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Cohen, W. (2008) Introduction to The Sonnets and A Lovers Complaint in Greenblatt, S. (ed.

(2008) The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition, Second Edition, New York: W.W.
Norton, pp. 1937-1943.
Shakespeares plays often seem indifferent to high-cultural rules of construction. His sonnets
(composed from about 1591 to 1604, possibly revised thereafter, and published in 1609) are
the opposite: they faithfully adhere to the norms of an international tradition inspired by the
fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. Paradoxically, the very strictness of the sonnet
structure is the condition of possibility for Shakespeares originality. The rigour of the form
encourages a logical, rationalist approach to the standard topic of the Renaissance sonnet
love and its attendant emotions (desire, jealousy, and the like). The conflict between passionate
feelings a mobile intellect often sceptical of those feelings accordingly becomes a central theme
of the poems. And that mobility is conveyed through a linguistic virtuosity marked by
metaphors and puns that can work either with or against the larger structure of the sonnet.
Thematically, the sonnets are equally distinctive. The typical object of lovethe
unapproachable, exalted ladyis displaced so as to make room for a daring representation of
homoerotic and adulterous passions. Almost the entire sequence can be divided along these
lines. Sonnets 1-126 recount the speakers idealised, sometimes painful love for a femininely
beautiful, well-born male youth; 127-152 his non-idealised, ultimately bitter affair with a
darkly attractive, non-aristocratic mistresswhere this term invokes, however ironically, the
vocabulary of courtly love rather than the derogatory modern meaning. The two love
relationships are complicated by a lovers triangle (40-42, 133-34, 144) and a poetic rival for
the youths affections (78-80, 82-86). These topics provide the occasion for a complex
meditation upon a range of issuestime, nature, human mortality, economics, perhaps class
and race, and, not least, an artistic immortality. And this self-referential reflection upon the
sonnets very composition is heightened by the readers intense proximity to a speaker who is
and is not Shakespeare.
The poems are best approached by locating their formal specificity against the
background of two artistic practices through which Shakespeare came to the poems: his work
in the theatre, and the prior tradition of the sonnet. The standard verse line of Shakespearean
drama and the Shakespearean sonnet alike is iambic pentameter. But there the similarity ends.
Roughly two-thirds of all lines in the plays are composed in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or
blank verse; less than ten percent employ rhyme. By contrast, Shakespeares sonnets almost
always consist of fourteen rhyming iambic-pentameter lines. Blank verse easily accommodates
enjambment, the run-over of sense from one line to the next. Rhyme encourages congruence
between syntax and verse line: a unit of meaning ends when the line does. Blank verse
supports the narrative logic of Shakespearean drama, rhyme the lyric impulse of the
Shakespearean sonnet. You watch a play to see what happens next; you read a sonnet to
discover the original expression of feelings and thoughts. Language is this more obtrusively
part of meaning in poetry than in drama.
It is easy to find exceptions to these claims. The crucial consideration, however, is the
significance for Shakespeare of inherited conventions. The sonnet originated in Italy a century

before Petrarch. Petrarchs decisive poetic sequence chronicles the authors passionately
complex emotions in relation to his beloved Laura. The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two
frequently contrasting units, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines), by its rhyme
scheme abbabba cdecde, where each letter represents a line and a repeated letter indicates a
rhyme. The Petrarchan mode reached England by the early sixteenth century in the works of
Wyatt and Surrey, whose modified rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg), later taken over by
Shakespeare, divided the sonnet into three quatrains (four-line groupings) and a couplet. This
organisation offers greater conceptual range than does the Petrarchan model. The quatrains
can operate in parallel, represent steps in a logical argument, or contradict each other. They
may be grouped into larger units of eight-and-four lines or eight-and-six lines (if the couplet is
included) that are set against each other, with the result in the latter case that the Petrarchan
octave-sestet structure is approximated. In turn, the epigrammatic concluding couplet, whose
analytical tendencies contrast with the more experiential approach of at least the first two
quatrains, can summarise the preceding lines, generalise from them, draw appropriate
inferences, contribute a new thought, or even reverse the preceding argument.
Sonnet structure often guides Shakespeares pervasive use of imagery and metaphor. In
Sonnet 73, each quatrain pursues a different metaphor as part of a single argument:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Deaths second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivst, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The evocation of fall in the opening quatrain nostalgically communicates the sadness of aging.
Enjambment supports the imagistic pattern: it causes meaning to hang in the balance at the
end of the line, just as yellow hang / Upon those boughs. The yellow leaves are
also leaves of a book, bare ruined choirs, or quires (manuscript gatherings). Similarly, the
birds former song, together with the primary meaning of choirs (the part of a church where
the choir sings), may refer to the speakers own voice and hence to a lost poetic creativity. In
short, the experience of aging is compared to the annual movement toward colder seasons and
to the decline of artistic inspiration. In the second quatrain, the unit of time constricts: That
time of year is replaced by the twilight of such day. Although, like autumn, sunset is a natural
process, it is not an organic one. Emphasis accordingly shifts away from bodily degeneration.
These lines also look forward in a way the first quatrain does not. Twilight is taken away by

black night..., / Deaths second self, that seals up all in rest. The rest that night brings is a
source of comfort, but night is compared with death, and the syntax, at odds with the literal
meaning, suggests that it is death rather than night that seals up all in [eternal] rest.
The third quatrain opens like the second, with In me thou seest, a phrase also partly
anticipated in the first line of the poem. This repetition reinforces the parallelism among the
quatrains and suggests that the poem proceeds less by narrative progression than by thematic
variation. Yet this quatrain, while highlighting the transition from aging to mortality, narrows
time further, to the glowing fire, in effect abandoning the temporal model of the first two
quatrains for a spatial metaphor. Only the ashes remain from the fires and, by implication, the
speakers youth (line 10); they are also the fires and the speakers death-bed (line 11). The
earlier idealisation of youth, now reduced to ashes, has disappeared; conversely, although the
fire of old age no longer rages, it is still glowingit still gives off heat. The present is thus a
continuation of the past. Furthermore, the metaphorical relationship is reversed. The dying fire
is a metaphor for human aging, but that aging becomes a metaphor for the dying fire.
Paradoxically, the fire is Consumed with that which it was nourished by; it is
consumed (or choked) byand along withthe very ashes that, as fuel, previously
nourished it. Normally, the fire consumes the fuel, not the other way around. Both consumed
and nourished metaphorically explain the already metaphorical fire, which they connect back
to humanity through their allusions to eating. The speakers fiery passion for the youth he
addresses nourished him when he was young but consumes him now. Indeed, the line
structurally enacts the tacit thematic rejection of a temporal model of decline. It is an example
of chiasmus, in which the elements of the first half (Consumed...that) are repeated in reverse
order in the second half (which...nourished), this producing an abba semantic pattern.
Accordingly, this quatrain had no equivalent to the earlier cold or night, which are
metaphorically responsible for the approach of death. Life and death have the same source.
All three quatrains employ cyclical metaphors of life, death and rebirth. But the cycle
remains incomplete. Autumn does not lead to spring or night to day. The long-lived phoenix
(19.4), the legendary self-resurrecting bird that dies in flames and is reborn from the ashes,
doesnt quite appear. Perhaps these suppressed allusions to cyclical patterns raise and then
frustrate expectations, denying the consolation of the future. The concluding couplet, which
moves away from metaphor and toward a new idea, suggests this interpretation. Recognising
the speakers literally consuming passion makes the youths love more strong (line 13). The
youth, therefore, loves well what he must ere leave long (line 14)explicitly, the speaker;
implicitly his own life, partly because that leaving recalls the yellow leaves with which the
poem opened. There is no answer to the destructive power of time, but that power is partly
counteracted by love.
Sonnet 73 suggests how conformity to sonnet convention can enable a thoughtful
interplay among time, love, death, and art. Sonnet 81m on the other hand, offers a radical
disjunction of syntax and rhyme scheme: almost any two consecutive lines can produce a
complete sentence, depending on how you punctuate:
And toungs to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all breathers of this world are dead,

You still shall lie (such virtue hath my Pen).

This three-line sequence, presented as it appears in the first edition of 1609, runs over the end
of a quatrain but nonetheless produces two possible sentences that are grammatically correct
and semantically effective (lines 11 and 12 or 12 and 13). Conceptually, the unorthodox move
here is the implicit equation of the speaker with his social superior, the youth. The poets
literary prowess promises enduring renown for both the writer and his subject. Or does it? If
you take lines 11 and 12 together, as modern editions do, the emphasis falls on dead. But if
you instead take lines 12 and 13 as a unit, the centre of interest becomes lie and Pen. The
poem thus promises both death and immortality, just as the wordplay on rehearse (line 11)
predicts a future in which the youth is both still spoken about and literally rehearsed.
The relationship between formal and thematic innovation can also be approached by
considering the sonnets as a sequence. English enthusiasm for such sequences was triggered
by the posthumous printing of Sir Philip Sidneys collection Astrophel and Stella (1591).
Sonnets also circulated in manuscript form, since print culture was often considered beneath
the dignity of (would-be) gentlemen or courtier-poets. The vogue for sonnet sequences
responded to poets ambitions as well as to the gender politics of the late Elizabethan court.
Middle-class writers, for instance, sought financial assistance for their work by praising their
aristocratic patrons. Expressions of love in this hierarchical relationship may be less
indications of deep feeling than competitive strategies of advancement. Shakespeares rival
poet sonnets seem to convert this competition into literary theme. In general, then, it is often
hard to determine where authentic sentiment ends and professional calculation begins.
The sonnet sequence itself is not the only larger formal category, however. When
Shakespeares sonnets first appeared in print, they were immediately followed in the same
collection by A Lovers Complaint. This work belongs to the genre of complaint poetry in which
a woman laments her (usually) sexual ruin amid doleful reflection on life. Between 1593 and
1596, six poets publishes works consisting of a sonnet sequence, a brief intermediate piece
usually based on ancient Greek form or subject matter (Cupid, for example), and a concluding
complaint. The sonnets section of one such work, from which Shakespeare probably borrowed,
is addressed to an attractive male youth. Another poet anticipates Shakespeares sequence in
dividing his sonnets into two main groups. It would be wrong to overstate the homogeneity of
this mini-tradition. Nonetheless, the 1609 Quartoa sonnet sequence divided into two parts,
the first concerning a beautiful male youth and the second a woman; two concluding sonnets
on Cupid; and a poetic complaintis less miscellaneous collection than multi-generic form.
Recent critics have had no trouble in demonstrating such connections between Shakespeares
sonnets and A Lovers Complaintvoyeurism, seduction, abandonment, and a similar cast of
characters, among others. Nonetheless, the differences are obviousfor instance, the longer
poems ornamental, archaic diction and lack of emotional intensity. More important, the most
detailed scholarship on the subject argues powerfully that not Shakespeare but John Davies of
Hereford wrote A Lovers Complaint. If so, as seems likely, Shakespeare could not have
authorized the publication of the 1609 Quarto.
The line of reasoning raises questions about the internal organisation of the sonnets as

well (although not about their authorship). It has been suggested that the division of the
sequence into two main groups is unwarranted. Most of the poems are not explicitly about
wither youth or the mistress and do not even designated the sex of the person discussed. Only
their relative position in the collection has produced the standard simplification adopted here.
Furthermore, the sequence as a whole is relatively uninterested in plot. The poems to the
mistress in particular show little sign of organisation or process, combining occasional
affection with chaos, bitterness, self-abasement, shame, unwilling sexual desire, and selfloathing. Perhaps, in 1609, they had not yet been placed in a particular order; perhaps they
were intended for a separate collection. But the first 126 sonnets, too, evince only intermittent
interest in linear movement, emphasising longing, jealousy, and a fear of separation, while
anticipating both the desire and the anguish of the subsequent poems.
Nonetheless, many of the sonnets are carefully ordered in pairs or long groups. More
important, the two main sections of the sequence are of compelling thematic interest. For the
two centuries ending about a generation ago, the homoerotic attachment to the youth, now a
routine part of critical discussion, provoked revulsion or denial. Sonnet 20 wasand still is
at the centre of the debate:
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. [one thing = a penis]
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Nature originally intended the youth to be a woman (the octave). But she fell in love with her
creation and hence turned him into a male, a change that benefitted her but forced the speaker
to limit his relationship to the youth to love without sexual consummation (the sestet). Thus,
the poem wittily plays with gender boundariesmaster-mistress, A man in hue (with a
further sexual reference if hue was pronounced like you; lines 2, 1, 12, 7). Acquainted and
controlling pun on cunt; nothing and treasure refer to the female sexual organ as well
(lines 3, 7, 12, 14). As someone pricked...out for womens pleasure (line 13), the youth is
equipped to give women pleasure but also to be pricked and hence experience womens
pleasure. Even the form gets into the act: this is the only sonnet where all the rhymes have
feminine endingsthe term since the Renaissance for a two-syllable rhyme with the second
syllable unstressed. Finally, the misogyny of the poems complaint about false women (lines 4,

5) is consistent with its homoeroticism. Women are to be resented because the speaker prefers
males, or at least the youth, and also because they get to enjoy loves use, while he must
content himself merely with love (line 14)where the contrast suggests that love carries
both its Renaissance meaning of friendship and its modern sense of romantic and sexual
Sonnet 20 looks forward to poems that express passionate, erotic love for their youth,
apparently without sexual fulfilment. But they also look back to the opening seventeen sonnets,
in which the speaker urges the youth to marry and produce an heir. Hence, the speaker solicits
the youths love for someone else, since the point is procreation and, therefore, an immortality
comparable to the artistic immortality promised later in the sequence. The exhortation cuts
against both the conventional aspiration of the love sonnet and the speakers unconventional
aim of winning the youth. But this is because the multiple possible meaning s of love in Sonnet
20 characterise the poems to the youth more generally.
How the case for marriage is argued is instructive. Shakespeares reversal of the
metaphorical relationship in Sonnet 73, it will be recalled, removes any fixed point of
reference. A comparable reversal also marks economic imagery of the first seventeen sonnets.
As in Sonnet 20 (line 14), that imagery frequently turns on usury. Long subject to denunciation,
usury in Renaissance England was just beginning its conversion into the respectable financial
category of interest. Shakespeare shared the prevailing repugnance at the idea of making
money out of money. Thus, the speaker condemns his mistress for her affair with the young
man, represented as collecting a debt:
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer that puttst forth all to use.
She will take the full amount owed to her financially (sexually) because, like a usurer, she
employs all her wealth (her body) for profit (use means both engage in usury and engage in
sexual activity). Elsewhere, more ambivalently, the youth is criticised for being, paradoxically,
both unthrifty and a niggard (4.1, 5):
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not love?
Here, use; antithetically means both use up and lend interest. Literally, how can the youth
lend vast sums for profit and be unable to support himself? Metaphorically, he acts in a
profitless manner in wasting his endowments. Hence, he cannot live on in his children. By
implication, a usurer is always without value.
But the lines also imagine the opposite. If there is a profitless usurer, there might be a
profitable one. This good usurer predominates in the sonnets:

That use is not forbidden usury

Which happies those that pay the willing loan.
Is forbidden an attribute after all, or just unallowable, usury? Keeping ones treasure to
oneself merits only thriftless praise; beautys use deserves much more praise if a child
results (2.6-9). At least an unthrift allows the world to enjoy his wealth; beautys waste is
indefensiblekept unused, the user so destroys it (9.9-12). And Sonnet 20 ends, as weve
seen, with the speaker declaring, as if to console himself: Mine be thy love and thy loves use
their treasure (line 14). The speaker gets the youths love, where the treasure women get is
merely the use (metaphorically, children) of that love. He obtains the principal, they the
interest. These passages activate metaphorical meaning of use to promote marriage and
family. But in so doing, they connect the proper use of beauty with usury, which comes to be
understood as the economic equivalent of human reproduction, the early sonnets highest
ideal. The neo-feudal celebration of tradition as lineage smuggles in a defence of economic
behaviour destructive of tradition. Usury is transformed into a potentially noble activity.
Through metaphor, then, Shakespeare entertains ideas that might have been less accessible as
bald statements.
The poems to the speakers mistress are also scandalously unconventionalin their
focus on a sordid, adulterous affair with an unfaithful woman that is marked by a passionate
desire and equally passionate recrimination. Even the relatively serene sonnets in this section
self-consciously undermine convention:
My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun;
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
(130.1, 13-14)
Here the target is the standard Petrarchan mode of praise. More generally, the aim is to
dismantle falsely idealising rhetoric:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her though I know she lies,
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
(138.1-2, 13-14)
In Sonnet 130, true love requires he speaker to reject false compare. In Sonnet 138, love
paradoxically requires the speaker to credit...false-speaking, to suppress simple truth (lines
7-8) and to embrace lies. The sequence ends, however, with the bitter deployment of the same
rhetoric against speaker and woman alike:

For I have sworn thee fairmore perjured eye

To swear against the truth so foul a lie.
This concluding couplet recalls the opening of the sequence on the mistress:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
But now is black beautys successive heir.
(127.1, 3)
Black is the colour of the womans eyes, eyebrows, breasts, hair (127.9-10, 132.3, 130.3-4), and
Then I will swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.
As in poetry of the time, this paradoxical, anti-conventional praise of blackness echoes the
biblical Song of Songs as well as sixteenth-century Continental and English poetry, including
Sidneys. The praise is often inseparable from a misogynistic denunciation of the use of
cosmetics to produce artificial beauty (127.4-12). Black hair and eyes gained prestige in the
1590s through a shift in fashion from blond hair to dark. Thus the speakers personal views
accord with broader social change.
The mistresss colour may or may not be racialised, however, since even dark skin might
merely distinguish her from falsely idealised women or aristocratic ladies able to avoid the sun.
Nonetheless, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest feature actual
and threatened inter-racial coupling. The mistresss combination of blackness and promiscuity
may provoke both desire and fear of powerfully exotic female sexuality. The valence of
blackness accordingly moves from the paradoxical to the conventional: In nothing art thou
black save deeds (131.13); For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who art as
black as hell, and dark as night (147.13-14). Like usury, then, blackness oscillates between
conventional norms and radical innovation. Such is the case with the sonnets more generally.
Finally, the intense emotion here and elsewhere, the psychological complexity with
which it is scrutinised, the unconventional subject matter, the sense that one is overhearing
snatches of conversation, the first-person speaker, that speakers self-conscious identification
with Shakespeare (135-136)all encourage a biographical interpretation of the sonnets. For
two centuries, such interpretation has proven risky either to undertake or to void. There has
been a major but unsuccessfully scholarly effort to discover the real people whom Shakespeare
discusses but does not name. The youth has most often been identified with Henry
Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The sonnets
dedication to Mr. W.H., Pembrokes initials and the reverse of Southamptons. But neither is
likely to have been addressed as Mr. Proposals about the identity of the mistress are much

shakier. Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman are among those suggested as the rival
poeton the basis of no reveal evidence. This inconclusiveness led mid-twentieth-century
critics to focus on formal concerns. But the resulting advances often entailed evading the
disconcerting biographical material that the poems do seem to provide. Shakespeares sonnets,
like his plays, combine verbal artistry and conceptual unorthodoxy with psychological
exploration. Their special fascination, however, is that the soul they examine is apparently
Shakespeares own.