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The language of Shakespeare's Sonnets, like that of poetry in general, is both highly compressed and highly structured. While most often discussed in terms of its images and its metrical and other formal structures, the language of the Sonnets, like that of Shakespeare's plays, also repays close attention to such basic linguistic elements as words, word order, and sentence structure. Shakespeare's words: Because Shakespeare's sonnets were written four hundred years ago, they inevitably contain words that are unfamiliar today. Some are words that are no longer in general use -- words that the dictionaries label archaic or obsolete, or that have so fallen out of use that dictionaries no longer include them. One surprising feature of the Sonnets is how rarely such archaic words appear. Among the more than a thousand words that make up the first ten sonnets, for instance, only eleven are not to be found in current usage: self-substantial ("derived from one's own substance"), niggarding ("being miserly"), unfair ("deprive of beauty"), leese ("lose"), happies ("makes happy"), steep-up ("precipitous"), highmost ("highest"), hap ("happen"), unthrift ("spendthrift"), unprovident ("improvident"), and ruinate ("reduce to ruins"). Somewhat more common in the Sonnets are words that are still in use but that in Shakespeare's day had meanings that are no longer current. In the first three sonnets, for example, we find only used where we might say "peerless" or "preeminent," gaudy used to mean "brilliantly fine," weed where we would say "garment," glass where we would say "mirror," and fond where we would say "foolish." Words of this kind -- that is, words that are no longer used or that are used with unfamiliar meanings -- will be defined in our facing-page notes.

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Geneva Public Library 822.33 SHA (Text)
Second Floor Nonfiction

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