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Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

By Dr. Margaret Case, Chair, Department of English Literature and Creative Writing

Ideas-of-Order-A-Close-Reading-of-Shakespeare’s-Sonnets-by-Neil-L.-Rudenstine-e1415219729937Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Neil L. Rudenstine

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

November 2014

Is it odd that perhaps the greatest single work of lyric poetry in English – Shakespeare’s Sonnets — is scarcely read in its entirety? What happens when Shakespeare’s sonnets are read out of context? Why are many people surprised that the first 18 of Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal Shakespeare’s love for a young man?

Neil L. Rudenstine’s Ideas of Order prompts these questions — and many others– in a manner likely to spark new engagement in the Sonnets.  Chapter one succinctly summarizes traditional scholarly warnings against reading the sonnets as a dramatic sequence. Subsequent chapters then disobey such advice, providing first an overview and then a series of extended studies of specific dramatic segments and their accompanying cast of characters: the banished poet, his beloved fair youth, his dark lady, and the rival poet.

The phrase “close reading” in the title, alongside Rudenstine’s credentials as a Renaissance scholar and former President of Harvard University, could suggest this is yet another collection of painstaking sonnet-by-sonnet analysis. In fact, however, like the sonnets themselves, Rudenstine uses order to reveal mystery.

This text draws deftly and knowledgeably from Shakespearean scholars from W.H. Auden to Helen Vendler; however, readers looking for annotations, isolated sonnet readings, or fixed interpretations will not find them. Traditional formal satisfactions, such as tracing key word shifts from quatrain to quatrain or resolving final couplets of dyadic tension into triadic balance are in this text metonymous with the dramatic trajectory of complicated emotional shifts in sentiments, surging and receding over the ostensibly temporal space of the sequence.

Rudenstine’s approach itself disrupts traditional ideas of order. Rather than “reading” the sonnets one by one, each chapter discusses one dramatic “grouping” often around raveled phrases such as “tender churl.” These chapters model what it would mean to read the sonnets within a particular dramatic array, as well as suggesting connections across the larger sequence. For example, why do these sonnets begin the way they do? Does the current sequence make sense on its own, despite what seem like lacunae, non-sequitors, (not to mention what seem like occasionally “random” sonnets)? Answering such questions, each chapter reveals connections between and/or within the segments that ring thematic changes on the overall trajectory.

Readers new to Shakespeare might especially enjoy chapter two’s succinct description of the dramatic clusters within the sonnets and the overview of the “players,” as well as the permission (nay encouragement) to read for the drama. When the reader hits “snags” in the storyline (e.g., when the love triangle begins with one man urging another to marry, or when a patron is treated without traditional sycophancy, or when the “edge of doom” signals hope), Ideas of Order reveals method within lyric madness.

Will this text transform the scholarly reader’s experience of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Quite possibly, if scholarly readers are willing to abandon decades of internalized proscriptions against approaching the sonnets as an essentially dramatic sequence.

Will this text enhance a lay reader’s first time reading of these poems? Absolutely. If any introductory work is likely to change the fact that so few people read Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence in its entirety, this is the one.