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Shakespeare's Sonnets /

Reading Shakespeare's Language: Sonnets

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

The language of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, like that of poetry in general, is both highly compressed and highly structured. While most often discussed in terms of its images and its metrical and other formal structures, the language of the Sonnets, like that of Shakespeare’s plays, also repays close attention to such basic linguistic elements as words, word order, and sentence structure.

Shakespeare’s Words

Because Shakespeare’s sonnets were written more than four hundred years ago, they inevitably contain words that are unfamiliar today. Some are words that are no longer in general use—words that the dictionaries label archaic or obsolete, or that have so fallen out of use that dictionaries no longer include them. One surprising feature of the Sonnets is how rarely such archaic words appear. Among the more than a thousand words that make up the first ten sonnets, for instance, only eleven are not to be found in current usage: self-substantial (“derived from one’s own substance”), niggarding (“being miserly”), unfair (“deprive of beauty”), leese (“lose”), happies (“makes happy”), steep-up (“precipitous”), highmost (“highest”), hap (“happen”), unthrift (“spendthrift”), unprovident (“improvident”), and ruinate (“reduce to ruins”). Somewhat more common in the Sonnets are words that are still in use but that in Shakespeare’s day had meanings that are no longer current. In the first three sonnets, for example, we find only used where we might say “peerless” or “preeminent,” gaudy used to mean “brilliantly fine,” weed where we would say “garment,” glass where we would say “mirror,” and fond where we would say “foolish.”

The most significant feature of Shakespeare’s word choice in the Sonnets is his use of words in which multiple meanings function simultaneously. In line 5 of the first sonnet, for example, the word contracted means “bound by contract, bethrothed,” but it also carries the sense of “limited, shrunken.” Its double meaning enables the phrase “contracted to thine own bright eyes” to say succinctly to the young man not only that he has betrothed himself to his own good looks but that he has also thereby become a more limited person. In a later line in the same sonnet (“Within thine own bud buriest thy content” [s. 1.11]), the fact that thy content means both (1) “that which is contained within you, specifically, your seed, that with which you should produce a child,” and (2) “your happiness” enables the line to say, in a highly compressed fashion, that by refusing to propagate, refusing to have a child, the young man is destroying his own future well-being.

It is in large part through choosing words that carry more than one pertinent meaning that Shakespeare packs into each sonnet almost incalculable richness of thought and imagery. In the opening line of the first sonnet (“From fairest creatures we desire increase”), each of the words fairest, creatures, and increase carries multiple relevant senses; when these combine with each other, the range of significations in this single line is enormous. In Shakespeare’s day, the word fair primarily meant “beautiful,” but it had recently also picked up the meaning of “blond” and “fair-skinned.” In this opening line of Sonnet 1, the meaning “blond” is probably not operative (though it becomes extremely pertinent when the word fair is used in later sonnets), but the aristocratic (or upper-class) implications of “fair-skinned” are very much to the point (or so argues Margreta de Grazia; see Further Reading), since upper-class gentlemen and ladies need not work out of doors and expose their skins to wind and sun. (The negative class implications of outdoor labor carried in the sonnets by “dark” or “tanned” are carried today in the label “redneck.”) The second word, creatures, had several meanings, referring, for example, to everything created by God, including the plant kingdom, while in some contexts referring specifically to human beings. When combined with the third word, increase (which meant, among its pertinent definitions, “procreation,” “breeding,” “offspring,” “a child,” “crops,” and “fruit”), the word creatures takes the reader’s mind to Genesis 1.28 and God’s instructions to humankind to multiply and be fruitful, while the plant-life connotation of all three of the words provides a context for later words in the sonnet, such as rose, famine, abundance, spring, and bud. The words Shakespeare places in this first line (“From fairest creatures we desire increase”)—with their undoubted link to concerns about upper-class propagation and inheritance—could well have alerted a contemporary reader to the sonnet’s place in a familiar rhetorical tradition, that concerned with persuading a young gentleman to marry in order to reproduce and thus secure his family line and its heritable property. (See Erasmus’s “Epistle to persuade a young gentleman to marriage,” excerpted in the Appendix.)

While almost every line of the 154 sonnets begs for a comparable unpacking of Shakespeare’s words, we will here limit ourselves to two additional examples, these from lines 2 and 4 of the same sonnet (Sonnet 1). First, the word rose in the phrase beauty’s rose (line 2) engages the reader’s mind and imagination at many levels. Most simply, it refers simultaneously to the rose blossom and the rosebush; this double signification, as Stephen Booth points out (see Further Reading), enables the sonnet to acknowledge that although the individual person, like the rose blossom, inevitably withers and dies, the family line, like the rosebush, lives on through continual increase. But the rose signifies as well that which is most beautiful in the natural world. (See, e.g., Isaiah 35.1: “The desert and the wilderness shall rejoice; the waste ground shall be glad and flourish as the rose.”) And beauty’s rose not only meant youthful beauty but also inevitably called up memories of the Romance of the Rose (widely published in Chaucer’s translation), in which the rose stands allegorically for the goal of the lover’s quest. (The fact that the lover in the Romance desires a specific unopened rosebud, rather than one of the rosebush’s opened flowers, may have implications for the word bud in line 11.)

The word rose, then, gains its multiple resonances by referring to both a flower and its bush and through meanings accumulated in cultural and poetic traditions. In contrast, the particular verbal richness of the word his in line 4, “His tender heir might bear his memory” (and in many of the other sonnets), exists because Shakespeare took advantage of a language change in process at the very time he was writing. Until around 1600 the pronoun his served double duty, meaning both his and its. However, in the late 1590s and early 1600s, the word its came into existence as possessive of it, and his began gradually to be limited to the meaning it has today as the possessive of he. Because of the emerging gender implications of his, the pronoun as used in line 4, while primarily meaning its and thus referring to beauty’s rose, also serves as a link between the sonnet’s first line, where the fairest creature is not yet a rose, and the young man, first directly addressed in line 5.

Because the diction of the Sonnets is so incredibly rich in meanings, we have had to curtail severely our notes on words with multiple meanings. Where the primary meaning of a word is clear and where secondary meanings are readily available or are not essential to an understanding of the poem, we all too often have had to remain silent. When it seems possible that a given word might have more than one relevant meaning, the reader should test out possible additional meanings and decide if they add richness to the line. The only hazard here is that some words have picked up new meanings since Shakespeare’s death; careful study of the diction of his Sonnets thus compels one to turn to a dictionary based on historical principles, such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

When Shakespeare made the decision to compose his Sonnets using the English (in contrast to the Italian) sonnet form, he seems at the same time to have settled on the shape of the Sonnets’ sentences. The two forms are distinguished by rhyme scheme: in the Italian sonnet, the rhyme scheme in effect divides the poem into two sections, the eight-line octave followed by the six-line sestet; in the English, it sets three four-line quatrains in parallel, followed by the two-line rhyming couplet. While Shakespeare finds almost infinite ways to provide variety within the tightly controlled form of the English sonnet, and while the occasional sonnet is made up of a single sentence (e.g., Sonnet 29), his sentences tend to shape themselves within the bounds set by the quatrain and the couplet—that is, most quatrains and most couplets are each made up of one sentence or question, with occasional quatrains made up of two or more sentences or questions. (Quatrains that, in modern printed editions, end with a semicolon rather than a period or question mark are often so marked only to indicate that the thought continues into the next quatrain; syntactically, the clause is generally independent and could be completed with a period instead.) The reader therefore seldom finds in the Sonnets the long, complicated sentences often encountered in Shakespeare’s plays. One does, though, find within the sentences the inversions, the interruptions of normal word order, and the postponements of essential sentence elements that are familiar to readers of the plays.

In the Sonnets as in the plays, for example, Shakespeare often rearranges subjects and verbs (i.e., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”); he frequently places the object before the subject and verb (i.e., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”), and he puts adverbs and adverbial phrases before the subject and verb (i.e., “I hit fairly” becomes “Fairly I hit”). The first sonnet in the sequence, in fact, opens with an inversion, with the adverbial phrase “From fairest creatures” moved forward from its ordinary syntactical position after the verb. This transformation of the sentence “We desire increase from fairest creatures” into “From fairest creatures we desire increase” (s. 1.1) has a significant effect on the rhythm of the line and places the emphasis of the sentence immediately on the “fairest” creature who will be the topic of this and many sonnets to follow. In Sonnet 2 the sentence “Thy beauty’s use would deserve much more praise” is transformed into “How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use” (s. 2.9), in large part through a double inversion: the transposing of the subject (“thy beauty’s use”) and the verb (“deserved”) and the placing of the object before the inverted subject and verb. Again, the impact on the rhythm of the line is significant, and the bringing of the word praise toward the beginning of the line emphasizes the word’s echo of and link to the preceding line (“Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise”) through its reiteration of the word praise and through repetition of the vowel sound in shame.

Occasionally the inversions in the Sonnets seem primarily to provide the poet with a needed rhyme word. In Sonnet 3, for example, the difference between “she calls back / In thee the lovely April of her prime” and “she in thee / Calls back the lovely April of her prime” (s. 3.9–10) seems largely to rest on the poet’s choice of “thee” rather than “back” for the sonnet’s rhyme scheme. However, Shakespeare’s inversions in the Sonnets often create a space for ambiguity and thus for increased richness and compression. Sometimes the ambiguity exists only for a moment, until the eye and mind progress further along the line and the reader sees that one of the initially possible meanings cannot be sustained. For example, in Sonnet 5, the line “And that unfair which fairly doth excel” (s. 5.4) seems initially to present “that unfair” as the demonstrative adjective that followed by another adjective, unfair, until a reading of the whole line reveals that there is no noun for these apparent adjectives to modify, and that “that unfair” is more likely an inversion of the verb to unfair and its object, the pronoun that. The line thus means simply “deprive that of beauty which fairly excels”—though wordplay on fairly as (1) “completely,” (2) “properly,” and/or (3) “in beauty” makes the line far from simple.

Often the doubleness of meaning created by the inversion remains unresolved. In Sonnet 3, for example, the line “But if thou live remembered not to be” (s. 3.13) clearly contains an inversion in the words “remembered not to be”; however, it is unclear whether “remembered not to be” inverts “to be not remembered” (i.e., “[only] to be forgotten”) or “not to be remembered” (i.e., “[in order] to be forgotten”). Thus, while the primary meaning of the line may well be “if you live in such a way that you will not be remembered,” the reader cannot dismiss the line’s simultaneous suggestion that the young man is living “with the intent of being forgotten” (Booth). The inversion, in other words, allows the line to carry two distinct tones, one of warning and the other of accusation.

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his Sonnets as in his plays, words that would in a normal English sentence appear together are separated from each other, usually in order to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word or phrase. In Sonnet 1, for example, in lines 5–6 (“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes, / Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel”), the subject thou is separated from its verb feed’st by a phrase that, because of its placement, focuses sharp attention on the young man’s looks and the behavior that the poet sees as defining him. A few lines later in the same sonnet,

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring

Within thine own bud buriest thy content . . .

(lines 9–11)

the subject Thou is separated from its verb buriest, first by a clause that in its extreme praise (“that art now the world’s fresh ornament / And only herald to the gaudy spring”) is in interesting and direct contrast to the tone of accusation of the basic sentence elements within which the clause is set (“Thou buriest thy content”); the separation is further extended through the inversion that moves forward a prepositional phrase (“Within thine own bud”) that would in ordinary syntax come after the verb. Line 12 of this same sonnet—“And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding”—exemplifies a familiar kind of interruption in these poems, namely, an interjected compound vocative. Direct address to the beloved in the form of compound epithets, especially where one term of the compound (“tender”) contradicts the other (“churl”), in meaning or in tone, is a device that Shakespeare uses frequently in the Sonnets, heightening the emotional tone and creating the kind of puzzle that makes the poems so intellectually intriguing. (Sonnet 4, for example, contains three such vocatives: “Unthrifty loveliness,” “beauteous niggard,” and “Profitless usurer.”)

Sometimes, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds back the subject and predicate, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give particular emphasis has been presented. The first quatrain of Sonnet 2 holds off until line 3 the presentation of the subject of the sentence, and delays the verb until line 4:

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 tattered weed of small worth held.

In this quatrain, the subject and predicate, “thy . . . livery . . . will be a tattered weed,” are held back while for two lines the poet draws a vivid picture of the young man as he will look in middle age. Sonnet 2 is, in effect, an attempt to persuade, an exhortation to the recipient to change; the powerful description of youth attacked by the forces of time gains much of its strength from its placement in advance of the basic sentence elements. (One need only reverse the order of the lines, placing lines 3–4 before lines 1–2, to see how much power the poem loses with that reversal.)

In addition to the delaying device, the quatrain contains two further Shakespearean sentence strategies—a subject/verb interruption in lines 3–4 followed by a compression in line 4. The phrase “so gazed on now,” which separates the subject and verb (“livery . . . will be”), stresses both the beauty of the young man and the briefness of the moment for which that beauty will exist. The last line, an example of the kind of compression that one finds throughout the Sonnets, would, if fully unpacked and its inversion reversed, read “[that will be] held [to be] a tattered weed of small worth.”

Metaphor and Metrical Effects

This first quatrain of Sonnet 2 can serve as a small example not only of some of Shakespeare’s sentence strategies but also of how his word choice and word order operate to create the visual and musical effects that distinguish the Sonnets. While this topic is so large that we can only touch on it here, it seems appropriate to look at least briefly at two of the Sonnets’ most important poetic techniques—metaphor and metrical effects.

The metaphor, a primary device of poetry, can be defined as a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. In the first quatrain of Sonnet 2 (quoted earlier), the young man’s forehead, “so gazed on now,” is imaged as a “field” that Time places under siege, digging “deep trenches” in its now youthful smoothness. The metaphor fast-forwards the aging process, turning the youth’s smooth forehead in imagination into a furrowed, lined brow. While the word “field” could allude to any kind of open land or plain, the words “besiege” and “trenches” make it more specifically a battlefield ravaged by the armies of “forty winters.” In line 3 the metaphor shifts, and the young man’s youthful beauty is imaged as his “livery,” a kind of uniform or splendid clothing that under the onslaught of time will become a “tattered weed” (weed having here the meaning “garment”). The quatrain seems, then, divided into two parts, with the metaphor shifting from that of the brow as a field to the brow (and other youthful features) as clothing. But the word weed carries its inevitable, though here secondary, meaning of an unwanted plant in a “field” of grass or flowers. This wordplay, which expands the scope of the word field, forces the reader to turn from line 4 back to lines 1 and 2, to visualize again the ravaged “field” of the once-smooth brow, and thus to experience with double force the quatrain’s final phrase “of small worth held”—a phrase that syntactically belongs only to the tattered clothing but that, in the quatrain’s overlapping metaphors, applies more broadly to the young man himself, now “so gazed on” but moving inevitably toward the day when he, no longer beautiful, will be considered “of small worth.”

We mentioned at the outset that the language of the Sonnets is, like poetic language in general, highly structured. Nowhere is this fact more in evidence than in the rhythm of the Sonnets’ lines. All of the Sonnets (except for Sonnet 145) are written in what is called “iambic pentameter” (that is, each line is composed of five metrical “feet,” with each foot containing two syllables, usually with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed). But within this general pattern, Shakespeare takes advantage of several features that characterize pronunciation in English—for example, the syllable stresses that inhere in all English words of more than one syllable, as well as the stress patterns in normal English sentences—and he arranges his words to create amazing metrical variety within the structure of the iambic pentameter line.

To return to the first quatrain of Sonnet 2: the first line of the sonnet (“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”) contains three two-syllable words; two carry stress on the first syllable (“forty” and “winter”) and one is stressed on the second syllable (“besiege”). Shakespeare combines these words with four one-syllable words, three of which are unstressed in normal English sentences—a conjunction (“When”), an auxiliary verb (“shall”), and a possessive pronoun (“thy”). The resulting combination of words produces an almost perfect iambic pentameter (the only departure being the pyrrhic third foot, with its two unstressed syllables—“-ters shall”): “When for′ty win′ters shall besiege′ thy brow.” After thus establishing the meter, the poet can depart radically from the iambic in line 2 without creating confusion about the poem’s overall metrical structure. Line 2 (“And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field”) begins with an iamb (“And dig) but then moves to a “spondee,” a foot with two stressed syllables (“deeptrench-”); the resulting rhythm for the opening of the line is the very strong series of three stressed syllables of “digdeeptrench-.” The line then moves to the unstressed syllables in the pyrrhic foot (“-es in”) before ending in iambic meter (“thy beau′ty’s field)—a pattern that produces three unstressed syllables in mid-line. Line 3 (“Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now”) echoes the opening rhythm of line 2—that is, an iamb followed by a spondee to create three stressed syllables (“Thy youth’sproudliv-”) again followed by three unstressed syllables (“-er-y so”); but then, instead of returning to the iambic, as did line 2, the line concludes with another group of three stressed syllables (“gazedonnow). Line 4 seems to return us to the base of iambic pentameter (“Will be′ a tat′tered weed′ of small) only to end with a spondee (“worthheld), so that the beat of three stressed syllables (heard once in line 2 and twice in line 3) concludes the quatrain. It is to Shakespeare’s skillful use of the unstressed pyrrhic foot that George Wright (see Further Reading, “An Art of Small Differences”) credits much of the “softness and musical grace” of the Sonnets. “The strong iambs and spondees,” he writes, rise from this pyrrhic base, a contrast that allows important spondaic and iambic syllables to gain special emphasis. In the lines we have been examining in Sonnet 2, one can see how the pyrrhics direct attention to such key words and phrases as “besiege” and “gazed on now.”

With metaphors and metrics, as with word choice, word order, and sentence structure, every sonnet provides its own richness and its own variations, as well as occasional exceptions to any generalizations we have suggested. (Two of the Sonnets, for example, deviate even from the standard fourteen-line length, with Sonnet 99 having 15 lines and Sonnet 126 having only 12.) But each sonnet provides rich language, a wonderfully controlled tone, and an intellectual challenge sufficient to reward the most patient and dedicated reader.