Interesting commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets?
August 9, 2008 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend me some good commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets and tell me why you like it.

I'm reading through Shakespeare's sonnets. I'd like to read some enlightening commentary, written by a thoughtful, interesting person. The ideal book would be something like Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, but about these sonnets. I'm not really looking to have their meanings decoded for me, and I don't particularly care for facts, like who the "real" Dark Lady was. Whatever your recommendation, please also let me know why you're recommending it (what you like about it or about the author). Thank you.
posted by sleevener to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: when i subscribed to the lrb i enjoyed several articles on shakespeare by frank kermode. i don't know much about criticism, but i suspect he's fairly conservative (ie he sounds quite sensible). anyway, some articles at that link are publicly readable so you can see for yourself (this one is a review of the film 'shakepseare's merchant of venice'). he doesn't seem to have a book on the sonnets alone, but does have a couple on shakespeare in general.
sorry, i know this isn't an exact answer, but i liked him enough that i have always intended to buy a book of his (this isn't the kind of book i typically buy) and if you're not after a direct reading then maybe you can stretch to include him...
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 7:34 PM on August 9, 2008

Best answer: Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is, I think, the definitive "close reading" critical work on the subject. She provides an incredibly thorough analysis of the craft of each poem, its key words and phrases, the poems' relationships to each other, and the overlying structure of the sonnets as a whole. To give you an idea of the level of detail she achieves, there are more than a few structural diagrams.

She pays little attention to Shakespeare's life and personal orientations, speculation about biographical sources or lack thereof, or any other (IMHO) irrelevant stuff. What she does is dissect each sonnet and spread it out in front of you like a feast.

I like her especially because she writes like someone who really loves poetry and who is enormously enamored of these poems in particular. The book reads like a very precise labor of love, and it broadened tremendously my understanding of the craft of each poem.
posted by jesourie at 7:44 PM on August 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I also recommend Vendler's "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets". It is a truly wonderful book, and everything jesourie says and more.

If you can find it, Martin Green's "The Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets" is pretty fun. It is incredibly naughty, and exhaustively (sometimes inventively) describes the sexual content of the sonnets.
posted by apricot at 9:57 PM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I read them through this past summer for pleasure... and I wrote my own commentary as I went.

Sure, this is really just "journaling", but you might find it interesting and very helpful. You'll be able to refer back to previous sonnets as you go. You say you don't car much about the facts, so just find what they mean to you.

Best of luck, they're wonderfully written sonnets.
posted by Precision at 11:39 PM on August 9, 2008

Best answer: If you can, seek out a copy of John Kerrigan's 1986 Penguin edition of the Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. When I was studying the Sonnets at undergrad level, I found Kerrigan's notes, introduction, and supplementary material lucid and helpful. Kerrigan's especially strong on Shakespeare's debts to earlier sonneteers, and he makes a compelling case for Shakespeare's authorship of A Lover's Complaint, published with the Sonnets in 1609 but often excluded from Shakespeare's poetic canon.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:22 AM on August 10, 2008

Response by poster: Fantastic! Thanks, everyone.
posted by sleevener at 8:22 AM on August 10, 2008

I can't believe no one's mentioned Stephen Booth's book, which has long been held alongside the Vendler book as the definitive classic. Ronald Rosenbaum offers him as an alternative Shakespeare critic (rather than Harold Bloom) and devotes a chapter of The Shakespeare War to Booth, who he describes as "brilliant" and "exquisitely attuned to Shakespeare's verbal ambiguities."
posted by johnasdf at 5:28 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

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