Life and its discontents

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William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Alfred Harbage, The Pelican Text, 1969 edition, reprinted 1977.

No man was as many men as this man because, as Keats put it, Shakespeare “left nothing to say about nothing or anything”. Shakespeare’s true voice — heard also through Hamlet in the graveyard and elsewhere — is in the sonnets where he talks about love, sex, authority, God, the paradoxical nature of truth, honesty, strength, goodness and evil… in fact about life and its discontents. All the 154 sonnets have been drawn chiefly from nature and everyday life, from business and law and the fine arts that have become the distillation of universal emotions and values. Most are self-contained units that could be read independently of others, the outcry of the natural man against the decay and extinction of beauty and vitality and love:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’ersways their power,How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Happiness has never been the realisation of our desires and moments of unclouded happiness are moments only. The objects of love —like the lover — are subject to time, from “the darling buds of May” to “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night”. The young man in the spring of life and pleasure is warned of middle age and beyond, “of leafless boughs/ bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”.

Affirmation too

Yet, one of the greatest of all sonnets is a defiant affirmation, the affirmation of a man who has no Platonic props but only himself to fall back on:

Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments; love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration findsOr bends with the remover to remove.O, no, it is an ever-fixèd markThat looks on tempests and is never shaken;….Love’s not Time’s fool, through rosy lips and cheeksWithin his bending sickle’s compass come;Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,But bears it out even to the edge of doom.If this be an error, and upon me proved,I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Stark contrasts

But the man sustained by love is still, like all human beings, subject not just to the ravages of time, but also to inward evil, to his own internal contradictions. The main contrast “is between the two loves, that ‘of comfort’ and that ‘of despair’.”

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,Which like two spirits do suggest me still;The better angel is a man right fair,The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.To win me soon to hell, my female evilTempteth my better angel from my side. And would corrupt my saint to be devilWooing his purity with her foul pride.

From the rarefied heights of idealised love and the contradictions within, Shakespeare moves to the very pit of passion, utterly ignoble animal hunger:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action; and till action, lustIs perfured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,Past reason hated as a swallowed baitOn purpose laid to make the taker mad; Mad in pursuit, in possession so,Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme,…..All this the world knows, yet none knows wellTo shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Paradoxical position

The centrality of love is a centrality in a profoundly paradoxical sense in that it is also full of deceit and self-deception:

O, never say that I was false of heart,Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.As easy might I from myself departAs from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie.That is my home of love:…..Alas, ‘tis true, I have gone here and thereAnd made myself a motley to the view,Gore mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear.Made old offences of affections new.

With age, mellowness creeps in, just the very knowledge that one is loved, Shakespeare suggests, can be a great support in times of trouble:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I alone beweep my outcast state,And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,And look myself and curse my fate….Yet, in these thoughts myself almost despisingHaply, I think of thee and then my state,Like to the lark at break of day arisingFrom sullen earth, sings hymns of at heaven’s gate;For thy sweet earth love remembered such wealth bringsThat then I scorn to change my state with kings.When to the sessions of sweet silent thoughtI summon up remembrance of things past,I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night….But if the while I think of thee, dear friend,All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are composed of universal elements that contain within themselves their own contradictions: beauty and decay, time and death, permanence and flux, truth and falsehood, and love in all its forms, from “lust” to charity. Life is an abnormal business and the changes are rung on all these themes by an artist of supreme sensitivity to feeling and thought. Shakespeare was the philosopher of human possibility and his place, as Ionesco put it, was “between God and despair”.



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