It seems that a sonnet, by itself, is a paltry thing, hardly worth the attention of serious critics. Those who have read the current criticism on Shakespeare know that little is written about any one poem alone, that the group of them are often addressed together. There are good reasons for this. Shakespeare appears to have written them all in a close period of time (unlike the lifetime output of a more active poet), so that they can be studied as a group. Also, they are much more personal than sonnets of the sixteenth century, offering critics a clearer view of how writers thought of life’s relation to poetry at that time. Finally, they are the work of the greatest playwright who ever lived, and so critics use the sonnets as a tool to dig for information on the dramatist more often than they appreciate the sonnets for themselves.
Rather than face the difficulty in addressing oneself to a single sonnet by Shakespeare, many literary critics open up their field of inquiry to that broader unit we know as “the sonnet sequence”—looking for patterns. In the case of the Shakespearean sonnets, we know only that there is a finite quantity, 154. After that, the best form that they make when put together is open to debate. Some are addressed to a younger friend or patron; some to the Dark Lady who is referred to as the mistress of the poems’ speaker; some focus their attention on a rival poet. The identities of these people, their actual relationships to Shakespeare, and just what these relationships tell us about poetic inspiration are debated endlessly.
Looking at “Sonnet 29,” which begins “When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,” a reader’s first response might be, “What was Shakespeare feeling so depressed about?” The question assumes, though, that he actually was feeling depressed and humiliated at the time of writing, even though that is specifically contrary to what the poem says. The first word, “when” is the qualifier, telling us that the emotions discussed in the following sixteen lines were not necessarily happening at the time of writing, but that they are emotions that came up every now and again. What Shakespeare is telling us is that he does know these feelings. The only thing we know regarding when he feels like this is that he experienced this hopelessness at some time during his relationship with the “thee” who is first mentioned in line 10. Historians place this sonnet within the series addressed to Shakespeare’s younger friend and patron, and that understanding could open the door to a good deal of intellectual labor about social relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But this sonnet seems to stand quite well without any knowledge of who Shakespeare meant by “thee.” “Thee” could be one’s girlfriend or boyfriend, spouse, or trusted confidant. For now, one can leave aside the question of what incidents Shakespeare was talking about and appreciate the poem on its own terms.
The players in Shakespeare’s small drama of “Sonnet 29” are long gone, but we still have the drama itself. A judgment that is pretty universally accepted is that Shakespeare was a better playwright than a poet. Saying it this way makes it sound as if there was something wrong with his poetry, but the actual sum and substance is that he was such an astounding dramatist that there would be little he, or anyone, could do that would meet the level of skill in his plays. It seems plausible to suggest that it is Shakespeare’s dramatic talent, not necessarily his poetic talent, that must shine through from the center of everything he did. “Sonnet 29,” at first look, does not seem to be any more dramatic than it is autobiographical, but even in the tightly controlled sonnet form, Shakespeare’s dramatic talent shows itself clearly.
One of the most important elements in creating the “soul” of a drama is dramatic tension. The most telling way to show that this poem is a drama at heart is to examine the tension of its central question. In recent times, the word “tension” is most often...
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In the narrative of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Sonnet 29” falls among the phase (sonnets 1-129) where the voice of the older poet, the voice of experience and good counsel, fights off challenges for a young man’s affections from another poet and from a dark lady. In this schema, “Sonnet 29” falls at a low, melancholy point in the apparent narrative. It is a complaint, in the true Renaissance style, where the persona dwells on a sense of loss—in this context, the possible loss of favor in the eyes of the young man. The poem begins with the famous line, “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,” as if the voice is reconnoitering his situation and finding that his stock is at an all-time low. What seems to pervade “Sonnet 29” is, however, a comic structure, a fall from and a return to favor and hope, and a sense of how one recovers from a type of “fall” from grace.
The word “Fortune,” capitalized in the first line of the poem is set in the line as a personification. This “Fortune” is the classical “fortuna”—the idea of a force in the universe that controls the destiny of an individual. In classical literature, particularly Boethius’s A Consolation of Philosophy, ‘Fortune’ is the antagonist who acts against reason and ‘Philosophy.’ Fortune, in the Sophoclean sense, is the predetermined pattern of an individual’s life that cannot be avoided—it is the destiny of an individual, the narrative of a life, that must inevitably come to pass. In the Renaissance sense of the word as explained by Niccolo Machiavelli, fortune is the raw material of ability and circumstance that life presents to an individual. Machiavelli suggests, in his treatise on the nature of political leadership, The Prince, that an individual can overcome the negative powers of fortune or destiny by exercising what he calls “virtu” or the power of intelligence over circumstance. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” is a poem about how one reasons one’s way around circumstance. The poem is not only a matter of counting one’s blessings but of finding them. Like Boethius in the opening of A Consolation of Philosophy, the persona of “Sonnet 29” is woeful and announces that when he is “in disgrace” “I all alone beweep my outcast state.” His plaintive cries fall on “deaf Heaven.” God, as the poem suggests, does not tolerate complaints. The persona’s cries are “bootless,” or useless. The word “bootless,” however, also suggests that the persona is thinking out loud without really having a firm foundation for his musings—a no-no in the world of Renaissance thought, where the Virgilian precept of approaching life with strong, emotionally detached, and objective reasoning was still the order of the day. Like Boethius in A Consolation of Philosophy, the persona of this poem must find his way to solace through the power of thought and through the banishment of emotions where he might feel sorry for himself. In the Renaissance perspective, feeling sorry for oneself and reason are incompatible. Suffice to say, cursing one’s “fate” and “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope” or envying “this man’s...
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One of the most popular of the fixed poetic forms in English literature is the sonnet. Attributed to the Italian poet Petrarch in the fourteenth century, the sonnet is still used by many contemporary writers. The appeal of the sonnet lies in its two-part structure, which easily lends itself to the dynamics of much human emotional experience and to the intellectual mode of human sensibility for argument based on complication and resolution.
In the last decade of the sixteenth century, sonnet writing became highly fashionable following the publication of Sir Philip Sydney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591. Sonnet sequences were widely read and admired at this time, circulated about the...
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