Shakespeare is too well-known to need introduction, yet his 154 Sonnets are much less known than his plays, and for the personal insight they provide into his life are an invaluable source of information - and speculation. The Sonnet XV which forms the subject of this film, at first sight fairly straightforward, is one of the most ambiguous. As we approach the four hundredth anniversary of his death this year it is especially interesting. The edition printed in 1609 opens with the ambiguity of its dedication, and no one has yet convincingly identified the Mr W.H. - not for want of trying, since around ten potential dedicatees have been suggested. There the sonnets said to be to the Fair Youth, others to the Dark Lady and some to the Rival Poet. Between these three categories at least a dozen names have been propounded by scholars, fans and eccentrics. Again, however, none certain.
Perhaps the easiest conundrum is that of the Fair Youth. Two of Shakespeare's immensely wealthy patrons have been suggested most plausibly for this figure: Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Both, we might notice, have the initials WH, and both were prominent members of the court and of London literary life.
Sonnet XV, with its solemn and rather sad opening lines:
When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
considers how the beauty of youth soon fades, but agrees that the love the poet bears the young man to whom the poem is addressed can give back to the youth his glory, or in Shakespeare’s words “engraft you new”. On a first reading it seems beautiful in its language and relatively easy to understand.
But all is not what it seems. Might this “love” be something more than a poet’s expression, something deeper and more sensual? The film examines the role of the two candidates and looks briefly forward to Sonnets XVIII and XX, with shots of them and their homes. Some academics think that a real love affair was involved, others that it was a Platonic love, or writing based on paradox in the Petrarchan tradition embraced by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne.
None of this is new to scholars, yet it is undeniable, as this film shows, that a second reading after this knowledge and information is quite different. I believe we can feel closer to the man.