Re-reading Sonnet 76

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Sonnet 76
Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quicke change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keepe invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O know sweet love, I alwaies write of you,
And you and love are still my argument:
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending againe what is already spent:
For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76 laments the fact that the poet’s writing is continually restating the same experience, his love, without ever changing the subject, or generating anything new. His lyric poetry seems to be stuck in the same confessional rut, obsessively personal, just reiterating the same emotional condition; and his poetic language is limply and limpidly transparent, so that no reader could possibly doubt its authorial source: ‘… every word doth almost tell my name,/Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed’.

How ironic. Today Shakespeare’s Sonnets are just as likely to be interpreted as an impersonal poetic drama that bears only a tangential relationship to the life of their author, as a direct expression of the poet’s biography. One of the most vexing questions about Shakespeare’s life, a life that has in itself become a field of great controversy, is precisely that relationship between the authenticity of the poetic voice, and the real biographical roots of the poetry. If every word in poetry really did suggest, ‘tell’ the author’s name, unmistakably revealing its nativity and provenance, how much simpler life would be. In fact the printed text of Sonnet 76 fails to deliver this required clarity of exposition. In the 1609 edition the very word ‘tel’ that should denote confessional transparency reads, presumably by printer’s error, as ‘fel.’ By substituting ‘tell’ we are accepting an uncontroversial Capell emendation, but we are also already allowing someone else to speak on behalf of the allegedly self-revelatory name of Shakespeare.

Modern literary scholarship would not in any case expect to find, in literature, any such limpid textual transparency as that invoked by this Sonnet. In the last decades of the twentieth century, textual theory experienced what D. C. Greetham calls an ‘inversion’ comparable to Marx’s inversion of Hegel. Just as Marx insisted that matter, not spirit, is the real substance of the world, so modern bibliographers have looked to the ‘material text’ rather than to the original authorial utterance or ‘idea’ as the ‘real foundation’ of textuality, ‘making the very post-lapsarian contingencies of the text, its negotiations with its own history, as the base of textual operations, and therefore making authoriality, and especially authorial intention, into merely a “function’” (or the superstructure) of this history rather than its raison-d’être’. Instead of seeking to emulate a text-that-never-was, the authorial text imagined as original, complete and perfect in itself, bibliography now accepts textuality as a history of change.

The textual condition’s only law is the law of change. It is a law, however, like all laws, that operates within certain limits. Every text enters the world under determinate sociohistorical conditions, and while these conditions may and should be variously defined and imagined, they establish the horizon within which the life histories of different texts can play themselves out. The law of change declares that these histories will exhibit a ceaseless process of textual development and mutation – a process which can only be arrested if all the textual transformations of a particular work fall into nonexistence. To study texts and textualities, then, we have to study these complex (and open-ended) histories of textual change and variance.

The first casualty of this process is of course the author, whose metaphorical ‘death’ is also entailed in the birth of writing. The death of the author is the birth of ‘appropriation’, as Foucault put it in his foundational essay ‘What is an Author?’: ‘discourses are objects of appropriation’. If the author is no longer the guarantor of meaning, then meaning derives from the interaction of reader with text, and the reader has taken control from the author. The reader is an appropriator, not a subject, of the writing. As such, writing can no longer ever claim to be homogeneous and permanent, ‘all one, ever the same’. It survives only in appropriation, only by its capacity for mutability, for ‘variation or quick change’.

Editor’s note: This material is based on Graham Holderness’s forthcoming Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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Graham Holderness is a writer, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, and author of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Continuum, 2011).
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  • Andrea Campana

    Forgot to say, by interpreting “barren” this way, “fell,” as the original word pointed out by Professor Holderness, is entirely appropriate. His true name is “felled” by this pseudonym. Shakespeare the wordsmith rarely makes a mistake in his choice of language.

  • Andrea Campana

    Reader response or authorial intent? Hard to say. Is Shakespeare playing games with the word “name”? Probably. The words “name showing” appear at the exact center of the sonnet (1609 version), with 56 words preceding and 56 words following. So, if his name is literally “showing,” or in plain view, which word is it? I vote for “barren” (line one), which means “sterile” or “unproductive.” The identity of William Sterrell is under considerable debate among scholars (historians, not literary scholars). Was it a pseudonym? Probably. What we do know about William Sterrell is that he was “socius” to the Jesuit superior Henry Garnet and secretary to Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, who was sheltering Jesuits at Raglan Castle. Somerset was a loyal Catholic under a conforming veneer. (There was also a bowling green at Raglan, which is likely the source in Hamlet for the allusion to a bowling green.) The connotation of the word “barren” is that you are sterile or unproductive if you do not help the Jesuit mission by refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, refusing to attend the Church of England, and supplying William Sterrell with information about the situation in England, which he then would include in his letters to the Jesuit mission prefect Robert Persons on the continent under various pseudonyms. The key word in the sonnet is “sun,” which is associated with Christ/God, while the Jesuits considered Christ synonymous with the Catholic Church. The complaint in the sonnet that he keeps telling what has already been told is a request for new information about the Catholics’ situation, i.e. persecution.

  • psi2u2

    Interesting conjecture. Whatever the significance of the fel/sel/tel crux (clearly printed “fel” but forming a near pun on “sel” and possibly being a misprint, as is usually assumed, for “tel), I would tend more to focus on the phrase “every word.”

    This appears to belong a type of belief in word magic expressed in the book of Wisdom by the idea that “there is no word so secret, that [it] shall go for nought.”

    The idea is paraphrased by Falstaff:

    I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name.

    The words “every” and “ever” appear to be endowed with particularly potent force both in Shakespeare and in the literary traditions associated with him during the 1590s, viz.:

    As the Duke in disguise says to the wronged Isabella just before his 5th act epiphany:

    Mark what I say, which you shall find By every syllable a faithful verity

  • David Basch

    Note in Sonnet 76 that the poet, literally, “almost” spells his name,
    lacking the “s” in the following version (assuming the copy doesn’t get
    distorted in printing — see the 1609 quarto printing).

    ke pe u
    ha er almost [fel] my name,

    Why write I stILL all one, ever the same,
    And keepe inUention in a noted weed,
    THAt every word doth almost [fel] my name,
    Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed?

    Also, in the 1609 printing, the “v” in invention is written “u,” which
    letter read with “i” (ui) sounds wi (as in qUIck) and therefore, with
    letters above as “u-ill,’ “almost” spells his first name too, “will.”

    These contrivances hardly seem impersonal, especially since another
    set appears elswhere as “sh[a]k — Spe-or” and “w-y-l-l”.and w-i-ill.

    See what you can make of it.

  • psi2u2

    It is one of those historic ironies that keep happening to the proponents of the orthodox view of the bard to notice that the first statement of “reader response theory,” a theoretical formulation that modern scholars flatter themselves is a breakthrough in 20th century “discourse” of “appropriation,” actually appeared in English (to my knowledge) in a 1572 prefatory poem written to introduce Thomas Bedingfielde’s English of “Hamlet’s book” (as Hardin Craig calls it), *Cardanus Comforte*:

    So he that takes the pain to pen the book
    Reaps not the gifts of goodly golden Muse,
    But those gain that who on the work shall look,
    And from the sour the sweet by skill doth choose.

    For he that beats the bush the bird not gets,
    But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets.

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