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Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets: A Restoration of the Runes
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English
The University of Tennessee at Martin

Set I, Runes 1-14: Texts and Comments 
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

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Rune 4:
Fourth lines, Set I (Sonnets 1-14)

                           Rune 4

      His tender heir might bear his memory,
     Will be a tottered weed of small worth held;
     Thou dost beguile the world. Unbless some mother
 4  And, being frank, she lends to those are free—
     And that unfair which fairly doth excel
     With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed
     Serving with looks his sacred majesty—
 8  Or else, receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy.
     The world will wail thee like a makeless wife,
     But that thou none lov’st is most evident!
     Thou mayst call thine, when thou from youth convertest
12 And—sable curls or silvered o’er with white—
      And your sweet semblance to some other give
      Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality.
2) Will = the poet; tottered weed = shaky weed, ragged garment; 4) frank = open, generous; free = available; 5) with phallic overtones in the line; 9) makeless = matchless, mateless; 12) hinting at pubic hair covered with ejaculate.



     4. “Unbless” Some Mother

     With his “tender heir” or “tender air”—such “bare mites”—to keep alive his memory,
     Will, in time to come, might finally add up to no more than a slim reed or ragged garment.
     But you—you charm the world. Come on to some mother in an unpriestly way, negating her vows and even bringing her damnation,
  4 and, generous creature that she is, she lends herself to what’s available
     including that homely creature that handsomely reaches new heights   
     in beauty’s treasurehouse until it overextends itself and dies,
     like a sycophantic ogler or dying saint, playing investigator for its worshipful master, attracting all eyes.
Put another way, this “mother” happily opens the door to your annoying intrusion.
     Posterity will wail over you the way people lament the death of a virtuous wife or widow, or the way a paragon wife weeps at the death of her husband,
     but it’s quite clear that you love nobody at all!
     You can speak of “mine” only when you repent of your immaturity
12 and—whether your hair is curly and dark or silver-white—
     then pass on your fair countenance to allow some other to know
     life’s illnesses, deprivations, and wonderful seasonal variety.


          Catching “Will” (see 2) in his attack-dog posture, Rune 4 is a shrill, bawdy variant on the “marry and increase” theme that governs Set I. Imagining that his own life might pass unremembered (1-2), the poet harangues his “beguiling” friend (3-14), whose thoughtless behavior shows no regard for self-perpetuation or for others. (This friend parallels the real-life Earl of Southampton of the 1590s.) Whatever the friend does in his roles with women, it seems, “the world” may lament his passing anyway (3-9)—unless he “converts.” In a “quiet close,” Will envisions another possibility: By maturing and procreating, the friend might live to see his children partake of life’s variety (13-14). Even in this most hopeful scenario, negatives dominate.

         The London plague of 1603, which closed the theatres, may weigh on Will’s mind (see 14), as may the death in 1596 of his only son—Hamnet, the “tender heir” (1)—at age 11. Without a male heir, in an era when his two girls hardly counted as posterity, Shakespeare faces a bleak lineal future. The pun “Anne, that unfair witch, sour lady. O, th’ exile!” (5) further sketches his plight. If “tender air” (a “mite bare”) means his lyric verse, Will as a writer just starting a long projected cycle can’t be very hopeful, either. (The implicit term “shaky reed” (2) is a once-removed namepun on “Shakey spear.”) The friend, by contrast, has it all and squanders it. Since“his” (1) may refer to the friend, lines 1-2 suggest that, if an heir were ever the friend’s memorial, Will’s own stature as poetic immortalizer might be diminished. The poet can hardly win for losing.

          The situation here includes Q’s usual pair, the poet and his listening male friend, but adds “some mother” (3), along with “some child” (see 13) who might resemble the father. Closing the octave (lines 3-8), the scenario with this mother whom the friend might “unbless” drips with sarcasm and depicts a phallic “suicide.” Foil to a “matchless wife” (9), this female seems loose, and envisioned sex with her is “annoying” and self-centered. Broad wit (12) hints vaguely at pubic hair whitened with semen. Phallic contrasts include the listener’s “unfair which fairly doth excel” (5) and the poet’s own “tottered weed of small worth held” (2). Jokes about “loving a nun”(10) and the male friend’s being mourned like a good widow (9) add innuendo.

           Overt religious terms—unbless (3), sacred (7), and convertest (11)—make “beguile the world” (3) suggest Satan’s act in Eden, pointing to “plagues” and “dearths” (14) as outcomes of the Fall. Pervasive economic jargon includes contrasts (e.g., “held” and “call thine” vs.“give”). The “economic” eyepun “Jew” (giue, 13) is routine in Q.

           Beautits (6) is one of Q’s notorious “errors.” I deduce that Will authorized it (and that printing agent Thomas Thorpe helped execute it) as a minuscule aspect of private wit. Half the lines here end with pictographic colons, typographic details that “depict” tiny breasts, and the puns “mammary” (1) and “foamy mother” (3) reinforce the poet’s joke, executed as usual with his printer’s jot-and-tittle involvement.

           Other puns hint at Anne’s corpulence, a recurring covert topic in Q: “thin Anne” (8), “make less wife” (9), and “being Shrank, she’ll end” (see Q4).

           Rhymes—which can’t be systematic in the Runes—include memory/free/majesty/quality and held/excel/killed. The pun “...dour wit whitened [widened] your ass witty...” (12-13) helps explain the seemingly redundant “And...” (13), which functions as a phonic continuation of line 12.

Sample Puns

          1) His 10 [a phallic joke], dear Hairy (hairy), might bare his memory; mite bare; mammary; Haste in, dear hermit, Paris, my Moor
          2) Will; Willobie a daughter dewy doth smell; hell’d
          2-3) aye daughter Judy’s female worthy, lad thou dost beguile (tee!), H.W., earl
          3) Tho., you dust be, Jew ill; bejewel; W.H., Earl, do you nip (nab) lass foamy, m’ oather
          4) Anne, being frank (shrank); Sir, Anne seek, feeling Dis [i.e., Hells capitol in Dante], too
          5) Anne, that unfair witch, sour lady ought hex kill; the tonsure
          6) Witty, bawdy tease treasure, e’er it be self-killed; bawdies; Wit be oddity’s treasure, error; furrier, tight be ass, less skilled
          8) “O” real see, our ass coughed with pleasure
          8-9) thin Anne ought you, Earl dull, wail (“well”); annoyed you, Earl, Will wealthy, like a makeless wife; I make lass wise; lick aye (“I”) my ache, loose wife
        10) Bawdy T.T. who nun lovest, “I” is moist, evident
        11) Thomas, ’tis all thine, W., Hen., thou from youth convertest; Thos. T. sealed hiney wen
        12) curls are silvered o’er suggests ejaculation on pubic hair
        12-13) Earl, sir, fill your door with weighty Anne, dear, sweet seam be lanced, O foamy oather, give
        13) see m’ balanced “O” to sow, meatier Jew
        13-14) Jew oft plagues “O,” sadder this “O,” our fee is one’s quality 14 sore [soar,] see a Son’s quality; see sons queue, “awl” lady (laddie)

Acrostic Wit

          The downward acrostic codeline—HW TAAWSOT BTA AO—suggests such readings as, e.g., “H.W. tossed Betty, I owe [admit],” “You taws owed [acknowledged], bitty...,” “Each widow’s ‘O’ tupped I aye, O,” and “Wet ‘O’ is hot, bitty, I owe.”

          The upward reverse codeline—OAATB TO SW AATWH—encodes such potentialities as “Weighty be to Sue, Hathaway,” “Weighty be two: Sue, Hathaway” “Oat be to Sue 8, W [= IN = John] H[all],” “O, to be to sweet [W.H. =] John Hall,” “White bit o’ sweet W.H.,” “Oat, beets weighed W.H.,” “Wyatt bid ‘O’s adieu,” “Wyatt, bitty ‘O’s,’ swayed W.H.”

          The letterstring WH in Q, familiar as a component of Q’s cryptic dedication signed “T.T.,” suggests concurrently Anne Hathaway (with W = IN = Anne), John Hall (with W = IN = John), and (as has been previously suggested) Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton (with the earl’s initials reversed); the last possibility is reinforced here by the pun on “Southy,” a diminutive of Southampton that recurs in Q (e.g., as So thy...). One reading of the codeline here, then, is “Ode be to Southy, W.H.” Other readings are “Weighty bit o’ Sweet Anne H.” and “Weighty, bitty ‘O’ [i.e., round, rune] swayed Anne H.” The opening letterstring OAAT also encodes “Await...., ” “Witty...,”and Wyatt. Thus, “Wyatt be Thos., Wyatt—which? [...witch]” is a further concurrency here that coterie decipherers might have detected.

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