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.

  • But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
  • Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
  • Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
  • When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
  • So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
  • So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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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