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 Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings.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 Reign of Elizabeth
This poem was written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was an exciting time of growth and prosperity for the country. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII (1491- 1547) and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had six wives over the course of his lifetime, forcing him to separate England from the Roman Catholic church in order to follow his desire to divorce freely. After Henry’s death in 1547, he was followed by Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward, who was then only ten years old. Edward was king briefly until he died of tuberculosis in 1553. Because of a bill that one of his dukes, John Dudley, had him sign when he was dying, succession to the crown fell to Lady Jane Gray, who was Dudley’s daughter-in-law. She reigned for four days until Mary I, another of Henry’s children, was able to restore control of the crown to the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth supported Mary, who was her half-sister, but Mary did not trust her because Elizabeth was a Protestant (Mary was a devout Catholic). Mary had Elizabeth locked up in the Tower of London in 1554. Elizabeth became queen in 1558 when Mary I died. There were plots against Elizabeth, but none were powerful enough to remove her from the crown. The Catholics wanted her cousin Mary, Queen of...
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The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto”, or “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. English writers did, however, alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while the lines of an Italian sonnet might rhyme abba, abba, cdc, dcd, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhyme pattern might be abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126,” and “Sonnet 145”), the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought can take a different direction. In “Sonnet 29,” a dramatic change in the writer’s mind-set takes place in the beginning of the third quatrain, marked by the word “yet.” The final couplet, which often contradicts or modifies the poem’s argument, here confirms the writer’s new mood as of line 10. Shakespeare’s most unusual use of this poem’s rhyme scheme is his repetition of “state” at the ends of lines 2 and 10. He may have wanted to draw attention to the word’s many definitions, especially since he repeats it again in line 14;...
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Compare and Contrast
1609: England is on the rise to its eventual position as the dominant world power, having been considered a third-rate backwater as recently as 1558, when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne.
Today: Having suffered great physical and financial losses during the two World Wars in the twentieth century, England is still an important member of the European community but is not considered one of the superpowers that influence world affairs.
1609: The first newspapers with regular press schedules appear in Lower Saxony and Strasbourg.
Today: With the advent of electric media, especially the internet, many doubt that print newspapers will survive for long into the twenty-first century.
1609: Jamestown, the first permanent European settlement in what is now America, is nearly destroyed, having been founded two years earlier by English gentlemen who were unprepared for breaking new soil. During the “Starving Time” of 1609-1610, residents were driven by hunger to cannibalism, raiding graves and victimizing one another.
Today: Many Americans’ understanding of colonial times is limited to the romanticized story of eleven-year-old Powhatan princess...
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Topics for Further Study
- Imagine yourself being an outcast, at a social low, rejected. Write a poem explaining what it would be like.
- Read Shakespeare’s Othello and compare the character of Othello to the speaker of this poem. Write Othello’s response to this speaker, defending his own jealousy and anger.
- Is this poem’s speaker living in the past? Do you think this person should be more concerned with the world around him or her?
- A few years after he wrote this poem, Shakespeare achieved tremendous artistic and financial success. Find out about some other famous person who has been close to despair before their fame, and report on the person who helped them persevere.
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- William Shakespeare: A Poet for All Time. Videocassette. The Master Poets Collection, Volume 2. Malibu, CA: Monterey Home Video. 1998.
- William Shakespeare, his Life and Times. Videocassette. Salt Lake City, UT: Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment. 1998.
- William Shakespeare, Poet and Dramatist, 1564-1616. Videocassette. West Long Branch, NJ: White Star. 1993.
- The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare Cassette 1: Sonnets 1-78. Audiocassette. Camp Hill, PA: Book-of-the-Month Records. 1982.
- Martin, Philip. Shakespeare, The Sonnets. Audiocassette. Sydney: ABC Radio. 1980.
- The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare, with “A Lover's Complaint” and Selected Songs. Two audiocassettes. West Hollywood, CA: Cove Audio. 1996.
- Vendler, Helen. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Helen Vendler Reads. Audio disc. Cambridge, MA: Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1997.
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What Do I Read Next?
- A. L. Rowse, one of the great critics of English literature of recent times, scrutinized each of the 154 sonnets for Shakespeare’s Sonnets: The Problems Solved, published in 1973 by Harper & Rowe. Each sonnet is presented with limited notes, giving readers enough to see the story behind the poems without becoming bogged down with theory.
- A. L. Rowse is also the author of one of the most thoroughly-researched and readable biographies of the poet, Shakespeare the Man. The second edition was published in 1988 by St. Martin’s Press.
- One of the most interesting projects related to Shakespeare’s sonnets in recent years is Love’s Fire: Seven New Plays Inspired by Seven Shakespearean Sonnets, published in 1998 by William Morrow & Co. Playwrights who have works in this collection include Eric Bogosian, Wendy Wasserstein, and Ntozake Shange.
- English playwright and poet Ben Jonson was the closest thing to a peer that Shakespeare had. The two knew each other as friends, and early in his career Shakespeare appeared as an actor in one of Jonson’s plays. Readers can look at another great talent of Shakespeare’s time by reading The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson, published in 1988 by Penguin Classics.
- There are two basic types of sonnets. The English sonnet is often called the Shakespearean sonnet after its most skilled practitioner. Similarly, the Italian sonnet is...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Andrews, John F., ed. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.
Colei, Rosalie L. “Criticism and the Analysis of Craft: The Sonnets,” in William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 47-74.
Fox, Levi. The Shakespeare Handbook. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Quennell, Peter. Shakespeare: The Poet and His Background. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1969.
Ramsey, Paul. The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. AMS Press, 1979, pp. 152-153.
Thatcher, David. “What a Lark: The Undoing of Sonnet 29.” Durham University Journal, January, 1994, pp. 59-66.
Weiser, David K. Mind in Character: Shakespeare’s Speaker in the Sonnets. University of Missouri Press, 1987, pp. 33-40.
For Further Study
Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969. Booth’s academic study of the structure of the sonnets considers minute details that most readers disregard, such as chapters on “Rhetorical Patterns,” “Phonetic Structure,” etc. This is a difficult but useful work.
Greene, Thomas M....
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