William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616.
Shakespeare’s plays go to the heart of human experience. They explore light and dark and the shadows in between. And often, when we least expect it, they turn the world upside down.
Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into over 100 languages (since 1960 Hamlet has appeared in more than 75) and, 400 years after his death, he remains England’s greatest playwright and poet. Yet, with a handful of exceptions, Shakespeare’s poems have not fared so well. They seem less accessible, more personal, and they require patience of the reader.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets were probably completed by 1599, but only published ten years later. There are 154. The last two are translations from Greek, probably by way of Latin, and are at odds with the rest. Shakespeare may not have written them or intended them to be grouped with the others.
The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and structure perfected in Italy by Petrarch and in England by Shakespeare. The form originated at the 13th century court of King Frederick II of Sicily and reached its apogee during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. After that, its place in English literature was assured. Four hundred sonnets appeared in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (2001), including 137 written during the 20th century.
Unlike the plays, which were written for public performance, the Sonnets were circulated privately among friends, who most likely knew to whom they were addressed. As Peter Levi noted in The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1988), the Sonnets “are the most thrilling and intimately deep poems in our language; they are often passionate, but they are like a record that leaves out most of the facts, and all the names and dates.”
To celebrate the enduring legacy of Shakespeare, two of his best sonnets follow. Sonnet 30, with its play on judicial language, laments past errors and finds solace in the memory of a friend:
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I 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,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.”
Shakespeare also used the sonnet form in at least two of his plays. One of the best is found in Romeo and Juliet, not least because in place of a single voice Shakespeare presents a duet:
“If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray – grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.”
Samuel Johnson, who knew a thing or two about literature, published an annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765. In the Preface he wrote:
“Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals.”