Shakespeare’s Sonnets

“What majesty flows from his pen
His poetry soars like a sweet violin”
                    – Nigel Bottom, Something Rotten

Shakespeare’s sonnets are not really my area of expertise, though having said that Shakespeare isn’t my area of expertise either, but I love it therefore I am flooding my blog with it for the month of April. However! I do love looking up all this stuff about the Bard and his work and discovering new things I didn’t know, especially regarding the sonnets. My only real knowledge of the sonnets before now was Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, and the fact he mentions a ‘dark lady’ a lot in them which I learnt from Doctor Who.

Writing, Quill, Books, Transparent Background, Vector

Some say Shakespeare’s sonnets are his most popular work, I thought his plays were but considering I knew about Sonnet 18 as a kid without knowing the title or that it was by Shakespeare maybe that’s the evidence there, I don’t know. But with 154 sonnets a fair few were going to enter the general population and become incredibly well known.

Along with his 37 plays, Shakespeare also wrote 2 long poem narratives, as well as the 154 sonnets. His first piece was the narrative poem Venus and Adonis which was written and published in 1593 when Shakespeare was 29 years old. The sonnets themselves were likely composed over an extended period from 1592 to 1598. Shakespeare’s sonnets are much more numerous than his plays so I will not be including a full list here. I’ve included a few links below that let you read them; many include commentary and annotations as well.

Edit: I discovered that the reason Shakespeare started his sonnets was because an outbreak of the plague in Europe resulted in all theatres being closed between 1592 and 1594. During this time no one wanted to see plays so Shakespeare started working on his sonnets instead.

Shakespeare Online has a wonderful break down of the content and reoccurring subjects of each sonnet; many seem to be grouped together with running stories or subjects, similar themes and tones such as the passage of time, love, beauty, and mortality. Many of them are considered the most romantic poems ever written and judging how popular and well known they are to this day it is hard to dispute.

The sonnets are written predominately in iambic pentameter, a rhyming scheme in which each line consists of ten syllables. These syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Shakespeare Online provides an excellent example:

A line of iambic pentameter flows like this:
baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM.

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (Sonnet 18)

Each sonnet is made up of 14 lines and only three of the 154 don’t follow this rule: Sonnet 99 (with 15 lines), Sonnet 126 (12 lines), and Sonnet 145 (written in iambic tetrameter). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are also written in iambic pentameter but the lines do not rhyme nor are they grouped into stanzas. Iambic pentameter that doesn’t rhyme is known as blank verse.

Sonnets1609titlepageIn 1609 there was a possible breach of copyright as Shakespeare’s sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe without his permission under the title: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. (despite sonnets 138 and 144 being previously published in 1599). There is debate about whether Thorpe actually published without Shakespeare’s permission; he may have used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy.

It’s argued that Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a prototype of new ‘modern’ love poetry. While not that popular in 18th century England, Shakespeare’s sonnets grew in popularity in the 19th century alongside the renewed interest in his original works as part of the Romantic era.

Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet 18

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.

Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Edit: Musician Paul Kelly had turned some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in songs. You can watch the video of him discussing it here or find out more on his website.

Links and Bits

Shakespeare’s sonnets

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Famous sonnets

Theories about the sonnets

Outline of sonnet content

Sonnet structure and style

Listen to famous sonnets being read

Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.
– John Keats

During his career Shakespeare is believed to have written 37 plays. No one knows for sure because of poor documentation and records, that and plays were meant to be performed so no one was too fussed on making sure they survived in print. If the collaborated plays, as well as those believed lost like Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won are included, then the number rises. Some argue he wrote 28 plays himself and collaborated on 10 and the Wikipedia article on collaborations is even more confusing again.

Sticking with the 37 figure for now, the majority of plays were comedies with a total of 17, while tragedies and historical plays come next at 10 each. The first play scholars believe Shakespeare penned was Henry VI, Part One, written sometime during 1589-1590 when Shakespeare was 25 years old. Part Two and Part Three followed in 1590-91. He composed plays on average every 1.5 years until his final play Cardenio which is thought to have been written in 1612-13. The Tempest in 1611 is his last surviving solo creation, though he is recorded as a contributor on The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher in 1613 when he was 49, his last official recorded play.

 There is a wonderful timeline that maps out when each work was written which you can see a more detailed version here including key performances. I’ve chosen a few dates to show the timeline of when each play was written.

1589-1590. Shakespeare is believed to have written his very first play, Henry VI, Part One

1590-91. Shakespeare is believed to have written Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part III.

1592-93. Shakespeare is thought to have written the plays Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

1592-94. The Comedy of Errors written in this time.

1593-94. Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew are thought to have been written.

1594-1595. Shakespeare pen’s Love Labour’s Lost.

1594-1596. King John is assumed to have been written.

1595. Shakespeare is thought to have composed Richard II (performed that very same year), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (thought to be composed for a wedding), and Romeo and Juliet.

1596. The Merry Wives of Windsoris thought to have been written.

1596-1597. The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV, Part One are thought to have been written.

1598. Thought to have written the play Henry IV, Part Two.

1598-99. Writes Much Ado About Nothing.

1599. Julius Caesaris performed at the newly opened Globe Theatre for the first known time. Henry V believed to be written.

1600-1601. Shakespeare is thought to have composed Hamlet at this time.

1601-1602. Twelfth Night or What You WillAll Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida are probably composed.

1604. Measure for Measure is believed to have been written in this year. Othello is also written.

1605. King Lear is believed to have been composed in this year and as is Macbeth.

1606. Antony And Cleopatra is believed to have been composed.

1607-1608. Timon of Athens, Pericles and Coriolanus are composed.

1609-1610. Cymbeline is thought to have been composed.

1610-1611. The Winter’s Tale is written.

1611. The Tempest was written.

1612-1613. Shakespeare is thought to have written Cardenio, his only lost play during this period and with John Fletcher as a likely contributor, composes Henry VIII.

1613. The Two Noble Kinsmen is penned. A 1634 entry within the Stationer’s Registry confirms that both William Shakespeare and John Fletcher composed this play.

Shakespeare was also an actor, performing in his own and other people’s plays. His first recorded role in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour in 1598. But it’s believed during 1585-1592 that Shakespeare first went to London to join a company of actors as a playwright and performer. He appeared in many plays over his career, many by Ben Johnson who was a friend. His final known acting performance was in Johnson’s production of Sejanus in 1603.

What I found interesting was not only did Shakespeare help build the Globe to have his theatre company’s plays performed, it’s believed The Tempest was written specifically with performances at the Blackfriars Theatre in mind, which The King’s Men (as they’d became known) leased in 1608.

I’ll be discussing in a later post about why these plays have survived and been loved while other playwright’s didn’t. I also like that while the comedies outnumber the tragedies, they aren’t as well known and the “masterpieces” like Hamlet or Macbeth. I’ve included some links below to learn more about the plays as well as included a full list of his surviving plays.

Shakespeare’s Plays

All’s Well That Ends Well | As You Like It
Cymbeline | The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost | Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice | The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles | The Taming of the Shrew
Troilus and Cressida | The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Twelfth Night | The Winter’s Tale
The Tempest

Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus
Hamlet | Julius Caesar
King Lear | Macbeth
Othello | Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens | Titus Andronicus

Henry IV 1 and 2 | Henry V
Henry VI 1, 2, and 3 | Henry VIII
King John | Richard II
Richard III 

Links and Bits

Shakespeare Online

Absolute Shakespeare

Shakespeare Collaborations

Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare Infographic Timeline

38 Facts about Shakespeare’s 38 Plays

Shakespeare Week 17th-23rd March

shakespeare week

17th to 23rd March 2014 will see the first Shakespeare Week taking place across the UK and a few places around the world in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the bard’s birth. Celebrations are held each year but being the 450th anniversary big things are happening. This is certainly a big deal in Britain, I haven’t so far seen anything for Australia but that isn’t to say there aren’t any celebrations, just perhaps not as grand. Toby’s gotten into the spirit here so that’s how we’re celebrating.

Shakespeare Owl

Despite the festivities, this is not the week Shakespeare was born though. William Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, and actually died in 1616 on this same date. This was one of my favourite facts as a child, that Shakespeare died on his birthday. I did think it was a bit spooky, but it was a nice circular way to go, out the same day you came in; though it would be slightly depressing to die on your birthday. There is actually no exact date recorded of his birthday, though based on christening records historians have worked out when he would have most likely been born, giving us the 23rd April. He is buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon and you are still able to see his grave at the Holy Trinity Church.

According to Stratford Vision’s website, the aim of Shakespeare Week is to “bring Shakespeare’s stories, language, historical backdrop and creative influence vividly to life for more than 3 million children in the UK and ensure that his cultural legacy is a central part of the primary school learning experience”. While there is a school and children focus for Shakespeare Week, there are other things for everyone, especially in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Being the centre of all things Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon have a multitude of festivities to enjoy including parades and other activities. This isn’t the first celebration either, there have been birthday celebrations for hundreds of years, dating all the way back to 1824 for the bard, though with the 450th anniversary it is possibly going to be bigger and better than ever.  I think it is wonderful that people are celebrating so much, even after 450 years there is still a place for Shakespeare in the world.

There are a lot of interesting facts about Shakespeare, he invented so many words and phrases we still use today in the English language, he was loved by Queen Elizabeth I (which influenced the script and events depicted in his play Richard III), and he spelt his name at least six different ways. That is another fun fact, in the Tudor era there was no formalised way of spelling so anything went really. This could have advantages, but you would know there would be a time when you spell something a bit too much on pronunciation alone there is going to be some long and strange looking words you have to decipher. Though really, I would have thought being his own name he may have found one way he liked and stuck with it. Makes you wonder whether we’d have “Shakespeare” looking differently if he did.

There are so many other wonderful things to learn about Shakespeare too, and you can’t ignore just how influential to language and to theatre he was. I really wish I could be in Stratford-Upon-Avon this week to see these events because I think it would be amazing. When I was in the UK last year I got to go there and it was pretty amazing. When I was in London I also went to the Globe Theatre and for those who haven’t been, let me tell you it was amazing! This was Globe No. 3 mind you. The first Globe was built but then because it was too expensive in that location, Shakespeare moved to the other side of the river. Then this rebuild actually got burned down during a performance. The new and current version was built by Sam Wanamaker, American actor and director, and it stands only a few hundred metres from its original location. Based on the original design and layout and historically accurate as possible, the new Globe is a wonder. There are tours given and a museum/display section, but the best part is that it still puts on plays. And with everything historically right you can experience what it was like to see a play as Shakespeare wanted. When I was there I sat in on a rehearsal for Henry VI and it was amazing, I only wish I had been able to see something performed there properly, but alas it wasn’t to be. 


The Globe Theatre

I could talk about all things Shakespeare for days if given the chance but I shan’t. I will just insist that you check out some sites about his life, his works, and about the Globe itself. As for the celebrations, the few links I’ve given show you the grand fan fair in Stratford-Upon-Avon with some links to other places, I can’t say I know of anything happening in Australia, I haven’t seen anything from the Australian Shakespeare Company, but that isn’t stopping you from having your own celebrations. Also, there are bound to be events throughout the year to celebrate this 450th anniversary, so look out for them as well. I believe the Stratford Vision site mentioned that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust will run other events and exhibitions through 2014 to celebrate the legacy. Yet another reason I wish I was in Britain, they get all the fun.

For now I must enjoy from a distance. I’ve put some links below for all things Shakespeare Week, no doubt I have missed some but I found what I could to start you off. And if you want some fun Shakespeare things, I’ve added some QI clips as well as some skits and a song from the show Horrible Histories which are simply divine, plus I’ve added in Shakespeare’s Birthday Bonanza that I did last year for his birthday where I have a bit more information and  look  briefly at a few of my favourite plays. Who knows, with all this excitement and information at your disposal, you may learn something new and wonderful about the bard and have an ‘oohhh, didn’t know that’ moment, they’re always fun.

Have a wonderful Shakespeare Week wherever you are. If you’re in Britain I hope you enjoy it and get to go to some celebrations, if not, maybe grab a copy of a play or sonnet and appreciate some of the great works Shakespeare has contributed to the world in your own way.

Shakespeare Week

Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations

Stratford Division – Shakespeare’s 450th birthday

About Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Globe

Happy Birthday Shakespeare

QI episode ‘The Immortal Bard’

QI clip – Words of Shakespeare that didn’t catch on

Horrible Histories – William Shakespeare song

Horrible Histories – Shakespeare insults

Horrible Histories – Shakespeare invented words

Horrible Histories – Shakespeare’s Globe