Sunday, November 07, 2004

Living History within Shakespeare's Sonnets

I love reading Shakespeare's sonnets!!! I find them to be so deep in meaning, and because of the fact that I'm a history major, I love how deeply rooted the sonnets are in Elizabethan/Rennaissance culture. You really have to understand the context of these poems in order to really appreciate their true meaning (something that I actually believe is not entirely possible because of our vastly different world views today in comparison to Shakespeare's time). This is what I love most about his sonnets--discovering what various phrases or words meant back then, and trying to then understand these meanings outside of my own world view. But, how difficult this can prove to be!!! I would like to share with you one of Shakespeare's sonnets that I believe portrays the characteristic noted above. That sonnet is number 129.

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
[Mad] in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, an din quest to have, extreme,
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, [a] very woe.
Before, a joy propos'd, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
(From: The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition)

I find this sonnet so interesting because of the way that the narrator (quite possibly Shakespeare) deals with the issue of lust. To us, nowadays, I think that lust has come to be seen as a natural aspect of human nature/behaviour. It is thought that you should indeed have lustful feelings toward your husband or wife in order for your relationship to work out in the long run. During Shakespeare's time, however, lust was seen as a sort of "illness." In a sense, lust was seen as sinful in a time when the church was in the forefront of societal structure. From this particular sonnet, the notion of lust as sinful and evil becomes quite evident. The narrator uses a handful of adjectives to describe the nastiness of lust ("perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, fully of blame..."), which might come off as rather harsh to us today. But I fully believe that it is possible that Sonnet #129 actually sounded pretty standard to Shakespeare's audience. I definitely interpret this sonnet on the sheer hatred of sexual urges as being a reflection of Shakespeare's time and would have been a product of the culture of his reading audience. This is exactly why I love Shakespeare! The explanations to the "oddities" in his sonnets can seem very difficult to comprehend because of differing world views. Maybe this is why people often prefer to read modern poetry over the classic poems of the past because they are most definitely easier to undertand and thus relate to. My thought is, however, that one should never give up trying to understand 'old-fashion' poetry, because it can help you to open your eyes to the unique cultures of the past.


Blogger Donna_f said...

I agree with you about your reason why people don't like "old fashion" poetry. It is too hard to understand and people just don't want to take the time to interpret what each and every word stands for.
The issue of lust within the poem is also very interesting because it is so normal today, but back then was sort of a "taboo" issue. Our world is very different from back then, as we are more accepting of a lot of things whether good or bad.

November 10, 2004 at 9:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home