William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

A man urges a younger man, of much higher social status, to consider his duty to have children for his own good and that of his family:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
(Sonnet No. 2)

Persuasion along this line is kept up by means of ingenious arguments and parallels; and as it continues the poet-pleader finds his relation to the other man insensibly altering. A new note of involuntary intimacy creeps into the urgent respect of his demeanor.

O that you were your self! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live.
(No. 13)

Without ceasing to be respectful the poet becomes first familiar, then passionate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:…
(No. 22)

He feels he has the other’s heart, even if he has just lost his own, and he has it “not to give back again.” Nothing can be done about it, but the friend is urged “to read what silent love hath writ,” and learn to “hear with eyes” (No. 23). Whatever the friend’s beauty may suggest, he is not physically a woman, so there can be no question of sex between them (a joke is made of this), but the friend is both fickle and coquettish and is soon upsetting his poet, who “has still the loss,” even if the other repents of his wanton behavior (No. 34). The poet is too much in love to feel bitter, but he wonders at himself and at the irrevocable damage that this passion has done him, wasting not only his heart but his precious time.

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
(No. 57)

The most penetrating of these love complaints, and the one, it may be, most painfully recognized by the reader’s own experience of falling in love, is Shakespeare’s sense of the loved one’s casual indifference, however much he may “play along” with the poet’s infatuation. Sonnet 61 presents us with the bitter knowledge that the loved one shows no jealousy, or even curiosity, about what his friend (or slave) may be up to when they are apart, while the man who feels true love is devoured with speculation and anxiety on just this point. This, for the poet, is the great test of the real thing, and he concludes, “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great.”

The poet’s only hope is that his verses on the young man’s beauty will outlast time itself. But even here there is a sudden danger, for the young nobleman has begun to extend his patronage to a rival poet. “The proud full sail” (No. 86) of the other poet’s verse is not the problem, only that our poet’s own genius will forsake him and be “enfeebled” if the other is preferred. He continues to love, but he is also sad and disillusioned.

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
(No. 87)

The poet meditates on his own loss, on the nature of “They that have pow’r to hurt,” and by implication on the discovery, not so different from that made by the novelist Scott Fitzgerald three hundred years or so later, that “the rich are different from you and me.”

But the worst is yet to come. The poet has a dark-haired girlfriend, and to distract himself he now takes to praising her by dispraise. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” No. 130) In a sudden dramatic revelation, we learn that the friend has met the girl, who has always led the poet on, and she has bewitched him until he is now as much involved as the poet himself. The poet addresses her forcefully:

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed…
(No. 133)

The friend must not be blamed: indeed by a paradox, and though unavailingly, he has done the generous thing.

Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me;
He pays the whole, and yet I am not free.
(No. 134)

And so the poet is left with two loves “of comfort and despair.”

The better angel is a man right fair;
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
(No. 144)

The drama is over. Has it all been made up? Was it an ingenious piece of virtual reality, a “real” play, invented by a poet-dramatist, perhaps to flatter and to fascinate a clever young grandee to whom the poet was genuinely and deeply attracted? Did the poet want not merely support and patronage but the equality of regard and affection given each other by two men who fall in love? Or was it only a make-believe, a lyric exercise that developed at the magic touch of a master playwright?


Ah, that’s the question, as Pushkin, another great and enigmatical poet, was in the habit of saying. It is the question at least for most of the critics, historians, and Shakespeare buffs who have considered the sonnets, but not for a more austere minority. In her learned and equable way Helen Vendler is the latest of the critics to disregard all the fuss, and in-stead to concentrate, as her title makes plain, on how the poetry of the Sonnets works: What notes and harmonies, familiar and unsuspected, are there for critic and reader to ponder over and to trace out?

She recognizes of course that a real man, Shakespeare, must himself be involved. In what way might the art of his sonnets involve an actual experience? Other writers, past or present, might themselves help to answer that question. Anthony Powell, doyen at ninety-two of English novelists, and one who has created a panorama of English society, has remarked on several occasions nonetheless that a writer can do no other than “write what he is.”

The dictum is worth pondering in relation not only to more or less modern novelists but to great writers in the past. In what sense did Homer or Dante or Shakespeare write themselves? Dante perhaps did so most clearly, through peopling hell, purgatory, and heaven with his acquaintances and contemporaries. As a dramatist Shakespeare is telling tragic or comic histories, telling them no doubt in his own way; as a sonneteer he had license, if he wanted it, to be present himself among his own dramatis personae. The sonnet form had traditionally been used for the purpose: its structure had even evolved to give the impression that it was being so used. “Fool! said my muse to me,” exclaimed Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophel and Stella, “look in thy heart and write.” The exhortation becomes conventional. Nonetheless Wordsworth, himself the most confiding of poets, took it at face value, and wrote in admiration of the Elizabethan sonnet form that “with this key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “If so, the less Shakespeare he!” retorted Browning.

Browning held that the Bard had given nothing away, while Wordsworth assumed that his handling of the sonnet form had done the job for him. The point at issue becomes tautologous, or a truism, if we assume with Anthony Powell that a writer has no choice but to write what he is, or, as Henry James more circumspectly put it, “to be present on every page from which he so laboriously sought to remove himself.” In relation to the vast volumes of speculation that have been begotten by Shakespeare’s Sonnets the point seems important, however illusory it may turn out to be, and it is this that has divided the scholars, roughly speaking, into two camps: those who hold that a “real story,” and a fascinating one, is present in the Sonnets; and those who maintain that in his sonnet sequence Shakespeare is both novelist and dramatist, transmuting invention into the passion, or dispassion, of art, writing himself, rather than about what had actually happened to him.

Commentators in every age have given us much by way of elaborate argument, and yet the problem—if indeed it is one—is no nearer solution. Scholars in the first camp hold that there must be a solution, though it may never be found. Those in the second maintain that the whole concept of a “real story” is meaningless. Helen Vendler, wisest and most penetrating of today’s close critics, chooses to approach the Sonnets—not the “problem” of the Sonnets—by a different route. She takes for granted what is obvious, and yet about which so much ink has been spilled: that the emotions—sex, love, jealousy, envy, despair, and longing, to name only a few—are all present in the Sonnets, and in the peculiarly intense and virulent shape that art and experience can give to this particular verse form. Inevitably the emotions become dramatized into a story about a real story; inevitably that story is the author’s, though not necessarily about him. The point can be waived.

Of course many readers prefer not to do so, in which case the Sonnets are, so to speak, perfectly happy to oblige. The Elizabethan historian A.L. Rowse is sure that his erudition in the period has revealed to him who the Dark Lady really was, what references Shakespeare makes to the Spanish Armada—the “mortal moon”—to Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Southampton, and many other events and persons of the time. Such references may be all a part of the enigmatic melody of the Sonnets, their “unity of play,” as Helen Vendler puts it—a byproduct of “all the language games in which words can participate”; or they may be as real and humdrum as the news of the day we take for granted when we converse with friends. As Vendler briskly shows, Shakespeare when he wanted could write a masterly sonnet expounding a well-known historical reference, as he does at the end of Henry V. But the Sonnets in themselves are a different matter. Within them public and private event are equally equivocal, and aesthetically speaking equally irrelevant.


The Oxford Elizabethan scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones has just published an edition of the Sonnets in the classic Arden Shakespeare, whose introduction gives us a fascinating and persuasive study of the “human” element in the Sonnets. She comes down squarely on the side of Shakespeare’s being a homosexual, or perhaps discovering his homosexuality in his own amazement at his growing passion for the beautiful nobleman, and the intensity with which he found his art recording it. She also inclines to the view that this nobleman was the Earl of Pembroke rather than the Earl of Southampton (both incidentally had well-known homosexual inclinations) and that some of the sonnets are therefore quite late, written, or perhaps rewritten and revised, not long before they were first published in 1609.

All these and many other such suppositions have of course been made many times before; but a good critic and scholar can always give them a new twist or relevance in line with the state of critical art and psychosocial fashion. Human interest will be interpreted in every age in its own way. Nor should we discount the “feel” of the thing, which a good reader himself cannot help but be aware of. As Vendler implies, Shakespeare encourages alertness in his readers, even though that readiness of response should, she feels, compel the reader to wonder more about what Auden called the “verbal contraption” than about his question of “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” Nonetheless, the guy inside the poem cannot help in some sense writing himself, even though what most matters for Vendler is what she calls “the aesthetic challenge for Shakespeare in writing these poems.”

It cannot be wholly irrelevant, as it is certainly always intriguing, to ask the kind of questions the new Arden edition of the Sonnets suggests; even to give the kind of answers proposed by the “sociopsychological” critic Eve Sedgwick, whom Vendler quotes with mild disapproval. For Sedgwick the Sonnets “seem to offer a single, discursive, deeply felt narrative of the daggers and vicissitudes of one male homosocial adventure.” Oscar Wilde and many others felt much the same thing, for the Sonnets, like the plays, have the kind of art which offers itself with total generosity to whatever kind of guy the reader may happen to be. They read us, even as we read them.

Subjective though it may be, the “feel” of the thing cannot be disregarded. In 1595 the poet and playwright Richard Barnfield published twenty sonnets addressed to Gany-mede, the only sequence in the period apart from Shakespeare’s that are directed to a man, and these are explicitly homosexual in character, so obviously so that they point up Shakespeare’s lack of any discernible sexual warmth in that direction. Marlowe’s plays, too, are homosexual in feeling and frequently in theme, and, unlike Shakespeare’s, display no vigorously and sexually alive female characters. It is not the shadowy figure of the nobleman but the sexual personality of the Dark Lady which is most alive in the Sonnets, and inspires the most powerful and involuntary emotions of love-hatred. As Vendler says, “It is suggestive that the speaker repeatedly and obsessively dwells on the promiscuity of his mistress, and that he remains baffled…by her power to arouse him.” Freud, she notes, recorded in one of his essays “the case of men who can be sexually aroused (when the object is a woman) only by a woman known to be promiscuous.”

Nonetheless, critics who try to pluck out a mystery at the heart of the Sonnets usually wish to detect, like Eve Sedgwick, a “homosocial adventure.” It is for this reason that she wishes to treat the Sonnets like a novel. The many readers who are tempted to regard the sequence in this way are undoubtedly conditioned by the true novel—especially it may be the Jamesian novel—to the point where they confuse an enigmatic relation in poetry with a concealed or undercover one in the very different world of the society novel.

Vendler remarks on how well the structure of the whole sequence “mimics the structure of thinking,” and she might have added that it appears to mimic, too, all the nuances to which the novel has accustomed us. But her conclusion is an uncompromising one. The true actors “in lyric” are words and not persons, and “a coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate.” It may be impossible all the same, at least where the modern reader is concerned, for heterosexuals not to feel that the overall “feel” of the Sonnets is heterosexual, while for homosexuals it is the other way round. Marlowe, like Barnfield, represents in his poems and plays a pretty unambiguous case, whereas Shakespeare here, as usual, is all things to all men, presenting us with what Dryden and Dr. Johnson used to refer to as his “comprehensiveness” and his “universality.”

Vendler dryly observes that

the persistent wish to turn the sequence into a novel (or a drama) speaks to the interest of the sociopsychological critic, whose aim is less to inquire into the successful carrying-out of a literary project than to investigate the representation of gender relations.

“It is perhaps a tribute to Shakespeare’s ‘reality-effect,”‘ she writes, alluding to Sedgwick, that “‘one wishes the Sonnets were a novel’, but it does no good to act as if these lyrics were either a novel or a documentary of a lived life.” Her main point is precisely that a literary project is being successfully carried out in the Sonnets, but the arguments she uses for this purpose can only be two-edged, in that they would merely confirm for lovers of the poet’s “reality-effect” that he is here going to the heart of the matter: even deliberately “seeing through” the conventions and pretensions of Elizabethan sonnet language.

What Vendler has to say about Sonnet 20 is a good example. No patron, as she points out, and patrons were the usual recipients of sonnet sequences, was ever addressed in language like this.

A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;…

She has already expounded what is for her the crux of the matter.

Aesthetically speaking, it is what a lyric does with its borrowed social languages…that is important. Shakespeare is unusually rich in his borrowing of diction and formulas from patronage, from religion, from law, from courtship, from diplomacy, from astronomy, and so on; but he tends to be a blasphemer in all of these realms. He is a master subverter of the languages he borrowed, and the point of literary interest is not the fact of his borrowings but how he turned them inside out…. There is no social discourse which he does not interrogate and ironize.

The critic in search of a novel in the Sonnets can of course retort, even though it must be anachronistic to do so, that Shakespeare has deliberately, and quite literally, taken the hint in Sir Philip Sidney’s famous line, and so has looked into his heart and written, subverting all the conventional artificiality of sonnet language in order to show the reader how and why he is doing it. There could be an analogy here with the development of the novel itself, striving ever in diction and in feeling for greater “realism.” But just as the novel cannot crawl out from under the net of language and linguistic patterning, and can only replace one form of convention with another, so it must also be with the language of poetry. Vendler’s point, and it is a profoundly true one, is that Shakespeare’s subversion of diction is never a “debunking” process, but is a fascinating and unsettling intellectual game, designed to reveal how emotion and expression interact, and how the play of language can reveal the hidden perplexities of thought and feeling.


After an introduction both comprehensive and conclusive, Vendler prints each sonnet both in the Quarto and in the modern text, together with a commentary on each. These she tells us are not intended to be read consecutively, but as accompaniment to each sonnet as the reader may chance or choose to study it.

A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
(No. 20)

The “master-mistress” is Shakespeare’s personal and entirely novel trope. It was quite conventional of the sonneteer to address the sequence to his “mistress,” the word in that context conveying not so much a sexual as a social and worshipful relationship. Shakespeare’s coinage not only sharply reminds us of this basic ambiguity in the word but creates a new sort of ambiguity. “Master Mistress” (the suggestiveness of the phrase is more apparent in Quarto form) crosses up all the wires. “She” is the Master but, as Vendler points out, might be sexually available in what is for Elizabethan sonnets the more uncommon sexual sense of mistress, were it not that Nature herself has fallen for him/her as “master,” and hence fouled the whole thing up. Human interest critics, whether of the novel or of sociopsychology, might be inclined to adduce from this sonnet either that Shakespeare was unmistakably heterosexual, and hence balked of his goal by falling in love with a man; or that he was obviously homosexual, concealing his own sort of desire under the disguise of a baffled shrug and smile. Either “I love you all the more because I can’t do the obvious thing with you,” or “I love you all the more because in fact I could and can.”

Vendler is not interested here in the human question but in the poetic one, although in fact so good is her commentary that the two are revealed as inextricable. Her chief interest is in Shakespeare’s wholly original idea that nature—or rather “Nature,” the creating goddess—can in fact have all-too-human characteristics, and can be as flippant and irresponsible in her behavior as is the lovely young man himself. (There is surely a parallel with the immensely elaborate love poem Venus and Adonis, which concerns a doting goddess and a beautiful but indifferent young man.) The great physician Galen supposed all embryos to be originally female, and the poet plays with the idea that Nature in this case has done the unheard-of thing and made one of them male for her own pleasure, because besotted by its beauty.

Apart from the “pricking out” there is a good deal of sexual joking in Sonnet 20: because equipped with a cunt women are acquainted with fickleness by nature, and the “thing”—the organ of sex—is in this case a “no-thing” to the poet. The final couplet defiantly cuts love off from intercourse, and this has great importance for the direction taken by the later sonnets. As Vendler says, “Once one has separated love from the act of sex, love can—indeed must—eventually stand alone, hugely politic, inhabiting the realm of the [Platonic] Forms. It certainly no longer inhabits the realm of the flesh, though it pervades the emotional and erotic imaginative life entirely.”

A great deal of ingenuity has been expended throughout the history of Sonnet criticism on the significance in Sonnet 20 of “hew” and “Hews” (as spelled in the Quarto version), a possible secret revelation of names and identities. Vendler’s austere methods ignore such speculation, though she is interested in the wordplay involved, and by the number of lines in the sonnet containing the individual letters of h-e-w-s or h-u-e-s. The master-mistress’s powers of controlling appearances are thus subtly manifested in almost every line, like repeated and related notes in a melody on the virginals.

The sestet, or final six lines, it might be said, is suddenly lighthearted, as if his idea of a scherzo or conceit on Nature’s fond aberration had raised the poet’s spirits, and withdrawn his attention from the tense and ominous possibilities in the octet, where in spite of his presumed possession of “A woman’s gentle heart” the young man’s masculine and aristocratic powers of “control” may yet turn out to be twinned with the female fashion for “shifting change.” A master-mistress, it may be, cannot have one power without the other, and the harmony of musical balance, full of gaiety and warmth in the sestet, has grave and disturbing chords earlier on.

For Vendler, nonetheless, the “key word” that recurs in each quatrain and in the couplet of the sonnet and determines its harmony—she almost always locates a key word and ends her commentary with it—is WOMAN; and the implications of this could be far-reaching in themselves. Could it be that Shakespeare, even at play, was so helplessly heterosexual that the man with whom he finds himself in love must for him in fact be a woman, the “master-mistress” a true mistress after all?

The brilliant ingenuities of Sonnet 20 bring out the best in Vendler’s method, as does in a quite different way a very different sonnet, the famous No. 66, for which the audience shouted in Moscow when Boris Pasternak read his translations during the cultural oppression of the old Soviet regime.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry:
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabl̬d,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

Vendler has a particularly apt technical point to make about “art made tongue-tied by authority”—the line for which the crowds at the Moscow poetry reading were waiting.

What would a tongue-tied art sound like? It would sound (to use a modern simile) like a needle stuck in a groove, which is precisely what this wearily reiterative and syntactically poverty-stricken and… and sonnet offers as utterance. It is so tired, and so tongue-tied, that it sounds repetitive and anticlimactic…. Even its generalizing lack of specificity is tongue-tied, and the un-Shakespearean tri- and quadrisyllabic rhymes (jollity, strumpeted, disabl̬d, authority, simplicity) make lines end weakly. The sonnet “comes alive” only if readers “animate” it by reflecting, as if a character in the masque passes by, on the contemporary face they would attach to each personage. The poem becomes acute, relevant, and painful.

Although Vendler, who normally eschews the indulgence of comparative or contemporary reference, does not seem aware of the Moscow episode, her notion of attaching contemporary faces to the formal personifications in the masque must have been exactly what the Soviet audience itself was doing—they saw Stalin’s image in Shakespeare’s words. And if art has been “tongue-tied,” then the sonnet itself, as Vendler says, “cannot afford to appear eloquent.”

Vendler’s technique can appear lofty and abstract, even chilly, as if she herself read nothing but the best poetry, and never looked into novels good or bad, or even into the swarming human underworld of Shakespeare’s own plays. But there are naked moments of sorrow or abandonment in the Sonnets when art, however illusorily, seems pushed aside by powerful natural feeling, the reader being only aware of a catch in his breath and a lump in his throat. When we read in Sonnet 120, “That you were once unkind befriends me now,” skill appears to break down before the misery of facts and the poet’s forlorn and final attempt to bargain with them.

O that our night of woe might have rememb’red
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits…

It seems the real thing: the lovers have hurt each other desperately, and their consolation for having given each other “a hell of time” can only be mutual recognition: “Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.”

These things speak for themselves, as Vendler comes close to admitting when she addresses another desolatingly intimate sonnet, No. 148, one of the very few in the series in which emotion seems to cause the line to overrun. …Love’s eye is not so true as all men’s: no.

How can it? O how can love’s eye be true,
That is so vexed with watching and with tears?

Vendler is no doubt right to see a pun in “eye” (“aye,” and “no”). Lovers themselves can never speak the truth, though their eyes—or “ayes”—do it for them. But even Shakespearean wordplay, and his undoubted passion for it, is surely not the point to dwell on here: and equally irrelevant is her reference to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” (“How can her terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?/And how can body, laid in that white rush,/But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”) Yeats’s poem is equally and magnificently an aesthetic affair, but its lofty air of cold triumphalism surely resembles in no way what Vendler so rightly calls the “pathos and helplessness” in Shakespeare’s lines.

The most striking thing about some of the Sonnets, this one in particular, is how “naturalistic” they can be, how they suddenly break though what George Santayana admiringly called the “old finery” of Shakespearean language. Often in fact the octet soars up to a climax of such finery, the tone changes in the sestet, and it abruptly changes again in the concluding couplet, which, as Jan Kott has pointed out, can often resemble the histrionic admonition of a stage actor to himself in soliloquy.

No wonder that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, belonging to a generation which took poetry more directly and literally than ours does, had the simple pathos of such an appeal in mind when he maintained that the famous Elizabethan sonnet which begins “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” could only have been by Shakespeare himself, although we now know it to be the work of Shakespeare’s friend and fellow poet, Michael Drayton. The youthful Keats refers several times in his letters to the complex explorative workings of Shakespearean metaphor, but it is clear that he also felt the naked truth in the Sonnets. In her commentary on Sonnet 144 Vendler herself, and quite abruptly, admits as much. “And truly,” she writes, “the least strained hypothesis about the Sonnets is that they are, roughly speaking, psychologically and dramatically ‘true.”‘ She leaves a question open here, since “psychologically and dramatically” need not imply that they are in any sense literally true. And yet it is difficult to feel otherwise about the first four lines of the sonnet which has caused Helen Vendler to make her comment.

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair;
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
(No. 144)

With that we are back where we started from. It was a platitude to the Elizabethans that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” and yet “When Shakespeare wrote ‘Two loves I have,”‘ urged John Berryman in his book The Freedom of the Poet, “reader, he was not kidding.” Helen Vendler, who in her homely and uncombative but uncompromising way has produced here what is probably the least irrelevant and most critically illuminating of all extended commentaries on the Sonnets, in the end more or less agrees with that plain and pungent poet’s judgment.

This Issue

December 18, 1997