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Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2022
17 Seiten, Note: 1,0
3. Petrarchan characteristics and Shakespeare’s Sonnets
3.2 Sonnet 144
The following research paper deals with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, as well as Sonnet 144. Both sonnets were published in the 1609 quarto edition and depict a rather unusual form of an English Sonnet of the 16th century.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are seen as timeless works of literary history because they deal with certain approaches that still apply to society’s way of thinking like criticism of gender stereotypes. In doing so, Sonnet 130 and Sonnet 144 question the expectations readers have towards conventional sonnets, in which women are worshipped for their appearance and depicted positively (cf. Blades 159). They “contradict() an accepted norm of love poetry” by presenting a negative blazon (ibid.).
Sonnet 130 can also be categorized as literary criticism as it echoes sonnets from other poets such as Henry Constable (cf. Hyland, My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun 104).
In Sonnet 130, this becomes relevant through the poet-speaker’s description of his love interest, wherein the poet-speaker seems to represent an attractive young male in contrast to a dark pictured female (cf. ibid. 100). In Sonnet 144, this is reflected by the poet-speaker’s description of the two figures he is in a triangular relationship with, a dark-featured female and a fair attractive male (cf. Schalkwyk 112).
Whether the poet-speaker represents Shakespeare himself is neither known nor specified within the poem. However, critics assume that the poet-speaker represents Shakespeare himself (cf. Franssen 32). Thus, I will scrutinize how far the concept of love and beauty ideals in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and Sonnet 144 differ from conventional sonnets and the Petrarchan tradition.
To achieve the reading purpose, I will first define the typical characteristics of Petrarchism and conventional sonnets. Then, I will provide a close reading of both sonnets. Lastly, the depiction of the poet-speaker’s love interest will be analysed in how far her depiction is uncommon for conventional sonnets.
For this, the research paper will refer to various critical sources, which examine the poems from different perspectives. For instance, some sources illuminate the topic by reviewing it in its specific historical literary context like the critical essay “My mistress eyes’ are nothing like the sun” from Prof. Dr Peter Hyland.
Firstly, the question arises of what Petrarchism is. It is generally accepted that during the Renaissance the common literary tradition followed for love poetry was Petrarchism. This poetic style was derived from the sonnets of the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 36). They were a part of his Canzoniere, an assemblage composed of 366 poems written by him (cf. ibid. 37). Petrarch may not have invented the sonnet itself, yet he made it fashionable as his form of a sonnet was adapted and imitated from other authors (cf. Spiller 45). It spread from Italy to other European countries, such as Spain and England (cf. ibid. 45-47).
Several authors have attempted to define Petrarchism but there is no clear definition of the term as a literary genre because the works of the followers of Petrarchan fashion do not only show similarities but as previously mentioned differentiate from each other (cf. Dubrow 16). However, this chapter aims to look at the basic features of Petrarchism and explain how it was introduced to English culture to understand the relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets and his predecessors' influence at that time.
As England was not separated from Europe, Shakespeare was unable to avoid the influence of Petrarch because his predecessors, who were born between the 1550s and 1560s, such as Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey and Henry Howard had already imported the Petrarchan and Italian culture, as well as language to England before his sonnets were published (cf. Hart 45-56). They translated Petrarch’s sonnets and adapted them to England’s cultural context (cf. ibid. 46). As a result, they reformed the style and measures of Petrarch and shaped the course ofEnglish poetry, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets (cf. ibid.).
The conventional Italian sonnet is divided into two parts: an octave as well as a sestet, where the conclusion takes place (cf. Spiller 46; cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 126). Petrarch called this poetic style rime sparse, which translates to scattered verses in Italian (cf. Spiller 46). There are two rhyme pairs in the octave arranged in the order abab and abab or abba and abba (cf. ibid.). Additionally, two or three rhyme pairs in the sestet in the order cdcdcd or cdecde (cf. ibid.). Usually, the octave states a position or idea, wherein after the eighteenth line a turning point happens (cf. Hyland, Aw Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 127). Thereupon the sestet presents a solution to the octave’s argument or reverses it (cf. ibid.). When Thomas Wyatt imported the sonnet into England, he protected the division between octave and sestet (cf. ibid. 128). He only transformed the argumentative structure of the sonnet by adding a couplet after the sestet where the conclusion takes place (cf. ibid.). However, Ear of Surrey was the one who invented the traditional English sonnet which consists of the rhyme-scheme abab cdcd efef gg (cf. ibid.). Thus, the poem is divided into three quatrains and a couplet which allows a more flexible argumentative structure in contrast to the conventional Italian sonnet (cf. ibid.). Consequently, the final couplet appears to be isolated from the rest of the poem which puts a high emphasis on the conclusion of the problem or reversal of the prior arguments (cf. ibid.).
The major themes of Petrarch’s sonnets are desire, gender, and love as they mainly deal with the personal matter of his love for a woman called Laura (cf. Hart 46; cf. Spiller 46). Though looking back at the historical context there may have been a real Laura, whom he supposedly encountered on Good Friday in the year 1327, she can be understood better as a fictional character rather than a real person (cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 37).
Throughout the time of the Renaissance, females were notably praised for their beauty (cf. Rogers and Tinagli 28). The physical appearance of females was seen as something God-like which inspired male love (cf. ibid.). Petrarch’s portrayal of Laura became a common source for the description of feminine beauty and virtue at that time (cf. Kaercher 5.). For instance, numerous artists based their portraits of females on their depiction of Laura like Parmigianino and his portrait Madonna 'with the long neck (cf. ibid. 7-8).
He only describes Laura figuratively, nevertheless, he discloses enough details for the reader’s imagination of her physical features and soul (cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 37; cf. Kaercher 5). For instance, her beauty was implied by natural symbols, such as the sun (cf. Rogers and Tinagli 36; cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 37). This style of idealism and figurative speech became common in English literary culture, (cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 37).
The embodiment of subjects, such as desire and love by the virtue of the Petrarchan mistress led to opposing forms of male subjectivity as his sonnets highlight the struggle which is embedded in establishing that subjectivity (cf. Dubrow 55). Particularly, the old-fashioned descriptions of desire, as well as secular ideologies, put the male lover into the stereotypical role of a female (cf. ibid.). Thus, the categories of gender were confounded (cf. ibid.).
Additionally, the hopelessness and desire he felt because of her rejection left him in a dilemma, since he could not follow up on his desireful thoughts and suppress those feelings at the same time (cf. Hyland, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Poems 37; Kaercher 4). This added, “to the realization that there exists a sexual duality in women” (Kaercher 4).
Within this chapter, I will refer to the love interest in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 and sonnet 144 as a dark lady (cf. Hyland, My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, 100). This title was given to the love interest which is covered in Shakespeare’s sonnets by critics and academics throughout literary studies (cf. Edmondson and Wells 42). They have divided his sonnets into two sequences, wherein the second sequence, sonnets 127-154, supposedly addresses the dark lady (cf. Fineman 70). On the other hand, the first sequence addresses a young man (cf. ibid.). Generally, the second sequence addresses the focus on gender constructions and modern subjectivity (cf. ibid.). Neither does the poet-speaker directly refer to her as dark or lady but he calls her a mistress and assigns her dark features (cf. Edmondson and Wells 42). Hyland proposes that the colour black is of social- and moral significance (cf. Hyland, My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun 100) Meaning she is black in a metaphorical sense because she is part of the unethical side of society (cf. Edmondson and Wells 25). Namely, she freely lives out her sexuality and does not adhere to society’s pressure to be married before engaging in sexual activities (cf. ibid.). She is also not ashamed ofhaving sexual desires as a woman which was uncommon at that time (cf. ibid.). However, there are also approaches which take the poetspeaker’s depiction literally and suggest that the dark lady represents a black woman (cf. Franssen 32). Certain descriptions, such as wiry black hair allude to black stereotypical features (cf. ibid.). Therefore, black stands for her physical appearance like her dark hair, eyes, and complexion (cf. Hyland, An introduction to Shakespeare’spoems 168).
Some theories speculate which historical figure the poet-speaker might refer to, but the focus of this research paper is not to find out who she was exactly but rather the poet-speaker’s depiction itself.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral if far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
The music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a godesss go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any, she belied with false compare.
(Shakespeare, 130: 1-14)
Sonnet 130 is composed of fourteen lines, which can be divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The poem is written in regular stanzas rhyming abab cdcd efef and gg. This becomes evident in the first quatrain, wherein the word “sun” rhymes with “dun” and “read” with “head”. It is visible that the sonnet has the usual structure of an English sonnet.
As mentioned before, the poem starts by questioning the reader’s expectations of conventional sonnets (cf. Blades 159). The reader expects the poet-speaker to praise the beauty of his love interest. However, the phrase “nothing like” suggests that the rest of the poem is of vindicative nature (cf. ibid.). It becomes apparent that the poet-speaker’s intention is not to praise her beauty but to highlight that she does not fit the beauty standard.
In general, the tone of the poem is humorous as he continuously compares her to inaesthetic objects (cf. ibid.). It gives the impression that he is indirectly mocking her because she does not have the same qualities as other women. However, the demonstrative pronoun “my” emphasizes the uniqueness of the dark lady (cf. ibid.). She does not have same qualities as other women, but it makes her different and not ordinary which is in fact positive and not negative as the poetspeaker views it. “The first twelve lines repeatedly subvert ... notions of idealism” as the poet-speaker uses natural symbols which imply beauty, such as the “sun” or the colour “red” (Blades 160). He sets them in comparison to her body features like her “eyes” to highlight how much her appearance differs from the ideals at that time (cf. Blades 160). In line two, the lips of the dark lady “when it comes to redness are ... paler than coral, a pallid orangey-pink” (ibid.). In a traditional sense “Coral lips” stand for affection and desire (cf. ibid.). Therefore, the poet-speaker implies that he feels a lack of passion toward the dark lady and does not have the wish to be affectionate with her because he views her as unattractive.