Analysis of Sidney’s Sonnet 37

Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare belong to the most successful and famous sonneteers in English literature. Sidney’s Sonnet 37 and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135 represent Renaissance poetry, the Elizabethan period in particular. To fill these sonnets with a profound sense, to celebrate the originality of English sonnets, and to set the stage for their successors, the authors applied certain poetic methods.

Starting with Philip Sidney’s sonnet, it is important to mention some general facts about his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella, which includes 108 sonnets and 11 songs and belongs to one of the first famous English sonnet sequences. According to Vincent, Stella is Penelope Devereux (or Lady Rich), and Astrophil is the poet himself. However, many critics argue whether Sidney’s feelings to Penelope were real or imaginary as he was just attempting to follow Petrarch’s poetic style and his obsession with Laura. “Because neither Elizabethan historians nor Sidney’s own early biographers gave any clear account of his relationship with the Stella of the poems, the sonnets themselves are the only key to contextualizing the poetry with his romantic life” (Vincent). A title of this sonnet embodies the main theme of the sequence and may serve as an implication that these people cannot be together. It is derived from the Greek words “aster” meaning “star,” “phil” meaning “lover,” and the Latin word “stella” meaning “star” (Vincent). It is hardly conceivable that a star-lover and a star would ever be able to bridge the distance between them.

In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135, the main character tries to tell a story about how he addressed his mistress after having been rejected by her. The woman in this sonnet can be referred to as “dark lady,” who is a common character in Shakespeare’s sonnets (Shakespeare). This character is disloyal; therefore, she is a complete opposite of lovers described by Philip Sidney who was Shakespeare’s contemporary. In Astrophil and Stella, people in love are praised for their virtue, angelic conduct, steadiness, and innocence. However, this sonnet does not simply discuss a desperate admiration for the woman. It is an elaborate and quite ambiguous piece of work with the variety of hidden meanings. Shakespeare claims that falling in love may have unpleasant emotional and physical consequences. Feelings shown in this sonnet do not describe pure and romantic love, since they are more of sexual and physical nature compared to Shakespeare’s other sonnets, for example, those addressed to a young man. This particular sonnet warns the reader about the dangers of lustful love.

Interestingly, both Sidney and Shakespeare successfully deploy pun on the names in their sonnets. This literary device involves a play on words and their meanings. In the first sonnet, the pun on the word “rich”  refers to its basic meaning – having a great deal of money or possessions, wealthy, prosperous, well-off, or containing a lrge amount of something specified; it also refers to Lord Robert Rich who is Stella’s or Penelope’s husband (Sidney 167). Presumably, Philip Sidney and Lady Penelope had been engaged to each other in the early childhood, but for unknown reasons this couple broke up afterward. Lady Penelope became the wife of courtier Robert Rich, with whom she unhappily lived for a long period of time. Stella is rich in “all beauties / […] / in the treasure of deserved renown / the riches of a royal heart / gifts which give the eternal crown” (Sidney 6, 9-11). Yet, despite the fact that this nymph is rich in all qualities, the author clearly implies that she is miserable as she is a Rich. Supposedly, by using this pun, Sidney emphasizes the fact that money, gifts, reputation, and glory do not necessarily make a person happy.

William Shakespeare, in his turn, includes more controversial meanings in his pun. In Sonnet 135, he skillfully makes use of the word “will,” but goes much further than just playing with the name. Scholars argue that at least several probable meanings of “will,” which recur throughout the poem, could be singled out:

  • Wish, dream, volition, intent, ample desires;
  • Sufficiency and a superfluity of “Will”;
  • Physical desire, lust, sexual longing;
  • The auxiliary verb denoting a future tense;
  • Willfulness, stubbornness, strong determination;
  • A slang term for the male and female sex organs;
  • The name “William” (Shakespeare).

Apparently, the topic of lustful love plays a paramount role in this poem. The speaker (a term often used in Shakespeare’s sonnets instead of “hero” or “character”) wants to continue his relationships with his mistress, but she already has many other  lovers as the reader may see from the beginning of the sonnet, “Whoever hath her wish, thou hath thy Will, / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus” (Shakespeare 1-2). However, in spite of the clearly sexual theme, this sonnet contains allusions to the Bible. The pun on the “Will” in the sixth line “to hide my will in thine” (Shakespeare 6) most probably draws a parallel with the biblical phrase, “Not my will but thine be done” (Shakespeare). Moreover, a word “vouchsafe” used in the same line is common in the Bible and religious prayers, as well as the word “gracious” is reminiscent of God’s mercy (Shakespeare 6). By implementing such issues, the poet is compared to Christ and the mistress to God, suggesting a possible connection between the mysteries of love and those of religion. The last plausible meaning is the most problematic because if “Will” should be understood as a nickname for “William,” then the question arises to whom this name belongs to. It is a debatable issue whether it is the poet himself, the woman’s husband, the fair lord, or maybe the poet’s friend with whom the lady has had an affair as well. Moreover, taking into account contracted forms “wilt” as the cases of the word “will,” in this sonnet the pun “will” is repeated fourteen times in total (Shakespeare).

More importantly, in the two last lines, Sidney introduces an essential detail of the sonnet form – the volta or “turn,” which signals a shift from one rhyme group to another and involves a shift in subject matter as well. Frequently, this device shows contrast using the words “but” or “yet.” In Sonnet 37, the poet devotes twelve lines to tell a riddle and describe a person with her privileges. Nonetheless, the last lines present the moral of the whole sonnet with the word “but” questioning the importance of all those advantages. In Shakespeare’s sonnet, the volta is placed in the last line, “Think all but one, and me in that one Will” (Shakespeare 14). It might indicate that all wills are alike and whatever needed is in the speaker. This line deliberately gives the feeling of innuendo so that the reader has a possibility to choose his/her own ending and extract the moral on his/her own. Such polycemy triggers various interpretations enriching the value of the sonnet.

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As far as various poetic techniques are concerned, it should be noted that the poets follow the basic sonnet structure, and at the same time deviate from Petrarch’s canons and experiment with poetic means adding their own unique features. In both pieces, the reader observes such popular literary elements as inversions and metaphors. For instance, in Sidney’s sonnet, “my thoughts in labor be” (Sidney 2) or “I must a riddle tell” (Sidney 4) and in Shakespeare’s sonnet, “More than enough am I that vex thee still” (Shakespeare 3) or “To thy sweet will making addition thus” (Shakespeare 4). Having reversed the normal order of words and phrases, Sidney creates suspense and prepares the reader for an interesting story. Shakespeare, on the contrary, adds emphasis but releases the tension created in previous lines. In the sonnets, the reader can find examples of metaphors, “Aurora’s court” that may refer to Stella’s house (Sidney 5), “The sea, all water, yet receives rain still” (Shakespeare 9). Employing the sea as a simile of the woman, Shakespeare argues that the sea adds water to itself without exertion; so should the Dark Lady. It is worth remembering that both sonnets contain archaic vocabulary, which nowadays is widely used in literature as a special literary device. Shakespeare, for instance, uses numerous examples of archaic language such as “hath,” “thou,” “thy,” “thine,” and “addeth” while Sidney repetitively uses an old-fashioned third-person singular form of the verb “do” – “doth.”

In summary, Sidney and Shakespeare are prominent poets of Renaissance who made a great contribution to further development of the English sonnet form. Their poems reflect the same feeling yet from utterly different perspectives. These poets managed to create a reflective and mournful mood and make the sonnets more expressive and meaningful due to a wide range of various literary devices.

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