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Shakespeare Only$

Jeffrey Knapp

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780226445717

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226445731.001.0001

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Our Humble Author

Our Humble Author

(p.34) 1 Our Humble Author
Shakespeare Only

Jeffrey Knapp

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter, which examines Shakespeare's career as a mass entertainer from the literary perspective of his sonnets, begins by examining Shakespeare's quite different contemporary reputation as a commanding writer. It shows how celebrations of Shakespeare as a sovereign poet were complicated by the very popularity of his work for the stage, and how Shakespeare himself emphasized this complication in his sonnets. The first portion of the sonnets, which portrays the speaker's love for a lordly young man, expresses at times a supreme confidence in the speaker's literary power. Although authorship ceases to be a sufficient description of the speaker in the later sonnets, a strangely base kind of sovereignty becomes more prominent there, as the high-mindedly ambitious poet metamorphoses into a singularly vulgar mass entertainer.

Keywords:   mass entertainer, Shakespeare, sonnets, sovereignty, authorship, literary perspective

What can mine own praise to mine own self bring?

« SHAKESPEARE, Sonnet 39 »

In her foreword to a recent neuroscientific appreciation of Shakespeare entitled The Bard on the Brain (2003), the writer Diane Ackerman affirms “the simple, universally accepted truth” that in terms of “artistic genius” Shakespeare “stands alone.” “There's Shakespeare,” she explains, “followed by a very large gap, and then all the other English writers who have ever lived.” The many theater scholars who would regard such praise of Shakespeare as exaggeration or mystification—as bardolatry—might cite several grounds for disputing Ackerman's appraisal. First, they might argue, Ackerman has not read all the other English writers who have ever lived and so is not in a good position to pass judgment on all of them. Second, ranking Shakespeare above Chaucer, Milton, or Dickens, say, might seem like comparing apples to oranges. Shakespeare wrote no collection of tales, no epic, no novel. He did publish two long erotic poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, but neither is regularly considered to be better “by a very large gap” than Marlowe's Hero and Leander. The same might be said of Shakespeare's lyric poetry in comparison to Donne's, or Keats's, or Wordsworth's. Only as a playwright, (p.35) theater scholars might concede, does Shakespeare appear to outstrip his rivals. But even this was not always thought to be the case. Comparing the record of allusions to Shakespeare and to Jonson in the seventeenth century, particularly the references to each dramatist “as a standard of poetic or dramatic greatness,” G. E. Bentley found that “the evidence of Jonson's preeminence in the estimates of the time is overwhelming. In every single decade of the century he is praised more often than Shakespeare,” and the total number of allusions to him throughout the century, by Bentley's count, “is nearly three times as great” as the total number of allusions to Shakespeare.1 According to the statistics Bentley compiles, it was Jonson, not Shakespeare, who was the Shakespeare of his day.

Jonson himself thought otherwise. In his elegy “To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us,” which appeared in the first edition of Shakespeare's collected plays, the First Folio, in 1623, Jonson set the standard of adoration for all future Shakespeare lovers:

  • Soul of the Age!
  • The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!
  • My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
  • Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
  • A little further, to make thee a room:
  • Thou art a Moniment, without a tomb,
  • And art alive still, while thy Book doth live,
  • And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
  • ...............................................
  • And though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,
  • From thence to honor thee, I would not seek
  • For names; but call forth thund'ring Aeschylus,
  • Euripedes, and Sophocles to us,
  • Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
  • To life again, to hear thy Buskin tread,
  • And shake a Stage: Or, when thy Socks were on,
  • Leave thee alone, for the comparison
  • Of all, that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome
  • Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
  • (p.36) Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show,
  • To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.
  • He was not of an age, but for all time!2

Even Jonson finds it difficult to compare Shakespeare to nondramatic authors, abandoning the effort in the same line of verse in which he gets it under way: after the poets Chaucer and Spenser comes the playwright Beaumont, and then it's nothing but playwrights for the rest of the poem. But the more Jonson evaluates Shakespeare in relation to other dramatists, the more his enthusiasm for him grows. First Shakespeare is the “Soul of the Age,” then he is “for all time.” Rising from the tomb of past English worthies, he takes the stage “alone” before the greatest classical playwrights and then ascends to the heavens as the “Star of Poets,” the “one” “to whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.” Bardolatrous seems the right term for praise that treats Shakespeare as a kind of Christ.

Such extravagant tribute from the man whom Bentley identifies as Shakespeare's chief dramatic rival in the seventeenth century would appear to weaken Bentley's historicizing claim that Shakespeare's contemporaries thought less of him than we do.3 But recent historicists have actually intensified Bentley's critique of Shakespeare's preeminence as a dramatist. Where Bentley turned to the historical record for proof that the modern perception of Shakespeare's incomparability should be seen as relative, theater scholars now appeal to that record for proof that the very notion of an incomparable dramatist should be seen as relative, and, what's more, as anachronistic when applied to Shakespeare. Their basic claim, as I explained in my introduction, is that commercial Renaissance plays were generated by acting companies, not authors—and if the author was a later development for these historicists, even more so was the author who stands alone. In the introduction to his Companion to Shakespeare (1999), for instance, David Kastan distances his volume from “the enormous culture investment in the idea of [Shakespeare's] unique genius” by arguing that the “concept” was “virtually invented for” Shakespeare after his death. As Kastan explains at greater length in (p.37) Shakespeare and the Book (2001), the process of invention began with the First Folio, which “might be said to be the creator of Shakespeare.” In his own lifetime, Kastan claims, Shakespeare never “actively sought” the “role” of “author,” let alone the title of “genius.” On the contrary, he “was largely indifferent to such individuation, comfortably working in the collaborative ethos of the theater.” Not until Jonson and the First Folio fabricated a literary rather than theatrical conception of Shakespeare, Kastan maintains, did Shakespeare begin to emerge “as the towering figure of individual genius” he now represents in our culture, “never … having sought his greatness but having it thrust upon him seven years after he died.”4

For Kastan, in other words, the notion of unique genius is worse than anachronistic as a description of Shakespeare the theatrical collaborator: it is antithetical to that professional identity and therefore ultimately antitheatrical as well. But the concept had already been applied to Shakespeare thirty years before Jonson's poem, in the earliest surviving reference to Shakespeare as a working dramatist. Where Jonson praised Shakespeare for transcending his professional milieu, Robert Greene in his 1592 Groats-Worth of Witte lambasted Shakespeare as a stage-bound “Johannes fac totum,” a Johnny-do-all laboring under the absurd delusion that he could emulate real poets. And yet Greene ascribed to Shakespeare the same desire for exclusive mastery that Jonson supposedly foisted upon Shakespeare in his elegy: according to Greene, Shakespeare was “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”5

The ambition itself was not what bothered Greene. Earlier in the Groats-worth, he had described himself as “an Arch-play-making-poet,” and he later reminded his fellow dramatists that the players had relied on “none of you” so much as they had on “me.” But Shakespeare and his fellow actors had forced Greene out of the picture, and within two decades Shakespeare's purported dream of himself as the only “Shake-scene” would in certain irrefutable respects come true. Unlike every other playwright of the period, as I emphasized in my introduction, Shakespeare would make a fortune from his theater work, become by far the (p.38) most published dramatist of his day, and own a share in both his acting company and the theaters where he played. For Bentley, the sheer range of Shakespeare's professional responsibilities made him “the most complete man of the theater in his time,” but for Greene such multitasking proved that Shakespeare was worse than a hack: he was also a grasping monopolist with no sense of obligation to his collaborators. Although the players had once depended on Greene so mightily, Shakespeare's ability to write as well as act meant they could now cast off Greene, and Greene warned his fellow dramatists that, no matter how “beholding” the players might be to them, these other playwrights would soon find themselves “forsaken,” too.6

Greene's caustic appraisal of Shakespeare as someone who thought he could do it all and do it better than anyone else leads me to the questions I hope to answer in this chapter about how Shakespeare actually saw himself as an author. Historicists such as Kastan have crucially highlighted the strangeness of bardolatrous attempts to abstract Shakespeare from the world of mass entertainment in which and for which he wrote his plays. But their corrective emphasis on mass entertainment has also misled these historicists into claiming that a model of singular authorship postdated Shakespeare, when it was in fact the conventional view of playwriting throughout the Renaissance, as Shakespeare well knew. The most distinguished apologist for the stage in Shakespeare's time—Alberico Gentili, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford—begins his 1593 defense of dramatists by importing the figure of the master poet into the theater: “When Vergil entered the theater,” Gentili writes, “the whole [universus] Roman people rose to its feet, revering him as if he were Augustus.” Rather than lose himself among the theater's masses, Virgil as Gentili imagines him turns the masses into one, “universus,” in their universal admiration for his literary supremacy. But Virgil was no playwright: as soon as Gentili begins to discuss theatrical poets specifically, he is forced to admit that Roman law attached “the mark of infamy” to their profession. And then the playwright's dependence on actors—“vile” actors, Gentili calls (p.39) them—further disrupts the exclusive identification of the theatrical scene with the imperial figure of the dramatist. Yet the actors also provide the dramatist a convenient scapegoat for the theatrical infamy that would otherwise taint him: “poets can be held in honor,” Gentili argues, “although the actor, their voice and mouthpiece [vox, et os], may remain unhonored. Agents are servile [servilia]; so we use the mind to command, the body to serve. And indeed, the authors supply the mind, the actors the body.”7

As both author and actor, Shakespeare was in no position to profit from such stigmatization of actors. But he could—however incompletely—embody a unity among the different agencies at work in a play that Gentili never even considers. I will argue in this chapter that, just as Shakespeare bent his stage identity to the conventional model of the kingly poet, so he also bent that literary model to the actuality of his “vile” stage work. Shakespeare, in other words, theatricalized the idea of the poet, and to show how he did it I will turn to the writings of his that most plainly adopt an autobiographical as well as literary pose: his sonnets. Shakespeare's self-portrait in the sonnets has long been recognized as unconventional, both in the homoerotic youngman sonnets at the start and the misogynistic dark-lady sonnets at the end. The dark-lady sonnets in particular strive for a singularity of effect that, as I shall maintain, more nearly approaches Greene's conception of Shakespeare than Ackerman's: in these sonnets, Shakespeare seems to believe that he can achieve a kind of uniqueness as a theatrical professional only when he can imagine and portray himself as the very principle of the theater's vulgarity and commonness.

Prince of Poets

Echoing Jonson's celebration of Shakespeare as the star of poets, another commender in the First Folio, Hugh Holland, calls Shakespeare the “Poets' King.” This royal figure of speech for Shakespeare's incomparability was no innovative trope of praise: (p.40) Petrarch had been crowned with laurel nearly three centuries earlier. And naturally, the notion of a literary monarch was encouraged by the political monarchism of the day, gaining a special currency from the literary ambitions of the only two English monarchs Shakespeare ever knew: Elizabeth I, whom Spenser in 1591 proclaimed “most peerless Prince, most peerless Poëtress,” and James I, whom Michael Drayton in 1600 hailed as “Of Kings a Poet, and the Poets' King.”8 Homer Prince of Poets was the title that George Chapman gave his partial translation of The Iliad in 1609, just as Abraham Fleming had named Virgil the Prince of All Latine Poets in the title of his 1589 translation of The Eclogues and The Georgics. Such honors were not limited to the classics or to actual kings. During Shakespeare's lifetime, the literary crown was passed back and forth among many of his contemporaries: Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, William Warner, George Buchanan, Samuel Daniel.9 Jonson repeatedly tried to crown himself: in the 1601 prologue to Cynthia's Revels, for instance, he asked the discerning spectator and reader to “cast” the “piercing rays” of their judgment around his poetry “as a crown” that the poet would consider more meritorious than “honor'd Bays.” Jonson's disciples heard and obeyed: in a 1638 collection of memorial verses for him, they hailed him as “th'only Genius of the Times,” “Poet of princes, Prince of Poets,” “Great Jonson King of English Poetry.” Perhaps John Taylor (1612) said it best to Jonson during Jonson's and Shakespeare's lifetimes: “all the Worthies of this worthy Land,/Admires thy wondrous all-admired worth.”10

Bentley may be right that Jonson was more often compared to a king in the seventeenth century than Shakespeare was, but he does not adequately acknowledge the incompleteness or partiality of such praise as a measure of “poetic or dramatic greatness.”Almost inevitably, the royal trope distances the poet's value from any popular judgment on it. Having declared James “a God of Poets, and a King of Men,” Sir William Alexander imagined his monarch as “ravish'd still above the vulgar sort.”11 So Spenser envisioned Elizabeth as the “one only” who could rescue poetry from the clutches of “the base vulgar.” And that is how Jonson understood his literary kingship in Cynthia's Revels: “loath to (p.41) prostitute” his talent “to every vulgar, and adulterate brain,” he denounced “popular applause” as the “foamy praise, that drops from common jaws.” In lines from Horace that Jonson borrowed for the epigraph to his own first folio in 1616, Jonson reminded himself not to “labor so that the mob [turba] may wonder at you” but rather to “be content with few readers.”12 Facing this epigraph was a portrait of Jonson crowned with laurels.

Luckily, Jonson's plays were often unpopular enough to grant him just the rarefied audience he preferred. After the failure of Sejanus in 1605, Edmund Bolton expressed his “indignation” at “the People's beastly rage” against Jonson; when Catiline failed in 1611, Francis Beaumont congratulated Jonson for not having “itched after the wild applause /Of common people”; and when The New Inn failed in 1629, Thomas Carew exhorted Jonson to “let others glut on the extorted praise / Of vulgar breath”—“their hiss,” Thomas Randolph added, “is thy applause.” Not all contemporary critics agreed, however, that pleasing the few was the best measure of dramatic success. Calling Sejanus “irksome” and Catiline “tedious,” Leonard Digges in the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems (1640) admitted that Volpone and The Alchemist had justly won Jonson “a crown of Bays”: “Yet these sometimes, even at a friend's desire/Acted, have scarce defrayed the Seacoal fire/And door-keepers: when let but Falstaff come,/Hal, Poins, the rest[,] you scarce shall have a room/All is so pester'd.” Jonson himself acknowledged the force of Shakespeare's popularity. Having asserted that Shakespeare's “writings” are “such,/As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much,” Jonson insisted “'tis true, and all men's suffrage.” But for his own more rebarbative writings Jonson prized the measure of the one over the all, as in his epistle to Volpone (1607), where he scorned those who try to “make themselves a name with the Multitude.”13

If Shakespeare's popularity thus distinguished him from Jonson, it did not necessarily prevent him from sharing Jonson's elitism. In the dedication to Shakespeare's earliest publication, Venus and Adonis, which was also the work of his that was most often reprinted during his lifetime, Shakespeare, too, seems to prefer the one reader to the many, assuring the Earl of Southhampton (p.42) that “only if your Honor seem but pleased” will Shakespeare “account” himself “highly praised” for his poetry. The epigraph to Venus and Adonis, a quotation from Ovid's Amores that is prominently displayed on the title page of every contemporary edition of Shakespeare's poem, sounds no less dismissive of the multitude than Jonson's epigraph to his Works. “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo/Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua”: let the vulgus (the vulgar-minded, the common people) admire vile things, writes the poet; may golden Apollo serve me full cups of Castalian inspiration instead. Facing each other across the divide of a colon, vulgus and mihi define each other adversarially. And the vulgar sort are by implication not the only social group who fall below the poet's estimation of his own high calling: in the poem from which Shakespeare quotes, Ovid enjoins even “kings and kingly triumphs [reges regumque triumphi]” to give way to his songs.14

A year after Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare published a second long poem, Lucrece, which he once again dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton as to the only reader who mattered: “What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours.” Yet both poems appeared while the commercial theaters were closed because of plague. After the theaters reopened, Shakespeare returned to the stage and never dedicated another publication to anyone. Most recent critics treat this change as evidence that Shakespeare renounced the elitist singularity of poet and patron for the communitarian ethos of acting company and theater audience. Yet the earliest surviving account of Shakespeare's acting, an epigram published in 1611 by John Davies of Hereford, suggests that even after Shakespeare got down to business in the theater, he continued to imagine himself in kingly, or perhaps more accurately counter-kingly terms:

  • Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,
  • Hadst thou not played some Kingly parts in sport,
  • Thou hadst been a companion for a King;
  • And, been a King among the meaner sort.15

(p.43) In one respect, it would be hard to imagine higher praise for a mere commoner: Davies implies that Shakespeare can act like a king because he is one, effectively. But Davies also emphasizes that he speaks, as Shakespeare has acted, “in sport.” By pretending to be a king, Shakespeare has actually rendered himself unfit for princely company. From Davies's perspective, the very medium that royalizes Shakespeare has also disgraced him.

In an earlier poem on Shakespeare, Davies put the paradox this way: “though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood, /yet generous ye are in mind and mood.”The stain, for Davies as for nearly every other contemporary commentator on the theater, came from writing and playing to please the meaner sort, “the vulgar opinion,” “the rude multitude.” “For what mind can be pure and whole among such a rabblement, and not spotted with any lust,” one Elizabethan theater hater asked, where actors “may say and do what they list, be it never so filthy and fleshly, and yet are suffered and heard with laughing and clapping of hands.” Again and again throughout the period, a playwright would agree and turn away from his mass audience in disgust: at the end of his long poem Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), for instance, the erstwhile dramatist Thomas Lodge vowed “to write no more, of that whence shame doth grow: / Or tie my pen to Penny-knaves' delight.” Davies shared Lodge's dismay that a poet should subject himself to a mass audience, yet at the same time—both because of and despite Shakespeare's popularity—Davies's epigram also credits Shakespeare with “a reigning wit.” Contrary to the antitheatricalist's or the historicist's view of dramatic authorship, a sense of Shakespeare as a king of poets crops up again and again in the earliest references to him: first satirically in Greene; then encomiastically in “the first extant poem addressed” to Shakespeare, a 1599 epigram by John Weever that imagines “thousands” of readers and spectators vowing “subjective duty” to Shakespeare's fictions; then both satirically and encomiastically in Davies's epigrams. Davies's double vision of Shakespeare as at once royally singular and vulgarly common, as a king among the meaner sort, also figures prominently in the earliest surviving (p.44) anecdote on Shakespeare's theatrical life, from a 1602 entry in the diary of a law student, John Manningham:

Upon a time when Burbage played Rich. 3. there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Ri: the 3. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Rich. the 3.d was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Rich. the 3.16

In Manningham's anecdote, Shakespeare wins a royal crown not by transcending the vulgar, but rather by embracing it.

A King among the Meaner Sort

Shakespeare did publish one more book of poetry after his return to the theater: Shake-Speares Sonnets in 1609.17 The notion of an incomparable individual is, of course, a conventional feature of Renaissance sonnet sequences, and in Shakespeare's sonnets that ideal crops up primarily in the praise of the fair young man, a “king” of “beauties” who exercises a kind of creative mastery over appearances: he has “all hues in his controlling” and, though “but one, can every shadow lend.”18 The speaker of the sonnets loves the young man, “my sovereign, Lora of my love,” and feels himself ennobled by the young man's love in return: where some men “glory” in such “particulars” as their birth or skill or wealth, the speaker believes that “All these I better in one general best,” “For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings,/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” Indeed, the speaker credits the young man with a magisterial power over his poetry as well as his affections. “Thou art all my art,” the speaker declares, and by reproducing the beauties of the young man, the speaker hopes that his poetry will, like Ovid's, “outlive” the “gilded monuments / Of princes”: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”19

(p.45) Yet the very comprehensiveness of the young man's virtues, his being “all” in “one,” also weakens the confidence of the speaker in his own self-sufficiency. “O̓ercharg'd” with admiration for the “most high deserts” of the young man, the speaker recurs again and again to the thought of his own “blots” and “defects.” So plenteous are the “gifts” and “graces” of his beloved, moreover, that they continually betray the speaker's “poverty” in praising him, “dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.” Only by imagining himself as “sufficed” in the “abundance” of the young man can the speaker entertain the fantasy that “I all other in all worths surmount.” “Having thee,” he claims, “of all men's pride I boast,” but he quickly admits that the young man might “take /All this away, and me most wretched make.”20 The later sonnets in the young-man sequence set forth the speaker's fears of the young man's possible infidelity, of other poets who might more winningly praise the young man, and finally of the speaker's own, barely suppressed desire to liberate himself from the young man's overwhelming attractiveness. In sonnet 109, where the speaker once again professes to the young man that “thou art my all” and yet also confesses to the perversity of having “rang'd” from him, the speaker for the first time imagines himself, hypothetically, as the “all” of something other than worthiness:

  • Never believe, though in my nature reign'd
  • All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
  • That it could so preposterously be stain'd,
  • To leave for nothing all thy sum of good.

If the young man is one general best, then the speaker can achieve a similarly supreme fullness on his own, sonnet 109 suggests, only by perceiving himself as one general worst.

Such strangely boastful self-loathing becomes the keynote of the remaining sonnets, in which the speaker does indeed “preposterously” transfer his affections from the fair young man to a whorish dark lady and thus throws not only his fidelity but his very judgment into question: “In my mind thy worst all best exceeds,” he proclaims to the lady, “For I have sworn thee fair, and (p.46) thought thee bright,/ Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.” But first the vision of himself in sonnet 109 as the sum of “all frailties” leads the speaker to confess a shameful particular about his life that he had not previously acknowledged. In the three sonnets that follow 109, the speaker's disgraceful ranging from the lord of his love is redefined as his ignominious wandering by profession: “Alas, ‘tis true, I have gone here and there /And made myself a motley to the view.”21 What the speaker now confesses, in other words, is that he is an actor as well as a poet: his sum of bad now appears as the degrading “motley” of a clown. And his very insufficiency, he insists, is what has forced him to debase himself this way: “O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,/The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,/That did not better for my life provide/Than public means which public manners breeds.” Far from the comfortably collaborative environment that Kastan envisions, the theater in these sonnets is presented as inimical to the speaker, threatening to overwrite him with the publicity to which he feels disgracefully exposed. Only the ennobling “love and pity” of the young man, the speaker declares, can “fill”“th'impression” that “vulgar scandal” has “stamped upon mv brow.”22

But now the speaker's acknowledgment of his professional vulgarity appears to weaken his devotion to the fair young man. After the theater sonnets, he never again presents himself as the poet of the young man's worthiness. In fact, he never again presents himself as an active poet. Although more than a third of the sonnets before sonnet 110 had made some reference to the speaker's writing lines or rhymes or verses, the only remaining references after sonnet 112 sound like recantations. “Those lines that I before have writ do lie,” begins sonnet 115, and the following sonnet ends, “If this be error and upon me proved,/I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In sonnet 122, the speaker apologizes for having given away a writing-tablet he received from the young man without ever writing on it.23 This is not to say, of course, that the speaker has stopped being a poet: he continues to generate sonnets about his degraded position. But (p.47) he now seems to feel that the role of poet is no longer sufficient to account for the motley range of an individual who in sonnet 116 can declare his love for the young man to be “an ever-fixed mark” and then in the very next sonnet admit to the “willfulness” of having wandered from him.24 This is an individual, moreover, who acts as well as writes, and whose continual association of his poetry with the young man's sovereign beauties seems to make it impossible for him to link his identity as a poet with his vulgarity as an actor.25 After the theater sonnets, the speaker no longer merely refers to his frailties and to the “disgrace” he suffers “in men's eyes.” He now performs that disgrace, in his perverse love for the dark lady's “insufficiency” and in the increasing vulgarity of his actions as well as language. Where the speaker had earlier claimed that the young man inspired his verse and thus was able to “advance/As high as learning my rude ignorance,” he now maintains that the dark lady elevates an obscenely literal part of him, the “flesh” that, “rising at thy name, doth point out thee /As his triumphant prize.”26

Paradoxically, it is at this low point in the sonnets, when the speaker insists on his degradation most emphatically, that he also stakes his claim for the kingly status of “one only” most emphatically:

  • Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will, And Will
  • to boot, and Will in overplus;
  • More than enough am I that vex thee still,
  • To thy sweet will making addition thus.
  • Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
  • Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
  • Shall will in others seem right gracious,
  • And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
  • The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
  • And in abundance addeth to his store.
  • So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
  • One will of mine to make thy large Will more.
  • Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
  • Think all but one, and me in that one Will.27

(p.48) Now the speaker adds a further particularity to the picture he had earlier drawn of himself as a poet and an actor: he tells us for the first time that his first name is Will.28 Not William, as in the Manningham anecdote, but the common nickname Davies uses, more appropriate to a boon companion than to a conqueror.29 Two decades after Shakespeare's death, his fellow dramatist Thomas Heywood ruefully observed that where “past Ages did the ancient Poets grace” by adding place names to “their swelling styles,” “our modern Poets to that pass are driven,/Those names are curtail'd which they first had given.” He proceeds to list fifteen modern poets—all of them commercial playwrights—for whom “we scarcely can afford … half” the sound of their first names: among them, “Robin” Greene, “Kit” Marlowe, “Frank” Beaumont, “Ben” Jonson, and “mellifluous Shake-speare, whose enchanting Quill/ Commanded Mirth or Passion,” yet never could command a name more respectful than “Wiil.”30 According to Heywood, in other words, the name that Shakespeare made for himself with the multitude was “Will.” But even the full Christian name “William” would hardly seem as distinctive as the proper name that Greene had felt compelled to belittle with “Shakescene” or that Jonson chose to magnify when he claimed that “in each” of Shakespeare's “lines” “he seems to shake a Lance, / As brandish'd at the eyes of Ignorance.”31 William, indeed, was the least distinctive name a man could have in Renaissance England: according to the parish records of the time, it belonged to nearly a quarter of all Shakespeare's male contemporaries32

In both of the Will sonnets, the speaker wryly acknowledges the commonness of his name, admitting that the dark lady might be attracted to other lovers named Will—the “Will” that “in others” might “seem right gracious”—and asking that she simply “add” him to “the number.” At the same time, however, the speaker also urges the dark lady to regard him as the only Will who counts: “Think all but one, and me in that one Will.” This all-in-one sufficiency had previously been the sovereign property, of course, of the young man, but the speaker now hopes that (p.49) he can fill the “defect” of the dark lady as the young man had once made the disgraced speaker feel “replete” with him. “More than enough am I,” declares the speaker, in the next sonnet stuffing his verse with the sound of his common name: “Will will fulfill the treasure of your love,/Ay, fill it full of wills, and my will one.”33 But the transfer of sovereign singularity from the gracious young man to the degraded speaker comes at a cost to the ideal of sovereignty in the sonnets, as well as to the good name of the speaker. The Will sonnets insist on correlating the speaker's first or Christian name with will as a vulgar term for genitals, both male and female, which the speaker hopes will mingle and which do become one in the one word will. These sonnets also turn the speaker's name into a byword for the libertinism that would induce him to joke about his name as a double entendre, have sex with a woman he goes on to call “the wide world's common place,” and then proclaim that sex publicly, thus underscoring his infidelity to the young man. Perversely abandoning the ideal of sunlike “sacred majesty” that had been exemplified by the young man, the speaker presents himself instead as the masculine personification of indiscriminate debauchery, as Will itself: “my name is Wifi.”34

By 1609 such vulgarity was of course nothing new in Shakespeare's writing. A younger contemporary favorably compared Fletcher to Shakespeare on this score, applauding Fletcher for having a “vein” as “free” as Shakespeare's “but without his scurrility,” “Bawdry,” or “obsceneness.”35 Bardolatrists regularly defend the profanity in Shakespeare by treating it as evidence of his supreme imaginative range as a writer, the “myriad-minded” comprehensiveness that established Shakespeare, in Coleridge's eyes, as “the greatest genius, that perhaps human nature has yet produced.” According to Keats, the “poetical Character” of Shakespeare “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen” because “it has no self—it is everything and nothing.” But Shakespeare's account of his art and scope in the sonnets more closely resembles the antitheatricalist's view than the bardolatrist's. When the Elizabethan clergyman Thomas Beard (p.50) (1597) described Christopher Marlowe, “a play-maker, and a Poet of scurrility,” as “giving too large a swinge [i.e., a swing and a sway] to his own wit, and suffering his lust to have the full reins,” he was invoking the standard critical view, not only of actors and playwrights in the commercial theaters, but of their mass audience, too. “You are no sooner enter'd” in the theater, writes the theater-hating Stephen Gosson in his Scboole of Abuse, “but liberty looseth the reins.”36 The sonnet-speaker agrees: “public means” breed “public manners,” not as the imaginative range of the poet but rather as the scandalous behavior of the profligate.

This same self-accusatory view of theatrical liberty or licentiousness figures prominently in a rival sonnet sequence written by Shakespeare's nearly exact contemporary Michael Drayton. In 1594, Drayton had published a conventionally Petrarchan sequence of sonnets entitled Ideas Mirrour: Amours in Quatorzains. But then in 1599, and again in 1600, 1602, 1603, and 1605, Drayton issued a radically different version of these sonnets, called simply Idea. Drayton set the tone for his new sequence in two opening sonnets addressed to the reader, which present him as a “Libertine” who writes “wanton verse,” “wild, madding, jocund, & irregular.”37 What accounts for the change? Starting in December 1597, as the diary of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe informs us, Drayton began to write plays for the commercial stage; by the time he published his revised sonnets a year or two later, he had already collaborated on seventeen or eighteen plays for Henslowe's company.38 Scholars have long noted that the 1599 Idea shows Drayton importing a newly dramatic style of writing into his sonnets.39 But the opening sonnets to the reader also express a new mass-entertainment conception of the poet, who now maintains that his verse inclines to “the choice of all variety”: “And in all humors sportively I range.”40 For Keats, that range would count as the hallmark of the sublimely protean poetical character, but for Drayton it is the brand of the wantonly commercial playwright.41

And yet there is nothing particularly libertine, licentious, or vulgar about the sonnets Drayton proceeds to write in Idea: wantonness (p.51) turns out to be less a practical than a theoretical feature of the dramatist's poetry.42 The difference between Shakespeare's and Drayton's sequences in this regard is nicely captured by a sonnet of Drayton's, first published in the 1605 edition of Idea, on the subject of Drayton's playwrighting:

  • In pride of wit, when high desire of fame
  • Gave life and courage to my laboring pen,
  • And first the sound and virtue of my name,
  • Won grace and credit in the ears of men:
  • With those the thronged Theaters that press,
  • I in the circuit for the Laurel strove,
  • Where the full praise I freely must confess,
  • In heat of blood and modest mind might move:
  • With shouts and claps at every little pause,
  • When the proud round on every side hath rung.
  • Sadly I sit unmov'd with the applause,
  • As though to me it nothing did belong:
  • No public glory vainly I pursue.
  • The praise I strive, is to eternize you.43

Like Greene's Shakespeare, who longs to be the only “Shakescene” in a country, Drayton hears “the sound and virtue” of his “name” ringing throughout the theater as he strives for the sovereignty of a laurel crown. But the throng and press of the mass audience dismay him: he feels that whatever triumph the audience applauds must belong not to him personally, but to the theater at large, “the proud round.” So he abandons the theatrical pursuit of “public glory” for the more exclusive literary praise he can win by eternizing his beloved. This is the pose that Shakespeare adopts, and then drops, in his own sonnets. The difference, it seems, is that after 1601, when Drayton stopped writing for Henslowe, he became increasingly disenchanted with the stage and its “thickbrain'd Audience,” while Shakespeare had so entirely committed himself to the stage as to buy a share in the new Globe theater.44 This is not to say that Shakespeare renounced the elitism proclaimed on title page after title page of Venus and Adonis; if he had, then why would his sonnets represent his theater work as (p.52) disgraceful? Instead, reversing the trajectory of Drayton's sonnet, Shakespeare in his own sonnet sequence decided both to acknowledge and to enact the shame of publicity that Drayton could (as he says) “freely … confess” only hypothetically: the “shouts and claps” of the theater audience “might move,” Drayton allows, but “I sit unmov'd.”45 Yet how could Shakespeare turn “public glory” into a sovereign sufficiency that belonged to him and him alone? Only by presenting himself as the embodiment of the audience's commonness, the one of their many: “Think all but one, and me in that one Wiil.”46

A surprisingly empowering debasement of sovereignty is, after all, a central theme of Shakespeare's history plays. In the Henriad, Hal redefines kingship as something common and vulgar yet still regal. Although Hal's father King Henry believes that Hal has “lost thy princely privilege/With vile participation,” Hal proves that by consorting with lowlifes and transforming himself into “all humors” he can attain a miraculously supreme authority. Even the familiar name “Hal,” like the familiar name “Will,” helps the prince secure this privilege: while the more respectful “Henry” and “Harry” are names that Hal shares with his father and his chief rival, among others, the more common “Hal” is a title uniquely applied to the prince, belonging to him exclusively.47

But Shakespeare was no prince, nor do the sonnets show him turning away his disgraceful self as Hal does. The last two of the sonnets are among the most tawdry of the sequence, representing the speaker as a man sexually “diseas'd” and unhelped by any “sovereign cure.” Startled critics have often cautioned readers that, since the speaker is “grossly and notoriously profligate,” as James Boswell the younger put it in his 1821 edition of sonnets, we should never mistake the speaker for Shakespeare himself.48 Other scholars, such as W. H. Auden, have accepted the sonnets as autobiographical but at the same time insisted that Shakespeare never intended to publish them: according to Auden, Shakespeare wrote the sonnets “as one writes a diary, for himself alone, with no thought of a public,” and therefore he “must have (p.53) been horrified” when they appeared in print.49 Yet the speaker of the sonnets repeatedly insists that he has made himself a motley to the view: “I am shamed by that which I bring forth,” he declares, elsewhere lamenting “the injuries that to myself I do” and assuring the young man that “thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,/ … /As I'll myself disgrace, knowing thy will.”50

It is this peculiar readiness to shame himself that makes the speaker seem distinctive in his own eyes. He repeatedly admits that he shares too many “frailties” with other “wills” to claim the sui generis individuality he praises in the young man: “that you alone are you.” When the speaker declares “I am that I am,” he means that he can at least acknowledge his faults, unlike those who “level /At my abuses” and in the process unwittingly “reckon up their own.” But the terms of his self-acceptance change once the dark lady enters the picture: “my bad angel” who “makes me sin.” The speaker finds that he is so addicted to harming himself by his profligacy, “longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease,” that he cannot help but pursue the further self-injury of parading his faults. This double perversity—his irrational lust and his even more irrational publicizing of it—turns his failings into a paradoxically singular commonness: “I love what others do abhor.”51

The best the speaker can make of this worst is that it amounts to a confession: “With mine own weakness being best acquainted,/Upon thy part I can set down a story/Of faults concealed wherein I am attainted.”52 A will to confess suits the preacherly tone that the speaker often adopts in the sonnets, as in the poems that begin, “Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,” or “Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,” or “Love is my sin.” In my book Shakespeare's Tribe, I argued that one of the ways theater people habitually defended their low profession was to present themselves as accommodationists who deliberately posed as libertines in order to capture the attention of the profane theatergoer and then convert him or her to a better life. In his preacher's manual The Faithfull Shepheard, published two years before Shakespeare's Sonnets, the clergyman Richard (p.54) Bernard advised his fellow clerics that a minister who hopes “to make applications to his hearers” and “do it profitably” must similarly “preach to them from knowledge out of himself, feeling the corruption of nature.”53 The archetype of such preachers was the apostle Paul, who called himself the chief of sinners and confessed that, to save other sinners, he had made himself all things to all men. If the speaker of the sonnets believes that the young man can count as “beauty's pattern to succeeding men,” perhaps he also believes that his own “defects” can serve as a kind of pattern, too, just as Paul in his first letter to Timothy claims that Jesus endured and then forgave Paul's sins so that Paul might become “a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on [Christ] to life everlasting.” Indeed, the speaker admits to more sin than the chief of sinners does. Although Paul in his letter to Timothy confesses that he was “a blasphemer, and a persecutor” before his conversion, he never accuses himself of adultery or lust.54 In sonnet 129, conversely, “lust” becomes the all-in-one vice, “perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,/ Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust”—and the Will sonnets go on to personify lust as the speaker, “Will”.

In some respects, the young man himself lights the way toward a remedial view of the speaker's confessions. Possessed like Prince Hal with “both grace and faults” that “are lov'd of more and less,” he shows the speaker how frailties might be excused even as they are expressed: “How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame /Which … / Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name.” But the dark lady provides no such model for the amelioration of “sins.” On the contrary, her presence in the sonnets weakens any penitential claim by the speaker, who admits to loving her, not in spite of her faults, but because of them: “all my best doth worship thy defect.” The surviving evidence of the sonnets' contemporary reception indicates that readers were consequently puzzled, at best, by the extremity of Shakespeare's self-disgracing in these poems. In the three decades after the initial publication of the sonnets, when Shakespeare's complete plays were twice printed and his earlier long poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece appeared (p.55) in ten further editions, the sonnets themselves were never reissued. “What a heap of wretched Infidel Stuff,” one contemporary reader of the 1609 edition jotted down in the margins after the final sonnet. Of the mere twenty-eight transcriptions of individual Shakespeare sonnets that are scattered across twenty-five different manuscripts surviving from the seventeenth century, only two derive from the dark-lady sequence—and one of these is copied from an earlier poetical miscellany, The Passionate Pilgrim, not from the 1609 Sonnets.55 For contemporary readers, Shakespeare's self-representation as “Will” seems to have been a failure. But that failure was, in its way, a logical consequence of Shakespeare's conceptualizing himself in the sonnets as something other than a poet only. To popularize his more capacious, or more motley, role as an actor-author, he would have to transfer it once again to the stage.


According to Greene, the only way that Shakespeare could impress as a dramatist was through “bombast”—that is, through rhetorical padding and stuffing. But the sonnets self-critically link the speaker's psychological amplitude with the stranger and even more discreditable “defect” of his perversity: being “against myself” is what opens the speaker to more than a single or particular identity. In chapter 2, I will show how “myriad-minded” Shakespeare used the stage to highlight the spectrum of characterological possibilities for the self-various person who finds a kind of distinctiveness and even sovereignty in disgrace.

In Measure for Measure, for instance, Duke Vincentio begins the play already vested in the “power” of his office, but he temporarily removes himself from office for reasons that he never makes entirely clear to his subjects. Instead, he perversely strives to shake their confidence in him: “the Duke is very strangely gone from hence,” comments one subject; “every letter he hath writ hath disvouch'd the other,” adds another; “in most uneven (p.56) and distracted manner,” says a third. But the fate of this third character, Angelo, the man whom the duke had named as his substitute, demonstrates how the role of duke can itself prove distracting. Taking the place of the duke who himself stands for his subjects, internalizing their multiplicity in his royal “we,” Angelo finds himself becoming divided by conflicting desires. “When I would pray and think,” he confesses in soliloquy, “I think and pray/To several subjects.” Specifically, Angelo longs to uphold a law against premarital sex and yet also to engage in such sex himself—with a novice nun. While his “tongue” may speak of “heaven,” his “blood” registers a sexual arousal that floods his “heart,” “dispossessing all my other parts/Of necessary fitness.” Trying to grasp how his magisterial refusal to be “partial” in office could ever have given way to his pathetic disintegration into “parts,” Angelo compares his internal chaos to two different scenes of “one” who is overcome by many: “So play the foolish throngs with one that swounds,” he reasons, “and even so /The general subject to a well-wish'd king/Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness /Crowd to his presence.”56 As duke, Angelo finds that the particularity of his old identity has been overwhelmed by the generality of “subjects” both outside and also within him: the throngs crowd into his presence, making him self-various.

When the poet Sir John Davies (c. 1594) imagined a person who suffered from a similar excess, he chose a theatrical analogy to express it.

  • Cosmus hath more discoursing in his head,
  • Than Jove, when Pallas issued from his brain,
  • And still he strives to be delivered
  • Of all his thoughts at once, but all in vain.
  • For as we see at all the play-house doors,
  • When ended is the play, the dance, and song:
  • A thousand townsmen, gentlemen, and whores,
  • Porters and serving-men together throng,
  • So thoughts of drinking, thriving, wenching, war,
  • (p.57) And borrowing money, raging in his mind,
  • To issue all at once so forward are,
  • As none at all can perfect passage find.57

For Davies, the masses gathered in a playhouse suggest not the loss of particularity, as one might expect, but rather the concentration of generality within a single character. Like Cosmus (whose name already makes him stand for the world), Angelo feels himself distracted by such concentration. But Duke Vincentio finds “passage” for the internal multiplicity of his desires by acting on the theatrical analogy and devising new parts for himself and his subjects to play.

To emphasize this difference, Shakespeare has Vincentio first voice his opposition to theatricality. “I love the people,” the duke confides to Angelo and Escalus in his opening scene, “But do not like to stage me to their eyes.” “I have ever lov'd the life removed,” he confesses to another confidant, a friar, in his next scene. After delegating his power to Angelo, however, Vincentio chooses to conduct himself more like Greene's johnny-do-all than an unapproachable ruler. Disguising himself as a friar, Vincentio takes himself to prison, where he immediately begins directing various of his subjects in his “plot”; by the end of Measure for Measure he has grown so invested in play-acting that he stage-manages not one but two spectacular public entrances for himself when he decides to reclaim his dukeship. The effect is extraordinary on Angelo in particular, who is so mystified by the shows the duke has arranged that he now compares his “dread lord” to “pow'r divine.” Yet as Davies's democratizing vision of the playhouse suggests, with its indiscriminate mingling of gentlemen, servingmen, and whores, the duke's newfound love for staging himself necessitates his demeaning himself in pursuit of theatrical glory. Public means breed public manners: worse than the debasement of pretending to be a “poor” friar is the fraud of it, an offense the duke compounds by using his false identity first to encourage the premarital sex he supposedly wants stopped and then to condemn himself publicly for his own laxness. Once again, (p.58) Angelo clarifies the duke's perversity by contrast. When his own crimes are finally revealed, Angelo proves incapable of bearing the “shame” and hopes that his “confession” of “guiltiness” will bring instant “death.” Yet the duke's experimentations with theatricality have taught him how to live with shame, and thrive by it, too. After pardoning certain “slanders” against himself, Vincentio ends Measure for Measure with a characterization of his “palace” as no longer a sanctuary for the life removed but now an open stage for his own confessions, “where we'll show/What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.”58


(1) . Ackerman, “On the Bard's Brain,” 2; Bentley, Shakespeare and Jonson, 63.

(2) . HS, 8.390–92.

(3) . Later in the century, Dryden claimed of Shakespeare that “however others are now generally preferr'd before him, yet the Age wherein he liv'd, which had contemporaries with him Fletcher and Jonson, never equall'd them to him in their esteem: And in the last King's Court, where Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the Courtiers, set our Shakespeare far above him” (Essay, 56).

(4) . Kastan, “Shakespeare,” 5; Shakespeare, 78. Cf. Berger and Lander on the First Folio: “Here, Shakespeare, who never showed the least bit of interest in being a dramatic author while he lived, is identified as the privileged and singular source of literary meaning—an assertion that quite obviously flies in the face of the collaborative fluidity that typified playhouse practices” (“Shakespeare in Print,” 409).

(5) . Greene, Groats-worth, 85.

(6) . Greene, Groats-worth, 71, 83; Bentley, Shakespeare, 121; Greene, Groats-worth, 84. After Shakespeare's time, Richard Gunnell (d. 1634) arguably became a more “complete” theater man than Shakespeare: not only was he an actor, dramatist, sharer, and housekeeper, as I noted earlier, (p.167) but he was also a manager and a builder (of Salisbury Court). John Heywood, too, over the course of his long theatrical career, was a sharer in several different acting companies.

(7) . Gentili, Commentatio, 256/235, 264/243, 271/248 (the dual numbers refer to the Latin original and the English translation). Gentili else-where concedes that it is not fair to blame the actors entirely: “I do not doubt that nearly all … [Roman] plays … were defiled and bespattered with many shameless and disgraceful words and deeds [aspersas, et conspersas fuisse verbis, factisque inhonestis, et improbis]; and others have noted the same. On account of which you may disapprove of the actors and the authors at the same time” (268/246).

(8) . FF; Air, in Riverside Shakespeare, 99; Spenser, Tears of the Muses, 577; Drayton, Idea (1600), Q7r. Cf. HS, 8.28.

(9) . See, e.g., Smith, Sir Thomas Smithes Voiage (1605), Kiv; Barnfield, Encomion (1598), E2v; Petowe, Second Part (1598), B2r and B2V; Weever, Epigrammes (1599), Gir; Lavater, Of Ghosts (1572), 44; and Davison, Poetical (1611), 95–96.

(10) . Jonson, Cynthia's Revels prol.17–18; quoted in HS,11, 463, 468, 443, 382.

(11) . This manuscript poem of Alexander's was first published in 1711; see his Poetical Works, 2.541.

(12) . Spenser, Tears, 571 and 567; Jonson, Cynthia's Revels prol.7–8 and 13–14. Jonson's epigraph is from Horace, Satires 1.10.73–74: “neque te ut miretur turba laboros, / Contentus paucis lectoribus”; Jonson changes Horace's te to me.

(13) . Quoted in HS, 11.317, 325, 336, and 333; Digges in Shakespeare, Poems, *3r—*4r; HS, 5.19 (Herford and Simpson fail to capitalize “Multitude”). As James Bednarz points out, Jonson in his prologue to the 1616 version of Every Man Out of His Humor “summarizes Shakespeare's success as a series of ludicrous concessions to popular taste” (Shakespeare, 73).

(14) . Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, p. 1799; Ovid, Amores 1.15.35–36 and 33; Ovid's poem is the locus classicus for the defense of poetry against the charge of trifling. The Dictionary (1538) of Sir Thomas Elyot glosses “Vulgus” as “the common people” (FF1r). The cast list on the title page of Patient Grissel (acted c. 1558–61, publ. 1566?) calls the allegorical character Vulgus “Common people,” while other characters in the play refer to Vulgus as the “the common sort” (E1r) or “the commons” (G3v). Shakespeare's vulgus and Jonson's turba appear together in Cicero's letter (p.168) to Marius on the opening of Pompey's theater in 55 B.C.E., where Cicero writes of “admiratio magna vulgi atque turbae” (“great admiration among the vulgar and the crowd”; Letters 7.1.3).

In an unpublished essay, Adam G. Hooks argues that the epigraph to Venus and Adonis may have been supplied by the printer John Harrison: “Almost without exception, Harrison's title pages—of works in both Latin and English—include a Latin motto” (“‘At the Signe’,” 10). Whoever suggested the epigraph, it remained prominently displayed on the title page of every edition of the poem published during Shakespeare's life.

(15) . Shakespeare, Rape of Lucrece, p. 1816; Davies, Scourge, 76–77.

(16) . Davies, Microcosmos, 215; Crosse, Vertues Common-wealth, P4v; Northbrooke, Treatise, 63 and 65; Lodge, Scillaes, C4v, Davies, Scourge, 77; Honigmann, John Weever, 90; Weever, Epigrammes, E6r; Manningham in WS, 2.212.

(17) . My account of the sonnets is particularly indebted to Joel Fineman's incomparable Shakespeare's Perjured Eye, as well as to Booth's edition; Greene, “Pitiful Ilarivers”; Kernan, Playwright; de Grazia, “Scandal”; and Greenblatt, Will.

(18) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 63, 20, 53. Sidney in sonnet 107 of Astrophil and Stella (publ. 1591) refers to his beloved as his “princess,” “sovereign,” “queen,” as Spenser in sonnet 74 of his Amoretti (1595) calls his own beloved “my sovereign Queen.”

(19) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 57, 26, 91, 29, 78, 55, and 18.

(20) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 91, 23, 17, 36, 49, 103, 37, 62, and 91.

(21) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 150, 147, 110. In his edition of the sonnets, Colin Burrow maintains that the “allusion to Shakespeare's activities as a player” in sonnet 110 “is at best a distant reference, since the role of fool was a specialized one which Shakespeare did not play” (Complete Sonnets, 600). But Burrow is too literal-minded about the actor as “a motley.” Contemporaries often categorized all actors as fools: see e.g. the marprelatean attack (1589) on players for being “so base-minded, as at the pleasure of the veriest rogue in England, for one poor penny, they will be glad on open stage to play the ignominious fools for an hour or two together” (Pierce, Marprelate Tracts, 330), and Nashe's reference in his preface to Menaphon (1589) to “a company of taffaty fools with their feathers” (Works, 3.324). Burrow has no trouble glossing “public means which public manners breeds” in sonnet 111 as a reference to “the methods (p.169) ods which the poet/playwright has to use to earn a living” (Complete Sonnets, 602).

(22) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 111 and 112.

(23) . “Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain/Full charactered,” says the speaker in sonnet 122 (my emphasis). Whereas the speaker had earlier conceived of his “lines” as overcoming “Time's injurious hand” (63), in sonnet 123 the “registers” and “records” belong to Time, not to the speaker, who is similarly alienated from writing in sonnet 134: “he learned but surety-like to write for me.” Before the theater sonnets, the speaker refers to himself as a poet in sonnets 15–19, 21, 23,32,38,39,54,55, 59, 60, 63, 65, 71, 74, 76, 78–86, 100–103, 105, 107, and 108, and the words pen and verse appear more often in the earlier sonnets than in any of Shakespeare's plays: pen in sonnets 16, 19, 32, 78, 79, 81, 84, 85, 100 and 106; verse in sonnets 17, 19, 21, 38, 54 60, 71,76,78, 79, 81,86,103, and 105 (along with verses in 103). After the theater sonnets, however, neither of these words reappears in the sequence. Finally, in ten sonnets before the theater sonnets the speaker refers to his muse, but no sonnets mention her afterward.

Two of the sonnets' most influential readers, Alvin Kernan and Joel Fineman, overlook this shift in the sequence. Kernan argues that, “unlike the ideal courtly poet who concealed his personality and art beneath a surface of modesty and effortless ease,” the “poet” of the sonnets “constantly betrays his professionalism by his interest in and discussion of poetic matters”; indeed, the poet grows increasingly more interested in the subjects of “poets and poetry” as the sonnets unfold (Playwright, 40–41). Fineman similarly maintains that the dark-lady sonnets are more self-consciously literary than the young-man sonnets and that they develop a novel account of subjectivity from this literariness. So “fully literary” (Perjured Eye, 300) is Fineman's focus that the tensions between poetry and theater in the sonnets never register for him; in-deed, the theater is barely operative as a concept in his reading. Kernan, by contrast, claims that “the plot of the Sonnets” progresses “from an essentially lyric to an essentially dramatic conception of life” (36), and he calls the dark lady “the Muse of theater: illicit, darkly mysterious, sensual, infinitely complex, beautiful and ugly, common and public, the source of pleasure and pain” (46). But he does not follow through on the “new image of the poet” (48) that would correspond with this licentious new muse. Instead, he elevates what he has just de-idealized: “The Son nets (p.170) justify the theater and the participation in it of professional writers with a high view of the importance of their art like Shakespeare” (48).

More recently, Patrick Cheney in Shakespeare, National Poet-Playwright (2004) has powerfully stressed the “conjunction of poetry and theater” as “twin forms of authorship” (236) in the sonnets. But he, too, overlooks the falling-off in Shakespeare's “self-representation” (209) as a poet after the theater sonnets because he, too, privileges Shakespeare's identity as a poet. More often than not, Cheney treats the role of “poet-playwright” as a “predicament” (208) or a “dilemma” (212) for “a speaker who quite literally speaks as a poet” (210). Poet and dramatist thus turn out to be “opposing representations” of authorial identity: where the dramatist experiences “public shame over the theater,” the poet seeks “public fame through his poetry,” and Shakespeare's references to himself as a poet are aimed at “offsetting a public infamy acquired through his role in the new English theater” (213). I am arguing the opposite: that the sonnets were intended to compromise Shakespeare's identity as poet by insisting on the infamy of his theatrical career.

(24) . The contradiction is noted by Neely, “Detachment,” 88–89. For “motley” as signifying range, see, e.g., Sylvester's translation of du Bartas's Weekes and Workes (1605) on God at work in Eden: “with thousand Dyes he motleys all the mead” (274; cited in OED “motley” v.).

(25) . That link is nevertheless suggested in the very first sonnet to characterize the speaker as a poet. In sonnet 15, which is also the first to propose that the speaker's verse can immortalize the young man, the speaker calls the world a “huge stage” that “presenteth nought but shows.” But this stage is merely a figure of speech. By the same token, sonnet 23 merely compares the speaker to “an unperfect actor on the stage,” but it declares that the speaker is a writer: “let my books be then the eloquence”; “learn to read what silent love hath writ.” For more on the conjunction of poetry and theater in the early sonnets, see Cheney, Shakespeare, 216ff. For the early sonnets as implying what the later sonnets state more emphatically, see above all Fineman, Perjured Eye.

(26) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 29, 150, 78, 151.

(27) . For a particularly suggestive account of the Will sonnets, see de Grazia, “Babbling Will.”

(28) The 1609 text of the sonnets indicates that readers should pay special attention to the word “will” by italicizing it seven times in sonnet 135 and three times in sonnet 136. Only thirty-five words are italicized in the entire sonnet sequence, so the italicized instances of “will” (p.171) in 135 and 136 account for more than a quarter of all italicized words in the sonnets.

(29) For a contemporaneous reference to the short form of a Christian name as a “Nickname” or “Nursename,” see Camden, Remaines, 114.

(30) Heywood, Hierarchie, 205–6; Shakespeare, incidentally, is the only dramatist whom Heywood describes as succeeding at both comedy and tragedy. Actors, too, were known by their nicknames, as in the second part of The Return from Parnassus (acted c. 1601–2), where the clown Kemp declares that “for honor, who of more report than Dick Burbage & Will Kemp?” (4.4.1791–92).

(31) HS, 8.392. The comically generic first name in “Johannes fac-totum” is another part of Greene's assault on the proper name “Shakespeare.”

(32) According to E. G. Withycombe, parish baptismal records from the second half of the sixteenth century show that 22.5 percent of males were given the name “William,” compared with 15.5 percent for the next most popular first name, “John.” “William” and “John” each averaged about 20 percent of masculine first names from that time to the nineteenth century (Oxford Dictionary, xxviii and 280; cited in Ramsey, Fickle Glass, 23).

(33) Shakespeare, Sonnets, 135, 136, 149, 113, 136. De Grazia comments that in sonnet 136 “every word could be said to signal his desire, homonymically or synonymically,” which results in “the tautological deadlock of ‘Will wills will’”(“Scandal,” 47).

(34) Shakespeare, Sonnets, 137, 7, 136 . My argument here is influenced by Catherine Gallagher's famous discussion of how and why the Restoration playwright Aphra Behn used “the prostitute and the monarch as her most frequent authorial metaphors”; see Gallagher, Nobody's Story, 1–87. But Behn as Gallagher understands her deployed the tropes of prostitute and monarch differently from Shakespeare as I understand him. Although “literalizing and embracing the playwright-prostitute metaphor” (27), Behn in Gallagher's account hoped that “selling bawdiness and then complaining of the necessity to do so” would assure “her female readers that there is an innocent self above the exchange” (16). Such innocence is hard to find in Shakespeare's dark-lady sonnets. According to Gallagher, moreover, Behn used the authorial tropes of prostitute and monarch in different phases of her career: Behn's identifications of the prostitute with “theatrical representation,” and of “sovereign authorial selfhood” (56) with print, were so strong that “shortly after Behn started using the monarch-author metaphor, she stopped (p.172) being a prolific playwright” (56). In Shakespeare's sonnets, by contrast, the prostitute and the monarch are mutually constitutive authorial roles.

For powerful accounts of the link between prostitution and authorship in classical poetry, see Kurke, Traffic and “Pindar.”

(35) . In BF, D2v. Published in 1647, this poem by the playwright-turned-preacher William Cartwright was written after Fletcher's death in 1625 and before Cartwright's own death in 1643.

(36) . Coleridge, Biographia, 2.13; Keats, Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818 (Selected Letters, 194–95); Beard, Theatre, 147; Gosson, Schoole, in Markets, A6v. For a modern critique of this license in Shakespeare, see Bristol, Big-time Shakespeare: “Shakespeare has been censured repeatedly for indiscriminate pandering to the vulgar taste of the groundlings. He has also been denounced for complicity with patriarchy, oppressive state power, and class domination. It might make more sense, however, to follow the lead of Samuel Johnson in condemning Shakespeare as morally unprincipled and opportunistic. The complexity of the plays might then be described not as an artistic achievement but rather as a shrewd strategy to curry favor with as many sectors as possible within a complex multi-cultural market” (50). This last sentence of Bristol's seems too austere: why can't Shakespearean complexity count as both a shrewd business strategy and an artistic achievement?

(37) . I quote the 1599 Idea, P2v.

(38) . I am counting from Bernard Newdigate's list in his Michael Drayton, 104.

(39) . E.g., “there is in the new sonnets a marked tendency to view the world through the eyes of a dramatist rather than through those of a lyric poet” (St. Clair, “Drayton's First Revision,” 46).

(40) . Drayton, Idea (1599), P2v.

(41) . To explain Drayton's self-characterization as “libertine,” Louise Westling surveys the various meanings of libertine in the period, but then ignores the moral connotations of the term altogether, defining it instead as the stylistic “irregularity” of Drayton's “satiric personality” (“Pose,” 132–37, 141–42, and 118; cf. Davis, “‘Fantastickly’”). In a sense, Westling's partial reading accurately reflects Drayton's own pullback from the implications of his posturing. Westling also dismisses Drayton's involvement in the theater as a “naive” explanation for his change of style in Idea (6), pointing instead to Sir nomas Wyatt's emphasis on his own “diverseness” as a model for Drayton's persona in Idea (“Pose,” (p.173) 82ff.). But why must we choose between one influence or the other? The traditional representation of sonnet speakers as ranging through moods and passions seems to me a primary reason for Shakespeare's interest in writing sonnets.

(42) . A character in the second part of The Return from Parnassus says of Drayton that “he wants one true note of a Poet of our times, and that is this, he cannot swagger it well in a Tavern, nor domineer in a hot-house” (249–51).

(43) . Drayton, Poems (1605), Cc4v.

(44) . Drayton, Works, 2.358. For more on Drayton's disenchantment with the stage, see Newdigate, Michael Drayton, 109–10.

(45) . I am not claiming that Shakespeare's stress on the disgracefulness of his love was new to English sonnets. For instance, sonnet 19 of Ast rophil and Stella begins:

  • On Cupid's bow how are my heart-strings bent,
  • That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same?
  • When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
  • I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
  • My best wits still their own disgrace invent.
  • The difference in Shakespeare's sonnets was the linkage of his erotic disgrace with his professional circumstances, with the vileness of his beloved, and with his own vulgarity.

(46) . This one-for-many-ness is again a revision of earlier praise for the young man, whom the speaker said in sonnet 31 was “endeared with all hearts/Which I by lacking have supposed dead”: “Their images I loved I view in thee,/ And thou, all they, hast all the all of me” (my emphasis).

(47) . IH4 3.2.86–87 and 2.3.92. In IH4, the future Henry V is called “Harry” twenty times; Hotspur is given the name fifteen times, and Henry IV is called “Harry” once. For an indication that “Harry” was understood to be a more formal name than “Hal,” see the dueling scene of Richard II, where the Lord Marshal begins the action with the ceremonial question, “My Lord Aumerle, is Harry Herford arm'd?” (1.3.1). Bullingbrook declares himself to be “Harry of Herford, Lancaster, and Derby” (35), which is how the Lord Marshal (100) and the first Herald (104) also address him. The interchangeability of “Harry” and “Henry” is suggested by the second Herald's substitution of “Henry” for “Harry” in the ceremonial formula (113). Finally, there are plenty of references to kings named “Harry” in other drama of the time, but so far as I can (p.174) tell, IH4 was the first play of the English Renaissance to call a future king “Hal.”

Only once in the three plays where Henry V appears is he called “Henry,” by himself in H5 5.2.240; his father is “Henry” in IH4 3.1.63 and 2H4 4.1.115, Hotspur is “Henry” in IH4 5.1.87, and Lord Scroop is “Henry” in H5 2.chorus.24.

(48) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 154, 153; Boswell quoted in de Grazia, “Scandal,” 39.

(49) . Auden “Introduction,” xxxv–xxxvi. Auden adds, “It is impossible to believe either that Shakespeare wished them to be published or that he can have shown most of them to the young man and woman, whoever they were, to whom they are addressed” (xxxv).

(50) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 72, 88, 89 (my emphasis).

(51) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 121, 84, 121, 144, 141, 147, and 150.

(52) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 88. Lars Engle treats Shakespeare's stake in shame more philosophically: he argues that the sonnets present shame as a “necessary” personal and social “resource” (“‘I Am That I Am,’” 196).

(53) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 62, 146, 142; Knapp, Shakespeare's Tribe; Bernard, Faithfull, 72 .

(54) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 19 and 49; for Paul, see 1 Tim. 1:12–16 (I quote the King James Version).

(55) . Shakespeare, Sonnets, 96, 95, and 149. For the marginal comment, see Rollins's Variorum edition of the sonnets, 2.348; for the manuscript count, see Beal, comp., Index, 1.2.452–54, cited in Roberts, Reading, 174.

(56) . MFM 1.1.21, 1.4.50, 4.4.1–3, 2.4.1–7 and 20–23, 2.1.31, 2.4.20–29.

(57) . Davies, Poems, 135–36; for the evidence that the sonnet had to have been written by November 1594, see 381.

(58) . MFM 1.1.67–68, 1.3.8, 4.5.2, 5.1.366–69, 4.3.143, and 5.1.367–73, 519, and 538–39. For a seminal analysis of the relation between politics and theater in Measure for Measure, see Tennenhouse, who somewhat overstates the consolidation of the duke's power through theatricality—for example, when he claims that the duke brings “purity where there had been obscenity and pollution” (Power, 159).