Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Passionate Pilgrim – Shakespeare’s Sonnets

I reread the portion of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare that deals with the rogue publication of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets along with others not his and still others that might be his, but on an off day, in a collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. I was struck again by Shapiro’s contention that the plays were public and the sonnets were private. The latter evolved over time, were worked on and reworked for their own sake and as canvases for Shakespeare to play with themes he later incorporated into the plays. Shapiro says that Shakespeare only shared his sonnets with a select few. What he doesn't speculate on is which of those select few let William Jaggard get his hands on them and publish them without permission. That's a good mystery for someone to solve!

I also really enjoyed the notion Shapiro introduces in this section that Shakespeare would have haunted the bookstalls of London:

There’s no way that Shakespeare could have bought or borrowed even a fraction of the books that went into the making of his plays. Besides his main sources for his British histories and Roman tragedies, which he probably owned—Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Lives, he drew on hundreds of other works. From what we know of Shakespeare’s insatiable appetite for books, no patron’s collection—assuming that Shakespeare had access to one or more—could have accommodated his curiosity and range. London’s bookshops were by necessity Shakespeare’s working libraries, and he must have spent a good many hours browsing there, moving from one seller’s wares to the next (since, unlike today, each bookseller had a distinctive stock), either jotting down ideas in a commonplace book or storing them away in his prodigious actor’s memory. P. 191

I also enjoyed reading how Marlowe’s poem “Live with me and be my love” was included in The Passionate Pilgrim, and so initially ascribed to Shakespeare. The really interesting part was how it was alluded to and echoed and mocked by both Shakespeare and Marlowe, and according to Shapiro is “one of the finest expression of pastoral in English poetry.” I didn’t know that!

Shapiro’s discussion on the sonnets and their creation and abduction morphs into a discussion of As You Like It, the play Shakespeare wrote over the summer of 1599. The discussion is rich and complex, but one gem jumped out at me:
As You Like It is rooted in its place and time…its real topicality resides…in its attentiveness to evolving notions of Elizabethan comedy and pastoral. Comedy tends to have a briefer shelf life than other genres even as it’s more popular…What’s funny or delightful to one generation often feels pointless and strained to the next. When conventions and social expectations change, comedy must, too.

From my own somewhat limited play-going experience, it does seem that modern audiences laugh at the physical comedy that most directors ensure is present in most productions of the comedies/romances. The dramatic language still sways us mightily, but I don’t think we really would get most of the verbal jokes without help, Beatrice and Benedict, not withstanding. Maybe Shakespeare's genius lies in the fact that we think his comedies are funny at all. This notion certainly cements Austen's place in the Pantheon of literary there another writer who is as truly funny over time as Austen?


  1. What an interesting post. Comedy in Shakespeare has always been less rewarded than his great tragicity. Of course the reason is that it is not easy to smile or laugh at his witty even vulgar puns for modern readers being the language so different. His use of disguise, mixed-ups, misunderstandings can be more irectly appreciated.
    I love S.'s sonnets, some of them are perfection itself and As You like it is -with Twelfth night - one of my favourite comedies.
    Have a nice day!
    P.S. As for Austen...she is so masterfully ironic! I always wonder how could she be so smart and brilliant with so little experience of the world??!?

  2. Jane, I agree whole-heartedly that Shapiro's book is one of the most interesting pieces of writing about Shakespeare to have been published in recent years. Apparently he is working on a book about the authorship question at the moment and I can't wait for that to come out. This year has been the 400 anniversary of the actual legitimate publication of the sonnets and in Stratford there have been all sorts of celebrations including actors reading sonnets to the passengers in the ferry as they crossed from one side of the Avon to the other. the journey is just the right length!

    If you're interested in Shakespeare and would like to be involved with a group discussing the plays and performances then do think about joining our Shakespeare Discussion Group. You can read about it at and there is a post telling you how to join. We would be very pleased indeed to have such a thoughtful reader as a member.

  3. Sorry, Jane, I got the address there completely wrong it's

  4. Maria - thanks, as always, for your comments. It's a pleasure to chat with you about books/works we both care about.

    Ann - I heard about the sonnet readings. How marvelous! And thanks for the invitation to join in the S. discussion. I will be there!