Shakespeare's Sonnets and Use of Petrarchanism Essay

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According to The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry, Shakespeare’s poetry has “set the benchmark for achievement in artistic expression” (ed. Cheney 2007, p.2) due to his “mastery of poetry’s idiom and form” (ed. Cheney 2007, p.2). Shakespeare, in his love sonnets, has re-written classical Petrarchan conventions of a discourse of love to create his own format of sonnet poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets eighteen to one hundred and twenty six – the central sonnets of the compilation- give a discourse on homoerotic desire and love, a deviance from the introductory section’s homosocial discourse between the patron and poet. Shakespeare uses Petrarchan conventions within this section to praise and flatter his object of desire – the young man of the sonnets. Shakespeare subverts Petrarch’s use of flattery for Laura, instead giving his male lover feminine qualities associated with beauty and loveliness - “A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted” (1. 20) “my lovely boy” (1. 126).
Sonnet twenty is a key sonnet in understanding Shakespeare’s subversion of Petrarchan conventions, as it highlights the feminine qualities of Shakespeare’s lover and praises him for his appearance.   Shakespeare continues his homoerotic discourse throughout the sonnet, and as Vendler discusses, the poet-speaker believes it only natural for both sexes to love this man; drawing on traditional, socially acceptable love of a woman for this particular man, yet also the more contemporary idea of same-sex love, as exampled by the young man’s feminine appearance and the statement that women should, too, love this man (Vendler 1997, p.128). Schoenfeldt (2010, p.90) notes that this particular sonnet, sonnet twenty, shows Nature – a traditionally female character - “doting erotically on her own female creation”, and thus highlighting the almost commonplace nature of same-sex adulation of Shakespeare’s time. This gender reversal of the poet-speaker’s object of lust and subsequent manipulation of...

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