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Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, £25.00, 194 pages, ISBN 0-19-925610-1)—Bill Phillips, Universitat de Barcelona


Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a remarkably comprehensive book. There are chapters devoted to the publication of the sonnets, the question of their relation to Shakespeare’s life and his theatre, their form and artistry, their critical reputation and their influence on later writers. The final chapter: “The Sonnets in Performance” even reviews the various audio recordings of the sonnets, and their adaptation to stage and screen, including the Welsh theatre company Volcano’s version, L.O.V.E., which achieved a certain fame, or notoriety in Britain and abroad (this reviewer saw it in Barcelona) for its postmodern “voice which puts into circulation notions of straight and gay love with varying degrees of histrionicism and irony” [171]. Surprisingly, among the many versions of the sonnets, and allusions to them, which are at times quite painstakingly detailed by the authors, no reference is made to Sting’s “Sister Moon” from the 1987 album Nothing Like the Sun, which although only including one line from sonnet 130, had the virtue of reaching a very wide audience indeed. Proust, on the other hand, is mentioned “mainly because of the English (mis)translation by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, the title of which directly alludes to Sonnet 30: ‘the remembrance of things past’” [155]. Sting, of course, is not canonical, and this is an Oxford University publication.

The earlier chapters of the book deal with the thorny questions of whether Shakespeare wanted the sonnets published, whether the order they are conventionally published in is correct, whether they are autobiographical, and if so, who the other characters might be. Virtually all of the theories, myths and gossip which have sprung up around the sonnets are quite rightly dismissed for lack of any real evidence but the habitual roll call of candidates for WH, the Dark Lady and the Rival is sadly perfunctory. At least half the fun of the sonnets lies in speculating about who they are about. James Schiffer’s collection of critical essays, also called Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1999 by Routledge (and included in Edmondson & Wells’s useful annotated Further Reading list) deals with these questions at length. We learn for example, that suggested candidates for the Dark Lady include Elizabeth Vernon, Mary Fitton, Lucy Morgan, Penelope Devereux and Emilia Lanier. Such speculations, interesting though they are in themselves, are also important for other reasons. As a number of the contributors to Schiffer’s book explain, race and gender politics are intimately bound up in the identification of the sonnets’ protagonists, revealing the prejudices and assumptions current at the time the proposals were made. Edmondson & Wells’s decision not to explore this, and similar questions, while not detracting from its comprehensive nature, most certainly affects the profundity of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The book is broad, but not deep. Perhaps in 194 pages one should not expect too much; the authors argue, quite reasonably, that:

The Sonnets conform to no predetermined formal structure. The collection is like a patchwork, composed of separately woven pieces of cloth, some bigger than others, some of them restitched, rearranged from time to time and finally sewn together in a composition that has only a deceptive, though at times satisfying unity. It is as if Shakespeare were providing us with all the ingredients necessary to make our own series of narratives about love. To insist on one story alone is to misread the Sonnets and to ignore their will to plurality, to promiscuity. To seek for a tidy pattern in these loosely connected poems is like trying to control or tidy the inevitable mess and freedom that love itself creates [46].

This statement is, with its emphasis on plurality, a clear positioning of beliefs and intentions very much in line with current thinking; few will disagree with it. We should not forget, however, that few probably disagreed, at the time, with Wordsworth's judgement that the sonnets were “contemptuous, trivial and obscene” [143]. Speculation and gossip apart, the authors do not neglect to deal with many of the sonnets’ more obvious themes. Chapter 6, “Concerns of the Sonnets” discusses, among other things, “Desire,” the “Language of Sexuality,” and “Black Beauty,” though remaining at all times strictly faithful to the contention that the text itself is our only reliable source of evidence. Fortunately the bawdy, if not downright coarse nature of the sonnets’ protagonists’ sexual antics (whoever they are) provides much to satisfy the prurient reader, as their analysis of Sonnet 151 demonstrates: “‘Till my bad angel fire my good one out’ [l.14]—that is, till the woman rejects the man, blasting his penis out of her infected hell, and also till the man shows the burning symptoms of the disease” [78].

In the chapter entitled “The Artistry of the Sonnets” the authors look at ways in which the poems’ more formal aspects might be considered. Helen Vendler, for example “sees Sonnet 9 as a ‘Fantasy on the Letter W’” [51], “a flurry of w’s, u’s and v’s” [52], which is certainly one way of avoiding the question of the Young Man’s identity and sexual orientation. The form of the sonnet itself is also discussed in this chapter, the authors suggesting that the fourteen line framework with its Petrarchan arrangement into an octave and sestet loosely follows “the principle of the so-called classical golden ratio, or golden mean” [52]. The golden mean is a division into two sections to the ratio 1:1.6, or 8:5 so that “[s]patially, then, there might be thought to be an underlying, classical principle for the sonnet as a literary form” [52]. This is an interesting point, and may well help to explain the aesthetic satisfaction that the form provides for so many readers and writers. The sonnet is not, of course, an invention of Shakespeare’s, especially in its Petrarchan form, but it is useful to be reminded that the man from Stratford did not only excel in producing three quatrains and a couplet, but was also a master at producing a volta around about the eighth line when he so chose. Incidentally, in reference to “the man from Stratford,” Edmondson & Wells are to be congratulated for not extending the scope of their interest further in order to evaluate the various claims to Shakespeare’s real identity: “this,” they assure us, in reference to A.D. Wraight's claim that the sonnets were written by Marlowe, “is a plot we shall not till here” [143].

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a very carefully elaborated work, clearly the result of great scholarship and knowledge of the subject. Its authors go to great lengths to explain both the limitations and possibilities that the sonnets offer to readers, critics and historians. They strive, for the most part successfully, to provide a fair, honest, comprehensive and interesting study of many questions raised by the sonnets. They look at areas such as “The Sonnets as Theatre” and “The Sonnets in Performance” which are not habitually considered by scholars. Yet despite beginning well, the book loses some of its grip on the reader as chapter succeeds chapter. The fault lies, perhaps, in its excessive even-handedness; its concern to avoid controversy, when controversy is what the sonnets have always been about. It is a useful book to have, however, for those who like to keep their literary feet firmly on the ground.

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