Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. Instead of a typical author interview with press blurbs and bio questions we decided to do something different – Carl’s going to guest blog a series for us based on *your* questions.
Question from Lee : I'm of the turn-the-volume-down school on the sonnets, meaning I think the more layers of modern psychology we put over them, the further we get away from the obvious. Take sonnet 66 (please). If I were on a desert isle, and knew only the basics of history, and had never heard of Harold Bloom, and that sonnet washed ashore, well I'd pick it up and quickly conclude the author was lamenting the loss of the Catholic faith (purest faith unhappily forsworn), complaining about censorship (art made tongue tied by authority) and mocking the Queen's much ballyhooed virginity (maiden virtue rudely strumpeted). Honestly, what other "pure faith" had to be forsworn under Elizabeth besides Catholicism? Was there really another "strumpeted" virgin in England other than Elizabeth? Aren't we getting away from the obvious in our approach to the sonnets with all this Freudian who-ha about dark women and fair boytoys when instead we should be looking at history and the Essex Rebellion? Shouldn't we be looking at Shakespeare as a political creature? Thanks. I look forward to your reply. It's a very sad sonnet, isn't it?
It is a sad sonnet, Lee, but I see it from a different angle. Rather than complaining about political specifics, I see a generalized list of the world's ills that have been around for a long time. From my book:
Shakespeare now toys with an old French form, the Provençal enueg. Wilkins (1915, 496) explains its three regular characteristics: ³the list, the initial repetition, and the emphatic presence of a word denoting Œannoyance.¹² I think too much has been made of parallels between this sonnet and other works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet 3.1.70-76 [TLN 1724-30], The Rape of Lucrece 904-7, and The Merchant of Venice 2.9.41-45
[TLN 1153-57] (see Rollins). Cruttwell (1960, 8-9), for example, finds that ³the long piling Hamlet-like list of the world¹s iniquities utterly overwhelms the protesting little line at the end.² I find nothing so serious here, just a new way to compliment the beloved. ³You are more important than all the ills of the world,² the speaker says. It may be that the conclusion is somewhat weak (we might expect some stronger expression of love), but the effectiveness of this poem lies in its form more than its content. The list, the repetition, the annoyance, and the protest work together to make the speaker¹s point: ³I love you. I don¹t want to leave you.²
About the Author
This book brings together the scholarship of dozens of the most brilliant commentators who have written about Shakespeare's Sonnets over the past three hundred years. This edition adds the significant work done by modern editors to the most important commentary culled from the two variorum editions of the last century. Atkins presents a straightforward edition without jargon with the simple goal of finding out how the poems work and how they may be interpreted. He is the first to collate the modern texts so that differences among them can be fully appreciated and compared. His discussion of meter and verse is more substantial than that of any other edition, adding particular dimension to this text. Those coming to "The Sonnets" for the first time and those seeking a fresh look at an old friend will equally find this edition scholastically rigorous and a pleasure to read. Carl D. Atkins is a practicing medical oncologist in New York.
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