Show all results...

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors




This is the transcript of a presentation I gave on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 at the Presidio Officers’ Club, as part of the Presidio Trust Heritage Program. The sonnets were read by SF Shakes Resident Artists Emily Jordan and Radhika Rao, as well as volunteers from the audience.


This is the story of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So to start off, it’s useful to know what makes a sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets have the following 14-line rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG – Three quatrains of alternating rhymes, followed by a rhyming couplet. Of course, not all of the rhymes of the sonnets work anymore, although in Shakespeare’s day words like “remove” and “love” actually rhymed. (We won’t be reading in Original Pronunciation tonight, but if you’d like a taste of it, please refer to the excellent work of our colleagues David and Ben Crystal.)

The story of the sonnets involves a lot of assumptions. First of all, you have to believe that Shakespeare was a man from Stratford who wrote some plays, and along with those wrote a few sonnets – 154, to be exact. You then have to assume that the sonnets were about himself, and the people he addresses in the sonnets were people that he knew and loved.


You also have to be very interested in the first page of the collected sonnets, published by Thomas Thorpe and dedicated to someone mysteriously known as “Mr W.H.” If, as has been recently very practically suggested by scholars, Mr WH is merely William Holme, a friend of the publisher, then you are truly unromantic. Instead, isn’t it much more fun to imagine that Mr WH was a code name for one of Shakespeare’s patrons, either Henry Wriothesley, the dashing Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, son of Mary Sidney, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, also a famous author of sonnets? A lord would never have been called “Mr,” but maybe this was a way for Shakespeare to pay homage to his patron while keeping his identity private, because as we shall see, the content of these sonnets gets a little racy at times.


William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke

In telling the story of the sonnets, I am going to tell the story as I best like to think it happened, based on both research and imagination. I prefer the William Herbert theory, because not only are the initials in the right order, but Shakespeare’s closest friends eventually also dedicated the First Folio to him. Certain events of Herbert’s life line up very cleanly alongside the arc of the sonnets, as we shall see.


From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The sonnets were published in 1609. They seem to have been written over a period of many years, since the events therein tell, in particular, of the coming of age of a certain fair young man.

In April of 1597, William Herbert turned 17. Could it be a coincidence that the first seventeen poems are addressed in a classic, rather remote style to a young man who it seems the poet has never met, urging him to marry and procreate?


When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use
If thou couldst answer, “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Interestingly, at age 17, William Herbert had already refused to marry once, in 1595 to Elizabeth Carey. Could his mother, the extraordinarily creative and intelligent Mary Sidney, herself a poet of note and a women of great connections, have commissioned a set of poems as a birthday present, one that would encourage her wayward son to do the best thing for the family line and marry Bridget de Vere?


Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.”
So should my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage,
And stretchèd meter of an antique song.
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice: in it, and in my rhyme.

In the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare writes often encouraging the boy to have children to preserve his immortality, even as the poet preserves him in verse. At Sonnet 18, there is an abrupt shift.


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Suddenly all talk of procreation is dropped, and the boy comes to full and vivid life. From here on out, there’s no talk of preserving the family line – the boy’s beauty will be preserved through the words of the poet, a poet who seems undeniably smitten with his subject. Did the poet and the fair young man finally meet in person?


A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth;
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Was Shakespeare gay, or more accurately, bisexual? There was nothing unusual or scandalous at the time about expressing platonic male to male love through poetry, but that last sonnet, with its “one thing” and “pricked thee out” does seem to hint at something a bit more physical in nature. The fact is, the modern concept of homosexuality didn’t exist at the time, and while sodomy was illegal, it seems quite likely that if you felt like trying something different on the side, and you kept it discreet, you would not be the only one. It may even have been a mark of worldliness, presuming you ended up married to a woman and had plenty of sons. So who knows?


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel, hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

Ben Jonson

The course of true love, it seems, did not run smooth for Shakespeare and his fair young friend. In the summer of 1597, the Privy Council shut the theatres down in reaction to a scandalous play co-written by one of Shakespeare’s friends, Ben Jonson, called The Isle of Dogs. We don’t have a copy of this play anymore, but it may have been critical of the Queen or her advisors, amounting to an act of sedition. At any rate, it’s interesting to imagine that London became temporarily unsafe for playwrights, and Shakespeare fled to his home in Stratford, where he spent the next months writing plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV Parts One and Two – all of which include close and loving relationships between two men, one young and one middle-aged.


When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth–sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

For a while, no matter the struggles that life brings the poet, he takes solace in his love. And then, once more, around Sonnet 33, there is a shift, and the sonnets take on an accusatory tone.


Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy brav’ry in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace;
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss;
Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

The fair young man has done something shameful – but what?


Take all my loves, my love; yea, take them all.
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more:
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong, than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

He’s taken something of the poets – one of his loves. So there is someone else, someone else the poet loves, and the fair young man has taken him? Her?


That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her,
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suff’ring my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross.
But here’s the joy: my friend and I are one–
Sweet flattery–then she loves but me alone.


Anne Hathaway Shakespeare

And here, rather spectacularly, a third point of the triangle enters the picture. Will’s wife Anne? It seems unlikely, at home raising the children as she was, and probably also attending to a busy malt-making business and other village concerns. No, this lady is part of his London life. We’ll learn more about her later – for now what matters is that she and the boy have been together, breaking the poet’s heart.


Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity; wherewith, being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow;
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.


Time passes – time filled with passion, anguish, and despair. The boy ages, the poet too, and he returns to his theme of immortality through language and love. He also attempts to reconcile the outer beauty of his love with deeds which, though unnamed, often seem to be less than noble.


Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;
All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,
Utt’ring bare truth, even so as foes commend;
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crowned.
But those same tongues that give thee so thine own
In other accents do this praise confound,
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown;
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that in guess they measure by thy deeds;
Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds.
But why thy odor matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.

He also indulges in some major bouts of self-pity.


No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
Oh, if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

And just as the whole thing is getting a bit tedious, another character is introduced.


Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give another place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again;
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee, thou thyself dost pay.

This “worthier pen” seems to also be penning poems to the young man. Shakespeare despairs, but proves he is up for the challenge, answering the new poet’s odes with a matched pair of his own.


Oh, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrecked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive, and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.


Or I shall live, your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues-to-be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.


George Chapman

Who was this poet? Did William Herbert patronize another writer during this time? In 1598, a classicist named George Chapman became briefly trendy due to his popular translation of The Iliad, published in installments. I can imagine the courtiers a-buzz with excitement as he spun out his episodes, like hipsters waiting for the latest podcast of Serial. Perhaps Chapman was Shakespeare’s rival poet?


Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonishèd.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence.
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.

And so poor Shakespeare finds himself in a poet’s worst possible predicament – outdone in both love and poetry. This brings us to what might be the first break-up sonnet in history.


Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate;
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift upon misprision growing
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

But we’re only on Sonnet 87 out of 154, so clearly Shakespeare was not content to leave it there. He has to get a little judgy.


They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies that fester? Some scholars think this poem suggests that the fair young man’s exploits had finally caught up to him, and he was rotting from the inside – from syphilis, perhaps.


Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less;
Thou mak’st faults graces, that to thee resort:
As on the finger of a thronèd queen
The basest jewel will be well esteemed,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deemed.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

But Shakespeare had a “bad boyfriend” problem, and just couldn’t stay away. And so he returns to his theme – love, beauty, time, and immortality.


To me, fair friend, you never can be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still: three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived;
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred,
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

Three years have passed. William Herbert would be twenty now, and Shakespeare thirty-six. Shakespeare’s passion has mellowed, his voice has matured, and here, two-thirds of the way through the sequence, we have some of his most beautiful and best beloved poems.


Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, save what shall have no end;
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confined.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Then at Sonnet 126, we see another major shift in tone.


O thou my lovely boy who in thy power
Dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace, and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure:
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure!
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

This warning, this incomplete, 12-line poem heralds a departure from obsession over this particular relationship, and the fleshing out of a character, already mentioned, who deserves her very own chapter.


In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

The Dark Lady, as she is popularly known, does not conform to the pale blonde ideal of Elizabethan culture. But Shakespeare finds her black hair and eyes and dark complexion beautiful, and praises her in a series of clever, funny poems.


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go–
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

He refers from time to time to her affair with the young man, but with sanguine humor.


When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.


Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
To win me soon to hell my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.


Mary Fitton

The identity of the Dark Lady is more mysterious even than that of the Fair Young Man. (Some believe her to be Mary Fitton, because she was known to have been impregnated by William Herbert. Their infant child dies of syphilis – coincidence?) Toward the end of the sequence, we find one poem that suggests that perhaps the Dark Lady and Will’s wife Anne are one and the same – or perhaps it’s just a separate poem entirely, composed by Will when wooing his wife and included here to round out the story of his love affairs.


Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said “I hate,”
To me, that languished for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that, ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
“I hate” she altered with an end
That followed it as gentle day
Doth follow night who, like a fiend,
From heaven to hell is flown away.
“I hate” from “hate” away she threw,
And saved my life, saying “not you.”

“Hate away” is generally accepted to be a pun on Hathaway, Anne’s maiden name.

The sequence ends with two oddly out of place poems about Cupid, which seem to have nothing to do with the story:


Cupid laid by his brand, and fell asleep;
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground,
Which borrowed from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure:
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure; the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire–my mistress’ eyes.

As I imagine the tale, these two sonnets at the end bring us full circle back to the beginning. Imagine Mary Sidney, seeking to find out if this young poet might persuade her son to marry through sonnets, which were like hip-hop music at the time, a very trendy way to reach a youth audience. But in order to make sure he can handle it, she sets up a test – based on a passage from Marianus’ Greek poems (recently translated by Fausto Sabeo) compose a sonnet ex tempore.

In his play Every Man in His Humour, Ben Jonson has a character who claims to create sonnets ex tempore, off the top of his head. As was typical of the Jonson-Shakespeare relationship, this character is exposed to a lot of ridicule. It’s also quite possible that Shakespeare played this character in the original production. Could Ben have based it on a story Will told him about composing sonnets for Mary Sidney’s son?

Let’s say that Will accomplishes the task, but doesn’t love what he’s done, so he tries again:


The little love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by, but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased, but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

This time he creates a better sonnet, one with a bit more sexual innuendo – and a clever reference to Mary’s husband Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who had been to the waters of Bath as a cure for various ailments. It’s easy to imagine that the Herberts were won over by Shakespeare’s creativity, leading to what seems to have been one of the defining relationships of the poet’s life.


Henry Herbert, William’s father

At the end of the day, does it really matter who these people were, or whether these sonnets are a true story about the poet? They’re still great poems, no matter whether they express Shakespeare’s innermost thoughts. But I think it’s a thrill to read them and imagine them as a glimpse into Shakespeare’s heart – a heart that loved, and was broken, and found both happiness and despair, just like our own.

May your Valentine’s Day be filled with more happiness than despair, but if things do go wrong, try writing a sonnet.

My play Sonnets for W.H., based on the story above, will receive a staged reading as part of our 2015 season. Next month, watch for a post about sonnets and sonnet structure in Romeo and Juliet, our 2015 Free Shakespeare in the Park production.