Sederi Yearbook 21

Sederi 21
Sederi 21 — 2011
Berta Cano Echevarría & Ana Sáez-Hidalgo
Francisco J. Borge López
ISSN 1135-7789


Alan F. Hickman, “In a Minor Key: Visual Effects in Shake-Speare’s Sonnets.” SEDERI 21 (2011): 147-161.


DOI:                                                      Download PDF



Students of the sonnets are no doubt aware that they abound in wordplay that rewards multiple readings. They may be less aware, especially if they are unfamiliar with the original 1609 Quarto edition, that the poems may have been arranged to have a visual impact as well. The sonnet form itself is emblematic of a number of familiar referents, including an escutcheon, a “glass” (mirror), a leaf, and a seal. One might even see in the poems, as did Lady Mary Worth and John Donne in their “crowns” of sonnets, the links in a chain, or necklace. The sonnet form is roughly the poetic equivalent to the portrait miniature (a fad of the day) in art. I shall be pursuing these analogies in my paper. The most striking visual effect occurs in Sonnet 126, the last of the “fair youth” sonnets, which consists of six rhymed couplets followed by two empty sets of brackets. Katherine Duncan-Jones and others have, in recent years, argued authorial intent for this alleged “printer’s error.” Duncan-Jones suggests that the open parentheses may signify the poet and the fair youth’s “failure to couple,” while John Lennard sees in them “the silence of the grave.” I hope to demonstrate that, by thinking in visual terms, we might one day be able to unlock the story behind the most enigmatic verse sequence in English poetry.

Keywords: Renaissance; England; Shakespeare; sonnet; typography; book design.




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