When Covid-19 has closed theatres and all live performances of Shakespeare's plays are suspended, our Artistic Director Gregory Doran turns to the playwright's poetry.

William Shakespeare knew all about the deadly effects of disease. When he was only 11 weeks old, in 1564 an outbreak of the bubonic plague wiped out a sixth of the population in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon.

He knew about theatre closures too. When he was just getting going as a playwright in London, the theatres were told to close because of the plague. He ‘self-isolated’, and wrote two magnificent narrative poems, the wittily erotic Venus and Adonis, followed by a “graver labour” The Rape of Lucrece.

The Globe had to bolt its doors again in 1603, for over a year. And there were sporadic outbreaks throughout the rest of Shakespeare’s career. During a 1609 closure, he pulled together the sonnets that he had written throughout his adult life and published them.

Here at the RSC, as we all face this period of prolonged closure, we have turned to those same sonnets for inspiration and invited our acting companies to record the sonnets.

What is a sonnet?

These are the main characteristics of this form of verse:

  • A 14-line poem
  • Generally structured in three quatrains (each with their own ABAB rhyme schemes) and a final rhyming couplet
  • The final couplet often sums up or gives a surprising twist or turn to the theme of the poem
  • Usually written in the Di dum Di dum heart beat rhythm of the iambic pentameter

Why did Shakespeare write sonnets?

The edition published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe collects together sonnets Shakespeare had written throughout his career. It’s possible that he is writing them as “exercises”in compressing a particular feeling of passion or jealousy, but I like to think of them as Wordsworth described them as the key that unlocks his heart. They seem so personal, and so deeply felt, and often so specific, I can imagine them expressing his obsessions, and perhaps being a method of articulating, understanding or dealing with those heightened emotions.

They may have been published in a deliberate sequence by Shakespeare, as some of them do respond directly to each other.

Who is Shakespeare addressing with his sonnets?

They may be addressed to a series of different people.

The first 17 sonnets for example seem to be addressed to a fair youth, an aristocratic young man, imploring him to get married, and have children. There are several candidates for this Fair Youth.

Two of the male candidates for Shakespeare's sonnets: William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (left) and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (right)
William Herbert portrait by Daniel Mytens (National Portrait Gallery collection) and Henry Wriothesley by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (National Trust collection) © Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons) Browse and license our images

William Herbert

Perhaps the most likely candidate is William Herbert. In 1595 William Herbert had refused to marry Elizabeth Carey, the granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain, the patron of the very company Shakespeare worked for. Some people suggest that his mother, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke invited Shakespeare down to Wilton House and commissioned him to write these 17 for the 17th birthday of her son, William in April 1597.

In fact it wasn’t just Elizabeth Carey, there were three young women that William Herbert refused to marry.

William Herbert’s initials certainly seem to fit to the dedication of the book to Mr WH, although as an aristocrat it would have been odd to address him as “Mister”.

Hemminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s business partners would later dedicate the First Folio to William Herbert and his brother Philip.

Henry Wriothesley

Some suggest that the sonnets are written for Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton to whom in 1593 Shakespeare dedicated his poem Venus and Adonis and later The Rape of Lucrece.

He has the same initials, just the wrong way round - HW not WH (perhaps to conceal his identity). He also refused to marry the woman picked out for him by his guardian Lord Burghley, Elizabeth Vere. When he turned 21 he paid £5,000 to be released from the obligation

The Dark Lady

“But what about the famous mysterious Dark Lady?” some would cry, “surely Shakespeare addressed the sonnets to this secret raven haired, dark eyed beauty? In fact, the published sequence 126 are either addressed to a young man or are not gendered at all.

It is true that towards the end of the series there is a sort of lunar cycle of some 28 sonnets addressed to a woman. But they are a challenging bunch in which the female lover is accused of making the poet sexually obsessed, furiously jealous, of cheating on him, stealing away his boyfriend, and giving him a dose of the clap.

Mary Fitton (left) Maid of Hounour to Elizabeth I, Emelia Lanier, also known as Amelia Bassano (right) mistress of Lord Hunsdon and member of the Bassano family
Portrait of Mary Fitton, Maid of Honour to Elizabeth I, Arbury Hall Collection (artist unknown). Portrait of Amelia Bassano Lanier by Nicholas Hilliard, Victoria and Albert Museum collection © Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons) Browse and license our images

Mary Fitton

Among those suggested were Mary Fitton, a fiery maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and the mistress of William Herbert. Mary became the fourth woman that William Herbert resolutely refused to marry, even when he had made her pregnant, for which he suffered a spell in Fleet prison and banishment from court.

Emilia Lanier

Emilia Lanier was the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, (Henry Carey) the Lord Chamberlain, and thus Shakespeare’s boss, as patron of his company. Emilia was also a member of the Venetian Bassano family, who were musicians at court.

Black Luce, a brothel owner in Clerkenwell has been suggested, as has the wife of John Florio, a linguist and translator of Montaigne, who may have been satirised as the pedantic Holofernes In Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Perhaps the Dark Lady is an amalgam of many different women. Who knows.

Whoever the sonnets are addressed to, they express a whole gamut of emotions and have an astonishing ability to speak to us. And even if he was writing these poems while avoiding infection to earn money as a poet, you can still feel his powers as dramatist animating them and demanding they are spoken out loud.

Enjoy them.

Gregory Doran

The RSC Acting Companies are generously supported by The Gatsby Charitable Foundation and The Kovner Foundation