How were some sonnets used to express different views on love?

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How were some sonnets used to express different views on love?

For hundreds of years poets have used the sonnet to express their feelings, usually placing emphasis on the theme of courtly love. It is estimated that the earliest sonnets date from around 1200 AD, and they were probably sung as expressions of romantic love in Italian courtyards. As the sonnet moved from country to country different poets attempted to ‘make it their own’, causing the variation of sonnets we are now familiar with; namely the Petrarchan, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnet.

One of the most acclaimed sonneteers is Shakespeare, who wrote one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that were published between 1599 and 1609. From these many sonnets the one Shakespeare is most remembered for is Sonnet 18, sometimes referred to as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ due to the opening line. The sonnet is in keeping with the traditional views of courtly love, where the man tried to win over the woman in whichever way he could, being described as a ‘highly conventionalised code of conduct for lovers’.

This sonnet takes the form of a Shakespearean sonnet - the first of which were composed by Sir Thomas Wyat (1503-1542) and Henry Howard (1517-1547) – written in iambic pentameter, containing three four-line quatrains with a strict rhyme scheme and an ending rhyming couplet. Shakespeare uses this strict form to express his love, allowing the reader to focus more on his words and message than the structure.

The sonnet starts off with the question, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ which Shakespeare then goes on to answer in great detail. The first two quatrains show us the flaws of summer, saying its ‘lease hath all too short a date’, and also stating that ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’.

Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare uses many of the images and language commonly associated with courtly love. Exaggeration is used continuously, alongside imagery, to help us fully comprehend the love that Shakespeare is trying to express. Phrases such as ‘his gold complexion dimm’d’ and ‘eye of heaven’ use personification, helping us to clearly see the image that Shakespeare was trying to create through this sonnet. Another example of personification can be seen in the third quatrain where death is made into a proper noun in the line ‘Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade’, making it seem like Shakespeare’s lover is so great they can, in fact, cheat death.

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Despite these few techniques, the language in the sonnet is actually very straightforward, with limited alliteration and assonance, helping Shakespeare get his views across in a simple way that the readers, then and now, would understand. The point of Shakespeare wanting this poem to be accessible for everyone can be explained in the final two lines of the poem, ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ Here, Shakespeare tells us that as long as people can read this poem his lover will live on.

Shakespeare’s views ...

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