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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. Shakespeare: Poems

§ 5. The Sonnets: the problem of their interpretation

Almost everyone who has any interest in literature is more or less acquainted with the interminable theories and disputes which have arisen on the subject of the Sonnets. Yet it should not be very difficult for anyone who has some intelligence to divest himself sufficiently of this acquaintance to enable him to read them as if they were a new book—uncommented, unintroduced, with nothing but its own contents to throw light or darkness upon it. If they are thus read, in the original order (for long after Shakespeare’s death this order, purposely or not, was changed, though modern editions usually, and rightly, disregard this change), certain things will strike the careful reader at once. The first is that, by accident or design, the pieces composing the series are sharply, but very unequally, divided in subject, design being, on further inspection, pretty clearly indicated by the fact that the dividing point, sonnet 126, is not a sonnet at all, but a douzain. In this reading, it will, also, have become clear that the direct and expressed object of most of the first and far larger batch is a man, and that those of this batch which do not specify person or sex fall in with the others well enough; while the main object of the last and smaller batch is a woman. The first score or so of the earlier group, though containing expressions of passionate affection, are mainly, if not wholly, occupied with urging the person addressed to marry. Both batches contain repeated complaint—though it is not always exactly complaint—that the friend has betrayed the poet with the mistress and the mistress with the friend. (It is, however, perhaps possible to argue that the identity of friend and mistress in the two batches is not proved to demonstration.) A large portion of the whole—perhaps nearly a third—is full of that half abstract, and almost impersonal, meditation on the joys and sorrows of love which is the special matter of the sonnet. One or two special and particular points, however, emerge—such as the indication of jealousy of other poets in respect of the friend, expressions of dissatisfaction with the writer’s “public means” of living or profession (which, most probably, is the actor’s, but, it must be observed, far from necessarily so), and, in regard to the mistress, special, and repeated, insistence on the fact of her being a “dark lady” with black eyes and hair. There is a good deal of wordplay on the name “Will,” which, of course, it would be absurd to overlook, but which had rather less significance in those days than it would have now.