Shakespeare in love – with himself?

Sonnet 18 reviewed | Begun 2016 | 1,000 words

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

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


In the late 90s I had a year off from my (non-academic) job at De Montfort University (in Leicester, UK) because of stress and depression. Medication made me feel better, but I was in no hurry to return to work. Towards the end of the year, I went to Skyros, the Greek island known for its creative retreat holidays.

The medication and my condition gave me a strangely heightened spirit. I pursued a woman who’s age was borderline inappropriate, and was rightly rejected. (She was in her early 30s; I was 50. It was a midlife crisis. Sue me.) But I had a good time!

One highlight was a class: reciting Shakespeare, taught by Steven Berkoff.

(Skyros has the knack of getting famous people to teach there for bed, board and the pleasure of being there. Toyah was there, teaching radio production – presumably a phase she went through.)

Our Shakespeare text was Sonnet 18 – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

On studying it – in my heightened state – I suddenly realised that for all its beauty it wasn’t a love poem – it was actually a paean of self-praise.

I put this to Berkoff over a beer on the terrace, but he was concerned about having left a notebook on the plane. He seemed disappointingly uninterested in my fascinating theory.

So does everyone else. At the time of writing this afterthought preamble (June 2022), this post’s had only 41 views, no Likes and no Comments. (After reading this, a friend took pity and added a Comment. Thanks, Nige.)

By (another!) comparison, my most-viewed post, Jackson Browne & Daryl Hannah, has had over 50,000 views.

Obviously, the time’s out of joint! 😉.

Anyway, some 20 years after my beer with Berkoff, a 2016 article in the UK Guardian on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death said Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

I remembered my Skyros epiphany. That’s true, I thought, and Sonnet 18 shows that in claiming immortality for his art, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems. So I fired off a letter to the Guardian, and wrote this post.

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 the writer’s love not for the supposed beloved, but for the poetic skill that’ll preserve their youthful beauty. It’s Shakespeare, the youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.

Was Shakespeare creating a persona? As Jonathan Bate says in the Guardian article that prompted this post, the poet’s ‘I’ isn’t necessarily the poet.

But the peculiarity of Sonnet 18 suggests the ‘I’ in ‘Shall I compare thee’ is the poet.

Shakespeare was a successful and popular writer. He was seeking social advancement for his family. Why would he create an authorial persona with such a casually heartless and narcissistic attitude?

The problem with the poem is that if he – the writer/persona/whatever – truly loved the addressee of his poem, he’d say he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled.

Instead, he crows about his precious sonnet immortalising their youthful beauty.

Sonnet 18’s language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?

To be fair, 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 these 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 Shakespeare 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.

But 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 skin-deep good looks, 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.

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.

Perhaps Shakespeare was as sane and neurotypical as the next man (Christopher Marlowe). But the lavishly dressed emptiness of Sonnet 18 shows there was something twisted about him.

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