Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Shakespeare's Brilliance Revealed in Simplicity

Share it Please
While Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 focuses on depicting beauty, and Sonnet 116 attempts to define love, at the center of each of the two poems is the concept of eternity. Sonnet 18 is rather explicit in revealing its theme—it uses the wording "eternal summer" and  "eternal lines." Sonnet 116 is slightly more subtle; it illustrates love as "an ever-fixed mark," "never shaken," and "not Time's fool."

However, where these two similarly-themed poems begin to sharply diverge is when the complexity of these lyrical compositions is analyzed. On one hand, Sonnet 18 is strung together with a creative, extended metaphor and vivid imagery; contrarily, Sonnet 116 is fairly plain. It's word choice is mostly unremarkable; its use of metaphor and imagery are seemingly dull and unimpressive, at least when compared to his other works; his usually strategically rhythmic iambic pentameter is arguably slowed to a near steady march.

This observation begs the question, if Sonnet 116 is so simple, why, then, is it one of Shakespeare's most popular sonnets? The answer lies in its curious simplicity—it is timelessly brilliant because of how it masterfully it captures the idea of a grand, eternal love with such rudimentary writing methods.


Tucker Brooke observes, "Seventy-five percent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of 'poetic' diction." "Impediments," "alternation," and "remover" appear in the first four lines, but after that the words are short and common. None of the verbs Shakespeare uses (e.g., admits, bends, remove, come) are unusual. He uses the verb "alters" twice.

Brooke continues, "In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language... to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection." While the words Shakespeare carefully placed aren't flashy in and of themselves, their expert placement, allowing them to flow naturally, is what is truly exceptional. For example, the line "sickle compass come," with the repetition of the harsh "c" sound, imitates the ticking of a clocking, symbolizing the passing of time. 


SparkNotes points out that "Sonnet 116 is not remarkable for its imagery or metaphoric range." The imagery employed is comparable to Shakespeare's other sonnets (see Sonnet 130  for similar use of "rosy cheeks").

SparkNotes further comments, "Its major metaphor (love as a guiding star) is hardly startling in its originality." Apparently, this metaphor was quite common at the time, and it is surprising that Shakespeare would select such a well-known symbol rather than creating a new, original connection. Yet, we see his confidence in this symbol provide steadiness to his poem. 

In the third quatrain, Love and Time are both personified. Interestingly, Love is personified by what it isn't: a court jester at the beck of a ruler (Time). Time is represented by what appears to be  Grim Reaper-like figure; this interpretation is derived from the description of the "bending sickle." These metaphors were also well-understood during his lifetime—but what better way to represent death than a dark, hooded figure!


The meter in Sonnet 116 is more or less standard. Two lines have have eleven syllables (6 and 8), but other than that, it meticulously follows the rules of iambic pentameter, almost generating a march-like feel. The steady beat is consistent with the intent of the poem: to depict love as steady, unchanging, and eternal. It seems that everything about this poem, its word choice, its use of metaphor, and its meter were all perfectly crafted to contribute to its central theme.

Shakespeare was brilliant—Sonnet 116 is undeniable proof. Sometimes it isn't the hidden meaning in a text that the reader must laboriously extract until it surfaces that evidences an author's greatness; rather, it is the obvious meaning, set up so clearly that the reader cannot misunderstand, that solidifies an author's place in history.

*Images were found here*

No comments:

Post a Comment