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.
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.
Explainer: poetic metre
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have recently seen a spate of books defending the Enlightenment, the period of efflorescence in 18th-century Europe that helped shape the modern world.
At the vanguard has been the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who titled his most recent monument to scientific progress Enlightenment Now. The book earned Bill Gates’s endorsement but was widely criticised by historians since it was not an assessment of the Enlightenment at all, but a compilation of data showing us why life was now better than ever.
Other advocates have been more subtle, stressing that what set the Enlightenment apart from preceding eras was less its confidence in reason per se, than its focus on the secular (as opposed to the sacred) as the space in which happiness ought to be pursued and quite possibly achieved.
Readers might wonder: who could be against this? But Pinker and his allies are pushing back on a tendency to see in the overweening self-confidence of the Enlightenment a blueprint for the horrors of the 20th century. The view is not without merit. The Enlightenment may have given us a new way to think about rights, but it also gave us the atom bomb.
Moreover, its conviction that the same naturalistic perspective that led to scientific innovation could be applied to populations has given rise to social engineering in multiple, often sinister forms.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of a book that contemporaries saw as inaugurating the Enlightenment in France: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.
Given its exalted status, one would expect to find in Persian Letters an ode to human ingenuity and a confident projection of progress. But its contents are much more surprising — and relevant — than that.
The book’s author, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu — Montesquieu, for short — was an odd sort, an aristocrat with a sympathy for republics and a voracious intellectual appetite.
Born in 1689, he came of age at a time of French predominance in Europe. A lawyer by training, he began writing during the “Regency”, a period of social dynamism that followed the death in 1715 of Louis XIV, the Sun King, when his great-grandson Louis XV was too young to rule on his own.
A new kind of fiction
In 1721 Montesquieu introduced France to a new kind of fiction, a novel composed entirely of letters, mainly authored by Usbek and Rica, two Persians who have travelled to Paris and delight in reporting their bemusement at its customs. The device allows Montesquieu to make the more familiar features of European life appear idiosyncratic.
The nature of the work also gives Montesquieu ample space to deal with subjects that still divide us: the varieties of government, the extravagances of metaphysical speculation, and the dilemmas of tolerance.
In this regard, we can see Persian Letters as a set of working notes for the book that earned Montesquieu his place among the giants of modern political thought: The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. With its case for a “separation of powers” as crucial to a well-functioning republic, this volume inspired Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the US constitution.
Providing a typology of regimes — republics, monarchies, despotisms — and tracing their relationship to material factors from climate to geography, The Spirit of the Laws more or less launched the discipline of political sociology. More prophetic still was the book’s concern for how despotism lies in wait for any regime that sees a loss of civic virtue.
All of this material is dealt with ironically in Persian Letters. The worry about despotism is signalled through what passes for a plot in the book. As Usbek becomes accustomed to Parisian society, he becomes distant from his seraglio (or harem) in Persia.
A revolt ensues in which the women, corrupted by having to live in a degraded state and no longer fearful of their absent authority, stage a bloody uprising. The story ends with a letter from Usbek’s favourite wife Roxane, who is committing suicide, pen in hand.
This ghastly conclusion makes for an instructive contrast with the playful tone otherwise permeating the book. Throughout the letters, there is much mirth at Frenchmen who distract themselves with philosophical rumination while their society becomes mired in conflict and sedition.
The irony is to the point; political stability is a matter of constant vigilance, irrespective of the nature of the regime in question.
With his portrayal of the seraglio, a question insists: is Montesquieu indulging in Orientalism, a projection of his Western prejudices on to figures from the East?
Perhaps. And yet Montesquieu never loses sight of the fictional nature of his construction. To see Europe through the eyes of another is to imagine yourself in the position of the other, not to occupy it.
Not coincidentally, this relationship between how we present ourselves and who we are is one of the key themes of the work.
In one of the early letters, Rica recounts the wonder he aroused walking the streets of Paris.
I therefore resolved to set aside my Persian clothing and dress instead as a European, to see whether anything in my appearance would still astonish. From this test, I learnt my true worth: stripped of my exotic finery, I found myself appraised at my real value, and I had good reason to complain of my tailor, through whom I’d lost, in an instant, the attention and esteem of the public.
In reflecting on whether the clothes make the man, Rica suggests the social nature of our identities. In effect, we are as we are seen. But recognising this fact only increases Rica’s desire for public approval.
Elsewhere Usbek remarks that in order to remain powerful a monarch must supply not only necessities, but luxuries. And yet the obsession with luxury — both as a pleasurable experience and opulent display — affects or indeed infects everything, even religion, which is mercilessly pilloried throughout Persian Letters.
The society Montesquieu satirises is one in which moral debates fail to find resolution because agreement is hardly the goal; vindication is. The need for social vindication breeds conflict. We seek out peers who advance what we take to be our interests rather than working with others to discover sites of common interest.
In this aspect, the paint on Usbek and Rica’s portrait of modern life hardly seems dry.
“The reader is urged to note,” Montesquieu wrote in a later edition of Persian Letters, “that the entire charm of the work resides in the constantly recurring contrast between actual reality and the singular, naïve, or strange manner in which reality is perceived”.
The mirror Montesquieu presents to society is one in which its vanities appear in all their absurdity.
With earnestness an increasingly dominant virtue in today’s culture wars, we’d likewise do well to rediscover the charm, indeed the humility, in appreciating the inevitably partial nature of our views.
More than celebrations of science or promises of progress — both of which tend to a self-righteousness foreign to Persian Letters — this seems to be a form of enlightenment we could use, for now.
There are two widely available views of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa. The first is a reverential and uncritical celebration of his life and achievements. It resonated in the obituaries and eulogies when Mandela died in December 2013.
Madiba (his clan name) was “sent by God”, said Irish newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who’s said to have been a friend of Mandela’s. His purchase of South Africa’s then largest newspaper company, Argus Newspapers, was made possible by Mandela’s support. Former American president Barack Obama declared that Mandela
changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world.
A second prevailing view is hostile and dismissive. By 2015, a reputation that had appeared invincible was being shredded in some media outlets, on the streets and especially on university campuses across South Africa. The critique centred on the 1994 negotiated settlement that ended apartheid. It accused Mandela of betraying the black majority to appease the economically powerful white minority.
Both narratives – Mandela as secular saint or Mandela as sellout – are poor history. The suggestion that Mandela single-handedly achieved democracy is as intellectually threadbare as its mirror image: that he was responsible for the failure to transform social and economic relations after 1994.
Our edited collection, Reassessing Mandela, provides a scholarly counterweight to the two polarised positions. It attempts to begin the task of revisiting the canonical biographies, rethinking aspects of Mandela’s life and his politics, and evaluating how he is and should be remembered.
The first aspect of Mandela’s life reassessed in the book is his family and its background, his childhood and youth, and his Thembu lineage. Two chapters – by the late Phil Bonner and by Xolela Mangcu – complement one another in intriguing ways. Both historians remind us that Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is an unreliable text. Some of its flaws are replicated in the work of others.
Bonner’s archivally based chapter corrects some of the shaky chronology in Long Walk. It identifies Mandela’s father Gadla Mandela as “a significant if little recognised historical figure” but shows that Mandela’s own account of his father defying the white magistrate cannot be read as history.
Mangcu’s chapter challenges Mandela’s own account of his descent. He locates him within a history of the Thembu royal house’s “pragmatic co-operation” with colonial rule. Mandela did not mention this.
Mangcu emphasises the history of “African political modernity” in the Transkei, a territory comprising a number of African kingdoms and chiefdoms annexed in the 19th century. He also considers Gadla’s role in the local administrative body (Bungha), where he is portrayed as resisting both missionary influence and colonial regulations.
Bonner and Mangcu underline the complexity of “indirect rule” in the Transkei. They correct the tendency to discuss Mandela’s early years through a lens of rural nostalgia.
Mandela’s political activism
A second broad area of reassessment emerges from three chapters which consider Mandela’s relationship with the South African Communist Party (SACP), his activism and especially his leadership in underground politics. Tom Lodge produces a fine-grained account of Mandela’s “association with South Africa’s communist left”. His is a study of friendships and social networks, of left-wing readings and writings, and of political alliances and tactics.
Paul Landau’s chapter focuses on the period between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of black protesters by apartheid police, and Mandela’s arrest in August 1962. It traces the efforts to implement the M-Plan – a template for an underground structure of the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).
Mandela and a small group of like-minded colleagues sought to use the plan to transform the ANC into a militant vanguard movement willing to employ violence against the state.
Thula Simpson’s chapter reconsiders Mandela’s role as commander-in-chief of umKhonto we Sizwe, (an armed wing set up by the ANC and SACP). He suggests that its campaign of urban sabotage was more effective than generally acknowledged.
Three other chapters cast new light on different aspects of Mandela’s life: his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; his years in jail on Robben Island, and his role in the human rights discourse that shaped South Africa’s new constitution.
Shireen Hassim provides a compelling rereading of
one of the most iconic political marriages in history.
First, she establishes Mandela’s wife Winnie’s own political career and significance. She says it offered “a form of intimate political leadership” to young activists. Secondly, she explores the complex relationship between Winnie’s political trajectory and Nelson’s, and how a widening political divide accompanied the breakdown of the marriage.
Martha Evans examines four visits by journalists to Robben Island between 1964 and 1977, their interactions with Mandela and their published accounts. She discusses Mandela’s capacity to capitalise on brief contacts from an apparent position of weakness, and shows how incarceration enhanced his iconic status.
These chapters are book-ended by Colin Bundy’s introduction and Elleke Boehmer’s postscript. Boehmer explores how memories of Mandela are constructed and contested, and what fresh interpretations can teach us.
This collection treats Mandela not as an individual miracle-maker or traitor to the cause of transformation. It shows him as one political actor, alongside a multitude of others, within complex political and social forces.
It suggests that scholarship on Mandela will continue to explore and explain his politics and his ability to assert leadership. It will also continue to explore the contradictions and continuities of his personal makeup, and his determination over decades to bring people together. All this, while negotiating the corrugated terrain of race and identity in South Africa.