Discuss the relationship between structure and content in Shakespeare's sonnets and Spenser's "The Faerie Queene".

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Discuss the relationship between structure and content in Shakespeare’s sonnets and Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”.

Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, as an allegorical tour de force of Renaissance art, lends itself greatly to metaphorical interpretation. It has been the subject of much academic discussion, as have the elusive figures to which Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed. However, discussion of their prosodic mechanics and, more specifically, how these mechanics relate to their content, has until now been a more marginalised issue. How far does each writer explicitly address the relationship between structure and content; how important is this relationship; and do form and content happily coexist, or does one ever become subservient to the other? This paper shall aim to address these issues by linking Shakespeare and Spenser, as past scholarship has done, but it will focus more on its linguistic links, looking more specifically at examples from Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as book I of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

While the tradition for epic stretches back to the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the sonnet form was not created until the 13th century in Italy by Dante, before being ascribed to Petrarch. Upon its arrival in England three hundred years later, the structure of the sonnet had already undergone radical transformation due to the difference of ease of rhyming between Italian and English. The success of the sonnet form, then and since, can be at least partly attributed to the comfort of the iambic pentameter, with its similarity to speech. While the somewhat ‘plodding’ sound of The Faerie Queene seems incompatible with the pace of the narrative, the iambic pentameter is more flexible, and Shakespeare in particular manipulates the metre dextrously to match the mood of each sonnet. A worthy comparison lies in sonnets XVIII and XXVIII. Although both use the iambic pentameter in keeping with the traditional sonnet form, XVIII is soft and adoring while XXVIII is anguished and tense. The latter is extremely self-contained, due to the chiasmus of line 4 (“but day by night and night by day oppress’d”) and the repetition of ‘toil’ in lines 7 and 8. Sonnet XVIII benefits from longer sounds and a greater number of polysyllabic words (“temperate”, “complexion”), giving it its softer mood and sound. It is also worth pointing out that while both sonnets are well-punctuated, and mostly end-stopped, sonnet XVIII is all one sentence, making it more flowing and sinuous to the reader’s ear, whereas sonnet XXVIII’s general tension is consolidated by being broken up into several clauses, with a question mark at line 2, and full stops at lines 8, 12 and 14.

While it is clear that Shakespeare endeavours to vary form with respect to its content, Spenser does not make the same effort to vary The Faerie Queene syntactically or in terms of the metre’s “sound”. As with the sonnets, the epic is mainly end-stopped, in the manner that Alexander Pope would come to emulate in the eighteenth century. While the narrative of The Faerie Queene twists and turns dramatically, even in Book I alone, Spenser understandably felt a need to be faithful to the metre and form that he had chosen. However, his lack of attempt to manipulate it to his advantage does not necessarily do the epic any favours. Watkins asserts that “neither [Shakespeare or Spenser] hesitates to…alter[s] diction and syntax according to the effect he desires”, but to attribute this quality to Spenser as well as Shakespeare seems debatable. In fact, the structural equilibrium that Spenser provides seems quite incompatible with the pace and turns of the narrative. By definition, the sonnet form disrupts equilibrium appropriately by means of the volta at line 8.

Hardison offers a more convincing defence:


“Seen from the romance point of view, Spenser’s line is a classic Alexandrine. There are twelve syllables and no elisions…The caesura comes after the sixth syllable, and within the half-lines the measures are arranged symmetrically, as mirror images of each other…As in a well-made French Alexandrine, the balance within and between the half-lines is thematically expressive. In the first half-line, “warres” and “loves” are singled out, in the second, “moralize” and “song”. When the line is considered as a whole, “warres” is paired with “moralize” and “loves” with “song”. Finally the line is emphatically a unit…Romance scansion fits these lines very well.”

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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 ...

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