'His Sugared Sonnets'
NOTHING WE KNOW about Shakespeare would suggest that he was a shadowy, secretive or retiring personage; his natural 'civility' and uprightness are among the qualities that Chettle praises; and he appears to have played his worldly part without pretension and without concealment. It is especially ironic, then, that an impenetrable cloud-covering should obscure so many aspects of his life and work, and that, where he comes closest to deliberate self-portrayal, the effect that he produces should nowadays seem most mysterious. Hundreds of patient and learned enquirers have already attacked the problem of the Sonnets--a problem once compared to a haunted cavern, with countless footprints scattered around its entrance, 'none of them pointing in the outward direction';1 but the great majority of questions we ask still await a satisfactory answer. At what period were the Sonnets written? By whom were they inspired? Who were the subsidiary characters depicted? Can we assume that the poet's intention was to compose a coherent autobiographical narrative? Every age has tended to credit Shakespeare with its own peculiar virtues and vices; and the Romantic era, being an age of introspection, welcomed the theory that the Sonnets were a painstaking essay in detailed self-analysis: that the sonnet-form was the small poetic key with which, as Wordsworth imagined, he chose to unlock the secrets of his heart.
The Elizabethans had a very different attitude towards the purpose and the scope of literature; 'originality [we are reminded] was not____________________