Table of Contents
2. The Elizabethan Sonnet Tradition
3. Shakespeare’s Adressees
3.1. The Fair Male Youth
3.2. The Dark Lady
5. Works Cited
“Two loves I have, of comfort and despair” – for somebody who is familiar with that kind of poetry, this beginning of Shakespeare’s sonnet 144 should be striking for at least two reasons: 1) For one thing, it is the fact that the lyrical speaker talks of two loved ones. Usually, sonnets praise one beloved person (or concept, such as love itself) which the speakers love with all their heart but which they cannot reach for one reason or another. 2) The emotions the lyrical speaker has towards those loves are quite strange: “comfort and despair”. Typically, the predominant if not the only feeling the speakers of such love poetry have is love, without any further requests, regrets, or conditions under which they love, especially without such biased concepts as “comfort and despair”. Hopefully, it becomes clear that this Shakespearean sonnet is far from being typical of the genre, at least as far as the treatment of the addressee is concerned.
However, this peculiarity is not only limited to this poem, but it permeates all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are an outstanding example of the development and changes taking place within that genre. And this is also the reason why, in this paper, I will be concerned with Shakespeare’s addressees in his sonnets, pointing to striking attitudes the speaker has towards his addressees, hinting at the development of the relations, and also outlining the Elizabethan sonnet tradition.
2. The Elizabethan Sonnet Tradition
When talking about the Elizabethan sonnet tradition, it is worth to take a look at the development and the history of the genre first; for though one usually associates Shakespeare with this type of poetry, sometimes also Sir Phillip Sidney, he is not the first one to write sonnets.
It all started in the 14th century with Italian poet Francesco Petrarcha who started to write poems consisting of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. Those poems generally elaborated on the “hopes and pains of an adoring male lover” (Abrams: 124). The people obviously loved them, which is the reason why they spread quite far, and in the early 16th century Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first one to write Italian sonnets (Italian in structure and subject) in the English language. Later on, major poets, such as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, experimented with the type and eventually created the English sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet, “after its greatest practitioner”, to quote Abrams (124)), which differs from the Italian in its stanza form.
In the following time, many other poets worked with the genre. The topic was always love, be it sexual love or love between a man and a woman in its romantic sense, until early in the 17th century John Donne published his sequence of sonnets which he named Holy Sonnets, and which were not concerned with the love between members of the human species but with the love of a Christian to God. From that time on, the genre of the sonnet was exploited to serve many purposes; it incorporated many different and sometimes even diverse topics, and underwent several changes.
What is important to know in our context, is the treatment of the lady in Elizabethan sonnets and especially the beauty ideal of those times. As propagated in English sonnets of the early period, e.g. in Sir Phillip Sidney’s cycle Astrophel and Stella, fair women were those who were, obviously, beautiful and who had blonde hair. Additionally, they were chaste and, if possible, highborn. And in piece with Italian sonnets, those women were treated as divine objects. They were wonderful, adorable – so the youths loved them and longed for them; but at the same time they were out of reach for them, thus causing them pain, for they would never attain them.
The last question to be answered here is how Shakespeare fits into this scheme. Well, apart from the fact that he wrote a lot of sonnets compared to his contemporaries, he, to my mind, also belongs to a category of poets I would like to call the poets of transition. Now what does that mean? Basically, this means that he introduced some changes to that type of poetry: as we will later see, he uses old elements of the genre and combines them with new ones that have not been used in this context so far, thus paving the way for later poets, as for instance John Donne, with their new themes, motifs, and attitudes.
3. Shakespeare’s Addressees
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. And although Katherine Duncan Jones, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare’s edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the edition I am and will be using to quote, claims that “Contrary to what most previous editors have maintained, there is every reason to believe that the 1609 Quarto publication of Sonnets was authorized by Shakespeare himself” (34), we eventually cannot say whether it is true. Therefore, we also do not know whether the order of the sonnets that we have today, is also the order Shakespeare intended for the sequence. However, due to the publisher of the first Quarto of Shakespeare’s sonnets (1609), Thomas Thorpe, his analyses and later contextual analyses, they have been put into the order we still have, with the first 126 sonnets addressed to a fair, male youth, and the last 28 being addressed to a lady, the so-called dark lady. In the following, I will therefore first focus my attention on the poems dealing with the fair male, afterwards highlighting some peculiarities in the dark lady-sequence.