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Love in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5676 words Published: 1st Jun 2017

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In his poem, ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’ (Poetical Works, 1827), Wordsworth famously said that the sonnets were the ‘key’ with which ‘Shakespeare unlocked his heart’ and whilst this can certainly be seen to be the case, the sonnets do much more than that. Writing of various forms of love, and indeed of love itself, using the contemporary sonnet form, Shakespeare develops the aspects of love which the sonnets reflect into an all-encompassing discussion on the major themes of life itself that continue to inform and direct the human condition, a fact which is perhaps partly responsible for their continuing popularity with both public and critics alike. This dissertation sets out to discover, through close reading of carefully selected representative sonnets and critical context, the way Shakespeare accomplishes this.

The sonnet form as Shakespeare, whose 154 sonnets were first published in 1609, and his contemporaries used it was introduced into England in the sixteenth century by Sir Thomas Wyatt who translated sonnets in the Petrarchan form from the original Italian:

As we should expect in a period when he [Shakespeare] was beginning to write the sonnet, allusions to Petrarchism become increasingly common.

(Whitaker, 1953, p. 88)

The Shakespearian or Elizabethan sonnet form differs from the Italian, originally developed by Petrarch in the fourteenth century, principally in form. Both styles are usually comprised of fourteen lines but have a different rhyme sequence and structure. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octet (a sequence of eight lines in which the theme is opened) and the subsequent sestet (which reflects on the theme it has introduced), whilst the Shakespearian is structured in iambic pentameter in three quatrains and a couplet, the three quatrains rhyming in abab form and the final couplet rhyming cc. It is important to understand Shakespeare’s structure because it so often reflects the theme, with the three quatrains each addressing a different aspect of the sonnet’s focus and the couplet usually providing an epigram summing up the idea which the sonnet reflects.

Indeed, Shakespeare does not only use the sonnet form in his poems but also within his plays, incorporating what a contemporary audience would recognise to be evidence of ‘true’ and even ‘holy’ love. The most famous example of this is in the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet, written in 1594, where their words are exchanged in sonnet form:


If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (Shakespeare, William. 1954. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene v, p. 30)

This is an excellent example of the innovative way in which Shakespeare uses the sonnet form and it is therefore appropriate to look at it in detail in the introduction to this dissertation in order to show the aspects of love with which the discussion will be concerned:

From the early poems to the young man of rank, urging him to marry and have a son, through the idealising attempts to negate the space of social difference in the mutuality of ‘private’ love, to the bitter wit of the ‘Will’ poems to the dark woman, the player-poet seeks to reduce the gap between addresser and addressee that is the very condition of the Petrarchan mode. It has not escaped commentators or audiences that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare represents a moment of reciprocity via the archetype of in commensurability: a sonnet, uniquely shared by Romeo and Juliet in Act 1. (Schalkwyk, 2002. p. 65)

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In the first quatrain, Shakespeare has Romeo, who was previously infatuated with Rosaline, a state we are given to understand that he has often found himself in before this, declare his feelings in holy imagery which Juliet, in the second quatrain, immediately picks up on and develops. Thus, though inversion of the traditional male role as director is not removed, Shakespeare gifts Juliet with an aspect of equality with Romeo, by making her his equal in wit, a gender specific imperative which is found in both his plays and sonnets alike. Moreover, in the third quatrain, the lovers share their feelings and the structure itself, with each taking separate lines of the sonnet. This mutuality reflects how the play will develop, with Juliet continuing to grow in strength, and also shows the importance of the connection between what appears to be love and what is true love, associated fundamentally with God, as evidenced by the religious imagery of ‘pilgrims’ and ‘saints’ and perhaps most importantly ‘palmers’, which signifies one who has made the pilgrimage to Rome. The contemporary audience would recognise this first dialogue between the lovers as emblematic of true love precisely because it is expressed in the sonnet form. Also, Shakespeare establishes the connective between true love and religion which, as will be seen in the dissertation discussion, is another feature of the sonnets as a whole and indeed the sonnet form.

The way in which Romeo and Juliet share the sonnet is, as is noted above (Schalkwyk, 2002. p. 65), very different from the way that the older Petrarchan sonnet form implements the structure to address the theme or indeed ‘object’ of love. Shakespeare’s concept of love as expressed in the sonnets is essentially based upon reality, human beings interacting or regarded as representative of love without the necessity to involve the idea of ‘worship’ as is certainly the case with Petrarch’s ‘Laura’. Although many of the sonnets are addressed to an unknown and somewhat generically enigmatic female, referred to as ‘the Dark Lady’ by critics, the sense of the sonnets being concerned with human love in all its aspects is always primary, as Shakespeare writes in ‘Sonnet CXXX’:

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

(Shakespeare, William. 2003. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. ed. Katherine Duncan Jones. p.375)

This is a thought that he completes by following the colon with a couplet summation that despite this, or perhaps because of it, his love is ‘as rare’ as any ‘belied with false compare’. It is clear that love for Shakespeare is as concerned with humanity as much, if not more, than the conception of love and the distant, silent, ‘object’ of that love as ‘divine’. Thus, the idea that Romantic love has little to do with love as it is actually experienced is another aspect of love with which the sonnets are concerned and which this dissertation will address.

Indeed, one imperative which seeks to involve a less direct form of love is the notion of Platonic love, or love as an ideal, as expressed in ‘Sonnet CXVI’: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments’ (Shakespeare, William. 2003. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. ed. Katherine Duncan Jones. p.343). It is generally accepted that the first seventeen of the sonnets are addressed to a young man and in these Shakespeare turns more frequently to the idea that marriage should be the object of a man’s life. However, he then turns, in sonnets XVIII-CXXVI, to homoerotic expressions of love to a man, identified, simply because of the dedication on the first (possibly unauthorised) publication, by Thomas Thorpe, as ‘Mr. W.H.’:

The interpretation of the expression ‘only begetter’ is doubtful. Did Thorpe mean that Mr. W. H. was the fair youth of the sonnets (though on this reading the dark lady also has a claim as a begetter, to some of the sonnets), or was he merely the gentleman who gave Thorpe the manuscript–Mr. William Harvey perhaps, who in 1598 married the widowed mother of Lord Southampton? The manuscript can only have come from one in the innermost circle of those who knew Shakespeare and his noble friend. If Southampton was the friend, William Harvey may have been the ‘only begetter.’ (Alexander & Nisbet, 1935, p. 94)

Like the ‘Dark Lady’, the young man is not identified within the sonnets and the location of his identity has similarly exercised scholars across the generations. However, although it is certainly true that spurious identification is of passing interest:

The identity of the fair youth matters much more to those who believe that the poems grew from personal experience than to those who believe that they are poetic fictions, influenced more by sonneteering convention than by life. (Bate, 2008, pp. 41-2)

Bate’s point is well-taken since the actual identity of the object of love is indeed much less important to an appreciation of the sonnets than their importance as representative of aspects of love:

Somehow the poems convince each reader that what he or she sees in them is what is really there. But somehow they then sneak up behind you and convince you of something completely different. (Bate, 2008, p. 43)

It might be argued, in fact, that precisely because of the lack of knowledge concerning the individual to whom the sonnets are addressed, readers have formed a generic connective with them across the generations which is cathartic in its anonymity:

How do we lesser mortals know to perform our lesser miracles of life? Again we face the enigma of all creation, which Shakespeare himself has simply accepted and has nowhere attempted to explain. What was there when there was nothing? And how does something more forever come from something less? Whether the creation be instantaneous, in six days, or in aeons of ages the miracle is no less. And in it we live, and move, and have our being. And perhaps, alas!, have in us too little of the poet to see that there is any miracle at all. (Baldwin, 1950, p. 384)

Thus, the individual biographical aspects of the sonnets, though of interest, can never be a primary informative and this may, indeed, be beneficial, as we shall hope to see.

Chapter One: ‘The Marriage of True Minds’

Little is known about Shakespeare’s life and this has given rise to much speculation about his biographical background:

It is one of the ironies attendant on the growth of Shakespeare’s reputation that even the most diligent scholarship has been able to uncover very little of the background of the poet’s personal or public life. However, the poverty of detail has merely spurred his biographers to increased scholarly, inferential, and imaginative activity. (Marder, 1963, p. 156)

What is certain, since it is documented through baptism of the children, is that he was married to Anne Hathaway, a fairly well connected Stratford girl, older than himself, when he was eighteen, and they had three children: a daughter, Susanna, and twins, Hamnet and Judith. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he spent the vast majority of his life away from home in London where most of his writing took place.

There has been a great deal written about how happy or otherwise the couple might have been, especially since he left Anne nothing in his will except his ‘second best bed’. Many have read this as an insult but perhaps a more appropriate reading is that the best bed was for guests and the second best the marriage bed therefore to bequeath this to his wife, far from being an insult, was a love token. Carol Ann Duffy writes of this in her sonnet ‘Anne Hathaway’:

The bed we loved in was a spinning world

of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas

where he would dive for pearls. (Duffy, The World’s Wife, 2000, p. 30)

This tender version of love would seem much more appropriate, especially since the first seventeen of the sonnets, known as the ‘procreation sonnets’, are largely concerned with the recommendation of marriage to a young man. If Shakespeare was so violently against marriage then it seems unlikely that he would have recommended it. However, as always with the sonnets, this is not as straightforward as it seems with the directive to marry being somewhat complicated by other imperatives with which Shakespeare is clearly concerned, not least his affection for the ‘Fair Youth’.

The early sonnets in the sequence should be considered as they pertain to the question of marriage itself, therefore, rather than as they relate to Shakespeare’s life:

Shakespeare’s Sonnets raise a number of problems. We do not know when they were written, to whom they are addressed, nor even if they are certainly autobiographical. (Knight, 1955, p. 3)

With this in mind it is not only preferable but essential, therefore, to qualify any discussion on the possible relationship between the sonnet topics and Shakespeare’s life with the reminder that we know so little about the latter that any inferences must be regarded as tenuously speculative at best. Thus, the marriage question which relates to the first seventeen sonnets cannot be seen as directed in any major sense by the poet’s own life:

The greatest sonnets, those which are neither wholly conventional nor wholly autobiographical, preserve this balance between embroilment and detachment in a way which is truly dramatic. A personal experience may underlie each, but it is experience transmuted, as in the plays, into the correlative form of characters in action. To some degree these characters are the dramatic counterparts of actual people-the youth, the dark woman-though they are not the people themselves. Others belong, as personages, only to the microcosm of poetry: Time, for example, one of the most powerful villains among Shakespeare’s dramatis personae; and above all, Shakespeare’s own diverse masks and moods, fully realised and understood. (Mahood, 1988, p. 90)

The idea that the sonnets are in any way biographical must, indeed, be questioned but it must also be remarked that the way the words are used within the sonnets might be attributable to Shakespeare’s personal consciousness:

The nature of the wordplay in the Sonnets varies according to whether Shakespeare is too remote or too near the experience behind the poem or whether he is at a satisfying dramatic distance from it. When he is detached, the wordplay is a consciously used, hard-worked rhetorical device. When his complexity of feeling upon the occasion of a sonnet is not fully realised by him, the wordplay often reveals an emotional undercurrent which was perhaps hidden from the poet himself. But in the best sonnets the wordplay is neither involuntary nor wilful; it is a skilfully handled means whereby Shakespeare makes explicit both his conflict of feelings and his resolution of the conflict. (Mahood, 1988, p. 90)

Thus, when in ‘Sonnet CXVI’ he writes of ‘the marriage of true minds’ (Shakespeare, William, 2003, p.343) he is perhaps inviting us to infer a connective between what he writes and what he feels, an altogether different kind of ‘marriage’, metaphorical rather than literal and certainly more ‘of the mind’ than of the heart.

As the sequence begins, the poet addresses the youth familiarly but in an almost didactic tone, of the older to the younger, as here in ‘Sonnet I’:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory:

But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee. (Shakespeare, William, 2003, p.113)

The importance of this sonnet in establishing the poet’s themes throughout the sequence must be stressed, as here we see Shakespeare writing of the transience of beauty, the selfishness of the individual, the battle between desire and fulfilment, the beauty of the natural world and its comparative with human beauty (to which he will return in the well-known ‘Sonnet XVIII’ and elsewhere) and the basic responsibility of man to procreate or, as the sonnet has it, ‘increase’ and ‘thereby beauty’s rose might never die’. All of these relate to the human condition and also perhaps to Shakespeare’s own concerns:

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In the case of a poet, I suggest it is chiefly through his images that he, to some extent unconsciously, ‘gives himself away’. He may be, and in Shakespeare’s case is, almost entirely objective in his dramatic characters and their views and opinions, yet, like the man who under stress of emotion will show no sign of it in eye or face, but will reveal it in some muscular tension, the poet unwittingly lays bare his own innermost likes and dislikes, observations and interests, associations of thought, attitudes of mind and beliefs, in and through the images, the verbal pictures he draws to illuminate something quite different in the speech and thought of his characters. (Spurgeon, 1935, p. 4)

Thus, the fact that the boy is referred to in relation to ‘fairest creatures’ facilitates the poet’s directive that this places upon the individual a responsibility: beauty is not given to ‘die’ but to be carried on by the ‘tender heir’. The register is imperative and commanding, with the poet adopting the voice of one who has the authority to instruct by reason of superior age and wisdom, hence perhaps the juxtaposition of ‘riper’ and ‘decrease’ in the preceding line to reference to the ‘tender heir’ and ‘memory’. The youth is instructed that he is, in common parlance, his own worst enemy, ‘Thy self thy foe’, since he does not see the waste of his beauty which lies in his refusal to share his gifts with posterity via procreation. This accusatory tone is extended to the ‘self-abuse’ of masturbation in ‘Within thine own bud buriest thy content’, which also bears the pun of pleasure and substance, and the youth referred to as a ‘glutton’ and ‘tender churl’, the latter implying an indulgence in the chiding of the boy. This is, of course, the supreme image of the waste with which the poet is concerned since to make ‘a famine where abundance lies’ is almost seen as a blasphemy, refusing, selfishly, to procreate and ‘eat the world’s due’ by the selfish pursuit of personal indulgence: ‘contracted to thine own bright eyes’, as with Narcissus, in love with his own reflection and failing to see the self-destruction that is inherent in this.

In addition, by referring to the boy in terms of a ‘rose’, the poet introduces the classic Romantic emblem of love as well as re-emphasising the transience of the poet’s beauty. This idea of beauty and its connective with nature is again related in terms of a comparative with nature’s beauty and inveterate perishability in ‘Sonnet XVIII’:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (Shakespeare, William, 2003, p.147)

The comparison of the transience of nature’s beauty with that of the youth to whom the poem is addressed is clear, yet the rhetoric of the opening seems to imply an equivocal nature to the connective of the extended metaphor that follows. The tentativeness of the image is also emphasised by this questioning in the first line and it enhances both the intimacy of the register of address and the relationship of the poet with the wider readership. This latter is important because it is so much a concern in the poem, with the idea of immortality attached here to writing as it was previously attached to procreation. The common denominator here is the idea of creation itself and its connective with the ‘eternal’.

This is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s more famous sonnets, if not the most famous, therefore it is fitting that in a dissertation concerned with the aspects of love which the sonnets present, attention should be paid to the aspect of the writing which pertains to the process of creation and its connective with the reader. It is interesting to note, indeed, that the poet chooses to stress the importance of the ‘eternal lines’ which he is composing and how this overcomes the basic transience of life and beauty whether in nature or humanity. Indeed, the punctuation of this sonnet is indicative of its imperative since there is frequent usage of the colon throughout, implying a thought begun and completed in each quatrain, functioning almost as enjambment and enhancing the idea that the many aspects of beauty and life which this sonnet covers are embodied within one thought as evidenced in the single extended metaphor which informs the sonnet as a whole. The poet’s almost godlike assimilation of the power to grant immortality appears dangerously hubristic in abstract and indeed encourages the inference that Shakespeare was aware of the strength of his poetic gifts and their ability to confer a kind of immorality on the object of love, who by the end of the sonnet has become subject to the sonneteer rather than in command. As the poet is also using his gifts to describe the loved one via nature, the features of the numinous within nature become connected with this hubristic stance. Thus, ‘nature’s changing course’ and ‘Chance’, which significantly begins a line, are to some extent negated, or at least qualified, by the poet’s art. Features of life which terrify, therefore, such as death cannot ‘brag’ in the face of the ‘eternal’ nature of Art:

Shakespeare prophetically felt the immortality and universality of his plays even though he seems to have made no great effort toward their preservation in print. (Marder, 1963, p. 361)

This might, this sonnet would seem to suggest, also be extended to the sonnets. Indeed, in daring to criticise the glories of nature, Shakespeare appears to place creative Art above it, since it, unlike all that is ‘natural’, survives, only, though, as long as it is appreciated, as the final couplet significantly testifies:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

In this way, Shakespeare demonstrates an awareness of the fundamental importance of the connection between writer and reader, reinforced perhaps by his experience as an actor and writer of drama. Hence, the voice of the actor may be perceived in the words of the sonneteer and universality as well as the eternal perceived in both:

On this planet the reputation of Shakespeare is secure. When life is discovered elsewhere in the universe and some interplanetary traveler brings to this new world the fruits of our terrestrial culture, who can imagine anything but that among the first books carried to the curious strangers will be a Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. (Marder, 1963, p. 362)

Thus, Shakespeare may be seen, via the sonnets and plays, to transcend what is perceived as immediate in aspects of love and engage with the eternal.

Chapter Two: ‘I do believe her though I know she lies’

The potent sexual content of the sonnets becomes a major directive following the romantic turning point of ‘Sonnet XVIII’. The sequence moves powerfully from restrained yet poetic discussion of aspects of love to explicit sexual references which are concerned more with lust than love and often deceit is linked to this and this duplicity is most often associated with the heterosexual sonnets.

Importantly, the passion is not directed solely towards heterosexual love, instead it involves an equal, if not stronger, reflection of homoerotic desire, with the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady equally powerful in the poet’s passion, indeed, often the two overlap producing an androgynous aspect to the passion which also appears in the plays:

The first thing that startles the reader about the sonnets is the emotional virtuosity of the protagonist. The poems appear to have been composed over a longer period of years, and to cover a greater range of passionate experience, than any one of the plays. In recognizing the variety of moods and attitudes Shakespeare accumulates in the sonnets, we may choose either to admire his protean nature as an actual passionate friend and lover, or to stress his dexterity in accumulating such an extraordinary range of amatory motifs from literary sources. Either his own nature was unusually flexible and susceptible, or he deliberately chose to display the full scope of literary permutations of which emotional relationships are capable. Probably both views are true: he dexterously coordinated first-hand experience with the accumulated resources of the sonnet tradition, from the solemn and sentimental to the cynical and outrageous. (Richmond, 1971, p. 19)

This is particularly noticeable in ‘Sonnet XX’ where the poet longs for the youth to be a woman and the homoerotic replaces the marital directive which appeared in the didactic tone of the first sonnets in the sequence:

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created;

Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.(Shakespeare, William, 2003, p.151)

Shakespeare confronts directly here the clear belief that women are duplicitous and deceitful and that the ‘master mistress’ of his ‘passion’, though gifted with ‘a woman’s gentle heart’ is ‘not acquainted/With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion’. The ‘eye’, the traditional window of the soul, is ‘more bright’ but ‘less false’. Thus, the poet suggests that the beautiful youth has all a woman’s best gifts but none of her faults, a state of perfection to be idealised in desire. Shakespeare develops this by writing directly of the sexual difference where the punning ‘prick’d’ is clearly a reference to the redundancy of the penis for the poet. ‘Nature’ here is the enemy, even the jealous sexual predator, having ‘me of thee defeated’ thus frustrating the desires of the poet by changing what he perceives to be the original intention, ‘to create a woman’, in the addition of the male organ of procreation. The amorphous image appears to be the ideal with neither male nor female specifics to obscure or defeat the perfection of the union.

Whether this desire is linked to Shakespeare’s own desire is equivocal as are all inferences of autobiographical content, it is tempting but dangerous to make too may autobiographical assumptions. However:

In depicting this blend of adulation and contempt, and in all those sonnets where verbal ambiguity is thus used as a deliberate dramatic device, Shakespeare shows that superb insight into states of strangely mixed feelings which enabled him to bring to life a Coriolanus or an Enobarbus. Like Freud, he found the causes of quibbling by studying his own quibbles; and the detachment which such an analysis implies imparts to the best of the Sonnets that objectivity we look for in the finest dramatic poetry. (Mahood, 1988, p. 110)

Certainly, there is a Freudian homoerotic subliminal here but there is no evidence to suggest that this was an actual experience of the poet any more than we can say that he wrote Hamlet therefore he must have experienced being the Prince of Denmark. To do either is to ignore Shakespeare’s imaginative genius and his ability to transmute the fancy into the creative, with both forming then a reality which has little if any connection with fact. So, although Shakespeare may have had sexual liaisons with both sexes and been crossed in love, the genius is in producing what can be seen to be unrelated to what might possibly have occurred in fact into an emblem of a generic tendency in humanity to which most of us can relate: ‘If Shakespeare’s speaker fictionalized the young man, so too he fictionalizes himself’ (Berry, 2001, p.1).

Having said that, ‘Sonnet XX’ has been seen as offering significant clues not only to the nature of Shakespeare’s own sexuality but also to the identity of the ‘Fair Youth’ himself and certainly to the ‘reality’ of the human image even in its placing, as Kathryn Duncan Jones has pointed out in her notes to her 2003 edition of the Sonnets (the edition used throughout this dissertation): ‘The placement of this anatomical sonnet at 20 may allude to a traditional association of this figure with the human body, equipped with twenty digits’ (Duncan Jones, 2003, p. 150). The direct connection which Duncan Jones makes between anatomy and imagination in this sonnet is interesting in that it breaches the gap between what might be seen to be metaphorical and what is actually a human figurative. Indeed, she goes on in her Introduction to expand on this: ‘Many more numerological finesses may be discerned. For instance, the embarrassingly anatomical sonnet 20 [which] probably draws on primitive associations of the figure with the human body, whose digits, fingers and toes, add up to twenty’ (Duncan Jones, 2003, p. 101).

As to the identity of the youth to which clues are supposedly to be found in this sonnet, they largely attach to the usage of the word, or name it is suggested, of ‘hue’ and ‘hues’ (spelt ‘Hew’ and ‘Hews’ in the Quarto). This, it has been mooted, might relate to a specific individual, especially as critics have noted that the name appears in one form or another, even if only in disparate letters, throughout the sonnet. As with much of the investigation into a connective between Shakespeare’s life and his Art, the link is at best speculative and at worst spurious and in either case somewhat superfluous:

The sonnets have an extraordinary capacity to elicit categorical statements from their interpreters. It is announced that the youth is Southampton, the youth is Pembroke, the youth is nobody, the dark lady is Mary Fitton, she is Aemilia Lanyer, she is nobody, the sonnets are based on experience, they are not based on experience, the love was not homosexual, the love was homosexual, the love was a dramatic fiction which ha


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