- Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords:Ambiguous Speaker and Storytelling in Shakespeare's Sonnets
The nature of a sonnet sequence as a poetic art form is essentially twofold: it contains self-sufficient, prosodically complex poems, each seeking to develop an idea to its conclusion; but it also typically functions as a sequence, an integrated work in which poems have been ordered, and characters fashioned, to make sense when the work is read from beginning to end. It seems hardly necessary to point this out; yet, while the sonnets of the Petrarchan discourse receive what appears to be continuous critical attention, acknowledgment of their "sequentiality" is rare and at best tacit. There is a need to turn critical attention to mechanisms that sonneteers employ to foster a perception of cohesion, as well as to acknowledge that such preoccupations betray the presence of novelistic thinking.
The sonnet sequence genre constructs a double sense of immediacy: drawing on the lyricism of its constituent sonnets, it also often generates a perception of a personal narrative when the sequence is read from beginning to end. Sonneteers use many speaker figures or voices in the sonnets that constitute a sequence; one of the more striking examples is certainly Petrarch's giving of the first-person-plural voice to "little animals" in his sonnet 8.1 Yet varied uses of voice in individual sonnets detract little, if at all, from the impression created in the mind of the reader that they are reading a love story told in the first person. The disjointed nature of the sonnet sequence "voice" is an important part of its effect. Thus, talking about the birth of the sonnet sequence vogue, Jacques Barzun writes: "[Petrarch] fashioned into a shapely quasi narrative work, a kind of allusive autobiography . . . Sonnet sequences like Petrarch's or Shakespeare's make possible a narrative-by-episode; the poet need not versify any connective matter as he must in an epic. Rather, he anticipates by five or six hundred years the technique of film [End Page 285] and television";2 and Roland Greene considers the history of Petrarchism from the fourteenth to the twentieth century representative of the staged development of the sequence's "fictional" mode.3 As such, it is a rare literary genre to offer first-person fictions to the medieval and early modern reader, and for a long time the only one to deal with erotic subject matter in the first person.4
The link between medieval first-person genres and Dante and Petrarch, originators of the genre, is clear: St. Augustine's Soliloquia and Confessions, and Boethius's Consolatio Philosophiae are considered to be standard sources for Dante's work as well as Petrarch's Secretum.5 The public letter, another one of Petrarch's favorite genres, also relies on the first-person voice and self-fictionalization, a unique, creative process of authored selfhood based on literary and cultural subtext, as well as the essentially documentary processes such as self-betrayal, self-representation, self-fashioning, and auto-ethnography.6 Petrarch's decision to remove the first-person prose surrounding the poems in Dante's La Vita Nuova, the resulting complexity of his Il Canzoniere, and the subsequent popularity of the Petrarchan (proseless) sonnet sequence model may all have had implications for the development of first-person narration.
The context within which individual sonnets in a sequence are considered is a question of importance where sequences initially circulated in manuscript form (yet carefully numbered by their authors), such as Petrarch's Il Canzoniere and Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, are concerned. It is equally important for linear and circular sequences; seemingly disjointed or frequently revised sequences, such as Michael Drayton's Idea; as well as those sequences, such as Shakespeare's Sonnets, that have the best of both worlds: printed to be read in a linear manner yet, as James Schiffer has suggested, potentially brilliantly constructed to make the collection seem as if it originally had an exclusive primary audience.7 Whether read more or less linearly, the voices of the sonnet sequence speakers are constructed by their authors, and it is methods used to construct them in...