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Shakespeare — The Sonnets and Their Literary History
Shakespeare — The Sonnets and Their Literary History
VII—THE SONNETS AND THEIR LITERARY HISTORY
The vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet.
It was doubtless to Shakespeare’s personal relations with men and women of the Court that his sonnets owed their existence. In Italy and France, the practice of writing and circulating series of sonnets inscribed to great men and women flourished continuously throughout the sixteenth century. In England, until the last decade of that century, the vogue was intermittent. Wyatt and Surrey inaugurated sonnetteering in the English language under Henry VIII, and Thomas Watson devoted much energy to the pursuit when Shakespeare was a boy. But it was not until 1591, when Sir Philip Sidney’s collection of sonnets entitled ‘Astrophel and Stella’ was first published, that the sonnet enjoyed in England any conspicuous or continuous favour. For the half-dozen years following the appearance of Sir Philip Sidney’s volume the writing of sonnets, both singly and in connected sequences, engaged more literary activity in this country than it engaged at any period here or elsewhere.
Men and women of the cultivated Elizabethan nobility encouraged poets to celebrate in single sonnets their virtues and graces, and under the same patronage there were produced multitudes of sonnet-sequences which more or less fancifully narrated, after the manner of Petrarch and his successors, the pleasures and pains of love. Between 1591 and 1597 no aspirant to poetic fame in the country failed to seek a patron’s ears by a trial of skill on the popular poetic instrument, and Shakespeare, who habitually kept abreast of the currents of contemporary literary taste, applied himself to sonnetteering with all the force of his poetic genius when the fashion was at its height.
Shakespeare’s first experiments.
Shakespeare had lightly experimented with the sonnet from the outset of his literary career. Three well-turned examples figure in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ probably his earliest play; two of the choruses in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are couched in the sonnet form; and a letter of the heroine Helen, in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well,’ which bears traces of very early composition, takes the same shape. It has, too, been argued ingeniously, if not convincingly, that he was author of the somewhat clumsy sonnet, ‘Phaeton to his friend Florio,’ which prefaced in 1591 Florio’s ‘Second Frutes,’ a series of Italian-English dialogues for students.
Majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets composed in 1594.
p. 85But these were sporadic efforts. It was not till the spring of 1593, after Shakespeare had secured a nobleman’s patronage for his earliest publication, ‘Venus and Adonis,’ that he became a sonnetteer on an extended scale. Of the hundred and fifty-four sonnets that survive outside his plays, the greater number were in all likelihood composed between that date and the autumn of 1594, during his thirtieth and thirty-first years. His occasional reference in the sonnets to his growing age was a conventional device—traceable to Petrarch—of all sonnetteers of the day, and admits of
p. 86no literal interpretation.
In matter and in manner the bulk of the poems suggest that they came from the pen of a man not much more than thirty. Doubtless he renewed his sonnetteering efforts occasionally
p. 87and at irregular intervals during the nine years which elapsed between 1594 and the accession of James I in 1603. But to very few of the extant examples can a date later than 1594 be allotted with confidence. Sonnet cvii., in which plain reference is made to Queen Elizabeth’s death, may be fairly regarded as a belated and a final act of homage on Shakespeare’s part to the importunate vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet. All the evidence, whether internal or external, points to the conclusion that the sonnet exhausted such fascination as it exerted on Shakespeare before his dramatic genius attained its full height.
Their literary value.
In literary value Shakespeare’s sonnets are notably unequal. Many reach levels of lyric melody and meditative energy that are hardly to be matched elsewhere in poetry. The best examples are charged with the mellowed sweetness of rhythm and metre, the depth of thought and feeling, the vividness of imagery and the stimulating fervour of expression which are the finest fruits of poetic power. On the other hand, many sink almost into inanity beneath the burden of quibbles and conceits. In both their excellences and their defects Shakespeare’s sonnets betray near kinship to his early dramatic work, in which passages of the highest poetic temper at times alternate with unimpressive displays of verbal jugglery. In phraseology the sonnets often closely resemble such early dramatic efforts as ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ There is far more concentration in the sonnets than in ‘Venus and Adonis’ or in ‘Lucrece,’ although
p. 88occasional utterances of Shakespeare’s Roman heroine show traces of the intensity that characterises the best of them. The superior and more evenly sustained energy of the sonnets is to be attributed, not to the accession of power that comes with increase of years, but to the innate principles of the poetic form, and to metrical exigencies, which impelled the sonnetteer to aim at a uniform condensation of thought and language.
Circulation in manuscript.
In accordance with a custom that was not uncommon, Shakespeare did not publish his sonnets; he circulated them in manuscript.
But their reputation grew, and public interest was aroused in them in spite of his
p. 89unreadiness to give them publicity. A line from one of them:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds (xciv. 14),
was quoted in the play of ‘Edward III,’ which was probably written before 1595. Meres, writing in 1598, enthusiastically commends Shakespeare’s ‘sugred sonnets among his private friends,’ and mentions them in close conjunction with his two narrative poems. William Jaggard piratically inserted in 1599 two of the most mature of the series (Nos. cxxxviii. and cxliv.) in his ‘Passionate Pilgrim.’
Their piratical publication in 1609. ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’
At length, in 1609, the sonnets were surreptitiously sent to press. Thomas Thorpe, the moving spirit in the design of their publication, was a camp-follower of the regular publishing army. He was professionally engaged in procuring for publication literary works which had been widely disseminated in written copies, and had thus passed beyond their authors’ control; for the law then recognised no natural right in an author to the creations of his brain, and the full owner of a manuscript copy of any literary composition was entitled to reproduce it, or to treat it as he pleased, without
p. 90reference to the author’s wishes. Thorpe’s career as a procurer of neglected ‘copy’ had begun well. He made, in 1600, his earliest hit by bringing to light Marlowe’s translation of the ‘First Book of Lucan.’ On May 20, 1609, he obtained a license for the publication of ‘Shakespeares Sonnets,’ and this tradesman-like form of title figured not only on the ‘Stationers’ Company’s Registers,’ but on the title-page. Thorpe employed George Eld to print the manuscript, and two booksellers, William Aspley and John Wright, to distribute it to the public. On half the edition Aspley’s name figured as that of the seller, and on the other half that of Wright. The book was issued in June, and the owner of the ‘copy’ left the public under no misapprehension as to his share in the production by printing above his initials a dedicatory preface from his own pen. The appearance in a book of a dedication from the publisher’s (instead of from the author’s) pen was, unless the substitution was specifically accounted for on other grounds, an accepted sign that the author had no hand in the publication. Except in the case of his two narrative poems, which were published in 1593 and 1594 respectively, Shakespeare made no effort to publish any of his works, and uncomplainingly submitted to the wholesale piracies of his plays and the ascription to him of books by other hands. Such practices were encouraged by his passive indifference and the contemporary condition of the law of copyright. He
p. 91cannot be credited with any responsibility for the publication of Thorpe’s collection of his sonnets in 1609. With characteristic insolence Thorpe took the added liberty of appending a previously unprinted poem of forty-nine seven-line stanzas (the metre of ‘Lucrece’) entitled ‘A Lover’s Complaint,’ in which a girl laments her betrayal by a deceitful youth. The poem, in a gentle Spenserian vein, has no connection with the ‘Sonnets.’ If, as is possible, it be by Shakespeare, it must have been written in very early days.
Thomas Thorpe and ‘Mr. W. H.’
A misunderstanding respecting Thorpe’s preface and his part in the publication has led many critics into a serious misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s poems.
Thorpe’s dedication was couched in the bombastic language which was habitual to him. He advertised Shakespeare as ‘our ever-living poet.’ As the chief promoter of the undertaking, he called himself ‘the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth,’ and in resonant phrase designated as the patron of the venture
p. 92a partner in the speculation, ‘Mr. W. H.’ In the conventional dedicatory formula of the day he wished ‘Mr. W. H.’ ‘all happiness’ and ‘eternity,’ such eternity as Shakespeare in the text of the sonnets conventionally foretold for his own verse. When Thorpe was organising the issue of Marlowe’s ‘First Book of Lucan’ in 1600, he sought the patronage of Edward Blount, a friend in the trade. ‘W. H.’ was doubtless in a like position. He is best identified with a stationer’s assistant, William Hall, who was professionally engaged, like Thorpe, in procuring ‘copy.’ In 1606 ‘W. H.’ won a conspicuous success in that direction, and conducted his operations under cover of the familiar initials. In that year ‘W. H.’ announced that he had procured a neglected manuscript poem—‘A Foure-fould Meditation’—by the Jesuit Robert Southwell who had been executed in 1595, and he published it with a dedication (signed ‘W. H.’) vaunting his good fortune in meeting with such treasure-trove. When Thorpe dubbed ‘Mr. W. H.,’ with characteristic magniloquence, ‘the onlie begetter [
obtainer or procurer] of these ensuing sonnets,’ he merely indicated that that personage was the first of the pirate-publisher fraternity to procure a manuscript of Shakespeare’s sonnets and recommend its surreptitious issue. In accordance with custom, Thorpe gave Hall’s initials only, because he was an intimate associate who was known by those initials to their common circle of friends. Hall was not a man of sufficiently wide public reputation to render it probable that the
p. 93printing of his full name would excite additional interest in the book or attract buyers.
The common assumption that Thorpe in this boastful preface was covertly addressing, under the initials ‘Mr. W. H.,’ a young nobleman, to whom the sonnets were originally addressed by Shakespeare, ignores the elementary principles of publishing transactions of the day, and especially of those of the type to which Thorpe’s efforts were confined.
There was nothing mysterious or fantastic, although from a modern point of view there was much that lacked principle, in Thorpe’s methods of business. His choice of patron for this, like all his volumes, was dictated solely by his mercantile interests. He was under no inducement and in no position to take into consideration the affairs of Shakespeare’s private life. Shakespeare, through all but the earliest stages of his career, belonged socially to a world that was cut off by impassable barriers from that in which Thorpe pursued
p. 94his calling. It was wholly outside Thorpe’s aims in life to seek to mystify his customers by investing a dedication with any cryptic significance.
No peer of the day, moreover, bore a name which could be represented by the initials ‘Mr. W. H.’ Shakespeare was never on terms of intimacy (although the contrary has often been recklessly assumed) with William, third Earl of Pembroke, when a youth.
But were complete proofs of the acquaintanceship forthcoming, they would throw no light on Thorpe’s ‘Mr. W. H.’ The Earl of Pembroke was, from his birth to the date of his succession to the earldom in 1601, known by the courtesy title of Lord Herbert and by no other name, and he could not have been designated at any period of his life by the symbols ‘Mr. W. H.’ In 1609 Pembroke was a high officer of state, and numerous books were dedicated to him in all the splendour of his many titles. Star-Chamber penalties would have been exacted of any publisher or author who denied him in print his titular distinctions. Thorpe had occasion to dedicate two books to the earl in later years, and he there showed not merely that he was fully acquainted with the compulsory etiquette, but that his sycophantic temperament rendered him only eager to improve on the conventional formulas of servility. Any further consideration of Thorpe’s address to ‘Mr. W. H.’ belongs to the
p. 95biographies of Thorpe and his friend; it lies outside the scope of Shakespeare’s biography.
The form of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ ignore the somewhat complex scheme of rhyme adopted by Petrarch, whom the Elizabethan sonnetteers, like the French sonnetteers of the sixteenth century, recognised to be in most respects their master. Following the example originally set by Surrey and Wyatt, and generally pursued by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his sonnets aim at far greater metrical simplicity than the Italian or the French. They consist of three decasyllabic quatrains with a concluding couplet, and the quatrains rhyme alternately. A single sonnet does not always form an independent poem. As in the French and Italian sonnets of the period, and in those of Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, and Drayton, the same train of thought is at times pursued continuously through two or more. The collection of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets thus presents the appearance of an extended series of independent poems, many in a varying number of fourteen-line stanzas. The longest sequence (i.-xvii.) numbers seventeen sonnets, and in Thorpe’s edition opens the volume.
Want of continuity. The two ‘groups.’
It is unlikely that the order in which the poems were printed follows the order in which they were written. Fantastic endeavours have been made to detect in the original arrangement of the poems a closely connected narrative, but the thread is on any showing constantly interrupted. It is usual to divide the sonnets into two groups, and to represent that all those numbered i.-cxxvi. by Thorpe were addressed to a young man, and all those numbered cxxvii.-cliv. were
p. 97addressed to a woman. This division cannot be literally justified. In the first group some eighty of the sonnets can be proved to be addressed to a man by the use of the masculine pronoun or some other unequivocal sign; but among the remaining forty there is no clear indication of the kind. Many of these forty are meditative soliloquies which address no person at all (cf. cv. cxvi. cxix. cxxi.) A few invoke abstractions like Death (lxvi.) or Time (cxxiii.), or ‘benefit of ill’ (cxix.) The twelve-lined poem (cxxvi.), the last of the first ‘group,’ does little more than sound a variation on the conventional poetic invocations of Cupid or Love personified as a boy. And there is no valid objection to the assumption that the poet inscribed the rest of these forty sonnets to a woman (cf. xxi. xlvi. xlvii.) Similarly, the sonnets in the second ‘group’ (cxxvii.-cliv.) have no uniform superscription. Six invoke no person at all. No. cxxviii. is an overstrained compliment on a lady playing on the virginals. No. cxxix. is a metaphysical disquisition on lust. No. cxlv. is a playful lyric in
p. 98octosyllabics, like Lyly’s song of ‘Cupid and Campaspe,’ and its tone has close affinity to that and other of Lyly’s songs. No. cxlvi. invokes the soul of man. Nos. cliii. and cliv. soliloquise on an ancient Greek apologue on the force of Cupid’s fire.
Main topics of the first ‘group.’
The choice and succession of topics in each ‘group’ give to neither genuine cohesion. In the first ‘group’ the long opening sequence (i.-xvii.) forms the poet’s appeal to a young man to marry so that his youth and beauty may survive in children. There is almost a contradiction in terms between the poet’s handling of that topic and his emphatic boast in the two following sonnets (xviii.-xix.) that his verse alone is fully equal to the task of immortalising his friend’s youth and accomplishments. The same asseveration is repeated in many later sonnets (cf. lv. lx. lxiii. lxxiv. lxxxi. ci. cvii.) These alternate with conventional adulation of the beauty of the object of the poet’s affections (cf. xxi. liii. lxviii.) and descriptions of the effects of absence in intensifying devotion (cf. xlviii. l. cxiii.) There are many reflections on the nocturnal torments of a lover (cf. xxvii. xxviii. xliii. lxi.) and on his blindness to the beauty of spring or summer when he is separated from his love (cf. xcvii. xcviii.) At times a youth is rebuked for sensual indulgences; he has sought and won the favour of the poet’s mistress in the poet’s absence, but the poet is forgiving (xxxii.-xxxv. xl.-xlii. lxix. xcv.-xcvi.) In Sonnet lxx. the young man whom
p. 99the poet addresses is credited with a different disposition and experience:
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass’d by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail’d, or victor being charg’d!
At times melancholy overwhelms the writer: he despairs of the corruptions of the age (lxvi.), reproaches himself with carnal sin (cxix.), declares himself weary of his profession of acting (cxi. cxii.), and foretells his approaching death (lxxi.-lxxiv.) Throughout are dispersed obsequious addresses to the youth in his capacity of sole patron of the poet’s verse (cf. xxiii. xxxvii. c. ci. ciii. civ.) But in one sequence the friend is sorrowfully reproved for bestowing his patronage on rival poets (lxxviii.-lxxxvi.) In three sonnets near the close of the first group in the original edition, the writer gives varied assurances of his constancy in love or friendship which apply indifferently to man or woman (cf. cxxii. cxxiv. cxxv.)
Main topics of the second ‘group.’
In two sonnets of the second ‘group’ (cxxvi.-clii.) the poet compliments his mistress on her black complexion and raven-black hair and eyes. In twelve sonnets he hotly denounces his ‘dark’ mistress for her proud disdain of his affection, and for her manifold infidelities with other men. Apparently continuing a theme of the first ‘group,’ the poet rebukes the woman, whom he addresses, for having beguiled his friend to yield himself to her seductions (cxxxiii.-cxxxvi.) Elsewhere he makes satiric reflections on the extravagant compliments paid to the fair sex by other sonnetteers (No. cxxx.)
p. 100or lightly quibbles on his name of ‘Will’ (cxxx.-vi.) In tone and subject-matter numerous sonnets in the second as in the first ‘group’ lack visible sign of coherence with those they immediately precede or follow.
It is not merely a close study of the text that confutes the theory, for which recent writers have fought hard, of a logical continuity in Thorpe’s arrangement of the poems in 1609. There remains the historic fact that readers and publishers of the seventeenth century acknowledged no sort of significance in the order in which the poems first saw the light. When the sonnets were printed for a second time in 1640—thirty-one years after their first appearance—they were presented in a completely different order. The short descriptive titles which were then supplied to single sonnets or to short sequences proved that the collection was regarded as a disconnected series of occasional poems in more or less amorous vein.
Lack of genuine sentiment in Elizabethan sonnets. Their dependence on French and Italian models.
In whatever order Shakespeare’s sonnets be studied, the claim that has been advanced in their behalf to rank as autobiographical documents can only be accepted with many qualifications. Elizabethan sonnets were commonly the artificial products of the poet’s fancy. A strain of personal emotion is occasionally discernible in a detached effort, and is vaguely traceable in a few sequences; but autobiographical confessions were very rarely the stuff of which the Elizabethan sonnet was made. The typical collection
p. 101of Elizabethan sonnets was a mosaic of plagiarisms, a medley of imitative studies. Echoes of the French or of the Italian sonnetteers, with their Platonic idealism, are usually the dominant notes. The echoes often have a musical quality peculiar to themselves. Daniel’s fine sonnet (xlix.) on ‘Care-charmer, sleep,’ although directly inspired by the French, breathes a finer melody than the sonnet of Pierre de Brach apostrophising ‘le sommeil chasse-soin’ (in the collection entitled ‘Les Amours d’Aymée’), or the sonnet of Philippe Desportes invoking ‘Sommeil, paisible fils de la nuit solitaire’ (in the collection entitled ‘Amours d’Hippolyte’).
But, throughout Elizabethan sonnet literature, the heavy debt to Italian and French effort is unmistakable.
Spenser, in 1569, at the outset of his literary career, avowedly translated numerous sonnets from Du Bellay and from Petrarch, and his friend Gabriel Harvey bestowed on him the title of ‘an English Petrarch’—the highest praise that the critic conceived it possible to bestow on an English sonnetteer.
Thomas Watson in 1582, in his
p. 102collection of metrically irregular sonnets which he entitled ‘????????T??, or A Passionate Century of Love,’ prefaced each poem, which he termed a ‘passion,’ with a prose note of its origin and intention. Watson frankly informed his readers that one ‘passion’ was ‘wholly translated out of Petrarch;’ that in another passion ‘he did very busily imitate and augment a certain ode of Ronsard;’ while ‘the sense or matter of “a third” was taken out of Serafino in his “Strambotti.”’ In every case Watson gave the exact reference to his
p. 103foreign original, and frequently appended a quotation. Drayton in 1594, in the dedicatory sonnet of his collection of sonnets entitled ‘Idea,’ declared that it was ‘a fault too common in this latter time’ ‘to filch from Desportes or from Petrarch’s pen.’ Lodge did not acknowledge his borrowings more specifically than his colleagues, but he made a plain profession of indebtedness to Desportes when he wrote: ‘Few men are able to second the sweet conceits of Philippe Desportes, whose poetical writings are ordinarily in everybody’s hand.’
Giles Fletcher, who in his collection of sonnets called ‘Licia’ (1593) simulated the varying
p. 104moods of a lover under the sway of a great passion as successfully as most of his rivals, stated on his title-page that his poems were all written in ‘imitation of the best Latin poets and others.’ Very many of the love-sonnets in the series of sixty-eight penned ten years later by William Drummond of Hawthornden have been traced to their sources in the Italian sonnets not merely of Petrarch, but of the sixteenth-century poets Guarini, Bembo, Giovanni Battista Marino, Tasso, and Sannazzaro.
The Elizabethans usually gave the fictitious mistresses after whom their volumes of sonnets were called the names that had recently served the like purpose in France. Daniel followed Maurice Sève
in christening his collection ‘Delia;’ Constable followed Desportes in christening his collection ‘Diana;’ while Drayton not only applied to his sonnets on his title-page in 1594 the French term ‘amours,’ but bestowed on his imaginary heroine the title of Idea, which seems to have been the invention of Claude de Pontoux, although it was employed by other French contemporaries.
Sonnetteers’ admission of insincerity.
With good reason Sir Philip Sidney warned the public that ‘no inward touch’ was to be expected from sonnetteers of his day, whom he describes as
‘[Men] that do dictionary’s method bring
Into their rhymes running in rattling rows;
[Men] that poor Petrarch’s long deceasèd woes
With newborn sighs and denizened wit do sing.’
Sidney unconvincingly claimed greater sincerity for his own experiments. But ‘even amorous sonnets in the gallantest and sweetest civil vein,’ wrote Gabriel Harvey in ‘Pierces Supererogation’ in 1593, ‘are but dainties of a pleasurable wit.’ Drayton’s sonnets more nearly approached Shakespeare’s in quality than those of any contemporary. Yet Drayton told the readers of his collection entitled ‘Idea’
(after the French) that if any sought genuine passion in them, they had better go elsewhere. ‘In all humours
he ranged,’ he declared. Giles Fletcher, in 1593, introduced his collection of imitative sonnets entitled ‘Licia, or Poems of Love,’ with the warning, ‘Now in that I have written love sonnets, if any man measure my affection by my style, let him say I am in love. . . . Here, take this by the way . . . a man may write of love and not be in love, as well as of
p. 106husbandry and not go to the plough, or of witches and be none, or of holiness and be profane.’
Contemporary censure of sonnetteers’ false sentiment. ‘Gulling Sonnets.’
The dissemination of false sentiment by the sonnetteers, and their monotonous and mechanical treatment of ‘the pangs of despised love’ or the joys of requited affection, did not escape the censure of contemporary criticism. The air soon rang with sarcastic protests from the most respected writers of the day. In early life Gabriel Harvey wittily parodied the mingling of adulation and vituperation in the conventional sonnet-sequence in his ‘Amorous Odious Sonnet intituled The Student’s Loove or Hatrid.’
Chapman in 1595, in a series of sonnets entitled ‘A Coronet for his mistress Philosophy,’ appealed to his literary comrades to abandon ‘the painted cabinet’ of the love-sonnet for a coffer of genuine worth. But the most resolute of the censors of the sonnetteering vogue was the poet and lawyer, Sir John Davies. In a sonnet addressed about 1596 to his friend, Sir Anthony Cooke (the patron of Drayton’s ‘Idea’), he inveighed against the ‘bastard sonnets’ which ‘base rhymers’ ‘daily’ begot ‘to their own shames and poetry’s disgrace.’ In his anxiety to stamp out the folly he wrote and circulated in manuscript a specimen series of nine ‘gulling sonnets’
p. 107or parodies of the conventional efforts. Even Shakespeare does not seem to have escaped Davies’s condemnation. Sir John is especially severe on the sonnetteers who handled conceits based on legal technicalities, and his eighth ‘gulling sonnet,’ in which he ridicules the application of law terms to affairs of the heart, may well have been suggested by Shakespeare’s legal phraseology in his Sonnets lxxxvii. and cxxiv.; while Davies’s Sonnet ix., beginning:
‘To love, my lord, I do knight’s service owe’
must have parodied Shakespeare’s Sonnet xxvi., beginning:
‘Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage,’ etc.
Shakespeare’s scornful allusion to sonnets in his plays.
Echoes of the critical hostility are heard, it is curious to note, in nearly all the references that Shakespeare himself makes to sonnetteering in his plays. ‘Tush, none but minstrels like of sonnetting,’ exclaims Biron in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (IV. iii. 158). In the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (III. ii. 68 seq.) there is a satiric touch in the recipe for the conventional love-sonnet which Proteus offers the amorous Duke:
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets whose composèd rime
p. 108Should be full fraught with serviceable vows . . .
Say that upon the altar of her beauty
You sacrifice your sighs, your tears, your heart.
Mercutio treats Elizabethan sonnetteers even less respectfully when alluding to them in his flouts at Romeo: ‘Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in: Laura, to his lady, was but a kitchen-wench. Marry, she had a better love to be-rhyme her.’ In later plays Shakespeare’s disdain of the sonnet is still more pronounced. In ‘Henry V’ (III. vii. 33 et seq.) the Dauphin, after bestowing ridiculously magniloquent commendation on his charger, remarks, ‘I once writ a sonnet in his praise, and begun thus: “Wonder of nature!”’ The Duke of Orleans retorts: ‘I have heard a sonnet begin so to one’s mistress.’ The Dauphin replies: ‘Then did they imitate that which I composed to my courser; for my horse is my mistress.’ In ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (V. ii. 4-7) Margaret, Hero’s waiting-woman, mockingly asks Benedick to ‘write her a sonnet in praise of her beauty.’ Benedick jestingly promises one so ‘in high a style that no man living shall come over it.’ Subsequently (V. iv. 87) Benedick is convicted, to the amusement of his friends, of penning ‘a halting sonnet of his own pure brain’ in praise of Beatrice.
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