William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (ctd.)

Viola, on hearing that Olivia forswore the company of men, dreams about serving her until she can reveal her social station, but the Captain says it’s impossible because Olivia won’t see any guests, even the Duke. So instead Viola (who somewhat miraculously managed to keep all her money intact through the storm) pays the Captain to procure a man’s dress for her and she is going to look for a job at Orsino’s court as a eunuch. There is some punning between her and the Captain about how Viola is going to be a eunuch and the Captain a mute (meaning keeping her secret) and they set off. It is not entirely clear while Viola thinks she has to go in hiding and Shakespeare seems to have changed his mind and make her in the rest of the play a teenage boy rather than a eunuch. Perhaps it’s the result of an older version being collated with a newer one?

In the next scene we switch from poetry to prose and from lyrical mode to comical. Sir Toby Belch and Olivia’s lady-in-waiting Maria discuss Olivia’s mourning, which Sir Toby does not like at all, partly because he has a suitor for her, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Maria says Olivia does not approve of Toby’s partying lifestyle, and she herself does not approve of Sir Andrew, whom she considers a fool, a wastrel, and a quarrelsome person whose capacity for getting into fights is checked only by his cowardice. Sir Andrew enters and he is indeed very silly – when Sir Toby says “Accost, Sir Andrew, accost”, meaning he should greet Maria, he thinks it’s her surname and addresses her as “Mistress Mary Accost”.


William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

Good timing – in a few days we are going to celebrate the anniversary of the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night, in the Inns of Court on February 2, 1602.

The play opens with the famous line “If music be the food of love, play on”. This line comes from Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, who is unhappily in love with a local aristo named Olivia. He asks his musicians to keep on playing because, logically, if music is the food of love, then if he listens to a lot of it, his love is going to gorge on it and die of overeating, so to say. But he finds that his favourite tune on second hearing is not as pleasant as the first time round. Orsino reflects sadly on the spirit of love, which is so “quick and fresh” that it gets bored with everything in a minute. I wonder why he does not extend it to his obsession with Olivia, who has just told him through a messenger that she intends to wear mourning after her dead brother for seven years. Surprisingly, this attracts Orsino to her even more – if she loves her brother so much, how much would she love her husband? He goes off to the garden to think in the appropriately flowery setting about his love.

In the second scene we meet Viola, freshly shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria and also mourning the death of her brother in the storm. But there is some hope because one sailor claims he saw Sebastian tying himself to a mast and drifting upon the surface of the sea. She then gets some info on here whereabouts – she’s in Illyria, ruled by Orsino, still a bachelor but in love with Olivia.

William Shakespeare – Sonnets 144, 146, 147, 152

Sonnet 144 describes a love triangle: the speaker loves both the young blonde man and the dark-haired woman, the former love bringing him comfort and the latter despair. The evil woman seduces the young man in order to hurt the poet. but he can never be sure how advanced their relationship is. He can only suspect that when they are both away from him, the angelic young man is in the woman’s “hell”. The ultimate proof is going to be when “my bad angel fire my good one out”, that is when she infects him with venereal disease.

Sonnet 146 does not address directly any of the poet’s love affairs, but instead is a dialogue with the poet’s own soul on the subject of its relationship with the body. The soul is depicted as pining in the prison of the body, spending unnecessary energy on painting the outer walls of its prison in gay colours. It’s stupid since the body is subject to death and ultimate decay. The soul should instead “feed on death”, delight in the gradual degradation of the body brought about by age and in this wasy, paradoxically, fight death by becoming spiritually stronger.

Sonnet 147 portrays love as fever, a wasting disease, of which, however, the speaker does not want to be healed. Reason, his doctor, left him because the patient would not keep his prescriptions and now the poet is past cure, raving mad in his fever. The result of this love madness is that the poet perceived his love as fair and bright, even though she is “as black as hell, as dark as night”, which surely does not refer only to her physical appearance.

Sonnet 152 is again about the destructive power of lying and breaking vows. I broke my vow (presumably to the previous lover) in loving you, but you broke your vows twice, first by cheating on your previous lover or husband, and now by breaking your vow of love to me. But who am I to criticise you? I have sworn that you are kind, truthful, constant and so on while you are anything but. I lied many times, swearing that you are fair and denying the truth.

That’s the end of the selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I have learnt for the umpteenth time that you start to appreciate great writers once you have read lesser ones. Shakespeare’s persona, with his unorthodox (or non-heteronormative) love life) is by turns passionate, horny, funny, depressed, disgusted with himself and his lovers, and so much more interesting than all these interchangeable lovers of Celias or Delias. Even Sidney comes across as quite cerebral and at times not quite believable as a man really in love; one has a feeling he set himself a task of falling in unrequited love so that it could give him fodder for his poetry. But Shakespeare’s poems live and breathe, which is probably why people have been so obsessed with identifying “the real” young man or “the real” Dark Lady. We will probably never know who they were but I really believe they did exist.

William Shakespeare – Sonnets 128, 129, 130, 135, 138

Sonnet 128 is constructed around the image of the beloved playing a keyboard instrument, probably the virginal. The wooden keys, called “jacks” kiss her fingers, while her lover standing by would gladly trade places with them, to be allowed as much. But since the keys are already so lucky to have her fingers, then she should give him her lips. This may be anachronistic, but in Dutch painting of the 17th century the scenes of playing music are often a code for courtship (as in the numerous paintings by Vermeer) and I wonder if this trope was already popular in Shakespeare’s times. I guess so – after I am done with the Sonnets I am going to read Twelfth Night with the famous line about music being the food of love.

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William Shakespeare – Sonnets 107, 110, 116, 126, 127

Sonnet 107 is rarely discussed in classrooms because it takes quite a lot of unravelling, which I tried to do thanks to the helpful NAEL notes. The sonnet begins with the metaphor of the terrible events that everybody fears are going to come – but they don’t come and everybody can breath a sigh of relief. It could refer to two years: 1596, which was Queen Elizabeth’s “climacteric” year, being her sixty-third year of life. It does not refer to her menopause (which presumably happened a bit earlier) but to a concept of Renaissance astrology, which believed this year of life to be particularly ominous. But the Queen lived, she made a peace treaty with France and nothing bad happened. Or it could refer to the actual year of her death, 1603, and the succession of James VI, always a fraught moment in a monarchy, especially when the heir is not simply the eldest son but a distant cousin, as in James’s case. True, he was the first in the order of succession, but there could be other potential candidates. But the succession went smoothly, James made a peace treaty with Spain and all the fears were dispelled. This rather long introduction explains the opening metaphor: my love is constant and does not succumb to my own fears or those shared by the whole society, especially since all the bad things we feared did not happen. Now I am revived and look with optimism to the future. I know I can live in my rhymes forever and so can you too.

Sonnet 110 seems to reflect with regret over the poet’s previous love life. It’s true I’ve been round the corner a few times, made a fool of myself or debased myself, learnt to be cynical. But now all is done, and all the bad relationships taught me to value true love. I shall never look for another love because I have you, the next best thing to heaven.

Sonnet 116 was made famous by the film version of Sense and Sensibility – it is the one which starts with the paraphrase of the line from the marriage service: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments”. The love which changes when the object of love changes is not true love. It is like a fixed star in the firmament, guiding ships, and does not alter when the object of love changes due to age. If it is not true in my own case (nicely ambiguous – the speaker does not specify whether he or the addressee should be inconstant), then I have never written nor anyone has ever loved.

Sonnet 126 is an oddball – it consists only of 12 lines and they rhyme in couplets, so it can be hardly called a sonnet at all. It is also the last sonnet in the cycle directed to “the lovely boy” and some read it as the indication of the end of the relationship. In the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets the two missing lines were marked with parantheses, as if to indicate that there are two lines which were – crossed out? too painful to be written? left out on purposes for the readers to project their feelings and thoughts onto them? The lovely boy seems to grow more beautiful with time (like Dorian Gray), while all his lovers, including presumably the poet, grow older and less attractive. The poet claims that Nature decided to keep him young in order to preserve her masterpiece. But even Nature cannot do this forever. She will be forced (Shakespeare again uses here legal terms such as “audit” and “quietus”, i.e. settlement) to surrender the lovely boy to time as well. The last words are actually “her quietus is to render thee” and some critics argue that what is in the “missing” final couplet is the object to the verb “render”, or perhaps the answer is that “she will have to render you nothing”. If we read sonnets 126 and 127 together, they could be interpreted as the reproach directed at the lovely boy, who falls out of love with the aging speaker, but should remember that in the end he is going to grow old too.

Sonnet 127 introduces the new object of love, the Dark Lady. As the sonnet points out, she is not a conventional beauty, blonde and fair-skinned. But what is the point of fair skin when it can be faked with cosmetics? Black is the new orange… I mean, black is the successive heir to beauty and beauty (equalling fairness) is declared a bastard. Shakespeare was a good student of history, so he was probably aware of the fact that Henry VIII declared at various points in his life his both daughters to be bastards, including Queen Elizabeth, who BTW with her reddish hair (which could be described flatteringly as golden) and fair skin (in her later life covered with a heavy layer of lead powder, with which she hid her pock marks) was herself, at least in her young years, quite close to the Petrarchan ideal. So the point is the poet prefers an honest brunette to a fake blonde. His mistress has black eyebrows and black eyes, which look to him like mourners over those who, though born pretty enough, try to fake their way to the socially accepted ideal through cosmetics. Her eyes, in fact, are so beautiful that everyone says this is what the ideal of beauty should look like.

William Shakespeare – Sonnets 93, 94, 97, 98, 105, 106

Sonnet 93 is probably the first I’ve read in which the poet openly accuses the beloved of betrayal, yet the betrayal does not find its open expression in the lover’s face or demeanour. He is physically incapable of showing anything than sweet love, even if his heart or thoughts are already with another lover. His beauty is like Eve’s apple, leading the poet astray, since it does not answer his real nature.

Sonnet 94 is quite difficult to understand and the critical texts I’ve consulted did not help much. It begins with the statement that those who have power to hurt and don’t do it, belie their outward appearance. I would think that refraining from hurting others is a good thing, but the poet seems to think otherwise. These people don’t do it because they “are themselves as stone”, they move others but themselves cannot be moved. In the third quatrain the poet switches to floral imagery: the sweetest flower, if infected with a disease, becomes worse than the basest weed. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”; the corrupt beauty is worse than honest evil. So I think the point is that people who are cold manipulators, don’t do themselves any evil thing but incite others to do them are like the rotten lilies, far worse than the ordinary evil-doers.

Sonnet  97 is about the absence from the beloved which took place in summer and late autumn, but to the poet it was like the bleakest December. In a very sophisticated metaphor he compares spring to a lover and nature to his mistress, impregnated by him. Now spring is dead and all the bounty of fields and gardens seems to the poet, in his depressed mood, like posthumous, fatherless children born by widows. Summer is where the beloved is; here, even the bird song is so gloomy that leaves turn pale, fearing the arrival of winter.

Sonnet 98 continues the topic of absence. The poet was away from the beloved in the spring and consequently all the flowers brought him no joy – they were just the images of him, reminding the poet through their beauty about the beauty of his lover. When he played with them, it was just like playing with the lover’s shadow.

Sonnet 105 plays with the notion of idolatry, echoing many prayers known to Shakespeare and his readers. The poem begins with “Let not my love be called idolatry”: it can’t be called such because unlike, say, ancient Philistines, he worships only one person, not many gods. But of course the unspoken thing is, as Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew, putting any man in place of God is idolatry. Catholics were often accused of idolatry by Protestants because they worshipped saints and the Virgin Mary. The poet worships his beloved because he is “fair, kind and true”, and these “three themes in one” (blasphemously referring to the doctrine of Trinity) are the only poetical subject he wants to explore. There has never been a person who could unite all these three things (Trinity again!) but the beloved.

Sonnet 106 is about the relationship Shakespeare has with literary traditions. He reads the old rhymes “in praise of ladies dead and lovely knights” and sees that these ancient poets could have described the beauty of his beloved. So all their descriptions of beautiful men and women are just prefigurations or prophesies about the beauty of the beloved, which they however could not describe, not actually seeing him physically. We in the present days, on the other hand, can see you with our eyes, but are tongues are too inadequate to describe you.

William Shakespeare – Sonnets 71,73, 74, 80, 85, 87

The sonnets I read today approach mortality from a different angle: the poet thinks about his own death, which in all probability will happen before the death of the beloved. Sonnet 71, which was new to me and very touching, implores the beloved not to mourn for the poet any longer than the tolling of the funeral bell lasts. I’d rather you forgot me completely, the speaker says, than the memory of me might make you sad for a moment, or that the world should mock you for mourning me.

In Sonnet 73 the poet uses several images to describe his advanced age: he is like autumn, when trees are bare – they are bare like ruined choirs of deserted monasteries where birds used to sing. This metaphor-within-metaphor refers to the ruins left all over England after the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII and led many biographers (together with the clues in other texts of Shakespeare) to believe that he was secretly Catholic. The next image is that of the sunset. when the sun is consumed by black night, which is itself a metaphor for death. The final image is the dying fire among the ashes. All these signs of mortality make the addressee of the poem love the speaker much more, seeing that inevitably they must part.

Sonnet 74 is a direct continuation of the previous one, even beginning with the word “But”. But don’t be sad when I am taken by death like a prisoner by a court officer, with no way of bailing me out. The earth can have my body but my spirit, the better part of me, is yours forever. My body is just a container for my soul, “and that is this” – “this” referring to his poetry – “and this with thee remains.”

In Sonnet 80 the figure of the rival poet, who writes about the same patron but – as the speaker modestly admits – much better, is introduced. But the patron’s worth is like the ocean, big enough to contain many ships. So the rival poet’s poetry is like a tall ship, sailing over the deepest water, while the speaker’s poetry is like a “saucy bark”, sailing in the shallow waters near the shore. If I am shipwrecked, the speaker says, at least I have this consolation that I did it for love.

Sonnet 81 is a poem about the inability to write poetry. The poet’s muse, like a well-behaved girl sits still, and I can only nod affirmatively when others sing your praises, like an illiterate parish clerk who can only say “Amen” every time the priest pauses. When others praise you, I can only add something more and only in my thoughts, which however are more eloquent than their words, because they arise out of love. Thus, respect other poets for their words, and me for my dumb (speechless) thoughts, which in fact say a lot.

Sonnet 87 begins with “Farewell” and is in fact an act of saying goodbye, couched in legal and financial terms. You are too dear for me, says Shakespeare, punning on both meanings of the word “dear”: “beloved” and “expensive”. The complicated conceit works along these lines: you gave yourself to me, without knowing your own worth, or misjudging my spending capacity. Now you realize the whole contract was based on a mistake and therefore is null and void. I can only think about possessing you like about a dream in which I was a king, but everything vanished when I woke up (a little bit like Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew).