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to be so absurd and foolish in the very relation, that they show and as it were proclaim a parable afar off.'1 Behind the shield of such words from such a source, we advance our interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
The earliest notices we have of Shakespeare as a writer occur towards the end of 1592. He was then in his twenty-ninth year, and had been in London about seven years if, as is generally supposed, he left Stratford for London shortly after the birth at Stratford of his lastborn (twin) children-an event of February, 1585.
From these notices we get a good idea of his standing as a writer at the end of 1592; and also of his personal character. One occurs in the course of an admonitory address by Robert Green, one of the ablest of the dramatists who were at work before Shakespeare, to several of his fellows. From his death-bed he admonishes them to avoid various evil courses which he had followed, and also to beware of the players: those Puppits, I meane, that speake from our mouths; those Anticks garnisht in our colours. . . . Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum is, in his owne conceit, the onely Shake-scene in a countrie. . . Let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.' 2 In 'Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide,' Green travesties 'O Tiger's heart wrapt in
1 Gorges' translation, 1619, of Bacon's De Sapientia Veterum Liber, 1609. 2 Groats-worth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentaunce.
a woman's hide,' in Shakespeare's 'Henry VI.,' part iii. Green died September 3, 1592.
The above was published by Henry Chettle, and he apologised for his share in the matter later in the same year, in words prefixed to his 'Kind-hartes Dreame.' His reference to Shakespeare is as follows:-'The other, whome at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that as I have moderated the heate of living writers, and might have usde my owne discretion (especially in such a case, the author beeing dead), that I did not, I am as sory as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because my selfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civil than he [is] exelent in the qualitie he professes, besides divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writting, that aprooves his art.'
Impartial testimony thus showing that Shakespeare was quite other than conceited, Green's words, 'is, in his owne conceit, the onely Shake-scene in a countrie,' are seen to reflect their writer's fear that if Shakespeare had not already won, he was destined soon to hold, the foremost place as dramatist.
But there was also commendation, although indirect, from a fellow-poet. In his 'Pierce Penilesse' (licensed August 8, 1592), Nash wrote, evidently in reference to scenes in Shakespeare's 'Henry VI.,' part i, 'How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in
the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding!'
By this date, some half-dozen of the plays attributed to Shakespeare in the First Folio would have been written; and shortly afterwards he proved his genius in a fresh field. Early in 1593, there was presented to the world his first-published work, the poem Venus and Adonis,' and in dedicating it to the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare wrote: If your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour.' This promised work was the companion poem 'Lucrece,' which was published and dedicated to Southampton-a year later.
The two poems were received with the greatest enthusiasm: fellow-poets made enthusiastic references to them, and to satisfy the demands of the public prompt and repeated re-issue was necessary.
As Shakespeare's idle hours'-the hours in which he was not occupied as actor or playwright-are thus accounted for up to the completion of 'Lucrece,' we think it was about that point that he began to write the Sonnets, the existence of some eighty of which two to three years later, we shall demonstrate.
By the time he had finished 'Lucrece '-when he had written two poems and about nine plays-Shakespeare would have learnt his power. He had tasted both the sweets and the bitters of success in the applause and envy of his contemporaries. His was a sensitive nature—the whole unobtrusive course of his life showing that he shrank from giving envy a mark. His work as
dramatist demanded absence of self, for he had to make his characters speak as was natural to them; yet the more ignorant would be inclined to father many of the vices of his characters upon him. He foresaw that his work— that which he had done and that which he felt in himself the power to do—would arouse in posterity great interest in him, and he wished to be known and loved. He also, and perhaps more especially, felt that to leave a picture of his inmost self was a duty that he owed to posterity; and he shows this in the first seventeen sonnets, under cover of an argument addressed to an imaginary 'lovely youth.' For example:
SON. 9. 'Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
SON. 10. For shame! deny that thou bear'st love to any,
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
The reasons for reproduction that apply to the outwardly beautiful youth, apply in infinitely greater degree to the poet, as regards his mind and heart. The insistence on the duty of Beauty to perpetuate itself, serves to defend the poet against the charge of egoism, as does also the implied reluctance of the youth addressed. In the first fourteen sonnets, the poet affects to persuade the youth to perpetuate his beauty through a son; in the next sonnet, as the youth remains obdurate, he promises to perpetuate it by description; but in Nos. 16 and 17,
the last of the sequence, returns to the idea of a son to say that he fears that description alone would not be believed.
In these last sonnets of the sequence the poet, who is about to show his mind and heart to posterity, exp sses his conviction that in order that the picture of his mind may be believed, there must also exist some beautiful child or children of his mind-a play or plays,—even in which the decerning eye may see him given to the love of Beauty and Truth, and in which and in description (the Sonnets), he will live twice.
He is made up of 'two,' as he tells us in what has been called the 'key' sonnet, No. 144:
'Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
These two loves, figured by a man and a woman, are respectively Love of Beauty and Love of Fame. Of the various conceptions of the relative natures of man and woman, probably the commonest is that noticed by Thoreau when he says: 'Perhaps we must acknowledge