[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]

Sonnet 86

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, Shakespeare muses once more on his inability to express himself.

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 in-hearse,
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 astonished.
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.

This one is marked by a sadness: the root cause of Shakespeare’s silence, by this new diagnosis, is the young man’s turning away from him. A gloss:

Q1 Was it the sight of my rival’s superior verse that made me unable to speak?

Q2 His greater spirit, perhaps? No, not him, not his verse

Q3 He cannot count my silence as his victory, for it was not fear of him that stilled me

C It was, rather, that when your inspiration filled his lines, it left mine

This one opens with a nice image of self-consciousness: Shakespeare, awed by the sight of verse he thinks superior to his own, grows tongue-tied; even his normal eloquence fails him, and his words die before he can utter them. ‘In-hearsing’ thoughts in the brain is a good touch. But no, he says, this sounds plausible, but it is not the reason for his silence.

Q2 turns to a bigger question: not the rival’s verse specifically, but perhaps the man himself — is it the rival poet’s grander stature, or greater felicity, that leaves Shakespeare tongue-tied? Again, he answers no.

It’s the couplet that’s particularly interesting here, because it offers a fresh perspective. Shakespeare has been searching for reasons why he seems to be coming off second-best in this poetic rivalry: he’s explored the idea that his rival is bombastically overdoing it; he’s explored the idea that he’s struck dumb by love. Now, he hits on a new, and sadder, theory: the wind of the young man’s love is no longer blowing favourably for him; it is filling his rival’s sail instead. These theories needn’t be exclusive, but could easily follow each other sequentially: we saw, particularly in 83, that Shakespeare blames himself for the young man’s shifting favours; in the same sonnet, Shakespeare gently rebuked the young man for being susceptible to false praise.

It’s not like a muse can only inspire one person at a time (call this the ‘principle of muse non-exclusivity’), so this development speaks rather to Shakespeare’s state: given how plain it is that the young man has turned away from him and towards his rival, Shakespeare has gone from being unable to express what moves him to being unmoved to express anything.


Sonnet 87

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Another sad one today, sometimes read as a coda to the Rival Poet sequence.

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou knowst 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.

This is a breakup sonnet, a sad companion to those earlier, happier sonnets in which Shakespeare expressed his wonder that somebody he considered so far above him might share his love; now, he puts on a show of stoically accepting what he sees as the inevitable consequence: his love has turned away from him.

A gloss:

Q1 You’re much too good for me to hang onto (and don’t you just know it); your worth has freed you from my feeble bonds

Q2 There’s no way I could possess you except that (for a time) you willed it, for I certainly couldn’t deserve it

Q3 In granting your love, you either misjudged your own worth, or mine; but now you’ve corrected it

C I was like a dreamer dreaming he was a king — upon waking I am no such thing

Lurking at the back of this sonnet is the Aristotelian notion of friendship, that true friendship can only occur between people of equal merit. The idea, essentially, is that a mismatched friendship is inherently unstable: eventually, it will put too much strain on the relationship if one person likes the other more than the other likes them. One or the other party might make an error in judging the merit of themselves or of their friend (as Shakespeare thinks happened here), but in the end the truth will come to light.

While Shakespeare seems to accept this basic framework for thinking about friendships, the Sonnets as a whole give cause to doubt it. The major way in which they do this in their simultaneous depiction of the young man and of Shakespeare’s feelings about him; they tell us both how highly Shakespeare values him, and how dubious that merit is. Shakespeare thinks of the young man as good, beautiful and true; yet the depiction is of someone who is vain, fickle, and maybe even slightly sadistic. (I’m thinking especially of the sequence 40-42.) The Aristotelian notion of friendship presupposes that somebody has their merit, and love is the response (‘the cause of this fair gift’, l. 7); one loves more or less as the merit deserves. But Shakespeare’s experience of love highlights the degree to which love is a projection — in this case, causing Shakespeare to see more merit than the rest of us would be willing to grant. (Leopardi thinks of love as one of life’s essential illusions: it leads us to value things beyond what they are worth by the cold light of reason, but if we did not value things in this way then life wouldn’t be worth living.) If love causes the appearance of merit, not the appearance of merit causing love, then the framework for friendship on which this sonnet is based falls away.

The other doubt we might have is in the assumption of accurate self-perception. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare as a person, but the Sonnets very much highlight how unstable his self-assessment as a poet is. If his self-perception of his character is as unreliable, how can he maintain the low assessment that this sonnet expresses?


Sonnet 88

Sonneteers, good morning.

Carrying on from yesterday, Shakespeare declares that he will turn against himself for the benefit of the young man:

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself, I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn:
With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted,
That thou, in losing me, shalt win much glory;
And I by this will be a gainer too,
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double vantage me:
     Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
     That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

We’ve been here before, in sonnet 35, when Shakespeare wrote ‘Thy adverse party is thy advocate— / And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence’. On that occasion, the young man had slighted Shakespeare, committing a ‘sensual fault’ for which Shakespeare was ostentatiously forgiving him, offering to take the young man’s side against himself. And that’s not the only repeat: this one also returns to another conceit that was common in the 30s and 40s, that of Shakespeare’s identification-in-love with the young man. A gloss:

Q1 When you’re disposed to air the grievances you have against me, for all the world to judge, I’ll fight on your side against myself, even though you’re a liar

Q2 Seeing as I’m better acquainted with my own faults, I can better your accusations with much worse ones, which I have concealed

Q3 And I will gain from this, since you will gain glory, and your glory is my own

C My love for you is so strong, I totally belong to you; and therefore I will take all the wrong upon myself

It’s mightily masochistic. Line 4 contains a bombshell: ‘though thou art forsworn’. Whether this refers to the content of the young man’s complaint against Shakespeare (which we know nothing of), or whether this is a general comment on the young man’s looseness with the truth, it’s a searing indictment, one of those few moments when Shakespeare allows himself to make a criticism, moments which are all the more intense for being uncommon. And yet, despite this, Shakespeare is still so besotted that he’s willing to take the young man’s part  — as we’ll see tomorrow, he offers even to start limping if the young man accuses him of being lame.

And he offers to go even further than that. Q2 offers to spill the beans on faults the young man has no idea of (‘faults concealed’). One can only ask: why? (Also: what? One desperately wants to know what he’s done, or thinks he’s done.) Who gains from this kind of uninhibited truth-telling, in which Shakespeare reveals to the world a host of self-perceived faults, which no doubt are themselves distorted by his apparently obsessively masochistic personality? Why not settle with just scapegoating yourself by taking on a whole heap of false accusations? Why add to that?

Shakespeare gives us the answer, and it is characteristically odd: he so strongly identifies with the young man that he treats him as his better self, and he’s therefore more than happy to denigrate his real (worse) self in the pursuit of glorifying that better part of him. The harder he falls, the higher he rises. Don Paterson has suggested that Shakespeare’s most significant trait was his ability to almost vanish his own ego and identify totally with someone else, a trait evident in the range of characters in his plays, and throughout the Sonnets. This would seem to be the unhappy side of that trait: he can so readily take everyone else’s side against himself.

And there’s more to come tomorrow!


Sonnet 89

Good morning, good morning.

Poor Shakespeare continues his litany against himself:

Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence;
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I’ll myself disgrace, knowing thy will;
I will acquaintance strangle and look strange,
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
     For thee, against myself I’ll vow debate;
     For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.

Here Shakespeare picks up on his promise to back the young man in his complaints even if they are false; he goes further, and offers to not even accidentally bump into him in the street, nor to mention his name. It’s all very sad, and (dare we say) melodramatic. A gloss:

Q1 Say you left me for some fault of mine, and I will agree with you; suggest I’m lame, and I’ll start limping so that what you complain of me is true. I will not defend myself

Q2 You can’t disgrace me, making it known how you wish I were different, as I can, knowing myself/what you want; I will stop seeing you, treat you as a stranger…

Q3 …Absent myself from your presence; I will not speak of you lest I should profane you

For you I would attack myself — I cannot love someone that you hate

Our sense of the reality of others is partly based on the way in which they resist our wills: the ego, encountering no resistance, so easily becomes solipsistic; encountering resistance, suddenly becomes aware of itself as one self among others. For some personalities — particularly that of the tyrant — this is a horrid discovery, and they expend an awful lot of energy in avoiding it; and their only desire, on encountering resistance, is to crush it and bend it to their will. Some people start to feel lost when left to themselves, and find the discovery of others reassuring. Yet others, feeling empty in themselves, cannot live without a firm and (therefore) reassuring other to attach themselves to: and, in the Sonnets at least, Shakespeare seems to belong in this latter camp.

Shakespeare, in this sonnet and in plenty of others, is performing a paradoxical act: on the one hand, he is trying to conform himself to the young man’s will, as a form of devotion, which will only lead the young man to take him for granted; on the other hand, he wants to call attention to his devotion, thereby cementing himself in the young man’s consciousness. The two projects work against each other, and his love seems always to have been doomed to failure: the only thing that could have saved it would have been an attentiveness on the young man’s part, the peculiar recognition that is love, that would have led him to save Shakespeare from his quixotic quest. Alas, his young man barely seems even to recognise him.

Oddly, line 3 has apparently sometimes been taken as evidence of Shakespeare having a limp, but that’s a very long bow. The point of the line (as we know especially for having read 88) is that Shakespeare will accept and enact any complaint by the young man — even if it involves a falsehood. He’s making a point of how abject and devoted he is; a point that would be lost if he were, in fact, lame.

Line 7 has a nice little pun: ‘knowing your will’ means both ‘knowing what you want’ and ‘knowing your Will’ — he both thinks he knows what the young man wants (his disgrace), and he has just the inside information to do it.

There’s more abasement to come.


Sonnet 90

Sonneteer, hello, good morning.

This one again picks up where the one before left off:

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah, do not, when my heart hath ’scap’d this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer’d woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purpos’d overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
     And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
     Compar’d with loss of thee will not seem so.

A bit of a puzzle: it had sounded like Shakespeare had actually been slighted, but now we wonder whether he is just afraid that he is about to be. If the last few were emotional free fall, with Shakespeare offering no resistance on the way down, this one is the recoil of the bungee line: he’s gone from submissively accepting the worst to impatiently goading it on. A gloss:

Q1 If you’re going to hate me, do it now, while I’m already down

Q2 Don’t add a sorrow after my present sorrows are done, extending them out

Q3 No, really: let the worst come first, not after

C Compared to you turning against me, every other burden will seem light

Note the way that all three quatrains just ring changes on one basic idea: don’t extend my present woes by adding a worse one to them later. My favourite of his ways of putting it is line 4: ‘And do not drop in for an after-loss’. Drop in is wonderfully suggestive of a casual visit, akin to stopping by for tea and a biscuit; the charm is in the way its suggestive cosiness runs counter to its actual meaning. In publishing terms, a ‘drop in’ is something that gets added late to the new releases for a given month; it carries the sense of something urgent and unexpected, which is probably close to what Shakespeare is going for here (the difference being that he’s suggesting something bad — publishers never think their drop ins are bad). After-loss works two ways, meaning the loss that comes after something, or something that occurs after a loss, or both.

Montaigne suggests that, much of the time, the anticipation of something is much worse than the thing itself. The intensity with which we dread something might explain the intensity of the last few sonnets — which seemed to be about something that had happened, an impression that this one has undermined. The temporal structure of human life can mean that the past or the future can smother the present; if one knows something dreadful is going to happen, that can make it hard to recall that it hasn’t happened yet; but, in the case of some things, simply knowing that it will happen changes the nature of the present. One such thing is a betrayal: if one knows that someone else will break one’s trust, that changes everything — even if it hasn’t happened yet. Shakespeare, sure that the young man will turn against him, can’t live as though everything is fine. (The challenge is that one’s judgements of what will definitely happen in the future are so changeable.)