In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and...
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The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 is a traditional English sonnet (traditional because Shakespeare made it so), consisting of a single stanza of fourteen lines, rhymed according to a standard format. Like the other 153 sonnets by Shakespeare, Sonnet 19 has no title.
In the first quatrain, the poet addresses time as a devourer, handing out a series of defiant invitations to time to perform its most destructive acts. First, time is instructed to “blunt” the “lion’s paws,” which gives the reader an image of enormous strength reduced to impotence. In line 2, the poet moves from the particular to the general, invoking time as a bully who forces the earth, seen as the universal mother, to consume all her beloved offspring. Line 3 echoes line 1. It gives another image of the strongest of nature’s creatures, this time the tiger, reduced to weakness. Time, seen as a fierce aggressor, will pluck out its teeth. No gentle decline into age here. In line 4, the poet moves to the mythological realm. He tells time to wreak its havoc by burning the “long-lived phoenix.” The phoenix was a mythical bird that supposedly lived for five hundred years (or a thousand years, according to some versions) before being consumed in fire. The phoenix was also said to rise from its own ashes, but that is not a meaning that the poet chooses to develop here. The final phrase in the line, “in her blood,” is a hunting term that refers to an animal in the full vigor of...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The sonnet is a highly concentrated work of art in which the poet must develop and resolve his theme within the strict confines of the sonnet form. Sonnet 19, like all Shakespeare’s sonnets, follows a standard pattern. It consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, and it follows the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
The meaning of the sonnet is reinforced by the variations Shakespeare makes in the meter. This takes the form of a subtle counterpoint between the regular metrical base, which is iambic pentameter, and the spoken rhythm—what one actually hears when the sonnet is read. For example, in the first quatrain, the theme of the destructiveness of time is brought out more forcefully by a series of metrical inversions.
In the third foot in the first line (“blunt thou”), a trochee is substituted for an iamb, resulting in a strong stress falling on the first syllable. This gives “blunt” a much stronger impact than it would otherwise have, especially as the rest of the line follows a regular iambic rhythm. In line two, the last foot is a spondee rather than an iamb, resulting in two heavy stresses on “sweet brood.” The emphasis on the “sweetness of what time destroys” makes the work of time seem even more harsh. Line 3 is a very irregular line, echoing the turbulence of the sense. There is a metrical inversion in the first foot (it is trochaic, not iambic) that serves to highlight the word “Pluck.”...
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As a literary genre, the sonnet originated in Italy and is associated with the name of Francis Petrarch (1304–1374). Petrarch was inspired by the first sight of a woman he referred to as “Laura,” whom he loved and worshipped from afar for a period of twenty years until her death in 1348 and for ten years after that. The poems Petrarch wrote describing his hopeless love for Laura inspired a vogue that lasted for centuries in Western poetry.
The characteristic Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) in which the subject is described and developed, and a sestet (six lines) in which the thought takes a turn and there is a solution to the problem or an easing of it.
This sonnet form reached England two hundred years after Petrarch. The first English sonneteers were Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517–1547). Many of their sonnets were virtual translations of Petrarch, but eventually a new sonnet form evolved, which became known as the English sonnet. In the English sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet), the argument or thought is presented and developed over three quatrains and then resolved in a concluding couplet.
By the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in the 1590s, the sonnet was the latest literary fad. It must have seemed at the time that almost every poet in England was turning out sonnets by the sackload. Sonnet cycles became fashionable. These told a story of...
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A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows certain well-established conventions in its rhyme scheme. The Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three quatrains (a verse of four lines) which develops the thought or argument, followed by a concluding couplet (two lines), which resolves the issue, often with a witty or unexpected turn in the thought. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. That is, line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 4, line 5 with line 7, and so on.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which means that each line consists of five metrical feet, each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A foot consists of two beats. However, Shakespeare makes many variations on this basic metrical rhythm. The result is a counterpoint between the fixed metrical base (what we usually hear and are expecting to hear) and the variable element (what we actually hear). The variations create subtle emphases and effects that would not otherwise be present.
Sonnet 19 has many examples of metrical variation. In the third foot of line 1, the poet has substituted a trochaic foot, which is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, for the regular iambic foot. The expected rhythm has been reversed so that the word “blunt” is emphasized. The effect is to give more force to the actions of time. A similar inversion occurs in line 3, in which the first foot consists of a...
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Compare and Contrast
1590s: Writers who were not courtiers or nobles had to find a wealthy patron to support them financially. The writer would dedicate his work to the patron and praise him lavishly, in the hope that the nobleman would be sufficiently flattered to further advance the writer’s career. Sometimes writers would be admitted to the patron’s literary or intellectual circles.
Today: Rather than cultivating private patrons, poets and writers often seek sponsorship in the form of grants from government-funded organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. They may also receive advances against future royalties from publishers or be employed as professors of creative writing by colleges and universities.
1609: Shakespeare’s sonnets were published apparently without his permission. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England the author held no copyright to his work, and a publisher was under no obligation to seek the author’s permission to publish it. After publication, the copyright belonged to the publisher. Authors did not receive royalties from the sales of their books. All published books had to be approved by the political and ecclesiastical authorities.
Today: Strict copyright laws ensure that a writer’s work cannot be published without his permission. Legally enforceable contracts...
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Topics for Further Study
- On the World Wide Web, go to http://www.bluemountain.com/eng/shakespeare/index. html, a site which sends out e-greetings cards made up of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Compare Sonnet 116, which the site selects, to Sonnet 18, another favorite sonnet. Which would be more suitable to send to a beloved friend as a greeting, and why? Would these sonnets be a better choice than Sonnet 19?
- Describe some of the many ways that individuals and societies memorialize their loved ones and their heroes. Which ways are the most effective and long-lasting?
- Is it easier or more difficult to express emotions and ideas in a 14-line sonnet, with its rigid structure, than in free verse? To find out, write a sonnet, and then express the same feelings and ideas in a poem written in free verse.
- America is a society that tends to value youth and beauty at the expense of age. Do all societies around the world value youth in this way, or do some view the later stages of life differently? What advantages might age possess that would compensate for the loss of youth and beauty?
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- The sonnets have been recorded on audiotape and there are a number of different versions available. Sonnets by William Shakespeare, issued in 1988 by Caedmon, features the eminent British Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud reading 120 of the sonnets.
- All 154 sonnets are available on the CD, The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare with Alex Jennings as reader, issued by Naxos Audio Books in 1998.
- Another unabridged version is the audiocassette, The Complete Shakespeare Sonnets, read by Jane Alexander, Patrick Stewart, and Alfred Molina. This was issued by Airplay Inc. in 1999.
- Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by William Shakespeare, read by Simon Callow, an audiocassette issued in 1996 by HighBridge Company.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, were both written at about the same time as the sonnets, and they both deal with the many different aspects, both positive and negative, of romantic love. Romeo and Juliet begins with a sonnet (“Two households, both alike in dignity”) and when the lovers meet their first dialogue forms a sonnet (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand”).
- Later writers have used the sonnet form to explore subjects other than love. Some of the most notable examples are John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” which are expressions of religious faith; sonnets by William Wordsworth (“Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” “It Is a Beauteous Evening,” “London, 1802,” and “The World Is Too Much With Us” are some of the best known); and John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness (“When I Consider How My Life Is Spent”).
- Metamorphoses, Book 15, by Ovid (43 B.C.—A.D. 17), particularly the section given to Pythagoras to explain his philosophy. This contains a number of passages that inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially Sonnets 19, 59, and 60.
- The subject of beauty has occupied philosophers as well as poets. In The Symposium Plato...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Yale University Press, 1977.
Hardin, Craig, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973.
Martin, Philip. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. George Allen and Unwin, 1979.
Rowse, A. L. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Harper and Row, 1964.
Sitwell, Edith. A Notebook on William Shakespeare. Beacon Press, 1961.
Smith, Hallett. The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Huntingdon Library, 1981.
For Further Study
Auden, W. H. “Introduction,” in Shakespeare: The Sonnets, edited by William Burto. Penguin, 1999. A lively, opinionated essay on the sonnets by one of the finest twentieth century poets. Auden pours scorn on the attempt to identify the real life characters in the sonnets, but he does argue that the primary experience that gave rise to the sonnets was a mystical perception of what he calls the Vision of Eros.
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Modern Critical Interpretations. Chelsea House, 1987. This is a collection of six critical essays on the sonnets. The essays are of varying difficulty; the most useful for the beginning student is C. L. Barber’s...
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