Knowing how bad I am with poetry, not even my love of the Bard could persuade me that there was anything interesting in the sonnets. However, I am currently reading Hidden Shakespeare by Nicholas Fogg, and some of the things it mentions about his poetry have changed my opinion on this point. In particular, his sonnets are actually highly subversive – if you are at all interested in that kind of thing.
First of all, though, one needs to know a little about the history of the sonnet. Essentially a fourteen line poem with a distinctive rhyming structure (which I think is abbaabbaccdd), it was previously used to vocalise courtly love. Now, this is a concept unfamiliar to most modern ears, but essentially, the object of one’s affections must be sexually unavailable (and preferably married to someone else). So, for example, it would be the kind of poetry that a knight would offer to the wife of his liege lord.
Dividing Shakespeare’s sonnets into three distinct groups will help our analysis; group 1 would be the homoerotic sonnets; group 2 would be the “Dark Lady” sonnets; group 3 would be sonnets that don’t fit either of the two previous groups. And this is where the subversion becomes apparent.
Shakespeare obviously took the view (mischievously) that if a sonnet is to be addressed to a person who is sexually unavailable, then why not address sonnets to a man? There is no indication that Shakespeare was gay, and indeed, homosexuality in the Tudor era carried the death penalty. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the sonnets are addressed to Shakespeare’s then patron, the Earl of Southampton, who was well known as being young, handsome and very much an Eligible Bachelor. Within his intimate circle, the suggestion would be that Shakespeare was mocking the sonnet form.
He further mocked it in the Dark Lady sonnets. These are extremely bawdy and sexual and I don’t doubt are written from experience; some of them seem very close to Baudelaire, some three hundred years later. Who the Dark Lady was is, to me, a pointless question – it wasn’t Anne Hathaway, that’s for certain. What is more important is that these sonnets breach the fundamental courtly love rule – the object of these sonnets is definitely sexually available.
I may now have to read the sonnets a little more carefully now I’ve found out a bit more about them. Who knew fourteen line poetry could be so interesting?