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THE SHAPESPEAREAN ENIGMA
HE authentic facts relating to the life, habits and writings
of Shakespeare are curiously vague and meager, if not altogether wanting. When it is considered that it is little more than three hundred years since he lived and wrote, and that many of his plays and all of his poetry were published during his lifetime, some of the plays and poems several times, and that seven years after his death all of his plays were carefully gathcred and published in one volume, all this indicating a serious interest in his works, it is hardly conceivable that there should not have survived reliable knowledge touching the man in his relations with those with whom he lived. Aside from his works, thus printed, not a written or printed sentence has been found that is known to have emanated from his pen. And yet he lived · at a time when correspondence was a common thing among intellectual people, and when contemporaneous writers wrote and published much concerning men of importance and note, descriptive of their habits, appearance and manner of living.
Had letters to or from Shakespeare ever existed, or had he been of sufficient interest or importance in his lifetime to have excited others to discuss him, we cannot bring ourselves to believe that destruction would have overwhelmed all these precious records, before the general interest in the man had become such as to have given all such things great value, and have insured their preservation. And yet nothing has been found, or in probability will ever be found, from which it might reasonably be concluded that there was any considerable interest in Shakespeare's personality in his lifetime.
After most diligent search, a few references in contemporaneous writings have been found to indicate that Shakespeare's writings while he lived had some recognition, for they were highly praised, in the few instances where they were mentioned at all. But there is nothing at all found commensurate with the
intellectual interest that should have been excited by works that were then recognized for their beauty and high literary charac ter, and which have constantly grown in esteem, until they have been by universal consent accorded the highest place in the literature of all times.
It is a further notable fact that Shakespeare personally excited little or no interest. He seems to have lived unnoticed and unattached. No proof has been adduced from which we may conclude that he had friends or close associates; that he lived with, or apart from, or that he ever visited, his family; or how, or where he lived; or that he ever revisited his old home, where his family is supposed to have continued to reside, after he departed therefrom for London, except the officially recorded facts that he purchased property in Stratford, and is buried there. While it is generally believed that he lived in London, there is but little, if any positive evidence of the fact; there is also a tradition that he was an actor, and yet the evidence as to this is extremely slight, and not conclusive.
Anything that would bring any enlightenment upon any of these subjects would be received with interest. The amount of research that has been expended to develop something along these lines, would surely have met with some success, were it not the fact that really nothing exists, and probably never did exist, of a written or lasting nature, that could gratify the longing for light upon these or any other matters, relating to him.
All of this has been said so often, and is so well understood, that it is needless to be repeated as a simple matter of information. The excuse for saying it over again is to emphasize the conditions, which are in themselves so extraordinary as to have a bearing, somewhat indirectly, upon what is to follow, for there must be a cause for conditions so unusual, and what is to follow may develop the cause, and thus conditions become a material witness in proof of the theory to be expounded.
Notwithstanding these puzzling conditions, it is a fact that Shakespeare lived, and wrote wonderfully and voluminously, and at this distance from the time of his living, and after the fruitless search of so many years, it is believed there remains but one field, and that not unexplored, where it may yet be hoped to find some long-buried treasure, that will reward the desire for information. That field is his written works. All other stores may be considered as exhausted, and as having yielded little, or
nothing. The only source remaining is what Shakespeare said of himself-what he may have been willing to preserve of himself.
In the great mass of his writings there is nothing to indicate any hidden meaning-nothing obscure enough to lead us to conclude that there might be something concealed beneath a surface, which shows plainly its own precious contents. The very nature of his dramatic works is such, in their impersonal character, as to preclude the possibility of Shakespeare being seen in or through them. His characterizations are so vivid and so various, that in them all mankind may be viewed in panorama, but Shakespeare himself is always out of sight. In all of his wonderful portrayal of others in his plays, he has not left the slightest trace of Shakespeare himself.
There is one source however, though not altogether unexplored, which is still promising to the investigator, and that is The Sonnets and some of his poems.
The Sonnets are 80 puzzling and enigmatical, that it is hard to believe that they mean what they pretend to say. No one can read them thoughtfully without feeling that there is something hidden in their depths, and that he is invited to find it if he can.
The history of the Sunnets is briefly this: there are 164 of them; two of these-138 and 144—in somewhat different form from what they are generally known, were published as a part of The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599. Otherwise none of the Sonnets, so far as is known, were published until 1609, when Shakespeare was 45 years old. In 1698, Meres in his Palladis Tamia mentioned several of Shakespeare's plays in a highly laudatory way, and also referred to the Sonnets as "his sugered Sonnets among private friends." They were published as a whole in 1609, nearly in the form in which they are now generally printed, and so far as known were not published again in Shakespeare's lifetime. He died seven years after this publication. The publication of 1609 is known as the quarto, and in it the Sonnets are numbered in consecutive order. They have been published several times, not in the order found in the quarto, but otherwise grouped, to suit the ideas of editors or publishers, who sought thereby to improve the order, and thus to assist in their better understanding. The consecutive order of the quarto is the one in which they will be treated, and with a few exceptions it is believed it is the order in which they were composed.
The following dedication was printed, preceding the Sonnets, in the 1609 quarto: TO . THE . ONLY BEGETTER. OF. THESE . INSUING SONNETS W. H . ALL. HAPPINESSE AND . THAT . ETERNITIE. PROMBY . OUR . EVER-LIVING . POET . WISHETH
T.T. Shakespeare is not supposed to be the author of the dedica
ADVO". IN . SETTING. FORTH . tion. There is no reason for believing that he had anything to do with it, and in itself it would not be considered of any importance or interest, except for the fact that “Mr. W. H.” is mentioned. That has led many to imagine that "W. H.” are the initials of the individual to whom the Sonnets were originally addressed. Much pains have been taken to identify the person represented by the initials, but nothing satisfactory has resulted. The dedication will be passed until the Sonnets have been treated.
Many students of the Sonnets have come to the conclusion that they are, to some extent, biographical, and it has been imagined that if they could be properly read or construed, they would divulge something concerning their author. Reading them according to their obvious meaning is extremely perplexing. A sonnet read by itself may impress the reader as very beautiful, and its meaning as evident. Another one may be found equally as beautiful, and its meaning also evident, but as between the two there is a confusion of subjects and ideas, if not a contradiction, and this lack of accordance continues on throughout, until taking them all together, there is much confusion of meaning, and it has been found impossible to construe all of them as addressed to any one of ordinary human qualities. It has generally been presumed that the first 126 sonnets are all written to the same person, a young man, but when all have been read, and each digested, there remains in the reader's mind a strange and unnatural incongruity, and a lack of consecutive thought and incident. The young recipient of the sonnets seems to be lauded at times beyond all human perfection, importing in the author the most perfect trust and love. The author is ever promising to immortalize the subject in his verse, and often attributes to the subject the power of inspiring the author in all that he does. And again, this same young man, is charged by the author with outrageous perfidy and falsity and betrayals, and then the poet instead of defying him in a manly way, submits with abject servility, and instead of condemnation and denouncement, heaps on him the most lavish praise and renews towards him his vows of confidence and love. The subject can do nothing, however damnifying, that Shakespeare does not forgive, and then often takes on himself the responsibility for the injury that has been inflicted by his devoted friend.
In the latter, or "Dark Woman,” sonnets, the poet expresses in the same sonnet the most devoted fascination and love, and the blackest horror and hatred for his mistress. These “Dark Woman” sonnets are those following the 126th, and continuing to and including the 152nd. These are plainly addressed, generally, to a female character, and all who have studied the sonnets agree in putting them in a different group from the 126 preceding.
The last two sonnets—153 and 154—seem to be altogether disconnected from the other two groups. These two sonnets express identically the same ideas, in treating of the same subject. Their meaning becomes altogether plain, when the poet's illness, referred to in them, is identified, and the sonnets construed with reference to it.
. No matter what might be the result of a complete analysis of the sonnets, if the key for their interpretation has been found, no disclosure of Shakespeare's moral character can be made, that would make him appear weaker or more pusillanimous than does the obvious and literal reading, which explorers have heretofore given them.
The solution of the sonnets will not develop a strong moral hero of the author, as every lover of his poetry would wish might be done. He will not be shown in all respects as an ideal man, but he will be raised infinitely above the morally weak, servile, prostituted and unnatural man that wears the outward dress in which the Sonnets have enrobed him, and it will be a relief to divest him of these debasing habiliments, though it be not possible to reinvest him in spotless robes.
This means, of course, that in the proposed solving of the problems of the Sonnets, that the outward or obvious readings are to be stripped off, and that there is to be found beneath, a new, reasonable, clear, and satisfactory reading, not at all in consonance with the interpretations which have been attempted through a literal reading. It should not be necessary to warn