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William NellesEnglish Literary Renaissance
Sexing Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Reading Beyond Sonnet 20
Critics of Shakespeare’s Sonnets typically accept the premise that Sonnets 1–126 are addressed to a young man, and Sonnets 127–52 to a woman. Two main schools of analysis, by no means mutually exclusive, have dominated the discussion of these groups: either the Young Man and Dark Lady sonnets are read as belonging to sustained, and usually interlaced, narrative sequences, or the sonnets are seen as aseries of
number of contiguous mini-sequences connected by themes and images; we might call these the strong and weak sequence theories. Despite the widespread acceptance of these two approaches, serious weaknesses and inconsistencies underlie the arguments offered in support of both theories. A review and rebuttal of these dubious arguments may help to reestablish the burden of logical proof where itbelongs, at the door of those critics who want to make sweeping interpretive claims about the sequence of the sonnets.
hile there is widespread agreement that Sonnets 1–17, the marriage
or procreation sonnets, form a relatively coherent group, and that
18 and 19 are generic enough to fit any imaginable context, Sonnet 20 splits
readers into two groups: those who see an end to any clear sequence after
this point, and those who read on, finding a narrative line connecting the
rest of the sonnets in a meaningful pattern. In the 2004 Oxford guide to
, Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells confidently
assert that the sonnets are “better thought of as a collection than a
sequence, since . . . the individual poems do not hang together from
beginning to end as a single unity.”
More specifically, they dismiss such
“myths and superstitions” as Edward Malone’s 1780 division of the
sonnets into two groups: “Though some of the first 126 poems in the
collection unquestionably relate to a young man, others could relate to
either a male or a female. Even the poems in the second part of the
collection, known inauthentically as the ‘Dark Lady’ Sonnets, are not
necessarily about one and the same person” (p. xiii). By contrast, Colin
Burrow’s Introduction to
The Complete Sonnets and Poems
in the Oxford
Shakespeare in 2002 claims that “This position has been overturned in
the past twenty years or so, and has effectively been replaced by a new
orthodoxy. According to this,
were printed with
the author’s consent and in an order which reflects their author’s
G. Blakemore Evans’ Cambridge edition of the Sonnets (2006)
also accepts the two-part division: “It is generally assumed, for lack of
evidence to the contrary, that all of Sonnets 1–126 are addressed to the
1. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells,
(Oxford, 2004), p. 19.
Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems
, ed. Colin Burrow (Oxford, 2002), p. 95.
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same young man, and all Sonnets 127–52 to the same woman.”
may well be right about the widespread acceptance of this model, but his
remark also points up just how thin the underlying ice really is: “lack of
evidence to the contrary” surely cannot suffice to carry such a burden
The oddity is not of course that the two sides disagree, but that both
sides claim that there is no other side, that the field has been won for
their team. My own reading of the discussion has led me to conclude that
both sides are correct, but in different ways. Those who argue that the
are mostly an unordered miscellany have all the logic and evidence
on their side, but virtually everyone who writes about the sonnets
ignores these arguments, apparently seduced by the lure of narrative, and
proceeds to read them as two sustained narrative sequences, one telling
the story of the narrator’s love for a man and the other his love (more or
less) for a woman. Both sides of the debate, interestingly enough, are
routinely found in the work of a single critic. Helen Vendler’s fine book
provides a typical example of this widespread inconsistency.
She begins with as hard-nosed an antinarrative stance as I could wish
for: “Because lyric is meant to be voiceable by anyone reading it, in its
normative form it deliberately strips away most social specification,”
including, she obligingly specifies, gender.
She even concedes, “the
construction of a story ‘behind’ the sequence has been rebuked by critics
pointing out how few of the sonnets include gendered pronouns”
(p. 14). She then wraps up her argument rather oddly: “I have . . .
, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Updated ed., Cambridge, Eng. 2006), p. 106. Kath-
erine Duncan-Jones (
[Nashville, 1997]) and Stephen Booth also support this
division, if in the latter case cautiously: “there is therefore some basis for the widespread critical
belief that sonnet 126 is intended to mark a division between sonnets principally concerned with
a male beloved and those principally concerned with a woman” (
Haven, 1977], p. 430). One might add to the list of skeptics about structure Sylvan Barnet, who
contends that “The 154 poems do not narrate a continuous story—they should be regarded as
individual lyric poems” (“Shakespeare: An Overview,” in
, ed. William Burto [New
York, 1999], p. xxx), and Harold Bloom, who remarks of the Sonnets that “more seems to be lost
than gained when we read them through in order” (
Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems
Penn., 1999], p. 52).
4. Helen Vendler,
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
(Cambridge, Mass., 1997), p. 2. Dympna
Callaghan, like so many critics, shares this inconsistency: “the addressee of the first 126 poems [is]
a fair young man” (p. 2), yet “the majority of the sonnets do not reveal the gender of the person
to whom they are addressed” (
[Malden, Mass., 2007], p. 13). Her notes on
individual poems then concede that some of these very sonnets “may have been written to a
different addressee” (p. 109; see also pp. 142, 143 for further explicit exceptions to the rule).
English Literary Renaissance
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decided, in the interests of common sense, to hold to the convention
which assumes that the order of the Sonnets as we have them is
Shakespearean. In this convention, we take the first 126 sonnets as ones
concerning a young man, and the rest as ones concerning a dark-haired
and dark-eyed woman” (pp. 14–15). Given the history of attempts to
rearrange the Q order, hilariously recounted by Hyder Rollins in the
New Variorum set, I take no issue with Vendler’s invocation of common
sense to accept the order as we have it, but her two additional stipulations
are thoroughly debatable. The postulate that this order is Shakespearean
is accepted without evidence; furthermore, even establishing that the
order is Shakespearean would not prove her implicit claim that that
order creates a meaningful narrative rather than, say, represents the
chronology of composition of the sonnets. Her final comment, however,
is the symptom of a more specific problem that I want to consider in
this essay: having spent the first fourteen pages of her Introduction
establishing beyond doubt that these sonnets are not gendered with
regard to speaker or addressee and do not tell a story, why is it common
sense to conclude that 1–126 are all about a boy? The predictably slippery
slope follows shortly, with discussions of the “plot” of the sonnets and its
” (p. 18).
Two main approaches, by no means mutually exclusive, have
dominated this discussion: either the Young Man and Dark Lady sonnets
are read as belonging to sustained and usually interlaced narrative
sequences, or the sonnets are seen as a series of
number of contiguous
mini-sequences connected by themes and images; we might call these
the strong and weak sequence theories. My hope in this essay is to point
up some of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the arguments offered
in support of both theories and to present some new lines of analysis that
may help to reestablish the burden of logical proof where it belongs, at
the door of those critics who want to make sweeping interpretive claims
about the sequence of the sonnets.
The strong sequence theory, according to which 1–126 tell a story about
a boy and 127–54 are about a woman, is accepted by most critics, but for
5. The tradition of reading of the sonnets as a narrative has produced at least three literal
novelistic treatments, by Anthony Burgess, Lennard J. Davis, and Erica Jong.
© 2009 English Literary Renaissance Inc.
no particularly good reasons.