Sexing Shakespeare's Sonnets: Reading Beyond Sonnet 20 2010-10-05آ  Critics of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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  • © 2009 English Literary Renaissance Inc. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

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    Blackwell Publishing LtdOxford, UKENLREnglish Literary Renaissance0013-83121475-6757© 2009 English Literary Renaissance Inc.XXXOriginal Article

    William NellesEnglish Literary Renaissance

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    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

    n

    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.

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    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

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    , 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.”

    1

    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,

    Shake-speare’s Sonnets

    were printed with the author’s consent and in an order which reflects their author’s wishes.”

    2

    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,

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    (Oxford, 2004), p. 19. 2.

    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.”

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    Evans 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 of proof.

    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

    Sonnets

    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 on the

    Sonnets

    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.

    4

    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 . . .

    3.

    The Sonnets

    , ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Updated ed., Cambridge, Eng. 2006), p. 106. Kath- erine Duncan-Jones (

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    [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” (

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    [New 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

    The Sonnets

    , 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

    [Broomal, 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” (

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    [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).

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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 “

    dramatis personae

    ” (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

    n

    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.

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    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.

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    no particularly good reasons.