Friday, March 31, 2006

Speaking of the dead...

The famous "Chandos Portrait" of the eternal 'Shakespeare'

I'm teaching a course this semester on Renaissance English literature, so I have to deal with Shakespeare, a writer whose work I read a lot back in high school and college but whom I've neglected since then.

I feel a bit intimidated at the prospect of teaching him next week.

To prepare myself, I sat down at my kitchen table, opened my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1, began reading the biographical information on Shakespeare, and found myself stunned by this statement:

Shakespeare himself evidently had no interest in preserving for posterity the sum of his writings. (page 1026)
I hadn't realized this, but the evidence seems to support the assertion, for Shakespeare seems to have made no effort to publish his works.

Mulling this over, I read on and came to the section on Shakespeare's sonnets. According to whoever wrote this section -- either George M. Logan or Stephen Greenblatt, I assume, since they edited material from the 16th century (where Shakespeare has been placed) -- the sequence of sonnets from 18 to 126:
...develops as a dominant motif the transience and destructive power of time, countered only by the force of love and the permanence of poetry. (page 1028)
As an example of this motif and its counterpoint, sonnet 18 says:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now, I realize that Shakespeare is expressing a convention of poetry in claiming the immortality of his lines ... but I have a hunch, though only a hunch, as to why he didn't attempt to preserve his writings for posterity.

My hunch? Shakespeare wasn't just expressing a poetic convention. He really believed that he had written "eternal lines." Given such a belief, he'd need not expend any effort at preserving them.

They would preserve themselves.

An effort on his part to preserve them would not only be unnecessary, it would imply his lack of faith in the eternal lines.

If I'm correct, then Shakespeare made a sort of Pascalian wager, chose to believe in the eternity of his lines, and therefore left his writings at the mercy of posterity to prove him right that they were eternal.

He would appear to have won that hypothetical bet.

8 Comments:

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Scottage said...

If so, he bet right. It only goes further to prove the great intelligence and forethought of the author.

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, if I'm correct ... but of that, we'll never know.

Good to see you here again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:19 PM, Anonymous James said...

When I used to teach 10th graders, we read Caesar and some of the Sonnets including 18.

That last line in 18 "so long lives this, and this gives life to thee" used to absolutely blow the minds of my tenth graders. They quickly recognized the immortality of the lines (after all here they were reading them hundreds of years later) and because of that the immortality of the love described.

Have fun teaching Shakespeare. He's the one thing I miss about teaching sophomore English.

 
At 2:02 AM, Blogger Scottage said...

yeah, sorry 'bout the hiatus, Gypsy, had my GMATs to contend with. I'll be here daily again now.

 
At 4:20 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I suspect he didn't really care what happened to his papers. He lived in the present and gloried in the act of creation. What he wanted most from his work was the opportunity to do more of it. I'm sure he didn't mind the praise either.

Think about the art and effort of being a blogger. I don't think many of us are writing for posterity, but presumably some of it will be read in a hundred years. I fancy that some of it will be your stuff, but do you really care about that?

 
At 3:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, thanks for the remarks and the good wishes for my fun in teaching Shakespeare.

J.J. Mollo, you may be correct, and if so, then Shakespeare's poetic promises of immortality were merely poetic convention.

As for myself ... yeah, I'd like my blog to be read in a hundred years, but Blogger has trouble keeping me online even for the present, so I don't have much hope for the longer term...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:41 PM, Blogger Wonderlane said...

still it seems self evident and rather grand

and true

 
At 7:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wonderlane, thanks for visiting. Were you commenting on Shakespeare's poem? He would appear to be winning that hypothetical wager.

Jeffery Hodges

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