What more could one person ask than to live so much in 52 years that his accomplishments survive centuries in spite of high school literature classes? I couldn’t continue past the Renaissance period without giving a nod to the Bard, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), poet and playwrite during the Elizabethan era.
William was born the third of eight children to John and Mary Shakespeare in Stratford. Three of the children died at a very young age and of the remainder, only one lived beyond what we consider to be middle age. Records are scarce but the plague was rampant during those years making survival an accomplishment in itself.
John Shakespeare experienced both good and poor financial conditions. Fortunately for William, when he reached the age to enter grammar school, things were looking up. John’s official position made it possible for William to attend Stratford grammar school where he learned basic reading and writing. The primary teaching text was a horn-book or primer in the form of a wooden paddle that held a piece of parchment with the alphabet attached. The Elizabethan alphabet more closely resembles our modern alphabet with the exclusion of two letters. In the Elizabethan alphabet, “u” and “v” are the same as “i” and “j”. The letters were arranged on the horn-book in the form of a Latin cross, with A at the top and Z at the bottom and a + was placed at the beginning to remind the student that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The Lord’s Prayer was printed at the bottom of each parchment.
There is good evidence that William withdrew from school at age thirteen when his father’s financial and social condition plummetted. Whether William was able to continue his formal education is subject to debate, however it is probable that he acquired his high degree of proficiency in language arts in grammar school and through self-study.
When you think of William Shakespeare, the titles and lines that pop into your head are most likely from his famous plays but since this is a poetry blog, I will focus on his sonnets. He wrote 154 sonnets in the 1590’s. He was a prolific poet considering the tools of his craft. Many present-day poets write a poem at least once a week, some daily, some less frequently, but we have keyboards and backspace keys. In Shakespeare’s time, he only had the option to write with a nib, ink well and paper.
His sonnets, written in Early Modern English, followed two distinct themes. The first 126 were addressed to a young man with sonnets 127-152 to a dark lady. His lyrical writing captured the beauty, moral anguish, mortality and adoration of unattainable love with the flair of a natural dramatist. Since he never revealed the identities of the young man or the dark lady, his work carries a sense of intrigue for the audience. Adding to that sense of underlying mystery, when writing to a man, his theme carries praise of beauty and worth while the love sonnets to a woman rest on a bitter, negative tone.
Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet form that carries his name. The sonnet attained popularity during the Italian Renaissance when poet Petrarch produced a series of love sonnets written for an idealized woman named Laura. The sonnet gained popularity due to its lyrical qualities and became the choice of expression for love and romance across Europe.
The Shakespearean sonnet is a fourteen line poem divided into four parts. The first three parts are each quatrains, rhymed ABAB, followed by a couplet, rhymed CC. This form is often used to develop a sequence of ideas, one in each quatrain, while the couplet offers summarizes or offers a turn for the images or ideas presented in the quatrains.
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desp’rate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure am I, now reason is past care,
And frantic mad with evermore unrest,
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
William Shakespeare died in 1616 of unknown causes. There is a great deal of speculation but considering the plague, syphilis, typhus, scurvy, tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, and dysentery that shortened a Londoner’s life expectancy to thirty-five years at that time, he lived a long life. His body rests at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford with a headstone that bears this epitaph that Shakespeare supposedly wrote for himself:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Now for a bit of trivia to warm the chill left by Shakespeare’s epitaph.
The term “fast and loose” was the name of an Elizabethan cheating game in which gypsies lured common people into wagering their money on a fixed game. In the game, a belt with intricate folds was placed on the table. The mark was charged with spearing a blade through the belt to hold it fast to the table however, the folds were such that the gypsy could take both ends and lift it loose from the blade. Shakespeare loved the phrase and is often credited with its modern usage. Here is one example, from Shakespeare’s King John:
Play fast and loose with faith? so jest with heaven,
Make such unconstant children of ourselves,
As now again to snatch our palm from palm,
Unswear faith sworn, and on the marriage-bed
Of smiling peace to march a bloody host,
And make a riot on the gentle brow
Of true sincerity? (3.1)
Thank you for joining me for this edition of Pretzels & Bullfights. I hope you are enjoying this journey through poetic movements as much as I am.
Whatever you do, don’t play fast and loose with Shakespeare’s bones.