Friday, November 28, 2008

An Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets

Perhaps the greatest writer who ever put words from pen to paper, William Shakespeare has been parsed and dissected and studied in ways that could pluck the joy out of anyone. But Shakespeare wrote to entertain the common people of Elizabethan England, as well as the cultured elite. And he had a matchless ability to touch the hearts of his audience—often making them laugh and cry at the same time.

Yet Shakespeare wrote not to hide his meaning under lofty phrases, but to share his wisdom with those around him, in ways that were playful as well as profound. We see in his plays as well as his poetry that he can reorder words and their conventional arrangements almost at will, achieving a matchless expression of ideas. In his sonnets, though some arrangements stem from needing a rhyme to fit the patter, the result is some of the loveliest verses known to English literature.

The sonnet was a popular form of poetry in Elizabethan times throughout Europe. Shakespeare’s choice of the English form of sonnet allowed him an almost limitless flexibility of expression. This chosen form let him resolve or continue his themes as the mood (or the dictates of iambic pentameter) struck him, and he often continued his thoughts through the quatrain division. Still, most modern editor use the sonnet form to guide their choice of modernized punctuation, reasoning that each quatrain usually marks the end of a completed thought.

Most commonly, sonnets reflected a wretched lover, agonizing over the conflicting emotions of lust and idealized love. Shakespeare’s sonnets often convey larger contradictions as well, showing a contrast between beauty and cold reality, hope and despair. The structured form required discipline and creativity, but from these conflicts Shakespeare the Sonneteer could explore his innermost self, in much the same way that the soliloquy of an actor would reveal the soul of a character on the stage. Yet Shakespeare the Artist was often hidden between the lines of his verses, and despite the temptation of modern scholars, we know too little about the man himself to drawn any firm conclusions from the lines of his poetry.

Despite the speculation of modern scholars, it is doubtful that the author intended them to form a unified narrative. Narrative was more suitable for his plays and narrative poems, and he probably regarded his sonnets simply as short poems. It is likely that he composed them simply as inspiration struck, or to pass the time between other projects and pursuits. If so, then imposing a theme or narrative thread on the entire collection is simply the product of our own imagination, and an attempt to find order in the chaos of existence. Since the author was als a successful businessman and playwright and businessman, it is unlikely that he would have conceived of the collection with any overarching theme when he was writing. And he probably wrote his sonnets when the mood struck him—or a patrons request moved him to write. Still, the vulnerability and range of emotions that the sonnets convey hints that many of them were also deeply personal, perhaps reflecting real events or personal relationships in his own life that are now lost to time. Many seem aimed at his own innermost soul, letting us catch tantalizing glimpses of the artist in his most private, most vulnerable moments.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are hardly his meatiest works, but in many ways they are his most accessible. Gaining an appreciating of these short, tender verses can only help the modern reader develop a richer understanding of Shakespeare the Artist—and provide a bridge to his meatier works, where he explores other, often darker, facets of human existence.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

No comments: