Shakespeare’s Sonnets – A Dramatic Interpretation

In Hamlet, through Polonious’ voice, Shakespeare ridicules the conventions of genre and classification employed by dramatic theorists of his time. The players that seek Hamlet’s patronage are:


‘The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-              pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individual, or poem unlimited.’ (II.2).


Though this is clearly a satire, it also alerts us to Shakespeare’s savoir-faire with the notion of melding genres and forms – allowing them to blend or burst their seams. Indeed, this is a strategy that Shakespeare deploys throughout his canon, as most third-year English graduates can testify, who have pondered what really makes a Shakespearean Tragedy, Comedy or even a Romance.


If we see Shakespeare as a saboteur of categorical absolutism, the cat among the pigeons – then it is possible to interpret his famous sonnet sequence in quite another light as it has hitherto been imagined. Perhaps, as Gerald Maney advocated, the poems should be bifurcated between ‘personal’ and ‘dramatic’ typologies. If so, the poems would no longer occupy their rarefied ivory tower – to Shakespeare’s mind the crowning glory of his literary achievement – to others, anomalous, sexually ambiguous and a universe away from the vibrant world of action represented by his plays. And the traditional cleft between his sonnet sequence and dramatic works falls down.


So could the sonnet sequence read like a script? If they could, I am not the first to point this out. As the prominent Shakespeare scholar Jan Knott noted, ‘The sonnets can be interpreted as drama. They have actions and heroes. The action consists of lyrical sequences which slowly mount to tragedy. There are three characters: a man, a youth and a woman. The fourth character is Time.’ And she was anticipated by another illustrious literary critic, the hybrid artist-critic Oscar Wilde. Wilde  saw all the 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a dark comedy, a ‘whole drama of love’  acted between Shakespeare, a youth in his company and an enticing woman (Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Sunnil Sarker, p.69).


These are very select points of view – but Knott’s general message is enticing. After all, as much as the sonnet’s allude to the textual nature of their existence (to the ‘black ink’ which composes them, the ‘tables’ upon which they were written and the process of sonneteering itself as a part or full-time or career (see ‘rival poet section 78-86)), the sonnets also proclaim their auditory and dramatic nature. In Sonnet 85 Shakespeare speaks of his ‘tongue-tied Muse’, and in Sonnet 23 invokes the reader to ‘Hear with eyes’.


But is this hypothetical dramaturgy really more than just a pretty metaphor?


Number-crunching provides even more compelling evidence in favour of a dramatic interpretation of the sonnets, especially when compared with Shakespeare’s other plays. For example, including The Lover’s Complaint, a ‘coda’ to the sonnets; the entire sequence contains approximately 2,485 lines.  We can compare this to The Merchant of Venice, which contains approximately 2,503 lines and Romeo and Juliet that has approximately 2,950 lines.


Though this is not conclusive, it shows that at least in theory, the complete sonnet cycle was long enough to be play. However, perhaps the best approach to ascertaining the dramatic nature of Shakespeare’s sonnets lies in an appreciation of the general cross-pollination between verse and drama in Shakespeare and the performative nature of the language of the sequence.


1. Story


To begin: the sonnet sequence does posit a ‘story’, even if it is more diffuse than the intricate narratives of Shakespeare’s plays. Though the speaker feels that his poetry may veer towards the monotonous at times, rehashing the same sentiment in ‘familiar dress’ (76), ‘So far from variation or quick change’ (ibid), in reality the sonnet sequence continually refreshes and re-energizes itself by deploying new conceits and images.

The ‘story’ of the sonnets follows the vacillating emotional drama between the speaker and the ‘lovely boy’ who is the object of his affection till Sonnet 126. The poet moves through flashes of ecstatic, ebullient love (18) and long trajectories of melancholy and self-loathing lightened by sporadic reaffirmations of love. There follow periods of doubt and social alienation, and phases of self-confidence (when the speaker himself is unfaithful), until the oblique ‘goodbye’ signalled by Sonnet 126.  Then the emergence of the ‘dark lady’ reawakens his lust and jealousy.


In this unpredictable amatory terrain, love and despair are regular visitors at the table. The speaker’s inability to find closure, is signalled by the twee vacancy of the concluding sonnet. So it is a drama without end, where each sonnet is an index to a particular star in the constellation of loves’ perpetual struggles. This may remind us of some of the more knowing moments of As You Like It and Twelfth Night.


There are many leitmotives in the sonnet sequence such as the immortalizing power of verse and the ruinous capacity of ‘Time’. However Shakespeare prevents the cycle from stagnating by imbuing each recurrence with a powerful new perspective or fresh lease of passion. Thus, as Hunter suggests, we can see each sonnet as a “still’ from a love drama, a picture in which gestures not only make up a present harmony, but hint […] at a psychological background, so that a powerful reaction is built up, as if to a history of love.’ (The Dramatic Technique of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 154). There is, therefore, a sense of interior cohesion and psychological plausibility though there is no overarching narrative logic.


2. Dialogue


As well as an oblique sense of story the sonnets as a whole convey (despite their ostensible disembodiment) – a strong sense of character. So much so, that the reader can feel at times that he is in a soap opera, watching the continual tussle and power-play between personalities in a love triangle. As Hunter affirms, it is through these ‘personalities’ that we primarily experience the poem’s ‘dramatic impact’ (ibid).

Indeed, though the sonnets, formally most resemble the soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays (with the predominance of the single voice and the emphasis on the first person pronoun), they can also be seen – and Shakespeare himself does not preclude the possibility – of them being seen as a dialogue. In support of this, it is interesting that A Lover’s Complaint – situated at the end of the sonnet sequence and therefore a response to, or comment on it – does not clearly distinguish between speakers. In this poem gender and identity are held in suspense as the ‘maid’s voice melts into that of her previous lover’s and the voice of the narrator who begins the poem, also fades away.


This has interesting implications for the sonnets. If the example of A Lover’s Complaint means anything, it is possible that two or even three voices could be implied by what appears to be an extended soliloquy. Though no names are used, the absence of inverted commas to denote direct speech (their use was initiated in 1714) may have led to an inadvertent confusion of voices, or the hegemonizing of them into one, stream-lined whole (as in A Lover’s Complaint).


3.Acted Upon a Stage


One noteworthy example of Shakespeare explicitly transforming the sonnet form into enacted dialogue occurs in Romeo and Juliet (I, 5, ll. 90-104). Here Romeo and Juliet share the argument and lines of regular sonnet in antiphony. This demonstrates both the reciprocity of their love and the sonnet’s ability to act as a performative – for this is a dramatic pledge. Indeed, both the sonnet used as prologue to the play, and at the outset of scene two, demonstrate Romeo and Juliet’s involvement with the sonnet form. Both in the Petrarchan adulation of Rosalind by Romeo and in the paradoxical, oxymoronic language of the play ‘My only love spring from my only hate’ (1.5,l.135) is the play’s debt to the sonnet expressed.


The dialogic potential of the sonnet used to great effect in Romeo and Juliet, is also explored in the dramatic adaptations of the sonnets. These productions build upon the many internal references to theatricality within the sonnet sequence.  Thus sonnet 15 refers to ‘this huge stage’ presenting ‘naught but shows’ (which could refer to the ‘stage’ of the world in macrocosm, or the ‘stage’ of the sonnet in microcosm), and Sonnet 23 compares the speaker’s timorousness to that of an ‘unperfect actor on the stage’. There is also a significant clue deposited in Sonnet 81, which leaves open the possibility that Shakespeare imagined his sonnets to one day be performed on stage, or at least read out loud: ‘You monument shall be my gently verse / Which eyes not yet created shall o’er read,/ And tongues-to-be your being shall rehearse.’


In productions such as ‘So Long Lives This …’ A Dramatic Arrangement of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a play of passionate Love by Patricia Barnard and Dialogue for Lovers: Sonnets of Shakespeare arranged for Dramatic Presentation directed by Eve Merriam – such theatrical metaphors are literalized. In both these productions the text of the dialogue is adapted into speech dialogue; in Merriam’s case between a ‘Man’ and a ‘Woman’ and in Barnard’s case by an all-male cast playing ‘Shakspeare, Poet, Youth, Rival Poet, Dark Lady (Drag Queen.)’ Such productions are responding to the performative nature of the sonnet text, to the adaptability of the text into speech and the voices into a reified group of voices.


4. Language


Shakespeare expects his sonnets to be recited, to be read. There is something in the language of the sonnets which is dramatic or in David Schalkwyk’s fortuitous phrase ‘perlocutionary’. The speech-like power of Shakespeare’s poetry is mainly due to their rhetorical potency. Consider, for example, Sonnet 148. This sonnet opens with the declamatory and direct ‘O me!’, which is followed by two rhetorical questions. It sounds as though the poet is arguing with himself, an aural practice (indeed Shakespeare often refers to the ‘argument’ of his sonnets). There are four rhetorical questions in this poem and three invective ‘O’’s – in tone and structure it feels almost an extension of Romeo’s consuming passion for Rosalind, ‘O me! – […] O brawling love, O loving hate,/ O anything of nothing first create… / Misshapen chaos of well seeming forms,/ father of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health …’ (I.I.ll. 166-174).


This is typical. Most of the sonnets are exceedingly complex. Condensing an argument into the neat confines of 14 lines requires rapid turnabouts and witty developments. In Sonnet 105, for example, Shakespeare deploys a number of rhetorical strategies. He uses diaphora in his rapid conversion of ‘idolatry’ into ‘idol show’, a pun that suggests new meanings. Epanalepsis is used in the repetition of ‘kind’ at the beginning and end of the clause (l.5). Isocolon (or parallelism of phrases) is used between lines 9 and 10, as well as epanaphora (beginning two lines with the same word). His ‘three themes into one’ is an example of divisio. Throughout the poem he circles about the same idea argument, continually reinstating and qualifying it – this is an example of exergasia. Each sonnet represents a complex structure of rhetoric in its own way, but many of his poems open with an initial stressed beat, ‘Take all my loves …’ (40) Such imperative openings and defiant ejaculations are very different in tone from the more melancholy and brooding poems such as sonnet 73. But together the sonnets provide such diversity of tones that they seem to require us to appreciate them orally and auditorally.


5. Action


Within Aristotle’s poetic taxonomy the dramatic artist is separated from the lyric poet because the dramatist imitates ‘action’. Within the sonnet sequence however, as much emphasis is placed on impotency as potency. This doubt about the ability to express through speech or words reaches its culmination in Sonnet 126, where two lunulae indicate the absence of the typically reconciliatory couplet.


The sonnets are about something other than mere expression. Ramsey suggests that part of the poet’s ‘verbal sophistry’ is to act as a shield to action, ‘[…] the poet, like Hamlet, is showing contempt for himself for unpacking his heart with words rather than taking some vindictive action.’ (Fickle Glan, p. 102-3). As Hamlet says belligerently of the ‘player’: ‘What would he do / Had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?’ (II.2). However, as much as the interiorizing energy of language in the sonnets can be seen in counterpoint to action, there is also a sense in which the language of the sonnets itself constitutes an action. This is what Schalkwyk refers to as the ‘illocutionary force’ of the sonnets. Throughout the poems, textual production is continually linked to sexual reproduction especially in the early, fecund sonnets. In Sonnet 9, for example, the speaker chastises: ‘Though shouldst print more, not let that copy die’.


In this context, writing like reproducing is an act of creation, but of creating something real, that exists. The converse to this is the unnatural love of self, symbolised in the sonnets by the cannibalistic act of self-consumption. In Sonnet 1 the poet berates his object for his ‘all-eating shame’, he ‘eat[s] the world’s due’. Thus writing self-destructively or from self-love is an act of textual consumption, but engaging in a centripetal discourse, like sexual reproduction – an outward gesture – leads to ‘copies’ and creation.


Shakespeare doesn’t want his poems to be about love, he wants them to be love, to constitute something. Thus in Sonnet 78 he pleads, ‘But though art all my art’. Here being and existing in a state of art and reality are not distinguished. A further expression of this text-body is Shakespeare’s later vindication of poetry’s power to monumentalise, to eternalise. Thus while the lover’s body is seen as ultimately transient, poetic text has the potential to store and protect like the womb.  As part of this embryonic womb-text, Shakespeare’s lover has become ‘a liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.’ (15). This idea is more melodiously asserted in  Sonnet 18, ‘So long as men can breathe and eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ By Sonnet 86, the lover’s body has become synonymous with the sonnet, which has become formaldehyde solution, a preservative: ‘…your countenance filled up this line.’


The ability of language or poetry’s ability to act or to be something, finds corollary in A Lover’s Complaint. Here it is the wily lover’s rhetoric which leads directly to the ‘maid’s’ undoing. If language can be love, it can also tempt you to forget yourself. This also accounts for the extensive use of legal jargon in the sonnets. For the speaker, the sonnets act performatively as a contract of love, their language is a form of enactable, publically responsible declaration. In Love’s Labours Lost, the play which we are told possesses ‘the highest ration of rhyme to blank verse among the dramatic works’ (Norton, p. 767) we are shown how poetry itself contains the force to create drama.


This play described by the Princess as a ‘civil war of wits’ is all about the implications of the way language is used. While characters such as Armado are parodied for their susceptibility to the ‘sweet smoke of rhetoric!’ and Holofernes is satirized for his disdainful and self-important use of language, it is down to the Princess and her attendants to teach the King and his retainers that it is the poetry ‘for telling true’ which really counts. This is a play textured with poetry. The predominance of verse in this play includes seven sonnets as well as

numerous other devices.


So it is also a play about language; about its dangers and allurements, and about language as a stakeholder in our identity. Thus within each couple, poetic synthesis creates the conditions for love itself. We see this when Biron woos Rosaline (2.1) and each alternately completes the others’ rhyme. Loves Labours Lost shows how the sonnet form can take on a social force. Imbricated as it is in the world of court politics and wooing, it need not be restricted to the private and secretive confessions of a tortured heart.


6. Subjective vs. Objective


The argument thus far has attempted to rehabilitate the sonnets as objects of social value, as actions, however the subjective nature of the sonnets also cannot be doubted. Indeed it is their tone of privacy and of prolonger personal lyricism that most separates them from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. However critics have also suggested that such ideas about public and private domains are not consistent with the Early Modern world. Materialist critics such as Francis Barker, Catherine Beloey and de Grazia ‘insisted that such construction of subjectivity and the (imaginary) property of inner selfhood’ is an anachronistic projection of later, properly bourgeois and thoroughly ideological sensibility.’ (David Schwalkwyk, Speech and Performance in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 102).


The Early Modern tendency to conflate public and private, may account for many of the games that Shakespeare plays concerning these categories. For example, while the King of Navarre and Longueville believe that they are reciting their sonnets to themselves in Act 4, Scene 3 of Loves Labours Lost, they are in fact performing to the public in two senses: both to an audience and to their friends, who comically watch on. Hamlet’s soliloquies are Shakespeare’s most profound expression of the inner life, where Hamlet distinguishes between the outer world where he must hold his tongue and the world of the self. As Hamlet says: ‘I have things within which passeth show / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.’ Even as he propounds these things, he is in fact making a public gesture.  The sonnets enact this parodical drama between public and private domain in like fashion. Even as the voice of Sonnet 38 regrets ‘Thine own sweet argument, to excellent / For every vulgar paper to rehearse’, the sonnets were published within Shakespeare’s lifetime. The Sonnet form, therefore is both a public and a private medium whose “inner speech’ cannot be a radically different language from sounded, public or theatrical speech.’ (Ibid, p. 105).


7. A Dramatic Interpretation


To sum up: despite my best efforts, it is hard to see that the sonnets provide enough material or the right sort of content, for a particularly rich and fulfilling play. The language of the sonnets is the most compelling claim for their dramatic nature, since it is varied and direct, charged with imagination and rhetorical craft. The language also supplies the action of the hypothetical drama, and the sonnets continually claim to be doing things: creating an immortal image, generating through oaths and argument both love and estrangement. The sonnets continually challenge what ‘substance’ is, and claim a higher existence for their subject than reality, just as Hamlet realizes that drama can make King Claudius recognise his guilt more effectively than open confrontation. What seems like a disembodied monologue from one speaker, I have shown (both through reference to Lover’s Complaint and Romeo and Juliet) could be interpreted as a chorus of contending voices.


Despite all of this it is the failure of the sonnets to conform to a clear narrative structure which is their real obstacle to being considered as a dramatic work. Thus, it is telling that all dramatic productions of the sonnets have reconfigured the sequence to try and create a more coherent narrative out of them. The sonnets provide the materials for a drama but not the framework, part of their intention is to demonstrate that the over-changing conditions of love can never be made to conform to a story, certainly not a resolvable one.


However, I would suggest that we have still learnt crucial things from this exercise. It’s true, that in comparison with a plot and action-heavy play like The Merchant of Venice, it is impossible to scan the sonnets in the same category of the dramatic works. However in comparison with some of Shakespeare’s more fringe and unusual productions, like Loves Labours Lost and Romeo and Juliet – the sharp line of distinction dividing the sonnets and verse from the rest of his canon is blurred. In this spirit I tried to show that the dichotomy between poetry and drama is much confused and broken down by plays like Loves Labours Lost whose action is very limited and which seems mostly to metalingually circulate about language and the language of love. Indeed just as these plays demonstrate how the sonnet form can have social resonances, Hamlet reveals to what extent the dramatic form can inculcate the subjective, interior self. Therefore this attempt to subject the sonnets to the same kind of genre deconstruction and analysis as has been played upon others areas of Shakespeare's canon, has been fruitful and constructive. Rather than viewing Shakespeare’s verse and dramatic works as polestars, on separate ends of the same spectrum, it might be time view them as different notes in the same scale, or gamut, of his work. In this understanding of Shakespeare's corpus, the poetry and plays share more in common that they have keeping them apart.