Are you ready, Reader, for Sonnetpalooza?
Shakespeare, as we’ve been discussing, lived in a period of tight social boundaries… and he managed to mow right over them! For example, Shakespeare had the audacity to write about both kings and beggars, and these plays were performed not only for the masses (students, prostitutes, merchants), but for the royal court, as well. Just as he refused to be limited to a certain audience or subject matter, the Bard also plunged his quill into other media, such as poetry!
Lucky for us readers, Shakespeare’s transitions aren’t too difficult because he was a master at overlapping media. His plays, for example, are full of poetry! Let’s have a look at fairy king Oberon’s speech from Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
It’s beautiful! He uses words to plant beautiful images into your head, a verbal illustration!
Just as Shakespeare’s plays are poetic, his poetry is dramatic! If you get a chance to read Shakespeare’s epic poem The Rape of Lucrece, you will see such active language that takes you on a journey through the drama-filled plot…But, as always, I’m getting ahead of myself. Epics are not the stuff of the blogosphere – I think it would be much more fun to look at the pint-sized delights known as sonnets!
A sonnet is a 14 line rhyming poem, written in iambic pentameter (don’t worry; we’ll get back to that!). Sonnets were made famous by Petrarch, a 14th century Italian poet whose sonnets always explored themes of love. Many English poets followed this trend, especially focusing their energy on crafting verbal portraits of their lovers’ beauty, and lamenting their unrequited (unreturned) love.
What is iambic pentameter?
Okay, I’ll admit that the first time I heard that term, it was while watching 10 Things I Hate About You. Even more embarrassingly, I’ll admit that it took me a couple more years to learn that it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew! We learn new things every day! Today you are going to learn about iambic pentameter, and by the end, you will be confident that it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds.
First, let’s break down the words. The word ‘iamb’ means a ‘foot’ of two syllables, one unstressed and one stressed. So let’s think of a 2-syllable word. Hello! Say it out loud with me: Hello! Notice that you speak the second syllable a bit louder than the first one: helLO! Of course, you can argue that, were you to walk into someone’s room as he or she was changing, you might say HELLo, stressing the first syllable to get additional attention, but that’s not our everyday intonation. helLO! There we have our iamb.
‘Pentameter’ explains how many ‘feet’ (number of syllables) we’re going to have in our rhyming verse – the meter. Penta- gives us the number five (think pentagon), so we have five of these iambic (1-unstressed, 1-stressed) feet.
I know this might seem a bit complicated to read, but it’ll be a lot easier if you recite some iambic pentameter aloud. When doing this exercise, try to become aware of how you stress your syllables:
If music be the food of love, play on! (Twelfth Night)
But sir, we do not speak like that today!
Bardolator twenty three is the best!
…That last one was just for fun, but it shows that even sentences we use in our everyday lives (wink wink!) could be iambic pentameter without us knowing it! That’s why it was so useful in Shakespeare’s time: it was poetic because it was rhyming, rhythmic verse, but it still resembles the way we speak so it’s not confusing to perform.
Shakespeare was never one to follow rules; instead of copying Petrarch’s rhyme pattern of ‘ABBA ABBA CDECDE’ (the lines assigned to the same letter rhyme with each other), Shakespeare’s rhyme went like this: ‘ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.’ Shakespeare used this strategy to split his sonnets in two: an octave (the first 8 lines) and sestet (the last 6). This way, Shakespeare could address two sides of an issue, while using the last two lines to draw a pithy (clear and concise) conclusion on the topic. Now that I’ve explained this structure, see how many television and radio commercials use a similar strategy!
Shakespeare’s body of work shows how he went above and beyond the generally accepted rules and minimal requirements his practice. While the sonnets in his time tackled themes of unrequited love, Shakespeare expanded the capacity of the sonnet to explore any two contrasting ideas in order to ‘resolve or just reveal the tensions created and operative between the two’. As much as Shakespeare understood the nature of unrequited love, he used his sonnets to explore the complicated nature of mutual love: negotiations, jealousy, lying, cheating, and keeping the ol’ flame burning! While other sonneteers wrote about fair (blonde, light-skinned) maidens, Shakespeare wrote about his love for the mysterious ‘Dark Lady.’ Pushing the envelope even further, Shakespeare didn’t limit his sonnets to expressing passion for a woman: he devoted the first 126 sonnets to a beautiful young man!
Miscellaneous Biographical Goodness
When did Shakespeare have the time to write this stuff?
Shakespeare wrote this sequence of 154 sonnets sometime between 1592-1598. That’s around 26 14-line poems per year, which sounds doable. Okay, now imagine writing 154 poems, plus a whopping fifteen plays at the same time!
But don’t these sonnets prove that Shakespeare was gay?
That’s arguable. Sexual distinctions were not defined along the same lines we do today. The young Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s contemporary, writer of Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta) was known to have slept in the same bed as his Cambridge roommate, and this was a generally accepted living arrangement. Furthermore, as we read the sonnets, it will unfold that Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily talking about his sexual desire for the young man, but rather the man’s youthful beauty; many of the first 126 sonnets involve Shakespeare begging the man to preserve this beauty by having several beautiful blue-eyed babies, but the Bard successfully immortalizes his image through poetry, instead!
I think this is a good amount of background information to absorb before we start picking through some sonnets. If you have any questions or want me to cover something I have not, please feel free to comment! Also, it would be highly worthwhile to browse through http://shakespeare-online.com/ and http://www.sonnets.org/ – these websites were really helpful in writing this post, and if you’re interested in the sonnets, they’re a fantastic place to start!
One last thing: any sonnet requests??