The Political Neoplatonism of Shakespeare's Sonnets
By Clifford Stetner
Regardless of any personal allusions or references, Shakespeare’s Sonnets include a political discourse in keeping with the long tradition of the sonnet cycle genre from Dante to Spenser; furthermore that the love object addressed, whether in the person of a fair youth or a dark lady, is a complex persona which is always understood to include Elizabeth, moreover, that the text successfully supports a Neoplatonic subtext (involving elements both conventional and unconventional to the genre), and ultimately that it makes a literary statement that we would term deconstructionist.
To make this case completely (besides the book of fifty chapters explicating all the sonnets contemplated by Barbara Felperin) a reading of the Lover’s Complaint and The Phoenix and the Turtle, as well as a number of plays would be necessary. Within the scope of this paper, I will attempt at least to show how the first nineteen sonnets taken as a group might fit into such a thesis.
When Martin Buber set out in the middle of the last century to lend life support to the Western tradition of pantheism and idealism, he produced a philosophical tract with the highly unconventional title: I and Thou. In this terse and ungrammatical phrase, we detect an epistemological gesture in the tradition of Descartes (though from the opposite side of the metaphysical divide) to purge his language of what is redundant and superfluous and reduce the question of ontology to its most “fundamental” or “essential” or “elementary” terms. Perhaps, as a man of his age, Buber identifies these terms with pure phenomenology and his I-Thou entity closely resembles the pour-soi of Sartre.
But as is the case with “renaissance self-fashioning,” the adoption of concepts by existentialism is not tantamount to their introduction. Just as the duality of “Being and Nothingness” can be found stated much more concisely in the Buddhist Yin and Yang, the idea of reducing onto/phenomenology to the terms of I and Thou was incorporated into the form of the sonnet cycle from its origin in Dante’s Vita Nuova. As the praise of Beatrice beatifies Dante, the sonneteer is always involved in an explicit act of self-creation, of construction of the subject of the poetic discourse. The poetry as the site of this construction is a pure Buberian I-Thou relationship.
Whatever the impetus for this gesture of incipient humanism, it had at least the precedent of the biblical exegesis of the Song of Solomon in transforming a poetic object of romantic adoration into a composite persona which conflates spiritual and metaphysical principles with anthropomorphic characterization.
This conflation in poetry is often taken to reflect the medieval European understanding of art as iconography also evident in visual and dramatic genres. But as with visual and dramatic art, while this iconographic poetry was transformed during the Renaissance, it never entirely gave way to the unambiguous naturalism which modern readers tend to project onto it. This poetic iconography is most evident in the sonnet cycle tradition beginning with Beatrice/beatitude and Laura/laurel and virtually ending with its iconoclastic deconstruction in Shakespeare’s fair youth and dark lady. in contrast to medieval visual art, the iconized principles underlying the sonnet were drawn from Platonic rather than Christian texts:
…the Phaedrus supplies in more picturesque metaphor much the same link between the theory of the Ideas and the doctrine of love as appears in Diotima’s exposition to Socrates [in the Symposium]. The conception of the human soul as compounded of intelligence, spirit and appetite … is clothed in an extended allegory. Here the intellect is personified as the driver of a chariot whose winged horses are the one white, docile and inclined to good, the other dark, passionate and recalcitrant. Now the charioteer and the good horse must both exert their efforts to curb the base desires of the dark steed until, when both animals equally obey the highest element in the soul, the love manifested by that soul is as calm and perfect as earthly love may be. (Merrill 81)
If this is the struggle being worked out in the soul of the poet of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it does not seem to be going well by Sonnet 144:
TWo loues I haue of comfort and dispaire,
Which like two spirits do sugiest me still,
The better angell is a man right faire:
The worser spirit a woman collour'd il.
To win me soone to hell my femall euill,
Tempteth my better angel from my sight,
And would corrupt my saint to be a diuel:
Wooing his purity with her fowle pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd finde,
Suspect I may,yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,
I gesse one angel in an others hel.
Yet this shal I nere know but liue in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
As a platonic discourse involving the metaphysical relation of love to the human soul, the cycle begins well. The first nineteen of Shakespeare’s sonnets share the common theme of the poet’s injunction to his correspondent to consent to marry (a woman) and have children. He employs many poetic and philosophical arguments in this endeavor, and many people read these poems as Shakespeare’s sincere and intimate expressions of affection for someone, probably his patron (WH reversed, how cryptic!) Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton.
Addressing his sonnets to a male puts Shakespeare’s cycle in the tradition of Michelangelo’s and raises the question of his possible homosexuality. Many, perhaps most, critics believe the poet’s homosexuality is evident in the poetry, while others, like Joel Fineman, believe that it is actually early modern heterosexuality that is being constructed.
I always thought it strange, as expression of homoeroticism, for someone who is supposedly in love to express. Romantic love as it is conventionally expressed in sonnet cycles gives rise to the desire to possess the love object to the exclusion of all, not to give him or her away to another to breed children who can only take him or her further away into the duties of parenthood. The idea perhaps makes rational sense: go and reproduce your beauty; I’m so in love with your image that I can desire nothing more than to see more of them in the world, but it does not ring true as human emotion, and Shakespeare’s art is not generally naïve about emotions.
There are, however, other possible sources and functions for the procreation discourse. Influence has been demonstrated, for instance, of a dialogue of Erasmus for the form of the argument in favor of fatherhood, but in addition its form, the procreation theme itself has two important resonances in the period of the early sonnets: the approaching succession and the Neoplatonic episteme in which the sonnet tradition was grounded. If Shakespeare’s cycle is to be read in the context of the history of the genre, as I have attempted to describe it in this paper, then the theme of procreation can be read as an ideal device through which to unify the discourse of Platonic metaphysics with the discourse of political topicality, the two overriding allegorical themes of the historic genre.
In brief, Neoplatonism incorporates the idea of procreation into its creation myth. Plotinus and his followers asked why the One should not be content to rest in its own unity, but needs to create the natural world through emanation into multiplicity and number which we perceive as Nature. This Neoplatonic crux is reflected in the final line of Sonnet 21: “I will not praise that purpose not to sell.” There is a paradox in praising a thing as perfect, for if it is, then praise can add nothing to it. The Neoplatonic answer is given that the One, possessing the ideal qualities of an ideal goodness, must out of pure magnanimity (one of the properties of goodness) seek to multiply its own goodness by manifesting its perfect unity in a multiplicity of emanations which becomes everything in the natural world, including us.
The Neoplatonic drive to procreation then manifests itself in lower creation:
We learn in the Symposium that “love is of the immortal . . . . the mortal nature is seeking as far as possible to be everlasting and immortal; and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in place of the old . . . . Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children . . . but souls which are pregnant . . . conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain.—And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. (Burgess 78)
The drive of the One to (pro)create is the hypostasis of Love sometimes referred to as the higher of the two Venuses. That higher love then diffuses itself throughout the multiple forms of the natural world and instills in them (including us) the desire to return to the perfect unity of the One, out of which we have emanated.
As we begin to struggle towards this goal, however, our natural imperfections, resulting from our birth out of the lower stuff of being, perverts our purer love to the lower Venus giving rise to all our earthly and fleshly desires—a classic/medieval version of libido. It was always the express aim of Neoplatonism to use esoteric philosophy to learn to seek the higher Venus and reunion with the One, and elements of this process were adapted to Christianity by the early Fathers (the higher Venus only surviving deeply submerged in the Virgin mother). In some Neoplatonic interpretations, the third hypostasis of Mind is added, and sometimes the trinity is identified as One, Mind, Soul, the last taking the place of Love, but similarly associated with the Holy Ghost in the Christian trinity (the idea of which incidentally arose contemporarily).
The hypostasis of Mind is adapted to Christianity as logos, the Word, ergo the Word made flesh, ergo the Son of the Trinity. As such it provides the model for the highest pretensions of poetry as being next only to prophecy in its divine inspiration. It is appropriate then for the Platonic poet to cast his sonnet in the role of logos in its injunction to the One most worthy to be praised to respond to the imperative of Love, to give over its niggarding and share its beauty through procreation. In this way, a Platonic ontology is superimposed on the form of a personal address to a love object in the tradition of Drayton’s Idea’s Mirrour. This is the project accomplished by the first nineteen of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Read in this sense, the love object is more appropriately a young male as described by Diotima to Socrates as of a higher more perfect beauty in the ladder of love.
Casting himself in this role gives the poet a means of incorporating his supplication to his patron for support into a highly sophisticated artistic and philosophical discourse. The patron is to understand his own procreation to involve the begetting through judicious patronage (“husbandry in honour” (13) “public kindness” (36)) of great poetry dedicated to him and therefore perpetuating his “self” (many sonnets) in “the age to come” (17).
It remains only to describe the further layer of political topicality superimposed on the same poetry. As I have suggested, the poetic pose of obsequious injunction to marry and procreate would immediately suggest the conventional poetic address of Elizabeth who was frequently the object of literary injunctions of this nature. It is only the gender of the love object that makes the association seem unintended. We should note, however, that gender confusion is clearly marked as one of the themes of the cycle, notably in the “master/mistress” sonnet 20. A careful reading, furthermore, reveals that gender is not as clearly determined in the text as it is commonly read. We must acknowledge that it is we the readers who construct the personae from remarkably thin textual evidence. We infer a single addressee, for instance, throughout the first nineteen sonnets owing to their common theme and tone, but such unity of identity is nowhere stated explicitly. This suggests of course that the gender of the addressees of individual sonnets, which identify no gender explicitly, are textually indeterminate. Sonnet 1 illustrates the point:
FRom fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauties Rose might neuer die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heire might beare his memory:
But thou contracted to thine owne bright eyes,
Feed'st thy lights flame with selfe substantiall fewell,
Making a famine where aboundance lies,
Thy selfe thy foe,to thy sweet selfe too cruell:
Thou that art now the worlds fresh ornament,
And only herauld to the gaudy spring,
[. . . .] Pitty the world,or else this glutton be,
To eate the worlds due,by the graue and thee.
While no gender is stated, one is suggested by trope. The object is placed in a simile with beauty’s rose who when deceased “his tender heir … [bears] his memory.” But clearly, the simile could denote a woman, and the word rose in a poem about succession would strongly suggest the queen, an impression reinforced by grandiose terms such as “world’s ornament,” “only herald to the spring,” “pity the world,” and “the world’s due.” While such terms are generally understood as referring to a perhaps famous aristocrat in the epideictic idiom, they make literal sense attached to the monarch of an emerging geopolitical superpower. It is furthermore only after reading many sonnets that we become retroactively convinced of a male persona contracted to his own bright eyes. My reading of the sonnets takes the indeterminacy of gender in the first sonnet as intentional and fundamentally thematic.
In addition to the purely prudent principle of deniability, as with procreation, justification can be found for reversing the gender of the object of address in Neoplatonic political ideology. Although Elizabeth was not the first woman to rule as a monarch, she was the first female candidate for a European emperor, a successor to Charles V (and putatively to Constantine and Charlemagne as well as Arthur to whom she is explicitly associated) who, instead of subduing the Roman Church under the HRE, as advocated by Dante and Petrarch and the supporters of Charles V, did unify Church and State as a nationalist body in the British Isles. By those with providentialist ideas of history (and this describes almost everyone at the time), her sex was read as one of many propitious signs of her destiny to inherit the imperial scepter.
During the Renaissance, providentialism had become associated with Platonic ideas about the ideal State. These ideas are often seen as coming to Stuart England from France along with absolutism, but Platonic ideas were present at least as long as Sidney’s sonnets, and in England, as in the rest of Europe, the most prolific sonneteers were highly political men. I believe that the evidence suggests that Giordano Bruno, if he did not originate the idea of the Platonic sonnet as part of an anti-papist, pro-nationalist, pro-imperialist political discourse in England, which cast Elizabeth as a virtual Renaissance divinity, he allied himself to a native strain emerging in the Sidney circle and must have influenced its direction.
 I will only note that the WH credited with the begetting of the poems (the act of begetting incidentally playing a key role in the drama of the poems themselves) if his initials are rotated ninety degrees clockwise becomes EI or Elizabeth I.
 Sheba, the original dark lady.
 and others including Deportes who found “...in one of the king’s mignons, Quélus, the idea of love, beauty, and desire of man for man, which reflects something of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades.
 ‘Epistle to persuade a young gentleman to marriage,’ written by Erasmus and published in Thomas Wilson’s widely influential The Arte of Rhetorique in 1553.
 “Timaeus Let us now state the Cause wherefore He that constructed it constructed Becoming and the All. He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself. This principle, then [is] …the supreme originating principle of Becoming and the Cosmos.” [29e] Timaeus’ “…God desired to make it resemble most closely that intelligible Creature which is fairest of all and in all ways most perfect…” [30d] recalls the first line of Shakespeare’s cycle: “From fairest creatures we desire increase,” while Socrates question: “Does there exist any self-subsisting fire?” [51b] recalls the consuming of “thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel” of the same sonnet.
 When the poet [Desportes] speaks of “aimer hautement” he is obviously referring to the two kinds of love which we find treated by Pausanias in the Symposium when he says: “For we all know that Love is inseparable from Aphrodite, and if there were only one Aphrodite there would be only one Love; but there are two goddesses and there must be two Loves . . . . The elder one is the daughter of Uranus; the younger, who is the daughter of Zeus and Dione—her we call common; and the Love who is her fellow-worker is rightly named common, and the other Love is called heavenly.” (Burgess 73)
 More appropriate still might be an hermaphrodite or androgyne as described by Socrates himself as a denizen of the higher world of Forms, and I argue that Shakespeare exploits the metaphorically hermaphroditic qualities of Elizabeth as a true “master/mistress” in order to formulate his poetic discourse. “…the Renaissance almost unanimously exalted to the place of literary renown the rather contemptible figure of the Androgyne…western Christian culture had in the later Middle Ages steadily idealized (unconsciously agreeing with so early a Platonist as Plotinus) the reciprocal love of man and woman, and had reduced the status of masculine loves to that of a perversion... (Merrill 103)
 The first Elizabethan tragedy, Gorbaduc, demonstrates that the use of literary forms to address the question of an orderly succession goes back to the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign.
 Italicized in the 1609 quarto and suggested as a clue to the Elizabethan pronunciation of Wriothesly.
 As they are said to have “circulated,” it seems quite probable that they were not originally read in sequence.
 The Phoenix was one symbol mobilized in this discourse, conflating Elizabeth’s personal mythology with a much older mythology of empire. If Shakespeare’s Phoenix poem (and the collection in which it appeared) is intended in this context, it is interesting to note that, on the heels of his burning in Rome, Bruno has been suggested as a possible identity for the Turtle while Sidney, to whom Bruno dedicated his best works, was celebrated in the earlier collection, The Phoenix Nest.