In composing his 154 Sonnets, Shakespeare upended the whole Renaissance ideal of Romantic Poetry. Yes, Shakespeare wrote about unrequited love, a love marked with rhetorical hyperbole, lovers addicted to love, love as pain (which popular music still hasn’t given up on), and the object of love being an idealized lady.

However, with Shakespeare, that love is tainted with betrayal, the idealized lady is a ‘dark’ lady, and the passion felt is not always heterosexual. In Sonnet 21, the Poet is writing to his beloved Young Man, warning him of a rival poets, rivals who employ inflated rhetoric and outrageous conceits. Shakespeare claims to simply write the bare truth:


So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

If you can home in a few key phrases, the sonnet because pretty clear:

  • ‘Painted beauty’–women wearing too much makeup.
  • ‘Making a couplement of proud compare’–outrageous conceits
  • ‘That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems’–outrageous hyperbole (rondure means ‘sphere’)
  • ‘With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems’–idolizing your beauty
  • ‘O let me, true in love, but truly write’–my verse speaks only truth
  • ‘I will not praise that purpose not to sell’–I’m not selling you anything

The idea of the ‘rival poet’ makes its return later on Shakespeare’s sonnets. As usual, the theme of any particular sonnet is not insular; these 154 verses all interconnect.   And despite Shakespeare’s insistence that he doesn’t indulge in hyperbolic metaphors, he certainly does it elsewhere! But at least when the Bard does it, he crafts metaphor, simile and imagery more beautifully and eloquently than other rival Elizabethan poet.

The image of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, whom Shakespeare himself had a hand in designing. The ceiling of the main stage’s roof shows off the Renaissance idea of Heaven, something Poets apparently employed a little bit too often.

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