The mystery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 

We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known. 
The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.

Genesis:
the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.

The Mysterious Young Man.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.

Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton.  Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.

Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.

This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.

My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU


The DarkLady 

In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.

Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04

Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant. Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:

Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.[2]

My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.

It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.

References:

Books:

Web:

http://www.peterbassano.com/shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Greatest Mother Characters 

With Mother’s Day coming up, I thought I would take a little time to showcase some of Shakespeare’s great mother characters. Some of these women are models of selflessness, compassion, and devotion to the children they take care of. Other ones… not so much. Just for fun, I also made some suggestions for Mother’s Day gifts if you had one of these mother’s on the list.

The Good Mothers

  1. Countess of Roussilion from Alls Well That Ends WellJudy Dench in All’s We’ll, RSC 2013

Though she is technically not the heroine Helena’s mother, the Countess is still a fantastic example of selflessness, support, and love. As she says “you never oppressed me with a mothers groans but I expressed to you mothers care.” She also encourages her foster daughter Helena to play doctor and save the King Of France from a deadly illness, giving her a job and a bright future!

Mother’s Day Gift: either some French Wine and cheese, or a Doc McStuffins for her future grandchild.

2. Hermione in The Winters Tale

Her husband arrests her for infidelity with no proof at all, while she’s still pregnant! Then she stands up in front of the entire court, having just given birth in prison, just to prove her child is a legitimate heir to the throne. Hermione is a mighty example of grace and courage under fire, as beautiful and strong as the statue she looks like at the end of the play. What more needs to be said!? Winter’s Tale, Richmond Shakespeare Festival, 2010

Mother’s Day Gift: Statue polish

3. Queen Elizabeth in Richard the Third

As you can see in my description, Elizabeth started out as a poor widow trying to get a better future for her children. Then she becomes the queen and takes a lot of crap from lords like Richard for her marriage, and her sons.

As Richard schemes to get the throne, Elizabeth is the only one who sees how dangerous he is, and how he will certainly try to kill her two sons to get it. To protect them from Richard, Elizabeth hides her sons in a church and tries her best to keep him away from them. The only problem is her husband made Richard Lord Protector, and responsible for everything connected to crowning the new king, (terrible judgment on his part).

Once her husband the king dies, Richard proclaims Elizabeth’s sons as bastards and makes himself king. He then has them secretly murdered in the Tower Of London. Even though Elizabeth can’t defend her sons for long, she identified the threat, and did her best to stop him. In this clip from the TV Series “The White Queen,” Elizabeth tries to get her sons released from the Tower, while her brother is oblivious to the danger they are in: https://youtu.be/5Y3qYeq0ok4

Though Elizabeth fails to protect her sons, she succeeds in saving her daughter. Richard knows that if his enemy Henry Tudor marries Elizabeth’s daughter (who is also named Elizabeth), he can lay claim to the throne and destroy Richard. The wicked king tries therefore, to marry his niece himself! Elizabeth refuses to pimp her daughter to the king and curses him for all of his heinous murders. Click here to see the epic battle of these two great characters in a scene from Ian McKellen’s movie version of Richard III. Look at the power and wit Elizabeth (Annette Benning), displays as she refuses to wed her daughter to Richard, (Ian McKellen).

https://youtu.be/dHqlTSCe18k

At the end of the scene, Elizabeth says she will persuade her daughter to marry the king, but she secretly marries the young princess to Henry Tudor, who becomes King Henry the Seventh after defeating Richard in battle. So Elizabeth succeeds in protecting her daughter and helped to start a dynasty of monarchs, including her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Mothers Day Gift : Sweaters for her sons to wear in the tower.

Alternative Mother’s Day Gift: A baby monitor that works within the Tower Of London, so she won’t have to worry about her kids being slaughtered.

Queen Margaret in King Henry the Sixth Part III. Queen Margaret and Prince Edward from Henry VI, Part II. ASC, 2008

Though her methods are questionable, and her blood thirstiness legendary, Margaret still fights bravely to defend her son’s rightful claim to the English throne.

Video bio of Queen Margaret: https://youtu.be/hJnspEh99h4

Mother’s Day Gift: A dozen Red roses.

CleopatraThe quintessential queen of Egypt is similar to Margaret in “the ends justify the means” category of mothers. Cleopatra will hook up with any powerful man to protect her son and heir to the throne. Cleopatra’s son, Cesarean is the love child that she had with Julius Caesar. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony, Caesar’s friend and a consul of Rome. Also, according to some historians, Cleo found a way to hide her son after Octavius Caesar tried to kill Cesarean and his mother. She reportedly sent him into hiding through secret tunnels underneath the city of Alexandria.

http://thevoiceofthezamorin.blogspot.com/2015/06/what-happened-to-son-of-queen-cleopatra.html?m=1

Mother’s Day Gift: A snake- proof brassiere.

Mediocre Moms

1. Thaisa in Pericles. A lot like her husband Pericles on my OK Dads list, Thaisa’s problem is that, though she clearly loves her children, she doesn’t see them for nearly 20 years. Granted, she doesn’t really know that they’re there they’re still alive but nonetheless, you would think that a good mother would at least check.

2. Constance in King John. I wasn’t sure where to put her on this list, even though she demonstrates great love and affection for her son, (whom King John just murdered), the truth is that Constance doesn’t really do much for her son that we see during the play. https://youtu.be/fpAZju8RbiI

What Constance mainly has going for her is her supremely agonizing expressions of grief over her son’s death. Steven Greenblatt in his book Will in the World, suggests that her speeches might’ve been Shakespeare’s own horror and grief at the loss of his son, who died around the same time King John was supposedly written. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/06/is-the-globe-right-to-revive-shakespeares-king-john/

Mother’s Day Gift: barbershop coupon, have you seen that hair, honey?

Also on the ok mom list, Mistress Page in Merry Wives, and Lady Capulet In Romeo and Juliet.

Bad Moms
1. Tamara in Titus Andronicus. She’s called a ravenous tiger in the play, and it’s easy to see why. She encourages her own sons to rape a girl, (Titus’s daughter Lavinia), then murder Lavinia’s husband! As if that wasn’t enough, Tamara tells the boys to cut out Lavinia’s tongue and cut her hands off, so she can’t accuse them of their crimes. Later Tamara tells her lover Aaron to murder their illegitimate baby, so her husband the emperor won’t find out about the affair. Worst of all, Tamara leaves her sons alone with her mortal enemy, Titus which allows Titus to (spoiler alert )…….. kill her sons, chop them up in a pie and serve them to her. She accidentally eats her own sons!

Mothers Day Gift: a parenting book! Or if you’re really sick, a bib with a picture of her kids on it.

2. Dionyza In Pericles- This Queen is a show mom of the worst kind- She’s a Queen from a far off kingdom, tasked with raising her own children and King Pericles’ daughter Mariana. When Dionyza sees that Mariana is a better singer/ dancer/weaver, etc than her own daughter, she tries to kill her! https://youtu.be/z9UW-p7iEk

Mother’s Day Gift:ITonya on DVD,Tanya Harding’s mom and Dionyza should compare notes.

3. Queen in Cymbeline Similar kind of deal. She’s a wicked stepmother who wants to kill the heroine Imogen and make her own son Cloten the heir to the throne. Shakespeare didn’t give her a name, she’s that wicked!

The Queen in Cymbeline, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2013 http://www.stageandcinema.com/2013/08/06/cymbeline-oregon-shakespeare/

Mother’s Day Gift: A name.

Gertrude in Hamlet This one is very ambiguous. On the one hand, she loves her son, and tries to protect him from his wicked uncle Claudius. On the other hand, she married Claudius less than two months after her first husband died in mysterious circumstances . It’s never revealed in the play whether Gertrude was complicit in the old king’s murder, but when Hamlet Confronts her about the marriage, she is full of remorse.


Absent

To be honest, this list was easier to put together than my Fathers Day list, because there are fewer choices. In 9 Of Shakespeare’s plays, there are no mother characters at all:

Love’s Labor’s Lost

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Comedy Of Errors

Two Gentlemen Of Verona

Measure For Measure

Twelfth Night

The Tempest

As You Like It

Merchant Of Venice

It’s hard to know how much Shakespeare knew about motherhood. From what we know about his life, he probably wasn’t around to see his wife Anne raise his two daughters in Stratford, since he spent most of his time in London writing and acting in his plays.

In any case, the thing that comes across in all the mother’s in Shakespeare’s plays is the level of sacrifice and selflessness that so many mothers demonstrate. Being a parent is tough, but the rewards are greater than even the Bard could ever explain.

Happy Mother’s Day Everyone!