We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known.
The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.
the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.
The Mysterious Young Man.
Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.
Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton. Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.
Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.
This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.
My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU
In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.
Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04
Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant.
Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:
Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.
My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.
It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.
If you enjoyed this post, you might want to sign up for my Outschool class on Shakespeare’s love poems. We’ll discuss the mystery of the Dark Lady, and you’ll learn to create your own sonnets, just in time for Valentines Day!