Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Crash Course Literature 304


This week, we’re learning about sonnets, and English Literature’s best-known purveyor of those fourteen-line paeans, William Shakespeare. We’ll look at a few of Willy Shakes’s biggest hits, including Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment,” and Sonnet 130, “My mistresses’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” We’ll talk about what makes a sonnet, a little bit about their history, and even a little bit about how reading poetry helps us understand how to be human beings.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and you look great.
00:03
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
00:05
Nah. Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
00:08
[Theme Music]
00:17
That William Shakespeare, he knew how to deliver a compliment.
00:19
That’s right, today, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, 159 poems collected and published in 1609.
00:25
Mr Green, Mr Green, what’s a sonnet?
00:26
Good question me from the past.
00:28
In fact, such a good question that your 7th grade English teacher answered it for you, but apparently you’ve forgotten.
00:33
A sonnet is a poetic form consisting of 14 lines.
00:35
And there are various ways to order the stanzas and the rhyme scheme,
00:39
but the Shakespearean stanza — named for Will not because he invented it,
00:43
but, you know, because he was the best at it — consists of three four line stanzas
00:48
and a final rhymed couplet.
00:49
So, the rhyme scheme is: A, B, A, B, C, D, C, D, E, F, E, F, G, G
00:55
And the meter in Shakespeare’s sonnets, as in much of Shakespeare’s plays, is iambic pentameter,
01:00
which means that every line has 10 syllables, consisting of five iambs.
01:05
Which is just a fancy word for pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables,
01:08
so a line of a Shakespearean poem goes: duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH.
01:14
This turns out to do something to English speaking brains that’s just very catchy.
01:17
Like, a lot of times pop songs are written in iambs.
01:20
Like, a lot of times when we speak, we accidentally speak in them.
01:23
But when I’m trying to remember the sound of iambic pentameter,
01:26
I just remember John Keats’s last will and testament, which was one line of iambic pentameter.
01:32
“My chest of books divide among my friends.”
01:35
So today we’re going to look at the history and controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets
01:38
and we’ll look at three particular sonnets.
01:41
They’re often known by their first lines, but they’re also known by numbers.
01:44
So, we’re going to look at Sonnet 18, aka Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,
01:48
Sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment,
01:52
and Sonnet 130, My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.
01:56
So the sonnet gets started, like so many great things, in 13th-century Italy.
02:01
Dante got into it, and then Michelangelo. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
02:04
So the most famous early examples of sonnets were probably those by Petrarch.
02:07
He used a different structure from Shakespeare
02:09
and spent most of his time talking about a woman named Laura
02:12
which you have to pronounce La-oo-ra to make it fit the meter.
02:15
Anyway, he barely knew Laura, but when did that stop men from romanticizing women.
02:19
English sonnets started in the 16th-century and by the 1590s there was a huge craze for them,
02:24
kind of like the craze for boy bands in the 1990s.
02:27
Except with less choreography and hair gel.
02:30
This is more or less when Shakespeare started writing them.
02:32
Dates for his sonnets are pretty inexact, but actually that’s the least of our problems.
02:36
I mean, we know almost nothing about the poems, except the sweet rhyme scheme.
02:41
And that Shakespeare wrote them.
02:42
And yes. We are sure that Shakespeare wrote them.
02:45
He also wrote all of his plays, although the earlier and later plays were probably collaborations.
02:49
OK? That’s settled.
02:50
So Shakespeare wrote these sonnets, 154 of them, probably some time in the 1590s and early 1600s.
02:57
We don’t know if the speaker in the sonnets is Shakespeare himself or some imagined figure,
03:02
although it’s widely assumed that they’re fairly personal, as were most sonnets.
03:05
And we don’t know if these were all the sonnets he wrote.
03:08
They’re just the ones we have.
03:09
And they might have been intended for and audience of everyone,
03:12
or just for the people they were written for, or for an audience of no one.
03:15
However, two of the sonnets showed up in a collection in 1599, so he definitely didn’t keep them too private.
03:20
And a contemporary describes him as showing his “sugared sonnets” around to his “private friends.”
03:26
And then, in 1609, a reputable publisher named Thomas Thorpe,
03:29
published “Shakespeare’s Sonnets — Never Before Imprinted.”
03:32
Well, except for those two published earlier. Thanks, thought Bubble.
03:35
So, the book is dedicated “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr WH.
03:40
All happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth that well-wishing adventurer in setting forth.”
03:47
Now this dedication is signed TT or Thomas Thorpe so we have no idea if the dedication was actually Shakespeare’s,
03:53
or if it was just Thomas Thorpe, and we don’t have any idea who Mr. WH is,
03:58
although that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying to find out.
04:00
We also don’t know if Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in the order they were published in,
04:03
or if he wanted them to be published in that order.
04:06
So as originally published the first 17 sonnets are addressed to a young man,
04:10
telling him to settle down and have kids.
04:13
And then sonnets 18-126 are still concerned with that young man. Probably.
04:18
Relatively few of the sonnets have gendered pronouns, which has caused a lot of bother over the last 400 years.
04:22
But there’s fairly widespread agreement these days that in these sonnets there is
04:26
a relationship between two men that is passionate, and possibly even erotic.
04:31
And this bothered a lot of earlier editors so much,
04:33
that some went to all the trouble to change the pronouns from male to female.
04:37
So, does this mean that Shakespeare was gay?
04:39
I don’t know! I wasn’t alive in the 17th century.
04:42
I also think it’s dangerous to read biography into poetry.
04:45
Also, in 16th and 17th century England, passionate friendships among men were common,
04:50
and they didn’t necessarily involve sex.
04:52
That said, I still think it’s worth noting and understanding,
04:55
that all of the most romantic and loving of the sonnets are those addressed to the young man.
04:59
Like, sonnets 127-154, the ones addressed to the so-called black mistress are a lot darker.
05:05
And no one’s reading those at weddings.
05:06
But about the black mistress or the dark lady, who appears in those sonnets, we also don’t know who she is.
05:11
Scholars have suggested royal waiting women, female poets, at least one British-African brothel owner.
05:17
But we don’t even know if she was black as we use the term today,
05:20
or just brunette, in contrast to the blond young man.
05:23
But the dark lady sonnets are more complicated than the ones addressed to the young man.
05:27
The speaker feels tormented and ashamed of his sexual attraction to the woman
05:31
and even in the sonnets praising her, he gets, as we’ll see, some insults in.
05:35
Like, in sonnet 144, he actually compares the two muses.
05:38
He talks of having two loves: “The better angel is a man right fair; The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.”
05:45
One more thing to know:
05:46
Although Shakespeare was a beloved and popular playwright, his sonnets were not initially a hit.
05:51
Like, that 1609 edition? Pretty much nobody paid attention.
05:54
In fact, for 200 years whenever anyone wrote about the sonnets it was to complain about how boring they were.
06:00
One editor, explaining why he didn’t reprint them in 1793 wrote that not even
06:04
“the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed” would make readers like them.
06:09
And yet, I quite like them.
06:11
Like, Shakespeare manages to cram a lot of emotion even into his highly structured form.
06:15
And maybe most importantly, these sonnets make Shakespeare’s case for why he thinks poetry is important in the first place.
06:22
That people die, but poetry lives on.
06:24
Like, in sonnet 55, Shakespeare writes,
06:27
“Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme
06:32
but you shall shine more bright in these contents than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.”
06:38
And yet, quick side note, Shakespeare talks about how bright this young man’s memory will shine,
06:42
uuh, but we know nothing about him!
06:45
The poetry may last, but people still don’t.
06:47
So, OK, let’s move on to sonnet 18.
06:49
Now if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, you know that Shakespeare wrote this for Gwyneth Paltrow.
06:53
No. He didn’t.
06:54
In ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,’ the thee in question is that mysterious young man.
06:59
Basically, Sonnet 18 is one big extended metaphor.
07:02
But the hook is that it’s a metaphor that the poet admits isn’t especially successful.
07:07
Yes, the poet could compare his beloved to a summer’s day, but it turns out this comparison isn’t really apt.
07:13
Like, the beloved is nicer than a summer’s day.
07:15
The beloved has better weather.
07:17
(Really? Better weather? Well, I guess this was England, so, yeah. Let’s just go with it)
07:21
And there’s always sometimes lousy about summer days —
07:23
they’re too hot or they’re windy or if they’re perfect, they’re over too quickly.
07:27
But that’s not going to be the case with the beloved, because just like in sonnet 55,
07:31
the poet is going to immortalize the beloved in THIS VERY POEM.
07:35
Thereby he will make the young man perfect eternally.
07:38
Like, a summer day might end, but the beauty of the beloved is going to go on forever
07:43
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”
07:46
And this wasn’t just, like, Shakespeare being arrogant.
07:48
It was a pretty common trope of Elizabethan verse,
07:50
this idea that human life is temporary, but that poetry is forever.
07:54
You have to remember, this was a time in human history where mortality was extremely common at all ages.
08:00
It’s not like the vast majority of people died old.
08:02
There was a lot of chance involved.
08:04
So it makes sense to draw a distinction between the constant changing of nature’s seasons,
08:09
versus the eternality of lines of poetry.
08:11
In the end, a poem that starts out saying that the beloved is not like a summer’s day,
08:15
turns out to be a poem in praise not of the beloved, or of summer, but of poetry itself.
08:21
But there’s one more brilliant twist in the poem.
08:24
I mean, look at the end, future looking verbs like
08:26
“shall not fade” and “nor shall brag” give way to ones in the conditional like,
08:32
“can read” and “can see” and then to the present tense of “lives” and “gives.”
08:38
So maybe Shakespeare is admitting that poetry has its own limits, too?
08:42
And then there’s Sonnet 116, which is the one you’re most likely to hear at someone’s wedding.
08:46
This one is also addressed to the young man.
08:48
This is in some ways the high point of Shakespeare’s love poetry,
08:51
although it’s perhaps a more insecure poem than it seems at first.
08:54
Here it’s not poetry that’s the greatest thing ever,
08:57
although Shakespeare definitely gives a hat tip to his own writing, but love itself.
09:01
Now, just as in Sonnet 18, there’s worry over the impermanence of human life and beauty,
09:05
how “rosy lips and cheeks” will be undone by time and death.
09:09
But hey, that won’t matter because love will last eternally or at least until “the edge of doom”
09:15
That’s what Shakespeare hopes, anyway.
09:16
But maybe he isn’t certain, because he’s playing some games with the language here,
09:20
and he’s showing how easily change and fickleness can happen.
09:23
Like, when you look at, or read the poem, notice how easily words change in it
09:27
— alters to alteration, remover to remove.
09:31
Maybe he’s worried that love might change, too.
09:34
I mean, look at that first line, “Love is not love,” and look at all the nos and nors and nevers in the poem.
09:39
But in the end, he does come to an emphatic conclusion.
09:42
He says that if all the things he’s said about love are in error “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
09:47
Obviously, he has written, and men have loved. So his defense of love is solid, right?
09:51
Well, but then remember the line, “Love is not love”?
09:54
There are all kinds of explorations in Shakespeare’s work about what real love is.
09:58
But for me at least, the best line of the poem is when he writes that “love is not time’s fool.”
10:02
True love, to Shakespeare, is not beholden to time. It doesn’t answer to time. It somehow transcends time.
10:09
And lastly, let’s take a brief look at Sonnet 130, one of the ones addressed to the dark lady.
10:13
This sonnet is almost a parody, a send-up of Petrarch’s sonnets about the lovely Laura, whom he barely knew.
10:20
That weird Renaissance worship of the person you met just one time, 20 years ago,
10:25
and the constant exploration of every facet of their beauty, their mouth, their eyes, their cheeks, their hair.
10:31
It gets a little overwhelming.
10:32
In sonnet 130, Shakespeare simultaneously does that, and refuses to do it.
10:37
Like, If he suggested that a summer’s day wasn’t a good enough descriptor of his beloved,
10:41
now he’s suggesting that if you compare his mistress to any of the typical stuff
10:45
—suns, roses, perfume— she’s going to fall very short.
10:49
Her breasts are the color of dun, her hair is like black wires, sometimes her breath smells.
10:54
This strange descriptive aggression characterizes many of the late sonnets,
10:58
where the poet seems to feel ashamed about being attracted to this woman.
11:01
But again, there’s a twist in the end, as there is with every good sonnet’s final couplet.
11:05
“And yet by heaven I think my love as rare/ As any she belied by false compare.”
11:11
Shakespeare isn’t saying, look, my mistress has onion breath.
11:13
Instead, the speaker is instead saying, all of you other poets have been exaggerating like crazy including past me.
11:20
If you were actually going to describe people realistically, his lover would be as beautiful as any other.
11:24
So take that, coral and perfume, and summer days.
11:27
And for me at least, that humanization of the romantic other is more romantic,
11:31
and ultimately more loving than any summer’s day.
11:34
And plus, she’s gonna get to live forever!
11:36
Well, not actually. Because we’re all going to die.
11:39
Even the species is going to cease to exist.
11:41
Thanks for watching Crash Course Literature. See you next week.
11:44
Well, actually, I can’t guarantee that I’ll see you next week.
11:46
But I will, so long as YouTube lives, and eyes can see.
11:49
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11:52
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11:57
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12:01
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12:04
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12:09
Thank you again for watching and as we say in my hometown: Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.


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