Just as the scansion of The Faerie Queene provides unity to each line, Spenser’s narrative linearity is self-evident, even if at times the epic does appear too formulaic. The narrative linearity of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, is acknowledged in the scholarly sphere as being far more ambiguous. There is a marked absence of any straightforward narrative organisation, and the sonnets are more often linked by logic than by theme (eg. XXVII and XXVIII). Form and content evidently deviate slightly here.
This deviation continues in the vein of double-entendre. Jacobs comments on sonnet XX: “It’s a wry and comic interest in double-speak, and it is driven stylishly through double entendres…’steals’ suggests ‘steels’…”. The very definition of double-entendre means that a word signifies one thing but is pluralist in that it can also signify many others. Therefore the relationship between form and content can be ambiguous, particularly in the sonnets. Spenser, however, presents no such ambiguity in The Faerie Queene. The allegorical nature of the epic, and the omniscient and prescient point of view that it takes, makes Spenser’s agenda extremely clear, particularly through the aptonymical aspect of his work. An aptonym, distilled to its essence, is somewhat crudely defined by linguist Frank Nuessel as “the term used for "people whose names and occupations or situations (e.g., workplace) have a close correspondence." The name "aptonym" is a compound word which consists of the adjective "apt" (from Latin via Middle English) meaning "exactly suitable, or appropriate". The second part of this word comes from the Greek "onuma" ('name'). An alternative term is aptronym.” Spenser does not relate the names of the personages in The Faerie Queene to their occupations, but instead names them in relation to their personal characteristics. Duessa is hypocritical and two-faced, using the more pleasant pseudonym of Fidessa, whereas Una is the face of truth; Sansfoy, Sansjoy and Sansloy clearly lack the essential qualities of faith, happiness and inclination to abide to the law respectively; and the addition of Lucifera clearly connotes a diabolical force. Instead of employing ambiguity as Shakespeare does, knowing the names of Spenser’s characters mean that the reader can already speculate on their psychology and behaviour. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Spenser has deliberately chosen to make the content (actions) correlate with structure (names).
We have already seen how Shakespeare manipulates the diction and syntax of the sonnets to achieve various effects. However, there are other intriguing issues that remain to be addressed in this area. Spenser, for example, uses several French words such as puissance at I.i.iii, and appears to write phonetically, as if to connote the vernacular (eg. at I.i.xxvii); and while Shakespeare employs prose for the labourers and poetry for the royals in his plays, this inconsistency is resolved in the sonnets, with Shakespeare using the imperative so as to directly address his lover. Potts refers to Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to explain Shakespeare’s attitude towards the relationship between form and content:
“If we read these lines (MSND V.i.2-22) backward, as it were, and more prosaically, we learn that identifiable poems are shapes recorded in script from forms; that these forms are forms of things; that these things without these forms would be unknown; and that the forms themselves are filial bodies or creations of the parental imagination. Thus the form mediates between the imagination of the poet and the final shape of poetry; it is indeed the mimetic implement.”
This, in conjunction with the evidence already offered, implies that certainly in Shakespeare’s case, the link between structure and content is not subconscious.
One can also forge links, of a rather more valedictory nature, between the start of sonnet LIII and Act IV of The Tempest. The opening couplet of the sonnet runs “What is your substance, whereof are you made,/That millions of strange shadows on you tend?” and can be strongly cross-referred to The Tempest IV.i.148-158, Prospero’s famous speech: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (156-8). Both the sonnet and the speech are iambic, and although one is more questioning and the other is more of a statement, both are of a farewell nature.
It is interesting to note, from the point of view of Theseus’ speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as from the point of view of the sonnets, that Shakespeare does not acknowledge his reasons for the use of the sonnet specifically but rather the properties of verse in general that provide immortality. However, he was surely familiar with Aristotle’s division of poetic form, which Hardison condenses into a tidy definition: ““Aristotle knows that dactylic hexameter is proper for heroic verse, iambic metre for abusive satire, and trochaic metre for poetry associated with dance. He also knows that comedy adopted iambic verse at an early stage in its development because iambic verse is close to speech”. Critics acknowledge also that the content of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is let down by its alexandrine stanzas; Hardison avers that the epic, due to its stanzaic structure, “lacks force. It is too elegant. Consequently it has difficulty achieving sustained elevation of the sort illustrated by…Chapman’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost…Because the stanza has a lyric quality, it can achieve moments of great emotional intensity, as in Redcross Knight’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (I.x.53-68)…The stanza is also an effective vehicle for ornamental description (I.i.25 – the monster Error; I.iv.16-37 – the pageant of the seven deadly sins)”.
Despite The Faerie Queene’s structural downfalls, Hardison does make an effort to compensate. In addition, the Spenserian ababbcbcc rhyme scheme appears more weaving and more Italian than the greatly regimented Shakespearean rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg). As if to exemplify this, Sonnets XII and XX are punctuated rather strictly, the former with regular commas and semi-colons, and the latter marks a trend for dividing the octet and the sestet specifically by means of finite punctuation. In sonnet XXII the final couplet also becomes separated and thus more definitive.
This observation is equally transferable to the way in which Spenser has chosen to write his epic. The majority of epics, while divided into separate books (eg. The Aeneid) or cantos (Dante’s Divina Commedia), do not go on further to divide these sections into even smaller parts, whereas Spenser has. While it has already been established in this paper that for the most part, his prosody and syntax does not change to accommodate differing moods or situations, he does diverge from tradition here. One critic attempts to explain why this might be:
“Hurd in his Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1742) undertakes to defend the unity, though he is not quite satisfied. His main argument is that the poem has the unity of a Gothic not that of a classical structure. He compares it with what he calls ‘the Gothic method of design in gardening’. In such a design ‘a wood or grove’ was ‘cut into many separate avenues or glades…These walks were distinct from each other, had each their several destination, and terminated on their own proper objects. Yet the whole was brought together and considered under one view by the relation which these various openings had, not to each other but to their common and concurrent centre.’ The ‘appointment of the Fairy Queen’ provides in Hurd’s opinion this common centre for the adventures of the various knights…But he thinks Spenser was misled by classical models into attempting ‘to tie his subject still closer together by one expedient of his own, and by another taken from his classical models. His own was to interrupt the proper story of each book, by dispersing it into several actions…in order to give something like the appearance of one action to his twelve adventures’. The other expedient was by adopting one superior character which should be seen throughout. Hurd thinks that Prince Arthur was ‘but an afterthought’ ‘forced’ on the poet ‘by the violence of classic prejudice’.”
By this definition, this would make Spenser’s The Faerie Queene reminiscent of the Greek legend of the labours of Heracles – all of the labours stand alone as discrete stories, as well as forming part of a larger whole. Dramatic and narrative form, and its relation to content, is not lessened by fragmentation. Another significant example lies in a great mediaeval treatise on vernacular poetry, which has its roots in Italy: Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, written c. 1305. It is written in Latin, but it tackles the subject of the Italian language, using verse forms that are fitting for many types of articulation in that language. This implies that fragmenting the form in which something is written detracts in no way from the content, and it appears that both Shakespeare and Spenser knew this.
Faas asserts that “to Renaissance aestheticians…form was defined by the poet’s invention”, which may go partway to explaining why Shakespeare would sometimes violate the sonnet form, sacrificing structure for content. In sonnet XXXII, a few lines have an extra syllable added, changing the emphases to give them a feminine ending (lines 2 and 4), and sonnet CXLV suffers from shortened lines (iambic tetrameter, instead of the traditional pentameter). In sonnet LXVI, the volta is omitted entirely. Faas goes on to explain:
“But most revealing here are the sonnets, where ‘invention’, upon its first occurrence, appears together with its twin-concept ‘argument’: [Sonnet 38 cited]. Just as the poet’s invention or argument is prompted by experience (the love for his friend), so his words are a direct expression of his emotions: [Sonnet 76 cited]. In other words, experience gives the poet’s pen both its ‘skill and argument’ (100). The remaining sonnets in which ‘argument’ and ‘invention’ appear side by side (79, 103, 105), are variations on the same theme.”
The suggestion is that content engenders form, but it is obvious that this only occurs to some extent, as both Shakespeare and Spenser are fairly regimented in their chosen structures. In sonnets XL and XLVI, the epizeuxis of the word ‘love’ is quite prominent, but mysteriously, sonnets LXXVI and CXVI are far less end-stopped than their counterparts, making far greater use of the caesura. This is perhaps due to Shakespeare wanting them, as traditional love poems, to sound ‘softer’, as in the earlier example of sonnet XVIII (although this is, of course, pure speculation). Bose links Spenser and Shakespeare in this regard:
“’The sonnets take their start from something that can, for convenience, be called the Spenserian mode’. Later on, we are given the characteristics of this mode – the slow movement and melody, the use of imagery predominantly visual and decorative, the romantic glamour, the tendency towards a gently elegiac note. ‘In the Spenserian mode no object is sharply forced on the consciousness…Now there is in Shakespeare’s sonnets a quality that, at a first reading, seems very near to this.’ Knights mentions sonnets 98 and 102 as examples of the Spenserian mode.’.
However, while there are links between Spenser and Shakespeare in this regard, it is evident that in one aspect of his poetry, Shakespeare has a slight advantage that Spenser does not. Sonnets CXXXV and CXXXVI greatly exploit the potential to pun on the poet’s name (reprinted to maximally demonstrate the effect of this):
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in over-plus;
More than enough am I that vexed thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.
If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;
Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
Will, will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckoned none:
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store's account I one must be;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something sweet to thee:
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is 'Will.'
This allows Shakespeare to inject some unexpected humour into the sonnets, and the ease with which his name rhymes, coupled with the vehicle of the sonnet form’s closely controlled rhyme scheme, allows an ideal association to be set up between form and content.
The two forms examined in this paper have been examined on the basis of shared qualities as much as differences. However, it is worth noting that while the sonnet is compact in itself (even though it can be part of a wider narrative basis per se), epic is by definition the exact opposite. It is imperative that this fundamental difference between the two forms is not forgotten, as it makes a significant mark on the relationship between form and content. Each of these forms has a different purpose, and each purpose is multi-layered, reflected in the subsequent differences between Shakespeare’s and Spenser’s works in terms of the way each writer manipulates prosody, syntax, diction, symbolism, character, register, and metaphor. Spenser does not deviate from designated structures nearly so much as Shakespeare, suggesting that Spenser has chosen one form only, and expects and hopes it to be applicable to the entire work, whereas Shakespeare does not foster such hopes. Spenser does not explicitly address the notion of the writer’s craft in his work, whereas Shakespeare does (albeit referring usually to ‘verse’ generally, rather than the sonnet form itself); what’s more, Shakespeare also dares to change form subtly, in accordance with the mood or subject of each individual sonnet, and this in itself says a great deal about how Shakespeare viewed the relationship between form and content. Regardless of whether or not each writer addresses this explicitly in his work, the relationship between structure and content is carefully considered by each, and is far from unfounded.
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- Berger H (Jr) (ed.), Spenser: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1968
- Blake, NF, Rhythmical Alliteration, Modern Philology, vol 67, no. 2, 1969
- Cutler, A. & Ladd, D. R. (eds), Prosody: Models and Measurements, Springer-Verlag, 1983
- Kermode, F, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971
- Mack, P. (ed.), Renaissance Rhetoric, St. Martin’s Press, 1994
- Palmer, F. R., Prosodic Analysis, Oxford University Press, 1970
- Schar, C., An Elizabethan Sonnet Problem: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Daniel’s Delia and their Literary Background, Lund Studies in English XXVIII, 1960
- Aebischer, P., lecture: “Elizabethan Sonnets”, given at the University of Exeter on February 20th, 2006
- Bose, K., “The New Problem of the Shakespeare Sonnets”, Essays on Shakespeare, Chatterjee, B. (ed.), Longmans, 1965
- Faas, E., Shakespeare’s Poetics, Cambridge University Press, 1986
- Hardison, O. B., Prosody and Purpose in the English Renaissance, John Hopkins University Press, 1989
- Jacobs, R, A Beginners’ Guide To Critical Reading: An Anthology of Literary Texts, Routledge, 2001
- MacLean, H. and Prescott, A. L. (eds), Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, Norton Critical Edition (3rd ed.), 1993
- Norbrook, D. (intro.), and Woudhuysen, H. R. (ed.), The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, Penguin, 1993
- Nuessel, F., The Study of Names, Greenwood Press, 1992
- Potts, AF, Shakespeare and “The Faerie Queene”, Cornell University Press, 1958
- Shakespeare, The Tempest, New York: Crofts, 1946
- Spens, J., Spenser’s Faerie Queene: An Interpretation, Russell & Russell, 1934
- Watkins, W. B. C., Shakespeare and Spenser, Princeton University Press, 1950
All sonnets taken from The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, Norbrook, D. (intro.), and Woudhuysen, H. R. (ed.), Penguin, 1993
All points made in conjunction with Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, MacLean, H. and Prescott, A. L. (eds), Norton Critical Edition (3rd ed.), 1993
Taken from Pascale Aebischer’s lecture, “Elizabethan Sonnets”, given at the University of Exeter on February 20th, 2006
Watkins, W. B. C., Shakespeare and Spenser, Princeton University Press, 1950, p. 267
Hardison, O. B., Prosody and Purpose in the English Renaissance, John Hopkins University Press, 1989, p.16
Aebsicher, op. cit.
Jacobs, R, A Beginners’ Guide To Critical Reading: An Anthology of Literary Texts, Routledge, 2001, p. 40
Nuessel, F., The Study of Names, Greenwood Press, 1992
taken from , written by Dave Chapman, accessed March 6th, 2006
Potts, AF, Shakespeare and “The Faerie Queene”, Cornell University Press, 1958, p. 239
Shakespeare, The Tempest, New York: Crofts, 1946
Hardison, op. cit., p. 23
Hardison, op. cit., p. 217-8
Extracted in Todd’s Spenser, vol ii, p. clix
Spens, J., Spenser’s Faerie Queene: An Interpretation, Russell & Russell, 1934, p. 14-15
For the following, see S. K. Heninger Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony, pp.294ff. During the Renaissance, ‘invention’ would often be identified with either ‘imitation’ or ‘imagination’.
Faas, E., Shakespeare’s Poetics, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 14
Faas, op. cit., p. 22
Knights, L. C., Explorations, 3rd Imp., 1958, p.45
Bose, K., “The New Problem of the Shakespeare Sonnets”, Essays on Shakespeare, Chatterjee, B. (ed.), Longmans, 1965, p. 132