The Universal Currency of Shakespeare's Sonnets

My title, "The Universal Currency of Shakespeare's Sonnets," deliberately plays upon the theme of the two Literary Criticism sessions at this year's SAMLA convention, "Literary Currencies," precisely because I am interested in the two meanings of currency as they relate to literary texts — namely, (1) a system of universally-applicable standard units of economic exchange value — currency as the "running" flow of money; and (2) the quality of being valid at a given time, especially the present — currency as the "running" flow of time. These two meanings of currency turn out to apply quite nicely to two aspects of the work of literary art, in a way which, as I hope to show, Shakespeare's Sonnets specifically thematize, especially Sonnet 30, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought." But the special currency of poetry, as exemplified by Sonnet 30, is not quite what one might expect, given certain widespread assumptions in our "current" critical practices, and hence my pointed use of the term "universal" in my title as well. Wheras the New Historicism and cultural studies, which are principally forms of materialist criticism, purport to focus on the historically, socially, and culturally specific meanings of literary works, I contend, first, that it is improper to speak of literary meaings per se, but rather of literary games with meaning effects, or literary imitations of meaning; and, second, that literariness aims, precisely, at the universal and not the particular — but in ways, perhaps, that materialist critics would not have anticipated. The way in which I hope to appeal to the univeral pertains to a larger project that I have been pursuing and that I call "New Formalist Criticism."

For the past several decades, the term universal has fallen from favor, and I duly learned to expunge it from my critical vocabulary, along with essence, nature, and ideal, as well as to correct students using such terms. The proscription seemed reasonable and just. Things considered universal were all too often not universal but particular for a class or group or people in power. Desires, feelings, and attitudes deemed universal belonged, in reality, either to that group or to a picture of the world, mostly fantasy, that the same group projected onto the world for its own benefit and convenience. The universal was always, accordingly, a mask for the imperialistic. Claims of universality were politely masked acts of violence against the colonized.

One trouble is that some things really are universal, for all practical purposes: language, social organization of some sort, kinship relations, gift giving, incest taboos. But there is another problem that goes even further than the empirical realm of anthropology. Some things are universal, not because they happen to occur everywhere, but because some notion or element of universality is built into them by definition. For instance, a dollar is "universal" in the sense that the whole point of its existence is that it can be traded for anything deemed worth a dollar or for any other dollar or for any other monetary units of equivalent value in any currency. Although there are times and places where the dollar cannot actually be traded, the dollar was invented so that people could use it for trading if they should be willing to do so. And while someone may attribute some meaning or value to a dollar bill other than the value of a dollar, it is generally understood that this attribution is special, nonstandard, and secondary to the conventional, standard value.

Words are more complicated matters, because a word, unlike a dollar bill, signifies, even in its standard use, a range of meanings, determined by context. Still, words are useful, precisely because they are adaptable units of meaning — of categories of reference — and can be attached to each other in discourse to enable the user to mean something. The written text functions, not only to record utterances and pass them along conveniently through time and space, but also as a concrete display of the universal quality of language. One can readily come across a written text in a language one does not understand, but one can then attempt to learn the language in which the text is written so as to understand it. Even so, a certain kind of understanding is impossible from the start, precisely because this text is removed from a context of conversational exchange in which the utterance would have its full meaning, and one can only reconstruct, or guess, what that context might have been.

Context is essential to meaning in language. While we may speak of the meaning of a given word as the semantic range found in its dictionary definition, it is in a quite different sense that we speak of using words to mean something or to express meaning. In the latter case, language is referential, and requires two interrelated kinds of context: (1) a real world to which the discourse refers, and (2) an exchange between real people engaged in communication. The exchange is necessary because no utterance can refer unambiguously. Rather, reference is achieved through an ongoing, potentially (if not actually) eternal process of asking, answering, verifying, checking, explaining, assuring, and so forth. As Socrates observed long ago, a work of fiction — he actually said a written text — does not have this communicative context, since it is universally available to any person at any time subsequent to its composition (or writing). Insofar as it has no communicative context, it also loses its referential context. But fictions are designed that way: their references are not real — that is the very meaning of fiction. Rather, a fictive utterance is the imitation of an utterance that might occur in a communicative context. Since the point is no longer to get a message across from an actual speaker to an actual addressee, the point must be something in the quality of the utterance itself, considered — and enjoyed — as an object. Just as when a comedian imitates — say — Newt Gingrich, his point cannot be to attack liberalism, so when a poem imitates someone expressing love for an imaginary addressee, the point of the poem cannot be to express love, but to do something ingenious and revealing with the discourse we recognize as that of the expression of love. The goal of a literary work, then, is not to express the author's feelings or ideas or to take a position, but to play with the expressions of such things. All this is true regardless of whether the work of fiction be composed orally or in writing. The fact that writing exhibits to us more obviously these peculiar qualities of fiction lies behind our very use the the terms literary and literature.

The game of literature offers a particular kind of pleasure arising out of paradox. Any utterance removed from its communicative context is not only ambiguous but unavoidably self-contradictory — for instance, the very same words may be meant sincerely or ironically, so that the utterance, paradoxically, expresses both possible meanings at once. The writer of fiction plays with the possibilities of such paradoxes, which are no longer a liability but an asset. Paradoxes in literature correspond to contradictions in the real discourses it imitates, which, in turn, reflect conflicts in real life. Whereas conflicts are wrenching and painful, and contradictions frustrate our speech and betray our trust, witty and poignant literary paradoxes offer intellectual pleasure, while the arrangement of paradoxes into systems provides a sense of aesthetic order lacking in a chaotic and conflict-ridden world. One area of paradoxes with which poetry plays is the very paradoxical nature of the literary text itself. The speaker is "alive," because he or she speaks, and yet "dead," because the speech never changes. The text is "moving" and yet "still." It has a dual temporality. On the one hand, the text has an intrinsic linear sequence of words, sentences, semblances of reference. On the other hand, the entire text is already composed from the start — and, if it is written, and a short poem, the end is as visible to the reader as the beginning, even though the first temporality suggests that there is such a thing as a beginning and an end. Accordingly, the imitated speech of the poem is both "mortal," having an end, and "immortal," eternally there. The act of reading cannot be distinguished from the act of rereading, since the pleasure of the poem derives from the sense of the whole, even if the whole includes, by nature, a sequence of parts and a program of sequential effects. And yet the poem's whole is always "there" only insofar as effort is made to keep it there — a vast effort and material expense, for real people at real times and places, to compose the poem, to circulate or publish it, to sustain it, reprint it, draw attention to it — and to educate a literate readership for it, a readership that must invest effort, and renewed effort, to reconstruct the meaning effects in such a way as to find the game and the pleasure the poem has to offer. These paradoxes hold true universally for literary works, whether oral or written, because of the very definition and nature of fiction, which is no more nor less culturally contingent than such terms as history, culture, or demystification.

Shakespeare plays with this very complex of paradoxes throughout the Sonnets. Allow me to cite, as an example, the well-known Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I sommon vp remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lacke of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new waile my deare times waste:
Then can I drowne an eye(vn-vs'd to flow)
For precious friends hid in deaths dateles night,
And weepe a fresh loues long since canceld woe,
And mone th'expence of many a vannisht sight.
Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon,
And heauily from woe to woe tell ore
The sad account of fore-bemoned mone,
Which I new pay as if not payd before.
     But if the while I thinke on thee (deare friend)
     All losses are restord,and sorrowes end.

A combination of legal and financial conceits dominates the poem, and perhaps can be combined if the "sessions" are conceived as some sort of civil court, in which the speaker, as both debtor and judge, must summon up the equivalent of his creditors — the remembrance of things past — which are both memories of losses and of good things that were subsequently lost merely by virtue of the passage of time itself. Memory, in short, is a source of grief, because the memory of sad things renews the sadness, and the memory of happy things renews the loss of those things through time. This is so because memory, paradoxically, makes the past "present" and, simultaneously, assures its place in the past — so that memory simultaneously recovers and loses things past — and it recovers its own moment of loss, repeatedly. Through a kind of pun, the loss of things past is compared to financial losses, which create indebtedness — a debt of grief, which one must pay as an act of mourning in order to be at peace with one's losses. And yet memory is like an ever-renewed bankruptcy proceeding, in which one must be made to pay for one's losses with grief ever anew.

Now memory is, of course, tied to the nature of poetry: poems are memorized, recorded in writing — indeed, in Sonnet 55, the speaker boasts that his "powrefull rime" will preserve for the addressee "The liuing record of [his] memory." And accordingly, just as memory creates an ever-renewed debt of grief, it also allows an endlessly renewable pleasure. Unlike other goods that might give pleasure in their use, the poem can never be consumed, and rereading only restores pleasure rather than depleting it. The addressee of the first 126 Sonnets, the fair young man, whether conceived as a would-be patron or as an aristocratic friend, is consistently associated, like Petrarch's Laura, with the art of poetry itself. Hence the thought, or memory, of the addressee is the thought of poetry, whose inexhaustible pleasure counteracts the inexhaustible loss of memory, precisely by containing it within its own aesthetic system. Thus the New Historicists are right to think of patronage as a context for this poem, but wrong to think that the poem is saying something, either to the patron or about patronage. Rather, patronage is one of the contexts determining one of the discourses that Sonnet 30 imitates and with which it plays.

To read Sonnet 30, and other poetry, in the way I suggest involves neither the cryptogrammatic and often suspicious decoding nor the elaborate speculative contingencies of materialist readings calling themselves "historicist." History, like memory in Sonnet 30, makes it possible to recover the meanings with which a poem plays, as the contextual background to the discourses which the poem does not embody but imitate. Thus, rather than seeing through the poem to either a personal expression of feelings or a social or political message pleading for economic support from a patron, I see the poem as imitating, and playing with, both of those kinds of discourse. To miss this play is to miss the whole point — and the pleasure — of poetry. Accordingly, I have engaged in what I call a "New Formalist Criticism," "new" because of its consideration of the relation between the contradictions of discourse and the playful paradoxes of art. In so doing, I hope to issue a universal invitation to a realm whose currency of pleasure is inexhaustible.

Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina


This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 1998 by Amittai F. Aviram.