I reckon you’ve probably heard of William Shakespeare, right? Given that he lived and wrote in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and that was quite a long time ago, so he must’ve been doing something right for us to still be reading, performing and watching his work four hundred years later. That being said, you might only know him from bad English lessons at school, in which case you probably found him dull and largely unintelligible – but I beg to differ.
Now, the way we use the English language has changed in the last few centuries – and our use of spelling, oh boy, we aren’t even sure of the ‘correct’ spelling of his name – so the confusion of poorly-taught school children is understandable. But also there would be plenty of room for interpretation even if it was contemporary language, let alone with our understanding of the language he uses, and that’s where I think it gets really fun.
He was a prolific writer, with 39 plays and lots of poems to his name and while he’s best known for the plays, lets talk about his sonnets today. A sonnet is 14 lines written in iambic pentameter (ten syllables, unstressed then unstressed: de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM) with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyming scheme, and he’s credited with 154 of them so I guess he did a few, got quite good at them and stuck to what he knew.
There’s a suggestion that these were for private readership and were never intended for publication. Some are dedicated to ‘the dark lady’ (who may or may not be a real person but almost certainly wasn’t his actual wife), others to a ‘fair youth’ (clearly male, so absolutely not his wife). Let’s look at sonnet 31, one of the fair youth sonnets.
It’s generally thought to be about remembering old ‘dead’ (I don’t think literally) loves and comparing them to his current relationship with the fair youth. I’m not sure its all that romantic – these people don’t love me any more so they’re dead to me; I love you now and I see aspects of them in you – but at least there are (apparently) some dirty jokes to lighten the mood a bit.
But that wasn’t my initial (mis)understanding of the poem. When I first read it, it sounded a bit Ed Gein-y to me:
And there reigns love and all love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought burièd[…]
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things removed that hidden in thee lie.
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone
I accept that probably says more about me than it does about Shakespeare.
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