Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Shakespeare's Ups and Downs

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Like most masters of the English language, Shakespeare really knew how to portray his emotions. When he was up, the world knew, life was good, and blissful content like Sonnet 18 was born. But when he was down, the very depths of the underworld seemed to wretch with sadness. The man had a way with words. His Sonnet 29 is a prime example of this. In the beginning, it’s plain that Shakespeare’s speaker is down in the dumps and feels like his life is a wreck. However, at about the tenth line in, readers get practically get whiplash from the speaker’s sharp mood swing to bright and cheery gaiety. The change is so sharp, in fact, that one can hypothesize that the bard did not merely have a case of the blues, but actually had an undiagnosed form of depression.

While it might appear that this assumption blows Shakespeare’s drama out of proportion, there is some actual evidence to back it up. Shakespeare uses the word “state” three times within the sonnet, and each reference marks a different point in his mood change. The first time he mentions a “state”, Shakespeare says “I all alone beweep my outcast state.” According to critic Frank Bernhard, “The poet’s outcast state...comes to signify exile….” Shakespeare seems to feel alone, forgotten, ugly, and utterly wretched. However, how closely do his feelings line up with reality? Author Alicia Ostriker believes that Shakespeare’s self-judgement is inaccurate. She writes: “But the comparisons seem absurd. Nobody in his time writes up to Shakespeare's knees.” Shakespeare’s gloomy emotions, to an outsider, appear unfounded—symptoms of a depressed mind.

Shakespeare’s second reference to a “state” comes in these lines: “Haply I think on thee,--and then my state/Like to the lark at break of day arising”. This is where the change begins! All it takes is a thought, one happenstance thought to cross his mind, and moods begin to lift and spirits change. While some may cheer this as a victory over his lonely blues, Bernhard warns that “the radical movement from despair to euphoria must put us on alert.” It is unnatural to move so swiftly between emotions, and signifies a very unbalanced emotional situation. This is how Shakespeare’s second, transitory state would be classified: unstable.

The last “state” mentioned in the sonnet is found in the final couplet: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” This state refers to the realization to which the speaker comes: that love is greater than the wealth and estates of royalty.  It seems like the speaker is a completely different person than the one who wailed and complained at the beginning of the poem. Now, what changed? The speaker still looks the same, has the same amount of friends, writes at the same level as before. Absolutely nothing changed except his attitude. From this, readers can infer that the former misery was self-imposed. As Bernhard puts it, “it may simply refer to the downturns in the continuous mood swings of the manic-depressive cycle.”

So, the question stands: Was Shakespeare depressed, or was he simply a tormented artist like the rest of the English majors? His dark melancholy and lightning-fast euphoria hint that there was more beneath the surface, and that the bard could maybe have used some anti-depressants. But, had Shakespeare been on the happy pills, he might never have supplied the world with such rich works as Sonnet 29.

1 comment:

  1. Shelby, this is fascinating. It would be incredible to go more in depth with psychoanalysis and see how it related to other sonnets. Or, even further, how the psychoanalysis changes as the sonnet cycle progresses. Your work has made me want to re-analyze my own sonnet and think about its emotional implications.