When ever you had something very important to say, back in Shakespearean time, you would not simply blurt it out like any old Joe in the street. No, you would use poetry, more specific the sonnet. And you would probably be astonished to learn that a sonnet was common knowledge back then. People would go to the theatre, visit a prostitute, or to a fight of various kinds. And what did Shakespeare do? He spiced his plays with love, fights and obviously the good story, so in the end you got more for your money at The Globe, than any other stage... And the audience knew his language. They knew, for instance, that oh yes, Romeo was in love with Rosaline in the beginning, he declared his love all over the place, no one had in fact been so much in love as he was...The courtly love (I'll get back to this in a later entry)! But then he meets Juliet, and did you know, their first meeting, their first dialogue is a sonnet. That is how the audience knew that this was the one true love. Now, the opening sonnet is one big spoiler, and it's known even before the play start that these two lovers give their lives, or take their lives. But should you have been on the last ferry across the river (London had only one bridge in those days), and enter a bit late, then you would still know that this was the real deal, as they (Romeo and Juliet) performed a sonnet.
Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand A
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this, B
My lips, too blushing pilgrims ready stand A
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. B
Juliet: Good Pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, C
Which mannerly devotion shows in this; B
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, C
And palm to palm is holy palmers kiss. B
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? D
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. E
Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; D
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. E
Juliet: Saints do, not move, though grant for prayers' sake. F
Romeo: Then move not while my prayers' effect I take. F
And as they "seal the deal" with a kiss, the love is not that unobtainable lyrical love, the courtly love, the one you never expect to reach. No, this is love so pure and so real that there is no doubt.
There are a few rules in understanding a Shakespearean play. If a story ends with a wedding, it's a comedy, if it ends with death, it's a tragedy...and then you have the historical plays as a third category. And in Romeo and Juliet we have the wedding in the middle, they even have a wedding night...another hint for the people who came late, this was in fact a tragedy.
But this was about sonnets, not particularly Romeo and Juliet, though I suspect I'll give an entire couple of blogs to the greatest love story ever told...and all the stories to come from this play alone, to mention a few, just quickly before we continue, West Side Story, latest now Gnomeo and Juliet...Oh, we do love James McAvoy...but that's another blog...
First, what is a sonnet?
A sonnet (small song) is a fourteen line poem, origin Italy (Petrarca - Italian poet). Now, I could go into all the details of Petrarcan sonnets, and octaves, and sestets, and confuse you to the very core, but I'm concentrating on the Shakespearean sonnet.
The Shakespearean sonnets are easily recognized on the couplets in the end.
What is a couplet? Two rhyming lines in the end.
Saint's do, not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not while my prayers' effect I take.
These two lines represent the couplet, the two lines that give a sort of conclusion. Romeo has decided he needs a kiss, and does he ever get one;). So, if you read a poem of fourteen lines and the two last lines are rhyming, then chances are you're dealing with a Shakespearean sonnet...
Back in high school we learned about Shakespeare and the sonnets. My teacher then had a certain knowledge, I'll give her that, but she couldn't provide us with a good interpretation of the sonnet; My mistress eyes... And why??? It's coming up!
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, - yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go, -
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground;
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
The interpretation I got back then was that this lover he's referring to is indeed hideous, but he loves her nonetheless. I never quite settled for that interpretation, I felt it was incomplete and too easy. And then, after British Literature at University I finally found a satisfactory answer. You see, then, when Shakespeare lived, the female was, to poets, a symbol of divinity. Her skin was white as snow, she had roses in her cheeks, the sun in her eyes, cherries for lips, angels on her forehead, spun gold for hair, etc, and when you actually draw this woman, the result is...well, hideous. And what my Will is saying here is that his mistress is human, not some creature of divine poetry. And I think that's quite brave, he opposes the establishment with fourteen lines...and now, four hundred years later, it lives on.
My favorite sonnet, has actually inspired me to write a novel (yet another blog...), and I thought I'd end this entry with this sonnet. Enjoy!
How can my muse want subject to invent,
Whilst thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.