Thursday, December 17, 2009

How Shakespeare is anti-Petrarchan and Unconventional in his Sonnets

Like other Elizabethan singing birds, William Shakespeare also wrote sonnets. During the Elizabethan age sonnet writing became highly fashionable following the publication of Sir Philip Sydney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591. Sonnet sequences were widely read and admired at this time, circulated about the court, and read among friends and writers. Shakespeare took up this trend, adapting his considerable talent to the prevailing literary mode while writing for the theater. He specifically followed the form of the sonnet as adopted from the Italian into English by the Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Though he followed the trend of his age , as a sonneteer Shakespeare was different from his contemporaries in many respects. Shakespeare is different in respects of sonnet structure, style, vocabulary and characterization.

Let us at first see what are the similarities between Shakespeare and his other contemporary sonneteers.

The themes are similar

Bound by the conventions of the sonnet, Shakespeare used the form to explore the same themes as early Latin, Italian, and French verse. He treated the themes of the transient nature of youth and physical beauty, the fallibility of love, and the nature of friendship. Even the dominating conceit of Shakespeare’s sequence — the poet’s claim that his poems will confer immortality on his subject — is one that goes back to Ovid and Petrarch. In Shakespeare’s hands, however, the full potentiality of the sonnet form emerged, earning for it the poet’s name.

Similar in problem solving method

The Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet are similar in that they both present and then solve a problem. The Petrarchan sonnet does it through an octave which presents a problem and a sestet which provides the resolution. A different rhyme scheme and thus a different convention of logical and rhetorical organization determines the differences between the two sonnet forms. In the Petrarchian sonnet the problem is solved by reasoned perception or a meditative process.

The Shakespearean sonnet maintains the basic two-part structure of conflict and resolution, now presented in fourteen lines of three quatrains and a concluding rhyming couplet. Each quatrain presents a further aspect of a problem, conflict, or idea. The resolution occurs in the last two of a rhyming couplet, achieved through logical cleverness that summarizes or ties together what has been expressed in the three quatrains.

Except these elements, Shakespeare is very different from the contemporary sonneteers. A t first he is different in respect of style. A Petrarchan sonnet was divided into two units: octave and sestet. The rhyme scheme of a petrarchan sonnet was abba,abba ,cdc,cdc. But a Shakespearean sonnet is divided into four units: three quatrains and one couplet. The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is abab,cdcd,efef,gg. Thus Shakespeare is different as per as the structure is related.

Next comes the treatment of the subject and the language used in his sonnets. He did not follow the courtly tradition.

Courtly tradition

The theme of a Petrarchan sonnet was usually courtly love. The Elizabethan poets also used the courtly theme in their sonnets. In courtly love poems the lover is always dutiful,anxious,adoring and full of praises of his mistress, who was portrayed as proud, unreceptive ,pure and innocent. A particular type of vocabulary was used in the poems written in the courtly tradition.
But Shakespeare did not follow this courtly tradition and here lies the main difference between Shakespeare and his contemporary followers of Petrarchan tradition.

Shakespeare’s ridicule of the courtly tradition is best illustrated in his sonnet 130. This sonnet plays an elaborate joke on the conventions of love poetry common to Shakespeare's day, and it is so well-conceived that the joke remains funny today.

Most sonnet sequences in Elizabethan England were modeled after that of Petrarch. Petrarch's famous sonnet sequence was written as a series of love poems to an idealized and idolized mistress named Laura. In the sonnets, Petrarch praises her beauty, her worth, and her perfection using an extraordinary variety of metaphors based largely on natural beauties.

In Shakespeare's day, these metaphors had already become cliche (as, indeed, they still are today), but they were still the accepted technique for writing love poetry. The result was that poems tended to make highly idealizing comparisons between nature and the poets' lover that were, if taken literally, completely ridiculous. My mistress' eyes are like the sun; her lips are red as coral; her cheeks are like roses, her breasts are white as snow, her voice is like music, she is a goddess.

In many ways, Shakespeare's sonnets subvert and reverse the conventions of the Petrarchan love sequence: the idealizing love poems, for instance, are written not to a perfect woman but to an admittedly imperfect man, and the love poems to the dark lady are anything but idealizing ("My love is as a fever, longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease" is hardly a Petrarchan conceit.) Sonnet 130 mocks the typical Petrarchan metaphors by presenting a speaker who seems to take them at face value, and somewhat bemusedly, decides to tell the truth. Your mistress' eyes are like the sun? That's strange--my mistress' eyes aren't at all like the sun. Your mistress' breath smells like perfume? My mistress' breath reeks compared to perfume. In the couplet, then, the speaker shows his full intent, which is to insist that love does not need these conceits in order to be real; and women do not need to look like flowers or the sun in order to be beautiful.

The rhetorical structure of Sonnet 130 is important to its effect. In the first quatrain, the speaker spends one line on each comparison between his mistress and something else (the sun, coral, snow, and wires--the one positive thing in the whole poem some part of his mistress is like. In the second and third quatrains, he expands the descriptions to occupy two lines each, so that roses/cheeks, perfume/breath, music/voice, and goddess/mistress each receive a pair of unrhymed lines. This creates the effect of an expanding and developing argument, and neatly prevents the poem--which does, after all, rely on a single kind of joke for its first twelve lines--from becoming stagnant.


In the realistic portrayal of human emotion Shakespeare is also different from the Petrarchan sonneteers. The love expressed in the courtly love poems in elaborate language was considered artificial and unrealistic. Shakespeare’s distaste towards this conventional Patrarchan treatment of love is first seen in the sonnet 21.The sonnet, which is written for his young friend, tells us that Shakespeare would not like to describe the beauty of his friend in the manner in which many poets describe beauty. Disclaiming kinship with the inconstant poetry of "painted beauty," he announces his only standard in the plea: "O let me, true in love, but truly write."

According to Shakespeare too much hyperbole and artificiality indicate insincerity and false sentiment. Lack of sincerity is considered here an aspect of bad art. The poet criticizes his rival poet, using the method of pretended understatement as a rhetorical device that contrasts the rival's superficial poetic style. At any rate, the point of Sonnet 21 is that the poet speaks truth and the rival poet hyperbolizes.

In his The Defense of Poetry Philip Sidney also criticized the sixteenth century love poets who used fanciful, far-fetched metaphors and extravagant terms of praise in describing the lady who was the supposed object of their affections.

Mutual love

Another anti-petrarchan theme is shown the way Shakespeare gives emphasis on the mutuality of love. According to him love is the marriage two true minds. This theme is developed in the sonnet 116. The essence of love and friendship for the poet, apparently, is reciprocity, or mutuality. In Sonnet 116, for example, the ideal relationship is referred to as "the marriage of true minds," a union that can be realized by the dedicated and faithful: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments." The definition of love that it provides is among the most often quoted and anthologized in the poetic canon. Essentially, true love never changes, never fades, outlasts death and admits no flaw.

Though beauty fades in time as rosy lips and cheeks come within "his bending sickle's compass," love does not change with hours and weeks: instead, it "bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom." In the concluding couplet, the speaker attests to his certainty that love is as he says: if his statements can be proved to be error, he declares, he must never have written a word, and no man can ever have been in love.

Different in subject matters

Shakespeare is also different as per subject matter is related. Throughout his 154 sonnets Shakespeare mainly writes on two subject matters: the unnamed male friend and the dark lady.

The beloved must be fair-complexioned according to the courtly tradition. So, the introduction of a dark lady instead of a fair woman as the subject matter of his amorous poems is certainly a different initiative taken by Shakespeare. The sonnet 127,the first sonnet concerning the dark lady begins with a repulsive note towards the conventional view of beautiful women. The narrator defends the poet's unfashionable taste in brunettes. In Elizabethan days, so the poet tells us, black was not considered beautiful: "In the old age black was not counted fair, / Or, if it were, it bore not beauty's name." However, what is considered beautiful — at least to the poet — has changed; "now is black beauty's successive heir." This change in what is considered beautiful is the poet's main concern here in Sonnet 127 and in succeeding sonnets. The dark lady is not physically attractive to the poet, for all her erotic appeal. However, her black eyes become her so well "That every tongue says beauty should look so."

Introduction of a male friend instead of a lady is even more surprising which Shakespeare did in his first 126 sonnets. To substitute a male friend like the Earl of Southampton for a Stella or Elizabethan Boyle is certainly unconventional. Moreover, he uses erotic language for his male friend. The poet speaks of his ‘love’s fair brow’, and describes him as being more lovely than a summer’s day. To him the youth is his sovereign and his lord of love. It is as if the poet were describing the features and countenance of a woman. So, this treatment of male friend like a mistress is a deviation from the Petrarchan tradition.

Thus, we see Shakespeare followed the contemporary trend of writing sonnet, but he followed in a very different, in his individual way.