April 17, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

“Why should I read Shakespeare?” This question might seem ludicrous and even heretical to the ardent student of Shakespeare, yet for the Everyman of the twentieth century Shakespeare’s relevance might not be at all apparent. Shakespeare’s archaic language, unusual rhymes, and complicated metaphors seem daunting to the average reader and make Shakespeare unapproachable and even odious. If this is the case for so many readers in the waning days of the twentieth century, why is Shakespeare read at all? The essence of his work lives on in films, television, and contemporary novels making the reading of his plays redundant and tedious and the interpretation of his poetry insurmountable. Shakespeare was, without a doubt, both pertinent and admired in his time, but that was four-hundred years ago, making his work outmoded, spurious, and hackneyed today.

Perhaps those who would espouse the above have a point. And even if we were to except the appeal and profundity of Shakespeare, or of any poet for that matter, the question of universality arises: poetry is rarely knowledge at all, but merely the poet’s self-expression and subjective view of his/her milieu at any one given moment.[1] Therefore poetry derived by Shakespeare has meaning—ultimately—for only Shakespeare living at the time of the poem’s conception. His pretty words and clever witticisms are derived from his imagination and have no basis in twentieth-century Everyman’s objective, quotidian reality.

Yes, Shakespeare’s poetry is subjective, but it was derived from a brilliant, imaginative, and sensitive mind that had some insight to the workings of the universe and the psychology of its inhabitants. There is the satisfaction of understanding his poetics and gleaning details from his time, of reading in context familiar sayings that are near to our hearts (so near, in fact, they are called clichés) without really knowing why, and of successfully divining the themes and machinations of vivid characters and narrators. Yet there remains something deeper that holds the reader’s interest age after age—something more profound that speaks to hidden parts of the psyche—something universal. Shakespeare’s poetry is an experience so multifarious as to be entertained and understood by everybody—everybody from the Elizabethans to today’s sensitive reader,[2] Elizabethan ideas and ideals are present in the works of Shakespeare, but the pertinence of those works does not end with the Elizabethans. Shakespeare’s discernment and invention transcend the pithy boundaries of time and space to make Shakespeare the poet, in the words of Ben Jonson, “not of an age, but for all time!” The “pretty words” are derived from the imagination of Shakespeare and his observations and ruminations often ring a cord of ostensible, universal truth.[3] This is a trait of the “metaphysical” poets, and of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Shakespeare’s sonnets 33, 34, and 35, the beginning of a stormy time for the speaker in the sonnets, consider the complex psychological workings of a human mind that has been subjected to some intense wrong-doing by an intimate acquaintance. This group of three sonnets are interrelated by image, subject, and the sense of a growing resolution and a higher wisdom achieved by the end of the sequence. Whether or not the speaker is Shakespeare (he is obviously a subjective Elizabethan) is irrelevant in light of the trio’s universal message and accord. Though the Elizabethan characteristics and concerns are important for scholarly reasons and will be alluded to when applicable, the latter concern will be accentuated in this essay.

Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 22 from Astrophel and Stella is the model on which Shakespeare composed his Sonnet 33.[4] Sidney’s sonnet holds the infallible Stella as the center of his courtly world, blazing down upon him with her radiant, grace-bestowing perfection with no “scarfe of clouds” to cover her radiant “face.” She allows the royal sun to “kisse” her “daintiest bare” while the other ladies hide behind “fanne’s wel-shading grace.” As the sun is the center of the universe, Stella, sun-like, shines uneclipsed upon the court and Astrophil. This sonnet is, more or less, a typical example of the courtly love tradition in Elizabethan sonnet sequences where the object of love is placed at the center of the poet’s world to be adored: the paragon of virtue—an object worthy of praise and adoration.

Notes and Citations

  1. Ransom, John Crowe (1938). The World’s Body. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge. p. 278.
  2. Ransom 1938, p. 279.
  3. Ransom 1938, pp. 292–293.
  4. Ferry, Anne (1983). The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 181.