Royal road to the Bard

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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.

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