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Shake-speare’s Sonnets – Book Reviews

by Richard F. Whalen

These reviews were first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. (Arden Shakespeare series, Thomson Pub. Co., 1997).

The Sonnets. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. (The New Cambridge Shakespeare series, Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Helen Vendler. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997).

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Three new editions of Shake-speares Sonnets, each with elaborate commentary, compete for a reader’s attention this year. All of them continue the long academic tradition of raising (but mostly not answering) the many questions posed by the Sonnets and their publication in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe.

The 154 sonnets, of course, are first and last the Sonnets, certainly the most accomplished, extended work of personal poetry ever written. They are to be read, re-read, pondered and memorized, as much for the extraordinary music of the language as for the impassioned yet controlled expression of intimate emotional experience. In the marketplace, they reportedly are Shakespeare’s best seller.

Scholars, of course, have wrestled endlessly with the questions of textual analysis, autobiographical content and circumstances of publication: Are the sonnets autobiographical? Do they suggest the poet was bisexual? Who are the young man, the Dark Lady and the rival poet?

When were the sonnets written? Are they in the correct order? Were they published with Shakespeare’s (i.e. the Stratford man’s) knowledge? Were they pirated and then suppressed? What is the meaning of Thomas Thorpe’s “dedication,” and who was “Mr. W.H.”?

The Arden Edition

The new Arden edition, edited by Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones of Oxford, is perhaps the most useful and provocative of the three for Oxfordians. In her long introduction she indulges in highly speculative ruminations about the author of the sonnets, their dating and their publication. She suggests that most of the sonnets were written between 1599 and 1604 (which happens to be the year of Oxford’s death) and that Shakespeare revised them right up to their publication in 1609. She calls them “Jacobean sonnets.” She is sure that the poet authorized their publication and that they are not so badly printed as many believe. The title, she says, strongly suggests that the sonnets are about Shakespeare as well as by him, but she offers no ideas about what they say about the man she conceives to be the author.

She builds a strong case for William Herbert, the third earl of Pembroke, as the “Mr. W.H.” of the so-called dedication; “Mr.” was appropriate because when the sonnets were first “begotten” he was not yet an earl, married or of age. She finds this role for Pembroke “overwhelmingly attractive” even as she believes that conclusive evidence for his friendship with Shakespeare is lacking. Of course, she is thinking of Will Shakspere of Stratford, whereas Pembroke did have close ties to the seventeenth earl of Oxford.

At times Duncan-Jones seems to be reaching too hard to come up with new and challenging interpretations of the evidence about the sonnets. She speculates unabashedly and piles conjecture upon conjecture. On a single page she uses phrases such as: there is a remote possibility … if this were the case … might serve … at least a possibility … may or may not … could have been … if the sonnets … it is possible, etc. After several more pages of this, any factual information or considered judgments tends to be swamped by the waves of speculation and back-pedaling.

The layout of the 485-page Arden edition is generous. The Sonnets are printed in modern type one to a page, with line-by-line commentary on the facing page. Unfortunately, the edition lacks an index of first lines. The edition also includes A Lover’s Complaint, which was published with the Sonnets. Although Duncan-Jones recognizes questions about its authenticity, she sees the poem as a “carefully balanced thematic counterpart” to the sonnets.

The New Cambridge Edition

The New Cambridge edition manages to be firmly evasive on the issue of autobiography. In the introduction Professor Anthony Hecht of Georgetown University quotes W.H. Auden on how “thought, emotion, event” dictate the form of a poem, and he argues that “the question of the documentary nature of the Sonnets is largely irrelevant.” His reasoning is not clear, especially since he goes on to conclude that “we cannot fail to hear in them a voice of passion and intelligence.” He hears this powerful voice expressing thoughts, emotions and events but nevertheless considers them irrelevant to an appreciation of the poetry. Also seemingly ambivalent about autobiography in the Sonnets is the edition’s editor, Professor E. Blakemore Evans of Harvard, who is also co-editor of the Riverside collected works of Shakespeare. First he declares that such questions and speculations are “irrelevant and intrusive.” Then he says students of Shakespeare must examine these questions and make it possible for readers to arrive at their own conclusions. Finally, he declares that “to some extent, of course, all significant art is autobiographical.” In four paragraphs Evans manages to be immensely erudite and totally equivocal. He then addresses a series of questions about the Sonnets by saying: “If the Sonnets are to be read autobiographically…” Evans mentions Oxfordians in this regard and perhaps betrays his anxiety about the authorship issue by getting tangled in a semi-triple-negative sentence. As a result the sentence probably says the opposite of what he really meant it to say. He writes:

No critic with a conscience (unlike Baconians, Oxfordians, etc.) would now deny that such a Shakespeare signature is writ large in the Sonnets, as it is, of course in the plays and other poems.

With the negatives untangled, he’s saying that critics with a conscience–unlike the Oxfordians, who have none–affirm that Shakespeare’s signature is writ large in the Sonnets, plays and other poems. But Oxfordians of course are famous for finding the poet/dramatist’s signature, i.e. Oxford’s, in his works. Unwittingly, Evans has aligned his esteemed critics with the Oxfordians.

Evans prints the Sonnets in modern type, two to a page. The commentary and line-by-line notes follow after the last sonnet. The reader who is interested in the notes for a sonnet must flip pages to find them. Each note begins by giving the gist of the sonnet’s meaning, sometimes in a rather blunt and cursory way. An index of first lines is provided at the end of the 297-page edition.

Vendler on the Sonnets

Diagrams, matrices, and flow charts of key words are at the core of Helen Vendler’s intricate analyses in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The Harvard professor, “arguably the most powerful poetry critic in America” according to The New York Times, takes to the ultimate extreme the proverbial “close reading” of poetry, a reading that excludes anything autobiographical about the poet. In a multi-page essay for each sonnet, she provides an abstract analysis of it as a “verbal contraption.” She borrows the term from the poet W.H. Auden. Auden, however, raises a second and equally important question in the same passage–the “moral” question: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” Vendler simply dismisses his question as one of very little interest.

Her analyses, almost mathematical in their cold precision, seem to belabor the obvious and obsess about the linguistic details. The essays go on and on about grammar, syntax, rhyme schemes, orthographic variations, word repetition, word contrast, word echoes, even syllable echoes. Diagrams and charts illustrate relationships. She has invented a new term in critical analysis, the DEFECTIVE KEY WORD, which she capitalizes. This is a word that is significant because it is not in the poem; it is missing where one would expect to find it.

Certainly Shakespeare’s genius with language deserves the reader’s appreciation, and Vendler does offer some interesting observations here and there. In the end, however, the reader may be overwhelmed by the excessive emphasis on the “verbal contraptions” to the exclusion of any other reason to read poetry. For example, to find out what kind of guy wrote them, in what historical context he wrote them, and what he was trying to communicate.

Vendler’s handsome tome comes complete with a compact disc on which she reads the sonnets. She says she has memorized all of them. She thinks other recordings by actors are deficient because the actors don’t understand the words and syntax. Each sonnet is printed twice on a page; at the top is the original from the 1609 quarto and below is her modern-type version. She provides a long list of works consulted and an index of first lines. Her book received generally admiring reviews in major publications, although one reviewer, Professor Margaret Boerner of Villanova University, called it “astoundingly bad … in making the obvious arcane, elevating the banal, printing up lecture notes, and rabbitting on for nearly seven hundred pages.”

Each editor of these three competing volumes carefully acknowledges debts to the others, or sometimes demurs, but ever so gently, on one or more points of scholarship. Harvard professors Evans and Vendler each read the other’s manuscript. Evans notes that she took time out from her own manuscript book to offer corrections to his, and Vendler calls his review of her manuscript “an act of extraordinary generosity.” On the other hand, Evans demurs on evidence cited by Duncan-Jones describing Thorpe’s actions as a publisher. He says it “remains necessarily speculative.”

All three acknowledge debts, although sometimes qualified, to Professor Stephen Booth’s ground-breaking edition of twenty years ago. Booth provides a lengthy line-by-line gloss for each sonnet in order, he says, to resurrect “a Renaissance reader’s experience of the 1609 Quarto.” He also wants to show “how the sonnets work.” Like Vendler, he reproduces the sonnets from the Quarto and in modern type on facing pages; but he also reproduces full pages from the Quarto, which means some sonnets are broken and run from one page to the next. Although it was published two decades ago by the Yale University Press, Booth’s edition is still in print. It’s a good alternative to the Arden edition. And to lighten the load of solemn linguistic analysis, Booth occasionally shows a wry sense of self-deprecating humor.

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