“Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart;”
So wrote William Wordsworth in 1827, and I couldn’t agree more! I adore Shakespeare’s sonnets, but like all treats they have to be taken in moderation. Like luxurious chocolate cake, they pack a powerful punch which needs to be enjoyed slowly, one slice at a time.
There is a great debate as to whether the sonnets written by Shakespeare can shed any light on the elusive man behind the plays – that by ordering them in certain ways they can create a narrative diary that is somehow autobiographical of his own thoughts and feelings.
The sonnets are absolutely ‘of the heart’ and I have no doubt that the poet used them as an outlet for personal moments in a busy, artistic life. The Earl of Surrey who popularised the 14-line sonnet in England during the mid-1500s did just that in his expressions of affection for Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
On the other hand Shakespeare was a poet first and foremost at this early stage of his career (the sonnets were largely written in the early 1590s) and they are full of a poet’s art of rhetoric and classical references – elements that would have be fundamental part of Shakespeare’s grammar school education.
The arguments that are played out are complex but by using the sonnet form, Shakespeare has to discipline himself to also be concise. No lengthy wrangling over the meaning of life as in ‘To be or not to be’ here. So could the sonnets be viewed as Shakespeare’s training ground that would lead to later greatness?
What is clear about them is that they have an extremity of feeling. They are full of passion: love that can be all-consuming; the desolation of rejection; sardonic black humour; simple regret... Taken independently of one another they are each an intrinsically constructed mini-drama; it is almost as if Shakespeare has grasped the ability to grasp the million emotions one can experience in a single moment of thought, and bottle it into 14 lines.
The outpouring of love in Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is infinite. The idea of trying to compare a loved one’s beauty with a summer’s day is a very simple idea. As we all know nothing can be more joyous, uplifting, and spiritually invigorating than the sun on our face – as we have all felt this week! Surely nothing can better that? Of course we also know that feeling cannot last, but Shakespeare betters it: “thy eternal summer shall not fade”.
When you read the sonnets, you can’t escape the feeling that you’re in the presence of someone who just knew the exact way to describe anything – that these words are the quintessential way to convey that moment or feeling. Sonnet 116 is used so often at weddings because it perfectly captures the essence of marriage:
“Love is not love which alters when alteration finds…
…It is an ever-fixéd mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken”
But not everything in the Sonnets is beautiful – Sonnet 29 deals with heartache and the self-remorse of jealousy with just as much force:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state…
… Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;”
Sonnet 138 is filled with self-doubt and despair:
“When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
… I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”
Sonnet 144 is fuelled with disgust of how the body can rule the spirit:
“Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
….To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.”
George Bernard Shaw called Sonnet 129 “the most merciless passage in English Literature”:
“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,”
With someone as fascinating as Shakespeare, who in turn we know so little, we will always be striving to find a framework to fit him into, in the hope of understanding the man. But the truth is we don’t exactly when or why he wrote them. The order we have them in, and the numbers we refer to them by, are not necessarily Shakespeare’s.
The sonnets were first published in their entirety in May 1609, though we don’t know whether Shakespeare had a hand in the publication or ordering of them. Sonnets 138 and 144 had appeared in print in 1599, in a collection of poems entitled The Passionate Pilgrim collected and published by William Jaggard.
Over the centuries scholars and editors have been seeking to find a context for the sonnets and therefore put them in to some kind of narrative order. Through analysing the vocabulary across all Shakespeare’s work, it is suggested that sonnets 1-103 and 127-154 were written in the 1590s, whilst 104-126 were composed in the early 1600s (Sonnet 107 alludes to Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 for example). It is also suggested that Sonnet 145 may have been Shakespeare’s very first attempt at writing, in that it seems to refer to his wife Anne Hathaway and the beginning of their marriage:
“I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying -- 'not you.”
But if that’s the case, this could have been written as early as 1582. Who knows!?
So to read the sonnets as a narrative, I would suggest is to miss the treasure they contain. Yes, a number of them are linked and seem to answer each other, and yes there are themes that run through sections, but they all contain such potency that, for me at least, their power is truly appreciated on their own…and that is why over the last 7 years GSC has loved creating mini dramas out of them.
This weekend, as we begin to celebrate Shakespeare’s 454th birthday on 23 April, I invite you to pick a number from 1-154, and spend 30 minutes reading it out loud to yourself. Put yourself into the speaker’s situation; don’t think this is some poet from 400 years ago, but you. Enjoy the words, roll them around your mouth; find a phrase you like and repeat it, think about it, picture it…then go and make a cup of tea, take the dog for a walk and then come back and read it again…who knows what you’ll discover!