From Literary Analysis to Historical Detection


Winner of the D.S. Evans Distinguished Dissertation Prize
A new interpretation that challenges widely accepted beliefs about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The cast of characters increase as this study advances the procreation theme. The author deems it essential to our understanding of the Sonnets to try to re-imagine the situations behind the poems and explores the plausibility and potential of a ‘realist’ approach, while maintaining scholarly skepticism where appropriate, in order to advance the autobiographical “plot” behind the Sonnets.


“There are many things that I admire about this book. Dr. McCarthy shows us time and time again that she is an astute and ingenious reader of poetry… [she] is polite, measured and reasonable throughout, her tone even and fair-minded as she seeks to engage opponents and sceptics in rational debate… with the desire to further our understanding through proper conversation.”
-Professor Andrew Hadfield,
School of English,
University of Sussex, UK

“McCarthy writes with extraordinary grace. She never patronizes her reader, has little patience for hiding behind “authorities, and is careful to make clear not only what she knows but (rare in scholarship) what she does not know.”… I admire McCarthy’s breakthrough readings of some of the less-popular sonnets, sonnets regarding which other critics (e.g. Vendler) too often throw up their hands, considering them to be unengaged.”
-Richard Abrams,
Associate Professor of English
University of Southern Maine

Table of Contents

Foreword by Andrew Hadfield
Problems for interpretation
Criticism’s response to the problems
The Thesis
The Argument
1. Theoretical and Historical Considerations Poet and Persona
The status of sonnet sequences
Censorship and patronage
Building on earlier criticism
2. Lost Suns in Sonnets 33 to 35
Analysis of Sonnets 33 to 35
My Sunne
The loss
3. The Theme of ‘Unfathering’
Analysis of Sonnet 124
Analysis of Sonnet 125
Analysis of Sonnet 37
Sonnet 97: Imagery overwhelms sense
4. The Baby in Sonnets 18 to124
Analysis of Sonnet 18
Analysis of Sonnet 74
Analysis of Sonnet 55
Immortalizing powers
Immortality in Sonnet 81
Further traces of the procreation theme
Sonnet 115’s double bluff
5. The False Transmission of Beauty
Obscurity of Sonnets 67 and 68
Flaws in interpretation
A new interpretation
Unvoiced puns and double-bluffing metaphors
6. Re-reading Sonnet 126
Numerology as a clue
The evidence of Sonnets 26 and 4
Sonnet 126: close reading
Further appearances of Audit ‘Respect’ and its synonyms
7. The Dedication
The Syntax
Visual and numerical clues
The combined solution
Possible objections to the new solution
Simple and quantum readings
The hinge between the fictional and the real
The historical W.H.
8. The Young Man
Identifying the ‘core’ young man
The core sonnets
Enlarging the ‘core’ young man
The young man’s status
Wider contours of the young man
The young man’s name
Weighing the case for Will Herbert
Will Herbert: Contra-indications
9. The Dark Lady
The Dark Lady in Shakespeare
Her name in nominal puns
Her name in synonyms
Wroth and her Will
Wroth and her Rustick
Poems by Will Herbert and Mary Wroth
Negative evidence
10. Master W.H.
Two letters of Robert Sidney’s
Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Blackness’
Herbert of Cherbury’s ‘Merry Rhyme’
Worth and the baby in Shakespeare
Worth and the baby in Urania
Comparison with Sonnet 107
‘The Knight of the Faire Designe’
11. The Fair Friend
The older woman in Sonnets 18 and 30
Mary Sidney in Philip Sidney’s works
Beauty and the Rose in Shakespeare
Mary Sidney as the older friend
Shakespeare’s disgrace
12. The Family
Review of Sidneian links
Print as a pointer to patronage
Semi-externals: lay-outs, sequence arrangement, plots
Coterie codes: Venus and Myrrha conflated
More coterie codes: Nashe conflates Greene and Shakespeare
Trans-generational love: Sonnets 144, 31 and 108