Introduction to the Sonnets

In the history of the world the year 1609 seems to be a year of no great consequence. James I had been on the English throne for six years. The Dutch signed a twelve year truce with Spain ushering in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Galileo built a telescope with which he observed the planets. Cosimo II de Medici became the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Construction of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul began in this year. All these events were important at the time to those directly involved and to a lesser extent to the wider world. However few would regard the publication of



Neuer before Imprinted




By G.Eld for T.T. and are

to be ſolde by William Aſpley.


Approximate Facsimile of Title page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.[1]

as an item of great moment. Yet were it not for the publication of this work, there would be extant only two of Shakespeare’s sonnets, 138 and 144, neither of which are thought to be among his best and most memorable.[2] We therefore are indebted to the publisher of this book for bringing to light an incomparable series of poems which has no equal in world literature. It has been claimed that the work is a pirated edition, and that Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, obtained his copy by theft or subterfuge. If that is so, then even as a pirate or a thief we still owe him a debt of gratitude, for it is not at all evident that the poems would otherwise have been published. The First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published by Heminge and Condell in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, did not include his poems. As fellow actors and theatre owners, they were mainly interested in his plays, and the narrative poems had already been printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. There was therefore no need to add anything extra or extraneous to the First Folio, which was in itself a sufficiently costly undertaking.

We rely entirely upon the 1609 Quarto edition published by Thomas Thorpe for our knowledge of the sonnets. In those days there were no copyright laws to protect authors. They were dependent upon their own wits and the assistance of entrepreneurs in the printing world, members of the Stationers Company, for getting their works published and for obtaining any income from those works. Such laws as existed were used to protect the Stationers from predation by other publishers.

There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare resolved that his sonnets should not be published. It would indeed be strange if the man who could write

Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade
hen in eternal lines to time thou growest. 18.11-12.


Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead; 81. 9-12.

should consider it a matter of indifference if those lines were never seen or published or read and were in no sense eternal. Of course we may ascribe such sentiments to the exaggerated hyperbole of the sonnet form, ‘a poet’s rage, and stretched metre of an antique song’, and it has been fashionable from the Romantic period onwards to think of Shakespeare as the sublime inspired poet writing immortal lines, but not in the least concerned whether his words should survive his own demise. Yet there is ample evidence to show that he was not such a man, that he was very practical, concerned with establishing his position in society, and concerned that his family name should continue after his death. His will alone is enough to establish this point, with its detailed conditional bestowal of assets down to the possible sixth and seventh sons of his daughter Susannah and to their heirs.[3]

Shakespeare clearly was not averse to having his works published. His Venus and Adonis ran through many editions. His narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece he also published, with a fulsome dedication to the Earl of Southampton. The fact that many of his plays were not published in his lifetime may have many explanations. They were among the most popular plays of the period and were frequently performed, so that they had a wide audience already. Publication might have diluted this audience, or indeed made the works available to rival companies. The author was perhaps too busy to arrange the awkward business of publication. It is always possible that he did contemplate a complete edition of his works, such as that which Ben Jonson managed to achieve, but perhaps work and illness and an untimely death prevented him. These are of course all conjectures, but we should not take the absence of evidence about Shakespeare’s publishing intentions to be indicative that he did not wish to have his Sonnets published. The main basis for the claim that the work was pirated has always been that there is something unsavoury in the subject matter of the poems. Nearly three quarters of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a man. The remaining ones mostly describe rather lurid episodes in his infatuation for a dark woman, the so called ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets. The final poem in the book, A Lover’s Complaint, has in the past been more or less sidelined and not discussed in relation to the sonnets at all.[4]

However, setting aside the supposedly unsavoury nature of the work, (which I shall deal with later), there is strong internal evidence that the Sonnets were carefully prepared for publication. In the first place there is the tripartite division of the work. The first group of sonnets, 1 - 126 are addressed to a man. They are sonnets mostly of pure love and devotion, marred by the fact that the beloved fair youth does not correspond to the ideal which the poet has created of love and the loved object, and also marred by the poet’s occasional failure to live up to the ideal of love as he envisages it. The second group, 127 – 152, describes his love, or perhaps infatuation for his dark mistress. The love shown in these poems is tainted and distorted by sexual attraction. The poet laments that his mistress has such power over him. Two Anacreontic sonnets conclude the sequence. Finally the work is rounded off by a poem describing love betrayed, A Lover’s Complaint. In this case it is a young woman’s love for a man which is portrayed, but the woman is cruelly seduced and abandoned by the man, whose sole purpose from the outset was sexual conquest.

This division into three main parts corresponds with many other sonnet sequences published in the period, such as Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Phillis – and Spenser’s Amoretti.[5] It may seem strange to modern taste, but it was not unusual at the time. In any case there is a notable harmonious relationship between the three sections, characterised broadly by their themes, as follows. Pure love:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. 116. 1-2.

Tainted love:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her though I know she lies. 138. 1-2.

Love betrayed but redeemed by sacrifice:

Ay me! I fell, and yet do question make
What I would do again for such a sake. LC. 321-2.

Or we may see it as depicting and contrasting love between a man and a man, a man and a woman, a woman and a man.

There are other strands woven into the poems, particularly the religious references, which occur so frequently that they cannot be ignored, and which suggest that we could interpret them also on a secondary or tertiary level. The three sections could divide into, for example, the true church, the false harlot church, the church betrayed or betraying. These are not rigid categories, but they are suggested by the language of the sonnets, as I hope to show subsequently, and they do indicate a high degree of thought and preparation in the organisation of the sequence.

Aside from this there is also to be considered the placing of individual sonnets in significant positions in the sequence, such as 1, the carefully composed introductory sonnet; 12 - the twelve hours of the day; 52 – the weeks of the long year, 60 - the sixty minutes of the hour, 104 - perhaps a dating sonnet for the year 1604; 126, with its two blank lines bringing the first part of the sequence to an end; the climacteric sonnets 49 and 63. And 101 which I discuss later as a possible dating reference for the year 1601. All this bears not the stamp of some hastily cobbled together ill matched group of sonnets, but carries with it a sense of ordering and structure which has been carefully thought out and applied. No attempt at re-ordering the sequence of the sonnets has ever been successful and there is no evidence to suggest that this is not the sequence which Shakespeare intended.

Internally therefore there appears to be strong evidence for regarding the Sonnets as being presented in the sequence and arrangement that Shakespeare had intended for them. External and independent evidence for the proposition that the work was pirated seems to depend on a dislike of the subject matter and the fact that piracy in the publishing world was not uncommon. Possibly some of the Quarto editions of the plays were stolen versions, although without direct documentary evidence by way of protests or apologies it is impossible to be certain which were the unauthorised editions, and which were not. Our deductions are based mainly on the quality of the text of the various Quarto editions, not on external factors. It is of course possible that this is an edition of the Sonnets as Shakespeare intended it to be, but that it is stolen copy and Thomas Thorpe is the rascal publisher who stepped in between the publication and Shakespeare’s hopes. In which case we may malign Thorpe to our heart’s content, but it hardly makes any difference, for we have what we desire, the Sonnets as Shakespeare intended them to be seen. One has to consider also the additional fact that the book was entered in the Stationer’s Register for 1609 in an entirely normal manner. If Thorpe was a pariah in the publishing world it might have been difficult for him to have managed this.

But there is yet one further stumbling block in our attempts to free the Sonnets from the attaint of stolen property, namely the enigmatic dedication which is prefixed to them. Many have interpreted the wording of this dedication as evidence that the work was unauthorised. In particular they seize on the phrase ‘the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets’ as pointing to something surreptitiously acquired or to someone filching a manuscript or aiding another to obtain it. And there is no doubt that the dedication is puzzling and perhaps deliberately misleading. Here it is in full.[6]






T. T.

T.T. is evidently Thomas Thorpe, but there is no agreement about the identity of Mr. W.H. He is possibly the fair youth who inspired the sonnets (although not all of them), or the one who acquired the manuscript, or someone else. It is not possible to identify him. However it seems unlikely that, if Thorpe had acquired the manuscript by clandestine means, he would openly boast of his theft and give a clue to the identity of his accomplice.

My interpretation of this dedication is entirely different, and I maintain that it is written by Shakespeare, or at least put there with his agreement, and that its wording is consistent with the themes of the Sonnets. In particular the phrase onlie begetter is an oblique reference to the fair youth of the Sonnets and to the onlie begotten Son of God of the Bible, Christ. Undoubtedly the reference could be seen as blasphemous, and it is treading a very fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. But the phrase onlie begotten does not occur other than in a biblical context, and it seems unlikely that contemporary readers woulkd be unaware of this, and fail to notice the echo in the words onlie begetter. The fact that this interpretation of the words is not generally seized upon suggests that Shakespeare was using it before an audience, perhaps a select one, who understood its meaning. The reason I propose that we should see this link is that it ties in with many of the thoughts expressed in the sonnets about the beloved and about the lover himself. In this context Sonnet 37 is important and provides many of the clues as to how we should interpret those sonnets which have quasi-religious language or themes. I have italicised the words which have a biblical or religious reference.

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

In the opening of St Johns’s Gospel we find the words

And the same word became fleshe, and dwelt among us (and we sawe the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten sonne of the father) full of grace and trueth.

John 1.14. [7]

In this sonnet we find that the youth is praised for his ‘worth and truth’ (l.4) and also admired for his ‘glory’(l.12). This is an unusual combination of words to find in a 14 line sonnet. It is true that ‘worth’ replaces the ‘grace’ of the Gospel, but perhaps the complete phrase would be too much of a direct reference and could lay the poet open to the charge of blasphemy, a serious matter in those times. But the mere fact that the beloved is being praised for his ‘truth’ is in itself an oddity. Whereas beauty, birth, wealth and wit may be desirable and oft praised qualities, truth in a loved one does not seem entirely relevant, especially as later on we find that he is not particularly faithful. Hence I would argue that the connection with the Gospel is all the more probable, since it is not an obvious epithet to apply.

There has also been much discussion of line 9. Can the poet really have been lame![8] I would suggest that this is a reference to Luke:

But when thou makest a feast, call the poore, the feeble, the lame, & the blynde.


The contrast that is being built up is between the glory, nobility and abundant good qualities of the beloved and the lowliness and wretchedness of the lover. He is despised among men, a familiar phrase from Isaiah

He is dispised and abhorred of men, he is such a man as hath good experience of sorowes and infirmities. Isaiah 53.3.

But his love for the youth rescues him from this calamity. ‘So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised’. The youth is identified with the only begotten, the Son of God, while the lover, the poet, becomes an abject creature, one of the poor, feeble and meek, who will nevertheless inherit the earth. There is also a partial identification of the poet with the suffering Christ, he becomes, temporarily at least, the despised Christ taunted and mocked by the Jews. In a sense this is inevitable, since beloved and lover are one, they therefore share the same interchangeable identity. The theme of the suffering Christ is used again in some of the later sonnets.[9]

There is yet another religious reference in line 10. The introduction of shadow and substance at this point is very odd and seems almost inexplicable. What exactly is meant by ‘this shadow’ and what is the substance that it gives? Some light is shed on the meaning if we consider the words of the Nicene creed:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

Once again the identification is being made between the beloved and ‘the onlie-begotten’. Perhaps the mention of ‘father’ in line 1 brought the passage subconsciously to mind. In any case, the concatenation of the two words, ‘father’ and ‘substance’ is not common and is enough to make the reader wonder what the references might be. There is an additional meaning of ‘substance’ which most Jacobean readers would be familiar with. It is given as the primary meaning in OED, and it refers to the nature or essence of God, with special reference to the Trinity. A further meaning 3c., relates to the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, the body of Christ as transubstantiated at the communion. These are the relevant OED entries:

1. Essential nature, essence; esp. Theol., with regard to the being of God, the divine nature or essence in respect of which the three Persons of the Trinity are one.
14501530 Myrr. Our Ladye 4 The glory of the blessyd endeles Trinite in onehed of substaunce and of Godhede. 1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 197 The pure substaunce of god in his owne nature & deite. 1585 Dyer Prayse of Nothing Writ. (Grosart) 77 That substance, which we communicate with Angels, being created of nothing. 1597 Hooker Eccl. Pol. v. lii. §3 In Christ therefore God and man there is a two-folde substance, not a two-folde person, because one person extinguisheth an other, whereas one nature cannot in another become extinct. c1610 Women Saints 173/11 [Arius] affirming the Sonne of god to be of inferiour substance to his Father.
In addition there is:
3.c. with reference to the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
1546 Gardiner Detect. Deuils Sophistrie 14b, The substaunce of bred, beyng conuerted into the naturall bodely substaunce of our sauioure [printed souioure] Christe. 1565 Harding Answ. Jewel 162b, In this Sacrament after consecration there remayneth+onely the accidentes and shewes, without the substance of bread and wyne. 1597 Hooker Eccl. Pol. v. lxvii. §10 How the wordes of Christ commaunding vs to eate must needes importe that as hee hath coupled the substance of his fleshe and the substance of bread together, so we together should receiue both.

All this might seem tortured and far-fetched to a modern ear but clearly would not have appeared so to a contemporary reader who would have been familiar with the theological disputes of the day. This shadow which such substance gives, probably refers back to the store of qualities which the youth possesses, worth, truth, beauty, birth, wealth, wit, abstract shadowy qualities, which nevertheless transubstantiate into something much more real and divine. But in its Eucharistic reference it perhaps means that the bread and wine are the shadow, (or the accidentes and shewes of the 1565 quotation above) while the body and blood of Christ are the substance or essence.

So this is yet another link that suggests that we are being steered towards equating the beloved with Christ, or perhaps equating human love with divine love, or perhaps allegorically implying that we will find our faith and consolation through religion.

Further confirmation of the religious threads running through this sonnet is to be found in Psalm 37, which also contains verbal echoes in ‘truth’, abundance’, ‘poor’. The theme of the Psalm is:

Put thou thy trust in God, and be doing good: dwell in the land, and feede in trueth. Ps.3.3.

Here perhaps is a reason why the fair youth must be praised for his ‘truth’. He personifies all that is good in the world. The poet however is not his equal, but he need not despair, for

... the meeke spirited shall possesse the earth: and shalbe delighted in the aboundaunce of peace. PS.37.11.

And indeed the poet declares that ‘I in thy abundance am sufficed,’ and he lives in the reflected glory of the beloved.. Finally the reference to the poor, the lame and despised find an echo in

The vngodly haue drawen out the sworde, and haue bended their bowe: to cast downe the poore and needie, and to slay such as be of right conuersation. PS.37.14.

Without the love that the youth shows towards him, the poet would be cast out with the poor, the needy and the lame. But he is rescued by this love and suffices in its abundance.

It is probable that we would not pick out these cross references if this were not Sonnet 37 echoing Psalm 37, but the coincidence is too great to ignore. The references also dovetail in with more religious hints and suggestions which occur in some of the other (mostly later in the sequence) sonnets. Surprisingly there are very few verbal echoes of the Psalms in the Sonnets.[10]

Clearly this echoing and re-echoing of pregnant words is operating in a number of ways. It is enriching the vocabulary of love and revealing the complexity of the experience. It is highlighting the similarities between divine and human love. It is also perhaps acting allegorically, or on a secondary level, expressing a love for, say, truth, beauty, religion, the true god. We cannot be sure what the intention is, but it is clear that the references are not entirely accidental.

It is interesting to speculate on the significance of the number 37. Why choose Sonnet 37 to make these biblical references? Shakespeare was 37 in the year 1601, and it is possible that this year has some special relevance in relation to the Sonnets. It was the year in which The Phoenix and the Turtle was published, a strange enigmatic work which also has love as its theme. It celebrates beauty, truth and grace, the qualities of divinity enshrined in St. John’s Gospel and celebrated in the Sonnets to the youth.

And the same word became fleshe, and dwelt among us (and we sawe the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten sonne of the father) full of grace and trueth.

John 1.14.

Beauty, truth and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.
P&T 53-55.

It also deals obliquely with the mystery of the Trinity and the essence of the Eucharist, cloaked in the language of the unity of the two loving birds as ideals of saintly love.

So they loved as love in twain 25
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain. 29


Property was thus appalled, 37
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called. 40

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together, 42
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded: PT 25-29; 37-44.

This echoes the traditional language of love poetry of the time, as for example Sir Philip Sidney’s

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
The Bargain

But the Sidney work does not have the overtones of theological reference which Shakespeare’s poem has. There are references in these lines of PT to the Eucharist (25-29), to the mystery of the Incarnation (38-40), possibly also to the Trinity (41-2), and perhaps also to the relationship of faith and reason in the Christian tradition. There are many verbal echoes in the Sonnets themselves to PT, perhaps the most striking being that between Sonnet 125 and ll.43-4 of PT.

To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded: PT 43-4.

For compound sweet forgoing simple savour 125. 7.

It must be admitted that there is no easy explanation of the P&T lines. The simple savour of the sonnet is probably hinting at the Eucharist, or the substance of the godhead which has been forfeited for more erudite but false beliefs. In P&T the meaning is perhaps that as singular essences neither the phoenix nor the turtle were as perfect as when they were combined miraculously, astounding reason, into one substance. The hidden references being to the mystery of the twofold nature of the Eucharist, the body and blood which are the complete essence of Christ both together and, ‘under either kind alone’[11] and probably also to the mystery of the Incarnation, the Father giving his only begotten son to the world, and yet the two remaining one.[12] ( I deal more fully with the various religious references of Sonnet 125 below (p.23)).

But returning to the date of 1601, it is perhaps worth looking at Sonnet 101, which, being the first in the new century of sonnets (i.e. No. 101), might be a pointer to the first year of the new century, 1601. What is interesting in this sonnet, which I give below, is that once again we find similar themes arising, particular the divine qualities of beauty and truth.

O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say
'Truth needs no colour, with his colour fixed;
Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay;
But best is best, if never intermixed?'
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so; for't lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how
To make him seem long hence as he shows now. 101

This once again is the ‘beauty, truth and rarity’ of P&T, as well as the ‘worth and truth,’ and ‘beauty, birth etc.’ Of Sonn 37. And yet there is one even more striking echo from 37, for line 8 of 101 above seems to hark back to the closing couplet of 37:

But best is best, if never intermixed 101.8

‘Look what is best, that best I wish in thee
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!’
37. 13-14.

It is worth noting how much Sonnet 101 is suffused with religious imagery. ‘What shall be thy amends’ is suggestive of penance after absolution; ‘neglect of truth’ is a religious failing, a sin against the Holy Spirit; ‘truth and beauty’ are qualities of the Son of God; ‘But best is best, if never intermixed’ is a reference perhaps to the communion wafer (see below); ‘praise’, ‘be praised of ages yet to be’ is reminiscent of Praise ye the Lord, Hosannah in the highest, Gloria in excelsis, in saecula saeculorum, etc.; ‘a gilded tomb’ recalls the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but probably more directly the gilded sepulchre which was decked with costly cloths at the Easter service in the old Sarum rite of the Mass; ‘do thy office’ recalls the priestly task of reciting divine office (prayers) at various times of the day.

Line 8 of Sonn 101 ‘But best is best, if never intermixed’ echoes not only 37.13, ‘Look what is best, that best I wish in thee’,[13] but also hides a link to the ‘oblation, poor but free’ of Sonn 125, an offering which ‘is not mixed with seconds, knows no art’. A simple offering, in other words, made from the best material. Booth[14] points out that instructions appended to the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) go into detail about obtaining for communion bread – ‘the best and purest wheat bread, that conveniently may be gotten’ BCP, p198. (See the discussion on Sonn 125 below). The connection is somewhat tenuous, but in the context of the other religious and liturgical echoes embedded in these sonnets, it is not too far fetched. We are being invited to see something divine in ‘the best’, perhaps the Eucharist, perhaps the onlie-begotten, perhaps God in one of the forms made manifest to Christians. The line from Sonn. 101, ‘But best is best, if never intermixed’, read in isolation is tautological and almost meaningless. It needs some external reference to give it substance. Equally the line from 37. ‘Look what is best, that best I wish in thee’ arises as it were from nowhere. We have been told that the beloved is incomparable in terms of truth, beauty, worth, glory, and now it seems that ‘the best’ must be wished upon him, whatever ‘the best’ is. Perhaps there is some additional meaning which surpasses all these other qualities.

Although it is not clear precisely why these references are buried in these sonnets and to what they might be pointing or what they are commemorating, it is evident that there is some meaning implied over and above that of mere loving declarations to the youth. To what extent the year 1601 is relevant one may only conjecture. The most dramatic event of the year was the uprising led by Essex and his subsequent execution. Shakespeare’s company had strong links with Essex, and it is known that they performed Richard II for his household on the eve of the insurrection. How they extricated themselves from complicity in the event is not known. It is possible that Essex had protected them in other ways, and he could have had covert Catholic sympathies, which may have contributed to his downfall. But even so it is unclear what sort of message these two sonnets, 37 and 101, might have been intended to convey. They were written perhaps in 1601 but not published until 1609. But private readers there might have been aplenty. However, all that we can establish is that they, along with various other sonnets in the sequence, do carry some sort of covert religious message.

As we proceed through the sonnets we find various other links to Christian texts. I will take these references in sequence. Sonnet 34 deals with sorrow, denial and repentance. The links are not as strong as in the sonnet just dealt with, but to the attentive ear they are clearly present. In this sonnet the words repent, offender, cross, tears and ransom in lines 10 - 14 are words which invoke Christian teachings of sin, forgiveness and redemption. The tears of repentance in line 13, like Peter's tears on remembering what Jesus had said to him, also point to a strong New Testament echo.

Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence's cross.
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds. 34.10-14

In this sonnet the poet links himself to the sufferings of Christ. He is the one betrayed, the one who has to bear the cross, the one who forgives, the one for whom tears are shed. The words offender and offence may be linked to Peter’s denial of Christ.

Then sayth Iesus vnto them: All ye shalbe offended because of me this night. For it is written: I wyll smyte the shephearde, and the sheepe of the flocke shalbe scattered abrode. 32 But after I am rysen againe, I wyll go before you into Galilee. 33 Peter aunswered, and said vnto him: though all men be offended, because of thee, yet wyll I neuer be offended. 34 Iesus sayde vnto hym: Ueryly I say vnto thee, that in this same nyght, before the Cocke crowe, thou shalt denie me thryse. Matt. 26.31-34.

To offend is to stumble morally, to commit sin (OED 2). In l.12 cross is an emendation for loss, probably a correct one, since the idea of taking up and bearing one’s cross is widespread in the NT, and loss would merely be a repetition of the ending of l.10.

And whosoeuer doth not beare his crosse, and come after me, can not be my disciple. Luke 14.27.

This is from the same chapter of Luke which mentions the poor, the feeble, the lame and the blind, just a few verses above, and which is echoed in Sonnet 37. (See p.6 above). One may question whether the poet would have risked the charge of blasphemy by linking himself to Christ in this way (he is the one betrayed, the one who has to bear the cross, the one who forgives, the one for whom tears of repentance are shed). It is possible that the first audience for these sonnets, the ones in the inner circle for whom they were originally written, would have picked up the tenuous allusions and enjoyed them for the richness of context which they add to the poem. They are blasphemous only if taken in a mocking sense, but when used to show that all human love is a mirror of divine love, even to the details of when that love endures betrayal, they become things of beauty.

We come now to sonnet 52, important for its place as marking the ‘long year’ of 52 weeks, and also for its sense of mystery. The closing couplet is usually linked to the beatitudes.

Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope. 52. 13-14.

This perhaps recalls Christ’s sermon of the Beatitudes:

And he lyft vp his eyes vpon his disciples, and sayde: Blessed be ye poore, for yours is the kyngdome of God. Blessed are ye that hunger nowe, for ye shalbe satisfied. Blessed are ye that weepe nowe, for ye shall laugh. Luke. 6.20-1.

Undoubtedly the repetition of the idea of the poor (and perhaps the halt and the blind) links back to Sonnet 37. But I suggest a much closer echo is found in the Sanctus of the Mass, especially as the concept of worthiness is once again attached to the youth , as in 37 – “(I).. take all my comfort of your worth and truth.” 37. 4. In the Sanctus of the Tridentine Mass we have

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

This seems to be a closer link than that of the Beatitudes. However it is important here to look at the entire sonnet, for it is redolent of many Christian themes.

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lacked, to hope. 52.

The feasts referred to are those of the Christian calendar, more probably those of the pre-Reformation calendar, because the protestant religion was much more suspicious of festivities, whether religious or otherwise, and tended to see them as the work of the devil. Even today we are still very much under the influence of the protestant ‘work ethic’. In the pre Elizabethan tradition, no doubt preserved in the memory of many of the contemporary ‘breathers of this world’, one of the great feast days was that of Corpus Christi, held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, when the host carefully enclosed in a monstrance was carried in an elaborate and colourful procession. It is tempting to see an oblique reference to this in the ‘sweet up-locked treasure’, and to the stones of worth as the jewelled encrustations usually found on monstrances. The wardrobe which the robe doth hide perhaps reveals the richly decorated church vestments worn by the priest on this occasion. Of course these are not certain readings, but the blessed key and the hidden pride and splendour are likely to be pointers to some hidden references, unknown to the many but clear to the cognoscenti. Were it not for the other Christian references in the sonnets, especially to the Trinity in 105, and with Trinity Sunday preceding Corpus Christi, we would be justified in ignoring these hints and suggestions. But it seems that there are just too many of them for us to pass them by.

What is striking also is that this sonnet is followed by another one of undoubted theological significance.

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart. 53.

We have already met the shadow/substance dichotomy in Sonnet 37, but here also there are other key words, notably grace, blessed and constant. The central section with its Greek mythological references has led commentators (including myself) to assume that the references are to the Platonic forms, or to the essence of things, as distinct from the mere shadow of them dancing on the wall of a cave. But discussion of substance in those days was much more likely to have religious connotations. The echo is again from St. John’s gospel, and the words of the Nicene creed :

begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

The millions of shadows which tend on him could be angels. The final four lines recall much the same themes as sonnet 37, for bounty recalls the abundance in which the poet is sufficed, blessed suggests once again the words “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” from the Sanctus of the Mass, grace takes us back to St. John’s Gospel, “the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. In the linking of the two words blessed and grace one also sees an echo of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” This prayer is the main constituent of the rosary used frequently in Catholic devotion. Finally the constancy which the poet here praises is an attribute of God, particularly of the Trinity. It looks forward to the praise of constancy in the youth in Sonnet 105, a sonnet which is particularly imbued with the mysteries of the Trinity. OED does not highlight ‘constancy’ as referring especially to deity, but there is one example given:

OED (3) a1600 Hooker (J.), The laws of God+of a different constitution from the former, in respect of the one's constancy, and the mutability of the other.

In any case the word is a strange one to use of the youth, especially as other sonnets indicate that he is rather flighty and inconstant.[15] One can only suppose that here it has some other covert meaning.

In sonnet 88 the main theme is that of rejection and scorn by the beloved or by others of the poet.

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,

There are no strong verbal echoes from the scriptures, except perhaps in the word ‘scorn’, but it is interesting to note that the word ‘merit’ was crucial to the doctrinal disputes of the period. One of the chief sources of disagreement between Protestant and Catholic was the relative importance of faith and good works. The following is a summary of the arguments.

“What a sinful man did for himself , insofar as he was able, was defined as merit of fitness or congruity (“meritum congrui” or “meritum de congruo”); what a just man, enabled by divine grace, did for himself or others was defined as merit of worthiness or condignity (“meritum condigni” or “meritum de condigno”). The idea of merit, whether of congruity or condignity, was a relapse into Pelasgianism according to Luther. ............... The principal antithesis of the doctrine of justification, for Luther as for ‘the simple and Pauline way’ of speaking on which he claimed to base his doctrine was that between salvation by grace through faith and salvation by good works.”[16]

What Luther claimed, contrary to Catholic doctrine, was that, in the eyes of God, humans could not achieve anything that was meritorious by supposed good works, such as acts of charity, or prayers, or purchases of indulgence. The chief element in the Christian religion, he claimed, was faith and that alone could bring salvation. The Catholic faith, on the contrary, allowed for the possibility of increasing one’s chances of salvation by merit achieved through good works, in addition to faith.

No doubt these disputes are still alive in the Christian churches today, but they are not as vibrant and contentious as, say, disputes about women priests or homosexuality. But in Shakespeare’s day these were the living issues of the time, and all intelligent readers would know about them. The poet here seems to take the side of the Reformers, in the sense that he allows that his merits are worthless, although he admits that by doing so he is forsworn. Yet he has to side with his beloved, however preposterous the demands or criticisms are which are made of him or against him. Merit is also used in other sonnets, but in particular in one that has specific religious references, 108, which we shall look at shortly.

The next sonnet in the series which takes up the religious references, 105, is perhaps crucial for our understanding of the hints and suggestions which are spaced throughout the sequence. It quite clearly has a religious import, a fact accepted by all commentators.

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
'Fair, kind and true' is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true' varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
'Fair, kind, and true,' have often lived alone,
Which three till now never kept seat in one. 105.

It would indeed be difficult to explain the sonnet without some recourse to biblical or liturgical references. Clearly the predominant reference is to the Trinity, the three in one of the Godhead. This belief is an essential part of the Christian tradition. The poet claims here that he is not worshipping an idol, which is expressly forbidden by the second commandment, for the beloved whom he worships is a copy of the Holy Trinity, if not the Holy Trinity itself.

In the Canon of the Tridentine Mass, the priest reads a preface, which for Trinity Sunday is the following:

Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper, et ubique gratias agere: Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus. qui cum unigenito Filio tuo, et Spiritu Sancto, unus es Deus, unus es Dominus. non in unius singularitate personae, sed in unius Trinitate substantiae. Quod enim de tua gloria, revelante te, credimus, hoc de filio tuo, hoc de Spiritu Sancto, sine differentia discretionis sentimus. Ut in confessione verae sempiternaeque Deitatis, et in personis proprietas, et in essentia unitas, et in majestate adoretur aequalitas. Quam laudant Angeli atque Archangeli, Cherubim quoque ac Seraphim: qui non cessant clamare quotidie, una voce dicentes.

It is indeed fitting and right, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks to You, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God, who with Your only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: Not in the oneness of a single person, but three persons in one single essence. For what we believe from your revelation concerning Your glory, that also we believe of Your Son and of the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction; so that when we affirm the true and everlasting Godhead we worship three distinct persons in a oneness of Being and with equality of majesty. And that God the angels praise with the archangels, cherubim, and seraphs, ceaselessly singing with one voice:

Apart from the general explanation of the Trinity, echoed in the sonnet, one cannot help noticing in particular the words ‘without difference or distinction’, ‘sine differentia discretionis’, which clearly links to the poets claim that his verse, ‘one thing expressing, leaves out difference’ 105.8. We also have at the beginning of the poem another echo of the liturgy of the Mass. Line 4,

To one, of one, still such, and ever so.

is surely an echo of

Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, is to You, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory, forever and ever.

These are the words used at the Elevation of the host in the Tridentine Mass. I grant that the word match is not exact, but the rhythm and sense is very similar, and it seems to compel one to look at it as a sort of Trinitarian declaration. The usually quoted link to the Gloria Patri, which occurs in the Mass, is also relevant, especially as it names the three persons of the Trinity.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritu Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

However this does not seem to have quite the same verbal resonance as the words used at the Elevation, ‘per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso’. There are also probable links to the Athanasian Creed, which was used as an alternative to the Nicene Creed on certain Sundays, including Trinity Sunday. Thus we find in this creed the following:

‘and yet they are not three Eternals
but one Eternal,’

‘and yet they are not three Almighties
but one Almighty.’

and yet there are not three Gods
but one God.’

‘and yet not three Lords
but one Lord.’

All of this links in with lines 12 and 14:

‘Three themes in one’ 12
‘Which three, till now, never kept seat in one.’ 14.

Generally speaking the liturgical references have been down played by commentators. There is a danger, as they see it, that the references might be to a Catholic tradition, rather than a Protestant one.[17] Yet this sonnet more than most demands to be explained in some sort of religious context, or to have its religious references unravelled.

Shortly after 105, we come to a sequence of three sonnets, 108-110, all having religious connotations. Sonnet 108 contains the famous line

Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name. 108.8.

The reference to ‘hallowed be thy name’ from the Our Father, the most well known prayer in Christendom is recognised by all commentators, and indeed part of the sonnet uses the simile of prayer:

What's in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What's new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must, each day say o'er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name. 108. 1-8.

We note also here the mention of merit once again, the possibility being hinted at that his merit brings him salvation, or at least lifts him above the level of ordinary mortals. He is equated with God the Father, but since the Father and Son are of one substance, he is still the only-begotten full of grace and truth, and this is reinforced by the mutual interchangeability of lover and beloved, ‘thou mine, I thine’. One tends to see also in the mention of ‘prayers divine’, the same old thing day after day, a reference to Catholic rather than Protestant practice. For Protestant prayers were in fact rather more varied, and Protestant tradition eschewed what it saw as the meaningless repetition of formulae such as in the rosary, in which the Hail Mary was repeated 50 times. The Our Father, from which the hallowed reference comes, is a part of the Mass, but was also repeated five times in the rosary.

The following sonnet, 109, plays on the ideas of the prodigal son returning, the lost sheep that has been found, benediction by baptism or holy water, and the frailties of human nature which allow it to sin, all frequent themes in the church of the day.

O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all. 109.

This could be the love poem that it purports to be, but its claims of returning to the true love, the rose, which is his all, seem more like declarations of spiritual decisions, of a return to an abandoned faith. The ‘sum of good’ may be the summum bonum of Christian theology, the highest good which St. Augustine considered to be a defining feature of God.[18]

Sonnet 110 also reads more like a panegyric to the true religion, than a straightforward love poem to his beloved. The references to ‘selling cheap what is most dear’, ‘making old offences of affections new’ (i.e. committing frequent sins by changing faith), ‘looking on truth askance and strangely’, sit more comfortably in a religious context than in any other. Line 9, ‘Now all is done, have what shall have no end’, is an echo from the Gloria Patri – ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen’. Line 12 refers to ‘A god in love, to whom I am confined’. And ‘thy pure and most most loving breast’ of the closing couplet is as much like the bosom of Jesus as it is to the breast of the beloved. Here is the sonnet in full.

Alas, 'tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confined.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast. 110.

The repetition of ‘best’ is particularly noteworthy, since it has connotations of the Eucharist and ties in with Sonnets 37 and 101, as discussed above.

Sonnet 111 plays with the idea of repentance and penance to obtain absolution of one’s sins. The poet promises to drink eisel, or vinegar, as Christ was forced to do on the cross.

Pity me then and wish I were renewed;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel 'gainst my strong infection
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction. 111. 8-12.

The initial cry of ‘Pity me!’ does have biblical echoes, for example in the book of Job:

All my most familiers abhorred me: and they whom I loued best, are turned against me. My bone cleaueth to my skinne and to my fleshe, onely there is left me the skinne about my teeth. Haue pitie vpon me, haue pitie vpon me, O ye my friendes, for the hande of God hath touched me. Job 19. 19-21.

And in the Psalms we have:

Reproofe hath broke my heart a peeces, I am full of heauinesse: I loked for some to haue pitie on me, but there was none, and for some that shoulde comfort me, but I coulde fynde none. Ps. 69.20

The drinking of eisel, however, is perhaps more suggestive of Christ forsaken on the cross.

And about the nynth houre, Iesus cried with a loude voyce, saying: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is to say: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Some of them that stode there, when they hearde that, saide: This man calleth for Elias. And straightway one of them ranne, and toke a sponge, and when he had filled it full of vineger, he put it on a reede, and gaue hym to drynke. Matt.27.46-8.

Eisel is a an old word meaning vinegar, or a foul potion containing vinegar. This is followed in the poem by the proposal that he do penance to correct and absolve his sins, something which is usually imposed after confession in the Catholic tradition, but more or less abandoned by Protestantism, except in the high church. Ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys might be a typical penance, linking us back to the repeated ‘prayers divine’ of 108. The final couplet re-echoes the cry of Job ‘Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, o ye my friends’:

Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye
Even that your pity is enough to cure me. 111. 13-14.

The penultimate sonnet to the youth, 125, before the one in which he bids farewell to the ‘lovely boy’, is one of the most enigmatic, but it is clearly laden with religious references as well as secular ones.

Were 't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control. 125.

Bearing the canopy suggests some sort of procession. It is generally supposed that the coronation of James I is referred to here, or perhaps a religious procession, such as that of Corpus Christi, either or both. Since the latter would have been illegal in Protestant England, it is thought to be less likely that the poet here refers to such an occasion. On the other hand, the unexpected denunciation of the suborned informer in the closing couplet suggests that we are dealing with forbidden things. What on earth is a suborned informer doing here? The language of the sonnet does seem to refer to a threat of denunciation. One other possible ‘bearing of the canopy’ might be as a part of the ceremony of the Easter Sepulchre, preserved in the Sarum rite of the Mass, but abandoned by Protestantism, and not used in the Tridentine Mass either. Perhaps Shakespeare has taken part in such a ritual, and has sinned not only against the political dictats of the time by taking part in a Catholic service, but has sinned also against the promulgations of the Catholic faith as decreed by Pius V in 1570, and reinforced by Clement VIII in 1604 when he issued a revised and corrected edition of the Tridentine Mass. The bearing of a canopy in the Easter sepulchre ritual is described in an account written by a former monk of Durham Abbey in 1590.

they tooke a marvelous beautiful Image of our saviour representinge the resurrection with a crosse in his hand in the breast wheof was enclosed in bright Christall the holy sacrament of the altar, throughe the which christall the blessed host was conspicuous, to the behoulders, then after the elevation of the said picture carryed by the said 2 monkes uppon a faire velvett cushion all embrodered singinge the anthem of christus resurgens they brought to the high altar settinge that on the midst therof whereon it stood the two monkes kneelinge on theire knees before the altar, and senceing (censing) it all the time that the rest of the whole quire was in singinge the foresaid anthem of Christus resurgens, the which anthem being ended the 2 monkes tooke up the cushines and the picture from the altar supportinge it betwixt them, proceeding in procession from the high altar to the south quire dore where there was 4 antient gentlemen belonginge to the prior appointed to attend theire cominge holdinge upp a most rich cannopye of purple velvett tached round about with redd silke, and gold fringe, and at everye corner did stand one of theise ancient gentlemen to beare it over the said Image, with the holy sacrament carried by two monkes round about the church the whole quire waitinge uppon it with goodly torches and great store of other lights, all singinge rejoyceinge and praising god most devoutly till they came to the high altar againe, wheron they did place the said Image there to remaine untill the assencion day.

The appearance of a suborned informer in this sonnet does seem to relate to something forbidden, something worthy of impeachment and denunciation. Since an informer in those times would mainly be informing against Catholics, the supposition must be that the poet here defies the threat made against him in this connection. The language of the sonnet calls to mind the sacrifice of the Eucharist, celebrated in the Roman Catholic Mass, which formed the basis of the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The two Latinate words of the third quatrain, obsequious and oblation, seem to be echoes from the Canon of the Mass.

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae quaesumus, Domine, ut placatus accipias, diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari.

Graciously accept, then, we beseech You, O Lord, this service of our worship and that of all Your household. Provide that our days be spent in Your peace, save us from everlasting damnation, and cause us to be numbered in the flock you have chosen.

Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus, quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris,. ut nobis Corpus, et Sanguis fiat dilectissimi Filii tui Domini nostri Jesu Christi.

O God, deign to bless what we offer, and make it approved, effective, right, and wholly pleasing in every way, that it may become for our good, the Body and Blood of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Of two other uses[19] of the word oblation by Shakespeare, one is in The Lover’s Complaint in a similar context.

Lo, all these trophies of affections hot,
Of pensived and subdued desires the tender,
Nature hath charged me that I hoard them not,
But yield them up where I myself must render,
That is, to you, my origin and ender;
For these, of force, must your oblations be,
Since I their altar, you enpatron me.

In this verse of LC the references are clearly religious, especially with the introduction of the altar in the last line. The lover offers all his past desires and triumphs as an oblation on the altar of love to the girl he is wooing. My origin and ender is another way of saying ‘My alpha and omega’, an obvious biblical reference.

But we also have in the sonnet ‘No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,’ probably an echo from the Canon of the Mass, in the Final Prayer and Dismissal:

Placeat tibi, sancta Trinitas, obsequium servitutis meae

May the tribute of my worship be pleasing to You, most Holy Trinity.

The translation here gives ‘tribute’ for obsequium. The word in conjunction with servitutis meae (my obligation or contract) implies fulfilment of duty, in this case the duty of love. Since the beloved has been identified with the Holy Trinity in Sonnet 105 it is not surprising to find here that the poet offers to be obsequious to him, i.e. to offer to be attentive and devoted to him. Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘obsequious in’ with the same meaning in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

Mistress Ford, your sorrow hath eaten up my
sufferance. I see you are obsequious in your love,
and I profess requital to a hair's breadth; not
only, Mistress Ford, in the simple
office of love, but in all the accoutrement,
complement and ceremony of it. MWW.IV.2.1-6.

But in this example there is probably no hidden reference. It may therefore be argued that one is reading too much into the sonnet and deriving too much from a particular word. In the case of MWW I agree that there is no need to delve for further meanings, but with sonnet 125 there is a difference of magnitude. It is not the word obsequious on its own which draws attention to itself, it is the entire cluster of words and phrases throughout the sonnet which are redolent of some hidden references in liturgical forms which invite the attentive reader to seek out some hidden message buried within. Thus compound sweet, simple savour, obsequious, oblation, not mixed with seconds, mutual render all have some connection with the Eucharist of the Mass, or the Communion Service. Mutual render takes one directly to the point in the service where the host is offered as a sacrifice, in the sense that just as Christ rendered himself on the cross for mankind (BCP. P.194)[20] so we offer the host and ourselves in the hope that it will be acceptable in the eyes of God.

Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus, jube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae majestatis tuae: ut quoquot ex hac altaris participatione, sacrocanctum Filii tui Corpus, et Sanguinem sumpserimus, omni benedictione coelesti et gratia repleamur.

Most humbly we implore You, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Your Holy Angel to Your altar above, before the face of Your Divine Majesty. And may those of us who by sharing in the Sacrifice of this altar shall receive the Most Sacred Body and Blood of Your Son, be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing,

Not mixed with seconds is probably a reference to the pure flour which must be used to make the communion wafer. Obsequious and oblation both occur in the Canon of the Mass (see above). Compound sweet and simple savour probably also have their counterparts in the liturgies of the time. There is possibly an echo from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:

And walke ye in loue, euen as Christe hath loued vs, and hath geuen hym selfe for vs an offering and a sacrifice of a sweete smellyng sauour to God. Eph.5.2.

The description of the oblation, poor but free also finds an echo in the Canon of the Mass:

...offerimus praeclarae majestati tuae de tuis donis ac datis hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, Panem sanctum vitae aeternae, et calicem salutis perpetuae.

(We) offer to Your supreme Majesty, of the gifts bestowed upon us, the pure Victim, the holy Victim, the all-perfect Victim: the holy Bread of life eternal and the Chalice of perpetual salvation.

Poore in the speech of the time was easily confused with pure , and there is also a link back to other sonnets, notably to 37, with its many religious references: So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised 37.9.

It must be admitted that 125 is one of the most enigmatic of the sonnets and there are many interpretations available. It seems to be much more than a love poem, although one could with difficulty construe it simply as that. For it is very difficult to explain the phrases bore the canopy, great bases for eternity, dwellers on form and favour, pitiful thrivers, suborned informer, impeached. All no doubt have their counterparts in the political and religious life of the time yet we do not know to whom or to what these references apply. We can guess for example that dwellers on form and favour are those who have abandoned their cherished beliefs and subscribed, for the sake of advancement, to the current orthodoxy (a practice as familiar today as it was in Shakespeare’s time); pitiful thrivers could be fools who think they are prospering by mere contact with the powerful and wealthy but simply waste their time in gawking; the great bases for eternity could be some marvellous constructions of the time, but one suspects it has a more philosophical and moral meaning, especially with the following qualifier Which prove more short than waste or ruining. Probably some adherence to a new or old faith is implied, or perhaps the mere preference for temporal advancement at the expense of one’s own soul and spiritual well-being. And finally the suborned informer springs from nowhere into the poem and is, as it were, sent packing. Some have even suggested that it refers to the beloved youth himself, yet that surely would be an odd term to apply to one for whom the writer professed undying love. If it were not for the evidence of the previous sonnets with their religious connotations we could dismiss the religious links in this sonnet as being mere accidents. But this is the final sonnet which sums up the commitment of love, the love which has been the subject of the preceding 124 poems. It is pregnant with many hidden meanings and is much more than a mere statement of adoration of the youth. Although one should be cautious of making any particular claim for partisanship of this or that, it does seem that over and above the simple love relationship there is a declaration of a preference for perhaps the Roman rite or, perhaps, a nostalgic longing for the old religion with its colour and splendour. It is difficult to separate out the correspondences, whether they lean more heavily towards the BCP, or to the Mass. The latter would have been in Latin, so there is an additional linguistic barrier to any linkage. But the echoes from the Mass seem to me to be more cogent than those from the BCP. One significant point is that nearly all the religious references detailed above are contained within the Mass itself, apart from the few scattered scriptural ones.

In the remaining sonnets 127-152 describing his infatuation with the ‘dark lady, there are few directly religious references. 144 with its heaven/hell imagery could be seen as a depiction of the claims of two conflicting faiths, but the predominant sense is that of seduction and sexual betrayal. 146 is however more interesting in that it appears to be entirely concerned with the fate of one’s immortal soul.[21] It is not a love poem at all and therefore stands out from the rest because of its unusual religious theme (unusual in the context of the other sonnets), which in this case is not obscured by references to the dark lady or the fair youth. There are nevertheless no obvious echoes from scripture that spring to one’s attention. Yet line 11, an adjuration to the soul, strikes me as being worthy of more consideration than commentators have given to it.

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross; 146.11.

It is very probable that this is an oblique (or even a direct) reference to the selling of papal indulgences. These were remissions for time (terms) which would be spent in purgatory as the result of sins committed. These remissions could be obtained through papal authority and by the performing of some good work such as the giving of alms. Giving money to provide a new church for example would be considered a worthy cause which could earn an indulgence, a release from some of the pains of purgatory to which the sinner was destined because of his/her sins. The particular case which incensed Luther, and which provided the motive for his challenge against the established church, was the decision by Pope Leo X to provide indulgences in order to pay for the refurbishment of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These indulgences were sold rather aggressively in Luther’s district and little heed was paid to the sensitivities of those who thought that redemption was an entirely private matter between God and man. The laity believed that they could purchase forgiveness of sins through these indulgences, irrespective of what those sins were, and even without the sinners necessarily feeling repentance. Luther thought that this was a travesty of the teachings of the Gospel and it resulted in his writing his 95 theses dealing with the doctrine of pardon and remission of sins which were nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, the publication and contents of which are widely regarded as being the catalyst for the Reformation. Shakespeare is probably here alluding to he sale of indulgences, not exactly suggesting that anyone should go out and purchase redemption by investing in them, but implying that all was not as simple as the Reformers contended, and that salvation could be attained by merit, and even by some sacrifice of one’s wealth, earthly dross, to buy good works, including even the beautification of earthly churches. The ‘terms divine’ are therefore contractual obligations between the church and individuals, or between God and man, or they might also be periods of time in which the suffering in purgatory was remitted, the net effect of which would be that they could also be periods of time spent in heaven, since any shortening of purgatorial time meant more time spent in heaven. Shakespeare certainly used the word ‘term’ to describe a time spent in purgatory, as may be seen in Hamlet:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. Ham.1.V.745-9.

The word buy, or the past tense bought, is also found in numerous cases referring to the purchase of redemption, or the ransoming of the soul. OED gives the following:

4. To set free by paying a price; to redeem, ransom; esp. fig. in Theol. to redeem (from sin, hell, etc.). Obs. exc. in theological use, and in that now rather a conscious metaphor from 1; redeem being the ordinary word for this sense.

c1400 MANDEVILLE Prol. 2 To bye and to delyvere us from Peynes of Helle. 1413 LYDG. Pylgr. Sowle IV. xiii. (1483) 63 He that hath mysdone hath no thynge wherwith to beyen hym seluen. 1534 MORE On the Passion Wks. 1325/1 By hys payne to..bye our soules from payne. 1552 ABP. HAMILTON Catech. 95 Quhilk hais bocht us with his precious blude.

It is likely therefore that Shakespeare had in mind the purchasing of indulgences when adjuring his soul to

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross

though the line has at the same time a more generalised meaning, ‘purchase redemption by getting rid of worthless earthly pursuits’. Although it must be admitted that detailed examination does lead one up a blind alley, since dross, being worthless refuse, would not sell for much, and therefore one would not be able to buy very much from the proceeds. One has to interpret the meaning somewhat indirectly by assuming that ‘selling hours of dross’ implies giving up hours spent on pursuits devoted to earthly riches, and the mere fact of doing this gives one time and resources to buy ‘terms divine’.

In addition it is probably also relevant that part of the defence used by the Church against the strictures of Luther was the Unigenitus Dei Filius, (the only-begotten Son of God), the papal bull issued by Clement VI in 1343 in connection with indulgences. It was used as an important part of the argument in favour of indulgences and brought to the fore in the examination and condemnation of Luther. Since the onlie-begetter is an essential part of the dedication of the sonnets, and the link between the fair youth and the only-begotten Son of God is one which I hope I have shown above to be unmistakeable, it may well be that Shakespeare enjoyed this one extra nod in the direction of a religious icon. It was one further link in the chain of ideas which allowed him to convey something over and above the mere idea of love which he set out to explore, something of more eternal significance.

But the fact is that, however we construe these religious references, scattered as they are throughout the poems, they add further support to the idea that the series was deliberately organised to contain them, and perhaps to conceal them. It was not something hastily thrown together without order or sequence. And if we accept that there is some hidden revelation contained within them, would the publisher have known about this, or, if the work was known to enjoin Catholic sympathies, would he have dared to publish it? And what part did Thomas Thorpe have to play in all this?

We know that Thorpe published works by Johnson, Marston, Chapman and others and that he was closely associated with Edward Blount, a co-publisher of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s Plays prepared by Heminge and Condell. In addition we now know that he visited Spain in 1596 and had dealings with the Jesuit adviser to the Spanish Court on English matters, Father Robert Persons, and with another exiled and outlawed Englishman, Sir Francis Englefield.[22] What he was doing in Spain is not clear, but one thing is certain, and that is that no one from England could visit Spain in those days without strong protection from a powerful personage. In this case it was probably the protection of Edward Somerset, the Fourth Earl of Worcester, or indirectly through his secretary William Sterrell who had been appointed

‘keeper, and then landlord, of the Palace of St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, which housed the Office of Revels.’[23]

Being known to Blount and the playwrights Jonson, Chapman and Marston, and no doubt others, it is likely that he moved in the same circles in which Shakespeare moved. It is hardly likely that the publisher of Sejanus His Fall, the play by Jonson in which Shakespeare acted, would be unknown to Shakespeare.[24] Surely all these men discussed with each other who was publishing what, the reasons thereto, and the advantages of employing one publisher rather than another. It is interesting to note that Jonson had converted to Catholicism in 1598. Did this have anything to do with his use of Thorpe, the one who had been to Catholic Spain?

There is another indirect connection that Shakespeare has with Spain, and that is the fact that the Mountjoy son-in-law, Stephen Belott, the apprentice in the house in which Shakespeare lived for several years who married Mountjoy’s daughter, went to Spain perhaps in 1603.[25] These are all very odd connections for one who is often depicted as the model of orthodoxy, or entirely indifferent to religion in his writings.

I have no particular desire to proclaim that Shakespeare belonged to some particular faith or group or sect, although I realise it is fashionable to make such partisan claims nowadays. What I do wish to establish however is the oddity and abnormality of these relationships, in the context of the time, that Shakespeare apparently had with Mountjoy, Thorpe, Sterrell, Essex, especially for one who in other respects seems keen to declare himself as a pillar of the establishment. Why else should he seek to restore to the family its own coat of arms? This oddity and abnormality is mirrored in the sonnets, which clearly have some message hidden in them beyond that of the description of pure love. We do not know what that message is, but in many places it seems to be leaning towards a declaration in favour of the old religion. But it may be that that fact is merely accepted as background, understood by all in the know, and that something more obscure and recondite is being promoted, such as a protest against the Tridentine Mass[26] in favour of the Sarum rite, or perhaps the reverse. Perhaps more significant, and closer to the time of publication of the sonnets, on 7 July 1604, with his Apostolic Constitution Cum Sanctissimum, Pope Clement VIII promulgated his revised Missal, "notwithstanding whatsoever licenses, indults and privileges hitherto granted by Us or by the Roman Pontiffs, Our Predecessors, to print the aforenamed Missal of Pius V, which by these presents We expressly revoke and which We wish to be revoked.”[27] Could the Sonnets, with their many echoes from the Mass, be covertly supporting this promulgation, or opposing it?

If we return to the enigmatic dedication of the Sonnets, it has often been claimed that it resembles a lapidary inscription, such as would be found on a tombstone, or on a memorial. But there are other resemblances which are not usually taken into account. Two unrecorded resemblances which I find fairly plausible are, firstly, that superficially it resembles a papal cross as in the image below.

Patriarchal Cross

The Papal or Patriarchal Cross.






T. T.

Secondly, it resembles in some ways the manner in which the words of the consecration are printed in a Roman missal. These are the sacred words which form the climax of the Mass and in modern days they are usually printed in capitals and in red ink. An example of this is shown below.






I have not managed to establish when the custom first originated of having these words capitalised and centred, but I suspect it pre-dates printing. It does not occur in every missal, and may not have been common in Shakespeare’s day. Nor for that matter do I know whether Shakespeare ever looked inside a Roman Missal. Given the time of his birth it is highly probable that vestiges of Catholicism remained in Stratford and within his family and that he would have known of the old faith.

The resemblances to the papal cross and the format of the words of the consecration illustrated above are by no means exact. But that is true also of other supposed precursors of the form, as for example the supposed lapidary format of the inscription in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, published by Thorpe in 1607.[28] The dedication of the Sonnets is not an exact replica of the Volpone dedication either. What we are looking for are similarities, not precise copies.

The point I would like to stress is that the accumulation of references to biblical and liturgical texts listed above indicates that something ambivalent and anomalous is being discreetly suggested, something well outside the limits of a normal sequence of love sonnets. For it is stretching credulity too far to claim that Shakespeare was replying to actual charges or accusations of idolatrous love, of carrying a canopy to glorify that love, or was threatened by a suborned informer because of that love. Would anyone have said to him ‘I think your love of so and so is idolatrous’, or ‘I will inform against you because of this love of yours’? The religious references imply a religious theme, probably a muted pro-Catholic one, which could well have attracted the attentions of a ‘suborned informer’. But we cannot be sure. It would be wrong to envisage the writing of the sonnets as a deliberate and meticulously planned exercise to promote an allegorical message. It is more likely that the idea came in discussions with Thorpe and others, and was generally welcomed. The bulk of the sonnets had probably already been written, but some were perhaps modified and others written specifically for the occasion. The task was to make them sufficiently recognisable to those in the circles in which Shakespeare moved, to whom such things appealed, while at the same time avoiding the undue attention of authority.

Even if it could be proved that Thorpe was a piratical publisher of the Sonnets, we would still have to explain the significance of the religious references. The probability that they were published by him with Shakespeare’s consent sets them within a more comprehensible context.

We have also to consider the anomaly that the sonnets were a series of love poems addressed mostly to a man. For those in favour of promoting homosexuality, this is a godsend. The reality is however that the concept of homosexuality and the word itself did not exist in Shakespeare’s day. To claim therefore that this is Shakespeare’s declaration of his sexual preferences is both ahistoric and naive. It is indeed probable that he loved a male youth and wrote sonnets about the experience. The evidence of the sonnets themselves however suggests that the relationship was not a sexual one, and Sonnet 20 explicitly states so. What he seems to be doing is casting the experience of love in some of its most extreme forms, the love of a man for a man, the love hate relationship of a man for a woman whom he both adores and despises, the love of a woman for a man who has seduced and abandoned her. Perhaps this is a reaction against the rather sickly tradition of sonnets of the period, sonnets in which the woman was always perfect and divine, and the man pined endlessly for her. What would love be like if the loved object was imperfect to the point of not even being a legitimate object of love? What strikes one most in reading the poems is that they are expressions and accounts of love which almost anyone could share in, they are the human norm, they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of those feelings which most of us have at some time lived through and enjoyed or endured. And strangely, the loved object does not seem to be the most important part of the experience, for the descriptions, as the reader absorbs them, are universalised to reflect almost anyone’s personal experience of love.

In any case, we should ask ourselves whether it is of any significance at the beginning of the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, if he had or did not have homosexual or bisexual tendencies. Are we trying to salvage his reputation to protect our heritage? Or to salvage our own reputations? Surely it is more important to read the sonnets as love poems, duly and legitimately published, which I have no doubt they were and always have been meant to be, at the same time paying attention to the different layers of meaning which add to their fascination, and also give us some glimpses into the complexities, terrors and enigmas of the times in which the author lived.

It is important that we drop the pretence that Thorpe was an unauthorised publisher and that Shakespeare did not wish these sonnets to be published. There is no evidence for this proposition and it merely hinders a proper understanding of the work. I hope that the interpretations I have provided in this article may help towards this end and will enable us to look at the sonnets with fresh insight.

G. R. Ledger.

February 2009.

[1] Photographic reproductions of the title page may be found in KDJ p. 107, or Booth p.1.

[2] Published in The Passionate Pilgrim 1599. The book was published by William Jaggard and claimed Shakespearian authorship, but it was probably done without Shakespeare’s consent. Three sonnets from LLL were also included. See KDJ Intro pp.1-3.

[3] He bequeaths all his property in Stratford and London “ ...unto the saied Susanna Hall for and during the terme of her naturall lief and after her deceas to the first sonne of her bodie lawfullie yssueing and to the heiries Males of the bodie of the saied Second Sonne lawfullie yssyeinge and for defalt of such heires Males of the bodie of the saied third sonne lawfullie yssye ing And for defalt of such issue the same soe to be Reamine to the ffourth sonne, ffythe, sixte and seaventh sonnes of her bodie lawfullie issueing one after Another and and to the heires Males of the bodies of the saied ffourth, ffythe, Sixte and Seaventh sonnes lawfullie yssueing in such mamer as yt ys before Lymitted to be and remaine to the first, second and third Sonns of her bodie and to their heires males. And for defalt of such issue the saied premisses to be and Remaine to my sayed Neece Hall and the heires Males of her bodie Lawfully yssueing for default of...such issue to my daughter Judith and the heires of me the saied William Shackspere for ever.” This transcript (with corrections) is taken from the Shakespeare Resource Centre A photographic image is available from the National Archives at .

[4] Modern editions now mostly take account of LC ever since John Kerrigan’s Penguin edition of the Sonnets in 1986. Its authorship was disputed most recently by Brian Vickers, who attributed it to the poet John Davies. If the publication of the Sonnets was not pirated by TT, but authorised by S, then what circumstances could we envisage that would compel Shakespeare to include LC with the Sonnets if it was written by someone else?

[5] See KDJ Was the 1609 Shakespeares Sonnets really unauthorised. Review of English Studies, new series 34 (1983) 151-171. Also JK The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, Intro. 13-14.

[6] For a photocopy of the title page and dedication see Booth 1-3.

[7] All biblical quotations are from the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, unless otherwise stated.

[8] This has been suggested by some commentators but it is quite clearly unnecessary. The poet is referring to his emotional state.

[9] In particular 88 and 103.

[10] I can find only “Some put their trust in chariotes, and some in horses: but we wyll remember the name of God our Lorde.” 20,7 which is echoed by “Some (glory) in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse.” 91,4. Also “they be lyke the deafe adder that stoppeth her eares, and wyll not heare the voyce of charmers, though he be neuer so skilfull in charming.” 58,4. See 112, 9-10. But these echoes seem to stem more from common cultural and religious knowledge and traditions rather than from a deliberate reference to a particular text.

[11] From the Tridentine Creed. Fateor etiam sub altera tantum specie totum atque integrum Christum verumque Sacramentum sumi. The Tridentine Creed was proclaimed by Pope Pius IV in 1563 as a counter- reformation initiative.

[12] For the religious background to P&T see John KLause The Phoenix and Turtle in its Time in In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, edited by Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster, pp. 206-30. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002.

[13] The meaning is ‘Whatever is best’. Compare Sonn.9 l.8. ‘Look what an unthrift in the world may spend’.

[14] S. Booth Shakespeare’s Sonnets 429-30.

[15] E.g. Sonnets 92, 93. The former contains the line ‘Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind’, which is an exceedingly odd statement, as it admits the possibility of inconstancy in the beloved, something which this sonnet and 105 explicitly deny.

[16] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol 4. Reformation of Church and Dogma. 1989. P.146.

[17] None of the commentators I have studied give a satisfactory explanation of line 8 or mention its links to the Trinity. They all offer a very anodyne explanation of ‘leaves out difference’, a phrase which is so odd that it cries out for some further explanation.

[18] I am indebted to John Klause for this suggestion.

[19] The other is in Pericles, Pure Dian, bless thee for thy vision, I will offer night oblations to thee. (V.3.73?) The themes of the play have been linked to Catholic traditions, such as worship of Mary, the Mother of God.

[20] See Booth p.429 for the relevant extracts from the BCP.

[21] It is possible that it is addressed to the ‘dark lady’ and that she is the ‘poor soul’ who is ‘the centre of my sinful earth’. I deal with this in my commentary on the Sonnets web site .

[22] See Thomas Thorpe, "W.S.," and the Catholic Intelligencers. Patrick H. Martin and John Finnis. English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 33 Issue I, pp 3-43.

[23] See Note 15 above.

[24] Shakespeare is listed in an end note of the Folio version of the play (1616) in the cast list of the play as acted in 1603.

[25] “Some time shortly after he completed his apprenticeship Stephen Belott made a journey to Spain. Mountjoy states that after Belott ‘had served this defendant the said time of six years’, he ‘was desirous to travel unto Spain, and this defendant did furnish him with money and other necessaries for the journey to the value of 6 or thereabouts’. The Lodger, pp131-2.

[26] The Tridentine Mass was promulgated by Pope Pius V in 1570 and was supposed to replace all previous versions of the Mass.

[27] These details are taken from Wikipedia.

[28] See KDJ p. 63.