Guide to the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets — an honest account of love and a surprising portal to the man himself


Giovanni Cariani, Portrait of Two Young Men. The bulk of the sonnets are addressed to a young man known as the ‘fair youth’.

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney

Most of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. Even if we aren’t Shakespeare geeks, chances are we’ve waded through five or six in school, seen several movie adaptations and been to an “in the park” production.

And then there is the constant background of Shakespearean quotations and references colouring our lives, from recognisable lines like “let slip the dogs of war”, to the oh, I didn’t know Shakespeare wrote that cliches, such as “one fell swoop” or “wear my heart upon my sleeve”.

However, apart from a few hits, Shakespeare’s sonnets are less known.


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Fortified with a familiarity with the plays, a virgin journey into the sonnets is as good a literary adventure as anyone could hope for. It is both unsettling and beguiling.

The Shakespeare of the plays is god-like: he is everywhere in his creations as a masterful and unifying presence, and yet he is aloof. If I had to take a punt, I’d say he was wise, wry — the kind of person who knew how to do life right.

Thus it is a shock to meet the Shakespeare of the sonnets. This Shakespeare is frail (sonnets 29 and 145), obsessed (28), judgmental (130), fickle (110) and self-pitying (72). And so we are drawn in. We begin to ponder how much of himself Shakespeare reveals in the sonnets, and, if he is in there, how one of the most remarkable humans could be so like the rest of us.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a short poem, traditionally about love. The “English” or “Shakespearean” sonnet has a standard form. There are 14 lines, each with five “beats”.

Each beat has two syllables, with the second being stressed. This is known as “iambic pentameter”. Try it out with the most famous line from the sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (18)

The sonnet has three “quatrains” — stanzas with four lines — and a final rhyming couplet — two lines that rhyme. The couplet packs a certain punch that turns the sonnet on its head or provides the key to the sonnet or something similar.




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A brief overview

When we talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, we are usually referring to the 154 sonnets published in 1609 when Shakespeare was about 45. The sonnets were likely written and revised throughout Shakespeare’s adult life (though there is debate).

Keeping to the tradition, Shakespeare’s sonnets are about love. But they take us into love’s maelstrom. The sonnets speak, often in the most raw fashion, of jealousy (61), fear (48), infidelity (120) and love triangles (41, 42), but also of the simple happiness that love can bring (25). Because of this, according to poet and essayist Anthony Hecht, young lovers make up the most substantial readership of the sonnets.

The bulk of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, often referred to as the “fair youth”.

The dedication to the sonnets.
Author provided

The last 28 are mostly addressed to or about a woman: “the dark lady”. The real-life identities of both figures are not known. However, the dedication to the sonnets, which some consider to be a code, may contain the youth’s identity (see this article by amateur Shakespeare scholar, John Rollett).

Within these two broad sets there are smaller groupings. Sonnets 1 to 17 are known as the “procreation sonnets”, while 78 to 86, which reveal that another poet is drawing inspiration from the fair youth, are referred to as the “rival poet” sequence.

And throughout, two and sometimes three sonnets are directly linked as if they were a longer poem (for instance 66, 67 and 68 — look out here for the objection to the silly wigs everyone wore).




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The fair youth sequence

There are several recurring themes here.

A number of sonnets address the pain of being apart (such as 44 and 45). And in 49 we see the persona’s anxiety about parting permanently when he imagines the time “when thou [the fair youth] shalt strangely pass, / And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye.”

But we also witness the persona drawing on his love for the youth to fortify himself against unhappy memories. The well known 30 begins with:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.

It finishes with the lines, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.”

There are also the themes of time’s destruction of beauty and the horror of death. And hand-in-hand with these, we see the persona searching for ways for the youth to achieve immortality.

In 12, one of the “procreation sonnets”, the youth is encouraged to seek immortality by having children. It finishes with: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence, / Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence.”

However, even more poignant are the persona’s many explicit attempts to preserve the youth through his poetry — a quixotic enterprise that, remarkably, has worked. This is best exemplified in 18. We read:

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou growest. / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Portrait by John Taylor, thought to be of Shakespeare.
Wikimedia Commons

A common discussion is whether the fair youth sequence reveals that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual. Unless the sonnets are a wild fabrication, Shakespeare certainly wasn’t straight.

However, we should, as scholar Dennis Kay reminds us, be cautious of “applying a modern understanding of, and attitudes toward, homosexuality to early modern culture.” Read 20 and see what you think.

Not all the sonnets in the fair youth sequence are addressed to the youth. An exception is another of the evergreen sonnets: 116. This ode to the eternal nature of love begins with:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.

Returning to sonnet 66 (my favourite), although the final couplet addresses love, the sonnet stands out because its focus is not love, but the corruptions of the world.

In it, the persona objects to “folly (doctor-like) controlling skill” and “art made tongue-tied by authority.” Here we are reminded of the battles many who are capable and spirited must fight against soulless bureaucracies and the censorious.

The dark lady sequence

The “dark lady” is “dark” because when she is introduced in 127, her complexion and eyes are described as black:

In the old age black was not counted fair, / Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name; / But now is black beauty’s successive heir, / And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame.

And later in the sonnet we read: “my mistress’ eyes are raven black.”

In the dark lady sequence, the persona suffers familiar torments. But there are also several instances of humor — the fair youth sequence is almost humorless.

In sonnet 135 and 136 the persona puns bawdily and relentlessly on the world “will”: “Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious, / Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?”

But the stand-out is 130. Here the persona pointedly declines to use tired comparisons to praise the attributes of his mistress.

We read: “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, and, “And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.”

Then come the glorious lines: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground.”

Their reception

The sonnets were not much read for nearly 200 years after their publication, but since then they have only grown in popularity. This was, perhaps, assisted by Wordsworth’s own sonnet: “Scorn Not the Sonnet”. (I know, it’s hard not to laugh.)

Today, lines from the sonnets turn up from time to time in popular culture. Naturally, in “Dead Poets Society” sonnet 18 is recited.

So what do the sonnets mean for us today? Many things. Most commonly, they have come to stand for perfect love, but this is likely because few readers make it past two of them: sonnets 18 and 116.

For those who do read further, the sonnets provide a more honest account of love, while exploring other substantial themes such as fear of death and the search for immortality.

The sonnets can also be enlisted to support social and political causes, from freedom to sexuality. And then there is the possible portal they provide into Shakespeare the man.

Ultimately though, we read on because of Shakespeare’s inimitable commingling of beauty and truth — if the two can be separated. And because each reading reveals that we are still only splashing about in the shallows of an immeasurable ocean.The Conversation

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book publishing sidelined in the game of university measurement and rankings


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Agata Mrva-Montoya, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, University of Sydney

Academic book publishing is under threat. Global university rankings and competition for funding and international student enrolments are reshaping the research landscape. Academics are under more pressure to win grant funding and publish journal articles, rather than books, and be more strategic in their publishing.

With universities losing billions in revenue due to the impacts of COVID-19, these pressures are only going to increase.

Traditionally, a monograph published with a prestigious publisher has been a key medium to create and disseminate research in the humanities and social sciences. It has also been important for building scholarly careers and reputations. However, our research shows publishing pressures, incentives and rewards are changing.

A shift from quantity to quality

The Australian government’s approach to funding research has had a strong impact on what types of publications have been encouraged.

Australian universities first began reporting details of academics’ research outputs to the government in the 1990s as part of the formula for distributing research funding. The funds allocated for publication were significant. By 2001, a peer-reviewed journal article was “worth” more than A$3,000 to the university. A book was “worth” $15,000.

These rewards applied regardless of where the research was published. “Publish or perish” had well and truly taken over. Without appropriate measures to account for quality and impact, the system had the unintended consequence of encouraging academics to publish low-quality research with low-quality journals and publishers just to meet performance targets. The use of quantitative measures alone also increases the possibility for gaming and manipulation.




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Publication data were eventually removed from the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) specifications in 2016. Since then, no government funding based on quantity (or quality) of research outputs has been distributed.

Australia’s current national research assessment exercise, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), began in 2010. The ERA system is designed to identify and improve quality of research through international benchmarking.

As a result, all universities expect “quality” publications from their staff. This is invariably understood as publishing with international and prestigious publishers and in high-ranking journals.

As universities compete against each other, they have a strong incentive to lift their research profile and to design internal reward schemes based on how ERA defines quality.

Academics are now fundraisers

Our research project looked at the publishing strategies and behaviours of academics in the humanities and social sciences. We found the pressures for quantity appear to have subsided (for some at least). However, there is now a greater push for quality, competitive grant funding and real-world impact.

While universities are still interested in quality publications, the changing funding rules mean universities that receive competitive funding get additional research funds through HERDC. This translates to greater pressure on academics to apply for and secure funding. Academic production appears to have shifted from publication as an outcome in itself to funding as the main measure of performance.

women weighs up books in one hand against piggybank in the other
Academics must now weigh up the expectation that they attract funding against other performance criteria.
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Funding bodies, in turn, are increasingly looking to researchers to show their research has quantifiable, real-world impacts. And ideally they should publish in open access publications.




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Juggling publication quality and research impact

Academics are caught in the middle between the pressure to publish in quality outlets versus the need to demonstrate impact in the broader society. This creates a conundrum for academics in the humanities and social sciences in particular.

A number of participants in our research described the ways in which their university’s performance evaluations are aligned to publishing practices in science, technology and medicine. Citation metrics are commonly used as a proxy for quality in these fields. Books are generally not available or poorly represented in citation databases.

Many respondents felt their institutions devalued book publishing in favour of journal articles and collaborative authorship.

The emphasis on international publication means some subject areas are rated higher than others. For example, academics in Australian studies told us they felt their institutions undervalued their work.

We also observed an increase in the number of journal ranking lists or recommended publisher lists, created internally by universities. These are intended to make “quality” explicit by identifying where academics are advised to publish.

However, these lists discourage academics from publishing with local, niche, emerging or open-access book publishers and journals. These outlets might actually be a better fit for their target audiences and so lead to greater impact.




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Distorting the value of academic inquiry

The different expectations of various stakeholders mean academics receive conflicting advice about publishing strategically. Academics are encouraged to engage with the Australian context and communities. At the same time, they are told to produce research that prestigious international journals and publishers will accept.

These pressures lead researchers to publish in ways that reflect how they are being measured. This appears, in turn, to influence their research agendas. The current research landscape seems to be more a reflection of what is being measured, rather than what is needed by society or would advance knowledge.

Academics, especially early career researchers, have no choice but to remain open to changing priorities, be they institutional or governmental. They must balance the contradictions and tensions in academia. In spite of the rhetoric of academic freedom, university performance expectations mean academics are increasingly required to construct their research agendas and publishing strategies to be attractive to grant funders and international publishers.

Apart from affecting individual academics’ careers, these practices have broad social and intellectual costs. For the humanities and social sciences, in particular, these trends could affect the future and relevance of these disciplines in Australia.The Conversation

Agata Mrva-Montoya, Honorary Associate, Department of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and Edward Luca, Manager, Academic Services, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Geoffrey Robertson makes the case for naming and shaming human rights abusers


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George Newhouse, Macquarie University

Geoffrey Robertson is one of Australia’s most acclaimed international jurists and human rights advocates. His latest book, Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them, explains the history of international human rights law and acknowledges its failings.

Bad People is not a textbook; it is aimed at anyone with an interest in the international human rights framework and its enforcement mechanisms.

Most importantly, it is a call to action for Australians and others in democracies to demand the introduction of “Magnitsky laws”.

Magnitsky laws are named after a Russian whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and died after exposing a massive tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. These laws seek to combat human rights abuses by naming, blaming and shaming individuals, denying them the right to enter democratic nations, stripping them of ill-gotten funds, and barring them and their families from local schools and hospitals.

Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor.
Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor who died in custody in Russia at the age of 37.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The US was the first country to pass such laws in 2012 to sanction Russian officials and Chechen warlords, sending a strong signal to the Kremlin that action could and would be taken for human rights breaches.

Since then, the US has used the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on more than 200 individuals and entities from two dozen countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and Cambodia.

Robertson’s response to the failure of the international human rights framework is to promote powerful Magnitsky laws as a “plan B” to coordinated international action.

Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them, by Geoffrey Robertson.
Penguin Books Australia

How international courts have been weakened

Robertson charts the rise of human rights immediately after the horrors of the second world war, and then despairs of the growing trend of nations retreating from the jurisdiction of international courts or refusing to comply with their rulings.

Robertson describes how the United Nations succeeded in establishing a coherent human rights regime, but failed to carve out effective accountability mechanisms to enforce breaches. Instead, enforcement relies on individual nations’ leaders being motivated to legislate human rights into their domestic laws.

Although the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been broadly accepted, punishment for war crimes and crimes against humanity has been inconsistent and complex.

Consequently, Robertson argues the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not serve as a deterrent to perpetrators of most human rights abuses.

Eroded confidence in international law

The book provides a useful history of the ICC and the way the US, China and Russia have limited its operations by using their veto powers when legal action is proposed against them or their allies.

In the past four years, for instance, Russia has vetoed ICC action 14 times, China five times and the US twice. Robertson suggests the mere threat of a veto by superpowers behind the scenes have seen other initiatives withdrawn.

As a result, Robertson laments the once-powerful ICC is now confined to punishing rebel warlords and leaders of pariah countries.

More than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the growing threats of isolationist foreign policies and anti-democratic regimes are pulling at the threads of our international human rights framework. Shifting geopolitical balances and the populist politics of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have eroded confidence in a global system of law and order.




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Australia is not immune from this trend. In February 2020, the ICC prosecutor described Australia’s offshore detention regime as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”.

But, the ICC decided not to prosecute the Australian government, despite saying its actions appeared “to constitute the underlying act of imprisonment or other severe deprivations of physical liberty” forbidden under international law.

The problem with Magnitsky laws

Robertson’s solution is to impose sanctions against individuals, corporations and other entities.

He argues Magnitsky laws are not an alternative to coordinated international criminal justice, but an assertion of the fundamental values that countries insist should be respected by other nations.

The problem is these types of sanctions can be abused for political reasons. We have already seen the tit-for-tat actions of nations that bring sanctions against the citizens of their enemies, such as the Russian counter-sanctions against US citizens in 2013, including former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.




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Among democratic nations, it is unlikely Magnitsky laws would ever be used against friendly allies. Can you imagine any of Australia’s allies sanctioning an Australian official for a First Nations’ death in custody or for the over-representation of First Nations people in the country’s criminal justice system?

If enforcement of human rights breaches is seen as political or inconsistent, then Magnitsky laws may not be the universal panacea Robertson suggests. However, this doesn’t mean the push for individual accountability is not justified. As he writes,

human rights are not rights in any meaningful sense unless they are capable of enforcement.

Robertson leaves us with a sensible pathway to a better world through laws that hold individuals accountable for their evil deeds. Magnitsky sanctions might, at least, make murderers, crooks and abusers think twice before implementing their plans.


Geoffrey Robertson will be speaking across Australia in the coming weeks, with engagements in Melbourne on May 22 and Sydney on May 25 and 26, to be followed by Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.The Conversation

George Newhouse, Adjunct Professor of Law, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.