Elizabeth Winkler’s debut, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, expands on her 2019 Atlantic essay exploring the “messy, ugly dispute” over the authorship of works attributed to Shakespeare. Questioning how a relatively uneducated man from Stratford-upon-Avon could write such learned and feminist plays, Winkler suggests that perhaps “the author was not an uneducated man but an educated woman.” She discusses the numerous candidates scholars have forwarded and uses the debate to serve up thoughtful meditations on the role of the author, the objectivity of biography, and the limits of scholarly study.
The works in Shake-speare’s Sonnets, first published in 1609, are among the most obscure, enigmatic poems in the English language. They open with a bizarre plea for a handsome man, the “fair youth,” to produce an heir. They lavish praise on the man’s beauty. Others involve a woman, the so-called “dark lady.” The poet refers repeatedly to his “shame,” a “brand” upon his name, and a “vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow.” At some point, the youth and the mistress seem to have an affair. A fourth figure hovers over this thorny threesome—a “rival poet.” What on earth is it all about? And why does the poet repeatedly insist that his identity be “buried” and “forgotten”? Skeptics over the years have pointed to the sonnets as evidence that the author wrote under a nom de plume. If his name has received a “brand,” might that compel him to write under another name?
The sonnets are so problematic for the traditional theory of authorship that some scholars have tried to dismiss them, arguing that they are merely poetic fictions—literary exercises through which Shakespeare could display his technical virtuosity—and not about him at all. “It is better to read the sonnets for universal values than to lose their poetry by turning them into riddles about Shakespeare’s biography,” warned the scholar C. L. Barber. But sonnets—whether John Donne’s Holy Sonnets struggling with his faith or John Milton’s meditation on his blindness—tend to be highly personal. Reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, William Wordsworth was compelled by their aura of personal confession: “With this key, Shakespeare unlocked his heart,” he wrote. C. S. Lewis agreed that the sonnets tell “so odd a story that we find a difficulty in regarding it as fiction.” Even the most traditional scholars have conceded that “it is not unreasonable to look in them for reflections of his personal experience.”
Who, for instance, are the other figures in the sonnets? Scholars have tried desperately to unravel the sonnets and identify the figures, publishing studies with titles like “Shakespeare’s Sonnets Solved” and “The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Unfolded,” with the characters identified. “No capable poet, much less a Shakespeare, intending to produce a merely ‘dramatic’ series of poems, would dream of inventing a story like that of these sonnets or, even if he did, of treating it as they treat it,” wrote the scholar A. C. Bradley. The very weirdness of the sonnets, their obscurity and unintelligibility, suggests they tell “a real story,” written “for people who knew the details and incidents of which we are ignorant.” But the sonnets remain opaque. Nothing in them fits the life of Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. “Shakespeare’s sonnets are an island of poetry surrounded by a barrier of icebergs and dense fog,” wrote Harvard scholar Douglas Bush.
Other mysteries abound. When the sonnets were published in 1609, the publisher Thomas Thorpe added a dedication praising the poet as “ever-living,” a word used to refer to the divine or the dead, who have passed into eternal life. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1, it is used to describe the deceased king: “That ever-living man of memory, Henry V.” When the playwright John Fletcher died, he was referred to as “the deceased, but ever-living Author . . . Fletcher.” The dedication “has been telling us, for three hundred years in the plainest of terms, that the poet was already dead,” a skeptic named J. T. Looney wrote in 1920. But in 1609, Shakespeare of Stratford was very much alive. When he died in 1616, he left detailed instructions for the distribution of his assets but mentioned no plays, poems, or manuscripts of any kind. At his death, only half of his plays had been published. Did he have no concern for their preservation? Why didn’t he say anything about his 154 sonnets?
The sonnets suggest a poet who clearly thought about his legacy: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” he writes in Sonnet 55. “Your monument shall be my gentle verse, / Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,” he boasts in Sonnet 81. The scholar Samuel Schoenbaum couldn’t help noting the discrepancy between Shakespeare’s meticulous parceling of his assets and his apparent disregard for his literary legacy: “If Shakespeare was indifferent to the ultimate fate of the plays that immortalized him, he showed no similar nonchalance about assembling and passing down his estate.”
Here are 10 of the most enigmatic sonnets:
1. Sonnet 10
Sonnet 10 is one of the procreation sonnets, in which the poet begs the handsome young man to produce an heir. Initially, this request appears as a general praise of beauty: “From fairest creatures we desire increase / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,” the poet begins in Sonnet 1. By Sonnet 10, however, the request has become deeply personal. The poet admonishes the youth for his refusal to fall in love and produce heirs. “Make thee another self for love of me,” he urges, a bizarre request. What man cares if another man has a child? If the request is directed at a nobleman, as scholars have suspected, it also unthinkably inappropriate. What was the nature of the poet’s relationship to the beautiful youth?
2. Sonnet 20
For a long time, Sonnet 20 was considered one of the most shocking sonnets because of its sexuality. The poet praises the beloved as the “master-mistress of my passion,” fantasizing that Nature initially created the beloved as a woman: “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted, / Hast though… A woman’s gentle heart.” But as Nature fell in love with her creation, she turned the woman into a man, “prick[ing] thee out for women’s pleasure.” Critics were horrified by the sonnet’s homoeroticism. One could not read of Shakespeare’s passion for a man, lamented the 18th-century critic George Steevens, “without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation.” The editor of a 1793 edition of Shakespeare’s works simply omitted the sonnets because “the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service.” Scholars continued wringing their hands well into the 20th century. “The story Shakespeare recounts of his moral—or rather his immoral—predicament . . . must certainly, in the interests of the British Empire, be smothered up,” the critic L. P. Smith concluded in 1933.
3. Sonnet 29
Sonnet 29 addresses the poet’s sense of shame. He describes himself as an “outcast,” bemoaning his fate: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, / And look upon myself, and curse my fate…” he writes. How to reconcile this with Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, who, far from being outcast, enjoyed rising wealth and status: a coat of arms, a large house. The poet despises himself, he continues. It is only when he thinks of his beloved that he feels uplifted, “sing[ing] hymns at heaven’s gate.”
4. Sonnet 71
In Sonnet 71, the poet anticipates his own death and urges the beloved to forget him when he is gone. “No longer mourn for me when I am dead,” he writes. “Do not so much as my poor name rehearse/ But let your love even with my life decay.” Why should the beloved refrain from repeating the poet’s “poor name?” The final couplet hints at the reason: “Lest the wise world should look into your moan, / And mock you with me after I am gone.” Shame of some sort is associated with the poet. If the beloved mourns him publicly, he will be associated with the poet’s shame and suffer the mockery of the world.
5. Sonnet 72
Sonnet 72 continues the poet’s plea to be forgotten. The beloved can only defend his love for the poet by lying, and the world will only mock him for it, the poet writes. It is better, then, that the poet’s name simply be buried. “My name be buried where my body is, / And live no more to shame nor me nor you.” In this way, the beloved will escape the shame of association with someone so worthless. But what is this mysterious shame?
6. Sonnet 73
The poet of the sonnets appears to be writing in old age. In Sonnet 73, he describes himself as approaching death: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” he writes. “In me thou see’st the twilight of such day / As after sunset fadeth in the west; / Which by and by black night doth take away, / Death’s second self, that seals up all the rest.” But in 1600, Shakespeare of Stratford was only 36, hardly approaching death. In Sonnet 62, too, he writes of looking in the glass and seeing himself “beated and chopp’d with tanned antiquity.” For some readers, this discrepancy has further suggested the hand of a hidden, much older author.
7. Sonnet 76
In Sonnet 76, the poet wonders why his verse is so lacking in variation, why he doesn’t adopt new poetic styles or fashions, instead always writing in the same vein and on the same theme—his love. His style is so unchanging that he suspects his writing reveals him: “Why write I all one, ever the same / And keep invention in a noted weed, / The every word doth almost tell my name, / Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?” Might his suspicion that his words “almost tell my name” suggest that his identity is otherwise concealed?
8. Sonnet 81
In Sonnet 81, the poet addresses his beloved, imagining a future in which they are both dead. While the beloved will be immortalized forever in verse, the poet seems to believe that his own identity will vanish. “From hence your memory death cannot take, / Although in me each part will be forgotten,” the poet writes. “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, / Though I, once gone, too all the world must die.” How could the author be “forgotten”? How could he die “to all the world”? When the sonnets were published in 1609, the works of Shakespeare were already widely admired and praised—and the author knew they would last. “You shall live—such virtue hath my pen— / Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.”
9. Sonnet 112
Sonnet 112 picks up the theme of the poet’s shame again, referring to a “vulgar scandal” that has branded him. “Your love and pity doth the impression fill, / Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow,” he writes, suggesting that his friend’s love heals the hideous brand. But what is this vulgar scandal? What happened? (In Sonnet 111 he also writes that “my name receives a brand.”) Ignoring the malicious gossip of the world, the poet insists that only the opinion of his friend matters. “For what care I who calls me well or ill,” he writes. “You are my all-the-world, and I must strive / To know my shames and praises from your tongue.”
10. Sonnet 136
If the poet’s name has received a brand, might that compel him to write under another name? After all, the poet’s identity could be buried if “William Shakespeare” was not his name but a nom de plume. “My name is Will,” the poet writes in Sonnet 136, punning repeatedly on different meanings of “will”: “Will, will fulfill the treasure of thy love, / Ay, fill if full with wills, and my will one. Among a number one is reckoned none: / Then in the number let me pass untold.” Asked about this sonnet, the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells replied, “I would have thought he’s simply saying, ‘Let me remain anonymous.’”