A Book of Answers I: Mr W.S. And Mr W.H.

I begin with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are a kind of licensed bedlam for scholars and critics in the crazy season. They are forever rearranging them to bolster some theory or other about the persons involved and their story. All the theories are equally interesting, equally plausible, and equally unprovable. We need concern ourselves with none of them and turn to the poems themselves. Some of them are superb. Some of them show that fatal fondness of the Elizabethans for elaborate displays of punning and word-play, others for too elaborate conceits, and others again are contrived or plain dull. The first seventeen are addressed to a handsome young man urging all the possible reasons why he should marry and produce children. In spite of some exquisite lines here and there, the whole thing is rather silly and a tedious display of ingenious argument of the sort popularized by Ovid, who himself was trained in Roman schools of rhetoric. It never occurs to Shakespeare that his friend—and the tone is intimate enough for friendship—might have in mind that he would prefer to marry for love and is waiting for the right girl to appear. He continues to nag at the young man on the grounds that it is his duty to leave copies of his beauty behind him, ignoring the fact that children are as apt to take after their mothers as their fathers. Moreover, the whole thing is officious, an intrusion into personal concerns or at least family interests by a third party. Shakespeare was probably very young and possibly trying to flatter an aristocratic patron.

Mr W.S. To Mr W.H. (only begetter of the ensuing sonnet)

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye,
That thou consum’st thyself in single life?
Ah; if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife,
The world will be thy widow and still weep,
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep,
By children’s eyes, her husband’s shape in mind:
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it:
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unus’d the user so destroys it:
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd’rous shame commits.

Mr W.H. To Mr W.S. (only begetter of the ensuing retort)

With Ovid’s false nose on thy lugubrious face,
O, what a pettifogging ass thou art,
Friend Will, fond go-between, to force thy case,
Hoping with school-boy quibbles to change my heart!
Pox of your widows, sir! If I should breed,
The issue of my mint, when I must die,
May bear their mother’s image; she, indeed,
Will be as like to predecease as I.
Thou art ill-favoured, Will: shalt thou for this
Not wed for fear thy daughter die a maid?
Nay, I’ll not bait thee more; but look what is
For bawds, like thee, unbid, a thankless trade!
Come, Will, look not so sour; I do but jest;
But minding thine own business, friend, were best.

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