Set XI, Runes 141-154: Texts and Comments
Twelfth lines, Set XI (Sonnets 141-154)
I, a slave to your proud heart (or your
art, your hard, some punning variant of that word) and thus
destined to be wretched,
Rune 152 as Will’s apostrophe to his “angelic”
friend in which he pleads for attention. By echoing “mother”
(3), the term “mistress” (14) associates the friend with that
term, so that gender-bending wit clouds the drama by obfuscating the make-up
of the cast. Among various coexistent interpretations, some suggest gay
Students of the Sonnets know that earlier critics, trying to understand the puzzling personal insinuations that abound in the visible texts of Q, have suspected some kind of homosexual connection between the poet and the unnamed male he addresses in his poems.
One such scenario in Rune 152 might run this way: By playing the “mother’s part” (3) the listening male whom Will addressees could facilitate a homosexual “hell” that develops when “one ‘angle’” is “in another [an ‘oather’]” (4). (“Oather,” I deduce, is a conventional pun meaning “a sworn member of the coterie.”)
The play “Four men diseased, beauty maims thrice their ‘awl’” (14) is another variant pun that insinuates some kind of offbeat sexual situation, treated comically.
In the main scenario that I detect, the pun “proud hard’s salve and vessel” initiates jokes about phallic worship (1-2), swapping positions (2-3), mutual homoerotic acts (4), and oral sex (6). As always, I propose, Q’s heart encodes an automatic pun on “hard.” Here “proud hard” (1), echoing “proud flesh,” puns on a puffy, heart-shaped glans. Even the phrase “the motion of thine eyes” (9) suggesting testicular rotation, comically analogous to the cosmic “rounds.”
Many puns in Q suggest that Henry (Harry) Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, is in the poet’s mind as one of several intended coterie auditors who might eventually have heard the Q texts as addressing them; Southy (a familiar name I’ve deduced from its many occurrences in the subtext of Q) was a handsome young man in the 1590s and was Will’s only known patron. In earlier criticism of the Sonnets, Southampton has often been proposed as the most likely candidate for the Handsome Young Man role in Q’s ambiguously delineated dramatis personae.
Here, for example, the impolite pun “To stand (Toasting...) in thy ass hairs” (11) plays on “Harry S./hairy ass” and thus might address Southampton.
Concurrent puns encourage other readings: “Anne, play the mother’s part: kiss me, be kind” (3), e.g., seems to redirect Will’s apostrophe toward his wife, back in Stratford, while “…‘To be’ / Thy pity may deserve. To pit I’d be, / And play the mother’s part…” (1-3) may be a joke about Hamlet and Gertrude. Meanwhile, “‘To be’ / typed, Tommy differed: ‘To pitied be…’ ” is a Thomas Thorpe joke. (And see acrostic wit, below.)
Though Will’s “mistress” in the Q lines has many meanings in its various contexts, including “mysteries” and mss.,” the pun “I my Mistress thrall” here (in 14) means, partly, “I always keep my audience attentive.”
As usual in Q, cultivated image clusters give the rune a technical kind of unity. Here imagery focuses on legal jargon (including crime and punishment); theatre; and the cosmos.
Terms and puns with legal insinuations abound, including these: deserve (2); motion (9); flown away (5), suggesting “escaped”; clears (8) as “declares innocent”; state (10); affairs (11); swear (12); and foreman (14). Lines 7 and 12 both suggests perjury, with 12 suggesting subornation. And line 11 hints at “taking the stand.” Yoked with these elements are words pointing to social station such as slave and vassal (2), rich no more (6), my state (10), and thy affairs (11).
A pattern of theatrical imagery—a “play theme,” to use Will’s own pun—inheres in pitty/pittied (2), suggesting “pit,” and in play the...part (3). The second phrase reminds us that male actors of the day took female roles. Indeed, one pun echoes Will’s famous metaphoric description of The Globe as a “wooden ‘O’ ”: “Thorpe, aye, T.T.—you, mate—see rude ‘O’ [&] pit, hid (...eyed...) behind play theme, m’ oather’s part, [to] kiss femme beckoned...” (2-3).
Many other details coyly allude to theatre: e.g., Line 5 and 8 suggest the conventional painted Heavens and trapdoor Hell. Further details suggest the falsity of theatrical lines (see, e.g., 7, 12); melodramatic ogling (e.g., 9); and other stage gestures (e.g., 11). One run-on pun in 12-13 goes, “Scene d’ theatre hid, aside, distempered guest; four men deaf; Eve début. (I’m your Mistress, th’ role (...th’ hairy hole; ...th’ hairy ‘awl’).”
Since such runic text materials do suggest an absurdist theatrical performance, any one of us watching it is, indeed apt to be a “distempered” spectator.
Further, the opening line here echoes Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” line. One punning version of lines 1-2 even alerts Will’s printing agent, Thomas Thorpe, to note the hidden ‘Hamletic’ details: e.g., “Thorpe rude, here ’tis: ‘Slave and vassal wretch,’ ‘To be...” thy pity may deserve, to pitied be.” (Likely the “to be” speech had quickly become a familiar saw in Will’s day—as it still is in ours.)
Terms in the text about the cosmos include angel, hell (twice), heaven (twice) and the sun. The pun “Dis-tempered guest” (13) uses Dante’s term “Dis,” to name Hell’s capital. The phrase “commanded by the motion...” hints at cosmic energy—here centered in the eyes of the unnamed listener (see 9).
Phrases about sight include sees not (8); the motion of thine eyes (9); and the thing th’ eye see (12).
Rhymes occur as be / be / see (1-2, 12) and expressed / guest (7, 13).
I suspect that the poet consciously linked his endwords in all 154 Runes to generate witty wordstring meanings, an incidental kind of rune or puzzle: One translation of the endwords here, e.g., is, “Baby kind, [&] hell awe [the] eye. My whore, expressed, clears eyes. Fit ‘8’ sight: See gesture, awl.” Another variant closes, “...Stat, evade sea-gust there, all.”
Yet another full reading of the endwords is this: “By beaconed dale awe I, moor express t’ clearest eyes. States hide. See jester, ale.”
Throwaway puns in the letterstrings of the textual lines include these: “Thy parody arts flaunt...” (1); “Red Sea (lurid sea...) hid Obediah” (1-2; code: ...retch to be: Thy); “Mighty Pharaoh Tobit eyed” (2); “theme odd hear: Spartacus’ fame beckoned” (3); “I gave Onan jelly, none other shall form you” (4); “beer, icy enema red, ran down from the head rude, heavenly” (6-7); and “The cider made them swear against the thing they see” (11-12).
1) Tommy prowed hard ass, loving vessel; Thy proud hards
salve, Anne; Thy proud hards flowing vessel, Wriothes-to-be; Thy
pee, rowdy, hard, is slaving; undo awful wretch, Toby; wretch tupped;
Type, rowdy artists, love handy face of Hall, were touched
the downward acrostic codeline—TT AIF WATCV[V]T OAF—also
conveys playfully ambiguous “messages.” The opening letterstring
TT (along with the end, ...OAF) suggests that Will as usual aims disparaging
wit at least partly at Thomas Thorpe, his printer, the “T.T.”
who signed the dedication page in the frontmatter of the 1609 Quarto text.