Autumn Quarter ’06
To see the Sample Final, click HERE
For those taking the exam on-line, it is posted below. You will need to have sent your essay back NO LATER THAN 9pm. Late papers will be docked at one point per minute!
To submit online, I want you to EMBED your answer in an ordinary email. You can still write your essay as a word file, but then cut and paste it into an email message sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please do not send it as an attachment. Really. DO NOT send it as an attachment!!
If you don't know how to cut and paste, here is how: highlight the text you want to send (if you've written in Word, you can type Control A to highlight all text), and then type control-C (holding down the control key as you type the C). That will copy your text. Then put your cursor in the body of your email message and type control-V. (If you are using the university's Pine program, you may have to type "alt-V")
Of course, you can just compose in your email window too, if that works best for you.
WORD LIMIT: Since some of you could write for pages this way, and I don't have much time to read and grade, there will be a 1000 word limit! (That's about two single-spaced pages.)
If you have any problems embedding, send me an email. I'll have my laptop in class, and I can help you troubleshoot. But really, this is a very easy procedure.
Final. No more than 1000 words
There are many ways to go about exploring the ideas Shakespeare’s dramas put into play; in this class I've stressed one: thinking of the play—and each of its subparts—as something with work to do, a function to perform, a project to complete. Work here gets done at several different levels. One is that of plot—new characters are introduced, settings are described, background information is dispensed, actions take place. Other kinds of work are more abstract. These can include drama (what do these lines do to make the dramatic effect of the play clearer or stronger) or character (how do a character’s lines enable us to see new and different sides of the way they think, the motives they hold, the desires they have). They can also include theme (as the characters speak we are offered new or developing ways of thinking about one or more topics the play has raised for conversation or reflection). In every case, when we think in this way we effectively ask: “What are the dramatic and thematic functions of these lines? What do they DO, as drama and as art?”
So. For your final begin by choosing one of the two passages listed below. Then write a paper in which you explain as fully as you can within the 1000 word limit the functions of those lines.
That should sound a lot like the mid-term instruction. There as here, I’m asking you to make a function-based argument about the passage, and then show how it accomplishes the functions you see it performing by giving me a careful sequential reading of the passage. For each of your points remember to use specifics and exploration of those specifics in order to show How Do You Know your claim is reasonable.
Passage 1 (WT 4.4.394ff):
POL: Methinks a father
Passage 2: WT 5.1.1-45
A room in LEONTES' palace.
I will be posting supplemental material to this site during the quarter. I don't expect to leave things up here indefinitely--so if you need it, read it or download it soon.
Bridging the Gap
Student Papers Written for the Sonnet Assignment
On Rewriting Your Paper
Explanation for the October 26th Response Paper
"Shakespeare's Ways of Making Love"
The Skills of Active Reading (10/18/06)
Bridging the Gap:
Solving the Riddle of The Winter’s Tale
Understanding The Winter’s Tale depends upon our ability to read riddles. The play depends upon a real riddle: the oracular “riddle” from Delphi is something like the central fact of at least the second half of the play. But that is only an explicit, obvious riddle. We actually watch Leontes “riddle” things out from the opening bell. He sees Hermione and Polixenes flirting; he “reads” the riddle their behavior sets him, “solves” it—or so he thinks. Hermione claims he is wrong—whatever she did, it did not have the meaning he ascribed to it, and from the gap between these two understandings the whole of this play’s action derives. But though this misreading sets the plot in motion, it’s by no means the only misreading in the play. Language and behavior in this play regularly result in “riddles.” They have meanings that don’t quite get through to the surface, and so must be read, puzzled over, solved. In this way the play makes “reading” a theme, as the text repeatedly offers scenes of people reading (and misreading) other people, other words, fortune, nature, whatever, in order to find guidelines for their actions.
The play’s opening riddle also invokes (and replays) the Fall. Leontes and Polixenes have been having a long visit, have re-experienced the deep and easy friendship of their youth. Polixenes describes that time: “We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ sun…. we knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed/ That any did….” But that, it turns out, was then. Now they know more about the world—about desire and deception—and as Leontes watches Hermione wooing Polixenes to stay longer in Sicilia this knowledge of what human beings can do suddenly throws him into a jealous rage. He interprets what he sees as betrayal, and it’s pretty much downhill from there.
Now. One could play Leontes as a moral idiot, or a psychopath, but that would miss the point of the cosmic situating of the play: its premise has to be that Leontes only engages in a hyperbolic form of the same sort of misreadings we all commit. We can’t help it: as human beings we cannot escape the fact that what we see and hear must always be “read”—be interpreted in one way or another. There is, one could say, a “gap” between us and everything around us, a gap in the midst of which our entire adult lives are led, and this in turn means that life is also a matter of a kind of double-thinking. There is always what we see, and parallel to what we see is what we think we see. And similarly with language there is always what we hear, and then there is what we think what we hear means. We do learn to read—to interpret what we see and what we hear. And we are usually pretty good at it. But not always—and that’s the rub.
So this play opens with a little example of a very big truth: the texts of our lives really are double—we live in this sense at a distance from reality. Christians call this the effect of the Fall; I will call this the problem of the Gap—the way that there is between us and the world, and even between us and ourselves, a gap we must negotiate if we are to make meaning of what we see and hear. Once we have discovered the world’s gap and the distance it puts between expression and meaning, surface and depth, what seems and what is, we must in our adulthood learn to see things in a doubled sense, and to learn to remember with humility our own fallen and thus limited capacity for right-reading. Of course, we don’t all or always succeed in this. Leontes forgets (if he ever knew) that humility before the Gap.
So the play begins with fracture, that of the social order before the misreading of Leontes, and we can also see the way the resultant set of events represents his willful denial of what as adults we increasingly realize is a world chock full of gaps, where things split all around us, where (it can often seem) there is no continuity or truth or wholeness, only discontinuity, disappointment, and death, and where melancholy and despair (like that into which Leontes falls as Act 3 ends, and which has not changed even 16 years later when we see him in Act 5) may feel like the only reasonable response.
But of course despair is not the only possible response, since the play also offers the possibility of regeneration, of which Perdita and Florizel are the instantiation, a regeneration that is at once physical (they are the new generation, replacing, revivifying, the old) and spiritual (their union proceeds from a reconceiving, a reconfiguring, of the [apparently natural, but in fact artificial] boundaries of the world around them). For the union of Perdita with Florizel represents a wholeness and integrity that counters the decay of the world around them—even when in 4.4 the anger, violence, envy and resentment of that world bursts in upon them, threatening them with torture and death. Against that pressure—the visible sign of the gapped nature of the world—they do not fold. Florizel in particular retains his ideal, his faith both in his own vow and in the possibility of changing the conditions of the life they have found themselves in. Even without a plan, with nowhere to go, he still resolutely refuses to abandon his vision.
Or so one might claim. For we can take that sense from this play only by taking it as the moral to an old (winter’s) tale, by “reading,” construing its riddling structure allegorically, interpreting one thing in terms of another. And in doing that we are doing what we of the fallen world not just learn to do (as we come to “know”), but also are condemned to do, and can (in the world of the play, anyway) be saved by doing: reading figuratively the things and experiences of our existence.
But why, in all this, is there so much an air of contrivance? of the artificial? How could Hermione have been hidden for 16 years! How could Florizel just happen to light upon Perdita? (The flight of his falcon indeed!) One could ask a dozen such questions. Shakespeare even does the geographically impossible: he gives Bohemia a seacoast! Did he know Bohemia had none? Is this falsifying of nature itself a part of his contrivance? Don’t all these artificial contrivances make for a terrible piece of drama? I don’t think so. For the artificial is OK here. It really only emphasizes the essentially undramatic nature of the play: the way to approach The Winter’s Tale’s plot isn’t through realism, but through thinking in symbolic terms about when—in what relation to other events of the play—any given event happened. Like each of the four late “Romances,” this is a play which is unlike most of the rest of Shakespeare, for its coherence is not characterological, but narrative and structural. It offers mythic patterns and themes to be read for their capacity to structure human experience, not problems of what a character built on such and such a premise would or wouldn’t do. Its force is thus allegorical, not dramatic. It is a play in which tragic loss and comic regeneration each stand in a subordinate relation to natural cycles of far greater scope than any single dramatic action. Each is but a slice of the longer term rhythm/ dynamic of human life, that which encompasses birth as well as death, both tragic and comic moments (“Thou meet’st with things dying, I with things new-born” [3.3]).
If, then, the first fact of the world is decay, the inevitability and constant foreshadowing of death (the last and greatest gap!), the challenge this gives us is to learn to see the patterns into which that process of separation, alienation, descent—even “fall”—fits. And, to repeat, in this play that in turn is only possible through a capacity to read the phenomena of the world as representations of a larger “reality”—that of God and “great creating nature” (4.4). There is no way the ability to read can prevent the gap, nor any way it can avoid its pain and loss. But it can offer consolation, and a sense of explanation. In short, we can live in Hope and (thereby) Faith that there is a larger picture into which particular disasters fit as plotted moments. In Pericles Shakespeare gives his romance hero the motto "in hac spe vivo: In this faith I live,” and perhaps the final sentiment here is not far from that. Leontes manages to keep on living (“Because I have this hope/faith, I can live”—another way to read Pericles’ motto) because he has a capacity for “faith” in the possibility of Apollo’s oracle’s coming true—that sense that, contrary to what happens to us, something more than we know is at work. It is precisely the absence of this hope that is key to the ending of King Lear. Lear may have it in his “reading” of Cordelia’s corpse. But no one else seems to. They do not end the play in the faith of anything, since their experience seems to have destroyed any further basis for faith of any kind.
In The Winter’s Tale, however, the faith lives on, despite experience; its world is finally a world of stories and interpretations which owes its saving grace to reading (and, of course, artful writing)—and has done so from the very moment at which the first gap opened. A central conversational line of this play, then, centers on the power of narrative, of art and story-telling, as human kind’s antidote to the Gap. What is it, if not art, that confers upon the random and seemingly uncaring experience of our lives an order, a meaning, a sense that depression and despair are only parts of a larger pattern, something to work through, to endure until we can sense that larger whole?
Consider the contrastive parallel of Troilus and
Cressida. That play shows the same degenerating world, the same
gap between ideal and real, between what language can conjure up (“honor”!)
and what life can deliver (the ignominious murder of Hector, the abandonment
of Cressida, the impotent wrath of Troilus). But the only response to
that bleakness there is Thersites’ grimey cynicism. Here the response
is Perdita and Florizel, figures of hope and rebirth. Would that someone
could only supply such a tale for our current world! Of course, our
political rhetoric shows a great competition to do just that. All the
talk of “renewal” and “reform” partakes of such
a thing; Perdita in our world is a balanced budget or a way out of Iraq.
Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem quite as much like renewal as
Perdita or Florizel does. One can imagine that every culture deeply
needs an idea of someone who has the power to provide a positive regenerative
vision opposed to the evident corruptions of any society’s political
institutions. Indeed, without belief in that possibility, democratic
politics may be impossible. Infected with terminal cynicism, citizens
would sit like Leontes as Act 5 opens, split off, alone, isolated in
dejection and despair. Can the Democrats find for us a new Perdita?
Only time and the future’s political tempests will tell.
Student Papers Written for the Sonnet Assignment.
I've posted three of the more successful papers from the class. I invite you to read them both for interest's sake, and to try your own hand at applying the paper criteria to them and considering their strengths. To see the papers, click here.
On Rewriting your draft. A How To Do It Manual
So all of you now have developed elements of your paper, but for most, your thinking isn’t yet fully integrated. Indeed, some of you haven’t quite seen yet that you ARE making an argument. How can you fix that? In a word, “revise.”
Between now and next Tuesday you have a whole week-end to revise—rewrite— your work. And let’s be clear: “revise” does not mean “reprint,” or “fix some commas and run the spell checker more carefully.” That is editing, not revising. Revising means taking a clear cold look at the stuff you’ve assembled (the word comes from the Latin “to see again”), evaluating what you’ve done and what you still need to do to make it all “work,” and then writing again. Yes, you will be able to use some of what you’ve already written. But for many of you, a lot of what you’ve written needs significant change. Most classes don’t give you a chance to do that. This one does. This is your chance to reconceptualize your work, get it clearer, get it straighter. This is what REAL good writing—and thinking—requires.
So what does that mean for you here and now? First, it means that you should reread the assignment, and re-establish your sense of your purpose in writing at all. In doing so, ask yourself:
Have I really included all the elements necessary to
explaining how I understand the drama of this sonnet? Do I have:
• an argument to support that claim that explains How Do You Know what you say is true?
• explanations of HDYK anchored in “whats”—choices you see the author to have made— that you have sufficiently explored that your readers can follow why you think what you do about their functions in the poem?
Ask yourself too: have I been concise? Do I begin the paper with throat clearing that could be simplified into a more direct beginning? Do I get to the point?
Remember (at the risk of being really redundant) what I want: a strong claim explaining the drama of this sonnet: who is speaking, and to whom, for what purpose—and with what irony? Followed by evidence you’ve developed by paying close attention to choices Shakespeare has made, exploring their implications.
As for the number you see on your paper (it may be circled). That’s an index indicating how close I think you are to a final draft. I want well connected, specific and full papers, and thus the question is: Where are you, over all, in the pursuit of such a paper?
Index to Rewrite-ability Index Scores
1: You need to talk with me.
How to get Help:
From me. Either email a question
OR: From writing centers (English or OUGL). Be sure to call or email for appointment. See Webpages: http://faculty.washington.edu/jwholmes/uwwrite.html or: http://depts.washington.edu/wcenter/info.html
More on The October 26 Assignment
. (What follows is an excerpt from the journal I keep for this class--I'm writing about the assignment for Oct 26, and what we talked about in class to illustrate how to do that assignment well.)
I outlined the assignment for Thursday: I assigned act numbers, and told them to locate a sonnet-sized segment of verse that they saw as doing particularly effective work towards one or more of the play’s “projects.” I told them we would read these passages aloud on Thursday evening—a reader’s theatre of the play.
Then, to help with their selecting of passages that “do work” towards one or more of the play’s projects, I explained again how one can understand literature in terms of a given work’s “project” (or set of projects), and, with that understood, how to see any element in the play as something that is working towards achieving one or more of those projects. Thus KL takes as one of its projects the enacting of a cultural conversation about what is it that constitutes our essential humanity. As one follows Lear through the play we see him strip off his conventional identifiers and adopt others in their stead, and at each stage Shakespeare gives us speech and action that move that conversation along. One moment we pointed to last night involved his act 3.4 speech that ends with “Off, off you lendings!” wherewith he removes his cloak to give to Tom.
So: What work does that speech do? Answer: it constitutes a step in the conversation about what is it that constitutes our essential humanity, defining one more step towards what the play will render as the representation of our true human essence. Just a line or two above the “off, off” line Lear defines what he at that point sees in Tom: “Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” And with that we reach both a nadir (a low spot!)—“Man” with all stripped away, cut back to the essentials—and an acme (a high spot!): a recognition in Lear of humility, a man without pride, without pretension, recognizing what links us all as human beings at some level beneath the clothing and social roles and pretensions of “civilized life.” Here he and Tom, the “highest” and the “lowest” are brought together to share a single image and a single description. We are from this point of view all equal—neither rich nor poor, smart or dumb, respected or despised. And (by the way) Shakespeare offers us the notion that the sense of oneself that is then revealed over the next two acts is richer and more human for having accepted a common humanity, a link between yourself and all other human beings, even those Bedlam beggars you pass by on the corner of Denny and Aurora, or up and down University Ave. There but for the grace of God and the disguisings of ourselves to emphasize our distance, our lack of connection to and (therefore) lack of responsibility for, these other human beings (one reading of these lines would suggest), goes any one of us.
So (leaving aside that last thought about connections
to Denny Way, which Shakespeare himself obviously never had) one way
to talk about lines like this is to locate them in the larger project
of the play’s conversation about “What IS a human being?”
They define a kind of metaphysical end point (the result of the stripping
away of roles and pretensions that has occurred in Acts 1, 2, and early
3) and a metaphysical starting point (the bare thing which can now be
built back into a fuller sense of humanity in the rest of act 3 and
in acts 4 and 5).
Paper Assignment: Shakespeare's Dramatic Miniatures
Dramatic Miniatures: Working with Shakespeare’s Sonnets
I have described Shakespeare’s sonnets as each like a miniature play where readers act as audience to one side of a dramatic confrontation whose exact nature is often both complicated, and only implicitly rendered. The task that reading each sonnet presents, then, is that of working out the plot—the characters, motives, and actions—of a very short play. We begin by unpacking the play’s language in order that we can extrapolate from the single speech Shakespeare gives us to the larger situation within which that speech could possibly occur; then, having defined the sonnet’s dramatic situation, we go on to explain how what the sonnet’s speaker is trying to accomplish with his/her lines.
For this midterm, pick either sonnet 95 or 120, and write an analysis of it as a miniature play. Begin by formulating as precise a notion as the sonnet allows of its dramatic situation, and particularly of what you see as the speaker’s motive for speaking. Go on to explain the sequential process of the speech, exploring the language choices Shakespeare has made to further his dramatic purpose. As you think about your sonnet, remember that the speaker of a sonnet is not necessarily “Shakespeare.” He is merely a character—the main character, to be sure—in the play we’re reading. We’ve worked in class to show how diction, metaphors, sound patterns, and meter create emphasis, irony, or even contradiction, and it’s in your fully exploring the implications of specific choices you see Shakespeare making that the real challenge of this midterm lies.
Think, too, of what other possibilities there might be for interpreting this sonnet. To make the argument you are making, you will in effect be opposing other possible readings. You don’t have to address those in this paper (it’s pretty short, after all), but you should be aware as you write that other hypotheses have been advanced.
To help you focus on specific choices Shakespeare has made, I have underlined (italicized in the on-line version) several important “whats.” You may find choices other than those I identify, and even if you limit yourself solely to what I’ve noticed you still aren’t likely to have space enough to explain all of them fully. That’s fine. You aren’t confined to, or by, the things I underline. My noticings are only to make sure that you DO focus on specific language choices Shakespeare has made, and on how those choices further his dramatic ends.
Be sure to read “Criteria for Interpretive Essays in this Class” [pp. 51-2 of Reading and Writing Shakespeare,], and be sure to follow the Presentation Guidelines [pp. 53-4]. Be sure, too, to review the StyleWatch section of RWS—each of the issues covered there just happens to be a bête-noire for me.
Due: Tuesday, October 24th, at 7:00pm.
Shakespeare’s Ways of Making Love
I promised you I'd put up a paper I wrote on Shakespeare's Sonnets, and here it is. It is from a talk first given at the UW’s Summer Arts Festival in the Summer of 2000. Read it if you'd like; especially in its reading of Sonnet 63 it offers you an idea of the sort of reading I'll be looking for in your Sonnet paper.
People tend to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as idyllic, romantic paeans to love sweet love. They read them at weddings, or, on some occasions, in movies—as Gwineth Paltrow did in Shakespeare in Love. But Shakespeare’s sonnets, though very much about love, are also in almost every case not about sweet love but about one or another kind of love in trouble: love deceived, love revenged, love that terrifies, love that imprisons, love that hurts, love that frustrates and disappoints. So even though the sonnets are all love poems, and even though their writing is dominated by the idea that to write poetry is to make love, the love they make reflects a range of different emotions—most of them far from sweet. Let me focus on that phrase, too: “Making love.” We have our sense for it of course, but I want to broaden it a bit for the purposes of this discussion—for I want to use it to describe what Shakespeare does in all of these sonnets: he makes, creates, enacts, represents, love. Many of these sonnets are, either directly or indirectly, efforts to make love happen—as in “love me, please love me!” But others make love by making us understand better more about love. These poems work to make up our understanding of love; and so it is in that sense, too, that I see them as ways of “making love.”
In this essay I will explore some of these sonnets’ ways of making love, but I’d like first to suggest two reasons that so many people don’t usually see the far-from-ideal nature of love that fairly seethes in these poems. The first is that people often go off into the sonnets as on a fishing expedition. They have an idea of what “love poetry” is supposed to be, and so it is with something like a set of blinders that they do their reading. As a result they see, I think, what they want to see, and that (I might even add) is the love they wish the world held for them, and not always the love their lives has known.
And the second—allied to the first—is that people don’t usually see that these sonnets are deeply engaged in what (adapting a wonderful phrase from the philosopher H.P. Grice) we can call “dramatic (as opposed to “conversational”) implicature.” Shakespeare is dramatic from his head to his toes; I doubt he could have bought bread from the corner bakery without imagining a plot to go with it, and surely these sonnets reflect that talent. For they are not just love sentiments that rhyme. Rather they are each something like a crucial speech in a tiny drama, complete with characters, a dramatic situation, and a plot. But for readers the difficulty is that that plot is rarely made explicit, and that its characters must be inferred from very slight evidence. We only have 14 lines to work with after all—something in the average sonnet of just about 100 words. That’s why the phrase “dramatic implicature.” These are performances that are highly charged with implicature: the implying, and not stating, of dramatic elements and complications. But that, in turn, makes them less obvious, harder to read—even, Shakespeare’s (ill-informed, in this case, I’d say) detractors have said, simply obscure and confused.
Let us see. I want to begin with a sonnet that has been given a rather prominent place in the set. This is Sonnet 116, the one Gwineth Paltrow reads so beautifully in Shakespeare in Love.
That is, of course, a lovely sentiment. Not perhaps in all cases a true one—does “true love” in fact never change? Can one tell only after the fact that that was what it was? How then WOULD one ever know?! Still, were we able to set aside the drama of this sonnet—its dramatic implicature—then we could simply value it for that. But these are speakings, not disembodied pronouncements. This is a speaker conceived in a particular way and in a particular set of circumstances, and we can begin to get at that by asking a set of three questions designed to elicit its dramatic quality:
For the first question I think we could say that this speaker is emphatic, he’s concentrating on being resolute. He’s melodramatic—“even to the edge of doom…”! He’s passionate, but not explicitly sexual. He’s intellectual, and in these lines he talks of love in high-minded terms: not just a marriage, but a marriage of “true minds”; he sees his lover not just as a companion, but as a hedge against time and even death itself. It’s difficult to describe him exactly, but it’s easy to say a few things he is not: he’s not passive, he’s not ironic, he’s not amusing or cynical. He does seem a little forlorn, maybe even (given how many times he says the same thing over and over) a little desperate. A man, then, resolute in desperation?
As for the second question—to whom does he speak?—the answer is in line one: “Let me not…” It’s himself. This whole poem is a form of self address. Moreover it’s a form of Negative self address—and we might even start asking before we get too far: when do we find ourselves having these little self-instruction sessions? For this line really is a self-instruction—it even has the urgency of an imperative: “Let me not…”—or more colloquially: Don’t let me!
And now how about the third question: on what occasion does the speaker speak? When do we give ourselves pep talks like this? This isn’t explicit here—again, it’s only implicit, our understanding dependent upon indirect clues the speaker gives us about a larger situation. So what does Shakespeare give us to work with? Well, from the first line we can first infer that the speaker is actually tempted to do exactly the thing he instructs himself NOT to do! Indeed, this whole poem is (like its first line) developed with a distinctly negative cast. Some negatives are explicit: Not, O, No, Never, Not, Not, never, nor, no man. Others are a little less identifiable, but no less there: The “Un” in unknown, the “re” in “remover” and “remove.” Don’t he tells himself, don’t—no it’s not, no, never, it’s not!
But what’s not? “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” And what’s that mean? Love isn’t really love, isn’t “true love,” we’d have to supply, if it changes in response to change—to “alteration.” So we can see a situation emerging here: there once was love, and now there has been alteration in that love, and in response this lover finds himself imploring himself not to alter in response.
Two further questions now arise. First, what exactly has changed? And second, why does the speaker seem to be tempted to change too—so tempted that he needs to give himself a talking to in order to make sure he doesn’t change?
I’m sure you are all working out the semantic calculus of all this—it is in fact something of a logic puzzle. And it’s important to note that the speaker isn’t very specific about what has changed. We can make a couple guesses though. One, since he soon starts talking about the grim reaper, is death. His love may well have died, and he finds himself for whatever reason one has in such situations fighting either his tendency to forget his lover, or maybe an anger at whatever would lead to his own betraying of his feelings. That may be a bit of a reach, though, because “alteration” doesn’t seem strong enough for death. “What happened to your friend?” “Well, he underwent an alteration….” True, we have an image of death at mid-poem, but that occurs in a concessive clause modifying the statement: “Love’s not time’s fool….” Love is not subject to time even if our bodies can be reaped in the course of time. This seems a general sentiment, and imagines a harvest moment, human lovers taken in the fullness of their time, and not, as would make more sense in these sonnets, in mid or even early life.
So perhaps the alteration is not death, but the more likely one, the more common one, the one more consistent with a whole lot of these sonnets—the one where the speaker’s lover simply stops loving him. That happens in love affairs all over the world, every day. Sorry dear, but I think we ought to start seeing other people. What does one do in response to that? We have a range of response available—anger, grief, scorn, denial. But another mode of response is something very close to what this speaker does—take the high road: “you may be weak, you may never have felt true love, and you may seem to be scorning me now. But I am the nobler of us two. I truly loved you before you changed, and I will love you as true lovers do, forever and ever—even to the edge of time!” It may not be the best of consolations, but in situations like this you go with what you’ve got.
So maybe this poem isn’t about death, but about desertion. How, finally, can we decide? Maybe we can’t—there is often in poetry as in life an ambiguity we cannot escape. But before we take that way out, let me bring in a sonnet that makes a good pair to this one, one that has a very similar dramatic situation but a very different tone:
Here we have a sonnet that is also a self-address, and is also confronting
a less-than-perfect love. But unlike the stoic, high-minded tone of
116’s speaker, here the speaker’s tone is bemused, ironic,
and vulnerable. Could we also say it is realistic and accepting? To
be sure, the lover in this sonnet hasn’t abandoned him altogether.
But it’s hard to imagine this speaker ever declaring that true
love lasts forever. This speaker and his love are far too pragmatic
for that. Similar situation, different character—but a different
way of “making love,” and a different kind of love emerging
from the making.
The world of love that opens up to us here is not that of noble passion,
nor is it world-weary and ironically bemused. To get a bead on this world
we can again begin by asking about its speaker and addressee. Consider
first its “key” tone words, like “Against,” “crushed,”
“drained,” “vanished,” “vanishing,”
“away,” “confounding,” “cruel knife,”
“cut,” “black” and “green.” Lots of
negative ideas—and coming from a speaking voice that seems older
by a good deal than the lover he talks of. How old is he? His description
of the state “as I am now” includes “crushed”
and “drained”; and “vanish” is the verb he uses
for his own beauties. You’d guess from these lines that the speaker’s
on his last legs. And not just physically. Crushed and drained are words
of the spirit too—drained of blood suggests drained of vitality,
of life itself. Why does Shakespeare have his speaker talk this way? What
is his implicature? (Shakespeare himself, by the way, was in his mid-thirties
when he wrote these sonnets—older, to be sure, than a lover of,
say, 18 or 20, but hardly doddering grave-wards. So if any of this really
is autobiographical, it’s also pretty hyperbolic!)
But then maybe there is in addition to a touch of envious love a feeling of resentment. That implication arises from the hyperbole of the list of decays in store for the youth, and especially the violence of that late image of the cruel knife, making its cut. To be sure, the literal sense is a cut from memory—not a physical cut at all. But that cutting of beauty from memory is in the metaphor also the cutting from the field of life by death’s scythe—an image that is in many, many sonnets. Indeed, much of the thematic here is about love in the context of death and dying—and about poetry as a means by which to resist that death. And maybe that morbidity that so often floats up in these sonnets is a necessity. Without death, without decay, without that which crushes and drains you, what need would there be for the immortality that poetry and poets can deliver? Which raises still another issue. Why write this at all? To immortalize the lover? Well, yes, only (curiously enough) the lover as a human being hardly emerges in the sonnet at all!
Indeed, instead of portraying a lover, the sonnet seems much more a poetic self-portrait of a drained and dying, vanishing, disillusioned man, trying on one hand to say I love you, but with a tone that keeps slipping towards—what? Self pity? But also almost of threat? Not of danger at his hand, but at the crushing, draining, cutting hands of age. “Don’t be too pleased with your beautiful young self, my bucko. I will tell you here what you seem utterly not to know—that as you age there will be an unspeakable grimness waiting for you.” Indeed, the speaker gives much here to put the lover in mind of what he may in fact not be having in mind—his vulnerability to decay, his future of drained and empty age, his cutting death—and maybe, too, his need, as yet likely unrealized, unacknowledged, for a poet to preserve him.
Many of the sonnets develop this theme of poetry’s capacity to immortalize; and it often comes up in just this kind of context, as almost a kind of bribe. What do I, acrushed, old, drained, vanishee of beauty have on offer to attract and keep the affection of a youth so vibrant, so glorious (so “hot” as we might say nowadays), yet so inattentive to the ravages that are soon to be visited upon him? Certainly not beauty, that’s all gone. Indeed, I haven’t much at all—except the ability to turn a phrase, write a line.
So often Shakespeare dramatizes moments of loss and a mind’s response to it; so often he offers portraits of the uphill struggle love so often seems to be. Here one can see a well-muted bid for love—love me in spite of all, in spite of my age, of my vanishing and vanished beauty, of my inability to keep your affection by mere attraction. Since I can give you none of that, love me for what I can give, both a sense of how fragile human life and emotion is, and therefore how much it needs to be attended to and valued, and the assurance that I have the skill with which to make you last and last and last.
But it wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he didn’t also include within the sonnet some sense of the cost to the speaker’s own psyche that this moment of pathetic induction to love involves. Thus the sense of negative, of emptiness, and of envy even. How can one understand what lies behind this particular love? This attraction age holds for youth and vice versa? How can one not resent it, distrust it, even as one feels it?
And finally there is too here a certain self-absorption. Curiously, even as the poet promises the youth immortality, the youth is invoked only obliquely, in the third person as “my love,” and not as “thou” or “you.” And the terms of his being immortalized all use the poet’s own qualities as the standard. The irony is that one knows the beauty of the lover here only through what one knows of the poet! There’s a self-centered sense of desperation here—caught in the ambiguity of the 11th and 12th lines: “Age shall never cut from memory / My sweet love’s beauty.” There’s telling ambiguity here: “My sweet love” can refer either to his lover, or to his own feelings. One has the sense that the phrase is first intended as the lover, but the ironic slide of sense towards his own feelings suggests what is perhaps the real target of the poem: the poet-speaker’s own aging mind, straining to retain at least the memory of sweet love’s beauty, if not the sweet love in fact. Indeed, the aging poet might console himself, now that I’ve got the poem and the memory it records, what need do I really have for my lover’s self?
That’s all pretty intense. Maybe too intense. Lighten up! Suffice to say that this sonnet, like the others that promise immortality, is a poem of persuasive tactics to attract or heighten love, to be sure, but shaded as well with other even deeper motives—efforts to console oneself in the face of infidelity and death.
So far I’ve tried to paint ways Shakespeare builds powerful psychodrama into his sonnets, but what we’ve seen so far is really rather tame. Making love gets even more dramatic when we move to the sonnets where we hear not of just two lovers but three—or even more. I’ll be a little less full in my exploration of this next pair, but I assure you we could spend just as long on each as I have on 63. Consider first the situation in sonnet 69:
Though the syntax here is complicated, and a few of the phrases difficult to follow, it may be easier to sort out its dramatic implications if we first focus on tone. What tone would YOU say this speaker takes? I’ll warn you that that’s a trick question—it’s not a tone we want, but a set of them. Maybe we can do it a quatrain at a time. First quatrain? Controlled, measured, even-handed, but also careful, reluctant. “Bare” in fact—as it says in line 4. Second quatrain? Still controlled, but now shifting. It purports simply to be reporting—it’s the voice of one who does not himself complain, but only records the complaints of others. That distanced tone continues into the next quatrain, though the words get much stronger. Indeed, by the time we get to “rank smell of weeds” an undertone of accusation has emerged (it gets the line-end position too, to balance, even over balance, “thy fair flower”), though it is ostensibly still merely a report of what others think. Thus it’s a surprise but not entirely a surprise when in the couplet the speaker drops the pose of reporter and the voice takes on disgust itself. Where in line 11 he ostensibly resists what “they” see and calls these others “churls,” in lines 13 and 14 he takes off the gloves—and leaves with an accusation: “thou dost common grow.” “Common” is obviously an insult. One sense might suggest merely aristocratic slumming, but what is implied is that he has grown to be a thing used in common. He has gone from line 12’s flower to its week, and like a weed he sleeps in any bed he lands in, planting (the implication is) his seed profligately. Here the emergent tone is anger, revulsion even—another thing love can make, another thing that makes up love.
Of course, in Sonnet 69 the speaker is the one who has taken the high ground. If his addressee has been carrying on, going here and there, looking good but acting common, he hasn’t. In the next sonnet we’ll look at the situation is only a little different—but what a difference that makes!
This is again a sonnet of difficult language, but it doesn’t take long to see that the dramatic situation in these lines is radically different from that of sonnet 69. For here it isn’t the lover, the addressee, who’s been philandering, but the speaker. And the goal of the speaker’s speech is fairly clear too: it is a plea for forgiveness: “give me welcome,” he begs. We could take a vote here as to whether she should. For though he certainly admits his guilt, and condemns what he has done, and though he vows to love forever (love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, remember!), the terms in which he does his begging may not fully reassure us.
What’s the tone of that opening? “Alas, tis true, I have gone here and there” Is that full disclosure, or is that “here and there” a way of trivializing his commonness? (“Tush—it was only here and there, a little wild oat sowing. Boys will be boys, you know.”) The same confession that isn’t quite a full confession might be implied by “Made myself a motley to the view.” Remember that in Sonnet 69 it wasn’t the “motley” that fools and their foolishness wear, it was the much viler odor of “the rank smell of weeds.” “Motley” again seems a way of minimizing his confessional.
But if the language of those first three lines makes his confession suspect, what do we do with the logic of the second quatrain, where he turns profligacy to a virtue by declaring that it is precisely because he has been out “here and there” that he now can love so well! Having tried out so many others, he declares, I find, by comparison, that you are “my best of love.” This is the same egocentric strategy found in Cole Porter’s line: “Yes, I’m always true to you darlin’ in my fashion, Yes, I’m always true to you darlin’ in my way…” (itself based on Ernest Dowson’s line: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”). When so many of Shakespeare’s sonnet speakers use far viler language for this kind of infidelity (compare Sonnet 94’s “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”), why should the gentler, indirectly exculpatory language used here escape notice?
The infelicity of “grind” in line 10, too, jars. With its too vividly sexual image it seems almost calculated to undercut the smarmy apology then underway. Even as he apologizes and swears loyal true love, his imagination is describing his future fidelity with an image of sexual dissipation! But the touch I like most, that most suggests the pathetic whinging of this love making is in the couplet:
Puh-leeze! Isn’t that touch with the repetition in the last line nice? Yes, she would have to be “most most” loving indeed were she to take this fellow back. Yet at the same time I like to think that his repetition there also connotes both a tinge of desperation as well as perhaps how empty his imagination finally finds itself. He has room in that last line for one more syllable to strengthen his plea, and still the best he can do is repeat the one he already has!
So if Sonnet 69 is an accusation against a lover who has
grown weedy, here is a weedy lover flippantly arguing for his reunion
with the lover he has so thoroughly betrayed. Again, it is a symmetry
that would appeal to a dramatist—we get both sides, see two characters
as each would see a similar situation.
Hard to find much cynical in that. Still, when you think more carefully about it, first it’s pretty much about beauty, and you would hope we’re too sophisticated to let that be the limits of our love. And second, if you listen closely, it’s not really finally about how beautiful he finds his lover to be anyway, but rather how important it is to have a poet in your life in order to catalogue whatever beauty one has before it all slips away. On reflection it’s once again another way of making love—not so much by praise, but rather by promises.
I shall repeat myself. Are there then no REALLY nice sonnets? None that aren’t either sneaky nice, or self-aggrandizing? Poetry appropriate for that splendid moment of romantic love when you want just the right thing said, just the right note of complication, of respect, of praise and humility? Well, if there is one, 53 might be it—though not one well known at all. Again it’s a little complicated to unpack syntactically. But tonally it is as straightforward as Shakespeare can be.
That really is sweet—and is appropriate (as I hope you’ll now agree 116 is NOT!) for weddings and funerals. But I’d better not start looking at it carefully—its being Shakespeare, it may take an ugly turn if we read it too closely!
Churchill said of Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Shakespeare’s sonnets are similar: a set of riddles (the complex dramatic structure of each sonnet) wrapped in a mystery (the connections—or lack thereof—between different sonnets), set within an enigma (the larger biographical issues of Shakespeare’s life). Since we have no answers about the enigma of Shakespeare’s life, readers have often turned to the mystery—and tried to tease out from a reading of all the sonnets some narrative background within which each single sonnet could take its position: Dark Lady, Fair-haired Man, and infidelity of one, a tryst between the two. But that, too, leaves great holes—and thus leaves us with little context with which to read the even more riddling single poems. We do find some poems that seem to inform each other (like 138 and 116), and when we do we shouldn’t be shy about using them. But we won’t get nearly as much help as we would like from that mystery level. So there we are—stuck with the difficult work of piecing whole dramatic worlds out of single, tiny riddling poems, each a different contribution towards the larger project of making sense of making love.
Some may be unhappy with the biographical inconclusiveness of all this, but I’m not. First, to repeat that with which I began, the sonnets seem to be far less interesting as a story of Shakespeare’s love life than as a very intense poetic anatomy of love. Shakespeare shows us love being made, and unmade, and remade—he offers a range of situation and emotion that is quite unlike any other thing he wrote, even if it is easy to make connections from the little jewels of particular sonnets to the much larger canvases of his plays. The most obvious of these might be the parallel between Sonnet 94 and Measure for Measure, but I’m sure each of us can find other linkages to make. But even more important, once you get notions of Shakespeare’s biography out of your mind the sonnets as a sequence turn out to be anything but incomplete. They don’t need to be a narrative whole to be wholly interesting as what may be the most extensive and varied run of love dramas ever written.
The Skills of Active Reading
Few new readers of Shakespeare easily see how to read early modern poetic language effectively. Instead most jump to general thematic reflection before they have first fully explored the logic of a work’s language. But how can that be changed? Paying attention to a work's language follows a sequence in the conceptual skills it requires. Learning that sequence of conceptual skills is central to this course; unsurprisingly it also underlies my grading criteria.
Paraphrase. Preceding the active reading of Early Modern texts is simple comprehension. Shakespeare’s English is different enough from our English that most new readers work hard to get even the literal sense of a text. Thus many students will have made progress just by learning to paraphrase, and that is in fact no small accomplishment. Nevertheless, accurate paraphrase really is only a preliminary skill presupposed in writing about literary texts, not something teachers normally give credit for.
Noticing. Paraphrase presupposed, then, the first level of active reading is the noticing of specific choices authors make among possible alternative uses of language. An author may choose, for example, to use a metaphor, or to elevate diction, or (in a verse drama) to switch mid-scene from verse to prose. Those choices are easily enough seen once pointed them out, but without help many new readers look right past them. The capacity to notice the specific choices writer make corresponds to “Specifics,” the most basic of my grading criteria.
Exploring: Active reading’s second level is exploring, the word I use to describe the process of working through the interpretive possibilities of the specifics one notices. Having noticed that a particular expression is metaphorical, for example, can you go on to explore the logic of that metaphor? How, for example, do its terms shape the way we understand a character’s utterance? Exploring depends upon noticing (how could you explore something you haven’t yet noticed?), and is thus a higher order skill; it is also a more challenging task because it doesn’t have fixed, “right-wrong” answers. It is in this sense open-ended, and readers must develop a certain interpretive patience if they are to get beyond the superficial. Good explorations should be full, not sketchy, and thus my criterion for this skill has the double label: “Exploration/Fullness.”
Integration: My criterion for the third level of active reading is “Integration/ Power,” and it stands for the ability to pull together, sort, and evaluate the many particular observations made while noticing specifics and exploring their semantic logic. At some point in the process of noticing and exploring a text, expert readers begin to think about what that work is trying to do, and whether and how it achieves its goal. A work can have one or more of many different goals. It may seek to teach, or please, or move its readers to action. It may stage a kind of conversation with its readers about controversial or taboo subjects. It may eulogize or praise the things it represents; it may satirize or mock. In each case, expert readers look to describe as fully and specifically as possible any given work’s project—its set of goals to accomplish—and then to explain as completely as they can how its words, lines, scenes or paragraphs work to complete that project.
(For more on these levels of active reading, see “Thumb-plunging,”
“Cultural Conversations,” and “Criteria for Interpretive
Essays in this Class.” All are included in Reading and Writing