FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY
THE WORLD'S LEADING CENTER FOR SHAKESPEARE STUDIES
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William Shakespeare was born on April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, on England’s Avon River. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. The couple had three children—their older daughter, Susanna, and the twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died in childhood.
The bulk of Shakespeare’s working life was spent, not in Stratford, but in the theater world of London, where he established himself professionally by the early 1590s. He had a successful career in London as a playwright and actor and was a shareholder in the acting company the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later known as the King's Men. He produced most of his plays between 1589 and 1613. Sometime between 1610 and 1613, Shakespeare is thought to have retired from the stage and returned home to Stratford, where he died in 1616.
Reading Shakespeare's Language: Sonnets
The language of Shakespeare's Sonnets, like that of poetry in general, is both highly compressed and highly structured. While most often discussed in terms of its images and its metrical and other formal structures, the language of the Sonnets, like that of Shakespeare's plays, also repays close attention to such basic linguistic elements as words, word order, and sentence structure.
Because Shakespeare's sonnets were written four hundred years ago, they inevitably contain words that are unfamiliar today. Some are words that are no longer in general use -- words that the dictionaries label archaic or obsolete, or that have so fallen out of use that dictionaries no longer include them. One surprising feature of the Sonnets is how rarely such archaic words appear. Among the more than a thousand words that make up the first ten sonnets, for instance, only eleven are not to be found in current usage: self-substantial ("derived from one's own substance"), niggarding ("being miserly"), unfair ("deprive of beauty"), leese ("lose"), happies ("makes happy"), steep-up ("precipitous"), highmost ("highest"), hap ("happen"), unthrift ("spendthrift"), unprovident ("improvident"), and ruinate ("reduce to ruins"). Somewhat more common in the Sonnets are words that are still in use but that in Shakespeare's day had meanings that are no longer current. In the first three sonnets, for example, we find only used where we might say "peerless" or "preeminent," gaudy used to mean "brilliantly fine," weed where we would say "garment," glass where we would say "mirror," and fond where we would say "foolish." Words of this kind -- that is, words that are no longer used or that are used with unfamiliar meanings -- will be defined in our facing-page notes.
The most significant feature of Shakespeare's word choice in the Sonnets is his use of words in which multiple meanings function simultaneously. In line 5 of the first sonnet, for example, the word contracted means "bound by contract, bethrothed," but it also carries the sense of "limited, shrunken." Its double meaning enables the phrase "contracted to thine own bright eyes" to say succinctly to the young man not only that he has betrothed himself to his own good looks but that he has also thereby become a more limited person. In a later line in the same sonnet ("Within thine own bud buriest thy content" [s. 1.11]), the fact that thy content means both (1) "that which is contained within you, specifically, your seed, that with which you should produce a child," and (2) "your happiness" enables the line to say, in a highly compressed fashion, that by refusing to propagate, refusing to have a child, the young man is destroying his own future well-being.
It is in large part through choosing words that carry more than one pertinent meaning that Shakespeare packs into each sonnet almost incalculable richness of thought and imagery. In the opening line of the first sonnet ("From fairest creatures we desire increase"), each of the words fairest, creatures, and increase carries multiple relevant senses; when these combine with each other, the range of significations in this single line is enormous. In Shakespeare's day, the word fair primarily meant "beautiful," but it had recently also picked up the meaning of "blond" and "fair-skinned." In this opening line of Sonnet 1, the meaning "blond" is probably not operative (though it becomes extremely pertinent when the word fair is used in later sonnets), but the aristocratic (or upper-class) implications of "fair-skinned" are very much to the point (or so argues Margreta de Grazia; see Further Reading), since upper-class gentlemen and ladies need not work out of doors and expose their skins to wind and sun. (The negative class implications of outdoor labor carried in the sonnets by "dark" or "tanned" are carried today in the label "redneck.") The second word, creatures, had several meanings, referring, for example, to everything created by God, including the plant kingdom, while in some contexts referring specifically to human beings. When combined with the third word, increase (which meant, among its pertinent definitions, "procreation," "breeding," "offspring," "a child," "crops," and "fruit"), the word creatures takes the reader's mind to Genesis 1.28 and God's instructions to humankind to multiply and be fruitful, while the plant-life connotation of all three of the words provides a context for later words in the sonnet, such as rose, famine, abundance, spring, and bud. The words Shakespeare places in this first line ("From fairest creatures we desire increase") -- with their undoubted link to concerns about upper-class propagation and inheritance -- could well have alerted a contemporary reader to the sonnet's place in a familiar rhetorical tradition, that concerned with persuading a young gentleman to marry in order to reproduce and thus secure his family line and its heritable property. (See Erasmus's "Epistle to persuade a young gentleman to marriage," excerpted in the Appendix, pages 619-24.)
While almost every line of the 154 sonnets begs for a comparable unpacking of Shakespeare's words, we will here limit ourselves to two additional examples, these from lines 2 and 4 of the same sonnet (Sonnet 1). First, the word rose in the phrase beauty's rose (line 2) engages the reader's mind and imagination at many levels. Most simply, it refers simultaneously to the rose blossom and the rosebush; this double signification, as Stephen Booth points out (see Further Reading), enables the sonnet to acknowledge that although the individual person, like the rose blossom, inevitably withers and dies, the family line, like the rosebush, lives on through continual increase. But the rose signifies as well that which is most beautiful in the natural world. (See, e.g., Isaiah 35.1: "The desert and the wilderness shall rejoice; the waste ground shall be glad and flourish as the rose.") And beauty's rose not only meant youthful beauty but also inevitably called up memories of the Romance of the Rose (widely published in Chaucer's translation), in which the rose stands allegorically for the goal of the lover's quest. (The fact that the lover in the Romance desires a specific unopened rosebud, rather than one of the rosebush's opened flowers, may have implications for the word bud in line 11.)
The word rose, then, gains its multiple resonances by referring to both a flower and its bush and through meanings accumulated in cultural and poetic traditions. In contrast, the particular verbal richness of the word his in line 4, "His tender heir might bear his memory" (and in many of the other sonnets), exists because Shakespeare took advantage of a language change in process at the very time he was writing. Until around 1600 the pronoun his served double duty, meaning both his and its. However, in the late 1590s and early 1600s, the word its came into existence as possessive of it, and his began gradually to be limited to the meaning it has today as the possessive of he. Because of the emerging gender implications of his, the pronoun as used in line 4, while primarily meaning its and thus referring to beauty's rose, also serves as a link between the sonnet's first line, where the fairest creature is not yet a rose, and the young man, first directly addressed in line 5.
Because the diction of the Sonnets is so incredibly rich in meanings, and because space for our facing-page notes is limited, we have had to curtail severely our notes on words with multiple meanings. Where the primary meaning of a word is clear and where secondary meanings are readily available or are not essential to an understanding of the poem, we all too often have had to remain silent. When it seems possible that a given word might have more than one relevant meaning, the reader should test out possible additional meanings and decide if they add richness to the line. The only hazard here is that some words have picked up new meanings since Shakespeare's death; careful study of the diction of his Sonnets thus compels one to turn to a dictionary based on historical principles, such as the Oxford English Dictionary.
When Shakespeare made the decision to compose his Sonnets using the English (in contrast to the Italian) sonnet form, he seems at the same time to have settled on the shape of the Sonnets' sentences. The two forms are distinguished by rhyme scheme: in the Italian sonnet, the rhyme scheme in effect divides the poem into two sections, the eight-line octave followed by the six-line sestet; in the English, it sets three four-line quatrains in parallel, followed by the two-line rhyming couplet. While Shakespeare finds almost infinite ways to provide variety within the tightly controlled form of the English sonnet, and while the occasional sonnet is made up of a single sentence (e.g., Sonnet 29), his sentences tend to shape themselves within the bounds set by the quatrain and the couplet -- that is, most quatrains and most couplets are each made up of one sentence or question, with occasional quatrains made up of two or more sentences or questions. (Quatrains that, in modern printed editions, end with a semicolon rather than a period or question mark are often so marked only to indicate that the thought continues into the next quatrain; syntactically, the clause is generally independent and could be completed with a period instead.) The reader therefore seldom finds in the Sonnets the long, complicat...
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