Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage …
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit.
(Sonnet No. 26)
How to do justice to the legacy of literary history’s greatest mind – moreover in such a limited review? Forget Goethe’s “universal genius” and his rebel contemporary Schiller; forget the 19th century masters; forget contemporary literature: with the possible (!) exception of three Greek gentlemen named Aischylos, Sophocles and Euripides, a certain Frenchman called Poquelin (a/k/a Moliere), and that infamous Irishman Oscar Wilde, there’s more wit in a single line of Shakespeare‘s than in an entire page of most other, even great, authors’ works. And I’m not saying this in ignorance of, or in order to slight any other writer: it’s precisely my admiration of the world’s literary giants, past and present, that makes me appreciate Shakespeare even more – and that although I’m aware that he repeatedly borrowed from pre-existing material and that even the (sole) authorship of the works published under his name isn’t established beyond doubt. For ultimately, the only thing that matters to me is the brilliance of those works themselves; and quite honestly, the mysteries continuing to enshroud his person, to me, only enhance his larger-than-life stature.
The precise dating of Shakespeare‘s sonnets – like other poets’, a response to the 1591 publication of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella – is an even greater guessing game than that of his plays: although Nos. 138 and 144 (slightly modified) appeared in 1599’s Passionate Pilgrim, most were probably circulated privately, and written years before their first – unauthorized, though still authoritative – 1609 publication; possibly beginning in 1592-1593.
Format-wise, they adopt the Elizabethan fourteen-line-structure of three quatrains of iambic pentameters expressing a series of increasingly intense ideas, resolved in a closing couplet; with an abab-cdcd-efef-gg rhyme form. (Sole exceptions: No. 99 – first quatrain amplified by one line –, No. 126 – six couplets & only twelve lines total –, No. 145 – written in tetrameter –, and No. 146 – omission of the second line’s beginning; the subject of a lasting debate.) Their order is thematic rather than chronological, although beyond the fact that the first 126 are addressed to a young man – maybe the Earl of Pembroke or Southampton, maybe Sir Robert Dudley, the natural son of Queen Elizabeth’s “Sweet Robin,” the Earl of Leicester – (the first seventeen, possibly commissioned by the addressee’s family, pressing his marriage and production of an heir), and Nos. 127-152 (or 127-133 and 147-152) to an exotic woman of questionable virtues only known as “The Dark Lady,” even in that respect much remains unclear; including the nature of Shakespeare‘s relationship with the two main addressees, regarding which the sonnets’ often ambiguous metaphors invoke much speculation. No. 145 is probably addressed to Shakespeare‘s wife; the closing couplet plays on her maiden name (“[‘I hate’ from] hate away she threw And saved my life, [saying ‘not you’]:” “Hathaway – Anne saved my life”), several others contain puns on the name Will and its double meaning(s) (exactly fourteen in the naughty No. 135: “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will;” and seven in the similarly mischievous No. 136), and the last two draw on the then-popular Cupid theme. Sometimes, placement seems linked to contents, e.g., in No. 8 (music: an octave has eight notes), Nos. 12 and 60 (time: twelve hours to both day and night; sixty minutes to an hour); and in the famous No. 55, which praises poetry’s everlasting power and as whose never-expressly-named subject Shakespeare himself emerges in a comparison with Horace’s Ode 3.30 – in turn written in first person singular and thus, denoting its own author as the builder of its “monument more lasting than bronze” (“Exegi monumentum aere perennius”) – as well as through the number “5”‘s optical similarity to the letter “S,” making the sonnet’s number a shorthand reference for “5hake5peare” or “5hakespeare’s 5onnets,” echoed by numerous words containing an “S” in the text.
Of indescribable linguistic beauty, elegance and complexity, Shakespeare‘s sonnets owe their timeless appeal to their supreme compositional values, the universality of their themes, and their keen insights into the human heart and soul; as much as their transcendence of the era’s poetic conventions which, following Petrarch, heavily idealized the addressee’s qualities: a form new and exciting twohundred years earlier, but encrusted in cliché in the late 1500s. Indeed, Shakespeare‘s “Dark Lady” Sonnet No. 130 owes its particular fame to its clever puns on that very style, which went overboard with references to its golden-haired, starry- (beamy-, sparkling, sunny-) eyed, cherry- (strawberry-, vermilion-, coral-) lipped, rosy- (crimson-, purple-, dawn-) cheeked, ivory- (lily-, carnation-, crystal-, silver-, snowy-, swan-white) skinned, pearl-teethed, honey- (nectar-, music-) tongued, goddess-like objects. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” the Bard countered, proceeded to describe her breasts as “dun,” her hair as “black wires,” and her breath as “reek[ing],” and denied her any divine or angelic attributes. “And yet,” he concluded: “by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.”
Arguably, Shakespeare‘s very choice of addressees (a young man – also the subject of the famously romantic No. 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day;” the first of several sonnets promising his immortalization in poetry – as well as the “Dark Lady,” in turn introduced under the notion “black is beautiful” in No. 127) itself suggests a break with tradition; and compared to his contemporaries’ poetry, even the equally-famous No. 116’s on its face rather conventional praise of love’s constancy (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), echoed in the poet’s vow to vanquish time in No. 123, sounds fairly restrained. But ultimately, Shakespeare‘s sonnets – like his entire work – simply defy categorization. They are, as rival Ben Jonson acknowledged, written “for all time,” just as the Bard himself immodestly claimed:
‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.”
One-page edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (photo mine)