Shakespeare's First Poem: Sonnet 145



“Arguably the worst of all the Shakespeare sonnets,” Sonnet 145 is the only one written in eight-syllable lines rather than the ten-syllable lines of the other 153 sonnets. Professor Gurr offers clues that it was written by the young Shakespeare to his bride-to-be, Ann Hathaway, in 1582. It also may reflect that her name – and her husband's (even when it is spelled “Shakspeare”) – was pronounced with a long a. 

© Andrew Gurr, 1971, 2003

ANDREW GURR, a retired professor of English at Reading University (U.K.), is a noted author on Elizabethan drama and playhouses. His most valuable contributions include The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642 and Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, both published by Cambridge University Press. He had been the chief academic advisor to the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre since 1981, as well as the Director of Globe Research since 1998.

My thanks to Prof. Gurr for his kind permission to reproduce his article.



The Oxfordians’ Shortened-Vowel Shift

The question of the pun on Ann Hathaway’s name has given Professor Gurr’s article – as well as the “Editorial Postscript” by “F. W. B.” (Frederick W. Bateson) – a significance it did not have when it was first published.

When referring to “the Stratford man,” Oxfordians pronounce his name “Shackspeare,” or “Shacks-  per” [sic].  It is however uncertain whether the absence of the first e in Shakespeare means that his name was pronounced with a short a.

The mention of E. J. Dobson’s English Pronunciation 1500-1700 is in reference to what is known as the “long-vowel shift” that occurred between late-Medieval English and the early-modern English of Shakespeare’s day, which has some unknowns – including its affect on regional pronunciations. Consequently, Bateson’s note notwithstanding, Dobson is not explicit about how the first a in Hathaway (and in “Shakspeare”) was pronounced in Elizabethan Warwickshire. And, perhaps, elsewhere in England.

It is interesting therefore to find that the name of playwright Richard Hathway is recorded in the accounts of Elizabethan theater magnate Philip Henslowe as “Haythway” and “Hatheway,” as well as Hathway. Henslowe, a native of Sussex who was living in London by 1577, is famous for his wide range of phonetic spellings. His variants on Hathway suggest that “hate away” may indeed be a “very tolerable pun” on Hathaway – and that “Shakspeare” may indeed have been pronounced Shake- speare.

But then, Oxfordians seem to incline toward a shortened-vowel shift generally, for they have a very similar problem with a name dear to them: J. Thomas Looney, the founding father of Oxfordianism. Here, they insist, the name is pronounced “Loney” (rhymes with baloney). This was revealed in a letter by Charles Wisner Barrell in 1972, likening Looney to, for example, the pronunciation of Roosevelt preferred by Franklin: Rōsevelt. (It should be noted that cousin Teddy preferred the double-o pronunciation).

But what did Looney himself have to say about how his name was pronounced? “Publishers and friends foresaw the handle my name would provide for critics,” he wrote in a letter, “and wished me to adopt a nom-de-plume. I declined and lost one of the foremost English publishers in consequence …” He went on to say that his “immediate forefathers came from the Isle of Man and the family is descended, as I have been informed, from the Earls of Derby, once Kings of Man. … a man’s surname establishes links of sentiment with the distant past and thus come to have for him a kind of sacred claim which makes him resent a disrespectful use of it.”

Quite clearly Looney took pride in his name and gave no indication that it was pronounced any way other than with a double-o. What makes this most interesting is that the quotations above come from a letter that Looney wrote to, of all people, the very same Charles Wisner Barrell in 1937. One may suspect that he might well have resented Barrell’s “linguistics of the Looney name,” 35 years later, which (as printed in Ruth Loyd Miller’s edition of Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, Volume 2, see pages xxx-xxxi for both letters) gives analogistic grounds only for the “Loney” pronunciation. Now  Oxfordians claim that this is a common pronunciation of the name on the Isle of Man.

But Shakespeare it is not when they say it is not,

And Looney changes even as their minds.

What they will have it named, even that it is.

―  I. L. M. 

© 2003 Irvin Leigh Matus