Originality , Technique , Tradition ,Convention ,Dramatic Elements and Style of Shakespearean Sonnets


 "From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die."
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

The ‘suger’d sonnets of Shakespeare’, as Francis Meres lovingly called them, is and yet is not, in the tradition petrarchan or even Elizabethan sonneteering. Shakespeare’s involvement in techniques, structures, and themes that recurs the sonnets of his predecessors – in Petrarch, Spenser, and Sidney, for example – invariably bring Shakespeare’s uniqueness into relief. Shakespeare is seen to define himself in opposition to the conventional medium he ploys. Thus Shakespeare can be appreciated as a poet is deviates from, rather than conforms to, the norms imitate and modify: ‘when he is most Elizabethan he least Shakespearean’, declares Leishman (“Themes and reactions in Shakespeare’s Sonnets”). Shakespeare’s variations from the lyrical, ideational, semantic, and structural norms provide a measure of his art. The other poets participated in the sonnet tradition by imitating and adopting its conventions, Shakespeare set himself at a singular distance from which he alone roiled the characteristic tropes, modes and stances of sonneteers. Attempts to place Shakespeare within an invention, in other words, do precisely the opposite: they attribute to establishing his unconventional originality, uniqueness as creator.




Shakespeare also developed his own sonnet form, the Shakespearean sonnet (sequence of 154 sonnets written between 1595 and 1599 ; in book form by the printer Thomas Thorpe, who registered them on May 20, 1609, with the title Shake-speares Sonnets; Neuer before Imprinted) form, with which Thomas Wyatt and Howard Surrey had experimented earlier in the century. Almost all the Shakespeare’s sonnets are divided three quatrains, each with alternately rhyming lines, lowed by a concluding couplet. This form is technically complex than the stalian pattern, in which the first eight lines are built around two rhymes, rather in four. The technical requirements of the two forms termined to a degree their organization. The Italian sonnet generally breaks down into two sections, with the abetment of a problem in the octave and its solution in sestet, while the form used by Shakespeare itself to a tripartite exposition followed by a brief conclusion in the couplet. Shakespeare was, however, capable of varying his development of his subject in many different ways; a thought may run through twelve lines with a surprise conclusion or shift of emphasis in the couplet; it may break into the eight line, six line division of the Italian sonnet; or it may follow one of many other patterns.

The typical lovesick sonneteer, imitating the Italian Petrarch, idealized his fair lady in highly wrought, artificial language featuring metaphor and oxymoron. Shakespeare not only poked fun at this conventional language but also declared his love for a younger man and a rather sluttish “Dark Lady”. The anti Petrarchan tendency is most clearly brought out in “Sonnet 130” where he asserts that his mistress’ eyes are ‘nothing like the wun’, that black wires grow on her head, that she reeks foul Odour, and that her voice is far from musical. But what is even worse is that he professes love for a male beloved with a homocrotic angle inconceivable in Petrarchan poetry. The sexual innuendos often reach explicit levels, as in the ‘stand and fall’ sonnet or Sonnet 16 on the different kinds of lines. As F.T. Prince points out in “Elizabethan Poetry”, ‘the old moral order which had inspired Dante and Petrarch had receded into the past; the travails of the new moral order are registered in poetry for the first time by Shakespeare, not only in his dramas, but also in his sonnets’.

 Indeed, his sonnets reveal an ambiguity of approach and attitude, of love and hate, of proximity and remoteness that is entirely lacking in any preceding sonneteer. His love causes him both happiness as in the sonnets ‘when in disgrace with fortune and Men’s eyes’ and ‘when to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and unhappiness as in “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possession” and “some glory in their birth, some in their skill”. The central reality of Shakespeare’s love cannot be circumscribing within any convention, and the concluding couplet of Sonnet 88 bears his awareness of this: ‘Such is my love, to thee I so belong, / that for thy right myself will bear all wrong’. Further, though many sonneteers qualify conventional admiration of ladies by denouncing their particular ladies for run or another real or fancied fault, love, no sonneteers settles down to love his lady, growing that she has played him false and doubtless will so again. Merely in the development of his psychological story, Shakespeare has managed to make important statements about the relation of a literary love-ode to specific experiences of loving. As in his other works which deal with love, Shakespeare investigates that difficult, involving, threatening, fulfilling experience, examines both its mores – its customs and its morality its rhetoric. Rather than the usual private meditation on the effects of love or praise for the love one, such sonnets taps a societal, altogether worldly dimension in which contracts are made and broken and courts of common law pass judgment in property cases. Shakespeare’s inclusion of an altogether worldly dimension of meaning in a large number of sonnets is but one indication of the notable repetition – with difference that marks his relationship to the sonnet tradition as it had developed from Petrarch’s day to his own.

Critics of Shakespeare’s sonnets consistently remarks in the dramatic quality of the sequence, and compared with other great Renaissance sonnet sequences, English and continental, the marked quality of Shakespeare’s sonnets is, certainly, that dramatization into personality of Renaissance sonnet personae and conventions. Whatever the order of composition or the poet’s ‘intent’, the arrangement of the poems manifests the poet’s awareness of a loose but nonetheless involved and involving ‘plot’. Unlike Petrarch, Shakespeare was not averse to directly addressing his friend or mistress. In fact, the word ‘thou’ occupies a prominent place in Shakespeare’s lexicon, opening the sequence to an entirely new imaginative dimension. But Hermann notes in “Dramatic Metaphor: The Shakespearean sonnet”, ‘this dialogical reasoning cannot alone account for the level of drama that Shakespeare achieves’. The dramatic arrangement of the characters into two triangles – poet-friend-mistress; poet-friend-rival poet – is unparallel in Renaissance sonneteering, although there are adumbrations of both relationships in sonnet literature. Two friends’ love for the same lady is by no means unknown in romance and comedy; literary theory and practice sanctions sonnet commentary on stylistic subject.

Shakespeare’s sonnets work with the conventions of the literary genre in a remarkable way, possibly most boldly in this triangulation of personalities, by which the poet turns tradition upside down and inside out to examine the ‘real’ implications of conventional utterance, poetical as well as psychological. Rosalie L. Colie is compelled to ask, “what other Renaissance poet praises his cult-friend in terms normally reserved for the sonnet mistress and devotes considerable sonnet time to a mistress as well – a mistress who is herself notably atypical in the genre?” (“Criticism and the Analysis of Craft: The Sonnets”).

Thus in his sonnets Shakespeare experiments with materials repeatedly used in the sonnet genre and alters these materials so that his series, though perfectly traditional in shape and in topic, almost leaps from the official limitations altogether. 


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