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NA314512 - SHAKESPEARE, W.: Sonnets (The) (Unabridged)
To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets
Mr. W.H. all happinesse and that eternitie promised
by our ever-living poet wisheth
the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. T.T.
Everyone knows something of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, even if only in memorable fragments like ‘the darling buds of May’, or ‘remembrance of things past’, or ‘the marriage of true minds’; and for many people, these wonderfully crafted, intense lyrics stand for something valued about youth, love and the emotional complexities belonging to that time of life.
Shakespeare, of course, did not invent the sonnet, nor was he the first important English writer to use it: Spenser and Sidney, for example, had already done so. The sonnet originated in Italy in the dawn of the Renaissance and, in its earliest form, is named after Petrarch (1304-1374) who used it to eulogize his beloved Laura. A Petrarchan sonnet consists of fourteen lines split into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six): the break between the two sections usually marks a shift, development or re-evaluation in the poem’s argument. The Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, is conventionally made up of three quatrains (groups of four lines each, rhyming ABAB/ CDCD/ EFEF), and a final rhymed couplet. The meter is almost invariably iambic pentameter: each line contains ten syllables; divisible into five metrical feet of two syllables each. Beginning with the second syllable, every other syllable is stressed or accented, thus:
When I/ do count/ the clock/ that tells/ the time
In practice, of course, these rules are not rigidly observed — the stress may be inverted, there may be an extra syllable in a line, or one missing, and so on — but the formal constraints remain as a means of compelling the poet into concentration of thought and feeling, entirely appropriate in a sonnet sequence where he wishes to explore over time a wide range of emotions, situations and reflections.
Thomas Thorpe first published Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. The
dedication is quoted above, and is itself somewhat enigmatic; G. Blakemore Evans, editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, offers the following straightforward paraphrase: ‘To the sole inspirer of these following sonnets, Master W.H., all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet [William Shakespeare], wishes the well-wishing adventurer [Thomas Thorpe] in publishing [these sonnets]’. We cannot be sure either when Shakespeare began to compose them, or when he completed the sequence, but the critical consensus would probably be that they were written over a number of years, possibly beginning as early as 1592 and probably ending about 1606. The question of dating, however, is the least of the problems confronting the editor or scholar of these works. How far, crucially, should we see the sonnets as autobiographical, how far as purely imaginative or even playful exercises in a then-fashionable form? If autobiographical, should we accept Shakespeare as actively bisexual, or can we see his love for the young man of Sonnets
1 - 126 as merely platonic?
Proponents of the autobiographical reading have theorized endlessly about the identity of both the young man and the ‘Dark Lady’, but there is no conclusive proof behind any of these theories, interesting as they often are. Chief candidates for the young man are probably Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Both young men were at different times dedicatees of work by Shakespeare.
Most readers will, I suspect, concur (in my view, rightly) with the belief that the emotional intensity, the sheer pressure of thought and feeling in the Sonnets seem to suggest a background of real experience. The loose, even rambling structure of the sonnets also poses problems, since we do not know whether Shakespeare was involved in the Sonnets’ publication, or even whether they were published with his knowledge and permission.
What we can say about the order and organization of the Sonnets is that numbers 1 - 126 are addressed to a ‘beauteous and lovely youth’ with whom the writer is passionately in love, while numbers 127 - 152 concern the writer’s (sometimes rather more worldly and cynical) relationship with the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ (‘then will I swear beauty herself is black...’ — although by this Shakespeare almost certainly refers to a swarthy complexion, or dark hair and eyes, or a combination, rather than a truly black skin as we would understand it). Within the first part of the sequence we may distinguish the ‘procreation’ sonnets (1 - 17), in which the poet urges his beloved to marry so that ‘thereby beauty’s rose might never die’. If this seems surprising in a homosexual relationship, we should remember that Renaissance attitudes to male friendship were heavily influenced by the classical notion that an older man (the poet describes himself — ‘beated and chopped with tanned antiquity’ — as significantly older than his beloved) should contribute to the emotional, cultural and even military education of a younger favorite, who would inevitably move on to heterosexuality and marriage. We may also note the poems concerned with a rival poet — the ‘better spirit’ of Sonnet 80.
The ‘narrative’ of the first part is shadowy and uncertain, but one can easily detect a shift from the prostrate adulation of the earlier poems, where the writer can allow no imperfection in his beloved, to the gradual encroachment of jealousy, grief, self-doubt and resignation upon the relationship. In the second part, the poet is at times openly mocking and cynical about both himself and his mistress, so that one has a sense of a much more mature and perhaps ‘real’ relationship — but there is little, if any, feeling of narrative progression.
The language of the Sonnets is really remarkably direct and accessible; the difficulties, where they occur, have much more to do with syntax — i.e. sentence structure, word order etc. — and with subtle, complex developments of thought and feeling within the tight confines of the form. The themes are often what we might expect to find in any close examination of love relationships, but they are treated with intelligence and a degree of emotional exposure, which make the poems painfully (but sometimes joyously) compelling. The famous Sonnet 18, for instance, brims with a sense of joyful celebration of the beloved — in an ecstatic hyperbole, the writer contrasts the fickle and transient nature of summer’s beauty with the immortality his poetry will confer on the young man’s beauty:
‘summer’s lease hath all too short a date’,
‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’
Sonnet 94, on the other hand, is disturbing in its ambivalence — is the poet praising or disparaging the apparently admirable qualities he sees in his beloved? Is he in fact bitterly condemning him for his unresponsive complacency? The ‘beautiful people’ of this world can perhaps afford a kind of frigidity, a lack of commitment masquerading as benign impartiality:
‘They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces...’
Sonnet 129 (early in the second part of the sequence — in other words, concerning, at least indirectly, the ‘Dark Lady’) is a profound analysis of the self-contempt and sense of futility induced by acting upon the impulse of mere lust. It is similar to 94 in this analytical quality but, again, it is far from coldly rational: one feels in it the weight of bitter experience, as the poet savagely piles on harsh adjectives:
‘Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust...’
But, lest the emphasis should seem unduly negative, there is the stern, almost heroic, and deeply moving assertion of true love’s enduring quality in Sonnet 116. Here, love transcends transience and ‘alteration’, and the language has a grave simplicity, which carries enormous emotional authority:
‘…love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds…’
And again, in the last four lines of the sonnet:
‘Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.’
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Alex Jennings trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company and has played numerous leading roles for Royal Shakespeare Company productions including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, Richard III, Peer Gynt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. His film credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Derek Jarman’s War Requiem, and The Wings of the Dove.
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