The Lady's Reeking Breath
Shakespeare's plays tell us both too much and too little about his views of women. Female characters are idealized and demonized, and behaviour that elicits praise and success in some contexts is condemned and punished in others. Most important, every word in the playscripts was written as the utterance of a character, whose views do not necessarily coincide with those of their author. The sonnets, by contrast, were written in the first person, tempting many readers to look there for autobiographical disclosures. William Wordsworth, for instance, famously declared, 'with this key [i.e. the sonnet] Shakespeare unlocked his heart'.
The temptation to search the sonnets for personal revelations might seem especially compelling in regard to Shakespeare's attitudes towards women not only because here, unlike the playscripts, the woman is described in the poet's own voice but also because her representation is not mediated by the presence of a male actor performing her part. Even in the sonnets, however, the effects of mediation are everywhere apparent, for a long tradition of literary production had already established the conventions that defined both the writer's task and his original readers' expectations.
The fourteenth-century Italian humanist Francesco Petrarca was not the first poet to employ the sonnet form, but his Rime in Vita e Morta di Madonna Laura set the terms of what came to be known as the Petrarchan sonnet, a genre that enjoyed a remarkable popularity in France and England during the sixteenth century. It has been estimated that over three hundred thousand sonnets were produced in Europe during that period. Petrarch's sonnets were not arranged in a