HE who succeeds in persuading himself that he has found out the secret of Shakespeare's
Sonnets—always supposing the existence of a secret—may fold his arms, and consider his mundane work done.
For him there are no more worlds to conquer. Such is Mr. Gerald Massey's happy situation.
He is perfectly satisfied that he has found out the secret. He goes farther: he is perfectly satisfied that nobody else ever had an inkling of the mystery; that, in short, the Sonnets were "never interpreted before."
Nothing short of so thorough a conviction could have enabled him to build up a monument of six hundred weighty pages to a problem, upon which the ingenuity of a legion of speculators has been already expended in vain.
All readers who have dipped into the lumber of annotation under which Shakespeare has been buried, are aware that this question of the Sonnets is old ground; and it would be sheer waste of time to recapitulate the theories which have been advanced by Schlegel, Coleridge, Hallam, Farmer, Drake, Brown, Gervinus, and a dozen others, down to the latest strains of the rack by
Philarète Chasles, who traced both the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke in the Inscription, and Herr Bernstorff, who discovered in Mr. W. H. no less a personage than Mr. William Himself.
We have here to do only with Mr. Massey's theory, which claims the right of standing alone.
In his introduction Mr. Massey puts all previous interpretations bodily out of court, and proceeds forthwith to develop his own.
Divesting his scheme of clouds of extraneous details, and fantastical speculations, its main features maybe briefly stated.
Mr. Massey arbitrarily divides the Sonnets into two series, one of which he supposes to have been written for the Earl of Southampton, and the other for William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
Having grouped the Sonnets to suit this division of subjects, he next subdivides each series into two classes, one of which he calls Personal, to signify Sonnets written by Shakespeare in his own person, and the other Dramatic, a term not very felicitously chosen to distinguish the Sonnets which he supposes Shakespeare to have written in the persons of other people.
It will be seen that, in order to support these conclusions, Mr. Massey revolutionises the order of the poems, and presents them in a new distribution; while he still further begs the question of interpretation by affixing titles to them, such as "Southampton in Love," "Elizabeth Vernon's Soliloquy,'' with a view to forestall the judgment of the reader.
The critic would be justified in stopping the inquiry at this point, on the ground that there is no case to go to the jury.
The Sonnets as exhibited to us by Mr. Massey are clearly not the Sonnets as they were printed in Shakespeare's lifetime, with, we are quite warranted in assuming, the knowledge and sanction of the poet.
It is a manifest perversion of the evidence to break up the order of the poems into fresh combinations, and then to argue upon the imaginary results thus obtained.
By a similar process, any theory, however absurd, might be made to acquire a certain illusory colouring of probability; and Mr. Massey's results are not so feasible as to compensate for the violent means by which he arrives at them.
If we are to have interpretations of the Sonnets, let them at least be founded upon the Sonnets as they have come down to us.
But granting Mr. Massey free range and licence to shuffle the Sonnets as he pleases, let us see what is the story he extracts from them.
The first group relates to Southampton. Shakespeare is here supposed to have become acquainted with the young earl immediately
after he came to London. Southampton was then eighteen years of age, and Shakespeare twenty-seven.
The Sonnets addressed in the first instance to the earl begin by advising him to marry.
The great object Shakespeare, it seems, had in view was to get his young friend married, and Mr. Massey is of opinion that the Sonnets were commenced solely for that purpose.
The earl is speedily in a way to gratify the poet's wishes: he falls in love with Lady Elizabeth Vernon.
The Sonnets now run in different channels. The poet is taken into the confidence of the lovers, and writes "dramatic" sonnets for them, to represent the shifting phases of their courtship.
Sometimes it is the earl pouring out his passion to the lady; sometimes it is the lady, who has become jealous of her cousin, Lady Rich; occasionally it is Shakespeare himself on various topics, including ruminations upon his own death; and finally, after many sentimental evolutions, comes the marriage, crowned by a sonnet, written for the occasion.
All these circumstances are supposed to be traced consecutively in the group as selected and disposed by Mr. Massey.
Admitting the arrangement to be justifiable, and that the sequence here adopted represents the exact order of time in which the Sonnets were written, the evidence of the intention of the poet is purely internal.
There is not a particle of external evidence extant to show that Shakespeare was ever acquainted with Lady Elizabeth Vernon; that she ever confided to him her love affairs, her jealousies, or her flirtations; that she ever engaged him to put her emotions into verse; or that Lord Southampton ever made use of him for like purposes.
It is essential, therefore, to the reception of Mr. Massey's interpretation that it should be fairly borne out by the text, there being no other evidence in support of it; and that the meaning which he believes he has found in the poems should be tolerably clear to the reader when it is pointed out to him.
But even with the aid of Mr. Massey's luminous glosses, readers of ordinary discernment will utterly fail to detect a trace of the circumstantial history Mr. Massey sees so plainly mapped out in his groups.
It is not possible, within any reasonable compass, to produce adequate proofs of this.
It would require as big a book as that before us to follow Mr. Massey through his details, and unravel his fine threads of speculation.
But a single example will show upon what slender grounds he sometimes assumes his facts.
The marriage of Southampton, which crowned the object for which the Sonnets are alleged to have been written, and which brought the Southampton group to a close, is the most marked and distinctive incident in the
whole. Mr. Massey tells us that Shakespeare wrote a particular sonnet "in celebration of the happy event."
Here, at least, where the poet is commemorating the accomplishment of his friend's felicity and the termination of his own vicarious Poetical labours, we have a right to expect that the evidence should be reasonably plain and explicit.
This supposed nuptial Sonnet is that numbered 116 in the original series, which
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Mr. Massey could hardly have been more unfortunate had he picked out as an epithalamium one of the Sonnets on Death.
The witness he has called into court answers in an opposite direction.
There is absolutely nothing relating to marriage, or remotely suggestive of marriage, in the sonnet from beginning to end, except the word "marriage" in the first line, and there it is used in a figurative sense.
Had Shakespeare intended to celebrate a marriage in these verses, especially a marriage which he is supposed to have been singing in advance for six or seven years, he surely would not have taken such pains to conceal his purpose.
Similar instances abound. The want of agreement between the text and the explanation is felt in almost every page where the text is quoted.
We are everywhere conscious of being subjected to a critical pressure against which our judgment rebels.
The screw that is put upon the poems to make them fit the theory constantly jars upon us.
Other modes of getting up evidence, so to speak, are equally open to objection.
Thus, for the purpose of proving that a close friendship existed between Southampton and Shakespeare, Mr. Massey quotes the famous Southampton letter, the authenticity of which lies under an ugly suspicion that need not be further
characterised here. In such a case he was bound to furnish some reasons for assuming the document to be genuine; but he furnishes none.
He tells us, indeed, that he "feels it to be genuine," and that it
"has a touch of nature, a familiarity in the tone, beyond the dream or the daring of a forger."
But I submit that the authenticity of a document, especially when it comes to be used in evidence, is not a matter of feeling, but of proof; that it is not safe to set limits to the imagination or the audacity of a forger; and that it is not consistent with experience to suppose that forgers cannot be as natural and familiar as other people.
Again, as to Southampton's gift of £1,000 to Shakespeare. Mr. Massey thinks that help, including money, may have been given "when the poet most needed help, to hearten him in his life-struggle."
This is a view of the earl's patronage which is no doubt very honourable to the patron; but if we admit the tradition at all, we are bound to take it as we find it.
We must not modify or square it to our own notions. The story comes down to us from Rowe, who had no great faith in it himself, and who had it from somebody who was supposed to have had it indirectly from Sir William Davenant.
It runs to the effect that Southampton gave Shakespeare £1,000, not "to hearten him in his life-struggle," but "to enable him to go through with a purchase he had a mind to;" so that, if it ever took place, it was not in the days of want, but in the golden time of profitable investments, in which, for all we know to the contrary, Southampton himself might have had a beneficial interest.
Smaller artifices pervade the manipulation of the poems.
Resemblances are found in passages between which none exist, or at best only such flitting and superficial coincidences as are incidental to verse of all forms and periods.
The inferences drawn from premises so vague are valueless.
Sometimes passages are taken from the plays and contrasted with other passages taken from the Sonnets, and by affixing arbitrary dates to both, certain conclusions are arrived at which Mr. Massey sets down as facts.
But facts got at in this way have no more solidity than card houses.
They tumble down at a breath. The chronology of the plays and Sonnets is pure
conjecture, and, in most cases, conjecture groping in the dark. The dates ascribed to the Sonnets are governed exclusively by the convenience of the argument, or what Mr. Massey would probably call the internal evidence, which, in a matter where there is nothing to be proved but a scheme of imaginary circumstances, is really no evidence at all.
And where this internal evidence does not fit the occasion, it is made to fit by a subtle and complex interpretation.
Thus, sonnet 138, in which the writer avows himself to be old, is made to supply proof that he is young, by being relegated to a period when "a new element" had entered into the Sonnets, and they had "become playful and ironic."
This was one of the two sonnets which were published surreptitiously by Jaggard in 1599;
"therefore," says Mr. Massey, "it must have been written when William Herbert was in his nineteenth or twentieth
year;" that is, it must have been written in 1598 or 1599, William Herbert having been born in 1580.
But why must it have been written in 1598 or 1599? We are the more justified in asking satisfaction on this point, seeing that the other sonnet, 144, published by Jaggard, which comes before Mr. Massey under precisely the same conditions, is assumed to have been written about, or immediately
after, 1595. The amount of diligence and ingenuity bestowed upon the working out of these results is prodigious; and no one who examines the book attentively can fail to perceive that Mr. Massey is thoroughly in earnest, and that he implicitly believes in the integrity of the processes by which he shapes his means to his end.
All that can be said upon that head is to deplore that his labour has not been more judiciously laid out.
The popular notion that Southampton and Shakespeare were intimate friends is drawn from the dedications of the "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece."
There is really no other evidence to show that they were even known to each other; and it is necessary, for the sake of accuracy, to recall the reader's attention to the fact that "Venus and Adonis" was published in 1593, and dedicated to the earl, who at that time had not completed his twentieth year.
There is nothing in it to warrant the supposition that they were then personally acquainted, or that the poet had been specially noticed by his lordship.
The dedication to "Lucrece," in 1594, is in a different vein. It indicates personal knowledge, and we gather from it that in the interval Southampton had
bestowed some favours on Shakespeare. Five years afterwards, in 1599, we learn from Rowland White's letter to Sidney, that Southampton seldom went to court, and spent his time chiefly at the playhouse; but that was after his marriage, and at a time when his share in the Sonnets, according to Mr. Massey's interpretation, was at an end.
Throughout his whole life he was very little at large in London, so that the opportunities of cultivating such a friendship were few and brief.
Mr. Massey has examined the whole subject in two exhaustive chapters—one devoted to a life of Southampton, and the other to the
"personal friendship" of poet and patron; and the fact that he has not added a single authentic item to the scanty particulars previously known, shows that if the close intimacy which he has assumed really existed, the proofs of it are yet to be discovered.
But what are the favours his lordship conferred upon Shakespeare?
Rowe's story is astounding. That Lord Southampton, who is said to have been a "liberal encourager of poets," although we have very little evidence of the fact, may have conferred upon Shakespeare marks of his "protection," according to the wont of patrons, is not improbable; but that he bestowed upon him at one time, or in a series of benefactions, a sum equal to £5,000 of our present money, is a legend of munificence which may be dismissed to the social statistics of that happy time when houses were thatched with pancakes and streets were paved with gold.
Upon the whole, I suspect that Lord Southampton is under heavier obligations to Shakespeare than Shakespeare was to Lord Southampton.
Were it not for Shakespeare, in all likelihood, we should never have heard of his lordship.
His fame rests mainly, perhaps exclusively, on his accidental relations to the poet; nor is there much in his life, except its waywardness and strange vicissitudes, to impart any interest to his biography.
He seems to have been of a rash and impetuous temperament, and utterly deficient in judgment.
His career was a violent coil of disasters and delinquencies.
He was perpetually getting into quarrels; and spent half his life in prison, or under the displeasure of his superiors.
His courage was unquestionable, but it was sometimes displayed so unjustifiably as to bring down the censure of the service in which he was engaged.
His ebullitions of passion amounted to a kind of frenzy. After having violated the etiquette of the Presence Chamber, he struck the officer in waiting who remonstrated with him in the discharge of his duty.
He had personal quarrels with the Duke of Northumberland, Lord Grey, and Lord
Montgomery, which in two instances led to open outrage. He was tried with Essex for high treason, found guilty, and condemned to death; but his sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the tower where he was kept, till, with other State prisoners, he was liberated by the death of Elizabeth.
Several writers extolled him as a patron of letters. Florio received his bounty.
Minsheu was his pensioner. Chapman lauded him as "the choice of all our country's spirits."
Beaumont wrote an elegy on his death. But the panegyrics of an age of venal flattery, when the tumid language of dedications and epitaphs had almost taken an established form, are not the safest guides to historical characters.
The wild and turbulent life of Southampton is unfavourable to the supposition that he ever extended any steady or substantial support to men of genius; and that he had the power to do so is rendered doubtful by the fact that he left his widow and children in very distressed circumstances.
The hero of the second batch of sonnets is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.
That Herbert bestowed some patronal kindness on Shakespeare may be gathered from the dedication of Heminge and Condell; and that is all that is known concerning their intercourse.
Mr. Massey fills in the meagre suggestion with ample inferences from the Sonnets.
Herbert came to London in 1598. He was then in his eighteenth year; Shakespeare was thirty-four, an age at which Mr. Massey says he was "getting past his sonneteering time."
Southampton was out of England, and, as he was married about this period, his poetical connection with Shakespeare had ceased.
Herbert, consequently, had the field to himself, and he soon found occasion to employ Shakespeare's pen in precisely the same way as it had previously been employed by Southampton.
He, too, fell in love, and, of all people in the world, with the very lady who had just before disturbed the repose of Southampton, and awakened the jealousy of Elizabeth
Vernon—the beautiful and notorious Lady Rich. This discovery, however it may have dawned upon Mr. Massey through the Sonnets, comes upon the reader with a startling effect.
Lady Rich, the sister of Essex, the Stella of Sidney, and the mistress of Mountjoy, was seventeen years older than Herbert; she had been married to Lord Rich about eighteen years when she is supposed to have enthralled Herbert; and at that time, or very soon afterwards, her
liaison with Mountjoy, of which there had been broad symptoms three years before, was a matter of public scandal.
There is no reason why a woman like Lady Rich might not throw a boy of eighteen into a state of delirium; but remembering the notoriety of her character and position, and especially the part she is presumed to have played in the previous batch of sonnets, it is rather too much to ask us to believe that, under such circumstances, Shakespeare would have lent himself to Herbert, as he had lent himself to Southampton before, to commemorate an infatuation so utterly discreditable to all persons concerned.
Yet this is the theory of the second series of Sonnets, as they are here interpreted.
Herbert, in short, becomes Southampton's successor as a "begetter" of sonnets in the brain of Shakespeare, and adds to the collection a few of his own, Mr. Massey being clearly satisfied, "for various reasons," that at least four of the sonnets published as Shakespeare's in Shakespeare's lifetime, with Shakespeare's knowledge, were written by Herbert himself.
Having thus got up a fresh set of equivocal love-verses on his own account, Herbert conceived the idea of publishing the whole, including the Southampton series.
To carry out this design—which showed a lofty indifference, if not to public opinion, at all events to private feeling, considering that all the persons implicated in the business were still
living—it was necessary to obtain the assent of Southampton; but there was no difficulty in that quarter, for Southampton, as we may easily imagine, was not likely to be scrupulous on such a point.
Nothing now remained except the sanction of Shakespeare, who acquiesced at once; "for," says Mr. Massey, "if Southampton did not object, it was not for Shakespeare to resist."
The Sonnets were accordingly handed over to Thorpe, the bookseller, and committed to the press.
This brings us to the much-vexed dedication. Mr. Massey adopts the solution, frequently discussed before, that "Mr. W. H." was William Herbert, an assumption which is disposed of by the awkward fact that Herbert had succeeded to the title of Earl of Pembroke nine years before the dedication appeared.
Facts, however, are not considered "stubborn things" in such cases, and Mr. Massey gets rid of this little obstruction by suggesting that the inscription was left to Thorpe, "with the injunction that the present title of Pembroke should he suppressed, and initials 'alone used.' "As the title was to be accounted for by some means, this frank mode of cutting the knot was, no doubt, as good as any other.
Whatever may be the ultimate reception of Mr. Massey's interpretation of the Sonnets, nobody can deny that it is the most elaborate and circumstantial that has been yet attempted. Mr. Armitage Brown's essay, close, subtle and ingenious as it is, recedes into utter insignificance before the bolder outlines, the richer colouring, and the more daring flights of Mr. Massey.
What was dim and shapeless before, here grows distinct and tangible; broken gleams of light here become massed, and pour upon us in a flood; mere speculation, timid and uncertain hitherto, here becomes loud and confident, and assumes the air of ascertained history.
A conflict of hypotheses had been raised by previous annotators respecting the facts and persons supposed to be referred to in the Sonnets, and the names of Southampton, Herbert, and Elizabeth Vernon flitted hazily through the discussion.
It has been reserved for Mr. Massey to build up a complete narrative out of materials which furnished others with nothing more than bald hints, and bits and scraps of suggestions. Unfortunately the tree that has been reared with so much care does not bear, edible fruit.
All readers who approach the inquiry from a logical point of view must reject Mr. Massey's conclusions.
His theory is unsatisfactory, partly because it reflects discredit upon Shakespeare, which most people will be unwilling to accept without better warrant, but mainly because the
kind of reasoning by which it is made out will not bear the test of examination.
The very fulness and minuteness of the details tell against the probability of the whole story; for whatever general inferences might be reasonably drawn from the Sonnets, there is nothing more unlikely than that they should yield so considerable a crop of particulars.
The worst of it is, dropping Mr. Massey's book altogether, that these interpretations of Shakespeare help materially to spoil our enjoyment of him.
They spread like a nightmare over the imagination, and we must absolutely banish them from our thoughts before we can go back to the poems with an unencumbered sense of pleasure.
But when we have banished them, and find ourselves able to read the Sonnets again at our ease, it is like getting away into the tranquilising repose and pure air of the country from the smoke and uproar of the town.