Did Shakespeare Celebrate Valentines?

You probably know that I love to speculate and do a little historical detective work and find out whether Elizabethans like Shakespeare celebrated our modern holidays and then compare and contrast how they celebrated them back then versus how we do today. Valentines Day is a day we associate with love and poetry, so of course, I wondered if the most celebrated poet of the Renaissance celebrated it himself!

Based on my findings, if Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day, he probably did mainly what we did- writing letters and poems to his beloved and maybe sending a trinket of love. It’s unlikely he celebrated it like modern Catholics do to honor the martyrdom of a Catholic saint. In my research, I was surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day has been celebrated for hundreds of years and has its roots in a holiday that Shakespeare describes in one of his most famous plays.

Part I: The Feast of Lupercal: Valentine’s Day’s Dark ancestor

According to NPR’s podcast: “The Dark Origins of Valentines Day”, like Christmas, Halloween, and many other holidays, the Christian holiday of St. Valentines’ day was designed to replace the pagan holiday of Lupercal, which was a Roman fertility festival where men engaged in basically what we’d now call- swingers’ parties or key parties where they’d draw a woman’s name from a lottery and… couple for the night.

The Lupercal was also synonymous with the founding of Rome. Lupa is the name of the wolf that saved the infants Romulus and Remus, who would become the first kings of Rome. If you click here, you can read an article about a recent archeological discovery; a cave found under Rome that was once revered as the place where Romulus and Remus lived with Lupa:

https://follyfancier.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/lupercal-grotto-found-under-rome/

Shakespeare actually starts his play of Julius Caesar on the Lupercal, and makes reference to its status as a fertility festival. In Act I, Caesar is watching Antony run a race and tells him to be sure to touch Calpurnia, owing to the superstition that if a man touches a barren woman on Lupercal, it will make her capable of bearing children:

Caesar. Calpurnia!
Calpurnia. Here, my lord. 85
Caesar. Stand you directly in Antonius' way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
Antony. Caesar, my lord?
Caesar. Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say, 90

The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony. I shall remember:
When Caesar says 'do this,' it is perform'd.
Caesar. Set on; and leave no ceremony out. Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii, Lines 84-95
Shakespeare leaves out that, according to tradition, Antony should be naked and anointed with goat’s blood and slap Calpurnia with a goatskin thong, but that was part of the Roman Lupercal festival.
Lupercalia by ANDREA CAMASSEI, c.1635

Part II: The Beginnings of St. Valentines’ Day

Who Was St. Valentine? - HISTORY
St. Valentine

St. Valentine was either a Catholic priest or bishop who was martyred in the 3rd century AD (Source History.com). According to tradition, he conducted Christian marriages in defiance of Roman law, and rejected the concept of Lupercalian coupling, which is why Emperor Claudius murdered him. Thus, the holiday is intentionally meant to replace Lupercalia, and celebrate monogamous relationships under the Christian God. The popular story is that before his death, he sent a letter to the young daughter of a family he converted to Christianity and signed it: “Your Valentine,” thus starting the tradition of signing cards in this manner. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius made Valentine’s day an official Catholic feast day to replace Lupercal once and for all.

Part III: The oldest surviving Valentines

Evidence is sketchy how the traditions of Valentines day evolved, in the Middle Ages, but in Catholic Europe the concept of celebrating married love on Valentine’s Day spread, and poets like Chaucer and Shakespeare helped popularize it.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of how birds would choose their mates on Valentine’s Day:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

According to History.com, there’s a possibility that Chaucer invented the idea of a St. Valentines feast, and forever linked it with the celebration of love:

The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer often took liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate.

Hanes, Elizabeth. “Six Surprising Facts about Valentines Day.” https://www.history.com/news/6-surprising-facts-about-st-valentine

This theme has been repeated in other pieces of literature. In John Lydgate’s 15th century poem, “A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”, he writes of how it was the custom on Valentine’s Day for people to choose their love:

To look and search Cupid’s Calendar and choose their choose by great affection.

John Ludgate: “”A Valentine to her that Excelleth All”

The Paston’s oldest surviving valentines

In the 1470s in a series of correspondence, from Margery Brews to her husband John Paston refers to the latter as “My right well-beloved Valentine, John Paston, Esquire.”

Margery also wrote adoring letters to John, who was probably away frequently, fighting in the Hundred Years War, and advising Margary’s kinsman, John Fastolfe, (whom Shakespeare mentions in Henry VI, Part I. Her poetry is very tender and must have comforted her husband much:

And if ye command me to keep me true wherever I go,

I wis I will de all my might you to love, and never no mo(re).

And if my friends say, that I do amiss,

They shall not me let so for to do,

Mine heart me bids ever more to love you

Truly over all earthly thing,

And if they be never so wrath

I trust it shall be better in time coming.

Margery’s letters are some of the earliest surviving Valentine’s poetry that proves that the tradition of giving poetry to one’s beloved during the month of February was around in the 15th century, and probably while Shakespeare was a child in the 16th.

Shakespeare’s contributions to Valentine’s Day

Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine’s Day twince within his works. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (a play that is set in Ancient Greece and has connections to Lupercal), he builds on Chaucer’s claim that Valentine’s Day is the day that birds couple for the night. Duke Theseus and Aegeus discover the fours lovers asleep. They are surprised that they are sharing the same ground, since Lysander and Demetrius (as far as the old men know), are rivals for Hermia’s affection.

Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past: Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?

A Midsummer Night Dream, Act IV, Scene ii.

Egeus. My lord, this is my daughter here asleep;
And this, Lysander; this Demetrius is;
This Helena, old Nedar's Helena:1685
I wonder of their being here together.
Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace our solemnity.
But speak, Egeus; is not this the day1690
That Hermia should give answer of her choice?
Egeus. It is, my lord.
Theseus. Go, bid the huntsmen wake them with their horns.
[Horns and shout within. LYSANDER, DEMETRIUS,]
HELENA, and HERMIA wake and start up]1695
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?

Shakespeare has a much darker reference to Valentine's Day in Hamlet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfcsP-eKJF8

Ophelia, has gone mad with the loss of her brother, her father, and Hamlet breaking her heart. She starts wandering the castle and can only communicate through songs. She sings a very melancholy song that alludes to the superstition that if two single people meet on the morning of Saint Valentine's Day they will likely get married:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose
And donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door
Let in a maid then out a maid
Never departed more.

Ophelia seems to be darkly admitting that she and Hamlet have had pre-marital intimate relations and she is no longer a virgin, The song implies that Ophelia entered Hamlet’s chamber a maid (that is, an unmarried virgin), but is let out a maid (unmarried), while the Hamlet very clearly has taken her virginity. Hamlet re-enforces this suspicion by commanding her to go to a nunnery, one of the only recourses for single mothers. It is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare is implying that Ophelia is in fact pregnant, and is driven mad with sorrow that she now has to deliver her baby without any form of support from her father (who is dead), from her brother (who is in France), or her baby’s father, who wants her to leave and never return. Ophelia’s song is a lament that she wishes the superstition were true, and Hamlet had indeed married her.
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare celebrated Valentine’s Day as a religious holiday, after all, Queen Elizabeth had made England a Protestant country. Celebrating a saint day could have been seen as idolatrous in Protestant England. Nevertheless, Shakespeare and other romantic writers helped transform Valentines’ Day into less of a religious holiday, and more as a secular celebration of love and monogamy, very different from its bloody, promiscuous roots.

Sources

Sources:

  1. Paston Letters
    1. https://www.tudorsociety.com/14-february-valentines-day/
    2. The oldest surviving Valentines: https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/02/the-oldest-valentine.html 
    3. https://www.medievalists.net/2016/02/margery-and-john-paston-fifteenth-century-valentines/ 
  2. https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day
  3. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Valentine%27s_Day#Customs_around_the_world
  4. https://www.tudorsociety.com/14-february-valentines-day/
  5. https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/valentines-day-in-tudor-england/

New Outschool Course: “An Immersive Guide To Romeo and Juliet.”

course image: Immersive Guide To Romeo and Juliet

I’m very proud to announce that just in time for Valentines’ Day, I’m offering a course of classes about Shakespeare’s most popular play about love. The play will include fight choreography, dramatic readings, games, escape rooms, and an activity where the students create their own Shakespearean insults!

Course Description:

We’ll engage with the play with thoughtful discussion.

You’ll go on a virtual tour to the Globe Theater!

You’ll play detective and solve a Shakespearean murder!

Instead of just reading the play "Romeo and Juliet," this class will actively delve into the world of the play through a combination of lectures, dramatic readings, virtual field trips, online quizzes and activities, and finally, a digital escape room to test the student's knowledge of the play and its ideas. Each class is ala carte, meaning that once you take one class, you choose whether to stop at one class or continue onwards. Each class will delve into a different theme, literary device, and historical concept in the play:

Class Structure:

Class 1: Why Read Romeo and Juliet?
- The teacher will decode the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet and tell the basic story of the play
- We will explain dramatic irony through looking at the prologue,
- The teacher will explain why Shakespeare used poetry in the play, instead of just writing in common prose
- We will discuss why we still read Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet in particular.

Class 2: Foils and Fights 
- The learner will learn about the culture of dueling and sword fighting that was rampant in the 17th century.
- The teacher will explain and the learner will learn to recognize character foils in the play like Romeo and Friar Laurence
- We will cover the topic of antithesis- how opposite imagery permeates the play.
- We will discuss figurative language through insults and the students will have a contest to see who can craft the best Elizabethan insults!

Class 3: Acts 1& 2- The Language of Love and Hate
- We will recap how insults work- hyperbole and metaphor used to make someone seem the worst, the smallest, the ugliest, the dumbest, etc.
- We'll examine passages from Act II that show how these techniques apply to wooing and expressing love through metaphor, hyperbole, and allusions.
- The teacher will explain what a sonnet is and how Shakespeare uses them repeatedly in "Romeo and Juliet"
- We will discuss staging the famous Balcony Scene of Romeo and Juliet and ask if it's possible to do so in a virtual environment.

Class 3:  Act 3 fighting 💪 swordplay and plague imagery 
The teacher will explain the plot structure of Elizabethan tragedies and explain that Act III is the climax of the play. 
We will recap  the events that led to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt
The teacher will unpack Mercutio’s famous curse "A plague on both your houses," which is a foreshadowing, and the climax of the action.
The class will end with a short, safe demonstration of stage fighting where the students may choose to enact Mercutio's fight with Tybalt and/ or Romeo's fight with Tybalt.

Class 4: Act 4 antithesis and dramatic irony 
We will talk about the imagery in Act IV, scene 1, which foreshadows the end of the play. I will also do a dramatic re-enactment of Juliet's soliloquy in Act IV, 
We'll go on a virtual field trip to an Elizabethan wedding.
The teacher will historical context of the black death and its relevance to the play and Shakespeare's life.

Class 5: The final curtain
We will discuss Act V of the play and how so many forces seemed to be out of Romeo and Juliet's control, pushing them apart. We will also discuss whether or not Friar Laurence should be punished for encouraging Romeo and Juliet to disobey their parents.

Class 6: Performance then and Now
The teacher will perform in character as William Shakespeare, and teach the students how to act like real Elizabethan actors. This will include a virtual tour of the Globe Theater, a virtual costume fitting, stage fighting lessons, and DIY Elizabethan crafts. The teacher will then engage the class by discussing different adaptations, sequels, and spin-offs of Romeo and Juliet, in order to illustrate how popular and long-lasting this story is. The students will watch and discuss clips from various movies, plays, and ballets based on Romeo and Juliet. The instructor will conclude by sharing his own experience acting in Romeo and Juliet three times as The Prince, Friar Laurence, and Peter.

Class 7: 
Final project- CSI ROMEO AND JULIET STYLE
The class will play the role of a detective trying to solve the mystery of Juliet's death in Act IV, (when she actually takes the sleeping potion). (S)he doesn't know what happened but must piece together clues hidden in a digital escape room, such as handwritten notes, blog posts, receipts from "The Apothecary," etc. The clues will not only test the student's knowledge of the play, but their understanding of metaphor, verse, Elizabethan history, and more! In the end, the Detective will be the one who tells Lord and Lady Capulet the true story of what happened to Juliet. To unlock the digital escape room, the students will decode messages hidden in the clues and enter them into a Google Form. 

First course runs from February 2nd to March 19th, 7PM EST. If you can’t make it to this section, I can schedule one for you.

Register here: https://outschool.com/classes/an-immersive-guide-to-romeo-and-juliet-M4EdgCM5#usMaRDyJ13

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (2021)

Trailer for Globe Theater’s 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What do you think of when you think of “Shakespeare?” What do you think of when you think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” 

    Ruffs and Tights?

    Mostly white dudes?

    Elizabethan music?

    Dark night and moon?

This production, directed by Michelle Terry, is gleefully throwing out every preconceived notion of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream can or should be. In terms of design, casting, music, and interpretation, it breaks all the rules, while still remaining true to the text. This allows the production to appeal to not only hard-core Shakespeare fans, but first time audiences and children too!

I got to see this production thanks to the Globe’s online streaming library. My mother kindly shared me a link to this recording from the summer of 2021. You can watch it yourself on: https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/watch/#full-length-productions

I would describe the concept behind the show as “Suggestive,” that is, it doesn’t belong to a literal time and place. Even though the play is set in Ancient Greece, the play refuses to be constrained by historical accuracy, which arguably, fits nicely with Shakespeare in particular, and the Globe itself; a modern building in a modern city, based on a 400-year-old building.

The music and costumes evoke a New Orleans Mardis Gras, a Pride parade, or a Spanish pinata with its bright colors, heavy use of fringes, and bright, energetic jazz music. The only people who don’t wear bright colors are the four lovers, which reflects their continuous frustration with being unable to marry the person they really want.

The show is also Color blind and gender blind, with women playing men’s parts and a cast with black, white, and mixed race actors. Terry’s direction also calls attention to the patriarchial, racist, and sexist elements of Athens which are often overlooked in other interpretations of Dream that I’ve seen or read about. Rather than being a hero, Theseus is a horny old man in a ludicrous pink uniform, looking like a cross between M. Bison and a Christmas nutcracker. To reinforce this point, the actor chose to perform one of Theseus’ most patriarchial speeches as a joke:

Theseus. What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:50
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it. -Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene i.

I’ve seen this speech heavily cut and played seriously, but never till now did I see it played to ridicule the ludicrous notion that women are in any way bound to worship their fathers.

In another nod to contemporary gender politics, the actress who plays Hippolyta and Titania chose to perform her role on crutches. As far as I can tell, this was a deliberate choice and not a result of real injury. There is a precedent for this: In 1984, Sir Antony Sher performed Richard iii on crutches because it highlighted the cruelty people with disabilities often suffer.

I could be wrong, but I think that the reason the actress was on crutches was a symbolic way of confronting the way gender politics can cripple women.

Many scholars have pointed out how Hippolyta rarely speaks despite the fact that she is supposed to be the powerful Queen of the Amazons, and Theseus’ fiance besides. Shakespeare makes it clear that their marriage was arranged as a political alliance after the Amazons lost to Athens in a war:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;20
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.

With this in mind, it makes sense to have Hippolyta on crutches as a result of her injuries. Those injuries might also explain her silence; she has lost her agency now that she is essentially Theseus’ prisoner. One might think of any number of war atrocious where women have been sold to powerful men over the centuries. In short, by putting Hippolyta on crutches, we see a glimpse into her tragic story that most productions just gloss over- that she has lost a war, been separated from her people, and is now her enemies’ prisoner through marriage.

I’ve come to expect high quality acting from The Globe Theater Company and this cast did not disappoint. As we watched it together, my family concluded that this was one of the best acted productions of Dream that we’ve ever seen, which between us has to be over 30 plus productions.

The delivery is crisp and fast paced. Every actor has taken these words and made them their own. They speak them as if they were written yesterday. One thing I love about the Globe is that the directors encourage this kind of fast paced delivery; with no distracting special effects or sets, the actors have to captivate the audience with their delivery of Shakespeare’s text, without being melodramatic or self-indulgent. I’m pleased to say that this cast does a fantastic job of telling this magical story in a compelling and very modern way.

I’ve shown my recording to kids, teens, adults, and my family, and everyone has a different reaction to the show. Maybe this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but the concept is sound, the acting is high caliber, and it utilizes the Globe’s unique qualities extremely well. 




I personally didn’t care for Bottom just because I felt the actress was playing a very energetic part with too much sarcasm and tongue in cheek, but that’s mostly personal preference. I did however love Peter Quince, Snout, Snug, and the rest of the Mechanicals. Peter Quince is a rather thankless part but it’s great to see someone balance being a straight man trying to reign in Bottom’s antics. and an idiot who has no idea how to direct a company of actors, which the actress playing Quince did very well.

Resources for Teachers and Students: A Visit To Elizabethan London

I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.

So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.

For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.

My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.

The mystery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 

We’ve discussed a little bit about how to create sonnets, now let’s talk about the creator of 154 of the greatest sonnets the world has ever known.

The sonnets are some of the most mysterious pieces of writing Shakespeare ever created. We don’t know when he wrote them, we don’t really know in what order he wrote them, we don’t know for whom he wrote them, and we certainly don’t know whom they are about. That hasn’t stopped many conspiracy theorists and many, many, many, writers from coming up with imaginative stories about these often tantalizing and mysterious pieces of writing.

Genesis:
the only thing we know for sure about Shakespeare sonnets is that they were first published in 1609, as “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Never Before Imprinted.” A lot of scholars believe that the sonnets were actually published without Shakespeare’s permission. The main evidence for this comes from Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Meres who referred to them as Shakespeare sonnets “distributed by his among his friends.” Scholars theorize that someone got a hold of these poems that Shakespeare meant to keep private, and published them without his consent or even his knowledge. All we know for a fact is that some of them already existed before 1609.

The Mysterious Young Man.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Scholar Steven Greenblatt in his wonderful book Will In the World, presents a more straightforward theory about where the sonnets came from: Shakespeare wrote them for some quick cash. As a writer, Shakespeare couldn’t always rely on the theater to make a living, especially since the theaters were often closed during times of plague, and religious holidays.

Greenblatt believes that in order to pay his bills in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare wrote poetry for Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. We know that The Bard dedicated two long poems to Southampton, Venus and Adonis, and TheRape Of Lucreece and the language Shakespeare uses on the dedication is very personal, even slightly flirty. Greenblatt believes that most if not all of the early sonnets were also written for Southampton. Greenblatt points out that Wriothesley was expected to get married and produce an heir, but he was in his late 20s and had not yet chosen a wife.

Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare was hired by someone in the Southampton family to write a series of love poems that would encourage the Earl to hurry up and get hitched. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets refer to a young, good looking blonde- haired man who has tragically remained single.

This theory works for most, but not all of the early sonnets Sonnet 33 seems to refer to a dead child. Many scholars believe that this sonnet was composed specifically for the death of Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of just eight years old. Obviously since Hamnet is so similar to Hamlet, Shakespeare might have given him a much more fitting tribute a few years later.

My favorite interpretation of the young man of the sonnets comes from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Since the love expressed in the sonnets between the speaker and the Fair Young Man seems to be somewhat sexual in nature, it kind of lends itself to the notion that Shakespeare might’ve been homosexual. What I find amusing is that in the film, since his lady love is his disguised as a boy, ( like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines ), the film answers the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or straight by having the young Shakespeare fall in love with a blonde woman disguised as a male actor, In the scene below, Shakespeare watches his mistress perform in disguise as Romeo, then dedicates a sonnet to her, while still referring to her as male in the sonnet! https://youtu.be/xpyTl3OMWrU

The DarkLady

In the next group of sonnets, the speaker refers to a woman that the speaker calls his mistress. We have no clues from the sonnets as to who she might be, except that her skin is dark. Many many people have wondered who this young woman might be. My favorite theory comes from scholar Michael Wood in his documentary In Search Of Shakespeare. Wood theorizes that it might’ve been in Emilia Lanier, who was the wife of Shakespeare’s patron. One of her descendants, Peter Bassano, has put forth the notion that Shakespeare could have been involved with Mrs. Lanier.

Of course, it also seems likely that The Dark Lady just could’ve been a literary exercise for Shakespeare, who was also writing Anthony and Cleopatra at the time. https://youtu.be/u0W9v9jVp04

Other candidates for The Dark Lady have included the mother of celebrated 18th century playwright and actor, William Davenant.

Sir William himself claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and his parent’s tavern is midway between Stratford and London, so it’s not entirely impossible that Shakespeare at least knew the boy’s mother. The apocryphal story comes from John Audley’s biography of Shakespeare from 1693. Here is what he says about Shakespeare and Davenant:

Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to go into Warwickshire once a year, and did commonly in his journey lie at this house [the Crown] in Oxon, where he was exceedingly respected… Now Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends–e.g. Sam Butler, author of Hudibras, etc., say, that it seemed to him that he writ with the very spirit that did Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a Whore.[2]

My favorite interpretation of the Dark Lady Myth comes from Doctor Who, in an episode called The Shakespeare Code where The Doctor s companion Martha Jones, (who is black), meet Shakespeare and he immediately is smitten with her.

It is supremely naïve to assume that anybody can pin down a definitive Dark Lady. Adultery was just a serious back then as it is now, and admitting to it, even in a play or poem would have been suicide for Shakespeare, which is why the sonnets are vague enough so that they never conclusively point to any specific party, which helps keep this tantalizing mystery alive to this day.

References:

Books:

Web:

http://www.peterbassano.com/shakespeare

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to sign up for my Outschool class on Shakespeare’s love poems. We’ll discuss the mystery of the Dark Lady, and you’ll learn to create your own sonnets, just in time for Valentines Day!

How To Write Romantic Poetry Like Shakespeare 

Since this is national poetry month, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s poetry.  Shakespeare wrote 154 short love poems called sonnets. What follows is kind of a do-it-yourself poetry manual that would be great if you want to write a poem for a spouse or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other time, to show that you care. Sonnet writing has been a time honored tradition for showing the people we care about just how much they mean to us.
If you’ve never written a sonnet , don’t worry, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote is pretty easy to write, and it follows just a few simple rules. I don’t want to lie; it takes a lot of patience and thought to craft a sonnet, but the rules are easy to follow. So let’s get to it!

 

analyzing-sonnet-011.jpgWhat Is A Sonnet? A sonnet is a short poem that’s only 14 lines long, written in what is called Iambic Pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred form of poetry. I’ve written before about Iambic Pentameter, but just to be clear it’s a 10 syllable line that goes da-Dum- daDum-da-Dum-daDum-daDum. So all you need is 14 lines that follow a particular rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that in the sonnet above, every other line rhymes except the end. This is called an ABAB rhyme pattern, and it is the trickiest thing about writing a sonnet. One reason Shakespeare has this rhyme pattern is to draw your attention to the last two lines, then draw the sonnet to a close with the simpler rhyme of the couplet.

Sonnet Form A sonnet’s 14 lines are arranged into three short groups or quatrains which are four lines long. Usually around line 9, there is a kind of “turn” or change in the direction of the argument, like at line 9 in Sonnet 8 above, where Shakespeare stops talking about summer, and starts talking about the person to whom he’s writing. If it helps, you can think of this as the “But…” part of the sonnet, because it’s the part where he changes the argument using the word “but,” (and what a but it is). The sonnet then concludes with two rhymed lines of Iambic called a rhymed couplet. These last two lines are a way of wrapping up the main idea of the poem in a short, catchy way.

Step by step Tips and Tricks:

  1. Start by planning out your sonnet.

It’s often useful to consider your sonnet like a speech or a short argument. The three quatrains give you a chance to come up with an idea, then develop the idea, and then come to a conclusion, much like any other form of persuasive writing that you might’ve had to do for English class. For example, Sonnet 8 pictured above, (one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets), begins with the question: “Shall I compare the to a summers day?” He then goes to flatter the person he’s writing about by talking about how much better they are than a summers day, saying that actual summers are too windy and too hot, and the flowers of the summer are all too brief. By contrast, Shakespeare argues that the  subject of the sonnet has beauty that will last forever, particularly if that person goes on to have children. This is the form that Shakespeare sonnets often take and I would advise you to try and make your sonnet into a clear argument.

Example Of Sonnet Writing:  Since Mother’s Day is coming up, if you wanted to write about the mother of your child, and thank her for her for being there for your child, you might want to structure your sonnet by using the three stanzas to express three simple ideas like:

1. Thank you for being the mother of our child(ren) 

2. A specific time she did something awesome for your child (give examples!)

3. Thank you from you, me, and our child(ren).

Tip 2: Plan Out The Rhyming Couplet: As I mentioned before, the last two lines of every sonnet are called a rhyming couplet; two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme together and help conclude the sonnet. Just like a English paper, a good conclusion is very important, which is why it’s it’s often useful to work on this these two lines first before you get into writing the meat of your sonnet. For example, here’s a couplet I wrote about preparing breakfast in bed and doing chores for one’s wife on Mother’s Day.

All chores this day will I do in thy stead

Commence I shall with breakfast in thy bed!

Tip 3: Writing Poetry  Now that you have the ideas you want to express now comes the hard part: putting them into poetry. I often find it helps to just get a piece of paper, write as much as possible to express the three ideas in your sonnet in prose, then get down to translating your ideas into iambic pentameter.

Quick Tips to help you along:

  1. Make sure the important words are on the right beats. Remember, in a normal Iambic line, every other beat (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are emphasized. This means the important words/ sylables need to be on those beats. You might have to invert the order of a word or two to keep those beats clear. like I did in my couplet when I wrote “will I do” instead of “I will do”
  2. You don’t have to use iambic in every line. Shakespeare was never a slave to a particular verse form, and a whole poem in iambic pentameter can sound a little dull sometimes. This is why, if you really want to, you can change a line or two to emphasize different beats
    • Trochees A clever way to wake up your audience is to start off with a few regular iambic pentameter lines, and then change it to a line where the first beat is the one that’s important. Like a dance or song that suddenly changes tempo, this creates a sense of excitement in the reader.
    • Spondees Sometimes you can emphasize two syllables at the same time, as Shakespeare does in lines 1 and 3 of Sonnet 8. You wouldn’t pronounce “Shall I” as “SHALL I or shall I,” and the phrase “rough winds” demands that both words are important, so Shakespeare is clearly changing the verse a little just to make the poetry more interesting.
    • For More information on other types of Meter, read Sam Rame’s Literary Analysis Blog: http://samrames.blogspot.com/2013/03/william-shakespeares-sonnet-60-like-as.html

Tip 4: Use Literary Devices: I find Shakespeare very often tried to express an idea by using metaphor and allusion to create images in the listeners mind. Sonnet 8 which we’ve been discussing, is structured around creating a contrast between the speaker and a pretty day in summer. You can do this kind of flattering comparison yourself, but, as we’ve seen, it’s often useful to put a “but” in the argument around line 9, to make it clear that you love the person more than for example a warm summer day. Imagine getting a sonnet that claims that someone loves you more than ice cream!

Sometimes Shakespeare uses contradictory images in his poetry for dramatic effect. Romeo often and talks about “Oh brawling love, O loving hate”. He uses this to express the wildness of his passion. This is called antithesis, and it’s very useful when you want to add a little spice to your poetry. Try comparing your beloved to both ice and fire!
Alliteration and assonance: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for the theater not for people reading in the book this is why he often plays with words that sound a particular way and worked very hard to come up with sounds that would grab a listeners attention rather than readers. When a word when several words start the same letter it creates a sense of order and gets the readers attention. Assonance is when consonants are repeated within the middle of a line.

Useful Websites when you’re working

  • Rhymezone.com– a convenient online rhyming dictionary
  • Thesaurus.com– useful if you need another word that fits into iambic better.
  • Kotsheet.com- a website for teachers with lots of useful worksheets to help you organize your sonnet. Useful for writing or teaching sonnets!

I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions, please comment, or email me in the “Ask the Shakespeare Guru” page. If you write any sonnets yourself and wish to share them on this site, let me know and I’ll gladly re-post them!

Till Next Time,

-The Shakespearean Student.

References

  1. The Sonnets Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  2. Shakespeare’s Wordcraft  by Scott Kaiser. Limelight Editions, 2007. Free preview here: https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_s_Wordcraft.html?id=IdVuj0IY2ekC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false 
  3. Literary Devices.net: https://literarydevices.net/
  4. Cummings Study Guide: https://cummingsstudyguides.net/xSonnets.html