Historical Context of Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare

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      The Renaissance: Shakespeare lived and wrote during the Renaissance, a time of great political, cultural, and social change. The influence of the Catholic Church, which had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the Medieval period, was giving way to more secular, less spiritual forces. In religion the Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized the faith and devotional practices of the individual. Along with this dispersion of spiritual authority came a redistribution of political power to individual states, which were throwing off the control of the pope in Rome. Art and culture, too, experienced a reawakening ("renaissance" means "rebirth") as sacred themes in painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions.

      In this light, "Sonnet 18" seems very much a work of its times. Written during a period of rapid and often unsettling change, the poem expresses a sense of up-rootedness, a feeling of uncertainty regarding the future. Everywhere the speaker looks he sees things changing, fading, decaying. The central impulse of die poem is a seeking for that which never changes, for that which is certain and eternal.

      The vogue for sonnets: Shakespeare's Sonnets are considered a central part of his overall body of work. There is no solid evidence that Shakespeare drew directly on any single known work for the precise form or content of any of his sonnets. He was, however, following a tradition of sonnet (from the Italian sonnetto, or little song) writing that dates back to the fourteenth-century Rime of the Italian poet Petrarch. The first English sonneteer of note was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who, by the mid-sixteenth century, translated a number of Petrarch's sonnets into English and wrote original compositions closely modeled on Italian patterns.

      Along with his friend Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Wyatt is credited with introducing a vogue for sonnet writing in England that lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. Although the English writers borrowed many poetic conventions already established by Petrarch, including adopting the fourteen-line format of the sonnet, they altered rhyme scheme from "abba abba cdc dcd” to "abab cdcd efef gg" in order to increase the scope of rhyming words. After each quatrain (abab, cdcd, efef) the writer can either continue developing a single idea, or he can pursue another. Surrey's contribution to sonnet writing is significant in one important respect: he always ended his sonnets with a rhymed couplet (gg). This practice, which was followed by most Elizabethan sonneteers, also became Shakespeare's own. Although Shakespeare's sonnets were first published in 1609 (during the reign of King James I), at least some were written a decade or more earlier (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) and circulated in manuscript among the author's friends.

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