Royal road to the Bard
Richard Levin discusses Shakespeare’s sonnets at St. John’s College
Richard Levin joined the faculty of the English Department of the University of California-Davis in 1974, and in the four decades since he has often toiled in the fields of Shakespeare, authoring such books as Shakespeare’s Secret Schemers (2001) and Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (1985). On Friday, April 24, a day after the Bard’s putative 451st birthday, he will appear at St. John’s College to offer a lecture titled “Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1-22: A Fully Fashioned Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” After his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina and before his doctorate at Stanford, he picked up a master’s degree at Oxford. “There,” he told Pasatiempo, “I studied with a very powerful lecturer named Helen Gardner. She was very full of herself, but she came into the seminar room and said, ‘I don’t understand the sonnets, but we’ll just do a few every week.’ I was struck by how this was completely different from the authority and certainty she projected when speaking about anything else, and how very humble and self-effacing it was for an Oxford setting. Since that seminar, I have spent more than 40 years on the sonnets. I’m told it’s Shakespeare’s best-selling book. Apparently young lovers go into bookstores and buy a copy. I’m not sure how much of the volume they actually read.”
Pasatiempo: Shakespeare’s sonnets represent a very substantial body of work, don’t they? Not counting the long poem “The Lover’s Complaint” that concludes the collection, there are 154 actual sonnets. At 14 lines each, that yields 2,156 lines, which is only nine lines fewer than A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Richard Levin: Well, a few depart from standard sonnet form. Sonnet 145, for example, isn’t an iambic-pentameter sonnet. It’s octosyllabic, a bastard work. But there are 154 that are presented as the sonnets.
Pasa: I have the sense that Shakespeare’s sonnets are not studied as obsessively as his plays are. Is that your impression?
Levin: This is the way it is. Teachers are rarely prepared to teach the sonnets. Perhaps three or four people in the country teach seminars or classes specifically on the sonnets — maybe a few more, but it’s an utter rarity. The sonnets are impossibly difficult. A few appear to be more straightforward, and those are the ones to be especially careful of. Shakespeare always has a trick up his sleeve.
Pasa: The one we all learned in school, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would seem quite straightforward, would you agree?
Levin: Shakespeare perfectly understood the appeal of timeless lines. There were anthologies in his day, and he knew very well how to get included in them. In that sonnet he removes all disfiguring elements, he sidelines all possible ugliness. “There’s no ugliness in you,” he seems to say; “You’re the reverse.” I find that sonnet, in a way, fraudulent, and Shakespeare even suggested that, using the word “untrimmed,” which meant “castrated.” That sonnet 18 plays a trick. At the edges are darker elements, but on the whole this is a positive sonnet, and the professors get to go home happily after they teach it.
Pasa: The sonnets were first published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, and there has been debate about whether the order in which they appeared was determined by Shakespeare or by Thorpe. Where do you come down on that question?
Levin: In my opinion, the sonnets are absolutely ordered by Shakespeare from start to finish. We know that not all of them were new when they were published. In 1598, Francis Meres published a book that surveyed literary achievement in the British Isles at that point. He proves unusually well informed and tasteful, and he gave special honors to Shakespeare. He mentioned all the plays we know Shakespeare wrote by then — plus one we don’t know, Love’s Labour’s Won — and he referred also to the sonnets. “Sugred sonnets,” he called them — “sugared” sonnets. Then, in 1599, was published an anthology of love verse ascribed to Shakespeare but mostly not by him, and in it were two of the sonnets that 10 years later were published by Thorpe.
Pasa: How do the sonnets relate to Shakespeare as a man of the theater?
Levin: They were published shortly before he retired from the theater, which he did in 1610 or 1611. He refers to the theater quite a lot in the sonnets. You see his identity as a playwright. “Alas! ’tis true I have gone here and there/And made myself a motley to the view” — that’s sonnet 110, and he’s comparing himself to a motley, a jester, in a humiliating way. Or sonnet 23: “As an unperfect actor on the stage,/ Who with his fear is put besides his part,/ … So I, for fear of trust, forget to say,/The perfect ceremony of love’s rite.” It’s as if he feels he’s collapsing under the pressure of facing an audience. You don’t become the world’s greatest playwright without it informing every thing you write. He wants to claim this glamorous
identity. There is a long tradition that considers the sonnets to be the royal road to Shakespeare, that more than any other works they offer clues of self-disclosure.
Pasa: As a sequence, are these designed to tell a narrative, or is this better described as a collection of self-standing poems?
Levin: Yes, there is a narrative, but you have to search it out. It requires some skipping about to arrive at a narrative that seems more or less clear. Some sonnets seem to lock together, while others seem totally unrelated, one to the next. In recent years, there have been five or six top editors who have seen brushstrokes that suggest links — words or syntactical patterns that have clarified how some of the sonnets can be interpreted as groups. Some very astute stylometric work has been done, involving a close reading of the style and vocabulary he uses at different stages of his career. That has led to more certain dating of the core sonnets. These stylometric guys noticed that some of the earlier sonnets — the earliest in the volume but also the earliest written — nevertheless have some words introduced into them that Shakespeare only used later in his career. They assume he revised the earliest sonnets to bring them into coherence with the later ones. Pasa: What is the key to the narrative of the sonnets? Levin: One of the sonnets published in the 1599 anthology, “Two loves I have of comfort and despair,” already introduces the two characters of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady. “The better angel is a man right fair” and “The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.” He sets up the love triangle, and you can see that sonnet — number 144 — as one of a small group of love-triangle sonnets. Sensitive readers realize that you have to deal with the triangle to some degree. But it’s not laid out in a sequential way. You have the Fair Young Man sonnets, which blame him for hooking up with the Dark Lady, and then you have the Dark Lady sonnets. The love triangle keeps popping up in both segments. The 154 poems don’t finish their work. They don’t suggest an interpretation that depends on the whole set in its totality.
Shakespeare sees the Fair Young Man as a suave and privileged youth. After a while we discover why he is doting on this male beauty: He would like similar opportunities in his own life, he would like to have had those advantages. There is certainly a homoerotic aspect to the sonnets. Of course, we’re talking about the world’s greatest playwright, so a writer who can make vivid something that is purely imaginary and that doesn’t necessarily represent himself. Still, I think that Shakespeare was bisexual. I also think his completely over-the-top, visceral desire was for the Dark Lady, but by the very intensity of that emotion, any Dark Lady would be wise enough to stay away from somebody as crazed as Shakespeare paints him. I can’t fathom the sexuality of the sonnets, really.
Pasa: In your lecture at St. John’s College, you will focus on sonnets 1 through 22. Why do those make a logical group?
Levin: My presupposition is that it is a formal introduction to a fully designed artwork. Saying there is an introduction is totally revolutionary, because it argues that, despite the complexity of the sonnets, it is an ordered volume with a formal introduction. The opening sonnets — from, say, 1 through 16 or a little further, are the so-called “procreation sonnets.” They are taken to mean that Shakespeare was hired by some aristocratic family to write sonnets that would urge a young man of the family to marry. Perhaps it was targeting the Earl of Pembroke, perhaps the Earl of Southampton. And then after a while, instead of taking the stance that the Fair Young Man will memorialize himself through progeny, Shakespeare instead turns to the idea that the Fair Young Man will be memorialized through Shakespeare’s poetry. One imagines that Shakespeare had no emotional investment when he was hired, but that in the course of writing he became enamored. By the time you get to Sonnet 22, the man and the woman have exchanged hearts, but neither is truly faithful to the other. It is the setup to the whole rich, complicated, precarious drama of the sonnets.