I have a problem with Shakespeare's sonnets – I don't understand them and I'm sure I'm not alone. When I do look at them other than the odd line or two that has passed into cliché (e.g. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) means anything to me. They were never covered at school. At least I can't remember them being covered. If any were then it would most likely be Sonnet 18 from which the line I've just quoted comes. I always thought it was a love poem. By that I mean I thought it was a poem expressing romantic love. And I naturally assumed that the poet is addressing a woman, perhaps the Dark Lady whoever she was even though she is not explicitly mentioned.
Nope. It's a poem about two blokes.
Okay, so are we saying that Shakespeare was gay? Certainly there are those who have argued that he was at least bisexual but that's not the kind of love we're talking about here. This poem we're being told these days is about platonic love. Or maybe not. Homosexuals – not that the word even existed in Shakespeare's day – cannot procreate, not in a biological sense, but they can produce something jointly that will last. This poem is an example of that. The final line reads: So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. In other words this poem required two things to come into existence, the ability of the poet and the beauty of its subject, be that a male or a female.
What is interesting is that this follows the seventeen procreation sonnets so called because they all argue that the young man to whom they are addressed should marry and father children. In the eighteenth sonnet the notion of producing a child is set firmly in the realm of metaphor.
So, who is the subject of this poem? We do not know for sure but there are two main candidates for the position. Most believe it was either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. If the latter, it has been suggested that the seventeen sonnets correspond in number to Herbert's age at the time.
In his novel The Sonnets, author Warwick Collins opts for Wriothesley, who just happens to have been a patron of Shakespeare. (Wriothesley apparently is pronounced "Risly" You've gotta love the English language haven't you?) There are 154 sonnets in total and the bulk of them, 126 in total, are addressed to this young man, the first of three characters that appear in these poems, the Fair Youth.
Collins then sets himself a task: to try and extract a plot from these sonnets that would in fact revolve around the time when he believes they would have been written. He clearly also aimed to be as accurate as possible and, after doing a bit of research myself, I find that he has been. Of course he has had to make certain choices along the way but on the whole he has made those choices from the available facts or most commonly accepted theories.
So, we've established that he's decided the young man is Henry Wriothesley. Fine. Why then would Shakespeare a) be writing him sonnets in the first place and b) be encouraging him to get married? The answers are simple. In 1592 due to the prevalence of the bubonic plague all London theatres were closed thus leaving a lot of out of work actors. What did Shakespeare do at this time? Collins suggests that he was taken in by Wriothesley and stayed with him until the ban was lifted in 1594. During that time he occupied himself working on two plays, Richard III and Love's Labours Lost and writing his collection of sonnets. The fact is that we do not know exactly when the sonnets were written – this period in Shakespeare's life is part of his "lost years" – but Collins' plot makes sense historically. If he was living with his patron one would expect him to sing for his supper. That covers point a).
To answer b) we need to know a bit about Wriothesley. Henry Wriothesley succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1581 and became a royal ward under the care of Lord Burghley, probably Queen Elizabeth's most trusted advisor. Educated at the University of Cambridge and at Gray’s Inn, London, he was 17 years old when he was presented at court, where he was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. If the sonnets were indeed addressed to Southampton, the earlier ones urging marriage upon him must have been written before the beginning (1595) of his relationship with Elizabeth Vernon, cousin of the Earl of Essex, which ended in 1598 with a hasty marriage that brought down Queen Elizabeth's anger on both the contracting parties, who spent some time in the Fleet prison in consequence.
But this still doesn't answer why Shakespeare was putting pressure on his patron. What was the big deal? He was a young man and so surely there was no rush. Well, there was no great rush but it does seem to have mattered who he married. I mentioned that he was a royal ward; well one of the chief rights of guardians was to nominate who they might marry. In Wriothesley's case he was commanded to marry Burghley's own granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth de Vere. If he refused then he would be fined the crippling sum of £5000 which, in 1594, when he came of age (that would be twenty-one), he duly paid.
1594 is after this book ends though so let's not get ahead of ourselves. You might well imagine the pressure his family would be putting on this young man to do the right thing. Well, you'd be wrong. They wrote poems at him, at least they – and by 'they' I mean his mother – commissioned Shakespeare to produce a number of sonnets encouraging her son to marry. These were obviously very different times.
There is also another issue here. Wriothesley's mother, the Countess, was a Catholic, from one of the most illustrious and leading Catholic families in England; the queen, Elizabeth, was a Protestant and religion was a big deal in the 16th century. So there's a whole religious undercurrent to this story that Collins barely touches on but I suspect this is for good reason, the boy is nineteen and his passions are being directed elsewhere.
The book opens with the narrator, Shakespeare himself, standing on the bank of a lake watching his patron take an early morning swim. After a short dip he calls out:
"Will you not swim, Master Shakespeare?"
I did not answer.
"Come, gentle man," he sang out. "Swim with me."
I, the nominative, smiled to myself and answered, "I prefer to keep a watch, my lord!"
"Come," he repeated. "The animals will not run far. If they do, we'll catch 'em."
Alas, he thought my concern was with the horses. Around us lay an unsettled land, the woods had spies in them, and there were those whose loyalty was to the other great families – a number of whom did not wish him well. Yet he regarded himself an invulnerable. If I were not here, he would have let the horses wander and have happily chased them for a morning, naked and alone, without a thought for himself or for those who might see him in a state of nature.
Out on the lake my lord still swam. Now he turned and sang out to me in his clear, melodious voice, "Come, live with me, and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove."
I observed him laugh at his own joke – knowing that he quoted Christopher Marlowe at me, and aware that it fretted at my profession of poet and incited my jealousy. He enjoyed reminding me that our great Marlowe also vied for his patronage. Perhaps, too, he relished the suggestion that Marlowe would be more responsive than I to his playful overtures.
There is some evidence that Marlowe was making erotic advances to the Earl targeting him in his poem 'Hero and Leander' but the evidence as to whether Marlowe was a practicing homosexual is slim; to those who want him to be he is. What he is though is the second character from The Sonnets, the Rival Poet; poems 77 – 86 refer to him. Other people have been put forth but Marlowe is the forerunner by a long shot.
So the book introduces us to a scene heavy with homo-erotic tension and it's not until page 30 where Collins lets Shakespeare makes it clear how he feels about his lord:
With a clean page before me, I began by praising my master's beauty as though he were my beloved mistress, at the same time asserting that my love was not physical, but spiritual.
So why is this young man not marrying? The subtext suggests that he is at the very least ambivalent about his sexuality. The sonnet that Shakespeare pens straight after these lines is Sonnet 20. In his analysis of the poem, Nigel Davis, has this to say:
[T[he poet here unequivocally states that the subject being made into a man removes any sexual dimension to their relationship and that he is "pricked out" specifically and exclusively for "womens' pleasure": the natural sentiments of a heterosexual man and the complete opposite of what you would expect from a homosexual man. Perhaps the author stating unequivocally that there is no prospect of sexual intimacy between the two of them is prompted by the subject being bisexual, if not homosexual. That the subject has needed so much prompting in the first 17 sonnets to get married and father children strongly supports this notion.
So why did Shakespeare continue to write what read like love poems to this man? G.B. Harrison, who edited the New York edition of Shakespeare: The Complete Works, observed: "It was a common belief in Shakespeare's time that the love of a man for his friend, especially his 'sworn brother,' was stronger and nobler than the love of man for woman". Okay, that makes sense.
Things change overnight however with the introduction of the third character from The Sonnets, the Dark Lady.
Now, whereas there's not much argument to be had about who the first two characters might be, there have been so many women put forth as the Dark Lady. Some thought she might be the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's brilliant sister. George Bernard Shaw proposed she was one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fitton, and even wrote his own play about her. Penelope Rich - the most powerful courtesan of her day and the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I - was another suggestion as has been the queen herself. Another theory was that she was the landlady of an Oxford inn and the mother of Shakespeare's supposed illegitimate son, Henry Davenant. She might have been Shakespeare's London landlady, the delightfully named Marie Mountjoy, or the black prostitute Luce Morgan, the "Abbess of Clerkenwell".
But in the 1970s, having studied the papers of the court apothecary and astrologer Simon Forman, the historian A L Rowse came up with the name of Emilia Bassano, daughter of a court musician and wife of another, Alphonse Lanier. Now this woman does appear in Collins' book and for a while he leads us down the garden path.
Emilia enters the plot in chapter 11. While in conversation with the Countess Shakespeare notices a small retinue in the courtyard and a dark-haired woman catches his eye:
"Who is the lady, madam?" I asked.
"Why, Master Shakespeare, I believe you are smitten."
Sensing her amusement, I replied, "You forbid my further interest?"
"An Italian whore," she said, "since you ask."
I added, as lightly as I could, "Handsome, even so."
It transpires that she is actually married to Lord Hudson, who has been Shakespeare's patron in the past and would be again in part due to Emilia's showing him a copy of The Taming of the Shrew but she does not have designs on Shakespeare, in fact, when he makes advances to her she bites his hand and soon thereafter disappears from the plot and leaves the position of the Dark Lady up for grabs.
Shakespeare is not the only guest his patron has staying with him.
There was another presence in that great house, one who hardly stirred from his rooms because of his labours, whose wife and several children I had seen mostly at a distance.
This turns out to be John Florio, an Italian scholar, an accomplished linguist and lexicographer, who, history records, was a great influence on Shakespeare. I'm sure it's a contrivance on Collins' part to have him in the house at the same time as Shakespeare (although it's historically accurate that he did live with the Earl for some years) but his presence there although enabling Shakespeare access to his personal library also provides the identity of the real Dark Lady, at least who Collins has decided the Dark Lady is going to be, Florio's first wife, Lucia, "a handsome dark-haired woman … in her middle twenties" with whom Shakespeare begins an affair. And then things get a little complicated.
I said the book was well-researched and so the fact that Florio is actually a spy comes as no great surprise. It has been suggested that Florio was employed by the efficient Elizabethan spy system under Sir Francis Walsingham because of his linguistic abilities but here Collins assigns him the role of plant and places him in the employ of Lord Burghley to a) provide added pressure on Wriothesley to marry and b) to report matters of interest back to him. Fortunately for all those involved, employing as spy a man who spends his every waking moment it seems huddled over his books was probably not the best decision Burghley ever made. But it does make things interesting.
Let me be clear, this book is not great literature and Collins is certainly no Shakespeare even when he tries his hand at writing a couple of sonnets in the Shakespearian style. As a work of fiction it's a great textbook though. This book does not pretend to present a factual account of the writing of The Sonnets but it does provide a plausible account within a framework of facts that can be agreed upon. Remember we're talking about the "lost years" here. No one knows for sure what went on and it's not as if Shakespeare sat down and wrote his memoirs before he died to put the record straight. In the books afterword Collins has this to say for himself:
Anyone who attempts to write on the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets approaches these great and mysterious works with considerable trepidation.
My own chief interest in writing The Sonnets was not so much to attempt to explore the social or physical world in which Shakespeare lived, as the landscape of his mind – the mind that produced his unprecedented body of work and which is, to some extent, revealed to us most directly in the poems themselves.
Given this background, it seemed to me that my approach should be to attempt to create a narrative frame for as many of Shakespeare's sonnets as could reasonably be incorporated (eventually some thirty-two poems were used) and to allow those sonnets – each reproduced in full – a leading role in creating that 'colour'.
And, for the most part, he succeeds. We see a day's events unfold and there's our Bard-to-be scribbling away in the night:
I burnt my nightly hours as he inferred, confined to my small room, bent over my formal rhythms, counting the beats on my fingers, feeling for the thread of sense which would hold together the discreet observations and soaring praises they would contain.
Okay, it's a little clichéd but it never tips over into caricature. And, again for the most part, things are played straight-faced. The only time Collins lets his guard slip is when – and anyone who watches the TV show Smallville will know exactly what I'm talking about – he slips in a quote (or misquote) to amuse his audience:
"Play on, madam," I said, remembering a line on which I had been working, feeling for the scansion in some recess of my memory. "If love be the food of music," I said, "play on." That didn't sound quite right. I resolved to work upon it.
By his third attempt, I think, he gets it right. That kind of thing worked fine in the Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code but it felt like a cheap shot here. He doesn't milk it and I have to say had I been writing the book I would have found them hard to resist, too.
The question has to be asked: Will this book encourage people to want to discover more about Shakespeare? I don't know. Did the country's theatres suddenly find themselves playing to packed houses after Shakespeare in Love was aired? I don't know. Certainly the film makes no pretence at consistent historical authenticity and that is not something that can be said about this book.
It's a novel. It can be read as pure entertainment. It can be read in a couple of hours. The story is not complex and the characters are only as deep as they need to be. I didn't find this a problem. Indeed it's very Shakespearean – and here I'm thinking about his plays – which don't burden us with loads of exposition and yet manage to suggest wars going on just off-stage and we buy into it.
Despite being 250 pages in length I'm sure if a word-count was done this would only be a novella – there is a lot of white space in this book. And I think that's why I found the book an easy read, it was well spaced-out and I didn't find myself going cross-eyed as I struggled to keep my place on the page. That is an important thing to me these days.
I didn't like the cover. There's nothing wrong with the cover. It's competently done with the title nicely embossed but it would sit quite happily on a table full of bodice-rippers and not look out of place. And I expect that's where a lot of booksellers who simply don't have the time to peruse every book they're intending on selling will put it. Which will mean only a certain demographic will buy it. I would never have given it a second glance myself. I only considered reading it because an unsolicited review copy arrived one day. And, much to my surprise, I actually found I enjoyed it.
Marketing is a strange science at the best of time. And this is a strange book. It's not a literary novel but it delves into literary things. Not as deeply as I might have liked but enough to show people that there is much more to The Sonnet than a bunch of dated love poems.
If you have any interest at all in The Sonnets then this is a fine place to start your investigations.
Needless to say there are sites aplenty online that you can access with information on Shakespeare, many of which provide analyses of the sonnets. I would draw your attention particularly to:
william-shakespeare.org.uk - the timeline is very helpful
Warwick Collins is British novelist, screenwriter, and yacht designer. His first poems were published in the magazine Encounter during his early twenties. He has published eight novels, including The Rationalist, Gents and The Marriage of Souls. Gents, recently republished after 10 years, was widely reviewed as a literary classic. He maintains a blog which he updates rarely. More detailed information about him can be obtained from Wikipedia.
The Sonnets is published by HarperCollins under The Friday Project imprint. The Friday Project which was originally an independent publisher notable for being the only print publisher wholly concerned with finding material on the web and then turning it into traditional books. Following poor Christmas sales in 2007 it went into liquidation in March 2008. In May of that year HarperCollins bought certain assets of the company from its administrator and subsequently released this paperback in April 2009.