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One of William Shakespeare’s great advantages as a writer was that, as a dramatist working in the public theater, he was afforded a degree of autonomy from the cultural dominance of the court, his age’s most powerful institution. All over Europe, even if belatedly in England, the courts of the Renaissance nation-states conducted an intense campaign to use the arts to further their power. The theater, despite its partial dependency on court favor, achieved through its material products (the script and the performance) a relative autonomy in comparison with the central court arts of poetry, prose fiction, and the propagandistic masque. When Shakespeare briefly turned to Ovidian romance in the 1590’s and, belatedly, probably also in the 1590’s, to the fashion for sonnets, he moved closer to the cultural and literary dominance of the court’s taste—to the fashionable modes of Ovid, Petrarch, and Neoplatonism—and to the need for patronage. Although the power of the sonnets goes far beyond their sociocultural roots, Shakespeare nevertheless adopts the culturally inferior role of the petitioner for favor, and there is an undercurrent of social and economic powerlessness in the sonnets, especially when a rival poet seems likely to supplant the poet. In short, Shakespeare’s nondramatic poems grow out of and articulate the strains of the 1590’s, when, like many ambitious writers and intellectuals on the fringe of the court, Shakespeare clearly needed to find a language in which to speak—and that was, necessarily, given to him by the court. What he achieved within this shared framework, however, goes far beyond any other collection of poems in the age. Shakespeare’s occasional poems are unquestionably minor, interesting primarily because he wrote them; his sonnets, on the other hand, constitute perhaps the language’s greatest collection of lyrics. They are love lyrics, and clearly grow from the social, erotic, and literary contexts of his age. Part of their greatness, however, lies in their power to be read again and again in later ages, and to raise compellingly, even unanswerably, more than merely literary questions.
In his first venture into public poetry, Shakespeare chose to work within the generic constraints of the fashionable Ovidian verse romance. Venus and Adonis appealed to the taste of young aristocrats such as the earl of Southampton to whom it was dedicated. It is a narrative poem in six-line stanzas, mixing classical mythology with surprisingly (and incongruously) detailed descriptions of country life, designed to illustrate the story of the seduction of the beautiful youth Adonis by the comically desperate aging goddess Venus. It is relatively static, with too much argument to make it inherently pleasurable reading. Its treatment of love relies on Neoplatonic and Ovidian commonplaces, and it verges (unlike Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. 1598, to which Shakespeare’s poem is a fair but decidedly inferior fellow) on moralizing allegory, with Venus as flesh, Adonis as spiritual longing. The poem’s articulation of the nature of the love that separates them is abstract and often unintentionally comic—although Shakespeare’s characterization of Venus as a garrulous plump matron brings something of his theatrical power to enliven the poem. The poem was certainly popular at the time, going through ten editions in as many years, possibly because its early readers thought it fashionably sensual.
The Rape of Lucrece is the “graver labor” that Shakespeare promised to Southampton in the preface to Venus and Adonis. Again, he combines a current poetical fashion—the complaint—with a number of moral commonplaces, and writes a novelette in verse: a melodrama celebrating the prototype of matronly chastity, the Roman lady Lucrece, and her suicide after she was raped. The central moral issue—that of honor—at times almost becomes a serious treatment of the psychology of self-revulsion; but the decorative and moralistic conventions of the complaint certainly do not afford Shakespeare the scope of a stage play. There are some fine local atmospheric effects that, in their declamatory power, occasionally bring the directness and power of the stage into the verse.
The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical, highly technical celebration of an ideal love union: It consists of a funeral procession of mourners, a funeral anthem, and a final lament for the dead. It is strangely evocative, dignified, abstract, and solemn. Readers have fretted, without success, over the exact identifications of its characters. Its power lies in its mysterious, eerie evocation of the mystery of unity in love.
Probably more human ingenuity has been spent on Shakespeare’s sonnets than on any other work of English literature. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1978), Stephen Booth briefly summarizes the few facts that have led to a plethora of speculation on such matters as text, authenticity, date, arrangement, and, especially, biographical implications. The sonnets were first published in 1609, although numbers 138 and 144 had appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim a decade before. Attempts to reorder the sonnets have been both varied and creative, but none represents the “correct” order. Such attempts simply fulfill an understandable anxiety on the part of some readers to see narrative continuity rather than variations and repetition in the sonnets. The “story behind” the sonnets has, as Booth puts it, “evoked some notoriously creative scholarship”: speculation on the identity of the young man mentioned in many of the first 126 sonnets, of Mr. W. H. to whom the sequence is dedicated by the printer, of the “Dark Lady” of sonnets 127-152, and of the rival poet of some of the earlier sonnets—all these matters have filled many library shelves.
Such speculations—which reached their peak in critics and readers wedded to the sentimental Romantic insistence on an intimate tie between literary and historical “events”—are in one sense a tribute to the power of the sonnets. They are arguably the greatest collection of love poems in the language, and they provide a crucial test for the adequacy of both the love of poetry and the sense of the fascinating confusion that makes up human love. In a sense, the sonnets are as “dramatic” as any of Shakespeare’s plays inasmuch as their art is that of meditations on love, beauty, time, betrayal, insecurity, and joy. Each sonnet is like a little script, with (often powerful) directions for reading and enactment, with textual meanings that are not given but made anew in every performance, by different readers within their individual and social lives. What Sonnet 87 terms “misprision” may stand as the necessary process by which each sonnet is produced by each reader.
It is conventional to divide the sonnets into two groups—1-126, purportedly addressed or related to a young man, and 127-152, to the “Dark Lady.” Such a division is arbitrary at best—within each group there are detachable subgroups, and without the weight of the conventional arrangement, many sonnets would not seem to have a natural place in either group. Sonnets 1-17 (and perhaps 18) are ostensibly concerned with a plea for a young man to marry; but even in this group, which many readers have seen to be the most conventional and unified, there are disruptive suggestions that go far beyond the commonplace context.
What may strike contemporary readers, and not merely after an initial acquaintance with the sonnets, is the apparently unjustified level of idealization voiced by many of the sonnets—an adulatory treatment of noble love that, to a post-Freudian world, might seem archaic, no matter how comforting. The continual self-effacement of the anguished lover, the worship of the “God in love, to whom I am confined” (110), the poet’s claim to immortalizing “his beautie. in these blacke lines” (63), are all idealizations born out of a world of serene affirmation. Some of the most celebrated sonnets, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (18) or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (116), may even seem cloyingly affirmative, their texts seemingly replete, rejecting any subtextual challenges to their idealism.
In the two hundred years since Petrarch, the sonnet had developed into an instrument of logic and rhetoric. The Shakespearian sonnet, on the other hand, with its three quatrains and a concluding couplet, allows especially for the concentration on a single mood; it is held together less by the apparent logic of many of the sonnets (for example, the “when. then” pattern) than by the invitation to enter into the dramatization of a brooding, sensitive mind. The focus is on emotional richness, on evoking the immediacy of felt experience. Shakespeare uses many deliberately generalized epithets, indeterminate signifiers and floating referents that provoke meaning from their readers rather than providing it. Each line contains contradictions, echoes, and suggestions that require an extraordinary degree of emotional activity on the part of the reader. The couplets frequently offer a reader indeterminate statements, inevitably breaking down any attempt at a limited formalist reading. The greatest of the sonnets—60, 64, 129, as well as many others—have such an extraordinary combination of general, even abstract, words and unspecified emotional power that the reader may take it as the major rhetorical characteristic of the collection.
In particular lines, too, these poems achieve amazing power by their lack of logical specificity and emotional open-endedness. As Booth points out, many lines show “a constructive vagueness” by which a word or phrase is made to do multiple duty—by placing it “in a context to which it pertains but which it does not quite fit idiomatically” or by using phrases that are simultaneously illogical and amazingly charged with meaning. He instances “separable spite” in Sonnet 36 as a phrase rich with suggestion; another example is the way in which the bewilderingly ordinary yet suggestive epithets sit uneasily in the opening lines of Sonnet 64. Often a reader is swept on through the poem by a syntactical movement that is modified or contradicted by associations set up by words and phrases. There is usually a syntactical or logical framework in the sonnet, but so powerful are the contradictory, random, and disruptive effects occurring incidentally as the syntax unfolds that to reduce the sonnet to its seemingly replete logical framework is to miss the most amazing effects of these extraordinary poems.
Shakespeare is writing at the end of a very long tradition of using lyric poems to examine the nature of human love, and there is a weight of insight as well as of rhetorical power behind his collection. Nowhere in the Petrarchan tradition are the extremes of erotic revelation offered in such rawness and complexity. Northrop Frye once characterized the sonnets as a kind of “creative yoga,” an imaginative discipline meant to articulate the feelings that swirl around sexuality. Most of the conventional topoi of traditional poetry are the starting points for the sonnets—the unity of lovers (36-40), the power of poetry to immortalize the beloved (18, 19, 55), contests between eye and heart, beauty and virtue (46, 141), and shadow and substance (53, 98, 101). As with Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (1470, also known as Canzoniere ; Rhymes. 1976) or Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), it would be possible to create a schematic account of commonplace Renaissance thinking about love from the sonnets. To do so, however, would be to nullify their extraordinary power of creation, the way they force ejaculations of recognition, horror, or joy from their readers.
After half a century of existentialism, readers in the late twentieth century understood that one of the most urgent subjects of the sonnets is not the commonplaces of Renaissance thinking about love, nor even the powerful concern with the power of art, but what Sonnet 16 calls people’s “war upon this bloody tyrant Time.” It is no accident that the “discovery” of the sonnets’ concern with time and mutability dates from the 1930’s, when the impact of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the existentialists, including Martin Heidegger, was starting to be widely felt in England and the United States. The sonnets’ invitation to see humans’ temporality not merely as an abstract problem but as part of their inherent nature—what Heidegger terms humans’ “thrownness,” their sense of being thrown into the world—seems central to a perception of the sonnets’ power. Unpredictability and change are at the heart of the sonnets—but it is a continually shifting heart, and one that conceives of human love as definable only in terms of such change and finitude. The sonnets avoid the transcendentalism of Geoffrey Chaucer beseeching his young lovers to turn from the world, or of Edmund Spenser rejecting change for the reassurance of God’s eternity and his providential guidance of time to a foreknown, if mysterious, end. Shakespeare’s sonnets rather overwhelm readers with questions and contradictions. In Sonnet 60, for example, time is not an impartial or abstract background. Even where it is glanced at as a pattern observable in nature or humanity, it is evoked as a disruptive, disturbing experience that cannot be dealt with as a philosophical problem. Some sonnets portray time as a sinister impersonal determinant; some thrust time at the reader as an equally unmanageable force of unforeseeable chances and changes, what Sonnet 115 calls humanity’s “million’d accidents.”
In Sonnet 15, it may be possible to enter into an understandable protest against time destroying its own creations (a commonplace enough Renaissance sentiment), and to accede to a sense of helplessness before a malignant force greater than the individual human being. When the sonnet tries, however, by virtue of its formally structured argument, to create a consciousness that seeks to understand and so to control this awareness, the reader encounters lines or individual words that may undermine even the temporary satisfaction of the aesthetic form. Such, for example is the force of the appalling awareness that “everything that grows/ Holds in perfection but a little moment.” What is the application of “everything” or the emotional effect of the way the second line builds to a seemingly replete climax in “perfection” and then tumbles into oblivion in “but a little moment”? The sonnet does not and need not answer such questions. In a very real sense, it cannot answer them, for readers can only acknowledge time’s power in their own contingent lives. What is shocking is not merely the commonplace that “never-resting time leads summer on/ To hideous winter, and confounds him there” (5) but that each reading fights against and so disrupts the logical and aesthetic coherence of the reader’s own sense of change and betrayal.
To attempt criticism of the sonnets is, to an unusual extent, to be challenged to make oneself vulnerable, to undergo a kind of creative therapy, as one goes back and forth from such textual gaps and indeterminacies to the shifting, vulnerable self, making the reader aware of the inadequacy and betrayal of words, as well as of their amazing seductiveness. Consider, for example, Sonnet 138. When one falls in love with a much younger person, does one inevitably feel the insecurity of a generation gap? What is more important in such a reading of the sonnets is the insistence that age or youthfulness are not important in themselves: It is the insistence itself that is important, not the mere fact of age—just as it is the anxiety with which a man or woman watches the wrinkles beneath the eyes that is important, not the wrinkles themselves. The note of insistence, in other words, is not attached merely to the speaker’s age: It stands for an invitation to participate in some wider psychological revelation, to confess the vulnerability that people encounter in themselves in any relationship that is real and growing, and therefore necessarily unpredictable and risky.
Without vulnerability and contingency, without the sense of being thrown into the world, there can be no growth. Hence the poet invites the reader to accept ruefully what the fact of his age evokes—an openness to ridicule or rejection. The sonnet’s insistence on being open to the insecurity represented by the narrator’s age points not merely to a contrast between the speaker and his two lovers but rather to a radical self-division. This is especially so in the Dark Lady sonnets, where there is a savage laceration of self, particularly in the fearful exhaustion of Sonnet 129, in which vulnerability is evoked as paralysis. At once logically relentless and emotionally centrifugal, Sonnet 129 generates fears or vulnerability and self-disgust. Nothing is specified: The strategies of the poem work to make the reader reveal or recognize his or her own compulsions and revulsions. The poem’s physical, psychological, and cultural basis forces the reader to become aware of his or her awful drive to repress words because they are potentially so destructive.
Even in the seemingly most serene sonnets, there are inevitably dark shadows of insecurity and anxiety. In Sonnet 116, for example, the argument is that a love that alters with time and circumstance is not a true, but a self-regarding love.
The poem purports to define true love by negatives, but if those negatives are deliberately negated, the poem that emerges may be seen as the dark, repressed underside of the apparently unassailable affirmation of a mature, self-giving, other-directed love. If lovers admit impediments, and play with the idea that love is indeed love which “alters when it alteration finds,” that it is an “ever-fixed mark” and, most especially, that love is indeed “time’s fool,” then the poem connects strikingly and powerfully with the strain of insecurity about the nature of change in human love that echoes throughout the whole collection. Such apparent affirmations may be acts of repression, an attempt to regiment the unrelenting unexpectedness and challenge of love. There are poems in the collection that, although less assertive, show a willingness to be vulnerable, to reevaluate constantly, to swear permanence within, not despite, transience—to be, in the words of Saint Paul, deceivers yet true. Elsewhere, part of the torture of the Dark Lady sonnets is that such a consolation does not emerge through the pain.
In short, what Sonnet 116 represses is the acknowledgment that the only fulfillment worth having is one that is struggled for and that is independent of law or compulsion. The kind of creative fragility that it tries to marginalize is that evoked in the conclusion to Sonnet 49 when the poet admits his vulnerability: “To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,/ Since, why to love, I can allege no cause.” This is an affirmation of a different order—or rather an acknowledgment that love must not be defined by repression and exclusion. Lovers can affirm the authenticity of the erotic only by admitting the possibility that it is not absolute. Love has no absolute legal, moral, or causal claims; nor, in the final analysis, can love acknowledge the bonds of law, family, or state—or if finally they are acknowledged, it is because they grow from love itself. Love moves by its own internal dynamic; it is not motivated by a series of external compulsions. Ultimately it asks from the lover the nolo contendere of commitment: Do with me what you will. A real, that is to say, an altering, bending, never fixed and unpredictable love is always surrounded by, and at times seems to live by, battles, plots, subterfuges, quarrels, and irony. At the root is the acknowledgment that any affirmation is made because of, not despite, time and human mortality. As Sonnet 12 puts it, having surveyed the fearful unpredictability of all life, lovers must realize that it is even “thy beauty” that must be questioned. At times this thought “is as a death” (64), a “fearful meditation” (65)—that even the most precious of all human creations will age, wrinkle, fade, and die. Just how can one affirm in the face of that degree of reality?
Under the pressure of such questioning, the affirmation of Sonnet 116 can therefore be seen as a kind of bad faith, a false dread—false, because it freezes lovers in inactivity when they should, on the contrary, accept their finitude as possibility. Frozen in the fear of contingency, which Sonnet 116 so ruthlessly represses in its insistent negatives, readers may miss Shakespeare’s essential insight that it is in fact the very fragility of beauty, love, poetry, fair youth, and dark lady alike that enhances their desirability. Paradoxically, it is precisely because they are indeed among the wastes of time that they are beautiful; they are not desirable because they are immortal but because they are irrevocably time-bound. One of the most profound truths is expressed in Sonnet 64: “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate/ That Time will come and take my love away./ This thought is as a death, which cannot choose/ But weep to have that which it fears to lose.” The power of such lines goes far beyond the serene platitudes of Sonnet 116. At their most courageous, humans do not merely affirm, despite the forces of change and unpredictability that provide the ever-shifting centers of their lives; on the contrary, they discover their greatest strengths because of and within their own contingency. To accept rather than to deny time is to prove that humanity’s deepest life ultimately does not recognize stasis but always craves growth, and that fulfillment is built not on the need for finality, for being “ever fixed,” but on the need to violate apparent limits, to push forward or die.
Against a sonnet such as 116, some sonnets depict love not as a serene continuation of life but rather as a radical reorientation. Readers are asked not to dismiss, but to affirm fears of limitation. It is in the midst of contingency, when meditations are overwhelmed by the betrayals of the past, while “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,/ And with old woes new wail my dear Time’s waste” (Sonnet 30), that love may open up the future as possibility, not as completion—so long as one accepts that it is time itself that offers such possibility, not any attempt to escape from it.
The typical Renaissance attitude to time and mutability was one of fear or resignation unless, as in Spenser, the traditional Christian context could be evoked as compensation; but for Shakespeare the enormous energies released by the Renaissance are wasted in trying to escape the burden of temporality. The drive to stasis, to repress experiences and meanings, is a desire to escape the burden of realizing that there are some transformations which love cannot effect. Ultimately, it is impossible to get inside a lover’s soul no matter how much the flesh is seized and penetrated. The drive to possess and so to annihilate is a desire derived from the old Platonic ideal of original oneness, which only Shakespeare among the Renaissance poets seems to have seen as a clear and fearful perversion—it certainly haunts the lover of the Dark Lady sonnets and readers are invited to stand and shudder at the speaker’s Augustinian self-lacerations. In Sonnet 144, the two loves “of comfort and despair,/ Which like two spirits do suggest me still” are not just a “man right fair” and a “woman, colour’d ill”: They are also aspects of each lover’s self, the two loves that a dualistic mind cannot affirm and by which people may be paralyzed.
Throughout this discussion of the sonnets, what has been stressed is that their power rests on the seemingly fragile basis not of Shakespeare’s but of their readers’ shifting and unpredictable experiences. They are offered not in certainty, but in hope. They invite affirmation while insisting that pain is the dark visceral element in which humans must live and struggle. Many of the Dark Lady sonnets are grim precisely because the lover can see no way to break through such pain. What they lack, fundamentally, is hope. By accepting that, for a time, “my grief lies onward and my joy behind” (Sonnet 50), the lover may be able, however temporarily, to make some commitment. Sonnet 124 is particularly suggestive, categorizing love as “dear,” costly, not only because it is “fond,” beloved, but also because it is affirmed in the knowledge of the world. Moreover, while it “fears not Policy” it is nevertheless “hugely politic.” It is as if love must be adaptable, cunning, even deceptive, aware of the untrustworthiness of the world from which it can never be abstracted: “it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.” Finally, the poet affirms with a strong and yet strangely ironic twist: “To this I witness call the fools of Time,/ Which die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime.”
As Stephen Booth notes, Sonnet 124 “is the most extreme example of Shakespeare’s constructive vagueness,” its key the word “it,” which, “like all pronouns, is specific, hard, concrete, and yet imprecise and general—able to include anything or nothing.” “It” occurs five times, each time becoming more indeterminate, surrounded by subjectives and negatives: In this sonnet “composed of precisely evocative words in apparently communicative syntaxes which come to nothing and give a sense of summing up everything, the word it stands sure, constant, forthright, simple and blank.” The blankness to which Booth points has been filled very specifically by generations of readers to force the poem into a repressive argument like that of Sonnet 116. For example, the key phrase “the fools of time” is usually glossed as local, historical examples of political or religious timeservers—but the phrase contains mysterious reverberations back upon the lovers themselves. There is a sense in which men are all fools of time. When Sonnet 116 affirms that “Love’s not Time’s fool,” it betrays a deliberate and fearful repression; an unwillingness to acknowledge that Love is not able to overcome Time; time is something that can be fulfilled only as it presents opportunity and possibility to humans. People rightly become fools—jesters, dancers in attendance on Time, holy fools before the creative challenge of humanity’s finitude—and people die, are fulfilled sexually, existentially, only if they submit themselves, “hugely politic,” to the inevitable compromises, violence, and disruption which is life. People “die for goodness” because in a sense they have all “lived for crime.” People are deceivers yet true; the truest acts, like the truest poetry, are the most feigning.
The twelve-line Sonnet 126 is conventionally regarded as the culmination of the first part of the sequence. Its serenity is very unlike that of 116. It acknowledges that, even if the fair youth is indeed Nature’s “minion,” even he must eventually be “rendered.” Such realism does not detract from the Youth’s beauty or desirability; it in fact constitutes its power.
Whether one considers the Fair Youth or the Dark Lady sonnets, or whether one attempts to see a “hidden” order in the sonnets, or even if one wishes to see a story or some kind of biographical origin “within” them, perhaps their greatness rests on their refusal to offer even the possibility of “solutions” to the “problems” they raise. They disturb, provoke, and ask more than merely “aesthetic” questions; read singly or together, they make readers face (or hide from) and question the most fundamental elements of poetry, love, time, and death.