Shakespeare in love – with himself?

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

Me, me, me
The (disputed) ‘Cobbe’ portrait | Painter: unknown, photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA

A 2016 newspaper article on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death said Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

That’s true – but the famous Sonnet 18 shows that in aiming for immortality Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems.

Sonnet 18, digested: You’re more lovely than a summer’s day at the moment, but soon you’ll wither and age. However, luckily for you, my brilliant poem about you will live forever.

The poem shows his love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving youthful beauty – like some sort of youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.

If he loved the subject of his poem, he’d say he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled – not that their skin-deep youthful beauty would be immortalised by his precious sonnet.

The language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?

To be fair, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 does better:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters it when alteration finds.

Sonnet 18 is the first of a series assuring the loved one that poetry would preserve their beauty. Still being fair, shouldn’t the great man be given the benefit of the doubt about his poetry-plugging sonnets?

Sonnet 18 seemed to me heartless in saying, Never mind your lost beauty – it’ll live on in my timeless poem (to which the appropriate response would be, ‘Well, thanks for nothing’).

But perhaps he was just being honest about a young person’s beauty and its inevitable fading. Perhaps such honesty would please a lover by reflecting their own feelings about their looks.

(It might not please the childish romantic but perhaps it’d please a mature youth.)

So, Sonnet 18, redigested: Sadly, your youthful loveliness will fade – but let me console you by preserving it in my eternal lines.

In that reading, the implication is: I give you my art because I love you.

However, even if the poem is seen as a heartfelt romantic gesture rather than heartless PR, it shows an uncharacteristic shallowness.

In addressing only his subject’s appearance, Shakespeare seems to be pandering – with the desperation of an obsessed suitor – to the shallow vanity of beautiful youth.

So however you slice it, Sonnet 18’s richness of language and imagery conceals a fundamental poverty of meaning.

Other Sonnets are more meaningful, and show the beloved as a real person – not just a pretty face.

They also show that my suggestion of emotional deprivation disorder might be wrong. Perhaps, rather, the genius was on the spectrum – or bipolar.

The lavishly dressed emptiness of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 shows there was definitely something, er, different about him.

Having scanned the sonnets (sorry – life’s too short), I’d say: they’re supposed to be playful love poems – but they’re actually dense and gloomy! They’re obsessed with desire, time and ageing. At times, they read (scan) like the diary of a mad man.


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