This year is the 400th anniversary of the "publication" of "a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes." 154 sonnets and a long poem, "A Lover's Complaint" - and people are still debating about whether or not Shakespeare wrote the poems, who the poems are addressed to, and whether or not the author ever intended to make them public.
There are a number of stories and blog posts about Shakespeare's sonnets lately. It's good if it bring attention to the poems, but a lot of it is scandal and entertainment news writing.
NPR did a story "Did Shakespeare Want To Suppress His Sonnets?"
They based the piece on a new book, So Long as Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
The sonnets are dedicated to a “Mr. W.H.”, a person whose identity is still not known for sure - the most popular guess is William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.
Herbert was a patron of Shakespeare. He was also probably bisexual. That leads some critics to think that the sonnets addressed to the “fair youth” might be Shakespeare’s expression of love for Herbert.
Of course, we are not sure if the author even wrote the dedication page. And there are also the sonnets lusting for a married woman - the dark-complexioned "dark Lady."
I wrote a post on another blog about using some video as a pre-writing activity and suggested one from UC Berkeley about Shakespeare and the Spanish Connection. That led to Hugh Richmond from Berkeley emailing me. He pointed me to other videos on their website and on Google from ShakespeareStaging.Berkeley.edu.
I found a page there of sonnets about the sonnets which makes a good extra writing prompt if you're interested.
Here are two examples that address issues with the way we read the sonnets.
Against Mr. A. L. Rowse's Naming of the Dark Lady
My dark, false love thou boldly claim'st to know,
And would'st discover her with eager pen,
Though I, much wiser, chose no name to show,
Preferring seasoned silence even then.
But thou, untempered by discretion's grace,
In thought most rude, in action rash, unfair,
Would'st raise thy upstart will to chiefest place,
Pressing thy point when wiser would forbear.
Thus thou, aroused by passion for a name,
Hast set thy pen to willful arguments
Which gull the innocent to fix thy claim,
Unwittingly, in willful ignorance.
Yet simple truth and tale in part agree,
Proving that both our ladies false may be.
-- Patricia White
In Praise of the Literal
Above my mistress' nose, on either side,
Her eyes are firmly fixéd in her face;
Her lips, which smile when pleased or satisfied,
Beneath this self-same nose hold to their place.
This sonnet may, at this point, be attacked
For lack of simile and metaphor;
For dealing slavishly with concrete fact;
But since I'm neither bard nor troubador,
Poetic standards don't apply to me.
I won't say: "It's like that," or "It's like this."
I'll see a thing and tell you what I see,
Refusing to indulge in artifice.
So here's the truth, no versifier's lies:
My mistress' eyes are - like my mistress' eyes.
-- George Wallace