambiguous view of gender is characteristic of Shakespeare’s time (Traub 131).
The speaker’s twofold approach is telling for second reason. As we have seen, he begins by championing the socially acceptable heterosexual solution to the problem of self-perpetuation, only to lapse into what appears to be an expression of his private view: that a different kind of relationship – one between men – is preferable. Here, then, we glimpse, in the form of the speaker, the dualism that marked his creator’s age. ‘Such civil war,’ the speaker tells us, ‘is in my love and hate’ (35.12).
For her part, the dark lady is a more sinister figure, one who possesses an irresistible allure and yet is found wanting in virtue – ‘In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds’ (131.13) – and one deemed both worthy and unworthy of the speaker’s devotion – of love which is a ‘disease’ (147.2). Indeed, it is her apparent two-facedness – her black beauty (127.3) – which dominates the later sonnets, since she is at once an object of desire and of revulsion; a ‘tyrannous’ but ‘most precious jewel’ (131.1 and 4).
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this dual depiction reveals something about sexual politics in Shakespeare’s age, a time wherein, for a start, the ‘bonds between sex and morbidity were affirmed with renewed vigour’ (MacKenzie 22), and wherein, therefore, aristocrats had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward carnal love. As the inner conflict experienced by Shakespeare’s speaker suggests – ‘I against myself with thee partake’ (149.2) – sex was viewed in some circles as a necessary evil, a ‘hell’ (129.14) ‘[e]njoyed no sooner but despisèd straight’ (129.5). ‘Desire,’ says the speaker, ‘is death’ (147.8), with women being cast as ‘murderers’ – dangerous creatures constrained only by the dictates of duty (Greenblatt, ‘General Introduction’ 11). Thus, the sonnets attest to a constrast in the way women were viewed: in public, with suspicion and scorn, and in private, as objects of desire.
Furthermore, at a time when women were ‘denied any rightful claim to institutional authority or personal autonomy’ (Greenblatt, ‘General Introduction’ 9), Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne proved a ‘source of anxiety and amazement for most of her subjects . . .’ (Henderson 7). Here, then, we encounter yet another rift: a tension between the way individuals conceptualised their society – as one dominated by men (Traub 131) – and the way it was, since England at the time was ruled by a woman.
This tension is evident in the sonnets, wherein the speaker often addresses the lady as if she were a female monarch – a personage, that is, to whom he must pay lip service, albeit one he secretly doubts and despises (hence 150.1–4). As for Elizabeth’s legendary duplicity – she repeatedly ‘played one power off against another’ (Greenblatt, ‘General Introduction’ 20–21) – this is often alluded to by the speaker, most notably, perhaps, in Sonnet 138, wherein he tellingly remarks, ‘O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust . . .’ (11).
These two characters also tell us something about Elizabethan poetry. Like the young man before her, the dark lady is attractive (in her way) and unfaithful; but, unlike that distant chilly figure, whose treatment conforms to Petrarchan conventions, she is available to the speaker (‘lust’ having seen ‘action’ [129.2]) and, as a consequence, is presented as a cruel and contemptible being.
Here we see at work the ‘mechanism of disillusion in lustful sexuality [that] eventually drives out’ – of this series of sonnets and of the English love lyric in general – ‘the opposing mechanism of Petrarchian idealisation’ (Kerrigan and Braden 183). In this sense, then, the change in the speaker’s attitude – his loss of innocence, as it were – reflects the ‘refraction’ that took place in English poetics in the seventeenth century.
This brings us to the rival poet, who competes with the speaker, not only in artistic terms – to do justice to their shared theme – but in professional terms too, since they seem to vie with one another for the affection of the young man, whose fictitious favours probably encompass patronage itself.
It is clear, then, that the two poets are trying to outdo one another in ingenuity and invention – ‘Let him but copy what in you is writ’ (84.9) – while it seems that much more than pride is at stake (hence Sonnet 80, for example, with its ‘Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat’ ). Here we catch a glimpse of literary life in Shakespeare’s day, when the artistic ambitions of poets helped make sonnet sequences popular (Cohen 1939–1940), and the ‘instability of the theatre and the general tightening of censorship made patronage an important element in the survival of a poet’ (Sokolova 393).
Even a superficial reading of the sonnets reveals that the speaker is preoccupied with and disturbed by the idea of death – with the inevitable passing of beauty and life (e.g. Sonnets 71 and 73). As we have seen, the speaker seeks solace by suggesting that death can be cheated through procreation and poetry; oddly enough, though, he makes no direct appeal to a higher power (e.g. 6.11–14), although he often resorts to religious imagery – everything from ‘sacred majesty’ (7.4) to ‘Eve’s apple’ (93.13).
This bespeaks of two things: the pervasiveness of Christianity in Shakespeare’s day and the religious turmoil of the time (Greenblatt, ‘General Introduction’ 17–18). If, as seems likely, Shakespeare was a Catholic in an age when this was unlawful (Cox 543), he would have had to conceal his faith – indeed, to have had, perhaps like his father before him, ‘not so much a double life as a double consciousness’ (Greenblatt, Will in the World 103). Here, again, the clash between public and private belief is perceptible.
Much can be gleaned from the personae of Shakespeare’s sonnets, since they are as much products of his environment as they are of his imagination. The sweet boy and dark lady tell us something of the Elizabethans’ ambiguous attitudes toward gender, sexuality and politics, while the rival poet attests, amongst other things, to the competitiveness of London’s literary scene.
Moreover, in the all-important speaker we encounter a figure at odds with both himself – ‘deeply divided . . . to achieve unity of being’ (Winny 208) – and his society. Above all else, therefore, the sonnets embody the inconsistency – the ‘false subtleties’ (138.4) – of his world and his creator.
 ‘A play [or indeed any work] by Shakespeare is related to the contexts of its production . . .’ (Dollimore and Sinfield viii).
 ‘Early modern England was a culture of contradictions . . .’ (Traub 131).
 According to Peter Erickson, this tension is also at the heart of Shakespeare’s epyllions, whose ‘primary wish . . . is the elimination of the threat of Elizabeth’s power’ (41).
 The ‘mood’ of these sonnets is one of frustration, and they feature ‘prolonged imaginative aggrandizement’ of the beloved, both of which are ‘core passions’ of the Petrarchan love lyric (Kerrigan and Braden 160).
 The term is used by Kerrigan and Braden (183).
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Was He?’ Christianity and Literature 55.4 (2006): 539–565. PDF.
Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield. ‘Cultural Materialism.’ Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985. vii–viii. Print.
Erickson, Peter. Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. PDF.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘General Introduction.’ Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1–78. Print.
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MacKenzie, Clayton G. ‘Love, Sex and Death in Romeo and Juliet.’ English Studies 88.1 (2007): 22–42. PDF.
Shakespeare, William. ‘Sonnets.’ Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1946–1999. Print.
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2002. 392–403. PDF.
Traub, Valerie. ‘Gender and sexuality in Shakespeare.’ Eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells. The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 129–146. Print.
Winny, James. The Master-Mistress, A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968. Print.
I wrote this essay in 2012 for a third-year undergraduate unit named Shakespeare, as part of an Arts degree offered by Macquarie University, Sydney.
The essay scored well but was criticised for its overly-ambitious scope and awkward style.
Guilty as charged!