Make War Upon This Bloody Tyrant Time

The Sonnets: 1-20

The Sonnets do not begin as I thought they would, which is hardly a surprise considering how well my assumptions have paid off on plays like Pericles or Timon of Athens.

Still, when I think “Shakespeare” and “sonnet,” the gushing of #18 leaps to mind:

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.

What I didn’t know until now is that this most famous of sonnets is one of the many — in fact, the majority — written to the “Fair Youth,” i.e. a guy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just the use of the words “lovely” and “darling” — I suppose they play into my heterosexual presuppositions, which is why the Sonnets as a whole can be so confounding.

I keep expecting medieval madrigals written by stalwart knights to fair and virtuous maidens espousing eternal love despite hopeless circumstances, unrequited love lofted to its highest expression.

Instead I get what sounds like exasperated patronizing to hurry the hell up and start cranking out grandkids (Sonnets 1-17) and wicked gender confusion in Sonnet #20.

It all makes me believe that there’s something else going on here. No wonder conspiracy theories spring up around these things! They confound easy interpretation, defying coherent surface patterns while all but begging for literary detective work to reveal their underlying code.

There are, however, two recurring metaphors that knit the early sonnets together: the brutal (and imminent) passage of time and the in/ability of art (the sonnets themselves, in this case) to overcome it.

One moment, the poet is incapable of rendering the beauty of the gorgeous youth and only children might preserve his immortality. But as the sonnets roll by, the writer’s confidence grows, till by Sonnet #18 he’s throwing down the gauntlet and daring, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

He’d been stuck till then in that one-note groove, a carpe diem of sorts to the Fair Youth to make copies of himself while he is still young and capable.

The tone thus far between men has hardly been sexual. In fact, the writer continuously exhorts the boy to husband a maiden who would gladly have him till her garden (Shakespeare’s words, not mine). The advice is bluntly stated: namely, to breed, which is odd, really, coming from an older male admirer who is supposedly in love with him.

If it’s truly homosexual love being expressed between the writer and the Fair Youth, why is he disappointed that the object of his adoration has, you know, a penis? Wouldn’t most gay lovers delight in that very — um, this is getting weird — appendage?

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine by thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure. (#20)

At this early stage, I am most interested in a notion I read on Wiki regarding the possibility that Shakespeare is outwitting everyone by subverting the sonnet form, which had only recently seen its heyday in the 1590s. (The Sonnets were published in 1609.)

It calls to mind the single greatest example of this sort of mental game that I know: Bach’s B Minor Mass.

Bach was about as Protestant as you could get, yet he sought out the most difficult challenge of the age: writing liturgical music in its highest form, which meant the Catholic mass. So he overrode the barrier that would limit any lesser mortal and proceeded to set down the most epic mass in the history of music.

While that’s a later example than Shakespeare, it too is not unique. More recently, James Joyce usurped the entire Western canon in writing Ulyses, smelting all and sundry literary types to fit the pattern of his own unique genius.

So why wouldn’t Shakespeare have a little fun with the Sonnets? How could the greatest writer in the history of the world simply take a given form and be content to churn out the standard and expected (as I had assumed), only cranked up to eleven?

Here’s the idea, as set down in Wiki:

One interpretation is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets are in part a pastiche or parody of the three centuries-long tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; in them, Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex and potentially troubling depiction of human love. Shakespeare also violated many sonnet rules which had been strictly obeyed by his fellow poets: he speaks on human evils that do not have to do with love (66), he comments on political events (124), he makes fun of love (128), he parodies beauty (130), he plays with gender roles (20), he speaks openly about sex (129) and even introduces witty pornography. (151).

This notion appeals to my intuitive sense for the nature of genius and how it delights in putting a monkeywrench to standard types.

If Shakespeare was not content with the Aristotelian unities of space, time and place… if he invented a cast of characters with all the depth and profundity of the modern human psyche… if he had a grasp of man’s glories and foibles, his lofty rational inquiry and his craven, gutteral desires… why would he then limit his aspirations here, shortly after the craze for sonnets had come and gone? Might it not be similar to Cervantes skewering the knights tales with Don Quixote?

Then again, I’m only twenty sonnets into the thing.

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