2. Traditional sonnets: Theory
2.2 Addressees/ Ideal of beauty
3. Shakespeare’s sonnets
3.1 Interpretation of Sonnets 9 and 127 with regard to their addressees and their themes
3.2 What is new about the addresses of Shakespeare’s sonnets regarding to form, addressees and themes/ How do these sonnets differ from the tradition
3.3 Possible real identities of the ‘Young Man’ and the ‘Dark Lady’
William Shakespeare belongs to the greatest English playwrights of the Elizabethan age, who even was poet and actor. His writings and his life have fascinated people for centuries. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer of the English language and pre-eminent dramatist.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avonh1 in April 1564 as son of a successful glovemaker. In 1582, he married Anne Hathaway at age eighteen and had three children with her (cf. Greenblatt 535). Since 1594, he belonged to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the most successful theatre troupe at the time of Elisabeth I (cf. Greenblatt 537). Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets which were published together in the year 1609, “only seven years before Shakespeare’s death” (Jones 31) in a quarto entitled ‘SHAKESPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted’ (cf. Levin 351) by Thomas Thorpe, a publisher from London, probably without Shakespeare’s agreement (cf. Greenblatt 539; cf. Jones 31).
The two latest sonnets of the sequence are clear in contrast to the other sonnets. They are translations of a Greek poem which have no connection to the other sonnets (cf. Hubler 6). The other 152 sonnets are subdivided into two groups, depending on their addressees. Sonnet 1 till sonnet 126 are addressed to the ‘Young Man’, whereas sonnets 1 till 16 are denoted as ‘Procreation Sonnets’ because they deal with praising a young man and urging him to beget children to pass on his beauty (cf. Hubler 6). Sonnets 127 till 152 address the ‘Dark Lady’.
In this seminar paper I will expose the differences between traditional ‘Petrarchan Sonnets’ and ‘Shakespearean Sonnets’. In order to do this I will firstly introduce to the theory of traditional sonnets, particularly with regard to form, addressees and themes. Furthermore, I will have a closer look at the abovementioned addressees of Shakespeare’s sonnets. To go not beyond the scope of this seminar paper I will only do exemplary interpretations of sonnets 9 and 127 and not of the whole sonnet sequence. Following this, I will work out what is new or special about Shakespeare’s sonnets. After all, I will investigate if there are any real-life identities presented in secondary literature who could match the addressees of the ‘Young Man’ and the ‘Dark Lady’.
2. Traditional sonnets: Theory
Sonnets were invented by Italian poets of the Renaissance. The most famous writer of sonnets before Shakespeare was Francesco Petrach (1304 – 1374), who “fixed form and content [of the sonnet] in the public mind” (Hubler 41). Thus, the ‘Petrarchan sonnet’ is denoted as the traditional form of the sonnet, especially in contrast to the ‘Shakespearean sonnet’.
The traditional ‘Petrarchan sonnet’ has two quatrains with the rhyme scheme abba abba and two tercets with the rhyme scheme cde cde. Most usually, the length of each verse is eleven syllables. “The volta, initiating a ‘turn’ or change in tone, mood, voice, tempo or perspective […] occurs after the eighth line, or in the space between the eighth and ninth lines, which in many cases is indicated by a blank space on the page” (Levin xlix).
2.2. Addressees/ Ideal of beauty
The traditional sonnet was always addressed to women who were equivalent to the Elizabethan ideal of beauty, which is explained in the following. Furthermore, it was very unusual to address a man in a sonnet. In his book ‘The Sense of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, E. Hubler describes the ladies of the sonnet tradition as idealizations who had blonde hair (cf. Hubler 39). Also H. Hammerschmidt- Hummel 2 comments on the Elizabethan ideal of beauty in her documentation ‘Shakespeare’s Dark Lady’: Important characteristics were to be fair and fragile. The teint of the face should be light and soft, the cheeks and lips should be reddenend (cf. Hammerschmidt-Hummel 48).
About the look of the breasts, hands, the build, waist, legs and feet, Hammerschmidt-Hummel cites Caroll Camden from her book ‘The Elizabethan Woman’:
The neck must be snowy white, straight, round, and like an ivory pillar holding the head up high; … The breasts must be high, fair, and round, resembling budding lilies or young fruit in May, and should be spread with small, blue veins. The hands are to be small and white, with long and straight fingers, the nails of which are red. The body of this nonpareil will be small, dainty, and straight, with slender waist and rather large hips, she will have straight legs and a fine, little foot, with a ‘clean’ (high?) instep. (Hammerschmidt- Hummel 49)3
The Lady is described in terms of flowers, jewels, and all precious things. Her hair is threads of beaten gold, her forehead crystal, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her teeth pearls, her neck ivory or alabaster. Her features are detailed in what has come to be called the descending description. The poet begins with her hair and is restrained only by the limits of his ingenuity and the happy brevity of the sonnet form. (Hubler 42-43).
When it comes to the themes of ‘Petrarchan sonnets’, Hildegard Hammerachmidt- Hummel citates Claus Uhlig4 as follows:
There are mainly three topics in Petrarchan and Elizabethan Sonnets:
1) “das unberechenbare, ja hinterhältige Wirken des tyrannischen Liebesgottes
2) Die “psychologische Vertiefung in der Auslotung der Seelenzustände des liebenden und darunter meist leidenden Dichters” und
3) “die preisende Beschreibung der extrem idealisierten Geliebten”
(Hammerschmidt- Hummel 10) “Petrarch’s sonnets were written to Laura, […] during the greater part of his sonnets she appears as the loyal wife of another, and […] the dominant characteristic of Petrarch’s love is therefore its hopelessness” (Hubler 41). Nevertheless, his beloved was untouchable. In general, the Lady of the sonnet tradition is either a virgin or married, but if she is married, she isn’t married to the poet. Ultimately, she doesn’t value her lover and doesn’t yield to persuasion, although the lover romances her with powerful emotion (cf. Hubler 42), so unrequired love is another theme of traditional sonnets
3. Shakespeare’s sonnets
3.1 Interpretation of Sonnets 9 and 127 with regard to their addressees and their Themes
Interpretation of Sonnet 9
Sonnet 95 comprises fourteen lines and is arranged into three quatrains and one rhyming couplet, the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg, whereas the verses are composed in iambic pentameter.
Sonnet 9 deals with impatient love. Belonging to the procreation sonnets6, the poet tries to convince his addressee, the young man, to marry and beget children. For that purpose, he opens the first quatrain with a question to find out why the young man is still single. He asks if the young man is single “for fear to wet a widow’s eye (l. 1)”, e.g. because he is scared to leave a sad and crying widow when he dies anytime. To continue his sonnet, the poet assumes that his question is answered in the affirmative by the young man, with the result that his worry to leave his wife alone in the world after his death is indeed the reason to remain childless. If and only if the fear to widow his wife as soon as he dies is the motive for not marrying, the following rhymes apply, otherwise they do not (cf. Duncan- Jones 9).
The poet declares the argument as unsound whilst he tells the young man in verses four and five the fact that the whole world will weep forever about his childlessness and will miss him like a widow would miss him after his death. He has left no children to replace his beauty while other widows who have children with their husbands can recognize their deceased in their children‘s eyes. These widow women always have the image of her children to console them after the loss because the children look alike their father in his prime when he was young or they resemble him in their habits.
In quatrain three Shakespeare suggests that if someone spends money unwisely, the money anyway remains in the world, but if somebody wastes his beauty by not having children, he destroys his own beauty when he dies.
In the rhyming couplet that ends sonnet 9, Shakespeare proclaims a scathing remark, namely that someone who does not marry and have children would commit a “murderous shame” (l. 4). Somebody who wastes his beauty hereby had no love for others in his heart, because not having a child was egoistic, unfriendly and shameful toward the whole world.
Interpretation Sonnet 127
Sonnet 1277 is the first Sonnet of the dark lady sequence, it is addressed to a woman called the ‘dark lady’ due to her outward appearance, her brunette hair and her dark eyes (cf. Hammerschmidt- Hummel 23). As it is usual for Shakespearean sonnets, the sonnet is divided into four parts, namely three quatrains and one rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg and it is written in iambic pentameter.
The poet introduces his sonnet by the words “In the old age black was not counted fair/ Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name” (l. 1-2), therewith he tells us that the colour black doesn’t match the ideal of beauty at the time of Elizabeth I’s reign and however, what is called beautiful has changed, “now is black beauty’s successive heir” (l. 3). The statement “black was not counted fair” in line 1 seems to be a paradox at first glance. It is a contradiction since black as colour is not blonde. Blonde is the lightest hair colour whereas black is the darkest, so black obviously can’t be a nuance of the blonde hair colour. Nevertheless, the words ‘black’ and ‘fair’ have ambiguous meanings in this context. The term ‘black’ means dark and ‘fair’ means light or blonde, but it additionally means beautiful.
1 Stratford-on-Avon is a city near Birmingham in England.
2 Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel wrote a documentation about her disclosing of the identity of the dark lady in Shakespeares sonnets
3 Camden, Carroll. The Elizabethan Woman. P. 21 (there is no more information about the book provided in the list of literature at the end of the documentation)
4 Uhlig, „Dichtung der englischen Renaissance“, a.a.O., S.135
5 Source of Sonnet 9: Duncan- Jones 129)
6 Sonnets 1-17 are called ‘procreation sonnets’ because in this sonnets, Shakespeare tries to urge his addressee, the ‘Young Man’, to whom his first 126 sonnets are addressed, to wed and to beget children.
7 Source of Sonnet 127: Duncan- Jones 369