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What the sonnets tell us about Shakespeare

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells

CUP, pp.299, 11.95

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at a party, their words to one another fall into the form of a sonnet: an exchange of 14 lines, expressing mutual love and ending with a neat rhyming couplet and a kiss. It is a touching, haunting moment, and like so much in Shakespeare, it also has an opposite. A little earlier in the play, Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet tries to praise Romeo’s rival Paris, and describes the hapless Paris in a horrible string of six rhyming couplets (‘This precious book of love, this unbound lover,/ To beautify him, only lacks a cover’). These 12 lines fail as a sonnet, where Romeo’s and Juliet’s exchange succeeds. One love is complete and perfect, while the other is broken and false.

Shakespeare saw sonnets as playful, sexy and dramatic. He understood the form as flexible, and as offering a set of possibilities to be played with and played against. Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson’s new edition of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare draws out the fun in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Its innovations are two. Wells and Edmondson change the conventional order of the sonnets, so that they here appear in what the editors reasonably conjecture to be the order of their composition (so, for example, this collection begins with Sonnet 154, which was plausibly written as a school exercise by the teenage Shakespeare).

They also include alternate and uncertain versions of some sonnets, as well as the sonnets which appear in the plays. The collection is necessarily a little tentative in its inclusions. The incomplete sonnet spoken by Lady Capulet in praise of Paris does not appear, perhaps simply because it is no good, and Shakespeare’s editors have never really known what to do with the moments when Shakespeare writes rubbish. But it is a valuable project, and one which achieves what Shakespeare editions so often promise but so rarely deliver: which is to prompt a genuinely new way of looking at these familiar works.

Perhaps the sonnet is best seen as a quarrelsome family of forms instead of a single set of rules. The sonnet was an import from Italy, most famously used by Dante and Petrarch, and was brought into English verse by Wyatt and Surrey. Two rival English forms were developed from this, and given the names of their most celebrated practitioners, Spenser and Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote the majority of his sonnets during the mid-1590s, during a vogue for sonneteering among popular and now forgotten Elizabethan poets.

Shakespeare does something different from his contemporaries. Instead of the commonplace idealisation of the mistress, his sonnets are often cynical, unsettled and neurotic. For Wells and Edmondson, these are highly personal poems — ‘his emotional, psychological and spiritual memoir’ — which reveal, among other things, Shakespeare’s bisexuality. Previous editors and biographers have often speculated a soap opera about the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth, but Wells and Edmondson argue that these sonnets, written over 30 years, are much more promiscuous than this. ‘The poems themselves demonstrate a fluidity and openness of desire and identity,’ they note.

In Shakespeare’s hands the form of the sonnet is equally fluid, and this is perhaps the most striking aspect of Wells’s and Edmondson’s book. They include sonnets and almost-sonnets drawn from the plays. There are 15- and 16-line sonnets from Love’s Labour’s Lost; there are ten-line sonnets (what the editors call ‘foreshortened sonnets’) from Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It; there are sonnets as letters and as jokes. These play sonnets tend to use the form itself for some dramatic purpose, or undermine the whole idea of sonnets by gentle spoofing. Sonnets are stuffed, as the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet notes, with ‘such vows as lovers use to swear’, and this is the point: that everyone is a little tired of the clichés of the sonnet. And the joke, of course, is that the Chorus makes this observation in a sonnet.

Each age can see what it wants in the sonnet, and this is perhaps why poets continue to return to them. In postwar America, Robert Lowell and John Berryman wrote supple sonnets; more recently, there is Terrance Hayes’s deeply moving and political collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. In emphasising the gender fluidity of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Wells and Edmondson are doing insightful critical work, and they are also inevitably reflecting the politics of our current moment.

This is not to say that sonnets are no fun, but only that we might equally see them as stricter, even in Shakespeare’s handling. After all, when Romeo and Juliet meet, they are two eligible young people, a boy and a girl, of the right social class. We might think of all the things they do not do: run away to the woods to have sex and find freedom. Instead, they lovingly accept the terrible box in which they find themselves trapped.

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