Shakespeare’s language, as it is for all poets (or, until the 20th century, most poets), is predicated on the metaphor, and the extension of a metaphor, otherwise known as the fashioning of a ‘conceit,’ is one of Shakespeare’s natural gifts as a writer, part and parcel of his unique brilliance. When students preparing for the AP Lit exam ask me what they should focus on if confronted with a poem or passage from Shakespeare, I inevitably answer: look for the extended metaphors. Hunt them down. Turn them inside out.
Almost always, particularly in a soliloquy or longer passage of dialogue, the extended metaphor is the engine of the main idea: in the case of dialogue, it may be the connective tissue of the characters’ argument; in the case of soliloquy, the heartbeat of the speaker’s internal conflict.
A cursory analysis of the Sonnets, for example, alerts us to this fact immediately.
Indeed, allow me to risk an experiment. I’ll randomly pick five of Shakespeare’s sonnets and see how often the sustained metaphor arises. (On a side note, I would imagine somewhere on this infinite Internet of ours one could find out how many of the sonnets contain conceit… but I won’t do that search. Let’s just trust to luck.)
I’m going to go to shakespeares-sonnets.com and click on numbers “1-50.” Next, I’ll look on my desk for the first number I see between those numbers… I see… (scans the desk top)… “22.” So, Sonnet 22 it is. It reads:
My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
Thou gav’st me thine not to give back again.
Right… Well, unless a case can be made for the ‘heart’ motif, I don’t think we have an extended metaphor here. I would say, however, that the entry and re-entry of the heart of the speaker as well as that of the lover (which, in line 7, is the self-same heart) is an extension absolutely necessary for a true understanding of the poem. But, alas, no unquestionably extended metaphor…
0 for 1.
Next up: something from 51-100… And we have… “55.”
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Now, here’s an example of something more in the way of conceit than the sonnet above, yet still not true conceit. The recurring trope of “marble / stone / masonry” clearly works to establish the basis against which the lover will be judged: the power of art triumphing over the lesser power of time and the works of man. Will you allow me a .5?
.5 for 2.
I must admit at this point I’m not appearing especially water-tight in my argument, but fingers crossed…
Off to “101-154″ and our third pick… “117.”
Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all,
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And given to time your own dear-purchased right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.
Book both my wilfulness and errors down,
And on just proof surmise accumulate;
Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your wakened hate;
Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
The constancy and virtue of your love.
This time we do have a solid nautical metaphor in lines 7-8, though, regrettably for my case, it does not resolve into extension. We can argue that there’s a bit of extension, if we assume: “sail” as synecdoche for boat = speaker / “winds” = causes for transporting the lover from the beloved. I think that earns another .5, yes?
1 for 3.
Now, I’ll randomly select a page in the nearest book on my desk… “35.”
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be,
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
Though “Roses / canker / bud” brings us to the lip of a metaphorical extension, it doesn’t quite push us over…
But… at last! We do finally have the genuine article. Lines 10-11 (“Thy adverse party is thy advocate, / And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence”) state that the beloved’s legal opponent is also his/her attorney (i.e., the speaker-lover) and against himself the speaker-lover offers a lawful plea of just cause. Arguably, line 9 initiates this conceit with the pronouncement that the speaker-lover ‘brings in reason to your sensual fault’ (probably ‘lust’) as a way of introducing into court the proceedings against the beloved. A very complex bit of extension, to be sure, and not one, I’d bet, immediately graspable to our students. Nevertheless, the dedicated examiner must wrestle with it as well as can be in order to make complete sense of the third quatrain and, therefore, the sonnet itself.
2 for 4.
Finally, I’ll pick another number at random… “123.”
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
Well, here we have a rather sparse sonnet for Shakespeare, particularly in the second and third quatrains. There are no legitimately extended metaphors to speak of; there’s actually rather a lot of ‘telling’ as opposed to ‘showing.’ One could argue that “pyramids / dressings” stretches slightly, but I think that itself would be a slight stretch. In the spirit of fair play, I have to award no points.
2 for 5. Final.
I wish I could have lucked out and gotten a greater sampling, sonnets more in tune with Shakespeare’s passion for conceit, but no matter. It would, of course, be an interesting thing to see just how many of the published 154 do, in fact, have clear extension. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the well-known Sonnets 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), and 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”). There really must be many more…