An Overview of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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(The purpose of these brief notes is to assist you in forming an overview of the poet’s work.  For this reason the material is presented as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they engraved in stone: they should be altered, added to or deleted as you make your own notes. 

Remember, these brief notes are meant to send you back to the poems for further study, to reflect, to reassess, to find supporting quotations and references!).

In the late 1500’s, it was fashionable for English gentlemen authors to write sequences of sonnets.  Some sonnet sequences followed a narrative pattern that was autobiographical in varying degrees.  For this reason, scholars have tried to learn about Shakespeare’s life from his sonnets but with little real success.

Scholars generally do agree, however, that Shakespeare addressed the first 126 sonnets to a young nobleman and that the next 26 concentrate on a woman.  But they have not been able to definitely identify either person.  Also scholars have long debated over the nature of Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man and have come to no general conclusion.  Many scholars believe that Shakespeare had a passionate but somewhat reluctant love affair with the woman.  Because the poems describe the woman as a brunette, she has become known as the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets.

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THE SONNETS DOCUMENT THE VARIOUS STAGES OF A RELATIONSHIP

The sonnets explore falling in love, being in love, and facing reality about the beloved:

  • In Sonnet 18 we see the first fascination and we see the poet beginning to write about love. The sonnet, praising the looks and temperament of the Friend, asserts the power of verse to give immortality.  This novel idea of living on beyond death challenges us but we soon realise that this immortality is achieved, not in procreation, but in the very poem being written, ‘this gives life to thee.’
  • In Sonnet 23 we see that Shakespeare is somewhat tongue-tied and unable to express his feeling of love – the stage fright, the stumbling words, the lack of self-confidence – and by implication, it also transmits something of the intensity of this emotion, which is difficult to express.
  • In Sonnet 30 we see the poet as a moody person when alone but he changes when he remembers his love. He also talks about the pain of separation.  The memory of his Friend restores all the poet’s emotional losses, and sorrow is banished.
  • The sonnets also show the insecurity of the poet – the fear that it will not last; the fear that time will destroy beauty and youth; attempts to cheat time in verse (Sonnet 60). This sonnet deals above all with the ravages of time: time’s inescapable forward motion, its destruction of youth and beauty, and its fearsome ravaging of the very best in humankind and in nature.  It is against this background that Shakespeare sets his poetry, trusting that it will survive the years and so preserve his Friend.
  • In some of the sonnets Shakespeare shows a commitment to the beloved, even when life is getting him down; love is a reason for living, for going on, even when one is depressed and tired of life (Sonnet 73). The theme of loss is probably even more significant in the poem – loss of youth, but also loss of creativity (‘where late the sweet birds sang’) and loss of energy and vitality (‘the glowing of such fire’).  The fire is now reduced to the ‘ashes of his youth’ and ‘consumed with that which it was nourished by.’  And so Shakespeare acknowledges the essential paradox of life: that by living we die.  However, despite this bleak outlook there is a somewhat hopeful assumption that love is constant even in the face of death and while the poet acknowledges that death will separate him from his friend, knowing this strengthens and deepens one’s love for the other.
  • Shakespeare makes attempts to define true love (Sonnet 116). Essentially this sonnet is about ideal love, which the poet feels is a spiritual love or ideal friendship, ‘a marriage of true minds’ that would survive all difficulties and outlast the decline of physical beauty and even the ravages of time.  The poem is an expression of total conviction.  The poet believes in the highest form of love, an ideal, steadfast love.  Maybe there is a hint that his young Friend doesn’t believe this?

SUMMARY

The sonnets, therefore, contain vivid imagery which speak to a universal audience: lofty trees barren of leaves, a summer’s day, an inperfect actor on the stage, the waves making toward the pebbled shore, boughs which shake against the cold, rosy lips and cheeks…..

Shakespeare in these sonnets is serious and meditative; there is no great evidence of lightheartedness or playfulness.  The poet’s serious themes and the reflective mood, though expressed in only fourteen lines, give the reader a sense of having read a much longer poem, so effective is the complexity and compression of thought in a Shakespearean sonnet.

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SONNET THEMES

FEAR OF TIME

  • There are many faces of time revealed through the rich, versatile imagery of the sonnets: time is seen as relentless, cruel, mean; as the Grim Reaper, etc. (see Sonnets 18, 60, 116).
  • Explore the tone of his remarks to Time in Sonnet 60.
  • How confident is he really that time can be resisted? (see Sonnets 60, 116).
  • Note the poet’s attitude to ageing in Sonnet 73.

THE EVER-PRESENT SHADOWY FIGURE OF DEATH

  • The personality of death: as braggart (Sonnet 18), its cruelty (Sonnet 60), easeful death (Sonnet 73).

THE VALUE OF POETRY

  • As communication: how effective is it as a medium for communication? (Sonnet 23)
  • Confers immortality: how confident is the poet that poetry will provide a bulwark against time, that poetry confers immortality and so can defeat time? (Sonnets 18, 60).

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THE PERSONALITY OF THE POET IN THE SONNETS

A great variety of moods is revealed in the poems.  About each of the following you might consider what caused it and how deep an emotion it is:

  • hopeful and confident (Sonnets 18, 116)
  • uncertain, diffident (Sonnet 23)
  • depressed and lacking in self-confidence (Sonnets 30, 73)
  • frightened, afraid of deterioration and death (Sonnet 60)

 

 WHAT ARE THE ATTRACTIONS OF SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS?

Consider the following statements:

  • The sonnets are autobiographical to some degree. We are very much aware that there is real drama involved, real conflict, real emotions and real people.
  • They are very honest poems, going far beyond the conventional. They are critical, incisive, often emotionally naked.
  • Yet they are very well crafted, with precisely structured arguments.
  • The imagery can be startling and unexpected, as well as appropriate to the theme.
  • ‘If Shakespeare had written nothing but his sonnets … he would … have been assigned to the class of cold, artificial writers who have no genuine sense of nature or passion.’ (Hazlitt).

 

 

Sonnet 116

 

 

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