The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Oliphant, Dave | Style, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets


Oliphant, Dave, Style


Helen Vendler.TheArt of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. xx + 672 pp. $35.00 cloth. CD included: the author reads 65 sonnets.

As a stylized form of verbal construction and expression, the sonnet necessarily demands conscious artistic manipulation of words and their patterns of sound and meaning. Yet undeniably there are varying levels of achievement in the history of this long-popular form, and some writers have even found the sonnet devoid of meaning simply because it is redundant In Helen Vendler's close reading of the 154 Shakespeare sonnets, however, this magisterial critic reveals that in fact the Bard's consummate, unmatched art-his "impulse to aesthetic stylization" (630)-is based to a large extent on redundancy, not only of key words repeated in the three quatrains and couplets of a given sonnet, but within the two subsequences that make up the first 152 sonnets.

Following the two subsequences as they develop the speaker's relationship first with the young man and then with the dark lady, Vendler observes connections between one sonnet and the next as well as among those with similar themes, images, or structural strategies. At times her method is to move backwards and forwards within the series to interrelate repetitive words or phrases that have appeared previously or reappear later and that indicate developing positions or conflicts vis-@-vis the two figures addressed by the Sonnets' speaker. In addition, Vendler detects repeated internal letters embedded in individual words that for the critic echo each sonnet's central idea. Whether one entirely agrees with Vendler on every word she analyzes, her study of the Sonnets can manifest with frequent brilliance the thoroughly conscious art of Shakespeare's handling of this classic form, even as her analyses suggest the notion that had the Bard written none of his plays he would still be the greatest writer in the English language.

Two of many general assertions that Vendler makes about Shakespeare's style are that in the Sonnets he is "an astonishingly nonclassical poet" '(198), and that he likes to put "a grandly Latinate adjective with an Anglo-Saxon noun" (46 1). She notes that gods and goddesses "play almost no part in his sequence" and that the absence of classical references aids in giving the impression that Shakespeare's speech is "naked and immediate" (198). While Vendler finds that Shakespeare's sonnets often owe much to his "constant writing for oral delivery on the stage" (137), she also recognizes that the poet belonged "to the world of print"(95) and therefore employed the looks of words on the page in constructing his lines and quatrains. In considering Sonnet 118, Vendler points to wordplay involving "etymologically the French version of ma/" (500) in the word maladies as it reiterates the most repeated words in the poem:sick, sicken, sickness, and ill(s). She also discovers the poet playing with antonyms and homonyms, as well as the phonemesi that"haunt[s]" (501) such words as policy, anticipate, and medicine in place of the word sick. Likewise, in her explication of Sonnet 150, Vendler suggests that the word whore "flicker[s] through the poem" (634) in the form of worth, worst, abhor, worth, again, worthy, and worthiness. As she reveals in every case, the visual and sound patterns underscore each sonnet's basic problem-in number 150 the "transvaluation of moral values" (635).

Readers of the Sonnets tend to encounter the same few examples from Shakespeare's sequence, and this fact points up another service rendered by a study like Vendler's, which, in conducting the reader through the entire sequence, discloses in the process its larger thematic developments as well as the pairings of Sonnets like numbers 50 and 51. Perhaps because such pairs should be read together, 50 and 51 are not included, for example, in The Norton Anthology of English

Literature, which, in the Major Authors edition, prints 29 of the 154 Sonnets. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.