Shakespeare and Sonnets

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SHORTLY BEFORE HIS DEATH IN 1592, the Oxbridge educated Pamphleteer, Robert Greene, wrote in the Groatsworth of Wit “Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.” The ‘upstart crow’ to whom Greene is referring here was none other than Mr William Shakespeare Esq. Greene was not at all comfortable with this provincial player and one time poacher from Warwickshire (Shakespeare got caught poaching a deer from the Charlecote estate, 4 miles east of his birthplace at Stratford upon Avon) outwitting him and his literati chums on the stage and the page! Little was it known at the time that Greene’s cause for concern would be realised as Shakespeare rose to become the most prolific and revered of all our national poets and playwrights. Shakespeare’s genius has touched every continent and his influence on Arts, Culture and Society remains unmatched to this day. In this first of two months poetry pages dedicated to the Bard of Avon we celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death.

Here we present two of Shakespeare’s finest works and a sonnet by William Wordsworth. The Sonnet is a 14 line lyric-poem and was popularised by Petrarch in the Italian Renaissance. Petrarch divided the 14 lines into 2 parts: eight lines known as an octave and the final 6 lines called a sestet. In the 16th Century Shakespeare changed the nature of the sonnet by taking these 14 lines and dividing them into 3 parts of 4 lines known as quatrains and ending in a final two line couplet. This has become the staple of English sonnet writing. Sonnet 60 is one of 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare (thought to have been written from 1593 over the course of a dozen years) and an example of the Shakespearean sonnet at its best. The major themes running through these sonnets are love and the passing of time. All the World’s a Stage is an example of how Shakespeare uses the sonnet form to great success in his plays as well as independent verse. Act II, Scene VII of As you Like it examines the passing of time from birth to death through the seven ages of man and is played out through the theatrical lens. Our final offering this month is from William Wordsworth who pays homage to Shakespeare’s influence on the sonnet form in Scorn not the Sonnet. We hope you enjoy the selection!

Sonnet 60

Sonnet 60 Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end; Each changing place with that which goes before, In sequent toil all forwards do contend. Nativity, once in the main of light, Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d, Crooked elipses ’gainst his glory fight, And Time that gave doth now his gift confound. Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow, Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth, And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow: And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand, Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Scorn not the Sonnet By William Wordsworth

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned, Mindless of its just honours; with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound; A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound; With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief; The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp, It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

From As you Like it, Act II, Scene VII

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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