Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets

By J B Leishman | Go to book overview

1
Shakespeare’s ‘un-Platonic hyperbole’

I have put the phrase in inverted commas, and I feel that each of the two members of it ought really to be so placed. What I mean is this: there is much in Shakespeare’s sonnets which may be described, sometimes perhaps with confidence and sometimes perhaps only question-beggingly, as ‘hyperbole’, and which is often closely associated with something that, at first sight, may seem to resemble what, in other Renaissance poets, we are accustomed to call ‘Platonism’. When, though, we look into the matter we find that what in Shakespeare too seems to be ‘Platonism’ is really inverted ‘Platonism’, ‘Platonism’ standing on its head.

Before proceeding, it will be well to say a word or two about the difference between the kind of ‘Platonism’ we find in Renaissance lovepoetry and the true doctrine of Plato. For Plato the sole justification of visible and terrestrial beauty is that it can sometimes lead the soul to ‘remember’ those eternal ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’ of truth, beauty and goodness which it knew in its pre-natal state. When, though, the soul has once started ‘remembering’, when it has become, in Plato’s sense, ‘philosophic’, ‘wisdom-loving’, it proceeds, as Plato so continually and passionately insists, ‘altogether without aid of the senses’. All Plato’s language about the ascent, or the re-ascent, of the soul and about ‘the way of dialectic’ is penetrated by a passionate hostility to sense, and he never really explains why the world of what he contemptuously calls ‘appearances’, phainomena, should exist and why the soul should have been separated from the objects of its first contemplation and imprisoned in the body. There is, in fact, an absolute gulf between the pure ‘forms’, the pure ‘ideas’, the pure

and the defiling and imprisoning body. This gulf was bridged by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, of the Word, the , become flesh, and by the Christian proclamation that the sole revelation of God was in and through the person of Christ. All poetic ‘Platonism’ is more or less Christianised Platonism, Platonism not only modified but transformed by the conscious or unconscious influence of the belief that the highest of all revelations of the divine had been in and

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