Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself

Sonnet 18 critiqued | Begun 2016 | 1,350 words

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

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Contents: Preamble | Casually heartless | To be fair | Poverty of meaning | Rubbish | Comments

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

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself


Beer with Berkoff

In the late 90s I went to Skyros, the Greek island known for its creative retreat holidays.

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.

I did Reciting Shakespeare, taught by Steven Berkoff. Our text was the famous Sonnet 18 – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

On studying it, 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), my 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 in about the same time.

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 what’s supposed to be a wonderful love poem.

I fired off a letter to the Guardian, and wrote this post.

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself

Casually heartless

The bardic taxidemist

Shakespeare’s much-admired Sonnet 18 has a rapturous opening:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Thou art more lovely…

But it doesn’t go on like that. 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.

Having alluded in detail to his beloved’s imminent ageing, Shakespeare focuses on his true aim: the immortality of his poem. Death shan’t brag, but the poet shall:

  • …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

The poem shows the writer’s love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving their youthful beauty in his eternal lines.

It’s Shakespeare, the self-agrandising youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist!

The question then arises: did Shakespeare write the sonnet as himself, or as a persona?

Oxford University Shakespeare specialist Professor Jonathan Bate, in the Guardian article that prompted this post, wrote:

    The only poems written in [Shakespeare’s] own voice are the Sonnets. The man who wrote them clearly believed that love is a powerful and complicated thing, that poetry is an effective way of exploring its many dimensions, and – if his lines are to be taken at face value – that creative art is a way of achieving a kind of immortality for the beloved and perhaps for creative artists themselves. But his lines are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The “I” who speaks a poem, even an intimate love poem, is not synonymous with the person who writes the line. All poets rejoice in creating a persona.

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

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

So if he wrote it as himself, why did he write it? Cambridge University Shakespeare specialist Professor Raphael Lyne, kindly replying to my email about this blog, said:

    ‘Can anything make the perfection last? It’s an offer – maybe a poem can. It’s also staking a claim, and aiming for a poem that will last forever. I think there is a selfish claim involved, but it’s a knowing exchange, not pretending that writers are innocent when they make memories last, because they gain too.’

More good stuff! But, in any case, the problem with the poem is that whether the writer is Shakespeare or a persona, and whatever his motives, if he truly loved the addressee of his poem, he’d say he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled.

(Obviously, he’d say it in a less cheesey, Hallmark-card kind of way. See Sonnet 116, below.)

Instead, he crows about how his precious sonnet will immortalise 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

100 sonnets on, had Shakespeare found his emotional intelligence?

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself

To be fair

Honest Bill

Still being fair, can Shakespeare be given the benefit of the doubt about his poetry-plugging sonnet (the first of a series assuring the loved one poetry would preserve their beauty).

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.

That might not please the childish romantic but perhaps it’d please a mature youth.

So, Sonnet 18, re-digested:

    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 love by giving you my art.

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself

Poverty of meaning

Something twisted

With extreme leniency, Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18 can be seen as a heartfelt romantic gesture, rather than heartless PR.

But even then, it shows an uncharacteristic shallowness by addressing only the beloved’s skin-deep good looks, pandering – perhaps with the desperation of an obsessed suitor – to the vanity of beautiful youth.

However you slice it, the sonnet’s richness of language conceals a fundamental poverty of meaning.

Other sonnets are more meaningful, and show the beloved as a real person – not just a pretty face. So perhaps the emotional deprivation disorder suggested by Sonnet 18 is 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 suggests there was something twisted about him.

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself


The king is in the altogether

This critique of Sonnet 18 as heartless self-promotion isn’t entirely original, of course – nothing written about Shakespeare can be.

However, most analyses which mention the self-praise also propagate the sonnet’s widespread but undeserved reputation as a great love poem.

This reputation rests entirely on the first one and a half lines. The whole 14-line poem hypnotises with dizzying imagery but the opening lines are especially ecstatic:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Thou art more lovely…

It’s a brilliant start to a love poem – but that’s it. There’s no more love for the loved one, only self-love for the poet.

After that lovely opening, it levels off with the dull…and more temperate‘, then, although the enchanting language continues to mesmerise, it’s all relentlessly downhill:

  • Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
  • And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
  • Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
  • And often is his gold complexion dimm’d
  • And every fair from fair sometime declines
  • By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d

Those six lines of doom are beautifully written, but they cruelly overwhelm the brief praise.

Then comes the twist:

    But it’s OK – my poem, with its line and a half of praise, will make your loveliness last.
  • So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
  • So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Shakespeare’s astonishingly confident forecast of longevity has come true, of course. Over 400 years later, his sonnet’s survived, and it’s world-famous.

It’s famous – by far the most famous of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets – because of the sublime opening lines, and because it’s beautifully written.

But it’s beautifully written rubbish. Millions laud it as a great love poem, but they’re wrong – a bit like like the people in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In that fable, by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson, the emperor’s new clothes don’t exist – they’re a confidence trick. Everyone goes along with it apart from one child.

There’s a 1952 movie about the writer, starring Danny Kaye. in Kaye’s song, The King’s New Clothes, the child, alluding to the king’s nudity, shouts out:

    The king is in the altogether!

Ain’t that the truth.

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Sonnet 18: Shakespeare in love – with himself


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