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Shakespeare's Sonnets, Analysis

Notoman 20 / 419  
Aug 26, 2009   #1
I stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up for a Shakespeare class. Shakespeare is difficult for me. The old language and flowery allusions usually elude me. I wanted to get feedback to see if I am on the right track.

The assignment is: Read Sonnet 116. Write a paragraph defending what you believe to be the meaning/theme/point of the poem. Allow your first sentence to function as your thesis, and write using formal voice.

Here's a link to the Sonnet online: shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116.html

In his 116th Sonnet, Shakespeare defines love. He says that love can overcome obstacles and knows no "impediments." Love, true love at least, is unchanging and is able to survive life's "tempests" or storms. Traditional wedding vows echo Shakespeare's thoughts when couples promise to love each other for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, and in sickness and in health. Shakespeare sees love as being until the "edge of Doom"--the equivalent of 'til death do us part. Wedding ceremonies often include the line, let no man put asunder, and the Sonnet suggests that no one, not even Time's sickle can sever the ties of love. But then Shakespeare gives an ironic twist in his ending of the Sonnet when he seems to say, but, hey, if I am wrong, then please forget that I ever wrote this. With Shakespeare's last lines, I also wonder if this was his little joke about Henry VIII's divorces.

I have questions about the punctuation ... it feels right to only have Shakespeare's words in quotes, but that leaves me not knowing what to do with the wedding vows. I put them into italics, but that doesn't feel right either. The same goes for what I perceive to be Shakespeare's thoughts. It is too casual for the "formal voice" that my teacher is asking for, but I can't come up with a way to present my take. I put those in italics as well, but I am sure that there is a better way.

I use the first person in this paragraph ("I also wonder if this was his little joke ..."). Is that forbidden in formal voice?

I know that my analysis is probably off. Like I said, I don't "get" Shakespeare--all the more reason to take the class, right? The analysis isn't important though as long as it is somewhat defensible. We aren't allowed to use ANY outside resources (under threat of death) to help us understand. The teacher wants us to grapple with our own understanding instead of relying on others' commentaries.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Aug 26, 2009   #2
I have no doubt you will soon learn to "get" Shakespeare. It is mostly a matter of practice, of reading him enough to get used to the grammatical inversions and odd vocabulary. A lot of it is just getting used to reading poetry,which is what all of Shakespeare, including his plays, actually is. You are certainly intelligent enough to be able to master this.

If you want to use wedding vows, get a copy and cite them, quoting normally. This might cause a problem, though, if you are not allowed to use outside sources.

Some hints to guide you in your thinking about the sonnet:

Shakespeare sees love as being until the "edge of Doom"--the equivalent of 'til death do us part.

Yes, but love, at least within marriage, is much worse than that. It's through all the alterations of old age. So, for such love to last, it must be the case that "Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle's compass come: / Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, /But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

"If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved." = If I am wrong, and this is ever proved by own inconstancy in love, then I have never written anything and no one has ever really loved. In other words, This is not an error and I will never be inconstant in love.
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Aug 27, 2009   #3
Are you saying (sniffs) that my interpretation is wrong (a tear trickles down his face). But, but ... (wipes nose on sleeve) I thought I nailed this one (bottom lip visibly trembles). I found a parallel between Shakespeare's Sonnet and something I'm familiar with in my (voice cracks) own life. Okay, so the last lines don't make a joke of Henry VIII's misfortunes in marriage (hangs head, refuses to make eye contact), but I did show some understanding of the contemporary climate (thinks about the bottle of vodka hidden in the coat closet).

This is only a homework assignment and probably isn't worth a whole lot of points, but I wanted to be able to format the paragraph in a fashion that didn't leave my new teacher thinking that I need remedial assistance. I am going to get a lot out of this class. The teacher knows his stuff and is passionate about inculcating Shakespeare. I just hope I don't piss him off with my inability to grasp allusions that are crystal clear to him.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Aug 27, 2009   #4
Tsk tsk. The notion that interpretations could be wrong went out around the time postmodernism came along and doomed the humanities in general and English in particular (unless the field be saved again by a counter-trend).

That said, some interpretations are more valid than others, to paraphrase Orwell. If you want to quickly get used to reading Shakespeare, why not try translating him into modern English. This is feasible for his sonnets, at least.
EF_Simone 2 / 1,986  
Aug 29, 2009   #5
I stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up for a Shakespeare class.

I'm so glad you did that! It's important to stretch oneself.

Your interpretation was fine up until your misunderstanding of the last couplet. Don't feel bad about that. Shakespeare was not making a joke exactly, but was using a kind of inversion that can be difficult to get.

As for your question about tone, check with your teacher. Since literary criticism inevitably involves interpretation and since one's interpretations are inevitably colored by one's standpoint and history, some teachers allow or even prefer first person. Others are dead-set against it, for some reason preferring you to assert your own perceptions as if they were universal truths.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Aug 29, 2009   #6
The use of the first person is generally frowned upon in formal literary criticism for the reason it is usually frowned upon in academic writing -- it is generally unnecessary. We already know that the thoughts you are expressing are your own, without your saying things like "I think" or "in my opinion." In fact, if you are presenting ideas that are not your own without proper citation, you are guilty of plagiarism. Also, your interpretations should preferably be grounded in textual evidence, which makes a much better touchstone for the validity of your interpretation than, say, the events that occurred on at third birthday party, howsoever much said events may have influenced your worldview. Eventually you can throw the "I" back in. At higher levels, it is sometimes easier to explain how you plan to structure things by use of the first person, for instance, but even then, it is often a sign of lazy thinking.

So, in the example you gave, if you believe that the last couplet is a joke, you can simply write

"Shakespeare's final couplet functions as a literary joke" followed by a detailed breakdown of the couplet that explains how this is true. We already know that the idea is yours, because you haven't cited any secondary source from which you may have taken it. Nor will hedging with phrases such as "I wonder" do as a substitute for the analysis that should follow the assertion, or allow you to avoid providing it in any way.

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