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DR. FARMER supposed that many of these Sonnets were addressed to our author's nephew Mr. William Harte. But by a reference to the Stratford Register, in vol. ii. it will be seen that William Harte was not born till 1600, the year in which these poems were first printed.
Mr. Tyrwhitt has pointed out to me a line in the twentieth Sonnet, which inclines me to think that the initials W. H. in the Dedication, stand for W. Hughes. Speaking of this person, the poet says he is
“ A man in-hew all Hews in his controlling," so the line is exhibited in the old copy. The name Hughes was formerly written Hers. When it is considered that one
of these Sonnets is formed entirely on a play on our author's Christian name, this conjecture will not appear improbable.- To this person, whoever he was, one hundred and twenty six of the following poems are addressed; the remaining twenty-eight are addressed to a lady.
Shakspeare's Sonnets were entered on the Stationers' books by Thomas Thorpe, on the 20th of May, 1609, and printed in quarto in the same year.
They were, however, written many years before, being mentioned by Meres in his Wit's Treasury, 1598 : “ As the soul of Euphorbus (says he) was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakspeare. Witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private friends," &c.
The general style of these poems, and the numerous passages in them which remind us of our author's plays, leave not the smallest doubt of their authenticity.
In these compositions, Daniel's Sonnets, which were published in 1592, appear to me to have been the model that Shakspeare followed.
An edition of Shakspeare's Sonnets was published in 1604, in small octavo, which, though of no authority or value, was followed by Dr. Sewell, and other modern editors. The order of the original copy was not adhered to, and according to the fashion of that time, fantastick titles were prefixed to different portions of these poems : The glory of beauty; The force of love; True admiration, &c. Heywood's translations from Ovid, which had been originally blended with Shakspeare's poems in 1612, were likewise reprinted in the same volume. Malone.
There are few topicks connected with Shakspeare upon which the ingenuity and research of his criticks have been more fruitlessly exercised, than upon the questions which have arisen with regard to the poems before us, the individual to whom they were principally addressed, and the circumstances under which they were written. Dr. Farmer's conjecture, we find, has been decisively overthrown by the Stratford Register; and Mr. Tyrwhitt's, even if we should admit it to be well-founded, would furnish us with no very satisfactory information. We shall have made but a slight advancement in knowledge by barely having ascertained that some person of the name of Hughes, but of whose character and history we are wholly ignorant, was the object of the poet's encomiums. But, in truth, the circumstance pointed out by Mr, Malone, as adding support to this notion, is of no great weight. The original printer of the Sonnets appears to have been rather capricious in the employment of his types; and several other words, where no quibble could have been intended, such as intrim, i.e. interim,) alien, audit, quietus, kereticke, are printed in the same manner as Hews, that is, with a capital letter, and in the Italick type. Mr. Chalmers some years ago made a singular attempt to unravel this question, and contrived to persuade himself that the “ lovely boy," whom Shakspeare addressed, was no less a person than our maiden queen Elizabeth. As I cannot permit myself to doubt that Mr. Chalmers (if he ever was serious) must now himself look back to the recollection of this whimsical fancy with a smile, I shall dismiss it without further observation. Another hypothesis has lately been started by Dr. Drake, the probability of which some of his readers, as I have been told, have considered as established; but I fear, like the other conjectures which have been hazarded before, it will not bear the test of examination. For a detailed statement of his opinion, and of the arguments which he has adduced in its favour, the reader must be referred to Dr. Drake's own work on “Shakspeare and his Times ;” but in substance, he contends that the greater part of the Sonnets were addressed to the poet's early patron, Lord Southampton, and that the first seventeen in the collection were written with a view of remonstrating against a premature vow of celibacy, which that nobleman might have made, in consequence of his union with Elizabeth Vernon being forbidden by a mandate from the Queen. Dr. Drake, it must be observed, at the very outset of his argument, is obliged to rest upon a merely gratuitous assumption. We have no evidence, nor, I think, any probable ground, for supposing that the Earl had ever formed such a resolution as is here ascribed to him; and his subsequent marriage to the object of his attachment, notwithstanding he incurred by that step the resentment of his Sovereign, would lead us to a directly opposite conclusion. If we look to the poems themselves, they will afford no colour for such an interpretation. They have no reference to such a supposed case, nor allude in the slightest manner to wounded feelings, or disappointed hopes; but contain only general exhortations in favour of marriage, such as are addressed to Silvio in Guarini's Pastor Fido; and would suggest to us any idea sooner than that of a person who was anxious to marry, and only deterred from doing so by the tyrannical injunctions of power.
In the reign of Elizabeth the distinctions of rank in all their gradations were so scrupulously maintained, that it is difficult to believe that Shakspeare, in a comparatively humble situation of life, would have presumed to employ terms of such familiarity, and even, in one instance, of such grossness, when writing to a distinguished nobleman, his patron, or would have ventured to remonstrate with him on a topick which an equal would scarcely have found himself at liberty to touch upon. But if we were even to allow that the singular condescension of Lord Southampton would have permitted such language to be used ; and would not have been offended with the person who interfered in a matter of such painful delicacy; yet the sort of praise which is to be found in these Sonnets was little calculated to conciliate his favour. The reiterated encomiums on his beauty, and the fondling expressions which perpetually occur, would have been better suited to a “ cocker'd silken wanton ” than to one of the most gallant noblemen that adorned the chivalrous age in which he lived.
But whoever the person might be to whom the greater part of these Sonnets was addressed, it seems to have been generally admitted that the poet speaks in his own person; and some of his criticks have attempted, by inferences drawn from them, to eke out the scanty memorials, which have come down to us, of the incidents of his life. I confess myself to be as sceptical on this point as on the other. Mr. Malone, in a note on the 111th Sonnet, has observed, that “ the author seems to lament his being reduced to the necessity of appearing on the stage, or writing for the theatre.” The passage alluded to is as follows:
“ 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 publick means, which publick manners breeds." But is there any thing in these words which, read without a preconceived hypothesis, would particularly apply to the publick profession of a player or writer for the stage? The troubles and dangers which attend upon publick life in general, and the happiness and virtue of retirement, are among the tritest common places of poetry. Nor was such querulous language likely to have proceeded from Shakspeare. Ben Jonson, who was frequently obliged to exhibit before audiences who were incapable of appreciating the depth of his knowledge, the accuracy of his judgment, or the dignity of his moral, might at one time be desirous of quitting “the loathed stage," or Massinger might have murmured at a calling which scarcely procured him a subsistence; but our poet appears, from the commencement to the close of his dramatick career, to have met with uninterrupted success, and would scarcely indulge in such bitter complaints against a profession which was rapidly conducting him to fortune as well as to fame. The mention of his harmful deeds, and the still stronger expressions which occur in this and the following Sonnet, will be afterwards considered. If Shakspeare was speaking of himself in this passage, it would follow that he is equally pointed at upon other occasions. We must then suppose him to have written them when he was old; for such is the language of many of these poems. Yet, if they were composed before Meres's publication, he could not have been at a more advanced age than thirty-four ; and even if we were to adopt the theory of Dr. Drake, and suppose that most of them were produced at a subsequent period, and fix upon the latest possible year, 1609; yet still the description of decrepitude, which is found in the 73d Sonnet, could scarcely, without violent exaggeration, be applicable to a man of forty-five. But he must not only have been old, he must also have been grossly and notoriously profligate. To say nothing of the criminal connection, (for criminal in a high degree it would certainly have been in a married man,) which is frequently alluded to in those Sonnets which are said to be addressed by him in his own character to a female; we find him, in a passage already quoted, speaking in terms of shame and remorse of his harmful deeds," of something from which his “ name had received a brand; ” and of “the impression which vulgar scandal had stamped upon his brow.". I trust it will not require much argument to show that this picture could not be put for gentle Shakspeare. We may lament that we know so little of his history; but this, at least, may be asserted with confidence, that at no time was the slightest imputation cast upon his moral character; and that, in an age abounding, as Mr. Steevens has observed, with illiberal private abuse and peevish satire, the concurring testimony of his contemporaries will confirm the declaration of honest Chettle, that “ his demeanour was no less civil, than he excellent in the quality he professed.'
Upon the whole, I am satisfied that these compositions had neither the poet himself nor any individual in view; but were merely the effusions of his fancy, written upon various topicks for the amusement of a private circle, as indeed the words of Meres point out : “ Witness—his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.” The Sonnet was at that time a popular species of poetry, and was a favourite mode of expressing either the writer's own sentiments, or of embellishing a work of fiction. The novels of Lodge and Greene, and their contemporaries, are full of them ; and something, which in the lax language of that day may be