Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Sonnets

The Sonnets are considered to be William Shakespeare's most private works. Another William, William Wordsworth said that they "express Shakespeare's own feelings and passions" whilst the poet W.H. Auden thought commented that he thought "Shakespeare would have been horrified at their publication" and "that reading them was like looking at someone else's private correspondence when they were out of the room".   However, the Sonnets are well and truly in the public domain and in the 21st Century it is not even necessary to visit a bookshop to buy a copy. They are freely available on the Internet. Most of the Sonnets are concerned with love and desire and the brevity of beauty and life. Sonnet 15  describes "this huge stage" (i.e the world)  which later appears reworked in the play    As You Like It Act 2 Scene 7 as "All the World's a Stage". But what can the Sonnets tell us about Tudor Astronomy?  The answer is quite a lot. Shakespeare uses the terms Astronomy and Astrology interchangeably and does not really distinguish between Stars and Planets.  For example in Sonnet 132 Shakespeare writes that "Nor shall that full star that ushers in the evening". Shakespeare's evening star is Venus. Sonnet 116 refers to the Pole Star used by Sailors to navigate "It is the star to every wondering bark".  Eclipses are mentioned in Sonnet 35 "Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud; Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud" and Sonnet 107 "The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured". Obviously eclipses were viewed as having a short term detrimental influence which had to be endured until they passed. Sonnet 98 refers to "heavy Saturn", rejuvenated by the April springtime. Saturn was the god of old age gloominess. People born under Saturn like Don John and Conrade in Much Ado About Nothing (Act 1, Scene 3) were prone to brooding and melancholic. Shakespeare often makes couplings between the Sun and Moon and Venus and Saturn to illustrate other comparisons. Sonnet 21 uses a Sun/Moon coupling and Fair Catherine in Henry V is the Sun and the Moon. Venus and Saturn are employed in Henry IVth part 2 (Act 2, Scene 4) and also Titus Andronicus (Act 2, Scene 3). 
However, it is Sonnets 14,15, 25 and 26 that are most interesting. Whilst in his plays Shakespeare is often dismissive of astrology in his Sonnets he uses what I will term "astrology lite". Shakespeare does not think that the positions of the stars can determine our futures but he does indicate that they can have a degree of influence on our behaviour. 
In Sonnet 14 "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck; And yet methinks I have astronomy" and then later in the same Sonnet "But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive, And, constant stars, in them I read such art".
In Sonnet 15 "That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows Whereon the stars in secret influence comment".
In Sonnet 25 "Let those who are in favour with their stars Of public honour and proud titles boast".
In Sonnet 26 "Till whatsoever star that guides my moving Points on me graciously with fair aspect".

In the Tudor and Jacobean period a playwright would have been acutely aware of the box office returns when his plays were performed. A good play would bring in a lot of money and the playwright would have been rewarded. A poorly received play would have finished its run early and the playwright might have been left without any income if the theatre made a loss. All three parts of Henry VIth were received very well at the box office (the records survive that on March 3rd 1592 the box office at The Rose took a record breaking £3.16.8 - it was performed again frequently after this). After this the leading actor Richard Burbage begged Shakespeare to write a sequel to Henry VIth called Richard III with plenty of expressive lines for him to deliver whilst on stage. Presumably the company of actors and stage hands did not have to endure a winter of discontent during this play's run.  Shakespeare uses language in his plays that the common people can understand. Shakespeare has a limited amount of lines on stage to establish the personas of his characters so he uses easily understood astronomical terms to explain their behaviour.  If the Sonnets are Shakespeare's private writings and musing then he clearly understood the attributes of the planets and their favourable and unfavourable alliances and conjunctions in the night sky and so did his audiences. Shakespeare's works show us in the 21st century the "wisdom of the crowd" during his lifetime like no other historic record of the time.


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