Sonnets & ‘A Lover’s Complaint,’ and ‘Various Poems’ from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by William Shakespeare

Love, death, the muse, the tangled web of attraction, and friendship are probably the most basic subjects covered in Shakespeare’s sonnets. One of the most famous ones is the one numbered 18 in this collection, staring with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…”

Most of the time I think that’s the only one EVER printed in textbooks about British literature on this side of the pond. Frankly, I think they could all use a look to give Shakespeare more depth of study.

I don’t really have any favorites (except #18 because of the fabulous readings I’ve heard before from my fave Brit actors and voice talents). But I’m also new at these sonnets, and can appreciate them for their form and sound.

I love the imagery brought out in the wordings of these sonnets. Some are rather surprising, in that they’re more about comradeship, friendship, and a young man’s self-disgust at being attracted to a certain woman (the kind that’d make your friends go “whaa?”).

One thing I don’t think many know regarding the sonnets is how they’re not all about courtship and love. The first 17 certainly are, in the sense that they’re urging a young man to marry, but if that’s all you’ve read, you’ve missed out. One (#25) actually talks about young men striving for fame and honors, and one who would forsake the honors as long as he were loved. This is the start of that one:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,

Unlooked-for joy in that I honour most….

There’s something about that one that I just like: glory is fleeting, yet love and contentment can last much longer.

Another one, other than #18 that might ring a bell, is #29, which starts like this:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my out cast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate….

We tend to get little snippets here and there in other literature or in textbooks, but that’s about it. I think that’s a shame. I think anybody serious about understanding Shakespeare (or want to make some headway in a hurry) should go through these sonnets. I love the rhythm, and will leave you with the first few lines of #131, which I admit make me smile, because honestly…it is a great beginning description for putting someone up on a pedestal:

Thou art as tyrannous so as thou art

As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel,

For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart

Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel….

***

And so we continue to “A Lover’s Complaint,” which is basically a woman railing against a lover how seduced her and gave her tokens of worth, only to abandon her and go after another person. In this one, she’s vowing not to fall for his charms and false promises again, and it goes on for 47 stanzas.

I love how the scene is set with her by the river, throwing trinkets into it and crying as she tears up letters and such, then spills her guts to the priest who happens to come along and sit next to her to console her. But apparently Shakespeare’s authorship is contested with this “complaint” poem. I’m not enough of a scholar to weigh in on this, certainly not enough of a literary scholar.

But after pages and pages of stanzas written from the male perspective, I think it’s a nice wrapping bow on the section to cut to a woman who’s had enough (hee hee).

***

The collection of poems is too short to give it’s own post, so I lumped them together with this one. The poems aren’t anything remarkable or quotable in their own right, at least, not that I would say, but rather, they have some fun with wordplay, and one is actually a shortened form of Venus and Adonis, probably a rough sketch of what would become one of his epic poems.

Still it’s neat to read through them and get more of a feel for Shakespeare’s sense of rhythm and style. I’d like these to pop up in literature texts more often to show the versatility of the Bard.

 

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