Shakespeare Sonnets: A Primer


Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A portrait of William Shakespeare

For several years, the Shakespeare Institute of Nevada has brought the performance of the Bard’s words to schools and public spaces throughout Clark County.

In September, the institute’s chairman, Dan Decker, will be leading a seminar and workshops focusing on the sonnets. The workshops will be at the Summerlin Library on several Saturday afternoons, and they’re free. 

"The sonnets are a really good way to access the mind and work of Shakespeare," Decker told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Decker said the sonnets, which were written between 1590 and 1595, are actually a literary mystery. He said many scholars believe the mother of an earl paid Shakespeare to write the first 17 of the sonnets to encourage her son to get married.

"Think of them of the first Hallmark cards," Decker quipped.

But, that is not the case for all 154 of them. Decker said some of the sonnets were written with the idea that people in the know would know who he was talking about.

"It was very cool at the time to write to people and not mention them," he said, "Because it was all very inside and it was among the friends. And you were just supposed to know who he was writing to."

Shakespeare Sonnet - 44 

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If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then despite of space I would be brought, 
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay. 
No matter then although my foot did stand 
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee; 
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land 
As soon as think the place where he would be. 
But ah! thought kills me that I am not thought, 
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone, 
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time's leisure with my moan, 
   Receiving nought by elements so slow
   But heavy tears, badges of either's woe.

Decker said unlike Shakespeare's plays where characters are speaking and we can understand who is saying what. Scholars must make assumptions about whether he is writing about himself or playing a character when he writes a sonnet.
While the voice that Shakespeare uses in many sonnets is a mystery and who the sonnets were truly for and about is a mystery. The question Decker answers most frequently is whether Shakespeare actually wrote all the plays and sonnets with his name on it.
The argument many people make is that he can't be the author because he lacked the formal education, which is something Decker dismisses.
"Because Shakespeare didn't have a university education, he could not have written the works," he said, "As if everyone with a university education can write these works," 
Decker said 80 different writers have been floated as possible true authors of Shakespeare's works, but "zero evidence has been put forth." 
While some people might debate who wrote the works of Shakespeare, no one debates his impact on the literary world and on Western culture in general.
"Shakespeare laid down this barrage, this astonishing body of work, that has been fundamental to Western culture and to the world since it began," Decker said.
Decker argues that the Bard is "intensely woven into who are are as people" and his influence can be felt from the Founding Fathers focus on all men being created equal to Tom Hiddleston using the "King Lear" character "Edmund" for his character "Loki" in the "Avengers.

Dan Decker, chairman, Shakespeare Institute of Nevada

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