Historical and Cultural Context of Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare is likely the most well-known literary figure in Western history, and thus an analysis of his works can deeply connect us to our cultural history. The beauty about studying Shakespeare is that any one of his works, such as “Sonnet 116” which we will be observing in this paper, opens our eyes to the lineages and trends of culture that have inspired countless other works of humanities for the past several hundred years. Indeed, the inspiration for “Sonnet 116” and Shakespeare’s other sonnets came from the English context of being influenced by the preceding Italian Renaissance. Further, Shakespeare’s signature style of his sonnets was inspired by courtly customs in the Elizabethan era of English history. As we will explore, a study of “Sonnet 116” brings us to consider the historical and cultural context of Shakespeare’s works, and to appreciate Shakespeare’s enduring value to the humanities in inspiring us to tap into eloquent literary forms of expression to celebrate or explore the most important dimensions of human experience.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are believed to have been mostly all written and released in the early 17th century, which thus places his work within the historical influence of the Italian Renaissance and Elizabethan Era of English literary history. Shakespeare’s sonnets are best contextualized within the trend of courtly love poems written in the 16th century around the cult of Anne Boleyn. “Sonnet 116,” like several of Shakespeare’s other sonnets, expresses deep passionate feelings of love and a celebration for the mysterious essence of love. Shakespeare’s work fits into the tradition of the Devonshire Manuscript, which is full of courtly love poems from Henry VIII’s court and Boleyn’s circle. Sir Thomas Wyatt deserves mention here as a primary source of influence for this era of the sonnet in English history, because many of the poems in the Devonshire Manuscript are attributed to him. As we will next see, the Elizabethan sonnets of the 16th century were characterized by the thematic styles of the Italian Renaissance, but Shakespeare, in the 17th century, adapted the style to make his own characteristic style known as Shakespearean sonnets.
Shakespeare’s poetic predecessors relied upon the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch’s style of sonnet, but Shakespeare would modify this form in ways recognizable in “Sonnet 116.” Petrarch’s style of sonnet divided the poem into two sections — the first with eight lines, known as an “octave,” and the second and last with six lines, known as a “sestet”. As we see with “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare’s characteristic style did away with Petrarch’s two-part structure, opting instead for 14 lines in one single verse. Petrarch’s style is to use two different voices or tones for each of his sonnets’ parts, thus creating a dialogue of different perspectives. Shakespeare’s style by contrast allows for further rumination and subtle lines of thought from the speaker while maintaining the same perspective, which creates more of a nuanced and varied feeling of inner dialogue. For instance, in “Sonnet 116,” we see that the speaker accomplishes a greater depth of exploration regarding love than would have been possible in just eight lines. The first eight lines establish the idea that true love is timeless, and then lines nine through twelve reinforce this theme with further effective imagery such as “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom”. Finally, Shakespeare’s typical couplet ending allows for a concluding statement which often reviews the point spoken through the sonnet and adds light back onto the speaker.
Many academics agree that Shakespeare has been one of the most important Western historical figures to the modern humanities education because of the accessibility of his work in allowing modern students to expand their literary frontiers and understand the history and culture that has led to the present. Ann Forrester (1995) says, “Shakespeare has brought alive Western society’s shared history and culture in a way no other playwright has ever done”. Forrester (1995) refers here to the way that Shakespeare’s works — including his sonnets — allow us to have a sense of what cultural themes and styles of being were present in his time of the 17th century. The above analysis regarding the Italian Renaissance and Elizabethan era’s inspiration for Shakespeare’s sonnets are proof of this — we can understand our not so-distant past by exploring Shakespeare’s form.
Further, Shakespeare is relevant for the humanities because his works contain an impressive degree of literary talent as seen in excellent usage of voice, tone, perspective, and other tools that can empower one’s expression. Forrester (1995) writes about how she witnesses her students “come to life” as they read Shakespeare’s works, as they are clearly inspired by entering into his voice and style of expression. Entering into a practice with Shakespeare is necessarily contagious, argues Forrester (1995), because one connects with a rich world of literary expression that adds valuable dimensions to human experience. For instance, in Sonnet 116, Shakespeare makes a passionate statement about love, which, from a humanities position, is certainly a valuable aspect of human experience which warrants complex and creative expression. In short, Shakespeare is valuable to the humanities because he can inspire people to tap their original process of thought and expression and thereby to make meaningful and moving statements about their experience.
The above analysis of “Sonnet 116’s” placement in history, the thematic inspiration and style of this work, and Shakespeare’s greater importance to the humanities shows that any one of Shakespeare’s works can bring us into a much greater appreciation for our cultural history and potential for creative expression. Indeed, “Sonnet 116” takes its place not as an isolated work from the mind of a genius who is unconnected from history and cultural context, but rather it is a product of a longer lineage of creative development in Western history that connects us to the Italian Renaissance and the Elizabethan literary era of English history. Shakespeare’s sonnets express appreciation and exploration of love, which is a very important facet of human experience. Shakespeare today still remains relevant to the humanities because of the potential of his work to connect us back with the history of Western culture that led us to this point, and in inspiring us to live the best lives we can in grappling with the essential themes and questions of life, such as love.
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