William Shakespeare was not only a celebrated playwright; he was also a skilful poet. His plays are a demonstration of poetic talent, and they often include songs that are lyrical comments on the plot or declarations of love between the protagonists. But Shakespeare was also a master of a particularly artful kind of poetry – the sonnet.
This kind of poetry is not for the amateur. A sonnet is a poem that has to comply with a certain system of rhyme and rhythm. The Shakespearian sonnet has fourteen lines with the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg, in a 4+4+4+2 structure. The sonnet will open for the writer’s creativity within these strict rules, like a sport for poets who wants to excel and show off their word craft. The sonnet may present the poet’s view on certain aspects of life, the world, himself – but most often the sonnet is about love. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets look like passionate love letters to a lady he is in love with, while others are a sort of dialogue with a friend. Scholars have ever since wanted to find out the autobiographical background of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but so far no one has succeeded in any identification of the characters. His first collection of sonnets was published in 1609 (probably without Shakespeare’s approval) and tells the tale of a romantic narrator who conveys his love to a lady or renders his reflections of different aspects of life. Some of them may seem like poetic finger exercises and a bit monotone in their rigorous style. But still, Shakespeare’s sonnets clearly demonstrate his poetic skills and his immaculate way with words.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
One to Watch: Shakespeare in Love
The John Madden film “Shakespeare in Love”,from 1998, is an interesting story about Shakespeare’s work as a young playwright and how Shakespeare may have been inspired to write Sonnet 18. The film plot is purely fictional, but gives a credible presentation of how young Will was infused by love for the beautiful lady Viola, and wrote her secret declarations of love. The film is also a documentation of the writing conditons of a playwright at the time. It was much like an industrial process, where the owner of the theatre was waiting impatiently for another success, and the playwright had to deliver. The film has references to elements from Shakespeare’s plays, such as the protagonist in disguise, which was a common Shakespearian effect. In addition, the affair between William and lady Viola bears a clear resemblance to another famous Shakespearian couple – Romeo and Juliet. The film casts a line of prominent actors, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Ben Affleck, and Judy Dench as Queen Elisabeth I. Highly recommended.
- Read the sonnet above out loud and note how its rhythmic pattern comes alive.
- Go over it carefully and see if it complies with the rhyme scheme of the sonnet.
- What is the theme of Sonnet 18?
- Point out the line where the poet declares the everlasting beauty of his lady.
- The poet even proclaims the everlasting life of his poem - in which line? How did his prediction turn out?
- Try your hand at the sonnet. Choose your theme (it may be love, but not necessarily) and remember to follow the rhyme pattern described in the introduction.