In this essay I will be writing a comparative analysis of two sonnets, the first being William Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 20’ and also ‘Sonnet 116’ whilst referring to two essays in ‘An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory’ about Love and Queer. Both sonnets centre around the theme of love, with ‘Sonnet 116’ focusing on Shakespeare’s personal thoughts on love and ‘Sonnet 20’ is aimed towards the Fair Youth that Shakespeare is infatuated with, a common topic in the majority of his sonnets.
The poems chosen are both in the forms of sonnets, a 14 line poem that can often associated with love. ‘Sonnet 20’ and ‘Sonnet 116’ both follow the form of a classic Shakespearean sonnet; consisting of three quatrains and a couplet with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. For example Rhian Williams elaborates on the use of a sonnet by saying ‘It is linked especially with love poetry and many influential sequences’ (R.Williams, 2017:93), meaning the analysis of sonnets ties into the essay of love and queer fittingly. However ‘Sonnet 20’ differs from ‘116’ in the sense it has an all feminine rhyme scheme, by doing so Shakespeare has chosen unstressed words to convey a softness and lightheartedness as he is talking about love. The feminine rhyme also is used to reinforce the Fair Youth’s feminine like features despite being man – for example “A women’s face with Nature’s own hand painted, Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:272), the Fair Youth is described with “a women’s face” and the rhymes “painted” and “passion” conveys Shakespeare’s feelings towards this man.
The theme that is similar in both sonnets is love. ‘Sonnet 116’ is different from Shakespeare’s other sonnets in the sense that it does not directly refer to being in love a specific person, instead detailing the definition of what love actually is to Shakespeare himself, this is supported by Mario Aquilina “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 may be read as laying down the law of love in a way that goes beyond the relationship between poet and addressee that often structures love lyrics” (M. Aquilina, 2011:82). In the first quatrain Shakespeare explores the idea that, to him, love is not changeable “Love is not love, Which alters when it alteration finds” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:279) presenting this idea of the perfect ideal of what “Love” is. In the second and third he discusses what love is “an ever fixed mark … and is never shaken” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:279) and how “Love’s not Time’s fool” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:279). These quotes centre around “time” and how love will “never” be lost to it, reflecting his ever-long connection to it through out his life. Whilst referring to the essay on Love a point is made “Love and language are indissociably linked. Love may be silent, but Shakespeare still needs words to make that point” (B&R, 2016:239), this relates to both sonnets as Shakespeare manipulates language to create a story of what love is to him and just how persistent it is, through the use of different sonnets like ‘Sonnet 116’ and ‘Sonnet 20’, making it more personal as his raw emotions are laid out on the page.
‘Sonnet 20’ shows a different interpretation of love from that of ‘Sonnet 116’ – instead choosing to bring in the factors of beauty and physical attraction. Shakespeare heavily focuses on the beauty of the Fair Youth in this sonnet, the essay on love adds some more insight by saying “People in love in Shakespeare are more or less constantly concerned with the role and importance of the eye – with the visual beauty of the beloved, with seeing and being seen”(B&R, 2016:242). This argument can be applied to Shakespeare himself as he too focuses on external beauty. For example lines seven and eight of ‘Sonnet 20’ “A man in hue, all hues in his controlling, much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:272) shows that the feminine beauty of this Fair Youth both “steals men’s eyes”, as if giving men no choice but to feel attraction towards him, and amazes women “women’s souls amazeth” since he possesses such feminine beauty that they too long to possess. A second argument made during the essay of love “When we talk about being in love, and about falling in love, we are talking about passionate erotic feelings for another person” (B&R, 2016:246) which also links directly to ‘Sonnet 20’ as the reader feels Shakespeare’s frustration towards the Fair Youth’s gender as “she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:272), meaning mother nature made him a man in order to pleasure women, not men due to his sexual parts. Shakespeare’s sexual desire towards the Fair Youth is made very clear, so referring to the point made earlier he is therefore in love.
Another essay that can be used to analyse the sonnets would be the essay on queer. ‘Sonnet 20’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famously known for addressing homosexuality and his fascination towards the male Fair Youth he is in love with. An argument made in the essay indicates “Shakespeare’s writing questions what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means, as a man and as a woman, to desire men and to desire women” (B&R, 2016:268) this links to Sonnet 20 very specifically as the Fair Youth is portrayed as feminine, and Shakespeare is attracted to him regardless. The essay then backs this up by saying “Sonnet 20 is a key text in debates surrounding his representations of sexuality and sexual identity” (B&R, 2016:268). Shakespeare refers to the Fair Youth as “master-mistress” on line 2, which for his time would’ve been a very big deal, a man calling another man something like that. Bruce Smith comments on by saying “for the poet, his readers, and presumably for the young man, issues of love and and sexuality ‘reach a crisis’” showing Shakespeare is perhaps exploring his sexuality and projecting this onto others. (B.Smith, 1994:249). To compare the two sonnets ‘Sonnet 116’ can be seen as a universal love sonnet, and by referring to love as a whole it doesn’t isolate homosexuality and further fortifies the ideology that queer emotions should be normalised in Shakespeare’s sentiment.
The essay on ‘Queer’ features Foucalt’s argument “the apparently unequivocal distinction between being homosexual or being straight – the sense that you are one or the other, and the sense that who you are is defined by that distinction” (B&R, 2016:266) which acts as a counterpoint to Shakespeare’s sonnets as Shakespeare does not view homosexuality or heterosexuality as being as simple as black or white. For example in ‘Sonnet 20’ “And for a woman wert thou first created … and by addition me of thee defeated” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:272) challenges Foucalt’s ideology directly by indicating that the Fair Youth was created for the pleasure of both man and woman indiscriminately. This is also shown in ‘Sonnet 116’ on line 7 “It is the star to every wandering bark” (W.Shakespeare, 2018:272) which also challenges Foucalt’s argument as love can guide any “wandering bark” wether it be man or woman, the sonnet is open to interpretation and does not fall into the simple lines of black or white like Foucalt’s beliefs on love.
In conclusion I chose to write a comparative analysis on Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ and ‘Sonnet 20’ whilst referring to the arguments of the essays ‘Love’ and ‘Queer’ in ‘An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory’. The two sonnets exhibit many topics that relate to both essays that have been explored – love is very prevalent throughout both the sonnets, whilst the queer perspective has been presented both directly and indirectly. With ‘Sonnet 116’ exploring what love actually is and ‘Sonnet 20’ exploring homosexual love specifically, both sonnets compliment the essays conclusion and understanding of love as an emotion and queerness in conjunction to that.However, the queer essay also provides a potential argument against Shakespeare’s beliefs through the ideology of Foucalt and his unwavering opinion that a homosexual and heterosexual attraction cannot be exhibited by one single person, but as Shakespeare proves repeatedly in both of his works that just isn’t the case for him. Overall, it is clear that throughout Shakespeare’s entire life he based a vast majority of his sonnets on love (both homosexual and heterosexual) and it’s intense grasp on him. His infatuation supports the stakes and robustness of the essays time and time again, and proves it to be a reliable means for comparative analysis between his sonnets.
- Shakespeare,William, ‘Sonnet 20’ and ‘Sonnet 116’. Ferguson, Kendall and Salter. 2018. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Sixth Edition (W.W. Norton and Company)
- Rhian Williams. 2017. The Poetry Toolkit: The essential guide to studying poetry, Second Edition (Bloomsbury)
- Mario Aquilina. 2011. Let Me (Not) Read You’: Countersigning Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, Vol 1, Issue 2 (University of Ploiesti)
- Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle. 2016. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Fifth Edition (Routledge, New York)
- Bruce Smith. 1994. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (University of Chicago, Chicago)