The "Shakespeare" Sonnets

Shakespeare's Sonnets
  and the Authorship Question

     Mary Sidney Wroth

    The Authorship Question is crucial with respect to Shakespeare’s Sonnets because the identity of the sonneteer creates the context in which the sonnets can be understood, appreciated, and enjoyed.  Without knowing, at least, the gender and age of the sonneteer the reader cannot fully partake or “enter the spirit of these intimate expressions of the heart.  

    Thus, due to the intimate nature of the sonnets these poems suffer the greatest injury among all the Shakespearean works when their author is mistakenly assumed to be a common, middle-aged, homosexual man, desperately in love with a young courtly man.  (Although this scenario has nothing to do with the sonnets, it does have a tragic potential in its own right.)  Reading the sonnets with the misplaced assumption that they are the work of a middle-aged, homosexual man—be he a commoner, like Shakspere of Stratford, or an aristocrat like Edward de Vere or Francis Bacon—imposes a corrupt context on the material which robs these beautiful poems of their true import, and renders them out-of-joint, and largely unrecognizable.  In addition, the assumption that all the sonnets in Shake-speare’s Sonnets (as well as the poem, A Lover's Complaint) were the work of a single author is unsupported; a sensitive reading of the sonnets and poem will reveal four different voices, by at least four different authors.

An open and truthful reading of the sonnets—without any imposition of assumed authorship—would reveal that the main sonnet sequence
(18-126) was written in the context of love between a young woman and a young man, both of aristocratic upbringing.  Sonnets 1-16 were written by an older person trying to persuade a young man, in his/her family, to marry and have childrenand not by some unrelated sonneteer commissioned to write these poems.  Sonnet 17 (grouped with sonnets 1-16) was written by a young woman trying to persuade a young man to marry and have children.  Sonnets, 127-154, addressed to a “dark lady,” are the early invention of a young courtier, trying his best to seduce a somewhat available womannot the lusty and misplaced attempts of a common, middle-aged man trying to have sex with a noble woman.

“Shakespeare” the playwright vs. “Shakespeare” the sonneteer

     Anyone involved in the Authorship Question, and trying to approach the subject without preconceived notions, should adopt the working assumption that the author of the Shakespeare plays was not necessarily the same as the author (or authors) of the Shakespeare sonnets (nor the two narrative poems) even though all the works were attributed to “Shakespeare.”  The Authorship Question is based upon the position that the name found on the cover page of a work may not be a true indicator of the work's author, and specifically, that the name "Shakespeare" (or "Shake-speare") was a pseudonym and not the name of actual person, nor indicative of William Shakspere of Stratford.  Accordingly, no anti-Stratfordian should blindly assume that the "Shake-speare" of the sonnets (whomever it may be) was the same "Shakespeare" who wrote the plays.  To the contrary, upon a careful look at the material, one should assume that the author of the "Shakespeare" plays was not the same author as that of the "Shakspeare" of the sonnets or narrative poems.

    Several things support this premise:

a) The overall tone and personal sentiment of the sonnets is strikingly different from that of the plays; the overall style of the two narrative poems (as well as their both containing a dedication, and their both being meticulously typeset) is quite different from that of the plays.

b) Shake-speare’s Sonnets is the only work that has a dedication made by the publisher; this may indicate that the book was not published with the consent, or involvement, of the author(s).  In addition, the publication of the sonnets, unlike the plays, was actively “suppressed,” which suggests that the true author (or someone implicated by the sonnets) did not want them published.

c) The sonnets (and narrative poems) were not included in the Folio Edition of Shakespeare’s worksand the Folio was edited and compiled by someone (Ben Jonson) who positively knew the identity of "Shakespeare," the playwright.

e) Shake-speare’s Sonnets is clearly comprised of three different sonnet collections, plus a poem, suggesting that it was the work of several authors and not a single "Shakespeare."

A True Context for Understanding the Sonnets

     Shake-speare’s Sonnets is made up of three separate sonnet collections, and a poem, all of which express different, and somewhat discordant, voices.  The first collection of sonnets (1-17) is addressed to a young man, urging him to marry; all except sonnet 17 express a somewhat harsh and authoritarian, yet intimate, voice.  These sonnets were probably written by an older relative of the young man; they appear to have been written over a single concern, all within the course of a few months.  The second sonnet collection (18-126), which is the main collection of 108 sonnets, was written by a young woman, to a young man, in the spirit of pure and selfless (and painful) love; it was written over an extended period of time, perhaps three to five years. The third collection (127-154) was written by a young man, addressed to an older (and seemingly available) woman, revealing the youth’s lusty attempt at seduction.  These sonnets were written over a period of a few months.  A Lover’s Complaint was written by a woman who had been betrayed and scorned by a young man.  It appears that "Mr. W.H." who was the "only begettor" of the sonnets, was the subject of the first two sonnet collections (1-17 and 18-126) and A Lover’s Complaint, and the author of the last sonnet collection (127-154).

    In his book, The Darling Buds of Maie, Ben Alexander proposes that the sonnets should be read in the context of a love affair between two young courtiers, William Herbert and Mary Fitton and that the sonnets should be understood in three groupings, chronologically arranged as follows:

    a) Sonnets 127-154, written by William Herbert to the ‘dark lady’ which was Mary Fitton (but could have been Aemelia Lanier). 

    b) Sonnets 1-17, written by Mary Fitton to William Herbert while she was pregnant with his child (and while he was in jail).
    c) The main sonnet collection, 18 -126, written by Mary Fitton to William Herbert, during the time of their relationship (when it was in full bloom) and continuing for several years, even after Herbert refused to marry her.
    d) A Lover’s Complaint, written by Mary Fitton about her betrayal by William Herbert.

A New Schema

    The new schema, herein proposed, is based on Alexander’s general grouping but different in a several key respects.  It is as follows:
    a) Sonnets 127-154 were written by William Herbert to the ‘dark lady’but not to Mary Fitton.  (Mary Fitton is referred to in the last sonnets but they are not addressed to herthey are about her).
    b) The main sonnet collection of 108 sonnets, 18-126, was written by Mary Wroth to her cousin William Herbert.
    c) Sonnets 1-16 (prompting Herbert to marry and have children) were most likely written by Herbert's mother, Mary Sidney; however, some (or all) of them could have been written by one of Herbert's tutors, or an older family member, at the request of Mary Sidney; sonnet 17 was written by a young family member (probably Mary Wroth), and probably at the request of her aunt, Mary Sidney.
    d) A Lover’s Complaint was written by Mary Fitton about her betrayal by William Herbert (in agreement with Alexander).

Collection 1: (1604 - 1608)

     The main sonnet sequence (18-126) was written by Mary Wroth, to her cousin William Herbert.  The collection of sonnets, written as a single book, contained the traditional number of 108 sonnets (actually 107 sonnets and a 12-line poem), and was based upon the foremost sonnet collection of the time, Stella and Astrophil, by Philip Sidney, which also contained 108 sonnets.  Philip Sidney was uncle to both William Herbert and Mary Wroth and both were fluent with his work.  (Philip Sidney was brother to Mary Sidney, Herbert’s mother, and brother to Robert Sidney, Wroth’s father.) 

    This sonnet sequence, which initially comprised a book in its own right, was written over a period of several years, and tells of Mary Wroth’s tumultuous relationship with her cousin, William Herbert.  This sequence continues through 1604 wherein both William and Mary married other people. However, it seems that both marriages were doomed from the start—probably because neither Herbert nor Wroth were ever able to abandon the love they held for each other. Even during their marriage to others, as well as encounters with other lovers, they continued their romantic liaison.  In the end, their love could not be denied: around 1616, even while Herbert was still married (though his wife was declared “insane”) Herbert and Wroth lived under the same roof and bore two children together. 

      To realize the full power, urgency, and beauty of sonnets 18-126, they should be read as a single book (having no relation to the other sonnets in the collection) and understood in the context of an overwhelming love (between cousins) which could never be fully expressed or realized—nor denied. 

Collection 2: (1601)

    Sonnets 1 -17 were addressed to William Herbert, urging the recalcitrant youth to marry and have children.  The first 16 sonnets are somewhat philosophical in nature, making an appeal to the young man's sense of reason, couched in a loving yet castigating (and authoritative) voice.  Such sonnets could only come from someone older than Herbert, and someone close enough to Herbert to use such harsh (yet loving) words.  The most likely author of these sonnets is Herbert's mother, Mary Sidney, though is it possible that some (or all) of the sonnets could have been written by an older relative or teacher of Herbert (at the request of Mary Sidney).  There is a shift in the sonneteer’s voice (but not his/her overall tone or approach) after sonnet 12; sonnets 1-12 use the terms “thou” and “thy” while 13-16 uses “you” (and also more intimate terms such as “my love”).  Of note, Shakespeare, the playwright (i.e., Mary Sidney) used thou instead of you even though at the end of the sixteenth century thou was "quaint and dated" (and not a form regularly used by any contemporary writer.)  Thus, the shift in usage from thou to you suggests that Mary Sidney may have written sonnets 1-12 in a particular voice; yet, after it became clear that she was making no impact, she may have made a conscious shift in form from thou to you in an attempt to be more personal and persuasive.  Or, she may have asked someone else (someone older than, and respected by, William Herbert) to write a few of the same kind of sonnets (13-16).  Sonnet 17 was written during this same time period but expresses a different voice from the one expressed in sonnets 1-16.

    Sonnet 17 is the “odd poem out.”  It relates to the previous 16 sonnets, in that it bids the young man to marry and have children, yet its overtly loving tone, and the sonneteer’s reference to herself as a poet, is more in line with the voice of the next sonnet sequence (18-126).  One possibility is that this sonnet was written, by Mary Wroth, to her dear cousin, at the request of Mary Sidney.  What we have, then, is an odd bridging of these two sonnets sections, where Mary Wroth wrote sonnet 17 to her cousin, at the behest of her aunt, Mary Sidney and then, later, wrote her own sequence to William Herbert.

   It appears that this group of sonnets was written around the time of the Mary Fitton scandal, in 1601, when there was some urgency that William Herbert marry Mary Fitton.  (They could have been written earlier, urging Herbert to marry after he had rejected several marriage possibilities
the most notable of which was his marriage arrangement with Bridget de Vere, in September 1597, but this is unlikely. Herbert was only 17 at the time and his early age would not have prompted the urgency found in the “procreation sonnets.”)  However, the Fitton scandal—where Fitton was carrying Herbert's child, where the Queen commanded Herbert to marry her, and where he refused to marry her---may have been met with more urgency than Herbert’s prior refusal to marry.  These sonnets, urging Herbert to marry and have children, were likely written during the period when Fitton was pregnant with his child and desperately wanting Herbert to marry her. Mary Sidney Herbert supported the marriage, wanting her son to “do the right thing” and she may have prompted this sonnet sequence.  However, despite these beseeching sonnets, and the Queen's command that he marry, and the prospect of his being thrown in jail (and banished from court), Herbert refused to marry Fitton.

    Fitton and Herbert had a love affair which resulted in Fitton becoming pregnant.  After much urging (from his mother, who approved of the marriage), and even after a direct command from the Queen, Herbert refused to marry her (
most likely because her family was of a lower status than his, and such a marriage would do nothing for his political or monetary advancement).  Subsequently he was put in jail, and later banished to Wilton House.  Thus, it remains likely that the "procreation sonnets" were written as part of an attempt to persuade Herbert to marry Mary Fitton.

     The likelihood, that someone unknown to William Herbert had written the sonnets (someone coming from outside the Sidney family, or Wilton Circle, wherein the English Petrarchan sonnet was born)—such as a commissioned poet, known primarily as a playwright—is remote.  Such an impersonal appeal would be feckless and have no sway over a young man who was already adamant about not marrying..  Even the simple words of someone who was dear to William Herbert, though imperfectly worded, would have far more impact than well-crafted words coming from someone he did not know. 

    Some references found in Sonnets 1 -17:

Sonnet 3: Makes a direct reference to Herbert's mother (and her looking back to her prime): 
    "Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
      Calls back the lovely April of her prime"   [Herbert was born in April]

Lines 4-8 of several sonnets express the same harsh tone of the sonneteer.  For example:

Sonnet 1 (lines 4 -8):
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself they foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.   
Sonnet 2 (lines 4 -8):
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,

Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.  

Sonnet 4
(lines 4 -8):
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?  

Sonnet 12 expresses the view of an older person looking back on life.
Sonnet 13 is more intimate than the previous 12 sonnets, using such terms as “but love” and “dear my love.” This is the first of the sonnets in this group which uses “you” instead of “thou”
Sonnet 14 is somewhat distant and philosophical—similar in tone to sonnets 1-12.
Sonnet 15 is more intimate in tone than sonnets 12, especially with its use of the expression, “I engraft you new.”
Sonnet 16 is abstract like 1-12, yet still addresses the youth as “you” rather than “thou.”

Sonnet 17 is a seeming bridge between the previous 16 sonnets and the following 107.  The sonneteer refers to herself as "this poet" in a similar way that the sonneteer (Mary Wroth) does in the next sequence.  Thus, if this sonnet were written by Wroth it might have been included in the numerology of the sonnets in the next section (18-126).  If this sonnet was counted in the next sonnet sequence it would make that a sequence of 108 sonnets (which is the traditional number), plus one closing poem, rather than it being a collection of 108 poems, with 107 sonnets and one closing poem.

Collection 3: (1598 - 1600)

    Sonnets 127 - 154, written by William Herbert, as a young courtier, in his attempt to seduce an older (and perceived to be willing) woman.

     The last group of sonnets, addressed to a “dark lady,” were written by William in his early attempt to charm (and seduce) an older woman—whom it seems was already married or someone’s mistress (and thus “more available” than the young virgins at court). A top candidate for the object of young William’s lusty advances is Aemelia Lanier, since she was known to be of a dark complexion.  However, the reference to darkness may have been metaphorical or a reference to the dark make-up the woman may have worn in performing a courtly play, and not the actual complexion of the wooed woman.  The sonneteer may have invoked this image or darkness as a way to express his affection, stating that even when the woman had a darkened face, and wore a black wig—and bear in mind that darkness was likened to unattractiveness during that time—he would still find her attractive.  Thus he was saying, “even when you appeared to be ugly, I still adored you.”  The identity of the dark lady could have been almost anyone—except for Mary Fitton.  This sonnet group ends with the young William telling the dark lady that he has found another—a “maid of Dian” who “took up that fire”—which was most likely Mary Fitton. 

 A Lover’s Complaint

    This is a poem written by Mary Fitton, telling of how she was seduced and deceived by William Herbert.

     This poem relates to events which took place around 1600-1601, specifically to the way Fitton was seduced, impregnated, and then betrayed by William Herbert.  It could have been written around 1608, after Mary Fitton had come upon Mary Wroth’s book of love sonnets or much earlier, around 1601, with a few final touches and revisions made in 1608.



A likely chronology relating to the writing and publication of the sonnets is as follows:

Dark Lady Sonnets, 127-154
(1598 - 1599)

     This collection of 27 sonnets was written by William Herbert to a Dark Lady (1598-1599) as part of his lustful seduction. The Dark Lady does not fully respond to William’s advances (or only occasionally) and William finds more fertile (and available) ground in a “maid of Dian’s”—a young woman of the Queen’s court, Mary Fitton.

      An essay found in the book, Palladis Tamia, by Francis Meres (1598) mentions a collection of “sugared” sonnets by “Shakespeare” which were passed “among his private friends, &c.”  It is not clear what collection Meres was referring to nor is it likely that the sonnet collection referred to by Meres coincided with the sonnets (by Herbert) found in the 1609 quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

      A significant thing about the person who wrote the Meres essay is that he seemed to have been among “the private friends” of “Shakespeare”—which means he knew the true identity of the Author.  The essayist never mixes his praise of “Shakespeare,” the author of the sonnets and the two narrative poems, with “Shakespeare,” the playwright, which supports the notion that they are not the same “Shakespeares.”  In addition, the essayist praises “Shakespeare’s” Venus and Adonis and Lucrece in the same breath as the sonnets—and being that the essayist knew the identity of Shakespeare, the implication is that the sonneteer and the author of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece were the same “Shakespeare.” Now, William Herbert’s sonnets were being passed around at that time, and he, as the most likely “Mr. W. H.” (“the only begetter” of the sonnets), wrote some of the “Shakespeare sonnets”—this suggests that William Herbert was the likely “Shakespeare” of the “sugared” sonnets and the “Shakespeare” of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.  (This is in accord with the theory proposed by Ben Alexander that Herbert was the young author Venus and Adonis and Lucrece —which he wrote with a lot of help from his tutor, Samuel Daniel, or his gifted mother.)

The Passionate Pilgrim (1599)

      This collection of 21 love poems contains two sonnets from Shake-speare’s Sonnets: 138 and 144.  These sonnets make up the first two poems of this collection and were most likely taken from an extant collection by William Herbert.  The evidence suggesting that these two poems were taken from a collection of sonnets by Herbert are:

a) Both poems in The Passionate Pilgrim suggest a larger context, and are better placed within a grouping of poems, as is the case with Herbert’s sonnet collection (127 - 154) as opposed to standing alone.

b) Sonnets 138 and 144, which form the first two poems of this collection, and are in the same order as they are in Herbert’s collection.

c) The two sonnets in The Passionate Pilgrim show signs of having been revised—and the revisions offer a softer and improved version over the original verses by Herbert. 

      The Passionate Pilgrim was a collection of poems and sonnets published as having been written “By W. Shakespeare.”  However, this name was mistakenly assigned (as it was with Shakespeare’s Sonnets) since many of the poems in the collection were written by poets other than Shakespeare, including poems by Richard Barnfield, Thomas Weelkes, and Christopher Marlow.  Only the first six poems in the collection are recognizable as being by “Shakespeare.”  

      Ben Alexander surmises that the collection of poems, which was later printed as The Passionate Pilgrim by “W. Shakespeare,” was originally prepared by William Herbert, intending it to be a gift for some woman, possibly Mary Fitton, “a maid of Dian’s.”  Two of the poems in the collection were original works by William Herbert and several other poems may have been his. Now, if this collection was meant for Mary Fitton—and later published under the name “Shakespeare”—and also contained some of the sonnets in Herbert’s larger collection (the full sequence of which was published in Shake-speare’s Sonnets) one could see a connection as to why Mary Fitton would have published the sonnet collection she obtained under the name “Shake-speare.”

Herbert-Fitton Love Affair (1600-1601)

      William Herbert and Mary Fitton began a love affair around 1600, which eventually led to Fitton’s becoming pregnant. William, having made “a promise” to marry her (as part of his seduction arsenal) broke his promise when she becomes pregnant, and the possibility of marriage became more pressing.  Hearing of the affair, the Queen commanded Herbert to marry Fitton, but he refused.  Accordingly, he was thrown in prison (in March 1601), and Fitton was placed under house arrest.  He stayed in prison for a few months, then was confined to Baynard’s Castle (the Pembroke home in London), then banished to Wilton House (in August 1601).

     At this time, all of William’s court activities came to an end, and he had little or no chance of advancement.  He sacrificed his career by refusing to marry Mary Fitton.  (Only after Queen Elizabeth died, in March 1603, was William allowed to return to court.  King James, who was not favorably disposed to Queen Elizabeth—she having put his mother to death—forgave, and restored, most of the people she condemned, including Herbert and Southampton.)

Sonnets 1-17

      These sonnets were probably written in 1601.  Sonnets 1-12 were most likely written by Mary Sidney, trying to urge her son to marry Mary Fitton (who was carrying his child at the time the sonnets were written).  Sonnets 13-16 were most likely written by Mary Sidney though they may have been written one of Herbert's tutors or older relatives at the request of Mary Sidney.  Sonnet 17 was most probably written by Mary Wroth, at the request of Mary Sidney.

     The time frame for these sonnets would be as follows:

September (or August)1600                                 Mary Fitton becomes pregnant
November (or September) 1600                           Mary informs William of her pregnancy
Nov 1600 - Feb 1601                                          Sonnets are written (over a 4 month period)
March 1601                                                       Mary Fitton loses child

1601 – 1603

     Hamlet is written right after the Herbert-Fitton scandal, during the time that William Herbert is under house arrest at Wilton House.  The play was registered on July 29, 1602, and first published in a quarto edition in 1603.

     King James’s peaceful accession to the throne (following Queen Elizabeth’s death on March 24, 1601) was followed by an “exceptionally severe and prolonged plague outbreak.”  Accordingly, all the public theaters were closed from May 1603 - September 1604. The severe plague in London caused King James to move his entire court to the Pembroke estate at Wilton House where they stayed for several months during the fall of 1603. It was during this time that William Hebert, the Earl of Pembroke, and the king became very good friends.  At that time, Wilton House was the literary Mecca of the age; hence, it was during this unique period when the court and the literati both found the center of their activities at Wilton House that the seed idea for a new translation of the Bible, called “The King James Version,” may have been born. (Recall that Mary Sidney’s first literary endeavor involved a translation of the Psalms). 

1603 - 1608

      Around 1603-4 Mary Wroth begins having a love affair with her older cousin, William Herbert.  In 1604 he is 24 and she is 18.  They begin to express their love both physically (when they are together) and through sonnet writing when they are apart.  In 1608, after several years of loving trysts and sonnet writing, Mary Wroth decides to finish this phase of their relationship, and her sonnet writing.  To mark this end, she binds her collection of love poems into a book, containing 108 sonnets, and has it delivered to William.

      The final sonnets themselves indicate that the sonneteer made a willful decision to stop all her sonnet writing with sonnet 125.  It became clear to Mary Wroth that the sonnet-writing, which in the past was the highest way to sustain and express her love, at this point, had become the very thing that was thwarting it and preventing it from expanding even further. The sonnets sustained William and allowed him to continue pursuing his life “at a distance” rather than taking steps to purse a life with Mary—which is what she longed for.  To cap off her collection, she offered a final poem (126) which was not a sonnet, for it had a paired rhyme scheme and only contained 12 lines (as opposed to 14).  The last two lines were marked as blank with two empty lines in parenthesis.  [A facsimile of this poem can be found at the end of this section]. The intent of this gesture was quite clear: she was giving all her sonnets to William and leaving the ending verse blank—for him to finish.  The sonnet phase of their love affair was over, and she would write no more; she was giving everything over to William and it was up to him to bring about a new phase of the relationship—which entailed their being together, sharing their love directly, and not writing about it.  The symbolism of completion was represented by the collection containing 108 sonnets, which is a mystical number of fullness completion.  (Though the reader may not believe in numerology, it is clear from the sonnets that the sonneteer, was a believer in astrology and numerology.  It is also known that the Sidney family, including Philip Sidney, adhered to the principles of astrology.  Thus, the sonneteer, used the number 108 to indicate this completion—the symbolism of  which William Herbert would also understand).

     In 1608, Wroth’s book of sonnets, being passed amongst William’s private friends, somehow finds its way into the hands of Mary Fitton.  Seeing such love poems written to, and about, William Herbert (whom she has a much different view of) Fitton decides to belittle this volume of poems by publishing it along with other, less flattering sonnets she had obtained. Added to this collection she writes A Lover’s Complaint which bitterly tells of her seduction and betrayal by Herbert—but ends with a final affirmation of her love.  The final stanza of A Lover’s Complaint reads:

O, that infected moisture of his eye                                  [his seductive tears and show of love]

O, that false fire which in his cheeks so glowed                 [false show of love, false smiles]
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly                     [reference to a blood-filled organ?]
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestowed                    [false promises he used to seduce her]
O, all that borrowed motion, seeming owed,                      [all his actions, indicating something more]
Would yet again betray the fore-betrayed                          [I would let betray me again]
And new pervert a reconciled maid.                                 [And ruin me again]

Other Considerations

Sonneteer for Hire?

Some scholars hold that Shakespeare was hired to write a series of 17 sonnets for a young aristocrat, urging him to get married.  If the young man in question was William Herbert (“Mr. W. H.”)—a theory which many scholars support—then the notion that the Sidney family, surrounded by the greatest sonneteers of the age, would go outside their own circle, and hire a playwright (who was of the lowest class) to then write a series of crucial sonnets for their son, would be unthinkable.  Samuel Daniel was young William’s tutor, and he knew him quite well; he could have written the sonnets at the request of Mary Sidney to prompt her son into marriage.  Hiring an outsider, who had no relationship with young William, and who had never written a sonnet (in the Petrarchan form) would not have made any sense.

Position of Saturn / Date of Registration

     In Elizabethan times, the date that a publication was registered often had significance, sometimes coinciding with a birthday or some astrological indicator.  What significance, then, did May 20, 1609 have?—the day Shake-speare’s Sonnets was registered?  May 20, 1609 marked the most powerful position of Saturn for that year, the day when the planet was stationary (which is the exact point between when the planet shifts from a forward to retrograde motion.)  In actuality, a planet does stop or move backwards, but appears to be stationary or moving backwards, from the perspective of the earth.  Saturn also had a particular strong influence on William Herbert, in 1609, and it is likely that the sonnets were registered and published on dates where the influence of Saturn, as it related to William Herbert, was particularly strong. 

      It takes Saturn about 29 years to orbit the sun.  This 29-year period is called the cycle of Saturn.  In astrological terms, one’s “Saturn Return” is the date when Saturn returns to the same position it occupied in a person’s natal chart.  (This cycle can vary from between 28-30 years, depending on the position of Saturn in one’s chart).  The “Saturn Return” marks a period when all accounts are squared, when justice is meted out. Saturn is the ruler of time; thus, at the time of one’s Saturn Return, a person must reach a certain level of development and must learn certain lessons in life.  If a person has learned those lessons, and made intelligent choices, in harmony with higher principles of the universe, then the Saturn Return comes as a confirmation of what a person has learned.  If, however, a person has not learned his needed lessons (which is often the case) then the period surrounding one’s Saturn Return can be particularly painful and trying. This is the present understanding of the role of Saturn and the Saturn Return, and it was similar to the understanding held by the Elizabethan aristocrats.

     If Mary Fitton was the one who registered Shake-speare’s Sonnets (prior to bringing them to the publishers) then the most powerful position of Saturn would have been on May 20, 1609.  (That day also had influence on William Herbert because that was the day when Saturn was closest to the natal position of Saturn in his natal chart.)  The exact day of William Herbert’s Saturn Return—which was marked when the transit of Saturn was in conjunction with the position of Saturn in his natal chart—was January 31, 1610 (which was 1609 in the Elizabethan calendar, wherein the new year began on March 24, not January 1).Thus, the most severe time of Saturn, for Herbert, was in the mid to later part of 1609;  the publication of the sonnets during this time would have exerted the most “reckoning power” over Herbert.

      All said, the registration date for Shake-speare’s Sonnets was not likely a randomly selected date; it was the exact date that marked the most powerful position of Saturn for the year, and the most influential position of Saturn in relation to William Herbert’s natal chart.


The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadiaby Philip Sidney (1590), p. 93-96
(As it may relate to sonnets 1 -16)

And therefore he returning again to the train of his desolate pensiveness, Geron invited Histor to answer him in Eclogue-wise; who indeed having been long in love with the fair Kala, and now by Lalus overgone; was grown into a detestation of marriage. But thus it was.

In faith, good Histor, long is your delay,
From holy marriage sweet and surest mean:
Our foolish lust in honest rules to stay.  
I pray thee, do to Lalus sample lean:  [follow Lalus's example and marry]
Thou seest how frisk and jolly now he is,
That last day seem’d he could not chew a bean.
Believe me man, then is no greater bliss,
Then is the quiet joy of loving wife;
Which who so wants, half of himself doth miss.
Friend without change, playfellow without strife,
Food without fullness, counsel without pride,
Is this sweet doubling of our single life.

 . . . For I seek not their shame, but still me thinks,
A better life it is to lye alone.

Who, for each fickle fear from virtue shrinks,
Shall in his life embrace no worthy thing:
No mortal man the cup of surety drinks.
The heav’ns do not good haps in handfuls bring,
But let us pick our good from out much bad:
That still our little world may know his king.
But certainly so long we may be glad,
While that we do what nature doth require,
And for th’event we never ought be sad.
Man oft is plagde with air, is burnt with fire,
In water drown’d, in earth his burial is;
And shall we not therefore their use desire ?
Nature above all things requireth this,
That we our kind do labour to maintain;
Which drawn-out line doth hold all human bliss.
Thy father justly may of thee complain,
If thou do not repay his deeds for thee,
In granting unto him a grandsire’s gain.
Thy common-wealth may rightly grieved be,
Which must by this immortal be preserved
If thus thou murder thy posterity.
His very being he hath not deserved,
Who for a self-conceit will that forbear,
Whereby that being aye must be conserved.
And God forbid, women such cattle were, 
As you paint them: but well in you I find,
No man doth speak aright, who speaks in fear.
Who only sees the ill is worse then blind.
These fifty winters married have I been;
And yet find no such faults in womankind.
I have a wife worthy to be a Queen,
So well she can command, and yet obey;
In ruling of a house so well she’s seen.
And yet in all this time, betwixt us tway,
We bear our double yoke with such consent,
That never past foul word, I dare well say.
But these be your love-toys, which still are spent
In lawless games, and love not as you should,
But with much study learn late to repent.
How well last day before our Prince you could
Blind Cupid’s works with wonder testify?
Yet now the root of him abase you would.
Go to, go to, and Cupid now apply
To that where thou thy Cupid mayest avow,
And thou shalt find, in women virtues lie.
Sweet supple minds which soon to wisdom bow
Where they by wisdoms rule directed are,
And are not forced fonde thraldome to allow.
As we to get are framed, so they to spare:
We made for pain, our pains they made to cherish:
We care abroad, and they of home have care.
O Histor, seek within thyself to flourish:
Thy house by thee must live, or else be gone:
And then who shall the name of Histor nourish?
Riches of children pass a Princes throne;
Which touch the father’s heart with secret joy,
When without shame he saith, these be mine own.
Marry therefore; for marriage will destroy
Those passions which to youthful head do clime
Mothers and Nurses of all vain annoy.

  Sonnets Timelines

Two files, related to the dating of the sonnets, are available in pdf.

Sonnets Timeline 1

   A chart dating Sonnets 1 -17, as related to events in the life of William Herbert and Mary Fitton
, and Sonnets 18 - 126, as related to events in the life of William Herbert and Mary Wroth

Sonnets Timeline 2

    A chart dating Sonnets 18 - 126, as related to events in the life of William Herbert, Mary Wroth, and England

Sonnets Timeline 1.pdf
File Size: 83 kb
File Type: pdf
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Sonnets Timeline 2.pdf
File Size: 40 kb
File Type: pdf
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      The book, On the Sonnets of Shakespeare, was published in 1837, and puts forth a case that "Mr. W.H." was
      William Herbert
On the Sonnets.pdf
File Size: 1630 kb
File Type: pdf
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