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Thread: Shakespeare's sonnets

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Shakespeare's sonnets

    I have been reading Shakespeare's sonnets. I have always had a problem with Shakespeare, like most people I expect, but I thought maybe I could get into him via his poems. I did like a couple of his sonnets. There was Let Me to the Marriage of True Minds, which I remember we did at school, and When in Disgrace in Fortune and Men's Eyes that Rufus Wainwright set to music (I like the version sung by Florence Welch). Thing is, I remember the meaning of of the first one because we did it in English class, and I was motivated to study the second one because I liked it as a song. As for the others, even though I understand most the words, I feel I'm missing the point. Perhaps I shouldn't be reading them ten at a time.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Hey, Kev. Listen, this question isn't motivated by anything but curiosity, but what problem is it you think most people have with Shakespeare?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Basically that they don't really understand it.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Do you mean they don't understand his language or they don't process his plays on a personal/intellectual level? If its the latter, I would suggest approaching the plays as poems themselves, and as an immersive sort of poetry at that. I suspect (having read your very insightful analyses of Victorian literature) that you are approaching the plays hyper rationally. You can do that with Shakespeare. There is much to analyze. But try approaching the language--the sound of the language--as a kind of music. Lately I've been listening to a recording of A Midsummer Night's Dream in before I go to sleep. I know the story of course, but what I listen to is the comical piping of the lovelorn teenagers and it's spooky echo in the fairies' banter--resolving itself by the end into this haunting, sensuous, Christo-pagan...I was going to say vision but you here it. Try knowing the play that way and then seeing (over time) what ideas come to you about Shakespeare's themes and ideas. But let them come to you. I'll leave the link for the version of A Midsummer Night's Dream I've been listening to, but you could do the same for most/all of his plays. Well, maybe not Titus Andronicus.

    Here's the link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SRZ2SmmyMC4
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-10-2019 at 10:08 PM.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I think it's more the language than the concepts that are difficult for most modern people. For example, the Let Me No to the Marriage of True Minds sonnet I was taught in class at school:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love [impediments, slightly unusual word]
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove. [what does this mean?]
    O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
    That looks on tempests and is never shaken; [tempests, slightly unusual word for storm]
    It is the star to every wand'ring bark, [what's a bark]
    Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. [Why would they take the height of a star]
    Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle's compass come; [What does this mean? What does compass mean here? Why is the sickle bending?]
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me prov'd,
    I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd. [Writ presumably means wrote. Loved does not rhyme with proved]

    It's a nice poem when you find out what it means. It strikes me as a suitable poem for second marriages. I think human minds can fill for odd words in speech they don't understand, but if there are too many, the message breaks down.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    I know what you mean where the sonnets are concerned. They are less intuitive than the plays (or perhaps the plays simply provide more context). But other poetry is the same: it requires a process of decoding and ownership by the reader. Is Dylan Thomas any easier? Not to me. In Shakespeare's case, the intricacy of language is part of its beauty and the complexity of Shakespeare's thought part of his genius. But as I tried to say above, I prefer direct immersion in the poetry of the plays to plucking at the petals of the sonnets.

    Here, I'll address your questions as best I can. If I miss something, maybe someone else can help.

    Q. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove. [what does this mean?]

    A. "Bends" and "alters" here mean the same thing: changes. So love is not love if it changes when it finds changes in a lover. That includes withdrawing (removing) one's love when one's beloved seems to withdraw his or hers (and so becomes "the remover").

    Q. It is the star to every wand'ring bark, [what's a bark]

    A. A bark is a ship. So love is a fixed point to (figuratively) storm-tossed lovers.

    Q. Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. [Why would they take the height of a star]

    A. To navigate the uncertain way--as with a sextant.

    Q. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle's compass come; [What does this mean? What does compass mean here? Why is the sickle bending?]

    A. The trick is to understand that the sickle belongs to Time, that is, to Chronos, a nasty Grim-Reaper-like figure. Youthful beauty comes within the sweep (compass) of his sickle: it fails with age. But real love is not beguiled by such transient things: it lasts "even to the edge of doom"--that is in old age as far as death. And the sickle is bending because sickles bend. It's just an epithet.

    Q. I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd. [Writ presumably means wrote. Loved does not rhyme with proved]

    A. It doesn't now but it did then.

    This was fun. I'd be interested to hear other interpretations. Post more if you want.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-12-2019 at 02:14 PM.

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Nice reading, PB. It seems to me that the changeability of love is one of the themes of this play.
    Elisabethan English is difficult anyway for us today, but in the shakesperian baroque wordplays is appears in its most complex form I think.

    Kev, to get used to it one has to read, read, read, read Shakespeare until the language becomes familiar, for it is like learning a new language, even if one is native in modern English. And I would also start with the plays, as PB suggests because one usually knows the story and that helps considerably with the language.

    If you don´t have the time to reread a play or a sonnet three, fouror five times I recommend the use of a good Shakesperian glossary/ dictionary. I found this one. I don´t know if it is good. I tested it with the word "bark", but didn´t find it.
    https://archive.org/details/shakespe...iouoft/page/n3

    Another thing that may help is occasionally to change the order of the words (exclusively for a better understanding) so that you get a prose sentence.
    Compare: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds = "Let me not admit impediments to the marriage of true minds"

    Admit impediments."

    Of course the first example is the poetic one. But the second helps one to get at the meaning.
    "You can always find something better than death."
    Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Bremen Town Musicians

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    Thank you, Danik. The changability of young love/infatuation is certainly a theme of A Midsummer Night's Dream (if that's what you meant by "this play"). Cupid is described as incompetent, blind, or just mischevious. "Cupid is a knavish lad/Thus to make poor females mad", as the Puck says. It's just the opposite of Romeo and Juliet, in which puppy love is constant unto death. But A Midsummer Night's Dream is the anti-Romeo and Juliet in some ways. And for all its fantasy, it is (paradoxically) the more realistic of the two--at least about that kind of love.

    It's interesting to me that neither one of you knew a bark was a ship. "Though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest tossed" and all that. I don't think it's all that archaic a usage. Anyway, as Danik says, picking up the lingo just takes practice. And as someone or other said, the labor we delight in physics pain.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-12-2019 at 04:20 PM.

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Yes, that's exactly the play I mean (it's the one under discussion) and I think the word infatuation you used best describes this kind of love. I also agree that this play is much more realistic than Romeo and Juliet. The fairies are just there to make the truth more palatable und to provide wonderful staging scenarios, I guess ( though in Shakespeare's time one used the imagination more than actual scenery.
    As for the word "bark", its meaning should have occurred to me because in Portuguese we have the word "barca", which is a larger kind of boat.
    "You can always find something better than death."
    Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Bremen Town Musicians

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Sorry! Double post
    "You can always find something better than death."
    Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Bremen Town Musicians

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    Thank you, Danik. The changability of young love/infatuation is certainly a theme of A Midsummer Night's Dream (if that's what you meant by "this play"). Cupid is described as incompetent, blind, or just mischevious. "Cupid is a knavish lad/Thus to make poor females mad", as the Puck says. It's just the opposite of Romeo and Juliet, in which puppy love is constant unto death. But A Midsummer Night's Dream is the anti-Romeo and Juliet in some ways. And for all its fantasy, it is (paradoxically) the more realistic of the two--at least about that kind of love.

    It's interesting to me that neither one of you knew a bark was a ship. "Though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest tossed" and all that. I don't think it's all that archaic a usage. Anyway, as Danik says, picking up the lingo just takes practice. And as someone or other said, the labor we delight in physics pain.
    I did know a bark was a ship, but only because I remember it from English class 30 odd years ago. I used that sonnet because it was one of only two I actually understood properly. I am surprised Danik understands Shakespeare at all since English is not her first language.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by Danik 2016 View Post
    Yes, that's exactly the play I mean (it's the one under discussion)
    Okay, but just to be clear, the text Kev posted wasn't from A Midsummer Night's Dream.


    Quote Originally Posted by Danik 2016 View Post
    The fairies are just there to make the truth more palatable und to provide wonderful staging scenarios, I guess ( though in Shakespeare's time one used the imagination more than actual scenery.
    I think the fairies are (among other things) mirrors of the humans characters. There's a great old stage tradition of having the same actors who play Theseus and Hypolyta, former enemies now engaged, also play Oberon and Titania, now quarreling but harmoniously reunited when Theseus and Hippolyta marry at the end. And Oberon's attendant Philostrate sometimes also plays Puck. But I think the fairies mostly represent the beguiling sexual feelings that are driving the lovelorn teenagers. In fact, the whole play is more or less about adolescence. All run away to this haunted realm where they are pulled this way and that by forces they can't control. They emerge as mature and (given their comments during the internal play) somewhat less likable adults. That's a pretty good synopsis.

    Lately I've been considering the theme of paradox in the play. Bottom and the mechanicals are always saying dumb things like "I see a voice!" or talking about how they are going to perform their play on Theseus and Hypolita's wedding day at night. After Bottom's trippy sexual adventure with Titania is over, there is a scene, usually played for laughs, which I think Shakespeare may have intended philosophically. Trying to make sense of his experience, Bottom confronts the problem of expressing the inexpressible:

    "I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an *** if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom."

    These are jokes, of course, but they have a certain Zen to them, too. What is the sound of one hand tasting? That is what Bottom is asking. What happens when the rules stop making sense? What happens to Bottom when the bottom drops out?

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I did know a bark was a ship, but only because I remember it from English class 30 odd years ago.
    Well, in that case, I'm sure Shakespeare's language will come back to you. Your bark is worse than your plight.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Danik 2016 View Post
    Yes, that's exactly the play I mean (it's the one under discussion) and I think the word infatuation you used best describes this kind of love. I also agree that this play is much more realistic than Romeo and Juliet. The fairies are just there to make the truth more palatable und to provide wonderful staging scenarios, I guess ( though in Shakespeare's time one used the imagination more than actual scenery.
    As for the word "bark", its meaning should have occurred to me because in Portuguese we have the word "barca", which is a larger kind of boat.
    Sure you should

    Notice how the 3 words Kev singled are latin words, Tempest, impediment, bark, and should give us no problem at all. Unlike england, Shakespeare is not an island.
    #foratemer

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    True, and a little classical flexibility with word order will help with the other issues Danik mentioned. Before Yoda the Romans that way talked.

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