Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Crash Course Literature 304

Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature, and you look great. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Nah. Thou art more lovely and more temperate. [Theme Music] That William Shakespeare, he knew how to deliver
a compliment. That’s right, today, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, 159 poems collected and published in 1609. Mr Green, Mr Green, what’s a sonnet? Good question me from the past. In fact, such a good question that your 7th grade English teacher answered it for you, but apparently you’ve forgotten. A sonnet is a poetic form consisting of 14
lines. And there are various ways to order the stanzas
and the rhyme scheme, but the Shakespearean stanza — named for
Will not because he invented it, but, you know, because he was the best at
it — consists of three four line stanzas and a final rhymed couplet. So, the rhyme scheme is:
A, B, A, B, C, D, C, D, E, F, E, F, G, G And the meter in Shakespeare’s sonnets, as in much of Shakespeare’s plays, is iambic pentameter, which means that every line has 10 syllables,
consisting of five iambs. Which is just a fancy word for pairs of unstressed
and stressed syllables, so a line of a Shakespearean poem goes:
duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH. This turns out to do something to English
speaking brains that’s just very catchy. Like, a lot of times pop songs are written
in iambs. Like, a lot of times when we speak, we accidentally
speak in them. But when I’m trying to remember the sound
of iambic pentameter, I just remember John Keats’s last will and
testament, which was one line of iambic pentameter. “My chest of books divide among my friends.” So today we’re going to look at the history and controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets and we’ll look at three particular sonnets. They’re often known by their first lines,
but they’re also known by numbers. So, we’re going to look at Sonnet 18, aka
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, Sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of
true minds admit impediment, and Sonnet 130, My mistress’s eyes are nothing
like the sun. So the sonnet gets started, like so many great
things, in 13th-century Italy. Dante got into it, and then Michelangelo.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. So the most famous early examples of sonnets
were probably those by Petrarch. He used a different structure from Shakespeare and spent most of his time talking about a
woman named Laura which you have to pronounce La-oo-ra to make
it fit the meter. Anyway, he barely knew Laura, but when did
that stop men from romanticizing women. English sonnets started in the 16th-century and by the 1590s there was a huge craze for them, kind of like the craze for boy bands in the
1990s. Except with less choreography and hair gel. This is more or less when Shakespeare started writing them. Dates for his sonnets are pretty inexact,
but actually that’s the least of our problems. I mean, we know almost nothing about the poems,
except the sweet rhyme scheme. And that Shakespeare wrote them. And yes. We are sure that Shakespeare wrote them. He also wrote all of his plays, although the
earlier and later plays were probably collaborations. OK?
That’s settled. So Shakespeare wrote these sonnets, 154 of them, probably some time in the 1590s and early 1600s. We don’t know if the speaker in the sonnets
is Shakespeare himself or some imagined figure, although it’s widely assumed that they’re
fairly personal, as were most sonnets. And we don’t know if these were all the
sonnets he wrote. They’re just the ones we have. And they might have been intended for and
audience of everyone, or just for the people they were written for,
or for an audience of no one. However, two of the sonnets showed up in a collection in 1599, so he definitely didn’t keep them too private. And a contemporary describes him as showing his “sugared sonnets” around to his “private friends.” And then, in 1609, a reputable publisher named
Thomas Thorpe, published “Shakespeare’s Sonnets — Never
Before Imprinted.” Well, except for those two published earlier.
Thanks, thought Bubble. So, the book is dedicated “To the only begetter
of these ensuing sonnets Mr WH. All happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth that well-wishing adventurer in setting forth.” Now this dedication is signed TT or Thomas Thorpe so we have no idea if the dedication was actually Shakespeare’s, or if it was just Thomas Thorpe, and we don’t
have any idea who Mr. WH is, although that hasn’t stopped scholars from
trying to find out. We also don’t know if Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in the order they were published in, or if he wanted them to be published in that
order. So as originally published the first 17 sonnets
are addressed to a young man, telling him to settle down and have kids. And then sonnets 18-126 are still
concerned with that young man. Probably. Relatively few of the sonnets have gendered pronouns, which has caused a lot of bother over the last 400 years. But there’s fairly widespread agreement
these days that in these sonnets there is a relationship between two men that is passionate,
and possibly even erotic. And this bothered a lot of earlier editors
so much, that some went to all the trouble to change
the pronouns from male to female. So, does this mean that Shakespeare was gay? I don’t know!
I wasn’t alive in the 17th century. I also think it’s dangerous to read biography
into poetry. Also, in 16th and 17th century England, passionate
friendships among men were common, and they didn’t necessarily involve sex. That said, I still think it’s worth noting
and understanding, that all of the most romantic and loving of the sonnets are those addressed to the young man. Like, sonnets 127-154, the ones addressed
to the so-called black mistress are a lot darker. And no one’s reading those at weddings. But about the black mistress or the dark lady, who appears in those sonnets, we also don’t know who she is. Scholars have suggested royal waiting women, female poets, at least one British-African brothel owner. But we don’t even know if she was black
as we use the term today, or just brunette, in contrast to the blond
young man. But the dark lady sonnets are more complicated
than the ones addressed to the young man. The speaker feels tormented and ashamed of
his sexual attraction to the woman and even in the sonnets praising her, he gets,
as we’ll see, some insults in. Like, in sonnet 144, he actually compares
the two muses. He talks of having two loves: “The better angel is a man right fair; The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.” One more thing to know: Although Shakespeare was a beloved and popular
playwright, his sonnets were not initially a hit. Like, that 1609 edition?
Pretty much nobody paid attention. In fact, for 200 years whenever anyone wrote about the sonnets it was to complain about how boring they were. One editor, explaining why he didn’t reprint
them in 1793 wrote that not even “the strongest act of Parliament that could
be framed” would make readers like them. And yet, I quite like them. Like, Shakespeare manages to cram a lot of
emotion even into his highly structured form. And maybe most importantly, these sonnets make Shakespeare’s case for why he thinks poetry is important in the first place. That people die, but poetry lives on. Like, in sonnet 55, Shakespeare writes, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments of
princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme but you shall shine more bright in these contents than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.” And yet, quick side note, Shakespeare talks about how bright this young man’s memory will shine, uuh, but we know nothing about him! The poetry may last, but people still don’t. So, OK, let’s move on to sonnet 18. Now if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, you know that Shakespeare wrote this for Gwyneth Paltrow. No.
He didn’t. In ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,’ the thee in question is that mysterious young man. Basically, Sonnet 18 is one big extended metaphor. But the hook is that it’s a metaphor that
the poet admits isn’t especially successful. Yes, the poet could compare his beloved to a summer’s day, but it turns out this comparison isn’t really apt. Like, the beloved is nicer than a summer’s
day. The beloved has better weather. (Really? Better weather? Well, I guess this was England, so, yeah. Let’s just go with it) And there’s always sometimes lousy about
summer days — they’re too hot or they’re windy or if
they’re perfect, they’re over too quickly. But that’s not going to be the case with
the beloved, because just like in sonnet 55, the poet is going to immortalize the beloved
in THIS VERY POEM. Thereby he will make the young man perfect
eternally. Like, a summer day might end, but the beauty
of the beloved is going to go on forever “So long as men can breathe or eyes can
see.” And this wasn’t just, like, Shakespeare
being arrogant. It was a pretty common trope of Elizabethan
verse, this idea that human life is temporary, but
that poetry is forever. You have to remember, this was a time in human history where mortality was extremely common at all ages. It’s not like the vast majority of people
died old. There was a lot of chance involved. So it makes sense to draw a distinction between
the constant changing of nature’s seasons, versus the eternality of lines of poetry. In the end, a poem that starts out saying that the beloved is not like a summer’s day, turns out to be a poem in praise not of the
beloved, or of summer, but of poetry itself. But there’s one more brilliant twist in
the poem. I mean, look at the end, future looking verbs
like “shall not fade” and “nor shall brag”
give way to ones in the conditional like, “can read” and “can see” and then
to the present tense of “lives” and “gives.” So maybe Shakespeare is admitting that poetry
has its own limits, too? And then there’s Sonnet 116, which is the one you’re most likely to hear at someone’s wedding. This one is also addressed to the young man. This is in some ways the high point of Shakespeare’s
love poetry, although it’s perhaps a more insecure poem
than it seems at first. Here it’s not poetry that’s the greatest
thing ever, although Shakespeare definitely gives a hat
tip to his own writing, but love itself. Now, just as in Sonnet 18, there’s worry
over the impermanence of human life and beauty, how “rosy lips and cheeks” will be undone
by time and death. But hey, that won’t matter because love will last eternally or at least until “the edge of doom” That’s what Shakespeare hopes, anyway. But maybe he isn’t certain, because he’s
playing some games with the language here, and he’s showing how easily change and fickleness
can happen. Like, when you look at, or read the poem,
notice how easily words change in it — alters to alteration, remover to remove. Maybe he’s worried that love might change,
too. I mean, look at that first line, “Love is not love,” and look at all the nos and nors and nevers in the poem. But in the end, he does come to an emphatic
conclusion. He says that if all the things he’s said about love are in error “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Obviously, he has written, and men have loved.
So his defense of love is solid, right? Well, but then remember the line,
“Love is not love”? There are all kinds of explorations in Shakespeare’s
work about what real love is. But for me at least, the best line of the poem is when he writes that “love is not time’s fool.” True love, to Shakespeare, is not beholden to time. It doesn’t answer to time. It somehow transcends time. And lastly, let’s take a brief look at Sonnet
130, one of the ones addressed to the dark lady. This sonnet is almost a parody, a send-up of Petrarch’s sonnets about the lovely Laura, whom he barely knew. That weird Renaissance worship of the person
you met just one time, 20 years ago, and the constant exploration of every facet of their beauty, their mouth, their eyes, their cheeks, their hair. It gets a little overwhelming. In sonnet 130, Shakespeare simultaneously
does that, and refuses to do it. Like, If he suggested that a summer’s day
wasn’t a good enough descriptor of his beloved, now he’s suggesting that if you compare
his mistress to any of the typical stuff —suns, roses, perfume— she’s going to
fall very short. Her breasts are the color of dun, her hair is like black wires, sometimes her breath smells. This strange descriptive aggression characterizes
many of the late sonnets, where the poet seems to feel ashamed about
being attracted to this woman. But again, there’s a twist in the end, as
there is with every good sonnet’s final couplet. “And yet by heaven I think my love as rare/
As any she belied by false compare.” Shakespeare isn’t saying, look, my mistress
has onion breath. Instead, the speaker is instead saying, all of you other poets have been exaggerating like crazy including past me. If you were actually going to describe people realistically, his lover would be as beautiful as any other. So take that, coral and perfume, and summer
days. And for me at least, that humanization of
the romantic other is more romantic, and ultimately more loving than any summer’s
day. And plus, she’s gonna get to live forever! Well, not actually.
Because we’re all going to die. Even the species is going to cease to exist. Thanks for watching Crash Course
Literature. See you next week. Well, actually, I can’t guarantee that I’ll
see you next week. But I will, so long as YouTube lives, and
eyes can see. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and
Stacy Emigholz Studio. It’s made by all of these nice people and it’s made possible thanks to your support on Patreon, which is a voluntary subscription service
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in my hometown: Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

100 Replies to “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Crash Course Literature 304

  1. You spoil the lesson by claiming that Shaksper (actual spelling) the actor, was Shakespeare the anonymous author. Pity.

  2. 2: 40, no, we don't know exactly who wrote them, but we DO know that they were published under the name of Shakespeare, and that someone referrring to himself as "Will" wrote the "Dark Lady" poems. I don't like to hear anyone being quite so blaze about the authorship, without investigating just how many, and how qualified are the people who believe that the corn merchant and part-owner of a theatre from Stratford-upon-Avon did not have either the formal education or the experience to have written the plays. It is a subject worthy of your investigation.

    Secondly, there is a very attractive portrait used at 5:47. It is NOT the Shakespeare depicted in the engraving of the first folio. Despite claims that have been made, the engraving is NOT based on this picture, but has similar characteristics to the well-known Chandos Portrait. (flared nostrils showing the philtrum of the nose, chiselled end to nose, wide concave cupid's bow and bald forehead.)
    The lace collar in this image is the finest Spanish needle-lace, and wearing it was as impressive as driving a Ferrari. This man is a member of the court. It is probably Thomas Overbury who was thrown in the tower and sensationally murdered to cover up a scandal. It is a great story.

    When an artwork comes newly to public sight, then it is ALWAYS claimed to be by Leonardo, or Michelangelo, or at the very least, to represent William Shakespeare. It must be one of these three, ecause no-one else it worth as much money, or as much kudos to those who declare the identification and present it to the public. In this case they even went to the effort of having a portrait bust made that is based on it. Thomas Overbury's erstwhile friends turned enemies would be laughing in their graves at having rendered him to anonymity. Handsome chap, wasn't he?
    King James himself was painted wearing a collar like this one.

  3. Uk hiiiiiiiistorrrrryyyyyyyyyy. Also scince we dont know the identity of the young man he could have been remembered for something else

  4. 6:19 This quote is true, yet beautiful.
    I wonder if Shakespears was inspired by Italian Sonnet and wrote variation of this form.
    "Love is not love". At first, I thought love is toxic, because it involve a individual living with another one and can't live if he get divorce or died at young age. Then, he become depress and find himself/herself weak.

    Love is supposed to exchange their feeling and accept their choice, like leaving or divorcing. Resisting to loneliness and be strong alone, even if this hurt. Unfornatly, Love is like a puzzle piece, they were so attached that they shatter brutally, like a broken heart. I believe that love is a weapon, not a need.

    I hope to read his sonnets in French. Speaking of which, do you teach Charles Baudelaire's poetries? I heard that his poem were translated into English that you can read them and study them. Charles was involved in Edgar Alan Poe's work as he translated them into French. Could be why he choose the word ''Spleen'' to define the existantiel anxiousness?

  5. Shall i compare thee to a summers day is hands down one of Shakespeare's deepest lines. Especially how it fits into the sonnet itself.

  6. I'm doing some research on Shakespeare for a theater project atm and boy, he put lots of queer stuff in most of his plays
    Like sure, you can read all this stuff as bromances and gals being pals… but man
    lots of gay stuff in there
    just sayin'

  7. Did my eyes deceive me or did I simply look away at the wrong moment and miss it? We're talking about comparing to a summer's day and yet no Star Trek TNG reference? No Shakespear in a red captain's uniform at the very least!? You pull off the perfect Florida and Idaho Simpson's reference in a previous Literature vid, AND MISS PICARD'S EPIC THROWDOWN AGAINST DAIMON TOG?

    Shame! bell ding

  8. Mr. Green,
    Thank you for the time you take to make both informative and fun videos. These have been immeasurably helpful to my 8th grade students when trying to understand complex literary themes and ideas. So on behalf of all the teachers out there "borrowing" your information, I thank you.

  9. Conspiracy theory: the dark lady was a poet, and she wrote poems about other lovers of hers: "And yet by Jove I think my love as rare/ as any [of those whom] she belied with false compare." This is why he seems so ashamed and tormented in loving her.

  10. I’m surprised that John didn’t mention hamnet who died in 1596 when the sonnets where supposedly wrote

  11. I only see these courses because of how enthusiastically you present it!!! I only see these courses because of YOU John Green 😊😊😊☺️☺️☺️😃keep it up!!

  12. I think Shakespeare himself would not care whether the love poems were interpreted as written to a man or women – that is immaterial, if you think it is important then you do not know love.

  13. The better Angel is a man right fair; the worser spirit is a woman coloured ill". This might be the first instance of anyone suggesting "bros before hoes"? (Not being cute, seriously posing this thought)

  14. 0:38 John says the shakespearean stanza (…) consists of three four line stanzas. Did he mean shakespearean sonnet?

  15. I am a 10th grade student in India and I am astonished at the straightwashing of Shakespeare done in our English textbook.
    While our teacher was explaining Sonnet 55 'Not Marble,Nor the Gilded Monuments', in the first stanza, she explained that Shakespeare wrote this poem to his beloved mistress. In the later stanzas,she changed the pronoun to 'he' and explained it was addressed to his friend. However , if you read the poem it is extremely clear that the person to whom the poem is addressed to is a man and possibly romantically involved with Shakespeare.
    When I confronted my teacher about the fluctuations of the pronouns, she aggressively scolded me and told me not to "think of such things".
    As a young girl questioning her sexuality, it troubles me to see such ignorance in people.

  16. Seamlessly my hand flows a fast flash flood
    For the space most high, my mind places thee.
    Volcanic heart, bursts lava, writes with blood:
    Thou hath given inspiration to me.

    My love, my joy full of life, providing
    The faith I trace to only the divine.
    For no nature, no leaf bush handwriting
    Could make thee so perfectly to be mine.

    Though my flesh fails to know thine face so fair,
    It drys and cracks and smiles, for its love.
    My mind aches and my eyes, so distant, stare
    To meet thee again, though never enough.

    And one can only hope to find a way
    To wait for the date that whispers: someday.

    I wrote this sonnet and it’s about a girl I like a lot and I can’t share it with anyone so I thought I’d put it here.

  17. Perhaps a reason Shakespeare's sonnets didn't sell as well as his plays is because theater was more Democratic in those days. Both rich and poor could take part. Also plays don't require literacy, sonnets do.

  18. 2:50 "We're all sure that Shakespeare wrote them, so that's settled…" Leave it to a Stratfordian to say something as stupid as that. William Shakspere of Stratford couldn't write his own name the same way twice, as evidenced by the 6 sole signatures he left behind. His will mentions no books, no unpublished manuscripts, nothing connecting him to a career as a writer. He neither wrote letters that have survived nor wrote any letters that anybody else kept — this despite the fact that the name "William Shakespeare" or even just the initials "W.S." were enough to get quartos to sell.

    Shakspere was not Shakespeare. The name "William Shakespeare" was the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and the Sonnets he wrote are his most personal poetry. And there's a clever encoded message hidden in the Dedication page of the Sonnets, which reads: "TO.THE.ONLIE.BEGETTOR.OF.THESE.INSVING.SONNETS.Mr.W.H.ALL.HAPPINESSE.AND.THAT.ETERNITIE.PROMISSED.BY.OVR.EVER-LIVING.POET.WISHETH.THE.WELL-WISHING.ADVENTVRER.IN.SETTING.FORTH.T.T."

    This oddly-formatted Dedication is organized into 3 upside-down triangles of text comprising 6 + 2 + 4 lines, for a total of 12 lines, followed by the initials "T.T." [presumably those of Thomas Thorpe.
    If you count the words in the Dedication and count to the 6th word, then the 2nd word after that, then the 4th word after that, then continue on until you run out of words, you get the message: "THESE SONNETS ALL BY EVER THE FORTH T." What does it mean, by "EVER"? And what does "THE FORTH T" [i.e. the 4th "T"] mean?
    Alexander Waugh has some brilliant YouTube videos delving into these fascinating hidden messages in this obviously cryptic Dedication page, so type in "Alexander Waugh" in the YouTube search bar and check it out. "EVER" is Edward de Vere, who used the word "Ever" as a "posie" — a motto or signature in lieu of his own actual name in poetry anthologies published during Elizabeth's reign.
    Incidentally, the Title Page of the Sonnets also contains magnificent encryptions that prove beyond all doubt that Edward de Vere was the author behind the pseudonym "Shakespeare".
    And you'll never know it if you continue to get your biographical data concerning Shakespeare from the Stratfordians, who are wrong, and have always been wrong, about who he was and how he came to be. The Stratfordian connection to Lord Oxford is a red herring, intended to distract the attention of shallow-thinking people away from the truth. The First Folio presents us with the ridiculous image engraved by Martin Droeshout, accompanied by a 10-line poem [by "B.I." — probably Ben Jonson] telling the Reader to "looke / Not on his picture, but his booke." The shallow reader looks at the picture and assumes it's a picture of Shakespeare . . . but glosses over the admonition NOT TO LOOK AT THE PICTURE.
    "Shakespeare" was the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. It's no longer just a theory — it's a proven fact. He was initially buried at Hackney, but was later reburied at Westminster Abbey, and the Shakespeare statue at Poet's Corner is directly over the spot where his mortal remains were eventually interred, in the company of Beaumont, Chaucer, and Spenser . . . just as the Stratford Monument's inscription cleverly says, in its Latin couplet, with its references to Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil representing those English poets. Alexander Waugh's videos on YouTube prove this beyond all doubt.

  19. I love that he made clear that humanizing your partner is a lot more romantic than romanticizing them. People look weird and have bad breath and I don't think it's romantic to hide all these "flaws" that aren't flaws in order to make your partner seem perfect.

  20. A little tip for recognizing iambic pentameter is the words sound like a heart beat, you know that Da Dum Da dum effect. Which is handy to remember since iambic pentameter is used in a lot of love poems.

  21. Haaaa haaaaa, call me a simpleton but I cracked up after 0:17 ("that william shakespeare – he knew how to deliver a complement") with the eyebrows
    Great paintings, by the way

  22. Ah but what if Shakespeare was addressing his sonnets to himself as the male subject of his sonnets. Writers are funny retrospective creatures in that sense and write to reflect on or write through their life situations.

  23. Any reference which states that Shakespeare might be/ is gay, please??? MY LITERATURE TEACHERS NEVER MENTIONED THIS AND I AM SO APPALLED I GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE WITHOUT KNOWING THIS INFORMATION!!! please help me educate myself

  24. Justice, what is justice? Depends on who you ask she said", you think ill ever find justice?, yea she whispered "soon as you come back from the dead"……

  25. "I'd like to quote the great William Shakespeare, but to tell you the truth, I don't actually think he said it.."

    -General Donald Doyle

  26. Wait No More For Your Return

    I will no more grasp your departing hand
    Nor call your name as sweet as a berry
    Let go of 'emotional link' called bond
    Even see you off to Charon's ferry.
    Think no more of days worth remembering:
    Caresses, hugs, and kisses yester made
    Nor recall the love songs we used to sing,
    Memories they bring shall wither and fade.
    I will no more imagine your meek face
    To distance myself from sorrow and pain
    This heart will no longer run in a race
    When I see you shiver under the rain.
    Your feelings, rest assured, I will not scorn
       Lo! I will wait no more for your return.

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