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Whittemore reviews Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Reviewed by Hank Whittemore

Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Neil L. Rudenstine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Review first published in the Fall 2015 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

Ideas of Order book coverI must admit that it’s impossible for me to write an objective review of this slender book, because of my own take on both the identity of “Shakespeare” and the meaning of his Sonnets.[1]  Nonetheless I do agree with Neil Rudenstine, a former Harvard professor who served for a decade as the university’s president, that the sequence printed in 1609 is in a deliberate “order,” implying a “story” from start to finish. Another assumption we share is that these are personal writings in reaction to real persons and events in the poet’s life.

The Sonnets consist of “love poetry that is as passionate, daring, intimate, searing, and lyrical as any that we may ever encounter,” Rudenstine writes, adding that the poems are “more carefully ordered—as a coherent sequence” than most commentators allow, and that “some of the clusters of linked sonnets seem so tightly bound together” that we can trace “an overall progression of sentiments and a general development.” In other words, he’s on the brink of viewing the numbered sonnets as a single, unified masterwork.[2]

From that point on, however, his assumption of Stratfordian authorship constrains him from going further. For one thing, it prevents him from identifying the other participants; for another, it limits him to perceiving a triangular love story, as opposed to a political story involving matters of state. Like many others, Rudenstine finds there is just one male friend and just one mistress, who must be real persons well-known to the author, but that’s the limit.  He even avoids describing “Shakespeare” beyond the name itself.

He’s on the brink of viewing the numbered sonnets as a single, unified masterwork.

Rudenstine is satisfied with, and perhaps even comforted by, W.H. Auden’s remark that “we know almost nothing about the historical circumstances under which Shakespeare wrote these sonnets. We don’t know to whom they are addressed or exactly when they were written, and unless entirely new evidence should turn up, which is unlikely, we never shall.” This basic assumption of a love triangle with two unknown participants produces a picture most strange.  The poet is there, but really not there; he interacts with the two other individuals, but they remain ghostly figures at best. Something very personal and deep appears to be going on, but we haven’t the slightest notion of what the real-life drama might actually look like in the setting of 16th-century England.

The overall problem, as I see it, is that the poetry itself is far too powerful and intense for the presumed love story; the depth of expression of emotion and thought creates an effect far greater than the cause. Rudenstine reports that the subject matter is that of sexual love and passion between the two males, of the poet’s faith in the younger man followed by their multiple deceits or betrayals of each other, and then finally of their mutual lust for the mistress and helpless sexual servitude to her. So he unfolds the recorded story from one “cluster” to another, but his “close reading” is actually nothing of the sort, since it never goes beneath or beyond the surface.  The result is a perceived chain of “tortuous actions and reactions” by the three actors, but with no sense of their flesh-and-blood reality.  In effect, they are shadows of themselves projected onto the wall of Plato’s Cave.

Rudenstine ignores the near-universal perception of two main sonnet sequences of unequal length running in parallel within the same time frame—one focusing on the Fair Youth (1-126), the other on the Dark Lady (127-152). Instead, he sees the entire sequence as a continuous record of unexplained reactions and behaviors. The poet and the friend are unfaithful to each other but then reunite over and over again; later, each man succumbs “entirely to the mistress, becoming a slave to ‘lust in action.’”  By the end, our supreme poet has “disintegrated in the face of uncontrollable desire” for the manipulative woman, while the friend undergoes “an analogous progression” from declarations of love to persistent unfaithfulness to becoming “helpless in the face of the Dark Lady,” when finally both men have “completely capitulated” to her powerful seductions.

“In short,” Rudenstine writes, “the two sections of the sequence—combined, as a single work—track the continuous ‘fall’ of both the poet and the friend. Each of the two major figures moves from the early prospect of potential mutual love to episodes of unfaithfulness and betrayal, to complete helplessness in the face of lust”—not for each other, but for the woman.

Following this narrative is a kind of game, which, requiring no other knowledge of the real-life players or situations, anyone can play. The exercise might be likened to reading the “To be or not to be” soliloquy without knowing who is speaking or anything else beyond the words on a page. In that case, how close could we come to discerning the context of Hamlet?

Oxfordians know it’s possible to come closer to “getting” these intensely autobiographical sonnets by first figuring out who the author is; and if we think Oxford is writing the lines, we suddenly have a very different (and detailed) framework of biography and history. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Oxfordians agree with Rudenstine’s two main tenets: (1) that the Sonnets comprise a unified work, the verses deliberately arranged in numerical and chronological order, and (2) that the recorded story involves real persons whom Oxford knew, and knew very well.

The exercise might be likened to reading the “To be or not to be” soliloquy without knowing who is speaking or anything else beyond the words on a page. In that case, how close could we come to discerning the context of Hamlet?

Here is where Oxfordian views diverge, however, as there is no clear agreement about whether the Earl is writing about a bisexual triangle or, in stark contrast, about his involvement in matters of politics and state power.  [In the Fall 2014 issue of the Newsletter, editor Alex McNeil reported that a survey of Oxfordians at 2014 SOF conference revealed sixteen respondents agreeing that “the principal story of the Sonnets is of politics and succession, with nine others disagreeing and seven more being uncertain.”]  Based on previous surveys, however, it also appears that Oxfordians’ views on the fundamental context of the Sonnets tend to fluctuate, indicating that many minds remain open to further discussion.

If we accept that the sequence is a unified work, it’s just a short step to go looking for evidence of an internal structure; when we do look, it’s easy to view Sonnet 26 as an envoi at the end of a sequence,[3] just as Sonnet 126 is the generally acknowledged envoi that concludes the entire Fair Youth series.[4]  After Sonnet 26 the tone of the Sonnets abruptly changes, with Sonnet 27 plunging us into darkness, despair and grief as the poet —Oxford—now imagines the “shadow” of his friend as “a jewel hung in ghastly night.”

Recognizing not one, but two, envois—26 and 126—now makes it easy to tease out a 100-sonnet central sequence in the exact middle between two shorter ones of twenty-six sonnets each:

Sonnets 1 to 26 ………..26

Sonnets 27 to 126 ………100

Sonnets 127 to 152 ………..26

The existence of this 26/100/26 structure requires no agreement on what the Sonnets are really about. The structure exists whether or not they concern romance and sexual power or politics and state power. Inevitably, however, accepting the existence of such an elegant design leads to questioning why the poet would have created it in the first place. For what reason does he (presumably Oxford) deem it so important to have done so? Why does he repeatedly describe his work as a  “monument” to the younger man (presumably the Earl of Southampton) for the eyes of future generations?[5]

We can view the younger man’s “crime” as Southampton’s role in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601, for which he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. (Among all the “crimes” that he might have committed in his life, surely this one tops the list.)

One possible explanation for building the structure is simply his great love for the other man, which at first seems reasonable, given that the world has never tired of poems and songs in which the speaker shouts from the rooftops about loving someone forever. But the perceived “love” story being immortalized in the Sonnets is one of a bitter, three-way romance involving the two men with each other and both with the same woman. Their multiple, back-and-forth betrayals are compounded by their mutual lust for the mistress, who overpowers each man and plunges both into abject sexual servitude. Under that scenario, why would Oxford tell Southampton in Sonnet 18 that “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” or make similar promises throughout?

The Stratfordian view allows for no other explanation for the tone and structure than the tortured, triangular “love” story of Rudenstine’s “close reading,” but Oxfordians do have the option of viewing the Sonnets within an entirely different context. While some (or perhaps many) prefer a similar love story involving Edward de Vere, it is also possible to see a much broader or deeper purpose, given that Oxford was a peer of the realm who cared about the direction and fate of his sceptered isle. In fact, one could argue that the combination of structure, language and tone provides no meaningful alternative to seeing his concerns about matters of state:

When I have seen such interchange of state,

Or state itself confounded to decay… (64)

And thou in this shalt find thy monument,

When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.  (107)

Exploring this other alternative allows us to discern a story based on contemporary political history. For starters, we can view the younger man’s “crime”[6] as Southampton’s role in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601, for which he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. (Among all the “crimes” that he might have committed in his life, surely this one tops the list.) Then we might agree with the majority of traditional editors that Sonnet 107 celebrates Southampton’s liberation on April 10, 1603, after having been “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” (sentenced to perpetual imprisonment) in the Tower, as well as about the recent death of Queen Elizabeth (“the mortal Moon”) and the succession of King James.

In addition we can see Sonnet 125 evoking the funeral procession for Elizabeth on April 28, 1603,[7] when the “canopy” of state was borne over her effigy and coffin, marking the official end of the Tudor dynasty.[8]

Given Rudenstine’s view that the poet’s story is all about love and passion, sexual betrayal and enslavement to lust, we should not be surprised to find him avoiding any attempt to include Sonnets 107 and 125. Does he skip over them because they cannot fit into his relatively trivial reading of the recorded story?

As the authorship debate continues to heat up, even some Stratfordians are now seeing the clear evidence that this author was deeply concerned about matters of state; for example, in his new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, James Shapiro argues that the politics of the time inspired Shakspere of Stratford to write King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.[9]  Shapiro’s own authorship paradigm distorts his ability to see things clearly, but at least he’s going into the political realm. Might we discern here a desperate urgency to keep pace with Oxfordians, in terms of coming up with better explanations for Shakespeare to be so occupied with matters of kingship and government policy and royal succession?

My view, of course, is that the political realm is where the Sonnets belong, especially when Oxford is accepted as author. Have those Oxfordians who perceive a triangular “love story” done much better than Rudenstine?  I suggest not, especially given the widely differing candidates for the Dark Lady in Oxford’s life.[10]  In any case, it’s probably just a matter of time until Shapiro strikes again with a new Stratfordian bestseller called State Power in the Sonnets—unless, that is, we get our act together before he beats us to the punch.


[1] Whittemore, Hank: The Monument, 2005

[2] See Kerrigan, John: The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, 1986, pp. 8-10, citing “continuities” and “links” that “recur throughout the sequence” and “suggest that the poems need no reordering.”

[3] Sonnet 26 to “Lord of my love” has been likened to the Lucrece dedication to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, pledging, “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end.” Also see See Rowse, A. L.: Shakespeare’s Sonnets: The Problems Solved, 1964, p. 55:  “This sonnet [26] reads like a conclusion, an envoi to the whole of this first section, Sonnets 1-26.”

[4] While Sonnet 26 opens to “Lord of my love,” Sonnet 126 opens to “O Thou my lovely Boy…”

[5] “’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room even in the eyes of all posterity that wear this world out to the ending doom” – Sonnet 55; “Your name from hence immortal life shall have … Your monument shall be my gentle verse, which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read, and tongues to be your being shall rehearse, when all the breathers of this world are dead” – Sonnet 81

[6] “To you it doth belong/ Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime” – Sonnet 58; “To weigh how once I suffered in your crime” – Sonnet 120.

[7] Looney, John Thomas: “Shakespeare” Identified, 1920, p. 229-30: “It is just possible that this ceremony (the queen’s funeral) is directly referred to in Sonnet 125.”  Also see Booth, Stephen: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 427: declaring that the reader is invited “to think of the ‘canopy’ as borne in a funeral procession.”

[8] Strong, Roy: The Cult of Elizabeth, 1977, p. 14: “No monarch was officially dead until the day of burial when the great officers of state broke their white wands of office and hurled them into the grave” – referring to the day of Elizabeth’s funeral procession from Whitehall to Westminster Abbey.

[9] Shapiro, James: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, 2015

[10] Oxfordian candidates for Dark Lady have included Anne Vavasour, Emilia Bassano Lanier, Elizabeth Trentham, Penelope Rich and Queen Elizabeth.  According to Rudenstine’s basic conception, her Majesty would seem the obvious Oxfordian choice, since both Oxford and Southampton wound up in helpless servitude to their sovereign mistress.


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