Happy birthday, William!

April 23rd sees the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Either the greatest writer in English the world has known; or the source of untold agony to generations of children trying to recall obscure quotes to regurgitate in sweltering school gyms for national examinations. Where you stand on this continuum is probably a function of age and the skills of your English Literature teacher!

I was really fortunate to have outstanding English Lit teachers throughout my team in secondary school. As a result I really enjoyed the Shakespeare we studied and even now can recite reasonable numbers of lines from Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Henry IV part one. Incidentally, the same teachers brought to life Milton’s Paradise Lost and Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. It’s to those teachers that I owe my love of words and word-play (as well as my finely tuned eye for the absurd!).

If Shakespeare’s plays are what he is best-known for, then some of his most poignant writing is found in his poetry, and more especially his sonnets. A sonnet is a particular form of poetry, comprising 14 lines with one of a number of rhyme schemes and typically 10 syllables per line. 154 sonnets in total are attributed to William Shakespeare, and some of them include some of the most famous lines in the English literary canon. Take this quatrain from sonnet 18 :

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Or these lines from sonnet 130 :

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Themes of love, loss and redemption re-occur throughout the sonnets, nowhere more so than in sonnet 33. This is a poignant reflection of a time of perfect love that is lost as the sun is lost behind a bank of cloud. The implication is that the object of Shakespeare’s love has done something that has spoiled the perfection of their relationship – that they have acted basely and in a way that makes ugly the beauty that they had portrayed before. Ultimately though, Shakespeare forgives the object of his love – acknowledging that even as the sun allows itself to be hidden by the clouds, so occasionally ‘suns of the world’ will act in ways that mask their true and endearing beauty and brilliance.

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth

I think it’s a beautiful poem, reminding us always to remember the ‘triumphant splendour’ of the early morning sun and not to dwell on the occasional clouds that pass by or are burnt off by the sun’s glory.

Happy birthday, Mr Shakespeare – and thank you.

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