Sonnets for Advent 22: Sonnet 136

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The Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare

The Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare

Sonnet 136 seems to cry out to be read biographically, ending as it does with the poet’s name: ‘my name is Will’. But the abbreviated form of ‘William’ was a word highly associated with sex and sexual passions, as to some extent it still is. The poet’s name loses its capital letter in line 3 and then goes into free, playful and surreal circulation, crackling with all of its sexual connotations of desire, as well as and male (and female) genitalia as it does so. Try to picture what Will imagines his ‘will’ will do, and the chances are you’ll either smile or feel (a little) shocked, or perhaps both…

If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;
Thus far for love my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
Will, will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckoned none.
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store’s account I one must be;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me a something sweet to thee.
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lov’st me for my name is Will.

Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 136 read by my colleague, Dr Nick Walton.

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Forgot the “M” in the first letters of all lines of Sonnet 136, which are I-S-A-T-W-F-M, forming “IF WS MAT.”

    If this seems like total insanity, or merely a coincidence, take a look at the first letters of all lines of Sonnet 112. They are Y-W-F-S-T-N-I-O-M. Unscramble the anagram so that it reads M I YT WF SON, or “Mary John Yate wife son.” Mary Yate was the mother and John Yate the son of John Yate, the imprisoned owner of Lyford Grange, where the Jesuit Edmund Campion was captured on 17 July, 1581. Why is the sonnet numbered 112? Campion was executed 136 days later on 1 December, or 1-12 (hence, the significance of the “will” sonnet, 136, which speaks beneath its contrived surface of human will). Note how the speaker says all the world is dead to him. Jesuit discourse maintained the position of being “dead to the world,” a description of the Ignatian doctrine of “indifference.”

  • Andrea Campana

    Well, now that you have entered my realm of number symbolism in regard to word placement within a line or within the overall sonnet, by pointing out that the word “will” loses its capitalization in line 3, I must comment. It must be noticed that the first instance of “will” uncapped is also word 22, standing for 22 Elizabeth, or 1580, the year the Jesuit mission was launched. The word “me” appears in lines 9, 11, 12, and 14, adding to 46. Word 46 in the overall sonnet is “I” (1609 version). This shows that the number 46 was significant before Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Clearly, the number 46 found on the back of the portrait at the Folger relates to Psalm 46 and its subject matter of trust in the protection of God at a time of imminent danger and trial–Catholic persecution stemming from the Reformation–and the psalm’s words “shake” and “spear.” (They appear exactly 46 words from the beginning and end of the psalm in the Authorized Version of the Bible published under James I in 1611, two years after the sonnets were published.) Sonnet 136 is one of four that begin with the word “If,” which are the initials of the Jesuit John Floyd. (Sonnet 124 begins with “Yf,” so it doesn’t count.) His initials of I and F begin lines 1, 7, and 11 in Sonnet 136. One of Floyd’s many aliases was George White, which adds in a simple alphabet-number cipher (as used by John Dee at the court of Elizabeth) to 117. In Sonnet 136, the words that begin those lines are “if,” “I,” and “for.” In the overall sonnet, they are words 1, 46, and 89, adding to 136–the number of the sonnet. Sonnets 135 and 136 must be read together for obvious reasons. Added together, 135 plus 136 equals 271. All of the sonnets that begin with John Floyd’s initials “IF” (Sonnets 44, 59, 32, and 136) add to 271, same as the “Will” sonnets. Therefore, IF, or John Floyd, equals Will. (It is no accident that Sonnet 124 begins with “Yf”; Henry Floyd–John’s brother and also a Jesuit missioner–in a simple cipher is 124.) Look at the beginning letters of each line of Sonnet 136: I-S-A-T-W-F. Unscramble the acrostic and you get IF WS MAT, or “John Floyd, WS’ mate.” As I have tried to point out in my book, Shakespeare and the Jesuits: ‘To Fight the Fight’, John Floyd is our man. (Or at least one of them.) As for the bawdiness of Sonnet 136, it can be consistently shown that Shakespeare is at his most religious when at his most shocking. In Floyd’s writing, as in Romeo and Juliet, the abundant sea that perpetually receives rain is a description of the boundless sea of God’s love. The secular surface of the sonnets is simply a ruse. John Floyd was a philosopher. And so was Shakespeare.

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