Shout-Out for the Sonnet: Shakespeare Expert Turns Attention to Multifaceted Form

Posted: July 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Robert Matz with Shakespeare book
In his new book, “The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” English professor Robert Matz delves into a form that he says was “a tool of social ambition as much as it was of self-expression.”

By Anna Maurer

Robert Matz, Mason associate professor of English, recently published “The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Introduction.” He is the incoming chair of the English Department and the department’s current director of undergraduate studies. Matz teaches courses on Shakespeare’s work and other Renaissance literature.

In this interview he discusses the significance of the sonnets, his deep interest in them and why students today should care about them.

Robert Matz
Robert Matz

Shakespeare’s sonnets often seem to be overlooked in favor of his plays. What place do you think the sonnets have in the canon of literature and the study of Shakespeare?

For almost 200 years after they were written, opinion about the sonnets – and all of Shakespeare’s poetry, for that matter – was surprisingly negative. As late as the end of the 18th century, one commentator, reflecting general opinion, could praise an editor for leaving the sonnets out of a “complete works of Shakespeare” edition. “For where,” he asks, “is the utility of propagating compositions which no one can endure to read?” Today the sonnets are much more popular, though often, unfortunately, the same five or six out of the 154 that Shakespeare wrote. I think Shakespeare’s sonnets are amazing because they are at once more plain and more knotty than the sonnets of his contemporaries Though many of those contemporaries, such as Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, were no slouches either.

Why are you drawn to research and scholarship on the sonnets?

The sonnets bring together a lot of my research interests: the relationship between literature, rhetoric and ambition in the Renaissance; Renaissance assumptions about gender and sexuality; and the role of art in society. The sonnets are fascinating because they seem totally familiar to us, and yet in many ways they represent views of art and desire that are unexpected. The sonnet was a tool of social ambition as much as it was of self-expression, and though many readers remain under the misapprehension that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets to a woman, most are written to a young man. This choice can’t be understood as evidence that “Shakespeare was homosexual” in the contemporary sense, but rather has everything to do with a culturally celebrated intimacy between men during the period.

What can we learn from reading the sonnets? Do they have any universal messages? Why should students today care?

We can enjoy the sonnets’ remarkably multiple, evocative language and emotional compression; we can appreciate Shakespeare’s exploitation of and innovation on the sonnet form; we can discover a window onto elite Renaissance culture; we can be moved by the feelings expressed in the sonnets. Readers who identify as gay may especially appreciate reading a great work of literature that expresses the love of one man for another. Some of the sonnets may anger us, a few are funny. As with any great literary work, there’s no single way to engage with the sonnets. At the end of my book, I argue against thinking of the sonnets as “universal.” While that term is often used to praise literature, to me the idea of universality seems bland and straitening. As Mark Twain wrote in “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “It is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

Who is your favorite little-known figure from Shakespeare? Why?

I love the comic servant Launce from “Two Gentleman of Verona,” especially a very funny soliloquy in which he acts out his sad departure from his family with two shoes, a hat, and a walking staff (“this shoe is my father … this shoe is my mother”). The soliloquy is very funny in itself, but it also exemplifies the way in which Shakespeare in his plays so often sees double. While the main characters in the play are being sentimental, the comic character Launce is reminding us that their sentimentality, or our own in watching the play, is not all that different from Launce’s own tearful dramatization of mother and father performed by two sad shoes. Whenever I teach this soliloquy I bring some old shoes of my own to act this out because it’s so much fun.

How does your research engage your teaching, and how does your teaching engage your research? Is there something specific from your scholarship you draw upon consistently in the classroom?

I very much teach what I’m researching. For example, I’ve taught the English Department’s Special Topics in Shakespeare course as a class devoted to the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, in which we read the sonnets, related Shakespeare plays, other Renaissance sonnet sequences and history and criticism related to the sonnets. The class was helpful to me for developing ideas for my book. In one assignment, students had to find an older edition of the sonnets (from the 19th century, for example) and examine how it described them. I got some great material from this assignment for my book’s chapter on the history of how people have interpreted the sonnets.

Did you enjoy reading Shakespeare and other Renaissance literature as a young person, or is it more of an acquired taste for you? What first drew you to studying Shakespeare’s work?

I didn’t become especially interested in Shakespeare or Renaissance literature until I went to college. I had great teachers, and in the 1980s, when I went to college, the study of Renaissance literature was in an especially dynamic phase. I learned then that many of the qualities I associated with modern literature – such as playful self-referentiality -were already there in the Renaissance. And I also learned a lot about the Renaissance as a historical period that interested me. So my relationship to these texts is in many ways “academic,” but I hope at a university that’s not a bad thing. And it makes me very happy when I can interest a student in Renaissance literature, the way my teachers interested me.

bookshelf with books on Shakespeare
Photos by Nicolas Tan

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