I tend to inundate my students with Shakespeare’s sonnets as part of our poetry unit. For one, sonnets often show up on the AP exam. For another, Shakespeare knows how to rock the sonnet. He saw what Petrarch has done with the Italian sonnet, smoothed and improved it to the point where he owns it. When someone says “sonnet” Shakespeare is what comes to mind. He tended towards taking what someone else had created and reshaped it so that it was his claim. It wasn’t plagiarism then, only genius.
This month’s Bard Bits recognizes how Shakespeare mastered the metaphor. Many of his sonnets dealt with aging out and Sonnet 73 captures the autumnal drift into winter with thoughtful reflection.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I admit most of this month’s tribute to Shakespeare has been focused on his plays, or at least I have admittedly grievously ignored his sonnets. This post shall attempt to make amends.
It’s impressive he wrote 154 sonnets, compared to writing 37 plays. It’s thought he wrote sonnets when the Puritans or the Health Department shut down the theatres, either for indecency complaints or plague control. There must have been some serious down time.
From fact finding, I discovered Shakespeare considered himself more poet than playwright, having first got his fame thing going with the publication of a couple of poems: “Venus and Adonis” (1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594). These got the attention of the Earl of Southampton who became Shakespeare’s patron. Scholars say other things about the Earl, but we shall not pursue the matter here.
Today I focus on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. If you are interested in his full sonnet selection, go here:
Yes, I do have a favorite. Actually more than one. Sonnet 130, to me, captures the absolute wit of Shakespeare, especially this version. I’ll tell you why after you watch it.
At first, it seems as if the speaker is downgrading his lover. Instead of promoting her virtues he speaks of her unruly hair, less-than-fashionable hue of skin, and the fact that she treads instead of glides. Reeks means breathes, not stinks–a denotation clarification. In fact, what Shakespeare does is set it down that the speaker’s mistress is a human, not a goddess, which is something many of the sonnet writers espoused, that the women of their poetry were so perfect, so amazing, and as Shakespeare points out, so unreal. The woman of Sonnet 130 is not perfect, and doesn’t have to be to attain the speaker’s devotion.
The first half of the sonnet grinds away at her apparent imperfections, and the reader must think the speaker cruel and heartless. When the turn arrives, the shift in attitude (technically called the volta), clear down in the couplet, we discover the speaker said all that to say this:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
This is Shakespeare’s point: the sonnet had become this competition of writing with a practiced extemporaneous style, as if the subject were so inspiring, words just flowed from pen to paper. Basically, it came off as phoney baloney. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 speaker lays it down truthfully: “hey, my girl may not fit the Elizabethan Renaissance standards of beauty, but she’s my girl–talking about my girl.” She’s real. She’s not perfect. She makes me happy. Thank you, Bill. The purple prose of yesteryear , the false compare, does not speaketh the truth. Women, and men, are not perfect. There is beauty in imperfection, and Shakespeare tells us so.