Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

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The Inversion of Cultural Traditions in Shakespeare's Sonnets

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Robert Ellrodt, Université de Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle

In an earlier essay I have pointed out that Shakespeare, while writing within a convention in his Sonnets, had in fact left out much of the convention, discarding a great many themes and rhetorical devices. From this point of view the Sonnets might be described by negatives like Gonzalo's utopia: no moment of enamoration, no wooing or whining, no flinty heart, no kiss, no adventures of Cupid (with the ironical exception of the closing sonnets), no address to Love, to the Muse, or to a river, no catalogue of delights, no blazon, no emblem, no mythologizing, no pastoralism, no military metaphor, no astro-logical or heraldic poem.1

A statistical study of the vocabulary in the sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, and Drayton confirms this originality. Shakespeare has the lowest percentage of words expressing the traditional feelings of the Petrarchan lover: sigh, tear, weep, admire, wonder.2 He has the highest percentage of words connoting negative values and suggesting a satiric strain: hate, abhor, abuse, accuse, adulterate, shame, canker, cure, shadow, stain, defect, bastard, barren, rage, mad, nothing? Distinctive too is the predominance of true or truth, either asserted or questioned.4 The emphasis on the seasons, time, change, and death is in keeping with traditional poetic themes, particularly in complaints and elegies, but is not found in the other sonnet sequences.5

My intention in this paper is to explore other ways in which the prevailing cultural conventions were subverted, modified, or simply ignored. The perspective will be literary rather than social or anthropological.

The triangular relationship described in Sonnet 144, "Two loves I have of comfort and despair," was by itself uncommon in sonnet sequences. Astrophel had made an impassioned allusion to the conjugal bond of Stella, who "hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is" (Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 34), but only the husband's name, not his presence or image, stood in the lover's way. The woman's resistance to his entreaties was only felt to be due to her sense of honor. In all the Petrarchan sequences, whether in single adoration or mutual flame, the lover and the beloved were emotionally unrelated to anyone else. One could argue that this confinement of experience to a single relation also prevails in the vast majority of the Shakespearean sonnets addressed to the Young Man. Yet, when the poems are read in succession, the sense of betrayal, at first expressed in general terms in Sonnets 33 to 36, is definitely linked with the stealing of the poet's mistress in Sonnets 40 to 42. The "two loves" theme, I admit, will remain in the background in the following sonnets to the Young Man, but the first quatrain of Sonnet 42 gives the reason why:

That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

The fear of losing his friend's love affects the poet more than the unfaithfulness of his mistress. Yet faint though her presence is when attention is focused on the "man right fair," the "woman color'd ill" lurks in several allusions to deception as in Sonnet 93:

So shall I live supposing thou art true
Like a deceivéd husband; so love's face
May still seem love to me, though alter'd new—
Thy looks with me thy heart in other place.

The revelation of other relationships is delayed until we read in Sonnet 152:

In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing:
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.

Apparently both the poet and his mistress have broken an earlier vow—a marriage vow in her case and probably in the poet's own, since symmetry invites a perfect parallel, whether autobiographical or not.6 The woman becomes "twice forsworn" when she betrays her lover as well. Thus, had Shakespeare wished to give dramatic form to his sonnet...

(The entire section is 3,993 words.)