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Evgenia Pancheva


In genealogical terms Shakespeares sonnets may seem to cut quite an oxymoronic presence in the Web: it is a well-known fact that in his own time Shakespeare was not particularly interested in having them published, or widely disseminated. The first documented reference to them is in Francis Meress Palladis Tamia (1598) where Master Shakespeare, this English Ovid, is said to have been circulating his sugred Sonnets among his private friends 1. Although we find the texts entering the Guttenberg galaxy in Shakespeares own lifetime, i.e. in 1609, they do so only through the pirated edition of Thomas Thorpe, the T. T. of the famous dedication of the first quarto.

Is the accessibility of the sonnets in the Internet virtual library four centuries later, however, really a piece of generic anachronism?

1. Reading the Sonnet: the Screen Experience

The shift in the Shakespearean sonnets mode of being-in-the world - from (manuscript) page to screen - problematises the very repertoire of the sonnet genre. Outside the site in which we can hear two actors voices performing the text (http//: ), and where reading becomes truly seeing-as-hearing, this shift obviously enhances the spatial/visual at the expense of the temporal/auditory. Through the page up/ page down command we follow the text not so much horizontally, as a sequence of pages within the same plane of reading (though the microphenomenology of reading as a horizontal activity is still preserved with the individual page), but rather vertically, as one incessant sequence unfolding, like an ancient manuscript (but also like Lucass introductory texts in Star Wars, or the surrogate usage of Lucas in some recent Coca-Cola commercials) before our eyes. This emphasis on the vertical is combined with the mobility of the words read and the greater immobility of the reading eye, the strategy of the moving image rather than that of the monumental Text.

The relative fixity of the eye in the Internet reading project implies a transcendence of the reading subject, which at first is hard to reconcile with the general notion of decentered subject positions in the Web experience. On the other hand, however, this is an intentionaltranscendence: it is always transcendence over a particular hypertext, the way the controlling gaze of the Renaissance painter is always in control of a particular horizontally receding spatial segment. And here too, the observers eye is in control of perceptual space, but perceptual space itself positions the eye as its own target.

The relative fixity of the eye, however, and the perpetuation of the observer/reader that goes with it, has its other side as well. As with the central perspective of the Florentines, or as with the moving image of film, which genealogically depends on it, it is also a strategy of a greater illusionism. In this sense the subject, flattered as transcendent, is also tempted into empathy and involvement. The seeming control of the eye that summons to being a textual world out of a potentially endless vertical flow is also this eyes positioning as source to that virtual world, and thus the virtualisation of the eye itself. Thus, the ambiguous oculocentrism of the early modern episteme seems to have found its ultimate extension in a camera oscura that is a potentially infinite container of stored sights/sites, textual, visual and auditory.

In the case of the lyric the visual, or what Northrop Frye, in a reminiscence of Aristotle, called opsis, is quite prominent anyway. The brevity of the form also contributes to its suppression of our sense of temporalityto the benefit of fictional space. (It is hardly a coincidence that the spaceminded hermeneutics of early 20th century formalism/s should extol the status of the lyric at the expense of other kinds.) This sense of space is also partially the outcome of a suppression of lyric time: lyric writing, Susanne Langer believes,

is a specialised technique that constructs an impression or an idea as something experienced in a sort of eternal present. In this way, instead of offering abstract propositions into which time and causation simply do not enter, the lyric poet creates a sense of concrete reality from which the time element has been cancelled out leaving a Platonic sense of eternity 2.

With the sonnets conspicuous opsis - a discernible rhyme scheme of either 8 + 6 (Petrarchan) or 4+4+4+2 (Shakespearean), what John Donne has famously called sonnets little rooms (stanzi), and a graphic layout that does shape a sonnet into Donnes well-wrought urn - this spatiality is even easier to experience. Thus, the sonnet readers ability to grasp the form at a glance, and to grasp it as optic form, seems to be further encouraged by the genres transposition into the medium of the computer screen. To extend the ut pictura poesis topos even further, the virtual sonnet is reified the way a picture is : it, too, is (potentially) always out there. It is, however, in the power of the gaze controlling the reification, to ultimately reduce all potencies to a totalising perspective.  

2. Something Overheard: Generic Subversion

Theorists of the lyric have pointed out the circularity and self-referentiality of the form. If epic is the genre of the poet talking to his audience, lyric suppresses the recipient to the promotion of textual source. Lyric, Northrop Frye believes, is the poet talking to himself, pretending not to take notice of his audiences. It this sense lyric is like prayer: it is something overheard.

If we rethink the Fryean radical of presentation in terms of recent communication theory, we might say, after Manfred Pfister, that lyric breaks both the external and the internal communication systems of the text -

S4-S3-S2-S/R1-S/R1-R2-R3-R4 -

treating them elliptically, so that all projections of audiences, from fictional personas (R1) through fictional (R2) and implied(R3) readers down to actual readers (R4) are neglected.

Thinking in such terms, however, we find that the Elizabethan sonnet is an open form. Introspective and narcissistic as it might seem in the hands of a Sidney, it still is very much the gesture of a courtly ritual, or of poetic togetherness, at least. In this sense it always points beyond itself, towards more or less fictional audiences (the Stellas, Delias and Ideas of Shakespeares fellow poets), but also towards other texts to be imitated, processed, or parodied. It is a message that has the conspicuous rhetorical purpose of moving: an invitation to love, a persuasion, a love letter. Reading there always points forward to winning pity and obtaining grace (Astrophil and Stella, 1). The reader might be manifestly alone in her experience the way Spensers lady is :

Leaues, lines, and rhymes, strive her to please alone
Whom if ye please , I care for other none.
(Amoretti,1, 13-14)

There is also, however, the monumentalising aspect of the sonnet : it is a space where the perpetuation of the addressee is effected. To this purpose reading is located in history; or rather, as in Shakespeare 55, history itself emerges as the repeated act of reading by an infinite regression of historical generations. Thus, the sonnets temporalisation of form through rhetorical fissure is coupled with a spatialisation of time itself into a linear circularity, an unfolding reading-the-same:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lover's eyes.

The dual status of the sonnet is recognised : it is a container for a timeless message/image, the way the leaden casket in The Merchant of Venice contains the picture of Portia, but it also is located in history itself. The act of containment gainst death is a temporary one : it lasts till the judgement that the arisen addressee himself shall arise. The end of this containment, however, is, punningly, the end of human history, Judgement Day, and the beginning of a new timelessness. Till that great moment when the container will be opened to the divine perspective, however, it needs the space of historical human eyes, into which it actually is refashioned.

Shakespeares sonnets are never purely lyrical. As items in a protonarrative sequence they partake of the epic; the gaps and silences that such a narrative presupposes, however, hardly function to support linear time; read as a totality, they also contain the miniature drama of the poets two loves. Shakespeare was very fond of introducing sonnet stuff into his own plays: Loves Labours Lost is a particularly appropriate example of such a staging of the convention. In this sense, the transposition of the sonnet into a different medium, with its own signifying practices is a Shakespearean, as well as a modern experiment.

Probing into the forms modulations in a dramatic context, Loves Labours Lost mocks the imagined privacy of sonneteering. It begins where most sonnet sequences would end - with the denunciation of love (Petrarch, Sidney). But then gradually the play 'turns sonnet'. In their endless echoes of rhymes characters tend to display an inability, or an unwillingness, to close off the form:

Berowne. (...) Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed,
And give him light that it was blinded by,
Study is like the heavens glorious sun,
That will not be deep-searchd with saucy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others books.
These earthly godfathers of heavens lights
That give a fame to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shiningt nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know is to know noght but fame;
And every godfather gan give a name.
King. How well hes read, to reason against reading!
Dum. Prceeded well, to stop all good proceeding!
Long. He weeds the corn, and still lets grow the weeding!
Ber. The spring is near, when green geese are a-breeding

Such never-ending sonnets become the mode of dramatic discourse and a measure of the literal opening of the form in the context of dramatic dialogue. Characters share the same line

Du.      How follows that?
Ber.                                   Fit in his place and time.
Dum.   In reason nothing.
Ber.                                   Something then in rime. (1.1.80-97),

or the same quatrain:

King. Berwone is like an envious sneaping frost
         That bites the first-born infants of the spring.

Ber. Well, say I am: why then should proud summer boast
        Before the birds have any cause to sing?

Loves Labours Lost is also very much about overhearing the sonnet as watching-it-staged. In the famous eavesdropping scene we witness the staging of a potentially infinite recession of sonneteers and their suppressed audiences: the King of Navarre reads his double coupleted sonnet ( closure failing again) to himself but is overheard by Berowne. Then the two of them overhear, at various removes from actuality, the sonnet of Longaville. Then all of them listen to the performance of the unaware Dumaine who offers a jog-trot piece in couplets. The very mode of the poet talking to himself is mocked : invisible to the poet, audiences are quite visible to ourselves as off-stage observers to the Shakespearean bravura of lyric communication.

Appearing on the Internet, the Shakespearean sonnet is displayed to a horizontal rather than a vertical/hierarchical infinity of observers. Such lyric watching-as-overhearingcould potentially involve the eyes of all posterity indeed.

The virtual sonnet too is staged: the death of the author on the Internet 3 is accompanied by the new participation of the reader choosing neighbourhoods, visual and graphic contexts, etc. In that sense it is made even more dramatic than in the case of a dramatic contextualisation proper. And again, we find the transformation historically correct : the symbolic interactivity of an Elizabethan play, with its poor staging resources and undisguised dependence on the observers imaginary forces, is a fact. It suffices to remember the opening lines of Henry V, for instance:

For tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping oer times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass.
(I, 28-31)

3. Recycling Sonnet Stuff

The present Internet situation uses the Sonnets in various modes. Some sites treat them as texts to read and study , and thus come closer to our traditional idea of them. Others make rhetorical and pragmatic uses of them in a way which, thinking of the social function of the sonnet in Shakespeares day, is not wholly unhistorical.

1. William Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets (http://ad.linkexchange.com) gives the whole sequence as it unfolds. The vertical flow of text from top to bottom enhances the spatiality of the text, our sense of the sequence as a coherent entity that is always potentially on screen. Each individual sonnet is a moment in such a whole and non-narrative and non-sequential gaps from text to text tend to be suppressed in the readers consciousness.

2. Shakespeare online gives each sonnet in isolation, accompanying text with a translation in modern English (!?) and glosses. It also provides the poets background, as well as links to meaningful sources like Ovid. The staging of the sonnet is at work there: theres a lot of show and collage going on, with ads, including one about sex.

3. Shakespeares Sonnets - a digital collection (http://www.island-of-freedom.com/SHSPEARE HTM) is richly coloured and contextualised. Shakespeares portrait and life usher us into a variety of links to the sonnets, grouped in 22s, and the other places on the Web : The Collected Works, The Shakespearean Insultor and Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet, as well as to a site of quotations.

4. Shakespeares sonnet of the day (http://jollyroger.com)offers you to send a Shakespeare sonnet to .... Mailing a sonnet accompanied by a picture and a text of ones own goes back to a very early usage of the form as communication of interiority. Interestingly, the sender here is asked to assume a universally known and recognisable voice. Circulating the sonnets in the eyes of all posterity depends on actively thinking the thoughts of another (Poulet). The sender and the receiver (inter)actively reconstruct a past situation to communicate present thoughts. Intertextuality is also the death of time, itself a must in the lyric situation.

4. Attention Deficit Disorder.

"So long as men can breathe," he boasted, "or So long as eyes can see, so long will live My life-donating verse." And, yes, so far, His poem's bestowed the fame he said it'd give. For that to have occurred, though, has...


The site trains memory and attention using the verbal stuff the quoted Shakespeare sonnet is made on. Words are displayed one by one and our memory is invited to provide the syntagmatic relationship.

5. Edit a Sonnet offers the reader to become an editor, teaching them the tricks of the profession:

The purpose of this assignment will be to edit one of Shakespeare's
sonnets. You'll have a partner for this project. The choice of sonnet is
up to you. In certain cases you may feel that you need to edit a
companion sonnet - that's fine.

5. Sonnet vs. Sonnet. Though not immediately Shakespearean, the site is quite relevant to a discussion of how sonnet material is processed on the Internet. It treats sonnet classics as participants in a poetry competition, a hoary classical/medieval/Renaissance tradition, but also a recent fact. Round 1 sets Thomas Wyatt vs. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey on the issue of the long love:

During the last few years, America has seen the rise of the "poetry
slam," an event where two or more poets will recite their work and have
it judged by the audience. So, of course, I couldn't resist the chance
to present a "sonnet slam," where two poets of the past can go 14 lines,

Below are sonnets by the two poets (two friends) who introduced the
sonnet form into English, and we get to see their take on the same
sonnet by Petrarch. Which poem speaks most clearly from over four
centuries away? They're not the easiest sonnets, and there are many
different versions of these texts in different editions. But as they
stand, which do you find more moving? More thought-provoking? Here's a
chance to judge for yourself and see what others think--just place your
vote below and check back at the end of the month for the results! Feel
free to add a comment--you may find yourself quoted when the results are

"The long love that in my heart doth harbor"

Thomas Wyatt

The long love that in my heart doth harbor
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
She that me learneth to love and to suffer,
And wills that my trust and lust's negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart's forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

"Love that doth reign and live within my thought"
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Love that doth reign and live within my thought
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefaced look to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and 'plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord's guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove,--
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.

Sonnet vs. Sonnet
Who gets your vote?

Of course, it is Surrey with his more fluent poetic diction that has gained the upper hand so far. Wyatts masculine rhythms find much fewer admirers.

Recycling Shakespeare sonnets on the Internet involves us in a situation of postmodern collaging where time and history are obliterated but also rethought. Although access to Shakespeares sonnets might be prologued by an invitation to use specific bronchodilators or diet pills (as on 17.01.2000, http://www.d-n-e.com), or know more about sex, this fact of our Dasein (its flu time, post-Christmas season) brings the texts even closer to ourselves. In this sense the Shakespearean dream of braving cormorant devouring Time, thematised so prominently in the sonnets, has been at least partially achieved. As participants in the great sonnet drama, extrapolating this drama to our daily lives, and mailing gestures, and borrowing its language to voice our own moods, we probably even more effectively create the intermediary space needed by their eschatological perspective.




1.  G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays, ii, Oxford, 1904, 317-8. [back]

2.  Feeling and Form. [back]

3.  Cf the thesis of my MA student Bozhidar Grozdanov, Towards a New Concept of Authorship, Sofia University, 1999. [back]



Evgenia Pancheva
E-magazine LiterNet, 18.02.2000, 2 (3)