William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Sonnets belong in a peculiar social and intellectual space in early modern England. They mightbe addresses to particular individuals, and they might, like Biron’s ‘sonnet’ in Love’s Labour’sLost, be caught up in narratives about fidelity and authorship. They might raise questions aboutthe author and his or her gender and identity, and about the occasions on which they werewritten, and about whether their mode of address is directly personal, private or public. Butthey are not confessional narratives. It is the questions the Sonnets raise, rather than theanswers to those questions which make them important works. They stand after Shakespeare’sname on the title page to the 1609 edition (‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’); but are they testaments toShakespeare’s thoughts, or are they lyric experiments? Are they signs that eh wished to resumehis career as a printed poet after a gap of fifteen years, or are they works conceived for privatecirculation and smuggled into print?
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Perhaps the larger question which readers of Shakespeare’s work will want toask is how do the Sonnets relate to his work as a dramatist?They do resonate with a wide range of tonalities from the plays in ways which may reflecttheir (probably) extended genesis: the final sequence of sonnets 127 – 154, with their hard-edged paradoxes of a black’ woman being considered ‘fair’, has suggestive connections withShakespeare’s dramatic work from the earlier 1590s; other poems to the young man haveflavours of the lordly and reserved Hal (Henry IV part I) from the mid-to-late 1590s; othersentangling energies of sexual desire seem to belong to the same landscape as Measure forMeasure and Trolius and Cressida, while Othello’s word-transforming jealousy never seems faraway from those sonnets which seem to be about a mistress. But the really deep relationshipbetween Shakespeare’s careers as playwright and poet goes far beyond either verbal parallelsor connections of theme and mood: in the Sonnets it seems as though Shakespeare wantedto go beyond his own dramatic practice, to turn away from directly represented scene andrelationship into imagined scene and relationship, and as a result to allow words to come asclose as possible to bearing an unrelieved and total burden of social meaning – where everytheoretically possible sense for every word seems also to be a practical possibility. TheSonnets were not widely read in their own period, and this is usually put down to the fact thatthey appeared after the main popular fashion for the sonnet sequence had died down.
The original Petrarchan sonnet was composed of two mainsections – an octave and a sestet. The octave had a rhymepattern of a b b a a b b aand the sestet rhymed c d e c d e.The break a the end of the octave is called the volta and thisusually indicates a turning point in the thought of the poem.Shakespeare altered the pattern to three quatrains and acoupletrhyming a b a b c d c d e f e f g g as he found this allowedmore freedom of rhyme. This was necessary as the Englishlanguage is not as rich in rhyme as Italian.William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?SONNET 18Shall I compare thee to a summers day?Thou art more lovely and more temperate:Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,And summers lease hath all too short a date:Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,And every fair from fair sometime declines,By chance, or natures changing course untrimm’d:But thy eternal summer shall not fade,Nor lose possession of that fair thou owst,Nor shall death brag thou wanderst in his shade,When in eternal lines to time thou growst:So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
1. Compare and contrast Shakespeare’s twosonnets Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’sDay? and My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like theSun.Focus on:• link observations of rhythm and rhyme, and patterns of imagery and language, tothe meaning of the poems• draw connections between ostensibly different objects or concepts• compare and contrast the way Shakespeare explores the subjects of Beauty andLove, in Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 116.
Let Me Not to the Marriage of True MindsSONNET 116Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments. Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds,Or bends with the remover to remove:O no! it is an ever-fixed markThat looks on tempests and is never shaken;It is the star to every wandering bark,Whose worths unknown, although his height be taken.Loves not Times fool, though rosy lips and cheeksWithin his bending sickles compass come: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.
Understand and explore ‘Sonnet 116’.1. What does English poet William Shakespeare (1564 –1616) say about love in lines 3 and 4? Make reference tothe sonnet in your discussion.2. How is love like a star? (lines 5 to 8) Find two ways.3. How does love outwit time? (lines 9 to 12)4. Shakespeare’s sonnets end with a rhyming couplet. Canyou think of a modern way of expressing the sentiment oflines 13 and 14? How is this couplet particularly suited toShakespeare himself?5. Back to the beginning. What do you think ‘the marriage oftrue minds’ in the first line refers to? Define marriage andtrue minds as described by the poem.
My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the SunSONNET 130My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun;Coral is far more red than her lips red;If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.I have seen roses damaskd, red and white,But no such roses see I in her cheeks;And in some perfumes is there more delightThan in the breath that from my mistress reeks.I love to hear her speak, yet well I knowThat music hath a far more pleasing sound;I grant I never saw a goddess go;My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rareAs any she belied with false compare.
Understand and explore ‘Sonnet 130’1. Explore the ways in which Shakespeare creates a ‘tongue in cheek’effect in Sonnet 130. Your discussion should refer to the followingfeatures: form metaphor similes2. What does Shakespeare reveal in the couplet about the subject ofthis poem?3. Although the sonnet has a fairly rigid form, poets have often used itas a vehicle for expressing intense personal feelings. Write aShakespearean sonnet in which you apparently insult somebody butreveal the ‘truth’ in the couplet.