Autobiographical Elements in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Autobiographical Elements in Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Are Shakespeare’s Sonnets Autobiographical?

Whether the sonnets of William Shakespeare are autobiographical or not is a perplexing question that has raised eternal conflict among readers, critics and commentators in different ages. So, are the sonnets of Shakespeare autobiographical? It is a matter of great discussion. Let’s explore the autobiographical elements in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 

Whether the sonnets of William Shakespeare are autobiographical or not is a perplexing question that has raised eternal conflict among readers, critics and commentators in different ages. The sonnet as a specimen of subjective poetry is necessarily personal. But howfar can the Shakespearean sonnets be called personal in the true sense of the term?

Analysis of Autobiographical Elements in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 

Are the sonnets of Shakespeare autobiographical? There are different ways of interpreting the sonnets of Shakespeare. Some have regarded the sonnets autobiographical, and to that end they have ransacked contemporary history to identify Mr. W.H, the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet. 

Sonnet is a kind of lyric, and lyric is self-expression. And Shakespeare must have unlocked his heart in his sonnets. Some have regarded the sonnets of Shakespeare as allegorical. Some consider the sonnets to be impersonal and merely conventional literary exercises – a species of Vers de Societe. Each sonnet is a dramatic monologue. Other charactetistics of a drama can also be discerned in the sonnets. The conflict between love and friendship that we have noticed in The Two Gentleman of Verona is more bitter and agonizing in the sonnets. Shakespeare and his lady-love has also a ring of sincerity that reminds us of the great tragedies. 

The autobiographical element in the sonnets was first emphasised in the Romantic period. The Romantic critics recognised the importance of the sonnet much more than their predecessors. They had a finer poetic sensibility. They, therefore, could better appreciate the poetry of sonnets and they appreciated the sonnets as the vehicle of self-expression. The sonnets and lyrics, they believed, were self-portrayals.

The Romantics were throughly convinced that Shakespeare in his sonnets opened his heart and revealed his personality, and they are a sentimental autobiography of the poet. Heine considered the sonnets to be the “authentic records of the circumstances of Shakespeare’s life”.

Of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the great romantic poet Wordsworth has said, 

“With this key/ Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” 

Wordsworth asserts that Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal much of the heart their creator. But against this assertion the famous Victorian poet Robert Browning has remarked,

“With this key/ Shakespeare unlocked his heart once more/ Did Shakespeare?/ If so the less Shakespeare he.”

So the question of subjectivity in Shakespeare’s sonnets is a question of perplexity. However, from a careful study of his sonnets, we humbly think that they are, on the whole personal and in order to determine the personal elements in them, two things must be noted at the outset.

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First of all, Shakespeare’s sonnets were not written like most of the conventional Petrarchan sonnets of the Elizabethan Age, as mere literary exercises for publication. Indeed, they were never intended for publication at all. Theybwere written to give an effective expression of the heart and mind of the poet for some living beings with whom he came in close contact. 

Secondly, Shakespeare’s sonnets are to be distinguished from his dramas which are essentially impersonal, while his sonnets are the faithful poetic records of the poet’s thoughts and emotional responses to certain events.

Indeed, the personal elements in the great sonnets of Shakespeare are unmistakably present as Dr. S.P Sengupta has wisely remarked in his treaties, 

“In the intensity of passion and sincerity of feeling as revealed in the sonnets; one can hear the warm heart-beats of the poet which can not be expressed unless one experiences it. The ideal devotion to the friend may have a conventional touch but the freshly passion, expressed so poignantly rings absolutely true.”

These sonnets clearly bring out the poet’s view and sentiment, his passions and pains, his hopes and frustration, his ideals and aspirations. 

In the first one hundred and twenty-six sonnets, Shakespeare has idealized his immortal friendship with devotion to a young man, perhaps this young man was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. The Elizabethan sonneteers generally idealized their lady-love in their sonnets, but Shakespeare has idealized a graceful young man, his friend and patron. That is why he has celebrated him in so many sonnets. 

Autobiographical Elements in Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day:

In “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day“, the poet eloquently describes the charming beauty of his friend.  He asserts that his friend’s complexion is more lovely than the “golden complexion” of the rising sun and he is more fresh than the “darling buds of May”. So the poet says:

“Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

His complexion is more lovely than the ‘golden complexion of the rising sun’ and he is more fresh than the ‘darling buds of May’. But the poet knows that, 

“And every fair from fair sometimes decline”

The poet will not allow his friend’s beauty to be decayed by the cruel ravages of time. With profound love for his friend and firm conviction in himself, the poet hopes to immortalise him in his “eternal lines” of his sonnets and boldly declares:

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“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

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Autobiographical Elements in That Time of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold:

In the sonnet, “That Time of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold”, the poet again sincerely expresses himself. In it there is no artificiality of the conventional sonnet-writers. On the other hand, a striking note of sincerity rings all through. The poet fervently hopes that his friend will not forget him, noticing the signs of decling age in him. He compares his old age to decaying Autumn, to evening twilight and also to a dying fire. With full confidence, he hopes that his friend certainly will realise how brief youth and life are and therefore, he would surely love him with a renewed intensity. Hence the poet says,

“In me thou sees 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 perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well, which thou must ere leave long.”

Autobiographical Elements in Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds:

In “Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds”, Shakespeare gives an emphatic expression of what ideal friendship is. He says that true friendship or true love is eternal and unchangeable. Its true worth can never be expressed in words nor measured by earthly things. The poet certainly felt what he had expressed ; otherwise he could not have uttered with so much sincerity the following lines –

“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom;

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Conclusion:

From the above discussion, we may safely conclude that Shakespeare’s sonnets record his conception of love, friendship, ideals and attitudes to life in varied aspects. His lofty ideal of love, his noble sentiment of devotion and his unfailing regard for the immortal power of verse as revealed in his sonnets show that he is a man of magnanimous mind.

There are other sonnets towards the end of the Southampton sequence; for instance, sonnets of the Dark Lady (Sonnets No 127 – 152) for whom Shakespeare feels an irresistible passion but who betrays him and loves his patron leaving Shakespeare to heave and shy. These sonnets are certainly autobiographical.

Indeed, Shakespeare’s sonnets are immensely interesting as an autobiography of a certain period of his life, and the revelation of his psychology at that particular period. These can not be the bare literary exercises to float with the tide of time.

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