BOOKS: Sonnets Fit for a Queen; Shakespeare Sonnets by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, Pounds 25
Byline: Richard Edmonds
If you ever thought Shakespeare's sonnets had little to offer outside a university seminar, then think again.
With its firework displays of erudition and logic, along with its wit and sense of sheer delight, this book is certainly the most fascinating account of the sonnets and all their complex history that you are likely to meet for the next decade.
Edmondson and Wells (a kind of Morecambe and Wise of academia - if they will pardon the irreverence) enlighten, amuse and provoke in an area too often clouded by obfuscation and coterie writing. And at the end of the day the writers teach their subject with sublime skill, wearing their extensive learning very lightly as the blurb on the dust-jacket tells us engagingly - and for once is correct.
The sonnets have always been a mystery and at the heart of it is their dedicatee 'Mr WH'. There have been conjectures over time by Rowse and others, much of it concerned with Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' who certainly eased the minds of those who found a female dedicatee less troubling than the homosexual relations implied by a young equally beautiful male aristocrat.
The authors tell us that George Chalmers proposed (in 1797) that all the sonnets were actually addressed to none-other than Queen Elizabeth I.
'Chalmers got into a terrible tangle trying to explain how Sonnet 20, with its puns on 'prick', might have been addressed to the queen'.
We can also learn (and so much in this lovely book is amusing) that a popular candidate for the title of dedicatee during the prim, corseted 1680s, was Mary Fitton, one of Elizabeth's maids of honour. But she had the wrong colouring as it happens - she was fair - and there are references in the sonnets to someone who had hair like black wires. Obviously, Mary Fitton was out of the running immediately.
Others who have put forward their own candidates include Michael Wood in the TV series Shakespeare His Life and Times (2003), Rowse, of course, who trumpeted the cause of Emilia Lanier, a Sephardic Jewess who moved through the Globe Theatre as a musician. But then, Lanier's hair was more brown than black.
And then there was the Shakespearean scholar GB Harrison who believed the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was a black-skinned 17th century prostitute named Lucy Morgan.
Edmondson and Wells offer all kinds of possibilities and have no axe to grind. In fact, they bring a breath of fresh air into the debate when they question the possibility that the sonnets may well have sprung from Shakespeare's imagination kindled by personal experience. …