Readings of Shakespeare's Sonnets have presupposed a real relationship between the poet, William Shakespeare, and an addressee, the thou of most of the Sonnets, as well as a real Dark Lady. A long tradition has speculated as to the exact identities of these figures and the nature of their relationships, including, traditionally, the erotic and the friendly, and, more recently, the commercial relationship between poet and patron. All such readings are forms of allegory, of the roman à clef type, where the characters and their relations are presumed to refer to real people and real situations — and therefore the Sonnets themselves are cryptogrammatic messages, expressing Shakespeare's personal feelings, whether in the erotic or the social and commercial sphere, or both. But a sonnet, I contend, is not a message, but the imitation of one — indeed, to be more exact, from the sonnet's invention by Petrarch, it is a spoken imitation of a song — a "lyric — which in turn imitates an emotive speech whose speaker, addressee, and references are real. Accordingly, and regardless of whether the figures in Shakespeare's Sonnets bear any likeness to specific real people, I suggest that the pattern internal to the Sonnets presents an entirely different allegory. The reading I propose neither requires nor rules out a basis in real relationships. Likewise, it neither requires nor rules out any implied narrative in the Quarto order of the Sonnets. Rather, it merely requires that the Sonnets — or most of them — be considered a coherent whole, a sequence.
The male addressee of most of the Sonnets — young, aristocratic, light in color ("fair"), and attractive — is consistently associated with the eternal life of art — that is, of the Sonnets themselves — whether metaphorically through marriage and fatherhood (as in the first 17 sonnets) or metonymically through patronage (as in many others) — or, also metonymically, as the mere subject of the Sonnets' celebration. The Dark Lady, by contrast, is associated with sexual desire and the pleasures and limitations of the body — and thus with the sphere of mortal flesh. The famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") first sets up, quite neatly, the thematic opposition between art and nature (as the meaning of the opposition between addressee and summer's day), while Sonnet 144 ("Two loves have I of comfort and despair") clinches the opposition between the "man right fair" and the "woman colored ill." Sonnet 18 elaborates the paradox of this opposition in its close, since the poem at hand will only live forever — and thus give life to the addressee — "so long as man can breathe or eyes can see" — that is, so long as there are real, living, mortal readers who can continue to read the Sonnet at hand. Ars longa, vita brevis, but art itself — in this case poetry — while it may give "life" to its subject, in turn is only given "life" by real, living beings — the maker and the beholders of ensuing generations. Art aims at immortality, but only because it can engage successive generations of mortal beings. Therefore, art is superior to nature but nature is also superior to art.
Shakespeare plays this paradox out by having the lyric voice imply a drama whose situation is a love affair between the addressee and the Dark Lady, giving rise to a range of emotions and tones, from the anguish of (say) Sonnet 41 ("Those petty wrongs that liberty commits") to the pained ironies of Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt and will do none") and 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments"), to the ribald puns on hell and fire in Sonnet 144. The dialectical tension within this paradox about art drives the series forward, not necessarily as a progressive narrative sequence, but as a never-ending mystery, giving rise to one metaphor system after another and the layering of conceits or spheres of reference — procreation, patronage, memory, indebtedness and wealth, salvation, promiscuity, adultery and betrayal, mirror images and identification, painting as representation, painting as disguise, etc. This layering of equivalent metaphor systems gives the Sonnets their dazzling richness and complexity.
I say that Shakespeare plays the paradox out dramatically — that is, as something approaching allegory. The emotions Shakespeare's speaker seems to express in the Sonnets do not fit in well with the allegorical mode, if we think of, say, Spenser's The Faerie Queene or Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress as models. And the Sonnets do not form a coherent narrative, although narrative temporality is often implied in individual Sonnets. I have in mind, rather, the kind of binary organization and fundamental conflict that Claude Lévi-Strauss reveals so elegantly in his analysis of the Oedipus myth, where he shows how all the major events and images of the extended narrative of the myth fall diversely into four oppositional categories — overstimation and underestimation of kinship, on the one hand, and denial and assertion of earth-origins for human beings, on the other, so that the whole myth dramatizes and narrativizes, as it were, a basic analogy between two paradoxes of being human: we depend upon parents and kin, but we are independent individuals; we are part of nature but we are apart from it. So, likewise, Shakespeare's Sonnets can be read as the dramatic elaboration of both ideas and emotions springing from a fundamental paradox about art and nature — one that I shall also suggest is an instance of a general human paradox.
The dramatization of a paradox between art and nature accounts for several mysteries in the Sonnets related to genre. The Sonnets are anti-Petrarchan, first, in that the first 126 — about four fifths — are addressed to a young man rather than a woman, by a male speaker. We might conclude, with Oscar Wilde and some more recent critics, that the Sonnets concern homosexual love, whether real or imaginary, but Sonnet 20, with its playful mythology explaining how the addressee is not a possible sexual object for the speaker, seems plainly to rule this out, regardless of the further questions of Elizabethan cultural mores. Recounting how Nature first framed the addressee to be a woman, but so beautiful that she herself fell in love with her, and therefore transformed her into him so as to make consummation more convenient, the speaker concludes, "But since she [Nature] prick'd thee out for women's pleasure, / Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure." It thus makes sense that the "art" principle should be identified with a male figure, precisely in order to rule out the sexual associations that would connect the addressee with the Petrarchan object of desire, while retaining Petrarch's association of Laura with ideal beauty and with his art.
Other Renaissance sonnets addressed by male speakers (as poets) to male figures are typically dedicatory sonnets addressed to patrons, such as the opening dedicatory sonnet to Joachim Du Bellay's 1558 series, Les Antiquitez de Rome. But obviously, Shakespeare's Sonnets are not merely dedicatory, and they profess much more love — and idealizing love — than one would expect. Further still, as A. Kent Hieatt demonstrated some 15 years ago, the Sonnets show important and heavy influence from Du Bellay's nonamatory sequence, by means of Edmund Spenser's 1591 translation, The Ruines of Rome. To sum up the problem of genre, we have the language of courtly love drawn from the Petrarchan tradition, in which the position of the "disdainful fair" figure is taken by a male addressee who sometimes seems to take the position of patron, and who is also represented as being part of a love triangle by his involvement with the speaker's ostensible mistress, who, herself, is treated in very anti-Petrarchan, deflating terms — all with recurrent themes and phrases taken from a nonamatory sonnet sequence concerned, not at all with courtly love or erotic desire, but with the decay of a great ancient city, apparently as a powerful, architectural and geographical memento mori emblem. To show how this ingenious tangle of genres makes sense if the apparent figures of the Sonnets are understood as dramatizing — in intensely emotional but also witty terms — an allegory about the nature of art and the relation of art to nature, let us begin by considering this one of Shakespeare's models, Du Bellay's Les Antiquitez de Rome.
In Du Bellay's dedicatory sonnet opening the series — one not translated by Spenser, the Poet promises to present to his Patron, King Henry II, a "painting" of Rome in the "colors of poetry," suggesting in the sestet that the sonnets might serve as "un bienheureux présage" ("a happy foretelling") of Henry's reign, in whose France, the poet prays, the gods may rebuild Rome's greatness, such that the poet may wish to celebrate it in French. The ensuing sonnets do not "paint" Rome, however, so much as they grieve, repeatedly, over the loss of what Rome had been, and contrast the "then" of glory to the "now" of ruin. Throughout this series, meanwhile, runs a subtly distinct thread, not about the ravages of time upon Rome, but, by implicit contrast, the eternity of speech celebrating Rome — that is, poetry. Sonnet 1, for instance, making good on the dedicatory promise to "pull out from the tomb the dusty remains of the old Romans," conjures their divins esprits — adding that he means them, not their legendary heritage:
Non votre los, qui vif par vos beaux vers
Ne se verra sous la terre descendre ...
Not your praise, which, alive through your lovely verses,
Will not be seen going down under the earth ...
It turns out that the poet conjures these spirits, precisely, to inspire him to sing their glory anew, in poetry that, though French, might partake of the antique fureur of the poetry that had made them famous in the first place.
Du Bellay's closing sonnet, which Spenser does translate, clinches the contrast between the city's bygone glory and the potential immortality of verse, by way of an intricate modesty topos:
Espérez-vous que la postérité
Doive, mes vers, pour tout jamais vous lire?
Espérez-vous que l'oeuvre d'une lyre
Puisse acquérir telle immortalité?
Si sous le ciel fût quelque éternité,
Les monuments que je vous ai fait dire,
Non en papier, mais en marbre et porphyre,
Eussent gardé leur vive antiquité.
Ne laisse pas toutefois de sonner,
Luth, qu'Apollon m'a bien daigné donner:
Car si le temps ta gloire ne dérobe,
Vanter te peux, quelque bas que tu sois,
D'avoir chanté, le premier des François,
L'antique honneur du peuple à longue robe.
Do you hope, my verses, that posterity will have to read you forever hence? Do you hope that the work of a lyre can attain such immortality? If there were any eternity beneath the heavens, then the monuments of which I have made you sing would have kept hold of their living antiquity. Nevertheless, do not stop playing, O lute, whom Apollo has indeed seen fit to give me: for if time strips thee of thy glory, thou canst still boast, however low thou hast fallen, for having sung first among the French of the ancient honor of the people who wore the long robe.
On the one hand, the city Rome has taken the position in Du Bellay's series that the unattainable (and departed) love object Laura takes in Petrarch's sonnets. But on the other hand, whereas, in Petrarch, through various puns, Laura comes to stand for Petrarch's poetry itself, in Du Bellay's series, the contrast between Rome and the poetry that sings its loss works as — among other things — an implied and subtle argument for the power of poetry and thus the worthiness of the poet for patronage on France's — and the French monarch's — behalf. Yet it is important to bear in mind that even such a subtle implied argument for patronage is not the real or hidden meaning of Les Antiquitez de Rome, but rather the occasion for the poet's invention, and his play with the paradox of how poetry is both vulnerable to time — which must forbear to strip the lute of its gloire — and exempt from time's ravages. Indeed, this is the very paradox a poet would witness in composing poetry in French that aims at the greatness of Latin lyric.
The themes of Les Antiquitez that I have mentioned recur in Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 ("Not marble nor the guilded monuments") — which also echoes Horace's concluding Odes III.30 ("exegi monumentum aere perennius") and the close of Ovid's Metamorphoses — but with a new twist in the couplet:
So til the iudgement that your selfe arise,
You liue in this, and dwell in louers eies.
The "lovers" are, presumably, inspired to read the sequence because of their attraction to amatory themes — but also because they are lovers of poetry. This possible quibble in the word lovers (whose eyes either admire beautiful people or read the poem at hand — as in the couplet of Sonnet 18) — this quibble draws attention to the two sides of the work of art — immortal art and the mortal nature that does the work. In general, Shakespeare's Sonnets develop a paradox like that in Du Bellay's, but in a dramatic rather than an elegiac vein. Carrying this dramatic conceit forward, we can readily imagine the interdependence between art and nature as a love affair — but one over which the poet himself has no control, and from which he fears that he may well be excluded. Neither immortal art nor fertile nature has a selective principle: fame and glory may chance to devolve to any poet, not just the speaker, and readers confer this fame by reading as they choose and as chance compels them. Hence it turns out that these two principles, which from the start are opposites by definition, can begin to appear indistingishable — as each side is "contaminated," as it were, by the promiscuity and the power of the other side.
The binary of art and nature is also not symmetrical, since art itself consists in the imitation of nature (or of communicative discourses referring to nature), and since the work of art is made, ultimately, of natural materials, by natural beings, for the enjoyment of their fellow creatures. This fractal binarism may give rise to the games with gender paradoxes we have seen in Sonnet 20. Yet the Dark Lady, too, is to us an artifact made by the negation of another artifact, the familiar Petrarchan tradition. Indeed, the primary paradox spawns, in turn, a proliferation of subordinate poetic paradoxes — about truth and feigning, praise and betrayal, memory as renewed loss and memory as recovery, identity and difference between self and other — in short, the whole range of metaphor systems whose layering produces the almost incalculable richness of the Sonnets. The paradox at the core of the Sonnets, between immortality and mortality — between poetry and the body — works both as self-reflexive wit and as a mythic accounting for one of the core paradoxes of life itself: We know that we are mortal, but that very knowledge entails an imagination of a world without us, and of ourselves as other than we are. The awareness of our limits thus arises from the freedom of our imaginations, which itself feels "immortal" because it seems to have no limits. Not only are both boundedness and boundlessness essential to us as conscious beings, they are logically interdependent. In real life, the competing demands of our capacious imaginations and our mortal limits cause endless anguish and disquiet. In the realm of poetry, however, this contradiction occasions the delight, wit, and poignancy of a game, of which there is no more excellent example than Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina
This page last updated Thursday, August 4, 2022 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot com . © 1998 by Amittai F. Aviram.