One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode #130 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare was memorialized after his death by those who knew him the best as simply, “William Shakespeare, a poet.” In the 16th century to be great with words, and specifically a writer of poems was one of the highest honors which could be paid to an artist, including Shakespeare. Throughout his career as a playwright, William Shakespeare would complete no less than 154 sonnets many of which have caused debate throughout the centuries as to precisely what they were about, or to whom they were dedicated. 

It was considered a common way for someone in the theater industry to make something of a side income during outbreaks of plague to seek payment through the publishing of sonnets. When It comes to Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, it seems that several of the 16th century publications of his poems were done without his permission and considered pirated editions of his work. 

Our guest this week knows more than anyone about the sonnets of Shakespeare and we are honored to welcome Sir Stanley Wells to the show this week to explain the history of Shakespeare’s sonnets and tell us which one, if he was forced to choose just one, would be his favorite.

Join the conversation below.

Subscribe
Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

Professor Sir Stanley Wells Commander of the Order of the British Empire, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature is a former Life Trustee (1975-2017) and former Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (1991-2011), Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, of which he was for many years Vice-Chairman. He holds a Ph. D. of the University of Birmingham, is an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and of University College, London and holds honorary doctorates from Furman University, South Carolina, and from the Universities of Munich, Hull, Durham, Warwick, Marburg and Craiova. He received a knighthood in the 2016 Queen's Birthday Honours in recognition of his services to Shakespeare scholarship. 

He is published extensively on Shakespeare, his plays, including multiple editions of Shakespeare’s works for Cambridge, Oxford, and Penguin Shakespeare. I invite you tothe show notes of today’s episode to explore a full list of Sir Stanley Wells publications as a great place to learn more about William Shakespeare. HIs most recent publications include Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction. Together with Paul Edmondson he has edited Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (2013), The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography (2015), and All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (forthcoming, September 2020), for Cambridge University Press.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Stanley Wells about :

  • If Shakespeare was primarily a playwright, why did he also write sonnets?

  • There is overlap within the works of Shakespeare’s plays because he includes sonnets within his plays. I know there is a sonnet in Romeo and Juliet, as well as Henry V, but Stanley, are there other places in Shakespeare’s plays where he includes a sonnet as part of the dialogue for his characters?

  • I don’t think we can discuss the sonnets without mentioning the question of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. What is your opinion on the subject of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets? Do you think we can know, really, who, or even what, Shakespeare was talking about?

… and more!

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.

I once writ a sonnet in his praise…
Lewis the Dauphin

Henry V (III.7)

“Shake-Speare's Sonnets”, quarto published by Thomas Thorpe, London, 1609 | Public Domain | Source

Why did Shakespeare write sonnets?

Posterity has credited Shakespeare as a playwright, sometimes aknowledging his acting career as well, but it may come as a surprise, or seem somewhat off beat to consider that Shakespeare also wrote poems and sonnets. Why did Shakespeare write sonnets? Well, as Stanley shares, it was an industry standard for the 16th century. Stanley explains,

“[Writing Sonnets was a] convention of the time. Poetry was the form of the day. He uses sonnet forms in his plays….1598…Francis Meers refers to Shakespeare’s “Sonnets among his private friends” Shakespeare wrote plays for his friends and, at this point, no independent ones had been published.” 

Sonnets were a very personal medium, which you see applied when Shakespeare's characters in his plays talk about sonnets they are often considered vehicles for private, usually lovers, to convey their affection or praise. For this reason, Stanley explains that a strong theory about Shakespeare's sonnets were that they were never intended to be public fare. He explains,

“[The first one to be published] was the Passionate Pilgrim, considered a pirated volume, [because there was] no authority of the author to publish it. 20 verses, 5 by Shakespeare (Some of these appear again in his plays–could have taken these snippets from the published versions of the plays.) 3 of them are versions of sonnets that appeared later in 1609–all of them could have been pirated or taken from other sources illicitly). Very intimate, sexy sonnets, probably for his “private friends” and not for the general public.” 

One theory about why Shakespeare wrote sonnets includes offering them up as an alternate form of income during times of plague. Stanley shares that this perspective might be incomplete, as Shakespeare was never paid for his sonnets. Stanley shares that this theory is incorrect.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme,
for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit;
write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio.

Don Adriano de Armado

Love's Labour's Lost (I.2)

Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, demonstrating the use of iambic pentameter by dancing. | Source 

Iambic Pentameter vs Rhyme Royal

Shakespeare not only wrote sonnets, but he also wrote poems. Famous for his plays done most often in iambic pentameter, one poem of Shakespeare's stands out because it is written not in the bard's famous metrical pattern, but instead in a style known as Rhyme Royal.

Iambic pentameter is a special name for the way Shakespeare wrote his poems that makes them have a particular sound when spoken aloud. Iambic means that each beat of the line has 2 feet, and pentameter means that each line has 5 sets of iambs. Confused yet? Well, the best person I've ever seen explain how this works is done in Kenneth Branagh‘s production of Love's Labour's Lost where he uses his literal feet to explain poetic feet. When you watch this 90 second clip, each one-two, one-two, one-two of his tap shoes is one iamb. Five of those steps make a line of poetry called pentameter. Together, it's iambic pentameter.

So how is that different from Rhyme Royal? Well, Rhyme Royal is when you take iambic pentameter as your format, and write a poem with 7 lines that not only use iambic pentameter, but the last word of each line follows a particular rhyme pattern. The pattern is ABABBCC (where A is a sound, B is a sound, and C is a sound. So the pattern is repeating the sound wherever it appears.) Here's an example of Rhyme Royal from Troilus and Cryside by Chaucer:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye,
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryt

(“Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1.1–7)

So why did Shakespeare use this pattern? Well, because Chaucer was hugely popular, especially in England, and Shakespeare was trying to emulate his style. Not only was Shakespeare personally ambitious with this choice, and likely trying to advance his own career in a similar way to Chaucer (why mess with what works?) but Chaucer was also considered the standard for good poetry. So if Shakespeare wanted to be good at his chosen profession, that was the standard to achieve. That is what Stanley means when he shares this week that poems, and iambic pentameter, as well as Rhyme Royal, were “conventions of the time.” It means, this rhyme scheme and pattern choice was the true mark of a professional in 16th century England.

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

Will you then write me a sonnet in praise of my beauty?
Margaret

Much Ado About Nothing (V.2)

Dedication to mister W.H. from Shakespeare's sonnets (1609). Public Domain. Source

Who is W.H. on the 1609 Quarto?

The only surviving edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets that we have is a 1609 quarto titled “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” Some scholars have suggested that this title was inspired by Philip Sidney’s sonnets and that the W.H. in the dedication of Shakespeare's quarto might be William Herbert, Sidney’s son. As Stanley shares, there's no way to know for sure to whom the quarto is dedicated.

Stanley explains,

“[The title is] just a factual title. It is as if you might nowadays say “how to make soup” written in sonnet form and Sydney had written sonnets published in 1591, set off a vogue for sequences of sonnets until 1597, within those 6 years, 17 sequences of sonnets appeared in print and Shakespeare’s may have been written around abotu this same time, but they aren’t a sequence in the same way, this one is far longer. [There is] no particular relationship between Shakespeare’s sonnets and those of Sydney. He refers to Shakespeare’s sonnets as a collection, because they aren’t sequential. Studies in dating suggest they were written at a wide range of various dates. 145 puns on Hathaway (dating sonnet; Sonnet 145. Shakespeare wrote when he was 18) all the way through to 1603. There are some sections of sequences, but those are mini sequences within the volume, including two of the rival poet, but together it is a collections sseblemed long after they were written.” 

As for evidence trying to decipher the dedication itself, Stanley shares that there's really not much to go on. He explains,

“It is oddly printed, and an odd affair all together. Full stops after each word. Tombstone layout. Signed “T.T.” Thomas Thorpe; publisher’s dedication. The publisher, not Shakespeare, dedicates this set to W.H. People have fought for centuries overwhat this means. Nobody knows. Herbert is a suggestion, but the truth is we can’t know”

Join us on YouTube for Even More History

I have a sonnet that will serve the turn
To give the onset to thy good advice.
Thurio

Two Gentlemen of Verona (III.2)

One persistent target of the source of Shakespeare's Dark Lady is Henry Wriothesley |Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; date uncertain, c. 1590. | Notes on a cached National Portrait Gallery page date this image to “c. 1600” | Public Domain | Source

Who is Shakespeare's Dark Lady?

One of the biggest questions about Shakespeare's sonnets that comes up consistently from listeners here at That Shakespeare Life, is the question about defining Shakespeare's Dark Lady. Are you new to that question? Well, here's the brief version:

Shakespeare wrote a series of sonnets known as the “dark lady sonnets” because they all have the same character running throughout: a woman described as a dark lady. For centuries people have wondered about who this lady was, asking questions like whether or not Shakespeare had an affair with a woman to whom these sonnets are dedicated (they are, as sonnets are, very saucy bits of poetry.)

As Stanley shares this week, to ask that question in the first place misses the point of poetry all together, as for most poetry, the flowerly love language on the page is an entirely separate construct from the life or personal experiences of the person who wrote the words. (Intentional fallacy argument for you English majors). The problem with sonnets and one reason this mystery persists for the life of William Shakespeare, however, is that sonnets are more than just poetry. As a form, they were designed to be expressed to an individual. Even in lines from Shakespeare's own plays we see characters asking their lovers to write them a sonnet to praise them, or we see characters talking about how much they love someone so much, that they will now write a sonnet to them. For the 16th century, sonnets were more than poems, they were often private love letters written from an individual to another individual. That foundation is what most scholars stand upon when making an argument towards defining Shakespeare's Dark Lady. 

You can read my best guess at what I think Shakespeare's Dark Lady likely represents here. I stand with Stanley Wells on this subject, agreeing that poems cannot be mistaken for a biographical account of the writer, tantalizing as it might be to consider. 

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

Books & Resources Stanley Wells Recommends

Additional book Cassidy thinks you might like on this topic:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Life community on Facebook. It’s a community of fans of That Shakespeare Life and a meeting place of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life. 

%d bloggers like this: