Early criticism of Spenser's Amoretti: George Chalmers's speculation that Shakespeare addressed his sonnets to Queen Elizabeth in emulation of Spenser is a good illustration of just how little was known about the genre. In fact, Shakespeare's sonnets were only just in the process of being rediscovered and criticized. "Shakespeare-Papers" refers to William Henry Ireland's forgeries, since exposed by George Chalmers's opponent, Edmond Malone.
Chalmers rejects the idea that Shakespeare might have addressed sonnets to a man: "Mr. Malone, and Mr. Steevens speak, like men of some other planet: Nor, did there appear to Mr. Gildon, and Doctor Sewell, any thing obscene, in the 20th Sonnet, which has, indeed, no appearance of obscenity, if it be chastely examined, by a chaste mind; taking the words, as they were then understood, without listening to the suggestions of platonism" p. 98.
John Ferriar: "The much-contested subject of Shakspeare's Sonnets is one of the first points discussed. Mr. Chalmers labours to prove that they were written in imitation of Spenser's Amoretti, and were addressed to Queen Elizabeth. We are not satisfied with the latter part of his opinion" Monthly Review NS 31 (February 1800) 187.
George Steevens to Thomas Percy: "He certainly was a believer when he began to write; and the old leaven predominates throughout his work [the original Apology], notwithstanding his repeated assertions that his credulity had long been at an end. Take one instance more of his absurdity. He gravely insists, that all the Sonnets of Shakspeare were indiscriminately addressed to Queen Elizabeth. If they were, her Majesty was bless'd with the insignia of both sexes; and, as Lothario, in the Fair Penitent, expresses himself, was 'Equal to both, and arm'd for either field.' Pray turn to the XXth Sonnet, Malone's edit. vol. X. p. 208. Chalmers has certainly battered down some of Malone's cornice, but his citadel is as firm as ever" 30 January 1797; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-58) 7:12-13.
Edmond Malone: "Daring, however, as this fiction was, and wild as was the adherence to Chatterton, both were greatly exceeded in 1795 and the following year, by a still more audacious imposture, and the pertinacity of one of its adherents, who has immortalized his name by publishing a bulky volume, of which the direct and manifest object was, to prove the authenticity of certain papers attributed to Shakspeare, after the fabricator of the spurious trash had publickly acknowledged the imposture" 1799; Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 5:13n.
John Taylor Esq.: "As a proof of his love for, and knowledge of literary subjects, when young Ireland brought forward his pretended unpublished and unknown works of Shakspeare, he, like Dr. Parr and the elder Boswell, was deceived at first by the imposition. Boswell was so completely duped, that he dropped on his knees, and thanked God that he had lived to see so many indubitable reliques of the divine bard. But Mr. Chalmers, upon farther search, considered them as fabrications; yet in vindication of himself and others who had been deluded by the imposition, he published an apology for the believers in the supposed Shakspeare manuscripts, books, &c. in which he displayed great research, knowledge, and acumen. He was not a little severe on my friend Mr. Malone, who wrote against the imposition, without having looked at the pretended reliques, and who had ridiculed those who had been betrayed into credulity" Records of my Life (1832) 2:334-35.
Spenser is discussed pp. 21-107, passim; see also passing references in the earlier Apology (1797) e.g., 63, 81, 176, 553-54, 594. Chalmers's argument was attacked by S. K. in "Sonnets of Spenser" in Monthly Mirror 12 (October 1801) 227-29.
I mean to prove 1st, that Spenser addressed his Amoretti to Elizabeth, 2dly, that Shakespeare was ambitious of emulating Spenser; and 3dly, that Shakespeare was thus induced to address his sonnets to the same Queen. . . .
Much of mystery has always been connected with the Amoretti of Spenser. When they were printed; on what occasion they were written; and to whom they were addressed; are questions, which have never been satisfactorily answered. The Biographers, who appear neither to have seen the entry of it in the Stationers' Registers, nor the book, speak of its having been published, in 1592; but the Stationers' Registers, the title page, and the coincidence of circumstances, prove, that it was published in 1595. The biographers assume still more, when they speak of the occasion, which gave rise to the Amoretti; viz. that the poet, having lost his first Wife, fell in love a second time with a Lady, who was as cruel, as she was fair; that he tried to soften her obduracy by every topic of praise: But, it appears distinctly to me, who pay little regard to assumptions without authority that the Amoretti were written, as an apology for the delay of the Faerie Queene; as memorials, that the author was still alive, and was somewhat apprehensive of being forgotten, or of being involved in the disgrace of his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. It is so extremely improbable, that Spenser, living with his Wife, and family, at Kilcolman; and writing the Faerie Queene in Salvage Solye, far from Parnasso Mount, should have addressed such a body of Amatory Sonnets to a private Woman, whom to address in such encomiastic strains would have been dangerous in him and unsafe in her, that it requires the strongest proof, to establish a position of such irrational unlikelihood, as approaches, according to Mr. Locke's doctrine, even to the confines of impossibility.
The objects, which the Poet had obviously in view, point out the personage, to whom the poem was addressed. And every reader of discernment, who recollects Elizabeth's character; her eagerness of praise, her keeness of jealousy, the blandishments, which she allowed, and the flatteries, which she courted; must be of opinion, that each Sonnet, individually, and all the Sonnets, conjointly, prove satisfactorily, the Amoretti of Spenser to have been addressed to the fairest proud:
The Sovereign beauty, which I do admire,
Witness The world how worthy to be prais'd;
The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire
In my frail spirit, by her from baseness rais'd.
After smoothing the ruggedness of Elizabeth, by his Amoretti, and panegyrizing her beauty and her virtues, by the Faerie Queene, the Poet returned to Kilcolman, at the end of the year 1596. But, the patronage, and the power, of Elizabeth, were insufficient to avert the fate, which unhappily awaited Spenser. The clouds, which had been long collecting in the South of Ireland, burst forth into a storm, in October 1598; and, the Irish of Munster, rising universally in rebellion, laid waste the Country, and expelled the English: Neither Kilcolman, nor Spenser were spared. He was thus constrained to return with his Wife, and family, to England; but in ruined circumstances. Spenser died in London, during the year 1599; leaving a Son, called Sylvanus, who inherited his Estate, without the poet's genius, talents, or fame; and who found it difficult, during the revolutions of Ireland, and their incidental forfeitures, to transmit that estate to his grand children.
From the foregoing documents, I will assume, as a certainty, what I have proved by evidence, which cannot be countervailed, that Spenser addressed his Amoretti to Elizabeth. I will now proceed to show, that Shakespeare wrote his Sonnets, in emulation of Spenser. Like other men of uncommon genius, Shakespeare was conscious of his own powers, which, he probably perceived, were not always appreciated to the full claim of his pride. He saw Spenser placed in the foremost rank of Poets: He observed Spenser place Alabaster, and Daniel, before him: And he often heard poetasters named, as poets, while he was passed by, in silence. Shakespeare knew also what all men, foreigners as well as subjects, understood, that Elizabeth delighted in blandishments, and fawned on flatterers. And he was, thus, induced to write his Sonnets, in emulation of Spenser's Amoretti. . . .