Dramatic Techniques in “Sonnet 29”
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...
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Overview of “Sonnet 29”
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...
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The Fusion of Content and Form in “Sonnet 29”
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 court, and read among friends and writers. Shakespeare took up this trend, adapting his considerable talent to the prevailing literary mode while writing for the theater. He specifically followed the form of the sonnet as adopted from the Italian into English by the Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Bound by the conventions of the sonnet, Shakespeare used the form to explore the same themes as early Latin, Italian, and French verse. He treated the themes of the transient nature of youth and physical beauty, the fallibility of love, and the nature of friendship. Even the dominating conceit of Shakespeare’s sequence—the poet’s claim that his poems will confer immortality on his subject—is one that goes back to Ovid and...
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