Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

A Lost Shakespearean Sonnet

I have a unprovable theory which I’ll rehearse here, in the decent obscurity of this blog. I think that Shakespeare was a thrifty writer, and prone to reusing ideas, lines, bits and pieces. For example: I have always assumed the “To be or not to be” speech in Hamlet was something Shakespeare had written earlier — perhaps for a different uncompleted project; perhaps just as a bit of writing — that he bunged-in as he composed that play, which is why it’s full of references to situations and character-types with no specific relevance to the ones who actually appear in Hamlet: th’oppressor, the proud man and his contumely, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’unworthy and so on. Its larger sentiment sort-of fits with Hamlet-as-character’s state of mind, of course, which may have been why WS thought to himself: I’ll stick this monologue in here.

Another example: I think that, when he sat down to write Twelfth Night in 1600, Shakespeare found an old scrap of paper upon which was written a sonnet, or notes towards a sonnet — one that he’d started but not completed to his satisfaction back in the 1590s. I think that he repurposed this abortive sonnet into the opening speech for his play swapping some of the lines around, cutting some of the rhymes (which would otherwise be too obvious and clanging) and adding a line, in which the actor addresses the others on the stage. Here’s that very famous speech:

If Musicke be the food of Love, play on!
Giue me excesse of it: that surfetting,
The appetite may sicken, and so dye.
That straine agen, it had a dying fall:
O, it came ore my eare, like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a banke of Violets;
Stealing, and giving Odour. Enough, no more,
’Tis not so sweet now, as it was before.
O spirit of Love, how quicke and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacitie,
Receiveth as the Sea. Nought enters there,
Of what validity, and pitch so ere,
But falles into abatement, and low price
Euen in a minute; so full of shapes is fancie,
That it alone, is high fantasticall.

The first eight lines of this form a sort of octet, and the final seven an elongated sestet, with the turn being the shift from addressing the musicians (to instruct them to play, at the end of the octet) to addressing the ‘Spirit of Love’ directly. Now, it might be that this, in the very broadest sense of the word, ‘sonnet’ pattern is discernible because that’s the way Shakespeare’s thoughts naturally shook themselves out when writing, as here, about love. But it’s also possible that his desk drawer contained, with various foul papers and drafts, a sheet upon which was written something like this:

If musicke be the food of Love, play ay!
Give me excesse of it: that surfetting,
The appetite may sicken, and so dye
Into suche joy as lovers sighes yett bring.
Play straines agen that have a dying fall:
To come upon my eare like the sweet sound
As breathes upon a banke of Lilies tall
Stealing and giving Odour in the rownd.
O spirit of Love, thou art so quicke and faire
That notwithstanding thy capacitie
Receiveth as the sea, nought entreth there
But drops into a low validitie
E’en in a minute; fancie so shapes full
That it alone is high fantasticall.

I’m sure he had various drafts, false-starts, bit and bobs sitting around in his papers, and it would be natural to draw on this material, especially if he was composing to a deadline. Perhaps this was a sonnet that didn’t make the cut; although, then again, I have to say I quite like it, qua sonnet, so maybe there’s another reason why it didn’t appear in the 1609 volume. We don’t know anything about the circumstances of the publication of that volume after all; it’s likely Shakespeare himself wasn’t even involved.

Is this the best way of reconstructing the notional ur-sonnet behind Twelfth Night’s opening monologue? It might be that we’d want to use a plumped-up Enough, no more,/’Tis not so sweet now, as it was before as our final couplet, since it already rhymes, and it perhaps looks wasteful to simply bin it, as I have done. But it doesn’t seem to me the right tenor on which to end a Shakespearian sonnet (repudiating everything that has gone before in the final two lines? He doesn’t do that in any other sonnet!). Those lines look to me like a dramatic interpolation, something for the actor to say to the musicians, where the rest of the speech looks to me, as I say, like a sonnet.

Ah well. As I say: unprovable, either way!

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.