Some Psychological Aspects of The Sonnets

The Bard, 1, 1/1975, pp. 1-8

The Autobiographical Hypothesis

     Are we entitled to draw conclusions about Shakespeare's personality from what he has told us of himself in the Sonnets? Are the Sonnets in any sense autobiographical? This has been both asserted and denied. Rollins (1) in the Variorum edition of 1944 reviewed the literature up to that time. He cites 83 authors, editors, scholars, critics, reviewers and other writers who held that the Sonnets did tell an authentic autobiographical story, 71 who denied it, and 22 who could not make up their minds. Among those who affirmed the autobiographical thesis were Carlyle, Emerson, Heine, Victor Hugo, Nietzsche, Paigrave, Sir Walter Raleigh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Swinburne. Among those opposing them were Boswell, Browning, Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, Hazlitt and Noyes. Since 1944 nearly everyone seems to have taken the autobiographical side. There are scholars concerned solely with poetics for whom the issue does not arise. 0. J. Campbell (2) and Northrop Frye (3) still maintain the negative view, i.e. that the Sonnets are poetic conceits or dramatisations of symbolic ideas or personalised abstractions. L. C. Knights (4) is a sceptic; and J. W. Lever (5) takes a halfway position, thinking that the Dark Lady Sonnets "have roots in a real and painful experience", but that the first 126 sonnets, concerned with the fair youth, do not. These are the exceptions.

     The autobiographical hypothesis is necessary for the purposes of this essay, and is its primary assumption. Some further assumptions have to be made. What are the certainties? Shakespeare had certainly written some sonnets by 1598; we do not know whether they were any of those published by Thorpe. Variant versions of two sonnets, 138 and 144 in our series, were published in an anthology in 1599. There can be no doubt that the Sonnets were written by the creator of the other Shakespearean poems and plays; it is nowadays assumed that they were all by his hand. We can be sure that they were not seen through the press by the author. We know they were all written by 1609; and we are entitled to conclude (from 104) that they were three years and more in the writing. There is much evidence to show that the Sonnets were written fairly early in the author's writing career; for instance a study of the vocabulary by the present writer (6) connects the Sonnets with plays of the second quarter of his life work.

     This is about all we know. We do not know how long before publication they were written, and all datings are disputed. We do not know how Thomas Thorpe got hold of them. We do not know whether they are in their correct order or not, either chronologically or by author's intention. It is usually assumed that the first 126 sonnets are in chronological order, and that the remaining 28 sonnets are out of order and in time of composition overlap with the first 126. We do not know whether any or all or none of the sonnets were ever sent to or seen by those to whom they were addressed or whom they concerned. We do not know who Mr. W.H. was; all identifications are disputed. We do not know who the fair youth was, nor whether he was one with Mr. W.H. We do not know who was the dark lady. We do not know who Shakespeare was; all identifications of the poet with historical personages are disputed.

      This is to the good, if it frees our hands. W. H. Auden (7) has maintained that the biography of an artist throws "no light whatsoever" upon his work, and "Shakespeare is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.

Shakespeare's Thought and Expression

     The Sonnets include some of the most obscure, as well as some of the most beautiful poems in our language. One needs editorial help to understand a number of them, and a succession of editors have progressively clarified and illuminated their meaning. The reasons for this begin with Elizabethan English which is almost a different language from our own. Words and concepts were then in an earlier stage of development. They were less perfectly adapted to the delivery of straight­forward unambiguous messages. Shakespeare's temperament was attuned to this medium of communication, and he took full advantage of it. Keats said that Shakespeare possessed to a great degree the capability of "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Leishman (8) says that at times Shakespeare uses a psychological rather than a logical order for the terms of a statement; and he speaks of "a certain deliberately chosen hermeticism or hieroglyphicalness" in the Sonnets "as though he were trying to ensure that no reader should be able to discover from them the identity of the person addressed."

     Shakespeare's thought moreover moves at times with great speed, and may be difficult to follow even when it is precise. In 74, speaking of his body when dead, too base a thing to be remembered by his friend, he concludes: "The worth of that is that which it containes, / And that is this, and this with thee remaines." Interpreted: "The value of the body is that which it contains, the spirit, and that is this, my spirit is in this sonnet, and the sonnet stays with you, so therefore my spirit and my love."

     When thought moves at such a speed it is liable to take off, as it were, and leap from one idea to the next without any bridge construction. There are constant ellipses, perhaps small, perhaps large enough to destroy normal syntax, or even at times to swallow up the meaning and leave all in doubt. In 64 the thought comes to him" That Time will come and take my love away." He continues: "This thought is as a death which cannot choose / But weepe to have, that which it feares to loose." The middle term has been elided, the poet to whom the thought comes, who fears so much the possible loss of his friend that possession itself is a pain. The poet disappears, and everything that is left is in the realm of thought, thought thinking a thought, thought fearing and thought weeping. Compared with the limpid lucidity of the previous line, the statement in these two lines is complex, many‑sided and made up of antithetical elements. Ideas are crushed together in high compression.

     In his leaps from one idea to the next, Shakespeare makes use of vaulting poles, such as repeating a key word in a changed context, or changing it slightly to transform the meaning, e.g. (147): "My love is as a feaver longing still, I For that which longer nurseth the disease." The commonest links are forged in pro­gressive antitheses. Use is made of assonances, internal vowel rhymes and clang associations which appear to have a directing effect on his thought. For instance, 75 is entirely built on antitheses and opposed images or ideas: (you to my thoughts) / (food to life) I (showers to ground); (peace you) I (I strife); proud I doubting; enjoyer I robbed; (best you alone) I (better you and the world); (full feasting sight) I (starved for a look); possessing I pursuing; had / took; pine I surfeit; all / (all away).

     Some of these repetitions and antitheses produce a bizarre (9), not to say unfortunate effect. One has the impression that Shakespeare was not only writing at speed but also letting the page drop into a pile without revision: 63 "His beautie shall in these blacke lines be seene, / And they shall live, and he in them still greene." 65 "That in blacke inck my love may still shine bright." 104 "For as you were when first your eye I eyde."

     Shakespeare's thought is coined in metaphors and, above all, in visual images.

            "Since brasse, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundlesse sea,
            But sad mortality ore‑swaies their power.
            How with this rage shall beautie hold a plea,
            Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
            O how shall summers hunny breath hold out,
            Against the wrackfull siedge of battrmg dayes,
            When rocks impregnable are not so stoute,
            Nor gates of steele so strong but time decayes?"            65

Simple free association links brass with stone, stone with earth, earth with sea. The boundlessness of the sea calls up a leap into the abstract. In rapid succession we have concrete visual images, a legal metaphor, an olfactory image, a metaphor of war. The speed is such that we run into the extraordinary mixed image of summer's honey breath battered in siege warfare, and a few lines lower the grotesque image of Time's swift foot caught by a strong hand in what, one presumes, must resemble a Rugby tackle. Conceptual absurdities slip by us hardly noticed because of the magic of the words.

     A common cause of obscurity is Shakespeare's use of a phrase with two or more meanings. Some editors, Tucker (10) for instance, usually opt for one meaning or the other. But it is a safer rule to suppose that both meanings are intended, if not by the poet at least by the poem, which has an independent life as Shakespeare himself so often emphasised. In Elizabethan English, with its ill‑defined concepts and multi‑meaninged words, Shakespeare had a unique instrument for the expression of ambivalences teetering between incompatible interpretations. No one can ever write like that again; our language has become too precise. It is this that gives many Shakespearean statements such richness.

             "When fortie Winters shall beseige thy brow,
             And digge deep trenches in thy beauties field,
             Thy youthes proud livery so gaz'd on now,
             Wil be a totter'd weed of smal worth held:"      2

When modern editors emend 'totter'd' to 'tatter'd', they deprive us of the images of the walls of the besieged citadel tottering to their fall, and of youthful pride and sexual vigour yielding to tottering and impotent age.

     The susceptibility of Shakespeare's expression to multiple alternative inter­pretation takes him at times into an irresoluble contradiction, which can often pass without notice. Even when he is trying his best (e.g. 146), Shakespeare is not capable of sustained thought at a high level of abstraction; and the kind of logic that directs abstract thought was not in his armoury. His creations were woven out of contradictory ideas surging in a between‑world from preconscious to conscious, and instinctively or emotionally, but not intellectually, brought to realisation. These incompletely resolved ambiguities, ambivalences and contradictions, allowing a variety of interpretations, have given Shakespeare's works their remarkable refractoriness to the erosion of time. As our language changes what he says may lose some part of its meaning in contemporary terms, but it may gain also. The works change with the mood of the reader. We can go back to them to read them like shapes in the clouds or pictures in the flames of a fire, or like a Rorschach inkblot, ambiguous gestalts with figure transforming itself into ground and ground to figure. Shakespeare paints his world like Turner painted his, with visual images having no hard edges but merging and melting into one another and into the background.

      Can we see any psychopathology in these observations? The matter available for our purposes primarily belongs in the field of poetics and so is used for psychological analysis at one's peril. Nevertheless Shakespeare's personal poetic style is determined by certain mental powers of phenomenal strength, and some striking weaknesses, i.e. basic and enduring features of his make‑up. The psycho­logist cannot be indifferent to them. Beyond this the question arises whether there are evidences of change which could be related to variations of mood. Some of the sonnets have a leaden laboriousness. In others there is such a brilliant but inconsequent verbal display that one feels that the first draft, at least, was written with extreme freedom and in a state of high excitement. The uninhibited freedom of association, the punning and quibbling, the clang associations, the flight of ideas remind one of the thought processes of the hypomanic.

The Poes's Age and Attitude to Death

Shakespeare makes a number of references to his age in the Sonnets, but, as with so many of his utterances, they are not free from equivocation. In 138 he says he is "old" and that his mistress knows "my dayes are past the best"; but, in the context of the poem, the first thought in the poet's mind may have been a lack of sexual vigour. In other sonnets he is more forthright. In 62 he sees himself in his mirror "beated and chopt with tand antiquieie". In 22 the same glass shows him time's furrows; and in 63 he is "with times injurious hand chrusht and ore‑worne", his veins drained of blood, his face lined and wrinkled. Several sonnets, e.g. 3, 22, 37, imply a one‑generation gap between his friend and himself. We must think of the fair youth just entering on maturity, just out of adolescence, say between seventeen and twenty. This would make Shakespeare not younger than in his middle thirties as a lower limit.

    The upper limit for an estimate could be, as far as the Sonnets themselves inform us, very much later, perhaps as late as the male climacteric when middle‑age turns towards senescence. But we cannot rely on the Sonnets alone. The greatest of Shakespeare's works were certainly written at a still later date. If we put the writing of the Sonnets not later than the writing of Henry V, with which its vocabulary is closely linked (6), then all the great tragedies were still to come. The upper limit, then, can hardly be set much later than the late forties. A reasonable view would be that the poet had indeed passed beyond his physical prime; that his age and failing physical powers were brought painfully home to him by their contrast with the beauty of his young friend, and perhaps also by his encounter with his mistress; and that his picture of himself may have been darkened by phases of actual illness.

     Those who date the Sonnets over three or four years centering on, say, the poet's thirtieth year, find no way of reconciling biographical with poetic truth. Doubts are inevitably cast on Shakespeare's sincerity; and if one adopts such a lamentable course one deprives oneself of great beauties. For instance the poet Patric Dickinson (11) considers that 73 is much inferior to 138, since the latter, concerned with the matter of lying with his mistress in more senses than one, is sincere, whereas 73 is a young man's seif‑dramatisation. Leishman (8) will have nothing to do with such an insensitive dismissal. He writes: "The depth of tone, the inner vibration, in most of these passages makes it necessary to take them as 'seriously' as we can take anything in the Sonnets, and forbids us to explain them away as mere hyperbolical and flattering self‑depreciation." Let us consider Dickinson's bugbear, 73:

         That time of yeeare thou malst in me behold,
         When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hange
         Upon those boughes which skake against the could,
         Bare ruin'd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.
         In me thou seest the twi‑light of such day,
         As after Sun‑set fadeth in the West,
         Which by and by blacke night doth take sway,
         Deaths second seife that seals up all in rest.
         In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
         That on the ashes of his youth doth lye,
         As the death bed, whereon it must expire,
         Consum'd with that which it was nurrisht by.
            This thou percev'st, which makes thy love more strong,
            To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

One would have thought it impossible to miss here the depth of tone and the inner vibration to which Leishman refers. But the depth and power of the emotional evocation are not those of age, when emotions pale and serenity takes the sting from the ravages of time. This is more like the despair of a man touched by death with a malignant disease, a mood, in fact, of intense and overwhelming depression.

     The Sonnets are much concerned with death, but much more with the death of the beloved boy than with that of the poet himself. Shakespeare's attitude to death, as a universal human predicament that has to be faced sometime and somehow, is embodied in 146. It takes the form of a devotional exercise of a conventional form. One is recommended to transfer one's attachment from physical to moral values, and has much the same message as 77, addressed to the Friend. The sonnet concludes: "So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, I And death once dead, ther's no more dying then." When the body's desires are of no more concern, no more is the body's death. The anticipatory fears of dying are over for ever (cf. "Cowards die many times before their deaths", J.C., 11.2.32). The distich contains a visual image of almost unequalled repulsiveness, the human cannibal feeding on the cannibal consumer of human flesh. The cannibal motif recurs a number of times in the Sonnets: 1. "Pitty the world, or else this glutton be, / To eate the world's due, by the grave and thee." 2. "an all‑eating shame," 6. "make wormes thine hefte." 19. "Devouring time ... make the earth devoure her owne sweet brood," 60. "Time ... / Feedes on the rarities of natures truth," 77. "The wrinckles which thy glasse will truly show, / Of mouthed graves will give thee memorie,".

     Both the inevitable ageing and the eventual death of the fair Friend are dominant concerns of the Sonnets. They are the principal theme in the first nineteen, and recur throughout the first series: 22, 54, 55, 60, 63, 64, 65, 77, 81, 100, 101, 104, 107, 126. At first the emotional tone in which Shakespeare addresses himself to this theme is detached and impersonal. Forgetful of the fact that children are never duplicates of theft parents, he recommends the young man to get a son, else "Thy unus'd beauty must be tomb'd with thee," (4). Only when he gets to 12 do we feel the "inner vibration" that tells us Shakespeare is beginning to feel the death of the young man would be a desolating loss: "Then of thy beauty do I question make / That thou among the wastes of time must goe,". The same intensity of emotion is expressed with monosyllabic simplicity when the poet reflects in 64 "That Time will come and take my love away." As is made manifest in 63, it is the loss to the world of such radiant beauty that grieves Shakespeare, even more so than the eventual death of his "lover".

      Shakespeare's attitude to his own death is a very different matter. He accepts his own wrinkles, and apparently it does not occur to him that his own death will be a loss to the world. Nowhere does he suggest that it is something to be feared; the despair of 73 is that of a hopelessness and resignation beyond fear. Death is in the main a consummation to be wished. In 32 he speaks of "my well contented daie, / When that churle death my bones with dust shall cover", death being hardly more than a tiresome servant or an importunate messenger. In 66 he would yearn for restful death "Save that to die, I leave my love alone." The sonnets 71 to 74 are all devoted to the subject of his own death, seen as something approaching and near; and the regrets inspired are not at all for himself, but all for his friend. He must not suffer, nor must he mourn; the poet's love will always be with him, embodied in his poetry. Although the eternising of the beloved in a sonnet was a contemporary conceit, it was an idea that most of the Elizabethan sonneteers seem to have taken quite seriously. Certainly, at least in his more expansive moods (e.g. 55), Shakespeare seems to have had no doubt that his poetry would live on.


    Shakespeare's attitude of resignation in the face of an imagined death, and even welcome for it, can hardly be thought normal for a man about to enter on the peak production of his creative career. It has been noted that some sonnets show signs of an excited, even hypomanic mood; so we may bear in mind the possibility that other sonnets may have been written in an abnormally depressed state. Such a polarisation of mood states is characteristic of the cyclothymic personality which has marked many great men.

      The sonnets which suggest a degree of depression bordering on illness fall in the main into two groups, 27 to 32 and 61 to 74. In addition we have in the interval between 32 and 61 the pessimism and extreme self‑depreciation of 36 and 37, the dull and melancholic mood of 44 and 45, in 49 fears, almost amounting to certainty, that his friend will desert him, and in 50, as in 27, the misery brought on by a journey. Then again in sonnets later than 74, though the depressive mood seems to have blown over, there are references in 76, 79 and 83 to 86 to a time of failure of poetic powers and loss of invention, for which Shakespeare seeks for reasons and excuses. The two main groups are separated by an interval which includes the three sonnets 40 to 42 which reproach his friend with taking his mistress from him. It is possible that the "dark lady" sonnets were also written over the same period of time. It is noteworthy that sonnets 127 to 154, though evincing at times stormy and anguished emotions, do not show a melancholic mood.

     The first of the two depressive phases begins abruptly at 27. Tired after a journey, the poet finds it impossible to sleep. But the insomnia persists, and is worse in 28, "When daies oppression is not eazd by night, I But day by night and night by day oprest." This is "torture". In the next sonnet, 29, there is loss of self­esteem, loss of hope and extreme self‑pity: "When in disgrace with Fortune and mens eyes, /I all alone beweepe my out‑cast state, / And trouble deafe heaven with my bootlesse cries, /And looke upon my seife and curse my fate." Here we have the first time in the Sonnets that this theme emerges, but after it self‑pity and self­blame are recurrent preoccupations. Disgrace in men's eyes rather than in his own heart seems to be the chief of the matter in the "blots" and "bewailed guilt" of 36, the consciousness of being lame, poor and despised in 37, the hostile fortune by which his name receives a brand in 111 and 112, and his reflections in 121 on the theme of "Tis better to be vile then vile esteemed". On the other hand there is genuine self‑reproach and awareness of moral failure in 110 ("Alas 'tis true, I have gone here and there,"), the feeling of moral disease in 118, and a confession of "wretched errors" and "transgression" in 119 and 120. In the "dark lady" sonnets depressive symptoms are much less marked than those of anger and frustration; yet loathing both of the object of his love and of himself parallel the expressions of 118 to 120. Moral contamination is the idea that pervades 137, 141, 150 and 152; and the experience of an infatuation as disease, as fever, delirium and madness, gives 147 its tremendous power.

     The emotions of the "dark lady" sonnets are too turbulent to provide con­sistent evidence of a basic mood change, and the earlier sonnets are easier to read in this sense. After 28, succeeding sonnets bewail the waste of precious time, the loss of friends now dead, lost loves. His day of death will be well contented. The three sonnets 30 to 32 are illuminated by a softer melancholy, and the poet tries to comfort himself with the love of his friend (which proves to be hollow and un­reliable). The lighter elements of fire and air desert him, leaving him with two slow elements alone, to "sinke down to death, opprest with melancholic." (45). Physical feelings (decrepitude in 37) are not lacking. In 50 Shakespeare mentions one of the classic symptoms of an endogenous or 'vital' depression, the feeling of physical heaviness like a cold weight in the chest.

     The second phase of depression seems to have been more severe than the first, beginning again (61) with insomnia and the reproach of shames and idle hours. There are not only painful thoughts of the transitoriness of the youth and beauty of his friend, but also moods more sour and resentful. The nadir is reached with 71 to 74, in which he looks forward to total annihilation, even in the thoughts and memories of his friend:

            Noe Longer mourne for me when I am dead,
            Then you shall heare the surly sullen bell
            Give warning to the world that I am fled
            From this vile world with vildest wormes to dwell:
            Nay if you read this line, remember not,
            The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
            That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
            If thinking on me then should make you woe.

     It is noteworthy that this second phase of depression seems to have had, while it lasted, a psychic effect referred to only in sonnets succeeding 74, an effect not recorded after the first phase. If for some good reason one is merely unhappy and not biologically depressed, there is rarely any diminution of energy and mental powers. It is otherwise with what the distinguished psychiatrist Kurt Schneider has called a 'vital depression', i.e. one arising endogenously or from physical causes. Then there may be a total obliteration of creative powers while the depressive phase lasts. Such seems to have been the case with Shakespeare. Periodical psychic inhibition is referred to in a number of sonnets, as loss of invention (76, 84, 102, 105), a sick, tongue‑tied, forgetful, truant or poverty‑stricken Muse (79, 85, 100, 101, 103), or as mere silence (83, 86).

      It is needless to remark that evidence of profound but temporary disturbances of mood can be and has been both sought and found in the plays no less than the Sonnets, especially in the plays of the third quarter of the canon. But to review the work that has been done in this wide field is no part of the present writer's task.



(1) ROLLINS, H.E. (1944): A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets. Philadelphia and London (J.B. Lippincott Co.).

(2) CAMPBELL, 0. J. (1949): The Living Shakespeare: Twenty‑two Plays and the Sonnets. New York (Macmillan Co.).

(3) FRYE, N. (1962) in The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Edward Hubler, Northrop Frye, Leslie A. Fiedler, Stephen Spender, R. P. Blackmuir. London (Routledge and Kegan Paul).

(4) KNIGHTS, L. C. (1958): Explorations. London (Chatto and Windus).

(5) LEVER, J. W. (1956): The Elizabethan Love Sonnet. London (Methuen).

(6) SLATER, E. (1975): 'Shakespeare: Word links between poems and plays'. Notes and Queries, April, 157‑163.

(7) AUDEN, W. H. (1964): Introduction to William Shakespeare: The Sonnets

(ed. W. Burts). The Signet Classic Shakespeare. London (The New English Library Ltd.).

(8) LEISHMAN, J. B. (1961): Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's SonnetsLondon (Hutchinson).

(9) SEYMOUR‑SMITH, M. (1963): Shakespeare's Sonnets. London (Heinemann). On Sonnet 24 the editor quotes the comment of Miss M. M. Mahood: "The resultant image is pure Bosch".

(10) TUCKER, T. G. (1924): The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Cambridge (University Press).

(11) DICKINSON, P. (1954): 'Shakespeare considered as a poet'. In Talking of Shakespeare (ed. J. Garrett). London (Hodder and Stoughtori).