Thursday, September 15, 2016

Deep-Seated Depression or Rising Hope?

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 begins as a lamentation of one who despises himself or herself (although the gender is ambiguous, “himself” will be used from here on out). The sonnet seems to take on a theme of deep depression, possibly even a clinical depression, as more seriously defined by today’s medical terms. However, the deep depression is lifted part-way through the poem, which can leave the reader wondering what the actual theme of the poem may be.

The beginning of the poem is quite clearly very depressing. Words such as “deaf heaven” and “myself almost despising” clue the readers into recognizing that the author is not only depressed, but may be suffering under a maniac depression, as pointed out by scholar Bernhard Frank. Frank’s claim is that such language implies a much more profound understanding of depression in Shakespeare than the average human being can imagine. If Shakespeare were to really write something as deeply unsettling as the beginning of sonnet 29, he must have had some sort of personal experience with depression/anxiety in one form or another.

However, this conclusion that Shakespeare must have had maniac depression leads to many other questions as well. After all, Shakespeare was a creator, a man full of imagination and intellect, a creator of words. In short, he was a writer and writers tell stories. Writers’ stories are often backed by personal experiences but not always. Is it possible then that Shakespeare wrote about such depression using the life-experiences of another?

In stepping back from the beginning of the poem and looking at the sonnet as a whole, we notice a stark contrast. At line 9, the poem suddenly shifts from this deep depression already described to a hope and praising that comes as a result of love. This line, referred to as a volta, is jarring at first and with a single word, requires the reader to stop in the flow of dark thoughts for a moment: “Yet.” Although there is no punctuation or other indication of a pause, this tiny word causes readers to stop for a moment and re-think all the previous depression. The line continues: “Yet in these thought myself almost despising…” Suddenly, the reader is carried away into realizing that the poem may not be as dark and depressing as previously described.

Then almost as suddenly as the reader realizes that this poem may not simply be about maniac depression, Shakespeare explains the sudden change further in line 10: “Haply I think on thee…” Now the reader understands why the sudden change and perhaps also why there was a depressing explanation in the first place. In one short instance, the volta suddenly flips the poem’s theme on its head and readers are left wondering if Shakespeare really did suffer from maniac depression or if it was all a poetical device employed by the master writer to create a stark contrast between depression and love.

Works Cited: Frank, Bernhard. “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29.” The Explicator, vol 64, no. 3, 2006, pp. 136-137. ProQuest.


  1. I hadn't considered that Shakespeare may have suffered from depression. Given the tendency of authors and artists to experience emotional imbalances, I shouldn't have been surprised. Love the analysis!

  2. I like what you said about the volta flipping "the poem’s theme on its head." I hadn't before considered whether Shakespeare was depressed or if he was employing literary device. It's an interesting question to raise!