A new appraisal of Shakespeare’s lyric poetry.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is a familiar first line from "Sonnet 18," one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Although it is considered to be a love poem, Rudenstine (The House of Barnes: The Man, the Collection, the Controversy, 2012, etc.), an Elizabethan scholar and former Harvard president, argues that taking any sonnet out of sequence distorts its meaning. He sees the lyric poems as interconnected, building a dramatic narrative about a poet’s fraught relationship with a young man he loves and a mistress whom the two men lustily desire. Love, surely, is a theme, but it is a love undermined by faithlessness and deceit, vulnerability and humiliation. Rudenstine groups the sonnets (all appended to his text) into discrete sections that trace the development of themes: the so-called “marriage poems” (1-20) speak to the love between the poet and his younger, wealthier and handsomer friend. In the next group, the poet praises the friend, who has been unfaithful and abandons the poet but begs forgiveness. The friend takes up with the poet’s mistress, the poet questions his own talent and, fearing abandonment by the young man, “embarks on a full attack…on the friend’s character.” Subsequent sonnets chronicle a tumultuous relationship of reconciliation, betrayal, reunion and renewed proclamations of love. The last sonnets speak to the mistress’s “love-kindling fire” in the hearts—and bodies—of both men. Rudenstine handles gingerly some scholars’ assertion of the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the poet and his friend. While that inference can be supported, the author sees the relationship as a magnetic infatuation, not necessarily sexual, that “beguiles and overwhelms” the poet, causing him to “re-create and sustain it, in spite of continual betrayals.”
Guilt, power, desire and sadism all feature in Rudenstine’s authoritative, meticulously close reading of what he considers to be Shakespeare’s majestic poems.