The Magazine

Rhyme with Reason

The poetry's the thing in Shakespeare's sonnets.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Much the thorniest issue the sonnets raise is that the first 126 were clearly written to, and about, a young man, possibly the Earl of Southampton. Southampton was then an underaged ward of the state, exasperating his widowed mother and the powerful Lord Burghley by refusing three lucrative suits of marriage, only to impregnate and marry one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting.

She was furious and threw him into prison, where he stayed until the next reign. No one in Shakespeare's time seems to have fretted over the homoerotic overtones, whether autobiographical or merely conventional, although by the 19th century some editors recoiled in horror and tried to disguise the young male addressee as a woman. My own notion is that Shakespeare (with other transcendent artists) created a new category, which we might call "omnisexuality."

The lesson I gather from all the fascinating dither--obviously, my immersion in the New Criticism proved to be indelible--is the error of what psychologists call "concrete thinking." Or in the formulation of the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, a "category mistake." The sonnets are not a discursive narrative, whatever they hint at by way of real-world acts and emotions. They are poetry, a created form. The poet who created Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Falstaff, and scores of other living characters, was fully capable of spinning an artful yarn involving a beautiful youth, a dark, treacherous mistress (with hairs like wires!), and hanging on that frame his imperishable musings on love, loyalty, lust, jealousy, envy, longing, betrayal, joy and sorrow, death and the immortality of art ("Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme").

That many of these themes and tropes were conventional is not to the point. Here, as everywhere else, what Shakespeare touched he touched with magic. The dramatist who could transform stale historical chronicles into art could transmute every base metal. That is surely the key point, four centuries later.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.