HOW few of all who read Shakspeare's works, or continually repeat his name, and make world-wide preparations for keeping his birthday, have any conception of the man!
He who, of all poets, comes nearest home to us with his myriad touches of nature, is the most remote in his own personality. We only reach him figuratively at best.
We think of him as the chief star of the Elizabethan group, large and luminous above the rest.
Nor have we any glass to draw him sufficiently close to us. We know that somewhere at the centre sits the spirit of all that brightness, however veiled in light.
Shakspeare's own life—Shakspeare himself—is at the heart of it all; and yet he is nowhere visible; though he was a man, and one of the most intensely human that ever walked our world.
It is our present purpose to endeavour to get at the man himself, and make out his features so far as our means will allow, by extracting what spirit of Shakspeare we can from his works, putting particular pressure on the Sonnets, and clothing that Spirit as best we may in the facts of our poet's outer life.
Shakspeare's starting-place for his victorious career was the fine vantage-ground which England had won when she had broken the strength of the Spaniard, and sat enthroned higher than ever in her sea-sovereignty.
Old times and an old faith had been passing away. In the year of our poet's birth we learn that the sum of two shillings was paid by the Corporation of Stratford for defacing an image of the ancient faith in the
chapel. The fires of Smithfield had but recently smouldered down, and fierce in the minds of Englishmen was the memory of 'Bloody Mary.'
The stage of political life was trodden by heroes and poets, statesmen and sea-kings.
Old customs still lingered in the land. Even the citizens of London went forth on a May-morning to gather hawthorn-bloom; and country places like Stratford had their cucking-stool for scolds, and their fines and stocks for idle apprentices and servants; their brewers compelled by law to brew a good and wholesome 'small drink' for a halfpenny a gallon; troops of strolling players, who had taken the place of the wandering friars of old, and won a warmer welcome up and down the country side.
In the midst of this time of change of stirring life, of hopeful expectation, our Shakspeare was born, literally in the very heart of England; of good healthy yeoman blood, belonging to a race that has always been heartily national, and has clung to its bit of soil from generation to generation, and fought for it, too, in the day of
the country's need. No doubt Nature stores up much health and freshness of feeling, love of green things, and songs of birds and quiet appreciation of all out-of-door sights and sounds in men like
these—and some day it all finds expression, and breaks into immortal flower, when, in the fulness of time, the Burns or Shakspeare is born.
We know but little of the childhood of our greatest Englishman, although we find recorded a few homely facts of his father's life.
In the year 1558 John Shakspeare was fined four pence for not keeping his gutters
clean. In the year 1552 he was doing business as a glover, and in 1556 he brought an action against Henry Field for unjustly detaining eighteen quarters of barley, which looks as though he were then a maltster or farmer.
In 1579 he is styled a yeoman. He was in pretty good circumstances when the poet was born, having a small landed estate near Stratford and property in the town.
It appears as though he met with a great and sudden reverse of fortune about the year 1578.
In 1587 we find him in prison for debt and in 1592 his name is in a list of persons who are supposed to stay away from church through fear of process for debt.
It is pleasant to know that Shakspeare could have his fair share of a mother's tenderness, and was not compelled too early to fall into the ranks by his father's side and fight the grim battle against poverty, with childhood's small hands and weary feet.
The boy was about fourteen years of age when the experience of penury came, which no doubt made him look wistfully at times up the London-road, and long for the great City that lay so far in the distance.
This change of fortune must have made a deep impression on the boy's mind and character.
He was in all likelihood educated at the Free-school so long as the father could spare him from work.
But we do not doubt that he helped his father in his business, and that probably included looking after sheep on the bit of land they possessed or hired, killing the sheep and selling the meat, dealing in the wool that grew on the sheep and in the gloves made from the wool.
Labour was not so minutely divided in those days as it now is, besides which, we know how men in the circumstances of Shakspeare's father will try to live by a multiplicity of means in a small way, and grasp at any chance of staying the down-hill tendency.
At eighteen years of age, Shakspeare was married to Ann Hathaway, the daughter of a yeoman, at Shottery.
It has been surmised that our gentle Willie's Eve was formed for him by the hand of Love during a deep sleep of the soul; that he threw the hues of his young imagination round her, and found himself married before he well knew where he was!
There is not much, however, to give countenance or colour to this theory.
Certainly she was eight years older than himself, and he has in his works left a warning to others against doing as he did.
But she is said to have been eminently beautiful, and she was undoubtedly fond of him to the last; for we find that she begs to be laid in the same grave with him.
There is no reason to suppose that he ran away from her because he did not like her.
Another supposition obtains—that he was compelled to quit Stratford on account of a propensity for deer-stealing.
But the poor fellow did not need Sir Thomas Lucy's deer to drive him forth into the world in search of a living.
We must remember that his wife had very recently presented him with twin children; and the increasing poverty of his father would be another incentive to his leaving Stratford for London.
In all probability he had a good introduction to the theatre, or his engagement as a sort of apprentice to some player may have been made before leaving Stratford.
After he entered the Blackfriars Theatre, we lose sight of him altogether for at least four years.
These four years, doubtless, include the hardest part of our poet's struggle for fame and fortune which was at that time really a struggle for his living.
We hear of him, although Mr. Dyce thinks rather apocryphally, in 1559, when he has been four years in London.
Mr. Browning tells us there are two points in the adventure of the Diver-
'One—when, a Beggar, he prepares to plunge!
One—when, a Prince, he rises with his pearl!'
Our poet had now made his plunge, and emerged into daylight once more.
If we could have asked him what he had grasped in the gloom, he might probably have told us a handful of mud, having experienced the worst of his theatrical life.
He had become a player and a part proprietor of the Blackfriars Theatre. But he had also found his pearl.
They had set him to vamp up old plays, put flesh on skeletons, and adapt new ones; and he had discovered that he also could create characters upon the whole better than he could act them.
During this time he had been working, invisible to us, at the foundations of his future fame.
We should have still fewer facts of Shakspeare's life than we have, were it not for his evident ambition to make money, and become a man of property.
We do not think he ever forgot those little mouths at Stratford, waiting to he fed by his hand; and we believe him to have been as frugal in his life as he was indefatigable in his work.
He had seen enough of the ills and felt enough of the stings of poverty in his father's home.
In the year 1597 he is able to buy one of the best houses in Stratford, called New Place.
In the next year he sells a load of stone to the Corporation for 10d.
From this little fact we may infer that alterations were going on at New Place.
He had made a nest, and was, perhaps, preparing for the time when he could quit the stage, and retire to Stratford.
He is also doing business as a maltster. Some of his country friends want him to buy, and he does buy; others want him to lend, and he is able to lend.
In July, 1605, Shakspeare makes his largest investment. He purchases for the sum of £440
— £2,000 of our money — half of the lease of tithes, to be collected in Stratford and other places, which has some thirty-one years to run.
He is now about to leave the stage as player and manager, and live at Stratford, where he can look after his
tithes, which we find he does pretty sharply. He has bought houses and lands, and applied for a grant of arms to his father, and has shown every desire to found (like Scott) a county family of his own name; to possess a bit of this dear England in which he could plant the family tree, and go down to posterity
that way. He appears to have been truly thoughtless and careless of fame, and to have flung off his works to find their own way as best they could to immortality.
Indeed, it was for his interest as proprietor of a theatre to attract people to see his plays acted, not to publish books to amuse them at home.
Others might print or misprint his poems, and he seems to have taken no public notice of it.
We now turn to his life in London and what is said of him there.
His first rising is sun-like, with the mists about him—the mists of malice and envy.
The earlier writers for the stage are jealous and disgusted that a mere player, a
factotum for the theatre, should enter the arena with 'college pens' and classical scholars.
And but for these mists, the breath of slander, we should not know when or where the new orb was first visible on the horizon.
Our poet, however, takes no notice of them, but ascends serenely on his upward way.
Most assuredly he had to fight for his place, and struggle arduously at starting to win it.
This child of Nature would be looked upon as a bastard by the learned, with no Greek or Roman godfather to stand sponsor for him.
He tried his best at times, as we may see, to appear classical, and stuck into his work all the mythological allusions and Latin words he could get together;
at which his enemies laughed and made fun—thus forcing him more and more
to that reliance on nature which was to raise him so high above all his
artificial, euphuistic, over-classical contemporaries. They might
laugh, without—Nature was too strong within him. The audience at
the Blackfriars was unsophisticated enough to prefer Shakspeare's more
natural drama to the learning and classicism of others, which was
annoying, indeed, to all second-hand poets. This strife betwixt
the natural and what was thought the true art runs through all we hear
of Shakspeare. There was many a gird at him and his want of
learning and his wit not being college-bred. Bacon we know thought
Latin the only language for immortality. Luckily Shakspeare did not.
This strife would be bitter at first. It mellowed afterwards into the
humour of the 'wit-combats,' but it reappears all through. We get
a hint of it from Shakspeare himself in Sonnet 78:
'But thou art all my Art, and dost advance
As high as Learning, my rude ignorance.'
We doubt not that our poet in his quiet way gave his opponents as good as they sent.
We know how he mimicked and mocked their affectations.
If we may judge by what Shakspeare's contemporaries have recorded, we cannot think they knew what majesty of mind was amongst them.
His personal impression was not of the Ben Jonson kind. Big Ben made his impression by gross physical size, and stamped it with his full weight.
He took care to bequeath his body as well as his mind to us. We know how much flesh he carried.
We know his love of good eating and strong drink; his self assertiveness and lust of power.
We know that he required a high-tide of drink before he could launch himself and get well afloat, and that amongst the Elizabethan song-birds he was named, after his beloved liquor, a 'Canary' bird.
One cannot help fancying that Shakspeare, as he sat quietly listening to Ben's brag, got many a hint for the fattening and glorifying of his own Falstaff.
How different it is with Shakspeare! We get no hint of him in his cups.
The names they give him, however, are significant. They call him the 'gentle Willie,' the beloved, the 'honey-tongued.'
Fuller's image gives us an impression that Ben Jonson was no match 'for Shakspeare in mental quickness when they met in their wit-combats at the 'Mermaid.'
Ben carried most in sight; Shakspeare more out of sight. Ben also appears to indicate that Shakspeare had at times a Mercutio-like flow of wit when his high spirits were in flood, which he, for one, felt to be over-whelming.
'His wit,' says Ben, rather ruefully, 'was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too!' for, 'he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.'
But, for the rest, there is not much to show us what the man Shakspeare was.
They can tell us the shape of Greene's beard, which he 'cherished continually, without cutting; a jolly long red peak, like the spire of a steeple, whereat a man might hang a jewel, it was so sharp and pendant;' the nasal sound of Ben Jonson's voice, and his face 'punched full of eyelet holes like the lid of a warming-pan.'
But they tell us nothing in this kind about Shakspeare, man or manner, and that we think tells us much.
He was so commonly human, so much of a worthy friend and good fellow in general, they almost forgot to notice anything in particular. We know they thought him a man of sweet temper and ready wit, honest and frank, of an open and free nature, very gentle and loveable, and as sociable a good fellow as ever lived.
And, indeed, he must have been the best of all good fellows that ever was so wise a man.
One great cause of Shakspeare's contemporaries telling us no more about him is still in operation against our making him out in his works.
He was so unconscious of self as to be purely reflective of all passing forms.
If he had been a lesser man, he would have shown us more of himself.
But Shakspeare's nature is all mirror to the world around him. A more conscious mail would have managed to make the darkness which hides him from us a sort of lamp-shade which should concentrate the light on his own features, when he looked up in some self-complaisant pause.
Not so Shakspeare: he throw's all the light on his work, and bends over it so intently that it is most difficult to get a glimpse of his face.
Our sole chance is to watch him at his work, and note his human leanings and personal relationships.
In 'the first heir of his invention,' 'Venus and Adonis,' we may learn one or two out of door facts of the poet's life.
Whether he was a deer-stealer or not, it is certain he had been on the track of a hare.
He knew poor puss's form, and had often seen her powdering the dew-drops into mist as she ran. He is intimately acquainted with her habits.
At the mention of her name his thoughts are all off a coursing at once, and his feeling is in full cry.
He had the English sense of sport in his blood, such as runs through the whole race from peer to poacher.
He was likewise a genuine lover of horses, and could show off the 'points' of a thorough-bred in a description that would tell at Newmarket.
In these early poems, which were most probably written in the country, we find the youth of Shakspeare all in flower.
The sonnets of Shakspeare afford us, if we can but understand them aright, the most certain means whereby we can get at the man.
Nothing else except the two prose dedications speaks to us so assuredly with his own voice, or tells us so unmistakeably what were his own feelings and thoughts under various interesting circumstances of his own life.
And this voice of the man Skakspeare has all the changing tones of his temperament, ranging from the grace of buoyant youth to the sober sadness of that early autumn of his age.
Some of these sonnets are majestic as those of Milton, but clothed in a richer vesture of imagination.
Our difficulty is to get the right interpretation of the sonnets, and
know when Shakspeare is really speaking in his own person, and where he gives utterance to the thoughts and feelings of another.
We often hear the voice of Shakspeare; we know the voice, and yet we do not get at the man.
It is as though he were speaking in the next room; there is a partition-wall between us.
We follow the voice, according to some theory of interpreting the sonnets, but when we get into the next room Shakspeare is not there.
Still, the voice, like that of the ghost of Hamlet's father, keeps breaking in, compelling us to follow it.
The chief cause of this intangibility, and the main reason why so many of these sonnets, seemingly personal, do not strike straight home to us with the full force that is coiled up in their lines, must be sought for in the conditions under which they were written.
Shakspeare is not always communicating directly with us. He was not the man to miss his mark, whatever that may have been, only we are not exactly the objects of his aim.
We must stand in the right position to judge of what is going on; we
must get the relations of the writer and the reader rightly adjusted
before we shall hear the voice of Shakspeare with any certainty, or find
out one half the hidden meanings lurking in these sonnets. What,
then, are the conditions under which the sonnets were written?
A work by Francis Meres, entitled 'Palladis Tamia, Wit's Treasury; being the Second Part of Wit's Commonwealth, 1598,' contains the following
passage:— 'As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet wittie soul of Ovid was in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakspeare; witness his
Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.'
In 1609 a volume containing 154 Sonnets, the undoubted productions of Shakspeare, was given to the public by a
'stationer,' Thomas Thorpe, who evidently had not obtained them from the author himself.
Prefixed to the work was the following inscription:—
TO . THE . ONLIE . BEGETTER . OF .
THESE . INSVING . SONNETS .
MR . W . H . ALL . HAPPINESSE .
AND . THAT . ETERNITIE .
OVR . EVER-LIVING . POET .
THE . WELL-WISHING .
ADVENTVRER . IN .
The earliest editors of Shakpeare's works did not trouble themselves about the sonnets.
Others, not knowing what to make of them, would like to have had them quietly dropped.
Malone considered that 126 of them were addressed to 'W. H.,' and 26 to a lady.
Steevens held a similar opinion, but he maintained they were composed in the 'highest strain of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense,' and, he did not reprint them because the 'strongest Act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their Service.'
Gildon gave it as his opinion that the sonnets were all in praise of Shakspeare's mistress.
Chalmers believed that the 'youth' so frequently apostrophized was Queen Elizabeth, she being nearly sixty years old when the earliest of them were written!
Farmer, on a contrary tack, thought the initials 'W. H.' indicated William Harte, nephew of the poet, who was born after most of the sonnets were composed.
Boswell considered it probable that W. H. was one of the friends concerned, and that he furnished the printer with a copy, but he felt satisfied that the poet, in writing, had neither himself nor any one else in view.
Dr. Drake hit upon Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, as the man, but did not know how to prove it.
Mr. Bright struck upon the track of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and fancied that he was the ' W. H.' of the inscription.
He thought it over, laboured at the subject far some fourteen years, and then was anticipated in making known his discovery.
Mr. Bright made it in 1818, and Mr. Boaden announced it in 1832. Poor Mr. Bright! he wasted a good deal of time, but he escaped the infamy of persistently blackening the character of Shakspeare for the sake of a pet theory.
With nothing but Thorpe's inscription to rest on, he contended that ' W.
H.' was the Earl of Pembroke, and the object of the sonnets. Mr. Charles Armitage Brown followed in this direction.
He grouped the sonnets into poems, and accommodated facts as best he could to his theory.
Mr. Hunter also thinks the sonnets relate to transactions between Shakspeare and William Herbert.
Now the sonnets have fairly given scope to much ingenious speculation.
But this Herbert hypothesis, read in the light of Thorpe's inscription, is the most perilous and unsatisfactory of all.
It offers a slenderer bridge over the difficulty than that which leads into Mahomet's Paradise.
We have no positive proof that Thorpe himself knew the full particulars of the sonnets, or the right relations of persons.
He does not tell us how he came by them, but he sent them into the world with the inscription printed above.
That inscription is the sole ground on which the sonnets and the loving friendship of Shakspeare have been awarded to William Herbert.
And yet he was not 'Mr. W. H.' when the book was printed, in 1609.
He had been Earl of Pembroke for eight years, and had previously been Lord Herbert.
So that if Thorpe was aware of the real facts of the case, and became one of the connivers at an intended mystery, it was just as easy to reverse the initials of Henry Wriothesley as to print those of William
Herbert, and there is no gain to the Herbert hypothesis. Either Thorpe did not know all, and so he may have leaped to a wrong conclusion, or he
did know and may have hidden the Earl of Southampton as cleverly as though it had been the Earl of Pembroke.
Shakspeare had then left London. In the year of publication the Earl of Pembroke was governor of Portsmouth.
Where Southampton was we do not clearly trace. He may have been in Holland.
The thing was darkly done. Possibly William Herbert may have collected the Sonnets, and Thorpe may have inferred that he was their 'only begetter.'
Be this as it may, we have Shakspeare's sonnets and Thorpe's inscription, to read them as we are able, and interpret them as we best can.
But it is capable of positive, absolute, and overwhelming proof that William Herbert could not in any sense have been the sole begetter of those sonnets.
No word was ever publicly addressed to him by Shakspeare. We have no knowledge of any intimate acquaintanceship recorded during Shakspeare's lifetime, and
William Herbert did not come to London till the summer of 1599. According to a letter of Rowland White's
 to Sir Robert Sydney, dated April, 1591, 'My Lord Harbert hath, with much adoe, brought his father to consent that he may live at London, yet not before the next spring.'
But he does not arrive until the summer of 1599. And all we hear of him at that time is that, when he was not ill, he devoted himself to the practice of arms.
Whereas Shakspeare's 'sugred sonnets among his private friends' were known to Meres, and spoken of by him in
1598—spoken of, too, as being of sufficient extent and importance to warrant public recognition by a writer remarkable at times for his compressed brevity.
This notice shows us Shakspeare's friends already acquired, his sonnets written and known to a circle of admirers.
That they were well known, which takes time when poetry is in MS., we should gather from his 'witness,' and his classing them with the published poems.
One upholder of the Herbert hypothesis maintains that the Sonnets referred to by Meres must have been lost!
Still, it is the Sonnets of Shakspeare, never before
imprinted, that we hear of again in Thorpe's collection, and the advertisement implies an understanding on the subject.
Readers had heard of them in MS., but the only public mention of them that we hear of is this by Meres.
But there is further evidence that these are the Sonnets known to Meres.
Mr. C. Knight has shown that a certain sonnet (the 94th), and consequently the group to which it
belongs—by no means one of the earliest written—must have been composed before the year 1596, because this last line of
'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,'
is quoted in 'Edward the Third,' a play which has been attributed to Shakspeare.
This play was entered on the register of the Stationers Company, December lst, 1595, after it had been performed 'sundry times' at different theatres.
So that we may fairly assume it to have been composed in 1594, when
William Herbert was fourteen years of age, and five years before he came
to London! He was then a student at New College, Oxford. But we have further proof.
In the 27th Sonnet there is a beautiful image which has been transferred to the play of 'Romeo and Juliet,' and more richly wrought out in the well-known
'Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear.'
In the 127th Sonnet we read this singular defence of a lady's dark complexion and dark eyes:—
'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
And this sentiment of the eyes mourning, and a pale face being your only purity, in a time when so many ladies paint, is reproduced in 'Love's Labour Lost,' which was produced not later than in 1592. In Act 4th, Scene 3rd, Biron says:—
'O, if in black my lady's brows be decked,
It mourns that painting, and usurping hair,
Should ravish doters with a false aspect;
And therefore is she born to make black fair.'
Another repetition so curiously complete we shall scarcely find in in all Shakspeare!
How, then, could the Earl of Pembroke be the ' sole begetter' or the
object of Shakspeare's Sonnets?
Seeing how untenable is the Herbert hypothesis, and knowing how strong are the claims of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, M. Chasles has lately tried a new reading of the Dedication to the Sonnets.
He argues that it is a kind of monumental inscription done by two different hands, and the first part should run
thus:—'To the only begetter of these insuing Sonnets Mr, W. H. wisheth all happiness, and that eternity promised by our ever-living Poet
'—meaning that William Herbert dedicates the Sonnets to the Earl of Southampton.
Thorpe then adds, 'The well-wishing Adventurer in setting forth.—T. T.'
Now really to have to wrench the word 'wisheth ' from its present place in that way is a far greater violation of probability than either of three other possible conjectures on the subject, viz., that Thorpe may have meant 'sole begetter' in the sense of obtaining the Sonnets for the press, or that he did not know what W. H. was 'sole begetter' in the Elizabethan sense, or that he concealed the Earl of Southampton with the reversed initials of his name.
The inscription is all one. If the printers had made a mistake and run it on, Thorpe was there to correct it.
But his own phraseology makes that impossible, and carries us over any possible break.
Mr. Bolton Corney thinks it was an oversight on the part of Thorpe to add his 'well-wisher' so close to the 'wisheth.'
This is a most unfortunate observation in relation to his adopted theory, for it must be obvious to all who consider how fond were the Elizabethan Sonnetteers, Shakspeare especially, of the figures
Anadiplosis, or the Redouble, and Epanalepsis, or the
Echo-sound, that Thorpe has been trying to imitate them in his 'wisheth' the 'well-wisher,' and managed to produce a figure of repetition or alliteration in the sense, which he fancied smart, and which certainly serves the purpose of proving the inscription to be all one.
But it is time we had done with this dedication of the Sonnets.
Readers have already been kept too long on the outside of the subject.
If Shakspeare had written it, that would have given to it a very different value, and any amount of time and trouble would have been justly spent in trying to fathom its purport.
But he did not write it, and there is nothing left for us to do except to study what he did write, and let the facts of the inner life shape the external theory.
It is of the highest importance to solve the puzzling question, Who was the ' begetter' of the Sonnets?
And, without venturing to speak with certainty upon so difficult a point, we propose to submit to our readers some of the grounds upon which this character may very plausibly be ascribed to Southampton.
Whatever may be thought of this interpretation, assuredly no other has yet been suggested which will bear a moment's examination.
Shakspeare wrote his Sonnets with a direction so plain and palpable that, as he says, every word almost tells the name of him for whom they were written:—
'Oh, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument.'—Sonnet 76.
Amongst the few precious personal relics of our poet are the short prose epistles in which he inscribes his two poems to the Earl of Southampton.
They are remarkable revelations of his feeling towards the Earl. The
first—the 'Venus and Adonis'—is shaded with a delicate reserve, and addressed to the
patron; the 'Lucrece,' printed one year afterwards, glows out full-hearted in a dedication of personal love for the
friend. The difference is so great and the growth of the friendship so rapid, as to indicate that the 'Venus and Adonis' was sent to the Earl a long time before it was
printed. Any way we have it recorded, in 1594, by Shakspeare himself, that the relationship of poet and patron was so close, the friendship had so far ripened, that Shakspeare could dedicate
'love without end,' and he uses these never-to-be forgotten words:—
' What I have done is yours.
What I have to do is yours; being part in all I have devoted yours.'
Which we read as implying an understanding between them of work then in hand.
Southampton, he says emphatically, is a part in all that he has devoted his.
What work in hand should this be, devoted to Southampton, save the Sonnets which he was then composing?
It seems probable that the first group of Sonnets was sent to the Earl before the 'Venus and Adonis' was dedicated to him, and that the Sonnets led to the looking up of the poem, which had been written some time before, and the giving of it to the press now a patron had been secured.
In Sonnet 16 the poet speaks of his 'pupil' pen; and in Sonnet 26 he sends a
'written embassage' to the Earl, and, to our thinking, distinctly promises something in print. Take this meanwhile, he
'Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspèct,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show we worthy of thy sweet respect;
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee,
Till then, not show my head where thou may'st prove me.'
That is a positive allusion to the poet's public appearance
for the first time: the putting on of apparel in print—the daring to boast in
public—the showing of his head where he may be proved—all illustrate this view.
This may be as much a private dedication of the 'Venus and Adonis' as the 'epistle' afterwards was a public one. It is curious to notice that the shade of personal feeling in the earliest Sonnets is exactly like to that of the
first dedication: it is reticent and noticeably modest. There is no large profession of
love—no great gratitude. The writer stands at gaze on the picture he paints.
He chiefly praises his patron's youth and beauty, and urges him to marry.
His freshness of colouring has all the tenderness of spring-tints.
And there is as rathe a tenderness in the writer's feeling as in the picture's youthfulness.
Moreover, we have the young man's age preciscely reckoned up in Sonnet
'Now stand you on the top of happy hours:'
—which shows us that the youth has sprung lightly up the
ladder of his life, and now stands on the last golden round of boyhood.
He is, we should say, eighteen or nineteen. The Earl of Southampton was born October 6, 1573, which would give the year 1591-92 for this Sonnet to have been written in, and Shakspeare's first public proclamation of Southampton's
patronage—in which he vows 'to take advantage of all idle hours' till he has 'honoured him with some graver
labour'—was in the next year. There is an expression in the Dedication remarkably like to that of the opening Sonnet.
In the one, Shakspeare hopes the young Earl may answer to the world's 'hopeful expectation;' in the other be calls him the
'world's fresh ornanment,' and 'only herald to the gaudy spring.'
Both are stamped with the same date; both point out the Earl as the 'expectancy and rose of the fair state.'
In this, the earliest group of Sonnets, the poet uses many arguments which all circle round the one idea that this comely noble of Nature should not be so niggardly and unthrifty as not to leave the world some copies of his beauty when he dies.
But underneath the surface of these Sonnets, with their quaint play of conceit and sparkle of wit, there seems to us a quiet depth of wisdom.
Either Shakspeare was engaged to write them by those who sought to see the young Earl married, or else he felt a most fond and fatherly anxiety that the youth should not linger in the garden of Armida; for the distant admiration, the innocent flattery, the far-fetched comparisons, all play into the hands of a grave purpose.
The writer knows there is nothing like true marriage, a worthy wife, the tie of children, and a happy home, to bring the young wild life into keeping of the highest law.
There are two points we would here notice more particularly.
One is the distance at which Shakspeare pays his respects. There is no talk of favours, and but little of friendship; he speaks of 'merit' on the one side, and 'duty' on the other.
This shows that these Sonnets were written very early in the intercourse.
It also proves that the person who printed the Sonnets, however ignorant of details, had sufficient guidance to put the first group in its right place.
Next—and here we feel an endearing touch of Shakspeare's nature—the youth is so evidently
fatherless, that it seems strange the fact should have been hitherto overlooked.
In Sonnet 10 he is charged with not inclining his ear to the advice given to him that he should marry.
beauteous roof to ruinate,
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.'
We find the same use made of the verb 'to ruinate' in Henry VI., Part iii., Act 5—
'I will not ruinate my father's house.'
Of course the roof would not need repairing if it were not going to decay.
Accordingly we find that Southampton's father—head of the house—died in 1581, ere the young Earl was quite eight years old, and within four years of that time his elder brother
died. Again in Sonnet 13 the poet urges—
lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,'
And—although aware that the lines may not be confined to the literal
reading—we cannot avoid thinking that the underlying fact was in the poet's mind when, in the same Sonnet, he
'Dear my love, you know
You had a father; let your son say so.'
Also, in Sonnet 3, he tells the
'Thou art thy Mother's glass.'
There is no mention of his
having a father living. This, we believe, made the poet express himself in a more paternal manner.
The group we shall next consider is the one relating to a rival poet, for that would seem to have been one of the earliest written.
Mr. Brown, in his 'Autobiographical Poems of Shakspeare,' remarks, 'who this rival poet was is beyond my conjecture; nor does it matter.'
But it does matter much; for if this poet should prove to be Marlowe, that one fact alone would be of sufficient force to deal the death-blow to the Herbert hypothesis which Mr. Brown laboured at so ingeniously, and, as we think, so vainly.
Because Marlowe died in June, 1593, when William Herbert was thirteen years and four months of age; and, in our opinion, nothing but the blindest belief in the Herbert hypothesis, which, of necessity, shifts the date at which the greater portion of the Sonnets were written, could possibly have obscured the fact, so patent to us, that Marlowe
was the other poet. There is circumstantial evidence of this in every line and touch of Shakspeare's description.
Marlowe was a dramatic celebrity before Shakspeare, and we have no doubt there was a time when Shakspeare looked up to him and was somewhat led captive by his lofty, flamboyant style.
He would fully appreciate the sensuous bodily beauty, so to speak, of many of Marlowe's lines.
He would give him full credit for having struck out a new spring of the English Helicon, with the impatient pawing hoof of his fiery Pegasus, in his use of blank verse.
He prized his genius, if he could not respect the man. We find that he quotes a line from Marlowe's poem, 'Hero and Leander,' in the play he was probably writing that same year when the poem was first printed.
But his finer ear and truer taste would soon detect a good deal of bombast in the 'mighty line,' and he would see that the great glow of Marlowe's imagination had in it a swarthy smoke, and poetry never attained the true
regulus of colour, or came from the furnace pure gold. All this and more we discover in Shakspeare's description of the rival poet:—
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?
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 filed up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.'
No other English poet could have sat for that portrait so well as Marlowe:—
'He of tall building and of goodly
The proud full sail of his great verse gives the very picture, the
viva effigies of Marlowe's poetry—the characteristic that is foremost in the minds of all who are acquainted with his King Cambyses' vein.
Who does not recognise 'Faustus,' his necromancy, and his boasts of what he will have the spirits do for him?
Who does not see that Shakspeare, thinking dramatically, has identified Marlowe with 'Faustus' and thrown him on the stage, where, in
vision—if it be not an actual fact that the play was running at the Curtain Theatre while Shakspeare was composing that
Sonnet—he sees his familiar Mephistophiles 'gulling him nightly' with such intelligence as that 'in Hell are all manner of delights;' and the drama of Dr. Faustus is played once again in Shakspeare's Sonnet.
In other hints and signs we recognise Marlowe, and no other, as the man whom Shakspeare meant where he speaks of the 'strained touches of his rhetoric,' and his 'gross painting' when the rival has, no doubt, laid the flattery on very coarsely.
In all probability the Earl had looked over Marlow's 'Faustus' in MS., making some suggestions, of
which the poet would be proud and make ample boast. This it was, Shakspeare confesses, that probed his
infirmity—made him feel jealous, and keep silence. That there is a touch of jealousy and a good deal of rivalry in these Sonnets relating to the 'other poet,' is apparent and generally admitted.
And in this aspect there is no poet who could make such an appeal so justly to Shakspeare's feelings as Marlowe.
Marlowe was the rival poet at the opposition theatre in Shoreditch.
He was then in the full flush and high tide of his brief and brilliant success. 'Tamderlaine the Great,' 'Faustus,' the 'Jew of Malta,' 'Edward
II.,' had come crowding on the stage one after the other, with Alleyne playing his best in the principal characters.
Heywood, writing forty years afterwards, celebrates Marlowe as the best of poets, and Alleyne as the best of players.
But there was a nobler element in Shakspeare's jealousy of Marlowe.
It stands revealed in these Sonnets that he felt more than Southampton's 'filing up his line' or his being drawn to the other theatre, Shakspeare shuddered at what he saw and heard of Marlowe behind the scenes.
He felt a most fatherly fear for his youthful friend, and he cries,—
'Ah! wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety?'
Whose character does that hit as it
does Marlowe's, according to the tenor of all contemporary testimony?
Other poets and writers besides Marlowe and Shakspeare were patronised by the Earl of Southampton.
Nash dedicated his 'Life of Jack Wilton' to the Earl (1594), and he says, 'A dear lover and cherisher you are as well of lovers of poetrie as of poets themselves.'
Florio, in dedicating his 'World of Words' (1598) to the same nobleman, says, 'In truth I acknowledge an entire debt, not only of my best knowledge, but of all; yea, of more than I know or can, to your bounteous Lordship, in whose pay and patronage I have lived some years, to whom I owe and vowe the years I have to live.
But, as to me and many more, the glorious and gracious sunshine of your honour hath infused light and life.'
Chapman, in a dedicatory Sonnet, calls the Earl 'the choice of all our country's noble spirits.'
Braithwayt inscribes his 'Scholar's Medley' (1614), to him, as 'Learning's best favourite.'
And Minsheu also attests the Earl's munificence to literary men. But of all who dedicated to him, or were familiar with him, Marlowe is the man described by Shakspeare.
And as he died in June, 1593, at least two groups of the Sonnets must have been written before that date, neither of which could possibly have been 'begotten' by the Earl of Pembroke.
It has been asked by supporters of the Herbert hypothesis how it is, if Southampton was the begetter of the Sonnets, that Shakspeare has not celebrated the Earl's
exploits—not offered him any comforting words in his misfortunes, or congratulations on his release from prison.
The answer is, Shakspeare has done all this, in his own way, in these very Sonnets.
The heroic part of the Earl's nature was, no doubt, carefully treasured up in Shakspeare's dramatic works.
But his character and career, and his love for the 'faire Mistress Vernon,' through all its touching history, are bound up with the Sonnets.
Speaking of these he says,—
'Oh let my Books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast.'
And so they are.
How could any one suppose that our great-hearted poet would ever forget all about such a friend who had held out the hand of help to
him when he was struggling in deep waters, and found for him a firmer bit of foot-hold than he had ever before attained; or imagine that he could lose sight of his promise made in public when he proclaimed his love to be 'without
end'? We might depend upon it, even if we failed to prove it, that Shakspeare's soul was not of that shallow, sonnetteering kind, and that his promises were all fulfilled.
Up to the present time it has been generally, though not universally, maintained that the first 120 Sonnets were all addressed to a male friend of Shakspeare, and that our poet outdid all his contemporaries in flattering his patron after the sonnetteering fashion
—whilst men like Hallam could scarcely swallow the difficulty of believing that Shakspeare 'should so prostrate himself at the feet of an Earl to fear his frown and call himself the
'slave'—the 'sad slave'—of a boy, and have wished they had never been
written. But, upon a very close examination of the Sonnets,
we find the assumption to be perfectly unwarranted. In the first twenty Sonnets, for example, where Shakspeare speaks to his friend directly,
we are not left in any doubt as to the sex: there are sixteen distinct allusions to his being a man.
Elsewhere, when the poet speaks in person, we frequently find the 'him' and 'his,' which (when not used in a proverbial saying) tell the sex.
But passing on from those Sonnets to which the 26th is natural L'Envoy, we come upon a series, numbering at least sixteen, and
through the whole of them there is no allusion to a man. The feeling expressed is more passionate, and the phrase has become more movingly tender; far closer relationship is sung, and yet the object to whom these Sonnets are written never appears in person.
There is neither 'man' nor 'boy,' 'him' nor 'his.' How is this? Surely it is not the wont of a stronger feeling and greater warmth of affection to fuse down all individuality and lose sight of sex.
That is not the way of Nature's or of Shakspeare's working. With further looking-on we must believe that these said Sonnets, which we take for our third group, were not addressed to a man, but to a woman.
All the negative evidence shows it was not a man, and all the positive evidence indicates a woman.
Not that Shakspeare is here wooing a woman in person. We do not suppose that he would write so many Sonnets to a woman, and leave out the sex.
May we not read them as written on the subject of Southampton's courtship?
When we remember Shakspeare's own words,—'being a part of till I have devoted yours,' and 'you and love are still my
argument'—there is nothing very startling in the supposition that Shakspeare should have devoted Sonnets to his friend's love for Elizabeth Vernon.
We find the young nobleman had done his best to follow the poet's early advice.
In a letter of Rowland Whyte's, dated September 23, 1595, we learn
'My Lord Southampton doth with too much familiarity court the faire Mistress Vernan, while his friends, observing the Queen's humours towards my Lord of Essex, do what they can to bring her to favour him; but it is yet in
It may be maintained that the story of Southampton's courtship is partly told in these sixteen Sonnets.
It is not Shakspeare who speaks, but Southampton to his lady. This will account for the passion and tenderness, and, at the same time, for the absence of all mention of the sex of the person addressed, which would naturally result
from the poet's delicacy of feeling.
Again and again we may see how he was fettered in expression on this account.
For illustrative evidence let the reader begin with the 50th Sonnet.
There we find the lover on a journey, the end of which lies far from his beloved, and he is so heavy-hearted that the horse he rides is 'tired with his woe,' and plods dully on.
In the next Sonnet he says if he were only coming back to her he should 'spur,' even though mounted on the wind.
Note also the use he makes of the word 'desire' and the horse neighing.
Then comes the thought (Sonnet 48), how careful he was, before leaving home, to lock up each little trifle for safety; but she who is his dearest jewel, his 'best of dearest' and his 'only care,' is left out:—
'Thee have I not locked up in any chest.'
Sonnet 44 implies that the lover is across sea, as we know the Earl of Southampton was several times;
 but have no reason to think that Shakspeare ever
was—still, his thoughts will fly to her in 'tender embassy of love,' and come back to him assured of her
'fair health' (Sonnet 45), and, in absence, he has her portrait—
love's picture then my eye doth feast,
And to the painted banquet bids my heart.'
And he rejoices richly in possession.
Various expressions point to a woman as the object of address. In Sonnet 57 he is her 'slave,' and she his
'sovereign;' her 'servant,' which implies the mistress; only the poet was fettered in expression.
And in the next Sonnet he says:—
'That god forbid that made me first your slave.'
What god? if not Cupid, god of love, as the whole Sonnet illustrates, which would be meaningless if addressed from man to man.
More feminine still, if possible, is the illustration in Sonnet 61.
He cannot sleep at night for seeing her image, and he asks—
'Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home, into my deeds to pry;
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?'
In all these Sonnets it is the speaker who is so far away.
On the return from abroad, we find the poet saying in a kind of general address to
'Sweet lore, renew thy force.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore where two contracted-new
Come daily to the banks.'
That image, we surmise, symbols the fact that Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon had been
newly affianced before the Earl went on his late journey.
To take one of Southampton's journeys, we learn that he left London February 8th, 1598.
The 'fair Mistress Vernon' 'passed her time in weeping.' It was proposed by his friends that he should marry her before he left, so bitterly did she take to heart the thought of his going.
Circumstances prevented this, and his Lordship departed—after feasting Mr. Secretary, and having plays and
banquets—leaving 'behind him a very desolate gentlewoman, that almost wept out her fairest eyes.' He came back in the November of the same year.
And it is curious to connect herewith the three sonnets, 97, 98, 99,
'How like a winter hath my absence been!'
and yet he tells us it was spring, summer, and autumn all the while; and he gives us this rich bit of love-poetry, which would seem strangely out of place if sent to a
did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion of the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
The forward violet thus did I chide;
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells,
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stolen thy hair.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stolen from thee.'
Would Shakspeare have written thus to a man?
Luckily, we can make him answer for himself. It often happens that we are enabled to prove a sonnet not personal by the aid of those which are personal.
And in Sonnet 21 he says—
'So is it
NOT with me as with that Muse
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a complement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare.'
After which he would not be likely to compare his friend to that same 'painted beauty' by doing the very thing he had denounced.
Such lines, we submit, were never written to any man as from Shakspeare himself, but they might well arise from the poet taking Southampton's courtship for his theme.
Coleridge was not without grounds for thinking Shakspeare's Sonnets were addressed to a
woman. Poet-like, he felt that there were such gusts of passionate fragrance in the feeling, and such 'subtle-shining secresies' in the expression of some of them, as a woman only could have called forth.
The flowery tenderness, the playing with all beauties of external nature as the beloved's shadow, and looking on the flowers as 'figures of delight' drawn after her pattern; the affectionate endearment of epithet, the fondling of the miniature, the almost epicurean sense of possessing the treasure which he will not look at often for fear of 'blunting the fine point of pleasure' (Sonnet 52), the love-sickness in absence, and the rapture of return, are all essentially amatory; all tell of a pure passion for a pure, beautiful woman.
Shakspeare's dramatic instinct was too keen for him to have violated the natural fitness of imagery, as he is made to do, by our reading all these Sonnets as addressed to a man.
For example, a woman might be likened to Adonis, because of his youthful, beardless beauty and his modesty (Sonnet 53); but it would hardly do to liken a man who was a soldier and a famous fighter to Helen,
'Painted newly in Grecian tires!'
Or take the imagery in Sonnet 114, where the speaker says his love hath the alchemic
'To make of monsters and things indigest
Such Cherubins as your sweet self resemble.'
Then there is Sonnet 93, which Oldys fancied Shakspeare had addressed to his wife on her infidelity.
It is quick with the fears of a lover trembling into suspicions lest his mistress should not prove
'How like Eve's Apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!'
In the previous Sonnet he says:—
'Thou mayst be
false and yet I know it not.'
In Sonnet 88 he alludes to a possible contingency, and there says:—
'Against myself I'll fight,
And prove thee virtuous tho' thou art forsworn.'
In Sonnet 125 the love is a 'mutual render, only me for thee.’ Sonnet 87 looks like a lover's quarrel and a possible parting,
The lover says:—
'Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing.'
And this is followed by three other pathetic Sonnets on the same subject:—
'Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
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:'
which hardly applies to Shakspeare at the theatre, but is applicable to Southampton about the Court!
'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.'
What this can have to do with Shakspeare personally has never been shown.
He was not a man of deeds. What it may have to do with the Earl we shall see, if we call to mind
how he returned to England  in October, 1597, and the Queen frowned on
him—she being 'on tiff' with Essex—because, while in command of the 'Garland,' he had dared to pursue and sink a vessel of the enemy without Monson's orders.
And here he challenges his love to do what the Queen or Fortune, with her injustice cannot
do—make his proud spirit bow.
This Sonnet is quick with the feeling of a wronged heroic soul, written in the very life-blood that ran from wounds unfairly given, and a most perfect representation in motive, time, circumstance, when applied to the Earl.
In this connection let us look at Sonnet 36, and we shall perceive a meaning never before discovered:—
'Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Altho' our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Tho' in our lives a separable spite;
Which tho' if after not lore's sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from lore's delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame;
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.'
Apply that to Shakspeare, and you can make nothing of it.
It will not even fit in with the supposed affair of the two friends and one mistress, as the poet is not made to call himself the guilty one in that! Apply it to Southampton, and you have the two lovers and the parting enforced by the Queen.
He has been forbidden to see his mistress, or she him; and were he to do so, or were she to notice him for others to see, it would injure her good report.
They must to all appearance be 'twain,' although one in love, so that she may not be a sharer in his 'blots.'
There is but one respect in their love, but a separable spite in their lives.
The 'separable spite' of Southampton's and Mistress Vernon's lives was the spite of
Elizabeth. Rowland Whyte, in a letter dated February 1st, 1597, makes a remark which is very apposite to our purpose and illustrative of the personal history of these lovers.
He says, ['My Lord of Southampton is much troubled at her Majesty's strangest usage of hym.
Some body hath plaied unfriendly parts with hym. Mr. Secretary hath procured him license to travell.
His fair Mistress doth wash her fairest face with too many tears. I pray God his going away bring her to no such infirmity which is, as yt were, hereditary to her
name.' Here, apparently, we find that Elizabeth Vernon is driven to the verge of madness.
What the Queen's treatment was of her maids that wished to marry we may gather from the letter of Mr. Fenton to John Harington, in which, speaking of the Lady M. Howard, he tells us the Queen will not let her be married, 'saying, I have made her my servant, and she will make herself my mistress,' which she shall not.
Moreover, she 'must not entertain ' her lover 'in any conversation, but shun his company, and be careful how she attires her person not to attract my lord the
Earl.' This writer says her Majesty frequently 'chides in small matters, in such wise as to make these fair maids often cry and bewail in piteous sort.'
We have only internal evidence whereby we can judge whether the Sonnets are or are not personal; and where the internal evidence fits some outer fact which we can identify, we have a right to adopt the reading that is compatible with both.
In this respect our reading will make the Sonnets alive with realities where no meanings have hitherto been found.
We will now ask the reader to turn back with us to Sonnet 30, the subject of which is the loss of
friends—'precious friends'—very nearly related, who died long ago:—
'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new-wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in Death's dateless night,
And weep afresh Love's long-since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanisht sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily, from woe to woe, tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.'
We cannot attach this to Shakspeare himself by any known facts of his life; yet it is something very special.
The lost friends were most dear—'precious friends'—friends, we should say, in the closest relationship.
The next Sonnet says:—
'How many a
holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stolen from mine eye,
As interest of the dead!'
The loss is the sorrow of a life-time; the relationship one of the nearest to nature; and the deaths occurred years ago.
If we suppose Shakspeare to be speaking, we simply do not know what he is talking about, as so often occurs through the personal theory.
The first loss that Shakspeare had up to the time of writing, and the only one, so far as we know, was the loss of his boy.
Indeed, this could not have occurred; for if the Sonnets were personal, they would be amongst the earliest written, because they indicate that it is a
newly-found friend, who is to fill the empty place of those old ones who are
'Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts,
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
And there reigns Love and all Love's loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.'
Shakspeare's son died in August 1596, but clearly that loss will not bear the description in any way.
If we turn to Southampton's life, we shall find the very loss of these 'precious friends,' and the precise lapse of time also.
His father had died (as we have already stated) when Henry Wriothesley wanted two days of being eight years old; and about four years afterwards his elder brother died.
That phrase 'lacking' has in it a touch of parental relationship. And as we read the Sonnet, this new love of the Earl for Elizabeth Vernon has come to him to replace the old, and restore to him all he had lost; that which death hid away he has found in her.
She comes to him
'Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give,
That due of many now is thine alone.'
The subject being death, will account for the graver tones that make the poetry so solemn and splendid.
When we read these as a portion of Shakspeare's 'sugred Sonnets among his private
friends' it adds a novel significance to the words of Meres. These are
love-Sonnets, which was what Meres meant by his epithet; but love-Sonnets in so peculiar a fashion that if their true nature was such as we have been supposing, and he had any inkling of it, he would be compelled to generalise.
He does not say sonnets to his friend or friends, but among his private friends.
This was in 1598, the year in which the Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon were married; therefore these sonnets, which are ante-nuptial, if written on the subject of the Earl's love, must have been amongst those mentioned by Meres, for they have the essence of his meaning.
And who were Shakspeare's 'private friends'? We have his own positive evidence that Southampton was one, and a very dear one.
No amount of negative evidence will alter that or dethrone the Earl to whom he dedicated.
The sole evidence on behalf of the Earl of Pembroke is that of the players, or rather of the writer of the dedication to the first folio edition of Shakspeare's plays, whose gratitude was probably quite as much a lively sense of future favours to himself as it was a sense of any past favours to Shakspeare.
Southampton, we know, was a private friend of our great poet. And it is only the most natural thing in the world that Elizabeth Vernon should be his friend also.
We mentioned an image in Sonnet 27 which reappears in 'Romeo and Juliet,' where the reader will find that it occurs in Romeo's very first exclamation at seeing Juliet for the first time.
This 27th Sonnet, according to our reading, is one of the earliest devoted to Southampton's love for Elizabeth
Vernon—the first as they are arranged.
And we think the figure placed too pointedly where it reappears not to have some significance.
It suggests the possibility that this lady of the Sonnets may be glanced at in Juliet!
Looked at in this light, the question of Juliet—
'Art thou not Romeo and a Moutague?'
comes upon us with renewed force; for the fact is, that Southampton was a Montague by the mother's side, she being Mary, daughter of Anthony Browne, first Viscount Montague, and his name, Wriothesley, beginning with a letter different from the first letter sounded, may be alluded to in what has always seemed a little bit of the Nurse's nonsense in the fourth scene of the Second Act of this drama:—
'Nurse.—Doth not rosemary and Romeo
both begin with a letter?
Romeo.—Ay, Nurse; what of that? both with an R.
Nurse.— Ah, mocker! that's the dog's name: R is for the dog. No;
I know it begins with some other letter; and she hath the prettiest
sententious of it, of you and Rosemary, that it would do you good to
Romeo.—Commend me to thy lady.'
Here perhaps is an
aside on the part of the poet to his friends. It seems also exceedingly probable to us that we get another
aside that glances at our reading of the Sonnets in the previous scene of this same Act.
Mercutio says of Romeo in love, 'Now is he for the numbers Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a kitchen-wench; marry,
she had a better love to be-rhyme. her.' Supposing the theory now under consideration to be the right one, the perfection of the banter
here—as between Shakspeare and Southampton—would lie in an allusion unperceived by the audience, but well known to poet and patron.
That such asides were frequent at that time we have no doubt whatever.