“How many masters would do this for his servant?”

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.

Sonnet Structure

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).

Only three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets do not conform to this structure: Sonnet 99, which has 15 lines; Sonnet 126, which has 12 lines; and Sonnet 145, which is written in iambic tetrameter.

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.

brood (2):children.keen (3): sharp.

phoenix (4): The Phoenix, the mythological eagle-like bird associated with Egyptian sun-worship, had a life span of more than 500 years. When its first life was over, the bird would burn itself upon a pile of wood that was set ablaze by the sun. It would then rise from the ashes, once again young. Here Shakespeare is saying that, despite the Phoenix’s ability to resurrect itself, it cannot escape Time forever. ‘In her blood’ was a Renaissance term for ‘full of life’ or ‘in one’s prime of life.’

fleets (5): fly by.

sweets (6): (1) pleasures; (2) the ‘brood’ of line 2.

 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.



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6 Responses to “How many masters would do this for his servant?”

  1. Pat Rosier says:

    Question: Why is causing wrinkles on his lover’s brow the “most heinous crime” that Time can do?
    I can’t answer the question except with something obvious, like wrinkles designating age and maybe decay. However, what fascinates me about this is that in Shakespeare’s time wrinkles should be seen as a heinous crime as they are today—at least among the peddlers of anti-aging creams etc and those who presumably use them, which I have tended to view as a 20th century (and beyond) phenomenon. There is, indeed, “nothing new under the sun.”

    • Pat: I found this analysis, which makes a lot of sense to me, and kind of answers my own question:

      The governing metaphor of Sonnet 19 is Time is a destroyer, the effects of Time has on the world, and its transformative abilities.

      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; (lines 1-4)

      The first quatrain starts with an apostrophe-an address, often to an absent person, a force, or a quality-to “devouring Time,” which comes from the proverb “time devours all things.” This proverb is also found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XV, 1.234). Time is set up as being monstrous; Time is greedily eating up life. Lion’s symbolize dominion, and they are often called the “king of beasts.” Hercules was “often portrayed as defeating lions in combat-a representation of the victory of the human intellect over animalistic nature” (209). Time makes the lion’s claws blunt (dull/ not sharp), in doing so Time is essentially stripping them of what makes them a powerful animal. Time makes Mother Nature eat/kill her offspring, which is completely against her natural inclinations. Tigers have long been seen as powerful animals that inspire both fear and wonder. In Chinese culture, they are greatly revered for warding off danger, and often times you will see tiger statues around houses and building to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. The tiger was also “esteemed because it drove off (or destroyed) the wild boar that threatened the farmer’s crops” (344). Time pluck’s (pull/ pick out) the tiger’s keen (sharp) teeth from its jaw, which, like the lion, is part of what makes the tiger a tiger. The phoenix is widely associated with immortality; the bird gathers twigs from all over and builds a nest, which catches fire and the bird is consumed by the fire and from the fire’s ashes a new phoenix arises. It originates from the sacred Egyptian bird Benu, which is “a heron said to have been the first creature to alight on the hill that came into being out of the primordial ooze. Benu was revered in Heliopolis as a manifestation of the sun god” (264). Time does not allow the phoenix to be reborn, instead it just dies in the flames; Time takes away the phoenix’s immortality. Time is doing unnatural things; such as, de-lionizing the lion, de-tigerizing the tiger, de-maternalizing mother earth, and de-immortalizing the phoenix. Time is committing crimes against nature.

      Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,

      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: (5-8)

      The second quatrain celebrates the paradox of dying beauty. The speaker observes that seasons are both glad and sorry about the swift passage of time. Nature is submissive to Time; nature accepts that Time is going to do whatever it wants to do, and there is nothing nature can do about it so nature is resigned to Time’s whims. The last line of the second quatrain belongs more with the third quatrain, because it introduces Time as committing a heinous (shockingly evil) crime against the beloved young man. The speaker takes on a dominate voice when he FORBIDS time from committing this heinous crime.

      O carve not with thy hours my loves 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. (9-12)

      In the third quatrain, the speaker tells Time what the heinous crime is; to draw lines (i.e. wrinkles) on the young man’s forehead, to make him appear older would be the most heinous crime that Time could commit. Time is transformed into an artist-first into a sculptor, then a painter, who defaces Nature’s masterpiece with his antique pen. Time as an artist is creates ugliness, instead of preserving beauty, which is something that the speaker cannot allow to happen. The speaker wants Time to leave the young man untainted (undefiled/ untouched), in order to preserve the standard of beauty for future generations.

      Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,

      My love shall in my verse ever live young. (13-4)

      In the rhyming couplet, the speaker seems to dare Time to do his absolute worst on the young man, even though it would be wrong for Time to do so. The speaker dares Time, because he knows that no matter what time does to his beloved, the young man will remain beautiful in the speaker’s verse. The speaker uses the word “love,” which can denote both the word “beloved” and it could be used to show the poet’s feeling of passion and/or affection for the young man.

      Helen Vendler adds: “Time does what is natural to it (it overthrows monuments, etc.), but here it does, in the first quatrain, exclusively unnatural things, de-lionizing the lion, de-tigerizing the tiger, de-maternalizing Mother Earth, and de-immortalizing the phoenix. These are not devourings — nor are they things that, in the normal course of time, Time does, and contra Naturam (against Nature) is one of the most powerful accusations available to Shakespeare’s Renaissance speaker.

      We must deduce that even Time is not allowed these acts in the ordinary governed course of Nature; a tiger with blunted paws, a devouring Gaia, a toothless tiger, and a mortal phoenix would each be a lusus Naturae. (a freak of nature). Such acts on Time’s part would be genuine crimes against Nature, as making lions grow old, e.g., would not be. We are to deduce that the young man, as beauty’s pattern would in the course of things be naturally exempt, as a Platonic form (a being nobler even than the Phoenix), from Time’s destruction. Consequently, the most heinous crime is not per se the wrinkling of a young man’s brow, but the destruction of one of the forms that Nature needs as patterns to create more creatures from: She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby/Thou should print more, said the version putting the responsibility of self-reproduction on the young man (sonnet 11); but here the perpetuation of pattern is shifted to Nature and Time.

      Does that make sense?


  2. Hey Dennis,

    Doing some catching up (my kid has chicken pox, I have work, yada yada yada) and am amazed at the quality of your sonnet coverage.

    Why “hide” it in between discussions of two plays? This post, the sonnet part I mean, deserves a post of its own.

    I love how unabashedly Bloom loves the sonnets. I have The Western Canon in my shelf, and recently borrowed Invention of the Human from the library, and of the two I like Canon more. Invention was more on Shakespeare’s influence while I was looking for a more critical text.

    Furthermore, the quality of your discussion is such that I feel I should be paying you money.

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