Are Shakespearean Sonnets a Psychological Drama in Five Acts?

"Shakespeare's verbal imagination was also his dramatic imagination."

Inga-Stina Ewbank (1932 - 2004)
British academic and critic.

Shakespeare and the Arts of Language, "Companion to Shakespeare Studies"

Shakespeare’s sonnets have been a riddle to critics and readers alike and in the maze of criticism and interpretation it is more likely for one to lose his way than to get out of it. For those who believe that the sonnets display a chronological order of composition, the separate poems do not have much value by themselves unless they feel the developing situations show a definite pattern of sustained dramatic utterance. For them it is the poetry of self-dramatization unfolding a psychological drama in full five acts.

The first act is rather short; being that of Shakespeare’s acquaintance with his young patron who accepts the former’s company and who in turn is solicited earnestly by the poet to marry. It is generally pleasant time in spite of Shakespeare’s awareness of his inferior status.

The second act opens with what we may call in Absentia Shakespeare is found touring the country perhaps as an actor to please the motley crowd and feeling constantly depressed and becoming increasingly aware of his inferior social status. The patron-friend does not save him from economic plight when it would have cost him just a trifle but instead he elopes with the poet’s mistress, to add insult to in fury. We need not unduly stress this stealth for the object of this thievery was perhaps too willing to be stolen. In any case, this second act adds poignancy to the developing situation.

The third act shows Shakespeare back and happy again in his own way. The old sense of security is missing, however, and a deep note of melancholy fills the sonnets which now exhibit a profounder power of poetic expression. The poet senses the burden of ageing and the thought of an approaching death haunts him.

The fourth act signals the arrival of the rival poet. A silence, more eloquent than speech, envelops an agonizing Shakespeare. The disillusioned poet sings farewell to his young patron, now perhaps charmed by the former’s rival and tells him in tears “Thou art too dear for my possessing.”

The fifth act celebrates the renewal of friendship on a different footing. Shakespeare is now free and being free, resumes his true function as a poet no more enthralled to his master.

William Shakespeare
A plot is dimly discernible in the unraveling of the sonnet story with its exposition, rising action, crisis, falling action and catastrophe. It is not, however, fully Shakespearean and the thematic unveiling is abrupt and at times rather obscure, which it is bound to be, being a theme close to the poet’s heart. The triangular relationship between the poet, rival poet, patron and the Dark Lady seems to add to the ingredients of a suspense drama the form of which the sonnet-story sometimes assumes. The thematic abruptness in the opening, the mysterious obscurity frequenting the sonnets, the poet’s anguish over the transience of things and aching awe of all-devouring Time, the painful journey away and the happy come-back followed by the emergence of the rival poet and a prolonged silence, and the final celebration of a real friendship based on a freer footing compose a dramatic pattern enclosing the sonnets which, as some critics maintain, provide the golden key to the gate of Shakespeare’s inner garden.

Those that oppose the view of the sonnets unraveling a psychological drama point out that the sonnets do not reveal any kind of planned sequence. The only order is the order, they say, or division into-two unequal heaps—sonnets 1 to 126 being addressed to one young man and sonnets 127 to 152 to a dark-haired lady. These critics also point out the absence of chronological sequence Sonnets with the same theme are found widely separated and again among batches of sonnets clearly related to each other, some stray one is found different in tone and theme altogether. These critics object to the attempt of some scholars to rearrange the sonnets in a better logical order and are content to accept the jumble as already given. They are firm in their opinion that the Sonnets betray an impressive haphazardness and are of unequal value.

1. Calderwood, James L., and Harold E. Toliver. Essays in Shakespearean Criticism. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
2. "Shakespeare's Sonnets." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 June 2016.