Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 7. Dramatic elements

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

§ 7. Dramatic elements

At the same time, it is of the first importance to recognise that the very intensity of feeling, combined, as it was, with the most energetic dramatic quality, would, almost certainly, induce complicated disguise and mystification in the details of the presentment. It was once said, and by no mere idle paradoxer, that the best argument for the identity of the dark lady and Mary Fitton was that Mistress Fitton, apparently, was a blonde. In other words, to attempt to manufacture a biography of Shakespeare out of the Sonnets is to attempt to follow a will-o’-the-wisp. It is even extremely probable that a number, and perhaps a large number, of them do not correspond to any immediate personal occasion at all, or only owe a remote (and literally occasional) impulse thereto. The strong affection for the friend; the unbounded, though not uncritical, passion for the lady; and the establishment of a rather unholy “triangle” by a cross passion between these two—these are things which, without being capable of being affirmed as resting on demonstration, have a joint literary and psychological probability of the strongest kind. All things beyond, and all the incidents between, which may have started or suggested individual sonnets, are utterly uncertain. Browning was absolutely justified when he laid it down that, if Shakespeare unlocked his heart in the Sonnets, “the less Shakespeare he.” That the Sonnets testify to a need of partial unlocking, that they serve as “waste” or overflow, in more or less disguised fashion, to something that was not unlocked, but which, if kept utterly confined, would have been mortal, may be urged without much fear of refutation. We see the heart (if we see it at all) through many thicknesses of cunningly coloured glass. But the potency and the variety of its operation are, however indistinctly, conveyed; and we can understand all the better how, when the power was turned into other, and freer, channels, it set the plays a-working.