Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Quarantine

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Quarantine

Sir Patrick Stewart has embarked on a spontaneous project to read through Shakespeare’s sonnets— so far one of my favorite instances of the outflowing of creativity that is whiling away the time in this season of plague/quarantine/social distancing.*

And… to my shame, I’ve never actually sat down and read the sonnets. I know a few of the more famous ones, of course, but never been able to get myself to sit down and read through the sequence and contemplate them one by one but also as a development of an idea. 

And now… oh man, I’m blown away as each sonnet unfolds like a surprise. I had no idea.

The first part of the sequence is addressed to a beautiful young man. (I knew that much.) But what I did not know is that it is an exhortation to him to have children so that his beauty can live on in the next generation. This… is not quite what I expected.

As I’m reading and contemplating the sonnets, I’m finding this online commentary by British scholar G. R. Ledger invaluable. his introductory notes page I found this interesting commentary: 

“Anyone who undertakes a commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets usually does so from the standpoint of one who has known them for many long years. It would be refreshing if they could be approached by one seeing them for the first time, so that the experience might be similar to that of plunging into a glacial pool, unknown and undipped into for many years by man or gods.”

Well, I suppose I shall be the commenter who rashly jumps in and gives that first time view. Probably leaving myself exposed, making errors and even misreading. But here you have it, the plunge into the glacial pool:

Sonnet I

Sonnet I
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,
Thy self 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, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet I introduces the theme: we want beautiful creatures to propagate themselves so that we may have beauty always. We plant new roses so that even after the old one dies, we might still have roses. As the older ones dies, the new ones remind us of the beauty that is passed and there is a sort of immortality in that. The new constantly reminding us of what is gone, but beauty endures and is thus always fresh. 

But the poet addresses one who is in love with himself and, rather like Narcissus, is contracted to his own bright eyes. Though it’s not clear here, at least not yet, that the one addressed is male. I love the dual possibilities of ‘contracted’: narrowed, limited or betrothed/married. 

So the selfish beauty in a sense devours his own beauty, leaving nothing to pass on to the world. Refusal to have children is a sort of gluttony, savoring his own beauty and keeping it for himself. And thus he is his own enemy and enemy to his own beauty.

Sonnet II

Sonnet II

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

I really love the siege metaphor with the years as a besieging army, the wrinkles of age trenches. 
“Proving his beauty by succession thine!”

The word “succession” puts me in mind of the political context of Shakespeare’s day. When the sonnets were published, Elizabeth had recently died without marrying or begetting heirs and James of Scotland had taken the throne. It’s hard for me not to think that in some ways a subtext for these sonnets that urge reproduction is a contemplation of what happens when a once beautiful woman clings to her beauty and refuses to marry and have children. Am I off base here?

+ + +

* I really like the term plague for the current virus, because it feels more literary than virus, coronavirus, covid-19 or any of the other more clinical terms. ‘Plague’ harkens back to prior generations and their responses to similar situations, it has a Biblical weight and reminds me that the current crisis is merely the latest crisis, that humanity has faced other plagues before. Boccaccio’s Decameron, as so many people have rediscovered, is perhaps the original instance of quarantine becoming a time of artistic flourishing.

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  • This is great. I have always had difficulty reading and getting much out of the sonnets. Hearing it, reading it, and reading your first impression helps to begin cracking it open.

    • Exactly what I’m finding. I’ve been opening the video with Patrick Stewart in one tab and the text of the sonnet in another, starting the video, and then reading along with him as he reads. I’ll listen and read along a couple of times, then read the commentary, then listen again. I’m finding them so much easier to process. But I need to find the time to listen to more of them… I’m glad you found my commentary helpful.

  • Thanks so much- I’d heard Patrick Stewart was reading the sonnets but hadn’t listened in until now. Isn’t his “But thou” sonnet 1 line 5 so great? I also enjoy the Scottish poet Don Paterson’s commentary. It’s gritty and contemporary.