Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shakespeare Study: The Sonnets

I'm nearing the end of my three and a half years of Shakespeare study. March was month  number 39. This month I read Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. As far as I know, there are three films based on the sonnets, but I was able to get my hands on only one. Scroll down for my review of that film.

Related Books:

- Readings On The Sonnets  edited by Clarice Swisher  -  This book is a volume in The Greenhaven Press Literary Companion Series, and is a collection of critical looks at the sonnets by various authors. The biographical section at the beginning offers lots of conjecture and assumptions as facts, such as that Shakespeare “did not find King James I an honorable man” (page 24) and “He left his wife to the care of his daughters and willed her the next-best bed, reasoning that Susanna and her husband needed the bigger, better one” (page 27). The author can’t possibly know Shakespeare’s reasoning, and shouldn’t make statements like that, especially in a book aimed at students. Hallett Smith writes, “In the sonnets numbered 18-126 in 1609, the Fair Friend is now the beloved of the speaker; he has a personality and a character. The sonnets express over and over again a moral concern about him. Prodigality is not encouraged, it is deplored… No longer is there a half-serious rivalry between a son and poetry to perpetuate the beauty of the young man. Poetry has won the contest” (page 72). Edward Hubler writes, “There is nothing with which the sonnets are more insistently concerned than with the aspiration to triumph over death. In the early sonnets immortality is to be won through propagation and poetry. At the close it is to be found in the salvation of the soul” (page 109). The piece by A.L. Rowse is awful. In it, he offers prose versions of the sonnets to make them more easily understood. For example, he takes Shakespeare’s line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and changes it to “Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?” Thanks, genius. And, even worse, Rowse thinks by doing this to prove that the sonnets are autobiographical. Rowse is clearly a moron.
Katharine M. Wilson writes, “He used the same or similar tunes and the same imagery and conceits as the other sonneteers, to pay the same flattering and devoted attention, but to a man, not a woman. Apart from this he differed from them only by beginning his sonnet sequence with a section of seventeen sonnets each coming to an identical and ridiculous climax in the couplet, begging his friend to marry and that for the most fantastic of reasons, and by reserving the more vituperative outpourings of sonnet tradition for a woman. That is to say he reduced the whole thing to the absurd” (page 149). Wilson then writes, “Those on the dark lady already strike many readers as unconvincing; taken seriously, they may provide a good opening. They can hardly have been written to a woman in compliment, and unless one approaches them already convinced, it is difficult to believe that they could have been written about a real woman. Indeed, nothing is easier than to show they are parodies. Some can even be shown to have a particular sonnet in view, and in general their meaning is best unlocked with this key” (page 156). Interesting idea.
Published in 1997.

- Shakespeare’s Sonnets  edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom  -  This book is a volume in the Modern Critical Interpretations series, and contains five critical essays. Those essays are by C.L. Barber, Rosalie L. Colie, Stephen Booth, Thomas M. Greene and Howard Felperin. C. L. Barber writes, “One needs to attend to the motion and the imaginative expansion which the sonnet achieves in the quatrains, realizing that the couplet is often no more than a turning around at the end to look from a new vantage at what has been expressed” (page 12). Rosalie L. Colie writes, “In the Sonnets, many kinds of disappointment are examined: disappointment in a continuing relation to a cult-friend; disappointment in a mistress; disappointment by these two in concerted preoccupation with one another, shutting the poet out of both relationships; disappointment with the self as lover and as poet; even, at times, disappointment with poetry itself. That is not the only mood, of course; it is, though, a mood at variance with the traditional attitudes of love-poets writing sonnets – and the persuasiveness of this poet’s disappointment is in part a result of the rarity of that mood in sonnets” (page 30). Thomas M. Greene writes, “It is not clear whether any of the Sonnets is to be read as a spoken address, a dramatic monologue, rather than as a written communication. Many of them refer to themselves as written, refer to paper, ink, pens, and to poetic style. They may occasionally affirm a closeness between poet and friend, but their very existence suggests a distance which has to be crossed” (page 81). Published in 1987.

- Shakespeare’s Sonnets  by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells  -  This is a volume in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series. This book provides an interesting critical look at the sonnets, and also examines some of the ways the sonnets have been used in other areas of our culture, such as film, drama and novels. Regarding the identity of the “dark lady,” the authors write, “A popular candidate during the late nineteenth century was Mary Fitton, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, but her star waned when she was discovered to have been fair. Jane (or Jennet) Davenant has been a natural suspect in view of hints by her son William, the dramatist (1606-8) who adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays for the Restoration stage, that Shakespeare was his father” (pages 25-26). Regarding the chronology of the sonnets, they write, “The latest datable sonnet may be No. 107, in which the line ‘The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured’ may, but does not certainly, refer obliquely to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603” (page 36). They also write, “It is often argued that the placing of certain sonnets has numerological significance. The numbering of Sonnet 60, with its emphasis on minutes and hours, is clearly appropriate. And the number 12 fits well with the ticking rhythm of that sonnet’s opening line – ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’. The physical effects of time on the lover are discussed in both Sonnet 63, the age at which the human body was thought to face its major crisis in development, or ‘grand climacteric’, and Sonnet 49, the age at which a ‘minor climacteric’ was believed to occur” (page 39). Regarding the young man, they write, “One feature of Shakespeare’s collection that differentiates it from all others is that the beloved, though frequently idealized in the first part, is nevertheless faulty: ‘for the first time in the entire history of the sonnet, the desired object is flawed’ (Spiller, p. 156). This is true of both parts of the collection” (page 41). And regarding criticism, the authors write, “It is notable that none of the great names in Shakespeare criticism before the Romantic period – John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Dr. Johnson – offers any critical comment on the Sonnets” (page 132). Published in 2004.

- So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story Of Shakespeare’s Sonnets  by Clinton Heylin  -  In this book, Heylin argues that Shakespeare did not authorize the publication of the Sonnets. Heylin presents a lot of information about Thomas Thorpe and publishing. Heylin writes, “Thorpe’s association with the likes of Jonson and Chapman – a strong candidate for the so-called ‘Rival Poet’ of sonnets 78-86 – undoubtedly reinforced his own literary pretensions, and probably convinced him to take a chance on Shake-speares Sonnets. That he knew he was taking a chance is borne out by his famous dedication at the front of that volume, which includes a description of himself as a ‘well-wishing adventurer’ for ‘setting forth’ these sonnets. Had he paid too much for the precious ‘scribal copy,’ or was he merely concerned that the sonnet fad was largely spent? Or did he recognize a potentially scurrilous subtext underlying the majority of these lovelorn sonnets?” (pages 14-15). And later Heylin writes, “But surely if Shakespeare was tempted to find mirth at the sonnet-form’s expense, would it not be reflected in the plays of the period? It is. In Love’s Labours Lost – which probably premiered circa 1595-96, and appears in a ‘bad’ quarto edition in 1598 – the characters fall in love at the drop of a hat, and when they do, they write sonnets. Even the title seems to be a play on something one of Shakespeare’s near-contemporaries, John Florio, wrote in First Fruits (1578): ‘We need not speak so much of love, all books are full of love; with so many authors, that it were labour lost to speak of love’ (page 35). Heylin compares the releasing of unauthorized books in Shakespeare’s time to the bootlegging of concert tapes and other recordings in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The book includes all 154 sonnets at the end. The book’s title, of course, comes from Sonnet 18. Published in 2009.

- Shakespeare’s Sonnets  by Samuel Park  -  This novel takes place at Harvard University in the late 1940s, and tells of two male students – Adam and Jean – who meet in a class called Drama of the Renaissance and bond over the search for the identity of the lover of the sonnets, as well as over their mutual attraction. Adam wrote a paper about the Dark Lady, arguing that Shakespeare was in love with an African woman. About the sonnets, Park writes, “The speaker, apparently Shakespeare himself, addressed his beloved directly, although the beloved had no name. In fact, a reader got the impression that Shakespeare was speaking to the reader directly, as if the relationship in the poems were not just between Shakespeare and his lover, but also the writer and his reader. Jean wondered why the beloved had no name” (pages 39-40). And then: “The Sonnets, which Jean had assumed to be about a man’s love for another woman, turned out to be about a man’s love for a younger man’s beauty” (page 41). Park writes, regarding the different sonnets, “The poem addressed to the Young Man seems bursting with joy and enthusiasm. He dotes upon his Young Man, praises him lavishly. It almost seemed, Jean considered, the kind of praise one only gives to someone he knows he can never have. Whereas the poem addressed to the Dark Lady seemed rooted in deep knowledge of one another, the kind long-time loves share. Perhaps this was the real difference between those two lovers; not the fact of their gender, but the fact that one was unreachable, the other too available” (page 45). The class’s teacher, Mr. Mullins, is attracted to Adam, even longs for him, though knows he can’t have him – so in a way Adam is the Young Man for Mr. Mullins. Regarding the Young Man of the sonnets, Park writes, “For the most part, Shakespeare insisted upon the young man’s having children, and thus making copies of his countenance. But time and again Shakespeare would mention art – paintings, acting – and memory as means to preserve the young man’s beauty. And wasn’t this the lover’s domain, using memory to compensate for loss?” (page 77). Park also mentions Shakespeare’s will: “But remember it was customary at the time to let visitors and guests have the best bed, meaning the bed he and his wife slept in would’ve been indeed the ‘second-best bed’” (page 84). The book refers often to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait Of Mr. W.H.  The book quotes many of the sonnets, including numbers 1, 3, 17, 18, 20, 53, and 130.  This book also has several references to Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, Romeo And Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard The Third, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth, The Winter’s Tale and Coriolanus. The novel also makes one reference to the Earl of Oxford: “Her family dated back to Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford” (page 107). The book also has a character named Fletcher. Is that perhaps a reference to John Fletcher? Published in 2006.

- The Sonnets  edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom  -  This book is a volume in the Bloom’s Shakespeare Through The Ages series, and as its title implies it includes criticism from the sixteenth century up to the twenty-first century. As you might guess, the bulk of it is from the twentieth century. From the opening summary section: “The bitterness at times expressed in The Sonnets surprises some readers, but that tone can also be found in Petrarch, if typically with more self-pity and delicacy” (page 9). This book includes Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” Wilde’s idea is that the Young Friend is a young actor named Willie Hughes who played the female parts. He writes, “The children he begs him to beget are no children of flesh and blood, but more immortal children of undying fame. The whole cycle of the early sonnets is simply Shakespeare’s invitation to Willie Hughes to go upon the stage and become a player” (page 104). Wilde also writes, “It was also extremely suggestive to note how here as elsewhere Shakespeare promised Willie Hughes immortality in a form that appealed to men’s eyes – that is to say, in a spectacular form, in a play that is to be looked at” (page 106). Robert Graves and Laura Riding, in a piece from 1926, write, “The sound of the poem suffers through re-spelling as well as through alterations in the rhythm made by this use of apostrophes and accents. Blouddy was pronounced more like blue-dy than bluddy; the ea of extreame and dreame sounded like the ea in great; and periurd was probably pronounced more like peryurd than pergeurd” (page 163). Margreta de Grazia, in a piece from 1994, writes, “The scandal in the Sonnets had been misidentified. It is not Shakespeare’s desire for a boy; for in upholding social distinctions, that desire proves quite conservative and safe. It is Shakespeare’s gynerastic longings for a black mistress that are perverse and menacing, precisely because they threaten to raze the very distinctions his poems to the fair boy strain to preserve” (page 276). Jonathan Bate writes, “Resistance to the biographical approach has even led one critic to argue that since Shakespeare was playing with traditional sonnet-matter, and since in number 130 (and indeed in Love’s Labour’s Lost) he explicitly parodies the conventions of praise so dear to sonneteers, the whole sequence should be read as nothing more than a parody of sonneteering conceived for the delight of his witty friends” (page 309). Later, in that same piece, he writes, “Again, italicization and wordplay give mysterious significance to the word ‘Hews’ in sonnet 20, perhaps suggesting a twist on the four initial letters of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. ‘HEWS’ is and is not ‘H.W.E.S.’, just as in Maria’s riddling letter in Twelfth Night ‘M.O.A.I.’ is and is not Malvolio” (page 313). Published in 2008.

Film Version:

- A Waste Of Shame: The Mystery Of Shakespeare And His Sonnets  (2005) with Rupert Graves, Indira Varma, Tom Sturridge, Anna Chancellor, Andrew Tiernan, Nicholas Rowe, Ian Hughes; written by William Boyd; directed by John McKay. This film tells the story of Shakespeare’s sonnets – that is, the story the sonnets tell, and the story of Shakespeare writing them. This film posits that the sonnets are basically autobiographical. And this film is firmly in the Pembroke camp as far as the identity of the Young Man. The Dark Lady is a woman named Lucie (is she supposed to be Lucy Negro, the Clerkenwell prostitute?), who is described as a half-breed from France. And the Rival Poet, according to this film, is Ben Jonson. The film begins in 1609, with William Shakespeare (Rupert Graves) writing, lots of papers spread out around him – so clearly this movie takes the position that the 1609 Quarto was authorized. We then go back to 1596, when Shakespeare is rehearsing a play (with Shallow and Falstaff). A boy interrupts them to tell Shakespeare that Hamnet is ill. Anne has lots of animosity to Shakespeare, accusing him of whoring in London. The film depicts their marriage as an unhealthy one. Throughout the film, portions of the sonnets are presented in voice over. The sonnets presented that way are numbers 60, 20, 127, 20 (different lines), 80, 108, 147, 57, 94, 134, 142, 154, 129, 129 (different lines), and 123, in that order. (And of course the film’s title comes from Sonnet 129.) In 1597, Shakespeare presents the first group of sonnets to the Countess of Pembroke (Zoe Wanamaker), saying he wrote seventeen, one for each of the boy’s years. She has a copy of Venus And Adonis, and that’s why she hired him. William Herbert (Tom Sturridge) then enters, and Shakespeare is immediately taken with him. So he wrote the first seventeen without having met him or seen him – interesting. The boy waits for him outside, and Shakespeare mentions that one of his plays is on – The Comedy Of Errors. Soon after that the Dark Lady enters Shakespeare’s life. She has dark hair, dark eyes, and is quite sexy. Soon they’re making the beast with two backs. In 1600, Hamlet is being performed, and we are treated to a brief passage from the gravedigger scene. William Herbert comes to see the play, and afterwards he tells Shakespeare he’s not yet married, and he calls his poems “sugared sonnets,” a references to that famous quote from Francis Meres from 1598. By way of explanation for the dedication at the beginning of the Sonnets, this film has William Herbert and Shakespeare go to the Cupid’s Arrow, a tavern. Shakespeare tells him it’s no place for the son of an earl, so Herbert says he shall go by Master William Herbert in that case (thus Mr. W.H.). Shakespeare and Herbert also do a little light playing on their names being the same (as in Sonnets 135 and 136). This film also sets up a relationship between Shakespeare and publisher Thomas Thorpe (Ian Hughes), when Shakespeare goes to him to talk about publishing Hamlet. It is just after that that Ben Jonson enters as the Rival Poet, telling Shakespeare that he met William Herbert. Immediately we get a voice over of some of Sonnet 80 (“O how I faint when I of you do write”). Shakespeare then runs into Jonson and W.H. together at Cupid’s Arrow, and that’s when Jonson sees the Dark Lady. While the plague is raging, we get a scene at the Globe when Richard Burbage (Nicholas Rowe) picks up a script and says, “’Measure For Measure.’ What’s this one, Will?” Shakespeare responds, “It’s about chastity, and lechery and fornication…And it’s about virtue and the dark temptation of lust.” Shakespeare soon gets the French pox. In 1604, Measure For Measure is being performed, and we see the very end of Act II Scene ii (“Most dangerous/Is that temptation that doth goad us on...”). W.H. is there, seated next to Jonson. The film then returns to 1609, with Shakespeare seated in front of a stack of papers, the sonnets (so he has organized them, and ordered them). He goes to Thomas Thorpe to have them published. Thorpe is reluctant to publish the sonnets, as he wanted a play. (This is a change from what we know of the historical Thomas Thorpe.) Shakespeare also gives him the dedication that he wants published with the sonnets, which is interesting because the actual dedication is signed “T.T.” rather than “W.S.” so it seems that it was Thorpe himself who created the dedication.

Films With References To The Sonnets:
- The Loved One (1965) with Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer; directed by Tony Richardson. In this film, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) is attempting to woo Aimee Thenatogenos (Anjanette Comer) with poetry which he passes off as his own. He quotes Sonnet 18, as he attempts to seduce her: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Aimee asks, "Did you just write that?" Dennis ignores the question and continues, "Thou art more lively and more temperate."
- Shakespeare In Love  (1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench; directed by John Madden. This film, which takes place in 1593, tells the tale of how William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) came to write Romeo And Juliet. While most of this film focuses on Romeo And Juliet, there are references to other plays, and to one of the sonnets.  During rehearsals for Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare leaves to write a sonnet to Viola. Later we see Viola (Gwyneth Paltro) reading from Sonnet 18: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Next month: The Two Noble Kinsmen.

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