A Little of This, A Little of That
By Dennis Abrams
First – before saying goodbye to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I’d like to pay a final homage to Launce and his role in the play: Having met a likely match, a milkmaid, Launce first complies a “catalogue of her conditions,” describing the things that are best – and worst – about her. In comparison to the beautiful song “Who is Silvia? What is she?” written by Proteus for Thurio, Launce’s list is decidedly rooted in the real world. Among her virtues are the fact that she can fetch and carry, milk, brew ale, sew, knit, wash and scour: among her ‘vices” are bad breath, talking in her sleep, having no teeth (which might be the cause of her bad breath?) and being “slow in words.” Not exactly romantic, but Launce’s true love, as we know, is his dog Crab, which he makes clear with a garrulous (albeit slightly bizarre) tale which also happens to be, I think, one of Shakespeare’s funniest comic speeches. “If I had not had more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did,” Launce announces regarding Crab, “I think verily he had been hanged for’t.”
Sure as I live, he had suffered for’t. You shall judge. He thrusts me himself
into the company of three or four gentlemen-like dogs under the Duke’s table.
He had not been there – bless the mark –a pissing-while but all the chamber
smelled him. ‘Out with the dog,’ says one. ‘What cur is that?’ says another.
‘Whip him out,’ says the third. ‘Hang him up,’ says the Duke. I, having been
acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes to the fellow
that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you mean to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry
do I,’ quoth he. ‘You do him the most wrong,’ quoth I, ‘twas I did the thing
you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber.
He finished with ‘How many masters would do this for his servant?’ and I think it’s safe to say that its undeniably true that the number would not be high. Launce’s love for Crab not only reverses the traditional relationship between dog and man, but it also plays off the idea of male lovers (like Valentine and Proteus for example), blindly serving their mistresses. Those mistresses are always scornful and resentful just like Crab– as Launce later laments, “cruel-hearted” – in his reluctance (or refusal) to be properly doggish and to worship Launce instead of the other way around.
A couple more observations about Launce: It’s obvious, I think that his speech recounting his “leave-taking” with Crab is a brilliant mockery of Proteus’ leave-taking from Julia. Launce’s “How many masters would do this for as servant?’ is not that far from Julia-Sebastian’s unhappy attempt to woo Silvia for Proteus, “How many women would do such a message?” (As Tanner points out, “We are seeing very clearly who are the true selfless, self-sacrificing, servants – and who are the dogs.”) And finally…Launce’s role is to show up the comparative unreality of most of those around him (with the possible exception of Julia). H.B Charlton comes close to nailing it when he observes, “Clearly, Shakespeare’s first attempt to make romantic comedy had only succeeded so far that it had unexpectedly and inadvertently made romance comic” (I say “comes close to” only because, as my previous posts should make clear, I am not convinced that “unexpectedly” and “inadvertently” are accurate.)
Second: Let’s start with the sonnets:
Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets
The Sonnets are Shakespeare’s most popular works, and a few of them, such as Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day), Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds), and Sonnet 73 (That time of year thou mayst in me behold), have become the most widely-read poems in all of English literature.
Composition Date of the Sonnets
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, likely composed over an extended period from 1592 to 1598, the year in which Francis Meres referred to Shakespeare’s “sugred sonnets”:
The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c. (Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury)
In 1609 Thomas Thorpe published Shakespeare’s sonnets, no doubt without the author’s permission, in quarto format, along with Shakespeare’s long poem, The Passionate Pilgrim. The sonnets were dedicated to a W. H., whose identity remains a mystery, although William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, is frequently suggested because Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) was also dedicated to him.
Narrative of the Sonnets
The majority of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, with whom the poet has an intense romantic relationship. The poet spends the first seventeen sonnets trying to convince the young man to marry and have children; beautiful children that will look just like their father, ensuring his immortality. Many of the remaining sonnets in the young man sequence focus on the power of poetry and pure love to defeat death and “all oblivious enmity” (55.9).
The final sonnets (127-154) are addressed to a promiscuous and scheming woman known to modern readers as the dark lady. Both the poet and his young man have become obsessed with the raven-haired temptress in these sonnets, and the poet’s whole being is at odds with his insatiable “sickly appetite” (147.4). The tone is distressing, with language of sensual feasting, uncontrollable urges, and sinful consumption.
- For a closer look at the negative aspects of the poet’s relationship with the young man and his mistress, please see Sonnet 75 and Sonnet 147.
- For a celebration of the love between the young man and the poet, see Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 29.
- For the poet’s views on the mortality of the young man, see Sonnet 73.
- For the poet’s description of his mistress, see Sonnet 130.
The question remains whether the poet is expressing Shakespeare’s personal feelings. Since we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s personal life, we have little reason or right not to read the collected sonnets as a work of fiction, just as we would read his plays or long poems. (I’ll discuss this more as we go through the sonnets.)
Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style
Shakespeare’s sonnets are written predominantly in a meter called iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables. The syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is a metrical unit made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. An example of an iamb would be good BYE. A line of iambic pentameter flows like this:
baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM.
Here are some examples from the sonnets:
When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnet 12)
When IN / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune AND / men’s EYES
I ALL / a LONE / be WEEP / my OUT/ cast STATE (Sonnet 29)
Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (Sonnet 18)
Shakespeare’s plays are also written primarily in iambic pentameter, but the lines are unrhymed and not grouped into stanzas. Unrhymed iambic pentameter is called blank verse. It should be noted that there are also many prose passages in Shakespeare’s plays and some lines of trochaic tetrameter, such as the Witches’ speeches in Macbeth.
There are fourteen lines in a Shakespearean sonnet. The first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains with four lines each. In the three quatrains the poet establishes a theme or problem and then resolves it in the final two lines, called the couplet. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is abab cdcd efef. The couplet has the rhyme scheme gg. This sonnet structure is commonly called the English sonnet or the Shakespearean sonnet, to distinguish it from the Italian Petrarchan sonnet form which has two parts: a rhyming octave (abbaabba) and a rhyming sestet (cdcdcd). The Petrarchan sonnet style was extremely popular with Elizabethan sonneteers, much to Shakespeare’s disdain (he mocks the conventional and excessive Petrarchan style in Sonnet 130).
Now, there are a lot more sonnets written than we’re going to have time to go actually through. Which ones to choose? I’m going to rely on Harold Bloom: “Does Shakespeare the poet break the vessels [that would contain his force] in the Sonnets? Start at the beginning and read your way through. From 19 on, (“Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws”) you will stop many times: 20, 29, 30, 40, 53, 55, 56, 66, 73-86, 87, 94, 107, 110, 116, 121, 125, 129, 130, 135, 138, 144, 146, and 147 among them. tht is two dozen poems I have chosen personally: others may choose differently. Whichever you choose, they touch very near the limits of art.”
So with that being said, I present you with Shakespeare, Sonnet 19:
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young
|Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,||Devouring Time, you make the lion’s claws grow blunt,|
|And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;||And make the earth destroy those things she created;|
|Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,||Cause even the fierce tiger to lose its teeth,|
|And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;||And burn the long-lived phoenix while she is still in the prime of life*;|
|Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,||[Time], make happy and sad seasons as you pass by,|
|And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,||And do whatever you want, swift Time,|
|To the wide world and all her fading sweets;||To the wide world and all nature’s fading beauty;|
|But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:||But I forbid you to do one thing;|
|O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,||O, you must not make your mark on my lover’s brow,|
|Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;||Nor draw no lines upon his brow with your antique pen;|
|Him in thy course untainted do allow||Allow him to remain untainted [youthful] as you run your course|
|For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.||And remain the very ideal of beauty for future generations to admire.|
|Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,||Yet, do your worst, old Time: despite your ravages,|
|My love shall in my verse ever live young.||My lover shall be young forever in my poetry.|
The theme of Sonnet 19, as with so many of the early sonnets, is the ravages of time. The poet expresses his intense fear of time primarily in the sonnets that involve his male lover, and his worries seem to disappear in the later sonnets that are dedicated to his ‘dark lady.’ Specifically, the poet is mortified by the thought of his lover showing physical signs of aging. There is no doubt that his relationship with his male lover is one built upon lust – more so than his relationship with his mistress, which is based on love and mutual understanding.
Sonnets 18-25 are often discussed as a group, as they all focus on the poet’s affection for his friend.
Question: Why is causing wrinkles on his lover’s brow the “most heinous crime” that Time can do?
And finally, a brief introduction to our next play: The Taming of the Shrew:
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, it was probably written sometime around 1590, close to The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The main story is probably derived from a folktale of ballad (The ballad “A Merry Jest of a Shrewede and Curst Wyfe” printed in 1550, Gascogine’s “Supposes,” and the influence of Commedia dell’arte all played a part).
The text is from the 1623 Folio: there is also an anonymous quarto “The Taming of A Shrew” that is not believed to be Shakespeare’s work.
Most people, even those who have never read the play, know, or at least think they know (based, perhaps on film versions of the play, or the famous musical version, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, the play’s story: A shrew, Katerina is “tamed” by the rambunctious Petruccio. But, upon a closer reading of the play, we’ll see that that might not exactly be the case — the question of who exactly is being tamed is actually subject to debate. Once again, from Harold Bloom:
“There is no more charming a scene of married love in all Shakespeare than this little vignette on a street in Padua.
Kath: Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.
Pet: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Kath: What, in the midst of the street?
Pet: What, art thou ashamed of me?
Kath: No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.
Pet: Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
Kath: Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
Pet: Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate. Better once than never, for never too late.
One would have to be tone dear (or ideologically crazed) not to hear in this a subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest. I myself always begin teaching the Shrew with this passage, because it is a powerful antidote to all received nonsense, old and new, concerning the play.”
And with that. Our next reading.
The Taming of the Shrew
Induction and Act One
I’ll be posting again Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.