Shakespeare's Sonnets Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What are some examples where Dickinson and Shakespeare explore similar themes in their poetry? How could these themes and their use of stylistic devices be compared and contrasted?

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Jay Gilbert, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Both Shakespeare's sonnets and Emily Dickinson's poems return frequently to the themes of death and immortality, exploring the extent to which time and its inevitable passing can bring on death and, ultimately, eradicate (in some cases) immortality.

Both Dickinson and Shakespeare use natural imagery pertaining to the passage of the seasons to explore this theme. In Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, for example, he describes how winds "shake the darling buds of May" and "summer's lease hath all too short a date" to indicate that the seasons are brief, just as the youth and beauty of humans is brief. In Sonnet 12, he explores more fully the effect of time on the seasons, concluding that "sweets and beauties ... die as fast as they see others grow." Shakespeare's conclusion in this poem is that, because he has watched the effect of time on the seasons for so long—time represented as a metaphorical "clock" for him to view—he recognizes that there can be no "defence" against "Time's scythe." He personifies Time as a creature who will eventually cut us all down.

In Dickinson's "A Light exists in Spring," we see similar themes explored. The "it" she senses is personified just as Time is by Shakespeare, but it is much more mysterious—we know it is something beyond the reaches of "Science" but palpable to "human nature." As "it" passes, and we remain, we sense a certain "quality of loss" because of our awareness that something we are unable to control is moving with the seasons. Reflecting on nature for Dickinson, as for Shakespeare, results in a certain discontent with the human condition and an awareness of our own weakness and mortality.

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Dickinson's poetry often expresses the quality of some past trauma that has been buried but still exerts a force upon the speaker, presented in a veiled or disguised form. In perhaps the most famous of all her poems, she imagines Death almost as a man coming to the house to court her, to take her out:

The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

This seems the voice of a woman whose actual male interests have all proven disappointing to her. The same theme repeats in another poem:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the door— ...

I've known her—from an ample nation—
Chose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

Though it's open to various interpretations, I would argue this is a reference perhaps to one man the speaker loved in the past and could not forget. The sense of loneliness and isolation are constant themes in Dickinson's verse:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—nobody—too?

There is a wish for self-effacement, to hide from others—perhaps because of that unspoken past memory and its continuing effects upon her.

The situation in which Ophelia finds herself in Hamlet is not unlike this. Her relationship with Hamlet, once he has either gone out of his mind or has pretended to do so, has so shocked her that at first she cannot process what has happened:

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh ...
... oh, woe is me!
T' have seen what I have seen,
See what I see!

Dickinson probably never allows us to see this deeply into the minds of her speakers, and we cannot really know if any emotional shock like that which has happened to Ophelia even lies within her past or the imagined past of those poetic voices. When Ophelia has "lost her mind," she gives a veiled, or perhaps not so veiled, account of her history—or the history of someone else—as an emblem of a woman rejected and traumatized:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid that out a maid,
Never departed more.

Ophelia now herself has no suitor remaining except Death. The style of the verse here—which is a song—with its brief, abrupt lines, forms a pattern that almost seems a model for Dickinson's poetry, though since the lyrical form is so commonly used, from folk ballads forward, that any resemblance could be just coincidental. Also, if her poems really do allude to a sexual encounter, as Ophelia's does, Dickinson kept that secret buried deep in her heart.

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