The piece I chose for my essay is Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? by William Shakespeare. I was originally drawn to this poem from the Renaissance era because I have enjoyed other works by Shakespeare, including A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Romeo and Juliet. What attracted me to this work is my interest in Shakespeare’s style of writing; that is, the way he is able to articulate his thoughts and feelings about those he loved (and loathed) into plays, poems, and sonnets that, unbeknownst to him, people would read for generations to come. I find his writing style to be very romantic, and it is very soothing to read or to hear spoken out loud.
William Shakespeare’s works were penned in old English, so when I begin to read one, my initial feelings often consist of confusion and/or frustration. At the same time, my confusion is met with intrigue and curiosity at how he was able to put such complex thoughts and feelings into such descriptive and beautifully written metaphors. In regard to Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, I actually found the first few lines of the poem quite easy to understand and interpret. I found the middle and end of the sonnet to be more difficult in terms of interpreting what Shakespeare was trying to say in the comparisons he was making. For example, knowing the title of the poem made it quite easy to interpret that “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d” (Shakespeare, 1609) was a reference to the sun often being too hot, or sometimes being hidden behind clouds. However, I struggled to understand other figures of speech, such as “And every fair from fair sometime declines” (Shakespeare, 1609).
Shakespeare published this sonnet in London, England during the seventeenth century. In 1609, the exact year of the publication of Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, the society in England was very work-focused. Most houses were made of wood, and many streets were very narrow and dangerous at night as there were no streetlights. During the day, citizens would dump dirty water and trash out of their windows and into the streets (Lambert, 2017). This caused an influx of rats, which were vessels for fleas that contained the plague. When the fleas got into homes and bit humans, bubonic plague outbreaks began.
Things were tough for the residents of England during this time as the plague swept through the country and many theaters and businesses were forced to close as a result (Barents, n.d.). This left many writers without steady work, including Shakespeare, who began writing plays for wealthy individuals as a way to make money. England had a population of approximately four million people during the early 1600s, and this later increased to about five and a half million people toward the end of the century, despite a large amount of the populace falling victim to the plague (Lambert, 2017). In the mid-1600s, conditions finally began to improve, despite the plague. Trade in England improved, as did the sales of local businesses and merchants. The strongest industries were those of brick making, glass, iron and coal mining (Lambert, 2017). However, the individuals in society that maintained the most control and power were the nobility, and the wealthy citizens that owned large amounts of land.
Shakespeare was known to be a romantic, mostly writing about his feelings for love interests in his plays and poems. Not all of these were positive or heartwarming, however, as he often wrote tragedies rooted in love stories, such as the infamous Romeo and Juliet or Othello. He was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, a country town just over a hundred miles from London (Biography.com Editors, 2017). Shakespeare married his wife, Anne Hathaway, in 1582, when he was just eighteen and she was twenty-six. They had three children together, although one later passed away at age eleven (Biography.com Editors, 2017). He began working as an actor and a playwright in the 1590’s after moving to London. As the main transportation during this time period was horse and cart, and Stratford-upon-Avon was a four day journey by horse, it is said that Shakespeare often only returned home once per year during the period close to Easter where the theaters in London were closed (Biography.com Editors, 2017). I believe that he missed his wife terribly during this time, and clearly loved her very much, as his writing often seemed geared towards intense emotional love experiences and persons of romantic interest. Their frequent time apart probably played a role in the theming of Shakespeare’s works, including Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day.
As previously mentioned, this sonnet was published during the Renaissance period, which began in Italy in the fourteenth century and continued to spread throughout the rest of the world through the sixteenth century. Shakespeare took major influences from the Renaissance and incorporated them into the style of his poetry. For example, sonnets – which are fourteen-line poems that follow a specific format and rhyme scheme – originated in Italy during the Renaissance period (Academy of American Poets, 2016). Not to mention, Shakespeare was working in theatre during the time of the Renaissance, which had a huge impact on his connection to the arts and ability to express ideas unique to this cultural time in his writing. As society moved away from the concept of “absolute power” and writers (among other artists) were able to be more inquisitive about the world around them, many people, including Shakespeare, began to incorporate more humanistic traits into their work (Jamieson, 2017). We see Shakespeare’s writing evolve during this time period to include more descriptive comparisons and figures of speech.
I feel that this poem is still very relevant, even for today’s audiences. Shakespeare’s works are still read and dissected in high school and university classrooms around the world. Although the language in the sonnet is an older style of English, it can still be useful to demonstrate a unique style of poetry writing, as well as the use of metaphors and rhetoric. Additionally, I feel that Shakespeare’s romantic language in how he describes his lovers – such as the line from Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day that reads: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” (Shakespeare, 1609) – could be a positive example to today’s adolescents about celebrating women and having true appreciation for their internal beauty, instead of only their external beauty or physical features.
I am actually quite surprised regarding everything I learned about the life of William Shakespeare and the Renaissance Era as a result of the research I performed for this assignment. I have a greater appreciation for the struggles that Shakespeare faced throughout his life to accomplish his great works. Specifically, I was shocked that he moved to London alone and only went home once a year during the Lenten season (Biography.com Editors, 2017). I imagine that took a huge toll on his familial relationships. Additionally, I was also surprised to learn that London had shut down all of its’ theaters due to the plague, as I mentioned previously, which caused Shakespeare a lot of financial strife. Some of his greatest works came from this experience, however, since he was able to profit from writing plays and poems for rich English families and nobility. After performing research on the background of Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day and gaining more knowledge about the piece, its’ author, and the historical context, I have a greater appreciation for the work. Specifically, I am now able to better understand the verbiage of the sonnet and how Shakespeare’s personal life circumstances were able to influence the poem. Subsequently, I have found it easier to read other pieces written by Shakespeare during the Renaissance and use my background knowledge of this historical era to draw conclusions about the works.
Shakespeare truly was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word; His works will continue to inspire readers and philosophers for generations to come.
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