Shakespeare On Soldiers

Happy Veterans Day Everyone,

War and soldiers come up a lot in Shakespearean plays. After all, he wrote six plays about the Wars Of The Roses. Though most of his work is about the decisions about war made by powerful monarchs, occasionally he gives us some insight into the lives of common soldiers.

To begin this topic, I want to analyze a short selection from Henry the Fifth, Act IV, Scene I. In this scene, the king is disguised as a commoner the night before a battle to see what his soldiers really think about him, and the impending fight with the French. An outspoken soldier named Williams tells him that if the fighting is wrong, the king is responsible for his soldiers’ deaths, and has to answer for the atrocities that happen during the war:

KING HENRY V

methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

WILLIAMS

That’s more than we know.

BATES

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it. King Henry V, Act IV Scene I.

Many productions of Henry the Fifth interpret this speech as Shakespeare’s attitude towards war, (a tempting prospect, since the soldiers’ name is William), but in the very next speech King Henry completely changes Williams’ mind! Here’s the full scene from Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 movie version of the play, which he directed and starred as King Henry:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rv7NsGCDVDs

Next, here’s a fascinating article by a psychotherapist that attempts to diagnose one of Shakespeare’s most diabolical soldiers, Macbeth.

How to Create A Garden Inspired By Shakespeare

Nearly 30 scenes in Shakespeare’s plays take place in a garden, and his characters mention weeds, trees, flowers and herbs and their properties, both medicinal and just beautiful. Ever since this 1906 book of the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, great cities and private garden groups have created gardens that honor the fertile imagination of The Bard Of Avon. There are 33 of these Shakespeare gardens worldwide, in cities like New York, Barcelona, and of course, Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford Upon Avon.

Shakespearean Garden At Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Here is a good guide for how you can create a Shakespeare Garden of your own:

https://www.seattletimes.com/life/lifestyle/6-steps-to-create-a-garden-inspired-by-shakespeare/

Here’s an excellent guide to the plants mentioned in the plays: https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2601

Finally, here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes about plants and flowers- a speech from Ophelia in Hamlet and the Gardeners scene from Richard II:

OPHELIA

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,

love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

LAERTES

A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.

OPHELIA

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue

for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it

herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with

a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you

some violets, but they withered all when my father

died: they say he made a good end,–

Sings

For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.

LAERTES

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,

She turns to favour and to prettiness.

Hamlet Act IV, Scene ii.

Ophelia by W. Waterhouse

https://youtu.be/OapyM4s3Qb

HC Selous Illustration For Richard the Second, circa 1864. Source: https://shakespeareillustration.org/king-richard-ii-3/hcselouskrii11/#main

Gardener. Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,

▪ Which, like unruly children, make their sire

▪ Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight: 1895

▪ Give some supportance to the bending twigs.

▪ Go thou, and like an executioner,

▪ Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,

▪ That look too lofty in our commonwealth:

▪ All must be even in our government. 1900

▪ You thus employ’d, I will go root away

▪ The noisome weeds, which without profit suck

▪ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Servant. Why should we in the compass of a pale

▪ Keep law and form and due proportion, 1905

▪ Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,

▪ When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

▪ Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,

▪ Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,

▪ Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs 1910

▪ Swarming with caterpillars?

Gardener. Hold thy peace:

▪ He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring

▪ Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:

▪ The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter, 1915

▪ That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,

▪ Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke,

▪ I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.

Servant. What, are they dead?

Gardener. They are; and Bolingbroke 1920

▪ Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it

▪ That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

▪ As we this garden! We at time of year

▪ Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,

▪ Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood, 1925

▪ With too much riches it confound itself:

▪ Had he done so to great and growing men,

▪ They might have lived to bear and he to taste

▪ Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches

▪ We lop away, that bearing boughs may live: 1930

▪ Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

▪ Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Servant. What, think you then the king shall be deposed?

Gardener. Depress’d he is already, and deposed

▪ ‘Tis doubt he will be: letters came last night 1935

▪ To a dear friend of the good Duke of York’s,

▪ That tell black tidings.

Queen. O, I am press’d to death through want of speaking!

▪ [Coming forward]

▪ Thou, old Adam’s likeness, set to dress this garden, 1940

▪ How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?

▪ What Eve, what serpent, hath suggested thee

▪ To make a second fall of cursed man?

▪ Why dost thou say King Richard is deposed?

▪ Darest thou, thou little better thing than earth, 1945

▪ Divine his downfall? Say, where, when, and how,

▪ Camest thou by this ill tidings? speak, thou wretch.

Gardener. Pardon me, madam: little joy have I

▪ To breathe this news; yet what I say is true.

▪ King Richard, he is in the mighty hold 1950

▪ Of Bolingbroke: their fortunes both are weigh’d:

▪ In your lord’s scale is nothing but himself,

▪ And some few vanities that make him light;

▪ But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,

▪ Besides himself, are all the English peers, 1955

▪ And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

▪ Post you to London, and you will find it so;

▪ I speak no more than every one doth know.

Queen. Nimble mischance, that art so light of foot,

▪ Doth not thy embassage belong to me, 1960

▪ And am I last that knows it? O, thou think’st

▪ To serve me last, that I may longest keep

▪ Thy sorrow in my breast. Come, ladies, go,

▪ To meet at London London’s king in woe.

▪ What, was I born to this, that my sad look 1965

▪ Should grace the triumph of great Bolingbroke?

▪ Gardener, for telling me these news of woe,

▪ Pray God the plants thou graft’st may never grow.

[Exeunt QUEEN and Ladies]

Gardener. Poor queen! so that thy state might be no worse, 1970

▪ I would my skill were subject to thy curse.

▪ Here did she fall a tear; here in this place

▪ I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace:

▪ Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen,

▪ In the remembrance of a weeping queen. 1975

Richard the Second, Act III, Scene iv.

How Game Of Thrones is like a Shakespearean Play

I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story. Today I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!

Part I: Story

Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:

game-of-thrones-westeros-map-17x11-poster1

Shakespeare wrote four plays about a civil war over control of a kingdom. His three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.

kmmap_final2-toponlyforfeaturedimageweb

Part II: Themes

Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.

The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.

King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.

The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Gloucester places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.

No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.

Martin wove a rich tapestry of real medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare.

Part III: Characters

Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.

Direwolf LogoNed Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II

◦ Ned is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Winterfell is a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.

Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.game-of-thrones

Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman characters. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.

a213aaaff54aa5c4b2301ae21c4dc0ce King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, whom Shakespeare adapted into Saturnine.Joffrey

Saturnine from Titus fits all these characteristics. When we first meet him, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, who helped him win a war and win his crown, just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.

Baratheon StagKing Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.robert-edward_trans_NvBQzQNjv4Bqeo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA

◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.

Robert_slays_Rhaegar

P. 53

Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.

Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard”

In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.

He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet [1], he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.

-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513

There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London. Below is a picture of the famous Wilton Diptych, Richard the Second’s private alter piece which depicts the king and all the angels in heaven wearing a badge with a white stag on it. wilton diptych

I’m not actually the first person to mention this connection between Robert Baratheon and Edward IV. In the British newspaper, The Guardian, the author compares several characters from Game Of Thrones, to historical English events: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/game-of-thrones-vs-history-which-real-characters-and-events-insp/robert-baratheon-and-edward-iv/

littlefingerLittle Finger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from Pericles, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life governments, he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.

Direwolf Logo John Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.

◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:

775

He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”

◦ Unlike Jon Snow, Edmond in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:

Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.

Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.

🦁 Tyrian Lannister –

Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004. 12RICH.184 In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.Tyrion

◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.

◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.

◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books

◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.

FALSTAFF

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble night, who died in a battle that he survived, by pretending to be dead:

“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.

My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.

🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth

img_7829◦ Sexuality and cruelty. Tamara is compared to a tiger 🐅, while Circe’s house sign is a lion 🦁

◦ Martin likely derived her name from the witch from the Odyssey, who turned men into animals.

◦ Men fear what she will do to them

◦ Lust for power for herself and her family.

Catelyn-

7c6044dd-c49c-4ce8-9188-74d3c4910a9d-2938-00000196573b9688Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺

◦ Pious

◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.

🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline

◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.

🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!

◦ Crafty and beautiful

◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection

◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.

Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.

Spoiler Alert

In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:

“This is a wedding too.”

The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”

This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.

CLEOPATRA

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.

Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.

After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!

There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of

Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:

http://philwillmott.org/play-of-thrones-shakespeare-that-inspired-game-of-thrones.html

In conclusion, these two works prove that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal that has inspired countless writers to adapt his stories and characters.

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